The India Cable: Trudeau Upsets Modi Govt, Interfaith Couples Upset BJP States

Plus: Modi misleads on farmers, China deepens ties with Nepal and Pakistan, Sanskrit news is back, Indian call centre scalps Americans, and an Indian heads Bata, which is not an Indian company

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 1, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

The last time Punjab marched purposefully upon Delhi, it left a place name behind: Tis Hazari. In the late 18th century, the site where the capital’s oldest sessions court now stands was the encampment of 30,000 Sikh troopers under Sardar Baghel Singh. They took over areas which are now Delhi neighbourhoods, like Shahdara and Sadar Bazar, and breached the walls of the Red Fort at Mori Gate, which is now a bus terminal. It took the intervention of the extraordinary diplomat Begum Samru to broker a peace. She lived near Tis Hazari in her garden estate, Bhagirath Palace, now Asia’s biggest (and probably filthiest) electronics market.

Buckling to the pressure of numbers at the gates of Delhi, the government has invited farmers for talks today at Vigyan Bhavan ― guess they’re expecting a plenary session. Rashtriya Loktantrik Party leader Hanuman Beniwal has threatened to quit the NDA unless the new farm laws are repealed. Urmila Matondkar joined the Shiv Sena today, yet another step towards the gentrification of a party with a violently parochial past. And the Election Commission is prepared to extend the postal ballot to 60 lakh NRIs next year, to vote in the Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry elections. Only the Conduct of Election Rules 1961 need to be amended, and Parliament’s assent is not required. Of course, millions of migrant workers across India are not going to be given this facility yet.

There is no progress on disengagement in Ladakh, where temperatures have dipped more than 20 degrees below freezing point. China has vowed to strengthen its military relationship with Nepal and support its territorial integrity at a time when its small Himalayan neighbour is embroiled in border disputes with India. This pledge was made by General Wei Fenghe, China’s defence minister and a state councillor, when he met Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and held talks with Nepal Army chief Purna Chandra Thapa in Kathmandu on Sunday. On Monday, Gen Wei held talks with Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in Rawalpindi to deepen defence cooperation between the all-weather allies. Barring India, all member nations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) reaffirmed their support to China’s ambitious One Belt and One Road project during a virtual summit of the influential grouping chaired by India.

In the nine months since India claimed it had disbursed the first round of assistance under the voluntary Covid-19 Emergency Fund for Saarc countries, there seems to have been no change in the amount disbursed from its total contribution. While India has pledged more than 50% of the total fund meant for Saarc countries, it has so far released less than 20% of that.

Political parties in Tamil Nadu have condemned a directive from Prasar Bharati to regional satellite channels to run a 15 minute Sanskrit bulletin every day. Only 24,000 Indians identified Sanskrit as their mother tongue in the 2011 census. Sandeep Kataria is Bata’s global head, the first Indian to hold the top post in a company which many Indians regard as completely Indian, and not Czech-founded.

With India being one of the worst economic performers in Asia between 2010 and 2020, China’s per capita GDP – which was 3.3 times of India 10 years ago – is now nearly six times greater, with Bangladesh’s per capita GDP also surpassing India’s. And in Delhi, it’s the coldest November on record since the founding of the republic. In consequence, the air is much more polluted than it was in November last year.  

Trudeau bats for right to peaceful protest in India, no ball says MEA

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has riled the Modi government with his Gurupurab message of solidarity with protesting Indian farmers. What has upset the Ministry of External Affairs – which said “such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country” was his reference to the police crackdown on  farmers.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Source: Twitter/@JustinTrudeau)

“I would be remiss if I didn't start by recognising the news coming out of India about the protests by farmers,” Trudeau had said. “The situation is concerning and we are all very worried about family and friends. I know that’s the reality for many of you. Let me remind you that Canada will always be there to defend the right to peaceful protest. We believe in the importance of dialogue and that’s why we have reached out through multiple means directly to the Indian authorities to highlight our concerns.” (Trudeau remarks on video below are at 21’11’’)

Trudeau’s comment about reaching out to the Indian government also led an irritated MEA to say, “It is also best that diplomatic  conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes.”

Across India, weddings get political

“It is well settled that a right of any major individual to marry the person of his/her choice is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution of India and the said liberty relating to the personal relationships of two individuals cannot be encroached by anybody irrespective of caste or religion,” says the judgement of the Karnataka High Court. The decision, while disposing of a habeas corpus petition filed by one Wajeed Khan seeking the release of his lover Ramya from confinement, assumes relevance in the backdrop of the Karnataka government mulling a law against ‘love jihad’ ― a fake theory used to discredit marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women as conspiracy to cause conversion ― following in the footsteps of BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh. Meanwhile, Uttarakhand is considering withdrawing a Congress-era scheme which supports interfaith marriages with a grant of Rs 50,000. BJP-ruled Assam, not to be left behind, will make it mandatory for couples to disclose faith and income before they marry. 

The Battle of Delhi, 2020

Rajasthan Jat leader and MP Hanuman Beniwal, president of the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party,  a member of the NDA, has told Home Minister Amit Shah that his party would reconsider its partnership with the BJP if the Centre did not withdraw the three farm laws. Beniwal also demanded that the Centre implement the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission and speak with farmers. Sombir Sangwan, the independent MLA from Dadri who backed the BJP-JJP government after the Haryana assembly polls last year and was appointed chairman of the state’s Livestock Development Board, has resigned from the post to join the farmers’ agitation.

Farmer leaders claim that the ‘black laws’ are a bigger threat than the coronavirus. They also insist that they have come to Delhi for a “decisive battle” and urged PM Narendra Modi to listen to their “Mann ki Baat”. Modi, meanwhile, once again defended the new farm laws and said that his political opponents are “spreading apprehensions” and “misleading” the farmers. But reports suggest that while “in the past few years, farmer protests in Delhi were largely a day or a two-day event packed with speeches demanding loan waivers and remunerative prices, this time round, it is markedly different.” Farmers at Kundli on the outskirts of Delhi are upset over media misrepresentation and false accusations, and are confronting “godi media” at the site. 

Cyberspace is abuzz with links for protest petitions being shared in India, the UK, Canada, Australia and the US in favour of the farmers’ agitation. Over the last two days, over two lakh people have signed petitions supporting the farmers. Several Punjabi singers, including Sidhu Moosewala, Babbu Maan, Kanwar Grewal and Harf Cheema have lent their support to farmers at Delhi's border entry points for the last five days.

Farmers’ organisations have rejected attempts by Swaraj Abhiyan leader Yogendra Yadav and VM Singh to move the sit-ins from the national highways on Delhi’s periphery to the Burari grounds near the Karnal bypass. And the number of farmers protesting at the Ghazipur border in Uttar Pradesh swelled on Monday, leading police to place concrete barriers and enhance security. 

The X-shaped curve

India’s economy has become one of the worst performers in Asia and among emerging markets between 2010 and 2020, from being among the fastest growing in the post-liberalisation era of the previous decade. Between 2010 and 2020, India’s per capita GDP at current prices in dollar terms grew at a compounded annual growth rate of 3.1% against 9.2% annualised growth in China, 7.9% in Vietnam, 7.4% in the East Asia & Pacific countries, and 3.3% growth in major emerging markets. Bangladesh topped the growth chart with its per capita GDP (in dollar terms) growing at 9.5% in the last 10 years. 

Bangladesh saw the fastest growth with its per capita up nearly two-and-a-half times from $763 in 2010 to around $1,900 at the end of this year. India’s per capita GDP during the same period is up 35% from $1,384 in 2010 to $1,877 now. The per capita GDP in China rose 141% from $4,500 to $10,839, while it doubled in East Asian countries (excluding Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong) from $4,006 to $8,195 in the past 10 years. And Vietnam’s per capita rose 115% from $1,628 to around $3,500 in the same time.

India has also lagged in export recovery against Asian peers Vietnam, China, Taiwan and Bangladesh, which have seen the strongest revival. India’s exports were down 3.9% as of October, on a three-month moving average basis. S&P Global Ratings has retained its forecast of 9% contraction in the Indian economy for the current fiscal year. India’s first chief statistician Pronab Sen has said that India’s GDP is to shrink over 10% by March 2021 and India faces a financial crisis and a likely investment crisis.

Vaccination prognosis: Too little, too late

The pandemic is generating tons of discarded PPE equipment and Binish Desai, an entrepreneur from Valsad in Gujarat is turning them into bricks. And even though India doesn’t yet know which vaccine will be administered to the people, the Centre has asked states to identify healthcare workers, including doctors, pharmacists as well as MBBS and BDS interns, who will carry out a Covid-19 inoculation drive once a vaccine is available. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan says, “In the first 3-4 months of next year, there is a possibility that we will be able to provide a vaccine to the people of the country. By July-August, we have a plan to provide vaccines to around 25-30 crore people and we are preparing accordingly.” Floor leaders of all parties from both Houses of Parliament have been called for a meeting on the pandemic, to be chaired by the PM, which will be held virtually on Friday at 10.30 am.

The Long Cable

Government spread misinformation on farm laws

MK Venu

Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted in Varanasi yesterday that farmers are being fed “misinformation and propaganda” against the new farm laws which are actually meant to give farmers more freedom to boost their incomes. The protesting farmers gathered around Delhi brushed that off, saying they are not against the new farm laws. All they want is one sentence in the legislation assuring them of a minimum support price for their produce. Why are farmers insisting on that amendment? Simply because they do not trust the Modi government anymore. The trust deficit between farmers and the NDA government has grown massively over the past six years.   

It has increased manifold because the government has constantly shifted goalposts on farm remuneration since 2014, when Modi came to power by promising farmers 50% profit margin over their total costs. But in these years, farmers have experienced a big fall in incomes due to increased input costs and lower price realisations, even when they produced more and more.

PM Modi must first clear up the confusion and misinformation created by his own government over the promise of giving farmers 50% profit over the comprehensive cost of all inputs (including the imputed rent of the land cultivated), as recommended by the Swaminathan Commission. Farmers don’t trust this government because the Niti Aayog and cabinet ministers have been diluting MS Swaminathan’s definition of comprehensive costs, which he had clarified in 2017.

The Modi government kept shifting goalposts by redefining input costs as actual cost of inputs like seeds, fertiliser, water, electricity and labour (including family labour) but excluding the imputed rental value of land which MS Swaminathan clearly intended to include. Government propaganda claimed that it had met the promise of 50% profit over costs, but farmers were not impressed and never accepted this claim. The government shifted the goalposts again by suggesting that the new policies would help double farm incomes by 2024. Most economists, even those who support the new farm laws, say this is impossible. 

Meanwhile, the Niti Aayog started a new policy experiment to examine whether the government should do away with the current food procurement system which offers minimum support price ― mostly prevalent in Punjab, Haryana and western UP ― and shift largely to a radically new method of setting up agriculture tribunals and auctioning farm produce in mandis by fixing a minimum reserve price, like a floor price. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana feared that the old system would be gradually whittled down. 

Last November, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman publicly urged states to dismantle their Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) mandis and move towards the National Agriculture Market or e-NAM, a new electronic trading platform. Farmers feared that the Centre wanted to dismantle physical mandis. Former agriculture secretary Siraj Hussain says, “The national trading portal is just a price discovery platform and not meant to replace physical mandis at all.” Farmers in Bihar, where the APMC Act was dismantled in 2006, are also asking for many more state regulated mandis near their farms to be able to sell at reasonable prices. The government had explicitly promised to create 20,000 new mandis by converting small village haats, but that has remained largely on paper.

Much of the misinformation and confusion over farm policies and laws have emanated from the government itself. Modi must seriously examine this instead of blaming the Opposition for it. The farm bills came against the backdrop of a complete breakdown of communications between the Centre and farmers over how India should manage sustainable agriculture, which provides food security for the country and reasonable incomes for farmers. The Swaminathan Commission clearly says that farmers are unlikely to continue producing a number of crops if a minimum return over comprehensive weighted average costs is not ensured. This fundamental issue is not addressed by the new farm laws which seek to create a parallel market outside of regulated mandis, where traders don’t need permits or pay taxes to buy from farmers directly. As the Bihar example shows, this may not create remunerative agriculture. Yes, there are issues of crop diversification and excessive water use in Punjab and Haryana where MSP for rice and wheat is historically institutionalised. But they cannot be solved by half-baked reforms by stealth, where the key assumption is that the private sector will solve all problems by dealing directly with the farmers. Modi cannot hide behind big corporate buyers of farm produce.

The Modi government has no alternative except to rebuild trust with farmers. This would require a comprehensive dialogue with those protesting at the gates of Delhi, leading to a five-year road map for protecting their incomes and ensuring national food security via environmentally sustainable agriculture. Needless to say, the states must be fully involved since agriculture is a state subject. The new farm laws ambushed the states instead of taking them into confidence. The crux of the matter is that the PM must regain the farmer’s trust, as a starting point.

Prime Number: 5.6 million
The number of malaria cases in India in 2019, down from 20 million in 2000, as per the World Health Organisation. Malaria deaths in India declined from about 29,500 in 2000 to about 7,700 last year. But India still accounted for 88% of malaria cases and 86% of malaria deaths in the WHO Southeast Asia region in 2019. India and 10 other African nations contribute to 70% of the world’s malaria cases.

Call centre fraud

Hitesh Madhubhai Patel of Ahmedabad, 44, was sentenced by a US Court to 20 years in prison followed by three years of supervised release for his role in operating and funding India-based call centres that defrauded Americans of millions of dollars between 2013 and 2016. The Indian national was also ordered to pay a restitution of $8,970,396 to identified victims of his crimes.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • “Patriarchy and religious bigotry begin to shape our consciousness, we fear what love is all about: its unrestricted flow, its healing power to overcome all borders and boundaries, or its music of the fusion of horizons”, Avijit Pathak observes about ‘love jihad’ laws ― when a society fears the ecstasy of love, it becomes potentially authoritarian. 

  • “When money power, biased institutions and a highly pliable media combine to create a thick fog, public visibility diminishes, and ghosts appear in the name of religion, caste, an imagined history of tradition and false nationalism,” Amit Bhaduri writes on digression from real issues as the only visible state policy.

  • Depsang is strategically important and cannot be ignored if a resolution in Eastern Ladakh is to be found, says Lt Gen DS Hooda (retd), as he warns that adopting a hardened stance may make for good nationalistic social media posts, but it is fraught with long-term consequences for India-China ties.

Grammy and Oscar nominations

Musician Anoushka Shankar’s album Love Letters has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Global Music Album category. The album also has a song sung by Shilpa Rao titled ‘Those Words’. The six songs in the album are very personal and were written in the wake of Shankar’s divorce from filmmaker Joe Wright in 2018, whom she married in 2010. Love Letters, she said in an interview earlier this year, deals with the “processes of falling in love, desire, heartbreak, loss, and healing through loss”. The winners would be declared on January 31. This is the seventh time Shankar has been nominated.

And Shameless is India’s Oscar entry in the Live Action Short Category.

Listen Up

On Khandaan: A Bollywood Podcast, a discussion on the film that forever changed the Hindi film industry: 2001’s Dil Chahta Hai. Farhan Akhtar’s debut feature had a glitzy starcast: Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshaye Khanna, Dimple Kapadia, Preity Zinta, Ayub Khan, Sonali Kulkarni, Suhasini Mulay, and the by-now patented list of talented supporting actors.  Everything from the costumes (trendy at the time), to the dialogues (a stark departure from formula), to cinematography (fresh and natural), to the music (still a bop), left an impact. 

Watch Out

No question about it, Mahavir Narwal, retired scientist, single dad and proud parent of Pinjra Tod’s Natasha Narwal fully deserves the title, ‘Father of the Year’. Accused by the Delhi Police of conspiring to cause the February 2020 riots – an accusation so full of holes that she has got bail for all offences she’s been charged with for lack of evidence – Natasha is still in jail only because of terrorism charges levelled, for which ‘no bail’ is the default. With her in prison, of course, are other young women and men, such as Devangana Kalita, Ishrat Jahan and Umar Khalid, all of whom have been targeted for their role in the peaceful protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. 

In this beautiful video by Natasha Badhwar for Karwan-e-Mohabbat, a proud Mahavir Narwal speaks of his daughter’s commitment to the rights of minorities, women and workers, recalling how, in 2004, as a girl barely in her teens, she had said it was wrong for Atal Bihari Vajpayee to have said the BJP did not want the votes of Muslims. 

Because it’s there

How high exactly is Mount Everest? We could know it any day now, courtesy China and Nepal. Everest has been getting taller, over time, because of plate tectonics. As the Indian plate slips under the Eurasian plate, it lifts the Himalayas higher. But conversely, earthquakes reduce the height of peaks. Could the 2015 quake have brought Everest low?

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.