Thursday, February 11 2021

When it comes to national security, safety and sovereignty, this government can go to any extent as was evident from our action against TikTok. We are giving you space to do business in India, not to run its democracy.

That’s an unnamed top official in the Wall Street Journal indicating that the government will not back down in its battle with Twitter (explained here). The company has thus far permanently deleted more than 500 accounts, and prevented many others from being viewed in India. But it has drawn the line at blocking media organizations, journalists and activists—including Caravan magazine and handles of the farmer unions. But the government says its list is “non-negotiable.” Legal experts say that as an intermediary, Twitter “cannot sit in judgement or partially implement the order.”

Big Story

The framing of Indian activists

The TLDR: The explosive results of a highly respected US forensics firm show that Rona Wilson and sixteen others may have been framed in the Bhima Koregaon case. The digital evidence is damning and has been submitted to the Maharashtra High Court—and offers the first sign of hope that the likes of Stan Swamy and Varavara Rao may go free. We explain the case and the results of the investigation—with some details sacrificed for brevity.


The trigger

Bhima Koregaon: is a small village in the district of Pune, and it holds great significance for Dalits. On January 1, 1818, the British army comprised primarily of Dalit soldiers overcame an upper caste-dominated Peshwa troops in a battle that is celebrated to this day—at an annual event called Elgar Parishad. It is close to a memorial of a local hero Govind Gopal Mahar (Gaikwad) who is revered by Dalits.  


The violence: On December 29, 2017, Mahar’s memorial was vandalised—sparking inter-caste tension. According to the police, on December 31, a number of speakers cited the incident at the Elgar Parishad—attended by a number of prominent activists, former judges and politicians. The next day, a group of people carrying saffron flags burst in on the Dalit celebration—and one person was killed in the ensuing clash. 


The investigation

The day after the violence, an anti-caste activist filed an FIR accusing the mob of violence, and identifying them as supporters of local Hindutva leaders. No action was taken on this FIR. The Bhima Koregaon case is based on a second FIR.


The key FIR: was filed on January 8 by a person who claimed he attended the Elgar Parishad and witnessed “inflammatory speeches inciting hatred amongst society” and “inflammatory books” being sold. The charges cite Section 153A, 505(1)(b) and 117 of the Indian Penal Code—which include promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion; making statements with an intent to cause fear and incite violence; abetting offence committed by a group of 10 or more persons. 


Point to note: This FIR only named six members of the Kabir Kala Manch—Sudhir Dhawale, Sagar Gorkhe, Harshali Potdar, Ramesh Gaychor, Dipak Dhengale and Jyoti Jagtap.


The big sweep: Over the coming months, the Pune police launched a full-scale investigation across multiple cities including raids on the homes of activists—and expanded its scope to include “other destructive activities.” 

  • Rona Wilson—an activist with the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners—was among the five activists to be arrested in June. 
  • By this time, the charges had expanded way past the original FIR—and now included added charges under the extremely strict anti-terrorism law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). 
  • The chargesheet filed in November—in a special UAPA court—accused these people of hatching “a nationwide plot against the Indian state” with the financial assistance from a banned Maoist party. 
  • And evidence for this plot was unearthed while investigating the original Pune FIR. We have more on this evidence below. 
  • In August, the police arrested poet Varavara Rao and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj along with activists Arun Fereira, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves.
  • A supplementary chargesheet filed against them in February 2019 accused them of “waging war against the nation,” spreading Maoist ideology and creating caste conflict and hatred.
  • It cited “evidence retrieved from electronic devices seized from the arrested activists”—which is the focus of the revelations made by the US firm.
  • As of today, 16 people have been arrested in connection with this case—including elderly activists like Father Stan Swamy.


Key point to note: Most of these people were not named in the original FIR, and were not present at the Elgar Parishad event.


Also this: When the BJP government lost power in Maharashtra in 2020, the case was transferred from the Pune police to the National Intelligence Agency—which reports to the union government. 


The US investigation

It was conducted by Arsenal Consulting, a Massachusetts-based digital forensics firm—which looked at an electronic copy of Rona Wilson’s laptop at the request of his lawyers. And it casts serious doubt on the evidence used to build the case against the activists.


The evidence: When the Pune police raided Wilson’s home on April 17, 2018, they took away his laptop. They found 10 crucial documents—the most explosive of which was a letter to a Maoist militant referring to a plot to assassinate PM Modi. It said:


“We are thinking along the lines of another Rajiv Gandhi-type incident. It sounds suicidal and there is a good chance that we might fail, but we feel that the party PB/CC must deliberate over our proposal. Targeting his road-shows could be an effective strategy.”


This “digital evidence” was then used over the coming months and years to arrest all the others.


The investigation: shows that Wilson’s laptop was hacked back in 2016, and accessed multiple times over 22 months. During that period, 52 files were planted on Wilson’s computer. This is a timeline of how it happened:


  • One afternoon in June 2016, Wilson received several emails that appeared to be from Varvara Rao’s account—who told him to click on a link to download a statement from a civil liberties group. 
  • The malicious link instead deployed NetWire, a widely available form of malware that allowed the hacker to access Wilson’s laptop.
  • In March 2018, the hacker loaded nine of the 10 incriminating documents onto Wilson’s thumb drive. He then moved the documents into a hidden folder on the laptop—that are buried out of sight.
  • Point to note: These documents were created using a newer version of Microsoft Word—which did not exist on Wilson’s laptop. Also: Arsenal found no evidence that the documents or the hidden folder were ever opened by Wilson.
  • The folder was last modified on April 16, 2018 at 16:50:41—a day prior to the raid on Wilson’s residence on April 17, and weeks before he was arrested on June 6, 2018.


Chain of ‘bad evidence’: These ‘planted’ documents were not an isolated case. According to the report, the same attacker used the same servers and IP addresses to target the others accused in the case over a period of four years.


A key point to note: The report does not identify the person or institution behind the attack. But Arsenal says it’s ”one of the most serious cases involving evidence tampering” it has ever encountered, calling it “unique and deeply disturbing.”


The NIA’s response: The agency has rejected the significance of Arsenal’s findings: 


“Jaya Roy, a spokeswoman for the National Investigation Agency, the anti-terrorism authority overseeing the cases against the activists, said that the forensic analysis of Wilson’s laptop conducted by law enforcement did not show any evidence of malware on the device. She added that there was ‘substantial documentary and oral evidence’ against the individuals charged in the case.”


Nevertheless, Wilson’s lawyers have petitioned the Bombay High Court to issue a stay on proceedings against him and his co-accused. They have separately requested a Special Investigation Team to inquire into the alleged tampering.

The bottomline: These are terrifying times we live in.

Reading list

  • Read the Arsenal report in its entirety here.
  • The Caravan was the first to report on the tampering of evidence and the suspicious malware on Rona Wilson’s hardisk.
  • Last year, Amnesty International in partnership with Canada-based Citizen Lab exposed a systematic spyware campaign targeting nine other human rights activists.
  • The Washington Post was the first to break the story, and offers an excellent overview.
  • The Telegraph has a nice timeline of the hacking. 
  • India Today explains why the 200-year-old Koregaon battle triggered caste clashes in Maharashtra.
  • The Print explains why the 16 accused in the Koregaon case are still languishing in jail.
  • The Hindu explains the political history and significance of Bhima Koregaon.

Sanity Break #1

‘Jallikattu’—India’s official entry for best international feature at the Oscars—is out of the running. It is not on the shortlist of 15 flicks that will make it to the final five. But Karishma Dev Dube's ‘Bittu’—a short film about the broken friendship between two schoolgirls—is still in the running for best live action short film. Watch the trailer and you’ll know why.

Headlines that matter

India and China to step back

After multiple rounds of talks, the two countries finally arrived at an agreement to begin “synchronised and organised disengagement” starting February 10. Both sides will retreat to their pre-April positions around Lake Pangong in Ladakh. There is still no agreement on other points on the border that are equally strategic—like the Depsang plains (locations explained here).  (The Hindu)


Trump impeachment is underway

And it’s not going well for the former president. The trial in the Senate kicked off with a debate over whether it is constitutional to impeach Trump now that he’s out of office—and his lawyers performed so disastrously that they became instant memes. Now, the House managers—who act as the prosecution—are currently laying out the case against him. Trump could also be in trouble in Georgia where the state prosecutors are opening a criminal investigation into his alleged effort to overthrow the election results.


The good news for Trump: Only six Republicans joined Democrats in clearing the way for the trial—a sure sign that there won’t be the required two-third majority to convict him.

In other US-related news: President Biden has announced sanctions against the military regime in Myanmar—which recently seized power from leader Aung San Suu Kyi. These include sanctions on the military leaders and their families, and blocking access to the roughly $1 billion the government holds in the US. An expert says: That’s serious targeting… Those sanctions brought Iran to the table” [eventually leading to the 2015 nuclear deal] So maybe it’ll work?” (Vox)


Tapovan tunnel rescue flounders

First, the rescue effort was stalled for most of the day due to a flow-back by a “sludge” of rocks, slush and water. According to the rescue team: 


“Debris and water are flowing back while we are cleaning the tunnel. We need to be careful because the water and debris might flow back with enormous force when we try to move forward.”


As a result, they were not able to move past the first 100 metres of the 180-metre tunnel. But the bigger blow: now officials have informed the rescue teams that they are digging in the wrong tunnel. So instead of moving forward into the tunnel, they will be drilling down—after a dangerous delay of three days.


Another unhappy update: The Indore court has rejected the bail application of Sadaqat Khan—who was arrested along with Munawar Faruqui. Point to remember: Khan was a member of the audience, and not a performer or an organiser. And yet here we are, and here is Khan being assaulted as he is taken back to jail:



The great pandemic: A quick update

  • The assumption that children rarely get seriously ill may be a myth. New data out of India shows that there were more than 2000 cases of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome—where  multiple organs such as the heart, lungs and brain are affected. 
  • Convinced that the Oxford vaccine offers “minimal protection” against the South Africa variant, the country is planning to sell or swap its doses for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine—despite WHO’s advice to the contrary.
  • Millions of people in Japan will not receive the Pfizer vaccine due to a shortage of specialist syringes—which are required to extract the final sixth dose from the vial. That bit of medicine will just have to be thrown away.
  • A recent study—which, to be fair, only looked at older adults—found that the loss of smell can decrease sexual motivation and emotional satisfaction with sex. Why this matters more now: One of the main symptoms of ‘long Covid’ is anosmia, i.e. losing your sense of taste and smell.
  • The Indian Express’ investigation into Covid testing in Bihar shows that most of the data is faked. 
  • Researchers at IIT Bombay have discovered the reason why the virus survives longer on plastic or steel—compared to porous surfaces like cloth and paper.


Fossil fuel is a killer

A Harvard study found it accounts for nine million deaths each year—which is “significantly higher” than previous estimates. Top of the list: China and India—which accounts for just under 2.5 million, i.e. 30.7% of the total. Within India, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of fatalities, followed by Bihar and Bengal. (The Telegraph)


In more heartening news: Putting on a little weight when you grow older may be a good thing. New research shows that “people who begin adulthood with a body mass index (BMI) in the ‘normal’ range and eventually reach a BMI in the ‘overweight’ range actually live the longest. The mortality rate for people who fit this description is even lower than those who maintained a normal BMI throughout their lives.”


Justin Timberlake is taking heat

Fans of Britney Spears are swarming his Instagram demanding an apology. The reason: A newly released documentary ‘Framing Britney Spears’ which shows how she was vilified as a slut after their breakup—while Timberlake thrived, playing the heart-broken, cheated-upon boyfriend. The pattern—of profiting from unfortunate events while women around him paid the price—repeated itself when he accidentally ripped off Janet Jackson’s top during the 2004 Super Bowl. Why any of this matters: Reevaluating pop culture moments reveals how much we’ve moved the needle on misogyny. Today, CNN, and Buzzfeed News agree that Timberlake made his wildly solo career by throwing women under the bus. Washington Post analyses why we see women of the 90s—be it Princess Diana, Britney or Monica Lewinsky—so differently.


Indians are paying to emigrate

The number of wealthy Indians who are using investments to get foreign residency has more than doubled during the pandemic. Nearly 5,000 millionaires—or 2% of the total number of high net worth individuals—left the country in 2020. And that’s way higher than the global average. Their favourite destination in Europe: Portugal, which requires a minimum real estate investment of $280,000. (Mint)


Pablo Escobar’s hippos pose serious threat

The hippos illegally imported for Escobar’s private zoo have long gone feral—abandoned after his death due to costs and logistics. Now there are an estimated 65-80 of them roaming the Colombian countryside without any natural predators—the largest population outside Africa. A group of scientists warn that their numbers will rapidly grow, and they must be killed before they destroy native species, calling it “one of the greatest challenges of invasive species in the world.” But that is not likely given their huge popularity “You can’t even talk about [it] because the rejection is staggering … I am being called a murderer.” The Guardian has more. Or you can watch a clip from this excellent short film below:


In happier animal-related news: A mandarin duck was spotted in the wetlands in Assam for the first time in over a 100 years.


Sanity Break #2

Usually, a clip like this would go in the ‘Feel Good Place’ section. But this Zoom mishap deserves a premium spot. What you’re watching is this: a judicial hearing in Texas where one of the lawyers is having a slight problem, as in he is stuck in a Zoom filter and can’t turn it off! The Guardian has the story, but you don’t need it to enjoy this ROFL moment!

i recommend

Editor’s note

Sanjana Pai is the founder of an amazing subscription service called The Pink Box. Sanjana’s business is driven by one goal: helping women free the experience of menstruation from pain, shame and chemicals. We asked her to recommend the things that best embody her life mission.

Growing up, two things that really stood out for me. One, how periods hold women back from being their best selves. Two, we hardly ever take time out for ourselves! It’s natural for us to prioritize our families and our careers. But ourselves? Maybe just during birthdays and anniversaries. I’ve always felt that self-love and acceptance is the first step to lead a content, happy and healthy life. Here are a few things that helped me love myself, treat myself and also give back to the community!

Holy Blood: An Ode to Menstruation’: Ghazal Khanna is a confessional poet, writer, feminist, performance artist and educator. She advocates intersectional feminism through her poems and performances. Her work speaks of a life derailed by abuse, and is grounded in her lived experiences as a queer brown woman. This poem had me hooked from the first time I heard it.


The Period Song: We’re all familiar with the 2-second transition from “Yayy it’s finally here” to “Oh no, it’s here!” This fun song by Aayushi Jagad captures all our wildly oscillating swings of mood and attitude! It  will make you smile, perk you up, and also make you say “Yass queen!”.


A Long Petal of the Sea’: I was drawn to Isabelle Allende’s work because of magical realism, a genre that was once completely new to me. Set in the Spanish Civil War, it tells the story of Victor and Roser—brought together in marriage not by love but misfortune. NPR says it offers the “solace of wisdom when we need it most, wrapped in a love story which reminds us, as abiding love always does, that grace takes many forms—yet its core is not faith, but truth.”


Red Is The New Green: When the pandemic hit Mumbai about a year ago, many less privileged than us were completely cut off from their basic sanitary requirements! It took the officials about a month to categorize sanitary pads as essential items. During this time, we partnered with an NGO, Red Is The New Green, and helped over 1000 womxn—even those stuck in containment zones—gain access to a month’s supply of sanitary pads. You can still reach out to the NGO and contribute to this cause! 


A Pink Box subscription: Ok, I am pitching my own company, but I genuinely believe in the value and support we offer womxn. Our subscription services range from basic period needs like eco-friendly sanitary pads, tampons and menstrual cups to pain and nausea remedies to snacks and sweets for your cravings. We’ve got you totally covered. And the best bit is that it all arrives at your doorstep well in time for your next period.


Note: This is NOT sponsored content. We use this section to spotlight the recommendations of people we trust and admire.

Feel good place
One: If you’re going to hit the slopes, this is the way to do it!

Two: Finally, the perfect sea shanty!


Three: Sheep surfing!

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