The India Cable: Second High Court Admits Challenge to New Media Rules; Swedish Firm Says it Bribed 'Indian Minister'

Plus: Quad summit on Friday, ED raids another government critic, BJP sacks own CM, Modi govt bats for Adani in CAG report, BJP MLA’s riots case closed, and police take toy PIA plane ‘into custody’

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 10, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

No serious business was transacted in Parliament yesterday. Both Houses were adjourned following an uproar when the government tried to evade the Opposition’s demand for a debate on skyrocketing fuel prices. The Opposition contended that by the rules, the government could not introduce any other matter before its demand was met. They also alleged a new digital divide between coverage of the government and of the Opposition. Today, the Haryana Assembly debates a no-confidence motion against the BJP-led government of Manohar Lal Khattar

The Director General of Police in West Bengal has been replaced by the Election Commission ahead of the impending assembly elections. Indian Police Service officer P Nirajnayan is the new police chief, and the state government was directed to file a compliance report by 10 am today. This is the second transfer of a top cop in poll-bound West Bengal after the model code of conduct came into effect. The day after it was announced, the EC replaced Jawed Shamim, who was additional director general (law and order). He would have been the nodal police officer interfacing with it during the elections.   

The Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), headed by actor Vijayakanth, has walked out of the AIADMK-BJP alliance in Tamil Nadu after failing to reach an agreement on seat sharing for the assembly elections.

The Financial Times has published an extensive report on the challenge to the new IT rules filed in the Delhi High Court by the Foundation for Independent Journalism (publishers of The Wire) and others, which have been promoted as a shield against Big Tech, but actually confer sweeping “emergency powers” on the government to take down the content of independent media and social media platforms. WhatsApp head Will Cathcart is quoted saying that the platform may be forced to quit India, its biggest market. Today, the Kerala High Court heard a similar challenge from the legal news portal Live Law India and granted the latter protection from any coercive action by the government for non-compliance with the new rules. The. Indian government’s bid for media control has urged New Statesman to profile Caravan magazine. India’s shrinking freedoms are also evaluated in Vice ― they look at J&K’s Public Safety Act. 

The Economic Times reports that asset management companies are iffy about implementing an order issued by market regulator Sebi, requiring all phone calls of investment decision makers during trading hours to be recorded. Unfair practices would be curbed, of course, but there are serious privacy implications and hardships for those monitoring phone traffic: they would have to learn precisely which fund managers are doomed to having bhindi for dinner. In 2018, a panel appointed by the regulator had recommended seeking powers to tap phones. And bringing back memories of Bofors, Sweden’s Scania has admitted to bribery to secure contracts to supply buses in seven Indian states.  

Following the severe disruption of online transactions, which affected even Aadhar and the Co-WIN system for scheduling Covid-19 vaccine appointments, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has suspended for a week the use of SMS spam filters which prevented legitimate OTP delivery. The blockchain-based system was rolled out on Monday. 

A special MP/MLA court in Muzaffarnagar, in Uttar Pradesh, has accepted the closure report of a Special Investigation Team of the UP police in a case against BJP MLA Sangeet Som, who allegedly uploaded a video on social media, and others who shared it, triggering communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. At least 60 lives were lost and 50,000 people rendered homeless. In many cases, the displacement was permanent.

In Assam, a video of Congress ally and AIUDF president Badruddin Ajmal, which contained communal statements, has been found to be doctored. In an exclusive, the BBC reports meeting policemen and women who have defected from Myanmar to India, because they would not follow the military’s orders “to fire upon innocent people.” 

A Special Investigation Team has been formed to probe the death of independent Lok Sabha MP Mohan Delkar (Dadra and Nagar Haveli), Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Desmukh said. Delkar (58), a seven-time MP, was found dead in a hotel in Mumbai last month and has left behind a 15-page suicide note. The Congress alleged that Delkar earlier wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and other senior leaders, flagging the “harassment” he was facing at the hands of the administrator Praful Khoda Patel of Dadra and Nagar Haveli. The party asked why the Centre had not acted though he had repeatedly complained of “harassment”.

The Centre’s Enforcement Directorate has acted elsewhere. It has raided Punjab MLA Sukhpal Khaira, who opposed the Centre’s the farm laws and highlighted the case of Navreet Singh, the young farmer who died in the Republic Day protests in Delhi (his family alleges that he was shot). After the raids on Newsclick, Taapsee Pannu and Anurag Kashyap, a pattern is seen.

In the Delhi High Court, where former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister has challenged the legality of an ED summons (under a sweeping section of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act that allows suspects to incriminate themselves) the agency has said it will not push to question her before the court’s next hearing.

The Ministry of Home Affairs said that there has been an increase of over 72% in the number of arrests made under the anti-terror law UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act) between 2015 and 2019. As we know, malnutrition has risen and growth has fallen in the same period. 

The Home Ministry told the Lok Sabha that a “cyber volunteer” programme has been rolled out for “cyber hygiene promotion”. In plain language, this is a citizen ratting programme. Meanwhile, across state borders, genuine rats appear to be dealing with police seizures in copycat surgical strikes. 


BJP asks its own CM to go

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat has quit. The rebellion against him has been successful. Tirath Rawat is the new Chief Minister. Okay. 

The crisis over Rawat’s continuance arose after the BJP national leadership dispatched two central observers to the state after consistent complaints about his style of functioning within the party, and reported unpopularity in the State. Elections to the state assembly are due next year.

The central observers sent by the BJP — former Chattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh and Rajya Sabha MP Dushyant Gautam — underlined serious shortcomings in Rawat’s handling of the party and the government. Rawat was summoned to Delhi on March 8 and asked to put in his papers. No BJP chief minister has been able to complete his tenure since the formation of Uttarakhand in 2000.


We didn’t debate farm laws, nor should you 

India has issued a démarche to the UK High Commissioner condemning a debate in the UK parliament on the protests against new agriculture laws, and the freedom of the press, terming it “gross interference in India’s internal affairs”. India had issued a démarche to the Canadian High Commissioner in December on the same issue, following a statement by prime minister Justin Trudeau. Consider the irony: The Modi government didn’t allow much debate in the Indian Parliament on these laws, either. The debate and vote was infamously rushed through. And  now, it is castigating other countries for interfering in India’s internal affairs while interfering in theirs. 

The Home Ministry has decided to extend the deployment of 93 of the 113 companies of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), which are now in the national capital, till March 15 for law and order duties, due to the farmers’ protest. These include companies from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Border Security Force (BSF), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). 


Quad summit on Friday

In his prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee delivered on Tuesday, USINDOPACOM commander Admiral Phil Davidson says (on Page 35): “The PLA has not yet withdrawn from several forward positions it seized following the initial clash (in Ladakh).” It means that despite the disengagement at Pangong, the Chinese troops remain in control of other areas on the Indian side of the LAC in Ladakh.  In 2018, the US Pacific Command, which looks after this region, was renamed the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) to focus on countering Chinese pressures in the region. 

The virtual Quad leaders’ summit is scheduled for Friday and will be attended by US President Joe Biden, along with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Prime Minister Modi.

The Indian and Japanese Prime Ministers spoke on the telephone for 40 minutes yesterday, but the Indian readout of the call reads differently from the Japanese one. The Indian version doesn't have the Japanese version’s references to China on Xinjiang, Hongkong, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, North Korea and Myanmar. Not a surprise ― India’s wariness about Beijing was reflected in its hesitation about the Quad summit.


Cairn sure it will get satisfaction

British oil firm Cairn Energy Plc said it has identified Indian sovereign assets overseas, which it can seize in the event of New Delhi failing to return over $1.7 billion that an international arbitration tribunal has awarded to it after rescinding a retrospective tax demand. “Cairn is extremely confident that satisfaction of the award will be achieved either by negotiated settlement or by enforcement against Indian assets,” the firm said in its 2020 annual earnings statement.


Its the economy, stupid

Answering a question about how the pandemic has hit the Indian economy, Minister of State for Finance Anurag Thakur had a lot to say. In the first quarter of 2020-2021, India’s GDP contracted by 24.4%, private consumption spending fell by 26.3%, investment demand declined by 46.4% and gross value added saw a fall of 49.4%. Even before the pandemic, the economy was not firing on all six. 


The Long Cable

Can a bunch of bureaucrats decide what news is in “good taste”?

MK Venu

Within a fortnight of the Centre notifying the IT Rules 2021 which, according to the Editors Guild of India, threatens India’s constitutional safeguards for free media, a legal challenge has begun. The Delhi High Court has agreed to hear the first challenge to the new media regulation rules notified by the Centre which give the Executive discretionary powers to take down digital news content without informing the publisher. A bench comprising Chief Justice DN Patel and Jasmeet Singh issued notices to the Centre and sought a reply. Meanwhile, the court assured the petitioners, including the Foundation for Independent Journalism (which publishes The Wire) and Dhanya Rajendran, Chief Editor of The News Minute, that they could approach the court if any coercive action is taken by the Centre in the interim. The next hearing is on April 16. 

While there is certainly a strong case, since the new media rules are in clear violation of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution which governs freedom of speech, the legal challenge mounted by the petitioners is focused on how the IT Rules 2021 are plainly illegal, as they flow from the parent legislation, the Information Technology Act, 2000, which has absolutely no remit to regulate news media.

This argument was made forcefully by advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan, who said, “The new IT rules issued by the Centre on February 25 are palpably illegal in seeking to control and regulate digital news media, when the parent IT Act nowhere provides for such a remit.” She described the IT rules as void and inoperative insofar as they define and apply to publishers of news and current affairs content.

In the course of the hearing, Chief Justice DN Patel asked the counsel to explain the rules of the parent IT Act, which are essentially meant to ensure the accountability of intermediaries. 

“Even by way of Section 69-A, there is no scope to dictate content to news media portals. Section 69-A envisages only two targets of its directions, i.e. an ‘agency of the Government’ or ‘intermediary’. The Petitioners are neither. The entire Part III of the Impugned Rules that seeks to set up a regulatory mechanism for digital media is ultra vires the parent Act. And if allowed to stand, it would be so arbitrary and unwarranted an intrusion on expression, as to render it ultra vires the parent Act on that score alone, or throw a doubt upon the validity of the parent Act,” the petition has contended. 

In the past, “Notably, an offence under Section 66-A penalising content which is ‘offensive’ or causes ‘annoyance’ was struck down on grounds of vagueness by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal vs Union Of India (2015) 5 SCC 1. The IT Rules, 2021 go far beyond the remit of the parent Act and seek to regulate digital news media by imposing a ‘Code of Ethics’, with all manner of stipulations as to ‘half-truths’, ‘good taste’, ‘decency’ etc., and vest the power of interference ultimately with the Central Government as the chief regulator, at the highest of three tiers.

“The Impugned Rules bring back some elements of Section 66-A and go far beyond it … Thus, they not only exceed the parent Act, but also contravene the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Shreya Singhal case.” 

Thus, it was argued that the new rules notified by the government do not even honour the spirit of the Supreme Court judgement which had struck down section 66A of the IT Act 2000 as unconstitutional. Broadly speaking, the Executive just cannot seize powers to dictate to news media a code of ethics which imposes vague conditions on news content such as being in “good taste” and adhering to “decency” .

The larger question is whether a bunch of bureaucrats can become arbiters of “good taste” and “decency” in determining news and current affairs. This is the crux of the matter to be decided by the court. 


Reportedly

Has Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla acknowledged that television coverage excludes the Opposition when it puts the government on the mat? Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury alleged a “digital blackout” of Opposition members in the House as soon as it assembled, upon which the Speaker asked whether he wanted to show the country a picture of chaos.


After a dark year, The White Tiger is at the Baftas

Indian actor Adarsh Goura, who plays the chauffeur in the Netflix movie The White Tiger, has been nominated for the prestigious BAFTA Film Awards for his breakout performance. The film also features Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao in important roles. The 2020 BAFTAs  marked a dark moment for the organisation, which was criticised for its roster of all-white acting nominations.


Farmers’ pension scheme faltering

A parliamentary panel has pulled up the Modi government for “very low level” of enrollment in the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Maan Dhan Yojana (PMKMY), under which a monthly pension of Rs 3,000 is provided to eligible farmers on attaining the age of 60. The scheme was introduced in September 2019 and aimed to cover about 5 crore beneficiaries up to the 2021-22 fiscal year, which has been revised downwards to 3 crore. “The committee has been informed that only 21,20,310 farmers have subscribed to this scheme till date,” said the report.


Modi government wantsAdani factor out of audit report on revenue loss

Recently, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India reprimanded the Food Corporation of India for causing a loss of Rs 6.49 crore to taxpayers due to its failure to utilise available storage capacity at Adani-owner silos located in Kaithal, Haryana. Now, RTI documents show the Narendra Modi government working overtime to get these observations dropped from the CAG’s audit report. 


Deep Dive

Nation of seditionists

The incidence of sedition cases has grown exponentially since 2014 ― 96% of sedition cases filed in the last decade about things said against governments were lodged after 2014. It’s become as important to know about sedition as about lifestyle disorders. EPW provides an excellent primer.


Prime Number: $15.5 billion
That is the collective spending power of undocumented Indian immigrants in the US, who number over half a million. They also contribute $2.8 billion to federal, state and local tax revenues, according to a report by the US think tank American Economy.

Vaccination moving fast, but coverage low

The Modi government last week inked a fresh deal with the Serum Institute of India for 20 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine. SII, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, joined hands with the British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca to produce 1 billion doses of the Oxford vaccine, branded in India as Covishield. In January, the government ordered 11 million doses from the pharma company in Pune. The cost of the vaccine to the government would be Rs 200 per dose for the first 100 million doses, the drugmaker had noted.

With just under 1% of the population vaccinated so far at a daily run-rate of 1.4 million doses, India will have to inoculate 2.5 million every day to cover at least 30% of the population by the end of the year. But even at 1.4 million daily vaccinations now, India is the second-fastest in the world, grossing 21 million vaccinations so far, just after the US. But coverage is the lowest among the 26 most-affected countries, UBS Securities India economist Tanvee Gupta Jain said in a report.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The 2003 ceasefire agreement on the LoC had translated into over a half-decade of calm in Kashmir, and a degree of healing. As the commitment to that understanding is reiterated, Sameer Arshad Khatlani says it is important to build on the moment.

  • Putting India’s immense diversity and plurality into a monochromatic frame has not succeeded in the past, and is unlikely to do so in the future, writes Shyam Saran.


Listen up

Rejected repeatedly for her poor eyesight by NIMHANS Bangalore, Mala Bhargava quit her clinical psychology career ― after Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University and six years at AIIMS ― and became one of India’s favorite tech writers. Hear her story on BBC Outlook. 


Watch Out

What middle class?

The great Indian middle class, coveted by FMCG companies and coffee chains worldwide since liberalisation, is a myth. What we see as the middle class is actually a tiny elite, which traces its origins to the colonial era.


Tailpiece

Inflated Pak plane seized, Jaggi’s dimensional analysis irritates

A child’s inflated toy balloon in the livery of PIA landed in Jammu and Kashmir and was seized by the police. Earlier, on several occasions, homing pigeons flying in from Pakistan have been arrested on suspicions of spying.

The Press Information Bureau’s ill-advised practice of ‘fact-checking’ any news not conforming with government spin is meeting with genuine fact-checks. The latest is the PIB’s so-called fact-check on a news item over shortages of vaccines in Rajasthan. 

A national flag is allocated a budget 22.5 times higher than that for the rehabilitation of a manual scavenger. Priorities, priorities!

And Jaggi Vasudev’s dimensional analysis invites blowback. It all started with his revelation: “Feminine is not a gender ― it is a dimension.”


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.