Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Richard Reeves - Capitalism used to promise a better future. Can it still do that?

Capitalism is intrinsically futuristic. The ideas that underpin market economies – growth, accumulation, investment – express an unspoken assumption, that tomorrow will be different, and probably better, than today. The question that murmurs through markets is not “What is good?” or “What is fair”, but: “What’s new?”

This future orientation is one of the most striking hallmarks of modernity. Pre-capitalist societies looked to the past – to founding myths, old religions and ancestral lines. Capitalist societies look to the future – to new inventions, broader horizons and greater abundance. “Oh, the places you’ll go!” is an ur-text of market capitalism. Change is of course a mixed blessing. Opportunity and uncertainty go together. Critics of capitalism sometimes point out that it creates an uncertain future. Economic growth requires change and disruption – Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”, which can impose some immediate social costs. 

This is true in the details – nobody knows where market dynamics will lead us. Nobody predicted Facebook and Twitter. But it’s false for the overall picture. If the economy grows, as a result of market capitalism, we can predict with confidence that the future will be better than the present.
Capitalism has kept this promise quite well over the broad span of history. Compared with earlier periods in history, the material conditions of life have improved dramatically since the birth of capitalism. For the 500 years up to around 1700, economic output per person was flat. In other words, the median person in 1700 was no better off, economically speaking, than the median person in 200. 

Work by the team at The World in Data, led by Max Roser, makes the point visually – and dramatically. The idea of economic improvement is now so culturally embedded that even half a decade of no progress sends alarm bells ringing, let alone half a millennium. “The past is another country”, is the opening of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between. “They do things differently there.” Hartley’s is a deeply modern though now uncontroversial sentiment. In previous eras, the past was almost exactly the same country, at least in economic terms, where they did things pretty much the same as now. In a feudal or agricultural economy, things today were likely to be quite similar to things a century ago, as well as to things a century later... read more:

More posts on contemporary capitalism
Robert Reich: Wall Street loves socialism for bankers – but not for ordinary people

Monday, May 20, 2019

AOC asks pharma CEO why $2,000 HIV drug costs just $8 in Australia: 'People are dying for no reason'

New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had a simple question for the head of a major drug company: why should a $2,000 HIV treatment be available for just $8 in Australia?  “You’re the CEO of Gilead. Is it true that Gilead made $3bn in profits from Truvada in 2018,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez asked Daniel O’Day, the CEO of California-based Gilead Sciences, during a hearing of the House committee on oversight and reform.

Mr O’Day replied that the company had generated $3bn in revenues, not profits. Referring to Truvada, a drug used to reduce the transmission of HIV, Ms Ocasio-Cortez, pointed out that while it cost almost $2,000 in the US, it was available for just $8 in places such as Australia. In South Africa, it costs just $6. “Truvada still has patent protection in the United States and in the rest of the world it is generic,” said Mr O’Day said. “It will be generically available in the United States as of September 2020.”

According to The Hill, the congresswoman replied: “I think it’s important here that we notice that we the public, we the people, developed this drug. We paid for this drug, we lead and developed all the patents to create Prep and then that patent has been privatised despite the fact that the patent is owned by the public, who refused to enforce it... read more and see video

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Dorian Lynskey - Nothing but the truth: the legacy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

During a speech in July 2018, Trump said: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” A line from Nineteen Eighty-Four went viral: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

Extracts from The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynske

December 1948. A man sits at a typewriter, in bed, on a remote island, fighting to complete the book that means more to him than any other. He is terribly ill. The book will be finished and, a year or so later, so will the man. January 2017. Another man stands before a crowd, which is not as large as he would like, in Washington DC, taking the oath of office as the 45th president of the United States of America. His press secretary says that it was the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe”. Asked to justify such a preposterous lie, the president’s adviser describes the statement as “alternative facts”. Over the next four days, US sales of the dead man’s book will rocket by almost 10,000%, making it a No 1 bestseller.

When George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in the United Kingdom on 8 June 1949, in the heart of the 20th century, one critic wondered how such a timely book could possibly exert the same power over generations to come. Thirty-five years later, when the present caught up with Orwell’s future and the world was not the nightmare he had described, commentators again predicted that its popularity would wane. Another 35 years have elapsed since then, and Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the book we turn to when truth is mutilated, when language is distorted, when power is abused, when we want to know how bad things can get. It is still, in the words of Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, “an apocalyptical codex of our worst fears”.

Nineteen Eighty-Four has not just sold tens of millions of copies – it has infiltrated the consciousness of countless people who have never read it. The phrases and concepts that Orwell minted have become essential fixtures of political language, still potent after decades of use and misuse: newspeak, Big Brother, the thought police, Room 101, the two minutes’ hate, doublethink, unperson, memory hole, telescreen, 2+2=5 and the ministry of truth. Its title came to define a calendar year, while the word Orwellian has turned the author’s own name into a capacious synonym for everything he hated and feared... read more:

see also
The Political Function of the Modern Lie - Alexandre Koyré (1945)
More posts on Orwell
The Broken Middle - on the 30th anniversary of 1984

World Beard and Moustache Championships – in pictures

The World Beard and Moustache Championships took place over the weekend in Belgium.
Hosted this year by the Antwerp Moustache Club, the biennial competition recognises the most impressive and well-groomed facial hair from around the globe. 

Entrants are divided into 17 categories including, Dali Moustache, Fu Manchu and Freestyle Goatee; each of which is subject to strict requirements. Founded in 1990 by a beard club in a small village in Germany’s Black Forest, the sport - known as international bearding - has grown to include beard clubs from all over the world. 

Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

see more

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Celina Della Croce: How multinational corporations steal the vast majority of Ghana’s natural wealth every year

Every year, the vast majority of Ghana’s natural wealth is stolen. The country is among the largest exporters of gold in the world, yet—according to a study by the Bank of Ghana—less than 1.7 percent of global returns from its gold make their way back to the Ghanaian government. This means that the remaining 98.3 percent is managed by outside entities—mainly multinational corporations, who keep the lion’s share of the profits. In other words, of the US$5.2 billion of gold produced from 1990 to 2002, the government received only US$87.3 million in corporate income taxes and royalty payments.

The dominant discourse propagated by institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that control the levers of global finance blames the bad governance of local officials for the consequences of this plunder, citing corruption scandals as the main reason for a lack of resources. However, the discourse around bad governance—the idea that corrupt local officials are to blame for endemic poverty, low health indicators, education, and other measures of national well-being—focuses on what happens with the 1.7 percent of the returns that Ghana receives. Sarah Bracking points out that “the company would argue that the market value of output is not synonymous with their surplus, or profits, as working capital, wages, depreciation of machines and so forth must be paid from this. 

However, the figures do act as a good illustration of the low returns to the sovereign owners of sub-soil resources, as a proportion of their final market value, which, in Africa, can be estimated as typically in the region of between three and five percent, but which in this case is lower (about 1.7 per cent).” Holding officials accountable for their use of public funds should be a given, but what about the remaining 98.3 percent of the returns generated by Ghana’s gold exports?.. read more:

Rut Diamint: Secret archives reveal a ‘dirty war’: How the US backed a foreign military’s conflict that killed 30,000

History books may never tell the full story of the dictatorship that terrorized Argentina from 1976 to 1984. But newly declassified United States military and intelligence documents recently delivered to Argentina offer new details about the country’s brutal military junta. The archival documents were the fourth and final batch of 43,000 declassified U.S. telegrams, military records, intelligence and confidential memos given to Argentina following an extraordinary 2016 agreement between Argentine President Mauricio Macri and former U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Argentines now have more information about a dark period of our history that will allow us to continue strengthening justice, seeking and finding the truth,” Macri said on Twitterafter receiving the 7,500-document report on April 12. The archives narrate the human rights abuses committed by Argentina’s military government, often with the assistance of the United States. They include the forced disappearances of 30,000 people, international assassination squads that stalked their victims abroad and the kidnapping of hundreds of babies born in detention. The U.S. declassification effort began under persistent pressure from Argentine human rights groups founded to uncover the atrocities of the dictatorship – a period I have spent my academic career studying. Argentine democracy was interrupted by military coups six times in the 20th century.

The declassified documents outline what happened after the last coup, staged in 1976 by Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla. It gave way to the cruelest, most repressive and violent eight years of Argentina’s history.  In August 2000 representatives from Argentina’s Center for Legal and Social Studiesand the original Grandmothers and Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – a human rights group that locates the lost children of the dictatorship, which has since splintered into several factions – met with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. That encounter led to the declassification of 4,700 State Department documents in 2002. Those documents included U.S. diplomatic cables, memoranda, reports and meeting notes related to the Argentine dictatorship, and revealed clear U.S. involvement in the junta’s “dirty war.” Now, Argentina has the military and intelligence archives behind these operations, too. The declassified documents show that U.S. intervention in Latin America went well read more:

see also
Uki Goñi - A grandmother's 36-year hunt for the child stolen by the Argentinian junta

Krishna Kumar - Divide and rule is the winning ideology this election, only we call it polarisation

“Beg to differ” was one of the many phrases that made no sense but you had to get used to them in order to learn English. That this phrase would one day become essential had never occurred to me. Now it has. I feel like using it all the time these days. Differing from another person in public is full of risk, so if begging secures you some kindness in advance, there is no harm in begging. This is, of course, not why an English gentleman said, “I beg to differ”.

Many old expressions that have gone out of use in the native land of the English continue to be used in India. Our system of education keeps them alive. They are regularly used in administration, police procedures and in the judiciary. As an English-using nation, our status has improved and many of our English writers are treated as mother-tongue speakers.

Consider the staple of colonial history. The English practised a divide and rule policy, according to several Class 8 history textbooks. According to them, Partition was a consequence of this policy. If that is so, why are we doing the same thing now? Divide and rule seems to have become the winning ideology of the current election. We call it differently now. The term preferred by television anchors and the press is polarisation. They say the outcome of this election will depend on the extent to which the polarising rhetoric of the ruling party succeeds. Other parties are also said to be following this approach except they are polarising along regional or caste lines... read more:

Friday, May 17, 2019

Masood Saifullah - Afghan Women Cry For Help After Journalist Mina Mangal's Killing

A well-known Afghan journalist and political adviser was assassinated in broad day light over the weekend, demonstrating once again the poor state of women’s safety in the war-ravaged country.
Mina Mangal – who had worked as a presenter for several Afghan television channels before becoming cultural adviser for parliament – was gunned down by unidentified gunmen on Saturday when she was leaving home for work in the nation’s capital, Kabul.
Police in Afghanistan have launched a manhunt for Mangal’s ex-husband after her parents said he was responsible for her killing. Mangal’s brother, Shakib Mangal, said that his sister had once been abducted by her ex-husband’s family. “Her in-laws had abducted her two years ago but we were able to get her released with the help of some government officials and tribal elders,” Mangal said. “Her ex-husband, however, continued threatening Mina Mangal.”
He said his family has now filed a complaint against both his sister’s ex-husband and that man’s parents. Kabul police cite family disputes as the motive behind the killing. But Mangal’s brother stresses that the disputes had roots in his sister’s work and fight for young women and girls. Shakib Mangal said that his sister’s ex-husband had tried to stop her from working both during and after their marriage despite vowing not to oppose her working as a journalist before their wedding. Mina Mangal’s killing highlights the increasingly life-threatening risks faced by Afghan women working outside the home. Most Afghan men in this traditionally conservative society still hold the view that women need to stay at home and frown upon those in the workplace. Mangal worked as a presenter for several Afghan TV channels before becoming cultural adviser for parliament.

In 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked Afghanistan as the second-most dangerous country for women, nearly 17 years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime. The Taliban were notorious for their repression of women during their rule from 1996 to 2001; they banned girls’ education, forbade women from working outside the home, forced them to wear full facial covering and shredded any Western notion of women’s rights, among other restrictions... read more:

see also
STANISLAV MARKELOV - Patriotism as a diagnosis

Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa opts out of meetings on EC code till dissent is recorded

Ashok Lavasa, the election commissioner who disagreed with the poll panel’s decisions to clear Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah of charges of violating the so-called Model Code of Conduct (MCC) — which regulates candidate, party and government behaviour during the elections — has, since May 4 recused himself from all meetings to discuss MCC issues. He has insisted that he will do so only after dissent notes and minority decisions are included in the orders of the commission.

According to a person familiar with the development, the commission has not held any meetings to discuss MCC violations since May 4 because of this. The poll panel’s decision to clear Modi and Shah in all cases of MCC violations, made in a May 3 meeting came in for significant criticism.
This was followed by news reports that Lavasa had disagreed with the decisions, although this dissent wasn’t registered in the orders that were passed. The orders themselves came ahead of a scheduled Supreme Court hearing in a case on the EC dragging its feet over complaints regarding violations of the code of conduct by Shah and Modi filed by Congress leader Sushmita Dev.

The specific complaints discussed at the EC meeting regarding Modi and Shah included the PM’s speech in Nanded in Maharashtra on April 6 where he referred to the majority being a minority in Wayanad (Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s second constituency); and for his speech in Varanasi where he said 42 terrorists were killed to avenge the death of 40 troopers in Pulwama. Shah was let off for his remarks in an election rally in Kerala where he purportedly said that it was difficult to make out if Wayanad is in India or Pakistan.

The person familiar with the matter said that Lavasa has sent several reminders to the Chief Election Commissioner since May 4, to include minority decisions or dissent notes in the final orders. The Election Commission has not passed any orders on violations of the model code since, although it has asked those behind alleged violations for explanations, the official added. “The commissioner had earlier sought to know why his dissenting note was not made part of the final orders issued by the commission,” said this person.

Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora did not respond to text messages seeking comment.
A former finance secretary, Lavasa differed with the decision of the two other members of the poll body, Arora and election commissioner Sushil Chandra, while deciding on the cases of model code of conduct violations against Prime Minister Modi and BJP President Shah. He suggested sending a notice to Modi, which wasn’t accepted. There were at least six complaints in which the PM was given a clean chit, while Congress president Rahul Gandhi was let off in one case... read more:

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Akhilesh Yadav interview: This is a gathbandhan for the future’

There is nothing special about the BJP. They have only cheated the country. When the BJP came to power, the country was under a debt of Rs 35 lakh crore. In the last five years, it has gone up to Rs 70 lakh crore. Where did this Rs 35 lakh crore go? Who got it? The farmers did not get it, nor the poor, or the youth. On the noteban, they said they will wipe out black money and corruption. Kya shauch-alaya mein paani hai, kya bina paise ke shauchalaya ban gaya (Is there water in the toilet, was it constructed without a bribe)”

In UP, from Day 1, the BJP started with a politics of hate, stoked caste and religious conflict. Can the country’s Prime Minister speak like this? Could anyone imagine that this would also be talked about  - where electricity has reached first, and where later? That there will be accusations that we gave electricity more on Ramzan than on Diwali? Today, the government has all the data, let them see if we provided electricity selectively.

Kya kabristan ki boundary pe politics hogi? Kya pradhan mantri kahenge ki thaane mein ek hi jaati ke log rehte hain (Will we spar on the boundaries of burial grounds now? Can the PM say things like only one caste is represented in the police station)? Arrey, you tell me, in UP, if there is even one DM or SP today who is a Yadav. These people made castes turn on each other and after they formed the government, they said that they would set up a commission to probe how many Yadavs are in government jobs. They found that there weren’t too many, it turned out some other caste was over-represented. That report has still not been made public….

Do you think the election has changed after Pulwama and Balakot?
The BJP has tried hard, but the truth is out ever since they got scared of a jawan (Tej Bahadur Yadav, former BSF jawan, was given the SP ticket from Varanasi, but his nomination was rejected by the EC on technical grounds). What was his fault? That he spoke up on the poor quality of food. I have friends who are officers in the Army, my wife is from an Army background, my father was defence minister. We can’t be nationalists if we ask questions? Is asking for the truth wrong in a democracy?
Shouldn’t the country know, shouldn’t the government tell, how much RDX there was at Pulwama, and how it got here? What was the route? Forget what happened to Pakistan. Just tell us what was the route the RDX took... read more:

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Meghdeep Bhattacharyya - Clash of cultures: Shocked Bengal witnesses vandalism of Vidyasagar bust

One of the greatest names of the Bengal Renaissance has been pitchforked into the final lap of an election so far yoked to muscular nationalism, calumny and preposterous claims. Smashed to pieces by suspected BJP supporters, a bust of the polymath appears to have brought to the fore a culture clash that has marked the BJP’s foray into Bengal. The vandalism, which carries the whiff of a targeted attack as the bust was accessed by smashing a glass case, has offered chief minister Mamata Banerjee a chance to underscore how Bengal’s pride has been trampled upon.

Mamata sought to paint the opponent as a group incapable of respecting Bengal’s cultural stalwarts. “I don’t have words to condemn the incident. I’m myself ashamed and I apologise… that as people of Bengal, we cannot respect Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar because of these BJP goons. These leaders will be leaders of the nation? Those who cannot show respect for the icons?… Courage is good, not dussahas…,” the Trinamul leader said.

Vandalised Vidyasagar Bust To 'Jai Shri Ram', Does BJP Even Know Bengal?
In their elaborate speeches across Bengal, while BJP leaders often hailed Swami Vivekananda and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, Vidyasagar - a cultural reformer closer to Bengali sentiments than the other two - was rarely mentioned. Maybe one reason for this was that while the party was trying to foist an unfamiliar religious narrative on the state, Vidyasagar’s legacy was a reminder of the flaws of the very religion they were trying to piggyback on for votes. Mentioning Vidyasagar would barely be convenient in the project of manufacturing widespread feelings of Hindu victimhood, considering the story of his life - at least the way it exists in populist narratives - is a critique of Hinduism’s excesses.

Late on Tuesday night, Mamata uploaded Vidyasagar as the display picture on her social media accounts and that of the party. She also asked senior leaders of her party to do the same. The unforeseen intervention pits two images against each other: one that projects Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his lieutenants as “chowkidars” and the other standing up to protect the legacy of Vidyasagar who had played a pioneering role in reforming Hinduism. The clash of cultures has been brewing ever since Modi made the chanting of “Jai Shri Ram” a flashpoint in Bengal. Economical with the truth, the Prime Minister had created the impression that it was not being allowed to be chanted in Bengal.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Apoorvanand: Why it is necessary to reflect on our history of mass violence

NB: A timely article. Words like 'tragedy', when used in this context, are an attempt to disguise mass crimes and genocidal complicity. Here is an article I wrote a few months ago, on the memory of 1984. We need a thorough public debate, not about the 'Idea of India', but the Indian idea of the 
acceptability of mass murder. Given the culture of intimidation that has developed over decades - with political patronage - we must prepare ourselves for the potential of more violence on and after May 23. Can we trust the IAS and police to do their jobs? DS

Non-reflection on the violence stops us from thinking about the implication of letting all the police and executive officers.. who were mute spectators of the violence or in many cases collaborators, go scot-free.. The lack of a sense of urgency in various organs of the state, including the judiciary, to punish the perpetrators of violence, shows that a desire for justice remains an exception...
Rahul Gandhi’s firm and unambiguous rebuke to Sam Pitroda for his flippant observation regarding the violence of 1984 is welcome. But to say it was a “tragedy” which caused pain to “people” is to shy away from calling the violence by its name — that it was a violence targeted against the Sikhs. It was definitely a tragedy but only for the Sikh community. Besides, the hatred this violence unleashed was harnessed for the polls by the Congress campaign managers.

It is ironic but true that such acts of violence generate contempt and hatred for the victim and not sympathy in the perpetrators. There is hardly any repentance and atonement. They feel more empowered by this violence. Any claim for justice by the victims is thus resisted as it may weaken their new-found position of power, since justice would make the victims equal to the perpetrators. Another point we often miss is that in the wake of the violence, when processes of justice and reparation begin, the community of perpetrators starts consolidating. The community which treats the perpetrators as its own, begins to complain that their own are being wrongly and unnecessarily hounded by “victims”, who refuse to come out of their victimhood.

John Feffer - The Threat of Political Climate Change

It’s time for a movement to counteract Bannon’s Movement, a global coalition that joins people and politicians in a united, international effort to respond to the true global problems -- climate change, endless war, and economic inequality -- that threaten to overwhelm us all. 
Optimists and pragmatists alike ultimately have faith that democracies are self-regulating organisms, not unlike the Earth’s ecosystem. The planet has managed to survive countless asteroid strikes, solar flares, and extreme weather conditions. Democracy, too, will outlast Hurricane Donald and all the other examples of extreme political weather, thanks, sooner or later, to woke voters and resilient mechanisms of checks and balances.

Unfortunately, given the malign impact humans are having on the planet, this analogy is far less reassuring than it once might have been. Only the willfully ignorant expect that some natural oscillation in global temperature or the Earth’s own adjustments to its climate feedback loops will arrive in time to save us. Humankind has clearly thrown a spanner into the works and now faces a distinctly difficult, if not disastrous, future. Similarly, across the globe, the electoral pendulum appears to be stuck on the side of reaction and the new generation of right-wing populists could well be on the verge of changing the political playing field, just as humans are in the process of irrevocably transforming the planet.

Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Putin, Trump, and their ilk should indeed be understood as the political equivalent of global warming. Instead of deadly carbon, they spew hateful invective and show a remarkable determination to destroy a far-from-perfect status quo.  Moreover, they are the product not of farting livestock or extraterrestrial events but of the self-interested acts of blinkered humans. In an increasingly restrictive political space, liberals and progressives are looking ever more like so many polar bears on ever fewer ice floes, with diminishing room for maneuver… read more:

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Andrew Griffin - Bird that went extinct 136,000 years ago comes ‘back from the dead’ after evolving again

A bird that previously went extinct rose from the dead after it evolved all over again, scientists have found. The last surviving flightless species of bird in the Indian Ocean, a type of rail, has actually been around before, the research found. It came back through a process called "iterative evolution", which saw it emerge twice over, the researchers found.

It means that on two separate occasions – tens of thousands of years apart – a species of rail was able to colonise an atoll called Aldabra. In both cases it eventually became flightless, and those birds from the latter time can still be found on the island now. Iterative evolution happens when the same or similar structures evolve out of the same common ancestor, but at different times – meaning that the animal actually comes about twice over, completely separately.
Bird that went extinct 136,000 years ago comes back from the dead
The white-throated rail has made a surprising return. (Charles J Sharp)
This is the first time it has been seen in rails, and one of the most significant ever seen in a bird of any kind. White-throated rails are roughly the size of a chicken. They come from Madagascar, but repeatedly colonise other isolated islands, growing in number and then heading out of the island where they began.

Many of those that left to go north or south either died or were eaten. But some of the ones that headed eastwards went to live on the other ocean islands in the area, which includes Aldabra.
Aldabra does not have predators, and so the rails gradually lost the ability to fly. But then the island completely disappeared when it was covered by the sea, and the rail was wiped out, along with everything else on the island.

But after that event, some 100,000 years ago, the sea levels fell again and the atoll was once again taken over by flightless rails. By comparing the bones of those after and the ones before, researchers found that the evolution happened twice over a few thousand years ago. "These unique fossils provide irrefutable evidence that a member of the rail family colonised the atoll, most likely from Madagascar, and became flightless independently on each occasion," said lead researcher Dr Julian Hume, avian paleontologist and Research Associate at the Natural History Museum.

"Fossil evidence presented here is unique for rails, and epitomises the ability of these birds to successfully colonise isolated islands and evolve flightlessness on multiple occasions."

Syrian toddler loses entire family after Russian airstrike in Idlib

A Syrian toddler lost her entire family after a Russian airstrike hit their home in the rebel-held Idlib 
province, a civilian rescue group has said. Khadija al-Hamdan, aged just two, was pulled out of the rubble by the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets. Her mother, father and two siblings were killed in the assault. 

“She is the only one left,” her grandfather told the BBC after the attack, which is believed to have taken place last week. He was not named in the report.  “We collected the bodies from the hospital. We buried them.” The Syrian government and its ally Russia have recently begun intensifying their bombing campaign on Idlib, after a period of relative calm following a ceasefire agreed last September. .. read more:

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Manoj Joshi - The Great Divider of India is Now Dividing its Armed Forces

In 2015, TIME magazine featured Narendra Modi on its cover with the title, “Why Modi Matters”. Its hope, expressed in the headline of its story, was that he would lead India to step up as a global power. Four years later, with India in the midst of a keenly fought election, the iconic magazine has featured Modi on its cover once again, but this time under the title, “India’s Divider in Chief.”

Ideally, such a mirror should have been held up to the country by its own media. Unfortunately, most of it has been busy pandering to the Modi cult, carrying interviews and puff pieces on Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. The national media insistently ignores the fact that instead of campaigning on issues that affect the life of the people of the country, the duo have been talking about everything else – from religion and nationalism and pride to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s holidays and unproven cases of corruption.

The “Divider in Chief” jibe must hurt because it is true. It is difficult to recall another election where the people have been so divided as a conscious strategy. It is true that in democratic polities there is a natural process of division when citizens choose their rulers from competing  candidates. But when the ruling dispensation shapes the debate in terms of labelling all those who oppose them as traitors to the nation, and spares no institution from this toxic process of polarisation, then we have a problem.
Consider how the Modi campaign has divided both the Army and the Navy in this election campaign.

This man could go to jail for 20 years for giving migrants food and water

... a criminal trial in Arizona this week shows that, in the Trump era, safety has lost its meaning. Federal prosecutors are pursuing criminal charges against activist Scott Daniel Warren for doing nothing more than giving food, water and shelter to migrants trekking through the desert. The stakes are high for Warren and for everyone concerned about unrestrained border policing.

Since the days of Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the justice department has feverishly pursued migrants. In April 2017, Sessions stood before Customs and Border Protection officers in southern Arizona, part of the federal Department of Homeland Security, and described macabre machete attacks and beheadings supposedly perpetrated by migrants. “Criminal aliens, and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overturn our system of lawful immigration,” he said. To show the frontline DHS law enforcement officers that the justice department is on their side, Sessions issued a memo to prosecutors asking them to ramp up prosecution of five federal crimes about immigration.

A few months later, prosecutors charged Warren with several counts of one of those offenses, conspiracy to transport and harbor migrants. A federal felony that could land Warren in prison for 20 years, prosecutors rarely tap this charge. .. read more..

Friday, May 10, 2019

Ramachandra Guha: Fraying pluralism

In 2008, the political scientist, Steven Wilkinson, published an essay titled “Muslims in Post-Independence India”. This was its conclusion: “The good news for India, and for India’s 130 million Muslims, is that there are several factors likely to restrain any Hindu nationalist attempts to establish a Hindu Rashtra that will permanently turn Muslims into second-class citizens. First, opinion polls consistently show that over two-thirds of Indians reject this option, and that Indians are committed to religious pluralism. Second, India’s strong legal institutions and civil society impose real restraints on politicians’ ability to target minorities in order to stay in power. Third, a broad increase in electoral volatility and competitiveness since the early 1980s is working in Muslims’ favour, because a higher level of party competition leads to more competition for Muslims’ votes.”

If a week is a long time in politics, a decade is an eternity in the life of a nation. Professor Wilkinson, writing in 2008, was optimistic about the survival and flourishing of India’s pluralistic ethos. Writing in 2019, it is impossible to be at all sanguine in this regard. The first reason to be pessimistic about Indian pluralism is that history teaches us that once it controls the levers of State power, a determined and focused minority can always overcome a weak and vacillating majority. That was true in Russia after 1917, when Lenin and Stalin imposed Bolshevik brutality on a population that did not want it. That was true in Germany after 1933 as well. In India, where the Bharatiya Janata Party had the added legitimacy of winning a parliamentary election (albeit with 31 per cent of the vote), it has since 2014 determinedly pursued an agenda of Hindu pride and Hindu supremacy.

The past few years have witnessed an awful coarsening of public discourse in India.

For 7 days, Alwar cops sat on Dalit gangrape, waited for polls to end // Dalit youth beaten to death: Being pressured to drop charges, but I am not afraid, says sister

On April 26, five bike-borne men on the Alwar-Thanagazi highway forcibly abducted a couple and dragged them behind sand dunes off the road. They gangraped the woman in front of her husband, filmed the act and robbed the couple of Rs 2,000.

It took the Rajasthan police seven days to make the first arrest after an 18-year-old Dalit woman complained that she was gangraped by five men in Alwar, in front of her husband. In that crucial seven-day gap, the accused men threatened her family repeatedly, demanded Rs 10,000 and even circulated a video of the sexual assault on social media.

And police even told the complainant and her family that they would have to wait until polling ended in the region — Alwar was among 12 seats in Rajasthan that went to polls on May 6 — and only a day later, police made its first arrest. Speaking to the complainant’s family, police officers and witnesses, The Indian Express found glaring gaps in the police response between April 30, when the crime was reported to the police, and May 7, when the first arrest was made: from ignoring established protocol in dealing with complaints, particularly involving women and Dalits to delays in registering an FIR and recording the complainant’s statement... read more:

Dalit youth beaten to death: Being pressured to drop charges, but I am not afraid, says sister
As one approaches Tehri Garhwal’s Basan village in Uttarakhand, a one-room structure with blue walls can be spotted from a distance. The first house as one enters the village, it stands apart from the other establishments — because its occupants are Dalits, residents say. 

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Shankar Gopalakrishnan - The BJP Is Digging Its Own Grave

Elections often act as a giant lens, bringing into focus subterranean trends that were already developing. And if there is one thing that these polls have brought into focus, it is the hollowing out and brittleness of what the BJP represents – at precisely what might look like its moment of greatest triumph. That isn’t necessarily a good thing, even for those of us who are opposed to the RSS’s ideology. But it does mean that, while the future may head down several pathways – some of them terrifying – in the long term a monochromatic, dictatorial ‘Hindu Rashtra’ run by the RSS is actually quite unlikely.

To see why, let’s go back to 2014. The Modi government came to power on a tidal wave of political action by two broad sets of actors – the RSS and its Sangh parivar on the one hand, and a big business-corporate-media nexus on the other. Each had its own political project. The corporates backing Modi wanted to push their version of ‘economic reforms’. The RSS, of course, sought to push Hindutva. Those of us who don’t agree with one or the other, or both, of these projects, tend to focus on how they result in injustice, violence and hatred. But these two projects have another problem. Not only can they not meet the expectations of the rest of us, but they also cannot meet the expectations of their own supporters. In this sense, they are fundamentally delusional.

The economic project: Most commentators have noted that the economic project has vanished from the BJP’s agenda. This is a surreal election where the ruling party wants everyone to forget its own previous campaign slogan – ‘achhe din’. This isn’t an accident, nor is it merely a result of “economic mismanagement” by the Modi regime. The problem in 2014 was that the corporate media had managed to convince both itself and a large section of the public that its ‘reforms agenda’ – withdrawing the new Land Acquisition Act, diluting labour laws, making forest and environment clearances ‘easier’ and so on – would benefit India’s businesses, and, thereby, everyone.

But in reality, and much before 2014, “reforms” in India had degenerated into steps that benefit the country’s top 100 companies and no one else. This makes them not merely unjust but actually 
irrelevant. Thus, forest and environmental clearances are already granted to 99% of projects, so diluting them further makes little sense; labour regulations are already so weak that many businesses don’t even realise they exist and for the vast majority of businesses, land acquisition issues are not relevant... read more:

see also

Venu Madhav Govindu: India needs a Shanti Sena to fight for the foundational values of the republic

NB: A timely and poignant essay. Yes, we need to work very hard to re-establish the bonds of friendship among Indians; and to repair the damage to our institutions of governance. Five years of absolute rule by an ideocracy lead by an authoritarian leader has done much damage. The RSS is directly responsible for this, as the government has functioned under their control, and their sole aim as always been to transform Sanatan Dharma into a concoction called Hindutva; to force this atheistic ideology upon the entire public as India's civil religion (much like Japan's State Shinto); and to do all this in a climate of terror, intimidation and foul abuse. 

The sight of a Prime Minister spreading communal divisiveness amongst Indians is an utter disgrace - and Modi is a product of the RSS, who do not even hesitate to put up terror-accused as parliamentary candidates. Or use the Indian Armed Forces in partisan election propaganda.

They and their apologists are an insult to Hinduism; as well as to all of India's peoples and their multi-faceted culture. It is the duty of those Hindus who value their faith to reject this doctrine of hatred and revenge. Attempts at enclosing the Almighty within geo-political boundaries are atheism - you cannot nationalise God. Nation-worship is not religion; it is a power-driven ideology. Thanks to the author for writing this piece. DS

If we take stock of the performance of the Indian government in the last five years, it fails on many counts. Reckless measures such as demonetisation have seriously impacted the economy. Our credibility in international politics has received a severe drubbing. But the singular characteristic of the Narendra Modi regime has been its direct assault on the very identity of the Indian republic.

Profoundly shaped by the movement for Independence, the modern Indian identity transcended the European definition of a nation in monolithic terms of race, religion, culture and language. India was simply the sum of its peoples. One is reminded of the evocative definition of desam or a nation by the Andhra social reformer and pioneering writer, Gurajada Apparao. Gurajada’s declamation in a 1910 poem is common currency in Telugu: 

Desamante matti kadoyi/ desamante manushuloyi
Translated, it prosaically reads as 
A nation is not its land/A nation is its people

Partition severely tested and wounded this formulation of our nationhood.

Bharat Bhushan - Are RSS, BJP risking their political future?

NB: A perceptive piece. My caveat is that this hydra-headed body maintains links with all its offspring, and uses all of them in various ways for its purposes - primary among which is to deceive the public. (The current phrase is gas-lighting, I believe). And it has sunk deep roots in civil society, with ex-President Pranab Mukherjee handing it a certificate of respectability. This is a cruel joke, as the Sangh Parivar are bent upon stoking the fires of communal hatred and violence as a means of controlling power and militarising civil society. Some years ago I described Hindutva as the Maoism of the elite - surely it is clear by now that a section of the Indian ruling class hates the rule of law and the Constitution, and has no problem with violence, as long as it is communal violence?

Here is an icon of our ultra-patriots, Bal Thackeray, in 1993: "I piss on court judgements. Some people are trying to get a case admitted against me. But I am not afraid of court judgements. Most judges are like plague–ridden rats against whom direct action should be taken." Thus spoke the great man in June 1993, within months of the communal conflagration in Mumbai. This direct attack on the judiciary elicited no suo motu response. After the way in which the mysterious death of Judge Loya was dismissed, what are we to think about the integrity of our senior judges? If anyone has evidence that the Sangh Parivar defended the rule of law against this attack, I'd love to hear of it. 

The past five years have shown what the RSS want to do with state power. During their rule they have manipulated the judiciary, the justice system, the economy, the media and and public education - all for partisan ends and for self-perpetuation. Lets see if our civil society is capable of discussing the deep roots of communal politics in India - of each and every colour. This gang is criminalising the polity in broad daylight, is anyone awake? DS

Not too long ago the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was suspicious about the Malegaon terror accused, and wanted their antecedents investigated. Today, there is an eagerness to reclaim them as members of the flock. The main accused in the Malegaon case - Dayanand Pandey, Pragya Thakur and Lt. Col. Srikant Purohit, now dismissed - are out on bail. They were all associated with Abhinav Bharat, an extreme right-wing Hindu organisation founded by Lt. Col. Purohit, drawing its name from an organisation founded by V.D. Savarkar, the original Hindutva ideologue and RSS hero. It is also currently headed by Himani Savarkar, daughter-in-law of the RSS icon, and also a niece of Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin. 

The aim of this organisation, according to conversations recorded on Pandey’s laptop, is to dismantle the Indian Constitution and replace it with one based on smritis (Vedic religious texts). “In this country we want to have Hindu Dharma or Vedic Dharma based on the Principles of Vedas,” Col. Purohit is recorded as saying. Pragya Singh Thakur was actively associated with this group. A former activist of the BJP’s student wing, she is alleged to have provided men for the Malegaon blast and attended meetings to plot the bombing. Her motorcycle was used in the Malegaon blast. She was also charged in the murder of an RSS activist, Sunil Joshi, who the National Investigation Agency (NIA) claims was involved in the Samjhauta Express blasts.

The RSS reportedly persuaded the BJP to field Pragya Thakur as its Lok Sabha candidate from Bhopal. Her “homecoming” is also being celebrated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah in their election speeches as a validation of Hindu nationalism and the strange assertion that “a Hindu can never be a terrorist”.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

New species of 'fierce' tiny dinosaurs with bat-like wings is discovered in China

A "fierce" new species of little dinosaurs with bat-like wings has been discovered in China. 
Palaeontologists have uncovered the fossilised remains of a 163-million-year-old creature that would have been around the size of a magpie, weighing just 300g. Named Ambopteryx longibrachium, it had bat-like membrane wings which were previously unknown among predatory theropod dinosaurs. This suggests that when dinosaurs were beginning to fly they were experimenting with a range of wing structures. 

The find "completely changes our idea of dinosaur evolution", lead researcher Min Wang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences told The Independent.  "We imagine dinosaurs have feathered wings but this latest discovery changes how we understand the origins of flight," he said... read more:

Jyoti Punwani - In Varanasi, it is farmers and a soldier that are challenging the PM

“Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan.’’ It’s been more than half-a-century but this powerful slogan, given by a diminutive prime minister, remains imprinted in memory. In four words, it encapsulated the importance of the two sections of our society who were at that time invisible. Who could have imagined that some day, it would be a jawan and a kisan who would challenge the prime minister in a Lok Sabha election! A pliant Election Commission has eliminated the jawan from the competition; it hasn’t yet managed to get rid of the kisan.

Last month, 111 farmers from Tamil Nadu declared their intention to fight against the PM from Varanasi. Tamil Nadu is a long way from Varanasi, but these farmers had travelled a greater distance in 2017. They had spent 100 days in Delhi to draw the attention of the rulers, even stripping and burying themselves in mud to do so. Alas, nothing happened. After the TN farmers, turmeric farmers from Telangana decided to fight Narendra Modi. Both sets of farmers knew this was a losing battle. What they hoped to gain from it was the nation’s attention to their demands and to the PM’s failure to fulfill his 2014 promises to farmers.

If in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s time farmers and jawans were invisible, today they are among the most neglected sections of our society. If they are not invisible, it’s because they go to extraordinary lengths to force themselves on our consciousness. Fighting the Lok Sabha election against the PM is one of these. The irony of the Varanasi contest cannot be lost even to bhakts. After Pulwama, the army has become their one-point shield against any criticism. In his election campaign, their hero has used jawans to get votes like no one else has till now. Yet, a recently-dismissed jawan, Tej Bahadur Yadav, almost became his primary challenger.

Gaza mourns the dozens dead in latest Israeli attack: ‘I lost everything in the blink of an eye’

The only reason Mohamed, 26, was not dug out of the rubble of his home like the rest of his family, was because he stopped for a quick chat. He remembers how his father, a security guard at al-Awda hospital in north Gaza, was grumpy that his oldest son was home late on Sunday evening. But a split-second decision to say hello to a neighbour meant he was only at the gate of their five-storey building when the Israeli airstrike hit, saving his life. His father, mother and brother were killed. 

“This fire ball just consumed the top of the building and suddenly everything was dust,” Mohamed Abu Al-Jidian told The Independent at the family funeral in Beit Lahia, Gaza. With no home left to gather in, the surviving relatives lined up plastic chairs in a nearby building site. “I tried to go up to save my father but the fire was too strong and the debris too much. I couldn’t get to them,” he added.
The family were given no warning by the Israeli forces or the “knock on the roof” preliminary missile, as some buildings are.

Instead, there was a deadening roar as the strike chewed off the entire top floor of the building, leaving brick-toothed holes.  “There was no reason for our flat to be hit, so I thought at first the explosion must be behind the building,” he said.  The body of his 11-year-old brother Abdul-Rahman was the first to be found alongside their neighbours the al-Ghazali family. Among the dead was a four-month-old girl. 

Mohamed’s mother Raghda, and father Talal, 50, were not located until a day later: there was so much debris it took rescue workers 24 hours to claw through concrete to find them. “I don’t understand it, my father was a hospital guard, he isn’t affiliated to any political [or armed] group. There isn’t anything in this building but people’s homes,” he added... read more:

Asia Bibi begins new life in Canada – but her ordeal may not be over

Asia Bibi has arrived in Canada hoping to start a new life after her years on death row. But although there is huge relief among campaigners for religious freedom that she is out of Pakistan, her ordeal may not be over. Islamic extremists have pledged to pursue the Christian woman and kill her for the act of blasphemy of which she was accused and later acquitted. Bibi may spend the rest of her days looking over her shoulder in fear of an international assassin.

Bibi’s backstory is well known after international attention was focused on her case. The former farm labourer was sentenced to death on flimsy evidence in 2010 after being accused of blasphemy in a dispute with Muslim women in her village over a cup of water. Two Pakistani politicians were later killed for publicly supporting her and criticising the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.

She won the support of Pope Francis and Christian organisations around the world. Eventually last October, Pakistan’s supreme court overturned her conviction, triggering violent protests throughout Pakistan and calls for the judges in the case to be killed. The violence was led by the Islamic group Tehreek-e-Labbaik, dedicated to upholding Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws. Although Bibi was freed from prison, she was kept in legal limbo in protective custody while negotiations were under way to find her and her family a new home. Her family went into hiding and claimed they were being hunted down by extremists, going from house to house with photographs.

A number of countries were involved in efforts to find Bibi and her family a safe haven, but Canada quickly emerged as the most likely destination. Two of Bibi’s daughters relocated to Canada earlier this year, while Bibi continued to be held in custody. No details have been revealed on Bibi’s immediate whereabouts in Canada or where the family might establish a new home. But the months since her acquittal should have provided the Canadian authorities time to work out a plan, which may involve a new identity... Christians make up only 1.59% of Pakistan’s population of more than 200 million, but about half of those accused of blasphemy in the country are non-Muslims. According to Open Doors, which monitors Christian persecution around the world, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws “target Christians in particular”... read more:

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Shivam Vij: What it’s like to be a young Muslim in Uttar Pradesh after voting for Modi

Kanpur: Arshad Khan (not his real name), 31, runs a small business in Kanpur. In this interview, he explains why voters in his polling booth have lost interest in elections.
Something has died inside us in the last few years. Dil mar gaya hai. Muslims here feel more besieged than ever. There has been no violence but the general anti-Muslim sentiment has increased so much, it’s suffocating. The other day, three Muslim schoolchildren were playing cricket in the Green Park stadium. One of them was wearing a skullcap. A group of adults went up to them and said, why are you playing here? Don’t you support Pakistan? They called them ‘katua’ and asked them to say Bharat Mata Ki Jai. Incidents like this make me ask just one question: Why?

Another such incident was when a skullcap-wearing Muslim was passing by a Hindu religious procession. They dragged him into the crowd and forced him to scream Hindu religious lines. Such incidents didn’t happen earlier. It is after Yogi Adityanath became chief minister that troublemakers feel empowered

I live in Chamanganj in Kanpur, what you would call a Muslim ghetto. The place has had a history of communal violence, especially when the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya. I was a toddler then. I knew of the BJP’s anti-Muslim positions but in 2014, I thought Modi was trying to do something different. He was emphasising development over the BJP’s traditional politics of religion. And so, despite being a Muslim in Chamanganj, I voted for Modi. That was not all. I voted for the BJP again in 2017. I thought that the Samajwadi Party (SP) or the Congress had no solutions. They were not taking us anywhere. What have the SP or the Congress ever done for Chamanganj? These parts remain the city’s most under-developed — stuck in time.

In Varanasi, Soldier Tej Bahadur Yadav Reveals Hollowness Of Modi’s Campaign

By 2017, one had seen incidents such as the lynching of Akhlaq in Dadri. For me, that was all the more a reason to engage with the BJP. We should vote for them, join them, make ourselves matter to them, I thought, because they’re clearly sweeping election after election. I even went around telling my friends to vote for the BJP. Some of them said I was mad. Did you know, they asked, BJP will make Yogi Adityanath the chief minister? Come on, I said, don’t be ridiculous. Modi won’t make someone that anti-Muslim the chief minister. I thought Modi wanted to at least keep up the pretence of being moderate. He wants to say he’s doing Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas. When Yogi Adityanath became chief minister, we went into a shock. As a result, Muslims in Chamanganj and Kanpur had no interest in the election this year (Kanpur voted on 29 April)... read more:

Express editorial on SC in-house inquiry: Not justice

The three-member panel probing charges of sexual harassment against Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi had a task much broader and more critical than its stated remit. Given that it was investigating allegations levelled against the highest office of the country’s apex court, the panel needed to answer questions that pertained, inevitably, to the integrity of the institution itself. Upon it also lay the onus of instituting procedures that mitigated the unequal power relations in a case where a former junior employee of the court was ranged against the CJI. In a report submitted on Monday, the panel has given a clean chit to CJI Gogoi. It has “found no substance” in the charges. But this denouement — an ex parte report, which will not be made public — raises more questions than it answers.

On what basis did the enquiry committee conclude there was ‘no substance’ to the allegation?

The committee comprising Justices S A Bobde, Indira Banerjee and Indu Malhotra wrapped up the inquiry in sittings over four days, three of which were devoted to questioning the complainant. On the third day, the complainant withdrew from the probe alleging that the panel did not adopt “a procedure that would ensure fairness and equality”. She accused the committee of not informing her about its procedures, denying her legal help, not recording its proceedings and not providing her with a copy of her depositions before it. Each of these four points raises issues of power asymmetry.