Asia in Review Archive 2021 (July-December)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

31 August 2021

India, Maldives sign pact on Greater Male Connectivity Project

(lm) India and the Maldives on August 26 signed a contract on the Greater Male Connectivity project (GMCP), a major infrastructure project centered around the construction of a 6.7-kilometers-long bridge and causeway network connecting the island state’s capital Malé with the neighboring islands of Villingli, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi. [Hindustan Times] [The Economic Times]

The mega project is an outcome of bilateral consultations both countries since India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visit to Malé in September 2019. Funded by an Indian grant of $100 million, with a Line of Credit of $400 million, it constitutes the biggest development project by India in its neighborhood in recent years. [The Indian Express]

This project is significant because it facilitates inter-island connectivity between the country’s four major islands, where 50 percent of the Maldivian population live. Already, the China-funded Sinamalé Bridge links Malé with the islands of Hulhulé and Hulhumalé.

31 August 2021

US INDOPACOM commander holds talks with India’s top military brass

(lm) The Commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), Admiral John Aquilino, last week held extensive talks with high-ranking Indian officials, including External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Secretary Dr. Ajay Kumar.

During his working visit – which came just days ahead of the 25th edition of the Exercise MALABAR – Aquilino also met with the heads of the three uniformed services of the Indian Armed Forces, with a focus on further strengthening the bilateral defense partnership between the two countries. [The Economic Times]

Together with General Bipin Rawat – the Chief of Defence Staff of the Indian Armed Forces – the United States admiral on August 25 then participated in a discussion on the US-India partnership organized by the Observer Research Foundation.

When asked to comment on China’s rapid military build-up, including in the maritime domain, General Rawat said the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was expanding exponentially and suggested that Beijing could deploy their aircraft carriers beyond the Pacific and the South China Sea. [Swarajya]

31 August 2021

India participates in BRICS meeting on national security, raises issue of ‘cross-border terrorism’

(lm) The National Security Advisors (NSAs) of the five major emerging economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) – met virtually on August 24 to review the regional and global security landscape with particular reference to current developments in Afghanistan, Iran, West Asia and the Gulf, as well as emerging threats to national security, such as cyber security. [NDTV]

The representatives adopted and recommended the BRICS Counter-Terrorism Action Plan for consideration by the 13th BRICS Summit, which will be held under India’s chairmanship later this year. The action plan aims to further strengthen existing mechanisms of cooperation in areas such as financing and combating terrorism, misuse of the internet by terrorists, curbing the travel of terrorists, border controls, protection of soft targets, information sharing, capacity building, and regional and international cooperation. [The Hindu]

The chair of the meeting, India’s NSA Ajit Doval, raised the issue of cross-border terrorism and activities of groups such as Pakistan-based groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-i-Mohammed, which have been linked to violence in the Indian-administered part of Jammu and Kashmir. In a thinly veiled reference to Pakistan, Doval said these groups would “enjoy state support” and threaten peace and security.

31 August 2021

Will begin delivery of S-400 missile system to India by year end, Russian firms says

(lm) Russian state-owned defense contractor Almaz-Antey confirmed last week that it would begin delivering the first regiment of its S-400 surface-to-air missile system to India by the end of this year. [Hindustan Times]

India placed a $5.3 billion order for five units of the S-400 in 2018 and paid the first tranche of $800 million a year later. More than 100 personnel from the Indian Air Force have already completed their training in Russia, while a second group is currently undergoing training, according to the Russian contractor. [NewsonAIR]

In November of last year, the United States imposed sanctions on Turkey for Ankara’s purchase of the air defense system from Russia under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The US federal law is meant to dissuade countries from procuring Russian military equipment and financially undermine one of Moscow’s major revenue sources. [AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5].

Ever since India signed the S-400 deal, the advent of CAATSA has surfaced sporadically, but with little definitiveness that has resulted in keeping New Delhi off-balance and wary. In January, for example, Washington’s then-outgoing ambassador to India assured that sanctions under CAATSA were never designed to harm “friends and allies” of the United States. The diplomat, however, also cautioned that New Delhi might soon have to choose between “trade-offs”, namely between inter-operability and diversification of sources of procurement. [AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]

In related developments, the Indian Air Force also recently finalized a deal for immediate “off-the-shelf procurement” of 70,000 AK-103 assault rifles from Russia to replace its existing inventory of Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) rifles.

Sources also say that work is also underway to begin the indigenous production of AK-203 rifles by Indo-Russia Rifles (IRPL), a joint ventured that resulted from both countries signing an Inter-Governmental Agreement in 2019. India’s Ordnance Factory Board holds a 50.5 percent stake in the company, while the Kalashnikov Concern, and Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state agency for military exports, own the remaining stake. [The Times of India]

Besides procuring the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, and a host of emergency procurement, India has also leased another nuclear-powered attack submarine— dubbed Chakra III — in a $3 billion contract in 2019. In sum, the two countries have signed defense deals worth $15 billion in the last three years, a high-ranking official of Russia’s military-industrial behemoth, Rostec, said last week. [The Hindu]

Yet, India’s arm imports have decreased by a whopping 33 percent in the second half of the decade, as New Delhi attempts to reduce dependence on Russia. For arms exports by Moscow, which accounted for 20 percent of all exports of major arms between 2016 and 2020, dropped by 22 percent [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].

For a comment on the future of India-Russian defense ties, please see [The Print].

31 August 2021

Russia seeks to assure India of partnership as Moscow, Beijing align positions on Afghanistan

(lm) Against the larger backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 24 held a phone conversation, with both sides agreeing to set up a joint team of foreign affairs and national security officials for bilateral consultations. [Reuters]

For Russia, the Taliban’s return to power has opened a path to increase its influence in South and Central Asia. Despite naming the Taliban a terrorist group, Moscow appears willing to engage with the militants if it can prevent Islamist extremism from spilling over the borders into central Asian allies such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. [AiR No. 33, August/2021, 3]

India, by contrast, has so far kept its distance from the Taliban, given its proximity to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, although there have been unconfirmed reports of backchannel talks taking place in June [see AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3]. This reluctance has left New Delhi with little leverage in the emerging situation, and is believed to be the reason why it was again left out when Russia earlier this month convened an “extended troika” meeting in Doha with the United States, China and Pakistan to discuss the future of Afghanistan. [South China Morning Post]

India and Russia define their ties as a “strong strategic partnership”, and earlier in April agreed to establish a two-plus-two meeting between the two nations’ foreign and defense ministers to further deepen bilateral ties [see AiR No. 18, May/2021, 1]. In addition, both countries are expecting to conclude a Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics Agreement (RELOS), which will simplify interoperability and enable support to military platforms like warships and aircraft, as well as a Navy-to-Navy cooperation Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) when Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visits India later this year. [The Hindu]

But New Delhi’s concerns about Moscow’s commitment to their partnership were recently shaken when Russia earlier this month took part in a major joint military exercise with Beijing in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region [see AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]. Shortly thereafter, three of China’s most advanced military aircraft made their debut at the Russian-run International Army Games [see AiR No. 33, August/2021, 3].

31 August 2021

Taliban takeover a ‘challenge’ for India, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh says

(lm) Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on August 29 called Taliban’s return to power a “challenge” for India that had forced the South Asian giant to shift its strategic priorities. In remarks delivered at the Defence Services Staff College, the minister highlighted the formation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), as underlying this shift in India’s strategy. [India Today]

Timing and context of the remarks assume added significance, coming as they do less than a month after Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his US counterpart Antony Blinken jointly reiterated a commitment to flesh out the Quad, a nascent strategic coalition that is increasingly seen as a Washington-led effort to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific [see AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]. They also come hot on the heels of the four member countries of the Quad – India, the United States, Japan and Australia – concluding a large joint naval exercise off the coast of Guam. [see entry in this edition]

Further, Singh said his ministry was seriously considering the formation of Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs), self-sufficient combat formations with the elements of every of the three branches of the Indian Armed Forces combined as per the terrain and operational requirements. [Hindustan Times]

The sudden collapse of the Western-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban’s accompanying return to power has erased India’s presence in Afghanistan: its consulates and embassies have shut, its diplomats were evacuated and the future of more than $3 billion invested in development projects is uncertain.

Moreover, Indian intelligence agencies in recent months identified the renewed threat of the Taliban, reportedly flagging its cooperation with Pakistan-based groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-i-Mohammed, which have been linked to violence in the Indian-administered part of Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi’ National Security Advisor raised the issue of cross-border terrorism in a virtual encounter with his counterparts from Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa (BRICS) last week. [National Public Radio] [see entry in this edition]

Additionally, the possibility of China moving into Afghanistan to fill the vacuum left by the United States has further alarmed India, even though Beijing has its own interests in ensuring stability: In particular, Chinese policymakers believe that Afghanistan, which shares a border with China, could be used as a staging point for minority Uyghur separatists in the sensitive border region of its Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Beijing also fears that instability in Afghanistan could spill over into Pakistan and Central Asia, destabilizing countries on China’s periphery and putting its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at risk [see AiR No. 33, August/2021, 3].

From New Delhi’s perspective, ties between Beijing and the Taliban, along with Pakistan’s increased influence in Afghanistan, add up to an expanded Chinese presence in the region: Afghanistan became a formal member of the BRI in 2016 and China remains committed to the BRI’s signature undertaking, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). [South China Morning Post]

By contrast, the Indian government has so far been mostly reluctant to engage with the Taliban, given the insurgent group’s proximity to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, although there have been unconfirmed reports of backchannel talks taking place in June [see AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3]. This reluctance has cost New Delhi – which in late July still did not buy into the narrative of Kabul’s impending fall and the Taliban’s immanent return to power – a role in the reconciliation process, and ultimately left it with little leverage in the emerging state of affairs. [AiR No. 30, July/2021, 4]

Compelled to adapt to changing dynamics on its western front – encompassing Pakistan and Afghanistan – New Delhi may need to further de-escalate its ongoing border stand-off with China in its northeast. Prior to the fall of Kabul, New Delhi in July redirected at least 50,000 additional troops to three distinct areas along the Line of Actual Control, in a historic shift toward an offensive military posture against Beijing [see AiR No. 27, July/2021, 1].

Forced to grapple with renewed security threats from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, New Delhi may also reassess its relationship with the United States, which has been reinforced until now by shared efforts to counter China’s influence. Sanjaya Baru, a policy analyst and media advisor to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, wrote in the Deccan Chronicle that Washington had not given due consideration to India’s concerns and thereby had “dealt a blow to Indian national security and to the India-US partnership”. [Deccan Chronicle]

It comes as no surprise that just hours before Singh’s presentation, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar spoke to his US counterpart Antony Blinken about the latest developments and continued coordination in Afghanistan in a phone conversation. [The Times of India]

31 August 2021

Quad members conclude 25th edition of Malabar maritime exercises

(lm) India, the United States, Japan and Australia last week conducted a large joint naval exercise – Exercise Malabar – off the coast of Guam, seen as part of efforts to balance China’s vast military and economic power in the region.

For the second year in succession, the trilateral naval exercise involving the United States, Japan and India had been expanded to include Australia to include all members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), an informal group of the four largest democracies in the Indo-Pacific. [Nikkei Asia] [The Diplomat]

Canberra’s participation last year – following 13 years of absence – was considered by many a clear sign of the increasing strategic convergence of the four countries in the face of Beijing’s assertiveness in Asia [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4].

The four-day joint maneuver, held between August 26 and 29, featured “complex surface, subsurface and air operations including live weapon firing drills, anti-surface, anti-air and anti-submarine warfare drills, and joint manoeuvres and tactical exercises”, an Indian Navy spokesman told The Hindu. [South China Morning Post]

For a Chinese perspective on the Malabar exercises, see the editorial piece in [Global Times] which assumes that “[m]ost probably the four countries have no bravery to head into a showdown with China, nor are they prepared to do so. They conduct joint military exercises not because they believe there will be an imminent marine conflict with China, but because they want to show off their “unity” and comfort themselves by displaying their strength to China.”

31 August 2021

India: Top commander and deputy of militant group killed in India-administered Kashmir

(lm) Indian security forces last week killed two senior rebel commanders and three other three other militants in two separate counterinsurgency operations in Indian-administered Kashmir.

On August 23, a team of counterinsurgency police fatally shot the chief of The Resistance Front and his deputy in the region’s main city of Srinagar. Police say the group is an offshoot of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is accused by India and the United States of plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left at least 174 people dead and more than 300 wounded. The same day, police and soldiers raided a village in the northwestern Sopore area and engaged at least three militants hiding in a house in a gun battle, which ended the following day. [CNN] [Associated Press]

The killings come during an intensified government offensive against anti-India rebels in the territory. Rebels have also killed several members of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the region and carried out attacks on Indian troops.

31 August 2021

India: Woman who accused lawmaker of rape dies in self-immolation

(lm) The death of an Indian woman, who had set herself on fire after alleging harassment by police and judiciary at the behest of an MP she had accused of rape, has once again put the spotlight on a pattern of women facing harassment when they report cases to law enforcement.

The 24-year-old woman had accused Atul Rai, an MP from the regional Bahujan Samaj Party, of raping her at his home in the state of Uttar Pradesh and registered a police complaint against him in May 2019. The lawmaker, who denies the accusation, was arrested a month later and has been in jail for the past two years. The rape case is pending before a local court in Prayagraj.

In November of last year, however, the MP’s brother registered a police complaint accusing the woman of forgery and leading to a court issuing a non-bailable arrest warrant against her earlier this month. The woman called the accusation “false” and said that ever since she has been harassed by police officials and even a judge, who she has alleged are colluding with the MP. [BBC] [The Telegraph, $]

On August 16, then she and a friend set themselves on fire outside the Supreme Court in New Delhi. They were taken to hospital with severe burns. The man died on August 21; the woman succumbed three days later. [The Indian Express]

Earlier this month, hundreds of people have protested in New Delhi for several days straight, as outrage built over the alleged gang rape, murder and forced cremation of a nine-year-old girl from one of India’s most oppressed castes. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]

Rape and sexual harassment of women have been in the spotlight in India since December 2012 when a woman was gang-raped by six men on a bus in the capital. She died a few days later from her injuries, triggering global condemnation.

But despite the increased scrutiny, there not been a significant decline in sexual crimes against women. In 2018, police recorded 33,977 cases of rape in India – an average of a rape every 15 minutes. Campaigners say the actual numbers are much higher as many cases go unreported.

31 August 2021

India: Nine new judges to be appointed to Supreme Court, including three women

(lm) President Ram Nath Kovind on August 26 notified the appointment of nine judges to the Supreme Court of India. With these nine appointments, the working strength of the apex court will rise to 33 judges, with one vacancy remaining. [Live Law]

The government’s approval came a week after the 5-member Supreme Court collegium had sent its recommendations, ending a nearly two-year-long impasse. The list includes three women, one of which –Justice B V Nagarathna – is in line to become the first woman Chief Justice of India (CJI) in September 2027. However, her tenure as the CJI will be for only 36 days, if appointments go as per the seniority turn.

The most vociferous of the collegium members was former Supreme Court Judge Rohinton Nariman, who stoutly opposed the elevation of eight of the nine candidates. Justice Nariman, then the second most senior judge at India’s Supreme Court, retired on August 12 [see AiR No. 33, August/2021, 3]. [The Free Press Journal]

The Supreme Court collegium will also have to look into appointments of chief justices to at least four high courts: Karnataka, Gujarat, Telangana and Sikkim. Apart from these high courts, where the respective chief justices have been elevated to the Supreme Court, four other high courts — Allahabad, Calcutta, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh — currently have acting chief justices. [The Indian Express]

31 August 2021

India to raise $81 billion by leasing out state-owned infrastructure assets over next four years

(lm) India plans to raise $81 billion by leasing out state-owned infrastructure assets to the private sector over the next four years under a program announced earlier in the 2021/2022 budget in a bid to repair public finances battered by the pandemic and fund new capital expenditure.

The proposal involves handing already built assets including roads, railways, airports, sports stadiums, power transmission lines and gas pipelines to private operators on a long-term lease, according to a National Monetisation Pipeline document unveiled by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in New Delhi on August 23. [Reuters]

The monetization plan – originally announced by Sitharaman in her annual budget speech in February – is in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strategic divestment policy, under which the government will retain presence in only a few identified areas with the rest tapping the private sector. The program is key to narrowing the nation’s budget deficit, which is pegged at 6.8 percent of the gross domestic product in the financial year that began April 1. [South China Morning Post]

31 August 2021

Indian Army, BSF discuss issues defending national borders at ‘Synergy Conference’

(lm) Against the larger backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, senior officers of the Army’s Western Command, the Border Security Force (BSF)’s Western Command Headquarters in Mohali, as well as Punjab and Jammu Frontiers held a Synergy Conference in the city of Chandimandir on August 25.

The agenda included discussions on issues of convergence to further enhance operational efficiency between the Indian Army and BSF. Common issues of training and equipment profile of BSF and challenges of border management were deliberated upon. [The Times of India]

31 August 2021

India: External affairs minister briefs opposition on ‘critical’ Afghanistan situation

(lm) At an all-party meeting on the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, the government on August 26 stated that evacuating Indian personnel from the country was its “top priority” as the situation remains “critical” since the Taliban retook Kabul earlier this month. [The Indian Express]

During the meeting, which was attended by 37 leaders from 31 political parties, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar noted that the Taliban had broken the promises made in the February 2020 Doha agreement with the United States, which “envisaged religious freedom and democracy, with a government in Kabul that represented all sections of Afghan society.”

Cabinet member and Leader of the House in Rajya Sabha Piyush Goyal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi were also present at the meeting.

The sudden collapse of Afghanistan’s civilian government on August 15 precipitated an unprecedented exodus of diplomats, foreign aid workers and Afghans who worked for Western countries and feared reprisals from the Taliban. India, which was among the nations that closed their missions in Afghanistan, under the ongoing Operation Devi Shakti, has already evacuated more than 800 people from Afghanistan after the fall of the capital city.

31 August 2021

India: Talks on theatre commands making progress, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh says

(lm) India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on August 29 said discussions on the creation of joint commands and their implementation were progressing well and fast, indicating that differences between stakeholders on the theaterisation model are being addressed.

India, which currently has a service-specific commands system, is in the process of carrying out the biggest military reforms in decades: theaterisation. The plan is to have four to five unified commands – instead of the current 17 single-service commands – to develop an integrated joint operations capability. Ultimately, the creation of theater commands will also promote greater familiarity between the services and provide for a rapid transition from peacetime to wartime operations. [The Hindustan Times]

Neighboring China – which Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat in July identified as India’s “primary threat” [see AiR No. 27, July/2021, 1] – has a theatre command system, and its Western Command is the one which India faces on its northern border.

However, the process, which is being led by General Rawat, has expectantly not been a smooth one, with the Indian Air Force opposing the formation of unified theatre commands citing limitation of resources. At present, the only fully functional unified command is the Andaman and Nicobar Command set up in 2001 while the Strategic Forces Command, set up in 2003, is an integrated functional command.

Thus, the government in June formed an eight-member panel under Rawat to fine-tune the theaterisation process and bring all stakeholders on board for speedy roll-out of new joint structures.

Several veteran officers, including former service chiefs and army commanders, have published op-eds on this matter, calling for a theatre commands model tailored to the Indian conditions. Indian-administered Kashmir, for example, may be considered as an independent theatre, for the territory – which is bordered to the north and east by China, to the northwest by Afghanistan, and to the west by Pakistan – features prominently in concerns over a multi-front military threat.  [The Economic Times] [The Statesman]

Against the larger backdrop of the impending creation of integrated theatre commands, the Ministry of Defence is also currently considering a proposal that seeks to establish “a more progressive, common and merit-based” policy for the promotion of officers to three-star ranks in general, and commanders-in-chief of the three military Services, in particular. A tri-Service committee comprising the Vice Chiefs of the three Services is being formed to study the proposal. [The Citizen]

Many articles have appeared on this issue; some recommending completely merit-based criteria for selection and others seeking a balance between seniority and merit. [The Times of India] [ThePrint]

31 August 2021

India, Kazakhstan hold 13-day military exercise

(lm) Indian and Kazakhstan forces on August 30 launched a joint 13-day exercise, KAZIND-21, with a focus on counter-terror operations in mountainous terrain and rural scenarios. The exercise is being conducted at a Kazakh training node in Aisha Bibi and will run until September 11. 90 personnel from the Indian Army are participating in the joint exercise; the Kazakhstan Army is being represented by a company group. [Hindustan Times] [The Economic Times]

31 August 2021

Sri Lanka receives 140 tons of medial oxygen from India

(egm/lm) India on August 22 delivered 140 tons of medical oxygen to Sri Lanka following Colombo’s request for international assistance amidst the rising COVID-19 cases. The supply arrived in two shipments transported by the Indian Navy Ship (INS) Shakti and Sri Lanka’s Naval Ship (SLNS) Shakthi. [South Asia Monitor]

According to a statement by the Indian High Commission, Sri Lanka has been receiving help from India to curb the strain of the pandemic through the donation of medical supplies in 2020, a currency swap of $400 million in July of the same year and via the distribution of vaccines earlier in January 2021. [The Hindu]

24 August 2021

Vietnam’s first consular office in India opens in Bengaluru

Vietnam opened the first consular office in India in Bengaluru and appointed NS Srinivas Murthy as Honorary Consul of Vietnam in Karnataka. India is Vietnam’s 26th investment partner, while the two countries are aiming to extend their partnership. According to Phan Sanh Chau, Vietnam’s Ambassador in India, the consulate was established to strengthen investment relations between the two countries. The ambassador also mentioned pharmaceuticals, manufacturing of automobile parts and information technology as some of the sectors in which Bengaluru and Vietnam could collaborate. Meanwhile, NS Srinivas Murthy said the ambassador met Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai along with an 18-member delegation to discuss economic and industrial cooperation. Vietnam is already India’s fourth-largest trading partner in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Also addressed during the conference was a proposal for a sister city arrangement between Bengaluru and Danang, Vietnam’s third-largest city. [The New Indian Express] [Deccan Herald]

24 August 2021

India and Vietnam to conduct naval exercise in the South China Sea

(ct) On August 18, India and Vietnam carried out bilateral maritime exercise in the South China Sea. Accordingly, the VPNS Ly Thai To missile corvette of the Vietnamese navy and INS Ranvijay and INS Kora of the Indian navy carried out joint drills in the South China Sea with formation content and communications under the Western Pacific Navy’s Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). The exercises included surface warfare exercises, weapon firing drills and helicopter operations. According to the Indian Ministry of Defense‘s statement,

 frequent interactions between the navies of Vietnam and India over the years have enhanced the interoperability and adaptability of the two countries’ forces. [India Today

Both Vietnam and India are wary of China’s aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific. In a webinar between the defence ministries of the two countries in April, New Delhi offered to assist Vietnam in the construction and maintenance of warships, building upon its earlier assurance of further assisting the country in modernizing and training its armed force. Also, India is in advanced talks with Vietnam to sell Brahmos hypersonic missiles and Akash surface-to-air missile defence systems. But its export remains undecided since selling Brahmos missiles to Pacific countries can be seen as a challenge to China.  [The Times of India] [The Times of India 2] [The Wire] [Naval Post]

24 August 2021

India: In case that riveted country, opposition politician cleared of charges in wife’s death

(lm) An Indian court on August 18 cleared influential lawmaker and former UN diplomat Shashi Tharoor of all charges in connection with the death of his wife, in a case long criticized by the opposition Indian National Congress (INC) as politically motivated.

Tharoor was charged with cruelty and abetment to suicide in 2018, four years after his spouse, Sunanda Pushkar, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. [BBC]

A court in Delhi last week exonerated Tharoor of all charges citing lack of evidence, after a lawyer for the lawmaker had argued that Pushkar’s cause of death had still not been clearly established, undermining the abetment to suicide charge. [The Indian Express]

Supporters of Tharoor, who had been widely seen as prime minister material, said the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was threatened by him and was trying to ruin his reputation. In fact, among those pressuring the police to bring charges against the INC lawmaker was Subramanian Swamy, a member of Parliament’s upper house from the BJP, who insisted that Pushkar had been poisoned. [The New York Times, $]

The BJP politician expressed dissatisfaction with the court ruling on August 18, saying in an interview that he would offer his assistance again if it were appealed. [The Hindu BusinessLine]


17 August 2021

India, Nepal hold 9th round of joint Oversight Mechanism meeting

(lm) The Ninth Meeting of Nepal-India Oversight Mechanism was held in Kathmandu on August 16 under the co-chairmanship of Nepal’s foreign secretary and India’s ambassador to Nepal. The meeting reviewed the progress of the projects being implemented under bilateral economic and development cooperation. [Government of Nepal]

The Mechanism was set up in September 2016 to oversee the implementation of bilateral projects and take necessary steps for their completion in time. At the time, several areas of mutual interest were identified ranging from hydropower, rail and road connectivity, petroleum products pipeline, to multipurpose projects and agriculture.

17 August 2021

Indo-Pacific forces from 21 partner nations kick off SEACAT

(lm) Maritime forces from Indo-Pacific partner nations on August 10 began the 20th iteration of the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) naval exercise in Singapore and virtually. [Al Jazeera] [NavyTimes]

Signifying the largest iteration to date, this year’s exercise involves ten ships and more than 400 personnel. 21 nations participate, including Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Canada, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste, United Kingdom, United States, and Vietnam.

This year’s also presents a new element by incorporating international organizations and nongovernmental organizations, whose objective is to create an even more realistic scenario to “enhance understanding and adherence to accepted rules, laws, and norms,” the US Navy said in a statement. Participants include United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), EU Critical Maritime Route Wider Indian Ocean (CRIMARIO), and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). [Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet]

The SEACAT exercises commenced just a day after more than 10,000 troops from China and Russia began a major exercise, West-Interaction 2021, in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]

Last year, the event was conducted as part of a virtual symposium amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

17 August 2021

India’s maritime diplomacy in full swing, as Navy participates in number of exercises with Gulf countries

(lm) In a sign of growing defense ties between the two countries, the Navies of India and Saudi Arabia started their first-ever joint exercise – Al-Mohed Al-Hindi 2021 – on August 9, which comprised several shore and sea-based exercises.

Prior to the exercise, the INS Kochi – a flagship destroyer for the Indian Western Naval Fleet –arrived in Saudi Arabia on August 7 after carrying out a similar naval exercise with the UAE Navy off the coast of Abu Dhabi. [Arab News] [The Indian Express]

On August 12, INS Shivalik, a multirole stealth frigate, and anti-submarine warfare corvette INS Kadmatt conducted a Passage Exercise (PASSEX) with the Royal Brunei Navy. The two ships had arrived in Muara on August 9. [Royal Brunei Navy]

Two days thereafter, the Indian Navy and Qatar Emiri Naval Force concluded the second edition of their joint naval exercise “Zair-Al-Bahr”, which comprised of a three-day harbor phase followed by a two-day sea phase. [India Today]

17 August 2021

Sri Lanka, India, Maldives to cooperate on maritime safety and security

(lm) As strategic rivalries in the Indian Ocean Region continue to intensify, a multilateral grouping comprising of India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives last week hold a virtual gathering that brought together the top security officials of the three countries. [South China Morning Post]

The Colombo Security Conclave on August 4 hosted its second meeting in eight months, during which the neighbors emphasized “four pillars” of cooperation, including maritime security, counterterrorism, human trafficking and cybersecurity. [The Hindu]

The Deputy National Security Adviser-level meeting was hosted online by Sri Lanka, and chaired by General Shavendra Silva, the Acting Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Sri Lankan Army. The Indian deputy National Security Adviser and his Maldivian counterpart participated.

The group was formed in 2011 and revived in November last year after a six-year hiatus. It is now poised to expand its full-time membership to Bangladesh, Seychelles and Mauritius, which currently hold observer status.

The virtual gathering came nine months after India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval concluded a three-day visit to Sri Lanka – his second visit to the country in 2020. Besides meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Doval also participated in the 4th National Security Adviser-level meeting of the Maritime Security Cooperation, a trilateral forum with defense ministers from the Maldives and Sri Lanka, with officials from Mauritius and Seychelles attending virtually. [AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]

Earlier this year then, the navies of the three countries participated in the virtual trilateral tabletop exercise “TTX-2021”, which New Delhi said was symbolic of “the deep trilateral engagement” in the maritime domain between members of the trilateral.

17 August 2021

Afghan government sought air support from India, report says

(lm) A week before the Taliban fighters entered Kabul on August 15, the Afghan government sought “robust air support” from India to help push back the advancing insurgents, The Print has reported, citing sources from the administration of now-departed President Ashraf Ghani. [The Print]

The Delhi-based outlet wrote that Afghan foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar and his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, discussed Indian Air Force (IAF) assistance in a phone conversation. But New Delhi reportedly turned down the request.

The Kabul administration’s “aggressive” push for IAF support as the militants were taking over most of Afghanistan in a matter of days. It also came after General Kenneth McKenzie, Chief of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), had made clear that Washington would not continue airstrikes after the withdrawal of US and other international forces from the country on August 31.

17 August 2021

India: Second senior-most Supreme Court judge retires

(lm) Justice Rohington Fali Nariman, the second most senior judge at India’s Supreme Court retired on August 12, after a nearly seven-year tenure that saw the justice disposing more than 13,500 cases and authoring almost 400 judgements. [The Times of India]

Justice Nariman got elevated a month after the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014. His name was recommended by the collegium then headed by Chief Justice R.M. Lodha. It was after nine years that a senior lawyer from the Supreme Court bar had got elevated as a judge of the apex court.

In his time at the Supreme Court, Just Nariman delivered several landmark verdicts, including the declaration of privacy as a fundamental right and striking down Section 66A of the 2000 Information Technology Act that empowered police to arrest citizens for their social media posts. He almost single-handedly steered India’s 2016 Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code through its teething years. Of the 164 Supreme Court judgments on the Code, 81 were authored by him.

A list of various judgments delivered by Justice Nariman on arbitration law can be found at [Bar and Bench]

17 August 2021

India: Twitter suspends, later reinstates accounts of Rahul Gandhi, other opposition leaders

(lm) US microblogging giant Twitter unblocked the accounts of India’s main opposition National Congress (INC) party, its leader Rahul Gandhi and other party officials on August 14, days after suspending the accounts over tweets that identified the family of a child who was allegedly raped and murdered. [CNN] [The Straits Times]

Twitter’s decision to initially lock the accounts followed a call from India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to take action against Gandhi’s Twitter handle for posting an image that showed him with the parents of a nine-year-old girl who was allegedly raped and murdered in the capital, Delhi, earlier this month.

The girl was a member of the country’s 200 million-strong Dalit community, the lowest rung of India’s caste system, formerly called the untouchables. The incident triggered protests and outrage in the country. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]

The rights body said that by tweeting a photo of the girl’s parents, the INC leader had revealed the identity of a sexual assault victim – which is forbidden under Indian law.

INC officials fired back against Twitter’s decision, accusing the US company of stifling freedom of speech, and claiming that its reasons were “politically coloured, mischievously motivated, and downright malafide”. They also accused Twitter of being “completely subservient to the Modi government” – an allegation the company has denied. [BBC]

The accounts were reinstated after Twitter reviewed Gandhi’s submission of formal consent from people depicted in the image. But while the tweet is available globally, it is remains being withheld in India.

17 August 2021

India to launch $1.35 trillion national infrastructure plan to help generate job, Prime Minister Modi says

(lm) India will soon launch a major infrastructure plan to boost economic growth and create jobs, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on August 15, laying out national priorities on the country’s 75th Independence Day. [Associated Press] [The Straits Times]

Addressing the nation from New Delhi’s historic Red Fort, the prime minister renewed a pledge to spend more than $1 trillion on infrastructure to help integrate the country’s varied modes of transport. The Indian leader did not detail a time frame for when the plan – called “Gati Shakti” (momentum) would be rolled out, saying only that it would launch in the “near future.” [CNN]

Boosting infrastructure in Asia’s third-largest economy is at the heart of Prime Minister Modi’s plan to pull back the country from a sharp economic decline worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. India’s economy contracted by a record 7.3 percent in the last fiscal year that ended in March – its worst recession since independence as coronavirus lockdowns hit economic activity and rendered millions jobless.

In his speech, the prime minister also listed his government’s achievements since 2014 and hailed India’s coronavirus vaccination campaign. India has given more than 500 million doses of vaccines, but its vaccination drive has been marred by its slow pace. About 11 percent of eligible adult Indians have been fully vaccinated so far.

Modi also said his government would invest more in electric mobility, solar energy and “green hydrogen” as part of its goal to wind down India’s energy imports in the next 25 years. [Bloomberg]

10 August 2021

With China as its door, India plans to upgrade air operations capability in eastern Ladakh

(lm) India is reportedly considering expanding its capability to operate its fixed-wing aircrafts from at least three facilities near its unsettled border in the Himalayas with China. [mint]

Reports about New Delhi’s plans come after news reporting earlier this month suggested that China was upgrading an airbase in its Xinjiang autonomous region, which borders India’s union territory of Ladakh, for fighter aircraft operations.

While the People’s Liberation Army Air Force significantly outnumbers its Indian counterpart, the Indian Airforce enjoys a distinct terrain advantage in combat potential. For all existing Chinese airbases facing India are located at high-altitude, which severely limits the weapon and fuel-carrying capacity of the fighter jets. [The EurAsian Times]

Last month, eight new Rafale fighter jets were formally inducted at the Hasimara Air Force Station, the closest Indian air base to the tri-junction between the Indian state of Sikkim, Bhutan and the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Since March, the first squadron comprising 18 omni-role fighters has been fully operational at the Ambala Air Force Station [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. The remaining 10 of the overall 36 planes, contracted under a $9.2 billion deal inked with French defense manufacturer Dassault Aviation in 2016, are expected to arrive in batches before the deadline of April next year.

10 August 2021

China, India to disengage from third friction point along LAC

(lm) China and India have withdrawn troops from another friction point along their disputed Himalayan border after a meeting of top military commanders from both sides last week, Bloomberg reported, citing senior Indian officials familiar with the discussions. [The Straits Times]

On August 4 and 5, soldiers pulled back from Patrolling Point 17A – Gogra Post – located in the Galwan Valley area where at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers were killed in June 2020 in one of the deadly brawls between the two neighbors in more than 40 years [see AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3]. A demilitarized zone will be created after the troops and artillery withdraw and the area will not be patrolled by either side to prevent rival soldiers from coming face to face. [The Indian Express]

The agreement was reached during the 12th round of Corps Commander-level talks, which both sides in a joint statement described as “constructive”, suggesting the rivals had found some common ground after more than a year of tensions. However, there is no statement from Beijing relating to the troop disengagement. [South China Morning Post]

The pullback from the Gogra Post is the third friction area from which soldiers of the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army have disengaged so far to end the military standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). [The Diplomat]

In July of last year, both sides completed disengagement at the site of the clash, albeit deploying additional weapons and troops to other strategic locations along the LAC [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4]. In February, then, soldiers pulled back from their positions on the southern and northern banks of Pangong Lake, marking out a zone that neither side patrols [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4].

But China is yet to show inclination to withdraw from other newly occupied areas, namely Patrolling Point 15 at Hot Springs, and the Depsang Plains in eastern Ladakh, both of which did not feature in the piecemeal disengagement process [see AiR No. 45, November/2020, 2].

10 August 2021

Evidence points to India building secretive base on Mauritian island

(lm) Evidence is emerging of a secretive Indian naval facility being built on a remote Mauritian island in the Indian Ocean, at a time when fortifying its own maritime operational points in the region has invariably become part of New Delhi’s attempt to counter China’s expansion. [ABC News]

Satellite imagery, financial data and on-the-ground evidence obtained by Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera have revealed that the sparsely populated island is currently seeing the construction of a major airfield and port developments reportedly worth $87 million. [Al Jazeera]

Reports of a new military base on the island of Agaléga first surfaced in 2018, but both Mauritius and India have denied the construction project is for military purposes, insisting the infrastructure is only to benefit the islanders.

The alleged infrastructure construction on Agaléga comes after India and Mauritius in 2015 agreed on “setting up and upgradation of infrastructure for improving sea and air connectivity at the Outer Island of Mauritius” and improving the facilities used by the Mauritian coastguard. A 2016-17 budget document showed the Indian government allocated $4.4 million for experts from the Ministry of Defence to conduct a survey of Agaléga to strengthen the country’s maritime surveillance capacity. [TRT World]

Located about 1,100 kilometers from Mauritius’ main island, the base is likely to facilitate maritime patrols over the Mozambique Channel — now a popular passage for large commercial ships, particularly oil tankers. The strategic outpost would also allow India’s Navy to monitor shipping routes around southern Africa, which now account for a significant portion of China’s energy imports.

Located more than 1,000 miles southwest of India, it is part of the web of strategic locations from which the United States monitors Chinese and Iranian maritime aggression and that factors into U.S. plans to maintain “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan after the U.S. troop withdrawal.

The largest of the Chagos islands, Diego Garcia was leased to the United States by Britain more than five decades ago, specifically for the construction of an American military base that has served ever since as a crucial component of Washington’s global power projection. A naval logistics, communications and refueling hub overlooking the edge of South Asia, it includes a runway that has launched long-distance bombers to Afghanistan and Iraq. [The Washington Post]

10 August 2021

India deploys warships in South China Sea to expand security ties with friendly countries

(lm) India is sending four warships into the South China Sea on a two-months deployment that will include exercises with friendly countries, signaling New Delhi’s intent to play a bigger role in regional efforts to counter China. [Reuters]

The task force, which includes a guided-missile destroyer, guided missile frigate, anti-submarine corvette and guided-missile corvette, will depart India early this month, the country’s Defense Ministry announced on August 2, without giving a specific departure date. [CNN]

As part of their deployment, the warships will take part in the annual Exercise Malabar, along with the United States, Japan and Australia. The four countries make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue a loose strategic coalition that is increasingly seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. [South China Morning Post]

In other bilateral exercises during the deployment, the Indian warships will work with naval units from South China Sea littoral states, including Singapore (SIMBEX), Vietnam, Indonesia (Samudra Shakti), and the Philippines. [Voice of America]

The South China Sea has become a hotbed of naval activity in recent weeks. Earlier this month, a British aircraft carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth transited the disputed waterway, while an American surface action group, and forces from China’s People’s Liberation Army staged exercises in it. [AiR No. 30, July/2021, 4]

Last week, Germany also sent a frigate to the South China Sea for the first time in almost two decades, as part of efforts by Berlin to show an “increased presence” in the region and demonstrate solidarity with allies and “like-minded” partners. [AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]

10 August 2021

India: Separatists in Indian-administered Kashmir call for shutdown amid ‘Black Day’ protests

(lm) Hundreds of extra police and troops were deployed in Indian-administered Kashmir on August 5 as separatist groups called for a shutdown to mark a “black day” on the second anniversary of New Delhi imposing direct rule. [South China Morning Post]

On this day two years ago, India’s Hindu-nationalist government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, breaking the state of Kashmir into two union territories – one comprising the Hindu-dominated Jammu region and the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, known as Jammu and Kashmir, and the Buddhist enclave of Ladakh. [AiR No. 32, August/2019, 1].

Ahead of the second anniversary, security forces erected numerous new checkpoints and barricades across Srinagar, the summer capital of the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, with personnel in bulletproof gear checking vehicles and frisking residents. [TRT World]

Key Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani – under house arrest for most of the last 13 years – had called for a general shutdown to mark a “black day” in protest against “India’s naked aggression”. The call was supported by several smaller separatist groups who also challenge India’s rule over the region.

About 1,000 people marched in Muzaffarabad – the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir – where protesters chanted anti-Indian slogans and burnt the country’s flags. In Islamabad Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi led a rally of about 500 people while traffic was halted for a minute’s silence in other major cities. [The News International]

10 August 2021

India: Alleged rape and murder of Dalit girl sparks protests in New Delhi

(lm) Hundreds of people have protested in New Delhi for several days straight last week, as outrage built over the alleged gang rape, murder and forced cremation of a nine-year-old girl from one of India’s most oppressed castes. [CNN] [The Wall Street Journal, $]

The girl’s parents have accused a Hindu priest and three crematorium workers of assaulting her when she had gone to the crematorium to fetch drinking water. The four men allegedly called her mother to the crematorium and told her the girl had been electrocuted.

The mother was told that if she reported the death to the police, doctors conducting an autopsy would remove her daughter’s organs and sell them. The child’s body was then cremated, which means a postmortem exam to confirm rape was no longer possible. [BCC]

The Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, ordered a judicial review of the case, but did not disclose the reasons behind the move. [South China Morning Post]

The victim’s family belongs to the 200 million-strong Dalit community, the lowest rung of India’s caste system, formerly called the untouchables. Thus, the incident is drawing comparisons with last year’s alleged gang rape and murder of a Dalit teen by four upper-caste men in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. That incident had triggered days of demonstrations after police forcibly cremated her body despite her family’s protests.

10 August 2021

India’s new aircraft carrier INS Vikrant starts sea trials

(lm) India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier began its maiden contractor sea trials on August 4, a landmark achievement experts say will allow New Delhi to achieve some sea control at a time when China is quickly making inroads in the Indian Ocean. [Naval News] [The Indian Express]

The INS Vikrant (or IAC-1), which was first sanctioned by the Indian government in 2003, is expected to be fully operational in the first half of 2022. Once commissioned, it will be India’s second aircraft carrier, adding to the INS Vikramaditya, which was acquired from Russia for $2.35 billion in 2004 and entered service in 2013.

The procurement of the INS Vikrant was always intended to be followed by a second indigenous carrier, sometimes called INS Vishal (or IAC-2). A three-carrier fleet including INS Vikramaditya, INS Vikrant, and INS Vishal was proposed to allow the Indian Navy to station one carrier on each of its western and eastern seaboard, with a third carrier to cycle through maintenance. However, a proposal by the Navy for a third carrier is yet to get the initial “acceptance of necessity” approval from the government. [AiR No. 27, July/2021, 1] [The Diplomat]

3 August 2021

United States pulls India closer amid challenges in Afghanistan, China

(lm) The United States will give India $25 million to vaccinate against the coronavirus, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced last week during a two-day stop in New Delhi as part of the Biden administration’s effort to strengthen ties with a diplomatic partner wedged between two countries that mark some of the United States’ most notable geopolitical challenges, Afghanistan and China. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1] [The Washington Post]

Blinken’s visit to New Delhi was the second high profile visit of a member from the Biden administration, following on a visit to India by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin in March [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. Later last week, Blinken travelled to Kuwait to discuss regional issues including Iran and the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

China loomed large as Blinken and his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar jointly reiterated a commitment to flesh out the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a nascent strategic coalition comprising of four democracies that is increasingly seen as a US-led effort to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. Hailing Washington’s relationship with India as one of the “most consequential” in the world, Blinken also announced that the United States will give India $25 million to vaccinate against the coronavirus. 

Regarding India, Blinken described New Delhi and Washington as largely in lockstep on the need to find a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict and offered an assurance that his country will remain “very much engaged in Afghanistan.”

The Indian government has been wary of a full military takeover by the Taliban, believing that this is likely to pose a threat to its security and strategic interests, as it may shift the balance of power in the region towards its nemesis Pakistan and its regional competitor China. [see article in this edition]

Significantly, however, Blinken used an earlier meeting with civil society leaders to express what might be seen as a veiled concern about a democratic backsliding and erosion of civil liberties under Indian Prime Minister Modi’s government: “We view Indian democracy as a force for good in defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said, adding that the United States would “also recognize that every democracy, starting with our own, is a work in progress.” [Deutsche Welle] [The Straits Times 2]

Last month, Washington urged New Delhi to “respect the vital role of human rights activists in healthy democracies”, following the death of a 84-year-old rights activist and Jesuit priest, who had been detained for nine months without trial under Indian anti-terrorism laws. [AiR No. 27, July/2021, 1]

3 August 2021

India: Supreme Court dealing with Pegasus scandal

(lm) India’s Supreme Court is expected to hear a petition this week filed by two veteran journalists seeking an independent probe into the alleged surveillance of Indian citizens using the ‘Pegasus’ military-grade spyware. [The Indian Express]

An investigation published on July 18 by The Washington Post and 16 other media organizations said the spying tool Pegasus – made and licensed by Israeli surveillance firm NSO – had been used to secretly infiltrate phones belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries. In India, the list of potential surveillance targets included Rahul Gandhi, India’s main opposition leader; Ashok Lavasa, India’s Chief Election Commissioner who is considered an obstacle to Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party; and at least 40 journalists, among others. [AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]

In their plea, the two journalists said the Central government had not categorically denied obtaining Pegasus licenses to conduct surveillance in its response given in Parliament by newly appointed Minister of Communications and Electronics & Information Technology Ashwani Vaishnaw. They also noted that no steps had been taken by the Modi-led government to ensure a credible and independent investigation. [Hindustan Times]

3 August 2021

India: Assam State deploys 4,000 commandos after border clash leaves at least 6 dead

(lm) India’s northeastern state of Assam announced to deploy 4,000 commandos to guard its border with neighboring Mizoram state after six police officers were killed in a standoff involving hundreds of police and civilians over a long-disputed state border crossing.

More than 80 others, including officials, were injured on July 26 when police from the two states within the Indian union fired at each other. Officials from both sides quickly blamed each other for the bloodshed.

Boundary disputes between Mizoram and Assam are not new. The two sides have argued where exactly the line falls on a nearly 500-square-kilometer strip of land since the 1980s, when Mizoram and three other Indian states were carved out of Assam. The federal government has been trying to mediate a truce between the states since 1994. [BBC]

However, last week’s flare-up over the disputed territory was the first involving heavy casualties in decades, experts said, and raised broader questions about India’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For the clash occurred two days after Amit Shah, India’s powerful Home Minister, and a member of the party, held a meeting with the chief ministers of both states meant to resolve the border dispute there and some elsewhere in India’s northeast. [The New York Times]

Though Assam is led by the BJP and Mizoram by a regional party in coalition with the BJP, the talks with Shah appeared not to defuse tensions, as the fighting on July 26 made all too clear. Following the incident, the home minister reportedly spoke to both chief ministers again and urged them to find an “amicable solution”. He also said his government will petition the Supreme Court to ensure “not an inch of reserve forest is encroached upon”.[The Straits Times]

27 July 2021

Pakistan: Prime Minister Khan’s PTI secures majority in Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s election

(lm) Prime Minister Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party appeared to be winning in a tight race to elect the Legislative Assembly in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, leading with 25 seats out of a total of 45, according to unofficial estimates. [The Straits Times]

Previously, general elections in the territory had predominantly been a contest between the local leaders of the contesting parties, with a low-profile support from their parent parties or like-minded governments in Pakistan. However, of late these elections have become a do-or-die battle directly between the central leadership of the mainstream parties, relegating their local leadership as well as a few state-based parties to the background.

More than 700 candidates from Pakistan’s three major political parties – the PTI and opposition parties Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – alongside two local groups were running. The PPP appears to be leading with 10 seats while the PML-N has six. 

Supporters of the prime minister’s PTI party and opposition PPP clashed in one constituency, leading to the death of two poll workers. Four soldiers in a rapid response team involved in securing the poll also died when their vehicle plunged into a ravine in the mountainous area, the army said. Three more were injured. [Kashmir Observer]

27 July 2021

India: Farmers gather near Parliament to protest over contentious farm laws

(lm) Indian farmers, protesting against the three new agriculture laws they say will leave them at the mercy of private businesses, started a sit-in on July 22 near Parliament, renewing a push for repeal of the reforms. Police in the capital escorted 200 farmers from protest spots on the outskirts to Jantar Mantar, a large Mughal-era observatory in a central area that doubles as a protest site. [The Straits Times]

In the longest-running growers’ protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, tens of thousands of farmers have camped out on major highways leading to New Delhi since December of last year [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. Parliament ends its monsoon session early in August, and the farmers have been allowed to gather until August 9.

Thousands more have held similar protests in the northern state of Punjab, one of India’s two breadbasket states, where demonstrations began on a small scale in June last year when the government first rolled out its new agricultural policies.

Last week’s protest follows a clash with police by thousands of demonstrating farmers late in January after they deviated from agreed routes and headed for government buildings in Old Delhi where the annual Republic Day parade of troops and military hardware was taking place. One protester died and more than 80 police officers were injured. [AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]

In Parliament, key opposition leaders, such as Rahul Gandhi and Harsimrat Kaur Badal, called on the government to tackle the farmers’ concerns and roll back the three agricultural laws.

27 July 2021

India: Opposition disrupts Parliament, seeks probe into Pegasus spyware row

(lm) India’s Parliament erupted in protests on July 20 as opposition lawmakers demanded an investigation into reports that Prime Minister Modi’s government used military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists. [The Straits Times]

An investigation published on July 18 by The Washington Post and 16 other media organizations said the spying tool Pegasus – made and licensed by Israeli surveillance firm NSO – had been used to secretly infiltrate phones belonging to a range of targets, including journalists, activists and political opponents in 50 countries. [AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]

In India, the list of potential surveillance targets included Rahul Gandhi, India’s main opposition leader; Ashok Lavasa, India’s Chief Election Commissioner who is considered an obstacle to Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party; and at least 40 journalists, among others.

The government has declined to reply to questions whether India or any of its state agencies had purchased Pegasus spyware for surveillance.

Newly appointed Minister of Communications and Electronics & Information Technology Ashwani Vaishnaw dismissed the allegations on July 19, calling them “highly sensational”, “over the top”, and “an attempt to malign the Indian democracy”. His predecessor, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said there was “not a shred of evidence linking Indian government or the BJP” to the allegations, calling them an international plot to defame India. [South China Morning Post]

The findings have bolstered concerns of a democratic backsliding and erosion of civil liberties under Prime Minister Modi. Earlier in April, in its influential annual rankings of countries across the world, the United States-based democracy watchdog Freedom House downgraded India from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy.” Similarly, the Swedish-based V-Dem Institute demoted the country to an “electoral autocracy.” Both organizations cited the regime’s crackdowns on freedom of speech – and in particular, expressions of dissent – as a key factor driving India’s slide down these indexes.

27 July 2021

India successfully tests anti-tank and new surface-to-air missile system

(lm) India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) last week tested two missile system. On July 23, the DRDO successfully test-fired for the third time a new variant of the Akash surface-to-air missile from a defense facility off the coast of Odisha. The same day, the DRDO also conducted a trial of the Man Portable Anti-Tank Guided Missile, a third-generation fire-and-forget anti-tank guided missile derived from the domestically manufactured Nag anti-tank missile. [The Indian Express]

27 July 2021

India, Pakistan, Vietnam join Russian Naval Parade

(lm) Vessels and crews from India, Pakistan and Vietnam were among more than 50 vessels and 4,000 troops that participated in Russia’s Navy Day parade last week. The annual review of maritime forces took place on July 25 in the port city of St. Petersburg, the hometown of President Vladimir Putin. [RadioFreeEurope] [Vietnam Express]

While overseeing the naval parade, President Putin said his country would carry out an “unpreventable strike” if it was in the country’s interests. He also lauded his country’s hypersonic missiles as “still unrivaled in the world.” The comments came after a successful test of a hypersonic Zircon cruise missile last week and as tensions in the Black Sea remain high following an altercation between a British warship and the Russian military in the waters around Crimea in June. [Reuters]

27 July 2021

US Secretary of State Blinken to visit India this week

(lm) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit India for a two-day visit next week during which he will meet with his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Blinken will also travel to Kuwait, where the two sides will discuss regional issues including Iran and the ongoing conflict in Yemen. [Bloomberg] [South China Morning Post]

Blinken and Jaishankar have already met thrice over the last year: first on the sidelines of the Group of Seven’ foreign minister meet in May, during Jaishanka’s working visit to Washington in June, and on the sidelines of the G20 joint Foreign and Development Ministerial Meeting later the same month.

The trip to New Delhi will be the second high profile visit of a member from US President Joe Biden’s administration, following on a visit to India by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin in March [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. Blinken’s visit also follows a visit by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to China and coincides with a three-leg journey to Southeast Asia by Austin. [see article in this edition].

The two sides are expected to discuss plans for an in-person summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as recently confirmed by the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell. Campbell also said Washington was quietly exploring” trade initiatives in Asia, adding that the Indo-Pacific would be “the center of [the Biden administration’s] regional focus”.

Earlier this month, Jaishankar had met with Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the current Homeland Security Advisor for US President Biden, on the side-lines of the “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity” conference in Uzbekistan. The Indian top diplomat also met with Washington’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad.

Afghanistan’s future is also likely to figure prominently in the talks, as India – unlike many in the West – is not buying into the narrative of Kabul’s impending fall and the Taliban’s immediate and inevitable return to power. Insisting how the Taliban gain power in Afghanistan is important, New Delhi has made it clear it will not accept the Taliban’s violent overthrow of the Kabul government and has engaged in a flurry of regional diplomacy in favour of a peaceful transition. [Foreign Policy]

20 July 2021

Indian Navy receives first two of 24 multi-role maritime helicopters from United States

(lm) The Indian Navy has received two MH-60R Swahawk helicopters from the United States to address an important Indian capability gap with respect to anti-submarine warfare. [The Hindu]

The Modi-led government had used a visit by then US President Donald Trump in February 2020 to announce its decision to purchase more than $3 billion in defense equipment. This purchase includes six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for the Indian Army and 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters for the Indian Navy. As per reports, all 24 MH-60Rs are likely to be delivered by the end of 2025. [Swarajya]

The capabilities of both the AH-64E and MH-60R will be further augmented by the recent Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) which formalized the integration of secure, bilateral communication networks between the United States and India in 2018. The helicopters will be the first post-COMCASA hardware available to the Indian military.

20 July 2021

India tells China continuing border tensions not in either side’s interests

(lm) A meeting last week between India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi made clear that both sides still have starkly different views on their disputed border in the western Himalayas, where 200,000 troops have built up on both sides of the frontier. [The Straits Times]

The two top diplomats were meeting on the sidelines of a gathering of foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, on July 14 [see article in this edition].

The talks marked the first high-level meeting in months between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers to address the ongoing border aggressions, they had reached a five-point consensus during their last face-to-face meeting in Moscow in September of last year [see AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2].

Jaishankar said the withdrawal of troops and artillery from the southern and northern banks of Pangong Lake in February had created the conditions needed to resolve the stand-off. But the Indian diplomat also emphasized that it was only with Beijing’s de-escalation and disengagement from other newly occupied areas in eastern Ladakh that formerly cordial bilateral ties could be resumed. [South China Morning Post]

Wang, however, said that “the responsibility does not lie with China” to resolve the issue, and appeared to call on New Delhi to accept the current status quo in the interest of good relations. According to Wang, despite the heavy troop presence, “the situation in the China-India border area has generally been easing”. He also added that neither side should interfere in the other’s domestic affairs, and they should respect territorial integrity.

Talks between the two foreign ministers to place against the larger backdrop of both sides having resumed patrols into forward areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), while also strengthening logistics and adding infrastructure along the de facto border. In a sign of the shift in Indian military priorities, some of the additional troops on three distinct areas along the LAC have come from the border with Pakistan, which for decades was India’s most turbulent frontier.

Further, Indian army officials allege the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is becoming more aggressive with every passing day. Though recent skirmishes between the two sides have been denied by the Indian government, army officials told British daily newspaper The Guardian that the situation in areas of eastern Ladakh including Galwan Valley and Hot Springs remained extremely tense. [The Guardian]

20 July 2021

India: Civilizations judged by how they treat minorities, Uttarakhand High Court remarks

(lm) Democracy means the protection of minorities, the Uttarakhand High Court observed on July 16 while hearing two petitions against a ban on sale and consumption in Haridwar, the state’s second largest city, which is regarded as a holy place for Hindus. A civilization, the bench added, is judged only by how it treats its minorities and a ban like the one in Haridwar calls into question the extent to which the state can determine a citizen’s choice. [The Times of India]

In March, the provincial government of the northern state – led by Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party – had declared all areas in Haridwar “slaughterhouse-free” and cancelled no-objection certificates to slaughterhouses. The petitions challenged this on two grounds: a blanket ban on mean of any type is unconstitutional, as was the section the Uttarakhand government had inserted into the provincial regulations to give itself the power to declare an area a “slaughterhouse-free” zone.

The High Court observed that the petition had raised “serious fundamental issues” and would require constitutional interpretation. It would not, however, be able to give its verdict before the Muslim festival Bakr-Eid on July 21. The next hearing is scheduled for July 23.

20 July 2021

India: Demolition of village stepped up despite United Nations’ protest

(lm) Indian authorities began demolishing hundreds of homes in a village on the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi, on July 14, in a move that housing activists said could leave 100,000 people homeless, despite protests by rights activists and UN experts.

The Supreme Court last month ordered the removal of “encroachers including by forcible eviction” from the village, which is home to about 10,000 families of informal workers, including street food vendors, cleaners and tuk-tuk drivers. Their homes were built illegally on protected forest land, which is part of the Aravalli Mountain Range that stretches nearly 700 kilometers through Northwestern India. [The Straits Times]

The demolition drive started a day after the state announced a rehabilitation plan that would make residents eligible to live in low-cost flats if they met certain criteria, such as having an annual family income of less than $4,025. Under the plan, about $27 will be given to the residents to rent alternative housing for a period of six months. [Reuters]

Housing campaigners criticized the release of the plan one day before the demolition, and urged the government to conduct a survey to identify beneficiaries, give them ample time to prove their claims, and also link people to welfare schemes for work. They also said migrant workers and poor laborers have been there for more than 30 years and that the forest was destroyed by mining decades ago.

In a statement, rights experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council on July 16 urged authorities to halt the mass eviction. The experts said the demolition would add to hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with thousands of children and young mothers affected. [Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights]

20 July 2021

India: Media outlets challenge federal government in court over tougher IT rules

(lm) The Delhi High Court earlier this month issued a notice to the federal government on a plea moved by Press Trust of India (PTI), the country’s largest news agency, challenging the constitutional validity of the third level of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

Promulgated by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in February, the new set of digital rules introduced a three-tier system for redress of a grievance for any news organisation with a digital presence. Part III of the regulations pertains to an oversight mechanism involving the federal government which gives authorities the power to take down content. [AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]

Significantly, the High Court has tagged PTI’s petition along with similar pleas filed by other online news outlets, including one filed by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, a non-profit organization which publishes The Wire news portal [see AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2]. All petitions are now scheduled to be heard on August 20.

The plea alleges that the rules should be stayed as same are only meant to be “a weapon for the Executive or the State to enter and directly control the content of online digital news portal”. 

Further, it has also been argued that granting the executive the power to “virtually dictate” the content of news portals will violate right to freedom of speech and expression, as per Article 19 of the Constitution. [LiveLaw]

But IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who recently took over the portfolio in a major Cabinet reshuffle [AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2], said the new information technology rules were aimed at empowering and protecting users. The government has also denied that they impinge on the freedom of speech. [The Straits Times]

20 July 2021

India: Supreme Court agrees to examine colonial-era sedition law

(lm) Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana on July 15 sought views from the federal government and the country’s attorney general on petitions by activists and lawyers seeking quashing Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes sedition and gives police the power to arrest without a warrant. The court has not yet given a date for hearing the case.

States run by Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have repeatedly come under criticism for charging protesting students, farmers, activists, and journalists with the stringent sedition law which gives authorities broad powers to make arrests ahead of filing formal charges if an act or speech by an individual “excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government” [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]. Punishment under the law can be a fine or a maximum sentence of life in prison, or both.

During the hearing, Ramana – who is heading a three-judge bench – said the colonial law was used to silence the freedom movement under the British rule and “continuation of this law after 75 years is unfortunate.” The judges also said they were concerned that the law carries “enormous power of misuse” but no accountability of the executive. [The Straits Times]

In 1962, Section 124A’s constitutional validity was for the first time challenged before the Supreme Court. In Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar, the apex court ruled that, although sedition imposes restrictions on the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, the restrictions are in the interest of public order and within the ambit of permissible legislative interference. However, the court narrowed its application by holding that to meet the threshold of exciting disaffection or hatred, the alleged seditious conduct must incite violence against the state – mere criticism is not enough. [LAWFARE]

Earlier in April, in its influential annual rankings of countries across the world, the United States-based democracy watchdog Freedom House downgraded India from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy.” Similarly, the Swedish-based V-Dem Institute demoted the country to an “electoral autocracy.” Both organizations cited the regime’s crackdowns on freedom of speech – and in particular, expressions of dissent – as a key factor driving India’s slide down these indexes.

Last month, then, the Supreme Court quashed a case of sedition filed against a journalist for making allegedly seditious statements against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the government’s handling of the migrant exodus during a COVID-19-related lockdown last year. The bench took eight months to pronounce its order, after arguments had concluded in October of last year. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

20 July 2021

India: Spyware by Israeli surveillance firm potentially used to hack journalists, diplomats, and others

(lm) A powerful phone malware licensed only to governments was used to infiltrate mobile phones belonging to at least seven people in India and was active on some of their devices as recently as this month, according to global investigation by The Washington Post, and 16 other media organizations in ten countries. [The Washington Post]

Five of the phones infiltrated belonged to journalists, one of whom had reported extensively on the government’s purchase of French-made Rafale omni-role fighter jets, which has long been mired in corruption allegations [see AiR No. 27, July/2021, 1].

However, the hacks – confirmed by forensic analysis of the phones – represent a tiny fraction of what may be a vast surveillance net, for the phone numbers appear on a list of some 50,000 entries believed to be of interest to clients of NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, whose spying tool Pegasus allows clients to secretly infiltrate phones and monitor text messages, camera feeds and microphones. [BBC]

The list, which was leaked to major news outlets, contained more than 1,000 Indian phone numbers, including numbers for Rahul Gandhi, India’s main opposition leader; Ashok Lavasa, India’s Chief Election Commissioner who is considered an obstacle to Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party; and M. Hari Menon, the local head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Other India-related personalities included on the list were journalists, activists, opposition politicians, senior officials, business executives, public health experts, and Tibetan exiles. French newspaper Le Monde reported that several India-based diplomats appeared also on the list, along with a phone associated with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. [The Hindu]

It is not known how many of the phones on the list were actually targeted for surveillance or how many attempts were successful.

In the run-up to the 2019 general elections, Prime Minister Modi’s government denied allegations carried in local news outlets that it had purchased the Pegasus spyware that was then allegedly used to hack over 1,400 phones, including those of several Indian activists, lawyers, and journalists. At the time, Facebook-owned WhatsApp confirmed that more than 120 users had been targeted with spyware, and sued NSO, alleging the company was behind the cyber-attacks. 

13 July 2021

India claims arrest of two Al-Qaeda-linked operatives

(lm) An Al-Qaeda offshoot in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir planned attacks ahead of the country’s Independence Day, police claimed after arresting two men with alleged links to the terrorist group on July 11. [The Straits Times]

The two men were arrested in Lucknow city, the capital of India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. They are suspected of having links to Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, a Kashmiri wing of Al-Qaeda that is active in the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

The group was created by Zakir Musa, a former Hizbul Mujahideen field operational commander who had pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda and was killed by Indian government forces in 2019. Earlier this year in April, police in Kashmir said they had killed five suspected militants including the-then chief of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, Imtiyaz Shah.


13 July 2021

Indian Prime Minister Modi send birthday wishes to Tibet’s Dalai Lama amid strained ties with China

India Prime Minister Modi on July 6 openly sent his well wishes to the Dalai Lama on his 86th birthday, in a move some observers say indicating a shift in New Delhi’s adherence to Beijing’s “One China” policy amid the protracted border stand-off in eastern Ladakh. [South China Morning Post]

China regards the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, who has lived in northern India ever since he exiled himself in 1959, as a dangerous “splittist”, or separatist, and frowns on any engagement with him. India, in turn, recognizes Tibet as an autonomous region of China, and its leaders have generally been circumspect about public contact with the spiritual leader to avoid upsetting Beijing.

But more recently – against the larger backdrop of a manifesting stand-off along the Sino-Indian border – a number of retired Indian security officials has begun publicly voicing support for the Dalai Lama. Former National Security Advisor M.K. Nayaranan, for example, in an op-ed for The Hindu in August of last year claimed that restoring the Dalai Lama to his previous level of eminence “should be an important plank in India’s anti-China policy”.

The call could also herald the beginning of improved ties between the Indian federal government and the Tibetan community in the country. For this was the first time that and Indian prime minister has publicly greeted the Dalai Lama on his birthday, and thus, sends a strong message that India backs the Tibetan people.

13 July 2021

Singapore: Officials defend CECA trade pact with India amid immigration concerns

(lm) During a nearly four-hour parliamentary debate, Singapore officials last week mounted a fierce defense of a trade pact with India, saying false claims that the agreement allowed unfettered immigration from the South Asian nation were “seductively simplistic” and aimed at discrediting the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times]

The agreement is question is the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), a free trade agreement signed between Singapore in India in 2005 to strengthen and enhance the economic, trade and investment cooperation between the two countries. The CECA has become a point of grievance for Singaporeans who believe that a high influx of Indian professionals in fields like finance and information technology has stolen their jobs and is crowding out the local society. [The Week]

These worries have become more pronounced as Singapore battles its worst recession and countries around the world continue struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to various websites and social media channels being filled with disturbingly xenophobic posts on Indian immigrants. This later turned into verbal and physical assaults, against the larger backdrop of an escalating coronavirus situation in India and fears of a new Indian variant [see e.g. AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]. [Mothership]

Critics include the opposition Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and the Peoples Voice party, which both highlighted the matter in last year’s general election. During last week’s parliamentary debate, they countered by saying the government was being too quick to label them as racists while not publicizing data to back up the official position that the trade deal creates jobs for citizens.

The PSP has said it will table a motion for a full debate on CECA.

13 July 2021

India: Twitter loses immunity over user-generated content

(lm) US microblogging giant Twitter no longer enjoys liability protection against user-generated content in India after failing to comply with the country’s new IT rules, the Indian government said in a legal filing. [The Straits Times]

India’s Ministry for Electronics and Information Technology argues in a filing dated July 5 that the US firm has lost its legal immunity after failing to comply with the country’s new Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code imposed in February. These include appointing a chief compliance officer, a grievance officer, and a contact person to respond to requests from law enforcement 24 hours a day [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].

The statement marks the first time Prime Minister Modi’s government has officially said Twitter has lost its immunity after unconfirmed media reports last month had claimed that the company had lost its so-called “safe harbour” immunity from prosecution for “unlawful” or “inflammatory” tweets. [AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]

If High Court in New Delhi sides with India’s government, it would mark a major shift in Twitter’s legal obligations in India, for it could open the door for the company’s executives to face criminal charges over objectionable content posted by its users.    While social media platforms, including Twitter, often take down content in response to legal challenges, they are generally not legally liable for the contents of their users’ posts.

Although the Indian government has claimed Twitter has lost this legal protection, experts have said that the final decision ultimately rests with India’s courts.


13 July 2021

India: Religion is keeping Indians apart, especially in the north of the country, Pew survey finds

(ad) The US-based Pew Research Centre conducted a survey on religion in India, which revealed that while Indians genuinely believe mutual respect for others religion is an important characteristic of an Indian, they prefer religious segregation in the public life sphere. [Pew Research Center] [South China Morning Post]

The survey, covering 30,000 Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists, was conducted in late 2019 and early 2020 and found that Hindus tend to see their religious identity and Indian national identity as closely intertwined. Nearly two-thirds of Hindus said it is “very important” to be Hindu to be “truly” Indian.

Moreover, 40 percent of Muslims faced high levels of discrimination in North India. This demonstrates that a large amount of religious segregation also occurs in the North. On the other hand, the survey does reveal that South India is far more multicultural. This is perhaps due to its coastal trade and exposure to various cultures.


13 July 2021

India: Uttar Pradesh State pushes two-child policy, citing ‘limited ecological and economic resources’

(ad/lm) The provincial government of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has proposed legislation that aims to discourage couples from having more than two children, becoming the second Indian state ruled by Prime Minister Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to make such a proposal. [The Indian Express] [South China Morning Post]

The bill, which was unveiled on July 11, says that because of the state’s “limited ecological and economic resources at hand, it is necessary and urgent that the provision of the basic necessities of human life are accessible to all citizen”.

To this end, it proposes incentives for couples to produce to two or less children and rewards couples that choose voluntary sterilization. Couples with more than two children, crucially, would not be allowed to receive government benefits or subsidies and would be barred from applying for state government jobs. [CNN]

The bill has been compared to China’s two child policy which was also used for population control. India, which is set to overtake Beijing as the world’s most populous country by 2027, does not have a national two-child policy. [Insider]

The northeastern state of Assam, which is also ruled by Modi’s BJP, last month announced plans for a similar measure that would withhold government benefits from families with more than two children. Assam’s Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has said the proposal is partly to control the population growth of the state’s Bengali-speaking Muslims who trace their origins to neighboring Bangladesh. [Hindustan Times]

13 July 2021

India: PM Modi reshuffles Cabinet amid sagging support

(ad/lm) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has overhauled his Cabinet in a bid to reinvigorate his government as the country emerges from its devastating COVID-19 outbreak ahead of crucial state elections. [BBC]

Fifteen Cabinet ministers and 29 junior ministers were sworn in by President Ram Nath Kovind in New Delhi on July 7. The new Cabinet will have 77 ministers, up from the current figure of 52. [mint]

Among those who were sworn in are Jyotiraditya Scindia, a former opposition lawmaker who switched to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last year; Sarbananda Sonowal, a former Chief Minister of Assam State, and former Indian Congress Party leader Narayan Rane. [The Straits Times 1]

At least 12 Cabinet members, including Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar, resigned ahead of the reshuffle to make way for their colleagues. [The Indian Express]

Vardhan, who was the face of the government’s efforts to fight COVID-19, was asked to step down along with his deputy. He had come under fire as the country struggled to contain a catastrophic spike in infections in April and May. The health service was under severe pressure in many areas with hospitals running out of beds, medical oxygen and drugs. [The Straits Times 2]

Prasad’s resignation follows the federal government’s bruising legal fight with foreign social media social firms, most notably US giants Twitter and Facebook, while Javadekar – who was also serving as Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change – exits his post at a time when New Delhi is facing mounting diplomatic pressure to set its own net zero target ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) to be held this November in Glasgow [see AiR No. 15, April/2021, 2]. But Prasad -a close ally of Prime Minister Modi – is expected to be given an important role in BJP.

This is Modi’s fourth Cabinet change since coming to power in 2014 and the first in his second term. Importantly, his government’s ratings dropped from 75 percent in 2019 to 51 percent this year, according to a survey released earlier in May, providing one of the first indications that his enduring appeal with voters may be fading.

There is a good case to believe that the upcoming State elections have also affected the decision. For elections to seven State Assemblies are due next year; the BJP rules all these States, save the northwestern State of Punjab. [South China Morning Post]

From the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, at least six ministers have been inducted into the Cabinet. The BJP wants to retain the State next year as a defeat there could bring major embarrassment to Modi, who is an elected lawmaker from Uttar Pradesh.

Earlier this year, the BJP suffered a major setback when it failed to wrest power in the important eastern State of West Bengal from incumbent Chief Minister and high-profile Modi critic, Mamata Banerjee. [AiR No. 18, May/2021, 1]


6 July 2021

Indian Air Force chief visits Bangladesh to strengthen defense ties

(lm) India’s Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria on June 29 concluded a two-day working visit to neighboring Bangladesh, where he held extensive talks with high-ranking military officials, including his Bangladeshi counterpart Shaikh Abdul Hannan and the Chief of Army Staff, General SM Shafiuddin Ahmed. [The Economic Times]

During his visit, Bhadauria also attended passing-out parade and commissioning ceremony at the Bangladesh Air Force Academy in Jashore. [Frontline]

6 July 2021

Six killed in surge of unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir

(lm) Five suspected rebels and a soldier were killed on July 2 in the latest of a series of attacks in the Indian-administered territory of Kashmir that have left 17 dead in two weeks. [The Straits Times]

Police said the five militants were members of the Islamist terrorist Lashkar-e-Taiba group, which is accused by India and the United States of plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left at least 174 people dead and more than 300 wounded.

The surge in violence came after 14 pro-India leaders from Kashmir held talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month. [AiR No. 26, June/2021, 5]


6 July 2021

India’s second aircraft carrier is getting ready fast

(lm) The Indian Navy is set to start sea trials of its first indigenous aircraft carrier, in a move that experts say will allow New Delhi to achieve some sea control at a time when China is quickly making inroads in the Indian Ocean. [eletimes] [South China Morning Post]

The INS Vikrant, which was first sanctioned by the Indian government in 2003, is now being readied for its maiden contractor sea trials which are expected to begin as early as next month, with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh saying last week that the warship would be fully operational in the first half of 2022. Once commissioned, it will be India’s second aircraft carrier. The Navy’s only aircraft carrier now is the INS Vikramaditya, which was acquired from Russia for $2.35 billion in 2004 and entered service in 2013.

Experts said the new carrier would help India project power in a region that has come increasingly under China’s influence. In May, Kenya inaugurated a Chinese-built port on Lamu island, on the country’s Indian Ocean coast, while last week, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan said the country might revive a plan with China to build a $10 billion port in Bagamoyo. [Nikkei Asia]

Moreover, construction of China’s third aircraft carrier – known as Type 003 – has made “significant progress”, according to the latest images released by a commercial satellite. The vessel – expected to be the largest surface combatant in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy — is scheduled to be launched before the year-end.     What is more, Beijing is said to be further seeking to add at least two more carrier vessels. [The Week]

Analysts said the new aircraft carrier would also help New Delhi pursue strategic and foreign policy goals, such as stepping up engagement with the other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia – which is increasingly seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

The Indian government has repeatedly stressed that it was “fully committed” to a strong Navy with an expanded operational reach and prowess. But a proposal by the Navy for a third carrier is yet to get the initial “acceptance of necessity” approval from the government. Nor has the Navy’s requirement for 36 new multi-role fighters that will operate from the INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant got the nod.

6 July 2021

India designates China as country’s “primary threat”, talks up infrastructure near Chinese border

(lm) Within the past four weeks, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh has undertaken two highly-publicized visits to inaugurate 63 new bridges and 12 roads across seven states which border China, signaling a changing approach towards the disputed border. [South China Morning Post]

Singh’s trips coincided with unconfirmed media reports that New Delhi had redirected at least 50,000 additional troops to three distinct areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), in a historic shift toward an offensive military posture against Beijing. The reports emerged after India’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, weeks earlier stated that China and not Pakistan was now India’s “primary threat”.

Observers say these developments reflect how New Delhi is changing its approach towards the LAC that stretches from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east.

With at least 11 rounds of senior military commander-level talks to resolve the stand-off not achieving its aim for disengagement at three friction points – Gogra, Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains in eastern Ladakh – India’s strategy is to now publicize its actions and intentions to strengthen its military posture and border infrastructure, notwithstanding objections from Beijing.


6 July 2021

Indian Prime Minister Modi chairs high-level security meeting to formulate counter-drone policy

(ad/ra/lm) A high-level meeting chaired Indian Prime Minister Modi decided on June 29 that the federal government would be working towards counter-drone systems, following a drone attack on an Indian airbase in the Jammu and Kashmir union territory last week. [Hindustan Times]

Two Indian soldiers were wounded when two drones dropped explosives on the Indian Air Force base in the southern city of Jammu in Indian-administered Kashmir on June 27. The attack targeted the air traffic control tower, the radar, and a parked helicopter.

The drone attacks followed hot on the heels of a meeting between Prime Minister Modi and 14 pro-India leaders from Kashmir. The talks on June 24 were the first between the Indian prime minister and Kashmiri leaders since the federal government in August of last year unilaterally abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, breaking the state of Kashmir into two union territories. [AiR No. 26, June/2021, 5]

They also came just days after a car bomb exploded outside the Lahore house of Hafiz Saeed, founder of the outlawed Islamist terrorist Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) group which is accused by India and the United States of plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left at least 174 people dead and more than 300 wounded [see AiR No. 26, June/2021, 5]. Citing results of an investigation, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Moeed Yousuf on July 4 accused India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, of orchestrating the attack. [South China Morning Post 1]

While the drones were not captured, Indian experts say there is little doubt they originated in Pakistan. If proven, the incident would mark a major shift in strategy against New Delhi. For anti-India rebel groups based in Pakistan have previously used classic guerrilla tactics such as ambushes, hit-and-run attacks, remote-controlled explosions and car bombings. [Nikkei Asia]

However, no rebel group has taken responsibility for the latest attacks, leading some in India to point the finger at the Pakistani government. Islamabad, in turn, has vehemently denied their involvement in the attack and called India’s accusation a ploy. In addition, Pakistan said that such allegations would not succeed in diverting attention away from India’s “serious crimes” in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. [Dawn]

The attack marks a revival of Indo-Pakistan conflict – especially regarding Kashmir. New Delhi has long blamed Pakistani state-sponsored terrorism for violence by militant groups in the region, a charge Islamabad routinely denies. Experts say that if such attacks continued, India would be forced to retaliate, putting in jeopardy the restoration of a 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control in Kashmir earlier this year in February, which had ended several years of heavy skirmishing [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]. [South China Morning Post 2]

According to experts, for Pakistan, any increase in tensions threatens to exacerbate an already fragile security situation, adding to existing problems on its eastern flank just as it is presented by a security vacuum on its western flank caused by the face-paced withdrawal of US and international troops from neighboring Afghanistan. [see also entry in this edition]

India, in turn, must be careful of opening up conflicts on two fronts, with its forces involved in a stand-off on its Himalayan border with China that has lasted more than a year and recently heated up with reports that New Delhi was changing its approach towards the Line of Actual Control that stretches from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east. [see also entry in this edition]

6 July 2021

India: Opposition demands Labor Minister to be sacked for failing migrant workers

(ad) The opposition Indian National Congress demanded the sacking of Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar after India’s Supreme Court last week criticized the federal government for its lax in creating a database for migrant workers, and in providing them basic food, shelter and livelihood.

The Party called the judgement “a wake-up call” to the current establishments’ failure and also demanded that Prime Minister Modi must apologize to the migrant workers as well. [The Indian Express]

6 July 2021

India: Rights activist detained under anti-terror law dies while waiting for bail

(ad/lm) A 84-year-old rights activist and Jesuit priest detained for nine months without trial under Indian anti-terrorism laws died on July 5, ahead of a bail hearing. He was accused of being a Maoist and carrying out feft-wing extremist activities. [The Courier] [The Straits Times]

The long-time activist, who campaigned for marginalized tribal communities, was arrested in October of last year after being charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for allegedly inciting violence between different Indian castes in 2018.

The anti-terror law was amended in 2019 to allow the government to designate an individual as a terrorist. Police can detain people for up to six months without producing any evidence and the accused can subsequently be imprisoned for up to seven years.

Just two days before his death, the activist had petitioned the Bombay High Court challenging Section 43D(5) of the UAPA that makes grant of bail virtually impossible since it leaves little room of judicial reasoning. Specifically, the test for denying bail under the UAPA is that the court must be satisfied that a “prima facie” case exists against the accused. [The Indian Express]

Three student activists charged under the UAPA in connection with last year’s violent clashes between supporters and opponents of India’s contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act were granted bail under regular law. India’s Supreme Court, however, intervened shortly thereafter, saying the order could not be treated as “precedent by any court” to grant bail to others also arrested under the anti-terrorism law. Claiming the lower court’s order granting bail to the students had raised questions of “pan-India” importance, the apex court said it would examine the matter this month. [AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]

6 July 2021

India: Opposition demands parliamentary probe of Rafale deal

(ad/lm) Political opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi stepped up their demands for a probe into India’s purchase of Rafale omni-role fighter jets after France reportedly launched a judicial investigation into allegations of corruption in the deal. [Bloomberg]

The opposition Indian National Congress party on July 4 called for an investigation into the allegations, including changes in the terms of the contract for the 2016 purchase of 36 fighters from French defense manufacturer Dassault Aviation.

The renewed demands follow a report that a French judge has been tasked with investigating the 2016 multi-billion-dollar sale based on a complaint filed by French non-governmental organization Sherpa, which said in a statement that it suspects “corruption, favoritism and various financial offenses” may have occurred. [France24]

France’s financial prosecutor, the Parquet National Financier (PNF) had initially refused to investigate the $9.4 billion deal, prompting an investigative website to accuse it and the PNF of “burying” suspicions surrounding the September 2016 deal.

Dassault Aviation had initially won a contract in 2012 to supply 126 jets to India and had been negotiating with Indian aerospace company Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). By March 2015, those talks had almost reached a conclusion.

But in April of that year, after Prime Minister Modi paid an official visit to France, the talks suddenly broke down to general surprise. Reliance Group, a conglomerate headed by billionaire Anil Ambani, who is close to Modi, replaced HAL and finalized a new contract for 36 jets.


6 July 2021

India: Delimitation Commission arrives in Jammu and Kashmir, meets local leaders

(lm) A delegation of the Delimitation Commission on July 6 embarked on a four-day visit in the Jammu and Kashmir union territory, just days after Prime Minister Modi promised local leaders that elections would be held after the region’s parliamentary constituencies were reconfigured. [Hindustan Times]

The talks on June 24 were the first between the Indian prime minister and Kashmiri leaders since the federal government in August of last year unilaterally abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, breaking the state of Kashmir into two union territories – one comprising the Hindu-dominated Jammu region and the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, known as Jammu and Kashmir, and the Buddhist enclave of Ladakh. [AiR No. 26, June/2021, 5]

The Commission is tasked with redrawing parliamentary and assembly constituencies of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, and Jammu and Kashmir. During its visit, the delegation will meet with election officials and political party leaders and seek data on voter lists.

Importantly, the two main regional political parties – the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – will also attend the meetings after they had boycotted regional polls held in 2018. In May of last year, the NC had even pulled out of the Delimitation Commission and accused Prime Minister Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of seeking to divide the union territory on religious lines by manufacturing a Hindu dominance in the Kashmir valley.

Observers say the NC and PDP’s change of heart comes in recognition of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tightening grip over the union territory. Rather than face possible election exclusions after districts are redrawn, the two parties’ willingness to engage signals a tacit acceptance that self-rule is unlikely to be restored soon, considering that the BJP opposes reversing the revocation of regional autonomy. [Foreign Brief]