"We remain peaceful and happy, but now we are not dreaming anymore": Rio's rude awakening

The protests in Brazil began as a demand for cheap public transport, but are now so much more.

Sem violência. No violence. This was what protestors were chanting as police charged them in São Paolo, firing tear gas, pepper spray, stun grenades, and rubber bullets.

Caught in the middle of this, Paula Martinelli found a hiding place by the São Paolo Museum of Art. A few days later she wrote to me via e-mail:

The Tropa de Choque [riot police] had closed both directions of the avenue and surveyed it periodically – filling the lanes with their vehicles, trucks, motorcycles, shields and bombs. Between breaks in the police checks, people left their hiding places in order to return to the march – our safety spot was an atrium between two buildings, until the moment we were found by a policeman who, as if we were in a video game, aimed his gun toward us and fired rubber bullets and tear gas.

The protest had been organized in part by the MPL – Movimento Passe Libre, the Free Pass Movement – which seeks to make public transport free through subsidies to transport companies. After the State of São Paolo raised fares in early June from R$3.00 to R$3.20, people acted on calls to join demonstrations on the streets. The first passed peacefully on 6 June. By the third demonstration on 13 June, the mood had changed. The Government attempted to quell the growing movement, and police responded to protestors with heavy force, as Paula confirms.

If the protests were just about transport fares, few would be taking notice. But the fare increase was merely the last straw –the most recent of many injustices committed by politicians against the Brazilian people. Indeed, speaking to Brazilians reveals anger with a litany of grievances which have been long embedded in Brazil’s political and economic establishment. In a message to me, Sikander Santos, who has been involved in the Rio protests, explained that, “There are so many things which have outraged the Brazilians that it would be impossible to identify one single reason for the current events.” Nonetheless, he listed a few key points which have contributed heavily towards what he termed the “dissatisfaction and total disbelief in politicians.”

Government corruption is perhaps the central point from which all other problems arise. It has existed for many years, and this has meant that the political establishment long ago lost the respect of the population. As Sikander says, “Politicians act on their own account, only defending their own interests and receiving huge salaries, wasting public funds and unlawfully enriching themselves.”

Having won bids to host the 2013 Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics, Brazilian politicians have already spent billions of dollars of public money to build stadiums while the country’s wider infrastructure deteriorates. Hospitals, schools, airports, and public transport are all well below standard despite the country’s wealth and high tax rates, resulting in relatively high infant mortality, ongoing rates of around 12 per cent illiteracy, crammed public transport, and traffic-choked roads.

Outrage has also been directed towards the fact that Brazilian politicians commonly commit nepotism, and pay themselves up to R$26,700 (£7807) per month while the police are known to be equally as corrupt. President of the Commission for Human Rights and Minorities Marco Feliciano is known to be a racist homophobe, while the PEC37 constitutional amendment seeks to allow only the Federal and Civil Police to investigate crimes, excluding the Public Ministry which has been key in some important recent investigations. This is an invitation to corruption. Along with this, drug trafficking, gangs, and gun crime are widespread and poorly dealt with, being effectively swept under the carpet when officials from FIFA or the Olympics visit cities like Rio.

But according to Sikander, “The scrapping of hospitals, education, public schools, and universities, along with the dismantling of the public security system is notorious. Daily news stories of fraud, corruption, impunity, and all sorts of problems are common. It is scary and that is what the politicians want. Poverty and insecurity are part of the game – the exploitation of fear that stifles the courage of the people and prevents them from acting politically.”

Prior to 13 June, “The governor had tried to discredit the movement, saying it was formed by a small minority of vandals – we knew it was not true and had to prove it to everybody: society and the press,” Paula told me. “So we went to the streets that day trying to have a peaceful march to legitimize our requests and our movement. The government also knew this and decided to go for all or nothing – to muffle the popular clamour once and for all, or eventually have to deal with something bigger.” They chose the former.

In Franklin Roosevelt square, Paula wrote that there were “hundreds of police surrounding us. The cavalry also approached. When we were surrounded, tear gas bombs and rubber bullets began to be shot towards the crowd. Many of those peaceful protesters were trampled. I ran to the door of the church, believing that there I would be spared – bombs and rubber bullets were thrown in my direction, violently hitting the doors of the church.”

During this protest, police were indiscriminate in their attacks, hurling tear gas bombs into the middle of traffic jams, hurting many who weren’t involved in the demonstration – women, children, and the elderly. The rubber bullets smashed windows and property, the damage of which was then blamed on protesters. Dozens of people were arrested just for bringing vinegar, which helps counteract the effects of tear gas.

Following these events, however, Brazil saw a change in attitude towards the protests, with the movement after 13 June becoming more diverse and attracting many more people. Despite this, it didn’t stop the establishment continuing to try and silence the demands of the people.

On 17 June Sikander took part in the march in Rio from Candelária to Cinelândia along the Avenida Rio Branco with around 200 000 others. “The people of Rio have a lot of humor, they like to sing and dance, and did so for most of the march,” said Sikander. This went on for a few hours, but then when the demonstration had almost reached Cinelândia “a gang of thugs armed with shirts covering their faces went ahead of the people and attacked a group of police officers who ran to the safety of the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro (ALERJ)."

Soon, molotov cocktails were exploding on the steps, and ATMs were smashed. But Sikander believes this was a pre-planned action: “There were more than 100 rioters against 40 unarmed police officers.” They had no weapons, which is strange in such a situation. Sikander wonders if they had been ordered by superiors to leave their weapons behind. As the attacks continued, reinforcements were called, “…but they did not come. There were no police to defend the police. The dreaded Tropa de Choque arrived almost two hours after the start of the conflict. It seems strange, that delay – very strange. But not for me. The State Security is run by the Governor [Sergio Cabral]. The same corrupt Governor hated by the middle class – the middle class that is now mostly in the demonstrations. Such planned actions expose the entire criminal scheme of this government.” Sikander stated that, “the order was to allow the conflict so that the demonstration could be dispersed…Several videos posted show police shooting upwards. It was a kind of theater…staged with the sound of gunfire to intimidate.”

Over the past week Brazilian politicians have slowly begun to comprehend the force of this movement, but despite reversing the public transportation fare increases in a number of cities, protests have not ceased. In fact, they are spreading across the country and are meeting further violent suppression by the police. Cutting R$0.20 from transport fares will not stop Government corruption, and Brazilians remain extremely angry with how much money is being spent on the Confederations Cup, the World Cup, and the Olympics. At the same time, inflation is rising while wages are not, meaning many millions of Brazilians are affected by the increasingly high cost of living, drawing stark attention to the fact that Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Many people in Brazil fought against the military government from 1964-85, which was involved in numerous assassinations, disappearances, cases of torture, and false imprisonment. Today, as Sikander told me, Brazilians along with many others across the world, are fighting to liberate themselves from “capitalist fascism, corruption, and inequality”. Though perhaps the movement is too disparate and idealistic for politicians to be able to cater to every participant’s demands, they must nonetheless make a real effort to free their country from corruption and prioritise effective public spending above the short-term greed of private enterprise.

Another particpant in the São Paolo protests, Paula Valério, wrote to me that these protests mark a critical point. “Although I love my country, I have always been a harsh critic of Brazil and Brazilian culture – for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I do not believe in a future without education, and we, as a nation, never truly invested in it, so I saw no real way of changing things. I felt powerless. Now, these movements have opened a door for change – they are making me hopeful and proud!

“Everybody is in the streets. We all want changes. But there’s no real leadership. The Movimento Passe Libre will not be a leader for all the changes, and I don’t think they should be. So there are two great dangers. The first is that it will all just fade away, because we won’t be able to organize ourselves. The second is, if people find a leader, what kind of leader will it be?”

Brazilians have accepted "bread and circuses" in favour of substantive democracy for too long. “We are a peaceful people indeed, [but] this has also caused us to passively accept a lot of absurd political decisions,” said Paula Martinelli. Democracy is more than just elections, and with these protests, Brazilians are showing they have the power to demand that politicians deliver on their promises. “The spectacle of growth is a fraud. The World Cup spending has not improved the infrastructure. These twenty cents represent yet another cost for the people who already have one of the world's highest tax burdens. It is no wonder that the slogan of the movement is ‘the people have woken up.’ We remain peaceful and happy, but now we are not dreaming anymore.”

Names have been changed to protect identities

A demonstrator holds a road name sign during clashes in downtown Rio de Janeiro on June 17, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.