The India Cable: Kamra Launches Preemptive Strike, ABVP Blacks out Arundhati

Plus: It’s still the economy, and it’s still stupid, food inflation kills appetite, India remains on Covid greatest hits list, Obama on Rahul Gandhi, and for afters, a Supreme Court joke

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
November 13, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Half a day after Attorney General KK Venugopal cleared contempt of court proceedings against comedian Kunal Kamra for tweeting derisively about the Supreme Court, and before the institution could even decide what to do about it, Kamra has fired a shot across its bows. In a letter addressed to the learned judges and Venugopal, he wrote that he “loves holding court and enjoying a platform with a captive audience”, but he would be happy to sacrifice the court’s precious time allotted to him “to other matters and parties who have not been as lucky and privileged as I am to jump the queue.” 

(Kunal Kamra. Photo: Special Arrangement)

The last is a sarcastic allusion to Arnab Goswami, whom the Supreme Court allowed to jump the queue for a hearing. Kamra has a special place in his heart for the anchor, whom he had button-holed on a plane during boarding in January. That stand-up performance put him on a no-fly list as several airlines jumped to follow the suggestion made by the Minister for Civil Aviation that they penalise him. Kamra’s letter includes a laundry list of the grave issues which the court has sidestepped, from demonetisation to the legality of electoral bonds. Kamra also requests that the photos of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in the court be replaced by those of advocates Harish Salve and Mahesh Jethmalani, who have represented Goswami. If the court was scandalised earlier by Kamra, it must be confounded today. 

The Tamil Nadu government on Thursday cancelled its order allowing schools to reopen from November 16 for classes 9-12, after consultations with the parents of students. It also cancelled its order allowing social, political, religious and cultural events from November 16 attended by up to 100 people.

The head of the Nirvani Akhara in Ayodhya, Mahant Dharam Das, has sent a legal notice to the Ministry of Home Affairs demanding the formation and regulation of Shri Ramjanmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust “as per the Supreme Court’s verdict” in the title suit case. He believes that the present trust, created for the building of the Ram Temple, is illegal.  

The Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court dismissed the petition of TV producer Ekta Kapoor seeking quashing of a case filed against her for allegedly objectionable content in the web series XXX Season 2.

Wild stuff is afoot. Researchers from India, Indonesia and China working in the Andamans have discovered a new genus of the Old World tree frogs, Rhacophoridae. Finding a new genus is relatively rare, and this is also the first species found in the Andamans. Meanwhile, Corbett National Park has cancelled the Diwali leave of field staff to combat the poaching of owls, which peaks around Diwali and Lakshmi Puja. The vahana of Lakshmi, it is believed that owls are sacrificed in occult rites. 

And while the vegetarian heartland endlessly debates whether eggs are kosher in midday meals, on the coast, where exposure to omega3 fatty acids clarifies the mind, Odisha is introducing fish in the supplementary nutrition programme for children, pregnant and nursing women, and adolescent girls. Between a bluefin tuna and a bhindi, there’s simply no contest. 

Food inflation continues

Retail inflation jumped to a six-year high of 7.61% in October from a year ago ― the earlier high was 8.33% in May 2014. This is well above the Reserve Bank of India’s acceptable limit of 4% (+/-2) for the seventh straight month, government data released on Thursday revealed. Vegetable prices surged 22.51% in October after increasing 20.73% in September. Prices of meat and fish increased 18.7% in October against a 17.6% rise in the previous month, while pulses rose 18.34% in October against a 14.67% rise in September.

The economy, stupid

Yesterday, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced Atmanirbhar III ― the third tranche of the government’s so-called stimulus package. Twelve measures were announced. They do not inspire much confidence. The government seems to be determined to not give citizens cash in hand, but wants to boost demand. Of all the announcements, one was cited as impactful; extending credit guarantee to units with loans upto Rs 500 cr. But will these packages actually kick-start consumption and demand? A recession has been called by the RBI (see yesterday’s India Cable), but Chief Economic Advisor Dr Krishnaswamy Subramanian insists it is all gung-ho, and there’s no point “in putting cash in people’s hands”. He says here that the V-shaped recovery is going very well and is also “two-phased”. He favoured suspicious words like “buoyancy”, too. 

PM Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign was sold as an attempt to fire up India’s manufacturing sector. But it had been faltering even before the pandemic. This long read in the NYTon Harley-Davidson riding off from India illustrates the malaise.

Rising income inequality has not been helping the economy, either. In ‘Modi’s Rockefeller’, the Financial Times writes on crony capitalism in India, using Gautam Adani to illustrate the concentration of power in India, with a little help from the party in power. “Critics of the corporate titan say his rise, which has been built on infrastructure, is symbolic of a system where too much power is in the hands of too few.”

 4G? No ji, not in Kashmir

The government claims that all has been well in Jammu and Kashmir, ever since the withdrawal of special status. But the ban on 3G and 4G services has been extended until November 26, suggesting otherwise. 

Covid: Greatest hits

India is back at number two on the global list, second only to the United States in adding new Covid-19 cases. France had briefly zoomed past India, sending it sliding to the third rank. But the pandemic continues to rage in India, especially in Delhi, where pollution is pushing up numbers, reported the BBC. The capital is shockingly unmindful, restrictions are being continuously eased, and the chief minister all set to to organise government prayers to the goddess of wealth, in a controversial ceremony to be aired live. At exactly 7.39 pm, Arvind Kejriwal said, the state cabinet and others would gather to pray together at Akshardham temple, to please divya shaktis or divine forces, and the city is invited to join in. Delhi may need prayers and more, as experts say it may be getting into its third wave. ICU beds are full up, a record 104 people died in Delhi yesterday, and Congress leader Sachin Pilot said he had tested positive. In alarm, the Delhi High Court has permitted the government to reserve 80% of ICU beds in 33 private hospitals for Covid-19 patients. 

AIIMS director Dr Randeep Guleria, in another statement on the vaccine (he has made three or four over the past few days), has said that India may get herd immunity before it gets the vaccine. Of course, herd immunity without vaccination comes at a huge human cost. 

The Long Cable

The joker in the pack

Pratik Kanjilal

When a public official in an apex institution takes a comedian seriously, he takes a small step towards those inland republics whose potentates raise golden statues of themselves and their favourite dogs, to encourage people to take them seriously. Attorney General KK Venugopal ventured down that path yesterday, when he recommended the initiation of contempt of court proceedings against the comedian Kunal Kamra, for his jibes against the Supreme Court. He has given the law an unimpeachably peachy opportunity to make an ass of itself, chasing after a clown who has ‘scandalised’ it, in the diction of criminal contempt law. 

Kamra’s scandalising tweets, in which he referred to the top court as a “Supreme joke”, were responses to the release on bail of Republic TV owner Arnab Goswami the day before. His tweets are being copied and tweeted afresh by others, in a small, electronic jail bharo campaign. 

Should Goswami have been denied bail? Of course not. Bail is a right, jail is the exception. Should the Supreme Court have granted bail? Of course not. It should have referred Goswami to the sessions court with jurisdiction, which has both the right and the responsibility to decide on bail pleas. The Supreme Court is the last court of appeal, to be approached after pleas in sessions and high courts fail, and particularly if a question of law is involved. By disturbing the order of the legal universe, the Supreme Court conveyed the impression that it was fine with a feral television anchor with good connections and an even better lawyer (Harish Salve took time off from the lucrative battle between Amazon and Future Retail to defend Goswami) jumping the queue. 

This was indeed disturbing because, apart from the thousands of routine undertrials who make the jail system creak at the seams, there are very substantial citizens in that particular queue. At the head is octogenarian poet Varavara Rao, who has just been denied bail yet again, though he is neither physically nor mentally capable of disrupting the course of his case if he were set free. It includes Anand Teltumbde and the women of Pinjra Tod, the sort of people who would just be scholars and activists in normal times, but are now prisoners of conscience. The argument that they are denied bail because they are held under draconian laws is scandalous. In normal times, those laws would not apply to their perceived offences. 

In the ‘70s, the higher judiciary earned ignominy for its failure to protect the nation from the excesses of Indira Gandhi. It redeemed itself in the ‘90s, when it supported public interest litigation which brought names like MC Mehta and Prashant Bhushan to the front page headlines, and the judiciary shouldered responsibilities that the legislatures and the executive had abdicated. The process of engagement with public affairs is perceived to have begun with strict execution of the writ of habeas corpus, which improved India’s standing on human rights at a time when police torture was commonplace. Later, as the ambit of the movement widened, so did its social effects ― it saved the Taj Mahal from destruction by pollution and liberated children in bonded labour.

Swerving from that tradition, the Supreme Court now offers us unpleasant novelties, like the delayed habeas corpus hearing of Saifuddin Soz, who had been held without due process for ten months. Then, the case was closed on the airy assurance of the Jammu & Kashmir administration that he was not detained, despite video evidence to the contrary. Soz was never under detention because no papers existed for his detention. The apex court accepted this Kafkaesque explanation. 

Courts and their constituent judges are insulated from the uproars of the public domain by the law of contempt, but they are part of the system nevertheless. They are closely watched by the public and the press for actions which militate against the spirit of the law. Contempt proceedings are seen as punitive, with a chilling effect on corrective criticism, to the detriment of democracy. The most recent litigation against contempt law was launched by Prashant Bhushan, Arun Shourie and N Ram this year. Significantly, two of the three are journalists. But the most trenchant objection to the law of contempt is that the concept of ‘scandalising’ the courts has no specific meaning. It has been removed from the statute books of the UK, from which our law of contempt derives. Legally, it is a hole in the void. 

It is patently obvious that the judiciary must not be brought into contempt or ‘scandalised’, whatever that means, or it could not remain the last refuge of democracy. But it should be equally obvious that the judiciary must not bring itself into contempt. It must not be seen to be ‘scandalous’, as it seemed to be when it offered a fast-track route to freedom for Arnab Goswami. Declining to take up the offer of the attorney general to proceed against a comedian would be a first step towards redemption. 

But what was Venugopal doing in the midst of a contest between a court and a comedian? He owes his dubious role to the recommendation of the HN Sanyal committee of 1961, which had recommended that contempt proceedings should not be initiated by ‘scandalised’ courts directly, but on the recommendation of a government law officer. The buffer of the law officer was interpolated, and remains in the Contempt of Courts Act (1971), to prevent judges from flying off the handle and embarrassing themselves. In this role, as in so many others, KK Venugopal is unreliable. In Prashant Bhushan’s contempt matter, he urged the court to be broad-minded. But now, he has invited the apex court to wrangle with the joker in the pack. Everyone knows who will win, well in advance. 

Amit Shah’s 404 out

A 404 moment crept up on Home Minister Amit Shah’s Twitter profile as his account got locked and his profile picture vanished briefly. Twitter cited “copyright violation” first, then an “inadvertent error”. But nothing to worry about, he’s back.

Twitter still hasn’t shown cause

India might lose access to Finger 4 on Pangong Tso and Depsang plains indefinitely to China but it will ensure, at least, that Twitter’s geo-tagging of Ladakh is correct. The Information Technology Ministry has directed Twitter to explain within five working days why legal action should not be initiated against the micro-blogging platform and its representatives for disrespecting the territorial integrity of India with an incorrect map. The notice was issued to the global vice-president of Twitter on November 9. 

ABVP pushes Arundhati off reading list

The Manonmaniam Sundaranar University in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu has decided to withdraw Arundhati Roy’s book Walking with the Comrades from its postgraduate English syllabus after complaints from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the RSS. The book details Roy’s visits to Maoist hideouts. Roy has been a vocal critic of BJP rule in India and the party’s Hindutva agenda, and has said that bans and purges do not prevent writers from being read.

The university’s decision has been met with widespread condemnation in Tamil Nadu. Madurai CPI(M) MP S Venkatesan was among the first to react and demanded that the decision be immediately withdrawn. DMK MP Kanimozhi tweeted that a “society’s diversity will be distorted if administrative power and politics decide what is art, what is literature and what students should read.” The Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association had announced a meeting on November 12 to condemn the incident.

Deep Dive

On the mind

Health is top of the mind this year, but mental health does not receive the attention it deserves. A paper looks at how different social categories report differing levels of mental health.

Analysing data from a WHO survey conducted in six Indian states in 2007-2008, scholars Diane Coffey, Aashish Gupta and Meghna Mungikar demonstrate that Scheduled Castes and Muslims have worse (self-reported) mental health than upper-caste Hindus – even after accounting for differences in education and asset ownership. 

Prime Number: 2/3
Nearly two-thirds of India’s working women lost their jobs in April 2020 and few had returned by August, ongoing research at the Azim Premji University has found. Covid and the lockdown have impacted different people in different ways, and to different degrees. The more vulnerable are hit harder. 

Kids left vulnerable to measles

India failed to vaccinate 1.2 million infants against measles in 2019, says WHO. Six countries, with the highest number of infants left unvaccinated apart from India, include Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippines.

A two-front air threat

In the backdrop of worsening Sino-Indian ties amid the ongoing border friction in eastern Ladakh, a Pakistani movie showing the JF-17 fighter aircraft jointly developed with China and referencing a dogfight with Mirage-2000s flown by the Indian air force premiered in Beijing on Wednesday. A dogfight early in the movie shows the Pakistani air force fighting three Mirage-2000s, flying in from the eastern sector. 

The first Pakistani film to be released in China in decades, Parwaaz Hai Junoon (The Soaring Ambition) will be in theatres on November 13. Despite strained Sino-Indian ties, Bollywood movies have an audience in China. The Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal was the biggest hit in China in 2017. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The lead editorial in The Hindu terms the Supreme Court’s “recent record of evading and postponing hearings on many matters concerning fundamental rights and constitutional questions that affect the rights of large sections of society is a veritable story of judicial abdication”. It finds selective bail for anchor Arnab Goswami “somewhat galling”. Revathi Siva Kumar compares the arrests of Father Stan Swamy and Arnab Goswami, and the differential treatment they received, in The Leaflet.

  • With a very diminished Nitish Kumar thanking Narendra Modi, with Ram Vilas Paswan no more and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s path out of jail seeming uncertain, was this the last Mandal election in Bihar? Seema Chishti, a contributor to The India Cable, posits that the social justice plank is there to stay in Bihar, if not fully but in a substantial manner.

  • The world’s populists may regret embracing Trump, says Mihir Sharma ― not a few supposed nationalists put their own political interests ahead of those of their nations.

  • Karan Thapar does some tough talking on former bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah’s account of his ‘Rajiv Years’. Himself a Dosco (Doon School) alumnus, Thapar writes that too much affection between friends, as Habibullah and Rajiv certainly were, can get in the way of an honest appraisal.

  • Barack Obama’s memoirs will be out next week. He writes in The Atlantic that he still has hope in his country. The article speaks to people beyond the US, in almost all democracies, who aspire for more fraternity and empathy, and want people to be at their very best.

Listen up

James Staples, reader in social anthropology at Brunel University, London, discusses with Sneha Annavarapu how food can be implicated in riots, vigilante attacks, and even murders, but demands that we look beyond immediate politics to wider contexts.

He talks about his book Sacred Cows and Chicken Manchurian: The Everyday Politics of Eating Meat in India (University of Washington Press, 2020) which charts how cattle owners, brokers, butchers, cooks, and occasional beef eaters navigate the contemporary political and cultural climate. Staples offers a fine-grained exploration of the current situation, locating it within the wider anthropology of food and eating in the region, and revealing critical aspects of what it is to be Indian in the early twenty-first century.

Watch Out

Kapil Dev tees off

Watch one of India’s finest cricketers, Kapil Dev, move on to the tee session after recovering from cardiac trouble which was reported widely. Here he is, taking a swinging and fit as a fiddle

Rahul a diligent student, not a master

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s review of Barack Obama’s new book, A Promised Land, tells us that at least three Indians feature in the much-awaited memoir. All three are from the Congress party. Former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh has an impassive integrity, Sonia Gandhi’s beauty is an honourable exception in a book which describes the physical looks of men but not of women, and Rahul Gandhi has “a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down, lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.”

The former Chinese leader Hu Jintao may also not have been a good student. Adichie says that Obama’s book recounts how in a private meeting, Hu wouldn’t converse but instead read from a bundle of papers he came armed with. Obama, she says, considered suggesting “that we could save each other time by just exchanging papers and reading them at our leisure.” 

The book is embargoed by Penguin Random House till November 17 but Adichie and/or the NYT got to jump the queue. Which brings us back to …

Supreme Court joke

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.