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Why language matters on the path to accountability

 Thirty years after the organized murder, rape and displacement of thousands of India’s Sikhs, both in Delhi and beyond, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, India’s Sikhs are still waiting for justice.

 The country’s legal and political systems have failed to produce any convictions against those who orchestrated the campaign, nor a single conviction against the police officers whose central role in the violence has been well documented. The failure of accountability towards those whose lives were shattered by the violence has been both extreme and blatant. Across the world, in Latin America and South Africa, prosecutions are taking place and attempts at truth and reconciliation have been made to assuage the past. Yet, in the world’s largest democracy, one of the most brutal episodes in its modern history languishes almost unacknowledged, alongside its victims.

 The impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators has been compounded by a silence which surrounds 1984, aided by the lack of social media and global rolling television cameras at the time, and a silence in which there has been widespread complicity by politicians, judges and the media. The Congress party, and many others, wonder why everyone cannot now just move on. Alongside the silence, itself partly borne of incomprehension by the victims that this happened at all, has emerged a naked distortion of language that seeks to redesign the facts, or blame the victims themselves.

“When a big tree falls, it’s only natural that the earth around it shakes”.

With those chilling words, Rajiv Gandhi initiated the twisting insidious use of language that would seek to build and create a social myth in India that the mass violence against Sikhs between 31st October and 5th November 1984 was the “involuntary”, spontaneous outpouring of grief in response to the murder of the Prime Minister. But whilst murder convictions were quickly meted out to her assassins, the architects and key perpetrators of 1984’s communal pogroms remain at large. How has this happened, and has language played a part?

Ten government commissions and committees later, India has perfected the British art of throwing a story to the wind by the creation of a Commission of Inquiry. Thousands of affidavits have been filed, although most seemingly discounted in favour of the presumption of innocence of the powerful. Both the Mishra and the Nanavati Commissions in particular, in 1987 and 2005 respectively, recorded evidential findings, including widespread lapses by the police, which should have engendered a powerful legal response.

 Justice Nanavati found that from the morning of the 1st November 1984, the nature and intensity of the violence changed to a systematic carnage. It is worth setting out some of his conclusions in full:

 “There is evidence to show that at some places the mobs indulging in violent attacks had come in DTC buses or vehicles. They either came armed with weapons and inflammable materials like kerosene, petrol and some white powder or were supplied with such materials soon after they were taken to the localities where the Sikhs were to be attacked. There is also evidence on record to show that on 31-10-84 either meetings were held or the persons who could organize attacks were contacted and were given instructions to kill Sikhs and loot their houses and shops. The attacks were made in a systematic manner and without much fear of the police; almost suggesting that they were assured that they would not be harmed while committing those acts and even hereafter. Male members of the Sikh community were taken out of their houses. They were beaten first and then burnt alive in a systematic manner. In some cases tyres were put around their necks and then they were set on fire by pouring kerosene or petrol over them. In some cases white inflammable powder was thrown on them which immediately caught fire thereafter. This was a common pattern which was followed by the big mobs which had played havoc in certain areas. The shops were identified, looted and then burnt. Thus what had initially started, as an angry outburst became an organized carnage.”

 Those findings speak for themselves. But having prepared the groundwork, the Nanavati Commission, like those before it, simply refused to draw the obvious conclusions and conduct the next stage of investigation which could have provided answers to the questions that remain. The failure to ask those questions illustrates the scale of the official attempt to maintain an illusion about the true cause of the 1984 violence.

 Here are just a few of those questions: Who organised those meetings on the 31st October? Who permitted and organised the use of official transportation? Who provided and distributed the use of government voter-lists in order to identify Sikh homes and businesses? Were there local gurdwara lists distributed that were registered to identify Sikh residents in particular (as recently emerged evidence suggests)? Who provided, distributed and devised the strategy that led to ‘necklacing’ Sikh men, and where did the white inflammable powder come from? What, too, of the women? Why the silence surrounding the mass rape of women in 1984 quite deliberately employed as a tool of terror? The list goes on, unanswered.

 Some of the most pressing questions relate to the finding that there was no fear of the police. In order to determine why there was no fear of the police, it was incumbent on the Commissions to find out where the orders had come from? Both Commissions accepted that there was a delay in calling the army out to maintain law and order. Neither sought to establish the orders, personnel and causal chronology relating to that delay. They failed to investigate the chronology and orders relating to the well-established pattern in which Sikh men were prevented from defending themselves and so on. In circumstances where the evidence clearly demonstrated police complicity, the explanation that officers had retired by the time of the recommendations, for example, and thus were beyond reproach, is farcical. Moreover, given the testimony of thousands of witnesses as to the involvement of the police, which was accepted by Mishra and Nanavati in large part, it remains entirely implausible that all of the officers have been exonerated. Hopeless, embarrassing excuses have been piled up to exonerate the police officers involved. Genocide, crimes against humanity and murder are not subject to limitation constraints.

 One explanation, which belies and suggests complicity at the highest level, may be provided by an analysis of the language used in both the Mishra and Nanavati reports. Justice Nanavati was a Supreme Court judge. Justice. Mishra subsequently went on to be promoted to the Supreme Court. There is no credible excuse for their laxity in legal analysis, language or terms of culpability. Ultimately, the choice of wording in Nanavati’s conclusions and recommendations provided a get-out clause to the government of the day, eager to bury the story.

 Reverting to the findings of both Commissions that that there had been a delay in calling out the army to restore order. There is no proper explanation for his failure to investigate that critical finding further. The victims of unlawful killing have the right to an effective investigation. Since the police were plainly unable to investigate themselves, it was incumbent on the Commissions to carry out those necessary investigations. Who was responsible for that delay? Who had effective control of the situation on the ground? Were reasonable and necessary measures were taken to prevent crimes taking place? The evidence Nanavati heard clearly indicated that there had been omissions to act which ought to have led to criminal liability. Nanavati’s failure to use the legal language of command responsibility for these high level omissions is unsustainable.

 Similarly, his conclusions on the involvement of Congress politicians in the execution of the violence are perverse. They do not stand up to scrutiny. Nanavati, the Supreme Court Justice, inexplicably reverts to vague language which bears no legal meaning. He found, for example, that found that there was “credible evidence against Shri Jagdish Tytler”, a Congress MP, “to the effect that very probably he had a hand in organizing attacks on Sikhs.” Any lawyer will know that such a statement makes no legal sense. The sloppiness of language cannot be accidental, particularly given the strength of the witness testimony against Tytler. The language appears designed to ensure that no direct consequences arise as a result of this Commission’s findings. In a similar vein, Nanavati disbelieved another MP indicted directly by witness testimony, Kamal Nath, but yet chose to conclude that “it would not be proper to come to the conclusion that Shri Kamal Nath had in any manner instigated the mob”. Today, Kamal Nath is the Pro-Tem Speaker of the Lok Sabha, India’s Parliament. Nanavati arrived at similarly unsustainable conclusions in respect of at least two other senior politicians, Sajjan Kumar and Bhagat.

It is unconvincing to attribute the language used to carelessness, given the level of Inquiry. Nanavati, for all his findings of a systematic, organised carnage, continued to refer to the violence as “riots”. In lore, 1984 has become known worldwide as the anti-Sikh riots. But if these were indeed riots on 31st October, Nanavati himself found that they had none of the spontaneous associations of riots by the 1st November. Many have labelled the violence ‘pogroms’, a term originally used to describe the organised massacres of Jews. Others have called for 1984 to be relabelled as “genocide”, now a politically loaded term which governments and civil society organisations are loathe to use.

The definition of genocide, according to the Geneva Convention which India has ratified, includes killing members of an ethnic or religious group, or causing serious bodily or mental harm (which includes rape and sexual violence) to members of an ethnic group with intent to destroy that group, in whole or in part. An individual criminal may be guilty of genocide even if he kills only one person, as long as he knew he was participating in a larger plan to destroy the group.

The evidence before Nanavati enabled him to draw conclusions, at least factually, that there had been conspiracy and/or attempts to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to the same as well as conspiracy. Indeed, he starts his conclusions with the observation that “there was a desire on the part of some persons to teach a lesson to the Sikhs.” At the very least, there ought to have been factual and legal conclusions on murder, and conspiracy to commit murder, in accordance with the Indian Penal Code, and Constitution. Language matters. It procures convictions. It prevents denial. It permits the lengthy process of memorialisation to begin by providing an aide to understanding.

Last month, Indian journalist Hartosh Singh Bal published a brilliant essay in which he asserts new indirect evidence suggesting the orders for the violence came from the Member of Parliament Arun Nehru, a cousin and confidante of Indira Gandhi’s son and successor Rajiv. This connection has long been the subject of suspicion and rumour. When Bal’s material is read alongside that published by the Mishra and Nanavati Commissions, it is clear that a fully effective and meaningful investigation could and would have revealed far more information relating to the architects of the violence. Everything lay, or lies, in the question of political will to seek justice.

 The language of the law eventually filters down to society. The State, through government, parliament and the courts, is expected to set the standard by which society operates. The theory is that what is unacceptable in law will eventually become unacceptable in society. Where ‘having a hand in murder’ is tolerated casually by a Supreme Court Justice, instead of indicted formally as murder or conspiracy to murder, society knows that communal violence will be tolerated by the law. The perpetrators of violence against this decade’s unpopular minority are protected by the reality that the last lot wander free. India’s newspapers and politicians still refer to the violence as “riots”. Given the official findings of systematic and organised carnage, the terminology itself has become a tool of denial and oppression.

 Today, India cannot say that she can secure justice for any minority, or indeed provide redress and solutions for communal violence. What happened in 1984 – a one-sided, provoked and premeditated attack on a particular community, with police and political complicity in the quite deliberate failures to investigate – has happened again, in Gujarat and Muzafarnagar and will likely happen again elsewhere in India, towards whoever happens to be the unpopular minority of the day, at least at some scale or capacity. India has failed to learn the lessons of 1984 which a proper inquiry, and genuine attempts at accountability would have brought. A previous Communal Violence Bill went nowhere. Cases have been closed by the police in a farcical manner. Prosecutions have failed as one witness after another has been allegedly intimidated or threatened. High-level individuals implicated by credible evidence have prospered or been promoted under successive Congress governments. Witnesses and perpetrators alike have died. The stain of communal violence lingers on. And still there is no justice for the victims of 1984. In fact, there is not even a memorial. Whole communities flounder, both inside and outside New Delhi. Mass graves have been found in Haryana. Still. The language of moving on is mouthed without any attempt at accountability.

Human Rights Watch this week have called for a new time-bound investigation and further legal measures in line with international standards, including specific measures aimed at preventing and redressing communal violence. Amnesty International has garnered massive domestic support for a new investigation. The current Prime Minister Modi, by way of political spat with Rahul Gandhi last year publicly asked why there have been no convictions relating to the Sikh genocide. Whether he now dares or is willing to require his government to take steps against Congress leaders and high level police officials when he himself stands accused by many of complicity in the 2002 Gujarat massacres remains rhetorical.

 After thirty years of denial, one has to question India’s capability of resolving this alone? Surrounded by Bangladesh, whose own 1971 ghosts are being tried by a tribunal that is failing to meet the most basic fair trial standards, and a Sri Lankan government determined to keep the UN out in respect of its own genocidal atrocities, there seems little hope that international pressure will even find its way to New Delhi’s open-for-business door. Western nations are clamouring, even now, for lucrative trade contracts with India, and there can be no mistake that trade is raised high above human rights in the corridors of power. In order for that to change, there needs to be both domestic and external pressure. There may be scope for other international mechanisms or inquiries. Wholesale changes to the law and policing culture are required urgently.

But if the language surrounding 1984 is not changed, then India herself cannot change. When that big tree fell, someone chose to shake the earth, someone arranged to bus in mobs to trample on that earth and douse it with kerosene, white powder and blood. Someone chose not to call in the army to maintain law and order. Someone then chose not to investigate it, again, and again, and again.

Are we still calling it a riot now?

31st October 2014

The future of human rights in Britain according to the Conservative Party

NB This post was published by the Huffington Post on 3rd October 2014

Britain is waking up this morning to the prospect that our future rights will be eroded under a Conservative government. There is jubilation, at least in some newspaper front pages about the return to British values, away from the “madness” of human rights, but the Conservative proposals need to be considered from a legal perspective, rather than from a point-scoring agenda. It is from that legal perspective that it becomes abundantly apparent that the proposals are neither workable, nor logical and in the words of the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, “almost puerile”.

 Misleading on the powers of the European Court

There are problems in the Conservative plan at almost every level. In failing to properly set out the current legal position, they misrepresent and mislead the public as to the current powers of the European Court, whilst omitting any proper legal consideration as to what the consequences would be both domestically, and internationally. For example, the proposals trumpet the “end the ability of the European Court of Human Rights to force the UK to change the law”. But, as matters stand currently, the Strasbourg court cannot force the UK to change its law. The Human Rights Act recognises the sovereignty of Parliament inherently in section 4 of the Act. Parliament must consent to any change in law which is intended to take account of a European Court judgment. Indeed, Parliament has not been asked to do so in respect of the Strasbourg decision on prisoners’ right to vote, despite the vocal political unhappiness with the decision. Even if Parliamentary sovereignty is protected, there still exists in this country a right to judicially review decisions, despite significant attempts by this government to limit it.

 Whilst Section 2 of the Human Rights Act requires UK courts to “take into account” Strasbourg case law, that is all they are required to do. Domestic judges have shown themselves adept at acting in accordance with that diktat. If the Act is repealed, the proposals fail to spell out the consequences for litigants. The Convention still applies to them. The proposals often sound radical, but are actually meaningless. For example, the stated intention to “make the Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK” is a legal nonsense. The Supreme Court already is the ultimate arbiter of human rights in the UK. However, if the Human Rights Act is repealed, the irony is that it may lead litigants straight back to Strasbourg. Unable to seek a remedy at home, Strasbourg once again becomes the ultimate arbiter on human rights matters for them, adding yet further caseload to the European Court’s burden. It is only if the European Convention is removed from our grasp, altogether, does that cease to be an option.

International obligations?

What, too, of the remaining international obligations that exist for the United Kingdom, in the form of various treaties and conventions which we have ratified? There are many, often cited before the domestic courts and used in the protection of the rights and lives of the most vulnerable in our society. The government has chosen to highlight the rights of “terrorists” or “illegal immigrants”, whilst failing to recognise the plethora of people, for example disabled individuals, who benefit from the protections inherent in both the European and international frameworks. It is a legal fiction that we can disentangle ourselves from one and not the other.

It is precisely that failure to grapple with the UK’s European and international obligations that leaves these proposals with gaping holes. There is a wholesale failure to recognise that English courts, with or without the Human Rights Act, nevertheless will and must take into consideration the various international treaties and conventions which the UK has ratified, and to which we are bound. That is what happened in respect of Strasbourg case law, pre-2000 when the Act came into force, and that is what will happen, again, unless the Conservative government do in fact plan to lead Britain out of the Council of Europe, and outwith the reaches of the Convention. Such may be the intended side-product of the proposed plan to make “some” European Court of Human Rights judgments “advisory”, subject to the agreement of Parliamentary committees. However, since David Cameron clearly wishes to remain part of Europe, these threats appear politically unrealistic, and simply unworkable.

A sliding scale of rights?

Looking then at the narrative on the substantive rights themselves, despite the recognition that the Convention would be placed into primary law, there appears to be an intention to substantially rewrite the fundamental rights and freedoms which most of the world has embraced universally, through a variety of interconnected treaties and conventions. This intention is deeply partisan and intends to impinge entirely improperly on the rights framework on which we are al entitled to rely. The proposals intend to “clarify the Convention rights, to reflect a proper balance between rights and responsibilities”. Lack of detail aside, that statement is deeply worrying.

 The proposal amounts to a redefinition of rights and responsibilities that permits the State to set out new, and subjective, parameters of what constitutes responsible behaviour, of which it approves, which only then entitles the person concerned to a recognition of his or her human rights. In other words, a person’s human rights might be considered to be a “bonus” for model citizen behaviour. Take the proposals about redefining “degrading treatment”. That brings to mind the question marks being raised during and after the 2003 Iraq war as to what constitutes “torture”? Is it Mr Grayling who is to decide how that redefinition should result?

Mission creep?

Moreover, nothing in the proposals properly reflects that many Convention rights are not absolute, such as freedom of expression or the right to a family life, already involve our own judges (as well as those in Strasbourg) in a balancing act that ensures that proportionality is a key concept. It is through this balancing act that judges ensure that the Convention remains a living instrument. The social norms of the 1950s are not reflected now by judges interpreting the Convention, and the continued retention of a system by which today’s norms will not bind judges in 2050 is to be applauded. This is not “mission creep”, but mission on the way to being achieved.

Minimum standards?

The proposals suggest that there will be new minimum standards, so that “only the most serious cases” will be permitted to proceed. “Trivial” cases, say the government, will be thrown out. But “trivial” according to whom? The purpose of a human rights framework is to ensure that the citizen is protected against the excesses of the State. The proposals suggest that it will be the government of the day that defines itself what those excesses will be. The proposals also suggest a sliding scale of rights, according to whether the government considers that the complainant merits such rights. Human rights exist for all human beings. It should not be in the gift of government to decide whether to apply them to person A or person B.

These proposals set Britain back on a path to the first half of the twentieth century in which the international frameworks of rights and State responsibilities had not yet been developed. Britain is now part of a globalised twenty-first century world which is defined, at least in part, by international commitments to the rule of law. Britain, in her dealings with the international community, publicly sets store by those commitments. Those states which have chosen not to endorse that framework have become pariah states. If the underlying premise of Conservative policy is to retreat from those obligations and to let Britain stand alone, then that position should be spelled out clearly. Since that step would be unthinkable to all but the most extreme of our politicians, the Conservative party need to ensure that their most able lawyers look again at these proposals. The public are entitled to an informed debate over constitutional issues. If there is a silent desire to remove us from the European Convention on Human Rights, we should be told that in terms. If that is not the intention of this government, but rather a play to the more extreme fringes of politics, these ill-considered proposals on the abolition of the Human Rights Act will lead us sleepwalking into disaster. Britons should be deeply proud of their involvement and influence over the international and European human rights framework, in which British lawyers played a key role. And Britain should be proud of, not undermine, the Human Rights Act.

October 3rd, 2014


Letter to MP on the British Government’s Position on Gaza, & international law

This is a letter I sent to Mark Field MP this morning. Please write to your MPs. Feel free to use this letter as a draft for your own letters. Cut and paste as appropriate. There needs to be far more collective outrage over what is happening. There are stirrings from politicians now that the UK response has been inadequate. Your letter may force some action.


I write to you both as a constituent and as an experienced human rights lawyer.

I wish to express my indignation at the way in which the British government has responded to the crisis in Gaza. I hope that you will feel able to convey that indignation and concern to the Prime Minister and government, and that you will take steps to ensure that the government’s position, both in public and private, is rapidly re-assessed.

The British government hails respect for human rights and international law as one of the fundamental axis upon which its foreign policy lies. Such rhetoric must be matched now by a swift and considered appraisal of the legality of the Israeli operations in Gaza. Any such appraisal must be bound to conclude, as I do, that the Israeli government is in serious violation of international law.

That position has been reached by many lawyers, both in the UK and internationally. Indeed, Navi Pillay has expressed early concern that the Israeli action may amount to war crimes. UNWRA has labelled the strikes on its schools as a serious violation of international law. The UNHRC has ordered an independent inquiry. Many NGOs have conducted preliminary investigations on the ground which support the view that Israel has violated international law routinely over these last three weeks.

This morning, we have now witnessed the shelling of the seventh UNWRA school by Israel. There is no justification whatsoever for these actions. Not only are the actions lacking any proportionality, but there has been a complete failure by Israel to distinguish between combatants and a civilian population, in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

The UN has made clear that they have given their coordinates on multiple occasions to Israel. Their shelters have been hit without warning. The thousands of people sleeping in those shelters have been fleeing from areas which have been the subject of intense bombardment. Gazans are closed in all sides by an illegitimate occupation which has blockaded them for many years. They have nowhere to run.

The Israelis have struck well beyond the tunnels which they use to justify this bombardment. They have sabotaged the power plant and basic infrastructure of Gaza, demolishing thousands of homes, schools, hospitals, mosques and facilities. Many Gazans are now without water, power and food. Over 100,000 people are now displaced. They are neither safe at home, nor safe in the shelters. This is not about tunnels, or rockets or captured soldiers. The actions that we have witnessed in these last three weeks have sought to apply collective punishment to the people of Gaza. The target appears to have been the people of Gaza as a whole. Both morally and legally, that position cannot be defended.

In the fog of propaganda that has been spun out by the Israeli government, through Mark Regev, Daniel Taub and others, the Israelis retaliate consistently with the language of self-defence. They make constant unsupported claims about Hamas using its civilian population as shields. These assertions are repeated often enough until they become popular lore. That is not what reporters on the ground are saying. Respected British journalists of all persuasions who courageously have been reporting live from Gaza have been able to give a clear picture of the battering meted out to the mostly civilian population of Gaza.

The British government’s stance of equality and parity, that both sides must be equally criticised is based on a fallacy. There is no parity. The numbers speak for themselves. The number of dead now exceed 1600, with at least a fifth of those children. That number is largely civilian. By contrast, the Israeli dead (numbering about 60 today) are almost entirely soldiers killed in action.

There is no doubt that Hamas’ actions in firing rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas themselves are likely to constitute breaches of international law. Those rockets, however, are met by a sophisticated protection system which ensures that Israeli civilians, whilst no doubt living in some fear, are not presented with a real danger.

By contrast, Gaza and her people are being systematically destroyed.

By continuing to perpetuate the myth that both sides should be criticised equally, and that Israel should be permitted a wide discretion in how it chooses to defend itself, the British government is siding with Israeli action. It is making Britain complicit in the indefensible. We are not acting as an honest broker.

As a country, we have lost much international credibility in our quest for human rights and democracy through the ugliness of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. We now have an opportunity to restore some credibility by supporting both the rights of Palestine to join the ICC, and to ensure that Israel is made accountable through a UN-led investigation, and indeed through the International Criminal Court.

In 2012, the UN designated Palestine a non-member observer state. The Palestinian Authority must be encouraged to ratify the ICC treaty so that the Prosecutor can investigate war crimes since 2012.

No doubt Hamas may also have found itself at the door of the Hague court, had Israel ratified the ICC. Israel has chosen quite deliberately not to do so. The Palestinian Authority has been actively discouraged from acceding to the ICC by the US, Britain and France. This state of affairs is, profoundly hypocritical. The UK was a founding member of the Court, as indeed it has been a founding and drafting member of almost all of the international human rights mechanisms. It was our government’s view that war crimes should be properly investigated, tried and sentenced by an international court in whom the world could have confidence. The ICC should not become a court to try dictators in countries with whom Britain has no significant trading relationship. Rather, wherever war crimes occur, which meet the standard by which the Prosecutor is permitted to intervene, our national position ought to be that we support that Court without reservation. Otherwise, our public pronouncements on human rights and international law are meaningless. In consequence, our opposition of Palestinian accession to the ICC is illogical and indefensible and should be reversed immediately.

The war in Gaza shows no prospect of immediate cessation without unequivocal condemnation from the international community. This weekend’s events in Rafah demonstrate how trenchant the Israeli position has become, at all costs. If those officers acting on the ground to decimate entire communities realise that they may be forced to face the consequences of their actions in a criminal court, they may consider a little harder what they actually are doing.

The British government now needs to speak out and demand an immediate ceasefire to which the condition is attached that the seven year blockade of Gaza is dismantled with immediate effect. Whilst it is entirely right that Hamas be criticised ( and indeed made accountable in the ICC is Israel ratified the treaty) for many of its positions, tactics and rockets, it must publicly be recognised that Israel is not only the aggressor in this situation, but persists in flagrant and naked violations of international law, for which it must be held accountable. The Foreign Secretary’s constant refrain of proportionality appears to be wholly misunderstood by him. It will never be proportionate, within international law, to kill hundreds of civilians and children in a densely crowded residential area because of some sense of military advantage. It is certainly never morally supportable.

We have a long history with Israel, and much leverage with the Israeli government through trade. It is time that we use that leverage to bring an immediate end to the atrocities in Gaza. Further, and as a matter of urgency, we must immediately ensure the cessation of an arms trade with Israel. For ultimately, it is our weapons engaged in the murder of innocent civilians.

Britain and her people must not be complicit in the destruction of a people in Gaza. The British government does not do this in my name. I entrust you as my Member of Parliament to ensure that our government takes the right and proper steps, in both a legal and moral sense, immediately.

Beyrouth – My Unsuitable Man


After yesterday’s bombing in Beirut, again, I remembered this old post which just sums up the fragility all over again.

Originally posted on Our Woman in Havana:

It was a dangerous love from the second I set eyes on you. Everyone knew it could never last.

You had been fascinating me from afar for years, like the intoxicating whisper of a stranger who knows he can thrill. I knew you were daring me to touch you, to come close to you and to feel the heat of your breathe on my exposed neck. And when I finally landed in your arms, my cheeks flushed with excitement, you enveloped me with the passion of a man who I knew could never keep a single promise. But still, I came towards you, heady with the adventure of an eastern land, knowing that you were what my mother would call an “unsuitable man”: The kind of man who blames the telephone lines for failing to call, a man who has so many versions of the truth that he can never…

View original 626 more words

‘Helium': Bringing 1984 to life through fiction

Jaspreet Singh’s Helium (published by Bloomsbury in November 2013) is a brave, literary account of the darker side of ‘India Shining’. Falling somewhere between fiction, documentary and travelogue, Helium is a courageous novel that seeks unflinchingly to tell the story of the pogroms in which thousands of Sikhs in North India were murdered in just four days following the assassination of India’s then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31st 1984.

 The protagonist, Raj, was a nineteen year old student on his way back from a class trip with Professor Singh, his mentor, an expert on chemical elements and the man who introduced him to Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. But the unfortunate timing of the group’s arrival back at New Delhi train station is the 1st November 1984 and mobs have descended across Delhi to seek vengeance for the Prime Minister’s assassination. The chilling shouts across national radio and in the streets are for blood revenge. Professor Singh, with his distinctive Sikh appearance, is targeted by the mob who surround him, throw a tyre over him, douse him in petrol and set him alight. And so the story starts in the shadow of the now notorious statement by the new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, that “when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.’

 Forever scarred by his paralysis and what he later castigates as his own youthful cowardice in running away at the very moment that his mentor needed his help, the story takes place many years later when Raj, now an eminent rheologist at Cornell University, returns to India seeking answers to questions that have been brutally dismembered by an unspoken conspiracy of silence emanating not just from his parents, but from an entire nation.

 “The state has tried to wipe away this dark memory…” says one of the characters late in the novel. “…When the parliament reconvened, the government never once mentioned the horrific carnage directly. When schools and colleges reopened, the headmasters and principals completely forgot to mention those four days the city had just witnessed. The state, like a true criminal, took further advantage of the carnage. The astonishing Congress Party spent millions on an ad campaign, which vilified the minorities. The subliminal message of that PR campaign was that the pogroms were ‘natural’, spontaneous, ‘legitimate’, ‘outbursts of anger’, ‘inevitable’, ‘logical’. An entire community with a deep sense of belonging to India and Indianness was constructed by the state as the ‘other’.”

 Singh’s novel is angry, bruised with an unfurling sense of injustice brought about not only by the epic failures of the Indian justice system, through which not one member of the political, bureaucratic or judicial class has been convicted despite several judicial commissions and a plethora of evidence against key Cabinet Ministers who have retained power and status today, but also by the “ominous silences’ of “distinguished public intellectuals, liberal-secular writers and established academicians” as well as media complicity in the cover-up. “The National Archives in Delhi…and the Police archives had destroyed many files connected to the violence…The Doordarshan TV archives either destroyed the tapes connected to October/November ’84 or put them away in boxes that would do Stalin’s Russia proud.” Helium devastates any notion that the Congress Party were innocent bystanders in an unfortunate moment in Indian recent history. Make no mistake, this book represents a muscular challenge to the complacency of India’s ruling elite that continues to deny what took place in New Delhi in 1984 amounted to a state-sponsored genocide, or an attempted genocide of its minority Sikh population.

 Strongly littered with references to Primo Levi and his Periodic Table, Singh asks the reader:Why think of one genocide in terms of another? Why use a prism? It is impossible to compare and quantify suffering, I know. Why then? Because one story is better known and the other one completely unknown, completely distorted or filled with ominous silences”. The comparison with aspects of the Jewish Holocaust are sometimes laboured, occasionally clumsy, but the tone of the novel is set by Singh’s apparent conclusion that confrontation is now the only way to seek accountability.

 When Raj returns to India, uncertain about his relationship with his father, he goes in search of Nelly, the beautiful wife of Professor Singh (and his one-time lover) whom he has not seen for 25 years. Much of the story is set in the swirling mists of the northern hill station of Shimla, to where had Nelly moved after the pogroms, as she tried to find a life that allowed her to reconcile her multiple losses. Here, in these pages, Singh’s lyrical sense of longing contrasts starkly with the bitter pill of memory that has annihilated the fondness which, one suspects, both he and his protagonist wants to feel towards their homeland. In Nelly’s Shimla, Singh describes the Chir pines, the “Himalayan oaks with serrated leaves and  portions of the ageing seven hills around Shimla still covered with trees”. A sense of travelogue unfolds more gently, giving space to the reader from what is, in places, the sheer fury of history.

In places, the book seems to be written expressly for the familiar reader, for the emigrant who pines for the idiosynchrosies of the Punjabi language rather than explicitly aimed at the foreigner who wants to ‘exoticise’ India. Helium is as far from the India of Exotic Marigold Hotels as can be. This narrative is most sharply seen in the exploration of Raj’s marital breakdown with his estranged wife Claire, who clings to a romantic vision of India that she personifies in her husband and seeks to present to their children. For all Claire’s colourful images of Diwali candles and happy Gods, Raj remains silently swamped by memories of burning fires across Delhi. “For many in ’84, death began with rubber tyres…Sikhs were mere objects (of hatred) bonded to rubber tyres, offered to the gods…Agni, the god of fire, has two heads, three legs and seven tongues…”. Clara, Raj tells the reader, is the sort of person who would have told their children (had she been born in Nazi Germany) that the Jewish neighbours were really headed to some land of toys and candles.

Taken from Primo Levi’s poem, Buna, the question ‘With what kind of face would we confront each other?’ becomes one of the most haunting themes of the novel. How would Nelly confront those men who devastated her family, and how would Raj cope when he knew who those men were?

“’A father and son walk on corpses, burning carcasses. Stumble upon piles of hair, burnt rubber tyres, amputated limbs and ash. The son asks his father about those men, who returned home after setting bodies on fire, men who returned after rape. What did they tell their children and wives? Did the wives go to bed with them that night?’”

The most intensely moving section of the novel is told through the device of an interview with Nelly, which takes on the tone of a documentary. The scenes Nelly recalls the day after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, are spent with her close friend, Maribel, the wife of the Mexican High Commissioner, and they unfold with a ghoulish horror. As the women prepare their children for a fancy-dress celebration of Mexican Day of the Dead, the senseless destruction and devastation of the mobs that strike at the core of Nelly’s existence are hard to digest and incomprehensible to any rational human being. Herein lies the absurdity of any attempt to wipe out an ethnicity or a religious group. Every notion of being human is shattered in the depravity. Singh explores this with a gripping emotional force that rips away any preconception that such violence could have been spontaneous.

At times, perhaps, the story collapses under the weight of the historical burden it bears. Singh is determined to ensure that an alternative history of India is presented, replete with references to Bhopal, the caste system and colonialism. Sometimes, this results in the reader being swamped by too much information and India’s narrative, likely autobiographical, might be almost too much for the reader to absorb.

Helium’s literary influences are diverse with strands of Primo Levi running through the prose, and of course W G Sebald’s Vertigo, which presents the epigraph and essential tenor of the novel: How I wished during those sleepless house that I belonged to a different nation, or, better still, to none at all.

A random character in the novel asks: “Why don’t you Sikhs forget what happened a long time ago?” The elderly man paused for a while and said: “For the same reason we Indians don’t forget British colonialism, the Amritsar massacre or Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi, Diwali and Dussehra. And you want me to forget something that happened as recently as 1984?”

“As long as you are alive, your story is alive”, Nelly’s supervisor tells her shortly after she has escaped 1984 with her life. Jaspreet Singh’s Helium is a powerful, poignant attempt to bring that story to life, and perhaps, in some way, to right the wrongs of a shameful historical amnesia.

Published by Bloomsbury

Hardback, 7 November 2013, £16.99

eBook, 6 August 2013, £14.99

Another morning, another Indian rape story: Tackling the underbelly of gender violence

A shorter version of this article was published in the Guardian (UK) on August 23rd 2013


Another morning, another news story of a woman being gang-raped in India’s cities. This time, a 22 year old photojournalist out doing her job, and accompanied by a male colleague in the early evening shooting photographs of Mumbai’s textile mills in one of the city’s mid-town increasingly hip neighbourhoods.

Despite verdicts due to be reached early next month in the case of the Delhi gang-rape last December, and new laws in place to tackle sexual violence, the stain of extraordinary violence plaguing India’s women is becoming a terrifying norm.

Changing the collective consciousness from the top and the bottom

Changes in the law, which include fast-tracking rape trials to beat India’s weary wheels of justice, are grossly inadequate. It’s the collective consciousness that needs to change. That requires both a top-down and a ground-up approach in which the root systemic causes of violence against women are examined honestly. Lamentably, India’s politicians have failed, either willingly or otherwise, to grasp or tackle what needs to be done to transform the collective consciousness on women’s rights.

Pushing the politicians

Delhi’s gang-rape, and the public response, shook the politicians out of their stupor. Such was the public outrage that the government immediately formed the Verma Commission to report back within surprisingly narrow terms of reference and within a bizarrely short period of thirty days, no doubt to assuage the public demand that ‘something must be done’. Haste is often the undoing of law-making and this was no different. Some tens of thousands of responses were delivered. The Commission, to its considerable credit, did a remarkably good job of broadening the terms of reference and considering the broader legal framework of equality and non-discrimination for women. It was the starting point of a new constitutional framework for India’s women, of whatever class, religion or social background. But political will to uplift the lot of women substantively was lacking. It was easier to let defence lawyers pronounce that ‘respectable women in India aren’t raped’, and gurus on television blame the women or deify the fairer sex . It was easier for the morality police to start a backlash against women, banning them from the street, or from bars, or requiring them to stay at home. This blaming-the-woman culture is not a peculiarly Indian phenomenon, mind, but India’s traditional ethos won out and the legislation rushed onto the books was sorely lacking.

Blaming the politicians

The government ignored Verma’s recommendations on police reform and the prosecution of security personnel charged with sexual assault to be dealt with under ordinary criminal laws.  The government failed to criminalise marital rape. This in a country where women’s bodily integrity and dignity are frequently violated through dowry, forced marriage, domestic abuse and acid attacks. In so doing, the Indian government has failed to address the underlying malaise within the Indian police institution that allows the culture of violence against women to persist. The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjo has lamented the loss of the golden opportunity presented to India to establish a full framework guaranteeing equality for women in line with the Commission’s recommendations.

The spectre of gender violence runs through Indian society

Even as India’s cities are seeing the boom of the middle classes and soaring education and wealth, the sexual violence is rearing its head beyond rural villages, and into the bosom of India’s commercial centres. India needs an approach that tackles a culture whose violent underbelly strikes women on all levels, far from the Gandhian ideals about which the politicians and religious powers like to fawn. This is a violence entrenched through the caste system, in which stories emerge routinely of so-called untouchable women being used like sexual serfs in India, or through religion, in which the deification of women offers respect only to those who fit with socially moulded norms centred on the home as hearth. This is a violence caused by the belief that a family’s honour lies in their women’s chastity or social conduct. This is a violence spilled by genocidal pogroms or army abuses that treat women as the spoils of war. Violence against women starts in India before they are even born, with levels of female foeticide the most damning sign of how little equality is granted to the girl child. 50% of the population, and in some states much less, deserve respect as human beings.  India is far from being the only culture which denigrates its women, we see miserable examples of it everyday in the West ourselves, but each culture has to get to grips with the way in which it needs to resolve the problem.

A movement for change

Women’s activists are creating strong movements for change in the country, and taboo subjects are being brought out of the cold through fearless journalism, protest and movement. But it is not enough. Change is needed where institutional sexism is rife; at the heart of India’s police force.

Reforming the police force

Tragedy often has the power to bring about the public outcry which demands a government take action to control the excesses of the institutions at the top. In Britain, that tragedy was the 1993 racial murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence. The systemic failures within the police force led to the MacPherson Inquiry that coined the term “institutional racism”, seeking systemic changes in order to stamp out corrosive prejudice from the British police forces. In Los Angeles, the 1991 Rodney King affair is seen as responsible for widespread subsequent changes to policing practices, including more community policing, monitoring and changes to recruitment. Accountability lay at the heart of these changes. Neither force could be held up in a show and tell of perfect policing today, by any stretch of the imagination, but the changes required of them undoubtedly have changed national dialogue. The changes forced upon them by tragedy betraying impunity lying at the heart of each system have led to systemic changes in police forces whose coffee-break cultures were institutionally racist .

Lifting the lid on collective failings

India’s police forces needs a similar kick-start at transformation. Despite the news from Mumbai today that the police have arrested the five suspects already, a plethora of rapes reported in the Indian media this year have been rendered all the more astonishing by abject failures by the police. The prejudice against women or girls claiming sexual assault is so ingrained, the culture of destroying the woman if she continues to press charges so inherent in the system, and indeed in society, that only massive institutional changes within the Indian police force will begin to curb, change and improve the situation of women facing violence routinely. Change in Indian society and attitudes will only arrive when the enforcement mechanisms are challenged to become accountable themselves. And they will only become accountable once the national discourse on women begins to change substantively. The outcome in next month’s Delhi verdicts must be merely the beginning of collective reform. The lid has to be lifted on the silent myriad of failings that permit such a collective litany of abuses against the country’s women.

August 23rd 2013



Custard Creams and Childhood Dreams

Rajasthani Chaiwallah

Rajasthani Chaiwallah

Far from home and family, the wandering life of the restless nomad almost inevitably becomes vulnerable on those days that she gets ill. Sick as a street dog from strange and distant viruses, Downwards Dog takes on a whole new yogic meaning and it is easy to wonder about the choices that constantly ensure you are frequently far from home’s creature comforts.

I was reflecting on this conundrum earlier this week in Delhi when, fresh from 24 hours of precisely that street dog syndrome, my body was rather weakened by attack and in need precisely of the home comforts that usually make all resistance to planning an early return futile. The dishevelled, immunity-bashed traveller will begin to rose-tint the London bed, cushions and daytime television associated with sick days, but it’s the regression to childhood comfort foods that usually pre-empts the call to British Airways (who, in a pricey reversal of UK call centre etiquette, I now need to call directly in London instead of Bangalore). And it was in precisely those wistful moments when I might have begun to crave homebound imaginary wellness-aids that I realised here in Delhi, they were here all around me instead.

The most basic recovery tool in any Indian mother’s kitchen will be a simple, steaming bowl of lentils and rice, dal-chawal, whether in Punjab, Bradford or Melbourne. Here in Delhi, even far away from my own mother’s inevitably perfect dish, someone in the kitchen willingly rustled me up a bowl of their own motion, reasoning with my stubborn lack of appetite that “nothing will revive your health like a decent bowl of dal-chawal, replete with a chilled bowl of homemade yoghurt. Tick.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of replacing all kinds of salts and sugars. Forget the price of Whole Foods, I can have fresh coconut water to rehydrate the system more easily than buying a can of Coke (actually, I prefer Maaza, a viscous artifical mango juice that makes Fanta orange seem natural). Or giant bowls of glistening pomegranate seeds, peeled and ready to poke spoons into at any time of day or night for a superboost of antioxidants. None of that suspect pre-packaged prawn-pink-looking supermarket pomegranate that tastes mildly plastic (or is that also horse?).  Nope, you know what you are getting when you bash the fruits with a rolling pin.Ruby red and bursting with vitality is the Delhi way out of doubt. The next box ticked too.

Once the appetite returns, it’s the cravings for junk food that start to kick in. Crisps, biscuits, the works. Walkers crisps dress themselves identically in Lays packaging here, substituting Gary Linkerer for a cricketing God or three and cheese and onion for Magic Masala; Haldirams gave me packaged bowlfuls of khatta meetha chewda, a sweet and salty Bombay mix. Tea, of course, is Taj Mahal or Tetley, take your pick, and just when I am beginning to think my recovery can’t be complete without Custard Creams, the local marketwallah produces them, in green cardamom flavour. Madam, Elaichi Special. Nothing quite competes with elaichi to make me feel calm and grounded. Blame that on a lifetime of my father, uncles and grandfather demanding ‘half a cup’ of hot cardamom tea.P1080256


It’s true that there is no place like home, but sometimes other places can force their way in without you even realising that memories were interchangeable. Borders have been crossed and traditions have been swapping. Desi childhood nostalgia, it turns out, can be delighted in Delhi. Never mind being sick as a dog, it turns out that a few days after being wiped out, I am now back to being stuffed like a tiger. I won’t be needing that early flight back to London after all. Home’s pleasures, in fact, can be created where a whole hot cup of tea and a cardamom-flavoured custard cream can be found. Home itself is the place where only a half cup will do.

Good Earth's beautiful china mugs

Nizammudin EastDelhi,

February 23rd 2013.


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