The India Cable: Interfaith Marriage Rendered Impossible, Govt U-Turn on Farm laws Equally So

Plus: Airlines to post huge losses, Covid makes India less equal, schoolteacher wins big with QR codes, boAT in top 5 wearables list, India votes on cannabis and rasam is America’s immunity soup

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 4, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

After the contradictory statements of the Health Ministry and BJP election manifestos over who will get the vaccine, the PM has leapt into the breach again and said that he thinks the vaccine would be ready in weeks and the “tikakaran or vaccination programme will start here”. But who will get the shots? Though frontline workers will obviously get preference, there is no clarity about the fate of the rest of India’s population. The outcome of an all-party meeting today is awaited. 

Trends from the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation election results indicate that the shrill and high-pitched campaign of the BJP, which was led by top Union ministers and generated a lot of political heat, has translated into seats for the party. Postal ballots, which were opened first, indicated early leads for the saffron party, but the TRS took the lead during the first round of counting of ballots. The TRS and AIMIM have firmed up their leads, leaving the BJP behind, according to Telugu news channels.

BC Patil, agriculture minister of the BJP government in Karnataka,  has said that farmers who die by suicide are cowards. Farmer leaders who went to Vigyan Bhawan on Thursday for their crucial meeting with the Centre about the new agriculture laws did not accept food or tea offered by the government. They had packed their own, to avoid having to accept government hospitality. 

On Wednesday evening, the Lucknow police prevented an interfaith marriage between Raina Gupta and Mohammad Asif from being solemnised, citing the new ‘anti-conversion’ law. The match had the consent of both families and no religious conversion was involved. And from Aligarh comes news of the arrest and beating of a Muslim man who had come to court to marry a girl of another religion. In effect, interfaith marriage has been rendered impossible in some BJP-ruled states. 

Plagued by depressed revenues and higher costs, domestic airline operations are expected to post losses to the tune of Rs 21,000 crore this fiscal, as against a net loss of Rs 12,700 crore reported in the financial year which ended in March 2020. Offering entire B-Tech programmes in local languages will be the beginning of the end of IITs, the IIT Delhi director wrote in his “personal capacity” in a social media post, arguing that faculty selections need to be made on a global scale.

And the Navy chief said in his annual press conference that “the developments at the northern borders has complicated the security situation,” an extremely polite way of saying, “FUBAR”. Meanwhile, Army Chief General MM Naravane will travel to Saudi Arabia and the UAE next week. It will be the first trip by an Army chief to Saudi Arabia, which has had close military ties with Pakistan.

HCL Technologies’ Roshni Nadar Malhotra is the wealthiest Indian woman. Delhi-based lifestyle brand boAT, which manufactures headphones, earplugs and watches, became the first Indian wearables company to make it to the top five worldwide. It has bagged 2.6% of the global share in this segment. 

The suspense is over, and Rajinikanth has committed to launch a political party in January. The suspense over India’s response to cannabis has just begun. Having voted to remove it from the UN’s list of dangerous narcotics, will the witch hunt against users in the film industry have to be rolled back?   

Covid status report

A former president, four former chief ministers, six sitting MPs including a Union minister, 20 MLAs including seven state ministers and more than 50 former lawmakers have succumbed to Covid-19 in the past few months in India. 

The BBC reports that India’s patchy, non-uniform methods and rules for testing Covid-19 remain a matter of serious concern. The data may be underestimating figures many times over. Even so, India remains second only to the US in a still alarming world situation. 

On farm laws, PM denies government elbow room

The seven-hour-long talks between the Modi government and the farmers’ organisations remained inconclusive on Thursday, and the protests against the new farm laws have now received the support of a number of people abroad, in Canada, Australia and the United States. About the talks, the Union agriculture minister has said that the government has no ego, but the farmers organisations were less philosophical. They insisted that there was little progress in the meeting as the government has only provided an assurance about the Minimum Support Price mechanism, and they don’t want any amendments but summary withdrawal of the three laws.

One analysis suggests that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fulsome endorsements of the farm laws for over two months leaves little elbow room for a climbdown by the government in its negotiations with the agitating farmers. Most recently, in Varanasi, Modi had reiterated that the farmers were misguided and misinformed. Scarcely a good way to start a conversation.

In UP, it’s not just faith but caste, too

The Uttar Pradesh government has listed four reasons before the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court for not transferring the district magistrate of Hathras after the gang-rape and death of a Dalit girl in the district in September. The government has also justified the cremation of the victim in the dead of night and insisted that the Hathras DM did not commit any wrong.

Uttar Pradesh’s new anti-conversion law to curb interfaith marriages based on ‘false identities’ also has a provision against mass conversions. It is intended primarily to quell resistance among Dalits and prevent them from organising or participating in Buddhist conversion programmes, Ambedkarite and Dalit groups in the state say.

In a damning comment on the state of love and choice in the country, at least 58 persons in inter-caste relationships were killed in just two years in the Bareilly division in UP. It’s a steep slope and the brake lines have been cut. 

India less equal than before Covid

Inequalities have widened in India during the pandemic. The Economist writes on India’s super-rich getting much richer, even as the economy shrinks by a tenth. The article in its latest issue speaks of Ambani and Adani’s fortunes zooming as the world around them tanked. As “tens of millions of Indians have lost jobs or sunk into poverty, the fortunes of the country’s two richest people have swollen. Gautam Adani, whose conglomerate sprawls from ports to coal mines to food, has seen his personal wealth more than double, to some $32 billion. Mukesh Ambani’s riches, which derive from oil refining, telecoms and retail, among other things, have grown by just 25%, albeit to an intimidating $75 billion or so.”

The Long Cable

Babri anniversary this Sunday, but Dec 6 wasn’t the day India changed

Pratik Kanjilal

December 6 falls on a Sunday, a windfall for weekend sections in the papers, which will be fattened with bleak commemorations, accompanied by stark black and white pictures, of the day that the idea of India changed forever. These dirges will be offset by governmental commentaries on the opinion pages, claiming that life changed for the better on December 6, 1992, when the domes of the Babri Masjid were brought down by ‘persons unknown’ (coincidentally, it was also a Sunday). God is indeed above the courts, as the BJP had claimed in the ‘90s, and this year, they have discovered no conspiracy in the demolition, despite thousands of testimonies and photographs in the press. Now, a book on the BJP before Modi by Vinay Sitapati finds that it happened because the leadership of the Sangh organisations lost control of the kar sevaks. Gravity took care of the rest. 

On December 6, the unthinkable was demonstrated to be doable, but it was possible because the idea of India had changed two years earlier, in the autumn of 1990, when LK Advani, then BJP president, travelled across the country in his Ram Rath. The chariot of the gods was actually a DCM Toyota truck, made over with Hindu-styled glitter and garish decorations. The front was like a podium from where Advani addressed the crowds and occasionally shot toy arrows into space from a Ramlila bow. The rear belched gouts of soot. A portable diesel genset was parked there to power the bells and whistles of the contraption. It generated embarrassing levels of pollution, but no one cared. Even now, 30 years later, the movement retains the ability to project illusions that cause people to ignore reality.    

The biggest mass mobilisation since Independence displayed some of the most enduring attributes of the Hindutva right. It can still overwrite empty promises (lakhs in everyone’s bank account) with baffling promises (free Covid-19 shots in poll-bound states). The public has grown used to this sleight of hand, but at the time of the Rath Yatra, fraud was still called fraud. And yet the public swallowed it. 

On a chilly October evening, the DCM Toyota arrived in a small hamlet not far from Bokaro. For a few minutes, the unelectrified road was illuminated by the blazing lights of the cavalcade. Advani descended, spoke briefly and then the procession moved on. In the darkness that fell immediately, an elderly woman scooped up earth from the roadside. “The Ram Avatar came down to earth here,” she explained. “I’m collecting a little for my puja room.” Probably, she didn’t have one. She lived in a shack by the road, and was clearly very poor. But it was now holy ground, consecrated by the visit of a being who was no god, but a man in search of the Prime Minister’s Office (which eluded him forever). She was a victim of fraud, and happy to be so. 

The yatra also discovered the political value of the impression of speed. Arnab Goswami admired the “sheer suddenness” of the Balakot operation, though it only garnered domestic gains for the government, which is constantly applauded for reckless “bold steps” like the pointless demonetisation. But it was the Rath Yatra which first established the virtue of recklessness. Attributes like ‘juggernaut’ and ‘tsunami’ began to be applied to the movement at the time, and are still used in the media to make the BJP’s electoral successes seem inevitable. 

The yatra covered hundreds of kilometres every day, and was followed by thousands of Bajrang Dal bikers at full throttle, accelerating the impression of speed. But it was just mass momentum. In Madhya Pradesh, I found three young men in saffron bandannas, who had been part of the cavalcade, morosely wheeling their motorcycle. It had suffered a flat tyre. From the outriders of a juggernaut, they had been reduced to completely ordinary men, their participation in the popular will deflated by a puncture. 

But most importantly, the movement signalled the arrival of the unquestionable strongman, 100% in control of his stormtroopers. Advani held a press conference every evening, in which he issued unnecessary instructions to party workers and service staff. These were global commands to always do, or never do, certain things ― usually unimportant things. He was a towering figure, and these statements were for the benefit of the press, reinforcing the impression of absolute control.

At my first press briefing, I thought I had been taken for someone else. Reporters of national dailies were asked to make way for me, a rookie representing a news agency in Calcutta, which was anything but mainstream. A completely unknown quantity, I was led to a seat right in front of Advani, among journalists whose bylines were well-known. When I took out my camera to take his picture, the penny dropped. My editor had told me to rush to join the Yatra, and I had stopped only to borrow a camera bag and a windcheater from a friend (later, I married her). Coincidentally, both were saffron. Inadvertently, I had signalled my willingness to belong, and enjoyed a privileged view. 

Sitapati’s belief that the leaders of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement had lost control of the sevaks ― he tweeted a clarification to this effect ― is nonsense. At the time, and even today, the operations of the Sangh parivar were defined by complete, autocratic control. Only the people in control have changed, and I, and all the other journalists who tagged the Rath Yatra, must have met the present Prime Minister on the way, in the rather minor role of trail boss. So minor that I don’t remember his face at all. 

QR codes lead teacher to prize

Ranjitsinh Disale, who teaches in the Zilla Parishad Primary School in the drought-prone village of Paritewadi in Maharashtra, has received the $1million Global Teacher Prize after he was named the world’s most exceptional teacher, ahead of 12,000 other nominations. Disale has, however, already given away half of the prize money, sharing it among the other teachers shortlisted in the top 10. 

Disale is honoured for translating school textbooks into his students’ mother tongue and embedding QR codes leading to audio, video, stories and assignments. He used the codes to personalise teaching and his intervention led to 100% attendance of girls in his school, and put a complete stop to teenage marriages in the village. 

Hindus under threat at UN, and everywhere else

In a bizarre case of whataboutery and suspicions about “Abrahamic religions”, Ashish Sharma, India’s first Secretary at its Permanent Mission to the UN, has raised the spectre of Samuel Huntington’s discredited thesis of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’. India questioned the “selectivity” practised by the UN, alleging that the international organisation has failed to acknowledge the rise in hatred and violence against Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Ironically, in March 2020, the UN Security Council had condemned the terrorist attack on a gurdwara in Kabul.

Sharma’s remarks came on the day that India’s top military officer, General Bipin Rawat, was given an escorted tour of the Gorakhnath temple by UP Chief Minister Adityanath and presented with a memento of the proposed Ram Temple. The only saving grace, if one can find any in this episode, was that the General was in mufti. On November 28, he had come under fire for attending an event of a Chinese-owned automobile brand, in full uniform, the day after India banned a slew of Chinese apps. 

Cannabis bar goes to pot

While the Narcotics Control Bureau has been busy making high profile Bollywood arrests over cannabis possession, India has voted in favour of a resolution in the 63rd session of the UN Commission for Narcotic Drugs, to remove it from the category of most dangerous substances.

Sources confirmed that India has voted along with 26 other countries to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Cannabis is currently listed alongside opioids like heroin, which are discouraged from even being used for medicinal purposes.

Deep Dive

Water challenges in South Asia

South Asia’s vast waterscape includes diverse hydrological, social and political systems. Finding “sustainable water solutions will require hard work and a willingness to adapt”. New approaches and more collaboration is sought by a group of South Asians who have come together in theSouth Asia Nadi Sambad.

Prime Number: 22.6%
That is the reduction in wages of Indians in the informal sector during the pandemic, finds an ILO report. Real wage growth in India was one of the lowest in the Asia Pacific region, lower than even Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam, according to the global report, ‘Wage and Minimum Wage in the Time of Covid-19’.

TIME names Kid of the Year

Indian-American Gitanjali Rao, 15, a “brilliant” young scientist and inventor in Colorado, has been named by TIME magazine as the first-ever ‘Kid of the Year’ for her “astonishing work” using technology to tackle issues ranging from contaminated drinking water to opioid addiction and cyberbullying. She is interviewed by Angelina Jolie. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Vivek Katju argues that while Justin Trudeau’s comments are inexcusable, foreign leaders will try to leverage Indian communities, just as the Modi government tries to leverage the diaspora. Such situations have to be handled more adroitly. 

  • The demand for making Minimum Support Price a legal guarantee should be seen as a demand for ensuring remunerative prices for farm produce, says Himanshu. This is also necessary to generate demand in the country’s economy, given that agriculture still provides livelihoods to almost half of India’s working population.

  • Apart from violence against the marginalised, routine indifference is the norm in police stations. The Supreme Court’s order requiring the installation of a CCTV camera in every thana is great, writes Dushyant.

  • Zoya Hasan argues that the Congress party has to do three things: it has to agree upon or elect a leader who can keep the party united; reconstruct its organisational structure across the states; and, finally, project and propagate a clear alternative ideological narrative to the BJP.

Listen up

Chinmay Tumbe speaks with Milan Vaishnav about India’s ‘Age of Pandemics’, when the country was the epicentre of three major scourges in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and why this dark chapter in Indian history has been glossed over. He focuses on the three previous pandemics — cholera, the plague, and influenza — that ravaged India and highlights what we might learn from this past trauma. Tumbe also discusses the parallels between pandemics past and present, how they have shaped politics, and why the flight of internal migrants is one of the most stylized facts of pandemics in history.

Watch Out

Our watch recommendation today has to be about Diljit Dosanjh, who is totally on song. His battles on social media with actor Kangana Ranaut can easily be filed under ‘Legendary’. Or ਮਹਾਨ.

Listen to this mix to jack into his energy, and his josh for agitating farmers.

Mercedes left behind, rasam boosts immunity

In Karnal, Sumit Dhull left behind the Mercedes decorated for his wedding at home and drove a tractor instead to the venue to support the farmers’ protest against the three Central acts.

Rasam, the “immunity boosting soup”, has become a fixture on the menu of the Anjappar Princeton hotel in the US where chef Arun Rajadurai worked, after he added it as a complimentary dish to the food he provided to Covid patients in three hospitals. It has now been introduced in the restaurant’s New York, New Jersey and Canada branches, where around 500-600 cups of rasam are being sold every day.

That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.