The India Cable: ‘Tukde Tukde Gang’ Fantasy Revived, Facebook Marks India Danger Zone  

Plus: Cows Blockade Delhi, PM mines rail database to email Sikhs, the problem with ammo stocks, China dominates tariff lines and BJP campaign boat capsizes in Dal Lake

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 14, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

There are no elections scheduled in Srinagar, but the BJP was campaigning in the Dal Lake, perhaps out of habit. Embarrassingly, their boat capsized in the freezing waters. And elsewhere, BJP President JP Nadda has tested positive for Covid-19. 

When the Opposition parties threw their weight behind the farmers’ agitation, its leadership has asked them to leave their party banners at home, to avoid political contagion. But the Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Ugrahan faction displayed posters on Human Rights Day, demanding the release of detenus in the Bhima-Koregaon case, all of whom have a long association with the struggle of peasants and adivasis for land rights.. With a palpable sense of relief, cabinet ministers revived fantasies of the ‘tukde tukde gang’. This entity, about which the Home Ministry has no information as per its reply in Parliament, was used to demonise students and intellectuals but had not been heard of for some months.

For over a week, the government had sought imaginary bugbears backing the farmers’ agitation, and with the help of supportive media, it has found them ― the very intellectuals whom it has thrown in prison. But Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray threw a wet sock at the Centre’s attempts to vilify protestors when he said, “It is not our culture to call protesting farmers terrorists.”

Indian-American Congressman Ro Khanna seeks a peaceful and fair solution to the farmers’ issue while US Congressman John Garamendi, along with two other lawmakers, has written to India’s Ambassador to the US, calling out “horrific crackdowns on protesters who are trying to peacefully express their disapproval”. They also urged the Modi government “to demonstrate its respect for these crucial democratic freedoms, and to be a model of democratic values in the vital Indo-Pacific region.” This is the region where India is trying to build an alliance of countries which share values that China doesn’t.

The Chinese have indicated that the People’s Liberation Army has established a new normal in East Ladakh by transgression, and India should move towards restoring bilateral ties by accepting the new reality. India has lost control of more than 1,000 sq km of territory in Ladakh since May. Agreement on the height of Mount Everest has settled a long-running dispute between China and Nepal, but observers say it also signals Beijing’s rising regional  influence, which may cause more unease in New Delhi. Meanwhile, in the Manohar Parrikar Memorial Lecture, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said that India’s rise will be met with “attempts to dilute our influence and limit our interests”. Rise? He isn’t looking at the economy very closely. 

Responding to an affidavit on population control in the Supreme Court, the Centre has rejected coercion and said it is up to individuals to choose smaller families. The government also said India is on track to move to ideal replacement levels, a total fertility rate of 2.1. A Lancet Citizens’ Commission was launched on Friday to reimagine India’s health system and chart out the path to universal healthcare, with citizen support.

Vikas Khanchandani, chief executive of ARG Outlier Media, which owns Republic TV, accused of involvement in a scheme to falsely bolster the ratings of the right-wing broadcaster, was arrested yesterday. 


Facebook: India is ‘Tier One’ Country

Facebook’s human rights staff have internally designated India a ‘Tier One’ country, at the highest risk of social violence and requiring heightened efforts by the company to protect vulnerable populations. It is ranked alongside Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Facebook’s designation of India is reported by the Wall Street Journal, which found that despite considering posts by the Bajrang Dal, Sanatan Sanstha and Sri Ram Sene as objectionable, Facebook staff had “baulked” at removing them, fearing a “backlash” on staff. 

Facebook’s security team warned that banning the Bajrang Dal might endanger both the company’s business prospects and its staff in India, angering ruling Hindu nationalist politicians and precipitating physical attacks on Facebook personnel or facilities.

Members of the Bajrang Dal, designated a militant religious organisation by the CIA, have been convicted of hate crimes and religiously motivated killings, and some Facebook communities devoted to it celebrate images of people beaten or killed for alleged offences against Hinduism. A handful of groups and pages devoted to the Bajrang Dal generated 5.5 million interactions this year, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool. Facebook policy bans violent groups from its platform.

The WSJ had reported in August that Facebook’s top public policy executive in India, Ankhi Das, who has since quit, opposed efforts to apply hate speech rules to some Hindu nationalist politicians and groups, including a BJP MLA from Telangana. The Bajrang Dal was among entities flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence.


Indian children stunted again

The new National Family Health Survey, NFHS-5, brings grim news. India could be seeing an increase in child undernutrition, reversing decades of gains, early data has revealed, even if more children are vaccinated now. Sixteen states recorded an increase in underweight and severely wasted children aged under five, among 22 surveyed in the first phase.

Some national dailies tried to see the silver lining, like child mortality coming down, but malnutrition and wasting in major states is bad news. Between 2005-06 and 2015-16, two previous rounds of the NFHS, India had made substantial progress, bringing down its share of stunted children by nearly 10%. India has the maximum share anywhere in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa. It means that the last five years have reversed the gains made in child nutrition in 2005-2016. If all-India rates of child stunting rise, it would be the first increase since 1998-99. These findings are based on pre-pandemic data from 2019, and the present picture could be worse. 


Capital cowed by protests

The farmer’s agitation intensifies today, with union leaders calling a nine-hour hunger strike. The BJP government’s attempts to prevent more farmers from joining the movement have been foiled by locals in Haryana. Another kind of movement over the weekend, which could cow down the capital ― cattle accompanied farmers from Rajasthan to the capital, forcing traffic to moo-ve over.

Thousands of farmers from Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab led by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) blocked the last open national highway to Delhi, from Jaipur, at Shahjahanpur on the Rajasthan-Haryana border. The other four national highways into Delhi were blocked earlier. 

Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad threatened stern action against ‘nation-breakers’ trying to take advantage of the farmers’ movement. But earlier this year, the Home Ministry had accepted, in Parliament and in response to an RTI query, that it has no information on any ‘tukde tukde gang’. And unlike what the US networks did about Trump’s lies, Indian media has not attempted even a basic fact check, or confronted the minister. But the world is tuned in, and CNN reported in detail on why everyone should care about this protest. 

Watch Shivangi Bhasin’s video diaries, in which she has uploaded snatches of conversations with farmers camped at the border. It is a work in progress. 

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhQJ7xZ2HU2punZW1FeLFhR51a6tkNfTS

You can read a comprehensive explainer to the farm laws issue and the protests, the full text of the new farm acts, and appreciate why two of them are bad in law. Such is the situation that even the economic wing of the RSS is compelled to pick holes in the Modi government’s farm laws.


MSP undermined already 

Even as farmer protests intensify, information from mandis (wholesale markets) shows that a large proportion of this year’s paddy crop is being bought from farmers way below the Minimum Support Price (MSP). The looming prospect of MSP being scrapped, leaving  traders free to buy at any price, could be causing this.

According to daily data on the Ministry of Agriculture’s portal Agmarknet, paddy has been lifted at prices ranging as low as Rs 1,150 per quintal. Whereas Rs 1,868 per quintal is this year’s MSP for common paddy. 

Courtesy: Newsclick

Punjab mail 

In a demonstration of the government’s attitude to privacy, it is reaching out to Sikhs on behalf of Prime Minister Modi with 47 pages on his “special relationship with Sikhs,” by mining the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation’s (IRCTC) database. IRCTC chief PRO Sidharth Singh said that “government departments are mailing people… with the surname ‘Singh’ who are from Punjab.” Officials said that it was a conscious choice, part of a communications strategy in the public interest. IRCTC sent out nearly two crore emails in December 8-12 to customers listing 13 decisions taken by Modi to support the Sikh community. The PSU denied that the mails were sent only to Sikhs. 


Unpaid wages upset Apple cart 

There was violence on Saturday  at Apple’s iPhone plant run by Taiwan-based Wistron Corp at Narasapura, near Bengaluru. Nearly 2,000 employees armed with rods and clubs went on a rampage at dawn, destroying company assets and torching vehicles worth Rs 438 core. The workers alleged appalling conditions, no salaries for four months and wage cuts. Some engineering graduates were on nearly half pay.

The BBC reports that more than 100 workers have been arrested. Apple has declined to comment, but has earlier claimed to take working conditions at its plants very seriously. In April, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had said that Apple had moved nine out of 11 iPhone manufacturing units from China to India. 


Reportedly

The Supreme Court will hear on December 16 a plea seeking the immediate removal of farmers protesting at the Delhi border. It states that commuters are harassed by road blockades and the gatherings might spread COVID-19. The PIL filed by a law student will be heard by a bench headed by the Chief Justice of India. 

The Supreme Court has often come to the rescue of the Modi government and its supporters in rather creative ways, even at the cost of its own credibility and standing. On October 7, Justice SK Kaul passed an order against the blockade of a road in Shaheen Bagh by anti-CAA protesters. It held that public spaces cannot be occupied indefinitely and demonstrations must be limited to designated places. Will the Chief Justice follow that line on Wednesday?


Critical dependency on China

India is ‘critically dependent’ on China for imports across 86 tariff line items, according to the report of a group of ministers headed by Smriti Irani. This includes critical items for the infrastructure, pharma and digital sectors. The GoM report said that India’s imports exceeded $100 million in 2018-19 in 119 tariff lines. Further, imports from one country were more than half of total imports of a commodity. While 86 tariff lines were dominated by China, 17 were dominated by South Korea and six by Vietnam.


The Long Cable

More ammo stocks point to bigger political problems

Sushant Singh

After seven months of the ongoing border standoff with China, the Modi government has reversed its own policy decision of 2016 by authorising the defence forces to enhance their stocking of weapons and ammunition for 15 days of intense warfighting. Following the terror attack at Uri Army Camp and India’s decision to launch a surgical strike, Manohar Parrikar, then defence minister, had decided to hold stocks for 10 days of intense warfighting.

There are two levels of consumption of stores and ammunition during conflict ― intense and normal rates of expenditure. They are calculated on the basis of estimates, previous war data, and technical specifications. The intense rates consume three times the quantity of normal rates.

Even at 15 days of stocking, the authorisation is short of the “minimum acceptable risk level” ― the basis on which annual provisioning of ammunition is carried out by the Ordnance Corps ― meant to last around 20 days of intense warfighting. Devised after the 1999 Kargil War, it is the stocking level by which CAG reports judge the criticality of ammunition stocking. Although they are no longer put in the public domain in full after they embarrassed the Modi government, foreign defence vendors know of critical shortages in tank and air defence ammunition, anti-tank guided missiles, grenades and mine fuses. These shortages affect operational preparedness and hamper training.

The logic for the 2016 decision for 10 days of stocking was provided last year by General Bipin Rawat, then Army Chief and now Chief of Defence Staff. “If we can’t win a war with Pakistan in 10 days, there is no point of a war,” he said, essentially arguing that India was considering Pakistan as a plausible military threat and stocking for it. As the military does not take such decisions on its own, it means that the top political leadership in the Modi government was confident that there was no military threat from China, let alone a two-front collusive threat from Pakistan ― even as China was issuing strong public statements against the abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir.

In the same interaction, General Rawat said that “we should prepare for 30 I (30 days of intense war)” with China. At 15 days of stocking, it is half of the estimated ammunition and warlike stores needed for a single-front war with China. In a two-front collusive military threat from China and Pakistan, 15 days stocking would fall well short. That should put at rest the spin in sections of the media, that 15 days of stocking will allow India to wage a two-front war.  

The stocking levels required for a two-front collusive threat from China and Pakistan are provided by the defence minister’s operational directive, which was last issued in 2009 and has not been updated. It requires that the armed forces “should be prepared to fight, on both fronts simultaneously, a war at 30 days (intense) and 60 days (normal) rates,” which translates to stocks for 40 days of intense rates of warfighting.

Despite a formal ministerial directive, CAG reports and the border crisis with China, why is the Modi government not stocking for 40 days of intense warfighting? It’s the economy, stupid. As the Modi government presided over an economic decline in the past six years which worsened after the sudden lockdown – India is the worst performer in South Asia, and in 20 major economies this year – there are no funds available to make up the ammunition stocks.

Even a basic item, extra cold climate clothing for soldiers already deployed in Ladakh, had to be requested from the US under the book debit scheme of the logistics pact. Even if money were to appear magically, most of the ammunition types required aren’t available off the shelf. These are imported specialist items, and time is needed for production and transportation to India. Emergency procurements, when available, add a heavy price penalty, further squeezing the limited funds available for the military.

The situation points to two failures at the highest levels in the Modi government, after nearly seven years in power. First, it has led the economy into recession, and it is now incapable of meeting India’s military requirements. And second, its poor political assessment ruled out China as a military threat. The price of these two failures may have to be borne by Indians for at least a generation.  


Prime Number: $74 billion
That is the amount Chinese giant Alibaba can sell online in a single day, more than what Indian e-commerce does in a whole year. The Chinese giant moved inventories worth $74 billion on Singles Day on November 11. India’s digital commerce is worth $60 billion. 

Deep Dive

Food for thought

Ever since the Central government pushed three agrarian bills through Parliament and Punjab begged to differ, what ails India’s most important profession has become the subject of dinner table conversation. Examine the issue through this prism, the State of Rural and Agrarian India Report 2020, from the Network of Rural and Agrarian Studies.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Navyug Gill writes on how the farmers’ strike in India has become about much more than controversial farm legislation.

  • Himanshu says the roots of the farmer agitation run deep. The existing policy framework with excessive focus on inflation management and an obsession with the fiscal deficit will likely lead to more trouble.

  • Labour law reforms without social dialogue in India are of concern, says the International Labour Organisation’s Corinne Vargha. The hardships suffered by unorganised labour during the pandemic underlined how critical the concern is.

  • It wouldn’t be quite enough to label Narendra Modi an authoritarian usurping powers, since the nation allowed him to do so. Sankarshan Thakur asks if the people are alert to their responsibility. 

  • MS Sriram posits that while the government tightens rules on foreign contributions to civil society organisations on the grounds of a larger ‘national interest’ with new FCRA rules, an attitude of confidence rather than anxieties about conspiracy would serve the country better. 

  • By presiding over the foundation of the new Parliament, the PM has left no distinction between legislature and executive. His decision to perform rituals has bestowed on him the status of karta of the legislature, but the office of the PM has no function in the management of Parliament. This is another blow to Indian democracy, says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay. 

  • Imagine how All India Radio might have covered the farmers’ protest if Prasar Bharati, India’s ‘autonomous’ broadcasting corporation, had been a neutral broadcaster instead of a neutered one. Mukul Kesavan makes a case for an independent public broadcaster.

  • Pre-legislative scrutiny by Parliament as well as external bodies is facilitated if bills are published in draft well before their formal introduction. AG Noorani writes that the farm stir is happening because that wasn’t done.


Listen up

OnThe India Forum Conversations, Sanjay Barbora speaks on the Northeast and its discontents, on the first anniversary of theCAA-NRC-NPR protests in Assam.


Watch Out

The Ladakh Literature Festival is a treat. Anchored by Supriya Nair, hear Rehana Munir, Jane Borges, Amrita Mahale and Anukriti Upadhyay speak of their work, the times and the difficult business of preserving memory.


The resilience of Jamia

It was on December 13, 2019, a year ago on Sunday, that the Delhi Police entered the Jamia Millia Islamia Central Library in Delhi, beat up students, tear-gassed the reading room and smashed CCTVs.

The government rated this central university at number one in August. See what it survived:


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.