The Israel-Palestine Conflict: A Brief History

Israel-Palestine Conflict

Fighting between Israel and the Palestinian militants have intensified in the last few days, with Hamas launching hundreds of rockets from Gaza and Israel responding with airstrikes. Rioting and mob violence between Arabs and Jews ripped through the unsettled borders of Israel and Palestine. As the conflict escalates, over 100 civilians have been killed and thousands more have been injured on both sides. Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket attacks raged through the week with no sign of abatement, further causing a new storm in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

How Did the Conflict Begin to Escalate?

Three weeks before the first rocket was fired from Gaza, a squad of Israeli police officers entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, swept aside the Palestinian attendants, and strode through its vast limestone courtyard. Then they cut the cables to four mediaeval minarets’ loudspeakers, which transmitted prayers to the faithful.

This happened on the night of April 13, the first day of Ramadan, and coincidently Memorial Day in Israel. On the day, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was to deliver a speech at the Western Wall, a sacred Jewish site. And the police officials were concerned that the Ramadan prayers would drown it out. This was the first trigger to an all-out conflict situation in the region.

israel-palestine conflict
Palestinians shout slogans during a rally in Gaza city condemning overnight clashes in east Jerusalem. Photo: AFP

Weeks later, in another instance, the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah became the centrepiece of the conflict with Palestinians rallying around its residents to resist the Israeli settlers’ encroachment on East Jerusalem. Palestinians believe that the area is the burial ground of Sheikh Jarrah, a physician to Saladin, an Islamic military leader of the 12th century. Following Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli settler groups have been encroaching into the neighbourhood of Palestinians.

The effort to evict six Arab families from Sheikh Jarrah drew attention to the Israeli encroachment into the Palestinian neighbourhoods, leading to widespread protests across the region. Protesters in Sheikh Jarrah have clashed with riot police and far-right Israeli groups over the past weeks. Clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians erupted on Friday (May 07, 2021), as thousands of worshippers leaving Friday prayer hurled stones at Israeli police officials, who threw stun grenades and fired rubber-coated bullets, leaving nearly 300 people injured. This clash prompted an offensive from Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, leading to widespread killing of civilians on both sides.

What is the Historical Context of the Conflict?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, with the birth of major nationalist movements among the Jews and the Arabs. Palestine region of the Middle East was then under the control of the British Empire. The Balfour Declaration issued by the British government in 1917 announced support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The British government hoped that the declaration would rally Jewish opinion to the side of the Allied Powers against the Central Powers during World War I (1914-18). This event was the start of the world’s most intractable conflict in Israel and Palestine.

Public declaration of claims over Palestine by Zionist leaders in the early 1900s and the 1917 Balfour Declaration created tensions in the region. It was also the beginning of significant Jewish immigration into then Palestine. Tensions erupted between both communities as the migration of Jews continued during the period of Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. Even as Hitler massacred millions of Jews in concentration camps, the cry for a Jewish homeland in Palestine began to take shape.

David Ben Gurean - israel palestine conflict
In this May 14, 1948 photo, cabinet ministers of the new State of Israel are seen at a ceremony at the Tel Aviv Art Museum marking the creation of the new state, during prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s speech declaring independence. Photo: AP

In 1947, with the culmination of World War II, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted Resolution 181, known as the Partition Plan, which sought to divide Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state and the City of Jerusalem. Six months later, in May 1948, neighbouring Arab states, under the banner of the Arab League(the coalition of Muslim nations of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria), rejected the U.N. plan for Palestinian partition. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was created, sparking the first Arab-Israeli War. The war ended in 1949 with Israel’s victory and the territory was divided into 3 parts: the State of Israel, the West Bank (of the Jordan River), and the Gaza Strip.

The conflict gave rise to the tensions in the region, particularly between Israel and the Arab League. Through the 1950s, Jordan and Egypt supported the Palestinian Fedayeen militant’s cross border attacks in Israel. The 1956 Suez Crisis led to Israel’s invasion of the Sinai Peninsula, later restored. In 1964, Yasser Arafat formed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was recognized by the Arab League.

In June 1967, following a series of manoeuvres by Abdel Gamal Nasser, the then Egyptian President, Israel preemptively attacked Eqyptian and Syrian forces, leading to the Six-Day War. After the war, Israel gained control over the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt; the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan; and Golan Heights from Syria. Six years later, in 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise two-front attack on Israel to regain their lost territories. The war began on the day of fasting in Judaism, known as Yom Kippur. However, the war did not result in a significant gain for the countries involved.

Finally, in 1979, following a series of peace negotiations, representatives from Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Accords, a peace treaty that ended the conflict between Egypt and Israel. But, the question of Palestinian self-determination remained in a cliffhanger. Later in 1987, thousands of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip rose against the Israeli territorial occupation in what came to be known as the first Intifada. The 1993 Oslo Accords began the peace process between Israel and Palestine when Chairman of the PLO Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands after signing the peace accords. The accord enabled mutual recognition for Israel’s government and the newly established Palestinian Authority.

israel-palestine conflict
President Bill Clinton stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin as they shake hands at the White House after signing the historic Oslo Accords, on September 13, 1993.

Dismayed by Israel’s control over the West Bank, the Palestinians launched the second Intifada that lasted until 2005. In response, the Israeli government built a barrier wall around the West Bank in 2002, despite opposition from the major powers and the U.N. Bodies. The 2013 United States efforts at reviving the peace process between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank were thwarted by Hamas, a Palestinian political party sanctioned as a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997.

In 2014, clashes in the Palestinian territories precipitated a military confrontation between the Israeli military and Hamas, killing 73 Israelis and 2,251 Palestinians. Later in 2015, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that Palestinians would no longer be bound by the territorial division created by the Oslo Accords. Israel and the Palestinian conflict have thrived at the cost of civilian casualties to date. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the total fatalities since 2008 stands at 5,733 Palestinians and 251 Israelis.

What is the Israel-Palestine Conflict All About?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rooted in a century-long territorial dispute over the Holy Land, a region with great religious and historical significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The first and foremost aspect of the conflict is the claim over territories. The notion of having two separate nations, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, referred to as the two-state solution.

The claims to Jerusalem are the second source of contention. The Holy Land, as it is known, is a sacred site for three different religions. The contested city is divided into East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem by Israel’s and the West Bank’s borders. The third issue is the illegal settlement of Israeli communities in disputed Palestinian territories. The fourth problem is Hamas, which has vowed to destroy Israel at all costs. The fifth issue in the dispute remains to be a lack of consensus on proposed solutions for the peace-building process.

What Are the Proposed Solutions for Israel-Palestine Conflict?

There are three proposed solutions: One-state solution; Two-state solution; and Three-state solution. The one-state solution is a proposed approach that seeks to unify all the disputed territories into one state of Israel with equal rights for all inhabitants without regard to ethnicity and religion. The solution seeks to create a unitary, federal or confederate Israeli-Palestinian state, encompassing all territories of Israel and Palestine.

Critics have, however, argued that no matter what the composition of the proposed one-state is, we will also have one minority who would feel isolated. Several others have argued that the one-state solution is not viable because of Arab unwillingness to accept a Jewish national presence in the Middle East. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in his 2000 interview with Edward Said, whom he calls as ‘one of the intellectual fathers of one-statism’, asks whether he thought a Jewish minority would be treated fairly in a binational state. To this, Said replied: “It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know.”

Israel-palestine conflict
The Palestinian Historic Compromise From 1947 to till Date

The two-state solution envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. The proposal for the creation of two states was first made in the Peel Commission Plan of 1937. The two-state solution is one of the most embraced solutions by international players. It is also one solution that endures because there is no other viable solution. Critiques of the two-state solution have argued that Israel is far too powerful to allow the formation of a Palestinian state. Yusef Munayyer writes: “The simple truth is that over the decades, the Israelis developed enough power and cultivated enough support from Washington to allow them to occupy and hold the territories and to create, in effect, a one-state reality of their own devising.”  Now, there is the three-state solution, which states that there are three states in the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Hamas in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Israel.

What is the Political Context of the Current Clashes?

For almost two years now, Israel has not been able to form a majority government, leading to a series of elections and political uncertainty – most notably for the acting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The latest Israeli election held on March 23, reflected the divisive sentiment within the votes as no political bloc was able to secure enough seats in the 120-member parliament, Knesset, to secure a majority. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit his deadline to stitch a new alliance on May 4, six weeks after the country’s fourth election in less than two years.

In the present conflict, Netanyahu finds an opportunity to assure his people that only a strong leader like him can quell the guns from across the borders and protect them. Writing for The New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman notes, “Netanyahu has an interest in seeing his rivals fail to form a new coalition to unseat him. He would like Israel to go to a fifth election — giving him a chance to hang on and maybe avoid jail if he is convicted in his current corruption trial. One way, Bibi could do that is by inflaming the situation so much that his right-wing rivals have to abandon trying to topple him and declare instead that this is no time for a change in leadership.”

Palestine, divided between radical group Hamas in Gaza strip and President Abbas’s Fatah in Ramallah is in political turmoil. Abbas, ageing with time, has fewer cheerleaders in the Middle East and challenged by the frictions within his party. On May 22, the elections were to be held in Palestine, resulting in widespread popular enthusiasm. But, Abbas later announced that the elections were to be postponed as the Israeli government would not allow ballot boxes in East Jerusalem. But, the announcement was widely seen as an excuse to avoid elections, as Abbas’s Fatah Party was expected to fare poorly against Hamas. With the current conflict, Hamas seem to emerge as a popular force among Palestinians angered by Israel. According to Hamas, “There is no solution to the Palestine problem except by Jihad”.

What is the International Response to the Conflict?

Recently, U.S. President Joe Biden had spoken with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel amid escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and assured his “unwavering support” for Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Biden in his statement condemned the rocket attacks on Israel and refrained from criticizing Israel for its actions. It was unsurprising to see the United States take the Israeli side, but what was quite surprising was narrative Washington continues to maintain in the conflict. Later, the United States also blocked the UNSC meeting on the Israel-Palestine conflict, stating it won’t support de-escalatory efforts.

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Biden and Netanyahu at a meeting in Jerusalem in 2016.

The Arab Nations have always shown their support for the Palestinian cause. However, the numbers seem to be shrinking by the day. The Abraham Accords engineered by the Trump administration have normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have shown the world that the Palestinian cause is a lost one. Of what was left, the Arab League has written a strong-worded condemnation stating that deadly Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip as “indiscriminate and irresponsible.” The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also faced criticism for its weak response to Israel’s attacks on Palestine. The United Nations Secretary-General has issued an urgent appeal for all parties involved in the escalation of violence in Palestine and Israel to “immediately cease the fighting.” However, there seem to be no takers of the call.

What do you think is the best solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict?

 

Who Controls My Data?

Data Privacy and Big Tech - Adarsh Badri

Big Tech and Data Privacy: The Way Forward

There is a saying, “when we get something for free, then we end up being the products.” In the age of information, all the clicks we’ve left behind — and would leave behind in future — are being (will be) used to analyze us, rate us, package us, and sell it back to us.

In a 2019 article, the New York Times outlined how each of us has “secret consumer scores”: hidden rating that determines how long we wait on hold when calling a business, and what type of service we receive. A Tinder algorithm of sorts — a low score sends you back the queue, and the high score will fetch you an elite treatment. The society we live in today is witnessing an enormous amount of data flow, and with it, a rampant surge in algorithm systems that make decisions for us without us knowing whether these decisions are fair for us or not.

How Does The Big-Tech Collect Our Data?

Big Techs, also known by the acronym ‘FAAMG’ (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google), are competing with one another to harvest as much data as they can and sell it to third-party applications and businesses. Big Techs have acquired extraordinary amounts of data on individuals through internet browsers, email, weather applications, maps, and satellite navigations. These firms document how we browse, what food we enjoy, where we buy our socks, which music soothes us, what movies we watch, where we travel and how we let the world know about it.

Google contains 4.14 GigaBytes of data on me. (Those who wish to download their Google data may use this link.) When you download a copy of your Google data, you will see a folder containing multiple subfolders, each containing multiple .json files.  In a folder labelled location history, Google kept a history of my monthly location data since 2016 — with great details about whether I was walking, or running, or tilting, or cycling, or in the vehicle, along with timestamps of the activity, location name, latitude and longitude.

Another folder recorded the ads I may have seen based on the websites I visited. In another, the files contained the details of the sites I have visited, images & videos I have searched for, apps I have opened and for how long. Even the recordings of my Google voice search are listed in yet another file, along with the date and time. This is not just a story of Google.

In the New York Times report, Facebook was charged with holding a lot of personal data on their databases. Instagram, along with its parent company Facebook, holds data on removed friends, phone book, blocked contacts, pictures, chat conversations, photos & videos sent and received, among other things. Instagram, of course, retains your search history to show targeted ads.

Even, Alexa is listening — carefully. According to a 2019 Bloomberg report, Amazon Inc. employs thousands of people to help the Alexa digital assistant powering Echo speakers. Amazon, however, claims that they use the users’ requests to Alexa to train their “speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.” While we, the users of web services, maybe generating enormous amounts of data, we have no control over it. In turn, the Big Techs constantly monitor how we produce data and then recreate us – our choices – to make us better products.

We’re in an era of data collection and surveillance — whether we opt for it or not in several instances. Panopticon, that is what Michel Foucault would have called it. To gain a competitive edge over others, these companies have been hungry for hyper-personalisation of user data. As a result, they want to know everything about a particular consumer (his/her needs, desires, and behaviours) to make useful recommendations. It is this quest for hyper-personalisation, that leads to misuse of user data. A classic case of data misuse?

Cambridge Analytica Scandal

In the early March of 2018, two leading newspapers The Guardian and The New York Times carried out a chilling report on how political consulting firm Cambridge Analyticathat worked for the Trump campaign, had harvested personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent to “build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box”.

The data was collected through an application called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan of Cambridge University. Kogan, in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, had paid hundreds of thousands of users to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use. However, the app also collected the data of test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of unprecedented amounts of data.

Cambridge Analytica, according to some estimates, had harvested the private information of the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their consent, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social media’s history. The Cambridge Analytica Scandal was a clear expose of how third-party developers easily accessed user’s data, who in turn, sold it to companies that misused this information.

Now, we are in 2021. And since the 2018 Cambridge Analytica Scandal, user data privacy has become mainstream. These data privacy concerns have put Big Techs under the radar of privacy watchdogs.

In the last few years, we have seen (in many instances) how the Big Techs have mishandled consumer data or mined data without the user consent. Data privacy concerns do not just stop with personal privacy but encompass a wide array of issues related to what data protection means to democracy and who owns our data.

What Can We Do About Data Privacy?

Data privacy is centred around how data is collected, stored, managed, and shared with other third-party entities. It focuses on the individuals’ right to know the purpose of data collection, privacy preferences, as well as compliance with the privacy laws.

There are three ways of dealing with data privacy concerns – each interconnected and overlap with the other. At first, the onus of data privacy lies on the individual data users. On the personal front, we need to know what is personal to us and share the data only when necessary with entities we know we can trust.

When we open our emails, we should not click on links embedded in unsolicited emails as they may open an unsecured and harmful webpage. Always pay attention to the URL and ensure that it begins with “https://”, as “s” indicates that the URL is encrypted and secure. Do not give unnecessary access to cookies — and delete the cookies from your browser from time to time. These are some of the precautionary measures you (the users of data) may take while securing your data.

Secondly, we need our governments to take the necessary steps to regulate Big Tech and protect individual rights to data privacy. There’s GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation) 2018, in the European Union that gives more control to the individuals over the personal data. According to the law, the data controllers must not collect any personal data without the consent of the data subjects. And that they must disclose any data collection, declare its lawful basis and purpose, and state how long data is being retained and if it is being shared with any third parties, or outside of the EEA.

In 2020, California State of the United States legislated a new data privacy law i.e., CCPA (California’s Consumer Privacy Act) to enhance privacy rights and consumer protection for its residents. The law empowers its residents to know what personal data is being collected about them and/or whether it is sold to third-party entities, and request these business entities to delete the personal data of its consumers. The proposed Personal Data Protection Bill in India seeks to regulate the collection, storage, and handling of personal data. However, there are looming fears about how these laws might turn the country into an “Orwellian state” — as a result of an exemption for government bodies to access personal data. There is more regulation likely to come in 2021.

Third, we need to innovate newer ways of dealing with data products, with primacy to data privacy. For instance, in 2018 Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank piloted a card with dynamic CVV, where the card’s CVV changed after every 30 to 60 minutes. The dynamic CVV technology is created to fight card-not-present fraud that has been on the rise for years. In another example, we can see that passwords are replaced with cryptographic keys and multiple layers of biometrics.

Signal, a California-based messaging application, run by a not-for-profit organisation, offers users end-to-end encryption. Signal’s “Sealed Sender” feature makes conversations more secure as the platform cannot access private messages or media, or store them on their servers. While WhatsApp provides end-to-end encryption for messages, it can access other private information — another good reason to shift sides.

In another such innovation, Presearch is a decentralised, open-source search engine with enhanced privacy features. Built on the blockchain, Presearch rewards its users with PRE crypto tokens. They do not track or store any information or searches, as a result, the users control their data. On the similar lines, Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, has led an exciting project called “Solid” (derived from “social linked data”) that aims to radically change the way web applications work today and empower users of data, their freedom to choose where their data resides, and who is allowed to access it.

Solid is all about PODS – personal online data stores. Here, an individual has PODS in which all the personal data is stored. And you may choose to host the data wherever you may wish to. Instead of uploading data to remote services, the services are granted permission to access the data that lives in one of your PODS.

Interesting, isn’t it?


Picture: Yang Jing on Unsplash

Can We Change the World Without Taking Power?

Change the world without taking power

A lot of our understanding of revolution is in terms of the capture of state power. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of doing so: One, you may join a party, raise to power, and change the ways of doing things. This is a reformist tendency. Two, you capture the state power through violent means and then change the state structure. This is a revolutionary approach. In both these approaches, we find that power and state are intrinsic to the way society could be changed. If one were to look at the experiences of the twentieth century, the revolutionary governments across the world — more specifically in China and Russia — or the reformist governments that have gotten power through elections as elsewhere, we find that they have led to a terrific disappointment in terms of how they have changed our world. 

John Holloway, a Marxist sociologist and philosopher, in his work Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today provides an important critique of the present-day understanding of revolutions in terms of state and power relations. He interrogates four key issues: the state, the nature of power, fetishisation, and the meaning and relevance of revolution. Holloway premises his thesis on the critique of capitalism. He believes that we are all living in a dreadful capitalist society, and there is a dire need to create a more human society. Therefore, he writes, “revolution, in the sense of radical social change, is more urgent than ever.”

Holloway argues, “there is simply something wrong with the whole idea of trying to transform society through the state.” This failure is due to fact that the state is not just a neutral institution, but a “specific form of social relations that arises with the development of capitalism”. And that social relation excludes, separates and fragments people from power. Therefore, our struggle must not focus on the state and on taking state power. 

The Power of “Scream” and Anti-Power

In Holloway’s view, we must develop our structures and ways of doing things. He propounds his arguments with a reflection on the concept of “SCREAM” — an enthusiasm for changing the world. Holloway writes, “Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO.” It is the starting point of theoretical reflection of revolution, born out of rage, and not from reason. He adds, “Our scream is a refusal to accept” — the unacceptable. It is a refusal to accept the inevitability of increased inequality, exploitation, violence and misery. The scream “implies an anguished enthusiasm for changing the world”, the problem is “how we can do it.” 

Holloway, further, attempts to make an important distinction between the Leninist “counter-power” — the capture of state power, or the power to command — as opposed to “anti-power,” the power to do things, or our creative power. For this purpose, Holloway redefines power in terms of “power to” rather than “power over.” In his opinion, power means one’s capacity to do things. The scream is not just rage, but of hope. The scream implies doing. This “doing” implies being-able-to-do, and it negates an existing state of affairs.

Power is merely the ability to do. It is “can-ness” — the capacity to do. It is the “power to” show our resentment, join together, and march under a common banner of being-able-to-do. To Holloway, this power is social power, as one’s doing of things depends on the doing of others. For example, we inherit language, technology, and knowledge from others. This is collective power, as “our doing is always part of the social flow of doing.” At this point, we realise that there is no clear division between the doing of one person and the doing of another. However, there are no clear distinctions, no divisions, and no identities. 

Under capitalism, this social flow of doing is broken. And one of the biggest contributors to it is the concept of ‘private property.’ It is the power of the capitalist to command the doing of others. “Capitalism is the process of breaking the social flow of doing, breaking our power to do, and transforming it into power over others,” writes Holloway. He also critiques past revolutions as mere institutions of “power over” authorities, which have not changed the structure of power itself. 

Holloway criticized Leninist “counter-power” that is based on conquering state power to change our society. Lenin noted: First, we win power; then, we create a society worthy of humanity. He argues, “For us, trying to think about how to change society means having confidence in our own form of action.” No matter how much lip service is paid to the movement, the goal of conquest inevitably leads to the “instrumentalisation of power.”

The struggle has an aim — the capture of state power. And all those aspects of the struggle that do not contribute to the end goal are given secondary status. This leads to the hierarchisation of struggles. This hierarchy further impoverishes struggles, as it is a hierarchy of ‘self’ and ‘ourselves’. Holloway notes, the notion of the capture of state power misses the point that the aim of revolution is to have no such power relations. Thus, we need to rethink how to change society without taking over state power. 

The Zapatista Uprising in Mexico

It is at this point, Holloway introduces us to Zapatistas and their renewed vocabulary on revolution. The Zapatista uprising in Mexico in January 1994 has been of enormous importance for two reasons: One, they rebelled at a time when there was no longer any space for revolt in modern society. Two, they also had proposed to rethink the whole concept of rebellion. 

In one such instance, when the dialogue between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas in San Andrés, Chiapas, the negotiation was not seen as symmetrical process between the two sides. It was asymmetrical in two ways: First, they weren’t going to negotiate. They sought ‘time’ in responding to the government. And the time to them was not “clock,” but their ability to talk to everyone in Zapatismo and responding. This shows us that their concept of politics is inherently anti-hierarchical. Second, they had asserted themselves with their insistence on wearing their traditional attire and using their language. 

The fundamental break from traditional revolutionary approaches lies in the centrality given to the idea of dignity. Holloway writes, “Dignity speaks in the first words of the Zapatista uprising: Ya Basta! Enough!.” The Zapatistas claim that they rebel because they can no longer live in humiliation as they have for five hundred years. And the revolt is the revolt of dignity and not of power. It is dignity, not just of revolutionaries, but of ordinary people. This emphasis on dignity forms the basis of the Zapatismo vocabulary of revolution. And it invariably rejects the taking over state power. 

While reading Holloway, the Italian sociologist Antonio Negri notes that Changing the World Without Taking Power is “a beautiful but strange book.” And this feeling sustains throughout. Holloway, through his thesis, asks how we can formulate our understanding of revolution as the struggle against power, not for power. He does not seek to understand revolution as an answer, but only as a question. “There is nothing fixed to which we can cling for reassurance,” he writes. “Not class, not Marx, not revolution, nothing but the moving negation of untruth.” For Holloway, the central aim of a social revolution is to “make the world anew, to create a world of dignity, a world of humanity, but without taking power.” 

Disclaimer: I do not, unfortunately, present a critique of the book, for there are many as highlighted by several political philosophers and social scientists — more specifically from the far-left scholarship.


 

Where There is No Caste: Utopia

In the winter of 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta, visited India. When they arrived in Mumbai, King told reporters, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.” King was fascinated by the non-violent struggle of Gandhi against the British and had long dreamed of going to India. The couple stayed back in India for an entire month. One afternoon, King and his wife visited a high school where the children belonging to Untouchable castes were taught. The school principal made an introduction: “Young people, I would like to present you a fellow of untouchable caste from the United States of America.” King was appalled at the comparison. He never expected himself to be addressed as untouchable for he was an alien to the system. When King began to think about the reality of the lives of 20 million African Americans he was fighting for, he said to himself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is untouchable.”

The Lies That Divide Us

Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, in her bestselling book Caste: The Lies That Divide Us, introduces caste as a guiding framework to analyse racial hierarchy and stigmatization that holds African-Americans at the bottom of the ladder. Caste is broadly divided into seven parts, each addressing the broad contours of caste, and the interplay between caste and race in the United States. Her work is lyrically absorbing with its brilliant use of anecdotes, allegories, and metaphors about “an old house.” Throughout her work, Wilkerson uses words such as ‘dominant caste,’ ‘middle caste,’ ‘disfavoured caste’ or ‘lowest caste’ instead of, or in addition to, ‘white,’ ‘Asian or Latino,’ and ‘African-American’ to refer to the American caste system. 

Wilkerson defines caste as the “architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions” for sustaining social order. A caste system “is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of the other,” she writes. In her thesis, Wilkerson notes that the caste hierarchy is “not about feelings or morality”, but it is about power, resources, authority and respect — which groups have it and which do not, who gets to acquire and control them, and who does not.

To understand caste and its implicit use of unconscious ranking of human characteristics “used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species,” Wilkerson draws stark parallels between the “tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquishing caste system” of Hitler’s Germany that exterminated millions of Jews, lasting 12 years; the “lingering, millennia-long caste system of India” that continues to stigmatize Dalits — the former untouchables — even to this day; and the “shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the US,” that has been dehumanising the African-American community for centuries.

Race and Caste in the United States

Wilkerson, in her work, analyses the interplay between race and caste in the United States. For this purpose, she explores the writings of Ashley Montagu, Gunnar Myrdal, Allison Davis, and W.E.B. Du Bois among others. Allison Davis, an African-American social anthropologist, in his path-breaking work Deep South (1941) that examines the parallel between the African-Americans under the Jim Crow South in the United States and Dalits in India. Social economist Gunnar Myrdal, in his 1944 comprehensive report on race in America titled: An American Dilemma concludes that “the most accurate term for American society is not race, but caste.” 

Drawing from their works, Wilkerson contends that “caste and race coexist in the same culture” and they serve to reinforce one another. In the American caste system, the signal of rank in the form of one’s colour and appearance are known as race. And in the language of race caste as the underlying grammar defining it. Race is what one sees — the physical traits with arbitrary meanings — and caste is the “powerful infrastructure” that holds each group in its place. In Caste, Wilkerson identifies eight “pillars of caste” — divine will, heritability, endogamy, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization and stigma, terror as enforcement and cruelty as means of control, and inheritance of superiority and inferiority — that underlie the working of caste across societies. She illustrates these features using examples from India, Nazi Germany, and the United States.

Tentacles of Caste

In the “tentacles of caste,” Wilkerson describes various ways in which caste permeates in a society that is infected by it. She goes on to address the “unconscious bias” embedded deep within one’s culture and its function of perpetuating caste. And the role of lower castes as “scapegoats” of the caste system. Wilkerson notes, “As scapegoats, they are seen as the reason for societal ills.” She, further, adds that the “caste system thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries” that builds up as a result of scarcity in societies. In another chapter, Wilkerson talks about the inherent “narcissism” that sustains the caste system.

The dominant caste acts as “the sun around which all other castes revolve” and these castes are ranked in “descending order by their physical proximity” to the dominant caste. “Caste behaviour,” Wilkerson writes, “is essentially a response to one’s assigned place in the hierarchy.” And the culture enables one to take instructions from dominant castes — follow them, revere them, and not argue with them when they are wrong. Although Wilkerson’s work elaborates on race in terms of the caste hierarchy, she doesn’t explicate on class privilege in terms of one’s inheritance of intergenerational trauma and post-memory among African Americans.

Wilkerson uses the most enduring caste framework, India’s, consisting of four varnas — Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra — and Dalits, former untouchables. However, jatis, the subset of varna, represent the sustained harsh reality of Indian society. These jatis are not rigid. And some jatis, as shown by several Indian social anthropologists, have climbed up the ladder and several others have slipped down. The postcolonial scholarship on caste has further shown us that British colonialism has imposed a certain rigidity in the structuring of caste as it exists today. 

What captures most of Wilkerson’s attention is the textualized division of caste in its purest form of hierarchy, division, and the normalised stigma — varna. Through this caste framework, she opens up a debate on what constitutes caste in our society. Wilkerson writes, “caste is the powerful institution that holds each group in its place”. When we apply this understanding to our day-to-day living, we see caste everywhere.

In my childhood, I attended a boarding school in Kadapatti — A temple town for the caste crusader, Basava, in southern India. On Sundays and other holidays, we, as children, would stand behind the windows of an unknown neighbourhood, peep through the tinted glasses, and stare at the Television watching dramatic Kannada movies, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and the Cricket World Cup. As young as nine-years-olds, we knew our positions, roles, and functions as we huddled through those tinted glasses. When I look back, I understand that the mere notion of “peeping through the tinted glasses” and “owning a Television” shows us the caste structure — and the roles and behaviours it elicits.

Where There is No Caste: Utopia

Caste, in its truest sense, is one’s inability to accept the other as ourselves. And this form of caste exists everywhere. It is exactly this inability that enables the rich to look at the poor-in-tatters with a certain disgust. In a rural Indian household, the women — all their lives — are taught that their role is restricted to the four-walled kitchen. In international society, the third-world is looked down upon by developed countries. And the transgender community still faces perpetual stigma in South Asian societies among others. Wilkerson’s very appropriation of caste into western societies — the tendency to define caste in western terms — might blur harsh lived-realities of caste in India.

In the modern capitalist system, a new form of legitimised caste structure has emerged. A factory has a certain structure with foremen, supervisors, the board of directors, and the executive heads — each playing their roles, in their institutionalized hierarchy, with a scalar chain of command. In his Annihilation of Caste (1935), Ambedkar (whom Wilkerson calls the Martin Luther King, Jr. of India) wrote, “caste does not bring about the division of labour; it brings about division of labourers.” The caste roles enable the blue-collared employees to be treated in a certain manner as opposed to that of white-collared employees. It enables the watchman of an organisation ought to behave in a certain manner — and salute the ones that come through those gates. These caste behaviours are inevitably defined and structured in terms of one’s socio-economic and political power.

 What Wilkerson does not, however, delve deep into is the modern manifestations of caste in our society. But, she commences a debate on the term “caste” and its varied existence in human society, with Nazi Germany, America, and the Indian variant of caste as merely some of the many forms. As Wilkerson notes, “Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible guide not only to how we speak, but how we process information.”

Caste is against humanity. It divides humans based on their, arbitrarily, presumed worth. It does not just assume that all humans are not born equal, but, caste provides the basis for our behaviour, rules of engagement, and encourages stigmatisation of the other. Wilkerson’s Caste enables us to rethink our complacency towards the perpetuating caste in our societies in various forms it exists. 

 In Wilkerson’s thesis, the caste framework helps one to understand “racism” and the “racial stigma” against African Americans in the United States. She concludes her important essay on caste by helping us to recognise caste and then enabling us to dismantle it. It is possible, Wilkerson writes, to create a “world without caste [that] would set everyone free” for it requires both individual bravery and enormous collective will of dominant castes.


Can We Separate Art From the Artist?

separate the art and artist

As I was strolling around the art faculty of Delhi University, I encountered two of my coursemates — intensely — conversing about the dilemma in the separation of art from the artist. I joined along. One of them pointed out that Woody Allen is a gifted director and also a sex offender. In that case, “Would you still choose to watch Manhattan?”

To which, I said: “Yes, absolutely.” After much deliberation on this ethical dilemma, I’ve come to believe that there is no one absolute answer.

#MeToo Movement

The historical #MeToo movement, which gained momentum in 2017, has thrown a spotlight into the men-of-art and their unlicensed abuse of power to sexually molest and harass others. Roman Polanski assaulted a minor; Harvey Weinstein predated women; R. Kelly was videotaped having sex and urinating on a minor; Woody Allen was accused of molesting his adoptive daughter; Pablo Picasso has molested and hurled abuses at women all his life; and so forth. However, each of these morally-repugnant-individuals has produced works that marvel the spectators for ages. 

Polanski’s movie The Pianist is one of the most illustrious depiction of the world war and human emotions. Or Woody Allen’s 1977 release Annie Hall is an aesthetical representation of romance and comedy. Or Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica embodies the most powerful critique of war. As a result of complexity emanating due to the impact, the art has on the spectators’ emotions, and the unjustifiable actions of the artist, it becomes an intrinsic ethical dilemma. The question is: Can we separate art from its artist? The art-artist conundrum has found two — conflicting — poles of opinions. Those who believe that art could be separated from artist argue that art is something meaningful and it needs to be embraced. And the artist needs to be condemned or punished, not as a creator of the art, but as an individual who has committed the crime. They argue that you can be a bad guy and still create good art. So here, they believe, art isn’t an issue, but the actions of the artist are.

The Death of The Author

One of the most profound arguments comes from the postmodernist school of thought. For some of them, the artist wasn’t just separate from the art, but the artist was dead. Roland Barthes titled his declaration in the form of “The Death of the Author” in 1967. The author doesn’t create a text, Barthes argued, but the reader by reading it. Using his premise, one can argue, every time spectators encounter an art, they make it new, in a way that the artist no longer controls a definitive, final interpretation. One of the colleagues at my university explains: “The art provokes emotions and the artist no longer is a party to those emotions.” As a result, supporting/appreciating art is not equivalent to encouraging/endorsing the actions of the artist.

Art As The Product of Social Privileges

Those who believe that art cannot be separated from art, argue: “Art doesn’t exist in its own altruistic, alternate universe.” It is a product of societal privileges. As Maria Gracia, a senior editor of The ARTery writes, “The art that we uphold as genius or indispensable from human history is also of this world — tethered to and a product of existing systems of power, like capitalism and white supremacy.”

To put it bluntly, sales of the art directly benefit the artists. Watching Kevin Spacey directly benefits him. Reading William Goulding directly benefits him. Buying a DVD of a Woody Allen movie directly benefits him. Thus, individual artists and their art are a part of a collective whole defining our socio-economic transactions. Writer Roxanne Gay in her essay “Can I Enjoy the Art but Denounce the Artist?” argues that we should not overlook an artist’s sins and not separate the art from the artist. She writes, “We can no longer worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius.” As Jacob Kuppermann puts it: “By creating a culture that excuses the misdeeds of the powerful, talented or rich, we make it harder for their victims, from fellow celebrities to anonymous teenagers, to retain their dignity in society.”

Individual’s Proximity and The Art 

Broadly speaking, we elicit three divergent responses to the art-artist conundrum: Yes. No. And it’s complicated. I propose that each of these responses emanate from two parameters. One, the individual’s proximity to the victim and the cause. Two, the individual’s affinity to the artist and the art. Let’s suppose, I like listening to an artist who is also a sex-offender. Here, my three plausible scenarios would be: First, if I like the music and I do not have as much proximity with the victim, I would certainly choose to say, “We can separate art from the artist”. Second, if I have propinquity towards the victim, or am sympathetic to their cause, then, I would abandon listening to the artist altogether. In that case, one can argue that we cannot separate art from the artist. In the third scenario, where I like the art and am sympathetic towards the victim and their cause, I am more likely to be stuck in a dilemma. “How can the artist do this?” In a situation like that, I am more likely to listen to music while also feeling guilty about it. Therefore, it’s complicated. Thus, the answer to the art-artist conundrum is deeply personal. There is no way to produce a collective moral standard to arrive at a conclusive distinction between art and the artist. That being said, we can also not sufficiently establish that the artist is what provides value to the art. In the art-artist conundrum, it’s the individuals that hold a moral compass for themselves while arriving at an answer. And there may be no answer to this debate.


Image: David Giesbrecht/Netflix 

We Don’t Need No Thought Control

education-thought control

Pink Floyd, Education, and Modernity

— Adarsh Badri, Vivin Nair

‘We Don’t Need No Education’ — a catchy first-line of a Pink Floyd’s 1979 release of ‘The Wall’ became an instant hit spanning multiple boundaries and reaching an audience that had never heard of the band before. The popularity of the album reached new heights with the release of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part-II)” in the early 1980s so much that numerous schools had to issue a ban on the song.

Roger Waters, a lead bassist and lyricist of the band, wrote the three-part song lyric, expressing his personal experiences in the form of a story of a character called Pink. The song did not only capture the reality of educational institutions but also deep-seated human beliefs and the authoritative institutionalisation of individuals.

The essence of the song could be captured in “We don’t need no thought control,” which expresses rebellion towards the school education and its indoctrination and conformity towards a rigid, predefined path of learning and knowledge. And such an institutional indoctrination makes us just “another brick in the wall.” Much of these ideas echo Orwellian sentiment towards a system that constantly feeds you with what to think and feel.

In the work, Pink Floyd and the Philosophy, George A. Reisch succinctly puts forth: “It is not an attack on education per se.” It was an attack on certain teachers, who torment their students with ridicule. And it is an attack on education when it becomes indistinguishable from ‘thought control.’ For instance, in a subject of History, the teacher becomes a tool of production of correct citizens – the ones that hold ‘right’ opinions and ‘patriotic’ beliefs – that do not question the status quo. It is in this context, Norman Douglas wrote: “Education is a state-controlled manufactory of echoes.”

Modernity and Education

With the “Birth of Modernity,” the school system began to introduce a certain form of mannerism. It taught the students ways to express the most profound human emotions, developed a new standard of behaviour – where self-discipline over desires and emotions became a civilised form of conduct. The enlightenment project gave the modern world the pedagogy of learning, which established a uniform grading-system, a certain doctrine of teaching-learning, merit, and the examinations.

In the words of Dennis O’Keeffe, “Modernity is the combination of capitalism and democracy. Its economic core is based on property rights, which mobilise the organisation of resources. It also requires mass education to select intellectual talent for a complex division of labour.” As a result, our education system tends to create individuals that are suited to benefit the capitalist structure. In the process, the school system indoctrinates us into what makes a good student and a bad one.

All-day long, the students do nothing, but follow instructions – solve so and so questions, add these numbers, multiply the other, do your homework, and stop talking. The industrial-age mentality of mass production and mass control is deep-seated in our school system. At schools, one is awarded for doing exactly as you are taught.

As children, our aspirations are destroyed to fit in a system that our society deems us to be. In the process, a child is taught to learn alphabets as A-for-Apple, B-for-Ball, C-for-Cat, instead of A-for-Apple, B-for-Big Apple, C-for-Custard Apple, for an Apple loving child. The creativity of a child is suppressed in such an education system. The students have become products in a factory – with labels of a good product and a bad product –  that are evaluated by a standard grading system.

Educated Subjects of The Society

In his work, The One World Schoolhouse, Sal Khan refers to a phenomenon known as “Swiss-cheese gaps.” We are taught multiple subjects in our prime days of schooling that we never really learn anything inquisitively. When a child is taught multiple subjects at school, he might show interest in a particular subject more than the other. Since the evaluation is based on ‘a minimum score’ required to pass, the student may end up only learning things in bits and pieces. The students have been constantly pushed ahead regardless of their mastery over a topic. And when this process is continued for several years, all the knowledge that a student might have acquired makes little sense.

Examinations – a mechanism that evaluates what gets written, how it gets written, and how not to write something – legitimises such an education and the values associated with it. The education system based on inauthentic rote learning, staying up all night to memorising useless facts that are forgotten the next day, and evaluating children based on their test scores is an acutely inhumane exercise. Thus, some children are tagged as dumb and others are praised as intelligent.

We are all a product of such a system. A system that judges a fish by its ability to climb a mountain. It rigidly curtails one’s interests, their ability to critically think, and propose a pre-defined path that most likely result in ‘another brick in the wall.’

The society we live in is changing rapidly, but our education system hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years. It is mired by an industrial-age mentality of churning out factory workers. However, we live in an Information Age. In the era of rapid unabated information flow, our education system also needs to tailor to individual needs and interests.

In the years that follow, there is a need for an education that is digitised, automated, interactive and individual-centric – with the pace of the learner. There has to be an increased encouragement towards peer-to-peer learning in the school system. Ceteris paribus, we don’t need no education that controls our thoughts.


Disclaimer: Adarsh Badri is a Masters student at the University of Delhi, and an author of a forthcoming book, the ‘Republic of Reservation’. Vivin Nair is an alumnus of the London School of Economics, and a Smart City Fellow with Government of India.

Police Brutality, Custodial Deaths, and (Un)Just System

police brutality in India

As millions of Americans march on the streets of Oklahoma, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, etc. to protest the institutional murder of George Floyd, the world’s attention now needs to shift towards the custodial deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix in India. The Police system in India is in a dangerous state of disrepair with skyrocketing cases of human rights violations, encounter killings and institutional murders. The custodial death of a father-son duo has sparked a nation-wide outrage against the police brutality in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu. Their crime: Violation of COVID-19 guidelines.

Police Brutality in Thoothukudi

Earlier this week, P. Jayaraj and his son Bennix were arrested for reportedly keeping their shops open and thereby, allegedly violating the lockdown guidelines. Bennix owned a small mobile store in Sathankulam town in Thoothukudi.

On June 19, the police patrolling the town had visited the shop and argued with Jayaraj. They took him to the police station thereafter. When Bennix rushed to the police station to meet his father, he was arrested as well. The duo was booked under the IPC Section 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), and 353 (use of force to deter public servant from duty) among many others.

Two days after the arrest, both Jayaraj and Bennix died in police custody. Several eyewitnesses have accused the police of brutally harassing and sexually assaulting both men. A friend of Jayaraj recounted the incident and said: “When we saw the two, they were dripping with blood and badly hurt. Their clothes were soaked in blood.”

The incident has triggered a nation-wide outrage against police brutality. In India, it is largely “vulnerable” who become the victims of police brutality. Here, we take actions of institutional murders in the form of extrajudicial killings, lockup deaths, and police brutality as a given. In our society, we have normalised police brutality and encounter culture.

COVID-19 and Police Brutality

In the weeks following the COVID-19 lockdown in India, the police used their lathis on the poor and vulnerable to adhere to the guidelines, while the rich had complete impunity. An ambulance driver was beaten up by the police in the Indian city of Pune on suspicion that he was illegally transporting passengers in his vehicle, which he was not.

In another instance, a man in West Bengal was assaulted for stepping out to buy milk, who later died from his injuries. However, there has been no outrage against the police brutality all through the anti-CAA protests, and the lockdown that followed. The brutal custodial death of Jayaraj and Bennix has enabled many Indians to express their anguish on social media.

There is no denying that torture and beating up of suspects to extract confession remains a major source of police legitimacy in India. This legitimacy is derived out of ignorance of the people towards their constitutional rights, and the unfortunate arrogance of police as an institution. Policemen, who engage in such acts, are rarely punished by the system. In many instances, they are transferred from one district to another, bestowing them with clear impunity for their crimes.

Human Rights and The Police System

The National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT) in its “India: Annual Report on Torture 2019” reveals that as many as 1,731 people have died in police custody during 2019, i.e., death of above five persons daily. The torture methods, the report highlights, include hammering iron nails in the body, applying roller on legs and burning, beating on the feet, stretching legs apart, and hitting on private parts.

In a most striking admission to Human Rights Watch in 2009, a police officer said: “This week, I was told to do an encounter.” He continued, “I am looking for my target, and I will eliminate him.” There are police officers, who derive their pride in the total number of encounters they have carried out in their career. Many of the “super-cop” Indian cinemas romanticize torture, beating and encounters as an “ultimate justice”. This romanticisation gets strongly engrained in our minds that we tend to accept that police has legitimacy over violence.

Another report by Common Cause and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies notes that there is a significant bias against Muslims among the police, where half of those interviewed said that Muslims are naturally prone to committing violence.

Vulnerable become an easy target for the police brutality: Muslims, farmers, Dalits, Adivasis, poor, transgenders, and migrant labours. People in the villages have a certain stigma attached to the police institution. It is often believed that “an honourable man will not enter a police station or courtroom”. Police itself has become an institution of oppression, an enforcer of fear, and a spear-header of morality.

Foucault and The Police System

Police, as an institution, is like an organ in a body. It is designed to perform a certain function, i.e., catch the bad guys. If one were to explain in a sophisticated language, the police function is to protect the citizens from crime. But what if an institution designed to protect citizens, becomes the perpetrator of the crime?

Michael Foucault, in his influential work, Discipline and Punish pointed out: Even when we believe that the prisons have failed at their tasks, we tend to keep them. Perhaps, we should not ask why the prison fails, instead what it actually succeeds at?

When we ask the same question regarding the police, we will know that the police succeed at treating the way you are intended to. If you are an educated elite, they do their best to keep you safe. In this process, they also succeed in suppressing the “vulnerable.” They suppress those who question the status quo. It is a result of a broken police system. A system that allows the police to investigate, prosecute and pass judgement for a crime at the same time.

To truly confront the problem of custodial death in our society, we need to completely overhaul the institution of policing. Improvised training is an essential element in that regard. The police officials ought to strictly abide by the procedural conduct, and have the utmost respect for human rights. The government should empower independent committees to investigate the matters of human rights violations and reduce impunity. The government also has to enact and enforce strict laws against torture, and inhuman treatment of the criminal suspects.


Picture Credits: The Guardian/Illustration by Nathalie Lees

Politics in the Time of COVID-19

politics of covid-19

The COVID-19 crisis has created a new normal – empty streets, closed cafes and restaurants, sealed borders, restricted travels, and virtualised human interactions – a world paralysed at its own pace. Coronavirus has engulfed everyone’s lives with the fear of the unknown, or rather, of the unforeseeable. People, in billions, have been forced to stay at home. Young and the old alike, complaining of fever and dry cough, have filled hospitals in thousands.

Citizens, at least the privileged, lined up in supermarkets to stock up groceries and toilet papers. Meanwhile, the rest complained, “We will die – either from the virus or from hunger”. In a globalised society, the pandemic has produced a new form of self-organisation that isolates the self from others to sustain itself. The pandemic has made uncertainty a new normal.

COVID-19 and China

The novel Coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The virus has since spread like a wildfire across the globe. More than two million people throughout the world have contracted the virus and tens of thousands of them have died.

Initially, China had covered up the extent of the spread of the Coronavirus outbreak for several weeks in December. The Chinese Government denied all the initial evidence and suppressed those who had warned of it, most tragically the Wuhan physician Dr Li Wenliang. The global response to the crisis has been too little, too late, and too laggard. The nation-states have been seeking to look inwards. As a result, the COVID-19 crisis seems to be nowhere in sight of control.

Pandemics provide the nation-states with an opportunity to seek to control the human population. They enable the rise of a big-state that takes tough measures towards its survival. Three such features of a pandemic-state are surveillance, authoritarianism, and xenophobia.

Surveillance

Countries, both democratic and non-democratic, have been using technology to track the movement of their citizens. Surveillance has become a new tool to control the spread of the pandemic. Nation-states have enforced their citizens to follow the norms of social-distancing, while also punishing those not adhering to them.

Surveillance technologies have been used to track where people are, where they have been, and what their recovery status is. This data is further used to determine the extent of the spread of disease and then track those who have been in contact with those infected by the virus.

Israel has authorised the internal security agency to tap the secret trove of cellular data of its citizens. South Korea and other East Asian countries have had their initial success in digital contact-tracing using mobile applications. Many countries across the globe have been following suit. States have been exercising the power to monitor people using technology. Several leaders across the globe have been using the pandemic as an opportunity to suppress their population, thereby resulting in an Orwellian State – Big Brother is Watching You.

Authoritarianism

In response to the crisis, the world autocrats have been employing a mixture of propaganda, suppression of political rivals, and expansion of political powers. As an old maxim goes, “Never let a good famine go to waste”, many world leaders have been successful in their power grabs.

Pandemic has enabled the leaders to legitimise the use of executive powers, detain people, and infringe on the freedoms of expression. Hungary has passed a new law that grants Prime Minister Victor Orban the power to suspend the country’s existing laws. An indefinite State of Emergency has been declared in Hungary, curtailing the freedom of expression and penalising those breaking quarantine orders.

Philippines legislature has granted President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers. And the President has imposed shoot-to-kill orders of those not following the quarantine norms. In Egypt, chemical warfare troops, clad in the protective suit have been deployed to disinfect the suburbs.

Pandemic has allowed the Governments to ban public assemblies, quarantine, close borders, limit trade, impose restrictions on movement, and censor media. History also suggests that after a crisis, the state does not give up on all the ground it had secured. Thus, it is imperative to speculate about the kind of state we would live in after the crisis.

Xenophobia

There has also been a rise in the process of ‘othering’ with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of taking the opportunity to embrace and support one another, the nation-states have become the spouts of xenophobia. Even as the Coronavirus spread across the globe, reports of racism towards East Asians have been on the rise in Western democracies.

The President of the United States, Donald Trump, has repeatedly referred to the Coronavirus as ‘Chinese Virus’. Incidents of racially motivated crimes have risen throughout the United States since the outbreak of the virus. Xenophobia has become a petty tool for governments and their citizens to colour responses concerning the pandemic.

Media also plays an important role in the creation of ‘the other’, as a contrast to the self. Xenophobia systematically enables the social stigma towards others in society. The moment a pandemic is regionalised and stigmatised, humanity will suffer a sad demise.

Scholars across the globe have given their verdict on a post-pandemic world, with many affirming that the “world will be less open, prosperous, and free”. Some scholars believe that China would rise as a new global power; some others have written an obituary to hyper-globalisation. Climate change, for good, will gain limelight in a post-pandemic world. It is interesting to see how the crisis in itself pans out over the period to provide an affirmative answer. A pandemic-State will always be mired by the rise of authoritarianism, surveillance, and xenophobia.

Conclusion

However, such a State will not be suitable for a post-crisis era. We need to keep in check the power of Governments in a post-pandemic society. United Nations, as an agency, has failed to provide a collective global response. Its decline seems evident, more than ever. It should not mean the demise of ‘global governance’. We need institutions with a robust and structured form of global governance mechanisms.

A world government with structured power-sharing with nation-states would be a sophisticated alternative to human society. Such a government would require enforceable jurisdiction on issues that threaten humanity, such as poverty, health, terrorism, war, and climate change. We need cooperation between countries more than ever. The pandemic will not end for anyone until it ends for everyone.


Disclaimer: The article was first published with the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE), and with KhabarHub.

Picture Credits: The Economist

Decoding the Narrative Around CAA

 

Narrative – a term loosely understood as a story or an account of events and experiences, has been the most powerful tools in shaping society throughout the history of humankind. Certain narratives are created by the elites within societies to nudge the individuals to think in a certain manner, to want certain things, to observe certain rules, to behave in accordance with certain standards. They, thereby, are used as a justification for the actions of the elites.

In the Germany of 1930s, a certain narrative around Jews was told and retold to the German people in the form of state-sponsored propaganda. The Jews were painted as an inferior race and a threat to German racial supremacy. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped off the citizenship rights of Jews and forbade marriages and employment of Jews in Germany with the justification of protecting German Blood and German Honour. This resulted in the Holocaust carried out by Hitler, killing millions of Jews in the concentration camps of Poland and Nazi Germany.

Narratives have the power to create and recreate histories.  At times, the narratives are created in the form of binaries of good and bad, in which the one identity is privileged and ‘the other’ is deprivileged. This further emanates into the objectification of someone as evil by providing the analogy of good, ultimately leading to the process known as ‘palingenesis’ or the recreation of the past.

Much has already been debated about the constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. This Act amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 to provide citizenship for members of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities, who had fled persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before December 2014. The Muslims, as a religious group, were excluded from the Act, with the rationale that the three mentioned countries are Muslim-majority nations. The Act has been substantiated by the ruling party as an obligation towards Pakistani Hindus as agreed upon in the Liaquat-Nehru Pact of 1950.

Protests erupted across the country in the form of a mass movement against the CAA and the pan-India implementation of the contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC). The Act is violative of the secular doctrine as enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution of India. Moreover, the Act is much more than just an amendment to the citizenship law in the Constitution. With the introduction of CAA, the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is redefining the narrative around the identity of India, which would alter the very nature of how one perceives India.

It redefines India as a nation for the Hindus, moving away from its proclaimed secularism. Even if India retains the ‘secular’ character, the act changes the psychological perception of how one views India. It enables a consciousness that India is a holy land for all the Hindus throughout the world, and that Muslims have been benevolently sheltered within a predominately Hindu nation.

The nation-wide implementation of NRC would be detrimental to Muslims, as many of whom would not be able to produce the papers that the government intends to seek from an individual. Evoking Derrida’s notion of ‘conditional hospitality,’ the Muslims are recognised and tolerated as the guest, while also reminding them that it is not their own home.

The CAA is a larger project of ‘numerical domination’ of Hindus, which acts as a basic premise of Hindu nationalist doctrine. To the proponents of this doctrine, India can retain its Hindu character only with the preponderance of numerical Hinduism.

To Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the term ‘Hindutva’ meant the quality of being a Hindu. Hindus, according to Savarkar, are those who considered India as the land in which their ancestors lived. In his, Essentials of Hindutva (1923), Savarkar provides three distinct criteria for identifying Hinduness: ‘common-nation,’ ‘common race and ‘common-civilisation,’ which became the basis for exclusion of both Indian Muslims and Indian Christians.[1]

M.S. Golwalkar, a founding member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a prominent ideologue of Hindutva, goes a step ahead and declares Muslims as the enemies of the nation. In his, Bunch of Thoughts (1966), Golwalkar dedicates a chapter titled ‘Internal Threats’ to highlight the three pertinent threats to Indian society: Muslims, Christians, and Communists. “It has been a tragic lesson of the history of many a country in the world,” Golwalkar laments “that the hostile elements within the country pose a far greater menace to national security than aggressors from outside.”[2] He never trusted the patriotism of Muslims. While referring to the Muslims, Golwalkar writes, “It would be suicidal to delude ourselves into believing that they have turned patriots overnight after the creation of Pakistan.” He goes a step ahead and declares that Masjids are the mere representation of ‘miniature Pakistans’. These thinkers provide the ideological ground for Hindu Nationalism.[3]

In the process of recreating history, the narratives get told in the form of alternative-facts. One of the pertinent arguments held by the believers of RSS and Hindu Nationalist ideologues is that the Aryans have been indigenous people and have never migrated from Central Asia to India. Much has already been talked about the historical validity of such a claim being highly erroneous, and the claim is highly political rather than historical facts.

The term ‘Hindu’ is itself not succinct. It was more of a flexible cultural identity than any religion. Millions of gods and goddesses were worshipped in the subcontinent, with each holding its own unique value. Multiple cultural identities have been blurred into the formation of what Hindutva ideologues preach as Hinduism. This process is not very alien to Indian history, the process was spearheaded by the colonial rulers in their series of ‘investigative modalities’ in their quest to understanding India.

“The cultural effects of colonialism,” Dirks in Caste of Minds (2001) notes, “have until recently been too often ignored or displaced into the inevitable logic of modernization and world capitalism; and this only because it has not been sufficiently recognized that colonialism was itself a cultural project of control.”[4] So much so that they privileged a certain identity while deprivileging the other.

In the Census of 1911, in parts of present-day Gujarat, some 200,000 people described themselves as ‘Mohammedan Hindus’.  However, this did not fit into the narrative of what the Britishers claimed as an identity. As a result, they either boxed them into Hindus or Muslims. These colonial experimentations created a new knowledge of India and its inhabitants. This knowledge also became a treasure to the Hindu nationalists towards pushing their Hindutva agenda.

The Hindu nationalists, first, reinstated their ideologues as heroes. And then, they elaborated on the Hindutva ideas as alternate facts. And finally, they are on their path to establish a Hindu nation. The ‘idealisation project’ of the Hindutva ideologues began with reinstating of Savarkar as a freedom fighter and a revolutionary. In 2006, on the occasion of Savarkar Jayanti, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee would go on to declare, “Savarkar meant Tatva (elements), Tark (arguments), Tarunya (youth), Tej (brilliance), Tyag (sacrifice) and Tap (penance).”[5] BJP, on several occasions, has declared its intention of awarding Bharata Ratna to Savarkar.

After the BJP-led NDA came to power in 2014, the recreation of alternate facts began into two forms: reasserting religion and reclaiming science. The reassertion of the religion project began with ‘love-jihad,’ ‘lynching-in-the-name-of-cow,’ ‘renaming-cities,’ and ‘Ram-at-Ayodhya’. Several BJP leaders have been making provocative statements ever since. In 2015, Sakshi Maharaj would go on to urge “Hindu women to produce at least four children to protect the Hindu religion.” In another instance, he would go on to declare himself a true Muslim and that “Prophet Mohammed was a great yogi.”[6]

In as early as 2005, Yogi Adityanath had envisioned, “I will not stop till I turn UP and India into a Hindu Rashtra.” Today, Yogi Adityanath is the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and he clearly seems to be in the direction of what he had once envisioned. Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, in the Parliament, declared the killer of Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘desh-bhakt’ (patriot). These statements are often made by the insignificant members of the organisation as they could easily be dismissed off but still enable a public discourse.

The BJP’s recreation of alternative facts in a deliberate attempt to reclaim science has been in the form of narratives derived from the mythologies and epics. One of the BJP MPs would go on to state: “cow-dung and urine can cure cancer.”[7] Another added, “cows exhale oxygen.” Another Member of Parliament declared Darwin’s theory as scientifically wrong. In his defence, the Member stated, “nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, said they ever saw an ape turning to a human being.”

Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had, once, made a comment that there must have been some plastic surgery at the time of Lord Ganesh, who was affixed with an elephant’s head. These narratives in the form of speeches and declarations are intended to recreate alternate histories and reclaim science. Through these narratives, an individual is created and produced as the subject of that ideology, often referred to as ‘interpellation’.

With the implementation of CAA, the BJP is in its final phase of altering the character of India into a Hindu nation. Hinduism has been an inclusive religion. All through its history, the religion has coexisted with other religions in the subcontinent. It has welcomed and incorporated a variety of outside influences within its hold. There is no one definition of Hinduism. It is personal. Hinduism is a compilation of many traditions, cultures and philosophies. However, with the introduction of CAA, we have been told, who qualifies as a Hindu, what it means to be a Hindu, and who qualifies as a Hindu. It is in this context the Orwellian quote, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past” become pertinent.

The narrative of Hinduism has been reinvented to suit the needs of Hindutva ideology, which aims at establishing a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. However, the young and the old alike have risen to protect the democratic values as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. In the suburbs of Delhi’s Shahin Bagh, the Muslim women have been protesting against the Government’s policies for more than a month now. There is widespread civil society movement all across India, with people taking to streets against the CAA and NRC. The dream of Hindu nationalists still seems far-fetched. And the hope lives on…


 

References

[1] Savarkar, V. (1923). Essentials of Hindutva. 1st ed. pp.41-43. Retrieved from: http://savarkar.org/en/encyc/2017/5/23/2_12_12_04_essentials_of_hindutva.v001.pdf_1.pdf

[2] Golwalkar, M. (1996). Bunch of thoughts. 3rd ed. Sahitya Sindhu Prakashan, pp.148-154. Retrieved from: https://www.thehinducentre.com/multimedia/archive/02486/Bunch_of_Thoughts_2486072a.pdf

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dirks, N. (2001). Castes of Mind: Colonialism and making of Modern India, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p.9.

[5] https://www.opindia.com/2018/08/12-things-vajpayee-talked-about-in-his-speech-on-savarkar-that-hold-relevance-even-today/

[6] https://www.indiatoday.in/fyi/story/5-times-bjp-mp-sakshi-maharaj-made-controversial-statements-266628-2015-10-06

[7] https://www.scoopwhoop.com/unscientific-comments-by-indian-politicians/