India by Patrick French: Nation, Wealth and Society

Although published in 2011, before the rise of Hindu nationalism under President Modi and resultant surge in the persecution of Muslims which Patrick French could not foresee, this book remains worth reading as a clear, informative and wide-ranging introduction to a fascinating and complex country.

With many anecdotes, he creates a strong, authentic sense of place, starting with the old man in his apricot orchard, recalling how when Nehru visited the newly independent northern border region of Ladakh, there were no roads, so he had to land by plane, something the locals had never seen before, so they simply put their hands together and prayed to it. At the other end of the scale are the computer whizz kid Indian graduates who have made such a contribution to Silicon Valley in the US, some claiming that their early grounding in abstract Hindu philosophy has helped them to make “mental leaps in the virtual world”.

Commencing with a useful potted history of the creation in 1947 of what was initially meant to be a secular democracy, and an explanation of the complex politics, with MPs now increasingly determined by family links, French moves on to the early problems caused by a well-intentioned but over-bureaucratic socialist system of central planning, with enterprise often stifled by the need to obtain permits to import or manufacture products.

The benefits of the subsequent liberalisation have “lifted large numbers out of extreme poverty” but the rise in population has left about the same number of poor people. There seems to be a widening gap: “By 2008 four of the eight richest people alive were Indian”, there is a “dynamic middle class, but “people….still die, finding that eating rats or ground mango kernels does not save them from starvation”.

The issue of caste in all its complex degrees of exclusion runs through the text: the Chuhras who have had to do “hereditary work sweeping, cleaning, dealing with dead animals…” then scraping up the leftover food after weddings, the “joothan” to boil and store for late. In the unconscious insensitivity of his much vaunted personal sacrifice, Gandhi wished to be reborn an untouchable “to share their sorrow, sufferings and the affronts levelled at them”. With the perhaps questionable observation that “compassion is not a Hindu concept” French describes the plight of a “Dalit” (low caste) worker who, for seeking to leave his job with an unpaid debt, was fitted with heavy metal fetters, forcing him to spend years breaking stones in a quarry, until he was saved by some activists during a political campaign.

French covers relations with Pakistan and the position of Indian Muslims, who are surprisingly almost as numerous as Pakistanis. They are described by one of their own leaders as the most backward community in India “economically, educationally and socially”, largely because the most disadvantaged were left behind in the 1947 Partition. Yet, this self-same leader defended the persistence of archaic Muslim codes in India which supported his personal power, even at the cost of feeding resentment among conservative Hindus that they could not enjoy similar “separatist privilege”.

Occasionally the book gets bogged down too long in one issue, and the final chapter seems a somewhat rushed catch-all for all the outstanding points the author wanted to include, but overall this is highly recommended.

“Official Secrets”: “Truth always matters at the end of the day”.

Official Secrets (DVD) [2019]I remember well the 2003 one million-plus people’s London march in the vain attempt to prevent the Iraq War, likewise President Bush’s refusal to wait for the completion of UN weapons inspector Hans Blick’s investigations in Iraq before launching an attack, together with the UK Parliament’s decision to support the US militarily on the basis of what proved to be the “dodgy dossier”, falsely confirming the Iraqi capacity to launch weapons of mass destruction on Britain in 45 minutes.

Film footage of these events is woven into the docudrama “Official Secrets” to provide the context for an event which I am ashamed to have forgotten, namely the remarkably courageous decision of Katharine Gun, a young translator working for GCHQ, to release to the press the email which shocked her profoundly. Wrapped in technical language, this was the instruction from the American NSA for its counterpart GCHQ to “dig dirt” on officials in small UN member countries who might be blackmailed into agreeing to vote for military action against Iraq. Motivated by the desire to prevent a war triggered by lies and subterfuge, she assumed at first that it would be possible to remain anonymous, until a guilty conscience over the sight of her work colleagues being interrogated obliged her to speak out. Then, it quickly became obvious that she had not only sacrificed her career, but risked a prison sentence, widespread ostracism, and the deportation of her husband, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Turkey.

Keira Knightley deserves the praise received for a performance which conveys with great conviction Katharine’s initial soul-searching, and the acute tension, involuntary sense of guilt and fear of detection, experienced by an essentially law-abiding person breaking the law, even for a just cause, as in the crucial moment when she drops the leaked email into the red pillar box. Her moods pass through realistic phases: more guilt and regret over the problems inadvertently created for her husband, depression over being unemployed, anger over bullying by officials and being pressed to take the “easy path” of admitting to guilt to get a lighter sentence, at the cost of a permanent stain on her reputation, which still matters to her.

A docudrama which could become dry once it enters the legal phase with a long wait to be charged and tried, maintains its momentum through moments of wry humour based on real events. I would not blame the film-makers for possibly over-egging some incidents for dramatic effect, and cannot know how much artistic licence has been taken in portrayal of, for instance, the sparring between former legal friends who find themselves in opposite camps, prosecutors against defence. If they are still alive, I wonder how some of the latter feel about the way they have been portrayed.

Overall, this is a well-made and thought-provoking film, raising awareness of strong parallels between then and now – our world of fake news, hacking and manipulating facts for political reasons, and the endless debate as to whether the means justify the ends. Interviews with the real-life Katharine Gun suggest the storyline is authentic in more than the essentials. Claiming that she would act in the same way again, she has the last word: “Truth always matters at the end of the day”.

Crashed – How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World

A decade on, there is a case for a reassessment of the financial crash of 2008 which first became evident in the US, together with its aftermath on a global scale. Apart from the risk of producing a work that is simultaneously both overly superficial by reason of being so wide-ranging, and too confusing when it comes to referring to complex investment procedures, there is the question of whether a book is directed narrowly as academics or intended to enlighten reasonably well-informed general readers. There are many examples of books which manage to straddle both stools, page turners backed up with impressive bibliographies. I have the impression that this is what “Crashed” is meant to be, but for me it does not succeed in this.

One problem here is that the book requires such a good grasp of economics, financial speculation and politics that anyone possessing it would be unlikely to need to read it in the first place. Adam Tooze makes a promising start, explaining mortgage-backed securities (dodgy if based on loans issued to buyers who may not be able to repay them) or the “repo” system” – a risky form of speculation involving paying for a purchase of securities by reselling them. However, in describing how the crisis developed not only in the States but also the UK and the Eurozone, the author gets on a roll of journalese and no longer troubles to explain obscure acronyms and jargon of the trade. If one is only grasping the gist of the argument, of which one was already aware, is there any point in continuing?

There are also too many distracting digressions such as at the outset in Chapter 1, where the author goes on about the “The Hamilton Project” commenced on Obama’s watch, without clearly stating what it was.

The book contains a number of interesting insights on, for instance, the role of China in financing rampant speculation with its bloated trade surplus, or on the economic and political role of Germany , but I found that digging these out of the verbiage was hard work.

I recommend finding more systematic and focused studies of this fascinating subject, before perhaps returning to this book, which is perhaps better dipped into for reference , or read with the selection of specific chapters of interest, forearmed, of course, with a proper understanding of the working of government bonds, exchange and interest rates and so on.

In a time of monsters – Travels through a Middle East in Revolt by Emma Sky

Encouraged to read this by Emma Sky’s sharp analysis in BBC radio interviews of the unintended consequences of the Iraq War, I realised too late that to find out more about her role as political advisor to the American commander General Ray Odierno in its aftermath, enabling her to give damning evidence at the Chilcot Enquiry, I should have started with her book “The Unravelling”.

“In a Time of Monsters” proves as is often the case with travel books to be very anecdotal and episodic, often revealing some telling insights through a chance encounter, but also frustrating, even confusing at times, in what it omits or glosses over. The background history of the Shias versus Sunni is a little too fragmented, while the explanation of the Caliphates from the death of Mohammed up to the recent attempts of Daesh to create a single Islamic state probably comes too late in the book, some two-thirds of the way through.

“Bored, bitter and twisted”, with an acute sense of anticlimax and loss of purpose after her return to London in 2010, perhaps even a little traumatised by her experience in Iraq as she suggests most westerners are, she resolves to make sense of events by visiting countries affected by the Arab Spring: Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kurdistan and so on.

Making use of what seems like an inexhaustible network of obliging high level political contacts prepared to engage in boozy debates, Emma Sky has no difficulty in striking up conversations with strangers prepared to chat at length . Perhaps her childhood as the matron’s daughter at a boys’ boarding school gave her the confidence to act with such ease in “a man’s world” and also to embark on risky, physically tough journeys, solo or with a male guide for the reward of seeing beautiful, remote areas, like the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Skimming along the river on a jet ski, white-water rafting, swimming into caves to scale waterfalls: sometimes, the socialising and exciting activities, seem too much of a digression from the lives of ordinary Arabs.

It is no surprise that Emma Sky criticises the US for allowing Daesh (or ISIS) to gain a foothold in Iraq in the anger over government corruption and discrimination against Sunnis following the fall of Saddam Hussein. She also condemns the failure to take early action against Assad in Syria to force him to negotiate. It is perhaps more of a surprise that she is so harsh on Obama, described as “leading from behind” and being too passive. However, she does not really provide convincing evidence that continued use of direct force by the West would have yielded the desired results without unacceptable levels of bloodshed, not to mention resentment over apparent attempts to dominate . She is also very critical of Iran as a somewhat malign and destabilising force, reaching tentacles even to the borders of Israel, but was perhaps unable to make the visit to the country which would assist a clear and more objective analysis.

There is a logical progression, in that, being in date order, the visits reflect the passage of events, so that by 2014 Emma Sky is at the refugee camp of Zaatari, close to the border in Jordan, which has become the fourth largest city in the country owing to the flood of refugees from Syria. By 2016 she is in Greece and Eastern Europe tracing the destabilising pressure of Arab refugees pushed out by the devastation in parts of the Middle East. She even visits London to suggest, perhaps too simplistically, that the Brexit vote itself was largely the result of concerns over migration triggered partly by the instability of the Middle East.

The Epilogue finds her on the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a time of acceptance of her past naïve over-optimism, but clinging to the belief that “this is not a time for cynicism or despair” in the hope that her students will manage to leave the world a better place than they found it.

Politically incorrect: Why a Jewish State is a Bad Idea

This is my review of  Politically Incorrect: Why a Jewish State is a Bad Idea  by Ofra Yeshua-Lyth

I came to read this book through being so intrigued by a third generation Jewish Israeli journalist who felt impelled to write such a provocatively titled memoir. Her assessment of the errors which she believes will cause the ongoing “inner crumbling” of Israel in its present form are refracted through article-like chapters on her life and that of her family members back to  the economic need or desire for freedom from religious control which led them to emigrate to the land of Israel before it became an independent state.

Ofra Yeshua-Lyth does not  condemn the existence of Israel as such. Two weeks after the end of the Six Day War, she set off without a qualm on a family tour of the newly occupied West Bank. When Egyptian President Sadat  recognised Israel in his historic meeting with the right-wing leader Menachem Begin, she wrote optimistically of her country finding “its true vocation, which is to become an integral part of the Middle East” without the intercession of “meddling” foreign diplomats, distorting issues and restricting “the power of the imagination” through translating Hebrew and Arabic via the medium of the English language. These views are not surprising, since as a child she was taught how her grandparents  had come to the country and built it up from nothing, and that she had a responsibility to continue their work in a unique but vulnerable Israel. “The only Jewish state in the world was small but brave, poor but just”.

Perhaps the experience of being half-Yemeni, in a racially prejudiced Israel initially dominated by white east European Ashkenazi Jews, made the author more sympathetic to the growing plight of the Palestinian Arabs dispossessed  of the their lands. Certainly, by the end of the book she is advocating dismantling unauthorised settlements in more than a cosmetic exercise and getting out of lands illegally settled under international law. In what she insists is “not mission impossible”, the author argues that the land which Ariel Sharon claimed could take 15 million residents should be one where Jews and Palestinians agree to “live in a normal state as equal citizens living in one territory”, rather than one reserved for those with “the right religion as an entry card”.

This is why her initial and most polemical focus is on the negative implications of the alliance which has grown between the government and deeply religious Orthodox Jews who maintain the raison d’être for an exclusive and expansionist state.  She describes the heavy state support for the lifestyles of the Haredi, whose menfolk devote their lives to studying religious texts, exempt from national service, and massive subsidies for the settlers of the occupied territories, “easily identifiable by their uniform of yarmulkes and bearded faces and by their battered vehicles overloaded with children”. In addition, she lambasts the increased Orthodox influence on state education,   and its controls on marriage to non-Jews, weddings, funerals, and the practice of circumcision even for secular Jews, not to mention kosher food, all of which serve to maintain a sense of  inward-looking separation and superiority.

This book is often wordy and long-winded, assumes a good deal of prior knowledge, sometimes seems too subjective, slapdash or stilted in style. I imagine it will enrage many of the author’s compatriots, but in its  frankness and heart-felt sincerity, it is also a very informative, thought-provoking, insightful with wry humour, evocative, fascinating read.

The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

This is my review of The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

With the chilling downward spiral back into Cold War politics, it seems more vital than ever to understand why the Putin regime operates as it does and most Russians accept it.

This impressively clear and insightful analysis gains authenticity from the journalist author’s fluent grasp of Russian, his study of the country’s history, and time spent living and travelling widely in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). He has sought a fresh perspective in his focus on “the ghosts of the past”, which in various ways cripple and distort the current state of society.

As a student, Shaun Walker saw first-hand the “poverty, widespread squalor and rampant exploitation” in Moscow a decade after the collapse of communism, which left many Russians feeling disoriented and rootless. In the vacuum created by the sudden break-up of the USSR, Putin was resolved not merely to stabilise the economy but to establish Russia in what he saw as its rightful place as a “first rank” global power.

Shaun Walker repeatedly returns to the “memory politics” which Putin has used to raise morale and forge a sense of unity: at the heart of this is the continued celebration of Russian victory in “saving the world from fascism” in World War Two, without any admission of Stalin’s tyranny, such as the mass deportation to remote labour camps of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority villagers for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Walker cites the headteacher in a rundown Irkutsk suburb where some families have had to cut back on food recently. “Patriotism is the most important thing” she declares, having reintroduced the old Soviet uniform for her pupils, to improve morale. The parents approve of Putin’s efforts to fight corruption, probably unaware of the extent of his own unreported wealth together with that of his cronies.

As suggested by these examples, Shaun Walker proceeds through a series of case studies mainly based on peripheral regions closer to Western Europe where there is more history and risk of uprisings: Georgia, the Ukraine and Chechnya. In the latter, generous investment for the reconstruction of places like Grozny combined with the desire for stability, have encouraged people to treat as “an inconvenient and ignored detail” the fact that their leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s father led Chechens to fight the Russians in the 1990s. Grozny’s central avenue has been renamed from “Victory Avenue” to “Putin Avenue”. The author writes of how Chechens “build walls around certain events in their lives, so that they can often only speak in half-memories and platitudes” and quotes Koestler: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways”.

We are shown how Putin’s attitudes have evolved. Initially wishing to be a respected and reliable ally of the west, even suggesting that Russia might join the EU or NATO, he began to feel cold-shouldered and threatened by western support for rebels in Georgia and Ukraine. This pushed him towards a kind of continuation of the old tsarist empire, supported by a mixture of renewed religious Orthodoxy, political autocracy with a “window-dressing” of democracy and pride in nationality. A “natural state of confrontation” with external powers has now “won the day” as illustrated by the annexation of the Crimea, justified by the need to “right the wrong” of Krushchev’s relinquishment to Ukraine of an area which was historically Russian until 1954.

There is passing reference to the distorted reporting of foreign affairs and failure to investigate and bring to convincing justice the murderers of journalists who threaten to “rock the boat” by probing the system too deeply, but this grim legacy of a ruthless authoritarian past is not explored in great depth. Although fascinating, the analysis seems incomplete in its neglect of other major relevant aspects, like Putin’s suppression of true democracy in the form of Alexei Navalny, a potentially major opponent denied from standing for election on what sound like bogus charges of embezzlement. The same applies to the implications of the suspicious death in custody of the tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, alleged moves to undermine western democracy by influencing elections, and renewed assertiveness in bombing Syria.To be fair, Putin’s recent vaunting of “new weaponry he claims will render NATO defences completely useless” and the bizarre poisoning of the Skripals in Britain came too late for this book.