‘Hindu nation’: Religion trumps caste in India vote

‘Hindu nation’: Religion trumps caste in India vote
Activists of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dressed as Hindu mythological characters sit opposite a banner picturing the Ram temple of Ayodhya, during a campaign rally in Kolkata on May 10, 2024, ahead of the fourth phase of voting of India’s general election. (AFP/File)
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Updated 17 May 2024
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‘Hindu nation’: Religion trumps caste in India vote

‘Hindu nation’: Religion trumps caste in India vote
  • Modi’s strategy of appealing to pan-Hindu unity has reaped political dividends
  • Modi government accused of marginalizing country’s 200-million-plus Muslims

AGRA, India: Born at the bottom of the Hindu faith’s rigid caste system, voters like Anil Sonkar will determine whether Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi returns to power next month.

More than two-thirds of India’s 1.4 billion people are estimated to be on the lower rungs of a millennia-old social hierarchy that divides Hindus by function and social standing.

Politicians of all stripes have courted lower caste Indians with affirmative action programs, job guarantees and special subsidies to mitigate long-standing discrimination and disadvantage.

But Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has established itself as India’s dominant political force with a different pitch: think of your religion first, and caste second.

“There are no economic opportunities and business has never been so bad for me,” said Sonkar, a 55-year-old fishmonger and a member of the Dalit castes, once disparagingly known as “untouchables.”

“But under this government, we feel safe and proud as Hindus,” he told AFP in the tourist city of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. “That is why, despite everything, I voted for Modi.”

Modi’s party is expected to easily win this year’s national election once it concludes in June, in large part due to his government’s positioning of the Hindu faith at the center of its politics.

His government has been accused in turn of marginalizing the country’s 200-million-plus Muslims, leaving many among them fearful for their futures in India.

But its strategy of appealing to pan-Hindu unity, and directing the faith’s internal frictions outwards, has reaped political dividends.

“The BJP’s base among the marginalized has grown over every election since 2014,” political scientist and author Sudha Pai told AFP.

The party, she added, had successfully forged a new pan-Hindu political coalition by showing respect to the “cultural symbols, icons and history” of low-caste voters, and in the process furthering its goal of building a “Hindu nation.”

Caste remains a crucial determinant of one’s station in life at birth, with higher castes the beneficiaries of ingrained cultural privileges, lower castes suffering entrenched discrimination, and a rigid divide between both.

Modi himself belongs to a low caste, but the elite worlds of politics, business and culture are largely dominated by high-caste Indians.

Less than six percent of Indians married outside their caste, according to the country’s most recent census in 2011.

Modi’s political coalition has managed to bridge this internal divide by trumpeting a vision of a resurgent and assertive Hindu faith.

The prime minister began the year by inaugurating a grand temple to the Hindu deity Ram, built on the site of a centuries-old mosque razed by Hindu zealots decades earlier.

Construction of the temple fulfilled a long-standing demand of Hindu activists and was widely celebrated by Hindu voters, whatever their caste group.

Modi’s rise also coincided with the declining fortunes of caste-based political parties that had dominated politics for decades in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with more people than Nigeria and its most important electoral battleground.

Many in the state accused these parties of directing welfare programs and other benefits of political power to their own caste groups, a situation they say changed when Modi came to power and made them available for all disadvantaged voters.

“The soles of my slippers wore off as I ran around trying to get a card for free rations,” homemaker Munni Devi, 62, told AFP at a BJP campaign rally over the din of frenzied drum beats and music.

“But Modi gave me one immediately after coming to power,” she told AFP.

The BJP has been able to unite a broad array of caste groups into a single bloc of support, but caste discrimination remains a fact of life both in politics and society at large.

Despite Modi’s own low-caste origins, the senior ranks of his ministry, party and civil service remain overwhelmingly dominated by upper-caste functionaries.

“Our lawmaker is from our caste and from the BJP,” said farmer Patiram Kushwaha, a Modi supporter reconsidering his allegiance.

“He cannot do anything for us because those sitting at the top don’t listen to him.”

More than two dozen opposition parties in this year’s poll have campaigned on a joint pledge to address the structural causes of discrimination by staging a caste-based national census and redirecting resources to the most disadvantaged.

Analysts nonetheless expect Modi to triumph convincingly over the opposition bloc, but Neelanjan Sircar, of the Center for Policy Research think-tank in New Delhi, said the BJP faced a monumental challenge in holding its coalition together over the long term.

“This balancing act of keeping together groups which don’t really get along with each other is extremely tough in the long run,” he told AFP. “At some point, you have to face the demons of those contradictions.”


Scientists discover cause of Gulf War syndrome in landmark study

British soldiers from the First Stafford, well known as the “Desert Rats,” stand in a trench on January 6, 1991.
British soldiers from the First Stafford, well known as the “Desert Rats,” stand in a trench on January 6, 1991.
Updated 12 sec ago
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Scientists discover cause of Gulf War syndrome in landmark study

British soldiers from the First Stafford, well known as the “Desert Rats,” stand in a trench on January 6, 1991.
  • Thousands of 1991 war veterans suffered chronic fatigue, PTSD, joint pain and headaches
  • Findings a ‘significant step forward in understanding this baffling and complex illness’

LONDON: Exposure to chemical and biological agents has been identified as the cause of Gulf War syndrome in a landmark study, The Times reported.
In what was described as a “world-first discovery,” scientists found that thousands of soldiers suffering from the syndrome had faulty cell function due to contact with the hazardous agents.
The mysterious illness was first identified in the wake of the Gulf War, with victims suffering from symptoms including post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue, joint pain and headaches.
Many struggled to find medical help and claim compensation as doctors were left baffled by the illness.
Up to 33,000 British veterans who served in the war may be suffering from the syndrome.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence has long argued against the existence of the illness, referring to a 2003 study that found no research identifying a unique syndrome linked to military service in the Gulf.
Scientists in the US have also blamed sarin, the nerve agent, for causing the symptoms, after Iraqi chemical weapons caches were bombed during the war, causing aerial exposure.
But the latest study, in the journal Plos One, could open a path for the syndrome to be recognized as a unique illness.
Veterans who suffered from Gulf War syndrome had an “impaired ion channel function in their cells,” said one of the study’s researchers, Etianne Martini Sasso of Griffith University in Australia.
The impairment resulted in an inability of the body to properly transport calcium.
The element plays a crucial role in muscle contraction, nerve function and hormone regulation.
“The findings from our research provides clear scientific evidence that the health problems experienced by Gulf War veterans can be directly linked to their exposure to specific hazardous agents during their service,” said another of the study’s authors, Prof. Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik.
Discovering the link between exposure to hazardous agents and impaired ion channel function is a “significant step forward in understanding this baffling and complex illness,” she added.
The former Conservative government in the UK imposed a six-year limit on civil cases involving injury or death, preventing veterans of the 1991 war from claiming compensation.
Veterans can still claim a war pension, however.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said: “We are indebted to all those who served our country in the Gulf wars and have already sponsored significant research into the effects of this conflict on veterans.
“We continue to monitor and welcome any new research that is published around the world and financial support is available to veterans whose illness is due to service through the MoD war pensions and the armed forces occupational pension schemes.”


Sweden to phase out development aid to Iraq next year

Sweden to phase out development aid to Iraq next year
Updated 47 min 27 sec ago
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Sweden to phase out development aid to Iraq next year

Sweden to phase out development aid to Iraq next year
  • Sweden said current aid package to Iraq amounts to around $18 million a year

STOCKHOLM: Sweden will phase out development aid to Iraq over the coming year, the government said on Wednesday, as it focuses on giving more effective support to fewer countries.
“Sweden has contributed both humanitarian support and development aid to Iraq for many years,” Johan Forssell, Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, said.
“The conditions have changed and Iraq is now a middle-income country with good resources to support its own population.”
The government said its current aid package to Iraq amounts to around 190 million Swedish crowns ($18 million) a year. Next year, the total will be around 100 million, with aid being phased out by June 30, the government said.
Sweden, home to around 200,000 people either born in Iraq or with an Iraqi-born parent, currently gives aid to around 100 countries and Forssell said the money was too widely spread to be effective.


Mobile internet down, troops on streets as Bangladeshi students clash with police

Mobile internet down, troops on streets as Bangladeshi students clash with police
Updated 18 July 2024
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Mobile internet down, troops on streets as Bangladeshi students clash with police

Mobile internet down, troops on streets as Bangladeshi students clash with police
  • At least 11 people killed in violent clashes across Bangladesh’s main cities

DHAKA: Mobile internet services were down, businesses closed, and public transportation was disrupted across Bangladeshi cities on Thursday, as authorities ordered troops on to the streets amid deadly clashes with protesting students.
University students have been rallying to demand the removal of government employment quotas after the High Court reinstated a rule that reserves the bulk of jobs for descendants of those who fought in the country’s 1971 liberation war.
Under the quota system, 56 percent of public service jobs are reserved for specific groups, including women, marginalized communities, and children and grandchildren of freedom fighters — for whom the government earmarks 30 percent of the posts.
Clashes with police and government supporters began on Sunday after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina undermined the students’ cause by suggesting that they supported the “razakars,” or those who had collaborated with the Pakistani military, an enemy occupying force, during the 1971 war.
Since Wednesday, educational institutions, campuses and students’ dormitories have been shut across the country, forcing students on to the streets.
Tensions escalated early on Thursday and about 6,000 border guards were sent to assist police.
“Considering the present situation, we have deployed additional forces to maintain law and order, and protect the people’s lives and properties,” Inamul Huq Sagar, spokesperson at the police headquarters, told Arab News.
“During emergency situations, we always deploy an additional number of forces.”
Authorities have also shut down mobile internet to prevent further mobilization through social media, with Telecommunications Minister Zunaid Ahmed Palak telling reporters services “will be brought back to normal when the situation improves.”
At least 11 people have been killed and hundreds injured since the clashes broke out across Bangladesh’s main cities, according to local media reports.
Most of the violence took place in Dhaka, where students announced a “complete shutdown,” urging private sector workers and businesses to close operations for the day.
“The complete shutdown is a call from the students to the people not to go to offices, and businesses to remain closed. People will stay at home. All the students are on the streets now,” Umama Fatima, coordinator of Students Against Discrimination, one of the protest organizers, told Arab News.
“The protest is underway everywhere in the capital and across the country. In many places, police and the ruling party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chatra League, attacked the protesting students. As I heard, at least four students died in Dhaka on Thursday during clashes with police.”
More than a quarter of Bangladesh’s 170 million population is aged between 15 and 29. Unemployment is highest in this group, contributing 83 percent of the total jobless figure in the country.
The quotas for well-paid government jobs hit them directly.
Mohammad Nahid Islam, another Students Against Discrimination coordinator, told Arab News earlier this week that the protest was not seeking an end to the quota system, merely its reform, so that it continues to protect marginalized groups, but does not disproportionately distribute public service jobs prioritizing the descendants of the 1971 fighters.
“We are demanding the reform by reserving some quota for the underprivileged population,” he said. “We are demanding job recruitment on the basis of merit.”


EU Commission head von der Leyen elected for second term

EU Commission head von der Leyen elected for second term
Updated 34 min 50 sec ago
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EU Commission head von der Leyen elected for second term

EU Commission head von der Leyen elected for second term
  • Von der Leyen promises new ‘defense union’
  • Commission chief also vows to stick to climate targets

STRASBOURG: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was elected for a second term on Thursday after pledging to create a continental “defense union” and stay the course on Europe’s green transition while cushioning its burden on industry.
Members of the European Parliament backed von der Leyen’s bid for another five-year term at the helm of the European Union’s powerful executive body with 401 votes in her favor and 284 against in a secret ballot in the 720-member chamber.
In an address to the Parliament in Strasbourg earlier in the day, von der Leyen laid out a program focused on prosperity and security, shaped by the challenges of Russia’s war in Ukraine, global economic competition and climate change.
“The next five years will define Europe’s place in the world for the next five decades. It will decide whether we shape our own future or let it be shaped by events or by others,” von der Leyen said ahead of a secret ballot on her candidacy.
She stressed the need not to backtrack on the “Green Deal” transformation of the EU economy to fight climate change — a key pledge for Green lawmakers, who joined center-right, center-left and liberal groups in backing her for the post.
After pledging to support Ukraine for as long as it takes in its fight against Russia, von der Leyen said Europe’s liberty was at stake and it must invest more in defense.
Von der Leyen, a center-right former German defense minister, pledged to create “a true European Defense Union,” with flagship projects on air and cyber defense.
The plan sparked criticism from the Kremlin, which said it
reflected an attitude of “militarization (and) confrontation.”
Von der Leyen blasted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s recent visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow as an “appeasement mission,” winning broad applause from lawmakers.
Defense policy in Europe has traditionally been the domain of national governments and NATO.
But following Russia’s attack on Ukraine and amid uncertainty over how much Europe will be able to rely on the United States for its protection should Donald Trump win the US presidential election in November, the European Commission is seeking to push more joint European defense projects.
Von der Leyen also promised a raft of climate policies including a legally-binding EU target to cut emissions 90 percent by 2040, compared to 1990 levels.
She also pledged new measures to help European industries stay competitive while they invest in curbing emissions.
Green support
The Greens’ decision to join the informal alliance of parties that supports von der Leyen ensured her margin of victory was fairly comfortable. She needed 361 votes to secure a majority in the chamber.
Her own coalition of the center-right, center-left and liberals has 401 seats, but some of its members were expected to vote against her in the secret vote.
She might also promised tighter EU border controls and stronger police cooperation against crime.
Von der Leyen’s re-election provides continuity in the European Union’s key institution at a time of external and internal challenges — including mounting support for far-right and euroskeptic political parties in the 27-nation bloc.
In the coming weeks, she will propose her team of commissioners, who will face individual hearings from lawmakers before a final vote on the whole Commission later in the year.


Spanish, German police detain four suspected of trafficking drone parts to Hezbollah

Spanish, German police detain four suspected of trafficking drone parts to Hezbollah
Updated 18 July 2024
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Spanish, German police detain four suspected of trafficking drone parts to Hezbollah

Spanish, German police detain four suspected of trafficking drone parts to Hezbollah
  • Several hundred or even a thousand drones could have been assembled by Hezbollah using the parts, according to Spanish police
  • The remains of drones flown by Hezbollah and found in Israel match the type of components seized by the police in Spain and Germany

MADRID: Police detained four suspects — three in Spain and one in Germany — as part of an investigation into the sale of drone parts to Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group in Lebanon, Spanish police said on Thursday.
The investigation was initiated in Spain, where police officers detected Spanish companies owned by Lebanese-born citizens trading in large quantities of parts and components for military drones able to carry explosives, the police said.
Based on an analysis of documents detailing trades of the components within Europe, several hundred or even a thousand drones could have been assembled by Hezbollah using the parts, the Spanish police said in a statement.
The light aircraft, which are hard to detect and stop, are loaded with explosives as heavy as several kilograms and sent into Israel, the police said.
The remains of drones flown by Hezbollah and found in Israel match the type of components seized by the police in Spain and Germany, the statement said.
Israel and Hezbollah have been exchanging fire since Hezbollah announced a “support front” with Palestinians shortly after its ally Hamas attacked southern Israeli border communities on Oct. 7, triggering Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.
The fighting in Lebanon has killed more than 100 civilians and more than 300 Hezbollah fighters, according to a Reuters tally, and led to levels of destruction in Lebanese border towns and villages not seen since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.