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HomeexplainersRewind 2023: The big controversies and scandals of the year

Rewind 2023: The big controversies and scandals of the year


Rewind 2023: The big controversies and scandals of the year

An alleged foiled plot to kill Khalistani terrorist Gurpatwant Pannun, the case of two missing Chinese ministers, a bitter separation of Raymond tycoon and more. 2023 had its fair share of controversies. Here's a throwback

FP Explainers December 20, 2023 14:14:12 IST Rewind 2023: The big controversies and scandals of the year

Visual: Network18 Creative

2023 has proven to be a prosperous year, particularly for India and numerous other nations, including Europe.

But this year has also been brimming with scandals and disputes.

International relations soured, prominent figures lost their jobs, world leaders came under fire, and a host of other stories caught our attention.

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The controversy over the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar

In June, Khalistani leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot down by two masked men outside a gurudwara in British Columbia’s Surrey. This led to a massive diplomatic row between New Delhi and Ottawa in September.

Indo-Canadian ties reached a new low when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau linked India to his murder. India has vehemently denied any involvement and denounced the former’s allegations as “absurd” and politically motivated.

Following this, Canada and India expelled intelligence officers posted in each other’s country, reduced staff in diplomatic missions, and suspended all bilateral talks. New Delhi also stopped granting visas to Canadian citizens, calling the country “a safe haven for terrorists.”

Some Western friends in the Anglosphere have expressed “deep concerns” in response to the charges. There were “credible allegations of potential links between agents of the Indian government and the killing” of Nijjar, Trudeau said the Canadian parliament.

A report by The New York Times further complicated the matter as it cited anonymous US officials as claiming that America had assisted Canada with intelligence that linked India to the murder as part of the “Five Eyes Alliance,” which is a broad intelligence-sharing arrangement.

The Pannun assassination plot

Just a month after Canadian allegations, the US federal prosecutors alleged the involvement of two Indian nationals, including a government employee, in a plot to murder Khalistani separatist and a US resident Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, on American soil.

The news came just days after the National Investigation Agency (NIA) booked the chief of banned outfit Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) for threatening passengers of Air India flight in a video message.

Since the indictment, the government has ordered a “high-level enquiry” into the allegations, raised by a number of American diplomats to Indian counterparts.

Both the countries have since then tried to soften the relations in the wake of the potential cracks.

US Principal Deputy NSA Jonathan Finer visited Delhi last week and met NSA Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S Jaisankar and, currently, Christopher Wray, the director of Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) – the agency responsible for the undercover investigation – is currently in New Delhi, as per the news agency.

The mutiny at BBC

In March, Britain’s BBC was in trouble as a row over football presenter Gary Lineker’s criticism of government migration policy led to a presenter mutiny. It even drew a comment from the UK PM and left the broadcaster’s boss defending his position.

Lineker, the face of the Match of the Day, responded to a video in which Home Secretary Suella Braverman introduced plans to stop migrants crossing the Channel on small boats. “Enough is enough. We must stop the boats”, he wrote, adding “Good heavens, this is beyond awful.”

He further wrote, “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s.”

The well-known anchor maintained his position despite the strong political blowback to his remarks.

In an attempt to halt the crossings, which amounted to more than 45,000 last year, the Conservative administration plans to make it illegal for any undocumented arrival to claim asylum and to send them to other nations, like Rwanda.

Lineker was then suspended from his role following his criticism and the BBC was forced to axe much of its sports coverage as presenters refused to work in a show of solidarity with the anchor.

Critics of Lineker’s suspension said the BBC bowed to government pressure, leading to a furious debate about the impartiality of the national broadcaster.

BBC Director General Tim Davie told the BBC on Saturday he had no intention of resigning over the matter. “We in the BBC, and myself, are absolutely driven by a passion for impartiality, not left, right or pandering to a particular party,” he said

Davie said he wanted Lineker back on the air and hoped to find a balance which enabled some presenters to express opinions while at the same time maintaining the BBC’s neutrality.

The killing of the Wagner chief

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder and commander of the Wagner mercenary group, which briefly overthrew the Russian military through armed rebellion, died in a plane crash.

The private Embraer jet on which he was travelling to St Petersburg crashed north of Moscow killing all 10 people on board on 23 August, including two other top Wagner figures, his four bodyguards and a crew of three.

It is still unclear what caused the plane to crash two months to the day since Prigozhin’s failed mutiny.

The Kremlin said on 30 August that investigators were considering the possibility that the plane was downed on purpose.

President Vladimir Putin praised the mercenary chief as a “talented businessman,” while expressing “sincere condolences” to the families.

Two months ago before the accident, Prigozhin led his mercenaries from Ukraine towards Moscow and launched a day-long rebellion against the Russian troops. Declaring the action to be “treasonous,” President Vladimir Putin promised to punish those responsible.

Putin is infamous for being a leader who is incapable of forgiving. In an AFP story, it was recalled that Vladimir Putin paused briefly when asked in 2018 if he could forgive people’s mistakes. “Yes,” the president of Russia answered. “But not everything.”

“What is impossible for you to forgive?” journalist Andrei Kondrashov asked during one of the interviews for his two-hour film, to which the former KGB officer replied, “Betrayal.”

Two Chinese ministers disappear

The mystery surrounding the disappearance of two high-profile ministers is yet to be resolved.

Former foreign minister Qin Gang was a political rising star until this July when he was removed of the title without explanation. The former trusted aide to President Xi Jingping had been allowed to retain his other title of State Councillor, a post that outranks the minister but has no real power by itself.

He was last seen on 25 June having meetings in Beijing with his counterparts from countries including Russia and Vietnam.

Qin had an extramarital affair while he was ambassador to the United States, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, citing people familiar with a briefing.

He was replaced by veteran diplomat Wang Yi in July as the foreign minister after a mysterious one-month absence from duties barely half a year into the job.

According to a report by Politico, two people who had access to top Chinese officials claimed that Qin Gang died due to suicide or torture in late July at a military hospital in Beijing.

The durability of Xi’s cabinet was questioned after Defence Minister Li Shangfu became the second high-profile minister to disappear with little or no explanation from public view.

The minister, according to Reuters, was being investigated for corruption.

Li was last seen in Beijing on 29 August giving a key-note speech at a security forum with African nations. Earlier that month, he visited Russia and Belarus. The probe started shortly after his return from that trip.

In October, the 65-year-old minister was dismissed as defence minister and state councillor, according to state media.

Sam Altman firing

Massive drama unfolded at ChatGPT- maker OpenAI when its board of directors put out a statement on 17 November saying that Sam Altman would step down as CEO as it no longer had “confidence in his ability to continue leading.” In the same announcement, it revealed company’s CTO Mira Murati as its interim CEO.

Later the same day, the board also announced the company’s President Greg Brockman “will be stepping down as chairman of the board and will remain in his role at the company, reporting to the CEO.” Responding to this, Brochman and Altman said they were “shocked and saddened by what the board did.”

Beyond Altman and Brockman, it was reported that three senior researchers at OpenAI were resigning: Jakob Pachocki, director for research; Aleksander Madry, who was heading a team looking at the potential risks of AI; and Simon Sidor, a researcher with seven years under his belt at OpenAI.

The day after Altman’s firing, an internal memo sent to staffers at OpenAI clarified that the decision “was not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices.”

Simultaneously, Altman suggested that he was planning to launch a new venture.

Meanwhile, at OpenAI, the move to bring Altman and Brockman back began to gather steam, with even employees threatening to quit if the former CEO was not reinstated.

On 19 November, negotiations to reinstate Altman continued with the 38-year old himself posting this message on X: “I love the openai team so much.”

New York Times report stated that negotiations had focused on how OpenAI’s board of directors might be restructured. Also, they were discussing who would replace the members who had decided to fire Altman if they stepped down themselves. The New York Times further reported that Boba tea and McDonald’s were on the menu for the negotiating parties.

Donald Trump sex allegations and other indictments

Former US President Donald Trump faces numerous legal troubles as he seeks the Republican nomination to face Democratic President Joe Biden in the 2024 presidential election. Trump, 77, denies any wrongdoing.

A jury in federal court in Manhattan on 9 May found Trump liable for sexually abusing writer E Jean Carroll in the mid-1990s and then defaming her by lying about it in 2022. The jury awarded Carroll $5 million in damages. A judge later ruled that Trump had filed a “frivolous” appeal of his decision not to dismiss a separate defamation lawsuit by Carroll, concerning a similar denial by Trump in 2019.

Carroll is seeking at least $10 million more in a separate defamation lawsuit she amended after Trump criticized the verdict on CNN and on his social media platform. He has denied ever meeting Carroll and accused her of making up her allegations. A trial in that case is scheduled for 15 January 2024.

Apart from this, Trump on 15 August was hit with a fourth set of criminal charges when a Georgia grand jury indicted him after an investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis into his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden in the state.

On 3 August, he also entered a non-guilty plea to charges brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith in federal court in Washington that he conspired to defraud the United States by preventing Congress from certifying Biden’s 2020 election victory over him and to deprive voters of their right to a fair election.

In June, Trump pleaded not guilty in federal court in Miami to charges that he unlawfully kept classified national security documents after leaving office in January 2021 and lied to officials who sought to recover them.

The 77-year-old is also facing a criminal case in connection with hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election.

Moreover, New York state Attorney General Letitia James also sued Trump and his family business, the Trump Organisation, in September 2022 for allegedly lying about his asset values, including his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and Trump Tower penthouse in Manhattan, along with his own net worth to obtain better terms from lenders and insurers.

Mahua Moitra cash-for-query row

The Lok Sabha on 8 December expelled Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra in a so-called cash-for-query row.

The development came after the motion to expel the TMC leader witnessed a heated discussion over the listing of the Ethics Committee report, which found her guilty of “unethical conduct” and contempt of the House by sharing her Lok Sabha credentials, user ID and passwords of Lok Sabha Member’s Portal, with unauthorised persons which had an irrepressible impact on national security.

The former investment banker was also accused by her former personal friend and lawyer Jai Anant Dehadrai and BJP MP Nishikant Dubey of accepting money and expensive gifts, like a car, from businessman Darshan Hiranandani for asking a certain set of questions targeting the Adani Group in Lok Sabha.

Moitra had accepted that she shared her online credentials to allow submission of her pre-approved questions which she later intended to ask in Lok Sabha.

Deepfake controversy

Actor Rashmika Mandanna in November found herself at the centre of a controversy involving a viral deepfake video.

In the video, the Animal actor can be seen entering the lift in a low-cut black top. However, the clip has been doctored and her face has been morphed. The video originally featured British-Indian influencer Zara Patel. The video prompted strong reactions from Mandanna, Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar and Amitabh Bachchan.

Soon after this, morphed pictures of Katrina Kaif’s fight scene from her movie Tiger 3 took over the internet.

The Central government later issued an advisory to social media platforms, highlighting India’s laws. As per NDTV, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has cited Section 66D of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which pertains to “punishment for cheating by personation by using computer resource”.

Chandrasekhar said previously that social media platforms are legally obliged to remove misinformation within 36 hours once reported by a user or the government under the IT rules notified in April this year.

Bharat VS India name change controversy

In September, invites – in English – sent by President Droupadi Murmu calling herself “President of Bharat” for a dinner on the sidelines of the G20 summit stirred speculation that the government may be about to change the country’s name.

By convention, invitations issued by Indian constitutional bodies have always mentioned the name India when the text is in English, and the name Bharat when the text is in Hindi.

On the same day, a tweet by a senior spokesperson of the ruling BJP said Prime Minister Narendra Modi was attending a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Indonesia as the “Prime Minister of Bharat.”

Given the Hindu-nationalist ideology, critics responded to the use of Bharat in the invites by suggesting the government was pushing for the name to be officially changed.

Over the years, Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been changing colonial names of towns and cities claiming to help India move past what it has termed a mentality of slavery.

They have renamed cities and places linked to colonial periods, for instance – the Mughal Garden at the presidential palace in the National Capital to Amrit Udyan, Allahabad to Prayagraj and more.

Both names have existed for more than two millennia.

While some supporters of the name Bharat say “India” was given by British colonisers, historians say the name predates colonial rule by centuries.

India comes from the river Indus, which was called Sindhu in Sanskrit. Travellers from as far away as Greece would identify the region southeast of the Indus River as India even before Alexander the Great’s Indian campaign in 3rd century BCE.

Raymond in trouble

Gautam Singhania, the billionaire chairman of Raymond, made headlines this year since he declared separation from his wife, Nawaz Modi Singhania.

It all began when video of fitness expert Nawaz Modi being refrained from a Raymond Diwali celebration went viral. Later, the billionaire announced his divorce from his wife of more than 20 years on 13 November. He claimed that this Diwali is not like previous ones.

Talking about “unfortunate developments in the recent past”, he said there was a lot of “unsubstantiated rumour mongering and gossip” fuelled by “not so well-wishers. It is my belief that Nawaz and I will pursue different paths from here on,” he added. The duo has been together for 32 years and share two children.

Later, Modi accused the Raymond boss of assaulting her and one of their daughters, which also resulted in her hospitalisation.

Singhania is likely to seek legal action following the allegations, according to Economic Times. The report also claims Modi is seeking 75 per cent of the billionaire’s net worth as part of the split, which is estimated to be over Rs 11,000 crore.

The controversy also affected the Raymond Group’s stock, triggering uncertainty among investors.

His father Vijaypat Singhania, who handed over the reins of the company to his son in 2015, lamented that the junior Singhania is “breaking up” the company. He said, “Parents should think very carefully before they give away everything to their children.”

He also said that the Raymond boss, whom he called an “arrogant person”, would be “happy to see me on the road.”

Rahul Gandhi’s flying kiss controversy

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi landed in a controversy when he gave his maiden speech in Parliament on 9 August after being reinstated as a Member of Parliament.

After the infamous hug and wink, this time it was his alleged “flying kiss.”

Gandhi allegedly blew a flying kiss while exiting Lok Sabha premises after his speech and as Irani’s speech was underway during the second day of the debate on the no-confidence motion moved by the Opposition against the Central government.

According to India Today, as the Congress MP was leaving the House, he dropped a few files and bent over to pick them up. This sparked laughter among some BJP MPs. People who witnessed the moment told the news channel that Gandhi then blew a kiss at the BJP legislators and left.

Taking objection to his alleged gesture, BJP MP Irani slammed Gandhi, without taking his name, and said that his action “lacked dignity.”

“The person who spoke before me misbehaved. Only a misogynistic man can gesture a flying kiss to female parliamentarians. It shows the khandhan he comes from, and what his family and party feel about women,” Irani said, as per Hindustan Times.

NDA women MPs reportedly wrote to Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla to take strict action against Gandhi, accusing him of making an “inappropriate gesture” towards Union minister Smriti Irani and insulting women lawmakers in Lok Sabha.

However, as BJP tried to corner Gandhi, a Congress leader told NDTV, “Rahul Gandhi gestured towards the treasury benches as he was leaving with a flying kiss as he had called them brothers and sisters. He did not direct it towards any particular minister or MP, and not at all towards Union minister Smriti Irani.”

With inputs from agencies

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