The India Cable: UN Human Rights Office Speaks Up for Bhima-Koregaon Detainees, Inequality Zoomed in Lockdown

Plus: India-China clash at Naku La downplayed by India, denied by China, talks on Ladakh yield little, farmer drives in reverse gear from Karnal to Delhi to make the point that Farm Laws must #GoBack

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 25, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged the government to release the Bhima-Koregaon detainees “at the very least on bail while they await trial”. In October, the UN High Commissioner Michele Bachelet had herself expressed concern about the tightening of foreign contribution rules to restrict the access of human rights NGOs to foreign funding, and the application of “vaguely worded laws” like the Unlawful Activisties (Prevention) Act (UAPA)  to clamp down on dissent. 

A new Oxfam report shows that, since March, as the government announced the strictest lockdown anywhere in the world, India’s top 100 billionaires saw their fortunes increase by Rs 12.97 trillion — enough money to give every one of the 138 million poorest Indians a cheque for Rs 94,045 each. In stark contrast, 170,000 people lost their jobs every hour in the month of April 2020, the report points out. “In fact, the increase in wealth of the top 11 billionaires of India during the pandemic could sustain the MNREGA scheme for 10 years or the health ministry for 10 years,” according to Oxfam’s calculations.

Many people on social media today criticised  President Ramnath Kovind for what they believed was an embarrassing mix-up. President Ram Nath Kovind unveiled a portrait of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Saturday to mark the beginning of year-long celebrations to commemorate the Bose’s 125th birth anniversary. A tweet claimed  the portrait was of actor Prosenjit Chatterjee, who played the character of Netaji in his movie called “Gumnaami”. In fact, it was a portrait painted by artist Paresh Maity, who is unlikely to have mixed up his subjects. 

The former CEO of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India, Partho Dasgupta, has claimed in a handwritten statement to Mumbai Police that he received US$12,000 from Republic TV owner Arnab Goswami for two separate holidays and a total of Rs 40 lakh over three years, in return for manipulating ratings in favour of the news channel, according to the supplementary chargesheet filed in the TRP scam case.

In a bizarre case, a woman in Bihar’s Gaya district killed her husband when the latter objected to her alleged extra-marital affair. She also went onto seal her husband’s lips with Fevikwik before hacking him to death. 

Aligarh Muslim University will bury a time capsule underground, marking 100 years of its existence tomorrow, on Republic Day. Also on Republic Day, the foundation stone for a new mosque in Ayodhya will be laid on land allotted to the town’s Muslims quite far away from the site of the Babri Masjid. (See The India Cable of December 22, 2020 for more details).

And as the political environment heats up in Assam due to the impending polls, the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests are back in Assam

Continuing to target Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his second day of campaigning in Tamil Nadu, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi alleged Chinese troops have occupied Indian territory and the man with "56 inch-chest" cannot even utter the name of the neighbouring country. Addressing meetings as part of a three-day campaign tour of Tamil Nadu for the assembly elections to be held in the next few months, he also repeated his charge that Modi governed the country for just five or six business people.

Meanwhile, curious minds are asking why exactly was PM Modi not wearing a mask on his recent visit to Kolkata?


Farmers ready themselves for historic tractor rally

The Delhi Police have given permission for the tractor rally, christened 'Kisan Gantantra Parade' by the farm unions, after the official Republic Day parade ends, on three routes covering 100 km in the national capital. The farmers want to take out their rally on Outer Ring Road, while the police have suggested alternate routes. This will also mark two months of the farmers protest – they have been sitting at various border points of Delhi since November 26. Meanwhile, scared of the parade of tractors on Republic Day by farmers protesting the three agri laws, BJP bigwigs in Uttar Pradesh asked supply officers in all the districts to not give diesel to tractors. The order was subsequently withdrawn after the controversy.

Malpuri village of Udham Singh Nagar district in Uttarakhand has banned the entry of Bharatiya Janata Party members, workers and leaders. Meanwhile, thousands of farmers reached Mumbai over the weekend. More than 50,000 farmers from various regions of Maharashtra will march towards the Raj Bhavan and submit its charter of demands to Governor Bhagat Singh Kosyari.

The Guardian has a sharp editorial on the bitter harvest the farm stir is: “There’s a growing backlash against Narendra Modi’s autocratic tendencies and the plutocrat donors who fund his party”.


As vaccine rollout continues, fear of slow speed 

Even though India inoculated its first one million individuals faster than the US and UK, the country may take up to three years to vaccinate the prioritised 300 million population going by the current rate. So far, less than 60% of the designated vaccine takers have come forward with more than 40% choosing to skip the offer of the vaccine. Ashish Jha, the Dean at the Brown University School of Public Health said he believed it was a mistake to authorise Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin without proper phase 3 data being made available. He also said he would not vaccinate himself with Covaxin. And there are huge privacy concerns and other troubles with the Co-WIN app. 

Two frontline health care workers died after taking the Covid shot in Andhra and Telangana.

The race to vaccinate Britain has also offered a shot at redemption for Wockhardt, a once high-flying Indian pharmaceutical company that was investigated by US regulators over failings at its plants. The group now has a critical role in delivering the jab to millions. It is a Wockhardt owned plant in Wrexham that plays a key role in the UK plan.


One more meeting but the Chinese are not budging 

There are reports of clashes between India and China at Naku La in the north Sikkim border area. Reports say the clashes occurred three days ago and troops from both sides were injured. This is meant to have been a “physical brawl”. The Army in a statement has confirmed that the clash took place but termed it “minor”. The Chinese have denied it took place at all. 

The ninth meeting of senior Indian and Chinese military commanders in Ladakh was held on Sunday at Moldo in the Chushul sector and ended at 2.30 am. Meanwhile, the Chinese Army has consolidated its positions in eastern Ladakh and quietly, gradually increased troop numbers at the friction points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In some sectors, foreseeing fresh Chinese concentrations, the Indian Army has conducted preemptive actions to mirror the Chinese buildup. As a result, opposing troops, tanks and armoured personnel carriers are nearer to each other than they have been in the past four months.

Urgain Tsewang, nambardaar (village head) of Koyul (Kakjung), one of the last settlements in Demchok sector, has shared a video with The Hindu dated December 16, 2020 where two Chinese vehicles are turned away by a group of locals and security personnel. In another video dated December 10, 2020, a few Chinese civilians are seen taking photographs of the area, with their vehicles parked nearby. The Chinese are using the roads built by India in its territory to trespass, said the village head.

A person close to the Chinese military told South China Morning Post that the development of about 100 houses was built within China’s territory as “part of a nationwide poverty alleviation scheme


Father Stan writes

He is 83, ill, and has spent more than 15 weeks in jail. But Father Stan Swamy’s latest letter from Mumbai’s Taloja Central Jail speaks not of his sufferings but of the plight of other undertrials and how he has been deriving inspiration from their spirit of solidarity. “But we will still sing in chorus. A caged bird can still sing,” the Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist, who completed 100 days in custody on January 16, wrote.

Father Stan, a Parkinson patient who cannot hold a glass of water steadily enough to drink from it, has taken the pains to write the letter in his own hand, the Bangalore-based Jesuit priest who has received it told The Telegraph. The priest wished to remain anonymous.


The Long Cable

A global eye on Modi government’s assault on fundamental rights is inevitable

Ravi Kanth Devarakonda

At 71, the Indian republic and its constitution appear to be facing an unprecedented crisis. The checks and balances so neatly laid out in the constitution for safeguarding fundamental rights are rapidly disappearing by the day. The descent into the abyss of authoritarian governance in the garb of democracy appears to be irreversible.

Little wonder that the United Nations human rights office remains seriously concerned about the plight of the human rights defenders and activists detained in crowded Indian prisons amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly those charged under the infamous Bhima Koregaon case. Being the multilateral organization tasked with overseeing the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPRs), it reckons that it is its responsibility to raise the flag at any member choosing to wantonly disregard its obligations for safeguarding the ICCPRs.

India is no exception. Already, the UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet had raised serious concerns in October last year. She had reminded India that it is a state party to the ICCPRs and that New Delhi must ensure that no one is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

As the human rights violations continue to multiply with each passing day in India, the UN human rights office raised its concerns on Friday again. When asked about its stand on the detention of human rights defenders, particularly those detained in the infamous Bhima Koregaon case on flimsy and baseless charges,  a spokesperson for the office called for their release, at least on bail, as they await trial. The detainees include lawyers, writers, and academics. The spokesperson made the case that “some of the detainees are old and ailing,” a reference to Stan Swamy and Varavara Rao

Globally, the Indian government is being increasingly criticised for its continued assault on fundamental civil liberties and democratic rights. Ms Bachelet had already voiced her serious concerns about human rights, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and arrests of activists in India. She urged the Narendra Modi government “to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs , and their ability to carry out their crucial work on behalf of the many groups, they represent.” She regretted “the tightening space for human rights NGOs in particular, including the application of vaguely worded laws that constrain NGOs.”

“What we have now is a wolf in sheep’s clothing” in India, says Tarunabh Khaitan, vice-dean of law at Oxford University, according to a briefing on India’s diminishing democracy in The Economist of 28 November 2020.

That was just about three months ago, when Joe Biden was declared president-elect of the United States. It is well known that India looks up to Washington for strategic support amidst the worsening geopolitical climate. Interestingly, on the day of Biden’s triumph over Donald Trump, Modi was among one of  the first to call on the new president-elect to congratulate him for his grand victory.

After discussing their shared commitment to “strengthening democracy at home and abroad,” a press release was issued by the Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi. For some inexplicable reason, the release omitted that line of shared commitment to strengthening democracy.

Perhaps, the government feels emboldened that it can brazen out any criticism from any quarter in the country or outside. But watch out, the support it had received from the man responsible for the right-wing white supremacist insurrection at the US Congress on January 6 may not be forthcoming from the current occupant of the Oval Office in Washington. 

(The author is a senior journalist based in Geneva.)


Reportedly

When Arnab Goswami, Republic TV’s owner, was arrested by the Mumbai Police last year in an abetment to suicide case, the BJP had gone all out to defend him. Union ministers and party spokespersons had lined up to attack the Maharashtra government for indulging in a witch hunt. Mr Goswami is currently embroiled in a fresh controversy over his long WhatsApp chats with the head of the Broadcast Audience Research Council revealing that he was fixing his channel’s TRPs. But, unlike the last time, no minister or BJP spokesperson has come to his rescue suggesting that the saffron party wishes to distance itself from its favourite news anchor. Maybe it has something to do with Mr Goswami flaunting his proximity to Modi government’s top bosses and how they were ready to hand down favours to him


Prime Number: 0.8 Mbps
The average mobile internet speed in Jammu and Kashmir, compared to other states of India. The second lowest is Uttar Pradesh at 9.8Mbps.

“Skin to skin”

The Bombay High Court in a puzzling Order declared that groping without ‘skin to skin contact’ does not meet the definition of sexual assault. A man had lured a 12 year old girl to his home, reportedly with a guava as bait & groped her. Bombay High Court ruled that touching her chest is not sexual assault unless he slid his hands inside her top or removed her clothes. Sexual assault under the POCSO Act involves committing assault with sexual intent and getting physical without penetration by touching the private parts of the child or making the child touch the private organs of the accused, noted the judge in the court hearing.

"The act of pressing the breast of a child aged 12 years, in the absence of any specific detail as to whether the top was removed or whether he inserted his hand inside her top and pressed her breast, would not fall under the definition of ‘sexual assault'," the single-judge bench held, adding, "it would certainly fall within the definition of section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, which penalises outraging the modesty of a woman."


Army captain destroyed evidence after killing three Kashmiri civilians

The Army captain involved in the fake encounter in Kashmir’s Shopian district last July and two other civilian accused hasn’t provided any information about the source of weapons planted on the three slain youths and had also attempted to destroy the evidence, a police chargesheet said. Captain Bhoopendra Singh had also provided wrong information to his superiors and the police about the recovery made during the staged encounter. The case relates to the July 18, 2020, encounter in Shopian’s Amshipura, in which three youths were killed and dubbed as terrorists. 


Deep Dive

Graphic and deep dive into “an Army human rights cell that dismisses most complaints, a structurally flawed court-martial process and a law that blocks accountability.” @penpencildraw illustrates the “failures of military justice in India” 


Exorbitant priestly service in South Africa

Cashing in on the fearful atmosphere prevailing in South Africa amidst a second wave and a new variant of the COVID-19 virus, some Hindu priests in the country are allegedly charging exorbitant rates for conducting funerals of coronavirus victims. The priests are under fire for charging between 1,200 rand ($79) and 2,000 rand ($131) to conduct a funeral.


Alcohol licence in UP

The Uttar Pradesh Excise department has released a new policy regarding alcohol drinking. According to the new policy, people have to now apply for a government license to keep more than the prescribed limit of alcohol inside their houses.  As per the new rules, an individual is now permitted to store 1.5 litres of each country-made and Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) liquor and four bottles of beer. If someone now keeps liquor without a license and exceeds the prescribed limit, they will be subjected to fines and legal action.   


India pays homemakers, but only if they die in a road accident

India's 160 million homemakers, like many of their counterparts in the rest of the world, clean, tidy, cook, wash up and manage family finances. They fetch food, water and firewood, and give care to children and their in-laws. They spend 297 minutes a day doing domestic work, compared to 31 minutes by men. What is not well known is that for more than half-a-century, Indian courts have actually been awarding compensation for unpaid work done by homemakers. But only after their death. India’s courts had developed a "path-breaking" legal framework concerning "robust wages for housework": judges have put a value on unpaid work of women who have died in road accidents and awarded compensation to dependants.


Op Eds you don’t want to miss


Listen up

Is Tejas really a big deal for indigenous defence production? Sushant Singh (also a contributor to The India Cable) answers this question and many more as we get ready to see the parade tomorrow, the first since 1966 without a foriegn dignitary as chief guest.


Watch Out

So much history and politics is fabricated each day. Hear this Independence Day Speech by Indira Gandhi in 1984 for a few minutes after 3.43, when she outlines why Red Fort is where the tricolour is unfurled every year on August 15 - because of what Subhas Chandra Bose had said.


Tailpiece

When the giants of Indian classical music collided with psychedelic San Francisco in May 1970, it was magic. That recording is now available as a live album, titled Bear's Sonic Journals: That Which Colors the Mind.

And then farmer Gurcharan Singh driving a tractor from Karnal to Singhu border in Delhi in reverse gear

...to convince PM Modi to go back on the farm laws


That’s it for today. Happy Republic Day in advance! 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.