SACW - 28 Feb 2018 | Open Letter to the Taliban / Against Deification of Asma Jahangir / India: Nationalist hysteria; Assam list for Deportations; more evolutionary biology / Brazil: end of mega-dams / How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at
Wed Feb 28 08:23:55 EST 2018

South Asia Citizens Wire - 28 February 2018 - No. 2974 
[via South Asia Citizens Web - since 1996]

1. Pakistan: Against Deification | Maryam Hussain
2. India: Hindu authoritarianism and agrarian distress | Achin Vanaik
3. Mapping Mob Lynching in India
4. India: Do not mix cancer with corruption - Letter from a cancer specialist
5. Good guys and bad guys by cartoonist Cathy Wilcox 
6. Recent on Communalism Watch:
 - Joint statement on cooperation between India and Canada on terrorism remains silent over Hindutva extremism
 - India - Ayodhya: While court decides Babri title suit, a thriving ‘temple donation’ racket
 - India: Intimidation by far right student org'n ABVP prevents CJP workshop in Banaras; Police sides with ABVP
 - India: Asphyxiated by Politics, Secularism Gasps for Breath - Can the Supreme Court Rescue It? | Satya Prasoon and Ashwini Tallur (The Wire)
 - The lure of the populists | Christophe Jaffrelot
 - India: RSS chief address on 'Rashtryoday' [Hindu Rashtra Day]
 - Hinduism springs from assurance, Hindutva from profound inferiority complexes' - The Telegraph Feb 24, 2018
 - Genealogy more than history reminds us that we all came from the same place and were once black | Chidanand Rajghatta
 - Bangladesh worried about another influx - National Register of Citizens in India’s Assam state may result in a mass displacement of Bangalis
 - India: Anand Mohan J and Somya Lakhani on the high price of inter-faith marriages 
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7.  An Open Letter to the Taliban | Barnett Rubin
8.  A Nepal-India win-win | Kanak Mani Dixit
9.  Sri Lanka: Sam Speaks For Muslims, Condemns Violence Against Muslims In Ampara
10. Nationalist Hysteria in India: Cine workers’ body bans Pakistani artists from Bollywood
11. Assam's list: Indian state preparing to deport tens of thousands of 'foreigners' | Michael Safi
12. India: Justice Revati Dere, Who Slammed CBI’s Approach In Sohrabuddin Case, To Not Hear Matter Anymore | Nitish Kashyap
13. Skilling in New India ... as a bank fraudster | Harish Khare
14. Canada and India: Opposite trajectories | Pritam Singh
15. India badly needs more, not less, evolutionary biology | Amitabh Joshi
16. Roll back the ban: Don’t disrupt cattle markets, agriculture needs ease of doing business too - Editorial, in Times of India
17. India: Kerala CPM must not confuse party with government - Editorial, Indian Express
18. The Good Historian: Vigilante of Indian Past | Gerard Fussman
19. Chennai historians trying to save 300-year-old plaque connecting the city to Armenian past | Siranush Ghazanchyan
20. The era of mega-dams in Brazil may be coming to an end | Adam Wernick
21. What really scares populists? Grassroots campaigning and humour | Sra Popovic
22. Germany builds an industrial empire - Pay nearshore workers less, cut domestic rates | Pierre Rimbert
23. Payne on Darren E. Grem. The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity

In the midst of eulogies for Asma Jahangir, well deserved and well earned, I am reminded strongly of the teachings of those we now seek to remember and honour, and those who are still here. In our desire to honour a woman who many knew as a person and as a symbol, we should not reduce her, or what indeed she stood for. We are mythmaking, and that is antithetical to what these women and men stand for and have stood for all their lives. What we are doing is dangerous.

To defeat populist-nationalist forms of communal authoritarianism in India, we have to fight against more than just communalism.

Mob lynching across India - 2015-2017

Dr V. Shanta, well known cancer specialist, Chair of the Cancer Institute (W.I.A.), Chennai, and Padma Vibhushan and Magsaysay awardee, admonishes the M.D. & CEO of Punjab National Bank for misusing “cancer’ in the context of the recent banking mega-scam

’Good guys and bad guys’ by cartoonist Cathy Wilcox in The Sydney Morning Herald on all this gun violence in America and elsewhere.

 - Joint statement on cooperation between India and Canada on terrorism remains silent over Hindutva extremism
 - India - Ayodhya: While court decides Babri title suit, a thriving ‘temple donation’ racket
 - India: Intimidation by far right student org'n ABVP prevents CJP workshop in Banaras; Police sides with ABVP
 - India: Asphyxiated by Politics, Secularism Gasps for Breath - Can the Supreme Court Rescue It? | Satya Prasoon and Ashwini Tallur (The Wire)
 - The lure of the populists | Christophe Jaffrelot
 - India: RSS chief address on 'Rashtryoday' [Hindu Rashtra Day]
 - Hinduism springs from assurance, Hindutva from profound inferiority complexes' - The Telegraph Feb 24, 2018
 - Genealogy more than history reminds us that we all came from the same place and were once black | Chidanand Rajghatta
 - Bangladesh worried about another influx - National Register of Citizens in India’s Assam state may result in a mass displacement of Bangalis
 - India; BJP govt in Haryana hell bent on introducing hindu religious prayer in school
 - India: Anand Mohan J and Somya Lakhani on the high price of inter-faith marriages
 -> available via:
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An American who helped open secret negotiations with the group calls for them to accept a ceasefire and peace talks with the Afghan government.
by Barnett Rubin
The New Yorker
February 27, 2018

A breakaway faction of Taliban fighters attends a gathering in the Herat province of Afghanistan, in May, 2016.
Photograph by Aladdin Khan / AP

Your February 14, 2018, open letter to the American people asked us to “evaluate the future of American forces in light of the prevailing realities” in Afghanistan. I can answer only for myself, as an academic and former American diplomat who has been trying to understand Afghanistan’s realities for thirty-five years. Many Afghans claim that any answer should go not to you but to the Pakistani generals and intelligence operatives who shelter your movement. I disagree. I have interacted with you directly and indirectly since January, 1997, when I chaired a meeting at Columbia University with a delegation you sent to New York to ask for Afghanistan’s seat at the United Nations. I have concluded that your opponents underestimate your independence and abilities. But you may also underestimate theirs.

On Wednesday, the Afghan government will host a second meeting of the Kabul Conference, an effort to begin peace talks, which will be attended by twenty-three countries. The United Nations announced earlier this month that ten thousand Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in Afghanistan in 2017, two-thirds of them in anti-government attacks.

You highlight the civilian casualties inflicted by U.S. air power, the shame of Guantánamo, and the losses suffered by American soldiers and their families. I would cite the thousands of Afghan civilian casualties inflicted by your attacks and suicide bombings. The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan last fall. In less than three months, Afghans submitted accounts of 1.17 million atrocities. I prefer to respond here to your appeal for dialogue.

Few would disagree with your call “to solve the Afghan issue through peaceful dialogues,” if they thought it were possible. On January 29th, after your organization used a car bomb disguised as an ambulance to kill nearly a hundred people in Kabul, President Trump did say, “I don’t think we’re prepared to talk right now.” That was an impulse, not a strategy. As you yourself observed on Monday, “the United States has kept the doors of dialogue open for the Taliban.”

The flaw in your call for dialogue is that it is addressed only to Americans, not your fellow Afghans. You accuse Afghans opposing you of “committing treason against our nation,” but the government of Afghanistan, corrupt and divided as it may be, is recognized by every nation in the world—not just Washington and its allies. Your dialogue with the U.S. government cannot replace dialogue with that government and the millions of other Afghans who fear your attacks and your return. Trying to exclude them repeats the mistake the U.S. made by excluding you.

The list of missed opportunities for peace in Afghanistan since 2001 is long. On December 6, 2001, your leaders signed an agreement with Hamid Karzai, who had just been named the chairman of Afghanistan’s interim administration at talks convened by the United Nations in Bonn. You agreed to a truce and handed over the four provinces you still controlled to Karzai’s government. In return, you did not ask for government positions—just an amnesty that would allow you to live in dignity.

The Administration of George W. Bush squandered the chance to involve you in building a new government. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced there would be neither a negotiated settlement nor an amnesty. Steve Coll reveals in his new book, “Directorate S,” that, when some of your leaders tried to participate in the peace process agreed to at Bonn, Vice-President Dick Cheney ordered them imprisoned at Guantánamo or Bagram.

Three and a half years later, with the help of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a Taliban delegation again began negotiating an agreement with the government in Kabul. But Khalilzad’s bosses in Washington declined to provide security guarantees to Taliban who joined the peace process. You concluded that you had no alternative but to continue fighting from your safe haven in Pakistan, whose military has supported you for its own reasons. The U.S. rejection of talks made you hostages to the Pakistan military.

By 2007, you felt, as a former Taliban official told me, “strong enough to talk” with the U.S. You established a political commission led by Agha Jan Mu’tasim and sent him to Saudi Arabia, to seek dialogue with Washington. Talks with Riyadh began in 2008 but deadlocked when you rejected preconditions the Saudis tried to impose.

In 2010, when I was working in the State Department for Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, we learned that a new Taliban representative, Tayyib Agha, had met in Dubai with German diplomats. After consulting with Presidents Karzai and Obama, U.S. officials secretly met Tayyib outside Munich, on November 28, 2010.

Tayyib presented U.S. officials with a Taliban road map for negotiations based on a series of confidence-building measures. The U.S. would release Taliban detainees from Guantánamo and lift sanctions, and the Taliban would publicly state that they were willing to distance themselves from international terrorism and seek a solution through a political process. The Taliban would then open an office in Qatar, from where they would negotiate with the U.S. and “other Afghans,” including the government. Once the office was open, Tayyib suggested, the two sides could declare a limited ceasefire.

The initially secret U.S.-Taliban peace talks continued through 2011, punctuated by deadlocks, leaks, and assassinations. The long delay in reaching talks with Afghan officials fed President Karzai’s suspicions that the country’s internationally recognized government was being marginalized. In December, 2011, the U.S. accepted Karzai’s demand that talks continue only if you spoke to Afghan officials. Despite efforts to find a formula that would enable us to proceed, you suspended the talks in March, 2012.

To break the deadlock, Qatar proposed changing the sequence: open the Taliban office with a statement from the movement distancing itself from international terrorism and supporting a political resolution of the conflict; complete the confidence-building measures with the U.S.; and then meet with Afghan representatives. On April 23, 2013, the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, personally showed the draft of the Taliban statement to President Obama. Obama decided to go ahead.

American diplomats had agreed in 2011 that you would open an office called the “Political Office of the Afghan Taliban.” Obama had assured Karzai that the office would not infringe on the sovereignty of the Afghan government. On June 13, 2013, you opened the office in Qatar, in a televised ceremony, and displayed the flag of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” as if you were an alternative government rather than a movement. Your use of the banner forced us to formally close the office. I left the U.S. government several months later, in October, 2013.

Still, American officials implemented several of the confidence-building measures. Indirect talks resulted in your release of the captured American soldier Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, in 2014, in return for the transfer of five Taliban leaders from Guantánamo to Qatar. Because the U.N.’s sanctions against the Taliban are now imposed for “constituting a threat to the peace, stability and security of Afghanistan,” rather than for international terrorism, they can be suspended for peace talks. You still demand, however, that the U.S. recognize you and your office in Qatar, and you equivocate about talking to the Afghan government. After years without meaningful talks, many have concluded you are seeking recognition, not peace.

Your call for the United States to end the fighting would be more persuasive if you offered to abandon it yourselves. You need not alter your entire position: just change the order of events by challenging the U.S. and Afghan government to agree to a temporary ceasefire before the office formally reopens, regardless of who controls how many districts this week or the next.

The Trump Administration, for its part, should be clearer about its support for a negotiated solution and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. It needs to abandon the fantasy that more U.S. troops will enable it to negotiate from a “position of strength.”

You write that you will fight as long as foreign troops are in Afghanistan. But you have acknowledged legitimate concerns about a repeat of the chaos that occurred after the Soviet withdrawal, in 1989. In a 2011 Eid message, you promised that “the future transformations and developments would not resemble the developments following the collapse of communism, when everything of the country was plundered and the State Apparatus damaged entirely.” To avoid loss of life and destruction of Afghanistan’s infrastructure, a foreign-troop withdrawal should take place after Afghans agree on how to keep their state intact.

On average, nine civilians die each day from the conflict in Afghanistan. You have committed yourselves never to allow anyone to use Afghan soil to attack other countries. You have said, “We do not think of monopolizing power.” As diplomats gather in Kabul this week, show that your commitment to dialogue and independence is real. Challenge Washington and Kabul to accept a temporary ceasefire. Begin the long-delayed peace talks that Afghans deserve.

8. A NEPAL-INDIA WIN-WIN | Kanak Mani Dixit
The Hindu
February 20, 2018

The new Prime Minister in Kathmandu needs a hands-off New Delhi to ensure mutually beneficial stability and growth

Without doubt, like every nation-state, India seeks its own advantage in international relationships, including within the South Asian region. But the repeated experience is that of New Delhi generating animosities, with attitudes and actions that go against its own interests. This forces one to ask from nearby Kathmandu, is there a structural issue with India’s foreign affairs oversight — or is this question itself taboo?

Take the case of Nepal, a country where friendship with India comes naturally even more than being a necessity, due to cultural, social and economic linkages over the open border. But, perhaps because of global preoccupations, New Delhi seems to constantly under-estimate Kathmandu’s fierce sense of self. The stratagem over the decades has been to try to influence Kathmandu’s politicos, forgetting that they too survive within the milieu of Nepali politics.

The legacy of ‘big brother’ started with Jawaharlal Nehru — Nepal’s statesman B.P. Koirala in his memoir has pinpointed the precise moment in 1950 during a meeting at Teen Murti Bhavan when he realised that the fellow-revolutionary was now transformed as Prime Minister of India, inheriting the geopolitical inclinations of the departed colonialist.

The big stick

More recently, India became progressively interventionist as Nepal got mired in internal crisis during and after the Maoist ‘people’s war’, and as the hill-plain polarisation escalated during the constitution-writing. India has tended to speak loudly while wielding a big stick, based on a sense of entitlement and exceptionalism. But evidently, Indian nationalism for all its vigour cannot suppress nationalism across the frontier.

While there are of course numerous domestic factors, a key reason for political instability in Nepal has been India’s overt and covert intercessions. This involvement explains in part why Nepal has not had a Prime Minister in office for more than a year-and-a-half over two decades now. Meanwhile, Indian analysts fail to appreciate how political stability in Nepal can deliver economic bounty to the bordering Indian States on its three sides. And economists should study the Pew Research Center figures showing Nepal as one of the larger sources of remittances to India, that too to the poorest regions such as north Bihar, east Uttar Pradesh and Odisha.

India is understandably apprehensive as the Chinese geoeconomic juggernaut infiltrates the Subcontinental countries, including Nepal. Rather than imperious warnings against consorting with Beijing, however, better to leave each society to develop its own method on dealing with China. In the case of Nepal, the arrival of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway at the northern border point in 2020 will be a game-changer, and the Indian market too is set to benefit.

With Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli sworn in as Prime Minister on February 15, there is now opportunity to start afresh on India-Nepal. It is true that India has never had as adversarial a Prime Minister in Kathmandu as Mr. Oli, but this is mainly the result of New Delhi’s own short-sightedness.

Mr. Oli has been a moderate (if loquacious) politician who does not bend easily to populist pressures, but it fell on him during his previous term to stand up to the devastating Great Blockade of 2015.

It became his job to rally a populace under humanitarian distress and seek connectivity northward through a set of 10 agreements with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

Tagging Mr. Oli as ‘anti-Indian’ is not sensible, for being ‘pro-Nepal’ does not ipso facto mean animosity towards India. And New Delhi may be surprised to find Mr. Oli more than willing to reciprocate its overtures, providing reassurance that Kathmandu will never act against India’s security interests, while insisting that in all areas Nepal will take its own decisions. Nepal’s politicians are masters at realpolitik, and the art of balancing India vis-à-vis China is not outside of Mr. Oli’s personal skill-set.
Desire for harmony

Thankfully, it does look like India is seeking a recalibration, and no one is asking for a public apology. The desire for rapprochement is seen in the three phone conversations Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had with Mr. Oli since December, and the dispatch of Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to Kathmandu before the new government was even formed.

Nepal’s topmost politicos, who never seem to retire, have got so used to revolving-door leadership that they are finding it hard to stomach the five-year term that the new government will probably get. On the other hand, the people’s expectation is that the longevity will ipso facto make for better governance.

Mr. Oli’s ascendance to prime-ministership marks the final turn of the key in implementing the Constitution of Nepal (2015), which was adopted despite India’s fervent lobbying. The promulgation marks an end to the extended derailment of the last two decades, with numerous tragedies from the Maoists ‘people’s war’ to the Great Blockade.

Nepal is now a federal and secular republic, experimenting with three levels of fully empowered government — central, provincial and local. But there is confusion on the division of powers between the tiers, and foot-dragging by the national bureaucracy and many powerful politicians, besides an untested Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court.

Ensuring inclusion

Mr. Oli inherits the share-the-spoils bhagbanda politics of the transitional years, which has left the police, bureaucracy and judiciary politicised. The decay in each sphere cries out for reform, from the private sector cartels that control the economy to corruption that has seeped to the village terraces.

The central socio-political task is to ensure inclusion in governance, giving the Janjati ethnicities as well as the Madhesi plains people and others a feeling of ownership of the state. While seeking to restore Nepal’s position internationally, Mr. Oli has to implement the connectivity agreements he signed with Beijing in 2015, while lifting the relationship with India above the patron-supplicant status. He will have his hands full trying to raise employment through tourism, industry, agroforestry and agriculture, ensuring energy self-sufficiency through hydro projects and rescuing the post-earthquake reconstruction effort, which has been a scandal. With international assistance in decline, investors have to be attracted by the promise of the rule of law and due process if Nepal is not to remain the playground of carpetbaggers.

Speaking of the rule of law, the human rights community is worried that the ongoing truth and reconciliation process might be used as a sham exercise to pardon wartime atrocities. With Nepal recently elected to the UN Human Rights Council, there is opportunity to raise Nepal’s international profile while finally putting the ‘people’s war’ behind us all.

Mr. Oli is fortunate that the new Constitution ensures extended tenure, by not allowing a no-confidence vote for the first two years. Besides, he rides a strong public mandate, having led the Left Alliance in its sweep of the local, provincial and national elections and forming governments at each tier. The field is also clear because the parties representing the Hindutva ideology and the deposed king, Gyanendra, were roundly defeated at all levels.

Reaching out

Mr. Oli’s primary preoccupation will be managing the government’s relationship with the opposition. The atmospherics between his Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and the Nepali Congress (NC) are at their worst, the latter sullen and vulnerable after the trouncing at the polls. He must reach out to build a working relationship with the NC and the Madhesbaadi plains-based parties, also because hundreds of new laws need to be urgently drafted under the Constitution.

The Prime Minister’s immediate challenge, however, has to do with Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’), his Maoist partner in the Left Alliance. Mr. Dahal prefers to ignore the reality that his party was rescued from decimation by the electoral bonding with the UML. The voters gave him a respectable showing, hoping that the promised unification would subsume the Maoists within the UML, helping finally to neutralise the former.

As this is being written, the two parties are preparing a unification document. Meanwhile, bargaining for plum posts, Mr. Dahal is demanding an alopalo, rotating prime-ministership. This would mean a jump back to bhagbanda politics, endangering both stability and growth, dishonouring the electoral mandate.

Prime Minister Oli is tasked today to land Mr. Dahal where he can do no further harm to Nepal’s state and society, and to reset the relationship with India at a new normal. On the latter, he seems keen to take the olive branch held out by Mr. Modi, which can only result in a ‘win-win’ for Nepal and India.

Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is founding editor of the magazine, ‘Himal Southasian’

Colombo Telegraph
February 28, 2018

R. Sampanthan, the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader Tamil National Alliance has condemned the violence against the Muslim community in Ampara.

We publish below the Sampanthan’s statement in full:

Rajavayothi Sampanthan

“I strongly condemn the attacks carried out against the Muslim community in Ampara. Any form of violence is not acceptable and I urge those who committed these unwarranted acts to create disunity and bring division among the communities to stay away from such activities and not to create ethnic tension among people. 

“I urge the government to take stern action against the preparators of the violence in Ampara and to take adequate measures to prevent such incidents being repeated in future.  We have witnessed such incidents in the past and we have experienced the repercussions of such unacceptable behaviour and actions. I urge the police and the other officials to enforce the law and order impartially.   

“I humbly appeal to the religious leaders to ensure that peace and harmony are maintained in these areas and not to allow any extremist elements to take advantage of these incidents. 

“I appeal to the people in Ampara and other areas to remain calm and to set an example to others of the importance of unity among communities.”

10. Nationalist Hysteria in India: 
Daily Times,
February 27, 2018

Web Desk

MUMBAI: The Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE) has banned Pakistani artists and technicians from displaying their skills in the Bollywood industry.

The ban placed by the film industry workers’ union in Mumbai, on Thursday, comes from a unanimous vote and prohibits Pakistani artists from performing in films as well as TV serials produced by Indian producers in any language.

The association cites a ‘war-like situation unleashed by Pakistan’ as a reason for the ban, alleging that numerous of their soldiers and common men have been killed because of it.

A press release issued by FWICE stated: “We stand by our security forces and their families in this hour of crisis and believe in ‘Nation comes first’.”

The ban notice has been forwarded to all affiliates and producers’ associations and bears the signatures of President Shri. Birendra Nath Tiwari and Hon. General Secretary Shri Ashok Dubey.

Previously, many Pakistani artists including Atif Aslam, Ali Zafar, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Fawad Khan, Imran Abbas, Sajal Ali, Adnan Siddiqui, Mahira Khan, Urwa Hocane amongst many others have lent their vocals to and performed in different Bollywood film.

On the political front, relations between the two countries have become strained quite frequently. This causes artists from the local industry to sporadically bear the brunt of the burden.

The Guardian
26 Feb 2018

Plan to evict mostly Muslim migrants from Assam state creating panic among those who could be left without citizenship rights

People stand in line to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Gumi village of Kamrup district in the Indian state of Assam. Photograph: Kulendu Kalita/AFP

Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, authorities in the north-east Indian state of Assam published a list of 19 million names. But not Hanif Khan’s.

Early the next morning police found Khan, a taxi driver from Cachar district, dead from an apparent suicide. “I am sure he killed himself after he found his name missing,” his wife Rushka says.

Two years ago, Assam, a lush state bordering Bhutan and Bangladesh, embarked on a vast exercise: to identify every resident who could demonstrate roots in the state before March 1971.

And deport anyone who couldn’t.

An unfinished draft was released on 31 December – minus the names of 14 million other residents. Officials have stressed the final list will include millions more names, but the process is sparking anxiety in Assam, and warnings India might be about to manufacture tens of thousands of stateless people.

Khan, 40, had grown increasingly tense in the weeks leading to the publication of the draft. Though he was born in Assam to an Indian mother, his father was an Afghan national who had long since drifted home.

Hanif Khan, a driver from Cachar district in Assam, India, who was found dead on 1 January, 2018. Photograph: Supplied

“He told me many times that the documents he presented to prove he was a citizen of India were perhaps not enough,” his wife said.

Assam is building a new detention centre to process the “foreigners” it plans to evict in the coming years. At least 2,000 people are already detained in six facilities across the state.

Khan often mentioned the detention centres, and had started to panic at the sight of police cars near his home, Rushka says. “He was extremely frightened. Every day he told me that police would arrest him and push him to Bangladesh.”

By December he was skipping meals and turning down driving jobs in unfamiliar places. Five hours before the list was published, his wife says, he vanished.

The eastern Indian border with Bangladesh traverses five states and more than 4,000km. For centuries until the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, human traffic flowed freely across the territory. In smaller numbers, people have continued crossing in the decades after: Indian security agencies estimate about 15 million Bangladesh citizens work and live in India without authorisation.

Just as with porous borders elsewhere, the flow of migrants from Bangladesh inflames Indian passions. Border guards were accused of gunning down nearly 1,000 people, most of them suspected smugglers, in the decade to 2010. A barbed-wire fence, bolstered in parts by floodlights and cameras, has been under construction since the mid-1980s and will eventually stretch more than 3,300km.

Resentment has been most acute in Assam, where it sparked an anti-migrant movement in the 1980s that paralysed the state and eventually won government. It also fuelled one of India’s worst single-day massacres since partition: a frenzied seven-hour pogrom in a clutch of Muslim villages that left at least 1,800 people dead.

“Here, foreigners are like people from a different planet,” says Aman Wadud, a lawyer who represents people accused of migrating illegally.

Assamese residents complain thousands of migrants have found their way onto voting rolls and take jobs and land from locals. “In the past two decades, loads of Muslims from Bangladesh have settled around us,” says Pankaj Saha, a retailer from Dhubri district.

“Twenty years ago, Hindus formed 75% of my town’s population. Today, the Muslims are in majority.”

Proving the identities of more than 30 million people – many bearing handwritten records, or none at all – has fallen to Prateek Hajela, a senior civil servant. “We have received around 65 million documents,” he says from his office in Guwahati, the Assam capital.

The fate of those who fail to win citizenship is outside his control, he says. “What happens to those people who have applied and are not found to be eligible, I can’t say.”

Yet this is the question dogging the process. Tribunals have already declared about 90,000 people in Assam to be foreigners, according to statistics obtained by IndiaSpend, a data journalism initiative.

Only a few dozen have been deported in recent years – Bangladesh and India have no formal repatriation agreement – and officials admit many turn around and return at the first opportunity.

Another 38,000 of those declared to be foreigners in Assam have disappeared into the community, according to police records. Thousands more claim to be wrongly accused and are awaiting citizenship hearings.

The prospect of being suddenly arrested as a foreigner and languishing for years in a detention camp is worrying Bengali Muslims in particular. “There is enormous fear and apprehension in the community,” Wadud says.

Other than Hanif’s, at least two others suicides have been linked to the process. “I am telling people, we need to wait for the second list,” says Subimal Bhattacharjee, an analyst who runs welfare schemes in the state. “A significant number of names will be added. Verification is still going on.”

When the government finally publishes the full list of citizens on 31 May, the ranks of foreigners in Assam could swell by tens of thousands – with no clear plan yet of what to do with them.

The Assam chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, said in an interview last month that foreigners would lose constitutional rights. “They will have only one right – human rights as guaranteed by the the UN that include food, shelter and clothing.”

The issue of deportation, he said, “will come later”.

Officials in the Indian home ministry declined to comment on the record but said their expectation was that Bangladesh would take back any of its citizens, as it currently does on a case-by-case basis.

Bangladesh says it is not aware of any citizens living illegally in Assam, and that India has never raised the prospect of mass deportations from the state. An official at the country’s high commission in Delhi confirmed this position was unchanged.

“Deportations will never happen,” Wadud says. “Bangladesh will never accept these people. I can’t imagine what will happen to them. They will become stateless people with no rights whatsoever.”

Shaikh Azizur Rahman contributed to this report.

February 26, 2018
Justice Revati Mohite Dere, who was hearing the revision applications in the Sohrabuddin encounter case at the Bombay High Court, will not be hearing the matter anymore as the sitting list has been changed...

Read more at:

by Harish Khare
The Tribune
Feb 23, 2018

THE other day a young journalist, who works for a Delhi-based glossy magazine, came to see me. And, naturally the talk turned to the bank fraud. Suddenly, the young lady was all indignation; righteously she demanded: “How can Nirav Modi be so rich? He is only 46-47 years; I am more educated than him.”

To match indignation for indignation, I narrated how, only a few days earlier,  I had mockingly scolded my economic editors that instead of knowingly explain how bank frauds were inflicted, they should be putting in place a plan to make some easy money for all of us on the editorial board. 

That conversation with the young journalist instigated an inspiration:  why not think of a career change, from journalism to bank frauds.

Come to think of it, I am tired of being an editor. All wellness “gurus” advise variety and urge leaving behind your comfort zone. So, here I was, looking for new challenges, new excitement; eager to flirt with danger. And, ready to learn a new skill — after all, there is so much national exhortation, from the Prime Minister down to the local chamber of commerce, on “skill development”.

I thought I would re-tool myself with skills of a bank fraudster.

I got in touch with a very senior bank executive (SBE); the conversation went like this:

HK: Sir, I want to take a big, a huge loan, which I know I cannot repay and frankly, between us, have no intention to repay.

SBE: We like frankness; we like boldness; you have all the qualities of a risk-taker. In New India, we now have a policy of rewarding risk-takers. Tell me, what kind of collateral can you offer?

HK: I have very many books.

SBE: Books are useless
HK: Books have knowledge; and, knowledge is priceless.

SBE: If you so insist. What kind of books?

HK: 32 Volumes of Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; books on Plato, Aristotle, Isiah Berlin...

SBE: Nothing of Deendayal Upadhyay? No, Bunch of Thoughts?

HK: No.
SBE: Do you have dual nationality?

HK: No, I am fully Indian; only one passport.

SBE:  Sir, please, help me help you.  Do you know anyone influential?

HK: I can produce photographs with Prime Ministers, and Presidents from around the world.

SBE: You should have mentioned that at the beginning, Sir. I shall be sending around a blank Letter of Undertaking (LoU). Fill in the figure. Good luck with your skill development. Hope to see you sometime in Dubai.

by Pritam Singh
The Tribune
Feb 27, 2018

If in Canada, the transition on human rights has been from a disgraceful past to a tolerant present, in India it is the opposite: from anti-colonial struggles for human freedom to the authoritarianism of the present juncture.

During the Canadian Prime Minister’s recent visit to India, the media in both countries, but more so in India, has tried to present as if alleged support to the demand for Khalistan by some Canadian Sikh groups and Canada’s handling of it is the main source of some perceived tension in government-to-government relations between India and Canada. There is some truth in this perception, except that it is an oversimplification and, consequently, distortion of deeper and serious differences in the political culture of Canada and India.  One of the key politico-cultural differences relates to clashing perspectives on human rights. The tension over the Khalistan issue is an epi-phenomenon of the deeper structural differences on approaches towards human rights.

Economically, though Canada is a developed country and India is still a developing one, both are ruled by the logic of functioning of a capitalist economy and share many of the ills of capitalism. The massive economic inequality and its consequences - socially and culturally -point towards a shared drawback in the politico-economic governance of both countries. Within that shared universe, there are deep politico-cultural differences and one of the key ones that needs understanding if one wants to get a better grip on Canada-India relations is the difference in the perspectives on human rights in the political culture of both the countries.

Canada has a shameful and troubled history of near total annihilation of local indigenous communities and repression of non-white ethnic minorities, but a slow and tortured evolutionary path in the country has been towards acknowledging those historical injustices, making amends for them and building a more tolerant and multi-cultural society. Generations of human rights and equality campaigners have transformed through tireless struggles the political culture of the country. The father of the current Canadian PM was a key figure in building the politico-cultural consensus in Canada that a good society is one that recognises differences, values diversity and constructs institutions that facilitate the accommodation of these differences and diversities.  No doubt, this consensus was a part of a wider debate mostly in Western capitalist economies that to build an efficient economy, inclusiveness of all forms of labour in the running of the economy is necessary and essential. Despite some recent retrogressions in the form of rise of racist/semi-racist political groupings and parties in some of the western countries of which the Trump presidency in the USA is most illustrative, this remains a widely accepted consensus in the western world. Canada has not only played a pivotal role in advancing this consensus but also in steadfastly remaining committed to it. Respect for human rights has become embedded in the accepted milieu of diversity and pluralism. 

Theoretical and academic work on multiculturalism has been the most advanced in Canada. This work has flourished due to the culture of respect for multiculturalism, and has, in turn, further strengthened the shaping of ideas, practices and institutions in support of multiculturalism. Canada has witnessed the multifaceted benefits of this move towards multiculturalism. In the last over 20 years, Canada has either been at the top or one among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of Human Development Index. Canada can be genuinely proud that it is the only country in the western world where a non-white person (Jagmeet Singh) has become the head of a major national party in the country.

From the viewpoint of pluralism, diversity and human rights, developments in India have followed just the reverse path to the one followed in Canada. In the first half of the twentieth century, India witnessed many glorious anti-colonial struggles for expansion of human rights and freedoms. The success of the anti-colonial struggles in 1947, although marred by religious sectarianism and killings, still raised hopes of building a society based on the principle of ‘unity and diversity’. However, soon after the inauguration of the post-colonial state, the slow march towards greater emphasis on unity than diversity started. Hindu majoritarianism which was muted and disguised earlier started manifesting itself openly in various formats and has accelerated at a dizzying speed in the last 30 years or so. This majoritarianism has shifted the political discourse away from diversity and the war cry now is ‘unity and integrity’ with added emphasis on territorial integrity. In this unitarist and centralist discourse, human rights have become a suspect subject. The campaigners for human rights are projected and viewed as disloyal to the country at a lower level of suspicion and anti-national subversives at a higher level of suspicion. 

If in Canada, the historical transition has been from a disgraceful past to humane and tolerant present, in India the transition has been from a historical record of anti-colonial struggles for human freedom to authoritarianism of the present juncture. Canada creates space for valuing differences for building a culturally rich society so much so that it allows one French speaking province of the country (Quebec) to hold a referendum if the province wants to secede from the union. In India, leave aside secession, even the talk of limited regional autonomy is dubbed as treason.  If Canada allows free discussion on the right to secede to one of its own provinces, it is illogical to expect that it should use the coercive power of the state against some Sikhs, Kurds, Chechens, Baluchs or Tamils who advocate secession in the countries of their origin. Many members of these Canadian minorities do not even support secession, they merely want protection of the human right to assemble and debate alternative political paths. The Canadian law and political culture do not allow suppression of such peaceful articulation of differences. 

An honest and informed understanding of the human rights deficit in the political culture of India especially in comparison with that of Canada can provide a road map for the possible transition India can make one day towards building a human rights rich political culture. 

Pritam Singh [is] Professor of Economics, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK

The Asian Age, 
February 19, 2018

Understanding evolution helps us solve biological problems. What is urgently needed is a revamping of biology curricula at all levels.
Although this recent controversy is now defused, there are deeper systemic problems pertaining to the neglect of evolution in India that need addressing.
 Although this recent controversy is now defused, there are deeper systemic problems pertaining to the neglect of evolution in India that need addressing.

For a biologist, the alternative to thinking in evolutionary terms is not to think at all.
— Peter B. Medawar, Nobel Laureate

Recently, the honourable minister of state for human resource development said that the Darwinian theory of evolution was scientifically wrong and should not be taught in Indian institutions. Many scientists and students signed a petition calling upon him to withdraw his remarks. The three science academies of India issued a joint statement, in multiple Indian languages, pointing out that those remarks had no scientific basis, and that it would be retrogressive to stop the teaching of evolution. Finally, HRD minister Prakash Javadekar intervened to state that issues like deciding whether evolution should be taught, or in what form, should best be left to scientists.

Although this recent controversy is now defused, there are deeper systemic problems pertaining to the neglect of evolution in India that need addressing. In Indian curricula, evolutionary biology is almost absent. It is treated very superficially, and much of the treatment is decades out of date. There is a widespread feeling that evolution is a minor issue in biology, irrelevant to modern advances in molecular biology and devoid of application potential. This could not be farther from the reality. Evolutionary biology is not a branch of biology the way immunology or biochemistry are. Rather, it is a unifying conceptual framework within which facts from all of biology get coherently arranged. Biology without evolution would be like chemistry without the knowledge of the periodic table and reaction mechanisms: an arbitrary collection of facts.

An evolutionary perspective sheds light on issues of great societal relevance like why and how we age, how epidemics spread and new pathogenic strains arise, how to improve crops and domesticated animals, how to tackle the evolution of multi-drug resistance in bacteria, why nepotism and despotism are so common in human societies, how notions of justice have developed, why the sudden explosion of the so-called “lifestyle diseases”, to cite just a few examples.

The new fields of evolutionary medicine and evolutionary psychology are largely missing in India, though they are hugely relevant to understanding major societal problems ranging from disease to socio-sexual violence. Promising modern biological approaches like marker-assisted selection, biomedical genomics, epidemiology, and bioinformatics are all based upon a strong underlying foundation of (Darwinian) evolutionary theory.  Indeed, there is no hope of leveraging these technologies to their fullest potential if we neglect basic training in evolutionary biology for all biologists, not just for future evolutionists.

It is not just in basic education that evolution is neglected in India. In postgraduate education and research, too, evolutionary biology is woefully under-represented. Among all universities and research institutes of India, there is just one small department devoted to evolution training and research (at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre of Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru). The only postgraduate training programme in evolution in India (an Integrated PhD programme in Evolutionary and Organismal Biology also at JNCASR) was shut down in 2016, much to the disappointment of aspiring students. In contrast, most major US universities have full departments devoted to evolutionary biology.

The irony is that evolutionary biology research is not very expensive and, therefore, even researchers in state universities in India could do world-class research in evolutionary biology, provided they had a proper exposure to and training in the field. In the absence of such exposure, many university researchers remain mired in doing second-rate molecular biology research, affected by paucity of resources.

Indeed, on a per capita and per rupee basis, the contributions of the few evolutionary biology researchers in India to the growth of biological knowledge and understanding vastly outweigh the contributions of researchers in other areas of (mostly molecular) biology. Indian evolutionary biologists have made major conceptual and empirical contributions to our understanding of insect-plant coevolution, parent-offspring conflict, hybridisation and race-formation, evolution of sociality, evolution of competitive ability, evolutionary history of various animal lineages in the subcontinent, genome-level sexual conflict, evolutionary ecology of social organisation and behaviour, and evolution in fluctuating environments. Indian evolutionary biologists are also making fundamental contributions to contemporary research regarding the conceptual structure of “core” evolutionary theory, as was highlighted by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, in their blog last year.

What is urgently needed in India is a revamping of biology curricula at all levels to incorporate an evolutionary perspective into biology training in general, and the establishment of at least one full-fledged national institute devoted to postgraduate training and research in evolutionary biology. If these are done, we could hope to be among the world leaders in evolutionary biology.

(Amitabh Joshi is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru, and a Fellow of the three science academies of India)

o o 


Editorial, in Times of India
The Times of India
February 28, 2018


An attempt by government last May to ban cattle markets if trade eventually led to slaughter is reportedly being undone. The relevant law, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Rule, was stayed last year by Supreme Court. Simultaneously, farmers’ organisations asked for a restoration of their right to trade in cattle. While the revised version of the legislation is not yet in public domain, government should not impose new burdens on cattle trade in any way.

Last year’s legislation represented an attempt to impose cultural beliefs of a section of society on the dairy industry. The economic burden of this attempt was borne by farmers. It is unfair that even while Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about steps to lighten the regulatory environment for doing business in the non-agricultural sector, agriculture was subjected to additional burdens. For India’s farmers, this came at a time when they had to confront a new danger, climate change, quite apart from the usual problems of low productivity, land fragmentation, lack of access to credit and markets. Battered on all sides, the last four years have been marked by agrarian distress. The Economic Survey pointed out that during this period real agricultural revenues remained constant.

Cattle are an asset for a farmer, with a visible production life cycle. Once an asset is no longer productive for an owner, it is only natural that he finds another buyer who can subsequently put it to use. Once BJP state governments and subsequently the Centre disrupted this economic cycle, farmers and cattle traders bore the economic burden. In addition, non-state actors in the form of vigilante groups have also been allowed to harm trading networks. Ironically, states with strict slaughter bans typically have a higher proportion of strays as farmers turn them loose, unable to bear the burden of feeding them.

Government should change its approach to the farm sector. It has pursued some good initiatives, such as trying to create a national online market to give farmers more options. However, it has shackled them in other ways. Agriculture needs ease of doing business as much as other economic sectors. Farmers should not be asked to bear the burden of ideology. Adverse consequences of an ideological approach extend beyond farming to other job creating activities such as leather industry.

Party’s to-do list
Kerala CPM plans to reach out with social activities, but it must not confuse party with government
The Indian Express, February 28, 2018


The CPM’s current crisis stems from a failure to understand and adjust to the changing demands of the democratic system. The challenge for the government is to ensure that the CPM cadres’ enthusiasm for civic work and public programmes does not result in the exclusion of non-partisan, non-CPM citizens from the state’s welfare net and outreach.

The CPM held its Kerala state conference last week at a time when the party faces a deep political crisis. Its national footprint is shrinking and the leadership seems divided on what ought to be its strategy ahead of the 2019 general election. In Kerala, the Left government’s performance has been lacklustre. The spate of political murders — the latest claiming Congress leader Shuhaib in Kannur as victim — has damaged the party’s public profile. Questions are being asked about CPM cadres’ willingness to abide by the law and the government’s commitment to enforce it. These issues were raised at the conference, but the leaders reportedly evaded them. The incapability to engage with these questions politically points to a crisis of leadership. The leaders recognise that the party and its government are drifting away from ordinary people. They have now skirted hard political solutions for a slew of initiatives that are normally the preserve of the voluntary sector.

On Sunday, state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan announced that the cadres will fan out to build houses for the homeless, become part of palliative care initiatives, do organic agriculture, clean rivers and ponds, work to raise the standards of government schools and the quality of public hospitals and so on. There is nothing wrong about these initiatives, many of which are already directed by the government. Voluntary agencies are already working in these areas and many CPM cadres, independent of the party, are associated with them. In the past, the communist movement benefited from involvement in the library movement, literacy programmes and the people’s planning; it helped the party to shed its image as merely an insurrectionist outfit. But reviving a political paradigm of the past in an entirely different historical context may not be the remedy for the problems of cadre violence and governance failure. The CPM’s current crisis — an internal report has indicated that the poor are alienated from the party — stems from a failure to understand and adjust to the changing demands of the democratic system.

A contradiction is likely to emerge when CPM cadres get associated with government initiatives or when party programmes get institutionalised as state activity. Cadre-parties tend to capture public-funded initiatives for themselves when they involve themselves in them. The challenge for the government is to ensure that the CPM cadres’ enthusiasm for civic work and public programmes does not result in the exclusion of non-partisan, non-CPM citizens from the state’s welfare net and outreach.

Economic and Political Weekly
Vol. 53, Issue No. 6, 10 Feb, 2018 » The Good Historian

Talking History by Romila Thapar, Ramin Jahanbegloo and Neeladri Bhattacharya, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp xvi + 340, ₹795.

Professional historians seldom read books on history writing. In fact, once recognised as historians, books and papers written by colleagues are either their models, or examples they do not wish to imitate. However, Talking History is not a book on how history ought to be written. It is a book on Romila Thapar’s achievements as a historian, and as such, a book on intellectual life in India since independence. For Thapar was, and still is, one of the leading intellectuals of India since that period, the incarnation of Indian history in Europe and the United States, as well as a public figure acclaimed by the most progressive part of the society, while also subject to violent attacks for her secular vision of India and Indian past as one which cannot be reconciled with Hindutva.

Talking History is both a scholarly autobiography, and a reflection on the links between history and politics. Thapar mostly answers questions posed by Ramin Jahanbegloo, who plays the role of an intelligent layperson, while also responding to a younger historian, Neeladri Bhattacharya, who asks fewer, lengthier, and more specialised questions. The book has apparently been entirely rewritten by Thapar, and on reading it, one does hear her voice. So Talking History is truly a book by Thapar; a reflection on her whole life. I ought to specify “professional” life, because she does not talk (except occasionally) about her personal life, her circle of close friends, her celebrated brother, or the manifold invectives and honours she has received. Politics come in only in relation with her work as a historian. To be honest, there is nothing entirely new in the book; there exist a number of papers or interviews, in which Thapar has expressed herself on these subjects in the past. Talking History is, however, the most comprehensive presentation of her ideas, and may interest every reader who wishes to understand how Thapar came to be a historian, as well as the beginnings of her work in newly independent India. While the core of the book is not entirely new to me, reading it has made me much more conscious of the difference between the work of a patriotic Indian historian of India and that of a foreigner.

Which Side of History?

I suppose most of the readers of the Economic & Political Weekly would not know my name, for I write almost exclusively in French. Suffice to say, I was a graduate when Thapar was preparing the PhD which made her famous (Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, 1961). My first book was printed in 1965, my first paper on Ashoka’s inscriptions in 1974. Yet, our trainings were quite different.I trained as a Greek archaeologist, which at the time meant learning Greek and Latin. I began studying Sanskrit not from a desire to know India, but because I was fascinated with the comparative history of Indo–European languages, for which a knowledge of Sanskrit is, or should be, a requisite. I was nevertheless a historian at heart. At that time, history in French universities was almost exclusively the history of France. The narratives of foreign countries were either ignored entirely, or appeared only when they were warring with France. It was self-evident that we were not supposed to ask ourselves questions about the established identity of our country.

Quite different was the training of Thapar. She was located in Britain, and most of her professors would have been convinced that India was at its best when it was British India. The history she learnt, and was expected to write, while pursuing her degrees, was of a kind, quite foreign to the Puranas, the chronicles of the Afghan and Moghul sultans, and the Mahabharata, which her maternal grandmother would read in Hindi. None of the books she had to use and meditate upon were in her native Punjabi or Hindi. All of them were in English, a language foreign to India (she learnt later, when she travelled abroad, that there also were some valuable contributions by French and German scholars; British universities tend to be as chauvinistic as the French ones). Even the books written by Indian historians, some of them quite outstanding, were in English, and so were the handbooks used to teach Indians their own history.

While writing in a foreign language would have been unthinkable for a Frenchman, English was never an issue for Thapar. Members of her family had been employed by the British Raj, and were fluent in English as well in the other North Indian languages—Urdu, Persian, Hindi, and Punjabi. In 1947, in part even now, English was the only language understood by a majority of educatedIndians in the country. It was the language through which Thapar could address herself to Bengalis, Maharashtrians, and Tamilians alike. She was soon convinced, both as a historian and as an Indian nationalist, that the time had come to replace the outdated history she had learnt at school with a new Indian history, advanced by Indian scholars for Indian readers. It was evident to her that she should write in English, and hope to get translations in what were called “the vernaculars of India.” This was a political choice: Indian historians had to write historical narratives which, although true to the evidence, would help Indians build a new, peaceful, and democratic country. She never attempted to conceal this purpose, as is witnessed in the titles of some of her papers and books (The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History); her inroads in the Babri Masjid dispute; and the discussions on the Aryans in India. She always kept true to the ideal, of a secular India, where Muslims and Hindus could peacefully coexist as they did in her native Punjab before partition. At the same time, she had to define what was that newly independent India, whose borders were no more those of British India and which did not enclose remains of her pre-Muslim past. This past lay in Pakistan, a country to which Indians could not easily, or safely travel, and whose scientific publications could reach her in Delhi, only through London, Paris or Rome. Her conception of the Indian nation—which stemmed from experiences in her personal and professional life—is at the heart of her opposition between early India and Hindutva. The former she considered a scientific and neutral concept, the latter, a religious and divisive one, which does not rely on proved historical evidence.

In the 1960s, French historians were no more asked to give historical foundations for a new France: France was eternal; “national identity” and immigration were only topics for a handful of politicians. In my young years, historians were drawn into politics not to demonstrate the existence of the nation and the advantages of being a republic, but because they belonged to a very politicised intelligentsia, who considered it their duty to confront the immediate problems of the country. Discussions in universities on politics, philosophy, and the conception of history often demanded a return to original sources in their original languages, and featured rigorous understanding, backed by data and reasoning. Furthermore, considering France is a country of many sceptics and unbelievers, the main text of Descartes, Voltaire, and Diderot were taught magna cum laude in high schools. The Bible and Jesus’s life were examined as if they were legends and Michelet’s History of France was almost looked at as a historical novel. In the field of Oriental studies, Dumézil was arguing that the foundation of Roma according to Titus-Livius was modelled on an old Indo–European vision of the world. Erudite studies by French-speaking scholars exhibited the greatest scepticism about the Buddha’s biography as told in the Pali scriptures.

In her PhD on Ashoka, Thapar follows a classical, yet rigorous approach of dealing with every source available. She does not exhibit the kind of radical scepticism mentioned above. For instance, she tries to make the best use of the Pali and Sanskrit legends of Ashoka, although each time we compare these with Ashoka’s inscriptions, they are proven wrong. Surprisingly, in Talking History, she says that, when choosing Ashoka as her subject, she was mainly interested in the possibility of exploring the “question [of the importance] of the individual in history” (p 163).

Indeed, Ashoka is the only early sovereign whose thoughts we are able to decipher through his numerous inscriptions. In any case, it was a good choice in the 1950s: Ashoka is the only Indian king whose chronology is known with some certainty, whose dominions almost equated the extent of British India (along with a small part of modern Afghanistan), and one who publicly renounced violence (except on some occasions). No wonder the capital of a so-called Ashokan column was chosen to symbolise a newly independent India.

Curating a National History

It came to me as another surprise that, in discussions about Thapar’s book and curricula to be introduced in Delhi University, she was dubbed a Marxist, an epithet she strongly contests. Having been well acquainted with French, German and Soviet marxisms (English Marxist historians were and are almost unknown in France), I would never have imagined Thapar termed a Marxist. Like so many historians after Karl Marx, she is interested in the economic and social background of historical events. Such an approach has long become common sense among leading historians, and is no more a privilege of the Marxists. What distinguished the Marxist historians from the non-Marxists is precisely that they were neither interested in individuals, nor in religion. Rather, they were interested in identifying the economic and social forces responsible for the apparition of these individuals, the religious changes and the social classes responsible for an optimistic conception of a historical development, and in an evolution towards socialism from slave society, feudalism, capitalism and imperialism. That was a vision of the past which was congruent with the facts when Marx used to write, at least in Western Europe. You will never find such ideas or suggestions in Thapar’s books or papers. Her only preoccupation is: what India was, is, and ought to be.

There exist Marxist historians of India, some of them quite good, like D D Kosambi, whom Thapar admires. However, they face an enormous difficulty: we have almost no data on the economy and social differences in early India, except in a few inscriptions, and in the shastras (whose date, geographical origin, validity and domain are disputed). So when Thapar wanted to research beyond the role of the individual in history, she did not search for evidence of slavery or feudalism, but instead, turned to an anthropological study of the emergence of Indian states, hence her famous title, From Lineage to States. Her inspiration clearly stemmed from the British school of anthropology, and not Marx. Still, Thapar had to content with the dearth of precise data covering the whole of India, although she did search for such data in archaeological reports, inscriptions, and numismatics. In order to write her narratives, she took part of her inspiration from the eminent foreign historians and anthropologists, whom she would read and meet with. But Thapar stayed Indian. From that point of view, the most interesting pages of Talking History are those wherein she explains the choices a historian has to make. She points out that while writing history always involves selecting some facts, focusing on some themes, and choosing one system of explanation (the one which best fits the data), it is always tainted with some ideo­logy. “The difference between a good historian and a bad historian is that the good historian makes it clear why and how the selections have been made” (p 207). I would add “and never distorts the data.” Thapar never distorted the data.

Custodian of the Past

It is fascinating to see how Thapar stresses that the historians are first, members of their society, and as such, should intervene in the discussions where the past is used as an argument, in order to tell the truth, and point out misrepresentations. Thapar never shirked her responsibility in these domains, both as a historian and a citizen. The title of her book, The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India, explains her patriotic conception of history. I was admittedly puzzled when I read that huge book of 758 pages, inspired by conversations with the British historian Arnaldo Momigliano and dedicated both to him and to Kosambi. This puzzlement persisted when I read the first lines of its conclusion:

    The purpose has not been not just to ascertain whether or not there was a sense of history in early India…It has been to search for the forms this might have taken. (Thapar 2013: 681)

To a European scholar, this seemed more like history of literature than historiography. Indeed most Indological handbooks begin with that kind of survey of the sources, even if less expanded and far less intelligently written. Moreover vanshavalis (genealogies) are not history. The succession of the kings of England does not teach much about the history of Great Britain. It is only upon reading Talking History that I understood Thapar’s motivations. It becomes evident that The Past Before Us was not meant for foreign readers or scholars. It was meant for Indian readers, in order to tell them that like all peoples, they too had a sense of the past which modelled their views of the present and the future. This sense of the past did not look like the history written by Europeans since Herodotus and Thucydides, but was pan-Indian, and saying so stressed the unity of Indian thought over the whole of the subcontinent. At the same time, it was diverse, different according to times, places, dynasties and creeds. The unity of India was not made by a unified creed, less so one that was supposed to have existed from “immemorial times” (the so-called sanatana dharma or “eternal Hinduism”), as espoused by the advocates of Hindutva. Thus, trying to unify India according to only one creed and doctrine, now called Hinduism, does not correspond to its past, essence and destiny.

Smritis or Itihasa?

This is obviously the underlying purpose of Thapar’s studies of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. In Sanskrit they are called itihasa (thus it was); she calls them “epics.” But epics are studied by historians of literature. Two centuries of critical studies of the Greek epics, Iliad and Odyssey, as well as many others, have demonstrated that although they contain reminiscences of the past, they are not historical documents. Historians can use the data these epics preserve, only when they are substantiated by other data, such as archaeological excavations and inscriptions. Still, Thapar argues that she studies the epics as a historian, stating, “the Mahabharata is telling us primarily about clan society, and how it is organized, how it functions, what are its values, and so on” (p 236). That may be true, but history requires some chronology as well as a geographical location. The main story of the  Mahabharata is dated between the 4th century BCE and the 4th century CE. Furthermore, the events it records, and as such the society it depicts, are dated any time between 1500 and 1000 BCE (some even say 4000 BCE). Can one then construct history using a document whose date could lie anywhere between 1200 and 2000 years? Thapar is right in her observation that the Mahabharata depicts a clan society, but when exactly did that society exist? Was it at the time of the great war, when the epic was first recited, or when it was
enlarged to its present core?

The analysis made by Thapar makes sense only if we consider the present situation of India. Itihasa means a historical narrative, and for many Indians the epics are both religious (smritis)1 and historical documents, true to the facts. The Ramayana is thus at the root of the dispute over the Babri Masjid. By calling them epics and studying them as a historian, Thapar claims that they are man-made poetry, with many layers, with huge variants, not historical documents to be adduced in politics. She could have added (she alludes to it in the first chapter of Talking History) that the epics were also known and appreciated by the Muslims in India, in the same way that many Hindus know Muslim poetry in Urdu.

Indeed these epics are fascinating texts for a historian. One would like to understand how the Mahabharata—which recounts a war that took place near Delhi at least 3,000 years ago; whose participants left no descendants; whose heroes, the Pandavas, were modelled on a very ancient Indo–European scheme of five male gods and one goddess, and thus partake of the same wife (an abomination condemned by all the dharmashastras)2—quickly became known over the whole of the subcontinent, and was one of the main vehicles of its “sanskritisation.” Further, how it could inspire playwriters in far-off Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as well as in South-east Asia and Indonesia; how it still fascinates both Hindu and Muslim Indians, as one witnessed when it aired on television; how it can still attract Pakistani Muslims through Bollywood movies; and how it is now known the world over, are all worth studying. Yet we have no sure data to conduct such a study until the 18th century, except some sculptures, the date and origin of the most ancient manuscripts, and the adaptations made in the “vernaculars” of India and in Persian.

Thapar would have been able to carry out such a study if the data existed; this is precisely what she did in her studies on Shakuntala, and especially in Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History. There she is at her best, as she demonstrates how a legend is made, how it develops, as well as how and why one version (often not the most reliable) may become popular and be mistaken for a true historical narrative. Her book also demonstrates the limits of thehistorian’s powers. It could hardlyprevent the rebuilt Somnath temple frombecoming one of the greatesttemples of India.

Doyenne of Indian History

A review of Thapar’s latest work ought to be much longer, for reading Talking History forces every historian, Indian or foreign, to reflect on what they are doing and what they should do. It also demonstrates how one can take the best of Western authors and thinkers, while still remaining entirely and passionately Indian, true to one’s roots. It reminds professional historians and readers that there exists no neutral history, that historical narratives are always dependent on the vision of their authors, that new nations need roots and search for them in a past which is always reconstructed (and sometimes deliberately imaginary). History played a major role in French and German nationalisms in the 19th century, in 20th century Israel and many other new countries. India is no exception. India can, however, boast having given the world one of the best 20th century historians, a great writer, an innovative scholar, and a true patriot. She is now paying a heavy price for the courage she has demonstrated during her entire life.

Gérard Fussman (gerard.fussman[at] is emeritus professor at the College de France, Paris.


1 Religious truths as transmitted by human personages.
2 Hindu codes of laws.

Thapar, Romila (2013): The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India, Raniketh: Permanent Black.

Public Radio of Armenia
13 Feb 2018

A dedicated group of Chennai historians have launched a Facebook page “Retrieve Uscan Stone” to save one of the oldest living relics that connects the city to its Armenian past – a 300-year-old plaque that belonged on the pillars of one of oldest bridges in the city, The News Minute reports.

Marmalong Bridge, the first ever bridge across the Adyar river, was commissioned in 1726 by Coja Petrus Uscan, an immensely wealthy Armenian trader. Uscan, who had decided to settle in Madras after coming to the city in 1724, paid 30,000 pagodas from his own money to build the bridge and another 1,500 pagodas for its upkeep.

“Uscan was immensely respected and perhaps was even one of the only non-British allowed to stay in Fort St George or the White town. A devout believer in St Thomas, Uscan wanted more people to visit the Saint Thomas Mount, and therefore removed the two impediments – the river and the lack of steps – by building the bridge as well as 160 steps to the mount. This was the initial purpose of the bridge. But all that soon changed as the Marmalong Bridge became crucial to the expansion of the city, especially towards the South,” says Chennai-based novelist and historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan.

Named after Mambalam, one of the villages near the Adyar, the Marmalong Bridge perhaps laid the foundation stone for the city as it led to the emergence of the Mount Road, around which Chennai developed.

“It was only natural that a road followed after a bridge was built. The British built the Mount Road in the 1800s, around which the city grew. So, in a sense, the bridge led to the city’s birth and is very close to its heart,” Venkatesh adds.

Where the arched bridge of Uscan once stood, a concrete replacement called the Maraimalai Adigal Bridge now exists. There are no traces of this Adyar-Armenian connect but for the last living relic – the plaque commemorating Uscan’s construction of the bridge.

With inscriptions in three ancient languages – Persian, Armenian and Latin, the Uscan plaque was established in memory of the great nation of Armenia and is a tribute to the people who helped build the city.

“The Armenian inscriptions are on the lower portion of the plaque. It can’t be read because the writing has faded with time and neglect,” according to Venkatesh.

Displaced from its original site, the plaque faces the perils of urbanisation and is further threatened by the metro rail work that is underway.

Years of neglect and development in the area has buried the stone in layers of debris. In fact, the bottom of the stone has disappeared under the ground as the road levels have been rising every year due to re-carpeting, Venkatesh laments.

With the construction of the Saidapet Metro station underway, historians who are fighting to save the plague urge the CMRL to give the stone a place of honor in the metro station.

Highlighting the importance of preserving such relics, Venkatesh says, “The Armenians have contributed immensely to this city. I believe it is important to preserve all traces to this link. It is really unfortunate that while the Uscan stone stands neglected, another plaque at the Fourbeck Bridge is preserved by the Architectural Society of India,” he said.

“The Saidapet Metro work is too close to the plaque. We have been urging the officials to move the relic to a better place, may be a museum or a memorial site. We just don’t want to lose a precious piece of the city’s history,” Venkatesh says hopefully.

by Adam Wernick
Feb 25, 2018
From PRI's Living on Earth

Scandal and protests have prompted the Brazilian government to call a halt to more mega-dam construction in the Amazon.

For about the last 20 years, Brazil had “really grandiose plans” for more than 80 big dams in the Amazon basin and some of them have gone ahead, says Sue Branford, a Brazil reporter for the environmental news agency Mongabay. But problems keep arising with these projects.

“I think some of the problems come back to the fact that they were being funded by the state,” Branford says. “Successive governments took electoral funding from the construction companies and then had to find a big project that it could set up so that it could pay them back, and this got worse over the years.”

About two or three years ago, Branford was involved in a research project on Belo Monte, which is the largest dam in the Amazon and the third largest in the world. She interviewed engineers, environmentalists and energy experts and “couldn't actually find anybody who thought it was a good project.”

“In the end, I rather concluded that the only reason it was going ahead was because the Workers' Party, which was then in power, needed a big project in the Amazon so it could pay back the construction companies,” Branford says. “That really isn't a very good basis on which to be developing energy in the Amazon.”

One the of main problems with these projects is how they disturb the rivers and the surrounding forests. “The river is really central to the survival of the forests,” Branford explains. “You need what’s called a pulse — you need the river water to rise during the rainy season and then fall during the dry season. Sometimes, the difference in river level is something like nine meters [30 feet]. In the rainy season, you can go out in a canoe and go into the canopy of the forest, and you can see the fruits and the seeds of the trees dropping into the water.

“Then, when the water goes down, these seeds and fruit are food for the fish,” she continues. “If you put dams on the river, you break this up. The river no longer has this pulse, no longer goes up and down. So you are disturbing the whole rhythm of the forest.”

The other major problem with the dams is their effect on the indigenous peoples who live near them. The Teles Pires dam on the Tapajós River, for instance, was constructed near the village of the Munduruku Indians and destroyed one of the tribe’s most sacred sites.

“This sacred site is where the people go when they die; it’s where their spirits go when they die,” Branford explains. “They say, ‘We will be killed in two ways: Our lives are being destroyed now by all the impacts of the dam, and our future, after we die, is being destroyed.’ So, it's a horrific impact.”

Local tribes are “absolutely determined to put an end to these big dams, and their opposition has been very important,” Branford says.

The Brazilian government also promised the hydroelectric dams would provide electricity to remote areas, but, in the majority of cases, this hasn’t happened, Branford adds.

“These projects were really geared to big mining projects,” she says. "Things like bauxite. If you're going to process bauxite into aluminum, you need a lot of energy. This is what they were really about. The number of times I've traveled near a big dam in the Amazon and the local people have power shortages — have all kinds of problems with energy — because they're just not getting the energy from the big dams.”

While the government minister hasn’t come out with a clear announcement about halting construction of mega-dams, Paolo Pedrosa, the executive secretary of the Ministry of Mines and Energy — “really the power behind the throne,” according to Branford — has said he thinks the period of mega-dams has come to an end.

The decision is not so much about environmental awareness as it is about money, Branford believes. Brazil now has a right-wing government, which is cutting back drastically on the money that goes to state companies. In addition, solar and wind energy are getting much cheaper.

Still, Branford sees “a growing awareness among a lot of people that it really does not make much sense to go on cutting down all this forest to create these big infrastructure projects.”

“People know that this will liberate more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It will mean that these trees aren't absorbing carbon dioxide. It's just making the whole crisis worse,” she says. “But whether this growing awareness will gain momentum and be sufficient to actually stop the deforestation of the Amazon, nobody knows.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

From Living on Earth ©2017

by Srđa Popovic
The Guardian
7 Feb 2018

In Belgrade, we started with a prank. Then Otpor! became a household name, and helped topple Slobodan Milošević

An Otpor! rally in Belgrade, 2000. Photograph: Radu Sigheti/Reuters

If you want a citizens’ movement to grow quickly, humour is a better strategy than anger. I was one of the founders of the Otpor! (Resistance!) grassroots movement in Serbia, which in 2000 helped topple Slobodan Milošević. With democracy in Europe today challenged by populism, perhaps some of the lessons we learned at the time are worth recalling. In Belgrade, our movement started with a prank: we took an oil barrel, painted a picture of Milošević on it, and set it up in the middle of Belgrade’s largest shopping district. Next to it we placed a baseball bat. Then we stood aside, inconspicuously. Before long, shoppers were standing in line to take a swing at the barrel and express their feelings for the president. The police arrived, but could do nothing but drag the Milošević barrel away. Pictures of the incident spread. Otpor! became a household name.

Of course, pushing a warmongering autocrat out of power is different from defending democracy in places in which it is meant to have taken root but has come under threat. When seeking to put an end to dictatorship, the task is to erode the tools and institutions that serve the regime and its strongman – indeed, the goal is to shake up the status quo entirely. Defending democracy, however, means finding ways to defend democratic institutions and principles from those who want to undermine them, even if they’re elected officials. It means creating leverage to block governments or political forces that seek to dismantle such pillars of democracy as an independent judiciary, parliamentary oversight, minority rights, or press freedom.

I’ve spent the last 12 years heading Canvas, an NGO that helps pro-democracy activists in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and also parts of the former Soviet Union. It is no small paradox that Europe today has become a region where democracy needs to be protected in new, vigorous ways. Democratic backsliding is of course particularly worrisome in countries that are relative newcomers to the EU (Poland and Hungary joined in 2004). But the spread of illiberalism is a major concern in many established “traditional” democracies as well.

A pro-EU demonstration by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy in 2017. ‘In Poland, after the Law and Justice party gained power in 2015, a civil society movement rallied opposition to it across partisan lines.’ Photograph: Wojtek Radwański/AFP/Getty Images

Campaigners can be successful if they have vision, unity and a plan of action. Most of all, they must stick to the principles of nonviolence. When we launched Otpor! as a civil resistance movement, the situation in my country was desperate. The vast majority had turned their backs on politics. Yet a tiny group of students managed to grow into a movement of 70,000 people which ultimately defeated Milošević. Otpor! was successful where others had failed. One explanation is that our strategy made use of the political vacuum between existing power structures and public dissatisfaction. Today in Europe, the vacuum between political elites and disgruntled voters is being exploited by populists – people who offer anger, not hope. But calling out populism will only go so far if citizens aren’t encouraged to take action.

Grassroots movements can be leaderless. They can sprout up outside traditional party structures and they can transcend those dividing lines. In Poland, after the Law and Justice party gained power in 2015, a civil society movement called the Committee for the Defence of Democracy rallied opposition to it across partisan lines.

In Romania last year, huge crowds of up to half a million people repeatedly took to the streets to say no to government plans to shield corrupt officials from prosecution. The movement reached beyond the urban, educated classes and capitalised on widespread public frustration with corruption. Romania has the largest number of officials prosecuted for corruption in Europe. People wanted to keep up the pressure. In the face of their protests, the government was forced to backtrack on plans to push through changes by emergency decree.

    Laughter is a potent weapon. In Romania, protesters carried cardboard cut-outs representing leaders dressed as convicts 

Combining protests and symbolic gestures of civil disobedience is important. In Poland, women have taken to the streets to fight for their rights. Law and Justice seeks to enforce traditionalist religious values across public life. Resisting this is hard, but one tipping point was reached in 2016, when 250,000 women forced the government to withdraw its initial plan for an almost total ban on abortion. Not only did they protest in large numbers across some 150 cities and towns, they also initiated a one-day strike – which forced businesses and political elites to sit up and pay attention. In Hungary, where elections are due in April, a group of NGOs recently launched a movement called Country for All, which seeks amendment to an electoral law that threatens the democratic process.

Laughter is a potent weapon. In Romania, protesters carried large cardboard cut-outs representing the country’s leaders dressed as convicts, in black-and-white striped prison shirts. In Germany, people in the town of Wunsiedel mocked the regular marches held by rightwing extremists. Local residents and businesses made pledges to donate €10 to an anti-extremism organisation for every metre the far-right crowd marched. In Finland, people came out dressed as clowns holding acrobat hoops to counter a white supremacist group that organised street patrols against immigrants. Humour can be a powerful tool against absurd, hateful attitudes.

To stand up to populism, Europeans need to reinvent a democratic narrative. Two things keep democracy and freedom alive: strong institutions and active citizens. It is a two-way street: institutions are there to deliver to citizens, and citizens must in turn defend democratic institutions from abuse. Europeans may have taken democracy for granted for too long. Those of us who have taken part in civil resistance movements in the past know all too well that apathy is what authoritarians count on to get their way.

A whole toolbox for campaigning can be put to use against illiberal forces. Sharing your experiences helps to inspire others and sharpen their strategies. The bottom line is that democracy is simply too serious a matter to be left to politicians or parties alone. And grassroots campaigning is more effective when it’s also fun. Populists, just like autocrats, are weakened when they become objects of derision.

Srđa Popovic was one of the founders of the Serbian student movement Otpor!

22. Pay nearshore workers less, cut domestic rates
by Pierre Rimbert
Le Monde Diplomatique 
February 2018

Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany used the European system to ‘nearshore’ industrial production to low-wage central European countries. Now it has a colonial hinterland.

The Hartz laws, introduced between 2003 and 2005, supposedly cured Germany of being what The Economist in 1999 called ‘the sick man of the euro’; they allowed precarious employment, and were entirely responsible for restoring the competitiveness of German business and reviving Mercedes-Benz’s overseas sales. This is a great story (which inspired President Macron to try a similar remedy in France), but it’s not the whole truth.

As the economic historian Stephen Gross points out, ‘to fully understand Germany’s success as a global exporter, we need to look beyond its borders. One of the most important foundations of Germany’s export economy is the commercial networks it has developed with the economies of east-central Europe’ (1) ; its asymmetrical trade relationships with Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia (the Visegrád Group). For a quarter of a century, Germany, has been doing there what the US has done with factories in Mexico — nearshoring.

Germany’s privileged trade relationships with central Europe are not new. They were established in the late 19th century, between Bismarck’s Second Reich and the Habsburg empire. Curtailed by the cold war, they were revived in the 1970s as industrial, technological and banking partnerships, thanks to Social Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik (1969-74). The fall of the Berlin Wall started a feeding frenzy, as German multinationals bought up newly privatised state enterprises. While Volkswagen’s acquisition of Czech carmaker Škoda in 1991 made an impression, western European firms initially subcontracted work to central European facilities, which they used as outsourcing bases.

    Privileged trading relationships with central Europe were established in the late 19th century, between Bismarck and the Habsburg empire 

To do this, they used an old but discreet and little-known process: outward processing traffic or OPT. Codified under European law in 1986, OPT allows businesses to export intermediate goods or components temporarily to a non-member state for processing, then reimport them with full or partial relief from customs duties. After the collapse of the eastern bloc, the expansion of import quotas from central European countries created rosy prospects for German businesses.

European maquiladoras

From the 1990s, they were able to operate as if EU borders had already been removed: they subcontracted the chrome plating of taps and polishing of bathtubs to over-qualified but undemanding Czech workers; entrusted cloth to the Polish seamstresses paid in złoty, reimporting jackets to be sold under a German label; and had seafood shelled in a neighbouring countries.

Economist Julie Pellegrin wrote: ‘The OPT measure is the European version of the American provision which [led] to the development of maquiladoras in the Mexican US border region’ (2). Germany subcontracts more such processing than any other EU state, mainly in textiles, electronics and automobiles: in 1996 German businesses reimported 27 times more goods (in value terms) processed in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia than French businesses. OPT accounted for 13% of 1996 Visegrád Group exports to the EU, 16% of all Germany’s Visegrád imports, and 86.1% of its textile and clothing imports from Poland.

In less than a decade, Pellegrin wrote, central and eastern European firms were ‘integrated into production chains controlled mostly by German firms.’ Countries until recently tied to the East by the Russian-led Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, 1949-91) were integrated all the faster because newly ‘liberated’ consumers were able to access western goods; and this compensated, for a while, for their dismay at only being subcontractors in the manufacture of those goods.

Five hours to Wolfsburg

As free trade agreements removed customs duties in the late 1990s, OPT became less attractive than overseas direct investment (ODI). Multinationals were no longer satisfied with offshoring a small part of production, and built factories in countries where labour was cheaper. Between 1991 and 1999, the flow of German ODI to eastern Europe grew 23-fold. In the early 2000s, Germany accounted for more than a third of all ODI in Visegrád countries and strengthened its grip on Slovenia, Croatia and Romania. Automotive component makers (Bosch, Dräxlmaier, Continental, Benteler) and plastics and electronics firms mushroomed. Wages were a tenth of Germany’s in 1990, a quarter in 2010.

Eastern European workers were far higher skilled than those in Asia, benefiting from robust occupational and technical training systems. They were also closer: it takes four weeks for a container from Shanghai to reach Rotterdam, only five hours for a lorry to drive from the Škoda workshops in Mladá Boleslav, northeast of Prague, to the VW factory in Wolfsburg. By the early 2000s Germany was the biggest trading partner of all the Visegrád countries. To Germany, these were a hinterland of 64 million people, serving as an offshore production base. Italy, France and the UK also benefited, but on a smaller scale. Audi and Mercedes-Benz would be less popular with China’s wealthier classes if their prices were not based on the low wages of Polish and Hungarian workers.

    One of the most important foundations of Germany’s export economy has been the commercial networks it has developed with the economies of east-central Europe
    Stephen Gross

By the time of the 2004 EU enlargement to include central Europe, for which Germany had campaigned tirelessly, the region’s annexation by German businesses was well advanced. It grew further from 2009, as German carmakers increased offshoring to the Visegrád countries, to restore profit margins eroded by the global financial crisis. Researcher Vladimir Handl wrote: ‘It is a paradox of history that it was precisely European integration (a project designed to tame the post-cold war economic giant Germany) that pushed Germany into the role of a hegemon’ (3).

Germany is now an industrial empire in which the centre exploits the skilled labour of its provinces. To the northwest, the Netherlands (German industry’s main logistical base), Belgium and Denmark have Germany as their main trading partner, though their high value-added industries and high degree of development ensure relative autonomy. To the south, Austria is integrated into German production chains, though it has its own flagship businesses in services and insurance. To the east, the industries of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and even Bulgaria, are subordinate or colonial, and depend on Germany as their main customer.

Without this Far East on their doorstep, German politicians and industrialists would have had great difficulty in imposing the Hartz laws on their own workers. It is easier for a German to imagine losing his job to a neighbouring Czech than to a distant Vietnamese, so nearshoring has had a powerful impact on discipline, as described in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by economists who are certainly not leftwing: ‘The new opportunities to move production abroad, while remaining still nearby, changed the power equilibrium between trade unions and employer federations, and forced unions and/or works councils to accept deviations from industry-wide agreements, which often resulted in lower wages for workers.’ Workers’ representatives ‘realised that they had to make concessions’ (4). Opposition to legislation to make employment more flexible was feeble, and wages plummeted. Marcel Fratzscher, president of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) thinktank, noted that ‘for people with low qualifications, the hourly rate has decreased from €12 to €9 since the late 1990s’ (Financial Times, 11 June 2017).

Germany the beneficiary

The creation of this economic backyard was a good deal for German industry. A significant proportion of European funding to the new member states ended up benefiting Germany: ‘Germany was by far the largest beneficiary of investments in the [Visegrád] states from the EU’s cohesion policy [and] able to rely on additional exports to these countries ... of €30 billion in the period 2004-15. Germany gained not only directly ... but also indirectly; a significant proportion of these funds was spent on infrastructure ... This was of great importance for German automotive companies, for whom good transport networks were a condition for building modern production facilities in the [Visegrád] states’ (5).

For the Visegrád countries, the results have been mixed. German investment has renewed the industrial base, led to a massive transfer of technology, enhanced productivity and pay, and created many indirect jobs, some demanding highly skilled labour, to the point where Visegrád employers are concerned about potential labour shortages. But this relationship also consigns the Visegrád economies to subcontracting and subordination: their industrial apparatus belongs to western European, and especially German, investors.

This alienation became apparent last June, when the huge VW factory at Bratislava had its first strike since 1992 (6). The Slovak government supported workers’ demands for a 16% pay increase, and Robert Fico, the Social Democrat prime minister governing in coalition with nationalists, asked: ‘Why should a company making one of the highest quality and most luxurious cars, with a high labour productivity, pay its Slovak workers half or one third of the amount it pays to the same workers in western Europe?’ (Financial Times, 27 June 2017). His Czech counterpart, Bohuslav Sobotka, had already given foreign investors a similar warning (7).

The authoritarian, conservative, counter-project for Europe developed by the Visegrád Group leaders also calls for the Visegrád countries to stop being assembly workshops and develop their own products for export to the greater European market (8). Otherwise, even if local wages rose sharply, this would only encourage further purchases of German cars.

Pierre Rimbert is a member of Le Monde diplomatique’s editorial team.

Translated by Charles Goulden

(1) Stephen Gross, ‘The German Economy and East-Central Europe’, German Politics and Society, New York, autumn 2013.

(2) Julie Pellegrin, ‘German production networks in central/eastern Europe: between dependency and globalisation’, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, 1999, from which the figures in this paragraph are drawn.

(3) Vladimir Handl, ‘The Visegrád Four and German hegemony in the euro zone’ (PDF), Visegrá, 2015.

(4) Christian Dustmann, Bernd Fitzenberger, Uta Schönberg and Alexandra Spitz-Oener, ‘From sick man of Europe to economic superstar: Germany’s resurgent economy’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Nashville, winter 2014.

(5) Konrad Popławski, ‘The role of central Europe in the German economy: the political consequences’ (PDF), Centre for Eastern Studies (Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich), Warsaw, June 2016.

(6) See Philippe Descamps, ‘We won’t be slaves to western companies’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2017.

(7) Ladka Mortkowitz Bauerova, ‘Czech leader vows more pressure on foreign investors over wages’, Bloomberg, New York, 18 April 2017.

(8) See Pierre Rimbert, ‘Germany alone within the EU’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, January 2018.

 Darren E. Grem. The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xiii + 282 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-992797-5.

Reviewed by Brendan J. Payne (Baylor University)
Published on H-South (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Jay Richardson

Darren Grem, an assistant professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi, has produced a welcome addition to the history of conservative evangelicalism in the United States, particularly its ties to corporate leaders and methods from the 1920s to the 1990s. While various scholars have noted that evangelical conservatives received funding from and forged networks with big businessmen, perhaps none have stated the case as forthrightly as Grem, who argues that the process of collaboration with capitalism shaped the very soul of evangelicalism in America.

The book divides cleanly into two parts: “How Big Businessmen Shaped Conservative Evangelicalism” and “How Conservative Evangelicalism Shaped Big Business.” The first part covers how big businessmen helped conservative evangelicals recast their religious authority and identity in American culture from the 1920s to 1960s. Herbert J. Taylor, a fundamentalist in belief, nonetheless applied the business methods of alliance-building, contractual language, and moderation to set the stage for a conservative evangelical revival in America. His main vehicle for this transformation was the Four-Way Test, an ethical code for businessmen that appealed as much to his liberal Protestant friends in the Rotary as to evangelicals, but one that also reaffirmed the business executive as the absolute—if hopefully benevolent—authority over his company. Taylor, among other businessmen, helped underwrite the ministry of Billy Graham, who was not only an evangelist but a salesman par excellence for the new evangelicalism, as its most famous and respectable public voice. Meanwhile, R. G. LeTourneau, a bulldozer designer made rich by government contracts, launched hybrid economic and missionary ventures in Liberia and Peru that ended in failure, but he helped tie high-tech industries to support for Christian missions in Cold War America. Part 2 of the book turns to how conservative evangelicals became big business in the 1970s and 1980s. Chick-Fil-A’s S. Truett Cathy exemplified the evangelical turn to privatizing their faith, which at once shunned controversy while empowering their kind of identity politics. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker created Heritage USA, a “Disneyland for the Devout” (p. 162) that exemplified evangelical-culture-as-capitalism, while Zig Ziglar embodied rag-to-riches free-market promise and baptized it with evangelical Christian faith.

Grem continues a recent trend in scholarship that connects conservative evangelicalism to business in the twentieth century. Bethany Moreton in To Serve God and Wal-Mart (2010) zooms in on Wal-Mart, an Arkansas-based corporation that linked godly principles with free-market capitalism in a postindustrial age of globalization. Darren Dochuk in his prize-winning Bible Belt to Sunbelt (2010) explores how plain-folk evangelical migrants from the western South to southern California since the 1930s had built networks with businessmen that supported various educational institutions, media outlets, parachurch groups, and churches that in turn converted countless evangelicals to an updated gospel of limited government. Kevin M. Kruse—who wrote a favorable blurb on Grem’s book—pushes the connection between capitalism and evangelicalism onto more controversial ground in One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented a Christian Nation (2015).

For scholars of American evangelicalism in the twentieth century, many characters and organizations in Grem’s work will be familiar: Youth for Christ, the Christian Business Men’s Committee, the Young Men’s Christian Association, L. Nelson Bell, the National Association of Evangelicals, J. Howard Pew, R. G. LeTourneau, ServiceMaster, The Navigators, the Christian Business Men’s Committee, and especially Billy Graham. As this very impartial list suggests, Grem directs his attention almost exclusively to wealthy white male elites and so omits the mid-level plain-folk evangelicals that peopled Dochuk’s account in From Bible Belt to Sun Belt.

Some of Grem’s most interesting arguments concern the gender, sexual, and racial norms implicit—and at times explicit—in conservative evangelicalism. Grem notesd well distinctions within conservative evangelicalism, particularly between more strident and more moderated voices on a variety of issues, but consistently hammers home the white privilege and gendered and sexual norms that always informed evangelical elites. For example, even though Graham opposed segregation as early as 1953 and had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the opening of his 1957 revival in New York City, Grem reminds the reader that he declined to lobby for any civil rights legislation and supported a culture that appealed to individual consciences while also giving white male business executives total authority over how to run their own companies. However, many of Grem’s criticisms apply equally well to white male liberal Christians, who as Grem notes largely hailed the Four-Way Test, shared Rotary connections with many evangelical business titans, and abided in both secular and religious worlds dominated by white men. More explicit comparison and contrast of the capitalist ties with white evangelicals, liberal white Protestants, Catholics, and nonwhite Christians would be immensely profitable to scholars of American religion.

Another major asset of the book is its readability. Grem proves his ability as a storyteller by weaving together interesting and at times obscure anecdotes to powerfully advance his point, whether recounting Billy Graham’s public blessing of R. G. LeTourneau’s failed business/missionary venture to Liberia in 1952 or describing a stick-figure cartoon drawn by the editor of Christianity Today showing himself bowing before his corporate financier, J. Howard Pew, in a 1965 letter. While a book about corporate leaders and organizations with a seemingly limitless list of acronyms could have been a boring read, Grem does his best to keep the story interesting.

The foremost criteria for a historical book is whether it meets its stated objective. Grem succeeds in meeting all three of his explicit objectives: he shows how corporations shaped conservative Protestant Christianity; exposes the business side of American religion, with its cultural and political ramifications; and places the construction of American religion within the history of corporate capitalism. Provocative, informative, and required reading for all who wonder how conservative evangelicalism became linked at the hip with modern free-market capitalism, Grem’s book shows how many Christians came to reconcile serving both God and mammon.


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