The India Cable: Modi Meets Kashmir Leaders; Rajnath In Arunachal, BRO Calls It 'Assam'

Plus: Jaishankar uncertain, Beijing sure, Jamsetji pips Gates as world’s top donor in 100 years, whether born digital or ‘also digital’, free speech guarantees must apply, fake IAS man vaxes real MP

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
June 24, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Kerala will cleanse its school textbooks of terms derogatory to women. Immediate social change is absolutely not guaranteed, but it is a decisive first step

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting Kashmiri leaders got underway at 3:15 pm but the outcome of the interaction will likely not be known till Thursday evening.

“What haunts me a lot is the Indian scenario, which could very well happen in Africa… we are not out of the woods yet,” John Nkengasong, director of Africa CDC, tells the Financial Times, referring to the deadly second wave in India. Out of just over 5 million confirmed cases in Africa, about 1 million were recorded in the past month, according to Africa CDC. The London Times warns that “a variant of the highly infectious Delta [plus] strain has spread to three Indian states despite attempts to suppress it, amid warnings that it may contain a mutation that helps it to evade vaccines.”

A health ministry official in Brazil apparently alerted President Jair Bolsonaro to pressure from the government to order Covaxin from India. The indigenous vaccine will not get full approval for use, even in India, until next year, because Phase 3 trials are not yet complete. While other cities registered excess deaths during the first and second Covid-19 waves, Thiruvananthapuram recorded a decrease in overall deaths in 2020 and 1,196 “excess deaths” in 2021 (till May), according to Civil Registration System data accessed by The Hindu. 

Yesterday, there was high drama at a meet of the Parliamentary Committee on Science to discuss the government’s handling of the pandemic. BJP MPs walked out of discussions on vaccine strategy and genome sequencing but returned when panel chair Jairam Ramesh threatened to resign. Sources said Ramesh made it clear that the meeting agenda was a continuation of past discussions and was scientific. He took exception to BJP MPs walking out “in an attempt to stall the discussions”.

India is poised at a unique moment in history, where it can exploit its demographic advantage to realise its economic goals. Nine charts show why India should stop obsessing about population growth and linking it to religion.

The Maharashtra government has agreed to increase the monthly honorarium of frontline ASHA workers, by Rs 1,500 to Rs 6,500. Block facilitators will earn at least Rs 13,000. The women’s workforce had been on strike since June 15.

“There is no need for anyone to fear the word ondriyam (Union). The word signifies federalist principles. That is the reason we use the term, we will use, and we will continue to use,” Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin told the Assembly, in response to a question raised by BJP MLA ‘Nainar’ Nagendran. After assuming office, Stalin and his cabinet colleagues have been referring to the Centre as the Union government or Ondriya arasu instead of Madhiya arasu, which was in use earlier. 

In Kolkata, hundreds were vaccinated against Covid-19 at a bogus camp for differently abled and trans people, organised by a man impersonating an IAS officer and armed with genuine promotional material of the city corporation. Trinamool Congress MP and actor Mimi Chakraborty, who agreed to be vaccinated to encourage locals, raised the alarm when she got no confirmatory SMS or certificate after the event. Recipients are wondering precisely what they were injected with. 

India has lost the inaugural World Test Championship to New Zealand. Wisden remarked, “Sometimes, nice guys do finish first”.


Jaishankar uncertain, Beijing sure

China’s “close-up deployment still continues, especially in Ladakh,” said Foreign Minister S Jaishankar in an interview at the Qatar Economic Forum, betraying uncertainty about the unresolved border situation. “The issue there is whether China would live up to the commitments it has made – written commitments it has made – about both countries not allowing a large armed force at the border.” 

A day later, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that his country’s military deployment along the western section of the China-India border is a normal defense arrangement to respond to encroachment on China’s territory. For a long time, the root cause of tensions along the China-India border has been India’s growing military deployment along the border and encroaching on China’s territory, Zhao said, according to Global Times. Meanwhile, India and the US yesterday kicked off a two-day multi-domain wargame in the Indian Ocean involving an array of air defence platforms to further consolidate operational synergy.


Uttarakhand HC lambasts state government

“This is totally vague, sham, misleading and not acceptable.” The Uttarakhand High Court has come down heavily on the state government over its Covid-19 deaths audit during the second wave of the pandemic. Notably, the cause of death is usually posted as ‘cardiopulmonary arrest’. 

The court, not satisfied with the state’s audit, observed, “Time and again whenever we ask about preparedness, you (health secretary) use terms like ‘adequate, sufficient, tremendous efforts’ etc. Sorry, this is not a meeting chaired by Hon’ble Chief Minister, where you will project anything/something and that will be accepted. This is the High Court and if you will paint a rosy picture and will say it’s Ramrajya and we are in heaven, we will not believe because we rely on facts and evidence and we are aware of the ground reality of this hill state.”


Rajnath visits Arunachal, BRO calls it Assam for ‘strategic reasons’

An event at the Indo-Tibetan Border Police headquarters in Arunachal Pradesh’s Kimin town on June 17, at which Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated 12 border roads, has sparked protests from the state’s residents, because the social media handles of the Border Roads Organisation and some government agencies said that the venue of the ceremony was in Assam. 

Journalists reported that before the event, ‘Arunachal Pradesh’ on signboards was papered over. The BRO told The Arunachal Times that it was acting for “strategic reasons which were deliberated at the highest level”. It refused to elaborate.


Serviceman resists jab, homeless face tattoos

The Gujarat High Court has issued a notice to the Indian Air Force on a petition filed by one of its personnel posted in Jamnagar, challenging a show-cause notice for termination of service after he resisted vaccination against Covid-19. In an order passed on Tuesday, a division bench of Justices AJ Desai and AP Thaker issued the notice to the IAF and Union government and also directed the IAF not to take any coercive action against the petitioner until July 1.

Meanwhile, the Bombay High Court waded into a controversy when it asked the Union and state governments to reconsider the standard operating procedures (SOPs) to vaccinate the “floating population” of the mentally ill homeless persons and beggars. The court asked the state government to consider tattooing them after vaccination.


Taxing Covid

The average tariff rate on Covid-related goods in India is double the world average. India levies the world’s highest import duty on all Covid-19 goods, including test kits, swabs and viral transport medium sets, sterilisation products, disinfectants, protective gear, infrared thermometers and inputs for vaccine manufacture, which is making both vaccines and treatment expensive. 

A study by the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Mumbai shows that the import duty on all Covid-19 related goods is 15.2%, which is twice that of China, seven times that of the US and 60% higher than in low income countries like Afghanistan and Bangladesh.


The Long Cable

Distinction between ‘born digital’ and ‘also digital’ media vague and arbitrary 

MK Venu

Finally, traditional newspaper and television media companies with a large presence in the digital news space have also gone to court challenging the new IT Rules 2021, terming them illegal and unconstitutional.

The Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA), comprising players like the Times of India, India Today, NDTV, Indian Express, Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala have filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court seeking an order to “declare the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code ) Rules 2021 ultra vires of the Constitution, void and violative of Article 14 and Article 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.” The court has issued notices to relevant government agencies. 

The petition unambiguously argues that the new IT Rules seek to legislate the conduct of entities which are not even within the scope of the Information Technology Act, 2000. This means regulating news is outside the scope of the IT Act 2000. The new rules “open the door to suppressing freedom of speech and the independence of news media in the country which has been upheld by the Supreme Court in a catena of judgements,” the petition says. 

These are pretty much the grounds on which standalone digital media like The Wire, The Quint, AltNews and LiveLaw have challenged the new IT Rules, which give the executive “emergency powers” to take down news content without informing the publisher. Never before in India’s history has the executive armed itself with such draconian powers to curb free speech. And this is a government whose Prime Minister, other senior ministers and ruling party members claim to have been mentored by Jayaprakash Narayan, who led a mass movement against the Emergency in 1975. 

The DNPA’s petition has stated that it tried to bring to the attention of the Secretary, I&B Ministry, the illegality and unconstitutionality of the new IT Rules in their entirety. But to no avail. The government seems to have been in no mood to listen. The traditional media owners should have known better. This is not a government that listens to stakeholders before making laws that profoundly impact democratic principles and practice. 

The DNPA members have said that the government chose to issue the notification seeking compliance to the new media rules without adequate consultations. The I&B Ministry seems to have had at least some interaction with traditional media players. But it chose not to respond at all to the standalone digital publishers’ association, DIGIPUB. Its letter to the ministry seeking a meeting was not even acknowledged. This is the level of hubris the Modi government is infected with. 

The traditional media owners made the mistake of assuming that the Modi regime is open to reason. They thought a via media could be found through negotiations to preserve the basic sanctity of the prevailing self-regulatory mechanism that media operates under. The DNPA  has argued that the Press Council Act, the programme code under the Cable TV Network Act and other existing legislations were adequate for media regulation. Besides, there is no dearth of laws under which the media is held accountable at present, from criminal defamation to FIRs invoking other criminal provisions. 

The I&B Ministry rejected the traditional media’s proposition that it was adequately regulated under existing arrangements. The government wrote to DNPA saying their digital platforms would have to comply with the new rules along with standalone digital news outfits. Realising that the Modi government was in no mood to listen, the DNPA members decided to move the Madras High Court. 

While the DNPA has spoken about the illegality and unconstitutionality of the new media rules in their entirety, it is still erring in seeing standalone digital news media as a separate category. It mentions in the writ petition that traditional media which has developed regulatory norms and standards over decades since Independence should not be compared with new, born digital news outfits. This is a totally fallacious argument simply because the basic principle of free speech guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) does not, and cannot, distinguish between one news platform and another, whatever their vintage and provenance. 

The DNPA has rightly described as “vague and arbitrary” the new media rules which seek to create a legal distinction between the physical newspaper and its online version. Applying the same logic, the attempt to create a distinction between traditional media’s digital platforms and born digital news platforms of more recent origin is also untenable, in the context of the constitutional guarantee of free speech. The DNPA would do well to keep this big picture in mind. 

The key issue is that the executive cannot arm itself with powers to decide what is free speech or reasonable restrictions thereof. This can only be decided by a judicial authority. Justice Deepak Gupta, formerly of the Supreme Court, rightly pointed out in a debate on NDTV that media regulation is needed, but it has to be by an autonomous authority, not by the executive. This simple proposition seems to be lost on this government. 


Reportedly

Karnataka politics is all about factionalism. If the BJP is embarrassed by public wrangling between the pro- and anti-Yeddyurappa camps, Congress factions are also out in the open concerning its Chief Ministerial candidate for the 2023 Assembly polls. State party chief DK Shivakumar has said that legislature party leader Siddaramaiah would look into statements made by some MLAs, but the latter said that he was not concerned. Siddaramaiah’s loyalists stirred themselves after a tweet from Karnataka Congress’ official Twitter handle last month, stating that the pandemic would have been under control if Shivakumar was CM. 

The tweet was immediately deleted, but not before enraging the Siddaramaiah camp. “There is no seat vacant for any race in the party now… the race is to defeat the BJP and bring the Congress to power. We have to devote our time to this, if not, we will be wasting time,” Shivakumar told reporters. He could be right, but when has that stopped vaulting ambition?


Prime Number: 67%
The number of citizens who say there is limited or no mask compliance in their area, district, or city, according to a survey conducted by online social media platform LocalCircles of over 33,000 responses from citizens in 312 districts. Only 32% of citizens in the survey noted that there was limited mask compliance at the vaccination centre they recently visited.

Moody’s slashes India’s growth to 9.6% in 2021

Moody’s Investors Service has slashed India’s growth projection to 9.6% for the calendar year 2021, from its earlier estimate of 13.9%. The Indian economy contracted by 7.3% in fiscal 2020-21 as the country battled the first wave of Covid, as against a 4% growth in 2019-20.


Deep Dive

Follow the money

The BJP received Rs 276.45 crore or 76.17%  of all donations to political parties from electoral trusts in 2019-20, according to a report by the electoral watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms. It was followed by the Congress, which received Rs 58 crore or 15.98% of donations from all seven electoral trusts. Analysing contribution reports of electoral trusts for the financial year 2019-20, the report said top donors to the electoral trusts included JSW, Apollo Tyres, Indiabulls, Delhi International Airport and DLF groups. Here are the details.


High fuel price not due to UPA oil bonds 

While Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan continues to blame the previous UPA government for high fuel prices now, the facts show otherwise. Petrol and diesel were being sold at lower than the international market price before complete deregulation of rates. To compensate for this, the UPA government issued oil bonds to the companies amounting to Rs 1.4 lakh crore between 2005 and 2010.

About Rs 10,000 crore worth of bonds will mature this year. Interest payment on oil bonds annually over the last decade has been around Rs 10,000 crore. But bond redemptions have been just Rs 3,500 crore in the last seven years. But the Modi government’s income from taxes and surcharges on petrol and diesel topped Rs 3 lakh crore in FY21, as it hiked levies to Rs 32.90 per litre on petrol and to Rs 31.80 a litre on diesel.


Jamsetji top philanthropist of the century, Premji only other Indian

Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, is the world’s most generous philanthropist in the past 100 years. In the last century, Tata has apparently donated a total of $102.4 billion in charitable causes. Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates Foundation, which started its activities in 2000, ranks second with donations valued at $74.6 billion. Azim Premji of Wipro (ranked 12th) was the only other Indian to make it to the top 50 of the 2021 EdelGive Hurun Philanthropists of the Century report. Last week the Azim Premji Foundation said it was upping its commitment from Rs 1,125 crore to Rs 2,125 crore.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Christophe Jaffrelot explores the reasons for Narendra Modi being above accountability: drawing a parallel with Indira Gandhi, he asks is this because of his charisma, or a long tradition of hero worship in India’s political culture, or the fascination for the strongman in Indian culture, or the prestige of the guru.

  • India must strive for a boring Union and vibrant states and that indeed will be the hallmark of success, replete with subsidiarity, decentralisation and federalism, writes Tara Krishnaswamy.

  • A letter to Modi voters by Sayandeb Chowdhury and Rajendran Narayanan says, “If you had called the PM’s bluff, you could have spared India its agonies as your silence gave him confidence, your conformism fed his conceit, your approval gave him wings. There have been letters in response, too.

  • Prem Panicker avers that the BCCI doesn’t care for Indian cricket or cricketers: History repeats, first as a tragedy that destroyed what remained of our cricketing innocence and our misplaced belief in the integrity of sport, and now as farce that makes barely a ripple in the collective consciousness.

  • Justice Madan B. Lokur, a former judge of the Supreme Court asks five questions on on the “shameful proceedings” against student activists Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha, freed recently on bail in ‘terrorism’ case after spending a year in jail.

Listen Up

Karachi-based writer Mohammed Hanif talks about writing fiction and figuring the difference between the real world and that of writers. He calls out the new censorship in Pakistan. Indians would do well to hear about attempts to invade the head.

Watch Out

The BBCtakes a look at Buddhist monasteries in the Northeast, through which Covid-19 has swept with great ferocity.

https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-india-57523051

Over and Out

Satyajit Ray’s films form an intimate part of Bengali culture and are revered by filmmakers across the world. But in India, they were never released nationwide and are unknown to mass audiences even today, writes Andrew Robinson in the Financial Times

Director Anurag Kashyap is said to be planning a Hindi remake of the sensational Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill with Kriti Sanon.

Soumyadipta Bose is a 22-year-old post graduate student at Visva-Bharati University. He wants to create a chain of libraries and has set up two in Garberia and Ramrampur. “In January, it suddenly occurred to me that the children in my village have almost become detached from their studies due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Bose. So between cyclones and the pandemic, he went to work.


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.