The India Cable: Rihanna Amps Up Agitation, Jind Hosts Mahapanchayat

Plus: Uttarakhand to bar passport applications of protesters, Bihar to deny them govt jobs and contracts, India out of Colombo Port terminal, and the question remains ― was a protester shot in Delhi?

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
February 3, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Today, at least 50,000 farmers are gathered at a Kisan Mahapanchayat in Jind, the market town regarded as the capital of Haryana’s Jat community. Farm leader Rakesh Tikait, whose emotional outburst had strengthened the resolve of farmers at a tipping point, is among the speakers. Opposition parties have filed suspension of business notices in the Rajya Sabha, to make time to urgently discuss the farmers’ agitation. The Supreme Court has spurned petitions drawing its attention to the violence which attended the tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day. The Chief Justice of India said that the government was investigating already, and the Prime Minister had confirmed that the law would take its course. 

The Modi government acknowledged in Parliament, in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha, that tourist arrivals in Jammu and Kashmir have declined after August 5, 2019. The government said that the “impact was felt severely in Kashmir Valley than in Jammu division”, after it scrapped Article 370, and hived the erstwhile state into two Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh in August 2019.

After posting a fiscal deficit of 9.5%, the Centre has committed to bring it down to 6.8% in the next financial year. But with subdued tax collections and high borrowing, experts feel that the target is difficult to achieve.

In a significant win for global e-commerce giant Amazon, the Delhi High Court on Tuesday directed Future Retail to maintain status quo in relation to its Rs 24,713 crore deal with Reliance Retail. Amazon had objected to the deal and had sought to restrain the Kishore Biyani-led Future Group from taking any steps to complete the transaction with entities that are a part of the Mukesh Dhirubhai Ambani Group. In an unrelated development, Jeff Bezos has announced that he will step down as Amazon CEO this year.

The Uttarakhand Police will now scrutinise social media behaviour. Applications for passports and arms licences from people who “habitually” put up “anti-national” posts will not be cleared, said state Director General of Police Ashok Kumar. 

India leads the world in internet shutdown like the one in J&K, and the world is taking notice. BBC’s Digital Planet is discussing “Internet shutdowns in Myanmar and India” in the same breath. And while the Hindu right scrambles to learn how to deal with Rihanna, the Barbadian singer has drawn the attention of young climate justice activists to the stir, from the Swedsh Greta Thunberg to the Ugandan Vanessa Nakate. This is out of syllabus, and the standard barbs of ‘paid tweet’ and ‘Khalistani’ won’t cut any ice. Kangana Ranaut has leapt into the fray with her perceptions of international affairs, such as they are. 

While a bilateral issue between the farmers and the government is internationalised (the UN had weighed in even earlier), on the ground, the Bihar government will deny government jobs and contracts to anyone sitting on dharna or blocking roads. 

Al Jazeera has published an investigation on an international criminal from Bangladesh with links to the political leadership back home, and the Rapid Action Battalion, which conducts thuggery on behalf of the government. This story could not have been published in Bangladesh.

Farmers didn’t insult the Tricolour, the Chinese army sitting in India did, the Shiv Sena tells PM Modi. Its mouthpiece Saamana on Wednesday said that the Indian flag was not insulted and it was intact when the farmers’ agitation reached the Red Fort on Republic Day. And all the questions on the Chinese intrusion tabled by Congress MP Manish Tewari during the previous and current parliamentary sessions, despite being balloted, have not been accepted by the Modi government under the pretext that they are too sensitive in nature. That’s another way of saying they’re scary.

Rihanna amps up farmers’ protest

In an extraordinary step, the Ministry of External Affairs is going after musicians and other personalities globally for commenting on the farmers’ agitation and internet suspensions in India’s capital. It has triggered the Streisand effect, which will further amplify the bad press the government is getting.

Commentators are calling it for the “Republic of Rihanna”. Reacting to a CNN report on the farmers’ protests around Delhi, pop diva Rihanna has asked a question that must discomfit Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. She has 100.9 million followers on Twitter. Size matters.

Rihanna had Indians gushing over her when she wore a saree for her song Sledgehammer in 2016.

(off Rihanna’s YouTube channel)

In the UK Parliament, a petition calls for the safety of the protesting farmers and for press freedoms in India. It is headlined, ‘Urge the Indian Government to ensure safety of protestors & press freedom’. 

After showcasing steel rods as part of anti-riot gear, Delhi Police have backtracked and said that it is not approved equipment. The force reports directly to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, and this reflects poorly on his political acumen and leadership.

Toughening their stand, the agitating farmers have ruled out “formal” talks with the government until “harassment” by police and administration stops and detained farmers are released. Bhartiya Kisan Union national spokesperson Rakesh Tikait has announced that the farm unions are prepared to sit it out for many more months. Tikait was reacting to heavy barricading with concertina wire, besides the deployment of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) and the Rapid Action Force (RAF), which have encircled all major protest sites including Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur.

In a written reply, the government told Parliament that the Delhi Police were left with no option but to use tear gas, water cannons and “mild force” to control the crowd during the tractor rally by protesting farmers on Republic Day. It did not specifically respond to another question, seeking evidence from the Union Home Ministry for the claim that “terrorists infiltrated the farm agitation”.

Journalist gets bail

A Delhi court on Tuesday granted bail to freelance journalist Mandeep Punia, who was arrested by the Delhi Police from the farmers’ protest site at the Singhu border. Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Satvir Singh Lamba observed that the complainant, victims and witnesses were all police personnel. “Hence, there is no possibility that accused/applicant can influence any of the police officials,” the judge said.

Was a farmer shot by the police?

Two eyewitnesses and family members have alleged that Navreet Singh, a 25-year-old farmer from Uttar Pradesh, died after he was shot during the farmers’ rally in Delhi on 26 January. The eyewitnesses told The Caravan that they saw police officials fire at Navreet, and that his tractor overturned seconds later. According to the postmortem report, Navreet died as “a result of antemortem head injury.” Hardip Singh Dibdiba, Navreet’s grandfather, who examined his grandson’s body, alleged that the postmortem report is inaccurate ― despite recording wounds consistent with a firearm, it did not mention bullet injuries as the likely cause of death, he said. The Guardian had reported on similar lines, as covered in The India Cable yesterday.

The Delhi Police have denied the allegations of the eyewitnesses and the family. Jasmeet Singh, Deputy Commissioner of Police for Delhi’s central district, told The Caravan that “no bullet was fired.” Referring to the postmortem report, the DCP said that it “clearly states the cause of death.” Despite repeated requests, he refused to answer queries pertaining to the details of the incident.

UP backtracks on farmers

The UP government has dropped proceedings against 162 farmers who were asked for personal bonds and sureties for up to Rs 10 lakh each to discourage them from protesting. The BJP government has been spooked as the farmers’ protest is becoming a state issue with thousands gathering in Mahapanchayats almost every day. It was easy to demonise Sikhs but in western UP, the BJP’s hard-won base is now in revolt.

On Colombo Port, Lanka is atmanirbhar

India has suffered a setback in the region with Sri Lanka rolling back a 2019 agreement to develop  the East Container Terminal of Colombo Port. India has asked Sri Lanka to honour the pact. The decision comes less than a month after a visit by Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar to Colombo to shore up support for the deal, involving Japan and India’s controversial Adani Group. Sri Lanka had previously said the new part of the port would be 49% operated by India and Japan. There were reports last week that the Workers Union of the Sri Lankan Port Authority had alleged that the government of India headed by PM Narendra Modi is putting undue pressure on Sri Lanka “to hand over the development and operation of a major Colombo port terminal to the Adani Group”. Sri Lanka decided to go Atmanirbhar.

The Long Cable

Why we are talking about Rihanna’s tweet

Sushant Singh

Having failed to get Twitter to block tweets and 250 accounts which have been associated with farmers protesting against the Modi government, the Home Minister has dug deeper – quite literally – by deploying the Border Security Force on the borders of the national capital. It has already erected multiple layers of obstacles around the protest sites, including concrete works and rows of concertina coils, and stopped journalists from accessing them. Supplies of food and water have been obstructed and doctors providing medical care to the injured farmers have been allegedly attacked by the police. Delhi Police is under the direct control of Union Home Minister Amit Shah. 

None of this would have mattered if the people could have been kept in the dark about the reality at these protest sites, and the BJP IT cell would have had a free run with its propaganda. It would be supported in the endeavour by a large section of the media, either for reasons of ideological support, commercial considerations, government pressure or innate timidity. Other sections of the media would help the government by attempting to be visibly ‘balanced’ in their coverage, obscuring the truth with selective ‘facts’. All that stands between the truth and the government’s plans to bury it are independent news platforms, one-person news operations and social media handles who refuse to be cowed down. FIRs and police cases haven’t intimidated them either, and the only option left for the government was to block their social media feeds in India or to cut off the internet at the protest sites.

The plan seemed so easy, so perfect, but as they say in the military, the first casualty in a battle is the plan. Blocking the internet at the Delhi borders was supposed to be a clincher, until Rihanna staged an entry with her 100.9 million followers on Twitter and raised the issue. That is 35 million more than Narendra Modi’s followers. A true-blue international celebrity versus an authoritarian leader who anxiously seeks popstar-like adulation globally ― it isn’t a fair fight. And when that celebrity is a young black woman and the authoritarian leader, a majoritarian politician bearing the cross of anti-Muslim riots on his watch in 2002, the fight becomes even more unequal. Populism and machismo powered by trolls and their vitriol flails when it confronts the genuinely popular. 

But the Hindu right is not giving up easily in this fight of the mob versus the masses. From trotting out their star, Kangana Ranaut – her tweet’s worldview is truly at par with QAnon – to alleging that Rihanna was paid by the farmers and dismissing her as a foreign entertainer who doesn’t matter in India, all the familiar ploys have been mustered. These will appeal to the biases of Modi’s core support base but will not get any traction beyond that. It will not mask the real challenges posed by someone like Rihanna taking up the cause of farmers.

First, there’s the power of an international celebrity. They can single-handedly highlight an issue in the public domain and create space for it in the global consciousness. Greta Thunberg, Meena Harris, Amanda Cerny and manyothers (includingpoliticians) have joined in with their voices of support for the farmers. Media coverage is like oxygen for progressive causes, and one celebrity endorsement can crank up global media interest a few notches in a matter of hours.

Second, there’s the nature of the new challenge. Modi, Shah and their BJP have been adept at dealing with the old political order and adversaries. They have been caught on the wrong foot by the new type of protests, such as the Shaheen Bagh protests against the CAA-NRC-NPR and the farmers’ protests, which do not follow the standard political template. To put it crudely, Rihanna is no Rahul Gandhi. And the Modi government has shown how rattled it is by its official ham-handed response from the Ministry of External Affairs.

Third, there’s the loss of control over social media. The Modi government had hoped to shut off the Twitter handles associated with the farmers movement in India but Twitter did not even accept a legal order and restored all the ‘withheld’ handles in a few hours. When Rihanna entered the picture, the pressure on a social media platform like Twitter to not kowtow to the Modi government increased manifold. In a way, her celebrityhood stiffens Twitter’s spine.

Fourth, there’s the impact on the morale of protesting farmers and their supporters. No farmer leader or supporter may have heard of Rihanna before she tweeted but within hours, everyone would know that she is someone who matters and has stood up for them. It raises their morale and motivates them to stand the ground far longer, against all the odds being put up by the Modi government.

This does not mean that the Modi government is going to withdraw the three farm laws immediately. It would hope that the storm created by Rihanna’s tweet blows over quickly and it can continue with its strongarm tactics against agitating farmers on Delhi borders. It may well, but with a new administration in the United States that constantly harps on “shared values”, such a tweet from Rihanna ― and supported by others like Meena Harris ― is not going to make it any easier for Modi and Shah. They may well be remembering one of Rihanna’s biggest hits: “S.O.S.”

2022, and still counting

The Centre is yet to deny reports that the Census due this year may be postponed by a year. Plans for Census 2021, one of the biggest head-counts in the world, have been blighted since before the pandemic. Vociferous national protests involving millions across the country last year, objecting to new National Population Register (NPR) rules, put a spanner in the works. Then 20 non-BJP state governments ― that’s nearly two-thirds of states ― passed resolutions saying they would not allow new NPR rules, which would make it easier to weed out citizens randomly. The Home Ministry appeared to be almost relieved to not have to conduct an exercise requiring the cooperation of state governments and citizens, in the heated atmosphere. Census 2022, then? 

Prime Number: 56.13%
The percentage of the population covered under the latest serological survey in January in Delhi, who have developed antibodies against Covid-19. The fifth serosurvey, the largest in the country so far, was conducted from January 15 to January 23.      

Robinhood app has Indian connection

In complete violation of its name, the Robinhood platform was found to have links with hedge funds and major market players. And while founder Vladimir Tenev has been doing all the explaining to the US authorities, the other co-founder, who has not been too outspoken, is of Indian-origin. Baiju Bhatt, who traces his origins to Gujarat, earned his BS in Physics and MS in Mathematics at Stanford University before starting two finance companies in New York City. In 2015, Bhatt co-founded Robinhood with Tenev, with the declared intention of “democratising” the financial system and helping investors that Wall Street had left behind. 

Deep Dive

Seema Chishti (a contributor to The India Cable)  in The Caravan on how the misguided and motivated focus on the Tablighi Jamaat distracted India from its fight against Covid at a crucial time last year. Their hounding by the media, stigmatising by centre and state governments, BJP leaders and the police created widespread division between communities, and High Courts had to weigh. But enough suffering had been caused already in this clear case of persecution.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

Listen up

Fascists have no sense of humour

Cyrus Broacha is joined by British-American and Indian-origin author and journalist Aatish Taseer to talk about how and why his OCI card was taken away by the Indian government, about growing up in India and not meeting his father (who was Pakistani) till he was 21, getting blacklisted so he can’t even travel to India anymore and why it seems like fascists lack a sense of humour

Watch Out

Music at the border

The popular band Oorali from Kerala made common cause ― and music ― at the farmers’ protest.

Hole in one

When the government digs itself into a hole, it looks like this:

But when Diljit Dosanjh scores a track for Rihanna, as he just did, it looks like this: 

And as we close this edition of The India Cable, we find that Rihanna fan Baba Sehgal is on song, too:

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.