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Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy’s Editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Against impunity: justice after torture

26 June 2007 marked the twentieth anniversary of the entry into force of the United Nations convention against torture, whose signatories agree upon the absolute prohibition of torture, even during a state of emergency or when faced with threats to national-security interests. The treaty represents a landmark in international law that is all the more impressive in that the process of its adoption (initially by the UN's general assembly in December 1984) and ratification by individual states took place amid bitter global division at the height of the cold war, It has since become one of the most widely supported international conventions, with 144 states-parties to date and another seven states in line to ratify it.

Carla Ferstman is director of Redress, an organisation that works for reparation for torture survivors

Balkan strongmen: exit from history

It has been fifteen months since the death in The Hague of Slobodan Milosevic, the last of the 20th-century Balkan strongmen. The former leader of Serbia had been sent from Belgrade to face trial for war crimes on 28 June 2001, twelve years to the day after his speech at Gazimestan in Kosovo (on the 600th anniversary of the myth-encrusted battle of 1389) which formed the prelude to the decade of wars and the disintegration of Yugoslavia that followed.

If 28 June, St Vitus's day, thus constitutes a key symbolic date in the history of Serbia and the Balkans, the demise of Milosevic in March 2006 - with his trial unfinished and amid a swirl of rumour - has its own symbolic significance for the region. For it gave new life to a long-standing debate concerning the nature of political leadership in the Balkans, which in recent centuries has experienced more than its share of strongmen - from kings to generals to nationalist demagogues and communist-era tyrants. Pessimistic observers have suggested that we have not seen the last of the likes of Slobodan Milosevic, Nicolae Ceausescu, Enver Hoxha and Todor Zhivkov; that their political style is so thoroughly engrained in the Balkan psyche that it is only a matter of time before their successors reappear to drag the region back into political darkness.

Egypt: a diagnosis

Talk to people intimately familiar with Egypt, and you'll find two views dominating how they perceive the country today. The first is a romantic, nostalgic view of a glorious history, ancient and recent; a country whose potential is dramatic in terms of its intellectual capital, reservoir of talent, geographic location, and aptitude for leadership. In that perspective, Egypt remains an unfulfilled promise, hampered only by poor management and regional circumstances.

The second viewpoint is less sanguine. It sees Egypt as structurally failing, with disenchanted, poorly educated, bitter youths; fundamental problems in the socio-economic dynamics; crushing, humiliating living standards for a majority of its citizens; and pervasive corruption, passiveness and sullenness.

People power: Arab economies in a global era

For two generations, the economic performance of the Arab countries of the middle east has been middling. It has been worse than east Asia, better than sub-Saharan Africa, and about the same as Latin America and south Asia. Yet while there has been no crisis in the past - indeed, on some social indicators progress has been spectacular - the region now faces an imminent challenge: how to create jobs for the large cohort of young people reaching working age. The task is immense and the stakes are high: over the next decade or so, the region may experience population growth of 150 million people - the equivalent of adding two Egypts. Rising labour-force participation by women only increases the pressure. The region is a demographic time-bomb.

Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises

In the last few weeks Lebanon and Palestine have been the scene of dramatic and most unsettling events, from the outbreak on 20 May 2007 of heavy fighting between the Lebanese army and the Palestinian faction Fatah al-Islam near the northern city of Tripoli to the eruption of internecine Fatah-Hamas violence in Gaza which led to the effective partition of Palestine on 15 June. These two proximate conflicts may seem to have different causes, but they closely linked: for they mark the culmination of a process, aimed at undermining the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its then leader Yasser Arafat, which has its origin in the early 1980s.

Sir Salman in the sea of blasphemy

The decision to knight Salman Rushdie, announced in Queen Elizabeth II's birthday honours list on 15 June 2007 has provoked a vigorous reaction in Pakistan. As protests continue, they are descending from the genuine to the self-serving. While there no more public demonstrations, politicians are jumping on the bandwagon in an attempt to out-fatwa each other.

openDemocracy, an editorial report

The two months from 17 April - 19 June 2007 at openDemocracy have been the occasion of a strong body of accumulating work on several editorial fronts. The regular output of commissioned articles and columns has been accompanied by diversifying material in the shape of the evolving "federative" elements (or "sub-domains"), the weekly podcast, and customised blogs reflecting the editorial priorities and partnerships of the moment.

All this took place against the backdrop of the patient, detailed work by the technical team - led by Felix Cohen and Hamza Khan-Cheema - to create the new, long-awaited openDemocracy site. Now, editorial initiatives must fuse with the creative potential of the revamped site and the input of our valued community of authors, readers, partners, and supporters to begin to serve openDemocracy's emerging imperatives of self-sustenance and growth.

A tale of two towns

Two towns are currently taking shape, more or less at the opposite ends of Africa, although one is just into Asia. About as far south as you can go, and a few miles to the east of Cape Town lies Heritage Park. Development started here in 1996 and a decade later there are 1,500 residents in 650 new houses, as well as two churches, two schools and quite a substantial complex of factories and other businesses.

Another 800 houses will be built on the 500 acres of what was originally a farm and vineyard, where there will soon be 6,000 residents. The development is expected to be very popular with buyers, situated as it is close to the beach and with a backdrop of attractive mountain scenery. Indeed, some of the business premises were resold within six months of purchase with 45% mark-ups. As the developers put it: "The natural beauty of the area will not suffer as existing woodlands and mountain streams will be retained while landscaping and beautification around the developments will ensure a pleasing environment."

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001.

Elsewhere in the marketing literature the developers enthuse about that environment: "Throughout the town there are several clear mountain streams which have been left to provide a major feature of the town. In the centre of Heritage Park a dam has been stocked with trout and hundreds of water birds have adopted the lake as their sanctuary". The internal environment of Heritage Park is matched by its location: "Added to the beauty of the immediate surroundings are the vast and stunning views of blue tinged mountains with wine farms nestling into their folds and the soft golden beaches of False Bay only a few kilometres away."

A key part of the Heritage Park concept is the provision of enlightened schooling centred on an international school located within the development. This will take 3-year old children into a nursery school which will feed into a primary school, in turn leading on to a high school through to the age of 18, the whole complex eventually having 900 students. Residents of Heritage Park could see their children educated entirely within the town, and the character of the school is expected to be hugely attractive to those prospective parents:

"The unique blend of the School's philosophy of internationalism; the ethos of Christian love and care which underpins its discipline and relationships; the internationally respected and recognized broad and balanced curriculum based on the UK National Curriculum and leading to University of Cambridge IGCSE and A level certification has proved to be a recipe attractive to both citizens and overseas visitors alike."

It is clear that Heritage Park is intended to be something pretty close to a utopia.

A model community

Several thousand miles to the north, just across Sinai and into the heart of the middle east, another town is fast taking shape. This is Baladia, and - as it nears completion by the end of 2007 - it is already looking remarkably like a typical Arab town of the region. Like Heritage Park, it is being built entirely from scratch, although on desert scrub rather than a former vineyard. It is also similar in size to its South African counterpart, with 1,100 buildings when complete, and is costing about $45 million.

Baladia will have all the features typical of the region, with a town centre, shops, a grand mosque and hospital and even an old-style casbah quarter with five-foot thick walls. Miles of paved main streets, narrow side-streets and a sports field will all help make the inhabitants feel at home. Indeed, one could almost imagine people from some of the refugee camps in the neighbourhood moving straight into Baladia and seeing it as a blessed relief from their poverty and deprivation. In a few months time, there really will be plenty of people around, including young women in their keffiyeh, shopkeepers, humanitarian aid-workers and even the media.

What sort of heritage?

In practice, neither Heritage Park nor Baladia are quite what they seem. Each, in its own way, could even be seen as a metaphor for the wider world. Take Heritage Park first. It certainly is intended to be a haven of peace and tranquillity, not least because of one key feature - the entire development is surrounded by what is described as a six-foot high fence with "an attractive palisade style" - except that it is less than attractive to potential intruders, being electrified to 33,000 volts. The Heritage Park website says proudly: "We have taken a leaf or two out of the medieval past and placed it in our future. To be precise, we have stolen the concept of whole-town fortification to create a crime-free state."

That "crime-free state" has additional features. Heritage Park has just four entry and exit points, each with security personnel on duty, and residents must have a smart card to pass through, with visitors requiring security clearance. The electrified fence has armed guards on duty every 200 yards, there are optional extra security features in the houses and the whole of the development has surveillance cameras.

Heritage Park is not restricted to any particular ethnic group, although all but fifty of the first 1,500 residents are white. The developers also point out that part of the intention is to improve the economic situation for the many thousands of people who live in overcrowded townships close to the complex. The park itself requires numerous people to work as labourers, maids, cooks, gardeners and security guards, and the developers have even built accommodation for many of these potential employees, although they live beyond the barrier and must have security clearance to get to work.

Nevertheless, Heritage Park is an example, by no means uncommon, of the retreat from disorder and the fear of "the other". It is perhaps unfair to cite this particular example, as the South African government is involved in numerous poverty-reduction initiatives across the country. Instead, it is best to see Heritage Park as one of the results of an economic system that is producing an extraordinary socio-economic divide across the world as the globalised free market produces growth without emancipation.

The extent of that divide is startling and remains largely unrecognised, as does the fact that it has increased markedly in recent decades. The period from 1965 to 1990 was particularly acute - in 1960 the average GNP per capita for the richest 20% of the world's population was thirty times that of the poorest 20%. By 1995 this had widened to sixty times.

More recently, a detailed study from the World Institute for Development Economics Research (Wider), a research and training centre of the United Nations University, has published an analysis of the global distribution of household wealth. By 2000, the richest 10% of the world owned 85% of household wealth whereas the poorest 50% owned barely 1% of the wealth (see James Davies, Susanna Sandstrom, Anthony Shorrocks and Edward N Wolff, "The Global Distribution of Household Wealth", WIDER Angle, 2/2006, World Institute for Development Economics Research, Helsinki).

This "elite" community is both very substantial and not rigidly concentrated in a few geographical areas. While most of the populations of many north Atlantic and west Pacific states belong to it, there are substantial wealthy components of this elite in India, China and Brazil; and most southern countries have smaller numbers of people who belong in the same category. The most immediate effect of these brutal divisions of wealth and poverty is continual marginalisation, ill-health and suffering; but it also leads to insecurity in the form of petty crime and, frequently, a desire to migrate in the hope of an improved standard of living.

Heritage Park may be a local response, but the same pattern is seen on a far larger scale in the fencing off of much of the United States/Mexico border, the Indian proposal to erect barriers along the border with Bangladesh, the European fear of north African migrants, the Australian actions against boat people, and a host of other examples. It is a vain attempt to close the castle gates, but can all too easily lead to desperation and radicalisation - whether this be the Naxalites in India, the Maoists in Nepal or numerous other radical social movements. It even relates to much of the support for movements such as al-Qaida, and it is here that the other town, Baladia, is all too relevant.

Reality bites in the desert

When completed in a few months' time, Baladia really will look like any ordinary Arab town, although it might seem strange to recreate as much as a casbah in a brand new development. The reality is that Baladia will be a town entirely without Arabs, for its full name is the National Urban Training Centre (NUTC) for the Israeli Defence Forces (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "Fake, Flexible City Rises in the Negev", Defense News, 11 June 2006 [subscription only]). All the "Arabs" will actually be Israeli soldiers, even down to the young women in their keffiyeh who will be Arabic-speaking Jewish graduates from Israel's universities; members of the international media and even Red Cross personnel will be played by Israeli soldiers. The entire centre is designed to improve the training of combat troops engaged in urban warfare (see Shelly Paz, "IDF builds fake Muslim city to prepare for war", Jerusalem Post, 22 January 2007).

Moreover, Baladia is not just intended to mirror the West Bank or Gaza, but has a purpose extending across the middle east. The whole scheme is designed with maximum flexibility; and while Baladia is in a landscape akin to that of Gaza, even the hill villages of southern Lebanon or Syria can be recreated there. As the NUTC commander, Brigadier-General Uzi Moskovitch says:

"We have the capabilities to create a realistic representation of where we're most likely to fight. Give me seventy or eighty tractors for a month and I'll recreate the hills and topography of a Lebanese village. It won't be identical but it will be enough to provide the type of realistic training our forces require. It might not be politically correct but we're not pretending here. What looks like a mosque is a mosque. And our people will impersonate Arabs, not the Swiss. We need them to act the way our enemies are likely to fight on their own home turf."

There is one other feature of Baladia which might give further pause for thought. Although it is located in the Negev desert in Israel and will be used initially by the Israeli Defence Forces, it is actually an American project. The entire "town" has been constructed by the United States army corps of engineers and paid for mainly through US military aid to Israel. It will, in due course, become a training centre for the US army and marine corps, readying them for deployment in Iraq or anywhere else in the middle east that US security policy takes them. As General Moskovitch puts it: "This is something developed by us in cooperation with the US Army; we intend for it to become a valuable centre of knowledge that will also benefit our American allies and other friends."

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here.

Paul Rogers's latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament.

In the way that Heritage Park is a defence against disorder and crime, with its enlightened schooling rooted in the Christian ethos of love and care and helpfully protected by 33,000 volts, so Baladia represents a more aggressive response of taking the war to the enemy. Create your enemy's town, and train your troops to attack with much greater effect.

It seems to occur to no one in the US military that just one effect of its commitment to the Baladia project will be to confirm in the minds of people right across the region that the war really is a joint US-Israeli operation. The crude al-Qaida propaganda of the "crusader/Zionist war against Islam" will be so much easier to confirm in the minds of millions. For that reason alone, Baladia is likely to prove as deeply counterproductive as so many other aspects of George W Bush's disastrous war on terror.

Both towns - Heritage Park and Baladia - are symbolic of the elite attitudes of the early 21st century. Heritage Park protects the few from the many and Baladia is yet another example of the imperative to maintain control. In their fundamental superficiality, they are grand evasions of the deeper issues of violence and radicalisation that they are ostensibly designed to address.

"The Islamist": a radical journey

The IslamistEd Husain's autobiography The Islamist: why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left (Penguin, 2007) is a remarkably candid account of the life of a British-born Muslim who was initially seduced by radicalism but gradually came to his senses to return to the more spiritual and devotional Islam that had defined his early years. It is also an important work, in that it both carefully grounds the issue of radicalisation that has so dominated recent intellectual and political discussion of Muslim communities in Britain, and points to potential solutions.

Lebanon’s Palestinian shame

It's no secret that Lebanon is a country full of contradictions, and the fighting that recently broke out in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli in the north of the country has served to re-emphasise that point. Three days after hostilities began on 19 May 2007, a group of young professionals working in the centre of Beirut were quick to tell me that the camp should be stormed as soon as possible and that the priority should be to eradicate the terrorists. If some Palestinians were killed in the process, then that would be a price worth paying, they said. A few hours later, I spoke with a young man who had been visiting the tent city erected in the middle of the downtown area in protest over the Lebanese government's policies. He was wearing a Palestinian scarf, and so I enquired about his nationality. "I'm Lebanese", he said, "but it would be an honour for me on this day to be Palestinian".

Hamas’s shortsighted manoeuvre

By taking over Gaza by force, Hamas has successfully completed the process that Israel started of separating the Gaza strip from the West Bank.

Israel-West Bank-Gaza: the future

What happened in Gaza last week was a revolution in more ways than one. The Hamas takeover was a coup d'etat at the internal Palestinian level which also generated a broader revolutionary situation in this part of the middle east. It demolished more than a few fundamental or historic assumptions about the nature and future of Israeli-Palestinian, Palestinian-Palestinian and Palestinian-Arab relations.

Yossi Alpher is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak.

Crises of the middle east: 1914, 1967, 2003

In Variations on Day and Night - the first volume of his great historical trilogy of the modern Arab world - the late Saudi writer Abdelrahman Munif describes the impact on the region of the first world war and the collapse of the Ottoman empire:

Afghanistan: low level, high impact

The violence in Iraq and a renewed call for attacks on Iran continues to take most of the space in the western media's coverage of George W Bush's war on terror. These priorities mean that the persistent problems in Afghanistan tend to be neglected. The higher profile of Iraq can even, as if by default, tempt reporting of Afghanistan into a wary optimism; this is reinforced by the apparent failure of the expected Taliban spring offensive to materialise, giving some hope of an easing of the insurgency.

Three events on consecutive days in the past week have punctured such hopes. The first is the latest assassination attempt against Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. This took place on 10 June 2007, in the form of a rocket fired when Karzai was making a speech in Ghazni province, southwest of Kabul.

The secret visitations of memory

"Go back where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.'' - James Baldwin

The Arab defeat

Better that we, Arabs and Muslims, should surrender than continue as we are.

Japan's experience in the aftermath of the second world war offers an example of unusual courage. In the first place, the country had two atomic bombs dropped on it, and then General MacArthur imposed a new constitution which shook Japan's traditional way of life to its very foundations. The reaction of Japanese society was to concede defeat unequivocally, recognising that as the losers they must pay the price for their loss. But the Japanese elite went one step further, arguing that Japan should actually "embrace defeat", reconciling itself to its loss and learning from the occupying power that had vanquished it. For it had to be possible to learn from the causes of America's strength, without necessarily accepting the justice of its cause. And the loser in a conflict as complex and protracted as the second world war surely had much to learn.Among openDemocracy's many articles on the politics of the Arab world:

Stephen Howe, "The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation"
(18 November 2004)

Tarek Osman, "Can the Arabs love their land?" (22 May 2005)

Fred Halliday, "Democractic reform in the Arab world: mirages and realities"

Patrick Seale, "What hope for Arab democracy?"
(7 June 2005)

David Govrin, "Arabs' democracy dialogue: an assessment"
(16 November 2005)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon"
(22 August 2006)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas's path to reinvention" (10 October 2006)

Fred Halliday, "Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse" (4 June 2007)

Tony Klug, "Israel-Palestine: how peace broke out"
(5 June 2007)

The United States vs Russia, again

The approach to the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Heiligendamm, Germany from 6-8 June 2007 has been characterised by a forceful rhetoric exchange between the United States and Russia over the former's plans to establish a new military capacity in east-central Europe. The plan to defend against incoming missiles, first announced in 2006, was and is justified by the US with reference to a possible threat from Iran and even North Korea.

Russia has scorned this explanation from the start, seeing the plan as clearly targeted against its own interests in the region. More recently, its vehement criticism of the proposal has been matched by the Kremlin's announcement of its intention to take military counter-measures. All this is serious enough in the present febrile geopolitical climate, but public discussion of the issue has focused too much on Vladimir Putin's political bite and too little on deeper Russian strategic concerns. To understand what is at stake in this argument it is necessary to put the current dispute in the context of the history of missile-defence during the cold war.

Israel: you can’t reverse time

Suppose in June 1967, after the smoke had cleared from the war, Israel, citing its reluctance to rule over a large Palestinian population, had decided to withdraw from the Gaza strip and the West Bank, including all of East Jerusalem except the Jewish quarter in the old city and the wailing wall. What new reality would it have then confronted?

We can assume that Jordan's King Hussein, fortified by this decision, would have returned with his army and security services to rule the West Bank. The Gaza strip, cut off from Egypt by the Israeli occupation of Sinai, might have come under the rule of a few prominent families and remained dependent on United Nations support to feed its huge refugee population.

Palestine: this occupation will end

It has now been forty years since the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza started, and it seems as if it happened yesterday. In all those years, one thing has never changed and that is the Palestinian insistence on a total rejection of and continued resistance to this occupation.

Palestinians under siege in the West Bank

For the fortieth anniversary of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories as a result of the six-day war of June 1967, the international secretariat of Amnesty International has compiled a hauntingly illustrated and scrupulously documented audit of the human-rights violations arising from the hundreds of checkpoints, closures and blockades, the 700-kilometre wall and the burgeoning settlements or "Israeli colonies" that now perv

The many faces of multiculturalism

Tariq Modood is clearly correct in pointing out that common citizenship and nationhood do not depend on cultural uniformity or ideological consensus - which are, in any case, impossible to create in a complex society.

Israel-Palestine: how peace broke out

Pessimism dominates discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet the idea that the time is not ripe for peace implies that some more auspicious moment will arise - at some future unspecified date. In reality, continuing on the well-trodden path of irredeemable despair simply postpones peace indefinitely and promises interminable ferment. The contours of the only equitable settlement are well known (see Fred Halliday, "Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse", 4 June 2007).

Al-Qaida: time on its side

The kidnapping of a British financial specialist and four bodyguards on 29 May 2007 would not have been unusual at this juncture in Baghdad except for two aspects.

The first is that this was close to the centre of the city nearly four months into a "surge" in United States forces that was expected to bring a degree of stability.

The second was the ability of the kidnappers to use large numbers of police vehicles to cordon off the streets around the finance ministry and then to walk in past the guards and abduct the five expatriates. This indicates either a remarkable ability of insurgents to acquire official vehicles or that the operation was the work of a renegade police unit most likely linked to a militia.

Nothing is impossible, the difficult takes longer

In 1999, my sister Naela was killed in the streets of Jerusalem. Naela was a public-health consultant who dedicated her career to the rights to life and justice. But her death, as much as it devastated and distressed me, opened a tiny window of hope.

Serbia's Eurovision: whose victory?

"And the twelve points go to Serbia". The announcement of the representative of Bosnian television at the Eurovision song contest in Helsinki on 12 May 2007 may have echoed the voting choices of the citizens of many other European states, but the moment was still astounding for those who recalled the bitter enmity between the two countries in the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s.

Equally striking was what followed. As the Finnish television cameras focused on the beaming young Serbian singer Marija Serifovic, bringing her closer to eventual victory in the competition, she delightedly responded by proffering a three-fingered salute. It was the very same salute that had been the trademark of the Serbian nationalist upsurge of the Slobodan Milosevic era, and thus a prominent symbol (for many Serbs as well as non-Serbs) of xenophobia and intolerance.

The fire next time

The extent of the United States predicament across the Middle East, and the policies being introduced to meet it, is increasing the risk of a crisis with Iran. The nature of the predicament is reflected in the decision to send additional military personnel to Afghanistan as well as Iraq, and in new priorities for equipment geared to counterinsurgency.

After the current additional deployment of troops, US forces in Afghanistan will exceed 25,500, at least 7,000 more than in 2005. Many of these form part of the 34,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) force under Nato control, but others operate independently, meaning that total foreign forces in the country now exceed 40,000 (see "Troops Keep Comin' to Afghanistan", AFP, 10 May 2007).

Uttar Pradesh: India's democratic landslip

If Uttar Pradesh were a sovereign state, it would be the world's sixth most populous country. Instead, with its population of 175 million, it is India's most populous political unit, the most teeming of the thirty-odd constituent states that make up the federalistic Indian Union. A vast sprawl across north India's Gangetic plain - "Uttar Pradesh" literally means "Northern Province" - UP, as the state is referred to by Indians, contains about 15% of India's people and elects a similar proportion of the members of India's national parliament in New Delhi (eighty-one of the 542 members of the directly elected chamber of parliament, the Lok Sabha or "House of the People").

Although, like the rest of India, a predominantly rural and agricultural province, UP has seven cities with populations in excess of one million; one of those is Agra, home of the magnificent Taj Mahal, built in the mid-17th century on the orders of the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan. Uttar Pradesh has been both behemoth and bellwether of India's politics since independence in 1947.

A turbulent ride

Fifteen years ago Uttar Pradesh was at the centre of a maelstrom of conflict that threatened to destabilise India's democracy. In 1990, riots erupted and caste tensions soared when a short-lived populist government in New Delhi announced that it would implement the long-pending recommendations of a commission - the "Mandal commission", so known after the last name of its chairman - that had in the late 1970s proposed affirmative action in higher education and public employment for India's middle-ranking social castes.

This announcement provoked deep anxiety and anger among upper-caste groups, particularly Brahmins and Rajputs, who despite smaller numbers dominated politics in UP and other north Indian states for the first four decades of independent India. This domination was enabled by their preponderance in the Congress party, India's hegemonic party until the late 1980s.

Then, in the early 1990s, India's growing Hindu nationalist movement - dominated though not monopolised by the upper castes and politically represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; "Indian People's Party") - launched a campaign of mass agitation directed at a disused 16th-century mosque located in Ayodhya, a small town in eastern Uttar Pradesh, which they claimed had been built by Muslim "invaders" who founded India's Mughal monarchy on the birth-site of the god Ram, a figure in ancient Indian mythology.

Among openDemocracy's articles from India on India and democracy:                            Rajeev & Tani Bhargava, "The Indian experience" 12 May 2006) – originally published on 13 May 2001, and openDemocracy's first article                             Rajeev Bhargava, "Words save lives: India, the BJP and the constitution"
(2 October 2002)                              Rajeev Bhargava, "India’s model: faith, secularism and democracy"
(3 November 2004)                            Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, "The end of ideology in India?"
(10 June 2004)                                 Antara Dev Sen, "India’s benign earthquake"
(20 May 2004)                                  Rajeev Bhargava, "The magic of Indian democracy: questions for Antara Dev Sen"
(27 May 2004)

This campaign swiftly gathered momentum and culminated in the razing of the mosque by a mob of rightwing zealots on 6 December 1992, as police and paramilitary forces looked on. Religious violence erupted across India in the aftermath and several thousand people, mostly Muslims - who are about 13% of India's population and 18% in UP - were killed. As Uttar Pradesh descended into a festering cauldron of caste and religious antagonisms, while a secessionist Sikh insurgency continued in Punjab and a Muslim insurgency against Indian authority broke out in Kashmir, India faced its gravest period since independence. It seemed that the pessimism voiced by some western doomsayers in the 1950s and 1960s about India's prospects as a country and as a democracy - too big, too diverse, too poor - might even be belatedly coming true.

That improbably dire scenario was not realised. But India's politics has had a turbulent ride in the years since multiple crises gripped the country during the first half of the 1990s, and Uttar Pradesh remains, as always, central to the unfolding saga of the world's largest, most complicated and most unruly democracy. So when UP's 114 million voters went to the polls over the past few weeks to elect their 403-member legislative assembly (the state's parliament) and thereby choose who would govern their state - an exercise conducted every five years - the election riveted India's attention.

The importance of the election was heightened by the fact that it coincided with the completion of three years in office by an unwieldy Congress-led coalition government that has been in charge in New Delhi since May 2004 - having displaced a similarly polyglot and fractious BJP-led coalition government that ruled the country from 1998 to 2004 - which means that the countdown has begun to the next national (Lok Sabha) election, due at the latest by May 2009. The outcome of the UP election, announced on 11 May, highlights the great transformations that have occurred in India's politics since Congress hegemony ended almost two decades ago and the BJP's appeal peaked almost a decade ago.

Mayawati's winning edge

The victor in UP's 2007 battleground is Mayawati, a 51-year-old woman who is the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP; "Party of the Social Majority"). The BSP was formed in the mid-1980s by Kanshi Ram, Mayawati's now-deceased political mentor, to articulate the aspirations of the lowest castes - once the "untouchables" - of the social order.

Mahatma Gandhi, the famous leader of India's freedom struggle, had a particular concern for the oppression and indignities visited upon these people, whom he rechristened Harijans ("the people of God"). In the past two decades the "Harijan" label has been superseded by another - Dalit, literally meaning "the oppressed" - which is favoured by the community's ideologues and younger generation and serves as a badge of pride for many whose caste-status (or rather, lack thereof) traditionally condemned them to abuse and misery.

In its early years the BSP adopted shrill caste rhetoric, blaming the upper castes, Brahmins in particular, for centuries of iniquity and discrimination. According to the BSP, these upper castes, despite being a smallish minority in Indian society, had usurped social and political power to the detriment of the majority; hence the party's name. Over the past decade, however, the compulsions of fashioning a winning electoral strategy have led the BSP to steadily tone down this rhetoric and instead re-articulate its subaltern ideology in class rather than caste terms.

In 2007, this shift paid off handsomely as the BSP, confounding widespread predictions of an inconclusive election and a "hung" UP legislature, won just over half its seats (206 of 402) on the strength of a slim plurality, 31%, of the popular vote. Most of the BSP's votes came from its mass base among the Dalit communities, who comprise about 22% of UP's electorate. But its winning edge came from the support the BSP received from the poor people among the upper-caste (especially Brahmin) and Muslim communities. In other words, support from the most poverty-stricken and disadvantaged of UP's people (Dalits tend to be disproportionately poor anyway) - cutting across caste and religious divides - put the BSP on the road to victory.

Nation and region

What does this tell us about the evolution of India's democracy? The implications are several and significant. The Uttar Pradesh outcome is the latest and most striking example of how the democratic space can be effectively utilised by political entrepreneurs who have emerged from among India's poor and downtrodden - Mayawati comes from a Dalit family of very modest means - to give their subaltern following not just a voice, but a powerful voice, in the polity. The fact that Uttar Pradesh's new chief minister is not just a Dalit, but a Dalit woman, is perhaps equally significant since the condition of women in UP is among the worst in India.

The 2001 census of India revealed that 57% of UP women possessed no literacy at all, the proportion being even higher among Dalit women and poor women of all communities. And unlike most of India's leading women politicians, Mayawati was neither born nor married into privilege and power (in contrast to Sonia Gandhi, the Italian leader of the Congress party, whose husband, mother-in-law, and mother-in-law's father were all prime ministers, and ruled India for thirty-eight years between them).

The story of Uttar Pradesh is also a telling illustration of how India's party system - and with it, the nature and dynamics of its democracy - has changed beyond recognition over the past two decades. The runner-up in UP is the party that governed the state from 2003 to 2007 - the Samajwadi Party ("Socialist Party") or SP (an alphabet-soup is unfortunately unavoidable in any analysis of Indian democracy). The SP, although ousted from office, polled a respectable 26% of the vote - largely from its solid support base among middle-ranking castes and Muslims - and has become the principal opposition party with ninety-seven seats in the new legislature.

Like the BSP, the SP's base is concentrated in UP and its politics is centred on that province; in short, both these parties are exemplars of the phenomenon of growing "regionalisation" of the party system that has defined Indian politics since the early 1990s (in the current Lok Sabha, the two "national" parties, Congress and BJP, hold just over half the seats between them, and many of those seats are due to alliances struck by both with a variety of smaller "regional" parties representing specific ethnic, linguistic and caste identity and interest groups. These latter parties occupy the rest of the seats).

Between them, the BSP and the SP won 57% of the popular vote and three-fourths of the seats (303 of 402) in the UP legislature elected in May 2007. India's two "national parties", the Hindu-nationalist BJP and the "centrist" Congress, trailed far behind. The BJP tally in both votes and seats slumped, as it got 19% of the vote and just fifty seats. The Congress, the colossus of Indian and UP politics until the end of the 1980s but in drastic decline in UP and many other parts of India since, managed to secure only 8% of the vote - an all-time low - and twenty-one seats.

The shock of the new

The transformation in Indian politics is even deeper than these dramatic numbers and percentages suggest. Old appeals and strategies no longer work. The dinosaur-like Congress's star campaigner in this election was party president Sonia Gandhi's son Rahul, a fresh-faced 37-year-old who is among a handful of Congress members of the national Parliament in Delhi elected in 2004 from Uttar Pradesh. Rahul Gandhi toured the state extensively, evoking nostalgic memories of his political dynasty's past glories - he gave various members of his family credit for the independence of India in 1947, the break-up of Pakistan in 1971, and for India's growing prominence in the world in the early 21st century - and dished out vague promises of "development". In the 1980s, such a campaign may have led masses of awed subjects to vote Congress; in the transformed political environment, where voters have a consciousness that they are citizens not subjects, the pretender's pleas were in vain. The BJP, which has been adrift since its unexpected defeat in the national election of 2004, adopted a strategy of stoking anti-Muslim prejudice among the UP electorate.

During the 1990s, this was precisely the kind of strategy that paid off in UP and some other parts of India, but in 2007, hate-mongering fell flat. The ruling SP drafted in the Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan to front its campaign, which also received support from one of India's top tycoons, Anil Ambani. The glamour of showbiz and the backing of big business could not, in the end, compensate for the reputation the government headed by veteran SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav had acquired for caste-cronyism (favoring fellow-Yadavs, a middle-ranking caste) and shoddy governance. Voters were particularly disappointed by the spread of organized crime under the patronage of SP bosses. Mayawati and the BSP squeezed past and in the process, made history.

Mayawati - a matronly woman with fashionably coiffed hair who is hailed by her supporters as the "Dalit queen" - may well turn out to be a disappointment too. She has a reputation for autocratic behavior, and, during a brief previous term in office in 2002-03 as UP's chief minister in coalition with the BJP, she was allegedly complicit in financial improprieties. She may also have overly grandiose ambitions, having announced after her victory that her next target is to capture national power in Delhi. Time will tell. In the meantime, the great spectacle of India's democracy rolls on, and its representative character is greater today, sixty years after independence, than ever before.


Sumantra Bose is professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His books include Bosnia after Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka (Harvard University Press, 2007)                                                    Also by Sumantra Bose in openDemocracy: "Contested lands: paths to progress" (14 May 2007)


Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report

To enter Gaza from Israel you have to cross at Erez where the Israelis have erected a huge new terminal made of glass, steel and Jerusalem stone (it is actually 1.7 km inside Palestinian territory - even at the moment of withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005, the Israelis couldn't resist taking a little bit extra). To get inside the terminal compound, you show your passport at a barrier, then cross a big empty space and enter the terminal. In a glass booth, a pretty Israeli soldier sits high above you, asks severely what you plan to do, and checks your name in the computer.

The six-day war, forty years on

In June 2007 the Arab world will mark a bitter anniversary in its modern history, namely the passing of forty years since the six-day war with Israel. For the Arabs, their decisive defeat in June 1967 occupies a very special, if not unique place in their region's post-independence era. Perhaps this is because the event was laden with significance - political, cultural, economic and of course military - in a way that was unprecedented at the time. Indeed, one might go so far as to call it the first defining moment of the modern Arab world.

The SWISH Report (8)

A report, Policy Recommendations for the incoming Prime Minister, from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (SWISH) for the International Security Working Group of the Transition Team, 11 Downing Street, London.


May we first thank you for inviting us to deliver this report. As you will be aware, most of our recent consultancies on the progress of the war on terror have been for the Strategic Planning Cell of the al-Qaida movement (July 2004; January 2005; and February, September and December); but we are, after all, merely consultants and are therefore more than happy to work for a range of clients. Indeed, we have also undertaken work for a planning group within the United States state department (September 2005) and prepared a report for the International Security Policy Group that serves your departing next-door neighbour (May 2006).

Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity

The relationship between ethnic, religious and social communities in some western European states is surrounded by a sense of crisis. The atmospherics of this crisis - immigration, visible difference, tension over "trigger issues" such as women's apparel or icons of faith, the pervading fears of the post-9/11 world - are easier to identify than its actual character. In this circumstance, where evidence of conflict is readily available but a view of the whole picture is harder to achieve, it is not surprising that many people - seeking to make meaning from apparent confusion - look for scapegoats. In media, academia and much public discussion in the first years of the millennium (particularly in Britain, with which this essay is mainly concerned), one of the principal scapegoats has been and continues to be multiculturalism.

Pakistan's permanent crisis

The streets of Pakistan have in recent days resonated with strikes, gunfire, and the cries of demonstrators. A crisis sparked by the suspension of the supreme court's chief justice on 9 March 2007 has exploded into a full-scale emergency with no end in sight. The turmoil raises acute questions about Pakistan's political future. But it also highlights a more deep-rooted question regarding the very possibility of political and economic progress in a country so heavily dominated by one institution: the Pakistani military.

The fact that Pakistan's crisis has turned violent - with forty-one people killed in Karachi over the weekend of 12-13 May and the assassination of a leading court official in Islamabad - adds a dangerous twist and makes the prospect of a quick resolution even more difficult. What is sure is that the country's general-president, Pervez Musharraf, is hard at work in the attempt to ensure his own survival. But where are the allies of the beleaguered leader, apart from the members of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) who were deeply implicated in the Karachi events? Here there are persistent rumours of a deal between Musharraf and the former prime minister and exiled opposition leader, Ayesha Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based independent political and defence analyst. Her book, Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy is published by Pluto Press (April 2007)
There has been no formal announcement, though Bhutto has mentioned the possibility of an arrangement between her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the president in the parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for October 2007. If such a deal were made, Bhutto would expect to become prime minister for a third time with Musharraf remaining as president. Each side might benefit: Bhutto would secure a share of power and the lifting of the numerous corruption cases pending against her, while Musharraf would create a buffer protecting him from a tide of multiple, accumulating pressures. The partnership would also allay Musharraf's most potent anxiety, by appeasing the doubts of his foreign patrons about his ability to keep the religious extremist forces in the country at bay. The PPP would be a congenial partner in the effort to display to the world the liberal face of Pakistan.

A stifled polity

If the Musharraf-Bhutto deal does go through - and in the present fluid situation nothing is certain - one important result will be to reformat Pakistan military's partnership: shifting it from a military-mullah alliance to a military-liberal alliance (which was also the case during the 1960s). Such a marriage of convenience against religious extremism and cultural conservatism would be highly attractive to Pakistan's main external patron, the United States. The new relationship would need to be secured politically, the most likely mechanism being the manipulation of the electoral process that has so often been the forte of Pakistan's army and its numerous intelligence agencies.

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:

Irfan Husain, "Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

Iftikhar H Malik, "Musharraf’s predicament, Pakistan's agony"
(5 September 2006)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan on edge"
(25 September 2006)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan: zero-sum games people play"
(6 December 2006)

Irfan Husain, "Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails" (19 March 2007)

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state"
(12 April 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan: sliding into anarchy"
(26 April 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Rising, uprising Pakistan"
(14 May 2007)

There are many imponderables on the road from the Musharraf-Bhutto dalliance to arranged marriage. But one thing is clear: the partnership will not strengthen democracy in Pakistan.

The reason is rooted in the nature of the Pakistani military and its political influence. In the past, alliances between the country's various civilian leaders and its military have served only to consolidate the armed forces' control of political power. Today, the military remains the key political player, constantly seeking to cultivate bonds of dependence with politicians and among civil society in pursuit of its larger political and economic goals. In fact, after sixty years of independence Pakistan is witnessing the integration of elite interests, including those of the senior military class and its cadres. In this process, there is developing a fusion of military, political and economic power - an outcome inimical either to better governance or stronger democracy in the country.

The military's ambitions are not arbitrary but rooted in the organisation's range of material and institutional interests in Pakistan. The protection of these is vital to sustain the lifestyles of its officer cadre, in particular, senior generals, both retired and those still serving, appreciate the benefits accruing from a financial empire worth billions of dollars. This vast apparatus encompasses four military welfare foundations (valued at around $2 billion), but also includes hundreds of large-, medium- and small-scale business ventures which the military more or less directly runs. For instance, one major cargo transport giant is a military firm; and other army units have run everything from Lahore petrol-pumps to toll-levies on a national highway. The estimated total worth of this economy exceeds $100 billion (see Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state", 12 April 2007).

These extensive financial interests guarantee the armed forces both organisational autonomy and a regular flow of resources from the public and private sectors to enrich senior officers. But the military's power goes even wider: it extends, for example, to the acquisition of state-owned land with impunity. It is now common for the government to dispossess landless peasants from state land they have in desperation occupied and transfer ownership to military personnel. By these and other means, the military has come to control about 11.58 million acres of state land (12% of the total). Much of this is then distributed to its personnel for private benefit (in return for a very modest rent).

This policy is ostensibly designed to benefit all military personnel, including soldiers, but the main beneficiary (especially from urban land distribution) is the officer cadre. In rural areas, too, senior officers receive extra subsidies such as farm-to-market roads, access to water and allowance to use soldiers as farm-workers. The similarities to the position of local feudal lords are more than contingent: in fact, the military economy is in effect a pre-capitalist socio-economic structure whose assets embody comparative political power rather than act as a source of capital formation.

A crony economy

Pervez Musharraf's eagerness to reward the members of his primary political constituency has meant that this system of rewards has flourished under his seven years of military rule. Behind Pakistan's political games and calculations, the system forms the basis of a "social contract" under which the military fraternity and its cronies will continue to enjoy access to resources and opportunities as long as they remain loyal. This formula is also the basis for the enhancement of the military's political power.

The domination of civilian institutions by the armed forces is at the heart of Pakistan's permanent crisis. This political-economic nexus entrenches political cronyism - and in a way that implicates international players too. In a situation of such extensive military control, forces (civilian, political, or Pakistan's foreign allies) which desire to advance their interests in the country have no option but to seek access to and preference from the state's most powerful institution.

The economics and politics reinforce each other. The result is the emergence of a Pakistani ruling elite that comprises a complex network of senior military, significant industrialists, businessmen, landed-feudal owners, civil bureaucracy and now even media gurus. Some members of this elite coalition may not be entirely comfortable with the military's overarching control, but as a whole it has become a pillar of Pakistan's authoritarian form of governance. This system is a huge obstacle in the way of progress towards democracy in Pakistan.

Rising, uprising Pakistan

It would be tempting to explain away the latest turn in the continuing Pakistani saga of survival by saying that the cauldron which had been simmering on relatively low heat for a number of years has merely come to the boil. Iraq has so inured us to mass death by bombs and bullets that a mere forty-one dead (at the time of writing) in the course of a violent weekend in Karachi barely turns a head. It is true that unresolved matters cannot long remain so - and that something big has soon got to give. But such simplifications do not do credit to Pakistan, probably the most complex geopolitical entity of our time. As the blood on the streets dries, some of the complexity needs to be untangled.

Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh

A diplomatic highlight of the international summit on Iraq at Sharm el-Sheikh on 3-4 May 2007 was the meeting between the United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and her Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem. The thirty-minute talk acquired even more attention in light of the absence an expected substantive discussion between Rice and the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to materialise.
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