For 11 months, Oliver Harris’ life came to a near standstill as he waited to find out if he would be sent to prison for years over his alleged participation in a rally against US President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Harris, 28, was among more than 230 people rounded up and arrested by police on January 20, Inauguration Day, after confrontations with heavily armed riot police officers. A small group of people engaged in property damage during the rally.
The following day, most of those who were arrested – demonstrators, medics, journalists and bystanders – were charged with felony rioting, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
In April, things grew worse for 212 of the defendants when the District of Columbia Superior Court returned a superseding indictment that added a slew of additional charges, including several felonies.
The accused, who are known collectively as the “J20 defendants”, were all of a sudden facing nearly eight decades – effectively a life sentence – behind bars.
Several defendants subsequently reached plea deals for significantly lighter sentences, while others had their charges dropped.
At least seven defendants had their charges reduced to misdemeanours.
By the time the first batch of defendants, which included Harris, went to trial, the charges had been reduced, but they were still facing the prospect of more than 50 years of jail time.
On December 21, however, a jury found Harris, a Pennsylvania resident, and his five co-defendants not-guilty on all counts.
“It was really overwhelming to hear 42 not guilty [decisions],” Harris told Al Jazeera by phone.
The DC US Attorney’s Office subsequently said in a statement it would pursue charges against the remaining defendants.
With 188 Inauguration Day defendants still at risk of harsh punishment, and other activists across the country facing potential jail time for alleged infractions during protests, critics say Trump has overseen a crackdown on dissent during his first year in office.
Across the US, from Washington, DC, to Sacramento, California, anti-racists, anti-fascists, leftists and other demonstrators have been charged with felonies and misdemeanours.
Referring to the shrinking space for protest symbolised by the Inauguration Day defendants’ case, Harris said: “It goes hand-in-hand with the way folks across the US have been repressed, from Standing Rock to other pipeline projects … It’s the state legal apparatus taking aim at street protests and pipeline blockades.”
Among those targeted by authorities in 2017 was Yvette Felarca, an anti-fascist activist with By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a left-wing civil rights group.
She was charged with felony assault and a pair of misdemeanours in July, which could result in years of jail time and hefty fines, according to court documents.
Felarca, a middle school teacher whose legal name is Yvonne, was charged over her alleged involvement in violence during a counter protest on June 26, 2016, when anti-fascists and anti-racists confronted a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento, California.
During that incident, white supremacists armed with knives attacked counterdemonstrators, stabbing several, including Felarca.
“We are continuing to build the movement to fight fascism and get the false charges against myself and other anti-fascist protesters in Sacramento dropped,” Felarca told Al Jazeera by email.
While three others were dealt charges over the Sacramento violence, only one of them was from the white supremacist contingent.
Felarca echoed accusations that Trump’s administration has emboldened authorities across the country to suppress anti-fascists, anti-racists and other anti-Trump activists across the US.
“He hates and fears criticism because he hates and fears the strength of the mass movement that is committed to defeating him,” she added, arguing that the ostensible crackdown is evidence that Trump’s administration is “weak, vicious and brittle”.
“His attempt to crack down on anti-racists and anti-fascists is exposing and isolating him to the majority of people in the US and across the world as the enemy of democratic rights.”
For his part, Trump has time and again defended his administration and claimed to support the right of protesters to voice their opposition to his policies as well as racism and sexism.
In August, when tens of thousands staged a counterdemonstration against a far-right rally, Trump took to Twitter to describe anti-fascists and anti-racists as “anti-police agitators”.
He later appeared to express support for the right to protest, saying: “I want to applaud the many protesters in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate. Our country will soon come together as one!”
On January 22, following nationwide marches for women’s rights, immigration reform and other issues, Trump said on Twitter: “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognise the rights of people to express their views.”
In other instances, Trump has lashed out at demonstrators.
In February, after a rally against a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at University of California, Berkeley, the president lambasted “professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters” on Twitter.
Donald J. Trump
Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
5:18 PM – Feb 3, 2017
41,604 41,604 Replies 41,756 41,756 Retweets 168,087 168,087 likes
On September 15, protests erupted in St Louis, Missouri over the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former police officer who shot dead 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith, an unarmed African American man, nearly six years earlier.
Protests spanned weeks, with demonstrators and community members engaging in civil disobedience and non-violent tactics aimed at disrupting the local economy. During the first 18 days, police arrested at least 307 people, the St Louis Police Department (SLMPD) told Al Jazeera at the time.
The SLMPD’s mass arrests and forceful response to the demonstrations elicited criticism from activists and rights groups, including the local state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
With outcry mounting, Trump remained silent on the protests in St Louis, commenting neither on the demonstrations nor the police response.
Scott Michelman, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s DC chapter, argued that “there has been an astonishing level of hostility toward the First Amendment in 2017”, referring to the constitutional protection that affords those in the US the right to free speech and to assemble, among other freedoms.
“The president sets a tone for the country in lots of ways, and Trump has signalled to his supporters that free speech isn’t a value of his and it shouldn’t be a value of ours,” Michelman told Al Jazeera.
“That’s given permission and encouragement to anti-free speech forces across the country, whether they be law enforcement or policymakers.”
Throughout Trump’s first year in office, right-wing state legislators introduced dozens of bills designed to curb the activities of demonstrators in nearly 20 states, according to the ACLU.
Several states – among them North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee – have passed such bills into law.
North Dakota passed into law bills that criminalised protests on private property, increased penalties for riot offences and barred demonstrators from wearing masks to conceal their identities, among others.
In Oklahoma, new laws ostensibly made it possible for authorities to hold anyone arrested for trespassing financially accountable for any damages to property and punished protesters who knowingly trespass on “critical infrastructure”.
In Tennessee, a new law known as SB 902 introduced a $200 fine for protesters who obstruct the access of emergency vehicles, while South Dakota’s SB 176 expanded the abilities of authorities to limit or block protests on public land and highways.
This month, Durham County, North Carolina introduced a new proposal that would require protesters to give 48-hour notice before holding any demonstration on publicly owned land.
“The wave of anti-speech fury on the part of prosecutors, law enforcement and political forces will pass; but that’s not to say that we should be complacent with it and think it will pass without hard work,” Michelman concluded.
“Free speech is deeply ingrained in our political and social fabric, and people are going to continue to raise their voices for it.”
Coalition can be a better option
By Sidharth Bhatia
“If not Narendra Modi, then who? Rahul Gandhi? That would be a disaster.” This has been heard innumerable times. As elections grow closer, discussions centre around not which party or coalition will form the government but who the next prime minister will be. Modi has successfully transformed it into a presidential-style contest between a self-made man like him and a privileged dynast like Rahul.
There are ironies galore here, not the least that the BJP, which has long claimed to be an ideology-led party in which individuals do not matter, is now seen as secondary in importance to Narendra Modi.
Dig deeper and the narrative gets more interesting. Even those who lean towards Modi, either out of conviction or because they don’t see an alternative, tacitly agree that his administration has failed to measure up to expectations. The more blunt assessment is that the last four years have been a disaster in several ways. While it is the farmers who have come out on the streets and protested and the liberal and secular brigade has continuously focused on the rapidly deteriorating social fabric, the business community – corporate chieftains and small traders – tends to express its anger privately.
But the anger is palpable – demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax, not to say the sluggish economy and lack of investment, have affected companies and small businesses alike.
But it is here that support for the prime minister personally is the most vehement. Modi’s government and its economic policies may have failed to boost growth and the spending on the social sector may appal them, but they have no issues with the rest of it, including Hindutva. Add to that a deep antipathy towards the Gandhi family and it becomes clear why they are inclined to vote for the BJP the next time around.
Rahul Gandhi is also shorthand for a coalition government. Even if the BJP returns with reduced numbers and has to include a sizable number of partners to form the government, Modi is seen as the undisputed leader of such an arrangement. The others are perceived as a hotchpotch grouping with no common agenda but to dislodge Modi and grab power. And who will be the prime minister? Mayawati? God forbid. Mamata Banerjee? Even worse. “Coalitions are useless – all previous experiences of such a khichdi have failed miserably,” goes the refrain.
This limited understanding displays not just ignorance of Indian politics but of India itself. A coalition best represents the diversity of the country and the different needs that each section of this vast nation has. The Congress may have dominated Indian politics for a long time, ruling at the Centre for about three decades continuously before it was dislodged in 1977, but historical reasons had a lot to do with it. Besides, the Congress itself was – and in some ways continues to be – a coalition of forces with varying and even rival social and economic ideologies, accommodating within itself every kind of ethnicity, region and caste.
The notion that coalitions have been disastrous for India also doesn’t stand scrutiny. The Narasimha Rao government is a good example – it was a minority government that not just survived for five years but also ushered in seminal economic reforms – something that the business community needs to remember and even compare with the current BJP government, which received the biggest mandate in 30 years.
Vajpayee ran a coalition and both the UPAs were coalitions too. These leaders had to face pulls and pressures from partners, but were convivial and collegial in their approach, managing to take along their allies without giving up their own core values and agendas. Vajpayee had to deal with mercurial politicians like Jayalalitha and Banerjee while Singh had the powerful CP(M) to contend with. When it became too much, they let the partner go.
It bears repetition that when the BJP led by Vajpayee was defeated in 2004 and the hollowness of the ‘India Shining’ claim was exposed, the urban supporters of the BJP were shocked. The stock markets fell below their lower circuit when it became clear that the Congress had emerged as the single-largest party but would have to tie up with several others to reach the magic number. Five years later, in 2009, when the UPA was voted in with the Congress winning a larger number of seats, the markets had to be closed within a minute of opening because the index zoomed beyond the upper circuit.
The stock market example is used to indicate that at least as far as expectations of economic policies are concerned, the investor community – and by extension, metropolitan and tier 2 and 3 town voters – were all gung-ho about Manmohan Singh, despite the presence of other partners and even though UPA I had invested in much-reviled social programmes such as NREGA. Singh saw through not just the nuclear deal but also presided over an economic boom besides steering the country’s economy through safely in the treacherous post-2008 period.
It is equally true that his second stint saw corruption cases being exposed and he was not effective enough in calling those allies to account. But corruption allegations – and its cousin crony capitalism – are the one common theme of Indian governments, single party or coalition. There was Bofors during Rajiv Gandhi’s time and Rafale now, ‘coffingate’ at the time of Vajpayee-led NDA and the 2G scam during UPA II.
Thus, there is no evidence that coalition governments are uniformly bad for the country and one party domination is far better. Under Deve Gowda – a surprise compromise candidate – we had the ‘dream budget’ presented by P. Chidambaram, even if it went sour quickly. Under Modi, budgets have not enthused businessmen and progressively the government has become more and more welfarist. At the very least, it has not come up with any imaginative economic policies that have spurred growth; instead, we have had demonetisation, the after effects of which have left millions devastated.
That surely was a good example of how one strongman can bulldoze his way through, not even taking his own partymen and cabinet colleagues into confidence. The comparison with the Emergency, also a decision taken by a small group of people, is obvious.
The experience of the past four-and-a-half years should tell us that governments that are built around one leader and one dominant political party can and do often begin to show signs of arrogance and hubris, and get bristly about criticism. They get increasingly cut off from ground realities because there are no checks and balances, no counter forces applying the brakes or even communicating a different point of view.
Smaller parties may and do indulge in blackmail, but represent the voices of their own respective constituencies and thus can temper impetuous decision-making. Narendra Modi has not cared about his own party colleagues, forget the smaller allies, who have left the government over the years.
There is a good chance that the post-May 2019 government will be a genuine coalition, with multiple partners having a say. Who will lead it is still uncertain. But whoever it is – and this includes Modi, who has no experience in collective decision making – will have to understand that his or her government is one that best reflects India and its people and therefore must be respected.
Gandhi and the elusive Nobel
By Amitabha Bhattacharya
Many a genius missed the Nobel Prize. Leo Tolstoy in literature, Lise Meitner, Satyendranath Bose and MeghnadSaha in the sciences; even Einstein was awarded one for the photoelectric effect, not for his revolutionary ‘Theory of Relativity’. Why then is there such lament on Gandhi missing the Nobel Peace Prize? A book of 171 pages titled ‘Gandhi And The Nobel Peace Prize’ written by the noted author Dr.Rajinder Singh of the University of Oldenburg, Germany provides for the first time an authentic and comprehensive account of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of this case, based largely on his research at the Nobel Peace Prize Institute, Oslo.
The book explains the process of filing nominations, short-listing of candidates based on expert advice and how the final decision is taken. Once the basic rules are explained, Singh goes into chronological details of what happened every time Gandhi’s name came up for the prize. Were the nominations sent in time? Was the expert opinion not favourable? Who were the competitors? When was he short listed? All these issues have been discussed threadbare with supporting evidence. At the end of the book, which is rather non-judgemental, the reader appreciates the complexity of the process and the bureaucratic diligence with which assessments were made and comes to terms with the final decision, with a tinge of sadness.
The fact that a large number of persons – present and past members of the Nobel Committee, advisers at the Nobel Institute, members of national assemblies and governments and International Court of Justice, holders of Nobel Peace Prize and even university professors of law, political science, history and philosophy – can nominate helps one understands why till 1964 fourteen Indians from Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Nehru, Aga Khan III and Radhakrishnan to insignificant ones like Hari Mohan Banerjee could be nominated.
Gandhi’s name was raised in 1924, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and 1948 in around 100 nominations. No wonder that GeirLundestad,
permanent secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, admitted “Our record is far from perfect and not giving Mahatma Gandhi the Nobel Prize was the biggest omission”. Gandhi was first nominated in 1924. But the nomination, from the Council of State, Delhi, missed the deadline of 31 January 1924.
In 1937, Ole Colbjørnsen, a Norwegian journalist, economist and politician, on behalf of ‘Friends of India’, nominated Gandhi. The ideals of ahimsa that marked his struggle against colonialism as also the fact that Rabindranath Tagore had proclaimed him ‘Mahatma’ were highlighted.
The expert of the Nobel Committee, Jacob S. Worm-Müller, a historian and politician, made a factual assessment of Gandhi’s achievements but was rather critical of his approach and unconvinced of his internationalism. “Many of his actions though religious and moral, are tactical with sly calculations. He is frequently a Christ, but sometimes suddenly a politician…” He noted that Gandhi had fought only for oppressed Indians in South Africa rather than the natives who were in worse condition, supported WW I and been inconsistent in his approach, especially on rescinding Satyagraha after the burning to death of twenty policemen in Chauri-Chaura. The expert advice was fairly detailed based on which the Nobel Committee “did not see Gandhi’s work as finished and ignored him for the prize.”
Gandhi was again nominated in 1938 by Colbjørnsen, supported by 27 members from the ‘Friends of India’, Denmark. C.F. Andrews wrote, “There is no one in the world who deserves more to receive the Nobel Prize than Mahatma Gandhi. I have known him for twenty-three years and have seen his work of non-violence which has again and again brought peace in the midst of strife…” Gandhi’s Christian followers saw him as a ‘holy Christian’. Even Romain Rolland supported the nomination. Despite such support, Gandhi’s name was not short-listed. Colbjørnsen again wrote, in 1939, reiterating the earlier arguments and adding that ‘the relaxed political situation in the provincial governments is due to Gandhi’s influence.’ This also did not work.
By January 1947, three proposals favouring Gandhi were sent by B.G. Kher, G.V. Mavalankar and G.B. Pant. Rajagopalachari also played a role. Finally, Gandhi was shortlisted amongst six. The Nobel Committee asked historian Jens A. Seip to prepare a new report which Seip did by complementing the old one with Gandhi’s contributions since 1937. This period was crucial, both for his achievements and failures. Seip analysed this period through three conflicts – one between Indians and Britons on the autonomy of India, on the question of India’s participation in WW II and the inner conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Extensive analysis followed. Eventually, Gandhi’s role as a leader of violence- free resistance and as a pacifist was appreciated. However, in the Nobel Committee, two members in Gandhi’s favour could not convince the other three. In the midst of the India-Pakistan conflict, a reported statement by Gandhi that if there was no other way to secure justice from Pakistan, the Indian government would be forced to go to war (The Times, September 27, 1947) was also perhaps taken into consideration.
Gandhi was finally nominated for the prize in 1948 from different countries like the USA, UK, France, Norway and India, with more than 20 from USA alone. Suddenly, it appeared that the whole world was pleading for Gandhi, almost in unison. Seip again added Gandhi’s contribution between the period of August 15, 1947 to Gandhi’s assassination (30 January 1948). The Nobel Committee, according to Singh, was considering a posthumous prize. But the issue was to find an appropriate successor to receive the prize money.
The Nobel Committee was told that Gandhi left no estate and no testament and that The Harijan Trust, SarvodayaSamaj and The Gandhi Memorial Fund took responsibility to work in his spirit and name.
The Indian authorities had no concrete plans and thought that the Norwegian Parliament would ensure ‘The Gandhi Memorial Fund’ receives and controls the prize money. Nothing came out of this confusion. As such, Singh feels, the Nobel Committee could not perhaps be blamed ‘for not awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Gandhi.’
This long process from 1924 to 1948 when Gandhi’s name came up again and again was also the most tumultuous period of our freedom movement. Globally also, it was a turbulent time. Emotional appeals likening Gandhi with Buddha or Christ did not help.
Various forces working at the national and international levels might have made it difficult for the Nobel authorities to make an objective assessment of Gandhi at that time. Though gentle, his methods were so radical and original that they created different strands of opinion even in India and were adopted in many parts of the world mostly after his demise.
INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI
By Shabbir Aariz
This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,
“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..
OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….
ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY
(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..
burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.
His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….
YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.
His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.
John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.
As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,
“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..
HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.
Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.
John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.
(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])