Friday, November 29, 2019

Quote of the day

“The alliance partners commit to uphold the secular values enshrined in the Constitution." Yup, that’s the opening line of the Common Minimum Programme of the Shiv Sena-led coalition government in Maharashtra—the party of Bal Thackeray, and once the flag-bearer of militant Hindu nationalism. The next line reads: "On contentious issues… especially having repercussions/consequences on the secular fabric of the nation, the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress will take a joint view after holding consultations and arriving at a consensus." That’s two ‘seculars’ in a row! Is it a new era in Sena politics or just words on a page? The Telegraph has more.

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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A US immigration scam to trap foreign students

This is a bizarre tale of how US immigration agencies set up a fake university to lure international students—most of them Indian. And they then arrested 250 of them for immigration fraud. 

What happened here? The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently arrested 90 international students enrolled in the University of Farmington, Michigan. This is just the latest round of arrests connected to this university. Earlier this year, ICE charged 160 other students, taking the total up to 250. But here’s the kicker: Farmington is a fake institution set up by ICE to trap international students. 

Wait, what? In 2015, ICE agents set up an undercover sting operation called ‘Paper Chase’. The aim: to catch foreign students who enrol in fake colleges in order to stay in the country. And here’s how it worked:

  • They created a dummy institution called University of Farmington in January, 2016. It was then accredited and listed by the Department of Homeland Security as a certified school. Even better, it was listed on the ICE website as an approved university

  • The university had a very convincing (and now defunct) website—where it advertised its program as so: “Our dynamic business administration and STEM curriculum allows students to rapidly apply their knowledge; preparing them to succeed in an ever-globalizing economy.” 

  • The fees were highly reasonable: $8,500 a year for undergraduates and $11,000 a year for graduate students.

  • Fake university officials interacted with applicants via emails that touted Farmington’s many virtues, promising: “We offer flexible class schedules and a focus on students who do not want to interrupt their careers.” This made it especially attractive to those applying for graduate degrees. 

  • By the end of the operation, the university had enrolled 600 students.

  • Point to note: Farmington had no campus or instructors, and held zero classes. 

Who are these students? Most of the students are from India and China. According to the Washington Post, the majority of the 145 Indians who were arrested earlier this year are Telugu.

Did they apply from India? No. According to their attorneys, they were already in the US, and had entered the country on a valid F-1 student visa. However, they were approaching the end of their authorised stay in the country, and turned to Farmington for two reasons:

  • Typically, foreign students get jobs as part of Optional Practical Training that allows F-1 students to work after graduation. The hope is to land a H1-B work visa before it runs out. If that fails, foreign students will typically try and enrol in another university in order to stay in the country.

  • The other reason: foreign students arrive in the US only to find that their university is not accredited. And they scramble to transfer to other universities to maintain their immigration status.

But they knew Farmington was fake, right? That’s what ICE insists—that these students knowingly enrolled in a fake degree, and therefore committed fraud. But their lawyers and Indian associations claim that the students were lured into applying to Farmington—primarily because it was very affordable. Yes, they were desperate to stay in the country, but thought they were doing so using legitimate means. By the time they realised that the university was a sham, it was too late. They’d already paid the fees. And if they dropped out of Farmington, they would have to leave the country, as well.

Also backing the Indians: US Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren who tweeted: “This is cruel and appalling. These students simply dreamed of getting the high-quality higher education America can offer. ICE deceived and entrapped them, just to deport them.”

Where are the students now? When the crackdown first began in January, 130 students were thrown into detention centres by ICE—all of them Indian except one. But as of today, of the 250 arrested so far, 80% have been granted voluntary departure, i.e. sent home. Another 10% have received official deportation orders. The remaining have filed appeals contesting their deportation. 


Point to note: The US government made millions of dollars off the 600 students who enrolled—and many of them are now heavily in debt thanks to tuition and legal fees.

The bottomline: Under US criminal law, a person must knowingly commit a crime—or else it constitutes ‘entrapment’. Did these students knowingly enrol in a fake university? Or did they realise that fact when it was too late? If so, then what ICE did was unconscionable but perhaps not illegal. US immigration agencies increasingly deny foreign nationals even the most basic rights afforded to their citizens. See: ICE detention camps.


Learn more: Washington Post and the New York Times offer the best overview. The Detroit Free Press reports on the elaborate hoax staged by ICE. Also from the Detroit Free Press: the Indian government’s efforts to rescue its nationals. BBC has the stories of the students caught by ICE. The Print looks at the Indian graduate students, and why they joined Farmington.

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keeping your onions under lock and key

Ambani to sell Network18 News to Times Group? Reliance took over the mega-media company once owned by Raghav Bahl back in 2014. It was widely viewed as a move to create a Reliance-fuelled behemoth to take singular control of the news and entertainment biz. Well, five years later, he seems to have changed his mind. Last week, news reports claimed that Reliance plans to merge Network18’s entertainment channels (Colors, Vh1, Comedy Central India, Nickelodeon and MTV) with Sony to create a new company that will compete with Netflix, Prime and others. Now, there are rumours that Ambani is readying to sell its news channels (MoneyControl, News18, Forbes, Firstpost etc) to Bennett Coleman, owner of the Times Group. The reason: Network 18 is hemorrhaging Rs 1.78 billion ($25 million) in losses. Point to note: there is no official confirmation of the deal. (Bloomberg)

US fires HK bullet at China: President Trump signed into law The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019—which was passed earlier by Congress in a rare show of bipartisan support. It stipulates that the State Department must certify to Congress each year that Hong Kong is "upholding the rule of law and protecting rights" in order to preserve its special trade status—which is essential for the city to maintain its status as a global financial hub. Earlier this week, Trump signed another bill banning the sale of rubber bullets and tear gas, to Hong Kong police. Needless to say, Beijing is furious

Alarming signals from Gotabaya’s Sri Lanka: indicate that the worst fears about the Rajapaksa brothers may come true. Gotabaya Rajapaksa scored a rousing victory in the nation’s presidential elections—and immediately appointed his brother Mahinda as Prime Minister. Within a few weeks, the two seem to be back to their old totalitarian ways. A Swiss embassy employee was briefly kidnapped and questioned as part of a wider crackdown on Sri Lankans fleeing the country. Several newspaper offices have also been raided and forced to hand over their computers. A veteran policy analyst says, “We thought there would be a period of demonstrating benign intent… But this is a situation in which anyone who stands in their way, anyone who is critical of the government or the president, will be seen as the enemy. We are in a slow descent into something very frightening.” Need more background? Here’s our SL explainer. (New York Times)

Airline fares are falling: Ticket prices have nosedived over the past month—and right in the midst of the holiday season. Average fares between 25 October and 25 November were 25-35% lower compared to the same period last year. In their eagerness to take the collapsed Jet Airways’ space, rival airlines created an excess of flights and seats—which has backfired in a slowing economy and declining consumer demand. (Mint)

Star impeachment witness faces #MeToo allegations: Just when the impeachment of Trump looked like a done deal, serious allegations of sexual harassment look poised to derail it. The US Ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, offered the most explosive testimony damning Trump during the congressional public hearings (see our explainer here). But Sondland has now been accused of sexual misconduct by three women—though the allegations date back to when he was in the hotel business. (BBC News)

BJP demotes Pragya Thakur: As punishment for her appalling remark in Parliament describing Gandhi-ji’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, as a “deshbhakt,” she has been removed from the party’s defence committee. Questions best not asked: Why was a terror accused even on the defence panel? Who enabled her entry into Parliament where she could then make such a remark? (Times of India)

India gets a second lion sanctuary: after a 29-year delay. Two prides of lions will be relocated to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh from their home in Gir forests of Gujarat—which was the only lion sanctuary in the country until now. The reason: given their endangered status, it is wise to divide the lion population to increase the odds of survival. As the action plan notes, “Catastrophes such as an epidemic, an unexpected decline in prey, natural calamities or retaliatory killings could result in the extinction of the lion population when they are restricted to single populations.” There are 523 lions in Gir. (Quartz)

Jay Z is mad at a children’s bookseller: He has filed a copyright suit against an Australian woman for selling a picture book titled ‘AB to Jay-Z’—which uses rappers like Notorious BIG, Pharrell Williams and Snoop Dogg to teach the alphabet. Jay Z’s other beef: The back of the book includes the quote “If you’re having alphabet problems I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but my ABCs ain’t one.” That’s a reworked version of his lyric: “If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” How dare she! (The Guardian)

Bye bye Mumbai bullet train? Shiv Sena is dropping hints that it may nix PM Modi’s beloved Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project. Revenge is a dish best served without delay. (Times of India)

Versace goes to war over JLo’s dress: The haute fashion label is furious at budget companies who cashed in on cheap knock-offs of her famous green dress. And it is taking one of them to court. Point to note: The company Fashion Nova framed its version as a Halloween costume—which may offer a possible out. See it here. (Hollywood Reporter)

South African cricket’s quota system: According to law, 54% of the members of the South African national team are required to be black, of which 18% must be black African. But the well-meaning rule has left everyone dissatisfied, including those it seeks to include. This PhD scholar explains why. (Scroll)

The great onion heist: With pyaaz prices soaring past Rs 100/ kilo, the lowly onion is now more valuable than cash. Robbers in Bengal stole onions worth Rs 50,000—plus some garlic and ginger (for seasoning, no doubt)—from a vegetable vendor. The big surprise: "They didn't take a single paisa from the cash box." (NDTV)

Meet Elizabeth Warren’s Indian son-in-law: The US presidential candidate’s daughter is married to Sushil Tyagi. He was born in a village in UP to a police constable, worked his way to IIT Delhi and later Wharton—where he met his future wife. His interview is both heart-warming and thoughtful. (The Week)

Your extra quota of sunshine items: includes the following (since we dropped the ball yesterday 😊):

  • The happy news that students at a Florida school will be the first to dissect "realistic man-made" frogs instead of the real kind—and it may soon become standard practice. Note: 3 million frogs are killed for dissection each year in the US.

  • This lovely clip of Shabana Azmi singing with her mother—and which made us miss ours.

  • This excellent read on the last nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, who dedicated his life to “debauchery, dissipation and low pursuits.” 

  • This chubby seal with a bad case of hiccups—guaranteed mood-lifter! 

  • This heartwarming India-Pakistan bonding story with a cricket angle—courtesy an Australian commentator. 

  • Art that moves with you. 

  • The best round-up of the viral flight attendant meme that all Indian kids can relate to. 

  • This hilarious story on mannequins being used by the Bangalore police to spook crappy drivers. 

  • This polar bear mama cuddling her newborn cub at the Vienna Zoo. 

  • This perfectly trained pooch with a perfectly adorable trainer. 

  • An odd story about a Russian farm that has fitted its cows with virtual reality goggles to reduce anxiety. What do they see? “A wild, expansive field beneath the summer sun.”

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Stuff we buy, use or love.

An Excellent List of Yoga Essentials
As the year rolls down, it will soon be time for New Year resolutions—to quit smoking, drink less, exercise more. If yoga is on your planned must-do list, we suggest you get a headstart with these brilliant essentials.
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When you need to get your yoga gear in gear…

First, get yourself the Yoga Mat Bag, which has room for your mat, an extra t-shirt, even a couple of yoga blocks and a belt. Plus a handy internal pouch for your phone, wallet, and keys. And it’s a high quality cotton bag that looks pretty darn good. What we like best: never having to haul our bag AND our mat ever again.

Next, say hello to Decathlon’s well-priced extras. The Yoga Cork Brick helps you ace that tricky pose, and supports your back, head and hips. It is especially great in helping you open that stubborn pelvis. Want to pull off that deep hamstring stretch? Pick up one of their organic cotton yoga straps.

Price: Rs 1,599 | Yoga Mat Bag: Bharat Olive | Proyog 

Price: Rs 549 | Yoga Cork Brick - Brown | Decathlon  

Price: Rs 299 | Organic Cotton Yoga Strap | Decathlon


The informer 2

When you’re tired of tugging at your leggings in class…

Say hello to Namaste Leggings. One of our least favourite bits of yoga class is all the time we spend pulling up our pants. Most leggings roll down or fold at the waist during asanas—but not this lovely high-waisted pair. Don’t worry, they don’t give you a muffin top either. The fabric is soft, durable and totally not see through. So no VPL worries either. Bonus accessory: Gaiam’s All Grip Yoga Socks. What we love: They help you maintain balance even without a mat.

Price: Rs 1,750 | Namaste Leggings | Stretchery

The informer 3

When you need a top that covers exactly what it needs to…

Pick up Proyog’s Mala top. The biggest problem with all those complicated asanas—especially the upside kind—is the risk of serious ‘wardrobe malfunction’. The longer you hold the pose, the more likely the top will slip down, revealing your tummy and sports bra in all their glory. Hence this brilliantly engineered top with a fitted band at the hem is designed to stay in place during inversions.

Price: Rs 799 | Mala top | Proyog


Note: These products are personally picked by the editors. We do not receive any revenue from the brands recommended.

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