Researched by: Aarthi Ramnath & Priyanka Gulati
A landmark ruling on the Election Commission
The context: The responsibility of ensuring free and fair elections rests in the hands of the Election Commission. It consists of a Chief Election Commissioner and two Commissioners. Its members are appointed by the President—under advisement of the Prime Minister. Ruling parties—past and present—have often misused this power—appointing pliant commissioners to bend the rules.
In November, the Supreme Court accused the government of paying mere “lip-service” to the independence of the Election Commission. And it also expressed displeasure at the dubious selection process used to appoint loyalists as commissioners (see: Arun Goel).
The landmark judgement: The Supreme Court has ordered that the ruling party will no longer have sole discretion in picking EC members. They will instead be appointed by the President on the advice tendered by a committee—consisting of the Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha or the leader of the single largest opposition party and the Chief Justice of India:
The court said “fierce independence, neutrality and honesty” envisaged in the institution of the Election Commission of India (ECI) requires an end to government monopoly and “exclusive control” over appointments to the highest poll body.
And to ensure that independence, the Court also ordered the following:
The Election Commission will have an independent secretariat, rule-making powers, an independent budget, and equal protection from impeachment. The Election Commission can now draw funds directly from the consolidated fund of India, instead of having to go to the Prime Minister's Officer and the Law Ministry for funds and approvals.
The Hindu has more on the ruling. Indian Express looks at the history of the EC in India. This older Al Jazeera piece notes how the EC has often given the BJP a free pass to violate code of conduct laws during elections.
A Supreme Court-appointed panel to probe Adani
The Court set up a six-member panel to probe the allegations against the Adani group. It will look at the circumstances that led to its shares to plunge—and charges of stock price manipulation and accounting fraud made by the short seller Hindenburg Research. The panel will also look at “whether there has been a regulatory failure in dealing with the alleged contravention of laws”—suggesting SEBI’s role may be under scrutiny, as well. Separately, the Court ordered SEBI to conclude its probe and submit a report within two months.
The panel: consists of six members and will be chaired by former Supreme Court Justice A.M. Sapre. The other members are former chairman of State Bank of India O.P. Bhatt; Former high court judge J.P. Devadhar; banker K.V. Kamath; Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani; and senior advocate Somasekharan Sundaresan.
The response: Gautam Adani tweeted: “The Adani Group welcomes the order of the Hon’ble Supreme Court. It will bring finality in a time-bound manner. Truth will prevail." But some economists and former SEBI officials are unhappy with this kind of “judicial overreach.” They argue that it’s SEBI’s job to look into any stock market-related fraud—and the government’s job to set up a panel to probe SEBI. The Print has that story. Mint has more details on the panel. The Telegraph has more on the specific directions issued to SEBI.
A dismal judgement in Hathras case
The context: In October 2020, a Dalit teenager in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, was gangraped and brutally assaulted. The injuries were serious and extensive. Her tongue had been cut off, and her spinal cord and neck seriously damaged. She finally died after a 14-day struggle in a Delhi hospital.
Four upper caste men were accused of the crime—but the police did not charge them of gang-rape for weeks. The body was hastily cremated by the authorities—and the forensics investigation was dubious. The details of the travesty are in this Big Story. And this one lays out the astonishing actions of the BJP and UP government that flouted the law—and displayed contempt for the young woman and her family.
The ruling: A special Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe court acquitted three of the four men accused of the rape and murder of the victim. None of them were found guilty of murder or gang-rape. One of the accused—Sandeep Singh Thakur—has been sentenced to life imprisonment—for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The victim’s family plans to file an appeal with the High Court. FYI: the victim’s family are guarded by a 30-member company of masked CRPF men, armed with tear gas shell launchers and rifles—to protect them from upper caste retaliation. The Telegraph has more on the verdict. Indian Express reports on the appalling plight of the family.
A rare US-Israel break over Palestine
The context: On Monday, a Palestinian gunman opened fire at two cars in a village located in the West Bank—killing an Israeli American. The shooting came in the midst of a wave of violence that has swept Huwara. On Sunday night, Israeli settlers went on hours-long rampage—in retaliation for two shooting deaths. At least 390 Palestinians have been injured in the attacks—which an Israeli general described as a “pogrom.” Here is a clip of the violence in Huwara:
What happened now: The Israeli finance minister responded to the settler violence, saying: “I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it.” In response, the US spokesperson issued an exceptionally strong statement condemning the government—saying the comments "were irresponsible. They were repugnant. They were disgusting." He also called on PM Benjamin Netanyahu to publicly disavow them.
Why this matters: The Israeli government led by Netanyahu is in an alliance with extreme right parties. And his relationship with the Biden White House is publicly wearing thin—even though they have been buddies for years. NBC News has the most on what’s happening in Huwara. Al Jazeera is best on the bigger picture—while Reuters has more on the pressure on Netanyahu.
AI chatbots: A brewing Apple vs Google battle?
Apple blocked a ChatGPT-powered email app from the App Store. The reason: it does not filter content for minors. BlueMail was told to either “beef up its content filtering process or up its minimum age restriction from four to 17 years old.” Apple has applied the 17+ restriction to ChatGPT-powered Bing as well. The Google Play Store has no such requirements. Why this matters: “Apple’s role as one of the two major app store operators and the sole gatekeeper for iPhone users gives it immense power to set standards around the types of content that makes its way to user devices.” But if Google adopts a different set of rules around AI chatbots, it may set off a new round in the iPhone vs Android battle. (Wall Street Journal, paywall, Gizmodo)
A digital ‘copyright’ attack on free press
The oil lobby has found a new way to shut down critical news coverage. They are filing false copyright claims to forces African news outlets to take down investigative stories—but they are using US law to do it:
Under the US law, any online author saying that their content has been stolen can seek to have what they claim is the infringing material "taken down" by triggering a formal legal process through web servers who host the material. The process differs depending on the server provider, but it can mean content is removed from the web for weeks while the genuine author proves their credentials.
Point to note: these are African publications but the person files the complaint with US web servers—which forces the news outlet to take down the story. BBC News has more on who is being targeted and why.
Whale-sized cameos in ancient texts
In 2011, scientists observed a certain kind of whale behaviour for the very first time:
In 2011, Bryde’s whales in the Gulf of Thailand were first observed at the surface of the water with their jaws open at right angles, waiting for fish to swim into their mouths. Scientists termed the unusual technique, then unknown to modern science, as “tread-water feeding”. Around the same time, similar behaviour was spotted in humpback whales off Canada’s Vancouver Island, which researchers called “trap-feeding.”
A new study has now documented descriptions of the same behaviour in multiple ancient texts. The oldest is the Physiologus (the Naturalist)—a Greek manuscript compiled in Alexandria around 150-200 CE. The text “preserves zoological information brought to Egypt from India and the Middle East by early natural historians like Herodotus, Ctesias, Aristotle and Plutarch”—referring to the whale as aspidochelone.
There are also brilliant drawings of sea creatures that resemble whales, like so:
And if you want to see what ‘trap feeding’ looks like, check out the clip below. (The Guardian)
Two things to see
One: Rescuers have pulled a dog alive from a collapsed building in Turkey. Aleks was trapped for three weeks, but miraculously appears to be in good health. He has been delivered safely to a shelter. FYI: the animal rescue group Haytap has rescued many dogs, rabbits, cows and even birds from the rubble. You can see the good boy being saved below. (CBS News)
Two: A 205-year-old mansion set in a four-acre property in London’s Regent’s Park is slated to become the most expensive home ever sold in Britain. Its listing price: £250 million ($300 million). The home was previously owned by members of the Saudi royal family—but was repossessed when they failed to pay a £150 million loan. FYI: 48% of prime real estate in London was snapped up last year by foreigners—who seem to be the only ones with the money to buy anything in Britain these days. Yes, we’re looking at you, Premier League. Get a glimpse of it below. (Quartz)