May 13, 2014
AMETHI — The small assembly of villagers gathered in the tent can’t wait much longer in this stifling heat of this district in northeastern India. All are wiping their foreheads, slumped in their plastic chairs — except for Munna, beads of sweat running down her face as she stands in front of a small stage surrounded by flowers. The farm worker put on her best sari and walked three kilometers in the hope of meeting Priyanka Gandhi, the great-granddaughter of the legendary Jawharlal Nehru, to hand her some written requests.
“We need water pumps in the village,” Munna says. “Party officials don’t listen to the poor anymore. We only have the Gandhis left.”
Here, the Gandhis are regarded as gods. Of course, this is their kingdom. Nehru, who served as India's first Prime Minister (1947-1964), had chosen this place — in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just a few miles away from Allahabad, the birthplace of the Indian independence movement — to place son-in-law Feroze Gandhi during the first Indian general election in 1952.
The district was then divided into two, Amethi et Raebareli, and since then it has been passed on from generation to generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family. During a reign of 60 years, there have been few defeats.
But this year, leaders of the leading political party, the Indian National Congress (INC), are restless. The party has been discredited by corruption scandals, rising inflation and sluggish growth, and could well suffer a national defeat.
Outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is linked to the INC, may see Indian People’s Party rival Narendra Modi succeed him once the results of the general election, which ended this week, are tallied.
The Amethi and Raebareli districts voted May 7. Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia, respectively Nehru’s great-grandson and wife of his grandson, and the leaders of the INC, are here. They must keep their heartland at all costs. A defeat would represent a terrible symbol.
Rahul Gandhi — Photo: Hibi Eden
Arrival of the “princess”
On the horizon, a cloud of dust rises. A dozen Jeeps suddenly appear, driving down a small dirt track with wailing sirens.
Priyanka Gandhi is arriving. She is not a parliament member and is not running for anything, but she is a politician nevertheless who came to don a crown of flowers and give a 10-minute speech on stage. “Think about all we did for you: roads, hospitals, factories,” she says. In response, an electrician putting away cables under the blazing sun grumbles, “We’ve also done a lot for the Gandhis.”
He has been working without pay for the past few days. The party promised him a job in a nearby factory. Munna, the farm worker, has given her small scribbled pieces of paper to the person she calls “Princess Gandhi.” She bursts into tears. “It’s my last chance for the water pumps.”
Here, the INC works like a parallel administration. At the local branch, a “facilitation office” is in charge of collecting grievances from the people. “And, if necessary, we send one of our members to help solve a problem with the administration of the police,” the director says.
But the party is now only the shadow of what is once was. During the 2012 regional election, no INC candidate was elected in Raebareli.
Here, people no longer vote for the party. They vote for the Gandhis, whom they love for good reason. Only they can use their influence to bring public companies and supply thousands of jobs, so why not make the most of them? These public companies are called “gifts.”
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1966-1977 and 1980-1984) gave many gifts, as did her son Rajiv, who succeeded to her (1984-1989), and her daughter-in-law Sonia, who just had a railway equipment factory built. The gift of Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the INC, is an industrial park still under construction that is dedicated to food processing.
Some gifts do not age well, like the telephone-producing ITI factory, which was built in Raebareli at the time when phones were, like rockets, symbols of modernity. Today, the site is an almost deserted complex where, at the reception desk, an employee is furiously banging a phone on his desk, trying to make it work.
The ITI employees spend more time at home than at work because of an almost empty order book. SP Singh, an engineer who lives sparingly in his company apartment, is waiting for the day when he will receive redundancy benefits to return to his village. “At my age, no one will want me.” Singh says he will not vote for the Gandhis.
Bribery eating away at the party
The Gandhi fiefdom is also home to many gas stations alongside smooth roads that, on the eve of the election, smell of fresh tar. A contract, decided in Delhi by the ministry of petroleum, can reward loyalty or make a political rival change his mind.
With strong growth over the last few years, new opportunities have arisen, such as awarding of public contracts. Manoj Dwivedi swears he owes his fortune only to his “work” and to his “admiration for the Gandhis.”
This is quite convenient. His company, Infratech, specializes in infrastructure construction in regions where the INC is powerful. The self-made man has also invested in a television station, Shri News, and a daily newspaper, Shri Times. These days, he has the privilege of being part of Priyanka Gandhi’s cortege.
This dishonest system of rewarding political supporters with business is eating away at the INC away like cancer. “Ideas or the program don’t really matter,” says Ram Tripathi, a former regional BBC correspondent. “The party has become a thriving company that serves anyone’s interests.”
The system, where loyalty trumps ideas and where only the top of the hierarchy matters, has abandoned its ideology and, most importantly, disconnecting from the voters.
“Take their money — but don’t vote for them”
The most serious criticism, in fact, comes from the inside. OP Srivastava, INC secretary general in the Uttar Pradesh state, is a veteran of politics who wears white sneakers, a white tunic and travels about in a white chauffeured SUV. Since his political ascension, he has also acquired some land and private schools. “The party is weak and completely disconnected from its base,” Srivastava says from his living room, which is covered with photos of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi.
Since he started in politics 52 years ago, Srivastava has seen plenty of change, but what saddens him the most is the growing influence business sectors have in party decisions. Srivastava draws this disappointed conclusion: “When Indira Gandhi said she was fighting against hunger, she took the necessary measures. Today, the Congress says it is fighting against poverty, but inequality has only grown. There is no longer any consistency between what is said and what is done.”
In the land of the Gandhis, there is at least one candidate who has been traveling the district for months and who believes in his chances to knock down the almighty dynasty. Kumar Vishwas, a regional native, speaks the local dialect perfectly, unlike his opponent, the English-speaking Rahul Gandhi. Most importantly, he is a poet idolized by the Indian youth, reciting his work from Tokyo to London.
The poet decided to join the Common Man Party (AAP) and to abandon his luxury clothes. He says he tries to follow the example of Mahatma Gandhi. “I tell the voters: take the money the Congress will give you before the election, but don’t vote for them,” he says. “We’re tired of politicians driving Mercedes while children are dying of malnutrition.” Wherever he goes, people are surprised to see a candidate listening to them.
Rajesh Prabhat Verma, a young sympathizer of the Common Man Party candidate, asks, “Why would people vote for Rahul Gandhi when he’s never in Parliament? We need better governance in our district, to know where the money is going, which is possible thanks to the Internet,” he says. Verma was schooled in institutes built by the Gandhis but is now jobless. And yet these claims are like water off a duck’s back to the INC.
Reforms will be difficult
The Congress, which has survived other crises, never dies: It is reincarnated. After 10 years in power, it needs reform. A few changes already have been launched to democratize it — for example, primary elections in 15 districts across the country. “And you no longer find a job in a factory by calling the local MP, but by sending an email directly to the company,” a shoe manufacturer at the Raebareli market adds.
The unavoidable reform program will probably be difficult to execute. “It’s an umbrella party that draws its richness from its many schools of thought,” a close relation of Rahul Gandhi explains. “It must overall democratize itself and open up to society without shrinking its ideological base.” Inside, every change is being considered, except for withdrawal of the Gandhi family. The Congress would risk imploding, like in the 1990s.
And therein lies the problem. The destiny of the old independence party relies on a 43-year-old man, Rahul Gandhi, who is criticized for his lack of authority and personality. The optimists say he is young and still has much to learn. “The crises and the blockages have at least one benefit: they force us to think,” Nehru used to say.
The defeat of the INC could indeed give it time to think.
This leading French daily newspaper Le Monde ("The World") was founded in December 1944 in the aftermath of World War II. Today, it is distributed in 120 countries. In late 2010, a trio formed by Pierre Berge, Xavier Niel and Matthieu Pigasse took a controlling 64.5% stake in the newspaper.
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food / travel
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson
October 26, 2021
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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