The India Cable: Indians Raise the Dead for Disinfo Campaign, Boris–and Modi Minister–Confuse Farmers’ Stir with Pak

Plus: CAA imminent, opposition revives, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar’s Peshawar homes made Pakistan’s heritage, Astad Deboo and Manglesh Dabral pass away, and the Indian Kant is a type common in society

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
December 10, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Though details of the China-Pakistan pact signed during the Chinese defence minister’s visit to Islamabad have not been made public, analysts believe it contains new commitments on intelligence-sharing that will help Pakistan track the movements of Indian forces. But a Union minister, Raosaheb Danve, went a step further, claiming that China and Pakistan were behind the ongoing protests by farmers. Those who fear demons see demons everywhere. 

Russia has hit out at the four-­nation quadrilateral strategic dialogue or Quad of the US, Japan, Australia and India, calling it a “devious policy” by Western powers to engage India in “anti­-China games”. The Modi government, which has been highlighting the Quad as a strategic move, is silent on the Russian foreign minister’s strong statement.  

US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has said that the US government has and will continue to raise issues like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) with the Modi government. He said this during a call to discuss the State Department’s annual designation of countries on the basis of their support for religious freedom. His recommendation to place India on the list of ‘countries of particular concern’ was rejected when the list was announced earlier this week.  

The announcement by the UAE that it has approved a Chinese vaccine was met with silence from China, and raised more questions. Canada has approved Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine, and shots should be available within the month. Dharavi, once a Covid-19 hotspot in Mumbai, recorded just one case of the infection on Wednesday. 

Astad Deboo performing (Photo: YouTube)

Pioneering modern dancer Astad Deboo passed away at his home today after a short illness, leaving the creative community and his many friends bereft. He was 73, and had continued with his rigorous performance schedule until the lockdown. Deboo, who had learnt classical Indian forms, had developed his own idiom and grammar of dance, and had performed all over the world. 

The Hindi poet and editor Manglesh Dabral, winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, succumbed to post-Covid complications in Delhi. He was deeply opposed to autocracy, as this translated extract from Tanashah (Dictator) illustrates: 

“Dictators do not have to study the lives of their forefathers. They do not carry their pictures in their pockets, or study X-ray plates of their hearts. Dictators past are spontaneously recalled when they raise their arms in the air like rifles, or raise a fist with a pointing finger outstretched, like a pistol. Or when their mouths, yawning like dark caverns, mirror other mouths which opened thus in history… Dictators smile, give speeches and assurances of their humanity. But their body language is of beings that are not human… Dictators have been brought down many times in history, but they don’t care, because each of them thinks that he is the first.”  

Despite having operated one of the world’s biggest universal immunisation programmes, the lack of a reliable cold chain and the outlay for it may prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the vaccine distribution project in India. Analysts at Bofa Securities estimated the cost of transporting a single dose at around Rs 600. If 400 million Indians are to be vaccinated, the logistics bill is Rs 24,000 crore. India may need 30,000 tonnes of transportation capacity, which is about 11,500 vehicles.

In a significant development, Jharkhand will launch a project to help victims of witch hunts. All women who have been tortured on the pretext of witchcraft will be identified and made financially independent. For centuries in the region, a charge of witchcraft has been the standard ruse to appropriate property and to cow down difficult women. 

Farmers say no, and it means no

Protesting farmers have turned down the Centre’s proposals making concessions like written assurances on the Minimum Support Price, but ruling out repeal. Home Minister Amit Shah met farmers’ unions but after receiving the 20-page proposal, farmers rejected it and instead coined some fascinating slogans. Signalling escalation, they said that they would boycott all products of Adani Ltd and Reliance Industries Ltd, including Jio sim cards. They would also move to block the Delhi-Jaipur and Delhi-Agra highways till December 12. The BBC went out to see why farmers were so angry yesterday. Opposition parties met the President and gave him a memorandum, urging him to persuade the government to repeal the laws.

India tops in squeezing democracy during the pandemic

India held the unenviable top spot in a study of countries which have adopted measures during the Covid-19 pandemic that threaten democracy or human rights, according to a report by democracy institute International IDEA. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it “implemented restrictions that were either illegal, disproportionate, indefinite or unnecessary”, impacting nine of 22 democratic freedoms considered, including the freedom of movement, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. It was followed by Algeria and Bangladesh with eight areas of concern, and then China, Egypt, Malaysia and Cuba, which each had seven. Most democracies affected, the report said, were already ailing before the pandemic — India was a severely backsliding democracy. 

DisinfoLab study: Indians raise the dead

The EU DisinfoLab in Brussels has published a report on what it terms one of the biggest ever disinformation campaigns in Europe, organised by unidentified Indian stakeholders to further the interests of the Indian government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Among the prime players in ‘content laundering’ are Modi’s favourite private news agency, Asian News International or ANI, and the Srivastava group ― a shadowy business conglomerate that attracted attention in India when it organised some Article 370 tourism to Kashmir for far-right members of the European Parliament in late 2019, to show them that all is well. 

The campaign covered by DisinfoLab’s ‘Indian Chronicles’ study found that it “resurrected dead media, dead think-tanks and NGOs. It even resurrected dead people.” Disinformation campaigns are aimed at Brussels and Geneva, supporting India, often at the expense of Pakistan.  

Vaccines wax and wane

The expert committee of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) has sought additional safety and efficacy data from the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech for their Covid-19 vaccine, after deliberating upon their applications seeking emergency authorisation. It asked the Serum Institute for updated safety data of Phase 2 and Phase 3 clinical trials in the country, immunogenicity data from the clinical trial in the UK and India, along with the outcome of the assessment of the UK regulator. As for Bharat Biotech, the committee recommended that the firm should present safety and efficacy data from the ongoing Phase 3 clinical trial in the country for further consideration. 

And how much will the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, whose application for emergency usage was not considered because their US experts could not attend the expert committee meeting, cost in India? That’s a question intriguing many Indians after the pharma major said, “We are having tier pricing. It is one price for the developed world based on their GDP, another price, lower for the middle-income countries and in the low-income countries, like countries in Africa, we are giving it on a not-for-profit basis.”

Anti-CAA protests resume in Assam

The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and 17 other organisations opposed to the CAA in Assam have announced a fresh agitation against the Act from Friday, to mark one year of the agitation last year in which five died in police firing. It will be launched from Sivasagar in eastern Assam and gradually in the rest of the state, seeking a rollback of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Worried about electoral damage in the assembly polls scheduled for April-May, the ruling BJP is expected to deal with this fresh agitation as harshly as it did last year. Amidst this, the NRC state coordinator in Assam has said in court that the 2019 NRC is not ‘final’ — this declaration signals a paradigm shift in Assam’s NRC story and comes at a time when the BJP state government is strongly arguing that published NRC data cannot be accepted and needs re-verification.

BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, who is also in charge of poll-bound West Bengal, said last week that the CAA would be rolled out in January, since the party wants to grant citizenship to the refugee population in the border state. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has refused to allow implementation of the divisive National Register of Citizens (NRC) or the National Population Register (NPR) in the state, and has assured residents that they will not be stripped of citizenship. 

Talking about Kamala, or Indian ambitions?

Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan addressed a virtual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference on the ‘Role of Diaspora in Promotion of Indian Culture Abroad’. While he expressed pride in the political prowess of people of Indian origin in the US, Suriname and Guyana, his perception of the role of Indian diasporas raised eyebrows: “They have been bridges, mediators, facilitators, lobby and advocacy groups for taking primacy of India’s national security and economic interests and soft power projection.” 

Such expectations are best left unstated, since they could raise suspicions about the diaspora in the host countries. India, which trots out the doctrine of ‘internal affairs’ whenever it’s pricked in the side, and is deeply suspicious of the foreign press and NGOs with foreign funding, should know this. 

But the minister recounted “the recent electoral victories worldwide” and recalled “the formations of government under His Excellency President Irfan Ali in Guyana and His Excellency President Chandrikapersad Santokhi in Suriname.” Kamala Harris was named too, but the Seychelles did not find mention, where an Indian-origin leader, the priest Wavel Ramkalawan, managed to defeat his predecessor, who lost power for the first time since 1977.

Military turns super censor

After regional, caste and religious groups, it is now the turn of the military ― in this case, the Indian Air Force ― to act as a super censor board for an OTT series. It has upbraided the platform and the film it ran, on social media. Anil Kapoor, who plays the lead, apologised quickly but the IAF is baying for blood and will not relent before the scenes it objects to are deleted. Earlier, the IAF had raised a row over the film Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. This is a dangerous slope, on which the balance of civil-military relations is slipping in the world’s largest democracy. Going by the silence of the courts and the civilian government on such issues, it looks mighty slippery. 

Employees of smaller firms hammered

The nominal wage bill of listed firms declined by about 3% compared to last year. The drop in the real wage bill, the inflation-adjusted wage bill, was sharper because of higher inflation this year. While big firms have been able to protect jobs and wages, smaller businesses have seen massive retrenchments. On average, the better educated, high-earning professional working for a top company has been protected during the pandemic. Those in smaller outfits have been robbed of their livelihood and may not get their jobs back. Women workers lost work disproportionately, according to an earlier analysis of the survey data.

And as always, there are huge questions about the official figures for the previous quarter on GDP overestimating growth, as they are based only on limited organised sector data. The impression being created of a return to normalcy masks a persistent crisis in the lives of large sections.

The Long Cable

The “raw and wild” Indian

Sidharth Bhatia 

Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher of the Enlightenment, once said, “Man must be disciplined, for he is by nature raw and wild…” Amitabh Kant, the Indian civil servant, would wholeheartedly agree.

The Indian Kant thinks that his fellow citizens may not be ready for democracy, and need to be told what is good for them. Because India is “too much of a democracy,” he feels, the prime minister’s excellent programme of economic reforms is facing resistance.

What ‘reforms’? New laws on mining, labour and agriculture. The last is particularly significant because Kant made his remarks during ongoing protests by farmers who see reforms as harmful for them and beneficial for large corporate houses, who will now dictate not just market prices, but even what can be grown. Clearly the farmers, like their fellow Indians, don’t know what is good for them, and are spurning this tough love from the government.

Kant has also suggested that schools, hospitals and even prisons be handed over to private companies for profit, but again, the over-democratised public may not stand for this. The solution is to put constraints on democracy ― the farm laws curtail the farmers’ right to legal redressal, for instance.

But while the Indian Kant may be merely mouthing the position of his political bosses, the idea that India has too much democracy is widespread. It stems from the notion that Indians are undisciplined and cannot be trusted with stuff like freedom of speech or the freedom to protest. Much better to have a culture of conformity, of compliance and of conventionality ― dissenters and mavericks should be put in their place. The Emergency of 1975, when habeas corpus and other freedoms were suspended, was generally welcomed by the populace.

As far back as during the drafting of the Constitution, many leaders had proposed that women be denied the vote. Jawaharlal Nehru vehemently disagreed and the one citizen one vote provision was included.

It is not uncommon to hear drawing room conversations about lack of discipline and fantasies about tougher laws that can be clamped down swiftly on malcontents. Corporate chieftains want the ability to hire and fire at will, and would like to banish pesky unions. Politicians fret if tribal communities fight back when their lands are invaded by mining companies. Everyone looks yearningly at China, which has scant regard for public opinion when it acquires vast lands, or manages its media.

The media, and now, the social media, are particularly troubling to the power structure. They ask too many questions, are sharply critical and mock revered leaders, just like comedians do ― another set of mischief-makers. The media has been co-opted and now purrs when stroked, but the other two have to be brought into line.

To many Indians, independent-minded women are another source of irritation. They want to work, want their menfolk to do household chores and often refuse to marry the man chosen for them. This is against Indian culture and they cannot be given this freedom. By not opposing the ‘love jihad’ ordinance in UP, the courts seem to agree that marriage cannot be the woman’s decision.

It’s all the fault of democracy. It is holding up India’s progress towards its manifest destiny. Kant may well be airing his personal view, but it doesn’t take long for personal opinions to become official, to tame the ‘raw and wild’ Indian.

Marginalised hungrier than ever

Hunger Watch, part of the Right to Food campaign, finds that two-thirds of around 4,000 vulnerable and marginalised populations surveyed across 11 states stated that their food consumption had decreased. Dalits and Muslims appear to be hit worse than the general population. About 74% of Dalits surveyed reported having less food to consume. 

Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar’s ancestral homes are Pakistan’s national heritage

Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has determined the price of the ancestral houses of legendary Bollywood actors Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor in the heart of Peshawar at Rs 80,56,000 and Rs 1,00,50,000 respectively. The provincial government in September decided to purchase and conserve the two historic buildings, which are dilapidated and face the threat of demolition. They have been declared as national heritage.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • On navigating the Covid-19 vaccine challenge in India, Gagandeep Kang writes that the path ahead for vaccines and vaccination is strewn with abundant confusion, partly because of a divergence in information from official sources, academics and “unofficial” sources, and differences of opinion.

  • Avoiding the spectre of simultaneous recession and inflation will need a fiscal stimulus to shore up consumer spending, an investment revival to increase the productive capacity of the economy, and careful management of inflationionary expectations, posits Ajit Ranade.

Listen up

William Dalrymple and Moin Mir discuss the East India Company through their books The Anarchy and Surat: Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince. Dalrymple’s book tells the story of the East India Company as it transitioned from a “conventional international trading corporation dealing in silks and spices” to “an aggressive colonial power in the guise of a multinational business”, “unfolding a timely cautionary tale of the first global corporate power”. Moin Mir is a descendant of the last Nawab of Surat and will succeed his father as Darbar of Kamadhiya, an erstwhile principality in Gujarat. In his book, he tells the story of the legal battle that the father of two young princesses fought, a tale of fortitude and romance, to defeat the Company and gain restitution.

Watch out

An old commercial becomes a modern ode to the protesting farmers (watch till 1:24)

Boris confuses farmers’ agitation with India-Pak tension

Modi fanbois have made a habit of urging his opponents and critics to go to Pakistan, but that can’t explain British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confusing farmers’ protests with the India-Pakistan dispute. 

Dhesi was confounded, and Islamabad must be amused. Johnson’s office clarified the matter later

Meanwhile, Pakistan has its own worries related to the farmers’ protests in India, emanating from its reading of the Modi government’s character ― they fear Indian aggression to deflect attention from the siege of Delhi.

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.