The India Cable: Kumbh Could Be Maha-Spreader; India Is Deeply Unhappy

Plus: Take 2nd Covid jab after 6-8 weeks, with democracy downturn, India chasing Pakistan, AIIMS investigates effect of Gayatri Mantra and pranayam on Covid, no bail for Stan Swamy

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 22, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Today, the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh will sign an agreement to link the Ken and Betwa rivers, to even out water surplus and deficit areas. Linking rivers has been planned from the Seventies, but there is a cost:

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh, is investigating if chanting the Gayatri Mantra and doing pranayam can help cure coronavirus, along with conventional treatment. The study has been commissioned by the Department of Science & Technology. The speed of recovery with and without the mantra and pranayam will be compared. Take a deep breath.

The New York Times reports from the epicentre of the Covid-19 wave in Maharashtra. With a painfully slow rate of vaccination, it encounters demands to open up vaccination for everyone aged 18 and up to prevent a second wave. It notes that an intensified vaccination drive would have implications for other countries, if India appreciates that charity begins at home and slows down vaccine diplomacy. A vaccine shipment to the UK is already delayed. Meanwhile, the health ministry in India has now officially advised the second covid vaccine shot he taken “6-8 weeks after the first”, rather than the 4 weeks it had earlier prescribed. Experts have been suggesting this delay for some time now, as a means of increasing efficacy.

According to data issued by Health Canada, flights from New Delhi to Toronto are bringing in the largest number of international passengers testing positive for the novel coronavirus. There are two daily flights between the two cities, operated by Air India and Air Canada. In the period March 3-19, almost all New Delhi-Toronto flights carried Covid-positive passengers.

By ensuring that two of its best professors step down, Ashoka University has ensured that diminishing freedoms in India get the global spotlight. Some of the world’s best scholars have weighed in, and The Guardian and Time magazine have stories of interest to the démarche-happy Ministry of External Affairs. A joint statement by the trustees, chancellor and vice-chancellor of the institution, along with Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian, who have quit, acknowledges “lapses in institutional processes” but nothing more concrete than that.

The elder brother of the Hathras gang rape and murder victim has filed an affidavit stating that his counsel and he were threatened in the courtroom of the Special Judge (SC/ST), Hathras, on March 5. He has sought a stay on the trial proceedings, apprehending a miscarriage of justice. The Allahabad High Court has asked the District Judge, Hathras, and the Inspector-General of the Central Reserve Police Force to look into the allegations and submit a report within 15 days.

A report by Bloomberg suggests the recent thaw in the India-Pakistan ties, with the LoC cesaefire agreement back in play was the product of mediation by the United Arah Emirates. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan tested positive for Covid-19 two days after being vaccinated. On a populous section of Indians, his setback has had the same effect as laughing gas. Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday and has been admitted to AIIMS in Delhi.This is serious. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat has also tested positive for Covid. He became a walking, talking meme last week after saying that ripped jeans are destroying Indian culture, has now said that the US ruled India for 200 years, when it had a global empire upon which the sun never set. Rawat was Uttarakhand’s first minister of state for education, following the creation of the state in 2000. 

Rawat also blamed people for not having enough children. “Now, brother, who is to blame for this? He produced 20 (children) and you produced only two. So he gets a quintal of ration. When there was time you produced only two, why not 20? Now, why jealousy?” said the CM while talking about government schemes of ration distribution on Sunday in Ramnagar, Nainital.


Pawar seeks probe into ‘murky’ mess, Ribeiro flees

NCP supremo Sharad Pawar has said the allegations made by top cop Param Bir Singh against Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh are serious and a decision on the minister’s resignation will be taken after consulting Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. Pawar, the architect of the coalition government in Maharashtra, also hit out at Singh, saying that the allegation of Deshmukh running an extortion racket followed his transfer from the office of commissioner of Mumbai Police to an insignificant post. He said there were two sets of allegations, one against the home minister and another against the former Mumbai Police commissioner. 

“There has to be an in-depth inquiry. It should be led by an officer who enjoys respect within the police and reputation among the masses. My suggestion to the chief minister would be to order an inquiry led by Julio Ribeiro,” Pawar told reporters in Mumbai. Pawar also ruled out any link between suspended assistant police inspector Sachin Waze and the coalition government, contending that the officer was reinstated by the Commissioner of Police himself and not by the home minister or the chief minister. He said there was no proof of any transaction between Waze and Deshmukh and termed the allegations of Rs 100 crore per month collection in bribes as “laughable”. Ribeiro has said that he “wouldn’t touch [the case] with a bargepole”.


Kumbh maha-surge anticipated

Covid-19 is surging again. Maharashtra reported an astounding 30,535 new cases yesterday.  The Union Health Secretary has written to the Uttarakhand state government, red-flagging next month’s Kumbh Mela as a potential super-spreader. A Health Ministry team reports that 10-20 pilgrims and as many locals at the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, are found positive every day, and an “upsurge” is possible. To put pilgrims at ease, the new Chief Minister of Uttarakhand had said that no Covid testing is required to attend.

A Gujarat BJP MLA has said workers of his party do not get infected with novel coronavirus because they work hard. Reporters had asked Rajkot (South) legislator Govind Patel if the flouting of guidelines by political leaders and workers during poll campaigning was causing a spike in cases.


Modi in Bangladesh this week, politicking

Bangladesh has ruled out any security threat to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to the country later this week and said a “few” left wing and hardline Islamist groups are opposing it, but there is “nothing to worry” about. Numerous groups in Bangladesh recently staged demonstrations against Modi’s visit, protesting against India’s new citizenship laws of 2019. 

Modi will visit Bangladesh March 26-27, officially to attend the celebrations of the golden jubilee of the country’s independence and the birth centenary of its founder ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But he will also visit two Hindu temples in southwestern Satkhira and Gopalganj districts, largely inhabited by the Hindu Matua community. The community in West Bengal has been courted by the prime minister for years.


No bail for octogenarian priest

Father Stan Swamy, who is 84 and has already spend five months in custody in the dodgy Bhima Koregaon case, was denied bail today. His lawyers said the fact that he was arrested two years after being named as an accused in the case meant his custody was not necessary to prevent his flight. One of the arguments the National Investigation Agency made in court to oppose bail was that Swamy had used those two years to campaign for the release of the other activists arrested in the case.


On Myanmar refugees, Mizoram dismisses Centre’s deportation order

Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga on Sunday held a meeting with Myanmar’s shadow Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung (of the deposed Aung San Suu Kyi government) on the current political situation and the hardships being faced by the Zo ethnic people in the neighbouring country. Speaking at the virtual meeting, in which US-based Mizo leaders also participated, Zoramthanga extended solidarity to the Zo ethnic people of Myanmar, who have become victims of “persecution and atrocities” after the military junta took power, he said. Fleeing atrocities, over 500 people from Myanmar have crossed over to Mizoram in the last few weeks, even as the Modi government directed the four Myanmar-bordering Northeastern states to prevent illegal immigration and ensure expeditious deportation. 

On March 18, Zoramthanga had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking asylum and relief for refugees fleeing the humanitarian crisis. Most bordering areas in Myanmar are inhabited by the Chin communities, who share the ancestry and ethnicity of the Mizos, he mentioned, dismissing the Union Home Ministry’s advisory to check illegal influx as “not acceptable”.


US SecDef discussed human rights concerns with Jaishankar

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday said concerns about human rights in India were raised during his meeting with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. At a media briefing in Delhi, Austin was asked if he shared concerns about democracy, human rights violations and curbs on farmers’ protests. He said: “I did not discuss it with PM Modi. But I did have a discussion on it with other members of the Cabinet.”

On imposing sanctions on India for the proposed purchase of Russian missile batteries, Austin said: “Since the S-400 has not yet been acquired (by India), there is no reason for sanctions. We are aware they (India) have expressed interest in it.” He said: “We urge our allies to move away from Russian equipment and avoid any kind of acquisitions that could trigger sanctions on our behalf.” Austin also said the US never considered that India and China could go to war during the military standoff in Eastern Ladakh.


The Long Cable

‘Do people dare to support a democracy in circumstances like these?’

The Swedish V-Dem Institute at Gothenburg University has been clocking the journey of the world’s democracies, including India’s (since 1947) . Its ‘Democracy Report 2021’, released on March 10, is only the latest to discuss democratic backsliding in India, and it termed India an ‘electoral autocracy’. Sten Widmalm, Professor of Political Science at the Department of Government, Uppsala University, has been associated with V-Dem’s work. He spoke to Seema Chishti of The India Cable on why this democratic decline matters.

SC: Most democracy indices give the working of the Indian Election Commission a miss, but it is in the top three of V-Dem’s criteria. Why did you fix upon it?

SW: I have been looking at India and South Asia from the early 1990s, writing on it – I travel there, too – so I could see the shift in how the EC was conducting itself. Several reports have managed to emerge, stating that this is happening. So many human rights and Dalit activists are commenting on it. The Citizens’ Commission report is detailed and describes what is happening. We are all familiar with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adviser Vladislav Surkov’s term, ‘managed democracy’. Control over several key institutions, the media, the judiciary and the body conducting elections is key to getting there, so our antennae went up.

Holding elections and telling the world that polls and courts exist is important for countries which trade with them [‘managed democracies’], or supply arms to them. [For such nations,] it is important to call themselves democracies and get ranked among them. Election commissions conduct the polls, which makes them an important institution to look out for.

SC: Why should the rating India has been given concern the world?

SW: Of grave concern are the citizenship laws that discriminate against people of a certain religion. That is a big warning sign, and that concerns me. New procedures and the way they are instituted, like how Article 370 was abolished in Jammu & Kashmir by usurping the powers of the local Assembly and giving them to the Centre – so many rules have been broken there. This has serious consequences. The way people are being jailed for saying basic things, which they must. Not too many people need to be arrested like this, just a small sample is enough. This is being used as a way to signal to the rest of the country, about how they would be treated if they were to speak up. India also does not have a strong Opposition now, and that compounds the problem.

SC: What are the odds of countries crawling back up once they slide down?

SW: Recovery is tricky. But in the US, institutions were strong, there were enough numbers who believed in and wanted democracy, so the system pulled back. It can be done. I am not completely cynical about India, but institutions have become weakened. There has to be democratic thinking among the people, and they must want to save democracy. But that is where the intimidation process comes up – do people dare to support a democracy in circumstances like these?

SC: What does the South Asian region look like today?

SW: The decline in South Asia is depressing. China as a role model is having a very bad influence on all this, as it is almost totalitarian, and it makes it seem as if being a democracy is about being weak. In India, the thinking that democracy is a ‘Western construct’ is being promoted, which is so wrong. They are forgetting how hard Indians have fought for this democracy! India was a big influence in the South Asian context, with such a large area and large numbers. It was almost exercising a gravitational-like pull, affecting its surrounding areas. In India, policies took a sharp turn downwards from 2019, but we see a dip from 2014.

SC: Can you think of a country whose experience India now mimics?

SW: India, in my view, is chasing Pakistan. That is terrible, I know. In Pakistan we saw a slight upward movement in 2007-2008, when a democratic transfer of power took place. Otherwise, it has always been slightly downwards in Pakistan. Unfortunately, currently, India appears to be going that way.


Reportedly

On the press, the Modi government’s actions speak louder than its words. The ruling dispensation has gradually restricted the entry of media persons to several ministries and Parliament House. It was helped in this exercise by the year-long pandemic, when the fear of infection was used to keep out journalists. These restrictions remain in place though the government never fails to point out how it succeeded in containing the coronavirus pandemic. Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla has been proactive in denying access to journalists to Parliament. Not only has entry to Parliament been severely restricted but now, even the routine exercise of renewing a journalist’s annual pass has become problematic. Apparently, applications have been sent to the Speaker’s office for further scrutiny.


Prime Number: 139
That’s India’s depressing ranking out of 149 countries in the UN World Happiness Report 2021, issued by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. It ranks the world’s 149 countries on “how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be”. Finland has been ranked as the happiest country in the world, followed by Iceland, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and Norway. Pakistan is in the 105th place, Bangladesh is 101st and China 84th, according to the report. People in war-torn Afghanistan are the most unhappy with their lives, followed by Zimbabwe (148), Rwanda (147), Botswana (146) and Lesotho (145). 

Ranjan Gogoi’s year of silence in parliament

When former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi accepted the Modi government’s invitation to enter parliament last March as a nominated member of the upper house – something none of his predecessors had ever done – he brushed aside allegations of impropriety and said he would serve as the voice of the judiciary in the legislature. But an audit of his first year as a parliamentarian suggests Gogoi has not been much of a voice, let alone for anyone or any institution. The Rajya Sabha’s website says he attended sessions on just three days and never asked a single question, never participated in a single debate and never raised a single ‘calling attention’ motion.


Trump restricted citizenship, Biden opens it up

The Indian PM sang of ‘Abki baar Trumpsarkar’, but it is the administration of Joe Biden which has paved the way for citizenship for H-1B visa holders’ children and other immigrants. The passage by the House by 228-197 votes of the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 was welcomed by President Biden, who described it as a critical first step in reforming the country’s immigration system. Millions of undocumented immigrants, some migrant farmworkers and children whose parents immigrated legally to the country stand to benefit.


Deep Dive

Hunt for missing soldier

Shakir Manzoor, an Indian army soldier from Kashmir, went missing eight months ago. His father has mounted a solitary search for his body and spends his days digging. He has found four unidentified corpses so far in his quest for his son’s remains, and is determined to make it possible for the family to bury him in a graveyard outside their home. “I will keep searching for him till the morning of Judgement Day,” he said. Safwat Zargar has the details.


Indian composer loses out in rights battle with Singapore

Mumbai-based composer Joseph Mendoza has withdrawn his claim to a Singapore national song and apologised for the “confusion caused”, Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) said. Mendoza had claimed earlier that he composed ‘We Can Achieve’ in 1983, three years before the creation of ‘Count on Me, Singapore’, which is apparently very similar, after footage of a performance of the former went viral last week.

The lyric of ‘We Can Achieve’ is the same as that of ‘Count on Me, Singapore’, apart from the substitution of ‘India’ or ‘Mother India’ for ‘Singapore’ and a minor difference in one of the verses. However, Mendoza could not establish his rights to ‘We Can Achieve’, while the development of Singapore’s national song is well-documented. The Ministry, which holds rights to the song, updated on Sunday that it has closed the case after receiving an apology from Mendoza.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Economist and former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan writes on LinkedIn that free speech is the soul of a great university, and by compromising on it, the founders of Ashoka University have bartered away its soul.

  • Ruing the reopening of the question of the constitutional validity of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which came into force on Sept 18, 1991, AG Noorani says it is the same plan, misusing the law, religion and politics that was used in the Babri Masjid matter from the beginning.

  • Vir Sanghvi’s review of Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil’s book on the Emergency suggests that India has not learnt any lessons from it, and the spirit of the Emergency-era Indira Gandhi still rules India.


Listen Up

In Hoysala country

On The Musafir Stories, Pavan Srinath takes listeners on a journey to the temples of the Hoysala kingdom in Karnataka.


Watch Out

Social media for hacks

Watch Alan Rusbridger, legendary journalist, former editor of The Guardian and author of Breaking News, speak at the Chameli Devi Jain Awards on ‘What Journalists Must Learn From Social Media’.

(Rusbridger starts at 24:09)


Over and Out

Shoot, don’t dance

The New York Times profiles Chandro Tomar, whose male relatives tried to forbid her trips to a shooting range. Now, the 89-year-old grandmother is believed to be the oldest professional sharpshooter in the world, and has dozens of medals to show for it. 

Thirteen teachers including the Principal of Rajendra College in Chhapra, Bihar, were suspended and transferred for joining students on stage and shaking a leg to a Sapna Chowdhry number. A cellphone video (see below) was used as evidence by sourpuss uncles, who account for India’s poor showing in the happiness ratings. 


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.