– Nahendra Modi’s India stifles critical thinking and speech
– Calais, France: Authorities plan assault on migrant camp
(AWTWNS 22 February 2016)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 22 February 2016 contains two articles. They may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as they are credited.

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– Nahendra Modi’s India stifles critical thinking and speech
– Calais, France: Authorities plan assault on migrant camp

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Nahendra Modi’s India stifles critical thinking and speech

22 February 2016. A World to Win News Service. The 12 February arrest of student union president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition based on a colonial-era law, for a speech at a demonstration deemed anti-India, has brought Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University to a standstill. Protests by students and teachers at universities across India have taken place over the last week, the largest nationwide student protests in 25 years. Public opinion has been sharply polarised around issues of patriotism, freedom of expression, stifling of critical thinking and university autonomy, provoked by the repressive response from the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its supporters, who say Kumar’s arrest is justified. According to a 19 February Aljazeera report, demonstrators in Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai clashed with right-wing student activists. At his court appearance Kumar was attacked by a pack of lawyers, while journalists were pelted with stones.

Different and contradictory video versions of Kumar’s speech have been turning up in the last few days. Kumar says that during the demonstration (a protest against the execution and unfair trial of a Kashmiri accused of attacking the Indian parliament), he was trying to break up a fight between Kashmiri students and right-wing students who are staunch supporters of Modi. His speech touched on many subjects critical of the Modi government’s Hindu chauvinism (Hindutva), its use of patriotism to attack people who dissent, its cutbacks on government spending on higher education, its attacks on tribal and lower-caste people and women’s rights.

The people of Jammu and Kashmir live under a brutal Indian occupation. The area has been claimed by both Pakistan and India since 1947, and an estimated 47,000 people have died in the long complex struggle for self-determination. Thousands have been disappeared by the Indian authorities. In a 1988 insurgency, Kashmiri people demanded and fought for liberation from India. Protests of stone-throwing youth are met with live ammunition, tear gas, curfews, mass arrests, torture and disappearances. On a visit to Kashmir some years ago, when author Arundhati Roy spoke about justice for Kashmiri people and an end to Indian military occupation, she was threatened with arrest for sedition (a crime that could mean life in prison). The Indian government could not politically touch the Booker prize winner without causing an uproar and the charges were later dropped.

Any Indian who considers Kashmir not part of India is considered a traitor. Kashmiri students at JNU are being profiled by the Indian police. Because Kashmir is majority Moslem, India’s repression of the people there has been justified on religious grounds, sometimes with the false claim that the demand for Kashmiri freedom (azadi) is a ploy by the Islamist Pakistani government, and at other times simply stoking Hindu religious bigotry.

Academics from some of US and Britain’s most prestigious universities and others around the world (Noam Chomsky, Orhan Pamuk and Judith Butler to name a few) have signed a statement of solidarity with Kumar, denouncing his unlawful arrest and decrying the repression and bullying of the Modi government and its current stepped-up campaign against dissent. (See sanhati.org for a list of signers).

Taking place in the context of this overall repressive and Hindutva climate, the January suicide of Rohith Vemula was heartbreaking and shocking to many people. Vemula was a brilliant student who happened to be born a Dalit (once called “Untouchables”) and whose interests ranged from helping the poor to protecting the environment and using science to change the world. He was inspired by astronomer Carl Sagan. Working towards a doctor’s degree, he and four other students were accused of fighting with pro-Modi students in July 2015. Without any semblance of due process, their scholarships were cut and they were banned from public spaces on the campus, including their dormitory. After a hunger strike and a long, futile struggle to overturn the university ruling, Vemula committed suicide. He left a long, scorching letter of indictment of the society he grew up in, and its vicious caste structure. The following is an excerpt: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” (For an informative article on Rohith Vemula and the full text of his letter see “The Clarity of a Suicide Note,” 25 January, thehindu.com)

The following article by Dr Deborah Sutton, a history professor of Lancaster University, UK, is reprinted from theconversation.com.

On the night of 12 February, Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the students union of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, one of India’s foremost universities, was arrested on charges of sedition. In the words of cabinet minister Smriti Irani, he had insulted the divine “Mother India”.

Protests and sit-ins by angry students and staff have been organised on the campus and in the city. On 14 February, thousands of students, alumni and members of the public formed a human chain on campus in a demonstration of solidarity with Kumar.

The crisis is an orchestrated attempt by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to cultivate resentment and suspicion of the university as harbouring and encouraging “anti-national” forces. A social media campaign – #shutJNU – has proliferated. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is charged with being an enemy of the nation and of the taxpayer.

“Anti-JNU” protesters who assembled outside of the university gates and who attacked academics, students and journalists at Kumar’s court hearing were organised by associations affiliated with the BJP: the Sangh Parivar, a family of religious and political organisations committed to a robustly, and exclusively, Hindu version of India – “Hindutva”.

The case against Kumar is slight. His arrest followed his attendance of a meeting on the JNU campus held the day before to condemn the execution in 2013 of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist accused of involvement in an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. Kumar remains incarcerated and has been remanded in judicial custody until 2 March.

Critics of the government have pointedly questioned the credentials of a democracy that employs legislation inherited from the colonial era to lock up a student leader for attending a meeting at which “anti-Indian” slogans may have been shouted.

JNU labelled a “hub of treason”

Beyond the fragile charges levelled against Kumar, a more diffuse accusation that JNU as an institution is “anti-Indian” has been set out by politicians and anonymous activists. On 16 February, the online library catalogue of the university was hacked to display the slogan: “Dear Traitors in JNU …”

The accusation that JNU is, in the words of MP Maheish Girrias, a “hub of treason” is rather dampened by the number of civil servants in India, not to mention members of the current BJP government, who are JNU alumni.

Optimists maintain that the BJP has bitten off considerably more than it can chew in attacking an institution like JNU – an institution that employs many of India’s foremost researchers and intellectuals and that has alumni and research affiliations across the world.

Yet, the ongoing maelstrom of violence in Delhi highlights that JNU’s prestige as a public institution cannot protect it from the antagonism of the current government towards universities.

History of student protest

The current disturbances remind many of the dark days of the “Emergency”, when prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended democratic government for two years between 1975 and 1977 and unleashed widespread repression and violence.

Universities across the country were centres of organised resistance and large numbers of students were arrested and incarcerated. The Jana Sangh, the political party from which the BJP emerged in 1980, was one of the many political organisations that resisted the authoritarian strictures of this period and indeed subsequently benefited from the political allegiances formed while opposing it.

By invoking the protection of “Mother India” in its suppression of free speech at Indian universities, the BJP government has chosen a very large target to hide behind.

During the freedom struggle in India, the figure of Mother India embodied the nation and in turn women (of the right kind) were invited to embody a national ideal. Few political parties have not mobilised her; however, her blend of Hindu divinity, nation and chaste morality has made her a particular favourite of Hindu right-wing politicians who revel in reacting to perceived slights to her honour.

Shifting the debate

The JNU crisis has a more immediate context. A month before Kumar’s arrest, on 16 January, Rohith Vemula, a dalit student, committed suicide after being suspended from Hyderabad University. Vemula’s death provoked weeks of public discussion and protest about the continuation of caste oppression in India.

Kumar’s arrest and the organisation of “anti-JNU” demonstrations in Delhi are counter-reactions by the BJP and by Hindu organisations whose politics rest upon the assertion, and violent protection, of a conservative social morality. The aggressive identification of an enemy within the nation, and specifically within universities, has displaced the demands for social change provoked by Vemula’s death.

Students have long been active participants, and leaders, of activism in India, championing the causes of social justice and equality. For decades, and long before the current government came to power, university students have been at the forefront of movements against gender violence, caste oppression, the displacement and impoverishment of rural communities.

From the point of view of any government, JNU is a font of thought and debate and, potentially, an irritant. Long may it continue.

-end-

 

Calais, France: Authorities plan assault on migrant camp

22 February 2016. A World to Win News Service. The French authorities are trying to forcibly evict migrants from a part of a camp in Calais, France, on the English Channel. The plan is to send police and bulldozers to demolish the homes and carefully constructed social fabric of about half the camp, whose total population is almost 4,000 people. The rest are to be kept in prison-camp like conditions. The assault, originally scheduled for 19 February, was postponed, although it could take place at any time. There have been demonstrations, for and against the migrants, in Calais and Paris, and some people have come from France and the UK to stand with them and help in any way they can. Among the more than 250 initial signers of a petition asking the Interior Minister to call off the planned assault were prominent figures in politics, the arts and sports, and in a later petition, professional associations of teachers, doctors and judges, as well as humanitarian organizations. (www.gisti.org, www.medicinsdumonde.org)

The following eyewitness account, written by David L. Glotzer, is part of a longer article that originally appeared on the Counterpunch.org website on 19 February.

The French Government [plans to] evict nearly one thousand asylum seekers from their homes in “The Jungle”, Calais’ infamous refugee camp.

Bulldozers [are expected to] to raze the southern neighbourhoods of the Jungle, where most of the camp’s families reside. The southern section of the camp is also home to several of the camp’s most important cultural, community and aid centres. These will also be bulldozed as part of the eviction.

On Sunday [14 February] there was a mass prayer held on the camp’s main road as residents fear losing their homes and communities. Many have been in the camp for several months either attempting to enter the UK through the shipping port, or through the Eurotunnel. Some refugees have been in the camp for more than a year.

During the summer the number of people fleeing conflicts and oppression in Syria and Northern Africa ballooned sparking a rapid increase in the camp’s population. When I arrived as a volunteer in December the Jungle was home to over 6,000 asylum seekers. Since then that number has declined with the most recent estimate by French authorities showing that the current population has fallen to just under 4,000, as many have left to seek asylum in Germany or to other camps around Europe. The [planned] evictions are part of the local government’s plan to further reduce the size of the camp.

Among the centres to be closed down is the Ashram Kitchen which is one of a network of kitchens in the camp which serve over 5,000 meals a day to residents. The Good Chance Theatre, colloquially referred to as the “Dome”, will also have to be dissembled or be torn down by the authorities. The Dome provides live music, art lessons, and a stage for refugees and visitors to perform plays. Plays performed by refugees during my stay in the camp included Shakespeare’s The Tempest, various renditions of life in the camp, and a 45 minute autobiographical play written and performed by a young Afghan who was both deaf and mute.

Also located in the condemned area are three schools (including a children’s school), Jungle Books (the camp’s main library), a legal aid centre, a vaccination centre, one church and at least three mosques. The camp’s youth centre, which provides a safe place for recreation, shelter, meals, and clothing to the over 500 young people living in the Jungle, will also be destroyed. Young men who have escaped compulsory military service – which both ISIS and the Assad regime have imposed – will be disproportionately affected by the youth centre’s closure, as many of them have come to the Jungle unaccompanied.

This planned expulsion follows a previous eviction in mid-January when the Pas de Calais Prefecture ordered the bulldozing of another section of the camp that was home to over 1,000 residents in order to forcefully move them into container housing units built during the winter. The 125 housing units were built by French authorities and are meant to house up to 1,500 refugees, but many refused to move voluntarily, likening the container village to a prison due to the fences that encircle it. The forced removal sparked riots and several fires when more than 300 residents refused to leave their homes.

In Calais there is no Red Cross or UN presence, which makes the condemned community centres vitally important to the health of the camp’s residents. Because the French government does not recognize the Jungle as an “official” refugee camp, residents are forced to rely mostly on services provided by Medecins Sans Frontiers, Medecins du Monde and the volunteers that run the condemned centres.

In November the lack of services prompted a French court to rule conditions in the camp to be “inhumane”, exposing residents to “degrading treatment”, and ordered the provision of garbage removal, water taps, and much needed portable toilets. Even after the court’s ruling such services are still substandard as many refugees don’t have bins to dispose their trash, toilets fill up quickly, and there is little modern plumbing.

Sitting on the opposite side of the English Channel from Dover, it is the closest point between England and France and is home to both a ferry crossing and the Eurotunnel. As such it has become the prime destination for asylum seekers trying to reach the United Kingdom. Because of this, Calais has been the destination for people seeking asylum in the UK since 1999. This has prompted both the UK government and the French government to adopt various measures to discourage asylum seekers from coming to Calais or attempting to cross the border.

Rather than work towards processing the camp’s residents for asylum, the British government began subsidizing French Authorities during the summer of 2015 in order to increase security at the border to stem the number of illegal crossings. Then in September, when the Tory government announced its plan to accept 20,000 refugees by 2020, they excluded refugees across the channel, restricting the pool of potential candidates to people from camps outside of Syria.

As a result a four-metre razor wire fence fitted with state of the art, night-vision capable cameras, was erected, and the CRS (French riot police) presence grew. The CRS is the main French authority tasked with policing the camp, but in practice the neighbourhoods police themselves as the CRS generally does not enter the camp, but pools resources at the camp’s entrances and patrol the areas around the new fence. While the stated purpose of the fence is to keep refugees from the highways – which it does – and the border crossings – which it also does, it encircles large sections of the camp and allows the CRS to more easily control movement in and out of the camp.

The Jungle’s main entrance lies under a highway overpass and is overseen by several CRS officers wielding military-style weapons and tear gas launchers during the day. At night the number of riot police balloons and there is usually a water cannon stationed behind the nearby chemical plant. It is also where Banksy, the world renown and anonymous street artist, spray-painted a rendition of Steve Jobs whose parents were Syrian refugees. Next to the Banksy is usually a collection of several dozen spent tear gas canisters from the previous nights.

On 17 December tear gas was launched into the women and children’s section of the camp, whose populations is to be evicted, the quietest area in the Jungle. Being tear gassed is a regular occurrence in the Jungle (it happened to me on my first night in the camp) as is being beaten by police. Because the fence can be cut, the most common place for violent encounters with the CRS to occur is on the highway between 7 and 11 o’clock at night, when refugees attempt to stow away in cargo trucks. Many residents also complained about unprovoked confrontations with the CRS while leaving or entering the Jungle and along the camp’s perimeter.

Another unwelcome force in the Jungle has been the steady growth of local fascist groups and armed right-wing militias in the Calais region. The neo-Nazi group Les Calasiens en Colere has seen its Facebook following grow to more than 66,000 and members regularly gather outside of the camp at a local supporters home which sits by the southern entrance, by the neighbourhoods that are to be evicted.

I had the pleasure of walking past about three dozen members of Les Calasiens en Colere who dressed in all black uniform as they took a group photograph in front of their supporters home on 17 December, the same night the women and children’s section of the camp was gassed. The members were accompanied by two police officers standing outside of a van marked CRS. Moments before this encounter I had been searched and questioned without probable cause by two CRS officers while walking around the perimeter of the camp.

Keeping an eye on the gathering with their cameras ready was a group of young activists who run the Jungle’s legal aid centre – to be torn down, a duty which they perform on a nightly basis. The activists told me that the right-wing groups generally do not enter the camp. There have been instances where refugees are chased and pursued into the camp in order to prompt a confrontation with the CRS. Another tactic these groups use is to traverse the perimeter late at night making loud noises in order to draw out residents and provoke a violent response from the riot police. They also accused the police of previously beating one of their members and arresting another for videotaping the event.

The activists publish a blog called Calais Migrant Solidarity which has been active since 2009, in which they have routinely documented (with video and photographic evidence) violent confrontations with right-wing groups and the police. One such report, published 12 November 2015, claims that on the previous night plainclothes officers in an unmarked vehicle kidnapped three refugees. The operation quickly prompted a protest by the Jungle’s residents which the activists claim was met by the use of a water cannon, rubber bullets, “incendiary gas pellets”, concussion grenades and tear gas.

Confrontations between refugees, right-wing organizations and the CRS have also been routinely documented by members of the press. As recently as 12 February 2016, the UK’s Independent reported on “one attack in which young male refugees were taken by van to a field where they were stripped naked and had their hands cuffed behind their back,” where “they were then made to watch as their abductors – a group of unidentified men – beat them individually.” These are claims that have been “corroborated by medical reports from international humanitarian organisations Medecins sans Frontieres and Medecins du Monde.”

-end item-

 

Correction:
In the article “Wikileaks founder Julian Assange: The criminal persecution of a truth-teller” (awtwns160208) the sentence “the question of what the US, the UK and others did in Afghanistan has been the ‘elephant in the room”’ should have read “what the US, UK and others did in Afghanistan and Iraq…”

One thought on “– Nahendra Modi’s India stifles critical thinking and speech
– Calais, France: Authorities plan assault on migrant camp
(AWTWNS 22 February 2016)

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