May 172020
 
Virtual celebration of Tagore’s birth anniversary for Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Together with Kaberi and the friends from Prantik with whom we have been celebrating Tagore’s birth anniversary at Shakespeare’s Birthplace each year, we were due to be there again last Sunday (10 May). Unfortunately, like many other things, the lockdown since mid-March to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic obliged the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to close the Birthplace until the end of May.

However, all of us in the team were very disappointed not to be able to get together as in previous years, both for rehearsals in the preceding weeks and for our annual excursion to Stratford for the birth anniversary. So, exchanging with them the previous weekend, and also having just organised a virtual birthday party in which relatives in India had performed dances and songs from their homes, I realised we could prepare a virtual celebration of Tagore’s birth anniversary. Given the context, the theme of Tagore’s concern for Man’s impact on Nature and the environment seemed to us to be the most appropriate.

I checked with the Birthplace if they could coordinate with us on this and Paul Taylor, their Acting Director of Cultural Engagement, kindly recorded and sent me a video of his introduction. We decided to dedicate the performance to the key workers and healthcare workers keeping us safe and well, and to those who have lost their lives during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fortunately, most of the team had the bank holiday on 8 May to record videos of themselves singing or reciting solo. Paul Taylor provided some images of Shakespeare’s Birthplace and Supratik Basu filmed some video of the flowers in the garden of their home nearby. We also had photos from our previous anniversary celebrations.

The traditional birthday chorus “He nuthon”, which we usually sing by the bust of Tagore in the Birthplace garden was going to be more complicated, though. With any online video conferencing tool like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc, there is always a slight time lag (latency) between one person saying something and the others on the call hearing it. This is barely noticeable if you are having a conversation but, as we had already experienced from trying to rehearse remotely in the past, it is not possible to synchronise with each other like this.

So Kaberi and I recorded a base, audio track of the song with a tanpura. We used a metronome to ensure that there were no speed variations during the song. We then sent it to the rest of the team, asking them to listen to it through earphones on one device and film themselves with their phones vertically.

With all the recordings, I assembled the videos in the final video you see above and added English subtitles. I also wrote and recorded the narration, explaining how the performances illustrated Tagore’s concern for Man’s impact on Nature and the Environment.

I used Final Cut Pro X for the main edit but for He nuthon, I experimented with Da Vinci Resolve, which includes more sophisticated audio mixing possibilities, including spatial stereo. Fortunately, I had just invested in a Blackmagic Design eGPU Pro to speed up the processing time needed for my video editing!

Performers from Prantik: Anindita Sengupta Saha, Anupam Ganguli, Chhaya Biswas, Farzeen Huq, Kaberi Chatterjee (dance), Mousumi Basu (recitation), Nikhilesh Das Gupta, Obhi Chatterjee, Sudakshina Roy, Supratik Basu and Tirthankar Roy (esraj).

Morubijoyer ketona (danced by Kaberi Chatterjee) was sung by Manini Mukhopadhyay and Ritwik Bagchi, accompanied by Alok Banerjee (esraj), Asit Ghosh (tabla) and Dipak Das (sitar).

English subtitles translated from the original Bengali by Obhi Chatterjee, Kaberi Chatterjee & Prasenjit Saha.

More about virtual performances

I devised the technique to record He Nuthon after seeing other virtual performances during the lockdown around the world. Of course, the virtual choir videos composed by Eric Whitacre since 2010 were the pioneers in this field. Here was the third in his series: Water Night.

One of the first lockdown virtual performances I saw was this version of the song All I ask of you from The Phantom of the Opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber had originally tweeted a recording of him playing the song on the piano. Members of the Phantom of the Opera orchestra had then recorded their tracks.

Another was the virtual performance of Ravi Shankar’s ‘Sandhya Raga’ by Anoushka Shankar and other Indian musicians who were originally due to perform at concerts around the world to celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of Ravi Shankar.

From among the lockdown virtual performances, a colleague drew my attention to those from the Orchestre national de France. Here is their performance of Ravel’s Boléro.

Perhaps the most visually complex virtual performance of this lockdown period has been La valse n°2 de Chostakovitch, again performed by l’Orchestre National de France:

Apr 092020
 
Shyama and her companions

Our film versions of Rabindranath Tagore’s three dance-dramas (Chitrangada, Chandalika, & Shyama) are now available to rent or buy ‘on demand’ through Vimeo. The films are in the original Bengali with English subtitles – we hope to make the other language versions available soon.

Many of us around the world are in ‘lockdown’ at the moment due to the coronavirus pandemic. So Kaberi and I thought we should share some of Tagore’s humanity and help people celebrate the Bengali New Year (on April 14) at home by making these films available for free this weekend.

Click on the following links (or use the promotional code ‘BNY20’) before midnight on Tuesday, April 14, to watch each film for free:

  • Chitrangada (89 minutes) – Princess Chitrangada, who has been brought up as a man to inherit the throne of Manipur, falls in love with Arjun, the warrior prince. Tagore create this dance-drama in 1936 as part of his campaign for women’s emancipation.
  • Chandalika (73 minutes) – Prokrithi, an untouchable girl who is shunned by other villagers because of her caste, discovers a new life when Anondo, a Buddhist monk, asks her for water and tells her that she is no less a human than he is. Originally written in 1933 as a play, Tagore developed Chandalika into a dance-drama in 1938 as part of his campaign to raise awareness of the plight of the ‘untouchables’ and the unfairness of the caste system.
  • Shyama (90 minutes) – A court dancer, Shyama, falls in love with Bojroshen, a foreign merchant, who is falsely imprisoned and faces execution … unless Shyama accepts the offer of an admirer, Uttiyo, to take Bojroshen’s place. Tagore created this dance-drama in 1939 as an artistic critique of repressive regimes, in reaction to the growing tensions of pre-Independence India and the rise of nationalism in Europe.

After you click on the link, you will have 48 hours to watch the film.

We hope you enjoy the films. Please feel free to spread the word.

Dec 282019
 

To paraphrase Marcellus’ observation in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Something is rotten in the town of Santiniketan.

Stray dogs insist on attending the Poush Upasana at Chhatim Tala, Santiniketan (24 December 2019)

The Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati University, Professor Bidyut Chakraborty, used the Upasana (traditionally a Brahmo ceremony to celebrate the day when Maharishi Debendranath Tagore and twenty others became Brahmo in 1843 – the 7th day of the Poush month in 1250, according to the Bengali calendar) to highlight his frustration with the state of affairs he has found himself dealing with in Santiniketan. He particularly pointed to the politics he has encountered since his appointment a year ago. You can hear his full remarks (in Bengali) below.

Live recording of the Upasana ceremony on 7th Pous (24 December 2019)

Professor Chakraborty also spoke that afternoon at the annual programme of the Santiniketan Asramik Sangha (organised by current/former students and teachers at Visva-Bharati). Alo Roy, now in her eighties, began by recalling a story from her time as a student at Visva-Bharati. She concluded by referring to the comments of Professor Chakraborty at the Upasana.

Alo Roy (left) speaking at the Asramik Sangha event with Visva-Bharati Vice-Chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty seated next to her (24 December 2019)

She observed that a lot had changed since her student days in the late 1940s, such as rules and the sense of community. She noted that the Upasana ceremony that morning had been more about problems than Upasana.

She added that she agreed with Professor Chakraborty that Tagore had said that changes to tradition were inevitable. However, she underlined that these changes needed to match the creative endeavour of the original. Only then would the changes be justified.

She agreed with the Vice-Chancellor that politics had harmed Santiniketan. She suggested that 15-20 years of politics had been leading Santiniketan to the edge of disaster. This is why the Vice-Chancellor’s call for the politics to be brought under control was understandable.

In his speech, the Vice-Chancellor said that he had spoken from the heart in the morning and that his interest in attending the Asramik Sangha event was that he wanted to seek the blessing and support of its senior members to help him use the remaining four years of his mandate to restore Santiniketan to its former glory. When he had been appointed as Vice-Chancellor, former President Pronob Mukherjee had told him that it was no longer Visva-Bharati (a global village providing an education that was deeply rooted in its immediate surroundings but connected to the cultures of the wider world, for which Tagore had chosen the Sanskrit motto Yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam – “where the whole world can find a nest”) but Bhubandanga-Bharati (Bhubandanga being the former name of the area, after a robber called Bhuban Dakat).

The Poush Mela itself became the subject of controversy earlier this year. The paper The endangered status of traditional Poush Mela in Santiniketan by Srija Mandal (which was published in Endangered Cultures and Languages in India in 2015) highlighted the cultural significance of the Poush Mela and noted that its original focus on rural arts and crafts has been overtaken by the presence of commercial stalls.

In June 2019, Visva-Bharati announced that it could not take responsibility for the Poush Mela and that it would not be held this year. In particular, the Vice-Chancellor had responded to criticism from the National Green Tribunal for failing to ensure that the Mela ended after four days and had not cleaned up the litter left behind after the Mela. The situation was only resolved in November after the intervention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is the Chancellor of Visva-Bharati.

The Poush Mela was first held in Santiniketan in 1894, as part of the fourth annual celebration of a Brahmo mandir being established in Santiniketan on the 7th day of Poush. The underlying philosophy of this mela, according to Debendranath Tagore and Rabindranath Tagore, was to create a platform for the rural community to interact with the predominantly well-educated followers of Brahmoism and people of all religions.

In the first Poush Mela, Rabindranath Tagore sang the mangal geet (welfare song) while walking around the Mandir. Food and clothes were distributed to the poor and needy after the main upasana (prayer) on the first day of Poush Mela. Rural people were allowed to sell their products and the Mela authorities provided entertainment in the form of fireworks. Jatra Palas (open air theatre) and folk music were performed, bringing together the rural community and tribal people from the area around Santiniketan.

Originally, the Poush Mela was held in the field to the North of the Brahmo mandir. As it grew in size, it was moved to a field in Purbapalli in 1962, where it is held today.

In recent years, the Poush Mela has increased considerably in size, attracting arts and crafts stalls from far and wide, rather than the immediate vicinity of Santiniketan. Tens of thousands descend on Santiniketan to visit the Mela.

One of the few stalls at the Poush Mela selling local arts and crafts

Unfortunately, the changes made to the organisation of the Mela (including insisting on online registration by stallholders and increasing the rental from Rs500 per day to Rs10,000 per day) seem to have changed the character of the Mela. We saw fewer local arts and crafts than in previous years while traffic controls prevented the “totos” (electric rickshaws) and cycle rickshaws from getting close to the Mela or to local shops.

While this reduced congestion and encouraged walking, the strong police and army presence changed the atmosphere. The repeated announcements on the public address system on the last day of the Mela threatening to withhold the security deposits of stallholders who overstay did not help.

Another traditional event during the Poush Mela is the Christo Utsav (Festival of Christ), which is held on Christmas Day in the Brahmo mandir. This year, it became a solo performance by the Bengali singer Srikanto Acharya (who moved one of the Brahmo lecterns to make room for his two harmoniums) with some Christmas carols and rousing Tagore songs at the end. Tagore’s reason for launching this annual ceremony seems to have been forgotten.

Awaiting the start of the Christo Utsav on the terrace of the Brahmo mandir, Santiniketan (25 December 2019)

Fortunately, the author Basumitra Majumdar (one of my cousins) was prompted to research Tagore’s thoughts on Christianity after attending the Christo Utsav a couple of years ago. He wondered why Tagore had wanted to celebrate Christmas in Santiniketan, especially in the Brahmo mandir, which is a temple for worship. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce the paper he had written (in Bengali) based on his research.

In 1909, Tagore had decided that there should be a celebration in Santiniketan of the birth or death of the “High Priest” of each major religion. The purpose was to capture the humanity in their character and in their advice.

The Christo Utsav was the first of these. There were also festivals of Shri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (chief proponent of the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition within Hinduism) and Kabir (the 15th century mystic poet and saint, who was brought up by a Muslim family, studied Hinduism under Ramananda and whose verses are found in Sikhism’s scripture, Guru Granth Sahib). These festivals were created by Tagore with the intention that people should know and understand the humanity of these great men.

Rabindanath Tagore appears to have planned these festivals since the partition of Bengal along religious lines in 1905 by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India. Tagore himself took part in the protests against partition and his song Amar sonar Bangla (My golden Bengal) became a rallying cry for those opposed to partition of Bengal.

The partition of Bengal was eventually reversed in 1911 by the British Raj, which moved its administrative capital from Kolkata to Delhi.

In view of all this, it would appear that the original intentions behind the Upsana, Poush Mela, Christo Utsav and indeed Visva-Bharati itself have been forgotten. Similarly, our own experience of the dance form created by Tagore has been that it too is in danger of being forgotten, in favour of contemporary or purely classical interpretations.

Tagore had created Visva-Bharati as a pioneering educational establishment. Sadly, precisely at a time when educational experts all over the world are looking for a holistic approach to education, entrusting Visva-Bharati to the University Grants Commission has proved to be a mixed blessing. On one hand, Visva-Bharati staff are now properly remunerated. On the other, the tradition of passing skills and knowledge from teachers to students, who in turn become teachers, has been disrupted.

Instead of learning from the educational model developed by Tagore at Visva-Bharati, it seems that Visva-Bharati is well on its way to being turned by the University Grants Committee into a run-of-the-mill university of precisely the type which Tagore rejected. At a wider level, the increasing prevalence of the discredited STEM approach to education has a negative impact on businesses, the values of society and democracy.

If the world class reputation of Santiniketan, Visva-Bharati and Tagore are to be restored, the Vice-Chancellor could take inspiration from the governance model of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – the independent charity established by an Act of Parliament to care for “the world’s greatest Shakespeare heritage sites in Stratford-upon-Avon [UK], and promotes the enjoyment and understanding of his works, life and times all over the world.”

Following a review by the UK Charities Commission, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust set up a consultative Council (of which I was honoured to become a member earlier this year). The aim of the Council is “to contribute to the organisation’s long term vision.

“The Council will complement, support and challenge the Board, and provide a forum for, and act as sounding board for, discussion of high-level strategy.  Council members with relevant skills/expertise/experience may be asked to join SBT committees/working groups as co-opted members or to act as SBT ambassadors/spokespeople on specific matters.”

Since the Vice-Chancellor was asking members of the Asramik Sangha to “take ownership” of restoring the fortunes of Santiniketan, perhaps the creation of a similar consultative council could help guide the Trustees of the Santiniketan Trust (which organises the Poush Mela) and the Visva-Bharati administration. This could draw from the experience of former students, teachers and others to restore the traditions of Santiniketan with appropriate adaptation to the modern era.

At least the tradition of decorating Chhatim Tala with candles on the evening of the 7th day of Poush remains intact.

Chhatim Tala, Santiniketan, decorated by candles on the evening of the 7th day of Poush (24 December 2019)
Aug 032019
 
Ivan Vasov National Theatre, Sofia
Kaberi in front of the Ivan Vasov National Theatre in Sofia, Bulgaria

Last week, Kaberi and I visited Bulgaria with a group of friends. While we were in Sofia, we took the opportunity to explore the two theatres where Rabindranath Tagore had made speeches during his visit in 1926.

There are limited details of this visit in English but several websites in Bulgarian, such as this one, described what happened. Between them, I have pieced together the story of his visit and we were able to retrace his steps.

In 1926, Rabindranath Tagore had started his tour of Europe in Sweden. However, he fell ill while visiting Budapest and spent three weeks at the heart hospital in Balatonfüred in Hungary. Afterwards, on his way back to Kolkata, he needed to travel overland through warmer countries.

According to an article in Politika.bg, on hearing about his change of route, members of the Bulgarian PEN Club invited Tagore to visit Bulgaria on behalf of the House of Arts and Press, which had been established three years earlier.

In the summer of 1923, in order to coordinate activities in different cultural spheres, to promote philanthropy, and in order to create a lasting interest in the arts, a group of artists, intellectuals and public figures decided to create a House of Arts and Press in a prominent city. The founders included almost all prominent representatives of Plovdiv’s artistic circles: composers and conductors Angel Bucharest, Anton Tyner, Hristo Manolov, opera singer Subcho Sabev, musicians Dr. Pavel Nedkov, Spas Sofaliyev, Anton Tsarigradski, Aglaya Barzova, Gidali Gidaliev, Philip Slavov, Minya Katsarov, journalists Vasil Pavurdzhiev, Dr. Alexander Peev, artists Tsanko Lavrenov, Hristo Stanchev, Simeon Velkov, lawyer Stoyan Atanasov and others. The writer Nikolay Raynov, at that time chief librarian of the National Library in Plovdiv, was elected chairman of the House of Arts, and Peter Karadzhiev, one of the founders of the Plovdiv School of Music and the Plovdiv Municipal Opera, was the vice-chairman.

Bulgarian-Czech connections, 2010

Tagore accepted the invitation and Dimo Kazasov, chairman of the Union of Journalists, took charge of organising the visit. Tagore was travelling by train from Belgrade and Kazasov arranged for them to meet the train at what is now Dimitrovgrad in Serbia.

The impatience is so great that without passports, but with the permission of the Yugoslav authorities, our delegation goes on November 17, 1926 to meet Tagore in Constantinople (now Dimitrovgrad). Its members include Prof. Ivan D. Shishmanov (Chairman of the PEN Club), Prof. Minchev (Chairman of the Anglo-Bulgarian Society), writer – Anglophile Anna Kamenova and Dimo ​​Kazasov. The short but extremely straight-forward journalist lightly outstrips everyone and first enters Tagore’s wagon to wish him welcome. There is nothing left for the others to do than to present magnificent bouquets to Tagore’s daughter-in-law [Pratima] Devi, to her young daughter [Nandini], and to Ms Mahalanobish, who is accompanying them. In the wagon is Rathindranath, the son of the poet, as well as Mr Mahalanobish.

From “How Tagore drove Bulgaria mad” by Boyan Draganov, 12 August 2016

After a short breakfast, the train set off from Dimitrovgrad in Serbia for Sofia. Its first stop in Bulgaria was in Dragoman. The station was crowded with people who wanted to greet him.

The schools and the university in Sofia were closed in honour of Tagore’s visit. As a result, several thousand students met Tagore when his train arrived at Sofia station on 17 November 1926.

As soon as the train arrives at 1.30 pm, the wagons are literally besieged by a crowd of thousands who even roam the roof and meet Tagore with the frenetic “Hooray!”. The author of Gitanjali is astonished and scared – even in China they have not met him so. At this time, the news that the guest had arrived brought the entire population of the capital to the streets, except for the “lumps and diapers”, according to the press. The area from the train station to the city center is crowded with eager greeters.

About 100,000 Sofia residents (from the entire quarter-million population of the capital) are trodden and pushed to take a more advantageous position on the Tagore road to Imperial Hotel (2 Lege Street), where it is known that it will stay. At the station, the elite of the intelligentsia bows to the sage Tagore, who along with Tolstoy, Hamsun, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky is the idol of the most prominent Bulgarian minds. Two girls in Macedonian costumes bundle the guest with bouquets of white chrysanthemums.

“The journalists somehow masterfully obsessed, received and accommodated Tagore, and we remained in the background,” complains the secretary of the PEN Club Vladimir Polyanov.

The human anthill finally goes mad when the car with Tagore reaches Maria Louise Blvd. The crowd breaks the line. Each of the welcomers tries to touch the startled guest. Horse cops barely save him from being crushed. Until then, Sofia had never seen such a psychosis with a car moving on a carpet of flowers and a crowd of thousands running after it.

Tagore eventually arrives unharmed at the crowded hotel. People do not move away after Tagore welcomes the crowd from his apartment balcony. His appearance was met with endless applause and a forest of hands.

From “How Tagore drove Bulgaria mad” by Boyan Draganov, 12 August 2016
The former Imperial Hotel on Lege Street, Sofia (Photo: Google Street View)

The reception that the Bulgarian society gave to the Hindu philosopher-poet was magnificent! The streets of Sofia were congested with people, and at the station, young students, musicians, leaders and thousands of people, gave their deep words of respect and kind attention in welcoming speeches. The picture was touching: the Bulgarian student body presented Tagore with white lilies, perhaps selected by them as the poet’s favorite flowers.

ПРОВИНЦИАЛЕНЪ АКТЬОРЪ , “Rabindranath Tagore in Sofia” 25 November 1926
Rabindranath Tagore on his way from Sofia Central Station to the Imperial Hotel on 17 November 1926

That evening, he gave a public speech about Contemporary Art at the Free Theatre (now the Musical Theatre).

Bulgarian politician and journalist Dimo ​​Kazasov (1886-1980) described the reaction to Tagore’s appearance:

A public meeting with high-priced tickets was held at the then Free Theater (today’s Musical Theater on Vasil Levski Street). Tickets were looted and visitors could hardly make their way among the crowd that blocked the street outside the theatre. When Rabindranath Tagore appeared on stage, the theatre’s showroom lounge shook with a stormy and prolonged standing ovation.

In a few words, I opened the meeting, recalling the following speaker’s statement to the European press: “Europe is a madhouse in which people dance over their sons’ graves.”

In his speech, Rabindranath Tagore said:I am still under the impression of the touching welcome I found here. I would like to be a musical instrument because only music can express human feelings.

I traveled all over Europe from the north of Sweden to your south and saw a lot. I am thinking and trying to guess the secret that has been brought to you here, and I come to the conclusion that you are a young people with a simple soul who has not yet been corrupted by Western civilization. I was in countries where the physical and material were valued, I was among the circus of brute force. And you are a young people who want to join the spiritual beginning. You are a people who believe in the ideals of the future.

I do not come to you as a poet and philosopher, but as a poet I want to say that I am your man, because the poet sings about the love that he feels and that I feel overwhelms your souls. I come to emphasize what will revive humanity and serve it fully – love between nations.

I belong to a nation that has young literature that is unaffected by the atmosphere of Western literature that poisons the reader. I come from a country where we are closer to nature, to man and to the people, and where we more clearly and fully understand the desires and aspirations of the world.

Our literature is not afraid of criticism, which often uses abducted things. We value the works of the most invested in them. We are simple, we do not know advertising and we are indifferent to its methods. Our folk songs and our lyrics are dear to us. In them we find values ​​that are alien to the complex and rich European literature.

In my country, there was a tendency to emulate everything that came from the West. This imitation leads to falsehood and blunting. My father and I have always been alien to any grafted thing. What I have created is deeply my own. It is sincere and I believe it to be true.

Our critics did not know whether to accept me or to deny me. Their denial does not despair me. On the contrary, strengthen my spirit. When I wrote my works on the banks of the Ganges, I didn’t think I was writing for others, I thought I was writing for myself. As a child, I didn’t like school and my educators. I was disobedient. Disobedient because I sought freedom.

It was not until my fifties that I felt the need to get to know the outside world and one day I found myself in London with the Gitanjali manuscript. In an intimate circle, I read something from my works, but did not notice the reader’s interest in the readings. I felt humiliated. I wanted to escape. But the following day praiseworthy reviews came out and I became known to Western readers. However, I am an Eastern man and remain an Eastern poet.

I believe that you too have great literature and rich folk poetry. I am sure that you are not yet infected by the false vicious practices of the West and its schools. You are not like artificial flowers: seemingly fresh and fragrant, but actually dry and without any scent.

Our two peoples have in common that they are young so I believe that I will be understood by you. I believe in the great foundations that lie in your people and I wish from your heart to be happy. ”

Dimo Kazasov, Traces of past days – 1971

After the end of Tagore’s first speech, police had to be called so that he could get out of the hall and into the car.

Having barely taken his place in the car, Tagore was attacked from all sides. The crowd pushes out the guards, squeezes the car and does not overturn it. Casasov then sees a helpless horror written on the poet’s face. Eventually, the police support the car as it gets back on its wheels and escort it to the hotel.

From “How Tagore drove Bulgaria mad” by Boyan Draganov, 12 August 2016

One of the teachers who joined the crowd outside the theatre later wrote this:

On November 17, 1926, Tagore came to Bulgaria. The people greeted him with enthusiasm and brotherly warmth. That day, all the streets around this theatre were jam-packed with people, eager to see and greet the eminent guest most cordially in our country, and only those who could hear and listen to him in the hall, who had special invitations. I was one of the many visitors there around the theatre and just from afar, I could see a person with the halo of Wisdom and Kindness. This event naturally reflected and excited the Sunrise. We commented vividly in the most favorable light of the event. shining in an expression of reverence before this envoy of light, he came to show the peoples of Europe the path of salvation from the looming monstrosity.

АниPetar Danov forum – 9 February 2013

The following day, he had lunch at the Bulgarian restaurant of the House of Arts and Press. At his request, opera artists sang Bulgarian folk songs.

Ivan Vasov National Theatre, Sofia

Later, he gave another speech at the Ivan Vasov National Theatre – across the City Garden from his hotel. This time, he was asked to speak about his poetry in the collections Gitanjali and The Gardener. At the end, he said “The sympathy with which I am surrounded makes me believe that you consider me a poet, and I feel Bulgarian.”

Again a crowd of fans accompanied him to the station, from where he set off for Ruse at 21:55. At Ruse, a military boat took him across the Danube into Romania. Unfortunately, his arrival in Romania was rather more subdued: there was a lone man waiting to meet his boat!

In his paper ‘Tagore in Bulgaria‘, Nikolay Nikolaev suggests a darker explanation for Tagore’s popularity among Bulgarian people. Tagore’s works inspired a broad cross-section of people. However, in addition, his visit followed a fascist coup in 1923, since when “the authorities had not allowed entry into the country any foreign representatives of progressive thought”.

As a result, Tagore refused to be seen as a guest of the Bulgarian Government but rather of the Bulgarian people. The title of his novel Gora was translated as The Rebel Gora and seen as a “manifesto of the freedom of the spirit”. He was seen as an “exponent of democratic ideas” and was opposed to nationalism.

Bearing in mind the situation in the country, many eminent figures in Bulgaria, including some of Tagore’s interpreters, wanted to give the impression to their readers that Tagore was an active revolutionary. The students and the ordinary people were in need of following a colossal figure, such as Tagore. They transferred all their hopes onto this great poet, writer, playwright, composer, artist, thinker, philosopher and humanist.

Nikolay Nikolaev, Tagore and Bulgaria – 2011

Tagore clearly left a lasting impression on those who heard him speak in Sofia. Prof. Assen Zlatarov wrote: “Tagore is gone. But his image will remain sealed in our souls for a long time. Sofia lived for two days on a spiritual holiday: we did not have such a stir in all the years … Our wisdom and beauty were hosted and made us remember that we are human”.

Wherever he went, he was received very warmly. At the end of his visit, he addressed all Bulgarians with the words: “You are a people who believe in the spiritual beginning and in the ideals of the future.”

Jul 212019
 
The March for Change setting off from Park Lane for Parliament Square

Yesterday, Kaberi and I joined thousands of people from all over the UK (and even beyond) on the March for Change in central London to stop Brexit. However, according to BBC News & Sky, the march never happened – or at least was less important than “Learner driver took 21 practical tests in a year” and “Machete-wielding men steal newborn puppies“.

In my previous post, I outlined how to recognise fascism based on Umberto Eco’s 14 indicators of fascism. In his original paper, he described his first experience of liberation from Mussolini’s rule in 1945. Up until then, his only source of uncensored news was listening to Voice of London secretly on the radio.

In May we heard that the war was over. Peace gave me a curious sensation. I had been told that permanent warfare was the normal condition for a young Italian. In the following months I discovered that the Resistance was not only a local phenomenon but a European one. I learned new, exciting words like réseau, maquis, armée secrète, Rote Kapelle, Warsaw ghetto. I saw the first photographs of the Holocaust, thus understanding the meaning before knowing the word. I realized what we were liberated from.

Umberto Eco, Ur-Fascism, 22 June 1995

The absence of news coverage reminded me of my visit to Tahrir Square with Enrique Nicanor just before the first anniversary of the Arab Spring. We were in Cairo because Kaberi and her team were performing Shyama in Egypt, starting with the Cairo Opera House and continuing to four other large theatres, includnig the Alexandria Opera House. The Arab Spring had been triggered by a mass movement started on Facebook – an uncensored alternative to the official sources of news in Egypt.

In Fascist Italy, social and political pressures—and the resultant self-policing by the media—were at least as important as actual legal proscriptions, probably much more important.

David S d’Amato, Mussolini and the Press – 28 January 2016

Yesterday’s march was obviously inconvenient for the cult of Brexit and the official UK Government narrative that Brexit is the “Will of the People”. Certain politicians have fanned the fumes of populism by making journalists, politicians and even judges targets of abuse and violence from pro-Brexiters, claiming that “disagreement is treason” or even “undemocratic”.

So, before yesterday’s march is forgotten completely, I am sharing my impressions in this post, together with some of the photos and videos Kaberi and I took.

I had first heard about the march through one of the people I follow on Twitter since the two previous ‘People’s Vote’ marches. I gathered that coaches were being organised to allow people from all over the UK to join the march. In the absence of any news coverage (and having abandoned Facebook since the Cambridge Analytica scandal), it was only by checking the hashtag #MarchforChange yesterday morning that I could confirm that other people really were on their way to join the march.

When we reached Hyde Park Corner a little after midday, there seemed to be fewer people than the previous march on 23 March 2019 or the first march we took part in in October 2018. However, as we crossed over to the reach the Hilton, we discovered thousands of people waiting patiently for the all clear to start the march. We could not go any further because there were so many people.

As we were right at the front, we saw foreign TV crews interviewing organisers, against the backdrop of those at the front of the march.

Steven Bray, who has been camped across the road from Parliament every day to Stop Brexit, was greeted enthusiastically when he arrived in his distinctive hat and cape. We also saw the puppets of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt having their strings pulled by Nigel Farage.

As in the previous marches, there were people of all ages and I was impressed by the originality and humour of the posters people were carrying. Many were also dressed in blue and yellow. We stood to one side as the march set off, allowing us to see the variety.

As the march moved forward past us, we spotted the front of the extensive Lib Dem section. I recognised Tom Brake MP and Ed Davey MP. The Lib Dem MEPs were wearing the bright yellow Stop Brexit / Bollocks to Brexit T-shirts they had worn on the first day of the new European Parliament. Later, I spotted Dutch “Renew Europe” MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld in the march as well.

As in the previous marches, the atmosphere was very relaxed – fun almost! I also recognised James from Bolton, whose dancing videos in response to political news have been going viral. I see he was dancing with Ed Davey MP and Steve Bray.

https://twitter.com/snb19692/status/1152619769545273349

This clip of #MorrisNotBoris morris dancers in the march posted by dkmail gives an idea of this atmosphere in the march.

Morris dancers dance to the European anthem (Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) in the March for Change

I should also mention the chanting. Here was Luisa Porritt leading the chanting as we were going through Piccadilly.

https://twitter.com/LuisaPorritt/status/1152589488117489664

Who knows why BBC News and Sky News were noticeably missing in action. Perhaps the BBC News felt that Thursday evening’s Panorama exposé of Britain’s Brexit Crisis had exceeded this month’s quota for covering bad news related to Brexit? A footnote to the BBC’s guidelines for impartiality mentions that “The Framework Agreement accompanying the BBC Charter requires us to observe the impartiality requirements of the Broadcasting Code; however, by applying ‘due impartiality’ to all output, we exceed that requirement.”

Fortunately, some UK media did cover it, as did international media. Such as the Guardian, London’s Evening Standard, the Independent , Deutsche Welle and the New European. Please let me know in the comments if there was any other media coverage I should add here. It would help confirm that Kaberi and I did not just dream about the march yesterday … .

To be fair, after everyone had gone home, the BBC did publish a low profile article about the march but it had disappeared from the Top stories within a few hours, just as with the previous marches – including the largest ever march in London a few months ago.

Jul 012019
 
Satirical sketch from German broadcaster ARD

London Mayor Sadiq Khan caused controversy recently by likening US President Donald Trump to the “fascists of the 20th century”. Far right leaders in different EU countries have similarly been accused of being fascists. But how can you tell if the accusations are justified, or simply tasteless name-calling?

Italian writer Umberto Eco was born in 1932, 10 years after Mussolini came to power in Italy. grew up under a fascist regime. In 1995, he wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books with the title Ur-Fascism or Eternal Fascism. After describing his own experience, he noted that there is some ‘fuzziness’ about what fascism actually is.

Nonetheless, he proposed 14 typical indicators of Ur-fascism. In whichever country you live, you may wish to keep these indicators in mind to be able to recognise when political leaders are drifting towards fascism. As he noted when introducing them, “it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world.

Umberto Eco, 1995

1) The cult of tradition

According to Umberto Eco, this new culture had to be ‘syncretistic’ – not only the combination of different forms of belief or practice but also tolerant of contradictions. “Each of the original messages contains a sliver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.”

“As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.”

2) Rejection of modernism

In more recent times, we have seen various political figures around the world campaigning against globalisation. At the time Umberto Eco was writing, it’s effects were less obvious and the internet had yet to be widely used. For him, “the rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of [the French Revolution in] 1789 (and of [US Independence in] 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.”

3) Action for action’s sake

“Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. … culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism … .” So if you hear political leaders pouring scorn on experts, the intelligentsia, the establishment or modern culture for “having betrayed traditional values”, these are an indicator of fascism.

4) Disagreement is treason

“No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.” If you see people being harassed or accused of ‘treason’ or ‘betrayal’ for criticising or disagreeing with ‘the truth’, this is an indicator of fascism.

5) Fear of difference

“The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur- Fascism is racist by definition.” Across Europe, various political leaders have played on public fears of immigrants for, for example, taking jobs, living off public services, etc. This too is an indicator of fascism.

After a weekend in which London Mayor Sadiq Khan highlighted the stabbing of two teenagers, President Trump criticised him, retweeting an apparently Islamophobic tweet by far right personality Katie Hopkins.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary and Tory leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt defended President Trump’s attack on Sadiq Khan. Others have pointed out that London’s murder rate is still relatively small compared to major US cities.

6) Appeal to social frustration

According to Umberto Eco, the presence of “a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation” provides ripe territory for fascism. In such a context, it may not be long before a political leader appears and attracts popular attention by promising to take quick and radical action (whether or not that action will address the crisis or humiliation).

To take the example of the UK, Politics Home took a look recently Inside the meteoric rise of the Brexit Party. It concluded that the Brexit Party’s appeal is based on the “frustration” with “the establishment” for having failed to deliver Brexit following the 2016 EU Referendum (a poll in which it was unclear what voters voted for). That result, in turn, reflected the frustration of many ordinary people with the lives they were obliged to lead due to poverty, inadequate funding for the NHS, etc.

7) Obsession with a plot (possibly international)

“To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. … The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside …”.

In previous posts, I have drawn attention to Rabindranath Tagore’s warnings about Nationalism. Political leaders sounding the alarm about a plot or conspiracy by foreigners, or by people who are from a minority (possibly a religious one) may stir hatred or fear of these minority groups. This may be the most commonly-seen indicator of fascism.

Looking again at the example of the UK, as Ian Dunt observes in his analysis of the rise of the Brexit Party, “… almost everything [Nigel] Farage [MEP] says is a conspiracy theory. A Remain parliament stopped Brexit, he says, … . May herself is branded a Remainer, … . So either MPs are secretly pursuing a Remain plot, or the prime minister is. 

“Note how both outcomes – Brexit happening and Brexit not happening – are a betrayal by some form of Remain conspiracy, either in parliament or Downing Street. We hear these lies so often we start to accept them as normal, but once you question them it is clear what they are. They’re conspiracy theory. … “

“That’s the headline conspiracy, but Farage has another one for almost every aspect of society. At one recent rally he insisted young people opposed Brexit because of the “constant bias, prejudice and brainwashing” in British universities, and then insisted educational institutions were systematically marking-down students who supported leaving the EU. … “

“Who can you trust? No-one. What information can you rely on? None at all. There’s just the party and its leader, who offer you emotional reassurance without any intellectual component for you to evaluate it. Your capacity for individual judgement is whittled away. The trust is not based on testable propositions, like policies and argument, but on feelings.”

Ian Dunt, The Brexit party is a post-politics entity – politics.co.uk (9 May 2019)

8) The enemy is both strong and weak

“The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. … However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”

In the UK, the central message of the official Brexit Party website is “Change politics for good”, with a video of a well-attended rally playing behind it (in much the style as Leni Reifenstahl’s documentary ‘Triumph of the will’ filmed at Hitler’s Nuremberg rally in 1934). If you turn on the sound, you will hear stirring, orchestral music rising to a crescendo as their Leader makes his point and people rise to their feet in slow motion to give him a standing ovation.

Its ‘About’ page begins by claiming that “Our success is the way we are turning anger into hope”, before promising “A democratic earthquake” and “A brighter future for Britain”.

9) Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy

Having identified enemies, Umberto Eco suggests that, for Ur-Fascism, life is permanent warfare and lived for struggle. As a result, pacifism is regarded as “trafficking with the enemy”.

He also notes that no fascist leader has succeeded in reconciling the contradiction that finding a “Golden Age” after defeating the enemy and controlling the world in a final battle would undermine the principle of permanent war.

10) Contempt for the weak

“Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party.”

By this Umberto Eco refers to elitism as being a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology. Ur-Fascism advocates becoming members of the party – a “popular elitism”. As Umberto Eco puts it “… the Leader … knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.”

The revelations by Channel 4 that Nigel Farage received £450,000 and rent-free accommodation in Chelsea after the 2016 Referendum, while portraying himself as a man of the people, would appear to be a sign of such contempt for the weak.

11) Everybody is educated to be a hero

“In every mythology, the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. … .In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.”

12) Machismo and weaponry

“Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual8habits, from chastity to homosexuality).”

Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson all seem to have this in common.

Umberto Eco also notes that “Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons – doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.”

13) Selective populism

“In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have apolitical impact only from a quantitative point of view – one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter.”

Since deciding on her interpretation of the result of the 2016 EU Referendum in the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May has maintained that that was and remains “the will of the people“.

Umberto Eco predicted, in this paper from 1995, that “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People. … Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.”

14) Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak

“Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning”

For some years politicians have played on the tendency of the media to pick up on soundbites. As a result, politicians are no longer expected to make eloquent speeches. Instead, they tend to use a series of soundbites when asked to give speeches or interviews.

So perhaps we are already in the era of Newspeak. We are certainly in the era of “fake news”, in which it has become difficult to recognise what is truly fake and what is real.

Shortly after Umberto Eco’s death in February 2016, Lorraine Berry analysed Donald Trump’s campaign against Umberto Eco’s 14 indicators. As you will see, her conclusion then was that Donald Trump is a fascist, but not a Nazi.

Ian Dunt’s analysis of the rise of the Brexit Party points to a number of similar issues. The table below analyses these issues against Umberto Eco’s 14 indicators:

Contemporary UK example of each of Umberto Eco’s characteristics of fascism
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


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