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India’s Kristallnacht?

The anti-Muslim pogrom in north-eastern Delhi last week only killed 43 people, and a few of them weren’t even Muslims. But then on Kristallnacht (‘The Night of Broken Glass’) in Germany in 1938, only 91 Jews were killed. It was still a Nazi declaration of war on the Jews, and a forewarning of the 6 million Jewish deaths to come.

Is this India’s Kristallnacht? History does not repeat, but it does have patterns, and there are disturbing similarities.

First, a disclaimer. Many senior officials in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP (Indian People’s Party) indulge in blood-curdling anti-Muslim rhetoric, and more than a few have urged violence against Muslims, but there is no plan to exterminate them in death camps. It can’t be done.

Only one in a hundred Germans was Jewish in 1933, when Hitler came to power. One-seventh of India’s population – two hundred million people – are Muslims. A Nazi-style ‘Final Solution’, or even the expulsion of the entire Muslim population (like the Nazis’ early fantasies about moving all of Europe’s Jews to Madagascar) is just not practical in India.

It can still be done with smaller numbers of people: Burma recently expelled its entire population of Muslim Rohingyas, some 700,000 people, just by murdering a few thousand and driving the rest across the border into Bangladesh. But you cannot do that to all of India’s Muslims: it would be like moving the entire population of Japan and both Koreas to somewhere else.

Narendra Modi is not squeamish about dead Muslims. He presided (deniably) over the slaughter of at least a thousand Muslims in targeted ‘rioting’ when he was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002, and for three days last week he said nothing about the ‘rioting’ targeting Muslims in Delhi. Then he made a vague appeal for ‘peace and brotherhood’, and that was all.

Modi is a realist, and his project is not genocide. It is the re-definition of Hindus as the only ‘real’ Indians, and the demotion of Indian Muslims to second-class citizenship at best. But it will still take a lot of violence to cow Muslims into accepting their new lower status, and that is what we were seeing in Delhi last week.

Modi’s project went into high gear soon after he was re-elected with a landslide majority last May. In August he stripped Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, of the special status it had enjoyed since it joined India in 1947. The state has been locked down under military occupation ever since, and most senior Kashmiri politicians are still in detention.

Then in December he brought in two new laws that will, if they stand, make ‘second-class citizenship’ for Muslims a reality. One is the Citizenship Amendment Act, which makes it easy for immigrants of every religion except Muslims to become Indian citizens.

The other is the National Register of Citizens, which will force the hundreds of millions of Indians who have no documents proving their nationality to apply for citizenship, just as if they were migrants from somewhere else. Getting Indian citizenship will be easy if they are Hindu (or Sikh, or Christian, or Buddhist), but almost impossible in practice if they are Muslim.

The huge non-stop protests since December show that many Indians, including many Hindus, are appalled by these discriminatory laws, and by Modi’s frontal assault on the principle of a secular Indian state whose citizens are all equal before the law. But most Hindus seem to approve, and Hindus are 80% of the population.

Modi hasn’t won yet. The protesters have not given up, the courts are not completely subjugated by the ruling party, and the BJP actually lost the election for the Delhi state assembly last month. But it was a BJP leader who lost his seat in that election, Kapil Mishra, who then incited Hindu mobs to attack Muslims in Delhi.

It wasn’t just neighbour turning on neighbour in some spontaneous outburst of hatred. There was a good deal of that after three days, but it was started by young Hindu thugs armed with iron bars, sticks and machetes, trucked in from nearby rural parts of Uttar Pradesh state to attack Muslims and get the violence going.

Similar but smaller events like that are occurring all over India, and in almost every case the police stand by or actually join in the anti-Muslim attacks. (The police are controlled by the national government, which is BJP, not by the states.) There are also stories of Hindus protecting their Muslim neighbours, as you would expect – there are good people everywhere – but it doesn’t look promising.

The protests may go on for another month, or another six months, but Modi has four more years to play with before he faces another election. By then India may be an unrecognisable place: a ‘soft’ fascist state achieved more or less by democratic means.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“It can…all”)

Lady Macbeth of Maseru

First there was ‘Macbeth’, the Shakespeare play (1606). It’s a bloody play even by Shakespeare’s demanding standards, with Lady Macbeth as the chief inciter to violence.

Then there’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’, a short novel by Nikolai Leskov (1865) that was later turned into an opera by Shostakovich. This Lady Macbeth is called Katerina, and she murders first her father-in-law, then her husband, then his nephew and heir, and finally her lover’s next mistress. Industrious to a fault, you could say.

And in 2020 we have Lady Macbeth of Maseru, the unpretentious capital of Lesotho. Maesaiah Thabane, wife of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and therefore First Lady of Lesotho, is charged with ordering the murder of his previous wife three years ago, and he’s accused of being her accomplice. She is, of course, half his age. She’s 42; the prime minister is 80.

I have had several dear Basotho friends since I was a teenager and have visited the country at intervals for most of my adult life, but I must admit it’s a puzzling place. There is no white settler minority, and it has none of the tribal rivalries that cripple so many other African countries. It should be better than it is.

Everybody is descended from Sesotho-speaking refugees who held out in its mountains against the Zulu armies during the Lifaqane of the early 1800s. It’s poor, like many mountainous countries – 16th-century Switzerland sent its young men abroad as mercenaries; modern Lesotho sends them to South Africa’s gold mines – but it’s pretty equal.

So why has it got a very high murder rate, and why are its politics so vicious? It’s a democracy, but its modern history is strewn with coups, attempted coups and even military interventions to quell the fighting by South Africa (whose territory completely surrounds Lesotho). Now the prime minister and his wife both stand accused of murder.

The killing actually happened in 2017, just before Tom Thabane began his second term as prime minister, but the story goes back to 2012, when he began divorce proceedings against his wife, 58-year-old Lipolelo Thabane. She fought the case, so he just moved his girlfriend, Maesaiah Ramoholi (as she was then known), into the prime ministerial residence and began treating her as the First Lady.

Now it was Maesaiah who accompanied Thabane on state occasions and received the official financial support a First Lady is entitled to – until Lipolelo won a court case in 2015 that acknowledged that she was still the First Lady and entitled to that money.

This judgement made no practical difference at the time, since it was issued just as Tom Thabane lost the prime ministership in one of the games of musical chairs that pass for politics in Lesotho. But in the next round of the game, in 2017, Thabane emerged as prime minister again, and suddenly that court decision mattered a lot.

Lipolelo was going to be First Lady again, receiving the honours and the money that Maesaiah thought should be hers. Two days before Thabane’s re-inauguration as prime minister, however, Lipolelo was shot to death on the dirt road leading to her house outside Maseru. A family friend who was also in her car escaped with several bullet wounds, but she could not identify the attackers.

Regrettably, attacks like this are not unknown in Lesotho, so the public (with some misgivings) accepted it as just another unresolved tragedy. Two months after Thabane took office again, Maesaiah became the new Mrs Thabane and Lesotho’s new First Lady in a wedding in Maseru’s stadium. However, Lesotho’s police quietly continued their investigation.

Eventually they found something interesting. Two months ago Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli sent a letter to the prime minister whose key sentence read: “The investigations reveal that there was a telephonic communication at the scene of the crime in question… with another cell phone. The cell phone number belongs to you.”

Okay, give him a break. Thabane is 80, and he didn’t realise that he should be using a burner for this kind of call. Or Maesaiah didn’t. Whatever. But there it is: the fat is now officially in the fire.

Maesaiah fled to South Africa when an arrest warrant was issued for her in January, but eventually came back and was officially charged. Tom Thabane also went to South Africa to avoid a court appearance, allegedly for ‘medical reasons’, but appeared in court last Monday and claimed that as prime minister he has legal immunity from any criminal charge.

That’s questionable. The king, Letsie III, certainly has immunity, but Thabane’s claim will have to go to the High Court. Maesaiah’s trial will probably have to wait until that is decided.

Just another heart-warming story of everyday folks in Lesotho politics – but at least the rule of law still prevails.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“Everybody…equal”; and “Okay…fire”)

Assange Hearing

The cost of being a whistle-blower is going up. When Daniel Ellberg stole and published the ‘Pentagon Papers’ in 1971, revealing the monstrous lies that the US government was telling the American public about the Vietnam war, he was arrested and tried, but the court set him free.

When Edward Snowden released a vast trove of documents in 2013 about the global electronic surveillance activities of US intelligence agencies, he was already abroad, knowing that civil liberties had taken a turn for the worse in the US since 1971. Snowden is still abroad seven years later, living in Moscow, because hardly anywhere else would be safe.

And Julian Assange, whose court hearing on a US extradition request began on Monday at Woolwich crown court in east London, is facing 175 years in jail if Britain delivers him into American hands. The American authorities are really cross about his WikiLeaks dump of confidential material in 2010 that detailed US misbehaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Everybody knew or at least suspected that terrible things were happening there, but without documentation there was really nothing they could do about it. What Assange did was give them the evidence.

The most striking piece of evidence was a video and audio clip from an Apache helicopter gunship attacking civilians in Baghdad in 2007. The crew spray their targets with machine-gun fire, making comments like “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into battle” and “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.” They even target people in a vehicle that stops to help the wounded.

As for the claims of the US authorities that Assange has “blood on his hands” – that his 2010 data dump endangered the lives of some of those who were mentioned in the documents – there is not a shred of evidence that this is so. If anyone had come to harm over the past nine years as a result of his actions, don’t you think that the US government would have trumpeted it to the skies?

The whistle-blowers are among our last remaining checks on the contemptuous ease with which those who control the information seek to manipulate the rest of us. We don’t always respond to the whistle-blowers’ revelations as fast and as strongly as they would hope, but they are indispensable to keep the level of lying down. They should be praised, not punished.

So what are the chances that Julian Assange will escape extradition to the United States and a lifetime in prison? His lawyers will doubtless argue that nobody was harmed as a result of his revelations (except perhaps in their reputations for truthfulness) and that nobody profited by them. A British court might look unfavourably on an extradition request that is brought out of sheer vindictiveness.

The story that Donald Trump contacted Assange through an intermediary, former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, might also help. Trump was allegedly offering to pardon Assange if the Australian would confirm that it wasn’t the Russians who gave him the Hilary Clinton campaign emails he released during the 2016 election campaign.

This has all been denied by both Rohrabacher and the Trump White House, but in carefully phrased ways that leave room for suspicion. Trump’s recent denial that he doesn’t know Rohrabacher and never spoke to him is especially suspect, since he invited the man to the White House for a one-on-one in April, 2017. British courts will not extradite if the request is politically motivated.

But Assange’s best chance probably lies elsewhere. During the seven years when he lived in Ecuador’s embassy in London as a political asylum-seeker, a Spanish security company called UC Global installed cameras in every corner of Assange’s space in the embassy and live-streamed every contact and conversation he had, including with his lawyers, directly to the US Central Intelligence Agency.

I don’t know how a British court will respond to that information, but I think I know how an American court would respond. That’s how Ellsberg got off in 1971: the government tapped his phone conversations (and sent burglars to break into his psychiatrist’s office and steal his file), so the judge dismissed the case because the government’s behaviour was outrageous and no fair trial was possible.

There will be many appeals, both in the UK and maybe later in the US, and Assange will not draw a free breath for a long time, if ever. But in the meantime, here’s one happy ending.

Edward Snowden couldn’t tell his girlfriend his plans before he left the US and released his documents, because that would have made her his accomplice. She was angry at first, but she forgave him, married him in 2017, and lives with him in Russia.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The whistle-blowers…punished”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Next Russo-Turkish War?

Turkey has not won a war against Russia since the 1600s, although there have been at least half a dozen of them. You would think that even the most aggressive Turkish leader would try to avoid another one, but you would be wrong.

President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for the past seventeen years, says he is going to start a war with Russia at the end of this month. Just in Syria, of course, where both Turkey and Russia have already been meddling in the civil war for years. He’s not completely deranged.

“We are making our final warnings,” Erdogan said on Wednesday. “We did not reach the desired results in our talks [with Russia]….A (Turkish) offensive in Idlib is only a matter of time.”

Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, is the last province controlled by rebel forces, and Turkey is their patron and protector. Russia’s military intervention on the side of the Syrian regime in 2015 saved President Bashar al-Assad from almost certain defeat, so there was already strain on the Turkish-Russian relationship – but until recently it was kept under control.

While Russia was determined to stop militant Islamists seizing power in Syria, it was also angling to lure Turkey out of its membership in the NATO alliance, so in 2018 Moscow and Ankara made a deal at Sochi on the Black Sea. The northwestern province of Idlib, where all the surviving rebels had retreated, would remain under Turkish protection, at least for the time being.

That deal broke down last year for several reasons. Almost all the other rebel forces in Idlib were subjugated (after considerable fighting) by the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham organisation, which is just al-Qaeda with a name change. (You remember al-Qaeda: the 9/11 attacks, head-chopping, ‘Islamic State’.) And Turkey made no effort to stop the jihadi take-over.

Turkey also didn’t keep its promise to free up the M5 freeway, which runs between Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two biggest cities. (Its northern section, in Idlib province, was in rebel hands.) So in December the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower, launched an offensive to clear the jihadi forces off the M5. They have now succeeded, and Erdogan is very cross.

Western media unanimously condemn the ‘ferocious’ Syrian offensive (so unlike the gentle offensives conducted by Western forces), and focus only on the refugees who have fled the fighting. They almost never identify the people the Syrians and Russians are fighting as al-Qaeda, preferring to describe Turkey’s jihadi allies as “some rebel groups in the area”.

But there is little chance that NATO will come to the aid of its Turkish ally even if Erdogan acts on his threat to attack the Syrians and Russians. And he may well do that: in recent weeks he has been pouring thousands of Turkish troops and hundreds of tanks into Turkey’s ‘observation posts’ in the province.

The Russian response to Erdogan’s threats has been steadily hardening. After a last-ditch meeting between Turkish and Russian delegations in Moscow on Tuesday failed to produce results, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned: “If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian republic…this would of course be the worst scenario.”

He added sarcastically that Russia would not object if the Turkish military took action against the “terrorist groups in Idlib”, in line with the Sochi accord. But what would the Russians actually do if Erdogan carries out his threats?

Erdogan is threatening air strikes against targets throughout Syria, not just in Idlib. He has a big air force, and he could certainly do that, but Russia has a bigger one. Would it just sit idly by and let its Syrian ally be pounded from the air? That seems unlikely. A ground war between Turkish and Syrian troops could well be accompanied by air battles between Russia and Turkey.

You can spin the speculation out endlessly – what would the Israelis do? What would the United States do? – but the likeliest outcome is that Erdogan backs down and the ceasefire line in Idlib is redrawn to leave Highway 5 in Syrian hands.

However, ‘likeliest’ is a long way from ‘certain’. This could end up as a major war, and since Turkey can easily block Russian ships heading for the Mediterranean, Russian victory would not be quick or easy. But they would win in the end, as they always do, and Russia’s victory would make it the paramount power in the eastern Mediterranean.

It would also entail the fall of Erdogan. There’s always a silver lining.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Western…province”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.