Refugees, Documenta

Submitted by admin on Fri, 08/18/2017 - 21:02
A mural at the Hamar Weyne Police Station in Mogadishu


Dear Friends,

Certainly those in the United States are seized by the confrontation provoked by the Nazis and other assorted toxicities in Charlottesville, Virginia. I recall walking past what is now Emancipation Park when last in that town a few months ago. It always seems awkward to be faced directly with the commemoration of the dark side of history.

Today I drove by the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta. At the heart of the grounds is a bronze statue of Victoria wearing the Star of India robes. This was produced in 1901. That year, the radical British writer William Digby looked back at the famine of 1876-78 which took the lives of 12 million Chinese and over 6 million Indians. Digby wrote of the famine, 'When the part played by the British Empire in the 19th century is regarded by the historian 50 years hence, the unnecessary death of millions of Indians would be its principal and most notorious monument'. Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso, 2000) redeems Digby's hope.

The grounds of the Victoria Memorial are peppered with statues of other imperialists, from the conquistador Robert Clive to the Viceroy who came after the famine, Lord Ripon. Fortunately there is no statue of Lord Lytton, who preceded Ripon and who did nothing to alleviate the imperialist-induced famine. While the famine went unchecked, and as millions of Indians died, Lord Lytton convened the Delhi Durbar - where Victoria was proclaimed the Empress of India. Inside Calcutta's Victoria Memorial is a plaque which trusts that this occasion - the Durbar of 1877 - would 'unite in bonds of close affection' the monarch and the Indians. Money that could have gone towards famine relief went to celebrate Victoria. The vulgarity is reproduced each day in the heart of Calcutta.

At Alternet this week, I have a report on the contemporary famines and holocausts that go by without comment: this time from Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) and the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Somalia). Both areas have been wracked by climate change, by criminal global economic policies and by the arms trade and war. Thirty million people are on the threshold of famine - but these 'climate change refugees' have no-where to go. Borders that have become military outposts and toxic sensibilities that have corroded humanity prevent them from having any kind of future.

You can read my report here. Please use it any way you'd like. The picture above is of a mural at the Hamar Weyne Police Station in Mogadishu. Those who know the city will recognize that this police station is in the heart of the beautiful old town (hence the name). It is as threatened today by developers as by warlords.


Bengal Famine of 1943


Famines are not alien to Bengal, but nor are they somehow normal to the area. The British arrived in Bengal in the 18th century, engineered through their trading policies a collapse of the Bengali economy and engendered a famine in 1770 that killed off a third of the population. Before the British left - seventy years ago last week - they deepened another agrarian crisis in 1943 that resulted in the death of between one million and three million people. The devastation of imperial rule slowly vanishes from our consciousness. There are few memorials to the atrocity that was imperialism, little discussion of the legacies of imperialism that continue to torment our unsettled world.

I was in Kassel (Germany) a few weeks ago to see the massive exhibition known as documenta 14. At this exhibition, the curators created a room dedicated largely to the Bengal Famine of 1943. It had original drawings by Chittaprosad and Zainul Abedin as well as photographs by Sunil Janah. These artists went to document the famine on behalf of the Communist Party of India, and its newspaper People's War. The work is extremely moving. I had not seen any of Zainul Abedin's art in the original before, although it is available to be seen at Dhaka's Bangladesh National Museum and in Mymensingh's Zainul Abedin Museum (see the picture from Kassel above). I can't tell you what it meant to see a copy of Chittaprosad's Hungry Bengal. The Communist Party produced five thousand copies of this pamphlet. The British imperialists seized and destroyed them. Two survived. One was at Kassel.

At Scroll, thanks to Naresh, I have a report on documenta 14 with special emphasis on the famine art as well as on art that takes up the refugee crisis. You can read it here

I went to Kassel thanks to the Bangladeshi filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen, whose film Two Meetings and a Funeral is showing at the exhibition. Since I play a part in the film, Naeem and documenta decided to hold a four evening conversation about that teased out the political implications from it. There is a short note on Naeem's film at my college website. Hope you get to see the film when it travels to Beirut, Dhaka, Calcutta, Ramallah.......


Historian Fredrik Petersson on three Indians who left India on bicycles in 1923


The antidote to British imperialist policy came from the nationalist movement - in particular from its left flank.

At the LeftWord Books blog, we have a charming piece by the historian Fredrik Petersson on three Indians who left India on bicycles in 1923 to encounter empire and resistance to empire. This is based on a fragment from the Comintern archives. There is a search for who these people are. They might be Rustom Bhumgara, Adi Hakim and Jal Bapasola of the Parsi Bombay Weightlifting Club (whose account is available in the Roli Book - With Cyclists Around the World). They could very well be part of the world of Ramnath Biswas, who went on a world tour in 1931. At any rate, it is a fascinating little story, which you can read here.

Fredrik has an excellent essay in the first volume of Communist Histories, which we at LeftWord published last year. The book has essays by leading scholars of communism such as Suchetana Chattopadhyay, Margaret Stevens, Archana Prasad and of course Fredrik. You can have a look at the volume here.

Our LeftWord Books author Teesta Setalvad - whose memoir should be read by all - asks that you subscribe to the website of Sabrang (scroll down on the website and you'll find the place to add your email). Please do so, and also - if you have not - read her important book. Or read it again.

As well, please take the next twelve minutes to listen to one other of our LeftWord Books authors - India's most important journalist P. Sainath - who delivers his indictment of the media in our times. 'The rat race in the media is over', Sainath declares. 'The rats have won'. Watch it here.

Warmly, Vijay.