Eamonn McCann - The right side of history and freedom of speech

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One hundred and fifty five years ago in the town of Meerut in Bengal in India the sepoys rose up against their British officers, killed many, and then marched on Delhi.

One hundred and fifty five years ago in the town of Meerut in Bengal in India the sepoys rose up against their British officers, killed many, and then marched on Delhi.

The rising had been sparked by a rumour that cartridges issued to the sepoys which had to be bitten open had been greased with beef and pork fat - gravely offensive to Hindus and Muslims.

The sepoys were local soldiers, recruited into the army of the East India Company, the London group with a franchise for running the sub-continent. There were more than 200,000 sepoys in the company’s force, compared to 50,000 British soldiers.

In London, politicians and commentators reacted to news of the uprising with angry incredulity. What ignorant savages they must be who respond to something as trivial as animal fat with murderous rage! Prime Minister Lord Palmerston blamed the violence on “Hindoo prejudice”. The Times marvelled at how previously loyal and contented people could descend so swiftly into barbarism on such a flimsy pretext, forgetting the benefits the Raj had brought to “a backward land.”

The seeming irrationality of the sepoys’ behaviour acted as justification for iron-fisted retaliation. One young officer, Edward Vibart, 19, recorded that following the recapture of Delhi: “I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such a one as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams on seeing their husbands and sons butchered were most painful... Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference..”

There were atrocities on the other aside, too, The rebels killed all the British they succeeded in overwhelming en route to Delhi, including women and children. Descriptions of some of the deaths can still churn the stomach. Women were raped and their throats then cut.

Nowadays, no historian would try to explain these horrendous events as having resulted from “Hindoo prejudice”. Just as, in time, no serious person will discuss the violence of the last fortnight across the Arab and Muslim world by reference to cartoons or film footage.

The context for the Indian Mutiny - or, as it is known in India, the First War of Independence - was the occupation of the country by a European power and the cruelty, oppression and humiliation that went with it.

The sepoys’ belief that they were being treated like dirt by being instructed to bite into unclean cartridges was an expression of a deeper and far more intense resentment. The parallels with protests against the Danish cartoons and the “Innocence of Muslims” film are striking.

Over the 11 years since Bush and Blair launched their “war on terror”, the US and its allies have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, killed uncounted Pakistani, Afghan, Somali and Yemeni civilians in drone attacks, bombed Libya, continued to arm Israel to enforce dispossession of the Palestinians, kidnapped, tortured and interned thousands, imposed sanctions and threatened war on Iran, maintained scores of military bases to protect dictators who keep power through cruelty, and so on.

It is in this context that the publication of cartoons or films mocking Mohammed can seem to sum up an all-encompassing racist hatred and contempt for Muslims.

Many in the West, including a considerable number who regard themselves as on the Left, echo Palmerston in seeing the Muslim protestors as people ruled by foaming passion, a heaving mass aswirl in religious delirium, a dangerous imminent threat to the freedoms which civilised nations hold dear.

In this perspective, the protection of free speech can be made to appear the central issue.

But the key element of freedom of expression is the right to decide whether and what to express and when. Considering publication of the material many Muslim s find offensive against the background of the West’s role in the Arab and Muslim world, the principled, moral course is freely to decide not to publish.

Karl Marx was living in London in 1857. He condemned the atrocities of the sepoys as reported in the press but also described their excesses as “the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India…John Bull is to be steeped in cries for revenge up to his very ears, to make him forget that his Government is responsible for the mischief hatched and the colossal dimensions it has been allowed to assume.”

Marx the militant atheist saw that the “superstitious” Indians, rather than the supposedly erudite sophisticates of England, were on the right side of history.

This is the way we should look at such issues today, too.

Support the protest against Housing Benefit cuts

The demonstration against cuts in housing benefit being organised this Thursday by Dove House deserves the support of all who are concerned about the whittling away of the welfare state.

The Welfare Reform Bill to be debated in the Assembly over the next few weeks would mean that people living in houses larger than they are deemed to need would have to move home or make up the difference in rent caused by a reduction in their Housing Benefit. The Bill involves a 14 percent cut for people of working age who under-occupy by one bedroom, a 25 percent cut for under-occupation by two or more bedrooms.

The most up-to-date survey reveals that 65 percent of homes rented from the Housing Executive are above the bedroom standard. Of these, 42 percent are under-occupied by one room - a cut of 14 percent - while 23 percent are under-occupied by two or more rooms - a cut of 25 percent. This on top of cuts already imposed….

If the measure goes through, the effect will be of a sharp drop in the living standard of families already under intolerable pressure.

The reasons for under-occupancy have to do with the nature of social housing stock. It’s not that tenants are grabbing houses too big for them. It’s that houses matching family size are not available in anything like the numbers needed.

Rent arrears are certain to rise, resulting in extreme hardship and social costs as yet unquantified.

The present rules provide for one bedroom for each adult or couple. Children under 15 are expected to share with another of the same gender. Under-nines are expected to share with another regardless of gender. An additional room is allowed for a carer providing overnight care for the claimant or partner. However, there is no reference in the plan to an additional room for overnight carers of disabled children.

There are no figures available for the number of children living in under-occupied Housing Executive accommodation. Nor is it at all clear how older children are to be dealt with in the calculation of under-occupancy. Already, social housing tenants are penalised for having adult children living with them - even when they are students, unemployed or, for example, foster children who have remained in the foster home having “grown out of care”.

Neither the Housing Executive nor the Assembly can say with any confidence to what extent there is social housing available for those in under-occupancy to move to. Which, on its own, is surely a good enough reason for the Assembly to throw the Bill out.

Where is the justice, anyway, in forcing families to move from homes where they have developed social networks, neighbourly relations, community support and care? These things are not measurable in terms of space or money, but they count for a lot.

And the plan could end up costing the tax payer more, in the form of providing tenants forced to move out with alternative private-sector houses of the right size.

Many working parents depend on grandparents and other family members for childcare so they can go out to work. This is particularly the case for lone parents. What’s to happen, who is to pick up the tab, if the family is forced to move away because the house has a bedroom too many?

One of the justifications given for the plan is that it will “incentivise” tenants to work. This is nonsensical.

Once again, a section of the community already less well-off are being asked to pay the price of a crisis in public finances which they played no part whatsoever in creating. It’s an outrage which we should not put up with.

We should be in Guildhall Square at lunchtime the day after tomorrow to support Dove House and tell our elected representatives to just say no.