Around 200 million industrial workers, employees, farmers and agricultural laborers observed a two-day general strike in India on March 28 and 29. The strike was working people’s challenge to the far-right government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This video was created by People’s Dispatch.
Now that my Toward Freedom guest editorship has come to an end, I am reflecting back on the stories we ran for the past 6+ months and the writers who wrote them.
The scenes coming out of Modi’s India and its pandemic nightmare have been particularly horrific, causing me to inquire about the health of Toward Freedom contributor Sanket Jain. Sanket is a freelance journalist based in western India. TF ran two of his stories in December and February about how India’s poorest citizens were barely coping with Covid. He emailed me back: “Fortunately, I am safe. For the past few weeks, I have been on the field documenting the disaster that’s unfolding in remote villages of India. Last week, I was shooting photos at the crematorium to see how many people have died of COVID because the Government is hiding official numbers. It’s a nightmare to see a human disaster unfolding at such a massive scale. From lack of oxygen, improper vaccination policy, COVID patients facing ostracism in the village, to frontline healthcare workers facing verbal abuse and even physical assault, India is witnessing a humanitarian crisis. I hope we come out of this disaster soon.”
Stay safe, Sanket, and keep sending us your stories.
Another writer who moved me deeply is Charles Wachira. His recent story on what’s happening in Uganda opened my eyes to what’s happening throughout much of Africa; the maintenance of dictatorial rule [e.g through the (truly) rigged election of President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda] to ensure “stability” for resource extraction by foreign corporations. With remarkable patience in responding to my queries, Charles produced evidence that the Great Game for Oil is now on steroids in East Africa (much of which lies opposite the Red Sea – and Saudi Arabia.)
Fascinatingly, a similar situation is playing out in West Africa, as explained by Eric Agnero in his story on how President Alassane Ouattara was able to extend his unconstitutional rule over Cote d’Ivoire, aided and abetted by France and the United States.
I admit: I came into this job with a geopolitical perspective, one which is followed by most world powers as they survey entire regions for riches. I discovered it during decades of researching my new book on endless wars. You’ll find a geopolitical analysis reflected in my article on Afghanistan: If you want to understand the many wars that have swept through the Middle East, Central Asia, and now Africa, you need only to follow the pipelines and the oil schemes taking place right now. All this, despite promises by Big Oil to invest in alternative energy to slow down climate change.
Trend Lines in the TF Stories
Looking back, it was a privilege to be able to choose stories that reflected extraordinary, indeed history-making events between October 2020 and early May. Below, I will highlight some of those stories, as certain trends begin to emerge. Call them patterns of history. Ten years from now, you may want to look back on them as if they were diary entries of an unforgettable period in your life, featuring Covid 19, Trump’s defeat, the January 6 assault on the capitol; the re-invigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd; the rise of the right wing in the United States based on claims of voter fraud, the similar tactics used by Trump’s fascist allies abroad. Democracy v Racist Authoritarianism is one overriding theme. Look for others:
In October 2020, Toward Freedom ran stories on two historic elections. Olivia Arigho-Stiles’s article on the elections in Bolivia, which returned the MAS party to power, gave us some hope that massive turnouts could turn the table on authoritarian regimes. Meanwhile, in the leadup to the November elections in the United States, Harvey Wasserman and Greg Palast sounded warnings that voter fraud mechanisms were in place in Florida and Wisconsin. Who could have guessed that Secretary of State Raffensperger (or, as Palast calls him, Raffens-purger) would later emerge as a hero for upholding the integrity of Georgia’s vote for Biden, when in 2020 he was responsible for purging 198,000 names from the voter roles!
The big news in November 2020, was the defeat of Donald Trump thanks to the commitment of black and brown voters, who ensured “the largest turnout ever by U.S. voters in a presidential election.” We were so hopeful, I wrote back then. noting that Trump’s “multiple lawsuits claiming ‘voter fraud’ have been rejected so far by U.S. courts for lack of evidence.” As It turned out, Trump continued to use voter fraud to enrage his base…even against fellow Republicans. The fight against a fascist movement in America is far from over.
We also witnessed through the reporting of Serbian journalist Nicolas Micovec some tense super-power standoffs. In Belarus, a proxy battle by “the Western-backed Belarusian opposition” failed to topple President Alexander Lukashenko, who is still firmly supported by Russia.” In Nagorno-Karabakh, more deadly proxy battles were raging between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, where “the conflict is being carefully watched for two reasons: 1) its potential to spread beyond its borders, and 2) an underlying energy war between Russia, the US, and the European Union.”
In December 2020, we began to take stock of what the world would soon face with the new Biden administration. Climate change was high on the agenda, especially since the Trump administration in November officially withdrew the US from the 2015 Paris Agreement. Rashika Pardikar, an Indian journalist, wrote of the “responsibility to both undo the damage done by the Trump administration and do more to address climate vulnerability concerns, especially in the developing world.’ Especially, she notes, because “the US is responsible for 25% of global emissions.” And what could provide better evidence of the dangers of climate change than two horrific Category 4 hurricanes which slammed into Nicaragua and Honduras in November, two weeks apart? Toward Freedom contacted Dan Higgins of the Burlington-Puerto Cabezas Sister City program. His and others’ reporting helped raise aid for the people of Puerto Cabezas, where roughly 2,000 homes were destroyed, and another 9,000 properties were damaged. The article turned into a good opportunity for Higgins to reflect on the history of “Port,” whose “peoples, languages, culture and history [on the Atlantic Coast} are very different from the Spanish-speaking side of Nicaragua.” He writes that the issue of autonomy “continues to be a flash point in Nicaraguan politics, with differing interpretations of what autonomy means.”
Elections in Venezuela, another hot point in international affairs (due in large part to the Trump administration’s economic sanctions to bring about regime change), came into focus as CodePink sent reporter Teri Mattison to observe the country’s December 6 legislative elections. “The sanctions imposed on Venezuela are a form of economic warfare… meant to create hardship and unrest,” Teri reported. (The elections resulted in a victory for President Nicolas Maduro and his allies. The opposition, which boycotted the elections, claimed “election fraud!” Thanks to reporting from Peter Lacowski, “Cries of election fraud by Donald Trump and his followers are familiar to Venezuelans; their right-wing opposition has been doing the same thing for years.”
In January 2021, we focused on Trump’s lies about a “stolen election,” which triggered the right wing assault on the Capitol on January 6, causing TF to immediately probe for details. Jonathan Ben Menachem provided some shocking details in “Cops at the Capitol,” which revealed, “at least 26 sworn members of U.S. law enforcement agencies from at least 11 states have been identified by law enforcement agencies and local reporting as attendees of the Jan. 6 rally.” Alexander Hinton, in his evaluation of the raid, warned us –correctly as it turned out – not to underestimate far right extremists in the US.
The other big news of January, of course, was the Inauguration of Joe Biden, and “Why Poet Amanda Gorman Stole the Inaugural Show” with her reading of her newest poem, “The Hill We Climb.” We published her poem in full, noting that Gorman was about halfway through the poem on Jan. 6, when pro-Trump rioters stormed into the halls of Congress, some bearing weapons and Confederate flags. She stayed awake late into the night and finished the poem, adding verses about the apocalyptic scene that unfolded at the Capitol that day.” Her eloquent performance was a source of pride for the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters.
By February 2021, Toward Freedom reported that Trump’s voter fraud allegations seem to have found a receptive audience with generals in Myanmar. Emily Blumenthal observed “glaring similarities between the attempted coup in the US and the successful coup in Myanmar.” She quotes from the rightwing US group QAnon, which supported the coup: “The Burmese military has arrested the country’s leaders after credible evidence of widespread voter fraud became impossible to ignore…Sounds like the controlled media and Biden admin are scared this might happen here. “ An expert on Myanmar concluded, “Trump has given despots across the world fresh rhetorical ammunition to justify their authoritarian actions.”
If this weren’t unsettling news in the post-Trump era, our apprehension about Biden’s foreign policy turned to alarm after US forces bombed Syria in February. In their piece, Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies remind us that “the airstrikes were supposedly authorized by the 20-year-old, post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), legislation that Rep. Barbara Lee has been trying for years to repeal since it has been misused, ‘to justify waging war in at least seven different countries, against a continuously expanding list of targetable adversaries.’
In March 2021, Toward Freedom observed the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring with disturbing reportage about the least known revolts in Bahrain. Finian Cunningham reveals that “Western powers played a nefarious role to ensure that the Arab Spring was kneecapped in order to cripple any progressive potential.” In Tunisia, where popular revolts launched the Arab Spring, Alessandra Bajek provides an in-depth report, noting that “Tunisia has failed to make any substantial progress in the daily lives of its citizens as the country’s democratization is not accompanied by a socio-economic transition. Nor should we forget that it was the Obama-Biden administration that oversaw the Arab Spring, as well as the regime change in Libya, which devolved into a disastrous civil (read proxy) war, killing thousands with many more displaced. According to Mathew Cole, Blackwater mercenaries poured into Libya, portraying themselves as “unarmed logistical personnel being sent in to support oil and gas companies.”
In April 2021, Toward Freedom reported on escalated tensions between Israel and Iran, after Israel bombed Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Kim Zeter reports, “The sabotage seemed timed to send a message — both to Iran and to the U.S. and Europe. It occurred just days after talks began in Vienna to revive the Obama-instigated 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran to control its uranium enrichment production.” Fortunately, cooler heads once again prevailed, and the negotiations are continuing. There is even talk that Saudi Arabia and Iran have been holding secret talks.
The situation in Yemen, as revealed by William Boardman, is not as rosy as the Biden administration would have us believe. “Biden,” he writes, “promised that the US would be ‘ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen.’ Biden gave no specific details. The six-year bombing continues. The six-year naval blockade of Yemen continues. The humanitarian crisis continues, with the threat of famine looming. In effect, Biden has participated in war crimes since January 20, with no policy in sight to end the killing.” Long-time activist Kathy Kelley, worried that the American people were becoming desensitized to the killings in Yemen, reporting on a hunger strike taking place in Washington, DC. demanding an end to the war in Yemen.
Concluding Thoughts: The pandemic brought us many challenges. I, for one, was fortunate to have a job that allowed me to connect with writers from around the world from the safety of my own home.
Now that the pandemic is gradually lifting, I hope to spend more time promoting my book, which suffered greatly from being published during the lockdown. I wish all readers well as they hopefully recalibrate their lives toward a better future. Maybe a new Renaissance will be born out of COVID-19, just as the Renaissance emerged out of Italy’s Black Death in the 15th century. Let history—and science—be our guide, and may today’s movements –for democracy, justice and true equality—be our inspiration!
“The very thought of him having to plead to jail authorities regarding a basic service like clean water to wash his swelled eye still gives me anxiety attacks,” says Jenny Rowena, wife of Hany Babu.
Babu, a 55-year-old Delhi University professor, is among many political prisoners who have been detained after having been charged under a draconian Indian law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). His family released a statement to the press that mentions Babu’s severe eye infection, which could damage his vital organs.
Only after Babu’s family’s repeated appeals did the court allow him to get proper medical treatment and tests at a private hospital, the expenses of which his family will bear.
This is a glimpse into the conditions the Indian state machinery forces people to endure as it goes about filling overcrowded prisons, in violation of basic civil and legal rights, as the pandemic ridden situation further deteriorates. The situation has worsened because of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s use of a 54-year-old draconian law.
India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) had arrested Babu in a case referred to as the “Bhima Koregaon case.” Bhima Koregaon is a village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. The NIA alleged several activists gave incendiary speeches, causing clashes to erupt January 1, 2018, between Dalits and Hindu right-wing groups.
Many other activists and academics, including Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bhardwaj, Father Stan Swamy, Gautam Navlakha and others—most of whom are 50 or older—were arrested in the same case and continue to languish in jail. They have been denied proper medical treatment, even as they suffer ailments.
For example, Father Stan Swamy, 84, a tribal-rights activist, has Parkinson’s Disease. He told the court during a May 21 hearing that during the past eight months he has been detained, his health condition has worsened.
“When I came here, I could eat, read, take a bath by myself,” Swamy testified. “Now I have to depend on others even to feed me.”
The family of Sudha Bhardwaj, a 60-year-old lawyer-activist, approached the court to access her medical records. She suffers from diabetes, hypertension and several other health issues. Meanwhile, others like writer and activist Anand Teltumbde suffer from asthma.
Yet another political prisoner, G.N. Saibaba, a 53-year-old who was formerly a professor at Delhi University, continues to live in similar conditions. He is 90 percent disabled and also tested positive for COVID-19 in February. His daughter, Manjeera, says although he has recovered, Saibaba is weak. She says despite several letters to jail authorities and the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees Indian internal security and domestic affairs, no helper has been provided.
“He is 90% disabled and can’t do work on his own. He needs a helper to do his day-to-day activities. Whether it’s brushing his teeth, getting up from the bed, going to the toilet—he needs help with everything,” Manjeera says. “But there is no helper.”
She also alleges that despite knowing co-morbidities could be life-threatening for a COVID-19 infected patient, he wasn’t provided proper medical care after testing positive. The family had no choice but to hire a courier service to transport life-saving medicines and supplements to him.
A medical facility is attached to every jail. However, Manjeera said they are unprepared to treat inmates.
“The jail hospital—there is no hospital. It’s like a small barrack: A bed and that’s it,” she explained. “There is no one to take care of you.”
Meanwhile, Saibaba, who was arrested in 2014, is serving a life sentence for his alleged links to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
All these political prisoners, lodged in several jails across India, continue to live in devastating conditions as the coronavirus wreaks havoc across the nation.
Deploying a Draconian Law During Lockdown
An important mechanism used by the Indian state to prevent political prisoners from being released is the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The law—enacted in 1967—reverses “innocent until proven guilty” to “guilty until proven innocent.” The ruling BJP amended the UAPA in July 2019 to designate an individual as a terrorist without trial. Previous versions of the act only allowed groups to be designated as terrorists.
In introducing the amendment, Home Minister Amit Shah said individuals should be charged under the law for taking part in an act of terrorism, for helping prepare for such an act, and for raising money or spreading information to aid terrorism.
“Sir, guns do not give rise to terrorism, the root of terrorism is the propaganda that is done to spread it, the frenzy that is spread,” Shah told the Indian Parliament in 2019. “And if all such individuals are designated as terrorists, I don’t think any member of parliament should have any objection.”
This anti-terror law allows the detention of the accused without charge for up to 180 days.
“UAPA is something that with its amendments is designed to detain people indefinitely,” as prominent social activist and author Harsh Mander points out. “This can be understood from the fact that no charge sheet has been filed in the Bhima Koregaon and Delhi riots case, and yet the people are being detained indefinitely.”
In December 2019, as the Indian government passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), protests erupted across the nation. However, in the wake of the protests, riots broke out in various parts of northeast Delhi during February 2021, after which several activists—many hailing from the marginalised minority communities—were arrested under the UAPA.
Mander alleges the BJP-led government has used a medical emergency to keep political prisoners inside prison without access to lawyers and proper healthcare facilities.
“Although the amendments in UAPA were made by previous governments, the current ruling party has used it to a greater extent and as a weapon against dissent,” Mander said.
He also asserted courts have failed undertrials (people detained while awaiting trial) and prisoners in safeguarding their rights.
“The courts should have objected and released guidelines regarding the release of undertrials and de-congestion of prisons,” Mander added. “They should have taken a sympathetic and humane view regarding the political prisoners.”
The overcrowding in Indian prisons is not a new phenomenon. Currently, 44 million cases are pending in Indian courts, and that number continues to increase. The slow pace overburdens prisons, as undertrials are kept waiting.
Overcrowded Indian Prisons
In a National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report published in 2019, 478,600 prisoners are lodged inside Indian jails, whereas they only have capacity for 403,700 inmates.
That means Indian jails are at 118.5 percent capacity. Also, around 68 percent of detainees are undertrials—not convicted prisoners.
As the coronavirus spread across the country in 2020 and beyond, overcrowded prisons have become a hotbed of infection. On April 28, the High Court of Delhi, while hearing a petition on the release of detainees, asked the concerned authorities to come up with a plan to de-congest jails. On May 7, the Indian Supreme Court also directed states to protect prisoners’ right to life and provide them with proper medical care during this pandemic. It ordered states to release undertrials facing non-serious charges on bail and people convicted of similar charges on parole.
Last year, as the pandemic broke out, close to 42,000 prisoners initially were released. But later, with a dip in the number of cases, many were returned to the prisons on the orders of the Supreme Court.
With the classification of legal services as “unessential,” but the construction of the $2.8 billion (USD) Central Vista Redevelopment Project in New Delhi deemed “essential,” the BJP government’s priority is evident. Yet the lives of political prisoners hang in the balance as they are refused bail, and as they struggle for access to basic amenities and medical care behind prison bars.
Rishabh Jain is a journalist who writes on Indian politics and issues central to India. He is based in New Delhi.
“Far too many women are fighting—not only for their rights, but for the rights of all,” says Yomali Torres, an Afro-Colombian activist. The 26-year-old joined throngs of women in the streets of Colombia over the past month to demand an end to patriarchal oppression at the hands of a U.S.-backed neoliberal state.
Women’s presence in Colombia’s national strike—both as activists and as victims—has caught the world’s attention. Many have spoken out against police violence and sexual abuse during the current demonstrations. This, however, is not a new issue. Police, armed forces and illegal groups have used women’s bodies as weapons of war for decades.
The strike, which marks its 1-month anniversary today, continues unabated. It started as a response to a tax reform project that would have devastated middle- and low-income households. Yet, this is not the core of social discontent among Colombians. This is clear as the strike continues, even after the president called on Congress to withdraw the tax reform bill.
At the end of 2019, Colombia saw mass mobilizations of diverse sectors of society, who expressed their discontent with the government of President Iván Duque. Among the criticisms were his ineffective economic, social, and environmental policies, the lack of implementation of a peace treaty with militant group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the numerous assassinations of social leaders, among others. According to Colombian state agency Investigation and Accusation Unity (Unidad de Investigación y Acusación), 904 leaders were assassinated between December 2016 and April 2021.
Historically, conflict and social inequalities have most affected women. Violence and sexual abuse are commonly wielded to gain control over the territories women and their communities inhabit, as well as their natural resources. The High Commissioner for Human Rights released a document in 2005 indicating 52 percent of displaced women reported having suffered some type of physical abuse and 36 percent had been forced by strangers to have sexual intercourse.
In a context of multiple violations of human rights—including extrajudicial killings, disappeared persons, torture, arbitrary detentions and use of firearms—gender violence continues to be deployed against the population during the national strike. Colombia’s Department of Protection of Citizen’s Rights has reported 106 cases of gender violence, of which 23 are acts of sexual violence.
With slogans such as “The revolution would be feminist, or it will not be,” “Not one less,” and “With me, whatever you want—but with her, nothing,” protesters have rejected violence against women, while drawing attention to gender inequalities.
One of the cases that has generated widespread indignation involved a 17-year-old girl from Popayan, who committed suicide after having been arrested by police. Before taking her own life, she wrote a statement accusing four members of the riot police of sexual assault. The girl had posted on Facebook police only released her after learning she was the daughter of a police officer.
Feminist Groups and their Demands
Women have taken to the streets, demanding equal access to education, healthcare and employment. They have assumed leading roles as human-rights observers, front-line defenders and community organizers. As a result, human rights groups—formed mostly by women—have suffered acts of intimidation and violence.
“We received death threats from the riot police. They told us they did not want us alive,” says Isabella Galvis of the Waman Iware Human Rights Collective. “At the moment, we do not have guarantees. They are using firearms during the protests, which is illegal under Colombian law.”
Feminist organizations move ahead despite the challenges, having organized multiple events. On May 10, a coalition of 173 feminist groups presented a list of proposals during the current crisis.
These proposals included:
- A call for negotiation including all groups involved in the protests,
- an exercise of justice regarding human-rights violations, and
- a universal basic income that prioritizes women affected by the pandemic, among others.
The Women Who Are Most Vulnerable to Inequalities and Violence
Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples have been affected—directly or indirectly—by racism during the protests. Calí, the city where police have exercised the most repression, has experienced the highest number of deaths during the strike. It also has the highest concentration of Afro-Colombian communities, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics.
The high level of inequality puts Calí at the center of these protests. Afro-Colombian people contend with uneven opportunities in the areas of education, healthcare and employment. That means the reforms the government has proposed would strongly affect Afro-Colombians, and women in particular.
“We are here commemorating Afro-Colombians today. We want to fight for our future and our rights,” explains Maria Niza Obregón, a 17-year-old Afro-Colombian girl, who supports the protests. “We want to live, not to survive.”
A clear example of this was the fate of the government’s health reform, which sank after the first 20 days of protests. The regions with the highest concentration of Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples also have the poorest health systems in the country, according to a report by organization Así Vamos en Salud.
Yomali Torres, a 26-year-old member of Afro-Colombian human-rights and peace organization Cococauca, denounces the lack of hospitals and specialists in her territory on the Pacific Coast of Cauca.
“If someone has chest pain, the patient has to be transferred to Calí or Popayan,” Torres says. “If we do not die, it is thanks to ancestral medicine.”
Afro-Colombian women have been particularly outspoken during the national strike, especially in Calí.
Torres condemns the violations of the rights of women, and of the Colombian population in general.
“In one way or another, we are taking advantage of the strike to demand justice for all of the women who have been raped, beaten and disappeared,” Torres says.
The United Nations states Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women have been affected disproportionately by the violence derived from the conflict. “Among 3,445 cases of murder in Indigenous and Afro-Colombian individuals, 65.5 percent were women,” the UN reports.
As a sign of indignation, the community of Guapi organized on May 7 an event called, “The Last Night.” With traditional cultural expressions, they commemorated those who have given their lives fighting for the rights of Afro-Colombians and the entire country. This celebration was carried out with artistic representations of graves and singing alabaos, or ancestral songs for the dead.
A month after the first call for a national strike, the different sectors of society are far from calling off the protests. This comes even as protesters’ blockades have generated a shortage of goods in certain communities. As Torres says, “We will not give up, because boats are not arriving with goods. Historically, we have felt hunger for more than 200 years. For us, this is not a real challenge.”
Natalia Torres Garzon graduated with an M.Sc. in Globalization and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, United Kingdom. She is a freelance journalist who focuses on social and political issues in Latin America, especially in connection to Indigenous communities, women and the environment. With photographer Antonio Cascio, she founded the radio-photography program, Radio Rodando. Her work has been published in the section Planeta Futuro from El País, New Internationalist and Earth Island.