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Pushing back against authoritarianism

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By William Milam

I have been, for several months, focusing my attention on the coming election in Bangladesh. The coming election in that country seems to me to encapsulate the struggle of liberal democratic sectors of many countries against authoritarian, or incipient authoritarian, governments. All the familiar elements are present: an authoritarian one-party government with complete control of the electoral process; a willingness of this government to bend the norms and rules of that process to guarantee its return to office; an opposition that has suffered the ravages and humiliations of being out of power and a serious campaign of human rights abuse to weaken it to the point of unviability as a serious political contender; and a government program of suffocation of any voices in the media or society in general that question the government’s actions in suppressing the opposition.

In many of these countries, the opposition is too fragmented, or too decimated by the suppression, or both, to fight back effectively. This seemed to be the case in Bangladesh until there appeared a leader, or leaders, from the middle of the political spectrum who have the gravitas with the society to pull together the various parts of the middle—left, center, right leaning parties—into a viable coalition of the center to challenge the government. They have been joined in Bangladesh by the remnants of what was the other major party, made virtually leaderless by government repression.

 

Nonetheless, the hope this challenge brings is leavened by the knowledge that the government has all the tools to rig the election in its favour and none of the institutional scruples necessary to constrain its actions to preserve itself at all cost. News from Dhaka makes clear, for example, that the chairman of the election commission has sided with the government on every procedural issue. In addition to election procedures, there is the technical harassment, such as government-ordered constantly interrupted communications near the opposition headquarters. Worse, there is the government-inspired physical and legal harassment. The latter involves filing spurious cases by the hundreds against opposition activists in completely politicized courts. The former is just plain killing or disappearing (which usually amounts to the same thing) many such activists.

I am thrilled by the fact that, despite its current ambiguity on human rights and democracy, the US government is taking a strong line to try to persuade the Government of Bangladesh to allow a free and fair election. Other Western voices seem relatively muted, and some are actually doing harm in their eagerness to seem neutral. For example, the EU recently announced it would not send observers, and a British MP leading an EU Parliamentary Delegation said to the press he was personally confidant of a free and fair election after talking to political leaders of Bangladesh. This personal opinion may, or may not, have reflected the EU position, but it will certainly be taken as the EU position.

The EU statement blames both sides rather than making clear that the government, which is in full control of the mechanisms to set those conditions, is the recalcitrant party. Clearly, this is not an incentive for the government to halt its serious rigging. While the center coalition developed quickly and caught many off guard, too late for most Western countries or institutions to send observers, in setting the election so close to Christmas, the Government surely wanted to minimize observers from the West.

The big election news this month was the US election on November 6, and readers might wonder why I have not yet crowed over the thumping Trump took. After all, the election was held over three weeks ago. The answer is that the results are generally, but not totally, good news and have some troubling implications that take time to sort out. Moreover, it seems that American midterm elections, i.e. those that are non-Presidential, are becoming slower and slower in providing definitive results. I wrote my last piece on November 12, six days after the election, yet at that time I still did not know how high the Democratic (blue) tide would rise. The reason is that voting methods are shifting, and more and more Americans are voting by mail or absentee ballot. These take longer to count. Although turnout was very high, fewer and fewer Americans voters are voting in person on election day.

Before the election, there was talk of a “blue wave,” meaning that the Democrats (blue) would take many seats mainly, if not only, in the House of Representatives from Republican (red) incumbents, more than enough to win the House back. At midnight on election day, that blue wave looked more like a blue trickle. Most of the races were too close to call. As the counting proceeded over the hours, then days, the blue trickle began to look more like a blue tide than a blue wave, slowly rising to the present count of Democrats taking 39 seats from the Republicans. Votes were still being counted two weeks later in some states. At this late date, three weeks after the election, one congressional race in California is still undetermined. Many of the “flipped” seats were in Congressional districts that had been historically Republican, and the elections were so close as to require recounts. For example, in Orange county, which is has been strongly Republican for as long as I can remember (it was thought of as the birthplace of Reagan Republicanism) all of its seven Congressional seats held by Republicans until November 6 will be now held by Democrats.

It was, in fact, a rout of the Republicans in the suburbs of most of the large metropolitan areas of the country, and thus in the House of Representatives. In most of those suburbs, President Trump had run strongly in 2016, though his margins of victory, if he had won the district (and he did not win all of them in any case) was usually not great. The shift away from Trump seems to have been suburban white women, but the other large addition to the Democratic vote count was a much larger turnout among groups that are generally opposed to Trump anyway but were energized for this election. The main issue for most of the voters was Trump himself—his approval rating keeps sinking among millennial, minorities, and women.

The Senate, however, is a different story—and a very different context—which in some part emphasizes the contradictions in what we call the American system of democracy. Just plain bad luck put the Democrats in a difficult situation because Senators have six-year terms and thus only a third (in theory) come up for re-election every two years. This year, most of the senate seats that came up were in rural states that Trump had won by large margins in 2016; in a sense the election of 2018 for the Senate took place in rural America, while that for the House took place in suburban America.

The glaring divisions in the US were, thus, only too prominent in this election. The good news (and it is very good news) is that a Democratic House will be a very necessary check on Trump. One can expect many clashes. One can hope that the Democrats use their majority strategically, to lay the groundwork for a victory in the 2020 Presidential election.

With the judiciary now stuffed with conservative judges, it will not be a check on Trump or on the imposition of a conservative, perhaps even nativist, agenda by a conservative minority on an increasingly liberal and diverse majority, which ultimately would result in serious social and political turmoil. The worrisome divisions in American politics that our convoluted and out-of-date Constitution are causing — the rural/urban, young/old, college educated/non-college educated splits — are shown in bold relief in this election. In the national figures for the Senate election, for example, the Democrats lost two seats while getting over 50 million (58 percent) of the votes, and the Republicans gained two seats while getting just over 34 million (40 percent) of the vote. In contrast, in the house election the Democrats gained 39 seats with 59 million (53 percent) votes, and the Republicans lost 39 seats with 50 million (45 percent) votes. If that isn’t a recipe for future trouble, I don’t know what is.


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Opinion

The white man’s burden

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By Shahzad Chaudhry

When Samuel Huntington first published his thesis of ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order’ in 1996, he was laughed upon.
It was thought that he was making a case for the ‘white world’ to have another enemy as big as Hitler’s Germany or the Communist Soviet Union which could give reason for it to continue to spend money on retaining its military domination of the world. That Islam, which Huntington referred to as the other side of the civilizational divide, could be one such adversary. He failed to indicate the means to such an inevitable clash still quite wrapped in conventional applications.
By 1989, capitalist democracy had vanquished pre-WWI Imperialism, post-WWI Fascism and post-WWII Communism. Towards the end of WWII, the likely victors gathered the world at Bretton Woods to sign them on to a plan to institute a global order which would run on the Western model of a ‘capitalist economy’ and a ‘democratic political system’ ensuring the ‘West’s’ centrality in a reinstituted world order. Having overcome all, it aimed to paint the world in its own colour. Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist, sealed that stage of finality in the political evolution of the world with his book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, published in 1992. It is probable that Huntington countered Fukuyama’s thesis through his ‘Clash of Civilisations’ riposte. Fukuyama seemed exuberant while Huntington, initially dismissed, now seems prophetic.
Soon after, in 1998, a German professor at the University of Bremen, Dieter Senghaas, wrote ‘The Clash within Civilisations’ expanding on what Huntington had proffered and building on how such intercultural conflicts may germinate within civilisations, and the means to manage such conflicts. Keep in mind, the Al-Qaeda by then was a reality and had manifested itself with attacks on some of the US interests in Africa. The years between 1998 and 2008 was a period of an exclusive and entrenched conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere of an ongoing war between those who fought in the name of Islam and the Western civilisation.
Economic depression in 2008 brought home another reality. The capitalist system suddenly seemed to have run its course. Economists like Thomas Piketty and George Soros brought home the inadequacies of capitalism which had engendered another critical divide within societies between the 99 percent ‘have-nots’ and the one percent ‘have-all(s)’. Society stood starkly divided on the upward-mobility and prosperity scale. In the US, such deprivation became more noticeable in ‘non-college going whites’, mostly belonging to rural mid-western communities. These over time became the locales where the Church and white supremacists held sway.
Europe’s societies met another consequence with similar results, with the fragmentation of the family system when fewer people got ‘regularly’ married and even fewer gave birth to children. Soon the aged and the less productive outnumbered those who could sustain them. Retaining economies with required growth inevitably needed labour which had to be imported from where such resource was in abundance. Imperatives of an economy meant inviting people of alien cultures which gave birth to multiculturalism.
The phenomenon was initially enriching but later created a crisis of identity among the natives when their cultural ethos mutated or at the very least co-existed. In the US, meanwhile, urban America moved on gorging on the richness of such multiculturalism, while rural America was left to sulk with a sense of isolation and irrelevance.
People who had migrated not only found jobs for being better qualified and more creative and thus productive, they also replaced lazy locals who neither were equipped for the kind of jobs that the information and technology based economy could offer nor were keen to match their skills to move up the ladder. They had given up on college too even as students from all over the world populated their world class universities. What you got were prosperous, hard-working and productive émigrés establishing their cultures, and natives that were unskilled, uneducated and unemployed – isolated within their own habitats bordering on reverse ghettoisation. In Europe, the migrants populated city centres in massive collectivism. Such disaggregation was only consequential.
A creeping sense of alienation and irrelevance soon became a sentiment of hate. Politicians sensed the opportunity and cashed in on it as they moved for the kill. President Trump recently questioned the right of such naturalised citizens to sit in the US Congress. His exact words were more searing. Undoubtedly then, Brenton Tarrant, the monster of the Christchurch killings, hailed Trump as the leader of a resurgent White Power. White power isn’t new; it has existed before in the shape of the Ku-Klux-Klan in the US and the Skinheads of the UK who employed racial hatred and bigotry as their currency.
Restraints of law and a sense of shared stakes borne out of prosperity in rapidly progressing economies subsumed the white supremacists’ fears into acceptable levels of inclusivity – till free-market and laissez faire economics betrayed its partial gains for a selected few. Jobs went to those who could win those corporate profits, and these weren’t the left-behind natives. This brought up latent hate.
Right-wing politics around nationalism in Western societies became the anchor around which such hate has bloomed. It has since become mutually supportive for both sides as an electorate fired by such racial passion raises a leadership which in turn supports exclusivity. The sentiment is now so pervasive that someone as successful and as emblematic of inclusive and integrated societies like Angela Merkel finds it difficult to continue in politics. Brexit in many ways is an effort to rediscover such exclusionary existence.
What must be the way out of this horrible episode of hate and bigotry as evinced in Christchurch? Or may have the making of it in so many events of similar nature spread all over Western societies? Two fundamental separations will need to be created. One, that crime too has internationalised on the back of globalised politics, economics and multiculturalism spawned by the two. It finds succour from the same protocols of connectivity which gave us an interconnected world. Cooperative mechanisms must monitor such association for timely interdiction.
Two, a sentiment of hate or reprisal must be disaggregated and dealt with remedial interventions for the different stages leading to such an eventuality. Politics may stop using hate as currency. A system of democratic governance needs to be revisited; it must revert to be more inclusive.
An economic order which can address the shortcomings of the present form of capitalism needs immediate attention. What can make the current shape of capitalism more empathetic and inclusive? Is the Chinese order the answer or will the Islamic economic model ultimately tend to the poor and the deprived? It is time to get back to Bretton Woods or Davos or Jeddah and Dubai to seek the answers before we become fodder for the next series of hate wars. It is time to replace the challenge of a clash with a dialogue between civilisations. Jacinda Ardern has showed us the way.

 
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Opinion

Poor Nation, Rich Army

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By TAHA SIDDIQUI

On March 23, Pakistan will celebrate its Republic Day with the same “zeal and fervor” as it does every year. As usual, the Pakistani military will come out in full force, with joint parades by the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy. The ostentatious marches will include a display of Pakistan’s nuclear-capable missile system, an air show, and gun salutes to local and international dignitaries present for the occasion.
The extravaganza is always broadcast live on local television channels, set to the fanfare of new propaganda songs produced especially for the event by the military’s media wing. It is rare for the public to question these theatrics—but doing so is more urgent than ever.
Pakistan is going through some serious financial turmoil. Over the last few months, Prime Minister Imran Khan has crisscrossed the globe in search of aid to shore up the economy. Before one recent trip, he even acknowledged the country’s desperation for foreign money. Meanwhile, the country’s finance minister, Asad Umar, has been busy negotiating a new bailout package with the International Monetary Fund—Pakistan has been in the care of the IMF for 22 years out of the last 30. Inflation is at a four-year high, reaching over 8 percent, and Islamabad believes that it could tick even higher.
One-third of Pakistan’s population lives under the poverty line, and the country is ranked at 150 out of 189 countries in the latest United Nations Human Development Index.
Although Pakistan’s recent economic woes are troubling, the country has faced similar pressures for years. One-third of its population lives under the poverty line, and the country is ranked at 150 out of 189 countries in the latest United Nations Human Development Index. The national debt stands at around $100 billion, while its foreign exchange reserves are a meagre $15 billion. The value of the Pakistani rupee, one of the worst-performing currencies in Asia, has dropped 31 percent since 2017.
Yet anyone watching the parade on March 23 may believe that all is well. And they certainly won’t get the impression that the military is, in fact, behind many of the country’s economic problems. But after debt servicing, the military is Pakistan’s biggest economic burden. Already, over 20 percent of the annual budget officially goes to the military, but the armed forces have been pushing for more every year. Just in the last budget cycle, it won a 20 percent hike in its yearly allocation. The actual expense of the military is even higher, but it is hidden by moving some of the expenses to other budget lines. The parliament neither seriously debates the military budget nor subjects its spending to audit. By contrast, the country spends less than 5 percent of GDP on social services like education and health care, well below the regional average.
The military mainly protects itself by keeping the threat of India alive. The two nuclear-armed neighbours have been in conflict since the partition of South Asia in 1947. The militaries have fought four wars, with three of them over Kashmir valley. Even though Pakistan initiated these conflicts, it has told the public that it was only countering Indian aggression. In recent years, Pakistan has avoided a direct war, perhaps because it lost all previous ones. But it relies on militant groups based in Pakistan to keep tensions alive. This February offered a glimpse of such dynamics at play. In turn, the Pakistani Army gets the perfect excuse for its oversized burden on the country’s economy. Like a mafia protection racket, the military creates its own demand.
But it is not just the military’s budget that is eating away at the resources of a country that it has directly ruled for half of Pakistan’s 72 years of existence. Today, the armed forces’ empire has expanded well beyond its traditional role in security. It runs about 50 commercial entities. The military’s main business arm, the Fauji Foundation, has seen enormous growth. According to Bloomberg, its assets grew 78 percent between 2011 and 2015, and it has annual income over $1.5 billion. The military-backed organization has stakes in real estate, food, and the communications industry.
It appears that the business wing of the military is expanding even more under the Khan government. Khan’s critics allege that the military backed his candidacy and now, in return, enjoys relative freedom to do what it wants. There is plenty of evidence to back those claims.
Reuters recently reported that the Pakistani Army is moving into another lucrative industry: mining and oil exploration. Khan’s government is reportedly facilitating the arrangements by giving the military preferential treatment during negotiations.
(foreignpolicy.com)

 
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Opinion

Do Muslim Lives Even Matter?

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By Apoorvanand

Just as the world was coming to terms with the horror of the attack on Muslims worshipping at two mosques at Christchurch in New Zealand, I was trying to understand the indignation that my young friend, Shah Alam, felt after news broke of Babu Bajrangi being granted bail by the Supreme Court.
What Shah Alam is trying to discern is the inability of the Supreme Court to comprehend the feeling of insecurity and vulnerability that this development would instil, not only amongst those who were Bajrangi’s direct victims but also amongst the Muslim population from Gujarat and across India. They were seeing a criminal accused of the worst crimes against humanity being granted freedom.
So can the attacks in New Zealand be treated as a crime against humanity? After all, the victims were Muslims as well, living in a particular colony, very small in number, if you compare them with the number of Muslims living elsewhere, even in Gujarat?
It is then questioned why Muslims like Shah Alam, safely ensconced in cities like New Delhi, are distressed? What is their locus standi in this case? How are they affected by Babu Bajarangi’s crimes? Are they not stretching it a bit too far?
By raising such technical objections, Bajarangi’s crimes are sought to be localised. But those raising such questions forget that the message of the Gujarat pogroms was not only intended for those physically trapped in the fire, but for all the Muslims in India – what happened in Gujarat can happen anywhere.
A young Muslim student of my university told me that someone recently subjected him to a catchphrase, “2002 phir se (2002 again)”. When confronted, the fellow student chuckled and explained that it was in reference to Modi’s re-election again, just like the people of Gujarat had returned him to power in 2002. The desire travels so far, in space and time, and yet we, who are not Muslims, tend to ignore it.
I need not go into the exploits of Babu Bajrangi, which were a part of the campaign which ultimately catapulted Narendra Modi to power.
Babu Bajrangi, foolish enough to brag about his “heroism”, was only one of the perpetrators. There were other, more shrewd, more lethal, offenders who didn’t even let their kurta get soiled by the blood of Muslims.
But maybe Babu Bajrangi was not foolish at all. Because his big talk about violence did not repel people from violence, it only drew them towards it. They experience a certain sadistic pleasure in sharing the brutality that they did not have the gratification to commit themselves. They consume and relish it. This is what they wanted to be done.
When we see the mass murderer involved in the Christchurch massacre, live streaming his act, or when we learn that the brutality on Afrazul at Rajsamad was videotaped by the steady hands of a 14-year-old, we know that Babu was not a fool at all!
The 11 men outside the special TADA courtroom in Nashik soon after they were acquitted of all charges. Credit: Special arrangement
Reading Shah Alam and the relief that old age and infirmity brought to Babu Bajrangi, my mind went to a different kind of relief, to a different type of people. This time it is Muslims who got a reprieve from the courts. Jamil Ahmed Khan, Mohammed Yunus, Yusuf Khan, Wasim Asif, Ayyub Ismail Khan, Shaikh Shafi, Farukh Ahmad Khan, Abdul Qader Habibi, Syed Ashfaq Mir, Mumtaz Murtuza Mir and Mohammed Haroon Ansari, all charged with sedition and conspiring to wage a war against the nation and plan violence against Hindus, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, were finally acquitted of the charges.
It took only 25 years for them to walk to freedom. Freedom, still dear and yet so bleak a word, or feeling for them. 25 years is too small a period for a nation, but in the life of a mortal human, it is a huge void. To make sense of life without or with these 25 years is hard.
I will not go into their stories. I don’t want tears. Because I know that there are eyes which would remain dry even after listening to the stories of horror that they went through. There would be stony souls who would say this is a small price for keeping the nation safe.
To think that grieving is now a partisan act in our country, is a sad state of affairs.
I turn the pages of the manuscript of the book of stories, recorded by Manisha and Alimullah of the wrongs, atrocities and injustices done to Riyaz Ahmad Mohammad Ramzan, Syed Wasim Haider, Irshad Ali, Abrar Ahmad, Rajjab Ali, Dr. Fargo Anwar, Nurool Huda, Waris Sheikh, Mohammad Ilyas, Amanullah Ansari,Mohammad Husain Fazli, Ahmad Dar, Rahmana Yusuf Farooqui, Abdul Muneen who went to different jails of India. All of them were suspected terrorists. They had to sacrifice 10 to 15 years of their individual lives to make the nation feel secure.
I recall the downcast eyes and feeble voices of those young men who were released after losing 7 to 15 years of their lives to the Indian jails only because the police in India thought that for each bomb blast only Muslims can be suspected. And our courts share their feeling. My memory fails to recall their names but I can still feel the loneliness that cut them from us. It has been more than 10 years since the public hearing at Hyderabad where I met them, their mothers and grandfathers and heard them talking about the devastation that befallen them in the name of the nation and witnessed their shaking hands trying to put together the broken pieces of their lives.
As I write these lines, I hear the story of the arrest and killing of Gurfan Alam and Taslim Ansari by the police in Motihari in Bihar. While washing their bodies, their kin found marks of nails hammered into them. An FIR – sans the name of any suspect – has been registered, we are assured by the top cop of Bihar.
Just as when I was trying to understand the unnecessary fuss that Shah Alam was making over a humane gesture by the Supreme Court, I learnt that the Gujarat government is not allowing the prosecution of police officers D.G. Vanjara and N.K. Amin in the fake encounter case of Ishrat Jahan and three others in 2004.
What can the poor CBI do and what can the courts do if the governments think that the accused were, in fact, serving a just cause? Why should that make the Muslims of India feel vulnerable?
What has poor Babu Bajrangi to do with all this? How are all these events connected?
(Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University. Source: thewire.in)

 
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