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Friday, November 15, 2019
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EVERYONE'S TALKING ABOUT...

The biggest news story today, explained.

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A mysterious global kingpin of disinformation

According to a European activist group: “Over 265 fake local news sites in more than 65 countries are managed by an Indian influence network.” What does that even mean? Bear with us while we unpack this very odd story for you.


The basic deets: A non-profit organisation called EU Disinfo Lab claims to have uncovered 265 fake news sites around the world. They all appear to be linked to a single Indian business, the Srivastava Group (more on this later).


Follow the trail: They first stumbled on a weird string of facts: 


  • They found that a publication called EPToday—which falsely dubs itself as the “monthly news magazine for the European Parliament”—was republishing a lot of articles on Pakistan (none of them flattering). 

  • And EP Today appeared to have the same phone number, office address, online servers and official registration email as the Srivastava Group in Brussels. Here’s the Twitter thread that lays it all out. 

  • More importantly, the Srivastava Group also owns a little-known think-tank called International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies (IINS) in Delhi.


Er, okay…: Remember a trip by a woman named Madi Sharma? No? Ok, let’s quickly catch you up: 


  • Sharma is the mysterious woman who arranged a “private visit” for 27 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to India. She describes herself as an “international business broker.”

  • They had a one-on-one meeting with PM Modi, were hosted for dinners by the External Affairs Ministry, and then went on a jaunt to Kashmir. 

  • Both the visit and its organisers raised a whole lot of eyebrows. The big question: How did this person arrange a visit for a foreign delegation to Kashmir at a time when no Opposition leader had managed the feat?

  • If you need it, we have lots more details in our explainer here.


And? Guess who funded that visit? The Srivastava Group-owned IINS! A company that apparently doesn’t do any real business. As per a Wire investigation:


  • The group claims to have offices in Belgium, Switzerland and Canada other than New Delhi. But the number listed on the Geneva website does not exist and the Canadian office address turned out to be the location of a Punjabi wedding and event management business. The Group and IINS also did not return any media calls—and the IINS Delhi office appears to be locked.  

  • Also: “The Srivastava Group lists a host of companies as part of its business. But documents filed with the RoC [government registry] reveal most of these companies transact no real business.” And all of them are making practically no money.

  • So how did their unknown think-tank fund an undoubtedly expensive India darshan for 27 MEPs?

  

Here’s where things get even stranger: As the EU Disinfo Lab chased down the trail, they found a great many such feku publications all sharing the same MO. 


  • Most of them are named after an extinct local newspaper or spoof real media outlets. For example: Times of Los Angeles, Times of Portugal, New Delhi Times, New York Journal American, and Times of North Korea. See examples here.

  • They republish content from several mainstream news agencies (KCNA, Voice of America, Interfax) to make themselves look credible. 

  • They also publish ‘expert’ columns by members of various ‘think tanks’. Except the think-tanks or their reps share the same IP address as the Srivastava Group—kinda like the publications themselves.

  • They also republish each others content to create an amplification effect.

  • And the theme is always the same: echoing the Indian government’s position on key issues including Kashmir and Pakistan.


The big takeaway: This astonishing interactive map (shown above) that shows the 265 different organisations based in 65 countries around the world—all doing exactly the same thing! And all are connected to each other by the Srivastava Group—which in turn is connected to Madi Sharma and that MEP yatra.


The bottomline: We don’t know as yet. Picture abhi baaki hai. 


Learn more: Read the EU Disinfo Lab report. The Wire has more on the Srivastava Group. Here is our explainer with all the deets on the Madi Sharma story. 

The two big Supreme Court judgements

The court delivered two big judgements yesterday on Sabarimala and the Rafale deal. One was entirely expected, but the other offered a surprising twist.


First up, Rafale: Here’s some background (and a whole lot more in our explainers here and here). 

  • Last December, the Supreme Court ruled that there was no evidence of government wrongdoing in a Rs 59,000 crore deal to buy Rafale fighter jets made by Dassault Aviation. 

  • The deal included an ‘offset’ clause, requiring Dassault to invest 50% of the contract value in Indian projects. To fulfill the ‘offset’ clause, Dassault opted for Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence as its partner.

  • Critics alleged that the Modi government forced Dassault to pick Ambani, and overpaid for the jets. And petitions were filed to review its decision-making.

  • The court ruled: "There is no evidence of commercial favouritism to any private entity." 

  • Then more petitions were filed asking the court to review its judgement—which is what was at stake in the judgement delivered yesterday.


The Rafale judgement: The court rejected the request to review its judgement, saying there is no need for a “roving inquiry.” Khatam. Case closed.


Next, Sabarimala: In September 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the temple’s ban on women devotees violated Indian women’s fundamental right to equality, declaring, “All devotees are equal and there cannot be any discrimination on the basis of gender." However, when the temple reopened, there were hordes of angry protests—primarily headed by the BJP and groups associated with the temple. As with Rafale, 65 petitions were filed asking the court to review its judgement—leading to yesterday’s ruling. (Our explainer has a lot more on the Sabarimala ban)


The Sabarimala judgement: Unlike Rafale, the court did not reject the review petitions. Instead, it set them aside and took an unexpected route.

  • The majority judgment said that a larger bench of seven judges will first decide the bigger issues at stake. 

  • These include: the balance between the right to freedom of religion and the right to equality; what religious practices should be considered “essential;” what is the definition of “constitutional morality”—and whether it includes “ushering a pluralistic and inclusive society.”

  • More importantly, the bench will consider not just Sabarimala but also similar bans “in respect of entry of Muslim women in a Durgah/Mosque as also in relation to Parsi women married to a non-Parsi into the holy fireplace of an Agyari.” Also up for review: the practice of female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community.


Point to note: Two justices offered a strong dissent. One reason: they objected to expanding the scope beyond Sabarimala. Two: they rejected the claim that there was an error in the previous judgement, and the need for review. 


What’s next? The court order lifting the ban stays in place until the seven-judge bench delivers its ruling—which can take years. But it’s unclear if we will see the same level of unrest when the temple opens. Kerala has already deployed over 10,000 security personnel in preparation for the Sabarimala season which begins November 16. So far 36 women have registered online to enter the temple.

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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT...

wondering if Shashi Tharoor will be the next Kunal Kamra

Sri Lanka goes to polls: There are a record 35 candidates contesting the presidential election on Saturday—the first after the devastating Easter Attacks in April. The current president Maithripala Sirisena is not seeking reelection, so the race is between former defence secretary and nationalist Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa. If hot favourite Rajapaksa wins, you can expect the new government to be a family affair. His brother and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa plans to contest the prime ministerial elections to be held next year. The Rajapaksas are best known for the brutal military campaign to put down the Tamil Tiger insurgency, and their close ties to China. 


The government really, really wants your FB info: The company’s transparency report shows a huge spike in the Indian government’s ‘emergency’ requests for user information. The number shot up from 460 in 2017 to 1,478 last year. And in just the first half of this year, the government submitted 1,615 requests. What’s an emergency request? Typically, requests for user info are routed via the US Justice Department, but an ‘emergency’ kind can be submitted directly to Facebook—typically in cases that involve “imminent risk of serious physical injury or death.” But the country that topped the charts with 50,741 such demands: the United States. (Indian Express)


Taxman fires new GST missile at India Inc: The new plan will slap an 18% GST tax on the salaries of top management,—or HR, IT and other such pan-company roles. Here’s the logic: The salary of a CEO, for example, is paid by the head office. However, tax officials argue that this person is, in fact, supplying a service to the various branch offices—each of which should be treated as an independent entity. Therefore, the cost of her salary should be distributed across the various branches—and an 18% GST tax ought to be paid on it. The taxman’s reasoning: "Under the GST framework, nothing is for free, including some of the common functions carried out at a company’s or a bank’s head office like human resource, IT functions, audit and legal fees paid." The expert view: “The interpretation adopted by the tax authorities is that an employee of an organisation should be considered as an employee of a particular office only (not the organisation as a whole) for GST-related purposes. Such an interpretation is legally and factually incorrect,” Point to note: GST taxes collected by the government fell to a 19-month low of Rs 91,916 crore in September. (Economic Times)


The worst pick for chief guest ever: Jair Bolsonaro. The Brazilian President—best known for burning down the Amazon rainforest last month—will be the chief guest at our next Republic Day. Ah yes, the man with the worst environmental record in a city with the worst air pollution. It’s almost too perfect. (Times of India)


A bout of #DelhiPollution madness: The Delhi government shut all the schools down on Thursday because the AQI skyrocketed to 474. The reason: severe air pollution is especially hazardous to the elderly and the young. And yet over a 1,000 children ran a race in the early hours yesterday to mark, um, Children’s Day. (Al Jazeera)


A related must read: A new report suggests that babies born today will pay the highest price for climate change: “That child now is being born for the first time into a world where their health will be affected at every single stage of their life by a changing climate.” But if we take urgent action right now, here’s the life they can look forward to: “The changes seen in this alternate pathway could result in cleaner air, safer cities, and more nutritious food, coupled with renewed investment in health systems and vital infrastructure.” So what are we waiting for? (Vox


Inflation + slow growth = nightmare: for the RBI. The retail inflation rate hit a 16-month high this week. The prices of food items are spiralling—including vegetables, pulses, meat and fish. Typically, when inflation rises, the bank cuts interest rates to curb spending. But the central bank has been steadily cutting rates in order to kickstart consumer spending in a stalling economy. And raising interest rates is hardly going to help the unemployment crisis. Hence the dilemma: to cut or not to cut. One way out: the government could step in to bring down those food prices—which are the primary culprit for the impossible state of affairs. (Indian Express


A thought-provoking read on Indian Muslims: In ‘Listen, Mr Muslim’, Javed Anand calls on his fellow Muslims to take responsibility for the rise of Hindutva—with sympathy and without assigning blame. (Indian Express)


‘Unfashion’ is a thing: Young women are opting for a “genteelly understated, increasingly formal and durable look”—a trend being dubbed variously as ‘unfashion’ or ‘antifashion’, it “means to send a message that the wearer is too savvy, too secure in her skin, to bother keeping pace with the vagaries of style.” We feel the same way about our pjs. (New York Times)


Space makes your blood flow backwards: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos et al want to chill out on Moon and Mars, but human biology may upset their most expensive plans. A new study looked at changes in blood circulation in 11 space travelers who spent a long time on the International Space Station. While their blood flow was perfectly normal when they left Earth, by their 50th day in space, there were dramatic changes: “In seven of the space travelers, blood flowing from the head down to the rest of the body showed signs of stagnation and, in some cases, even reversal.” The reason: humans can rely on gravity to lend their blood a helping hand on earth. Yes, artificial gravity technology could solve this problem. But, but, but… even the fastest Musk rocket will take 400 days to fly back and forth from Mars. (BGR)


Your daily quota of sunshine items: includes the following:

  • The teaser for Shashi Tharoor’s—wait for it—stand up comedy show on Amazon Prime.

  • Motorola’s new foldable Razr phone that looks exactly like an old-fashioned flip phone. Retro and cutting edge! Check out the demo here.

  • This too-good InStyle mag cover featuring Jameela Jamil and Celeste Barber.

  • A delightful video on how an octopus uses camouflage.

  • A definitive list of the 25 greatest Hindi films ever.

  • A very shareable video that explains global inequality with striking simplicity. Its starting premise: what if there were only 100 people in the world.

  • The best performance of ‘Thriller’ courtesy the residents of a senior living centre. Babies, grannies and grandpas—our fave kind of humans. 

  • The odd news that Shiv Sena heir apparent Adityaa Thackeray is awesome on insta.

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THE INFORMER

Stuff we buy, use or love.

Essential Protection for Precious Hardware
We spend oodles of money on our devices and then shove them into the first case that comes our way on Amazon or at the store. The result: cracked screens, dented frames and a gigantic bill. It’s time to invest in hardcore protection for your devices.
image blue sidebar The informer image blue sidebar

When you travel all the time with your laptop…

Give your body a break and pick up the handy Case Logic backpack case. The laptop fits in a protective sleeve in the middle of the pack. Quilted padding on the front provides added cushioning.The front is organized into pockets so you can store your phone, iPod etc., and is big enough for your power cord. The side pockets are a bonus for ear phones and keys. It's super light so it won’t weigh you down if you are on the go—or if you are travelling with a baby in one arm and a diaper bag in the other. And it will accommodate anything up to a 14 inch laptop.

Price: Rs 3,150 | Case Logic DLBP-114 | Amazon

The informer 2

If you are going to spend a bomb on a fancy iPad...

Make sure you protect your investment with this Otterbox case. The sleek and light cover fully covers an iPad Pro or iPad Air’s edges and corners, and it is a rare clear case that doesn’t hide the good looks of your little beauty. We love that it has a handy detachable bit that lets you connect your keyboard or stand. Downside: you will have to add a screen protector and this isn’t the case you’d take camping. Or you can opt for the pricier and more rugged Defender series.

Price: Rs 7,699 | iPad Air (3rd gen)/iPad Pro (10.5-inch) Symmetry Series Clear Case | Amazon

The informer 3

If you are constantly dropping your phone...

Or have children πŸ™„, save its life with Speck. Fancy smartphones are lovely but also absurdly fragile. But there’s no point in buying a nice phone only to stuff it into an ugly industrial-strength case. Behold the beauty of Speck. Its CandyShell Grip case has two layers of military-grade protection plus textured ridges for extra grip. And its raised bezel keeps your screen extra safe. Also: looks very cool!


Price: Varies with make/colour | Speck Candy Shell Grip Case |  Amazon

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