On 20 May, Super-Cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal and Bangladesh with wind speeds of over 200 kilometres per hour. It tore through embankments in the Sundarbans Delta, flooding riverine villages and choking vegetable and paddy fields with seawater. Salt water also got into wells and freshwater ponds, depriving thousands of people of their access to drinking water. Storm water surges – more than five metres high – carried away livestock, houses and entire islands. The winds blew salt water into the trees: guava and palm, but especially mangrove. Now, a month after the storm struck, they look burned by the brackish water, their leaves yellow and red.
Social distancing is impossible for most Indians. More than 500 million people live in densely populated slums, urban villages or makeshift housing; large families share small spaces; many don’t have direct access to running water or basic sanitation. Most had not heard of hand sanitiser until three weeks ago. The Indian government’s response to Covid-19 has not, so far, accounted for the lives of the majority of India’s population, or the informal nature of much of the economy. Attempts to control the virus have instead exacerbated a vicious form of social distancing that has marginalised this same population for centuries: the caste system.
On 20 December 2019 – ten days into protests across India against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens – Chandrashekhar Azad tweeted that he would be at a rally at the Jama Masjid (the biggest mosque in Delhi). Azad is the leader of the Bhim Army, a Dalit resistance movement. The police arrested him ahead of the demonstration but he escaped, slipping away into the winding lanes of the old city. The police withdrew permission for the gathering and invoked Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits the ‘unlawful assembly’ of four or more people. But thousands were already on their way to the mosque, many travelling from the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The evening prayers began, as people gathered at the mosque steps. Police and media surrounded them. After prayer, the crowd turned to face the cameras, slowly unfurling their signs and flags. From somewhere in their midst, Azad emerged, holding up a copy of the Indian constitution.
Protests that continue late into the night in the absence of TV crews are often protests that bring down governments. I went to one in Delhi last week. The leaders were dead men – Gandhi and Ambedkar – whose pictures people carried. Middle-class engineers, homeless youth workers, teenage undergraduates, young professionals on their way home from work joined the demonstration. There were no speeches, no microphones; people read the Indian constitution in assembly, and raised their fists and their voices for hours on end. The slogans, after a while, sounded like curses on the government. They called the home minister, Amit Shah, a thief, a murderer. ‘Modi, too, is a murderer,’ they said.
The news came like a declaration of war: Article 370 of the Indian Constitution is gone. It gave the people of Jammu and Kashmir a measure of autonomy: a separate assembly, a separate flag, the exclusive right to residency and property-ownership in the state. On the morning of 5 August, the Indian home minister, Amit Shah, scrapped it. No Kashmiris had been consulted; none of them were informed in advance. No debate or deliberation took place. The next day the Indian Express, a supposedly anti-establishment newspaper, published a giant picture of Narendra Modi congratulating Shah under the headline: ‘History, in one stroke.’
That Narendra Modi would win again was never really in dispute. The only question was whether the Bharatiya Janata Party would be forced to seek coalition partners in the Lok Sabha, or repeat its astonishing success of 2014 and govern alone. The main opposition, the Congress, turned the campaign into a referendum on Modi. Could the tea-seller’s son, they asked, an untutored, uncouth, bigoted, small-town petit-bourgeois (who can’t even speak English) be trusted again? India’s electorate has now provided the answer. They love their Modi.
Adil Ahmad Dar, the 20-year-old Kashmiri suicide terrorist who killed himself along with forty Indian soldiers at Pulwama on 14 February, will be regarded as a hero and martyr by many Kashmiris of his generation, alienated, desperate and angered by the atrocities that have been rained down on them by the Indian military on the orders of successive governments (the Congress record is appalling) for many decades. Blinding young men in Kashmir with pellet guns is an Indian innovation. Had Dar acted alone, a few might even have dared call him a hero in public. Instead an oppressive silence reigns throughout Kashmir.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a union territory of India, are a group of more than five hundred rainforest islands in the Indian Ocean, closer to Bangkok than Calcutta. Some of the first settlers came to the islands in 1858 when the British Indian government built a penal colony to imprison the rebels of the Sepoy Mutiny; another wave arrived in 1947 after Partition. The indigenous people are the descendants of hunter-gatherers who came to the islands about 55,000 years ago. Only four tribes survive on the Andaman Islands, with populations numbered in the dozens or low hundreds. John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American from Vancouver, Washington, went to North Sentinel Island last month.
The Washington Post has acquired the Pentagon Papers, the New York Times is gagged, powerful men are against her – will Katharine Graham do it? Will she risk her newspaper’s future, her friendships and allegiances, her family’s legacy? Most important, will she find her voice? The climactic scene in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated The Post gets the full Meryl Streep treatment. So far in the movie we have seen Graham ignored, interrupted and silenced. She hesitates, fumbles, is uncomfortable in her clothes. The scene suggests that we are witness not only to the victory of a free press, but also the coming into being of a powerful woman.
Judi Dench’s character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel describes India as ‘an assault on the senses’. It’s a view shared by most British and American films set in India, from Slumdog Millionaire to The Darjeeling Limited and Life of Pi. Movies that look beyond the tourist guide book, especially independent Indian films, tend to disappear from UK cinema screens more quickly. Chaitanya Tamhane's ambitious first feature film, Court, goes on general if limited release in the UK tomorrow (it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2014).
When Narendra Modi was elected prime minister of India in May 2014, a former aide to the outgoing premier Manmohan Singh described the moment as the birth of a ‘second republic’. He meant that the secular-socialist republic founded by India’s English-speaking elite had run its course. After 25 years of coalition governments, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had won a parliamentary majority. David Cameron was one of the first foreign leaders to reach out to him, congratulating the prime minister elect for getting ‘more votes than any other politician anywhere in the universe’. This marked the end of Britain’s costly diplomatic boycott of Modi in retaliation for the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims, including British citizens, by Hindu mobs in Gujarat when he was the state’s chief minister in 2002. An investigative team appointed by India’s Supreme Court cleared Modi of criminal responsibility – but, as the anti-Modi protests in London this week demonstrate, not everyone is convinced. It hasn’t helped that, over the last year, religious minorities in India have endured vicious persecution.
Worldwide, one billion people live in slums. By 2050, it might be two billion. India has the world’s second largest slum population, after China. In 2009, the government launched a plan for a ‘slum free India in five years’: since then, slum growth has continued unabated. Mumbai has more than nine million slum inhabitants, up from six million ten years ago. In the face of such statistics it is easy to be pessimistic. Yet most slums are hives of economic and political activity. Shack/Slum Dwellers International and its president, Jockin Arputham, have been nominated by the Swedish housing minister for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Rukshar Khatoon, from Sahapara, Howrah District, West Bengal, has joined Saiban Bibi, a Bangladeshi beggar living on a platform of the railway station at Karimganj, Assam, and an unnamed cow grazing in Tamil Nadu, as markers of the success of vaccination programmes in India, successes which confounded all the critics. Rukshar was 18 months old when she developed paralytic polio in January 2011. Saiban was 30 when she developed smallpox on 24 May 1975. The Tamil Nadu cow developed rinderpest in September 1995. All three diseases are now extinct in India.
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, introduced by the British in the 1860s, outlawed ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. For the next 150 years, gay sex was illegal in India, until the Delhi High Court ruled in July 2009 that the law did not apply to consenting adults. ‘It cannot be forgotten,’ the judges said, ‘that discrimination is the antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual.’ The decision made India the second South Asian country, after Nepal, in which gay people could no longer be prosecuted for their sexuality. The government, having once defended 377, reluctantly adjusted itself to the new reality. There was still a long way to go before homosexuality was socially acceptable, but at least homophobia was no longer legally enforceable. But the exultant mood was soon punctured by a rabble of religious leaders who, in a rare instance of interfaith harmony, forged a coalition to challenge the Delhi High Court’s decision in the Supreme Court, which overturned it earlier this month.
On 9 February, after ten years on death row, Mohammed Afzal Guru was judicially assassinated in Delhi. The BJP warmly supported and publicly celebrated the event. A veteran Kashmiri activist and a medical student (born in 1969), he had been picked up and accused of being part of a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. The evidence was totally circumstantial, the confession obtained under torture and a threat to kill his family. All this is well known. Had the Chinese regime behaved in this fashion towards a Tibetan, the media and political response in the West would have dominated the news. Kashmir remains invisible to the world. In India all the mainstream parties welcomed the hanging. The media was supportive of the government. In Kashmir a general strike shut down the province and the police opened fire on demonstrators.
Britain may have invented the soap opera but nowhere has the format been promoted more vigorously than in Latin America. For decades, telenovelas have been produced in Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and elsewhere, and viewed by hundreds of millions daily from Mexico City to Buenos Aires. Their reach extends to the US and (on a more limited basis) to state-controlled TV in Cuba. Wherever you are in most of the Americas, you can keep up with developments in your favourite soap.
It takes about a year to publish a book now, what with the festivals, the hairdos, the film producers and the jetlag. At the Jaipur Literary Festival earlier this year, I was happy to see the Indian schoolchildren out in force, ready – as nowhere else – with their autograph books and stubby pencils, keen to capture a signature just in case the author turned out to be famous. The children of Jaipur seem to imagine that anyone placed before a microphone is a possible celebrity. But, more than that, they have watched the talent shows over the last few years, and they know the difference between a common clerk and a monster celebrity is merely a matter of time and a little exposure to the public vote. It was nice, though, to see how open they were to the notion that writers stood a chance, as opposed to the average Joe mangling a Whitney Houston song.
Arundhati Roy is both loathed and feared by the Indian elite. Loathed because she speaks her mind. Feared because her voice reaches the world outside India and damages the myths perpetrated by New Delhi regardless of which party holds power. She often annoys the official Indian Left because she writes and speaks of events for which they are either responsible or of which they dare not speak. Roy will not allow her life to be subjugated by lies. She never affects a courage or contempt she does not feel. Her campaigns against injustice are undertaken with no view to either fame or profit. Hence the respect awarded her by the poor, ordinary citizens, who know the truth but are not allowed a voice in the public sphere. The authorities can’t buy her silence. One of the few voices in India who has spoken loudly against the continuing Indian atrocities in Kashmir, she is now being threatened.
India’s preparations for the Commonwealth Games have become an international embarrassment. Earlier this month the Central Vigilance Commission examined several construction projects relating to the games and found them wanting, a judgment confirmed by the recent collapse of a bridge that injured 27 people. It even looked for a while as if the games could be cancelled. There are also many stories of corruption. The National Campaign on Dalit (ex-untouchable) Human Rights alleges that $150 million was siphoned away from schemes for assisting low castes in Delhi to be spent on the games. According to the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, construction workers have not been provided with safety equipment and are being paid less than the minimum wage. Some reports say that as many as 49 people have died building stadiums and facilities for the games.
It emerged recently that tens of millions of dollars meant for the poor in Delhi are being siphoned off to pay for the Commonwealth Games. At the same time, the city authorities are forcibly destroying the homes of squatters to make way for the games. It's a depressingly familiar story. Rajiv Gandhi famously said that of every hundred rupees ear-marked by the state for the alleviation of poverty in rural India, about six rupees actually arrive in the hands of a poor person – the rest is embezzled by intermediaries. Forced evictions, too, have a long history in metropolitan India.
The Obama administration has applauded the Pakistan army’s offensive to oust the Taliban from Pakistan’s Swat Valley. It’s gingerly being heralded as a change in army thinking that no longer sees the 'mortal threat' as nuclear India to the east but a spreading Taliban insurgency to the north and west, which – if a BBC map is true – now controls most of the tribal areas on the Afghan border. The scale of the operation is immense. Up to 1.5 million people could be displaced by the fighting, if the current civilian exodus from Swat is added to earlier ones from the tribal areas. Pakistan’s federal and provincial civilian governments have given unreserved political authority to an operation devised wholly by the army. Opposition parties, the media, religious leaders and 70 per cent of the people (according to polls) all support it, aware, finally, that the savagery of the Taliban’s rule in Swat posed a graver threat to Pakistani democracy than to American imperialism or Indian hegemony.