The India Cable: The Message from Kashmir, CIC Says Let Anonymous Electoral Bonds Lie

Plus: Sister Abhaya murder case ends 28 years on, Baul who hosted Amit Shah dumped, BKU writes to PM in blood, and the first Indian-made Christmas plum cake is tracked down, and found to be excellent

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
December 24, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

The Indian government took foreign journalists on a tightly controlled tour of Kashmir, a region they are barred from covering. This was the first visit they have been permitted to make after the abrogation of Article 370 in August last year (remember, India is not China), but neither the Financial Times nor the New York Times were taken in. 

After the victory of the Gupkar alliance in the District Development Council polls, Farooq Abdullah said that he was unafraid and wouldn’t bow before anyone except Allah. PDP president and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti reiterated that she wouldn’t contest assembly elections until the special status of the erstwhile state is restored. CPI(M) leader Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami said the result showed that the people of Jammu and Kashmir want “restoration of their rights”

Twenty-eight years after the crime was committed, the Sister Abhaya murder case of Kottayam is over with the sentencing to life imprisonment of Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy. The 19-year-old Catholic novice in the care of Sister Sephy was bludgeoned to death when she found them in a compromising position, and her body was dumped in a well to make it look like suicide. The case, which featured legal wrangling, forensic bungling and the destruction of evidence by the authorities, is fit to be taught to law students, to reveal precisely why the wheels of justice grind so slow. 

BJP leaders plumb new depths every day. “I have no hesitation in saying that in first education minister Abul Kalam Azad’s heart there was no ‘Bharat aur Bhartiyata’ (India and Indianness),” UP Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Anand Swaroop Shukla has claimed. Since he has a master’s degrees in mathematics and political science, though, he can rightfully claim that Azad’s system has failed to educate him. 

The Jharkhand government decided to waive all agriculture and farm loans up to Rs 50,000, benefiting about 9.07 lakh farmers in the state. Bharatiya Kisan Union (Lok Shakti) Chief Sheoraj Singh on Wednesday wrote a letter in blood to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding repeal of the three new farm laws that have stoked massive protests. 

The government has approved 100% FDI in DTH services. India slid to the bottom of the heap among key emerging markets in November, despite reporting better than expected GDP figures for the September quarter. The worst since June, the ranking indicates that India is struggling to regain lost ground. Most emerging markets have reported declines in exports during the pandemic months, but India’s numbers ― 8.7% year-on-year contraction in November—have been worse.


Gujarat’s grounded seaplane

Launched during the recent bypolls in Gujarat by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who hailed it as India’s first-ever seaplane service, the flight between Ahmedabad and Kevadia, the site of the Statue of Unity, has been mostly grounded since. An RTI request seeking its feasibility test report and launch expenses has been denied because it would “directly affect strategy and economic interests of the state” as well as “commercial confidence” in it. The Ro-Ro service between Bhavnagar and Surat, again launched by PM Modi with great fanfare as the first ever (though a service has operated in the Sunderbans for decades), is also stalled.


Farmers tell government not to blather on

Protesting farmer unions have asked the government to not repeat “meaningless” amendments to the new agri laws which they have already rejected, but come up with a concrete proposal in writing for another round of talks. We’ll be at the mercy of corporates, say farmers as they march in Mumbai in solidarity with Delhi protests. Protesters from Maharashtra are on the road to Delhi, and will transit Rajasthan today. 

To show solidarity with protesting farmers, some of the accused arrested in the Elgaar Parishad case ― including Mahesh Raut, Anand Teltumbde, Surendra Gadling, Hany Babu, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Rona Wilson ― who are lodged at Taloja Central Jail observed a day-long hunger strike on Wednesday. This year’s Elgaar Parishad, scheduled for December 31, has been denied permission on account of the pandemic. The Haryana Police booked 13 farmers on charges of attempt to murder and rioting, a day after a group of people protesting against the farm laws allegedly blocked Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s convoy and showed black flags at Ambala.

Farmers at Tikri border will no longer have to jostle for relief material. On Wednesday, Khalsa Aid set up a ‘Kisan Mall’ to provide farmers daily necessities for free. The mall is providing blankets, toothbrushes, paste, thermals, sweaters, jackets, vests, blankets, oil, Vaseline, socks, washing soap, bathing soap, shampoo, combs, mufflers, Odomos, milk powder, sanitary pads and shoes. Heating pads, towels, quilts, sandals, garbage bags, knee supports, tarpaulin, nail cutters, ENO and washing brushes are also available.

Uncannily useful law student Rishabh Sharma, who has sought a direction from the Supreme Court to remove farmers protesting at border points of Delhi, has sought to implead over 40 farmer unions as respondents. A Bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde, which had said on December 17 that the right to protest cannot be impeded, has admitted the plea.


Farmers know their economics

A study of agricultural markets in Bihar, Odisha and Punjab by the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at Pennsylvania University concludes that the idea that market reforms ‘will result in significant gains in price realisations for farmers is as seductive as it is mistaken’. The case of BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, where a rice company has left paddy farmers in the lurch, is instructive.

Farmers from Punjab and Haryana are unwilling to trade the price guarantees of the MSP regime for the uncertainties of free markets. Their fears are borne out by lived experience ― over the past few years, farmers across India have dumped perishable produce (with no support prices announced) for want of a reasonable price.

For crops like oilseeds, pulses and cotton where government purchases are minimal, farmers face significant price risks. These are often worsened by inflation management and trade policies with a pro-consumer bias. For instance, soon after the Centre promulgated the reform ordinances in June ‘liberating’ farmers, it imposed an export ban on onions to keep prices in check, at the cost of depressing domestic farm-gate prices.


British MPs want to know

UK MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who had taken Boris Johnson aback on the floor of the House, causing him to confuse the farmer protest with some Indo-Pak skirmish, has given him due warning this time. He has said that several British MPs across parties will demand that he takes up this issue with Prime Minister Modi when he comes to Delhi as chief guest of the Republic Day parade.


First pizza, then elopement, UP Police fear

Pizza politics continues, though Punjabi protesters have trashed critics who said that the farmers’ ‘pizza langar’ was inauthentic. 

A Muslim teenager from UP went with a teenaged Dalit girl for a “pizza outing”. The boy is now  in jail under the anti-conversion law. The girl’s father said: “I had told police that I do not want to complain, but they scolded me and said they may elope in the future, and I must do it for the sake of my daughter.”

Rising, shining UP offers new lows every day. Yesterday, it was in honour of Saraswati, the goddess of learning. Up above, she must have cringed. 


China proposes, India disposes

India will not accept a Chinese proposal to turn the eight mountainous spurs jutting out of the Sirijap range on the north bank of the Pangong Tso lake into a no-troops area. Chinese commanders are understood to have proposed that Indian and Chinese troops move back to either side of the eight spurs overlooking the north bank of Pangong lake, Fingers 1 to 8, and convert the area in between into a no-man’s land. This proposal doesn’t serve India’s interests since half of the eight spurs were under Indian control before Chinese troops occupied upto Finger 3 on May 5, 2020. Indian troops used to patrol up to Finger 8.

Indian Army chief General MM Naravane on Wednesday visited areas in eastern Ladakh, including the south bank of Pangong Lake, and reviewed the preparedness of troops at the forefront of a nearly eight-month standoff on the Line of Actual Control.


India and Russia both dispose

India and Russia have dismissed a report that their annual summit wasn’t held this year for the first time in two decades because of purported differences over the Indo-Pacific and Quad, with both sides saying the meet was called off due to the pandemic. As they say, don’t trust anything unless it’s been officially denied.


The Long Cable

The message from Kashmir: All is not well 

Sushant Singh

As the results of elections to the newly formed District Development Councils started coming in on Tuesday, media attention was, predictably, on the three seats which the BJP managed to win in the Kashmir region. As former chief minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah pointed out, the media had turned a blind eye to the 35 seats won by his party in the Jammu region. But the story of the elections goes beyond mere numbers.

The first point to appreciate is the nature of the Gupkar Alliance: it was not an electoral alliance, like the gathbandhans we see during various local elections. It was formed by the leaders of all mainstream political parties of Kashmir, with the specific and forcefully stated objective of restoring the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. The BJP, which had deployed central ministers and a multitude of leaders in the campaign, had claimed that the people of the region were angry with these politicians and welcomed the steps taken by the Modi government. The BJP was blindsided by the decision all mainstream Kashmiri parties took to contest the elections, and in alliance. The results of the DDC polls, with the Gupkar alliance leading both in the number of seats and in the number of district councils it will control with Congress support, are enough proof that the BJP’s argument has failed to make any impression in the Union Territory. It is a rebuff to the Modi government, whose Home Minister had dismissed the alliance as a “gang”, while other ministers called its leaders “anti-nationals” and “looters”.

The second point is the environment ― polls were announced amidst the pandemic with barely a week’s notice. A hostile administration, backed by aggressive security forces, denied the leaders of the Gupkar alliance – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, all former chief ministers ― the chance to campaign freely. While campaigning by the BJP and Apni Party ― a king’s party favoured by the administration ― was facilitated by the state apparatus, Gupkar candidates were detained, ostensibly for their own security. Moreover, some of its leaders were named in alleged scams in the midst of elections, and others were arrested or put under house arrest on flimsy pretexts by the Modi government. The fact that the Gupkar alliance has won against the far more formidable alliance of the BJP, the state apparatus, agencies and the security forces makes its achievement even more noteworthy.

The third point is the fallaciously optimistic conclusion of certain commentators that these elections are a win for democracy because there was 34% polling, and the return of the mainstream parties to the electoral process will lead to a revival of politics. This argument ignores the reason people turned out to vote: to show their disapproval of the decisions taken in August 2019 and to prevent the BJP and Apni Party from capturing power, taking advantage of a poll boycott. People feel betrayed by mainstream Kashmiri politicians, but championing them was the only way to express their anger against the all-powerful Centre. Commentators also mistake the agenda of the mainstream Kashmiri parties in this election: they did not speak of development, as they had in state assembly elections before 2019. There were no celebrations at Gupkar Road even after the results came in. Moreover, the mainstream politicians do not even have a working equation with the administration, let alone a healthy one, which is needed for the revival of mainstream politics in Kashmir.

The final point is about the performance of the BJP, going beyond the three seats won in the Kashmir region. The elections were held for 280 DDC seats, 14 in each of the 20 districts. The BJP will form councils only in six districts, while the Gupkar alliance will control 13 councils – nine of them in the Kashmir region – with Congress support, while one council is dominated by independents. Pollster Neelanjan Sircar has noted that the “BJP has lost ground in J&K. In 2014, there were 83 assembly constituencies (46 in Kashmir and 37 in Jammu), and the BJP won 25 (30.1%). In the 2019 DDC elections, these were tilted against Kashmir (with 140 seats each for Jammu and for Kashmir (280 total), and the BJP has won 75 (26.7%). Lacklustre performance in Jammu.” The results, in fact, show that the National Conference and the Congress were the only parties with a presence in all the regions of the Union Territory, with the Abdullahs’ party providing the strongest opposition to the BJP even in the Jammu-Udhampur region.

There is a long history of misreading, misunderstanding and misinterpreting election results in Kashmir. To see the DDC election results as anything but the first public expression of Kashmiri anger against the Modi government’s move to abrogate Article 370 last August would again be a huge blunder. The message from Srinagar is clear: All is not well in Kashmir.


Reportedly

Blankets bearing convicted rapist godman Asaram Bapu’s photograph were distributed among the inmates of a jail in UP’s Shahjahanpur district, about 175 kilometres from Lucknow, leaving the authorities red-faced. Asaram is serving a life sentence after being found guilty by a Jodhpur court of the rape of a 16-year-old in his ashram six years ago. The victim was from Shahjahanpur. 

Asaram’s disciples distributed blankets bearing photographs of the self-styled godman among jail inmates a few days ago. Two disciples managing the distribution were accused in the murder of a witness in the rape case against Asaram.


In Birbhum, a bitter ending

Basudeb Das Baul, the folk singer in Birbhum who hosted Home Minister Amit Shah for lunch landed up at the Trinamool Congress district office on Tuesday. Das complained that he was not given an opportunity to speak to Shah and seek a job or opportunities for higher education for his daughter. “After Shah left, nobody from the BJP bothered to talk to me although they had come to me with the request to host the lunch. I did all the shopping. They only bought the sweets served that day,” said Das. 

The BJP used to make fun of Congress leaders who ate at the homes of rural and marginalised families, accusing them of seeking photo opportunities. 


Fake claim: Centre’s “big push” for Dalit education

The Centre boasted that in a “big push for education for SCs”, it had approved the “Rs 59,000 crore post-matric scholarship scheme for more than 4 crore SC students in five years”. The fact is that the Centre had withheld scholarship money to 14 states, citing differences. The States pushed back hard to force the Modi government to relent and ensure that Dalit students get their rights.


Rupee in slough of despond

The Indian rupee has been one of the worst-performing currencies in Asia in 2020, failing to capitalise on the weak US dollar and unprecedented foreign fund inflows. During the calendar year, it has fallen by 3.28% against the US dollar, as the Reserve Bank of India held the domestic currency tightly reined. The only currency to perform marginally worse is the Pakistani rupee (dipping 3.53%), owing to external debt.


CIC: Let electoral bonds lie

The Central Information Commission, in an abrupt turnaround, has said no public interest is served in disclosing buyers of electoral bonds. Changing its position from its order of January, it has added that such information cannot be shared under the Right to Information (RTI) Act as the money is held in a “fiduciary” capacity. 

Electoral bonds have been under fire from the Election Commission, since they offer a cloak of secrecy under which undeclared and unaccounted for funds can reach political parties. But three years have passed and the Supreme Court is sitting on the matter


Deep Dive

Women in film in 2020: The good, the disappointing and the ridiculous

Sohini Chattopadhyay takes a long and hard look at female characters in streamed content and theatrical releases, across languages.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • An anti-interfaith marriage law should be called out for what it is, writes Salil Tripathi. A law that denies women agency and flouts constitutional freedoms deserves no quarter.

  • When the government professes that the new farm laws herald a transformational 1991 moment for agriculture, that does not exactly unleash a tidal wave of joy among farmers. To them, it appears to tighten the stranglehold of the billionaire raj over Bharat, asserts Manu Kaushik.

  • Amitabh Kant’s views reveal that the government’s agenda has nothing to do with ordinary citizens of India, says Jagdish Rattanani. It is taking us for a ride to a mythical, vainglorious future, trampling aspirations, dignity and rights today to build airports, exports and factories for tomorrow.


Listen up

Cities are now the habitat for most of humanity.  But do they have the ecological capacity to sustain lives worth living? Amita Baviskar talks about environmental politics in Delhi and looks at the role of ‘bourgeois environmentalists’ who claim to speak for nature and society.  


Watch Out

Activist and scholar Ritu Singh is making waves with her no-holds-barred comments on the farmers’ protests. See the full version of the clip which may have reached you on WhatsApp.


Woman power at Singhu border


India’s first plum cake

The first Christmas plum cake baked by an Indian is dated to December 20, 1883. Mambally Bapu, a businessman in Burma, returned home to Thalassery in north Kerala, then part of Madras Presidency, to start a bakery. Inspiration was provided by the British cinnamon planter Murdoch Brown, who gave him a taste of a plum cake from London. On December 20, Brown arrived at Bapu’s shop and received the first Indian version. He declared it was the best cake he had ever had, and ordered a dozen.


That’s it for today. Merry Christmas, and we’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.