11 February 2015

Have you heard of the ‘Baltagiya’?

There's the 'underworld' and if there is such a thing there has to be an 'overworld' as well.  Indeed, we live in times when the distinction is blurred and not only because Ranjan Ramanayake likes to think that Sri Lanka is a movie set.  However, all things considered, there are things that happen in visible terrain that make stories of the unseen appear to be fairy tales.  This was written 4 years ago.  Some names have changed, but the 'titles' so to speak have not.  The phenomenon is as vibrant as it was back then, if not even more pernicious. 

Although Hillary Clinton and other big names in the Obama administration as well as certain pundits in the big media houses in that country who presume they can defined the world for all and Sunday feign surprise at the recent political upheavals in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s brutality was no secret to his victims or to those who are not ready purchases of Washington-birthed propaganda.  The signs of tyranny are irrepressible and trend emerges when democracy is absent in spirit or structure, silencing is deafening, abduction follows abduction, torture becomes commonplace and death finds a voice in the strength of numbers.  Details, though, are slow late-coming residents of ‘whole picture’.  I knew about Hosni Mubarak, I didn’t know about the ‘Baltagiya’. 

I am sure Hillary was less ignorant. So too the US State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wade and others who find salve for wounds suffered domestically by ranting, raving and talking down to the rest of the world.  They would have known who or what ‘Baltagiya’ was because they were willing and joyful approvers.  They needed Mubarak. 

I, on the other hand, had no clue.  Some kind of Egyptian dish, I would have thought.  Baltagiya means ‘gangs of armed thugs’. I knew about these; just didn’t know the local term.  The phenomenon was widespread in that country.  On February 2, 2011, however, the local name grabbed global headlines.  When Mubarak unleashed the ‘Baltagiya’ on protesting Egyptians it was simply a matter of the underground erupting through social crust and sitting pretty on the political landscape, naked and unashamed.  That which was hidden, was now apparent. The unofficial had become official.  ‘It seemed a culture of brutality and violence had exchanged the torture cells for the streets’, Leela Jacinto reported. 

“Baltagiya,” according to Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based political analyst and writer,
“might be gangs, police informants, or unemployed youths that can be hired, or just poor
people who are paid off.”  Over a period of three decades, Mubarak put to work close to 2 million people, including police informants, who have effectively formed a parallel force tasked with quelling dissent at the local level.  I didn’t know what it was called and the name did not matter much to the Egyptians.  What matters is the Uncle Sam would have known but chose to look the other way.  This is why Clinton’s moral posturing regarding the protests sound even more hollow than what she generally utters. 

It is not unusual for regimes to defer in favour of informal mechanisms of coercion when they lose ideological sway, suffer popularity decline etc.  Some states have such mechanisms in place in terms of back-up-plan prerogative.  Those who think torture doesn’t happen in the USA, ought to read up on how that country dealt with the Black Panther Movement or, more recently, the ‘Black Block’ anarchists who terrified Bill Clinton in November 1999 and April 2000, in Seattle and Washington, respectively. 

Let me relate a small story that will indicate how meticulous the United States of America is when it comes to dealing with threat.

In the year 2001, as part of a series of articles about experiences in that country, titled ‘Sketchbook USA’, I wrote about my teachers and friends.  I mentioned those who I considered to be endowed with brilliant minds and exceptional human qualities. Among them was Prof. Geoff Waite of the German Studies Department.  I described him as the only card-carrying member of the Communist Party. That was metaphor, obviously.  It differentiated him from other leftist academics high on talk and low on action and lower still when it came to dealing with fellow human beings.  How could Geoff be a card-carrying member of a non-existent entity?  And yet, this innocent and honest description, written in a Sunday paper in a country located at the other end of the world, was picked up and relayed to the relevant authorities in the USA, I later found out.

The ‘feds’ had checked him out in Ithaca, interrogated him.  Geoff believed and might still believe that I had screwed him up.  He was an exceptional mind, a scholar so meticulous that he was struggling to complete the work he had dedicated his life to, a treatise on the German philosopher, Heideggar, ‘[his] f…… monster, which [he had been] working on for the past 20 years’.  It might still be unfinished, for Geoff would put student and teaching before his own research and writing.    Well, the US Baltagiya, still un-surfaced (unlike in Egypt) were certainly thorough, wouldn’t you say?  He had nothing to hide, but he could have done without that little visit, totally unwarranted and absolutely antithetical to the kind of rhetoric Washington spits out all the time. 

Actually, the USA has been smart enough to write Baltagiyasism into law.  So it’s official and not underground. This doesn’t mean that the unofficial does not happen.  Heck, this is a country that goes to war at the drop of a hat or rather at the threat of a drop of oil spilling and thinks nothing of snuffing out half a million lives (of brown people, yes). 

Here’s a snippet.  There’s an Iraqi photojournalist who was arrested in September 2008 because he was considered "a threat to the security of Iraq and coalition forces” by U.S. and Iraqi forces. He was working for multiple agencies including Reuters at the time of his arrest. An Iraqi court concluded on November 30, 2008 that there is no evidence against him and ordered him released from U.S. military custody.  The US military refused to release him.  He was released only a year ago, almost to the day (February 10, 2010).  That’s a ‘known’.  There are countless unknowns in the world of US Baltagiyism.  If you are interested only in journalists, there are at least 14 of them being held without due process for long periods in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.  Sixteen were killed by US fire in Iraq alone.

The people of Egypt countered the Baltagiya with the only weapons at their disposal.  Themselves. Hands and hearts.  That’s something tyrannies find hard to handle.  It happens. Sooner or later.  A good lesson and one which I am sure Barack Obama and the corporate thugs on whose behalf he runs that country of contradictions would do well to learn.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Nation’ and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com