Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Inner Sea: Dreams of a Muslim Cosmopolis. Book review

NB: This is a review of Venkat Dhulipala's Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India (2014), by Keerthik Sasidharan. It is insightful and intellectually perceptive. Of especial note is the point of the hostile reception this book has had amongst those members of the South Asian intelligentsia who despite their advocacy of freedom of thought, resent any discussion of Indian history and politics that disturbs their established views on communal politics and on India's partition. These views are for the most part imbued with extremist positions (often referred to as 'radical'), whose overall posture is a claim to speak on behalf of one or other social group, ethnic minority or ideological current. They are not reducible to 'left-liberals' (another vacuous term); and  include not only the adherents of the CPI 'line' on Pakistan in 1942, but also proponents of the politics of Subhas Bose, B.R. Ambedkar and M.A. Jinnah. They include Savakarites: L.K. Advani certified Jinnah as 'secular' after a trip to Pakistan in 2005; and whose ally Jaswant Singh, wrote an encomium to the founder of Pakistan in 2010. 

Barring the CPI, none of these ideological currents are leftist. Nor are they liberal - Bose was an admirer of Stalin and Hitler. The brunt of the argument is always an attack not just on the Congress (which they tend to conflate with the post '47 dispensation), but more significantly on philosophical moderation per se. It is as if  the shattering of utopic dreams may be compensated by persistent attacks on liberal democracy, in the guise of nostalgic commemoration of this or that favoured icon. 

The method employed by ideologically inclined scholars has been aptly described by the philosopher Leo Strauss: "Historians who start from the belief in the superiority of present-day thought to the thought of the past feel no necessity to understand the past by itself: they understand it as only a preparation for the present. When studying a doctrine of the past, they do not ask primarily, What was the conscious and deliberate intention of its originator? They prefer to ask, What is the contribution of the doctrine to our beliefs?.." (cf Chapter 9 of Thomas Pangle’s Rebirth of classical political rationalism, p 209). As a result their scholarship is eclipsed by propaganda. 

The net result of this hermeneutical zeal is cynicism, the erosion of faith in democratic institutions, and the strengthening of authoritarian tendencies. It is rather like the effect that decades of relativism and deconstructive mania have had on Western polities, which we are told, is now in a 'post-truth' era. Having contributed to the political erosion of objectivity, some of us are now awakening to the value of truth, both in politics and in historiography. 

Partition historiography remains immersed in a guilt syndrome. Dhulipala's monograph on Muslim League politics disturbs the established 'radical' version, wherein Gandhi, Nehru and the Congress are the preferred culprits. Hindutva apologists are at one with League apologists in this regard, forgetting that their icon Sardar Patel was a senior Congress leader and played a major role in events. The argument put forward in this book is not going to disappear, however much intellectual indigestion it might cause in certain quarters, and no matter how much censorship it is subjected to. It is time to engage in honest truth-seeking about our past. Thanks once again to the author of this review. DS

Note by the author: This was an essay written after reading Venkat Dhulipala's fascinating book ('Creating a New Medina', Cambridge University Press) on how Pakistan came to be.  After sendingthis essay to a few editors in mainstream press, from none of who I heard back, I abandoned the idea of getting this published.  Over time, from afar, while reading reviews about the book - some of them thinly veiled personal attacks on the author and some others as ideologically convenient valorizations - I realized that the reception to this book itself has a short history worth telling. More than a year had passed after my missives into editor's email inboxes went unanswered, when yesterday, I was reminded of the book when someone mentioned it on Twitter.  Thought, some of you might find of interest.

Despite being a country of more than 200 million people, marked by a diversity of income, resources, and talents, Pakistan today is often reduced in popular media as “the most dangerous country in the world”.  With that descriptor comes further qualifications which stress that it marked by a “triple threat of terrorism, a failing economy, and the fastest growing nuclear arsenal”.  Irrespective of the truth of such dire assessments (usually from intelligence sources or foreign correspondents in search of a juicy story), what is agreed widely true is the Islamization of its popular culture, public spaces, and political rhetoric over the past three decades.  To many observers, this change can be traced back to Pakistan’s alliance with the CIA and Saudi intelligence in the 1980s, when the ISI trained thousands of Pakistanis, Afghans, and foreign volunteers to fight the USSR.  

When that war ended — a war where violence, geopolitics, and messianism came together — the elaborate physical and ideological infrastructure of violent Islamism found itself other uses and proliferated.  Much scholarly attention has been paid to what followed the 1980s and the changes in society that three decades of jihad culture had wrought.  What is less remarked now is the ease with which the Pakistani State and its proxies were able to legitimate their use of Islam, its vocabulary, and creedal requirements to rally, organize, and sustain various factions for ‘the Great Game’.  In parts, the reluctance to press harder on this question of why or how of the maneuvering by the Pakistani State is that it forces us to reach back to the promises and tensions which birthed Pakistan in 1947.  

This inevitably means trying to wrap one’s head around the density of originary conviction in the minds of its citizenry and political elite that saw their country as an Islamic idyll separate from British India that had an Hindu majority.  This self-portrayal as a sacrosanct space for believers of Islam, which was deployed by the Pakistani State repeatedly in the 1980s as a rallying call, has a history of reception itself, particularly in fellow Muslim countries...

Friday, May 18, 2018

At Least 8 Killed in Texas School Shooting, Deadliest Since Parkland

At least eight people are dead after a gunman opened fire inside a high school near Houston, Texas on Friday, according to a local sheriff. As many as 10 people may have died at at Santa Fe High School, most of them students, Harrison County Sheriff Ed Gonzales said. That is the highest number of fatalities at a school shooting since the February 14 massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida killed 17 people.

Santa Fe is the 22nd school shooting in 2018, according to CNN
Florida shooting: US high school students stage mass walkout

Witnesses said that the shooting began around 7:30 a.m when the gunman burst through the door of an art class and yelled “surprise!” before opening fire. Liberty Wheeler, a student, told The Houston Chronicle that she heard “five shots ring out near the art room,” and she then hid in the “theater department's storage room” before being escorted out by a SWAT team.

“You could smell the gunpowder that came from the gun,” Wheeler told the Chronicle. “We were all scared because it was near us.” Student Tyler Turner told KPRC that he sat in his classroom when he “heard really loud booms” and “really didn't know what they were at first.” “Then, I realized what they were when I heard screaming,” Turner said. “I never thought it would happen here”

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Hanneke Meijer - Wallace’s enigma: how the island of Sulawesi continues to captivate biologists

“We now come to the Island of Celebes, in many respects the most remarkable and interesting in the whole region, or perhaps on the globe, since no other island seems to present so many curious problems for solution.” (Wallace 1876)

Wedged in between the continental landmasses of south-east Asia and Australia lies the vast island realm of Wallacea. Named after Alfred Russel Wallace, the 19th-century explorer and naturalist who traversed this area, it hosts floras and faunas that are incredibly rich and often include species found nowhere else on Earth. The natural history of Wallacea is complicated, and heavily dictated by geological forces such as plate tectonics and volcanism.

As the oldest and largest island within Wallacea, Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes) hosts a rich fauna with a large number of species that are unique to the island. Although its fauna is pre-dominantly Asian in origin, it is the only island in south-east Asia with marsupials (the bear cuscus and dwarf cuscus), a typical Australian element. In addition, it hosts the smallest primate in the world, the tarsus tarsier, which fits in the palm of your hand. You can find miniature buffaloes, or anoas, whose lovable appearance is said to hide an aggressive demeanour. And there are wild pigs, babirusas, with wrinkled skin and impressive upper tusks that instead of growing down, grow up and backwards toward the skull. (According to Wallace, some old writers supposed that the tusks served as hooks, so that the animal could rest its head on a branch.)

Wallace was puzzled by the origin of Sulawesi’s unusual fauna, and the stark difference between Sulawesi and its closest neighbouring island, Borneo. In his seminal work The Malay Archipelago from 1869, Wallace noted that there seemed very little affinity between many of Sulawesi’s birds and mammals and those in other parts of the world. This led him to propose that Sulawesi perhaps represented “a rather ancient land”, and that its unique fauna had its origin “in a remote antiquity”

Shaped like a giant “K” with four arms pointing in different directions, the geological history of Sulawesi is complicated. The island is a composite of several fragments of land that, over time, were driven into each other as they sat atop continental plates headed for collision. Some of these fragments are thought to be rather old, possibly dating as far back as the Cretaceous. Such an old origin for parts of Sulawesi would explain its unique biota and high species richness; species would have rafted along on these fragments from worlds since long lost (a process known as vicariance).
read more:

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Alice Dreger: Why I Escaped the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’

Opinion is not scholarship, it is not journalism, and we are dying for lack of honest, fact-based, slow inquiry... the operating assumption behind the Intellectual Dark Web seems to be that angering progressives represents a mark of honor in itself... What I’m left with after this experience is a sense, for myself, of how much academe matters. How we need to fight back against university administrators’ equation of "entrepreneurship," funding, and publicity with scholarship… 

I’m all for bringing intellectualism to the masses, but… I value ambivalence itself, along with intellectual humility. Yet these values seem in direct opposition to the kind of cocksure strutting that is the favored dance move of the IDW.

While I am very experienced at being annoying, including to members of my own progressive tribes, I don’t think this is a technique that should on its own be valorized. Pissing people off is something to be done accidentally, as a side effect, while you’re trying to fix a significant problem. Yet the operating assumption behind the Intellectual Dark Web seems to be that angering progressives represents a mark of honor in itself. Indeed, the group’s signature hack is leveraging these alleged badges of honor into greater fame and fortune. (Witness the singular genius of Jordan Peterson.)

I knew that some of the people named as part of the IDW are, like me, legitimate scholars — they care about research, data, and changing their own minds through honest inquiry. But that just made me wonder why these enlightened souls would want to be glorified as part of a "dark web." Perhaps they were in universities just long enough to get the pernicious message from their central administrations that all publicity is good scholarship (until it is cause for firing)?

The Times article confirmed my initial fears — and made me glad that I asked to be left out (which I was). The article begins by breathlessly reporting that the IDW is rife with "beauty" and "danger." So, what even is it? Here’s the vague rundown: "Most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now."

Meh. How is this really about intellectualism, darkness, or a special web? If these people are having conversations that are so rare "in the culture," how is it that they have millions of followers and pack auditoriums? (Is "the culture" The New York Times?) The whole thing — especially the excitement over these people having found a "profitable market" — made me identify anew with that person standing in the ESPN-televised crowd at some SEC football game holding the sign that said, "You people are blocking the library." I don’t see it as a sign of intellectual progress when a bunch of smart people find a way to make money off of niche political audiences by spewing opinions without doing much new research.

Opinion is not scholarship, it is not journalism, and we are dying for lack of honest, fact-based, slow inquiry. Twenty years since my first scholarship-based op-ed ran in The New York Times, here’s what I see: a postapocalyptic, postmodern media landscape where thoughtfulness and nonpartisan inquiry go to die. The Intellectual Dark Web isn’t a solution, it might just be a sign of end times... 
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Book review: Cultural Dementia

Cultural Dementia: By David Andress

Reviewed by Katrina Gulliver

This book reminded me of Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland — but where Andersen thinks only Americans have lost their minds, David Andress thinks everyone has. I can’t say I disagree, being a subscriber to the Hourly Outrage, also known as Twitter. Andress refers to Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and Marine Le Pen’s rise in French politics as things that should have been ‘punchlines’, comparing those who voted for them to dementia sufferers. And that’s just in the first couple of pages. So I’m guessing that as a Leave voter, I’m not the intended audience — nor do I, as someone with a PhD in history, fit into Andress’s analysis of uninformed and delusional Brexit voters. Nonetheless, he’s right that things have been shaken up.

He offers a neat sweep of postwar history, and is right about the broader sense in which postwar prosperity — particularly that experienced by the middle classes of Western nations — was itself an aberration. Considering it the norm has been a major problem in politics and economics for the past 20 years. But admitting that lifetime employment and a generous welfare state were perhaps an economic blip and not a reasonable expectation is a tough pill for many to swallow.

One element Andress omits in this analysis is the changing role of women. Increased participation of women (particularly middle-class women) in the workforce since the 1970s actually helped our economy weather the shocks of the oil crisis and deindustrialisation. That the women’s movement essentially bought us another generation of prosperity is part of the equation, although it came at a cost (two incomes are now required to afford a middle-class lifestyle in much of the country). Moreover, Andress’s broad overview could also apply to many post-industrial Western nations. In singling out the US, France and the UK, he is forced to make awkward comparisons... read more:

Jean Paul Sartre interviews Daniel Cohn-Bendit: May 20, 1968

This conversation between Jean-Paul Sartre and Daniel Cohn-Bendit was first published in Le nouvel observateur on May 20, 1968. The translation, by B.R. Brewster, was collected in The Student Revolt: The Activists Speak (Panther Books, London:1968), edited by Hervé Bourges. It was previously published online at Medium

Jean-Paul Sartre: Within a few days, although no-one called for a general strike, France has been practically paralysed by work stoppages and factory occupations. And all because the students took control of the streets in the Latin Quarter. What is your analysis of the movement you have unleashed? How far can it go?

Daniel Cohn-Bendit: It has grown much larger than we could have foreseen at the start. The aim is now the overthrow of the regime. But it is not up to us whether or not this is achieved. If the Communist Party, the CGT and the other union headquarters shared it there would be no problem; the regime would fall within a fortnight, as it has no counterthrust against a trial of strength supported by all working-class forces… read more:

A reading list to celebrate works of and inspired by the Situationist International, on the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 uprisings.
In 1969, The Black Dwarf published an issue on "The Year of the Militant Woman," under the editorship of Sheila Rowbotham. Reproduced below is the centrepiece article of the issue, Rowbotham's powerful manifesto of women's liberation - an article which broke new ground on the left in Britain. As Rowbotham wrote later, "everyday details such as these were not part of the language of politics in 1969."
In this extract from the first issue of The Black Dwarf, Jean-Jacques Lebel gives a vivid first-hand account of the events of May '68 in Paris

Read more: Archive of 1968

On the 50th anniversary of the global uprisings of 1968, we present a reading list to inspire the continued fight for freedom...

Suhas Palshikar - The Karnataka lesson

By re-emerging as a leading party in Karnataka, the BJP has again underscored that it has a firm foot in South India. Symbolically, the Karnataka victory signifies the national spread of the party though it is yet to penetrate other southern states as also the two key eastern states, Odisha and West Bengal. Detailed analyses of vote share and immediate intrigues like post-election alliances may capture the headlines for a while but the fact remains that in the game of winning elections, the BJP is currently quite formidable. This larger message is something that will weigh heavily when any calculations about the parliamentary elections begin.

The Karnataka government was certainly not an unpopular government. The chief minister had shown considerable aggression in dealing with the BJP during the campaign. The state government had not ignored to publicise its many welfare schemes. Yet, all this could not stop the BJP from emerging as the single-largest party. Nor could all this stop the JDS from retaining its hold. The Karnataka story, then, has two sub-texts. One is about the success of the BJP and the other is about the inability of the Congress to revive itself.

All single-line explanations of electoral outcomes are bound to be grotesque, and yet, there is no escaping the point that once again, the victory in Karnataka has come through the prime minister’s popularity. Barring Delhi and Bihar, all state elections since 2014 have only confirmed the reach and acceptance of Modi. He could pull off a victory in Gujarat despite all odds stacked against his party’s incumbent government and now, in Karnataka, he has managed to defeat the Congress in spite of a somewhat tame image of his party there — and many cracks notwithstanding. The good news of its success also carries a twin liability for the BJP — something that has implications beyond the party.

First, the overdependence on Modi can slowly become a limitation for the BJP. So far, despite all disappointments thrown at the electorate by his government, Modi has managed to retain popularity of a cross-section of the voters. Should that popularity only slightly dwindle, the party would be in deep trouble. Two, Modi’s electoral successes have often come with a heavy price in terms of steady degeneration of the public discourse. From attacking past Congress leaders and raking up avoidable social conflicts, the recent campaign saw him indulge in diatribe and innuendo unbecoming of a prime minister and not befitting a truly popular leader. It was once said of him by many observers that he tapped the aspiration of the voters. Now it seems that he keeps tapping their baser prejudices. This trait, while winning him elections, undermines the quality of democracy.

All this is closely connected to the other subtext of the Karnataka outcome: The inability of the Congress to revive itself. This inability is exposed on three fronts...

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Haaretz Editorial: Stop the Bloodbath

The black smoke that rose above Gaza yesterday and the number of casualties that climbed by the hour did not interfere with the celebratory opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem, highlighting the wanton Israeli treatment of Palestinians in general and Gazans in particular.

The mother of a Leila al-Ghandour, a Palestinian baby of 8 months who died of tear gas inhalation during clashes on Gaza border, holds her at the morgue of al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on May 15, 2018

In the atmosphere of arrogance that has gripped the political system, bolstered by a sympathetic 
American president who has responded to all the whims of an Israeli prime minister who refuses to consider peace, it remains to be hoped that at least today, Nakba Day, the culmination of the Palestinian “March of Return,” Israel Defense Forces soldiers will do their best to prevent more mass killings. It is their duty to stop the tens of thousands of Palestinian demonstrators who will descend on the Gazan border fence with means as nonlethal as possible, and with as few casualties as possible. A month and a half of demonstrations by people who were mostly unarmed has resulted in dozens of deaths and thousands of wounded Palestinians. During these weeks of protest, Hamas and the other resistance movements in Gaza refrained from launching rockets into Israel. No Israeli soldier or resident was injured. Israel, on the other hand, acted against the unarmed demonstrators with sniper fire, live fire that killed and maimed.

In the furthest place possible from the embassy opening in Jerusalem and the crowds celebrating Netta Barzilai’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest, tens of thousands of desperate people without a present or future tried to cry for help. A series of broadcasts this week by Israel Television News shows the extent of the disaster that faces the two million besieged and trapped people in Gaza. The pictures are heartbreaking and horrific, and they are the real reason for the protest at the fence. Lethal weapons won’t deter young people who have nothing left to lose. There is no dispute over Israel’s right to defend its border, but this does not mean it has the right to do whatever it pleases to those who try to cross it.
Bottom of Form

Israel bears responsibility, although not exclusively, for the Gazan disaster. The 2005 withdrawal did not absolve Israel of its responsibility, certainly so long as it suffocates Gaza with a blockade.
The people on both sides of the fence are the same age. On one side are armed Israeli soldiers – whose lives are not in danger most of the time and none of whom have been injured – who are free people, citizens of their country, with their future ahead of them. Facing them are young Gazans, in general unarmed, unprotected, the vast majority unemployed, and hopeless as long as the siege continues. Most of them go to the fence demonstrations simply to cry out and express their despair
The IDF is responsible for preventing and deterring infiltration into Israeli territory, but the solution really lies in the Prime Minister’s Office. He must seriously examine the readiness of Hamas to negotiate a cease-fire with Israel, and announce steps to reduce the blockade considerably and allow those seriously wounded to be treated in Israel.

Rohini Chatterji: Bhim Army Leader's Brother Shot Dead In UP's Saharanpur

The murder of Sachin Walia, brother of Bhim Army's local district chief and a member of the group, on Wednesday, in a suspected hate crime, has sparked tensions in Uttar Pradesh's Saharanpur, said reports. The 25 year old was is said to have been shot in close range by unidentified people near a venue,where Maharana Pratap's birth anniversary was being celebrated. The Hindu reports that while District Magistrate of Saharanpur P.K. Pandey and Senior Superintendent of Police Babloo Kumar visited the spot and ordered a probe, the murder led to protests by the Dalit group.

The incident comes on the anniversary of violent clashes between Dalits and Rajputs last year during the celebration of Maharana Pratap's birth anniversary. Saharanpur SSP Babloo Kumar told News18, "There was enough police force on this route due to Maharana Pratap Jayanti. Sachin Walia was already dead when he was brought to the hospital. One of the LIU inspector who reached the accident site was told that someone has fallen from the terrace and rushed to the hospital." Reports suggest because of last year's incident there were police forces stationed near the Maharana Pratap Bhawan where the celebrations were taking place. However, Sachin's family claims that he was killed because the administration allowed the celebrations to take place, despite the clashes last year. 

Kamal told The Times of India, "We had already conveyed our apprehension to the administration that something untoward might happen in the Maharana Pratap anniversary celebrations and had even submitted a memorandum to the district magistrate. Yet they gave permission to the upper castes to go on with the celebrations. My fear has come true. Thakurs have killed my brother." More police forces were deployed in the area and mobile internet services were stopped to prevent further tensions. Amnesty International, reacting to the news, put out a statement that read, "The Uttar Pradesh government must investigate whether Sachin Walia was killed in a hate crime... The Uttar Pradesh authorities must ensure that similar attacks don't occur again, and end impunity for hate crimes against Dalits in the state."

Monday, May 14, 2018

240,000 girls a year die in India due to gender discrimination, excluding those aborted for being female

Almost a quarter of a million girls under five die in India every year due to neglect resulting from society’s preference for sons, a gender discrimination study has found. The figure does not include those aborted simply for being female, researchers wrote in the Lancet medical journal. “Gender-based discrimination towards girls doesn’t simply prevent them from being born, it may also precipitate the death of those who are born,” said co-author Christophe Guilmoto..

“Gender equity is not only about rights to education, employment or political representation, it is also about care, vaccination, and nutrition of girls, and ultimately survival.” Guilmoto and a team used population data from 46 countries to calculate how many infant girls would have died in a society where there was no discrimination impact, and how many died in reality. The difference, about 19 deaths out of every 1,000 girls born between 2000 and 2005, was ascribed to the effects of gender bias. This amounted to about 239,000 deaths a year. “Around 22% of the overall mortality burden of females under five (in India) is therefore due to gender bias,” the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) a research institute based in Austria, said in a statement.

The problem was most pronounced in northern India, the researchers found, with states Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh, accounting for two-thirds of the excess deaths.
Hardest hit were poor, rural, farming regions with low education levels, high population densities, and high birth rates. Co-author Nandita Saikia from the IIASA said: “As the regional estimates of excess deaths of girls demonstrate, any intervention to reduce the discrimination against girls in food and healthcare allocation should therefore target in priority regions ... where poverty, low social development, and patriarchal institutions persist and investments [in] girls are limited.”

Some more readings:
When it comes to honour killing, India is neck and neck with Pakistan, literally. Every year at least 1000 women get killed in the name of honour in India, almost the same as in Pakistan. Every fifth woman killed in the name of honour in the world is Indian. If not for honour, it is quite likely that Baloch could have been killed before birth just because of her gender. In western India, states like Haryana (879), Punjab (895), Rajasthan (928) and Gujarat (919) that lie on the India-Pakistan border, the sex ratio is a damning condemnation of how girls are considered a perishable commodity, just as Baloch was. (Pakistan's sex ratio - 1:1.05 - is better than India's.)

Atef Abu Saif - Palestinians do not want to negate Israel. We just want a future

On the first Friday of the Great March of Return I went to the border between Gaza and Israel with my two youngest children, Yasser and Jaffa. Yes, I named my only daughter after the city I was meant to be born in. This is a bit of a tradition among Palestinians, especially if the place name is a particularly graceful-sounding one. The two of them waved Palestinian flags in their little fists as they walked. Looking directly at the perimeter fence, Yasser asked: “Dad, is Jaffa behind that fence?” 

My daughter was unfazed by this ambiguity. As I gazed at one of the Israeli snipers, crouched by his gun on the man-made dune that acts as a border, I imagined we were both locked in a staring competition. My kids pose no threat to you, I tried to say with my eyes. We’re more than 300 metres away. My kids have no weapons, no stones; they’re not here to fight. It’s a fantasy, of course. Later that day, and in the weeks that followed, Israeli soldiers used extreme force to clear the area: teargas dropped by drones, mortars, live ammunition.

The Great March of Return, the peaceful show of resistance by Gazans at this border over the last seven weeks, will culminate on Tuesday on the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba 
and Israelis mark as the birth of the state of Israel. The border protests have attracted a lot of attention. Dozens have been killed – including kids barely into their teens, and journalists – and thousands more injured; any international concern presumably is out of fear of military escalation in the wider region. While this fear is legitimate, it also exposes a profound misunderstanding of the protest.

The word nakba, meaning “catastrophe”, refers to the moment in 1948 when more than 700,000 Palestinians were driven out of their towns and villages – the majority of which were destroyed – in what became the declaration of the Israeli state. For us, 1948 was year zero in the collective, inescapable nightmare that all Palestinians have lived through ever since. All that followed – the displacement, the poverty, the wars, the curfews, the interrogations, the incarcerations, the intifadas, the hunger, the lack of basic provisions (medicines, electricity, clean water, drainage), the restrictions on travel ... every horror that has befallen Palestinians – began in that moment... read more:

Also see: 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Caliphate of Trump And a Planet in Ruins. By Tom Engelhardt

The United States… has at least 800 global garrisons..  a number that puts in the shade the global garrisons of any other great power in history, and to go with them, more than 450,000 military personnel stationed outside its borders…. like no other power in history, it has divided the world - every bit of it - as if slicing a pie, into six military commands; that’s six commands for every inch of the globe (and another two for space and cyberspace)…  The U.S. puts approximately a trillion dollars annually in taxpayer funds into its military, its 17 intelligence agencies, and what’s now called “homeland security.” Its national security budget is larger than those of the next eight countries combined and still rising yearly..

They are the extremists. If you need proof, look no further than the Afghan capital, Kabul, where the latest wave of suicide bombings has proven devastating. Recently, for instance, a fanatic set off his explosives among a group of citizens lining up outside a government office to register to vote in upcoming elections. At least 57 people died, including 22 women and eight children. ISIS’s branch in Afghanistan proudly took responsibility for that callous act -- but one not perhaps quite as callous as the ISIS suicide bomber who, in August 2016, took out a Kurdish wedding in Turkey, missing the bride and groom but killing at least 54 people and wounding another 66. Twenty-two of the dead or injured were children and the bomber may even have been a child himself.

Such acts are extreme, which by definition makes the people who commit them extremists.  The same is true of those like the “caliph” of the now-decimated Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who order, encourage, or provide the ideological framework for such acts -- a judgment few in this country (or most other places on the planet) would be likely to dispute. In this century, from Kabul to BaghdadParis to San Bernardino, such extreme acts of indiscriminate civilian slaughter have only multiplied. Though relatively commonplace, each time such a slaughter occurs, it remains an event of horror and is treated as such in the media. If committed by Islamists against Americans or Europeans, suicide attacks of this sort are given 24/7 coverage here, often for days at a time.

And keep in mind that such extreme acts aren’t just restricted to terror groups, their lone wolf followers, or even white nationalists and other crazed men in this country, armed to the teeth, who, in schools, workplaces, restaurants, and elsewhere, regularly wipe out groups of innocents. Take the recent charges that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad used outlawed chemical weapons in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, that country’s capital, killing families and causing havoc. Whether that specific act proves to have been as advertised or not, there can be no question that the Assad regime has regularly slaughtered its own citizens with chemical weapons, barrel bombs, artillery barrages, and (sometimes Russian) air strikes, destroying neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, markets, you name it. All of this adds up to a set of extreme acts of the grimmest kind. And such acts could be multiplied across significant parts of the planet, ranging from the Myanmar military’s brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign against that country’s Rohingya minority to acts of state horror in places like South Sudan and the Congo. In this sense, our world certainly doesn’t lack either extreme thinking or the acts that go with it.

We here in the United States are, of course, eternally shocked by their extremism, theirwillingness to kill the innocent without compunction, particularly in the case of Islamist groups, from the 9/11 attacks to ISIS’s more recent slaughters… read more:

Iranian hardliners rejoice over US exit from nuclear deal // Trump Has Wrecked One of the Most Successful Arms-Control Deals in Modern History

Hardliners in Iran are rejoicing at Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose economic sanctions, and seizing on an opportunity to consolidate their power over reformists who championed the pact. The commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards “congratulated” the nation on the US exit from the deal. According to the semi-official Fars news agency, the commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari said: “I congratulate and take into a good deed the vicious withdrawal of the US from JCPOA, which was not credible even before the withdrawal … It was proved once more that US isn’t trustworthy in regards its commitments.”

At the opening session of the Iranian parliament on Wednesday, a group of hardline MPs held up a paper US flag and the text of the 2015 landmark nuclear deal, also known as the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA), before setting fire to both while chanting “death to America”. The MPs’ protest, which came a day after the US president broke with European allies over what he said was a “horrible, one-sided” agreement, was a nod to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had said in June 2016, prior to Trump’s election, that if the Americans “tear it up, we will set it on fire”...  Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament, said Tehran would wait to gauge how the Europeans partners in the nuclear talks would handle the US exit from the deal. His comments echoed those of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who has said the agreement could survive if Europe defies Trump.

“Europe must prove that it is capable of throwing its weight behind settling our issues,” Larijani told MPs on Wednesday, according to the Mehr news agency. “The American nation has been saddled with an egotistical and amateurish politician.” Larijani said Trump was overjoyed that he was “plundering some short-sighted regional countries” – a reference to Israel and Saudi Arabia – “for the price of ignoring their wicked actions in the region”... read more:

Europe must make Trump pay for wrecking the Iran nuclear deal

Trump Has Wrecked One of the Most Successful Arms-Control Deals in Modern History
With his decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump has committed his most irresponsible act in foreign policy to date. The move—which Trump took against the urgings of European heads of state, Israeli security officials, dozens of current and former diplomats, his own secretary of defense, and even the conservative chairman of the House Armed Services Committee—can only be attributed to one or more of three motives: a misunderstanding of the deal’s terms, a need to torpedo yet another one of President Obama’s accomplishments, or a desire to weaken or destroy the government of Iran.

Trump claimed in his televised speech today that Iran is cheating on the deal, but his own intelligence directors have said there is no evidence of this claim whatsoever. The International Atomic Energy Agency has certified Iran’s compliance 10 times since the deal was signed. Secretary of Defense James Mattis testified to a Senate committee last month that, after reading the 140-page agreement three times, he was struck by how “robust” the deal’s verification provisions were.

It’s also the case that the most influential backers of Trump’s decision—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, and the Sunni Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia—are fervent advocates of regime change in Iran, by force if necessary. From early on in his presidential campaign, Trump promised to kill the accord, which he has repeatedly called “the worst deal” ever “drawn up by anybody.” Here is where ignorance enters the picture.. read more:

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Book review: The State as Faction: Mao’s Cultural Revolution

NB: This is a slightly longer version of my review of this book which has just appeared in the April-June 2018 issue of Biblio. DS

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 19621976
By Frank Dikötter; Bloomsbury Press, London, New York; 2016

The GPCR was yet another example of the totalitarian impulse, the open secret that motivates all ideological dictatorships: the desire to quell the dignity of the human spirit, to replace thoughtful speech by politically sponsored chatter. The Red Guards’ cacophonous adulation for the Great Helmsman was a vent for their most base instincts: this state-enabled rampage represented not a hundred flowers in bloom, but the spread of a single fungus rooted in silence. ..

The State as Faction: Mao’s Cultural Revolution
In the summer of 1966, a brewing power struggle within the CCP took a sharp turn for the worse. The struggle was preceded by severe differences on the Great Leap Forward (1958-61); and the crisis in the international communism occasioned by Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU in February 1956. Following intense conflicts over economic policy, exacerbated by faction, whim and doctrine, Party Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed a popular movement on culture, education and ideology in 1965-66. This state-enabled intrusion involved hooligan-like behaviour by millions of school and college-going students, soon to be known as Red Guards; joined at certain moments by factory workers and soldiers.
Seemingly a mass movement for defending socialism from bureaucratic degeneration and for pursuing a correct socialist line, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) resulted in a near-total collapse of orderly governance and the necessity of martial law in most provinces. Mass violence and the spread of disease resulted in between 400,000 to 3 million deaths; and in 1971 Mao had to face the ignominy of a military coup by his anointed successor Defence Minister Lin Biao. Dikotters’ treatise is a finely grained account of the GPCR, with details of inner-Party intrigue as well as the barbarities inflicted upon ordinary Chinese citizens by Mao’s activists.

The Hundred Flowers and the Great Leap: Following Khrushchev’s speech, China had witnessed a period of relaxation of state control during the Hundred Flowers Bloom campaign of 1956-57. This had backfired, with a mounting barrage of criticism emanating from within and without the Party by those who took seriously it’s exhortation to speak freely. In the late 1950’s, Deng Xiaoping; and in the mid ’60’s President Liu Shaoqi, his wife, and Beijing’s Mayor Peng Zhen had led the counter attack against popular and intellectual dissent. However, the apparatus was itself riven by serious differences and its attempt at controlling mass discontent was complicated by various factors. These included the paranoia caused by developments in the USSR, including the removal of Khrushchev in 1964 (which made Mao very uneasy) and criticisms directed against him by revolutionary veterans such as Marshal Peng Dehuai who had criticised the Great Leap Forward as early as 1959.

The Forgotten Life Sentence of Comrade Ramchandra Singh, a Prisoner of Memories. By S. Anand

Salaam, comrade. RIP

Ramchandra Singh of Bangaramau village, Unnao district, Uttar Pradesh, silently passed away at 2 am on 2 March. It was a brain haemorrhage that took him. Anonymous that he was, there was no hue and cry about his passing. No social media obituaries celebrating his life. His is not a name you will find on Google. Needless to say, there weren’t any notices of his death in the corporate-controlled media, nor was there so much as a mention of his name in the alternative media — which too comes to us via the seemingly guileless charms of protean capital that peddles the belief that social media is the last hope for democracy and dissent.

One wonders, if a death goes unnoticed, was the life which preceded it worth the effort? Do the anonymous travails of entire lives spent dedicated to egalitarian values amount to anything at all? And yet, Ramchandra Singh lived a full life, a revolutionary life no less, with complete fidelity to his ideals, struggling and suffering without decoration. Had his autobiographical manuscript of 13 years spent in prison not come my way, I too wouldn’t have had the fortune of knowing him, spending time with him, writing this piece about him…

Inspired by the ideals of communism and the cry for an end to feudal oppression, Singh became a ‘party bachcha’, a party boy, when he was a 14-year-old student in the eighth grade. This was around 1960–61. He immediately became an active member of CPI(M) and found himself on the party’s district committee. The Naxalbari uprising — India’s 1968 — broke loose in 1967. Singh inevitably found himself answering Charu Mazumdar’s call in his campaign for the ‘annihilation of class enemy’, a movement that drew inspiration from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

In 1970, he participated in a 12-man attack on an oppressor landlord who terrorised peasants under his thrall. The landlord, from village Bakhaura some 15 kilometres from Bangarmau was annihilated 
to use the term Ramchandra Singh preferred. But just as easily, most members of the squad were nabbed and put behind bars. Ramchandra Singh was one of them: he was awarded a life sentence. From 1970 to 1983 he spent his 13 year imprisonment across five jails in Uttar Pradesh.

In 2012, Madhu Singh, a professor at the English department of Lucknow University chanced upon a prison diary, Thehre Hue Terah Saal (1970–83), at Dastavez Prakashan, a treasure house of books old and new. The man who ran Dastavez Prakashan, Prashant Kumar, had founded and edited a short-lived little magazine called Samkaleen Dastavez (Contemporary Dossier) in Lucknow. In May 1991, he had dedicated an entire issue of the magazine to this diary and published it under the title Thehre Hue Terah Saal

This was Ramchandra Singh’s diary, smuggled out of prison a few loose pages at a time. It had first seen the light of day way back in 1984 when another ‘comrade type’, Anand Swaroop Verma, had serialised it in Rashtriya Sahara’s Lucknow edition. Verma — who in 1977 had translated Mary Tyler’s My Years in an Indian Prison into Hindi (Bharatiya Jailon Mein Paanch Saal) — continues to dream of the revolution and runs a little magazine called Samkaleen Teesri Duniya (Contemporary Third World) from a small apartment in Noida… read more:

Monday, May 7, 2018

Purushottam Agrawal - Lost in translation

Rama has been dragged into yet another controversy. This time by American scholar Audrey Truschke, who in a tweet claimed that in the Ramayana of Valmiki, Sita describes Rama as a "misogynist pig". This refers to Sita's first meeting with Rama after her rescue from Ravana's captivity; the context for her anguish is set by the unimaginably harsh words spoken by Rama. Sita is dismayed and contrasts such 'prakrita' conduct and speech to what is expected of a 'veer' (noble hero) that her husband is (Valmiki Ramayana, VI, 116.5).

Truschke, in an inflammatory tweet, chose to translate 'prakrita' as 'misogynist pig'; reactions on Twitter were expectedly sharp. There were threats and abuses too, which, it must be said, are unconscionable and totally out of line. But Truschke found the attacks on her 'misogynistic' and 'anti-Semitic'. It's interesting that while being at loggerheads, both she and her detractors claim victimhood, invoking their respective social identities.

In this distracting battle, larger issues have been sidelined. Truschke argues that scholars are not meant to revere the texts they study, religious or otherwise. True. But surely they can reasonably be expected to show integrity in adhering to academic method? Scholars shouldn't have to pre-empt 'hurt sentiments', but are they not expected to be sensitive to the intrinsic and extrinsic context of the text? Is it right, even in purely scholarly terms, to reduce a rich and layered (besides being revered by millions) character like Rama to a caricature in a contemporary American comic strip?

Such questions are crucially important in an environment where the space for samyak (balanced) dialogue is shrinking rapidly. The samyak tradition, emphasised by the Buddha, does not entail compromising your philosophical or moral position. It is quite different from everyday pragmatism. It implies respect for your opponent and commitment to shared norms of civilised dialogue. It implies holding fast to your position, yet being open to changing it, if presented with tenable reasoning and evidence. Scholars are supposed to provoke society into rethinking its prevalent commonsense. It is precisely this crucial-and fraught-role that makes it incumbent upon a scholar to be meticulous in method, sensitive to nuances of language and context in which the argument is made and aware (not 'reverent') of the work of those who came before him/ her. In translation, the onus is possibly even greater.

'Prakrita', the word in question, is not even a rare word that is being translated for the first time. It's a common word, which essentially means 'ordinary' or 'uncivilised', or 'raw' as opposed to refined. In a particular context, it could even mean 'vulgar', though in rendering that meaning, it would lose some of the intrinsic refinement of the original Sanskrit. Tulsidas makes Saraswati regret the fact that most poets are using their talent to praise 'ordinary' characters instead of focusing on someone like Rama (Kinhe prakrita jan gun gana, sir dhuni gira lagat pachhitana).

AK Ramanujan, a widely respected scholar and translator, described the translator as an "artist on oath". The idea is to maintain dual fidelity: to the nature of the target language and (even more importantly) to the specific characteristics of the source language and its culture. Sanskrit has no dearth of words of insult, and had Valmiki so desired, he could have made his Sita use one of them. But, to him, the integrity of the character and the personal and socio-cultural dynamics of Sita's relationship with her 'veer' (noble) husband were of supreme importance. He makes Rama utter many harsh words, but then, a few verses later, we see Rama 'adhomukha' (crestfallen), 'vashpavyakul lochanah' (eyes full of tears)... But, then, Valmiki was a great poet with patience, not a Twitter-age translator in a hurry. To translate 'prakrita' as 'misogynist pig' is to totally ignore context. It violates the scholar's unwritten code, the translator's 'oath' and makes vulnerable the already fragile space of academic autonomy and civilised dialogue-the samyak.

Purushottam Agrawal is a scholar of early vernacular modernity in India, Hinduism and Bhakti poetry. His latest book Padmavat: An Epic Love Story has been published by Rupa

Sunday, May 6, 2018

James Cavallaro - The CIA has a long history of torture. Gina Haspel will be perfect for the job

In the coming days, Gina Haspel will testify before the Senate in connection with her nomination by Donald Trump to direct the Central Intelligence Agency. Much has been written about whether someone who oversaw a secret CIA detention site where detainees were tortured should be eligible to head the nation’s leading intelligence agency. At first blush, this may appear to be the central debate. What ethical transgressions are inconsistent with an agency-level directorship in the United States government? Certainly, participation in torture should render a candidate unqualified. Yet, on further inspection, the focus on whether Haspel’s abusive conduct disqualifies her from CIA leadership cloaks a far more important and revealing debate.

Judging candidates to direct the CIA presupposes knowledge of the history of the CIA and a vision for its role – if any – in a society that purports to be democratic. Interrogating, so to speak, that knowledge and understanding that vision have been painfully absent from the national debate. As someone who has spent the past three decades promoting and defending human rights and democracy in this hemisphere, I have a particularly dour view of the history of the CIA. I have seen and engaged with the consequences of the agency’s ruthless disregard for human dignity and fundamental rights in the Americas.

I have worked with victims of torture committed by military regimes that applied the Kubark torture manual developed by the CIA. In El Paso, Texas, I worked with refugees from El Salvador’s brutal death squads, including children who journeyed alone to the US after losing both parents to CIA-supported death squads. In Chile in the 1980s, I worked with family members of those disappeared by the Pinochet regime, installed with the support of the agency in 1973. In Central America, I worked on behalf of survivors of a genocide facilitated by our government, again, with CIA support. More recently, as a commissioner on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, I worked with states in the Americas still struggling with transitional justice, seeking to come to terms with violent histories of authoritarian abuses, all supported by the “company”. 

The CIA’s illegal interventions, support for murderous regimes and efforts to undermine democratically elected governments are not limited to the Americas. The CIA and British intelligence intervened in Iran in 1953, inciting a disastrous military coup against democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh after the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry… read more: