The India Cable: Hammered Globally, India Mulls Self-Reliant Indices; Mumbai’s Gritty True Crime Serial Plays On

Plus: Pratap Bhanu Mehta quits Ashoka, SC sees MP as ‘jungle raj’, NOTA could play spoiler in 9 Assam constituencies, 22 of 30 most polluted cities are in India and ripped jeans menace Indian culture

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
March 5, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Following embarrassing downgrades by Freedom House and the V-Dem Institute, and Reporters Without Borders last year, the Ministry of External Affairs is toying with the idea of an indigenous “world democracy report” and a “global press freedom index”, to be brought out by an independent Indian think tank. The idea of atmanirbhar metrics is still tentative, and the independence of the think tank to be selected may not stand up to scrutiny.

Whatever the ingredients of these future indices, they are unlikely to see the sudden resignation of Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University as problematic. One of India’s most well-known academics, Mehta is a sharp critic of the government and describes it as “fascist”.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Photo: cprindia.org

Addressing chief ministers today, the Prime Minister said that a “second peak” of Covid-19 must be arrested with “quick and decisive steps”. The last time steps were taken in decisive haste, millions of migrants had to walk home with no help from an uncaring government. 

However, this time, the PM has cautioned himself against putting the population in “panic mode”.

In election season, the government is feeling the heat on multiple fronts, as more unrest develops. On the second day of the nationwide bank strike, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman found it necessary to assert that all public sector banks will not be sold under the central government’s disinvestment plan. Bank unions have said that the proposals were “retrograde banking reforms” that would do more harm than good. The same day, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal told the Lok Sabha that the railways would never be privatised, since it belongs to all Indians.  

It’s the second death by suicide case in this Lok Sabha this year. Mandi BJP MP Ram Swaroop Sharma has died at 62, and suicide is suspected. A seven-term MP representing Dadra and Nagar Haveli died by suicide last month

The Election Commission responded to West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s critical letter to CEC Sunil Arora. It termed her comments as an attempt to belittle the EC with insinuations and said that it’s unfortunate that she is trying to perpetuate the myth that the EC is close to one political party. On the campaign trail, she has gone much further, saying that Home Minister Amit Shah runs the EC, and that he is “planning assaults” on her and the Trinamool Congress using the CBI and the income tax department. The Enforcement Directorate has sent a notice to state Home Secretary HK Dwivedi in connection with the sale of the government’s stake in a dairy to Keventer Agro in 2017. 

At least nine constituencies out of a total of 126 in the 2016 Assembly election in Assam reported more NOTA (None of the Above) votes than the victory margins. This was revealed in a report released yesterday by poll-watchers Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). Provisional data for the latest Census and National Population Register (NPR) will be available before the next general elections in 2024, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) told a parliamentary committee. As per the official chronology, the next logical step is the controversial National Register of Citizens, but there is no official word on that yet.

Tales of the iconic Chipko movement were revived when women in Uttarakhand’s Jakhani village in Bageshwar on Monday hugged trees in a bid to protect them from being cut down for the proposed construction of the Kamedi Devi-Rangthara-Majgaon-Chaunala road. 

UK premier Boris Johnson is to visit India at the end of April. This is as part of his government’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific under a comprehensive revamp of foreign and security policies to unlock new opportunities across the region.

The government is feeling the heat on the export of Covid-19 vaccines, at a time when most Indians, including vulnerable populations, remain uncovered. The parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs has observed that “till now only 1% of the population has been vaccinated.” Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has defended vaccine exports: “The vaccine provided to Indians is also being sent to foreign countries, but it is in no way being sent at the expense of people of India.” As infections rise again, there are growing demands to open up vaccine sales on the open market, but the ministry has reiterated that the vulnerable should have priority. However, it has been unable to ramp up the rate of coverage. In Maharashtra, which is leading the current spike, only 40% of health workers are covered. The government has shifted the blame to beneficiaries, citing vaccine hesitancy. 


Covid-19 cases zoom

As coronavirus cases rise in India and people are not vaccinated at the required pace, the Mahakumbh, the biggest religious congregation on the planet, could turn into a “super spreader event”. The Uttarakhand government has removed Covid-19 restrictions to put the faithful at ease. The ferocity of the second wave is an additional matter of concern. There has been an 18% increase in Covid cases since yesterday but an almost 45% increase in the death toll.

The Gujarat government has extended night curfew in four cities — Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat and Rajkot — from 10 pm to 6 am from tonight to March 31. The situation in Maharashtra became grimmer on Tuesday as the state recorded 17,864 new cases ― the highest one-day rise this year ― and 87 deaths.

A fresh Covid-19 wave in Madhya Pradesh has forced the imposition of night curfew in Bhopal and Indore from Wednesday. Shops are to be closed at 10 pm in eight other districts, and fairs and community celebrations will not be allowed on Holi and Rangpanchami in hotspot districts.


Facing phone bugging  anger, Gehlot taps into tradition

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has hit back at reports that his government had tapped phones, an allegation that had put it at risk a few months ago when former deputy chief minister and state party chief Sachin Pilot tried to lead a revolt. Renewed reporting about Gehlot having tapped phones have led to fresh rumblings. Yesterday, Gehlot said: “I myself have been levelling allegations against the Central government that the whole country is scared today. People are afraid of talking on the phone. They call back to connect through WhatsApp/Facetime for fear that their conversation is being taped.” He said that this was “not the tradition in Rajasthan”.


Kashmir’s longest gunfight in recent years

Nearly 60 hours after the first shots rang out in Rawalpora village in south Kashmir’s Shopian district, plumes of smoke still emanated from the rubble of residential houses on Tuesday in two mohallas ravaged during one of the lengthiest gunfights in recent years. Kashmirwallah managed to capture the destruction on film. The scrapping of Article 370 was meant to bring a rapid end to the insurgency in Kashmir, the BJP had said. That was 17 months ago.


Judge deficit in high courts

A parliamentary panel has expressed concerns over rising vacancies in high courts and strongly recommended that vacant posts of judges be filled up immediately. According to the Department of Justice website, as on March 1, there were 419 vacancies in 25 high courts. While the approved strength of judges is 1,080, the working strength is 661.


The Long Cable

Waze and means: Mumbai’s gritty crime serial continues

Sidharth Bhatia

What appeared to be a simple, local case of crime has escalated into a full-blown political crisis in Maharashtra. It now involves a controversial police officer, the mysterious appearance of a dead body in a creek, explosive material in an abandoned car and an inept political party. In the backdrop looms the dark silhouette of a tall skyscraper, the home of the richest man in India. The whole murky affair is shaping up to be a potboiler, with bizarre conspiracy theories around it.

On February 25, an SUV was found outside Antilia, Mukesh Ambani’s concept high-rise in tony Altamount Road in south Mumbai. In it were 20 sticks of gelatin, some fake number plates and a threatening note. Ambani’s security detail called the police to investigate and the car was immediately taken into custody for further investigations.

While the enquiry was on, the body of the car’s owner, Mansukh Hiren, was found in a creek outside the city. The corpse bore marks of ante-mortem injury, and it soon became clear that he had not drowned. His wife, who said that Hiren had complained about his car being stolen a few days before, directly named a police officer, Sachin Waze.

Waze has what is often called a ‘controversial past’. He was part of a team of ‘encounter specialists’ – cops who are said to dispose of suspects and wanted criminals by killing them, thus circumventing the judicial process – and no less than 60 such cases were attributed to him. But the disappearance of Khwaja Yunus, one of four men arrested for alleged terrorism, finally put paid to his shooting ways. Waze was charged with murder and destroying evidence and suspended in 2004.

He remained out of the force for 16 years. For a few years he joined the Shiv Sena, but then left. In between, many politicians are said to have tried to get him reinstated but he was too much of a hot potato. In 2020, with a police force hit by deaths due to Covid, Waze’s suspension was revoked.

But instead of quietly putting him in a corner of the police administration, he was given charge of high-profile cases, including the arrest of news anchor Arnab Goswami and the investigation into fake television rating points. Now, Waze is being accused of not just being behind the death of Hiren but also dreaming up the whole plot of the abandoned car near Ambani’s home. He is said to have escorted the SUV to the spot.

After much dilly-dallying, the Shiv Sena finally ordered his suspension while an enquiry was held into the whole affair. The BJP spotted an opportunity – it said the Sena was protecting Waze, an allegation the party could not forcefully rebut. And true to the established playbook, the federal National Investigation Agency took over the case, which leaves no role for the city police or the state government.

The BJP has been smarting ever since the Shiv Sena had forcefully moved against people such as Arnab Goswami, said to be close to the BJP. Before the Supreme Court gave him bail, Goswami was arrested and sent to jail for a few days. It was seen as a clear warning to the BJP not to continue trying to topple the state government.

Last month, an independent MP from the Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli was found dead in his hotel room in Mumbai and a 15 page suicide note was found next to the body, in which he named a BJP leader – the territory’s powerful chief administrator – for harassing him. The Shiv Sena seized the chance to embarrass the BJP, and immediately ordered an enquiry.

Now, the Sena itself is in complete confusion about how to handle the Waze matter. The party’s paper Saamna says the NIA taking over the case is an ‘insult to the state police’, and that Waze has been targeted by the BJP because he arrested Goswami, but that does not explain the delay in taking action against him after his possible role in planting the SUV and the mysterious death of Hiren came to light. Sharad Pawar, a kind of paterfamilias to the ruling coalition in Maharashtra, called an urgent meeting after Waze was arrested by the NIA to discuss the possible political fallout of the whole affair.

The axe could possibly fall on Parambir Singh, Police Commissioner of Mumbai, who was part of the committee which reinstated Waze, but the Sena is reluctant to remove him because it would give a political handle to the BJP and show their own government in a poor light. Goswami had launched upon a very public feud with Singh before his arrest.  

The government itself is safe, because the coalition partners will not ditch it. But it is clear that the  BJP has scored a political point and will continue pressing its advantage. Mumbai’s most watchable reality crime show will continue to provide drama, even if the plot may have been lost.


Reportedly

In India’s political discourse, “jungle raj” doesn’t conjure up an image of Madhya Pradesh. The phrase is generally used to describe the rampant lawlessness in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. But the Supreme Court was anguished enough to use the jungle word on March 14 for Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan government, as two judges ― justices Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and MR Shah ― discovered to their shock that  the state police failed to arrest an accused in the murder of Congress leader Devendra Chourasiya two years ago. 

Govind Singh, husband of BSP MLA Rambai Prajapati, is absconding despite an arrest warrant against him. What the judges found even more galling was that the additional sessions judge (ASJ) of Damoh district, who ordered the arrest in February, was himself compelled to write to the apex court seeking protection, alleging that the District Superintendent of Police had threatened to implicate him in false cases. 


Prime Number: 22
Twenty-two of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in India, with Delhi ranked as the most polluted capital city globally. This is according to the ‘World Air Quality Report, 2020’ prepared by Swiss organisation IQAir. Yet the Central Air Quality Commission, set up with much fanfare last year, has been officially disbanded.

Indian prisons enough to contemplate suicide

A British fugitive wanted in India to serve a 10-year sentence after his conviction for possession of 10 kg of cannabis in April 2002 won a high court appeal in London, as a judge ruled that it would be oppressive to extradite him to India because he posed a “very high risk of contemplating suicide”. Justice Martin Chamberlain noted that the assurances given by the Indian government did not “significantly reduce” the risk that the accused, Ivor Fletcher, could try to kill himself if he were transferred to an Indian prison. Foreign authorities’ reservations about the quality of Indian prisons have played an embarrassing role in previous international cases, like the Purulia arms drop of 1995. 


On the rocks, Indian whisky opposes concessions to Scotch

Amid reports of the UK mounting pressure on the Indian government for massive tariff concessions on imports of Scotch whisky in free trade agreement negotiations, the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies (CIABC) has strongly objected to any plans to slash Basic Customs Duty (BCD). The CIABC has said that since the imports are already dominating the Indian market, any reduction in BCD would make matters worse and squeeze Indian products out. 

CIABC Director General Vinod Giri said, “India exports just Rs 5 crore worth of alcoholic beverages annually to the UK, against an import of Rs 1,300 crores. Exports to the UK constitute only 0.2% of India’s total exports of alcoholic beverages whereas imports from the UK are 24% of India’s total import of alcoholic beverages.” The CIABC has pointed out that preferential treatment given to imported liquor by some state governments has created undue hurdles in the growth of high quality Indian products. For the record, the retail price of a 70 cl bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label in London and Delhi is roughly the same: around USD 40.


Deep Dive

Authoritarianism as South Asian malaise

The last decade has been witness to the seemingly meteoric rise and consolidation of a wide range of majoritarian and authoritarian political regimes across South Asia. A series of essays and conversations published by the Society for Cultural Anthropology, a section of the American Anthropological Association, explores not only the emergence of such regimes but also how they stick, acquiring legitimacy and longevity.


Labour activist torture to be probed

The Punjab and Haryana High Court on Tuesday directed Faridabad’s District and Sessions Judge to hold an inquiry into allegations of the illegal detention and custodial torture of labour activist Shiv Kumar by Sonepat police. The directions from the court of Justice Avneesh Jhingan followed a plea filed by Shiv Kumar’s father. 

Last month, a medical examination of the labour activist conducted by the Chandigarh Government Medical College and Hospital found injuries, including two fractures, on his hand and foot and also broken nail beds of some of his toes, consistent with the use of a blunt instrument. Kumar, president of the Majdoor Adhikar Sanghathan, was held a few days after the arrest of labour rights activist Nodeep Kaur ― who had also alleged maltreatment in custody.


To visit China, get Chinese shot

In an extreme case of vaccine nationalism, Beijing has made it mandatory for people from India and 19 other nations to get Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccines if they want to travel to China. The notice was put up on the Chinese embassy website, but did not specify how Indians can access the Chinese-made vaccines, which are not available in the country. Over 23,000 Indian students, most of them medical students, besides hundreds of professionals working in China, have been stuck in India since last year due to coronavirus travel restrictions.


Road near Patna reported missing

In Bihar’s Phulwari Sharif, just adjacent to Patna, an entire road has gone missing. It has simply disappeared. The local MLA is puzzled and has lodged a police complaint. The authorities are silent. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Commenting on the resignation of Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University, Apoorvanand says, “The promoters of Ashoka University seem to believe that they have earned the right to promote the cultivation of young minds by virtue of the money that they have. However, capital and courage seldom go together – this has been proven again and again, at least in India.“

  • P Sainath’s Everybody Loves A Good Drought goes into its 50th reprint at a time when Indian farmers have united for the world’s largest protest. Nearly 25 years after its publication, the questions Sainath asked his readers are more relevant than ever, writes Priya Ramani.

  • Amit Shrivastava writes that the BJP’s toolkit is not working too well. Despite the BJP-RSS’s repression tactics, which have had a terrifying and chilling effect on the right to protest, two of India’s largest popular movements have taken shape since 2019.

  • Disaster looms as safety norms are ignored in Himalayan states ― authorities in Himachal Pradesh want to regularise unauthorised buildings in the highest quake-risk region, writes Meenakshi Kapoor in The Third Pole.

  • Mahatma Gandhi celebrated handspun khadi as a symbol of liberty. Now, the vintage appeal of the classic has made it the stuff of high fashion, writes Kalpana Sunder.

  • Manoj Joshi writes that the increasing gap in the comprehensive national power of China and India may leave New Delhi with little alternative but to look to the US as a critical security provider, just as Australia and Japan, other members of the Quad, do.


Listen Up

Cryptocurrency and India

The government of India may ban cryptocurrency, but the practitioners behind India’s crypto experiments have a different point of view. Sumit Gupta of CoinDCX explains the safety and other advantages offered by blockchain technology, on ‘The Ranveer Show’.


Watch Out

Singing of dispossession

The Tamil song ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ tells the story of dispossessed tea plantation labourers. Valliamma, the grandmother of singer Arivu, is descended from plantation workers who returned to Tamil Nadu from Sri Lanka to find that it was no longer their land.


Over and Out

Rich Wives Club, dangers of ripped jeans, and the radio still plays

Banaras Hindu University students are protesting against an offer sent to Nita Ambani to become a visiting professor at the hallowed institution. While the proposal has been sent only to Nita Ambani, authorities confirmed that the other two names considered for visiting faculty posts were those of Priti Adani, the wife of billionaire industrialist Gautam Adani, and Usha Mittal, the wife of UK-based steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal. Reliance has denied knowledge of any offer.

Meanwhile the new Uttarakhand CM, Tirath Singh Rawat yesterday said that women in ripped jeans pave the way for societal breakdown, and are living evidence of the “bad example” parents set for children.

Running for 70 years, Hyderabad’s Mahboob Radio Service is still in tune in the digital age, even though ‘radio’ now signifies a mobile phone app. 

But in the same period, some fundamental political signals have changed beyond repair.


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.