New Books

Prince Harry in Afghanistan

1618 views
4 mins read

Following excerpts are adapted from the author’s new book, Spare, published by Penguin Random House.

Days Later I Was In Botswana, with Chels. We went to stay with Teej and Mike. Adi was there too. The first convergence of those four special people in my life. It felt like bringing Chels home to meet Mum and Dad and big bro. Major step, we all knew.

Luckily, Teej and Mike and Adi loved her. And she saw how special they were too.

One afternoon, as we were all getting ready to go for a walk, Teej started nagging me.

Bring a hat!

Yeah, yeah.

And sunscreen! Lots of sunscreen! Spike, you’re going to fry with that pale skin!

All right, all right.

Spike—

Okaaay, Mom.

It just flew out of my mouth. I heard it, and stopped. Teej heard it and stopped. But I didn’t correct myself. Teej looked shocked, but also moved. I was moved as well. Thereafter, I called her Mom all the time. It felt good. For both of us. Though I made a point, always, to call her Mom, rather than Mum.

There was only one Mum.

A happy visit, overall. And yet there was a constant subtext of stress. It was evident in how much I was drinking.

At one point Chels and I took a boat, drifted up and down the river, and the main thing I remember is Southern Comfort and Sambuca. (Sambuca Gold by day, Sambuca Black by night.) I remember waking in the morning with my face stuck to a pillow, my head not feeling like it was fastened to my neck. I was having fun, sure, but also dealing in my own way with unsorted anger, and guilt about not being at war—not leading my lads. And I wasn’t dealing well. Chels and Adi, Teej and Mike said nothing. Maybe they saw nothing. I was probably doing a pretty good job of covering it all up. From the outside my drinking probably looked like partying. And that was what I told myself it was. But deep down, on some level, I knew.

Something had to change. I knew I couldn’t go on like this.

So the moment I got back to Britain I asked for a meeting with my commanding officer, Colonel Ed Smyth-Osbourne.

I admired Colonel Ed. And I was fascinated by him. He wasn’t put together like other men. Come to mention it, he wasn’t put together like any other human I’d encountered. The basic ingredients were different. Scrap iron, steel wool, lion’s blood. He looked different too. His face was long, like a horse’s, but not equine smooth; he had a distinctive tuft of hair on each cheek. His eyes were large, calm, capable of wisdom and stoicism. My eyes, by contrast, were still bloodshot from my Okavango debauch, and darting all around as I delivered my pitch.

Colonel, I need to find a way of getting back onto operations, or else I’m going to have to quit the Army.

I’m not certain Colonel Ed believed my threat. I’m not certain I did. Still, politically, diplomatically, strategically, he couldn’t afford to discount it. A prince in the ranks was a big public-relations asset, a powerful recruiting tool. He couldn’t ignore the fact that, if I bolted, his superiors might blame him, and their superiors too, and up the chain it might go.

On the other hand, much of what I saw from him that day was genuine humanity. The guy got it. As a soldier, he felt for me. He shuddered at the thought of being kept from a scrap. He really did want to help.

Harry, there might be a way…

Iraq was permanently off the table, he said. Alas. No two ways about that, I’m afraid. But maybe, he added, Afghanistan was an option.

I squinted. Afghanistan?

He muttered something about it being “the safer option.”

Riiight…safer…

What on earth was he banging on about? Afghanistan was worlds more dangerous than Iraq. At that moment Britain had seven thousand soldiers in Afghanistan and each day found them engaged in some of the fiercest combat since the Second World War.

But who was I to argue? If Colonel Ed thought Afghanistan safer, and if he was willing to send me there, great.

What job would I do in Afghanistan, Colonel?

FAC. Forward air controller.

I blinked.

Highly sought-after job, he explained. FACs were tasked with orchestrating all air power, giving cover to lads on the ground, calling in raids—not to mention rescues, medevacs, the list went on. It wasn’t a new job, certainly, but it was newly vital in this new sort of warfare.

Why’s that, sir?

Because the bloody Taliban is everywhere! And nowhere!

You simply couldn’t find them, he explained. Terrain was too rugged, too remote. Mountains and deserts honeycombed with tunnels and caves—it was like hunting goats. Or ghosts. You had to get the bird’s-eye view.

Since the Taliban had no air force, not one plane, that was easy. We British, plus the Yanks, owned the air. But FACs helped us press that advantage. Say a squadron out on patrol needed to know about nearby threats. The FAC checked with drones, checked with fighter pilots, checked with helicopters, checked his high-tech laptop, created a 360-degree picture of the battlefield.

Say that same squadron suddenly came under fire. The FAC consulted a menu—Apache, Tornado, Mirage, F-15, F-16, A-10—and ordered up the aircraft best suited to the situation, or the best one available, then guided that aircraft onto the enemy. Using cutting-edge hardware, FACs didn’t simply rain fire on the enemy’s heads, they placed it there, like a crown.

Then he told me that all FACs get a chance to go up in a Hawk and experience being in the air.

By the time Colonel Ed stopped talking I was salivating. FAC it is, sir. When do I leave?

Not so fast.

FAC was a plum job. Everyone wanted it. So that would take some doing. Also, it was a complex job. All that technology and responsibility required loads of training.

First things first, he said. I’d have to go through a challenging certification process.

Where, sir?

At RAF Leeming.

In…the Yorkshire Dales?

Copyright © 2023 by Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex

Click here to order your copy of this book 

India: An Uncertain Beginning

693 views
7 mins read

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s new book, “India Is Broken: A People Betrayed, Independence to Today,” published by Stanford University Press, Stanford, California

By the rules of the Indian National Congress (the Congress Party), Vallabhbhai Patel should have been the party’s president at the time of independence. If that had been so, he might well have been India’s first prime minister. However, in August 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, not Patel, became prime minister.

Patel and Nehru differed greatly in their economic and social philosophies and in their approaches to the use of government authority and power. Patel, however, lived to see only the first three years of postindependence India. As deputy prime minister and home (interior) minister, he left a lasting legacy. Even during those few years, he and Nehru fought bitterly on the priorities for India’s political and economic future. If Patel had become India’s first prime minister or if he had lived longer as Nehru’s deputy, post-independence India would have taken a very different shape.

Two Leaders—Two Worlds

Patel was born to a peasant family in October 1875 and was raised in a modest two-story home. As a young man, he observed that fame and fortune came easily to barristers educated in England. As he later explained, “I studied very earnestly” and “resolved firmly to save sufficient money for a visit to England.” Patel became a British-trained lawyer and, upon returning to India, established a very successful criminal law practice.

Patel made his initial mark in politics in the first half of 1928, when he led peasants in Bardoli, an administrative area in the current state of Gujarat, in their fight against the British government’s onerous demands for land revenue. Despite its peaceful nature, the contest with the powerful British Raj became, in the popular imagination, the “battle of Bardoli.” Patel’s protest won the battle of Bardoli against British might, a victory for which Bardoli’s people conferred on him the title “Sardar,” chief or general. Vallabhbhai Patel has ever since been known as Sardar Patel.

Nehru was born in November 1889 to one of India’s most prominent families. His father, Motilal Nehru, was a wealthy lawyer and senior Congress Party leader. Anand Bhavan, the stately Nehru family home in Allahabad, now houses a historic museum and a planetarium. Jawaharlal studied at Harrow, the elite British public school, before attending the University of Cambridge. He qualified as a barrister in England, although he barely ever entered a courtroom. In August 1942, after Gandhi launched the Quit India movement, the British threw all Indian leaders in jail. Interned at the Ahmednagar Fort, Nehru grew a rose garden and played badminton with other prisoners. In a five-month period between April and September 1944, Nehru wrote his magnificent and timeless history The Discovery of India.

Patel was as much a man of action as Nehru was a historian and philosopher. As Gandhi pithily observed, “Jawahar is a thinker, Sardar a doer.”

Gandhi Chooses Nehru

In late 1945 and early 1946, India’s British rulers held elections for the central and provincial assemblies in preparation for the transfer of power. The Congress Party won large majorities in these elections, aided in part by campaign funds Patel helped raise. In a gushing profile, Time magazine wrote that Patel had no “pretensions to saintliness.” The magazine described him as, “in American terms, the Political Boss. Wealthy industrialists thrust huge campaign funds into his hands.”

In late April 1946, the Congress Party was ready to select its next president. Since India’s freedom was imminent, the choice of the party’s president was critical. The Congress Party president would lead the party, and hence India, into independence. Under the established process, twelve of the fifteen Provincial or “Pradesh” Congress Committees nominated Patel; three abstained. As the veteran Congress Party leader Jivatram Bhagwandas (Acharya) Kripalani would later write, the party favored Patel because he was a “great executive, organizer, and leader.” Provincial leaders also felt beholden to Patel for the campaign funds he had raised. The Pradesh Congress Committees were not necessarily endorsing Patel as India’s first prime minister. They understood that Nehru was popular with the Indian public. But they recognized Patel’s leadership qualities and his contributions to the Congress Party. So they placed Patel in a position of prominence from which he could well have emerged as India’s first prime minister.

Gandhi, however, stood above the rules, and he made the decision on who would be the party’s president. Just as he had in 1929 and 1937, when Patel and Nehru competed for the presidency of the Congress Party, Gandhi chose Nehru, knowing on this last occasion that no Pradesh Congress Committee had nominated him. Gandhi saw Nehru as “a Harrow boy, a Cambridge graduate,” who would represent India in international affairs more effectively than Patel. Nehru also had a stronger connection than Patel did with India’s Muslim community. Above all, Nehru was fifty-six years old and like a son to the seventy-six-year-old Gandhi. Patel, whom Gandhi thought of as a younger brother, was seventy-one and in poor health.

The British viceroy, Lord Wavell, had set up an Executive Council as the midway step to India’s independence. As the Congress Party’s president, Nehru became vice president to the viceroy in his Executive Council and, hence, India’s de facto prime minister until the country became independent. Once so established, in addition to the huge popularity he enjoyed with the Indian public, Nehru also had the incumbent’s advantage to become independent India’s first prime minister.

Gandhi believed that Nehru and Patel would be like “oxen yoked to the governmental cart. One will need the other and both will pull together.” According to Patel’s daughter, Maniben, Gandhi expected that Patel would prevent Nehru from “making mischief.”

The Oxen Pull Apart

Prime Minister Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Sardar Patel began the post-independence years entangled in a stormy relationship. They fought about the most consequential matters that defined India back then and continue to do so today.

With Pakistan partitioned as a Muslim nation, a question on people’s minds was what the role and place of Muslims in India would be. Within that broader context, an immediate issue arose as the horrors of religious hatred continued after partition in both India and Pakistan. In the Indian areas marked by Hindu-Muslim tensions, the government’s machinery had collapsed or become “fiercely partisan.” A rumor spread that Patel, as home minister, was protecting and aiding Hindus but not Muslims. Nehru seemed to buy into the rumor, even though it had no basis. The historian Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma and Patel’s biographer, writes that Patel “was unquestionably roused more by a report of 50 Hindu and Sikh deaths than by another of 50 Muslim deaths. But his hand was just.”

Patel, in turn, was impatient with Nehru’s soft approach toward Pakistani leaders, who were making only half-hearted efforts to contain the violence against Hindus and Sikhs on their side of the border. Patel insisted that the news of this violence was triggering a “mass psychology” of resentment and anger among India’s Hindus and Sikhs. Nehru and Patel never resolved their differences on how best to deal with India’s Hindu-Muslim issue.

They also sparred over Kashmir. On October 22, 1947, a contingent of about five thousand armed tribesmen from Pakistan drove into Kashmir. The maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, was a Hindu, but the Kashmir Valley had a predominantly Muslim population. The maharaja had avoided choosing between Pakistan and India, but on October 24, he desperately appealed to the Indian government for help. On the morning of October 26, Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession to India. That evening, an Indian infantry battalion landed in Kashmir and halted the tribesmen. Pakistani authorities gave the name “Azad Kashmir” (Free Kashmir) to the land west of where the Indian Army stopped the tribesmen. Indians called that area “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.”

Patel, as minister of states, directed the Kashmir operations. But in early December 1947, he found to his surprise that Nehru, as prime minister, had taken control of India’s Kashmir policy. Patel complained that he had been blindsided, and the two exchanged acrimonious letters.

With Nehru and Patel evidently at loggerheads, Gandhi in late December delivered an ultimatum to Patel: “Either you should run things or Jawaharlal should.” Patel wearily replied, “I do not have the strength. He is younger. Let him run the show. I will help him as much as I can from the outside.” Gandhi, who had kept Patel and Nehru together for so long, agreed that it was time for Patel to step aside but said that he wanted to think the matter over. Fate, however, intervened. On January 31, 1948, a Hindu nationalist named Nathuram Godse shot and killed Gandhi.

After Gandhi’s death, in their moment of shared grief and to quash the swirling rumors of their imminent split, Nehru and Patel came together. In a radio address, Nehru said, “We have had our differences. But India at least should know that these differences have been overshadowed by fundamental agreements about the most important aspects of our public life.” On March 3, Nehru wrote to Patel that the crisis required them to work together as “friends and colleagues.” He ended graciously: “this letter carries with it my friendship and affection.” Patel replied with equal grace: “I am deeply touched, indeed, overwhelmed. We have been lifelong friends and comrades in a common cause.” All talk of Patel’s leaving was forgotten. The twists of history continued, however. On March 8, 1948, while eating lunch at home with his daughter Maniben, Patel had a massive heart attack.

Patel Integrates the States

Patel returned to work quickly after his heart attack and poured his energies into a monumental task that he had begun but not finished. That task was to integrate the princely states into a unified India.

When the British left India, the Indian government in New Delhi did not have authority over the entire land area known today as India. Scattered all over the country were more than five hundred princely states ruled by hereditary princes. All together, the princes ruled over one-third of India’s land area and one-fourth of its population. They had survived as princes because, after the 1857 mutiny of Indian soldiers in the British army, British authorities stopped annexing new territories. They feared that more annexation would trigger another mutiny. Instead, the British Crown established the Doctrine of Paramountcy, which granted the British authorities control over the princely states’ foreign policy, defense, and communications, leaving, at least in principle, administration of the states to the princes. At independence, the British transferred to the new Indian parliament full control only over “British India,” the part annexed before 1857; the British also transferred their paramountcy powers over the princely states. In independent India, therefore, the princely states could determine their political relations with the rest of India and set their own commercial policies. India risked becoming a politically and economically balkanized nation.

Click here to order your copy of this book

©2023 by Ashoka Mody. All rights reserved.

Bibi: Story of Israel Phoenix in His Words

754 views
5 mins read

In Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s sweeping, moving autobiography, one of the most formidable and insightful leaders of our time tells the story of his family, his path to leadership, and his unceasing commitment to defending Israel and securing its future. Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, “Bibi: My Story” published by Simon & Schuster, Inc

Author’s Note: Some details of military and Mossad operations described in the book are excised due to Israeli national security requirements. For the same reason, other such operations, as well as details of certain diplomatic missions, are excluded in their entirety.

What do I remember from my earliest years?

Our house on the corner of Ein Gedi Street in the garden neighborhood of Talpiot in South Jerusalem. It was a one-story home with tall ceilings, shaded by cypress trees. These were the years of spartan austerity that followed the end of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, a year before I was born. Determined to ensure that our family would have enough to eat, my mother raised chicks in our backyard. They were soon devoured by weasels. She found other ways to pamper us. In this she was helped by her friend Tessie from New York, who sent us food packets. What a wonder it was for me as a toddler and my brother Yoni to peer through those packages and discover glistening chocolate bars embedded in nylon stockings, along with other bounties sent to us from that magical land across the sea, America.

Soon, when I was three years old, my brother Iddo arrived. I vividly recall him confined in his crib, wailing in protest as his older brothers played freely around him. Perhaps some constraints on Yoni and me should have been in order: in one of my forays I explored an electrical socket with my mouth and the electrical current tore my upper lip, leaving a permanent scar. Often asked about it, I never claimed it was a battle scar. Those would come later.

Jerusalem in those days resembled more a sleepy town than the sprawling, vibrant metropolis it is today. The quiet Talpiot neighborhood where we lived was home to a few prominent intellectuals, writers and scholars, of which my father, Benzion Netanyahu, was one. As early as I can remember I knew my father worked on something called “the sicklopedia.”

A historian by profession, Father was the editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica, which he modeled on the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

We led a comfortable life by Israeli standards because he was handsomely paid for producing a new volume each year. By 1959 the encyclopedia was purchased by 60,000 families out of Israel’s roughly 450,000 households,1 an impressive 14 percent, meriting our reputation as the People of the Book. My father broadened the orientation of the encyclopedia from a narrow Jewish one to one of general knowledge with emphasis on Jewish subjects. Families would wait for the next volume to come out, perusing the entries for their own erudition. The secret to the encyclopedia’s great success, my father said, was clarity. Eighth graders and doctoral students, he said, should be able to read and understand with equal ease complex entries made simple by his rigorous editing. And they did.

Father had a decidedly empirical approach to the search for truth and an intimate familiarity with Jewish history. He once asked his science editor, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, to review an entry on the origin of the universe submitted to the encyclopedia by a British scholar. Leibowitz, later an icon of the Israeli left, was my father’s friend. An eccentric who visited our home frequently, he combined devout religiosity with scientific expertise.

Sometime after my father requested the entry, Leibowitz submitted his edited version of the British scholar’s essay on the various theories of the universe’s creation. My father read it with great interest.

“Leibowitz,” he said, “you crossed out the theory that the universe was created by an omnipotent force. To me that makes as much sense as the other theories. You are, after all, a religious man. Don’t you believe in this possibility?”

“My dear Netanyahu,” Leibowitz said, “from a religious point of view of course I believe it. But scientifically? It doesn’t hold.”

Like his prolific mathematician brother, Professor Elisha Netanyahu, who was among the founding members of the math department at the Technion (Israel’s MIT), Father retained an unquenchable intellectual curiosity until the end of his life. In his nineties, he gave me two books he had just read, the first describing the development of the atom bomb and the second a biography of Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist.

In many ways he was an intellectual descendant of our distant relative, the Vilna Gaon, the great Jewish sage who two hundred years earlier instructed yeshiva students to add mathematics and physics to the study of the Scriptures.

As a historian, Father sought the unvarnished truth and went where the facts took him. He would study historical developments with great depth, balancing conflicting theories and data, and only then make up his mind. But once he did, he was fearless in defending his views.

My father’s mentor, Professor Joseph Klausner, lived on a hill around the corner from our house in Talpiot. Klausner was a world-renowned historian of Second Temple Jewish history. He had written two definitive works on the origins of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth and From Jesus to Paul. He was also a great expert on modern Hebrew literature. A linguist, he had invented the modern Hebrew words for “shirt,” “pencil,” and many other terms. The rebirth of the Jewish state required the revival and modernization of ancient Hebrew, a task undertaken by several ingenious scholars, including Klausner.

As small children, Yoni and I of course knew none of this as each Sabbath we made our way to Klausner’s house, on whose door mantel he had inscribed the words “Judaism and Humanism,” the title of one of his books.

Crossing a field, we would pick flowers along the way, which we would give the professor in a fixed ritual. Klausner would greet us at the door, a kindly bespectacled man in his late seventies with a white goateed beard. A widower with no children and living alone, he would always greet us warmly.

“Welcome children,” Klausner would say.

“Shalom Professor Klausner,” Yoni would respond for both of us.

Klausner would then pose the obligatory question: “Tell me, Jonathan, did you come to see me or did you come for the chocolates?”

“Oh no, Professor Klausner,” Yoni would unerringly respond, “I came to see you.”

Klausner would then usher us to the living room, where he would pull out a box of chocolates from a heavy Central European cabinet. We would pick our choices.

Time after time, this procedure guaranteed success. Then a mishap occurred. One Saturday after Yoni assured the professor of the purpose of our visit, Klausner suddenly turned to me and asked, “And what about you, Benjamin? What did you come for?”

Three years old, I had never been confronted by such a question. Totally disoriented, I covered my eyes with my forearm to shield my bewilderment. For lack of a better answer I kept silent, stuck my other hand into my pocket, and thrust a bunch of crumpled flowers at my interrogator.

Klausner smiled. We got the chocolates.

This was not our only encounter with the great minds of the day. Next to our house was a green wooden shack that served as the neighborhood synagogue. As I peered from the outside through the slats, I saw Yoni join the other worshippers who included Klausner, the writer Shai Agnon, who would later receive the Nobel Prize in literature, and others.

“Why are you here alone, Jonathan?” they would ask Yoni.

“I am Aduk,” Yoni answered, using an arcane Hebrew word for ultra-Orthodox.

“And where is your father?” they pressed.

“He is not Aduk.”

That was definitely true, yet although we were a secular family, throughout most of our childhood my parents made Kiddush, kept Shabbat dinner and celebrated all the major Jewish holidays.

The affection that Yoni received from adults was mirrored by the respect he received from the children in the neighborhood. In the face of the unique, children often respond with either extraordinary cruelty or extraordinary respect. In Yoni’s case it was the latter.

I remember him as a small boy surrounded by children almost twice his age. Quiet and serious, he was totally lacking in bravado. He never posed. Yet older children strangely looked up to him in a manner that would follow him throughout his life, until his tragic death.

Click here to order your copy of this book

Exclusive: The Booker laureate admits he keeps Rajpal’s manuscript

/
1677 views
1 min read
2

Sri Lanka Guardian has sent a media query to Shehan Karunathilake but he is yet to respond. However, on behalf of the Sri Lankan origins booker prize winner, someone named “SK” has shared a message on social media stating that, “a claim has been made by a journalist in Colombo that the plot of my novel, ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ was ‘stolen’ from a 56-page untitled ‘novella’ that he sent to me in 2011 seeking an author’s endorsement. His claim is both baseless and insulting.” This statement clearly accepted that the accused has received a manuscript from the author, Rajpal Abeynayake, and he has kept it for years.

“I have shared his email and the ‘novella’ manuscript with my lawyers who confirm that the claim of plagiarism is entirely unfounded and that the allegations made are libellous. I have also shared the ‘novella’ with my publishers – who confirm the texts bear no comparison whatsoever with my novel – there are no shared plots, characters nor text – and with the Booker Prize Foundation, so that they may be assured the claims are unfounded,” SK defended the case against Booker Prize Winner.

“We are glad to know that SK still keeps the original manuscript safe and he has given copies of the manuscript not only to his lawyers and publisher but also to Booker Prize Foundation,” said one of the senior lawyers in Colombo. Thus, Sri Lanka Guardian‘s inquiry to the Booker Prize Foundation a few days ago has yet to receive a response.  

“It is sad and disappointing that this statement has to be made. This should be a celebratory moment for Sri Lanka and its writers,” SK in his post attempted to earn sympathy.

Meanwhile, responding to the SK’s reaction, Rajpal Abeynayake says that personal insults unfounded in reality are ‘beneath this process’ and that he will not stoop so low as to respond to vicious and obnoxious third parties forwarding statements for some sort of vicarious titillation.

About the statement issued by SK so-called, presumably Shehan Karunatilaka, he says ‘let’s wait and see about the veracity of that, now that he has admitted receiving my manuscript’. Not only does he have my manuscript, but he also has it close at hand and handy to send to others too, says Rajpal.

Sri Lanka And The Man Booker Prize 2022

751 views
4 mins read

“ By cruel hands the sapling drops, in dust dishonour’d laid; so fell the pride of all my hopes, my age’s future shade”. ~ Robert Burns

Denis Nowell Pritt, a British barrister, once called Sri Lanka a beautiful but unhappy land.  It is difficult to disagree with this identifier even now. It is a land where the sad resonance of humanity, subjugated by three successive foreign powers, has sent waves of discontent to the shores of our conscience, forcing us to hide the pride of our heritage in an armour of cynicism.  Sporadically, and from time to time, as if in deliberate remonstrance, we have turned on ourselves. Shehan Karunatilaka writes about such an epoch in his book The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, a supernatural satire which has just won for him the coveted Man Booker Prize of 2022, much to the joyous pride and delight of all Sri Lankans, local or diasporic. His 2010 debut novel – Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew – won the Commonwealth Prize, the DSC Prize, and the Gratiaen Prize and was adjudged the second greatest cricket book of all time by Wisden, the independent voice of cricket. All this makes  Shehan a world renowned author and places him in the club of other South Asian Booker Prize winners of distinction such as Rushdie, Ondaatje, Roy and Adigar.

The Man Booker Prize is a literary award for the best novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom and Ireland.  The winner is decided by a panel of five comprised of authors, librarians, literary agents, publishers, and booksellers who are appointed by the Booker Prize Foundation and charged with choosing the best out of outstanding nominations submitted for their consideration.  The Chair of the panel explained: “ The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ was the ambition of its scope, and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques. This is a metaphysical thriller, an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west. It is an entirely serious philosophical romp that takes the reader to ’the world’s dark heart’ — the murderous horrors of civil war Sri Lanka. And once there, the reader also discovers the tenderness and beauty, the love and loyalty, and the pursuit of an ideal that justify every human life”.

This is not a review of the Booker Prize winning novel, as regretfully the book is not yet available in North America where I live.  Neither is this about the distinguished author.  It is rather about its interpretation and nuance, experienced through its theme along the lines of what Ann Patchett says – that meaning is made between the reader and the book, not the reader and author. In the book, as I understand,  Malinda Almeida (the eponymous Maali), a war photographer, gambler, and “closet queen” who is killed,  dismembered, and later dumped in a placid lake in Sri Lanka, is supernaturally resurrected and finds himself seemingly in what resembles a celestial visa office.  Having no idea who killed him in a country where revenge is settled by death squads, suicide bombers, and hired goons, Malinda embarks on a quest with the limited time he has – seven moons – to find out who killed him and also to contact the man and woman he loves most –  his lover DD and his best friend Jaki – and lead them to the photos that will bewilder and rock Sri Lanka. The book brings to bear various times in history where humanity inherits the loss brought about by egregious politics and the worse demons of our nature, which are presented in frightening testimony of loss and betrayal and feckless insouciance to human dignity and the value of life.   Some of these horrendous events addressed are “the barbarism of India up north in ’89, the cruelty of Tamils out east in ’87 and the savagery of Sinhalese down south in ’83”.

Karunatilaka’s book stimulates introspection.  Nira Wickramasinghe,  Professor in the Department of History and International Relations in the University of Colombo in her book Sri Lanka in the Modern Age – A History of Contested Identities (2006) says: “ The Sri Lankan post colony seems to have failed, in many spheres, to address its past without reproducing it. This predicament has hindered the adoption of any course that steers too far from its colonial and early postcolonial inheritance and has shaped the contours of post-independence development”.  Dr. Wickramasinghe goes on to say that one reason for this lack of direction is the failure of institutions of a liberal Sri Lanka which have failed to address all needs of the country be it the poor, the unemployed youth and minorities who have been deprived of the protection the State is required to provide under a social contract. Another reason is a lack of self vision and national identity which countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong had.  As far back as 1990 Rohan Guneratne in his book Sri Lanka – a Lost Revolution? The Inside Story f the JVP (1990) partly blames the dystopian inheritance of Sri Lanka’s violence to the failure of Sri Lanka’s academics and intellectuals who failed in two areas: the absence of an attempt to diffuse discord and the ensuing violence and carnage in the country; and the failure to document the tragedy.  He concludes that this weakness of planners and experts led to civil disturbance which went from crisis to crisis. 

Sri Lanka has gone through, in the words of Dickens “ the best of times and the worst of times”. The best times were before the country lost all sense of purpose, direction and dignity.  The country needs to get back to ushering in a different brand of politics devoid of partisan bickering and stultifying division. To bring on a democracy that would solve concrete problems. Children should be able to grow up and receive an education that would lead to career opportunities. In the ultimate analysis, it remains an enduring realization that Sri Lankans have the opportunity to make individual choices without the restrictions of class, religion, caste, race or ethnic group.

The dark wind that howls through our disillusionment must stop, even to catch its breath and allow the better angels of our nature to step in. Darkness must not keep our secrets hidden and we must let in the light.

Shehan Wickremetilleke drives a wedge of conscience into the reader’s mind and jolts him to reality. However,  it is the song and not the singer who won the prize. But the singer rendered his song melodiously.

Sri Lanka: Shehan wins Booker Prize

709 views
1 min read

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka has won the Booker prize for fiction, according to the Guardian London. The judges praised the “ambition of its scope, and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques”.

Karunatilaka’s second novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida comes more than a decade after his debut, Chinaman, which was published in 2011. The Booker-winning novel tells the story of the photographer of its title, who in 1990 wakes up dead in what seems like a celestial visa office. With no idea who killed him, Maali has seven moons to contact the people he loves most and lead them to a hidden cache of photos of civil war atrocities that will rock Sri Lanka.

Neil MacGregor, chair of the judges for this year’s prize, said the novel was chosen because “it’s a book that takes the reader on a rollercoaster journey through life and death right to what the author describes as the dark heart of the world”.

“And there the reader finds, to their surprise, joy, tenderness, love and loyalty,” he added.

MacGregor was joined on the judging panel by academic and broadcaster Shahidha Bari; historian Helen Castor; novelist and critic M John Harrison; and novelist, poet and professor Alain Mabanckou. The judges were unanimous in their decision to award the prize to Karunatilaka, according to the chair.

Click here to read the report originally published in Guardian UK

Yu Enguang: A Man behind China’s Global Spy Game

1336 views
4 mins read

The following excerpts are adapted from the author’s new book, Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World published by Hardie Grant Books

Yu Enguang’s story has never previously been told. Before his death in 2013, he rose into the highest ranks of China’s intelligence community. He was instrumental in creating the organisations, practices and culture that make influence operations by today’s Ministry of State Security so successful. The MSS continues to emulate the boldness Yu showed as he engaged directly with an international power player, turning Soros’s dream of an open society in China into a source of funds, legitimacy and cover for influence operations.

The China International Culture Exchange Center that Yu led was an MSS-run front organisation, custom-built for engaging with foreigners like Soros. Nearly forty years later, it’s still in active operational use.

To foreigners who met him, Yu seemed like a man deeply interested in and acquainted with the capitalist world, not some paranoid Stalinist. He was a witty and memorable character, skilled at interacting with targets and adept at English – something that stands out in all accounts. While posted to America undercover as a Xinhua journalist, he charmed a Washington Post reporter with his commentary on the Cantonese meal they were sharing. He’d been trained well – the ability to introduce Chinese cuisine to foreigners was specifically drilled into Chinese spies during their English-language courses.

Yu made a mark on Soros representative Liang Heng too, who was persuaded to accept MSS control over the China Fund: ‘The impression Yu gave me was quite good. He was about fifty, tall, with strong eyebrows, big eyes and a sophisticated manner and he talked pragmatically … he’d been to many countries, seen and experienced much, and spoke fluent English.’3 Soros likewise bonded with him, despite some apprehension about his special background. Both of them had lived in London and Soros liked the British accent of Yu’s English.

Yu was not just any MSS officer. At the time he was a vice minister of the agency and among the Communist Party’s top foreign intelligence officers. Few within the agency could rival the depth of his overseas experience. Most of all, his operations in hostile capitalist nations taught him that loyalty to the Party came before all else. Only a politically secure officer would feel comfortable ‘dropping cover’ by revealing his MSS affiliation to Liang and Soros. This is also reflected in the fact that he was trusted to represent the MSS abroad, where he built partnerships with foreign intelligence agencies such as in Afghanistan.

But who was he, really? The first two decades of his spy career were spent embedded in the state-owned Xinhua News Agency, giving him rare opportunities to travel the world. In the 1970s he worked in Xinhua’s London bureau for eight years. One Thai woman living in London who met him at a Chinese embassy function noted that ‘he often worked at home late at night writing dispatches’. Clearly, he had more on his plate than journalism.

From London he was reassigned to the United States, which had only recently opened diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During the Carter and Reagan years he headed the newly established Xinhua bureau in Washington, DC, overseeing coverage of the White House. ‘While I tirelessly reported on the activities and speeches of Carter, Mondale, Reagan and Bush and other key White House figures, I also observed many phenomena and gathered many materials,’ he reflected years later in a compilation of his US reportage, which doesn’t reveal his MSS affiliation. Hinting at his dual life as a spy and a journalist, he wrote that it was a job where most achievements were ‘fragile goods, and hard to attach to my name’. By 1985, while he was officially deputy director of the Xinhua department responsible for foreign correspondents, he was in fact probably leading an entire bureau of MSS officers.

Dual identities

Yet ‘Yu Enguang’ may not have existed at all. MSS officers use pseudonyms throughout their careers, even as vice ministers. These aliases often read like puns on their true names, with characters dissected and jumbled into new ones, or surnames replaced with homophones.

Yu is no exception. Though one writer on Chinese espionage assumed they were different people, little-known MSS vice minister Yu Fang looks identical to Yu Enguang. In the only published photo of Yu Fang, taken after his retirement, he stands with the same slouch, wears the same belt and dons the same pair of shaded glasses as Yu Enguang. Both reportedly studied at Renmin University and grew up in Liaoning province in China’s northeast. Yu Enguang was just a pseudonym for Yu Fang.

Among his comrades in the MSS, Yu Fang was just as respected as ‘Yu Enguang’ was by the targets he cultivated. At some point in his career he headed the agency’s important central administrative office, and in the early nineties helped secure the passage of China’s first National Security Law, which expanded and codified MSS powers. The authors of several MSS publications, marked for internal distribution only, thank him for advising on and improving their drafts. He also oversaw MSS production and censorship of histories, TV dramas and movies about spies, which were designed to build public awareness and support for the MSS’s mission.

Ironically for a man who helped bring Chinese intelligence history into the public sphere, Yu’s true legacy is an official secret. Official references to his achievements are brief and elliptical. The authoritative People’s Daily eulogised him in 2013, an honour only a handful of intelligence officers receive: ‘In his sixty years of life in the revolution, Comrade Yu Fang was loyal to the Party, scrupulously carried out his duties and selflessly offered himself to the Party’s endeavours, making important contributions to the Party’s state security endeavour.’ The article also noted that he’d been a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s national legislature, but lists of delegates include only his pseudonym.

The MSS seizure of the China Fund was an impressive display of the agency’s confidence in engaging with one of America’s best-connected and wealthiest men. What it learnt could be applied to future operations as the agency grew more aggressive and internationally focused over the following decade. But it was far from a flawless effort: exposing Yu Enguang and CICEC as arms of the MSS leads to a string of covert operations against the United States, continuing right to the present day.

Soros had at first accepted the management change at his China Fund as a necessary cost of operating in China. Liang Heng claims he told Soros the truth about Yu’s identity in 1988. The MSS and Ministry of Public Security ‘were co-equal and they couldn’t interfere in each other’s affairs’, Soros argued in 2019, but partnering with the MSS offered quite the opposite of protection in the end. He may have thought he could handle the situation, that his ties to Party leaders could override the conservative proclivities of their spies. After all, his political philanthropy was thriving in Hungary and the Soviet Union despite their security agencies having been formed in the same ideological mould as the MSS.

Views expressed are personal

Click here to order your copy of this book

Mystique of Cannabis

/
1159 views
4 mins read

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, Marijuana on My Mind: The Science and Mystique of Cannabis, published by Cambridge University Press

Martin was an intelligent and cocky young man whose father hoped therapy would help him cut down his cannabis use and mature enough to take over the family’s successful road construction business. Martin only wanted me to help him get away from his father. He was convinced that his cannabis use was part of a healthy life, and he constantly tried to prove that he knew more about the plant than I did. In fact, he did know far more than I about the latest varieties of cannabis and new methods of cultivation. I allowed him to be the expert about what was available at his favorite dispensaries, while I was more interested in hearing how it altered his mind. He dismissed my concerns as those of an old man, but he tolerated me because he liked to argue. In the end, he didn’t change his cannabis use, but he did gradually develop a better relationship with his family and returned home to manage the business when his father suffered a heart attack.

I saw an interesting and warm man beneath Martin’s arrogant exterior, and he knew I liked him. He arrived at our final session with a small, neatly wrapped gift and insisted I open it immediately. Inside the box was a dried cannabis bud resting on a royal purple, velvet pillow. It looked like a giant, withered, alien Brussels sprout (Figure 2.1). Martin proudly pronounced, “This is the best bud I have ever found, with a really spiritual high. You should know about it.”

I told Martin I appreciated the thought and knew he was giving me something precious, then closed the box and placed it back on the end table next to his chair. I handed it back to him as we shook hands when he left my office, but then I found it on the floor just outside my door when the next patient arrived. As I picked up the box, I said, “Drug reps are always leaving me little trinkets,” but I knew Martin’s gift was more heartfelt than the usual swag left by drug companies. I eventually encased the bud in a plexiglass cube and set it on my bookshelf beside the Freud action figure another patient had given me.

Figure 2.1 Dried cannabis flower, also called marijuana or bud.

The History Behind Today’s Cannabis

The dried bud Martin ceremoniously presented to me descended from a unique plant with a history that long predates humanity. Cannabis first emerged nearly 30 million years ago on the high-altitude, arid grasslands of Tibet, where it diverged from hops, its closest relative best known for flavoring beer. Cannabis became unique among Earth’s vegetation by developing chemical compounds never seen before. Like all flowering plants, different varieties of cannabis evolved, some with revolutionary new chemistry and some without. Marijuana on My Mind focuses on those varieties that developed medicinal and mind-altering properties. The varieties of cannabis lacking this chemistry, called hemp, evolved strong, flexible fibers that humans have used for a wide range of utilitarian purposes for the past 10,000 years.

Hemp arrived in the New World 53 years after Columbus first landed, but it is less clear when the smokable, intoxicating varieties of cannabis were imported. What we call marijuana today was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese and to Jamaica and other Caribbean islands by kidnapped Africans. The British also imported cannabis, primarily to pacify their slaves. It then arrived in the USA along four primary routes. Patent medicines from pharmaceutical companies containing cannabis extracts were popular through the mid- to late 1800s. Many Americans had their first puff of hash at the exotic Turkish Village in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Marijuana also arrived with sailors, Caribbean migrants filtering into New Orleans, and asylum seekers fleeing Mexico’s violent revolution in 1910, primarily through El Paso. All the derogatory racial stereotypes that white Americans held regarding brown and Black people were quickly ascribed to marijuana as well. Its use by despised and feared minorities was alien to white American culture and reinforced prejudice against immigrants. Smokable cannabis and racism were intertwined from the very beginning, until white youth cracked the mold in the 1960s.

Before the Mexican-Spanish word “marihuana” first entered English usage, “cannabis” and variants of “hash” were the only terms used. Bristol Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly listed cannabis and cannabis extracts as ingredients in their medicines during the 1800s. The word “marijuana” was later popularized in racially derogatory stories about Mexican refugees. When Pancho Villa and his bandoliered men briefly invaded New Mexico in 1916, they openly flaunted their pot use as they sang creative verses of “La Cucaracha” that included cockroaches smoking marijuana. But Pancho Villa’s greater crime was when his support of land reform wrested 800,000 acres of timberland from newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst during Mexico’s uprising against foreign capitalist control. Hearst, who owned 8 million acres of Mexican land, used his media empire to strike back against the rebels by luridly sensationalizing both the Mexicans and marijuana.

In 1920, the USA joined Norway, Finland, and Russia in banning alcohol. This grand experiment of prohibition failed and was reversed in 1933, both because of the public’s widespread disregard for the law and state governments’ thirst for new tax revenue during the Great Depression. The Federal Bureau of Prohibition’s assistant commissioner, Harry Anslinger, had become commissioner of the new Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. He initially had little interest in leading a campaign against what he saw as a mere weed; he insisted that cannabis was not a problem, did not harm people, and that “there is no more absurd fallacy” than the idea that it makes people violent. His mind changed with the deepening economic depression and end of alcohol prohibition. Fears that Mexican migrants might take scarce jobs intensified racial prejudice and combined with bureaucratic mission creep after alcohol was relegalized. William Randolph Hearst paved the way for Anslinger’s conversion to antimarijuana crusader by publishing a steady stream of stories about the evils of marijuana that reached 20 million daily readers during the 1930s. Hearst needed to sell newspapers, and racially charged descriptions of violent and sexual crimes caused by this killer weed sold very well.

Click here to order your copy

© Cambridge University Press 2022

Churchill and His Crimes: The Indian Cauldron

1693 views
8 mins read

The following excerpts are adapted from the author’s later book, Winston Churchill – His Times, His Crimes, published by Verso Books, the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world, publishing one hundred books a year.

Life: enough of this poetry

We need hard, harsh prose;

Silence the poetry-softened noises;

Strike with the stern hammer of prose today!

No need for the tenderness of verse;

Poetry: I give you leave of absence;

In the realm of hunger, the world is prosaic

The full moon is scalded bread.

Sukanta Bhattacharya, ‘Hey Mahajibon’ (O, Great Life) (1944)

During the interwar period India was in a state of continuous turmoil. The reforms of 1919 – which had promised increased political participation of Indians in government but denied them power – were regarded by most Indians as ill-intentioned and offering very little. In Parliament in 1917, Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India, had declared ‘the gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire’. The result was a build up of pressure from below.

The British Empire clearly faced a choice: it could grant India dominion status or it could rule largely through repression. The failure to grant the first necessitated the second.

The Pashtuns, Punjabis, Bengalis and Malabari (now Keralans) saw the rise of mass movements and terrorism on the pre-revolutionary Russian model. Peaceful marches were violently broken up by the police. The 1919 massacre in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar is the best known, but there were others. The Moplah peasant uprising in Malabar in 1924 was deliberately misinterpreted by Raj ideologues. The Chittagong Armoury Raid in April 1930 was an audacious attempt to seize police and auxiliaries’ weapons and launch an armed uprising in Bengal. The raiders were revolutionaries of various sorts, united by the belief that only an armed struggle inspired by the Easter Rising of 1916 (they called themselves the IRA: Indian Republican Army) could rid them of the British. The plan was to take government and military officials hostage in the European Club where they hung out after work, seize the bank, release political prisoners, destroy the telegraph offices and telephone exchanges and cut off all railway communications.

They partially succeeded, but could not capture the British officers and civil servants. It was Good Friday. The European Club was empty. Despite this, the main leader of the uprising, Surya Sen, assembled their forces outside the police armoury, where he took the salute as IRA members (numbering under a hundred) paraded past him. They hoisted the Indian flag and declared a Provisional Revolutionary Government. The British swiftly took back control and guerrilla warfare ensued. The IRA was outnumbered. A traitor gave away Sen’s hiding place. He was captured, tortured and, together with another comrade, hanged. Other prisoners were packed off to the Andaman Islands.

In Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, a twenty-two-year-old, Bhagat Singh, who hailed from a staunch anti-imperialist family, decided with a handful of supporters to carry out two missions in 1930. The aim of the first was to assassinate the British police officer who had badly beaten up the nationalist leader, Lala Lajpat Rai, at a demonstration in Lahore. But they shot the wrong police officer. The second was to throw a few bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi when it was empty. Bhagat Singh declared they did so because they wanted the noise of the blast to wake up India.

In prison he became a communist and wrote that terrorist tactics were not useful, but he refused to plead for mercy. Gandhi half-heartedly spoke on his behalf to Lord Irwin, the liberal Viceroy, but was rebuffed. Bhagat Singh and two comrades, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru (all members of the tiny Hindustan Republican Socialist Party), were hanged in Lahore Jail in 1931.

There were similar events on a lesser scale elsewhere, and peasant uprisings too, the largest of which, in modern Kerala, shook the landlords and their British protectors. The peasants were mainly poor Muslims. They were defeated and the leaders of the revolt despatched to the Andamans for fifteen years. In 1935, the British realised the seriousness of the situation and passed a second Government of India Act through the House of Commons.

Churchill was vehemently opposed to the new law but was out of office. The Act provided for a controlled provincial autonomy, with the governors in each province holding reserve powers to dismiss ‘irresponsible’ governments. The tiny franchise was somewhat enlarged, and in 1937 the dominant Congress Party virtually swept the board in provincial elections, with the crucial exceptions of the Punjab and Bengal where secular-conservative, landlord-run parties obtained majorities.

Within two years of these elections Britain was at war. The Congress leaders, astounded that they had not been consulted before India was dragged into the war, instructed all their provincial governments to resign in protest and refused to offer support for the war. All this confirmed Churchill’s prejudices. He simply refused to grasp Indian realities.

The volume of protests and resistance from the end of the First World War till the late thirties had been rising with each passing year. Gandhi himself, in his South African phase, was a staunch Empire-loyalist. His view that ‘the British Empire existed for the benefit of the world’ neatly coincided with that of Churchill, and the Indian lawyer was not in the least embarrassed at acting as a recruiting sergeant during the First World War. He moderated these views when he returned to India and reinvented himself as a political deity. He was happy to mobilise the masses, but on a ‘moral level’. He would leave statecraft to the politicians, mainly Nehru and Patel. Though when they needed his imprimatur during crisis times (Partition and the Indian occupation of Kashmir), he always obliged.

Gandhi’s decision to make the Congress a mass party by appealing to the vast countryside had increased its size and political weight. In an overwhelmingly Hindu country, Gandhi had used religious symbols to mobilise the peasantry. This began to alienate Muslims, and since the Brahmins dominated the Congress leadership, the ‘untouchables’ knew their grievances would never get a hearing. Despite this, Gandhi, Patel and Nehru built a formidable political machine that covered the whole of India. The 1937 elections demonstrated as much, and it’s worth pointing out that in the north-western frontier province bordering Afghanistan, the predominantly Muslim Pashtuns had voted for the Congress Party as well.

The decision to take India into the Second World War without consulting its only elected representatives was yet another avoidable error on London’s part. The British underestimated the change in mood among the masses and some of their leaders. Had they consulted Gandhi and Nehru, offering them a fig-leaf to support the war, things might have panned out differently. The Congress leaders felt they had been treated shabbily and, after internal discussions that lasted a few months (revealing a strong anti-war faction led by the Bengali leader, Subhas Chandra Bose), they opted to quit office.

The British Viceroy immediately began to woo the Muslim League, and vice versa. The League’s leader gave full-throated backing to the war as did the conservative pro-British elected governments in Punjab and Bengal.

When, on 22 December 1939, the Congress Party announced its decision to resign and did so a week later, Jinnah declared that henceforth 22 December should be celebrated as a ‘day of deliverance’ from Congress rule. Ambedkar, the ‘Untouchables’ leader, provided strong backing, saying he ‘felt ashamed to have allowed [Jinnah] to steal a march over me and rob me of the language and the sentiment which I, more than Mr Jinnah, was entitled to use.’ Surprisingly, Gandhi also sent his congratulations to Jinnah for ‘lifting the Muslim League out of the communal rut and giving it a national character’. Little did he know where this would lead.

Emboldened by the emergence of an anti-Congress minority, the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow expressed some optimism:

In spite of the political crisis, India has not wavered in denunciation of the enemy in Europe, and has not failed to render all help needed in the prosecution of the war. The men required as recruits for the Army are forthcoming: assistance in money from the Princes and others continues to be offered: a great extension of India’s effort in the field of supply is proceeding apace.

With this in mind, Linlithgow was confident he could survive the storm. When the Congress ministers resigned en masse, the Viceroy ordered the arrest of its leaders and activists. They were released in December 1941 as the British attempted to reach some accommodation. Gandhi was carefully studying the development of the war in Europe as well as Japanese moves closer to the region, and wondering whether the British might be able to hold out. He was not yet sure. The local impact of Operation Barbarossa was the release of imprisoned Communist Party leaders and militants, who now came out openly in support for the war. Gandhi continued to wait. It was the humiliation inflicted on the British in Singapore in February 1942 that led to a change of course. The Congress leaders began to think about calling for a Quit India movement and, in this fashion, declared their own (partial if not complete) independence from the British. Gandhi had engineered Bose’s isolation within the Congress, but he was very critical of Nehru’s anti-Japanese militancy. Nehru had suggested that Congress should organise armed militias to fight against the Japanese were they to take India. Gandhi reprimanded him strongly. He should not forget that Japan was at war with Britain, not India.

In contrast to Gandhi’s handwringing and delays, the Bengali Congress leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, always deeply hostile to the notion of offering any support to the British war, went on the offensive. Of the entire Congress high command, he was the most radical nationalist. He began to work out a master plan that owed more to the organisers of the Chittagong Armoury Raid than to Gandhi. Bose did not believe that peaceful methods could prevail. They were fine at certain times, but the situation was now critical. Britain had insulted India by taking its young men away once again to fight in inter-imperialist wars. Bose wanted to create an Indian National Army and began to explore all possibilities.

In 1942 Churchill agreed that Sir Stafford Cripps, the left-wing, former ambassador to Moscow, be sent to India to meet with Nehru, Gandhi and other leaders and plead with them to help Britain. If they agreed, he could offer a verbal pledge of independence after the war. However, before Cripps could depart, bad news came from South-East Asia: Singapore had fallen. Churchill blamed the men in the field. The British Army had not fought back effectively: ‘We had so many men in Singapore – so many men – they should have done better.’ As stressed above, it was a huge blow.

Cripps arrived in India, but few were willing to listen to his message. Jinnah’s Muslim League and the Communist Party were backing the war, but so speedy was the Japanese advance that Gandhi genuinely believed they might soon be negotiating Indian independence with Hirohito and Tojo rather than Churchill and Attlee. When Cripps insisted he was offering Congress a ‘blank cheque’ they could cash after the war, Gandhi famously riposted: ‘What is the point of a blank cheque from a failing bank?’

After Cripps returned empty-handed, Churchill pinned his hopes for a stable Indian army largely on Jinnah and Sikandar Hyat Khan, the leader of the Unionist Party and elected Premier of the Punjab, a province crucial to the war effort in terms of manpower and for being the granary of India. When, after Cripps’s return, Churchill said ‘I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion’, he was expressing a long-held view, but in this instance was referring to the Hindus who had badly let him down.

Click here to order your copy of this important book

All rights reserved © Tariq Ali 2022

Indonesia: Echoes of Munir’s Unstoppable Soul

740 views
5 mins read

This is a chilling work of true crime about the midair murder of a human rights activist, set against a riveting political drama in the world’s fourth-largest nation. Following excerpts adapted from We Have Tired of Violence: A True Story of Murder, Memory, and the Fight for Justice in Indonesia written by Matt Easton, published by The New Press. – Edts

Munir told a story. A few months before, an immigration officer had stopped him as he was trying to depart for Geneva. The man told him he was banned from leaving Indonesia. Unsure if the officer was following a genuine order or fishing for a bribe, Munir took out his phone. He called General Hendropriyono, the head of the State Intelligence Agency. Munir had recently asked a court to bar Hendropriyono from that job due to his role in a massacre years before. The effort had only succeeded in angering the general, but he answered when Munir called and assured him he was free to leave the country. As Munir described handing his phone to the wide-eyed immigration officer to hear for himself, the group burst out laughing around the box of donut holes. Suci smiled as her husband drained a threat of power, and made it, somehow, seem funny.

***

Soon after midday prayers the next day, Suci answered her home phone. It was Usman Hamid, Munir’s friend and successor at the human rights group KontraS.

“Suci, where are you now?” he asked.

“I’m at home. Don’t you know you called my home?” Her voice rose: “What is it, Usman?”

“Suci, have you heard the news about Munir?” Usman stammered. His voice was shaky and hoarse.

She hadn’t, and Munir really should have texted or called her by now from Amsterdam.

Usman told her, simply, “Munir has died.”

Suci felt as if she’d fallen from high up in the clouds onto hard earth. A darkness choked her, and her legs felt weak. Suci struggled to think. She needed to know what happened. She needed to prove it wasn’t true. Decades of censorship and lies, followed by years of political turmoil, had created an environment ripe for rumors in a village of 10 million like Jakarta. Many arose spontaneously, sometimes compared to mushrooms in the rainy season. More often, rumors were crafted to threaten and frighten.

Suci would not believe Munir was dead until she saw his body herself or spoke to someone who had. Her disbelief came not just from years of rumor and threat. She could not accept that someone she felt to be a part of her soul could be gone in an instant. Her suspicion and denial grew as Suci called the airports, the airline, and friends in the Netherlands. No one would confirm the rumor. No one would tell her anything at all. On her fourth call to Amsterdam, she erupted at a Garuda employee, “I have a right to information about my husband!”

There was a long pause, before the man whispered, “Yes. Yes, he’s dead.”

Had he seen the body, seen it with his own eyes? He had.

“Please,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone I told you.”

***

Photo: Munir sits with Suciwati and his former driver Sugiarto at Jakarta’s airport shortly before his departure. (Poengky Indarti)

Suci told co-workers they should join her at LBH on Sunday, their one day off. They’d been looking for a safer spot to meet, though no place was totally secure. The authorities could raid any meeting they considered political if held without a permit. Suci explained that LBH offered more than they’d hoped for. It had space to meet in private, with lawyers to train them and to help if they got arrested. It was like a ripe durian falling from the tree and coming to rest right at your feet.

Before long, Munir asked Suci for help at the office, and then with a research project on Malang’s northern fringe. She liked being part of the research team, until she heard that Munir was telling people she was interested in him. Suci confronted Munir, telling him that she took her work seriously and didn’t want it mixed up with emotions. She had no choice but to resign. As she walked out the door, some visitors arrived, and Munir could only watch her go. He came to her house that evening to apologize, but she wasn’t there. He returned the next day, and she accepted his apology, but did not return to the research team or the office work. She liked to be with the workers where the action was, and in June she took another factory job, though she kept volunteering at LBH as well.

In fact, Suci was finding herself drawn to Munir. She liked his passion for his work and the way he combined this serious commitment with humor. Once, he took her to a political discussion at his old campus. Afterward, she revealed her fear that his bold words there would get him shot by an intel agent concealed in the crowd. At the sound of his warm laughter, her fear evaporated. In fact, outside of conflict zones, overt state violence was rare. For many Indonesians who were not especially political, the late New Order was a time of increasing prosperity and religious tolerance. By the 1990s, Suharto could assert control mostly through a vast bureaucracy governing all organizations, discussions, and Suci told co-workers they should join her at LBH on Sunday, their one day off. They’d been looking for a safer spot to meet, though no place was totally secure. The authorities could raid any meeting they considered political if held without a permit. Suci explained that LBH offered more than they’d hoped for. It had space to meet in private, with lawyers to train them and to help if they got arrested. It was like a ripe durian falling from the tree and coming to rest right at your feet.

Before long, Munir asked Suci for help at the office, and then with a research project on Malang’s northern fringe. She liked being part of the research team, until she heard that Munir was telling people she was interested in him. Suci confronted Munir, telling him that she took her work seriously and didn’t want it mixed up with emotions. She had no choice but to resign. As she walked out the door, some visitors arrived, and Munir could only watch her go. He came to her house that evening to apologize, but she wasn’t there. He returned the next day, and she accepted his apology, but did not return to the research team or the office work. She liked to be with the workers where the action was, and in June she took another factory job, though she kept volunteering at LBH as well.

In fact, Suci was finding herself drawn to Munir. She liked his passion for his work and the way he combined this serious commitment with humor. Once, he took her to a political discussion at his old campus. Afterward, she revealed her fear that his bold words there would get him shot by an intel agent concealed in the crowd. At the sound of his warm laughter, her fear evaporated. In fact, outside of conflict zones, overt state violence was rare. For many Indonesians who were not especially political, the late New Order was a time of increasing prosperity and religious tolerance. By the 1990s, Suharto could assert control mostly through a vast bureaucracy governing all organizations, discussions, and Students’ Association (Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam, or HMI). HMI had recently split, and Munir joined the more pro-Suharto faction. He was not just a supporter of the president, but a militant one, often clashing with street activists demanding democracy or human rights. They generally fought through public debates, wherein Munir earned a fearsome reputation, and student government races, but the competition grew tense. Munir considered himself a soldier in a religious war, and by his own account carried a knife in his bag in these years, ready to fight. Munir might have developed into a lifelong pro-Suharto ideologue or a religious hard-liner.

But not long after arriving at college, friends, books, teachers, and his own curious mind began challenging his constricted views. He enjoyed taking the pro-government side when arguing with the radical street activists, but some of their arguments were persuasive. Munir also began excavating the history of HMI. He was surprised to discover its founding documents were almost radical in their challenge to state authority and capitalism. Drafted in 1960 by an influential and progressive Muslim intellectual named Nurcholish Majid, they used the Quran and the Hadiths to argue that Muslims should side with the oppressed.

Click here to have your copy of this book