The India Cable: India Declared ‘Partly Free’, Leads Internet Blackout Shamelist

Plus: Dissent is not sedition, Javadekar denies Bollywood IT raids motivated, Chinese malware still active, Neera Tanden withdraws, and memeworthy Modi hoardings at petrol pumps shot down by EC

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 4, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Firefox browser developer Mozilla Corporation has warned that the new IT rules rolled out by the Indian government could harm the entire internet by increasing surveillance, promoting filtering and causing a fragmentation of the network. That’s a euphemism for the Balkanisation of the Indian internet. The US-based Internet Society has said that increased surveillance would break end-to-end encryption, and thereby the privacy of individuals. It may be added that since the internet is borderless, the effects of Indian policy would extend globally. Today, the Supreme Court has asked the Centre to share its regulations on social media with it. The issue came up during its hearing of the Tandav case, for which Amazon India’s top executive is seeking anticipatory bail.   

Bharat Biotech has claimed an interim efficacy rate of 81% for the indigenous Covaxin in Phase 3 clinical trials, and assures protection from the UK variant of Covid-19. The efficacy of the vaccine had been questioned when it was released without late-stage trial data. The trial involved 25,800 participants, but the interim analysis is based on just 43 adverse cases.  

UNICEF reports that the closure of 1.4 million schools due to the pandemic has affected the prospects of 247 million Indian children, apart from the 6 million who were already not attending school. In the year since schools were closed, only eight states and Union territories have reopened facilities fully. It is feared that the longer schools stay closed, the worse would be the chances of students rejoining formal education. Educationists have also anticipated future shock in employment prospects ― students now of school-leaving age may be perceived as a ‘pandemic generation’, educated in a period of lax expectations. 

Addressing a Kisan Mahapanchayat in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, Rashtriya Lok Dal vice president Jayant Chaudhary has asked farmers to “uproot the BJP politically” by denying it their vote. This could be a curtain-raiser ― the movement had resolved to send representatives to the five poll-bound states to ask their farmers not to vote in favour of the BJP. If the tractors are stopped, the farmers should have the strength to break barricades, Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait told farmers in Nagaur, marching to join the agitation in Delhi.

In dramatic developments down south, the late J Jayalalithaa’s closest aide VK Sasikala, who was recently released from jail with the BJP in hot pursuit for electoral reasons, has quit public life, and asked AIADMK cadres to stand united and ensure that the DMK is defeated in forthcoming elections. There are indications that this stepping aside from politics is limited to the assembly elections.

The Election Commission has ruled that huge hoardings featuring a benign Prime Minister at petrol pumps constitute a violation of the Model Code of Conduct. Satirical ‘Modi Tax’ memes have been using hoarding images of Modi smiling as fuel prices go through the roof. So many elections have come and gone, the PM has continued to smile benignly upon people filling their tank, but the EC found no violation until the memes appeared.

The Economic Times reports that Infosys has won a $500 million all-digital deal with Google parent Alphabet, to provide customer experience and engineering support for its products. The Biden administration has suffered its first setback, with the president forced to withdraw the nomination of Neera Tanden as his budget chief, for want of bipartisan support. The White House is expected to produce a budget in weeks, and will have to scramble to discover another candidate. And former Sri Lanka and Chennai Super Kings cricketer Suraj Randiv has become a bus driver in Australia. He still plays for a district club and has been called in by Cricket Australia as a net bowler, but he must drive his bus to make ends meet. 


Rejoice, for India is “partly free”

An annual report produced by Freedom House, the Washington-based pro-democracy think tank and watchdog, has downgraded India — numerically the world’s largest democracy — from “Free” to “Partly Free.” The report highlighted the steady erosion of Indian democracy under the watch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose rule the organisation associates with increasing pressure on human rights groups, the intimidation and harassment of journalists and academics, policies that stigmatise and harme religious minorities, particularly Muslims, and the politicisation of the Indian judiciary.

“Under Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader, elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all,” said Freedom House.


India tops global blackout shamelist

India remains the world leader in Internet shutdowns in 2020, topping the global shame list, just as it did in 2018 and 2019, according to the Keep It On report. At least 109 shutdowns were ordered by the government in 2020, despite the Covid-19 pandemic making the internet more central to everyday life than ever before.

The report notes that India had instituted what had become a perpetual, punitive shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir beginning in August 2019. Residents had previously experienced frequent periodic shutdowns, and in 2020 they were deprived of reliable, secure, open and accessible internet on an ongoing basis.


Voicing dissent is not sedition

The Supreme Court has said that dissent is not sedition, while rejecting a plea to “terminate” the Lok Sabha membership of the outspoken Farooq Abdullah and book him for sedition. Petitioner Rajat Sharma had accused Abdullah of seeking help from Pakistan and China to criticise the Indian government’s decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status. The court fined Sharma Rs 50,000, but the specific meaning of “terminating” an elected representative of the people remains intriguing. The fact that the apex court had to clarify sedition at all is absurd ― if voicing dissent were sedition, logically, the entire Opposition would have to be charged with sedition.


 No internet, no education

The UNICEF report on the damage done to school education by the pandemic finds that online education is an option for only one in four children who have access to digital devices and the internet. Pre-Covid, only a quarter of households (24%) in India had access to the internet, and there are significant rural-urban and gender divides.


It’s official, because it’s been denied

Do not believe anything until it has been officially denied. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar has denied allegations that the income tax raids on the homes of filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and actor Taapsee Pannu were linked to their comments, which are at times critical of the BJP. Raids were also conducted on premises linked to filmmaker Vikas Bahl, producer Madhu Mantena and Reliance Entertainment group CEO Shibashish Sarkar. Kashyap and Mantena had launched the production house Phantom Films, which was dissolved in 2018. 


Navlakha bail case notice

The Supreme Court yesterday asked the National Investigation Agency to reply after hearing the bail plea of civil rights activist Gautam Navlakha, an accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. On February 19, the activist had moved the Supreme Court against the Bombay High Court’s rejection of his bail petition. The case will be heard again on March 15.


The Long Cable

How to train your media

Pamela Philipose 

The Manipur state government, by serving notice under the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, to journalist Paojel Chaoba’s The Frontier Manipur for anonline discussion on its Facebook page titled, ‘Media Under Siege: Are Journalists Walking a Tightrope’, had clearly embarrassed the Government of India. Information and Broadcasting Secretary Amit Khare lost no time in issuing a terse note to Manipur’s chief secretary, pointing out that only the Union government is empowered to issue such notices. But by jumping the gun, the Manipur government and its police may have actually done Indians a huge favour by revealing three important aspects of the new rules: 

  • That their intent is not just to tame international digital giants, bring streaming platforms more in tune with so-called bharatiya sanskriti, and combat fake news, but to discipline online media. 

  • That the “soft-touch oversight mechanism” that Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claimed marked the rules, is in actual terms a potentially hard-hitting mechanism that can be reinforced by precipitate police action. 

  • And that these rules have indeed been hastily conceived and bear all the marks of executive zeal, unleavened by required deliberation and consultation with stakeholders. 

Calls to scrap the new rules are now sounding across the country and their volume and spread are only likely to swell in the days ahead as people realise the full implications they hold for personal freedoms. Remember, Facebook had to pack up its cynical ‘Free Basics’ package in the face of a determined, pan-India pushback. Today, sharp comments are coming in from every direction against the rules. The National Alliance of Journalists and the Delhi Union of Journalists, for instance, pointed out how the discomfort that some viewers may feel about nudity on streaming platforms is being used by the state as a pretext to clamp down on the entire digital spectrum and rein in media content deemed to be anti-government. Among the rights that now seem to be increasingly compromised are not just the right to freedom of expression and assembly, but under-legislated or unlegislated ones like privacy, freedom from mandatory self-censorship, freedom from surveillance, freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom from excessive government control, as observers in the internet space like the Internet Freedom Foundation, Medianama and DIGIPUB have already flagged in their responses to the new rules. 

This comes at a time when media control and repression within the country is attracting international attention. India has just been downgraded from “free” to “partly free” in the Freedom House index, and it now leads the world in the number and duration of its internet shutdowns, according to Access Now, a digital rights organisation. It also comes at a time when the Narendra Modi government is demonstrating an insatiable appetite for exploiting the media space to promote its own narrative through a suborned legacy media establishment and its own privatised armies of social media influencers and trolls. 

The latest attempt, therefore, to silence journalists in the digital space who have used their autonomy and independence to hold the government to account, has implications not just for journalists but for every citizen. In fact, according to an important story just published by The Caravan, before the new rules were made public, a group of ministers had met to evolve a roadmap to regulate digital news and social media. The main intent, going by an observation made by one minister at that meeting, was to “neutralise the people who are writing against the government without facts and set false narratives/spread fake news.” How the government assesses what constitutes “fake news” is of course never specified, but one can presume that anything critical of the government would by implication attract that label, much like anti-government stances today are immediately construed by the authorities as being “anti-India”.

The internet is an extremely valuable space because it makes possible the production and dissemination of knowledge, with all the power that such a process entails. There can be no denying that the manner in which data mined from people, Indians included, has been privatised and monetised by digital giants now inhabiting the commanding heights of the world economy, is profoundly disturbing and needs enlightened responses from civil society. But are we heading towards a scenario where a country often referred to as the “world’s largest democracy” finds itself wedged between data-hungry, capital-driven, monopolistic digital behemoths on the one hand, and a power-hungry, data-controlling, surveillance-prone political establishment on the other?

Pamela Philipose is an independent writer and Public Editor (Ombudsman) of The Wire


Reportedly

Seat-sharing talks in the DMK-led alliance in Tamil Nadu are in a jam over the hard bargain being driven by all the parties involved. The pitch is queered further by former Amma confidante VK Sasikala, who had returned from jail with clear political ambitions, but yesterday, from her Chennai home, quietly announced that she would “stay away” from politics. Her exit from the contest makes the AIADMK a more cohesive unit and the DMK alliance’s task harder. The DMK alliance includes the Congress, the two Communist parties, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the Indian Union Muslim League and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi. The Indian Union Muslim League has accepted the offer of three seats and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, two seats. But the DMK has offered the Congress only 18 seats, down from 41 in the 2016 assembly polls. 

The Congress is not willing to accept less than 30 seats, as even the BJP is likely to contest 24 seats as part of the AIADMK alliance. The Communist parties are being offered four seats each and are asking for more.The Tamil Nadu Assembly has 234 seats.


Prime Number: 1%
That's the proportion of electric vehicles in India, the world’s biggest two-wheeler market. The Modi government’s Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid) and Electric Vehicles (FAME) initiative had targeted the sale of 10 lakh electric scooters by the fiscal year 2021-22, but two years into the three-year scheme, only 4% of that has been achieved. 

Deep Dive

Auditing the auditor

The office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), led by Vinod Rai in 2008-2013, was almost the nerve-centre shaping public opinion about UPA-2’s corruption in the Commonwealth Games, the 2G scam and coal block allocation. But this deep dive into the CAG’s working subsequently reveals a tamed and slow institution. From the year 2018–19, only 32 audit reports pertaining to state legislatures are available in the public domain, as of mid-February 2021. Twenty-eight audit reports were finalised in timeframes that leave a lot to be desired. Several reports are yet to reach the public domain.


Chinese exploit still active

At least one connection opened by Chinese state-sponsored hackers into the network of an Indian port is still active, even as authorities block attempts to penetrate the nation’s power grid, according to the US firm that alerted officials. As of Tuesday, Recorded Future could see a ‘handshake’ — indicating an exchange of traffic — between a China-linked group and an Indian maritime port, said Stuart Solomon, the firm’s chief operating officer. 

Recorded Future calls the group RedEcho and says it had targeted as many as 10 entities on India’s power grid, as well as two maritime ports, when the company first notified India’s Computer Emergency Response Team on February 10. Most of these connections were still operational as recently as February 28, Solomon said.


Rs 8.5 per litre excise cut possible

The Modi government has room to cut excise duty on petrol and diesel by up to Rs 8.5 per litre without impacting its target for revenue from taxes on the two fuels. Petrol and diesel prices hover at a historic high following a relentless increase in excise duties by Rs 13 and Rs 16 per litre on petrol and diesel between March 2020 and May 2020, and now stand at Rs 31.8 on diesel and Rs 32.9 per litre on petrol.

“We estimate excise duty on auto fuels in FY22 (April 2021 to March 2022), if it is not cut, at Rs 4.35 lakh crore versus the budget estimate of Rs 3.2 lakh crore. Thus, even if excise duty is cut by Rs 8.5 per litre on or before April 1, 2021, FY22E budget estimate can be met,” ICICI Securities said in a note. Coincidentally, Assembly elections begin on March 27, and April 1 is the second poll date.


Modi bad-mouthed, BBC podcast host apologises

A BBC host has apologised for an episode of a live radio podcast where a caller used abusive language while referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this week. The call was made during the March 1 episode of the ‘Big Debate’ podcast by BBC Asian Network.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The MNREGA, passed in 2005 under a United Progressive Alliance government, was once a target of the same commentariat that is today supporting the farm laws, writes Hartosh Singh Bal.

  • In recent years, as most of traditional Indian media has collapsed under the weight of dual-pronged censorship ― from the government and from within organisations ― new digital media has borne a large chunk of the responsibility of holding power accountable. This very sector is being attacked by the Modi government via the new IT rules, writes Priya Ramani.

  • In Dawn, Javid Husain foresees a strategic divergence between the US and Pakistan because of the imperative of India-US relations to curb China, reinforced by the many Indian-Americans in the Biden administration. Besides, he notes, the US has neither the political will nor the wherewithal to intervene on the Kashmir issue.    

  • In India, climbing the ladder of political leadership remains a deeply inequitable enterprise. While reservations have improved women’s participation, much of the day-to-day functioning of Indian politics remains a man’s game, write Soumya Kapoor Mehta and Steven Walker.

  • Exactly 50 years ago, the year 1971 was marked with several big victories – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications, writes Sidharth Bhatia (a contributor to The India Cable). 

  • Some time back, the actor Tapsee Punnu spoke to Bhawna Jaimini about her life and roles, and why she won’t stay silent ― because it would not guarantee any peace.

  • The new digital rules expand the Modi government’s already considerable control over digital entities and will affect freedom of expression and privacy, write Christophe Jaffrelot and Aditya Sharma.


Listen Up

The 6 minute NPR show on India’s farmer protests explains why they are so angry.


Watch Out

The 17th edition of the Asian Women’s Film Festival will be held online, between tomorrow and Sunday. Over 30 titles will be available for a 48 hour period, for free. Masterclasses and discussions will be live-streamed. Delegates need to register on the IAWRT website.


Jab we danced

Canadian dancer Gurdeep Pandher marked his vaccination with Bhangra to symbolise ‘joy, hope, and positivity’.


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