The India Cable: Left in Kerala Rights a Wrong, Madhya Pradesh Probes Unsuitable Kiss

Plus: Tunnelling like moles on both fronts, Kumbh Covid spike looms, Goa greens ‘foreign forces’, Ayurvedic laparoscopy, Kellogg’s upma, and Feluda and Professor Shanku to appear together

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 23, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Under pressure from its friends, supporters, allies and embarrassed comrades, the Left Front government in Kerala has finally done right this afternoon, by scrapping  the controversial anti-free speech ordinance that mandated upto a three year jail term for “making, expressing, publishing or disseminating any matter which is threatening, abusive, humiliating or defamatory”. A selection of photographs of the 2,000-year-old art in India’s Ajanta caves has been deposited in the Arctic World Archive, a time capsule meant to safeguard elements of human civilisation in case of an apocalyptic event. A “worn and broken” pocket watch once owned by Mahatma Gandhi has sold at auction for £12,000. His home country is done with his philosophy, and retains only his spectacles to brand government campaigns. But the rest of the world still has the time for his modernity.

The Editors Guild of India has expressed concern over the Meghalaya High Court refusing to quash criminal proceedings against Padma Shri awardee and Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim, and reads it as an instance of how a web of archaic laws allow criminal charges to be brought against journalists, with a chilling effect on the freedom of expression. Former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi is critically ill while undergoing treatment for Covid-19. 

In a recorded message at a G-20 summit side event, ‘Safeguarding the Planet: The Circular Carbon Economy Approach’, Prime Minister Modi said that India is not only meeting its Paris Agreement targets, but even exceeding them. Despite Goa, which is preparing to expand highways, railways, jetties and ports to double coal transport by 2030, forcing thousands of angry Goans into invoking a history of resistance and taking to the streets to oppose the proposed destruction of forests, rivers and villages. BJP Chief Minister Pramod Sawant’s response is predictable: he blames “foreign forces”. The Portuguese, perhaps? 

India will host the G20 Summit in 2023 instead of 2022. This is the second time the government has asked for a postponement of the G20 summit. In 2018, India had asked to move the summit in India from 2021 to 2022, swapping dates with Italy. The logic then was to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Independence. Now there is speculation that the Modi government hopes to complete a big chunk of its controversial Central Vista makeover by 2023.

Indian-American Mala Adiga will be Jill Biden’s policy director. She is a lawyer who served in a similar role in the Biden-Harris campaign and handled women’s and human rights issues at the State Department and National Security Council under Barack Obama. And India’s oldest living first-class cricketer Raghunath Chandorkar turned 100 on Saturday. 

On both fronts in Kashmir, the Victorian age of mines and countermines has returned, and relentless burrowing is now of strategic importance. And the sapper, reduced by modern warfare to support roles like clearing minefields and deploying Bailey bridges, is back at the forefront.

To cheer our morning AS Paneerselvan, Readers’ Editor of The Hindu and a very serious student of mass communications, gives The India Cable an appreciative nod, among newsletters that declutter the media landscape. He recalls semiotician, translation theorist and rattling good author Umberto Eco, who had declared himself to be intellectually “paralysed” by the information overload delivered by the internet. That was in 1995. Now, we’re all in an intellectual coma, which partly explains the lack of public outrage at outrageous ways of doing politics. Or even any surprise at Kellogg’s, which had entered the Indian market promising to change breakfast habits, launching an upma line in capitulation. 

Left finally does right in Kerala

The Left Front government in Kerala has stepped back from its earlier move that would have crippled free speech and given the BJP much-needed ammunition, as Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced that the state has decided not to implement Section 118A of the Kerala Police Act. His announcement was im recognition of the widespread criticism the new law has generated.

Last week, the Kerala state government had promulgated an ordinance which, the Chief Minister earlier claimed, would enable the police to tackle social media abuse effectively. The wording of the law was highly problematic, as it gave the police a broad mandate over all content, beyond social media and used vague and undefined terms for the acts that were being criminalised. This triggered protests not only from the Opposition, but from the ruling coalition itself and there were rumblings within the national leadership of the CPI(M). It also went against the Supreme Court order which had, in 2015, scrapped Section 66A of the IT Act and a similar provision in the Kerala Police Act.

Dalit MPs’ panel head nixes Hathras visit

The parliamentary committee on the welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has rejected a request by some of its members to visit the family of the Dalit teen who was gang-raped and murdered, allegedly by upper caste men in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district and whose family has since faced harassment at the hands of the administration and sections of locals. The committee is headed by BJP leader Kirit Premjibhai Solanki. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes, which should have been at the forefront of this case, cannot undertake a visit as the commission currently has no member, not even a chairperson. The Modi government has not made a single appointment in the past five months.

China makes the road in Doklam, Arunachal wishes for one

India’s 2017 move in Doklam to prevent the Chinese from making a road to Zampheri ridge in Bhutan, which had led to a 73-day standoff between the two armies, has ultimately failed to achieve its objective. High resolution satellite imagery shows that in addition to setting up a village more than 2 km within Bhutanese territory on the eastern periphery of the contested Doklam plateau, China has built a road in the same area that stretches approximately 9 km inside Bhutanese territory. This road would give the Chinese forces an alternate route to the Zampheri ridge, with little possibility that India can afford to threaten any escalation at this time.

Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu continues to venture into foreign policy, batting strongly for a 1,100 km Frontier Highway along the ‘India-Tibet border’ to facilitate faster movement of troops during a warlike situation. In a statement that is bound to raise hackles in Beijing, he reiterated something that he had said earlier, when relations with China were not thos tense – that “Arunachal Pradesh has always shared its border with Tibet, not with China. This is a historical fact that none can erase. The world knows that China annexed Tibet.” The BJP CM has not been admonished by his party for exceeding his remit. 

Meanwhile, on the other front in Ladakh, Indian sappers have borrowed a strategy widely used in the Far East in the 20th century ― tunnels made of reinforced concrete pipes which allow the free movement of troops, protecting them from both enemy fire and the extreme winter weather. And apparently from microwave energy weapons, which unnamed Chinese sources claimed had been used against Indian troops. The Army dismissed the report which appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph as fake news. But the Chinese PLA Daily says that frontline soldiers deployed against India in Ladakh are getting a steady supply of hot and cold running water. That’s some comfort.

Ayurveda’s scalpel, Occam’s Razor

Setting the world marvelling at its peculiar audacity, the government has issued a notification amending the Indian Medicine Central Council (Post Graduate Ayurveda) Regulations, 2016, to allow postgraduates in the alternative medicine tradition to perform complicated surgical procedures to amputate gangrenous limbs, to correct the prolapsed iris of the eye, and laparoscopic interventions on the abdomen. Surgeons protest that it is dangerous to put the scalpel in the hands of herbalists unfamiliar with the basic principles of modern medicine, which would compromise the safety of patients.  

The authorities claim that surgery has been a common practice in Ayurvedic clinics for over two decades (PM Modi, notoriously, dated the practice back even further), and this notification only clarifies its legality. Occam’s Razor cuts uncommonly fine, and from this statement it is deduced that Ayurvedic surgery has been of dubious legality for decades. It should remain so. The India Cable does not know of a single patient who has suffered the attentions of an Ayurved wielding a laparoscope. This is an anecdotal finding, but nevertheless reassuring. 

No kissing, please, we’re from Madhya Pradesh

In Madhya Pradesh, the state with the worst human development indices and the most erotic temple sculptures, Home Minister Narottam Mishra is preoccupied by other priorities. The state police have been asked to examine the seriesA Suitable Boy, being streamed on Netflix, to check if kissing scenes between protagonists Lata and Kabir were filmed in a temple, and if that hurt religious sentiments. Lata is Hindu and falls for Kabir, a fellow student who is Muslim. This is a central element in Vikram Seth’s story, and their sparkling chemistry does not finally take them to the altar. Viewers with fragile religious sentiments can’t have lost the plot, surely? 

Not surprisingly, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has decided to battle severe malnourishment in the children of the state by removing eggs from their diet and replacing it with cow’s milk. 

In other temple-related news, there are serious allegations of fraud against the Akshaya Patra Foundation which is offering free meals to 1.8 million children across 12 states and 12 union territories. Alleged discrepancies in the running of the foundation and the misuse of its resources for other purposes (including benefiting temple trusts) lie at the centre of the controversy, in which ISKCON workers have been shown on APF payrolls. 

After Diwali spike, India braces for Kumbh rumble

Amid rising Covid-19 cases, too few beds in government hospitals and the absence of specific guidelines for treatment, which afford private hospitals the leeway to charge exorbitant fees, the parliamentary standing committee on health has said that a sustainable pricing model could have averted many deaths. At the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, 57 civil service officer trainees have tested positive for Covid-19 over the weekend. The Supreme Court recorded its first death due to Covid-19 on the weekend, and it pulled up the Gujarat state government on Monday for allowing weddings and gatherings despite rising Covid-19 cases. 

Experts warn of a second Covid-19 wave in India as the mortality rate rises in various states, and the health authorities are now bracing themselves for the next cultural challenge ― holding a Kumbh Mela in the congested city of Haridwar, which is expected to draw millions of pilgrims. Government sources insist that the Kumbh would be held between January and April as usual, but they are silent on special arrangements required to organise such a huge gathering in the middle of the pandemic. And doctors fear that Delhi may well become the epicentre of India’s first wave of winter infections. 

Health Minister Harshvardhan says that Prime Minister Modi will meet state chief ministers soon on Covid-19 and has been monitoring the disease in India since day one. The total coronavirus tally in India mounted to 9.14 million while the death toll climbed to 133,738 with 511 new fatalities in the last 24 hours. India remains in the second spot and has among the highest death rates per million of the population in the region.

Meanwhile, the US is preparing to roll out a vaccine delivery programme in mid-December, which could be a turning point for the worst-affected nation, which has suffered 255,000 deaths due to Covid-19. And a large-scale trial shows that the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford stops 70% of people developing Covid symptoms. It is both a triumph and a disappointment after vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna showed 95% protection. However, the Oxford jab is far cheaper, and is easier to store and deliver to every corner of the world.

The Long Cable

Drumbeats, and drumming up violence

Seema Chishti

The Tata Literature Awards last night for the best fiction and non-fiction books of the year have gone to writings on the most pressing subjects of our times ― the tyranny of caste and the virulence of communal hatred. TM Krishna won it for his documentation of mridangam makers, Sebastian & Sons, and Annie Zaidi for her poignant and gripping Prelude to a Riot.

Carnatic musician Krishna has left few progressive causes untouched. The unrelenting deployment of his craft in the service of the cause leaves his listeners in awe and and his critics silenced, for the quality of his music is unquestionable. But this award must be very special for Krishna, who chose to write in protest, and not sing for his cause this time. 

His endeavour to smash the caste hierarchy in classical Carnatic music, a theatre in which caste orthodoxy has played out openly, and has been quietly accepted and perpetuated, is an extraordinary inside job. Krishna’s search for the lower caste people who make the mridangam, the fundamental percussion instrument in Carnatic music, to celebrate their skills and their lives, is a loud and clear challenge to caste and its crushing hold on our civilisation. His constant reminders that caste exists, his reiterations of being conscious of his own privilege, have enriched the conversation. In his acceptance speech on Sunday night, in which he thanked the mridangam makers, Krishna hopes that (only) he “won’t be required to write such books” and that “many, many books are written on the lives of the marginalised.”

Prelude to a Riot is a haunting and sharp portrait of a place which the reader knows violence will visit the minute the book is shut. This is what happens as hatred is sown and division is fostered, preparing people for social unrest. Zaidi fictionalises this everyday reality magnificently. Like all fine works that square up to the task of being “bitter messengers” of their time, Prelude makes the build-up of violence as ugly and menacing as the violence itself, a familiar part of life in 2020. Last night, Zaidi homed in “at the beating heart of literature”, which she characterises as “the writer’s engagement with sadness and the conflict of the times”. It’s a role she fulfils admirably, as well as she did when she told her own story in Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation. That was her life, told in rhythm and with reference to India’s. There are very few things that Zaidi refuses to interrogate, and even at the Tata event, she asked bluntly why the rich bother to sponsor art and truths which may be inconvenient to hear and accept. She went ahead and answered ― that a modicum of truth is vital for even the most vile of societies to survive ― and maybe that is why the rich find it necessary to sponsor truth-telling sometimes, as “an act of survival”.

Sneering at authors has been par for the course since the murder of the Kannada rationalist MM Kalburgi in 2015, which prompted many Sahitya Akademi award winners to return their awards. The revolt earned them the rude title of the “award-wapsi gang”, courtesy the late BJP minister Arun Jaitley. But the attention focused on dissing our writers in many languages was itself proof of why their voice and their words, which record the times, are so important. What Rahi Masoom Raza’s Aadha Gaon tells us about a facet of 1947 India, or what Olga Tokarczuk will tell generations yet unborn of the “civilizational change” in Poland in 2020, is what only writers can tell about our world. 

Tunnel vision

Four Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists killed in an encounter in Nagrota last week were pushed in through a tunnel across the India-Pakistan border in the Samba sector, a perennial favourite for cross-border infiltration, which connects with the Chakbura post in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Army forensics has established. On Saturday, the government summoned the Charge d’Affaires of the Pakistan High Commission, and accused Islamabad of infiltrating men, arms and ammunition to disrupt local elections. The evidence of infiltration is compelling, since almost everything recovered, including clothes and medicines, bore Pakistani markings. 

Saving private trains

The upcoming plan of the private sector running 151 trains on 109 routes is under a cloud after IRCTC suspended operation of the Lucknow-New Delhi Tejas Express from November 23, while the Tejas on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai line will be cancelled from November 24. The minimum occupancy needed to run profitably is 70%, while occupancy of the Lucknow-New Delhi Tejas was 35% and on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai route, it was around 25%.

Feluda, Shanku double bill

Two characters of legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray, Feluda the detective and Professor Shanku, the scientist and inventor, will share the screen together for the first time in a film directed by the maestro’s son, the filmmaker Sandip Ray. This is as part of Ray’s centenary celebrations.

Prime Number: $10.3 billion
The amount, equivalent to over Rs 70,000 crore, lost by India every year owing to international corporate tax abuse and private tax evasion, according to ‘The State of Tax Justice 2020’ report. 

Out of the frying pan

‘Breakout M’ fashion star Manish Arora was one of the biggest designers out of India, and his signature Fish Fry footwear line launched in 2001 was bright, audacious and colourful. But his fortunes have tumbled and he has been in financial trouble for at least two years now. The New York Times traces the slump in his fortunes. Stories of his filing for bankruptcy made news last week. The fashion fraternity has had things to say about it.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • In the South China Morning Post, Mohamed Zeeshan writes that India is the poorer for not joining the RCEP. He contends that India now finds itself isolated and has compromised its influence in a region where economic integration has become a top priority for most countries.

Listen up

In India, the practice of jugaad ― finding workarounds or hacks to solve problems ― emerged out of subaltern strategies of negotiating poverty, discrimination, and violence, but it is now celebrated in management literature as a disruptive innovation. Amit Rai explores how jugaad operates within contemporary Indian digital media cultures through the use of the mobile phone. Rai shows that despite being co-opted by capitalism to extract free creative labour from the workforce, jugaad is simultaneously a practice of everyday resistance, as workers and communities employ hacks to oppose corporate, caste, and gender power. Locating the tensions surrounding jugaad ― as both premodern and postdigital, innovative and oppressive ― Rai explains how it can be used to undermine neoliberal capitalist media ecologies and nationalist politics.

Watch Out

Ramachandra Guha talks to Naseeruddin Shah about his new book which is about cricket, but not just cricket. Watch from 12:15 onwards.

RBI can count, with a little help from Twitter

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.