Dignity for the exploited, the hounded, the paperless, the Other

Tag: freedom

The judgment of Paris

Moi, j’ai mon propre Paris.

Yes, I have my own Paris. It is the Paris of Hector Berlioz, where he surmounted penury, risked everything, and won the coveted Prix de Rome scholarship, where he impossibly captured the affections of a famous actress without even speaking her language, where, as an old man, he bore the grief of being told of the death of his only son, and where I stood at his own grave, one spring morning.

It is the Paris of Arthur Rubenstein, the other Polish pianist who came to the city of lights, and complained that it is a pity that many first-time visitors arrived at the Gare du Nord, the shabbiness of which must make a rather poor impression. I too stepped out of that very same train station, fifteen years ago.

The Paris where a South African family of tourists adopted me for a day, and the five of us climbed the Eiffel Tower together. We kept repeating the same joke, that we men kept stopping to allow the ladies to catch up, although it was us who needed to catch our own breath. I have no particular affection for the tower, but I have happy memories of it, over the years – lying on the grass and reading a book, posing for pictures with my parents, walking with dear friends, fireworks on Bastille Day, and picnicking with cheese, bread and wine.

The van Goghs lived here, its streets were walked by Eugène Delacroix, Édouard Manet and Aristide Maillol. The Spaniards came, not just Miró and Picasso, but also Antoni Tàpies, who once followed an unknown woman halfway across Paris because she wore the same perfume as his mother, and who created works for the university I later attended.

In 2013, the Zurich stage saw an excellent take on the romantic stereotype of the struggling artist in Paris, “Das Leben der Bohème” – a photograph from which has ever since adorned my living room, and my “title picture” on the Internet. The play was based on the 1992 movie by Aki Kaurismäki, itself inspired by the 1851 Henri Murger novel, “Scènes de la vie de bohème”. Amedeo Modigliani’s life, from when he was in his mother’s womb, to his death in Paris at 36, could be said to be quite Bohemian. He lent his name to an establishment in Düsseldorf, where I remember savoring glasses of cheap wine with someone who came close to my ideal of Carmen.

Carmen! She who once claimed to be from the Kingdom of Navarre, who worked at the cigarette factory in Seville, and proudly declared herself to be a Bohemian – for all that, she was, like Prosper Mérimée who created her, and Georges Bizet who made her famous, a Parisian. That music, to which I wake up every morning, entranced even that knower of taste, Nietzsche. Nietzsche dreamt of coming to Paris. Two of those he once esteemed were here: Heinrich Heine and Richard Wagner; and many of his own admirers lived here – Albert Camus, for instance, whose contemporary, Jean Paul Sartre penned the novel “L’Âge de raison”, in which the protagonist moves in a Paris of cafés, prostitutes and communists – how I envied him – and whose elder brother castigates him for not being in “control” of his life even at 36, the “age of reason”, by which time the follies of youth ought to be behind us. I was in my early twenties when I described its plot to a lady I met at a soirée at the river. She appeared taken by my charms, and told me she was 29, which sounded so old – how I pitied her.

George Orwell wrote about Paris, Hemmingway called it a moveable feast, and Karl Marx changed the history of the world, meeting his collaborator Engels in a café in the 1st arrondissement. Of far less significance to history is a summer evening in the same arrondissement, when a friend and I tried to cheer up a Brazilian co-worker who was missing her boyfriend. We had taken in the sights, but nothing seemed to do the trick, and we too were a little fatigued, perhaps also because I could only speak with her using my few words of pidgin Portuguese. At the Arc de Triomphe, it started to drizzle, and we paused under an awning, the diminutive mademoiselle between the two of us. All of a sudden, she linked her arms in ours, and dragged us into the night. We walked through the pouring rain down the well-lit Champs-Élysées and all tiredness was washed away, replaced by a sense of joy.

Paris is where Alfred Dreyfus, the artillery officer, did not lose hope, when falsely accused of treason and asked to kill himself. The affair would be linked to the birth of an entire religious-political movement and, later, a country. Even his defense lawyer has a plaza in Paris named after him, where once he was publically dishonored. There are more trivial things too, like the recent movie “Un peu, beaucoup, aveuglément”, about two reticent neighbors who fall in love, without having ever seen each other. It is kitsch, non? Of course, it would be – everywhere but in Paris, and watching the movie on a late night flight over the Atlantic made me grin with sheer delight.

Paris has many more stories, and has given me some of mine – long hours spent in art galleries and cafés, of vegetarian restaurants, brief conversations in massage parlors and chic boutiques, of missed trains and disappointing musical concerts, and of having the closing doors of the metro snatch away my jacket and shirt freshly pressed for a wedding. The delectable memoirs of Stefan Zweig and Pablo Neruda, the diaries of Anaïs Nin, the education of Benoît Mandelbrot – that too is my Paris. As every great agglomeration, Paris knows also finance, industry, science and politics, and the problems of effectively managing limited resources. The œuvres of the customs officer who became a painter, and Jean Valjean, of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, who fought on the barricades, which skirmishes, in my head, look like the Delacroix depiction of liberty leading the people, quite worth braving the hordes at the Louvre – that too is my Paris. During the Nazi occupation, a ten-year-old girl fled the city, later going on to sing my favorite chanson, “Ma plus belle histoire d’amour, c’est vous”. Even the prisons of Paris have boasted of an Arthur Rimbaud and an Evariste Galois, and perhaps also a Molière, whose “Le misanthrope” and “Le bourgeois gentilhomme” have made me laugh out loud, even in translation. All that is my Paris, and also the bookstalls along the Seine, the jardin des Tuileries, and the bar of the Folies Bergère which I have yet to visit, but which I know from often gazing at the Manet masterpiece in London.

It was in London, on a winter’s day some years ago, that a friend from Calcutta and I decided to spend a day exploring the city. We had known each other as children, and she had recently moved to the metropolis. In an antique bookstore, I stumbled upon the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I requested the bookseller to hold them for me while we went for a stroll, she told him that he had a pleasant accent, which complement made me jealous, for could not I modulate my speech to make it sound upper class? I learnt about Jean-Jacques, who lived in Paris, and whose thought changed the course of European culture, and contributed to the French revolution.

Yes, the French revolution, the one with the ideals of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the one with the rights of man, the “Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen”, passed in Paris in 1789. Now, in 2015, the barbarians have struck again. Will we respond by standing true to our ideals of individual freedom and social justice, or by abandoning them? Another foreigner in Paris was Arthur Koestler. Unlike Jean-Jacques, Koestler barely spoke French when he turned up. Two of his insights are relevant to this discourse: firstly, that Parisians know only their own quartier, and are ignorant of the city as a whole, whereas to the outsider belongs all Paris, because the individual quartiers are closed to him. Secondly, that the European value par excellence is – tolerance. Will we remember this? To abandon tolerance, or to relinquish individual freedoms, or to forgo solidarity with the weak, is to hand victory to the brutes who murdered so many on Friday, the thirteenth of November.

We know what the alternative looks like. A state with a secret police, with deportation centers, with suspects tortured in cellars, with benches in parks labeled “Only for Irish”, advertisements with signs stating “No Germans need apply”, where adherence to a certain religion or a political party means banishment or execution, with footpaths not accessible to all, conversations being spied upon, wives denouncing sisters-in-law, a chance remark against the regime leading to, at the very best, being ostracized; curfews, censorship, travel restrictions, arbitrary arrests, and all the rest we know all too well – it ends with “re-education” camps. Freedom, earned at so bloody a price over centuries – will we give it up on account of fear?

We mentioned Victor Hugo earlier, and he was in Paris during the siege of 1870, when the populace was reduced to hunting and eating rats. He wrote of his resolve to not capitulate to the invaders: “I am become Paris, I am become wall”, or words to such effect. A century and a half later, we are become Paris, under the onslaught of the faceless enemy. Not just because of the individuals who were massacred, but also because of the manner in which they were killed – in places of relaxation, in our boulevards and cafés, indiscriminately, cruelly – and because Paris is, in a sense, Europe, and because Europe is, in a sense, the torchbearer of the modern idea that all human beings are free, that all are entitled to dignity.

Where does that leave us? Shall we take to arms, and fight? Shall we hunt down and attack the bearded, balaclava-wearing mercenaries responsible for these atrocities? Not all of us are in a position to do so. What all of us can do is this: raise our voice against intolerance, against that which threatens the dignity of man, against legislation which encroaches on freedom, against corporations and regimes which exploit or oppress. If we are Paris, then we must, no matter whether on the Place de la Concorde, or far away from it, demonstrate that we stand for tolerance, critical thinking, social justice, the appreciation of beauty, the celebration of life, human dignity, and individual freedom – in the best traditions of Paris.

Moi, je suis Paris.

The cost of silence is murder

They murdered a man in Dadri, a small town in India I had never heard of, and it made me think of Greifswald, another town of sixty thousand, host to one of the world’s oldest universities. The university’s name was changed in 1933 to Ernst Moritz Arndt on the instructions of Hermann Göring, a decorated soldier of the First World War, whose nationalist credentials can scarcely be disputed. Arndt too was a bit of a nationalist, and adolescent boys may be forgiven for admiring one of his ideas, “Da ist Freiheit, wo du in den Sitten und Gesetzen deiner Väter leben darfst; wo dich beglücket, was schon deinen Ureltervater beglückte”. (Freedom is where you can live according to the customs of your fathers; where you are made happy by that which made your most distant ancestors happy)

That is the connection to Dadri – for the man they murdered was Mr. Mohammad Akhlaq, 50 years old, a blacksmith and a Muslim. While he was resting at home with his family, so the accounts go, an accusation was made in a nearby Hindu temple that he had killed a calf and consumed its flesh. The cow being holy to Hindus, this outraged the faithful, and they found their way to his home, dragged him out of bed, and beat him to death with bricks and sticks. They also attacked his son, and the female members of his family. The men who murdered him were probably not scholars of Arndt, but they would have agreed with his ideas on freedom, for is India not their land, and are not the Muslims outsiders, with foreign ways? In their romantic view of ancient India, cows were treasured, and slaughtering them quite unthinkable. When they heard of Mr. Akhlaq’s alleged transgression, they decided that mercilessly beating him and his family would pave the way to a return to a nobler age. They dispensed with contemptible innovations such as due process, tolerance, privacy, and respect for human dignity. The rumor of a basic value of the community being outraged is reminiscent of Göring’s goons who spread tales of the ritual killing of (Christian) children by Jews as part of a vilification campaign that resulted in loot and murder.

A man was torn from his home and viciously torn apart by a mob – but that is not the saddest and scariest bit. That questionable honor belongs to the reaction that ensued. At least one journalist titled his piece, “No beef consumed in Dadri murder”, and the local authorities confirmed that the meat found in Mr. Akhlaq’s home was “simply mutton and not beef”. A man was murdered, but the “local authorities” thought they would best serve by running tests to identify foodstuffs, and the press considered it a vital enough angle for the headline. A common refrain on Internet comments was along the lines of “Yes, well, but what about that other incident where a Hindu person was attacked?” Another appears to complain about “liberals” letting down the side by tarnishing the national image. The word “liberal”, standing for “person daring to put individual freedom and human dignity ahead of national or racial interests” appears to have the same connotation in some circles as did the appellation “intellectual” back in the Soviet Union. The police showed up, arrested some suspects, which lead to more violence, and shocking statements made by politicians. All that notwithstanding, the most detestable reaction was silence. Bertolt Brecht’s verse, inspired by the era of Göring, comes to mind: “Was sind das für Zeiten, wo ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist, weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!” (What terrible times are these, when an ordinary conversation about trees is almost a crime, because it tacitly implies an acceptance of the injustice around us!)

Mr. Akhlaq is beyond our help. His death is yet another warning that we may not stay silent, not just when the mob is gathering in an unknown provincial town, but when we hear the intolerant remarks at the breakfast table in our own homes. Quite harmless remarks, and everyone is entitled to an opinion, surely, and it is tiresome to have a political debate over a casual utterance. Yet every unchallenged remark disparaging a certain group of humans confirms a certain antagonistic weltanschauung, and someone will pay with blood. Surely, this we have learnt.



Charlie Hebdo and Arvind Kejriwal: holding icons to high standards

This is an account of our times, of this very year, young as it is – of positive turns to grim affairs, and of potential relapses. Hebdo and Kejriwal are actors certainly, but also potent symbols. Although much good is associated with them, and one hopes that they shall be conducive to human dignity, personal liberty and nominal equality, it appears that there is just the teeniest bit of rot in their ambits, which must be examined, if we are to stay true to the noble ideals of the early days of these two phenomena.

Let us introduce the two protagonists, known to millions, but perhaps not to all, separated by some 6500 kilometers, and by a month, as far as major events in their respective lives are concerned.

Charlie Hebdo is a France-based satirical weekly magazine that rose to widespread, international prominence following a murderous attack on its premises by two Frenchmen on 07 January 2015. The assailants were apparently incensed by the lack of respect shown to religious figures held dear by them. In the aftermath, the French public, the French state, and freedom-loving people around the world expressed their support for Charlie with the famous motto, “Je suis Charlie”. This was not just about Charlie Hebdo, the magazine, or the slain employees – elsewhere around the world, people fell victim to terrorist attacks, on the same day, before and after, and we like to believe that all human life is important, not just those of Parisians – it was about freedom of expression. Take that away, and other freedoms start crumbling, and we find ourselves in Lager. No, je suis Charlie, and we shall not buckle – so screamed Paris, and the sentiment was echoed. This writer too joined in, albeit adding “Je suis aussi les autres” (I am also the Other), because freedom is for everyone, even those without a voice, or without an audience. In boldface was proclaimed, “We must stand with Charlie. And not just with Charlie – but with all those who stand for freedom, and for the freedom of all, and against those who would take away freedoms, be those our freedoms or those of others.”

Arvind Kejriwal is an Indian politician of an entirely novel class. He is an engineer by education, and worked in the tax department before joining a popular crusade against corruption in India, a country much plagued by the phenomenon. He founded the Common Man’s Party (Aam Aadmi Party; while the male gender is indicated, the term is often interpreted to include the female) less than three years ago. This political party is famously secular, receptive of public opinion, and not made of up of those whose uncles and grandfathers held office in the same organization; in short, probably an absolute exception in Indian politics. On 07 February 2015, the party swept the legislative assembly elections in Delhi, a culturally diverse city with more inhabitants than Belgium, winning 67 of 70 seats. This made news, certainly nationally and resounded also across the borders of India, because established political parties with their organizations of thugs and burlap sacks of cash were laid low – it appeared that democracy was not a cruel joke, and the people wielded power. As with Charlie Hebdo, here too was this writer impressed. “Delhi – the ugly, the brutal, the cacophonous, where broken-hearted poets lived, the prize of marauders – a staggering city, with fat cats groomed by slaves, will-sapping heat, school children teaching slum-dwellers to read, lovers strolling amongst decrepit monuments, and all the rest of hope and nightmare when ten million co-exist – Delhi today stands up again with the dignity of democratic change – as ordinary citizens, with transparent funding and no ethnic or religious bent, took on the mighty and powerful, and won a comprehensive victory.”

So far, so good. Beacons of hope burst on the horizon, and many millions gave them their trust, in France, India and – this is crucial – beyond provincial borders, for some of the ideas they stand for have near-universal validity, wherever Man is not in chains. They could do nothing wrong, one might have thought, for who would be base enough to abuse so much goodwill? Indeed, they have made no major transgression, but, even as they kept going in what some might believe is the right way, and certainly in keeping with the law of the land – they both did, in small measure, betray trust. Perhaps it is a minor aberration, and we may rest easy; but we must ask ourselves the question the background of which we shall now frame.

First, Charlie. The highly sought-after issue following the terrorist attack proclaimed on its cover “Tout est pardonné” (“All is forgiven”). Within the covers of this 14 January 2015 edition was this sidebar which asked readers “why are you Charlie today”, following the outpouring of #jesuischarlie and a million placards in the black of mourning.


As can be gathered from the image, the magazine seeks to suggest the various reasons people stood up for Charlie: for the freedom of the Press, for liberty, for personal freedom, freedom of expression (even when one does not agree with the voiced opinion), for the values of France, liberty and democracy, for liberty. All well and good, and impossible to argue with, if one is a lover of freedom.

Consider now that the terrorists who attacked the Hebdo offices some weeks ago, although native Frenchmen, strongly identified themselves with a religion with roots in a faraway land, and adherents in many others. Paris too, like France and Europe, teems with many who reflect the ethnic stamp of those lands, as well as manner of dress and custom at meat. Not just those lands either: Paris is home to many who trace their recent ancestry to the East, the Far East, Africa and Latin America. This must be evident even to the casual visitor to the City of Lights who observes the dark-skinned young men loitering about the main entrance to the Gare du Nord, or those with almond-shaped eyes daintily sipping tea in the cafés, or headscarf-donning women with bearded husbands who closely fit the image associated with the noun “Arab”. Yet, none of those illustrated in the sketch above, from all those who Charlie sees as lovers of freedom, not one is dark-skinned, not one has almond-shaped eyes, not one is identifiably Muslim (this is a publication which knows all too well, and famously, how to create a two-dimensional sketch that is suggestive of a Muslim). The message appears to be clear – it is only we “true” Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who care for liberty and freedom; our co-habitants of other ethnicities, quite like those Muslims who came in with weapons on that fateful January day, may eat croissants and ride the Metro, but cannot possibly understand or respect freedom.

Note that the figures do not represent any specific people – they are generic, the voice of the city, of the land; and they are the faces thereof too, else simple statements in quotation marks would have done the trick. It is sad that the entity we stood by as we shouted “Freedom” in various tongues would have taken so pernicious a stand. Perhaps the exclusion of those Who Do Not Look Like Us was not intentional – but it is scarcely likely that a professional cartoonist would choose a woman with blonde hair, one with red hair, a young man with dark hair, women with glasses, one with sunglasses, a child et cetera, but accidentally overlook anyone who looked vaguely as if they had an African, or Asian, or Arabian connection, with such widespread in Paris. Perhaps it is entirely innocuous, and these figures represent real people, randomly chosen – and in any case, it is 100% legal, and the magazine is free to portray, or even call for, a Paris, or even a France, free of dark-hued humans, or those who might pass for employees of the Korean embassy. In any case, a point could have been made: Charlie Hebdo could have included here a figure looking like a Muslim unequivocally standing for “Liberté”. That would have done justice to all those who stood by you, Charlie, to those who marched in various cities for the “values of France”, and those who showed support on Internet forums.

Let us now consider the case of Mr. Kejriwal. A month after the “forgiving” Charlie Hebdo issue, he was sworn in as chief executive of the capital city of India, with a majority that meant there were no political roadblocks to implementing his election promises. A week or so later, a gentleman named Narottam Das, of Delhi but working for a police agency elsewhere, was killed by a landmine. He was not the only casualty, but the other policeman was not from Delhi, and so does not figure in the announcement made by Mr. Kejriwal as shown here.

ak neues

As with the Charlie Hebdo decision above, this one too is 100% legal. The Facebook post, with the photographs of humans vulnerable in their grief, has almost fifty thousand “likes”. Politician reaches out to hurt constituents – how could anyone object to that?

The text may not be elegant, but the narrative is clear enough. Local boy is killed far from home, he was working for a police organization and so his death makes him a hero, we will stand by our boy, and will use government funds to pay to the family of the deceased a nice round sum, oh, and here’s a picture of grieving humans being comforted by me, the benevolent leader. As an aside, apart from being round, the sum is relatively non-trivial. 1 crore = 10 million rupees = 160,000 USD at current exchange rates. India’s nominal GDP per capita was USD 1500 in 2013, according to the latest Wikipedia entry. The sum mentioned, dispensed from the public purse in ad hoc fashion, is thus a hundred times the average annual income in the country, a country with many hungry mouths to feed.

A mature, political response might be to enquire as to whether the policemen were equipped to deal with their opposition, in terms of material resources, training and intelligence; to delve into the causes of the conflict, and to encourage a socio-economic solution, perhaps, instead of military force. Instead, the Chief Minister of Delhi, he of the absolute majority, decides that the most efficient and humane way the Delhi government ought to use taxpayer money is by making a cash payment to a grieving family (cash and a photo opportunity exploited for Facebook; no statement on whether all future fatalities will be equally rewarded, or what of those who are killed but wear no policeman’s uniform). There is no denying that the cash is a boon for the family of the deceased, for it is no laughing matter to live in a brutal land after the removal of a breadwinner. However, Delhi is a city where naked men enter sewages to earn their keep, and this arbitrary giving away of taxpayer money reeks of shabby populism, and has little to do with efficiency or human dignity. Mr. Kejriwal’s personal immunity to venality, refreshing contrast to other politicians though it might be, is not enough. We need elected leaders to be responsible, and act to bring about sustainable positive change for the good of whole communities.

Charlie Hebdo and Arvind Kejriwal, although the one is a magazine in Paris and the other a politician in Delhi, have one thing in common: they have become icons of hope for lovers of freedom and democracy, and have received the trust of millions. Foibles like the ones described here, although pandering to the majority and above board as far as lawyers are concerned, are not a generous recompense for that trust. This thesis may not resonate universally, but there is one thing we may all agree upon: giving our love and trust to icons does not absolve us of our responsibility to be vigilant, to enquire, to reflect, and to defend freedom, dignity and nominal equality, even from attacks instigated by sacred icons.

When the intelligentsia capitulates

Why do many societies consider the freedom of the Press to be of paramount importance? It is because the Press serves to check possible abuses of power – of the other camps of power. The Press too can be bought or coerced, but there typically always remains a core of the intelligentsia that does not cave in. When, however, the intellectuals start abandoning of their own volition their once-cherished principles of liberty and dignity, we must take urgent notice.

This shameful declaration was seen in a national Pakistani newspaper on Friday, 20th February 2015.

Much of the spirit of Peshawar has already evaporated as more terrorist attacks continue and the government responds with more committee meetings and more brave declarations about rooting out terrorism. …… What else should be done (to fight terrorism)? Two models before us can serve as examples: (1) how the police chief in Indian Punjab, KPS Gill, was instrumental in crushing Sikh militancy. …. Gill was given complete authority. A Sikh himself, he dealt with the Sikh insurrection with a ruthless and merciless hand. Every method, including encounter killings (i.e. murder, under the guise of an encounter of police with armed opposition), was permissible. Thus it was that the problem was licked. -Ayaz Amir, 20th February, 2015 in the The News, Pakistan

Here we have a journalist calling in no uncertain terms for the coldblooded murder of those whom the police or other branches of the Executive do not find convenient or appropriate! This is no greenhorn – this is one of the most respected journalists in Pakistan, observing that country’s fate over decades.

This shockingly open assault on freedom and due process is not an exception. ‘.. it is expedient..’, ‘.. in the interest of security..’, and ‘..extraordinary situation..’ – these dark, all-too-familiar phrases are from the shameful pieces of legislation passed unanimously on January 06th, 2015, by the Pakistani Parliament. The National Assembly of Pakistan caved in to the Pakistani army and passed the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act, 2015 and Constitution (Twenty-first Amendment) Act, 2015, which allow the establishment of military courts to try civilians, enfeebling the principle of division of powers between the executive and the judiciary, and paving the way for human rights abuses. There was not a single voice of dissent.

Another Pakistani journalist, Irfan Husain, took it upon himself to defend those two shameful pieces of legislation. He wrote in Dawn, January 10th, 2015:

While we should certainly not descend to the level of the Taliban, we need to beef up our ability to defend ourselves. And if this calls for compromising the human rights of terror suspects, so be it.

This insidious “…so be it.” is at par or worse than the most explicit cartoons one may or may not freely publish. Of course, in the post-Snowden world, we are all terror suspects – but we may not leave even some of us to the wolves, for we know where that path leads.

There appears to be a change taking place in Pakistan, where even the intelligentsia is going over to the dark side, the side which believes in tyranny, force, fear and secret police camps. This is not about Pakistan, important as Pakistan is, being the world’s sixth most populous country and a key stakeholder in the fight against murderous religion-inspired extremism. If it becomes acceptable in Pakistan to kill people without an impartial trial, without giving the accused a chance to defend himself or herself, then the contagion will spread. Liberty and human dignity everywhere will be at threat.




Papers for everyone! (print, cut, fold)

“Your papers, please!”

Dramatic music plays, the camera position shifts to a close-up, and we the viewers are captivated by the suspense. This evening scene from a movie set perhaps in the days leading up to the last great European war could well be a decisive one. The questioner, perhaps a suspicious secret policeman, or just a regular policeman doing his duty, has demanded to see identification papers. There is the sound of rain falling in the background, but this natural pitter-patter does not comfort us, for we know that the hatted man and necklaced woman who have been accosted possess forged identification papers. Will the forgery stand scrutiny? Or will the alarm be raised, and the precarious existence of the youthful lovers extinguished?

Let us leave this rain-scented image for a while. Till around a century ago, in many parts of the world, one could travel without personal identification papers, even crossing national borders. A former army officer, Franz von Papen, who made it to the highest political offices of the Weimar Republic has testified to that. That state of affairs has changed. Today, there are a great many countries where one needs to carry a personal identification card constantly, and countries where one may get stopped by the police and asked to produce such a card, at any time.

Back to our imperilled duo. Our man is not afraid, in the best traditions of male heroes. In the same vein, his only worry is that his weak female companion with the gentle curls will not be able to survive the terrible ordeals they might have to shortly endure. Not having papers can mean imprisonment, execution or transportation to a labor camp; torture, starvation and dysentery are in the offing.

krakow police control

Picture source: USHM, Washington

That is bad, but that is not the entirety of it. Two articulate intellectuals of the previous century, Stefan Zweig and Arthur Koestler, have written about the degradation of having to wait in the foyers of petty bureaucrats in order get a stamp on a piece of paper, to fill out forms in triplicate, to answer absurd questions, being sent away, being recalled, having to produce letters of reference from barely accessible sources, being compelled to reveal intimate details to strangers, being shouted at only because one is a foreigner, being given only temporary reprieves, always being on probation, being always threatened with expulsion, with imprisonment, and always being humiliated. That was their account; coincidentally both were Jews, both loved Vienna, both were exiles and both were potential targets of a secret police. That particular secret police has been disbanded and Vienna is now safe for Jews. For many millions of people, however, the debasement chronicled by Zweig and Koestler remains a fact of life today, from partly-secured visa interview rooms, to soulless offices where residence papers are extended, to cavity searches, to endless forms with exasperating questions, to being mocked in languages one barely understands – and not everyone has the luxury of a university education and the ability to express themselves well in multiple tongues –  to processes that are far from logical, to having to risk much for a chance at a future life with dignity, to airports where suspicious eyes compare passport-size photographs to what is claimed to be a man.

Paperlessness: When the best-case scenario is Kafkaesque

Paperlessness: When the best-case scenario is Kafkaesque

And even more – depending upon which part of the world one is sent away to, one could be blown up by a marketplace bomb, executed by the police, catch malaria, die from excruciating indigence or be enslaved. One can be torn away from family, from friends, from a lover, from a language – all because one does not have the right papers.

There are benefits for governments and police forces to make the citizenry carry compulsory papers. Josephs Goebbels and Stalin probably list them out neatly in one of their notebooks. But perhaps one day, electronic surveillance tools will obviate the need to make people carry pieces of paper. (Of course, it would still be useful to maintain the fiction, to give people the illusion of privacy if they throw away or change their papers.) Perhaps that day has already arrived, or is not too far away, given what Edward Snowden, a benefactor of the race, has indicated to us. Curiously, the so-called universal declaration of human rights too calls for the right to a nationality, as if human dignity and personal liberties were intricately bound to the existence of citizenship papers.

Whatever might be the advantages of compulsory personal identification papers, we must not let them be a pre-condition to human dignity and personal liberties. As a reminder, here is a simple card that can be printed, folded, laminated and carried about upon one’s person.

humanhuman back

Of coure, you probably want to have this done in other, relevant languages. In Dutch, you might want to try, “De houder van deze kaart is een mens”. The German and Hindi versions of the papers follow.

human DEhuman DE backhuman hindi fronthindi human back


These cards are transferable. They are valid without photographs and biometric chips. They are to be issued free of charge. Copying is permitted. Such conditions are an abomination to secret policemen and bureaucrats everywhere. But what do we lovers of freedom and dignity care about the tastes of slaves!

These are simple pieces of paper, not backed by fleets of aircraft carriers, camel-loads of capital, or mindless hordes with automatic weapons. But perhaps they do not need to be. The values of human dignity, personal liberty and tolerance have a legitimacy that does not need brute force to back it up.