The India Cable: “Extortion Directorate” Targets Digital Media; Covid Deaths Fall, But Pandemic Not Over

Plus: Punjab MPs to move bill against farm laws, Twitter takes a stand against censorship, Centre denies states grants, and will government stop tweeting and start Kooing?

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day

February 10, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

As the surveillance state tightens its grip, Indian Express cartoonist EP Unny says it in 2021 Newspeak.

But first, the good news: Indian authorities report no Covid-19 deaths in 15 states and Union Territories in the last 24 hours, and none in seven states and UTs in three weeks ― Andaman and Nicobar, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Mizoram, Nagaland and Lakshadweep. However, the pandemic is not past, since the last serosurvey revealed that 70% of the population is still unexposed to the disease. 

The question of whether Covid-19 could have been leaked from a Chinese lab in Wuhan, as depicted by Dean R Koontz in late editions of the thriller Eyes of Darkness, has finally been answered by a WHO team, which sought evidence of direct transmission, via intermediate hosts and cold chains, and a lab leak. The Chinese authorities had provided needless drama by opposing a probe, and by suggesting that the disease originated in India, though almost all experts believed that a lab leak was unlikely. WHO confirms that they were right.

In another blow to the states, the Modi government is likely to reject the 15th Finance Commission’s recommendation to transfer Rs 1.8 trillion to states in state-specific and sector-specific grants because of the heavy burden it would put on the Centre’s finances. Out of Rs 10.33 trillion grants recommended, the ministry has agreed to transfer Rs 8.53 trillion, or 83% of the suggested amount. The remaining amount will be withheld for now. Meanwhile, bank unions have called for a two-day strike on March 15-16 to protest against the proposed privatisation of two state-owned banks by the Modi government.

Asked if Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised human rights concerns with foreign minister S Jaishankar, the State Department spokesperson said: “…we are committed to supporting democratic values, including a free and open civil society and the strong rule of law. We regularly engage with the Government of India – including, as you referenced and I alluded to, today – on our shared commitment to democratic values. We believe it’s the bedrock for the US-India relationship. And it’s actually in keeping, as you know, with India’s own democratic values, its pluralistic values, and its history of tolerance. So we regularly engage with our Indian counterparts…” 

And a survey of ASEAN shows that India is distrusted by the Southeast Asian countries and is held in low esteem even as a third-party partner when it comes to standing up to China. 

A detailed report in the New York Times says that India ignored warning signs and expert committee reports advising against building in Uttarakhand, and this may have led to the floods that cost lives. And three survivors recount the “worst seven hours of their life” to the BBC.

The Supreme Court today stayed an order passed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court which questioned the wisdom of the legislature, the government, the Chief Minister and advocates representing the state. The High Court order was passed on December 30, 2020 after the Andhra Pradesh government filed an application seeking recusal of the judge on the ground that he had made up his mind without hearing the state.

Indian roads are not safe. More than 150,000 people die in road accidents in India every year, the highest in the world, and 350,000 are crippled; 78% of the dead are two-wheeler drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, and 70% of the victims are aged 14-45.


Twitter: government’s censorship demands illegal 

“Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians. To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law.” Responding to recent orders by the Modi government asking Twitter to block some accounts and content allegedly containing harmful content, the social media giant has put out a note on how it responded and took steps to reduce visibility of such hashtags and content. CNN says that Twitter is stuck between a rock and a hard place in India. 


Newsclick targeted

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) on Tuesday raided the office and residences of several officials and journalists associated with NewsClick.in, an independent media portal based in Delhi. Those raided included owner Prabir Purakayastha and editor Pranjal. The search continues till Wednesday afternoon. DIGIPUB News India Foundation, formed by digital media organisations and freelancers, has published a release strongly condemning the raids. Purkayastha, who is DIGIPUB’s vice chairperson, spent months in jail during the Emergency, and his experience is vividly recounted in the historian Gyan Prakash’s book, Emergency Chronicles

Early today Prakash, based in Princeton, said much “makes sense” now. “No comfort in seeing 1975 repeated in 2021. As illegitimate now as then. It also makes sense that the GOI never issued a no objection certificate in 2016 to enable me to conduct research on the Emergency under Fulbright.” Purakayastha is a founding member of the rationalist organisation Delhi Science Forum, which was crucially instrumental in exposing sensational water-to-petrol herbalist Ramar Pillai, among other frauds. The portal has been known for stories on protests and large industrial houses close to this government. 


39% of Indian-Americans think India is not on the right track

Only 36 percent of Indian Americans believe India is on the right track, and 39 percent think it is not, according to a survey of Indian Americans released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. One-fifth of the respondents did not have any opinion. The survey was conducted between September 1 and September 20, 2020, in partnership with the research and analytics firm YouGov.


Congress MPs to introduce private bill to repeal farm laws

Punjab Congress MPs will move a private member’s Bill in the Lok Sabha to repeal the three contentious farm laws which have triggered the world’s biggest agitation. This would force the hand of the Modi government, which can either get it defeated by a vote, or keep it pending, a sword of Damocles hanging over its own head. Meanwhile, a Delhi court has sent actor-activist Deep Sidhu to seven days’ police custody in connection with the Red Fort violence on Republic Day, during the farmers’ tractor parade.

Encouraged by the overwhelming crowds in Kisan Mahapanchayats, BKU leader Rakesh Tikait has announced a plan to associate 40 lakh tractors with the ongoing agitation. He stated that more than 3.5 lakh tractors have already become part of the stir. Tikait was addressing a Kisan Mahapanchayat at the village of Gumthla in Kurukshetra district. Over the past few days, Kisan Mahapanchayats have drawn a massive turnout in different parts of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, while Punjab is already witnessing an intense farm stir. The groundswell of support in western Uttar Pradesh and a possible spillover into Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh is politically significant as the region accounts for about a fourth of all assembly constituencies in UP.


Quad vadis?

After US President Joe Biden and PM Modi spoke on Monday, the Indian statement conveniently ignored any mention of the Quad, which featured prominently in the transcript from the White House. This is the second time such a discrepancy has been observed after the regime change in Washington, the earlier instance being the call between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar. But another call between the two officials on Tuesday earned a mention of the Quad in Jaishankar’s tweet. This led many to wonder if this was about the scheduling of a virtual summit of the leaders of the Quad countries: Japan, Australia, India and the US, which the State Department refused to confirm in its briefing. Except India, others are treaty allies and do not share a land border with China. As covered earlier in The India Cable, New Delhi has been hesitant about a leaders’ summit of the Quad, proposed by the US.


Golden age for emigration 

In large numbers, Indian high net worth individuals have been securing residency or citizenship that is granted by some countries in return for big investments. Applications for the ‘golden visa’ for emigration through the investment route have more than doubled during the pandemic from the previous year, outpacing the global average growth of 50%, said consultants.

A total of 1,24,99,395 Indian nationals now reside overseas. In the five-year period 2015-19, 6,76,074 Indians gave up their Indian citizenship ― a numerical comment on the government in power since 2014.


The Long Cable

“Extortion Directorate” furthers “undeclared Emergency” 

MK Venu

As a news reporter in the 1980s and 1990s, one had closely observed the abuse of the draconian Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA), which criminalised the holding of unexplained Indian money overseas. In the era of acute forex shortages, foreign currency illegally held overseas was treated as a serious offence. With the 1991 market reforms, forex controls were gradually eased by the Narsimha Rao regime. The Vajpayee government decriminalised forex control laws in 1999 by abolishing FERA and replaced it with FEMA (Foreign Exchange Management Act), which made foreign exchange violations a civil offence. Thus, Indians holding unexplained foreign exchange were fined, not jailed. 

Only forex transactions and laundered money with criminal antecedents ― linked to a drugs, terrorism or bribery offence ― were subjected to criminal proceedings under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), passed in 2005 under UPA. The spirit of the reform was that only money laundering linked to a criminal offence was to be covered under PMLA.  

That’s been stood on its head by the Modi government over the last six years, even as it claims to be doubling down on reforms done by previous regimes. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has gone on a rampage, indiscriminately filing cases against Opposition leaders, businessmen perceived to be close to Opposition parties, and even media companies disliked by the regime. But big corporate cronies, against whom there is prima facie evidence of the over-invoicing of billions of dollars’ worth of equipment imports, are untouched. ED was abused by previous regimes too, but not to this extent. It has been a key facilitator of what the Opposition describes as an “undeclared emergency”.

One cannot fathom what kind of criminal money laundering offence a small media platform like Newsclick could have committed. Yesterday, the Enforcement Directorate raided its office and the homes of promoter Prabir Purakayastha and employees. The searches continued till late evening. Small digital media companies live from hand to mouth and the idea that they might be laundering large sums of criminal money would prima facie appear ludicrous. So, is Newsclick being targeted for its critical coverage of the farmers’ movement? 

Earlier, ED had levelled absurd charges against NDTV.  It made out the unusually twisted case that a foreign investment of $150 million made by well-known US media company NBC, a subsidiary of multinational conglomerate General Electric, was actually the NDTV promoter’s own money, which the US multinational was helping to launder! Soon, this line of inquiry was abandoned because the global investing community was laughing. Why would a global company with $100 billion turnover help to launder $150 million? Absurd, right?

Thereafter, ED is fishing for evidence against the India Today group in the TRP scam which has engulfed Republic TV and a few other channels. After the Mumbai Police filed a criminal case against Republic TV, a mysterious FIR surfaced in UP seeking a broader investigation of the TRP scam. The UP government handed over the case to the Centre for a CBI/ED probe. This has given ED a handle to look at possible “criminal money laundering” by other media companies in the TRP scam. Expect most mainstream TV channels to fall in line, with the ED’s sword hanging over their heads. 

The provision in the PMLA law most abused by ED is that it can use statements made by the accused during interrogation as evidence in court, which is not permitted under the normal code of criminal procedure.

It is this draconian provision which intimidates Opposition leaders and businessmen, many of whom are unable to withstand the pressure of harsh interrogation. In recent times, ED notices have been received by senior Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut’s wife and NCP chief Sharad Pawar. The Shiv Sena even put up a cloth banner outside the ED building in Mumbai, identifying it as the BJP’s regional office! 

Legislators close to Mamata Banerjee have been special targets, for obvious electoral reasons. Recently, the ED has been active in Tamil Nadu, intimidating politicians who are inconvenient for the BJP. Cases against those who help or join the BJP are withdrawn or diluted. Narayan Rane of Maharashtra and Mukul Roy of West Bengal are prime examples. 

But interestingly, the ED is hardly ever able to take a PMLA case to its logical conclusion. In a Kafkaesque strategy, it just wants to keep the case hanging, to be used to apply pressure from time to time. In an affidavit submitted before former chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, a top CBI officer in charge of special crimes had described ED as “Extortion Directorate”.

The statistics regarding ED’s success rate in solving PMLA cases are telling. Since PMLA came into being in 2005, the ED has filed over 3,000 cases of criminal money laundering and has got less than 13 convictions. That is a success rate of less than 0.5%, making it a fit candidate for the Guinness Book of World Records! And indeed, for a Parliamentary Committee to examine what the ED has been doing with the taxpayer’s money all these years. 


Don’t tweet, coo

At least two ministers and a chief minister are pushing Koo, the “Indian micro-blogging platform for real-time, exciting and exclusive updates”. Union Minister Piyush Goyal on Tuesday tweeted about joining homegrown app Koo, in the midst of a tussle between the government and Twitter over content censorship during the ongoing farmers’ protest. Launched in March last year, Koo is a Twitter-like microblogging platform in Indian languages. The app won the government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat app challenge last year. Koo is supposed to be exactly like Twitter, except that the bird is yellow. Apart from Koo, another Indian alternative to Twitter, called ‘Tooter’, also garnered a lot of attention last year.

The government has even responded to Twitter on Koo. 

Is it pointedly embracing Koo as a warning to Twitter, or is this a serious bid to plan for life after Twitter is outlawed? And if that is the case, can a Great Firewall of India be far away? 


Karnataka Apple plant to reopen

Shut since December following violent labour unrest at its Karnataka facility, Wistron, Taiwanese contract manufacturer for Apple Inc, has said that its operations will start soon, as the Karnataka state government asserted it was ready to extend all cooperation. Prior to reopening, labour will be educated about their rights


Prime number: Rs 2.46 trillion

That’s the state governments’ Goods and Services Tax (GST) revenue shortfall in the April-November period of the current fiscal. It is met partly by the Centre and partly by borrowing, far above the estimate of Rs 2.35 lakh crore for the whole year. After a lot of wrangling, the Centre has given Rs 40,000 crore in compensation for the April-May period from GST cess collections and has facilitated loans worth Rs 84,000 crore under a special borrowing window. 


Deep dive

India needs to spend an additional $1.4 trillion to adopt clean energy technologies and be on a sustainable trajectory over the next 20 years, the International Energy Agency said in a report titled ‘India Energy Outlook 2021’. India’s combined import bill for fossil fuels is projected to triple over the next two decades, with oil as the largest component. Domestic production of oil and gas continues to lag behind consumption and net dependence on imported oil will rise to above 90% by 2040 from 75% today, the report said.


Opeds you don’t want to miss

  • The Indian-American community is increasingly divided on political, religious, and generational lines. India will find that the more polarisation grows at home, the more its diaspora will become polarised, and one of the country’s strongest foreign policy assets will be increasingly less so, warn Devesh Kapur, Milan Vaishnav and Sumitra Badrinathan.

  • The Big Tech takeover of agriculture is dangerous and giving the example of India, four co-authors from GRAIN write in Al Jazeera that it will endanger the livelihood of the world’s small farmers and food workers and completely transform our food systems. Widespread protests may be anticipated.

  • FT has Amy Kazmin writing on rising authoritarianism in India, and how the recent flurry of high-profile legal cases is a stark warning to Indian public figures, including in the media and the arts, about the price of sharp political critique.

  • In spite of a rise in capex, the share of total government expenditure in GDP will decline from 18% in the current year to about 16% next year. This is an unprecedented squeeze on expenditure, which will translate into just about 1% increase in the government’s total spend, writes AK Bhattachrya.

  • To break the border standoff between India and China in the Himalayas, some Indian analysts have advocated going on the offensive against China in the Indian Ocean. But that would be vague, illogical and imprudent, with little chance of success and significant risk of blowback, writes Arzan Tarapore.


Listen Up

After almost 18 months, 4G internet services were restored across Kashmir and parts of Jammu. How did the curb on communications impact normal life? Devdutta Mukhopadhyay, a lawyer and researcher at the Internet Freedom Foundation, speaks to Sidharth Bhatia (a contributor to The India Cable).


Watch Out

Actor Swara Bhaskar on Taandav, fear in Bollywood and on turning producer. She says that she has had to modify scripts for fear of a backlash, due to allegedly hurt religious sentiments.


On This Day

It was on this day in 1952 that India registered its first ever Test cricket victory against England. That was in Chennai, on the same ground where India lost to England yesterday. CD Gopinath, the only survivor from Vijay Hazare’s team, recollects.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.