SACW - 20 Jan 2018 | Patriotic Delirium / Afghanistan: Power Struggle / Pakistan: Minorities packing their bags / India: Hysteria on history; non-stop vigilante violence; non-citizens in Assam / Adam Zameenzad / Poland’s great leap backwards / Review of Directorate S

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at
Sat Jan 20 05:24:33 EST 2018

South Asia Citizens Wire - 20 January 2018 - No. 2968 
[via South Asia Citizens Web - since 1996]

1. Patriotic Delirium | Stanislav Markelov
2. India chapter of HRW world report 2018 points at unfettered vigilante violence and promotion of Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism 
3. India: What future for thousands who are likely to be declared non-citizens in Assam ? | commentary by Sanjib Baruah and Seema Guha
4. India: Open letter from Khedut Samaj to Chief Minister of Gujarat regarding Narmada water issue
5. India: Tejal Kanitkar debunks everyday obscurantism 
6. Recent on Communalism Watch:
-  India's 'Internet Hindus' Are in Love With Israel | Saudamini Jain
-  India: A people divided The communal conjuncture in Karnataka calls for more than policing.
-  India: Communal propaganda campaign by Bajrang Dal in South Karnataka
-  India: In Adityanath ruled UP, Police unable to control Hindu Yuva Vahini
-  India: Anti-outsider Assam Agitation of the early 1980s - Are illegal Bangladeshi migrants responsible for increase in Assam's Muslim population? Two part report by Ajaz Ashraf
-  India: on various state-run subsidy schemes for pilgrims - report in Indian Express
-  India: "Any adult woman or man can marry anyone of their choice, Khap Panchayats cannot question it", SC
-  India: No half-hearted secularism pls ! after stopping Haj subsidy the state should stop all spending on religion

::: URLs & FULL TEXT :::
7. The President, the Strongman, and the Next U.S. Headache in Afghanistan | Mujib Mashal
8. India: Hysteria on history | A.G. Noorani
9. Minorities packing their bags as religious freedom plunges in Pakistan | Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
10. Pakistani humanist denied UK asylum after failing to identify Plato | Harriet Sherwood
11. Nepal: Transitional Justice, Accountability Stalled - Elections Throughout Year Signal New Opportunity - HRW
12. Statement by Jean Gough, UNICEF's South Asia Regional Director, denouncing attack on polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan
13. India: Death of a Judge - There is much more than meets the eye | Dushyant Dave  
14. India: PUDR demand release of Abu Bilal Kawa 
15. India: State of folly: Beware the mob. Do not patronise it - Editorial, The Times of India 
16. The dark side of light | Aisling Irwin
17. 40% of India’s Thermal Power Plants in Water-Scarce Areas, Threatening Shutdowns | Tianyi Luo, World Resources Institute 
18. Sherard Cowper-Coles's Review of Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016 by Steve Coll
19. In Memoriam: Adam Zameenzad (1937-2017) | Muneeza Shamsie
20. Cherepovets Journal: In Russian City, a Time Capsule to Comrades of the Future | Matthew Luxmoore
21. Catholicism, abortion and national identity: Poland’s great leap backwards | Audrey Lebel
22. Meet Antifa's Secret Weapon Against Far-Right Extremists | Doug Bock Clark

1. PATRIOTIC DELIRIUM | Stanislav Markelov
The greater the patriotism, the weaker the people

(New York, January 18, 2018) – The Indian government failed to stop or credibly investigate vigilante attacks against minority religious communities during 2017, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing its World Report 2018. Many senior leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) publicly promoted Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism at the expense of fundamental rights for all Indians. Extremist Hindu groups, many claiming to be affiliated with the ruling BJP, committed numerous assaults against Muslims and other minority communities in response to rumors that minority group members sold, bought, or killed cows for beef. Instead of taking prompt legal action against the attackers, police frequently filed complaints against the victims under laws banning cow slaughter. There were at least 38 such attacks in 2017, and 10 people were killed.

what happens to people declared non-citizens when the National Register of Citizens releases its final list in Assam?

the situation in the rural areas of the state is turning grim and explosive. It is hoped that you will consider impartially the issue I am raising here and rise above political divide, think seriously to take immediate decisive steps to meet the situation. Your government has suddenly announced that the farmers would not get water for their summer crop as there was a shortfall of water in the Sardar Sarovar dam!

Video: Why do people in power get away with making unscientific and ridiculous statements?

-  India's 'Internet Hindus' Are in Love With Israel | Saudamini Jain
-  India: A people divided The communal conjuncture in Karnataka calls for more than policing.
-  India: Communal propaganda campaign by Bajrang Dal in South Karnataka
-  India: In Adityanath ruled UP, Police unable to control Hindu Yuva Vahini
-  India: Anti-outsider Assam Agitation of the early 1980s - Are illegal Bangladeshi migrants responsible for increase in Assam's Muslim population? Two part report by Ajaz Ashraf
-  India: on various state-run subsidy schemes for pilgrims - report in Indian Express
-  India: "Any adult woman or man can marry anyone of their choice, Khap Panchayats cannot question it", SC
-  India: No half-hearted secularism pls ! after stopping Haj subsidy the state should stop all spending on religion
-  India - Karnataka: After Prakash Raj Event, BJP Workers Sprinkle Cow Urine For 'Cleansing'
-  India: In IIT Bombay - Is separate-plate rule for meat eaters caste discrimination?
-  India: After Haj Subsidy Scrapped, Spotlight On State-Funded Hindu Pilgrimages, Including Rs 2,500 Crore By UP Govt For Ardh Kumbh
-  India: AIFRTE Press Statement condemning the abusive and threatening public reference on Facebook by ABVP student against Prof. K. Laxminarayana
-  India: Times of India Editorial on proposed bill criminalising triple talaq
-  India - Rajasthan: ‘Love jihad’ cover for Shambulal Regar ties with ‘Hindu sister’
-  Does BJP Intend to Change Indian Constitution? Ram Puniyani
-  India: Compulsory Sanskrit prayers at Kendriya Vidyalayas prompt a Jabalpur lawyer to move Supreme Court

-> available via:

::: URLs & FULL TEXT :::
by Mujib Mashal
(The New York Times, January 15, 2018)

Atta Muhammad Noor talking to an aide at the governor’s compound in Mazar-i-Sharif. Since being fired by the Afghan president, he has been at work every day. Credit Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Atta Muhammad Noor, a strongman who has ruled a prosperous northern Afghan province more like a king than a governor for 13 years, was driving between meetings in Dubai last month when he got the call: President Ashraf Ghani was firing him.

For three years, Mr. Ghani had tried to ease Mr. Noor, 54, a commander of the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviets who then became a warlord in the civil war and in the battle against the Taliban, out of his spot as governor of Balkh Province, the country’s commercial hub. Negotiations over a deal that would see Mr. Noor finally leave in return for more government seats for his political party faltered. And when Mr. Noor began meeting with other important regional power brokers who were also critics of the president, Mr. Ghani decided he had finally had enough. He ordered Mr. Noor out.

The Afghan president may have miscalculated.

Since returning to Balkh, not only has Mr. Noor rejected the Afghan president’s firing of him, but he is using his defiance of the American-backed administration in Kabul as a platform to project himself as a player in the presidential elections that are supposed to happen next year.

A regional power’s rejection of the central government has long been seen as a likely test for the heavily centralized but potentially fragile Afghan state set up after 2001.

Now the standoff between Mr. Noor and Mr. Ghani, which has dragged on for almost a month, has become a painfully public test of how far the United States will go to support the Afghan president against a widening, though not united, opposition.
Continue reading the main story

“They were thinking I was the same as the governors they had appointed with a piece of paper and removed with a piece of paper,” Mr. Noor said last week, in an interview with The New York Times in the governor’s office. “I am the operational chief of a strong political party, I am part of a strong coalition, and the people trust me for who I am, for my charisma.”

Mr. Noor (foreground center) listening to supporters during a gathering at the governor’s compound. Credit Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Mr. Noor said the effort to remove him was tied to political machinations around the presidential elections next year, when Mr. Ghani wants to be re-elected, but it remains unclear how.

“We are a great capacity for votes during elections. They are trying to marginalize us, and we won’t take it quietly,” Mr. Noor said. “If my party and my allies agree, it’s possible that I will be a candidate — as the head of the ticket.”

He added: “I don’t like being No. 2.”

One event that probably contributed to Mr. Noor’s firing happened about two months ago, when fuel trucks contracted by NATO were blocked by his forces in Balkh. Mr. Noor said the trucks were using NATO’s tax-exempt status to import illegal fuel. Some officials, however, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid angering Mr. Noor and his allies, suggested that the trucks were stopped because they were refusing to pay Mr. Noor’s men a cut.

Afghan officials say the episode angered Gen. John W. Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan. Mr. Ghani’s aides used it in their lobbying against Mr. Noor, arguing that the former warlord was not only against the Afghan president, but also his American allies.

Mr. Noor appeared unconcerned.

“Nicholson should not have gotten upset,” Mr. Noor said. “Nicholson should have called me, like a man, and asked for information on what had happened.”

Demonstrators showing their support for Mr. Noor while on their way to the compound. Credit Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

In December, Mr. Ghani’s government, with the help of the NATO coalition, which still controls Afghan airspace, refused Mr. Noor’s plane permission to to fly to the southern province of Kandahar to attend an opposition rally. In July, a plane carrying Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Afghan vice president who is exiled in Turkey on charges of abducting and raping an opponent and has become a strong ally of Mr. Noor, was denied landing in Balkh, where he was supposed to attend a rally organized by Mr. Noor.

Through it all, Mr. Noor has been trying to stay afloat, and some even see his meetings as the moves of a potential candidate who is testing his prospects for a bigger move. According to several Afghan officials, those meetings included one in Dubai last month with Erik D. Prince, the former chief executive of the Blackwater private security firm, who has recently proposed a greater role for privatized security and intelligence operations in Afghanistan.

Mr. Noor would not confirm those reports of a meeting with Mr. Prince, who has ties to the Trump administration and whose sister, Betsy DeVos, is the education secretary. But he was clear about seeking channels for American support. “I saw strong people who have connections to the White House,” Mr. Noor said.

As successor to Mr. Noor, Mr. Ghani’s government announced Mohammed Dawood, a former guerrilla from Mr. Noor’s faction who, for the past two decades, has lived in London and run a luggage shop there. Denied entry into Balkh, Mr. Dawood has set up office in the diplomatic quarters in Kabul, where, in preparation for a future role that may never materialize, he has dyed his beard pitch black, ordered new three-piece suits, and appointed a spokesman who represents him on television shows.

“Right now, I am waiting to hear what the government says. It is totally up to them to decide when and how to take me to Balkh,” Mr. Dawood said during an interview at the guest house the government has provided for him in Kabul.

Mr. Noor sees Mr. Dawood as “an exhausted tool against me” and says there is no way the man could become governor. The crisis could only be resolved through negotiations with his party, which are ongoing in Kabul, he said.
Continue reading the main story
Mohammed Dawood, named by the Afghan president as Mr. Noor’s replacement, at his temporary office in the diplomatic quarter of Kabul. Credit Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Mr. Noor’s military and political reputation has been deeply tied to his home province for decades, and it has given him deep leverage with both the West and the government in Kabul. About $1.7 billion worth of goods transited through just one of Balkh Province’s ports last year, including fuel contracted by NATO. Mr. Noor is also believed to have armed militias in the north, which Human Rights Watch has accused of extensive abuses.

Over 15 years, Mr. Noor has developed a vast network of businesses and patronage centered on Balkh and the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, long a center of trade and interaction with Central Asia. Those relationships have brought him and his allies wealth that affords them a lavish lifestyle, but also resources for a network of militia commanders across several provinces.

In trying to take Mr. Noor down, Mr. Ghani’s aides have portrayed him as helplessly corrupt, saying that he takes a cut from every business, and that he has hundreds of millions of dollars sitting in foreign bank accounts. But Mr. Noor insists that his income has come from clean business dealings, and that his profits have all been piled into his network of supporters and his political efforts.

For months before his firing, an aloof Mr. Noor had mostly not bothered to show up at the governor’s office in Mazar. He attended to only the most serious of government business from one of his homes or guest houses, decorated with large chandeliers, golden faucets, and more than a dozen portraits of their owner.

But as soon as he was fired, he started showing up to the office every day. Behind multiple layers of security, Mr. Noor now meets hundreds of people daily, giving rousing speeches that are broadcast live on several national television channels. And he has repeatedly used the language of force.

One of the most frequent targets of his verbal abuse has been Abdullah Abdullah, a former Northern Alliance figure who now serves as Mr. Ghani’s coalition partner in the Afghan government.

“I will smash your teeth!” Mr. Noor said in a callout to Mr. Abdullah, a former ally whom he now denounces as a sellout to Mr. Ghani.

Mr. Atta on stage in front of his supporters. Credit Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Last Thursday, Mr. Noor, wearing black clothes and sunglasses while ferried in a convoy of gloss-black armored vehicles, arrived at the governor’s office late in the afternoon. His aides said he had been up much of the night, pacing the room on the phone or holding private audiences with visitors from Kabul.

As he listened to a long list of speakers in one auditorium, visitors were being seated into two adjacent halls where Mr. Noor would speak next. He seemed tired, trying to hide his yawns as speaker after speaker called him lion, king, emperor. To each platitude, Mr. Noor simply bowed his head, his hand on his chest.

But when Mr. Noor took the podium, there was no sign of exhaustion. Once again, he lashed out at the government in Kabul. He said his party leaders were trying to negotiate a solution in the capital, and that would be the only way out. But he asked his supporters to be ready for civil protest — to have their “old tires” ready for burning to block roads.

The speech quickly turned into an election rally, with Mr. Noor saying the leaders of the government in Kabul were blind to Afghans’ suffering through years of war.

“If I become president one day … ” Mr. Noor said, baiting the crowd. And they roared in response.

Then, gripping the podium — a $27,000 Omega watch on his wrist, a garnet ring with a halo of about 20 small diamonds on his finger — Mr. Noor talked about corruption. He said the central government was rife with graft, as the two coalition leaders fattened their own allies.

While a teacher was making $200 or less a month, he said, Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah were paying hundreds of useless advisers $5,000, $6,000, or more. And how much was the cost of renting an armored vehicle for each adviser?

“They are sucking the blood of the people,” Mr. Noor said.
Continue reading the main story
Mr. Noor’s face is seen on posters across Mazar-i-Sharif. Credit Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Reporting was contributed by Najim Rahim from Mazar-i-Sharif, and Jawad Sukhanyar, Fatima Faizi and Fahim Abed from Kabul, Afghanistan.

A version of this article appears in print on January 16, 2018, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: A Standoff With Kabul Props Up A Strongman.

(Frontline, February 2, 2018)

   In February 1991, the Supreme Court directed that a disclaimer be made about the accuracy or authenticity of the episode while telecasting the serial “The Sword of Tipu Sultan”. Photo: The Hindu Archives
   Leela Samson. In 2011, as Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification, she took a principled stand on the film “Aarakshan”: “I don’t think the film is anti-Dalit.” Photo:K. Ramesh Babu
   A scene from “Khap”, a movie on “honour killings”. The police actively prevented the screening of the film. Photo:The Hindu Archives
   A still from “Ore Oru Gramathile”, a movie criticising the reservation policy. Photo:The Hindu Archives

BRITISH historians’ effort at religious periodisation of Indian history is well known. Not so well known is a clumsy attempt at divide a... »

How ancient hatreds are invented and the politics of identity and community, of religion, ethnicity and gender has begun to occupy the space vacated by political ideology. By A.G. NOORANI

History is the most dangerous product evolved from the chemistry of the intellect. Its properties are wellknown. It causes dreams, it intoxicates whole people, gives them false memories, quickens their reflexes, keeps their old wounds open, torments them in their repose, leads them into delusions, either of grandeur or persecution, and makes nations bitter, arrogant, insufferable and vain.

—Paul Valery, History & Politics, 1931.

IT would be suicidal for any democracy to ignore the repeated waves of mass intolerance which swept unchecked over several parts of the country, as they have in recent decades. They profess to set right imagined historical wrongs.

The outbursts have common features. The “wrongs” had long been forgotten until they were revived, all of a sudden, for manifestly political ends. In each case “the other” becomes a target of hate; extreme demands are made in the nature of surrender terms; and the state bows before mob hysteria and the violence it promotes. The waves engulf the fields of literature; the arts, especially films; politics; and academia, leaving few fields of creative endeavour untouched. Let alone the government, even the judiciary has been none too eager to quell such movements, not excluding its very apex, the Supreme Court.

The violence at Bhima Koregaon in Pune district of Maharashtra on New Year’s Day 2018 is but the latest, assuredly not the last, in a series of such ignoble ventures. The calculation in the madness is all too apparent. None analysed its root cause better than the scholar Shiv Visvanathan did in The Hindu (January 6, 2018), which was based on earnest research. Tersely, the Peshwa Balaji Rao II spurned an offer by the Mahars to serve in his army against the East India Company. He relied instead on the Marathas and the Brahmins and lost in the battle at Koregaon Bhima Tal. Thus ended Maratha rule. That was 200 years ago, on January 1, 1818.

It is not difficult to sense the event’s potential for arousing the emotions of nationalism and caste rivalry between the Mahars and the Marathas. Significantly, nationalist fervour is not evoked. We are rid of British rule and are happy. But the caste rivalry persists and memories of the 200-year-old battle can be pressed into service. As Shiv Visvanathan put it: “The battle now is not one of memory, it is a battle for identity and equality.” This is a battle that rages fiercely to this day. One cannot say that of other historical episodes which politicians exploit for petty gains at the cost of national unity.

One had thought that with Pahlaj Nihalani as Chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification, the office had touched its nadir. But we had not reckoned with Prasoon Joshi. He outsourced statutory functions to persons outside and wrecked the entire system, exposing it and himself to ridicule. All this over the film Padmavati, which aroused, ostensibly, the fury of persons who had not seen it over a person who never existed. The ridiculous Prasoon Joshi proposed and got accepted five cuts, including a change in the title of the film into the title of the book written a couple of centuries later by a Sufi. The Sufi’s work was entitled Padmavat, now the title of the film. In between he parleyed for a settlement left and right including some “royals” of Mewar and reportedly even suggested at one stage formation of a committee, outside the bodies set by the law to which he owes his office.

It is doubtful whether Prasoon Joshi read the statute which created his office and, if at all he did so, whether he understood it—the Cinematograph Act, 1952. The Central government framed the Cinematograph (Censorship) Rules, 1983, as well as the Censorship Guidelines. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Khwaja Ahmad Abbas vs Union of India (AIR 1971 SC 491; 1971 2SC 242) renders the entire system of film certification unconstitutional. The court was promised that a quasi-judicial independent tribunal would be set up. What the belated amendment of 1981 and 1984 along with the Rules of 1983 and the guidelines of 1991 do is to set up a hierarchy of daily-wage earners; right from the President of the Appellate Tribunal, generally a retired High Court judge, and the Chairman of the Board downwards. All hold office “during the pleasure of the Central Government”; i.e., the Information and Broadcasting Minister, the Secretary and the political bigwigs who support the government.

Khosla Committee

The Report of the Enquiry Committee on Film Censorship, headed by Justice G.D. Khosla, is a forgotten classic. Among the committee’s members were R.K. Narayan, K.A. Abbas and Romesh Thapar. Men like Sohrab Modi, Satyajit Ray, E. Alkazi, V. Shantaram, Prithviraj Kapoor, Pahari Sanyal, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and leading distributors and film critics gave evidence. Two actors on the committee, Nargis and later Balraj Sahni, did not participate “owing to heavy professional commitments”.

The Supreme Court relied heavily on this report. The actors set a precedent of indifference. Like other Indians, members of the industry—actors, producers and distributors—wake up from their somnolence episodically, mostly when their own rights are affected. Those who protested over the cuts imposed on Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan seemed to have no time for Ajay Sinha’s Khap, a movie on “honour killings”. It could not be screened in the one State that needed its message the most, Haryana. In her article “Reality show” (Frontline, August 26, 2011), T.K. Rajalakshmi remarked: “No one in the Mumbai film industry, save a few, bothered to back the beleaguered film director.” The police actively prevented the screening of the film.

On August 10, 2011, Amitabh Bachchan, who starred in Aarakshan, blogged: “If creative expression is to be curbed by institutes that wish to dictate their terms... above the conditions of... recognised constitutional formats... then we might as well accept that we live not in the sanctity of the tenets of democracy but a most unfortunate fascist conditioning.” The flamboyance is typical.

He must be congratulated on his belated discovery of a grim reality. A pity that it dawned on him only when his film was being brutalised. Our publicity-hungry civil liberty “activists” were conspicuous by their silence on the issue. The Athenian lawgiver Solon (640-558 B.C.), when asked how a people could preserve their liberties, said: “Those who are uninjured by an arbitrary act must be taught to feel as much indignation at it as those who are injured.” In India, such consciousness is absent; protests are episodic. They subside and things go on as before. There is no national, non-political civil liberties organisation or movement.

Do not trust our politicians to fill the void. As a foreign correspondent once remarked, the Indian politician wakes up to deprivation of liberty only when the prison doors are shut behind him. Khaps provide musclemen during election. In Mumbai, two Ministers and a politician extracted from Prakash Jha his consent to cuts in order to gain some brownie points. One regrets the cuts, but one cannot condemn him. The system is frail, and crores of rupees are involved. But what is it that prevents Bollywood from challenging the archaic Act in the Supreme Court as K.A. Abbas did?

Culture of intolerance

If film censorship is discussed at such length, it is because it exposes vividly the culture of intolerance. Illiteracy and intolerance written into the law. Rule 41(4) reads thus: “(a) In cases where the examining committee, after examination of the film, considered that a scrutiny of the shooting script is necessary or the authenticity of the incidents depicted in a film of historical, mythological, biographical or legendary nature is to be verified, a provisional report to that effect shall be submitted by the regional officer to the chairman within a maximum of three working days after such examination.” There is a fundamental objection to this bizarre provision. Evidently, its authors were ignorant of the very concept of historical fiction. Fiction based on history need not be historically correct. And who is to judge the accuracy of the historical narrative, the government’s hand-picked appointees? Expert opinion is as irrelevant as citation of sources. It is the richness of the imagination that matters, as does the style in the writing and in the depiction in the film.

But, the pass was sold by none other than the apex court of the land, the Supreme Court of India, in the case of the telecast on Doordarshan of the film The Sword of Tipu Sultan. In February 1991, the Supreme Court directed that the following announcement be made along with the telecast: “No claim is made for the accuracy or authenticity of any episode being depicted in the serial. This serial is a fiction and has nothing to do either with the life or rule of Tipu Sultan. The serial is a dramatised presentation of Bhagwan Gidwani’s novel.” Evidently the judges did not know at all that historical fiction retains its character as fiction even if it is based on history. What if it professes to be a depiction of history such as the 1857 Mutiny or Dunkirk? The producer is no more bound to establish its accuracy than a historian is in respect of his book. And it is not for a court of law to act as a supervisor of the thesis in either case.

But now the floodgates were opened—by the highest court of the land, none else. In 2011 came another notable case, the film Aarakshan thanks to the arrogant intolerance of the politician who headed the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, P.L. Punia. Aarakshan had scenes that show how the S.Cs were treated in the past—the businessmen who did not want their children to sit with Dalit children “who stink”. It is sheer illiteracy to suggest that the film extols such conduct. Quite the opposite. A film on Gandhi’s struggle for the eradication of untouchability will perforce have scenes showing the disgraceful treatment meted out to them for centuries.

The then Chairperson of the CBFC, Leela Samson, deserves high praise for her principled stand: “When you show a certain situation, you must show reality as it is.” She added: “I don’t think the film is anti-Dalit.”

Punia’s cat came mewing out of his tattered bag when he said: “The film ridicules the rights given to the underprivileged by the Constitution as well as the Supreme Court.... This is a matter of shame for the nation as a whole.” The intemperate language and the shameless violation of Article 338A brand him unfit for the office. He held a press conference and issued a press note after sending cheekily a summons to Leela Samson. Constitutionally, Punia had no business to intervene in the matter at all. Article 338A, which establishes his office, imposes three precisely worded duties under Clause (5): namely, “(a) to investigate and monitor all matters relating to the safeguards provided for the Scheduled Castes... and to evaluate the working of such safeguards; (b) to inquire into specific complaints with respect of the deprivation of rights and safeguards of the Scheduled Castes; (c) to participate and advise on the planning process of socio-economic development of the Scheduled Castes.” The law was no deterrent, evidently. Punia was courting his constituency.

Movie on reservation

As it happened, in 1989 the Supreme Court itself had ruled in a case involving reservation in the case of the film Ore Oru Gramathile (S. Rangarajan vs P. Jagjiwan Ram & Ors (1989) 2 SCC 574 at 598). The court said: “We find it difficult to appreciate the observations of the High Court. We fail to understand how the expression in the film with criticism of reservation policy or praising the colonial rule will affect the security of the State or sovereignty and integrity of India. There is no utterance in the film threatening to overthrow the government by unlawful or unconstitutional means. There is no talk for secession either. Nor is there any suggestion for impairing the integration of the country. All that the film seems to suggest is that the existing method of reservation on the basis of caste is bad and reservation on the basis of economic backwardness is better. The film also deprecates exploitation of people on caste considerations. This is the range and rigour of the film.

“The High Court, however, was of opinion that public reaction to the film, which seeks to change the system of reservation, is bound to be volatile. The High Court has also stated that people of Tamil Nadu who have suffered for centuries will not allow themselves to be deprived of the benefits extended to them on a particular basis. It seems to us that the reasoning of the High Court runs afoul of the democratic principles to which we have pledged ourselves in the Constitution. In a democracy it is not necessary that everyone should sing the same song. Freedom of expression is the rule and it is generally taken for granted. Everyone has a fundamental right to form his own opinion on any issue of general concern. He can form and inform by legitimate means.”

The court’s censures on the State government are all the more relevant now. “In the affidavit filed on behalf of the State government, it is alleged that some organisations like the Tamil Nadu Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes People’s Protection Committee, Dr. Ambedkar People’s Movement, the Republican Party of India have been agitating that the film should be banned as it hurt the sentiments of people belonging to Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes. It is stated that general secretary of the Republican Party of India has warned that his party would not hesitate to damage the cinema theatres which screen the film. Some demonstration made by people in front of The Hindu office on 16 March 1988 and their arrest and release on bail are also referred to. It is further alleged that there were some group meetings by Republican Party members and Dr. Ambedkar People’s Movement with their demand for banning the film. With these averments it was contended for the State that exhibition of the film create very serious law and order problem in the State.

“We are amused yet troubled by the stand taken by the State government with regard to the film which has received the National Award. We want to put the anguished question, what good is the protection of freedom of expression if the State does not take care to protect it? If the film is unobjectionable and cannot constitutionally be restricted under Article 19(2), freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation. It is the duty of the State to protect the freedom of expression since it is a liberty guaranteed against the State. The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression.”

Custodians of morality

The rebuke had no effect on our thick-skinned politicians. It could not, for obvious reasons. In a press interview published on December 9, 1998, the veteran film star Dilip Kumar remarked apropos of the Shiv Sainiks’ attacks on December 4 on the cinema house screening Fire: “How can you appeal to the government when Chief Minister Manohar Joshi is himself encouraging threats of violence... by congratulating the miscreants?” On December 12, Shiv Saniks in their underwear surrounded his house and hurled abuses. The obscenity of such behaviour arouses no censure from the pretentious custodians of morality; some, indeed, have approved of it.

We never had such problems before, on Sohrab Modi’s historical films Pukar (on Emperor Jehangir), Sikandar-e-Azam (on Alexander the Great) or Prithvi Vallabh, based on a novel by K.M. Munshi, or K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (on Akbar the Great). We must ask ourselves to what do we owe this newly acquired frenzy? It is surely not because of increased interest in the historical truth. In 2014, the highly regarded Penguin Books had to pulp The Hindus: An Alternative History by the distinguished Indologist Wendy Doniger. One hopes her forthcoming book will fare better.

If building a Ram temple at Ayodhya was a matter of “national honour”, how come men like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Madan Mohan Malaviya never realised it. It was raised in the last quarter of the 20th century because the Bharatiya Janata Party sought to retrieve its lost support. As Sushma Swaraj admitted, it was raised for political reasons.

‘Modern hate’

Around that time two of the finest American scholars on India, who had deep empathy for the country, Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph, wrote a brilliant analysis of the phenomenon in The New Republic of March 22, 1993. Aptly entitled “Modern Hate”, it exposed “how ancient animosities get invented”. They wrote: “Ancient hatreds are thus made as much as they are inherited. To call them ancient is to pretend they are primordial forces, outside of history and human agency, when often they are merely synthetic antiques. Intellectuals, writers, artists and politicians ‘make’ hatreds. Films and videos, texts and textbooks, certify stories about the past, the collective memories that shape perceptions and attitudes.... If there was no standard version of Hinduism until yesterday, then when and how did the day before yesterday end? How did it happen that the Bharatiya Janata Party was able to hijack Hinduism, replacing its diversity, multivocality and generativity with a monotheistic Ram cult?...

“As political ideology recedes with the collapse of communism, the politics of identity and community, of religion, ethnicity and gender have begun to occupy the space vacated by political ideology. Directly and indirectly, religion, ethnicity and gender increasingly define what politics is about.... Which identities become relevant for politics is not predetermined by some primordial ancientness. They are crafted in benign and malignant ways in print and electronic media, in textbooks and advertising, in India’s T.V. mega series and America’s talk shows, in campaign strategies, in all the places and all the ways that self and other, us and them, are represented in an expanding public culture.

“The struggle in India between Mandal and mandir, between quota government and Hindu nationalism, reminds us that in America too, the politics of interest is being overtaken by cultural politics, the politics of gender, family values, race and sexual orientation.... ‘Ancient hatreds’ function like the ‘evil empire’. That term too was a projection on a scrim, obscuring the motives and practice that lay behind it. The doctrine of ancient hatreds may become the post-Cold War’s most robust mystification, a way of having an enemy and knowing evil that deceives as it satisfies. The hatred is modern, and may be closer than we think.”

(Asia Times, January 16, 2018)

Thousands of Christians, Ahmadis and Hindus are fleeing as the government turns a blind eye to Islamic groups' harassment of other faiths and beliefs; even atheists have now gone quiet 

Pakistani religious students and activists gather for a protest against social media in Islamabad on March 8, 2017, and demanded the removal of all blasphemous content from social media sites. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

Pakistan has been put on a US watch list for countries of concern over  “severe violations of religious freedom” – and a closer look at the situation reveals that religious minorities and atheists are at a higher risk than ever.

The State Department’s move came after a tweet by President Donald Trump in New Year accusing Pakistan of providing “safe haven to terrorists”. However, the list is significant given the state’s surrender to protests by the Islamic political party Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) at the end of last year.

Islamabad’s capitulation to the radical Islamist mob has endangered the Ahmadiyya community, which has been the target of death threats made openly since the party besieged the capital a few months ago.

The Ahmadis, an Islamic sect excommunicated by the second amendment to Pakistan’s Constitution in 1974, have faced a severe backlash over the initial changes made regarding Khatm-e-Nabuwat (finality of prophethood) in the Elections Reforms Bill passed in October. According to the Pakistan Penal Code, an Ahmadi can be imprisoned for reading the Koran or even using Islamic titles.
Ahmadis face the sword of blasphemy

“What’s ironic is that those ideologues who were against the creation of Pakistan not only accuse us of heresy, but also call Ahmadis – who played a crucial role in Pakistan’s freedom struggle – anti-nationals,” Ahmadiyya spokesperson Saleem Uddin said to Asia Times. “We have been the convenient scapegoats for the state since Pakistan’s inception. What was a breach of freedom of religion in 1974 [through the Second Amendment], was transformed into apartheid a decade later when the state slashed and barred us from ‘posing as Muslims’,” he went on.

While Ahmadis are constantly under the sword of blasphemy – a ‘crime’ punishable by death in Pakistan – owing to their interpretation of Islamic theology, the state has recently begun targeting atheists.

Last year, a judge in the Islamabad High Court maintained that “blasphemers are terrorists”. That prompted the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to not only block local Facebook pages that questioned religion, but also to send text messages to cell-phone users nationwide throughout the year, warning against blasphemy.
Social media crackdown, atheists at risk

An atheist, who organizes underground meetings for local skeptics and appeared in the BBC documentary ‘Pakistan’s Secret Atheists‘, told Asia Times there has been a significant decrease in atheist gatherings in his country.

“After the social media crackdown, many of us deactivated our profiles fearing abduction, especially after secular bloggers were abducted in January last year,” he says. “But there’s also a reluctance among atheists about meeting up at homes. Our homes and the internet used to be our safe spaces to share ideas, but even those have been taken away from us.”

While local atheists can pass off as Muslims – if that is their birth religion in Pakistan, Hindus and Christians are more visible targets. Last month, two suicide bombers killed nine and injured nearly 60 others inside Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, the latest in a string of attacks on the local Christian community.

“We feared going out on Christmas with memories of the Easter Day bombing [at a children’s park in Lahore] from 2016 still fresh,” a member of the Christian clergy, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “But what support can we expect when our own Kamran Michael is more interested in seeking the support of Presbyterian and Anglican Church bodies for the Sharifs’ election campaigns than in safeguarding our rights.”

Kamran Michael, a senator from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was elected in a seat allocated for minorities and served as the minister for human rights from 2013 until Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification as prime minister last July. Many locals accuse Michael of not doing enough to protect minorities. Threats by Muslim radicals has prompted innumerable Christians to flee Pakistan and look for asylum elsewhere.

Hindus also targeted

Members of the local Hindu community have also been seeking shelter abroad. Recently, two Hindu traders were shot to death in Sindh’s Tharparkar city just days before the US announced that Pakistan was on its watch list in regard to religious freedom.

PML-N Senator Ramesh Kumar said “around 5,000 Hindus leave Pakistan every year” because of the extensive persecution. This includes forced marriages and kidnapping for ransom, as well as attacks on Hindu temples. Pakistani human rights activist Kapil Dev (named after the Indian cricket star) blames the state’s acquiescence to the radical Islamist narrative as the main reason why Pakistani Hindus are targeted.

“The mushrooming growth of seminaries of banned outfits has paved quick inroads for growing extremism in Tharparkar, where both Hindus and Muslims had been enjoying an exemplary interfaith coexistence,” Dev said to Asia Times. He believes the country’s educational curricula, which marginalizes local Hindus while outlining the Muslim separatist movement that resulted in the creation of Pakistan, needs an overhaul.

“Hatred against Hindus, primarily driven from the ideology of Two-Nation Theory, is deeply injected in the veins of raw minds through distorted history and fabricated tales taught in books,” he said. “There is a need to secularize curricula by filtering out religion and distorted versions of history promoting hatred against Hindus.”

Activists want to counter radical Islamist perspectives with a secular narrative, but Ibn Abdur Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, doesn’t see it happening anytime soon.

“This is only going to get worse,” he told Asia Times. “The state has surrendered to the radical Islamists and plans on gradually taking away every last bit of freedom from its citizens.” 

10. PAKISTANI HUMANIST DENIED UK ASYLUM AFTER FAILING TO IDENTIFY PLATO | Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent | @harrietsherwood
(The Guardian, 17 Jan 2018)

Man who renounced Islam says he has received death threats from family members in Pakistan

A Pakistani man who renounced his Muslim faith and became a humanist has had his application for asylum in the UK rejected after failing to correctly answer questions about ancient Greek philosophers.

The Home Office said Hamza bin Walayat’s failure to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanist philosophers indicated his knowledge of humanism was “rudimentary at best”.

The Home Office also said Walayat did not face persecution for his beliefs. In a letter rejecting his asylum claim, seen by the Guardian, it said his assertion that he would be at risk in Pakistan, and could be killed by his family because of his beliefs and his renunciation of Islam, was unfounded.

Walayat, who has lived in the UK since 2011, said he had received death threats from members of his family and community in Pakistan after integrating into secular British life, forming a relationship with a non-Muslim partner and refusing to conform to the expectations of conservative Islam.

Apostates are subject to discrimination, persecution and violence in Pakistan. In March last year, a student who had stated he was a humanist on his Facebook page was murdered at his university.
Destitute UK asylum seekers get 80p rise in subsistence payments
Read more

Blasphemy is punishable by death under Pakistani law. In August, 24 British politicians wrote to the Pakistani government urging it to repeal its draconian blasphemy law, which has been used against religious minorities and humanists.

Walayat claimed asylum in July last year after being served with removal papers for overstaying his student visa.

After an interview with immigration officials, the Home Office said he had “been unable to provide a consistent or credible account with regards the main aspect of your claim, namely that you are a humanist”.

When tested on his knowledge of humanism, Walayat gave a “basic definition” but could not identify “any famous Greek philosophers who were humanistic”.

The letter said: “When you were informed by the interviewing officer that he was referring to Plato and Aristotle, you replied: ‘Yeah, the thing is because of my medication that is strong I just forget stuff sometimes’.”

The Home Office concluded: “Your knowledge of humanism is rudimentary at best and not of a level that would be expected of a genuine follower of humanism.”
MPs criticise error-hit 'hostile environment' for illegal immigrants
Read more

Walayat joined the Humanists UK organisation in August, but said he had believed in the basic principles of humanism from childhood.

According to Humanists UK, “humanism is not a ‘canonical’ belief system, where adherents must learn and follow a strict set of behaviour codes. As a descriptive term, humanists can be someone who has simply rejected religious belief but holds some positive conception of human values.”

In a letter in support of Walayat’s asylum application, Bob Churchill, of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, said: “For many, the broad descriptive ‘humanist’ is just a softer way of saying atheist, especially if you come from a place where identifying as atheist may be regarded as a deeply offensive statement.”

Andrew Copson, of Humanists UK, said the move “set a dangerous precedent for non-religious people fleeing persecution. The Home Office is simply incorrect to claim that non-religious people seeking asylum don’t get the same protection in law as religious people do.”

The questions put to Walayat “reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of humanism”, he added.

Walayat told the Guardian he believed his life would be in danger in Pakistan. The Home Office decision had come as a shock, he added. “I’ve told the truth and instead of believing me they are trying to find excuses to kick me out of the country,” he said.

Many Christians he had encountered in the UK did not have a detailed grasp of the history of their faith, he said, “but it doesn’t mean they’re not Christian”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection and each claim is carefully considered on its individual merits.”

(Human Rights Watch, January 18, 2018)

Villagers wait to vote at a polling station during the parliamentary and provincial elections in Sindhupalchok district, Nepal, November 26, 2017. © 2017 Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

(New York) – The Nepali government held local, provincial, and national elections in 2017, following longtime political instability and debate over new provinces, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018. However, despite some halting progress on transitional justice for abuses during the country’s 1996-2006 civil war, victims saw little by way of justice or reparations.

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

   Nepal’s political leadership has long been divided on most issues except to deny justice and accountability for conflict-related abuses. -Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director

“After years of political instability that led to stalled human rights reforms, Nepal’s elections may lead to fresh hope for justice and due process,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Nepal’s political leadership has long been divided on most issues except to deny justice and accountability for conflict-related abuses, which should now change.”

Nepal’s transitional justice mechanisms, focused on truth-telling and disappearances, held hearings throughout 2017 and received more than 60,000 complaints from across the country. Flaws in the commissions’ mandates were not remedied, in spite of several Supreme Court directives. Due to these shortcomings, the international community chose to remain silent on the transitional justice process until the laws were brought into line with international norms.

Quarrels among political leaders led to long delays in establishing a mechanism charged with distributing the estimated US$4 billion in aid generated for victims of the April 2015 earthquakes. Victims, many still living in temporary shelters, were further affected by harsh winters and floods during the monsoon season.

Nepal has the third highest rate of child marriage in Asia – 37 percent of girls are married before age 18, and 10 percent before age 15. Progress toward ending the practice has stalled. In 2016, the government launched a national strategy to end child marriage by 2030, but has yet to announce or implement any practical action plan.

In positive news, in line with a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the government has gradually introduced a legal third gender on various documents, including citizenship certificates and passports. In 2017, the court issued a new judgment emphasizing the government’s responsibility to issue such documents. Nepal also outlawed chaupadi, a practice that effectively removes menstruating women and girls from their homes.


Press centre
Press release

KATHMANDU, 19 January 2018 – “UNICEF joins the Government of Pakistan in its condemnation of the killing of two polio vaccinators in Balochistan earlier this week."
“The mother and daughter who were killed were at the forefront of this extremely important fight to combat polio in Pakistan. Such attacks on health workers can hamper the important work to eradicate the disease and ensure that Pakistani children are no longer at risk of lifelong disability.”
“UNICEF expresses its deepest sympathy with the family of the two killed health workers who have worked to protect children and keep them healthy.”
“We remain committed in our support to the Government and the people of Pakistan in their determination to save the new generations from this terrible disease.”


UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.For more information on UNICEF's polio work in South Asia, visit

Follow UNICEF  on Twitter5 and Facebook6.

For more information, please contact:

Paul Rutter, Regional Adviser Maternal & Child Health, UNICEF South Asia, +977 9801096877, prutter at  
Sabrina Sidhu, UNICEF New York, +19174761537, ssidhu at

(Bar and Bench, Jan 19, 2018)

The sad demise of Judge Loya is the biggest mystery yet to be unravelled
even after three years. It is also the biggest tragedy for the Judiciary
for more than one reason.
[ . . . ]

People’s Union for Democratic Rights

Press Statement


Release Abu Bilal Kawa Immediately

PUDR demands the immediate release of Abu Bilal Kawa who was arrested on January 10, 2018 by a joint team of the Special Cell and Gujarat ATS from outside Delhi’s International Airport. The Deputy Commissioner Special Cell said that the suspect was arrested after it was confirmed that he was “the same man we were looking for in the Red Fort terrorist shoot out case” (Hindustan Times, 11.01.2018). Subsequently, a city court sent Bilal Kawa to ten-days police remand.

Kawa is said to be a proclaimed offender in the Red Fort attack case of December 2000, a shoot-out in which 3 personnel of the Rajputana Rifles lost their lives and for which death penalty was awarded to Mohd. Arif @ Ashfaq, a Pakistani national who continues to languish in solitary confinement. The prosecution had argued that Kawa was part of hawala transactions and that the main accused, Mohd. Arif, had allegedly disbursed a sum of 29 lakhs in Kawa’s account in Srinagar as well as in the accounts of two other men from Srinagar, Farooq and Nasir Quasid.

While it is the duty of the law enforcing agency to arrest proclaimed offenders, Kawa’s belated arrest raises several questions which refute the police’s claim that Kawa has been in hiding all this while:

   After his arrest Kawa has told the police that he frequents Delhi as he is a businessman and that his January visit was for a medical check-up.
   Neighbours and family members in Srinagar have stated that in all these years no police warrant has been issued against Kawa.
   The J&K police has confirmed that there is no pending FIR against Kawa in the nearby Maharaj Gunj Zainkadal PS.
   The family members have also asserted that Kawa’s brother is a resident of Delhi for the past twenty years and that he’s never faced any queries from the police.

Besides these obvious questions which suggest that the arrest is politically motivated, Kawa’s alleged role in the larger conspiracy, as claimed by the police, deserves scrutiny within the controversial legal history of the Red Fort attack case:

   Before the trial court, the police had failed to furnish the prosecution claim against the above mentioned Quasids as it could not procure bank documents or show how the disbursed money was used for furthering LeT sponsored terrorist activities. Not surprising that the Quasids along with four others were acquitted by the High Court in 2007. The High Court had also pointed out that in a case which was tried under normal law, the reliance of the trial court on confessional statements of accused, was a case of miscarriage of justice. It must be remembered that Kawa is said to have the same role as that of the Quasids.
   The Special Cell, the investigating agency, which arrested Kawa has played an infamous role as it killed a prime suspect, Abu Shamal, on the plea of ‘self-defence’. The ‘encounter’ was doubtful as the residents of Batla House in Jamia Nagar claimed that there was no such incident on the morning of 26th December 2000.
   The legal controversies of the Red Fort attack case are not restricted to shoddy investigations and unethical practices of the Special Cell. It is built into the very chain of evidence as the ‘recoveries’made against the main accused—weapons, mobile phones and letters—were as controversial as the omission of his statement before the Magistrate, S.313 CrPC in which he named a RAW agent, Nain Singh. Based on flimsy evidence, a politically motivated case of terrorism was built and Mohd. Arif was given the death penalty and he continues to remain the sole accused. Quite clearly, Kawa’s arrest brings a new shine to an old case and which resuscitate familiar fears about lawless investigations.
   Significantly, a member of the Special Cell personnel told the media soon after the arrest that “why he (Kawa) could not be arrested for the last seventeen years is a matter of ‘investigation” (HT, 11.01). If that is so, the arrest and ten-day remand sought by the police are extremely questionable.
   It is to be noted that the implications of arresting a Kashmiri businessman with young children on the eve of Republic Day on charges of evading arrest serves the current right-wing purpose of projecting Kashmiri terrorism. It also confirms what the residents of the Old City of Srinagar feel: yet another instance of ‘framing innocent Kashmiris’.

PUDR strongly refutes the police’s claim that Kawa was in hiding or that he has a central role in the Red Fort attack case. Given the circumstances and facts of the case, the arrest of Abu Bilal Kawa seems like a clear case of political harassment. PUDR demands the unconditional release of Abu Bilal Kawa. 

Shashi Saxena, Shahana Bhattacharya

(Secretaries, PUDR)

15th Jan 2018

(The Times of India, January 20, 2018)

Freedom of expression must be protected despite threats to law and order but it is unfortunate that four BJP ruled states ignored this self-evident constitutional precept and then got tutored on creative freedom by Supreme Court judges. The apex court’s stay against the ban on Padmaavat is another example of judiciary rectifying flawed executive orders. SC noted that any possible concern regarding the film’s content or danger to public order would have been considered by the censor board in the discharge of its duties under the Cinematograph Act and state governments had little leeway to ban films.

State governments are still exploring legal options. While they are free to pursue this futile exercise a more rewarding course of action would be to provide unconditional support and police protection to cinema halls. Safeguarding free speech is critical to preserving democracy. Even the censor board’s expansive scope is contentious. Certifying a film is understandable but suggesting audiovisual cuts and title changes is no less a dampener of creative freedoms. SC’s observation that states have “guillotined creative rights” starkly captures, perhaps inadvertently, the blood thirst inherent in BJP leader Suraj Pal Amu’s bounty of Rs 10 crore for beheading Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Deepika Padukone.

Karni Sena’s crude threats of wreaking violence are part of this wider socio-political pattern of rising intolerance. The Padmaavat ban is reminiscent of how communal riots are fuelled by administrations that surrender to mobs. State governments must disabuse themselves of the notion that right to creative expression is a utopian or elitist construct. As Supreme Court noted: “When creativity dies, values of civilisation corrode.” Governance and the capacity to govern are often challenged when the state comes into conflict with collective interests. The Constitution has helped negotiate these pitfalls for 67 years. Bans, on the other hand, are shortcuts to disaster.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India. 

(Nature - 16 January 2018)

The world is lit at night like never before, and ecologists are assessing the damage.

In mini-ecosystems in the Netherlands, researchers test the effects of artificial light. Credit: Kamiel Spoelstra/NIOO-KNAW

It’s a summer night near a forest lake in Germany and something unnatural is going on. Beyond the dark waters lapping at the shores, a faint glow emanates from rings of light hovering above the surface. Nearby, bobbing red torchlights — the least-disruptive part of the visible spectrum — betray the presence of scientists on the shoreline. They are testing what happens when they rob the lake creatures of their night.

This experiment near Berlin is the most ambitious of several projects going on in dark patches of countryside around Europe, set up in the past few years to probe what light pollution is doing to ecosystems. Researchers are growing increasingly concerned about the problem. Although many studies have documented how artificial light harms individual species, the impacts on whole ecosystems and the services they provide, such as crop pollination, is less clear. Several field studies hope to provide answers, by monitoring how plant and animal communities respond to both direct light and the more diffuse unnatural luminance of the night sky, known as skyglow.

Ecologists face challenges such as measuring light accurately and assessing how multiple species behave in response. But early results suggest that light at night is exerting pervasive, long-term stress on ecosystems, from coasts to farmland to urban waterways, many of which are already suffering from other, more well-known forms of pollution. It’s an important blind spot, says Steve Long, a plant biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and editor of the journal Global Change Biology. “We know a great deal now about the impacts of rising CO2,” he says. “But how extensive are the impacts of light pollution? We’re gambling with our future in what we’re doing to the environment.”

In the 1950s, Dutch physiologist Frans Verheijen began to study how lights attract animals and interfere with their behaviour. And during the 1970s, more biological observations of the impacts of light started popping up in the literature. But it took two lateral-thinking biogeographers — Catherine Rich, president of the Urban Wildlands Group in Los Angeles, California, and Travis Longcore, now at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles — to see the links between them and organize a conference in 2002, followed by a book, The Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting (Island, 2006), pointing out how far the tendrils of the illuminated night extend.

For the vast majority of organisms — whether human, cockroach or wisp of plankton — the cycle of light and dark is an influential regulator of behaviour. It mediates courtship, reproduction, migration and more. “Since life evolved, Earth has changed dramatically, but there have always been light days and dark nights,” says Christopher Kyba, a physicist at the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. “When you change it, you have the worry that it could screw up a lot of things”.

The pace of that change is increasing. Striking images from space over the past two decades reveal the extent to which the night is disappearing. Estimates suggest that more than one-tenth of the planet’s land area experiences artificial light at night1 — and that rises to 23% if skyglow is included2. The extent of artificially lit outdoor areas spread3 by 2% every year from 2012 to 2016. An unexpected driver of the trend is the widespread installation of light emitting diodes (LEDs), which are growing in popularity because they are more energy efficient than other bulbs. They tend to emit a broad-spectrum white light that includes most of the frequencies important to the natural world.

The trend has had profound impacts on some species; lights are well known to disorient migrating birds and sea turtles, for example. Scientists have also found that disappearing darkness disturbs the behaviour of crickets, moths and bats, and even increases disease transmission in birds.

The most lethal effects are perhaps on insects — vital food sources and pollinators in many ecosystems. An estimate of the effects of street lamps in Germany suggested that the light could wipe out more than 60 billion insects over a single summer4. Some insects fly straight into lamps and sizzle; some collapse after circling them for hours.

Fewer studies have examined plants, but those that have suggest that light is disrupting them, too. In a study in the United Kingdom5, scientists took a 13-year record of the timing of bud opening in trees, and matched it up with satellite imagery of night-time lighting. After controlling for urban heat, they found that artificial lighting was linked with trees bursting their buds more than a week earlier — a magnitude similar to that predicted for 2 °C of global warming. A study of soya-bean farms in Illinois6 found that the light from adjacent roads and passing cars could be delaying the maturation of crops by up to seven weeks, as well as reducing yield.

Ecosystem effects

Now, the results of some ambitious experiments are coming in. One of the largest is a field experiment in the Netherlands, where eight locations in nature reserves and dark places host several rows of street lamps. The rows are different colours — green, red, white and a control row turned off — and run from a grassland or heath field into a forest7. For six years now, scientists and volunteers have used camera traps to monitor the activity of small mammals; automatic bat detectors to record echolocation calls; mist nets for trapping birds; and nest boxes to assess the timing and success of breeding. Botanists are studying the vegetation underneath the lamps.

A map of night-sky brightness over Europe, where black is pristine sky and red areas are 5-10 times brighter.Credit: Ref. 2

The team has found physiological evidence of the detrimental effects of light pollution on the health of wild animals. Songbirds roosting around the white light were restless through the night, slept less and had metabolic changes that could indicate poorer health8. The project also looked at how light affects bats, which have had mixed fortunes under the explosion of artificial illumination. Some species, such as the common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), feast on the buffet of insects that they find circling lamps. Other, light-shy, bats have lost habitat and have disappeared from some places. In the Netherlands study, red light had no effect on any of the bat species9, which means it could be deployed instead of white.

But the experiment has yielded some puzzling findings. Several urban studies had found that artificial light at night triggers songbirds to sing earlier in the day. Because females tend to select early-singing males, the shifted dawn chorus might be affecting which birds get to reproduce. But the team in the Netherlands found no effect on any of 14 songbird species10. It’s possible that the lighting was too weak to elicit an effect — it is calibrated to reflect the level on country roads and cycle paths, rather than the glare of an urban park.

Both kinds of result are useful for local governments, says Kamiel Spoelstra, a biologist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) in Wageningen, who leads the project. His team’s findings are being incorporated into Dutch regulations on outdoor lighting. For instance, he says, some areas seeking to support local bat populations have switched to red light, a trend that he expects to increase.

Coloured light also graces grasslands in southwest England, where a project known as Ecolight is looking for evidence of ‘cascade effects’‚ in which the influences of light on one species have knock-on effects on the ecosystem.

The glowing cubes used by Ecolight might be mistaken for an art installation. Scientists led by Kevin Gaston, a biodiversity and conservation specialist at the University of Exeter, UK, have just finished researching 54 artificial communities of grassland. In some of the cubes, beetles, slugs, pea aphids and 18 species of plant muddled along for 5 years, isolated from the outside world. Other boxes were simpler — containing just plants and herbivores, or plants alone. At night, some were illuminated with white light, some with amber, and some just saw the raw sky.

The effects of light on grasslands are important, partly because roadside grass provides refuges and corridors for wildlife in built-up areas. The scientists discovered that amber light and, to a lesser extent, white, suppressed flowering in the trefoil (Lotus pedunculatus)11. And there was a cascade effect in the amber-lit boxes. During August, when pea aphids switch from eating shoots to feasting on flower heads, their numbers fell, presumably because their food was less abundant. “I think this is the first experimental evidence of a strong, bottom-up effect of exposure to artificial light,” says Gaston. In its latest, unpublished, work, the team reveals further effects, cascading onto the predators in the systems.

Another elaborate experiment, in a dark-skies reserve in Westhavelland Nature Park in Germany, has shown that these cascade effects can spill over into neighbouring ecosystems. Street lamps erected near water-filled ditches lure aquatic insects out of the water12, says Franz Hölker, an ecohydrologist at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin. The insects flock to the lamps, exhaust themselves and become food for nearby predators. Meanwhile, the hinterland, which might otherwise have received insect visits, is deprived of an important source of food, he says.

Studies such as these, which lay such relationships bare in well-controlled, small-scale studies, mean that “those impacts are more likely to be taken seriously in the field and by regulators considering impacts from lighting”, says Longcore.

Artificial light can also have impacts on ecosystem services — the benefits that ecosystems provide to humans. A study published in Nature last year found that illuminating a set of Swiss meadows stopped nocturnal insects pollinating plants13. A team led by Eva Knop of the Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Berne, found that insect visits to the plants dropped by nearly two-thirds under artificial light and that daytime pollination couldn’t compensate: the plants produced 13% less fruit. Knop’s team forecast that these changes had the potential to cascade to the daytime pollinator community by reducing the amount of food available. “This is a very important study, which clearly demonstrates that artificial light at night is a threat to pollination,” says Hölker.

Light skies

Much of Earth remains free of direct artificial light, but skyglow — light that is scattered back to Earth by aerosols and clouds — is more widespread. It can be so faint that humans can’t see it, but researchers say it could still threaten the 30% of vertebrates and 60% of invertebrates that are nocturnal and exquisitely sensitive to light.

Skyglow “almost certainly” has an impact on biodiversity, Gaston says, because the level is well above the thresholds for triggering many biological responses. And yet, he says, “it’s actually quite hard to do the definitive study”.
An experimentally illuminated “Light on Nature” research site in a nature reserves in the Netherlands.

This grassland experiment supports the idea that red light is relatively benign to wildlife. Credit: Kamiel Spoelstra/NIOO-KNAW

That’s where the forest-lake experiment comes in. Glowing circles of light hover above cylinders sunk into Lake Stechlin, recreating skyglow. They are the work of Leibniz physicist Andreas Jechow, who had to find a way to produce low-level, even illumination without blocking daylight or impeding access for scientists. He and his team achieved this using state-of-the-art photonics tools such as an advanced ray-tracing model. “We were too ignorant as biologists about the complexity of light as a physical phenomenon,” says Mark Gessner, director of the project, known as The LakeLab, and co-leader of its artificial-light project, called ILES (Illuminating Lake Ecosystems). In the past, some experiments have even failed to account for the fact that the Moon moves across the sky, he adds.

The idea for ILES was to extend findings from a well-known study of zooplankton, which live in deep, dark water during the day and migrate up into shallower waters at night to graze on algae. This movement is thought to be the biggest migration of biomass in the world. A study14 in lakes near Boston, Massachusetts, in the late 1990s suggested that skyglow reduces the zooplankton’s ascent by 2 metres, and the number of organisms that ascend by 10–20%. This behavioural change may be an unacknowledged driver of fundamental lake processes such as algal blooms.

At ILES, the 24 cylinders — each 9 metres in diameter — look from the surface like a fish farm. Lighting them with different levels of ‘skyglow’ and measuring the distribution of the tiny plankton using video cameras, the scientists found that skyglow had no massive effect on the movement of algae. “We may have a changed migration pattern but I’m not yet certain about this,” says Gessner. “If there is an effect, though, it looks like it’s not the profound one we were expecting.”

The surprise result is typical of these difficult studies. Gessner points out that their experiment has only completed its first season. “Maybe we don’t need to be worried or maybe we need to be less worried — we don’t know, at least as far as the effects of skyglow on lakes is concerned,” he says.

Bright future

It’s slow, meticulous work, but the field is coalescing as evidence accumulates, says Gaston. “The last two or three years has seen a dramatic improvement in the level of our understanding,” he says.

Nonetheless, there are improvements to make. Even measuring exposure is hard. In the field, the light an organism receives can be difficult to measure; a bird could retreat to the shadow of a nearby tree to avoid illumination, for example. So some scientists have tried strapping light meters to birds to get a better idea of dosage.

As the results seep out, one thing that both frustrates and inspires ecologists is that the remedy is at hand.

Longcore is now gathering published data on how different species, such as shearwaters and sea turtles, respond to different parts of the spectrum, and matching the results to the spectra emitted by different types of lighting. He wants to inform decisions about lighting — for example, which type of lamp to use on a bridge and which at a seaside resort.

Engineers and ecologists know that well-considered lighting can perform its task without “spraying light into the sky”, as Kyba puts it. LEDs can be tweaked to shine in certain parts of the spectrum, to dim and to switch off remotely. “My vision,” says Kyba, “is that in 30 years’ time, the streets will be nicely lit — better than today — but we’ll use one-tenth of the light.”

That would be great news for ecological systems, says Hölker, because darkness is one of the most profound forces to shape nature. “Half of the globe is always dark,” he says. “The night is half the story.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-00665-7

Tianyi Luo, World Resources Institute 

(The Times [London], January 20 2018)

Review: Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016 by Steve Coll

US infighting proved fatal to the Afghan war effort, says Sherard Cowper-Coles

Sixteen years ago this month, America won the war in Afghanistan. Or rather, it won the war it should have fought. The bases from which al-Qaeda had planned and prepared the 9/11 attacks had been destroyed. Its people had been killed, captured, or driven out, across the Durand Line into Pakistan. A wise America, a calm America, would have declared victory and moved on.

Instead, in the flush of victory, egged on by an obsequious British ally, President Bush plunged America into its longest war, one matched in folly and cost only by the decision to invade and try to remake a second large and dangerous Muslim country — Iraq — just over a year later.

Steve Coll’s Directorate S is the sequel to his magisterial Ghost Wars. Both books rest on a foundation of serious scholarship and Coll’s extraordinary access, to individual CIA officers mostly, but also to many others. These notably included members of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, where Directorate S was the name given to the branch of the agency “devoted to secret operations in support of the Taliban, Kashmiri guerrillas, and other violent Islamic radicals”. Every assertion is carefully sourced and checked. This book is in the finest traditions of American investigative journalism. Coll is the thinking man’s Michael Wolff.

Ghost Wars told the story of how the CIA, working with its Pakistani allies, ramped up the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and thus helped to create Osama bin Laden. Directorate S is the second act of the same tragedy. Coll picks up the thread in the weeks before 9/11. The CIA’s al-Qaeda watchers knew that something awful was about to happen, but had not detected the clues that would have told them when, where and, most importantly, how.

From there Coll plots a carefully constructed course, describing the four stages of America’s Afghan adventure. Early and easy victory first, in the weeks after 9/11, then the gradual unravelling over four years of the flimsy peace that prevailed in the wake of al-Qaeda’s expulsion from Afghanistan in early 2002.

The third movement of this symphony of self-delusion was the one in which I played a small part, as Britain’s ambassador and later Afghan envoy: the attempt, from 2006 until 2009, to reassert control by pouring resources into the country and putting Nato in charge.

That well-meant, but ill-founded attempt to defy political, historical and geographic gravity has been followed since 2009 by the final stage of Coll’s story: the growing realisation, which should have been obvious to every serious western player from the start, that stabilising and pacifying a broken Afghanistan, and preparing it for self-government, was the work of a generation. And that it was work that could not, and should not, be done by America and its allies alone.

Only by involving every neighbour with a dog in the fight — Pakistan, above all, but also India, China, Iran, Russia and others too — could the project have had any hope of success. And only if America had been prepared to engage with all the internal parties to the conflict, including, but ranging far beyond the Taliban.

Coll does not pretend to relate the whole history of the war, but rather focuses on the war less visible: that waged by the CIA and its paramilitary units, by the ISI and its agents inside and outside Afghanistan, and by Afghanistan’s surprisingly effective intelligence and security service, with its powerful Soviet legacy.

In many ways, what the CIA and Directorate S were each up to in Afghanistan’s Taliban-infected badlands and in the tribal areas of Pakistan’s northwest frontier were mirror images of each other. Each was arming, sponsoring, training and directing local militias and tribal levies of various kinds, in a proxy war. Only very occasionally did officers of the CIA’s paramilitary wing and of Directorate S engage in combat. The only exception to this was the CIA’s drone force — the modern equivalent of what the interwar RAF used to call “imperial air policing” — taking out high-value Taliban targets.

Mostly, however, the two agencies, nominal allies and bitter rivals, were and probably still are the controllers of a ground war fought by others. I remember Britain’s MI6 officers in Afghanistan speaking enviously of the resources available to their American cousins: about 15 bases across Afghanistan, as well as an air force and a tribal army of their own.

The officers of the CIA emerge with great credit from the fog of this long and unhappy war. Patriots, above all, as analysts and operators they have a better grasp of reality than eager-to-please civilian colleagues in other branches of government. And they are brave too, in running agents and in fighting small wars with their tribal levies, as well as in bureaucratic battles in Washington.

Historians of America’s self-accelerated and relative decline will find much material for further analysis in this book’s 700 unflagging pages. The central truth, which leaps out from almost every chapter, is that, by entering Afghanistan without the faintest idea of how it was going to get out, a chaotic American Republic broke the basic rules of military success: unity of purpose and unity of command.

In Kabul, in the provinces, in Washington, America was fighting not only the Taliban, but itself. Agency against agency, army against Marines, embassy against CIA station, the National Security Council against the Pentagon, no one was — is — in charge. Brutal inter-agency bureaucratic warfare is in the DNA of American democracy. But it can be fatal to a serious war effort.

Just one egregious example: the US ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, sent top secret cables to l a handful of senior people in Washington. They described the folly of a counter-insurgency “strategy” founded on supporting Hamid Karzai’s unconvincing Afghan government. They were leaked to The New York Times.

In cameo, this disarray came out in my first weeks as Britain’s ambassador in Kabul. My American colleague, fresh from Colombia, nicknamed “Chemical Bill”, had drunk the Drug Enforcement Administration Kool-Aid. He pushed hard for us to spray the whole Helmand valley from the air with Roundup weedkiller, destroying not only the opium poppies, but every other plant as well. Helicopter gunships would keep the crop-dusting planes safe. Hercules transport planes would follow close behind, dropping seed and shovels to the farmers in time for them to plant a second and less noxious crop.

Bush urged an eager Tony Blair to support the idea, saying: “Ah’m a sprayin’ kinda guy.” Karzai and some embarrassed Brits pushed back, pointing out that such crazy chemical warfare would turn insurgency into insurrection. Common sense prevailed. But “sprayin’ kinda guys” don’t win wars, at least not ones such as that still rolling on in Afghanistan.
Sherard Cowper-Coles was British ambassador to Afghanistan 2007-09, and UK special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 2009-10. He is the author of Cables from Kabul.
Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016 by Steve Coll, Allen Lane, 784p, £25

19. IN MEMORIAM: ADAM ZAMEENZAD (1937-2017) | Muneeza Shamsie
(Dawn, Books & Authors, January 14, 2018)

Adam Zameenzad, the Pakistan-born author of six novels, passed away in Britain on Dec 4, 2017, at the age of 80. He was one of the major pioneers of contemporary Pakistani English fiction. In 1987, his book The Thirteenth House won the David Higham Prize for Fiction for best debut, making Zameenzad the first English-language novelist of Pakistani origin to win an international literary award. It was also long listed for the Man Booker Prize, as was Zameenzad’s gargantuan and ambitious fourth novel from 1991, Cyrus Cyrus. In 1988, Zameenzad wrote his second novel, My Friend Matt and Henna the Whore, in response to the Ethiopian famine of 1983-85 and gave the royalties for famine relief efforts. This poetic, haunting book, which combines the child narrator’s enchanted world with daily sorrow, is now being developed into an animated film by British filmmaker and publisher Franc Roddam.

Adam Zameenzad was the pen-name of Saleem Ahmed. He spent his early years in Nairobi where both his parents, Fatima Aziz and Shammim Ahmed, were teachers. He moved to Pakistan when he was eight because his father, a landlord’s son, had inherited lands in Sindh. Zameenzad read voraciously, preferred the company of older people to children his own age and hated school. He also befriended the jhuggi [slum] dwellers who lived beyond the walls of his father’s haveli. These experiences would shape much of his fiction and the sensitivity with which he portrayed troubled children, rich or poor, and “the disadvantaged, the dispossessed and the outcasts of this world.”

Zameenzad’s parents separated and at 11 years of age he went to live with his mother in Lahore. He continued to “bunk” school, but matriculated at 14, graduated from college and earned his Masters degree from the University of Karachi. He then became a professor of English at Forman Christian College, Lahore. He left Pakistan when his mother was killed in a car accident and lived in the United States, Canada and Scandinavia before arriving in England in 1974 during a teacher shortage. He taught English at schools in Kent and Essex and continued to live in Britain — Robert Bush in The Guardian described him as “a great friend, a man of immense intellectual power, endlessly disputatious, with passions that brooked no compromise.”

In 1989, Zameenzad became a full-time writer, following the success of The Thirteenth House, a tale of power and powerlessness set in the early years of the Zia regime. Narrated by the disembodied voice of a dead mill owner’s son, it tells of the tribulations of Zahid, a poor clerk who, with his wife and handicapped son, falls prey to the machinations of a fake pir. The novel merges reality with the supernatural, as does My Friend Matt and Henna the Whore which employs the innocence of a child-narrator to great advantage to tell of a country ravaged by famine, brutal soldiers, venal politicians and ‘do-good’ foreigners. Zameenzad continued with themes of desperate people struggling against natural and man-made disasters in 1989’s Love, Bones and Water, which is steeped in Biblical images and describes the friendship between a rich, neglected child and the kindly dwellers of a shanty town in a fictitious South American Republic. Zameenzad gathered up elements of all these novels into Cyrus Cyrus to follow the misadventures of Cyrus, disfigured since birth, who belongs to a choorhha [sweeper] family which has converted to Christianity. Cyrus’s quest for dignity, justice and self takes him from India, East Pakistan and the US to Britain, and ends as a dictation to “Adam Zameenzad: Man, Son of Earth.”

Zameenzad was the first Pakistani English novelist to explore transgender issues with his tight, multilayered novel Gorgeous White Female, published in 1995. The book, replete with the imagery of Hollywood and contemporary film, looked at the crisis of a British Asian boy, Lahya, in New York. Unfortunately, Zameenzad had a serious road accident in 1999 that brought long-term effects. He published only one novel thereafter, Pepsi and Maria, in 2004, a moving tale of streetchildren terrorised by the authorities in a South American country.

One of the most significant and innovative writers of early contemporary Pakistani English fiction — and his novels are to be reprinted very soon — Zameenzad is survived by his wife Shammi, three daughters and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The writer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

(The New York Times, Nov. 6, 2017)

Members of the Russian Defense Ministry’s “Youth Army” attended the opening of a time capsule containing a message to the youth of 2017, from the youth of 1967, in Cherepovets, Russia. Credit Valeri Nistratov for The New York Times

CHEREPOVETS, Russia — To mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, this industrial city engaged in a little time travel. Its inhabitants came together last week on the main square to read out a message that had been sealed inside a time capsule — to the youth of 2017, from the youth of 1967.

Fifty years ago, when the citizens of Cherepovets gathered in the same spot, it was to celebrate the achievements of a socioeconomic system they deemed eternal. Pride in its achievements, coupled with an unshakable belief in a future under socialism, infused a letter that they slipped inside a steel capsule and placed in a hollow monolith brought to the square.

“Today we are building Communism, and you will live under it,” they wrote. “Our message to your generation: Stay true to Communism’s ideals, and fearless in the fight for the welfare of the working man.”

At last week’s ceremony, in a less ideological Russia but a resurgent one, 500 people congregated to hear those words. Camouflage-clad members of the Defense Ministry’s “Youth Army” stood in perfect formation, staring steely-eyed ahead as veterans of the Communist youth league, the Komsomol, delivered speeches extolling the continuity of generations.

The message from 1967, eventually removed from the monolith and preserved in a local museum, elicited not a single smirk. Neither did a new message meant for another audience 50 years from now listing major moments in the city’s history and statistics about its regional clout.

Digital SLR and iPhone cameras snapped as it was placed into a new steel capsule, forged, just like the one before, inside the searing blast furnaces of Severstal, the city’s steel plant. From atop a stone plinth a hundred yards away, Lenin looked on.

A century ago, the tsarist monarchy was toppled and the Russian Empire replaced with a revolutionary socialist system. The October Revolution (which is marked on Nov. 7 because Russia was on a different calendar when it took place), was celebrated as the Soviet Union’s foundational myth. The Soviet collapse in 1991 ushered in political and economic turmoil that enabled a select few to become fabulously rich while the majority of people struggled, bringing staggering inequality to a country that until recently could by definition have none.

President Vladimir V. Putin came to power promising stability, and since 2000 he has sought to merge the various periods of Russia’s turbulent past into a 1,000-year linear narrative of progress, with a powerful state as its guarantor.

To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the Komsomol veteran organization held a concert in Cherepovets. Credit Valeri Nistratov for The New York Times

In that narrative, there is no place for upheaval or revolt — not for the 19th-century uprising of Russian army officers, not for the decade-long parliamentary system that ended in 1917, and especially not for the revolution itself. A generation socialized in the revolutionary Soviet discourse is growing old under a counterrevolutionary state.

And so on Tuesday, it is the Communists who will stage a march through Moscow’s streets — the Kremlin has shunted off commemoration of the event into academia, funding a series of conferences and art exhibitions throughout the year.

It is left up to local institutions like museums and city councils, and to Soviet nostalgists, to fill the void. From the village of Filaretovka in Russia’s Far East to Sevastopol in annexed Crimea, messages buried in time capsules are being read out. And in some cases, their authors are there to witness the scene.

Valery Belyayev is one of them. Born in 1941 in a village 40 miles from Cherepovets, Mr. Belyayev grew up desperately poor. He was 2 months old when his father left to fight the Nazis in Stalingrad, in a battle that would claim two million lives.

Throughout the postwar years, Mr. Belyayev watched life in Cherepovets improve, and it was as the 25-year-old deputy head of the city’s Komsomol committee that he helped write the message that was placed in the monolith there back in 1967.

He could not have known then that everything he believed in would fall apart.

“We were convinced that if we could transform our lives at such speed, then of course in 50 years a new era would arrive — we had absolutely no doubt,” Mr. Belyayev said the morning after the message was read aloud to a new generation, as he and other former Komsomol members reminisced, as they often do, inside their community center.

In Cherepovets, a gritty factory town about 300 miles east of St. Petersburg, Komsomol veterans like Mr. Belyayev have their own disco nights, their own clubs and funding from the mayor’s office for events that resurrect a bygone era. For them, the Soviet Union represented a noble idea, and the Komsomol — whose membership reached over 40 million by 1991 — was its social underpinning.

For 17-year-old Andrei Tolokontsev, a member of the Youth Army who took part in the ceremony in Cherepovets, the Soviet Union was a bloc of brotherly nations. Mr. Tolokontsev has lived all his life under Mr. Putin’s rule, and for him the letters U.S.S.R. conjure up images of the Soviet emblem and its hammer-and-sickle flag, and of the ruthless wartime leader — Stalin — whom the young man credits with the country’s development.

Standing in the ranks of the Youth Army, which was begun in 2016 by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, means keeping the Komsomol legacy alive, Mr. Tolokontsev said. He hopes to stand in the same spot in 50 years as an army veteran, in a powerful Russia at peace with the world.
Cherepovets was a village when Stalin ordered the construction of the steel plant that would transform it into an industrial center of the north. Credit Valeri Nistratov for The New York Times

“They told us what we should and shouldn’t do in the future,” he said. “And we wish the same for the generation to come. The situation in the world is tense now, but everything will be resolved.”

Cherepovets was a village when Stalin ordered the construction of the steel plant that transformed it into an industrial center of the north. Severstal opened the steel mill in 1955 and has powered the city’s economy since, with steady global demand for the metal helping it weather economic upheaval after the Soviet collapse and the recent Western sanctions against Russia.

Today much in the city has changed. There are shiny shopping malls, and a refurbished bus station is opening. But on the outskirts, a creaky tram still courses at 15-minute intervals along a track that runs between crumbling Soviet-era housing blocks and the mighty smokestacks that dominate the skyline, shuttling workers across the plant’s sprawling territory.

With the speeches over and the new time capsule sealed, the crowd left to escape the cold. Mr. Belyayev made his way to the old movie theater across the square, joining fellow Komsomol veterans as they crowded into its auditorium.

They donned commemorative medals and called each other “comrade,” then sat bright-eyed and nostalgic as a choir sang songs about a Soviet youth: “Let one misfortune after another threaten us, but my friendship with you will only die when I die myself …”

Across town, Marina Gorbunova showed visitors around the history museum. An exhibition on the revolution had opened, and Ms. Gorbunova told stories about young men from Cherepovets who left to fight in the civil war that followed the Bolsheviks’ overthrow of the provisional government.

“The dream was to abolish class differences, for us all to be equal,” she said. “And now it’s the way it used to be. There’s a class of the poor, the middle class and the rich. What was all the blood, hunger and cold for?”

Asked about the enduring strength of Soviet nostalgia, she paused to reflect. “Youth is always a source of joy,” she said. “It always seems to us that things were better then.”

The new time capsule will be kept in this museum, stowed away until a new generation, with a new set of ideals, gathers to hear its message.

A version of this article appears in print on November 7, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Opening Time Capsule To Comrades Of Tomorrow

(Le Monde diplomatique, November 2016)

Polish abortion legislation is some of the most restrictive in Europe. But some Catholic groups want to tighten it further still. At present, abortion is permitted if there is a risk to the mother’s health, a malformation of the fetus or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. A new bill proposed by the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) seeks to restrict abortion just to cases where the mother’s health is at risk. A previous bill was abandoned in October 2016 after massive demonstrations. ’Family planning and women’s organisations estimate that 150-200,000 clandestine abortions are carried out in Poland each year. Pro-life campaigners dismiss this as a gross exaggeration’, explains Audrey Lebel.

Polish women, faced with a proposed law that further restricted abortions, organised huge protests to challenge it. But their reproductive rights are still at risk.

Marta Syrwid travelled to a private clinic in Slovakia for an abortion this January, as thousands of Polish women regularly do. Syrwid, 30, a journalist, told her story in Gazeta Wyborcza (1): ‘2 January. The woman who was supposed to be driving us was still drunk from New Year’s Eve. A man drove us instead and she told him the way. There were three of us in the back, squeezed together in a car that was in a terrible state. It stank of booze and we couldn’t open the windows.’

Abortion was legal and free in Poland from 1956 to 1993 but the country’s current legislation is among the most restrictive in Europe, with only three exemptions from an outright ban — a risk to the mother’s health, a foetal abnormality or illness, or a pregnancy because of rape or incest. And still there are hurdles: ‘Even when a woman is in theory entitled to a free, legal abortion in a public hospital, she often can’t get one,’ says Krystyna Kacpura who runs Federa, the Federation for Women and Family Planning. The majority of doctors invoke the conscience clause or delay until the legal 22-week time limit expires. They request additional examinations and don’t tell patients their rights, despite a legal obligation. ‘And what’s worse,’ says Kacpura, ‘they exert psychological pressure to make them change their minds. They play down the risks of serious health problems in the foetus and say “Of course your child has a brain abnormality but look, he’s moving his legs”.’ Doctors also fear stigma: ‘Some have had their cars vandalised. Online you see “Don’t go to so-and-so. He’s a murderer”. Catholics demonstrate outside hospitals holding graphic images. In some southern cities, there are no longer any hospitals prepared to carry out a termination.’

A question of dignity

The official figures show that the number of legal abortions in Poland has dropped from 130,000 a year in the 1980s to under 2,000 for a population of 38.5 million. That is still too many, say activists from the Fundacja PRO — Prawo do Życia (Foundation for the Right to Life), who collected nearly 500,000 signatures in July to submit a draft law to parliament to remove all exemptions except immediate danger to the mother. Doctors would have been required to inform the police about every miscarriage, and women who aborted would have faced five years in prison.

The plan — other than the jail term — was officially backed by Poland’s bishops. The Church put forward Magdalena Korzekwa for interview, who told me that ‘the law should be changed as soon as possible. All unborn children should be protected.’ She maintained that ‘even a child conceived through rape should have the right to life. It’s not his fault if he was conceived in terrible circumstances. He’s a child like any other. His dignity is the same.’ The main grounds for legal abortion in Poland is the risk of disability. ‘That’s a form of eugenics. A choice is being made about who has the right to life.’

The Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has a majority in the Sejm (lower house), approved a draft version of the law on 23 September, but U-turned on 6 October, three days after 100,000 women dressed in black demonstrated in Poland’s major cities. Prime Minister Beata Szydło tried to reassure the most reactionary wing of her support base by announcing ‘a huge information campaign to promote the defence of life’ and a support scheme for women who have had a disability diagnosed in their unborn child but not had a termination. The founder of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), Mateusz Kijowski, emphasises that the law ‘originated in civil society: the PiS had said it would put forward its own law to further restrict the right to an abortion, in particular in case of foetal abnormality.’

Parents of a disabled child currently have no entitlement to state aid. Around a million children (14%) in single-parent families receive no support from the father. ‘There is a state food allowance, but the chances of getting the monthly grant of 500 złoty [$125] in the event of paternal default are very limited,’ says Małgorzata Druciarek, a sociologist at Warsaw’s Gender Equality Observatory. ‘Only 330,000 children receive it. If a woman works and is not assessed as being in extreme poverty, she can’t claim it. Some women do two or three jobs to keep their heads above water.’

Family planning and women’s organisations estimate that 150-200,000 clandestine abortions are carried out in Poland each year. Pro-life campaigners dismiss this as a gross exaggeration. The most clued-up women get reliable information from sites such as Kobiety w Sieci (Women Help Women) or Women on Web (2), which offer help in finding emergency abortion pills. Some have the financial and material means to go to private clinics in Slovakia, Germany or the Czech Republic.

But what about the less well off and less well informed? ‘Many doctors take advantage of these women in need,’ says Wanda Nowicka, former deputy speaker of the Sejm. ‘The same doctors who say publicly that they won’t carry out abortions put small ads in the papers or online offering “all gynaecological services” or “resumption of your periods”. They sometimes exploit women’s ignorance. Women will go to see a doctor thinking they’re pregnant just because their period is a few days late, and for a hefty fee, these doctors will pretend to carry out a termination but in fact do nothing at all.’

Poland’s black market is thriving. An abortion costs between 3000 and 4000 złoty ($750-1,000), a month’s salary (the average monthly income is 4,100 złoty) (3). They are sometimes carried out without anaesthetic, and medical aftercare is rare. Marta Syrwid, whose abortion cost $500, says an acquaintance told her about worse journeys than her own. ‘It was like something from a spy film. A minibus took the girls from Kraków to Katowice. In Katowice they had to find the second vehicle by themselves to take them to the doctor’s surgery. They were told to carry a particular newspaper under their arm so the driver would recognise them. A few minutes after the abortion, my friend had to leave the surgery, still under anaesthetic, and walk a kilometre in the snow to the station to catch the train back to Kraków.’ Even if prosecutions are rare in Poland, doctors and others who help a woman risk two years in jail (the projected law would have increased that to five years). Blackmail is common. Other than Syrwid, no woman has told her story publicly, even anonymously — too risky, too painful.

Putting their lives at risk

Other women have turned to veterinarians or used heavy doses of arthritis medicine to cause a miscarriage. ‘Most people think it’s an exaggeration to say that women are putting their lives at risk having clandestine abortions, but it’s true,’ says Natalia Skoczylas of Feminoteka, which helps victims of domestic violence. Church spokesperson Magdalena Korzekwa claims ‘these situations don’t exist. They’re an invention of the abortionists.’ Korzekwa went on to say: ‘The greater the protection of life under the law, the fewer the women who will risk their lives by having abortions, including clandestine ones.’

The Federation for Women and Family Planning has recorded cases of women who have had health problems or even died. The most high profile is that of Alicia Tysiąc. In March 2007 the European Court of Human Rights found against Poland for its refusal to allow Tysiąc, who had three children and suffered from severe myopia, to have a termination that would have saved her sight. In October 2012 the court found Poland to have breached article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides a right to respect for private and family life, in the case of a woman who had been raped when she was 14 and had been refused an abortion by several hospitals, and harassed by anti-abortion groups.

In post-communist Poland, religion is taken seriously. The 1993 compromise on abortion must be seen in the context of the politics of social tension when society was undergoing major change, says sociologist François Bafoil, a Central Europe specialist at CNRS, France’s national centre for scientific research. ‘During the partitions of Poland [in the late 18th century], the Church enabled it to maintain its historical, territorial unity and an idea of nationhood. It played this role again between the wars, and under the Nazis and the communists. It was the foundation of a shared identity. This continued in the 1990s, when the state was overwhelmed by the scale of what it needed to do after independence, and it remains so today.’

So it’s unsurprising that the proposed law contained passages of scripture and quotations from the Polish pope John-Paul II (1978-2005). The number of self-declared Catholics in Poland is still very high. When the regime changed in 1989, the Church ensured that religious education was added to the school curriculum. Sex education, introduced in 1973, was replaced by classes on ‘family life’ taught by priests. ‘They play videos that show the embryo as a child with hands and a head,’ says Natalia Skoczylas, ‘and show how it will be cut up during an abortion.’

Hard to buy contraceptives

Abortion was banned in January 1993. When the left returned to power that September, they passed an amendment adding ‘difficult social circumstances of the mother’ to the permitted exemptions, but this was vetoed by President Lech Wałęsa and, after his departure in 1995, a new measure introduced by his successor was censured by the constitutional court, which repealed it in 1997.

Today, even the right to contraception cannot be taken for granted. ‘In big cities, it’s easier to get the pill prescribed or to buy contraceptives,’ says Kacpura. ‘You can blend in with the masses. But rural doctors refuse to prescribe it, even for therapeutic purposes.’ Chrystelle F (not her real name), a Frenchwoman married to a Pole who has lived in Warsaw for six years, told me that ‘my pill, Cerazette, is banned by Poland’s Medical Association because they say it carries too high a risk of sterility. My mother posts it to me. Polish friends stock up on it when they go to France or England.’ Chrystelle once tried to get the morning-after pill, available over the counter for under a year: ‘I had to go to nine pharmacies. On one of the city’s best-known streets, Nowowiejska Avenue, one pharmacist told me curtly that I ought to think about what I’m doing. Another told me she couldn’t give it to me because of the problems it might create. I ended up paying €80 [$88] for it, double the normal price.’

‘The current situation for Polish women is the worst in 25 years,’ says Nowicka. Hundreds of thousands of Poles have recently responded to the call from the KOD and demonstrated in Warsaw against PiS decisions in the first public expression of anger since 1989. Social networks rallied 100,000 to a march organised by Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (‘Gals for Gals’) on 18 June, followed by the ‘women on strike’ demonstration on 3 October. ‘These marches in black are a terrifying demonstration of the civilisation of death,’ said the archbishop of Łódź (4). Ewa Burgunska, a film producer, says: ‘The right to medical protection has really pushed us to mobilise. None of the organisers is a feminist or activist, but the proposed law went too far. Our strength is that we know how to talk to women in straightforward terms that reach them all.’ Nowicka believes that ‘part of society has woken up’. Kijowski thinks ‘people realised the effect they could have by taking to the streets. There had never been such demonstrations over abortion before.’ But ‘the current situation is still very serious. Most doctors are restricting access to prenatal examinations.’

Outlawing abortion has had no effect on the birthrate, which has fallen continuously since 1989. At 1.3 births per woman, it is among the lowest in Europe and demographic prospects are grim.

Audrey Lebel is a journalist.
Translated by George Miller

(1) Marta Syrwid, ‘Polki jadą po aborcję na Słowację’ (The Polish women who go to Slovakia for Abortions), Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw, 28 January 2016.

(2) An international organisation set up in the Netherlands in 2006 by Dr Rebecca Gomperts to help women in countries where abortion is illegal,

(3) According to the site

(4) Agence France-Presse, 3 October 2016.

(Wired, 16 January 2018)

The email arrived just as Megan Squire was starting to cook Thanksgiving dinner. She was flitting between the kitchen, where some chicken soup was simmering, and her living room office, when she saw the subject line flash on her laptop screen: “LOSer Leak.” Squire recognized the acronym of the League of the South, a neo-­Confederate organization whose leaders have called for a “second secession” and the return of slavery. An anonymous insider had released the names, addresses, emails, passwords, and dues-paying records of more than 4,800 members of the group to a left-wing activist, who in turn forwarded the information to Squire, an expert in data mining and an enemy of far-right extremism.

Fingers tapping across the keyboard, Squire first tried to figure out exactly what she had. She pulled up the Excel file’s metadata, which suggested that it had passed through several hands before reaching hers. She would have to establish its provenance. The data itself was a few years old and haphazardly assembled, so Squire had to rake the tens of thousands of information-filled cells into standardized sets. Next, she searched for League members near her home of Gibsonville, North Carolina. When she found five, she felt a shiver. She had recently received death threats for her activism, so she Googled the names to find images, in case those people showed up at her door. Then she began combing through the thousands of other names. Two appeared to be former South Carolina state legislators, one a firearms industry executive, another a former director at Bank of America.

Once she had a long list of people to investigate, Squire opened a database of her own design—named Whack-a-Mole—which contains, as far as anyone can tell, the most robust trove of information on far-right extremists. When she cross-checked the names, she found that many matched, strengthening her belief in the authenticity of the leak. By midafternoon, Squire was exchanging messages via Slack with an analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a 46-year-old organization that monitors hate groups. Squire often feeds data to the SPLC, whose analysts might use it to provide information to police or to reveal white supremacists to their employers, seeking to get them fired. She also sent several high-profile names from the list to another contact, a left-wing activist who she knew might take more radical action—like posting their identities and photos online, for the public to do with what it would.

Squire, a 45-year-old professor of computer science at Elon University, lives in a large white house at the end of a suburban street. Inside are, usually, some combination of husband, daughter, two step-children, rescue dog, and cat. In her downtime she runs marathons and tracks far-right extremists. Whack-a-Mole, her creation, is a set of programs that monitors some 400,000 accounts of white nationalists on Facebook and other websites and feeds that information into a centralized database. She insists she is scrupulous to not break the law or violate Facebook’s terms of service. Nor does she conceal her identity, in person or online: “We shouldn’t have to mask up to say Nazis are bad. And I want them to see I don’t fit their stereotypes—I’m not a millennial or a ‘snowflake.’ I’m a peaceful white mom who definitely doesn’t like what they’re saying.”

Though Squire may be peaceful herself, among her strongest allies are “antifa” activists, the far-left antifascists. She doesn’t consider herself to be antifa and pushes digital activism instead of the group’s black-bloc tactics, in which bandanna-masked activists physically attack white supremacists. But she is sympathetic to antifa’s goal of silencing racist extremists and is unwilling to condemn their use of violence, describing it as the last resort of a “diversity of tactics.” She’s an intelligence operative of sorts in the battle against far-right extremism, passing along information to those who might put it to real-world use. Who might weaponize it.

As day shifted to evening, Squire closed the database so she could finish up cooking and celebrate Thanksgiving with her family and friends. Over the next three weeks, the SPLC, with help from Squire, became comfortable enough with the information to begin to act on it. In the shadowy world of the internet, where white nationalists hide behind fake accounts and anonymity is power, Whack-a-Mole was shining a searchlight. By mid-December, the SPLC had compiled a list of 130 people and was contacting them, to give them a chance to respond before possibly informing their employers or taking legal action. Meanwhile, the left-wing activist whom Squire had separately sent data to was preparing to release certain names online. This is just how Squire likes it. Hers is a new, digitally enabled kind of vigilante justice. With no clear-cut rules for just how far a citizen could and should go, Squire has made up her own.

“I’m the old lady of activism,” says Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University.
João Canziani

Squire grew up near Virginia Beach in a conservative Christian family. She has been involved in left-leaning movements since she was 15, when her high school environmental club took a trip to protest the pollution from an industrial pig farm. “I loved the activist community,” she says, “and saying things we weren’t supposed to say.” After getting degrees in art history and public policy from William & Mary, she became interested in computers and took a job as a secretary at an antivirus software company, working her way up to webmaster. She eventually got a PhD in computer science from Nova Southeastern University in Florida and moved to North Carolina to work at startup companies before landing a job teaching at Elon. Between classes she could often be spotted around town waving signs against the Iraq War, and in 2008 she went door to door campaigning for Barack Obama. But Obama’s failure, in her view, to live up to his rhetoric, compounded by the Great Recession, was “the turning point when I just threw in the towel on electoral politics,” she says. She plunged into the Occupy movement, coming to identify as a pacifist-anarchist, but she eventually became disillusioned with that as well when the movement’s “sparkle-fingers” utopianism, as she puts it, failed to generate results. In 2016, she cast a vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

Donald Trump’s campaign, though, gave Squire a new sense of mission: “I needed to figure out what talents I had and what direct actions I could do.” When a mosque in the nearby city of Burlington was harassed by a local neo-Confederate group called Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, she decided to put her skills to use. ACTBAC was using Facebook to organize a protest against the opening of the mosque, so Squire began scraping posts on the page that threatened to “kick Islam out of America.” She submitted her findings to the SPLC to get ACTBAC classified as a hate group, and to the North Carolina Department of the Secretary of State, which started an investigation into the group’s tax-exempt nonprofit status. She also organized a counterprotest to one of the group’s rallies, and it was at this event and others like it where she first became acquainted with the black-clad antifa activists. She was impressed. “They were a level of mad about racism and fascism that I was glad to see. They were definitely not quiet rainbow peace people.” Over the following months, she began feeding information to some of her new local antifa contacts. As white pride rallies intensified during 2017’s so-called Summer of Hate—a term coined by a neo-Nazi website—Squire began to monitor groups outside of North Carolina, corresponding with anonymous informants and pulling everything into her growing Whack-a-Mole database. Soon, in her community and beyond, antifa activists could be heard whispering about a new comrade who was bringing real, and potentially actionable, data-gathering skills to the cause.

The first big test of Whack-a-Mole came just before the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Saturday, August 12. In the weeks before, because of her database, Squire could see that nearly 700 white supremacists on Facebook had committed to attend the rally, and by perusing their posts, she knew they were buying plane tickets and making plans to caravan to Charlottesville. Her research also showed that some of them had extensive arrest records for violence. She sent a report to the SPLC, which passed it on to Charlottesville and Virginia law enforcement. She also called attention to the event on anarchist websites and spread the word via “affinity groups,” secret peer-to-peer antifa communication networks.

   “Antifa was a level of mad about racism and fascism that I was glad to see. They were definitely not quiet rainbow peace people.”

The night before the rally, Squire and her husband watched in horror on the internet as several hundred white supremacists staged a torch-lit march in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, chanting “Jews will not replace us!” The next morning, the couple got up at 5 am and drove more than 150 miles through rain and mist to Virginia. At a crowded park, she met with a half-dozen or so activists she knew from North Carolina, some of them antifa, and unfurled a banner for the Industrial Workers of the World. (She’d joined the Communist-inspired labor organization in December 2016, after witnessing what she considered its well-organized response to KKK rallies in North Carolina and Virginia.) Just before 10 am, the white supremacists began marching into Emancipation Park, a parade of Klansmen, neo-Nazis, militia members, and so-called alt-right adherents, armed with everything from homemade plexiglass shields to assault weapons. Squire screamed curses at the white supremacists by name—she knew them because she had their information on file in Whack-a-Mole and had memorized their faces. At one point, a group of clergy tried to blockade the white supremacists, and Squire linked arms with other activists to protect them. A petite woman, she was pushed aside by men with plexiglass shields. Fights broke out. Both sides blasted pepper spray. Squire put on a gas mask she’d been carrying in a backpack, but the pepper spray covered her arms, making them sting.

After the police finally separated the combatants, Squire and dozens of other counter­protesters took to Fourth Street in triumph. But then, a gray Dodge Challenger tore down the street—and rammed into their backs. The driver, who had marched with the white nationalists and was later identified as James Alex Fields, missed Squire by only a few feet. She stood on the sidewalk, weeping in shock, as the fatally injured activist Heather Heyer lay bleeding in the street.

Recounting the event months later, Squire began to cry. “I had all this intelligence that I hadn’t used as effectively as I could have. I felt like I’d wasted a chance that could have made a difference.” When she returned home, she threw herself into expanding Whack-a-Mole.

Squire, center, marches through the streets of Asheboro, North Carolina, to protest the KKK.
Daniel Hosterman

One morning in December, I visited Squire in her small university office. She had agreed to show me the database. First she logged onto a foreign server, where she has placed Whack-a-Mole to keep it out of the US government’s reach. Her screen soon filled with stacks of folders nested within folders: the 1,200-plus hate groups in her directory. As she entered command-line prompts, spreadsheets cascaded across the screen, each cell representing a social media profile she monitors. Not all of them are real people. Facebook says up to 13 percent of its accounts may be illegitimate, but the percentage of fakes in Squire’s database is probably higher, as white nationalists often hide behind multiple sock puppets. The SPLC estimates that half of the 400,000-plus accounts Squire monitors represent actual users.

Until Whack-a-Mole, monitoring white nationalism online mainly involved amateur sleuths clicking around, chasing rumors. Databases, such as they were, tended to be cobbled together and incomplete. Which is one reason no one has ever been able to measure the full reach of right-wing extremism in this country. Squire approached the problem like a scientist. “Step one is to get the data,” she says. Then analyze. Whack-a-Mole harvests most of its data by plugging into Facebook’s API, the public-facing code that allows developers to build within Facebook, and running scripts that pull the events and groups to which various account owners belong. Squire chooses which accounts to monitor based on images and keywords that line up with various extremist groups.

Most of the Whack-a-Mole profiles contain only basic biographical sketches. For more than 1,500 high-profile individuals, however, Squire fills out their entries with information gleaned from sources like the SPLC, informers, and leaks. According to Keegan Hankes, a senior analyst at the SPLC, Squire’s database “allows us to cast a much, much wider net. We’re now able to take a much higher-level look at individuals and groups.”

In October, after a man fired a gun at counterprotesters at a far-right rally in Florida, SPLC analysts used Squire’s database to help confirm that the shooter was a white nationalist and posted about it on their blog. Because so much alt-right digital data vanishes quickly, Whack-a-Mole also serves as an archive, providing a more permanent record of, say, attendees at various rallies. Squire’s database has proven so useful that the SPLC has begun laying the groundwork for it to feed directly into its servers.

“I don’t have any moral quandaries about this. I know I’m following rules and ethics that I can stand up for.”
Mark Peterson/Redux

When Squire sends her data to actual citizens—not only antifa, but also groups like the gun-toting Redneck Revolt—it gets used in somewhat less official ways. Before a neo-Nazi rally in Boston this past November, Squire provided local antifa groups with a list of 94 probable white nationalist attendees that included their names, Facebook profiles, and group affiliations. As one activist who goes by the pseudo­nym Robert Lee told me, “Whack-a-Mole is very helpful. It’s a new way to research these people that leads me to information I didn’t have.” He posts the supposed identities of anonymous neo-Nazis and KKK members on his blog, Restoring the Honor, which is read by journalists and left-wing activists, and on social media, in an effort to provoke the public (or employers) to rebuke them.

Lee is careful, he says, to stop short of full-on doxing these individuals—that is, publicizing more intimate details such as home addresses, emails, and family photos that would enable electronic or even real-world harassment against them. Squire says that’s why she feels comfortable sending him information. Of course, once a name is public, finding personal information is not that hard. In the digital age, doxing is a particularly blunt tool, one meant to terrorize and threaten people in their most private spaces. Celebrities, private citizens, left-wing activists, and Nazis have all been doxed. The tactic allows anonymous hordes of any persuasion to practice vigilante justice on anyone they deem evil, problematic, or just plain annoying. As the feminist video­game developer and activist Zoe Quinn, who has been doxed and brutally harassed online, has written: “Are you calling for accountability and reform, or are you just trying to punish someone—and do you have any right to punish anyone in the first place?”

Squire has been doxed herself. Pictures of her home, husband, and children have been passed around on racist websites. She has received death threats and terrorizing voicemails, including one that repeated “dirty kike” for 11 seconds. Elon University has fielded calls demanding she be fired. On Halloween, Confederate flags were planted in her yard. Still, though Squire fears for her family’s safety, she keeps going. “I’m aware of the risks,” she says. “But it seems worth it. That’s what taking a stand is.”

After Charlottesville, Squire considered, in her anger and grief, publicly releasing the entire Whack-a-Mole database. It would have been the largest-ever doxing of the far right. But she worried about the consequences of misidentification. Instead, she worked with her regular partners at the SPLC and activists she trusts. At one point the SPLC contacted a university about a student whom Squire had identified as a potentially violent member of the League of the South. The university did not take action, and she thought about tossing the student’s name to the ever-ravenous social media mobs. But here too, she reasoned that when you have someone’s life at your fingertips, you need rules. If the university wasn’t willing to act, then neither was she. It was, for her, a compromise, an attempt to establish a limit in a national moment pointedly lacking in limits.

Critics might still argue that public shaming of the kind Squire promotes constitutes a watered-down form of doxing, and that this willingness to take matters into their own hands makes Squire and her cohort no better than vigilantes. As David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, says of Squire’s work: “Is it ethical to digitally stalk people? It may not be. Is it legal? Probably, as long as she doesn’t hack into their accounts and she’s collecting information they post publicly on an open platform like Facebook.” But he warns that limiting speech of anyone, even white supremacists, starts down a slippery slope. “Political winds can shift across time. Liberals who might cheer at a university limiting neo-Nazi speech also have to worry about the flip side of that situation when someone like Trump might penalize them in the future.”

As far as Squire is concerned, there’s a clear difference between protected speech and speech that poses an imminent threat to public safety. “Richard Spencer yelling about wanting a white ethno-state after events like Charlottesville—it’s hard to argue that kind of speech doesn’t constitute danger.”

Ultimately, Squire sees her work as a type of “fusion center”—a government term for a data center that integrates intelligence from different agencies—for groups combating white nationalism. And she admits that she is outsourcing some of the ethical complexities of her work by handing her data off to a variety of actors. “But it’s the same as how Facebook is hypocritical in claiming to be ‘just a platform’ and not taking responsibility for hate. Every time we invent a technology to solve a problem, it introduces a bunch more problems. At least I’m attentive to the problems I’ve caused.” Squire sees herself as having to make difficult choices inside a system where old guidelines have been upended by the seismic powers of the internet. White nationalists can be tracked and followed, and therefore she believes she has a moral obligation to do so. As long as law enforcement keeps “missing” threats like James Alex Fields, she says, “I don’t have any moral quandaries about this. I know I’m following rules and ethics that I can stand up for.”

After Charlottesville, some white supremacist groups did find themselves pushed off certain social media and hosting sites by left-wing activists and tech companies wary of being associated with Nazis. These groups relocated to platforms like the far-right Twitter clone Gab and Russia’s Facebook-lite VK. Squire sees this as a victory, believing that if white nationalists flee to the confines of the alt-right echo chamber, their ability to recruit and organize weakens. “If the knowledge that we’re monitoring them on Facebook drives them to a darker corner of the internet, that’s good,” she asserts.

That doesn’t mean Squire won’t follow them there. She has no plans to stop digitally surveilling far-right extremists, wherever they may be. After Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right rally, was unverified on Twitter, he joined VK. His first post read, “Hello VK! I’d rather the Russians have my information than Mark Zuckerberg.” The declaration was quickly scooped up by Squire. She had already built out Whack-a-Mole to track him there too.


South Asia Citizens Wire
Buzz for secularism, on the dangers of fundamentalism(s), on
matters of peace and democratisation in South
Asia. Newsletter of South Asia Citizens Web:

   #### _\_  ________
   ##=-[.].]| \      \
   #(    _\ |  |------|
    #   __| |  ||||||||
     \  _/  |  ||||||||
  .--'--'-. |  | ____ |
 / __      `|__|[o__o]|
_(____nm_______ /____\____ 

DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed in materials carried in the posts do not necessarily reflect the views of SACW compilers.

More information about the SACW mailing list