May 112019
 

As in previous years, Kaberi and I celebrated the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore with Prantik at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK. Our theme this year was Tagore and the seasons: Spring.

We began our performance by recreating the dance procession each year at the Spring Festival (Basanta Utsav) in Santiniketan to the song Orai grihobashi. Our procession started from the steps of the Shakespeare Centre and wound its way around the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace until we reached the performance area by the house in which Shakespeare was born.

After an introduction by Emily Ireson from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, we performed various songs for Tagore’s seasonal collection (Riturongo). Kaberi also danced to the poem Shesh Modhu (Spring Finale), which Prasenjit Saha had kindly translated into rhyming English for us.

The English translations of the songs and poems were recited by Shakespeare Aloud! actor James Anderson. The singers and musicians from Prantik, apart from me, were:

  • Anindita Sengupta Saha (also on tanpura)
  • Chhaya Biswas
  • Farzeen Huq
  • Kaberi Chatterjee (who also danced)
  • Mousumi Basu (who also recited the poem Shesh Modhu)
  • Nikhilesh Das Gupta
  • Sudakshina Roy
  • Supratik Basu (also on mandira)
  • Tirthankar Roy (also on esraj)

We were honoured that Krishnendu Banerjee from the Indian High Commission and Brij Kumar Guhare, Deputy Director of The Nehru Centre in London, came to Stratford-upon-Avon to attend our performance. Both expressed their appreciation of our performance and the uniquely appropriate setting of the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

Liisa Miil kindly filmed the performance for us. You can watch the video above. My script for our performance is available as a free download but please note its Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike licence. If you wish to use the script for commercial purposes or plan to remix or reuse it, please contact me.

Earlier in the day, we had visited Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon, to see how the tree we had helped to plant in 2011 for the 150th birth anniversary. That time, Kaberi had shown students from a local drama school how to dance in the traditional tree-planting (brikkhoropon) procession established by Rabindranath Tagore.

Especially as I was going to refer to it later in my narration, I was relieved to see that the tree is doing well. You can see it in the foreground of the photo below, with Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in the background.

May 072019
 

This year, my birthday was just after the Easter weekend. Many friends were travelling and we too had only just returned from the Austrian Tirol. In any case, a significant proportion of my friends and relatives are widely dispersed around the world.

It occurred to me that I should try to organise a virtual birthday party. However, looking online, no-one seemed to have tried to have a virtual party with more than a few people.

In the event, around 30 friends and relatives joined the virtual birthday party online, with 3 friends joining in person. The furthest east was a friend in Bangkok, Thailand and the furthest west was a friend in Winnipeg, Canada. It was fun, at least for me, not only to see and hear everyone from so far afield but also to be able to bring together people who have been important to my life but who might otherwise never have the opportunity to talk to each other because of the geographical distance between them.

Of course, some things did not quite work out as planned. In particular, several friends and relatives tried to connect but were not able to do so, mainly because they could not find the connection link, which I had put at the very end of my invitation.

So, in case anyone else would like to organise a virtual party, here are the steps I would recommend:

Preparation

  1. Make sure you have a stable internet connection wherever you will be at the time of your party.
  2. Get a Zoom Pro licence (the minimum is for 1 month), which allows up to 100 participants. There are other video-conferencing options, such as Google Hangouts, but ideally you need the possibility to create ‘breakout rooms’. This requires a more specialised platform.
  3. Check that you have suitable equipment to allow people online to hear you and see you properly, even if you have others attending the party with you in person. This could be just a smartphone or a tablet but you may need to run the sound through an amplifier/speaker for everyone with you to hear those online.
  4. Create the Zoom session for the party.

Invitation

  1. I had thought of using an invitation platform such as evite or Eventbrite to make the invitation look attractive on any platform. I am connected with different friends and relatives in different ways (e-mail, social media, text messages, etc).

    Although I used Eventbrite this time, I don’t think I would do so again. Several friends thought the Eventbrite link would get them into the virtual party. In future, I would keep the invitation short and provide the Zoom connection details near the start of the text.
  2. Identify a period in your time zone which you can manage to be there yourself for the whole time and which allows everyone you wish to invite an opportunity to connect at a reasonable time in their time zones. For my virtual birthday party, I had invited people to join between 18:00 and midnight Central European Time. Those in the Far East could join in the first part of that period. Those in the Americas could join the last part of that.
  3. Send invitations 2-3 weeks in advance, including the Zoom meeting ID (and password).
  4. Send a reminder 2-3 days in advance to those who have confirmed that they will participate and to those who have not replied.
  5. Explain that those joining online should join the party with their preferred food/drink to hand.
  6. You could also mention the advantage of not having to worry about how to get home after the party ;-).
  7. I wrote individual messages to the friends I was inviting but this does take time. As I only had the idea a few days before my birthday, I did not manage to invite everyone I had intended to.

The party

  1. Test your technical setup (audio, video and internet connection) at least 1 hour before the first people are due to join.
  2. Prepare breakout rooms called ‘Living room’, ‘Dining room’, ‘Kitchen’ into which you could ‘Assign’ your guests during the party, if there are more than 4 or 5 guests online at the same time. [In a forthcoming update to Zoom, guests will be able to select for themselves which room they want to go into. Perhaps one day they will be able to do so based on who is in each room.]
  3. Make sure that you abandon neither those online nor those physically with you. This can be difficult. Ideally someone who is physically with you could switch with you from time to time between being the online host and the host in the physical venue.
  4. In principle, you should not tantalise your online guests with the food and drinks you are having at your physical venue. In practice, it is difficult to resist this temptation. The follow-up to the cake-cutting photo above was one of my friends showing those online in close-up  how delicious the cake was … .

Although it is difficult to make a virtual party as immersive as a real party, it does offer a way to bring together people who are geographically far apart and revive informal conversations with them. If you try this yourself (or if you attended my virtual birthday party – or indeed did not manage to do so [sorry!]), please add any suggestions for improvement in the comments below.

Mar 102019
 

For some reason, the UK Government seems deeply reluctant to investigate Russia’s apparent interference in the UK’s 2016 EU Referendum. Usually, a foreign power trying to destabilise a country would provoke immediate national security concerns.

In February, Parliament’s DCMS Committee repeated its “call to the Government to make a statement about how many investigations are currently being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics. We want to find out what was the impact of disinformation and voter manipulation on past elections including the UK Referendum in 2016 and are calling on the Government to launch an independent investigation.”

In January, the US Senate report Putin’s asymmetric assault on democracy in Russia and Europe: implications for US national security, criticised “the way in which UK campaign finance laws do not require disclosure of political donations if they are from “the beneficial owners of non-British companies that are incorporated in the EU and carry out business in the UK”.”

This opacity, the report suggests, “may have enabled Russian-related money to be directed with insufficient scrutiny to various UK political actors”.In a court case a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister’s legal representative, Sir James Eadie, told the court that “The true position is the Prime Minister is entirely well aware of the notorious facts … of the well-publicised facts: Electoral Commission findings, the facts of an appeal, police investigations, ICO, DCMS committees. All clear, publicly done and properly done. And it’s perfectly obvious that the Prime Minister has decided to carry on and that Parliament is proceeding and that everyone is proceeding on that basis.”

Of course, there is nothing new about this rather British preference to turn a blind eye towards serious crimes and misdemeanours affecting the lives of many. There was another infamous example 100 years ago.

India’s contribution to the Second World War

Although they are rarely mentioned in British history, hundreds of thousands of Indians fought in Europe in the British army in World War I. Over 1,000 died at Gallipoli and nearly 700,000 fought in Mesopotamia against the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally.

India also supported Britain in cash and kind, to the tune of some £50 billion in today’s money. India suffered high taxation to support the war, accompanied by high inflation. In return, Britain had promised to deliver self-rule progressively to India at the end of the war.

Rowlatt Act

However, after the war, the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1918 were very far from this. A hundred years ago today, on 10 March 1919, it also passed the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919. This unpopular Act became known as the Rowlatt Act, after Sir Sidney Rowlatt, the British judge who was the president of the Rowlatt Committee which recommended it.

The Act effectively authorised the Government to imprison any person suspected of terrorism living in British India for up to two years without a trial, and gave the imperial authorities power to deal with all revolutionary activities. It reimposed all the wartime restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly (which had been lifted after the Armistice).

“The Act granted the authorities the power to arrest Indians on mere suspicion and to try them in secrecy without a right to counsel or a right of appeal.”

An era of darkness: the British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor

On 30 March and 6 April 1919, Indians went on strike throughout Punjab, shutting down normal commerce in many cities, including Amritsar. Without violence or disorder, they expressed their dissatisfaction with Britain’s betrayal.

On 9 April, the British arrested two nationalist leaders who had addressed protest meetings. As news of their arrests spread, the people of Amritsar pushed their way to police headquarters to protest. Some threw stones at the police who barred their way. The police retaliated by opening fire, killing 10 demonstrators.

In the riot that followed, five Englishmen were killed and a woman missionary was assaulted.

Amritsar, April 1919

Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, c1919

By 11 April, 600 soldiers arrived in Amritsar to restore order. The following day, their commander, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer arrived. By then, the city was calm and any demonstrations or protest meetings were peaceful.

Nonetheless, Dyer issued a proclamation on 13 April forbidding people to leave the city without a pass, to organise demonstrations or processions, or even to gather in groups of more than three. However, unaware of the proclamation, some 10-15,000 people from outlying districts gathered in Amritsar the same day to celebrate the major religious festival Baisakhi.

They had assembled in an enclosed, walled garden called Jallianwala Bagh. It was a popular spot for public events but was only accessible through five narrow passageways.

When Dyer heard of this meeting, he took a detachment of soldiers in armoured cars equipped with machine guns. Although it was clear that the people were unarmed, Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on them without any warning. They continued to shoot for 10 minutes until all their ammunition was exhausted.

Seeing that the exits from the Jallianwala Bagh were blocked, many sought refuge from the bullets by jumping into a well in its centre. According to a plaque by the well, 120 bodies were found in it.

Afterwards, Dyer forbade his soldiers to give any aid to the injured. He ordered all Indians to stay off the streets of Amritsar for twenty-four hours, preventing relatives or friends from bringing even a cup of water to the wounded, who were writhing in agony calling for help.

The massacre and Dyer’s evidence to the subsequent Hunter Commission which was set up in October 1919 to investigate it were depicted in the Richard Attenborough film Gandhi. Officially, 379 people were killed and 1.137 injured. The casualty number estimated by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500 injured, with approximately 1,000 dead.

Dyer reported to his superiors that he had been “confronted by a revolutionary army”. Major General William Beynon and Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab Michael O’Dwyer approved of his actions. The Lieutenant-Governor requested that martial law should be imposed on Amritsar and other areas, and this was granted by the Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford.

Dyer became known in India as “The butcher of Amritsar”.

Tagore’s reaction

News of the massacre was suppressed by the British Government. Nonetheless, it reached Rabindranath Tagore on 22 May 1919.

Seeing the inaction of the British Government, and after being prevented from arranging a protest meeting in Calcutta, he decided to write to the Viceroy of India on 31 May 1919, returning the Knighthood he had been awarded by King George V on 3 June 1915.

Your Excellency,

The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in the Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India. The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote. Considering that such treatment has been meted out to a population, disarmed and resourceless, by a power which has the most terribly efficient organisation for destruction of human lives, we must strongly assert that it can claim no political expediency, far less moral justification. The accounts of the insults and sufferings by our brothers in Punjab have trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India, and the universal agony of indignation roused in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers—possibly congratulating themselves for what they imagine as salutary lessons. This callousness has been praised by most of the Anglo-Indian papers, which have in some cases gone to the brutal length of making fun of our sufferings, without receiving the least check from the same authority—relentlessly careful in smothering every cry of pain and expression of judgement from the organs representing the sufferers. Knowing that our appeals have been in vain and that the passion of vengeance is blinding the nobler vision of statesmanship in our Government, which could so easily afford to be magnanimous as befitting its physical strength and moral tradition, the very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror. The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.

These are the reasons which have painfully compelled me to ask Your Excellency, with due reference and regret, to relieve me of my title of Knighthood, which I had the honour to accept from His Majesty the King at the hands of your predecessor, for whose nobleness of heart I still entertain great admiration.

Rabindranath Tagore’s letter to the Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford, on 31 May 1919

Britain’s response

Details of the massacre did not emerge in Britain before December 1919. On 20 July 1920, the fate of General Dyer was debated in the British Parliament. Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, opened the debate with an explanation of the three options available to the Government:

  1. remove [the officer] from his employment or his appointment, relegated to half pay, and told that he has no prospects of being employed again. … The officer in question has no redress. He has no claim to a court or inquiry or court martial.
  2. retire an officer compulsorily from the Service, or imposing on him some reduction or forfeiture in his pension or retired pay. In this case the officer is protected … by the fact that it is necessary for three members of the Army Council to approve the proceeding, and by certain rights of laying his case before them.
  3. Honour, liberty, life are affected. Cashiering, imprisonment, or the death penalty may be involved, and … the whole resources and protection which judicial procedure, lawful tribunals, and British justice accord to an accused person are brought into play.

In Dyer’s case, he was removed from his appointment by the Commander-in-Chief in India; passed over for promotion; was informed that there was no prospect of further employment for him under the Government of India; and that, in consequence, he reverted automatically to half-pay. The Army Council had chosen the first option.

Churchill then explained the facts:

The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, the the fire was then directed down on the ground. This was continued for 8 to 10 minutes, and it … stopped only when it was on the point of exhaustion, enough ammunition being retained to provide for the safety of the force on its return journey. If more troops had been available, says this officer, the casualties would have been greater in proportion. If the road had not been so narrow, the machine guns and the armoured cars would have joined in. Finally, when the ammunition had reached the point that only enough remained to allow for the safe return of the troops, and after 379 persons, which is about the number gathered together in this Chamber to-day, had been killed, and when most certainly 1,200 or more had been wounded, the troops, at whom not even a stone had been thrown, swung round and marched away. … I do not think it is in the interests of the British Empire or of the British Army for us to take a load of that sort for all time on our backs. We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or another, that this is not the British way of doing business.

Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War – UK House of Commons, 8 July 1920

Churchill personally would have wished that General Dyer had been “placed compulsorily on the retired list”. However, he recommended (and the House of Commons confirmed) the decision of the Army Council as it was clear that “General Dyer’s conduct has been approved by a succession of superiors above him.” Although he was censured by the House of Commons, he was exonerated by the House of Lords and allowed to retire on a handsome pension. Rudyard Kipling hailed Dyer as “The man who saved India.”

Fund-raising for Dyer

The conservative, pro-Imperialist Morning Post newspaper (which subsequently merged with The Daily Telegraph) launched a fund to raise money for Dyer. When he arrived in Britain after his exile from India, he was presented with over £26,000 (equivalent to over £250,000 today).

In contrast, after many months of fighting for justice, the families of the victims of the massacre were given 500 rupees each (equivalent to £1,450 today) for each human life.

Several years later, on 13 March 1940, Udham Singh, who had been serving water to the crowds in Jallianwala Bagh before Dyer and his troops opened fire, assassinated Michael O’Dwyer in Caxton Hall in London. Historians now believe that O’Dwyer had ordered Dyer to carry out the massacre.

Jawaharlal Nehru wrote later that “This cold-blooded approval of that deed shocked me greatly. It seemed absolutely immoral, indecent; to use public school language, it was the height of bad form. I realised then, more vividly than I had ever done before, how brutal and immoral imperialism was and how it had eaten into the souls of the British upper classes.”

Brexit and the British elite

A century later, it would appear that the British elite are applying similarly brutal and immoral tactics in forcing a hard Brexit on an unsuspecting British public. They seem to be somewhat nostalgic about Britain’s imperial past.

As Alternative War author James Patrick noted on Friday:

You know, over the centuries Britain has built up quite a horrific Karma account. The world’s a small place with a long memory and the bill has come due.— James Patrick 🐐 (@J_amesp) March 8, 2019


Jan 202019
 

On Tuesday, 15 January, the Government suffered the heaviest Parliamentary defeat in history for recommending the ratification of the deal Theresa May has negotiated with the EU27. Nonetheless, the following day, it won a vote of no confidence in the Government.

Various ways forward have been proposed, such as a People’s Vote on the deal or leaving the EU and joining the EEA. However, there does not seem to be a majority in Parliament for any of these options. And, although Theresa May has said she is open to talks with other parties, she does not appear open to changing her red lines, which resulted in the deal she has negotiated.

There is one thing a large majority of MPs do agree on: they do not want a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn has refused to talk to Theresa May unless she takes ‘no deal’ Brexit “off the table”. In her letter to him to remove this pre-condition to talks, she wrote:

I note that you have said that ‘ruling out’ no deal is a precondition before we can meet, but that is an impossible condition because it is not within the Government’s power to rule out no deal.

Actually, it is within Parliament’s power to rule out no deal. On 10 December 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled as follows:

Article 50 TEU must be interpreted as meaning that, where a Member State has notified the European Council, in accordance with that article, of its intention to withdraw from the European Union, that article allows that Member State — for as long as a withdrawal agreement concluded between that Member State and the European Union has not entered into force or, if no such agreement has been concluded, for as long as the two-year period laid down in Article 50(3) TEU, possibly extended in accordance with that paragraph, has not expired — to revoke that notification unilaterally, in an unequivocal and unconditional manner, by a notice addressed to the European Council in writing, after the Member State concerned has taken the revocation decision in accordance with its constitutional requirements. The purpose of that revocation is to confirm the EU membership of the Member State concerned under terms that are unchanged as regards its status as a Member State, and that revocation brings the withdrawal procedure to an end.

In the Supreme Court judgment in the Gina Miller case 2 years ago, the constitutional requirements to invoke Article 50 were established as follows:

… if, as we consider, what would otherwise be a prerogative act would result in a change in domestic law, the act can only lawfully be carried out with the sanction of primary legislation enacted by the Queen in Parliament.

As a result, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 was enacted on 16 March 2017 to authorise the Prime Minister to make the Article 50 notification of the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU. This implies that primary legislation would also be required to revoke such a notification.

The simplest way to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit happening by default may be to amend the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 by adding a clause 1(3): “The Prime Minister must revoke such a notification [at least 30 days] before the two-year period laid down in Article 50(3)of the Treaty on European Union, possibly extended in accordance with that paragraph, expires unless a withdrawal agreement concluded between the United Kingdom and the European Union has entered into force by that date[, after ratification by Parliament].”

This still leaves Parliament the possibility to continue all the other options, possibly with a request to extend the Article 50 deadline (subject to the unanimous agreement of the other 27 EU Member States). As a result, it should be capable of receiving the support of all MPs (including Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn) who wish to avoid a ‘no deal Brexit’ by default.

Professor Phil Syrpis, of Bristol University, agrees that “switching the default to revoke from no deal is a possible path forward“. He also drew my attention to this post by ‘SpinningHugo’ to “Change the default“.

There are so many “tribes” in Parliament, especially among Conservative MPs, that there does not seem to be any single solution which will attract the support of a majority of MPs. As EU Council President Donald Tusk said after the defeat of Theresa May’s deal in Parliament:

If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?

Dec 302018
 
Brexit/Britain is in the bin (via Erica Neustadt)

While Theresa May and Jeremby Corbyn play games with Parliamentary procedure, time is passing. In less than three months, on 29 March 2019, 2 years after Theresa May triggered the Article 50 procedure, the EU Treaties will cease to apply to the UK … unless Parliament does something first. The only problem is that the there is a political impasse in Parliament.

To get an idea of how people feel about this, we have created an online “event” which you can take part in anonymously. By answering this first question, you will help to feed the word cloud below. You can add several words if you wish, before clicking on the ‘Send’ button.

Fresh from its Christmas break, the Home Office started to ask non-British EU nationals living in the UK to apply for ‘settled status’. Actually, the tweet called on all EU citizens living in the UK (ie including British citizens) to apply.

Apart from the legal error, this suggests that the Home Office has failed to learn the lessons of the Windrush scandal and is about to launch another “ethnic cleansing” programme on a much larger scale – there are some 3.6 million non-British EU nationals living in the UK. As Professor Tanja Bueltmann has pointed out, ‘settled status’ will create a new Windrush generation of EU citizens. The unsettling effects of this policy on people who have lived and worked in the UK for decades are illustrated by the people in the video response below.

Meanwhile, back in Parliament, Theresa May has negotiated a deal with the EU27 which few MPs (other than those in Government) are prepared to back. It is either a worse deal than staying in the EU or does not allow the UK sufficient independence from the EU – depending on the perspective of the MP concerned.

MPs were supposed to have voted on the deal on 11 December but the vote was postponed by Theresa May until 14 January as she realised that a significant majority of MPs would vote against the deal. Her strategy appears to be to scare MPs with the perspective of a ‘no deal Brexit’ if they vote against her deal. The delay also seems to have been designed to reduce the time for a People’s Vote on the deal before 29 March 2019.

In theory, the UK could ask the EU27 to extend the Article 50 deadline. However this would require all 27 Member States to agree to this and, given that Theresa May has already exhausted their patience, there would seem to be a high chance that at least one Member State would block such an extension.

Another option, confirmed by the 10 December ruling of the European Court of Justice, is that the UK is free to revoke its Article 50 notification unilaterally. That possibility exists until either the withdrawal agreement comes into force or the 2-year period expires on 29 March 2019.

So there seem to be four options for MPs, as shown in the question below. Which of them would you prefer? You will see the relative support for each option after you have made your choice and pressed the ‘Send’ button.

So far in Parliament, most MPs are against a ‘no deal’ Brexit. However, there is currently no majority in Parliament for any option which might avoid this outcome.

Although Theresa May had claimed only three months ago that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal‘, the costs of a ‘no deal’ Brexit are becoming more apparent now. A few days before Christmas, the Government set aside £2 billion for ministries to prepare for a ‘no deal’ Brexit and putting 3,500 troops on standby. At the same time, more than 25% of UK business leaders are very pessimistic about the prospects of the UK economy.

Tagore had observed over a century ago that nationalism has a subtle but quite destructive effect on society.

“… the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anæsthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion,—in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out. …

“The Nation has thriven long upon mutilated humanity. Men, the fairest creations of God, came out of the National manufactory in huge numbers as war-making and money-making puppets, ludicrously vain of their pitiful perfection of mechanism. Human society grew more and more into a marionette show of politicians, soldiers, manufacturers and bureaucrats, pulled by wire arrangements of wonderful efficiency.

But the apotheosis of selfishness can never make its interminable breed of hatred and greed, fear and hypocrisy, suspicion and tyranny, an end in themselves. These monsters grow into huge shapes but never into harmony.”

Excerpt From: Rabindranath Tagore. “Nationalism.”

Tagore also drew attention to the tendency of nationalists to hold foreigners responsible for causing problems because they are different.

“The social habit of mind which impels us to make the life of our fellow-beings a burden to them where they differ from us even in such a thing as their choice of food, is sure to persist in our political organization and result in creating engines of coercion to crush every rational difference which is the sign of life.”

Excerpt From: Rabindranath Tagore. “Nationalism.”

Of course, this is not limited to the UK and Brexit. The late Paddy Ashdown, whose last book Nein! Standing up to Hitler 1935-1944 explores a similar period in German history, noted that President Trump has been using the same techniques as were used in that period.

In an interview in 2016, Paddy Ashdown had said “Leave aside the fact – which is good – that we don’t have mad militarists who want to go to war, everything else about our age reminds me of the 1930s. The fracture, the disrespect for the business of government, the hatred of the establishment. You see a retreat into isolationism, you see the rise of ugly forces, you see those who lie and make a pattern of lying … As Goebbels said, if you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big one and tell it often.”

Fortunately, in the same interview, he also said “I am certain that decency and the forces of good will triumph. When, I don’t know. But that it will happen, I am absolutely clear.”

Dec 012018
 

Yesterday, British broadcaster, actor, producer and director Stephen Fry launched this 12-minute animated documentary. It shows how certain UK politicians have built their careers by stirring up fear of immigrants and fear of a ‘mythical EU dragon’ over the past couple of years.

The video opens with an illustration of an illusion known as ‘forced perspective’, which Stephen Fry suggests is how the politicians have convinced people that these fears are real. As he points out, and as I mentioned in my previous post, they and the mainstream media promoting their views have used propaganda techniques similar to those used by the Nazis in the 1930s.

In the US, Donald Trump brands all news stories and facts which contradict his narrative as ‘Fake News’. Similarly, these UK politicians have branded inconvenient facts and forecasts as ‘Project Fear’.

Thanks to this approach, facts are unlikely to convince supporters of these politicians to change their minds. Stephen Fry explored this phenomenon in a previous video about the Dunning-Kruger effect … and explained how to tackle it.

In his excellent new book How to be right … in a world gone wrong, Radio talk show host James O’Brien describes how the media have fuelled the rise of this type of politician.

As with climate change, media organisations like the BBC have attempted to preserve ‘balance’ by interviewing people who have opposite views for the same amount of time. However, even if 95% of scientists are convinced that climate change has happened, this attempt at ‘balance’ gives disproportionate exposure to the 5% that do not.

James O’Brien suggests that his approach of asking people ‘why?’ (rather than the ‘what?’ asked traditionally by interviewers) obliges those he is interviewing to explain why they believe what they do, often revealing their misconceptions. However, he lays the blame for this at the door of the politicians who have misled his callers, not his callers themselves. Here is his recent RSA discussion about his book, which inspired me to buy the book.

Another impressive, recent initiative is the podcast series Dial M for Mueller, with award-winning investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr (who revealed the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal) and Peter Jukes. The latest episode explores why Nigel Farage is a ‘person of interest’ for the FBI investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

As I have mentioned before, Rabindranath Tagore attempted to warn the world about the dangers of nationalism over 100 years ago. His 1939 dance-drama Shyama , written in the context of growing tensions of pre-Independence India and the rise of nationalism in Europe, opens with a foreign merchant who is falsely accused of theft by a repressive regime.

I was happy to see that French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated this in his speech on Armistice Day. Fortunately, there are still a few politicians around who are brave enough to stand up to the real Project Fear.

Oct 292018
 
Notice on the door of the Poundworld shop in our local High Street

This week’s UK Budget is expected to reduce business rates, to reduce costs faced by shops and businesses on UK High Streets, but not by their online competitors. Media reports about recent closures of shop chains have mentioned reduced sales in High Street shops due to people buying online. Few dare to mention any loss of interest in shopping (in general) due to uncertainty faced by many households, particularly low income households, as a result of the UK Government’s seemingly incompetent handling of the UK’s departure from the EU.

Yesterday, I took a walk along our local High Street, in Sutton, which is in the suburbs of London. I took these photos of all the abandoned shops and businesses, many of which have closed in the past couple of years. Of course, there are other recent arrivals (mainly cafés, restaurants, vaping shops and nail parlours) which allow the High Street to retain some life. Nonetheless, I was left feeling quite sad about the state of what was a vibrant High Street not so long ago.

If this is happening in the relatively affluent South-East of England, I suspect that the situation is even worse in other parts of the country, particularly further North – often forgotten by Westminster parties and political leaders. In any case, the impression of decay in our own High Street is far more intense than in other parts of Europe we have visited over the past couple of years. The UK is apparently more heavily into online shopping than other countries but, even so, that cannot be the only explanation.

The owner of our favourite kebab shop confirmed to me on Saturday night that the costs of his raw materials (particularly vegetables) had already gone up significantly as a result of the 18% fall in the value of the pound since the Referendum was announced. So far, he has been absorbing this increase without raising his prices – he knows he would lose business if he increased his prices.

A significant proportion of his customers are from low income families and they have been telling him that they are uncertain about the future and are trying to spend as little as they can now. Yes, they are fed up of hearing about Brexit but that is because it is not at all the simple process they were led to believe it would be by certain politicians – instead, we now hear the Government warning that people may need to stockpile medicines and that lorries may need to be parked on the M26 (several miles from the coast) while waiting to cross the English Channel. This could explain the popularity of online shopping and the state of the High Street, which is far less busy than it used to be (and those that are there seem to be window shopping rather than buying).

Last Christmas, my holiday reading was the disturbing book Alternative War by James Patrick, a former police officer turned investigative journalist. The book tackles Russian interference in the UK’s EU Referendum and the US election of President Donald Trump, suggesting that these are elements of a ‘hybrid war’ Russia has launched using fake news and sophisticated disinformation campaigns. The book documents how ‘detached and deniable assets’ and ‘useful idiots’, such as Wikileaks, the far-right (including UKIP and Republican officials), were engaged by Russia to subvert two of the world’s superpowers and install managed democracies as part of a strategy to enhance Russia’s position and destabilise its perceived enemies.

One of the key claims of the Leave campaign was that £350m contributed per week could be spent on the NHS. However, it is now emerging that, in the event of ‘no deal’, there may be cancelled NHS operations and staff shortages.

Via Cory Doctorow, I came across this 15-minute short film American Psychosis featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges. In it, he draws parallels with totalitarian regimes he has reported on and a culture dominated by ‘pervasive illusion’ which he now finds in the US. Perhaps this is also the situation in the UK?

Lord Adonis has been travelling around the country arguing in favour of a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal (or no deal) which Theresa May is negotiating. In this article for The New European, he explains why we are now in a similar situation to the 1930s. He recommends the new book by Paddy Ashdown Nein, Standing up to Hitler 1935-1944 about the German resistance, and how it was undermined by the appeasement of the British and French Governments.

Today’s appeasers of the far right similarly recreate the weak and demoralised liberals and conservatives of the 1930s, from Germany’s Catholic ‘centre’ party which voted with Hitler in 1933 to Neville Chamberlain treating so disastrously with the German dictator thereafter. Theresa May is eerily Chamberlainite in her stubbornness, her deep ignorance of the extreme political currents swirling around her, and her appeasement of an English far right – Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the puppet Boris Johnson …

Andrew Adonis, Yes we are back in the 1930s – The New European, 25 October 2018

Meanwhile, the number of people sleeping rough in the UK has increased by 169% since 2010, with increases every year for the past 7 years. The conditions would appear to be ripe (again) for populist politicians to offer the fantasy of an easy solution: nationalism. But, as Tagore pointed out over a century ago, this approach comes with risks for the society we live in.

Throughout history, demagogues rarely need to direct the violence. They set the tone – they focus the blame, ridicule, rage and hate — and leave the violent acts to others. That way, they can always say “it wasn’t me. I don’t have blood on my hands. The culprits are out there.”
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) October 28, 2018

Robert Reich, Berkeley professor and former US Secretary of Labour

A few weeks ago, I was dismayed but not surprised to see James Patrick suggesting that the real objective of the UK Government is a ‘no deal’ Brexit, with all the harmful consequences its own documents now predict. I did find it shocking though that the reason would be to justify Ministers using their powers under the Withdrawal Act to by-pass Parliament.

In effect, this ’emergency rule’ would take the UK out of a democracy and into dictatorship. I would invite you to follow the link below and read the rest of his thread on Twitter. I hope this is not the real objective of the UK Government (whose official line is still that it is working towards an agreement with the EU27). However, as time goes by, and as the UK missed the opportunity of the recent Summit in Brussels to sign any agreement, perhaps his analysis seems increasingly likely?

With this in mind, here are some of the speeches from last Saturday’s People’s Vote march. Note particularly the comment from Tom Brake that the UK Government and Parliament have spent the past two years being so focused on Brexit that they have not tackled the real problems affecting millions of people, such as the housing crisis, reform of the education system and the state of the NHS. Maybe, in time, the people who spoke at the march will be seen as the ‘resistance’.

 Posted by at 2:54 am
Oct 222018
 

Yesterday, Kaberi and I were among the estimated 700,000 people marching for a People’s Vote on the outcome of the negotiations between the UK Government and the EU27. These comments summarise our impressions.

Yesterday’s march, which was led by young people, was a moving reminder that humanity is still a strong force in the UK. We saw people of all ages in the march, ranging from senior citizens marching for their grandchildren to children wrapped in the EU flag.

There were also many, original placards which people had made. Here are a few examples.

Meanwhile, the BBC continues to boost the profiles of politicians like Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson by quoting them ‘for balance’ every time anyone dares to question the wisdom of the UK leaving the EU.

The scale of the March felt amazing, as we stood in it. Before we set off, we heard a series of stirring speeches. Our friend Tom Brake, Brexit spokesperson for the Liberal Democrat’s, pointed out how much of a distraction Brexit has been for both the Government and Parliament. There are many other pressing issues, such as homelessness, which they could have been doing something about.

The speeches included Vince Cable uttering the most popular slogan of the day: “Bollocks to Brexit”. The rhythmic pattern of this slogan was repeated from time to time during the march using whistles.

By Sunday morning, news of the march (which eventually became the top story on BBC News on Saturday afternoon) had been removed from the BBC’s top stories. Even while the article was the main story, the first person quoted in it was Nigel Farage, who was speaking at a pro-Brexit event in Harrogate attended by 0.17% of the number of people attending the march. That there has been no follow-up of the March at all by the BBC suggests censorship rather than balance.

As we approached Downing Street, we could see many marchers heading in the opposite direction. We learned from them that access to Parliament Square had been blocked as there were too many people.

On our way to finding something to eat in Chinatown, we passed the statue of Shakespeare in the middle of Leicester Square. The quote on the lectern he is leaning on reads “There is no darkness but ignorance”. It seemed somehow appropriate for the occasion.

 Posted by at 12:51 am
May 082018
 

For this year’s celebration of the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, we chose to highlight Tagore’s educational philosophy. I will write in more detail about this in a later post.

Of course, we also sang a few Tagore songs which are traditionally sung to celebrate his birthday. Our thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, particularly to Birthplace Manager Hannah Jones for making the arrangements and to Emily Ireson not only for taking care of us on the day but also for volunteering to hold the camera during our performance.

Singers & musicians from Prantik:
– Anindita Sen Gupta Saha (also playing the tanpura)
– Chhaya Biswas
– Farzeen Huq
– Kaberi Chatterjee
– Mousumi Basu
– Obhi Chatterjee (who also wrote, narrated & directed the programme)
– Sudakshina Roy
– Tirthankar Roy (playing the esraj)

They were joined by Shakespeare Aloud actor Kelly Hale.

Jul 192017
 

According to reports of the Brexit negotiations, the second round of talks this week may be stopped ‘because the UK is not ready‘. Over a year after the EU Referendum result, we may wonder how that can be.

In the table below, I have summarised the negotiating position papers published by the European Commission and by the UK Government.

Strictly speaking, the White Papers and Terms of Reference are not formally part of the negotiations. However, the UK Government website includes them under the heading ‘position papers’, so I have included them in the table. I have also included the terms of reference, which appear on both websites, although they too are not position papers. The terms of reference set out the negotiation process, including dates of meetings.

International negotiations usually take place chapter-by-chapter. The discussions on different “chapters” usually involve the relevant experts for each chapter.

So far, as you can see from the table below, the Commission has published 10 position papers (in the strict sense) while the UK Government has published only 4. Most of the Commission’s position papers were also published in draft form when they were sent to the EU27  for comments two weeks earlier. Perhaps the UK Government’s problem has been that they also published the Repeal Bill on the same day as three of its position papers.

I have included direct links to both the EU27 and UK position papers in the table, together with their dates of publication. In a previous post, I had tried to compare the EU27 and UK positions on citizens’ rights. It was not easy because the structures of the EU27 and UK position papers are very different. Still, if anyone has the time to complete the exercise of matching the paragraphs of the UK position on citizens’ rights (in the second column) with the corresponding paragraphs of the EU27 position, here is the comparison table I had started.

As Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake observed after Brexit Minister David Davis left the talks after an hour to return to London and was pictured without any papers at the negotiating table, “This is a Government with no papers, no plan and no time for the most important negotiations of a lifetime.”

TopicDate published by
European Commission
Date published by
UK Government
Repeal Bill: White Paper15 May 2017
The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union White Paper15 May 2017
Essential principles on the financial settlementDraft: 29 May 2017
Final: 12 June 2017
Essential principles on citizens' rightsDraft: 29 May 2017
Final: 12 June 2017
26 June 2017
Terms of reference for the Article 50 TEU negotiations19 June 201719 June 2017
Nuclear materials and safeguard equipment (Euratom)Draft: 23 June 2017
Final: 13 July 2017
13 July 2017
Ongoing Police and Judicial
Cooperation in Criminal matters
Draft: 29 June 2017
Final: 13 July 2017
Functioning of the Union Institutions, Agencies and BodiesDraft: 29 June 2017
Final: 13 July 2017
13 July 2017
GovernanceDraft: 29 June 2017
Final: 13 July 2017
Goods placed on the Market under Union law before the withdrawal dateDraft: 29 June 2017
Final: 13 July 2017
Ongoing Union Judicial and Administrative Procedures13 July 201713 July 2017
Judicial Cooperation in Civil and Commercial matters13 July 2017
Ongoing Police and Judicial Cooperation in Criminal matters13 July 2017

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