The India Cable: Farmers Enter Delhi on R-Day, Plant Flags at Gates of Red Fort

Plus: High court says comedians “must not be spared”, govt can't share Aarogya Setu data, and and to jeers from scientists, Saurashtra University shows cow dung protects against nuclear radiation 

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 26, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The news of the day is that the Nishan Sahib, the flag of the Khalsa Panth, which is generally seen flying above gurudwaras, is fluttering from a flagpole at the gates of the Red Fort, along with some farmers’ union flags. The protesting farmers who had been allowed to hold a tractor rally at the edge of Delhi, in parallel with the Republic Day march past at its centre, are marching through the capital. 

In his Republic Day eve’s address to the nation, President Ram Nath Kovind channelled Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Jai Jawan Jai Kisan number, but it proved to be bitterly ironic this morning, while he presided over the parade. As the jawans marched down Rajpath, kisans were being tear-gassed and lathi-charged at the periphery of the capital, as they breached police barricades to enter the city for their tractor rally. The Delhi Police had issued a no objection certificate for the tractor rally after imposing 37 conditions, two of which specify the hours between which it was to be held, and the maximum number of persons attending. When thousands have travelled from across the country to be in Delhi on this day, these expectations were clearly unrealistic, since the movement does not have a unified command structure.   

On the last day of campaigning in Tamil Nadu, Rahul Gandhi sharpened his attack on the BJP by suggesting that the Prime Minister himself had informed bedevilled right wing television anchor Arnab Goswami that an airstrike on Balakot was imminent in 2019. Alleging that national security had been compromised in the highest echelons of government, he said, “Five people in this world knew about Balakot (air strikes). Prime Minister of India, the Defence Minister of India, the National Security Advisor, the chief of the Air Force and the Home Minister.” He believes that the buck stops at the top.  

India and China have agreed to a 10th round of talks to advance de-escalation on the Line of Actual Control. This is direly reminiscent of the India-Pakistan talks, in which the milestones were marked by agreements on whether to keep talking, and what to keep talking about. Only the scale and location of the problem seem to have changed.   

The Karnataka High Court has passed an interim order to restrain the central government and the National Informatics Centre (NIC) from sharing data collected through the failed Covid-19 tracking app Aarogya Setu, because they do not have informed consent. India is yet to legislate on personal data security and sovereignty.

Around 30% of the shipbreaking work on India’s decommissioned aircraft carrier Viraat has been completed and the entire vessel would be dismantled at Alang in Gujarat in nine months.  

Amazon has moved Delhi High Court seeking the detention of Kishore Biyani in a civil prison and attachment of Future assets. Their objective is the enforcement of the Emergency Award, restraining Biyani from going ahead with his deal with Reliance Retail.

The Biden Administration has appointed four Indian-Americans to senior positions in the crucial Department of Energy. It appointed Tarak Shah as Chief of Staff, making him the first Indian-American to serve in that position. Tanya Das has been named Chief of Staff to the Office of Science, Narayan Subramanian will take up the position of Legal Adviser in the Office of General Counsel, and Shuchi Talati has been appointed Chief of Staff in the Office of Fossil Energy.

A group of Indian scientists has decried the Rashtriya Kamadhenu Aayog’s reference to experiments by physicists at Gujarat’s Saurashtra University to claim that cow dung can shield against radiation. The scientists said on Monday that the experiments represent a “classic example” of a study designed to reach a predetermined conclusion, and that they are “sad to see” physics teachers in a state university dabbling in pseudoscience. Some have likened the dung study at Saurashtra University to “papers” on heaven and hell published by scientists in Pakistan in the 1980s, during the reign of Zia-ul-Haq.

And FAU-G, Indian developer nCore Games’ answer to PUBG, launches today. Eagerly awaited ever since PUBG was banned in September, in retaliation to Chinese aggression in the Galwan Valley, it already has 5 million pre-registrations on the Android Play Store ― 1 million of them in the past week. The developers have noted that the themes and storylines of foreign games often mean nothing to Indian players, and have led off with the Galwan conflict. Kargil and the 1971 war with Pakistan will feature in later packs. Strangely FAU-G, which stands for ‘Fearless and United – Guards’ does not seem to have the vastly popular Battle Royale mode, in which you get to shoot the crap out of everyone else. It would have reflected the national mood.

Farmers bring protest home to Delhi

Farmers dismantled police barricades ― including concrete blocks and entire shipping containers ― to enter Delhi with their tractors this morning. 

Tear gas has been used on highways in the heart of the suburbs, and protesters feel that their way was blocked to incite them to violence, which they have studiously avoided since the beginning of the movement in November. However, they have diverged from the route assigned to them by the police, at the rim of the city. A large contingent reached the important ITO intersection, well within the city, where the headquarters of Delhi Police is located. In parts of Delhi, they were welcomed with showers of flower petals by local residents. Nihangs on horseback rode with the protesters. Passing a busload of Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel, protesters raised the slogan of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”. 

Overhead, after the better part of a lifetime, a wartime Dakota DC3 was in the air, as part of the R-Day flypast. This must be the most unusual January 26 since the founding of the republic. 

Personal bonds for a docile peasantry

The Allahabad High Court asked the UP government to explain the legality of curbs against tractors moving towards Delhi. Farmers who own tractors were asked to furnish personal bonds of Rs 50,000 to Rs 10 lakh, along with two sureties. Several orders have been passed by the authorities in Sitapur, and notices have been issued to farmers, to keep them in line. The farmers’ counsel said that their fundamental rights are being violated, since police have surrounded their homes to restrict their movement. Yesterday, the state government was criticised for passing orders restricting petrol pumps from refuelling tractors.Several protesting farm leaders have asked farmers to block the roads, wherever they are.

Galwan dead get gallantry awards

On the occasion of Republic Day, Colonel B Santosh Babu, who lost his life in a clash with Chinese soldiers in the Galwan valley on June 15, 2020, has been awarded the Mahavir Chakra posthumously. Five other soldiers, who were among the 20 dead in the same clash, have been awarded the Chakra series wartime gallantry medals. They were last awarded during the 1999 Kargil War. By awarding similar medals for the clash in Ladakh, does the government imply that India is at war with China? 

Pfizer vaccine in India?

Pfizer Inc will pursue its request for India to approve its Covid-19 vaccine only if the government commits to buy, the US drugmaker told Reuters, as global supplies tighten. Pfizer was the first company to seek emergency use authorisation for a Covid-19 vaccine in India, but the government this month approved two much cheaper shots ― one from AstraZeneca and another developed at home by Bharat Biotech. India’s Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) says Pfizer officials failed to attend meetings after the company applied in early December. The regulator has also declined to accept the company’s request for approval without a small local trial of the vaccine’s safety and immunogenicity for Indians.

The Centre has asked states to check the spread of vaccine misinformation and take penal action against those involved. Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote to the chief secretaries of all states and union territories and emphasised that the National Regulatory Authority has found that the two vaccines fielded ― Covishield and Covaxin ― are safe and immunogenic. the government has offered domestically made Covid-19 vaccines to diplomats and their families posted in India, a little over a week after it began the vaccination drive and allowed limited exports.

Jokers “must not be spared”

The Madhya Pradesh High Court (Indore bench) has reserved its order in the matter of bail for stand-up comic Munawar Faruqi, who has been in jail for 25 days already for things he never said in his show, which was cut short. Justice Rohit Arya said; “Such people must not be spared. I will reserve the order on merits.” Faruqi’s co-performer Nalin Yadav’s bail was also reserved. 

The Long Cable

When institutions fail, the street is the theatre of politics

Seema Chishti

In his Independence Day address in 1965, prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri raised the twin slogans of “Jai Jawan” and “Jai Kisan”. What is often forgotten is that he said these meld into “Jai Hind”, which must be raised after these two slogans. And it was.

The fusing of the two is now witnessed in the determined farmer protests that have taken the argument to another level, asserting that the jawan is “a kisan in uniform”.

Then there are these field notes from the protests. Meet Sarabhjit Kaur, who feels that she is “flying when she is driving a tractor.” She drove 400 km to join the tractor rally today. 

A determined and unselfconscious assertion of Indianness, and of their right to march inside the Indian capital, was visible in protesting groups all around Delhi. It is hard to think of any other group having the chutzpah, imagination or political clarity to confront this regime, as the kisans have shown. They’ve taken all the brickbats, the social media engineering to discredit them as separatists, the disdain that the pliant mainstream media has heaped on them, and water cannons and tear gas, to stick it out.

A few things came through clearly today.

Firstly, the regime has very little to say other than its usual MMS routine – ‘muscle, muzzle and smear’ campaigns ― against determined groups which have confronted it on its basic ideals. First, students were pooh-poohed and lampooned as an ‘anti-national’ minority, but they stayed determined and insisted on contesting the idea of the republic that was being reframed by Narendra Modi’s government. Republic Day in 2020 saw Shaheen Bagh emerge as the centre of the anti-CAA protests and a massive crowd marking Republic Day there, proudly reclaiming it for the public. The day was no longer about just the proforma parade which keeps most Indians on the fringe. Today, the farmers’ tractors have tableaux for eleven states, highlighting the problems they face in each. For instance, Maharashtra’s is themed on farmer suicides.

India is in a ferment. Several groups are defiant and angry with the hollowing out of the republic, as discussions are brushed aside by those who have electoral power. The invisibilizing of dissent has been effected by complete control over most media outlets.

So the second big takeaway is how hollow and unfree ‘private’ media has been exposed to be. The kisans had no compunctions in disparaging “godi media” as privately owned TV channels only showed the Rajpath parade feed that Doordarshan provided. Barring NDTV, which had a split screen with the protests in one half, channels stayed loyal to the government message, making it evident that servile private media is a bigger threat than the control that Indira Gandhi’s government was able to exercise on state TV and AIR under a declared Emergency. TV channels this afternoon, peddling the ‘violent’ farmer narrative, or of “clashes” (farmers were actually lathi-charged and tear-gassed) cut a sorry figure as independent reports from the ground were a sharp contrast to the scare-mongering on TV. The need for independent media has never been greater as TV channels dissolve into Doordarshan on steroids. This is what they didn’t show:

The third and most crucial point that is driven home is that R-Day in 1950 was about crafting a nation by building institutions and norms that would counter serious flaws in our societal practices. This would prevent our democracy from drifting towards majoritarian mob rule and respect all sections of this diverse nation. Debate would matter and governments would realise that certain principles are inviolable. But the large-scale emergence of group protests like the determined kisans – and Shaheen Bagh and the students earlier ―  is a reflection of the state of our institutions. As they fail in their job, which is to draw the line and keep the executive in check, and are unable to ensure that the government does not have a free pass to use its electoral majority, protests on the streets would become as central to Republic days as the parade.

If our institutions ― the judiciary, media and others that play a balancing role in all democracies ― continue to behave like extensions of the executive, then the Kisan march is certainly not the last protest we’ll see. When institutions are hollowed out and fail, people in a democracy are left with no choice but to take to the streets. The Centre does not understand that a meaningful dialogue with this backbone of India – the same kisans who give India its food security – is what will give Indian democracy the elasticity to work through the difficulties ahead, which are bound to grow. As the economy sputters to a halt and social strife is magnified, the government must be able to anticipate turbulence ahead. 

The teargas shell is no substitute for talks.

Farmers have announced that their next round of protests would be on February 1, as the Union Budget is presented. They will march on foot to Parliament from their encampments on Delhi’s borders. Unless, of course, they get there today. 

Deep Dive

New Hindu temple emoji

Because it has a fairly superficial theory of what emojis are and remains focused on a narrow set of criteria for approving new emojis, the Unicode Consortium failed to understand the cultural and political significance of the Hindu temple emoji. The story of the emoji’s development here by Nayantara Ranganathan has a lot to chew on.

Prime Number: 62 years
A 62-year-old property dispute was on Monday brought to the fore by the descendents of Nawab Mir Yousuf Ali Khan Salar Jung III before the Supreme Court, who urged it to direct the authorities to release assets in their favour. The apex court took note of the long pendency of the suit, related to properties of the Nawab, since 1958, and asked petitioners Syed Zahid Ali and others to approach the Telangana High Court. It said that it can pass appropriate directions for its disposal in a “time-bound manner”.A 62-year-old property dispute was on Monday brought to the fore by the descendents of Nawab Mir Yousuf Ali Khan Salar Jung III before the Supreme Court, who urged it to direct the authorities to release assets in their favour. The apex court took note of the long pendency of the suit, related to properties of the Nawab, since 1958, and asked petitioners Syed Zahid Ali and others to approach the Telangana High Court. It said that it can pass appropriate directions for its disposal in a “time-bound manner”.

Rajoana mercy plea put on ice

The Supreme Court on Monday gave a last chance to the Centre to take a call on the mercy plea filed by Balwant S Rajoana for commuting the death penalty awarded to him for the assassination of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh. A bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde ― which had earlier asked the government to decide Rajoana’s mercy petition before Republic Day ― gave two more weeks after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the government was examining the issue. The hesitation is political ― the Solicitor General said that it would not be prudent to decide the matter at this juncture as it could have some repercussions in the present situation.

Green tax for old vehicles

Keeping old vehicles became more taxing as the Centre approved draft guidelines allowing states to levy a green tax on them. Charges will be higher for vehicles registered in more polluted cities, said the Transport Ministry. Transport vehicles older than eight years could be charged a green tax for renewal of fitness certificate, at the rate of 10-25% of road tax, while personal vehicles could be charged for the renewal of registration after 15 years. The proposal will now go to the states for consultation before it is formally notified. 

President Kovind did not garland Bumbada 

The brouhaha over the suspicion that the portrait of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose unveiled by the President of India was really that of Bengali actor Prosenjit ‘Bumbada’ Chatterjee, could finally be calmed by multiple clarifications on social media. Chatterjee tweeted that it wasn’t him, though he had played Netaji in a movie about the Gumnaami Baba story. So did the painter Paresh Maity, who had drawn the image. AltNews did a fact-check, too. Spoilsports! 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • As New Delhi works out a pragmatic strategy to deal with a more antagonistic and assertive China, it is bound to see the US as an essential partner in the Indo-Pacific. But even if destinations are seen as aligned, Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) explains in Foreign Policy why India cannot openly ask for help. 

  • The judgment of the Allahabad High Court represents an important judicial pushback against the dominant ideology of state interference in questions of marriage, including by empowering social and vigilante groups, writes Gautam Bhatia.

  • Netaji stood for unity among all Indians, which the BJP tries to conceal, writes Suhasini Ali. Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus were all in the ranks of the Indian National Army, and they all fought for India’s freedom, displaying Subhas Chandra Bose’s absolute commitment to the ideal.

  • Women bore the brunt of the economic slowdown, loss of livelihoods and weakened income capacities, and Budget 2021-22 needs to do much more for them, write Apoorva Mahendru and Vikrant Govardhan Wankhede.

  • The climate crisis is forcing a rise in input costs to the point where farming is no longer very profitable. While the farm protests oppose three specific laws that impact the pricing of produce, the issues – primarily of input costs and income insecurity – will only become more critical as the climate crisis worsens, writes Omair Ahmed.

  • We have entered the 13th consecutive quarter of the economic slowdown in India but there is no end to the triumphalism of the Modi government, says Aakar Patel.

Listen up

Shuddh Desi Gay is about the experiences of Yogi and Kabeer who are from “regular, middle-class Indian families” and are a monogamous pair, in a committed long-term relationship. In this edition, they talk about trying to “fit in”. 

Watch Out

Cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin, the most under-rated presenter on YouTube, does Episode 4 of the Kutti Story ― the backstory of the Australia tour, which was a zinger. With India’s batting coach, Vikram Rathour.

Dressmaker’s hack

When Covid-19 struck, Melbourne dressmaker Manmeet Kaur started making free masks for her local community. But seeing her husband struggle to fit a mask over his turban, she came up with a mod that’s a huge help to everyone who can’t tuck a strap behind their ears ― people who wear hearing aids or hijabs, or are aged, for instance.

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.