The India Cable: India Turns Away Myanmar Refugees; Mehbooba & Mum Denied Passports

Plus: Second wave soars above 2020 curve, BJP gets FIR for ads dressed up as news, Modi can’t attack Pak for fear, Cairn targets Indian PSUs abroad and somewhere out there, Basanti is still dancing

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

** Note: The India Cable was on break March 29, 2021 because of Holi **

Snapshot of the day
March 30, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India has recorded its highest ever weekly spike of Covid-19 infections ― 3.9 lakh in the period March 22-28. The positivity rate is highest in Maharashtra, where Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has directed the administration to draw up a roadmap for a second lockdown, despite the Opposition threatening protests. The cost of shutting down the economy again would be punishing. A decision is expected on April 2. Vaccination will be opened up to people 45 and above on Thursday and in anticipation, the CoWin portal has been expanded to handle 1 crore registrations, and 50 lakh vaccinations per day. 

In an appalling incident, a 16-year-old girl, who was raped in a Madhya Pradesh village was tied up and paraded with the alleged rapist on Sunday. Six people including the accused were arrested after a video clip triggered shock and outrage. It shows men walking around them chanting, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai (Long Live Mother India).” They were paraded after they were beaten up in Alirajpur district, about 400 km from the state capital, Bhopal.

In Goa to inaugurate a new Bombay High Court building, outgoing Chief Justice of India SA Bobde said that academics should see how a Uniform Civil Code governs the lives of the people in the state, irrespective of community. He went on to celebrate the delivery of justice in Goa for four and a half centuries. He may not be aware that the Goa Inquisition is part of that history. And that its UCC is a good example of uniformity not always leading to equality.

Following an RTI query, the Internet Freedom Foundation has unearthed 112 pages of complaints filed against the Amazon Prime web series Tandav. They were filed in a three-day span, in very similar language, and offer similar objections. Even after the filmmakers apologised, the complainants persisted in demanding penalties and oversight. The IFF suggests that this was the bedrock for framing the new IT Rules, which were extended to digital news media ― and particularly to media born digital. The background makes it clear that it’s the “heckler’s veto”. 

During India’s lockdown last year, as banks shut and millions lost jobs, loan apps that required no credit scores promised relief. But soon, many found themselves trapped in crushing debt. India contributed to nearly 60% of the global rise in poverty in 2020. Just 5.4% of houses sanctioned under the Centre’s flagship rural housing scheme in 2020­-21 have reached completion.

Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar will undergo surgery at Breach Candy Hospital in south Mumbai tomorrow for a gallbladder problem. He was due to campaign in West Bengal today. NCP was in the news over the weekend, denying that Pawar met Home Minister Amit Shah in Ahmedabad, triggering speculation.

Chhatradhar Mahato, once the face of the Maoist tribal movement in Lalgarh, West Bengal, and now with the Trinamool Congress in Jangalmahal, has been arrested by the National Investigation Agency in connection with the hijacking of the Bhubaneswar Rajdhani Express 12 years ago. Jangalmahal is now in the midst of elections

And PUBG Mobile, which was banned in India following the real conflict in east Ladakh, may be on its way back to your phone. 

Covid second wave engulfs India

India is firmly in the grip of the second wave of coronavirus, with numbers shooting up at a pace that surpasses the worst months of 2020. If the deaths rate is low, it is because it lags behind infections. Pharma major Dr Reddy’s Laboratories expects the Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V to get approval from the Indian regulator in the next few weeks.

A year after it was wrongly accused of hosting a superspreader event, the Tabhligi Jamaat, Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz reopened its doors for Shab-e-Barat, with congregations limited to 50 persons. These images from the Holi celebrations in Vrindavan offer an irresponsible contrast, in the thick of the second wave.  

Advertising dressed up as news earns BJP FIR

The Congress has filed a FIR against Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, national BJP chief JP Nadda, state president Ranjeet Kumar Dass and eight leading newspapers for “camouflaging an advertisement as news”, predicting in banner headlines the party’s victory in all the seats in Upper Assam that went to polls in the first phase on March 27. The state Congress had earlier filed a complaint with Assam Chief Electoral Officer Nitin Khade and the All Indian Congress Committee had approached the Election Commission of India against the publication of the advertisements on Sunday, urging immediate action against the BJP and the newspapers.

Leading English, Assamese, Hindi and Bengali newspapers which published the BJP advertisements at the top of their front pages include The Assam Tribune, Asomiya Pratidin, Aamar Asom, Niyomia Barta, Asomiya Khabor, Dainik Asam, Dainik Jugasankha and Dainik Purvodaya.

Mehbooba Mufti, who let BJP into Kashmir, denied passport on security grounds, as is her mother

PDP chief and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who headed the government in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir till 2018 as an ally of the BJP, has been denied a passport, as the CID fears that it would be “detrimental” to the security of India. Her mother Gulshan Nazir, wife of former home minister of India and CM of J&K, the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, has also been denied one on the same grounds. 

The J&K High Court has refused to interfere, dismissing the petition of Mehbooba Mufti seeking issuance of passport. She will now have to knock on the doors of the Supreme Court. In landmark cases going back to 1967 (Satwant Singh) and 1978 (Maneka Gandhi), the apex court had held that the right to travel abroad is a facet of a citizen’s right to individual liberty and cannot be violated on vague or arbitrary grounds.

No entry for Myanmar refugees in Manipur

As India celebrates the liberation of Bangladesh 50 years ago, when millions of refugees were hosted on Indian soil, the BJP government issued orders in Manipur: no relief camp for refugees can be opened by the local administration or NGOs. Refuge-seekers should be turned away. Aadhaar (which is not a proof of citizenship) enrolment must be stopped immediately, and the equipment locked away. After public anger welled up, the state government withdrew the letter on Monday. The Modi government had recently asked Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh to step up vigilance on the unfenced Indo-Myanmar border to prevent an influx following military repression in Myanmar.

The letter was issued a day after three Myanmarese nationals, injured in firing by the army on pro-democracy protesters at Tamu in Myanmar, reached the Moreh border crossing in Manipur and “begged” Indian officials to save their lives. The injured men, aged 29-31, were allowed in and admitted to a hospital at Moreh. They were later rushed to a hospital in the Manipur capital Imphal on March 26. A local leader at Moreh told Deccan Herald that a group of Myanmarese nationals including women and children were “turned away” on March 26 (coincidentally, the independence day of Bangladesh), following the Home Department order.

(via: Neha Dixit/Twitter)

The Myanmarese envoy to the UN asked neighbours India and Indonesia to help the people, not the regime.

India was the only major democracy to participate in a military parade in Myanmar on Saturday, when over 100 citizens protesting against the junta were shot dead. The Modi government was also missing from a statement signed by other prominent democracies condemning the killings by the Myanmar Army. The Supreme Court was not far behind, on the Rohingya question.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has accessed a report revealing the Adani Group’s cooperation with the military junta in Myanmar for a proposed container port. The group is paying $52 million to a military-controlled company in Myanmar which has been sanctioned by the US for human rights violations. The allegation, in effect, is that investors in Adani are indirectly helping to finance the coup and the bloody crackdown which has followed. The group has denied engaging with the military, but images and a video from 2019 suggest otherwise.  

The Long Cable

For fear, Modi can’t attack Pakistan in these elections

Sushant Singh

After the BJP assumed power at the Centre under Narendra Modi in 2014, Pakistan has been invoked in every state election campaign by the party with the Prime Minister himself leading the charge. During the Gujarat Assembly polls of 2017, Modi even wrongly invoked former PM Dr Manmohan Singh’s involvement with Pakistan, forcing the government to issue an apology, which was tendered by Arun Jaitley after the election results were out. The situation was no different during the other state polls, where either Pakistan or Kashmir, or both, have featured prominently in the BJP’s campaign. In fact, Modi had used Pakistan as a campaign theme successfully even during the Gujarat Assembly elections, when he was state chief minister, attacking ‘Miyan Musharraf’ from the stage.

The political logic is three-fold: one, to create a nationalist narrative, which needs an “enemy” country, provided by Pakistan – and depict Opposition parties as sympathetic to the enemy; two, to use Pakistan as a euphemism for Indian Muslims, via Jinnah’s logic of Partition, and paint them as un-Indian – by extension, only Hindus qualify to be Indian; and three, to bolster the myth of Modi as a strong leader who is bold enough to hit an enemy country with surgical strikes and airstrikes. Though in violation of the unwritten maxim that “partisan politics must stop at the water’s edge,” this has been an electorally profitable move for the BJP. Its poll performance has been bolstered by making Pakistan the centrepiece of its campaign rhetoric.

In such an environment, it is surprising that Pakistan no longer features prominently in Modi’s election rhetoric for the five legislative Assemblies going to the polls now. With Assam, Bengal and Kerala having a significant Muslim population, invoking Pakistan would have fitted snugly with the BJP’s template of tarnishing the community and parties seeking their support. Not only is Pakistan largely missing (barring BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari’s reference to the ‘mini-Pakistan’ Mamata Banerjee will tunr Bengal into if she wins), even Bangladesh has been spared the usual invective, in the ostensible cause of preventing illegal immigration, from the top BJP leadership. The jibe that Bangladeshis are ‘termites’ is no longer heard in campaign rallies, and this absence goes beyond the political salience of the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens in Assam.

It is not that the BJP has suddenly discovered the wisdom of keeping national security and foreign policy out of the grime, heat and dust of a polarising electoral campaign. The reasons are practical and have to do with the deep flux in international relations, with India at the centre of a complex web. Earlier this month, the directors general of military operations of India and Pakistan reiterated the 2003 ceasefire on the Line of Control, days after India gave Pakistan PM Imran Khan overflight permission to Sri Lanka. Soon after, the Pakistan PM and his powerful army chief made welcome noises about seeking peace with India, Modi wished Imran a speedy recovery after he was detected Covid-positive, a Pakistan delegation has come to India for talks on river water sharing and Pakistani sportspersons have been given visas by India. These are major signs of a thaw in the frozen bilateral relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad. Later this year, Indian soldiers could join a counter-terrorism exercise with their Pakistani and Chinese counterparts inside Pakistan. The irony is especially rich because this multilateral exercise is scheduled to be held at Pabbi, just 200 km from Balakot, the target of Indian airstrikes in February 2019.

The pursuit of peace with Pakistan is not a standalone move, emanating from a sudden change of heart in the Modi government. Its hand has been forced by evolving geopolitical realities, which includes the election of President Joe Biden in the US and the set of policies pursued by the Democratic administration. Modi had supported President Trump during the campaign, betting on his re-election. Even though the Biden administration is continuing with its predecessor’s policies on Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific, it has a dramatically different line on human rights and democracy globally, much to the discomfiture of New Delhi. During his recent trip to Delhi, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin raised those concerns with the ministers of the Modi government and made it public in his media interaction. With its move on Pakistan, the Modi government seems keen to reduce pressure that it may come under from the Biden administration.

If the change of guard in the US provided the larger context, the more immediate cause for New Delhi’s détente with Pakistan was the ongoing tensions on the China border in Ladakh last year. The theoretical challenge of a two-front war became a real possibility, but Pakistan “did not take advantage of the situation despite sustained Chinese pressure for the same”. This was acknowledged by Indian military leaders and played a part in creating the environment for recent engagement between New Delhi and Islamabad. The reality of a two-front collusive military threat on India’s borders, however, remains viable and New Delhi doesn’t have the economic capacity to create the military muscle to deal with the challenge. The attempt at external rebalancing, via the Quad initiative, remains untested and the Modi government has chosen to pacify the Pakistan front as a more viable solution.

In such a difficult foreign policy environment, the inherent contradiction of Modi’s domestic politics with the standards required for external relations has come sharply to the fore. It is impossible for the BJP, and especially Modi, to harp on Pakistan during the election campaign as they have been doing in the past, without threatening the country’s core security interests today. Any impinging of those security interests will have domestic political costs, as seen during the Ladakh border crisis, when Modi denied any Chinese ingress even as satellite imagery showed Chinese soldiers on Indian territory. 

Modi’s weak hand has, for the moment, forced him to avoid mentioning Pakistan in the election campaign. But this dichotomy remains and is bound to have some serious implications not so far into the future.


Autumn of the (red) patriarch

Election-bound Kerala misses communist patriarch VS Achuthanandan. Now 97, VS has never missed an election campaign before in his seven-decade political career. It is doubtful if he would even vote ― another first. 

During the 1958 Devikulam bypoll, political Kerala saw a masterstroke by VS, who was then election secretary to Rosamma Punnoose. Her opponent was BK Nair, for whom a slew of senior Congress leaders including Indira Gandhi had campaigned. The Congress was sure of a comfortable win. But MG Ramachandran was shooting in Munnar, and VS managed to get him to campaign for the Left in a constituency with Tamil voters. That was the only time that MGR ever campaigned in Kerala, and Rosamma won by a margin of over 7,000 votes. 

Prime number: 8.78 seconds

Srinivas Gowda, the jockey in Karnataka’s Kambala buffalo race who grabbed national attention last year, has scripted another record by covering 100 metres in just 8.78 seconds in the ‘Sathya-Dharma’ Jodukare Kambala at Kakyapadavu in Bantwal taluk. In last week’s ‘Soorya Chandra Jodukere’ Kambala, organised at Venoor-Permuda in Belthangady taluk, he had done 100 metres in 8.96 seconds. 

Deep Dive

Oil’s well for the fisc

Modi’s oil tax bonanza surged 460% in seven years, as his government consistently increased taxes on fuel to shore up dwindling revenue in a weak economy. It’s really climbing the charts.

Cairn targets PSUs, too

UK’s Cairn Energy Plc plans to bring lawsuits in the US and other countries to pierce the corporate veil between the Indian government and companies it owns in oil and gas, shipping, airline and banking, to seize their overseas assets and recover $1.2 billion, as ordered by an international arbitration tribunal. The firm has moved courts in the US, UK, Canada, France, Singapore, the Netherlands and three other countries to register the December 2020 arbitration tribunal ruling that overturned the Indian government’s Rs 10,247 crore demand in back taxes and ordered New Delhi to return $1.2 billion ― the value of shares sold, dividends seized and tax refunds withheld to recover the tax demand.

With the government challenging the award, Cairn will enforce it by seizing overseas Indian assets, said Dennis Hranitzky, head of the sovereign litigation practice at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, which represents the company. These assets can potentially be non-diplomatic properties and those owned by entities or companies controlled by the Indian government. The lawsuit is similar to the one brought by Crystallex International Corp to attach the property of Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., the state-owned oil company of Venezuela, in Delaware a couple of years ago, after the Latin American country failed to pay the firm $1.2 billion that an arbitration tribunal had ordered in lieu of the seizure of gold deposits held and developed by the firm in 2011.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Ram Guha writes that over the decades, as the sangh parivar has grown in power and influence, the Hindu mind has shrunk in its capacity for free thought, for self-critique and for self-reflection. 

  • Nandita Haksar writes that India must offer shelter to Myanmarese asylum-seekers even though it lacks a refugee protection law, because it is a signatory to international human rights treaties and is under obligation to respect basic principles of human rights.

  • The protests against Modi’s visit to Dhaka indicate a widening gap between the excellent functional relationship between the two governments and the perception of the people of Bangladesh, writes Bharat Bhushan. 

Listen Up

Bestselling novelist Anuja Chauhan, known for romantic comedies like Those Pricey Thakur Girls and The Zoya Factor, recently released her first murder mystery, Club You to Death, which is set in an elite Delhi club. She speaks to Sandip Roy about the new novel, the politics of Delhi (and Bangalore) clubs and the perils of writing romance in the time of ‘love jihad’.

Watch Out

The famished road

The documentary 1232 kms, written and directed by Vinod Kapri, looks at the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on migrant labourers. Millions of hapless migrants travelled for days on end, often on foot, lives and livelihoods were destroyed, and the disaster is now sought to be airbrushed away. With Covid cases rising steeply again, how might migrant workers react? The trailer is here.

Over and Out

Delivering the stork, and Basanti lives on

The New York Times has a photo feature on the Hargila Army, a group of women in Assam spearheading a conservation effort to rescue the endangered greater adjutant stork.

And an Iranian émigré shows that Iranians who grew up with Sholay haven’t got over it. Somewhere out there, Basanti is still dancing:

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.