The India Cable: Past Catches Up With Jaishankar, Why Chanakya Failed to Divide Farmers 

Plus: Poor Indians may not get vaccine, Asian-Americans’ incomes surge, China plays victim on border issue, Tirupati laddus pirated, and underarm ads innovated ― but is it quite cricket?

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 11, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has laid the foundation stone for a new Parliament building which will, the Financial Times feels, be part of a contentious and “vulgar” $2.7 billion overhaul of New Delhi’s imperial heart. Article 79 of the constitution says, “There shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses to be known respectively as the council of States and the House of the People.” Yet, President Kovind was kept away from the ceremony, where the star was Narendra Modi. ”The timing of the project, when the pandemic demands all state resources, is particularly jarring. Congress leader and former union minister P Chidambaram was quick to react:

India’s GDP is expected to contract by 8% in the current financial year and it will be the worst performer in South Asia, barring the Maldives. In contrast, Bangladesh will post the best growth in the region at 5.2%, according to the Asian Development Bank. Termites, anyone?

As Modi waxes eloquent on democratic values – ‘India is mother of democracy’, he said on Thursday – his party pursues a different agenda in Uttar Pradesh: police in Kushinagar stopped a wedding ceremony on Tuesday and took away the couple following a phone call claiming that a Muslim man was marrying a Hindu woman after converting her. They released them the following day after discovering that both were Muslims. The groom, 39-year-old Haider Ali, has alleged that police personnel beat him with a leather belt and tortured him for hours at the Kasya Police Station.

Even though their colleague Raosaheb Danve had already blamed China and Pakistan, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Food Minister Piyush Goyal on Thursday asked the media to identify the forces behind the ongoing farmers protest at the borders of the national capital. Going by the state of the Indian media ― this example from India Today is telling ― it is unlikely that the Modi government will have to face any inconvenient truths.

They don’t understand that with 15 deaths already, the farmers’ struggle is not a picnic with lavish langars and macho songs. It is a battle being waged at a high cost. It is surreally funny to watch Shiromani Akali Dal  chief Sukhbir Singh Badal slam the BJP-led central government for thrusting “black laws” upon farmers the way it “imposed” demonetisation and GST in the past. His wife Harsimrat Kaur was a minister in the Modi government at the time.

Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh has ordered a probe into the Taloja prison authorities, who refused to accept spectacles sent for Elgar Parishad accused Gautam Navlakha.

HelpAge India has become the first Indian NGO to receive the prestigious 2020 UN Population Award in the institutional category. Raja Chari, 43, a graduate of the US Air Force Academy, MIT, is the only Indian-American in the crew for NASA’s manned moon mission. And India and Nepal will resume flight services between the two countries under an air bubble arrangement, with one flight daily. 

The gods must be fighting mad at being pirated, and the mortal police have registered a case against a fake website for illegally selling the famed Tirupati laddus of the Lord Venkateswara shrine. No arrests so far but someone, somewhere, is making counterfeit laddus on an industrial scale. During the pandemic, the temple has offered postal delivery of laddoos. And following assembly election victories in 2017, the BJP had celebrated by flying a huge consignment to Delhi.

Jayapal heads Caucus, Jaishankar discomfited

Foreign Minister S Jaishankar won’t be cheering as Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal is elected chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), making her one of the most powerful lawmakers in the 117th Congress. Indian-American Congressman Ro Khanna, another critic of the authoritarian and communal policies of the Modi government, is Deputy Whip of the Caucus. 

Pramila Jayapal; S. Jaishankar (Wikimedia)

Last December, during his visit to Washington DC, Jaishankar was arrogantly dismissive of Jayapal and cancelled a meeting with US lawmakers after they refused to exclude her, because she had moved a resolution urging India to lift restrictions in Kashmir. Jaishankar’s boycott prompted criticism from Kamala Harris, then a Senator, now Vice President-elect.

China plays victim card 

The official spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry has responded sharply to foreign minister S Jaishankar’s criticism of Beijing’s violation of existing bilateral agreements. Hua Chunying said that “the responsibility totally lies with the Indian side. China has been strictly observing the agreements signed between the two sides and committed to resolving the border issue through dialogue.” 

She also tried to portray China as a victim of Indian aggression: “But like all sovereign states we are determined in safeguarding our territorial integrity.” There has been no clarity on the next round of talks between the two sides, after military talks held on November 8. 

Will poor Indians get a vaccine?

India is eyeing affordable Covid-19 vaccines with eight candidates under trial and production in the country, but should poor Indians worry after the Gates Foundation warned that it could be too late for fair distribution? Rich countries with just 14% of the world’s population have secured 53% of the most promising vaccines, and nine out of 10 of the world’s poorest could remain unvaccinated next year. 

(Courtesy: The Tribune)

The WHO has overseen the creation of Covax, the global initiative that aims to distribute about 2bn doses to 92 low and middle income countries at under $3 a shot. Covax Advance Market Commitment, which finances vaccine procurement for low and middle income countries, has raised $2.1 bn, but $5 bn more is needed. 

In Haryana, it’s about family values

The BJP-JJP government in Haryana is going down the Aadhaar route but with an RSS twist ― the family is the basic unit instead of the individual. On the pretext of offering residents welfare schemes, it wants to collect data on more than 50 lakh families living in the state, and allot each an ID card. Apart from Aadhaar numbers, caste and income data is being collected and stored by the state government in the Citizen Resource Information Department (CRID) headquarters in Chandigarh, with no clarity about safety protocols. 

The eight-digit Parivar Pehchan Patra will become the single necessary document to access state government welfare schemes. The mandatory imposition of Aadhaar to make a Parivar Pehchan Patra violates the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in Puttaswamy vs Union of India, which questioned the legality of Aadhaar and established privacy as a fundamental right. 

Farmers numbers swell, protests to intensify

The Modi government’s bid to split the leadership by initiating backdoor talks with a select group of farmer leaders have failed to break the unity of the farmers’ unions. The sowing season is over and farmers are free for about a month. Arthiyas or commission agents have lent their weight to the stir, and are replenishing the daily needs of farmers at protest sites. The number of farmers at the Delhi-Haryana borders is increasing every day, increasing the pressure on the government. 

Ruling out the repeal of new farm laws, the government has asked farmer groups to consider its proposals for amendments. But the farmers said that they would block railway tracks if their demand for repeal is not met. Addressing reporters at the Singhu border where they have been protesting for almost two weeks, the unions reiterated that they would intensify their agitation and start blocking all highways leading to the national capital.

Book extract

When Nehru gave way to Gandhi on forming ministries in 1937

Kazi Jalil Abbasi (1912-1996) was a freedom fighter, agriculturist, lawyer and politician, and twice Lok Sabha MP from Domariyaganj in the seventh and eighth Lok Sabha. He was also a Minister in the UP state government for two years, 1971-73. His Urdu memoirs (with an introduction by Ali Sardar Jafri) have just been translated into English by Arif Ansari as What Days They Were! In this short extract, he describes his third meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru in 1937, when he joined in discussions about whether the Congress should form ministries after it won provincial elections.

My third meeting with Pandit Nehru happened when a conference was convened in Delhi to decide whether or not the Congress should establish ministries of provinces. A majority was of the view that the Congress should not consent to forming these ministries. Pandit Nehru was also of this opinion. 

There were a considerable number of people who held the contrary view, that we should take advantage of this law (the Government of India Act, 1935, under which provincial elections were held in the winter of 1936-37, which the Congress won), and reap as much benefit as we could. In the struggle for freedom, this was our first opportunity to debate the merits of taking up limited authority through self-government before complete Independence was granted, versus abstaining from such incremental steps. This conference was a very important forum in which to debate this question, and the world was watching to see what the answer would be. 

Youth like us, who had established the All India Students’ Federation in Aligarh and other colleges, were opposed to accepting this mandate. One had to have a pass or purchase a ticket to enter the conference. We did not have enough money to buy a ticket, and it was not easy to get a pass, but we were young and had entered the political arena with a lot of enthusiasm and passion. So a contingent of students, including me, met Pandit Nehru-ji and asked how we could attend the conference. 

Pandit Nehru was President of the Congress at the time. He immediately directed that all the  youth be granted passes. All of us, which included Prabodh Chandra of Punjab (founder of the Multan Student Union in 1927, arrested in the Multan Bomb case in 1929, mainspring of the Punjab students’ movement and after Independence, MLA, Speaker of the Punjab Assembly and Lok Sabha MP), were given passes and attended the conference. 

At the conference, Pandit Nehru emphatically argued for declining the mandate to form ministries, and all of us gave his speech a resounding ovation. Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya came to the stage next. I had not heard him speak before. He delivered a passionate speech in Urdu and addressing the youth, told us that we should step up and save the nation. He also strongly opposed the Congress accepting the mandate. I was surprised at his stance, as I had the impression that he was a liberal and would not support Nehru. His passionate support for Nehru’s position surprised us. 

After that, it was Gandhi’s turn to speak and he supported taking up the mandate, giving the Congress Working Committee’s decision a big boost. It was worth seeing the scene when Pandit Nehru returned to the stage, and declared that kings can do no wrong, that the Working Committee can do no wrong. Then, in a sad tone, he said, “It is another matter that if I am not able to walk with this weight on my shoulders (the party presidency), I will return to ask for permission that this weight be taken off me.”

At these words from Pandit Nehru, the youth in attendance shouted their disapproval of accepting the mandate, but Panditji had already laid down his arms. He opposed Gandhi’s views on this matter, but he was also a disciplined man, and bowed his head to the will of the party despite his opposition. The mandate was accepted, ministries were formed, but they resigned just three years later and individual satyagraha, political resistance composed of individuals called satyagrahis, rather than a mass movement, was announced. 

I am of the opinion that despite their short duration and limited authority, the Congress governments did a lot of good work for the welfare and betterment of the people, by means of which the Congress movement was reinforced. First of all, the jail system was reformed, because it was a given that soon, many of the Congress members would be jailed. As a result, when I went to jail in 1940, it felt more like house arrest, as there was no distress from the food and living conditions there.

Snakes, boats, Nehru and BJP

To defend the naming of a new campus of the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology in Thiruvananthapuram after RSS guru MS Golwalkar, Union minister of state for External Affairs V Muraleedharan had asked if Kerala’s famous snake boat race was named after Nehru because he was a sportsman. The sarcasm was lost on the people of Kerala, who know that it was for winning hearts, not medals

Here are the facts: Nehru’s visit with his family to Kuttanad in December 1952, during his first tour of Kerala after Independence, led to the origin of one of the world’s biggest water sports events. Back in Delhi, Nehru sent a silver trophy bearing his signature to the Collector of Kollam, with the inscription: “To the winners of the boat race which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore Cochin.” In 1954, the Kollam Collector formed an organising committee and began the Prime Minister’s Trophy Boat Race. After Nehru’s death, the regatta was renamed the Nehru Trophy Boat Race.


For the informal meeting with select farmer leaders on Tuesday evening, Home Minister Amit Shah had invited only three leaders. There was confusion about venue and timing, and Shah had wanted only three leaders, with a view to split the leadership, while others were privately approached by BJP leaders and central ministers. The proposal was placed before the 32-member committee, which was strongly opposed to talks. 

A group, which was instrumental in taking the critical decision to camp on the Kundli border of Delhi instead of going to the Burari grounds, felt that since a select committee proposed by the Union Agriculture Minister was already rejected, there was no justification for sending a select group. Following a voice vote, instead of accepting the proposal of three leaders, six from various organisations were sent, but they were not empowered to take any decision. And so the media’s favourite Chanakya was stymied by farmers.

Journalists at risk

Three journalists were allegedly thrashed by police personnel while covering the District Development Council polls in Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir on Thursday. Fayaz Lolu, Mudasir Qadri and Junaid Rafiq claimed that their equipment was seized by policemen who took them to a police post after physically assaulting them. Police officials refused to comment.

A newspaper reporter in Uttar Pradesh was burned alive for exposing corruption, after he had complained to the police about death threats. He was doused in alcohol-based hand sanitizer and set alight in his home.

Prime Number: 8%
That is the amount by which median incomes of Asian-Americans have gone up in the US. Data from the US Census Bureau revealed a new trend within income growth: Over the past ten and a half years, Asian Americans have experienced a bigger increase in income than any other ethnic group. 

England to tour India

England will play their first day-and-night Test in the country early next year at the world’s biggest cricket ground. The sides will play four Tests starting on February 5, with the third under lights at Ahmedabad’s 110,000-capacity Sardar Patel Stadium, where Narendra Modi had hosted US President Donald Trump, when pandemic cases were rising globally. Chennai will host the first two Tests and Ahmedabad the final two. They will be followed by five Twenty20s in Ahmedabad and three one-day internationals in Pune. All matches will be played in a biosecure bubble and without fans.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Ravinder Kaur writes in the Guardian that the Modi government’s hopes of turning India into the world’s workshop for global corporations are being strongly resisted, with protesting farmers leading the charge.

  • If we permit the self-appointed arbiters of Hindu culture to impose their hypocrisy and double standards on the rest of us, they will define down Indianness until it ceases to be Indian, avers Shashi Tharoor. The BJP-led culture war must be fought in the courts, but it will be won only in the hearts of all Indians, he says.

  • Writing on Muslim boys and Hindu girls falling in love, Julio Ribeiro says that if BJP chief ministers brazenly reject the mandate of the courts, the rule of law will forever be abandoned and buried. India will be a Hindu Rashtra, competing in bigotry with its neighbour to the west. 

  • In his obituary of Hindi poet Manglesh Dabral, Ashutosh Bhardwaj says that his artistic life was characterised by how to write about sorrow without losing hope, and how to be a poet without ceasing to be human.

  • Just for the lulz, don’t miss Amitabh Kant’s resounding defence of Indian democracy, after he was caught on camera saying it was too much of a good thing. 

Listen up

Ravinder Kaur talks about brand-building displacing nation-building in the 21st century, and the actual makers of India’s new brand. She discusses the untold back story of Vajpayee’s disastrous 2004 ‘India Shining’ campaign and why Modi’s notion of a ‘New India’ is not all that new.  

Watch Out

The Journal of Archaeological Science has a paper in its January 2021 issue, ‘Lipid residues in pottery from the Indus Civilisation in northwest India’, which establishes that the Harappans were enthusiastic meat-eaters. They were especially partial to beef, a finding which scuppers attempts to co-opt them in the myth of the historicity of Indian vegetarianism. Speaking of food, watch Tony Joseph speaking about who the Indians are, with the analogy of making a pizza. 

Ads you can’t sniff at

The latest sports advertising idea is really the pits. Australian cricket umpires will carry deodorant ads in their underarms during the Big Bash league, which will be fully revealed to the watching world upon the signalling of a six (both arms raised, two logos revealed) or a bye (just one). What next? Perhaps the IPL will provide an answer to that not so fragrant question.

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.