SACW - 30 Aug 2018 | Afghanistan: Militants’ war on education / Bangladesh: Shahidul Alam / Pakistan: Human Rights / India: rights activists face crackdown / USSR days: Single Mothers as Train Conductors

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at
Wed Aug 29 15:17:39 EDT 2018

South Asia Citizens Wire - 30 August 2018 - No. 2997 
[via South Asia Citizens Web - since 1996]

1. Letter from Human Rights Watch to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan Re: Human Rights Agenda for the New Government
2. India: Rights activists and intellectuals under assault - police raids and arrests of Aug 2018 - links to reports and statements by concerned citizens & groups
3. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan mourns passing of Kuldip Nayar
4. India: We dont need a blasphemy law in Punjab - Editorials and commentary 
5. Recent on Communalism Watch:
 - Digital hatred, real violence: Majoritarian radicalisation and social media in India | Maya Mirchandani
 - Invitation - Discussion of the book 'Babri Masjid, 25 years on... (New Delhi, 5 Sept 2018)
 - In India, the contradiction between proclaimed faith in secularism and collaboration with communal forces 
 - How did Prabhajan Virodhi Manch (PVM), a forum allegedly backed by the RSS get access to Confidential NRC data?
 - Hate Ideology and rising Intolerance - Swami Agnivesh: Social Reformer Under attack
 - India: Hullaballoo Over Pondycherry Lit Fest Organised by the Hindutva Sympathisers
 - India: Rahul Gandhi is wrong about 1984. But why is no one asking Narendra Modi about 2002 anymore? | Ajaz Ashraf
 - Reject Punjab’s life term for sacrilege | Editorial in Economic Times
 - India: The Maze - intricate web of radical Hindu terrorist groups 
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6. Bangladesh: Give Shahidul division as per jail code Court orders 
7. What Shahidul Alam’s arrest reveals about the political climate across South Asia | Aditya Adhikari
8. After 17 years of war, a peace movement grows in Afghanistan | Sharif Hassan
9. Another standoff at the Durand Line | Syeda Mamoona Rubab
10. Militants’ war on education in Afghanistan | Ruchi Kumar
11. Time to talk: India must accept Imran Khan's offer | Manini Chatterjee
12. India: Cringing and fuddled at 71 | Latha Jishnu
13. ‘We don’t have any fear’: India’s angry young men and its lynch mob crisis | Annie Gowen
14. A long march of the dispossessed to Delhi | P. Sainath
15. The Unseeables | Tariq Ali
16. Annan Victim of One of the Greatest Fake News Concoctions in History | Ian Williams
17. There’s strength of hate in numbers on social media | Justin Thomas
18. For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors | Laura Esther Wolfson

As your government takes charge, we write to you about the human rights situation in Pakistan and urge that you take some key steps to help address current and longstanding problems.

We, the undersigned, are shocked by the serial raids across the country on the homes of activists and public intellectuals who are critical of the government and the ruling party at the Centre

‘Few people on either side of the border can claim to have matched Mr Nayar’s unyielding commitment to peace and reconciliation between India and Pakistan.

The Amarinder Singh cabinet has approved amendments to the CrPC and IPC, making the desecration of religious texts punishable with life in Punjab


Oppose the Law in Punjab Providing Life imprisonment for Sacrilege of Holy Books - Press Release from All India Secular Forum
BHOPAL: August 27, 2018: The All India Secular Forum has expressed serious concern over the Punjab Government’s decision to enact a law providing life imprisonment to anyone who causes injury, damage or sacrilege to the Guru Granth Saheb, The Bhagwat Geeta, The Quaran and The Bible.

 - Digital hatred, real violence: Majoritarian radicalisation and social media in India | Maya Mirchandani
 - Invitation - Discussion of the book 'Babri Masjid, 25 years on... (New Delhi, 5 Sept 2018)
 - In India, the contradiction between proclaimed faith in secularism and collaboration with communal forces has been a case in point for decades.
 - Petition to Prof. Sriprakash Kothari to withdraw from his role as Chair of the World Hindu Congress 2018
 - How did Chief Convener of the Prabhajan Virodhi Manch (PVM), a forum against infiltration allegedly backed by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), get access to Confidential NRC data?
 - India: Remove 'secular' from Constitution says Sanatan Sanstha, a Hindu Far Right Group
 - India: Sanatan Sanstha Trick - Takes Distance from Accused in Gauri Lankesh, Dabholkar murders saying They Were not Members
 - Hate Ideology and rising Intolerance - Swami Agnivesh: Social Reformer Under attack
 - Growing Intolerance: Attacks on Swami Agnivesh
 - India: The Erased 'Muslim' Texts of the Nath Sampradāy
 - India: Hullaballoo Over Pondycherry Lit Fest Organised by the Hindutva Sympathisers
 - India: Rahul Gandhi is wrong about 1984. But why is no one asking Narendra Modi about 2002 anymore? | Ajaz Ashraf
 - Reject Punjab’s life term for sacrilege | Editorial in Economic Times
 - India: The Maze - intricate web of radical Hindu terrorist groups

 -> available via:
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Court orders
The Daily Star
August 28, 2018

Star file photo
Court Correspondent

A Dhaka court yesterday directed the jail authorities to take measures to provide division to noted photographer Shahidul Alam as per the Jail Code.

Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Md Saifuzzaman Hero passed the order after Shahidul's lawyer Ehsanul Haque Shomaji submitted a petition seeking first class for his client in jail.

The photographer is behind bars on charges of “spreading propaganda and false information against the government”.

In the petition, Ehsanul said his client is an internationally renowned personality and has won a number of awards for his contributions to the nation. Moreover, his parents were also given national awards for their outstanding activities. He should be provided first class division considering his social status, the lawyer argued.

Shahidul, 63, was picked up by law enforcers on the night of August 5 from his Dhanmondi home.

The following day, he was placed on seven-day remand after police had produced him before a court seeking a 10-day remand. He told the court that he was tortured in custody, but the police denied the allegation.

He was sent to jail on August 13 on completion of his remand.

In response to a writ petition filed by his wife Rahnuma Ahmed on August 7, the High Court directed the authorities concerned to immediately send him to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, arrange his medical examination and submit a report by 10:30am on August 9.

The BSMMU authorities formed a four-member medical board to examine his health and mental condition. The board's report submitted to the HC mentioned that he was physically and mentally sound.

During hearing at the HC on August 9, the defence argued that there was no psychologist in the medical board to examine his mental condition.

The hearing of Shahidul's bail petition would be held on September 11 at the court of Metropolitan and Sessions Judge, Dhaka.


To attract people's attention to the work of Shahidul Alam and to promote solidarity with him, a photographic exhibition was held in Peru yesterday.

Alta Tecnología Andina (ATA) and the Cultural Centre Ricardo Palma jointly organised the exhibition titled “Shahidul Alam: A voice from the shadows.”

The exhibition was curated by José-Carlos Mariátegui and Jorge Villacorta, says a press release.

Thousands of voices have risen in the world in the last three weeks in protest against the arrest of Shahidul and “mistreatment he has been suffering in prison”, it read.

The exhibition was inaugurated on August 24 at Raúl Porras Barrenechea Hall, Ricardo Palma Cultural Centre, Av. Larco 770, Miraflores, Lima, Perú. It will be available for viewing till September 9.

The exhibition summarises his career as a photojournalist, in Bangladesh and around the world.

In the last 30 years he has developed a broad work both in education and in the promotion of an ethical and committed attitude with regards to the problems that affect societies in invisible areas of the world.

by Aditya Adhikari
Nepali Times
August 29, 2018

On 5 August, Bangladeshi artist, writer and organiser Shahidul Alam was interviewed on Al Jazeera about student protests triggered by the deaths of schoolchildren run over by a public bus.

Alam said that the anger of the protesting youth were not just with the transportation sector but the dire situation of the country as a whole. He outlined a litany of everything that was wrong in Bangladesh: “The looting of banks, the gagging of the media, the extra-judicial killings, the disappearances, the need to give protection money at all levels, bribery at all levels, corruption in education.”

That very day, security personnel in plainclothes arrived at Alam’s Dhaka home in the middle of the night and took him away without any explanation or warrant. When he was presented before court a few days later, he was limping and had to be held up as he walked.

He had obviously been tortured in custody. Soon after, he was charged with Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communications Technology Act (ICT) for ‘spreading propaganda and false information against the government’. Alam was denied bail. If convicted, he could face a seven-year sentence.

The blatantly unjust and politically motivated arrest of Shahidul Alam has been widely condemned and there have been petitions for his release from all parts of the world. The attention this case has received partially has to do with Alam’s extraordinary achievements and his international fame.

As a photojournalist, he has received widespread acclaim for revealing that the marginalised are active agents rather than victims and his visceral depictions of state brutality. But Alam is equally known as an institution builder and a mentor for younger photojournalists. He founded the Drik Picture Library photo agency, the ChobiMela, one of South Asia’s most prestigious photo festivals, and the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute which has trained hundreds of photographers, including from Nepal.

But the case has far-reaching implications that go beyond Shahidul Alam as an individual, and even beyond Bangladesh. The arrest has to be seen in light of worrisome trends that have begun to afflict large sections of the world, including many countries in the South Asian region.

Broadly speaking, this has to do with the attack by the state upon what is often called ‘freedom of expression’.In recent months, governments in South Asia have tried to criminalise all criticism of the government, both by publicly prominent personalities and by private citizens expressing themselves on social media.

In Bangladesh, several people have been arrested for posting or sharing comments critical of the government on Facebook. The government there is planning to replace the notorious ICT act with even more draconian legislation. In Myanmar, journalists reporting on the Rohingya crisis have been arrested and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act.

In the past week, several high profile activists and intellectuals have been arrested in India in what is clearly a vendetta on the part of the government. And in Nepal too, the government has passed legislation that would prevent journalists from reporting on state activity.

Governments have claimed that such measures are necessary to preserve national security. In order to maintain their power, rulers in the region have tried to instigate nationalist sentiments among the population. Organisations campaigning for greater justice have been vilified as tools of foreign countries.

The intention behind these efforts is clear. Governments want to establish their own interpretation of history and current events as the only legitimate one. They want to be left free to bulldoze decisions without having to confront independent civil society groups. And in the process, they are trying to create populations that are fearful, inward looking and xenophobic.

The campaign for the release of Shahidul Alam is not just about an individual who has been unjustly persecuted. More broadly, it is a campaign to resist the steady encroachment upon democratic space across the region. It is a campaign against a narrow-minded nationalism and the arbitrary use of power. A campaign that stands for tolerance, the rule of law and the rights of the most marginalised people.

During her visit to Kathmandu for the BIMSTEC conference, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would do well to realise that her government has only lost international legitimacy by arresting Shahidul Alam. His immediate release will be an important first step towards restoring the Bangladesh government’s credibility.

Other heads of government visiting Nepal should similarly recognise that attacks on journalists and members of civil society only serve to increase hostility and anger towards the ruling authorities. Dismantling legislation that impedes the right to free expression will be necessary if states are to regain the trust of their populations. [. . .]


by Sharif Hassan
The Washington Post
August 18, 2018

SHAKARDARA, Afghanistan — With every step, the blisters burned.

After three days of walking barefoot alongside a highway from Kabul with about 50 other peace activists, Abdul Malik Hamdard, a computer teacher, had only gotten as far as this farming village about 40 miles north of the capital. But he had a point to make, and he said he planned to keep going no matter how much his feet hurt.

“War kills Afghan people every day,” said Hamdard, 27, as the group stopped to rest in a mosque one day earlier this month. He said he lost three brothers to conflict in the past 25 years. “We will walk from Kabul to Mazar for peace,” he said, referring to the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, about 200 miles north. 

At the moment, the group’s new effort seems both quixotic and timely. In the past several weeks, a burst of insurgent violence has flared across the country, most recently a major ground assault by the Taliban on the southeastern city of Ghazni that killed at least 120 people and a suicide bombing in Kabul by the Islamic State militia that claimed at least 34 lives.

The renewed bloodshed has dampened the hopes for breakthrough in the conflict that followed the June cease-fire and a high-level meeting between U.S. diplomats and Taliban representatives in July. But the peace marchers said these setbacks make their mission more relevant than ever.

The group originally formed in southern Helmand province after a bombing in March, staging peaceful protests there. Then in May and June, eight of its members walked more than 300 miles to Kabul to persuade the government to negotiate with Taliban insurgents. Along the way, they braved scorching heat and dust storms, but their numbers grew to more than 100. Sometimes, they said, they encountered Taliban fighters and begged them to end the war.

Afghan amputees march to demand an end to the war in the Guzara district of Herat province on Aug. 7. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images)

In Kabul, the group set up tents outside the embassies of Pakistan, the United States and other countries, meeting with diplomats and asking them to step up support for a peace deal. They also met with Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, calling on them to take “practical steps” to end the war. 

But the group’s leaders said the meetings produced no results, so they decided to take up their peace march again, with almost half of the activists walking barefoot.

“I told them that Afghans have lost trust in you entirely. You only made promises in 17 years. We have not seen practical steps towards peace,” said Mohammad Iqbal Khaybar, 27, the leader of the movement, who previously ran a private medical clinic in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand. 

Of those who criticize the marchers for walking barefoot, Khaybar said, “We harm ourselves to make you aware. Why are you silent?”

Although most of the marchers are young, some of the older ones are especially motivated by memories of life before their country was torn apart by conflict. Mohammad Seraj, 55, recalled tranquil days in Helmand before the Soviet invasion and civil war of the 1980s. He and his family fled to Iran for nearly 30 years — only to return to a country at war again.

“Afghanistan is a good place without war. War is ugly,” Seraj said. “We want peace at any cost.”

Since the formation of the Helmand peace movement, others have sprung up in different areas of the country, holding rallies and sit-ins and calling on all warring parties to hold peace talks. Ghani has praised their efforts, but Taliban officials dismissed them in June as conspiracies and foreign plots. 

Despite the recent upsurge in violence, the peace activists are still hoping a second cease-fire will take place next week during the three-day Muslim holiday known as Eid al-Adha.

In a tweet last week, activist Bacha Khan Muladad wrote, “Every day dozens of young Afghans are dying, this has to stop, we need to stop this 4 decades old cycle of violence or else [we] will not stop walking. #StopWar.”

As the marchers walked alongside the highway one recent day, a car drove slowly ahead, broadcasting a Persian-language song for peace.

An 11-year-old boy, whose mother had died in a rocket attack in Logar province, walked just behind it. At one point, a white dog began following the group and stayed with them for miles. Some of the marchers said they hoped it would bring them luck.

Syeda Mamoona Rubab
The Friday Times
24 Aug 2018

Syeda Mamoona Rubab wonders how effective the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan has been, given recent hostilities since the Taliban attack in Ghazni

Eidul Fitr and Eidul Azha are just little over two months apart, but it seems like ages in annals of tumultuous Pakistan-Afghanistan relations.

Eidul Fitr had taken place amidst a sense of renewal because Pakistan and Afghanistan had forged a new mechanism governing their relationship called Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) and Taliban had then agreed to an unprecedented ceasefire. Two months later, the festival of Eidul Azha took place under returning clouds of bilateral distrust and violence in Afghanistan once again on a rise.

The Taliban attack on the strategically-located city of Ghazni was important from various aspects. Tragically, the attack that started on August 10 left around 100 Afghan citizens and troops dead and it exposed the weakness of the government, the preparedness of troops, narrative of the progress in war and the ineffectiveness of the US strategy adopted by Trump’s administration after last year’s review. But, the two casualties that few are talking about are the efforts for normalisation of Pak-Afghan relations and the setback suffered by the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan.

It would have been too optimistic for one to assume that the APAPPS would have overnight brushed away decades of mutual mistrust, but no one was expecting the bonhomie surrounding the creation of the new ties to fade so quickly.

Therefore, in the aftermath of Ghazni attack, we had a sense of déjà vu in what we heard from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, his Defence Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, Chief of General Staff Mohammad Sharif Yaftali and other officials; and from the Pakistani side from Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa and Foreign Office Spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal.

The allegation against Pakistan was that Ghazni attack had marks of Pakistani support. It is said that bodies of at least 70 Pakistani killed during Ghazni fighting were with Afghan authorities and dozens of others had been captured. Video statements of some of the arrested men have been shown by Afghan media. Similarly there are been pictures of injured fighters and dead bodies being transported back to Pakistan.

President Ghani, while visiting Ghazni three days after the Taliban retreat from the city, was bitter about commitments extended by General Bajwa. According to a Voice of America Report, Ghani said, “General Bajwa, you signed a document with us and told me repeatedly in our conversations over the phone that when the elections (in Pakistan) are over you will pay attention to it. I need answers now….From where they came and why are they receiving treatment in your hospitals?”

It was more or less the same message that was conveyed by Kabul through its ambassador Dr Omar Zakhilwal to Gen Bajwa at the start of Ghazni attack. Dr Zakhilwal had then tweeted that in his meeting with top Pakistani commander told him that “full cooperation as per the APAPPS and other bilateral commitments which in turn help with our peace efforts and reduction of violence” was required.

Now look what Pakistani side is saying. General Bajwa out rightly dismissed the Afghan allegations, saying there was no support to any terrorist activity inside Afghanistan from Pakistan side.

He was, however, compelled to offer an explanation over dead bodies and injured flowing into Pakistan from Afghanistan. It happened so because some of nationalist Pashtun leaders had joined the Afghan chorus in asking questions about them.

General Bajwa’s explanation was, “There are scores of Pakistanis working in Afghanistan in connection with various businesses and labour who periodically fall victim to terrorism acts alongside their Afghan brothers inside Afghanistan. Terming such victims as terrorists is unfortunate. Moreover, different factions of the TTP, hiding in many sanctuaries inside Afghanistan under Afghan identities on becoming injured and dead are transported into Pakistan for medical help. Additionally, Afghan refugees and their relatives also resort to similar practices.”

General Bajwa’s statement was seen as an implied acceptance that some Pakistanis had been killed in the fight for Ghazni. He, however, challenged the Afghan account that they were terrorists fighting alongside Taliban.

Whether one agrees with the explanation or not is a separate thing, but there can be no difference of opinion over the prescription offered by General Bajwa. He proposed two things – firstly speedy implementation of APAPPS and substantive progress on Afghan reconciliation efforts.

Recap what Afghan envoy had said:  “full cooperation as per the APAPPS.” Therefore, it is an easy conclusion to draw that both Kabul and Islamabad have a consensus that APAPPS is the way forward, but they have been struggling to make it functional even though in their enthusiasm for the new mechanism they made the people feel long time back that it was working.

FO Spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal had at the last press briefing said: “The two countries under the auspices of APAPPS are engaged in developing a time bound repatriation plan for early and complete repatriation of Afghan refugees to Afghanistan. In this regard, an Afghan delegation from Afghan Ministry of Refugee and Repatriation will visit Islamabad shortly to have consultations”. Although it was said in the context of refugees, but still it meant to say the APAPPS was working.

But, two days later, through a separate statement Dr Faisal regretted that the reports about Pakistani involvement in Ghazni were “malicious propaganda” aimed at “vitiating the existing cooperation between the two countries” and could not be given credence. That’s right. It is very much plausible. But look the reason given by him – “the absence of official communications through regular channels.” The question, therefore, remains then what the APAPPS is worth even if it cannot perform the basic function of exchange of information and intelligence? Either accept that the APAPPS has collapsed or explain why the two countries are failing to operationalize it – a fact that has been admitted by everyone including President Ghani and Gen Bajwa.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad

The Hindu
August 19, 2018

“Education is increasingly a casualty in Afghanistan,” a briefing note by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) recently observed. The note was in reaction to a larger, comprehensive report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), titled ‘Education Under Attack’, which studies the impact of conflict on education in 28 countries.

According to the report, Afghanistan, along with Nigeria, suffered the most number of attacks against students and educators. Indeed, as conflict in the country surges, educational facilities find themselves threatened or caught in the crossfire. In the latest such attack, a suicide bombing inside a classroom in Kabul on Wednesday killed 48 people, many of them students preparing for the national university entrance exams. Claimed by the Islamic State (IS), the attack targeted the minority Shia Hazara community. In June, some schools for girls were forced to shut following threats from the IS. Separately, over a 100 schools in Logar province were briefly closed, allegedly by local Taliban groups. Last month, the Malikyar Hotak High School in Khogyani district of the eastern province of Nangarhar came under attack, resulting in the beheading of three staff members.

“Threats — and actual violence and destruction — to schools and staff in Nangarhar Province are paralysing the educational sector and quickly reversing development gains,” William Carter, head of the Afghanistan programme at the NRC, told this writer, adding that the situation has had “a profoundly distressing effect on children’s sense of safety”. Aid organisations working with local educational groups have also confirmed that not only are school and educational facilities at risk of attacks but also that the overall environment has discouraged student attendance. The NRC observed that schools in the region were “increasingly at risk on military, ideological, and political fault lines, with attacks increasing in eastern Afghanistan”.

Not safe at school

In its own research, the NRC found that a majority of the surveyed children did not feel safe at school. It discovered that at least 12% had experienced attacks on their schools and 15% had experienced shooting very near their school buildings. Another 36% were frightened about risks of kidnapping or attack en route to schools and many of them had missed lectures and exams because of threats from armed groups. “This also undermines parents’ attitudes to the value of education,” Mr. Carter elaborated.

Meanwhile, as the much-delayed parliamentary elections approach, school facilities used as voting registration and election centres are increasingly at risk from insurgent attacks. An assault on a school that was being used as a National ID registration centre in Kabul resulted in 60 deaths in April. Currently, according to the UN, over 60% of the 7,000 voter registration and polling centres are schools, with activities taking place during classroom hours.

The deteriorating situation has also affected the delivery of educational aid. “This level of insecurity has made it very difficult for us to assure the safety of both our beneficiaries and our own staff,” Mr. Carter said, adding that they are evaluating different approaches to ensure that children are protected and that their learning can be continued in the wake of deepening insecurity. “However, we are making adjustments intended to reduce the likelihood and limit the impact of such incidents on children and staff,” he said.

Factors such as repeated attacks on schools, closure of institutions and use of schools as voter registration centres have made the facilities education-unfriendly and discouraged student attendance

by Manini Chatterjee
The Telegraph
August 27, 2018

When a difficult neighbour offers unsolicited help during a moment of crisis, you can do one of two things. You can choose to be large hearted - for it is much tougher to receive than to give - and accept the offer, seizing the opportunity it provides for a possible rapprochement in a bitter and quarrelsome relationship. Or, eschewing idealism and hope, you can politely decline it with a 'thank you, but no thank you' response.

India, last week, did neither. The government of India's rejection of the offer of aid from the United Arab Emirates for the flood-ravaged state of Kerala triggered a huge controversy which refuses to die down. But the gesture from Pakistan was treated in a far more cavalier manner. No one bothered to even acknowledge it.

The offer had been made not by some lowly official in Islamabad but by the newly elected prime minister, Imran Khan. On August 23, Khan had tweeted: "On behalf of the people of Pakistan, we send our prayers and best wishes to those who have been devastated by the floods in Kerala, India. We stand ready to provide any humanitarian assistance that may be needed."

Given how prickly India's officialdom is about receiving aid from abroad, there was little chance of taking any help from Pakistan. But when a new regime is elected to power next door, and its new leader makes a graceful gesture, the least New Delhi could have done was respond with a note of appreciation. Instead, there has been only silence so far.

This churlishness on part of India is not confined to the issue of flood assistance for Kerala alone. For the last few weeks, ever since Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf emerged as the single largest party in the country's general elections, it is Islamabad which is making all the right noises about peace and friendship. New Delhi, in contrast, has been muffled and grudging in its response.

Imran Khan, it is true, is a controversial figure. The legendary cricketer who was once the most famous playboy of the eastern world is said to have metamorphosed into a conservative hardliner, with close links with the Pakistani army and sections of Islamist fundamentalists. But it is also true, as Imran Khan has himself pointed out, that he has had closer ties with India than any other Pakistani leader. He made numerous visits to this country during his cricketing days and the bonds he established lasted well past his retirement from the game.

More important, he is now the elected leader of Pakistan. And every time a new person comes to power in either country, there is renewed hope that a fresh attempt will be made at reconciliation - or at least at reducing the rancour and hostility that have been the bane of both nations.

It is this sense of hope, perhaps, that impelled the then prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi in the summer of 2014. Although Pakistanis had reasons to be wary of Modi - a dyed-in-the-wool Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak who had mocked Pakistan during election campaigns in Gujarat - Islamabad had responded to his invitation with alacrity.

Unlike Modi who made a great show of his oath-taking ceremony by calling leaders of the Saarc nations to attend it, Imran Khan did not invite foreign leaders to his swearing-in. But in his very first speech on July 26, when the votes were still being counted, he reached out to India.

While admitting he was "saddened" at how the media in India "portrayed me as a Bollywood film villain", Imran Khan pointed out that "I am the Pakistani who has the most familiarity with India, I have been all over that country."

He went on to tell the Pakistani people that "it will be very good for all of us if we have good relations with India. We need to have trade ties, and the more we will trade, both countries will benefit." Of course, he did refer to Kashmir as "a core issue" but said that "Pakistan and India's leadership should sit at a table and try to fix this problem. It's not going anywhere."

Candidly admitting that India-Pakistan relations were at "square one right now", the then prime minister-elect gave the very large - even if largely silent - constituency for peace on both sides of the border some reasons to cheer. "If India's leadership is ready, we are ready to improve ties with India. If you step forward one step, we will take two steps forward. I say this with conviction, this will be the most important thing for the subcontinent, for both countries to have a friendship."

Four days later, on July 30, the Indian prime minister called up Imran Khan to congratulate him on his party's success in the election. But what exactly was exchanged between the two remains opaque since the bland press release put out by the ministry of external affairs merely said, "Prime Minister expressed hope that democracy will take deeper roots in Pakistan. Prime Minister also reiterated his vision of peace and development in the entire neighbourhood."

A similar opacity marks the written communication sent by Narendra Modi to Imran Khan when the latter was formally sworn in as prime minister on August 18. The news of the letter came out only two days later when the newly elected foreign minister of Pakistan, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, referred to it and welcomed Modi's message about starting on the path of dialogue.

It was only then that unidentified government "sources" denied that any offer of talks had been made and said that Modi had only spoken of the need to pursue "meaningful and constructive engagement." It remains a mystery why the letter from the Indian prime minister to his Pakistani counterpart cannot be shared with the people of India.

One reason could be that with the Lok Sabha elections a few months away, the Modi government does not want to risk any peace overture that could cloud the aggressive, jingoistic and communally polarizing narrative that has been central to the Bharatiya Janata Party's outreach to voters in the last few years. The virulent attack by the BJP spokesmen on Navjot Singh Sidhu for attending Imran Khan's swearing-in and hugging the Pakistani army chief - unmindful of the fact that Modi had also hugged the then Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, when he landed up without notice at Sharif's home - is a clear indication that ratcheting up anti-Pakistan sentiments is going to be part of the BJP's electoral strategy.

That would be a great pity. At a time when the new Pakistani leadership is repeatedly making gestures of friendship and stressing the need for dialogue, India's mealy-mouthed responses diminish our stature as the bigger country and reduces our claims of moral superiority.

The BJP, which is being rather unsubtle in its over-the-top commemoration of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, seems to have forgotten that it was Vajpayee's Pakistan policy that marked his place in history. The BJP might regard Pokhran II and economic liberalization as Vajpayee's great achievements. But Pokhran I had already taken place under Indira Gandhi and the Vajpayee-era development was a continuation of the process started by previous regimes.

But when it came to Pakistan, Vajpayee took unprecedented initiatives. It was not just his famous bus ride to Lahore but also his determination to keep the dialogue process going - in spite of Kargil, in spite of the December 13, 2001 attack on Parliament - and his sincere belief that peace was worth striving for even if it was not electorally expedient that gave him the reputation of a statesman, and not just a successful political leader.

Jingoistic sentiments are easy to whip up; sabre-rattling pays quick electoral dividends. But the truth is, whether we like it or not, India can never achieve its dream of being a great power, a " vishwa guru" till we establish peace with Pakistan. That is why self-professed hyper-nationalists, too, must grab every opportunity to start a dialogue, and keep it going in spite of pinpricks and provocations. Not doing so is letting the people of India down...

by Latha Jishnu
August 27, 2018

NARENDRA Modi always makes a splash when he speaks to the nation from the ramparts of the 17th-century Mughal Red Fort on India’s independence day. His outfits are chosen with care and appear to make sartorially political statements that the media never fails to note whatever else they might miss.

His speeches are long and signify the audacity of fiction over fact since many of the government’s ‘achievements’ are invariably exposed as flights of fancy by data journalists and fact-checking websites that have sprung up as a response to the BJP regime’s propensity to make tall claims at every turn. This year Modi wore a flowing saffron turban, which to some analysts signalled his readiness for the 2019 general elections just nine months away along with his frequent references to being impatient and restless to change India on numerous fronts. The prime minister has in the past spoken of creating a ‘new India’, a project which he promises will be completed by 2022 when India marks the 75th anniversary of independence.

    The toxic politics and coarse discourse of the Modi regime has held up a mirror to Indians.

What is the ‘new India’ for which Modi has been laying the groundwork over the past four years? Clearly, the project is not unduly focused on the economy since his sorties on this front have been haphazard and anarchic. And he is also aware that his team will be unable to outdo the Congress government’s sterling performance. Updated figures of GDP growth show that the Manmohan Singh government averaged eight per cent during its two terms, clocking a historic rate of 10.08pc in 2006-07, the highest since the economic liberalisation of 1991. The series data on GDP rates have been kept back for long since it undermines the basis on which it stormed to power in 2014.

Such manoeuvres are symptomatic of the BJP’s politics. On matters of vital concern, such as huge arms deals, there is secrecy and a fudging of facts, while on issues that are integral to its ideology, however trivial, it whips up a national frenzy, stoking anger and righteousness in equal measure. Currently, patriotic India is boiling over with indignation because cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu hugged Pakistan’s army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa when they met at Imran Khan’s oath-taking ceremony, a small example of the collective cretinism of a nation with little confidence in itself or its civilisational values, overwhelmed as it is by a loutish Hindu majoritarianism and hyper-nationalism that’s the leitmotif of the times.

The core of the new India project is to erase the idea of India fashioned by Jawaharlal Nehru — of a nation that was intended to be plural, secular and inclusive. But for the BJP and its mothership, the RSS, this was a concept borrowed from the West and ill suited to the ethos of Hindu India. As part of its revisionist programme, history has been upended and facts distorted as brazenly as they can be to suit the new narrative. Battles that were once lost in history are now being recast as victories since the new narrative does not brook Hindu kings being vanquished by Muslim emperors. Even post-Independence history is open to distortion, usually during abrasive election campaigns, when the party’s electoral victory is at stake. In the Republic of Lies that India has become no fact is too sacred, not even the life and times of India’s military heroes, if a little change of fact and date can yield. The nation is left cringing as fabrications become as common as they are dangerous.

The new India of Modi’s making cares little for science or the scientific temperament, a quality much prized by Nehru and vital to his nation-building enterprise. India is possibly the only one country to have a constitution that calls on every citizen “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” as a fundamental duty. Today, children and adults alike are a fuddled lot as those holding high office blithely deride foundational scientific principles. Ministers routinely denigrate the theories of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton, while the prime minister himself dismisses climate change, in a special telecast for children, as nothing more than the perception of people as they grow older. Flat-earthers may abound the world over but nowhere else have they presided over the destiny of 1.3 billion people and of a nation with an enviable scientific heritage.

Instead of banking on technology for the future, religion and social engineering are what the Hindutva lobby is betting on as it strengthens its hold on the country. One of its pet projects is to end the deep caste divisions in Hindu society and bring all Hindus on one platform. It is also doing its best to Hinduise Muslims through the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, an RSS special-purpose vehicle that appears to have had some success in wooing politically ambitious Muslims. But Walter Anderson, the US academic who has been studying the RSS for over 40 years, believes that the coming challenge for the saffron party is likely to be the battle between Hindutva and Hinduism, a valid analysis given the unrest among the major backward castes and the Dalits across India.

At 71, India is on a dangerous cusp, unsure of what its values should be as the coarse political discourse and violent majoritarianism favoured by the BJP undermines old ways of thinking. Is Modi to blame for the increasing polarisation and moral bankruptcy of Indian society or do most Hindus have a hidden streak of bigotry? Indians harbour cherished myths about themselves however delusional or in conflict with reality these are: of being a peaceable people, committed to non-violence, welcoming and tolerant of others and their religious beliefs, and above all, swearing by the ancient philosophy of ‘vasudeva kutumbakum’ (the world is one family).

Ironically, at 71, India is deeply conflicted on who its own family is. As a long pending tortuous citizenship verification exercise in the border state of Assam comes to a close, four million people who have lived there for decades are finding themselves disenfranchised. These are mostly Muslims but also include a few hundred thousand Hindu, tribal and scheduled caste people. Instead of trying to assuage people’s fears, BJP leaders are stirring the pot further by demanding similar exercises in other states.

A mirror has been held up to Indians and the reflection is unsettling if not terrifying. Can they face it?

The writer is a journalist.

by Annie Gowen
The Washington Post
August 27, 2018

Hindu activist Ram Kumar leads a march in honor of India’s Independence Day near Agra. (Ram Kumar)

GOVARDHAN, India — The two young men at the leadership camp were soft-spoken yet assured, from well-off families, wearing aviator sunglasses and flip-flops.

The right-wing activists say they have beaten men they suspected of violating core Hindu beliefs and threatened interfaith couples because they fear Muslims are stealing their women. They say they’re ready to kill for their faith if necessary.

“Even if a life is lost, we don’t care,” said Ram Kumar, 23.

It’s been a summer of rage in India. Dozens have been killed by lynch mobs, and extremist Hindus continue to assault and kill others, many of them Muslims. In the latest viral video, religious pilgrims angered over a minor traffic incident used sticks to demolish a car as police looked on.

Much blame has been cast on India’s governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with critics charging that they have encouraged violence by Hindu extremists. But India’s problem of male rage has roots beyond the strident Hindu nationalism embraced by the current government.

India has more than 600 million people under 25, and they have greater access to technology and education than ever before. Yet millions have little hope of finding decent jobs, and a “bachelor bomb” of more than 37 million surplus men — a legacy of generations of a preference for sons and aborting female fetuses — threatens social stability for decades.

Ram Kumar, left, and Gaurav Sharma at a leadership camp for Hindu activists in Govardhan in June. (Annie Gowen/The Washington Post)

“People are frustrated that they are not being able to get jobs,” a leader from Modi’s party, Vasundhara Raje, told the channel CNN-News18. “There is angst, which is spreading across communities and people. . . . It’s a reaction to their circumstances.”

More than 1 million job seekers enter the labor market each month, many with inadequate job skills, but the country generated only 1.8 million additional jobs last year, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, a research company. Modi says the number of new jobs last year was closer to 7 million.

Without solid prospects, many young men are gravitating to India’s growing right-wing nationalist organizations, where they find a sense of purpose.

Over time, a stereotype of a right-wing troll has emerged — keyboard jockeys with too much time on their hands, sitting in their childhood bedrooms furiously tweeting about every perceived slight to Hinduism and Modi.

This summer, Kumar attended a leadership camp sponsored by the Hindu nationalist World Hindu Council, where he learned to protect cows, which Hindus regard as sacred, protect women’s modesty and prevent outsiders from converting Hindus to other faiths. The youths did military drills in the baking heat, slept in spartan concrete dorm rooms and ate lentils and rice.

Hindu activists do military marching drills at the leadership camp in Govardhan. (Annie Gowen/The Washington Post)

Kumar, a college graduate who runs a tent rental company, and Gaurav Sharma, 22, a law student, grew up in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, which they see not as an ethereal white monument but as a reminder of the Mughal invaders who subjugated India’s Hindus.

Kumar said that as a boy, he was shy. But after joining the Hindu nationalist movement, he said, “I have a strange sense of confidence now. The group has taught us what is right, what we need to do for society.”

Before long, he said, he was out on the streets chasing down and threatening interfaith couples, conducting the moral policing he feels is necessary because Muslim men allegedly seduce girls “as young as 14.” The Hindu activists call it “love jihad.”

Kumar said he also prowls the streets at night, searching for cattle traders who might be illegally smuggling cows for slaughter. Recently, he said, he and five others stopped a truck transporting cows and beat the Muslim driver, who pleaded for his life. The man was saved only by the arrival of the police, Kumar said.

“I was raging,” Kumar said. “If I had a pistol, I would have killed him.”

Sharma said he, too, has participated in assaults, punching one suspected cattle smuggler in the face. Elders have since shown him how to administer a beating without leaving marks on his victim.

“We have been taught to not hit the head and chest — that can be fatal,” he said. “We beat them in such a way so they get these serious, silent injuries — on the backs, on the legs — so they do not die. Otherwise, there will be a case against us.”

Since the BJP came to power in their state, Uttar Pradesh, led by the Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath, they do not fear being held accountable by the authorities.

“Earlier, there was a fear that the government would arrest us, but now with the Yogi government, we don’t have any fear,” Sharma said. “Even if a smuggler is killed during a fight, we don’t have to worry about it.”

He continued, “All these BJP leaders, they’ve said: ‘Do what you want to do about cow protection. Don’t worry. If there is any problem, we are there for you.’ ”

Modi has said that state governments should deal sternly with these “cow vigilantes” and that the government is committed to upholding the law, but other BJP politicians have sent a different message, meeting with or congratulating the alleged killers.
WhatsApp to tackle India's 'sinister' messaging

India’s government said Aug. 21 Whatsapp had pledged to develop tools to combat the kind of fake messaging that has sparked violence across the country. (Reuters)

The young men harbor a deep sense of victimization and spend a lot of time on Hindu-pride-focused WhatsApp groups and alternate-history websites that recount the glories of India’s ancient civilization before the Mughal and British invaders imposed, as Modi puts it, 1,200 years of servitude. Critics say social media is deepening the division between Hindus and Muslims in India that existed before the bloody partition of India in 1947 that created a separate country for Muslims, and ultimately an Islamic republic in Pakistan.

“Our parents never told us anything bad about Muslims. But in madrassas, they learn that Hindus are bad,” Sharma said. “We will tell the next generations how bad these people are.”

Sharma and his peers face stiff competition for careers because they attended schools where classes are taught in Hindi and because they know only a few phrases of English, the lingua franca of aspirational India. Many of their classmates are struggling, selling vegetables or doing menial labor. Thirty classmates joined the military.

Kumar plans on having a traditional family, if only to have babies and “contribute to the population.”

“The Hindu population,” Sharma clarified.

Others in their generation may not get the chance. Demographer Christophe Guilmoto estimates that, because of the gender imbalance, 40 million surplus men in India will remain single between 2020 and 2080.

“There is a saying, ‘Behind every successful man is a woman’? But you don’t need women. You can leave them behind and achieve success in life,” Sharma said. For Sharma, the love of his life married someone else. He said he still regrets that he did not ask his parents for permission to marry her. But nobody in his family had ever had a “love marriage” — always arranged unions.

Now he has made a “final decision,” to the dismay of his parents, to remain single and devote himself to the Hindu nationalist cause — just like his idol, Modi, who, after an early marriage, has long embraced the bachelor lifestyle as a campaigner for Mother India.

Tania Dutta contributed to this report. 

by P. Sainath

India’s agrarian crisis has gone beyond the agrarian..

It’s a crisis of society. Maybe even a civilizational crisis, with perhaps the largest body of small farmers and labourers on earth fighting to save their livelihoods. The agrarian crisis is no longer just a measure of loss of land. Nor only a measure of loss of human life, jobs or productivity. It is a measure of our own loss of humanity. Of the shrinking boundaries of our humaneness. That we have sat by and watched the deepening misery of the dispossessed, including the death by suicide of well over 300,000 farmers these past 20 years. While some – ‘leading economists’ – have mocked the enormous suffering around us, even denying the existence of a crisis.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has not published data on farmers’ suicides for two years now. For some years before that, fraudulent data logged in by major states severely distorted the agency’s estimates. For instance, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal and many others claimed ‘zero suicides’ by farmers in their states. In 2014, 12 states and 6 Union Territories claimed ‘zero suicides’ among their farmers. The 2014  and 2015 NCRB reports saw huge, shameless fiddles in the methodology – aimed at bringing down the numbers.

And yet they keep rising.

Meanwhile, protests by farmers and labourers are on the rise. Farmers have been shot dead – as in Madhya Pradesh. Derided or cheated in agreements, as in Maharashtra. And devastated by demonetisation, as in just about everywhere. Anger and pain are mounting in the countryside. And not just among farmers but amongst labourers who find the MNREGA being dismantled by design. Amongst fisherfolk, forest communities,  artisans, exploited anganwadi workers. Amongst those who send their children to government schools, only to find the state itself killing its own schools. Also, small government employees and transport and public sector workers whose jobs are on the anvil. 

Image removed by sender. Vishwanath Khule, a marginal farmer, lost his entire crop during the drought year. His son, Vishla Khule, consumed a bottle of weedicide that Vishwanath had bought


Vishwanath Khule of Vidarbha’s Akola district, whose son Vishal consumed weedicide. Farmer suicides are mounting, but governments are falsifying numbers

And the crisis of the rural is no longer confined to the rural. Studies suggest an absolute decline in employment in the country between 2013-14 and 2015-16.

The 2011 Census signalled perhaps the greatest distress-driven migrations we’ve seen in independent India. And millions of poor fleeing the collapse of their livelihoods have moved out to other villages, rural towns, urban agglomerations, big cities – in search of jobs that are not there. Census 2011 logs nearly 15 million fewer farmers (‘main cultivators’) than there were in 1991. And you now find many once-proud food-producers working as domestic servants. The poor are now up for exploitation by both urban and rural elites.

The government tries its best not to listen. It’s the same with the news media.

When the media do skim over the issues, they mostly reduce them to demands for a ‘loan waiver.’ In recent days, they’ve recognised the minimum support price (MSP) demand of farmers – the Cost of Production (CoP2) + 50 per cent. But the media don’t challenge the government’s claims of already having implemented this demand. Nor do they mention that the National Commission on Farmers (NCF; popularly known as the Swaminathan Commission) flagged a bunch of other, equally serious issues. Some of the NCF’s reports have remained in Parliament 12 years without discussion. Also the media, while denouncing loan waiver appeals, won’t mention that corporates and businessmen account for the bulk of the non-performing assets drowning the banks.

Perhaps the time has come for a very large, democratic protest, alongside a demand for Parliament to hold a three-week or 21-day special session dedicated entirely to the crisis and related issues. A joint session of both houses.

Image removed by sender. Two women sitting at Azad maidanIn Mumbai, covering their heads with cardboard boxes in the blistering heat.


We can’t resolve the agrarian crisis if we do not engage with the rights and problems of women farmers

On what principles would that session be based? The Indian Constitution. Specifically, the most important of its Directive Principles of State Policy. That chapter speaks of a need to “minimise the inequalities in income” and “endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities, opportunities….”   The principles call for “a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life.”

The right to work, to education, to social security. The raising of the level of nutrition and of public health. The right to a better standard of living. Equal pay for equal work for men and women. Just and humane conditions of work. These are amongst the main principles. The Supreme Court has more than once said the Directive Principles are as important as our Fundamental Rights.

An agenda for the special session? Some suggestions that others concerned by the situation can amend or add to:

3 days: Discussion of the Swaminathan Commission report – 12 years overdue. It submitted five reports between December 2004 and October 2006 that cover a multitude of vital issues and not just MSP. Those include, to name a few: productivity, profitability, sustainability; technology and technology fatigue; dryland farming, price shocks and stabilisation – and much more. We also need to halt the privatisation of agricultural research and technology. And deal with impending ecological disaster.

3 days:  People’s testimonies. Let victims of the crisis speak from the floor of Parliament’s central hall and tell the nation what the crisis is about, what it has done to them and countless millions of others. And it’s not just about farming. But how surging privatisation of health and education has devastated the rural poor, indeed all the poor. Health expenditure is either the fastest or second fastest growing component of rural family debt.

3 days:  Credit crisis. The unrelenting rise of indebtedness. This has been a huge driving factor in the suicide deaths of countless thousands of farmers, apart from devastating millions of others. Often it has meant loss of much or all of their land. Policies on institutional credit paved the way for the return of the moneylender.

3 days:  The country’s mega water crisis. It’s much greater than a drought. This government seems determined to push through privatisation of water in the name of ‘rational pricing’. We need the right to drinking water established as a fundamental human right – and the banning of privatisation of this life-giving resource in any sector. Ensuring social control and equal access, particularly to the landless.

3 days: The rights of women farmers. The agrarian crisis cannot be resolved without engaging with the rights – including those of ownership – and problems of those who do the most work in the fields and farms. While in the Rajya Sabha,  Prof. Swaminathan introduced the Women Farmers’ Entitlements Bill, 2011 (lapsed in 2013) that could still provide a starting point for this debate.

3 days: The rights of landless labourers, both women and men. With mounting distress migrations in many directions, this crisis is no longer just rural. Where it is, any public investment made in agriculture has to factor in their needs, their rights, their perspective.

3 days: Debate on agriculture. What kind of farming do we want 20 years from now? One driven by corporate profit? Or by communities and families for whom it is the basis of their existence?  There are also other forms of ownership and control in agriculture we need to press for – like the vigorous sangha krishi (group farming) efforts of Kerala’s Kudumbashree movement.  And we have to revive the unfinished agenda of land reform. For all of the above debates to be truly meaningful – and this is very important – every one of them must focus, too, on the rights of Adivasi and Dalit farmers and labourers.

While no political party would openly oppose such a session, who will ensure it actually happens? The dispossessed themselves. 

Image removed by sender. Midnight walk to Azad Maidan


The morcha of farmers from Nashik to Mumbai in March has to go national –  not just of farmers and labourers, but also others devastated by the crisis

In March this year, 40,000 peasants and labourers marched for a week from Nashik to Mumbai making some of these very demands.  An arrogant government in Mumbai dismissed the marchers as ‘urban Maoists’ with whom it would not talk. But caved in within hours of the multitude reaching Mumbai to encircle the state legislative assembly. That was the rural poor sorting out their government.

The highly disciplined marchers struck a rare chord in Mumbai. Not just the urban working class, but also the middle classes, even some from the upper middle classes, stepped out in sympathy.

We need to do this at the national level – scaled up 25 times over. A Long March of the Dispossessed – not just of farmers and labourers, but also others devastated by the crisis.. And importantly, those not affected by it – but moved by the misery of fellow human beings. Those standing for justice and democracy. A march starting from everywhere in the country, converging on the capital. No Red Fort rallies, nor skulls at Jantar Mantar. That march should encircle Parliament – compel it to hear, listen and act. Yes, they would Occupy Delhi.

It might take many months to get off the ground, a gargantuan logistical challenge. One that has to be met by the largest and widest coalition possible of farm, labour and other organisations. It will face great hostility from the rulers – and their media – who would seek to undermine it at every stage.

It can be done. Do not underestimate the poor –  it is they, not the chattering classes, who keep democracy alive.

It would be one of the highest forms of democratic protest – a million human beings or more showing up to ensure their representatives perform. As a Bhagat Singh, if alive, might have said of them: they could make the deaf hear, the blind see and the dumb speak. 
Tariq Ali
London Review of Books
Vol. 40 No. 16 · 30 August 2018
pages 13-16

   Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla
    Daunt, 341 pp, £14.99, May, ISBN 978 1 911547 20 4

This is a family biography that encompasses a history rarely told: despite its longevity, caste, and caste oppression, is not a popular theme in India. Sujatha Gidla writes of poisoned lives, of disillusionment, betrayed hopes, unrequited loves, attempted escapes through alcohol and sex. What distinguishes her book is its rich mix of sociology, anthropology, history, literature and politics.

Gidla’s great-grandparents were born in the late 19th century in the Khammam district of what is now Andhra Pradesh. They belonged to a clan of pre-agricultural, forest-based tribal nomads. Hunting and gathering supplied basic necessities; they worshipped their own forest gods. When the occupying British cut down forests and replaced them with teak plantations, the clan was forced out. They found a large lake with no villages nearby and settled on its shores. The soil was rich. They took to agriculture and produced much more rice than they needed. They found a market for the surplus, which meant that they caught the attention of local landlords and their agents: they were forced to pay taxes and dragged into the caste-based Hindu world. As landless agricultural labourers they were the lowest of the low, classed as untouchables, ‘outcastes’. They carried on as normal, until one day they provided shelter, as was their custom, to a fugitive from the Yanadi clan who was on the run from the police. (He was a burglar: the Yanadis rejected all private property rights and it was their ‘sacred duty’ to violate them.) When a few policemen arrived the villagers drove them away. But then Gidla’s clan encountered modernity in the shape of a hundred baton-carrying colonial policemen, who destroyed their goods and food, harassed the women and took every male into custody. ‘The villagers did not know what to do,’ Gidla writes.

    They did not know about jails, bail, courts or lawyers. By luck, some Canadian missionaries active in a nearby town learned what had happened. They sent a white lawyer to defend the villagers and win their release. In gratitude, the villagers started to give up their old goddesses and accept baptism. They began sending their children to attend the schools set up by missionaries.

    Untouchables had long been forbidden from learning to read or write. But when the missionaries arrived, they opened schools that, to the horror of the Hindus, welcomed even the untouchables … caste Hindus often refused to send their children, unwilling to let them sit side by side with untouchable students.

The stigma extended to animals. Gidla’s uncle K.G. Satyamurthy, later one of the founders of the Maoist People’s War Group, was startled at the age of ten to discover that ‘untouchable buffaloes were not allowed to graze in the same meadows as the caste buffaloes.’

Gidla’s maternal grandparents, Prasanna Rao and Maryamma, lived after their marriage in a village called Adavi Kolanu, where they taught in a mission school. But they moved to the city after Maryamma was insulted by some local upper-caste men who had seen her wearing a new sari the missionaries had bought her as a Christmas present. The two groups – untouchables and caste Hindus – had gathered in the village square when a brahmin intervened:

    ‘Kill me first before you kill each other,’ he challenged them. To kill a brahmin is the sin of sins. First the untouchables backed down, then the caste Hindus.

    The nonviolent brahmin then counselled the untouchables to never again try anything that might provoke the caste Hindus. This was the way his idol, Gandhi, always resolved caste disputes.

When they arrived in Visakhapatnam (Vizag in British shorthand), their two sons, Satyamurthy (‘the wise one’), henceforth known to all as Satyam, was five and his brother, William Carey, was two. Their sister, Mary Manjulabai, was born in Vizag. The parents got jobs as teachers in Christian schools and earned enough to rent a modest apartment. The landlord was a caste Hindu and so they lied, claiming they had converted to Christianity from middle-caste Hinduism. The landlord was suspicious, but their status as teachers clinched the deal.

A few years later an orphaned niece of Prasanna Rao’s caught tuberculosis. He brought her home with him from the village and she was admitted to hospital and recovered. But Maryamma caught the infection and died on 5 October 1941. This is what it meant for the children: ‘One afternoon, not long after, their father bathed them and dressed them up in their best clothes. He had them sit on the steps of the school where their mother used to teach. “Just wait here, like good boys and good girl,” he told them. Hours passed, night fell. Their father did not come back.’

Prasanna Rao could not imagine life without Maryamma or deal on his own with the debts he owed for her medical care. He fled. The flight was, in its way, a tribute to the role she had played in the household and a subconscious self-indictment. Years later he returned, but it was too late. They didn’t need him any more. The boys had been taken in by an aunt and the girl had gone to live with her grandmother. Of the boys, Satyam was cleverer, a dreamer whose discovery of modern Telugu verse inspired him to write. Carey was tough, a natural street fighter. The intersection of their lives with British withdrawal from India and the eruption immediately after Independence of a huge peasant uprising in the state of Telangana, which borders Andhra Pradesh, helped shape all their lives. In Telangana, which had its own feudal ruler, ‘every untouchable family in every village had to give up their first male child as soon as he learned to talk and walk. They would bring him to the dora [landlord] to work in his household as a slave until death.’ Other castes suffered too. This wasn’t, as Gidla writes, ‘a traditional system’, but one instituted in the late 19th century to allow the large-scale cultivation of tobacco and cotton. The peasants, aided by the Communist Party, rose up and fought this servitude. By now the brahmins were in power in Delhi. No untouchable or low-caste Hindu harboured many illusions. Some even feared that after the British withdrawal things would get worse for them. They did. The Indian army invaded the city of Hyderabad in Telangana, deposing its rulers, but then turned its guns on the peasants, detaining, torturing and raping thousands and evicting them from the land. The more progressive elements in the Congress Party may have believed that with industrialisation and modernisation the problem of caste would solve itself. It never did. Capitalism itself may be caste, colour and gender-blind but the dominant classes utilise these divisions to preserve their own rule. As Gidla recounts, the 1928 general strike in Bombay was defeated thanks in part to caste divisions within the workers’ movement. This isn’t the only example.

Christianity could not provide social upward mobility, but it ensured that Satyam and his siblings received a proper education, despite taunts from caste Hindus. Because they were educated, Gidla’s relatives could get jobs in Christian schools and hospitals. But a brown-skinned Christian was still treated very differently from a white-skinned one, and brahmin converts to the imperial religion refused to marry untouchable Christians. Conversion didn’t erase the stigma of untouchability. As a teenager, Satyam was hostile to Nehru and Gandhi – he saw them as products of British rule and tied to it in too many ways – but sympathetic to the militant, secular nationalism of Subhas Chandra Bose. From here, Satyam moved the short distance to the Communist Party, inspired by the accounts that student CP members gave him of the Telangana peasants’ struggle. Until a few years before his death in 2012, Satyam was engaged in the peasant resistance in Andhra Pradesh. After the Communist Party split in 1967 he became involved in the Naxalite, Maoist wing of the party, backing an armed revolt. After its failure, and the killing of many Naxalite leaders, he cofounded the People’s War Group, which Gidla describes as the ‘most notorious, famous and successful Naxalite party, a thorn in the side of the Indian rulers’. He was eventually expelled from it after complaining about the party’s treatment of untouchables. ‘Talk of caste feeling within the party had always been taboo,’ Gidla writes, but young untouchables were beginning to see it as a political issue. They told Satyam that ‘when they joined, they were not given a gun. Instead, they were handed a broom and told to sweep the floors.’ For a long time, too long, he’d preferred to believe that caste prejudice was false consciousness and would disappear in time. It never had. Even in the People’s War Group, members of the barber caste shaved their comrades, washer-caste members washed the clothes and the untouchables ‘were made to sweep and mop the floors and clean the lavatories’. This was life in a revolutionary group committed to an armed struggle to liberate the poor.
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Satyam can’t have been too surprised by this. He had suffered many insults from upper-caste members of the party, some of whom would leave money in the lavatory in order to see if he pocketed it. Feeling that the question of caste had now reached a new stage (there had been massacres of untouchables and angry responses), he confronted his comrades on the Central Committee. Their response was ‘swift and ruthless. He was expelled on the spot for “conspiring to divide the party”.’ The news of his expulsion became public when Gidla’s mother wrote a letter to a newspaper explaining what lay behind it. That was when most people found out that the founder of the People’s War Group, whom they knew as a revolutionary and a poet, publishing under the pseudonym Siva Sagar, was also an untouchable.


Gidla, born in appalling conditions in an untouchable ghetto in the city of Kazipet in Telangana, now works as a conductor on the New York subway (she lost her job as a software programmer in a bank after the 2008 financial crash). Her experiences in the United States pushed her to write this book, an attempt to explain to her new friends and colleagues the difference between caste and race. Race is visible. Caste is a hierarchy established more than 2500 years ago. ‘What comes by birth and can’t be cast off by dying – that is caste,’ Arundhati Roy describes it in an essay introducing B.R. Ambedkar’s 1930s classic, The Annihilation of Caste:

    What we call the caste system today is known in Hinduism’s founding texts as varnashrama dharma or chaturvarna, the system of four varnas. The approximately four thousand endogamous castes and sub-castes (jatis) in Hindu society, each with its own specified hereditary occupation, are divided into four varnas – Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (soldiers), Vaishyas (traders) and Shudras (servants). Outside of these varnas are the avarna castes, the Ati-Shudras, subhumans, arranged in hierarchies of their own – the Untouchables, the Unseeables, the Unapproachables – whose presence, whose touch, whose very shadow is considered to be polluting by privileged-caste Hindus … Each region of India has lovingly perfected its own unique version of caste-based cruelty, based on an unwritten code that is much worse than the Jim Crow laws.

Unsurprisingly, Gidla’s tone in her portrait of everyday social and political life in India over the late 19th and 20th centuries is defiant, sometimes angry: Gandhi is portrayed as a hypocrite, Nehru as a conscienceless Kashmiri brahmin who was happy to send troops to crush the Telangana peasant uprising and remained unaffected by the resulting thousands of deaths. Unlike his many apologists, Gandhi never concealed his views on the caste system. He was opposed to treating untouchables badly, but defended the system itself: ‘I am one of those who do not consider caste to be a harmful institution,’ he wrote in the journal Young India in 1920. ‘In its origin, caste was a wholesome custom and promoted national wellbeing. In my opinion, the idea that inter-dining or intermarrying is necessary for national growth is a superstition borrowed from the West.’

Contrary to the radical slogans of the late 1940s, India’s wasn’t a ‘fake independence’. Self-rule was achieved at a high price and it meant something, but it incorporated many colonial practices. The new masters benefited, but for the untouchables, tribals and others conditions remained the same or got worse. According to recent estimates by India’s National Crime Records Bureau, every 16 minutes a crime is committed by caste Hindus against an untouchable – or Dalit, as they prefer to be called. The figures are horrific: every month 52 Dalits are killed and six kidnapped; every week almost thirty Dalit women are raped by caste Hindus. This will be a serious underestimate. Most victims of caste violence don’t report the crime for fear of reprisals, notably death by burning.

In 2012 the Indian and Western media extensively covered the gang rape and murder of a single woman in Delhi, largely because students and feminist groups had protested on the streets and made it an issue; that same year 1574 Dalit women were raped and 651 Dalits murdered. Add to this the regular mob punishment of Dalit and low-caste women: they are forcibly stripped then paraded through villages to humiliate them further. Politically a democracy, constitutionally secular, India has, since 1947, been a caste Hindu dictatorship. During the run-up to independence, B.R. Ambedkar pinpointed the futility of ‘rights’: ‘If the fundamental rights are opposed by the community, no law, no parliament, no judiciary can guarantee them in the real sense of the word … What is the use of fundamental rights to the Negro in America, to the Jews in Germany and to the Untouchables in India?’ He also advised the leader of the Muslim League, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, not to place any trust in the brahmin-dominated Congress and to fight hard for a Muslim state. Ambedkar considered demanding a separate status for untouchables, slicing them away from Hinduism. This would have given them separate electoral representation as was the case with Muslims and other minorities. Gandhi talked him out of this by flattery, and by arguing that since Ambedkar would be drafting the new Indian constitution he could write in all the safeguards he wanted. This did happen, but had little impact. ‘Implement the Constitution’ remains a Dalit demand to this day.

In the post-independence period, the political choice was essentially limited to Congress or the main opposition force, the Communist Party of India. Gidla recounts what life was like for those below the lowest rung of the caste ladder and for local communists during Congress rule. The Dalits were left to rot, while the communists were targeted by Congress goon squads. Nehru visited Andhra Pradesh before the first post-independence election at the end of 1951, intending to drag middle and low-caste Hindus back to the Congress fold. He was seriously worried, wrongly as it turned out, that the CPI might win the province. They had, after all, led the Telangana peasant revolt that had inspired and radicalised Satyam and many others and that Nehru had crushed.

The evolution of caste in India remains a subject of heated debate. In its earliest forms it must have been in existence at least 2500 years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) began a reform movement to purge the brahminical religion of its impurities. The hierarchical caste system was a principal target. After he failed his followers were driven out of India to Sri Lanka and further east. The untouchables, pushed out of the officially designated caste system, remained silent. There isn’t a single recorded account of a Dalit rebellion. The repression was systemic: worse and more effective than that imposed by slavery and making it unnecessary. Three medieval mystic poets spoke for them. In the 15th century, Ravidas, a tanner (hence low-caste), imagined Be-gham-pura, the city without sorrow, a place without caste segregation, ‘where there is no affliction or suffering, neither anxiety, nor fear, taxes nor capital, no menace, no terror, no humiliation. One who shares with me that city is my friend.’ Kabir, a weaver, writing in the same period, was more aggressive. His poems (badly translated into English by Rabindranath Tagore) are still sung in many parts of India. One of them, not a Tagore translation, reads:

    Cow dung’s impure
    the bathing-square is impure
    even its curves are impure
    Kabir says: Only they are pure
    Who’ve completely cleansed their minds.

A century and a half later, the Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah lamented, ‘Come Bulleha, let us go/to the land where all are blind/where none can recognise our caste/or a sage in me find,’ and later speaks on behalf of an untouchable cleaner:

    I’m a sweeperess,
    I’m untouchable,
    They avoid me,
    I don’t care.
    My pay after a long day’s work?
    A stone pillow and what you leave behind.
    My life?
    Cold and sickness and scorn
    Empty stomach,
    Clothes always torn.
    The straws of my broom are all I own.
    I’m a sweeperess.

These poems are still sung at rural concerts, especially those marking the anniversaries of the poets’ deaths. It’s difficult to believe (and I don’t) that the oral culture of the Dalits did not produce laments and vicious anti-brahmin songs and satires or jokes. Some of these must survive. But in Satyam’s era poets and short-story writers didn’t write about caste: it was considered divisive. Muslim progressives ignored the theme, as did many leftist intellectuals of Hindu and Sikh origin. The publication of two books within months of each other during the 1930s was the first sign of some movement on this issue. The first was a novel by Mulk Raj Anand, Untouchable, a social-realist depiction of the Dalit condition. The second was Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, the transcript of a speech he was not allowed to read at a conference of anti-caste Hindu reformers in Lahore in 1936: the text was too much for the organisers and the event was cancelled. In his collection Vindication of Caste, Gandhi wrote that while the ban had been a misjudgment, Ambedkar’s ‘utopian’ hostility to Hinduism was unacceptable.


I met Anand for the only time in 1965 at the World Peace Conference in Helsinki. He was born in Peshawar, but Lahore – where I grew up – had been his favourite city, though he had not returned there since Partition. After discussing family friends we had in common, he asked whether I’d read any of his novels. I had, all of them. My favourite was Untouchable. He smiled. ‘That one will last as long as untouchability. Eternal.’ He had read Ambedkar’s essays and journalism and met the man himself. The extract below is a fictionalised version of a real event. Ambedkar’s father worked for the British Indian Army, but even in army schools, untouchable children were not permitted to study in the same classroom as other Indian children. They sat outside in the heat of the dusty courtyard. Anand offers a memorable account:

    The outcastes were not allowed to mount the platform surrounding the well, because if they were ever to draw water from it, the Hindus of the three upper castes would consider the water polluted. Nor were they allowed access to the nearby brook as their use of it would contaminate the stream. They had no well of their own because it cost at least a thousand rupees … Perforce they had to collect at the foot of the caste Hindus’ well and depend on the bounty of some of their superiors to pour water into their pitchers … So the outcastes had to wait for chance to bring some caste Hindu to the well, for luck to decide that he was kind, for Fate to ordain that he had time to get their pitchers filled with water. They crowded round the well, congested the space below its high brick platform, morning, noon and night, joining their hands with servile humility to every passer-by, cursing their fate and bemoaning their lot if they were refused the help they wanted.

Anand asked me many questions about northern Pakistan. We shared a love of what was then a tiny hill station called Nathiagali that served as the summer capital of the North-West Frontier Province, usually administered from Peshawar. I told him of my first encounter with the Christian untouchables there. There was no sewage system, and excrement was collected from wooden thunder-boxes by these Christians three times a day. We went to Nathiagali for two months every summer and I got to know some of them reasonably well. In June 1962 all the other local council workers were given a pay rise, but not the shit-collectors. They were despondent. I asked their leader, Abdul, the reason. He said they had not received a pay rise the year before either, unlike everyone else. I suggested a strike. ‘Listen,’ I said to him. ‘Most of the people whose toilets you clean are senior civil servants, government ministers and the like. Let them smell their own shit for two days. You’ll win.’ The strike was a huge success. Within 48 hours they got a backdated pay rise. Anand laughed. ‘If only it was so easy all the time.’

The far-right BJP government led by Narendra Modi deliberately misinterprets and distorts India’s ancient history to justify its cultural offensive against Islam and other minorities, aiming to create a monolithic Hindu narrative and an official Hinduism. School textbooks, university education, what is and what should not be stocked in public libraries are policed. The Hindu epics, long read and appreciated as literature, are now being characterised as history. When asked to explain the elephant god, Modi responded: ‘We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.’ The new monolithism confronts a giant obstacle in the shape of the caste system. Last month, at a huge gathering of the party faithful in Meerut, Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of the RSS – effectively the BJP’s parent organisation, a movement influenced by European fascism that was founded in 1925 to preach the superiority of Hinduism – stressed the importance of Hindu unity:

    Say with pride that you are a Hindu. As Hindus, we have to unite because the responsibility of this country is upon us … The roadblock to being united is that we are fighting on the lines of caste. We have to say that all Hindus are brothers irrespective of their community. Those who believe in Bharat Mata, her culture, and are progeny of India’s forefathers are Hindus. There are Hindus in this country who do not know they are Hindus.

Here, Bhagwat is referring to those whose forebears converted to Islam many centuries ago.

The message that all Hindus are brothers hasn’t percolated very far. Rohith Chakravarti Vemula, a PhD student at Hyderabad University, was the author of a well-regarded book called Caste Is Not a Rumour. He was active in the university’s Ambedkar Students’ Association, formed by untouchable students in 1993. In July 2015 the university authorities abruptly suspended him. It emerged that an investigation had taken place and he had been found guilty of ‘raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association’. Punished for defending Dalit students against caste Hindus he felt completely isolated and committed suicide on 17 January 2016.

The BJP/RSS veneration of the epics is another huge obstacle to unity: they easily outpace the Old Testament and the Quran as far as gender oppression is concerned. The ‘self-immolation’ of caste Hindu widows was ordained by brahmin patriarchy. A number of poems praise the ‘sacrifice’ of a woman ‘voluntarily’ climbing onto her husband’s funeral pyre. The British made it illegal in 1829, but widow remarriage has continued to be regarded as unacceptable by caste Hindus. Attempts by some BJP supporters to revive the burning of widows haven’t succeeded, yet dowry deaths, where parents, desperate for dosh, marry their son for a large dowry and at the first opportunity set the young wife on fire, with her mother-in-law playing an active role in the process, do still occur, even if they aren’t much written about these days.

How the BJP will create a single Hinduism without abolishing the caste system is unclear, but the BJP should not be underestimated. In 1989 it formed an alliance with socialists and the CPI(M) which, its key organiser claimed, ‘increased our legitimacy in the eyes of backward communities’. Simultaneously, the party claimed to represent Hindus ‘hurt’ by the 1981 Meenakshipuran conversion, when several hundred Dalits publicly converted to Islam. The aim of winning the support of Dalits and low-caste Hindus wasn’t supported by senior brahmins in the BJP leadership, who were publicly critical of the ‘social engineering’ envisaged by their opponents. The uppercaste Hindus won the day, but the BJP suffered badly in subsequent elections, failing to win Uttar Pradesh (the most important state in the country) in 2007, 2009 and 2012. Enter stage further right, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the current BJP party president. The upper-caste rebels were sidelined and Shah renewed the appeal to lower castes and Dalits by setting up social programmes and opening schools, health clinics and so on. The model here was the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its commitment to provide to the poor what they were denied by the state. A decade earlier, when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, he had effectively justified the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims in 2002. Many thought this would finish him off as a politician, but his support of the rioters was used by Amit Shah to make him seem a plausible national leader. In 2017 the BJP won a huge majority in Uttar Pradesh and a spectacular victory in the Indian parliament. For the first time in thirty years, a single party had triumphed. No need for coalitions. The Congress Party, incapable of dumping a dynasty long past its sell-by date, is in a severe crisis. The CPI(M) has not been the same since it lost its stranglehold in West Bengal, though with at least half a million members nationally it remains in a strong position to challenge the BJP. But this will require it to dump the bankrupt strategy of forming indiscriminate electoral alliances in the hope of defeating the main enemy. Few believe this will happen.

Satyam would be horrified by the number of Dalits voting for the BJP. He decided to work in the countryside not simply out of Maoist convictions. He used to explain that two-thirds of the population is rural and a quarter landless, a majority of them not Dalits. A firm believer in cross-caste alliances of the poor, he argued for the creation of new movements and parties to embody this reality. His niece’s book shows how much such change is needed.

By Ian Williams
Inter Press Service

Ian Williams is a former President of the UN Correspondents’ Association (UNCA) and author of UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War

Secretary-General Kofi Annan (centre) addresses a Security Council Meeting on Iraq. 07 June 2004. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 27 2018 (IPS) - Looking at the deserved outpouring of eulogies over Kofi Annan I could not help remembering the advice of the old Latin saying, “Say nothing about the dead unless it’s good.”  

But one can’t help wishing that there had been more support of Kofi Annan when he was alive, not least when the Murdoch media Faux News fabricators persecuted him with the spurious Oil For Food scandal.

It was one of the greatest Fake News concoctions in history, almost up there with Iraqi WMDs, perhaps unsurprisingly since many of the sources for both were the same based on alleged UN corruption in the program that delivered food to Iraqi civilians in the face of US insistence on maintaining sanctions against the Iraqi regime.

They knew what they were doing: it was not just an individual they were slandering. Kofi Annan epitomized several facets of the role of a UN Secretary General, but none better than being an inspiring public face for the organization whose manifested dignity and integrity helped mitigate the sad reality of a body often hamstrung by the self-seeking sordid squabbles of its member states.

The attack was both an attempt to punish him for his temerity in saying that the Iraq war was illegal, and to challenge the prestige of the UN and the whole concept of international order.

The onslaught was all the heavier because they sought to demolish the reputation of someone who was the archetypal nice guy, who would have made a good electoral candidate. He remembered families and people, greeted everyone of all ranks affably and kept his cool.

The attack was both an attempt to punish him for his temerity in saying that the Iraq war was illegal, and to challenge the prestige of the UN and the whole concept of international order.

The only time I saw him lose his temper was when he reprimanded the juvenile behavior one of the Murdoch press corps who was baiting him about trivia associated with the Oil For Food scandal. Some of the correspondents were shocked that when this animal was attacked he fought back. Others welcomed the well-merited comeuppance.

His original election had come about against the background of the Balkan Wars and it must be remembered that it was the result of an American veto against the reappointment of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who suffered from a bipartisan alliance of Madeleine Albright and Republican Senator Jesse Helms, who were both incensed by the Secretary General’s refusal to bow to Washington.

Of course, that made Kofi Annan the American candidate, subject to some suspicion from other nations, and indeed his ideas of world governance and policy were not too far from the stated principles of the Clinton administration. However, as he was well aware, because an administration declared lofty ideals did not necessarily mean they would implement them in practice, and even more often they would  he was alive.

Boutros-Ghali was also posthumously the subject of eulogies from many who stayed silent when he was under attack, since he confronted the same quandary as Annan: how to cope with a US that wanted to treat the UN as, not just an instrument of foreign policy, but as a foil in domestic politics.

The White House wanted to make reassuring liberal noises about stopping atrocities to one wing of American politics, while promising the isolationist wing that it would trim spending on the UN and would not risk American lives to implement policies that the US supported.

At the time of Rwanda, that entailed a Presidential Directive from Clinton that was in essence more isolationist than anything most of the Republicans could dream up: that the US would veto any peacekeeping operation that did not directly benefit US foreign policy objective, which did not at the time seem to include the prevention of genocide, as untold thousands of Bosniaks and Rwandans discovered

It was at first unsure whether Kofi Annan’s years of service in the UN were an asset or a disadvantage, but it became clear how useful they were, since he knew just how the organization worked and was all too aware of the competing pressures on UN staff, not least the political pressures.

And among those pressures was the major one: how to accommodate the US, which was essential for the effective functioning of the organization, while preventing the organization from becoming a mere instrument of US policies often opposed by most of the members.

He was no mob orator. He was not cut out for the bully pulpit or the soapbox. When he was first elected, his advisors pushed him into being coached for public speaking but gave up and people realized that his quiet authority was in some ways more effective than soaring rhetoric and inspired but content-free demagoguery. People had to strain to listen to him – and they did, because what he had to say was worth listening to.

His statements were carefully weighed  before delivery and designedly non-provocative. They aspired to higher things, but they were definitive and authoritative, and usually soundly based both in ethics and his own pragmatic sense of what was possible. He was an accomplished tightrope walker, even he was wobbling by the end, since while most of the member states recognized the competing imperatives. American administrations, of all complexions have a notorious lack of empathy for other agendas beyond the re-election of the President.

People sometimes say that he was not outspoken enough, not loud enough, but that was actually a strength. When he spoke, it was not just a trite soundbite, he said what had to be said even it was sometimes unpopular.

When he came back from negotiating with Saddam Hussein and said it was a testament to the efficacy of diplomacy, not enough people listened to his corollary – when backed with the threat of force.

His other breakthrough was teamwork. He had risen through the UN ranks without acquiring the pompous self-importance of many promoted above their capabilities and assembled an articulate and confident team who could push out the envelope on events and say what needed to be said, without implicating him directly.

One of his landmark changes to UN culture was to open up a degree of transparency: Before only designated spokespeople were allowed to talk to the media but he mandated staff to respond to journalists’ enquiries as long as they did not purport to represent the organization’s views.

That posture of dignity allowed him to steer the landmark Responsibility to Protect resolution through the sixtieth anniversary summit and it is still a landmark even if many of those who did not have the political courage to oppose him and it at the Summit have done so much to frustrate it since. It allowed him to rally support for an ambitions world development agenda backed by a wide spectrum of disparate constituencies.

All idols have feet of clay, but for some the mud goes much higher than others. No one is perfect, high office demands compromises for practical achievements to win allies and majorities. But in office, on development goals, poverty, human rights, gender equality, Rwanda, Cyprus and many other issues, he advanced the UN agenda even as he rewrote it.

After leaving the UN he continued to do so, with the Elders and his own foundation. He was no mere bureaucrat, he was not after the big desk and the title, he wanted to contribute to the world and thought the SG’s office was the best place to do so.

His legacy  will survives for sometime, but one must wonder how he would have coped with the present President who unlike Clinton is unable to betray his principles, since he does not seem to have any.

But it is perhaps not too late for the present Secretary General to study and emulate Kofi’s tradition of quietly but prominently presenting himself on behalf of the organization, and the team work that made it possible.

Ian Williams is also a senior analyst who has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, including the Australian, The Independent, New York Observer, The Financial Times and The Guardian.

The National
August 26, 2018

Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provide highly effective mechanisms for fanning the flames of antagonism, spreading toxic ideas and fuelling hate crimes, writes Justin Thomas

Police reported a 500 per cent spike in hate crime in the city in the immediate aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017. Oli Scraff / AFP

Hate is the ugliest four-letter word in the English language. This complex blend of noxious perception and destructive emotions can drive us to do the cruellest things imaginable. Hate and its close cousin indifference are key factors in assault, homicide and genocide. Tragically hate – or at least, hate crimes – appear to be on the rise.

A hate crime is an offence motivated by hostility towards a person based on any aspect of their identity, whether it is their gender, disability, race, ethnicity, religion or lifestyle. Many of us occasionally engage in unhealthily categorising our social worlds into them and us; hate crimes are always perpetrated against “them”, the despicable other.

After the Brexit vote in the UK, for example, there was a massive increase in racially aggravated public disorder offences in the UK. The National Police Chiefs Council reported that hate crimes rose nearly 500 per cent in the first week after a Brexit campaign which focused heavily on immigration. But even before Brexit, hate crimes in the UK had already been rising steadily since 2012.

A recent research study, reported in The National last week, explored the relationship between social media and the incidence of hate crimes against refugees in Germany. researchers studied more than 3,000 hate crimes and the factors present in each circumstance. The team from the University of Warwick in the UK found that towns and cities with a higher-than-average Facebook use corresponded with more attacks on refugees. Social media, they discovered, could facilitate the transformation of online hate speech into real life incidents.

Our capacity to hate is primordial but in an information age, the vintage bottle of hatred has found a disturbingly effective new cork: social media. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provide highly effective mechanisms for fanning the flames of hatred and spreading toxic ideas.

One element of social media that might contribute to the rise in hate crimes is the tendency for social media to polarise opinions. Decades of research in social psychology have shown that talking to like-minded people – those who share our views about a hot topic – tends to lead to us all adopting a more extreme stance than the one we began with, whether that is mild irritation becoming dislike and dislike morphing into hate, a phenomenon known as group polarisation.

When we talk to like-minded people, we tend to say “yes and” rather than “yes but”. We throw petrol on each other's bonfires until the whole forest is ablaze. Social media allows us to isolate ourselves from the ugly dissenting other and surround ourselves with people who sound just like us. The echo chamber can be good, bad or ugly and if it’s hateful, it’s likely to become even more so with time and further discussion.

Another aspect of social media that might be contributing to the rise of hate is known to social psychologists as toxic disinhibition. This concept describes the elements required to bring the worst out in people. For example, perceiving that we are anonymous or, at least, hard to identify, seems to help unleash our crueller side. In a classic psychology experiment, participants given the cloak of anonymity tended to administer harsher punishments to strangers than to their nametag wearing counterparts.

Another aspect of toxic disinhibition is known as deindividuation, a loss of self-awareness by perceiving ourselves as being part of a larger group. Deindividuation allows us to do things we might never do when acting alone.

For example, when one motorist honks at a hesitant driver, the following honks from other drivers further back in the queue tend to be far louder, longer and more aggressive. The hard evidence of deindividuation in hate crimes comes from the study of lynching in the US. The findings from such research show that the larger the lynch mob, the more gruesome the atrocity and the higher the likelihood that the lynching will also include mutilation.

When people are publicly humiliated on social media, the dynamics are very similar. The hurtfulness of the comments directed at the victim tends to intensify with the volume of the online mob.

Social media is not new any more. Its dangers are evident and many nations are already considering legislation to help curtail things like online hate speech.

New laws in Germany have led to the social media site Facebook deleting hundreds of incendiary posts since the law was launched earlier this year.

However, beyond deleting offensive posts, there needs to be further consideration given to punishing those guilty of online hate speech. In addition to greater regulation, we also need to raise societal levels of psychological literacy so we can better understand how groups, virtual or otherwise, shape our thinking, feelings and actions.

Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University

Longreads - 29 August 2018

My Soviet husband said we’d need 24-hour day care for any children we might have. Many years and the fall of an empire later, I finally realized why he said it.

Laura Esther Wolfson | An essay from the collection For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors | University of Iowa Press |  June 2018 | 10 minutes (2,516 words)

When I was a very young woman, I spent many months working and traveling in the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War would soon take many people by surprise. I was far from my mother and from everyone else who mattered. In the Soviet hinterlands, I met a woman I’ll call Nadezhda. She treated me like a daughter. She had none of her own. She clearly wished she did.

Reader, I married her son.


There was more to it than that, of course. I met the son first, and, in the usual way, he brought me home to meet his parents. And the son was actually delightful. When he spoke, he grew irresistible. Small children (there were many in his extended family) were especially susceptible to his charms. They would wrap themselves around his legs when he stood up from a chair to keep him from leaving.

Those months spent in another language, an experience both freeing and confining, the tectonic historical shifts I witnessed at close range — these things changed me. That the changes might fade with time was unthinkable. I needed a way to bring it all back home.

I was too big to wrap myself around his legs the way the children did.


I hopped over to the States to take care of some personal business, then circled back to Nadezhda, her son, and the rest of the family in those hinterlands I mentioned, which were in Soviet Georgia. Nadezhda had just become a grandmother by her other son, who was the younger by four years. The household now consisted of Nadezhda and her husband, the baby and its parents, the older son (my intended) and me.

Julia, the baby’s mother, complained to me about what I could see for myself: the family did not welcome her. The pregnancy had been an accident, their second. I say their second, but both mistakes were of course seen as entirely hers.

    When we have our child, your mother will not come over here to raise it. We’ll raise our own child.

This time, the second time, Julia had headed over to see the family straight from the obstetrician’s office. Nadezhda told me this part; it happened before I came to stay. Her coat still on, Julia made her announcement: the doctor had said that a second abortion would forever disable her for childbearing. If she didn’t have this child, she would never have one.

A wedding was cobbled together, with a dress, a white one, a popular model that was designed to conceal and to be let out as the big day approached.

That Julia had no father and a minimum of education only bolstered the family’s view of her as a climber. It did not aid her case when, a few years on, late one night after a glass too many, or perhaps more, her mother let slip that the story about the irrevocable damage a second abortion would cause was something the two of them had cooked up together, without input from any specialist.

By then, of course, there was no going back. Is there ever?


None of this had any direct bearing on me. I flew in, as I always did back then, with enough birth control and other stuff — dental floss, contact lens solution — for my sojourn, a suitcase full of extra everything, just in case.

We planned to settle in the States, Nadezhda’s older son and I, so late one afternoon, I repacked the suitcase (its contents now much diminished) for the trip to the West. Julia, in her uniform of bathrobe and slippers, leaned against the doorframe, watching. The baby was lodged on her hip; everyone else was out.

Her eyes locked onto a flattish, flesh-colored plastic box among the things strewn across the bed.

“Can you leave that with me?” she blurted, pointing to it. “You can get another one when you get back to America, can’t you?”

Diaphragms were a rarity in the Soviet Union. And when they were available, they were not fitted by a doctor in the privacy of a medical office. Indeed, in a bare Soviet pharmacy I had once seen a diaphragm for sale — huge, like a baby bonnet — in a locked vitrine, unpackaged, exposed.

Julia seemed oddly familiar with the little box and oddly aware of what was concealed within it.

“It might not be your size,” I said.

Her gaze did not waver from the object on the bed.

I was reduced to stating the obvious: “It’s used.”

Even as I spoke, I knew that none of this mattered; in the USSR in 1991, cast-off birth control was the best most women could hope for. To refuse her request would be mean-spirited.

“I’ll boil it in the big soup pot,” Julia said, with a nod toward the kitchen. “To sterilize it.” She placed the child on the bed and it rapidly dozed off.

I dove into the suitcase after the remaining, unopened tubes of spermicide and, what the hell, while I was down there, I also found the white plastic refill plunger that screwed onto the tip of the tube; it was for inserting extra spermicide when you felt like going at it a second time, or a third — she could toss that into the soup pot too. I explained how all the items functioned together and how to grip the diaphragm so that it slid toward and then into, rather than becoming airborne, which might lead to a stain on our mother-in-law’s fancy wallpaper.

Julia never had another child. Perhaps she actually used the diaphragm, and perhaps it actually worked. On the other hand, she could have had a dozen abortions, and I would never have known. (Nadezhda’s best friend, a schoolteacher like her, married to a man who didn’t like condoms — isn’t that redundant? — had had thirty. That was enough unborn children, she noted sadly, to fill every seat in her classroom.)

I say that I would never have known because although Julia and I married into the same family, we would eventually lose touch. Sometimes I get updates from Nadezhda, who hears about Julia from the grandchild, now grown. That’s how I know she stopped at one.


During my stay, I watched Nadezhda steadily amassing maternal rights as Julia’s dwindled proportionately. Nadezhda was very skilled at childcare and loving. She warmed bottles. She changed the diapers and washed them out by hand. She rocked the baby and sang lullabies. The child couldn’t have asked for a better mother than her grandmother.

Julia withdrew. She stopped caring for her own child. No way could she compete. She was the wet nurse, nothing more, and that petered out soon enough.

A few years later, Julia and her husband moved into their own apartment. Nadezhda reported on the phone that the little girl categorically refused to go with her parents. She’s staying here with us, she added, sounding pleased.

After we got off the phone, I said, “When we have our child, your mother will not come over here to raise it. We’ll raise our own child.”

My words were met with silence.


Good Lord, if I’d been that child, I’d have chosen Nadezhda, too. And Nadezhda still needed to sate her daughter-hunger, so it was an ideal match. Kind of. When the child got older, Nadezhda took her to school and picked her up each day and made friends with the other mothers. The child visited her parents a few weekends a month until they split.


The person who was supposed to be in charge had not been seen for some time. A group of aged functionaries announced that he would be replaced, owing to concerns about his health. Swan Lake was aired, over and over. The people understood what this meant.

A few months later, fifteen big-bellied men sat around a table, signing papers. At one minute to midnight on the last night of the year, the hammer-and-sickle flag came down. Pundits declared the breakup bloodless and deemed that a miracle. There was, they said, no historical precedent.

Women flooded across the border: Russian, Ukrainian, Moldovan, Georgian, and so on, heading to jobs in Cyprus, Germany, Israel, Dubai. They would send money home. Opportunities included babysitting, waitressing, and modeling, according to the agencies that placed them. Agencies that were run, for the most part, by burly men with Albanian passports.

We housesat, the husband and I; we sublet; we rented. We were students; we were employed; we were unemployed; we were underemployed; we were self-employed. With the passage of years, we stayed in larger and larger places.

    We had good jobs and a large apartment. Exactly what did we still need to do? Buy a crib? Diapers? Just what was missing?

Dignitaries met. Friendship was declared. Memoranda of understanding were signed. Commitments were made. Nuclear missiles would be dismantled, their components stored somewhere safe.

My knowledge of Russian was in demand. I traveled a lot, mostly within the United States, accompanying visiting dignitaries; sometimes to Russia, Ukraine, or Kazakhstan. Interpreters and translators of Russian had full employment, for a time.

A few people grew extremely rich. Most slid into poverty. A middle class emerged. Those who could now afford nice things were very pleased. Some people vacationed on islands in the Indian Ocean.

There was war in Ossetia. There was war in Abkhazia. There were wars in Chechnya. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was put on hold. The war in Transdniester was put on hold. The war in Tajikistan came to an end. There were probably other wars that didn’t make the news.


Children? I kept on asking.

We were past thirty. Six years we’d been married. We had good jobs and a large apartment. Exactly what did we still need to do? Buy a crib? Diapers? Just what was missing?

The last time I asked, he said, “We would need to put it in twenty-four-hour day care.”

This was puzzling on several counts. Why have a child if we weren’t going to raise it ourselves? Why place it in an institution? And what on earth was twenty-four-hour day care?

I asked the last question first.

“Twenty-four-hour day care?” I repeated, trying to keep my voice steady. “Would that be seven days a week?”

“We could take it out on weekends, if we felt like it,” he answered.

“They probably don’t accept newborns,” I said hopefully.

“We’d have to look into it,” he said. “When the time comes.”


Many years later, deep into another marriage, I’m visiting my friend Katya in Philadelphia, where I lived at one time. Had she ever heard of twenty-four-hour day care, I ask, back when she was growing up in the USSR?

“Yes, I think so,” she says, furrowing her brow in an effort to recall. “I believe it was for single mothers working as train conductors. So they would have a place to leave their children when they had to make long trips for work. You know, if there were no relatives nearby to help.”

For single mothers working as train conductors. Leave it to the Soviets to make sure that particular corner of the social safety net did not get frayed. But I wasn’t a train conductor; nor was I single; nor did we live in the Soviet Union.


Nadezhda keeps on writing.

When her son and I separated, she lived in Russia still. She and I talked on the phone twice a year: on her birthday, which falls in January, and on mine, in August. Then, about a decade after the divorce, she broke the pattern, contacting me in the month of March to tell me, in the first email I’d ever received from her, that her son was bringing her and my ex-father-in-law over to the US to live. I had trouble imagining them here permanently — in fact, I could not fathom it. They had seemed so rooted where they were. But I toggled over from the Latin alphabet to Cyrillic and wrote, “I’m happy that the two of you will be close by.”

“The decision to leave cannot have been easy,” I continued, struggling over and over to hit the right key. “I’ll help you adjust to life here in any way I can.” I included all of my phone numbers: home, office, cell. I said other things too, but this is what I remember now.

We read what you wrote us and we wept, she replied.


For months, I heard nothing more. I concluded that they weren’t coming.

On the night of my birthday, just before sleep rolled in, I noted that Nadezhda had missed the day: for the first time in many years, she hadn’t called.

In the morning, a birthday email was waiting, sent off at 11:59 p.m.

“We’ve been in Philadelphia for three months,” she wrote. They were living with her son, his new wife, and their baby.

The time stamp told me that she’d struggled with her conscience all day before finally resolving to write. That they’d been here for three months before I received word of their presence told me that something had prevented her from writing sooner. Whatever it was, she vanquished it, because soon we were corresponding regularly. But there were no phone calls.

Before she came here, when we spoke those two times a year, Nadezhda used to pass the receiver to any family members who happened to be around — her husband, nieces, various cousins, all of whom I’d known well, back in the day — so they could say hello. Now I understood that her son was simply unaware that she’d been speaking with me all those years, for, having stayed on in America after we parted, he was never in the room with her during those calls or even, for that matter, on the same continent. His ignorance of our contact required no great deception on her part; it was just a matter of not mentioning it to him, ever. Everyone else — the cousins, nieces, et cetera — must have known not to mention it to him, ever, either.


In a recent email sent from her new home in Philadelphia, Nadezhda wrote offhandedly, “I’m very busy with my new grandson. I’m responsible for him seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.”

These words, buried amid other news, nearly slid past me unremarked. But I did wonder why a grandmother would be responsible twenty-four hours out of the day. Even in a culture where grandmothers are actively recruited for childcare, that’s a lot of hours. The words echoed, they echoed something from some fifteen years back.

I recalled the old, sad questions: Why have a child if you’re not going to raise it yourself? And what is needed in order to have a child?

The realization boomeranged back with a tremendous delay: he had not been referring to an institution for single mothers working as train conductors.

Of course, by the time I grasped this, the matter no longer pressed. It was a missing jigsaw piece, nothing more — one that fit very neatly into a puzzle long since stored on a high shelf.

* * *

Laura Esther Wolfson’s debut essay collection, For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, was awarded the 2017 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction. Her writing has been honored with the 2017 Notting Hill Essay Prize, published in leading literary venues on both sides of the Atlantic, and cited in The Best American Essays. She holds an MFA from the New School and lives in New York City.


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