‘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

‘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.”

Migrants and homeless people are cleared out of Paris during the Olympics

Updated 4 sec ago

Migrants and homeless people are cleared out of Paris during the Olympics

  • group of largely African migrants headed for the fringes of the city in buses paid for by the French government and into temporary lodging until at least the end of the Games
  • Activist groups and migrants have called the practice – long used in other Olympic host cities like Rio de Janeiro in 2016 – a form of ‘social cleansing’
PARIS: Carrying backpacks and small children, hundreds of people sleeping on the streets of Paris climbed aboard buses surrounded by armed police Thursday, the latest group of migrants and homeless people to be driven out of the city ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2024 Olympics.
The group of largely African migrants headed for the fringes of the city in buses paid for by the French government and into temporary lodging until at least the end of the Games. While some living on the streets were happy to have a roof over their head for the night, few knew what laid ahead once the world’s eyes were off Paris.
“It’s like poker. I don’t know where I will go, or how much time I will stay,” said Nikki, a 47-year-old homeless Parisian who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy.
French authorities have been clearing out migrant and homeless encampments for months leading up to the massive global sports event, which is an important moment for President Emmanuel Macron at a time of political turmoil. But the Games also have faced criticism as Parisians have complained about everything from elevated public transit fees to government spending on cleaning up the Seine River for swimming instead of investing in the social safety net.
Authorities also have been sharply criticized as they have bused camping migrants from the city center where the Olympics are taking place to the fringes of Paris or other areas. Activist groups and migrants have called the practice – long used in other Olympic host cities like Rio de Janeiro in 2016 – a form of “social cleansing.”
“They want to clean the city for the Olympic Games, for the tourists,” said Nathan Lequeux, an organizer for the activist group Utopia 56. “As treatment of migrants is becoming more horrible and infamous, people are being chased off the streets. ... Since the Olympics, this aggressiveness, this policy of hunting has become more pronounced.”
Christophe Noël Du Payrat, chief of staff of the regional government of Île-de-France that surrounds Paris, firmly denied those accusations and said the government has relocated migrants from the city for years.
“We are taking care of them,” he said. ”We don’t really understand the criticism because we are very much determined to offer places for these people.”
He spoke as dozens of police rounded up migrants, blocking them from walking on the streets and putting up caution tape. When asked why there were so many armed police officers for a group largely made up of families, Noël Du Payrat said it was to maintain “peace and calm.”
The buses Thursday came after three days of protest by hundreds of migrants and other homeless people like Nikki, who slept in front of a local government office as athletes and tourists flooded into Paris. They railed against authorities breaking up homeless encampments and demanded better access to temporary housing.
Among them was Natacha Louise Gbetie, a 36-year-old migrant from Burkina Faso, and her 1-year-old son she carried on her back. Gbetie, who once worked as an accountant in her country, migrated to the southern French city of Montpellier with family members five years ago.
Many of the families relocated by French authorities are like Gbetie — from African countries once colonized by the French, including Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
After an abusive situation, she moved to Paris. She was able to make ends meet working as a baby-sitter and sleeping in public housing. That ended during the lead up to the Olympics, when she said access to social housing was slashed and prices of lodging in hostels soared. She said most employers in France don’t want to hire her because she’s an immigrant without legal status and has felt rejected as an anti-immigrant far-right party has gained greater power in France.
“I think France is saturated. They’re tired of migrants, they want us to leave their country,” Gbetie said.
The protest group agreed that families would board buses to a province near Paris and families would remain together in shelters.
Despite the agreement, protest leaders expressed concern that the move would isolate migrants and said it was still unclear what would happen to the city’s homeless people.
Others like Gbetie worried for the future of her 1-year-old son, Richard. Despite being born in France, Gbetie said he was among those who had been forgotten.
“We have children who are French,” she said. “They will be the future engineers and executives of this country. Think of them first and, for now, forget about the Olympics.”

Humanity suffering from ‘extreme heat epidemic,’ UN chief warns

Updated 41 min 8 sec ago

Humanity suffering from ‘extreme heat epidemic,’ UN chief warns

  • UN chief repeats call for humanity to fight “addiction” to fossil fuels amid global warming 
  • UN estimates economic losses from heat stress at work will reach $2.4 trillion by 2030

United Nations, United States: Humanity is suffering from an “extreme heat epidemic,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Thursday, calling for action to limit the impacts of heat waves intensified by climate change.
“Billions of people are facing an extreme heat epidemic — wilting under increasingly deadly heat waves, with temperatures topping 50 degrees Celsius around the world,” he said. “That’s 122 degrees Fahrenheit. And halfway to boiling.”
According to the European Copernicus network, July 21, 22 and 23 were the three hottest days ever recorded worldwide, with July 22 holding the absolute record of 17.16 degrees Celsius (62.9 degrees Fahrenheit).
Guterres repeated his call for humanity to fight its “addiction” to fossil fuels.
“Today, our focus is on the impact of extreme heat. But let’s not forget that there are many other devastating symptoms of the climate crisis: ever-more fierce hurricanes. Floods. Droughts. Wildfires. Rising sea levels. And the list goes on,” he said.
“To tackle all these symptoms, we need to fight the disease. And the disease is the madness of incinerating our only home. The disease is the addiction to fossil fuels. The disease is climate inaction,” he stressed, calling in particular on G20 countries to take action.
While 2023 was the hottest year on record, and 2024 could set a new record, temperatures well above 40C (104F) are increasingly common.
In the space of a year, the 50C threshold has even been exceeded in at least 10 places, from Death Valley in the United States (53.9C on July 7) to Agadir in Morocco, and also in China and India.
The intense heat, often less visible than other devastating impacts of climate change such as storms or floods, is nonetheless more deadly.
This “silent killer” is responsible for around 489,000 deaths per year between 2000 and 2019, compared with 16,000 deaths per year from cyclones, according to the UN’s “Call to Action” document published on Thursday.
Extremely high temperatures also have an economic impact, with the UN estimating economic losses from heat stress at work will reach $2.4 trillion in 2030.
According to a report by the International Labor Organization published on Thursday, more than 70 percent of workers were exposed to excessive heat in 2020, 8.8 percent more than in 2000.
“The good news is that we can save lives and we can limit its impact,” Guterres said Thursday.
The UN has called for the world community to first act to protect “the most vulnerable” — including young children, the elderly and also humanity’s poorest.
In this context, early warning systems should include extreme heat, warning populations of the arrival of heat waves and informing them of the precautions to take, the document says.
The call to action also recommends an “increase (to) equitable access to and scale up (of) low-carbon cooling.”
This would involve investing in passive cooling systems — which include climate-sensitive urban design measures, reflective surfaces and natural cooling systems — and the phase-out of climate-warming gases that are used in many cooling systems.

UK Afghanistan war crimes probe lifts jail threat on former minister

Updated 25 July 2024

UK Afghanistan war crimes probe lifts jail threat on former minister

  • Johnny Mercer said “multiple officers” told him about alleged murders and subsequent cover-up during Afghan conflict

LONDON: Britain’s former minister for veterans has “provided further information” to a public inquiry into claims of war crimes by special forces in Afghanistan, a spokeswoman said Thursday, after he was threatened with jail.
Johnny Mercer has said that “multiple officers” told him about alleged murders and a subsequent cover-up during the Afghan conflict, but he refused to divulge their identities.
The Independent Inquiry Relating to Afghanistan, which is examining the claims, gave him until 4:00 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Thursday to provide the names, insisting the information would be in confidence.
The judge-led inquiry had previously issued Mercer with an order under Britain’s Inquiries Act 2005 warning him he could be fined, imprisoned or both if he did not comply.
“Mr Mercer has provided further information in response to the Section 21 notice and agreed to assist the inquiry further,” an inquiry spokeswoman said.
“The inquiry team will be taking this forward. For the time being, the chair will not be taking further action in relation to the Section 21 notice or making further comment.”
Mercer, a former British Army officer who served three tours of Afghanistan, repeatedly refused to disclose the names when he gave evidence at the inquiry in February.
The inquiry is examining claims that between 2010 and 2013 a British special forces unit executed Afghan males of “fighting age” who posed no threat.
The former minister, who lost his seat at this month’s general election, said in response to the latest development: “My position remains unchanged from the beginning of the year.”
“I will always do all I can to assist this important inquiry. I will not betray those I served who have confided in me, whatever the cost,” he wrote on social media.

UN demands action on extreme heat as world registers warmest day

Updated 25 July 2024

UN demands action on extreme heat as world registers warmest day

  • “Extreme heat is the new abnormal,” Guterres said
  • “The world must rise to the challenge of rising temperatures”

LONDON: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on Thursday for countries to address the urgency of the extreme heat epidemic, fueled by climate change — days after the world registered its hottest day on record.
“Extreme heat is the new abnormal,” Guterres said. “The world must rise to the challenge of rising temperatures,” he said.
Climate change is making heatwaves more frequent, more intense and longer lasting across the world.
Already this year, scorching conditions have killed 1,300 Hajj pilgrims, closed schools for some 80 million children in Africa and Asia, and led to a spike in hospitalizations and deaths in the Sahel.
Every month since June 2023 has now ranked as the planet’s warmest since records began in 1940, compared with the corresponding month in previous years, according the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.
The UN called on governments to not only tamp down fossil fuel emissions — the driver of climate change — but to bolster protections for the most vulnerable, including the elderly, pregnant women and children, and step up safeguards for workers.
Over 70 percent of the global workforce — 2.4 billion people — are now at high risk of extreme heat, according to a report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) published Thursday.
In Africa, nearly 93 percent of the workforce is exposed to excessive heat, and 84 percent of the Arab States’ workforce, the ILO report found.
Excessive heat has been blamed for causing almost 23 million workplace injuries worldwide, and some 19,000 deaths annually.
“We need measures to protect workers, grounded in human rights,” Guterres said.
He also called for governments to “heatproof” their economies, critical sectors such as health care, and the built environment.
Cities are warming at twice the worldwide average rate due to rapid urbanization and the urban heat island effect.
By 2050, some researchers estimate a 700 percent global increase in the number of urban poor living in extreme heat conditions.
This is the first time the UN has put out a global call for action on extreme heat.
“We need a policy signal and this is it,” said Kathy Baughman Mcleod, CEO of Climate Resilience for All, a nonprofit focused on extreme heat.
“It’s recognition of how big it is and how urgent it is. It’s also recognition that everybody doesn’t feel in the same way and pay the same price for it.”

Israel warns France of Iranian threats at Olympics Games

Updated 25 July 2024

Israel warns France of Iranian threats at Olympics Games

  • “There are those who seek to harm the festivities of this joyous event,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz told his French counterpart
  • “We currently have assessments of potential threats from Iranian terror affiliates“

JERUSALEM: Israel warned France on Thursday of potential threats from Iran-backed groups against Israeli athletes and tourists in Paris during the Olympic Games.
“There are those who seek to harm the festivities of this joyous event,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz told his French counterpart in a letter, copies of which were released to the media.
“We currently have assessments of potential threats from Iranian terror affiliates and other terrorist organizations aiming to carry out terror attacks against members of the Israeli delegation and Israeli tourists during the Olympics.”
France has mounted a vast security operation to ensure the Olympics are safe. Around 18,000 French troops have been deployed to secure the Games in addition to regular police.
All Israeli athletes at the Paris Games, which start officially on Friday, will have round-the-clock personal security provided by elite French police, both inside the Olympic village and every time they leave the compound in northern Paris.
In an address to the US Congress on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a global alliance against the Iranian “axis of terror.”
He argued that the United States and Israel “must stand together” against Iran and its proxies.
Iran had hailed the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel but said it was not involved in it.
Tensions have soared during the war sparked by the attack, drawing in Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
Yemen’s Houthis, along with the Hezbollah group in Lebanon and former Iran-backed paramilitaries in the Iraqi armed forces, are part of a Tehran-aligned “axis of resistance” that supports Hamas against Israel and its allies.
Iran has reiterated support for the groups but insisted they are independent in their decision-making and actions.
On April 13-14, Iran carried out an unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israel, days after an air strike widely attributed to Israel levelled Iran’s consulate in Damascus and killed seven Revolutionary Guards, two of them generals.