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INTERVIEW: Nirupama Rao

Nirupama Rao is a career diplomat who served as India’s Foreign Secretary from 2009 to 2011, as well as being India’s Ambassador to the United States, China and Sri Lanka. She is one of the foremost China experts among the diplomatic corps of the country. On 2021 end she has authored a detailed book on the India – China dispute with reference to India, Tibet and China.  Her book, ‘The Fractured Himalaya’ India Tibet China – 1949 to 1962 traces the entire history of India’s relationship with its neighbouring China in the said period and the role of Tibet which is vital in understanding the India – China relationship. The author draws upon numerous documents regarding the stand which was adopted by India, China, USA, UK, Soviet Union among other countries with reference to Tibet and its issues with China. Excerpts from a detailed interview with Nirupama Rao on the basis of her book.   INTERVIEW: Nirupama Rao, Interview by ABHISH K. BOSE

ABHISH K BOSE: As an Ambassador to China and involved in several rounds of discussions with the Chinese leadership. What is your take on the future of India-China relationship?

NIRUPAMA RAO: My book ‘The Fractured Himalaya’ is aiming to enlighten the public about the complex nature of the dispute between India and China.  I have studied the issue in close proximity and I also present an understanding of all the issues and the policy factors involved in this very complex narrative. As far as the present and the future of the relationship are concerned, I think we first have to understand the past. If you are not understanding the past you are condemned to repeat it, as they say. The nature of the issue is extremely complex and there is no solution to it other than patient negotiations.  A solution cannot arrive through conflict from either side or confrontation. Unfortunately, at the present moment we have a lot of tensions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries, both in Ladakh, and now in pockets along the Arunachal Pradesh border with China. China is engaged in various activities leading to more tensions in the area. Now both countries are in touch with each other through their military commanders and diplomatic establishments to sort out the tensions, to achieve some disengagement and some de-escalation. So there are two aspects related to this, one is to reduce the tensions along the border that is the (LAC) and that effort has to continue and we have to see the reduction of tension first of all. India has been very firm that China must return to the status quo, and that the new transgressions as they are called are removed especially in Ladakh.  So we have to achieve a return to the status quo since first of all the relations were affected by what happened in Galwan last year. We lost 20 soldiers. There was a lot of tension for the first time in the last 45 years along the border which is very unfortunate. This affected the whole structure of the relationship. First, we have to deal with that. As far as resolving the border is concerned it requires a concentrated effort by the leadership of both countries. It is not an easy matter as each country has its positions and claims and we have to see a reduction of differences on the issues to reach some agreement. Thus there are two aspects to this problem. At the moment the focus and concentration are on how to reduce the tension along the Line of Actual Control.

ABHISH K BOSE: In your book, you are quoting the diary of the Soviet ambassador in Beijing, PF Yudin, who records a conversation with Deng Xiaopeng – the then general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, in 1959, June. While referring to the Dalai Lama, Deng told Yudin ‘ Nehru calculated that the Dalai Lama would play a huge role in the Indian plan and that chaos would begin in Tibet without Lama. According to the conversation this prompted Nehru to give asylum to Lama. Quite the opposite, in Tibet, things are going without Lama. The Lama had turned out to be a burden.  Is there any other historical document to prove this thought prevailed in Nehru’s mind and whether the Dalai Lama was given asylum on the basis of this assumption? What is your view on this?

NIRUPAMA RAO: The Dalai Lama was given asylum since he had to leave Tibet in 1959. There was a Tibetan revolt at that time, The Dalai Lama’s life was in danger and he had no option but to leave Tibet and to seek refuge in India. India’s position was quite clear at that time. We did not want to interfere in the Tibetan issue. We had recognized Tibet as a part of China. Nehru told the Dalai Lama that he should adjust and come to terms with realities and work with the Chinese. But that did not succeed as the Chinese introduced new reforms in Tibet, which the Tibetan people were unhappy with and there were a lot of disturbances and revolt that ensued and the Dalai Lama had no option at that time but to leave Lhasa. At that time I do not think that his intention was to seek refuge in India, but as the situation worsened he had no option but to cross the border and come to Arunachal Pradesh, and that way he entered India. It all happened because there was a cause and an effect; I don’t think there was any interference from the part of India at all in the Tibetan situation. But the affection the Indian people always had for Tibetans and especially for the Dalai Lama I think was foremost in Nehru’s mind – he saw the difficulties that the Dalai Lama was facing and India offered refuge to him.

ABHISH K BOSE:  It was after the Dalai Lama was given asylum in India that the relations with China deteriorated. It was after this that the Chinese supreme leader Mao Zedong had written an essay in the People’s Daily on May 6, 1959, in which he would emphasize how Nehru and his government had sought to block political reforms in Tibet and harboured territorial ambitions towards Tibet. Do you think that the decision of Nehru in giving refuge to the Dalai Lama was a well-thought-out decision giving adequate bearing to its long-term political ramifications?

NIRUPAMA RAO: It was not political asylum but refuge on humanitarian grounds. I think at that time India had no option but to act on humanitarian grounds.  Because public opinion in our country and a majority of the people apart from the Communists did support Nehru’s decision to give refuge to Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees. So it was a popular decision and I don’t think Nehru could have acted otherwise. I don’t think Nehru could have denied the Dalai Lama’s entry into the country because it was a humanitarian question. Dalai Lama’s life was in danger, his life was at risk let us say and it was the correct decision to allow him to come to India. Of course, the Chinese had their own interpretation of it, but that is the Chinese outlook.  But as far as India is concerned India acted correctly and in the best humanitarian interests to offer refuge to the Dalai Lama. It was very clear from the beginning that the Dalai Lama should not engage in any political activity while he was in India. That he was here as a guest of our people, of our government and we see him as a religious figure, not as a political figure.  

ABHISH K BOSE:  Which means you are refuting the conversation PF Yudin had with Deng Xiao Peng. While referring to the Dalai Lama, Deng told Yudin ‘ Nehru calculated that the Dalai Lama would play a huge role in the Indian plan and that chaos would begin in Tibet without Lama.

NIRUPAMA RAO: That’s not absolutely the case. I don’t think Nehru had any plan or any plot or there was any Indian conspiracy.  The Dalai Lama has to leave Lhasa, his life was in danger and I said it was a popular decision supported by all the political parties to offer him refuge. . It was not something that the opposition questioned Nehru about. This was one issue on which there was a national consensus in India that we offer asylum to the Dalai Lama and whatever the Soviets or the Chinese were saying that was the Communist point of view.   From the beginning, the Chinese wanted to establish a Communist order in Tibet.  I don’t think the Chinese were interested in promoting religion or the culture of the Tibetan people and that I think was the root cause of the problem. The Tibetans were uneasy with all the reforms the Chinese were introducing there and if you read the Soviet papers very carefully what the Soviet leaders were saying at that time, they were faulting the Chinese leadership for all the wrongs they made in Tibet.  The Soviets were not blaming Nehru or India but were blaming the Chinese for having created a situation which had led to all these complications.

ABHISH K BOSE: Did Prime Minister Nehru take the Chinese transgressions into Indian territory with the required seriousness? There are options on his behalf to raise these Chinese transgressions before the UN. However, he didn’t make use of any of these forums. When he raised the issue of the continuing depiction of Indian territory as Chinese in its official maps with Chinese PM Zhou Enlai during his October 1959 visit to China, Zhou Enlai said that the maps in question were based on the old Guomindang maps which had not yet been revised by the people’s government. This is perceived to be a tricky stand. In fact, this is also pointing to the expansionist agenda inherent in the Chinese establishment. How do you explain the Chinese tactics? 

NIRUPAMA RAO: The Chinese were waiting to consolidate their claims.  As you know in the early part of our history, up to 1957 or so the Chinese were studying the issue, they were making the plans, they were improving their infrastructure, and by 1957, 58 and 59, that is when the whole border problem became evident, especially to India, India had assumed that the Chinese were not going to make these claims.  That I think is the time we should have understood Chinese intentions more correctly. I don’t think there was ever a question of taking it to the United Nations. Even to this day, regardless of the changes in the government and the political parties assuming power in New Delhi, the approach has always been that both countries should work this problem out and solve it bilaterally, not by referring it to the United Nations. So there was no question of referring it to the UN. That never arose. As far as the border is concerned throughout all these decades the approach from both sides is that we have to sit and resolve these issues through patient negotiations and in a fair and reasonable way. That continues to be our stand to this day.

Jawaharlal Nehru signing the constitution

ABHISH K BOSE: The double standard adopted by the Chinese establishment to Nehru regarding the continuous depiction of Indian territories was that the maps were prepared on the basis of old Guomindong maps not revised by the Chinese establishment. Wasn’t it a tricky stand?

NIRUPAMA RAO: Yes it’s true that the Chinese wait to strike at the opportune moment, there is no question about it.  The Chinese adopted an expansionist approach to the territory all across their borders. You had the incidents in the India – China border, you have this happening in the East and South China Seas, and they had a war with Vietnam.  So the Chinese have border problems with all their neighbouring countries. In the case of India, it is a very long border, an unsettled border and that continues to generate tensions between the two countries.  The Chinese had made these claims in the territory from the 1950s onwards and at that point in time we should have been more alert to what they were doing along our borders, and secondly, there was an opportunity at that point of time since positions on both sides had not crystallized fully to sort out these problems, to come to some conclusion where both sides would sit down and work out a border settlement that would safeguard the national interests and the security of both sides. That opportunity definitely existed in the 1960s as for example when Zhou Enlai came to Delhi in April 1960. So those opportunities I think could have been used to settle the issue.

Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, waves to journalists at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 23, 2022. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei/IANS)

ABHISH K BOSE: Was Nehru’s non-alignment policy a burden for India while India faced a number of crises in its immediate neighbourhood as a result of the presence of China and Pakistan? Nehru’s non-alignment policy was a bit idealistic taking into account the territorial disputes with China and Pakistan. The book says that Nehru was against the view of his colleagues in the cabinet that if China is allying with the Soviet Union, India should move closer to the US. However, Nehru was apprehensive that if India moved close to the US it would have disastrous consequences in its relations with China. Nehru was the proponent of a balanced relationship with China and the US thereby not hurting or moving close to both of them. Could India block the aggressive moves of China at the border by allying with the US? What are your views on this?

NIRUPAMA RAO: I don’t think the US could come to our rescue regarding our issues with China. I think history teaches us that we have to have a policy of multi-alignment when it comes to dealing with such situations. We have to create balancing factors whereby we can deal with these threats better.  This includes strengthening our defence forces, it also includes reaching out to other countries with whom we can form partnerships which can balance the threats from others. These countries may not fight our battle for us, but they can augment our resources whether they are security, or economic. In the fifties and sixties of the last century, India was a very young, new nation, and as individuals when you are young, and when you are inexperienced in life you do make mistakes that you regret in later years.  But I think Nehru’s intentions were honourable. Nehru did not want to be part of either block, east or west. He thought China as a country could not just be categorised as a Communist country, that China is a civilizational state that China and India could build a partnership that could promote the interests of the developing world which would be of positive contribution to the cause of peace in Asia. So these were the intentions Nehru had in his mind. But I think in retrospect maybe we should have been more flexible in our approach with the US at that time.  History teaches us that. But you cannot reach an assumption based simply in isolation. Every decision is in a specific context. We should see it in that light and there are no absolute truths in history.

ABHISH K BOSE: In his autobiography, former Foreign Secretary of India MK Rasgotra reveals that China’s war on India could have been stopped if Nehru accepted the proposal from then-US President John F Kennedy for transferring nuclear bomb technology to India. It was in the 1950s when Kennedy was the president. However, Nehru declined this offer after consulting with his advisors. If Nehru had accepted this proposal do you think it could rein in the territorial ambitions of China? Are there any documents or other evidence in your research to prove that Kennedy put forward a similar proposal and Nehru declined it. What is your view?

NIRUPAMA RAO: I have not come across any other sources to prove this. Ambassador Rasgothra, of course, has pointed out this in his book. I have not addressed this in my book. I have dealt with the India – China relationship in my book and what resulted in the conflict of 1962.  The point is that in the 1960s, the Chinese and the Soviet Union fell out and what the record suggests is that the Soviet Union had begun to help China in building its nuclear weapon capability with some exchange of blueprints. We don’t know the full truth of this, but the inference is that the Chinese received a lot of help from the Soviet Union in building nuclear weapons. At that time, you are right that the options were available for India also. But Kennedy died in 1963, and Nehru died in 1964. Nehru was very clear in his mind that he did not want India to become a nuclear weapon state.  He was a proponent of universal nuclear disarmament, he was of the view that nuclear weapons can cause unwanted destruction that could even eliminate the human race. He did not want a third world war, and that was Nehru’s philosophy and his ideology as we can call it.

ABHISH K BOSE: Do you think that Nehru was more often idealistic in his foreign relations?

NIRUPAMA RAO: I don’t know if he was entirely idealistic. He was knowledgeable of the ground situation. We have to study the issues in more depth and see what lessons history has taught us. But we cannot indulge in this quarrel with the past. If we continue yo do so, it will affect our present and it will affect our future also. We have to learn from these lessons and understand this is what history has taught us and how we must safeguard our interests and utilize our resources better. Indulging in a constant quarrel with the past will drag us down.  Understanding the past should liberate us.

ABHISH K BOSE: Do you have any suggestions to reach a permanent solution to the disputes with the Chinese? Is dialogue a way ahead?

NIRUPAMA RAO: Dialogue is the only solution. It is the solution. The Indian government is very clear that we are not for conflict, we do not want tension. But if the other side creates these tensions we will defend ourselves. We are very clear that our territory will be defended. We will take whatever means to prevent any taking of what we consider as our territory by the other side. This has been the approach of every government in power in Delhi. So while we are supporters of a peaceful solution at the same time on the ground we are clear that our territory will be defended and we will not barter away the nation’s interest.

ABHISH K BOSE: As the relations with China deteriorate countries such as India and the US should need to focus on how the identity of the Tibetan people as a distinct cultural community, can be safeguarded and fostered as the current Dalai Lama is advancing in age and China increasingly asserts her right to name a suppliant successor while clamping down further on the human rights of Tibetans and their communication links with the outside world. How can Tibetan interests be protected?

NIRUPAMA RAO: I think from both the US side and from our side also, our approach has always been to support the religious and cultural identity of the Tibetans. India has given refuge to hundreds of thousands of Tibetans since 1959 onwards and new generations of Tibetans have grown up in India. Today if you visit the Tibetan settlements, if you go to Dharamsala you see that Tibetan culture is alive in India. I think it is the greatest contribution that India has made to the Tibetan cause. We have not interfered politically in Tibet, whatever the Chinese say. It is absolutely untrue to suggest that India has in any way caused the problems that they face in Tibet. That is totally an assumption from that side that needs to be rejected unequivocally. India is not indulging in any such activities. I think the world supports India and appreciates what India has done to foster and to preserve Tibetan culture, to preserve the religious and cultural identity of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is a respected spiritual leader who is respected not only by the Tibetans but also by the Indians. Now the question of his succession, obviously India cannot interfere nor the US. We have not interfered in these issues. If you talk to the Tibetans anywhere they hold the Dalai Lama in the highest respect. They worship him. I hope that he lives as long as possible, and his welfare is our uppermost concern. What happens hereafter, we hope that a solution is found that will be in the interests of the Tibetan people.

ABHISH K BOSE: On Tibet, India’s primary concern were that her frontiers with the region should be regarded as fixed and determined, and not open to alteration. But the implicit acknowledgement by India of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet after 1950s without ensuring as a quid pro quo, that China would affirm and endorse the traditional Indo – Tibetan frontier had fateful repercussions. Is it a diplomatic lapse from the part of India to ensure that China adheres to the Indian interests?

NIRUPAMA RAO: I have laid out the facts in my book. If we had raised the issue of the India-China frontier at the time of negotiating the Agreement on Tibet in 1954, history would have been different. Let us put it in those terms

ABHISH K BOSE: Despite India – China tensions the trade between the two countries has grown over the years to an unprecedented level. Due to the mutual financial ties between the two countries the India – China relationship needs to be revamped for the benefit of the two countries.  How do you evaluate this contradiction in its relations with China?

NIRUPAMA RAO: In the last few decades, the relationship between India and China had grown in several areas including trade and economic ties, people-to-people contacts, communication links between the two countries, leadership-level dialogue, a whole architecture of the relationship was built up over the last 30 years.  It is true that there is an unbalanced trade between the two sides with Chinese exports to India being much more than Indian exports to China.  This has always been a cause of concern. Now after what happened in Galwan, there is a lot of talk on how to reduce our dependence on China. But we can’t do it that easily. Because it is not something that happens overnight. A lot of steps have to be taken to safeguard the supply chain, to diversify our sources of imports, to build more ‘aatmanirbhar’ as the government says within the country. It is a process that is ongoing and will take some time. The relationship with China has developed in many areas in the last 30 years.  It is much more developed than it was in the 1960s when we did not have much trade with China.  The economic relationship between the two countries as it had evolved over the last few years cannot be broken overnight.

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Sharing Spaces with ‘The Slum Queen’

“Is art just for art’s sake?” This question provoked artist Rouble  Nagi’s very personal journey into Asia’s largest slums. Developing this initiative with a clear focus of uplifting the lives of the local slum dwellers, led to documentation of her own journey in her inspiring autobiography ‘The Slum Queen’ ….

By Soniya Kirpalani; Images Santosh Rai

There is a notable dichotomy in the title “The Slum Queen”, but this does not detract from the ethos of Rouble Nagi, nor the impact her work has on India’s largest slums and remote villages. An award-winning, internationally acclaimed artist-turned-social- activist, Nagi’s book is a refreshing departure from the norm of self-praise autobiographies. Taking the readers on a journey into one of Asia’s largest slums, Nagi’s vivid memories string up stories, to build a magical connection between the readers and her protagonists.

Rouble Nagi – ‘The Slum Queen’

Divided into 11 chapters, ‘The Slum Queen’ follows the life of Rouble Nagi, from her growing years, then across India as she backpacked with her military family. Recounting her childhood experiences, where she was imbibing diverse cultures, she reflects on how intuitively these experiences have guided her mindset as an artist, a human being and a communicator. With over 800 murals and 150 exhibitions worldwide to her credit, Nagi became the first woman artist to be invited to exhibit at the Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum Gallery. Going from being an artist into an author and social worker, every page from ‘The Slum Queen’ reveals her trajectory with subtilty.

 “The slums’ beautification via art is merely a stepping stone for addressing issues concerning the people living in the slums and villages. Filled with includes wonderful anecdotes of the hopes and dreams of people who live in these communities, their struggles, and the challenges we first encountered when trying to establish our first ‘Misaal’ campaign,” explains Nagi. With every chapter the writer weaves a chord of empathy, in a poignant and prolific manner, even as she chisels out the harsh realities, provoking raw emotion, but the visual descriptions of humans rising, sparks inspiration.

Sharing her trajectory, through her memories, she develops a colourful canvas of delightful experiences reflecting on the various ‘Misaal India’ workshops and skill centres that have been started in the slums and villages across India and how their inhabitants see their dreams being fulfilled. Peppering her stories, with philosophical questions, her pen provokes the readers to introspect and question the purpose of their lives. Without fabrication, sans drama, she highlights what led to the development ofRouble Nagi Art Foundation (RNAF) and how continues is transforming slums and villages with creativity across Mumbai, Delhi, Kashmir, Jammu, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, and Telangana.

A book that provokes introspection and makes an exciting addition to any bookshelf, was currently launched during Nagi’s whirlwind tour to Dubai. Between book signings, she delivered a heartwarming speech at the India Consulate. Hosted at the Consulate Auditorium, Consulate General of India, Dubai, this was a very well-attended session, by leading businessmen, socialites and intellectuals from both Arabs and Indians.

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The rot within the Pakistani Army

The recent revelations only reinforce the view of the rot within the Pakistan Army. Senior Generals and officers have been at the receiving end of state largesse in the form of fat salaries and other perks and yet, they have acted in a corrupt fashion that does not behove a military force. Sadly, that is the reality of the Pak military today … writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

Lt. Gen. A.K.K. Niazi, the general who commanded Pakistani forces in East Pakistan and surrendered to Indian forces in Dhaka on 16 December 1971 was known for many other things than his military service. He was a well-known womanizer and rapist, as highlighted in the supplementary report to the Hamoodor Commission Report (1974).

General Bajwa

Moral lapses of this kind have been common in the Pakistan Army. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to read reports that leaked tax records of General Bajwa’s family show that all of them became billionaires during his tenure as Pakistan’s Army Chief. Corruption runs deep in the Pakistan Army and Gen. Bajwa is no exception. The recent revelations only reinforce the view of the rot within the Pakistan Army. Senior Generals and officers have been at the receiving end of state largesse in the form of fat salaries and other perks and yet, they have acted in a corrupt fashion that does not behove a military force. Sadly, that is the reality of the Pak military today.

The Pakistani website FactFocus revealed details of financial dealings of various members of Bajwa’s family, including his wife Ayesha Amjad and his daughter-in-law Mahnoor Sabir. The report, written by a journalist by the name of Ahmed Noorani, claimed that family members of Bajwa had acquired assets amounting to PKR 12.7 billion during Bajwa’s term. The leaked tax records of the family also revealed the assets of Ayesha Amjad went from zero in 2016 to PKR 2.2 billion (declared and known) in six years. As noted Pakistani scholar, Ayesha Siddiqa writes Bajwa’s family also benefitted in other ways.

“From getting his sister-in-law Asma Bajwa the position of a highly paid human resource consultant for the national airline to helping his 70-year-old brother retain a cushy Pakistan International Airline (PIA) job in the UK, there is so much that Bajwa must answer for”, writes Siddiqa.

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar ordered a probe into the ‘illegal, unwarranted’ leak of the COAS’ family tax records and directed the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Revenue, Tariq Mehmood Pasha to personally lead the probe, affix responsibility, and submit a report within 24 hours. Following the announcement of the probe into the leak, Ahmed Noorani posted on his Twitter account that the government had confirmed the accuracy of his article. This news of military officials amassing this kind of wealth and acquiring capital is however, not new to Pakistan.

In August 2020, journalist Ahmad Noorani had investigated the alleged offshore properties and businesses of Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa (Retd), former head of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority. Usman Manzoor, also an investigative journalist from FactFocus, had previously published a report showing the tax records of former PM Imran Khan and alleged that he and his wife hadn’t declared the value of the foreign gifts they had retained at ‘throwaway prices’.

“The growth of the Bajwa family’s business empire in the United States, and later in Pakistan, directly matches the rise in power of General Asim Saleem Bajwa, who is now chairman of the country’s massive China-financed infrastructure project and a special assistant to the Prime Minister,” the report published on Fact Focus stated. General Bajwa’s family becoming wealthy under his watch as Army Chief has to be seen in the context of the role that the Pakistani military plays in the nation’s economy. It runs a huge commercial empire, an internal economy estimated to be billions of dollars, all outside the purview of the formal economy.

Siddiqa, in her book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, identifies two of the military’s biggest business conglomerates in the country: The Fauji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust. This kind of ‘military capital’ does not follow protocols and norms of accountability that government institutions follow or even a military project or programme financed by the public sector. The corruption reaches the highest levels of the army with former Army Chief General Ashfaq Kiyani’s brothers being reportedly involved in a multi-billion Rupee housing scandal in Islamabad. Similarly, a Quetta Corps Commander Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa gained notoriety as “General Papa Jones” or “General Pizza” after an expose of how his family had invested tens of millions of dollars in the Papa Jones Pizza chain in the US and his sons were given lucrative contracts when this General was serving as the head of the ISPR.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif meets Chinese President Xi Jinping.(photo:facebook.com/ShehbazSharif)

Despite the furore, no action, not even an inquiry was ordered. Just a few months ago, data leak from Credit Suisse, (Economic Times, 5 March 2022) an investment banking firm registered in Switzerland implicated General Akhtar Abdur Rahman Khan, a former ISI chief for having diverted funds for the CIA/ISI war against Russia to his sons (The Dawn, 21 February 2022). This again brought to light the extent to which greed and corruption run amok in the Pakistan Army, especially among its Generals. The report lists several examples of scandals and corrupt deals that Pakistani Generals have been involved in over the past few years, including running extortion networks, and protecting and partaking in smuggling networks in Balochistan, leasing out government properties at extremely low prices and even taking bribes in defence deals. The rot within the Pakistani Army is thus deep.

Little do people realise that more than their fighting capability, the military machine has become an expert in siphoning off money from multiple sources. The latest instance of General Bajwa is thus no exception and one can find several such instances in the past. A reading of his recent farewell speech at GHQ and suggestion to the ranks to remain out of politics is well taken. However, the timing of the leak showing his family’s wealth showed that the political war between the army and politicians could well go deeper in the months to come as Pakistan approaches elections.

One aspect of Pakistan’s current situation is corruption within the Army. As Lord Acton once said, “Power corrupts and corrupts absolutely”. That is the lesson learnt from General Bajwa’s family story becoming wealthy overnight.

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‘Corporates Influence Governments’

Prof. Wilfried Swenden is Professor of South Asian and Comparative Politics and Deputy head of Politics and International Relations, School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. He is internationally recognised for his studies in the realm of federalism and his research interests includes comparative federalism and territorial politics, intergovernmental relations in multi-level states and centre state relations in India and Indian party politics.

Prof. Wilfried, who hails from Belgium where he completed his D. Phil (University of Oxford) followed by a Post – Doctoral fellowship at Leuven, funded by the Flemish Fund of Scientific Research. Asian Lite’s Abhish K. Bose meets Prof. Wilfried

ABHISH K BOSE:   What is your take on Indian federalism vis-a-vis American federalism?

PROF. WILFRIED SWENDEN: I would not say a priori that US federalism is stronger today than say a century ago (in fact with the expansion of the welfare state, the size and powers of the US centre have increased significantly). However, states have more secure powers under the US constitution which is very hard to amend. Citizens of the US also accept that state governments should have strong fiscal autonomy and no guarantee of a federal bail-out if they default on their fiscal responsibilities. In India, states lack that autonomy but that also makes them more vulnerable to federal incursions which are often open to political discretion (such as in the allocation of CSS to states aligned with the government policy and political preferences).     

 

 ABHISH K BOSE: Do you think that reinforcing political and cultural regionalism is the solution for this? Doesn’t this weaken the ‘oneness of spirit’ that a dynamic nation must cultivate?

PROF. WILFRIED SWENDEN: There can be no federalism without federal spirit. It is one thing for the BJP to say this, but this does not mean that it is true (e.g Canada is a performant federation despite the comparatively strong position of its provinces, or the US given the role of the states) or that voters will buy into this narrative. Only if they continue to vote BJP governments into federal and nearly of the states this may become closer to reality. Federations work on the basis of solidarity (the oneness of spirit you refer to) and autonomy. This autonomy entails that states and regions have the freedom to exercise autonomy within their domain and to vote for the parties and leaders of their choice. To impose unity on a society that is highly diverse on the basis of region, language, caste and religion is counter-productive and can in the long term generate support for secessionist movements or political violence. That being said, I have been somewhat surprised by the willingness of the Indian voters and even some of the regional parties to buy into the BJP narrative. Perhaps parties do so because they feel that their options are curtailed if they take a stance more clearly against the central government, but what compels voters to believe the same? Even before 2014, some surveys (LIKNITI, World Values Survey) show strong support in India for a strong national leader and rising support for a majoritarian understanding of democracy. Both of these sit uncomfortably with the federal spirit and certainly with the understanding of India as a liberal democracy in which the rights of minorities must be constitutionally protected.

 ABHISH K BOSE: Do you see the federal structure of India is changing?

PROF. WILFRIED SWENDEN: There is definitely an erosion of the federal principle at play in India at the moment, even though in these circumstances it is useful to remind ourselves of the fact that given the size and diversity of India, there will remain room for state and local autonomy, particularly in fields which are in the exclusive state list and in which the current centre has shown limited interest to interfere. The presence of a minority government and/or coalition government until 2014 and for most of the time since 1989 provided an important political safeguard against the centralisation of the Indian polity, something which can be easily accomplished given the rather centralised features of the Indian constitution.     

           

 ABHISH K BOSE: Article 365 of the Indian Constitution is perceived to have harmful ramifications vis-a-vis its implementation. The Union government, under the Congress regime, first invoked this provision for dismissing the EMS-led, left government in 1959. This was followed by other such dismissals. Can this provision be retained without violating the spirit of federalism enshrined in the constitution? If yes, what are the further safeguards to be put in place?   

PROF. WILFRIED SWENDEN: Although you are correct in your earlier assessment that the Supreme Court has not been an important safeguard of federalism since 2014, it has held on to its reading of President’s Rule since the Bommai judgement and in Modi’s first term in office struck down the unconstitutional application of public-relations, even forcing ousted Congress governments to be reinstated. Public relations may have a role to play, but only if it is used in the constitutionally intended way: when there is a breakdown of law and order at the state level or indeed where a government loses its majority in the assembly without a possible alternative. Arguably, India could move towards constitutionalizing a constructive motion of confidence as an instrument to achieve the latter as already practised across several parliamentary majorities. The absence of an alternative majority could then lead to fresh elections being called within a prescribed time period. One may question the need for public relations in circumstances such as these.       

ABHISH K BOSE: With the onset of globalisation the corporate groups using powerful central governments, led by leaders who have sizeable backing to pursue their business interests is a new phenomenon, which works often to the detriment of public interests. State governments are powerless to resist both the political and pecuniary power of giant corporations. What is the peril that this process holds out to the feasibility of federalism in India?   

PROF. WILFRIED SWENDEN: There is a clear nexus between power and leading business corporations, but it is also possible to imagine that nexus operates at the subnational level. Corporations have often pushed centralisation on efficiency grounds, e.g. the adoption of a GST as a means to ‘integrate’ the Indian market. It is even possible that corporates seek access to state government rather than the central government when the latter is controlled by parties who are keen on implementing more redistributive reforms (hence the nexus with BJP in Gujarat whilst UPA I engaged in more socially corrective policies). I would also argue that in India the tie between business and politics is a partial reflection of the opaque way in which parties are financed and of the continued power politicians hold, for instance in issuing environmental clearances or endorsing land development licenses. The people (through social movements and as voters) can play an important check in this regard, as evidenced by the eventual retraction of the farmer’s laws. Ultimately the spirt of federalism hinges not just on the constitutional and institutional fabric but also on the extent to which it is imbued by voters at large. What is perhaps striking is the lack of resistance from below to the centralization of the Indian polity in the last few years, even from quarters where it may be more expected (e.g. the citizens in the North-Eastern states)  

ABHISH K BOSE: The flexibility of Indian federalism tends to favour the centralising tendencies of the State. The abuse of various central investigating agencies –the NIA, CBI, the ED, the IT department, etc., aggravates this danger. This also threatens the survival of opposition parties, the plight of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra being a recent and eloquent illustration of this.   Should checks and balances be mutual instead of one-sided so as to bear the spirit of the principles of federalism?  What can India learn from the American model of federalism in this respect?  

PROF. WILFRIED SWENDEN: These institutions should operate at the arm’s length of the political executive. Just as many countries have realised that it is in their interest, if central banks have independence in formulating monetary policy, so too these enforcement and regulatory agencies should be able to operate more independently. Recent practices (but also observed during earlier periods of one-party dominance) question the separation of powers, a principle that is more embedded in the American constitutional system (even though here the practice is one of separation of institutions ‘sharing powers’ e.g. the political executive appoints many of the judges (including Supreme Court), so these branches never operate in isolation.

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Delay in Reforms Push Islamabad into Default

Pak economy has little chance to improve without addressing structural distortions. The World Bank, identifying the main reasons for structural imbalances, observed that distortions either introduced by policy decisions or other impediments remain unaddressed while reforms remain eluding impeding increase in productivity. These distortions are present across all the aspects of economic policies including taxes, subsidies, trade restrictions and gender norms … writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

Recently Pakistan Finance Minister Ishaq Dar dismissed any threat of default or oil shortage. Surprisingly the finance minister went on to promise that the due payment on the Sukuk bond would be done as per schedule.  Notwithstanding his assurances and Minister of State Dr Aisha Ghaus Pasha’s statement on the floor of the National Assembly that there is nothing to worry about, the economic situation of Pakistan is very fragile.

Pak economy has little chance to improve without addressing structural distortions. The World Bank, identifying the main reasons for structural imbalances, observed that distortions either introduced by policy decisions or other impediments remain unaddressed while reforms remain eluding impending increases in productivity. These distortions are present across all aspects of economic policies including taxes, subsidies, trade restrictions and gender norms.  

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif Pic credits Instagram

Islamabad is facing an unprecedented foreign exchange crisis.  The perception of Pakistan’s risk of default has worsened with the 5-year Credit Default Swap (CDS) surging by 30 percentage points in a week to 93% ahead of the repayment of the USD 1 billion Sukuk international bond, maturing in early December. The CDS was just 4.2% in January 2021. The developments came amid a delay in the 9th review of Pakistan’s economy by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which partly blocked the foreign currency inflows.

The foreign exchange reserves depleted to a critically low level of USD 8 billion against over USD 20 billion in August 2021, weakening the country’s capacity to make international payments.  Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) nosedived by 52% during the first four months of the current fiscal year FY23, reflecting poor economic health. Pakistan could manage to receive only USD 4.2 billion in new loans in the first four months of the current fiscal year compared to estimates of around USD 7 billion.

Adding to the forex crisis of Pakistan is a continued fall in remittances.  In July-October 2022 remittances fell to USD 9.9 billion, down 8.6% from USD 10.827 billion in July-October last year.  It is estimated that if the declining trend continues, total remittances in FY23, ending in June would remain close to USD 30 billion, lower than the USD 31 billion that flowed in FY 2022.

That may make it difficult for Islamabad to contain its current account deficit to around USD 10 billion.  This is viewed in the light of sluggish merchandise exports which recorded a meagre growth of 1% in the July-October 2022 period to USD 9.549 billion and declining remittances from Saudi Arabia, UAE and the UK, constituting about 57% of the total receipt with no signs of an uptick due to economic and expatriate labour market conditions indicate. There is no sign of improvement in the forex situation. Expatriate Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia are falling because expatriate workers from other countries, including India are outnumbering expatriate Pakistanis in professional/managerial jobs.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s textiles exports have dropped to their 17-month low since May 2021 due to a global economic slowdown in the textile and clothing demand in Europe, the UK and the US amid elevated price inflation, growing energy expenditure and surging credit costs in the West.  Last year, Pak export earnings were at USD 19.35 billion, a historic high.  But this year the export scenario is disappointing.  Textile exports in Pakistan may decline by USD 3 billion.

Although the overall trade deficit of Pakistan shrank to USD 10.8 billion in the first four months of FY 2023 as compared to the deficit of USD 13.75 billion in the same period of the previous fiscal year, there is no reason for complacency as it is primarily due to decline in imports.  This could be a sign of economic slowdown. It is also due to a slight dip in international commodity prices.

Thus, Pakistan’s economy continues to be in shambles and strangulated in a deep mess, owing to the depletion of foreign currency reserves, a rising import bill and a depreciating rupee. It is widely feared that Pakistan is on the verge of imminent default.

Taken together, these impediments create powerful incentives for firms and households to allocate resources in ways that are socially suboptimal and discourage innovation in the country. Direct tax rates tend to make it more profitable to invest in real estate rather than investing in manufacturing or tradable services without the production of forex generating exportable employment.

Gender norms in Pakistan often mean that this accumulated human capital is underused because females do not participate to their potential in the labour force. World Bank states that the aggregate productivity gains of eliminating distortions stand at 30%, with about 18% due to the improved allocation of resources and 12% due to the entry of more firms into productive activities.

The decline in productivity is associated with low investment rates, particularly in tradable and productive sectors.  Further, government support to SOE, which is unviable, uses borrowings as it faces a scarcity of funds. Many of them operate in upstream sectors such as transport, finance or energy, spreading their inefficiencies to the rest of the economy due to their linkages.

Pakistan is a poor learner.  Islamabad relied on large remittance inflows from its large diaspora, particularly in the Middle East countries. Pakistan also has witnessed periods of abundant foreign exchange inflows in the past in the form of external loans, grants and remittances. But the global economy is facing severe inflation and recessionary fears. The past streams of investment flows cannot be expected and remittances and exports would not see any spurt, at least in the medium term. Islamabad’s policy responses to these changes have been inadequate. In the past even when it received external inflows, its external sector, for most of the period was facing a deficit.  Pakistan has faced current account deficits in 18 out of 22 years and availed 22 stabilization & budget support programs from the IMF which so far is indicative of economic uncertainty. 

Since the beginning of 2022, Pakistan faced a series of balance of payments crises. This crisis heightened risks to debt sustainability and increased vulnerability for implementing long-term structural reforms. With structurally low exports and limited FDI inflows, financing this imbalance has become a challenge which is now grown to gigantic proportions.  Devastating floods had taken up whatever was left of the poor population. Islamabad is facing imminent default in meeting foreign debt obligations.  The signs are not good.

It is now being curiously watched whether Pakistan policymakers halt politicking and solve the protracted economic problems, especially along the clues provided by the multilateral agencies. 

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Asia News Columns World News

Imran Struggles To Mend Fences With Pak Army

Imran Khan’s open blame-game against the military institutions and name calling Gen Bajwa for “illegitimately” ousting his government in April this year has crossed all “red-lines” and rendered him an ‘enemy’ of Rawalpindi … writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

It appears that former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s campaign against the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government and the powerful military establishment is losing heat. Many analysts are suggesting that Khan has finally understood that he will not have any role in electing the country’s new army chief. The only choice left for him is to mend ties with the security establishment as the new Chief of Army Staff takes the charge later this month. However, it seems unlikely because Khan has crossed all “redlines” by openly attacking the Pakistan Army and Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leaders are claiming that neither Imran Khan nor PTI-backed President of Pakistan Arif Alvi will show any “resistance or create any hurdle” in the appointment of the new army chief by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Khan has himself said that he had no doubts about the intentions of candidates for the slot of army chief. These efforts seem desperate and may not bring any relief for Imran Khan in the coming months. On the other hand, in an apparent sycophantic attempt, the ruling PDM coalition is considering amending the Pakistan Army Act, 1952 in a way that would empower the appointing authority — i.e. the prime minister — to retain any candidate through a “simple notification, rather than having to go through a complex, constitutional process.

Imran Khan.(Photo:Imran Khan/Instagram)

The PDM government is seeing an opening to improve ties with the military establishment under the new chief. Moreover, Imran Khan’s open blame game against the military institutions and name-calling Gen Bajwa for “illegitimately” ousting his government in April this year has crossed all “red-lines” and rendered him an ‘enemy’ of Rawalpindi. There are reports that some top PTI leaders are considering leaving the party after the assassination attempt on Imran Khan, which was seen as a ‘consequence’ of not following the “orders”. Therefore, it is not surprising that a ‘dissident’ PTI member Ahmad Hassan Dehar presented a resolution in the National Assembly to pay tribute to the services of the Pakistan Army. Whereas the ruling coalition leaders used the occasion to blame Imran Khan for “criticising the state institutions”.

In a recent interview to local journalists, Khan claimed that the establishment exercises “absolute authority” in Pakistan compared to civilian setups. For instance, Gen Bajwa wanted PTI leader Aleem Khan to become Punjab’s Chief Minister and not Usman Buzdar, which created rifts between Khan and the military establishment. He further claimed that Gen Bajwa wanted Pakistan to “vote against the Russian invasion of Ukraine” at the United Nations while Khan’s PTI government was of the view that abstaining would be a “better option”.

 It is noteworthy that Khan is sharing all these ‘confidential’ details after the assassination attempt on him and a few weeks before Gen Bajwa’s retirement on November 29.

Many analysts are suggesting that Imran Khan has nothing more to lose now. There will not be general elections in Pakistan before July 2023 and the new army chief will be extremely wary of Khan and his party. Furthermore, the whole Khan-Bajwa episode has put a serious question mark on the army establishment’s strategy of raising a ‘third’ political front in Pakistan. The ‘hybrid’ regime experiment went terribly wrong and has proven very costly to the establishment’s image. Going forward, the future army chiefs in Pakistan will be extremely cautious in picking the country’s civilian leadership, likely relying on the known political stooges, fearing a repeat of the Imran Khan episode.

Therefore, the task at hand for the establishment is to weaken Imran Khan and stop him from participating in future elections. In a recent development, Dubai-based Pakistani businessman Umar Zahoor claimed that he purchased gifts from Pakistan’s state depository or Toshakhana, including a USD 2 million worth Graff wristwatch gifted to Imran Khan by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. 

According to Pakistan’s law, any gift received from dignitaries of a foreign state must be put in the Toshakhana. Last month, the Election Commission of Pakistan barred Imran Khan from running for political office for five years, after the government agency ruled that he misled officials about gifts he received from foreign leaders while in power.

Khan has claimed that these allegations are part of a “campaign to malign him”. He has decided to sue Geo News and businessman Zahoor in courts in London and the UAE for their “character assassination”, saying he had “no hope in Pakistan’s justice system”.

These allegations will create more legal hurdles for Imran Khan and stop him from participating in elections, rendering him politically useless. In the media interview, Khan conceded that he had differences with the military establishment on the issue of the “anti-corruption drive” against his political opponents. Ironically, Khan is now getting implicated in a corruption case himself, which can be seen as a ‘well-planned’ strategy to hit him where it hurts the most. Consequently, the road ahead for Khan seems rough and full of potholes. He is fully aware that the establishment is unhappy with him, and the recent assassination bid could be a signal of what more is coming his way.

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Asia News Columns Films

JOYLAND: A victim of Transphobia in Pakistan 

Movie Joyland, based on love story revolves around a middle class youth and a transgender starlet, was all set to release across Pakistan on 18 November, 2022. But, on 11 November an order was issued from the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Pakistan which clearly stated that censor board gave a green signal to the film earlier but now they have revised their decision

The government of Pakistan has imposed a ban on the film Joyland backed by Khoosat Films, Pakistan’s submission to the Oscars.  The film was all set to release across Pakistan on 18 November 2022. But, on 11 November an order was issued from the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Pakistan which clearly stated that the censor board gave a green signal to the film earlier but now they have revised their decision. Supposedly, the censor board has been receiving complaints that the film contains ‘highly objectionable content and repugnant material’; therefore, the board has imposed a ban on the nationwide release of Joyland.

The film is set in Lahore and revolves around the story of the youngest son of a middle-class patriarchal Rana family, who joins theatre and falls in love with a Transgender starlet. His love story elucidates the desires and secrets of the entire Rana family.

According to a notification of the Ministry, “Written complaints were received that the film contains highly objectionable content which do not conform with the social norms, ethical values and moral standards of our society and is clearly repugnant to the norms of ‘decency and morality as laid down in Section 9 of the Motion Picture Ordinance, 1979.”

Interestingly, this is not the first time or the first movie to get banned in Pakistan on the pretext of ‘objectionable content or repugnant material.’ As far as Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, of Khoosat Films is considered, his another movie ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ was banned in Pakistan for similar reasons in 2020.

The first movie to be banned in Pakistan was Jago Hua Savera(1950), a drama film directed by A. J. Kardar based on the struggles of a poor fishing village in former East Pakistan. Just days before the premiere, the Government of Pakistan halted the release. It was a joint production of East & West Pakistan.[1] So far 21 such movies have been banned including Among the Believers (2019);The Blood of Hussain (1980); Aurat Raj (1979); Javed Iqbal: The Untold Story of A Serial Killer (2019) etc.

It is worthy to note that, in May, 2022, Joyland made history when it became the first Pakistani feature film to enter the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It has also won two awards: Un Certain Regard Jury Prize; Queer Palm (for best LGBT, queer or feminist-themed movie). The national census of Pakistan 2017, estimated the number of transgender citizens in the country to be around 10,000, but Human Rights groups have claimed the figure to be more than 300,000 out of 220 million people of the country.

However, once the film gathered international recognition, it was almost certain that Pakistan’s Oscars Selection Committee would pick it as the formal entry for Oscars 2023, which it did. The next step was its release in Pakistani cinemas. Two months later, on 17th  August, the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) issued the necessary censor certificate. From 18th  November the film was (supposed) to be screened in Pakistani cinemas.

Unfortunately, on 12th  November, Jamaat-e-Islami’s Senator Mushtaq Ahmed tweeted a letter initiated by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting that deemed the previously certified film ‘uncertified.’ Remarkably, this letter shared by Ahmed raises two significant questions: first of all, it cites complaints that were received following the ‘release of the film’ whereas the film is in fact scheduled to release in Pakistan on November 18. Who saw the film apart from the censor boards and raised the complaints has not been clarified. Secondly, after the 18th  amendment the CBFC’s jurisdiction has been limited to ICT (Islamabad Capital Territory), cantonment areas across the country and provinces that have not formed their own boards yet, i.e. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

However, there is an online storm in Twitter against the ban. Many Twitter users expressed anger and questioned the government for halting the release of the film. One shared, “Why was the censor board’s approval of Joyland, August 17, 2022, reversed a week before release? Why were complaints by people who have not seen the film accepted? Is violence in films approved by the censor in line with our ‘moral standards?” One user spoke about the relatability of the film and wrote, “Joyland is a film about a family that lives in Gawalmandi, Lahore…Our Lahore. It is a film about human beings that exist around us in Pakistan…Our Pakistanis. It was filmed here – across real locations, with real people.”

In Pakistan, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2018 promises citizens their right to self-identify as male, female or a blend of both genders, and to have their identity registered on all official documents, together with passports, National Identification Cards, driving licenses and educational certificates. Nevertheless, the Act was passed by the Parliament in May 2018, and new debates on social media resurfaced in the month of September 2022, with critics opposing a specific clause that stipulates that “a transgender person shall have a right to be recognized as per his or her self-perceived gender identity.”

Clerics have condemned this clause, causing Senator Mushtaq from Jamaat-e-Islami, to file a petition in the Federal Shariat Court. This court is separate from civil courts and has the authority to examine whether certain laws comply with Islam.

Homosexuality in Pakistan is indeed an “open secret” in which it is deeply pervasive, yet the entire country deliberately turns a blind eye to its existence. The state and society of Pakistan perpetually remain in denial of recognizing the presence of its LGBTQ+ populace, not only has such denial upheld the criminalization of homosexuality but also continues to police LGBTQ+  identities within an obsolete framework.

Pakistan as a religious country perpetrates state-sponsored violence against various minorities and continues to torture the LGBT+ people at large. According to a range of LGBT+ NGOs and activists, society generally avoids transgender women, ‘eunuchs’, and intersex persons jointly referred to as hijras, who often live together in slum communities and subsist by begging and dancing at carnivals and weddings while others rely on prostitution. Property owners and local authorities often deprived them of the right to buy & rent properties. Violence and discrimination continued against LGBT+ people with impunity as police generally refused to take action.

 Moreover, those who join khawajasira culture are more vulnerable because usually they end up being involved in begging, wedding dancing, and sex work.

Undoubtedly, Pakistan as an extremist state is not only putting a substantial curb on the medium of cinema but also denying and strangulating the LGBT+ community within its society. As the country and its people are not open to liberal and secular concepts of the 21st century, aggression and oppression of the queers are adding a new approach to the story of perpetual cruelty as practised in Pakistan.


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LONG READ: Interview with Vittorio G Hosle

Working class may possibly disappear in the next century, Vittorio G Hosle tells Asian Lite’s Abhish K Bose

Vittorio G. Hösle is the Paul Kimball Professor of Arts and Letters, Department of German and Russian Languages and Literature, Concurrent Professor of Philosophy and of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.  His scholarly interests are in the areas of systematic philosophy (metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and political theory) and the history of philosophy (mainly ancient and modern).  He has written or edited around 40 books and published around 180 articles.  His books have appeared in 20 languages.  Among his other prizes and awards, he received the Fritz-Winter Prize of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and has had visiting professorships in many countries, including India, and fellowships at various institutions, such as the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.   His works in English include Objective Idealism, Ethics, and Politics (1998), Morals and Politics (2004), Woody Allen: An Essay on the Nature of the Comical (2007), The Philosophical Dialogue (2012), God and Reason (2013), Eric Rohmer: Filmmaker and Philosopher (2016). Professor Hösle is also the editor of The Many Faces of Beauty (2013), Dimensions of Goodness (2013), and Forms of Truth and the Unity of Knowledge (2014), which arose from the first three conferences at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, which he founded. His most widely published work (translated into fifteen languages) is The Dead Philosopher’s Café (2000), an exchange of philosophical letters with a young girl. A recent book, which appeared only in German, deals with the “Centrifugal forces” that threaten modernity. In an extensive interview with Abhish K. Bose Hosle discusses a wide range of issues including the Russia – Ukraine war, the connection between Hindutva nationalism and the Aryan supremacy theory of Adolf Hitler, and the dangers of postmodernism, philosophy and religion.

Morals and Politics

ABHISH K BOSE:  You have authored a book ‘ Politics and Morals’.  Is not politics governed by exigencies and pragmatism as in realpolitik?  Do you think at any juncture in human history morality existed as a practicable virtue in politics?

VITTORIO G HOSLE: In fact, my book has the title “Morals and Politics” – for I do believe in the conceptual priority of morals, which in my eyes is irreducible to social facts. These have their own logic, and my book tries to understand and grasp that too. But if the Ought and the Is have different origins, how can they interact? I interpret history as the slow process of adaptation of the political reality to the moral ideal, partly through the evolution of law. To give two obvious examples: Slavery nowadays is abolished, at least in the legal systems, almost everywhere; and women have achieved legal equality with men in an increasing number of countries. I am enough of a realist, however, to recognize that usually moral progress can be institutionalized only because there are also factual interests pointing in that direction or at least a temporary decline of countervailing interests. It was easier for William Wilberforce to get the slave trade abolished in the British colonies because Napoleon’s continental blockade had made it already temporarily obsolete; and Lincoln needed the support of Northern industrialists, who were eager to have more labor from the South. Economic and moral motives are often mixed.

ABHISH K BOSE:  Across the world, there are reports of the emerging right-wing movements gaining momentum and capturing power. Does this portend a moral decadence in politics? Please explain your view on the growth of right-wing politics globally. 

VITTORIO G HOSLE: We are doubtless witnessing a general decline of universalist values and ideals, like in the time of the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. I regret and condemn this development but try also to explain it. Globalization has led to enormous economic growth and even decreased global inequality – but at the price of an increase in inequality within many countries, both in the developing and the developed world. This has led to resentment against those who benefit from globalization by those who do not do so. Trump’s supporters in the USA are the historical losers from globalization, the formerly relatively affluent worker class that is furthermore threatened by automatization. And indeed the worker class, in which Marx saw the diving force of progress, will probably disappear in the next century.

ABHISH K BOSE: According to you, globalisation has aggravated inequalities within nations. You also envisage that the working class would cease to matter by the next century. Could you elaborate a little more on the future ramifications of this trend?  

VITTORIO G HOSLE: Certainly the Industrial Revolution was one of the greatest events in human history – one has argued that in importance it is only comparable to the Neolithic Revolution that created agriculture as an alternative to the life form of the hunters and gatherers. Not only economic growth increased exponentially; it deeply changed almost everything in interhuman relations, from the family to religion. The importance of Karl Marx consisted in recognizing, as a sociologist and as an economist, the watershed that the Industrial Revolution signified for humankind. At the same time, Marx was outraged at what he perceived as an exploitation of the class that was driving these changes – the workers, who were not getting their fair share of the new wealth. He tended therefore to ascribe to them an exceptional status in world history. 

But while this was true for the 19th and 20th centuries, it is no longer the case. From a more objective point of view, we have to recognize that the Industrial Revolution had in itself the germ of the abolition of the workers. Modern technology does not simply produce consumer goods; it can also be used to produce the engines that produce consumer goods. Through automatization, rendered possible by modern computers, physical labour becomes less and less necessary. The worker class will thus last much less in history than the farmer class. Of course, the primary sector decreases everywhere, and also here industrialization changed the nature of the work. But I do not believe that dealing with animals can be completely delegated to machines – unlike the creation of engines. Therefore we will always have farmers but workers will be more and more replaced by engineers.

  The decline of the worker class, which was proud of its physical strength and therefore upheld the traditional appreciation of virility, has consequences also for gender relations. The new services the demand for which will outlive the automatization often presuppose empathy – think of doctors, nurses, and educators. Women are particularly good at that; and thus in the near future, at least in industrialized countries, there will be much more male than female unemployment. In the USA for two men who get a college degree, there are three women – and college degrees are crucial for your economic success. The wrath that this engenders in uneducated men can lead to horrific explosions of violence – either sexual (think of the rape rate in India) or political (think of the mob that stormed the Capitol on 1/6/2021).

The turning of the workers to the right proved to be a serious challenge for Marxists – for the class most cherished by them has voted predominantly for Trump in the USA. And of course, also the Marxist belief in progress has eroded. Given the enormous dangers of the world in which we live it is realistic to assume that the 21st century will work out worse than the 20th. It is difficult to be optimistic in the short term – let us hope that we can be optimists for the 23rd century!

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Eastern Economic Forum plenary session in Vladivostok, Russia on Sept. 7, 2022. (Kremlin press release/IANS)

ABHISH K BOSE: The Russian military invasion of Ukraine is a blatant violation of international treaties and the sovereignty of one country over the other. However, Russia justifies this step on the basis of its security concerns, aggravated by Ukraine’s eagerness to join NATO. In India, measures initiated by the Union government, which cannot be defended in any other way, are justified by invoking the fetish of national security. What, in your opinion, should be the balance between international principles/guarantees and national security on the one hand and constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights and national security, on the other? Doesn’t the indiscriminate invocation of the national security alibi resurrect the old dictum, ‘might is right’?

VITTORIO G HOSLE: There is no doubt that the Russian war against Ukraine is the most shameless war of aggression in Europe since the end of WW II. There is not a shadow of a justification for it, either legally or morally. It is the security of Ukraine that is now being destroyed by Russia; Russia’s security was never at stake. Putin did not fear NATO; he feared that the success of a functioning democracy in an East Slavic country could destroy the legitimacy of his own dictatorship. Therefore, he invaded Ukraine.

Concerning internal policies, national security can indeed be abused to justify the violation of fundamental rights. However, most rights are not absolute; they have to be considered as a whole. Only a concrete analysis can determine whether limitations, say, of the right to property are necessary to maintain public security, for which the state is indeed responsible.

ABHISH K BOSE: Do you think the Russian invasion of Ukraine will encourage other dominant countries to deal with their neighbouring countries in a like manner; for example, China vis a vis Taiwan and India in relation to Pakistan occupied part of Kashmir (PoK), given the reluctance of the US and Europe to get involved militarily in such situations?

VITTORIO G HOSLE: Clearly, the risk is there. People like to follow bad examples. And of course, China would not regard the invasion of Taiwan as the invasion of a foreign country but only as the retrieval of the national territory. In fact, the majority of states do not recognize Taiwan as an independent country. Whether this will happen or not will also depend on the outcome of the Russian invasion. If it is not successful or if it proves very costly while being at least partially successful at the end, this will have a deterrent effect on other potential aggressors. And that is the reason why the West should support Ukraine with weapons so that it can defend itself and deter further aggressors.

ABHISH K BOSE:  The world can no longer afford or accept all-put wars. How can wars be avoided? Or are wars a necessary element on international politics? Can wars be avoided so long as the psychological craving for violence, as Pope Francis said, remains deeply embedded in human nature, ensuring that leaders who unleash death and destruction on putative enemies become hugely popular? Do you envisage the emergence of a political culture in which waging war and war-mongering become politically costly?

VITTORIO G HOSLE: Wars, alas, is rooted in both human aggressiveness and the – in-principle legitimate – desire for security. But we have achieved very important legal progress with the Kellogg-Briand pact and the Charta of the UN – international law has now outlawed wars of aggression. Still, states have not always respected the new principle, the USA included. Yet the almost universal condemnation of the Russian aggression in the Uniting for Peace resolution of the General Assembly is a sign that at least in theory there has been progressing. 

       True enough, demagogues and dictators can incite even today the populace to support wars. Usually, catastrophic defeats prove to be a lesson – as it happened in my own country of origin, Germany. International criminal law is a further mechanism to uphold the rejection of war-mongering.

BJP Flag.

ABHISH K BOSE: In India, the proponents of the Hindu Rashtra, as against the liberal-secular democracy that India is envisaged to be, are busy propagating a political culture of violence, the suppression of dissent and the discrediting of unity-in-diversity as our national hallmark.  This ideological block is also committed to Akhanda Bharath, which includes territories currently held by Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Tibet, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. There are many in India who believe, like Ukraine in relation to Putin, that Pakistan has no right to exist as a separate nation. India is also investing excessively in increasing the firepower of its armed forces. Do you envisage India slipping into the Russian frame of mind; especially given that New Delhi is showing evident affinity to that country under Putin?

VITTORIO G HOSLE: Even if I had the honour to spend four months in 1992 in India, I do not claim any special knowledge of your country. But generally, we have to be very fearful of all political movements that even suggest changing borders between countries – this can only lead to wars. Akhand Bharat is therefore a very dangerous doctrine (even more so as India and Pakistan are both nuclear powers). Alas, history teaches us that when a country begins with wars of expansion, other powers feel motivated to follow suit – they believe that the right moment has come and do not want to be left behind in the conquest of territory.

    India’s cooperation with Russia has old historical reasons, but given the fact that India takes great pride in being the most populous democracy in the world, I would hope that the country joins the other democracies in supporting the sanctions against a dictatorship that has invaded a peaceful democracy.   

ABHISH K BOSE:   As an academic who is primarily based in Europe and North America how do you perceive contemporary Indian society and polity? What is the western intelligentsia’s assessment of India’s transition from a secular country to a Hindu theocratic State? Why is the Euro-American bloc turning a blind eye to the evident signs of democratic disarray in India? Does it signify the ascendancy of economics over politics, liberal democracy and human rights? In particular, are we watching the slow, but sure, the decline of America as a global force?

VITTORIO G HOSLE: I am indeed worried about India’s development and agree with your description that the Euro-American bloc is turning a blind eye to dangerous developments in India. They did it even more in the case of Russia! And I am afraid that you are right that often economic interests are motivating this negligence.

       Liberal democracy was based on a noble ideal, the respect of the person. This has rendered the evolution of stable capitalism possible. But many of the moral and spiritual foundations of liberalism have eroded, and greed is the main thing that has survived. That cannot end well; already the Roman historian Sallustius has the Northern African prince Jugurtha call Rome a venal city soon to perish if it only finds a buyer.

      Germany, for example, got into enormous dependency on Russia because of its energy imports and is thus hampered in its reaction to Russia – economic interests have paralyzed the political decisions.

       The USA is in trouble but I think that the weakness of Europe is much more pronounced.

ABHISH K BOSE:  A large number of Indians are migrating to European countries in search of a quality of life and better career opportunities. In the meanwhile, there are indications that allergy to large-scale Afro-Asian immigration which is feared to have significant implications for domestic politics is also increasing. How do you evaluate this scenario?  

   VITTORIO G HOSLE: No country can pursue a policy of completely open borders. Where the limits have to be drawn depends on many factors, such as the number and education of the prospective migrants, the economic strength of the host country, and the compatibility of the migrants with the culture of the country where they want to live.

       I am moved by the cordial reception of the Ukrainian refugees in many European countries right now, including Eastern European ones such as Poland, which refused to accept refugees from Syria in 2015. This can be explained by two factors – the greater cultural homogeneity and the awareness that the heroically fighting Ukrainians are not only defending their own freedom but also that of Europe as a whole.

ABHISH K BOSE:  Dictators seem to be attaining a new lease of life in many parts of the world. Are people getting disenchanted with liberal-secular democracy? If they are, why? Are secularism and democracy unrealized ideals in the contemporary world?  

VITTORIO G HOSLE: Alas, the decline of democracies, at least of full democracies, in the last years is well established. Not only have persons like the Russian or the Chinese president achieved in their authoritarian regimes a power concentration that did not exist for decades (since Stalin’s and Mao’s death respectively); but even traditionally fully democratic countries, such as the USA, have become flawed democracies. Within the EU, Poland and Hungary have gone the ways of illiberal democracies – that is of a rule of the majority that is not respectful of the rights of minorities.

    Certainly, it was always very naïve to believe that the progress toward democracies was irresistible and irreversible. The decline has various reasons. The collapse of the mental presuppositions of liberal democracies is crucial – and it has its roots in the radical, postmodern left. If there is no truth, you can manipulate with good conscience, and what remains is brute power.

    Another factor is the rise of social media and the collapse of a common public space. People live in their echo chambers and refuse to listen to other arguments; so democracies are irredeemably split, and if they are almost evenly split, the risk of a civil war is high because a defeat can easily be declared to be the result of fraud. Many Republicans in the USA continue to believe this to be the case for the presidential election of 2020.

 

ABHISH K BOSE: You answered that the decline of secularism and democracy has its roots in the radical, postmodern left.  Please explain this in detail for the same of your Indian readers.

VITTORIO G HOSLE: Democracy presupposes that we can achieve two things – a common view of reality and, based on it, a common determination of what is the common good. Of course, there will always be differences but at least the goal is to work toward consensus. This was accepted by traditional liberalism, such as espoused, for example, by John Stuart Mill. The postmodernists, however, beginning with Michel Foucault, teach us that there is no objective truth, that it is only a social construct. Norms are perceived to be nothing else than exertions of power. This inevitably leads to cynicism – the only task is to manipulate people to believe certain things, for example by propaganda. If you lie, you don’t have to feel bad conscience – because since there is no truth there is no real lie either.

     Radical relativism in modern European philosophy had a staunch supporter in Friedrich Nietzsche. His positions are elusive at best and changed over time but he always belonged to the political right, and his influence on National Socialism is well-known. Relativism was appropriated by the left in the 1960s, often by frustrated Marxists, and has now pervaded the leftist intelligentsia. Some of them still claim some remains of the old emancipatory ideology, for example in critical race and gender theory, but at the same time, they undermine their claims when they tell us that race and gender are only constructs. How can you fight for equality between genders when you think that there is no such thing as gender? Some may claim that there are, alas, social perceptions of genders that have negative consequences. But how can you aver that if at the same time you teach that there is no objective understanding of other people? It is thus not surprising that postmodernism is now used by the right – in a certain sense it returned to its rightful owner and creator if we think of Nietzsche.

ABHISH K BOSE:  How should pro-American governments in the rest of the world read (a) The near-abandonment of Ukraine by the US in the wake of the Russian aggression and (b) the disarray in which America withdrew from Afghanistan? Hasn’t the credibility of America taken a severe beating in recent times? How is this going to play out in the growing perception that the geo-political centre of history is shifting to the Asian continent? Can the present Ukraine crisis –taking place at the intersection between Europe and Asia- be an inaugural event of this new drama?

VITTORIO G HOSLE: There is little doubt that Putin is inspired by a Eurasian ideology that sees Russia as the natural leader of Eurasia and wants to conquer the territory of the former Soviet Union and transform the EU into an area dependent on Russia. Since the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians defends not only their own country but Europe as a whole, the EU owes them so much. Still, I think that is would be wrong to join the war and risk a Third World War. Financial and military help must be increased, a direct involvement avoided as long as Russia does not attack NATO territory.

      I do not agree that the USA has almost abandoned Ukraine. It would have done so under Trump; it does not do so under Biden, whose help is substantial. But you are certainly right that the ignominious flight from Afghanistan has increased the Russian resolve to attack now. It is furthermore a general sign of the fact that the USA is no longer willing and able to play the world’s policeman. It is too expensive, and it engendered more resentment than gratitude. I predict that people will still come to complain the relatively peaceful time from 1989 to 2014 when the USA had a hegemonic role (which they certainly often abused, most egregiously in the immoral, illegal, and stupid war against Iraq in 2003).

ABHISH K BOSE: You have authored ‘ A short history of German philosophy’.  From your philosophical perspective, how do you read the parallel between the Aryan supremacy theory and the cultural nationalism of the Hindutva movement in India? Do you envisage the consolidation of the Hindu Rashtra going the whole way as Hitler’s German nationalism in the last century? In particular, how do you read the move to make citizenship a central issue in Indian politics through the National Registry of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, both of which are believed to target Muslims and Christians who, according to the Sangh ideology, are not entitled to citizenship in India?

VITTORIO G HOSLE: The deprivation of Muslims and Christians of their citizenship is a monstrous violation of the state’s responsibility to protect all its citizens. And it is indeed reminiscent of the National Socialist denial of citizenship to Jews. Still, India is very far from considering anything like the holocaust. But the analogies between the RSS and fascist organizations are striking, and if the path is continued, worse things will follow. I know too little about the background of contemporary Hindu doctrine, but it seems to have some features in common with fascism. For it conceives the state as ethnically and ideologically homogeneous and creates a fictional account of history that does not render justice to the facts. The  California textbook controversy over Hindu history is a famous example in the USA, where the Vedic Foundation, the Hindu Education Foundation, and the Hindu American Foundation protested with bad arguments a textbook’s depiction of the caste system, the status of women in India, and the theory of the Indo-Aryan invasion/migration. The Hindutva supporters have difficulties acknowledging that different ethnic groups regularly mix and that this is mostly beneficial for cultural development. Also, the Shuddhi doctrine, which demands the conversion of non-Hindus, is dangerous; but it seems to me rather comparable with the Christian medieval ideal of converting the Jews than with explicit fascist doctrines.

ABHISH K BOSE:  Development has been projected as the shaping paradigm of Indian politics. But India has regressed economically in the last seven years. Electorally, communal politics and anti-Pak rhetoric yield richer dividends. What are the changes in the Indian worldviews that, in your opinion, India must embrace if we are to develop an authentic culture of national development? Please also comment on the anxiety developing in many quarters in India that the present model of development, which has aggravated the rich-poor divide to the extreme, is bound to precipitate social anarchy in the near future. 

VITTORIO G HOSLE: Globalization has benefited India enormously but not all classes to the same degree; thus, inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, has dramatically risen (from 34.4 in 2014 to 47.9 in 2018). You need therefore a policy of redistribution to lower inequality, ideally before taxes. A good universal education system, such as in South Korea, is the best way to move toward a more equal society. Instead of dedicating themselves to hard work in this direction, populists prefer to incite hatred against neighbours or minorities, in India for example through the myth of love jihad.

 ABHISH K BOSE: In India, you may be noticing the emergence of Hindu nationalism ruling the country and the religious minorities of the country are facing unprecedented attacks. India’s foreign policy always took a vociferous stand against war and military aggression. However, regarding Ukraine India took an impartial stand at the UN. What is your assessment of present-day India?  Has India lost its moral and ethical hegemony which it enjoyed during the period of Nehru and later in consonance with the political ideology leading it? 

VITTORIO G HOSLE: Yes, I am afraid that the great model of Gandhi, one of the persons I most revere in the 20th century, is quickly being forgotten. Also, Nehru’s attempt to build a secular state – the only reasonable thing to do in a country as religiously diverse as India – is increasingly undermined. I myself am a religious person (being a Catholic) and approve of sincere religious sentiments in all traditions; for religion connects us to the divine and gives an absolute basis to our moral convictions. But religions must not be exclusive and denigrate other religions. When they are instrumentalized for power politics, they betray their central insight – that we humans are all children of God.  

 

ABHISH K BOSE: In your answer, you said that there is no wrong with religious sentiments but the problem occurs when it becomes absolute and denigrates others.  But history teaches us of the calamities caused as a result of religions.  Do you still think that a peaceful world is possible with the prevalence of religion?       

VITTORIO G HOSLE: In my eyes, it is silly to say that the human tendency to violence is instilled by religions. The most violent century was the 20th (the 21st may still catch up!), and the most violent movements were the totalitarianism of the right and the left. Neither Hitler nor Stalin was religious people, but their bloodshed was horrific. It is true that religion can be used as a catalyst for a tendency to violence that is innate in humans, independent of their religious orientation. But religion brings also forth miracles of self-transcendence and charity – think of Mother Teresa.

         Humans are irredeemably religious. It is false to desire a world without religious feelings. What we need is the cultivation of religious feelings that support the right moral system, which accepts violence only in self-defence.

ABHISH K BOSE: Your area of specialization includes the history of philosophy. Could you explain the cardinal principles that shaped   Indian philosophy? It is said that Indian philosophy stands for co – existence of diverse cultures and tolerance.  If that is so why India  now became  an experimental platform of Hindutva nationalism?  

VITTORIO G HOSLE: I do not know enough about Indian philosophy. But it seems to me that the greatest achievements of classical Indian philosophy lie in the field of metaphysics. What I think is missing in traditional Indian thought was a movement comparable to Western Enlightenment (which, alas, did not protect Germany from becoming a National Socialist country!). My feeling concerning the issue of the relation of Hinduism and tolerance is that Hinduism is often tolerant only from a position of superiority and condescendence; real equality of the other religions, which would require taking their truth claims seriously, is not really upheld. 

18, why doesn’t the danger that democracy faces in India from forces within the country, the RSS ideology in particular, receive adequate attention from the US intelligentsia? Shouldn’t the defence of democracy be a global agenda? Is there any way you can highlight this issue for the American public?  

Alas, the American public is very ignorant of the world outside of the USA. I remember some years ago a poll that found out that a plurality of Americans believed that the population of the USA made up 25% of the world population – while the real number is less than 5%. I would not be surprised if many Americans could not find India on a map – why should they want to know anything about its political situation? The problems of the caste system are certainly not known to the majority of Americans. The American intelligentsia, which has to be distinguished from the public at large, is of course much better informed. But often they use relatively simple categories when they approach the world. The crucial category for them is whether a country is democratic or not. And the status of India as the most populous democracy of the world engenders sympathy and not necessarily the desire to look more in detail at the situation. Of course, I myself prefer democracies to autocracies. But if we see that life expectancy in China is seven years higher than in India, I am not sure that it would be rational to decide to be born in India instead of China, if the unborn person could choose “under the veil of ignorance” – that is, not knowing in which socio-economic situation she or he would be born. 

      In general, it is a sad and constant human trait that we prefer not to think about dangerous developments. The Russian threat had been visible at least since the invasion of Crimea in 2015; I myself warned publicly in a German essay of 2015 that Russia was preparing a large war. But most people dismissed it; it would have become necessary to diminish the German dependency on Russian gas, and it was more lucrative to continue in the old ways. We all know that ecological disasters are in the making – are we addressing them? Not really.

ABHISH K BOSE: Please comment a bit more on the role that religion plays in tilting democracy towards fascism.  

VITTORIO G HOSLE: I do not believe at all that religion as such tilts people toward fascism. The creation of modern liberalism and democracy was fostered by religious people, in Europe mainly Protestants. I name only John Milton and John Locke. What you have in mind is that in a time in which traditional mores and norms evaporate people become nostalgic for social cohesion and for the traditional religion that upheld it. Such nostalgia can indeed be used by fascist movements. But they only instrumentalize religion, and truly religious people feel it. In France, in the first half of the 20th century, there was the fascist movement of the Action Française. Its founder, Charles Maurras, was an aggressive nationalist Catholic – but he was agnostic at best, if not an outright atheist. Catholicism was important for him only as social glue against the corrosive influences of modern individualism. My feeling is that the Hinduism of many BJP leaders, not all, is similar to Maurras’ Catholicism. Do the people who flock to the Statue of Equality really want to study Ramanuja’s philosophy – or do they prefer to indulge in the feeling of ethnic and religious superiority? I do not know.

ABHISH K BOSE: The influence of political Islam has worked to the detriment of Muslims in Western societies.  Is that the same in the Indian scenario? How different is it from that of the West?    

VITTORIO G HOSLE: One of the most important lessons in Western history was the recognition that you can have a functioning, stable and just state without religious homogeneity. But we needed the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the scandal of so many Christians persecuting and killing each other, to appropriate this lesson after much pain. When I see the internecine warfare between Sunnite and Shiite Muslims I am often reminded of the analogous struggles between Catholics and Protestants in early modern European history. Still, I hope that they can abbreviate these fights by appealing to reason and by thoroughly studying history. Will India enter a civil war based on different religious affiliations? I truly hope that this will not be the case and that serious Hindus will remember the great example of Mahatma Gandhi, who wanted a peaceful coexistence of all religions in India and was deeply shocked by the partition of 1947 and the ensuing bloodshed. But nothing is guaranteed, and it would be wrong to say that Hinduism is inherently less prone to violence than monotheistic religions. We have heard the same about Buddhism, but the oppression of Muslims in Myanmar has shown us that this is simply not true.

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Arts & Culture Columns Travel & Tourism

TRAVEL: 24 hours in Calais by Reza Amirinia

Calais is not just a place to purchase cheap cigarettes and alcohol in its hyper-markets. I have passed through Calais many times while on my way to Paris or French Riviera … writes Mohammed Reza Amirinia

Calais is one of the most frequently used gateway to Europe for British travellers. A city which has often been ignored by tourists. Calais, unlike Dover, its equivalent on the other side of the channel, is a serious travel destination with many hidden treasures.

Calais is not just a place to purchase cheap cigarettes and alcohol in its hyper-markets. I have passed through Calais many times while on my way to Paris or French Riviera. This was the first time that I could experience Calais for 24 hours. I was surprised to learn what I have missed and it’s really not very far from London. Calais has a lot to offer to visitors including golden sandy beaches, beautiful landscapes, fine restaurants and historical settings.

A still from Calais – Images © Mohammad Reza Amirinia

Standing at the Cap Blanc Nez, 15 Km from Calais port near Sangatte in the Pas-de-Calais, you would be in the shortest distance across the strait of Dover between England and France. The distance is only 34 Km. On a clear day, you can see the white cliffs of Dover from the hilltop of Cap Blanc Nez. Since ancient times, the headland of Cap Blanc Nez has been known as an important site of observation for sailors and border patrol. The landmark also played an important task during the two world wars.

On the top of Cap Blanc Nez, a granite pillar monument in the memory of Dover Patrol during the First World War has been erected in 1921. Two other similar obelisks are standing in Dover and Brooklyn, New York.  The Cap Blanc Nez at the 134-meter high is the most northerly cliff in France. The landscape is a great place for a day trip, hiking and gazing at the sea.  You can also discover on the cliff side German bunkers that remain from the second World War.

I checked in to the Metropol Hotel and then started my exploration of Calais with a visit to the Town hall. This 20th Century building has a 75-meter high belfry that has been designed in a renaissance revival style and looks like a historical structure. The building was designed in the memory of municipal merger of Calais and Saint-Pierre in 1885 and placed between the two towns.

A still from Calais – Images © Mohammad Reza Amirinia

Inside Town Hall there is a large ceremonial hall, wedding reception room, meeting room and the mayor’s office, which is on the second floor. As you climb the stairs to the second floor, a large stained-glass window depicts the story of the liberation of Calais from the English. The guide explained it in detail. The belfry, a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a major landmark in Calais. Climbing to the observation platform via stairs or a lift to the top of the tower would give you a panoramic view of the city. There are also working models of the port of Calais on display.

I had a snack and coffee at L’authentic Joe café restaurant at Rue Neuve located in Centre Commercial Coeur De Vie in Calais, before strolling in the city. It was a short walk opposite the commercial centre to the pedestrian street of Rue Charost. The balloon installation by the Portuguese artist Patricia Cunha has created a multi-colour design hanging over Rue Charost. I reach Boulevard la Fayette looking at the same colourful balloon installation decorating the sky of the main street of Calais. The Grand Theater de Calais stands at the crossing of Bd la Fayette and Bd Pasteur.

A tour of the seafront and sandy beaches of Calais is not to be missed. As I walked along the beach, enjoying the calm view of the sea, I was amazed to see a giant creature moving along the beach front. La Compagnie du Dragon represents the majestic mechanical beastiary of a dragon. This mechanical animal is 12 meters high and 25 meters long and made of steel and wood. It has been innovated by François Delaroziere. The gigantic model of the Dragon looks so real, as it moves its ears, eyelids and tongue. It sprays water and fire now and then. You can step into the tail of this giant machine, climb the stairs to sit onboard for a forty-five minutes adventure along the promenade. As the dragon starts moving a guide explains the story behind its design. A team of 6 people control and drives the dragon. I found it an interesting experience to relax onboard viewing the glory of the sea.

A still from Calais – Images © Mohammad Reza Amirinia

I ended my day by having dinner at Aquaraile restaurant near Calais port. I enjoyed my dinner while watching a panoramic view of the sea from large windows from the fourth floor of the building, looking at ships embarking from the port. There are many restaurants in Calais offering excellent seafood. I ordered a vegetable soup made with parsley for my starter. I followed this with the main course, cod fish with potatoes and broccoli. Aquaraile also offers an excellent cheese board to meet most tastes. I ended my dinner with dessert and mint tea while watching the sunset. The scenery was a colourful explosion of light and tint as the sun faded away on the horizon.

I was lucky to witness Fête de la Musique in Calais which happens every year on the 21st of June, the symbolic day of the summer solstice. The annual event is a music celebration throughout the territory of Hauts-de-France with free performances of all kinds. I went to the city centre. There were many stands with DJs playing hip hop, pop and jazz outside shops and restaurants across Rue Royale. The celebration was extended to Place d’Armes, a large square at the centre of the town where the 13th-century watch tower of Tour du Guet stands. A monument of Yvonne and Charles De Gaulle has also been erected in the square. The festival was going to continue till morning, but I needed my sleep and could not stay longer.

A still from Calais – Images © Mohammad Reza Amirinia

In the morning after breakfast, I checked out of the hotel and headed to visit La Coupole. I was interested in learning more about the history of World War II in France and German remains around Calais. Calais was a very strategic place for Germans to launch an attack on Britain. In 1943 the Germans built La Coupole, an impressive bunker to launch the V2 missiles against Britain. This historic site was built in the Pas-de-Calais department, about 5 kilometres from Saint-Omer, and 40 Kilometres from Calais Port. This innovative centre was never used because Germans could not complete it on time as the site was heavily bombarded by Allied forces. The site was renovated in 1997 and turned into a museum to tell the story of the German occupation of France including the V weapons, various missiles and space exploration. Arriving at the museum and before entering the tunnel, the view of the grey dome of La Coupole is a solemn reminder of this mighty destructive military site. 

I entered a huge dark tunnel with high ceiling leading to winding smaller tunnels. There are smaller inner sections displaying the exhibits about La Couple and certain machinery which was used in building the bunker. Going through the tunnels reminds me of war movies. I highly recommend it to those who like to get in-depth information about World War II.

A still from Calais – Images © Mohammad Reza Amirinia

My exploration of Calais wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Calais Museum of Lace and Fashion. It was a great educational experience to learn about the origins of lace-making in Calais. The museum is housed in an old lace factory. The story of lace in Calais goes back to the early nineteenth century when a group of tulle makers immigrated from Nottingham (famous for its lace making) to Calais. They smuggled machinery from England and set up their lace-making business. Their business flourished and soon become an important trade on the continent. Old machines are still in operation. The visitor can observe lace making and hear the musical sound of machines. 

The museum illustrates the history of lace making with displays of handmade examples through to products made by machine. There are also fashion exhibits of various clothes using lace.     

I enjoyed my 24 hours visit to Calais. I hope to return in the future and explore more of this amazing city. I took the DFDS ferry back to Dover enjoying the benefits of their premium lounge.

More Information:

  • For information about Calais visit Calais Tourist office.
  • DFDS Ferries has frequent daily sailings from Dover to Calais and offers prices from £70 each way for a car including four people. You can upgrade for the premium lounge at a price of £12 per person each way.

Images and story © Mohammad Reza Amirinia

Categories
ASEAN News Columns India News

LONG READ: INTERVIEW – Gopal Subramanium

BY ABHISH K BOSE

Advocate Gopal Subramanium, a native of Bengaluru, graduated in law from Delhi University and worked under Soli J Sorabjee. In 1993, he was designated as a Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court of India, suo moto, thus becoming one of the youngest senior advocates in the history of the Supreme Court. In 2005 Gopal was appointed as the Additional Solicitor general of India and served as the Solicitor General from 2009 to 2011.

During his tenure as a law officer, he was honoured with the National Law Day Award for Outstanding Jurist, presented to him in 2009 by the President of India, for his consistent professional excellence and adherence to the highest traditions of the Bar.

Gopal continues to act as lead counsel in several path-breaking matters. He served as lead counsel for Novartis AG in Novartis’ challenge before the Supreme Court to deny granting it an Indian patent for the cancer drug ‘Glivec.’ His arbitration experience includes appearing as lead counsel for Indian companies in ICC and domestic arbitrations. In addition, he regularly deposes as an expert witness on Indian law in SIAC and other international commercial arbitrations.

Gopal has also served as a member of the arbitral tribunal presided over by Justice R.S. Pathak, former Chief Justice of India and Judge, International Court of Justice, in arbitration between Transammonia AG and MMTC Limited. In 2017, he represented Japan’s Daiichi Sankyo in enforcement proceedings before the Delhi High Court for a $550 million ICC award with a seat at Singapore. He was granted permission to appear in challenge proceedings concerning the same award before the Singapore High Court. 

In 2017, Gopal acted as lead counsel for the Petitioners in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union of India where a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India unanimously held that there was a fundamental right to privacy under the Indian Constitution. An exclusive interview with Asian Lite’s Abhish K. Bose discusses his functioning as amicus curie in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case, the imprisonment of social activists by the Union government, and the slapping of sedition cases against a large number of people among a number of things. 

Gopal Subramanium

ABHISK K BOSE: In the book ‘Shades of Truth: A Derailed Journey’ Kapil Sibal alleges that you were not appointed as an SC judge despite the collegium recommending as you persuaded the SC to entrust CBI with the investigation of the Kausar Bi and Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. What is your take?

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: On the statement, given the extraordinary respect I have for Kapil, I am unsure whether that was the real reason. My reflections over time prompt that the decisions are not taken on the basis of these considerations. So the first may look like an apparent perception; in retrospect, I am unsure about decisions based on perceptions. My position to decline consent was based on the principle that the executive and those invited to accept the Judicial Office must have mutual trust. If that trust is deficient in the beginning, it puts everybody at a disadvantage and causes unnecessary polarity in outcomes unintended by the very nature of judicial avocation. 

On the second point relating to the disillusionment with the Supreme Court, I confess that I do have that optimism and positivism. It would not be possible for me to discharge functions freely within an institution. The kinetic potentiality of human dynamism postulates that nothing is rigid. Any verdict pronounced has to be ultimately judged by the history of time. History of time is a more powerful judge than individuals. One can make a difference only if one think positively and rationally and if you are willing to engage and dialogue with people whose views may lead to a particular disappointment or disagreement.

ABHISH K BOSE: Your efforts as an amicus curie in the Sohrabuddin encounter case led to the Supreme Court verdict taking the case from Gujarat police and handing it over to the CBI in 2010. However, even the judge who presided over the case at the CBI Court died under mysterious circumstances. The main accused in the case Amit Shah was discharged from the case in 2014. What are your ruminations?

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: We should know that one cannot come to any conclusions if there is one thing I have learned in criminal law: circumstances may tend to incriminate. Still, the evidence must also reasonably exclude all possible exculpatory circumstances and situations. It takes a lot of training to understand this in criminal law. So I would say nobody can prejudge any outcome in a criminal case, and is not fair to do that. Because humans are individuals and they may have possible explanations.

One of the significant problems, shall I say, faced in a justice delivery system is public perception. It may not necessarily be based on facts and not necessarily be a sound perception. So I am not willing to comment on the individual, the individuals are people who have adorned distinguished positions both in the state and also today in the central government. I think the process of law ultimately has to answer one way or the other, and if it has responded to in favour of a person, I don’t think the process itself can be questioned.

This is really the difference between testing truth and sensing some way what could possibly be the truth. But truth ultimately has to be tested and verified in a criminal case. So I must tell you that populist assessments are best avoided because, ultimately we must have some degree of faith in the processes of the law, and the methods have to be safeguarded. It is only then that outcomes can be judged.

ABHISH K BOSE: Do you think a free and fair trial happened in the Sohrabuddin encounter case?

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: As a professional, I had no occasion to review the case records, and without checking the complete documents, I don’t think making any comment on it is correct. Because when a person comments on a trial or a process, he must undertake the examination of the whole record, and he must assess them very objectively based on several factors on either side and should come to a conclusion. When I have not done that, I can’t make that comment. While I was amicus curie, I carried out my job, and after that, I had no time for any review of any papers of that case. Unless somebody has seen a complete record of a trial matter, to comment on the trial or the process is not fair.

ABHISH K BOSE: A CBI Court judge died under mysterious circumstances in connection with the case and allegations sprang up. Still you persist in your opinion?

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: The death of any person is a matter of grief. The end of a judge is sad, particularly when he is holding a public office. But you must understand that Courts have enquired into the unfortunate events. Again, we must not be carried away that a sense of mystery is attached to it. The SC had undertaken an inquiry; the High Court also launched a probe, hence the need to trust the people who conducted the investigation. As I said to make fiction look like the fact is an injustice. The outcome of the investigation and the assessment by the Court was based on what happened. Often life ends even though it is due to organic causes. So such events have to be investigated rationally, and that is what happened.

ABHISH K BOSE: India is going through a tough phase. Do you think that in such a scenario, the Supreme Court of India, the custodian of the Constitution, should play a proactive role? 

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: I think that the SC should always honour the freedom of speech and expression, and the SC has got the moral stature to be able to persuade the governments of the importance of freedom of speech and expression.

Governments must not be defensive on this account. They must embrace free speech as a cardinal principle of any democratic society. And this is why Courts should engage and encourage transformative exercise in constitutional behaviour and perception. The late Justice Krishna Iyer was an extraordinary judge. By his judgements, he was able to transform governmental consciousness. So this consciousness also involves debate and engagement. All of us need to redefine what we think is free speech, and for me, free speech is freedom of ideas and free ideas are vital for any society. It is, according to me, a footprint of an individual soul. Free speech, means responsible speech but this is an attribute of human freedom. In particular, when governments know about the denial of liberty in the past they have a greater duty to preserve free speech. In my view, these areas are where the Courts can play a stellar role in terms of active engagement. 

Farmers protesting in Delhi seeking the withdrawal of farm reforms

ABHISH K BOSE: The Supreme Court on June 26th this year dismissed a plea of Zakia Jaffri challenging the SITs clean chit to 64 persons, including the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the 2002 Gujarat riots case. The SC termed the protest petition as devoid of merit. Meanwhile, Teesta Setalvad and former Gujarath DGP RB Sreekumar were arrested for alleged fabrication of evidence regarding 2002 Gujarat riots cases. Your comments

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: I happened to know the late Motilal Setalvad, I happened to know Athul Setalvad, and I also know Teesta Setalvad, so her arrest is a matter of personal anguish for those who know the background of an individual. All of us must take extra precautions so that suggestions of any possible retribution or reprisal are necessary to be avoided. The more excellent governance is, the greater must be the ability to let go of a perception of reprisal.

But this is where we all have to engage; we all have to be positive because, ultimately, it can change. Change takes place only through dialogue, consultative participation, discussion, and looking at progressive behaviours. All these are vital components of social consciousness that have to be readily brought to the fore. On the merits of an individual case, I have had no opportunity to read the record and cannot say more.

This is a scan of a photograph taken by me during the Communal riots on Ahmedabad, Gujarat in February/March 2002. The photo shows the skyline of Ahmedabad filled with smoke as buildings are set on fire by rioting mobs. (Credits: Wikipedia)

ABHISH K BOSE: There is growing anxiety that the judiciary’s autonomy is being compromised. The historic press conference of the four senior SC judges in 2018 is especially relevant here. To what extent the judicial fraternity is failing to safeguard this autonomy? Is the legal system bound to be vulnerable to be coopted by an overbearing executive? Do you feel that the people’s faith in the judiciary is at risk of weakening?

First, I have to maintain that the concept of an overbearing executive is overstated. Judges are Judges and independent. They decide the attitudes of the governments. It is not the other way. Ultimately, judges and lawyers have to speak up for what is right and engage for what is right, not based on mistrust. The language of doubt is a failure of culture. Judges are entirely free and meant to be free agents under the Constitution and because they are free agents, they fashion their destiny. They are expected to be in control of their future and effectively discharge those functions. They must also believe that they can do it and will do it. This is the point I am making. If we don’t have faith in the judiciary, it is like we are not having faith in ourselves.

To conclude, a very long distance needs to be travelled while there could be some challenging moments in society. But when there are difficult moments greater must be the resolve to have a dialogue, greater must be the willingness to engage, and greater must be the willingness to collaborate for a larger purpose. Individual autonomy, freedom, respect for the Constitution and the importance of public confidence in judicial institutions constitute central values. All this requires collaborative work. It requires a very high level of respect.

The level of respect and effort required is that a man has to step out of himself, and what can initiate and guide this process is a higher overarching presence of more significant values. The overriding fact of greater values is the only key to resolving perceptions. How can those overarching values be actualized in the legal process? If we apply this attribution, we will always find that the judiciary will always be the sentinel qui vive.

While there could be moments when our hopes are tested, my suggestion is that we must never be hopeless. If we are hopeless, there is nothing to strive for and we must also bear in mind that there are future generations of judges, and lawyers and there are several inspiring judges in today’s world. The future could be defined only through a progressive outlook, an outlook which is based on social consciousness, egalitarianism, equality, and the supremacy of the person. The State must be a condiment of hope and the citizen and the state need not have a disparate relation. They can have a healthy, constructive and critical relationship and still work together. The ability to work together is the most important factor and those who inspire that ability are the real leaders. 

ABHISH K BOSE: The National Crime Records Bureau ( NCRB) data shows that there has been a 165% increase in the registration of sedition cases since 2016. It is also alleged that the sedition cases are slapped to settle political scores. Currently, the matter is under the scrutiny of the SC. What are your views on the increasing number of sedition cases?

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: I think that sedition is a very extreme offence. It is also somewhere antiquated. It was actually used for repression earlier. So we must understand that what is an antiquated provision should not be used with the passage of time. There is something called the doctrine of demise that a provision becomes meaningless with the advance of time. The march of time and civilisation has to be considered. We must expect that the parliament will be aware that things have moved and change is the order of the day and one must expect that the right results will come. 

Gopal Subramanium

ABHISH K BOSE: Laws are made by the elites and are bound to favour the socio-economic and the political elite. But all are in theory, assumed to be equal in the eyes of the law. How can the gap between the real and the ideal be narrowed if not bridged? Please comment.

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: Let us not forget that ours is a country that had Dalit Presidents. Let us not forget that someone from the oppressed section holds the most crucial position in the country. These are facts of inspiration. We should not forget that such people who have risen to the highest office. Even if this handful of people made this impact they have made an impact. Dr BR Ambedkar was the greatest colossus of his times and the true embodiment of Indian Conscience. No one can make justice constitutional history except by reading his complete works which the government of Maharashtra actually published under a superb editorial committee presided over by former Governor RS Gavai.  If one reads them we will learn the length and breadth of understanding of law and inequality. You have got a very fair point. That equality as an ideal is one thing and equality, in reality, is another. That is why the theory exists that power itself must be open to scrutiny. The concept of power being open to scrutiny, power being exercised reasonably, and power being exercised non-arbitrarily is one way to make sure that the underdog never suffers.

ABHISH K BOSE: Is the current mode of selecting judges satisfactory? What changes would you suggest to improve it? How can this process be vaccinated against political-ideological and casteist considerations?

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: Perhaps with more structured data collection and analysis, greater sustained engagement could emerge from the selection process. Sustained attention excludes personal considerations or preferences. You have to do a solid studied profile of the person with multiple factors to consider. Instead, a multi-factorial approach in a depersonalized setting enables merit to defend and shine. It will shine through like anything. So the ability to sense the brilliance of a judge is a part of the selection process. That requires prognosis, it involves forecasting and deep human understanding.

ABHISH K BOSE: Is it possible and feasible to adopt a hybrid system by which certain kinds of cases are tried under the jury system? What in your view would be the impediments to this option?

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: In India, the jury system will be seriously flawed because it will be based on perceptions. It will be challenging for any judge to give appropriate directions to a group of people in cases where public feeling may run high. So I think it is unsafe to try the issues in such a system.

ABHISH K BOSE: Litigation is prohibitively expensive, especially at the higher courts. This infuses an unwitting bias in the legal system in favour of the rich and the powerful. Often cases are won or lost based on the understanding of the counsel. Such lawyers are affordable only to the rich, which could subvert justice to the poor. What if any is the way out so that justice may be ensured for the poor and not merely promised in theory?

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: I think there are three important ways in which access to justice can be made more equitable. There is a brilliant future for younger lawyers that has to be nurtured. It has to be nurtured and cultivated and there is nothing more thrilling for a lawyer than the acknowledgement of hard work and merit. The greatest joy of the young lawyer is the acknowledgement by the Court. In  Odisha, they have introduced a scheme in which the lawyer who conducts a trial capably earns a prize through a process of nomination. This will encourage young lawyers. The second is that judges by training can always judge that someone is getting an undue benefit or someone is being prejudiced. This is where the judges with sagacity and experience can order a course correction.

The third is that we must make legal aid entirely professional, and honourable, and we must make legal aid a significant item in public spending. Any good government must be sensitive to the judicial process in terms of allocations of money, infrastructure, and technology. This is how constitutions will survive and endure.

ABHISH K BOSE: You were elected as an honorary master of Grays  Inn. Could you compare the independence of the judiciary in UK and India?

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: The Judiciaries in both countries are conceptually committed to  Impartiality and Independence. The circumstances of the society, the nature of work which comes up before Courts, and the value of precedents are not quite identical. The two societies are different and the challenges are very different. I was very happy to be called to the Gray’s Inn because Ambedkar’s portrait adorns the Inn. However there is something called best global practices, and we should be open to to incorporate whatever we can in our own practice. Great Judges like Justice Krishna Iyer knew the value of change; what is of value is the ability to enhance our constitutional promises to the people in the preamble.

ABHISH K BOSE: Recently the Prime Minister referred somewhat offhand that justice must be done to the tens and thousands of undertrials languishing for years and years in various prisons of the country with trials yet to begin. The courts in the country maintain the dictum that jail should be the exception and bail should be the norm. But those in the category I refer to are not in a position to take bail. What is your take?

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: I think what the Hon’ble Prime Minister mentioned about the undertrials is a serious matter. There is a need to brainstorm to find solutions such as Review by independent bodies so that trials may be finished one way or the other, and use of technology where necessary. The need to be denied liberty must be augmented by very objective factors.

ABHISH K BOSE: You were an amicus curie appointed by the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. Please explain your association as amicus curie of the temple.

GOPAL SUBRAMANIUM: I have ceased to be the amicus curie. Even an amicus curiae is not supposed to have any attachment to anything. It is a professional task undertaken, done and promptly forgotten.