A word with Nitin Sawhney

2017 marks 70 years since India’s partition and independence – what does that mean to you?

As somebody who’s grown up in diaspora, I feel the emotional resonance of how Partition affected my parents. It was an incredibly dark period – over a million people died in the violence and the struggle of their displacement. Of course, at the time, the British under-reported it as 200,000 but it was a lot more. That resistance of the Empire profoundly affected a lot of the next generation. For example, I didn’t accept an OBE because I didn’t want the word ‘empire’ after my name. Colonialism doesn’t interest me.

Who inspires you?

Noam Chomsky is an incredible inspiration; Nelson Mandela, whom I was lucky enough to meet and spend time with at his house; people who fought for justice and not power. Musically, it’s those who transcend barriers, like Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Qawwali singer from Pakistan. Ravi Shankar, whose legacy is carried on by his daughter; Trilok Gurtu, the world’s finest percussionist.

I’m inspired by people who don’t allow geographical or political boundaries to restrict their exploration of music and life and understanding and expression. Music is a passport to possibility – it’s a bridge.

You famously appeared in the BBC comedy Goodness Gracious Me some years back, how did that happen?

Music is what I have always done, what I’ve always loved since I was five. I was a classical pianist, a flamenco guitarist, I played tabla and was in a youth orchestra, a jazz quartet, a rock band, a punk band, I was into everything! Music is what I have always lived and breathed. Then when I did comedy, it was just fun to hang out with Sanjeev [Bhaskar]. I remember that as a really good time – a creative time.

Because I did stand-up and comedy, it gave me a different kind of confidence, to talk to the crowd and not just play when I perform.

What do you think about the second and third generations born to Asian immigrant parents in Europe – are they integrating enough?

For me, it’s not about assimilating; I believe all religions, perspectives and human beings are of equal value. That’s the way I was brought up. I think it’s about respecting different viewpoints and ways of thinking. If you start with that in mind, you’ll end up in a good place.

Is world politics moving more to the Right?

There’s a polarization that’s clearly emerging more strongly right now, which is being exacerbated by events like the Charlottesville tragedy and by stupid comments by Donald Trump – who I believe is inciting a lot of race-hate and all different kinds of hate across the world. He is giving a license to people who shouldn’t really have our attention – people who have extreme, nasty, rightwing views – that they should have a platform to speak with increased confidence. Add Brexit and Nigel Farage – who I think is a modern day Iago, stirring up hatred and suspicion in the most Machiavellian way… It’s depressing.

You’ve got a lot going on right now, what do you do to relax?

It’s a busy time. I’m scoring Jungle Book for Warner Bros and I’m also about to tour with a new film about a disability rights campaigner, Robin Cavendish. There’s also Dystopian Dream, my tenth album, which has been turned into a fully choreographed show by Saddlers Wells. When I want to relax, I do a bit of kickboxing, play chess and meet friends for a meal.

How would you define yourself?

As someone who always tried his best. Somebody who gives a shit.

Nitin Sawhney’s album Live At Ronnie Scott’s is out now on Gearbox Records and was reviewed in the November issue of New Internationalist.

Subi Shah is a broadcaster and journalist for the BBCThe Voice and LBC radio.

The dangerous rise of the right: an interview with Noam Chomsky


Noam Chomsky holds a magistral lecture at the Foro Internacional por la Emancipación y la Igualdad organized by the Argentinian Ministry of Culture on 12 March 2015. © Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación Argentina

The relationship between Noam Chomsky and US Presidents has never been idyllic, but it recently became a whole lot more critical.

The renowned scholar and award-winning author is witnessing the 16th president over the course of his lifetime, and has spoken up against many of the previous ones in the past – but according to him, Donald Trump signals a new low in American politics.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Chomsky called Trump an 'ignorant, thin-skinned megalomaniac' and a 'greater evil' than Hillary Clinton.

And being one of the most cited scholars in history as well as a political activist, with an influence on academic fields ranging from linguistics to politics to philosophy, when Chomsky speaks, he rarely repeats the obvious or the cliché...

You recently described the US Republican Party as the most 'dangerous organization in world history.' Can you explain why?

Global warming is a very severe threat to the survival of organized human society. The Republican Party is dedicated to racing to disaster. In the primaries, every candidate either denied that what is happening is happening, or said that maybe it is, but we should ignore it.

Their elected leader describes climate change as a hoax, calls for increased use of fossil fuels, dismantling regulations, refusing the call to poor countries seeking to shift to renewable energy, and in other ways accelerating the race to disaster.

The effects of Republican denialism already had a dangerous impact on the international negotiations COP21 and COP22. It’s hard to find a case of an organization in history that has been dedicated with such commitment to the end of organized human society in any decent form.

You have been active in US peace and social movements for more than half a century. How do you assess the current state of these movements following Trump's election?

They are mobilizing, organizing, considering ways to move forward in dangerous times.

You have written about the influence on your thought and politics of the libertarian socialist tradition. Do you believe the influence of such ideas have grown or diminished in your lifetime?

That is hard to estimate.

It is 28 years since you co wrote Manufacturing Consent with Edward Herman. Does Bernie Sanders candidacy and Jeremy Corbyn's election as Leader of Labour Party indicate that the corporate media is losing its influence and that social media now provides a voice for social movements in the way that the mass circulation labor press did a century ago?

The book did not deal with the impact of the media product, but rather with its nature. Social media doubtless have an impact, with mixed consequences.

Some have compared growing nationalist sentiment in Europe, Brexit and the election of Trump to the political turmoil of 1930s. In what appears to many a bleak outlook, which developments still give you hope for the future?

Take just the US, and the US elections on 8 November. Clinton won a majority of the popular vote, a large majority of the under-25 vote. Sanders won an even larger majority. Many Trump voters had voted for Obama, believing his promise of 'hope and change'. When they found it to be false, they voted for Trump’s message of hope and change, and can be reached by an authentic effort to bring about a badly needed reversal of harmful policies. There are many opportunities that can be grasped and pursued.

Related: Election of Trump clarifies the struggle for climate justice

The brave and the blameless: women survivors of war-time rape

woman in shadow

Quinn Dombrowski under a Creative Commons Licence

One night, when Anisa* was 14 years old, she was dragged from her bed by six soldiers and taken at gunpoint to the field which backed on to her small house. It was 1971 in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the bitter and bloody war for independence from Pakistan raged on. That night, she was gang-raped by the soldiers who had just killed her parents. ‘I was so scared,’ she says. ‘It hurt terribly at first but then I became wooden. I don’t remember how many times they raped me; after a while I didn’t feel or think anything. There was no-one to hear me scream.’

Now in her mid-fifties, Anisa is one of an estimated 200,000 Bangladeshi women who were raped by state-backed Pakistani troops during the war.

Her experience is not unique, according to the charity Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) – it is being repeated in war zones throughout the world today. MSF is now delivering medical aid to sexual assault survivors in conflicts across the globe, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Darfur.

‘Sexual violence during war can have several objectives,’ says Françoise Duroch, MSF’s expert on violence. ‘Rape can be used as a weapon, meaning it is carried out with martial reasoning and used for political ends. It can be used to reward soldiers, or remunerate them, to motivate the troops. It can also be used as a means of torture, sometimes to humiliate the men of a certain community. Systematic rape can be used to force a population to move. Rape can also be used as a biological weapon to deliberately transmit the HIV/AIDS virus. In war, we also find the phenomenon of sexual exploitation, forced prostitution or even sexual slavery.’

Strategic weapon

This week, London will host The Global Summit To End Sexual Violence In Conflict. The four-day long summit, hosted by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Special Envoy For The UK High Commissioner For Refugees, Angelina Jolie, is the largest gathering ever brought together on the subject. The message is clear: rape and sexual assault of women and children in conflict is not an opportunistic ‘spoil of war’ – rather, it is a used as a strategic weapon by invading military, and the international community must work together to hold those responsible to account.

Though sexual violence in armed conflict is recognized as a war crime by the United Nations, the organizers of the Summit say that to force change, more work must be done to raise awareness of its impact on communities, families and individuals.

British Bosnian charity Remembering Srebrenica says rape was used as part of a strategy of ethnic cleansing during the conflict in the 1990s. It estimates that somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 women were assaulted by invading soldiers during the war, with the aim of impregnating Muslim women with Serbian babies. To date, only seven soldiers have faced trial over these charges.

Meldisa* was 17 when she was kidnapped from the streets of Sarajevo before being raped and impregnated by Serb soldiers. During her four months in captivity, she was burned with cigarette butts, beaten and spat on. She was raped ‘countless’ times, often at knifepoint. She says her attackers told her that ‘there are too many Muslims here, you will have a Serb child’. When the soldiers grew bored of her, she was taken to Tuzla and dumped in the street. She had a late abortion there.

‘Healing cannot happen without acknowledgement. Now in Bangladesh, the women who suffered and survived the pain and humiliation of rape during the battle for independence are brave enough to speak out about what happened to them’

Reporting rape in non-conflict zones is challenging enough for the victim – often the social stigma or legal infrastructure makes speaking out impossible – but in the chaos of a war zone there is seldom anyone to tell.

London-based writer and actor Leesa Gazi is working hard to change this, collating the experiences of women raped by soldiers during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence from Pakistan. The women’s stories have been put together for a new production by her theatre group, Komola Collective. The play is entitled ‘Birangona: Women Of War’. Birangona means ‘the brave and blameless’.

Gazi says recording the experiences of these women is a vital part of Bangladesh’s short but bloody history – and confronting the harsh reality of what happened to them is part of the healing process.

‘There is hope,’ she says. ‘Healing cannot happen without acknowledgement. Now in Bangladesh, the women who suffered and survived the pain and humiliation of rape during the battle for independence are brave enough to speak out about what happened to them. They want the world to know our history and they want justice for the war crimes committed against them. I hope this week’s summit in London achieves its aims because the terrible legacy of rape in conflict goes on a long time after the war itself ends.’

*name has been changed.
Subi Shah is a journalist and documentary film producer based in London. She has worked in Srebrenica, Tuzla, Dhaka, Mumbai, Northern Ireland and Los Angeles.

Darcus Howe: ‘All I want to do is mobilize the people to stand up for their rights’

Darcus Howe

Darcus Howe. © Dave Watts

Originally from Trinidad, Howe is one of five children born to a schoolteacher and a minister. ‘My life in Trinidad was miserable. There was a growing problem with street gangs in my neighbourhood and study seemed to be the only way to stay out of that kind of trouble. But no matter how hard I worked, my parents beat me mercilessly and oftentimes, with a strap made out of leather or anything else they could get their hands on. I was beaten for small misdemeanours such as making spelling mistakes. The whip was my inspiration to leave Trinidad and the only way I could leave was to study in England.’

At the age of 17, Howe arrived in Southampton on the SS Antilles with the intention of studying Law, but it was here that he discovered his flair for journalism and his passion for political activism. He returned to Trinidad, where, mentored by his late uncle, the historian and journalist CLR James, he worked on trade union paper The Vanguard before returning to Britain, where he joined others – of all backgrounds – at the forefront of forcing change on Britain’s political and racial landscape.

As biographers Bunce and Field put it, ‘Howe has continually advocated black and white collaboration, with the proviso that when dealing with racism, Black people play the leading role. This political principle is rooted in personal experience. He spent his childhood rubbing shoulders with the grandchildren of Indian indentured labourers in rural Trinidad. His schooldays were enriched by White teachers… whom Howe describes as “the most enlightened bourgeois” of their generation, whose experiences of war prompted them to leave Europe for the Caribbean.’

The Mangrove Nine

Howe’s early activism can be traced back to when he worked shifts at Notting Hill’s Mangrove Restaurant in London. The Mangrove was a meeting place for the local community and members of the Black Panther Movement. The local police force was convinced it was a drug den and raided it no fewer than 12 times between January 1969 and July 1970. No evidence of illegal drug use was ever found. Incensed at the heavy-handed and often brutal raids, Howe mobilized 150 fellow protesters to march to the police station – a demonstration which ended in violence between those marching and the police.

Howe and eight others, who became known as The Mangrove Nine, endured a 55-day trial at The Old Bailey, accused of incitement to riot. Howe represented himself in court, unsuccessfully demanding an all-Black jury, but by simply making the request, he had managed to highlight the tensions between the Black community and the British legal process. All nine were eventually acquitted of the main charge of incitement to riot. This was a seismic moment in British politics and race relations, as it provoked the first judicial acknowledgement of racism in the police service. The Judge, in his summing up said the trial had ‘regrettably shown evidence of racial hatred on both sides’.

‘It was a time of vulgar racism,’ says Howe. ‘The everyday abuse Black people would get from strangers on the street and the police alike would shock you today. But I never once believed what they wanted us to believe – that we as Black people are inferior to Whites – and fighting my corner at the Mangrove Trial was part of that.’

Rise and fall of the Black Panthers

Following the New Cross Fire in 1981 in which 13 young Black people were killed in a suspected arson attack, Howe and his associates organized the Black People’s Day of Action. An estimated 20,000 people took part in a march to Hyde Park, in memory of the dead and to protest at the way the case had been handled by the police.

‘We buried 13 children in 10 days. It was important to come together as a community and show our strength,’ says Howe. ‘CLR James said that West Indians are the most rebellious people in human history and he was right – we stood up, we rose up in defiance at the way we were being treated.’

A recent exhibition in London about the British Black Panther Movement (BBPM) illustrated Howe’s involvement with the rise of the Black Panthers in Britain and indeed its collapse. Says Howe: ‘The Black Panthers was valuable for a time. But then it became too insular. It was too concerned with the personal lives of its members, who was sleeping with who and that kind of rubbish. I met with Farrukh Dhondy, a core member and a very radical intellectual, and we made a tactical decision to break it up because it was not working. It had become ineffective, destructive, even.’

‘We broke it up simply by staying away,’ says Dhondy. ‘Darcus was its star turn and I was a core member with a lot of sway. We agitated other members, got them to speak up against the leadership, who were running it like their own private fiefdom. We also had the example of CLR James who had, in his time, made strategic decisions when he was with different groups and formations in America.’

The breaking up of the BBPM left a gap in Britain’s racial-political landscape, which was arguably never filled and, according to Dhondy, is irrelevant in 2013. ‘I don’t think there is a Black Politics left in the UK,’, he says. ‘I think the future of Black British politics will involve the movement of working people into the mainstream and not necessarily through the Labour Party exclusively… It’s easier now to join a mainstream party and work your way through it, but that is not revolution. The path that Obama took is a good example. Is he really effective in changing America, or is he just another democrat politician?’

The reluctant hero

So what did Howe himself, a man famous for asking questions himself and playing the devil’s advocate, think about the process of being written about? He smiles when I ask him that question. ‘You know, I thought it was a remarkable thing, to be written about and asked questions of,’ he says. ‘The book wasn’t written to turn me into a political hero – I do not wish to be a politician, all I want to do is mobilize the people to stand up for their rights. You know, this book is not just about me, it is the story of my generation of Black people who came to settle here; it should be read by anyone interested in Caribbean history in Britain. I think in the coming years I would like to teach Caribbean history. I’d like to do it for those who are born here and who need to know who they are – you only know who you are when you understand where you have come from.’

Darcus Howe, A Political Biography by Robin Bunce and Paul Field is published by Bloomsbury.

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