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Understanding the Roots of Dehumanization with David Livingstone Smith

By Aswin Prasanth and Augustine George

Philosophy teaches us to reason and to criticize, rather than to obey and conform, and as such has the power to fuel dissidence”: An Interview with David Livingstone Smith

David Livingstone Smith is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England. His work has been featured extensively in national and international media, appealing to both academics and non-academics alike. His research interests include self-deception, dehumanization, human nature, ideology, race and moral psychology. Being an interdisciplinary scholar, his publications are cited not only by other philosophers, but also by historians, legal scholars, psychologists, and anthropologists. He has been featured in several prime-time television documentaries and his interviews have appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and radio. In 2012, he was a guest at the G20 Economic Summit, where he spoke on dehumanization and mass violence.

His major works include Freud’s Philosophy of the Unconscious (1999), Approaching Psychoanalysis: An Introductory Course  (1999), Psychoanalysis in Focus (2002), Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind (2004), The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War (2007),  Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others (2011), On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It (2020), and Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization (2021). His book, Less Than Human won the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction.

1.         Which philosophical ideas or theoretical frameworks are used in Making Monsters to analyse dehumanization, and how do you make sense of the seemingly incompatible idea that the dehumanized entity is simultaneously a complete human and subhuman?

The two main philosophical ideas that I draw on are essentialism and hierarchy. The word “essentialism” has an exceedingly long history.  Over the centuries, it has acquired various meanings. When I talk about essentialism, I mean what psychologists call “psychological essentialism.”  This is the idea that all human beings tend to think that what makes any individual the kind of being that it is, is a deep unobservable property that is possessed by only individuals of that kind. Psychologists call this its “essence” and call our tendency to attribute essences to things “psychological essentialism.” 

This is not as complicated as it might sound. The idea is that what makes any individual a human being is their possession of a human essence, what makes any individual animal a goat is its possession of a goat essence, and so on. This way of thinking is a kind of cognitive bias that is not consistent with a scientific worldview, but it is nevertheless very pervasive. Essentialism explains how it is possible for us to think of others as not truly human. We imagine that although they appear human (on the “outside”) they do not have a human essence (on the “inside”) and therefore are not human at all.

The other component, hierarchical thinking is necessary for us to think of others as less or lower than human beings. It is the idea that there are “higher” and “lower” kinds of beings (this is sometimes called the Great Chain of Being).  Traditionally, God is placed at the top of the hierarchy as the most perfect of beings, humans a little lower down, and then various kinds of animals, plants, with inanimate matter at the bottom. 

Putting these two ideas together, we can derive an analysis of dehumanization. When people dehumanize others, then, they think of them as having the essence of an animal lower than the human on the hierarchy. 

However, this way of conceiving of others meets a psychological obstacle. When we encounter other members of our species, we just can’t help recognizing them as fellow human beings. The automatic recognition of the humanness of others is an unavoidable aspect of our nature as social primates. So, when people in positions of power and authority use their influence to get us to think of some group of people as subhuman, and we accept this, we end up believing that they are human and subhuman at the same time. This transforms them into monsters in the eyes of their dehumanizers, which unleashes immense cruelty and violence against them. We can observe this process unfolding again and again in genocides and mass atrocities.

2.         In light of current social trends like the rise of white nationalism and the dissemination of racist rhetoric, how do you negotiate the intricate relationship between racism and dehumanization in On Inhumanity? Furthermore, how would you suggest confronting and thwarting the ubiquitous threats of dehumanization to both people and society at large?

It’s helpful to begin by considering what race is supposed to be. The first point to be made is that the race is a folk theory of human diversity and is incompatible with what our best science tells us about the facts of human variation. As I see it, the idea of race is the idea that there are a small number of fundamentally distinct kinds of people, and everyone on earth is either a pure specimen of one of these kinds or a mixture of two or more of them. Second, membership in a race is supposed to be transmitted biologically from parents to offspring, through the inheritance of a racial essence. This racial essence may or may not be expressed in a person’s appearance—that is, they might appear to be a member of one race, while “really” belonging to another. Finally (and this is especially important) the notion of race involves hierarchy, the idea that some races are “higher” than others. It is obvious, then, that racism is not something that is extraneous to race. It is built into the ideology of race itself. 

The structure of racial thinking strikingly echos the structure of dehumanization. Both involve essentialism and hierarchy at their core. This is why racialization is very often a precursor to dehumanization. When a group of people is racialized, they are seen as lesser humans—that is, lower on the scale of humanity than the racializing group. When they are dehumanized, they are seen as less than human—demoted from the category of the human altogether. 

3.         What does Less Than Human add to our knowledge of pervasive dehumanization in history? Furthermore, how can you examine the numerous manifestations and fundamental causes of dehumanization using multidisciplinary techniques from fields like evolutionary psychology, biology, anthropology, and philosophy?

I wrote Less Than Human because there was at the time no comprehensive, book-length study of dehumanization in the English language or, as far as I can determine, any other language. I had three major aims in the book: to develop a conception of dehumanization (that is, develop a view about what dehumanization is), to develop a theory of dehumanization (that is, develop a view about how dehumanization works), and to trace out the history of the concept of dehumanization, from ancient times to the present.  To do this effectively, I had to take an interdisciplinary approach, because dehumanization is incomprehensible unless we take psychological, political, cultural, and biological factors into account. At the time (and this is still true today) almost all of the research into dehumanization was being done by social psychologists, and I saw very quickly that this exclusively psychological approach was far too limited. Less Than Human was my first attempt to give an analysis of dehumanization, and although there is much in it that remains of value, my later books On Inhumanity and Making Monsters revise and extend the analysis that I presented there.

4.         In Why We Lie, how do you examine the psychological processes and evolutionary roots of deceit and self-deception? What are the consequences of this approach for comprehending interpersonal interactions and the making of the human mind? Furthermore, what role do you think analysis of narratives, lies, and unintentional signals play in our comprehension of our own identities and thought processes?

Why We Lie has two basic components. One is an argument that deception and self-deception are central to human social life. Human existence as we understand it would be impossible without a large measure of dishonesty and manipulation, most of which remains unconscious. If we did not routinely deceive ourselves and each other, human society would fall apart. It follows that it is shortsighted to condemn dishonesty as intrinsically wrong and self-deception as a mental defect. Instead, we should distinguish between constructive and destructive forms of deceit.

I still stand by this view. 

The other component consists of evolutionary psychological claims about the origin and nature of deceit. I am much more sceptical of this now than I was in 2004, when the book was published. This is because I have become very sceptical of evolutionary psychology more generally. To avoid misunderstanding, it is important to be clear about what I mean by this. I do not deny that the human brain, and therefore the human mind, are products of evolution, and I do not deny that deception is extremely common among other organisms in the natural world. However, most of the claims made by evolutionary psychologists, including claims that I made in Why We Lie are poorly founded, and should be treated cautiously. When I wrote Why We Lie, my spouse, the philosopher Subrena Smith, who is a noted critic of evolutionary psychology, helped me to recognize its serious shortcomings.

5.         In The Most Dangerous Animal, how do you synthesize evolutionary, historical, anthropological, and psychological viewpoints to explain the dual nature of the human mind as reflected in our ability to be both fiercely violent and deeply repulsed by killing? Moreover, how can your investigation of human nature and its biological evolutionary foundations advance our knowledge of the pervasiveness of violence and horror throughout human history?

The Most Dangerous Animal is a transitional work. When I wrote it, I was still in love with evolutionary psychology, but I was also beginning to become interested in dehumanization. In fact, in the penultimate chapter, I tried to give an evolutionary psychological analysis of dehumanization in warfare. It was very crude, and from my present perspective, misleading. However, it did plant the seed in my mind that dehumanization plays a significant role facilitating mass violence and deserves to be thoroughly investigated. 

When I began writing The Most Dangerous Animal, I thought that it would be a book all about the innately violent propensities of our species, and I was quite surprised to realize not only that human beings have powerful inhibitions against killing one another, but also that the act of killing often traumatizes the killer. Because I was still in the thrall of evolutionary psychology, I offered a simplistic account of the tension between the inclination to violence and the abhorrence of violence, but it is a topic that I have carried forward and addressed in a more sophisticated way in my later work on dehumanization.

6.         How would you evaluate Sigmund Freud’s treatment of basic philosophical issues, including the nature of consciousness, the mind-body paradox, and the connection between language and cognition in Freud’s Philosophy of the Unconscious? In addition, how would you rank the criticisms and interpretations of Freud’s work made by philosophers like Wittgenstein, Davidson, and Searle, and how would you rank the merits and demerits of each of these analyses?

I am an unabashed Freud fan. I believe that although he got many things wrong, there is still much to learn from his brilliant work. Before transitioning to philosophy, I was a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and a trainer of psychotherapists. My first four books were about psychoanalysis, and my earliest philosophical writings were on this subject too. Freud’s Philosophy of the Unconscious began as my PhD dissertation at the University of London. The eminent philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum urged me to publish it and arranged for its publication. 

Many people disparage Freud these days, and often have a mistaken view of his work, but I consider him to be a great philosopher and theorist of the mind who was far ahead of his time in all sorts of ways. His views of the relation between mind and brain, consciousness, and the relation between language and thought were radical when he first proposed them, but today are in tune with mainstream views in the sciences of the mind. Regarding the second part of your question, I do not rate the criticisms and putative defences of Freud offered by Wittgenstein, Davidson, and Searle all that highly. Adolf Grünbaum’s critiques are far more trenchant and far better informed.

7.         How do you resolve the conflict between psychoanalysis’s philosophical and ethical aspects and its status as a scientific discipline? What are the main objections to psychoanalysis as they are discussed in Psychoanalysis in Focus?

I do not see psychoanalysis as an intrinsically ethical project, although of course one can use it to inform one’s ethical views. Freud characterized psychoanalysis as a method for investigating mental life, a theory of the structure and workings of the mind, and a method of psychotherapy. None of these are intrinsically ethical, although they can certainly inform one’s ethical views. 

The philosopher Patricia Kitcher has argued that Freud wanted psychoanalysis to be a complete interdisciplinary science of the mind, and I think that there is much to be gained by remaining true to his vision of the discipline, while correcting his errors and incorporating what we have learned since Freud’s death in 1939. 

Freud was a fine philosophical thinker, but it is a mistake to think that there is an inherent antagonism between science and philosophy. Freud’s work is certainly relevant to several philosophical enterprises, including epistemology, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of mind, and even metaphysics. That said, psychoanalysis has significant scientific flaws. Its subject matter, the cognitive processing of emotionally charged information, is by its very nature difficult to investigate, and psychoanalysts have reacted to criticism by showing a haughty disdain for justified claims that they do not have adequate methods for evaluating clinical and theoretical hypotheses. But saying that psychoanalysis is un- or anti-scientific is incorrect. This charge is based on a very restrictive and impoverished notion of what science is. It is most accurate to say that psychoanalysis is a nascent or underdeveloped science. 

Several of Freud’s proposals have been taken into mainstream psychological science, without attribution. Freud anticipated the learning algorithm now called “the backpropagation of error” used in artificial neural networks, and he developed the notion of Hebbian learning decades before Hebb proposed it in 1941. Psychologists like to distinguish their view of the unconscious from Freud’s by insisting that their conception is of a cognitive unconscious, but in fact it was Freud who earlier claimed that the unconscious mind is essentially cognitive and went even further to claim that all cognitive activity is unconscious. Freud has not been given his scientific or philosophical due. 

8.         Could you elaborate on the rationale of choosing the ‘seven stars’ of psychoanalytic thought leaving out Lacan, for your Approaching Psychoanalysis. Would you include Lacan if a new edition of Approaching Psychoanalysis were in the works?

That is easily done. I find Lacan unintelligible, and I would not include him in a new edition.

9.         In your work Hidden Conversations you discuss the general lack of interest among psychoanalysts for Robert Langs’s communicative approach to psychoanalysis. Could you elaborate on some of the reasons for this and do you think that this general apathy towards Langs’s approach has changed in the present?

Langs’ approach is far too challenging for most therapists to handle. It demands a degree of self-criticism that most therapists are unprepared to embrace. At its core is the idea that people undergoing psychotherapy are exquisitely attuned to the implications of their therapists’ behaviour, and unconsciously convey this in encoded ways through the stories that they tell. What mostly happens is that they unconsciously regard their therapists as crazy, seductive, destructive, and so on, and convey these things in disguised ways through seemingly unrelated narratives. To give a simple example, after the therapist offers an interpretation, their patient might suddenly recall that her father used to gaslight her mother. In traditional forms of psychoanalysis, this might be seen as expressing an unconscious fantasy and interpreted as such, but in the Langsian approach it would be interpreted as a potentially veridical reading of the therapist’s intervention and interpreted along the lines of “After I spoke, you suddenly remembered how your father used to undermine your mother’s thoughts and perceptions. Maybe what I said a moment ago seemed just like that, that I was manipulating you by undermining your sense of reality by what I said.” No matter what the person next says consciously, the therapist waits to hear the patient’s unconscious feedback. 

Unlike other forms of psychoanalysis, Langs’ approach is highly disciplined, there are clear criteria for when and how to intervene. Best of all, there are clear criteria for evaluating interventions and falsifying hypotheses, as well as predicting the thematic content of patients’ narratives. Working in this way is demanding, and therapists usually react strongly against it, sometimes even with hostility. If anything, the situation is worse now than when Robert Langs was alive. Sadly, there are very few people who practice psychoanalysis in this way today. Despite the self-serving hype, psychotherapists often have difficulty reflecting on their own behaviour in the consulting room and accepting that their patients are often more insightful about them than they are about themselves. 

10.       As a philosopher, what are your views on how philosophy can help to resist the spread of conflicts and the global resurgence of fascist tendencies? How can philosophical understanding help to advance peace and oppose authoritarianism?

I see philosophy as the practice of thinking things through, courageously, precisely, and imaginatively. It is anathema to authoritarian regimes because these abilities are crucial for fostering resistance, pushing back against domination. Philosophy teaches us to reason and to criticize, rather than to obey and conform, and as such has the power to fuel dissidence. I wish that everyone could receive basic philosophical education at some point in their education, but sadly, the world—or at least the United States—is moving in the opposite direction. Philosophy is seen by university administrators as irrelevant and dispensable. Consequently, philosophy departments in many universities are under-resourced and shrinking, and it is increasingly difficult for philosophers to find employment. But for the sake of our collective well-being, we need to keep the subversive flame of philosophy burning.

ALSO READ-INTERVIEW: Constantin Iordachi

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‘Threats to judicial autonomy escalate’

Judicial independence compromised in various parts of the world, observes former English law society President David Greene…excerpts from the interview of DAVID GREENE made by ABHISH K. BOSE 

Senior lawyer David Greene specalises in commercial litigation including competition claims and claims on behalf of shareholders, and is Head of the Class Action and Finance Litigation department. He was articled with Edwin Coe and qualified in 1980, becoming a Partner in 1984 and Senior Partner in April 2011. David served as the 176th president of the English law society, the independent professional body of solicitors in England and Wales.  In this role, he represents the organisation at home and abroad, and is Chair of their Council. David won the Law Society’s presidential election for 2018 and was appointed as Deputy Vice President in July 2018, becoming Vice President in 2019 and President in 2020-1. He has developed a strong following in contentious competition work being involved in cases in front of the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT), High Court and Competition Commission. He has for many years advised sovereign states on disputes in international tribunals and particularly specialises in work involving governments in sub-Saharan Africa.

David was appointed by the Lord Chancellor to the Civil Procedure Rules Committee in 1997. He was then appointed in 2002 as a member of the Civil Justice Council. He is the author of ‘Civil Procedure Rules‘, an associate editor of ‘Civil Practice Manual‘, on the editorial board of Butterworths’ ‘The Civil Court Practice‘ (‘the Green Book‘), a contributor to the Law Society’s ‘Civil Litigation Manual‘, and the author of two titles for Atkins Court Forms.David has worked on numerous high profile cases. In an interview with Asian Lite’s  Abhish K. Bose David Greene, one of the top lawyers in UK expresses his views on the necessity to maintain judicial independence and the allegations being levelled against him that he has misled a judge in connection with a case.   

Excerpts from the interview   

Abhish K. Bose :   Could you explain how you were drawn into the legal profession? How did you begin your practice as a lawyer, and what were the experiences that shaped you as a person handling major cases?  

David Greene : I decided I wanted to be a lawyer in my early teens although I was also attracted to politics from the age of 16 and became an active politician until my 30s. The law career then took over but in the work I did in litigating human rights and the rule of law and in advising governments on civil justice I did my politics through my practice. Major cases are much like any other. As a claimant lawyer never make assumptions about any party’s conduct or rationale or the court’s view of it, always seek to prove your case, concentrate on the issues and concede where necessary, do right by your client and fight their corner.

Abhish K. Bose : What should be the primary legal parameter a judge should keep in mind while pronouncing the verdicts? Is it the execution of the legal dictum in letter and spirit, or a balanced view which considers all aspects concerning the case?

David Greene  : The common law that we share is a living animal growing and changing with changes in social norms and society which I have seen over my many years in practice but it is important that the law has certainty and that is an important aim of any judge to follow precedent or rationalise change and development. We would not have lawyers if there were not at least two views of the combination of facts and law.  Judges are human and whether it be conscious or unconscious bias they will bring their own life experiences to the court but the judge’s job as the neutral between two adversaries is to apply the law properly to the facts of a case.

Abhish K. Bose  : It is often alleged that those belonging to ‘other’ nationalities and racial backgrounds encounter discrimination in the English courts. How serious is this discrimination? You were the president of the English Law Society. As the president of the Law Society, what proactive measures have you taken to bridge this discrimination at the work place? 

David Greene  : Members of minority groups face discrimination often on a daily basis. I have very rarely seen racial bias in the courts.

I believe it was prevalent when I first started practice but these days with a Government introducing controversial legislation on, for instance, immigration that challenges the rule of law, the courts step out to ensure access to justice and fairness and protect the rule of law.      

Abhish K. Bose  : It is learnt that you were on the move to open law offices in India of the English law firms after the Bar Council of India decided to open up the Indian legal market for foreign firms. Could you explain the transition that this could have brought about in the Indian legal system?

David Greene : India has a huge legal talent resource and as India becomes a major player in global trade it is important to use that talent in promoting that trade and the law that supports it. As India opens up globally so it needs to open up international practice of law.

In those jurisdictions that have opened to global firms there have only been benefits; it greatly enhances the local market’s ability to deal with global legal issues;it enhances local talent; it retains legal work within the jurisdiction; it increases employment in law. There are challenges but India with its great talent has the ability to meet them.    

Abhish K. Bose  : In the course of opening law firms in India, how far will you give chances (opportunities?) to the Indian lawyers and law students?

David Greene  : Absolutely essential. The opening up of London to foreign based law firms and the subsequent growth in law firms from across the Globe opening in London gave rise to a huge growth in employment of local lawyers and staff. In London many ‘foreign’ firms have a majority of partners who are qualified only in England. One of the purposes of establishing in any jurisdiction is to enjoin the local bar and work with it. Failure to do so will see the project fail. 

Abhish K. Bose  : At a juncture of political tensions and allegations that the judiciary is compromising its independence (autonomy?) in India, could you propose some measures that would reinvigorate its relevance? 

David Greene  : Unfortunately judicial independence, which is an essential pillar of democracy, is challenged in many jurisdictions across the world.  India is not alone in that.  It is a matter of politics that governments seek to achieve their aims and when those conflict with the law and the judiciary and the rule of law stand in the way of what governments regard as legitimate there is conflict. This often turns around arguments over embedded constitutional and human rights.  Governments seek to control the judiciary either by selection or direct influence; bribery or public threat.  It is vital that the judiciary also protect their independence and apply the law and rule of law without fear or favour.

Abhish K. Bose  :  In the UK, the Constitutional reforms Act, 2005, has created the Judicial Appointment Commission for the appointment of the judges. In India, the High Court and Supreme Court judges are appointed by the President under the Collegium system. Allegations of executive infringing on the judicial appointments in India have often sprung up. How do you compare the efficacy of the UK and Indian systems of the selection of judges in higher judiciary?

David Greene  : I don’t know enough of the Indian appointment process to comment on that. The Constitutional Reforms Act 2005 sought to reinforce the independence of the judiciary. This was effected in two ways; the Lord Chief Justice became the head of the judiciary and the constitutional safeguard of its independence replacing the Lord Chancellor who as a politician sitting in Cabinet was seen as reflecting political control of the judiciary and in the establishment of the Judicial Appointments Commission, reinforcing the independence of the appointments process. Overall this has delivered although recently there has been concern that the Lord Chancellor, who is also the Minister of Justice, has put the rule of law second to political expediency and promoted or supported legislation that contradicts the rule of law. For the JAC there has been concern that the selection process remains opaque and that appointments, particularly to the higher judiciary, lack diversity.

Abhish K. Bose  : What are your views on the Indian government banning the BBC documentary on theGujarat genocide?

David Greene  : Whatever be the subject it is, as a matter of principle, a sign of danger in a democracy when a programme is banned because it holds politicians to account. Freedom of speech and criticism is all important to the rule of law and to democracy.

Abhish K. Bose  : You were accused of deliberately misleading a judge in a case with a businessman, however, a tribunal later absolved you from the charges. Could your share you experiences and your thought processes over the course of the whole incident? 

David Greene  :  For a lawyer there is no greater accusation that that you have lied to the court in breach of our primary obligations. Of course it is gratifying to be absolved by one’s peers but even so it is an allegation that hurts.  The events are over a decade old but when the allegations resurfaced I was President of the Law Society and felt it only right to step aside to ensure that the role and institution was unaffected. Unfortunately some, even lawyers, rushed to judgment forgetting the fundament of innocent until proven guilty.  It was of course a time of intense stress and pressure but one must have and maintain resolve. 

ALSO READ-INTERVIEW: Constantin Iordachi


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Sunita Pant never held on to any feeling of ‘having achieved’

My story has Justice Vikram judging unusual criminal cases, giving verdicts, which at times seem absolutely bizarre. All the cases are real crimes sourced from the legal archives and somehow reflect Vikram’s own life…speaks Author Sunita Pant Bhansal.

Hailing from the Kumaon Himalayas, Sunita Pant Bansal is a mythologist and a storyteller. She has been writing for four decades and has written numerous articles, stories, poems, created board games and produced short films. In her long and illustrious career, Sunita has also headed publishing houses, founded-edited

newspapers and magazines for readers in India as well as in the US and UK. She has also worked with giants like Walt Disney, Warner Bros., Pearson Education, The Times of India, Hindustan Times and ABP Group of newspapers and magazines. Sunita’s forte is to decode Hindu scriptures to show their relevance and application in today’s times. She has authored 25 books for adults and young adults decoding the philosophy of mythology and a thousand books for children on folk literature and scriptures, which are sold in multiple languages globally. She explores and reinterprets the timelessness of characters from the epics and foundational texts in her stories, seamlessly blending mythology and history with real life.

Amongst Sunita’s recent bestsellers are Krishna The Management Guru and Everyday Gita, both published by Rupa Publications. Her latest novel The Return of Vikram and Betaal released in the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2023. Here’s the excerpt of the Interview with Sunita Pant Bhansal taken by Khushboo Agrahari for Asianlite :

As a published author, which has been your most cherished achievement so far?

My articles and columns started getting published in 1980, so naturally seeing my by-line in print for the first time was an unforgettable moment. Since I was quite a prolific writer, seeing my by-line in magazines, tabloids and newspapers became a routine for me very soon. But when I discovered clippings of my articles in my father’s office papers after he passed away in 1996… that feeling was indescribable! Daddy was a man of few words and I knew he was proud of me, but seeing the effort he must have put in collecting my work painstakingly for so many years, quietly, in his office, just blew my mind. That certainly qualifies as the most cherished moment of my life.

As far as achievements go, every time I got published in a new genre, it was an achievement for me, but since I believe in moving on, I never held on to any feeling of ‘having achieved’ for long… and moved on to my next target, or challenge. But yes, there is one particular incident that’s still etched in my mind…

I had started writing books for children in 1989 and there was one particular book that was my favourite: Treasury of Indian Folklore. During my travels I discovered that a bookstore in Oxford, UK, was selling books from across the globe except India. It bothered me so much that I went to the manager and questioned him about it. His answer was that books from India are written in Indian English, hence they didn’t sell. Next day I gave him a copy of my book and asked him to show the Indian English he was talking about. The challenge was that if he could find nothing wrong with the language, they would place an order for the book for their bookstore. He couldn’t find any Indian English and placed the order, and that book became the first Indian book to be sold by that store – indeed my most cherished achievement so far!

Tell us about your latest book: The Return of Vikram and Betaal. What can the readers expect from this book?

Anyone who is familiar with the legend of Vikram and Betaal knows that Vikram or King Vikramaditya was renowned for his justice and Betaal narrated stories to him that ended in a riddle with an unusual answer that only Vikram could justify, and that answer saved his life. In my book, Vikram and Betaal follow the same basic path, hence their ‘return’. Vikram judges the cases brought to him by Betaal, with the correct verdict saving his own life. But beyond this premise, everything else is different.

My story has Justice Vikram judging unusual criminal cases, giving verdicts, which at times seem absolutely bizarre. All the cases are real crimes sourced from the legal archives and somehow reflect Vikram’s own life. So, while he is judging the cases, Vikram realises his own personal issues, the knots that he’s carrying within his heart, and manages to resolve them as he resolves the case. This journey of ten cases makes Vikram travel inwards and realise the impermanence of everything in life as well as the value of detachment. The reader journeys through two narratives in my book, the first being Vikram’s outer journey of judging cases and resolving his own personal issues, and the second being Vikram’s inner journey towards enlightenment.

The Betaal of my book is also different in the sense that he’s friendly and functions as the devil’s advocate, provoking Vikram to think out of the box. He also keeps changing his physical form following the principle of the indestructible ageless soul using the physical body as a temporary changeable residence.

As an author and a student, what would be your one tip to inculcate reading habits in children?

I have always believed that children are influenced by their environment and we should set an example for them to emulate. When they see their elders, teachers, parents, siblings read, it becomes a part of their normal life, like eating. So it is up to us to become our children’s role models. Reading bedtime stories to pre-schoolers introduces the concept of storybooks at the foundational stage of a child. In schools, there should reading periods or library periods in the timetable, where books are read and discussed. Books should also be given as prizes for academic excellence. The home assignments given in school should involve research from reference books. Reading is a habit and cannot be forced, it has to be introduced and nurtured carefully.

If you had a time machine, which place and time would you want to visit and why?

Time machine! Wow! There are too many places I’d like to visit… all the old civilisations for instance… Every time I visit an old city in ruins or a monument, I get a strong desire to know the stories hidden in them. When I underwent past life regression, I discovered myself to be living in practically every part of the world… maybe the desire to revisit them lies dormant in me.

Any new projects that you are currently working on?

I am not working on any one specific project at the moment, I never do. I always work on multiple ideas together. So, on one hand I’m working on an essay for an anthology, I’m working on converting my Vikram-Betaal story into a film script too. Then I’m also working on converting Hanuman Chalisa into my Everyday Gita like book, while working on a Gen-z novel with mythological and spiritual undertones. Ramayana and Panchatantra are two more epics I need to contemporise. Honestly, I could go on…

Do you think children these days read enough? What are your thoughts on writing as a profession for children?

Children reflect the society they are living in. When we as adults have stopped reading even the basic newspapers, how can we blame the children! I see parents giving mobile phones and tablets to their children to keep them busy and stay away from mischief, and the same parents complain later on that their children are hooked on to their gadgets. When the teachers suggest the students to refer to Google and Wikipedia, how can they complain that the children don’t read books anymore? As I mentioned earlier, we have to set the right example. Writing as a profession is not as lucrative as many others, but that doesn’t make it any less of a profession. The world needs journalists, copywriters in advertising agencies, script writers for films, authors of educational books and storybooks… in fact writing as in content creation has become a huge industry in itself.  

You have worked with giants like Walt Disney, Warner Bros., Pearson Education, The Times of India, Hindustan Times and ABP Group of newspapers and magazines in their editorial team. Which role do you enjoy better? An editor or a writer.

With all these big names I was primarily associated as a writer. For instance, I created textbooks for Pearson Education, where I was involved in editing and designing, but then I retold a series of western classics for them under their prestigious imprint Longman Classics and was the first Indian writer to do so. The TOI group hired me as the editor of their weekend broadsheet Saturday Times, based on my capabilities as a features writer and columnist. Writing has always been my first love, my passion, my lifeblood. Editing has always been secondary. I love to create… editing just serves to clean up and beautify a creation, any creation.

In today’s world, most people prefer to read e-books and are well-consumed with digital technologies. How can we persuade people to read more physical books rather than digital ones?

Both the formats of books have their own place in the system. E-books are convenient for people on the move, now audiobooks are also gaining popularity. This easy availability is actually good in the sense that it increases awareness about the existence of books. This influx of technology has not affected the diehard book lovers… they continue to buy physical copies. So, personally, I don’t see any reason to persuade people to read more physical books rather than their digital versions. I would persuade them to read more variety, different genres of books instead.

9.    What’s your opinion on modern writers who present distorted India’s legendary Hindu mythology tales often through the propaganda feminist lens?

This is a tough question as I have also written a historical fiction about Yashodhara, Buddha’s wife. I think that readers should understand that mythological fiction or historical fiction is fiction at the end of the day, so needs to be taken in that spirit. Fiction cannot not be equated with distortion. As for the ‘feminist lens’, it is perhaps just bringing to light the hitherto lost stories of powerful Indian women. There’s nothing wrong with that!


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Vipparthi Adimurthy is a former Satish Dhawan Professor and Dean of Research at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST). He is known for his contributions to the rocket technology and space dynamics. He is a recipient of Padma Shri from the Government of India. Murthy is the Mission Concept Designer, for India’s Mars Orbiter Mission. On the occasion of his Golden Jubilee association with ISRO, Khushboo Agrahari interviewed on his 50 years of successful journey.

Here’s the excerpt of the Interview taken:

You are known for your contributions to the rocket technology and space dynamics. You have been part of all major projects of the ISRO over the decades, including the Chandrayaan I. Tell us about your journey as a successful space scientist?

In March 1973, after finishing my Ph D from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, I joined ISRO Space Science and Technology Centre (now called, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre) in Trivandrum. I have a mutually fulfilling technical pursuit of five decades with ISRO. Even post-retirement, I continue my tasks as an ISRO Honorary Distinguished Professor.

I made very satisfying contributions in aerodynamics, flight dynamics, trajectory optimization, space-debris mitigation and interplanetary mission design, with significant impact on all our Indian space launches, starting from the very first satellite launch of SLV-3 led by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, to Chadrayaan-1, Mangalyaan, and beyond. The space travel continues, as there is more to achieve in bringing the benefits of space to the development of mankind. A Vision for Indian Solar System Exploration till 2060s was formulated in 2017 by a Team led by me.

Tell us about your childhood.  Was there anything at a very early age that nudged or pointed you toward an interest in science?

I was born on 5th May 1946 in Rajahmundry, an ancient town on the banks of Godavari. My parents, Suryanarayana Rao and Venkata Seetha Rajyam, had five children with me in the middle, after two elder brothers and followed by two younger sisters. I studied in schools in Gudivada, Guntur, Vijayawada and Rajahmundry because of father’s transferable job. During primary classes I got double promotions, and I finished 12th standard from Government Multipurpose School in Rajahmundry, when I was about to reach 15 years of age. The school had to get a special approval for me to sit in the board-examinations because of my under-age. Interestingly, I got State Rank No.2.

Teachers, throughout my life gave me great encouragement and inspiration; and even today I gratefully remember each one for their profound contributions to my knowledge base, and thinking process.

Noble thoughts come from many sides. At home I was encouraged by my parents to read many books; like Ramayana and Mahabharata and Telugu Translations of novels by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay. As a boy, I wrote a detective novel in which some culprits escaped to Moon in a rocket; the detective followed them in another rocket, and nabbed them on the moon

You often broadly speak on science and technology developments in Modern India with a particular focus on the space endeavors. What got you into Space Sciences?

The infinite glory and beauty of the cosmic panorama is a source of perennial happiness, curiosity and inspiration to us humans over the ages of our evolution on the planet Earth. Right from childhood we look at the moon and the stars and get fascinated by their presence. Every language has a lot of lullabies centered on moon. As already mentioned above, some of the books I read as a boy (for example the book by Joules Verne) gave me the initial inspirations on space and beyond. During my late teens, when I was pursuing my MSc course at Andhra University, the Comet Ikeya-Seki appeared in the sky. It was supposed to be one of the brightest comets seen in the last thousand years. Watching it was an inspiration that additionally enhanced my interest in space science and technology. The initial discoveries, which are the result of the new technological endeavors from the mid-twentieth century, point to the vast potential that exists for boundless knowledge and immense resource around our own solar system and beyond. Humanity has to continuously pursue this.

What you enjoyed the most and the least throughout your career as a Space Scientist?

Essentially, there is nothing like the most and least enjoyable aspects of my work. All scientific activities are equal stepping stones to move forward. During the five decades of association with the Indian Space Research Organization, I made contributions in aerodynamics, flight dynamics, trajectory optimization, space-debris mitigation and interplanetary mission design; and published more than 150 research papers in these fields.

As already indicated above, I contributed as a key member of India’s path-breaking Chandrayaan-1 mission. I successfully defended, in International Academy of Astronautics competitive process for Laurels for Team Achievement Award to Chandrayaan-1; and on behalf of ISRO team received the award in 2013 at Beijing. I also made significant contributions to Mangalyaan Mission, as Senior Advisor (Interplanetary Missions). Like this the activity list continues. All are of equal importance to me; and are equally and continuously enjoyable.

All these successes have not come without a learning process from our early faltering steps. Tell us about one of your best failures, that became a stepping stone for future successes from your career?

The launch vehicle technology is initially mastered in the learning and experimental phases involving SLV-3 and ASLV launch vehicles. All these successes have not come without a learning process from our early faltering steps. I can say that one of our best failures that was a stepping stone for future successes was our ASLV-D2 failure in July 1988. Up to 50 seconds after liftoff, the launch vehicle was moving upwards exactly as expected. But then in a matter of less than one second, the upper portion of the launch vehicle appeared to take a bend like the shape of an umbrella handle and broke up into pieces. There are a number of complex processes that influence the path of a satellite launch vehicle as it lifts off from the launch pad and in a few minutes time injects the satellites into orbit.All successful satellite launches are alike; but each failure of a launch is due to some specific and unique reason. The key to success is then to remove all possible sources of failure. This is the essence of Anna Karenina Principle. This is the essence of success in space endeavors.

Who inspires you? If you could have a dream job, what would that be?

I am ably supported by leaders in space technology who have inspired me with profound scientific interactions; and also, by colleagues and co-researchers with whom I worked over decades in the joint pursuit of making space endeavors contribute to universal progress of life and environment.

I have mentioned earlier about Tagore-Einstein Meetings. When Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein met in 1930 at Einstein’s residence in Caputh near Berlin, Dimitri Marianoff, a colleague of Einstein, manually recorded their conversations. After their discussions, Marianoff described Tagore as: “the poet with the head of a thinker” and Einstein as:  “the thinker with the head of a poet”.I am already in the job I dreamt about, no need to change.

What advice would you offer someone who wants a career like yours?

“Go ahead and do your best.  Take up what interests you most, and handle it with utmost seriousness that is commensurate with your background. Doing your own best is doable, it is within your reach, and it is always a pleasure to reach it. But it requires will, concentration and planning.”

What accomplishment are you prouder of that’s not Space Science related?

I am a book-lover, lover of Nature, art lover, and generally admirer of anything that is extraordinary as well as ordinary in human endeavor. I try to perceive the complexity of everything that surrounds us, in the realms of the macrocosm and the microcosm. The unity of this complexity everywhere fascinates me. Many times, I feel that globally everything is the same; and at the same time all things are different in detail. This is a perplexing duality; but it may be indeed true. There are no specific accomplishments from me to high light and be proud of; but it is only the existence of a continuous thought process to acknowledge.

What’s your favorite space image?

There are many favorite images.  I shall highlight here two of them.  I very much like the concept of the Pale Blue Dot image of our Earth. This image was taken at the suggestion of Carl Sagan, by Voyager 1 on 14th February 1990. Voyager 1 was about 6.4 billion kilometers away when it captured this portrait of our Earth. I am also fascinated by the full-disk images of Mars and the images of Deimos (one of the two natural satellites of Mars) taken by our Mars Orbiter Mission MOM. This represents an important initiation of our planetary mission exploration.

What is your idea of Self- Perfection for people who follow their own hearts and make their own rules and sacrifices, to achieve higher and higher goals?

When you have a noble and lofty aim in your mind, you will not spare any trouble, hurdle or difficulty to reach towards your goal. Your body, mind and spirit will help you to make the rules and regulations that you have to make to achieve the stipulated end with a single-minded focus. This state of mind is the root of self-perfection. Many times, to achieve such goals, the ways and rules of life that are normally followed may not be sufficient. That is why our own rules and special sacrifices may have to be made. This is the path way to achieve excellence in all domains of life, be it science, social service, sports or any field you can conceive.

In the realm of Space Science and Technology, you often quote lines from the Poem “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Who is your favorite Poet? Tell us something about your interest in Poetry and Literature. Do you also like Telugu literature?

Great poems are available in every language and every culture. I read many inspiring poems in my school curriculum and beyond. “A Psalm of Life” is one of them.

In space endeavors, like in any other field, one has to learn from the knowledge discovered by great scholars of the past, and go forward following their footsteps and enhance the knowledge base further by our own little steps, based on the inspiration we derive from the previous efforts. This is succinctly focused in one of the stanzas of the psalm of life:

“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;”

Poetry and literature in general have the innate capacity to inspire. They also touch upon the many diverse aspects of life’s journey. As I already mentioned, every language had a great repository of literature. So, it is but natural that I am also in touch with literature in Telugu, which is my mother tongue. Almost continuously every day, some part or other, from this memory of literary influence, comes to the mind, to augment the current stream of thought process. I may also add that at home we have a personal library of a thousand and odd books of various genre, mostly in Telugu and English.

As the famous line goes “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” What are your views on connection between Space Science and Spirituality?

This quotation is from the very famous book for children “The Little Prince” written originally in French (“Le Petit Prince”) by Antoine de Saint Exupery. More than a children’s book, it is a great philosophical novel, with a specific emotional influence on space travel. This is one of the most powerful and most translated books in the world; and is about the Little Prince who lived on the asteroid B612.  A recent translation of this book in the year 2012 was into Sanskrit by Prof. Gopabandhu Mishra of Banaras Hindu University, which he did when he was a Visiting Professor of Sanskrit in Paris.

Any serious pursuit, be it in space science, or social science, or literary creativity, or in any other noble activity we have taken up, requires concentration of body, mind and soul with the target we have set. We have to set aside all other diversions, and fully concentrate on the aim we are pursuing. In this respect, it is no different from spirituality.

Do you believe that some of the planets in our solar-system holds the secrets of our past and the possibilities of our future to see? Also tell us if there is a place in the solar system where humans can colonize outside the Earth, what place would that be?

For the past generations covering several millennia, we and our forefathers lived on Earth, and hence it is but natural that we psychologically look at space from the point of view life and environment on our planet Earth. Looking from a vast cosmological perspective, and from the great observations that modern science and technology has allowed us to make in the recent decades, it appears obvious to me our planet is but one of the several millions of systems that exist. Their coexistence is a complex cosmological process with several dimensions and possibilities of commonality and variability. Life must exist elsewhere.  It is statistically improbable that life, in various forms of primitive and advanced evolutionary levels does not exist elsewhere in the cosmos. Observations and material analysis of other planetary bodies will certainly give us more insights of these processes in the coming decades and centuries. Human colonies outside the Earth are also most likely to happen, out of curiosity in the initial phases, and in due course out of necessity as our Earth resources dwindle. Present studies in the world indicate that initial experiments in this direction may take place on Mars, and/or floating colonies over Venus.

Sir you hail from Rajahmundry, East Godavari joined the ISRO in 1973 and has been living in Kerala for last 50 years. Is there anything that you always miss about your native place? What’s that one thing you like about Kerala?

Trivandrum and the rest of Kerala is a uniquely beautiful place. We are comfortable with this environment; and we have no problem in continuing to live here. People of Kerala are in general friendly and have good history of mixing and living with people of other states and countries. And this psychology of co-existence is very useful.

We do visit our native place as often as possible or whenever needed. We also travel to many other places in the country, as well as outside, as the opportunities and necessities arise. So, there is no basic problem.

Sir you are quite well-known for your passion for cycling. You cycled all the way from your Thiruvananthapuram home to Sabarimala.  Since when you fell in love with this pursuit?

Naturally, I learnt cycling as a boy. I remember the person who taught me cycling in Rajahmundry. His name was Mr. Yeleswara Rao; he was working in my father’s office. I also remember that unfortunately he died at a young age a few months after his marriage in a road accident, when a heavy vehicle crushed him to a wall while walking near the office. Statistically, I continue to observe that life is full of accidents. I regularly went to school on a cycle. While studying at IIT Kanpur, I used the cycle on the campus. Few years after taking the job with ISRO, at Trivandrum, I initially started using a cycle to go to office on holidays, instead of asking an office vehicle to come to residence and pick me up. It soon occurred to me that it would give me more freedom to work by going to office every day on cycle. For more than 35 years I do this, each day covering a distance of 16km or more. Even now, at the age of 76 years, I continue this. This is primarily my personal strategy for independence in daily travel and flexibly for work. Health and environmental benefits are secondary derivatives I receive.

Space debris is a huge concern. We have a list of satellites that poses danger to space missions as well as human lives. What strategy can be devised to tide over this crisis?

The last five decades of international space initiatives have left behind a multitude of space objects that no longer serve any useful function, but pose risk to space operations. Thus, space debris becomes an important subject for all space faring nations in particular and humanity in general. Space debris includes non-operational spacecraft, spent rocket bodies, material released during planned space operations, and fragments generated by satellite and upper stage breakup due to explosions and collisions. After 50 years of international space operations, nearly 40,000 objects have been catalogued. Catalogued objects are objects larger than 10-20 cm in diameter in Low Earth Orbits (LEO) of up to 2000 km altitude and 1 m in diameter in geosynchronous orbits; and they are regularly tracked and their orbital elements maintained in a database. Even much smaller debris objects can cause problems to space operations

The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, has identified two Protected Regions: Low Earth Orbit (or LEO) Region – and the Geosynchronous Region. This International body has also identified and recommended specific mitigation measures to contain the growth of space debris. Limiting Operational debris, reducing on-orbit break-ups, post-mission disposal into what are called as grave-yard orbits and on-orbit collision prevention are some of the major mitigation themes. Depending on the size and relative velocity of the impacting piece of debris, it can cause various degrees of damage to an operational spacecraft ranging from damage to the viewports, space suits, thermal protection system tiles etc. In critical situations, close-monitoring of the debris trajectory, and debris-avoidance manoeuvres by the spacecraft have to be done. In future, one will have to seriously consider active removal of debris from space.

What according to you are the future challenges in Human Interplanetary Habitat Missions?

The great departed genius, Prof. Stephen Hawking had very aptly stated the possibility and need for future of human colonies:  “It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species. Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as an asteroid collision, sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of. But once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe.”

While his prediction is most likely to happen for the stated reasons, and also possibly for more extended reasons; there are many scientific, technical and humanitarian issues to be addressed and resolved appropriately. Some of the broad areas of that we should deeply research and find satisfying solutions are the fields of: 1) handling long-term radiation hazards, 2) Effects of long-duration isolation and confinement, 3) near-permanent separation from the familiar scenarios of planet earth, 4) Long term effects of micro-gravity, and 5) possible hostilities specific to the new planetary environment. As we move towards due solutions to these types of issues, we may also face new and presently unknown issues to be addressed.

Infinity is an abstract concept used to describe something that is endless or boundless. As I quote the lines from Ishavasya Upanishad:

The Concept of INFINITY.

That is WHOLE, This is WHOLE,

Form the WHOLE, emanates the WHOLE

When the WHOLE is taken out of the WHOLE

The WHOLE still remains the WHOLE.

What is your concept of Infinity. How you relate Infinity with SpaceScience?

The concept of infinity is something that I picked up soon after my high school days. As I already mentioned earlier, I happened to read during that period, ‘Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy’ by Bertrand Russell, and “One, Two, Three …Infinity” by George Gamow. From the poems of Tagore as well, I got a poetic perception of the endless (“On the seashore of endless worlds is the meeting of children”).

From the understanding of vastness of space from the new discoveries in the field of space science, one can get a glance of the infinite. Let us take the speed of light. In one second, light can cover a distance of more than seven times earth’s circumference; from earth to moon, it takes 1.25 seconds, from Sun to earth 8.3 minutes, from Sun to next closest star 4.24 years; across our milky way galaxy around 100,000 years; to the closest Andromeda galaxy about 2.5 million years; and to reach the limit of observable universe from earth, light takes around 13.8 billion years. How vast is this universe! Is it infinite? Infinity is bigger and it is endless.

An Infinite Set is a set which has a one-to-one correspondence with a proper subset of itself. Cantor had shown that some infinite sets are greater than others. These mathematical concepts on infinity are really very interesting and understandable.

My perception and fascination of infinity, which started very early in my life, have increased and got firmed up with my exposure to space science and technology in the ways I have described above.

Is there any particular experience you would call your defining moment in space?

My journey is a continuously happy, invigorating and satisfying one.  On thy way there are many challenges, inspirations and solutions. I have taken them in my own style and enjoyed the trials and tribulations; as well as the rewards and admirations. In the long perspective, I can say all moments are defining moments, and are determined by the paths taken in the past; and the requirements perceived for the future. There are always some statistical uncertainties which make the journey somewhat more challenging. While deeply engrossed in the present, I have always kept the broad picture of life and contributions in the mind. So, I can say that there are no specific defining moments; but at the same time every work is a defining work.

To highlight this, I give here the translation I made of a great poem by noted Telugu poet, writer and Padma Bhushan and Jnanpith Awardee C Narayana Reddy who passed away on 12 June 2017. I translated his poem on the day his departure news has come. His original poem has continuously inspired me for several decades:

The Contrasts of Life

All around me darkness,

And I stand in the middle;

My heart is full of the garlands

I weave with flowers of light.

With brightness all round me

I stand in the middle;

My mind envisions the darkness

Of a million Amavasyas.

Standing at the bottom of the valley

I look up at the heavens above

And reckon that I live

On par with the lofty Pole star.

Sitting on the peak of the mountain,

I watch the universe around;

And imagine that I am falling down

The deep crevice of the netherworld.

This darkness and this light,

These peaks and these valleys,

I strangely entwine

Into the fabric of my life.

Translation made by me on 13 June 2017 from Telugu Original of the inspiring poem by C Narayana Reddy  

A lot of the astronomical knowledge goes all the way back to the Vedic literature to the Samhitas and the Brahmanas. Do you think that Space is divine? Space is God’s presence in the world. In a way, Space is God?

The Vedic literature certainly embodies an excellent knowledge base. While I have a broad idea of their all-encompassing coverage, I did not have the opportunity to read and assimilate them in detail. As far as the concept of all pervading God, and the divinity of space; I agree with the idea of divinity of everything that exists, in all the levels of the macrocosm and the microcosm.


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‘Opposition should not copy BJP’

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.

BJP Flag.

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.

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CHRIS OGDEN: ‘India is firmly tilting towards the US’

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.

Chris Odgen

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.

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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.

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LONG READ: ‘Democracy is in peril’ – INTERVIEW: JOHN KEANE

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.

Shocking visuals float on social media as Lankans mark their protest against Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Photo Credit: Twitter)

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.

MQM UK stages protest at 10 Downing Street against extrajudicial killings in PakistanPic credits ANI

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[1], 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.

Prof. John Keane

 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’.[3] 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 [4]) 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.

College student Jennifer Estrada takes part in a rally for gun control and anti-racism, in El Paso of Texas, the United States. (Xinhua_Wang Ying_IANS)

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).[6] 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[9]), 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.

-Top News Big Interview UK News


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.

Dr Elizabeth Norton

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.

Big Interview Business Interview

Sneha Poddar : BFSI can do well in rising interest rate scenario

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.

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Bangladesh War – Report From Ground Zero

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.

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