The India Cable: Police Violence In Bihar Assembly; Finance Bill Amended Beyond Recognition

Plus: China urged two-front conflict, Pakistan demurred, second wave denting mobility, Lalu calls Nitish Sangh’s ‘chhota recharge’, India low in IP index, Indian-origin artist’s work sells for $62m

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 24, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Unprecedented scenes were reported from the Bihar Assembly. Police on Tuesday were seen hitting and dragging Opposition representatives, including women MLAs. The images are all over social media and shame the BJP-JDU government in the state under Nitish Kumar. The silence of the BJP’s national leadership is equally galling. In BJP-ruled states, we have seen the police being given untrammelled power, which has been very visible in the enforcement of laws against interfaith marriages. The Opposition has tried to hit back where it hurts, despite the lathi charge in the Assembly. Former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav has tweeted: “Nitish, who played in the lap of the Sangh, is now its foot-soldier, and a chhota recharge.” 

Due to the Assembly polls, the ongoing Budget Session of Parliament is likely to be curtailed and may end on March 25 instead of April 8, as scheduled earlier. In West Bengal, Amit Shah has promised to institute prizes named for Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, undeterred by the prior existence of substantial prizes in their name. 

The imposition of Hindi could become an election issue in West Bengal. The Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science ― where the Raman Effect was discovered ― has received an adverse notice from the Department of Science and Technology for insufficient enthusiasm about “official language activities”. In plain English, this means that the institution isn’t using Hindi very much in its communications, and is not supporting the Hindi promotion goals of the Centre. The notice has not been well-received by the academic community. 

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has demanded to know why central agencies should not be made answerable to the Election Commission in election-bound jurisdictions, as the state police are. The agencies have been issuing notices quite freely in the state. In Assam, jailed activist Akhil Gogoi yesterday said that in exchange for bail, he was offered a Rs 20 crore bribe by the National Investigation Agency and asked to join the RSS or the BJP.  

Today, the Supreme Court will hear the petition of former Mumbai Police commissioner Param Bir Singh, seeking a CBI probe examining his allegations against his home minister.  

The Association for Democratic Reforms has moved the Supreme Court arguing for no further issue of anonymous electoral bonds before the Assembly elections, in the interest of transparency. It is being heard by a bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde. 

CJI Bobde has recommended that the Central government should appoint Justice NV Ramana as the next CJI, following his retirement on April 23. Attorney General KK Venugopal has declined to grant consent to initiate contempt of court proceedings against Congress leader Rahul Gandhi as statements made by him were “too vague” to lower the authority of the institution.

The Environment Ministry has issued an order which permits the mining industry to avoid public hearings for projects granted environmental clearance under the Environmental Impact Assessment notification 1994. The Modi government seems to be hell-bent on diluting the public hearing process central to assessing the environmental impact of industrial projects.

The Gujarat Police on Tuesday prevented independent MLA Jignesh Mevani and his supporters from taking out a protest procession to the state secretariat, Gandhinagar demanding an investigation into the brutal murder of a Dalit RTI activist at his Bhavmagar home earlier this month. Earlier, Mevani was evicted from the ongoing Assembly for raising this matter, demanding action against the culprits and highlighting the plight of Dalits in the state.

Four months into the farmers’ stir on Delhi’s borders which has put the government under tremendous pressure, The New York Times takes stock as the movement widens in India. Farmers blockaded Bengaluru yesterday, and farm leader Rakesh Tikait has threatened to sell produce in the precincts of Parliament. Earlier, in jest, he had said that he would relocate the protest from Delhi to Kolkata, since the entire cabinet would be there for campaigning. 

A seemingly technical change in the specifications of wheat and rice procured by the Food Corporation of India could mean greater hardship for farmers seeking to sell their produce to the apex procurement agency. The FCI is proposing tougher quality control standards, according to a copy of the draft recommendations.

Fuel prices may be reduced by Rs 2 thanks to falling crude prices. However, fuel prices have had little connection with crude prices for months. They are propped up by central taxes. But there are elections in the offing, and something’s gotta give.  

A ‘Covid bus’ loaded with elderly women pilgrims had a free run of north India until 22 of 50 passengers tested positive in Rishikesh. Starting from Gujarat on March 7 ― when they had all tested negative ― they visited Banaskantha, Jaipur, Pushkar and Mathura in search of the sublime. 


Massively amended finance bill passed by Lok Sabha

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman moved several amendments to the Finance Bill (while the text of the original Bill was put in the public domain with the Union Budget, amendments were not made public but were circulated among the MPs). Some amendments proposed by other MPs were either not moved or defeated. So many amendments have been moved by the Finance Minister to the Finance Bill, which includes altogether new sections, that it is not clear if it remains the same Finance Bill that was introduced along with Budget 2021, seven weeks ago, and discussed by MPs. As each amendment was voted on, a very feeble “aye” could be heard from the exhausted MPs. 

Pakistan didn’t actualise two-front threat despite Chinese pressure

A leaked official document from Pakistan on ‘Reimagining Pakistan’s Externally-facing National Narrative’ claims that Islamabad “continued to counsel restraint in the China-India standoff and did not take advantage of the situation despite sustained Chinese pressure for the same”. It confirms New Delhi’s fears that China and Pakistan provide a collusive two-front military threat to India, which will put the Indian military under great pressure. It also places in context the confidence-building overture from Pakistan that led to restoration of the ceasefire on the Line of Control. 

The document also asserts that Pakistan has exercised “strategic restraint on Kashmir to avert any Indian misadventure”. That is reflected in the lack of weapons in the Kashmir Valley and reduced infiltration from the Pakistani side of the Line of Control. Of all the militants killed in J&K in 2016, 30 were Kashmiris, but the number rose to 80 in 2017. It shot up to 142 in 2018, 160 in 2019 and 192 in 2020. Every militant killed in 2021 has been a local.

Meanwhile, PM Modi wished his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan on the occasion of Pakistan’s National Day. This was confirmed by “sources” on the Indian side but the letter surfaced on Pakistani Twitter.


India abstains at UNHRC, Lanka loses despite China and Pak support

The draft resolution “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka” was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, with 22 countries voting in favour and 11 against. India was among the 14 absentions. China, Pakistan and Bangladesh were among those who voted against the resolution which puts the Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka under pressure on human rights. This comes a year after Sri Lanka withdrew from a consensus resolution, forcing the UNHRC to draft a new resolution seeking accountability and justice for war crimes and other abuses. 


India challenges Cairn award 

The Modi government is believed to have challenged in The Hague an arbitration tribunal verdict that overturned its demand for Rs 10,247 crore in back taxes from Cairn Energy Plc. This is the second time in three months that it has refused to accept an international award against retrospective tax. The appeal was filed on Monday against a three-member tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which had ordered the Modi government to return the value of shares it had sold, dividends seized and tax refunds withheld. Cairn has moved courts in nine countries to enforce the award against India. The award has already been recognised by courts in the US, the UK, Netherlands, Canada and France and the matter is in process in Singapore, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and the Cayman Islands. 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to broach the subject of India honouring international arbitration awards during his April 26 visit to India.


Second wave dents business activity

Business activity in India has declined as the second wave of the pandemic, which is spreading beyond Maharashtra, has started to affect mobility, according to Nomura. The Nomura India Business Resumption Index (NIBRI) dipped to 95.1 for the week ended March 21, from 95.4 in the prior week. As of mid-March, Google’s workplace and retail and recreation mobility index fell by 3.7 percentage points on a week-on-week basis and 0.3 percentage points, respectively, while the more updated Apple driving index fell by 2.6 percentage points. 


The Long Cable

‘Chhota recharge’ government can only rely on the power to coerce

Apoorvanand

Members of the Opposition in Bihar were dragged, shoved and beaten up by the police in the premises of the Assembly yesterday. The district magistrate was seen violently manhandling MLAs. The police were called by the Speaker of the House, who was prevented from leaving his chamber. The trigger was the tabling of the Bihar Special Armed Police Bill, 2021. While the government presented it as an attempt to create a special police force to protect industrial units in the state (patterned on the CISF) and safeguard internal security, the Opposition called it draconian as it empowers the newly constituted force to arrest any person and search anyone’s premises without a warrant, on the basis of suspicion.

Before the violence, Opposition MLAs had complained that water cannons and police forces were being deployed in front of their residences to prevent them from joining the protest against the proposed police bill. The incident shows very clearly that there is a total breakdown of dialogue between the government and the Opposition. The bitterness between the ruling parties and the Opposition is making it impossible for them to discuss their differences.

Both the government and the Opposition need to realise that a permanent conflict would not serve the cause of the people who have elected them. The parliamentary form of politics is bound to be competitive. But a permanent state of antagonism is against its spirit. An election victory does not confer license upon the ruling parties to totally ignore and disregard the concerns of the Opposition. It may have fewer numbers, but it also represents the people and they have a right not only to be heard, but also allowed a seat at the table.

The ruling party’s tendency to use the sheer weight of numbers to trash all parliamentary deliberative processes is turning governments into elected autocracies. In elections, parties competing for the mandate do attack each other. But once they are over, the important job of lawmaking disciplines the confrontational instinct and motivates them to work together for the good of the people. A healthy parliamentary atmosphere is created only when the government with the larger numbers also shows largeness of heart. It seeks to persuade the Opposition and also accommodate its concerns.

The floor of the House is not the stage of an election meeting. It is not used to deride opponents. In Bihar, the ruling party has not shown the grace to recognise the role of the Opposition. The Opposition has the right to be aggressive as it does not have the power of the government, but the government cannot afford to be always confrontational.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, earlier hailed for his civility and restraint, seems to be losing his grip on governance. The state is lagging behind others in all spheres of development. The law and order situation has worsened and criminals seem to be having a field day. The Opposition is raising these issues aggressively but instead of addressing them, the government is using intimidation and force to silence critics, including elected MLAs. Recently, it took a decision to penalise people found to be ‘defaming’ the government on social media. It only shows that the government is bereft of arguments against its critics and has only the power of coercion to protect itself.   

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University


Reportedly

After promising the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in its manifesto for the Bengal Assembly elections, the BJP has made no mention of the controversial law in its manifesto for the Assam Assembly polls. Assam has seen massive protests against the CAA while in Bengal, the BJP has been promising CAA to select groups, such as the Matuas. The implementation of the CAA is an issue to be decided by the central government, with no role accorded to state governments in the act passed by the Modi government in 2019.

Polling in Assam ends on April 6, but West Bengal will complete only two rounds out of eight on that date. Six rounds of polling will remain for 203 seats in West Bengal, where Amit Shah is shooting for a 200 plus win. Expect to see the BJP talk up the CAA after April 6 in West Bengal, with Assam safely out of the way, and divisive politics could prevail in the state until polling ends on April 29. 


Prime Number: 989
The number of deaths, at the very least, that occurred not because of Covid-19 per se, but from financial distress, exhaustion, road and train accidents, suicides due to fear of infection and quarantine, denial of timely medical care, alcohol withdrawal, police brutality, and vigilantism as a result of the sudden lockdown announced by PM Modi a year ago. The numbers are very likely an underestimate, as no organised data exists, even though the Modi government claims that zero deaths were caused by the lockdown. 

No more moratorium on loans

The Supreme Court has rejected a plea to extend the loan moratorium period. A Bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud held that complete waiver of interest during the loan moratorium could not be granted. The court said that no direction could be issued to the government or the Reserve Bank of India to announce particular financial packages or reliefs. It directed that there would be no interest on interest or penal interest on any amount during the loan moratorium from any borrower, and the interest so collected has to be adjusted. 

The Bench, however, held that it couldn’t issue directions to provide relief to particular sectors over and above the sectors identified by the government. Maintaining that judicial review is not possible on matters of economic policy, the court said that it is not for courts to decide the nature of financial reliefs to be granted.


SII seeks permission to fulfil UK agreement

Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, has sought permission from the Centre to supply 50 lakh doses of the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine Covishield to the UK, citing an agreement with AstraZeneca. It has, however, assured India that its own anti-coronavirus vaccination programme would not be disturbed because of this supply. This development came amid reports that the UK’s anti-coronavirus inoculation programme has been hit due to a delay in the supply of the second batch of vaccines from India. The letter also reminded the government that the Serum Institute has received the technology to manufacture Covishield from AstraZeneca Oxford, and needs to honour the commitment to supply at least 50 lakh doses of the vaccine.


Deep Dive

A strategy for India

India must scale back state intervention in business, restore the balance of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary, and build new coalitions to rise to the challenge posed by China, said a study by the Pune International Centre, titled ‘Strategic Patience and Flexible Policies’. Contending that India was outmatched by China economically, the study suggests interventions to restore “rough parity” to ensure that Beijing does not spring any more surprises, as it did in Ladakh last year. The paper, authored by Gautam Bambawale, Vijay Kelkar, Raghunath Mashelkar, Ganesh Natarajan, Ajit Ranade and Ajit Shah, argues that India needs to get back to the high growth environment of 1991-2011 to pitch itself within reach of China’s economic, cultural, technological and military power.


Privatisation pushback

The Modi government’s push towards privatisation — the strongest India has seen in many years — faced resistance from key ministries within the administration. Various ministries expressed major concerns and apprehensions and offered suggestions during the consultation process which went on for months, reveals an investigation by Bloomberg. Twenty-one ministries and departments supported the policy without significant comment. Seven departments wanted sectors controlled by them in the strategic list, seven sought an exemption, and another three departments gave conditional approval and 10 sent in suggestions and comments.


Protection for interfaith couple

The Delhi High Court has granted police protection to an interfaith couple, who got married recently and fear for their lives after their house was attacked by a mob on March 20. Justice Anu Malhotra directed the police to file a status report and listed the matter for further hearing on April 6. The High Court was hearing the petition by the couple, seeking police protection for them and the groom’s family since after the attack, they feel unsafe in their own locality.


India 40th in IP index

India is ranked 40 among 53 global economies on the latest annual edition of the International Intellectual Property (IP) Index released by the US Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Centre (GIPC). The index evaluates intellectual property rights in global economies — from patent and copyright policies to commercialisation of IP assets and ratification of international treaties.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • To create sanctuaries of learning and questioning, the right to be heard impartially must be universal, writes Rajendra Narayanan, who quit Ashoka University in 2016. Independent forums within institutions should not only be available for students and faculty, but also for every worker, to raise their concerns fearlessly.

  • Gadkari’s vehicle scrapping policy is half-baked and more about feeding a constant narrative, writes Vivek Kaul. The incentives at play for vehicle owners and second-order effects of scrapping vehicles have not been kept in mind while designing this policy.

  • India must retain multiple options to deal with its most pressing challenges, including enhancing its developmental prospects, dealing with adversaries on its northern and western borders and managing a fractious neighbourhood, writes Shyam Saran. Quad can only serve as one option, and its credibility as a countervailing coalition in the Indo-Pacific remains to be established.


Listen Up

The elemental relevance of poetry in lives and times such as ours is the thread of this conversation between poet Ranjit Hoskote and journalist Supriya Nair


Watch Out

Social mobility in India

For kids born in low-income families, neighborhoods can determine upward mobility, says Prof Raj Chetty, winner of the Infosys Prize 2020 in the Social Sciences, who presented findings of his research in the Infosys Prize Lecture yesterday. He showed an upward mobility map of India that revealed disparities across the country. There is significant improvement in upward mobility amongst Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but a sharp decline in the Muslim community.


Over and Out

Watch the trailer of the Malayalam film Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, which was judged the Best Film in the national awards. Priyadarshan’s Mohanlal starrer will be in theatres on May 13. The film has been planned from 1996 ― and even at that time, Mohanlal was supposed to star.   

A work by Indian-origin British artist Sacha Jafri consisting of the world’s largest painting on canvas has been sold for $62 million at an auction in Dubai. ‘The Journey of Humanity’ is split into 70 framed sections spanning 1,595.76 sq metres  – equivalent to nearly four basketball courts.


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.