Monday, 29 February 2016

How have the British Muslim men involved in the Rotherham child sex grooming gang been treating their own wives?


Yasmin Alibhai Brown in The Independent


The Pakistani Muslim men – three brothers and an uncle – who groomed, raped and destroyed young girls in Rotherham have been given long sentences. Two local white women have also been convicted of supplying girls to the men. The reactions to these verdicts are instructive. Racists are red with righteous rage; this is what happens, they say, when you let “coloureds” into the country. Many anti-racists, just as blindly furious, assert race and ethnicity have nothing to do with what happened. The white female procurers are their alibis. The rapists’ relatives and community leaders stand by their men. They believe the blokes took what was freely offered by trashy females – children, daughters. Muslims who condemn the exploitation, in their eyes, bring shame on the community. That’s how twisted their values are.

The one question nobody asks is how these men have been treating their sisters and wives. Most of them behave just as abominably and cruelly indoors as they do outside when they prey on young flesh. They want control; they abjure equality. Some – a small minority – do feel a kind of love for the women and girls in the family but many have monstrous views on sexual equality and feminine desire. Home is a cage in which no pleasures are permitted, where hopes and freedoms expire. Activists have sought to free these women for decades. The terrible truth is that as society becomes more permissive, the number of caged birds increases. One caveat: I am not saying all Muslim girls and women are oppressed. What I am saying is that sexual predators from traditional Pakistani families and many other minority communities think all women and girls are low-life. I was looking at my wedding pictures the other day. On a cold, snowy December day, in 2000, I married my English husband in Ealing Town Hall. On the steps we had photos taken. It was freezing cold but I was in a silk sari, as was my mum. My Asian friends in their finery were shivering and smiling happily. The most striking, gorgeous person in the crowd was Humera (not her real name), who had stayed with me several times over the previous two years. She was from a northern town and had escaped a forced marriage. Her family had made her marry a man from Pakistan who had then raped her nightly for months. A social worker helped her escape. I heard of her case and offered to have her live with us for a while. The bruises on her thighs and breasts took months to heal.

She was one of countless such victims, all hidden and hopeless. Forced marriage has since been outlawed and girls have some protection and awareness of their rights but now we have Sharia courts in this country, which condone wife beating, marital rape, compulsory or child marriages, polygamy, paternal ownership of children and extreme sexism. Pre-pubescent Muslim girls are married on Skype. Imams praise this technology, which allows families to trade in their daughters – girls between the ages of six and nine among them. How did our rulers let this happen?

Political scientist Elham Manea, herself a Muslim, has written a new book, Women and Shari’a Law: the Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK. She investigated 80 faith “councils”, which settle disputes and make quasi-legal decisions. According to Manea these courts are more hardline even than in Pakistan and many of their religious leaders issue horrendous advice. For example, a senior cleric in a British Sharia council pronounced that there was no “right age” for a girl to marry: “As you know, the earlier the better”. Humera’s family were not given religious authorisation to do what they did to her. Imams in the 1990s were conservative but not inflexible Islamicists. Today the human-rights abuses are validated by dozens of Muslim leaders as well as by influential Islamic institutions. Though forced marriages are a curse in Hindu and Sikh families too, they do not have systemised, pervasive doctrines to back their heinous behaviours.

Why is this even important when we are discussing the Rochdale crimes against white British children? Am I trying to deflect attention from those horrors? On the contrary; I am making vital connections. We should find out how those close to the three brothers and the uncle were treated. Was terrible violence meted out to them, too? Should we not know that? More than 1,400 vulnerable white children were abused in Rotherham. Thousands of others are being discovered in other towns. The numbers would shoot up if we also counted the family victims of the groomers.

Grooming and domestic rape often go together. Police and journalists need to be as concerned about the latter as they now (thankfully) are about the former. Families and communities will resist such probes, lob accusations of racism and “insensitivity”. But it has to happen. Females of all backgrounds should be protected from sexual savagery and misogynist Sharia courts. There must be one law for all.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump look like saviours to voters who feel left out of the American Dream


The Harvard moral philosopher and author of the highly acclaimed What Money Can’t Buy Michael Sandel in The Guardian  examines the febrile mood of his nation


‘Donald Trump has defied conventional wisdom by challenging the complacencies of the political establishment.’ Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images




The tumultuous early months of the US presidential primaries reflect a populist moment in American politics. Among Democrats, Bernie Sanders, the only self-proclaimed socialist in the Senate, has shown surprising strength against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who was expected to win the Democratic nomination virtually unopposed. Among Republicans, Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman and television personality, has vaulted to front-runner status over a crowded field of politicians, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the brother of former President George W Bush. Despite having raised more than $100m in campaign contributions, Jeb Bush failed to connect with voters and ended his candidacy.

In different ways, both Sanders and Trump have defied conventional wisdom by challenging the complacencies of the political establishment. Although Clinton remains the front runner for the Democratic nomination, polls show her lead over Sanders among Democratic voters has shrunk from 25 percentage points two months ago to only six percentage points today. Clinton’s shrinking lead has partly to do with voters’ doubts about her honesty and trustworthiness. Many voters find Bernie’s gruff, plain-spoken manner refreshingly authentic, in contrast to Hillary’s cautious, calculating style.

Young people are especially attracted to the 74-year-old Sanders, who draws large, enthusiastic crowds. In the first three primary and caucus contests – in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada – more than 80% of voters under 30 voted for Sanders.

The two candidates differ in substance as well as style. Sanders has risen from obscurity on a platform of reducing inequality, breaking up the big banks and challenging the power of money in politics. He argues that Clinton, like other Democratic politicians in recent years, is too close to Wall Street to stand up to the banks. Her campaign has received $15m from the financial industry, while his is funded by small donations from ordinary Americans. She also benefited personally from corporate largesse, earning more than $20m from paid speeches after leaving her job as secretary of state. The investment bank Goldman Sachs paid her $675,000 for three speeches.

Sanders does not think the regulatory reforms that followed the financial crisis of 2008 went far enough. He wants to break up the big banks and to separate commercial banking from high-risk investment banking. He would levy a tax on financial speculation and use the revenue to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. Sanders also wants to go beyond President Obama’s healthcare reform, which left private insurance companies in place, and create a universal, single-payer health system. Clinton argues that these proposals are unrealistic and favours more modest, incremental reforms. She claims that Sanders’s emphasis on economic inequality and the power of money in politics makes him a “single-issue candidate”. Clinton cites her extensive foreign policy experience as evidence that she is better qualified to lead America in the world. Sanders replies that good judgment matters more than experience. He voted against allowing the Bush administration to go to war with Iraq, while she voted in favour.


Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders and his wife, Jane, on the stump in Oklahoma. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The surprising success of the Sanders campaign reflects frustration with the deepening inequality of recent decades and the failure of the Democratic party to address it. Income inequality has reached levels not seen since the 1920s. Most of the economic growth of recent years has flowed to those at the top. The wealthiest one-tenth of 1% (0.1%) now own as much wealth as the bottom 90% combined.

This concentration of income and wealth has made itself felt in politics. The deregulation of the financial industry that set the stage for the financial crisis took place in the late 1990s, during the presidency of Bill Clinton. When Barack Obama took office in the midst of the financial crisis, he appointed economic advisers who had promoted the deregulation of Wall Street during the Clinton years. Heeding their advice, he supported the taxpayer bailout of banks and investment firms while demanding little in return – no break-up of the banks, no separation of commercial and investment banking, no meaningful curbs on executive pay and bonuses, and little help for homeowners unable to afford mortgage payments on houses whose value had collapsed.

Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court struck down restrictions on corporate spending on political campaigns, arguing that spending unlimited amounts of money to make one’s views known was protected by the right of freedom of speech. Big money could now dominate politics without restraint. An analysis by the New York Times found that, in the early months of the current presidential campaign, about half of all the money donated to Democratic and Republican candidates came from just 158 wealthy families.

Mounting anger and frustration with a political system unaccountable to ordinary Americans has also fuelled the candidacy of Donald Trump. The populist moment in American politics finds expression on the right as well as the left. Like many European populists of the right, Trump has seized on the issue of immigration. He would deport the 12 million immigrants who reside in the US without legal permission. To prevent others from entering, he promises to build a wall along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border. And, much to the delight of his campaign audiences, he declares he will make Mexico pay for the wall.

Trump’s tough stand on immigration appeals to working-class voters who fear that their jobs and wages are threatened by immigrants. But his appeal runs deeper. His hard line on immigration is part of a larger promise “to make America great again”. He rails against America’s trade deficit with China, against Isis terrorists who “chop off people’s heads”, against a “disastrous” deal with Iran to end sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear programme. Wherever he looks, Trump sees the failure of American power and will. “We don’t win any more,” he complains. His campaign is fundamentally about reversing American disempowerment. This is why Trump appeals especially to working-class men who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind. “When I’m president,” he boasts, “we will win so much you’ll get tired of winning.”

Despite their ideological differences, Sanders and Trump are tapping into similar sources of discontent. Both speak to Americans’ sense of disempowerment in the face of big money and unaccountable power. And both are critical of mainstream politicians, Democrats and Republicans, who have, over the last three decades, become captive beneficiaries of the system. Unlike their opponents, both Sanders and Trump have refused to accept the support of so-called “Super Pacs”, funding organisations that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates, provided the spending is not directly controlled by the campaign. Their alternatives to “Super Pacs” differ, of course: Sanders has raised millions of dollars online in small contributions (averaging $27 per donation), while Trump, a billionaire, is funding his own campaign. In proclaiming the virtue of paying for his own campaign, Trump speaks bluntly about the corrupting effect of the current system of campaign finance, which effectively permits big corporations and wealthy individuals to buy influence with politicians. (He freely admits that, as a businessman, he, too, lavished campaign contributions on politicians in hope of future favours.)

On several other issues, Trump also has more in common with Sanders than with his fellow Republicans. He has heaped scorn on wealthy hedge fund managers who, thanks to a tax loophole, pay a lower rate of tax on their earnings than their secretaries pay. In language more likely to win applause at an Occupy Wall Street rally than at a Republican convention, Trump declared: “The hedge fund guys didn’t build this country. These are guys that shift paper around and they get lucky… These guys are getting away with murder. I want to lower the rates for the middle class.” Trump has also criticised free trade agreements that lead to the loss of American jobs to low-wage countries. Like Sanders, he opposes the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), a pending trade deal among the US, Japan and 10 other nations, negotiated by the Obama administration and supported by Republicans in Congress. (Under pressure from Sanders’s challenge, Clinton broke with the Obama administration and now opposes the trade deal, despite having supported it while in office.)


Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front runner, is coming under intense pressure from Bernie Sanders. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

In perhaps his most brazen break with the Republican party establishment, Trump has denounced the Iraq war as “a disaster”. During a debate in South Carolina, a state with strong military traditions, Trump declared that President George W Bush lied about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction, as a pretext for going to war. When Jeb Bush claimed that his brother had “kept the country safe”, Trump denied it, reminding the audience that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center occurred during Bush’s presidency. Despite this apostasy on the legacy of George W Bush and the Iraq war, Trump won the South Carolina primary by a comfortable margin.

The unexpected resonance of the Sanders and Trump campaigns does not represent a decisive turning of American voters towards the left or towards the right. It represents a populist protest against a neoliberal economic order embraced by the establishment wings of both parties, which bestows lavish rewards upon those at the top and makes life precarious for everyone else.

The rise of Sanders and Trump is less about ideology than about anxiety that the American Dream is slipping away. This is what Sanders means when he says that the system is rigged against ordinary Americans. And this is what Trump means when he says that America doesn’t win any more. Both give expression to a widespread sense that Americans are losing control of the forces that govern their lives.
The American Dream has never been about reducing inequalities of income and wealth. It has been about enabling people to rise and giving one’s children the chance to rise even further. This is why Americans have traditionally worried less about inequality than Europeans do. We may have greater disparities of income and wealth than do the welfare states of Europe, we would tell ourselves, but here, we are not consigned to the class of our birth. Mobility, not equality, is the measure of our freedom. In recent decades, however, this comforting self-image has begun to ring hollow. The long-standing faith that those who “work hard and play by the rules” will get ahead no longer fits the lived experience of working-class and middle-class Americans. The growing inequality of recent decades has not been offset by opportunities to rise. To the contrary, it has brought a hardening of economic mobility.

The US has less mobility than most major European countries. Forty-two per cent of American men born in the bottom fifth of the income scale remain stuck there as adults (compared with 25% in Denmark and 30% in Britain). Only 8% of American men rise from the bottom fifth to the top. Studies of mobility from one generation to the next tell a similar story. Class mobility is greater in Denmark, Norway, Canada, Sweden, Germany and France than in the US. The American Dream is alive and well and living in Denmark.

If the promise of upward mobility is no longer a realistic way to contend with inequalities of income and wealth, Americans may need to reconsider the place of equality in the American Dream. Whether this populist moment will prompt such rethinking remains to be seen.

The difficulty in saying sorry

When we are criticised it hurts our feelings, but the pain goes much deeper than that, says Paul Randolph

 
Breaking point: Michael Douglas stars in 1993’s Falling Down. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock


Paul Randolph in The Guardian


Why do sensible and rational people seem to lose the ability to act sensibly and rationally when they are in conflict? What makes some families tear themselves apart in a variety of squabbles which to outsiders may seem petty but which result in family members not speaking to each other for years? What drives neighbours to blight their daily lives with unpleasant, bitter and confrontational disputes? And how can otherwise placid and restrained people become almost unrecognisable when involved in road rage incidents – or even trolley rage in supermarkets?

The answer may be distilled down to one psychological phenomenon: self-esteem. It is one of the strongest motivating factors in conflict and generates powerful emotions. We all have self-esteem, whether corporate or individual; we all have a need to think well of ourselves, and for others to think well of us. Self-esteem governs many of the decisions we make daily, as we expend huge amounts of time and effort constantly maintaining and protecting our self-image.

The flipside of our desire for approval is our aversion to disapproval – or worse still, our dread of humiliation. An example of this is the fear of public speaking – a dread that can be greater than that of flying or even of death. It is explained by the fact that the disapproval of each person in the audience constitutes a potentially significant attack on our self-image. The larger the audience, the more overwhelming is the prospect of humiliation.

There is now neurological evidence demonstrating the effect that attacks on our self-esteem have on the brain. One study showed that “social pain” activated the same circuits of the brain as physical pain. Consequently any attack on our self-image is interpreted by the brain as physical pain. When we speak of “hurt” feelings, we acknowledge that any form of censure, from slight criticism to outright condemnation or rejection, affects our self-esteem and is felt as physical pain – hence our aversion to admitting fault or to accepting liability. The word “sorry” is one of the most difficult to express, despite it being the quickest, cheapest and most effective form of resolving a dispute. But our brain seems to indicate to us that saying sorry will be as painful as putting our hand into a fire.

The ability to monitor neural pathways helps us to see how our brain functions in conflict situations. For example, we now have a neurological explanation of our “fight or flight” instinct. This reflex is governed by the amygdala, two small structures in the brain that control our instinctive responses. Originally needed as a part of our evolutionary development, they enabled us to act swiftly and instinctively in the face of physical attacks in the wild.

Today the amygdala can be triggered by any attack on our self-esteem. When the brain perceives a threat, whether physical or on our self-image, the amygdala “takes control”, diverting the signals away from the cortex, the “thinking” part of the brain. This “amygdala hijack” prevents us from engaging in logical or analytical thought, instead creating instant defensive reactions.

That is why we recoil at any allegation of fault, whether in business, within the family, behind the wheel of a car – or in the supermarket. It is an assault on our self-esteem, and it is painful. It is at these moments that we need to shrink our egos, to tell ourselves that our self-esteem is unnecessarily getting in the way, and that it is far more productive to try to see things from the other’s perspective.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Chhattisgarh Government Strips Forest Community of Land Rights

Manon Verchot

In an unprecedented move, the Chhattisgarh government cancelled land rights of tribal communities in the Surguja district to make way for coal mining.

Land rights of people in the Ghatbarra village were written off after land was allocated to the Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RVUNL) and Adani Minerals Private Limited.

The Gram Sabha (village council) of Ghatbarra gained their land in 2013 as part of the Forest Rights Act. Under the act, the government can divert forest land use for different purposes with the consent of tribal groups. In 2014, Ghatbarra and 19 other villages opposed mining developments on their land, but the government overrode this opposition earlier this year. There are no provisions for the cancelling of the land rights, according to Nitin Sethi of Business Standard.


What is the Forest Rights Act?

In India, millions of people depend on forests as a source of livelihood, but most of this land belongs to the government. These communities are often victims of bonded labour and extortion, and are regularly evicted from their homes.

The Forest Rights Act (FRA) was established in 2006 to protect the rights of tribes and traditional forest dwellers. It grants forest communities the right to collect non-timber forest products, access to grazing grounds and water bodies, and the right to claim land.


The FRA provides for the diversion of forest land for non-forest use by obtaining free and prior informed consent from the communities who have a claim over the forest patch in question. It clearly lays down that such diversion should happen only at the Gram Sabha level – 3/4th of the members of the Gram Sabha should be present and 50% of them need to agree to the diversion. The specific process is clearly laid down in the Act and any other process is in contravention of the FRA and unconstitutional.Priya Pillai, Senior Campaigner, Greenpeace India

A villager transports fodder on his bullock cart on the outskirts of Raipur. This image is for representation purposes only. (Photo: Reuters)


What Are the Consequences of Cancelling Land Rights?


Forest communities are dependent on forests for their livelihood, but without any rights, they will lose access to the resources they depend on.

This development is very worrying because it is the first time rights have been taken away. It sets a very bad precedence. It is going to have huge implications all over the country.- Tushar Dash, Forest Rights Researcher, Vasundhara

According to Dash, there are around 150 million forest tribal people in India, and 1 lakh 77 thousand villages affected by forests in India. Government actions that deny the rights of these people would have repercussions that would ripple throughout the country.

The final offer made to junior doctors was too generous – they should stop striking and get on with it

Mary Dejevsky in The Independent

You know things have reached a pretty pass in any dispute when the combatants start to invoke the spirit of deceased politicians. But when two men who have reached the top of their political trees also start invoking their own mothers – as Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron did at Prime Minister’s Questions – well, the possibility of any agreement looks remote indeed.

Yes, after a merciful, but all too brief, period of remission, we are back in the heat of the junior doctors’ dispute. The Labour leader accused the Government of showing bad faith and “misrepresenting” statistics (about hospital deaths at weekends); the Prime Minister returned to his mantra about people not getting sick only on weekdays. Whatever else the Government may be ready to compromise on, it appears not to be a “seven-day NHS”.

And quite right, too.

“Our” NHS is not run for the benefit of the staff, however long they have spent in training, however mountainous their student loans, however arduous and responsible their work. A great many people would probably like to work only Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, especially if highly-paid overtime for additional hours comes virtually guaranteed. But this is not the reality for most people, and there is no reason, when so much in this country now functions 24/7 – with the staff on rotas and little, if any, overtime paid – why it should still be such a struggle to get the emergency services to do the same. Yet it is here the overtime culture has proved most resilient.

There will be those – and I admit to being among them – who saw the final offer to the junior doctors as too generous. By preserving a system of overtime, for Saturdays after 5pm and all Sundays, it leaves in place the idea that doctors can expect to work something like traditional office or factory hours with additional rewards for anything else. Those expectations need to be scotched.

Junior doctors, and their many vocal supporters, have tried to turn the contested statistics about weekend fatalities to their advantage, suggesting that a “cut-price” seven-day NHS would simply raise death rates around the week. Anyone who visits hospitals on weekdays and at weekends, however, will be familiar with the glaring disparity in staffing – at every level, and what sometimes appears to be a surfeit of employees, especially in the least skilled jobs, during standard working hours. There is surely money to be saved here, that could offset the cost of more staff at weekends.

Nor can the junior doctors’ dispute be seen in isolation. Their new contract is just one part – if a large part – of reform of the NHS that is yet to come. If next in line are to be the consultants, for whom the junior doctors are often deputising at nights and weekends, you can understand why the Government might be keen to hold the line.

What occasioned the latest sword-crossing in the Commons was the announcement by the British Medical Association earlier this week that the junior doctors would hold three more days of strikes, and would fight the Health Secretary’s imposition of the new contract through the courts. In the first instance, this means seeking a judicial review.

On precisely what legal grounds the BMA intends to fight is not yet clear. For all the perception that the English judiciary has become more politically engaged in recent years, it is hard to see a judge ruling that an elected government is not within its rights to set the terms of a contract for public sector employees, particular when in line with a manifesto commitment. Going to court is only going to inject more poison into this already toxic dispute.

It is beyond time that the BMA called it a day and recognised that the junior doctors have won as much as they are going to – more than they could have expected at the outset and more, indeed, than may be wise for the future health of the NHS. The BMA’s continued insistence a “safe” seven-day NHS is somehow beyond the country’s means is defeatism of the first order, and really not junior doctors’ call to make. It is the stated policy of an elected government.

That said, the extent to which this dispute has become politicised has made it infinitely harder to resolve. Jeremy Hunt has not just been defending his government’s policy of a seven-day NHS, he has been engaged directly in negotiating the small print of a new contract. This has enabled junior doctors, and the BMA on their behalf, to cast the project as a heartless Tory plot.

The most senior non-politicians – the chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, and the medical director, Sir Bruce Keogh – have both been conspicuously absent from the fray. This may be because, if heads had to roll, the Health Secretary is deemed more dispensable than either of them. But here, perhaps, also lies the key to change. For 10 years or more – most recently in the Conservatives’ 2010 election manifesto – proposals have been mooted to separate the NHS from politics by placing it under an independent board. Policy, such as the creation of seven-day service, and the overall NHS budget would be set by central government, leaving the rest to professionals. Each time, however, a consensus evolved to the effect that the NHS was so integral a part of national life and the sums of money allocated so vast, that there had to be direct political accountability. The scandal at Mid-Staffs augmented that view.

But the downside of the argument is again before us. Junior doctors and a Conservative government at loggerheads; there is talk of relations blighted for a generation. One solution might be for the Government to return to its election manifesto of 2010 and divest itself of managerial responsibility for the NHS. If junior doctors can cast that as a victory, so be it. But there is no reason why the sort of hands-off arrangement that is considered good for the BBC and – increasingly – for schools should not be good for the NHS, too.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Jawaharlal Nehru University was never a bastion of open debate

Swapan Dasgupta in the Times of India

During the course of the acrimonious exchanges over a series of incidents that originated in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, some commentators alluded to a controversial motion —“This House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country” — that was passed by the Oxford Union in 1933. The argument was that universities are natural centres of heretical and unconventional views and that the authorities should not overreact.
Whether or not the Union home ministry and Delhi Police were guilty of astonishing stupidity by charging an excitable student politician with sedition for hobnobbing and sharing a platform with separatists is an issue that will prompt different responses. In 1933, for example, Winston Churchill described the Oxford students who voted for the grandstanding motion as “abject, squalid, shameless and nauseating” — sentiments that many who don’t possess the same measure of erudition would echo in the case of the JNU radicals. Indeed, the reaction of British society to the Oxford poseurs was unwaveringly hostile and evidence of universities harbouring spoilt brats. Likewise, there is little doubt that had the provocative slogans championing the breakup of India been chanted in public — and not within the safe haven of the campus or, indeed, the Delhi Press Club — the street reaction would not have been couched in niceties.

Echoes of a similar town-gown divide appear to be quite evident in the furore over the sedition charges levelled against a student — not that this excuses the disgraceful behaviour of some lawyers in Delhi’s Patiala House court. But what has complicated the situation is that the political opponents of the Narendra Modi government ranging from the Congress to the Maoists have joined hands to scream fascism. The assault on the government has been complemented by the international rent-a-cause brigade that has become accustomed to circulating pious petitions on issues that range from who Indians should not vote for to the state of higher education in India.

Part of the problem stems from the caricatured views the Indian Right and Left-Liberals have of each other, a process the civil war of journalists has added to.

In the normal course, universities should have been a forum for informed and intelligent conversations. Even if a dialogue didn’t narrow the political divide, it would have prevented demonology and the near-complete absence of social interaction and the ostracism of those who violate a consensus — Arnab Goswami is the most recent target.

To blame this ghettoisation on the Modi regime is being disingenuous. Contrary to recent mythology, JNU wasn’t ever the bastion of free, open and convivial debate. There was a pre-determined view of what was acceptable and what was beyond the pale. In political terms, openness meant a dialogue that involved all the 57 varieties of Marxism, Nehruvian and Lohiaite thought and, the new fangled ‘alternative’ currents emerging from Left orphanages. In recent years, and partly as a response to bleeding hearts in Western universities, even Islamism has been accommodated under the radical roof. What has been consistently shown the door are India’s indigenous conservative traditions and their contemporary expressions.

This exclusionary process was confirmed in a recent article upholding the ‘idea’ of JNU by an alumnus, Professor Peter DeSouza: “the liberal persuasion was not allowed the space it should have been given by the Stalinist Left. The political spectrum was wide but could have been wider. Analytical thinking was feeble and ideological camps gave protection to the less capable.” JNU reproduced itself ideologically over decades, a reason why its intellectual establishment initially thought there was nothing odd about students being associated with divisive slogans. The ‘sedition’ overkill provided an escape route from troubling questions centred on JNU’s relationship with nationhood.

The ideological bubble that sustained JNU was shaken by the post-2014 political change. The exclusion of its stalwarts from the new establishment has bred insecurity and added to its determination to paint the ‘outlanders’ as cretinous, semi-educated and aesthetically suspect. This phenomenon was also in evidence last week in the post-modernist ghettos of Jadavpur University.

The ‘sedition’ stir will pass but the partition pangs of Indian academia will have to be addressed. The question of whether India is merely a geographical mass or is also blessed with sacredness will be a basis of a wider polarization.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

I see Ofsted for what it is – a purposeless farce

I love my job and don’t want to waste energy resenting aspects of it, so my new approach to inspections is: don’t panic and never ask for feedback

 
‘I had a fairly normal couple of days before the inspectors arrived: I planned my lessons and went home at a normal time because I was meeting my mate Rob for a run.’ Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP


The Secret Teacher




I have a certain sympathy with the concept of accountability: we all want to know if our local school is any good and that our taxpayer contributions are spent effectively. But the way this straightforward desire has manifested itself in Ofsted– and the way some managers in schools have chosen (and it is a choice) to implement the inspectorate’s criteria – has turned the entire process into a pointless, stressful, tick-box exercise.

I’ve been teaching in secondary schools for 16 years and have just been through my fifth Ofsted inspection. I never used to think much about inspections, but now they’re seen as a life-altering, career-defining Armageddon. It’s hard to identify a tipping point that led us to the current state of affairs, where colleagues try to redefine teaching and work idiotic hours to invent lessons that achieve the impossible. I saw one teacher sob uncontrollably in the staffroom because he’d been up until 4 am preparing a lesson which wasn’t inspected. A colleague and I tried to console him, but finding words of support did not come easily. I found myself angry and frustrated that educated adults and experienced professionals were being reduced to tears.


Driving home that day, I was determined this wouldn’t be me. I’ve no problem with being held accountable for my students’ achievements, but if I wanted to keep doing the job I love, I needed to find a new way of dealing with it.

So now I treat Ofsted inspections as a purposeless farce and never ask for feedback on my lessons. I care about my students’ outcomes great deal, but making judgments about a lesson based on a spurious grid of phrases that defy consistent interpretation has become so lamentably futile there is nothing left to do other than laugh.

At my last school, I had a lesson inspection conducted by two assistant headteachers during a mocksted. The lesson was graded as “good” so I asked them what I could do to make it “outstanding”. They looked blank and eventually suggested I should have spent a bit longer during a discussion section of the lesson. I pointed out that this would have reduced the time for plenary reflection – the latest targeted initiative – and they agreed. I never did get a clear answer on whether it was even possible to make the lesson “outstanding”.

Fast forward a week and the headteacher dropped in on me unannounced. By pure chance I was teaching the same lesson (with some minor tweaks) to a parallel year group of almost identical ability range. The head deemed my lesson “inadequate”. I pointed out that her two assistant heads, one of whom is in charge of teaching and learning, thought the same lesson was “good” – her reponse was to dispute whether the lesson was the same.

I could feel a sense of overwhelming frustration building up. I pointed out at some length that my GCSE and A-level results had been above the school average and that student uptake and retention had grown since my appointment, and then asked to be observed again to prove I know what I’m doing. She never came.

My current school was inspected by Ofsted late last year. As the meeting was called to tell us of the impending visit, I immediately reflected on how my previous experiences could help me. I decided that while I can’t choose when or if I will be inspected – nor what the outcome will be – I can choose how I respond to it.

As expected, senior management went into overdrive with last-minute initiatives and tick-box exercises. But I had a fairly normal couple of days: I planned my lessons normally and went home at a normal time because I was meeting my mate Rob for a run. I told my department what I was doing and that we’d all be best prepared for the next few days with a decent night’s sleep. I said that under no circumstances should they change their evening plans: I trusted their judgement about how best to plan their lessons, and that we would deal with the outcomes – good or bad – afterwards. I’ve no idea what senior management thought, but I assured my department we weren’t going to be sacked for leaving before 9pm. Sure enough, the next day an inspector wandered in to see my year 11s. The lesson passed without hitch, and he invited me to see him at the end of the day for feedback.

I didn’t go. What’s the point? He wasn’t a specialist in my subject and he was only going to tell me his interpretation of a grid of lesson descriptors that has changed virtually every year for the last decade. As far as I know, no-one has been fired or had their pay reduced directly as a result of one Ofsted lesson inspection alone. Some colleagues thought I was mad or disrespectful, but if the inspector had a problem with my teaching and results, he could have found me and said what was wrong and why. Any good teacher knows that students’ progress is neither linear nor predictable, or consistent across subjects and time. Any good teacher also knows that building skills of resilience, humility, determination, awareness, ambition and curiosity cannot be measured by a grid.

I’m not a maverick. Maybe other teachers are worried about the consequences of taking a different approach because some school managers continually “motivate” staff by waving a big Ofsted stick.
But it’s my choice. I’m going to care less about Ofsted and put my energy into my students. I love my job and I don’t want to waste energy resenting certain aspects of what it has become. I know at times this will be easier said than done, but to continue doing what I do best, I need to make sure I keep what is lacking in the current climate – perspective.

Be Warned, the Assault on JNU is Part of a Pattern


Romilla Thapar in Outlook India


There is by now little doubt that we are currently being governed by those that seem to have an anti-intellectual mind-set. This spells trouble for universities that are concerned with high standards of teaching and research.



JNU students and teachers protest the police action against JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar. Credit: Shome Basu

Recent events at JNU raise many questions pertinent to us as citizens of India. The questions have become imperative because it is apparent that many who govern us have little sensitivity to understanding the fundamental issues crucial to governance. For example, what are the necessary aspects of a democratic system, or how essential are equality and human rights as components of democracy to be taught and nurtured in educational institutions. Every articulation of thought and action is judged these days by its immediate political implications and seldom by the wider context of ethics, society and citizenship.

A recent example was the discussion on capital punishment where a handful of students had gathered on the JNU campus. Obviously the names of those recently given this punishment cropped up in the discussion, and very soon this became the dominant political aspect and the sole consideration, setting aside all other questions. Slogans took over in a confused fashion as happens in such situations and the serious issue of capital punishment was lost. Capital punishment is not just an issue of concern to nationalism alone. It involves aspects of ethics, morality, religion as well as the context of the punishment, and it is not in the least bit surprising that opinions differ on all these issues. The logical follow-up could have been a more extended discussion of the subject, from other perspectives, rather than the insistence by some of those present that this was an anti-national issue, and their then proceeding to have the government intervene and clamp down on it.

Sedition and secession

As has been said by almost everyone who has written on this event, the terms that the government uses in its charges against the JNU students are problematic and cannot be bandied about in a casual way. Charges of sedition, extremely serious as they are, nevertheless are slapped on anyone for virtually any critical opinion about the country. Even the dictionary meaning of sedition is enticement to violence and the overthrow of the state/government. As others have pointed out, there is a considerable difference between advocacy of violent methods and actual incitement to violence. But such distinctions seem to be beyond the comprehension of most politicians.

To maintain that a statement made about the possibility of a segment of the Indian nation breaking away is sedition, shows neither an understanding of the word nor knowledge of the historical occasions in the last half century when such statements were made with reference to other parts of India. This is not the first time that Kashmir has been mentioned as part of such a suggestion. There have been earlier threats of secession from other parts of the nation, such as Nagaland and Tamil Nadu, and the intention of establishing the Sikh state of Khalistan to mention just a few. Some others are not completely silent even in present times. Threats of secession are in part the way in which nationalisms play out in nations that extend over large territories and multiple cultures. It has to be understood as a process of change and debated rather than being silenced by calling it sedition.

The debate on sedition goes back to the early years of independence when the attempt to silence free speech was successfully resisted by the Supreme Court, (Brij Bhushan vs. State of Delhi and Romesh Thapar vs. Union of India). Nehru was in favour of expunging sedition as unconstitutional. Those were the days when democracy was valued and was nurtured. We should familiarise ourselves with the many occasions when sedition has been objected to and on valid grounds, and therefore consider its removal from the body of laws. Laws that can be easily misused should be reconsidered. Governance does imply taking an intelligent interest in the debates on the laws by which we are meant to be governed.

The first foray

Then there are those who, because they are critical of some aspects of the nation, are immediately condemned as anti-national. Taken literally this adjective would apply to a large number of Indians who are critical of various aspects of events in India. Governments turn by turn have described people as anti-national but the frequency of this accusation has increased in the last couple of years. It has been applied so often by the BJP that the word has become virtually meaningless, but not harmless, because it can be used to politically persecute a person. The ancestor to the BJP – the Jan Sangh party, when it was part of the government of Morarji Desai, subsequent to the Emergency – criticized the history textbooks written by some of us and published by the NCERT. We were accused of being anti-Indian and anti-national for the views we held on ancient Indian history. The government demanded that our books be proscribed. But in the election that followed the government fell, so the books survived.

Almost 25 years later, in the first NDA government the matter was taken up again. The then education minister, Murli Manohar Joshi and his BJP cohorts referred to the authors of the textbooks – and I was included in this – as not only anti-Hindu but also anti-national, anti-Indian, and academic terrorists of the worst kind. Enthusiastic politicians demanded that we should be arrested and punished for writing these books. Fortunately, the first NDA government did not take itself too seriously and did not go around arresting many teachers and students for being anti-national, largely because their definition of what was anti-national became a matter for ridicule. Anti-national for them was in effect a limited term, namely anti-Hindu.

Pathetic attempt

In the latest move of the BJP-RSS government pertaining to universities, the student union president who was arrested at JNU has been accused of being anti-national and indulging in sedition. He has been accused of raising slogans on independence for Kashmir and praise of Pakistan. The irony is that the student union president who was doing just the opposite of what would be regarded as anti-national and seditious and was trying to close the discussion, was the one who was arrested.

It is now being held, very much as an after thought, that the group that held the meeting were instigated by the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. This is at best a rather pathetic attempt to institute a charge of terrorism with no other evidence but a dubious tweet. Does government evidence rely on tweets? And are dubious tweets enough to accuse a person of sedition ? This is not just a case of the government and the police being adamant, but it appears to be a well-planned strategy to destabilise JNU. There was just too much unusual alacrity in the way events moved. One can’t help but feel that somewhere along the line, the present government has lost its initial confidence in itself and is now resorting to unpleasant tactics. An example of this was the way in which JNU faculty and students and some media people were beaten up at the Patiala House Courtby a bunch of lawyers, said to be of the BJP, when there was to be a hearing of the case against the student union president. Are the courts of law now going to have to resort to fisticuffs?

Education as catechism

The ideology central to the BJP-RSS has no space or use for liberal thought. Education for such organisations means only what can be called a kind of catechism. This is a memorisation of a narrow set of questions rooted in faith and belief and an equally narrow set of answers that prohibit any doubt or deviation. The same technique applies to all subjects. Therefore educational centres that allow questioning and discussion are anathema and have to be dismantled.

Since what is referred to as Hinduism does not confine itself to a single sacred book, nor is there exclusive worship of a single monotheistic God, the notion of blasphemy so crucial to the Christian and Islamic religions has little application to the Hindu religion. However, in the Hindutva version of Hinduism, aimed at establishing a Hindu Rashtra – a state where Hindus are the primary citizens and the purpose of governance is to uphold Hindu principles – the notion of a kind of blasphemy is applied to those that are critical of Hindutva that is equated with the Hindu Rashtra. This is then equated with the nation. Criticism of it is described as anti-nationalism so such criticism can be silenced. To call criticism as “hurt sentiment” is now much too mild. It has to be treated as blasphemy/anti-nationalism, and treated as a serious crime. This helps to convert a secular state into a religious state, which ultimately is the aim of the RSS.

The BJP-RSS government currently in power is unable to have a dialogue with an institution such as the JNU and other similar universities such as the Hyderabad Central University. The emphasis from the start in such universities has been on questioning existing knowledge, exploring new knowledge and relating knowledge to the existing reality. This is the very opposite of merely handing down selected information without questioning it. This is a problem that the BJP-RSS government has to face with a number of pace-setting prestigious centres of learning that do not substitute catechism for learning, and instead demand the right to debate a subject that may be thought to be blasphemous to the nation as defined by Hindutva. So the alternative is to try and dismantle such centres of learning by creating disturbances. This will eventually prevent them from functioning as they are intended to do.

Method in the madness

There seems to be something of a pattern in the organisation of such disturbances, since there is a repetition of the same procedure in each case. The similarities are curious. The first step is to ensure that the person appointed in a position of authority in the institution is relatively unknown, as have been many of the directors, chairmen, and vice-chancellors appointed in the last 18 months in various institutions. They are relied upon to follow the orders of the government. The next step is to locate a group preferably debating contemporary issues, and instruct the local AVBP cadres to create a confrontation with such a group in the course of the meeting, and the confrontation could even result in some violence. This allows the ABVP to claim that they were attacked first and for a complaint to be made to the local BJP politician, readily to hand, who then takes it up with the minister, and who then orders the authority concerned to rusticate the students, to bring the police into the premises and arrest the non-AVBP students, irrespective of whether or not they were involved in the confrontation.

The normal university reaction in the past has been not to allow police on the campus or to make arrests. The exception was during the Emergency. Generally, a committee of enquiry is appointed by the university. It is treated as an internal matter of the institution. Police action can only be permitted if there is a serious breach of law. A group of students shouting slogans is not a serious breach of law. What was done in the JNU reminds me of the saying “to bring a sledge-hammer to crack an egg.” The intention was obviously not just to crack the egg but to smash it completely. But it looks as if the egg is now on the face of the government.

One might well ask why the BJP-RSS is so bent on dismantling institutions of learning and converting them into teaching shops. Is it the premium on conformity and out-of-date knowledge that the BJP-RSS would like to define as education? Is it the kind of education that is given in the shishu–mandirs and madrassas that is seen as ideal in form? Interestingly the institutions that come under attack are those that are associated with freedom of thought, the asking of questions, the advancing of knowledge. Those that conform to education as learning by rote and providing supervised answers are not interfered with all that much, since this pattern of learning fits into a catechism style.

There is by now little doubt that we are currently being governed by those that seem to have an anti-intellectual mind-set. This spells trouble for universities that are concerned with high standards of teaching and research, and it would seem beyond the comprehension of those governing. One can only ask why the government is so apprehensive of intellectuals? Is the government being ham-handed with universities because from the minister down they fear the potential power of those universities that encourage their students to think independently? Or is this a deliberate way of creating a general ambience of fear in the institutions? The existence of such a fear would make it easier to impose syllabi, courses and methods of teaching emanating from the think tanks of the RSS. Not to mention that it makes those employed in universities more pliant.

A culture worth fighting for

For those of us who were among the founding members of JNU, the events of the last few days at the university is a moment of a far bigger intellectual and emotional crisis than has ever happened before in its history. JNU was founded on the principles of democratic functioning, both administratively and in the content of the education it imparted. It meant a generally positive relationship between teacher and student, and a frequency of free discussion both on matters academic and on the world we live in. It meant more rigorous training in the subjects taught and this experience improved the work both of teachers and students, and all of which was underlined by an insistence on critical enquiry. We were conscious of stretching our minds to beyond what was readily known and in encouraging students to look beyond the obvious. It was these factors that made it into a prestigious university, a trend-setter in many subjects that were taught in other Indian universities. It was again these factors that gave it international recognition, on par in many subjects with the best universities outside India.

This of course is the opposite of the rather pathetic BJP-RSS version of what is meant by education at any level, judging by the views of the HRD ministry. To see the BJP-RSS government trying to annul what we have achieved in JNU and reduce the university to a pedestrian teaching shop, is like having to see the work on one’s lifetime being systematically destroyed. Many of us chose to work in JNU rather than take up lucrative positions in universities abroad, because we had a vision that we could make it among the best academic centres located in India. And that excellence it has experienced. As one academic who lived a substantial part of my life working in the JNU, and contributing to this vision, the hostility of the current government to the JNU leaves me with a sense of despair and sadness for the future of universities in India. However, I must add that experiencing the protest of the JNU community against the attack that has been mounted on it, does make me feel that perhaps the values that we had tried to inculcate in its early years have taken root. When JNU recovers from the trauma of this attack it is likely to be even more committed to the values for which it was created – excellence not only in intellectual enterprise but also in endorsing a humane and open society upholding the rights of every Indian citizen.

'Anti National' according to Arnab

Dilip Bobb in Outlook India

The TV channel Times Now is attracting quite a few eyeballs and raising an equal number of eyebrows over its coverage of the row over nationalism. More precisely, the role of its anchor, Arnab Goswami. To figure out what's going on, here's a behind the scenes look at what happens in the studio.
Arnab: Hey you! You anti-national, what are you doing walking onto my set before me and carrying a flag. Is that a Pakistani flag? How dare you? You should be flogged in a public place...
Flag Carrier: Sorry Sir, I'm just the set assistant. I was told you might need the Indian flag to wrap around yourself on tonight's show on patriotism. I'll take it back...
Arnab: How dare you! I may need to raise it along with the decibel level and TRPs even though I can do enough flag-waving without a flag. Who is that other fellow carrying a placard? He must be an anti-national from JNU. How dare he? He should be hung, drawn and quartered...
Flag Carrier: He's the other set assistant. The placard is a screen to conceal the flames that lick the screen when you are on. The producer felt it might look like the Make in India event where the fire had reached the stage where people were still performing.
Arnab: I light the fire. I do the performing. I don't need any artificial aids. No one leaves here without being singed. No one leaves here without saying what the nation wants to know. Why do you think it is called the hot seat?
Flag Carrier: Yes sir, I mean no sir, I mean I'm just the assistant.
Arnab: That's the problem with this country. No one wants to take responsibility, no one wants to accept blame, no one wants to reveal their real position. In my book, that is ant-national activity. Can you deny you are anti-national?
Assistant: (muted)
Arnab: I have shut you off; I will now allow you to speak…Voices such as yours should not be heard. …What is that sound in my ear? Oh, it's the producer, but Mr Producer, how do you know he's just an assistant? These anti-nationals have mastered the art of disguise. See how many anti-nationals are showing up in my studio disguised as professors and academics…What's that? I invited them? Well, then, their credentials should be checked at the gate, their ID cards, their bank accounts, sources of foreign money , etc.
Producer: Arnab, It's me, the show is not going to start for another two hours. Plus, we invite guests, we send cars to pick them up, we pay them for their appearances, how can we check their ID's? It's not been done in news television before.
Arnab: News television has not seen an Arnab before either, Mr Producer Sir, this is the most watched channel, the most admired channel, the most preferred channel...
Producer: Arnab, I am the one who Okays the ads for Times Now. I know what it says but let's not get carried away...
Arnab: What about when they were carrying away poor Hanumanthapa's body in Siachen. I was the one who reminded everyone that a soldier had died and we were hosting anti-nationals on our soil, and in our studios. Did you see the spike in tweets about the show? 
Producer: They were not necessarily in our favour. I think that the Siachen issue is buried now. We have had our own reporters attacked by lawyers in the courts.
Arnab: How dare they? Who are these anti-nationals who have the guts to beat up our reporters? I shall expose them, the nation wants to know, who are they?
Producer: They are the same ones we have been calling patriots and nationalists. They were singing Vande Matram on your show.
Arnab: How dare they? Don't they know who they are taking on? We are the voice of the people. Bring them on to the show and I will teach them a lesson in patriotism.
Producer: I tried but they have switched off their mobiles.
Arnab: How dare they? Don't they know how to communicate? How can they remain in silent mode when the nation wants to know, is waiting to know. Tell them anyone who does not appear on Times Now is anti-national. In fact, anyone who does not watch Times Now is anti-national. Now, let's get on with tonight's show.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Is there some way we can make both sides lose the EU referendum?

The debate has become about which side will manage to be more horrible to immigrants – what an advert for humanity 

Mark Steel in The Independent






Oh I don’t know what to do. On the one hand, if we vote to stay in we’ll get David Cameron waving and smiling and looking triumphant, and doing anything to make that happen will make your soul go dark yellow and spew up green sticky liquid. But if we vote to leave, that would please Farage, and pleasing Farage must surely be illegal if we’ve made any progress at all since the thirteenth century.
It’s like watching Manchester United play Chelsea, you spend the whole time thinking of a way that both sides can lose.

Half the country seems to be this confused, changing their mind depending on who they last saw talking about it, going “Ugh, Blair wants to stay in, I’m voting out, but ugh, Duncan-Smith wants to come out, I’m voting in.” The best strategy for either side would be to get their most prominent supporters together, then all go and live in Nigeria until it’s over and win by a landslide.

Instead, the debate is about which side will manage to be more horrible to immigrants.
So the Prime Minister makes statements such as “Due to the success of these talks, Romanians living in Britain will no longer be allowed in a Post Office until they’ve been working here for nine years.”

But Farage replies “What the British people want to know is when are Bulgarians going to be stopped from using our pavements? These are paid for by the British taxpayer, and if they can’t be bothered to hover, frankly they can go back home.

George Osborne will retort that only if we remain within Europe can we complete a pan-European plan to build a giant electric fire and drop it in the Adriatic Sea so any Syrian falling in gets instantly electrocuted.

Then the Vote to Leave Campaign will explain that once we’re out of the EU, Poles will still be allowed to work on building sites but no longer be allowed sharp objects so they have to drill holes using a balloon, and they’ll have to commute every morning from Poland and go back to Cracow when they need the toilet. “Our cisterns simply can’t take the strain of flushing away anymore Polish turds”, he’ll shriek at a rally, and everyone will cheer and wave a Union Jack.

The proudest moment for David Cameron has been cutting child benefits for immigrants. What an advert for humanity, that one side says “Through determination to stick up for Britain, we have secured the right to be utterly mean bastards. Indeed we are now proposing a Europe-wide Total Bastard Treaty in which all member states unite in an unprecedented pledge to reject any act of even the mildest fake kindness.”

But their opponents rage that none of that will prevent sixty billion Bulgarians coming to live in Ipswich, each of them entitled to bring a Balkan mountain which will completely transform the topography of Suffolk.

So the negotiations appear to have been pointless, as the arguments will be exactly the same whatever is agreed. Cameron’s campaign will try to scare people as they did in Scotland, by informing us that if we leave the EU our fruit will explode and our cats will turn inside-out.

Then the Out campaign will respond with a front page in the Daily Express saying "Now the French are insisting on European standard sizes for breasts, based on those tiny useless petite Gallic ones they all like, outlawing the huge British breasts we prefer because we won the war and didn’t roll over when Hitler came round".
After a worrying opinion poll, Cameron will announce sternly the Institute for Money and Spending has predicted if we leave, by 2018 everyone in Britain will be a cannibal.

Then UKIP will tell us the barmy bureaucrats of Brussels will destroy our agriculture by classifying the cow as a type of herring and making our farmers throw their cattle in the Atlantic.

The European Union does appear to be a corrupt undemocratic institution, with rules against nationalising too many services, and rules against electing the wrong kind of government, as illustrated when they demanded the Greek government followed the policies of the bankers, rather than take notice of the interfering population who voted for them.

But our government’s only complaint against this has been that the EU suggested too many controls on how much our bankers were paid in bonuses. What an outrage, dictating to us that our bankers can’t rob how much they like off us. Next they’ll be insisting our burglars should have to leave a couple of items of furniture when they ransack our house. That’s Europe for you, meddling with our historic right to be fleeced by the banks.

So the referendum won’t solve any of this. If we vote to leave, UKIP won’t be satisfied. Within a year they’ll be screaming “Why should we be part of Earth? This country is being held back by having to travel on the same orbit as poor places like Mexico, and why should we have the same gravity as Morocco?”

And if we vote to stay in, it will become clear these negotiations have been a contrived exercise to make Cameron look powerful. All the leaders wander into a room looking serious, then probably play games on their mobiles for seven hours, before emerging to say “It’s been a tough night but we’ve finally come to an agreement that everything will be done differently, even in a different font. The Hungarians took a lot of persuading but we hope that settles everything.”

It would serve them right on all sides if we voted to leave the EU and become a province of Peru.

Why I Left Islam and Now Help Others Who Are Doing the Same

Imtiaz Shams



The first thing you need to know about ex-Muslims is that the best term in Arabic to describe us is basically a swear word: murtadd, meaning someone who "turns their back" on Islam. The word has a dirty, spit-on-the-ground feeling to it, with a rolling "R" and a sharp drop at the end. This is where you need to start if you want to even begin unpacking the ubiquitous, systematic discrimination we face that can pervade all aspects of our lives.

One key form of discrimination is the erasure or downplaying of our experiences through stereotypes, the most common of which is, "You probably weren't a real Muslim." I spent half my life growing up in Saudi Arabia, travelling to Makkah every year for Umrah, a holy pilgrimage. My first book was a gorgeous red and gold-trimmed copy of the Riyad us-Saliheen, a compilation of hadiths (transmitted sayings and actions) of the Prophet Muhammad and his Sahaaba (companions). I've been praying, fasting and memorizing the Quran since as long as I can remember and would devour books proving Islam's truth through scientific miracles and its moral code.

My family moved to the UK just before 9/11, and many Muslims will understand what I mean when I say the atmosphere changed after that day. At school boys gave me the nickname "terrorist" and to this day I still own a shirt where some of them drew explosives and bombs on my last day of high school. That discrimination didn't affect what was then a deep and abiding love for Islam — it just strengthened it.

So what happened? If everything was geared towards me spending my life as a practicing Muslim, why would I leave? One of the key tenets of orthodox Islam is its perfect nature and the infallibility of the Quran, two claims I unwaveringly held on to for two decades. But as I grew older and my critical thinking developed, the accepted truths about the morality of the Prophet's actions and the miracles described in the Quran got harder to swallow.

I stopped believing mountains were "stakes" or "pegs," protecting the Earth from earthquakes. Ironically, mountains are actually most common where earthquakes are most plentiful: in tectonic zones.

I no longer believed that Islam had come down to slowly phase out the loathsome institution of slavery. Instead I began to feel that the institutionalization of slavery in Islamic scripture under the auspices of "prisoners of war" allowed for millions of Africans and other non-Arabs to be taken as slaves by the various Caliphates, in some places exceeding even the horrific Transatlantic slave trade.

I had thought that Islam had given women equal rights to men, and this may or may not have been true if we were talking about 1,400 years ago. However, taken literally the same scripture can be used to reduce the inheritance and legal rights of women, enforce certain ritualistic clothing and practices on women but make them either a choice or non-existent for men, ban women from marrying non-Muslims but extend that right to men... the list went on and on in my mind.

Yet through all this I could not internally accept I had left Islam because I didn't know I could leave. The very idea that one could be a practicing Muslim but then leave Islam was completely and utterly alien to me. I was finally forced to accept I no longer believed in Islam at the beginning of 2012, but I had no identity to go to and nobody who understood what I was going to speak to. My friend Aliyah described this stage as being like an "alien in your own skin," and I felt like a complete outcast.

Another feeling that hovered over my leaving Islam was fear. Islam had presented itself as a complete and objective blueprint for my life, in charge of dictating my role in this world and my relationship to death and an afterlife. This left me believing that without the religion, even if I lived life making a difference in this world I would no longer be abd Allah, a slave of Allah, and thus my life would be aimless. It told me that that apocalyptic Yawm al-Qiyamah(day of judgement) would come when I would be judged as an apostate, one of the worst of sins, and put into Jahannum (hell). The language around hell in Islamic scripture can be terrifying — is it any wonder many new ex-Muslims have to cope with the anxiety it creates?

This period of fear and isolation did not last very long as I quickly found others out there when I stumbled on a Reddit group called /r/exmuslim. Suddenly I had access to thousands of active ex-Muslims, their stories, advice and experiences of discrimination. Almost all of these Redditors were anonymous because of the inherent physical and social risks to leaving Islam, so I began to reach out. I came up with a vetting protocol, carefully checking people out one at a time and hosting private ex-Muslim socials of sometimes up to 60 people. Sharing your story for the first time with another ex-Muslim is exhilarating, and there were so many of us to share with! Sure we still felt like aliens, but there were a lot of us aliens and we felt more comfortable in our own skin.

Around this time, I had a chance meeting with two gay lawyers who gave me some advice: what really changed for LGBTQ people in Britain was not just that they organized into communities but that they began to come out publicly. This resonated strongly with me so I joined forces with Aliyah Saleem, a feminist ex-Muslim activist, and we started what grew to become "Faith to Faithless," an organization that creates online and offline platforms to promote apostate voices.

The very first Faith to Faithless event was a year ago at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). Although we had members of the QMUL Islamic society and some da'wah(preaching) groups leafleting our event, it was a massive success. Some of the ex-Muslims we met there have since spoken at other events. Although we received support from the wider public (including Muslims), we also received plenty of hate mail and abuse. I've had people spit on the ground and call me a murtadd, while insults to female Faith to Faithless speakers are always framed in disgustingly sexist terms. Even worse is that we've often been let down by the very people who should be helping us, including some feminist and leftist activists who have used racialized terms like "native informant" to describe us, undermining our agency as a minority within a minority.

As you would imagine, many ex-Muslims contact Faith to Faithless for advice or urgent help and have faced abuse in different forms. Some, although accepted as members of their family, are constantly told that they are going to "burn in hell" and should repent. Others are forced out into the streets with no financial support whatsoever. Some are physically abused, such as one ex-Muslim girl who was kicked in the stomach by her brother and then locked into her room by her parents.

It's important to note that not all Muslims have treated ex-Muslims in this way. Some of the most important voices to me were my Muslim friends who privately messaged me giving me their support and love. We need to be able to stand together to fight both anti-Muslim and ex-Muslim discrimination, which can often go hand-in-hand. If you're a young ex-Muslim who has left their faith and feels alone or isolated, get in touch. You are definitely not alone.


Forgotten heroes – the true story of India

In his history of the people who helped make India today, Sunil Khilnani (The Guardian) set out to complicate western stereotypes. He ended up also challenging the prejudices and stories Indians tell themselves about their past


 
Bhutanatha Lake, Badami, India. Photograph: Chris Lisle/Corbis

Years ago, I scored a ticket to the first cricket Test match to be played in the city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat: India versus a West Indian 11 that included the peerless Viv Richards. I had expectations of an epic match as I joined other fans pushing into the brand new ground. But by the end, it was the performance of the spectators, not the players, that had staggered me. As the West Indians took the field, loud monkey-whoops filled the air, and banana skins rained down from the stands. The pelted players – probably the greatest West Indian team in history – stood there in their flannels, stunned.

Indians are rightly sensitive about racism directed at them; an Indian student beaten up in Australia, say, will swiftly become national news. Yet some Indians can be unthinkingly at ease with their own contempt for people of darker skin – a contradiction that warps both our present and our sense of the Indian past. As I travelled across India exploring the contemporary afterlives of 50 important historical figures spanning 2,500 years for Incarnations, my new book and 50-part BBC radio series, I heard dozens of young Indians extoll the bravery of Shivaji, the 17th-century Maratha warrior who defied the Mughals and serves today as a symbol of Hindu pride and resistance to Muslim rule. But when I mentioned a fierce resistor of Mughal expansion who came before Shivaji, young eyes went blank. For that forgotten leader doesn’t fall into any of the standard narrative silos of Indian history – Hindu, Muslim or European. Rather, he was an uncommonly clever and adaptive Ethiopian who had been shipped to India as a teenaged slave.

The rise and historical eclipse of the most powerful African in Indian history, Malik Ambar (1548-1626), is just one of the effacements and distortions I explored in Incarnations. I intended my book to complicate reigning western stereotypes – of India as a land of mystical but not intellectual traditions; of the Indian agrarian poor as meek and passive; of a culture and an economy only recently woken up to globalisation. But I wanted to wrestle as well with how Indians’ own prejudices and stereotypes – regarding race, faith, gender, caste and respect for individuality itself – contribute to the murky way Indian history gets told. Clarifying the story of Malik Ambar might be a good place to start.

***

We usually think of the African slave trade as running from east to west, but there was a thriving, little-remembered traffic that sailed eastwards to India, too. Indian rulers, particularly on Western India’s vast Deccan plain, acquired their human chattel from Arab traders in exchange for luxurious cloth. Kings and sultans, perpetually battling each other for territory and treasure, prized the African slaves as warriors. Thus in the mid-16th century, Malik Ambar was among the adolescent cargo offloaded on the Konkan coast.

Sold into slavery as a child by his impoverished parents, and converted by Muslim masters, the teenager arrived on the subcontinent having acquired an arsenal of non-martial skills – multiple languages, irrigation engineering, administration and accounting among them. As he passed through the hands of Deccan potentates, he became recognised not just as a soldier, but as a military and political strategist. Finally freed upon the death of a master whose power he had helped secure, he quickly amassed power of his own. Leading a mercenary army of crack horsemen that ultimately grew to a force of 50,000, he became a lethal accessory to Deccan rulers hoping to resist the expansionist aims of Mughal emperor Akbar and his son Jahangir. Through guerrilla tactics and night-time raids in the craggy, ravined landscape of the Deccan, Malik Ambar severed Mughal supply lines, stopped their southward thrust and gained control over large swaths of the region.

      
Malik Ambar

Emperor Jahangir, frustrated by his inability to defeat the powerful Ethiopian, actually took to commissioning gruesome miniature paintings in which he slayed his nemesis on paper. Jahangir might have been chuffed had he foreseen the future, which secured the elimination of Malik Ambar he so furiously sought. Malik Ambar wasn’t a Hindu native defending some ancient motherland. He was a dark-skinned, Muslim outsider, and thereby destined to be diminished. Descendents of African slaves now live poor and ghettoised, many of them in Gujarat, where I saw the legendary West Indian cricketers mocked as monkeys. And children growing up in those shunned communities will find no mention in their schoolbooks of a self-made power entrepreneur whose skin colour and lineage they share.

***

Both Indian and western approaches to the subcontinent’s past tend to ignore the experiences of individuals who don’t fit into grand narratives: stories (in India) of national uplift, religious unity or cultural cohesion, and (in the west) of a herd-like, prayerful and sometimes petulant nation just shaking off the hangover of colonisation. The misconstruals leave many people, inside and outside the country, with what is, at best gloss, a young-adult version of Indian history. To my mind, India’s real history is something like the Malik Ambar story writ large: unpredictable, eccentric, internationally connected and compelling fresh attention – not least for what it tells us about India now.

We have seen what happens when cultural biases run against a historical figure. So what if the biases run in the figure’s favour? That individual often gets turned into a demi-god, while the experiences of the actual, inconsistent human being fall away
. As I chased down historical lives in far-flung communities, at archaeological sites, and in archives and texts, I sometimes noticed an almost comical gap between the superhero guises some figures are forced to wear today and their own self-critical sensibilities. One such was India’s first global guru, who brought yoga to the west: the baby-faced, proselytising monk known as Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). Nowadays in India he is portrayed as the heroic personification of modern muscular Hinduism, a man insistent about the superiority of his religion over all others. (He is also a personal hero of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.) Less well remembered is the Vivekananda who could be a perceptive critic of Hindu society.


FacebookTwitterPinterest Swami Vivekananda

Vivekananda’s fame derived from lectures on Hinduism that he delivered in flamboyant, saffron-robed style across America and Europe in the 1890s. But even as he took those audiences by storm (“I give them spirituality, and they give me money,” he wrote with a wink to one of his Indian patrons), he was deeply shaken by his first encounters with an egalitarianism and social progressiveness that his fellow Hindus lacked. Visiting a Massachusetts women’s penitentiary, he was astonished by the dignity even criminals were afforded. “Oh, how my heart ached to think of what we think of the poor, the low in India,” he wrote to a friend back home. “They have no chance, no escape, no way to climb up … They have forgotten that they too are men. And the result is slavery.”

The contradictions lacing Vivekananda’s speeches and letters – on whether caste was integral to Hinduism, on the validity of certain Hindu rituals and customs – intimate the depth of his intellectual struggle, and one of his greatest internal conflicts was with the effect of his faith on the powerless. “No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism,” he would write, “and no religion treads upon the necks of the poor and low in such a fashion as Hinduism.” But such contours in Vivekananda’s personality and intellectual life got flattened during his conversion into a laminated image: that of righteous Hindu nationalist avenger of the Muslim and colonial conquests of India, ambivalent about nothing at all.

***

In modern India, writers and historians have been intimidated – and libraries and bookshops ransacked – when they have dared to treat vaunted figures as historical beings. By insisting that favourites from India’s past be preserved in memory as godlike, full of certitude and above human consideration, we don’t just deny them their real natures, we sabotage their exemplary force.

Indian sexism being even more deeply rooted than racism, I can’t claim I was surprised to find that there were far fewer historical records for significant female lives than there were for their male counterparts. But what I saw more clearly is how an absence of documentary sources plays into our ridiculous cultural tendency to turn real women of intellect, judgment, fallibility and bravery into goddess-types

.
The Accession of the Queen of India, 1858. Illustration: Print Collector/Getty Images

Consider Lakshmi Bai (1828-1858), the Rani or Queen of Jhansi, who gained mythic status in the colonial and nationalist Indian imagination because of her resistance to British rule during the uprising of 1857. Today, Indian schoolchildren know her for a single iconic image: astride a leaping horse, sword raised high, with her adopted son clinging to her back. The British military are about to conquer her fort, and instead of surrendering, she is making a dramatic midnight escape from the ramparts.

When I looked down from the fort walls she supposedly leapt from, only one word came to mind: “Splat.” An itinerant priest hiding in her fort at the time described a more plausible exit scenario: down a back staircase and into the night-black hills. For their part, the British preserved the queen in memory as a tempestuous 19th-century villainess. “This Jezebel Ranee”, as a British officer termed her, has since animated a host of adventure and romance novels.

Neither western nor Indian tales leave much room for the actual, practical, Earth-bound person who ruled over a mid-sized kingdom around 400km south of Delhi. So it is a relief to gain, from the priest’s observations, a glimpse of the sort of woman rarely seen in royal Indian annals. This strong-willed queen is athletic (weightlifting, wrestling and steeplechase were just her pre-breakfast routine); indifferent to regal trappings (in contrast to her crossdressing husband); and hands-on as a ruler (so much so that she punished criminals herself, with the whack of a stick).

Following the death of her husband, the land-hungry British annexed Jhansi under a doctrine that enabled them to snaffle up princely states. Lakshmi Bai tried to get her dominion back through a series of frustrating negotiations, but when diplomacy faltered, she decided that rebelling sepoys marching from the north in 1857 might help strengthen her claims. After she harboured them in her fort, though, they massacred British officers and their families, upon which the British bombed her fort, then breached the walls. Two months after her escape, they killed her.

To ascribe to Lakshmi Bai motivations more complex than protonational ones, or escapes that chime with the laws of physics, isn’t to cut her down to size; it is to acknowledge a woman whose independence and unconventionality are qualities more relevant to contemporary women then supposed supernatural powers.

Given how little documentation we have of powerful women in the pre-independence pantheon, what is lost when we turn away from real historical evidence is painful. Take a 20th-century icon from a different realm: the magnificent south Indian classical singer MS Subbulakshmi. Born in 1916 into the Devadasi tradition – a lineage of temple courtesans, whose job was to entertain and serve rich and upper-caste men – she built a career that took her from Madurai temple custom to film stardom to the embodiment of independent India’s national culture

.
 MS Subbulakshmi

Standing in her modest childhood home, on an alleyway near a temple, I mentally tallied the series of steely calculations that launched the stigmatised, artistic child of a single mother into the Indian cultural canon. Once her prodigious gift was recognised, she broke with her mother and her home town, took a renowned musician and then a canny manager as lovers, and sought out the musicians she admired most, to help develop her talent. The few letters of hers not destroyed by image keepers are rife with attitude and passion. But her public persona was, and remains – she died aged 88 in 2004 – that of a demure housewife whose accomplishments were simply visited upon her by the gods. As in other stories of exceptional, hard-working Indian women, volition and ambition are denied their rightful roles.

***

A different narrowing of historical understanding happens when an individual is turned into a representative emblem of his group. Take Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was born an untouchable (as Dalits were formerly known) and then made himself one of the most educated men in India. Acquiring PhDs from the LSE and Columbia University, where his professors included the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, Ambedkar returned home with a vision of India’s future unique among his mostly upper-caste nationalist contemporaries. Invited by them to play an important role in writing the Indian Constitution, he managed to implant within it some of its most radical ideas, including the principle of affirmative action.

In my travels I heard people of higher castes described Ambedkar as “the big boss” of the Dalits– as if Ambedkar was of no particular concern to other Indians. That chiselled-down identity made me wince, because he is also one of the 20th-century’s great, cranky public intellectuals, of any nation– India’s Tocqueville, really, with enduring insights into the structure and psychology of democracy in general. Where India’s nationalist elite put faith in parliaments and political rights, economic development, or social and cultural reform, Ambedkar saw educational equality as the essential bedrock of a truly democratic society. He understood the limitations of constitutions, and, in a prescient analysis, he argued that without the parity and fraternity created by making education equally accessible to Indians of every background and caste, social barriers would prevail and all efforts at reforming society (including radical ones) would founder.

***

British imperialists liked to suggest Indians were indifferent to their history, and inept at independent thinking to boot, because of their attachment to doll-like gods and caste rituals. This was a self-justifying analysis, of course, given that the Raj was pillaging the subcontinent’s historical wealth with the same voraciousness as it had plundered the teakwood and tea. Still, it was a longstanding colonial habit to picture the empire’s jewel as a congeries of religions, castes and languages: in effect, a black hole of community belonging and identity, from which few flickers of individuality escaped.


A procession held in 2015 to mark the anniversary of the birth of Bhim Rao Ambedkar in Mumbai, India. Photograph: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

And weren’t those minimally individuated Indians gentle and spiritual as they waited for their next karmic promotion? I was therefore delighted, visiting Mysore, to hold a tray bearing a palm leaf manuscript from around the turn of the Christian millennium that, when rediscovered a century ago, summarily exploded such cliches. The Arthashastra, a detailed treatise on statecraft and the art of government, gave counsel to kings that made Machiavelli’s look milquetoast (one gets a hint from the chapter titles, which feel as if they were written this year, perhaps by a parliamentary investigative committee: “Establishment of Clandestine Operatives”, “Pacifying a Territory Gained”, “Surveillance of People with Secret Income” and “Investigation through Interrogation and Torture”). The author was a man known as Kautilya, and, though all we have of him is this text, it gives a tantalising rebuttal to suggestions that ancient Indian interests were primarily spiritual.


As I worked, I was moved by how many of the 50 lives I studied posed pointed challenges to the Indian present

As does another work of analytic intellect, by the 5BCE master of the Sanskrit language, Panini. In what amounts to a mere 40 pages, he created the most complete linguistic system in history. This masterwork, known as The Ashtadhyayi, helped make Sanskrit the lingua franca of the Asian world for more than 1,000 years. Today, Panini’s system would be called a generative grammar, something modern linguistic philosophers such as Noam Chomsky and his students have been working for the past half century to develop. It is arguably from the Sanskrit tradition – whose logic Panini helped explain – that India’s present-day century software revolution emerged. And then there’s Ramanujan, the young mathematics prodigy whose century-old notebook scribblings are, as we speak, helping other scientists unravel the nature of the universe. Perhaps there’s something mystical there, in the postulates of quantum physics; though I don’t think it’s what the colonialists had in mind.

***

Other western misperceptions still present themselves on a daily basis – for instance, the notion that social conditions are uniformly dismal across India. Consider the unaddressed crimes and daily oppressions against Indian women, which have rightly provoked international outrage. Draw closer, and you will see that the outrage obscures telling differences between the opportunities for women in northern India and women in the more progressive south, where child marriage and fertility rates are far lower, and female literacy and work participation rates far higher. Some of that divergence has to do not with culture, but with reform-inspired historical crusades – including one led by a Tamil primary-school dropout known as Periyar (1879-1973).

He was an atheist and rationalist (beliefs that can get you killed in India today), and from the 1920s waged an intellectual campaign against the upper-caste northerners dominating the national movement. Setting himself up as the anti-Gandhi (wearing black, to counter Gandhi’s habit of dressing in white), he pressed for equal treatment of the lower castes, greater recognition of southern culture and language and, above all, greater freedoms for women in a country where wagons were still circled around the patriarchal family. For almost half a century, he advocated women’s rights and unhindered access to contraception. The further I delved into his story, and those of other social reformers, the more strongly I was reminded of how, under sustained pressure, even rigid societies can be changed.

***

Occasionally, walking through slum or village lanes to research Incarnations, I overheard teenagers cheerfully explaining to their friends what I was up to – it went along the lines of: “He’s telling the story of how India became number one.” Indeed, it is a habit of national histories to justify the present as the perfect and necessary outcome of what came before. But as I worked, I was moved by how many of the 50 lives I studied posed, like Malik Ambar’s life, pointed challenges to the Indian present.


Mahatma Gandhi with his two granddaughters in 1947. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

Through religious collisions, and philosophical and ethical explorations, those individuals were part of intense arguments that have kept going for millennia: about what kind of life is worth living, what kind of society is worth having, which hierarchies are morally legitimate, what role religion has in the political and legal order, what kind of love is valid, who owns the water and land, and what kind of place India should be. A civilisation able to produce a Buddha, a Mahavira, a Mirabai, a Birsa Munda, an Amrita Sher-Gil, a Muhammad Iqbal, an Ambedkar and a Gandhi is a place open both to radical experiments with self-definition and productive arguments about what a country and its people should value. That creative energy is worth recalling at a time when some in India seek to transform a ferment of ideas into a singular religious concoction.

Despite the current, cramped political climate, or maybe because of it, it seemed to me an essential moment to push for a deeper discussion of the Indian past – and not for the benefit of Indians alone. We are done now with the age in which what happened in India was considered peripheral to what used to be called the first world. Back then, those who wrote about the country had to make arguments for its relevance to, for instance, the larger story of democracy. Meanwhile, some of the most compelling minds from India’s past were forced to exist in splendid isolation, instead of being recognised for what they really were: figures engaged with other individuals and ideas across time, across borders. Today, India, in both its positive and negative aspects, is becoming central to discussions about the world at large. So it is time to reconsider not just the stories Indians like to tell themselves, but also the stories the world tells about us.