The India Cable: Farmers Dig in Outside Delhi, China Plans Brahmaputra Dam

Plus: Dodgy ‘love jihad’ FIR filed hours after new UP law, sedition a BJP favourite, Modi on heroic ‘vaccine quest’, Goyal pirates Lalu’s kulhad, and did you know Zia gave his daughter an elephant?

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
November 30, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

The UP government has delivered its new and shiny ordinance against the bogey of ‘love jihad’ into efficient hands. Just hours after it came into effect, a 22-year-old Muslim was charged by the Bareilly police with trying to convert a 20-year-old woman, a school friend now married to someone else. But the case is a strange one. He and the woman had eloped last year and been tracked down by the police on a complaint of ‘kidnapping’ by her family, only to have the matter “settled” in 2019 itself, with the woman going on to marry someone else this May. According to the girl’s brother, they hadn’t heard from the Muslim man since, but the case has been revived by the police now.

Two weeks ago, Jammu and Kashmir BJP president Ravinder Raina had said that soon, leading political families like the Abdullahs and Muftis would have to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. The reality is much uglier. Residents of the Abanshah area outside Srinagar allege that in reprisal for the killing of two soldiers there on November 26, security forces personnel dragged people from their homes, beat them and forced them to chant the Hindutva slogan

Casting serious aspersions on India’s constitutional watchdogs Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir in alliance with the BJP, has said that key institutions were powering BJP’s agenda, rather than checking it. She mentioned the courts and the Election Commission, saying that they had been “compromised” and were “implementing the BJP’s agenda”. 

North India is likely to weather a harsh winter and may see a rise in the frequency of cold waves this season, according to the met department, but that has not deterred farmers who have put the Modi government under serious pressure. The Home Minister has offered one conciliatory statement after another, and the government is scrambling to deal with farmers blocking five entry routes to the national capital. Meanwhile, in Guna, Madhya Pradesh, a 50-year-old Dalit farm worker was beaten to death by two men for refusing to give the accused a matchbox to light cigarettes with. 

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) appears to have been embarrassed over its role in denying ailing Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, 83, a straw and a sipper to drink water, and said reports that it had seized the straw and sipper are “false, incorrect and mischievous”.  An anti-CAA forum of political parties and organisations in Assam has called for a united fight against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The move appears to be aimed at galvanising anti-CAA forces to pile pressure on the BJP-led government to get the new law revoked before next year’s assembly elections.

The Indian Navy’s search and rescue effort to locate the second pilot of the MiG-29K trainer aircraft which ditched off Goa on November 26 continues with extensive deployment of naval ships and aircraft. The Hindu reports that a Chinese hydropower company is planning its first major downstream dam on the Brahmaputra. Though the dam is unlikely to affect the quantum of water that flows through the Indian stretch of the river, the timing of the news, amidst  will be unsettling for the lower riparian which is already locked in a standoff with China in Ladakh.

The Brahmaputra’s course (Source: Wikimedia)

A team from China’s top science institution, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has argued in a paper that SARS-CoV2 likely originated in India in the summer of 2019. And as disinformation about the pandemic and vaccines grows ― it’s a K-shaped curve that grows in different directions according to geography ― the Guardian tells readers about the ‘fake-believe’ of pandemic deniers overseas, while the Economic Times focuses on wildly fake stories about the vaccine in India. Vaccine expert Gagandeep Kang’s “optimistic timeline for all the Indian population to be covered with vaccination for Covid-19 is the end of 2022, beginning of 2023”.  

The Central Public Works Department is asked a question under the RTI and tweets about activists in a threatening tone instead. 

Farmers withdraw minimum support to government

Central ministers and the BJP chief met late at night after farmers massed on the borders of the national capital on Sunday refused to move to Burari Park in New Delhi, where the Centre has invited them for talks. They said that they would stay put until they are allowed to go to Jantar Mantar to stage their protest. Talks are fine but no preconditions, said farmers, describing Burari, miles from the centre in Delhi, as “an open jail.” Their leader said the farmers would block five of Delhi’s entry points. Haryana khaps are set to join the march, breaking the image of the protest as a Punjabi enterprise. 

The farmers at the press conference also outlined their demands –– that the three “anti-farmer and pro-corporate” central farm laws be repealed; that minimum support prices and the rate for buying crops should be guaranteed; that the electricity ordinance be withdrawn; and the fine for stubble burning be done away with. The Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2020 does away with the subsidy farmers get on their power bills.

The stir appears to have struck a chord outside India too, with farmers drawing support from MPs in the UK, Canada and New Zealand. The British cricketer Monty Panesar has been speaking up on why India’s farmers need help.

Ironically, way back in 2011 Narendra Modi, at the time Chief Minister of Gujarat and chairman of the Working Group on Consumer Affairs, submitted a report to then prime minister Manmohan Singh in which he recommended that no farmer-trader transaction below MSP should be allowed, under a legal mandate. Precisely what the protesting farmers are demanding now.

‘Vaccine hunt’ turns acrimonious

A 40-year-old man who took part in the Covishield vaccine trial has alleged serious side effects, including a neurological condition and impairment of cognitive functions, and has sought Rs 5 crore compensation in a legal notice to the Serum Institute and others, besides seeking a halt to the trial. Alleging that the candidate vaccine was not safe, he has also sought cancellation of approval for its testing, manufacture and distribution, failing which legal action would be taken. The Serum Institute of India has responded to his “malicious and misconceived” allegations by preparing a Rs 100 crore defamation suit against the Covishield coronavirus vaccine trial participant. The Indian Council of Medical Research is assisting an inquiry into alleged adverse reactions during AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine trial, but has found no reason to recommend halting it. 

After visiting Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Pune to review the development and manufacturing process of coronavirus vaccines, Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues with his ‘search for a vaccine’ as he interacts with three teams involved in developing Covid-19 vaccine via video conferencing on Monday. “Aapda se avsar,” as he so tellingly sloganeered. ‘Opportunity from calamity’.

The handling of India’s drug regulatory agency, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) threatens to erode the credibility of the country’s vaccine evaluation processes because of opacity on serious adverse events in at least two volunteers in India who received candidate vaccines, say medical experts.

Government cracks whip on PSUs

NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar has accepted that GDP growth is likely to be negative in Q3 as well, and will turn positive in Q4. It will contract by around 9% during the year, he said. As GDP shrank by 7.5% in the second quarter, pushing India into a technical recession for the first time since Independence, a desperate Modi government is asking public-sector enterprises to spend more. PSUs, which are being pushed to meet capital expenditure targets in order to strengthen industrial growth, which grew by just 0.2% last September, are finding it difficult to meet deadlines, given financial and project implementation constraints. But the government has cracked the whip, asking all PSUs to achieve 75% of capex spending by December-end and more than 100% by March-end. The chances of meeting the target are slim, say officials who attended the fifth of a series of meetings held in North Block on the issue.

Biden picks another PIO

Joe Biden is set to name prominent Indian-origin Democratic policy staffer Neera Tanden to an important job, as director of the White House budget office. Tanden was a close ally of Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, and helped pass the Affordable Care Act under Obama. Republicans, who are expected to retain control of the Senate, are unlikely to easily pass Tanden, who advised Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and has been one of the most outspoken critics of President Trump. At the time of the Delhi violence in February 2020 Tanden, then heading the think-tank Centre for American Progress, had said: “The violence against Muslims in India is horrifying and destroys India’s role as a beacon for democracy in Asia.” She had also said, “The Modi government’s actions have created this climate and it must put an end to this. India as we know it is changing for the worse before our eyes.”

Ethics check on Chancellor of the Exchequer

UK’s ethics watchdog will examine if Rishi Sunak has breached the ministerial code. A controversy has erupted in the UK and Sunak, and the Indian-origin rising star of the Tories, has come under a cloud for not having declared the full income of his wife, who is the daughter of Indian billionaire NR Narayana Murthy. The Guardian revealed on Friday that Sunak’s wife Akshata Murthy was richer than the Queen due to a £430m shareholding in the IT multinational Infosys, founded by her father. 

Labour MPs asked difficult questions, and the watchdog agreed to sniff about. On another note, The Economist has spent some time on Sunak, and he has been declared a covert Thatcher, “handbag and all”. The newsmagazine says that “his rise has been so swift that he has hardly left any traces.” And the Independent finds that Sunak has killed the hoodie, or what remained of its charm after the world became suspicious about Mark Zuckerberg, by wearing it over a starched shirt and tie, in photos released by the Treasury.   

Adani stops play

India has comprehensively lost the one-day series to Australia at Sydney but interestingly, the first match was invaded by politics, when two protesters barged into the arena at Sydney Cricket Ground with placards saying, ‘SBI No $1bn Adani Loan’. Ben Burdett, a member of the Stop Adani Campaign, who was one of the two men who interrupted the match, explains why they were protesting against Adani and the State Bank of India loan advanced to him.

The Long Cable

Manan Ahmed Asif: “History is being weaponized and deployed against minorities in India and Pakistan”

Tanweer Alam

Manan Ahmed Asif is director of graduate studies at the Department of History, Columbia University, and author of The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India.  His latest book offers a radical interpretation of how the subcontinent lost its multicultural identity as the home of all religions and India arrived at its contemporary political identity. Asif argues that a European understanding of India as Hindu has replaced an earlier, native understanding of India as Hindustan, a home for all faiths. Turning to the subcontinent’s medieval past, Asif uncovers a rich network of historians of Hindustan who imagined, studied, and shaped its rulers, cities, and societies. Examining this question reveals important truths about today’s India and its neighbours in the subcontinent. 

Alam: What prompted this search for Hindustan ?  

Asif: One of the major arguments of colonial rule in India was that Muslims were an external, occupying power keeping the majority Hindu population in a state of despotic tyranny. This argument was well articulated as early as the 1760s. My work began as a ‘decolonialised philosophy of history’. I meant to think about how and why colonial ideas of who gets to belong (or not) remain so entrenched in contemporary Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Over 70 years after Partition and the end of the British Raj, what I call the “colonial episteme” (the ways in which the colonial state imagined it ‘knew’ the subcontinent) persists in nationalist paradigms. 

My book then attempts to trace the idea of Hindustan, which was replaced by British India in the early 1800s, from which we gained independence in 1947. I look at a series of historians who wrote about Hindustan, centering however on the Deccan historian Firishta who, I argue, wrote the most important and comprehensive history of Hindustan in the early 17th century. 

Alam: A lot of politics in India is based on distortions of history. How is it best countered?

Asif: I believe there is power in ‘distortions’. These are origin stories. There are identities, political, cultural and religious, that are based on a particular idea of history. History is weaponised. It is deployed against minorities. This is as true in Pakistan as it is in India. It is that power to morph the past to majoritarian claims of the present that needs to be countered. The countering must directly address the powers that are implicated. It is the nation state that is being imagined by political powers. That is, there is a political specificity that must be recognised. Only then can the past be re-thought and re-imagined. 

Alam: What do you make of the current state of countries which formed the erstwhile Hindustan?

Asif: I see the immense power of majoritarian politics that tells the middle-classes that their economic and political life is at risk from marked others ― the dispossessed, the minorities, global conspiracies, secularism, and so on. The supra-majorities in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh rely on this manufactured crisis: in Pakistan we see anti-Semitic, anti-Shi’a, anti-India rhetoric deployed; in Bangladesh, the spectre of atheists/Islamists in a dyad; in India, ordinances such as the CAA, the NRC, and ‘love jihad’ are all predicated on an imagined threat from Muslims (outside or within India). The current state is thus one built on fear of the other and hatred of dissent. In some ways, this is a global picture in the 21st century. The rise of strongman politics can be seen across Europe, Russia, the US and parts of Africa.

Piyush Goyal pirates Lalu 

The Modi government is copying a flagship initiative of its bitter political rival, Lalu Prasad Yadav. When he was Railways Minister in 2004, he had introduced kulhads or earthenware cups for serving tea in trains, in an effort to boost local crafts and protect the environment. Now, tea will again be sold in environment-friendly kulhads in place of plastic cups at all railway stations in the country, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal announced on Sunday. He neglected to mention that it was not an innovation.  

India changes its mind about OIC

The resolution by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) after its 47th foreign ministers’ meeting in Niger’s capital Niamey had made a mention on Kashmir, earning a sharp rebuke from the foreign ministry, which “strongly and categorically rejected the factually incorrect, gratuitous and unwarranted references to India.” Quite a reversal from February 2019, when India hailed the organisation after it was invited to the inaugural plenary of the foreign ministers’ conclave of the OIC in Abu Dhabi, which was attended by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj.

Sedition a BJP favourite

Data maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau, which started collating sedition numbers in 2014, shows that while 47 cases were registered under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (sedition) that year, it jumped to 93 in 2019. And not surprisingly, BJP state governments have invoked the law far more often than non-BJP ones. In Karnataka, Assam and Jammu and Kashmir, there was a spike in sedition cases after the first two came under BJP rule and the third under direct Central rule.

Gandhi under a cloud?

A question mark hangs over the future of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Wales after an official Welsh government review of Britain’s colonial and slave trading history drew up a list of memorials that it is uncomfortable about. ‘The Slave Trade and the British Empire: An Audit of Commemoration in Wales’, a report released this week, also shortlists Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, and Robert Clive, referred to as Clive of India for his role in establishing Britain’s colonial hold here, as “persons of interest” for the second stage of the review process. 

Wales has a bronze sculpture of Gandhi at Cardiff Bay, unveiled in 2017 to mark the 148th birth anniversary of the leader of the Indian nationalist movement. In the audit, he has been classified under Category E ― persons of interest who “require examination as having been highlighted by campaigners”. The inclusion of Gandhi, whose early writings in South Africa bear the taint of racism, in the list is mainly linked with online campaigns against similar sculptures in Leicester and Manchester. However, they triggered widespread counter-campaigns in favour of the Mahatma as well, who sought to contrast the views of the younger Gandhi with those of his mature years.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Goutham Raj Konda argues that the spatial marginalisation of a historically disenfranchised social group like the Dalits in urban India shows that the liberation process of the marginalised by the Indian state is subservient to the strong perseverance of caste hegemony. 

  • Shashi Tharoor draws attention to the BJP’s “propping up of an idealised leader”, increasing autocracy under its rule and the “overt demonisation” of Muslims who are “delegitimised as a treacherous permanent foreign element amidst ‘true’ Indians”, says TJS George about his new book, The Battle of Belonging. The use of questionable means in the BJP’s “quest for absolute power” is seen as a “departure from the idea of India celebrated by Tagore, achieved by Gandhi and implemented by Nehru and his comrades.” 

  • Salil Tripathi says that many Indians ― brave activists, lawyers, academics, intellectuals, union leaders, grassroots workers, and human rights defenders ― are fighting to preserve their republic. Their voices must remain amplified, for that is a far more important story than Amnesty’s departure.

  • Indian democracy is feudal, ruthless and despotic, says Kerala writer Paul Zacharia, chosen earlier in November for his state’s highest literary award, the Ezhuthachchan Puraskaram, in an interview. 

  • T Jacob John and MS Seshadhri lay out the thorny questions India is yet to address about the Covid vaccine. It needs to clear the fog and draw up a clear vaccination policy, they write.

  • Gulzar Natarajan crafts a “not so bullish narrative” on the economy. The slide began pre-Covid and will not disappear in a hurry, given the damage the informal economy has suffered and the deep impact on state finances. 

Listen up

At The India Forum, Sudha Narayanan, Associate Professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, spoke about India’s farm laws and agriculture market. She explains why the three farm laws of the Modi government have brought farmers onto the highways and forced them to march on Delhi.

Watch Out

India and China have different narratives and understandings of their relationship in history, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, both nations have changed beyond recognition and those narratives of the past are potent instruments of statecraft when the relationship is in crisis and faces an uncertain future. Shivshankar Menon discusses that past, how the relationship came to its present condition, and what we might expect in the foreseeable future. Watch from 12:07 onwards.

Zia bought an elephant

Zain Zia, daughter of Pakistani military dictator Gen Zia-ul-Haq, fell in love with elephants after watching the Rajesh Khanna starrer Haathi Mere Saathi and asked Dad for an elephant. Her father got it for her. The elephant, named Kaavan, was lonely and not well looked after at the poorly resourced Islamabad zoo. A high-decibel campaign was started to take him out. It was joined by singers like Cher and has finally succeeded in freeing Kaavan. This morning, the elephant left for a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia. 

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.