The India Cable: PM Takes Jab, Sends Poll Signals; CJI Offers Marriage 'Exit' to Minor’s Rapist

Plus: New IT rules used to target Manipur media, Chinese hacked Indian vaccine companies, US sees Make in India as dealbreaker, Atmanirbhar Indian soot speeds Arctic melting

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
March 2, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

One jab to rule them all ― the Prime Minister’s first anti-Covid shot at AIIMS was electoral semiotics directed at all the five states going to the polls. Wearing a beard recalling Periyar and Tagore (familiar to voters in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal), and with a gamosa from Assam around his neck, he was attended by nurses from Puducherry and Kerala, or so his handlers helpfully told the media. Modi also chose Covaxin, in support of Atmanirbharta. The English press largely ignored the symbolism, preferring to concentrate on the fact that Modi visited the hospital early, so as not to inconvenience commuters, and that the nurses were overcome. 

After a particularly dreary winter, North India is heading into a scorching summer, says the weatherman. People joke that they switched off their heaters and turned on their ceiling fans in the span between breakfast and lunch, on the same day. The political heat is gathering in West Bengal, which could become a focus of Opposition unity. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is framing the coming battle as a match (“khela”) between sons of the soil and “outsiders” ― the BJP. However, much of the state’s finance and labour (and over 45 lakh voters) are provided by immigrants, and yesterday, two Yadavs appeared in Kolkata to support her against the BJP: Akhilesh visited from Uttar Pradesh in the morning, and Tejashwi from Bihar in the evening. The BJP, which is perceived to have been given the advantage by the Election Commission with eight polling dates in the state, derided both Yadavs, but they can’t have forgotten the scare that Tejashwi gave them in the Bihar assembly elections. There has been no talk of seat-sharing.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh on Monday announced that political strategist Prashant Kishor has signed up as his principal advisor. Kishor is accorded the rank and status of a Cabinet minister, along with the associated perks. Kishor is currently Mamata’s chief poll strategist.

Just days after the government rolled out new rules for digital communications, the Election Commission is understood to have accepted the recommendation of a committee to treat hashtags as political advertising, which would count towards election ad spend caps. Of course, these are observed in the breach by cash-rich parties, and as the ‘toolkit’ episode showed, hashtags are also important instruments for outreach in non-electoral politics, including advocacy, activism and protest. 

The number of new coronavirus infections globally rose last week for the first time in seven weeks, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. India has seen an uptick, too. Fresh daily Covid-19 infections were above 16,000 for the fourth consecutive day. A rise is seen in 25 states and Union territories. BJP Lok Sabha MP Nandkumar Singh Chauhan (69) has died. He had tested positive for Covid-19 and was undergoing treatment. Supreme Court judges will be administered coronavirus vaccines, starting today. Families of the judges and those who have retired as judges of the Supreme Court will also be eligible. Why it was necessary to say that is not clear: all apex court retirees are older than 65 and are thus eligible anyway.

The first day of the long-anticipated spectrum sale ― for telcos whose lease expires this summer ― brought the government Rs 77,146 crore, over 70% higher than the collections expected. Airwaves worth about Rs 2 lakh crore remain unsold. In total, about Rs 3.92 lakh crore worth of spectrum is on sale, for legacy networks. Spectrum for 5G services in the 3,300-3,600 Mhz band will be sold separately, later. These revenues should urge the government against depending too heavily on fuel taxes and divestment, as it has been doing.  

In an annual report submitted to Congress, the US Trade Representative has said that in 2020, it worked to resolve “long-standing market access impediments affecting US exporters” to India. It identifies Indian policy as “trade-restrictive” and says that the Make in India campaign epitomises the challenges to the trade relationship. Despite ongoing tensions on the border and punitive curbs on Chinese trade and funds, China has displaced the US as India’s biggest trading partner.

Arif Khan, the husband of Ayesha Banu (23), who ended her life by jumping into the Sabarmati river after shooting a video, was arrested from Pali in Rajasthan. He has been booked for abetment to suicide.

An advocate in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, has been behind bars since February for downloading the Facebook profile picture of a Judicial Magistrate First Class (JMFC) and sending it back to her in a birthday greeting, which apparently included an “indecent message”. The next day, a physical birthday card was delivered to her during court hours. The advocate has been charged under various provisions, including the Information Technology Act, and will plead his own case.  

Soot generated by the cities of the Indo-Gangetic plain travels by an 8,500 km aerial expressway  and is deposited on Arctic ice, blackening it and increasing the absorption of heat from sunlight. This accelerates the loss of the polar ice cap, which has become a global problem. Earlier, the role of soot in accelerating warming in the ‘Third Pole’ ― the Himalayan region, the third biggest reservoir of stored water ― had been noticed. The rate in the uplands is five times higher than that of global warming

Long arm of Modi’s new digital media law targets media portal in Manipur

The government’s new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 have barely been notified and they have already found their first media target.

On Tuesday morning, a detachment of the Manipur police landed up at the office of the Frontier Manipur news portal in Imphal in order to hand over a notice threatening the ‘publisher/intermediary’ of a video programme run by the site called ‘Khanasi Neinasi’ with unspecified penalties if they fail to demonstrate that they had compiled with the registration requirements of the new regulations.

The real target of this action is the anchor who runs the video programme, Kishorechandra Wangkhem. In 2018, he rubbed the ruling BJP the wrong way by using intemperate language to criticise Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the state’s Chief Minister, N. Birendra Singh. Wangkhem was arrested first on the charge of sedition and then under the National Security Act, until the high court stepped in and ordered his release. The new IT rules have given the government a new way of saying ‘Gotcha’.

Media organisations have warned that the new rules are designed to harass independent media. It seems the government has no problem proving them right.

Chinese Stone Panda attacked Serum Institute

The dust has barely settled on a story in the New York Times about possible cybersecurity threats via Chinese malware directed at Maharashtra’s electrical system, and there are reports of a Chinese state-backed hacking group which had in recent weeks targeted the IT systems of Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech, the two Indian vaccine makers whose coronavirus shots are being used in the country’s immunisation campaign, according to the cyber intelligence firm Cyfirma.

Goldman Sachs-backed Cyfirma, based in Singapore and Tokyo, said Chinese hacking group APT10, also known as Stone Panda, had identified gaps and vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure and supply chain software of Bharat Biotech and the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine maker.

The government issued a statement in response to the story in the New York Times, saying it had firewalled itself immediately after being alerted. The Ministry of Power on Monday confirmed that it was aware of a Chinese cyber campaign to use malware to target India’s power grid. However, it said that there was no impact on operations of Power System Operation Corporation, or POSOCO, due to the “referred threat”. 

Here is a succinct and sharp six-minute refresher on the India-China border conflict.

G-23 speaks up again

The ‘G-23’ group of Congress dissidents appears to be determined to up the ante. Former Rajya Sabha Opposition leader Ghulam Nabi Azad had words of praise for PM Narendra Modi (who had wept publicly at the end of his term) and now Anand Sharma, MP and member of the Congress Working Committee, has questioned its decision to ally with the recently-formed Indian Secular Front (ISF) for the West Bengal assembly elections. Sharma also termed “painful and shameful” the presence of state Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury at a joint rally with the Left and the ISF at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground on Sunday. Two-term Lok Sabha MP Sandeep Dikshit also spoke up on disappointments about the functioning of the senior-most leaders in the party, and its handling of failures since 2014.

Workers join farm stir

Farm unions under the banner of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha and 10 central trade unions have agreed to carry out a joint campaign, combining their demands and planning common actions. The decision was taken at a meeting of representatives from both sides on Monday evening, but will need to be ratified by the wider SKM at its general body meeting today.

India’s CO2 emissions unacceptable

India’s percentage carbon dioxide emissions were far above the world average of 0.7%, according to an analysis published in Nature Climate Change on Monday. It rose slower in 2016-19 than in 2011-15. In comparison, China posted a 0.4% increase in 2016-19 and the US registered a decline in emissions of 0.7%. In volume terms, however, they dwarf India’s emissions. 

The world is nowhere near engaging effectively with climate change, the United Nations has reported on the basis of new pledges made by the European Union and 47 other countries to control greenhouse gases. The new pledges do not include the world’s top two greenhouse gas polluters, China and the US. Nor does it include India, the fourth largest polluter after the EU.

The Long Cable

No shaadi or rakhi, Milords, only justice, and never mind what the WhatsApp uncles say

Seema Chishti

A government servant has been accused of stalking a minor girl, entering her home in her family’s absence, tying her up, gagging and then raping her. He repeated the act, with threats of acid attacks and burning her alive. The victim attempted suicide, upon which the mother learned of the rape. At the police station, the mother was allegedly pressured by the accused’s mother to sign a statement saying the accused had promised to marry the victim.

When the matter came before him, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde asked the accused in open court: “Will you marry her?” He went on to say: “You should have thought before seducing and raping the young girl. You knew you are a government servant. We are not forcing you to marry. Let us know if you will. Otherwise you will say we are forcing you to marry her.” The top court went on to grant the accused interim protection from arrest for four weeks, in contravention of the spirit of a Bombay High Court order which had overturned the grant of anticipatory bail by a sessions court, terming it as “perverse, arbitrary and capricious.”

At least five BJP-ruled states have criminalised marital choices in which women choose beyond ‘arranged’ matches, and ‘society’ does not approve. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan wants the police to be notified every time working women leave home, if they want to stay safe. The BJP-ruled Centre has said on affidavit that same-sex couples do not constitute a family, which is by definition a man, woman and child. These are only the most recent instances that show that the BJP feels that the patriarchy and women’s ‘protection’ are the same, and of a piece with their ideology, which their constituents have elected it to implement.

This is the point where the courts come in. They are supposed to act against traditional mores and regressive norms that are still rampant. Consequently, the courts’ perverse treatment and suggestion of marriage and ‘compromise’ as justice for being raped must ring alarm bells. Unlike the BJP, which has been elected to office and can claim, however tenuously, that it must be mindful of the opinion of common folk, the courts exist to not pander to the ‘public mood’ or ‘collective conscience’, and to do their job. Often, that is the hard and unpopular grind of dispensing justice on the basis of norms enshrined in the Constitution. This could well be in complete defiance of what one’s own family might say. 

Judges are not elected to office. Enormous powers and protections are conferred upon them, not to second-guess the mood of the government or the public and behave like WhatsApp uncles, but to be judicious and independent. Rape must not be regarded as “social death”, but a heinous crime attracting punishment, and not a khap-like response.

To be fair, as Pratiksha Baxi notes, in several rulings, the Supreme Court has explained why it is dangerous for it to behave like a marriage bureau. “In 2013, the Supreme Court refused to mitigate the sentence of a rapist on the basis of a compromise, observing that ‘rape is a non-compoundable offence’ and it ‘is not a matter to be left for the parties to compromise and settle’. Similarly, it has held that the ‘offer of the rapist to marry the victim’ is not a ‘relevant reason’ to mitigate a sentence.”

The Supreme Court must worry that the representation of women within the institution is appalling. As Attorney General KK Venugopal pointed out in a written submission in December, just two out of 34 judges are women, and there has never been a woman Chief Justice of India.

Women donning wigs is not the only fix needed. When former chief justice Ranjan Gogoi was accused of sexual harassment, women judges were involved in the matter but he presided over a bench in a case against himself, found a conspiracy against himself and went on to acquit himself. The in-house inquiry report was never made public and the government awarded Gogoi a Rajya Sabha nomination within four months of his retirement. The problem extends to the police. A week ago, the Tamil Nadu Home Department started an inquiry on the basis of a complaint by a woman IPS officer of alleged sexual harassment by Special Director General of Police (Law and Order) Rajesh Das, in his official vehicle. 

These are all grim portends and markers of the security environment in India for those who hold up half the sky. Combined with the already rampant misogyny in India, crime rates against women are rising and are directly proportional to the impunity that perpetrators enjoy, thanks to the confidence that the cost could be a compromise, or sometimes a rakhi. Recklessly regressive statements made in court by judges signal that perpetrators would be justified in seeing the crime of rape as a low-risk enterprise.

No shaadi or rakhi, Milords, only justice. 

Delhi High Court pulls up police in ‘riots’ case

The Delhi High Court on Monday pulled up the police for the leak of an accused’s purported disclosure statement to the media before the chargesheet was filed. The court was hearing a plea filed by Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha in connection with the conspiracy case related to the Northeast Delhi ‘riots’. Justice Mukta Gupta described the police’s vigilance inquiry report into the matter as “half-baked”, “a useless piece of paper”, and “worse than… what they do in an ordinary case of theft.” She was particularly irked by their claim that since they could not (or would not) identify the source of the leak, the fact of the leak was “unsubstantiated”.

In UP, father of molested girl shot for filing case

It’s like something out of a gritty OTT series. A man who had filed a case after his daughter was molested was allegedly shot dead by the accused and his aides in UP’s Hathras. In tears, his daughter was seen begging for justice as she identified the main accused in a video. Police say that one of the accused has been arrested today.

Prime Number: 85%
In India, 85% of working women claim to have missed out on a promotion or pay hike because of their gender. They have been impacted more strongly by the Covid-19 pandemic than their peers elsewhere, and battle the strongest gender bias across the Asia Pacific countries, fighting for both equal pay and opportunity, according to the LinkedIn Opportunity Index 2021. The report focuses on the way women perceive opportunities and how the gender gap slows down career progress for working women, apart from the effects of the pandemic.

Deep Dive

Himalaya’s fragile ecology

The construction of dams and roads worsened the impact of the recent Himalayan disaster manifold. This analysis on The Third Pole details how climate change made the Uttarakhand flash flood possible, and poor development policies made it disastrous.

Kashmir research wins anthropology award

The Public Anthropologist Award 2021 has been won by Ather Zia for her book Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (University of Washington Press/Zubaan). She teaches at the University of Northern Colorado and researches military occupation, settler colonialism and women’s collective political and social challenges in Kashmir.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Pravin Sawhney writes that India has willy-nilly allowed the border dispute with China to become a question of ‘Chinese sovereignty’. Consequently, India now appears to be the aggressor, and has handed over the Ladakh narrative on a platter to China.

  • The offended majority and inconsistent policy on bail: Siddharth Shivakumar critiques the Allahabad High Court’s order on the serial Tandav.

  • Aakar Patel writes that the Indian government’s actions and its refusal to reverse what it is doing to its citizens are at the cost of India’s global reputation. “We are too close to the story, as it unfolds before us in real time today, to be able to calculate what this cost is.” 

  • After their terrifying struggle to reach home in the lockdown, India’s migrants now find that labour is more expendable, shrinking wages and dwindling job opportunities are ingrained in post-Covid policies, and the state is in retreat in the guise of market-oriented reform, writes Kavitha Iyer.

  • No meaningful cricket documentaries to preserve the past are being made in India. This is only because BCCI, which owns all Indian cricket footage, is arrogantly insular to the point of insanity about its pricing, contends Jaideep Verma.

  • Terming the new rules a mala fide attempt to control independent digital media, The Wire in an editorial writes that they unfairly lump together news websites with OTT platforms and social media, and must be rolled back.

Listen Up

Children and the coronavirus

Enakshi Ganguly, child rights activist and co-founder of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, speaks of the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of children in India. In July 2020, Ganguly was part of the 11-member expert committee set up by the National Human Rights Commission to investigate the impact of Covid-19 on human rights ― especially those of marginalised and vulnerable sections of society.

Watch Out

Ravish on the media in our era

Magsaysay award-winning journalist Ravish Kumar delivered this speech in Nagpur this weekend on the sweetness of the city’s oranges, the benefits of having a spine, and the importance of being Ambedkar. 

‘Modi tax’ and Tharoorspeak 

The skyrocketing price of fuel, rising almost every day, has begun to bite, with ministers citing random reasons to explain it. The term ‘Modi tax’, the central taxes that are more than the cost of international crude, was trending on social media yesterday.

Pakistani standup comic Akbar Chaudhry has produced a three-step guide, ‘How to speak English like Shashi Tharoor.’ Tharoor himself teeheed, hooted, whooped, guffawed, cracked up, bust a gut and was in stitches when he saw it, and asked Akbar to make his next video on Pak PM Imran Khan.

And BBC’s Leyla Kazim writes on the charms of the “Bombay burger” or vada pav and confesses she prefers them to burgers. She’s had three in a row.

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.