The India Cable: SC Threatens to Stay Farm Laws; Growing International Discomfort about India

Plus: Farmers trash Khattar meet, BJP alarmed about de-platforming Trump, Indian media plays up Balakot hoax, Sholay poster artist Diwakar Karkare dies, pilot sacked for tweet on unnamed idiot PM

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
January 11, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

A bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde heard pleas on the three problematic farm laws and the farmers’ protests today. The court expressed disappointment over the government’s reluctance to negotiate, noted that it did not have a single petition claiming that the farm laws are beneficial to agriculture, and threatened to put the laws on hold if the government failed to do so. The court’s response indicates the weakness of the government’s position, despite the myth of steadfast resolve. It also provides Modi a face-saving route to reverse course.  

Protesters vandalised the ‘Kisan Mahapanchayat’ of Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar in a Karnal village, following clashes with the police, who used tear gas. The meet was meant to foreground farmers who are apparently in favour of the farm laws, and the CM complained that the protest prevented him from announcing new schemes. Voices within the government had earlier threatened more reforms that favour capital and at a press conference after the debacle, Khattar said that the Centre is unlikely to agree to a repeal.  

More than 100 UK MPs cutting across party lines signed a letter written by Punjabi MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi to Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressing concerns about the Indian government’s handling of the farmers’ protest against the central farm laws. Dhesi has urged Johnson to raise the issue with the Indian PM and push for a speedy resolution to the deadlock. 

Chandrikapersad Santokhi, the Indian-origin president of Suriname, is likely to be chief guest for the Republic Day parade on January 26, after UK PM Boris Johnson cancelled his trip. 

Army Captain Bhoopinder Singh will face a civilian court or a court martial for murdering three labourers in Amshipura, Kashmir, in a fake operation and passing them off as terrorists, in the hope of collecting a bounty of Rs 20 lakh. That’s Rs 6.66 lakh per human life, dirt cheap. 

Electric cars are expected to trigger a surge in the power storage business, but India was nowhere in the market for lithium ion batteries. Now, the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research of the Department of Atomic Energy estimates that 1,600 tons of lithium ore is present in Mandya district, Karnataka. The Geological Survey of India finds that five districts in Arunachal Pradesh could have vanadium deposits. Vanadium is used for tempering steel. India is a major consumer, and China supplies over half of the world’s requirements. 

In 2020, India’s annual petroleum usage fell for the first time in 21 years, declining 10.8% from 2019. Strict pandemic restrictions have ravaged the economy, which is in its biggest contraction in annual GDP in records going back to 1952. Meanwhile, cash in circulation has shot up to Rs 27.7 lakh crore, 1.54 times the pre-demonetisation level of Rs 17.97 lakh crore. Making the economy cashless was the declared purpose of the fruitless exercise.

Twitter’s top lawyer, 45-year-old Indian immigrant Vijaya Gadde, spearheaded the decision to permanently suspend US President Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Trump’s unceremonious ejection from all big social media platforms for hate speech has the BJP IT Cell very concerned. Tejasvi Surya, head of the party’s youth wing, demands immediate regulation of Big Tech, to discourage it from going all moral about hate-spewing leaders in other countries. 

Of 86 people against whom FIRs have been filed under the controversial ordinance against inter-faith unions in Uttar Pradesh, 76 are Muslim. In Bijnor, a boy is in jail for a month for walking a girl home

Ved Mehta, memoirist of the diaspora, has died in New York. Mumbai artist Diwakar Karkare is mourned, too. His posters, hoarding art and promotional booklets helped to make the stars of groundbreaking films like Deewar, Sholay and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro larger than life. 


New Chinese defences in Doklam 

Indians like to believe that they had stopped the Chinese at Doklam in 2017, but a 10 minute report broadcast by China Central Television (CCTV) last week said a platoon of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) held a ceremony this month marking the establishment of an observation post 5,592 metres (18,346 feet) above sea level on the Doklam Plateau. The post is located close to where the 2017 standoff occurred between Chinese and Indian troops. The CCTV footage showed PLA soldiers equipped with hi-tech weapons including heavy machine guns, mortars and off-road armoured vehicles. The post was built with Hesco bastion blast walls, with a thermostatic temperature of about 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit) when outdoor temperatures were below minus 20 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, Konchok Stanzin, a newly elected councillor from Chushul in eastern Ladakh, said Chinese infrastructure that could not be seen from border villages earlier is now clearly visible as China continues to hold positions in areas within India’s perception of the Line of Actual Control.


Doctored video of surgical strike

Large sections of the Indian media claimed that a retired Pakistani diplomat had accepted that the IAF airstrike on Balakot had killed 300 (a claim made by Indian ‘sources’ just after the strike in 2019, too). The news was played up by ever-eager television channels and the front pages of newspapers, but was based on a clipped and doctored video. Zafar Hilaly, the diplomat in question, is contemptuous of the Indian government’s desperation. Any retraction of that fake news, if any, will not get the same prominence.


Bird flu takes wing again

Bird flu outbreaks have been confirmed in seven states ― Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, while test results are still awaited for Delhi and Maharashtra. Wild birds from Balod district, Chhattisgarh, which were tested earlier, are not positive, the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying said.


Vaccine rollout imminent, concerns persist 

The Prime Minister is meeting chief ministers today to discuss the vaccine rollout scheduled for January 16. In its manifesto for the Bihar assembly election and the Hyderabad municipal poll, the BJP had said it would be “free”, but there is no word about the price tag for others. In West Bengal, which goes to the polls in May, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said that the jab would be free. 

But the vaccine continues to raise concerns. The All India People’s Science Network has raised serious doubts over the rollout expected to begin on Saturday – with both Covshield and the inadequately tested Covaxin, according to the Economic Times–  urging reconsideration of approval for Covaxin till efficacy data is available, or at least strict adherence to conditions specified in the order of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (which implied there would be no “rollout” of Covaxin). It required Phase 3 efficacy trials for both vaccines to continue without extraneous pressure, and no vaccine or Covid-19 related drug to be released for commercial use until regular approval (not just emergency use authorisation) is obtained.

Activists and journalists report that people in low income areas have been given Rs 750 and signed up for the Bharat Biotech-ICMR trial, without their informed consent. For comparison, the transistor radios handed out during Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilisation programme were worth about Rs 250. There’s no stopping inflation. 

Deepak Marabi, who was part of a vaccine trial, has died in Bhopal. The post mortem report says that the cause of death was cardiorespiratory failure as a result of suspected poisoning. But his family says otherwise.

India produces 60% of the world’s vaccines, but it’s also one of the countries with the largest number of coronavirus cases globally, second only to the US. It must not only provide for its own vaccine needs, but also meet its commitments to producing a share of the global supply. Can it meet the demand?


The Long Cable

In 2021, ‘discomfort’ about India could spur international action

Aakar Patel

In his farewell speech, Donald Trump’s ambassador to India Kenneth Juster referred to growing discomfort in the United States about religious intolerance in India. This was the second time that he had spoken about it in public. Juster had raised it in 2017, while being confirmed in the Senate. That was the period when India was actively persecuting its Muslims after the Prime Minister publicly encouraged states to legislate against cow slaughter and Maharashtra and Haryana responded, triggering the beef lynching episodes.

It was the period before India legislated to exclude Muslims from its citizenship amendment law, before the killing of Muslim protesters in Uttar Pradesh, before the pogrom in Delhi in the presence of Trump, before the Babri verdict, before the evisceration of Article 370, and before the ‘love jihad’ laws were rolled out in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

What does ‘growing discomfort’ mean? It means that there are people in power worried enough to act. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s report for 2020 classified India as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ because of what we are doing to our minorities today. This bipartisan body has recommended that the US administration impose sanctions on Indian individuals. Joe Biden will have that file on his desk at some point this year. The USCIRF also recommended that the US Congress hold hearings highlighting the state of religious freedom in India. 

In late 2019, after the Article 370 move, US Congresswoman from Washington Pramila Jayapal moved House Resolution 745 urging India to end human rights violations in Kashmir. This motion had the backing of 68 members of Congress, including Republicans. India managed to block a vote on it only with Trump’s support. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s response was to duck a meeting with the foreign affairs committee after insisting that they not include Jayapal in their delegation. The members, including Republicans, told him this was not acceptable. Kamala Harris tweeted: “It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill. I stand with @RepJayapal, and I’m glad her colleagues in the House did too.”

Jaishankar will not be able to block the next motion and will not be able to avoid Jayapal, who, it should be noted, has since become the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It is the second largest caucus or lobby group in the US House of Representatives and has 94 members, including liberal stars like Ro Khanna, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who are ideological, aware of what is going on in India and eager to act. 

India also faces a motion of severe censure from the European Union’s Members of Parliament on the citizenship laws. One reason the Citizenship (Amendment) Act’s rules have not been framed, meaning that it has not been operationalised, is that this motion remains on the table. It was not voted on because of the Covid pandemic, and is dormant for now. 

Paragraph A of the motion reads: “Whereas since the BJP won the general election in May 2019 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned for a second term, the Government of India has reinforced its nationalistic orientation, discriminating against, harassing and prosecuting national and religious minorities and silencing any opposition, human rights groups, human rights defenders, and journalists critical of the government.”

This is not language of the sort that the Indian government is used to hearing and the Ministry of External Affairs is not equipped to deal with such a hiding in public. India’s posture externally after the capture of the state by Hindutva has been to pretend that nothing had really changed. India was secular by Constitution, India had an independent judiciary, India was pluralistic by nature, diplomats from the MEA told the US and Europe. The world is not buying it. And, as we observe, the world is acting. India’s response has been a mixture of bluster and whining. We have told leaders from Canada and the UK who have also commented on what is going on that they have no right to say these things. But they continue to speak because they feel, as Juster observed, growing discomfort. 

The only way India can avoid this is to change course and stop eating itself from the inside. This is not going to happen because active brutalisation of Muslims using the instrument of the state sits at the core of our government’s agenda. The persecution will continue and so will the growing discomfort, which will become action, perhaps as early as 2021.


Reportedly

When Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri recently released a coffee table book on the life and teachings of Guru Nanak Dev authored by Harminder Kaur, he posted photographs of the release function held in his office with a short message mentioning the author’s name, and that the paintings in the book were by the artist Arpana Caur. However, Caur herself was missing from Puri’s photographs. According to the grapevine, Caur refused to attend in protest against the Modi government’s Central Vista redevelopment plans. She is among the large number of artists, architects and conservationists who have petitioned the Modi government against the demolition of the buildings housing the National Museum and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.


Prime Number: 85
India’s rank in the Henley’s passport index, which covers 199 passports and 227 travel destinations and ranks global passports according to the access they provide to their citizens. It rates Japan at the top, followed by Singapore while Germany and South Korea are tied third.

Gujarat still lags behind West Bengal

The industrial wealth of Gujarat may be well above West Bengal’s, but huge gaps in social indicators remain, as they have for decades. The National Family Health Survey data shows that children in West Bengal are significantly healthier than those in Gujarat. Successive governments have ensured empowered panchayats, leading to better nutrition and patient-hospital bed ratios. As the development economist Jean Dreze says, Bengal is not great, but why is Gujarat so poor? 


Deep Dive

The imprint of Periyar is visible in the evolution and trajectory of Dravidian cinema, particularly during the decade after India’s Independence. The Periyar Project makes interesting reading as the state prepares for its first election without the Dravidian movement stalwarts who were also cinema greats. 


Howzzat ― Australia ejects abusive spectators 

Australian cricket’s governing body has apologised to India and is investigating claims that visitors were subjected to racist abuse by spectators during the third Test. India made an official complaint on Saturday that bowlers Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj had received racist abuse in Sydney. Yesterday, play was halted for 10 minutes after more allegations of abuse. Six people were subsequently ejected from the ground. It is hoped that India will be equally sensitive to insults and slurs which foreign players face here ― and our own, too. Higher standards all round, please. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Sameena Dalwai says that the victimized Muslim women that the Hindu right wants to save do not exist. Muslim women are now determined to save Indian democracy. Remember Shaheen Bagh and several other places where we saw them in leadership positions while Muslim men — young and old — played supporting roles.

  • Modi has ironically followed Nehru in believing that hugs and handshakes can smooth over geopolitical realities ― a cautionary lesson that India must embrace, as it transits the hugely challenging 2020s, warns Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd).

  • Satya Mohanty says that the country’s top 10%, who have a disproportionate share of wealth and earnings, cannot power our growth engine. The calculus of economic expectations seems to be going haywire. 


Listen up

Hear the writer Yasser Usman here on Guru Dutt. He discusses his book on the Bombay cine enigma, which is just out. 


Watch Out

India’s largest farmers’ protest continues unabated and there have been more than 20 deaths since November 26. BBC’s Rupa Jha spent a night at the protest on the borders of Delhi, where farmers and their families have been living out in the open, braving chilly temperatures and rain.


If you tweet, you don’t fly

A senior GoAir pilot has been sacked for tweeting sour-nothings about the prime minister. Captain Miki Malik reportedly served in the Indian Air Force for 25 years, including a stint with the VVIP Squadron. He flew into Vavuniya during the Sri Lankan war, served during the Kargil war (Leh, Thoise), flew prime minister Manmohan Singh into Great Nicobar after the tsunami and air-dropped supplies for troops near Galwan. Captain Malik tweeted on Thursday: “PM is an idiot. You can call me same in return. It’s ok. I don’t matter. Bcoz I am not PM. But PM is an idiot. Period.”

He deleted the tweet, locked his Twitter account and issued an apology: “I apologise for my tweets about PM, other offensive tweets which may have hurt sentiments of anyone associated. I convey that GoAir is not associated with any of my tweets directly or indirectly as they were personal views.” 

GoAir stated that it “has a zero tolerance policy and it is mandatory for all GoAir employees to comply with the company’s employment rules, regulations and policies, including social media behaviour. The airline does not associate itself with personal views expressed by any individual or an employee. GoAir has terminated the services of the captain with immediate effect”. 

Interestingly, Captain Malik had not stated which prime minister is an idiot, a point noted by many wags on Twitter. The airline applied its mind and came to its own conclusions. 


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.