Friday, March 25, 2011


Human Rights and the Madness of Our Age

Column by N.S. Rajaram

Courtesy NEWSGRAM AND N. S. RAJARAM (Published with consent from the author)

(Picture of Sonia Gandhi)(not copied)

Scottish writer Charles Mackay (1814 – 89) may be unknown to the present generation but his 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and Madness of Crowds in which he gave vivid accounts of crowd hysteria from financial bubbles to major historical events like the Crusades and witch hunts has remained an enduring classic. The first two chapters of the book on the Mississippi Scheme and South Sea Bubble is required reading for students of finance at American universities. (This though didn’t stop them from creating the financial bubble in our own time. People never learn from history.)

To lovers of literature his daughter the novelist Marie Corelli may be better known, but in his 1852 edition, Mackay accurately described how fads begin: “Whole communities suddenly fix their minds on one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it… We find one nation suddenly seized …with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears to be reaped by its posterity.”

Mackay’s main themes were the Crusades and the Witch Hunts of Europe, both of which were driven by Christian zeal. In our own time, secular ideology seems to have replaced religious zeal; but this has not prevented horrors from being inflicted on innocent people in the name of Communism, Fascism and the like by Mao, Stalin and Hitler. Frederick Nietzsche called such secular belief systems ‘barbaric brotherhoods’. Even the democratic America has had its mad period marked by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Communist witch hunts. Present day history books don’t like to mention that his anti-Communist crusade had considerable public support, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to intimidate U.S. presidents like Truman and Eisenhower to soft pedal their objections to his investigations.

Book by Charles Mackay

Today, the ‘human rights’ fad has taken the place of Christian zeal and Stalinist and McCarthy witch hunts. We have self-appointed moralists of what Narendra Modi called ‘a few fringe NGOs with an axe to grind’ pursue human rights for power and profit. It is no coincidence that these supposedly secular human rights organizations are dominated by Christian and Evangelical outfits; they have the experience, resources and the influence. Their targets are invariably mild and tolerant regimes like India, never powerful and intolerant ones like China or Saudi Arabia that are likely to hit back. So what on surface may seem like a pursuit of humanistic goals is often driven by a lust for power and wealth with little risk to themselves.

It was no different with the Crusades. The Knights Templar who began as a heroic order in defense of Christianity were experts at extortion and fund raising, and became the first international bankers. It is no different today: individuals and organizations pursuing human rights agendas are first and foremost skilled at fund raising and influence peddling with private donors and government agencies. But no one working in the name of human rights likes to talk openly about money and power so they assume a self-righteous posture.

(Picture of Leopold II King of the Belgians) (Not copied)

This is the reason that human rights activists are always speaking in high moral tones and never miss an opportunity to criticize people and organizations trying hard to maintain stability and balance in the real world. Their main goal is publicity through self-righteous posturing. American commentator Emmett Tyrrell called it moral exhibitionism. To become a human rights activist, it takes no accomplishments beyond striking moralistic poses and finding fault with others. A closer look at some of them shows them to be quite anti-humanist when it comes to their own lives and interests. A good many of them are little more than poseurs and publicity hounds. We can look at a few of them to see this truth.

The loudest ‘human rights’ person of our time, the most blatant publicity seeker is probably Arundhati Roy. Born in Shillong, Meghalaya,to a Keralite Syrian Christian mother, the women’s rights activist Mary Roy, and a Bengali tea planter, Arundhati (nee Margaret) Roy has consistently taken positions against the interests of the Indian state – all in the name of ‘human rights’. These include her support for the Kashmiri separatists and more recently the Naxalites. She raised questions even over the culprits who attacked the Parliament leading to the death of security personnel – all, yet again, in the name of human rights!

Until made financially stable by the fortuitous success of her novel The God of Small Things, she worked at various jobs, including running aerobics classes at some hotels in New Delhi. In other words, she was a struggling nonentity trying her hand at a hundred different odd jobs until she hit the jackpot with the Booker Prize. She is among those who think that receiving an award, any award from a Western, white country makes them morally superior to others. This allowed to turn herself from a struggling writer to a moral preacher to the world.

(Picture of Arundhati Roy) (Not copied)

Her record before the Booker was undistinguished. As we just saw, she was a struggling writer (and at other odd jobs) trying to make ends meet, but turned herself into a moral authority because of the accident of the Booker Prize. In reality, there is no greater hypocrisy than a Booker Prize recipient posing as a champion of human rights. Here is a little history about that award that the public needs to know. It is far from edifying.

It was originally called the Booker-McConnell Prize after the company Booker-McConnell began sponsoring the event in 1968, and became commonly known as the “Booker Prize” or simply “the Booker”. Among other interests, it operated the sugar industry in Guyana (British Guiana before independence in 1966). Booker-McConnell had a long history of exploitation of sugar workers through the indentured labor system. At its peak it controlled 75% of the sugar industry in British Guiana and was so powerful that a common joke was to refer to the country as ‘Booker’s Guiana’. In 1952 Jock Campbell took over the Chairmanship of the company. After centuries of exploitation, Jock Campbell began to treat his workers as human beings providing basic benefits for sugar workers.

Shockingly, his company was involved in slave trade in a major way. It was John Campbell (Senior), Jock’s great-great-grandfather, ship owner and merchant of Glasgow, who, towards the end of the 18th Century, first established the fortunes of the Campbell family in the West Indies, through the slave trade. By the 1780s they were supplying the two most important British exports to the West Indies, herring and coarse linen goods. Among the principal beneficiaries of this booming trade were John Campbell (Senior) and Company, which supplied merchandise to the slave plantations along the coast of Guiana, then in Dutch hands.

It was in this role of supplier that the company first began to acquire plantations along the Essequibo Coast of Guiana, from planters facing bankruptcy. Jock Campbell (Junior) had the decency to admit that his ancestors had been de facto slave-owners. (They acquired slave plantations from bankrupt owners.) The younger Campbell himself abhorred slavery, and it was in fact the urge to make good the misdeeds of his family that was the catalyst for his own reformist ideals.

Where Campbell suffered from a deep sense of guilt, Arundhati Roy is too morally obtuse to see that as the recipient of an award instituted by a slave-trading company, she shouldn’t be talking about human rights. Hypocrisy is too weak a word for such a charlatan, but without such posturing she cannot get public attention, which is her lifeblood.

Arundhati Roy is not an isolated case. Girish Karnad, another Karnataka based ‘humanist’ mouthing Leftist causes was a Rhodes Scholar. Why should one be flattered by being given a scholarship instituted by Cecil Rhodes, a pathological racist who made a fortune in diamond mining in South Africa exploiting slave labor? (Until recently non-whites were forbidden from applying for the Rhodes scholarship.)

But such mismatch between image and behavior is not limited to fringe players like Girish Karnad and Arundhati Roy. Sonia Gandhi, probably the most powerful politician in India recently defiled the name of Mahatma Gandhi by accepting of the Order of Leopold instituted by Belgian royal family. The name Leopold, King of the Belgians is synonymous with the worst excesses of European exploitation of Africa. Leopold, the king whose name the award carries was a slave merchant who rivals Hitler as a mass murderer.

When the news of the award broke, much of the controversy was focused on the violation of Indian law by a high official (Sonia Gandhi)— accepting an award that requires swearing allegiance to a foreign power. That is a legal technicality that ignores the moral dimension. Her acceptance was a sordid and ignoble act that smacks of servility and utter callousness to human suffering. (For the record, though founded by Leopold I, it was appropriated by Leopold II in 1908 by integrating it with his own order of the Congo Free State, which was the victim of his atrocities, more of which later.)

The name `Congo Free State’ is one of the great ironies of history, for Belgian Congo under King Leopold was a massive slave colony that was ruthlessly exploited for its rubber and ivory. According to a BBC report by Mark Dummet (

“Of the Europeans who scrambled for control of Africa at the end of the 19th century, Belgium’s King Leopold II left arguably the largest and the most horrid legacy of all.” Leopold claimed he was taking over the Congo Free State to civilize the natives by bringing Christianity and Western capitalism to Africa. In the process “he turned his `Congo Free State’ into a massive [slave] labor camp, made a fortune for himself from the harvest of its wild rubber, and contributed in a large way to death of perhaps 10 million innocent people.” This beats Hitler’s record, and was achieved over a less popular area.

Leopold’s plan was to harvest as much natural rubber as possible from the forests before organized cultivation of rubber could break his monopoly. He was interested also in looting the ivory gathered by African tribes. His government created a force called Force Publique to terrorize and plunder the African natives into surrendering everything they possessed and provide also slave labor for harvesting wild rubber. Dummet quotes an eyewitness report:

“One officer['s] method. was to arrive in canoes at a village; the soldiers were then landed, and commenced looting, taking all the chickens, grain etc, out of the houses; after this they attacked the natives until able to seize their women; these women were kept as hostages until the chief of the district brought in the required number of kilograms of rubber. The rubber having been brought, the women were sold back to their owners for a couple of goats apiece, and so he continued from village to village until the requisite amount of rubber had been collected.”

Companies operating in the Congo used prison stockades to keep hostages. If the men in the village resisted the demands for rubber it meant the death of their wife, child or chief. The Force Publique supplied military might under contract and each company had its own mercenaries.

Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold’s Ghost- A story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa quotes the Governor of the Equatorial district of the Congo Free State when the demand for rubber became ferocious: “As soon as it was a question of rubber, I wrote to the government, `To gather rubber in the district. One must cut off hands, noses and ears’.” The victims were often teenagers or even younger who were `punished’ in this manner for not meeting the quotas assigned to them. ( ) Now King Leopold’s ghost must be smiling at Sonia and her Gandhi name.

Hochschild also notes: “During expeditions, Force Publique soldiers were instructed to bring back a hand or head for each bullet fired, to make sure that none had been wasted or hidden for use in rebellions. A soldier with the chilling title `keeper of hands’ accompanied each expedition.” Sometimes the soldiers saved bullets for their personal use like hunting by amputating the victims to meet their quota.

So if anyone deserved to be called maut ka sudagar—or merchant of death, it was Leopold, King of the Belgians. What does it make a person who accepts an award instituted by him? This needs to be mentioned because that was the expression she used to attack Narendra Modi after Godhra. Also, she has not been shy of posing as an upholder of human rights by giving the ‘Rajiv Gandhi Communal Harmony Award’ to her favorites like the Hindu-hater Teesta Setalvad.

If Sonia Gandhi, a European of humble origins, feels honored to be admitted to an order that carries the name of this mass murderer because he was a European prince it is her prerogative. But she should do so in her own capacity as Antonia Maino and not bring the name of Gandhi into it, linking the Mahatma and Leopold.

The main premise of these human rights pretenders—there is no other word for it—is that some recognition, deserved or not, and a self-righteous attitude makes them morally superior to the rest of humanity. They have to do no work at the grassroots level, needed to improve the lot of the less fortunate but only engage in rhetoric and self-righteous publicity stunts. Of course, they always choose their targets carefully, making sure that they don’t provoke real evil-doers like the Jihadis. What the Roys and the Karnads, not to say Sonia Gandhis want is public recognition as saints, not risk of martyrdom. Human rights itself, if we go by what we are seeing in its name, is just another barbaric brotherhood.

Columnist, Dr. NS Rajaram, is a distinguished historian with several laudable works on Indic studies to his credit.

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