The India Cable: Ladakh Pullback Talks Succeed, But Much Left Unsaid; Bhima Koregaon Rests on Planted Evidence

Plus: For vaccine coverage, door-to-door better than buggy software, Ayodhya blueprint to be chalked out, Muslims unwelcome tenants, India’s surprising libraries and is Ghulam really Azad?

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

The Long Cable

Disengagement only a start, too much left unsaid

Sushant Singh

Even though Parliament is in session and the Prime Minister was speaking in the Lok Sabha, news of the beginning of disengagement on the Sino-India border in eastern Ladakh was first put out by the Chinese news site Global Times yesterday afternoon, in a terse, one-line statement. There was no official response from the Indian government, although information from “sources” was all over the news channels and portals. It was only today, i.e. Friday, that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made official statements in both Houses of Parliament.

He clarified that the two sides had agreed on complete disengagement at Pangong, and the process had started on the north and south banks. This forward deployment will be removed by both sides in a ‘phased, coordinated and verified manner”. The Indian side will step back to its Dhan Singh Thapa post at Finger 3 on the north bank, while Chinese troops will return to the east of Finger 8. Neither side will patrol this area, which India used to patrol, until it is mutually agreed upon after diplomatic and military talks. Constructions erected by both armies after April 2020 will be removed in the two areas. As for other areas of dispute in Ladakh – this includes Depsang, Galwan and Demchok, names not mentioned by the minister – there will be further talks between senior commanders 48 hours after the Pangong disengagement is completed.

Significant issues were conspicuous by their absence in the statement: there was no mention of restoration of status quo ante as of April 2020, but it was stated that the disengagement was aimed at restoration of peace and tranquillity in the border areas. This was officially stated in the Modi government’s answer in Parliament on the Ladakh border crisis yesterday as well. By agreeing to not patrol areas that were being patrolled earlier on the north bank, India has made a significant concession for the sake of peace and tranquillity, even though the minister claimed that “we have lost nothing during these talks”.

The second missing item was the Depsang plains in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector – the one area which the Indian side has been reluctant to talk about. There has been no discussion on the strategically vital area in this deal, and it will be taken up separately. If India’s military leverage lay in controlling the heights on the southern bank, the only equivalent exchange would have been with Depsang. It would have ensured that India does not lose control of the area, which has a direct bearing on its control of the Siachen glacier, and has been the primary challenge in every wargame of Northern Command over the last two decades.

Let us remember that this is not the first announcement of disengagement by the two armies on the LAC after the crisis erupted in May 2020. The Galwan clash of June 15, in which India lost 20 soldiers and 10 others were taken captive by the Chinese, happened during the disengagement process. There were other false starts in the areas of PP14, PP15 and PP17, despite numerous news reports in July claiming that it was a precisely defined and mutually agreed process. This is not to suggest that the current attempt is bound to meet the fate of earlier disengagement attempts, but to recognise that the process is complex and uncertain, worsened by an environment of deep mistrust and hostility between the two armies on the disputed border.

This is only the beginning of a disengagement process, which is both “simultaneous and systematic”. It is only a first step, and limited to both banks of Pangong, and many unanswered questions remain. These fears emerge from the experience of the disengagement at Doklam in 2017, where the two armies supposedly disengaged from the face-off point, but the Chinese soldiers deployed a couple of hundred yards away and eventually created a modern military base. Celebrations about resolving the crisis at Doklam to mutual satisfaction were evidently premature. While the territory in Doklam was Bhutanese, the current crisis is on Indian territory and thus holds far greater importance.

Finally, this announcement by the Chinese military makes clear the reason for the Modi government’s reluctance to agree to a leader-level summit of Quad. Japan Times has reported that the US offer of a virtual summit was awaiting an Indian nod, as Japan and Australia had already given their consent. While the US transcripts of initial calls between President Joe Biden and PM Narendra Modi, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar mentioned the Quad, the Indian statements did not. Unlike Japan and Australia, India is not a treaty ally of the US, and is the only country in the grouping that has a land border with China. Its primary challenges are continental, and it will have to find its own unique way to deal with them. The welcome start of disengagement at Pangong should be seen against that backdrop.

Snapshot of the day
February 11, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The government’s case in the Bhima Koregaon matter stands severely compromised by the forensic audit of the laptop of a detenu infected with the remote access Trojan NetWire, which was used to inject hidden directories containing documents with criminal content onto his hard drive. NetWire is well-documented malware and has been used in phishing scams from 2012. But after access was secured by a standard botnet operation driven by machines, human agency seems to have taken over ― someone with domain knowledge dropped incriminating files in the detenu’s laptop. In other words, the authorities had made arrests on the basis of nothing, since there was nothing seditious about the Bhima Koregaon event, which was widely videographed. But the problematic files, which form the basis of the case, were found after the arrest. A lucky windfall! Usually, ‘luck’ is just good planning.

India is fielding multiple googlies from the US. By “welcoming” the resumption of 4G internet connectivity in Kashmir, the US State Department has conveyed how unwelcome India’s moves to suppress voices in Kashmir have been. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki did not directly answer a query on the Indian government cutting internet services at farmers’ protest sites, but said: “We always have concerns about crackdowns on freedom of speech, freedom of expression, happening around the world, when it doesn’t allow people to communicate and peacefully protest.”

India and China have started a pullback in eastern Ladakh, but there is still scepticism among commentators about where this disengagement might lead. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh spoke a lot in the House for a government that has held no briefings on one of the toughest situations on the border in decades. His tone was both defensive and self-congratulatory. The Opposition protested as no questions were allowed. “I want to assure this House that in these talks we have not conceded anything,” Singh said. “The House should also know that there are still some outstanding issues with regard to deployment and patrolling at some other points along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh.” For what he should have said but couldn’t, see The Long Cable above.

In the Lok Sabha, the Prime Minister spoke despite a Congress-led Opposition boycott, because the farm laws have not been repealed. Trying to temper his ‘andolanjeevi’ charge, which had angered farmers, he said that the “purity” of their movement had been compromised by motivated agitators. It cut no ice and the farmers have announced a four-hour nationwide Rail Roko agitation on February 18. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha has added that highway toll collection will not be allowed in Rajasthan from February 12.

The Enforcement Directorate raid on independent digital portal NewsClick and the homes of its directors and editors ended late last night, after 36 hours. The site continued to do what it does ― report the news. Even after it had become the news itself. The Supreme Court has again denied bail to Assam activist Akhil Gogoi. He was arrested in December 2019 for opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

The Madras High Court’s Madurai Bench has dismissed a petition seeking to direct the state government to issue an order declaring Lord Muruga a ‘Tamil’ God, saying that it would “damage the federal and secular fabric of this great nation”. Which seems as good a reason as any. Wasim Jaffer, the former Indian Test cricketer is the latest high-profile Muslim to be subjected to communal paranoia. Petrol and diesel prices yesterday scaled new highs in the country as rates were hiked for the second day running. Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan told Parliament that there was no proposal to reduce flaring prices, which are mostly taxes.

Bhima Koregaon case rests on planted evidence

The Washington Post and other media report that key evidence against some activists and intellectuals arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case was planted using a remote access Trojan on a laptop seized by police. A new forensics report by Arsenal Consulting, a US digital forensics firm, found that an attacker used malware to infiltrate the laptop of researcher and human rights activist Rona Wilson before his arrest, and deposited at least 10 incriminating letters on his computer. The hack was initiated using the email account of another detenu, the aging poet Varavara Rao, and documents dropped in hidden folders contained incriminating material. 

The Pune Police used letters it found on the laptop as primary evidence in the chargesheet filed in the Bhima Koregaon case. Wilson’s laptop was compromised “for just over 22 months”, the report said, adding that the attacker’s primary goals were “surveillance and incriminating document delivery”. Forensic examination reveals that the hidden folder was never opened, and the incriminating documents were composed in a version of Word way ahead of what Wilson had installed. “This is one of the most serious cases involving evidence tampering that Arsenal has ever encountered,” the report added. The president of Arsenal Consulting released a statement, too. Canada-based Citizens’ Lab, which had unearthed the Israeli spy software Pegasus which was used by governments to target activists, including murdered Saudi journalist Khashoggi, backed the findings.

Wilson has moved the Bombay High Court asking for a SIT enquiry into the incriminating evidence which was reportedly planted. Wilson and 15 other activists, academics and lawyers have been in jail for over two years under charges that his and criminal lawyer Surendra Gadling’s computers contained letters about a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Modi and overthrow the government. Following the forensic report, evidence from the infected computers, which form the bedrock of the Bhima Koregaon case, must be regarded as forged, his lawyers say.

Standoff with Twitter continues

Late last night, the Secretary of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology  held a virtual interaction with senior Twitter Global representatives. The context for this meeting was the order issued by the government directing Twitter to remove tweets and accounts using hashtags related to ‘farmer genocide’, and accounts supported by Khalistan sympathisers and backed by Pakistan. 

In a statement issued by the government, the Secretary told Twitter representatives that “India has a robust mechanism for protection of freedom of speech and expression that is very elaborately explained as Fundamental Rights under Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India. But freedom of expression is not absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions as mentioned in Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India. Various judgments of the Supreme Court have also upheld this from time to time.” Whether IT Act Rules – the drafting of which is more or less the sole prerogative of the executive – can grant the government the right curtail online speech on grounds that appear to go beyond the constitutionally specified restrictions is, of course, a matter of debate.

In a very odd comparison, the government “reminded Twitter about the action taken by Twitter during the Capitol Hill episode in the USA and compared that with the disturbance in Red Fort in India and its aftermath.” “Deep disappointment” was expressed by the government but it appears to want to draw a line under the battle as Twitter has held its ground and may well be too big to ban. Besides, it is important for government communications, propaganda and the demonisation of opponents.

Minister for Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad spoke in Parliament in generalities on how the Constitution must be followed by social media companies. Early today, the US State Department also weighed in. In response to a question about Twitter in India, spokesman Ned Price said that the US was “committed to supporting democratic values, including freedom of expression” around the world. 

Sarkari Twitter Koos

Government ministers are pushing supporters of the BJP to the indigenous Twitter alternative Koo, while Twitter is threatened with legal action. This report has details about the funders of Koo including a Chinese investor. As part of a tie-up with Republic Bharat, the channel trends daily hashtags on Koo and then features posts. This thread also puts Koo in perspective, as an “alternative social network” in the mould of Parler and Gab, an important platform of the American Right during the Trump presidency. Koo leaks personal data and cannot possibly gather a large user base unless Twitter is blocked.   

App glitches could set back vaccine plans

India is betting on glitchy software to inoculate 300 million people by August, says Varsha Bansal in this detailed report in the MIT Technology Review. Instead of using the successful door-to-door approach, it’s scaling up a new system linked to fingerprints and iris scans, she finds, pursuing its fascination with digital solutions.


Ghulam or Azad?

After PM Narendra Modi’s teary speech praising Congress MP Ghulam Nabi Azad in the Rajya Sabha and, Azad reciprocating with just simper and whimper and no bang in his farewell speech (and later, too), speculation is rife about the future of the senior leader from Jammu and Kashmir. Some visualised Azad as a potential NDA candidate for the post of Vice-President or Rajya Sabha Chairperson. Others, citing the Congress’ “G-23” letter, saw in Azad a possible saffron face in Jammu and Kashmir, where the government plans to hold elections sometime in the future. It is desperate to take control of the former state in a manner acceptable to the international community, and has been taken aback by the latter’s strong criticism of detentions and internet restrictions, which it has not been able to control. Azad, if he is willing, might prove to be the perfect counterfoil, and appointing him governor would hurt the Congress, too. Major newspapers like the Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Indian Express were deeply appreciative of the ‘cordiality’ on display. But a little birdie, neither Twitter nor Koo, tells us that it’s anything but.

Ayodhya blueprint

A consortium of Delhi-bases CP Kukreja Architects, Canada-based Lea Associates and L&T has been selected to chalk out the blueprint of the master plan for Ayodhya, and finalise the outlay and rollout schedule of the 1,200-acre project. 

Inter-faith law in MP harasses Christians, minor picked up in UP

In a month since the enactment of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Ordinance to regulate interfaith marriages and conversion, 28 people have been booked, over half of them Christians ― 67%. Christians accuse the state government of targeting social workers. 

In UP, a minor, in Bareilly district was booked under the new unlawful conversion ordinance days after a minor girl with whom he had eloped made allegations of rape and coercion to change her faith. The 17-year-old is intriguingly in hospital for an “old ailment”, say the police.

Muslim? Sorry, no house to let

Bigotry is rampant in India’s largest cities, and reflected in rental markets, finds law professor Mohsin Alam Bhat. The Housing Discrimination Project interviewed 340 brokers, tenants and owners over three years.

WhatsApp slips in non-gaming apps

Telegram topped the list of the most downloaded non-gaming apps globally in January 2021, reports Sensor Tower. WhatsApp slipped to the fifth position in January, from third position in December. Annoyed with Facebook-owned WhatsApp’s latest privacy policies, millions of users downloaded Telegram and Signal. India tops the number of Telegram app downloads ― 24% of the total global downloads, a reflection of public anxieties.

Deep Dive

Land rights being diluted

Zamindari abolition was one of the biggest agendas after Independence. Twenty-one states passed laws to limit land ownership. But now, 50% of these states have diluted laws to favour industries and developers, Flavia Lopes and Mridula Chari find.

Prime Number: 498.17 crore
The outstandings which the Centre and states owe Air India as on December 31, 2020, for VVIP travel, evacuation operations and the travel of foreign dignitaries, among other services, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri told Parliament yesterday.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Edmond Roy writes in the Lowy Institute’s daily journal on “crushing dissent in a new, paranoid India”. He says that today, India is facing a far more noisy, dangerous and altogether more effortless move into authoritarianism than the Emergency was.

  • Prabhat Patnaik says the anti-colonial movement ushered in a social revolution, to which this government is a counter-revolution, but it will collapse as it has no economics to offer and farmer protests are the first step of its collapse.

  • Karnataka’s anti-cow slaughter law neither protects cows, nor the poor who tend to them, writes Chukki Nanjundaswamy. Apart from stoking communalism, such laws will only reduce dwindling bovine populations, as farmers have nowhere to go to sell their older cows and buffaloes, thus reducing incentives to rear them.

  • Antibody surveys do not signal the end of the pandemic in India, warns Dr K Srinath Reddy. While we have reason to be optimistic, we shouldn’t be beguiled into the belief that nationwide herd immunity has already arrived.

  • In all of India, the BJP has only one elected Muslim MLA, Aminul Haque Laskar, who was elected from Sonai in Assam, and who was recently elected Deputy Speaker of the Assembly. What does selecting a Muslim minister in Bihar, Shahnawaz Hussain, signify, Amitabh Tewari asks.

  • Ritika Goyal and Shrutika Pandey write about attacks on journalists and fear that even a law to protect them may not matter much, as social polarisation is to blame.

  • The Hindu editorial on the NewsClick raids expresses concern about independent media. “The present regime’s record is quite dismal when it comes to the obvious use of central agencies such as the CBI, ED, IT and even the NIA, to rein in dissenting voices.” Deccan Herald takes a dim view of PM Modi trying to make protest a bad word. It opines that it is the “very essence” of a democracy.

Listen up

While Covid-19 surges around the world and mutates, India’s Covid deaths dropped below 100 per day for the first time since May. Dr Gagandeep Kang analyses the phenomenon.

Watch Out

Audrey Truschke, Supriya Gandhi and Arshia Sattar, with Rana Safvi, examine the intersections of language, history and culture, and the plurality that allowed Mughal royalty to engage in the translation of the epics and the Upanishads. They deliberate on our understanding of concepts embedded in the ancient texts, as we look back over centuries through their work on Sanskrit writings at the Mughal court ― Hamida Banu Begum’s Ramayana, Dara Shikoh and the translation of the Upanishads, and offer contemporary readings of epic texts.

Roadside libraries, black humour and Trevor Noah, too

At the Tikri border, pro bono lawyer Jagtar Singh Sidhu, who represents the protesting farmers, has started a footpath library to educate them about the shared heritage of Punjab on either side of the border ― and indeed, of the human family, with authors ranging from Nelson Mandela to Paash and Tony Joseph. In Kerala, Shukkur Pedayangode, whose tiny but very literary tea shop once hosted informal discussions with Vivek Shanbhag, Perumal Murugan, Paul Zacharia and M Mukundan, among other authors, was wiped out by the pandemic, but plans to be back.  

Stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui in an Instagram post yesterday thanked people for their support during his stint in jail for a joke he never cracked. It was a cryptic post on inner darkness and making people laugh.

A post shared by Munawar Faruqui (@munawar.faruqui)

He appears to be getting his mojo back.

And Trevor Noah looks for answers to the central question: why are India’s farmers protesting? 

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.