In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), one of the two or three largest school districts in the United States, this Thursday, September 25th, was a school holiday.  Some weeks ago, in studying the 2014-15 school calendar so that, as a parent of two teenage children who attend two different schools in the LAUSD school district, I could be better prepared in planning my children’s schedules and my own, I noticed that September 25th was listed as a holiday and described as “an unassigned day”.  The calendar doesn’t explain what an “unassigned day” means; and I wondered what the occasion might be for a school holiday.  Apart from the long winter recess, which of course revolves around Christmas, and the spring recess, LAUSD’s holidays generally follow the pattern found in the rest of the country, and the holidays are meant to mark significant milestones in the country’s history or celebrate the lives of notable individuals, such as Martin Luther King Jr—though, of course, the King holiday is of comparatively recent vintage, and aroused enormous resentment among those who were hostile to him or thought that far more eminent (white) Americans had not been similarly honored.  In California, though apparently not in most of the nation, Cesar Chavez is dignified (as indeed he should be) with a holiday:  the LAUSD school calendar lists April 6th as an “unassigned day”, but a note explains that the holiday is meant to mark the observance of Cesar Chavez’s birthday.  The United States also observes, rather strangely, President’s Day:  if the intent here was to celebrate the founding fathers who rose to the office of the President, or “great” American presidents, such as those figures—Jefferson, Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln—who have been conferred immortality at Mt. Rushmore, one can imagine many Americans nodding their head in assent.  President’s Day in actuality marks the birthday of George Washington, but not every state celebrates it as Washington’s birthday; indeed, there is the tacit recognition, signified by the designation of “President’s Holiday”, that every American president is to be felicitated.  But why should that be so?  Are Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Martin van Buren—assuming that anyone remembers him at all—Jimmy Carter, and George Bush to be equally honored?  Should war-mongers among the presidents be honored or rather pitied, critiqued, and ostracized?



This is all by way of saying that a good deal can be inferred about a country from its holidays.  That much should be obvious, once we set our minds to thinking about little things like these; though it is these little and often unremarked upon things that reveal far more about a nation than the more common representations that a country encourages and engenders about itself.  The world observes Labor Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, on May 1st—but, as is commonly known, in the United States Labor Day is observed on the first Monday of September.  One might explain this away as yet another instance of American exceptionalism, as yet one more illustration of some insatiable need on the part of the United States to signify its difference from others and proclaim itself as the last great hope of humankind.  Just about the only other country where Labor Day is similarly celebrated in September is Canada, but this is barely surprising:  notwithstanding its pretensions at being a ‘softer’ state than its neighbor to the south, more humane and sensitive to the considerations of common people, Canada is clearly incapable of having any independent policy and has slavishly accepted the American lead in most affairs of life.  (Yes, I am aware that Canada has nationalized health care.)  We need not be detained here by the history of how it transpired that the United States came to observe Labor Day in September:  suffice to say that a certain American president, Grover Cleveland, was alarmed at the proximity of Labor Day (May 1) to the commemoration of the Haymarket riot (May 4), and wanted to ensure that celebrations of Labor Day would not furnish a pretext to remember the communists and anarchists who, it was argued, precipitated the Haymarket riot.



For the present, however, I am rather more animated by how Thursday, September 25th, became a school holiday in Los Angeles—an “unassigned day”, though most other holidays are known by their proper names, such as Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, and so on.  (Schools in the Los Angeles school district are shut down for the entire week of Thanksgiving; the first three days of that week are also marked as “unassigned days”, though it is understood that they are appended to Thanksgiving Day and form part of a week-long recess.)  I am also struck by what appears to be a wholly unrelated fact, but on reflection helped me unravel this puzzle.  The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where I have been teaching for two decades, is commencing the fall quarter rather late.  The fall quarter always begins on a Thursday, since later in the quarter Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday; this ensures that there are ten complete weeks of instruction.  Ordinarily, classes commence in the last week of September; this year, fall quarter instruction begins on Thursday, October 2nd.  As in almost any other major American university, the Jewish element is disproportionately reflected in faculty ranks; indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that in some departments, whether at UCLA, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, and other like institutions, Jewish faculty predominate.  (Thankfully, the American university is one institution where Jews could go about doing their work relatively unhindered, though this is scarcely to say that the university has always been free of anti-Semitism or that Jews did not have to struggle against all odds to find a hospitable home.)  And it is surely no coincidence that the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, this year falls on Thursday, September 25th.


In poring through the LAUSD calendar for 2014-15, it becomes palpably clear that only the adherents of Christianity are openly permitted their holidays.  Nothing in the school calendar confers similar recognition upon Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Taoists, and so on; much the same can be said for the UCLA academic calendar.  The Buddha’s birthday, Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali:  none of these auspicious days is given the recognition that is conferred upon many of the principal holy days in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Never mind the fact that universities such as UCLA are increasingly greedy for foreign undergraduate students, many of them Hindus and Muslims, since they furnish the dollars that help universities maintain their bloated administrations.  The Hindu can have his holy cows just as long as the cash cows make their way to America and its “world-class” universities.  We are accustomed to much noise about the greatness of America as a multicultural nation, and one is almost nauseated by the constant and rather pious sermons about the need to value “diversity”.  If Hermann Goring wanted to reach for his gun whenever he heard the word ‘culture’, I am tempted to reach for Shiva’s trident whenever I hear the word ‘diversity’.  There was never any doubt that the United States has been and remains a resolutely Christian nation; nevertheless, it is critical to inquire why, and that too in a state which describes itself as the vanguard of progressive thinking and liberal attitudes, the academic calendar reinforces the notion that we all live under the Christian dispensation.  In religious matters, it seems, there is to be little or no diversity, and certainly no parity among the religions.


Having said this, the question about “the unassigned day”, which turns out to be the Jewish New Year, remains to be resolved.  Why isn’t the day simply declared a Jewish holiday?  Does this subterfuge arise from the fear that if Jews are openly permitted their holidays, the practitioners of at least some of the other ‘world religions’ will have to be allowed similar concessions?  On the other hand, the idea that Jewish people might remain unrecognized is altogether impermissible in American society.  The Jewish presence in Los Angeles is considerable; in certain sectors of American society, among them higher education and the film industry, the Jewish element is all but indispensable.  Then there is the consideration, to which I have already alluded, that the Judeo-Christian tradition is commonly viewed as the bedrock of American society:  if that is the case, it becomes perforce necessary, and critically vital to any conception of American politics, that Jewish customs and traditions be acknowledged and given their just due.  Yet, to complicate matters further, a latent hostility to Judaism and to Jews is inextricably part of the Christian inheritance, and there is a tacit compact which underscores the idea that the Jew in America should never be altogether visible.  Here, as has so often been the case before, the liminal status of the Jew—thus the “unassigned day”—is once again reaffirmed.


Religious Holidays at Pacific University

Religious Holidays at Pacific University

There have been, and continue to be, societies where religious pluralism is understood differently.  In my previous blog, in reviewing a book on Iraq under sanctions, I was struck by the authors’ claim, which is substantiated by other accounts, that in Iraq each religious community was permitted its paid religious holidays before the commencement of the Gulf War.  To admit this much does not diminish the other horrors of living under a dictatorship.  India is scarcely without its problems, and no one could say that religious minorities have not experienced discrimination; but it is nonetheless an unimpeachable fact that Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs are all recognized by the state and that the religious holiday calendar has some space for each community.  The notion that the founding fathers of the United States were deeply committed to the separation of church and state, and that this principle has ever since guided American society, is part of American ‘common sense’ and rarely questioned.  It is this cunning of reason, this fundamental dishonesty, which mars America’s engagement with the question of religious pluralism.






[A review article on Abdul-Haq Al-Ani and Tarik Al-Ani, Genocide in IraqThe Case Against the UN Security Council and Member States (Atlanta:  Clarity Press, Inc., 2012); 258 pp.]



Since sanctions have assumed a critical place over the last few years in the foreign policy of the United States and its dutiful allies, with consequences that have often been chilling and ominous, it becomes imperative to understand how sanctions came to be deployed as a blunt instrument of terror and domination in our times.  With the formation of the United Nations in 1945, and the resolution taken by member states to attempt to resolve conflicts between themselves through means other than war, sanctions were bound to assume an important place in the international regime of governance.  It was in 1959 that Albert Luthuli, then President of the African National Congress, implored the international community to impose comprehensive sanctions against South Africa and so “precipitate the end of the hateful system of apartheid.” Three years later, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of the economic boycott of South Africa, but as Britain, the United States, West Germany, and Japan, which between them accounted for by far the greater portion of South Africa’s exports and imports, chose to remain indifferent to resolutions expressing the general will of the rest of the world, sanctions against South Africa did not then come into force.


The General Assembly, repeatedly drawing the attention of the Security Council to the threat posed by South Africa to international peace and security, insisted that action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter was “essential in order to solve the problem of apartheid and that universally applied economic sanctions were the only means of achieving a peaceful solution.”  Under the terms of articles 41-42 of this chapter, only the Security Council has the power to impose mandatory sanctions, and attempts to render South Africa compliant were vetoed by the three Western nations that are permanent members of the Security Council.  However, the tide of international opinion could not altogether be resisted, and in 1977 an arms embargo against South Africa was mandated.  In 1993, the African National Congress, which was then almost on the verge of officially acquiring power, pleaded with the world community to remove the sanctions against South Africa and restore it to a respectable place in the community of nations.


These few nuggets on the history of sanctions suffice as a prelude to the understanding of how the most draconian regime of sanctions ever imposed upon a nation led to its devastation.  Abdul-Haq Al-Ani & Tarik Al-Ani’s Genocide in Iraq, published by the small and independent Atlanta-based Clarity Press, presents a severe but cogently argued and well-documented indictment of the United Nations Security Council, the principal vehicle through which the United States, the rogue-in-chief of all nation-states, effected the wholesale destruction of Iraq.  The authors of this book—Abdul-Haq is an Iraqi-born, British-trained barrister who holds a doctorate in electronics engineering as well as one in international law, while Tarik Al-Ani is an architect, translator, and independent researcher who makes his home in Finland—mince no words in either describing the outcome of the sanctions or the inability of people to understand the implications of what transpired during the course of a decade.  “Imposing sanctions on Iraq”, they state in their conclusion, “was one of the most heinous of crimes committed in the 20th century.  Yet it has received little attention in the Anglo-American world.  Despite the calamitous destruction resulting from the sanctions, no serious attempts by legal professionals, academics or philosophers have been undertaken to address the full scope of the immorality and illegality of such a criminal and unprecedented mass punishment” (p. 222).

Poster on the genocidal impact of sanctiosn at an anti-war demonstration.

Poster on the genocidal impact of sanctiosn at an anti-war demonstration.


No one doubted that after Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, it was incumbent upon the so-called ‘world community’ to show its strong disapproval of Saddam Hussein’s irredentist designs by enforcing comprehensive sanctions against Iraq.  This was accomplished by Resolution 661 of the UN Security Council, which urged all member states to adhere to a strict embargo on all exports from, and imports to, Iraq.  The resolution exempted from the embargo “supplies intended strictly for medical purposes, and in humanitarian circumstances, foodstuffs.” Another committee of the Security Council, known as the Sanctions Committee, was set up to ensure that there would be compliance with the resolution, and to report its observations and recommendations to the Security Council (pp. 196-214).


Before sanctions were first enforced in the late summer of 1990, Iraq unquestionably had among the highest standards of living in the Arab world, a flourishing and prosperous middle class, and a formidable social welfare system that provided enviable material security to ordinary citizens. The economists Jean Dreze and Haris Gazdar noted that the “government of Iraq has a long record of active involvement in health care, education, food distribution, social security and related fields.  Notable achievements in these fields include free public health care for all, free education at all levels, food distribution at highly subsidized prices, and income support to ‘destitute’ households . . .” One of the more significant contributions of Genocide in Iraq is not merely to reaffirm the views of knowledgeable observers of Iraqi society, but also to offer a more sustained account of the achievements of the Ba’athist regime under Saddam Hussein. Chapters 3 & 4, on the economic development of Iraq, and “the progressive social policies” of the Ba’ath regime, ought to be nothing less than a revelation, particularly to those in the United States and Britain who allowed themselves to be led like sheep into believing that Iraq was nothing but a backward state full of hateful Muslims led by a blood-thirsty dictator, detailing as they do the strides made by Iraq in attempting to give a greater number of its people the benefits of a reasonably advanced social welfare state—an accomplishment all the more remarkable considering that Hussein was doubtless a brutal ruler who did not hesitate an iota to send to their death those politicians, activists, army men, public figures and opponents who might even remotely be construed as a threat to his own political survival and well-being.


According to the authors, the transformation sought by the regime was such as would confer the “benefits of development” upon “workers, peasants and other poorer classes” (p. 97); if this is at all true, that is certainly far more than what the United States attempts to do for its working class population.  “Prior to the 1990 Gulf War,” the authors state, “93% of Iraqis had access to health care and safe water.  Education was free, calorie availability was 120% of actual requirements, and GNP per capita was more than double its 1976 value” (p. 97).  The book is rich in empirical data:  we learn, for example, that between 1960 and 1990 the infant mortality rate diminished from 117 to 40 while the under-5 mortality declined from 170 to 50 (p. 108), just as the number of doctors grew by over 500% from 2145 in 1968 to 13621 in 1990 (p. 110).  Impressive as are these achievements, a testimony to the Ba’athist government’s progressive social policies, it is the authors’ delineation of a multicultural society that commands even greater attention and will certainly invite outright skepticism from the critics of Saddam Hussein who were pushing for war.  The authors argue that “up until the 2003 invasion, Iraq had been a very tolerant society with very responsible policies on religious freedom.  People grew up in mixed neighborhoods with no segregation between sects or religions” (p. 100).  They describe growing up in neighborhoods where Muslims, Christians, and Jews “lived side by side without any problem”; and each religious community was permitted its paid religious holidays, a privilege that is not conferred on Muslims in predominantly Christians nations such as the US, UK, and Germany.  Though it is simply assumed by most people that religious minorities have always faced persecution in Iraq, leading to their migration and diminished numbers, the authors point out that Iraq’s Christian population grew from around 149,000 in 1947, or about 3.7% percent of the population according to census figures, to about 1 million in 1987, or close to 5% of the population (p. 103).

Cartoon by Mike Flugennock, 18 August 2007.  Source:  http://sinkers.org/stage/?m=200708

Cartoon by Mike Flugennock, 18 August 2007. Source: http://sinkers.org/stage/?m=200708


A campaign of sustained bombing, and seven years of the most severe sanctions ever inflicted against any nation, were to relegate Iraq, in the words of an official UN fact-finding team, to the “pre-industrial” age.  [United Nations, Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights.  Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. “Forth-third session:  Summary Record of the 10th Meeting.” E/CN.4/Sub.2/1991/SR.10 (20 August 1991), 10.]  Insofar as socio-economic indicators are reliable criteria, Iraq joined the ranks of the under-developed nations and become economically regressive: as oil revenues shrunk dramatically, the little that remained of its decimated infrastructure after the bombing fell to pieces.   Iraq would soon have the highest rates in the world of maternal and infant mortality, and correspondingly the fewest number of hospital beds; an astronomical increase in diseases and mental illnesses was documented, and malnutrition, which had all but disappeared from Iraq before 1990, was estimated to have affected the majority of Iraqis by 1995. A report released in 1997 by UNICEF described 1 million children in Iraq under the age of 5 as being chronically malnourished, a condition that leads not only to stunted physical growth but considerably reduced capacity for development and education, and it ominously adds the following words:  “Chronic malnutrition is difficult to reverse after the child reaches 2-3 years of age.”  One year after sanctions first went into effect, the real monthly earnings for unskilled laborers in Iraq had declined by nearly 95%, and were lower than the earnings for unskilled agricultural laborers in India, where levels of poverty are endemic.

Infant and Under-5 Mortality Rates in Iraq,  1979-99

Infant and Under-5 Mortality Rates in Iraq,


Severe as were the sanctions, they scarcely made a dent in the public imagination.  There can be no more notorious sign of this indifference than the remarks of the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who when asked whether the sanctions could be justified in view of the mass starvation and death of Iraqi children, replied without a moment’s hesitation:  “We think the price is worth it.”  (Of course this notoriety surrounding Albright did not prevent her from receiving the usual accolades from the establishment.)  Some scholars take the view that the sanctions policy of the United States cannot be impugned, since it is conducted under the rubric of the Security Council; if this is the case, then it becomes incumbent to conduct a close examination of the human rights implications of the sanctions policy of the Security Council.  This is the other signal contribution of Abdul-Haq Al-Ani and Tarik Al-Ani’s book:  its subtitle, “The Case Against the UN Security Council and Member States”, hints at the boldness of the argument, since the authors are quite certain that the Security Council, which ought to act strenuously to prevent genocide, became the agent for the genocidal destruction of a people and their nation.  Their argument, however, would have derived yet greater force if they had considered that, rather ironically, another (and far more widely representative) body of the United Nations, namely the General Assembly, would draw attention to the “Security Council’s greatly increased use of this instrument”, and to “a number of [attendant] difficulties, relating especially to the objectives of sanctions, the monitoring of their application and impact, and their unintended effects.”  The General Assembly was to recall the “legal basis” of “sanctions”, which are described in Article 41 of the UN Charter as “measures not involving the use of armed force in order to maintain or restore international peace and security”, in order to “underline that the purpose of sanctions is to modify the behavior of a party that is threatening the international peace and security and not to punish or otherwise exact retributions.”


In making a representation before the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1991, the non-governmental International Progress Organization made the more forceful point that “the continuation of the sanctions policy implemented through the United Nations Security Council” constituted a “grave and systematic violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms” of the entire population of Iraq, who were being denied even the most basic right, the right to life.  The figure often mentioned to indicate the number of Iraqis killed since the imposition of sanctions is about one million between 1991-95 alone; the respected British medical journal, Lancet, gave a figure of 567,000 children who had died as a consequence of sanctions by 1995, while UNICEF estimated that 500,000 children had been killed on account of sanctions and the collateral effects of war.


Sanctions constitute a form of nearly invisible death, and ought to alert us to the fact that oppression in our times is increasingly masked.  We associate war with death and violence, but sanctions with human rights and non-violence:  as the former United States ambassador to the UN, Thomas Pickering, put it in a Security Council debate, “sanctions are measured, precise and limited.  They are a multilateral, non-violent and peaceful response to violent and brutal acts.” [United Nations, Security Council, “Provisional Verbatim Record of the Three Thousand and Sixty-Third Meeting.”  S/PV.3063 (31 March 1992), 67.] This is, to put it mildly, a perverse, even macabre, view of sanctions, and just as strikingly it displays a singular naiveté about the nature of non-violence, which is erroneously equated with the mere absence of force.  Non-violence is not only, or even, a doctrine of abstention from force:  it requires us to take active measures for peace and the well-being of all, and it is obscene to suppose that the denial of basic amenities to people, including the right to life, might be construed as a respect for human rights.


There has been little endeavor to recognize the economic oppression of an entire people as a crime against humanity, indeed as a form of terrorism.  The prospects for the international rule of law can be nothing but appalling, as the American scholar John Quigley has noted, if the United States continues to act on the presumption that multilateralism is a worthwhile enterprise only if it “can control the outcome.”  It becomes imperative, then, to ask what ought to be the place of sanctions in an international world order that purports to base itself on the principles of equity, ‘rule of law’, and democracy?  Are sanctions only viable when they have the force of moral opprobrium of a world-wide citizenry, as was evidently the case when sanctions were at long last imposed on South Africa, or should they continue to be available, as they are at present, to any modern nation-state that chooses to impose sanctions unilaterally?  There is almost nothing to warrant the belief that the wide and systematic use of sanctions will serve the dual ends of ensuring a just world order and help to make societies that are targeted by sanctions more open, just as there is compelling evidence to suggest that such wide and seriously abusive use of sanctions exacerbates political repression within targeted nations and paves the way for greater inequities between nations, eroding both the ‘rule of law’ and respect for the international system.  I have discussed the legal and political implications of sanctions in greater detail elsewhere, but readers can turn to Genocide in Iraq with immense profit to understand both how sanctions are deployed as a modern means of ‘pacification’ and to understand how crimes against humanity came to be perpetrated against an entire people without any consequences for the perpetrators of such crimes.


“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”:  so William Butler Yeats famously wrote in his much-quoted poem, “The Second Coming”.  Some in Britain, contemplating the prospects of the dissolution of the Union of England, Scotland, and Wales, effected in 1707 and modified in the twentieth-century to accommodate the Unionists in Northern Ireland who resisted the idea of an independent Ireland, are warning of the impending anarchy if a majority of Scots should cast a ballot in favor of independence in Thursday’s referendum.  The beauty of the ballot, which will ask voters, “Should Scotland be an Independent Country”, and then signal their choice with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, resides in its simplicity; and it is precisely this simplicity which is no doubt the envy of many around the world—among others, Palestinians, Kurds, Basques, Kashmiris, Nagas, Texans, even some Californians and, if we may constitute such people as a ‘nation’, the gun-toting fanatics of the National Rifle Association in the US—who would certainly like to weigh in on the question of their independence.  However, the simplicity of the Scottish referendum resides in other considerations, too:  watching developments in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, nor are these the only places where the question of secessionism and new political formations looms large, one admires the Scots for attempting to settle this question through something other than the gun.  Malcolm X might have thought the ballot little better than the bullet, and he doubtless had good reasons to do so in a country where in many places the African American could only cast his ballot at the risk of receiving a bullet in his chest, but in today’s politics too little constructive use is made of the ballot.  The Scottish referendum, if nothing else, gives one hope that American-style electoral democracy, a furious sound show signifying absolutely nothing except the lifelessness of an American politics that has been consumed in equal measure by money and sheer stupidity, is not the last word in electoral politics.

Many are the arguments that have been advanced by both the proponents and detractors of Scottish independence.  Not surprisingly, nearly all the arguments that have been encountered in mainstream media—print, digital, television, social networks—verge on the economic and what might be called the narrowly political.  England’s three major political parties, though here again there is little that any more really distinguishes them from each other, have spoken in one voice in suggesting that the dissolution of the Union will be a major blow to Scotland itself.   It has been argued that bereft of its Union with England, Scotland would experience job loss, the advantages of the British pound, and the flight of capital; as a small nation-state, it is likely to become quite invisible and would be without the benefit of the political and economic security umbrella under which it is presently sheltered.  The advocates of Scottish independence argue quite otherwise, insisting, before anything else, that the Scots must be in a position to decide their own future and political outcomes.  Scotland’s priorities, argue the proponents of independence, are poorly reflected in the constitution of the British government.  There is little appetite in Scotland, for instance, for foreign wars, and a good many people would be only too happy to be rid of the nuclear submarine base.  Scotland has 59 Members of Parliament in Westminster, but only one of those belongs to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Tory party.  On the economic front, the cheerleaders for Scottish independence have argued that Scots are much more hospitable towards the idea of a welfare state than the English, and working-class support for Scottish independence is particularly high.  The notion that revenues from the North Sea oil and natural gas fields would, in the event of independence, be used only for projects to advance the advance of the Scots is often trumpeted as the clinching argument, though it is germane to point out that the 8 billion dollars in North Sea energy revenues that the British government received in 2013 amount to about only about three percent of the Scottish economy.

If there is to be a compelling argument for Scottish independence, it must surely also emanate from the tortuous history of the Union and the brutality with which the Scots were treated by the English for the greater part of two centuries.  To suggest this is by no means to excuse the Scots from the part they played in forging the British empire; indeed, they occupied a disproportionately prominent role in Indian administration.  But it is perhaps a truism that only those who have been brutalized go on to brutalize others, and the first principle for the student of colonialism is to come to the awareness that the English did not practice in their colonies in Asia or Africa anything that they had not first tested out on their subjects in Scotland and Ireland. The story of how Europe underdeveloped its various others, not least in the British Isles and in what is called Eastern Europe—just what was “Eastern Europe” becomes amply clear from the writings of the so-called Enlightenment giants such as Voltaire, for whom “Eastern Europe” was nothing more than the point at where the allegedly savage and animal-like Slavs began to predominate in the population—need not be rehearsed at any great length at this juncture, but a few fragments of this history are essential to convey the enormity of English injustice.  Following the Jacobite uprising of 1745, an attempt by “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to win the British crown for the Stuarts, Scottish Highland clansmen, who aided in this failed attempt, had to bear the burden of callous retribution.  What the English effected in Scotland was nothing short of ethnic cleansing:  the clan system was destroy

"Last of the Clan", a painting by Thomas Faed,   c. 1865 (Kelingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow)

“Last of the Clan”, a painting by Thomas Faed, c. 1865 (Kelingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow)

ed and in various other ways the English struck at the heart of the Scottish way of life.   The tartan plaid and kilt were banned by the Act of Proscription of 1746-47—in the precise language of the act, which would not allow for any lesser penalties, the offence of wearing Highland clothing would attract “imprisonment, without bail, during the space of six months, and no longer; and being convicted of a second offence” would make the offender “liable to be transported”.  Highlanders were deprived of the right to own arms, and similarly Gaelic could no longer be taught in schools.  One might easily add to this list of persecutions, but nothing summarizes better what would become the pacification—an ugly word, which describes well how colonial powers acted with utter disregard for human life in their colonies—of the Scots than what is known to historians as the “Highland Clearances” which led to the mass-scale removal of the population of the Highlands, leaving it, wrote the popular historian John Prebble, “void of most, possibly 85-90%, of its people, trees and forests.”

Memorial Stone marking the site of the Battle of Culloden, 1746

Memorial Stone marking the site of the Battle of Culloden, 1746

In his charming but now little-read book, Two Cheers for Democracy, E. M. Forster, while championing English-style democracy over other forms of government, withheld the third cheer.  The English, he argued, had one insufferable vice:  hypocrisy.  How far this is peculiar to the English rather than a common condition afflicting a good deal of humankind is a question that need not be addressed at the moment.  Taking my cue from Forster, the argument for Scottish independence certainly deserves two cheers.  England, frankly, has not been humbled enough:  its immigration policies continue to be rotten, its visa regimes for citizens of its former colonies are not merely absurdly insulting but draconian, its disdain for the contributions of its own working class to the shaping of a humane society is appalling, and virulent racism is encountered in nearly every aspect of English life.  The nonviolent break-up of Great Britain is a most desirable thing; one hopes that if the referendum for Scottish independence succeeds, it will be eventually be a prelude to even more desirable outcomes, such as the break-up of the United States, which is far too big and powerful for its own good and certainly for the good of the rest of the world.  Secondly, no arguments are too strong for the devolution of power, the decentralization of authority, and autonomy for people who might choose their independence for ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other reasons.  There is, to put it in another language, an optimum size for a nation-state, and a great many nation-states are already far too big to both be governed efficiently and at the same time give all their people equal opportunities for their just advancement in various domains of life.  Nevertheless, there is something to be wary about in the demand for Scottish independence:  nationalism is almost always accompanied by a diminishing capacity for self-reflection.  When the Union dissolves, who will the Scot set himself or herself up against to know better his or her own self?  This is the problem that nationalism has not yet been able to resolve, and there is little to suggest that Scottish independence will yield new wisdom on this old and intractable problem.

The emptying out of the Highlands:  A pamphlet on Scottish emigration, Glasgow, 1773

The emptying out of the Highlands: A pamphlet on Scottish emigration, Glasgow, 1773


One of the many stories, based on a Sanskrit tale, that the late U R Ananthamurthy [21 December 1932 - 22 August 2014] used to tell often is    AnanthamurthyLondonBookFair2009of a cow named Punyakoti which would go out to graze in the forest in the country called Karnataka.  One evening, as the other cows made their way home, Punyakoti meandered into a particularly grassy area that was, however, the territory of a tiger.  As Arbutha was about to pounce upon the cow, Punyakoti pleaded with Arbutha that she might be allowed to go feed her calf before returning to become his dinner.  If the tiger was hungry, so was her calf; and the tiger ought to be sufficiently well-informed in dharma to know that a promise thus given would not be broken.  The tiger relents:  Punyakoti reaches home, feeds her little one, bids her farewell, and then presents herself before Arbutha.  Astounded by Punyakoti’s fidelity to truth and her capacity for sacrifice, Arbutha has a sudden change of heart and begins to undertake penance—or so states the Sanskrit original.  Recounting this popular story some years ago in an essay entitled ‘Growing up in Karnataka’, Ananthamurthy had this to say:  ‘It is the dharma of the tiger to be a flesh eater.  By a change of heart he cannot become a vegetarian.  He has no choice but to die.’  Contrary to the Sanskrit storyteller, the Kannada poet has Arbutha leap to his death:  ‘The Kannada poet is more convincing.  By a change of heart, the tiger can only die.  It is as absolute as that.’


Encapsulated in Ananthamurthy’s pithy commentary on ‘The Song of the Cow’ are many of the principal themes which shaped the literary oeuvre and worldview of an immensely gifted writer and critic whose death a week ago has robbed Kannada of its greatest voice, India of an extraordinary decent man and supple writer, and the world, which sadly knew too little of him, of a storyteller and intellectual whose fecundity of thought and robust play with ideas shames many of those who style themselves cosmopolitans.  Much has been written on the manner in which Ananthamurthy, not unlike other sensitive writers and thinkers in India (and elsewhere in the global South), negotiated the tension between the global and the local, tradition and modernity; but, as is palpable from more than a merely cursory reading of his criticism and fiction, Ananthamurthy also remained engaged throughout his life with the tension between Sanskrit and the bhashas, the marga and the desi, and what he called ‘the frontyard’ and ‘the backyard’.  Ananthamurthy completed a doctorate in English literature, taught English at a number of institutions, and was completely at home in the masterworks of Western literature; and, yet, he was profoundly rooted in Sanskritic and especially Kannada literary traditions. In reading Ananthamurthy, one is brought to an overwhelming, indeed humbling, awareness of his deep immersion in a thousand year-old tradition stretching from Pampa, Mahadeviyakka, and Allama Prabhu through the Vijayanagar-era poet and composer Purandaradasa to his contemporaries Shivarama Karanth, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Bendre, Kuvempu, Adiga, and others.  In this, as in other respects, Ananthamurthy also inhabited a world where the simultaneity ‘of the ancient, the primitive, the medieval and the modern’ was ever present, not only in social structures but ‘often in a single consciousness’.  It is doubtful that anyone among the most celebrated of our writers who have made a name for themselves as notable exponents of the English novel or what might be termed global non-fiction have anything even remotely close to the knowledge that Ananthamurthy had of Indian bhashas.  In his essay, ‘Towards the Concept of a New Nationhood’, Ananthamurthy gave it as one of his ‘pet theories’ that ‘in India, the more literate one is, the fewer languages one knows.’  In ‘the small town where I come from,’ Ananthamurthy was to write, ‘one who may not be so literate speaks Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, some Hindi, and some English.  It is these people who have kept India together, not merely those who may know only one language.’


Few Indian novels have been discussed as much as Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.  Fewer still, especially in India, are the number of creative people who have been entrusted with the care of institutions and intellectual enterprises and not left them diminished.  Ananthamurthy was not only a celebrated writer, but someone who stood at the helm of important institutions—Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, and the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune—and strengthened them.  As President of the Sahitya Akademi, he strove to ensure that all the languages under the academy’s jurisdiction received parity; moreover, he ensured the autonomy of the institution by prevailing upon the academy to reject the Haksar Committee’s recommendation that the academy’s president be appointed by the government on the advice of a search committee.  Those familiar with the Indian literary, artistic, and intellectual scene that extends well beyond the metropoles and even “provincial” capitals are more likely to remember Ananthamurthy as the principal mentor of that unique experiment which for decades has been taking place in Heggodu, Shimoga District.  Here, in the midst of areca nut plantations, the cultural organization Ninasam attracts students, workers, and villagers for a week-long annual course to discuss literature, movies, music, philosophy, and science.  Ananthamurthy unfailingly graced this gathering every year, nurturing the young and facilitating spirited conversations that lasted long into the night.


Ananthamurthy might, thus, be remembered for many different things, but nevertheless it is the categories through which he worked that mark his contribution to Indian literature and thought as distinct and enduring.  It would be a grave mistake to view him merely as staking a middle ground:  taking a leaf out of Gandhi, Ananthamurthy was quite certain that Western civilization was not good not just for India but even for the West.  Consider, for example, his literary, emotional, and intellectual investment in the idea of the sacred, though this is something that his Hindutva critics, who fancy themselves custodians of the Hindu tradition, can barely understand.   He has told the story of a painter who was traveling through villages in north India studying folk art; on one of these sojourns, he encountered a peasant from whom he learnt something bewildering:  ‘Any piece of stone on which he put kumkum became God for the peasant.’  Ananthamurthy understood well that nearly every place in India is sacred:  here Sita bathed, there Rama rested his weary body, and over there the gods dropped nectar.  But he takes the idea of the sacred much further:  place, bhasha, childhood—all these notions, so centrally a part of the worldview of Ananthamurthy, revolved around the idea of the sacred and the untranslatable.  Sacred, too, is the dharma of the writer, laid bare by Ananthamurthy in his Jnanpith Award acceptance speech:  ‘There is something wrong with us writers if we do not lose a few of our admirers with every new book that we write.  Otherwise, it may mean we are imitating ourselves . . .  We should never lose the capacity to say those things in which we believe when we are absolutely alone.’


First published in the Indian Express, 30 August 2014 (print and online).  


Gandhi and Hilter:  In Close Proximity, at the Om Bookshop, Gurgaon

Gandhi and Hilter: In Close Proximity, at the Om Bookshop, Gurgaon

A Strange Case of Doppelgangers?

A Strange Case of Doppelgangers?

Mein Kampf, which by law cannot be sold in Germany, has much more than a respectable market in India. In a country where the sale of 5,000 copies is enough to warrant a title’s inclusion in the best-seller list, it is notable that a reprint of Mein Kampf by the Indian publisher Jaico had, as of June 2010, sold over 100,000 copies in ten years. When we consider that the book is also sold on the pavement in various pirated editions, the real sales figures are bound to be much higher. London’s Daily Telegraph, in an article published on 20 April 2009, first drew attention to this phenomenon with a striking headline: “Indian business students snap up copies of Mein Kampf”. Notwithstanding anything that Sir William Jones might have said in the late 18th century on the common Aryan links between Indians and Germans, or the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg’s views on India as the ancestral home of the Aryans, Indian students appeared to have eschewed the grand historical narratives that have animated so many intellectuals for something seemingly much more pragmatic. The same articles informs its readers that sales of Mein Kampf have been soaring in India as Hitler is regarded as a “management guru”, an opinion apparently derived from conversations with several booksellers and students. The owner of Mumbai’s Embassy Books, who reprints Mein Kampf “every quarter”, explained that Indians read in the book “a kind of a success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it”. A related BBC article, which appeared a year later, quotes a 19-year old Gujarati student, “I have idolised Hitler ever since I have had a sense of history. I admire his leadership qualities and his discipline.”

Hitler’s popularity in India arises from a conjuncture of circumstances and certainly shows no sign of diminishing; indeed, I wonder if the political ascendancy of Narendra Modi, who is similarly admired, especially by the Indian middle classes, for his “leadership qualities” and authoritarian style of governance, might not make Hitler an even more attractive figure. The evening before last, on a visit to the Om Bookshop at the Ambience Mall on the Delhi-Gurgaon border, where my friend Darius Cooper was launching his collection of short stories, I was struck by the extraordinary proximity of Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Gandhi’s Autobiography on the shelves and in the display area. On one shelf, the two books were placed next to each other; closer to the cash counter, the two books were again arrayed next to each other in a display bound to catch the attention of most visitors. The salesman was luckily inclined to answer my queries: in the four years since the bookstore was established, Mein Kampf and Gandhi’s Autobiography had each sold something in the vicinity of around 500 copies at that store alone. I can’t say if I breathed a sigh of relief at being told that Gandhi had just marginally edged out Hitler—as well that he should have, considering Gandhi’s bania origins—though, as the reader shall find out shortly, this is far from being the case all over the country.

In India, and in much of the rest of the world, it has become commonplace to view Hitler as the supreme embodiment of evil in the twentieth century, just as Mohandas Gandhi is likely to be seen as the greatest instantiation of good. There are, of course, some exceedingly enlightened voices, so we are told, who would rather speak of Hitler and Gandhi as representing a strange case of doppelgangers. Slavoj Zizek, we might recall, gave it as his considered opinion that Gandhi was more evil than Hitler, and Gandhi has been much more than a source of irritation to one who extols the Gandhians with guns walking the Indian countryside and apparently creating revolution. But let us turn to the more conventional view: the cover of a fairly recent issue of Time (3 December 2007) sums up this opposition quite well: on the left side of a large sketch of the brain is a hologram showing Gandhi, and on the right side is a hologram featuring Hitler. The cover story is entitled, “What Makes Us Good/Evil”, and the caption accompanying the story states: “Humans are the planet’s most noble creatures––and its most savage. Science is discovering why.” In the land of his own birth, nevertheless, Gandhi appears to have been eclipsed by Hitler, and the comparative sales of Mein Kampf and Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, with the former outselling the latter by a margin of nearly two to one at the Crossword chain of bookstores, is only one of the telltale signs of the diminishing place of Gandhi in the country’s public life. The young who idolize Hitler’s life as a model of ‘leadership qualities’ and ‘discipline’ evidently have little knowledge of the manner in which Gandhi left his huge impress upon the anti-colonial struggle, forging a mass movement of nonviolent resistance that at times displayed an extraordinarily high level of discipline, and transforming the principal nationalist organization, the Indian National Congress, from a party of elites into a body of mass politics. Yet, if there were misgivings about Gandhi in his own lifetime, many of those have become aggravated in an India which views Gandhi as a backward-looking luddite who emasculated India and would have set the country hopelessly adrift in a nation-state system where national interest and violence reign supreme. In such a setting, Hitler’s idea of a virile nation set on a course of domination appears as an attractive alternative, even if it left Germany smoldering in ruins.

One might also suppose that it is but natural that Hitler should have a constituency in Mumbai, large chunks of which over the last few decades have been under the control of Shiv Sena, a political party comprised in good part of hoodlums who appear to have learned something about both terror tactics and racial ideologies of hate from the Nazis. However, as empirical and anecdotal experience alike suggest, copies of Mein Kampf have sold well in other parts of India, and as the BBC article noted, the more pertinent fact is perhaps that “the more well-heeled the area, the higher the sales.” The Indian middle class has been strongly inclined to view admirably countries such as Germany and Japan, the success of which, most particularly after the end of World War II left them in ruins, is held up as an example of what discipline, efficiency, and strenuous devotion to work can accomplish. Of Japan’s atrocities in the war very little is known in India, and the middle class gaze has seldom traveled beyond what is signified by the names of Sony, Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, and the like; as for Hitler, the same middle class Indians marvel at his ability to command millions, forge an extraordinary war machine, and nearly take a country humiliated at the end of World War I to the brink of victory over India’s own colonial master. I heard from more than one person, in the weeks leading up to the World Cup final, that Germany deserved to win because it had the most “efficient” machinery of football domination. Yes, there is little doubt that Hitler, too, was supremely efficient.

There is, however, an equal measure of truth and falsity in the Daily Telegraph’s assessment of “the mutual influence of India and Hitler’s Nazis on one another. Mahatma Gandhi corresponded with the Fuhrer, pro-Independence leader Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army allied with Hitler’s Germany and Japan during the Second World War, and the Nazis drew on Hindu symbolism for their Swastika motif and ideas of Aryan supremacy.” Gandhi addressed two brief letters to Hitler, urging the German leader to renounce war and take advantage of his unparalleled sway over the masses to usher in a new era of nonviolence. But by no means can this be described as a ‘correspondence’ with the Fuhrer: exercising its wartime prerogatives of censorship, the British Government of India ensured that neither letter reached the addressee. Hitler never wrote to Gandhi: under these circumstances, ‘correspondence’ seems an extraordinarily extravagant description of what transpired. On the other hand, the invocation of Subhas Chandra Bose, who commenced his political career in awe of Gandhi but came to a parting of ways with the Mahatma, may perhaps go some ways in explaining the attraction felt for Hitler among India’s youth. Bose is revered nearly as much as Gandhi, and certainly has fewer critics; lionized for his relentless opposition to British rule, which eventually led him to an opportunistic alliance with the fascists, Bose is remembered most of all for the creation of the Indian National Army. In a daring escape while he was under house arrest in Calcutta, Bose eventually made his way to Berlin where he founded the Indian Legion, comprised of Indian POWs captured in North Africa and attached initially to the Wehrmacht. Its members, significantly, were bound to an oath of allegiance which clearly establishes the nexus between Hitler and Bose: “I swear by God this holy oath that I will obey the leader of the German race and state, Adolf Hitler, as the commander of the German armed forces in the fight for India, whose leader is Subhas Chandra Bose.” It is an equally telling fact that Hitler had little interest in granting Bose an audience, only agreeing to a short meeting more than a year after Bose’s arrival in Berlin—a meeting at which Hitler refused to issue a statement in support of India’s independence. Fooled perhaps by the esteem in which India was held by the supreme figures of the German enlightenment, from F. Schlegel, August Wilhelm Schlegel and Goethe to W. von Humboldt and Herder, and fooled too perhaps by his own personal affinity to Germans, one curiously shared by other supposed ‘radicals’, Bose seems to have been unable to fathom that, from the standpoint of Nazi ideologues, India was a living testament to the degeneracy to which the eastern branch of the Aryans had fallen when they failed to preserve their purity.

If the troubled relationship of a nationalist hero with the Nazis is insufficient to explain Hitler’s privileged place in the middle class Indian imagination, we may turn with greater success to the writings of Hindutva’s principal ideologues. At the annual session in 1940 of the Hindu Mahasabha, a political party founded to promote the political interests of the Hindus and advance the idea of a Hindu rashtra (nation), Savarkar, in his Presidential Address, described Nazism as “undeniably the saviour of Germany under the circumstances in which Germany was placed”. Though Savarkar’s admirers describe him as a man of great intellectual acumen, it is remarkable that his only riposte to Jawaharlal Nehru, who throughout remained a vigorous critic of both Nazism and fascism, was to argue that “Hitler knows better than Pandit Nehru what suits Germany best”: “The very fact that Germany or Italy has so wonderfully recovered and grown so powerful as never before at the touch of Nazi or Fascist magical wand is enough to prove that those political ‘isms’ were the most congenial tonics their health demanded.” M. S. Golwalkar, who presided over the RSS from 1940 to 1973 and became the chief spokesperson for the idea of a Hindu nation, was similarly moved to argue that “the other nation [besides Italy] most in the eye of the world today is Germany. The nation affords a very striking example.” That spirit which had enabled ancient German tribes to overrun Europe was once again alive in modern Germany which, building on the “traditions left by its depredatory ancestors”, had taken possession of the territory that was its by right but had, “as a result of political disputes’, been “portioned off as different countries under different states.”

Nazism was built, however, on the twin foundations of expansion and contraction: if the idea of lebensraum became the pretext for the bold acquisition of territories, Germany itself was to be purified of its noxious elements, principally the Jews but other undesirables as well, among them gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and mental retards. The treatment meted out to Jews was, from the standpoint of those desirous of forging a glorious Hindu nation, an object lesson on how Hindu India might handle its own Muslims. Much ink has been spilled on just who all were the advocates of the two-nation theory in India, though Savarkar is clearly implicated. “India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation,” he told his audience while delivering the Presidential Address to the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937; rather, “on the contrary, there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and the Moslems, in India.” These two nations, moreover, did not stand on the same footing, as the Hindu alone recognized Hindusthan as his or her pitribhu (fatherland), matribhu (motherland), and punyabhu (holyland); the Muslim, his eyes always looking beyond Hindusthan, was a rank outsider. The fate of Indian Muslims was sealed: as Golwalkar put it unequivocally, “the foreign elements in Hindusthan” had but “two courses” of action open to them, entertaining “no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race,” or they were to live “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights.” In all this, Golwalkar held up Germany as a country that might usefully be emulated by India: “Germany has also shown how impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.”

How long will we, in India, continue to place Gandhi and Hitler alongside each other?

I first heard of Nelson Mandela in 1983 when, on a five-month long trip to Australia where I was traveling as a Thomas Watson Fellow, I encountered an Australian peace activist who had the audacity, as I then thought, to mention him alongside Gandhi as a heroic figure in the fight against oppression.   There was a time, though the present generation has no awareness of this fact except as an abstraction that concerns them little, when there was no internet; and, in the Australian outback, though I hungered for more information, stunned by my interlocutor’s invocation of Mandela’s now famous speech at Rivonia, I had no recourse to a library.

Several months later, back in India, I was distracted by other thoughts and it was not until I commenced my graduate work at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1984 that Mandela once again came to my attention.  The anti-apartheid movement was then in full swing; on university campuses in the United States, the call for sanctions and divestment from corporations that traded with South Africa’s apartheid regime was loud and clear, though it is my impression that university administrations remained largely indifferent to student-led demands that universities disengage in every respect with the brutal system of apartheid.  At the University of Chicago, the public face of the anti-apartheid movement was an Indian graduate student, Sahotra Sarkar, who now holds a professorship in the philosophy of physics and biology at the University of Texas, Austin.  At the end of every rally, invariably accompanied by shouts of ‘Free Mandela’, the motley crowd of radicals and activists would raise their fists to the chorus of ‘Amandla’, the Zulu word for ‘power’ that had become the rallying cry of the African National Congress (ANC).  On one occasion, sometime around 1986, Sahotra announced a 48-hour hunger-strike in an effort to make the university administration more responsive to student demands.  A handful of supporters, myself included, joined him in a sympathetic fast.  This was my most substantive initiation into activist politics.  It will be for the historians to judge how far thousands of such actions, carried out across the world, contributed to Mandela’s release from prison, the eventual dismantling of apartheid, and the birth of a free South Africa.

Nelson Mandela gives the black power salute during a speech on 13 February 1990, two days after he was released from prison.  Photograph: AP

Nelson Mandela gives the black power salute during a speech on 13 February 1990, two days after he was released from prison. Photograph: AP

Mandela is no more; yet, as Obama put it in his public pronouncement hours after Mandela’s death, echoing the words said to have been uttered by Secretary of War Stanton upon being told of Lincoln’s assassination, ‘now he belongs to the ages’.  Still, however apposite this thought, there are many critical questions that linger on, and some are called to mind by the deafening noise with which Mandela’s life is now being celebrated even as the last vestiges of everything he stood for have disappeared from our moral compass.  Mandela himself always recognized, even if the American media with its obsessive addiction to the ‘Great Man of History’ theory is too dim-witted to allow for any such admission, that the movement was much greater than him, and that he alone was not called to sacrifice:  countless others, some named, an equal or greater number unnamed, were lost in the struggle against apartheid and its supporters, among them the so-called leaders of the Western world (nowhere more so than in the US) who continued to offer unstinting support to the white despots of South Africa. Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani, Yusuf Dadoo, Steve Biko, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo: the names—and there are many more—roll off the tongue, one after another, each incessantly engaged in a principled struggle to recover the dignity of human beings.


Nelson Mandela (left) with Walter Sisulu at Robben Island. Photo: Robben Island Museum

All this was known to me by my own reading of South African history, but I was brought to a visceral awareness of the ugly facts of apartheid—and the repertoire of creative and extraordinarily responses to such forms of dehumanization—by a chance meeting with the artist Ronald Harrison on my only visit to South Africa in 2006.  Harrison recognized Albert Luthuli, the greatest exponent of the idea of nonviolent resistance in South African history, as his political and spiritual mentor.  Harrison, who passed away virtually unheralded in 2011, has related in his memoirs that he was struck by an epiphany shortly after he embarked upon his career as an artist:  what if he were to signify the suffering of South Africa’s black people by recalling the crucifixion of Christ, rendering Luthuli as a modern-day Christ and apartheid’s ideologues, Verwoerd and Vorster, as Roman centurions, “the tormentors of Christ”?  And so came about Harrison’s painting, ‘The Black Christ’:  unable to recognize the living Christs in their midst, apartheid’s ideologues and assassins, who had already claimed the great Luthuli as one of their victims, staging his death as an ‘accident’ on the railway tracks close to his home, would go on to imprison and torture Harrison.  For thirty-five years, Harrison’s painting, which the apartheid state’s censors would not permit to be exhibited, languished in a London basement home.  Yet, when I met Harrison for the first time in 2006, he held no grudge against his oppressors:  much like Mandela, he worried that we might become akin to those we despise.  As he was to write movingly in The Black ChristA Journey to Freedom (2006), “Verwoerd had been a monster; he had been a tormentor.  But he had also been a loving husband, a caring father, someone’s friend, the beloved son of proud parents.”

Ronald Harrison, "The Black Christ," oil on canvas, 1962.  Copyright: Ronald Harrison

Ronald Harrison, “The Black Christ,” oil on canvas, 1962. Copyright: Ronald Harrison

It is, of course, these very qualities of generosity, forgiveness, and compassion that have endeared Mandela to people around the world.  It is also precisely these qualities that were never even remotely on display among the political leaders and elites of the West, when the African National Congress called for a worldwide resistance to the apartheid regime, who are now outdoing each other in their craven attempt to be viewed as being on the right side of history.  If this is the time to remember what Mandela stood for, it is also the time to remember that the United States, France, and Britain insistently, repeatedly, and unfailingly vetoed mandatory United Nations resolutions in the Security Council calling for sanctions against South Africa under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.  Many will suggest that such ‘hypocrisy’ is indisputably a part of the game of politics, but why then celebrate Mandela’s life at all?  The African National Congress was, of course, closely allied to the South African Communist Party, and Mandela remained keenly aware, to the end of his life, of the immense price paid by Dadoo, Slovo, and others stalwarts of South African communism.  It is to Mandela’s credit that he never disowned those friends and supporters who stood by him during his difficult years, among them the much reviled Fidel Castro and even Muammar Gaddafi.


Nelson Mandela with Muammar Gaddafi in 1997. Photo: AMR NABIL/AFP/Getty Images

There are, for those interested in Mandela’s life and even more so the history of the long struggle against apartheid, many questions that remain to be asked.  While Chief Luthuli, South Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in Peace (though this is commonly forgotten), and the principal architect of the ANC’s policy of boycott in 1959, offered nothing but unwavering support to Mandela, notwithstanding his own principled conviction in the power of nonviolent resistance, Mandela’s own part in having contributed to the partial evisceration of Luthuli’s legacy and even the public memory of Luthuli will no doubt be investigated in years to come.  One could also probe whether Mandela’s three-decade long term in prison had, in various ways, the effect of obfuscating his understanding of globalization. But these considerations, and many more, pale before the most pressing question that should be present to those living in the US, Britain, and France, among other countries in the global North.  Why did not these countries do more to offer support to the African National Congress and the movement of resistance to oppression?  Whatever damage apartheid did to Mandela, it surely also caused irreparable damage to the West.  There is perhaps no more glaring evidence of this than the fact that growing inequality strikes at the very root of these societies.  To take cognizance of Mandela’s life is to acknowledge that various forms of apartheid have crept into what are ostensibly free societies.

Part IV of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics

[this is the concluding part of a 4-part series; see also parts i-iii, which are the previous entries on this blog]

In the United States, Mohandas Gandhi has long been the most well recognized figure from India.  In the early 1920s, his American admirer John Haynes Holmes, an influential Unitarian Minister and pacifist whose principled opposition to violence led him to oppose American involvement in both World War I and II, thus exposing him to ridicule from the likes of Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss)—‘If we want to win’, wrote Dr. Seuss, ‘we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not.  We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left’—had already proclaimed Gandhi in a public lecture as the ‘Greatest Man in the World Today’; in another public lecture, he would speak on the ‘World Significance of Mahatma Gandhi’.  It is, of course, the American civil rights movement that again helped to make Gandhi nearly a household name in the United States, though one can also think of such supreme moments in the popular imagination as these lyrics by Cole Porter,

You’re the top!

You’re Mahatma Gandhi.

You’re the top!

You’re Napoleon Brandy.

There is an entire history, rather different from the narratives that presently circulate about Gandhi’s “relevance” or “influence”, to be written on how Gandhi has earned India immense cultural capital.  In this respect, Vivekananda presents something of a contrast:  notwithstanding the fact that Vivekananda has had his share of admirers in the West among intellectuals or those, who have always been a small minority, with an abiding interest in ‘Eastern religions’, he remains an almost entirely unknown figure to the wider non-Indian public in Europe and even the United States.  But it is no exaggeration to suggest that among people of Indian origin throughout the diaspora, and especially the United States, Vivekananda is ever so slowly supplanting Gandhi as the supreme representative of their idea of India.  For all of his status as ‘the Father of the Nation’, Gandhi has never been very attractive to those in the diasporic settings who imagine themselves as the vanguard of a resurgent and modern India.  Vivekananda is also less controversial than Gandhi:  since his writings have received much less scrutiny than those of Gandhi, he is also imagined to be a sterner critic of the caste system and more ‘universal’ in his outlook.  One cannot imagine, for instance, the kind of demonstrations around Vivekananda’s statue in Chicago that have taken place around Gandhi’s statues, such as the demonstration in progress over the last few weeks in Cerritos, a neighborhood in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, where a disaffected crowd of some a few dozen people have, quite preposterously, been describing Gandhi as ‘a friend of Hitler’ or a ‘child molester’.

There is, as well, a more recent history of the appropriation of Vivekananda by Indian organizations in the United States, a history that amply suggests the hugely iconic status that Vivekananda has come to acquire as a preeminent figure of the notion of a resurgent India.  It is no surprise that he is the patron saint of the Hindu Student Council, which rather modestly and cunningly describes itself as ‘an international youth forum providing opportunities to learn about Hindu heritage, spirituality and culture.’  The HSC is, of course, the youth division of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and it has been especially active on American campuses, serving the needs of what are sometimes called ‘heritage students’, or second- and even third-generation Indian Americans, who are keen to learn about Hinduism, ancient India, the modernity of Hinduism, and the affronts to Hindus in countries where they are a minority.  The organizational strengths of the HSC can reasonably be surmised from the fact that in 1993, on the centenary of Vivekananda’s address to the World Parliament of Religions, it held a ‘Vision 2000 Global Youth Conference’ attended by 2000 Hindu students from the US, India, and nearly 20 other foreign countries.


A Stanford HSC flyer announces an event celebrating Vivekananda in 2006.  The flyer claims that “Vivekananda is the modern face of Hinduism.”

Vivekananda is the one figure from the relatively recent Indian past who is most admired in HSC circles as someone who not only spoke for the youth of India but unabashedly suggested that India was positioned to achieve conquest over the world with its rich spiritual inheritance.   It is Vivekananda who, from the standpoint of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Students Council, successfully transformed Hinduism from an inward-looking faith to the global religion that it had once aspired to be as it spread through Thailand, Java, Bali, and Indochina.  The Hindu Student Council’s ‘Global Dharma Conference’, held at Edison, New Jersey, in 2003, was thus not only a tribute to Vivekananda’s conception of Hinduism as a global religion but an affirmation of Hinduism’s capacity to organize its devotees and take its place alongside other world religions.  The Hindu American Foundation, an organization of relatively recent vintage set up by young Indian American professionals who have been aggressive in advertising their grievances as the upholders of a faith which they claim has little visibility and respect in the US, just as they proselytize about Hinduism’s uniquely tolerant outlook towards other faiths, has been similarly enthusiastic in pushing forward Vivekananda as the ultimate icon of Hinduism’s ecumenism and uniquely spiritual dispensation.  The Foundation’s 5th Annual ‘Next Generation’ essay contest encourages young Indian American Hindus to reflect on the teachings of Vivekananda on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary, and sets them the task of commenting on a quote from Vivekananda keeping in mind that, to quote from a press release from the Foundation, ‘In a mere five word greeting of “Brothers and sisters of America,” he [Vivekananda] relayed Hinduism’s ancient teaching of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, inspiring so many in the audience and countless other Americans to live up to the dharmic understanding of pluralism and mutual respect. His teachings, like Hinduism, continue to stand the test of time and serve as an inspiration to Hindus and non-Hindus alike.’

‘This is the story of a phenomenon.’  Thus Christopher Isherwood commenced his elegant even mesmerizing biography, Ramakrishna and His Disciples.  Isherwood tells a great many stories—and tempts me to conclude with one of the many stories, largely apocryphal, that have now become part of the legend that has grown up around Vivekananda and his legacy in the United States.  In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago with a certain attraction to Sri Ramakrishna, I became a frequent visitor to the Vivekananda Center in Hyde Park.  In time I came to find out that, under the leadership of Swami Bhasyananda, land was acquired in 1968 in the township of Ganges, Michigan, and the Vivekananda Monastery and Retreat was duly established in the midst of a wonderfully bucolic setting.  Upon inquiring how Ganges had acquired its name, I was told by the residents of the Monastery that the town was founded by an early follower of Vivekananda; others mentioned to me that the disciple in question was the Governor of Michigan, and that in honor of the Indian swami he conferred Indian names on two towns, the other being Nirvana.   At that time I ceased my probe into this matter, inclined to accept the view that the story was worthy to be told to others, whatever its veracity.  In recent years, as Vivekananda’s place in the diasporic imaginary has grown tremendously, I thought it worthwhile to investigate this story further and found not a scrap of evidence to corroborate the view held by members of the Vivekananda Monastery.  Thus Walter Romig, in his reasonably authoritative Michigan Place Names, states that Ganges was settled in 1838, and so ‘named by Dr. Joseph Coates, a member of the legislature from Otsego, after the holy river of India, for reasons unknown’; of Nirvana, he says that it is ‘Buddhist for highest heaven’, and acquired its name from the great admiration that Darwin Knight, the town’s first postmaster, bore for ‘Oriental religions’.  But will this matter at all to Vivekananda’s followers and disciples in America and around the world?  Should it matter at all?  What could be more fun, after all, than to arrive in Nirvana, and then drop a few postcards to friends and family members announcing one’s arrival in (Vivekananda’s) Nirvana?

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

[The four parts were together first published, though in a much abbreviated form, in OUTLOOK, Web edition]


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