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Backstory: Words that Made 2021 the Year it Was

The year's roundup from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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Words come back, each a short burst of historical time; a brief gasp of living reminiscence; a scratch on the wall of recall , reviving in an instant the year that is now ending. 

It was a year when the unexpected happened. Midway through the middle month of the year, there was pinjra tod, or a bursting-of-the-cage, moment — allowing three brave, politically conscious students, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita (founding members of feminist student circle Pinjra Tod), and Asif Iqbal Tanha, to celebrate freedom by singing outside their prison house. It came after a verdict from the Delhi High Court which had observed thatconstitutionally guaranteed right to protest” cannot be equated with “terrorist activity”.

Such a principle would have seemed obvious enough in earlier times but it could no longer be taken for granted. This was the year, after all, when the “world’s largest democracy” was internationally recognised as having declined into being just an electoral autocracy. This of course did not stop Prime Minister Modi from pronouncing with a straight face at Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy that there was the “need for democratic countries to deliver on values enshrined in their constitution”, even as his party colleague moved a bill in parliament to edit the preamble to the Indian constitution.

Yet the unexpected continued to happen.

Yet the unexpected continued to happen. In the Bhima Koregaon case (16 men and women serving their third year in prison), evidence surfaced of malware having being planted on a detainee’s computer. But this was not about real crime or real justice. It was about turning innocent citizens into alleged criminals. The process was the punishment and it drew blood. It led to the death of Stan Swamy, a man of God and of the Adivasi community, and the near death of celebrated people’s poet, Varavara Rao.  Amidst the grief and pain, a smidgeon of respite emerged in the last month of the year with Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer for the oppressed, being granted her freedom through a default bail.

Will 2022 yield more relief? Will daylight pierce through this endless night that has descended on innumerable prisoners of conscience across India? We can only wait for their return to freedom, shielding hope’s flame from the rude winds that buffet it.

Our annadattas, our providers of food, did that with steely resolve. Over innumerable langars and mahapanchayats, through protests and poetry, they finally came to harvest one of the most memorable denouements of the year after the Modi government agreed to repeal the three farm laws sprung on the country without as much as a parliamentary debate. The farmers’ peaceful resistance for 379 days at the gates of the Capital made this one of the world’s most inspiring protests.

Farmers celebrate after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the repealing of the three farm laws, at Tikri border in New Delhi, November 19, 2021. Photo: PTI

The biggest trump card they wielded was, of course, the Uttar Pradesh election. Agrarian anger threatened to upset the delicate edifice of presumed victory that the BJP has been constructing throughout 2021, based on two temples – one being chiseled into shape in Ayodhya, the other being re-jigged at the Kashi Vishwanath complex.

Together they recalled a slogan that rang out during the demolition of the Babri masjid: ‘Ayodhya to ek jhanki hai, Kashi-Mathura abhi baaki hain’. The trail of blood and smoke that followed is forgotten today, as “development” got defined as temple construction, and the 75th commemoration of the Indian national movement – Azaadi ka Amrit Mahotsav – was turned into a Hindutva tableau presided over by a prime minister playing the role of master of ceremonies, complete with all necessary costume changes.

Earlier in 2021, the BJP threw everything into winning Bengal. But Mamata didi played hardball, literally kicking a lot of footballs around from a wheelchair to drive home the message that khela hobe (“the game has started”), and she intends to demolish any prospect of BJP’s ashol paribortan (“real change”) taking root in the state. 

It was the sting of that loss and the unprecedented death spiral during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in April-May that now drives the BJP government’s determination to cover all its bases for the early 2022 polls to the states of UP, Uttarakhand, Goa, Punjab and Manipur. It included the unprecedented summoning by the PMO of the heads of the Election Commission for a briefing on election reform. What that “reform” really means is anyone’s guess.

Also read: With Varanasi Project, BJP Propels a Time-Tested Figure to Centre of UP Poll Campaign

There was, however, no getting away from the fact that the UP chief minister had badly botched up his handling of the pandemic with the Ganga turning into a hearseas Gujarati poet Parul Khakhar described it – and patients left gasping for oxygen or sickening from black fungus. Several multi-crore publicity drives had to be launched to blot out that dark memory, notably the pumping up of vaccination delivery on Yoga Day, followed by another mega celebration in October to mark the billionth dose.

But Covaxin and Covishield can only take a government so far in winning elections and ideological battles. What was required was the stepping up of doses of communally charged hate delivered both offline and online and designed to zap the hypothalamus. Majoritarian sentiments were stirred at such a mass scale in 2021 that not even a humble Muslim bangle-seller was spared the frenzy.

All through the year familiar bogeys from love-jihad to halal meat to public namaz to forced conversion threats were re-upped across the land.

Hate energised Bijay Shankar Baniya to stomp on the body of a Bengali Muslim felled by the Assam Police bullets. Hate was the fuel that powered a BJP’s minister’s son, Ashish Mishra, to mow down farmer pedestrians in Lakhimpur Kheri. The country’s Narcotics Control Board was very much in the news this year for hunting down supposed consumers of cannabis – all the better if they happened to be the likes of an Aryan Khan, son of a Muslim super star. The country-wide addiction to the narcotic of communal malevolence did not, however, attract its attention.

But the country-wide addiction to the narcotic of communal malevolence did not attract its attention.

Healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) stand outside a donning area at a COVID-19 care facility, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India, May 4, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Niharika Kulkarni

The one thing the Sangh Parivar’s freelance censors, vigilantes and trollers detest is a mirror being held to them. The moment stand-up comedian Vir Das critiqued his schizophrenic country in a skit titled ‘Two Indias’, the cry went out that he was a “terrorist” and should be “immediately arrested”. Stand up comic Munawar Farooqui, in fact, actually did get locked in a Madhya Pradesh prison for five weeks for jokes he didn’t make. The year 2021 was truly a period when, as Kunal Kamra put it in his reply to contempt charges in Supreme Court, taking offence has been elevated to a much loved national indoor sport

With all their power and pelf, the Raisina Hill rajahs emerged an insecure lot in 2021, going by the way they tried to silence the media and pin down online news platforms through the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code that was sold as an oversight mechanism with a soft touch.

In July, in flew a winged horse that revealed the full extent of their paranoia. An investigation – 2021 Project Pegasus –  involving 15 news organisations from across the world, including The Wire, revealed how sophisticated spyware manufactured by the Israeli company NSO Group Technologies allowed for the secret capture of mobile phone data for purposes of surveillance. The Indian government was a prominent NSO client and had used the technology to spy on Persons of Interest ranging from judges and journalists to andolanjeevis, or those who make a profession out of protest – another striking prime ministerial formulation that came to us this year. It was National Security Advisor Ajit Doval who inadvertently provided perspective on such illegal spying when he pronounced a few months later that “The new frontiers of war, what you call the fourth generation warfare, is civil society”.  It’s simple: war demands that we willingly cede our rights, including that of privacy, to national interest. 

Also read: With ED, CBI Ordinance, Centre Ups Its Game for ‘Fourth Gen Warfare’ Within Civil Society

This year’s runaway hit series, Squid Game, had an important clue as to how we are expected to behave. If you play the game by the rules set by forces that control you, rich rewards await you in the final round. Or else be prepared for elimination in a flash. Talking of Squid Game, what was far more interesting were the Squad Games played by the Board of Control for Cricket, the country’s richest sports body now in the custody of Secretary Jay Shah who is himself possibly in the custody of daddy and favoured industrialists Someone somewhere in the Board’s backroom had decided to unceremoniously eject Virat Kohli from the captaincy of the ODI Team but who? No questions please, just play the game.

But 2021 was not all gloom and doom, despite the worrying emergence of the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. For starters, Republic TV tripped over its fabricated TRPs (television rating points). Priya Ramani emerged vindicated in the defamation case brought against her by M.J. Akbar, a victory she dedicated to “all the women who have spoken up against sexual harassment at work“; and India’s treasure – historian Romila Thapar – who has never failed to speak up against the fakeries now being peddled as historical truths, turned 90. 

If ever we need a toolkit to negotiate the times the word that got young climate activist, Disha Ravi booked on sedition charges – perhaps Ho Chi Minh’s observation from another era may help: “Remember the storm is a good opportunity for the pine and cypress to show their strength.”

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2021 was a deadly year for Indian journalists

An international report on assaults on mediapersons has made visible the growing threat to journalism across the world. According to the findings of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), while China has become the “biggest captor” of journalists with at least 127 people presently under detention, India has been found to be the “deadliest”. The reason for this assessment is not far to seek. In 2021, five journalists were killed, which is the highest number the world over and India has not seen so many of this kind since 2018.

All five of those killed were local correspondents, four out of five worked for TV channels and all the killings but one were motivated by their critical reporting. Danish Siddique was also killed this year but didn’t figure in the list presumably because he died in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban.

The year that is ending also saw seven Indian journalists in prison, which interestingly is the highest number of incarcerated Indian media persons since 1992, when CPJ began tracking arrests. Five of the seven have been booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Four out of them have been in jail for over a year – with one, Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, clocking over three years. 

Also read: Record High Number of Journalists Behind Bars or Killed This Year: Report

Annihilating Assange, bit by bit

This has long been a fierce battle between those who want to prise open the black box of Big Power impunity and those who perpetrate the most heinous crimes against humanity in the name of democracy and national interest. It is also a battle for journalistic freedom. 

The world first came across the doughty Assange when he published a series of leaks from Chelsea Manning, an analyst who had served in the US Army. Thanks to these documents we learnt the filthy secrets of the US military.

The first big catch was a 238-page manual of the US Army which showed that its standard operating procedures included self-isolating new prisoners for two weeks to soften them up before interrogation began. Later, 250,000 US diplomatic cables yielded their secrets (from December 1966 to February 2010), which proved that the US had carried out secret drone attacks in Yemen, among other brutalities.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen as he leaves a police station in London, Britain April 11, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Peter Nicholls

Assange spent seven years holed up in the Ecuador Embassy, London, to escape the wrath of the Americans. Expelled from there in 2019, he has been fighting extradition to the US. The months since have seen him locked up in UK’s high security Belmarsh jail in solitary confinement. Meanwhile, the US recently won its appeal in a UK court against an earlier court verdict that had disallowed his extradition given his vulnerable health status.

As Caitlin Johnstone, who calls herself a “rogue journalist”, put it in her recent newsletter, the “US-centralized power alliance” was murdering a journalist, as surely as the Saudi regime murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The only difference is that Khashoggi was killed quickly by live dismemberment via bone saw while Assange is being killed slowly by lawfare. John Pilger assessed just what is at stake in this case: it constitutes “a courageous man’s life and, if we remain silent, the conquest of our intellects and sense of right and wrong: indeed our very humanity.”

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Misinterpreting Nehru’s foreign policy

Ranjit Barot critiques interpretations of Nehru’s foreign policy:

“Seems writing on Nehru and his China policy is a sure way to make money selling books and earn some recognition. The trouble is that the Nehru-China subject is vast, and the reliable material out there so wide, no one takes the trouble to read all of it.  Since no one presently living was around back then, or people like me were teenagers, there is a need to go through plenty of material before arriving at a sensible vantage point to judge Nehru. I aborted the interview with former foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, less than half way because it appeared she was just talking for the sake of talking (‘Nehru No Strategist, Was Primarily to Blame for 1962 Debacle, But Not Entirely: Nirupama Rao’, November 18). Recently Vijay Keshav Gokhale, former foreign secretary and ambassador to China too did the same. 

“I am not a professional historian but I have made it a point to study the Nehru-China and Nehru-Kashmir-UN issues thoroughly. In 1949, Nehru asked General Cariappa to assess India’s military strength to take on China on the Tibet issue. Nehru was flatly advised that India was not capable. This particular letter is mentioned in Bharat Karnad’s book, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security. Ms. Rao made a big issue of boundary maps. What she does not know is that Nehru during his 1954 China visit brought up this concern and told Zhou Enlai that Indian lines were shown on the Chinese side. Zhou promised to correct them.  Upon his return from China, Nehru turned in a 14-point note on the visit and there is mention of the map issue. 

Nehru started planning India’s military since 1946. He hired Kurt Tank, an unemployed German aeronautics engineer after WWII, to design India’s first fighter aircraft, Maruth -24. He even retained Lord Patrick Blackett, a British scientist and military strategist, to advise India on military affairs. These and other points ought to be taken into account along with the fact India was dirt poor, had to fight communist insurgency, and had an understanding with US and UK to defend itself against China. However, China through its non-timely intervention was able to come deep into India, and finally it was the threat of US intervention that forced it to go back.  

Having said this, I must admit that the interviewer did “cross examine” Ms Rao vigorously and with very factual points  but a lot more material needs to be read and internalised to counter the likes of Ms Rao and Mr Gokhale.

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What exactly, Alphons?

We had a wry comment come in from Vinod Dhall in response to BJP MP K.J. Alphons, seeking to make changes to the Preamble to the Indian Constitution:

“Your bid to amend the Preamble was hopefully driven by a desire to draw attention to, and debate on, its spirit and the realisation of this spirit. This is certainly a task that members of parliament are required to do.”

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Sustainability is key

Idumban Ravindranathan, a retired professor based out of Chennai, Tamil Nadu:

“We need to uphold the values of sustainability all over the world especially in India at the governmental level, at the non-governmental level, in organizations, whether private, public, and not-for-profit organisations. Basically, sustainability aims to achieve triple bottom, which is an accountability framework with three parts: social, environmental and financial. 

“Today we are in a critical state with regard to increase in our carbon footprint due to disruption of the stability climate due to green house gases because of the excessive use of fossil fuels. If organisations and countries neglect sustainability, our carbon foot print will keep rising beyond repair. Could I, therefore, request The Wire to add ‘Sustainability’ as a new category and invite views and solutions from society at large?”

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Online exams, please

Students of Pune Institute of Computer Technology (PICT), Pune, have a problem with their institution:

“Our institute is keen on conducting offline practical examination for students, which has been found inconvenient as far as we are concerned. Here are a few reasons why:

1. COVID-19 safety protocols: We are pretty sure that our college will strive to maintain top notch hygiene conditions and all the necessary safety measures for the best off all students and teachers, but the commute to college has some added risks that unfortunately include the consideration of the new variant: Omicron. 2. Online teaching: The mode of teaching has been online so far and it has been challenging, to say the least. So it’s only fair for students to be allowed to appear for online exams this semester and start afresh in the upcoming one.

2. It has been observed that double vaccinated citizens are also not safe from Covid-19 and have to be treated in hospitals. We are therefore of the opinion that it is not safe under any conditions to be interacting with so many people all at the same place. Savitribai Phule Pune University has allowed online conduct of its exams, and other colleges in Pune have also started this process, but apparently the PICT administration does not intend to choose the online mode, and is also ignoring the requests of over 600 students who have collectively asked for it.”

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I will be on vacation for a few weeks and will be back in February. Here’s wishing the readers of The Wire, a Happy 2022!