Prof Dibyesh Anand is the head of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Westminster, London. He is the author of the monographs, Geopolitical exotica – Tibet in Western imagination; Hindu nationalism in India and the politics of fear.” He has spoken and published on varied topics including Tibet, China, China – India border dispute, Hindu nationalism in India, Islamophobia, conflict in Kashmir etc. He identifies as queer in personal and political terms. In an extensive conversation with Asian Lite’s Abhish K. Bose, he discusses many current issues. Twitter @ dibyeshanand
Excerpts from the interview
ABHISH K. BOSE: What is your take on secular democracy in India?
PROF. ANAND: Pay attention to the non-BJP parties. How many of them dare to call Hindutva what it is – fascism? Hardly any. Not even the constitutional Left parties, leave alone Congress. The moment there is mild criticism of majoritarianism in India in foreign countries, many Indian politicians speak of “non-interference”. Frankly, they are already ceding ground to the BJP. Very few defenders of secular democracy are vocal now. It is correct that Hitler initially used democratic institutions to enter into power and then subverted those very institutions.
ABHISH K. BOSE: If you were to counsel the opposition parties in India, what would have the most fundamental principles –do’s and don’ts- you present to them?
PROF. ANAND: Recognise the BJP for what it is. Recognise what is lethal about the BJP and do not emulate it. Work together, or differently, to expose BJP rather than pussyfoot around it or copy it. Mobilise the masses. Speak out. Speak up. Don’t only focus on elections. Do what the RSS did between 1950-80s. Work at the grassroots to transform significant parts of India. There is no shortcut to education and mobilisation.
ABHISH K. BOSE: What is your advice to the Indian media in the present context, with the history of European fascism as the framework of reference?
PROF. ANAND: Media is meant to be a watchdog of liberty and not a stooge of nationalism. India media is sadly becoming the latter. For various reasons including corporate control, fear, and shared worldview, media is becoming more propagandist than ever. One can give advice to those who don’t fear listening.
ABHISH K. BOSE: There were intellectual affinities between the Indian Hindu nationalist ideologues and the fascist philosophers. Whether the collaborations are still active or have it come to an end?
PROF. ANAND: There is a difference between intellectual and political affinities and actual collaborations. There is no much direct collaboration these days. Historians of early Hindu nationalist ideologues have highlighted the various ways in which they admired the fascist ideas of “pure nation”, “strong state” and “violence as ennobling”. In contemporary times, modern Hindutva ideologues are more politically canny at hiding their admiration for European Fascism. However, they use tropes of “Islam as the enemy number one”, “multi-party democracy as weakening”, “liberal and radical dissent as anti-national”, “indigenous majority is under siege”, that are very similar to those used by the Far Right in Western countries. At the same time, such majoritarianism, intolerance of minorities, admiration of strong leaders, legitimisation of violence against dissenters, are confined to neither India nor West for similar ideologies and political movements are thriving in places as diverse as China, Turkey, Russia or Brazil.
ABHISH K. BOSE: What do you think of the influence that an author like Joseph Mazzini had on Gandhi, which Gandhi himself acknowledged? How should be read Mazzini in relation to the fascist literature in Italy more or less at the same time?
PROF. ANAND: Ideas travel, influences can be multiple. Same idea and same personality can be read differently by different political actors. That Gandhi was partly influenced by Mazzini’s democratic nationalism, his idea of self-rule, and even his focus on humanity, is clear. Mazzini can be read as a cosmopolitan as well as a nationalism; several of his ideas were what’d be seen as progressive. However, Mazzini’s ideas were also used by the fascist movement in Italy. The idea of a nation or national community, despite cosmopolitan interpretations, will invariably facilitate a strong politics of Self and the Other. Fascism is not extra-ordinary, it is an extreme form of an ideology that is pervasive in the world – nationalism.
ABHISH K. BOSE: The RSS was conceived as a cultural organisation. However, the political ambitions of RSS were explicit when Jana Sangh and later BJP were floated. Did the RSS get any training or other of kind of assistance from the fascist and Nazi parties of Italy and Germany for the launching of the above parties?
PROF. ANAND: I have not come across evidence of tangible and financial assistance provided to RSS from fascist parties. This does not mean it did not exist, but I am not a historian of RSS. My primary focus is on contemporary Hindutva. The question of RSS’s affinities European fascism is not the most interesting one for me because what is more important is it its Indianness. How did RSS tap into insecurities of, and manufacture and generate insecurities of, some or many Savarna Hindu Indians? What nationalist vocabulary was shared between RSS and dominant Indian nationalism? How did Congress legitimise or challenge RSS? Wasn’t it the framers of Indian constitution who often interpreted Islam and Christianity as “non Indic”? How was the RSS allowed to continue to work, and flourish, as a social organisation and thus gradually shift the common sense of Indian public of “Indianness”, “foreign religions” and “Hindu magnanimity”? These are more pertinent questions for me because the search for “foreign influence” takes away the agency of indigenous Hindu nationalism in developing a very Indian form of fascism.
ABHISH K. BOSE: Do you think the RSS ideology based on alienating Indian Muslims and Christians?
PROF. ANAND: A short answer is – no. European fascisms were about one single party, one single powerful leader, pure nation, violence as legitimate, and protecting the indigenous self against all internal and external enemies. These are shared by not only Hindu nationalism but many forms of nationalisms. Think of Maoist China and Cultural Revolution. Think of Stalinist Socialism in One Country/Nation. The fact is that dehumanising will of nationalisms goes beyond Italian fascism or German Nazism as “originary” source of the problem. Even without these specific European fascisms and their influence, RSS would have developed its politics of Self and the Othering. The idea of India as primary homeland of “Hindus” and Muslims and Christians being foreign bodies was there in late 19th century too. Even Congress nationalists adopted that view. The notion that India is a secular place because it is Hindu majority went hand in hand with the myth of Hindus being essentially accommodating and peaceful. I would urge analysts of Hindu nationalism to now move away from what influenced them to how they have managed to become the dominant ideology in India today.
Dr Chris Ogden is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at University of St Andrews and the author of The Authoritarian Century: China’s rise and the Demise of the Liberal International Order. Chris joined St Andrews in 2010 and his research analyses the relationship between national identity, security and domestic politics in South Asia (primarily India) and East Asia (primarily China) as well as the rise of great powers, authoritarianism in global politics, and Chinas coming world order. He has previously taught at the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Durham and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 2018, Chris founded the European Scholars of South Asian International Relations (ESSAIR) Research Network. In an interview with Asian Lite’s Abhish K. Bose, he discusses the future of India – China relations and challenges
ABHISH K. BOSE: The Belt and Road project in which China is investing trillions of dollars in infrastructure projects around the Indian Ocean region is said to be aimed at encircling India and exerting influence across the globe including the military base it has established at Djibouti. This is posing a threat to India. What are the strategic benefits China aims through these initiatives and its security ramifications for India?
CHRIS OGDEN: The main benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are economic in that it seeks to enhance cooperation between China and other states (as well as between these states independently of China). Huge infrastructure projects and vast amounts of investment underpin the BRI, which is facilitated by China’s world leading economic prowess. There is also evidence that China is making many of its loans dependent upon recipient states recognising its “One China” policy, which is done to prevent criticism of Beijing’s policy towards Taiwan, Xinjiang and any internal Chinese matters, and which is acting as a set of restricting conditionalities for these states.
The implications for India are that these actions pull these states towards China and make them dependent upon Beijing’s economic success, which New Delhi cannot currently emulate, and which will reduce India’s regional influence and diplomatic impact. The financial aid given by China to longstanding strategic partner Pakistan as part of the BRI is a prime example here, as it does not consist of direct aid but of loans and credits increasing Pakistan’s debts to China. Just as China has done with Sri Lanka – whereby the financial aid given by China to Sri Lanka was not paid back by Colombo and as a result, China then acquired Sri Lanka’s biggest port of Hambantota on a 99 years lease – the same thing could happen with Islamabad and other states, which will reinforce China’s relative power and influence across the region.
Such actions will only serve to diminish India’s standing, as well as its ability to effectively resolve longstanding disputes with Pakistan and others, especially via economic means. In view of the current Chinese strategy that is designed to influence India’s neighbours via large amounts of financial aid, India’s best approach is to find ways in which it can work with South Asian states towards resolving shared threats. These concerns range from nuclear proliferation to transnational terrorism and the threat of asymmetric warfare. These could also be diplomatic efforts to confront other shared challenges such as environmental degradation, the smuggling of people, drugs and weapons across the region, and creating incentives for better intra-trading and economic self-reliance. As noted already, trying to outdo Beijing financially is not currently an option for New Delhi, but this may change.
ABHISH K. BOSE: What will be the future of the bilateral relations of India with China, especially in the context of the booming trade in between the two countries? India is depending extensively on China for various commodities and China’s exports to India are accelerating. What will be the future of this cooperation in the context of the disputes between the two countries?
CHRIS OGDEN: Notably both India and China share a series of challenges that underpin their growing economic links, and shared development/modernisation goals. Both face a myriad of internal issues which have the conceivable possibility to disrupt they’re becoming great powers. Some of these issues relate to China and India’s capability to maintain current rates of economic growth, and critically rest upon safeguarding a solid (and continuous) supply of energy and raw materials. Here oil and natural gas are the key components for continued economic growth. Other domestic challenges critically underline China and India’s rapid industrialisation, with both sharing more common challenges concerning high rates of inequality, corruption, and poverty, as well as the financing of huge, national new employment and social services provisions. The material gains of high economic growth thus have to be balanced against their often-destructive societal consequences.
Moreover, both China and India resolutely believe in an inclusive multi-polar world (whereby there are multiple poles of influence and power) – a belief that informs a worldview that is anti-hegemonistic. Such poles are typically China and India plus the US, Russia and the EU. In turn, India and China share key strategic outlooks concerning non-intervention, and strict anti-imperial and anti-colonial views (courtesy of their own historical experiences/exploitation by primarily western states which led to their mutual descent down the global hierarchy 200 years ago). Other shared beliefs regarding international peace and security; progress (i.e. development/modernisation); self-reliance and a desire for a more equitable/representative world, also substantially challenge most western-derived viewpoints concerning what constitutes the prevailing global order.
The hope would be that all of these shared linkages and shared challenges – within the context of an emergent Asian Century – will mitigate and balance out against the risk of further border confrontations. If Modi and Xi can see the bigger picture, as well as the destabilising threat that conflict between them would bring, then brighter relations between them can prevail. The hope here will also be that Xi can receive well-rounded advice as China’s leader, although his promotion of close associates at the recent 20th Party Congress may mitigate a truly balanced foreign policy, making it more open to Xi’s whims and nationalistic pressures. A possible economic downturn in China may also precipitate an external conflict as a way for the CCP to regain legitimacy from their various domestic constituencies.
ABHISH K. BOSE: Is India on the verge of abandoning its long-standing commitment to non-alignment and moving closer to the US? How far do you think that this change has been manifested and what role has China exerted in India to make this happen?
CHRIS OGDEN: I do not think that India will explicitly renounce non-alignment but it is clear that India is firmly tilting towards the US, especially concerning its policy towards China and the wider Indo-Pacific. In many ways, this is a good example of New Delhi’s high degree of strategic flexibility – where it can gain the best from a range of active relationships, even if they are counter-intuitive (such as India’s still close ties with Moscow). In the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, New Delhi’s diversification of its bilateral relations can help it to be less reliant upon Russian weapons, which will now come with a diplomatic cost in that they will explicitly associate India with Moscow. If India can have more weapons imported from other states – such as Israel or France or the US – it will also reduce this reliance and perceptual linkage.
China’s rise – and rising threat perceptions in India – have helped explain this shift but so have India’s own great power ambitions, and the desire internally to boost India’s status in whichever ways possible. The ongoing territorial tensions between India and China also played into this dynamic. Added to this, is that India wishes to remain as multi-aligned as possible, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and mounting threat perceptions that China may soon invade Taiwan. Closer US and Western links thus give New Delhi ongoing strategic freedom, despite these negative events and potentially negative portents. They are also indicative of a much more multi-polar era in International Relations, which is a future that India supports and wishes to be a major part of as a recognised and influential twenty-first-century great power.
John Keane is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftzentrum, Berlin. He is the co-founder and Director of the Sydney Democracy Network. He is renowned globally for his creative thinking on democracy. He first studied Politics, Government and History at the University of Adelaide winning the Tinline Prize for a first-class honours with the highest distinction. He later held a post-doctoral fellowship at Kings College, at the University of Cambridge, where he worked closely with Anthony Giddens and other leading scholars. During his many years in Britain, the Times of London described John Keane as ‘ one of the world’s leading political thinkers and writers. El Paris ( Madrid) has ranked him as ‘among the world’s leading analysts of political systems in 2018. His works were translated into 35 languages. In this interview with Asian Lite’s Abhish K Bose, he discusses the issues facing democracy in the contemporary world
ABHISH K BOSE: Democracies across the globe are at the receiving end of the evident symptoms of its nemesis. What are your thoughts on the future of democracy?
JOHN KEANE: The writing is on the wall: the ‘great democratic revolution’ of modern times, as Tocqueville once called it, seems again to be stalling. While there are plenty of positive countertrends left unmentioned by observers, there are clear signs that more than a few territorially bound, state-organised democracies are in a mess. The fugitive spirit of democracy is on the run. With the disastrous experiences of the 1920s and 1930s in mind, many observers are inclined to say that something like an anti-democratic counterrevolution is happening on a global scale. Their generalisations and clichéd simplifications (talk of an epic ‘democracy versus autocracy’ global conflict, for instance) are questionable, but most of the symptoms on which they base their assessments are real enough. They come to us as daily breaking news.
Widening gaps between rich and poor. Fretful middle classes. Angry underclasses who see democracy as a façade for rule by the rich and powerful. Neoliberalism. Greedy banks. Surveillance capitalism. Pestilence. Populism. Demagogues. Growing intolerance of others’ opinions. Resurgent racism, nationalism and xenophobia. Precarity. Inflation. Lying, scheming politicians. Untrustworthy political parties. Political corruption. Sex scandals. Misogyny. Domestic violence. Guns. Street shootings. Media untruths. Destructive metaverse wars. Weird weather. The extinction of species. Floods, fires, droughts, crop failures, famine. Talk of the decline of the West. China. Russian despotism.
Things are serious. Not since the mid-20th century has democracy faced so much political trouble, but whether or to what extent these breaking news, headline-driven symptoms are feeding a looming worldwide crisis of democracy is currently the subject of heated political debate among scholars, journalists and citizens alike. Writings and talks on ‘the crisis of democracy’ and studies of democide, how democracies of the past wilted and died, are thriving craft industries. Whatever one thinks of these commentaries, they have conspired to undermine settled certainties. They are being replaced by a mix of reactions among scholars of democracy, ranging from creeping anxiety and angry indignation about democracy’s fate to perplexity and glum silence. So far, the outright rejection of democratic principles by intellectuals – of the kind that last took place on a large scale during the 1920s and 1930s – hasn’t happened. But there is plenty of ambivalence, even flippant nonchalance, as in David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap (2019) and How Democracy Ends (2018).
These two studies of democracy’s ‘winding down in the places where it has had its greatest successes’ sketch the fortunes of mainly Anglo-American democracies during the past century, from Woodrow Wilson’s failure to promote democracy after World War I to the near collapse of the banking system in 2008. Runciman’s thesis is that state-framed democracies have been littered with confusion, foolish brinkmanship and delayed bounce-back. They’re poor at anticipating crises. Democracies take forever to read writings on the wall. They’re easily distracted by frivolous media events and fake crises and sedated by their track record of success (that’s the confidence trap). Burdened by ‘elections and fickle public opinion and constitutional proprieties’, democracies typically lack a sense of urgency, or proportion.
They muddle their way into crises triggered by such anti-democratic forces as war and market failure. Then they twiddle their thumbs, usually for so long that finally they’re forced to spring into action. The picture of democracies during crisis periods ‘is not pretty, and it creates a pervasive feeling of disappointment’. The resilience of democracies in handling crises leads him to question the ‘perennial democratic appetite to hear the worst of itself’. In sticky situations, democracies typically outperform ”autocracies” (their handling of emergencies is left largely undiscussed, which is a fat flaw in the whole argument). Yet democracies, he says, are crippled by their bad habit of procrastination, and for that they earn his rebuke. ‘Democracies survive their mistakes,’ he writes. ‘So the mistakes keep coming.’
It’s telling that in these two books flesh-and-blood citizens, social movements, power-monitoring bodies and other civil society forces go missing. Their democratic ‘appetite for exposure and confrontation’ is dismissed as ‘adolescent churlishness’. These harsh words help explain why Runciman thinks crises are best handled by prudent political elites gripped by no-nonsense gravitas and willingness to act swiftly, and decisively. Runciman is in reality a reluctant democrat whose Law of Dithering Democracy (let’s call it) has roots deeper than the handful of carefully chosen historical cases he uses to support his case. He holds to a version of Max Weber’s old-fashioned elitist view of politics, and it’s why in these works he admires leaders who command respect by their actions: political animals strong on ‘restraint, discipline, and co-ordinated action’, canny characters with razor-sharp wits, commanders who are cucumber-cool under pressure, who know how to spot a crisis and aren’t shy of banging heads and stepping on people, to survive the moment of reckoning. Equally at work in Runciman’s approach is an odd metaphysics: the belief, traceable to the ancient Greek historian Polybius, that decline and decay are intrinsic to political life.
It’s no accident that Runciman never defines what exactly he means by the word ‘progress’, even though it’s used constantly to measure the performance of democracies under pressure. ‘The ongoing success of democracy creates the conditions for repeated failures, just as repeated failures are a precondition for its ongoing success.’ It’s Samuel Beckett (”Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) minus the gallows humour. Drawing on organicist metaphors of life cycles, these books conclude that democracy, whose ‘bedrock’ is ‘regular elections’, is now in ‘miserable middle age’ and trapped in ‘a drawn-out demise’ that will surely end unhappily. ‘Western democracy will survive its mid-life crisis’, he writes. ‘With luck, it will be a little chastened by it. It is unlikely to be revived by it. This is not, after all, the end of democracy. But this is how democracy ends.’
ABHISH K BOSE: Is there unanimity among the thinkers and exponents over the catastrophe on the anvil? Do you think there are little hope for the resurgence of democracy? What are history’s lessons on this greatest experiment?
JOHN KEANE: Other intellectuals are less wistful and more forthright than Runciman. They think democracy is headed for hell. Setting aside the many exceptions and countertrends of our age – democratically well-governed cities, the continuing struggles for the empowerment of women and success stories such as Indonesia, where democracy took root because it proved to be the only just and effective remedy for resolving a deep-seated economic and political crisis – these scholars insist that the spirit and substance of democracy are now on the critically endangered list. Quoting democracy barometers and survey reports, they are sure democracy is backsliding – or already at the cliff’s edge, or hurtling down into the abyss. Ignorance of positive countervailing trends and blind jumping to the worst possible conclusions – catastrophism – is their thing. Molehills are made into mountains. Thanks to them, Schopenhauer is suddenly fashionable in the world of scholarship on democracy.
Striking is the way this end-of-democracy-as-we-have-known-it mentality feeds catastrophist interpretations of how democracy perishes quickly, in the blink of an eye. The catastrophist approach, let us call it, portrays the death of a democracy as a great drama. Time speeds up. Things familiar suddenly fall apart. Under pressure, givens cease to be given. Great uncertainty grips how things are. Established ways of handling power crumble. History suddenly happens. According to this first view, power-sharing democracies typically suffer sudden death, in puffs of smoke and rat-a-tat gunfire, or (as in the earliest assembly democracies) with the rumble of chariots and the cut and thrust of spears and swords. The sudden death interpretation has a long and venerable ancestry, stretching back to ancient Greece, where under conditions of war many assembly democracies quickly perished at the hands of conspiracies led by rich and powerful oligarchs.
The Thirty Tyrants period in Athens (404 – 403 BCE) is exemplary. Forced militarily to surrender and to accept Sparta’s peace terms, the Athenian democracy – accounts by Aristotle, Diodorus, Lysias, Plutarch and Xenophon tell us – was for eight bloody months forcibly subjected to the cruel rule of a committee of thirty oligarchs led by Lysander, a reign of terror, the disarming and exiling of hundreds of citizens, the murder of ‘resident aliens’ (metoikoi) and the rounding up and execution of Cleophon, Androcles and many other prominent democrats.
Catastrophist thinking about how living democracies suddenly miss their step, stumble, and collapse to the ground – democide – remains in fashion. Many observers are interpreting the January 6th events in the United States in this way: as an organised violent attack on the Capitol that was part of a broader scheme to overturn an election result, directed from the top by a defeated president and his buddies. Quite recent examples of the quick death of democracy include Israel’s crushing of the electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections (2006) and the military coup d’états against the governments of President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt (2013) and Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand (2014).
Older well-known examples of this catastrophist interpretation include the overthrow of a caretaker Greek government on the eve of elections (in 1967) by a regime led by colonels; and the 1973 military coup d’état against the Allende government in Chile, a grave moment of high political drama when the president of a democratically elected socialist government bid farewell to his country in a live radio broadcast, then took his own life as troops, helicopter gunships, and air force jets bombarded the presidential palace. Past cases of the sudden death of democracy are also said to include the Warsaw Pact’s crushing of the Prague Spring in August 1968; Hitler’s military invasion and refashioning of the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia as a German protectorate, under the leadership of a Reichsprotektor; the follow up Nazi invasions of Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where parliamentary democracy was killed in a trice by aerial bombardment, tanks, and invading troops; and the March on Rome in late October 1922, when streets filled with blackshirted paramilitaries and supporters of the National Fascist Party (PNF) celebrated with bread and wine and song King Victor Emmanuel III’s thunderbolt decision to appoint Mussolini as prime minister of Italy.
ABHISH K BOSE: What are the antidotes that you can propose so as to give a life breath to democracy and to resuscitate it from a condition of paralysis? Is there a solution or is it heading towards an inevitable slow and gradual demise?
JOHN KEANE: The Life and Death of Democracy (2009) record numerous instances of the sudden death of democracy. During the past generation, around three-quarters of faltering power-sharing governments met their end in this quick-death way. Doubtless the impression that democracies ‘naturally’ die suddenly has been amplified by media platforms spreading breaking news stories crafted by journalists hungry for big audiences. They reinforce the credibility of the catastrophist interpretation, whose other merit is to serve as a timely reminder of the great fragility of democracy, above all the way building a democracy, which can take at least a lifetime or longer, is a much tougher task than its destruction, which can be destroyed in einAugenblick.
The catastrophist approach is nevertheless of limited value in making sense of democide. As we are going to see, democide can happen more or less quickly, more or less slowly. These different and multiple rhythms need to be identified and understood, not only because they underscore the descriptive-analytic point that there is no single way in which democracies are destroyed, or come by accident or design to sabotage themselves. There are also strategic and normative implications. Since the passing away of the spirit and substance can and does happen in different tempos, and since there is therefore no single Iron Law of Democide, the friends of democracy must learn to cope with its degradation and work for its renewal in nuanced and plural ways. The tasks of militant democracy, a phrase coined during the 1930s by Karl Loewenstein to describe the range of pre-emptive strategies used to defend and enliven democracies when threatened by the forces of anti-democracy, require clear-headed accounts of how democracies die. The commitment to militant democracy isn’t perverse fascination with morbidity. On the contrary: knowledge of the variable modes and rates of decline of democracy serves as an early warning detector device, a way of spotting the first symptoms of democide so that ways can be found to protect and strengthen democracies in trouble.
But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Consider, to begin with, the key fact, long ago emphasised by Juan Linz and other scholars, that the death of democratic institutions by gradual cuts is more common than catastrophists suppose. High-level dramas that unfold allegrissimo and furiosoare only one of the ‘rhythms’ of democide. It turns out that the death of democracy can happen lentissimo, slowly through protracted, steady accumulations of high-level political grievances and knife-edged manoeuvrings. Consider what happened earlier this year in Burkina Faso. Following years of government paralysis, sectarian tensions and jihadist violence, several thousand deaths, 1.5 million citizens forced from their homes, growing discontent within the army, mutinies in several military camps, multiple cabinet reshuffles and months of anti-government protests demanding President RochKaboré’s resignation, the so-named Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration announced live on state television its seizure of control of the country. During the past decade, similarly gradual anti-democratic rhythms were displayed in the military coup d’états against the elected governments of Egypt (2013) and the governments of Myanmar, Chad, Mali, Guinea and Sudan (2021). Slower motion democide is of course nothing new. Its roots extend back at least a century, for instance to the gradual destruction of parliamentary democracy during 1920s Poland, a period that was punctuated by the strains of building an independent state, border wars, economic hardships, bitter leadership and political rivalries, unstable coalition governments, the assassination of the first Polish president Gabriel Narutowicz, a coup d’état engineered by Piłsudski (May 1926) who then, with the backing of the police and army, big business and landowner groups, ruled by decree and rigged elections until his death a decade later.
ABHISH K BOSE: What are the immediate signs of democide?
JOHN KEANE: In each of these cases, past and present, punctuated by occasional cataclysms, democide proved to be a protracted process, painfully drawn out, tortoise paced, subject to flip-flops, breakthroughs, reversals and changes of fortune. According to what can be called the gradualist explanation, democratic breakdowns are typically overdetermined, the outcome of multiple, intersecting political developments. The gradualist explanation shifts attention from the moments of high drama towards the messy background dynamics that eventually result in the downfall of democratic government. Proponents of the gradualist interpretation are agreed that democracy is best defined narrowly, as popular self-government based on the periodic election of representatives; and they also agree with the catastrophist school that the demise of democracy happens when there are serious breakdowns of consensus within the high-level institutions of government. But the autopsies provided by the gradualist approach stress that democide is typically a long-drawn-out process driven by political factors, such as foolish miscalculations of political leaders, bitterly disputed election results, and the manoeuvrings of the armed forces.
The gradualist explanation emphasises the cunning and creativity of political actors and the indeterminacy of the political dynamics. The death of democracy is never a foregone conclusion; things can go in more than one direction. Democide happens because it is chosen by political actors in political circumstances not of their choosing. Critically important, runs the argument, are the bitter contests between political forces favouring the maintenance and/or reform of a democratic political system and saboteurs who don’t care about its fate, or who actively yearn for its overthrow. The explanation notes that in any given crisis of democracy – 1920s Weimar Germany, Bolivia in late 2019 – the political dynamics are normally stormy, often terrifying and radically confusing, and always riddled with uncertainty.
Paralysed by unsolved problems, a democratically elected government grows unpopular. There are loud calls for its resignation. In the shadows, anti-government forces hatch plans for its deposition. Disloyal opposition flourishes. There are wild rumours, talk of conspiracies, street protests that turn violent. With mounting civil unrest, the police and army grow agitated. The elected government responds by granting itself emergency powers, proroguing the legislature, reshuffling the military high command, and imposing media blackouts. Things eventually come to the boil. The moment of denouement arrives, often in the shape of a constitutional putsch: court challenges and legal victories against the government by forces paying homage to the constitution yet pushing hard to destroy both the government and constitutional democracy itself. The forces of disorder and the enemies of democracy take heart. Fierce tussles, violent protests and bomb blasts bring matters to the boil. As the government totters, the army moves from its barracks onto the streets to quell unrest and take control. The slow-motion drama ends. Democracy is finally buried in the grave it slowly dug for itself.
ABHISH K BOSE: Destruction of democracy by elected governments themselves destroying the institutions of democracy are a new variant in the process of democide. How elected leaders can dismantle the institutions pointing to the change in the process of its evolution and even to the chances of the elections themselves getting manipulated?
JOHN KEANE: An election-centred variant of the gradualist explanation of democide emphasises that the dismantling of democracy can happen when a democratically elected populist government strategically manipulates and cunningly wrecks the institutions of democracy. Drawing on recent cases such as Hungary, Kazakhstan and Turkey, The New Despotism (2020) shows that ballots can be used to ruin democracy just as effectively as bullets. The top-down electoral wounding of democratic government, the transformation of a power-sharing monitory democracy into a strangely despotic form of phantom democracy, can be completed in not much more than a decade. The transformation typically happens in fits and starts, at first gradually, in slow motion, then it gathers pace. Lentissimo gives way to prestissimo.
The turbulence is led by demagogues, populist saboteurs of democracy skilled in the arts of gradually dismantling governing arrangements, including free and fair elections, in the name of democracy. Scholars of the ancient Greek world have long noted the democracy-threatening role played by demagogues as ‘mis-leaders of the people (Moses Finley). Contemporaries worried that Athenian demagogues like Hyperbolus and Cleon (who used to shout his way through speeches) were unprincipled lovers of power, self-interested flatterers who promoted factions and stirred up mob rule, often aided by sycophants, professional orators who extorted money from rich citizens – ‘shook fig trees to harvest their fruit’ – by accusing them of wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, Athens and other early assembly democracies sought to guard against the anti-democratic effects of demagoguery by invoking such safety measures as ostracism, public scrutiny of officials’ fitness for office (dokimasia) and legal action (grapheparanomon) against citizens who hastily proposed motions which contravened existing laws.
From the time of the French Revolution, demagoguery plagued the age of electoral democracy (think of Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina in the late 1820s, or Huey Long in the United States of the 1930s) while today, in the era of monitory democracy, it continues to be an auto-immune disease of democracy. Latter-day demagogues obviously operate under different conditions. Acting in the name of ‘the people’, taking full advantage of public rights of assembly and association and media freedoms to spread their message, these specialists in the arts of political seduction are false friends of democracy. Heading up a tightly disciplined political party that claims to have a hotline to ‘the people’, demagogues set out to win elections.
Millions of disgruntled people find their promises attractive. With luck and determination, with opposition parties in disrepute, electoral victory comes their way. There is joy in the streets. For millions, victory in the name of ‘the People’ is sweet. The demagogue is delighted. Winning office tempts the government to move more quickly, to outflank and politically crush its opponents by wrapping its octopoid tentacles around the throat of the state. The civil service, the legislature, courts, and other key state institutions are kidnapped. The powers of local government are curtailed. The big boss leader carries on stirring up talk of ‘democracy’ and ‘the people’, along the way building a spoils system to reward ‘friends’ and punish ‘enemies’. There are stern warnings about the imminent collapse of law and order. Backed by the police, army and intelligence agencies, helped along by rubber bullets, water cannon and a few whiffs of tear gas, the government of ‘the people’ begins to crack down on protesters. The pace of change quickens. Bans on public assembly and Internet censorship are enforced. Arrests, detentions without trial, and unsolved murders happen. The ruling party, helped by cunning media tactics and much talk of a ‘corrupt’ opposition, tampers with the constitution. It neuters the courts, muzzles parliaments and other power-monitoring institutions and turns them into empty shells, phantoms of their former selves. State power grows steel tough. Demagogic talk of ‘democracy’ and the need to honour and respect ‘the people’ grows louder, and more militant.
With power-sharing democracy on its knees, blindfolded, elections prove useful to its killers. Elective despotism (Thomas Jefferson) prevails. Elections become rowdy plebiscites. Politics is no longer give-and-take bargaining and good-natured compromise. It degenerates into spectacles, dirty tricks and vote harvesting by a government led by a demagogue messiah. Ruling by cheating (AndrásSajó), the Grand Redeemer promises ‘the people’ wellness and rewards. It raises expectations that the ‘sovereign people’ are entitled to expect improvements in their daily lives. They are promised solutions to the local headaches and heartbreaks of joblessness, inflation, dysfunctional transport systems and poor healthcare. Pork barrel politics thrives. Winning the hearts of loyal followers is a priority. There are offerings of material gifts (as in the month prior to the 2022 Hungarian elections, when Viktor Orbán’s government reportedly spent around 3% of GDP on payments to targeted voters, including big bonuses to 70,000 members of the army and police, tax refunds to nearly two million employees, and an extra month’s benefits to 2.5 million pensioners). Every other populist trick in the book is played: threats and bribes in backroom meetings, dinner deals with business oligarchs, court victories, state-of-the-art media dog whistling and message bombing, calculated silence and brute force. The point is to suck life from power-sharing democracy committed to the principle of equality. The government led by a big-mouthed demagogue does everything it can to concentrate political power in its own hands. Cuddling up to media magnates like the Philippine billionaire Manuel Villar, they publicly attack journalists (‘presstitutes’) and independent media, public service bureaucracies, and other power-monitoring institutions. If they succeed, their inner urge to destroy monitory democracy – checks, balances, and mechanisms for publicly scrutinising and restraining power – is rewarded with a metamorphosis. The government gradually becomes strong-armed rule led by a despot who claims to be guide and guardian of ‘the people’.
Elections soon become more than elections. They are turned into elections without democracy, public rituals, carnivals of political seduction, celebrations of the mighty power of the state, endorsed by the votes of millions of people. But as the transition away from democracy gathers pace, something more startling happens. In the hands of the ruling party and its despot leader, the razzamatazz about ‘the people’ has a more sinister effect: it aims to redefine who ‘the people’ are. Desperate to tighten their grip on state power, eyes on the next election, the governing party hands out bread and roses to followers and waverers. But it also plays filthy and stops at nothing. It hits hard against its targeted ‘enemies’. The government spreads uncivil language, picks political fights with its opponents, tightens border controls and builds barbed-wire fences against ‘foreigners’ and ‘foreign’ influences. It cheats and lies with impunity. The government gaslights. Rumours, exaggerations, and bullshit are spread by its loyal media organs. The signature tactic is stirring up trouble about who counts as ‘the people’. Peddling fears of enemies within, the government moves to ostracise people deemed not to belong to the ‘real people’ (Donald J. Trump). ‘Poles of a worse sort’ (Kaczyński) and people who are not ‘real Hungarians’ (Orbán) are warned. The Great Redeemer repeats, and repeats again, that the government enjoys the backing of an authentically ‘sovereign’ People. But winning elections means creating a new ‘people’ – a pasteurised people who (it’s said) are the true foundation of a true democracy ruled by a true leader whose strength comes from the true ‘people’. It is as if elections are turned upside down. The government votes in the people. And so the process of democide is complete: the butterfly of democracy becomes the caterpillar of a weird new kind of phantom democracy. The end result isn’t old-fashioned tyranny or military dictatorship, or describable as a single-ruler horror show the ancients called autocracy. It mustn’t be confused with 20th-century fascism or totalitarianism. The outcome is despotic: a new type of strong ‘mafia state’ (Bálint Magyar ) led by a demagogue and run by state and corporate oligarchs with the help of pliant journalists and docile judges, a top-down form of government backed by the combined force of the fist and the voluntary servitude of millions of loyal subjects prepared to lend their votes to leaders who offer them material benefits and daringly rule in their hallowed name.
ABHISH K BOSE: Is civil society a basic foundation of democracy? If so, going by the current pace the disappearance of these civil societies can be termed a pertinent feature of contemporary democracies. Is it the same everywhere?
JOHN KEANE: High-level political games of thrones and populist demagoguery have ruinous effects on free and fair elections, competitive political parties, parliaments, courts, and other institutions of democracy. But experience should teach us that democracies can die in still other ways, and more slowly, more gradually, than the state-centric explanations so far summarised have surmised. The great weakness of the sudden-death and gradualist explanations is their neglect of the civil society foundations on which any given democracy rests, and which democracies neglect at their own peril.
In recent decades, the democratic importance of civil society has too often been ignored, or treated as an afterthought, as it is for instance in Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018). It understates the point that democracy is much more than high-level dynamics centred on political parties, elections, legislatures, presidents and prime ministers, government bureaucracies, and the police and armed forces. State institutions always rest upon, and draw their strength from, interactions among millions of people living their daily lives in a variety of mediated social settings that stretch from family households, personal friendships, and local communities through to their workplaces, sporting and leisure venues, and places of worship.
Ranked among the most distinguished scholars of democracy, my teacher C.B. Macpherson spent a lifetime pointing out that democracy is ‘a kind of society’, a whole way of life committed to the principle that people considered as equals can ‘make the best of themselves. It is ‘not merely a mechanism of choosing and authorizing governments’, he noted. The ‘egalitarian principle inherent in democracy’ requires that in their everyday lives, including the jobs they hold, people develop and fully enjoy their personal and collective capacities. The cultivation of social relations is ‘a necessary condition of the development of individual capacities. The ‘maximization of democracy’ requires that citizens enjoy the ‘absence of impediments’ and an ‘adequate means of life’ and ‘protection against invasion by others’.
ABHISH K BOSE: What are the cardinal factors that should strengthen a democratic society?
JOHN KEANE: When viewed as a whole way of life, democracy at the ‘upper levels’ of government can durably function only when citizens ‘down below’ in everyday life live to the full its norms of equality, freedom, solidarity, and respect for social differences. In our times, democracy is monitory democracy – periodic elections plus a plethora of watchdog bodies that publicly scrutinize, check, and restrain those who exercise power. But democracy is also a whole way of life, a special form of social interaction and self-realization in which people from different walks of life rub shoulders, see eye to eye, cooperate and compromise, and generally think of themselves as the equals of each other. This means that the self-government of people through their chosen representatives can happen only when citizens live together non-violently in various social associations and communities and treat each other as equals worthy of respect and dignity. Democracy is much more than attending local public meetings, keeping up with breaking news, or voting. A well-functioning democracy requires freedom from violence, hunger, and personal humiliation. Democracy is saying no to the brazen arrogance of callous employers who maltreat workers as mere commodities and deny them the right to form independent unions. It’s jobs that bring satisfaction and sufficient reward to live comfortably. It’s the rejection of racism, misogyny, caste and religious bigotry and all other types of human and non-human indignity.
Democracy is tenderness with children and respect for women and people of different sexual preferences. Democracy is humility. It is the willingness to admit that impermanence renders all life vulnerable, that in the end nobody is invincible, and that ordinary lives are never ordinary. Democracy is sharing and caring for others. It’s the raw willingness to reject prejudices about the inevitability of social injustices. It’s freedom from fear of police violence, the right not to be killed, or to die from opioid addiction or a broken heart. It’s equal access to decent public transport and medical care and sympathy for those who have fallen behind. Democracy is free access to information and a learned sense of worldly wonder. It’s the everyday ability to handle unexpected situations and make judgments wisely. It’s the refusal of the dogma that things can’t be changed because they’re ‘naturally’ fixed in stone. Democracy thus implies the need for insurrection: the refusal to put up with everyday forms of idolatry and bullying, snobbery and toad-eating, lies and bullshit and other forms of social degradation.
The precept that democracy is the ongoing struggle to defend the civil society footings that put springs in the steps of people freed from the curse of indignity has been emphasised with great eloquence in recent scholarly efforts to develop a ‘capabilities approach’ (Amartya Sen). It underscores the democratic importance of maximizing people’s freedoms to achieve well-being in common. But now comes the tricky question: what happens to a power-sharing monitory democracy when governments, businesses and citizens allow its social footings to be damaged, or destroyed?
ABHISH K BOSE: What is your specific analysis of the Indian scenario?
JOHN KEANE: A set of replies to this question is offered in To Kill A Democracy (2021), my recent examination (with Debasish Roy Chowdhury) of some ugly trends in contemporary Indian politics. The book pays special attention to the destructive feedback loops that link the dilapidation of social life with the annihilation of democratic politics and governing institutions. It shows how the extended neglect or slow-motion decay of civil society openly contradicts and degrades the high-minded legal ideals of democratic constitutions which promise liberty, equality, justice and dignified solidarity to all citizens. When civil societies suffer the splintering and shattering of social life, citizens come to be gripped by a sense of legal powerlessness and cynicism towards a judiciary that itself becomes vulnerable to attacks on ‘juristocracy’ (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), political meddling and government capture. Massive imbalances of wealth, widespread violence, famine, and unevenly distributed life chances also conspire to make a mockery of the ethical principle that in a democracy people can live as civil partners of equal social worth. Social suffering renders that democratic principle utterly utopian, or turns it into a grotesque farce, as many young people and poorer citizens have concluded in today’s Tunisia. Inadequate diet, rotten healthcare, drug addiction and hazardous living conditions disable and kill citizens. Fear of violence, daily shortages of food and housing and widespread feelings of social worthlessness destroy people’s dignity. Indignity is a form of generalized social violence. Nobody – not even well- educated people with good jobs and assets – escapes its clutches. Everybody suffers, rich and poor alike. But indignity has especially ruinous impacts on already vulnerable groups. When millions of women feel unsafe in the company of men, when malnourished children cry themselves to sleep at night, and workers living on low wages are forced to cope with unemployment and inflation, the victims are less likely to think of themselves as citizens worthy of rights, or capable as citizens of fighting for their own entitlements, or for the rights of others. Ground down by social indignity, the powerless are robbed of self-esteem. No doubt, their ability to strike back, to deliver millions of mutinies against the rich and powerful, should never be underestimated. But the brute fact is that social indignity often undermines citizens’ capacity to take an active interest in public affairs. Citizens are reduced to subjects who are forced to accept everyday bossing and bullying, to put up with restrictions on basic public freedoms, and to get used to big money, surveillance, police killings and soldiers on the streets.
The slow road to democide doesn’t end there. For when large numbers of citizens suffer social indignities, when in other words there’s a swelling of the ranks of people who feel ‘disesteemed’ (James Baldwin), governments are in effect granted a licence to rule arbitrarily. Starved of time, resources and self-respect, humiliated people become sitting ducks. They turn their backs on public affairs and curse politicians and politics. But the downtrodden and disaffected often do nothing but wallow in the mud of resignation. Cynical disaffection breeds voluntary servitude. Or the disesteemed yearn for political redeemers and steel-fisted government. The powerless may even join hands with more privileged citizens to wish for a messiah who promises to put things right by empowering the poor, securing the wealth of the rich, and ridding the country of corrupt politicians, fake news, terrorists, illegal immigrants and other people who don’t belong. Demagoguery comes into the season. Citizens energised by resentment encourage leaders to experiment with the dark arts of despotic politics. Exploiting public grievances and disappointments, leaders like President Kais Saied stop caring about the niceties of public accountability and constitutional power sharing. They prefer decrees. They brag that they are turning everything around, that they are restoring the dignity of ‘the people’ and helping the whole country to recover its former glory. But the hubris of the messiahs has serious costs. When democratically elected governments cease to be held accountable to a civil society broken and weakened by wealth inequalities, unevenly distributed health care, joblessness and poor morale, rulers enjoying unbridled power are prone to blindness and ineptitude. They tend to make careless, foolish, and incompetent decisions. Institutional democracy failure happens. And democracy is turned into a facade. Elections are regularly held and talk of ‘the people’ is constant. But democracy begins to resemble a fancy mask worn by wealthy political predators. Civil society is crushed by the state. Cheered on by lapdog media, strong-armed rule by rich and powerful business tycoons and populist messiahs flourishes. Phantom democracy becomes the new reality.
ABHISH K BOSE: The indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources is a thing which should be perceived as tantamount to the political developments which is debilitating democracy. Is it essential to perpetuate a new perspective in which ecology and natural resources take an important place in the pathway to strengthening democracy?
JOHN KEANE: Previous scholarly accounts of how democracy perishes have mainly ignored the slowest yet most powerful driver of democide: the degradation and destruction of the living environments in which humans dwell and upon which we depend. Democracy dies a slow-motion death not only when citizens endure such indignities as domestic violence, poor health care, religious and racial bigotry, gun crimes, and daily shortages of food and housing, or when they are forced to live in sacrifice zones and suffer foul air, toxic water and other types of environmental injustice. Democracies risk democide when these same citizens and their representatives succumb to a ‘great derangement’ (Amitav Ghosh): when they give themselves over to a double delusion, to the thoughtlessness that prevents them from spotting not only the anti-democratic effects of extreme weather events, species extinctions, pestilences and other environmental emergencies, but also, just as importantly, when they fail to understand that democracy will have no future unless its ideals and practices are rid of the deep-seated prejudice that ‘humans’ live outside a ‘nature’ whose dynamics are administratively controllable and commercially exploitable for the use and enjoyment of ‘the people’.
Making sense of this derangement and its anti-democratic effects initially requires frank encounters with the many worrying symptoms that scientists and public monitoring groups and networks are carefully recording and many citizens themselves are beginning openly to acknowledge. The most dramatic of these warning signs are fast-paced and ruthless. As if they are Earth’s revenge against its human destroyers, these environmental shocks are marked by frightening quantum qualities that display a will of their own. Huge wildfires burn uncontrollably through fields and forests, spitting black ash and illuminating night-time skies with flickers of blood-orange light. Heatwaves are so extreme that roads and railway tracks buckle and melt. Severe droughts. Atmospheric river-driven mega-storms that cause extensive flooding, polluted and diseased water, landslides, and large-scale drowning and displacement of people, animals and other living creatures. Such fast-paced convulsions disrupt socio-economic normality and inflict severe damage upon planetary habitats. They usually get more media coverage than the slower-motion, often invisible but equally damaging ruination of our environments. Melting ice shields and glaciers. Mass fish die-offs in blighted rivers, shallowing and shrinking lakes and warming oceans. A looming ‘silent spring’ insect apocalypse caused by enforced habitat loss, pesticide-heavy farming, invasive species and global warming (according to a survey conducted by Buglife and Kent Wildlife Trust, the population of flying insects alone has declined by 60 percent in the UK during the past two decades). Irreversible damage done to seasonal migration patterns, predator-prey food chains and nesting and breeding habitats of species by temperature stress, storm surges, increased evaporation and acidification of lakes and oceans. Silent, invisible, unpredictable transmissions of zoonotic viruses. The list in the slow lane is already long, and growing fast.
The rising awareness among citizens and representatives that these multi-rhythm trends threaten the health of our planetary biosphere, and that remedies are needed urgently, is an important political development. This ‘greening’ of politics is something new in the history of democracy, a novel political trend driven by the invention of scores of new media-savvy forms of public monitoring and representation of our planetary ecosystems. In the age of monitory democracy, among the most well-known examples of these bio-representation innovations are citizen science projects, coral reef monitoring networks, green think tanks, bio-regional assemblies, Earth-watch summits, climate strikes and climate justice flotillas. There are global bio-agreements, such as the Aarhus Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity, rewilding schemes and zadiste/ZAD-style (zone à defender; ‘zone to defend’) occupations. For the first time in the history of democracy, there are successful efforts to codify and enforce the ‘legal rights, powers, duties and liabilities’ of ecosystems, as in New Zealand’s (Aotearoa’s) TeUrewera Act (2014).
The common working principles of these watchdog mechanisms is threefold. Most obviously, they call upon publics, corporations and legislators to put a stop to wanton acts of bio-destruction. Significant is the way they also redefine the meaning of democracy, in effect by demanding, for the first time in the history of democracy, that the right of public representation be extended to our ecosystems. They reconnect the political and natural worlds in what the French thinker Bruno Latour aptly calls ‘parliaments of things’. Democracy is thus rid of its anthropocentrism. Think of the influential 19th-century Italian democrat Joseph Mazzini, for whom democracy was love of family and country, God’s gift of an abundance of earthly delights to let ‘The People’ enjoy ‘the faculties and powers necessary to the achievement of an equal amount of progress’. Now consider the way that growing numbers of democrats no longer see ‘the people’ as the pinnacle of creation, the sovereign power and authority on Earth, the rightful masters and possessors of ‘nature’. Citizens are instead urged to reimagine themselves as humble beings whose fate is deeply entangled with the ecosystems in which they dwell. Democracy becomes viridescent. It is redefined to mean a way of life that renders power publicly accountable – through elected and unelected representative institutions in which humans and their biosphere are given equal footing and deemed equally entitled to proper political representation in human affairs. Finally, and of equal significance, is the way the new watchdog mechanisms serve a precautionary function: they warn of the dangers of democracy failure.
Democracy failure may seem a strangely unfamiliar phrase, but think for a moment of how ungoverned markets regularly fail to deliver optimal results that are in the best interests of society as a whole, and how instead ‘free markets’ generate harms such as monopolies and oligopolies, inequalities of income and wealth, burst financial bubbles, public goods shortages and environmental damage. Just as unregulated markets fail, so are democracies prone to failure. My Power and Humility (2018) develops the analogy by showing that in the absence of independent public watchdog and barking dog mechanisms of democratic scrutiny and restraint, things usually go wrong in human affairs, especially in the design and operation of megaprojects and other complex systems of hierarchical power. Democracy failure happens. The nuclear meltdown at Fukushima and the massive oil spill caused by the failure of BP’s Deepwater Horizon project shows that the equation is almost mathematical: without robust accountability mechanisms, powerful state and business organisations become pea-brained. Wrong-headed decisions, budget blowouts, reckless delays and disasters that wound the lives of citizens and spoil their environmental habitats are typical – not exceptionally – the result. Hence the historic importance of preserving and strengthening monitory democracy mechanisms – and the grave dangers posed by eco-catastrophes to their survival.
Will the new public monitoring and bio-representation experiments survive the degradation of our planetary ecosystems? Nobody yet knows. The jury is out on whether the forces of bio-representation are a case of too little, too late; or perhaps whether, if conditions grow worse, these experiments in enfranchising our biosphere will be swept away by environmental convulsions and by species destruction and other slow-motion disruptions. For the moment, what’s certain is that the weakening and destruction of these public monitoring experiments would count as the most obvious instance of democide. If democracy, as Bruno Latour once remarked, ‘is even more fragile than the ecosystems of a coral reef’, then coral reef monitoring networks will surely lose their raison d’être when the bleaching and death of whole reefs happens.
But that is not all. There are other, more immediately observable anti-democratic effects of the despoliation of our planet. Floods, fires, pestilences and extreme droughts are bad for democracy because they breed emergency rule by the police, army and other sovereign government bodies. Citizens suffer injury and death (weather-related disasters have increased fivefold during the past half-century and are now on average robbing 115 people of their lives per day). They fear for their lives. Survivors are quarantined, told to keep their distance from others, dragged and pushed from their dwellings and habitats, supervised by police and army and emergency service units. In these emergency settings, opal-hearted citizens do their best to cope with disasters. Food and clothing are shared. The elderly and children are comforted. During lockdowns, pots and pans are banged and songs of solidarity are sung by citizens on balconies and pavements. Disasters can bring out the best in citizens: digital networked media are used as means of social bridging and bonding, online social gatherings, drinking parties and marriages are convened, governments are petitioned, Twitter and Facebook are used to crowdsource funding and support for the hungry and harassed. But disasters can desecrate democracy, as Thucydides noted in History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE) when describing how the typhus plague that killed nearly a third of the citizens of democratic Athens wreaked political havoc. As people ‘died like sheep’, word-of-mouth rumours encouraged survivors to live recklessly, just for themselves. Disrespect for morals, ‘sacred as well as profane,’ flourished. There resulted a ‘greater lawlessness’.
Contemporary catastrophes have similar effects, often on a much larger scale. The most extreme weather event ever recorded (in early September 2022) in Pakistan shows how quickly the tapestry and tissues and threads of trust and cooperation of civil society can be torn asunder by greed and corruption, fear and sickness. During extreme environmental shocks, power manoeuvres flourish as well. Emergency rule is normalised: it’s what must for a time be endured, and what out of ‘necessity’ is in future to be expected. Governmentality consequently settles on the lives of citizens: slowly but surely, in the name of their ‘safety’ and ‘security’, people are encouraged to get used to the permanent administration of their lives. Compulsory solidarity (Leszek Kołakowski), a type of solidarity degraded by its coercive imposition, is standardised, helped along by intellectuals who praise Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) for its insight that ‘the essence of politics’ is that ‘some people get to tell others what to do’. David Runciman adds: ‘Under a lockdown, democracies reveal what they have in common with other political regimes: here too politics is ultimately about power and order.’
Among the grave dangers of these episodes of emergency rule, unless they are resisted, is the ‘stickiness’ of concentrated, arbitrary power. As temporary measures, lockdowns and the banning of boycotts and public assembly easily become permanent arrangements. The power granted is power conceded, and power relinquished is power reclaimed with difficulty. The emergency rule gets people used to subordination. It is the mother of voluntary servitude. Citizens are morphed into tame, grumbling subjects. Heads down, concerned only with themselves, they accept subservience as their fate, blind to the writing on democracy’s wall. Open democratic vigilance of arbitrary power withers. Democracy becomes its own worst enemy. Despotism potentially becomes the future of democracy.
Among the least obvious but deepest effects of ecological disasters is the way, slowly and invisibly, they destroy the ethos, the lived customs, of democracy. The disfigurement of our biosphere disfigures the ‘spirit’ (Montesquieu) of democracy. Books such as Albert Camus’s The Plague (1948) and José Saramago’s Blindness (1997) long ago reminded us that seasons of pestilence undermine public virtues and bring out the worst of humanity. Their point applies to all eco-disasters, fast and slow. Exactly because they cut deeply into the biomes in which people dwell, these disasters prove more disruptive and tragic than the uncivil strife pictured in Hobbes’s infamous state of nature. Human brutishness is compounded by biometric destruction.
Humans are flung into the deepest possible liminality; not even the biomes in which they dwell can be taken for granted. Ruination is total. Fauna and flora are destroyed. Animals are maimed and bewildered by their loss of habitat. The rate of bottom-up species destruction accelerates; the chances of ecosystem collapse escalate. Not even the native worms, spiders, grasshoppers and other tiny creatures that dwell humbly and honourably at the base of our local biomes are safe. Nor are humans. Fair-minded equality is replaced by what can be called biometric rivalries. Each for themselves, sauve qui peut, rich against poor, strong against weak, indifference, aggression or outright hostility towards others flourishes. Fair burden sharing – so vital for democracy as Wolfgang Merkel has recently pointed out – is thrown out the window. Environmental injustice – unequal access to air, water, sun, shade – becomes the new normal. Violence against women, fear, bossing, bullying and petty greed thrive. It is as if other human beings, their touch and breath and body, their mere existence, are mutually repulsive. A democratically shared sense of wellness-in-the-world is destroyed. So are aesthetic virtues that have an elective affinity with the customs and practices of power-sharing monitory democracy. Environmental degradation gradually destroys the humbling ethic of wonder (Rachel Carson) at the beauties and mysterious rhythms that humans had no hand in creating. The destruction of biomes breeds deep feelings of distress and silent mourning – solastalgia is the neologism coined by Australian thinker Glenn Albrecht to capture the way people are overwhelmed by grief and insecurity, feelings of powerlessness and fear of yet more calamities to come.
India and England have a long and often complicated history together shortly after Indian independence. Here’s the excerpt of the interview with Dr Elizabeth Norton, a royal historian, specialising in the queens of Britain. Dr Norton has written widely on the British monarchy, including ‘England’s Queens: The Biography’, ‘The Lives of Tudor Women’, ‘The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor’ and ‘Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England’. A graduate of the University Cambridge and then the University of Oxford. Asian Lite’s Khushboo Agrahari meets Dr Elizabeth Norton to know more about the ‘People’s Queen’
KHUSHBOO AGRAHARI: The late Queen Elizabeth II cherished the “warmth and hospitality” she received from India during the visits over the course of her reign which she quoted as an inspiration to her country. How will the death impact Britain’s relationship with India?
DR NORTON: The Queen always had a special affection for India, with India and Britain enjoying a close relationship over the course of her reign. She made three state visits to India, in 1961, 1983 and 1997, in which she drew large crowds. It is to be hoped that King Charles will continue to foster close relations with India. Certainly, as members of the Commonwealth, the two nations continue to have a connection.
KA: The Queen has a home for just about every occasion (Balmoral for the summer, Sandringham for Christmas…). Some of these properties came with the title, while others came from inheritance. Tell us about the Queen’s royal and private dwellings.
DR NORTON: The Queen had a number of residences. Buckingham Palace is, of course, the monarch’s official London residence, as it has been since the reign of Queen Victoria. The Queen actually preferred to spend her time at nearby Windsor Castle, which is the oldest inhabited castle in the world. Her summers were spent at Balmoral, which was the highland residence purchased by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. For Christmas, the Queen would usually be at Sandringham in Norfolk, where she was such an important part of the community that she was a member of the local Women’s Institute.
KA: The Queen and her lifelong passion for animals – from a dynasty of corgis to victorious racehorses. Tell us something about her deep appreciation for the animal world that continued into her adult life.
DR NORTON: The Queen was always known as an animal lover. She was a patron of over 400 charities, many of which concerned animal welfare. The Queen was given her first corgi, named Susan, as a gift on her eighteenth birthday. She would go on to have over thirty corgis during her lifetime, many of which were descended from Susan. She also adored horses and could be seen out riding well into her nineties.
KA: Queen Elizabeth was considered a fashion icon throughout her life and reportedly owned some of the most expensive jewellery in the world. Are you aware of the fact that she owed a special iconic ornament gifted by the Nizam of Hyderabad for the queen’s wedding in 1947?
DR NORTON: The Queen was indeed considered to be a fashion icon, with many women trying to emulate her clothing and look in the early years of her reign. She was often glittering with diamonds, and none of her jewels were more dazzling than a fabulous diamond and platinum necklace were given to her as a wedding gift from the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1947. The necklace has an abstract floral design and is immediately eye-catching, with over 300 diamonds. As well as wearing it regularly herself, the Queen was generous with her necklace, lending it to her granddaughter-in-law, Catherine, the new Princess of Wales, in 2014, for example.
KA: The Queen had to prove herself to Churchill and had difficult relations with Thatcher. What are some of her successes and failures in maintaining the monarchy throughout her seven decades of reign with several Prime Ministers from Churchill to Boris Johnson?
DR NORTON: Churchill was very concerned about the Queen’s accession, seeing her as too young, too shy and too inexperienced. He soon changed his mind, however, and she was undoubtedly the monarch of whom he thought most highly. With Margaret Thatcher, the Queen was much more assured of herself as monarch, with the two leaders having a frosty, but a respectful relationship. Of all her prime ministers, the Queen only attended Churchill and Thatcher’s funerals, demonstrating the way she perceived their importance. The Queen has enjoyed varying relationships with her fifteen prime ministers, but it is a testament to her understanding of her role as constitutional monarch that she never attempted to impose her own views on the government.
KA: She was the only monarch most Britons have ever known, and her name defines age: the Modern Elizabethan Era. The past 70 years might not feel golden, but they were an age. How would you define her age?
DR NORTON: It is certainly the end of an era, and I think there is a real sense of this in Britain today. Very few people can remember a time before the Queen’s reign. While claims of a New Elizabethan Age that were made at the start of the Queen’s reign were perhaps overblown, there is no doubt that the Queen has been a steady and stabilising presence during her seventy years on the throne and will be sorely missed. It is an age that can be defined as one of great change, but also one of great stability – provided by the Queen as head of state.
KA: The Queen was known for her strong relationships with other women in the Royal Family. Could tell us about her relationship with Princess Diana to Kate and Meghan?
DR NORTON: The Queen built strong female friendships throughout her life. She also welcomed four daughters-in-law, as well as the wives of her grandsons, into the family. It is by no means easy joining the royal family and, in spite of the welcome from the Queen, it often proved difficult for brides to adapt to the change. The Queen’s relationship with Princess Diana, as the princesses’ marriage deteriorated, became tense at times, particularly with the decision to strip Diana of her title of ‘HRH’. Meghan, too, has very much struggled with the transition to royalty, deciding instead to take a step back from royal duties. The Queen seemed to have a much closer relationship with Kate, who will of course one day become queen consort. It is clear that Kate models her quiet, dutiful persona on the Queen.
KA: The year 1992 was dubbed as “annus horribilis” by the Queen which was perhaps the lowest point of her reign, a year of royal scandal and turmoil when public opinion turned against the royals. Tell us more about it.
DR NORTON: 1992 was the lowest point of her reign as far as the Queen was concerned. That year saw a devastating fire at Windsor Castle, which destroyed the state apartments and much of the fabric of the building. It was also the year in which there were significant marital troubles for the Queen’s children. The Queen was always opposed to divorce and was upset by the divorce of her daughter, Princess Royal from Mary Phillips, as well as the separation of her son and daughter-in- law, the Duke and Duchess of York. There was also trouble in Charles and Diana’s marriage, with public claims made of the Prince’s infidelity. It was undoubtedly the worst year in the Queen’s life.
KA: Queen Elizabeth’s life was full of unique events and moments, but none compare to those she lived with the man who stole her heart from her youth. Prince Philip was the only love of her life. How would you define that flame of love of the Royal Couple?
DR NORTON: Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship was a great if understated, romance. They were devoted to each other and provided mutual support, with Philip undoubtedly the Queen’s rock. Much of the strength of their relationship was based on just how well they knew each other, with their relationship lasting more than eighty years. Elizabeth and Philip first met when Elizabeth was thirteen and went with her parents to visit the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, at which Philip was a cadet. Philip was five years older than Elizabeth and handsome. He made an impression on her at their first meeting, with the Queen’s governess, Marion Crawford, later recalling that the pair played with trains together at their first meeting, before sharing ginger crackers and lemonade. They then went to the tennis courts where, as Crawford recalled ‘he showed off a good deal, but the little girls were much impressed. The Queen never took her eyes off him and spent the rest of the day in Philip’s company. The pair wrote to each other throughout the war and it was clear that the Queen was attracted to him. Finally, they were given permission to marry.
KA: Do you think Queen Elizabeth II was a selfless monarch who made Britain proud? Is Prince Charles’s accession to the throne different from his mother’s? How does the British monarchy’s line of succession work?
DR NORTON: As a young woman, Queen Elizabeth II vowed to do her duty, and she undoubtedly fulfilled this, remaining an active monarch until only two days before her death aged 96. She represented Britain on the world stage and undoubtedly made her country proud. Elizabeth II’s accession back in 1952 came as a shock, with the Queen actually visiting Kenya when she received the news of her father’s death. Charles’s accession, on the other hand, has been expected for some time, although the speed of the Queen’s decline has been surprising. Charles, as the eldest son of the reigning monarch, was raised to become king. Until recently, the British succession prioritized men, meaning that if the Queen had had a younger brother, he would have become monarch instead of her. However, just before the birth of Prince George in 2013, this was amended to give girls equal succession rights. In spite of this, the next two heirs to the throne after Charles are male.
KA: In the current sea of crises afflicting Great Britain, would the queen’s departure from the scene make all those traumas worse? What are the challenges for Charles going forward?
DR NORTON: Charles has become king at a very difficult time for Great Britain. Liz Truss, the new Prime Minister, was only appointed two days before the Queen’s death and has not had a chance to fully constitute her government, while the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine continue to pose major challenges. The Queen always provided stability in time of trouble and this is something that King Charles will need to attempt to emulate. The monarch plays no direct role in government policy, but as the head of state people look to them for guidance and support. Taking on this role is crucial to Charles’ future reign.
KA: The Koh-i-Noor Diamond, which means “Mountain of Light” in Persian, is said to carry a lethal curse. The accursed diamond came into possession from India’s alluvial mine based at Kollur in Andhra Pradesh during the period of the Kakatiya dynasty thousands of years ago. How do you think this cursed gem affected the Royal family?
DR NORTON: The Koh-i-Noor Diamond is currently set into the crown of the Queen Mother, which was made for the Queen’s mother for her coronation. It seems unlikely that the curse harmed the Queen Mother since she lived until the age of 101. It is likely that this crown will be used at the coronation of King Charles for his wife, Queen Camilla, so it remains to be seen whether she too will be immune from the curse.
Sneha Poddar, AVP Research, Broking & Distribution, Motilal Oswal Financial Services, said if the softening of inflation continues further, then it would eventually lead to the US Federal Reserve to taper its aggression. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is more likely to follow the US Fed and thus would not taper its tone till its is adopted by the latter. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Q. Do you think after US CPI inflation print which came below estimates will allow Fed to go slow on rate hike, and RBI will follow the same?
A: The US CPI inflation data for the month of July came in at 8.5 per cent, down from 9.1 per cent in June and slightly below expectation of 8.7 per cent. However the Fed officials have responded to softening inflation data by saying it doesn’t change their stance towards higher interest rates, as the inflation still remains above the unacceptable levels. Since this is just first sign of inflation peaking out, and is too early to rule out subsequent high inflation data, uncertainty will loom over when the US Fed would slow down on its aggressive rate hikes. If the softening of inflation continues further, then it would eventually lead Fed to taper its aggression. The RBI is more likely to follow US Fed and thus would not taper its tone till its is adopted by US Fed.
Q. 5.40 per cent repo rate is already above pre-pandemic level, but still the RBI maintains “withdrawal of accomodation” stance. Do you think the neutral level of the repo rate is at or above 6 per cent?
A: The RBI has cumulatively hiked the policy repo rate by 140bp to 5.4 per cent in FY23 till date. It reiterated its continued focus on “withdrawal of accommodation” to contain inflation while supporting growth. However, it kept its inflation/growth forecasts unchanged at 6.7 per cent/7.2 per cent YoY, respectively, for FY23. This seems very confusing as how can the rate hikes help contain inflation without hurting growth? Further, the MPC did not sound dovish at all. There was neither a change in stance nor a relief in the RBI Governor’s statement disclaiming a possible pause in rate hikes. Thus we believe that the terminal rate in this hike cycle might be at 5.75-6.0 per cent
Q. In the current market conditions, which sectors are likely to perform well from an investor returns point-of-view?
A: We believe BFSI can do well in rising interest rate scenario. On the other hand with good monsoon, upcoming festive season and softening of commodity prices, the demand both urban and rural are expected to revive and pick up and thus we are positive on Consumer, Auto and Retail. With the opening up of economy and the structural shift being witnessed in favour of the industry post Covid, QSR remains in a sweet spot. While uncertainty around quantum of interest rate hikes is likely to impact the performance of real estate stocks in the near term, longer-term thesis on revival of housing cycle remains intact. There is imminent opportunity in the domestic Hospitality industry and the expected upcycle bodes well for the sector. We are selectively looking at IT sector as valuations have become attractive for accumulation from long term perspective.
Q. Where you see levels on benchmark indices going forward considering the FI inflows in the domestic equities?
A: Strong momentum in the market has helped Nifty rally by more than 2500 points from June lows, and thus, has wiped out the entire decline for the calendar year till date and turned positive. Strong macro data, FII turning positive, steady earnings and healthy progress in monsoon have been some of the key factors supporting the market. FIIs (including primary market) turned positive for the month of July after nine months of continuous outflows and has been continuous buyer throughout the month of August so far. With the softening of commodity prices, even inflation seems to be peaking out and festive season is about to begin which should support demand and thus corporate earnings. Thus the overall trend in the market seems to be positive, however bouts of volatility can’t be ruled out as uncertainty over rate hike quantum and China-Taiwan tussle continues. Further, with this recent rally, Nifty now trades at ~20x FY23E, above its 10-year average, thus offering limited upside in the near term. Going forward, it could be a tug of war between domestic and global factors which could determine the market direction.
He also derives “great professional satisfaction” when he thinks of his “daring foray” into Satkhira and from there to Jessore town for spot reporting on the muktijudhdho…writes Vishnu Makhijani
Fifty years on, crossing the mighty Padma river in a small rowboat with a nor’wester brewing still gives Manash Ghosh nightmares.
Then a “cub reporter” with The Statesman, Ghosh was embedded with the Indian Army during the 1971 operations that led to the creation of Bangladesh, and rose to become the newspaper’s Bureau Chief in Dhaka and its resident editor in New Delhi, before launching its Bengali edition, which he helmed for 11 years.
“Crossing the mighty Padma river in a small row boat in the face of an impending nor’wester gives me nightmares even now in my sleep. Also my close brush with death, again in a rowboat on the Padma, to cover a daring raid on the Sarda Police Academy by the ‘muktijodhdhas’ (Mukti Bahini) on Pakistan Day (on March 23, three days before the start of the war) still gives me shivers,” Ghosh told IANS in an interview of his inspirational “Bangladesh War – Report From Ground Zero” (Niyogi Books).
“I thank God Almighty and providence for saving me from sure death on that day too,” he added.
Every time he gets the news of death of any former commander of the Mukti Bahini with whose help he had covered the Bangladesh liberation war “it at once relives my memories of those historic tumultuous days which have remained deeply etched on my memory”, he said.
For instance, when Abu Osman Chowdhury formerly of the paramilitary East Pakistan Rifles and a sector commander of the Mukti Bahini, died of Covid last May in Dhaka, “the news harkened back for me the early days of the Liberation War. After all he was the first officer of the East Pakistan Rifles to have set up a command structure called the South Western Command comprising four districts – Kushtia, Jessore, Khulna and Faridpur – where the muktijodhdhas had taken on the Pakistani military and fought valiantly”, Ghosh elaborated .
They had kept parts of those districts liberated until the first week of May 1971. Chowdhury had set up his command headquarters in Chuadanga, a sub-divisional town of Kushtia district, which Ghosh had started visiting from the first week of April.
“It was in Chuadanga that I first came to know of Tajuddin Ahmed, appointed Prime Minister by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, (after his unilateral declaration of Independence on March 7, 1971) crossing into India through the Nadia border on his way to Delhi to meet Mrs Indira Gandhi.
“It was at his command post that I first met the intrepid Deputy Commissioner of Pabna Nurul Kader Khan, a strapping Civil Service of Pakistan officer, an Oxonian who had responded to Mujib’s call to join the Liberation War and had come there to collect supplies of arms and ammunition that a BSF officer (in mufti) had delivered to Osman. That was the first time I had seen the Indian defence establishment extending help to the Liberation War effort,” Ghosh reminisced.
“It also reminds me of the heroics that I was witness to of the ill-equipped, ill-clad, ill-fed muktijodhdhas and their irrepressible resolve to free their land from the exploitative clutches of the West Pakistani marauders,” he added.
He recalled with “great pride and honour” that he had the privilege to report on the sacrifices of young ‘valianrmuktijudhdhas’ (cadres) like Nurul Kader Khan, Rafiqul Islam Bakul and Shirin Bano Mitil, “whose tales of valour I could recount in The Statesman for the world to know that Bangladesh’s Liberation War was not just flash in the pan like the Biafran revolt”.
He also derives “great professional satisfaction” when he thinks of his “daring foray” into Satkhira and from there to Jessore town for spot reporting on the muktijudhdho.
“I was the first foreign correspondent who achieved that feat and my reports from Jessore received not only national but also international attention. They appeared on the front page of The Statesman and they were picked up by international media and got reprinted in the leading dailies of the world.
“My Jessore reports for the first time let the world know the scale of genocide that the Pakistani military had committed even in district towns, besides the provincial capital Dhaka to suppress the Bengali revolt in East Pakistan,” Ghosh explained.
“I remained steadfast in my commitment to stand by the defenceless and hapless Bengalis of East Pakistan and undertook daring trips deep inside East Pakistan to report on what was actually happening on the ground especially in terms of genocide perpetrated by the Pakistani military and the courageous fight back that the Bengalis were putting up.”
Question: You’ve been a close observer of India-Bangladesh relations since the country came into being. What were they in the beginning and how do you see them now?
“Indo-Bangla relations have been through a series of ups and downs ever since the Liberation War started. There had been influential people inside the Bangladesh government-in-exile and the leadership of the Awami League who tried hard to undermine and subvert the Liberation War effort of Indian and Bangladeshi leadership, just like in the present times,” Ghosh pointed out.
Had it not been for the “watchful eyes” of Indian RAW agents, Khondokar Mushtaq, Foreign Minister of the government-in-exile, would have succeeded in striking a deal with General Yahya Khan to keep Pakistan intact, he maintained, adding: “Even now, there are some Khondokar Mushtaqs in Sheikh Hasina’s government who are playing the role of spoilers in Indo-Bangladesh relations.
“They camouflage their thoughts and deeds so well that it is not possible to gauge the damage they have been doing to our bilateral relations.”
How did he remain steadfast with The Statesman throughout his career?
“Since my family had close ties with The Statesman, as my father, uncle and elder brother had worked for the paper in responsible positions, I never thought of leaving the paper despite getting a measly salary. As a journalist, I had grown with the paper. Despite getting lucrative offers I stayed with this century-old great institution out of a sense of loyalty and also because I had seen The Statesman’s golden days,” Ghosh concluded.
ALSO READ-1971 War in Retrospect
Soumitra Chatterjee, the doyen of Bengali cinema who passed away on November 15, 2020 aged 85, leaving behind an oeuvre of over 250 films – a staggering 14 of them directed by Satyajit Ray – five books, four poetry collections, three dramas and an array of paintings, had once remarked that he would have become a carpenter had he not become an actor…writes Vishnu Makhijani.
It might sound flippant but his admiration for the craft of carpentry was genuine, revealing that he believed in creativity that was useful, something that would be helpful to people, says the first biography of the actor in English set to release on his 86th birth anniversary on January 19.
“Soumitra Chatterjee’s legacy goes well beyond his body of work in cinema, which on its own will probably never be matched. He is best known for being the favoured actor of one of the world’s greatest directors and remains one of the most visible representatives of Indian cinema abroad,” Arjun Sengupta, co-author of “Soumitra Chatterjee – A Life in Cinema, Theatre, Poetry & Painting”, (Niyogi Books), told IANS in an interview.
“However, the range of his accomplishments emerges from his unique nature. He understood the value of education and culture and all through his life remained unwavering in his belief on the importance of social responsibility and artistic integrity. He disdained stardom if it got in the way of his beliefs as an artist.
“He had a varied career that went beyond films. His belief in art and the responsibility of an artist ensured that he brought the same seriousness and breadth of learning to no matter what he did. He was a resolute champion of Bengali language and culture, choosing to dedicate himself to Bengal rather than look for a more national popularity through Hindi cinema. For these reasons and more, he was one of Bengal’s greatest ambassadors to the world,” Sengupta added, who teaches English Literature at the St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, with previous stints at Scottish Church College and Presidency College.
A considerable amount of research went into the book, during the writing of which Chatterjee was personally involved.
“The research involved going through a number of books that have been written on him and about Bengali cinema in general. This allowed me to place his achievements in a greater socio-historical context. Mr Chatterjee was kind enough to lend us his ‘Gadya Samagra’, a collection of his writings for reference. His writings gave me important insights into the kind of person he was. It also allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of his pursuits as a thespian, painter and poet.
“I also watched and re-watched several of his films, studying the smallest details to appreciate his craft better. All this was supplemented by hours of interviews of Mr Chatterjee,” Sengupta said of the effort he and co-author Partha Mukherjee, a Kolkata-based Freelance Writer-cum-Documentary Filmmaker put in.
To this end, what the book reveals is that Chatterjee did not believe in looking back, and even at 85, kept looking forward to new challenges. This is probably why his death is not a coda because he had so much more to contribute to the world of theatre, art and cinema. Thus, the book is a celebration of his multi-faceted creative genius and his role in representing Bengal on the world stage.
The book explores the making of Chatterjee through his early years and his relationships with theatre exponent Sisir Bhaduri and Satyajit Ray. His 14 films with Ray are a testament to his versatility and virtuosity. As an actor he refused to settle in a comfortable groove and constantly looked out for fresh challenges. Throughout his theatrical career, he not only adapted and directed several acclaimed plays but kept returning to the stage for sustenance and inspiration. His poetry and art are more personal and offer an insight into his idealistic and cultured soul.
Analysing the most important roles of his career, and charting the single-minded dedication and passion that he brought to each one of them, the book reflects on Chatterjee’s stardom and longevity in an industry that saw great changes during his lifetime. Featuring 70 unique photographs, the book is a visual treat and illuminates the versatile facets of a towering artist – a Renaissance man – who along with Ray brought Bengal to the cinematic world.
What it also brings out is that Chatterjee’s poetry and paintings are a distillation of an idealistic sensitive soul. He is forever caught between a desire to escape through memory to an idealised past and a need to engage with the troubles of reality. His art is even more private and personal than his poetry. His paintings are oddly beautiful and could be quite eerie, too. They are nevertheless striking and speak of a vivid and bold personality.
Chatterjee refused to work in other languages. He consciously resisted the lure of Bollywood as he felt his performance gained a lot of credibility from his proficiency in the Bengali language and wondered if it would be the same in a language in which he was not fluent.
His loyalty to his Bengali identity determined many of his decisions in his career. It turned out to be a wise choice because with the help of Satyajit Ray and other acclaimed directors, he managed to stay close to his roots while turning out performances of universal relevance. He has worked in Bengali cinema but in his legacy he belongs to world cinema.
Also Read-Hearty Tribute To ‘Beloved’ Beepathu
Four of India’s leading designers– JJ Valaya, Ashish Soni, Manish Arora and Suneet Varma have partnered with Amazon Fashion to launch a line of affordable clothing called RIVER. The brand is now available to buy on the e-commerce site.
We caught up with the designers and Mayank Shivam, Director – Strategic Initiatives, Amazon Fashion India to find out more on the idea behind this collaboration and how it can be a game-changer in the industry.
Ashish, you have been part of the industry for more than 25 years. How is this different from your other associations?
Ashish: I have probably been part of every ready-to-wear experiment that has happened in the Indian fashion industry over the last 20 odd years. Till early 2000, there was nothing like ready to wear for us. Our industry was very small, majority of it was based around bridal clothing. It was only after 2000, when FDCI was born, that people started looking at easy, ready to wear kind of options.
There have been quite a few experiments, some successful, some not so much. If I had to look at them objectively and tell you what’s different here and what went wrong over the years, there are two key points I’d like to talk about. One being the backend. For instance, in all those experiments, all the products would be manufactured by the designers. We are not trained to manufacture products in bulk and at such price points, those are not our strengths. Our strength is design.
So, if you were to ask me to design a line of very interesting t-shirts, absolutely, it’s straight-up my alley. But if you were to tell me produce 100,000 pieces, no I cannot! These mistakes have happened in the past where it became the onus of the design team to manufacture it as well.
So, with RIVER, we’re working pretty much like the rest of the world does. We have manufacturing partners who take that load off of us. We work with a design team at DBS, and there is a range of manufacturers who are producing these goods for us. Therefore, ensuring great quality and being able to produce at those price points, that’s very key to all of this.
The other thing in the past was that there was no online player in those days and here we have the largest online player in the world as our partner in this. Beyond that, it was limited to 8 or 10 cities where we could have physically had brick and mortar stores. Amazon has changed shopping, today we are able to deliver across all pincodes in India. I couldn’t even imagine that someone would buy a shirt from me and have it delivered at their doorstep in 48 hours!
Redefining designer wear in an affordable format is tough for couturiers. How were you able to achieve this and also tell us about what the customers can expect from your collection?
Valaya: What do Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, Roberto Cavalli, Jimmy Choo, Versace, Victor & Rolf, Lanvin and Kenzo have in common? The fact that they are all super-luxury brands which at some point of time collaborated with Swedish fast-fashion brand, H&M! … and I am happy to say that RIVER is at the forefront of a similar revolution in India! RIVER is India’s first-ever initiative where top high fashion brands have a design collaboration with a mainstream platform that is Amazon Fashion, in this case, to bring forth an accessible line bearing the distinct ethos’ of the four designers.
In our case, we have taken the spirit of my design DNA, which is steeped in royalty and applied it to a clean, modern “royal sport” line of separates, unlike anything we have done before. I’ve always felt that if we were ever offered an opportunity to design an accessible line for a larger audience, even if it’s for a limited period of time, the euphoria of having a significantly larger audience experience it first-hand would be amazing … RIVER at Amazon Fashion not only takes care of that feeling, it also provides the ideal virtual platform for all to connect with us on.
What do collaborations like these mean for the future of the fashion industry in our country?
Varma: The way we have joined forces, it is definitely going to be a way forward for many collaborations… coming together of creative minds, great strength of design, production and availability along with bandwidth to reach out to a sizable audience.
Furthermore, in the light of the current pandemic, people are not going to step out to shop in crowded spaces, so they will be buying sitting in the comfort and safety of their homes and at that point, there is nothing better than shopping on Amazon Fashion because of its country-wide reach.
For designers like me who wish to reach out to a larger audience and want to develop a line that can be sold to clients in every part of the country and not have to risk losing sales, collaborations of this nature are the best. In the future, I expect many such collaborations with designers and online retail space which is going to be an incredible growth pattern for us.
Designer wear is said to be catering to only a certain section of society. Do you feel it’s going to change with this collection?
Ashish: It’s not just been a desire but a dream that we should be able to reach out to as many people and markets as possible. That’s why when we come with that tag that oh you don’t make affordable products, it’s only for a certain audience, and RIVER changes that. It completely breaks that barrier for us. The first thing aside from great design is that it breaks that barrier with fantastic value. Every consumer today is looking for great value, so no one is really splurging out there. They really want to spend but they want value out of the purchase. RIVER as a product is great design with great value. In terms of distribution, what Amazon brings to the table, I am hoping it’s a game-changer.
Mayank, what are your future plans for Amazon fashion in reference to this launch? Will you be looking at more collaborations for the collection?
Mayank: We will continue investing in the fashion segment in India. For RIVER, this is Season 1 with four very celebrated designers, this is the start of a journey where we make designer wear more and more accessible, affordable and reachable to customers. We will continue to grow and scale this. Right now we are focusing on season 1, and the partnerships we have with each of the designers is to make sure it’s a big success.
We will also be listening closely to our customer feedback; we always listen to them and would want to know what they think we can do differently, and we will do that. For us, this launch is hope to artisans, karigars, embroiderers and weavers as well. There is a long list of people who make such collections happen and we want them to get the benefits as well. If this business scales, each of them somewhere will earn the rewards and we will be very proud that we could do that. We value such partnerships and we will continue investing in them.