Festung Europa :: The Politics of a Humanitarian Tragedy

As the rolling coverage of the horrific terror attacks on Paris continued to squeeze out every last drop of usable information, two separate bits of news caught my eye.

First, in typical Parisian fashion, the top trending hashtag on Twitter immediately following the attacks was #OpenDoors – Parisians took to Twitter to ask their compatriots looking for shelter to come and share their flats and homes.  It was astonishing, and yet somehow not at all surprising that this very international city, famed for its hospitality should react in this open way.

Paradoxically this ‘openness’ policy is seemingly what caused this attack. France has been leading the EU in pushing for other member states to accept the huge numbers of Syrian and African refugees ; and while many had questioned this policy the state had gone ahead and agreed to house and shelter large numbers of migrants, fleeing the civil war in Syria and the violence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Amongst the larger and richer EU nations only Germany has done more to house, clothe and feed the many hundreds of thousands of people who make the perilous journey to mainland Europe. A few weeks ago the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced that Germany would take in an additional 800,000 refugees (roughly 1% of the population). This immediately started a huge rush to get to Germany from within Europe and emboldened those yet to make the journey from the badlands.

While she may have had genuine humanitarian concerns, this was a shrewd decision – based mainly on social welfare and economic considerations. Germany’s industrial powerhouse is slowing down, added to this, life expectancies are rising. This puts a pressure on the present generation of tax payers whose tax Euros go to the social welfare of retirees. Unfortunately, Germany’s population growth rate has been steadily declining for more than a decade. This makes it difficult for the industrial powerhouse to perform as well as it wants to and for the state to get its social welfare contributions.

This uncharacteristically unilateral decision by the Chancellor – who has usually played a stickler by the EUs rules hitherto – put huge pressure on the other EU states to either follow suit and face an electoral backlash or face a breakdown of the Schengen system. Sweden imposed border controls, followed swiftly by Hungary and Slovakia who erected border fences – as they neither had the economy to absorb the new workers nor the social safety net to look after them. Italy and Greece, reeling from their own economic depressions threatened to flood southern Europe with undocumented migrants.

At the heart of this matter are a few questions that need answering: firstly, are these people to be treated as economic migrants or political asylum seekers? If the migrants are political asylum seekers, then will they and their families be repatriated to their homelands once the conflict is resolved? This would raise fresh issues.

Between now and when peace and stability is restored, the migrants may enter the social welfare system of the host nations, children may be born in the EU states and may enter the state schools. What is to happen to these people? Are they to be sent back by force, if they refuse to go voluntarily? Further, if a number are sent back, who decides who has to leave and with what criteria?

If they are to be treated as economic migrants, then what of Europe’s own unemployed youth? Spain, Portugal and lately Greece have seen record unemployment amongst the youth and it may be legitimately asked, what right does Germany or France have to provide opportunities to people from non-EU states while fellow EU-member states suffer.

These questions need answers and unfortunately the climate isn’t conducive for it. However, before long such matters will have to have solutions. Europe cannot afford a rightward swing. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what seems to be happening. Poland has elected a hard-right President who campaigned on an anti-immigrant stance and won handsomely. This might give ammunition to France’s Marie-Ann Le Pen and German PEIGDA party to harden their stance. The UK’s UKIP also isn’t far behind and recently grabbed headlines during the recent Calais Crisis by calling on the Government to bring out the Army.

Europe simply cannot afford another right-ward tilt, especially as it is now, embarking on a project to become more than ever, a tightly knit, inclusive global community of peoples.

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The second – not unexpected at any rate – was the reaction of some sections of the American media who immediately managed to find a shared sense of victimhood with France. As words like “American values” started making appearances on CNN, several ex-law enforcement officers and almost all the Republican Party candidates and grandees called on the President to take more effective steps to combat ISIL in the middle east, including putting “boots on the ground”.

Things got out of hand a few weeks later, when Republican Party front runner Donald Trump called for Muslims in the US to compulsorily have ID cards. Not to be left behind, other primary candidates joined in the shrill chorus – establishment candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz called for only Christian refugees from the middle east and Africa to be taken in; former neurosurgeon Dan Carson likened the refugees to ‘rabid dogs’ and in the US Congress, 48 Democrats helped pass a Republican bill for greater scrutiny and vetting of refugees while almost a quarter of all state governors signed a petition saying that they wouldn’t allow Syrian refugees into their state.

There is a section of the politicians in the US that believe that the Islamic State (IS/Da’esh) can be beaten by a show of force. However, mindful of their domestic pressures, they’re not committing to “boots on the ground”, just smart bombs and predator drones. This is problematic on many counts.

Firstly, IS controls territory where there are many innocent civilians who are trapped and have no means of getting out. Bombing those areas puts them in the very real danger of becoming a depressing statistic of collateral damage. Second, IS doesn’t have formations or columns like a regular army and thus aren’t in one place ready to be bombed. Thus the very expensive bombs that will be dropped on them won’t make much headway unless they target a commanders’ conference (which isn’t likely to be advertised). But most importantly, bombing has usually always been used as a tactic to soften up resistance so that the regular ground forces could advance and hold territory.  As this isn’t likely to happen, it’s equally unlikely that any great headway will be made against IS.

The best solution would have been for a multi-nation Arab coalition take on IS and defeat them on the ground, retaking land and restoring sovereignty of Syria and Iraq. This too is unlikely as Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia aren’t likely to agree on anything; put the historic Shia-Sunni split in the mix and the geopolitical cocktail gets toxic.

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Meanwhile, the refugees keep streaming in, politicians bicker and the Islamophobes and Islamists sharpen their knives.

If you want more background, there is an excellently researched article on the Islamic State in the Atlantic here

 

The Story of India – Rediscovered : Beginnings

Some years ago, a well dressed gentleman walked into an up-market departmental store in the Belgravia suburb of London. Once he had found what he was looking for he walked up to the counter and stood in line at the cashiers’. When it was his time to pay up he took out his wallet and with the pound-notes out fell a picture of an Indian Hindu deity. The person standing right behind our protagonist, himself an Indian, saw the picture and immediately warmed to the latter.
Our protagonist, the well dressed man was immediately asked if he was a Punjabi. He was not. He was then asked if he was a Gujrati. He was not. He was then told (firmly) that he then must be from UP. Our friend still replied that he was not. The gentleman asking all these questions, by now very hot under the collar, asked quite abrasively (thinking it was some kind of joke) “so what the hell kind of bloody Indian are you?”

This simple event, describes in a microcosm the socio-cultural & linguistic divide that is prevalent in India. The two Indias divided by the Vindhiya Mountains, have existed separately for nearly 2000 years and were only brought together by the much (and not always rightly) maligned British; and this fact somehow, never has been accepted by the historians of the nationalistic school.

The nationalist school of history, fashioned by the Congress in the early 1900s, was founded to give India some sort of cohesive identity. An identity that had eluded it for all of the 10,000 years of its civilisation. If the country had to be united in its desire to rid itself of foreign rule, then it must have some idea of its own identity and heritage. There must be a valid reason to want to get rid of the invader and the simplest reason was that they were foreign and thus oppressive and somehow seeking to obliterate Indian culture and society.
The problem facing the high-priests of this school was that there was no such identity to be found. India as we know it today, has only existed since the 1930s when the British (somewhat arbitrarily) drew the borders of this country out of the areas that it ruled over. Never before has such a landmass been ruled over by one single entity or polity. So who was to decide who was a foreigner and who was Indian? What were the Indian cultures & values that the British were trying to erase and more importantly why would one want to be called an Indian?

Ironically it was the British who gave us the help we needed. When they carved out a large political entity out of their South Asian dominions, they accidentally gave us not only a nation but also our identities. All those who were born inside that area were Indians. Simple. Off course the problems with that were that the borders drawn were completely arbitrary and later on (in 1962) would be the cause of numerous problems. The other big problem was that there was a lot of recorded history to contest this one-nation theory.

In about 2000 BC, the nomads of central Asia came down through the Hindu Kush mountains and settled in the lush Indus plains. These were the Aryans. Tall & fair, with high cheekbones and long noses, they were at a complete contrast to the original inhabitants of the Indus plains. These were short and dark people who worshiped numerous Gods, mostly of the natural world. Dravidians.
The Dravidian culture and society was far more civilised and socialised and sophisticated that the Aryan nomads’.
The displaced Dravidians went back down south to their homeland and built the stunning temple complexes (in Tamil Nadu, Andra Pradesh & Kerela) that haven’t seen an equal in the North yet. Their language also evolved separately and Tamil , today is the world’s oldest continually spoken classical language. Far older and certainly far more perfectly (sophisticated) structured than Sanskrit – the (so called) mother of all Indian languages.

Not only the language, but also the sociological structure and even the religion was far removed from that of the Aryan North. While the Aryan’s had a simplistic Triumvir of Gods, the South had a complex structure of a multi-layered divine society. The caste system, a plague upon India – even as recently as 2010 – is a Aryan thing.

AN ODE: To a new old-friend, to good friends & to the beginning of the rest of our lives

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

~  Henry V (Henry V, Shakespeare William)

I’m at a loss for words. No, I really am.

A recently deceased former school English teacher once told me that the surest sign of proficiency in any language is not in being able to express a simple thought in big words; but in being able to distill the essence and feeling of deep thoughts in to simple words. If that’s so, then today I know that my English is not as good as I’d thought it to be. That’s because I cannot find the words to express myself.

I’ve never been a morning person. As a matter of fact I’m just slightly less allergic to early mornings than I am to religion, math and hard work. But even so, at a little after five-twenty in the morning this twenty sixth of March I’m up. I’ve been here before. All through-out the first year, I was always staggering to bed at such times; after a long and festive night. But today, for the first time, I stop to look. I’ve never seen the campus like this. The bright yellow-orange ball of fire rising above the new academic block and the mists clearing. The silhouettes of the trees gradually becoming sharper and then the warmth of the morning sun chasing all melancholy away.

There is relief, happiness; and a huge sense of achievement – but all of that is tinged with a certain sadness. Like a light sprinkling of rain on a hot summer’s day; it doesn’t do much for the heat, but you know it was there. Or a bitter espresso, lightly dusted with sweet chocolate. There, but just.

It’s as if you’ve just climbed up the difficult face of a mountain; as you make it into the sunshine, out above the tree-line, you realize that you’re standing in a moment of utter perfection – you’ve done something. But, with that also comes the realization that it’s over. Somehow the journey down won’t be that good. You leave a little something of yourself on that mountain. I’ve left a little something of myself on campus.

It slowly creeps up on you that feeling. Just when you’ve nothing at hand to do, or you’re taking a break. It doesn’t overwhelm you, it doesn’t burden you. It just stays there – like a cat. It doesn’t make to re-examine at things – it just lets you know it’s there.

Perhaps then, it’s like a break up. There’s the little empty pain of leaving something behind – graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. Perhaps it’s the blazing hot little pains you feel when you realized that you are standing in a moment of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth which at the same time cannot possibly last – and yet will remain with you for life.

What I will miss the most about this place, is a combination of three things; a carefree walk around the campus, taken after dinner, with friends and spent mostly talking about nothing in particular and everything in general.

Even if I were to find any two of the above, I know that I shall never be able to get all three. There will never be such people, who will be so unconcerned about success, status, money and vices & prejudices; that will just be happy in each others’ company. There will also never be the carefree atmosphere that, even with assignments and tests, allows people the security and freedom to spend moments not worrying about the next day, the next meal or the next job. Most importantly, there will never be another campus. Quiet, clean and entirely our own. Never.

And so I leave, still not able to put the words to my feelings. There are people that I’ve met, people with whom I’ve laughed; people that have inspired me and made me a better person. There are people that I’ve met everyday, people that I walked to class with, people that I walked aback with. There are people that have helped me; people that have become as familiar to my daily routine as the sun is in the eastern sky.

And, they’re all far far away

POST SCRIPT:-

I started writing this in the morning. It’s been more than 24 hours and I’ve yet not managed to write what I wanted to. Perhaps that’s because words are cheap. Feelings need not always require words, there are too many words to describe feelings.

The sounds of people playing Holi downstairs distracts me; this is my first Holi at home in ages – perhaps the first in half a decade. They are making merry, shouting all sorts of things; the young and the not-so-young all taking part in the melee.

And all I can think of is what will people be doing on campus. All I think of is when will I meet them again? What will happen to us? Who will remember us when we’re gone? Who will tell our stories?

The Voyager & Blind Willie Johnson: Some Thoughts At Midnight

In September of 2013, the Voyager-I spacecraft left the solar system. It was the first time that an object dreamt, created and operated by a species as new and as infirm as the humans had gone beyond the far reaches of the sun that had sustained the very life form that built it.

On that spacecraft were greetings in 55 languages, pictures showing life on Earth and 27 songs that were ‘representative of humanity’. One of those songs was “Dark was the Night, Cold wass the Ground” written in 1927 by the black jazz musician, blind Willie Johnson.

He was so called, because his mother had thrown rye in his eyes, after she was beaten by his father for allegedly being with another man. Willie died in penury, after contracting malaria, shortly after his house burnt down.

When in 1977 Carl Sagan and the Mars Voyager Team chose his song, it was part of the US Library of Congress’ selection of songs that were deemed to be ‘culturally significant’; Sagan wroteof the song that “…since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight”.

It is significant then, that amongst the 1st sounds of the earth that a wandering extra-terrestrial may hear would be the music of a segregated, blind man, who never found peace happiness or joy in his life.

In the same month as the Voyager-I was making history, another queer circularity of life was making itself apparent. As the UK remembered Winston Churchill – arguably Great Britain’s finest and most remembered Prime Minister, a guest was signing the memorial book at No 10 Downing Street. Churchill in the late 1880s was responsible for the setting up of ‘internment camps” for African tribes’ men. These camps were not so dissimilar to the concentration camps of the Nazis. In one of these camps, there lived an African tribal elder. After a year in captivity, he was released. It was surely a twist of faith that the great-grandson of that tribesman was – the man signing the guest book that day in September 2013 – the President of the United States of America, Barak Obama.

These two instances, if anything, don’t call for either lessons or judgment. They simply are to be remembered, for they represent the opposites of the human condition. The loneliness of despair and the potential of human endeavor.

Robert Francis Kennedy, speaking to the black students of South Africa, on their day of Affirmation in June 1966 said,:

“There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows.”

“But we can perhaps remember — even if only for a time — that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”

It is perhaps this duality – that led Tagore to write, ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’. In the battle between – what Shakespeare calls nurture and nature – while we struggle and fall to our baser instincts; our hopes, dreams and aspirations push us to pick ourselves up and keep climbing. Out from the dark forests, into the sunlight slopes. The battle will not be won in our life time. It may even not be won in the lifetime of the human species on this earth – but that should not stop us from fighting.

As Brad Pitt’s character in the film Troy said, “In a thousand years from now even the dust from our bones will have disappeared; what will people remember?” Let people remember that we fought. Not with each other, but with ourselves. Being human is not about empathy and sympathy, it’s about choosing to live our lives by something. As Kennedy said, ‘we can perhaps remember…….

If not, then as the Script sing, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for everything!”