Top hat: Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at a party rally. Photo: Getty
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My passage to India, astrology versus Ebola and Ed’s “respect” for White Van Man

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts. 

In the west, most political leaders are ­despised by voters. Not so in India, from which my wife and I recently returned after a 17-day visit. Even in the southern state of Kerala, where red flags fly at the roadside and communist-led governments alternate with administrations led by the centre-left Congress, we heard expressions of warmth towards India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi. Formerly chief minister of Gujarat state, where he failed to prevent and, according to some critics, tacitly backed a pogrom against Muslims, Modi is a Hindu nationalist and supporter of neoliberal economic policies. But as a child he helped his father sell tea from a railway station stall and this, we were told, enables him to understand common people’s problems.

Modi certainly has a populist touch. His “Clean India” campaign, launched with pictures of him wielding a broom in Delhi streets, strikes me as pure Tony Blair: an “initiative” unrelated to any plausible programme for action. Anybody can see and, indeed, smell that, in its public spaces, India is a revolting mess. Travelling by train, a Gujarati family cheerfully tossed empty plastic bottles and curry trays out of the window into pristine countryside and then roared with delighted laughter when I, presumably categorised as a prim, anally retentive westerner, ejected a biodegradable banana skin. But pride in the environment is hardly likely to flourish in a country where the absence of safe tap water compels everybody to carry bottles, lack of sanitation forces half the population to defecate outdoors, cows freely roam city streets, and litter bins are rare. What Modi intends to do about these shortcomings remains unclear.

Caste on not caste off

Modi was born into a caste listed among “other backward classes”, which are not as lowly as Dalits (“untouchables”) but, under India’s elaborate and largely theoretical system of positive discrimination, are supposedly entitled to more than a quarter of civil-service positions. Caste still matters enormously in India. Modi, despite his origins, is reported to be building “a social coalition of upper castes” and newspapers analysed his latest cabinet changes to show which castes gained most. (One also listed the value of each minister’s assets – a service that our own press could usefully imitate.)

Just over 5 per cent of marriages cross caste boundaries. In a newspaper “matrimonials” section, some ads were categorised by profession (“Medico Girl [wanted] for MD (PSYCH) . . . boy from Lucknow”), religion or nationality. But most were categorised by caste, with those headed “caste no bar” occupying less than half a column. Such advertisements have never been necessary in Britain, where these things were (and to some extent still are) arranged through word of mouth, gentlemen’s clubs, debutantes’ balls and attendance at elite schools and universities.

Trust in the stars

India is full of history and fine old buildings but most of what tourists see is Turkish, Mongol, Afghan, Persian, British, Portuguese and so on, rather than Indian. India’s history is a fragmented one, punctuated by repeated invasions, sudden withdrawals of ruling regimes (of which the British withdrawal in 1947 was as sudden as any) and episodes of appalling violence. Only over the past 67 years have Indians been able to develop any kind of national narrative; the English, by contrast, developed one over nearly a millennium before it was ruptured by loss of empire, with consequences that are still emerging.

This must explain why, despite their veneration for ancient customs, Indians have a rather careless attitude to the physical remains of their country’s past. The Taj Mahal and other attractions in the “golden triangle” are well preserved but, as travel writers frequently observe, India has many neglected and disfigured monuments. As V S Naipaul wrote in An Area of Darkness – first published in 1964 but still an indispensable guide to India – “Which Indian would be able to read the history of his country for the last thousand years without anger and pain?” Better to retreat into fatalism and trust in the stars: our hotel in Agra had a resident astrologer with a seat in the lobby and, as recently as 2011, the Bombay high court reaffirmed astrology’s status as a ­science fit to be taught in universities.

Birthday bugs

The visit to India was my 70th-birthday treat. My friend Francis Beckett, now revising his excellent Clement Attlee biography, points out that Labour’s greatest prime minister also celebrated his 70th in India and recorded that “about half a million locusts arrived to assist in the celebration”. I had no such unwelcome guests. However, the detailed questionnaire about our recent travels and health that we had to complete on arrival, and the nose and mouth masks ostentatiously worn by immigration officers, suggest an invasion of the ebola virus is expected imminently.

White van crash

Back to Britain, to find Labour in yet more turmoil, thanks in part to the editor of this magazine continuing the fine NS tradition (at which I like to think I excelled) of rocking the boat. However, the latest wound is self-inflicted. With a by-election loss imminent, the Tories, assisted by media allies, inevitably made the most of Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, tweeting a picture of a house draped in three large flags of St George with a white van outside. But it would have been a 24-hour wonder without Ed Miliband’s decision to sack Thornberry, which suggests growing panic and loss of confidence. What does he mean when he says we should “respect” the flag-crazy van owner? For what exactly? For his proficiency as “a cage fighter” or his endeavours “in the motor trade”, these being the only available pieces of information about his life and achievements? Perhaps I have it wrong, but I thought respect was supposed to be earned. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.