Asia in Review Archive 2021 (July-December)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

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]