Sri Lanka Guardian Essays

Without Culture, Freedom Is Impossible

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In 2002, Cuba’s President Fidel Castro Ruz visited the country’s National Ballet School to inaugurate the 18th Havana International Ballet Festival. Founded in 1948 by the prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso (1920–2019), the school struggled financially until the Cuban Revolution decided that ballet – like other art forms – must be available to everyone and so must be socially financed. At the school in 2002, Castro remembered that the first festival, held in 1960, ‘asserted Cuba’s cultural vocation, identity, and nationality, even under the most adverse circumstances, when major dangers and threats loomed over the country’.

Ballet, like so many cultural forms, had been stolen from popular participation and enjoyment. The Cuban Revolution wanted to return this artistic practice to the people as part of its determination to advance human dignity. To build a revolution in a country assaulted by colonial barbarism, the new revolutionary process had to both establish the country’s sovereignty and build the dignity of each of its people. This dual task is the work of national liberation. ‘Without culture’, Castro said, ‘freedom is not possible’. 

In many languages, the word ‘culture’ has at least two meanings. In bourgeois society, culture has come to mean both refinement and the high arts. A property of the dominant classes, this culture is inherited through the transmission of manners and higher education. The second meaning of culture is the way of life, including beliefs and practices, of a people who are part of a community (from a tribe to a nation). The Cuban Revolution’s democratisation of ballet and classical music, for instance, was part of its attempt to socialise all forms of human life, from the economic to the cultural. Furthermore, the revolutionary processes attempted to protect the cultural heritage of the Cuban people from the pernicious influence of the culture of colonialism. To be precise, to ‘protect’ did not mean to reject the entirety of the coloniser’s culture, since that would enforce a parochial life on a people who must have access to all forms of culture. Cuba’s Revolution adopted baseball, for instance, despite its roots in the United States, the very country that has sought to suffocate Cuba for six decades.

A socialist approach to culture, therefore, requires four aspects: the democratisation of forms of high culture, the protection of the cultural heritage of formerly colonised peoples, the advancement of the basic elements of cultural literacy, and the domestication of cultural forms that come from the colonising power. 

In July 2022, I delivered a lecture at Cuba’s Casa de las Américas, a major institution in Havana’s cultural life and a heartbeat of cultural developments from Chile to Mexico, that centred on ten theses on Marxism and decolonisation. A few days later, Casa’s director, Abel Prieto, also a former minister of culture, convened a seminar there to discuss some of these themes, principally how Cuban society had to both defend itself from the onrush of imperialist cultural forms and from the pernicious inheritance of racism and patriarchy. This discussion provoked a series of reflections on the process of the National Programme Against Racism and Racial Discrimination announced by President Miguel Díaz-Canel in November 2019 and on the process that led to the 2022 Family Code referendum (which will come to a popular vote on 25 September) – two dynamics that have the capacity to transform Cuban society in an anti-colonial direction.

Dossier no. 56 (September 2022) from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Casa de las Américas, Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation, contains an expanded version of that lecture with a foreword by Abel Prieto. To give you a taste of it, here is thesis nine on the Battle of Emotions: 

Thesis Nine: The Battle of Emotions. Fidel Castro provoked a debate in the 1990s around the concept of the Battle of Ideas, the class struggle in thought against the banalities of neoliberal conceptions of human life. A key part of Fidel’s speeches from this period was not just what he said but how he said it, each word suffused with the great compassion of a man committed to the liberation of humanity from the tentacles of property, privilege, and power. In fact, the Battle of Ideas was not merely about the ideas themselves, but also about a ‘battle of emotions’, an attempt to shift the palate of emotions from a fixation on greed to considerations of empathy and hope.

One of the true challenges of our time is the bourgeoisie’s use of the culture industries and the institutions of education and faith to divert attention away from any substantial discussion about real problems – and about finding common solutions to social dilemmas – and towards an obsession with fantasy problems. In 1935, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called this the ‘swindle of fulfilment’, the seeding of a range of fantasies to mask their impossible realisation. The benefit of social production, Bloch wrote, ‘is reaped by the big capitalist upper stratum, which employs gothic dreams against proletarian realities’. The entertainment industry erodes proletarian culture with the acid of aspirations that cannot be fulfilled under the capitalist system. But these aspirations are enough to weaken any working-class project.

A degraded society under capitalism produces a social life that is suffused with atomisation and alienation, desolation and fear, anger and hate, resentment and failure. These are ugly emotions that are shaped and promoted by the culture industries (‘you can have it too!’), educational establishments (‘greed is the prime mover’), and neo-fascists (‘hate immigrants, sexual minorities, and anyone else who denies you your dreams’). The grip of these emotions on society is almost absolute, and the rise of neo-fascists is premised upon this fact. Meaning feels emptied, perhaps the result of a society of spectacles that has now run its course.

From a Marxist perspective, culture is not seen as an isolated and timeless aspect of human reality, nor are emotions seen as a world of their own or as being outside of the developments of history. Since human experiences are defined by the conditions of material life, ideas of fate will linger on as long as poverty is a feature of human life. If poverty is transcended, then fatalism will have a less secure ideological foundation, but it does not automatically get displaced. Cultures are contradictory, bringing together a range of elements in uneven ways out of the social fabric of an unequal society that oscillates between reproducing class hierarchy and resisting elements of social hierarchy. Dominant ideologies suffuse culture through the tentacles of ideological apparatuses like a tidal wave, overwhelming the actual experiences of the working class and the peasantry. It is, after all, through class struggle and through the new social formations created by socialist projects that new cultures will be created – not merely by wishful thinking.

It is important to recall that, in the early years of each of the revolutionary processes – from Russia in 1917 to Cuba in 1959 – cultural efflorescence was saturated with the emotions of joy and possibility, of intense creativity and experimentation. It is this sensibility that offers a window into something other than the ghoulish emotions of greed and hatred.

In the early years after 1959, Cuba convulsed with such surges of creativity and experimentation. Nicolás Guillén (1902–1969), a great revolutionary poet who had been imprisoned during Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, captured the harshness of life and the great desire for the revolutionary process to emancipate the Cuban people from the wretchedness of hunger and social hierarchies. His poem ‘Tengo’ (‘I Have’) from 1964 tells us that the new culture of the revolution was elemental – the feeling that one did not have to bow one’s shoulders before a superior, to say to workers in offices that they too are comrades and not ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, to walk as a Black man into a hotel without being told to stop at the door. His great anti-colonial poem alerts us to culture’s material foundations:

I have, let’s see,
I’ve learned to read,
to count.
I’ve learned to write,
and to think,
and to laugh.
I have, yes, I have
a place to work
and earn
what I have to eat.
I have, let’s see,
I have what I have to have.

At the close of his foreword to the dossier, Abel Prieto writes, ‘we must turn the meaning of anti-colonial into an instinct’. Reflect on that for a moment: anti-colonialism is not just the ending of formal colonial rule, but a deeper process, one that must become ingrained at the instinctual level so that we can build the capacity to solve our basic needs (such as transcending hunger and illiteracy, for instance) and build our alertness to the need for cultures that emancipate us and do not bind us to the flashy world of unaffordable commodities.

Source: The Tri Continental.Org

The CIA is not your friend

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“Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a nation have it absolutely under their authority; and as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace.” ― Baruch Spinoza

It hasn’t been a month since President Biden mounted the steps of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, declaring it his duty to ensure each of us understands the central faction of his political opposition are extremists that “threaten the very foundations of our Republic.” Flanked by the uniformed icons of his military and standing atop a Leni Riefenstahl stage, the leader clenched his fists to illustrate seizing the future from the forces of “fear, division, and darkness.” The words falling from the teleprompter ran rich with the language of violence, a “dagger at the throat” emerging from the “shadow of lies.”

“What’s happening in our country,” the President said, “is not normal.”

Is he wrong to think that? The question the speech intended to raise—the one lost in the unintentionally villainous pageantry—is whether and how we are to continue as a democracy and a nation of laws. For all the Twitter arguments over Biden’s propositions, there has been little consideration of his premises.

Democracy and the rule of law have been so frequently invoked as a part of the American political brand that we simply take it for granted that we enjoy both.

Are we right to think that?

Our glittering nation of laws observes this year two birthdays: the 70th anniversary of the National Security Agency, on which my thoughts have been recorded, and the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA was founded in the wake of the 1947 National Security Act. The Act foresaw no need for the Courts and Congress to oversee a simple information-aggregation facility, and therefore subordinated it exclusively to the President, through the National Security Council he controls.

Within a year, the young agency had already slipped the leash of its intended role of intelligence collection and analysis to establish a covert operations division. Within a decade, the CIA was directing the coverage of American news organizations, overthrowing democratically elected governments (at times merely to benefit a favored corporation), establishing propaganda outfits to manipulate public sentiment, launching a long-running series of mind-control experiments on unwitting human subjects (purportedly contributing to the creation of the Unabomber), and—gaspinterfering with foreign elections. From there, it was a short hop to wiretapping journalists and compiling files on Americans who opposed its wars.

In 1963, no less than former President Harry Truman confessed that the very agency he personally signed into law had transformed into something altogether different than he intended, writing:

“For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble…”

Many today comfort themselves by imagining that the Agency has been reformed, and that such abuses are relics of the distant past, but what few reforms our democracy has won have been watered-down or compromised. The limited “Intelligence Oversight” role that was eventually conceded to Congress in order to placate the public has never been taken seriously by either the committee’s majority—which prefers cheerleading over investigating—or by the Agency itself, which continues to conceal politically-sensitive operations from the very group most likely to defend them.

“Congress should have been told,” said [Senator] Dianne Feinstein. “We should have been briefed before the commencement of this kind of sensitive program. Director Panetta… was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to Congress.”

How can we judge the ultimate effectiveness of oversight and reforms? Well, the CIA plotted to assassinate my friend, American whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, in 1972, yet nearly fifty years of “reforms” did little to inhibit them from recently sketching out another political murder targeting Julian Assange. Putting that in perspective, you probably own shoes older than the CIA’s most recent plot to murder a dissident… or rather the most recent plot that we know of.

If you believe the Assange case to be a historical anomaly, some aberration unique to Trump White House, recall that the CIA’s killings have continued in series across administrations. Obama ordered the killing of an American far from any battlefield, and killed his 16 year-old American son a few weeks later, but the man’s American daughter was still alive by the time Obama left.

Within a month of entering the White House, Trump killed her.

She was 8 years old.

It goes beyond assassinations. Within recent memory, the CIA captured Gul Rahman, who we know was not Al-Qaeda, but it seems did save the life of Afghanistan’s future (pro-US) President. Rahman was placed in what the Agency described as a “dungeon” and tortured until he died.

They stripped him naked, save a diaper he couldn’t change, in a cold so wicked that his guards, in their warm clothes, ran heaters for themselves. In absolute darkness, they bolted his hands and feet to a single point on the floor with a very short chain so that it was impossible to stand or lie down – a practice called “short shackling” – and after he died, claimed that it was for his own safety. They admit to beating him, even describing the “forceful punches.” They describe the blood that ran from his nose and mouth as he died.

Just pages later, in their formal conclusion, declare that there was no evidence of beating. There was no evidence torture. The CIA ascribes responsibility for his death to hypothermia, which they blamed on him for the crime of refusing, on his final night, a meal from the men that killed him.

In the aftermath, the Agency concealed the death of Gul Rahman from his family. To this day, they refuse to reveal what happened to his remains, denying those who survive him a burial, or even some locus of mourning.

Ten years after the torture program investigated, exposed, and ended, no one was charged for their role in these crimes. The man responsible for Rahman’s death was recommended for a $2,500 card award — for “consistently superior work”.

A different torturer was elevated to the Director’s seat.

This summer, in a speech marking the occasion of the CIA’s 75th birthday, President Biden struck a quite different note than he did in Philadelphia, reciting what the CIA instructs all presidents: that the soul of the institution really lies in speaking truth to power.

“We turn to you with the big questions,” Biden said, “the hardest questions. And we count on you to give your best, unvarnished assessment of where we are.  And I emphasize “‘unvarnished.’”

But this itself is a variety of varnishing — a whitewash.

For what reason do we aspire to maintain — or achieve — a nation of laws, if not to establish justice?

Let us say we have a democracy, shining and pure. The people, or in our case some subset of people, institute reasonable laws to which government and citizen alike must answer. The sense of justice that arises within such a society is not produced as a result of the mere presence of law, which can be tyrannical and capricious, or even elections, which face their own troubles, but is rather derived from the reason and fairness of the system that results.

What would happen if we were to insert into this beautiful nation of laws an extralegal entity that is not directed by the people, but a person: the President? Have we protected the nation’s security, or have we placed it at risk?

This is the unvarnished truth: the establishment of an institution charged with breaking the law within a nation of laws has mortally wounded its founding precept. 

From the year it was established, Presidents and their cadres have regularly directed the CIA to go beyond the law for reasons that cannot be justified, and therefore must be concealed — classified. The primary result of the classification system is not an increase in national security, but a decrease in transparency. Without meaningful transparency, there is no accountability, and without accountability, there is no learning.

The consequences have been deadly, for both Americans and our victims. When the CIA armed the Mujaheddin to wage war on Soviet Afghanistan, we created al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. Ten years later, the CIA is arming, according to then-Vice President Joe Biden, “al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” After the CIA runs a disinformation operation to make life hard for the Soviet Union by fueling a little proxy war, the war rages for twenty-six years — far beyond the Union’s collapse.

Do you believe that the CIA today — a CIA free from all consequence and accountability — is uninvolved in similar activities? Can you find no presence of their fingerprints in the events of the world, as described in the headlines, that provide cause for concern? Yet it is those who question the wisdom of placing a paramilitary organization beyond the reach of our courts that are dismissed as “naive.”

For 75 years, the American people have been unable to bend the CIA to fit the law, and so the law has been bent to fit the CIA. As Biden stood on the crimson stage, at the site where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and adopted, his words rang out like the cry of a cracked-to-hell Liberty Bell: “What’s happening in our country is not normal.”

If only that were true. 

Mendaciousness of Monarchy

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No institution helps obscure the crimes of empire and buttress class rule and white supremacy as effectively as the British monarchy.

The fawning adulation of Queen Elizabeth in the United States, which fought a revolution to get rid of the monarchy, and in Great Britain, is in direct proportion to the fear gripping a discredited, incompetent and corrupt global ruling elite.

The global oligarchs are not sure the next generation of royal sock puppets – mediocrities that include a pedophile prince and his brother, a cranky and eccentric king who accepted suitcases and bags stuffed with $3.2 million in cash from the former prime minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, and who has millions stashed in offshore accounts – are up to the job. Let’s hope they are right.

“Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories,” Patrick Freyne wrote last year in The Irish Times. “More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.”

Monarchy obscures the crimes of empire and wraps them in nostalgia. It exalts white supremacy and racial hierarchy. It justifies class rule. It buttresses an economic and social system that callously discards and often consigns to death those considered the lesser breeds, most of whom are people of color. The queen’s husband Prince Phillip, who died in 2021, was notorious for making racist and sexist remarks, politely explained away in the British press as “gaffes.” He described Beijing, for example, as “ghastly” during a 1986 visit and told British students: “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.

Tip of Iceberg of Crimes Records

The cries of the millions of victims of empire; the thousands killedtortured, raped and imprisoned during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya; the 13 Irish civilians gunned down in “Bloody Sunday;” the more than 4,100 First Nations children who died or went missing in Canada’s residential schools, government-sponsored institutions established to “assimilate” indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture, and the hundreds of thousands killed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan are drowned out by cheers for royal processions and the sacral aura an obsequious press weaves around the aristocracy. The coverage of the queen’s death is so mind-numbingly vapid — the BBC sent out a news alert on Saturday when Prince Harry and Prince William, accompanied by their wives, surveyed the floral tributes to their grandmother displayed outside Windsor Castle — that the press might as well turn over the coverage to the mythmakers and publicists employed by the royal family.

The royals are oligarchs. They are guardians of their class. The world’s largest landowners include King Mohammed VI of Morocco with 176 million acres, the HolyRoman Catholic Church with 177 million acres, the heirs of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with 531 million acres and now, King Charles III with 6.6 billion acres of land. British monarchs are worth almost $28 billion. The British public will provide a $33 million subsidy to the Royal Family over the next two years, although the average household in the U.K. saw its income fall for the longest period since records began in 1955 and 227,000 households experience homelessness in Britain. 

Royals, to the ruling class, are worth the expense. They are effective tools of subjugation. British postal and rail workers canceled planned strikes over pay and working conditions after the queen’s death. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) postponed its congress. Labour Party members poured out heartfelt tributes. Even Extinction Rebellion, which should know better, indefinitely canceled its planned “Festival of Resistance.” The BBC’s Clive Myrie dismissed Britain’s energy crisis — caused by the war in Ukraine — that has thrown millions of people into severe financial distress as “insignificant” compared with concerns over the queen’s health. The climate emergency, pandemic, the deadly folly of the U.S. and NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine, soaring inflation, the rise of neo-fascist movements and deepening social inequality will be ignored as the press spews florid encomiums to class rule. There will be 10 days of official mourning.

In 1953, Her Majesty’s Government sent three warships, along with 700 troops, to its colony British Guiana, suspended the constitution and overthrew the democratically elected government of Cheddi Jagan. Her Majesty’s Government helped to build and long supported the apartheid government in South Africa. Her Majesty’s Government savagely crushed the Mau Mau independence movement in Kenya from 1952 to 1960, herding 1.5 million Kenyans into concentration camps where many were tortured. British soldiers castrated suspected rebels and sympathizers, often with pliers, and raped girls and women. By the time India won independence in 1947 after two centuries of British colonialism, Her Majesty’s Government had looted $45 trillion from the country and violently crushed a series of uprisings, including the First War of Independence in 1857. Her Majesty’s Government carried out a dirty war to break the Greek Cypriot War of Independence from 1955 to 1959 and later in Yemen from 1962 to 1969. Torture, extrajudicial assassinations, public hangings and mass executions by the British were routine. Following a protracted lawsuit, the British government agreed to pay nearly £20 million in damages to over 5,000 victims of British abuse during war in Kenya, and in 2019 another payout was made to survivors of torture from the conflict in Cyprus. The British state attempts to obstruct lawsuits stemming from its colonial history. Its settlements are a tiny fraction of the compensation paid to British slave owners in 1835, once it — at least formally — abolished slavery. 

During her 70-year reign, the queen never offered an apology or called for reparations.

The point of social hierarchy and aristocracy is to sustain a class system that makes the rest of us feel inferior. Those at the top of the social hierarchy hand out tokens for loyal service, including the Order of the British Empire (OBE). The monarchy is the bedrock of hereditary rule and inherited wealth. This caste system filters down from the Nazi-loving House of Windsor to the organs of state security and the military. It regiments society and keeps people, especially the poor and the working class, in their “proper” place.

A Balance Sheet of 70-year Reign

The British ruling class clings to the mystique of royalty and fading cultural icons as James Bond, the Beatles and the BBC, along with television shows such as “Downton Abbey” — where in one episode the aristocrats and servants are convulsed in fevered anticipation when King George V and Queen Mary schedule a visit — to project a global presence. Winston Churchill’s bust remains on loan to the White House. These myth machines sustain Great Britain’s “special” relationship with the United States. Watch the satirical film In the Loop to get a sense of what this “special” relationship looks like on the inside. 

It was not until the 1960s that “coloured immigrants or foreigners” were permitted to work in clerical roles in the royal household, although they had been hired as domestic servants. The royal household and its heads are legally exempt from laws that prevent race and sex discrimination, what Jonathan Cook calls “an apartheid system benefitting the Royal Family alone.” Meghan Markle, who is of mixed race and who contemplated suicide during her time as a working royal, said that an unnamed royal expressed concern about the skin color of her unborn son.

I got a taste of this suffocating snobbery in 2014 when I participated in an Oxford Union debate asking whether Edward Snowden was a hero or a traitor. I went a day early to be prepped for the debate by Julian Assange, then seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy and currently in His Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh. At a lugubrious black-tie dinner preceding the event, I sat next to a former MP who asked me two questions I had never been asked before in succession. “When did your family come to America?” he said, followed by “What schools did you attend?” My ancestors, on both sides of my family, arrived from England in the 1630s. My graduate degree is from Harvard. If I had failed to meet his litmus test, he would have acted as if I did not exist. 

Those who took part in the debate – my side arguing that Snowdon was a hero narrowly won – signed a leather-bound guest book. Taking the pen, I scrawled in large letters that filled an entire page: “Never Forget that your greatest political philosopher, Thomas Paine, never went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

Paine, the author of the most widely read political essays of the 18th century, Rights of ManThe Age of Reason and Common Sense, blasted the monarchy as a con. “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself as King of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original…The plain truth is that the antiquity of the English monarchy will not bear looking into,” he wrote of William the Conqueror. He ridiculed hereditary rule. “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” He went on: “One of the strangest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is that nature disproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving  mankind an ass for a lion.” He called the monarch “the royal brute of England.”

Royalists Rallied Against Thomas Piane

When the British ruling class tried to arrest Paine, he fled to France where he was one of two foreigners elected to serve as a delegate in the National Convention set up after the French Revolution. He denounced the calls to execute Louis XVI. “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression,” Paine said. “For if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Unchecked legislatures, he warned, could be as despotic as unchecked monarchs. When he returned to America from France, he condemned slavery and the wealth and privilege accumulated by the new ruling class, including George Washington, who had become the richest man in the country. Even though Paine had done more than any single figure to rouse the country to overthrow the British monarchy, he was turned into a pariah, especially by the press, and forgotten. He had served his usefulness. Six mourners attended his funeral, two of whom were Black.

You can watch my talk with Cornel West and Richard Wolff on Thomas Paine here.

There is a pathetic yearning among many in the U.S. and Britain to be linked in some tangential way to royalty. White British friends often have stories about ancestors that tie them to some obscure aristocrat. Donald Trump, who fashioned his own heraldic coat of arms, was obsessed with obtaining a state visit with the queen. This desire to be part of the club, or validated by the club, is a potent force the ruling class has no intention of giving up, even if hapless King Charles III, who along with his family treated his first wife Diana with contempt, makes a mess of it.

Views expressed are personal

Was Gorbachev a failure?

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“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” (William Shakespeare)

Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing away on 30th August has compelled observers around the world to assess his place in history. For three decades, he has cut a tragic figure, ignored and vilified, mocked and sneered at by his own people and country. The reality is far more complex, and can be appreciated only if one has an understanding of the state of the Soviet Union when Gorbachev assumed power in March 1985.

I was privileged to be a witness, with a ringside view, to the Gorbachev era – first as Political Counsellor in the Indian Embassy in Moscow from 1984 to 1988, and then as the Head of the Soviet and East European Department in the Ministry of External Affairs in India from 1988 to 1991. During this time, I had occasion to meet him, study him, analyze his policies, including as the interpreter from the Indian side for the talks that Gorbachev held with Indian leaders during his visit to India in 1986.

Returning to Moscow in July 1984, exactly nine years after I’d left the country at the end of my first posting to the Soviet Union from 1973 to 1975, I found that the country had not changed at all in the intervening period, except that the ailing and geriatric Leonid Brezhnev had passed away in 1982, as had his successor Yuri Andropov in 1984. Konstantin Chernenko was the new leader, but he was also on his last legs. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, Chernenko visited the Indian Embassy to sign the condolence book. At the request of the Soviet side, the book was kept in the entrance at the ground floor of the Indian Ambassador’s residence so that Chernenko would not have to climb the steps to the reception room on the first floor. Even then, Chernenko had to be physically hauled up the two small steps at the threshold of the Ambassador’s residence!

To me, that symbolized the state of the Soviet Union in 1985, when Chernenko died and Gorbachev took over. The atmosphere was one of stagnation and gloom, resignation and indifference. Both society and politics had ossified. Survival in the Soviet Union was practically a full-time job, even for diplomats who had privileged access to hard currency stores. In the local markets, fresh fruits and vegetables and decent quality meat was a rarity (I once had to barter a bottle of Scotch whisky for a leg of lamb!). Rumours of availability of basmati rice, fresh bananas or watermelons in local markets were enough to prompt people to set aside their work and rush to grab them before they vanished. Although I never had such a first-hand experience, veteran diplomats who had served in Moscow in the sixties said that it was considered acceptable behaviour for guests attending National Day celebrations organized by Embassies to pocket oranges and apples from the buffet table, since that was the only way to get them! The best memories that Soviet officials travelling to India on official trips came back with were of enjoying fresh tomatoes and cucumbers! For visitors from India, especially if they were vegetarian, a meal at an Indian home was like dining in a Michelin star restaurant where they could actually eat fresh vegetables that used to be transported for Embassy personnel once a month at subsidized rates by Air India flights.

You might have to spend a whole day wandering across town looking for a can opener, and in the process come across the strange sight of people walking with a garland of toilet paper rolls that they had managed to buy – not just for themselves, but for family and friends too. Russians always had a sturdy string bag in their overcoat pockets just in case they came across something worthwhile to buy. On seeing a queue, people instinctively joined it since it was assumed that it had to be for something worthwhile; securing a place in the queue was more urgent than finding out what was on sale! For an inexperienced foreigner, trying to buy anything in a grocery store was a bewildering exercise, what with different queues for different products, and a complex system of ensuring that one spent as little time as possible in the shop. There were queues to first check what was available, do a quick mental calculation and join another queue to pay the bill, then back to the original queues to pick up stuff, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for which queue might be moving faster, and then securing one’s place in different queues by marking one’s place with the person in front and behind! Workers in state and collective farms could not keep anything for their own consumption; everything had to be sent to a regional collection point, to which farmers had to drive in their vehicles or buses to visit towns or villages to buy milk, meat and eggs produced in their farms!

Foreigners were corralled in special buildings, with KGB guards controlling entry and exit. In all hotels, a floor lady monitored the activities of guests and visitors. All local domestic help, and any kind of services (like travel, hotel bookings, home repairs, even tickets to the Bolshoi Theatre) were channelized through a special agency staffed and controlled by the KGB. Most of the Soviet Union beyond a 25-kilometre radius from the centre of Moscow was closed to foreigners, and prior permission was required to visit any of a handful of open cities. Contacts with locals were actively discouraged.

As for the locals themselves, they were shut off from the outside world. Travel to the West was a dream, and only the privileged elite could visit friendly socialist countries. News and information, especially from abroad, was strictly censored, and dissidents were either sent into exile in Siberia or had taken refuge abroad. There was little creativity in the arts and literature. Factories turned out shoddy goods, which is why wary consumers always took care to check the date when an item had been manufactured, since it was a common belief that goods produced towards the end of a month were inferior quality products that were churned out in a hurry to meet the monthly production targets. Not that there was any reliability about statistics – as was later admitted, these were all cooked up. For most people, life meandered on aimlessly. Corruption, absenteeism and alcoholism were rife. True, no one was starving or homeless, but life was stuck in a deep rut with little hope or prospect of any change for the better. The Soviet Union continued to be ruled by an oligarchy of old men and an entrenched self-serving and self-perpetuating nomenklatura (bureaucracy). The three decades of Stalin’s rule had deadened Soviet society and polity, and deeply affected the psyche of the people. So secretive and tightly controlled was the system that the outside world only had an inkling of how hollow and brittle the system had become.

The system was crying out for a radical change – in fact, it had been doing so for the previous three decades after the death of Stalin, and the problems had only aggravated with time. Khrushchev did try to eradicate Stalinism. His “secret” speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 was seen as a landmark event, but Khrushchev ultimately failed to bring about any change. Kosygin (in the second half of the sixties) and Andropov (during his brief tenure between 1982 and 1984) also tried to institute economic reforms, again to no avail. On Chernenko’s death, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the CC of the CPSU by a very narrow margin. As a young man influenced by the “thaw” created by Khrushchev in the mid fifties, and as a protégé of Andropov, Gorbachev clearly had the conviction and the determination to reform the Soviet Union, as well as a sound assessment of the reasons for the failure of earlier reform efforts. Now, with a mandate and opportunity to change things, he was imbued with a sense of mission. There was no time to lose. As he put it, “If not now, when? If not we, who?”

Subsequent pillorying of Gorbachev as being politically naïve does not provide a satisfactory answer to the question of how he managed to climb up to the very top of the greasy pole of Soviet politics at such a young age. It also ignores his ruthless sidelining of opponents and his steady accumulation of power in his early years in office. Both by background and conviction, Gorbachev was cut from a different mould than his predecessors. Unlike them, he was well educated, that too at the prestigious and premier Moscow State University. In addition, in Raisa he had a spouse who was smart, educated and intellectually aware. Unlike the spouses of his predecessors and much to the annoyance of traditionalists both in the party and society, she was not content to live life in anonymity and is thought to have played an important role in shaping his policies.

From his very first days in office, Gorbachev showed a decisive and vigorous style of leadership, oozing determination and confidence, impatience and urgency. He was open and accessible, mingled freely with ordinary citizens in the streets, encouraged popular criticism, and eschewed any personality cult. When one met him in person, he radiated warmth and sincerity. His initial goal was to reform socialism, not destroy it; to make the Party a more effective instrument of governance, and not sideline it. Thus his slogan in the early days was merely “uskorenie” or acceleration. He called for “new thinking” for an interdependent world in the nuclear age, dreamt of the Soviet Union as part of a “common European home,” brought about a thaw in relations with China, withdrew troops from Afghanistan, gave a new dynamism to relations with India, worked for bold and courageous cuts in nuclear and conventional weapons and, in the Delhi Declaration signed with India in November 1986, breathtakingly endorsed the idea of a nuclear weapons free world. The tight grip over the East European countries was loosened, and support to Marxist regimes around the world on ideological grounds was given up. Although discerning diplomats and journalists could see the far-reaching logical and ultimate consequences of Gorbachev’s foreign policy pronouncements, no one really expected, at least in the early years of Gorbachev, that Soviet troops would be actually removed from the Warsaw Pact countries.

Was Gorbachev merely a dreamer, an idealist imbued with the ideas of truth, morality and humanism? As subsequent events showed, he did have some of these qualities, when he refused to send troops to quell uprisings in different parts of the Soviet Union and in the East European satellite states. But Gorbachev was also a realist. His outreach to the West was a compulsion, born out of the recognition that, saddled with a stagnant economy, the Soviet Union did not have the wherewithal to compete with the West, with which he foresaw a period of intense competition, aggravated by US President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). As a satiated territorial power, Gorbachev needed peace with the West, and did not want to fritter away energy and resources to export of revolution. To many of us living in the Soviet Union at that time, it was evident as early as in 1985 that Gorbachev’s coming into power would be a turning point in the history of the Soviet Union. Even cynical and skeptical observers were compelled to revisit old stereotypes and assumptions about the Soviet Union.

After having got a mandate from the 27th Congress of the CPSU in 1986, and having consolidated his political authority in the Politburo, Gorbachev shifted gears from merely “uskorenie” or acceleration to a wider “perestroika” or comprehensive restructuring of all aspects of political, economic, social and intellectual life. In order to overcome the entrenched vested interests of the party elite who were bent on sabotaging Gorbachev’s policies, Gorbachev tried to enthuse ordinary people to support his perestroika. He exhorted people to believe and feel that they were the ‘owners’ of the country. His was a nutcracker approach: cleanse the top ranks of the leadership, and then use the people to exert pressure on the party and bureaucracy from below. In the early months, there was indeed considerable enthusiasm and optimism among at least a section of the elite in the cities. The cultural renaissance, criticism of past leaders’ policies, removal of ‘blank spots’ in history, release of dissidents, reopening and restoration of churches and monasteries, easier travel abroad, emigration of Jews, access to foreign broadcasts, articles in the press exposing misdemeanours of officials – all this released considerable pent-up frustration. 1986 and 1987 were years of heady optimism, mingled with anxious hope that this was not just a dream.

Gorbachev’s strategy didn’t quite pan out the way he had intended. None of this ferment percolated down to the small towns and villages. The bulk of the people were passive and could not get out of their ingrained habit of receiving orders from above. They were uneasy at having responsibility thrust upon them, and their decades-long bitter experience of life in a Stalinist environment prompted them to be naturally cautious and circumspect, even fearful. The bureaucracy was sullen and hostile, at best fence sitters. In any case, they did not know how to work in a more open and liberal environment. One instance that typifies this problem comes to mind. Thanks to Ambassador TN Kaul’s initiative, an agreement was reached to open an Indian restaurant as a joint venture in Moscow. The opening of a foreign restaurant in Moscow was a pioneering and path-breaking development. But the nitty-gritty of opening was infuriatingly frustrating. The Russian General Manager and his Indian deputy took a long time to arrive at a compromise on whether the doors of the restaurant should be kept open or closed. The Indians wanted open doors, whereas the Soviets (in keeping with the prevalent practice that doors to restaurants were kept shut and it usually required a bribe of a rouble or two to persuade the doorman to let in customers!) wanted the doors to be kept shut and a doorman appointed to regulate access to the restaurant. The compromise reached was that the doors would be kept open, but there would be a doorman to keep an eye on who was coming in. A couple of days after the opening of the restaurant, a diner hailed the Indian Deputy Manager with a complaint that his soup was cold. As he went to the kitchen to investigate, he found that there was a babushka(old lady), seated at the entrance to the dining room from the kitchen, weighing the portions of soup and other food items before they were sent to the dining room. Aghast, the Deputy Manager asked why this was being done. The babushka said that she was simply following rules: the prescribed quantity of each soup serving was 300 ml. and she was just making sure that no one got more or less soup! It took considerable effort by the Deputy Manager to persuade the kitchen staff and the supervising babushka that two ladles of hot soup were preferable to an exact 300 ml. of cold soup!

By 1988, perestroika had begun to sputter, and within a year the situation had become critical. There was a flux in all spheres of life. Old systems had been dismantled but new ones hadn’t been set up. The most worrying aspect was the state of the economy because, far from bringing a change for the better, perestroika had worsened the day-to-day life of people. Ethnic and separatist problems began to surface. Gorbachev’s popularity and credibility sharply declined. He was widely blamed and intensely hated for crating the mess in which the country found itself. As it was impossible to turn back the clock, Gorbachev decided to press ahead even harder with radical changes. He got himself elected as President, though not through direct elections. While that gave him more legal powers, it did not give him greater political legitimacy. There were now many independent centers of power – the party, the republics, the army, the KGB, the miners, workers and farmers. Ethnic and regional nationalism, as well as separatism, surfaced menacingly throughout the country.

Soon, the Soviet Union was like a runaway train, hurtling towards a crash. Gorbachev had opened too many fronts simultaneously, and was unable to control the course of events. The Communist Party was made to give up its leading role, but it was forgotten that it was not just a political organization but also the administrative organ of the State that held it together. The old system had been dismantled, but there wasn’t a new one to replace it. Laws to regulate property rights were not in place. No one in authority had any experience in managing a market economy. Nor did ordinary people understand what it meant. By the second half of 1990, as republics, regions, towns and districts declared their “sovereignty” there were serious widespread doubts in the minds of observers and even Gorbachev himself whether the Soviet Union could survive. A referendum in March followed by an agreement reached in April 1991 between nine of the fifteen Republics to have a new treaty that would restructure the Soviet Union as a loose federation or confederation of sovereign states with a weak Centre was a last-ditch effort to avert a looming train wreck. However, the August 1991 failed putsch against Gorbachev, and Yeltsin’s grab for power torpedoed this possibility. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev stepped down as President of the Soviet Union. The Gorbachev era was over.

Was Gorbachev a failure? In his later years in power, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and even a few years later when he received less than one percent popular support for a failed Presidential bid, he was scorned and hated by the people at large. It was not just because the Soviet Union had been broken up, and day-to-day survival had become an ordeal for ordinary people. The sense of despondency and despair deepened during the tumultuous decade of the 1990. Gorbachev slid into irrelevant anonymity as a drunken and dysfunctional Yeltsin did nothing to set things right, the West and local oligarchs looted Russia; and NATO steadily spread eastwards. Yet it is noteworthy that he was given, albeit grudgingly, a modicum of respect by the establishment when he passed away, and many ordinary citizens, as well as former Russian President Medvedev and Hungarian Prime Minister Oban, attended his funeral.

Gorbachev was one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century. Like him or hate him, he cannot be forgotten or ignored. There is wide consensual acknowledgment of his enormous global contributions – a peaceful end to the Cold War, reduced risk of use of nuclear weapons, freedom to Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke and the reunification of Germany without bloodshed. Just for that, he deserves a grateful salute. Outside Europe, Gorbachev’s policies have shaped, for the better, the development path that China and India have taken over the last three decades. The Chinese leaders drew their lessons from Gorbachev’s failed perestroika and took a reform path that was intended to avoid the pitfalls of Gorbachev’s strategy. India was forced to open up its economy and diversify its foreign relations, which is why India today is a more self-confident country with global influence. Ideological regimes across the world that had been propped up by the erstwhile Soviet Union have collapsed. As far as his ideology goes, Gorbachev continued to believe in socialism, but a “humane socialism.” Even if the socialist and communist experiments around the world have left much to be desired, the idea of socialism remains firmly entrenched among hundreds of millions around the globe, especially as it is glaringly evident that capitalism has been unable to ensure either sustainable or inclusive growth, has caused irreversible damage to the environment, and accelerated climate change. Gorbachev’s call for “new thinking” remains painfully relevant.

For Russians, the touchstone of Gorbachev’s legacy is the transformation he has brought about in his homeland. Was he responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union? He certainly set in motion policies and processes that led to the breakup, but the Soviet Union could have survived as a confederation were it not for the selfish ambitions of the demagogic Yeltsin who stoked Russian chauvinism, and the inherently artificial and semi-colonial structure of the former Soviet Union. It is noteworthy that the Central Asian republics, heavily dependent on Russia, did not want the breakup of the Soviet Union; it was Russia that spurned them in the mistaken belief that they would become a burden on Russia. Gorbachev also made mistakes – there was too much breast-beating and self-flagellation about the crimes of Stalin and other preceding Soviet leaders. He did not realize that sovereign states have an obligation to engender a positive national narrative, and do not admit their mistakes. He was naïve in trusting the West, and failed to secure ironclad guarantees about the future direction of a united Germany and the Soviet Union’s erstwhile satellite states in East Europe. It was humiliating for a proud and patriotic people to stomach the betrayal of their toil and sacrifices to build up their country and the squandering of the gains of a hard-fought victory over Nazi Germany.

Was perestroika a failure? Certainly, from an economic perspective, perestroika failed. Should it have been even tried? There was a strong feeling among the leadership, though not a complete consensus, that there was an urgent need to change the way the Soviet Union was functioning; otherwise, Gorbachev would not have been elected as the General Secretary. He could well have taken a safe line and done nothing, but the danger was that the Soviet Union was likely to have become a giant, and more dangerous, version of North Korea. Could Gorbachev have gone about perestroika differently? Could he not have followed the Chinese reform strategy? Not really – for many reasons. Apart from the fact that the Chinese had the benefit of learning from Gorbachev’s mistakes, Russia was saddled with far more baggage than China. While China had the advantage of having a tradition of entrepreneurship that had survived the three decades of Mao’s rule, Russia had been catapulted from a feudal society to a completely new and untested form of governance, communism, whose prolonged life over seven decades of Stalinist rule had snuffed out all spirit or knowledge of entrepreneurship. Unlike Russia, China also benefited from having Hong Kong as a crutch and a teacher, as well as a large and prosperous Chinese diaspora. Since earlier incremental reform efforts had got bogged down and ended in failure, Gorbachev felt that a more radical, even if riskier, approach was called for. In pursuing this line, the deeper he dug, more and more unanticipated problems surfaced, and soon Gorbachev found that he had opened a can of worms.

As I see it, Gorbachev’s biggest and lasting achievement is the eradication of the cancer of Stalinism in Russia. He definitively and irreversibly destroyed the old centralized, inefficient and corrupt authoritarian system of governance based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. Equally importantly, he radically transformed the psyche and liberated the minds of his people. His domestic critics would do well to reflect on the irony that they got the right and courage to speak out only thanks to Gorbachev! By bringing down a crumbling, hollowed out edifice, Gorbachev created the precondition for a rejuvenated Russia. It is unrealistic to expect that he should also have managed to clear the rubble and erect a new structure. Those who destroy are not destined to create as well; that is a task left for new leaders and generations with different skills. To those who may regard this as an unduly apologetic and charitable perspective, it is worth pointing out that the suffering and trauma that millions of Indians experienced as a result of the Partition of India does not take away from the achievement of Independence from British rule. Many might even regard the Partition, perhaps justifiably, as a blessing in disguise.

Although three decades have passed since the end of the Gorbachev era, it is still too early to pass a definitive judgment on Gorbachev. As long as Putin, the handpicked successor of Gorbachev’s arch-rival Yeltsin, remains in power, it would be difficult for the Russian establishment to make or even permit an objective assessment of Gorbachev. In the decades to come, history is likely to judge Gorbachev more kindly. Russia is once again at a turning point. Russia’s break with the West is likely to be a definitive one for at least a generation or two. Russia appears to have finally given up its centuries-old effort to gain acceptance as a “European” country, and is now focussing on forging an independent Eurasian identity. It will have to rely more on its indigenous talent and resources and build cooperative relations with countries that constitute the Rest rather than the West. The conflict in Ukraine is for Russia an existential battle for survival. It is a war that Russia cannot afford to lose. Its outcome will shape the future of both Russia and the West. Should Russia be confronted with the admittedly remote possibility of losing, then, sadly, the use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. Putin’s Russia will not go down without taking the West down with it. On the other hand, if Russia were to prevail, it would be only because, thanks to the flywheel that Gorbachev set in motion, Russia is a stronger, more confident nation than the old Soviet Union could ever have become. Either way, Gorbachev would be smiling in his grave, whether ruefully or happily!

Views expressed are personal

What Sri Lanka Can Learn From Thatcher’s Legacy

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The following article, describing the economic situation of post-war United Kingdom (UK), extracts information from “The Power of Capitalism” by Rainer Zitelmann. The reader is encouraged to refer to this book for more details and references.

After the War

In 1945 the Labour Party won the general elections, and prime minister Clement Atlee began implementing democratic socialism. About a fifth of the UK economy, comprising banks, civil aviation, mining, telecommunications, railways, shipping canals, road freight transport, power and gas, manufacturing industries including iron and steel, was nationalised.

When the Conservative Party (Tories) returned to power in 1951 Winston Churchill retained the majority of the socialist policies. During the 50s and 60s the UK enjoyed an improved standard of living by having low unemployment and increased consumption. But it still lagged behind other European countries such as West Germany, where the number of telephones, refrigerators, TV sets and washing machines were higher per 100 residents. The gap continued to widen because productivity was too low.

The Impact of Unions and Strikes

During the 70s the UK’s weakness became obvious. The country was disabled with frequent strikes. The German magazine Der Spiegel in 1974 reported:

“A row about wages and nationalised collieries turned into a showdown between the government and unions, which has plunged the country into ‘a new dark age’. Over a million people are already unemployed, over two million only in part-time employment, with a further ten million plus – almost half of the British workforce – likely to suffer the same fate in the next few weeks… the imperial avenues (of London) more sparsely lit than the streets in the urban slums of the UK’s former colonies. Candles flicker in the offices of the financial district, while hurricane lamps provide emergency lighting in department stores, and warehouses are illuminated by the headlights of lorries. Only one in four radiators is turned on inside the prime minister’s residence at 10, Downing Street, and signs at underground stations advise passengers to take the stairs as escalators have been taken out of service to save power”.

The trade unions were very powerful. The shop stewards (the union’s spokesmen within companies) were able to call a strike and break agreements whenever they wanted to. Neither the unions nor their officials could be held accountable for damages.

For some union officials their own interest and envy of co-workers mattered more. The rivalry between two steelworkers’ unions delayed the testing of new manufacturing equipment for months. The dockworkers’ union protested against the construction of state-of-the-art container terminals, because loading was to be done by a different sector. England’s most advanced high-speed train stood idle for half a year because railroad workers’ union insisted on two drivers, although there was only room enough for one in the operator’s cabin. During the 70s, 466 unions averaged 2000 strikes and 13 million working day losses per year.

Conditions escalated during the winter of 1978, when the country was paralysed by more strikes leading to the transport system breaking down and rotting garbage piling up on pavements.

Thatcher Begins Reforms

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. She had studied the writings of the classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek, and being impressed by his criticisms of welfare state socialism she put his free-market ideas into practice. She faced massive resistance from unions as well as many socialists in her own Tory government.

Thatcher’s pro-market reforms focused initially on inflation. She resisted price controls and abolished the Price Commission. This led to a sharp rise in unemployment from 1.3 to 3 million between 1979 and 83. Thatcher said “The paradox which neither the British trade unions nor the socialists were prepared to accept was that an increase of productivity is likely initially, to reduce the number of jobs before creating the wealth that sustains new ones”. Inflation fell in the short term, accompanied by a significant improvement in productivity.

Thatcher cut marginal tax rates from 33% to 25% in the lowest brackets, and from 83% to 40% in the highest. To balance the budget she was forced to increase VAT from 12.5% to 15%. She reduced bureaucracy by expediting planning permissions and simplifying or abolishing planning controls.

Restricting Unions

Thatcher implemented laws restricting unions. Arthur Scargill, a prominent union leader, led miners into a large-scale strike against planned pit closures and privatisations, despite three in four pits operating at a loss and receiving 1.3 billion pounds of taxpayer money.

Many miners didn’t the support the strike, and violence was used to prevent them from working. Attacks on police by striking workers or sympathizers resulted in serious injuries. Families of miners who did not participate were threatened or bullied. A Welsh taxi driver was killed by two miners who dropped a concrete block from a footbridge onto his taxi while he was transporting a strike-breaking miner to work. Thatcher refused to give in, and the unions had to abandon the strike when money ran out. Their defeat had a symbolic impact and broke the power of the unions, who had lost a third of their members and much political influence.

The Impact of Privatisation

Thatcher saw privatisation as “one of the central means of reversing the corrosive and corrupting effects of socialism”. Far from putting the people in control, public ownership simply “amounts to control by politicians and civil servants. But through privatisation – particularly the kind of privatisation which leads to the widest possible share ownership by members of the public – the state’s power is reduced and the power of the people enhanced”.

When British Telecom, employing 250,000, was privatised 2 million Britons bought shares in what was then the largest Initial Public Offering (IPO) in history. Around half had never owned shares before. During Thatcher’s premiership, public share ownership rose from 7% to 25%.

Subsequent privatisations included British Airways, British Petroleum (BP), Rolls Royce, Jaguar, shipbuilding companies and several utilities. This resulted in the state losing its dominance in the economy. Local councils sold off much of their housing stock to tenants to create a million new homeowners.

Privatisation caused prices to fall and service quality to improve. New telephone line subscriptions, which previously took months or a bribe to obtain, could now be obtained in just 8 days with the price having dropped 50%.

Deregulating the Finance Industry

Thatcher deregulated the finance sector by abolishing currency and capital controls. In 1986 she liberalized rules on share trading and the stock exchange, and eliminated restrictions on foreign banks. As a result London became the world’s leading financial centre, rivalled only by New York, with thousands of new jobs created by foreign bank branches.

In 1976 sovereign default was imminent and the government was forced to borrow 3.9 billion USD from the IMF. In 1989 this situation had completely turned around and the economy generated a surplus of 1.6%. This was possible due to increased tax revenue from foreign businesses.

Thatcher’s Legacy

Thatcher in her memoirs says there “was still much I would have liked to do”, “Britain under my premiership was the first country to reverse the onward march of socialism”.

The stuffy socialist culture of envy was replaced by a pro-market and pro-business environment where ambition was richly rewarded, leading to sharp increases in the number of private business and self-employment. The number of businesses registered rose from 1.89 to 3 million between 1979 to 89, while self-employment grew from 1.9 to 3.5 million. State-ownership reduced by 60%, 600,000 jobs had passed from the public to private sector, with 3.32 million jobs created between 1983 and 90.

Thatcher was voted into office to liberate the economy from state control. The British honoured her by re-electing her twice. Her premiership lasted 11 years, longer than any other 20th century British politician. Her policies were so successful that, in the following years, Tony Blair’s Labour government broke with party tradition and made no attempt to reverse them.

Conclusion

The Sri Lankan crisis is caused by an excess of government control and an overlarge public sector. Thatcher was faced with a similar situation. Despite public opposition, she resisted currency and capital controls and adopted free markets. Her courage was rewarded with a flourishing British economy.

West Germany and Chile are two other examples of countries that have had problems similar to Sri Lanka. They also adopted free-market policies and have now become first world nations.

Related Articles by the Author

  1. Fixing the Sri Lankan Economy
  2. Crisis in Sri Lanka: Lessons from Germany, Venezuela and Chile

Are these floods in Pakistan an ‘act of God’?

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Calamities are familiar to the people of Pakistan who have struggled through several catastrophic earthquakes, including those in 2005, 2013, and 2015 (to name the most damaging), as well as the horrendous floods of 2010. However, nothing could prepare the fifth most populated country in the world for this summer’s devastating events, which began with high temperatures and political chaos followed by unimaginable flooding.

Cascading frustration with the Pakistani state defines the public mood. Taimur Rahman, the general secretary of the Mazdoor Kisan Party (‘Workers and Peasants Party’), told Peoples Dispatch that after the 2010 floods, there was ‘enormous outrage about the fact that the government had not done anything to ensure that… when there is an overflow of water, it can be controlled’. Evidence of relief funds being siphoned off by corrupt politicians and the wealthy elite began to define the post-2010 period; those memories remain intact. People understand that when the disaster industrial complex is in motion, cycles of corruption accelerate.

A third of Pakistan’s vast landmass was inundated by floods in the last week of August. Satellite imagery showed the rapid spread of the waters which broke the banks of the Indus River, covering large sections of two major provinces, Balochistan, and Sindh. On 30 August 2022, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called it a ‘monsoon on steroids’, as the rainwaters swept away more than 1,000 people to their deaths and displaced about 33 million more. The situation is dire, with those who fled their homes in immediate and long-term danger. The people camped out on higher land, such as major roadways, are currently at risk of starvation and in danger of contracting water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, dysentery, and hepatitis. In the long-term, people who have lost their standing crops (cotton and sugarcane) and livestock face guaranteed impoverishment. Pakistan’s Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal estimates that the damages will total more than $10 billion.

At first glance, the primary reason for the floods appears to be additional heavy rain at the tail end of an already record-breaking monsoon or rainy season. A very hot summer with temperatures of over 40°C for long periods in April and May made Pakistan ‘the hottest place on earth’, according to Malik Amin Aslam, a former minister for climate change. These scorching months resulted in abnormal melting of the country’s northern glaciers, whose waters met the torrential rain spurred by a ‘triple dip’ – three consecutive years of La Niña cooling in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. In addition, catastrophic climate change – driven by global carbon-fuelled capitalism – has also caused the glacial melt and downpour.

But the nature of the floods themselves are not wholly due to turbulent weather patterns. Significantly, the impact of the rising waters on Pakistan’s population is due to unchecked deforestation and deteriorated infrastructure such as dams, canals, and other channels to contain water. In 2019, the World Bank said that Pakistan faces a ‘green emergency’ because each year about 27,000 hectares of natural forest is cut down, making rainwater absorption in the soil much more difficult.

Furthermore, lack of state investment in dams and canals (now heavily silted) has made it much harder to control large quantities of water. The most important of these dams, canals, and reservoirs are the Sukkur Barrage, the world’s largest irrigation system of its kind, which draws the Indus into the southern Sindh River, and the Mangla and Tarbela reservoirs, which divert the waters from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Illegal real estate construction on floodplains further exacerbates the potential for human tragedy.

God has little to do with these floods. Nature has only compounded the underlying crises of capitalist-driven climate catastrophe and neglect of water, land, and forest management in Pakistan.

What are the urgent multiple crises afflicting Pakistan?

The floodwaters have revealed a set of enduring problems that paralyse Pakistan. Surveys in May, before the floods, showed that 54% of the population considered inflation to be their main problem. By August, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics reported that the wholesale price index, which measures fluctuation in the average prices of goods, increased by 41.2% while the annual inflation rate was 27%. Despite inflation rising globally and the acknowledgment that the cost of the floods would be over $10 billion, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has promised a mere $1.1 billion with austerity-like conditions attached to it such as ‘prudent monetary policy’. It is criminal that the IMF would impose strict austerity when the country’s agricultural infrastructure is utterly destroyed (this inadequate action is reminiscent of the British colonial policy to continue the export of wheat from India during the 1943 Bengal famine). The 2021 Global Hunger Index already placed Pakistan at 92 out of 116 countries with its hunger crisis – prior to the floods – at a serious level. Yet, as none of the country’s bourgeois political parties have taken these findings to heart, undoubtedly, its economic crisis will intensify with little recovery.

This brings us to the acute political crisis. Since its independence from the British in 1947, 75 years ago, Pakistan has had 31 prime ministers. In April 2022, the thirtieth, Imran Khan, was removed to install the current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Khan, who faces charges of terrorism and contempt of court, alleged that his government was removed at the behest of Washington owing to his close ties to Russia. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI or ‘Justice Party’) did not win a majority in the 2018 elections, which left his coalition vulnerable to the departures of a handful of legislators. That is precisely what was done by the opposition, which stormed into power through legislative manoeuvres, without a new mandate from the public. Since his removal, the standing of Imran Khan and the PTI has risen in Pakistan, having won 15 out of 20 of July’s by-elections in Karachi and Punjab, before the floods. Now, as anger rises against Sharif’s government due to the slow pace of relief for flood victims, the political crisis will only deepen.

What are the tasks at hand?

Pakistan is suffering from ‘climate apartheid’. This country of over 230 million people contributes only 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is threatened by the eighth highest climate risk in the world. The failure of Western capitalist countries to acknowledge their destruction of the planet’s climate means that countries like Pakistan, which have low levels of emissions, are already disproportionately bearing the brunt of rapid climate change. Western capitalist countries must at least provide their full support to the Global Climate Action Agenda.

Left and progressive forces – such as the Mazdoor Kisan Party – and other civilian groups have organised a flood relief campaign in Pakistan’s four provinces. They are reaching out mainly with food relief to tackle starvation in hard to reach, largely rural areas. The Pakistani Left is demanding that the government stem the tide of austerity and inflation that is sure to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

In the summer of 1970, flash floods in the mountainous region of Balochistan caused great damage. A few months later in the general elections, the poet Gul Khan Nasir of the National Awami Party won a seat in the Balochistan provincial assembly and became the minister of education, health, information, social welfare, and tourism. Gul Khan Nasir put his Marxist convictions to work building the social capacity of the Baloch people (including setting up the province’s only medical school in Quetta, the provincial capital). Thrown out of office by undemocratic means, Nasir was sent back to prison, a place he had become all too familiar with in previous years. There, he wrote his anthem, ‘Demaa Qadam’ (‘Forward March’). One of its stanzas, 50 years later, seems to describe the zeitgeist in his native land:

If the sky above your heads
becomes full of anger, full of wrath,
thunder and rain and lightning and wind.
The night becomes dark as pitch.
The ground becomes like fire.
The times become savage.
But your goal remains the same:
March, March, Forward March.

Excerpts from the newsletter of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

Sri Lanka: Costs of Sinhala Hegemony

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The Government should have reduced expenditure at a time of severe economic crisis that we undergo presently rather than raising it further while the public suffers from high inflation rates. If benefits were to be given to the penurious needy some other expenditure should have been cut down. Because inflation would not come down as the Central Bank was continuing to print money to meet expenses. A fortnight ago it printed Rs.30 billion according to reports. Unless the Government cuts down expenditure, including Capital expenditure, we would not be able to reduce the inflation rates and stabilize the economy. Of course reasons have been given for the increase in expenditure. But increase in expenditure would further increase the inflation rates.

In addition to public administration, a notable increase can be observed in the expenditure assigned for the President, for Defense, education and health.

The defense allocation has been increased and a sum of Rs. 212,808 million has been allocated to the Ministry of Public Security. A sum of only Rs.138,560 million has been allocated for agriculture in contrast. Such are the priorities.

It appears we are not going to tarnish our reputation as the 14th largest Army in the World. Why does our small Country need such a large Army? Generally a Country would focus on the process of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) after a War. These are essential to restore sustainable peace in a post-war scenario. We should have reduced our Army personnel as soon as the war was over or at least a few years later. We have today 331,000 Army personnel officially as opposed to Britain’s 90000. This number is to be further reduced by Britain soon. The DDR is one of the significant aspects of the process of post-war peace-building. Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) is a process that contributes to security and stability in a post-war recovery context by removing weapons from the hands of combatants, taking the combatants out of military structures and helping them to integrate socially and economically into society by finding civilian livelihoods for them. But those who fought the war are still in our Armed Forces. Some of them are still working in the combat areas. It is high time they are taken out of the North and East and reintegrated into the civil society.

After thirteen years since the end of the war why is the Military being allowed to occupy our Peoples’ lands and buildings, our forests and shores?

In most of the cases world over, this process has been implemented with the assistance of foreign governments and international or regional institutions. However, the circumstances under which the Government of Sri Lanka happened to take over the sole responsibility for implementing the DDR process have raised serious concerns both at the local and international level. The findings of a recent study show that the DDR process was not fully implemented in a broad manner in the Sri Lankan context, but only served as a continuation of the military victory over the LTTE. In particular, not much attention was paid to disarming and demobilizing the armed groups, and the so-called DDR process took place in Sri Lanka without international assistance and supervision. One would think that the Sri Lankan powers that be had a purpose in keeping out international assistance and supervision. I would surmise it is to keep the North and East under the Military boot.

This coupled together with the expenditure for the armed forces in the Amendment Bill show that there has not been any changes in the psyche of the powers that be in Sri Lanka even after the aragalaya. Thoughts of Sinhala hegemony still reigns heavily in their minds.

All the talk about an All Party Government becomes a mockery in the light of such continuous military spending. Therefore the clarion call to unity is an empty shell. The Government under the present President wants to continue to spend large amounts of money to maintain our 14th largest Army. It has no intention of forging any form of reconciliation with the minorities.

And whom is the Government expecting a war with? Against India? Against China? Against America? Or even against Maldive Islands? No ! They expect an attack from us poor Tamils of the North and East! Because the government believes that the Tamil people will not continue to endure against the Sri Lankan state’s continued oppression and genocide. That is why the Sri Lankan Government preferred to conduct the so-called DDR process without international assistance and supervision. They want the presence of the Military permanently in the North and East.

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is due to many factors. One major factor was the war and the money that Sri Lanka borrowed to buy destructive weapons. Another is the massive corruption among Government and Defense department officials.

A further major reason for the crisis was the ethnic cleansing that forced most of the Tamils to quit small businesses, high tech-related jobs, manufacturing trades, exportation and training, impeding Sri Lanka’s economic development, managerial efficiency, and productivity. The State by its shortsighted racial policies sabotaged itself.

Earlier racial discrimination against the Tamils forced many of them to leave Sri Lanka. They are the Tamils who are now offering to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for Sri Lanka if the political problems of the Sri Lankan Tamils are solved.

All of the erstwhile racist activities led Sri Lanka to this economic crisis. It did not happen overnight. It started with the ethnic riots of 1958.

Israeli Professor Oren Yiftachel has said ethnocratic countries often experience ethnic tensions which cause instability. Therefore, as long as Sri Lanka remains an ethnocratic country, there will continue to be instability. This will never lead to sustainable peace and economic prosperity as expected by His Excellency. The fact that you have increased defense spending to keep the army in the North-East and to establish massive military infrastructures and settlements to continue oppressing the Tamil people shows the instability that will continue in the future.

After thirteen years since the end of the war why is the Military being allowed to occupy our Peoples’ lands and buildings, our forests and shores?

The existing problems that the Tamils face which were brought to the notice of the President are conveniently forgotten in the Speech. We feel though the President had positively responded to our queries regarding the day to day problems the Tamils face apart from the need to solve the political problems of the Tamils, he prefers to remain silent in Parliament regarding our problems lest he disturbs a hornet’s nest.

I am reminded of Robert Walpole who was Prime Minister of England in 1715 or thereabout whose policy was “Let sleeping dogs lie”. May be because our Tamil Youths in recent times have not resorted to Aragalayas in their areas he believes we are but sleeping canines, best left to be unsaid and unreferred to. But am sure this time Geneva would reiterate its stand quite positively.

I like to remind the contents of my request letter to which His Excellency responded to positively. His Excellency promised to release all Tamil political prisoners. Nothing has come out from that promise. It is said that there is a move to release some persons taken into custody on suspicion after 2019 just in time for the Geneva deliberations. None are going to be fooled by such gimmicks if they be true.

If the case of the Tamil Political Prisoners, some of them languishing in jails for over quarter of a century is not going to be considered in a humanitarian manner considering the long period of incarceration and the type of diseases that have been contracted by some of them, I am wondering if any Tamil Parliamentarian could be ethically and morally be called upon to join in an All Party Government. Many of these Prisoners had been found guilty solely on their confessions made to Police officers under the PTA. Such confessions to Police officers cannot be accepted as evidence under our regular criminal law. That was why I had asked for the release of the Tamil Political Prisoners and for the scrapping of the draconian PTA from our statute books. Instead, it is being now used against the Aragalaya leaders. These leaders would soon be called Terrorists.

Any attempt to bring in diverse political viewpoints together under one umbrella must be preceded by genuine acts of goodwill towards those holding such viewpoints. It is useless saying join us and I will give you a free hand to express your views. The moment a Tamil Parliamentarian joins the Government he would lose his freedom of speech. Majority in the governing Party will rule the roost! I hope the Tamils whose names have been included in a Ministerial list recently would wait till the Geneva deliberations are over before taking office.

I have no objections to attending a meeting of Party leaders friendly towards this Government to put forward the viewpoints of the Tamils.

Finally, my request to the donor countries and the IMF is that in this difficult situation for Sri Lanka, you should definitely help to save the people of Sri Lanka from starvation, but please see that you do your assistance in such a way that your assistance is not used to suppress the rights of the Tamil people and be used for defense expenditure.

Views are personal

Sri Lanka Crisis – why people get on boats

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6 mins read

If you asked most Australians to tell you about the current situation in Sri Lanka, you might hear that the schools had to close because there were no supplies and that the country had run out of petrol, or you might just see a shrug and a blank look. For the affluent west, not much attention is paid to this small South Asian island nation. So, it is no wonder that the humanitarian crisis currently affecting Sri Lanka is receiving no real consideration. This is further compounded by either inaction or the application of standard old “go back to where you belong” tactics employed previously by so many Australian governments towards those fleeing their homeland and looking for safety and security in Australia. It is therefore vital to unpack the roots of the current political and economic situation leading to this humanitarian crisis and resulting in Sri Lankan refugees attempting to get to Australia. Equally important is the Australian response to this situation.

The Roots of The Current Political and Economic Crisis

So, first to the roots of the current political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka. The origins of this can be tied directly to the actions of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family, including his brothers former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Gotabaya came to power in 2019. In 2020 his party, the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP), consolidated its supermajority and therefore control in parliament due to their popular political approach which peddled populism and Sinhalese nationalism. The Sri Lankan people were convinced that they had elected a government that would consider the needs of the ordinary people, yet they were mistaken. In passing the 20th amendment to the Constitution, Gotabaya further consolidated an extraordinary amount of power in the executive presidency. Here was a near-dictator using tools of nepotism, corruption and the promotion of retired military officers into almost every sector of government. As well, accusations abounded of human rights violations during the Sri Lankan civil war. But in the end, it was simply Gotabaya’s terrible governance and mismanagement of the economy especially during the pandemic, that led to the Sri Lankan Government’s declaration of economic crisis, the worst in the country since the 1948 independence from British colonial rule.

Ordinary people and political opposition began to protest peacefully but were labelled extremists and met with violence and curfews. These protests demanded responses to food, fuel and medicine shortages, power cuts and out of control inflation. Amidst these protests, Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as Prime Minister on May 9, yet his brother still chose to maintain his position as President. Finally, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was chased out of office by protesters. Eventually he fled the country and submitted his resignation, from exile in Singapore, on July 14.

Economically, the Sri Lankan government had created the perfect storm with a failing domestic economy, budget shortfalls and ensuing Balance of Payments deficits. These were coupled with the failure of agricultural reforms and subsequent problems with the drop in export earnings and reliance on imports, as well as the disaster of the Tax Cuts policy that essentially saw the loss of one million taxpayers. Some economists have called Sri Lanka’s handling of foreign exchange as simply debt trap diplomacy. Currency depreciated and inflation increased. The Tourism Industry plunged, affected first by the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo and then, of course, by the global pandemic. Sri Lanka’s history with International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans, and later reluctance to seek a bailout from it, as well as a history of sourcing sovereign debts with high interest rates and shorter durations of payment were issues that rounded out the economic crisis. Thus, the Sri Lankan economy completely collapsed.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

This collapse of the country’s economy has resulted in a humanitarian crisis and could lead to what the United Nations (UN) warned of in June this year – a full-blown humanitarian emergency. Certainly, the series of events I have just described have threatened the health, safety and wellbeing of the Sri Lankan people. As days go by, these issues are becoming increasingly critical.

While most humanitarian crises around the world are triggered by conflict or the effects of climate change, the crisis in Sri Lanka is solely due to the economic collapse caused by governmental mismanagement and corruption. The humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka is multidimensional, and as we think about taking that Panadol for our work-related headache or what we might cook – or order – for dinner, Sri Lankan people and aid agencies are faced with food insecurity, threatened livelihoods and the shortage of essential medicines. As well, there are real concerns for safety and protection. Of the 22 million-plus population, it is estimated by some sources that nearly 6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, with nearly 5 million being considered as food insecure.

The Humanitarian Needs and Priorities (HNP) Plan, backed by the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organisation (WHO), was launched in June this year, and has already highlighted nearly 2 million people. In order to avert this crisis becoming a humanitarian emergency, the Humanitarian Needs and Priorities Plan (HNP) has called for $47.2 million US dollars to be channelled into lifesaving sectors in order to support resources that simply save lives. Furthermore, the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), established by the United Nations (UN) in 2005 to enable responders to deliver life-saving assistance during crises, has approved a US$5 million rapid response allocation to address urgent needs of food assistance, basic agricultural and livelihood support, vital and essential medicines and supplies, child protection, nutrition, safe water and education in areas worst affected. The work of both the Humanitarian Needs and Priorities Plan (HNP) and the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) are understandably hindered by Sri Lanka’s fuel shortages, posing a major operational constraint for humanitarian response and monitoring. Sadly, assistance is not assistance if it cannot reach the people it is designed for.

People Fleeing the Country

This is not a conflict, so the “fight” in the “fight or flight” motto does not work. The natural response then to save life is flight. With no sign of this crisis letting up, and no bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in sight, many Sri Lankans feel forced to leave. As the economic and political crisis continues, Sri Lanka is facing a mass exodus with young men and women waiting for long hours to secure a passport in an effort to leave. At the same time, refugees have been travelling by boats to nearby countries such as India and Australia in a desperate bid to escape the unfolding disaster. In June, an elderly Sri Lankan refugee couple was found unconscious on an Indian beach suffering from severe dehydration. The couple had tried to cross from Sri Lanka to India by boat. The elderly woman later died in hospital. This certainly puts a human face to the situation.

Recently members of an Australian Border Force (ABF) vessel took into custody 46 Sri Lankans attempting to migrate to Australia by boat. All 46 were “repatriated” back to Colombo in early August and handed over to Sri Lankan authorities. When we choose our vocabulary so carefully, for example using “repatriated” instead of “sent back”, “removed” or “expelled”, we sanitise the issue and perhaps absolve any responsibility or guilt.

The Australian Border Force (ABF) Regional Director for South Asia, Commander Chris Waters, recalled the long-standing cooperation between Australia and Sri Lanka and revealed that the Australian Border Force (ABF) has repatriated 183 individuals from Australia following six unsuccessful maritime crossings, since May of this year. He explained that even with the change of federal government, there have been no recent policy changes by Australia in relation to unauthorized maritime people smuggling.

Again, since May, there have been 15 boats that attempted to leave Sri Lanka but were stopped by the Sri Lankan Navy. Some of these boats had children on board. Just over 700 people were arrested from these boats and a further 210 were arrested on land by police with the assistance of the Navy.

Operation Sovereign Borders came into effect in Australia under Tony Abbott in 2013, and our then Prime Minister gifted Sri Lanka with two retired patrol boats. Australia continues to provide tactical assistance and training to Sri Lanka’s Navy under this scheme. The Albanese government has also donated more than 4000 GPS devices to help Sri Lankan authorities in monitoring activity in their own waters.

It is believed that people smugglers are convincing Sri Lankans that since the Australian Labor Party was sworn into office on May 23, refugees will be welcomed. This is clearly not the case. Just prior to the last federal election this year, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), called for a response to its three priorities, the third of which was the reinstatement of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

There are some questions to be asked. Has Australia recognised the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, and if so, why is it exerting its efforts to support the removal of maritime immigrants rather than supporting those Sri Lankans in crisis? When will policy be reviewed regarding the unauthorised arrival of refugees and asylum seekers? When will our policy on refugees and humanitarian support be reviewed?

Several people have commented on the strength of a society. In searching for a pertinent comment, I had to settle for an American rather than Australian voice, however. Hubert Humphrey, who served as US President from 1965 to 1969, said:

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the sunset of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and those with disability.”

There is now another moral test for our own government!

Views are personal

Sri Lanka:  Anatomy of Baleful Crisis

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The following article is based on the keynote address by the author at the recent seminar titled, The Conundrum of an island: Sri Lanka – Present Crisis, Geo-Political Challenges and Way Ahead, organized by the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) which is a Chennai-based Think Tank that mainly carries out research on developments in China and assigns priority to Indian policy interests.


May I, at the outset, express my deep sense of appreciation and heartfelt thanks to my good friends Commodore RS Vasan, Bala and his junior colleagues for associating me with this significant seminar and requesting me to deliver the keynote address.

When I went through the programme I found that I have been allotted 20 minutes. There lies the problem. It takes nearly 20 minutes for a Professor to warm up in the classroom and to expect him to conclude his presentation in 20 minutes is an unfriendly act. However, I shall try to be as brief as possible. As the Hollywood actress, Elizabeth Taylor, told her husband, soon after her 9th marriage: “This too shall be brief”.

Appropriate Title

My congratulations to Commodore Vasan and Bala for choosing an appropriate title – Conundrum of an Island. It reminded me of the poem written by the Great English Poet, John Donne, entitled No Man is an Island. Just as no man is an island, no island can remain an island. In a world of shrinking geographical boundaries and widening intellectual horizon the momentous developments taking place in its immediate neighbourhood and in the wider world will have a tremendous impact on Sri Lanka. Let me quote parts of John Donne’s poem:

                        No man is an island, entire of itself

                        Every man is a piece of the continent,

                        A part of the main…

                        Any man’s death diminishes me

                        Because I am involved in mankind

                        And, therefore, never send to know for

                        Whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

South Asia a Unique Region

     The most striking feature of South Asia is the pre-eminent position of India, which bestrides the region almost like a colossus.  In terms of area, population, economic resources and armed forces, India is more than all the other countries put together. The World Development Report, a few years ago, pointed out that India has 78 per cent of the area, 73 per cent of the population and 77 per cent of gross domestic product.  What is more, India is at the very centre and all other countries are bordering on India. The other countries do not share anything in common, except perhaps fears and misgivings about India. The crux of their foreign policy is how to manage relations with India. In other words, India is the axis around which the wheel of South Asia revolves.

Despite our common cultural heritage, each country has its own individual personality and national identity. And given the ethnic, religious, political and economic linkages, what happens in one country will have its fallout on another. If the Hindu temples are destroyed and the Hindu population comes down, as in Pakistan and in Bangladesh, naturally the Hindus in India will be agitated. And if the Muslims in India are discriminated against and when the Babri Masjid was demolished the Muslims in the region were naturally agitated. If the Tamils in Sri Lanka are singled out for discrimination and subjected to violence, naturally the Tamils in Tamil Nadu will campaign for them. We have to recognize these realities and then evolve a neighbourhood policy.

Despite our common cultural heritage, each country has its own individual personality and national identity.

The ideal neighbourhood policy, with reference to smaller neighbours, was explained by former Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh as “asymmetrical reciprocity”. Inaugurating the road between the Indian side of Kashmir and Pakistani-occupied Kashmir Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh said, “I cannot do anything about the borders, but I can try to make the borders irrelevant”.

In the classroom situation, I am fond of narrating a story which exemplifies the need for a win-win situation. The Christian Missionaries started a school among Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh to teach the children the three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic. A large number of students were admitted to the school. At the end of the year, the Principal decided to celebrate the first anniversary by organising a sports meet. 100 meters race. All the boys were asked to assemble. On your mark, get set and go. All boys began to run. There was a strong boy who was running ahead of others. Everybody cheered him. But mid-way he stopped. The Principal went to him and said, “you were running ahead of others. You could have easily lifted the trophy. Why did you stop in the middle?” The boy told the principal “Madam, in our community that victory is the greatest victory when we all win together”. Win-Win situation – that should be the objective of India’s relations with smaller countries in our region.

Some Issues relating to Nation Building  

I do not know how many of you – I am asking the students – have heard of Khan Abdul Wali Khan. You have not heard his name. You must have heard his father’s name, Abdul Ghaffar Khan– Frontier Gandhi (Sarhadi Gandhi) – as we used to affectionately call him. Khan Abdul Wali Khan who was president of the Awami National Party in Pakistan and a son of the prominent Pashtun nationalist leader Ghaffar Khan passed away a few years ago. Wali Khan was asked by a journalist “Are you a Pakistani, a Muslim or a Pathan?” Wali Khan replied: “I am all the three combined into one”. The journalist will not give up. ”You must tell me what is your primary identity, what is your secondary identity and what is your third identity?” Wali Khan replied: “I am a Pakistani for the past 35 years, a Muslim for 1800 years and a Pathan for the last 5000 years”.

All of us have multiple identities. When I was an undergraduate student in an affiliated college of Bombay University in the mid-1950s, my Professor used to say: “You are an Indian first, you are an Indian second and you are an Indian last”. Those days, we never disagreed with our teachers, because the teachers did not like that. So all of us nodded our heads in approval. As I grew older, I realized that I have several identities – I am a Tamil because my mother tongue is Tamil; I was born and brought up in Kerala and had my school education in Malayalam medium; in fact, my Malayalam is better than my Tamil, so I have a Kerala identity; I had my under-graduate and post-graduate education in Bombay and started my teaching career in an affiliated college in Bombay University, therefore, I have a Maharashtrian identity; I  have a teacher identity; an Indian identity; I have a South Asian identity; I have a universal identity. These multiple identities must co-exist harmoniously.  They should not clash with one another. That is the basis of ideal nation-building.

I speak several languages – Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, English; I learned Sanskrit as the second language, I can read and write Sanskrit, but cannot speak; while in Bombay, I learned a little bit of Marathi, though I am out of touch with it now; as a doctoral student, I learned Bahasa Indonesia. The more languages I learned I became more tolerant My good friend, K Suresh Singh, former Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India, used to tell me “Diversity and linkages, freedom and tolerance go together”.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil political leaders drifted from collaboration with the Sinhalese elite and eventually began to demand a separate state of Tamil Eelam. The Dravidian movement in India followed a diametrically opposite course.

The distinguished political scientist, Louis Halle, in early 1970’s, surveyed all countries in the world (132) and found only 13 (9.0 per cent) did not have problems of integration because they were inhabited by people speaking the same language, follow the same religion and belong to the same ethnic group.  There is only one country in South Asia which does not have problems of nation building. It is the Maldives. But it is not a model to be followed. It is a downright reactionary country. According to Maldivian Constitution, only a Sunni Muslim can be a citizen of the country.

The Italian political philosopher Massimo d’ Azeglu, I do not know how the Italians pronounce the name, I am pronouncing the name in my Malayalam – Tamil way, said in 1848, after the unification of Italy: “We have made Italy, now, we must make Italians”. The same is true of all countries in our region. We have become independent states but the process of making the Indian nation, Pakistani nation; Bangladeshi nation and Sri Lankan nation have begun only after independence.

Two Contrasting Scenarios

I would like to submit two propositions which can be considered as the yardstick for the success of nation-building experiments in multi-ethnic societies in South Asia. First, the political system should provide sufficient space for minorities so that they can preserve, promote and foster their identities while being part of a wider country.  Second, a federal polity, with entrenched provisions for sharing powers between the Centre and the States, can lead to softening of secessionist demands and pave the way for eventual national integration. Two illustrations, one a success story from India and the second, a tragic narrative from Sri Lanka, both relating to my community – Tamils – are given below. What is interesting to note are the differing political developments and contrasting responses on the issue of nation-building.

            In Sri Lanka, the Tamil political leaders drifted from collaboration with the Sinhalese elite and eventually began to demand a separate state of Tamil Eelam. The Dravidian movement in India followed a diametrically opposite course. The scholars studying the Dravidian movement are unanimous in pointing out important milestones – the formation of the Justice Party and the non-Brahmin movement in 1917; E V Ramasamy Naicker’s Self-Respect Movement and Anti – Hindi agitation; the formation of the Dravida Kazhagam in the mid-1940s and its demand for a separate state of Dravida Nadu; the formation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam under C N Annadurai in 1949;  the coming into power of DMK after the 1967 general elections; and the domination of DMK and its offshoot All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in 1972 in the politics of Tamil Nadu. The DMK gradually got “domesticated” because the Indian political system provided sufficient space within which the Tamil identity and regional autonomy could be preserved and fostered. What is more, the domestication of the DMK was evident even before Annadurai formally renounced secessionism in 1962 (after the Sino-Indian conflict) and the 16th Amendment to the Constitution (which proscribed secessionism and required from all candidates, seeking political office, an oath of upholding the Constitution) was passed. The DMK/AIADMK stakes in the unity of India got further strengthened when these parties started sharing power in the Centre.

            (Let me give an illustration of how the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils were sacrificed by Karunanidhi and the DMK during the Fourth Eelam War. It needs to be recalled that the Dravidian parties considered protecting the interests of Overseas Tamils as one of their foremost objectives. In the Tamil film, Parasakthi, (the script was written by Karunanidhi)  Gunasekaran, the hero (acted by Sivaji Ganesan) asks the question “Why are the waters of the Bay of Bengal saltish?” and then he replies “It is because of the tears of Overseas Tamils”. During the Fourth Eelam War, the DMK was an ally of the Centre and went on with India’s Sri Lanka policy. It did not do anything constructive to prevent the genocide of the Tamils. Karunanidhi was permitted to do a political gimmick; he undertook a hunger strike in the Marina. He started the fast after breakfast and concluded it before lunch. The Union Ministers rushed to Chennai and persuaded Karunanidhi to withdraw from the hunger strike).

            In contrast, an overview of Sri Lankan Tamil politics since independence clearly shows that the Tamils had been mainly “reactive” to Sinhalese politics. Since Sinhalese-dominated governments never fulfilled their hopes and aspirations, frustrations became intense, demands more radical, which finally culminated in the demand of a separate state of Tamil Eelam in 1976. The politics of Tamil opposition started with the demand for balanced representation and responsive cooperation; which spanned the period from 1948 to 1956. The demand progressed to Federal State and non-cooperation during 1967-1972. It escalated to separatist slogans during 1973-76. Finally, it ended with the demand for a separate State in 1976. But, while the demands changed, the mainstream Tamil political leadership confined themselves to strategies of peaceful agitation, parliamentary and non-parliamentary alike. From 1979, militancy began to creep into the agitation and by the beginning of this century, the Tigers became the most dominant force in the Tamil areas.

Fire must not only be extinguished but the causes of fire must be removed once and for all. A solution could be found only if there is a Sri Lankan consensus. 

            By mid-1970’s, the Sri Lankan Tamils, who were, to begin with, “reluctant secessionists”, began to define themselves as a separate nation, entitled to self-determination and a separate state. Discriminatory legislative enactments and governmental policies in the areas of language, education, land colonization, religion and employment opportunities, the abrogation Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact of 1956 and the Senanayake- Chelvanaygam Pact of 1965, which conferred limited autonomy to the Tamil areas, and, above all, brutal military repression convinced the Tamils that they cannot co-exist with the Sinhalese.

Cardinal principle of India’s Sri Lanka Policy

            India was committed to the principle that Sri Lanka should not solve the ethnic problem through military means. When the July 1983 holocaust took place Prime Minister Indira Gandhi telephoned President Jayewardene: “Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao is coming to Colombo tomorrow to study the situation”.  It must be highlighted that Mrs. Gandhi did not seek Jayewardene’s permission. Narasimha Rae toured Colombo and became deeply sensitive to the undercurrents of the conflict. If the communal fire is not extinguished it would spread to Tamil Nadu also. The fire must not only be extinguished but the causes of fire must be removed once and for all. A solution could be found only if there is a Sri Lankan consensus.  In other words, the solution must be isolated from competitive Sinhala politics.  

T-72 M1 and the crew from the Indian Army 65 Armoured Regiment during Operation PAWN in Sri Lanka [ Photo © Frontier India ]

            At the end of July 1983, Amirtalingam came to India and visited New Delhi. In order to escape the attention of Sinhalese hoodlums on the way to Colombo airport, he was dressed as a Muslim and travelled in Thondaman’s car.  It was a changed Amirtalingam who met Indira Gandhi and G Parthasarathy. Hitherto Amirtalingam’s main support came from the Dravidian parties. Amir used to say” “In India south is fighting against the north, in Sri Lanka north is fighting against the South”. The TULF leader began to realize India has its stakes in Sri Lanka and it would be in the interests of Tamils to get the support of New Delhi. In the closed-door meeting Indira Gandhi told Amirtalalingam that India would not support the creation of an independent state, but a solution less than that of independent Tamil Eelam, Tamils could count on India’s backing. Then the GP asked Amirtalingam: “What is the strength of Tamil militants? Will they be able to defend the Tamils if JR launches a military offensive?”. Amir replied: “The number of militants, all alphabetical combinations together, is less than 100. They are in no position to defend the Tamils”. New Delhi, to assist the Tamils to defend themselves began to provide military training to Tamil militants. It should be pointed that the twin pillars of India’s Sri Lanka policy, at that time, namely mediatory and militant supportive, were contradictory. How can you mediate when you support one side through military training? Naturally, India’s Sri Lanka policy resulted in a quagmire. However, New Delhi was determined not to permit Colombo to solve the problem through military means.

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the suicide squad of the LTTE completely altered the situation. India, especially Tamil Nadu, underwent a catharsis, from which we are yet to recover.

            When in May 1987 Colombo launched Operation Vadamarachi and the LTTE guerrillas were running away from the battlefield, New Delhi stepped in. It violated Sri Lanka’s air space and dropped food materials in Jaffna.  The international community did not even “lift a finger” against New Delhi. JR later explained his dilemma as follows. He first sent Lalith Athulathmudali to Pakistan to seek its support. Lalith realized that Pakistan would not open another front against India. Then he went to China. China was, at that time, interested in normalizing relations with India and advised Lilith to settle the ethnic issue with the help of India. Events moved swiftly and concluded with the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Accord, and the induction of the IPKF on the invitation of President Jayewardene.

            The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the suicide squad of the LTTE completely altered the situation. India, especially Tamil Nadu, underwent a catharsis, from which we are yet to recover. India’s response to the fourth Eelam war is an illustration of the changed situation. The Sri Lankan military forces realized that if they have to win the war against the Tigers, the flow of refugees to Tamil Nadu should be stopped. The Sri Lankan Navy, therefore, began to consolidate its hold on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Strait, from Talaimannar to outer islands in Jaffna. On the Indian side, the Coast Guard stepped up its vigil and prevented the refugees from coming to India. During the last stages of the war, five Tamil refugees took a boat from Mullaitheevu and came to India undergoing great suffering. Three of them died of dehydration and two reached the Mandapam camp. Thanks to the NGOs working among the refugees I could meet these two refugees and talk to them They said” Every innocent Tamil, caught between the Sinhalese lions and the Tamil Tigers, would like to come to India as refugees”.   

When the Fourth Eelam War degenerated into a savage war against the Tamils and the Sri Lankan air force began to bomb hospitals, places of worship and orphanages I raised the matter in the National Security Advisory Board, of which I was a member. Ambassador Shankar Bajpai, who was the Convenor, requested Ambassador Tirumurthy, who was Joint Secretary in charge of Sri Lanka, to initiate the discussion. He performed his duties faithfully and justified New Delhi’s then Sri Lanka policy. When my turn came I pleaded that  India, along with the United States and members of the European Union, should pressurize Sri Lanka to declare a ceasefire, so that those innocent Tamils who want to escape from the war zone could be evacuated to a safer place. My plea turned out to be championing a lost cause. Only 9 members of the 27-member NSAB supported me. The end result was according to the United Nations 40,000 innocent Tamils died during the last stages of the war. India, I submit, is guilty of collaboration with Sri Lankan armed forces. As Lady Macbeth said in the sleepwalking scene: “There is the smell of the blood still. And all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten my dirty hands”.   

Conclusion

Commodore Vasan is pointing the wristwatch to me implying that I have exceeded my allotted 20 minutes, Therefore, let me come to the conclusion. I shall conclude with one of my favourite quotes from Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography. The quote is in relation with his visit to Jaffna.

“One little incident lingers in my memory. It was in Jaffna, I think. The teachers and boys of a school stopped our car and I said a few words of greeting. The ardent, eager faces of the boys stood out. And then one of their number came to me, shook hands with me and without question or argument said: “I shall not falter”. The bright young face, with shining eyes, full of determination, is imprinted in my mind. I do not know who he was, I have lost trace of him. But somehow I have the conviction that he will remain true to his words and will not falter when he has to face life’s difficult problems”.

            We in India, especially in Tamil Nadu, should have an interest to see that this young boy, and as he grows older, his son and grandson, do not become once again the cannon fodder in the senseless conflict between the Sinhalese Lions and the Tamil Tigers, on the contrary, he is provided with opportunities so that he could blossom into another Ananda Coomaraswamy.  

Future of Islamist Terrorism in South Asia

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Time turns a page to mark a year since the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan through the colossal failure of the Biden administration’s botched military withdrawal. The threat that the Taliban now emanates to Asia and the world is not pristine but rather a neo-mandate of its former leadership. This is not to say that its leadership is weak or incapacitated as the same leadership is ultimately responsible for kicking the Americans out whilst largely being operational out of Afghan cave systems. It is simply to say that there exists a visible shift in Taliban strategy towards international acceptance and ratification.

During the pre-9/11 days of Taliban control in Afghanistan, the country hosted a profusion of training camps run by al-Qaeda and other terror groups.During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s and 80s, thousands of fighters from the Muslim world flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Young fighters that formed the Afghan Mujahedeenincluded Osama Bin Laden from Saudi Arabia and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from Jordan who would ultimately form al-Qaeda and the Islamic State respectively.

As passenger airliners flew into the majestic towers in daytime New York, Bin Laden became a more influential entity than any other government, leader or organisation in modern history. As the towers fell to dust, America fell to its knees, thus triggering the global War on Terror – an ongoing conflict that has snatched millions of lives and dismantled countless communities across the world.

Twenty years down the line, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a major political win for the Taliban cementing their return to power in Central Asia. This return to power is not merely a Taliban comeback but rather the aggravation of the al-Qaeda alliance in the region.

With the Taliban’s phoenix-like rise to power, dozens of terror and non-terror groups across the world sent them their congratulations and praises – including Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance. Naturally, groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State cells are bolstered in their international politico-religious agendas as Afghanistan has once again become a haven for threat groups. The highly unstable and ever-changing political situation in Afghanistan clearly illustrates how tribes and government groups have often switched sides and backed terror groups to ensure their own survival.

The Taliban had emerged through the Afghan Mujahedeen as a defensive group that assembled to form a bulwark of sorts against Soviet assault on the traditional Pashtun culture. This initial stance by the Taliban has cemented their popularity among the Pashtun people for decades. However, the Taliban’s historic ties, familial relations and shared outlooks with other groups had resulted in a slow infiltration of the Taliban to function as a jihadist group. The Salafi Wahhabi ideologies that emanated from the Gulf had ideologically penetrated the Taliban ranks to shadow its Pashtun roots and embrace fundamentalist and violent Islamist perceptions.

Although twelve months have passed after the rise of the Taliban, the world has not seen the violent consequences of Biden’s failure – yet. A momentary glimpse of the boiling pot was made when it was revealed that Ayman al-Zawahiri had taken refuge in the capital of Taliban-controlled Kabul. Al-Zawahiri remained al-Qaeda’s most consequential leader after Bin Laden was shot in Abbottabad, Pakistan eleven years ago. The very fact that al-Zawahiri was given refuge in a villa belonging to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of Taliban’s Afghanistan, underpins the threat that the Taliban posits to the world at large.

The Taliban in itself may not necessarily be a threat to global security as its neo-mandate appears to focus on national governance and international ratification – however, the group’s emergence to power creates a black hole in Afghanistan that functions as a terror haven for other terror groups to train, bolster and consolidate. Groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba threaten regional security especially in India, while groups like al-Qaeda threaten the status of global security. Both groups operated training camps during the Taliban’s previous phase of power and are likely to run camps under the new Taliban.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda were linked to the killing of Maldivian journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla back in 2014 and have sowed seeds of discord in the country since the 1990s. Terrorist networks in South Asia do not stop at borders and easily transcend them. This is especially true of international global terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State brand of terrorism.

The Taliban/AQ alliance and Islamic State, however, are rivals. Although Salafi Wahhabism has infiltrated the ranks of the Taliban, the top leadership of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have deep-rooted long-standing disputes. Operational as Islamic State Khurasan Province (IS-KP), its attacks have become frequent in targeting Taliban efforts in a tug-of-war fight for power, dominance and authority in the region and amongst the population. The two groups frequently engage in propaganda campaigns against each other that easily divide and sow discontent.

Sri Lanka, at present, is a figurative sitting duck amidst a massive geopolitical powerplay between the US, Russia, China and India while the threat of terrorism looms from the black hole in Central Asia. A unified Islamic State and Taliban/AQ alliance would spell doom for South Asia and other regions of the world.

Two of the deadliest Islamist terror attacks that occurred in South Asian history are tied to the Islamic State. The 2019 Easter Attack killed more than 270 people in Sri Lanka and was the largest IS attack outside of Iraq and Syria and the 2016Dhakaterror attack killed 22 people. This acts as a clear indication of the propensity for the Islamic State brand to be adopted by local bad actors to gain political advantage and recognition for their terror attacks globally. Earlier this year, Indian authorities arrested two terrorists belonging to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The two men, according to the arresting officers, were planning to conduct deadly attacks in the state capital of Lucknow. In the same month, three were arrested in connection with setting up terror networks in Kolkata. The overall risk of the Taliban and its affiliates inspiring regional conflict is significant and growing.

Many high-ranking officials of the Islamic State cite South Asia as an important region for their activities. Even though they have enjoyed success of sorts in the form of successful terror attacks, they have not gained a strong foothold there yet. With the largely successful decimation of the IS caliphate in the Middle East, IS has not been able to appoint a charismatic leader, build a strong chain of command in the region or sustain coordinated operations in South Asia. However, after the US killing of al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri in Taliban-controlled territory in July 2022, the possibility looms of a temporary truce between al-Qaeda, Taliban and IS working together. If this fusion transpires, the threat to global security will rise significantly.

As the US shifts its foreign policy from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region, intense conflict and deep-rooted crises could materialise within South Asia.With the Taliban firmly ensconced in Afghanistan and enjoying political freedom from the lack of pressure the United States previously applied, this possibility is strongly underpinned. Training facilities, recruitment efforts, and offensive staging capabilities could all be protected under this terror ecosystem being redeveloped in Central Asia.

This is of course coupled with the ignominious failure of the Biden-Harris administration in abandoning billions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art equipment – something that now gives the Taliban and its allied terror factions greater access to launch mid- and high-level operations across South Asia. The high-tech equipment has effectively equipped the Taliban to be a force to be reckoned with.

Sri Lanka, at present, is a figurative sitting duck amidst a massive geopolitical powerplay between the US, Russia, China and India while the threat of terrorism looms from the black hole in Central Asia. A unified Islamic State and Taliban/AQ alliance would spell doom for South Asia and other regions of the world. The establishment of intelligence-sharing mechanisms among regional and international agencies will significantly reduce the threat that emanates from Afghanistan. Likewise, strict monitoring of online spaces, especially social media and chat rooms, is paramount to a strong defence capability against an ideologically-charged terrorism threat. Sri Lanka must brace herself for impact.