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

Tag: Liberty

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 flag is a pernicious distraction

Indien bild

August 15, 1947 — called the Day of Independence for a thousand million people, although it is a bit of a misnomer, for India was created on that day, in a sense, and so could not be made ‘independent’ of anything. Of course, Indies is ancient — and even if we take the recent historical view of India, ‘independence’ was accompanied by two massive chunks of land, almost a million square kilometers, breaking away.

One of them, Pakistan, went on to fight, and be fought by, India in multiple wars and additional decades-long, systematic conflict, with the concomitant death and suffering of multitudes. Even before the wars, at the moment of ‘independence’, millions were uprooted from their homes, with mass-murder and rape. There’s an additional angle to it: Hyderabad State, a piece of land larger than England, did not become part of the new India on 15 August 1947, or even in the later months of that year. There also remained a Portuguese enclave for years afterwards, but a relatively small one. Much larger in territory were the Princely States, which, de jure, had been independent — if anything, independence was lost, presumably for millions. Considering the significant geographies of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Hyderabad State, and, more importantly, their millions of denizens, we must ask whether a brutal amputation and a partial agglomeration is to be celebrated?

However, perhaps we may ignore considerations of what are the de jure borders of which nations, as these notions are arbitrary, in any case — surely, what matters is the reality on the ground?

Instead of ‘independence’, then, let us celebrate freedom — the freedom to express an opinion without having goons come to our doorsteps, the freedom to be a woman or casteless person without adverse consequence, the freedom to speak one’s language without being disadvantaged in the job market, the freedom to participate in government, the freedom to access education and cultural resources, the freedom to question exploitative and unjust practices without fear of reprisal, the freedom to either worship certain Gods or refuse to join in communal adoration without being subject to genocide, and the freedom to use a toilet.

Unfortunately, these we cannot celebrate.

Indies has endured since millennia, in spite of a stream of invaders from a plethora of cultures — or perhaps they contributed to the story of India. India will survive. Far more precarious are individual freedom, human dignity, and social justice for many millions of her living residents. Till we succeed to establish them as norms, ‘independence’ is a hollow, pernicious celebration.

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.




How long till the last slave?

“We were slaves for a thousand or twelve hundred years”

– Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, nominal representative of a billion-plus people, in New York to a rapt audience of many thousands.

A two-century margin of error is at least curious, if not an abomination, when cherished liberty is spoken of, surely?

Even if we may tolerate this frivolity, the statement reveals more. What happened in India in 800 – 1000 CE that apparently so strongly relates to the notion of ‘slavery’? Foreign invasions, yes; but by far not the first. Alexander came to India more than two thousand years ago. A hundred years before him, Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote of India paying homage to Persia, and that was earlier still, and must have been drawn in the aftermath of battles. Also, India, like Germany in later times, has always been a term perhaps best stated within quotes, because borders were not fixed, and there was no formal political unity.

The more recent invaders of 1000 CE were Muslims – Islam was relatively young – from the west, some with a religious bent to their marauding; some of them went on to found an empire that ruled a large chunk of what is commonly thought of as India. Perhaps that is why the Prime Minister, who belongs to a Hindu-leaning political alliance – in a part of the world where Hindu and Islamic philosophies have often bloodily clashed – picked that as the advent of slavery. Choosing the Islamic invasions as the starting point of a supposed Indian slavery might be defensible, but it is scarcely conciliatory. It is especially surprising coming from an acutely intelligent orator, and a little worrying given his great influence. Moreover, the past in its entirety belongs to all of us – the good bits, the glorious bits, the embarrassing bits, the absolutely despicable bits.

India saw so many invaders, travelers, traders and immigrants over the many millennia, and developed or adopted so many tongues, races, Gods, arts, and customs at meat, that the notion of identity, of ‘we’, is necessarily complicated, going far beyond the demarcation of land borders. Who was enslaved, who did the enslaving?

As an aside, the term ‘slavery’ itself is not very precise. Surely, we may not restrict it to the legally-sanctioned ownership of a human being? Are not some forms of exploitation the same as slavery, as well as some forms of forced dependence, and also institutionalized or widespread discrimination against certain groups of people on arbitrarily chosen grounds? The latter includes the caste system, racism in general, the outlawing of homosexuality, and the persecution of religious minorities, and those who rebel against taboos.

Going back to the original statement, ‘We were slaves for a thousand or twelve hundred years’: this is largely irrelevant – at least, it has become so since the time the people of France conceived of the ideas of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. What does it matter whether a nation is ‘free’, if large numbers of her citizens languish in unending misery and debilitating indigence, and are bereft of a voice, of justice, and of access to humanity’s cultural wealth? Indeed, the definition of liberty would have to be changed, before such a nation be deemed to be free. To insist upon a country being ‘free’ only because the ruling class has a few external characteristics in common with the exploited class, is anachronistic nationalism.

We have many freedoms, but we are slaves, all of humanity, and we shall not rid ourselves of this ghastly mark till every single one of us is free.

The shadow of the Buddha: a perspective on the Israel-Gaza conflict

Much has been written and said, both heatedly and dispassionately, about the war between Israel and Gaza. Much of the discourse can be applied to both past and, should they occur, future wars; and the wars themselves may be regarded as flash points of a persistent, longer-term conflict. Indeed, in its essential aspects, this conflict may have analogies across the world, and in history. The Israel-Gaza conflict is not a middle-eastern problem – it is representative, with consequences for all humanity.

Conflicts within and between human societies tend to be intricate, and their causes not particularly easy to articulate, especially with the passage of time and the participation of large numbers of people. The origins of organized conflict probably lie in greed, fear, love, the survival instinct, solidarity, wariness, the desire for revenge, the need for glory and the many other integral aspects of the human condition. The start of the conflict may have been inevitable, but its extended continuation is not. This terrible conflict is perpetuated thanks to two sophisticated philosophies: religion systems and nation states.

Religion systems (with their symbols, prescribed behaviors, specific jargon, links to specific geographies, military and economic influence, membership rites et cetera) and nation states (with their symbols, prescribed behaviors, specific jargon, links to specific geographies, military and economic influence, membership rites et cetera) are both extraordinary products of human creativity, and are similar in many ways. Both are potent, both have shaped history, and both continue to dictate the destiny of billions. Religion systems and nation states have increased knowledge, spread liberties, reduced exploitation, created beautiful things and defended the weak – but they have also done the opposite, and are not strangers to duplicity and realpolitik.

Wherefore this dichotomy? For religions as well as nations, the cause of much of their negative acts is a simple one: the delineation of and intolerance of the Other. Religions discriminate against non-believers, make up derogatory names for them, and often apply special taxes. Nations do the same to foreigners. If all humans were Aryans, or all the Chosen People of the Biblical God, then the idea would have scarce value. The idea is valuable only when we have the barbarians or the Gentiles as the Other. Similarly, if we were all citizens of Burkina Faso, what would be the distinction of that citizenship? When needed, the Other can also be found within the religion (the heretic, the excommunicated, the outcaste) and within the nation (the rebel, the non-conformist, the terrorist). Not all social ills may be laid at the doors of religions and nations, of course. There will also be the themes of individual megalomania, cruelty and rapaciousness that make human affairs interesting. However, if we can do away with the intolerance fuelled by religion systems and nation states, we might make the conflict untenable, to quite an extent. Fighter jets of the Ushdier Nation would rarely bomb buildings with Ushdier citizens in them. The priests of the Almans Religion would not continually exhort the faithful to kill fellow-adherents who too honor the Goddess of the Almans. Sometimes, the bombings and the call to murder do take place, justified in both cases as the means to an end, called collateral damage or necessary evil – but there would be a drastic reduction in the severity of the conflict, and in the body count. Perhaps the worst parts are not the bombings or the call to murder, but the physically-enforced restrictions on trade, expression and movement, and the call to discriminate and ostracize. How do we bring about this drastic reduction in organized violence? If the notion of the Other, and intolerance towards said Other, is central to both religion systems and nation states, what is the way forward? Must religion systems and nation states be done away with? Perhaps there is a middle way, as the Buddha might have it.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882

Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882

Our European professor, writing in the 1880s, suggests here:

“For centuries after Buddha was dead, his shadow was displayed in a cave – a monstrous, gruesome shadow. God is dead: but given the ways of man, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which His shadow will be shown. – And we – we still also have to vanquish His shadow!”

Nietzsche’s point is that (the western European) belief in (the western European Christian) God had come to an end, evidenced by the fact that societies at large no longer appeared to conduct their affairs in a way that acknowledged the existence of (that omnipotent, vengeful) God. However, he goes on to observe, these societies were not yet prepared to completely reject God – leading to the phenomenon of the “Buddha’s shadow”, in his analogy. The belief in Gods, demons, holy men, magical objects, sacred lands and beyond-worlds remains strong – but it is certainly not as strong as it once was. It is no longer deadly, or even scandalous, in some societies, to openly declare oneself to be an atheist. It would be a half-dozen decades after Nietzsche before a similar waning of fanaticism could be seen in (European) nation states – not too often now do we hear, “My country, right or wrong”, “The Fatherland above all else” or “Who dies, if the Motherland lives?”.  Perhaps we will need religion systems and nation states for a while longer, but let us insist on a diluted version of both, securing for us the good, and leaving out the exploitation and murder. That is the case, for instance, in the Europe of today, to quite an extent. Foreigners do get deported and are forbidden to work, but some are allowed to stay and participate in the labor market. Adherents of religions other than that of the Church of Rome or that of England may find some positions barred to them in Rome or England, but are by no means second class citizens. Someday, we shall vanquish the shadow of the Buddha, or perhaps it shall be some Nietzschean generation of the future which shall succeed. In the meantime, let us fight against the rabid delineation of and intolerance towards the Other that religion systems and nation states naturally engender.

Every time we allow a young woman to choose freely her own religion, or indeed lack of it, or not compel her to disclose it, or let her mix and match, or marry outside of it, or put on the symbols of another, or criticize the premises of some or all religions, or cherish them most fervently;

Each border with fewer controls and barricades, each land with fewer, or indeed no, compulsory police-issued papers to be carried about;

Through these increased personal liberties and enhanced human dignity we can build a peace.