The India Cable: Official Inhumanity Survives Last Straw, Farmers Weather Water Cannon

Plus: Year of living dangerously for Maharashtra govt, Covid infections 30 times more than reported, IITs to teach in mother tongue, Press Council warns on foreign content, and Kerala mourns Maradona

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 27, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

The official GDP forecast will be out today, and is expected to reveal that India is lagging far behind other industrialised nations in economic recovery. The Army suffered three more fatalities in Kashmir, losing two soldiers on the outskirts of Srinagar to firing by militants, and a junior commissioned officer to cross-LoC firing from Pakistan. The security forces have already lost 19 personnel in November, making it one of the toughest months for the men in uniform. Two other soldiers were injured in accidental firing in the Kandi Khass area of north Kashmir’s Kupwara district on Thursday. 

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said that India has held talks with China and will continue the dialogue to resolve the Ladakh border crisis. But China seems to have different ideas and no talks have been held after November 6, while its troops still control territory on the Indian side of the LAC. A Chinese military spokesperson said on Thursday that China expects India to safeguard peace and stability along the border between the two countries with a sincere attitude backed by positive actions. 

Kerala, Orissa, Assam, Telangana and Puducherry on Thursday witnessed a total shutdown and normal life was partially affected in several other states by the day-long nationwide strike organised by central trade unions. Over 25 crore workers had participated in the protest, the unions said. Protesting farmers heading for the capital from Punjab have faced water cannon and tear gas, and the national highway is being dug up to impede their tractors. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit the Serum Institute of India, the Pune-based private pharmaceutical company making the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Its ostensibly successful trials have been engulfed in a major controversy. The company is likely to run fresh global trials to assess the efficacy of its Covid-19 vaccine. 

Remember Comical Ali from Iraq, who became the mouthpiece of the Saddam regime? Modi’s ‘New India’ has many contenders, and the latest to join the list is a Haryana DGP who claimed, “Acting with restraint, the police did not use force on the agitating farmers.” Pictures and videos from Haryana tell a completely different story. But the clear winner in the foot-in-mouth category is Rajasthan state BJP chief Satish Poonia, who raked up a case of alleged ‘love jihad’ to embarrass CM Ashok Gehlot and his government. The charge boomeranged on the BJP president, because the issue had arisen during the tenure of the previous Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government in the state. 

Faqir Chand Kohli, who sowed the seeds of the USD 190-billion IT industry as founding chief executive of TCS, passed away on Thursday at the age of 96. The Economic Times reports that festive season sales on digital platforms is $3.3 billion more than last year’s, according to Redseer Consulting of Bengaluru, and that the Walmart-backed Flipkart group has raked in 58% of the takings, well ahead of Amazon, which is at 30%. A lot of the demand growth came from smaller towns, and could be a consequence of anxieties about shopping in crowded markets. ET also reports that the mainly rural Bimaru states are pushing up growth in automobile sales.    

A day after an audio clip, allegedly offering a ministerial berth to BJP MLA Lalan Paswan if he abstained from voting during the Speaker’s election in Bihar, went viral on social media, jailed RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav was shifted back to the paying ward of Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences in Ranchi. Attorney General KK Venugopal has suggested that four benches of a Court of Appeal should be created with 15 judges each sitting across the country, to reduce the burden of the Supreme Court. Finally, he’s made himself useful to the people. 

The Economist this week expresses concern about what it calls India’s diminishing democracy: “Narendra Modi threatens to turn India into a one-party state.” It is alarmed about the “ongoing erosion of checks and balances”. And the Washington Post reports that new laws against interfaith marriages in BJP-run state governments “will deepen concerns that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s Muslim minority is increasingly subject to suspicion, discrimination and even violence.” As if on cue, West Bengal BJP President Dilip Ghosh said that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan the state’s brand ambassador because he is a Khan

Covid cases globally crossed 60 million and India remained steadfast at number two on the world list, with 135,223 deaths. An NHAI plan to acquire a portion of the 800-year-old Cheppad church land near Kayamkulam for the development of National Highway 66 has kicked up a row, with devotees on a relay fast in protest. And Kerala has announced two days of mourning for Diego Maradona


Punjab marches on Fortress Delhi

Farmers from Punjab faced water cannons and tear gas and broke police barricades at the state’s border with Haryana as they pushed towards the national capital on their ‘Delhi Chalo’ march against the Centre’s farm laws. They have bridged ditches and culverts dug across the highway by the police, removed parked trucks, cement blocks and shipping containers used as roadblocks by the BJP-JJP government in Haryana at the Delhi border. Delhi Police, which comes directly under Amit Shah’s Home Ministry, has sought permission from the Delhi government to use the city’s nine stadiums as temporary jails for farmers, as they had done the day Anna Hazare was arrested in 2011. The AAP government, which includes people who had been held in those very stadiums, has refused. It argues that jail is not a solution, and prescribes a patient hearing. Opposition parties hit out at the BJP-led Haryana government for using water cannons and tear gas on farmers moving towards the national capital against the Centre’s farm laws, saying that it revealed the “anti-farmer face” of the saffron party. 

The ‘Delhi Chalo’ agitation has got an overwhelming response from women, schoolchildren and the youth, who are coming out of their homes in large numbers to participate in protests across Punjab. Schoolgirls and youth were also seen carrying flags, raising slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Union government over the farm laws. Navdeep Singh of Ambala became an icon of the farmers’ march when he turned off the tap on a water cannon on the highway.

Farmers in Punjab have been protesting since September 24, when Parliament passed three new farm sector laws. Farmers contend that they could lead to the abolition of the minimum support price system and end the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) markets. They are also demanding the withdrawal of amendments to the Electricity Act, which could lead to an increase in power tariffs. The November 26-27 protests by farmers are in response to the ‘Chalo Delhi’ call given by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), and over 500 organisations are supporting it.


Covid crisis continues

There were 26-32 infections for every reported Covid-19 case by August, and nearly 7% of India’s population aged 10 and above was exposed to the coronavirus. That amounts to an estimated 74.3 million Covid-19 infections, with seroprevalence highest in urban slum areas followed by urban non-slum and rural areas, as per the findings of the  second national serosurvey of the Indian Council of Medical Research. According to survey results which have appeared in the Lancet Global Health pre-print, the overall seroprevalence of below 10% in India indicates that a large proportion of the population remains susceptible to the novel coronavirus.

The first ‘wave’ of Covid-19 vaccinations in India will be available to a priority group of 30 crore Indians. This will consist of healthcare workers, police, armed guards, those above 50, and those with ‘significant comorbidities’, Principal Scientific Advisor K VijayRaghavan said on Thursday. He also said the nationalvaccine committee, headed by Dr VK Paul, has finalised a broad blueprint.


IITs to teach in the mother tongue

From the next academic year, technical courses, including engineering programmes, will be offered in regional languages, according to a decision taken at a high-level review meeting chaired by Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal. “A seminal decision was made to start technical education, especially engineering courses, imparting education in the mother tongue [and this] will be opened from the next academic year. A few IITs and NITs are being shortlisted for the same,” a senior ministry official said.


NIA’s conscience survives the last straw

As the nation celebrated Constitution Day with top leaders and judges holding forth on the founding document of the republic, an 83-year old Jesuit priest who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has not been convicted of any crime was still not provided with a straw and a sipper to drink from, besides winter clothes. A Special NIA court in Mumbai directed the medical officer in Taloja Jail to reply to the requirement of a straw and sipper filed by Father Stan Swamy, after the National Investigation Agency expressed its inability to provide a straw and sipper. The matter will now be heard on December 4. Independent journalist Saurav Das has done the obvious in the meantime ― he has bought the NIA a sipper bottle from Amazon, which will be delivered to its office on Cumballa Hill today.  


In Chinese company

The country’s seniormost military officer, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat attended an event organised by the Chinese-owned automobile manufacturer MG, in the middle of the worst border crisis in decades. Apart from the Chinese angle, what was a general doing at the publicity event of a private company, anyway?


GDP data out today

The government will release GDP statistics for the quarter ending September today, after having seen a 23.9% contraction in the quarter ending June due to the sudden and disruptive lockdown imposed by the Centre. Here’s what the numbers could reveal

Life seems to have come full circle for Tata Sons and the aviation industry as the $113 billion group is in talks to get Singapore Airlines (SIA) to help in a bid for Air India, which the Modi government is very eager to sell. As there are few takers, the NDA government is probably beseeching the Tatas to bid for it. The Tatas had wanted to bring SIA into India back in 2003, but its entry was blocked by the politically powerful Naresh Goyal, owner of Jet Airways. Arun Shourie, as Union minister in the NDA regime, had gone public against Jet Airways’ attempt to block the entry of the Tatas-SIA joint venture, but the Tatas were forced to withdraw. In a reversal of fortunes, Jet Airways has gone bankrupt and is being sold off at residual value, while Goyal is being investigated for siphoning off funds from the company. And the Tatas are being invited by the NDA to bid for Air India. 


The Long Cable

Maharashtra government: Chronicle of a survival not foretold

Sidharth Bhatia

The three-party coalition government in Maharashtra has just completed one year. This may not be a major feat ― governments are elected to last their full term of five years ― but given the internal contradictions in the coalition, the circumstances of its birth and the external political battles it has faced, it is an achievement.

 Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray (Source: Twitter/@OfficeofUT)

The three members are the nativist and regional Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, formed by breakaway Congress leaders. The Congress and the Sena have been bitter rivals for decades, but they came together somewhat reluctantly to keep the dominant BJP out of power. The Sena and the BJP had been close allies for over 25 years, but fell out last year over a power-sharing arrangement. The BJP had tried to pull a fast one by getting their own man, Devendra Fadnavis, sworn in as chief minister, at the crack of dawn, last year. But without the support of the required number of legislators, he had to step down after three days, in somewhat humiliating circumstances. The BJP feels it has been robbed of an important and rich state, and has smarted ever since.

The coalition was cobbled together and most pundits predicted it wouldn’t last. Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray as chief minister was an added imponderable. Not only was he inexperienced, he also headed a party known for its belligerent ways, often indulging in violence and vandalism on the streets against minorities, migrants and critics. Thackeray’s father Bal Thackeray, who had founded the Shiv Sena in the 1960s, with the ostensible aim of protecting the rights of ‘sons of the soil’ ― those who spoke the local language, Marathi ― effectively ruled over Mumbai for decades, and his son and heir was not given a chance to exercise power, let alone as an administrator.

And yet, not only has Uddhav survived, he has pleasantly surprised everyone by his calm demeanour in the face of multiple crises such as the pandemic, which was rampant in Mumbai and Maharashtra in the early months, an ongoing battle with the Modi government in Delhi which held back crucial funds, and multiple efforts by the BJP to undermine and even dislodge him.

From the beginning, rumours abounded that many of his legislators were itching to walk over to the BJP, a natural political ally, and rustle up the numbers to unseat him. Nothing of the sort happened ― instead, senior partymen have been leaving the BJP to save their careers. BJP-friendly media went into overdrive against the coalition government, but Thackeray didn’t cave in. Instead, his government unearthed a ratings scandal against a prominent critic, Republic TV owner Arnab Goswami. Not surprisingly, things quieted down after that. Coalition partners too are silent for the time being, realising that if they do not hang together, they will hang separately, for this is their only chance of being in power.

Thackeray’s greatest strength has been the immense public support he enjoys. The populace in Mumbai, India’s richest city, which has seen at first hand the Shiv Sena’s behaviour on the streets, was apprehensive in the beginning, but now sings his praises.

Problems persist, however. Covid cases have slowed down, but there is rural distress. In the cities, too, there are large scale job losses and though it is part of a national phenomenon, Thackeray has to tackle it in his state. And both the BJP government at the Centre and the party in the state will not give up their political campaign against him. He cannot feel sanguine about this anniversary ― there are four more years ahead.


Reportedly

In response to references received “by the government” about the responsibility of Indian newspapers publishing foreign content, the Press Council of India has issued an advisory to “publish foreign extracts in Indian newspapers with due verification as the reporter, publisher and editor of such newspaper shall be responsible for the contents, irrespective of the source from which it is received”. Indian media outlets routinely publish reports or extracts from foreign publications, which have been seen as critical of the Modi government, the BJP and the RSS. The government ‘autonomous’ mouthpiece Prasar Bharati has repeatedly taken on several foreign publications over their reportage of incidents within India, such as the abrogation of Article 370, the Ayodhya verdict, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the riots in northeast Delhi. And decades ago, damning coverage of the Bofors scandal was reproduced from the European press by The Hindu


Prime number: 14,859 and 700%
“The Supreme Court has disposed of 14,859 cases since the lockdown, all the High Courts together have disposed of 1.5 lakh cases, and the subordinate courts across the country, some 4.5 lakh,” said Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde yesterday. He also admitted that the regime of virtual hearings had brought a new kind of technological inequality to the fore. But pleas concerning Article 370, several habeas corpus matters, electoral bonds and a drinking straw for the 83-year old Alzheimer’s patient Stan Swamy, arrested in the middle of the pandemic, were either avoided or not heard adequately, and it had nothing to with the digital divide.

And wireless hearables shipments grew over 700% in the quarter compared with last year, as working and studying from home continued to boost demand. Xiaomi earbuds and boAT sets topped the list. 

Deep Dive

The Naga question: all you need to know

India’s oldest ongoing insurgency, even older than independent India, led to the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958 being invented to ‘protect’ the armed forces battling it. More recently, the Naga Framework Agreement was touted as a big success of the Modi government but it fell apart. Read Makepeace Sitlhou about its history and roots


Love India Project

India Love Project on Instagram is about love and marriage, exactly as they should be, free of the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity and gender. Founded by Priya Ramani, Samar Halarnkar and Niloufer Venkatraman, it continues to make waves by turning its attention to a Jewish, Hindu and Protestant love affair. Read about Kalki Koechlin and Guy Hershberg. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Police officers should resolve not to cede space to the political leadership or bureaucracy on professional matters and cooperate with each other, adhering to the spirit of the law of the land, say Yashovardhan Azad and Arun Chaudhary, because in a democracy, the police is the cornerstone for good governance and cannot be taken for granted.

  • Lt Gen HS Panag (retd) observes that in a political environment dominated by neo-nationalism, of which military prowess is invariably an integral element, the military is sucked in and becomes part of it. More so, if the military hierarchy does not render firm advice in this regard, and this is what has been happening in India since 2014.

  • Farmers need a vast network of regulated mandis like in Punjab and Haryana, argues Devinder Sharma. That would assure real freedom for farmers, when they are guaranteed the Minimum Support Price wherever they sell their crop.

  • On Constitution Day, Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi wrote about scientific temper being the central element of India’s Constitution. 


Listen up

Joshua Mathew talks to Sheila Kumar about the life of Donald Anderson (1934-2014), one of the last colonial hunters or shikaris. ‘Don Shikari’ was a resident of Bangalore and lived a life quite removed from 21st century experiences and norms. They talk about changing attitudes to hunting, which was once a sport, how life in central Bangalore has evolved over the last century, and the larger-than-life character that was Don Anderson.


Watch Out

Our very own talented all-rounder R Ashwin dials up Inzy or Inzamam-ul-Haq across the border and speaks to him. Watch it for the frankness, the mutual respect, the absence of jingoism, and the brotherliness of two fine cricketers. You don’t have to love cricket to enjoy this, the spirit of the conversation matters more.


In Kerala, Maradona lives on

Will the rose play spoilsport for the lotus in the Thiruvananthapuram local body election? And interestingly, there is a Maradona shrine in Kerala, a state which has been in a long-term love affair with  the footballer. A hotel room he once stayed in has been a museum for eight years, and is rented out only to his fans. And the morning after he died, the front pages of Kerala’s top dailies Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi were completely dominated by the legend.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.