The India Cable: LoC Tense, Soumitra Passes Away, RCEP Takes Off Without India

Plus: Obama recalls Manmohan, polypill holds promise, Punjab still has worst sex ratio

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 16, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Heavy weapons were used by Pakistani forces on the Line of  Control, and the situation could spiral out of hand, bringing back fears of a two-front crisis. Nitish Kumar took the oath of office for the seventh time ― but for the fourth real stint ― as chief minister of Bihar. He is highly diminished and without his trusted deputy from the BJP, Sushil Modi, who was not elected leader of the BJP legislature party as he is now headed to the Rajya Sabha and a possible berth in Narendra Modi’s cabinet. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, a man was held by the police for an ‘objectionable’ social media post against Prime Minister Modi. He can’t afford a Harish Salve to get a prompt hearing from the Supreme Court, and a quick release like Arnab Goswami. 

There is good news from the United Arab Emirates, which is granting a 10-year golden visa to more professionals. Public sector giant ONGC has booked Rs 1,238 crore in impairment loss, with its net profit down 55% in the second quarter. In other oil-related news, the fire in the Baghjan gas well in Assam was finally doused on Sunday after a struggle of more than five months.

No fire-fighting is needed from India’s top retail trade body, the Confederation of All India Traders, which has said that Diwali sales rose by more than 10% year-on-year, indicating “good business prospects” for small businesses. But there was little consumer appetite for gold, and imports dipped 47% in April-October to $9.28 billion, though October showed a year on year rise. David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme (a Nobel prize winner this year), says 2021 does not look good and the world could face “famines of Biblical proportions”, which were averted this year by leadership, money, stimulus programmes and debt write offs. 

Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh said on Sunday that he had tested positive for Covid-19 and is under home isolation. Congress leader Ahmed Patel is in the ICU, but stable. He had contracted the coronavirus in October. At 8.81 million cases of Covid-19, India remains second to only the US, which has 11 million cases now. The Union Home Minister took stock of the situation in Delhi, where pollution levels have been the worst in the last four years. The Chief Minister has been busy organising Lakshmi Pooja on Diwali, as hospitals run short of ICU beds

The Supreme Court was to hear a PIL seeking the removal of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, YS Jaganmohan Reddy over his letter to the Chief Justice of India, with a complaint against Justice NV Ramana, who is second in seniority at the apex court. Justice UU Lalit recused himself from the case. After tightening the rules related to Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) for NGOs, the government is examining a proposal to set up a regulator for charities receiving overseas donations.

And the actor Soumitra Chatterjee has died of post-Covid-19 complications in Kolkata. He was cremated with a gun salute and as usual when a cultural figure of the city dies, people turned out in the thousands to walk with his funeral cortege. 

Now, LoC out of control

PM Narendra Modi stood atop a battle tank near the Pakistan border in Rajasthan and had dressed for the part (or actually didn’t) before making a speech, but it didn’t deter Pakistan from launching heavy assaults on the Line of Control (LoC), which led to the death of four Indian soldiers and a BSF jawan, besides six civilians.

The BSF alleged that Pakistan used heavy artillery and modern weapons during multiple ceasefire violations along the LoC on November 13. The Indian Army claimed to have killed eight Pakistani soldiers in retaliatory fire, but its own veterans refused to accept its video of a Pakistani bunker being destroyed on the LoC. On Saturday, the government summoned a senior diplomat of the High Commission of Pakistan in New Delhi and lodged a strong protest over the unprovoked ceasefire violations. In a sharp editorial, The Hindu takes a grim view of the situation emerging on the LoC, and says that it could easily spiral out of control.

Pakistan conducted a press conference and unveiled a dossier containing “irrefutable evidence” of India’s sponsorship of terrorism in the country, and called on the international community to take notice. None of the ‘evidence’ – mostly assertions, interspersed by audio recordings of  unknown origin – was verifiable. India issued an equally strong statement dismissing the allegation.  

World’s biggest trade agreement inked, India missing

Fifteen Asia-Pacific nations, including China, on Sunday signed the world’s biggest trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), sans India, with the hope that it would help speed recovery from the shocks of the Covid-19 pandemic. These nations make up nearly a third of the world’s population and account for 29% of global GDP. The agreement will progressively lower tariffs across many areas in the coming years. While not offering the same level of integration as the EU or the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the deal is seen as a significant step towards removing trade barriers, as well as extending the influence of China.

India pulled out of the preparatory talks last year, concerned that the elimination of tariffs would open its markets to a flood of imports that could harm local producers. However, the statement from the signatories left the door open for India to join the trading bloc, saying that it would be “welcome”. Meanwhile, at the East Asia Summit, India expressed its reservations against China’s latest move to push the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to insert certain clauses in the proposed Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (SCS), which could eventually bar India and others from either conducting joint military drills with Southeast Asian states, or extracting natural resources from the region.

Obama recalls Manmohan Singh

“A gentle, soft-spoken economist in his seventies, with a white beard and a turban that were the marks of his Sikh faith but to the Western eye lent him the air of a holy man, he had been India’s finance minister in the 1990s, managing to lift millions of people from poverty. For the duration of his tenure as Prime Minister, I would find Singh to be wise, thoughtful, and scrupulously honest,” writes former US President Barack Obama of Dr Manmohan Singh in the first part of his new memoir, A Promised Land. But what Obama “couldn’t tell was whether Singh’s rise to power represented the future of India’s democracy or merely an aberration.”

Obama mentions the “divisive nationalism touted by the BJP,” which doesn’t augur well for PM Narendra Modi’s reputation, that will surely find mention in the second part of the memoir. Modi, who invited Obama to attend the Republic Day parade, famously wore his name on his suit at an evening tea with the US President.  

Track II, with sanitary pads

To win the trust of Maoist women, Chhattisgarh is distributing a ‘Diwali Gift’ of sanitary pads. Around 1,500 Maoist women are likely to be given the gift kit, consisting of two reusable cloth pads and a menstrual cup. They will be distributed from this month until Makar Sankranti in mid-January, next year. The state administration and the police are not part of the process. Activists believe that if these women convinced their male colleagues, the process of engaging with the peace process may become possible. 

The Long Cable

A death in the family

Pratik Kanjilal

Kolkata is a clubby sort of city, where the better off meet in colonial era establishments rather than bars, restaurants, and malls, as we do in less fortunate cities. The clubbiest of them all is the Tollygunge Club. Yesterday, the institution bade farewell to one of its most loved members with a notice just one sentence long: “We regret to inform members of the sad demise of Mr Soumitra Chatterjee (Membership No C-168), an iconic personality of Bengali cinema.” In Kolkata, that was all that needed to be said. Anything more would have seemed senseless.

Soumitra was someone that you grew up with, a friendly influence who was at your shoulder throughout your life. For children, he was Satyajit Ray’s Feluda, the extraordinarily sharp private eye who has now conferred his name upon a Covid-19 test. Young adults knew him as the young man of Apur Sansar, the coming of age film of Ray’s Pather Panchali trilogy. Older viewers had many roles to identify with, including those which he played in the 14 films that he did with Ray. And, of course, there was theatre, which the city is addicted to.

Like many great actors, Soumitra first worked on stage, inspired by the theatre of Sisir Bhaduri, while he was still a student. He remained faithful to it as a playwright, director and actor, almost until the end, even though the stage is much more physically taxing than the screen – there are no retakes, and no excuses for flubbed lines. His last major production, Homapakhi, premiered in 2006, and shows were sold out for weeks. He continued playing the lead even after he was diagnosed with cancer, and from 2010, had been playing King Lear in a Bangla production.  

The intimate connection between actor and audience may have urged Soumitra to stay on in theatre. After a performance, people went backstage to meet him in the green room, where they always got a friendly welcome. Besides, he was convinced, even after encountering success in cinema, that he was not photogenic. Pictures which have been circulating for weeks, ever since Soumitra was admitted to a clinic with Covid-19, suggest that he was mistaken. This one from the 1965 Berlinale for instance:

In Kolkata society in the 1960s and ‘70s, Ray and his discovery Soumitra, literally the tallest men in Bangla cinema, were icons of style. Their accessibility was part of the charm. They wore their stardom lightly, walked the streets in sandals like regular people, and were happy to chat with almost anyone for a few minutes. In their early years, they were living images of a moment of change, as Kolkata relinquished its memories of colonial grandeur and the Bengal Renaissance, took a hard look at the present, and responded with communism, trade union agitation, the Naxalite movement and a burst of modernist creativity in literature and the arts.

Soumitra’s work in cinema was honoured by the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the Officier des Arts et Metiers, the Padma Bhushan and the Legion of Honour. But his work on the stage, and in publishing and literature, has gone largely unrecognised outside his home state. He was a playwright, a translator, an excellent poet and editor of the journal Ekkhon, whose cover art was often done by Satyajit Ray. He has two volumes of drama (original and in translation), three poetry collections, an autobiographical work and reminiscences of his years with Satyajit Ray. The last is available in translation: The Master and I.

As an actor, Soumitra was an early pioneer of art cinema. Money eluded him, and he lived in a small home in a middle class suburb of the city. But his fame made up for it, and long after his path-breaking roles with Ray were part of cinema history, he remained one of the most active actors in the city, a familiar face in popular culture and a part of the life of the city – a tall man in jeans who stood out in the crowd, but was always accessible. Till the end, for everyone, he remained Soumitra. The first name sufficed. It was not an uncalled-for familiarity, because in every home in the city, he was like family.


BR Shetty grounded?

Abu Dhabi-based NMC Health Centres’ controversial founder BR Shetty was not allowed to fly out from Bengaluru airport back to the Middle East. His wife was allowed to leave for Abu Dhabi, though. A large chain of hospitals in the Middle East, NMC had gone into administration in April, having incurred over $6.6 billion in debt. His account in Abu Dhabi has been frozen, four criminal cases for fraud and money laundering have been lodged against him and his companies have been delisted by the London Stock Exchange. 

Shetty’s trip to India in the middle of the pandemic had raised eyebrows. His remarkable journey, from when he landed in Abu Dhabi with just $8 dollars in his pocket, has been the subject of breathless documentation. His close friendship with the Sangh and the BJP has been spoken of much less. He claims to have fought the Udupi municipality election in 1968 on a Jan Sangh ticket and, in later years, has flaunted his proximity to the BJP and PM Narendra Modi

Body-swapping in Gujarat

In a major goof-up, the body of an elderly woman kept in the mortuary of a civic-run hospital in Ahmedabad was handed over to another family, who even performed her last rites. The deceased woman’s son Amit Chand, who has arrived from Canada, was shocked and has accused the hospital of negligence.

“I undertook a journey of around 36 hours to see my mother’s face for the last time. All we found here was the body of a man in her place. The officials do not have the documents that we submitted to them along with the body. We were not provided any receipt,” he said. Last year, the VS Hospital’s mortuary had reported a similar case in which the bodies of two women were swapped.

Lowest sex ratio: 896/1000, Punjab

Arunachal is the best in India and Punjab the worst when it comes to the sex ratio. Kerala comes out on top among major states with a ratio of 963 women to 1,000 men. Punjab has just 896 women for 1,000 men. This is an important statistic, because a healthier value has positive implications for other economic, development and social indices. 

Deep Dive

Discovery of Nehru

It was India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru’s 131st birth anniversary on Saturday. Journalist Utkarsh M has compiled a thoughtful reading list on Nehru, a counter to the lies and fakery that is being spread about him. He reveals that Nehru hated being called by his caste moniker, ‘Pandit. But the deepest dive is Nehru’s own writing. His Selected Works are online and free to read.

Analysing Bihar 

Tejashwi Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal emerged as the single largest party and yet managed to lose the Bihar polls for a variety of factors. For instance, they did not buy ads on Facebook and Google, and that cost them, finds a study. And these 32 charts on the polls have all the data you need in one place. 

Four in One 

A four-in-one ‘polypill’ containing a statin and three hypertension drugs, taken with aspirin, can reduce deaths from heart attacks and strokes by 30%, doctors from nine countries, including India, reported on Saturday. It has been shown that polypills can lower risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, but the new study with 39 participating hospitals across India is the first to demonstrate that these benefits help save lives. “These results are very encouraging — the polypill needs to be considered for widespread use,” said Balram Bhargava, director general of ICMR.

Happy Diwali

It was Diwali this weekend, and enlightening greetings from Prof Aditya Mukherjee came our way ― what Mahatma Gandhi said on the first Diwali after Independence in 1947:

Prime Number: 2/3rd
An institutional mechanism beyond the 15th Finance Commission might be necessary to fix the Centre-state imbalance. States incur ⅔ of capital expenditure but their share in taxes is falling below 42% of the gross tax revenue which they have been promised. It is at around 32%, as the Centre takes 15% of the revenue exclusively through the cess route. The pandemic has hit the states harder. A closer look at the crisis.

India at the Tate Gallery

The artist Chila Kumari Singh Burman has transformed the frontage of Tate Britain, London, “into a celebration of neon light and swirling colour,” a commission which was unveiled on Diwali. The Tate is one of the most visited museums in the UK and is closed at present, but the installation can be seen outside. It is inspired by Burman’s childhood visits to the Blackpool illuminations and her family’s ice-cream van.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • GN Devy very politely but systematically takes on the Sangh’s mission of trying to establish the so-called non-negotiable Sanatan dharm origins of India, and expresses his apprehension that the committee on Indian history has a predetermined mission at hand ― of “fatal revisionism”. 

  • Devi Sridhar writes in The Lanceton the resilience of human nature revealed by the pandemic. She commends Elif Shafak’s book How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division and adds, “I would counter that during the pandemic there is also renewed purpose, hope, and community emerging.”

  • Sanjay G Reddy and Arnab Acharya write that the world needs a people’s vaccine for COVID-19 — “one provided universally, and accessible to the entire world population. A patent-protected vaccine could ultimately exclude many people from being vaccinated and protected.”

  • An important critique of the Supreme Court by Sriram Panchu, on all that the Arnab Goswami bail matter heard by the apex court has brought to the surface. He wants the same bench that granted the pro-government journalist bail to now hear the bail applications of other persons who have been denied a prompt or proper hearing.

  • Referring to the Bhakra-Nangal project as equal to “a temple, a mosque or a gurudwara” by Nehru, and the admiration it evokes had a subliminal message, posits Mahesh Rangarajan, as Punjab had been torn apart in the carnage of Partition and this marked a new beginning.

  • “If one’s Hinduism is not inclusive, then it is communal. And communalism can never be soft, cuddly or likeable. At its core, it is hard and exclusionary. It must be recognised as such. That is why it is erroneous to see Kejriwal as “Modi-minus Hindutva”, says Bharat Bhushan, of the Delhi chief minister’s ‘homely Hindutva’.

Listen up


The Kosambi Circle, named after the renowned Marxist historian DD Kosambi, is starting a series on the history of the Indian Communist movement, which turned 100 this year. The first episode was out yesterday.

Watch Out

Soumitra Chatterjee, the doyen of Bengali cinema succumbed to Covid-19 after a prolonged illness. 

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