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The many facets of the bond that held India and France together in 2020

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By all means, 2020 was an exceptionally memorable year for the special friendship and the 22-year-old ‘strategic partnership’ between India and France, ranging from the political and diplomatic levels to cooperation in defence and space sectors. Here, I explore how.

Unprecedented joint patrols in the Indian Ocean in February

The story of Indo-French cooperation in 2020 began with a coordinated patrol (CORPAT) by the Indian and French navies, decided in the previous year, operating from the French island of Reunion in the western Indian Ocean for the first time, in February, focusing on the stretch between the East African coastline and the Strait of Malacca. Until that point, India has engaged in such joint patrols only with its Asian maritime neighbours and had rejected a similar offer made by the US, which operates a base in Diego Garcia, before.

India’s entry to the Francophone Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) as observer in March

The 1982-established, Mauritius-headquartered Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) is the oldest region-specific grouping of five nations in the western section of the Indian Ocean comprising of Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros, Madagascar and France (Reunion), all French-speaking and the organisation is mainly led by France.

India, geographically closer to maritime South and Southeast Asia, had to wait till 2020, despite being a regional power on its own terms and a widely-accepted ‘first responder’ in the Indian Ocean Region, to get admitted to the IOC as an observer along with Japan and the United Nations. Notably, China has been an observer since 2016.

The island-states in the western Indian Ocean, closer to Eastern African coastline, bear a French colonial past and speak French. India has always concentrated its multilateral diplomatic engagements in the region with the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), established in 1997.

The overseas department of Reunion, that largely justifies French presence in the region, is not just any other far-away territory of France, but it is rather the closest slice of France and Europe for India in its own backyard, the Indian Ocean.

Renowned journalist and writer of Asian affairs, Bertil Linter, write about the island of Reunion, “Everyone here is a French citizen and the island is part of the European Union. The currency is the Euro and the flags of France and the EU flutter over government buildings … people vote in French elections. The nine-hour flight from this island in the Indian Ocean to Paris is considered domestic…” 

This makes France an important power in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. By combining all its overseas territories and departments, France has the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world, of which 90% lies in the Indo-Pacific region.

India’s observer status at the IOC since March, apparently materialised with French support, opens up a wide range of new possibilities for maritime cooperation between these two maritime powers.

India’s heroic welcome for French-made Rafale fighter jets in July

In spite of all domestic controversies in India surrounding the purchase and deal-making of the Rafale fighter jets, the first batch of these combat-proven aircrafts, made by the French aerospace company Dassault Aviation, arrived in the northern Indian air base of Ambala in July, it was received with a heroic welcome.

It was also the time when the tensions with China in the high Himalayas were at a new high following a border skirmish that occurred in the previous month killing 20 Indian soldiers. The optics were so high in India, in particular, as the public started to see France as a mighty friend on India’s side against any more potential Chinese misadventure.

The second batch of aircrafts arrived in November, and a total of 36 Rafale omnirole fighter jets would be handed over to India by mid-2022 under a deal signed in 2016 amounting to nearly 600 billion Indian rupees.

Visit of the French Defence Minister to India in September

In her third official visit to India since 2017, France’s Defence Minister, Florence Parly, personally showed up in India in September, amid the pandemic, to attend the operational induction ceremony of the first batch of the Rafales by the Indian Air Force, further strengthening military-to-military partnership between the two countries.

During the ceremony, the French Minister said France has always stood beside India both through good and bad times and reinforced willingness to cooperate in maritime, air, space, and cyber domains and in the wider Indo-Pacific region, of which France is also a major power, by virtue of its presence in the western Indian Ocean. Today, France considers India as its foremost Asian strategic partner.

India’s support for France following multiple terror incidents in France in October

Narendra Modi was the first non-Western world leader to openly support French President Emmanuel Macron in his efforts to tackle the threat posed by jihadist radicalisation and extremism within France, following the brutal killings by beheading and stabbing that occurred in the French cities of Paris and Nice in October.

Even before, the personal bon-homie between the two leaders was at full display during Modi’s France visit in August, last year and during Macron’s India visit in March 2018. The fact that both countries face the common threat of jihadi terror brings them closer to cooperate in counter-terrorism and security.

Rising cooperation between the French and Indian space agencies

In September 2020, French space agency CNES (National Centre for Space Studies) has confirmed that France will take part in the Venus mission of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), scheduled for 2025, and for the first time a French payload will be flown on an Indian exploration mission.

This comes as a result of the Joint Vision for Space Cooperation agreed between India and France two years back, in 2018. France has also assured its support for India’s first human space flight mission, Gaganyaan, planned for 2022, including by arranging special training programmes and by offering other kinds of technical support.

Time-tested partners – a look back

France’s history of diplomatic engagement with India begins right at the year of India’s independence in 1947. It voluntarily ceded its former colonial possessions in southern India to India in 1962 by a treaty.

In 1998, when India declared itself a nuclear state following a planned and overseen atomic bomb explosion in the desert of northwestern state of Rajasthan, France was among the very few countries that restrained from condemning it and in the same year, the relationship with India was upgraded to a ‘strategic partnership’, in a recognition of India’s rationale for a credible nuclear deterrent to discourage an attack from its hostile neighbours to the east and west.

The following years saw cooperation between both countries in the fields of space, defence and civil nuclear trade. In 2008, France and India signed an agreement for civil nuclear cooperation.

In 2009, the Indian armed forces even participated in the French national day parade in Paris, the first time an Indian military contingent registered their presence in the national day parade of another country.

In 2018, during Macron’s visit to India, both countries agreed to improve the interoperability of each other’s military bases and to expand the operational reach of each other’s armed forces by signing the Agreement for the Provision of Reciprocal Logistics Support.

Being a permanent member at the UN Security Council holding the veto-power, France has supported India’s stand at the world body on multiple occasions such as turning the tables on a China-sponsored closed-door meeting on Jammu and Kashmir in India’s favour in 2019. Paris has also backed a UN resolution on designating Pakistan-based jihadi leader Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.

Today, France’s support for India and vice-versa goes beyond the security domain to economic, educational and cultural levels. Paris supports New Delhi’s bid for membership at the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group, and also for permanent membership at the UN Security Council. This special partnership of two key civilizational states and democracies is expected only to get strengthened further in the years to come.

Bejoy Sebastian is an independent journalist based in India who regularly writes, tweets, and blogs on issues relating to international affairs and geopolitics, particularly of the Asia-Pacific region. He also has an added interest in documentary photography. Previously, his bylines have appeared in The Diplomat, The Kochi Post, and Delhi Post.

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More about how democracy should be elected -Interview with Tannisha Avarrsekar

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Tannisha Avarrsekar. Image source: startocure.com

Tannisha Avarrsekar, a political activist who wants to increase equality in the representation of political candidates in India. In this interview, Tannisha discusses more about her journey, political beliefs and her platform Lokatantra.

Why did you start Lokatantra?

I started it because I wanted to make politics more accessible for the youth.

I moved to London for my undergrad when I was 18, so 2019 was the first election that I was able to vote in. But after I came back, I found that gathering information about the registration process, as well as probable candidates took more time and effort than it should.

I began realizing that for citizens like me, who wanted to be more politically aware or socially conscious, there was the dearth of a platform where they could educate themselves and engage with those they were considering electing. And that’s how Lokatantra came along.

Tell us more about Lokatantra.

Lokatantra.in is an online political platform that aims to make the youth more politically aware and socially conscious. It attempts to bridge the gap between voters and politicians by empowering voters with comprehensive information about their candidates and the voting process, after verifying its authenticity and organizing it in a manner that makes it quick and easy to understand. It also does telephone voter registrations for those having trouble with it.

On the flip side, the social enterprise also collects data on citizens’ opinions on key issues through polls and surveys, and then analyses and publishes the results, to aid in the decision-making of leaders. In this way, the platform sheds light on the accomplishments of politicians- especially independents who can’t afford expensive campaigns, as well as the troubles of the common man.

The Lokatantra.in website and mobile application prides itself on its treasury of information about each and every candidate from the Mumbai City district. This extensive material includes details about these candidates’ educational qualifications, past political affiliations, career highlights, controversies, criminal records, and standpoints on critical debates. The platform also allows users to ask candidates questions, as well as rate them so as to help other voters from their constituency make their choice.

What do you think can make journalism more neutral?

More crowdfunded platforms. Limits on investments by big corporations, and complete transparency in the finances of media houses. Also, stricter penalties on misinformation.

Why is equal representation in politics important?

Equal representation in politics is important because it encourages newer political faces and fresh ideas into our country’s governance, which has been largely polarized and dominated by big political parties, with old loyalists and deep pockets. It allows us to choose our leaders based on more than just their party symbol and spending power, and instead take into account their character, ideology and objectives.

How is Lokatantra a unique platform? What do you do differently?

Before an election, Lokatantra interviews all the candidates standing, with a uniform questionnaire to gather their opinions on issues that play a key role in deciding who to vote for and are yet often not a part of mainstream discourse. The answers from these interviews are then fed into an algorithm, which allows voters to answer the very same questions, and then ranks the candidates in their constituency based on how much their political opinions match. What makes this quiz truly extraordinary is the fact that it takes into account the nuances of one’s answers, by letting you weigh how much each issue affects your vote.

We also spend a lot of time answering personal questions and engaging in individual conversations about politics, with members of our community that message us.

Tell us more about your personal political affiliations.

As the face of a politically neutral platform, I’m not permitted to have political affiliations. But I would describe my personal ideology as socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

What do you think are the biggest electoral problems India is facing at the moment and what do you think are the solutions?

I think it is the shocking mass disappearances of voter names from electoral lists, which has caused erosion of public faith in the democratic process.

A colleague of mine- Siddhant Kesnur and I, recently wrote a policy memo about the solutions to this, and if I had to pick one that I think would be most effective it would be stopping the misuse of the ECI’s Form 7, which is an application for voter deletion that ridiculously enough can be sent on behalf of any citizen by any citizen. Simply communicating the receipt of this form to those on whose behalf it has come in, would significantly curb its abuse.

What do you think will pose the greatest challenge to India’s growth in the future?

The move from patriotism to nationalism. In May 2018, Kaushik Basu the economist had cautioned Bangladesh saying that “vibrant economies have been derailed by zealotry many times throughout history”. He had given three examples to support his point: (1) the golden era of economic growth in Arab cities like Damascus and Baghdad which passed when religious fundamentalism began to spread about a thousand years ago (2) Portugal’s position as a global power in the 15th-16th century, which ended when Christian fanaticism became it’s driving political force, and (3) Pakistan’s economy, which after performing fairly decently started slipping from 2005 onwards because of military rule and Islamic fundamentalism.

It makes me sorry to say that the extremist rhetoric we witness in India these days is an alarming harbinger of this kind of zealotry, which has the potential of not just derailing us economically but also causing lasting damage to the social and cultural fabric of our nation.

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India: Metamorphosis from disinformation to stark lies

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When European Disinfo Lab exposed India’s disinformation network, India apologized. But, the portents are that India continued spreading disinformation, nay stark lies against Pakistan. India’s usual modus operandi was  to employ dubious  thinktanks and journalists of doubtful credentials to tarnish Pakistan’s image. For instance, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a registered Canadian charity, published a Pakistan-bashing report ‘Khalistan—A project of Pakistan’ which found mention in almost all leading Indian newspapers. Now, Indian government  has told its Supreme Court that farmers’ protest in India are being pro-Pakistan and pro-Khalistan elements. The SC has called upon Indian government to submit an affidavit about its allegation along with corroborative evidence.

Another pro-India “thinktank”, spouting venom against Pakistan is the “International Terrorism Observatory”. It is chaired by Roland Jacquard. Prestigious French newspaper Le Monde (The World) pointed out in 2015; he is the only member “without publications, without a website, without postal address and without any legal existence”. He runs a bookstore stacked with books on “networks of Islamist terrorism’. According to journalists Didier Bigo, Laurent Bonelli and Thomas Deltombe, Roland Jacquard’s claim of being a media expert is questionable.

 India-sponsored think tank  International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies run by Srivastava Group of India shot into limelight when it paid for the travel and accommodation of an unofficial far-right delegation of 23 European Union parliamentarians to Srinagar on October 30, 2013. The trip was arranged by Indian intelligence surrogate, Madi Sharma, who posed as a self-styled “international business broker”.

India’s metamorphosis from disinformation to stark lies

It appears India has now realized that its disinformation is losing clout. So, instead of banking on dubious journalists and think tanks, it has begun to churn out lies against Pakistan through its own agencies, including the prestigious India Today.

Almost all media outlets and TV channels disseminated the false report that an ex diplomat  has admitted that India did actually kills 300 men in Balakot  air strike on February 26, 2019. Some channels have retracted the false rreport while others are staying mum.

What did the news agency ANI say?

The statement falsely attributed to diplomat Agha Hilaly was carried by several news organisation, including India Today, and was based on an input by news agency ANI. The News agency ANI quoted Pakistani diplomat Agha Hilaly as saying, “India crossed the international border and did an act of war in which at least 300 were reported dead. Our target was different from theirs. We targeted their high command. That was our legitimate target because they are men of the military. We subconsciously accepted that a surgical strike — a limited action — did not result in any casualty. Now we have subconsciously told them that, whatever they will do, we’ll do only that much and won’t escalate.”

Truth

The video was misattributed and the quote was actually a snippet of a larger quote made by former diplomat Zafar Hilaly in a television debate.The full quote by Zafar Hilaly is as follows:: What India did was an act of war. By crossing the international boundary India committed an act of war in which they intended to kill at least 300 people. Coincidentally, they [Pakistani people] did not die and India bombed a football field. “Hilaly has also said that the viral video is edited and does not represent his full quote. He also shared the full video on his Twitter account. A fact-check by “Alt News” found that the comments were misreported and the ex-diplomat who made the comments was “Zafar Hilaly”.In the debate posted on YouTube by HUM news as part of a program called “Agenda Pakistan”, Hilaly  had said, “What you did, India, was an act of war. India ne jo kiya, international boundary ko cross karke ek act of war. Jisme kam se kam 300 logo ko unhone marna tha. (What India did was an act of war. By crossing the international boundary India committed an act of war in which they intended to kill at least 300 people).”Zafar Hilaly also tweeted a video saying his statement was spliced and edited. Alt News said a version of the video posted on Twitter had an abrupt cut “around 0:7-0:9 seconds” and the word “marna (to kill)” sounds as if Hilaly said “mara (killed)”. The news has since been removed by websites.

Conclusion

A basic principle of disinformation is ‘never lose sight of truth’.  A half-truth or even .005 per cent to 5% untruth, a twisted truth, or sometimes a truth concealed may appeal more to readers or viewers than a stark lie.  Goebels is not alive to tell that he never said ‘the bigger the lie the more it will be believed’. Pathological lying is not the art of disinformation. Psychologists would tell that, even under stress, a mature person would suppress truth rather than tell a lie.

Richard Deacon  says,  ‘Truth twisting…unless it is conducted with caution and great attention to detail, it will inevitably fail, if practiced too often… It is not the deliberate lie which we have to fear (something propaganda), but the half-truth, the embellished truth and the truth dressed up to appear a something quite different’ (The Truth Twisters, London, Macdonald & Company (Publishers) Limited, 1986/1987, p. 8). 

He gives several example of disinformation including sublimininal disinformation by which the truth can be twisted so that the distortion is unconsciously absorbed, something which both television and radio commentators have subtly perfected’. (Ibid. p. 9).

Role of India’s foremost intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), in conducting disinformation campaigns has, by and large, remained hidden from the media watch.  It is now being exposed. RAW is burning midnight oils to exploit USA’s sensitivity about certain ticklish subjects like Hawala transactions for funneling funds to “terrorists’, nuclear proliferation, use of missiles to hit aircraft, and development of chemical biological and nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

The RAW’s disinformation campaign, often bordering on lying, is well reflected by innocuous-looking news (unsupported by reference to information sources) that appear, from time to time, in Indian media. Hilaly debacle is a case in point.

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Casteism inside RSS, and its’ abhorrence

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Dr Ambedkar, the architect of Indian Constitution, believed that ‘RSS is a dangerous association’. The latest to join this belief is Bhanwar Maghwanshi, a former RSS worker and also the author of the book ‘I could not be Hindu’ (2020)

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At the age of 13, Bhanwar Maghwanshi joined RSS. Instead of playing, learning and exploring, he opted to do something ‘bigger’ in his life. But, unfortunately, he was shocked to learn how RSS practices casteism without using the term ‘Dalit’ in its shakhas. He was active with RSS, as a sevak, during the so-called Janmbhoomi movement of Ayodhya in late 1980s. In his panchayat in Rajasthan, he never listened to azan or interacted with any Muslim – in person, but developed strong abhorrence for the Muslims when he was learning ‘skills’ in RSS. His dad was a Congress activist and discouraged him to join RSS (because, for him, RSS would never want ‘brahmin’ sevaks to sacrifice their lives) but BhanwarMeghwanshi – on positive note – entered RSS.

RSS is a hydra of Hindutva, Hindu Nationalism and Hindu Rashtra. BJP is its outcome. Since 2014, India is witnessing a systemic degradation of free speech, social equity, human development, economy, environment and women safety. The Modi government came to power in 2014 chanting ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ slogan but unfortunately it transformed India into ‘new’ India with the maxims of ‘minimum governance, maximum statism’. One of the oldest, yet contemporary, [social] statism is casteism. It’s 21st century and the elements of caste as a whole continues to haunt the democratic features of India. A recent NCRB data suggests that India is unsafe for Dalit and Adivasi girls. There’s an increase of 300% in hate crimes. The architect of India’s constitution Dr Ambedkar was ‘untouchable’ and had come to conclusions that Hinduism can’t be reformed. He chose Buddhism in October 1956 and found emancipation through the teachings of Buddha. The same is the case with BhanwarMeghwanshi who is an Ambedkarite today, learned a different version of Ambedkar in his RSS years. Even God knows that RSS has appropriated Dr Ambedkar conveniently, for its own political agenda.

Bhanwar’s ethnographic encounter in his book “I could not be Hindi – the story of a Dalit in the RSS” is essential to refute the pseudo-science of RSS or Hindutva trollers on the subjects of Islam, untouchability and other narratives. The book sheds a detailed light on what RSS is, casteism in the RSS, and how RSS makes its ground in the society. Navayana Publishing House mustered the courage to publish the book, unlike other ‘popular’ publishing houses, according to Bhanwar. He dreamt of becoming a ‘pracharak’ but was stopped to become a ‘vistarak’ because of his ‘caste’ and this is where he learned that he is a lesser Hindu than other Hindus in RSS. He left RSS after a very bitter experience. He writes, “We had organised an event of Sangh in my hometown, I was heading the event as I was the most active and passionate worker in my area. I had planned to make food at my home only for the senior guests and the priests who would join the event. My father strongly opposed and said that they would never eat food cooked by us. I did not listen to him. I cooked good Rajasthani food with pure ghee and invited them. They did not come home but said that ‘you just pack the food we will eat it in the next village, as we are running out of time’. I packed the food for them, I later learned that they did not have my food but threw it in a naala (gutter). As the district chief, I got angry with them and asked the reason, but did not get satisfactory answers. I was reminded of my father’s words that ‘people like us did not own any place in the Sangh’, it solely belongs to the upper castes.”

The book smashes the rosy picture of RSS and explains that the Dalits’ role in RSS is mere foot soldiers for the communal polarisation and Hindutva activities. In an interview to Caravan magazine (14th March 2020), Bhanwar Meghwanshi made it clear that “In the eyes of the Sangh, the Hindu Rashtra is a Brahmin nation with the varna system, the four vedas and the Manusmriti. The Sangh wants to run the nation on this very base. I feel that in the Sangh’s Hindu Rashtra, shudras or untouchables will be slaves, and Muslims, heretics or foreigners, will be given a second-class status.”

In this memoir, Bhanwar also writes that in his village, low caste people joined the RSS in large numbers: “Of the fifty or so children who attended the shakha in my village, most were OBCs—Kumhar, Jat, Gurjar, Mali and so on.” They joined because of the Sanskritization processes and because of the games they played in the shakha, but they resided for ideological reasons too as, slowly, they learnt that “hindukhatre main hai” (Hindus are in danger) because of Muslims and Christians. He also recalls that, while in the Sangh, he “heard a lot about weapons being stored in the basements of mosques” and that getting rid of the Babri Masjid was like “a second battle for independence”.

Bhanwar is not new in this race. A sarcastic letter authored by a Dalit activist P.D. Shelare, on 13/1/1934, published in ‘Janata’ divulged about casteism or caste segregation practices in some shakhas of RSS. Shelareratiocinated that RSS was aware of the practices but it did not react. It’s obvious to learn that Hinduism is incomplete without casteism. The caste practices made me leave Hinduism too, on 30th December 2018. I adopted Buddhism, on par with Dr Ambedkar’s teachings. While reading the book, I could resonate my experiences too. In the current landscape, interactions and social relations have changed a lot. Caste dynamics too. To add to the woes, love jihad law will further strengthen more endogamy and discourage intercaste marriages. Dining with Dalits alone would not bring about social changes. The ‘safe space’ for the dissents and Dalits is diminishing, whereas love for hatred is openly normalised. 

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