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Blockades, attacks, and tear gas: what’s going on in Calais?

Unrest escalates as the “The Jungle” is set to close.

Walking into the Calais camp – now known by inhabitants and the rest of the world as “The Jungle” – for the first time last Thursday, I couldn’t quite believe the scene unfolding before me.

Traffic had stalled on the motorway towering over the camp and, seizing on a rare opportunity so close to the tunnel, hundreds of refugees charged at the white barbed wire fence in broad daylight, breaking through and storming the lorries bound for the UK. The riot police – stationed there, forever on standby – tear-gassed the crowd into submission, eventually restoring order, with refugees and volunteers alike left shielding their burning eyes. 

Life in the camp at that moment couldn’t seem more desperate. Until you speak to the residents and realise how many put themselves through this hell every night. Winter is fast approaching and they’re well aware of the political backdrop.

The French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve’s promise to dismantle the camp is met with a mix of cynicism and fear. Tension is in the air, even more so than usual I’m told, and there’s a palpable sense that time is running out.

Ramzi, a young boy from Libya who dreams of becoming a pilot, and one day lighting the boxing ring up like his hero Muhammad Ali, tells me how he walks for five hours every night “without fail” out of the camp, in the vain hope of smuggling onto a train or lorry heading for the coast.

“Just 35 minutes it takes,” he tells me. “I only have to get lucky once.”

Other people’s success stories keep hope alive here. “Yesterday 12 of my friends made it” Ramzi tells me. “One day that’s going to be me”. Regardless of the slim odds and worsening living conditions – with dwindling donations and food queues lengthening – everyone I meet shares stories just like Ramzi’s, and talks hopefully of the life that awaits them in Britain. For them it’s not a question of if they’ll make it, but when.

As I say goodbye to Ramzi, he describes a horrific event he claims he witnessed in the camp: “I saw three men beat a Sudanese man to death last week; with their bare knuckles.” It was the casual way he slipped it into conversation – as if extreme violence were just an afterthought, and is now part of his reality – which I will find hard to shake off.

Such reports of violence and lawlessness are rare, but sadly just one affects the way the world interprets the estimated 7,000-8,000 mostly peaceful people living here.

At the “Three Idiots” restaurant on the camp’s main pathway – sarcastically titled “Theresa May Street”– I share a meal of lentils and chickpeas with Richard, a former Nato driver from Afghanistan tortured by the Taliban and forced to flee, just because of who paid his wages.

He dreams of reuniting with his family and living a dignified life again. “In the UK you have hot showers and good opportunities for business,” he says. “Here we wait two hours for showers that don’t last five minutes.”

Most here speak warmly of Britain. Many speak English, see Britain as a country that tolerates their cultures, and where the luckiest of their family and friends live safely and freely.

A common misconception is that everyone in the camp is poor, when in many war-torn countries it’s a middle-class privilege to afford the journey across two continents to get here. I meet trained plumbers, carpenters and doctors maintaining the site’s infrastructure and its residents’ health. Farhad, a high-end dress maker, chased out of Iran for protesting against his government’s human rights record, shows me his fabulous collection over tea. He spent everything he had on a fake passport, which took him to Ireland before he was discovered. “I don’t want to come to just take, take, take” he says while waggling a finger. “I have something to give back,” he adds, as he looks down proudly at his hands.

Attitudes to refugees and migrants – on both sides of the channel – appear to be hardening.

In advance of this week’s blockade of the motorway route into Calais, residents were urged not to leave the camp. This was to avoid lorry drivers subjected to escalating violence and disgruntled local farmers protesting against the camp’s existence, demanding a firm date to be set for its clearance.

The problem with the Calais situation is that the interests of everyone involved are far too conflicted for a clear-cut solution. The riot police are just following orders. Lorry drivers have the right to feel safe as they do their jobs. Governments stay elected by prioritising national anxiety over the universal good. And yes, refugees attempt to break our border laws every night. But when dignity and freedom are at stake, I don’t know who – in their predicament – wouldn’t be doing the same.

Names have been changed to protect sources’ identities.

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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.