Researched by: Rachel John, Aarthi Ramnath & Anannya Parekh
The US’ escalating airstrike campaign
The context: On January 28, a drone attack in Jordan launched by Iran-backed militants killed three American soldiers. These were the first US casualties since the beginning of the war on Gaza. Under intense domestic pressure, President Joe Biden promised to retaliate—to send a message about the price of targeting US troops in the Middle East.
What happened now: On Friday, Biden finally struck at 85 targets at seven locations in Iraq and Syria. All facilities were connected to the militias backed by Iran. At least 40 people died as a result in Iraq. Next, the US and UK hit 36 Houthi targets in Yemen. The Biden White House has promised that there will be plenty more to come.
Why this matters: There is a genuine risk of broadening the war—even though the US has been careful not to aim directly at Iranian forces. Tehran too avoided taking credit for the death of US soldiers—and told its allied militias they “stepped over the line.” But there is only so much it can do to rein them in:
While Iran can influence its allies by turning off funding and military assistance, it has only limited control over them, analysts say. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq operate within an overall framework dictated by Tehran but also follow their own agenda, and for years have pursued the eviction of American troops from the country as their top priority.
Canada’s big accusation against India
The context: Canadian PM Justin Trudeau has accused New Delhi of orchestrating the assassination of a Canadian Sikh—Hardeep Singh Nijjar. It resulted in a diplomatic war—with New Delhi taking an aggressive stance… until Washington revealed its involvement in a similar plot in the US (explained in this Big Story).
What happened now: A declassified Canadian intelligence report accuses India and China of attempting to influence the previous two national elections. On China’s interference, Globe and Mail reported:
China employed a sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy in the 2021 federal election campaign as Chinese diplomats and their proxies backed the re-election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals — but only to another minority government — and worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered to be unfriendly to Beijing.
But the allegations regarding New Delhi remain hazy. The three pages on India have been heavily redacted—except one line that says: “India engages in foreign interference activities.”
Point to note: This isn’t the first time India has been named in connection with election interference:
In an October 2022 report by the CSIS, the agency had said “Government of India agents” appeared to have “interfered in the Conservative’s 2022 leadership race by purchasing memberships for one candidate while undermining another, and also boasted of funding a number of politicians at all levels of government”.
Although China is identified as the primary threat, India is accused of using the “same corrosive tactics.” Global News has the exclusive on the report.
Moving on to spies in India: The Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) of the Uttar Pradesh Police has arrested a person working in the Indian embassy in Moscow on charges of espionage. He is accused of selling secrets with the Pakistani ISI—though the specifics have not been revealed:
He spoke to her regularly on the phone, and she gave him the temptation of money. He sent her classified documents in exchange for money. He had access to them because he worked at the Embassy and the Army and Embassy regularly exchange information about movement, deployment of troops etc. That is what he shared with the ISI.
Up next, super-spy pigeons: In May, the Mumbai Police ‘arrested’ an injured pigeon on suspicion of espionage. It had a microchip and cursive writing on the underside of its wings in a Chinese script. Happily, these suspicions proved to be unfounded:
[The investigating officer] cross-checked the details with information online and concluded that the pigeon was a racing bird from Taiwan. In speaking to the guards at the port, which mostly receives oil vessels bringing crude for refining, he learned that Taiwanese ships were among those that docked there. He deduced that the bird had probably reached Mumbai on one of the ships.
The real question is why the poor bird spent eight months in captivity—albeit at a veterinary hospital. The police claim that the staff misunderstood the remit—which was to free the bird once it healed. PETA, however, described its ordeal as “wrongful imprisonment”—and declared victory in their “first case of a suspected spy who needed to be freed.” You can see the victim of injustice below. (New York Times, paywall, Associated Press)
Covert censorship on YouTube
On January 30, over 15,000 railway job aspirants hit the streets in Patna to protest the limited number of job postings. Videos of the rallies posted on YouTube were soon taken down. This is what YouTube said in its email to the owner of one of the channels:
We received an order from the government related to national security or public order regarding your content. After review, the following content has been blocked from view on the YouTube country sites listed below India.
FYI: Official figures show a decrease in unemployment—but other data shows that it rose to a two-year high of 10.09% in October. Unsurprisingly, anything that suggests joblessness in the runup to an election is unwelcome—including YouTube videos. See a clip shared on Twitter below. (The Wire)
Imran Khan’s latest crime: unlawful marriage
The number of prison sentences slapped on the former Pakistan PM nearly every day is becoming absurd. In the latest case, Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi have been sentenced to seven years after a court ruled that their marriage was illegal and violated Islamic law. The reason: Islamic law requires a woman to wait for three months before she remarries. According to Bibi’s former husband, she married Khan within 48 days of her divorce.
Why this sentence matters:
In a way, it’s a victory for Imran Khan. It proves that every other charge on him is also false, hence such ridiculous cases and sentences are being slapped on him. It also shows that while other countries are concentrating on economic progress, this is the level that we are operating at here.
Reminder: Pakistan’s general elections are scheduled for February 8, and the military’s new blue-eyed boy Nawaz Sharif is expected to win. BBC News has that story. Our Big Story lays out the list of charges against Khan. (Al Jazeera)
A historic appointment in Ireland
The context: Northern Ireland was established as a Protestant-majority part of the UK in 1921, following independence from the Republic of Ireland. For decades, it was torn apart by a civil war between the Republicans—who wanted independence—and unionists who wanted to remain part of Britain. But the territory has always been ruled by unionists.
What happened now: In 2022, however, Sinn Féin—the political arm of the dreaded Irish Republican Army—won the most seats in Parliament. This means they would get the top job of First Minister. But the unionist DUP boycotted the government—over a convoluted Brexit issue which has now been resolved. As a result, Northern Ireland has its first ever Sinn Fein First Minister—who belongs to a party that actively wants independence from Britain.
Why this matters: The national elections in Ireland will be held next year—-and Sinn Fein is expected to win that one as well. To have both parts of Ireland ruled by nationalist party makes the prospect of unification that much more real. (New York Times, paywall, BBC News)
The tragic end of an ancient mosque
The DDA mowed down an ancient mosque—claiming it was an “illegal structure” in a reserved forest area called Sanjay Van. But the mosque has been around for centuries:
[T]he “Mosque of Akhondji” was listed in a 1922 publication by an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India who recorded that while its construction date was “unknown”, the mosque was repaired in “1270 AH (1853-4 AD)”, and that it lay west to to an old Idgah that “existed when Timur invaded India in 1398 AD”.
Most congested city in the world is…
London—followed by Dublin and Toronto. The first Indian city to make top ten is namma Bengaluru at #6. Other Indian cities are Pune (#7), Delhi (#44) and Mumbai (#54). Data point to note: An average Bangalore commuter spent a total of 257 hours on the road during peak hours in 2023—especially on Fridays between 6 to 7 pm. Also this:
According to the report, the average duration to traverse 10 km in Bengaluru was 28 minutes and 10 seconds in 2023, showing a slight enhancement from the 29 minutes recorded in 2022. The average speed during peak hours in 2023 was 18 kmph, up from 14 kmph in 2022.
That said, Bangalore dropped from #2 to #6—that’s something for the gratitude jar when you’re stuck in traffic. (The Hindu)
Two things to see
One: Fifty years ago, a special Thanksgiving episode of ‘Peanuts’—titled ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’—featured the series’ first and only Black character Franklin. In the episode, he sat all alone on one side of the Thanksgiving table—which generated a huge controversy back in 1973:
Two: A king penguin was spotted on an Australian beach—thousands of kilometres from its original habitat. According to researchers, the penguin must have swum from Antarctica to South Australia for its “catastrophic moult”:
Each year, the penguins lose all their feathers. Then, over two or three weeks, they replace them with sleek, freshly oiled, waterproof ones. For those weeks, they have no protection from the icy waters so they seek land — but usually much closer to home.
FYI: It’s called “catastrophic” because penguins lose all their feathers unlike other birds who only shed some. The Guardian has more.