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Ashok Tanwar launches Apna Bharat Morcha -- a platform to give voice to the voiceless Indians

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, Feb 25:

While launchng Apna Bharat Morcha (ABM), a new political outfit, former Member of Parliament from Haryana, Dr Ashok Tanwar said today India was at the crossroads of chaos, confusion and unprecedented socio-political and identity crisis and the Morcha is a platform to crystallize positive energies and will work to magnify aspirations of youths, farmers, working class, middle class and women.

Addressing a gathering at the Constitution Club here on Thursday, he said the Morcha will be agent for positive changes; a platform to give voice to the voiceless.

Dr Tanwar said said the launch of the ABM marks the beginning of making an India, which is resilient and inclusive in all respects.

He said: “The Apna Bharat Morcha is a value driven initiative, which will work with a three-pillared approach of dialogue, debate and discussion to add not only verve to Indian ethos of unity in diversity but will also lay the foundation for truly making our country the land of hope and fulfillments.”

The Apna Bharat Morcha launch event was attended by a score of youths and other like-minded leaders including Kirit Pradyot Deb Barman - Former President of Tripura PCC and others from across the country, was live streamed live through social media platforms.

A large number of people from Haryana, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Chandigarh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat and Odisha joined the launch event online.

Throwing light on the need for launching the Apna Bharat Morcha, Dr Tanwar said: “Unfortunately, India is caught in a frustrating ambience. Youths and their aspirations are criminally ignored. A platform was needed to crystallize positive energies and magnify and fulfil the aspirations of our youths, who are the backbone of the nation.”

“Apna Bharat Morcha will be an agent for positive changes and a platform to give voice to the voiceless. It will be a dynamic, value-based platform for consolidating diverse voices and perspectives, which are neglected by the mainstream political parties. It is a movement against the tyranny of ideological vacuum and apathy of the present leadership,” said Dr Tanwar.

The former Member of Parliament said: “Our focus shall be on the overall and inclusive development of the country. Our slogan is ‘Nai Soch, Nai Disha, Aur Nai Rajneeti.’ (New Thinking, New Direction and New Politics!). I firmly believe that India can become an example for other countries only by adapting to its composite culture. We believe in patriotism but not in parochial nationalism, which divides our own people along the lines of caste, region and religion.”

Reiterating his resolve and unveiling the vision document for the Apna Bharat Morcha, Dr Tanwar said that this would be a platform for progressive, democratic, liberal and logical voices.

 

“We believe in capital, not crony capitalism. We believe in opportunities, not in opportunism. We are not against caste. We are against casteism. We believe in politics of self-respect &dignity. Politics shouldn’t have a negative connotation. Apna Bharat Morcha is going to be a truly value based front for all stakeholders, who wish and commit to build an inclusive India,” added Dr Tanwar.

Jaish-Ul-Hind Claims Responsibility for Placing Explosives Outside Mukesh Ambani House

MUMBAI, Feb 28: Jaish-ul-Hind has taken the responsibility for placing the explosives in a vehicle outside industrialist Mukesh Ambani's house Antilia in Mumbai. Reports inform that the organisation claimed responsibility via a message on Telegram app.

According to a report, the message by Jaish-ul-Hind read, "The brother who placed the SUV near the Ambani house has reached the safe house. This was just a trailer and big picture is yet to come (sic)". The report added that, Jaish-ul-Hind demanded money through Bitcoin.

On Thursday, a Scorpio SUV dumped with gelatin sticks, and apparently, a fake number plate was found parked on Carmichael Road near 'Antilia'. Reports inform that that Scorpio with 2.5 kg of gelatin sticks. Antilia is the multi-storey residence of Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries. The Scorpio had been stolen from Mulund area a week ago, police said.

CCTV footage showed that the Scorpio, along with the Innova, reached the spot in the early hours of Thursday, and the driver of Scorpio then got down and left in the other vehicle. A letter found inside the SUV purportedly threatened Ambani and his family. The police are looking for the other car which had been seen at the spot. Reports inform that so far, the Crime Branch of Mumbai police has recorded the statements of 25 persons in its probe. Police informed that no terror angle has emerged in the probe so far.

State Elections Start March 27, Counting On May 2

NEW DELHI, Feb 26: Elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam and Puducherry will be held from March 27 and the results will be announced on May 2, the Election Commission said today.

Bengal will vote in eight phases, March 27, April 1, April 6, April 10, April 17, April 22, April 26 and April 29.

Tamil Nadu and Kerala will vote in a single round on April 6. Puducherry will also vote on the same day.

Assam will vote on March 27, April 1 and April 6.

The model code of conduct is now in place in all the states. More than 18 crore are eligible to vote in these elections, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said.

This is the first major set of elections to be held in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic after the Bihar election.

Poll officers will be vaccinated as frontline workers, said the Election Commissioner, adding that new rules for digital sites would be applied on social media.

Polls will be held for 294 seats in West Bengal, 234 seats in Tamil Nadu, 140 seats in Kerala, 126 seats in Assam and 30 seats in the Union Territory of Puducherry.

The Election Commission cited fear of violence while defending eight rounds and said: "We had an assessment of law and order on several factors. Last time it was seven phases so eight is not a big deal."

Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee lashed out at the Centre over the longest ever vote and said: "Why is one district (24 Paraganas) voting in three rounds? Has this been done at the instance of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah? The daughter of Bengal has one thing to say. I will defeat all your conspiracies," she said.

Bengal is hurtling towards the most high-stakes battle of all with the two-time Chief Minister facing a tough challenge from the BJP. Her Trinamool Congress has been losing leaders - including her most trusted strategists -- to the BJP and the bleed hasn't stopped. She also accuses the BJP of using central agencies to hound her party men with multiple investigations.

"Khela Hobe (Game On)," is the Trinamool's slogan, with the BJP calling for "poriborton (change)".

In Tamil Nadu, the ruling AIADMK will face its first state election since the death of its charismatic and powerful leader J Jayalalithaa. The opposition DMK-Congress swept the 2019 national election and hopes to continue its good run.

The BJP, never a big player in Tamil Nadu, has more expectations from neighbouring Puducherry, which was placed under President's Rule after the Congress government collapsed.

In the last round of polls in 2016, the Congress could win only Puducherry but the party this week lost power in the Union Territory after multiple resignations - a trend seen in other states like Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka where Congress governments crashed because of defections.

Two of the five MLAs who quit the Congress, pulling it below the majority mark, have joined the BJP and more may follow.

The BJP is also campaigning aggressively to retain power in Assam, where it won for the first time in 2016, beating the Congress.

In Kerala, it's an intense battle for the ruling Left-Led front and the Congress-led opposition coalition. The voters have alternated between the two in past state elections. The CPM hopes to continue its gains in the only state it rules after a victory in the recent local body elections.

The Congress, stunned by its Puducherry loss, seeks to repeat its 2019 national election success, when it won 19 of 20 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP has so far been a minor player but its recruitment drive this time shows the party is prepping to challenge the ruling Left-led coalition in a big way. The party has roped in "Metro Man" E Sreedharan and other high profile faces in the coastal state. Close to 100 Left workers joined the BJP yesterday.

 

Nirav Modi Can Be Extradited To India, Says UK Court

LONDON, Feb 25: Jeweller Nirav Modi, wanted for fraud and money laundering in the ₹ 14,000-crore Punjab National Bank (PNB) loan scam, can be extradited to India, a UK judge ruled today, dismissing arguments like his mental health worsening during the pandemic and poor Indian prison conditions.

"I am satisfied that Nirav Modi's extradition to India is in compliance per human rights," said District Judge Samuel Goozee, adding that he had the right to appeal the order.

While today's order takes Nirav Modi a step closer to extradition, it may take months yet to wade through appeals, as it has been seen in the case of another high-profile accused, liquor baron Vijay Mallya.

"There is no evidence that if extradited Nirav Modi will not get justice," the judge said, agreeing with India's submissions.

He made it clear that he felt the case for the jeweller to face trial in India was strong and that Nirav Modi had clear links with "other connivers" including bank officials in faked Letters of Undertaking that facilitated huge unpaid loans.

"Modi personally subsequently wrote to PNB acknowledging the debt and promising to repay. The CBI is investigating that Nirav Modi firms were dummy partners," the judge noted. These companies were shadow companies operated by Nirav Modi, he said.

"I do not accept that Nirav Modi was involved in legitimate business. I find no genuine transactions and believe there is a process of dishonesty."

The manner in which Letters of Undertaking were obtained, "the combination as a whole, takes us to the conclusion that Nirav Modi and co were fraudulently operating", the judge said.

"Many of these are a matter for trial in India. I am satisfied again that there is evidence he could be convicted. Prima facie there is a case of money laundering."

The order will be sent back to UK Home Secretary Priti Patel for a sign-off.

Nirav Modi, 49, appeared via video conferencing from Wandsworth Prison in south-west London at the Westminster Magistrates' Court.

He was arrested in 2019 from a metro station in London on an extradition warrant.

His multiple attempts at securing bail were repeatedly turned down as he was deemed a flight risk.

Nirav Modi is facing two sets of criminal proceedings; the CBI case relating to illegal letters of undertaking or loan agreements used to clear crores in loan to the jeweller, and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) case relating to the laundering of the proceeds of that fraud. He also faces two additional charges of evidence tampering and intimidating witnesses, which were added to the CBI case.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), representing the Indian government, alleged that Nirav Modi used his firms - Diamonds R Us, Solar Exports and Stellar Diamonds - to make fraudulent use of PNB's LoUs in a conspiracy with banking officials.

They also played videos in court as proof of Nirav Modi's involvement in intimidating dummy officers of his companies to remain out of the reach of Indian investigating authorities.

Nirav Modi's defence team, led by barrister Clare Montgomery, claimed the case was that of a commercial dispute involving "authorised though ill-advised lending" that took place in "broad daylight". It is also claimed that none of his actions met the legal threshold of perverting the course of justice or amounted to fraud.

The defence also argued that Nirav Modi had a family history of depression and suicide and his mental condition had turned "severe" in the pandemic. Prison conditions at Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai, where Nirav Modi is to be held, were also highlighted but the Indian government submitted an updated video recording of the cell to show that it met all human rights requirements of natural light and ventilation.

The judge said: "Modi fears prosecution in India. Although he has expressed suicidal thoughts, the government of India has reassured safe conditions in prison, through a video in August. The video shows better sanitation and hygiene than the video in 2019."

Government Has 'No Business To Be In Business': Modi

NEW DELHI, Feb 24: Prime Minister Narendra Modi today made a strong case for privatization of Public Sector Units that he said burdened the taxpayer, and stressed that the government has "no business to be in business". He also emphasized that his government was working towards the mantra of "monetize or modernise" to benefit citizens.

"When a government engages in business, it leads to losses. The government is bound by rules and the lack of courage to take bold commercial decisions," the Prime Minister said, addressing a Webinar on privatisation by the Department of Investment and Public Asset Management.

"It is government's duty to support enterprises and businesses. But it is not essential that it should own and run enterprises."

The PM said the centre's policy was to either monetise or modernise state-run units and added that Budget 2021 had given a clear roadmap to take India to a high growth trajectory.

"Asset monetisation and privatisation decisions will help empower Indian citizens," he said.

The government has many "underutilised and unutilised assets" and 100 such assets would be monetised to raise ₹ 2.5 lakh crore, he said, adding that the amount would be used for funding development projects.

"Fiscal support to sick PSUs puts a burden on the economy and public sector units should not be run just because of legacy," the Prime Minister said, adding that many PSUs are loss-making and supported by taxpayers' money.

Modi's pitch comes months after the government indicated that it would move out of non-strategic sectors and listed 18 strategic sectors, including banking, insurance, steel, fertiliser, petroleum and defence equipment, where it would retain only a limited presence.

In the recent Budget session, Modi's shout-out in parliament to the private sector earned praise from industrialists like Anand Mahindra and Sajjan Jindal.

"If the country needs the public sector, the role of the private sector is also as important...If India is of any use to humanity today, our private sector has had a big role in it," Modi told the Lok Sabha, emphasising that "wealth creators are also important for the nation".

"India is proud of the role of the private sector in national progress and in enhancing India's prestige globally," the Prime Minister said.

"Welcome words of encouragement at a fragile time for private enterprise due to the pandemic. Now we have to live up to the expectations...both in performance & governance," said Anand Mahindra, Chairman of the Mahindra Group.

Disha Ravi Walks Out Of Jail

NEW DELHI, Feb 23: Disha Ravi, the 22-year-old climate change activist charged with sedition after being arrested February 13 in connection with a "toolkit" relating to the farmers' protest, walked out of Delhi's Tihar Jail late Tuesday night, hours after she was granted bail.

Shortly before she was released Ms Ravi's mother expressed joy at her daughter's return, saying that she had kept trust in the country's legal system.

Earlier in the day Additional Sessions Court Judge Dharmendra Rana said there was "scanty and sketchy evidence" against Ms Ravi and that "I do not find any palpable reason to breach rule of bail for a 22-year-old girl who has absolutely no criminal antecedent".

Judge Rana, who posed several searching questions during last week's bail hearing, including repeatedly asking for evidence connecting Ms Ravi to the tractor rally violence, also made several strong observations on an individual's right to dissent, and freedom of speech and expression.

"Even our founding fathers accorded due respect to divergence of opinion by recognising the freedom of speech and expression as an inviolable fundamental right. The right to dissent is firmly enshrined under Article 19 of The Constitution of India," Judge Rana said.

"... sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the government," he said.

In his order Judge Rana shot down Delhi Police arguments that Ms Ravi and two others - activist Shantanu Muluk and lawyer Nikita Jacob - had conspired with pro-Khalistani outfit Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF) to create and spread the 'toolkit'.

The police had said that the accused and PJF co-founder Mo Dhaliwal had multiple Zoom meetings last month, days before the tractor rally violence, and alleged that this indicated a conspiracy that included the creation and spreading of the 'toolkit'.

The judge, however, pointed out today (as he had last week) that "there is not even an iota of evidence" connecting those who had acted violently on that day to Ms Ravi or to the PJF.

"... in the absence of any evidence (that) the accused shared a common purpose to cause violence (on January 26) with the founders of PJF (Poetic Justice Foundation), it cannot be presumed by resorting to surmises or conjectures that she also supported secessionist tendencies," he said.

Last week Judge Rana asked how certain motives could be presumed simply because Ms Ravi had met someone with bad credentials. The police answered: "Everyone knows Mo Dhaliwal. Why would you meet with such a person." The judge shot back: "No. I don't know who is Mo Dhaliwal."

The Judge also took a dim view of the police's argument when told the perpetrators of the tractor rally violence had arrested in separate case. "Where (then) is the connection between conspiracy and offence? I have still not got the answer," he had said.

He also dismissed claims that Ms Ravi's sharing of the 'toolkit' online, and particularly with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg - who tweeted the link to the document - amounted to conspiracy.

Disha Ravi was arrested by Delhi Police from her Bengaluru home on February 13

"A citizen has the fundamental rights to use the best means of imparting and receiving communication, as long as (it) is permissible under the four corners of the law... to have access to audiences abroad," he noted.

The police had also argued that the 'toolkit' sought to defame India by directing users to a website that "speaks about genocide, Kashmir...and defaming the Indian Army".

However, Judge Rana shot that down too, noting that its contents made no call for violence and that he found "absolutely nothing objectionable in the said page". He acknowledged that the imputations made were "really objectionable" but could not said to be seditious in nature.

Ms Ravi is accused by Delhi Police of creating and spreading an online document linked to the farmers' protest against the centre's agriculture laws - a document the police says was meant to revive a Khalistani group and "spread disaffection against the Indian state".

Ms Ravi, who earlier this month told the court she had only edited two lines of the document and not created it, has said she only "wanted to support the farmers" in their campaign to get the controversial laws - which they say endangers their livelihoods - scrapped.

Congress Loses Power In Puducherry, V Narayanasamy Resigns

PUDUCHERRY, Feb 22: The Congress government in Puducherry collapsed today after losing its majority and Chief Minister V Narayanasamy resigned. After two exits on Sunday, the government's numbers had dropped to 12 MLAs in the house where the majority mark is 14.

After a series of resignations from the Congress, Narayanasamy was asked to face a trust vote last Thursday, the day his party leader Rahul Gandhi visited Puducherry to prep for polls due by May.

Narayanasamy accused the opposition BJP and NR Congress of bringing down his government and also blamed former Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi of "colluding with the opposition". He resigned soon after delivering a speech in the assembly.

Yesterday, the ruling coalition lost two more MLAs; Congress's K Lakshminarayanan and its partner DMK's K Venkatesan resigned. Four-time Congress MLA Lakshminarayanan said he was upset at not getting "recognition" in the party. He said he wasn't made a minister, Speaker or party chief and that the NR Congress and BJP had approached him.

With the Congress losing power, the rival NR Congress-led alliance, which has 14 MLAs, may be asked to form government with just three months to the polls. The Lieutenant Governor may also call for President's rule.

After Narayanasamy's address the Congress had asked the Speaker to not allow the three nominated MLAs - all BJP members - to vote. Without these MLAs, the ruling Congress would have a majority. But the Speaker denied the request; the Supreme Court had in a past ruling allowed nominated MLAs to vote.

Lieutenant Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan called the Chief Minister on Thursday and ordered him to take a floor test on Monday citing the opposition's stand that his government no longer has a majority. She called for the vote a day after taking charge following Kiran Bedi's sudden removal as Lieutenant Governor on Tuesday.

The Congress's crisis was precipitated by four resignations, two in January and two last week. Both the leaders who quit in January have joined the BJP and the rest are tipped to do the same. The Chief Minister insisted that the last two resignations had not been accepted and the MLAs would come around. But two more exits left him struggling even more.

The Chief Minister accused the BJP of trying to topple his government adopting the "Operation Kamala" - the name given by the BJP's critics to what they call the plan of destabilizing governments by engineering defections in the ruling parties.

The Congress collapse is seen to benefit the BJP ahead of elections due by May in Puducherry, along with Tamil Nadu and three more states.
The Congress has lost its only government in the south. If the NR Congress is invited to form government, the BJP is likely to be part of a ruling coalition and its three MLAs - all nominated members - could become ministers.

Power in Puducherry, the BJP assesses, would add to its tally of southern governments after Karnataka. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP couldn't win even a single seat in Tamil Nadu.

No Bail For Disha Ravi Today, Judge Questions Delhi Police 'Conjectures'

NEW DELHI, Feb 20: Twenty-two-year-old activist Disha Ravi -- who spent five days in police custody and two days in jail in the Toolkit case -- did not get bail today. The order was reserved shortly after an hour-long argument between the judge and the Delhi Police, in the middle of which, judge Dharmendra Rana said he "Can't move ahead unless I satisfy my conscience". Later, he reserved the order for Tuesday, which would mean another day in jail for the climate activist.

At the hearing today, the Delhi Police's reasoning about the activists being in league with secessionists and conspiring to cause the violence during the farmers' tractor rally on Republic Day was severely put to test, with the judge dubbing it "conjecture".

Starting with "What is a toolkit" and whether it was "incriminating in itself", the judge went on to ask a series of tough questions.

"What is the evidence collected by you to show the link between her and the January 26 violence? You have argued about her role in toolkit and she in touch with the secessionists," he said.

When the Delhi Police -- represented by Additional Solicitor General SV Raju -- argued that "Conspiracy can be seen only through circumstantial evidences," the judge shot back, "So you don't have any evidence to connect Disha with the January 26 violence?"

To underscore the point, he added, "How do you connect actual violators on January 26 with Disha?"

"In a conspiracy, execution is different and planning is different," the Delhi Police responded, but it failed to satisfy the judge. "Should I presume that there is no direct link now?" he said.

After learning that the perpetrators of violence have been arrested in another case, he said, "Where is the connection between conspiracy and offence? I have still not got the answer".

Appearing for Disha Ravi, counsel Sidharth Agarwal said the 22-year-old from Karnataka has had no contact with any secessionist.

When the judge pointed out, "There can be another element also, enemy's enemy is my friend", Agarwal said, "I must engage with that secessionist to take part in that cause".

There is no evidence to show "she is one, Disha Ravi's lawyer said. "My only chats submitted are with PJF (Poetic Justice Foundation). With so much power, why wasn't that organisation banned yet?" he added.

The only banned organisation in this case is Sikh For Justice, "but even the case of Delhi Police doesn't show any connection between me and them. They say I was in touch with PJF but that's not a banned organisation," her lawyer added.

Questioning the Delhi Police, which had opposed the bail, the lawyer said, "What's the strategy of the Delhi Police here? Three days of judicial custody and then again taking me into police custody... not to find some devices or evidences but to confront me with a co-accused".

The Delhi Police, which arrested Disha Ravi from Bengaluru last Saturday, alleged that she was a key conspirator in the case and prepared and spread the Toolkit in an attempt to revive a Khalistani group.

The toolkit made headlines after it was shared on Twitter by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg to show support for protesting farmers.

A warrant is out for Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk, who the police said were also involved in creating the "Toolkit"and wanted a social media buzz over the farmers' tractor rally on Republic Day. The two have been granted transit anticipatory bail by Bombay High Court.

Claiming it was found of on a social media handle ahead of violence during the farmers' tractor rally, the police said it indicates a conspiracy behind the events of January 26.

Greta Thunberg supports Disha Ravi; Says freedom of speech non-negotiable

NEW DELHI, Feb 19: Six days after the arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi from her residence in Bengaluru, international climate activist Greta Thunberg has reacted to the arrest. Extending her solidarity with Disha Ravi, Greta said that an individual’s rights to freedom of speech, peaceful protest and assembly are non-negotiable.

"Freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest and assembly are non-negotiable human rights. These must be a fundamental part of any democracy," Greta tweeted on Friday with the hashtag ‘StandWithDishaRavi’.

Greta’s response came shortly after the India chapter of Fridays for Future (FFF), a global movement inspired by her, expressed solidarity with Disha. The 22-year-old climate activist based in Bengaluru was a volunteer with FFF, and helped organise events in the city. FFF India called Disha an integral part of their movement.

“As fellow volunteers we wouldn't stand back to say that she is one of the finest amongst us all. If there is one thing her activism has taught us, it is to raise our voices peacefully and respectfully for those at stake, to ensure justice for everyone,” the statement read.

Disha Ravi was arrested from her house in Bengaluru on February 13 by Delhi Police, in connection with the case filed by them over the 'toolkit' or the Google document on farmers' protests. The toolkit or the online document was shared by Greta Thunberg with outdated dates and was later deleted and replaced with one containing newer dates.

It is to be noted that toolkits are nothing but Google Docs or Word documents often used to organise a social media campaign or to plan protests. A toolkit contains basic information on any issue, tweet suggestions and information on what hashtags to use, whom to tag on social media, etc. These documents are regularly used by various individuals and groups, including political parties, to organise social media campaigns and mobilise crowds.

The Delhi police have come under criticism for arresting Disha from her house in Bengaluru and shifting her to Delhi without a transit warrant. Disha also approached the Delhi High Court saying that she was aggrieved by selective leaks by the police to the media, based on which the HC has sent notices to three English channels and asked for the police’s response.

Disha was on Friday sent to three days judicial custody by a Delhi court. Disha has already spent five days in police custody.

Home Minister Amit Shah however justified the arrest and said that age, gender etc are irrelevant during an arrest. The Delhi police has said that the Google document was started by Khalistani supporters including the Poetic Justice Foundation in Canada with an intention to malign and target India.

Foreign envoys arrive in J&K for two-day visit

SRINAGAR, Feb 17: A group of more than 20 foreign envoys and senior diplomats arrived in Jammu and Kashmir on Wednesday for a two-day visit aimed at showcasing the government’s efforts to restore normalcy and boost development in the union territory.

The group includes European Union (EU) ambassador Ugo Astuto, and envoys of some 10 European countries, including French ambassador Emmanuel Lenain. Envoys and senior diplomats of Bangladesh, and countries in Africa, Central Asia and Central America are also part of the group.

Tight security arrangements were put in place for the visit, and the group headed to Magam in Badgam district, located on the outskirts of Srinagar, shortly after their arrival to meet with local residents, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.

In the afternoon, the diplomats will meet different groups and leaders of political parties at the Sher-e-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC) on the banks of the Dal Lake.

The group is also scheduled to visit the Hazratbal shrine and meet a small group of local journalists in the evening. A cultural event has also been organised for the envoys in the evening.

Security was tight all across Srinagar, and especially around the SKICC, where the delegation of diplomats will meet different groups. The diplomats will also be briefed on the security situation by senior officials.

This is the third batch of diplomats to visit Jammu and Kashmir since the government scrapped the region’s special status in August 2019 and split it into two union territories in an effort to improve governance, boost development and tackle cross-border terrorism.

The first two groups visited Jammu and Kashmir in January and February 2020, and plans to send a batch of envoys from EU states last year were put on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As with the earlier groups, this batch of diplomats will interact with grassroots politicians, civil society organisations and businesspeople and visit key government projects and schemes.

Among the politicians who will meet the diplomats are some elected in the District Development Council (DDCs) elections held during November-December. The government is showcasing the holding of these elections as part of efforts to strengthen democratic institutions at the grassroots level.

The diplomats will travel to Jammu region on Thursday for more meetings and interactions.

Journalist Priya Ramani Acquitted In Defamation Case Filed By MJ Akbar

NEW DELHI, Feb 17: Former Union Minister MJ Akbar's defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani -- filed over her allegations of sexual misconduct against him -- could not be proved, a Delhi Court said today, acquitting her of all charges.

"Women can't be punished for raising instances of sexual abuse," the court said, adding that "right of reputation" -- a reference to MJ Akbar's suit -- "cannot be protected at the cost of right to dignity".

"The Indian constitution allows women to put forward her grievances before any forum and at any time," the judge said, taking cognizance of the lack of mechanisms to raise sexual harassment complaints.

Pointing out that "even a man of (high) social status (standing) can be a sexual harasser," Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey said, "It can't be ignored that most times sexual harassment is committed behind closed doors".

"Most of the women who suffer abuse can't often speak up due to stigma and attack on their character," he added.

Ms Ramani told the media that she feels "vindicated" on behalf of the women who spoke out against sexual harassment in the workplace.

"Sexual harassment has got the attention it deserves despite the fact that it is me, being the victim who had to stand up in court as the accused," she said. "I hope it will discourage powerful men from filing false cases against women who share their truths," she told NDTV.

Ms Ramani had accused the former editor of sexual misconduct amid the #MeToo movement of 2018. She had tweeted a newspaper article she wrote a year ago, where she accused a "former boss" of being a "sexual predator".

Later in court, she said the incident took place around 20 years ago. Akbar, who headed Asian Age at the time, had called her to his hotel bedroom for a job interview and behaved inappropriately, she had told the court.

Her tweet had opened the floodgates, with around 20 women stepping forward with similar allegations against the former editor.

On October 15, 2018, Akbar -- then a minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cabinet -- approached the court. He resigned two days later, on October 17, 2018.

In a 41-page defamation suit, Mr Akbar alleged that Priya Ramani's tweets and newspaper article had spoiled the reputation and goodwill he built over 40 years and he had to step down from PM Modi's government.

Ms Ramani had said the lawsuit was "an attempt to intimidate" her. The case, she said, was also an attempt to "create a chilling effect among all the women who spoke out about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of Akbar".

Amnesty International India's Assets Attached In Money Laundering Case

NEW DELHI, Feb 16: The Enforcement Directorate has attached the movable properties - worth ₹ 17.66 crore - of the global human rights advocacy group, Amnesty International, which had last year claimed that it was halting its India operation because of alleged "witch-hunt" by the central government. The action has been taken as part of a money laundering probe against the non-profit.

The central government says that the global rights watchdog had been receiving foreign funds illegally and that it had never registered under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act.

The government has raided Amnesty India's premises several times in the last few years.

Last year, after the Centre had frozen its account, Amnesty India accused it of launching a "witch-hunt" over some critical reports.

In a press statement, Amnesty had said: "...the complete freezing of Amnesty International India's bank accounts by the government of India, which it came to know on 10 September, brings all the work being done by the organization to a grinding halt."

The organisation had said it had been compelled to let go of staff in India and pause all its ongoing campaign and research work.

"This is the latest in the incessant witch-hunt of human rights organizations by the government of India over unfounded and motivated allegations," it had said.

The Centre, reacting to the group's allegation, had said that human rights cannot be an excuse to defy the law of the land.

Kiran Bedi Removed As Puducherry Lt Governor Amid Congress Crisis

NEW DELHI, Feb 16: Kiran Bedi was removed as Lieutenant-Governor of Puducherry late Tuesday night, in what sources said was a political move designed to negate opposition parties' primary campaign platform for Assembly elections due in May.

Rashtrapati Bhavan said President Ram Nath Kovind had directed Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan to take over till a replacement is announced. Ms Bedi's removal also came hours after a fourth member of the ruling Congress resigned from the Assembly, leaving Chief Minister V Narayanasamy's government in the minority.

Shortly before she was removed Narayanasamy, who has had a long-running and public feud with Ms Bedi, said that one of the MLAs who had resigned had been "harassed... several times" by her.

Ms Bedi's removal is being widely seen as a political move by the BJP to negate the Congress' election campaign, which focuses on allegations that Ms Bedi was scuttling Puducherry's development at the behest of the centre. The allegations are at the heart of a long-running feud between Bedi and Narayanasamy.

Bedi, who was appointed in May 2016, has long been involved in a feud with Narayanasamy, who has complained of her "undemocratic style of functioning". Last month he sat on dharna outside her official residence. "This is a not a new demand. Even in 2019 December, we sat in dharna in front of the Raj Bhavan," he had said then.

Sources also said Bedi's removal was also one of the conditions placed by A Namassivayam - one of the two ex-Congress leaders who last month resigned as MLAs and from the party to join the BJP.

Tuesday night the Chief Minister said: "We met the President because Malladi Krishna Rao (one of the Congress MLAs who quit to join the BJP) had been harassed by Kiran Bedi several times... Kiran Bedi has been interfering in the day-to-day administration of our government and she has been trying to create problems," he said.

Four Congress leaders have resigned so far; a fifth, N Dhanavelou, was disqualified for alleged anti-party activities last year. Two MLAs - A Namassivayam and E Theeppainjan - resigned last month. Both have joined the BJP. On Monday Malladi Krishna Rao quit, and today John Kumar resigned. With these resignations the Congress has lost its thin majority in the Puducherry Assembly.

Namassivayam's switch was a big blow; the former state Congress chief played a big role in consolidating the party's base in Puducherry. With him, several other leaders and functionaries walked out and crossed over to the BJP, a well-worn script that has played out in several states where defections have brought down governments.

Narayanasamy has remained defiant in the face of these resignations and said: "Our government is not in a minority." He said the resignations of Rao and Kumar had not yet been accepted and were still being considered by the Speaker.

The Chief Minister also accused the BJP of planning another "Operation Kamal (lotus)" - the opposition's name for what they say is the BJP's strategy of engineering defections and toppling governments - in Puducherry.

Elections are due by May in Puducherry and neighbouring Tamil Nadu, besides Kerala, West Bengal and Assam. The BJP does not expect much from Tamil Nadu and Kerala at this point, but feels it has a better chance in Puducherry, with the Congress weakened.

The Congress won 15 assembly seats in 2016, including that of the Speaker. It took power with support of the DMK and an independent candidate. The opposition AINRC has seven, the AIADMK has four and there are three nominated members of the BJP.

47 dead after bus falls into canal in MP

BHOPAL, Feb 16: Forty-seven passengers — 24 are male, 21 female and two children — have died after a bus fell off a bridge into a canal near Satna village in Madhya Pradesh’s Sidhi district on Tuesday morning. Seven people have been rescued so far, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said.

The search and rescue operations have been called off for now and are set to resume at 5 am on Wednesday.

The bus carrying 54 passengers was heading from Sidhi to Satna when it fell into the canal in Shardhapathak village after the driver lost control of the vehicle.

Seven people have been rescued so far, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said.

Chouhan condoled the deaths and announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the family of the deceased. He tweeted that teams of the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and local authorities were conducting rescue operations at the spot. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also called the incident “horrific.”

An ex gratia of Rs 2 Lakh from PM’s National Relief Fund has been approved for the next of kin of the deceased along with Rs 50,000 for those seriously injured in the bus accident, Prime Minister’s office said on Tuesday.

Arrested Activist Disha Ravi, 22, Edited Greta Thunberg 'Toolkit': Cops

NEW DELHI, Feb 14: A 22-year-old climate activist from Bengaluru has been arrested by the Delhi Police in connection to the "toolkit" shared by teen climate activist Greta Thunberg and others on Twitter to show support for the farmers' protest. Disha Ravi is one of the founders of the "Friday for Future" campaign. It has been alleged that she edited the toolkit and sent it ahead.

The 21-year-old -- a student at Mount Carmel College, one of city's top women's colleges -- was arrested yesterday evening and taken to Delhi. She was produced in a court and remanded in police custody for five days.

The Delhi Police earlier said the creator of the "toolkit", an organization calling itself the Poetic Justice Foundation, is a Khalistani group.

On February 4, the Delhi Police filed a case regarding toolkit tweeted by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Coming after the chaos and violence during the farmers' tractor rally on Republic Day, her tweet had helped draw global attention to the protest.

The Delhi Police said the toolkit was found on a social media handle ahead of the violence and indicates a conspiracy behind the events of January 26.

"If you go by the unfolding of events of January 26, it reveals a copycat execution of the action plan," the Delhi Police had said.

"The call was to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India," Delhi Police Special Commissioner Praveer Ranjan had said.

"We have registered a case for spreading disaffection against the government of India - it's regarding sedition - and disharmony between groups on religious, social and cultural grounds, and criminal conspiracy to give shape to such a plan," the officer had added.

In course on its investigations, the Delhi Police had asked Google and some social media giants to provide information about email ids, URLs and certain social media accounts related to the creators of "toolkit", which was uploaded through Google doc and shared later on Twitter.

The police said they sought details about the email ids, domain URLs and certain social media accounts mentioned in the "toolkit". Later, the Centre asked Twitter to remove 1,178 accounts, which it said were spreading misinformation and provocative content on farmers' agitation, sources said.

On February 3, Greta Thunberg had tweeted the "toolkit" to show support for the farmers' protest against the Centre's farm laws that has been in progress at the borders of Delhi since November 26. But this was focused on the Republic Day protests.

After a short while, she deleted the post. The next day, she posted a fresh "toolkit" with the message: "Here's an updated toolkit by people on the ground in India if you want to help. (They removed their previous document as it was outdated)." The new document called for protests on February 13 and 14.

Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani Faints While Addressing Poll Rally

VADODARA, Feb 14: Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani collapsed on stage on Sunday while addressing a rally for upcoming civic polls in Nizampura area of Vadodara, BJP leaders said.

Rupani was given first aid on the stage. He was later seen descending the stairs of the stage on his own.

This was Rupani's third political rally during the day in Vadodara.

"The chief minister collapsed while he was addressing the public meeting. His security guards caught hold of him when he fell. He was given first aid and is being taken to airport from where he will go to a hospital in Ahmedabad," BJP leader Bharat Danger told a news channel.

"Rupani's health was not proper for the last two days, but instead of cancelling his public meetings held in Jamnagar on Saturday and in Vadodara on Sunday, he preferred to go ahead," Danger said, adding that Rupani is fine now.

Elections to six municipal corporations including Vadodara will be held on February 21 while those for municipalities, districts and taluka panchayats will be held on February 28.

Rakesh Tikait announces nationwide march to 'set Gujarat free'

BAHADURGARH, Feb 12: Amid the ongoing farmers’ protest, Bhartiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait on February 12 announced a nationwide march to Gujarat to “set it free”, saying the state is “controlled” by Centre.

“We will march nation-wide, go to Gujarat and set it free. It's controlled by Centre. India is free but people of Gujarat are imprisoned. If they want to join the movement, they are jailed. We are deciding on the date,” Tikait told media in Bahadurgarh where he attended a Kisan Mahapanchayat.

Rahul Gandhi's Jibe: 4 People Run This Country - Hum Doh, Hamare Doh

NEW DELHI, Feb 11: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is running the country on a "hum doh hamare doh" (we two, our two) policy, Congress's Rahul Gandhi said in parliament today in one of his sharpest takedowns of the BJP-led government.

This policy, he said, has been in play in demonetisation, Goods and Services tax, lockdown and most recently, the three farm laws passed in September that have had the farmers across the country up in arms.

"You all must remember the saying we used for family planning -- 'Hum doh, humare doh'. This government has given that slogan a new meaning. The country is run by four people. 'Hum doh, aur humaare doh'," said the leader, who has so far kept his attacks on the BJP confined mostly to Twitter.

Gandhi, however, did not name anyone, declaring instead "everyone knows them".

The farmers' protest, he said, is not all that it appears. It is struggle for survival for many others too. "You all feel that this is a farmers' protest, but you all are very wrong. This is India's protest... the farmers are just leading the way," he said.

This is because the farm laws, he said, will not only ruin farmers, but finish the middlemen and have a "devastating effect" on small shopkeepers, small businessmen. It will be a "massive blow" to small and medium enterprise, which will "destroy" India's rural economy.

"India will not be able to generate growth, generate jobs... all because the backbone of our nation will have been destroyed for the benefit of 'Hum doh, aur humaare doh'," Gandhi added amid loud protests from BJP members.

There was constant heckling and disruptions from BJP MPs as Rahul Gandhi progressed with his speech. To BJP members' insistence that he stick to the subject of the debate – budget – Gandhi responded, "Agriculture is also part of the budget".

"The intent of the first farm law is to ensure that farmers' produce is sold to a top few industrialists - one of whom is known by all as the government's first friend. The intent of the second farm law is to ensure the benefits of the law go to the second friend," Gandhi said.

"The intent of the government is clear - they want to break the backbone of India by breaking the farmer, labourer, small shop owners, middleman, and feed the pieces to these friends - the top industrialists," added the Congress leader, whose party has been firmly backing the farmers' protest.

"The farmers and labourers of this nation will destroy you. You will never win against them. The farmers will not move an inch back... you will have to repeal these laws. You will lose in the end, that is certain," he added.

BJP's Anurag Thakur, who followed Gandhi, hit out saying that the Congress leader could not speak on the budget as he was not prepared.

"How would they (be prepared)? They are hardly seen in the House. Even during the Budget, they were missing for a long time. How would they be able to speak about it? Some people stay less in Parliament, just like they stay less in the country. Even as I am speaking, these people are leaving the Parliament because they are not in a habit of sitting in Parliament," he said.

Govt respects farmers: Modi

NEW DELHI, Feb 10: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's response to the Motion of Thanks on the President's address was overtaken by angry protests from the opposition as he mentioned farm laws today. After a huge altercation, the Congress and the Trinamool Congress walked out as the Prime Minister said the slogan-shouting "was a planned strategy to drown out reason and hide the truth".

The protests started as the Prime Minister, after speaking of Covid 19, switched to farm laws, saying, "This government and the Parliament respects farmers and will always continue to respect them".

The opposition, which has shredded him over the last two days for comments like "Andolanjeevi" and "parjeevi (parasites)" made during his last address, broke out in protests. As Speaker Om Birla repeatedly asked the members to calm down, Modi said, "The farm laws will not bring down any farmers. No mandi has been shut or Minimum Support Prices have been stopped".

"Minimum Support prices have been increased after the farm laws were formed. Moreover, farmers can now sell their goods wherever they want," he added.

Admitting that change will "always raise doubt", he tagged it with the "andolanjivi" jibe -- the one that was adopted as a badge of honour by many in parliament, including the Congress's P Chidambaram.

"Today we see andolanjeevis spoil the peaceful protest of andolankaaris. We must all know the difference. Holding posters of Naxals, terrorists, and those in jail for harming the nation amid the farmers' peaceful protests - is that not harming the farmers' cause?" he added in what appeared a dig at Akali Dal's Harsimrat Kaur Badal.

Ms Badal -- a former minister who quit PM Modi cabinet over the farm laws -- had given a fiery speech in parliament yesterday.

There were strong words for the Congress, which the BJP has repeatedly accused of instigating farmers. "No matter how much you try to sabotage it, you will fail to do so, because the truth is out there, that the farmers have not lost anything since the laws came into effect," Modi said without naming the Congress.

Then he went on to add: "The Congress today is a confused and divided party. It has reduced itself to this. Such a confused party cannot help the country or anyone... You want to shout inside Parliament, just as you do outside, then please go ahead, but hiding behind lies will never get you anywhere.

On Monday, Modi had defended his government's policies on farmers and citing predecessor Manmohan Singh, had accused the Congress of doing a volte face on farm reforms.

Today, he said reforms are "a must".

"Because of a rise in population land is divided with each generation. Chaudhary Charan Singh-ji had said once that at this rate, we are not far from a day when a farmer will not even have enough land to even turn his or her tractor around. The small farmer needs help, and we must help them, and that cannot be done without reforms," he added.

Rahul Gandhi's Twist To PM's "Andolanjeevi" Taunt In Parliament

NEW DELHI, Feb 10: Congress MP Rahul Gandhi has joined the exchange of "andolanjeevi" jibes over the protest by farmers against the three new farm laws. A word used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi two days ago in parliament that could be seen as referring to people who often participate in mass mobilisation, "andolanjeevi" was also picked up by Congress leader P Chidambaram today to take a swipe at Modi.

Replying to the Presidential address, Modi had hit out at those behind the farmer protests saying the country should beware of them. "There is a new crop of andolanjeevi. They live for protests. They look for ways to start a new movement...The country needs to be aware of these andolanjeevi," the Prime Minister told the Rajya Sabha.

The Congress has been supporting the farmers' demand for complete withdrawal of the farm laws.

Then Chidambaram tweeted to say he was a "proud andolanjeevi", and the "quintessential andolanjeevi was Mahatma Gandhi."

Hours later, Gandhi also joined the war of words, but with a variation - this time attacking what he has often called "cronies".

"Crony-jeevi is someone who is selling the country," Gandhi tweeted, rubbing in his party's stand on the farmers, who have alleged companies will be able to control the farm market once the laws kick in.

Thousands of farmers who have been camping on the Delhi-Haryana border have said they will not return home unless the three laws are withdrawn. The government has offered to discuss the laws clause by clause and even agreed to pause their implementation for one-and-a-half years, but the farmers want nothing less than total repeal of the laws.

Cong launches drive to recruit 5 lakh ‘social media warriors’

NEW DELHI, Feb 9: The Congress on Monday launched a nationwide campaign to recruit five lakh “social media warriors” to challenge the BJP in the digital space.

Former party president Rahul Gandhi said a “paid troll army” is spreading hatred and anger in the country and it was time to counter that.

“As a young person, you could see what is going on… In your schools, universities and colleges you can see the oppression. You can see the attack on the idea of India. Look outside Delhi, you can see what is happening to the farmers. The backbone of this war on the nation is a troll army… We also need warriors to defend liberal values, to defend the ideas of compassion, peace, harmony and affection,” he said.

“This is an army of truth. This is an army that will defend the idea of India. We are building this platform for you. To give you tools to fight this battle and win,” he said.

Launching a ‘Join Congress Social Media’ campaign, AICC social media head Rohan Gupta, AICC in-charge (Administration) Pawan Kumar Bansal and party spokesperson Pawan Khera said people can join through website, toll-free number or by WhatsApp.

Not sacking VK Singh insult to every jawan: Rahul Gandhi on ‘India transgressing LAC remark’

NEW DELHI, Feb 9: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi hit out at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre over its inaction against Union Minister VK Singh despite his LAC remark.

Attacking the BJP for not sacking the retired Army officer turned-politician despite his statement claiming India has transgressed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) 50 times, Rahul Gandhi said on February 9 that VK Singh is “helping China make a case against India”.

The Congress leader took the Twitter and wrote: “Why is a BJP minister helping China make a case against India? He should have been sacked. Not sacking him means insulting every Indian Jawan.”

VK Singh, who is the Minister of State for Transport and Highways had told the media on February 7: “...none of you come to know how many times we have transgressed as per our perception. Chinese media does not cover it.”

He had further said: “Let me assure you, if China has transgressed the LAC 10 times, we must have done it at least 50 times.”

China was quick to note the statement and used it to blame India for the ongoing border conflict. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said: “This is an unwitting confession by the Indian side. For a long time, the Indian side has conducted frequent acts of trespass in the border area in an attempt to encroach on China’s territory and constantly created disputes and frictions, which is the root cause of the tensions at the China-India border.”

150 feared dead in huge floods due to Uttarakhand glacier break

DEHRADUN, Feb 7: Over 150 personnel working at a power project in Tapovan-Reni area of Uttarakhand are missing and feared dead after a glacier broke off in Joshimath in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district on Sunday, causing a massive flood in the Dhauli Ganga river and endangering the lives of people living along its banks.

Speaking to newsmen, ITBP DG, SS Deswal said that 9-10 bodies have been recovered from the river. Earlier, Uttarakhand Chief Secretary Om Prakash said around 150 are feared dead.

The avalanche triggered by glacier break-off damaged the Rishi Ganga Power Project. ITBP officials say that more than 150 labourers working in a power project are feared dead of missing.

State Disaster Response Force DIG Ridhim Aggarwal said that more than 150 labourers working at the Rishi Ganga Power Project may have been directly affected.

“Representatives of the power project have told me that they are not being able to contact around 150 of their workmen at the project site,” she said.

The waters in the Dhauli Ganga, a tributary of the Ganga, is flowing two to three metres above normal. Several districts, including Pauri, Tehri, Rudraprayag, Haridwar and Dehradun, are likely to be affected and have been put on high alert.

Farmers get huge support across country during 'Chakka Jam'

NEW DELHI, Feb 6: Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the umbrella body of 40 protesting farmer unions, on Saturday said that their call for ‘Chakka Jam’ got huge support across the country, which proves that farmers all over India are united against the three central farm laws.

Darshan Pal, a farmer leader, said the unions have conveyed to the government that its proposal of keeping the laws on hold for about 18 months is unacceptable and hence, it has to come up with a new proposal for farmers.

At the end of three-hour ‘Chakka Jam’ on Saturday, Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait said the government has been given time till October 2 to repeal the controversial farm laws. “After this, we will do further planning. We will not hold discussions with the government under pressure,” he added.

On the call given by the farmers’ unions for a nationwide ‘chakka jam’ or road blockade, farmers protesting against the Centre’s new farm laws blocked roads at several places in Punjab and Haryana on Saturday.

Barring Delhi, the blockade took place in other parts of the National Capital Region, and the rest of the country. “In the interest of maintaining public safety and averting public emergency”, internet services will continue to remain suspended in Singhu, Ghazipur and Tikri, and their adjoining areas till 11:59 pm on Saturday.

In view of the nationwide ‘Chakka Jam’, the Delhi Police had strengthened security arrangements at all border points in the national capital. The police erected multi-layer barricades to stop the movement of vehicles at the Ghazipur border. Barbed wires were also put up to keep off people on foot.

As many as 50 people were detained near Shaheedi Park in central Delhi for allegedly holding a protest in support of the ‘chakka jam’ call given by the farmers agitating against the farm laws, police said.

I Won't Be Silenced, says Meena Harris On Protest Over Her Tweets

NEW DELHI, Feb 5: American lawyer Meena Harris, the niece of Vice-President Kamala Harris, has shared a photo of a protest against her over her posts in support of the farmers' agitation.

"I spoke out in support of human rights for Indian farmers, and look at the response," Meena Harris tweeted on Thursday, sharing a photo by Reuters journalist Danish Siddiqui.

"I won't be intimidated, and I won't be silenced," she added in a pinned tweet.

The 36-year-old, also an author, has been tweeting regularly since an international media report on the farmer protests and the government's crackdown led to posts from pop star Rihanna, climate activist Greta Thunberg and many others on Tuesday.

"Why aren't we talking about this?" - this post by Rihanna, who has over 100 million followers on Twitter, started a barrage of tweets that have taken the two-month-old agitation on highways outside Delhi to the global stage.

Rihanna, Meena Harris, Greta Thunberg and many others shared a CNN story on Internet being suspended near the protest sites and other moves by the government.

"We ALL should be outraged by India's internet shutdowns and paramilitary violence against farmer protesters," Meena Harris tweeted.

US backs farmers’ protest; Calls for dialogue

NEW DELHI, Feb 4: The US on Thursday called for dialogue to address the farmers’ protest in India and backed peaceful demonstrations and freedom of expression, prompting New Delhi to compare the January 26 violence at the Red Fort with the storming of the US Capitol earlier this month.

The US described peaceful protests and unhindered access to information and the internet as indicators of a “thriving democracy”, while offering support for reforms that improve and open up India’s markets to attract private investments.

The remarks by a US embassy spokesperson were the first public comments by the Biden administration on the farmers’ protest that began last November. Hours later, the ministry of external affairs said the protest must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos, and compared violence at a farmers’ rally on January 26 to the chaos during the siege of the US Capitol on January 6.

“We recognise that peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy, and note that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same,” the US embassy spokesperson said on the farmers’ protest that has increasingly attracted attention worldwide. “We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue,” the spokesperson added.

On internet restrictions at sites on the outskirts of Delhi where farmers are protesting, the spokesperson said: “We recognise that unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy.”

At the same time, the US backed reforms to open up India’s markets. “In general, the United States welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India's markets and attract greater private sector investment,” the spokesperson said.

Asked about the US position at a regular news briefing, the external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said: “Any protests must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos and polity, and the ongoing efforts of the government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse.”

Describing India and the US as vibrant democracies with shared values, Srivastava added: “The incidents of violence and vandalism at the historic Red Fort on January 26 have evoked similar sentiments and reactions in India as did the incidents on the Capitol Hill on January 6 and are being addressed as per our respective local laws.”

He said “temporary measures” on internet access in parts of the National Capital Region were “undertaken to prevent further violence”.

Despite the external affairs ministry pushing back against support for the farmers’ protest by foreign celebrities on Wednesday and describing the agitation as an internal matter, activists and entertainment personalities reiterated their backing for the farmers, mainly on social media. They were joined by lawmakers from the UK, the US and other countries.

Asked if the government believes a “motivated campaign” or an entity is behind the protest, Srivastava evaded a direct answer and said the matter is best handled within the country. “What I will say broadly is that the debate on reforming the agricultural sector is an issue best addressed by the Indian democratic polity. Those following it should have an informed and objective view,” he said.

The National Farmers Union of the US, founded in 1902, extended support to the protest in a tweet. “In India, farmers are protesting against policies that will cut into their income, give corporations more power, + erode rural communities,” the tweet said. “These issues resonate strongly w/farmers in the US, who have seen similar changes over the last several decades,” it added.

Valerie Vaz, a senior MP of Britain’s Labour Party and sister of former lawmaker Keith Vaz, wrote a letter to foreign minister Dominic Raab to reiterate concerns of her constituents regarding the farmers’ protest. The Indian-origin MP was among 35 British lawmakers who had taken up the farmers’ protest with Raab before he visited India in December.

“My constituents and I are horrified by widespread reports of police brutality against the farmers protesting these laws, who are asserting their right to peaceful protest...In several instances police have fired tear gas shells, used water cannons and ordered the suspension of internet connection for long periods of time,” she wrote in her letter.

Vaz asked Raab to contact the Indian government “as a matter of urgency regarding these concerning events”.

Happymon Jacob, columnist and associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, emphasised the need for nuance in India’s stance on global reactions to the protest. “New Delhi's sharp reactions to external criticism about its handling of the farmers' protest in the country are both ill-advised and don't befit the country's democratic traditions. In a globalised world, established democracies such as India cannot afford to push back criticism using the ‘internal matter’ argument,” he said.

The farmers’ protest against three laws – Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020, and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 – began on November 26 last year.

The government has defended the laws as necessary for long overdue reforms in the agricultural sector. After several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations with the government, the unions backing the protest decided to intensify their agitation and organised a tractor rally in the capital on Republic Day that descended into violence and chaos.

Greta Thunberg reiterates support for Farmers after Delhi Police files case

NEW DELHI, Feb 4: Greta Thunberg's controversial tweet on a "toolkit" for supporting the farmer protests was cited in a case filed today by the Delhi Police that includes charges of sedition, an overseas "conspiracy" and an attempt to "promote enmity between groups". The police said its case is against the creators of the toolkit and does not name Greta Thunberg.

The teen climate campaigner, unfazed, tweeted that she "still" stood with farmers and "no amount of threats" would change that.

Greta Thunberg's tweets in support of the protests near Delhi against farm laws are among many posts that have drawn international attention over the past two days to the farmers' agitation that began late-November. The Cyber Cell of the Delhi Police is investigating several tweets but the subject of the FIR refers to Greta Thunberg's tweet this morning on a "toolkit" guiding people on how to support the farmers' protests.

The Delhi Police said "some elements" were trying to take advantage of the farmer protests and "one account" had posted a toolkit that was authored by a group called the "Poetic Justice Foundation" that was a "Khalistani organisation".

"Taking cognizance of the toolkit, the police has registered a case for spreading disaffection against the government of India (sedition) and disharmony between groups on religious, social and cultural grounds, and criminal conspiracy to give shape to this," said Praveer Ranjan, Special Commissioner of Police.

Ranjan said the toolkit "exposes the conspiracy by an organized overseas network" to instigate the farmer protests.

Soon after the FIR was filed, Greta Thunberg doubled down on her views with a new tweet: "I still #StandWithFarmers and support their peaceful protest. No amount of hate, threats or violations of human rights will ever change that. #FarmersProtest."

The 18-year-old's first tweet came on Tuesday night, soon after pop star Rihanna posted a one-line comment sharing a CNN story.

"We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India," Greta Thunberg wrote, sharing the same CNN story about the protests and the government restricting Internet near protest sites.

Last evening she posted a "toolkit" that sought support for the farmers' Republic Day protests, which was last week. She deleted the tweet soon after. This morning, she said she was sharing an updated "toolkit", which included seven ways to back the agitation. She also suggested organising protests near the closest Indian embassy on February 13 and 14.

The government, in an extraordinary and sharp response to the international tweets yesterday, warned against the "temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments" and said the protests were by "a very small section of farmers" in parts of India.

"Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken. The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible," the foreign ministry said in a statement using the hashtags IndiaTogether and IndiaAgainstPropaganda.

The hashtags became the theme of a major pushback from ministers, Bollywood stars and sportspersons who stressed in their posts that India's government was handling the farmer protests through talks and that India's sovereignty could not be compromised.

 

Rihanna, Greta Thunberg Speak Up for Farmers' Protest

NEW DELHI, Feb 3: Popular singer Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg on Tuesday brought international attention to the farmers’ protest.

While this prompted a host of other global celebrities to express their support to the farmers’ protest, Rihanna and Thunberg also became the target of a vicious troll campaign in India.

The 32-year-old singer from Barbados, who has over 100 million followers on Twitter, took to the microblogging site and shared a CNN news article headlined, “India cuts internet around New Delhi as protesting farmers clash with police.”

“Why aren’t we talking about this? #FarmersProtest,” Rihanna wrote.

The singer’s tweet gained instant traction on Twitter, with more than two lakh retweets and four lakh likes within hours.

Teenage activist Thunberg also shared the CNN article, but was more explicit in her support. “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India,” she wrote.

Rihanna’s tweet was lauded by Bollywood actors Richa Chadha and Swara Bhasker, who have been vocal supporters of the agitation. Actor Kangana Ranaut, who has aligned herself with the BJP, criticised Rihanna and labelled the protesting farmers as “terrorists”.

The ‘Umbrella’ singer was hailed by a section of social media users for speaking up at a time when many Bollywood celebrities have stayed mum on the issue. Last year, Punjabi star Gippy Grewal criticised the Hindi film industry for not standing up for farmers.

Only a few stars from Bollywood have come out in support of farmers. These include Diljit Dosanjh, Taapsee Pannu, Richa Chadha, Sonu Sood, filmmaker Hansal Mehta, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Divya Dutta and Neha Sharma.

Popular YouTuber Lilly Singh, whose channel is called Superwoman, shared Rihanna’s tweet and thanked the singer. “This is a humanity issue! #IStandWithFarmers and this narrative is TIRED,” she wrote.

Another young climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, also expressed support to the farmers. In a tweet, she tagged Licypriya Kangujam, a nine-year-old climate activist from Manipur.

US vice president Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris said everyone should be “outraged by India’s internet shutdowns and paramilitary violence against farmer protesters”. She added that “as we speak, the most populous democracy is under assault”.

Other politicians such as US Representative Jim Acosta and British MP Claudia Webb, activist Jamie Margolin, actor John Cusack, also expressed support.

The international attention to the farmers’ protest has come at a time when the sites of their protest at Delhi’s borders have turned into fortresses. Police have put up multi-layer barricades and fences to stop the movement of vehicles. Internet services have also been suspended.

The strengthened security measures come after clashes during the Republic Day tractor parade.

Thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, have been camping at several Delhi border points since November last year, demanding the government to repeal the three farm laws and legal guarantee of minimum support price (MSP) for their crops.

Sensationalist Social Media Comments Are Not Responsible: MEA on Rihanna, Greta’s Comments

NEW DELHI, Feb 3: With Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and many other prominent foreign voices taking the farmers' protest to the world stage with their tweets, the government today put out a sharp and unprecedented response warning against the "temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments" and said the protests were by "a very small section of farmers" in parts of India.

"We would like to emphasise that these protests must be seen in the context of India's democratic ethos and polity, and the efforts of the government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse," the foreign ministry said in the statement , which included the hashtags #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.

"Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken. The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible."

The government said the Parliament of India after debate and discussion passed "reformist legislation relating to the agricultural sector" and the reforms "give expanded market access and provided greater flexibility to farmers." The laws also paved the way for economically and ecologically sustainable farming, the foreign ministry stressed.

"A very small section of farmers in parts of India have some reservations about these reforms," said the statement, adding that the government, "respecting the sentiments of the protestors", has initiated talks. "The Government has even offered to keep the laws on hold, an offer iterated by no less than the Prime Minister of India," the government said.

"Yet, it is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them. This was egregiously witnessed on January 26, India's Republic Day. A cherished national commemoration, the anniversary of the inauguration of the Constitution of India, was besmirched, and violence and vandalism took place in the Indian capital.

"Some of these vested interest groups have also tried to mobilise international support against India. Instigated by such fringe elements, Mahatma Gandhi statues have been desecrated in parts of the world. This is extremely disturbing for India and for civilised society everywhere."

The government said the police had handled the protests with utmost restraint. "It may be noted that hundreds of men and women serving in the police have been physically attacked, and in some cases stabbed and seriously wounded. We would like to emphasise that these protests must be seen in the context of India's democratic ethos and polity, and the efforts of the Government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse."

The statement comes after pop star Rihanna and climate campaigner Greta Thunberg came out in support of the farmers' protest against three central laws. Even US Vice President Kamala Harris's niece Meena Harris wrote a post.

Lawmakers from the US and UK also tweeted about the agitation that began late November on highways just outside Delhi against three laws that they fear will hurt them by taking away guaranteed minimum prices for their crops and by leaving them open to exploitation by big corporates.

At Haryana Farmers' Mahapanchayat, Rakesh Tikait's 'Gaddi Wapsi' Warning

JIND, Feb 3: A huge crowd gathered today at Jind in Haryana for a farmers' "mahapanchayat" or meeting to push for the repeal of three new laws at the heart of farmer protests outside Delhi since November. While several such gatherings have been seen in the past few days in Uttar Pradesh, today's meeting took it to Haryana's Jat heartland.

Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait addressed the gathering at Jind, considered the epicenter of Jat politics in Haryana. Tikait and several others were on the stage when it suddenly collapsed under their weight, briefly interrupting the meeting.

Tikait, a Jat leader from Uttar Pradesh, appealed to people not to panic after the accident. He warned the government that it would find it difficult to stay in power if the new laws are not repealed.

"We have so far talked about 'bill wapsi' (repealing the farm laws). The government should listen carefully. What will you do if the youth call for 'gaddi wapsi' (removal from power)?" he questioned.

It was Tikait's tearful appeal last week that led to a resurgence of the farmer agitation after a backlash over the Republic Day tractor rally violence, when protesters broke through barricades and clashed with the police.

After the January 26 violence, the police have barricaded the protest sites outside Delhi's borders with cement barriers and spikes on the roads. "When the king is scared, he secures the fortress," Mr Tikait said.

The village Kandela, where the mahapanchayat was held today, was the first in the region to have sent men to Tikait's sit-in at the Delhi-UP Ghazipur border in response to the viral video of the farmer leader in tears.

Five resolutions were passed at the "mahapanchayat". Apart from the demand that the government withdraw the farm laws, the resolutions called for a legal guarantee of minimum support price for crops, a farm loan waiver and the release of farmers arrested after the violence on Republic Day.

Several khap leaders - khaps or self-appointed village arbiters enjoy immense influence in large parts of rural Haryana - attended the mahapanchayat.

Tekram Kandela, who heads the Sarv Jatiya Kandela Khap, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah should directly meet with the protesting farmers, who have so far been in talks with Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar.

Support for the farmers in Jind may translate into a backlash mainly for BJP's Haryana ally Dushyant Chautala, whose party has three MLAs in this district. Chautala is among them. His party fears that not breaking ties with the BJP over the farm laws may cost it in polls.

Farmers’ agitation intensifies beyond Delhi borders as new venues emerge

NEW DELHI, Feb 3: The over two-month-long protest against the Centre’s three new agriculture laws has slowly but steadily stretched out of the borders of Delhi. The protests, which kickstarted on November 26 last year, had largely been centered around a few borders of Delhi but post the violence during a tractor rally on Republic Day, the agitation has found new grounds in Haryana, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh.

The three laws that farmers want repealed are — Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Farmers Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.

These are the places where farmers’ are protesting:

Delhi

Singhu and Tikri borders in Delhi have remained the epicentre of farmers’ agitation since it began on November 26 last year, populated mostly by farmers from Haryana and Punjab. Several activists and Punjabi film personalities, including Diljit Dosanjh, visited the Singhu border to lend support to the movement. However, the crowds at these borders have thinned after the Republic Day violence and subsequent police crackdown.

The Ghazipur border, connecting Delhi to Uttar Pradesh through NH-24 Delhi-Meerut Highway, is mostly occupied by farmers from Uttar Pradesh and led by Bharatiya Kisan Union (Arajnaitik) leader Rakesh Tikait. Like Singhu and Tikri border, the protests at Ghazipur border lost some steam after January 26 violence as Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan led by V M Singh ended their agitation.

The police have erected multi-layer barricades to stop the movement of vehicles at the Ghazipur border. Barbed wire has also been put up to keep off people on foot.

Leaders of Kisan Ekta Morcha address the crowd at Ghazipur border.
On January 28, the passage between Delhi-Noida at the Chilla border was clear after nearly two months, with protesting farmers packing after Bharatiya Kisan Union (Bhanu), led by Bhanu Pratap Singh, announced that they are withdrawing from the agitation.

Farmers at Palwal, who had been protesting on NH-19 for over a month, decided to pack up on January 28, with leaders citing the low number of protesters as the reason for the decision. Jaswant Singh, one of the spokespersons at the site, told The Indian Express, “We decided to return home, keeping in mind the low number of protesters here. Ours was anyway a smaller protest site than the others… We may come back a few days later, with more tractors and in a larger number.”

The farmers, mostly from Madhya Pradesh, were carrying out a peaceful protest on NH-19 since December 4 after police refused to permit them to move closer to Delhi.

Haryana

Following administration and internet curbs at Delhi borders post Republic Day violence, the border areas of Haryana have emerged as the hubs of farmers’ agitation. On February 2, thousands of farmers vowed to wage a long battle against the three farm laws at the Landhri toll plaza on Hisar-Sirsa national highway near Hisar.

The farmers also blocked the Patiala-Jind-Rohtak-Delhi national highway at Khatkar toll plaza near Narwana town along the Jind and Hisar-Chandigarh national highway Tuesday to oppose internet curbs in some parts of the state.

On Monday night, the farmers had blocked the Jind-Chandigarh highway at Kandela village for some time.

On Wednesday, February 3, two mega mahapanchayats were held in Haryana. The khap mahapanchayat at Khandela village in Jind district was attended by Rakesh Tikait, who reiterated his demand to repeal the new farm laws.

Other parts of the country have seen sporadic protests and rallies taken out in support of farmers. Though the farmers from states other than Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh did participate in the protest sites in Delhi, no new standpoint of farm law agitation could be seen in other states.

On Wednesday, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella organisation of over 40-farmer groups, stated that their movement is gaining steam through organisation of kisan mahapanchayats in Uttar Pradesh, Dabra and Phulbagh in Madhya Pradesh, Mehndipur in Rajasthan.

“Farmers from Rajasthan and Punjab are reaching the Shahjahanpur border continuously. After the atrocities of the government, farmers have again started a dharna at Palwal border. In the coming days, a large number of farmers will reach this site from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan,” the statement read.

The farmers have announced to hold a grand rally at Rajasthan’s Duasa district headquarter on February 6.

Diljit Dosanjh Releases Song on Rihanna After She Supports Farmers’ Protest

MUMBAI, Feb 3: Punjabi singer-actor Diljit Dosanjh on Wednesday released his latest track dedicated to international pop star Rihanna, less than 24 hours after she voiced her support for the ongoing farmers’ agitation in the country.

The 2.16 minute-long Punjabi number draws its title, ‘RIRI (Rihanna)’, from the Grammy-winning artiste’s nickname.

The audio track, which was released on Dosanjh’s YouTube channel around 1:30 pm, has been penned by lyricist Raj Ranjodh, with music by Intense.

The song acknowledges Rihanna’s Caribbean roots, with the opening lines describing the singer as a “beautiful woman from Barbados” with “shining, bright eyes” who “spreads colours” all around her.

According to the lyrics, Dosanjh, 37, thanked God for sending “this angel on earth”, before further expressing his wish to gift the singer a Patiala suit and jhaanjhar [pair of heavy anklets].

“All Punjabis are your fans, people are jealous of your fanbase,” he sings.

On Tuesday, Rihanna shared a CNN news article with her 100 million followers on Twitter, calling out the internet shutdown at the protest sites near Kaithal, Panipat, Jind, Rohtak, Charkhi Dadri, Sonipat and Jhajjar districts in Haryana.

“Why aren’t we talking about this? #FarmersProtest,” the 32-year-old singer wrote.

After Rihanna lent her support to farmers, international names such as climate activist Greta Thunberg and former porn star Mia Khalifa also joined the discourse.

In December last year, Dosanjh, known for Udta Punjab and Good Newwz, joined the farmers’ protests at Delhi’s Singhu border, asked the demonstrators to be patient and peaceful in their agitation and requested the government to accept their demands.

Build Bridges, Not Walls: Rahul Gandhi's Swipe At Centre

New Delhi, Feb 2: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi today shared pictures of barricades and concertina wires placed near farmer protest sites at border joints near Delhi with a four-word message to the government - "build bridges, not walls".

Farmers' protest sites at Delhi's borders have turned into fortresses with police increasing security and strengthening barricades.

At Delhi's border with Uttar Pradesh, police have placed concertina wires between four layers of yellow barricades to stop farmers from crossing over into the national capital by the Ghazipur-Meerut highway.

Police cover have been also increased at the Delhi-Haryana border, where police personnel hooked iron rods between two rows of cement barriers on a flank of the main highway at the Singhu border to further restrict the movement of protesters.

Another portion of the highway at the border is practically blocked now as a makeshift cement wall has come up there, according to news agency Press Trust of India.

Last week, Mr Gandhi alleged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was "weakening" India by "attacking" farmers. "PM is weakening India by attacking our farmers and workers. Only anti-national forces will benefit," Mr Gandhi had tweeted.

This morning, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra also slammed the government over the issue.

The government and protesting farmers have not been able to break the deadlock over the controversial farm laws despite multiple level of talks.

The situation has deteriorated further with farmers calling for a countrywide "chakka jam" protest on Saturday - their latest agitation, after the January 26 tractor rally that saw violence in the heart of the national capital.

Thousands of farmers, mostly from Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, have been protesting at several border points into Delhi since November-end, demanding repeal of the three laws and a legal guarantee to the minimum support system for their crops.

Enacted last September, the three laws have been projected by the Centre as major reforms in the agriculture sector that will remove middlemen and allow farmers to sell their produce anywhere in the country.

However, the protesting farmers have expressed their apprehension that the new laws would pave the way for eliminating the safety cushion of the MSP and do away with the wholesale market system, leaving them at the mercy of big corporates.

 

 



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