The India Cable: Nagas Want Flag, Constitution; Cartoonist Faces Contempt

Plus: Why India is wrong to fret over Trudeau, everyone won’t get vaccine, doctors to strike over Ayurvedic surgery, Shekhar Kapur bats for OTT freedom and Goa party promises compulsory siesta

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
December 2, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Goa goes to the polls in 2022, but the first election promise is already out: vote for the Goa Forward Party and be assured of compulsory siesta every afternoon. How very Iberian, and how very civilised, at a time when voters elsewhere are being shamelessly offered free Covid-19 shots. The same party recently came down on model Poonam Pandey for shooting “obscene” videos in the state. 

In a policy paper for the Esya Centre, Film and Television Institute of India chief Shekhar Kapur and censor board member Vani Tripathi Tikoo, among others, suggest that OTT programming should draw on India’s unique tradition of nonlinear storytelling. Reacting to the government’s recent move to bring OTT platforms under the regulatory ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ― a precursor for future censorship, many fear ― they suggest that creativity should be promoted under industry-led standards

Talks between the government and protesting farmers are going the way of the Ladakh border dialogue ― they have failed, but it is agreed that they shall resume on Thursday. The government wanted to appoint a committee to look into the contentious farm laws, which the farmers refused to participate in. The government then asked for clause by clause objections to the laws, but the farmers said that they wanted the three laws to be repealed in full. Several former sportspersons including Padma Shris and Arjuna awardees have extended their support to the agitating farmers and said they would return their awards in protest against the “force” used against the peasants en route to Delhi. Amit Shah was forced to skip the BSF Raising Day at the last moment, as he was trying to figure out a strategy to deal with the farmers.

Starting today, India’s first female comic superhero Priya, a gang-rape survivor who has earlier campaigned against rape, acid attacks and sex trafficking, is back to fight disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. And even as the government is digging up roads to prevent the agitating farmers from reaching Delhi, it has built a bridge to help reptiles cross a busy highway in Uttarakhand. 

Upset by a bare-chested lawyer adjusting the camera during a hearing by video conferencing on Tuesday, the Supreme Court remarked that lawyers cannot afford to be so careless because it is already eight months since the apex court began hearing cases on camera rather than in camera, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier, lawyers have been ticked off for appearing in a banian and smoking a hookah. 

Doctors will strike over Ayurvedic surgery, as the Indian Medical Association has sought withdrawal of all non-essential and non-Covid services from 6 AM to 6 PM on December 11, to pressure the Centre into withdrawing its notification listing 58 surgical procedures that postgraduate surgeons trained in Ayurveda would be permitted to perform.

Vexing vaccine problem

Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan caused more than a flutter when he said that there was never talk of administering the COVID-19 vaccine to the entire population, and that reaching a critical mass of people to break the chain of transmission would be enough. (Clearly, the BJP which promised free vaccinations for the entire population of Bihar never got the memo). Bhushan said it was important for people to get the right information on sensitive issues, and “never has it been said that the entire country will be inoculated”. Odd, given that Prime Minister Modi in an interview in October had said clearly that “everyone will be vaccinated”. 

The PM has been hopping vaccine labs and an all-party meeting is scheduled for Friday, but unlike many large countries affected badly by the pandemic, nothing about the plan of action has been put in the public domain. With the ruling BJP saying that the vaccine would be free as an election sop in Bihar, then for the bypolls in Madhya Pradesh and even for the corporation elections in Hyderabad, the waters have been muddied further. So far, all vaccines for epidemics have been universal, free and administered by the Centre. Read here for more background on the vexing vaccine question in India. 

There is no guarantee that everybody will get the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 in India with a population of 135 crores, said yoga guru Ramdev (doubling up as an epidemiologist), adding that Yoga and Ayurveda will save us. Qualified AYUSH doctors and homoeopaths can prescribe government-approved tablets and mixtures only as immunity boosters for Covid-19, the Ministry of Ayush told the Supreme Court on Tuesday. The ministry also said AYUSH doctors should not advertise any drug as a cure for Covid-19, but emphasised the benefits of traditional Ayurveda practices and said they improved lifestyles, as well as the immune system.

No meeting ground

Agitating farmers met three Union ministers, and refused any proposal to form a five-member committee, as suggested by the government. They just want the three controversial laws scrapped. Talks will be held again tomorrow. The ministers went out of their way to say they respect farmers and are sensitive to their demands. But the farmers appeared unmoved after the three-hour meeting and emboldened for having succeeded in getting the government to agree to the “unconditional meeting”.

When Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar asked the farmers for tea, the farmer representatives said; “Come to our langar for jalebi, pakoda and tea.” Farmers from outside Delhi continue to march to the capital’s borders. Bilkis Bano, the Shaheen Bagh dadi who was among the BBC’s 100 Women 2020, was detained at the border and sent back when she went to join protests. Police said she was stopped due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

Protesting farmers have occupied one more border point to Delhi, this time in Uttar Pradesh, and supplies of fruits and vegetables are running short in the national capital. Pressure is growing on the BJP-led Centre for a written assurance on the Minimum Support Price, with JJP, the BJP ally in Haryana, bringing it up and saying it will decide on the course of its ties with the BJP after the farmer organisations discuss the matter with the government.

Don’t miss the four key points about agriculture that are driven home here

Twitter finally calling out propaganda in India?

Is Twitter finally labelling propaganda in India, like it does in the US, where it does not hesitate to call out dodgy tweets even of the president. Maybe this is about propaganda against farmers unsettling influential NRIs and Twitter being forced to respond? Or maybe it is just uniform application of the code of conduct.

Facebook India was taken to the cleaners by a series of stories, led by The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, on the social media behemoth being indulgent about hate speech if it came from ruling party members in India. But now Twitter has labelled a controversial tweet by the head of the BJP’s social media, Amit Malviya, as being of dubious provenance.

But seriously

Comics have seldom been taken so seriously by anyone, as they are by Indian law officers. The Attorney General cleared the ground for contempt proceedings to be initiated against the illustrator Rachita Taneja, for a cartoon about Republic TV anchor Arnab Goswami being awarded bail out of turn by the Supreme Court. 

Similar proceedings against stand-up comic Kunal Kamra were cleared earlier, but the matter seems to have been forgotten. We have heard nothing about it after sanction was granted.

To refresh your memory, here is how contempt law works.

Faith, caste: double jeopardy

In the month of November, the Allahabad High Court has granted relief to 117 couples of inter-faith or inter-caste marriages. It has asked the senior superintendent of police of the concerned district to act upon the complaints of the couples, who were facing a threat to life and liberty. 

Tracking the economy

Several key indicators of economic activity are a cause for concern. Business Standard has tracked pollution levels, goods ferried by the Indian Railways and consumer visits to various categories of places, in addition to power generation and traffic numbers. Retail visits have declined after the festive boost, there is no bump-up in electricity generation, Mumbai emissions are moderate and Delhi emissions have dipped after Diwali, and there is a slight uptick in traffic congestion. Analysts globally have kept an eye on these micro and sector-specific data as more real indicators of the situation after Covid-19, besides GDP and manufacturing data, which lags. The brave Ministry of Finance still says that “the Indian growth story continues to expand, as is demonstrated by the trends in FPI, FDI and corporate bond market flows.” Also, the Centre will include the informal sector in its quarterly Employment Survey from now on, and that is likely to boost figures.

The Long Cable

When countries act undemocratically, the world won’t keep quiet

Siddharth Varadarajan

Justin Trudeau’s comments on the Narendra Modi government’s handling of the ongoing protest by farmers have angered South Block and touched a raw nerve with ‘nationalists’ who have taken great offence to this Canadian “interference in India’s sovereign matters”, as BJP leader Ram Madhav put it in a tweet.

While there is a huge difference between external intervention – illegal in international law – and interference, on the one hand, and making critical comments about another government’s handling of internal matters, let us be clear: governments do generally refrain from saying things that will upset friends and allies.

No one can seriously dispute the fact that Canada and India enjoy excellent diplomatic and economic relations. If Trudeau decided to say things which he knew would upset the Indian government, he did so because Canada is also home to 1.4 million Indians, who make up 4% of the Canadian population. Many of those Indians are Punjabis. And that is also the reason why he decided to say what he did on the occasion of Gurupurab:

“I would be remiss if I didn't start by recognising the news coming out of India about the protests by farmers. The situation is concerning and we are all very worried about family and friends. I know that’s the reality for many of you. Let me remind you that Canada will always be there to defend the right to peaceful protest. We believe in the importance of dialogue and that’s why we have reached out through multiple means directly to the Indian authorities to highlight our concerns.”

If we read his comments carefully, it is evident that Trudeau is not speaking about the merits of the protests but about the right to peaceful protest – which has clearly been violated by the Indian government, though he does not explicitly say so – and the importance of dialogue.

In response, the Ministry of External Affairs tore into him:

“We have seen some ill-informed comments by Canadian leaders relating to farmers in India. Such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country. It is also best that diplomatic conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes.”

There are three distinct elements to the Indian statement which are worth parsing.

First, that Trudeau’s comments are “ill-informed”, i.e. are not factual. Second, that they are “unwarrranted” because they refer to the internal affairs of a “a democratic country”. And third, that he should not “misrepresent” a diplomatic conversation his government may have had with the Indian side “for political purposes”.

Let us consider each element in turn.

Are Trudeau’s comments ill-informed? Hardly, given that there has been widespread coverage in the national media about the efforts the police in Haryana and Delhi, and other BJP-ruled jurisdictions, have made to prevent farmers from protesting.

Are they unwarranted, given that India is a democratic country? This accusation is interesting because it suggests countries would not be remiss if they were to comment on the internal affairs of an undemocratic country.  But by the same logic, any undemocratic action – whether undertaken by a democratic or undemocratic country – would also slip in under the same exemption. And here, Trudeau was clearly commenting on the fact that the right to peaceful protest – a right that lies at the heart of any democracy – was being violated in India.

The MEA’s third charge – that Trudeau said what he did “for political purposes” – is probably true as the Canadian prime minister was either addressing the concerns of Indian-origin voters (if we want to be charitable to him) or currying favour with them.

But then elected leaders in democracies do this all the time. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke out in support of the legitimate aspirations of the people of Balochistan in Pakistan during his independence day speech in 2016. Just last month, the same MEA which decried Trudeau rightly issued a statement critical of the Pakistani government’s refusal to ensure the security of its Ahmadi citizens. When the French authorities banned Muslim and Sikh school pupils from wearing headscarves and turbans, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took up the issue with the French government (though, curiously, only of the Sikhs). And for years, India has involved itself in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, where Sri Lankan citizens of Tamil origin had been deprived of this legitimate rights. Can we say that all of this interference was undertaken for some higher purpose? Or were there “political purposes” at play? 

Where does this leave us? India and Canada will quickly turn the corner of this diplomatic dispute but the lesson for the Modi government – or for any other government in any other country – is that in a globalised, inter-connected and inter-dependent world, foreign countries will increasingly feel compelled to speak up when they feel basic democratic and human rights are being violated. When these violations are of a serious magnitude, the international community may even feel compelled to do more. Indeed, the UN Charter provides for this, though most interventions in the 20th century were illegal because they did not follow the process spelled out.

Instead of crying wolf over sovereignty or tilting at windmills, the Modi government (and others like it) need to ensure that all their actions are in conformity with democratic norms, constitutional principles and the country’s international legal obligations. 

Aviation fuel consumption halved

Diesel sales fell 7% year-on-year in November after rising for the first time in eight months in October. Aviation turbine fuel (ATF) sales fell 48% but petrol sales increased by 5%, compared to November 2019.

Naga flag, constitution

The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) on Tuesday insisted (again) that the Nagas must have a sovereign territory, constitution, and national flag as agreed upon in the Framework Agreement signed with the Centre in 2015. The outfit reiterated the demand in response to Nagaland governor and central interlocutor in Naga peace talks RN Ravi’s statement on Monday that “there is and there shall be only one national flag and Constitution in India”. The Modi government had held up the Naga Framework Agreement 2015 as a major achievement, but the NSCN had embarrassed the government by giving away what it claimed had been promised to them in August.

Prime Number: 0/1318
That is the number of news reports discovered by Project SIREN of the Indian Mental Health Observatory on suicide and attempted suicide in nine of India’s most-read English language dailies, which provided any information dispelling myths or creating awareness about suicide prevention. 

Documentary evidence

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” said Milan Kundera. If there is a man who lives these words in India, it is the country’s leading documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, who has spent decades tracking the rise of Hindu nationalism. And now, under an increasingly repressive central government, he holds his screenings in secret. 

Deep Dive

In 2019, India had the cheapest mobile internet prices in the world, but it was also responsible for 121 out of 213 documented internet shutdowns imposed globally ― 57%. While Internet shutdowns are the most draconian tool used to control the flow of information, Indian internet users have also experienced an increase in blocking of specific websites and mobile apps. In Internet Censorship in India, Devdutta Mukhopadhyay focuses on legal orders issued by the authorities to impose restrictions. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Strangely, there is never been as much anxiety about Hindu men marrying Muslim women as about Hindu women marrying Muslim men. Arnesh Nag writes, “It is time that the Special Marriage Act was reformed to make the process of marriage easier.” 

  • Vikram Patel writes that India, in deference to its “long and colourful history” of marijuana use dating back at least two millennia, must join other countries in decriminalising its use.

  • Vivek Kaul has a list of 13 reasons why the banking system cannot be handed to big corporates.

  • India has the biggest gender digital divide with only 21% of women being mobile internet users, while the number is 42%  for men. Archana Datta reflects on how this must be bridged.

Listen up

One party to rule them all? 

The Intelligence podcast has The Economist’s Max Rodenbeck explaining why he wrote that India’s democracy is fraying. (Listen from 00:00 - 08:31)

Watch Out

Sowing fake oats

So much fake fiction is being mixed with farm news. The picture of the elderly farmer being hit by a security officer’s lathi earned sneers from the head of the BJP IT Cell, but this fact-check by Boom Live, which managed to track down the farmer, Sukhdev Singh, describes how he was beaten by security personnel.

That which must not be seen

This is the toon that must not be circulated as the Attorney General deem it to be contemptuous of the Supreme Court. It is nevertheless being circulated on 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.