Political, Religious, Literary, Economic, Bangladesh, International, Life as it is, Cultural

Cultural and National Identity

Most of us have differed often enough with one another on what precisely constitutes culture. That is hardly surprising in view of the fact that it is common for even erudite philosophers to disagree and debate with each other on the raw definition and nuances of culture. The way we perceive culture is very much a mirror of our philosophy in life and of our view of the society we live in. It is but natural that we differ. But does it really make any material difference to a society on what exactly a culture is or on what a particular cultural guru enforces the cultural attributes of a society at a particular point in time and space?

Culture is more like the free-flowing water in a river. It takes on the colour of the alluvium soil it flows over at any particular moment. Culture of a people is anything but static; it changes, it merges, it meanders, it evolves like the life on earth.

The so-called Calcutta Book Fair fiasco had prompted certain coteries of vested interest to make mountain out of a mole hill. At the forefront was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which had donned the mantle of the keeper of Muslim Bengali culture. It had self-proclaimed the distinctiveness of Muslims to create a separate identity for Bangladeshi culture.

The party was founded by a freedom fighter who fought for the liberation of Bangladesh or Bangla nation. But the Kakul trained former Pakistani army officer who spoke Bangla with a distinct Urdu accent, due to his long stay in the western wing of Pakistan, ultimately took on the role of a Trojan Horse. When he assumed the charge of independent Bangladesh in the aftermath of a series of coup d’etats and assassinations (which many people claim may have been through his acquiescence), he took upon himself the task of rebuilding the nation in the model of “Pakistan.” Thereby, he failed to live up to his glorious deeds during the days of blood and thunder. The unholy coalition that he forged with the religious right had made him to rehabilitate those hated anti-Bangladeshi forces in the independent Bangladesh. It brought back the ghost of Pakistani oppression in Bangladesh.

The Bengalis in Pakistan had made sacrifices to found a modern state based on secular ideology. The Sufi tradition had deeply influenced the Islam in Bengal. Its tolerant ethos was a far cry from the religious intolerance of West Pakistan that would later spawn into Taliban movement.

The Bangladesh Liberation War was a struggle against the hard-line exclusivist tradition of West Pakistan that was trying to supplant the liberal tradition of the eastern wing and turn it effectively into a colony. Under the guidance of the Pakistani junta from the west, the Islamist parties made it their goal to eliminate religious minorities and to discard the secularist strands from the composite culture of Bangladesh. They cried “Islam is in danger.” to garner supporters for their invidious goals.

It was a national goal in certain quarters during the Pakistani era to erect a psychological barrier between West Bengal and East Bengal in the guise of championing the cause of Islam. There was a crack in that barrier for a brief period during 1971-75. But, after 1975, for the next two decades, that barrier was restructured and reinforced to mirror the prejudices and predilections of the past. The master architects of that barrier were the Pakistan trained officers of the Bangladesh army who continued to look back to the pre-liberation days towards Islamabad for political inspiration.

The balance of power in Bengal in the era of Permanent Settlement had indeed tilted disproportionately in favour of the Hindus. The 1947 partition did serve to restore the balance. But it can just as easily be argued that East Bengal got rid of the over-lordship of the local Hindu zamindars only to embrace the colonial shackles of West Pakistan. Furthermore, it was demanded by its new masters to sever all ties with “Hindu” West Bengal with which it shared many common cultural heritage and where at least a quarter of the population was Muslim.

The Bangabhumi of yore was today’s East Bengal. It had always been the core of Bengali language and culture. West Bengal was the Rarhbhumi which was part of Greater Bengal and had, till the coming of the British, looked up to East Bengal for cultural inspiration and sustenance. So, in a sense, Bengal’s cultural heritage had its root in East Bengal. The proponents of Bangladeshi nationalism had their own agenda. It was to erase West Bengal from the canvas of Greater Bengal with a view to turning Bangladesh into a puppet in the hands of Islamabad’s rulers, who would only be too happy to use Bangladesh as the cat’s paw to further their own interests.

Then there were those who had vested interests in declaring, “Hindus of West Bengal and Muslims of Bangladesh are two distinct peoples; they have absolutely nothing in common” Inevitably, proponents of this delinquent ideology ignore the cultural affinities of West and East Bengal to emphasise only on religious differences. That was the only way they could erect a barrier between the two Bengals. But even that was not easy because a quarter of West Bengal’s population was Muslim. Would the religious fanatics disown Poet Nazrul Islam because he was from West Bengal?

There are some differences between the inhabitants of the two Bengals. But it is not simple to cut off West Bengal from our cultural canvas on the basis of these differences. Religion, ethnicity, dialect, and regional characteristics, all play an important role in defining our cultural ethos. It is as disingenuous as it is dishonest to try to define it in terms of religion alone.

Consider the regional component, for example. The immigrants in Calcutta from East Bengal, from long before the 1947 partition, had indulged in their regional pride by cheering for the East Bengal team on Calcutta’s football fields. And to this day they continue to do so. It pleases them no end when East Bengal defeats Mohan Bagan. The Islamists in Bangladesh
will be hard put to explain this exultation in the football fields of Calcutta in terms of their mindset of seeing everything with religious lens.

Region-based differences indeed seems far more significant than religion-based ones. A Muslim Bengali from West Bengal is likely to feel more at home with a Hindu Bengali from West Bengal than with a Muslim Bengali from Bangladesh. The age old Ghati-Bangal issue has always transcended religion to give primacy to geography instead.The cultural tradition of the subcontinent kept apart the Hindu migrants from East Bengal to India from the Hindu natives of West Bengal. Even some half a century after the partition of India, Calcutta newspapers continue to conspicuously mention the ancestral roots of prospective brides and grooms in matrimonial columns. One may attribute that to the discriminatory practices of the natives or to the exclusivist practices of the immigrants. But the fact remains that ancestral district can come in the way of tying matrimonial bonds between the Hindu natives and the Hindu immigrants in West Bengal. In fact, even among the Hindu immigrants themselves, a Baidya from Jessore or Bikrampur might find it beneath his dignity to have matrimonial ties with a Baidya from Sylhet or Comilla!

Many a nation state in the world exhibits regional variations in dialect and culture. The regional dialect and the local customs give the nation a “salad bowl” cultural milieu. Thus, Bavarians in Germany have the image of hillbillies. After the reunification of Germany, the people from the former East Germany were often perceived by their newfound compatriots as third worlders! Belgium and Switzerland have people speaking different dialects and even entirely different languages.

In USA, the Mecca of multi-culturalism, people speak of the East Coast, the Mid West or of the deep South with very specific cultural connotations. Let me narrate a personal anecdote. I took a speech course in an American college. During a discussion session, one student was frank enough to admit to her cultural bias based on regional accent. She told the class that Jamal has a non-American accent which is okay with her. But if she hears somebody with a southern accent, she seems to struggle with the thought that the person is of inferior intellect!Most religionists in Bangladesh take a victimological stance to justify their prejudices. They blame the arrogance of the Hindus from West Bengal or of the Hindu zamindar of yore from his own East Bengal for their antagonism toward all Hindus. But if they were honest enough, they would have readily admitted that there could be just as much a tradition of arrogance among the Muslims of Bangladesh. For many years, educated Bengali Muslims inhabiting the central part to the north western part of Bangladesh were extremely reluctant to enter into matrimonial ties with people from Noakhali, Chittagong and Sylhet. Similarly, many
Chittagongians and Sylhetees never could harbour the thought of marrying “foreigners.” I know of people from Noakhali who feel ashamed to disclose their roots. Many of them feigned to be from Comilla or Chittagong to get accepted by the Dhaka-centric “Bhadrolok” culture.

I was still a school kid when my father got transferred to Chittagong. It was a big cultural shock for me. I was afraid that I would never master the Chittagonian dialect, which is significantly different from the standard Bengali language. To my relief, I finally learnt to not only understand the local dialect but even speak in it after a fashion. A few years later, my father was transferred to Sylhet where I stoically withstood the scorn of my classmates who called me a “Bangal.” Needless to say, it was a pejorative. It was then that I learnt that the Sylhetees considered themselves to be from Assam. They were telling me that they did not think I was worthy of being a friend because I was nothing better than a “Bangal.”

I am sure I will have far less of a cultural shock if I visit Nadia in West Bengal. If I visit the Calcutta metropolis, I may cross path with some Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims alike) who may turn out to be somewhat different. But I doubt they will find me as different as I was found by my Chittagongian and Sylheti classmates. But then I have to bear in mind an
important aspect of social anthropology – many a person I will befriend in this old city have had the advantage of a college education and of urban living for many more than a generation or two. So, there is bound to be some difference between them and those I had encountered in Chittagong and Sylhet who were of rural background and may have belonged to the first generation in the quest of college education.


Jamal Hasan writes from Washington DC. The original article was published on March 19, 1999 in NEWS FROM BANGLADESH in its Commentary Section.

Political, Economic, International, Environmental, Life as it is, Cultural

Are these the dying days of the United Kingdom?

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is in existential crisis. It is not so much because of external threats, although there are definitely such threats all the time, but because of an implosion from within. It is unfortunately the perennial story of great powers or civilisations decaying or withering out due to internal conflict, political dogma, economic decline or social instability. It is no different in the case of the United Kingdom.

It is a historical fact that Great Britain used to rule the waves of the seven seas, the sun would never set in British Empire – from New Zealand at the south-east corner of the Earth through Australia, Malaysia, India, Middle-East, the large swathes of Africa and South America to Canada and beyond. The Empire was truly mind-bogglingly vast. Historians and political analysts were musing how a small country like Great Britain could colonise and control an Empire more than 100 times larger in size and more than 50 times bigger in population? But it did and probably that was how it acquired the lofty title of ‘Great Britain’.

There was a time at the early part of the 20th century when a country or even a collection of countries could hardly contemplate going against the wishes of Great Britain and if they did, they would have to prepare for all eventualities. The regional conflict that started in the Balkans in the year 1914 somehow dragged Britain into it and escalated regional war into World War I. The Allied Powers comprising Britain and its colonies, France, Russia, Italy fought tooth and nail against the Central powers of Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empire. But Allied victory was only sealed when America eventually put its weight behind the Allied forces. That was the beginning of the end of the myth of British Empire’s invincibility in military might and America started taking full advantage of it.

The World War II which started only 20 years after the end of WW I by Germany due to its grievances of blatant unfair treatment in the peace treaty of WW I could be regarded as the nail in the coffin of the British Empire.  America after staying neutral for a couple of years of this war and selling arms and ammunition to both the sides at vast profits joined the war when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. Although eventually the Allied Forces did win the war, the vulnerability of the British Empire was exposed again and America, taking the high moral ground, pressed Britain to dismantle the Empire – the colonies must be set free and given independence. Within two years India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, as well as New Zealand got independence and within the next decade or so, large parts of Africa also got independence. Without the colonies, Britain is no more than a hollow shell. The sources that nourished the Empire had disappeared leaving only sore memory and wild dreams of revival.

However, Britain did manage to adjust itself and survive in the post-colonial era by pragmatic politicians. The statesmen like Sir Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and so forth did realise that Britain can only survive in the modern era by joining together with European countries in the Common Market and its follow up European Union (EU).

While this development in the overall survival strategy was going on, there was an under-current of die-hard nationalism among the Conservatives that was driving them to resuscitate the second era of British Imperialism. For years these dreamers viewed Europe vas an impediment to British greatness. When in 2016, the then Tory prime minister David Cameron conceded to have a referendum on whether Britain should stay in or out of Europe, the Tory right-wing xenophobic elements came out in strength with the slogan “Take back control”. The implication was that taking back control from Brussels would help Britain restart a second era of British Imperialism!

Boris Johnson, the present Tory prime minister, most egregiously run a battle bus in the 2016 referendum campaign with the depiction, “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead, Vote Leave”. Such mendacious claims abounded in the referendum. Liam Fox, a Tory leader and an ardent Brexiteer, claimed, “The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history.” Michael Gove, another Tory Brexiteer, when faced with predictions of adverse economic consequences of exit from the EU produced by the economic experts of the Bank of England, IMF, OECD and so forth, thundered, “The experts were wrong before and they are wrong again now.”  Such imbeciles proliferated the Tory leadership then (and now) and persuaded the common people to vote “No” to Europe in the referendum.

Now in the forthcoming national election on 12 December 2019 the Tories, who had been peddling lies and deceits, are clearly in the lead and may win the election. Their aim, as repeated umpteen times by their leader Boris Johnson, is to “get Brexit done”. What it means nobody can fathom. If it means getting out of the EU with or without a deal, then that would be the biggest act of self-harm by any nation in the modern history.

Let us look realistically the consequence of Britain leaving the EU. First of all, this act of withdrawal will put tremendous pressure on the Good-Friday agreement of Northern Ireland. If the fragile peace treaty breaks down, and there are signs it will, the old days of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and the violence spilling over the mainland Britain will return. Death and destruction will become everyday affair! Only way that can possibly be stopped is by allowing Northern Ireland to be subsumed by the Republic of Ireland.

Scotland under the leadership of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) is making no bones about their aspiration to go independent of the United Kingdom (effectively England) and join the EU. They have a valid point. As the Scottish Kingdom, they had voted to remain in the EU (56% overall) and their view was completely disregarded by the so-called ‘will of the people’ (people of England’s deprived and dysfunctional areas). Plaid Cymru of Wales is also going the same way as the SNP. The demise of this country and the civilisation it enshrined over the centuries will be utterly diminished by the misguided delusional imperialist bigots dreaming of another colonial era of the past centuries.

If Scotland, in the near future and Wales somewhat later, manage to secede, the name the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be nothing but totally hollow, only suitable for a place in the history book.

It is not for nothing that John Major, ex-Tory prime minister, had been pleading ardently with the voters to vote for a Remain party like Lib Dems or ‘Remainers’ in other parties, not Boris Johnson, the arch delusional Brexiteer and his party which happens to be the Tory party now. Similar messages had been put forward by Tony Blair, another ex-prime minister of the Labour party as well as from Michael Haseltine, ex-deputy prime minister from Tory party. These leaders from yester-years of the main political parties have national interests at their hearts, unlike the present misogynist, racist political opportunist prime minister of the Tory party. Can these past leaders along with the sensible pragmatic voters of today save the United Kingdom against the xenophobic delusional imperialist tide led by the incumbent prime minister?

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Cultural, International, Life as it is, Political

The State of World Politics

The world is awash with populist propaganda now. The populist politics gained ground steadily almost all over the world, particularly in America and some of the western European countries. Its phenomenal circulation, comparable only to the greenback, is unprecedented in modern era and is giving many political analysts extreme headache.  It’s hard to find an easy answer to this recent phenomenon. 

The present predicament is a culmination of two conflicting streaks of events. Failure of progressives to efficiently anchor the national economies worldwide and the disenchantment of the grassroots in their economic policies are perhaps responsible in a large measure. In addition, many progressives around the world chose to follow a mid-path that was neither progressive nor conservative. They appear rather meek in manifesting their policy preferences to grassroots. It at times puts in doubt their firm commitment to the progressive policy agenda they are pledge-bound to pursue. This ambiguity of the progressives didn’t go well with the middle and the working-class population.

Contrasting this, the populists took advantages of dithering and inconsistent narratives of the progressives. They grabbed the opportunity to fill the vacuum by floating populist political agendas. No doubt, some of their economic policies were successful in fostering short-term economic growth. Though their long-term impact on the economy is questionable, it further strengthened the populist’ foothold in global political scene. Many of their policies stem from the raw sentiments of a large swath of not-so-politically erudite people mostly living in rural areas. They apparently are frustrated with the performance of the progressive forces and their policies. Many are deeply concerned about the economic, racial and security problems indiscriminate influx of illegal immigration is causing. They are fearful about losing their cultural heritage since most of these immigrants belong to races other than theirs. Fear of terrorism and expansion of Islam in certain territories further amplified their worries.

In contrast to the progressives, the populists appear smart and well prepared in their discourse on various policy issues of national interest. They are rarely found hesitant in propagating their views boldly no matter how substantive or rational they are in the prevailing social or economic context. They care little about whether their radically transformed policies fit in with the prevailing world order. The populists are rather hell-bound to change the world order to fit their policy stance.

Though many of the populist politicians lack political mettle, they were smart enough to read the sentiments of the people correctly. They made it a point to reflect the overwhelming people sentiments in their political agenda.  Not only they religiously captured the popular sentiments in their agenda but also validated them in a way that surpassed their constituents’ expectation. Many of these provisions though are merely a travesty of the truth. Knowingly or unknowingly, the populists ignored the long-term social and economic consequences of these policies at the national and international level.

The whole world is watching this recent phenomenon with bated breath.  People haven’t lost sight of the catastrophes brought about in the past by unbridled proliferation of populist politics. The two world wars are stark reminders of it. There is though not much reason to feel alarmed as yet. It, however, has the potency to engender devastating consequences in the long run if allowed to continue unabated. To nip in the bud such consequences, progressive forces worldwide should double up their efforts in organizing the saner segment of the population and use their energy effectively in containing the arbitrary popular sentiments and their exploitation by sly politicians.

ASM Jahangir is a semi-retired international development practitioner in Texas, USA. 

Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, Political, Technical

Was Gulf of Mexico oil spill world’s worst man-made disaster?

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill – variously referred to as the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, the BP oil spill, the Macondo blowout and so forth – that began on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico on the BP-operated Macondo Prospect site had been dubbed as the world’s worst man-made environmental disaster by the frenzied American media, local, regional and national politicians and the brazenly self-interested groups. But does it stack up to the reality check?

The accident in the Macondo field (28.74 N and 88.38 W) that resulted in the fatality of 11 workers and casualty of another 17 workers and the total discharge of 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gallons) of oil was, according to tabloid press at that time, the largest environmental disaster in American history. Although BP owned the lease of the Macondo oil site, the oil rig was owned and operated by Transocean (an American company), drilling and safety assessment responsibility was vested on Halliburton (another American company) and the blowout preventer manufacturer was Cameron International.

Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico

Notwithstanding the delegation of operational and safety responsibilities on multiplicity of companies, particularly on American companies, the US District Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Carl Barbier, ruled in his judgement in September 2014 that BP was primarily responsible for the oil spill. In July 2015, BP had to agree to pay $18.7 billion in fines, the largest corporate settlement in the United States history. Altogether, as of April 2018, the cost of clean-up, compensation to private individuals, corporate charges and other penalties on BP amounted to a staggering $65 billion. Some people from as far north as Chicago came to claim compensation in Louisiana and Texas from that oil spill (off the coast of New Orleans in Gulf of Mexica)! It was a free-for-all compensation bonanza for the American deplorables! The local press in Texas (which has a very large oil industry), as well as American national press started floating the idea that this was the opportunity to swallow up the oil company BP, which was the 6th largest oil company in the world!  

Following the accident, BP initiated a massive response to protect the beaches, wetlands and estuaries from the oil spill by commissioning skimmer ships, floating booms, controlled burns of oil and using oil dispersant (nearly 1.84 million of US gallons). Although there were several failed attempts to block the well head, finally on 15th July 2019 it was capped. On 19th September 2010, the well was declared totally sealed by the regulators.

Although it took 87 days to plug the well-head, the long-term effects were far less than what local media had whipped up. Within weeks of the leak being plugged, the traces of oil on the surface of the sea and adverse effects on the coastline had disappeared. Now, about nine years after that disaster, the effects had completely gone and the said disaster is all but a distant memory!

Tranquil deep blue sea (Gulf of Mexico)

On a recent cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, I found the area spectacular, virtually a haven of tranquillity, where a number of large cruise ships, each carrying 4,000 or more holiday makers, are operating nearly every day of the week! The water is crystal clear, there is no short-term or long-term effects at all. People in that part of the world are now more occupied with job prospects and worried about global warming, tropical storms and tornedos, extreme rainfall and floods than non-existent consequences from the oil spill.

Just to put this disaster in perspective, it must be pointed out that it was not the world’s largest man-made disaster; it was not even the largest oil disaster. The largest man-made oil disaster occurred in Kuwait during the Gulf war on 10 January 1991 when Iraqi forces deliberately opened the Kuwaiti oil valves as their war strategy. A total of 330 million gallons of oil was spilled, which was one and half times more than the Gulf of Mexico spill. The third largest oil spill occurred in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico in June 1979 when the oil well exploded releasing 140 million gallons over a period of ten months.

Accidental release of nearly 32 tons of deadly toxic gas called methyl isocyanate (MIC) on December 3, 1984 from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, India was the world’s worst industrial disaster. The MIC is far more toxic and deadly than chlorine gas used in chemical weapons. The official estimates were that more than 3,800 people (men, women and children) died within three days of the accident and over 3,900 suffered severe and permanent disabling injury. Further afield, over 500,000 people were grievously affected by respiratory problems. Although the American Union Carbide chemical company was the major shareholder in this industrial setup, the company mendaciously managed to transfer its corporate responsibility to UCIL as a standalone entity in India and only paid $470 million (equivalent to $845 million in 2018 money) as compensation. For the death toll of nearly 350 times of Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, American company paid 75 times less compensation. That makes the life of an Indian person as 2625 less valuable than that of an American! Even now, more than 35 years later, over 30,000 people are still suffering from chronic effects – heart, lungs and digestive problems – and large areas are contaminated with toxic chemicals.

World’s worst man-made disaster was, what is now known as, the Ecocide in Vietnam when more than 20 million gallons of deadly chemicals were sprayed in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos in the 1960s and 1970s by the US military to flush out the Viet Cong guerrillas and wipe out jungles and their hiding grounds. The herbicide called Agent Orange contained dioxin, a deadly carcinogen which causes not only somatic but also genetic defects like spina bifida and other mutation illness. The Vietnamese government estimated that nearly 400,000 people had died from dioxin exposure and over 500,000 children had birth defects. No compensation of any significance or any remedial action by the US government had ever been made.

Any disaster of any sort – whether man-made or natural – is unfortunate. But when man-made disasters produced by powerful nations get away with impunity, just because the nations are powerful, that smacks at the heart of humanity. One day the perpetrators of such catastrophes could face justice of the day. 

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

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.