The India Cable: Farmer Leaders Decry Violence, Media Decries Farmers, Soros Takes on Modi

Plus: Delhi nears herd immunity, Cairn to attach Indian assets, GDP to contract by 8%, republic’s new faith paraded on Rajpath, HC's controversial 'skin to skin' verdict stayed and a new blue is born

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
January 27, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The day the government abrogated Article 370, one of Kashmir’s finest reporters had said, “Now, Kashmir will come to Delhi.” He said it verbally, because he had no opportunity to be published at the time, and in a manner of speaking, he was right. On Republic Day, following a violent breaking of ranks in the farmers’ movement, which had been scrupulously correct in its dealings with the government and the administration until then, internet services were suspended in  parts of the capital. The same day, mobile internet was suspended in the Kashmir Valley. In Digital India, the capital and the most heavily policed region of the realm were briefly at par. 

The curb on speech was doubly ironic because this is the 50th anniversary of the Indian military intervention which secured the freedom of Bangladesh, and the inheritors of the legacy of the Mukti Bahini were marching on Rajpath with the Indian troops, recalling the day they marched together on AAK Niazi’s forces in Dhaka. Bangladesh was created by a language movement ― the rejection of the Urdu of politically dominant West Pakistan in favour of the mother tongue of East Pakistan. It is probably the only nation created on the right to communicate as you please, in your own tongue. And while its development indices surge ahead of India’s, with more than a little help from the nonprofit sector, which stands demonised here, Delhi felt it must curb the freedom of speech for security reasons. 

As the farmers’ movement came to a head, in Davos on the weekend George Soros, open society advocate and bugaboo-in-chief of the American right, said, “The biggest and most frightening setback occurred in India where a democratically elected Narendra Modi is creating a Hindu nationalist state, imposing punitive measures on Kashmir, a semi-autonomous Muslim region, and threatening to deprive millions of Muslims of their citizenship.” A section of his address applied to the situation in India, with farmers dug in against a repressive government: “The greatest shortcoming of dictatorships is that when they are successful, they don’t know when or how to stop being repressive. They lack the checks and balances that give democracies a degree of stability. As a result, the oppressed revolt.” Earlier, Soros has also been a trenchant critic of the culture of suspicion about NGOs created in India during UPA2, and expanded by the BJP.  

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the front of farmers’ leaders, has distanced itself from the unruliness and violence that attended the Tractor Rally in Delhi yesterday, declaring that it had damaged the credibility of the movement, which had maintained discipline so far. Even if it owed to anti-social elements or stooges of the ruling party which had infiltrated the movement, as it is being alleged, the image of Narendra Modi as part Iron Man and part Machiavelli is much reduced, even among his own flock. And the idea that majoritarian politics can afford to ignore the people because of electoral superiority alone, is no longer convincing.  

In the Supreme Court, the attorney general on Wednesday raised the controversial Bombay high court judgment which said that sexual assault not involving ‘skin to skin contact’ wouldn’t be counted as sexual assault. The Supreme Court has stayed the shocking verdict and will hear the matter. But in a separate case, it refused to grant the makers of the web series Tandav protection from arrest in the wake of complaints by BJP politicians that their sentiments were hurt by certain scenes: "Your right to freedom of speech is not absolute. You cannot play the role of character that hurts the sentiments of a community," the bench said during hearings.

Delhi could be on the way to achieving herd immunity, the fifth seroprevalence survey suggests. In one district, 50-60% of the sample population ― 25,000 across the city ― were found to have developed antibodies. As the figure inches higher, chains of transmission are likely to be broken, protecting populations which have not been infected. 


In Delhi, the truth is what you didn’t see

If you watched only the news TV channels in India, you would believe that farmers were on a rampage all over Delhi, desecrating the national flag and attacking cops. The truth, as is the norm in ‘New India’, was the opposite. One farmer was killed – some allege he was the victim of a police bullet while the police say his death was the result of his high-speed acrobatics – and the national flag flew where it always has on the Red Fort. The man who helped hoist the Sikh pennant or Nishan Sahib at the gate of the Red Fort is allegedly a BJP worker, Deep Sidhu. It was clear 24 hours before the tractor parade that the younger, angrier elements among several lakh protesters were straining at the bounds set by their elders, and the police were completely unprepared. The story was reported extensively internationally by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, ABC, CNN, BBC, the Guardian, the Times, Deutsche Welle, France24, Xinhua and the Financial Times

Internet services were suspended by the Union Home Ministry in multiple areas of Delhi and the National Capital Region. The BJP government in Haryana also suspended internet services, SMS and dongle services, etc., provided on mobile networks. For 24 hours, nothing except voice calls worked in the districts of Sonepat, Palwal and Jhajjar.

In Mumbai, farmers from all over Maharashtra assembled at Azad Maidan, where the national flag was unfurled by a farm worker. Farmers were out in large numbers in Bangalore as well, besides many cities and towns of states in southern India which witnessed rallies against the three farm laws.

In several places, protests by farmers were violently stopped by the police in Delhi. As violence erupted, calls for police to shoot the protesters went viral on Twitter, mostly from right-wing supporters of PM Modi. Twitter did not take “Shoot” off its trending topics for at least a couple of hours — until there was public outcry after BuzzFeed News emailed them asking for comment.


The Indian-Americans in the Biden administration 

A look at the 20 Indian-Americans who will be directing US policy as part of the Biden administration over the next four years. And the Samosa Caucus, a quartet of members of the US House of Representatives of Indian-origin, have all been re-elected.


Ground broken for Ayodhya mosque

The Ayodhya mosque project was formally launched on Republic Day, with the unfurling of the Tricolour and a tree plantation drive at Dhannipur, about 24 km from the site of the demolished Babri Masjid, exactly six months after the Sunni Waqf Board constituted the mosque’s trust, the Indo-Islamic Cultural Foundation. The trust was constituted following the 2019 Supreme Court verdict that backed the construction of a temple at the Ram Janmabhoomi and ruled that an alternative five acre plot be identified for a mosque in Ayodhya in lieu of the Babri Masjid, which was demolished by Hindutva forces in December 1992.


The Long Cable

On Rajpath, the republic’s new religion is visible

Sidharth Bhatia

The annual Republic Day parade on January 26 showcases India’s heritage and diversity, its achievements in various fields and its military prowess. Year after year, this celebration of a nation on the march towards progress attracts huge audiences and television viewers.

This year, the parade was without the traditional foreign chief guest, after a renewed outbreak of Covid-19 in Britain forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to cancel at the last moment.

In parallel with the official parade, truncated because of the pandemic, thousands of farmers came into Delhi on their tractors to press for their demands. A scuffle at the Red Fort, which ended in some renegade elements putting up a Sikh flag on the ramparts, became the dominant headline in all the television channels. Predictably, they used this development to taint the farmers movement as one of ‘Khalistani separatists’.

This media noise drowned another theme that made its presence felt in the official parade — religion. Places of worship – mainly temples – were front and centre in the parade.

Religion came in many guises – Delhi highlighted its Shahjahanabad restoration project with a church, a mosque and a temple, accompanied by cries of “Omkar” and “Allah-hu-Akbar”. For the most part, temples dominated.

Temples and other historic religious structures have been used in the past in state tableaux to showcase regional heritage and history. This year, the Karnataka float was about the Vijayanagar Empire, which lasted for about 300 years from the 14th century and had produced, among its cultural legacy, the temples of Hampi. Gujarat prominently displayed a large model of the 11th century Modhera Sun Temple.

But the pièce de résistance was from Uttar Pradesh, which had a model of the proposed temple at Ayodhya, with a gigantic model of Valmiki, composer of the Ramayana, sitting with peacocks by his side.

The temple is being built on the site where a 400-year-old mosque was destroyed by mobs in December 1992, which has been the subject of a long and contentious legal battle between Hindu and Muslim groups. It was finally settled in 2019 by the Supreme Court, which awarded 2.7 acres at the spot to the Hindu groups to build a new temple. The Muslims got 5 acres in another spot, where they are building a mosque and a hospital.

The verdict was a major victory for Hindutva groups and since then, the construction of the new temple has become a major event. The presence of a Hindutva-oriented chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, has given a special impetus to the project and its publicity, with the administration missing no opportunity to showcase it.

The Republic Day parade was clearly seen by him as a golden opportunity to showcase the proposed temple to an all-India and perhaps global audience. The messaging was clear ― the temple is coming up and will become a crucial part of the Indian identity. No archaic ideas like ‘Unity and Diversity’ here. The bearded and sagely Valmiki with the peacocks, too, is an image that has its own resonance.

But for the news channels, this foisting of religion did not matter. As if in coordination, almost all channels – often collectively and derisively called ‘Godi Media’ or lapdog press – focused only on the ‘anti-national’ farmers who had dared to insult the national flag by planting the Sikh flag at the Red Fort. Sixty days of peaceful protests for an important cause was reduced to one allegedly sacrilegious act and no channel delved into how it happened, or who was behind it. The secrets have tumbled out since. In no way was the national flag ‘insulted’, and the action was coordinated by one Deep Sidhu, who has been making provocative statements to some sections of the media, despite having no locus standi to do so. Photographs have surfaced showing him with Prime Minister Modi and Punjab BJP MP Sunny Deol.

The bold projection of the plethora of temples at the Republic Day parade thus slipped under the radar, but that more accurately reflects the emerging India, where officialdom will blatantly foreground religion – the Hindu religion – dispensing with niceties like secularism, which is enshrined in the Constitution, which was what Republic Day is all about.


Reportedly

VK Sasikala, a close confidante of late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, “walked free” today, completing her four-year prison term in a disproportionate assets case. She will affix her signature to a document brought by authorities from the Parappana Agrahara Central Prison in Bengaluru to her room in the Victoria Hospital where she is being treated for Covid-19. Though Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran, general secretary of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), maintains that his aunt would plunge into active politics immediately after her release, there is little clarity on what she would do. Once she is back in Chennai, Sasikala is likely to stay at the residence of her niece J Krishnapriya. What impact her release will have on Tamil Nadu’s evolving assembly election scenario remains to be seen.


Prime Number: -8%
India’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to contract by 8% in 2020-21, according to the latest round of FICCI’s Economic Outlook Survey. The annual median growth forecast by the industry body is based on responses from leading economists representing industry, banking and the financial services sector. The survey was conducted in January. 

Smaller cities fuel aviation recovery

Smaller towns and cities, and not metros, are leading the recovery in India’s air passenger traffic, which plunged to record lows after the coronavirus outbreak early last year.

According to data from state-run Airports Authority of India (AAI), which operates most airports in the country, December saw a growing number of Tier-II and Tier-III cities contributing a greater share to overall passenger traffic compared to a year earlier. Indian airports saw 15.79 million passengers during December, comprising 14.44 million domestic passengers, and 1.35 million international passengers, down 50.4% from a year earlier. Domestic passengers during the month fell 43% from a year earlier. Domestic passenger traffic had begun declining towards the fag end of December 2019, though, well before the pandemic.


Cairn Energy threatens to attach Indian assets

A month after it won an international tribunal award of $1.2 billion in damages against India in the retrospective taxation case, UK-based Cairn Energy Plc has threatened that it may be forced to begin attaching Indian assets including bank accounts in different world capitals, unless the government resolves the issue. In a letter to the Indian High Commission in London that was also sent to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Finance Ministry, Cairn Energy’s top leadership has said that the “necessary preparations have been put in place” for the tribunal verdict to be “enforced against Indian assets in numerous jurisdictions around the world” if India fails to discuss paying the amount awarded. The assets under threat include Indian embassy accounts, non-diplomatic premises, Air India planes and state-owned ships. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Abhijnan Rej says in The Diplomat that Tuesday’s episode in Delhi simultaneously highlights two troubling and interrelated things: the increasing chances of a large-scale breakdown of civil order in parts of India due to the erosion of space for democratic dissent, and the fundamental inability of the Narendra Modi government to see ahead and discern trouble looming. 

  • We  must recognise that a radical and sustained reduction in inequality is the indispensable foundation for a just India, as envisioned in the Constitution. The government must set concrete, time-­bound targets to reduce inequality, and move beyond the focus on GDP and start to value what really matters. Fighting inequality, including gender and caste equality, must be at the heart of economic rescue and recovery efforts, writes Amitabh Behar.

  • India’s economic recovery story, which is better than expected, was scripted by households, and not government spending or private sector investments. There is a need to keep an eye on middle income groups, argues Mahesh Vyas.

  • Reshape spending at the Centre and in states, writes Pulapre Balakrishnan. It should concern us that only about a fifth of public expenditure goes towards capital spending and the social sector. This needs reconfiguration.


Listen up

When signing up on a social media platform or installing an app, do you take even a couple of minutes to think about what information you are parting with? How much of your personal information do you give away with that single click, and do you know who benefits from it? BBC’s WorklifeIndia discusses ‘Whose Data is it Anyway?’


Watch Out

Kommune India’s #TooMuchDemocracy, featuring Nakuul Mehta and Ajay Singh, was an online poetry festival on Republic Day. Vaccine, Love Jahaz and others sang of democracy. The theme: “When the four pillars of democracy begin to creak, the citizenry itself needs to step forward and become the fifth.” 


A new blue is born, and Vaghela flags BJP’s past

After 200 years we have a new blue ― YInMn Blue is now commercially available. It’s named after its components — yttrium, indium, and manganese — and its luminous, vivid hue never fades. The new pigment was identified accidentally when a team of chemists at Oregon State University, led by Mas Subramanian, was experimenting with rare earths while developing materials for use in electronics in 2009. 

As the fake news about farmers disrespecting the national flag at the Red Fort became the dominant narrative for the BJP and its supporters, former BJP leader and Gujarat chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela offers some perspective.


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.