The India Cable: 'Gupkar Gang' Agree to Meet Modi; Alapan Fracas Will Harm IAS

Plus: Pawar raises state parties’ plank, IAF opposes integrated theatre commands, Chinese loan app accounts perhaps used to siphon money, Imran demands plebiscite, and why hunger persists in India

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
June 22, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Another Yoga Day has passed, but this year the focus was on the shot, rather than the asana. India, which has lagged behind its peer nations in the race to vaccinate its population, administered 8 million vaccines yesterday, declared a world record for a single day. It was followed by a massive PR campaign driven by the 56-inch hashtag #ModiHaiTohMumkinHai, and by uncomfortable questions about vaccine supply being able to keep up with demand. In the press, the focus remained on the absolute volume of vaccination ― in one day, India has vaccinated the entire population of Israel, or twice that of New Zealand ― rather than the percentage vaccinated, which is the meaningful yardstick. The University Grants Commission asked educational institutions to visibly thank the prime minister on the first day that the 18+ group got vaccines. It’s as if the PM wants to leave behind the disaster of the second wave and the vaccine bungle to return to the politics of self-congratulation.  

The deal for Covaxin between Bharat Biotech and Brazil’s ministry of health, brokered by a local firm, has become the main focus of the parliamentary commission of inquiry, which is investigating the mishandling of the pandemic by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro. Suspecting corruption in the deal, the senators are now treating it as a scandal.

Government ‘sources’ say that Bharat Biotech has submitted Phase 3 clinical trials data of Covaxin to the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) over the weekend. It had been greenlighted for emergency use when trial results were still awaited. The WHO does not yet recognise Covaxin, and it is no good for foreign travel. 

Pakistan PM Imran Khan has made ridiculous comments linking violence against women with under-dressing. On Kashmir, he has invoked the P-word again, in a widely-quoted interview. He termed Kashmir “a disputed territory, according to the UN Security Council resolutions… There should have been a plebiscite for the people of Kashmir to decide about their own future. That has never taken place, it is festering.” Khan said it was hypocritical to focus on violations of the human rights of Uighur Muslims in China, and not the Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir. “Hundred thousand Kashmiris have been killed… literally, it’s an open prison in Kashmir… nine million Kashmiris have been put there… why is that not an issue?”

The Gupkar Alliance leaders, reviled by Amit Shah last year as the ‘Gupkar Gang’, met in Srinagar today and announced that they all intend to attend the all-party meeting called by Prime Minister Modi to discuss the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. This includes Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP and Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference. The meeting has no agenda but MY Tarigami, leader of the CPM in Kashmir said, “We will reiterate the agenda of the [alliance]. We will appeal to the PM to reconsider the guarantees given to us under the Constitution.” This means they will press for restoration of Article 370 and 35A, something Modi will never agree to.

Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar is hosting a meeting of a ‘Rashtra Manch’ with Yashwant Sinha, formerly with the BJP and now with the Trinamool Congress, at his home in Delhi today. The Congress and the Left are not part of it, and neither is IPAC founder Prashant Kishor. He did meet Sharad Pawar for one and a half hours yesterday, but he doesn’t believe a “3rd or 4th front” is viable. This morning, Pawar clarified that this is not a third front meet.

MK Stalin’s government in Tamil Nadu will pass resolutions against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the new farm laws in the budget session of the legislature. It’s unfinished business: in January, Stalin had written to E Palaniswamy, then chief minister, seeking a special session to pass these resolutions. The total outstanding term deposits with banks in rural India have contracted by 1.05% to Rs 6.99 trillion from a year earlier, the first fall in eight years. Financial Timesreports that “India’s top 20 profit generators now account for 90 per cent of corporate profits, according to investment firm Marcellus, up from 14 per cent three decades ago.”

The Modi government spent Rs 140 crore in the last five years to organise Yoga Days; the 2019 budget was doubled to Rs 40 crore this year. This is according to official sources in the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH). An RTI also revealed that apart from publicity, other major expense heads are calorie-laden snacks and sweets, supply of drinking water, mementos, stationery, setting up tents and other equipment, hiring transport and providing lodging and boarding for guests.

The Wall Street Journal reports that “as yoga has grown in popularity, enthusiasts have flocked to a town in northern India that bills itself as the world’s yoga capital. The pandemic has put teachers out of work and closed schools” in Rishikesh. 


PM demands thanks, though SC forced change in vaccination policy

The brazen drive to get huge thank-you notes from all cast the Modi government in a poor light as it was revealed that the UGC had asked universities, IITs and colleges to put up banners thanking the PM for vaccines for the 18+ age group. Chief ministers were asked to issue advertisements and the Indian establishment was busy on Monday patting itself on the back for a ‘record’ number of vaccinations (80 lakh) on the first day of the U-turned vaccine policy. But if this run rate is to be sustained even until the end of July, 310 million doses would be required. Domestic vaccine production in July would be less than 150 million doses. This data analysis finds it to be an artificial high, achieved by slowing down the vaccine rates in the days preceding June 21! Also, the government had buckled under criticism by the Supreme Court and changed its policy. 

In an astounding comment, the Niti Aayog’s VK Paul said the liberalised vaccination programme, which the Supreme Court has slammed, was an experiment that the government had learnt from. That was one costly experiment.


Twitter MD to be questioned by UP Police

The UP Police have summoned Twitter India Managing Director Manish Maheshwari for questioning on Thursday in connection with tweets on the assault of a elderly Muslim man in Ghaziabad ― in person, not via video call. They have also asked Twitter India’s Resident Grievance Officer Dharmendra Chatur to attend.

“You couldn’t remove certain tweets even after you were asked to by authorities. You understand Indian laws and are bound to follow them,” the notice said. A case was filed last week against Twitter, several Muslim journalists and Congress leaders, alleging that the tweets they had shared on the assault were “misleading” and aimed at “provoking communal sentiments”.


IAF objects to integrated military theatre commands

The process of creating integrated theatre commands will be delayed further. The Indian Air Force has strongly raised its longstanding objections to the splitting of its meagre air assets across various commands. The IAF is authorised 42 fighter jet squadrons, but is severely stretched with only 30 operational. The Indian Army and Navy seem to be in favour of activation of the theatre commands, as envisaged by the Modi government’s favourite military officer General Bipin Rawat, but the process is unlikely to move despite another meeting scheduled tomorrow.


New tourniquet for e-commerce

The Modi government has suggested new additions to the Consumer Protection (E-commerce) Rules, 2020, which would strangulate the functioning of large online marketplaces in the country. Manipulating search results and mis-selling are banned, which is all right, but so are ‘flash sales’, a standard means of attracting footfalls and eyeballs, offline and online. E-commerce firms are also expected to establish adequate redressal mechanisms and appoint a Chief Compliance Officer, who must respond to complaints in 72 hours. 

E-commerce firms must also appoint a resident grievance officer ― an employee and an Indian national, and the nodal point of contact for law enforcement agencies. E-commerce firms operating in India will also have to register under the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT).


Reportedly

The Modi government has taken the humiliating defeat in the West Bengal Assembly elections rather badly. It has now initiated “major penalty proceedings” against former West Bengal Chief Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay, in another attempt to browbeat the Mamata Banerjee administration. The Department of Personnel and Training has sent Bandyopadhyay, now an advisor to the West Bengal chief minister, a “memorandum” of charges against him, which may deprive him of post-retirement benefits, partially or fully. He has 30 days to reply. While this may scare some bureaucrats to toe the Centre’s line, many others are not liking the bullying and threatening attitude of the Modi government towards a senior IAS officer. Their discontent could manifest itself in ways the Modi government may find disconcerting and politically damaging.


The Long Cable

Alapan unfairly targeted by BJP, issue is at political level

BK Chaturvedi

The notice initiating departmental proceedings against Alapan Bandyopadhyay under the All India Services (Discipline and Appeal) Rules and initiation of proceedings under Rule 6 of the pension rules is yet another measure by the central Government of showing its displeasure and disapproval of the conduct of the former West Bengal chief secretary. 

Under the pension rules, the central government can withhold part or all of his pension. The punishment is meted out to officials found, in a departmental or judicial proceeding, guilty of causing pecuniary loss, or even grave misconduct. With the issuance of the chargesheet, such proceedings have been initiated. 

Action by the central government can be taken only after consultation with the Union Public Service Commission. While issuance of the chargesheet is within the competence of the central government, the action is rather unusual and prima facie seems an extreme reaction to an issue which had its roots in the way our Constitution provides for managing the all-India services. I recall two instances where pension was stopped. In one case, the officer had joined Star TV and in the other, was working in the Emirates. But both these cases concerned officers with huge alternate employment without permission from the government. 

All India Service officers work under the state government, unless they are on deputation to the Centre, and follow the orders of the chief minister. When on deputation, they follow the orders of the central minister concerned, or of the PM. They must tender their advice freely and fairly, but the final decision is that of a political master. Alapan Bandyopadhyay was working with the state government. Mamta Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, did not want to stay back for the PM’s meeting due to political problems. It would have been appropriate if she had asked Bandyopadhyay to attend the meeting. In a federal set-up, this would have been procedurally appropriate. But she decided otherwise. It is therefore clearly incorrect to charge the former chief secretary for following the directions of CM. 

In a federal setup, there are often different parties in office at the Centre and state. If officers working in the state started following the dictates of the Centre, while the CM issued different orders, there would be utter chaos. The All India Services have been provided protection under the Constitution. While the PM guides all policies under the central government, the CM does so in the state, and Centre-state relations have defined areas. The services are guided by a separate constitutional provision. It does not seem fair to charge officers when the problem lies at a political level.

I cannot recall any precedent to this situation. Possibly because the same party was in office at the Centre and the state, or if they were different, the political chasm between them was not so deep. The nearest case is that of Jayalalithaa, CM of Tamil Nadu, and other senior officers walking out of the meeting of the National Development Council in 2012, protesting that chief ministers were not allowed to speak. 

It is indeed unfortunate that an officer has become collateral damage to a political face-off. IAS officers look to the central government for protection and support, whether they are in a state or at the centre. If the current process initiated by the Centre is not brought to an early conclusion consistent with the constitutional spirit, the services would be weakened. Bandopadhyay is reputed to be an upright man. If after working for more than three decades with the government, officers are denied pension, what message is sent to all the honest officers who depend on it? The Centre and the states must ponder.

BK Chaturvedi is former cabinet secretary and former member of the Planning Commission


Amarnath Yatra cancelled, again

The annual Amarnath yatra has been cancelled for the second consecutive year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was curtailed in 2019, when the Modi government moved in to secretly read down Article 370. The 56-day annual pilgrimage was scheduled to begin on June 28 from the traditional Pahalgam-Chandanwari track and the shorter Sonmarg-Baltal route. However, the authorities have decided to hold a symbolic yatra, with all the traditional religious rituals to be performed at the cave shrine.


Prime Number: 50
The number of tweets geo-restricted by Twitter India in connection with the alleged assault of an elderly Muslim man in Loni, Ghaziabad. The action by Twitter comes in the wake of an ongoing investigation by UP Police against the social media platform for allegedly promoting communal tensions.

Indians studying abroad remain marooned at home

As universities in the US, Britain, Australia and Canada prepare to restart in-person lectures in the fall semester, many of India’s hundreds of thousands of international students risk being stranded. The US, for example, has limited the number of direct flights from India and banned entry for anyone who has spent 14 days in India before travelling. Students are exempt, but many have nonetheless been forced to take longer flights or unusual routes via Muscat or Belgrade.

Students enrolled in Canadian and Australian universities have not been exempt from the travel ban, and must wait indefinitely to attend classes. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, the number of Indians studying abroad dropped 55% last year, but recovered this year as 72,000 students left for foreign universities in January and February.


Deep Dive

Millions of citizens in India go hungry every year, even in the absence of war, famine ― or a pandemic. It is such a staggering problem that only the Indian state has the means to understand and target it. Yet, as the lockdown showed, the problem can grow far worse than we ever imagined, and again, it’s with the help of the state. At Fiftytwo.in, Mridula Chari captures the conditions under which widespread hunger persists in India.


Chinese loan apps fake bank and crypto exchange accounts

Savethem India Foundation, a team of cybersecurity professionals researching Chinese-operated instant loan and online betting apps since March 2020, has been assisting duped users and connecting them to law enforcement agencies. In February 2021, they documented five instances where accounts were created on crypto exchanges using KYC details of loan defaulters. While all had crypto exchange wallets created in their name, two also had bank accounts opened, invisible to the user. Investigators believe such fake accounts are being used to funnel money out of India as cryptocurrencies. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Seema Chishti (a contributor to The India Cable) writes that India has hesitated, for a variety of reasons, to wrestle with the rising numbers of the poor. Not least is the primal need to be perceived as a ‘Vishwaguru’. That pitch works only if the leadership is able to mask the dramatic rise in poverty. 

  • Vaccinators, ASHA workers, ambulance drivers, testing centre workers and contact tracers are critical assets in the pandemic, as are community-based supporters who are delivering tiffins, cooking and distributing langar, and providing home-based care for COVID-positive persons. They endure exposures and overburdening too, and their work must be recognised and protected, writes Harris Solomon.

  • Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd writes that the main focus in the BJP states is not economic and educational development but religious issues, while the biggest welfare agenda in Andhra Pradesh concerns education and in Telangana, Rythu Bandhu. BJP’s promise to make a backward caste leader chief minister will not win it votes in the two Telugu states.

  • Karuna John writes that Junaid Khan’s lynching had sparked the #notinmyname campaign, however, four years later, communal lynchings no longer seem to shock the public. A scary sign of the times.


Listen Up

In this free flowing exchange, historian Ayesha Jalal and journalist-author Aakar Patel talk about politics, governance, literature, the will of the people and their sense of self being distilled in stories that have been told down the ages. Drawing parallels with the Partition era, characterised by turmoil and tragedy, in which the “distressingly prophetic” Manto lived and wrote, they speak of making sense of a maddening situation. 


Watch Out

A new documentary aired by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle has shed light on the involvement of Paris attack conspirator Muhammad Ghani Usman, Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist, in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Usman is in a French jail following his arrest in connection with the 2015 terrorist attack on the French capital.


Over and Out

A CCTV company is paying remote observers in Karnal to yell at armed robbers. They are also monitoring clerks 24x7 and scolding them at 7-Eleven and other convenience stores in the US. Live Eye Surveillance of Washington uses a camera system to keep constant watch over shops and lets a remote human operator intervene at any time. Critics say that the fear of robbery is being leveraged to create an unhealthy work culture.  

Read an excerpt from ‘Anti-Clock’, by VJ James, translated from Malayalam by Ministhy S. - About a coffin-maker and a clock that can make time go backwards, it is a book with strong elements of magical realism. 

Aanya Mohan and her sister Arunitha Mohan from Kerala didn’t know a word of German till a few months ago. Now, 16-year old Aanya has composed a poem in the language, which Arunitha has rendered into a song, with diction that is being admired by fluent German speakers.


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.