Thursday, May 6 2021

The Board has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7, 2021, to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s access to posting content on his Facebook page and Instagram account. However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension… The Board insists that Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform. Facebook must complete its review of this matter within six months of the date of this decision.

That’s Facebook’s Oversight Board upholding the company’s ban on former President Donald Trump—imposed after he incited the Capitol Hill riots on social media. The board—described as the company’s ‘Supreme Court’—is tasked with ruling on difficult or controversial decisions. In this case, while it upheld the initial ban, it has thrown this hot potato right back at the executives—demanding they make a final decision on whether to permanently ban Trump within six months. BBC News has more context, while The Guardian offers key takeaways. Read the full decision here.

Big Story

A big judgement on caste reservations

The TLDR: The Supreme Court ruled on a case involving job and educational reservations for Marathas in Maharashtra. It essentially cracks down on the recent trend of states defining new backward castes—and creating quotas that breach the court-defined 50% ceiling. Here’s a quick explainer with background and key takeaways. 


First, some background

Who are the Marathas? The Marathas are actually a group of castes made up of peasants, landowners and warriors—and account for 32% of Maharashtra’s population. In terms of sheer numbers, they are the most dominant caste in India. Many of its members wield considerable political power—and played prominent roles in the state government. But not all Marathas are wealthy. An overwhelming proportion are small farmers with less than two hectares of land—and they have been agitating for reservations for a long time. And of course, they represent a powerful voting bloc.


The Maratha reservations: In 2018, in response to popular pressure, the Maharashtra legislature passed the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Act. It provided 16% reservations to the Marathas—which raised the total percentage of reserved jobs to 52% and reserved seats in educational institutions to 68%. The law was immediately challenged in the courts on the grounds that it violated a landmark Supreme Court judgement: Indra Sawhney vs Union of India.


Indra Sawhney vs Union of India: In this 1992 ruling, the Supreme Court set a 50% ceiling on all reservations—which capped the total number of reserved seats or jobs. And it said this ceiling can be breached only in extraordinary circumstances:


“While 50 per cent shall be the rule, it is necessary not to put out of consideration certain extraordinary situations inherent in the great diversity of this country and the people. It might happen that in far-flung and remote areas the population inhabiting those areas might, on account of their being out of the main stream of national life and in view of conditions peculiar to and characteristic to them, need to be treated in a different way, some relaxation in this strict rule may become imperative. In doing so, extreme caution is to be exercised and a special case made out.”


The legal battle: While the Bombay High Court upheld the Maharashtra law—saying that the quotas satisfied the criteria of “extraordinary circumstances.” But it reduced the percentage to 12% in employment and 13% in education. That ruling was challenged in the Supreme Court—which finally delivered its judgement yesterday.


The Supreme Court ruling

In a unanimous verdict, the five-judge bench struck down the Maharashtra law and declared the quotas “unconstitutional.” Here are the key takeaways from this ruling:


One: The union and Maharashtra government argued that the Indra Sawhney judgement should be revisited in light of “subsequent constitutional amendments, judgements and changed social dynamics.” The Supreme Court essentially said ‘nope’:


“What was said by the constitution bench in Indra Sawhney clearly binds us. The judgment of Indra Sawhney has stood the test of time and has never been doubted. On the clear principle of stare decisis (a legal doctrine that obligates courts to follow historical cases when making a ruling on a similar case), the judgment of Indra Sawhney neither need[s] to be revisited nor referred to a larger bench of this court.”


Two: Given that it upheld the 1992 ruling—and the 50% ceiling—the question then is whether the Maratha quota qualifies under the “extraordinary circumstances” clause, as determined by the High Court. Again, the Court flatly said ‘no’: “The Marathas are in the mainstream of national life. It is not even disputed that Marathas are a politically dominant caste.”


Three: The case also involved the interpretation of the 102nd amendment to the Constitution passed in 2018—which took away the power of state legislatures to enact laws identifying socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs) and giving them reservations. The power now resides with the President who will make that call based on the recommendations of the National Backward Classes Commission. And the Parliament then passes a final list that can include or exclude the castes notified by the President. 


Now, the government argued that it is “inconceivable that no State shall have power to identify backward class”—which is also what the High Court ruled. But the Supreme Court disagreed, reiterating a strict interpretation of the 102nd amendment. State governments only retain the power to determine the extent of reservations—and make specific policy in the spirit of “cooperative federalism.”


The big picture: 

  • The ruling has serious implications for a number of states that have passed laws creating quotas that breach the 50% ceiling—including for Jats in Haryana and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh. 
  • It also has consequences for the Economically Weaker Sections quota created by the 103rd amendment to the Constitution in 2019. It reserves 10% of jobs and seats for families with an annual income of less than Rs 8 lakhs. But it is up to individual states to adopt the quota—and in many places doing so will breach the 50% ceiling. 
  • Finally, states like Tamil Nadu (69%) and Karnataka (70%) are already in violation of the 50% rule.

The bottomline: is best summed up by the Supreme Court which observed: “When more people aspire for backwardness instead of forwardness, the country itself stagnates which situation is not in accord with constitutional objectives.”


Reading list

The Telegraph offers an overview of the ruling. Indian Express has the big takeaways from the judgement. Scroll looks at its broader implications for states’ rights. Mint has a primer on the Marathas. Indian Express also looks at next steps for the Maharashtra government.

Sanity Break #1

This stunning 8K high-definition time-lapse video of New Zealand is what you need to remind you that there is still great beauty in this world. Petapixel has the backstory.

Headlines that matter

The great pandemic: A longish update

First, the numbers: We sped past the 400K mark for the second time with 412,095 daily cases. The number of daily deaths was the highest ever: 3,971. One in every two new cases in the world is in India. Small mercies: Leading virologist Gagandeep Kang expects the second wave to ebb at the end of the month.


Also testing positive: Two members of the Indian delegation who are in London to attend the Group of Seven meeting. All face-to-face meetings with Indian attendees—including the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar—have now been cancelled, and will be conducted virtually. This is mostly a PR disaster as the story made national headlines in the UK—and seals India’s image as an out-of-control Covid hotspot. A source told The Telegraph: “It’s very embarrassing… Maybe they caught it on the flight coming to London — that is why they are tested two days after arrival.”


In better global diplomacy news: The US has announced its support to temporarily suspend patent rights for vaccines—to significantly help ramp up production in developing countries. CNBC has that story.


Hotspots to note: Jammu and Kashmir has recorded a 700% spike in cases in a month. And Bangalore recorded a 55% positivity rate on Monday—i.e. more than half of those tested show up as positive. Mercifully, it has since dropped to 33%. 

About that third wave: K Vijay Raghavan—India’s principal scientific advisor said at a press conference: “A third wave is inevitable - given the variants - but we do not know when it will come, we do not know what the scale will be. We have to be prepared." He added: “There is, however, no clear time-line on when this third phase will occur.” The Hindu has more.


About those variants: The union government has finally admitted that the second wave is linked to the spread of variants—but insists that “the epidemiological and clinical correlation of B.1.617 and the surge is not ‘fully established’.” It also noted that the ‘double mutant’ variant is emerging as dominant, while cases linked to the UK variant are slowing down. Point to remember: we simply don’t have enough epidemiological data to make any meaningful claims about variants.

Speaking of current horrors: This is how terrible things are in our country. One: Bereaved families have to shell out more money for cremations in Ludhiana due to the spike in LPG gas cylinder prices. Two: The Delhi Jal Board has informed the Supreme Court that it is facing an acute water shortage—and will have to cut supply to the city’s hospitals. Three: In Gurgaon, six patients who died of lack of oxygen were left unattended in a locked ICU. The hospital staff were “hiding in the canteen” from the families. See the heart-wrenching clip here.

Another kind of horror: A new report shows that the first wave pushed the income of  23 crore families below the daily minimum wage of Rs 375. The Telegraph has more details.


Not helping at all: The government held a 90-minute-long virtual workshop—presided over by the Information & Broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar—titled ‘Effective Communications’ for the top brass. The aim: help participants “create a positive image of the government”, manage “perception through effectively highlighting positive stories and achievements”, and making the government “be seen to be sensitive, bold, quick, responsive, hard-working etc.” Hindustan Times has the scoop on the gyaan shared at this critical meeting. 


Also not helping: Uttar Pradesh’s plan to set up help desks for cows in every district. Part of this plan: All cow shelters will also be equipped with all the medical equipment such as oximeters and thermal scanners. Very related read: New York Times’ deep dive into why we’re losing so many people due to oxygen shortage. 


A shameful digital divide: Techies are hacking the CoWin platform by writing software codes that help them jump on open appointments the moment they become available. And then they put them out on Telegram so PLUs can take advantage of their gyaan. Of course, most Indians have zero access to CoWin or to those clever enough to hack it. Speaking of divides, Fuller Project has an excellent read on the pandemic’s disproportionate effects on women. Also a good vaccine-related read: Dinesh Thakur in Stat News on how the government’s ineptitude may be costing lives not just in India, but also around the world: 


“Instead, the government waited until after aid dollars and advance payments financed the scale-up of SII’s manufacturing facilities to meet the demand from COVAX and other countries before stepping in and stopping exports to low-income countries that had been assured equal access to vaccines by the COVAX organizers. In essence, India is ‘stealing’ vaccines meant for low-income countries for its own use.”


About those facemasks: Scientists have found dangerous chemical pollutants in disposable masks—including lead, antimony, and copper, within the silicon-based and plastic fibres. (Mint)


Covidiots alert: One: Employees of a pharma company in Indonesia were caught reusing nasal swabs for Covid tests. How bad this is: They reused swabs from 150 kits nearly 20,000 times. Two: The CSI church held its annual retreat in Munnar with 350 priests and deacons in attendance. Of them, 110 have tested positive, and two have died. Three: Hundreds of women in Gujarat participated in a ‘kalash yatra’—and 23 people have since been arrested, which given the clip below is negligible:


Israel can’t elect a damn government

The fourth general election in two years has resulted once again in a deadlock (we explained this insanity here). PM-elect Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to form a government—since his far-right allies refused to join forces with Arab parties. What this means: Netanyahu will stay in power (as he has for the past two chaotic years) as the ‘interim’ PM until a winning alliance stakes its claim, or the nation goes back to the polls for the fifth time. (New York Times)


Death of a great Christian leader

The longest-serving bishop in India—Philipose Mar Chrysostom, the patriarch of the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church—died yesterday at the ripe old age of 103. Indian Express explains why he was so beloved, and why his death is a great loss. A delightful read: Nidheesh MK’s interview in Mint from back when he turned 100. 


An astonishing childbirth feat

Twenty-five-year old Halima Cisse in Mali has given birth to nine babies—five girls and four boys! She is now part of a rarefied club of mums who have delivered ‘nonuplets’. The good news: both mom and babies are doing well. The Guardian has more on the birth that has caught the attention of an entire nation.


Speaking of kids: Meghan Markle has unveiled a new illustrated children’s book called ‘The Bench’—which is all about fathers and sons, especially Harry & Archie. BBC News has more details. A sample image below:


Five very weird things

One: The CIA’s hilarious recruitment ad. Well, the world’s most famous intelligence agency is going all ‘woke’ in its effort to increase diversity amongst its ranks. And most amusingly, it’s making no one happy. The conservatives are furious at the “liberal takeover,” while the liberals are rolling their eyes with scepticism. Jezebel has that point of view. The Guardian has the uproar on the right. And here’s the ad that’s making everyone crazy:


Two: Peak NFT insanity. A crypto guru and a modelling agent burned a very valuable piece of art—in a champagne bucket, no less—just so they could turn it into a digital NFT. Page Six has this crazy (are they high?) story. The photo is below. And if you don’t understand wtf an NFT is, here is our explainer. (h/t founding member Ramanand Mundkur) 


Three: President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, took a photo with ex-prez Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. The result is worse than any drunken party pic you may have ever taken. The proportions are so insane that they make the Carters look like munchkins. PopSci explains how you can avoid similar disasters (hint: it has everything to do with wide-angle lenses). And the bizarre photo is below:


Four: A motorcycle airbag vest by a company called Klim. This one includes a small black box with sensors—which tells the vest to inflate like an airbag in case of a crash. But here’s the catch. You first pay $400 for the vest, then another $400 for the black box—or opt for a $12/month subscription system. Now, here’s the really weird, ok creepy part: If you miss or forget to make a payment, that $400 vest will just stop working… and will just let you die? Whoa! Vice has more on this capitalism-gone-amok story. FYI, this is what the overpriced, life-gouging vest looks like:

Five: Identified flying objects. Folks in the state of Washington saw strange UFO-like lights in the night sky. They turned out to be 60 Starlink satellites launched by SpaceX. See the strange sight below:


Sanity Break #2

Legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma dedicated this performance to India. Friends in need…

reading habit

Book Editor’s Note

Hi all, I really hope everyone is doing as well as possible. I seem to have lost all track of time in terms of where my life is, on a large, more overarching scale. How do you reconcile your idea of where you thought you’d be and where you presently find yourself? I’m finding it difficult, but in the meantime I’m just grateful for the health and time that I do have. Please stay safe.

A list of good literary reads

One: Opening with something that instantly lifted my litany of groundhog days: Guardian does a delightful, enthralling deep dive into the century-old tradition of honkaku in Japanese detective fiction. Its most endearing quality? All the “clues and suspects [are] woven through the plot, giving the reader a fair chance of solving the mystery before the detective does.”


Two: In Electric Lit, a bookseller tries to tackle an age-old dilemma with care: should ‘Mein Kampf’ and similar books be shelved for sale at bookstores? She touches upon banned books, preservation of history, the business of publishing such books, and more, leaving you with some necessary follow-up thoughts. 


Three: May 4 celebrates more than one giant, long-running fandom: it is the day Sherlock Holmes falls to his alleged death in a dramatic, off-screen combat with his arch-nemesis and villain extraordinaire Professor Moriarty. Hence, obviously, a ranking of some of the Reichenbach Falls there are, in Book Riot, for you to agree or disagree with.


Four: In spite of—or maybe because of?—the somewhat heart-wrenching subject, this helped me a lot personally, and is poignant for the times that we are in. Vox looks at C.S. Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed’, a transcript of his journals written upon the death of his beloved wife, Helen Joy Davidman: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. . . It gives life a permanently provisional feeling.”


Five: Sandip Roy in the Hindu writes about the art of letter-writing, which we lose bit by bit as we move to an almost completely online world. He tells the wonderful story of the epistolary feud between filmmakers Satyajit Ray—whose centenary was May 2—and Mrinal Sen and how the month-long exchange reflects their intellect and wit, among other personal recollections. Joy.


Six: Atlas Obscura takes a look at Soviet-era books that were loved by children in India. Numerous small to mid-sized publishing houses in the country translated a number of Russian children’s classics to whet the enormous appetite of Indian kids in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. A fascinating insight into the little-studied relationship between India and Russia.


Quick fixes, aka a few varied recommendations

What I’m reading: I’m ashamed to even admit this, but I’m only just (but finally!) getting into ‘A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara. I will not be taking any questions as to why-the-delay and other angry comments at this time. So far, it has lived up to its epic status, as I take this astonishing, moving journey with Willem, JB, Malcom and Jude. Yes, I have tissues at hand.


A childhood fave: I love doing this section because I get reminded of all the smashing things I read as a child which lit my imagination on pure fire. 'The Secrets of the Droon’ is a fantasy series by Tony Abbott about friends Eric, Julie, and Neal who discover an enchanted stairway in Eric's basement, which turns out to be a portal to the magical, mysterious, troubled world of Droon. It was hugely popular: it ran for eleven years and had over forty volumes, and is perfect for 7-10 year olds.


Book-adjacent rec of the week: This is such a cool project which I discovered only last week. Tabatha Leggett is on a mission to read one book from every country. She records her reading experience and reviews those books on Bookmarked, which is just about as inspiring as it could get for us to kickstart the expansion of our own reading lives.


Underrated author of the week: Peter Clines writes sci-fi with really refreshing twists. His range of subjects is wide, and includes everything from mysterious apartments to zombies vs. superheroes. You should begin with ‘The Fold’, where a machine which allows you to basically travel through time to reach a faraway destination in an instant has… something fishy happening to it. As it should.


Bookish adaptation to watch out for: I watched ‘Moxie’ on Netflix and I really liked it! Based on the novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu, it really fired me up, and is about teenager Vivian Carter who is done with the sexist double standards at her high school and decides to start a feminist zine called Moxie to basically release some of her frustration. Little does she know that she might just have sparked a revolution.


Note: Reading Habit is curated by our books editor Anushree Kaushal. Want to send along recommendations, feedback or just say hi? Email her at kaushalanushree@gmail.com.

Feel good place

One: Ireland’s president holds a joint press conference. (h/t founding member Akanksha Sharma)


Two: Speaking Irish. 


Three: We all feel underappreciated sometimes, even Jesus.


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