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Terror will not break Berlin's open and tolerant spirit

Berliners know that extremist attacks are aimed at disrupting Germany’s welcoming attitude to refugees and asylum seekers.

Winding my way towards west Berlin on the S-Bahn the morning after an articulated lorry ploughed through an annual Christmas market, slaughtering 12 innocent people and injuring dozens of others, felt surreally like any other weekday morning. A typically diverse array of locals occupied the seats around me, most dressed in warm, dark-coloured clothing designed to do battle with the chilly temperatures, staring bleakly out at the city’s dull metallic skies or into the wan glow of their mobile phones.

Unlike in Paris and Brussels following recent attacks, there was no immediate sign of any increased security presence, though the site of the incident (Breitscheidplatz, close to the Berlin Zoo) was cordoned-off and busy with a mixture of armed police and clusters of onlookers who grimly surveyed the scene, took photos and added a flower or candle to one of the makeshift memorials.

The heavy fog that clung to the tops of the buildings wasn’t so usual though, and the way it shrouded the glass cupola of the famous Reichstag as the train carried me through the centre felt like an apt metaphor, on a morning during which many in the German capital were doubtless dwelling on the tragic events of the night before and pondering the possible political implications.

While many in the German and right-wing international media have been blaming Angela Merkel's "open door" policy on migrants for the attack —  almost a million refugees and asylum seekers have entered the country since 2015 — Berliners have something of a special relationship with refugees. Some 80,000 are currently living here, more than any other German city, with around half residing in temporary shelters as they wait for their applications to be accepted or rejected: increasing numbers have been turned away in recent months, which many believe to be a political compromise after a series of smaller refugee-related attacks around the country.

The news that a Tunisian asylum seeker, who is reported to have been shot dead in Milan this morning, is the prime suspect for carrying out the attack confirms the fears expressed by the German Chancellor in her statement on Tuesday: “I know that it would be particularly difficult for all of us to bear if it would be confirmed that this deed was carried out by a person who sought protection and asylum in Germany,” she said. Merkel was aware that such a scenario would play directly into the hands of her critics — in particular the populist right-wing group AfD (Alternative for Germany), which has campaigned heavily on an anti-immigration platform since its formation in 2013. 

For the most part, the city has drawn on its reputation as a tolerant, open and inherently multicultural place (its demographic includes significant Middle Eastern, Asian and Eastern European communities) to help many settle and integrate into the city. As well as shorter-term assistance such as donating clothes or food, there have also been longer-term, grassroots projects like the award-winning Give Something Back To Berlin, which encourages integration via regular language, cooking and social-themed meet-ups, as well as creative responses from refugees themselves, including an app created by Syrians that helps navigate Germany’s typically burdensome bureaucracy. Even the city’s clubbing community has made an effort with the Plus 1 campaign, which has raised over 125,000 euros by charging a minimal fee for guestlist spots and then donating it to refugee causes.

The more intensive levels of integration already established in Berlin, as well as the famously world-weary attitude of its inhabitants — many of whose families have lived through war and division themselves — no doubt plays into the city’s somewhat muted reaction to the attack. Berliners know through their own experience that the vast majority of refugees just want an opportunity to live normal, regular lives without fear of being bombed or oppressed; they are aware that organised terrorist activities are aimed precisely at disrupting Germany’s “Willkommenskultur” ("welcome culture") and a subsequent air of defiance — even nonchalance — has been discernible alongside the sadness and quiet air of caution.

Although the evening following the attacks saw the Christmas markets close early at the request of city officials, and various vigils take place around the city to pay tribute to those killed — including a major one inside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at the site of the attack, which has been a symbol of peace since being partially destroyed in the Second World War — the city has quickly returned to its typical pre-Christmas atmosphere.

By Wednesday the markets were open again and Berliners came out in force to visit them and show the world — and especially the terrorists — that they would not be abandoning their traditions or seasonal spirit so easily. The usual flurries of activity could be found around the shopping and cultural areas and Christmas decorations continued to shine from the city’s 19th-century tenements and GDR-era high rises.

Perhaps the most telling sign that terror will not shake the resolve of the locals, nor deter them from their collective desire to help those fleeing war-ravaged regions, came on Wednesday night when anti-refugee demonstrations at Breitscheidplatz were met with much larger counter-demonstrations demanding unity and a continued respect for human rights.

A German proverb states: "fear makes the wolf look bigger than he is". While it seems the wolves have never been closer to the door, Berliners are doing their bit to resist fear and stay focused on humanity.

Paul Sullivan is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.

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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.