May 302017
 

Former MEP Andrew Duff is credited with the formulation of “Article 50”. He has written a fascinating 4-page discussion paper entitled Brexit: Time for plan B for the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.

The likely disagreement

He analyses the diametrically opposed negotiating positions of the UK and the EU27 (links to which I included in my blog post yesterday). He reminds us of Theresa May’s vacuous ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ soundbite, which is as uncosted as the Conservative party manifesto.

He concludes that the talks between the UK and the EU27 could break down before they reach the end of Phase 1 – namely “sufficient progress” being made on agreeing the principles of the three key issues regarding citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and maintaining a soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“No deal”

In that case, the UK would leave the EU at midnight on 29 March 2019 (2 years after Theresa May’s Article 50 notification letter) without any agreement or transitional arrangements. You only need to look at the trade data to realise that the UK would have a lot more to lose than the EU27 if this were indeed to happen.

In 2014, total exports of goods and services to the EU were £228,893 million and total exports of goods and services worldwide were £515,191 million. This made exports to the EU 44.4% of the total. The US is our next biggest export market, accounting for 17% of the total. – The Pink Book, Office for National Statistics, October 2015, Table 9.3.

From midnight on 29 March 2019, the UK would then trade with the EU under WTO rules. The implications of that were set out in the UK Government’s pre-Referendum paper Alternatives to membership: possible models for the UK outside the EU :

  • WTO rules represent a minimum threshold. It would be the most definitive break with the EU, offering no preferential access to the Single Market, no wider co-operation on crime or terrorism, no obligations for budgetary contributions or free movement of people.
  • If we did not manage to secure an agreement on better terms, we would be forced to revert to this model. This would cause a major economic shock to the UK, with serious consequences for companies, consumers, jobs and prices.
  • The UK would face immediate and heavy costs to our trading relationships, both with the EU and with the wider world. If reciprocal tariffs were introduced on imports from the EU, these goods would become more expensive.
  • UK nationals would not have the rights that they currently enjoy to live, work and travel in the EU.
  • Under WTO rules neither the UK nor the EU could offer each other better market access than that offered to all other WTO members.
  • Our privileged access to 53 markets outside the EU through the EU’s Free Trade Agreements would be terminated. We could seek to negotiate new agreements, but this would take years. It would be difficult to replicate the terms that we currently enjoy.

Moreover, the UK would no longer be a member of the European Investment Bank and, if it fails to pay what it owes to the EU, which other country is ever likely to trust it with a trade deal?

The rosy ambition of the Leave campaigners for the UK to negotiate trade agreements with its former colonies presumes that the latter have forgotten their past, usually-unhappy experiences under UK rule. Shashi Tharoor’s comments at the Oxford Union a couple of years ago (see the 15-minute video above) illustrate why these former colonies fought for their independence from the UK to “take back control”.

Even Brexit Minister David Davis has said that “If we fail, the consequences for working people will be dire.”

The only plan B which could save working people in the UK from Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn

At a live event in Brussels earlier this month, Martin Selmayr, the Head of Cabinet of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, was asked (see the video of the event from 43:15) whether a new UK Government could withdraw the Article 50 notification made by its predecessor. His reply was that it could not be withdrawn unilaterally without the agreement of the other Member States but that, if that situation were to arise, the other Member States would probably not insist that the notification could not be withdrawn.

For the UK, this would seem to be the only viable Plan B which would be in the best interests of the country. After a Referendum called in the best interests of the Conservative party (not the country) and a General Election called in the best interests of the Conservative party and Theresa May (not the country), this plan B could only happen if there is a majority of anti-Brexit MPs elected to the House of Commons on 8 June.

Come to think of it, since neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn seem to have much of a plan for Brexit, shouldn’t this be the UK’s plan A?

May 142017
 

Last weekend, as in previous years, we marked the birth anniversary of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Our theme this year was the centenary of the publication of Nationalism by Tagore. You can watch our half-hour presentation in the video above.

Celebrating Tagore’s birth anniversary in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – 6 May 2017)

While the First World War was still raging in Europe, Rabindranath Tagore gave a series of speeches in Japan and in the US in 1916-17 warning of the harm of Nationalism. These speeches were published as essays in 1917 in a book called Nationalism. It comprised Nationalism in the West, Nationalism in Japan, Nationalism in India and the poem ‘The Sunset of the Century’.

In these essays, Tagore warned of the harm which he believed Nationalism could cause to humanity. 100 years later, his warnings appear to have been prescient and have a new relevance today.

I had included some of his observations in my previous post about the assassination of the British Labour MP Jo Cox a few days before the Referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. For the 10 months since the marginal victory of the Leave campaign, the politicians who argued for it have avoided spelling out how exactly they plan to deliver their ‘have cake and eat it‘ promises.

Only this morning, in his 13-minute interview with Robert Peston, Britain’s Brexit Minister David Davis revealed the extent of the delusion he is under. He seems to be blissfully unaware of the speech by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier just over a week ago in Florence about ‘Protecting Citizens’ Rights in the Negotiations with the UK‘. He also seems to have no understanding of trade negotiations … .

Still, let us not worry about this, Theresa May invites the people of the UK to put our faith in her ‘strong and stable leadership‘. This after the UK’s National Health Service came to a grinding halt on Friday due to a cyber-attack using vulnerabilities found by the US NSA.

Theresa May seems simply to have taken over the populist mantle of the UK Independence Party, emphasising the need to control immigration into the UK (and reject trading with the rest of the EU). Her ‘battle bus’ has ‘Theresa May: For Britain’ emblazoned on it and she has been meeting pre-selected voters and journalists who have had to submit their questions in advance.

In the modern era, nationalism has become popular in several countries. Fake news, and the money behind it, has played a major role in this, including in the UK Referendum. Claudia Cadwalladr’s investigation has linked the main Leave campaigns to a US billionaire who also financed Donald Trump’s campaign. It remains to be seen whether the Tactical2017 campaign will be able to counter this.

As we have seen recently in France, the debate is no longer between left and right but between the Nation and the world. In the French Presidential elections last Sunday, the people of France clearly preferred the internationalist view of Emmanuel Macron to the nationalist view of Marine Le Pen.

Emmanuel Macron: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Of course, there is still an underlying problem which the populists have been playing on: many ordinary people have not seen the benefits of globalisation. Remarkably, globalisation was something Tagore had predicted a century ago in his speeches on Nationalism. He also suggested that the way to avoid the world being “broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls” could come from India’s experience.

The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a great cause.

European nationalists, not to mention Donald Trump, were hailing the result of the UK Referendum as the beginning of a domino effect leading to the disintegration of the EU. Fortunately, since then, the voters of other EU Member States rejected the advances of eurosceptic populists, as Thomas Taylor’s cartoon illustrates.

In his TED talk ‘Why Brexit happened – and what to do next’, social scientist Alexander Betts explains that this was behind the way people voted in the UK Referendum.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attributes his election success to having identified some years ago that ‘Globalisation isn’t working for ordinary people‘. Similarly, France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, campaigned for a clear diplomatic policy to make France an independent, humanist and European power. In his inaugural speech earlier today, he said “We will need a Europe that is more efficient, more democratic and more political, for it is the ultimate instrument of our sovereignty.”

Macron’s call for France to be a humanist power echoes Tagore’s most famous poem from the English Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Here is the French version recited by Arlette Schreiber for our multilingual Story of Gitanjali at the world premiere of our film version of Chitrangada in 2012:

Jun 192016
 
Jo Cox MP

Image Today 07-15-39

The assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox on Thursday while working for her constituents has shocked many of us in the UK. Apart from the tragic loss of such a promising young politician and campaigner, perhaps the most unsettling aspect has been that her killer apparently repeatedly shot and stabbed her while shouting “Britain first“. The man charged with her murder, Thomas Mair, would only give his name in court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

In the aftermath of her death, her husband, Brendan Cox, issued a courageous statement calling on everyone to “unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.” Jo Cox’s Fund, set up by friends and family on Friday, has raised almost £600,000 at the time of writing. One of the three causes which will benefit from the fund is Hope not Hate.

The Hope not Hate campaign learned from the Southern Poverty Law Centre that Thomas Mair “had bought manuals and other materials linked with terrorism from one of America’s (and the world’s) most virulent neo-nazi movements, the National Alliance(NA)”.

In her maiden speech in the House of Commons last year, Jo Cox said: “Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

This conclusion is behind the #MoreInCommon hashtag which is being used to celebrate Jo Cox’s “belief in the humanity of every person in every place”. It also echoes the basis of Rabindranath Tagore’s humanism throughout his work.

In a series of speeches criticising nationalism over a century ago, after winning his Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore observed that:

“… the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics 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. …

“When we are fully human, we cannot fly at one another’s throats; our instincts of social life, our traditions of moral ideals stand in the way. If you want me to take to butchering human beings, you must break up that wholeness of my humanity through some discipline which makes my will dead, my thoughts numb, my movements automatic, and then from the dissolution of the complex personal man will come out that abstraction, that destructive force, which has no relation to human truth, and therefore can be easily brutal or mechanical.”

Tagore defined the Nation as follows:

A nation, in the sense of the political and economic union of a people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organised for a mechanical purpose. Society as such has no ulterior purpose. It is an end in itself. It is a spontaneous self-expression of man as a social being. It is a natural regulation of human relationships, so that men can develop ideals of life in co-operation with one another. It has also a political side, but this is only for a special purpose. It is for self-preservation. It is merely the side of power, not of human ideals.

… The time comes when it can stop no longer, for the competition grows keener, organisation grows vaster, and selfishness attains supremacy. Trading upon the greed and fear of man, it occupies more and more space in society, and at last becomes its ruling force.

Tagore reminded his audience that the real history of India is that of its social life and attainment of spiritual ideals.

… her homes, her fields, her temples of worship, her schools, where her teachers and students lived together in the atmosphere of simplicity and devotion and learning, her village self-government with its simple laws and peaceful administration—all these truly belonged to her.”

He contrasted this with Western society, where “the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision.

As Uma Das Gupta and Anandarup Ray concluded “Like Tagore, we also live in the age of science and internationalism. Today we call it globalisation, and our education is still similar to Western-style colonialist education. Given how troubled our world is becoming, there is a growing awareness of the need to reconcile the values of ‘universal’ and ‘diversity’, a conviction that Tagore pioneered not only in thought but also in his life of action.”

This tension has been heightened by UK politicians in the build up to the UK Referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave it. The Remain campaign has focused on building fear of the economic consequences of the UK leaving the EU. Meanwhile, the Leave campaign has been urging people to “Take back control” and stressing the need to control immigration. Both have been “trading upon the greed and fear of man”. But these concerns have driven not only the UK’s but also the EU’s migration policies – to such an extent that the latter has been branded by Médecins Sans Frontières as ‘dangerous‘ for asylum worldwide.

Jo Cox was Co-Chair of the Friends of Syria All Party Parliamentary Group and had called for 3,000 Syrian children seeking asylum to be welcomed to the UK. Her parliamentary interests were “foreign policy, international development, early years education and social isolation”. Before entering Parliament, she had helped to launch Britain in Europe, the pro-European organisation. She had spent two years working with Baroness Glenys Kinnock in Brussels, followed by “a decade working in a variety of roles with aid agency Oxfam, including head of policy, head of humanitarian campaigning based in New York and head of their European office in Brussels.”

Speaking yesterday, Jo Cox’s sister said that she “only saw the good in people.” Jo Cox had also received abuse on social media during her political career. “But, she would still see the positive and talk about the silent majority who would not always shout the loudest but were in her corner,” she said.

Jo Cox’s untimely death last Thursday raises questions about where society is heading, not only in the UK but also elsewhere. Unfortunately, it seems to fulfil Tagore’s prediction of a society whose humanity has been broken up, leading it to become a brutal or mechanical destructive force. Of course, as Tagore also realised, the solution lies in two of Jo Cox’s interests: early years education and social inclusion.

On Wednesday, which would have been Jo Cox’s 42nd birthday, there will be #MoreInCommon celebrations of Jo Cox’s life around the world. Perhaps, like Tagore, Jo Cox dreamed of a united world:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free:
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

Dec 242014
 
Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee
Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee

Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee

It has been over a year since my last post here. Let me explain why.

In January 2013, I wrote about Coconut oil: after the cataclysm. Almost two years later, I have just completed the film You must be nuts! which traces the journey I’ve been on since then.

It’s my fourth feature film – the first three being film versions of the three dance-dramas by Rabindranath Tagore: Shyama, Chandalika and Chitrangada. Of course, You must be nuts! is a very different film from the Tagore dance-dramas. However, after dealing with repressive regimes, prejudice and women’s emancipation in the previous films, the theme of You must be nuts! is probably just as controversial.

You must be nuts! is more like an investigative documentary, with puppets. Here is its 3-minute prequel.

As you will realise from the film, the situation is even more sinister than I had imagined when I wrote my blog post about coconut oil almost two years ago.

You may be asking yourself what this has to do with Tagore. After all, he was writing poetry right up to his death at the age of 80 on 7 August 1941 and he wrote his most accomplished stage work, Shyama, at the age of 78.

Well, here in the West, there is a convenient myth that more people are likely to develop dementia because people are living longer. Was Tagore an exception? Maybe it was because he kept himself mentally active?

In reality, there has been a surge of dementia in the last 30 years which cannot be explained simply by increased life expectancy. It was rare until the 1980s. Today, over half of people over 85 have Alzheimer’s, compared to 2% in the 1960s. In addition, 8% of people with dementia have Young onset dementia – they are between 30 and 65.

Even so, friends joke about having a ‘senior moment’ or ‘early Alzheimer’s’ when they forget a name or something slips their mind. There is a general fear that, as everyone gets older, they will get Alzheimer’s. Indeed, a recent UK survey revealed that ‘a third of people are worried about getting dementia’.

In what has been classed as one of the best non-fiction books of 2014 (The Big Fat Surprise), Nina Teicholz has provided a fascinating but tragic account of why scientists in the US and other countries started to advocate a low fat diet and lowering cholesterol 50 years ago. She summarised the story of what happened in an interview:

“It begins in the 1950s, when the desperate need to solve the heart-disease epidemic caused experts to jump the gun, launching dietary guidelines based on weak, incomplete science. As research dollars and institutions became invested in the idea, it became harder to reverse course, until, ultimately, the U.S. government’s adoption of the diet enshrined it in our federal bureaucracy. Biased science became a necessity. A once-loud group of critics was silenced … .”

When you realise that a low fat diet and lowering cholesterol may cause dementia, and that a (low fat), high carbohydrate diet increases the risk of dementia by a factor of almost 4, you start to see this seemingly harmless dietary advice in very a different light. Indeed, a study published last month concluded that, not only does eating more saturated fat not increase the level of saturated fat in the blood but also diabetes and heart disease are linked to diets high in carbohydrates.

Last week, Dr Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal, wrote a feature article with the title Are some diets “mass murder”? . He concludes that:

“The successful attempt to reduce fat in the diet of Americans and others around the world has been a global, uncontrolled experiment, which like all experiments may well have led to bad outcomes. What’s more, it has initiated a further set of uncontrolled global experiments that are continuing.”

After all I have seen and heard in my research about dementia over the past three years, it seems to me most likely that the lives of millions of people, including my father, have been harmed by regulatory failure which failed to stop ‘bad science’ driving Government advice. That, in turn, seems to be costing public authorities millions, if not billions, in avoidable healthcare costs.

The clear stream of reason seems to have lost its way, whether because of corruption or complacency (the dreary desert sand of dead habit), over at least 30 years. Maybe there is even fear to admit that mistakes were made. Whatever the reason, it’s time for a full, formal investigation, possibly with criminal penalties for the individuals responsible, certainly with policies based on the latest scientific research.

As things stand, though, we in the West are far from being where the mind is without fear. At least by publishing You must be nuts! on YouTube, and by providing the underlying scientific references, knowledge is free and words come out from the depth of truth.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free:
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore, 1912

Jan 012013
 

Wordpress.com 2012 blog statistics image

So 2012 is over. If you click on the above image, you’ll find the statistics for my blog in 2012 (courtesy of wordpress.com and Jetpack).

Just to give you an overview, my blog had about 9,200 views during the year, of which just over 4,000 were in September. My most popular post was actually one I’d written in 2010 about our experience of watching the film Julie & Julia ! The next most popular posts in 2012 were:

Celebrating Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary
Civilisation’s crisis – Tagore’s last speech
Tagore and the Indian national anthem
Celebrate nature & Tagore the environmental pioneer

My thanks to all who have found my blog posts of interest.

Looking ahead, 2013 is the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you are on Facebook, you may wish to ‘Like’ the Facebook page Rabindranath Tagore: Nobel Prize centenary. Even if you are not on Facebook, you can see the contents of the page.

For now, here is a 50-second audiovisual tribute to celebrate the start of the centenary year and to allow me to wish you a Happy New Year!

Dec 312012
 

Candle image posted by Google India

Sexual violence in India

Over the past two weeks, India’s news has been dominated by the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi while on her way home with her fiancé after going to the cinema. By Western media standards, it is almost a miracle that her real name has not been published. Instead, the Indian media have named her Nirbhaya (fearless one/braveheart), Amanat (after a TV soap opera about a father with seven daughters) or Damini (after the heroine of a hit film who refuses to let a rapist escape justice).

Unfortunately, this was just one example of the violence faced by women in India. Even as the protests mounted, an 18-year-old gang-rape victim committed suicide in Punjab after coming under pressure from police either to come to a financial settlement with her attackers or to marry one of them! According to Russia Today, “Official figures show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year in India were against women. However the real figure is thought to be much higher as so many women are reluctant to report attacks to the police.”

Several of our friends and relatives in India have joined the online protests, with some changing their social media profile pictures to a black square or a black circle following news of the death of Nirbhaya/Amanat/Damini on Friday night. On Saturday morning, “RIP Nirbhaya” was the #1 topic on Twitter in India, where 8 of the top ten trending topics were related to it.

Some have been calling for the death penalty for rapists, although there is no evidence that this would discourage rape. Rather, as suggested by a protestor and social worker interviewed by the BBC, it could encourage rapists to kill their victims to ensure that their crime was not reported.

The public outcry has led to a number of analyses of how India treats its women and drew attention to its “rape culture“. A male Indian MP, who is the son of India’s President, dismissed the protestors as “pretty women who were dented and painted” who had “no contact with ground reality”. However, the fierce reaction to his remarks (such as this ironic open letter) obliged him to withdraw them.

The initially muted reactions of senior politicians contrasted sharply with the emotional reactions of the protestors. Perhaps the underlying reason for the former is the challenge of changing attitudes which have been endemic in Indian culture for centuries. For example, this article identified 10 reasons why India has a sexual violence problem and the above Al Jazeera discussion explores what it would take to confront India’s ‘culture of rape’.

Tagore’s campaign for women’s emancipation

Tagore was clearly conscious of this and the women in his works are often strong and outspoken, while suffering from tradition. His campaign for women’s emancipation was decades ahead of equivalent thinking in the West. There have been many scholarly analyses of the female characters in his works and some see his legacy regarding women’s role in society as being one of his most important contributions (see, for example, Rabindranath Tagore’s legacy lies in the freedom-seeking women of his fiction).

“Violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated. Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected.” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

As well as being one of the media names for the Delhi gang-rape victim, Damini is the name of the female protagonist in Tagore’s 1916 novella Chaturanga (Broken Ties or, more literally, Quartet). Damini’s role in Chaturanga, in which she represents truth and innocence, has been compared to those of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Stella in Rattigan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. All the female characters in Chaturanga suffer at the hands of men, with two of them committing suicide as a result.

In his novel Jogajog, (Contact), Tagore highlights the issue of marital rape. In his short story Shasthi (Punishment), two brothers work in the fields all day while their wives stay at home to cook, clean and bring up a child. When one of the brothers kills his wife for explaining that there is no food because he hadn’t brought home enough money, the ‘pillar of the village’ (a man) helps them to pass the blame onto the other wife, who is subsequently executed.

In 1936, Tagore campaigned more overtly for women to step out of the precincts of their homes and play a greater role in society. His paper Nari (Women) was part of his campaign, which included speeches and his dance-drama Chitrangada. Perhaps it is no coincidence that 1936 was also the year in which Victoria Ocampo, Tagore’s “distant muse“, co-founded the Argentine Union of Women.

In fact, all three of Tagore’s dance-dramas (ChitrangadaChandalika and Shyama) are centred on female characters who live at the fringes of society – a warrior princess, an untouchable and a courtesan. Dr Sutapa Chaudhuri has written an interesting analysis of the expression of self and female desire in Tagore’s dance-dramas. She provides more detail in her paper on class, caste and gender in Chandalika.

Tagore created a social revolution by pioneering coeducation at his school in Santiniketan. However, parents still resisted allowing their daughters to dance on stage for many years for fear that they would be viewed by society as prostitutes. The criticism of women dressing “provocatively” is perhaps the modern version of this attitude, without daring to challenge the indecency of those men who molest women.

Where the mind is without fear …

Not surprisingly, several commentaries on the Delhi rape have cited Tagore’s poem Where the mind is without fear as being an as-yet unfulfilled dream for women. Some have pointed out that several elected Indian politicians have been charged with rape – a factor which would be a major electoral liability in Western democracies. Yet it seems to be viewed as being acceptable/unavoidable, male behaviour by a patriarchal, Indian society in which the ratio of girls to boys is one of the lowest in the world.

“Rape happens everywhere: it happens inside homes, in families, in neighbourhoods, in police stations, in towns and cities, in villages, and its incidence increases, as is happening in India, as society goes through change, as women’s roles begin to change, as economies slow down and the slice of the pie becomes smaller — and it is connected to all these things. Just as it is integrally and fundamentally connected to the disregard, and indeed the hatred, for females that is so evident in the killing of female foetuses. For so widespread a crime, band aid solutions are not the answer.” – Urvashi Butalia, The Hindu

Just before Christmas, Valerian Santos wrote to India’s Prime Minister proposing stronger laws to ensure better security for women in India. His son Keenan Santos, together with his friend Reuben Fernandes, was stabbed to death by a mob for taking on a man who had harassed their female friends in Mumbai in October 2011. In addition to the comments from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon above, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has called for profound change in India in the wake of the gang-rape tragedy.

Of course, India is not the only country in the world where women suffer sexual violence. However, as I write just after the start of 2013 there, it seems to be the only country whose people have found the collective will to begin to tackle the problem. As India’s people, particularly the younger generation, seek a new dawn in attitudes towards women, they (and indeed people of other countries) may find that Tagore’s works could offer inspiration on changing society to empower and respect women.

Dec 102012
 

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Norway in July 2011, apparently by a man angered and alienated by the multicultural changes in the country, I had been impressed to see Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg saying “We must never cease to stand up for our values. We have to show that our open society can pass this test too. And that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naïveté.”

Today has a special significance. Apart from being my father’s 79th birthday, the European Union (all 500 million of us) will receive the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. According to Alfred Nobel’s will, the Peace Prize is awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The winner is selected by a 5-person committee nominated by the Norwegian Parliament. They noted that “The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”

The EU’s Nobel Peace Prize comes at a time when parts of Europe are descending into Nationalism. In 1916-17, during the First World War, not long after winning his Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore gave a series of speeches criticising Nationalism . He observed that:

“… the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics 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. …

“When we are fully human, we cannot fly at one another’s throats; our instincts of social life, our traditions of moral ideals stand in the way. If you want me to take to butchering human beings, you must break up that wholeness of my humanity through some discipline which makes my will dead, my thoughts numb, my movements automatic, and then from the dissolution of the complex personal man will come out that abstraction, that destructive force, which has no relation to human truth, and therefore can be easily brutal or mechanical.”

Audrey Hepburn, who was born in Brussels, witnessed this type of inhumanity at first hand at the age of 11, after Germany occupied the Netherlands in 1940. “I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child.” [Source: Wikipedia]

Audrey Hepburn’s wartime experiences sparked her devotion to the international humanitarian organisation UNICEF (winner of the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize), for which she became a Goodwill Ambassador. Her friend Gregory Peck recited her favourite poem, Tagore’s Unending love, in an interview soon after her death in 1993 (from 1:35 in this clip).

Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”, was finally able to receive it in June this year having spent decades under house arrest. As I mentioned in my post ‘If, hearing your call, no-one comes, then go on alone‘, in a message to a gathering of all living Nobel laureates to mark the 10th anniversary of her winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she said, “During my years of house arrest I have learnt my most precious lesson from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, many of whose verses reach out to that innermost, elusive land of the spirit that we are not always capable of exploring ourselves.”

Similarly, Nelson Mandela, who won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize together with Frederik Willem de Klerk, had ended a letter to the Secretary of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations by saying “We join with you, the people of India, and with people all over the world in our striving towards a new tomorrow, tomorrow making a reality for all mankind the sort of universe that the great Rabindranath Tagore dreamed of in Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls; where words came out from the depths of truth; where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; where the mind is led forward by these into ever widening thought and action into that haven of Freedom, My Father, let my country awake.”

For centuries before it actually happened, the idea of unifying Europe was associated with preventing a recurrence of war. Large areas of Europe had previously been united by empires built on force, such as the Roman EmpireByzantine EmpireFrankish EmpireHoly Roman EmpireOttoman Empire, the First French Empire and Nazi Germany. In the 17th Century, there had been the fairly unsuccessful Peace of Westphalia – parodied here in a clip sent to me by a friend from Luxembourg.

The calls for unity became louder after the First World War but it was only after the Second World War that the first real steps were taken towards creating the European Union.

Even during the Second World War, French politician Robert Schuman had been convinced that Franco-German and European reconciliation had to take place after the war ended. As Prime Minister of France (1947-48), he laid the foundations for the Council of Europe and what is now the European Union. As Foreign Minister in 1949, he said “We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe: creating between them an organization putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace.” [Source: Wikipedia]

So here we are, over 60 peaceful years later. Sadly, countries like the UK have forgotten why they joined the European Union and have succumbed to their nationalist tendencies, preferring only economic unity. The absence of peace in Europe is now taken for granted.

Perhaps another problem is that peace has no value as far as economic measures like GDP and GNP are concerned. Maybe a more useful statistic in our connected and globalised times could be the Gross National Happiness index developed by Bhutan since 1972. Futurist Gerd Leonhard explains why in this recent TEDx talk.

Back in 2008, France’s then President Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned a report on measuring economic performance and social progress from Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, as well as French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi. Of course, Amartya Sen has been strongly influenced by Tagore’s philosophy and is one of the products of Tagore’s school in Santiniketan.

Earlier this year, the UN added happiness to the global agenda. As the Economist reported, an international survey of happiness showed “the highest levels of self-reported happiness not in rich countries, as one would expect, but in poor and middle-income ones, notably Indonesia, India and Mexico. In rich countries, happiness scores range from above-average—28% of Australians and Americans say they are very happy—to far below the mean. The figures for Italy and Spain were 13% and 11% (Greece was not in the sample). Most Europeans are gloomier than the world average. So levels of income are, if anything, inversely related to felicity. Perceived happiness depends on a lot more than material welfare.”

So I hope that the EU’s Nobel Peace Prize will be a reminder to many in Europe, not only in the UK, who seem to have succumbed to “one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented”: Nationalism. The official EU delegation that collects the Nobel Peace Prize  includes four young European citizens – Ana from Spain, Elena from Italy, Ilona from Poland and Larkin from Malta – who won a drawing and writing contest organised by the EU institutions together  with the European Youth Forum. They were asked to answer the question: what does peace in Europe mean to you?

In Brussels, at 6pm, some have called for a flash mob in front of Robert Schuman’s statue near the parc de Cinquantenaire – those attending are asked to bring a candle and something to light it. Being in London for my father’s birthday, I will miss the gathering. That is why, in the absence of any UK celebrations of the Prize (celebrations are planned around the world, including in the US), I am celebrating it with this post. After all, it’s not every day we get to be a Nobel laureate.

Aug 302012
 

While researching the different translations of Tagore’s English Gitanjali for our performance of The Story of Gitanjali on 23 September, I came across this talk by Deepak Chopra about Tagore’s relevance for the future of spirituality and humanity. He gave the talk at the Tagore Festival last year at Dartington College of Arts, Devon – the UK college founded by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst according to Tagore’s educational philosophy.

As so often happens when I settle down to find out more information online about Tagore, this led me to start exploring what others have suggested about Tagore’s relevance to modern society. After all, in our world of 2012, why should people be interested in the ideas of someone who spent half of his life in the 19th century?

Professor Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and former student at the university founded by Tagore, had this to say.

Professor Amartya Sen

In fact, Professor Amartya Sen’s thought-provoking analysis What happened to Europe? earlier this month seems to echo Tagore’s ideas about social justice. Last year, he had explained in another article Why Rabindranath Tagore still matters.

A few years ago, Uma Das Gupta and Anandarup Ray contributed this article on Rabindranath Tagore and his contemporary relevance. They concluded “Like Tagore, we also live in the age of science and internationalism. Today we call it globalisation, and our education is still similar to Western-style colonialist education. Given how troubled our world is becoming, there is a growing awareness of the need to reconcile the values of ‘universal’ and ‘diversity’, a conviction that Tagore pioneered not only in thought but also in his life of action.”

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