The India Cable: Gujarat HC Reads Down ‘Love Jihad’ Law; Pegasus & Bogey of National Security

Plus: Depsang puzzle, Taliban stall India trade, Adani de-ported from Ludhiana, SC pulls up forces for gender discrimination, one Covishield dose offers little protection, MJ Akbar to return to media

Starting this week, The India Cable is beginning its transition to a paid newsletter. Our subscription rate is INR 200 per month or INR 2000 for a year, and you can subscribe by clicking here.

Subscribers will receive The India Cable five days a week, have access to our Archives, and be able to comment on content. We are also working on the launch of an exclusive subscriber-only podcast by members of our Editorial Board.

All those on our mailing list will continue to receive the newsletter free till the transition period ends, on September 1. 

We also have a 'Founding Members' tier where members will receive lifetime access to The India Cable. We've priced this tier, aimed at our most loyal readers, at INR 10,000. A founding member will get all the benefits of a subscriber, in addition to a quarterly video call with the Editorial Board.

New signup and free subscribers? You will get free access for one newsletter every week to sample our content.

Your financial support is the only way for us to sustain this valuable venture and we hope you will take out a paid subscription soon.


Snapshot of the day
August 19, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

A large hospital-based study in India has found that a single dose of Covishield does not protect, though experts are still not fully convinced. Doctors at Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital used employees’ Covid-19 vaccination data to show that a single dose of Covishield offers no protection against symptomatic outcome, or any outcome of interest, but there is significant protection with both doses and previous infection. This, the doctors say, could be due to the emergence of the Delta variant, which is now the predominant strain.

The Gujarat High Court has stayed the operation of sections of the ‘anti-love jihad’ Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, which had forcibly linked interfaith marriage with conversion. The bench listed out the operative (and most obnoxious) sections of the new law and said these “shall not operate merely because marriage is solemnised by person of one religion with another without force, or allurement or fraudulent means and such marriages cannot be termed as marriages for the purpose of unlawful conversion.”

The Chinese are upgrading infrastructure in the Depsang plains in Ladakh, where Indians have been blocked by the Chinese from accessing five patrol points for the last 18 months. This explains its refusal to discuss withdrawal from the area with India.

The magnitude of the setback to Indian influence following the return of the Taliban is just surfacing. They have stopped all trade with India. Dr Ajay Sahai, Director General of the Federation of Indian Export Organisation (FIEO), said: “Imports from there come through the transit route of Pakistan. As of now, the Taliban has stopped the movement of cargo to Pakistan, so virtually imports have stopped." While this could be a short-term dislocation, it may also presage disruptions over the long haul.

Samajwadi Party MP Shafiqur Rahman Barq was booked on sedition charges by UP Police for drawing a parallel between the Indian freedom struggle and the Taliban takeover. The state’s police never lose an opportunity. The last chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir ― in coalition with the BJP ― Mehbooba Mufti, spoke after her mother, Gulshan Nazir, was questioned for nearly three hours by the Enforcement Directorate. She said, “Unfortunately, the institutions which were supposed to protect our rights and uphold the spirit and Constitution of India have been Talibanised.” She said even the media had been “Talibanised.”

About 4,500 Afghan college students in India are torn between seeking visa extensions and returning home to help their families. For the women, returning could put an end to their education for ever. 

Cornell economist Kaushik Basu points out that India is topping the charts on unemployment among the youth, a recipe for unrest. In Bhopal, young men seeking employment were lathi-charged by the police

This morning, the Calcutta High Court ordered a CBI probe into post-poll violence in West Bengal, and formed an SIT, too.

The British newspaper editors’ organisation has withdrawn its claim that the UK media is not racist or bigoted, after six months of sustained pressure from journalists of colour. The Society of Editors said it would now work to improve diversity. Former director Ian Murray had strongly disputed claims by the Duchess of Sussex that negative coverage of her relationship with her husband, Prince Harry, was due to her skin colour. In the east, Union Minister of State for Education Subhas Sarkar has sparked off a bizarre controversy by saying that Rabindranath may have been neglected by his mother because he was dark-skinned. The comment has irritated scholars and fans, none of whom are even remotely interested in Tagore’s skin tone. 

In rural Maharashtra, sportspersons like Rushikesh Ghadge are staring at an uncertain future – the pandemic has taken its toll and is pushing players out of wrestling rings and kho-kho courts in Osmanabad district.

The National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) will spend Rs 11,040 crore over five years to propagate palm plantations in 28 lakh hectares identified by the Indian institute of Oil Palm Research. However, the focus is on the ecologically significant Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Palm farming typically causes massive loss of biodiversity, as seen in Southeast Asia.  

Social media was overwhelmed by footage of a US Air Force plane taking off from Kabul being chased by at least a hundred people. Film later emerged showing at least two people who had hung onto the plane in their desperation to leave, falling off in midair. They fell on the roof of a relative of Shapoor Zarifi, an Afghan who stays in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar.

At 86, Indian National Lok Dal leader, former Haryana chief minister and a key figure in the extraordinarily violent Meham bypoll of 1990, Om Prakash Chautala has taken the English supplementary Class X exam in Sirsa. He had completed his matriculation while in jail for the JBT recruitment scam, but the results were withheld because he had missed the English test.   


SC pulls up forces for gender discrimination

In a landmark move, the Supreme Court yesterday allowed female candidates to appear for the National Defence Academy (NDA) examination. The apex court said that the Army’s policy decision to not allow women to appear smacks of “gender discrimination”. The examination will be held on September 5, and while admissions will be subject to final orders, the Court minced no words, asking the Army why coeducation is a problem. Earlier, the court helped to end discrimination in command postings and permanent commissions. 


Ram Temple: Once more, it’s about real estate

Hanuman Garhi temple Mahant Dharam Das has filed a police complaint against members of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust and a BJP MLA, alleging fraud in the purchase of government land for the proposed Ram Temple, which is coming up at the site of the demolished Babri mosque. Apart from all trust members and Gosaiganj BJP MLA Indra Pratap Tiwari, Das complained against Ayodhya Mayor Rishikesh Upadhyay’s nephew Deep Narayan Upadhyay and Faizabad Sub-Registrar SB Singh. Das alleged that Deep Narayan Upadhyay purchased 676 sq metres of land from Mahant Devendra Prasadacharya in February for Rs 20 lakh, which was sold to the temple trust for Rs 2.5 crore. The circle rate value of the land is about Rs 35 lakhs, he said.

Das has accused them of betraying people by misusing funds collected for the construction of the Ram temple, and demanded the immediate sacking of trust member Champat Rai. He said the seers of Ayodhya should run the shrine, stressing that the government should run the country, and not the temple.


Railways privatisation: Few expressions of interest

The Railways have failed to interest private players for its tender floated last year for the operation of private passenger trains in 12 clusters ― only three received any bid at all. The Indian Railways in July last year planned to introduce private trains on its network in phases, with the first dozen due to start running in FY 2023-24 and all 151 by 2027.

Companies to run the private trains were to be selected by April 2021; the first 12 were expected to start plying by 2023-24, followed by 45 more in FY 2024-25, the next 50 in FY 2025-26 and the last 44 by 2026-27. Those plans have now been scrapped. No bidders are interested, since the concession rules heavily favour the Railways. 


SC refuses to stay West Bengal Pegasus probe

Refusing to grant a stay, the Supreme Court sought responses from the Centre and the West Bengal government on a plea challenging the setting up of a Commission of Inquiry by the state to probe the Pegasus snooping allegations. On the ground of jurisdiction, the petition challenges the notification issued by the West Bengal government last month appointing a commission of inquiry. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, said, “This is unconstitutional, is all I can say.”

Former Supreme Court judge Justice Madan B Lokur and former chief justice of Calcutta High Court Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya are the members of the Commission of Inquiry. The apex court had on Tuesday issued a notice to the Centre on a batch of pleas seeking an independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping matter.


The Long Cable

Pegasus and the bogey of national security

Siddharth Varadarajan

During arguments in the Supreme Court earlier this week, solicitor general Tushar Mehta said that the government cannot be made to answer whether or not it uses Pegasus spyware, for this would alert terrorists and compromise national security.

Curiously, just a few days before making this claim, Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt had no difficulty answering a similar question in parliament.

Asked whether the MoD “had carried out any transaction with the NSO Group Technologies, and if so, the details thereof”, Bhatt replied: “Ministry of Defence has not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies.”

NSO is the Israeli manufacturer of Pegasus spyware, whose illegal use against journalists, politicians and human rights defenders is currently the subject of multiple petitions before the Supreme Court.

If the MoD did not deem it necessary to cite national security concerns when asked if it was a customer of NSO, why is the Union of India’s counsel trying to invoke privilege? Leaving aside the tenability of this claim in the face of the defence ministry’s willingness to field a parliament question on buying spyware, logic tells us the only reason the government as a whole does not want to answer the question is because its answer is unlikely to be “No”.

In other words, even if “terrorists” and other legitimate targets of spyware were still unsure about whether Indian intelligence agencies are really using Pegasus, the SG’s tortuous exertions in the Supreme Court leave no room for doubt.

The truth of the matter is that ever since the Modi government accepted on the floor or parliament in November 2019 that 121 Indians had been targeted by Pegasus via WhatsApp, anybody with probable cause to fear being snooped upon by an Indian government agency will have already taken counter-measures.

Today, if the Modi government is doing its utmost to avoid publicly admitting that it uses Pegasus, this is not because it fears terrorists will find out spyware could be used against them but because the Indian public will find out their taxes have been used by the ruling party to spy on its political opponents.

In any country governed by the rule of law, the government cannot claim privilege in the face of evidence that spyware has been used against citizens who do not pose even a remote threat to national security. And the evidence is out there before the court, in the form of phones belonging to journalists and others which have been forensically examined and found to contain evidence of Pegasus.

France ordered an open inquiry into the use of Pegasus as soon the story about the targeting of its nationals broke. Its official agencies have already validated the robustness of the Pegasus Project’s claims by conducting their own forensic tests on the phones of three journalists and two ministers.

In addition, UN experts have called for a moratorium on any spyware use by governments across the world, and even Israel, the home state of Pegasus, has gone through the motions of calling NSO to account. It is only in India that the government has reacted the way it has – even going so far as to suggest judicial oversight by the country’s highest court will somehow help terrorists.

The names of those whose phones are confirmed to have been infected by Pegasus, as revealed by The Wire, shows that the spyware has been used to target professionals, known for their legitimate activities. Since NSO says that its clients are only governments, the Indian government is answerable for these infections. At the very least, it must give some coherent explanation for the presence of Pegasus on the phones of journalists and opposition politicians. Even if it wishes to deny any knowledge, its refusal to seek answers from NSO and Israel – as France has done – speaks volumes.  

The government may treat the privacy of citizens as expendable but it is accountable to the Supreme Court – which has a constitutional duty to protect the Fundamental Rights of citizens.


Reportedly

Author, disgraced BJP leader, former minister and whilom newspaper editor MJ Akbar could be rehabilitated as a journalist on WION News, as vice president. Newspersons at pro-establishment media baron Subhash Chandra’s outfit were told that he would be joining, though a formal announcement is yet to be made. Akbar has been attending virtual news meetings, it is reported. Akbar had filed a criminal defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani for accusing him of sexual harassment but the trial court acquitted her, accepting her ‘truth as defence’ plea. The Delhi High Court will hear Akbar’s appeal against that order next January.  Junior staff are reported to be wary of the presumptive VP.


Adani de-ported from Ludhiana

Protests against the farm laws continue nationwide, though they are not as widely publicised as before. But Punjabi protesters in Kila Raipur, Ludhiana, are in a celebratory mood. Sitting on dharna outside the Adani Logistics Park – a khushk bandargah (dry port), as these are locally called – they have been able to face down a big corporation with only their basic right to protest. Earlier this month, the Adani Group filed a petition in the Punjab High Court saying that it would be shutting down operations at the Kila Raipur multi-modal logistics park after incurring huge losses due to the dharna. The protesters have notched this up as a victory. 


No respect for nurses

The News Minute reports on how India undermines the role of nurses in the healthcare system by its skewed policies. Over the years, they have fostered stagnant designations, limited recruitment, arbitrary deputations, lack of motivation, and importantly, lack of respect.


Prime number: Rs 25
That is the hike in the price of a 14.2 kg cylinder of subsidised liquified petroleum gas, which now costs Rs 859 in Delhi. The latest hike in subsidised LPG has taken the cumulative rate hike since January 1 to Rs 165 per cylinder, which cost Rs 410.50 in March 2014. Rates were last hiked by Rs 25.50 per cylinder on July 1 but were not hiked on August 1, when Parliament was in session. Little difference remains between the rates of subsidised and non-subsidised cooking gas.

Deep Dive

Read an in-depth and sharp brief on the Pegasus controversy and why it matters to all of us. This nuanced analysis of the implications for national security and privacy has been prepared by the Delhi Policy Group’s Lt Gen DS Hooda (retd) and Abhimanyu Ghosh.


Songs of rage

India’s mining-affected communities are using art and music to express their anger and outrage. Many songs, especially those produced in recent years, sharply critique the use of force in mineral-rich areas.


No jail for Gujarat caste crimes

All the 833 accused of caste atrocities in Gujarat ,whose cases have been pending in the High Court since 2000, are out on bail, secured by obtaining HC stay orders on verdicts of lower courts and the special atrocity court. “Not a single accused sentenced in 2000 has gone to jail. The information was revealed after I filed an RTI application in the High Court. The appeals of the accused are pending for 20 years in the High Court. In all the cases, the lower courts had punished the accused,” Valjibhai Patel, a Gujarat-based Dalit activist, told Newsclick.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Countries that had once stationed troops in Afghanistan are now slow to accept refugees, showing that the war was never about liberating Afghans, writes Salil Tripathi. That’s the ultimate limitation of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect. Who are you protecting, and from whom?

  • Shamsher Chandel explains why Punjab may not want to remember Partition horrors. Since both the communities are minorities in India, “the Sikhs see a reflection of themselves in the lot of the Indian Muslims.”


Listen Up

The government’s plans to convert Lakshadweep into a tourist spot has enraged locals and environmentalists, who point to ecological hazards and “attacks on identity, culture, religion and land”. Rohan Arthur, a marine biologist who has been working in on coral reefs, seagrass meadows and other coastal ecosystems in the Indian Ocean for two decades, discusses the perils.


Watch Out

So much about the Men’s cricket XI every day. But what is happening in the women’s part of the field? Plenty. Listen to batter Smriti Mandhara. The telegenic Ashwin is a bonus. He speaks to Smriti.


Over and Out

Director Zoya Akhtar is reported to be planning a desi series based on the Archie comics. Ibrahim Ali Khan may play Archie and Betty and Veronica may be played by Khushi Kapoor and Suhana Khan. 

Popular children’s author Subhadra Sen Gupta’s last book, Let’s Go Time Travelling Again: Indians Through the Ages, was published posthumously. Scroll has an extract.

In search of ‘voices of the future’, each of GQ’s 21 global editions nominated a local artist across a world of genres ― from J-pop to flamenco, from rap to reggaeton ― to find out “who’s shaping the zeitgeist”. Mumbai rapper DIVINE is one of the 21. Here is a sample of his music, ‘Chal Bombay’.


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.