Cultural, Environmental, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Travel

Brexit – the most pointless masochistic step in UK’s history

It’s done. A triumph of dogged negotiation by Theresa May then, briefly, Boris Johnson, has fulfilled the most pointless, masochistic ambition ever dreamt of in the history of these islands. The rest of the world, presidents Putin and Trump excepted, have watched on in astonishment and dismay. A majority voted in December for parties which supported a second referendum. But those parties failed lamentably to make common cause. We must pack up our tents, perhaps to the sound of church bells, and hope to begin the 15-year trudge, back towards some semblance of where we were yesterday with our multiple trade deals, security, health and scientific co-operation and a thousand other useful arrangements.

The only certainty is that we’ll be asking ourselves questions for a very long time. Set aside for a moment Vote Leave’s lies, dodgy funding, Russian involvement or the toothless Electoral Commission, consider instead the magic dust. How did a matter of such momentous constitutional, economic and cultural consequence come to be settled by a first-past-the-post vote and not by a super-majority? A parliamentary paper at the time of the 2015 Referendum Act hinted at the reason: because the referendum was merely advisory. It “enables the electorate to voice an opinion”. How did “advisory” morph into “binding”? By that blinding dust thrown in our eyes from right and left by populist hands.

We endured a numbing complicity between government and opposition. The door out of Europe was held open by Corbyn for Johnson to walk through.

What did we learn in our blindness? That those not flourishing within the status quo had no good reason to vote for it; that our prolonged parliamentary chaos derived from an ill-posed yes-no question to which there were a score of answers; that the long-evolved ecology of the EU has profoundly shaped the flora of our nation’s landscape and to rip these plants out will be brutal; that what was once called a hard Brexit became soft by contrast with the threatened no-deal that even now persists; that any mode of departure, by the government’s own estimate, will shrink the economy; that we have a gift for multiple and bitter division – young against old, cities against the country, graduates against early school-leavers, Scotland and Northern Ireland against England and Wales; that all past, present and future international trade deals or treaties are a compromise with sovereignty, as is our signature on the Paris accords, or our membership of NATO, and that therefore “Take Back Control” was the emptiest, most cynical promise of this sorry season.

We surprised ourselves. Only a few years ago, asked to list the nation’s ills – wealth gap, ailing NHS, north-south imbalance, crime, terrorism, austerity, housing crisis etc – most of us would not have thought to include our membership of the EU. How happy we were in 2012, in the afterglow of our successful Olympics. We weren’t thinking then of Brussels. It was, in Guy Verhofstadt’s famous term, a “cat-fight” within the Tory party that got us going. Those cats had been fighting each other for decades. When they dragged us in and urged us to take sides, we had a collective nervous breakdown; then sufficient numbers wanted the distress to go away and “get Brexit done”. Repeated ad nauseam by the prime minister it almost seemed impolite to ask why.

In the early days of the referendum campaign we learned that “on the doorstep” it was all about migration; but we also learned that it was the UK’s decision, not the EU’s, to allow unlimited migration from the accession countries before the permitted seven years were up; it was the UK’s choice to allow EU migrants to stay more than six months without a job; it was the UK that successfully campaigned to enlarge the EU eastwards; it is the UK, not the EU, that lets non-EU migration continue (and why not?) as EU migration declines. We also learned that the UK, not the EU, opted for our maroon rather than patriotic blue passports. Though, as I look, my old passports seem almost black.

There is much that is historically unjust about the British state, but very little of that injustice derives from the EU. Brussels didn’t insist that we neglect the post-industrial towns of the Midlands and the north; or demand that we let wages stagnate, or permit multimillion handouts to the CEOs of failing companies, or prefer shareholder value over the social good, or run our health service, social care and Sure Start into the ground, close 600 police stations and let the fabric of our state schools decay.

It was the task of the Brexit campaign to persuade the electorate otherwise. In the referendum they succeeded with 37%, enough to transform our collective fate for a generation at least. To cause sufficient numbers to believe that the source of all their grievances is some hostile outside element is the oldest trick in the populist handbook. As Trotsky was for Stalin, as the USA is for the mullahs of Iran and Gülen is for Erdoğan, so Brussels has served its turn.

Hedge fund owners, plutocrat donors to the cause, Etonians and newspaper proprietors cast themselves as enemies of the elite. More magic dust. The claim that the Northern Ireland issue has been settled is a dangerous pretence. We have witnessed reasoned argument’s fall from grace. The Brexit impulse had strong elements of blood-and-soil, with hints of Empire nostalgia. Such spooky longings floated high above mere facts.

We acquired an argot. “Article 50”, “frictionless trade”, “just in time”, “the backstop” – how they tripped off the tongue. We learned to respect an “invisible border”. Before it all began, only a very few knew the difference between the customs union and the single market. Three years on, not much has changed. A survey last year showed that quite a lot of us thought that “crashing out” was the same as remaining. If only.

The Brexit leadership and the leader of the opposition were always in a hurry to start article 50’s two-year stopwatch. They feared that leave voters might change their minds, that those who didn’t vote last time were 2:1 for remaining, and that young voters coming on to the rolls would be mostly pro-EU. The Brexiter generals reasonably feared a second referendum.

At least, we can all agree that we will be a bit poorer. As one of my school teachers used to say, if a thing is really worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Theresa May could never bring herself to say that Brexit would make us better off. She wouldn’t even tell us if she would vote to leave in a second referendum. We should credit her honesty. By contrast, Boris Johnson, laying his post-Brexit vision before parliament, promised he would narrow the UK’s wealth and opportunity gap between north and south, and make it the home of cutting-edge battery technology. He forgot to mention that the EU never stood in the way of either project.

Redefining our new trade relations with the EU will preoccupy us for years. As for the US position, take a long walk in the American mid-west and you’ll go a month across a monoculture desert and not see a wildflower. To compete, our own agriculture would have to welcome the hormone hypodermic. Our farmers will need to divest of inefficient hedgerows, boundary trees and three-metre field margins – museum pieces all. When it was in trade talks with the EU, the US wouldn’t contemplate higher standards of husbandry, food standards and environmental protection, even though they would have granted access to half a billion consumers. American farming corporations will not be changing their ways for a nation of a mere 65 million. If we want a deal, it is we who must downgrade.

We sense damage and diminishment ahead. In a dangerous world crowded with loud-mouthed “strongmen”, the EU was our best hope for an open, tolerant, free and peaceful community of nations. Those hopes are already threatened as populist movements have swept across Europe. Our withdrawal will weaken resistance to the xenophobic tendency. The lesson of our nation’s history these past centuries is plain: turmoil in continental Europe will draw us into bloody conflicts. Nationalism is rarely a project for peace. Nor does it care to counter climate change. It prefers to let tropical forests and the Australian bush burn.

Take a road trip from Greece to Sweden, from Portugal to Hungary. Leave your passport behind. What a rich, teeming bundle of civilisations – in food, manners, architecture, language, and each nation state profoundly and proudly different from its neighbours. No evidence of being under the boot-heel of Brussels. Nothing here of continental USA’s dreary commercial sameness. Summon everything you’ve learned of the ruinous, desperate state of Europe in 1945, then contemplate a stupendous economic, political and cultural achievement: peace, open borders, relative prosperity, and the encouragement of individual rights, tolerance and freedom of expression. Until Friday this was where our grown-up children went at will to live and work.

That’s over, and for now the force is with English nationalism. Its champion is Johnson’s Vote Leave cabinet whose monument will forever be a special kind of smirk, perfected back in the days of the old Soviet Union. I’m lying, you know I’m lying and I know that you know and I don’t give a damn. As in, “The five-week prorogation of parliament has nothing to do with Brexit.” Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg were masters of the mocking grin. The supreme court’s inconvenient judgement that this prorogation was illegal clearly still rankles. Recently, the ex-home secretary Michael Howard was set on to murmur against the judges. Extending political control over an independent judiciary would be consonant with the Johnson-Cummings project. Victor Orbán of Hungary lights the way.

The remainers held out for a kinder sort of world, but we were always the herbivores in this debate, with our enormous, good-natured and derided marches – “a hate-filled crowd”, the Sun; “an elite”, the Daily Telegraph. If 16 million remainers are an elite, then we may rejoice that the UK is a model of meritocracy.

We were, in truth, the left-behinds. By the grace of Corbyn and his grim lieutenants, we had no effective voice in parliament. On her first day as prime minister, Theresa May promised outside No 10 that she would govern for us all. Instead, she threw half the country to the dogs to appease her party’s right wing. Initially, Boris Johnson’s elevation was decided by a tiny, ageing constituency, the majority of whose members told pollsters that they wished Donald Trump ruled Britain and that they longed for the return of hanging. In similar spirit, Johnson found fresh depths of populist vulgarity when he spoke last June of pitchforking the EU incubus off the nation’s back. He has realised his dream.

As for the outer extremes, the occasional milkshake aside, we never violently assaulted a Brexiter in the street; we only rarely inclined to sending anonymous death and rape threats such as came so abundantly the way of Gina Miller, Anna Soubry and many female MPs. However, the antisemitic emails from within the Labour party were a disgrace. So too was the bullying mob jeering outside the Rees-Mogg home. But we remainers did not slyly exhort our compatriots to riot in the event of a second referendum going against us. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate did not vote to leave; most of business and the trade unions, agriculture, science, finance and the arts were against the Brexit project; three-quarters of MPs voted to remain. But our representatives ignored the evident public interest and shrank behind party cabals and “the people have spoken” – that bleak Soviet locution – followed by “get Brexit done”, the mind-clouding magic dust which has blinded reason and diminished our children’s prospects.

Ian McEwan is a Guardian columnist (published in the Guardian on 1 Feb 2020)

Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

What is the difference between lies and post-truth in politics? A philosopher explains.

If I wrote “The first sentence in this article is a lie”, is this sentence true, or is it a lie? And, if a liar declares “I am lying”, is the liar telling the truth? In philosophy and logic, this is known as the Liar’s Paradox: the liar is a liar, and if the liar is indeed lying, then the liar is telling the truth, which means the liar just lied.

Lies are part of the DNA of modern society, though we often now refer to them with the more dignified terminology of marketing, advertising, propaganda or spin. From unscrupulous sellers of used cars to prime ministers making unsubstantiated declarations about weapons of mass destruction, it seems that many people now make a living from lies.

In the public imagination politicians are professional liars par excellence, or as the writer George Orwell once put it: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

In her essay Truth and Politics, published in The New Yorker in 1967, the philosopher Hannah Arendt was already lamenting the fact that politics and truth don’t mix. But even Arendt was aware that not all lies are the same. There are lies that are minimal forms of deception, a micro-tear in the fabric of reality, while some lies are so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture, a shift to another reality. In today’s terminology, Arendt was alerting us to the difference between a lie, and the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year – “post-truth”.

One way to understand the difference between lies and post-truth, which I’ve written about in a new paper, is that a liar denies specific facts that have precise coordinates in space and time, whereas post-truth questions the very nature of truth. A liar knows the truth, and, by trying to persuade us of an alternative narrative, a liar is paradoxically honouring the truth, whereas post-truth allows no last refuge for the truth.

Clinton versus Trump

This distinction between a lie and post-truth becomes clearer by comparing two recent American presidents, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. At a White House press conference on January 26 1998, Clinton famously said:

I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never.

Clinton’s statement, given the subsequent revelations and a semen-stained blue dress, is disconcerting. It’s possible that Clinton did not consider his intimate interactions with Lewinsky as a “sexual relation”, but that is unlikely – it would require a phenomenal effort of self-deception, or ingenuity, to defend that position with honesty and integrity. Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice, because he lied under oath, but he was ultimately acquitted in a Senate trial.

Subverting truth itself

Clinton lied, and that was inexcusable. But Trump’s relationship with truth is even more disturbing, and dangerous. Trump’s incessant accusations of fake news against the main media outlets, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN, reflects a longstanding disdain for the truth. Unlike Clinton, Trump is not simply denying certain facts, instead he is determined to undermine the theoretical infrastructure that makes it possible to have a conversation about the truth.

Trump’s response and demeanour to the impeachment allegations made against him is a typical example of post-truth. By spurning the impeachment proceedings as a “charade” and a “witch-hunt”, his strategy is to create an environment where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion, where theoretical frameworks necessary to make sense of certain events are scorned, and where scientific truth is delegitimised.

This is the major difference between a lie and post-truth. While a lie subverts a specific truth, post-truth tries to subvert truth itself. Trump’s abhorrence of truth is reflected in the remarkable claim by one of his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, that “truth is relative”. Giuliani was talking on NBC News about the request by special counsel Robert Mueller for an interview with Trump regarding the Russia investigation. Giuliani raised concerns that Trump could perjure himself because “truth isn’t truth.”

Post-truth is a murky concept, but it should not be confused with a lie. Post-truth is much more devious and dangerous to the democratic fabric of our society. The prefix “post” in post-truth refers to the claim that a specified idea has become redundant and therefore can safely be discarded. Post-truth is the belief that truth is no longer essential, that truth has become obsolete.

We can cope with politicians lying, but we cannot afford the risk of allowing politicians to delegitimise truth.

The author, Vittorio Bufacchi, is a Senior Lecturer at the Dept of Philosophy, University College Cork, Republic of Ireland. (From: The Conversation, January 24, 2020.)

Advanced science, Environmental, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious, Technical

Are we heading towards genetic disaster?

Lives on earth in various forms and shapes have come about through very complex and convoluted processes. Single cell organisms like amoeba to multi-cellular organisms like plants and animals have progressed through millions of years of slow and painstaking developments of trials and errors, alterations, modifications and so forth, which are collectively called the evolutionary process. Eventually, when an organism emerges in some viable form, it is not the end of the process, it is only the beginning. It will go on for further refinement to a better, fitter form of life. It may, nonetheless, take a wrong evolutionary step and suffer the wrath of nature and be extinct. For every surviving form of life, there are hundreds of similar lives that had either failed to develop properly and gone extinct.

Life, particularly human life, comes into existence in a tortuous way. When a male sperm cell fertilises a female egg cell, the combined single cell, called the zygote, is formed. The sperm cell and the egg cell are the reproductive organ cells – each containing 23 chromosomes – when they combine, they make up a fully developed cell containing 46 chromosomes. It may be noted that not all sperm cells fertilise egg cells. What triggers this fertilisation is still a mystery; it may just be a draw of the luck. However, this single cell zygote keeps dividing by a process called cell division, as it moves along the Fallopian tube towards the uterus. The zygote contains all the genetic instructions inherited from the father and the mother. When it reaches the uterus in three to five days, the zygote becomes what is called a blastocyst or a ball of cells. The blastocyst consists of two parts: an outer cell mass that becomes part of placenta and an inner cell mass that becomes the human body.

A cell is the basic functional unit of life. A cell is surrounded by a cell membrane and within the membrane lies a blob of transparent dilute fluid, cytoplasm and within the cytoplasm lies the cell nucleus. The nucleus of human beings contains 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs. A chromosome consists of very long DNA helix on which thousands of genes are embedded. It was anticipated that the secrets of life are all hidden within these DNA molecules. The discovery of this secret is a fascinating story.

In the early 1940s, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, one of the pioneers of quantum physics, wrote a very thoughtful science classics book called ‘What is Life?’. He maintained that there was no divine power or mysterious spirit that needed to animate life. He speculated that life force must come from within the body, probably embedded within the molecules of the body. Inspired by Schrodinger’s book, physicist Francis Crick teamed up with geneticist James Watson and Maurice Wilkins to study molecular biology and discovered the structure of the DNA molecule within the cell. They proposed that the DNA molecule has a double helix structure and the interlink between the base pairs of the double helix contains the codes necessary for life. For their discovery, the trio won Nobel Prize for medicine in 1962. The segments of the DNA molecule with specific instructions for particular actions are called the genes.

Thus, the cells with all the internal complexities and functions constitute the smallest unit of life. There are multitudes of cell types, but the basic structure is the same. The blastocyst formed out of zygotes contains embryonic stem cells. It is estimated that humans contain 40 trillion (40,000 billion) cells in a fully developed body.

The embryonic stem cells are extremely important as they contain all the genetic information of an individual, unmodified and unaltered. These embryonic stem cells are pluripotent stem cells, meaning they can divide into more stem cells or can change into any type of tissue cell like the blood cell, liver cell, skin cell, brain cell etc. Because of this ability and its unaltered state, embryonic stem cells are highly prized for medical research. But there are downsides too; the embryo has to be sacrificed to extract these cells and that raises serious ethical objections. 

When embryonic stem cells mature, they become tissue-specific somatic cells tasked to produce body tissues and there are more than 200 types of tissue-cells in the body. Each of these cells contains the full genetic code, no matter where it finds itself, although all instructions to divide and grow are suppressed, except for this particular tissue. For example, blood cells are only responsible for generating blood, liver cells for liver, skin cells for skin etc, although each one has the full blue print for life. There are also non-embryonic stem cells, namely adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells.

Medical research is going ahead using stem cells to cure humans from ailments like strokes, repair heart muscles following heart attack, cure neurological problems like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease etc. Stem cells can also be used to produce insulin to cure people with diabetes.

Stem cells can also be used to regenerate or repair organs such as nose, ear, lungs etc or limbs such as arms, legs etc. This aspect promises to have tremendous beneficial effects on soldiers who have lost their organs or limbs in battle fields. They can have their limbs repaired genetically or even have them newly grown in the laboratory. These are not pie in the sky aspirations. Already some organs such as hearts or lungs have been developed in the laboratories, but not in situ in primates or humans.   

With such wide-ranging medical benefits against incurable and debilitating diseases and ailments, why then Western Countries are putting restrictions on the use of stem cells and particularly embryonic stem cells in medical research? It is due to the fact that from the cure of these diseases, it is a small step to modify human genome in such a way that artificially super humans can be produced. In other words, super human Frankensteins can be produced with all the attributes one desires. Thus, uncontrolled medical research can lead to Eugenics or make it a distinct possibility.

Before and during the second world war, Hitler and his Nazi party seriously considered developing a super Euro-Aryan race where people would not only be physically strong and intellectually superior, but also free from all genetic diseases. It may, however, be noted that this idea of Eugenics was not the original Nazi invention, it was imitated from a Californian company who had been working on it for quite a few years prior to 1930s.

When the cloned humans with edited and vetted genes are produced, what would be the fate of normal human beings born traditionally with male and female fertilisation with normal genetic make-up? Eugenics proposed that all those people who were deemed by the State to be racially inferior such as Jews, gypsies etc, as well as handicapped, genetically abnormal people etc were to be exterminated to make way for the superior human race! That Eugenics died with Hitler was a great blessing for human race.

Stem cell research with the specific purpose for curing diseases like diabetes, cancer, genetic disorders, neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s etc is the beneficial aspects. But this can go a little further and pave the way to dehumanize humans or even destroy humanity. It is a double-edged sword – use it carefully, otherwise risk it to destroy you.

One thing that this genetic manipulation has done or almost at the brink of doing is to make human immortality a reality. Although sheep, cattle etc. have been successfully cloned, but primates and human beings have not yet been cloned. It is primarily because the research and in-situ testing of cloning on humans are banned in almost everywhere in the world. But if that ban is removed, the technology can be developed in a short period of time. An adult stem cell is removed from a human being, its DNA is extracted and the cell is inserted in an egg cell and let it develop in the normal way and then a clone copy of the donor human being is going to come out! Of course, it is not as easy as said, but the technology is almost there to achieve it.

The implication of human cloning is enormous. A very rich man (or woman) at nearer the end of his (or her) life may decide to live on for ever. Of course, he himself cannot live for ever; as he will age, his body functions will deteriorate and his body will gradually decay. But what he can do is to donate his cells, particularly stem cells for future fertilisation. His stem cells may be deep frozen and, as per his instructions, they may be fertilised at the desired time and a human being will come out of the cloning process. That particular (rich) man is thus reborn; one can say he is reincarnated. That rich man can also in his Will transfer his wealth to the child (yet to be born) and when the cloned child is born, he is as wealthy as his predecessor. The boy will have all the body functions, body characteristics etc of the donor, but not his memory nor the characteristics derived from the memory. In other words, he will have a blank brain slate. He will have to learn everything afresh, go to schools, play games and develop his individuality, but with the exact replica of the body of the donor. Thus, this man can replicate himself over and over again and live for ever.

We are now at the threshold of genetic revivalism, for good or for bad. Gone are those days when we had to blindly believe in fictitious divine power creating life on earth (through Adam and Eve) and submit to religious edicts without any question! In reality, life evolved from the single cell amoeba to multi-cellular organism. Now science and technology have progressed sufficiently enough to create and recreate lives with any genetic make-up. But if we allow artificial genetic creation take over the natural evolutionary process, it would be a disaster of unparalleled proportions. We must resist that temptation at all costs.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious

Is India going to lose its soul?

As the new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) risks defining Muslims as ‘infiltrators’, Tushar Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson, joins the protest to save India’s heart and soul.

Protest against the CAA after Friday prayers outside the Jama Masjid in New Delhi

Last week 25,000 protesters gathered in Mewat, in the Indian state of Haryana, to begin the historic five-mile walk to Ghasera village. It was here, 72 years ago, that Mahatma Gandhi made the same journey during the turmoil of partition, visiting the area with the promise of a dignified life for local Muslims.

While millions have retraced Gandhi’s steps before, this time felt different. Against the backdrop of a new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) passed by the Indian parliament last week, which many believe is openly discriminatory against Muslims and relegates them to second-class citizens, honouring Gandhi’s words of religious harmony and reconciliation felt like a powerful political statement. “Mewat has witnessed many protests, but this is the biggest in our life,” resident Shahzad Khan told local media.

As India has seen some of the biggest protests in four decades, the image and legacy of Gandhi, known as the “father of India” for his role in independence, has been omnipresent. Across India people have voiced fears that the new act, passed by prime minister Narendra Modi’s right wing, Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government, risks destroying the secular, pluralistic India that Gandhi dedicated his life to building.

It was no accident that on the same day that protesters marched in Mewat last week, thousands of demonstrators gathered at August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai, the spot from which Gandhi gave his famous “Quit India” speech to the British government in 1942.

Among the millions who have taken to the streets defending Gandhi’s inclusive vision of India has been Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar Arun Gandhi. “For the first time in independent India,” said Tushar Gandhi, “laws or systems are being attempted to be imposed which discriminate, which differentiate, on the basis of religion.”

Tushar Gandhi has dedicated much of his life to his great-grandfather’s legacy, establishing and running the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation in Mumbai, but he said with the passing of the new citizenship law something had shifted. “Everybody has a turning point in their life. If being thrown out of the train was a turning point in my great-grandfather’s life, I think this issue of trying to change the soul of my nation is the turning point in my life,” he said. In 10 years, he added, this country “won’t be India any more. It will be a fascist dictatorship. And, mind you, it will be a dictatorship using democratic process, and that is even more dangerous”.

Under the new legislation all Hindu, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh migrants who arrived from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan before 2014 will be allowed to claim Indian citizenship.

However, the same will not apply for Muslim immigrants. In conjunction with a planned initiative by the BJP government to begin a national register of citizens (NRC), where every person in India will have to present paperwork to prove their Indian lineage, the new act means that it is only Muslims in India who face the possibility of being defined as “infiltrators”, to either be deported or put into detention centres being built across the country.

Tushar spoke of his pride at seeing Gandhi’s image being brandished as thousands of protesters defied the bans on public gatherings by the authorities and turned out on to the streets in a wave of peaceful mass civil disobedience reminiscent of Gandhi’s movement 90 years ago.

“Just think of the far-sightedness of that man in 1930,” said Tushar. “When he was asked to send out a message to mankind, he wrote, ‘I want world sympathy in this battle of right against might,’ and today we are again fighting a battle of right against might, so it’s very natural that he becomes the icon of the protest.”

He was also adamant that the effects of the citizenship act would be felt far beyond India’s borders.

“There should be a debate on the ramifications of [the CAA] internationally,” says Tushar. “It concerns every democracy and it concerns everybody who believes in inclusivity and in the liberal ideology.”

While Modi has often described himself as a follower of Gandhi, Tushar said that this was meaningless in the face of the Hindu nationalist agenda being pushed by Modi’s BJP government, which aims to irreparably fracture the country down religious lines. “It’s not what you profess, but what you practise that makes the world realise who you follow,” he said of Modi.

Over a week since the passing of the citizenship act, the protests in India have showed no sign of abating and indeed have gathered even more momentum over the weekend. Like so many, Tushar Gandhi said he would keep turning out on the streets to fight for an India where religion did not determine your status as a citizen.

“We will have to keep up the momentum, we will actually have to increase the intensity of the protests if we are to bring this government to its knees,” he said. “Because you must remember this is an arrogant government. It is not going to come to its knees that easily.”

While the authorities are increasingly meeting the protests with suppression and violence, with the death toll from the demonstrations reaching 17 by Saturday, Tushar said it was more important than ever that Gandhi’s legacy remain at the heart of the protests.

“A long-drawn-out agitation can only be sustained if it is peaceful and non-violent,” he said.

This article by Zoe Osborne and Hannah Ellis-Petersen was first published in The Observer on 19 December 2019.

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

The west’s self-proclaimed custodians of democracy failed to notice it rotting away

British and American elites failed to anticipate the triumph of homegrown demagogues – because they imagined the only threats to democracy lurked abroad

Anglo-American lamentations about the state of democracy have been especially loud ever since Boris Johnson joined Donald Trump in the leadership of the free world. For a very long time, Britain and the United States styled themselves as the custodians and promoters of democracy globally, fighting a great moral battle against its foreign enemies. From the cold war through to the “war on terror”, the Caesarism that afflicted other nations was seen as peculiar to Asian and African peoples, or blamed on the despotic traditions of Russians or Chinese, on African tribalism, Islam, or the “Arab mind”.

But this analysis – amplified in a thousand books and opinion columns that located the enemies of democracy among menacingly alien people and their inferior cultures – did not prepare its audience for the sight of blond bullies perched atop the world’s greatest democracies. The barbarians, it turns out, were never at the gate; they have been ruling us for some time.

The belated shock of this realisation has made impotent despair the dominant tone of establishment commentary on the events of the past few years. But this acute helplessness betrays something more significant. While democracy was being hollowed out in the west, mainstream politicians and columnists concealed its growing void by thumping their chests against its supposed foreign enemies – or cheerleading its supposed foreign friends.

Decades of this deceptive and deeply ideological discourse about democracy have left many of us struggling to understand how it was hollowed from within – at home and abroad. Consider the stunning fact that India, billed as the world’s largest democracy, has descended into a form of Hindu supremacism – and, in Kashmir, into racist imperialism of the kind it liberated itself from in 1947.

Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is enforcing a seemingly endless curfew in the valley of Kashmir, imprisoning thousands of people without charge, cutting phone lines and the internet, and allegedly torturing suspected dissenters. Modi has established – to massive Indian acclaim – the regime of brute power and mendacity that Mahatma Gandhi explicitly warned his compatriots against: “English rule without the Englishman”.

All this while “the mother of parliaments” reels under English rule with a particularly reckless Englishman, and Israel – the “only democracy in the Middle East” – holds another election in which millions of Palestinians under its ethnocratic rule are denied a vote.

The vulnerabilities of western democracy were evident long ago to the Asian and African subjects of the British empire. Gandhi, who saw democracy as literally the rule of the people, the demos, claimed that it was merely “nominal” in the west. It could have no reality so long as “the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists” and voters “take their cue from their newspapers which are often dishonest”.

Looking ahead to our own era, Gandhi predicted that even “the states that are today nominally democratic” are likely to “become frankly totalitarian” since a regime in which “the weakest go to the wall” and a “few capitalist owners” thrive “cannot be sustained except by violence, veiled if not open”.

Inaugurating India’s own experiment with an English-style parliament and electoral system, BR Ambedkar, one of the main authors of the Indian constitution, warned that while the principle of one-person-one-vote conferred political equality, it left untouched grotesque social and economic inequalities. “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment,” he urged, “or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.”

Today’s elected demagogues, who were chosen by aggrieved voters precisely for their skills in blowing up political democracy, have belatedly alerted many more to this contradiction. But the delay in heeding Ambedkar’s warning has been lethal – and it has left many of our best and brightest stultified by the antics of Trump and Johnson, simultaneously aghast at the sharpened critiques of a resurgent left, and profoundly unable to reckon with the annihilation of democracy by its supposed friends abroad.

Modi has been among the biggest beneficiaries of this intellectual impairment. For decades, India itself greatly benefited from a cold war-era conception of “democracy”, which reduced it to a morally glamorous label for the way rulers are elected, rather than about the kinds of power they hold, or the ways they exercise it.

As a non-communist country that held routine elections, India possessed a matchless international prestige despite consistently failing – worse than many Asian, African, and Latin American countries – in providing its citizens with even the basic components of a dignified existence.

It did not matter to the fetishists of formal and procedural democracy that people in Kashmir and India’s north-eastern border states lived under de facto martial law, where security forces had unlimited licence to massacre and rape, or that a great majority of the Indian population found the promise of equality and dignity underpinned by rule of law and impartial institutions, to be a remote, almost fantastical, ideal.

Failed idealism of Mahatma Gandhi in India. Mahatma Gandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten in 1947.

The halo of virtue around India shone brighter as its governments embraced free markets and communist-run China abruptly emerged as a challenger to the west. Modi profited from an exuberant consensus about India among Anglo-American elites: that democracy had acquired deep roots in Indian soil, fertilising it for the growth of free markets.

As chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002, Modi was suspected of a crucial role – ranging from malign inaction to watchful complicity – in an anti-Muslim pogrom of gruesome violence. The US and the European Union denied Modi a visa for several years.

But his record was suddenly forgotten as Modi ascended, with the help of India’s richest businessmen, to power. “There is something thrilling about the rise of Narendra Modi,” Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, wrote in April 2014. Rupert Murdoch, of course, anointed Modi as India’s “best leader with best policies since independence”.

But Barack Obama also chose to hail Modi for reflecting “the dynamism and potential of India’s rise”. As Modi arrived in Silicon Valley in 2015 – just as his government was shutting down the internet in Kashmir – Sheryl Sandberg declared she was changing her Facebook profile in order to honour the Indian leader.

In the next few days, Modi will address thousands of affluent Indian-Americans in the company of Trump in Houston, Texas. While his government builds detention camps for hundreds of thousands Muslims it has abruptly rendered stateless, he will receive a commendation from Bill Gates for building toilets.

The fawning by Western politicians, businessmen, and journalists over a man credibly accused of complicity in a mass murder is a much bigger scandal than Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to MIT. But it has gone almost wholly unremarked in mainstream circles partly because democratic and free-marketeering India was the great non-white hope of the ideological children of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who still dominate our discourse: India was a gilded oriental mirror in which they could cherish themselves.

This moral vanity explains how even sentinels of the supposedly reasonable centre, such as Obama and the Financial Times, came to condone demagoguery abroad – and, more importantly, how they failed to anticipate its eruption at home.

Even the most fleeting glance at history shows that the contradiction Ambedkar identified in India – which enabled Modi’s rise – has long bedevilled the emancipatory promise of democratic equality. In 1909, Max Weber asked: “How are freedom and democracy in the long run at all possible under the domination of highly developed capitalism?”

The decades of atrocity that followed answered Weber’s question with a grisly spectacle. The fraught and extremely limited western experiment with democracy did better only after social-welfarism, widely adopted after 1945, emerged to defang capitalism, and meet halfway the formidable old challenge of inequality. But the rule of demos still seemed remote.

The Cambridge political theorist John Dunn was complaining as early as 1979 that while democratic theory had become the “public cant of the modern world”, democratic reality had grown “pretty thin on the ground”. Since then, that reality has grown flimsier, corroded by a financialised mode of capitalism that has held Anglo-American politicians and journalists in its thrall since the 1980s.

What went unnoticed until recently was that the chasm between a political system that promises formal equality and a socio-economic system that generates intolerable inequality had grown much wider. It eventually empowered the demagogues who now rule us. In other words, modern democracies have for decades been lurching towards moral and ideological bankruptcy – unprepared by their own publicists to cope with the political and environmental disasters that unregulated capitalism ceaselessly inflicts, even on such winners of history as Britain and the US.

Having laboured to exclude a smelly past of ethnocide, slavery and racism – and the ongoing stink of corporate venality – from their perfumed notion of Anglo-American superiority, the promoters of democracy have no nose for its true enemies. Ripe for superannuation but still entrenched on the heights of politics and journalism, they repetitively ventilate their rage and frustration, or whinge incessantly about “cancel culture” and the “radical left”, it is because that is all they can do. Their own mind-numbing simplicities about democracy, its enemies, friends, the free world, and all that sort of thing, have doomed them to experience the contemporary world as an endless series of shocks and debacles.