Friday, 31 October 2008

Are religious people more charitable?

The British Humanist Association, a registered charity, has been collecting money to run 30 buses across London for four weeks with the slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The Atheist Bus Campaign has been an amazing success. It has raised a lot more money that it expected to and this slogan will appear on London’s bendy buses in the beginning of 2009. On hearing of this campaign, I was about to take out my credit card and donate some money since I’ve always wanted to see a large scale campaign marketing atheism on the lines of organised religions. Yet, there was something about the slogan that made me hesitate.

Why say "There's probably no God”? Why not say “"There is no God”? The word probably carries more than an element of doubt. Do religious people say – “God probably exists.” For Pete’s sake, if there is a probability that God exists, you might as well invest some time and effort in praying to Him or buttering Him up so that if it turns out that God did exist all the while, you’ll get something in return for having believed in him. If it turns out that there was no God, well, you would have wasted some time and effort, but then, does anyone with a life insurance policy complain about having lived a long life? I am told that the organisers of the campaign were worried they might run afoul of the Advertising Standards Authority and so they used the words 'probably'. Heck, if they were worried about being pulled up by the ASA, they should NOT have used the word 'probably'. For one it would have given them so much more publicity. Can you imagine a religious ad saying 'The Bible is probably God's word?' or that 'Jesus is probably the son of God,' out of fear of being pulled up by the ASA?

I found the second bit of the slogan more problematic. “Stop worrying and enjoy life.” What does it mean? If the slogan is addressed to atheists and agnostics, it probably means atheists and agnostics have been worrying all along instead of enjoying life. But then, that would be preaching to the converted, wouldn’t it? Assuming it is addressed to the religious minded, it assumes that the religious worry all the time when they ought to be enjoying life. What would the religious be worrying about? About God’s existence? No, they ought to be happy about God’s existence. Or at least pretend to be. May be they worry about not measuring up to God’s standards and expectations.

What are God’s standards and expectations? What do organised religions want of their followers and devotees? By and large, organised religions want their members to be loyal to them. They ask for prayers. In an indirect way, all organised religions expect their followers to believe their religion is superior. It does make sense. If a religion is to tell its members that it is only as good as the next religion, why should its members stay loyal to it? What else do religions want? All religions expect their followers to be generous and kind to other human beings. Be it the Sermon on the Mount or Lord Krishna’s advice as set out in the Bhagavad Gita or Koranic rules on giving to charity, all religions lead their followers to believe that by being charitable, they gain brownie points with God.

So, when the Atheist Bus Campaign says “Stop worrying and enjoy life,” does it mean, don’t worry about pleasing God, just go out and enjoy life? Don't waste time and effort in being charitable. Don't think of other human beings. Go out and enjoy your life. If this is what’s intended, I have many issues with this campaign and my credit card will firmly remain in my wallet. You see, I’ve always had this nagging doubt that religious people tend to be more charitable (of course in the hope of a reward in the next life) than atheists and agnostics. I mean, how can an atheist compete with a religious person who believes God will match his every kindness with an hour in heaven?

Of course, I know of so many charitable organisations that don't have a religious base. There's Water Aid, Oxfam, Actionaid etc. But these organisations are manged by individuals who are paid like the employees of a large company and supported by tiny donations from people all over the world. Organisations like Amnesty International are very much ideology driven rather than just by charity. These organisations tend to have enormous overheads – more than 50% of the money they collect is spent on administrative costs. In the case of some charities, this goes up to 90%.

For most atheists, paying taxes is closest they get to being charitable. In a prosperous welfare state like Sweden, this would be sufficient. But in a country like India where the population far exceeds the resources available to the government, private charity is what keeps the country going.

Maybe religions, for all the harm they do, serve an useful purpose. By and large, they force their followers to be kind and generous to other human beings. There are exceptions to this of course. Every religion will have a fundamentalist fringe which wants to fight other religions rather than accumulate brownie points. However, on the whole, worrying about God and not enjoying life all the time, is not a bad thing.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Why This Step-Motherly Treatment For Polygamy?

As India intensively debates the demand for decriminalisation of homosexuality, there is growing consensus everywhere that two consenting adults ought to have the freedom to do almost anything they like as long as they don't harm anyone else. In most Western countries homosexuality is not a crime and homosexuals have the right to marry or enter into civil partnerships. Whilst this is encouraging, I find it surprising that a a similar debate is totally lacking with respect to polygamy. In my opinion, if two consenting adults can do what they like in the privacy of their bedrooms and beyond, three or four or more consenting adults should have a similar right.

Polygamy is a generic term used to describe a situation where an individual (male or female) has multiple spouses. When a man has many wives or partners, it is called Polygyny. When a woman has many husbands or partners, it is called polyandry. Among organised religions, only Judaism and Christianity have strict prohibitions against having more than one spouse. Polygyny is most common among Muslims who have religious sanction for this practice. Polyandry is a lot less common, especially in the modern world. In India it used to be practised on a large scale among matriarchal tribes such as the Khasis of Meghalaya and matrilineal communities like the Nairs and Menons of Kerala. Recently I read a CNN news item regarding the practice of polyandry in Himachal Pradesh.

It is not only among Muslims that you see polygyny being practised. The US has the Mormons or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who used to practice polygyny on a large scale. Some of them still do.

The ban on polygamy is enforced through the criminalisation of bigamy and adultery. A person commits bigamy when he or she undergoes a marriage ceremony when already married. Section 494 of the Indian Penal Code penalises a person who undergoes a marriage ceremony whilst having a having a living husband or wife, with imprisonment of up to seven years. If the spouse in the second marriage was unaware of the first marriage, the punishment is higher (imprisonment of up to ten years) under Section 495.

Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code says that “Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall be punishable as an abettor.” In other words, only a man can be guilty of adultery and then only if his lover is a married woman. The woman in the adulterous relationship will only be guilty of abetting the offence of adultery. The offence of adultery, as defined in the Indian Penal Code, is meant to protect married men from other men who may steal the affections of their wives.

Now consider this scenario. A married man or woman has an affair outside his or her marriage. The parties in the illicit relationship don't bother to get married. In any event such a marriage will be void and so unless there are religious reasons, there is no incentive in going through a marriage ceremony for a second time. Is there any offence being committed in this example? No, not unless a married woman is having an affair outside her marriage, in which case her lover will be guilty of adultery.

Therefore, the criminalisation of bigamy prevents married people from registering relationships they may be involved in outside their marriage, but does not actually prevent the relationship (unless it amounts to adultery). In my opinion, polygyny and polyandry ought to be legalised, just as homosexuality ought to be decriminalised and homosexuals given the right to have a civil partnership. Every marriage and civil partnership must be registered and the register should be available to the general public for inspection and accessible through the internet. Bigamy and adultery should not be criminal offences, though they should be a ground for divorce. Just as a spouse whose partner cheated on him or her can get a divorce, a spouse whose partner contracts a second marriage should be able to get an immediate divorce. A person who got married without knowing about his partner's first marriage should be able to get compensation for fraud. Criminal law should have no place in the bedrooms of consenting adults.

It may be argued that if polygamy were to be legalised, polygyny will become common, considering the weaker position women occupy in Indian society, whilst polyandry will only take place in poor communities where there is a scarcity of resources. This is a feasible argument, but I believe the answer lies in empowering women by educating them etc. and not in interfering in what consenting adults do.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Book Review: The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide by Susan Nathan

Susan tells her readers how, when she was visiting a South African relative at the age of sixteen, she saw a black servant reprimanded for not wearing white gloves while serving them food. An incensed Susan followed the servant to the kitchen and had sex with him on the kitchen table.

Many years later, fifty year old Susan, recently divorced, made aliyah and moved to Israel from the UK, leaving behind two grown up children. Susan was following a path followed by many other Jews. The Jewish Agency in London processed Susan’s application in a week and bought her a ticket to Israel. When Susan landed in Israel, she was put in Rana’ana, one of the best run immigrant absorption centres where she was taught basic Hebrew and the nitty-gritty's of life in Israel.

Soon Susan became unhappy with her life in Israel. She realised that she had performed aliyah at the expense of the Arab citizens of Israel who are treated as second hand citizens. Slowly her romantic notions of Israel and life in Israel evaporated. Israel was a sanctuary for the Jews of the world, but it had a lot of skeletons in its cupboard.

Never shy of taking direct action, three years after reaching Israel, Susan packed up and moved to Tamra, an Arab town of 25,000 people in the Galilee, located between Haifa and Nazareth.


Susan paints a vivid picture of Tamra. Electricity and telephone cables are slung haphazardly across the streets. Rubble and rubbish can be found everywhere. Children play in the streets. The drains are overwhelmed by the occasional showers.

Susan rents some space from an Arab family living in Tamra. The grandmother in the family is so very good at making the most of what they have. They grow vegetables in the little patch of land they have. The head of the clam or Hamula stands for office in the municipal elections and wins. Susan votes for him.

Susan finds that Arab festivals are similar to Jewish ones. An Arab engagement party is not much different from a Jewish one. Customs, especially in the case of deaths and burials are very similar. Bodies are buried on the same day by sundown. Arabs have 3 days of mourning whilst Jews mourn for 7 days.

I’ll leave it to you to read the book and enjoy Susan’s description of Tamra, the elections and everything else.

Discrimination in different shapes and sizes

To an outsider, Israel appears to be an open society where all citizens have equal rights. It is a democracy where every citizen is entitled to vote and practice a religion of his/her choice. But it is not as simple as that. Israel, a nation formed on the basis of a UN resolution, does not treat its Arab citizens on par with its Jewish nationals. Discrimination is at times subtle, but at times it is in-your-face. Israel is a made-to-measure-democracy, where a Jewish majority at all times is fixed. ‘Fixed’ as in ‘match-fixing' fixed.

Each page in Susan’s book (two hundred and seventy odd pages) details a form of discrimination or harassment practised against the Arabs. I am not even going to try and capture all of the story here. However, let me tell you that Susan’s book has the ring of truth and honesty and is capable of making even the most committed Israel fan re-appraise his or her stand.

Land policies

The Zionists migrated to an empty barren land, described as a “land without people for a people without land”. Just as the European migrants to the Americas found bison and native Indians, the Jews did find some people in Palestine (lots of people actually), but they were not particularly civilised or in any way worthy of being treated on par with the immigrants. Which was a relief actually since it made it easy to de-humanise them and grab their land.

It worked out like this. The UN resolution which created Israel and a Palestinian state gave 55% of the land to Israel and 44% to the Palestinian state. This despite the fact that the Arabs were a majority in Palestine at that time and the Jews actually owned only 7% of the land. I don't agree with Susan that the 55:45 split was particularly unfair since the State of Israel was supposed to be a haven for Jews from around the world, not just for the Jews already there. It was assumed that there would be continued migration of Jews into Israel, which was to be a predominantly Jewish state.

However, I agree with Susan that happened after that was not particularly fair. In the course of the 1948 war, Israel did its best to chase Arabs away from their homes. Internally displaced Arabs had their lands and homes confiscated. The Israeli government's programme of extensive confiscation of Arab land has continued ever since. There's an Israeli bureaucratic term for Arabs who are internal refugees - “Present Absentees”. There are 250,000 of such present absentees in Israel.

Israel has put in place a land policy which Susan describes as “land apartheid”. Except for 7% of Israeli land owned by Israeli Arabs, the rest is owned by the government which leases it to Israelis. So far, over 400 Arab villages have been destroyed by the Israeli government.

Whilst there's plenty land available for Jews, the Israeli government tries to cram in as many Arabs as possible in the least amount of land. With the agricultural land surrounding Arab villages and towns confiscated, many young Arab couples can't find land to build homes for themselves. Susan gives the example of her own town, Tamra, where only 1000 acres of land is available for building. This means 88 people per acre. 6000 acres of Tamra's land has been zoned, that is designated for farming or as green land. We are told that Tamra has run out of land to bury the dead. According to Susan, the message to Arabs from the state is clear. They are not welcome in Israel.

The famous Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem has been built on the ruins of the abandoned village of Ein Kerem.

Ayn Hawd is yet another village taken over by the Israeli army after the villagers abandoned it during the 1948 war. 35 villagers, members of the Abu al-Hija family, went back and occupied a small portion of the land that was theirs. Ever since then, Israel has been trying to evict them from that land. To do so, a large area including the land occupied by the village has been declared to be a national park and later, an archaeological site as well. To put more pressure, the land was also declared to be part of a firing range. Laws designed ostensibly to protect vegetation prevent the villagers from grazing their cattle. The villagers are denied access to electricity or water. A veteran from Ayn Hawd described to Susan how it used to take him 3 hours to get to school. Ayn Hawd is not a one-off, but has been replicated across the country.

Tree planting programmes

The Israeli government has an avowed goal to 'green' Israel. This one involves planting pine, olive, carob and the like trees wherever possible, especially over destroyed Arab villages, so that one cannot find any trace of them. The Jewish National Fund (set up in 1901 in order to buy land in Ottoman ruled Palestine) is an NGO which, inter alia, collects money for the planting of trees in Israel. If you donate $18, you can have a tree planted in Israel. It might be on land once occupied by an Arab village.


More than Israel's land policy, I found Susan's description of Israeli education policy very troubling. To start with, Arab students have a different curriculum from Jewish students The government spends £105 a year on every Arab student, whilst £485 is spent on Jewish students. A mind boggling £1,340 is spent every year on Jewish religious (Yeshiva) students. This is because both the education ministry and the religious affairs ministry support these students.

Infrastructure and other facilities available in Arab schools is markedly inferior to Jewish schools. For example, even though all schools are required to be air conditioned, many Arab schools are not.

Palestinian Arab history is not taught in schools. There is no mention of the 'Nakbah' suffered by the Arabs of Palestine, other than as part of the Israeli citizenship curriculum explained below in the section 'Oases of Hope'.

In Susan's opinion, the worst aspect of the system is that all teachers are vetted by the security services. Shin Bet has a large network of spies, even in schools. Since students know that their teachers have obtained security clearance, they don't respect them. I don't fully agree with Susan. Does she expect the Israeli government to hand out jobs to people who could be a security threat? However, keeping in mind the fact that almost all Arabs in Israel are bound to have grievances, I assume the teachers who obtain security clearance are bound to be totally spineless.

School books promote stereotypes. Susan went through a textbook which talks of little Gideon and little Avner wanting to be astronauts. There was only one instance of Arabs being mentioned. Young Mohammad and young Yousef are shown to be asking their uncle how to be good camel drivers.

Susan says there is no Arab University in Israel, but towards the end of the book, she makes a reference to Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, a minor contradiction I guess. Israeli universities don't permit dissent. Arab students find it tough to get admission to universities. There are extra points for students who have done well in Hebrew, but none for doing well in Arabic. In 2003, there was a reform which was meant to make it easy for underprivileged students to gain admission to universities. The measures were intended for underprivileged Jewish children, but the main beneficiaries were the Arabs. The reforms were countermanded within a short time.

Susan tells us of Samiha, a very smart student who could not apply for medical school after she passed out since she was too young. The minimum age limit is set so that Jewish students who join medical school after their 3 year military service are not disadvantaged. So Samiha applied to law school where she was supposed to be a shoo-in. Samiha's application was rejected, for reasons unknown.

Arab Politics

Susan finds Arab Politics to be feudal. A family is usually dressed up as a political party. Susan thinks Israel is to blame for this state of affairs. In Israel, Arab politicians are considered hostile unless they join a Zionist party. Arab parties are excluded from coalitions. So Arab politicians stick to municipal elections.

I don't fully agree with Susan, though, a share of the blame should lie with Israel. I don't really understand why Arabs who form 20% of the population and have the right to vote shouldn't be a decisive force in Israeli elections.

Is it apartheid?

Susan makes a good case to say that Israel's treatment of its Arab minority is apartheid. The petty elements of apartheid are not present. Arabs can sit on the same benches as Jews. They can ride the same buses. However, the discrimination in core areas such as land, education etc. amount to an apartheid of sorts, according to Susan. I can see an element of truth in what Susan says.

The Israeli Left

Susan has nothing but contempt for the Israeli left-wing which reserves its sympathy for Palestinians in the occupied territories and don’t really care about Arabs within Israel. For example, Haaretz, the left-wing Israeli newspaper, has much better reports on Palestinians from the occupied territories than on Arab Israelis. Israeli left wingers say they had no choice but to come from Europe, take a country not theirs and dispossess thousands of Palestinians. Any mention of equal rights for Arab Israelis is anathema to everyone in Israel. There is no concept that rights are basic and universal.

Susan has lengthy descriptions of how left-wing Israelis don't do enough for Israeli Arabs. There is an interesting description of an interview by Sara Leibovitch-Dar, a Haaretz journalist, which ultimately was not published in English. There are interesting quotes from left-wing Israeli's - “If we let the Arabs back, they will be everywhere.”

Susan's friend Daphna Golan, Law Lecturer at Hebrew University, runs an organisation called Btselem which fights human rights abuses in the occupied territories. Daphna wants a Palestinian state, but Susan would rather focus on rights of Arab Israelis

Comparisons with Germany

Ein Hod is a communal settlement of artists built over the remains of the Arab village of Ayn Hawd mentioned above. Samira, whose parents used to live in Ayn Hawd, went to Ein Hod to 'take a look.' She was practically chased away. Susan contrasts the treatment Samira received with that of Rabbi Rayner's experience in Germany. Rayner, an eminent liberal Rabbi from London went to Germany to take a look at the house where his folks used to live. He was graciously invited in and allowed to look around.


Susan has an interesting opinion on the hijab, one of the most reviled garments in recent times. Susan says the hijab gives her dignity. She doesn't feel repressed. Instead, she feels free and proud to be a woman. When Susan used to live in Tel Aviv, she skimpy clothing meant that when men spoke with her, they had a conversation with her body and not with her.

Armed Extremists on the loose – with army protection

Susan has a few horror stories of how armed settlers are carrying out a limited form of ethnic cleansing in Israel in order to rid it of its Arab population. She runs into a rifle carrying settler while in a hospital ward who boasts that he has just requisitioned a home in East Jerusalem. 'All of East Jerusalem belongs to the Jews,' he boasts. Later Susan finds a bunch of settlers trying to evict an Arab family from their East Jerusalem home. Having occupied a flat about the Arab family, the settlers work in relay teams in making life a living hell for the Arab family. The hallway is used as a toilet and there is constant noise. To top it all, the settlers have military protection.

The Israeli Army – a culture of hatred and some hope

'What’s the difference between an Israeli soldier who bulldozes a house with people inside and a terrorist?' Susan asks her readers rhetorically.

The Israeli army incubates a culture of hatred, according to Susan. Even nice, law abiding teenagers become machines of hatred once they are in the army. Even the well intentioned among the soldiers cannot make a difference. Susan gives the example of Bar, who joined the army in the hope of doing some good. Bar was on duty at a West Bank checkpoint which had been closed in retaliation for a suicide bombing a few days earlier. Schools had just reopened and a number of school children in their new uniforms and their parents had lined up to cross over. Tempers started to fly when they realised that they won't be allowed across. Soldiers scream at the children to stay away from the gate. The frightened children do stay away. Bar decides to be polite and she is shoved aside by the queuing Arabs.

Irit, Principal of the Waldorf school, tells Susan that she hasn't recovered though she left the army 12 years ago.

Yet, more and more soldiers are objecting to the army's treatment of the Arabs. Many soldiers feel shame. They don’t want to belong to Israel. They say ‘its not mine. I’ll go to India or live in Europe.’

Language Intolerance

Susan tells us of an Arab employee being sacked by McDonald’s for speaking in Arabic with a fellow employee. Apparently there was a company direction that forbid employees from speaking Arabic. Why is there such a prohibition? Because the sound of Arabic might scare customers!

When the Rule of Law leads to injustice

South Africa during the apartheid era was one of those rare instances where the rule of law resulted in gross injustice. Apartheid was sanctioned by law and every other injustice practised by the state had legal sanction. Something similar takes place in Israel. There are laws which are meant to benefit only Jews. But they wouldn't say that. The law will instead say that it applies only to those who are eligible under the law of return or to those who are mandatorily required to perform military service.

Israel does not have a written constitution, though it was promised in the declaration of independence. Susan has an interesting explanation for this. According to Susan, a written constitution would lay down basic rights and guarantees for all citizens, including Arabs, enforceable in a court of law. Israel is not very keen on this.

The commonly accepted definition of a Jew is one born of a Jewish mother. Under the Law of Return, any one with a Jewish grandparent is eligible to perform aliyah, the idea being to get as many Jews as possible into Israel. Susan contrasts the Law of Return with the demand by displaced Arabs for the Right to Return to their homes, a right they have been denied so far.

Under the Citizenship Law of 2003, Palestinian spouses of Israeli Arabs won't be given Israeli ID or citizenship. A harsh law, it has not prevented Arabs in Israeli from marrying Palestinians, though they can't live together after marriage.

The public sector is almost exclusively reserved for Jews. The Israeli Electricity Board has over 13,000 employees, of whom 6 are Arabs. Please remember that Arabs form 20% of Israel's population.

Water scarcity in the West Bank

The West Bank sits atop the most prolific aquifers in Palestine. However, it faces acute water shortages, since water from the West Bank is used to fill up Israeli swimming pools and sprinkle Israeli lawns.

A difficult life

Life is a lot more difficult for Israeli Arabs than for its Jews. Most service providers will not travel to Jewish towns or villages. Susan has interesting stories of how telephone companies won’t sent their repairmen to Tamra which is not listed on El Al's database.

At Ben Gurion airport, Arabs are searched more rigorously and are treated rudely. Susan's friend Dr. Manna’s son and his Jewish girl friend were forced to miss a flight because they were required to undergo additional security checks. A woman travelling to Germany for a cancer operation was asked to turn up early so that she could be subjected to extra security checks. Susan compares this to a black man in South Africa not being picked up by a whites-only ambulance and dying as a result of that. I don't agree with Susan on this. I think El Al is perfectly entitled to carry out additional security checks on any of its passengers. How can El Al ensure that a bomb is not attached to the wheel chair carrying the cancer patient if not by carrying out additional checks? Let's face it, there is a much higher chance of an Arab passenger turning out to be a hijacker than a Jewish one. However, there is no excuse for being rude to Arab passengers.

It is not surprising that Arabs in Israel tend to say “Ma la’assot” or “What to do?” quite often.

Oases of hope

Amidst all this, there are many signs of hope. Mahapach, an NGO in which Susan is involved, does a lot of work for disadvantaged communities, especially oriental Jews, the Mizrarahim.

Eitan Bronstein runs an organisation called Zochrot (meaning remember) which posts signs on places built over destroyed Arab villages.

Israeli schools teaches all senior students before matriculation and military service an Israeli citizenship curriculum. Both Arabs and Jews learn the same lessons, which examine Israeli history including the Nakbah.

Arun Gandhi and non-violence

Mahatma Gandhi's grandson finds a mention in Susan's narrative. Susan says (rightly in my opinion) that Arun Gandhi fails to understand the depth of Palestinian anger when he advocates non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation. Susan attended a lecture by Arun Gandhi where he apparently talked of his childhood in South Africa with his Grandfather. Though Arun Gandhi was born in South Africa in 1934, I don't think he lived in South Africa at the same time as Mahatma Gandhi since Gandhi returned to India in 1915. As far as I know, Arun Gandhi lived with the Mahatma for two years only (1946-1948) in India. I assume Susan misheard what Arun Gandhi said.


I still believe that the UN resolution which created Israel was fair and just. I also think the Israel is entitled to permit Jewish immigration into Israel, since Israel is meant to be a haven for Jews. However, the UN resolution did not give the Israelis a mandate to carry out ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel. Israel was meant to be predominantly Jewish and not exclusively Jewish. This selective amnesia, in my opinion, has been the root cause for the state sponsored discrimination against Arabs. I believe that Israel should allow all displaced Arabs to return to their homes from refugees camps in Israel and from outside.

Towards the end of the book, Susan examines the two state theory and wonders if it is the best option available for Israel. An alternative would be for a single state incorporating Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Susan approvingly quotes Dr. Saed Zidan, Prof. at Al-Quds University, East Jerusalem who feels that Israel could become a confederation of an Arab state and a Jewish state. Everyone will stay where they are, but enjoy equal rights.

Palestine in a rough place where dialogue does not always work. I can imagine Jews saying that if they had lost the 1948 war or the 1967 war, the Arabs would have thrown them into the sea. In any event, they would have been treated worse than how Arabs are currently being treated in Israel. But arguments such as these will not offer a solution to the Palestinian problem. Just as the USA made peace with native Americans by conceding that they had been wronged and compensated them with money and land, Israel must make good the losses suffered by its Arab population and make peace with them.

I don't think a single state incorporating Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is practical. There is too much hatred between Jews and the Arabs for that to work. In my opinion, even a confederation will not work since it would require Arabs and Jews to have a common foreign policy and a single army. I just don't see the Israeli army with Arabs and Jews working together. The two-state solution set out in the UN resolution is in my opinion, the only solution in this troubled land. To make it work, Israel must first rein in its right wing Haredim and settlers. Once all Jews in Israel accept that they are not entitled to the whole of Palestine and that Israeli Arabs have the same rights as Jews, Israel will be in a position to offer a meaningful solution to the Arabs.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Conversions, Sham Marriages and Organ Donations

I'm not sure which of the three is more distasteful. Is selling a kidney or other organ for money more disgusting (or sad) than contracting a sham marriage for financial gain? Is switching one's faith for money sadder than receiving money to marry someone whose only aim is to migrate to the UK or the USA?

Personally speaking, I would put organ donations for money on top of this list. It must be really painful to be in a position where one is forced to donate an organ, maybe a kidney, to earn some money. Mind you, in India the Transplantation of Human Organs Act, 1994 makes it illegal to donate an organ for money. This law is observed more in breach. Desperate men and women continue to donate their organs for money. As long as there are willing buyers and eager buyers, this trade will go on. Rather than try and prevent it, it would make sense for the authorities to merely make sure donors are not cheated when they donate an organ.

People get married for reasons that vary from love to a need to please one's parents to getting money or property. Some get married because it is the done thing. In most cases, it is a combination of some of these reasons. I assume more than a few marriages are entered into solely for monetary reasons. Therefore, it should be no surprise to know that there are many people, nationals of countries like the UK and USA which are high up on the migrants wish list, willing to enter into contracts of marriage with wannabe migrants solely for money. Detecting sham marriages is taken seriously in these countries. Last year, the UK even tried to make a law which required foreigners living in the UK (other than permanent residents) to seek special permission to marry, irrespective of the status of their partner. The House of Lords struck down this law, but migration authorities continue to have the right to delve into a marriage to see if it is a 'sham.'

In my opinion, as long as a person is legally entitled to marry, no one should have the right to question his or her reasons for getting married. Why is it acceptable to get married for a fat dowry in India or a farmhouse in Surrey, and unacceptable to marry with a view to facilitating a migrant's entry into one's home country? As long as both parties are legally entitled to marry, that is, they are of sound mind and not already married, it should be none of anyone's business.

People change their religion for various reasons. In my opinion, the most common reason in modern times is – love. I've known so many instances of people switching faith in order to get married. This usually happens when one party in a marriage comes from a very religious background and his or her family will be terribly unhappy if he or she marries someone from a different religion or sect. And so, the other party, when faced with the prospect of losing the love of one's life, agrees to switch faith. Despite so much controversy in India over conversions, no one has seriously challenged the right to convert for love.

Then there are conversions for social advancement. By social advancement, I don't just mean escaping the caste system. Unlike the British, the Portuguese and the Spanish considered conversion to be one of the goals of colonisation. Therefore, during the Portuguese rule in Goa, many conversions were achieved by force. But not all conversions were forced. There were many who wanted to be be on the side of the ruling class, with the expectation of various benefits. Something very similar must have happened during Arab/Mughal rule in India. Some of those who converted may have been forced. Many others must have converted for social advancement and other benefits.

In recent times, practically every religious community in India has indulged in conversions. Various Hindu sants have converted tribals and dalits to mainstream Hinduism and reconverted those Hindus who had converted to Christianity. Christian priests have continued their noble task of spreading the Word and Muslim preachers have not been far behind. Interestingly, the growing economic clout of the overseas Indian/Hindu community has meant that Hindu missionary activities outside India have gained momentum. One only has to walk past Oxford Circus in London to see a number of 'white' Hare Krishna devotees singing and dancing and preaching. The Hare Krishnas and various Hindu temples in the UK such as the Sri Mahalakshmi temple in East London, serve free food to the hungry and run schools. I believe this practice is followed in the USA, Canada, Australia etc. In the West, no one questions the right of the Hare Krishnas or other Hindu organisations to conduct these activities which are not much different from the activities of Christian missionary and Muslim organisations in India. Like Christian missionaries in India, Hare Krishnas face flak in some intolerant parts of the world such as Kazakhstan. When a local authority in Kazakhstan destroyed part of the Hare Krishna settlement outside Almaty, there was a global outcry, including from the West.

Usually the ones who are willing to convert for benefits are not particularly religious. Having converted to a new faith, they do display the outward signs of that religion and bring up their children in the new faith. Usually the new faith sticks, though it may take a generation or two to do so.

I don't think religious conversions can be or should be banned. The Indian Constitution gives every Indian the freedom to practice any faith of his or her choice. This obviously includes the freedom to convert to any religion for any reason whatsoever. It could be for the purpose of getting married to someone, it may be to gain nirvana or salvation, it may be to get a job or to escape the caste system. But it should be none of anybody else's business.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

A Uniform Civil Code in my lifetime?

Yesterday (22 October 2008), a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court observed that India urgently needs a law (yet another!) to set up bodies at Central and regional levels to regulate, control and supervise Muslim marriages and divorces. Justice Kurian Joseph and Justice Harun-Ul-Rashid were passing their verdict in a matrimonial case involving a Muslim couple. On the face of it, this observation by the learned judges appears sensible and progressive, but I was actually disappointed by it.

India is a secular country where every community is allowed its own personal laws. Christians have the Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872 and the Indian Divorce Act 1869, Hindus have the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 and the Hindu Marriage Act, 1976 and so on. Muslim personal law, based on the Sharia, is not codified. Since Muslims are governed by the Sharia, an Indian male Muslim is entitled to have four wives at any time. It is interesting to note that after independence, Pakistan modernised its personal law and made it quite difficult for a man to marry a second time. A written approval from a government appointed arbitration council must be obtained before a man can take on a second wife. Tunisia and Turkey have actually abolished polygamy.

The Indian Muslim male’s right to marry more than once is misused not only by Muslims, but also by men from other communities. I remember the case of a non-Muslim chap accused of bigamy managing to prove that he had converted to Islam prior to his second marriage. It is not unheard of for men who want to marry for a second time to convert to Islam.

Article 44 of the Indian constitution says that “the State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.” The Indian State has made very few ‘endeavours’ in this regard. Neither the ‘secular’ Congress Party nor the right-wing BJP has had the guts to introduce a uniform civil code which will apply to all Indian nationals irrespective of religion. The Supreme Court has on various occasions reminded the Indian government of its failure to implement a uniform civil code.

What am I to make of the Kerala High Court ruling that doesn’t call on the government to implement a uniform civil code, but instead asks for central and regional bodies to “regulate, control and supervise Muslim marriages and divorces”? Do the honourable judges who passed this verdict believe that a uniform code will not materialize in the near future? What sort of regulation will these bodies carry out? Will it be made mandatory to register each Islamic marriage and divorce with these bodies? Have 4 wives at any given time, but do register each wedding? If the government is to interfere in personal laws (and interfere it must), why go in for such a half-hearted measure? Any interference will be met with opposition from the fundamentalists and so, why not take the bull by its horns and do a thorough job?

I believe that most Indian Muslims would welcome a uniform civil code since Islamic personal law is one of the so-called ‘perks’ allowed to this community, which isn’t actually a perk at all. It is not as if the Koran calls on every Muslim male to mandatorily have four wives! However, we are yet to hear a popular demand from within the Indian Muslim community for a uniform code. I am not sure when such a demand will arise, but rather than wait for a moderate messiah to arrive, the government should put this code in place and worry about the consequences later.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Aravind Adiga's Booker Prize - A Time for Introspection

Aravind Adiga has won this year's Man Booker Prize with his debut novel “The White Tiger”. As soon as I heard this news today morning, my initial reaction was ‘Good for Him!’ Yes, you guessed right. I didn’t really expect Adiga to win the Booker. In fact, I thought Adiga’s book was not even as good as Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and I didn’t expect the Sea of Poppies to win the Booker either though it was a lot more realistic. My money was on Sebastian Barry’s Secret Scripture. I thought Philip Hensher’s Northern Clemency might have a chance as well.

I had read White Tiger when it was released a few months ago. And I didn’t like it all that much. I was planning to write a review of the White Tiger for Desicritics one of these days. I would have done it earlier if I thought it stood a chance of winning the Booker, but I didn’t give it a chance at all.

After I heard the good news (for Adiga that is) I cast my mind as to why I hadn’t liked the book all that much. The protagonist Balram Halwai, semi-educated, a self-made man, a murderer, a rags-to-riches story, writes a series of letters to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. In these letters, Halwai raises all sorts of questions which probe the dark underbelly of Shining India. The first question which popped in my head was, why on earth would a self-made made like Halwai write to Wen Jiabao? Even if such a person were to start writing letters, and there was no reason why he should, it was never going to be to Wen Jiabao. I could envisage an Indian writing a letter to the American President or to the British Queen or the Secretary General of the United Nations. But no, not to the Chinese Premier. Here you have a rich man who has exploited the system, given bribes, committed a murder and made a success of himself, wanting to reform the very system he has mastered and asking questions usually raised by charity workers or journalists. No, it didn’t make sense to me. And I have read more than one review by an Indian which seemed to take a similar approach.

I did come across a lot of very flattering reviews in various western newspapers which seemed to gloss over the contradictions I have mentioned above. But I ignored them. I still didn’t think Adiga stood a chance. Michael Portillo, the chairman of the judges, described The White Tiger as “in many ways perfect. It knocked my socks off,” he said. I’m sure it did knock Portillo’s socks off. Otherwise, Adiga would not have won the Booker.

Why was my analysis so much way off the mark? Did I have a problem with the undue harshness with which Adiga probed India’s dark side? I don’t think so. I am very much aware that India has a very dark side, of a proportion that can easily eclipse the shining bit. There are quite a few books showing India in a bad light, that I have liked. Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance” comes to my mind instantly. May be it is easier for an outsider to focus on the story and ignore the sort of the contradictions I have pointed out above. Or maybe, I am just too critical of fellow-desis. I’ve heard friends say that a book which fails to show India in a negative light will never win the Booker. Did Adiga win the Booker because he washed India’s dirty linen in public? I’ll never know, but I do look forward to Adiga’s next work which might redeem him in my eyes.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Book Review: Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks

After Ian Fleming’s death in 1964, various authors have tried their hand at recreating James Bond in the image moulded by Fleming. The latest writer to throw his hat into the ring and take up the challenge of imitating Fleming is Sebastian Faulks, the highly acclaimed author of books such as The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray. Faulks’s Devil May Care is the 22nd authorised Bond book after Fleming’s death, written to commemorate Fleming’s 100th birthday.

Before I get to the crux of the matter and start commenting on Devil May Care, I should confess that I have read only two of Ian Fleming’s works (Thunderball and the Man with the Golden Gun) before. Moreover, I read them when I was in my teens, over 15 years ago. So, when I compare Faulks with Fleming, I will be doing so on the basis of my memories, which may not be very accurate.

Devil May Care, set in the late 1960s, comes with the usual Bond paraphernalia. It’s got a couple of glamorous women (there’s a twist to this number, but I’ll leave it you to read and find out), an evil villain and his even more evil side-kick, various fights to the death from each of which Bond survives with a few injuries. One of the fights involves the mandatory car and motorbikes whilst another is on a train (remember the Spy Who Loved Me?). The evil villain – Dr. Julius Gorner is as evil as ever, his objective being to flood the UK with drugs and provoke the USSR into nuke-bombing the UK. Dr. Gorner’s side-kick Chagrin is North-Vietnamese and has undergone an operation (at the hands of the Soviets) which makes him immune to pain. On the whole, it is a typical Fleming thriller and does keep you entertained (if you like books of this genre, that is).

Faulks is said to have written this book in 6 weeks (the same speed with which Fleming wrote) with the intention of imitating 80% of Fleming, keeping a decent 20% for himself. After reading this book, I would say the ratio is more like 60% Fleming and 40% Faulks. To begin with, there are too many bits of the book which read like real literature rather than pulp fiction. May be Faulks couldn’t help himself, but he shouldn’t have used sentences like “the large open space of the place de la Concorde was gleaming black and silver in the downpour.” When a Bond girl (one called Scarlet) tells Bond ‘you cold bastard, I should never have trusted you,’ Bond hasn’t been particularly nasty. Instead, he has only made a very sensible and practical suggestion. Bond does drink a lot, but he never asked for a martini, shaken but not stirred. The words ‘my name is Bond, James Bond,’ never appeared. Finally, Bond says No to sex, something I have never encountered in either of two Fleming books I have read or in any of the Bond movies I have seen.

The story is set in Iran, Russia (from the Urals to Leningrad), Paris , London and Helsinki . Which brings me to one of the few things I did not really like about this book. Faulks describes Iran as a desert country. ‘As soon as he stepped from the plane, Bond felt the intense heat of the desert country.’ I don’t claim to be an expert on Iran, but I doubt if it is can be called a desert country, even though a decent chunk of it is desert and it is very warm in summer. The head of the Tehran station is a cosmopolitan Persian who likes to have fun with women and opium. Darius tells us that despite his sophistication, he can be a tribal Bedouin if needed. I find this problematic since I tend to associate Bedouin with Arabs and not with Persians. Finally, Scarlet is supposed to be an investment banker from Paris who does mergers and acquisitions. To begin with, the term ‘investment banking’ was imported to Europe from the US in the late 1980s. Till then, the European term was ‘merchant banking’. Remember, this story takes place in 1967 or so. When one read Fleming, one got the feeling that the Caribbean where Fleming set his stories in, was a place which Fleming knew intimately. This is hardly surprising since Fleming used to live in the Caribbean. I didn’t get the feeling that Faulks was very familiar with the places in which this story is set.

Faulks get some bits of Fleming’s Bond right. He manages to convey the sort of chauvinism which Bond has always shown. For example, Bond regards the lands between Cyrus and India as the thieving centre of the world. Bond agrees with Felix that the French are riddled with Communists at all levels and are not to be trusted. An evil CIA double agent turns out to be gay in a decent burst of homophobia. Descriptions of gizmos, giant ships (hovercrafts actually) and hidden fortresses are also very good. One of the best bits of this book is a tennis match between Bond and Gorner which Bond wins, though it is actually rigged in favour of Gorner by a marvellous technical innovation.

Let me stop now rather than give away the entire story. On the whole, this is a pretty good Bond thriller and I’ll leave it to you to read and find out for yourself.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain

Two young Conservative politicians in the UK , Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan have come up with a plan (the “Plan”) for what they call – “renewing Britain ”. Daniel Douglas Carswell has been the Conservative MP for Harwich and Clacton since 2005. Hannan, a writer and journalist, is the Conservative Minister for European Parliament (MEP) for South East England since 1999. The plan put forth by Carswell and Hannan is set out in a 195 page document titled “The Plan: Twelve months to renew Britain” that can be either bought (for £10) or downloaded (for £5) online.

Bad Shape – In the eye of the beholder

The Plan is based on the assumption that the UK is in a bad shape. Like beauty, bad shape is also something that lies in the eye of the beholder. I remember when I started my first job in the UK , I was told (apologetically) by so many colleagues that the building which housed our offices was in a terrible shape. ‘Ghastly’ and ‘horrible’ were the adjectives most often used. Before coming to London a year before to do a one-year masters course at the London School of Economics, I had a four year stint in Mumbai during which time I had seen a lot of wobbly buildings with even more wobbly staircases and antique lifts. To my eye, I could find nothing wrong with my new office building. On the contrary, it looked unbelievably solid and sturdy. No, the problem I soon learnt, was not in the stability of the building, but in its aesthetics. Grey in colour, with no glass or other frills one sees in most modern buildings these days, it was clearly not intended to have people exclaim in admiration as they walked past. The same is the case with the UK , a very prosperous country by any standard, with nothing much seriously wrong with it.

What exactly is wrong in the UK?

Carswell and Hannan manage to find a lot wrong with the current state of affairs in the UK . But they are not just cribbers, they have a magic bullet solution for UK ’s ailments.

“The British state is failing. It can’t deliver even the most basic services competently. We have the highest prisoner population in Europe , and one of the highest crime rates. Our schoolchildren compare dismally with similarly aged pupils in other countries and in previous generations. Our healthcare system is more likely to kill its charges than any other in the developed world. Our roads are choked, our railways crumbling, our airports unbearable. Our borders are, to all intents and purposes, wide open.”

Each of the statements made above by Carswell and Hannan is debatable. For example, the International Centre for Prison Studies says that Russia has the highest rate of prison population (635 per 100,000) in Europe. Scotland and England and Wales have the 17th and 18th highest rates in Europe. I guess that when Carswell and Hannan say “Europe”, they mean “ Western Europe”. Even then, Spain has a higher rate than Scotland or England and Wales . Northern Ireland is 39th in Europe, lower than France or Germany with a prison population of 87 per 100,000. The United States of America , a source of inspiration to Carswell and Hannan in many respects, has the highest prisoner population in the world. If you look at the percentage of female prisoners within the prison population, England and Wales is at the 19th place, way below Norway , Austria , Switzerland and Germany . The British health care is admittedly not as good as say, healthcare in various other European states, but then, as Carswell and Hannan admit in the Plan, such other states spend a lot more on healthcare than the UK. British road and rail infrastructure is indeed not as good as what you find in say, Germany , but then Germany has always had better roads even during the days of Winston Churchill.

The Plan

The Plan revolves around a series of legislative measures (which will not take more than 12 months) to reform Britain . Carswell and Hannan feel that MPs are too powerless and have too many perks. They want to clean up Westminster by pruning the amount of perks MPs get. The House of Commons will be reduced in size. The House of Lords is not really compatible with democracy, Carswell and Hannan opine, but do not want to tackle it as part of the Plan since it will require a lot more time than one year. Policing and prosecution decisions must be made by elected officials. Judges should not be allowed to make law as they have been doing of late. Parliament must reign supreme, in its pruned form. The UK must withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. English counties and cities should have all the powers that have been devolved to Scotland . Parents who send their children to private schools must be able to claim the per capita average being spent on them. Similarly, patients must be able to opt out of the NHS. There should be greater devolution of powers. Local governments must be given all the powers which have now been devolved to Scotland and the right to collect sufficient revenue to do many things on their own.

Small government

“To the size of a state there is a limit, as there is to plants, animals and implements, for they can none of them retain their facility when they are too large.” This quote from Aristotle finds place at the beginning of the Plan document. The main grouse espoused by Carswell and Hannan, which runs throughout the Plan, is that the UK was traditionally a small state with the bulk of its laws derived from customs and practices, but is no longer so. In the last few decades, especially as a result of the accession to the EU, the UK has come to become a state run by bureaucrats and quangos (Quasi Autonomous Government Organizations) not elected by the people. Britain has moved towards continental European values which prefer a neutral and supposedly impartial administrator to an elected politician who may have biases and prejudices. Carswell and Hannan don’t like bureaucrats or quangos who only help themselves and create more paper work for themselves. On top of it all, even bureaucrats or quangos will have their own prejudices, we are told. Carswell and Hannan don’t use the words ‘welfare state’, though it becomes clear that they do want the British welfare state to be rolled back.

After the recent turmoil in the financial markets, not many people will find the idea of a small government appealing. The question being asked now is why the independent regulators weren’t more vigilant. There isn’t much of a demand to do away with regulators despite their many lapses. However, Daniel Hannan has not changed his mind if this blog post of his is any indication.

To be fair to Carswell and Hannan, their idea of a small government is a lot more than financial deregulation. As explained in detail below, the Plan envisages a small government everywhere, especially at the local level.

Elected Sheriffs

Carswell and Hannan want the UK to emulate the US in various respects, one of which is the subservience of police chiefs and prosecution services to elected Sheriffs. Sir Ian Blair, the London Metropolitan Police Chief, is used as an example of how undemocratic and unaccountable a police chief can be. At the time of the Plan’s publication, Sir Ian Blair was clinging to power despite facing an enormous amount of criticism. His role during the 7 July bombing and the death of Jean Charles de Menezes left a lot to be desired. The London Assembly passed a resolution of no-confidence in Sir Ian Blair. The new Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said that he would like Sir Blair to leave. Despite all this, Sir Blair stayed in power since he could only be fired by the Home Secretary (which happened recently after the Plan was published). Elected Sheriffs should also have the power to set local sentencing guidelines. This might mean that different towns or counties might have different approaches to the same offence. Shoplifting might attract a higher penalty in London than in Manchester . But that would be quite democratic. If the residents of London want to follow a particular approach to an offence, they should be free to do so, irrespective of what Manchester thinks.

I have some sympathy for this approach. You might argue that a nation as small as the UK should not try to emulate the US and end up with different laws in different parts of the country. If Carswell and Hannan have their way, illegal immigrants might, if caught in Barking, be flogged and deportated, whilst Argyllshire in Scotland might merely deport them. In the US , Texas enthusiastically enforces the death penalty whilst 13 states have abolished it. However, it cannot be denied that a much higher percentage of Texans support the death penalty than citizens of states where the death penalty has been abolished. If you believe that democracy should be subservient to the goal of moving the entire nation to a higher plane of values, you might not like this approach. However, what constitutes a ‘higher plane of values’ will always be debatable.

Human Rights Act

The UK is a signatory to the European Convention on Human rights and all UK laws are subject to the Human Rights Act 1998 framed under this convention. Laws made by the British Parliament can be overruled if they are found to violate the Human Rights Act. It is not unheard of in the UK to challenge laws and regulations on the ground that they breach human rights. Carswell and Hannan do not like the idea of judges using the Human Rights Act to override the will of the Parliament. They want the Human Rights Act to be scrapped. If the Plan were to be implemented, the UK will withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Illegal immigrants, minorities and to a lesser extent prisoners, rely on this law more than others since they have very few other rights. Carswell and Hannan cite the example of an illegal immigrant who in 1997 was able to overturn his deportation order on the grounds that he would not receive the same medical treatment in his home country as was available in the UK . The illegal immigrant relied on Article 3 of this convention which says that no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ I find this example a bit outdated since the UK now deports illegal immigrants who are ill and need urgent medical care. In the beginning of this year, media reported the case of a cancer-ridden Ghanaian woman who was deported from the UK and died soon after.

All the examples cited by Carswell and Hannan as examples of how courts have used the Human Rights Act to overturn the will of the Parliament involve illegal immigrants or prisoners or citizenship applications. I do have sympathy for the view that Judges should only interpret and should never make the law. However, if the Human Rights Act were to be scrapped, the most vulnerable section within British society will suffer the most.

Parliament must be supreme

Carswell and Hannan want a Reserve Powers Act to be enacted in order to guarantee the supremacy of the legislature against judicial activism. Carswell and Hannan find it intolerable that a national legislature might be subservient to an international body. For this reason, they oppose the International Criminal Court which can prosecute national leaders, a process which they rightly say may be misused. At least in theory, any political leader anywhere in the world, including from the UK , may be tried by the ICC. Carswell and Hannan go to the extent of saying that “the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals have now become a law unto themselves, prosecuting some men for no better reason than that it was thought politically expedient to have indictees from all sides in a war.” The job of prosecuting national leaders must be left to national courts, they say.

Thankfully not many people in the world share this point of view. If they did, war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic would never have been brought to book.

Carswell and Hannan want the UK ’s defence and foreign policy to be determined entirely by the Parliament with a lot more parliamentary oversight over diplomats. According to Carswell and Hannan, “British foreign policy is cocooned from the democratic process. It is conducted by highly qualified officials who, although often technically brilliant, have drifted away from the values of the rest of the country. Left to their own devices, diplomatists have evolved an approach to international relations that is elitist, managerialist, supra-nationalist, technocratic and contemptuous of ‘populism’.” Reading this, I was reminded of Republicans accusing Obama of elitism!

And look at what these elitist diplomats have got the UK into? They got the UK into the EU! What could be worse than that? Carswell and Hannan seem to hate the European Union more than anything else in the world.

Each and every real and perceived foreign policy mistake is blamed on elistist diplomats who follow their own ideology rather than the people’s dictates. Unlike the diplomats of yore, modern diplomats do not project British interests. Though experts, diplomats have as many prejudices and biases as anybody else. Currently, diplomatic appointments, the contracting of treaties and national defence, are all controlled by Downing Street under Crown Prerogative powers. This has allowed the Foreign Secretary to sign up to treaties such as the Maastricht Treaty without Parliamentary approval. Carswell and Hannan want all these powers to be transferred to the Parliament. Each time the Parliament is reconstituted, all treaties and diplomatic appointments must be reviewed and approved, else they will lapse. Even if this sounds like a good idea in theory, I doubt if this can be implemented in practice unless the MPs work all year around in the Parliament, something which doesn’t fit in with the Plan for a reduced House of Commons.

Gentlemen (or Lady) Members of Parliament

Carswell and Hannan want to prune the pay and perks which MPs get. MPs will meet only for a limited number of days in a year and will be ‘amateur’ politicians. In the sense
that they will need to carry on a trade or profession of their own which will pay their bills. The only compensation they get will be for the days they need to spend in Parliament.

On paper this sounds good. But in practice this would generally prevent people without a great deal of inherited wealth from entering politics. In my opinion, it is not possible to be a part-time politician. Even if an MP does not have to spend all his/her time in Parliament, I doubt if it will be possible for the MP to hold a regular job. There will be exceptions for sure, but this proposal would take politicians to a situation similar to that of sportsmen in the days when sport was played (mainly by the wealthy) for glory rather than money.

Right to Opt-Out from State Schools and the NHS

Carswell and Hannan feel that schools in the UK are ‘failing due to too much government.’ They want the Danish system to be followed in the UK which would give parents who send their children to private schools the right to claim the per capita average being spent within the state system. In other words, the cost of sending children to private schools will come down. The net impact of such a move, in my opinion, would be to widen the rich-poor divide in the education system. The poorest children would continue to languish in state schools, whose quality would deteriorate even further.

Something similar is to be done with the NHS. Carswell and Hannan rightly say that the NHS is bloated and inefficient. Patients should have the freedom to seek services from a private health care provider and opt out of the NHS. Carswell and Hannan specifically recommend the health care system in Singapore where patients deposit money in a health care savings account (till the money reaches a critical limit) and pay their private health care providers from that account. Catastrophic insurance (of around £400 per annum) is also bought by everyone. The Plan rightly claims that the Singaporean system is even better than the system (of privately insured healthcare) in the United States .

Personally speaking, I would benefit if these suggestion were to be implemented. So would most middle-class residents in the UK . But these bits of the Plan have the potential to make British society a lot less egalitarian.

Devolution of power

Carswell and Hannan want local governments to be autonomous with all the powers which have now been devolved to Scotland . At present ninety per cent of all revenue collected in Britain goes to the Chancellor in Whitehall . This money is distributed by the Chancellor to various authorities and bodies. The net result is that local councils are quite powerless and good candidates are not interested in standing for elections at the council level.

The Plan proposes the scrapping of VAT and replacing it with a local sales tax (“LST”). Different regions will have different rates of LST. This will lead to tax competition between various regions. Local councils should also have the freedom to scrap council tax.

I can see a lot of merit in these suggestions. However, the consequences may involve a drastic fall in the amount of money being available with local councils in deprived areas. The Plan does mention a top-up for such areas, but I feel it is unlikely to be equal to the actual loss in revenue.

Social security is to be distributed at the local level. Carswell and Hannan rightly point out that local authorities are in a much better position to detect welfare fraud and determine parameters for entitlement. This is something I fully endorse as long as deprived areas as given a proportionately higher allotment to meet their welfare costs.

Cut down on red-tape

Carswell and Hannan want to repeal various Acts that provide the legal base for burdensome and costly regulation. The Plan lists 26 Acts which are to be repealed. These include laws framed under the EU Directives on Part-Time Work giving part-time workers equal access to pay, pensions, annual leave and training as full-time staff, Anti-Money Laundering Rules and the Hunting Act 2004 which outlaws hunting with dogs. As would be evident to anyone who reads the entire Plan, most of the laws which Carswell and Hannan want to repeal are social welfare legislation which conservatives have always hated. You might agree or disagree with Carswell and Hannan depending on which shade of the political spectrum you belong to.

The Plan proposes that all new pieces of legislation are to have a sunset clause that will ensure that enactments do not survive in perpetuity. I don’t agree. Some laws contain sunset clauses and these are usually the draconian anti-terrorism laws which curtail civil liberties. Otherwise laws are meant to make things better and ought to survive for perpetuity.

Alternatives to the EU

As mentioned earlier, Carswell and Hannan don’t like the European Union and they propose that the UK ought to withdraw from the EU and instead be a part of the European Free Trade Area (“EFTA”) just like Switzerland . Being in the EFTA would give the UK trade access to the European Market without having to tag along with the EU in matters such as labour policy or welfare measure or immigration. Carswell and Hannan point to countries such as Iceland and Switzerland which are not part of the EU and manage to remain prosperous. I guess Iceland was a prosperous country when the Plan was published. It is no longer so very prosperous at the moment.

I do agree that if ideologically most people in the UK differ from continental Europe , it makes little sense to be a part of the EU.

People’s Bills and Blocking Referendums

Carswell and Hannan recommend that citizens ought to be able to table bills in the Parliament if they collect sufficient signatures. The top 6 popular bills should be voted on by MPs. Similarly, if 20,000 people sign a petition to block a bill which has received its third reading, but before it receives Royal Assent, the bill should be blocked. If within a prescribed period a specified percentage of the electorate sign up to the petition, the bill should not become law.

These are good proposals and I would support them. Please read the Plan in full if you want to understand these proposals since the explanation I have given above is sketchy and may not give you an accurate picture of the proposals as contained in the Plan.

What’s the Position on Immigration?

One very important issue which has not been addressed in the Plan is that of migration. Thought not always discussed openly, migration has been one of the hottest issues in the Western world in this decade. Surprisingly, Carswell and Hannan don’t have much to say on this. There are a few mentions of reversing the flow of illegal migration, cracking down on illegal immigrants and the failures of the Migration Service. When discussing the drawbacks of being in the EU, it is said that the EU has prevented the UK from having an annual quota on immigrants. But a specific policy to tackle the perceived problem of immigration is missing. This is a glaring omission indeed.

Since the Plan is silent on this vital issue, I am tempted to infer what Carswell and Hannan might have in mind based on what they have said on other matters.

Switzerland has the most successful policy on migration in the whole of Europe . When I say “successful”, I mean success in controlling migration since controlling and reducing migrant inflows is the cornerstone of most migration policies, including that of the UK . How does Switzerland do this? To apply for Swiss citizenship, the applicant must have legally lived in Switzerland for at least 12 years. The final decision on a citizenship application is made by the local community where the applicant lives. The local community will interview the applicant and put his application to vote before citizenship is granted.

Do Carswell and Hannan wish to implement the Swiss approach I wonder? It would fit in with the Plan which wants to devolve power to local communities. Currently, a person who has worked in the UK for five years will almost automatically obtain permanent residency. Permanent residents obtain citizenship (almost automatically) a year after becoming permanent residents. If the Swiss system were to be implemented in the UK , I would assume that the number of people who obtain British citizenship will be reduced to a trickle. Would members of one community or race find it more difficult to get citizenship than others? Possibly.

No foreigner has the right to migrate to another country. The visa stamped on a foreign passport is always a favour bestowed on the passport holder rather than an entitlement. Every country has the right to implement the most appropriate immigration policy. That being said, immigration is an emotional topic, especially during a recession when jobs are being lost and the economy feels pinched. It is very easy to cause scare mongering and get voters excited on this topic. Sometimes the scaremongering works, sometimes it doesn’t. I do wish Carswell and Hannan had not remained silent on this issue.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Book Review: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's August 1914

August 1914 is the first book in Solzhenitsyn's Red Wheel series which covers the collapse of Tsarist Russia and the birth of the Soviet Union. Set during the initial stages of the First World War, it delves into the reasons for the catastrophic defeat suffered by the Imperial Russian army at the hands of the Germans in the area around the Masurian Lakes, in what's now called the Battle of Tannenberg. Prior to the First World War, Russia had a string of defeats, at Crimea and then against the Japanese, followed by a none-too-glorious Turkish campaign.

Colonel Vorotyntsev plays the most important role in August 1914. A member of the Russian General Staff, Vorotyntsev travels (mainly on horseback) throughout the war theatre meeting various senior Russian army officers, analysing Russian positions and tactics and finally reports back to Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army. It goes without saying that Vorotyntsev is very much unhappy with the way things are done by the Russian generals. In the course of Vorotyntsev's wanderings through the war theatre, we get to know of their near total ineptitude. None of the generals have bothered to keep in touch with the latest advancement in military technology or tactics. And why should they, when the War Minister himself has boasted of having not read a single military textbook since he left university 35 years ago? Promotions are always by seniority. Orders are telegraphed without using codes (en clair) since the operators don't have much schooling and do not understand code.

Russian generals do not have access to much intelligence. There are a few aeroplanes for aerial reconnaissance, but nothing compared to what the Germans have. German artillery is a lot better and lot more effective. There is one motorised ambulance unit for the whole Russian army. Russian generals are totally clueless about the whereabouts of the German armies whilst the Germans know exactly where the Russians are. There is no coordination whatsoever. Soldiers advance on foot for many miles through enemy territory only to get lost and have to trudge back. Despite all this, Russians fight with enormous gallantry and courage, putting up with extraordinary hardships.

The Commander in Chief of the Russian army is Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, Tsar Nicholas II's uncle. Solzhenitsyn shows some respect for his military abilities. When the Grand Duke was made the Commander in Chief, he had plans to revamp the entire general staff and put competent people in vital positions. However, the Tsar tells the Grand Duke to not to replace any of the Tsar's appointees, which meant that the Grand Duke’s plans come to naught.

Most generals don't have a plan of action other than to save their own skins. They make false claims of having won battles and captured territories. Generals are very religious and prayers form a vital part of the campaign. When the Tsar gets to know of the enormous casualties suffered by his troops, he sends a letter to the Commander-in-chief. It says "Dear Uncle Nick, I deeply grieve with you over the loss of our gallant Russian soldiers. But we must submit to the will of God. He who endures to the end will be saved. Yours Nicky (Nicholas II)" In addition to such words of encouragement, the Tsar dispatches an icon of the blessed virgin appearing in a vision to the Holy Father Sergius. Apparently this icon has accompanied the Russian army on many of its battles and campaigns, both successful and the unsuccessful (such as during the Russo-Japanese war).

The climax of the novel comes towards the end when Colonel Vorotyntsev manages to meet the Grand Duke and appraise him of what's happening on the war front. The Grand Duke convenes a meeting of all Generals. Vorotnysev launches into a brilliant analysis of what's going wrong. Articulate, erudite and his anger under control, he tears the Generals apart. The Grand Duke is silent, thus implicitly supporting Vorotnysev. However, towards the end Vorotnysev makes a fatal error. After criticising the generals, he criticises the treaty between Russia and France which obligated Russia to launch the war fifteen days after mobilisation started. In reality, the Russian army needed sixty days. Vorotnysev tells the assembly that Russia had an obligation to support friends but no obligation to commit suicide. Throwing untrained troops into battle fifteen days after mobilisation was, in Vorotnysev’s opinion, a criminal act. The Grand Duke is forced to ask Vorotnysev to leave. The treaty was signed by the War Minister and himself and approved by the Tsar. No one has the right to criticize the Tsar, the deeply religious Grand Duke agrees with one of the idiotic generals.

Towards the end of the book, the capture of Lvov by Russian troops is announced. It is a great victory, the public is told. In reality, Russian generals have committed a blunder. They had the Austrian army in a pincer, but allowed them to escape. They have captured an empty Lvov from which the Austrians had already withdrawn.

Solzhenitsyn does not tell us much about Vorotyntsev's personal life other than that he is not on very good terms with his wife. And herein lies the biggest flaw of this book. When compared with any of the other great Russian war stories – be it Tolstoy's War and Peace or Sholokhov's Quiet Flows the Don, August 1914 lags behind in the quality of its tale. Solzhenitsyn's only focus in August 1914 is the war and the political realities of those times. He does not bother to tell us about the person behind any of his characters, many of whom make a brief appearance and are never seen again. Once in while, Solzhenitsyn does get philosophical. ‘What makes a human being cease to shun death?’ his readers are asked. But on the whole, the book is an analysis of the causes of Russia's defeat. If you are looking for a story and nothing more, you may be disappointed. On the other hand, if you enjoy political commentary and analysis (as I do) you will really enjoy this book.

That the Russians are very patriotic people is brought out very well by Solzhenitsyn. He tells us of Russian families exiled by the Tsars to the Caucasus which after many generations are still devoted to the Russian empire. Revolutionary spirit and desire for change is shown to be widespread, even among the rich people. However, so-called revolutionaries sign up to the army when Mother Russia is said to be in danger. The Russians have enormous contempt for the Germans, even though they find Germany to be an advanced country. Solzhenitsyn is very good in describing the awe with which Russian soldiers see Germany when they are in German territory. It is a case of people from an underdeveloped country being suddenly exposed to a first world country.

Various minor characters softly slide past the reader in the course of this 650 odd page saga. One of them is Isaaki, a model student who considers himself a “Tolstoyan”. Isaaki goes to Tolstoy's farm one day hoping to set eyes on the great man. Isaaki is lucky. Not only does he catch a glimpse of Tolstoy, who is shorter than he expected, but also exchanges a few words with him. Isaaki is not Jewish, but is mistaken for one (because of his name) when he applies to University. Unfortunately for Isaaki, the quota for Jews is full and his application is rejected. Isaaki is forced to produce his baptism certificate in order to get admitted.

There's Madame Kharitonova, a Headmistress, who is of a liberal and revolutionary bent of mind. She hates her son for having enrolled in the army. However, despite her liberalism, she hates it when her daughter runs off and marries a poor engineer.

Ilya Isakovich Arkhangorodsky, a Jew, is one of the rare minor characters who we get to know much better than any other minor character. Ilya Isakovich is an engineer, an expert on flour milling machinery and the owner of many mills and factories. Since Solzhenitsyn was always dogged by claims that he showed traces of anti-Semitism, I was particularly interested in the way he has depicted Ilya Isakovich. Solzhenitsyn contrasts Ilya Isakovich with Obodovsky, a very famous and talented Russian engineer. While Ilya Isakovich is stocky and well dressed, Obodovsky is tall, fair and is dressed untidily. Ilya Isakovich is rich, while Obodovsky doesn't really care about money. Obodovsky used to be a revolutionary, but gave up his cause and devoted himself to engineering. Having travelled through Europe seeing how things are done, Obodovsky has come back to Russia to make things better for his country. However, Ilya Isakovich is not your average rich Joe. After gaining his engineering degree, he worked in a mill as a workman (even though he could have started off as an engineer) before he became the chief manager and finally the owner of the mill. He soon acquires many more mills and factories. We meet Ilya Isakovich's pretty wife who doesn't say much and his two teenage children who call themselves revolutionaries. They condemn the support shown for the Tsar by the Jews of Rostov who held a service in the synagogue to pray for Russia and the Tsar and took out a 20,000 strong procession. Solzhenitsyn tells us that Ilya Isakovich is not a practising Jew and that his family "ate matzos for Passover and then at the orthodox Easter, they baked Easter cakes and painted eggs."

There's an interesting discussion between Ilya Isakovich, Obodovsky and Ilya Isakovich's two children. Obodovsky tells the children that a revolution will be pointless. Ilya Isakovich is very indulgent towards his kids, but he has no sympathy for a revolution either. Instead, both the engineers want to industrialise Russia. "Heat the tundra, drain it and see what minerals lie underneath,' Obodovsky tells them all. 'Climate change! Global warming! I screamed in my head. However, let's not forget that it was a different era altogether.

I wouldn't say that Solzhenitsyn has shown Ilya Isakovich as slimy or a weasel, unlike in the case of Tsezar Markovich, a Greek-Gypsy-Jew, a character in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. However, the net effect of Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of Ilya Isakovich, especially when contrasted with Obodovsky, is one of a man who is superior to everyone else around him, in terms of the ability to make wealth. It is not that Solzhenitsyn does not mention other wealthy people in his story. There are many wealthy landowners, one of whom is Tomchak, who manages to buy an exemption from military service for his son. However, Ilya Isakovich is the only character who lives a very comfortable life without doing physical labour or owning any land. I don't think this should open up Solzhenitsyn to a charge of anti-Semitism since many Jews in Russia did live comfortably using their brain power.