Sunday, July 31, 2005


Will Hutton on why Britishness might have been inaccessible to the bombers: 'Being British and English, or British and Indian works; being British Pakistani or Eritrean does not. They come from broken-backed countries that have no proud history, culture or identity - Pakistan, for example, is only 58 years old: the identity that makes more proud sense is Islam. And in one jump young British Muslim Somalians, Eritreans and Pakistanis are suddenly in the vortex of a culture and religion profoundly wounded by globalisation, Western foreign policy and its own failure to match the rise of Christendom - with all its capacity to transmute a doctrine of peace into a doctrine of sexism, murder and anti-semitism.'

Bridget Jones is back, capturing the zeitgeist of British singledom. 'She'll have been against the Iraq war - goes without saying - but what will she make of British Islamic fundamentalism, so hostile both to her love life and her drinking habits? Bridget has the disconcerting capacity to home in on precisely the issues that most of her sex and contemporaries are really interested in, rather than the ones they, and she, know they ought to be interested in.'

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Islamic ferment

In the latest issue of Prospect, read Ehsan Masood's fascinating snapshot of British Muslim communities. And recall that Deobandi Islam has horrific consequences both in India (its original home) and Britain.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, Musharraf orders the 1400 foreign students in Pakistan's madrasas to pack up and leave, claiming that he is willing to 'rock the boat' in his battle with extremists and fundamentalists.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Outlook picks: social movements, Bretton Woods, superpowers

I didn't quite know when I posted this, that I was reading about something with acute contemporary reverberations. Writing about the July 9 killing of 3 CPI(M) leaders and a policeman in West Bengal, Saji Cherian argues that 'the current Maoist strategy for West Bengal appears to be a much-improved version of the Naxalbari uprising of March 1967.'

Read about the nitty-gritty of World Bank conditionality in Delhi's water privatisation project. Frst, the Bank wanted to slip in a condition requiring the 'independent' consultant to 'produce advice for a regulatory system that insulates the services from any local government or other external interference and ensures its operational, managerial and financial autonomy' (i.e. the government was to assign a consultant who would tender advice on how to keep the government out). But more interestingly, don't miss how keen the Bank seems to have been, and the extreme lengths to which it has gone, to ensure that PriceWaterhouse Coopers ended up being selected as the consultant. No prizes for guessing why: 'so the blueprint that PWC would draw up for Delhi's water privatisation would be in tune with the bank's economic philosophy'. I mean, duh!

This one is slightly nauseating. Accompanying the PM on his recent trip to the US, Natwar Singh sucks up to George Bush with promises of a grand welcome when Dubya visits India. Natwar recalled that as Dwight Eisenhower's escort officer he had produced a million people in Ramlila grounds to welcome the US president at a time when India's population was 'a mere 100 million'. Can Bush imagine the numbers cheering him when the population is a billion? he asks rhetorically. (They'll have to bus people in from Noida and Gurgaon with promises of fresh air and clean water or something.)

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Checks and balances

Cherie Booth (Blair) applauds the judiciary for giving the executive a hard time: 'it is all too easy to respond [to terrorism] in a way that undermines commitment to our most deeply held values and convictions and cheapens our right to call ourselves a civilised nation.'

Michael Ignatieff: blind, wrong and dangerous

More than any other public intellectual of our time, Michael Ignatieff horrifies and fascinates me. As Mariano Aguirre writes on openDemocracy, the man has been on a mission to justify post-Cold War US-led efforts at democratisation by force, on 2 grounds: (i) the Jeffersonian desire to 'spread to the whole world' the 'American form of republican self-government' is rooted in the country’s history and tradition; (ii) 'if the American project of encouraging freedom fails, there may be no one else available with the resourcefulness and energy, even the self-deception, necessary for the task'. We can quibble over (ii), but Ignatieff's tendency to see the rest of the world as a sandpit in which America can play out its national myth, amazes me.

Ignatieff is not just wrong, he is dangerous: as Aguirre puts it, 'Michael Ignatieff has been useful to the US government as it has tried to promote democracy in the middle east. He brings to this unofficial job a special, double-edged approach: he provides conservative arguments to the liberal audience and liberal alibis to the conservatives. Ignatieff considers himself a liberal, so sometimes he criticises the Bush administration. And he is an intellectual, so he has doubts about almost everything and airs them for the liberal readers of the New York Times. But in the end he shares the US government’s vision of the violent and compulsory promotion of democracy, the war against terrorism and the use of instruments, for example torture, which are apparently in need of a revisionist treatment.'

In his latest book The Lesser Evil (which I have yet to read), he reportedly reframes the debate on torture - 'the issue then becomes not whether torture can be prevented, but whether it can be regulated' - going so far as to suggest that when the police need to torture a suspect they could apply to a judge for a torture warrant that would specify the individual being tortured and set limits to the type and duration of pain allowed. This, from the current director of Harvard's Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy.

The problem with Ignatieff - and there are so many that one does not know quite where to begin - but the problem as Aguirre sees it is that 'Ignatieff has no historical context. Fatally attracted by the style of instant journalism, he frivolously mixes history and propaganda.' Seductive prose and messianic rhetoric make for good reading, but incredibly shoddy argument. 'In his militaristic patriotism', Aguirre says, 'Ignatieff is blind and wrong.' I could not agree more.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Capital ~ State ~ Nation

A protest by workers of Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India in Gurgaon (near Delhi), seeking higher wages and re-employment of suspended employees, snowballed into a major confrontation yesterday. Initial reports stated that upto 700 workers and 25 policemen had been injured. Even as enraged relatives of the injured attacked police the next day, industry representatives were already beginning to talk about how labour laws needs to be made more flexible, so as to assuage investor confidence and safeguard the investment climate. One analyst reads 'Gurgaon 25/7' as a metaphor for the insensitivity of liberalisation: 'Gurgaon 25/7 is an unpleasant reminder to all those who glibly talk of letting the market perform its miracles. The process is not painless and the pain has to be felt by someone and those who suffer will speak up sometime or the other.' Meanwhile in Parliament, MPs ask if the police are on the payrolls of multinationals or the Government. (This is uncannily like Zapatista arguments about the state becoming estranged from its nation(s), seduced away by transnational capital.) More rhetorically, the incident is likened to the Jallianwallah Bagh incident, with one member remarking that this was only to be expected after the PM's recent praise of British rule. Even the Independent notices.

Meanwhile in Bombay, city of extremes, when it rains it pours. The nation is stranded, the state stretched and capital shut-down.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Perspectives on police shooting

One left academic list that I am a member of, has been inundated with hyperbole and paranoia over the last few days re: the police shooting in London on 22/7. So this no less outraged but well argued legal and moral perspective on the tragedy is a refreshing change (via a friend's private blog).

Today's Hindu editorial offers a contrapuntal reading of police shooting in London and Kashmir. 'Motive apart, the substance of both acts was indistinguishable from cold-blooded murder, especially as there was no question of pleading any right to self-defence in the circumstances.' But can you really judge such acts 'motive apart'? Doesnt one's normative evalutation of such acts (murder or manslaughter) turn on the question of intention? And if the intention was to protect, can London be called a case of 'state terrorism'? (Another opinion piece in today's Hindu uses the phrase 'state terror'.)

I'm more willing to characterise Kashmir as a case of state terrorism, because the state has been using violence there for decades with a view to shaping the political situation. But is there a political dimension to the police shooting in Stockwell? (Were they trying to sow fear in the hearts of non-white minorities, etc.?) I think not, and in the absense of a political dimension to their use of force, the label 'state terrorism' is hyperbolic. One might - after an inquiry - discover that there were institutionalised racism in the police force, but even that would not justify using the word 'terrorism' to describe what happened at Stockwell, in the absence of a political agenda.

In objecting to the label 'state terrorism', I don't wish to underplay at all the seriousness of what has taken place, or the fear that people who are Muslim (or look Muslim - how does a Muslim look?) might feel at this time. I just think that language is becoming an unacknowledged casualty in the atmosphere of paranoia that seems to engulf us. In using phrases like 'state terrorism' and 'police state' (John Gardner) to describe London post-22/7, we cheapen them and do violence to contexts that actually warrant those labels (state-sponsored communal pogroms, paramilitary death squads, and situations like that in Northern Ireland, where there have long been links between the British army, RUC and Protestant paramilitaries). It may be right to point out that London is on the same continuum as these other contexts and it is certainly right to warn of a possible slide into situations like these. But we are emphatically not at that point yet.

What disturbs me is that in order to avoid tragedies like 22/7, the state needs to know more so that it can target better - more intelligence, more surveillance, more CCTV cameras, more community penetration (or whatever the latest euphemism for 'knowing what Muslims think' is). Avoiding what commentators are already (and prematurely I believe) calling 'state terrorism' and 'police state', seems to require becoming more like a police state. That is obviously very worrying for civil liberties advocates, but to prevent this from happening we need to offer alternatives that protect liberty and security.

Discussions about the protection of civil liberties and security are often separate conversations with different protagonists - organisations like Liberty in the former and the Met and MI6 in the latter - with each offering advice from the perspective of the values it prioritises. Government is supposed to be the great balancer, listening to all these voices and making the necessary trade-offs. But I wonder if organisations like Liberty need to start talking about security - i.e. making arguments for the protection of civil liberties that take security considerations into account - not as a substitute for the sorts of thinking and balancing that government needs to do, but in order to be taken more seriously themselves. (This can sound dangerously like an argument for Liberty to be less forceful in its defence of liberty, be more 'realistic', etc. I can't solve these problems this afternoon, so I'm going to log off now.)

Calcutta, Calcutta, Calcutta

Ominous words in the Calcutta Telegraph about the situation in London: 'Terror can only be countered by terror. But the use of terror by the police cannot be as indiscriminate as that of the fanatics who are the targets.' The editorial then goes on to compliment London police for their honesty in admitting their mistake, contrasting this with analogous situations in India. Do we suffer from the reverse racism of lower expectations?

Admiring words in the Calcutta Telegraph about the relative tolerance of that city towards courting couples. One-time Bangalore resident Janaki Nair contrasts this with the situation in the southern metro, where 'lathi-wielding police make sure that all benches are lover-proof.' This piece is about a lot more, though.

I am reading about the Naxalite movement in West Bengal in 1967. Apparently, when the movement reached Calcutta, among other things, students began smashing statues of Bengal Renaissance heroes such as Vidyasagar and Tagore. (This, I suppose, is the equivalent of Bengali blasphemy.) All of this is (i) filling out my picture of what was happening in the world in 1967-68 (I know something about events in Mexico City, the US, Paris and Prague in those momentous months, but much less about events closer to home); (ii) making me wonder what was happening in Andhra Pradesh and giving me the eerie feeling that I had family on the other side in Warrangal district. So here I am, reading about subalterns and 'new' social movements in India, seeing them as progressive agents because of the role they might have played in attacking caste hierarchies, but vaguely aware that my ancestors would have taken a much more grim view of things - particularly if they were being tied up and shot, as many upper-caste landowning families would have been in areas where the movement was most active.

Monday, July 25, 2005

'New' social movements in Karnataka

Following on from comments after an earlier post, this story of the launch of a new movement for social and political justice may be of interest. Titled AHIND (Alphasankhyakaru, Hindulidavaru and Dalitaru), the movement's inaugural event was organised under the auspices of the Karnataka Federation of the Minorities, Backward Classes and Dalits - an organisation formed by politicians cutting across political lines. The report indicates that the convention may have been intended to project Siddaramaiah (Dy. CM, Karnataka) as an icon of the backward classes in the ongoing tussle between himself and former PM Deve Gowda (mannina maga of snoring fame). Interestingly in his speech, Siddaramaiah seems to have mentioned the examples of Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP and Lalu Prasad in Bihar, arguing that they could not have come to power but for unity in the ranks of minorities, Dalits and backward classes.

This was essentially what Jotiba Phule and Ambedkar were trying to bring about. Ambedkar: 'It is obvious that these three classes (dalits, shudras and tribals) are naturally allies. There is every ground for them to combine for the destruction of the Hindu social order. But they have not...the result is that there is nobody to join the Untouchable in his struggle. He is completely isolated. Not only is he isolated he is opposed by the very classes who ought to be his natural allies.' (from Gail Omvedt, Reinventing Revolution, p. 51)

(Note the lack of scare quotes around backward - suggesting that this is now a term appropriated from government legalese by the players themselves? Not sure...)

The Middle Path: between 'us' and the 'terrorists'

'Tariq Ramadan is one of the brightest hopes for achieving the reconciliation between Muslims and the rest of society', the Independent says today. Ramadan: 'Now it's time to speak out - both against those who are doing these things in the name of our religion and against those who say that being a loyal British citizen means blindly accepting all the decisions of the British Government. Ours must be a constructive and critically participative loyalty.' Ramadan must be doing something right: he is currently under fire from neo-conservatives in the US (which recently denied him a work permit to take up an academic post in that country), right-wing voices in the UK such as the Sun, and conservative fellow-Muslims who accuse him of 'selling out'. Ramadan's response to most of this is a resolute insistence on separating religion from culture: 'The more literal will say I am Westernising. But I am not losing the universal principles. I'm just not confusing them with the culture of the countries that Muslims have traditionally come from.'

For a sense of how loathsome and irresponsible the Sun campaign against Ramadan has been, see Oscar Reyes' piece in the July '05 issue of Red Pepper, in which he says: 'For such commentators, what is threatening about Ramadan is precisely the fact that he doesn’t fit the 'extremist' caricature. His very presence is an affront to the belief that a clash of civilisations is just around the corner, because his work expresses the strong commonalities between European and Islamic principles, and invites European Muslims to embrace their connections with the society in which they live without giving up on their faith identity.'

Also worth reading is Ramadan's response in August '04, to news of having his US visa revoked. I especially like the bit where - responding to the oft-repeated epithet that he is the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood - he says: 'Those focused on my genealogy ought to examine my intellectual pedigree, which, along with my grandfather and father, includes Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche.' Very few of us are from one place only. Even if we have never moved. Surely that is what makes contrapuntal readings possible.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Solitary weekend link

What does comedy do in the wake of terrorism? Read here.

Peter Singer, milieu, output

Read this profile of Peter Singer, utilitarian philosopher, which sparked off many unrelated thoughts. An academic who provokes people enough to receive hate mail and death threats surely subverts that intensely annoying distinction between issues of 'mere' academic interest and the 'real' world. I'm particularly struck by his having been 'lured from the relatively liberal milieu of academic Melbourne because he thought the challenges in one of the world's most selfish, reactionary societies would galvanise him anew as an ethical person' - which suggests the interesting and not unreasonable possibility that one's best work might be produced in the most challenging and potentially hostile environments.

The relationship between working environment and output is explored in an entirely different context in an interesting piece on the production of 'third world' scholarship by scholars from and in those parts of the world (See Arlene Tickner, 'Seeing IR Differently: Notes from the Third World', Millennium 32, no. 2 (2003): 295-324), which is worth quoting at length:

'For those scholars for whom a colonial legacy, war, chronic instability and insecurity, and acute poverty form part of their concrete working conditions, the ways in which reality is reflected upon and problematised is no doubt influenced by the intrusive nature of everyday life. In Colombia, a bomb explosion two blocks from my home that kills 35 people and injures 170 more; a professor assassinated on the National University campus where I teach IR and another shot and nearly killed right outside; a research assistant kidnapped; the increasingly visible presence of the US military and private contractors in the country's conflict, force me to reflect upon problems such as war in ways different from other scholars inhabiting more accommodating life conditions...Not having access to a suitable library or to adequate internet resources, a common ailment of third world scholarship, is another way in which everyday practice creates dramatically different knowledge-building conditions in the global South...Core scholarship is also influenced by everyday conditions, albeit of a markedly different nature. First world working conditions are characterised by two sets of luxuries, including material benefits (research funding, travel to scholarly meetings and abundant bibliographical sources) and conceptual freedom (the autonomy that is accorded by tenure). The prevalent self-image of core scholars is that of individuals in 'ivory towers' uninhibited by their surroundings and free to pursue whatever theoretical venture they deem interesting or important. Academic privilege, however, may isolate core academics from critical problems in the everyday world.'

Sabbatical (mine) in Birzeit? As a matter of fact, London in its present state could more than suffice. This isn't at all intended to welcome adversity (how could anyone in their right minds?); merely to suggest that no place now is free from fear and insecurity (if it ever was). We are becoming a truly global risk society (Beck?).

Back to Singer, from whom I stray considerably. Obviously there is much to say about some of his immensely controversial pronouncements (which I don't know enough about) - the very onerous obligations of justice that he places on individuals, so that he sometimes sounds like he expects all persons to be moral heroes; the attempts to draw bright lines on the issue of when a life is no longer worth living, etc. Oh, and don't miss the part about how despite being a graduate student at Univ, it was a certain lunch at Balliol that sent him down the animal rights track.

Friday, July 22, 2005

the day after

A man was shot dead on the Tube near Stockwell Station today.

There is a hysteria-inducing line in this article, which describes London on 21/7: '"We actually saw them drawing buses to the side of the street and telling passengers to get off," said Mr. Yacoub, who said he had received nervous telephone calls from relatives in Iraq who had heard about the attacks.' I am drowning in pools of irony.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The risk society, or welcome to the world

How do you live,
not knowing whether you are going to survive your morning commute,
wondering if someone is going to blow themselves up inside your local TESCO
or shatter the tranquil environs of the British Library?

You are vigilant, without assuming that the person next to you is dangerous
simply on the basis of their apparent race or religion.

You stay calm when something does happen,
and help the person next to you if he or she needs it.

You understand that you are experiencing a tiny fraction of the devastation wrought when bombs rain down from B52s on other lands.
You go to the next anti-war march, saying you are neither with 'us' nor with 'the terrorists'.
But you also think about who you are.

You remember the Blitz not only when they are hitting you,
but also when you are flattening someone else.
Even if you are doing it for their own 'good'.

You do not become like Israel and assume that the only thing to do is cope, without addressing the political roots of what is going on.
And you address those political roots not because the terrorists want you to do so, but because that is the right thing to do anyway.

Above all, you go to work, you go on holiday,
you go to the park, the museum, the library,
you ride the Tube, you eat shwarma on Edgware Road,
you do the Virginia Woolf walk in Bloomsbury,
you live, live, live, because you have no other choice
and because that is the best way to tell the terrorists to fuck off.

It's Not Bloody OK

If you don't read anything else today, read this. My country.

Three ugly faces of direct action

This isn't exactly the most important story in the world, but animal rights activists have just burnt down the Hertford College boathouse in protest against the new primate laboratory that Oxford University is building. I'm not sure I have a position on their specific grievance - I do love animals and am sure I would be horrified by the more grotesque aspects of vivisection. However, I think their tactics are problematic, unjustified and stupid.

There is a strain of the anti-globalisation movement that departs from the hegemonic non-violent line to argue that violence against property is justified. This is the position of groups like the Black Block anarchists (about whom I know very little) and the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (infamous for its ransacking of Cargill seeds and Monsanto and its attack on KFC in Bangalore). In the case of the KRRS, its grievances are against the GATT (now WTO) and assorted trade agreements. Whether or not one considers the use of violence against property justifiable, KRRS' targets at least make sense: they are attacking the beneficiaries of the trade agreements they are critiquing. In the case of the animal rights activists, the object of arson bears no relation to the issue at hand except for the very loose connection of being owned by the same corporate entity (it's a bit like burning down a government-owned primary school in protest against the war in Iraq). Further, I'm not sure whom this sort of an action is intended to persuade or convince (or is the only intention here to intimidate and sow fear?) - after all, is it inconceivable that animal lovers might be rowers? Opinion: legitimate ends perhaps, but illegitimate and illogical means.

The other ugly direct action story comes from Israel, where thousands of settlers marched earlier this week against the proposed withdrawal from Gaza. Opinion: legitimate means as far as I can tell, but illegitimate ends given that these demonstrations are intended to perpetuate a racist and colonialist occupation.

*** I'm interrupting this post because I've just heard that there have been three more tube 'incidents' in London, so have to go watch TV. No one injured. London Metropolitan police not treating this as a 'major' incident yet. More ugly 'direct action', I guess. Opinion: We don't know who was behind this. Yet. ***

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Narmada, NLS

Excerpt from Medha Patkar (in conversation with Smitu Kothari), ‘The Struggle for Participation and Justice: A Historical Narrative’, in Toward Sustainable Development? Struggling Over India’s Narmada River, ed. William F. Fisher (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1995), pp. 173-174:

'In 1987 I first went to Washington with friends from supporting US organisations and met a number of World Bank officials. The questions that were raised were not merely related to rehabilitation. One question raised was, for example, How could the World Bank sign the agreement when our own indigenous agencies, the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Planning Commission, had not cleared the project? This was a distorted decision-making process and the influence of the World Bank then would make the project a fait accompli, and the sanction would be drawn out and the process was going on anyway. The World Bank had no answers. The only answer came from consulting the Indian legal adviser they had at that time, Mohan Gopal, who said, "Oh, we were not aware of this kind of a procedural requirement from Ministry of Environment!" I said, "If you are not aware, then you are obviously not responsible for all the claims in your appraisals and your agreements that you would monitor the project and that this would be monitored and that would be monitored, and you cannot be considered capable of doing that."'

Background: Medha Patkar is the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the single largest organisation fighting against the displacement of people by the Narmada Valley Projects. Mohan Gopal went on to become Director of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, in my final year there (2000-01). In the summer of 2001, the Operations Evaluation Department of the World Bank commenced a review of compliance of Bank projects over the last decade with the Bank's Operational Directive 4.20 on Indigenous Peoples. I worked with the review team for a period of two months out of their Bangalore office. The terms of the review did not include the Bank's involvement in the controversial Sardar Sarovar Project (controversial because it had displaced tens of thousands of indigenous and tribal peoples without adequate resettlement measures). I am not entirely sure why this was the case - it may have been (i) because there had already been a severely critical Independent Review of the Project by the Bank's first ever Inspection Panel; or (ii) because the Bank had withdrawn from the Project before completion in 1993. The lead evaluation officer for the review was Gita Gopal - Mohan Gopal's wife.

Gita was a real pleasure to work with - obviously committed to her work, not afraid to speak her mind, and conscious that as somebody who worked for OED it was her job to do so. She was also a genuinely warm and friendly person and I learnt a great deal from working with her. I was particularly heartened to learn about the extent of dissent that existed within the Bank. But I regret that I did not question her more closely about the reasons for exclusion of the SSP from the terms of reference of the review. Nor did I ask her about the specific role that her husband might have played in all this (I had assumed that he had always been legal counsel for East Asia - his last position - and was also given to understand that Bank staff never advised on projects in their home countries).

I would be lying if I suggested that I had anything but a good relationship with Mohan, though many in school (including some of my closest friends) couldn't stand him. However, on the issue of Narmada, he showed a sort of knife-edge ambivalence. On the day in October 2000 that the Supreme Court delivered its bleak judgment allowing construction on the dam to resume after a gap of several years, a number of us from law school joined a rally on Bangalore's MG Road in protest against the judgment. The demonstration got out of hand and some of us were arrested. Mohan Gopal and our equally unpopular registrar Babu Mathew (now head of ActionAid India) played an instrumental role in securing our release (although charges were not dropped). However, as soon as we returned to school, Gopal harangued us about how misguided we were in taking to the streets. At the time, I attributed this to his reformist inclinations (as lawyers we should be working within the system, demonstrating fealty to the rule of law, I remember him saying). It now seems clear to me that his own personal complicity in the Bank's negligence in the Sardar Sarovar Project must have been weighing heavily on his mind, accounting for his lack of support for our protest. Our protest was directed against the likes of him, more directly than we knew.

On madrasas, religion, secularism

William Dalrymple laments the unsophistication of the debate about the British bombers in this country. 'Islamic terrorism, like its Christian predecessor, remains a largely bourgeois endeavour', he says; madrasas are not bourgeois hangouts, so the relentless focus on them is misleading.

Much to agree with in this piece, although I'm sure the class analysis does not apply to all places and all times. My grandfather studied in a madrasa in the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad. He was a Hindu by birth, but his father worked in the court of the Nizam, so I imagine the sons were made to learn Urdu (and Persian, which he then proceeded to flunk in his matriculation exams at the Shivaji Military School in Pune - can you imagine anything named after Shivaji teaching Persian today?). In later life, he went on to work in the very Anglo worlds of the Indian Army and the Calcutta Royal Western India Turf Club. He was fiercely secular all his life, but his kind of secularism was a lived, matter-of-fact, Indian reality - not the shallow rootless Nehruvian import it is so often made out to be.

(Meanwhile, on the other side of my family, they speak a Telugu which is heavily inflected with Urdu...)

I'm not sure if my great-grandmother is secular, but she certainly displays a stunning religious and cultural eclecticism. In her puja room are pictures of Jesus and Guru Nanak and statues of Hanuman, ranged around a big sandalwood centrepiece depicting Rama, Sita and Lakshmana. A few years ago, she collected her autobiographical reflections into a 25 page volume, which ends with an incantation to her guru - Swami Chinmayananda (whom many of the rest of the family viewed as a sort of Rasputin-like influence on her!) - followed by a poem by Tennyson ('Sunset and evening star / And one clear call for me...I hope to see my pilot face to face / When I have crossed the bar) - a final chant in the direction of her favourite deity 'Sri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram', and her concluding words to the family ('to keep this big family united with love and understanding, ever helpful to each other') are rounded off with an Amen. My great-grandmother will be 91 in 5 weeks. Doesn't she sound like an original South Indian Brahmo?

Pop politics, or if Virginia Woolf were a blogger

Some of my DPhil research looks at contemporary subaltern social movements, and one of the movements I'm particularly interested in are the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. This is such a heavily documented movement that there is no dearth of information on the web - 3 good portals I've found are Chiapas 95, Zapatistas in Cyberspace, and a page maintained by the Struggle collective.

Of late, the Zapatistas have been relatively quiet - although Marcos has been doing various quirky things such as co-writing crime novels and soliciting football matches with Inter Milan. Some people I've talked to have dismissed all of this as the desperate publicity gimmicks of a dying movement, but I suspect if Gramsci were alive he would consider these tactics part of a highly astute war of position. Sometimes, I think, if Gramsci were alive in Britain at this time, he'd recommend infiltrating the Big Brother house and talking about things that were politically important. This may be easier said than done: there's something about the format of the programme that makes me want to watch Anthony more than listen to anything anyone is saying (btw Craig is so intensely whiny, you just want to tape his mouth shut). I'm not sure if Germaine Greer had such Gramscian ideas when she entered Celebrity Big Brother, but she seems to have gotten fed up pretty soon. Sorry this is so random. My thesis is going to end up looking like 'To the Lighthouse' at this rate. It has already been called 'unruly'.

Back to the Zapatistas. After a long silence, from the depths of the Selva Lacandona comes their Sixth Declaration, providing a succinct account of where they have come from and where they are going.


woohoo!!! Doesnt he sound earnest?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Rhodes controversy

Background: I did not intend this to become a personal blog, but perhaps that's silly because I'm never very clear about the personal/political line anyway. In any case, this raises other important issues and has made me more than slightly angry. Basically, the Rhodes Trust is not doing well financially, it has decided to cut down on scholarships. Virtually all constituencies have been affected except the US and Canada (note that these are 2 of the 3 G8 countries that are part of the scholarship scheme). The reasons given for this broadly make sense, but the outcome is infuriating and politically regressive nevertheless. In other words, I do not seek to impute malice to the Rhodes Trust - but I am disappointed and angry with their decision. Thoughts... ['trust' refers to the Rhodes Trust, 'will' refers to the will of Cecil Rhodes]

i have nothing practical to say about what should be done about the scholarship reductions, so if anyone is reading this in the hope of finding constructive suggestions - look no further. in fact, delete.

i think the great tragedy of this scholarship is that the trust is caught between the principles of trust law on the one hand, which oblige it to stick to the letter of the will, and the very profound changes in world politics that have taken place since it was written in 1877. because of its legal obligations, the trust is left defending and perpetuating an essentially 19th century vision of how the world should be run (recall that the original constituencies were chosen by rhodes because he thought the global common good was best protected through a sort of condominium between the then three great powers - the US, germany and the british commonwealth. note also that this last really meant britain and the then white dominions, not the lower-status colonies - no, not even the 'jewel'.)

over the last century of its operation, the trustees have - at various points in time - shown real statesmanship in interpreting the will creatively to expand its scope in terms of both gender and geography. this is exactly as it should be: if the trust is not to become an ethical dinosaur, it ought to be able to interpret the will - if you'll forgive the grotesque irony - as a living document, more like a constitution because this is a founding document of sorts. (as an ex-lawyer i recognise that this would, of course, be legally dodgy. as someone who now does politics, i'm less pessimistic about the realm of the possible.)

what do i mean exactly? there has been much talk of needing an act of parliament to change the terms of the will. the mere mention of this is intended to serve as a sort of conversation-stopper, as if it were the most unimaginable thing in the world. is it? is the real hurdle the *legal* impossibility of change, or is it the *political* reality of powerful alumni constituencies that will fight reductions tooth and nail? (for why some alumni constituencies are more powerful than others, we'd have to recount the story of the world - but bear in mind that the less powerful constituencies are those that are smaller and came later.)

if the legislative route were attempted, does the trust honestly anticipate that an attempt to change the distribution of scholarships would encounter difficulties in parliament? (frankly, westminster's legislative calendar is so crowded with issues that are so much more important, that i think MPs would be happy to rubber stamp the recommendations of a trust that is chock-full of eminent personalities and pillars of the british establishment - but that's just in my very naive political estimation)

or does the trust simply think that the attempt is not worth the time and money that this might entail? in this case, perhaps we need to be clear about how much time and how much money.

(as a side issue - or maybe not such a side issue - it's also worth remembering that cecil's vision was closely tied to his perception of then british foreign policy interests. in a week in which british foreign policy has been centrally concerned with 'making poverty history' in africa and improving relations with the muslim world, the reduction of scholarships to both those parts of the world is surely ironic - suggesting that the trust is in danger of becoming both an ethical and a strategic dinosaur.

or perhaps not. those who believe that british foreign policy rests crucially on the maintenance of the 'special relationship' will see the trust as sticking closely to that line and thereby fulfiling cecil's will in both letter and spirit. i don't have much to say if that's the case, except that that would be the clearest admission that some of us really are more special than others. but perhaps this is all a digression.)

let me be very clear: i do not think the trust is acting out of malice of any sort, i agree with those who have pointed out that the trust has treated us even-handedly (more than even-handedly: remember warm clothes?). it is not intentions that are problematic here, it is outcomes. and i describe the trust's position as 'tragic' because i recognise that it is mired in a very real tension between yesterday's words and today's politics, giving it little space for manoeuvre. the only way out as i see it is through an act(/Act) of political will(/Will) - will that, i am sorry to say, seems to be lacking (i mean the argument about keeping canadian scholarships intact as if some mysterious law of limitation swung into action after WW1, is about as ridiculous as talking about the easement rights of pigeons to continue shitting on the roof of rhodes house). in other words, i am not calling the trust mean or evil, i am calling it less than pro-active (i.e. lazy, in case the euphemisms are too obscure). without that political will, i am afraid it is back to the jurassic era - an age in which many of us, quite literally, did not exist.

disclaimer: yes we're all fantastically privileged in our home countries. it's the rare rhodes scholar (and i know they exist) who has made it here from real poverty. but let's stop kidding ourselves about why access to institutions like oxford are important. if it needs to be spelt out, here it is: because of the way the world is (another long story), institutions like oxford continue to act as gate-keepers to the institutions that govern the world. whatever your politics, it shouldnt be hard to see that rhodies enter those institutions in droves - the US government (though that obviously remains barred to other constituencies, though sometimes i think it shouldn't be), the World Bank, McKinsey, the UN, and of course elite universities themselves - including this one. cutting down scholarships means cutting down access - not just to oxford, but to all of these places - thereby exacerbating everything that is already so problematic about the way the world is run.

i need to go to sleep. i will not be writing to this list again, except in self-defence.

Poetry, politics

It is July. What is happening in the Narmada valley? How much did the water levels rise this monsoon? Whose houses were submerged? How many people decided they couldn't take it anymore and wearily accepted miserable resettlement packages? What gives strength to those who choose to remain?

Read Vikram Seth's 'The Elephant and The Tragopan' and think of Narmada. Go here to see what last year's submergence looked like. Imagine what this year's creeping water levels will do. Juxtapose that with us watering our lawns and splashing around in water parks (and I don't just mean in Baroda, Ahmedabad, Kheda, Gandhinagar and Surendranagar, though those will be the most grotesque comparisons because of proximity).

Watch this space for news of the UK Narmada Network (first meeting in the first week of August, London). It's worth remembering that every CM of Gujarat from Chimanbhai Patel through Narendra Modi has courted NRI Gujaratis for financial and political support for the Sardar Sarovar Project, particularly in periods when international investment in the project started to dry up as a result of the movement. The pro-dam lobby actively courts external support and then accuses anti-dam activists of being 'anti-national' when they do the same.

Monday, July 18, 2005

More Orwell

I wasn't even looking for this, but today's Guardian has a piece on how Orwell was himself watched by Big Brother. Although he was under surveillance for more than 12 years (one of the things that aroused suspicion was his attempt to find Mulk Raj Anand a job in the BBC), about 10 years ago it was revealed that he had supplied a list of 86 'Stalinist fellow travellers' to a Foreign Office anti-Communist propaganda unit. Biographer Bernard Crick reconciles these apparent contradictions by suggesting that his experiences in the Spanish civil war left him sharply disillusioned with Soviet communism.

Here's a staccato biography and a tribute in links.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Aijaz Ahmad, Edward Said

Aijaz Ahmad contrasts reactions to terrorism in London and New York, capturing some of the reasons why I prefer public political culture in Britain to that in the US (there, I’ve said it in print). [Note his very truncated usage of Left (so that even those on the dissident left of Labour such as Robin Cook don’t really count as ‘left’) – Aijaz moves with such a select band of fellow-travellers?] Very sobering conclusions – British policy likely to continue being tied to American policy thanks to the ‘special relationship’, no prospect of quick American withdrawal from Iraq: ‘If corporate U.S.A. could give 50,000 lives for ideology in Vietnam, how many more might it be willing to give for a few trillion dollars?’ Current indications are that Aijaz is right, with Tony Blair warning that it would be 'catastrophic' to believe that terrorism could be ended by changing British foreign policy. Nevertheless, the debate seems to be on: 'Until now the anti-war left has refrained from raising Iraq out of respect for the dead. But with ministers now discussing the radicalisation of young Muslims, the gloves are off.'

I'm currently reading 1984, mostly because I have been using the word 'Orwellian' without having read any of the work that gives it its adjectival force. 28 pages into my copy, a newsflash from Big Brother:
Attention! Your attention, please! A newsflash has this moment arrived from the Malabar front. Our forces in South India have won a glorious victory. I am
authorised to say that the action we are now reporting may well bring the war
within measurable distance of its end. Here is the newsflash.
Much of 1984 was written in 1948 - a year in which Communists in India were engaged in insurgencies in Tripura, Telangana and - as Orwell would have known - Kerala. Orwell may have seen these as the opening of new fronts in a supposed global Communist surge. (Orwell was born in India in 1903, and served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma from 1922-27.) This might be an instance of the sort of contrapuntal reading of texts that Edward Said performs in Culture and Imperialism.

By the way, if you are ever in danger of lionising Said, you can do no better than to read Aijaz on Said: 'Orientalism and After: Ambivalence and Metropolitan Location in the Work of Edward Said', in In Theory (London: Verso, 2000). Here's my favourite paragraph (Aijaz on why people like me have lapped up Said's Orientalism):
...its most passionate following in the metropolitan countries is within those
sectors of the university intelligentsia which either originate in the ethnic
minorities or affiliate themselves ideologically with the academic sections of
those minorities...Those who came as graduate students and then joined the
faculties, especially in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, tended to come
from upper classes in their home countries. In the process of relocating
themselves in the metropolitan countries, they needed documents of their
assertion, proof that they had always been oppressed. Books that connected
oppression with class were not very useful, because they neither came
from the working class nor were intending to join that class in their new
country. Those who said that majority of the populations in Africa and Asia
certainly suffered from colonialism, but that there were also those who
benefited from it, were useless, because many of the new professionals who were part of this immigration themselves came from those other families, those other classes, which had been the beneficiaries (pp. 195-196).

Watch this space for a reply to that. One day.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Subalternity, separatism, subsumption

How can subaltern identities struggling for recognition, tolerance, affirmation, equality, mediate between the risks of separatism and subsumption? How can they be different but equal? David Leavitt welcomes the demise of gay bookshops and the transition from gay to post-gay fiction, as signs of the success of the movement. Makes sense, perhaps, in a context where many victories for gay rights have been won – or, at the very least, a space for debate has been carved out (no matter how vicious the terms of discourse on occasion). But what about contexts in which gay identities continue to be virtually invisible? Do we still need our queer bookshops and queer fiction sections, our narratives in which sexual orientation is a Very Big Deal?

But why look at the struggle for rights teleologically – as if separatism were an inevitable way-station en route to liberation. Why even conceive of ‘liberation’ in the same ways? It’s entirely possible that even, or especially, where the struggle for rights feels less advanced, we might leap-frog over stages that movements elsewhere have had to pass through (South Africa emerges from apartheid – boom! – and gives itself one of the most progressive constitutions in the world).

Indian post-gay fiction? Think of the masti of Maan and Firoz buried more than a thousand pages into A Suitable Boy, the irrelevance of Piers’ homosexuality in An Equal Music, the centrality but absolute matter-of-factness of gayness in Golden Gate. As Mr. Seth puts it somewhere, ‘In the strict ranks / of Gay and Straight / what is my status? / Stray? Or Great?’

Today is Oxford Pride.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Between words and worlds

This will appear shortly in the Oxonian Review of Books.

Sarai Reader 05: Bare Acts (Delhi: The Sarai Programme, 2005)
Price: Rs. 350, $20, €20
Paperback, 581 pages

Navigating Sarai’s latest offering in its annual series of Readers – Bare Acts – is a bit like making my way through an anarchist festival: there is no one place to begin or pre-defined route to take, the constituent pieces interpret the central theme in such varied and original ways that I am almost immediately sceptical of their juxtaposition (how does this all hang together?), and the overall effect seems one of intelligent and exciting dissonance that takes more than a little while to sort through (fortunately, one has an entire year). Those of a left libertarian persuasion will take the anarchist analogy as a compliment, but in common parlance the term has pejorative connotations: chaos, disorder, incoherence. The editors appear acutely aware of this possibility, clarifying that theirs is an eclecticism by design and defending it as ‘a commitment to a variegated and democratic universe of discourse production’, as a refusal ‘to make any one ‘voice’ feel more entitled to expression than others’ (p. viii). Noble words that must be judged against the standard they set for themselves: that of making ‘a series of coherent but autonomous and interrelated arguments’, of making ‘different registers of writing, the academic, the literary, the journalistic, the autobiographical and the practice-based, speak to each other’ (pp. vii-viii).

The Reader brings together an assortment of voices to consider the fraught relationship between ‘Bare Acts’ – the textual essence of legal codes, or the very letter of the law – and ‘bare acts’ – the range of acts of interpretation, negotiation, disputation and witnessing that reinforce or subvert the law. It is an ambitious attempt to map the relationship between words that seek to exert normative force (whether in the guise of formal legal codes or otherwise) and the worlds that they address. In a collage-like rendition, it offers incisive accounts of this ceaseless, mutually constitutive dynamic in a staggering variety of contexts – urban studies, media, technology, environment, gender, migration, social movement politics, etc.

A recurring theme through which this dynamic is revealed is that of transgression. A number of pieces provide fascinating glimpses of the ways in which bare acts of transgression of existing Bare Acts, decisively reshape the relevant technological, commercial and/or normative contexts (sometimes necessitating a revision of the supposedly authoritative Bare Acts themselves). One sees this, for example, in the role that piracy plays, in creating new markets where none existed before (Lawrence Liang, ‘Porous Legalities and Avenues of Participation’), and in driving innovation to which ‘legitimate’ industry responds belatedly and grudgingly (Menso Heus, ‘Innovating Piracy’). The impact of transgression is also evident in the startling revelation that regularisation of violations of urban master plans typically constitutes the dominant way in which cities are built (Solomon Benjamin, ‘Touts, Pirates and Ghosts’). The idea that transgression creates ‘facts on the ground’ that alter the context in which regulation must operate, offers a descriptive, value-agnostic rationale for studying transgression.

But the editors are keen to highlight that there are strong normative reasons for the focus on transgression. Specifically, ‘the growing constriction of the domain of the doable by the letter of the law…leads to a situation where those committed to a modicum of social liberty, to expanding the territory of what may be creatively imagined and acted upon, have to invest in knowing and understanding an ethic of trespasses’ (p. 4). The Reader brings to light multiple contexts in which the constriction of the doable renders those already on the margins of society, trespassers on their own lands. I am drawn here to Anand Taneja’s account of the increasing limitation of avenues for non-elite entertainment – thanks to crackdowns on piracy and the growing stringency of safety regulations (which the more affordable cinema halls inevitably fall afoul of) – even as high-end shopping malls and multiplexes proliferate (‘Begum Samru and the Security Guard’). In a similar vein, Awadhendra Sharan describes how the middle-class environmentalism of India’s Supreme Court, with its particular conceptualisations of ‘nuisance’ and pollution, have often threatened the employment prospects of economically marginal groups (‘New’ Delhi). Under such circumstances trespass begins to look like an imperative of survival thrust upon subaltern groups.

But the Reader also offers multiple illustrations in which the directionality of this relationship appears to be reversed – where trespass is explicitly intended to expand the realm of the doable (or ‘be-able’). The use of civil disobedience in struggles for the expansion of rights is perhaps the most obvious illustration of this. In this context, Preeti Sampat and Nikhil Dey provide a highly instructive account (‘Bare Acts and Collective Explorations’) of the manner in which acts in explicit defiance of long-honoured caste norms – petitions for land allotment, forest festivals, rallies, labour fairs, sit-ins, hunger strikes – successfully create the political impetus for Right to Information legislation. I am struck not only by the constitutive role of bare acts in the writing of (new) Bare Acts, but also by the extent to which the bare acts of transgressing caste norms rely on legal rights ostensibly guaranteed by (existing) Bare Acts. One sees here, more clearly than anywhere else, the bi-directionality of the relationship that is at the core of this Reader.

The overall message seems to be that some choose transgression as a means of expanding the realm of the doable, while others have transgression thrust upon them as a result of the constriction of the doable. In the latter situation, if it is the case – as Benjamin points out – that subaltern transgression relies for its success on ‘quiet politics’, I wonder about the ethics of analysing and publicising mechanisms of subaltern agency. Once subaltern agency is rendered visible in the manner accomplished by many of the contributions to the Reader, it is no longer ‘quiet’. Does making subaltern transgression explicit simultaneously strip it of its most powerful weapon? Whom does such knowledge benefit?

I also wonder at the very occasional lapse into unthinking relativism, in which there is a reluctance to judge the legitimacy of particular transgressions from any vantage point whatsoever. In this context one looks in vain for any acknowledgement, from Zainab Bawa, of the serious (class-neutral) implications for road safety, of her driving instructor’s ability to obtain licences for clients without the slightest demonstration of their competence! (‘My Driving Master’)

One strength of the Reader is that despite its central preoccupation with the promulgation of legal norms and their social reception, it is ‘interested in looking not only at what happens in law courts but also at customs, conventions, formal and quasi-formal ‘ways of doing things’ that are pertinent to communities’ and more specifically at the ‘relationships of conflict, coexistence and accommodations between different kinds of codes that make claims to our idea of what is right, or just…’ (p. 2). This interest in a broad range of normative codes focuses attention on the crucial issue of the limits of the law: what sorts of considerations are and/or ought to be part of the judicial process? In this context, Clifton D’ Rozario brings to our attention the Supreme Court’s deafness to the normative claims of adivasis (forest dwellers) fighting against their displacement from the Narmada Valley on the basis of their traditional customary and modern citizenship rights (‘Bolti Band (SILENCED!)’). (He might also have mentioned the Court’s ready acceptance of the state’s arguments regarding the financial implications of halting dam construction – itself surely an extra-legal consideration.) Attention to the relationship between different kinds of codes also enables Aarti Sethi to reinterpret the notorious Nanavati trial and its convoluted political afterlife through the prism of an honour killing: from this rather intriguing perspective, Presidential Pardon becomes an act of state intended to allow compliance with a state-sanctioned honour code that contradicts the state’s avowed commitment to punishing murder.

Finally, the Reader brings together between its covers a mind-boggling melange of rhetorical and argumentative devices – the printed word is supplemented with photographs, sketches, cartoons and even a tantalising discussion on the use of videologs in documenting the production of ‘trans-localities’ through the daily migrations of people in the border zones between Spain and Morocco (Ursula Biemann, ‘On Smugglers, Pirates and Aroma Makers’). Occasionally, a single piece does so many things as to defy categorisation – Kai Friese’s ‘Marginalia’ is a case in point. Part travelogue, part autobiography, part activist intervention, this is a delightful and depressing meditation on identity, nationality and the consequences of border transgression in both a literal and metaphorical sense. While marginalia can sometimes detract from the value of a book, Friese’s piece is a jewel.

Like visitors to an anarchist love-in, no two readers will navigate this volume in quite the same way. Indeed, the editors’ classification of contributions is likely to appear rather arbitrary, given the potentially fruitful connections begging to be made across sections. In this sense – more than with most texts – the relationship between readers and this Reader might also be seen as mutually constitutive.

Sarai Reader 05 is available for free download at

Manmohan in Oxford

Partha Chatterjee describes anti-colonial nationalism as entailing both mimicry and rejection of the imperial power. The rejection has always been loud and clear, the mimcry nearly always implicit and unacknowledged. So Manmohan Singh may have inaugurated a new phase in the Indo-British encounter by saying: ‘with the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian Prime Minister to assert that India's experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too’.

His comments provoked a scathing rejoinder from Irfan Habib, an extraordinary debate in the letters page of the Hindu, a more measured editorial and – predictably enough – a call for an apology from the BJP.

Manmohan’s remarks formed part of his acceptance speech for an honorary doctorate conferred by the University of Oxford, his alma mater. The Telegraph of Calcutta provides an amusingly inflated account of the political significance of such an event. Still more amusingly, below photographs of Manmohan and Margaret Thatcher, reads the triumphalist caption: ‘Singh, Thatcher: He gets what she didn’t.’

The Telegraph goes hilariously overboard, in analysing whether Singh is a Cambridge or an Oxford man – this being determined by the university from which one took one’s undergraduate degree – concludes, by this reckoning, that he is a Cambridge man, and then reacts in horror at his reference to Oxford as ‘one’s own alma mater’. This puts him, it says, ‘in the position of a man about to take a new lover’. Read this piece in full: among other things, it ticks Manmohan off for burning the midnight oil instead of drinking late and chasing girls, commends him for wearing a light blue instead of a dark blue turban at the ceremony (this indicating loyalty to Cambridge), and notes – gratuitously and incorrectly – that Balliol is a college mainly for undergraduates. Bloody Cambridge bhadralok.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Blenheim and Bangalore: A tale of subsidies in two communities

Among the many unfortunate consequences of the bomb blasts in London on what is already earning the shorthand 7/7, has been the complete (and understandable) eclipsing of issues on the G8 agenda. Below is something I wrote a few weeks ago that thinks through one of those issues from a very personal vantage point.

Every time I visit Blenheim Palace, an aristocratic estate in Oxfordshire, I am reminded of the connections between its most famous inhabitant and my hometown – Bangalore, in South India. In October 1896, Lieutenant Winston Churchill of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars was posted to Bangalore – a town that he described in letters to his mother as ‘a garrison town which resembles a third rate watering place’. Here he assuaged his boredom by immersing himself in books and cultivating a butterfly collection that eventually fell victim to rats. He left no permanent traces of his stint in Bangalore, barring an unpaid bill at the Bangalore Club for the sum of 13 rupees. Churchill’s debt is duly recorded in one of the Club’s yellowing accounting ledgers, which is carefully displayed in a glass case in the central lounge.

Recent news items in the British press suggest to me that Blenheim might owe Bangalore (and indeed the world at large) debts of a rather less nostalgic sort. Following a freedom of information campaign led by the Foreign Policy Centre (London) and the Guardian newspaper, the British government recently released data on all recipients of payments under the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in England. The figures reveal that most of the CAP payments go, not to struggling, small or family-owned farms, but to large agribusinesses and wealthy landowners. The sugar refiner Tate & Lyle is the single largest beneficiary, with its various subsidiaries netting a total of £127,324,713 in subsidies. Sir Richard Sutton – a man valued at £120 million and ranked 321 on the Sunday Times Rich List – reportedly receives £1,117,139 annually in CAP subsidies, heading the list of individual recipients. Also on this list are the Duke of Westminster (Britain’s second richest person as per the aforementioned Rich List), who receives £448,472, the Queen (who is given £399,440 for her Sandringham Estate), and Prince Charles (who takes £134,938 for the Duchy of Cornwall and £90,527 for his Highgrove Home Farm estate). About halfway down the list at a generous £511,435 per year, stands the Duke of Marlborough who owns the Blenheim Estate.

Meanwhile agriculture in the Indian state of Karnataka, of which Bangalore is the capital, is in crisis – particularly for small and marginal farmers. The recent spate of farmer suicides that has blighted the rural landscape is tragic testimony to the severity of the crisis. According to one estimate, 3,000 farmers have taken their lives in Karnataka in the period between 2000 and August 2003. A recent Christian Aid report suggests that the situation in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh is even more acute: 2,115 farmers took their lives in the year 2004, bringing the toll since 1998 to 4,378. These seem but regional manifestations of a countrywide phenomenon of agricultural distress that has seen 22,000 farmers commit suicide over the past decade.

Farmers are driven to suicide by a complex of factors, but the single most common trigger seems to have been severe indebtedness to private moneylenders charging extortionist rates of interest. Small and marginal farmers lack access to institutionalised forms of credit – partly because landlessness and lack of assets makes them ineligible for such credit, but also because banking sector ‘liberalisation’ has meant a decline in preferential lending to agriculture. As a result, farmers are driven into the informal credit sector where moneylenders sometimes charge interest at rates as high as 50%.

Yet the moment one considers the factors that render farmer debt virtually unpayable, the culpability of globalisation and structural adjustment in this human tragedy quickly become evident. Farmers are increasingly unable to recover their investments because of the soaring cost of agricultural inputs and the collapse of agricultural commodity prices. The former can, in part, be directly attributed to deregulation policies that typically form part of the structural adjustment packages foisted on developing countries by the Bretton Woods institutions. For example, the first tranche of the World Bank-provided Karnataka Economic Restructuring Loan in 2001, came with the condition that the government withdraw from the power sector as operator and regulator of utilities. This meant a partial withdrawal of the power subsidy that had hitherto been granted to farmers, the discontinuation of free power for agricultural water pumps and significant increases in power rates over the next five years. Already reeling from crop failure due to drought and crushed by the burden of debt, poor farming families were suddenly saddled with bills for electricity arrears running into several thousands of rupees. Journalist Parvathi Menon writes that several of the cases of suicide reported in the media at the time ‘were of farmers who, suddenly confronted with a fresh payment burden from the Hubli Electricity Supply Company, decided to end their lives’. In addition, withdrawals of food and fertiliser subsidies and newly incurred costs on seeds and pesticides (inputs that subsistence farmers would traditionally not have tended to purchase) have increased the pressure of rising production costs.

At the same time, farmers are being squeezed by the collapse of agricultural commodity prices – a development that is also attributable in part to subsidies, but this time those that are provided to farmers in developed countries. Investigating suicides in Karnataka’s fertile and prosperous Mandya district, Parvathi Menon reports that the fall in the market price of sugar was a significant contributory factor. She quotes V. Ashok, State secretary of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (a large and vociferous association of farmers in the state) as saying: ‘The price at which sugar factories are buying cane has fallen from Rs. 1,500 per quintal in 1992 to Rs. 1,150 per quintal. The government is now importing sugar at a landed price of Rs. 900 per quintal which is less than our cost of production’. Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva estimates that subsidy regimes in developed countries depress world agricultural prices to an extent that costs Indian farmers a staggering Rs. 1,15,800 crore (about £14 billion) annually.

Who is to blame? And how much?

The juxtaposition of these two not unknown states of affairs – large subsidies for wealthy farmers in developed countries and the destitution of subsistence farmers in developing countries – is disturbing in and of itself. But it also invites some comment on the possibility of a connection between the two. This is by no means a straightforward task. To claim that Blenheim is causally implicated in the agricultural destitution surrounding Bangalore would be ambitious for at least three reasons.

First, the claim would be most powerful if the Duke of Marlborough and subsistence farmers in Karnataka were competitors in the same product market. If they are not, then the former is less directly implicated in the deaths of the latter. As far as I’m aware, the produce of the Blenheim Farm Partnership comprises beef cattle, a dairy herd, sheep and seed plant; although farmers have committed suicide in a number of states across India, the phenomenon seems to have been most widespread among cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh and sugarcane growers in Karnataka. Second, the unfairness of global agricultural trade rules as exemplified in the CAP subsidy regime, is only one of a number of factors driving Indian farmers to their deaths; further, the Duke is only one of a number of beneficiaries of the regime. Third, his contribution to the destitution of Indian farmers is not the most proximate or immediate trigger for the suicides discussed here – nor is it even possibly the most important causal factor. These caveats mitigate, quantitatively and qualitatively, the Duke’s possible implication in the suicides of subsistence farmers in Karnataka, so that he may – at worst – be seen as trivially responsible for the eventual outcome.

This by no means lets him off the hook. In his book Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age, Christopher Kutz suggests that ‘marginally effective participants in a collective harm are accountable for the victim’s suffering, not because of the individual differences they make, but because their intentional participation in a collective endeavour directly links them to the consequences of that endeavour. The notion of participation rather than causation is at the heart of both complicity and collective action.’ While it is difficult to causally link the Duke of Marlborough directly and definitively to farmer suicides in Karnataka, it is possible to conclude: (1) that the CAP subsidy regime is a collective harm, given the well-established relationship between subsidies in the developed world, falling agricultural commodity prices and consequent destitution in the developing world; (2) that the Duke is an intentional participant in this collective harm; and (3) that he is therefore complicit in the suicides of subsistence farmers in Karnataka.

But why single out the Duke of Marlborough (who, I have no doubt, is an honourable man)? Because of that old conundrum that social scientists call the structure-agency problem. We are all agents implicated in structures (modernity, capitalism, an anarchic states-system) that no identifiable agents are causally responsible for. This rather depressing realisation often induces us to sleepwalk through life, zombie-like, pretending that structures determine the behaviour of agents in a sort of relentless, Orwellian fashion. This obscures the fact that structures are produced by agents, that some agents are more powerful than others, and that more powerful agents bear more responsibility for the structures that they help to produce. Behind all structures are a number of agents – agents that have names and faces and addresses and bank balances. If structures are ever to change, it is necessary to identify the agents that produce and reinforce them (bearing in mind the structural constraints within which their agency operates). The Duke of Marlborough is, of course, only one of the agents complicit in agricultural destitution in Karnataka – but as my neighbour in Oxfordshire, he seems an appropriate agent for me to begin talking to, and about.

Bangalore and Blenheim are arbitrary places to pick. There are far more deprived regions in the world than the state of Karnataka, far more influential agents than the Duke of Marlborough and far more directly exploitative relationships than those between Blenheim and Bangalore. Yet my analysis proceeds from these vantage points because I am part of both of these political communities. As an ironic footnote to all this, it is worth noting that I, too, appear to be complicit – much against my will – in the destitution of Indian farmers. My possession of Indian citizenship coupled with my residence in Britain on a student visa enables me to vote in British elections (as a Commonwealth citizen), as well as in Indian elections. I also pay taxes in both countries. A recent Oxfam briefing paper reports that the 2002 UK budget contribution to the CAP amounted to £3.9 billion, representing one penny in the pound on the basic rate of income tax. According to the same paper, every taxpayer in the UK contributes an average of £134 a year to finance the CAP. It seems reasonable to conclude that I am being taxed in one political community in a way that is complicit in the deaths of members of the other political community to which I belong and to which I have much older and deeper commitments. Multiple belonging, apparently, has its pleasures but also its perils.

What is to be done?

It should be evident that the CAP subsidy regime needs to be radically reformed to take into account the interests of farmers in the developing world. One way to generate the necessary political will would be to shame undeserving recipients of CAP subsidies. But what of deserving recipients? If CAP subsidies were intended primarily to support declining farming incomes particularly on small family-run farms, this does not seem to be happening.

The largest 2.5% of cereal-growing holdings account for 20% of total CAP cereal payments while the smallest 30% receive less than 6% of the total. As for CAP sugar payments, the bulk of the support goes to processors and large farmers. Processing firms function as gatekeepers of the sugar sector – they are allocated quotas by national governments, and then go on to licence growers to produce fixed amounts of sugar beet. Two firms – British Sugar and Tate & Lyle – account for 90% of the British market. They receive subsidies for the refined sugar that they export, with Tate & Lyle being the single largest recipient of CAP subsidies in Britain. Some of what the processing firms receive must be passed on to beet growers in the form of guaranteed procurement prices. But beet growing is concentrated in prosperous agricultural regions such as East Anglia and Lincolnshire, on holdings that are almost four times the average EU size, generating incomes that are double the average farm income. So even CAP sugar payments go, largely, to wealthier farmers. The story of CAP milk payments is not very different. Large dairy companies such as Philpot Dairy Products, Nestle and Milk Supplies figure prominently on the list of top CAP subsidy recipients, even as net dairy farm incomes have declined and small farmers have been leaving the dairy sector in droves.

It seems clear from all this that the CAP subsidy regime does not primarily benefit small and marginal farmers in Britain – the sorts of people who work gruelling 58 hour weeks for an annual income of just £7,482 in places like Derbyshire. If there is any justification at all for subsidies in the developed world it is surely the protection of such farmers (in addition to the promotion of environmental and other public-interest objectives). The key ethical question that needs to be asked is whether the interests of marginal farmers in the developed world can be protected without harming the livelihoods of subsistence farmers in developing countries. Are the interests of these two groups necessarily zero-sum? On closer consideration, one might see them as having allied interests. To be sure the plight of marginal farmers in a wealthy, welfare state such as Britain is not comparable to the desperation of subsistence farmers in a poor, bourgeois-democracy such as India. However, both groups of farmers are similar in that they have clearly been excluded by their respective social contracts – small farmers in Britain, as a result of improper targeting of CAP subsidies; subsistence farmers in India, because of the increasingly clear bias in agricultural policy towards corporate agribusiness and the food processing industry.

Under these circumstances, it seems advisable for both groups of farmers to make common cause and advance their interests jointly. This would deny hypocritical European governments the opportunity to continue using their marginal farmers as a moral fig leaf to justify a continuation of CAP payments in their current form. At the same time, focusing attention on the plight of subsistence farmers in the developing world would ensure that the benefits of agricultural trade liberalisation did not accrue solely to large farming interests in those countries. It is important not only to back demands for agricultural liberalisation made by developing country governments in coalitions like the G20, but also to ensure that the fruits of liberalisation reach the poorest farmers in those countries: they too are often used as a moral fig leaf by their respective governments in international negotiations, only to be disregarded in the domestic division of the spoils.

There are already opportunities for such disparate communities to come
together, learn about each other and even forge platforms for common action.
Global NGO meetings and social forums provide one possible venue. Still more
promising are international networks such as Via Campesina (which already
brings together farmers from developed and developing countries). Marginal
farmers in the North and the South should recognise together their shared
exclusion and speak with a common voice in defence of their interests, so that the one is not used to justify the miseries imposed on the other.

This piece first appeared on


This refers to events of a few days ago in India (specifically political reactions to the attack by militants on the Babri Masjid site at Ayodhya). Somebody should tell BJP politicians that when they make inflamatory statements that practically invite retaliation against Muslims in India for the terrorist attack in Ayodhya, they mirror the sort of behaviour that puts brown people in Britain (whatever their religion or national origin) in danger at this time.

Viva London!

Ian McEwan is already being proved wrong in some ways as people begin to use the Tube, almost in defiance of the events of July 7. It was so inspiring to see on TV yesterday, a man whose face was bandaged up, vowing to get on the Tube even if it was only to go from one stop to the next, just to show that the terrorists had not won. But mostly, there is a sort of weary resignation about this, as if people were coming to terms with what it means to live in this age. The 'war on terror', they call it, the words not even capitalised, as if to suggest that this is now the backdrop of our lives, a continuing condition that rudely interrupts ever so often, only to recede into the background again. But in one sense, McEwan is right - the calls to to give the Leviathan of the state more power to protect us from ourselves are already beginning.

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