The India Cable: Govt Lowers the Boom on Digital News; At Least 10 Cases Like Disha Ravi’s

Plus: Farmers appoint Rajnath ‘caged parrot’; vaccination drive to widen March 1, centre says same sex marriage not compatible with Indian family, Nirav Modi extradition ruling, Big Brother dials back

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 25, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The Union cabinet has cleared expansion of the Covid-19 vaccination drive to people aged 60 and above, and people aged 45 and above with comorbidities, from March 1. About 20,000 private hospitals will be used for this round, apart from 10,000 state-run facilities, to accelerate the process, with a little urging from the private sector. Those who opt for Covid-19 vaccination in private clinics would have to pay for their doses, at prices to be set by the Health Ministry in 3-4 days.

AIIMS director Dr Randeep Guleria rang alarm bells when he said that new variants of Covid-19 detected in the country can be more contagious and can re-infect those who have developed antibodies from previous infections. Here’s what we know about the new variants. However, spikes seen in some states may not owe to them, but to failure to follow protocols. Maharashtra is particularly alarming, with a spike of 8,807 cases. 

From tomorrow, travellers from Maharashtra, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab will require a negative Covid-19 test report to enter the capital. And from Saturday, West Bengal requires reports for travellers from Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Telangana. 

After a backlash from academics and scientists, the Modi government has been forced to withdraw a Big Brotherly order which required them to seek central clearance for every online seminar with foreign participation. The alibi it has offered is a lame one: the MEA says that since the government is relaxing many COVID restrictions, the new guidelines are not needed. But when the guidelines were issued, there was no mention of COVID.  At least one university has not got the new memo: IIT Guwahati is now going a step further than the Centre, requiring faculty and officers to seek permission from deans “to attend any selection committee/ screening committee/ expert committee/ tender committee meetings/ webinars/seminars etc in both online and offline mode.” Campus authorities say this is only a mechanism to gather data on staff involvement with other organisations, which helps with ratings, and not a curb on freedom. 

Draft Information Technology rules are brazen attempts to muzzle OTT platforms and significantly online news portals. They also have introduced the requirement of traceability of the originator of information, which would break end-to-end encryption. Many platforms (Whatsapp, Signal etc.) retain minimal user data and use this E2E encryption to provide privacy to users. Read the rules and analysis here. In a related development, the Indian Newspaper Socety has asked Google to pay for news and up the publishers’ share of advertising revenue Google earns off their content to 85%.

At a webinar attended by wealth fund and pension fund managers, domestic and international investors and investment bankers, the Prime Minister said that the government had identified about 100 public assets whose disinvestment could raise Rs 2.5 lakh crore. They are mainly airports, ports and energy companies. 

Wanted diamond merchant Nirav Modi has been behind bars in a London prison as he contested his extradition to India on charges of fraud and money laundering in the estimated $2 billion Punjab National Bank (PNB) scam. After a legal battle of almost two years, a ruling is expected today

In Punjab, husbands who sent capable young wives to study abroad in the hope of securing a spouse visa are being dumped by these women. In about 30 cases, men have demanded suspension of the passports of wives studying abroad. 


Indian culture don’t allow same sex marriage, Modi government claims

The Modi government has told Delhi high court it is opposed to same-sex marriage. "Living together as partners & having sexual relationship by same sex individual is not comparable with Indian family unit concept of a husband, wife & children which necessarily presuppose a biological man as 'husband', a biological woman as 'wife' and children born out of union," its affidavit notes, confusing marriage, having sex and having children in one grand sanskari – and tasteless – khichdi.


India-Pakistan ceasefire on LoC, India China win-win

India and Pakistan’s Directors General of Military Operations have issued a joint statement “for strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors with effect from midnight 24/25 Feb, 2021”. The LoC has seen more firing in 2020 than in any year since 2002, a year before both countries agreed to a ceasefire on their de facto border in Kashmir. In May 2018, the two DGMO had earlier issued a similar statement about following the 2003 ceasefire agreement in letter and spirit but that promise didn’t last beyond a few months. Will this time be different?

Army Chief General MM Naravane is happy with the outcome in Ladakh so far, as the disengagement at Pangong Tso was a “win-win” situation for both India and China. He agreed that certain issues like Depsang are pending, but “we have our strategies in place for that. Do we have anything to negotiate? Yes, we definitely have, but I can’t say what those strategies will be, to again come out with a favourable outcome.” He advised caution, since a “trust deficit” has developed.


At least 10 Disha-like cases 

A Delhi judge’s comments while releasing climate activist Disha Ravi on bail reveal how the police file sedition charges with no evidence, violating Supreme Court rulings, which establish that sedition only applies when there is incitement to violence. Here are 10 cases that fail the test.


Rajnath Singh appointed ‘caged parrot’

In a flagrant case of identity theft from the CBI, Bharatiya Kisan Union president Naresh Tikait called Defence Minister Rajnath Singh a “caged parrot” (“pinjre ka tota”). He said that the farmers’ issues could be resolved if Singh were given the freedom to talk with them. He accused the BJP-led central government of being “stubborn” and threatened to gherao Parliament with 40 lakh tractors. Faced with farm union leader Rakesh Tikait’s threat of another big tractor rally, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar has reiterated that the Centre is ready to hold talks with the protesting farm unions if they respond to its offer to suspend the operation of three contentious farm reform laws for 18 months, and use the time to work out differences through a joint committee.


Railway tickets expensive to deter travel

The Indian Railways must be the world’s only transporter discouraging passengers from travelling. After concerns were raised about a rise in the fares of short-distance passenger trains, the railways have said the “slightly high fares” are only to discourage unnecessary travel. Since the lockdown was eased, the railways have been running only special trains. It started with long-distance trains and now, even short-distance passenger trains are being run as special trains. Fares have been fixed at par with unreserved tickets of mail and express trains for the same distance, a statement from the Railway Ministry said. 

Passengers of the long-distance trains being operated as special services are, however, paying 10-30% higher fares since the services began post-lockdown. These fares are being charged under the ticket and refund rules of 2015, which stipulate a higher fare for special trains. For example, a ticket from Amritsar to Pathankot costs Rs 55 now. Earlier, it was priced at Rs 25. Similarly, a ticket of a passenger DMU between Jalandhar City and Ferozpur costs Rs 60 now, while it used to cost Rs 30 earlier.


Sputnik V closer to release

An expert panel of India’s Central Drug Authority which reviewed the application of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories seeking emergency use authorisation for the Covid-19 vaccine Sputnik V on Wednesday sought immunogenicity and safety data. The drug major on Wednesday presented the safety profile of Phase 2 study, and interim data of the Phase 3 trial, which is ongoing in India.

In September last year, the Hyderabad-based firm Dr Reddy’s partnered with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) to conduct the clinical trials of Sputnik V and secured distribution rights in India. Meanwhile, the SEC also asked Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech to submit efficacy data of Covaxin on adults before seeking permission to conduct Phase 3 clinical trials on children aged 5-18.  


 Book Extract

The village without wombs

Kavitha Iyer

Vanjarvadi, or a hamlet of the Vanjari community, is sometimes referred to locally as the village without wombs.

At least 40 women in the little village of about 250 families, between 19 and 60 years of age, have undergone a hysterectomy. In 2018–19, as it emerged that a large number of women from Beed district engaged in sugarcane cutting had complete hysterectomies, a flurry of half-truths, loose allegations and wild misinterpretations followed.

As Vanjarwadi’s women confirm, instances of surgical excision of their pishvi, literally translated as bag, have been common for over a couple of decades. The decision for surgery is often made amid a haze of poor medical care, poor sanitation, a profiteering doctor-surgeon-clinic nexus and fear-mongering about cancer.

But some reports made the somewhat simplistic claim that the hysterectomies were purely on account of mukadams being unwilling to hire menstruating women, and the matter quickly snowballed. Women’s groups called for an enquiry, the issue was discussed in the state’s legislature, and an expert committee was set up under no less than the deputy chairperson of the Maharashtra Legislative Council to investigate the circumstances around the unusually large number of hysterectomies in Beed.

The panel is expected to formulate guidelines for private clinics conducting such surgeries. In the committee are three women legislators and three medical experts.

Pankaja Munde, former legislator from Parli and minister for women and child development in the BJP-led state government between 2014 and 2019, rightly pointed out that women undertake hard labour in various sectors including other kinds of farm work, outside the cane fields, and Beed’s hysterectomies would need to be studied in greater detail. “The department will make an inquiry into all aspects of this matter – the age group of these women, their specific problems, etc. This is a migrating population and they are all labourers. This is a new fact that has emerged about them, and if a migrating working population is taking such a step to strengthen themselves for work, then it is a very sensitive issue,” Munde told reporters in June 2019.

But a preliminary investigation by the civil surgeon in Beed pegged the number of hysterectomies across 99 hospitals in the district at 4,161 between 2016 and 2019, a minor fraction of the approximately four lakh women engaged in cane-cutting work across the state, and two and a half lakh in Beed district. And in Vanjarwadi and elsewhere, women who had the surgery suggest that a complex web of factors led them to the operation theatre, the pressure to work without rest in the cane fields being only one of them.

“In fact, I ended up slowing down after my surgery. And a few years later, I began to have this terrible pain all along my left side, and now I can barely work at all,” says Lilavati Prabhakar Sanap, almost 50. She had a hysterectomy 27 years ago, at a government hospital in the neighbouring village of Raimoha. At the time, she was told there was no other way to cure her excessive menstrual bleeding but to surgically remove the uterus. Lilavati still goes to the cane fields each year, and looks for work as a daily wager the rest of the year.

The women’s stories in Vanjarwadi have a common trajectory – of pain, excessive bleeding or infections during their period, likely from the absence of any sanitation amenities both at home and in the fields. Lilavati Rajendra Sanap was 35 when she began to get her period every 15 days. She had a hysterectomy 22 years ago. Her daughter, married in a nearby village, was 28 when she also “got the operation done” about a decade ago. A young woman in her twenties requiring a medical termination of pregnancy ended up having a hysterectomy after doctors convinced her that it was necessary.

Ranjana Govind Palwe, in her mid-forties, had her uterus removed about 10 to 12 years ago, after a bout of severe abdominal pain. “I had medicines twice and one sonography, and they told me it was best to get the operation,” she says.

None of these women faced any direct pressure from a mukadam to get the surgery, but each one of them was made to believe she may get cancer if she didn’t. Doctors, neighbours and other village women told them about women who had died of cancerous tumours in the uterus. None of Vanjarwadi’s women was able to access a second medical opinion before opting for the surgery. “Where’s the time for that? We have to go back to the factory six months later, so it always seems best to quickly do what the doctor suggests while we’re here at home,” says Ranjana. None of Vanjarwadi’s 40 women who had hysterectomies have any medical records or hospital discharge papers. And most underwent surgeries at the same two hospitals in Beed city.

The surgeries are also a financial blow for the women, sometimes setting them back years. Shafia Akbar Pathan, in her forties, had a hysterectomy eight years ago after suffering from excessive bleeding for a few months. The bill was Rs 15,000 and an additional Rs 3,500 for medicines. Unable to raise that sum herself, Shafia took an early ucchal from the local mukadam. Then, four years ago, she borrowed Rs 4 lakh from another mukadam for her daughter’s wedding. The interest rate is Rs 3 per month for every Rs 100. That is an annual interest rate of 36 per cent, though she doesn’t understand it, or doesn’t know that there could be less expensive credit available. “I’m still paying off that sum. The interest amount keeps growing, I have been working for smaller and smaller sums each year because I haven’t repaid my earlier outstanding,” she rues. At her daughter’s wedding, she gave the groom one tola of gold and Rs 25,000 in cash. The girl and her husband are now both cutting cane as well, and live elsewhere in Beed district.

Kaveri Nagargoje, who, along with her husband Deepak, runs Shantiwan, a home for children from families facing various kinds of distress on account of the agrarian crisis in the region, says the link between Vanjarwadi’s hysterectomies and the sugarcane industry is deep and latent. Located in Arvi village, not far from Vanjarwadi and Raimoha, Shantiwan works with the women and men of the region, including the large communities of sugarcane cutters. Among its 1,000 school students and 300 hostel residents, many are children who would otherwise have been helping a parent cut cane. “Even though there are now Swachh Bharat toilets in almost every home in Vanjarwadi, how do people who do not have water to drink use and keep a toilet clean? Across drought-hit villages here, the toilets lie unused while people continue to defecate in the open. And during the cane-cutting season, women have absolutely no access to any kind of sanitation; this is a daily source of humiliation and often leads to sexual assault. Getting their period in such circumstances is even more indignity piled on them,” Kaveri says.

Excerpted from Kavitha Iyer’s Landscapes Of Loss: The Story Of An Indian Drought, HarperCollins, 248 pages, Rs 599


Reportedly

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) is on an expansion spree and requires more officers for new zonal and sub-zonal offices.The agency, a part of the revenue department of the Union Finance Ministry, is responsible for enforcing economic laws and fighting economic crime, but now has a wider jurisdiction with new responsibilities under the Foreign Exchange Management Act (1999), Prevention of Money Laundering Act (2002) and the Fugitive Economic Offenders Act (2018).

The ED has a sanctioned strength of 2,064 posts, including five special directors and 27 joint directors. Existing vacancies must be filled and expansion increases the urgency to recruit. Apparently, there is a move to create new posts of additional, joint and deputy directors for the new zonal and sub-zonal offices.


Facebook seeks Right to Silence

Facebook official Ajit Mo­han urged the Supreme Court on Wednesday to recognise the ‘right to silence’ as a virtue in these “noisy times”. Senior advocate Harish Salve said the right to silence was as important as the right to free speech. The court heard and reserved its orders on a petition filed by Facebook’s Mohan against the summons issued to him by a Delhi Legislative Assembly Committee. Social media has a notoriously low signal to noise ratio. 


Seeking court permission to shoot the messenger

The Delhi High Court has issued a notice and sought the response of the central government, the Delhi Police and publishers to a plea seeking quashing of reports prepared by the Delhi Minorities Commission and other private organizations and individuals on the Delhi riots. The plaintiff says “self-constituted” reports hamper investigations. Reports named include ‘Shoot the Traitors – Discrimination against Muslims under India’s New Citizenship Policy’, by Human Rights Watch, Citizens and Lawyers Initiative’s ‘Delhi Riots of February 2020 ―  Causes, Fallout and Aftermath’, and the Constitutional Conduct Group report titled ‘Citizens’ Committee on the Delhi Riots of February 2020: Contexts, Events and Aftermath’. 


Prime Number: 54
The degree of confidence in January 2021 among professionals in India about their career progress, as per the latest LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index, declining from the composite score of 58 in December 2020. The survey attributes this dip in optimism to the workforce’s growing concerns about the status of the pandemic, mounting expenses and poor job prospects in the present economic climate.

Deep Dive

Digital unfreedom in India

The Internet Freedom Foundation explores the implications of “lateral” or peer-to-peer surveillance ― essentially, getting citizens to report on other citizens ― which is being trialled in Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur, with the objective of being rolled out across the country. 

With no legal framework, no liability in the event of misuse, and no visible mechanism to challenge complaints filed in error, this is very much like the mechanism that was rolled out by Stasi in the German Democratic Republic during the Cold War. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The electoral hegemony of the BJP can deepen the sense of persecution and betrayal among those who feel short-changed by the side effects of the Hindutva 2.0 strategy, which the BJP has unleashed, writes Roshan Kishore. 

  • The 2020 violence in Delhi was a pogrom, write Aiman Khan and Ishita Chakrabarty. They argue that the violence was organised and systematic, and it appears that the Indian authorities were complicit.

  • It is worrying that a serving Prime Minister is already having facilities named after him. It is worrying that those around him feel the need to do this, and even scarier that he is allowing it, writes Ashish Magotra. And Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty compares what Modi has done to Hitler, Mussolini and the late Beloved Leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung.


Listen Up

Democratic erosion: India and US

India and the US have both struggled with anti-democratic forces the last few years. Ashutosh Varshney, Professor of International Studies at Watson and Director of Watson’s Center for Contemporary South Asia and Sarah Baldwin, host of the Trending Globally podcast discuss democratic erosion in the US and India, discuss how both countries might change during the Biden administration.


Watch Out

Bol: A poetry series

Faiz, speaking of his own turbulent times with an unflinching poetic and revolutionary commitment, reminds us of the force of words, of poetry and speaking up, with his resounding, “Speak, for your lips are free!” It’s the keystone of the poetry series Bol which has run 25 episodes since August, featuring the poetry of resistance, hope, love and humanity. 


From chaiwallah to stadiumwallah

Narendra Modi has made it to the front page of the Financial Times, for the extraordinary act of naming a cricket stadium after himself:

But the question of ends and means remains, in the context of a Modi stadium:


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.