World

Hindu nationalism in India. Press freedoms under threat in Vanuatu. Evo Morales ousted as Bolivian president. Racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism on the rise in Italy. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Holocaust survivor targeted by racist abuse in Italy

Holocaust survivor and Italian senator for life Liliana Segre (centre), accompanied by bodyguards in Milan.
Credit: EPA

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

India: In December 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed a 16th-century mosque in the city of Ayodhya in northern India, sparking religious clashes in which about 2000 people – mostly Muslims – were killed. The razing of the mosque, which was built on a site that Hindus say is the birthplace of their deity Rama, was incited by senior figures in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is now led by Narendra Modi and rules the country.

The BJP has pledged to rebuild a Hindu temple at Ayodhya and campaigned on the issue ahead of its sweeping election victory in May. Last weekend, India’s Supreme Court delivered a much-anticipated verdict on the site – it granted Hindus control, saying Muslims could build a mosque at a two-hectare location elsewhere in the city.

The decision was seen as a victory for Modi, a staunch Hindu nationalist who has gradually been eroding India’s secular foundations. In August, he abolished the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state. Weeks later, a new register of citizens for the state of Assam excluded 1.9 million residents, who are believed to be mostly from Bangladesh and have effectively been deemed unlawful immigrants.

Modi described the Ayodhya ruling as a “new dawn”, adding: “Now the next generation will build a new India.”

But the place of the country’s Muslim minority – about 200 million people – in this new India remains unclear. Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim MP, said the ruling marked a victory of “faith over facts”, accusing the BJP of turning Muslims into second-class citizens.

Ahead of the ruling, some Hindus donated bricks to Ayodhya with the inscription “Sri Ram”. The bricks will be used to build the next temple.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Vanuatu: In July, four Chinese nationals living in Vanuatu were seized, stripped of their Vanuatuan citizenship and deported, along with two other Chinese citizens. None received a trial or access to lawyers. This incident, which raised concerns about Vanuatu’s commitment to the rule of law and about China’s growing influence there, was reported by the Vanuatu Daily Post, which has tirelessly covered the island’s affairs since it was first published in 1993.

Following the report in July, the journalist who broke the story, Dan McGarry, was summoned by the prime minister, Charlot Salwai. According to McGarry, a Canadian who has lived in Vanuatu for 16 years, he was berated by Salwai, who told him: “If you don’t like it here, go home.”

Earlier this month, the Vanuatu government rejected McGarry’s work permit renewal. The decision will force McGarry to leave the country, along with his partner and children, who are all Vanuatu nationals. He is appealing the decision, which was condemned this week as an attack on press freedom by the Media Association of Vanuatu and by Australia’s Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

The government claimed that McGarry’s position as the newspaper’s media director should be filled by a local.

In a tweet, McGarry said: “We all know the real reason … I spoke out, and was punished for telling the truth.”

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Bolivia: Fourteen years ago, Evo Morales was elected as Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, and his following quickly grew as he drastically reduced poverty and improved access to water, electricity and education. A poncho-wearing former coca farmer, he became the longest-serving leader in Latin America and was the last survivor of the “pink tide” of left-wing rulers who swept to power across the continent in the 2000s.

This week, the Morales era came to an unceremonious end following a series of deadly protests against his election win last month. He had needed to defeat his opponent by a 10-percentage-point margin to avoid a runoff election; his winning margin was 10.56 percentage points. In other words, about 35,000 ballots out of 5.9 million had secured his victory.

Last weekend, independent election observers reported that there had been widespread fraud, and the military urged Morales to step down. He eventually quit but claimed he was the victim of a coup, sparking further violence. On Monday, he fled his homeland to seek asylum in Mexico. “It hurts me to leave the country,” he said in a tweet. “… I will return soon, with more strength and energy.”

Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America but its economy grew during Morales’s leadership at almost 5 per cent a year – double the regional average. In recent years, declining oil and gas revenue has caused poverty rates and the public debt to climb. Meanwhile, Morales tightened control over the media and judiciary, spent lavish sums on a 25-storey presidential palace and rejected the results of a 2016 referendum that backed presidential term limits. His support had started to fade.

In the five years before Morales was elected in 2005, Bolivia had five presidents. The country remains divided in his absence, and there are fears that instability, and possibly violence, will fill the vacuum.

SPOTLIGHT: Italian intolerance

Last year, Liliana Segre, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor from Milan, was made an Italian senator for life, a rare honour that can be bestowed by the president. As an eight-year-old, Segre was expelled from school, before being deported to Auschwitz at age 13 with her father, who was separated from her and killed days later. She survived, became a parent and grandparent, and later recounted her experiences at schools and in several films. The number tattooed on her arm is 75190.

Following her appointment as senator, Segre began receiving streams of abuse and threats on social media from far-right extremists. This prompted her to call last month for a parliamentary commission to investigate hate, racism and anti-Semitism. The commission was approved by a majority vote, but Italy’s main right-wing parties – the League party and Brothers of Italy – and Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia refused to support it, saying it would lead to censorship. The controversy brought about further abuse and threats. Late last week, police in Milan said Segre had been assigned two police officers to protect her.

The incident has added to concerns in Italy about rising levels of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, which are often openly supported by political leaders. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant League, questioned the police escort for Segre, saying: “I get threats too.” Salvini, a former deputy prime minister, has helped to fuel growing nostalgia for Mussolini and Fascism. In 1938, Mussolini passed the racial laws that led to Segre’s expulsion from school. Her appointment as senator marked the 80th anniversary of those laws.

Segre would not comment on the police guard. She said the failure of the right-wing parties to back the commission made her feel “like a Martian in the senate”. “I thought it [the committee] was almost banal,” she said.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 16, 2019 as "Racism in Italy hits Holocaust survivor". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.