The India Cable: India, China Were on Brink of War; ‘Ramshackle’ Judiciary Buries Gogoi Scandal

Plus: Minor Dalit girls fatally assaulted in UP, Modi blames Congress for high fuel prices, Sikh jatha can’t go to Pakistan, Tablighis can go home, ministry issues ‘algorithm’ to frighten travellers

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 18, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Protesting farmers intensified their stir today with a four hour rail roko from noon. Stranded passengers will be given refreshments. This is the third major show of strength, after the tractor rally on January 26, and a ‘chakka jam’ agitation.  

Prime Minister Modi has incessantly increased taxes and cesses on fuel, but he has blamed his predecessors for the high retail price of petrol and diesel. Taxes make up for 60% of the retail selling price of petrol and over 54% of diesel, and most of it was imposed after 2014.

Two minor Dalit girls have been found dead in a field in UP’s Unnao district and a third, also a minor, is fighting for her life. The brother of the girls says they had gone to gather fodder. He found them with their hands and feet tied up with their own clothes. UP has among the highest crime rates in the country, against both women and Dalits.

TV anchors and certain journalists have no qualms about revealing the private WhatsApp chats of others live on television. Protesting farmers decided to return the favour. They got hold of three journalists they alleged were trying to spread the fake news that farmers had left the Singhu border, and that it was deserted. Their revealing WhatsApp chats were put out in a press conference and on social media, in the same spirit as anchors do ‘breaking news’.

Standard & Poor’s has said that a high fiscal deficit is the key risk to India’s investment grade credit rating. S&P currently has India at BBB-, its lowest investment grade rating, with a stable outlook.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has said it was difficult to determine and compile the precise expenditure incurred on providing security to Bollywood film actor Kangana Ranaut or any other individual. And the Ministry of Civil Aviation has published a multi-step “algorithm” for dealing with international arrivals. It’s guaranteed to scare travellers into cancelling their tickets.  

Captain Satish Sharma, a minister in the PV Narasimha Rao government and a Gandhi family loyalist, has passed away in Goa, long after he quit active politics. A close friend of Rajiv Gandhi, he had served as an airline pilot like the former prime minister before joining politics, and had represented the Amethi constituency after his assassination. 

Rashmi Samant, who became the first Indian woman to be elected president of the Oxford University Students’ Union, has stepped down following accusations of making “racist” and “insensitive” remarks online and on other forums in the past, including a reference to the Holocaust. Rashmi, from Manipal, apologised in an open letter as soon as the posts emerged but as the clamour for her resignation refused to die down, she announced on Facebook on Tuesday that she has decided to quit as president-elect.


India and China were on the brink of a war in August

Northern Army Commander Lt Gen YK Joshi has confessed that India and China were at the brink of a war in end-August. “There were situations where it could have blown up into an armed conflict. This happened post we did our QPQ ― Quid Pro Quo ― options and we had occupied Rezang La, Rechin La. We had the armour and the mech forces sitting on the top of the Kailash ranges. That was 29th and 30th night. On 31st, when the PLA wanted to come up right up to the Kailash Ranges, that was the time the situation was extremely tense… So, we have to be very clear that there’s a time when war was actually averted. We were on the edge, we were absolutely on the brink,” he said in a television interview.


Congress sweeps Punjab urban body polls

The ruling Congress party won six municipal corporations and emerged as the largest party in the seventh, sweeping the urban body polls in Punjab, which were held in the backdrop of the farmers’ protests. Congress won 271 wards of the total 351 wards, the Shiromani Akali Dal 33 wards, Aam Aadmi Party nine. The BJP managed to win 20 wards and independents were close behind with 18 wards.


Covid’s second wave

It may be too early to say if the country is heading towards a fresh wave of Covid-19, but some states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Haryana are perhaps showing early signs of a resurgence. Nationally, too, beginning February 6, there have been quite a few days when active Covid-19 cases have gone up, day on day, after staying flat for weeks. 

Coronavirus vaccines could be available in the open market by the end of the year, but only after the people primarily targeted are covered and there is an equivalence of supply and demand, said Dr Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).


Indore seeks to prevent farmers’ mahapanchayat

The Indore district administration in Madhya Pradesh has imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the CrPC, preventing the assembly of four or more people for the next two months, following the announcement of kisan mahapanchayats (farmers’ meetings) in the Malwa region, the richest agrarian belt of the state. The order was issued after the first kisan mahapanchayat in Madhya Pradesh was held in Khargone district on Monday, attended by around 500 farmers. Farmers planning to hold the mahapanchayat said they would ignore the prohibitory orders. 

The farmers have already held such mahapanchayats in several places including Meerut, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, Jind and Ambala in Haryana and Bharatpur, Sikar and Dausa in Rajasthan. 


Delhi cops seize hard disk from Beed without warrant

Two persons claiming to be Delhi Police personnel seized a computer hard disk and other items from the house of green activist Shantanu Muluk, a suspect in the trumped-up ‘toolkit’ case, without a search warrant on February 12, in Beed in Maharashtra, his father Shivlal Muluk has told local police. Beed Superintendent of Police Raja Ramaswami said on Wednesday that Shivlal Muluk made a representation to the police on Tuesday. On Tuesday, the Bombay High Court granted transit anticipatory bail to Shantanu Muluk for 10 days.


The Long Cable

“Ramshackle” judiciary ties itself in knots

Siddharth Varadarajan

One day after a judge at the lower end of the Indian judicial system declared that a woman “has the right to put her grievance [of sexual harassment] before any platform of her choice – even after decades,” the Supreme Court has regrettably sought to perpetuate the innuendo that allegations of sexual harassment against former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi might have been part of a conspiracy to attack him for certain “tough stances” he took as a judge.

Though a bench headed by Justice SK Kaul on Thursday decided formally to close the suo motu case first heard by Gogoi himself in April 2019, the manner in which it has done so does the Supreme Court and the judiciary as a whole no credit.

Consider the facts.

On April 21, 2019, a young woman employed by the Supreme Court wrote to all judges of the court alleging sexual harassment and victimisation by CJI Gogoi. Her letter made for harrowing reading. Apart from her descriptions of Gogoi’s alleged advances, which she says she rebuffed, the young woman catalogued how she and her family were subjected to a systematic vendetta in which she and her brother-in-law were dismissed from service at the Supreme Court, and her husband and another brother-in-law were suspended from their police jobs. Worst of all, false criminal charges of bribery were levied on her and her husband.

The Wire, Caravan and Scroll, who worked together on the story, sought a response from Gogoi, and the court registrar replied on his behalf, denying the allegations. But on the day these media houses reported the woman’s story, Gogoi called a special sitting on the matter in which he himself headed the bench, maligned the woman and said he was the victim of a conspiracy to “deactivate the office of the CJI”.

The case, pompously titled ‘In Re: Matter Of Great Public Importance Touching Upon The Independence Of Judiciary’, eventually got listed to a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra, which asked retired Supreme Court judge Justice AK Patnaik to inquire into the possibility of such a conspiracy. Significantly, the court ordered the intelligence agencies to assist this inquiry.

Justice Patnaik submitted his report in September 2019 but his report was not taken up for consideration by Justice Mishra, who retired last year without holding a single hearing on this ‘matter of great public importance’. But in a parallel process – an ‘in-house inquiry’ headed by Justice SA Bobde, then a puisne judge but now CJI – the Supreme Court cleared Gogoi of the charge of sexual harassment. This process was so marred by multiple violations of due process that the woman stopped appearing before the Justice Bobde panel, which nevertheless went ahead with an ex parte pronouncement, the reasoning of which has never been shared with the woman, let alone made public.

While the contents of the Justice Patnaik report were not made public, the woman whose allegations were supposedly at the centre of this conspiracy to ‘deactivate the office of the CJI’ was quietly reinstated in January 2020. Again, while the court said nothing in public about this, it stands to reason that her allegations of wrongful dismissal and of being the victim of a vendetta had sufficient merit to warrant her reinstatement. The fact that she was subjected to a vedetta also lent greater credence to her charge of sexual harassment, but the court was clearly not willing to admit this possibility.

Gogoi, meanwhile, went on to become a member of the Rajya Sabha with the Modi government’s blessing. Now, an attempt has been made to bury the last rotting remains of this scandal. CJI Bobde must have realised it was unseemly for In Re: Matter of great public importance to linger around, so the case was taken out of cold storage after one year and nine months, handed over to an arbitrarily assembled bench today and formally closed.

Sadly, the new bench, in doing so, has resorted to logic that simply does not add up. On the one hand, it disclosed that the Justice Patnaik report “does not rule out a conspiracy”, while on the other, it says the fact that “two years” have elapsed means the necessary electronic evidence needed to prove this conspiracy will be difficult to obtain. If this is really so, shouldn’t the Supreme Court tell us why it sat on the report since September 2019 – when the so-called electronic evidence might have been collected more easily – despite the gravity of the charge? And can the court at least tell us whether the intelligence agencies which were asked to assist this investigation have actually admitted on the record that they are incapable of obtaining electronic evidence that is “two years old”?

Dushyant Dave, former head of the Supreme Court Bar Association, has been scathing in his indictment of this shabby denouement.

“The Supreme Court of India is functioning in strange ways. The listing of [the] petition… before a newly constituted bench is to say the least very unusual and contrary to its own rules and practices, which demand that the matter should have been listed before a bench of which Justice RF Nariman was a member”, since Justice Nariman was a member of the original bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra that had considered the matter. 

Dave believes the matter “had nothing to do with the independence of the judiciary and had no public interest in it. On the contrary, by entertaining this petition, passing extraordinary orders to constitute a Inquiry Committee and asking all investigating agencies (to assist it), the Supreme Court tried to shield then CJI Ranjan Gogoi, who was embroiled in an allegation of very serious misconduct.”

In widely reported comments last week, Gogoi described the Indian judiciary as “ramshackle”. Future scholars will no doubt document the role he and others have played in creating this state of affairs. 


Reportedly

Amid the spate of ‘mahapanchayats’, BJP’s worries appear to be growing over its prospects in the Jat-dominated agrarian lands of north-west India. “Support” to the farmers’ agitation from “non-Jats and Muslims” is also threatening to upset the saffron party’s carefully crafted equations which have brought it electoral victories, especially in Uttar Pradesh, where polls are due in 2022.

Though the BJP leadership has tried to paint the farmers’ agitation against the three contentious agricultural laws as a matter limited to “two-and-half-states”, the stir has made international headlines, forcing it to devise a strategy to address “alienation” in the community. This appeared to be the main theme of the meeting called by BJP president JP Nadda on Tuesday, a day before the party was savaged in civic polls in Punjab.


Sorry, can’t go to Pakistan

India has denied permission to a group of 600 Sikh pilgrims scheduled to travel to Pakistan on a week-long visit beginning Friday, citing a “considerable threat” to their security and the inability of the health infrastructure in the neighbouring country to deal with Covid-19 cases. The Home Ministry’s decision was conveyed to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the highest temporal body of Sikhs, which had organised the visit to attend the centenary celebrations of Saka Nankana Sahib. Sikh jathas have never been prevented from going to Pakistan in the past, even when bilateral relations were at their worst, during the 2008 Mumbai attacks or the Pulwama attack. Some individuals were held back but Sikh jathas were allowed to go, even in November 2020. What has happened is unusual, but watchers of the Amit Shah ministry won’t be surprised.


Tablighis free to go home

Members of the Tablighi Jamaat, who were to hold a routine congregation in March, before the lockdown was announced, found themselves at the centre of a huge storm and were denounced for being “super-spreaders” of Covid-19. The treatment they received from the police and several media organisations offered a stark contrast to other religious congregations, for which it was business as usual. Thirty-six Tablighi Jamaat members pleaded not guilty and after a protracted process were finally allowed to go home yesterday ― weeks after the court acquitted them. Lookout circulars issued against them were withdrawn yesterday. One of the 36, a Tunisian national, died waiting to get back.


Deep Dive

Why is malnutrition rising in India?

The BBC’s Roxy Gagdekar examines why malnutrition in India is increasing, despite Aadhaar and direct cash transfers.


Prime Number: 24
The number of diplomats, including some from the European Union countries and others from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) nations, taken on a conducted tour of the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir by the Modi government. It started from Srinagar on Wednesday, amid calls for a bandh by certain local Kashmiri organisations. Last year, envoys from 17 nations including the US had visited Jammu and Kashmir but were disturbed by the situation on the ground in the Valley. 

First woman to be hanged after Independence

Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura district jail may witness the hanging of the first woman in India after Independence. Shabnam, who with her lover Salim had hacked to death seven members of her family in Amroha district on April 14, 2008, may be hanged in the Mathura district jail. However, the date of the hanging is yet to be decided as her death warrant has not been issued. Pawan Jallad, who had hanged the killers of Nirbhaya, has visited the Mathura jail twice in the past few months. An order has been placed to procure the rope for this purpose.

The gallows in the Mathura district jail were constructed about 150 years ago but so far, no one has been hanged there. It is the only gallows in UP for women. The jail authorities had started preparations for the hanging after Shabnam’s mercy petition was rejected by former President of India Pranab Mukherjee.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Vir Sanghvi says that anger, abuse and repression have not helped the Modi government find a solution to the farm impasse, but magnanimity might do the trick.

  • Jaspreet Oberoi writes that in contrast to Disha’s arrest, many of those he calls, ‘liberal’ media influencers have not stood up and spoken for the hundreds of Sikh protestors and farmers arrested by the same Delhi police.


Listen up

Hear Aparna Pande, director of the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, Washington DC, talk to Uzair Younus on the podcast Pakistonomy, in an episode titled ‘Making India Great’.


Watch Out

“If you know the drop then you will know I am the ocean.” Sounds from Kashmir ― Irfan Ali Taj’s Talib-e-Wahdat. 


Defibrillator inventor had picked Indian cardiologist as first prof for chair

Cardiologist Dr Bernard Lown, inventor of the defibrillator which has saved countless lives, died today. He was an anti-war crusader and won the Nobel Prize for his efforts, along with Soviet doctors, in 1985. Dr Lown, professor of cardiology emeritus at the Harvard School of Public Health, had set up a professorship in cardiovascular health at Harvard in 2010. His choice for the first doctor for the chair was an Indian, Dr K Srinath Reddy, head of the Public Health Foundation of India.


Tendulkar stays at the crease

Sachin Tendulkar had been panned for what was seen as a proforma tweet batting for the government’s stand on the farmer’s stir. His silence when Wasim Jaffer (his colleague from the same state) was controversially attacked for being communal was noted with some dismay. His cryptic tweet on Siraj and Ashwin signalling affection for Siraj seemed a bit, well cryptic.


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.