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History of Latvia – The Baltic way

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Why did people of three countries join their hands in a human chain spanning over 600 kms? Understand the story through the eyes of one nation – Latvia.

On 23 August 1989, in one of the most touching moments in history, two million people came together and joined their hands to form a human chain spanning more than 600 kms across the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania demanding independence from the Soviet Union. Let us understand how the story unfolded for a beautiful nation called Latvia.

 

Our story begins in the 12th Century. Latvia at the time comprised of 14 lands and their rulers and was situated along the Daugava river. Missionaries often visited the land trying to convert the largely pagan population to Christianity but had limited success. When peaceful means of conversion failed to produce results, German crusaders stepped in and plotted to convert the people by force of arms.

The Baltic tribes were slowly subjugated to their rule and by the 13th Century the Germans ruled over large parts of today’s Latvia and Estonia and called the state Terra Mariana. They even founded the city of Riga, the largest city in the southern Baltic Sea.

Latvia’s strategic location made it a constant focal point for conflict in the years to come. Four major powers competed for influence here (State of the Teutonic Order, The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden and Russian Empire). Parts of modern day Latvia were ruled in turn by Polish Lithuania, Sweden and then Russia. The Great Northern war was fought between the Russian Tsars and the Swedish empire and ended in 1921 with Swedish defeat now leaving Russia as the new dominant power in the Baltic region and also in control of Latvia. Close to 40% of Latvians died from famine and plague during this time. A wave of Russification followed. The Latvian language was banned in schools and the German nobility was allowed to retain their existing privileges and soon rose to dominate the social order. Angered by this Latvian youth, infused with a fervent sense of nationalism began the first national movement (was called New Current) and the idea of a united Latvia was born.

It reached new heights by the early 1900’s. Demonstrators took to the streets of Riga in 1905. Russian troops opened fire killing 73 and wounding more than 200 people. Close to 3000 Latvians were exiled to Siberia and the uprising was crushed.

On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia and Latvia who shared a border with Germany was almost immediately dragged into the war. During this time the idea of Latvian statehood emerged and the Latvian freedom struggle began. Germany lost the war and Chaos ensued. Both German and Russian empires collapsed and amidst this the Latvians pushed for their independence. After a hard fought struggle, the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed in Nov 1920. The population of Latvia had fallen by almost a million, and large parts of the country were completely destroyed. The Latvians embarked on a journey to rebuild but sadly couldn’t escape the cross hairs of the Second World War. Initially, the Soviets and Germans signed a treaty which reorganized Eastern Europe into German and Russian spheres of influence and according to this pact; Latvia was placed under Soviet occupation.

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Image: Molotov–Ribbentrop pact – political map of central Europe in 1939–1940; By Peter Hanula – Own workBased on File:Ribbentrop-Molotov.PNG., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1722916

As the war progressed, the Germans and Soviets who were allies at one point were soon at war with each other and Latvia was the battlefield. The Soviets eventually won the war and annexed Latvia. Those who opposed the annexation were either imprisoned or sent into exile. Over the next 30 years the economy that had developed during the 20’s and 30’s began to crumble. The nation saw a massive influx of laborers, administrators and military personnel from Russia and soon the ethnic Latvians comprised just 52% of the total population.

Liberalization in the communist party of Russia began in mid 1980’s through policies initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev and the Latvians pushed for their independence once more.

In one the most historic displays of solidarity, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians joined hands in a human chain that spread more than 600 kms across 3 countries on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov Ribbentrop pact. It symbolically represented the united wish of the Baltic States for independence and stunned the international community.

2 years later, the bitter struggle came to an end and Latvia gained its independence. Today, the nation is part of both NATO and EU and can boast of numerous victories in sports, art and music. Jelena Ostapenko, a 20 year old Latvian born in Riga recently won the French open tennis title, but their greatest victory will always be the freedom that they won.

 

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History

Padmavati – The Real Story

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The movie Padmavati has become the center of a controversy with some groups protesting its release. These groups have protested against cultural insensitivity and distortion of history and have even threatened the filmmakers with violence.

During the 12th century kingdoms in India were under a wave of raids from Muslim armies of Central Asia. Muhammad Ghori, began a systematic war of expansion into northern India. He sought an Islamic kingdom of his own. After his death, Qutb al-Din Aibak a slave succeeded him and established the Delhi Sultanate. This dynasty was known as the Mamluk or slave dynasty. The last ruler of this dynasty was assassinated by the Turko Afghan, Jalaluddin Khilji, a war hardened veteran who had fought numerous battles against earlier Mughal invasions. The Khalji dynasty was established and a new era of conquests began. After the death of his brother, Jalaluddin helped raise his brother’s son Allaudin. Allaudin was appointed governor of Kara and married to Sultan Jalaluddin’s daughter. In 1292, he requested the Sultans permission to attack Bhilsa and managed to bring back large loot to Delhi. As a result Jalaluddin appointed him Minister of War. While at Bhilsa, he heard of the enormous wealth of Devagiri and made up his mind to invade the Kingdom and this time plotted something even bigger. He did not inform the Sultan of his plans and returned from Devagiri carrying untold wealth more than any prior ruler of Delhi. In a well plotted move he invited his Uncle Jalaluddin to come visit him unarmed. Trusting as he was the Sultan did as he was asked. When he arrived at Allaudins camp he was assassinated and his head chopped off.

Anyone Ala ud-Din suspected of being a threat to this power was killed along with the women and children of that family. He was known for his cruelty and the atrocities committed against the kingdoms he defeated in battle. He was ruthless and unforgiving.

Among his spoils included one of the largest known diamonds in human history, the Koh-i-noor. In 1303 he reached the gates of Chittor.

A poem called the Padmavat was written in 1540 more than 200 years after the siege of Chittor, by the Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. Most historians dismiss it as a work of fiction while some consider certain parts to be true.  The movie Padmavati is believed to be based on this poem.

In the poem, Padmavati is the daughter of Gandharvsen, King of Singhal and the most beautiful woman of her time. She is close friends with a talking parrot called Hiraman who possesses immense knowledge. The King resents the closeness and orders the parrot to be killed. The parrot learns of this and flies off, leaving Padmavati in tears. He is later captured by a bird catcher and sold to the King of Chittor, Ratan Sen who is impressed by the wisdom possed by the parrot. Hiraman cannot stop praising the beauty of Padmavati the King is smitten by what he hears. Against the wishes of his wife Nagmati, he embarks on a journey to Singhal along with 16000 of his followers, in hopes of marrying Padmavati. He wins her heart and the two get married. He returns to Chittor with his new wife. In Chittor, a powerful sorcerer by the name of Raghav Chetan misuses his magic to deceive the king. The King soon finds out about this and banishes him. Raghav arrives at Delhi and gains an audience with the Sultan Allaudin Khilji. He speaks to the sultan about Padmavati’s beauty and Allaudin is enraptured. He marches his army to Chittor and demands Padmavati be handed over to him. Ratan Sen refuses and offers a tribute instead. Allaudin however is very cunning and manages to take Ratan Sen as prisoner.  During this time, Devpal , the ruler of a neighboring kingdom sends an emissary to ask for Padmavatis hand in marriage. She declines, waiting for the return of her husband. In disguise, the Rajput warriors of Chittor go to Delhi and manage to free Ratan Sen suffering huge losses in the process. When Ratan Sen returns to Chitoor, Padmavati narrates the insult she faced while he was away. Angered by this, he challenges Devpal to a duel which ends in both Kings killing each other. Meanwhile Allauddin had reached the gates of Chittor. To avoid being taken prisoner and to preserve their honor, the women of the fort including Padmavati and Nagmati set themselves ablaze. When Allaudin enters, he is faced with an empty fortress, cheated of his victory.

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The Vietnam War

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This is a tale of an ideological war that left Millions dead, the bloodstains of which remain to this day. A war that tested the resolve of so many soldiers and their families who in spite of the all odds refused to give up. A battle was fought for over 20 years and this is a tribute to the millions who perished. Our story begins in Vietnam.

 

The French a colonial power at the time began its conquest of Vietnam in the mid-19th century. The Vietnamese were no strangers to invaders. They had fought hard battles in the past against the Chinese and now took up their machetes and knives in defiance of French rule; The French had superior firepower and soon had complete control over all of Vietnam. Those who resisted were either killed or sent into exile. Children who grew up during this time resented French rule. One such child was Ho Chi Minh. A fervent sense of nationalism coursing through his veins, he was dedicated to freeing his country from foreign domination. He was exiled in 1911 and during this time built strong ties with the Soviets and the Chinese.

During the Second World War, France was captured by German forces and seizing the opportunity Japan moved in to occupy Vietnam. Many Vietnamese saw this as a better option but the Japanese hoarded grain not leaving enough for the local population. Famine struck and food was scarce. Ho Chi Minh, now sneaked back into Vietnam after more than 3 decades in exile and called out to the people to take back their food and free the country of foreign rule.  Many joined his cause and The Viet Minh emerged. They ransacked storehouses in the dead of night, looting supplies and their popularity grew. The Japanese attacked the US at Pearl Harbour.  The US largely neutral up until now, joined the war. They met with Ho Chi Minh to devise a plan to defeat the Japanese and began arming the rebellion. In 1945, the US bombed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese were on verge of defeat. The Viet Minh used this opportunity to move in and take back their country before the French had a chance to re-establish themselves. Ho Chi Minh declared the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam before a crowd of 500,000 in Hanoi. However, it wasn’t going to be this simple.

After the war a global power struggle ensued. The Soviets and Americans, once allies now began to eye one another with suspicion. Two diametrically opposed ideologies gripped the world and a cold war set in. The United States adopted a policy to contain the spread of communism across the world, viewing it as a threat to everything they stood for.

France, a US ally wanted its colony back and the US provided aid fearing that the communist Viet Minh would take over the country and soon all of South East Asia would fall as well. The intervention was supported by a majority of Americans who at the time couldn’t imagine that their government ever be wrong. As the Viet Minh grew in strength, so did the scale of American intervention.

French rule however was short lived. The political scenario changed in China when The Communists seized power in the mainland. The new Chinese government along with Russia agreed to provide weapons and training to the Viet Minh in their fight. Now equipped and their resolve strong, the Viet Minh forces handed the French a stunning military defeat on 7 May 1954, the French Union garrison surrendered. Talks were held in Geneva to decide the future of Vietnam.  It was decided that the country should be temporarily divided. French troops withdrew to the south and the Viet Minh moved to the North and its citizens given 300 days to decide where they would like to live. During this time thousands of Viet Minh secretly stayed back in the south. The division was to be temporary until elections would be held and a new government could be elected. In the South, a US backed anti-communist named Dieng established the Republic of Vietnam. The US supported the regime and American citizens flocked to the South hoping to help rebuild the nation economically and win the hearts of the Vietnamese people. The Army of South Vietnam ARVN was given huge amounts of Aid and Dieng began to crackdown strongly on anyone he feared to be communists. Thousands were imprisoned and hundreds killed without trial.  A revolutionary group was slowly forming in the south. Its main aim was to oust Diem and his foreign supporters. They were called the VietCong. Hio chi minh was concerned that after the South the Americans will look to attack the North as well. The Viet Minh began sending supplies and arms to the VietCong through a network of routes originating in the north and passing through the dense forests of Laos and Cambodia all the way to the south. The route was called the Ho Chi Minh trail.

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Le Duan a communist ally of Ho Chi Minh was gaining power in the North. He took a more aggressive stand and wanted reunification at any cost. Violence against the Diem regime went up. Across the world in Germany the Berlin wall was built by the Soviets and US president John F Keneddy was under pressure to stop the spread of communism at any cost. Tanks helicopters and berets were sent to South Vietnam in hopes of finally ending the struggle. They armed tribes, unleashed chemical weapons and even accompanied the ARVN into battle. Meanwhile, the Americans continued to believe that the government was meeting its goal of a stable anti-communist South Vietnam. ARVN forces backed by the US lost a major battle and around the same time Buddhists in South Vietnam began to protest against Diem’s rule. Monks set themselves ablaze and the US now wanted change, they backed a coup that overthrew Diem that in turn plunged the South into political instability chaos and disarray.

Millions of tons of bombs along with a chemical known as Agent Orange was sprayed along the Ho Chi Minh trail in order to cut off supplies to the VietCong, but to no avail. Vietnamese volunteers, mostly women worked tirelessly to keep the roads open and the traffic moving. General Westmoreland who was in command of US forces in Vietnam, believed that the only way to win the war was to keep fighting until a crossover point where the number of dead would be so many that the VietCong would be unable to replenish their ranks and would have no option but to surrender. The Americans were fighting in a country they did not completely understand.

The number of troops being deployed kept rising. The Johnson administration employed a “policy of minimum candor” in its dealings with the media. Military information officers sought to manage media coverage by emphasizing stories that portrayed progress in the war. Over time, this policy damaged the public trust in official pronouncements. a so-called credibility gap developed . The anti-war movement was gaining strength in the United States. People began to question whether the US should withdraw.  The anti-war movement grew increasingly popular among the counterculture and drug culture in American society and its music. Songs of peace and love were being sung.

It was clear that the U.S. was losing the war when President Richard Nixon began troop withdrawals in 1969. His plan was to build up the ARVN, so that they could take over the defense of South Vietnam. The ARVN were being badly defeated now with reduction in US troop numbers. It became clear that without American air power South Vietnam could not survive. The last remaining American ground troops were withdrawn by the end of March 1973. Once the US withdrew, the Vietcong in the north mounted major offenses ultimately captured Saigon. On 30th April 1975, the Vietcong flag was raised atop independence palace in Saigon. Ending a war in which millions lost their lives.

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History of Spain

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How did Spain – A dry, barren and impoverished land that lacked most natural advantages grow into one of the largest empires the world had ever seen? Let us understand the story of how a small nation played such a huge role in shaping the world as we know it today.

 

The Iberian Peninsula or Hispania was under Roman rule from the 2nd century B.C. and by the late 4th Century; Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Plagued with internal problems and strife the Roman Empire collapsed. The peninsula came under the rule of different tribes and by the end of the 6th century, the Visigoth tribe had occupied almost the entire region. Around the same time, Islam was spreading rapidly. With its origins in the Middle East, the religion soon gained a large following and began spreading across North Africa. Over time, the Visigothic kingdom developed its own problems. The once unified Kingdom was now fragmented and weak. Muslim armies crossed over from Africa and by 718 C.E., had conquered the entire Iberian peninsula except a small region in the North – the last pocket of resistance. The regions held by them were known as al-Andalus or Islamic Iberia. After the fall of the Umayyad caliphate, al-Andalus was fragmented into a number of minor states. For much of its history, al-Andalus existed in conflict with Christian kingdoms to the north. After the fall of the Umayyad caliphate, al-Andalus was fragmented into a number of minor states and principalities. Attacks from the Christians intensified and slowly began a gradual decline of Muslim power. The history of medieval Spain was dominated by the “Reconquista” as these wars were called. Over time, the Christian kingdoms gained more and more territory and by the 15th Century had pushed the moors to their last stronghold of Grenada.

During this time the region was divided among the Christian Crowns of Castile, Portugal and Aragon. And the Emirate of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula now surrounded by Castilian lands.

The powerful houses of Castile and Aragon were united when Isabella of Castile chose Ferdinand, heir to the Crown of Aragon as her husband. A Spain that was Castile-Aragon was now established and ruled over by husband and wife – who were bestowed with the title of the Catholic Monarchs. The crown of Castile now freed from civil war embarked on a journey of conquest within Spain and overseas.

Ferdinand and Isabella’s forces entered Granada in 1492. The City fell and with it came an end to the 780 year long Reconquista and Islamic rule in Spain.

The same year and merely 6 miles from Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to finance the voyage of Christopher Columbus. He set off into the unknown and became the first known European, since Leif Ericson, to discover the Americas. Soon Tales of riches and the legend of El Dorado spread across the Spanish Empire. Adventure in their hearts and gold on their minds, explorers set out for the new world.

Joanna, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella was married to Philip the first, son of the Holy Roman emperor – Maxmilian the First. The houses of Spain and Habsburg were united through marriage. Their son Charles would grow up to inherit a vast empire along with the title of Holy Roman Emperor. At this point, Charles was the most powerful man in Europe.

He sanctioned the conquest of the Aztec and Inca empires. Castilian conquerors called the Conquistadors signed contracts with the crown that gave them certain rights over these lands in exchange for Silver. The Indian population were enslaved, forced to work on the land. The resulting vast expansion of territory and the flows of South American silver to Castile had profound long term effects on Spain, initially giving them the the funds needed to fight wars on numerous fronts but later faced the effects of inflation that spiraled out of control. On one side was the threat of a rapidly growing Ottoman Empire and with it a renewed fear of an Islamic invasion, on the other was deteriorating relations with France. The Protestant Reformation dragged the kingdom ever more deeply into the mire of religiously charged wars and by the end of it Philip the Second, son of Charles had to declare bankruptcy. In the latter half of the 17th century, Spain went into a gradual decline, during which it surrendered several small territories to France and the Netherlands; however, it maintained and enlarged its vast overseas empire. It was the first empire on which it was said that the sun never set and laid the foundation for European colonialism.

 

 

The last Habsburg monarch Charles the second was left in charge of a declining Spanish empire. His physical and mental weakness made him unable to steer Spain out of the storm. He had no heir and other European powers feared that on his death the throne of Spain would pass on to his only relative, Philip, grandson of the French King – thus uniting two powerful empires that would completely change the balance of European power. Charles died in 1700 and as was feared, willed for Philip to succeed him. War broke out. France and Spain joined hands against the Grand Alliance of England, Portugal, Savoy, the Netherlands and Austria. After 12 long years of bitter fighting the war came to an end. Philip was recognized as King of Spain but in return had to denounce all claims to the French throne. Spain was even forced to cede parts of its European empire. The fall had begun. Europe was divided and a bigger war was coming.

Austria’s desire to recover Silesia from the Prussians led to War that saw Europe now divided into 2 coalitions. Fighting spread across the world to their European colonies as well. Britain won the war and soon emerged as the world’s leading colonial power, having gained a number of new territories. France ceded all of its territory in mainland North America while Spain was forced to cede Florida.

Coming out of the war, France was hugely in debt and in order to restore its financial health looked to tax the local population. This led to the French Revolution under Napoleon the First, who overthrew the king and established a republic in its place.

Prior to this, Bourbon-ruled-Spain and Bourbon-ruled-France were allies and Spain had no reason to fear a French invasion. Its only serious enemy was Britain, which had a powerful navy; Spain therefore concentrated maximum of its resources on its navy. The French Revolution overthrew the Bourbons and subsequently Napoleon assumed the role of dictator. On one side was a threat of Napoleonic invasion and on the other was growing British power.  Britain had managed to isolate Spain from its colonies in the Americas to a large extent. Trade was handled by American and Dutch traders and as a result the colonies had achieved economic independence from Spain and even set up temporary governments.

Charles abdicated the thrown in 1808 passing on the crown to his son Ferdinand the 7th. During this time, Napoleon wished to isolate Britain economically, and due to the ever changing stand of Spain, sometimes in support of and sometimes against him, Napoleon invaded Iberia defeating the Spanish, and declaring his brother Joseph king of Spain in 1808. In a complex series of revolts the same year, Spain lost all of its North and South American colonies, except Cuba and Puerto Rico. Napoleon’s brother ruled for just 6 years until he was overthrown and Ferdinand VII was restored as King of Spain. The government, nearly bankrupt sold Florida to the USA.

In Spain, A new thought revolution was taking place during this time. The emergence of liberal thought now divided the nation. Revolts and unrest gripped a large part of the 19th century Spain. A system of “turnos” was established in Spain in which liberals and conservatives alternated in control of the government and some sort of stability was seen. During the latter half of the 19th century, close to 90% of Cuba’s exports and 40% of imports were with the USA, almost 12 times that of Spain. In 1868, the Cubans began their long struggle for independence. While Spain still held political authority over Cuba, economic authority had shifted to the U.S.A. The year was 1898. The U.S. had important economic interests that were being harmed by more than 30 years of conflict in Cuba and repeated talks with Spain failed. This was the era of yellow journalism in the USA that pushed the government to support the revolutionaries and go to war with Spain. America won the war and Cuba declared its independence. Spain was even forced to sell the Philippine to the US and to relinquish all claims to the last remnants of its once massive empire.

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