Narendra Modi and a 14th-century Delhi Sultan: A Study in Megalomania

Vinay Lal

The 14th-century Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad Tughluq, was by all accounts a stern, puritanical, and yet generous ruler, characterized above all by capriciousness and a brutal exercise of power.  Perhaps the most reliable and certainly one of the most detailed narratives of his rule comes from the hand of ibn Batuta, a Moroccan traveler who spent six years at the Sultan’s court.  Ibn Batuta observes at the outset that “this king is of all men the most addicted to the making of gifts and the shedding of blood.”  Over the next thirty pages, ibn Batuta details the gifts that the Sultan showered upon nobles but especially foreigners, following it up with gruesome accounts of the punishments he meted out to those who dared so much as to disagree with him.

An illustration from Jules Verne’s book “Découverte de la terre” (“Discovery of the Earth”)
drawn by Léon Benett. IbnBatuta is shown with his guide in Egypt. Source:  http://www.artfinder.com/work/ibn-battuta-in-egypt-hippolyte-leon-benett/

It is, however, ibn Batuta’s account of the devastation that Tughluq wrought upon Delhi, then and now a capital city, that is utterly riveting.  Its citizens, agitated by the Sultan’s bloodthirsty ways, “used to write missives reviling and insulting him,” and one day he decided by way of retaliation to lay the entire city to waste.  He issued an edict commanding all of Delhi’s residents to abandon their city and make their way to Daulatabad, a thousand miles to the south, where the Sultan proposed to set up a new capital.  Ibn Batuta writes that he dispersed his slaves throughout Delhi to ensure that everyone had complied with his order.  They dragged into the streets two men who had gone into hiding, “one of them a cripple and the other blind.”  The cripple was flung from a mangonel, and the blind man was dragged from Delhi to Daulatabad, “a distance of forty days’ journey.” Pieces of the blind man fell along the way; at journey’s end, “all of him that reached Daulatabad was his leg.” Meanwhile, in Delhi, the Sultan reportedly looked out upon the city from the roof of his palace, and seeing “neither fire nor smoke nor lamp”, exclaimed: “Now my mind is tranquil and my feelings are appeased.”  Two years later, as if in palpable demonstration of the dictum that under despotism the life, limb, and liberty of no one barring the despot is secure, Tughluq ordered everyone in Daulatabad to march back to Delhi.

Muhammad Tughluq orders his copper coins to pass for silver: caption (slightly modified) and picture from Hutchinson’s Story of the Nations (no date, published in London), sourced here: https://archive.org/details/hutchinsonsstory00londuoft [p. 171]

Present-day India has its own Muhammad Tughluq.  His name is Narendra Modi. The Indian Prime Minister is known for being obsessive about power.  He runs the country like his personal fiefdom and brooks no dissent.  His management of the coronavirus pandemic is now recognized all over the world—and even among a few in the BJP, though few dare to say as much in public—as a catastrophic dereliction of duty.  He has been disdainful of scientific expertise and there is increasing indeed overwhelming experience that warnings of the deadly second wave which has left the country reeling, the object of pity and concern everywhere in the world, were ignored by him and his ministers.  India has recorded nearly 4000 deaths for several days running and, as this is being published, the virus is making deep inroads into towns and villages.  Yet, earlier this year, Modi triumphantly announced that India had not only conquered the virus, but had quite evidently set an example for the rest of the world.

Much else binds Narendra Modi to Muhammad Tughluq.  The two rulers’ ill-begotten experiments with money come to mind.  The Sultan, always in need of revenue, had heard of the invention of paper money in China and thought he would do the same in his domains with copper.  As related by Elias Canetti in his startlingly original Crowds and Power, he had “a large number of copper coins struck, arbitrarily fixed their value at that of silver coins and ordered them to be used instead of gold and silver.”  Every house became a mint; before too long, the value of the new money fell, copper coins were worth no more than pebbles, and “the shortage of money became acute.” Modi had a similar brainwave:  in a bid to free the country of the scourge of black money, he announced to a stunned country, on the evening of 8 November 2016, that 500 and 1000 Rupee notes would immediately cease to become legal tender and could be exchanged for new banknotes.  His demonetization scheme plunged the country into chaos, creating an acute shortage of banknotes and depriving tens of millions of the poor who are dependent on a cash economy of their livelihood.  By the admission of the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s own central bank, demonetization was a colossal failure:  99.3% of the demonetized notes were returned to the banking system, showing that black money had not been removed from the economy.

Coins from the reign, 1325-1351, of Muhammad III ibn Tughluq. Top: Gold Tanka. Weight: 10.87 gm., Diameter: 22 mm., Die axis: 9 o’clock. Legend, in the name of the Abassid Caliph al-Mustakfi /Legend, including mint name Delhi. Bottom: Copper Tanka, struck to look like a silver coin and set at the same value. Weight: 9.33 gm., Diameter: 22 mm., Die axis: 10 o’clock. The mint name Tughluqpur ‘urf Tirhut is in the margin.

However, to divine the precise similarity between the Muslim Sultan Muhammad Tughluq and Modi, who seeks to turn the Republic of India into a Hindu Rashtra (Nation), we have to turn to Modi’s grand project of reshaping Delhi into an imperial capital.  Where Tughluq sought to punish the recalcitrant citizens of Delhi by evacuating the city, Modi seeks to punish the citizens of Delhi by imposing upon them a new project billed as the “Central Vista”.  At the heart of the project, which seeks to place in Delhi a new ensemble of government offices and a central secretariat, is a grand Parliament.  The project was approved in 2019 and construction commenced in January 2021.  Modi has justified the new initiative on the grounds that the 100-year old complex, particularly the Indian Parliament, is inadequate for modern times.

Central Vista Project, New Delhi: the projected addition of new imperial complex constituting the Indian Parliament and a vast block of administrative offices

The “Central Vista” project met with resounding criticism.  Many question whether there is any need for such a project, more particularly since the Indian economy is in shambles, and India more than any other major country has been economically ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.  India’s economy contracted by 9.6 percent in 2020.  The project’s estimated cost is, conservatively speaking, Rs 20,000 crore, a huge sum of money for a country whose health infrastructure has collapsed and is unable to meet the needs of 90 percent of India’s population.  Others have also objected on the grounds that the new project would severely disrupt the architectural harmony of the imperial complex that was designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker to project British power. 

Panoramic view of the Capitol Complex, New Delhi, undated photograph by A Savin. Source: https://worldarchitecture.org/article-links/eehmv/new-delhi-capitol-complex-from-edwin-lutyens-herbert-baker-on-to-bimal-patel.html
Undated photograph of the new imperial complex representing the glory of British power in India, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker.

Modi, much like the Sultans of Delhi, the Mughal Emperors, and the British, has sought to place his stamp upon India by leaving behind a grand architectural legacy in Delhi—even if it means sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of Indians.  In Delhi, the funeral pyres have been burning twenty-four hours a day; the shortage of ventilators, ambulances, hospital beds, medicine, PPE, and increasingly medical personnel is well-documented; thousands are gasping for air, with oxygen in acute supply; and the death-toll has been horrifying.  The city is yet again under protracted lockdown.  And yet, in the midst of what the established English newspaper The Guardian called “India’s descent into Covid hell”, the work on the Central Vista Project continues, day and night—if only because the workers have been, by the imperial fiat of Narendra Modi, deemed to be rendering “essential” service.  Can there be any greater mockery of human lives than to offer them as a sacrifice to nurse the ego of a man who fancies himself the ‘Supreme Leader’?

Workers at the Central Vista project site. The Economic Times from where the photograph is sourced had this headline on 7 May 2021: “SC refuses to entertain plea for hearing on PIL for halting construction in Central Vista project.


First published under the same title at ABP Live, here.

Translated into Hindi as नरेंद्र मोदी और 14वीं सदी की दिल्ली का सुल्तानः अहंकार और भ्रम के शिकार and available at ABP’s Hindi website, here.

Translated into Bengali as ব্লগ : নরেন্দ্র মোদি ও দিল্লির চতুর্দশ শতকের সুলতান : ক্ষমতা দম্ভের বিবরণ and available at ABP’s Bengali website, here.

Translated into Tamil as நரேந்திர மோடியும், 14-ஆம் நூற்றாண்டு டெல்லி சுல்தானும்.. மேலாதிக்கம் ஒரு ஆய்வு – வினய்லால் and available on the ABP Tamil website, here.

Australia and India in the Time of Covid: Racism, Colonialism, and Geopolitics

There was a time when Australia, a poor country cousin to both Britain and the United States,  was never on the minds of Indians—except when it came to the subject of cricket.  Australians have long had a reputation for being ferociously competitive in all sports and I recall from my childhood in the 1970s Indian commentators lamenting that their own sportsmen, unlike the Aussies, lacked ‘the killer instinct’. Defeating Australia on their home ground remained for Indian test cricket an objective that was only achieved thirty years after the two countries played their first test series in 1947-48.  If the first test on Australian soil was won in 1977, it took a little more than seventy years for India to win a test series in Australia.  But India’s most spectacular win might have been just months ago in January, when, much to the astonishment of Indians and Australians alike, indeed the entire cricketing world, India cast a spell at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, where Australia had been undefeated against any team in 32 years, and won the test—and the series—with three wickets to spare.

A celebration by the Indian cricket test team at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, January 2021. Source: https://www.sportskeeda.com/cricket/news-that-shows-strength-character-courage-michael-clarke-lauds-team-india-historic-series-win

That last defeat must have pinched Australia, more particularly when it utterly vanquished India in the first test match and left everyone thinking that India would be groveling in the dirt for the remainder of the series. But it cannot have pinched Australia enough to warrant the rather ugly turn of events between the two countries in recent days. It started with a headline in The Australian on April 26th, “Modi leads India out of lockdown … and into a viral apocalypse.” The Asia Correspondent, Philip Sherwell, was unsparing in his criticism of Modi, whom he took down with this acerbic observation:  “Arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis of epic proportions, critics say, as India’s crowd-loving PM basks while citizens literally suffocate.”  Sherwell voiced criticism that for some days has been heard in India and around the world:  Modi and his ministers not only willfully ignored warnings from health experts about the emergence of a second wave and new variants, but even openly encouraged mass religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela with full-page advertisements in newspapers promoting the Kumbh as a safe, clean, and Covid-free experience.  Both Modi and his Home Minister, Amit Shah, held mass election rallies in West Bengal where thousands went mask-less.  The piece goes on to offer a resounding critique of how India’s slow vaccine roll-out, the “hubris” of the Centre, the poison of nationalist politics, and the catastrophic failure of the health system have all contributed to turning the country into a Covid hell.

The Australian was scarcely alone in voicing such criticism of Modi.  Similarly harsh indictments of his gross mismanagement of the pandemic and the callousness of the state have appeared everywhere around the world.  Indeed, Sherwell’s article first appeared in The Times before being reprinted in The Australian, but it is the piece’s publication in an Australiannewspaper that appears to have provoked the Indian High Commission in Canberra into a ferocious rejoinder.  Writing to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, India’s Deputy High Commissioner deplored that the newspaper had reproduced “a completely baseless, malicious and slanderous article without bothering to check the facts”, suggesting that “the report has been written only with the sole objective of undermining the universally acclaimed approach taken by the Government of India to fight against the deadly global pandemic, at this decisive moment.”  Just two days later, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, in a virtual meeting with Indian ambassadors and high commissioners posted around the world, instructed them to counter aggressively the “one-sided” narrative in the international media that has highlighted the incompetence of the present government and Modi’s arrogance.

Mass cremations in India as the country reels under the onslaught of the coronavirus.

The subject of how Indian diplomacy has changed over the years, largely in response to the perception that India has long been a somewhat “soft” state, is critically important but must be left aside for the present.  The scathing criticism leveled against Modi in The Australian is not without justification and similarly the claim by the Indian High Commission that the response of the Indian state to the pandemic has been “universally acclaimed” seems at this juncture not merely churlish but downright disingenuous if not comical.  India seems to be the last country that anyone wants to emulate now; nor did India’s total lockdown in March 2020, on four hours’ notice to the country, strike anyone as humane.  However, Australia has stepped into the fray with, so to speak, its own rejoinder.  On Monday, a new ban on travel from India to Australia went into effect, and its provisions can only be described as draconian.  Citing the alarming increase in Covid cases in India, the spread of a new variant, and the apparent inability of the Indian government to contain Covid, the Australian government has forbidden anyone in India, including its own citizens, from traveling to Australia.  Anyone found in breach of the law faces penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $60,000 Australian dollars or nearly Rs 35 lakhs.  The country’s foreign minister, responding to criticism, pointed to the fact that 57 percent of those found positive in Australia and placed in quarantine have been arrivals from India.  She noted, “It was placing a very, very significant burden on health and medical services in states and territories.”

The travel ban is doubtless unprecedented in that it is the first time that Australia has termed it a criminal offense for its own citizens and permanent residents from returning to their country. Though the Australian government will not say so, there is every reason to believe that the Australians stranded in India are overwhelmingly of Indian origin. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought to offer a robust defence of his government, claiming that the allegations of racism are unfounded since a similar ban was imposed on people coming from China.  But this is wholly incorrect:  Australia did not make it a criminal offense for its own citizens and permanent residents to return to Australia from China.  As other critics have pointed out, no similar restriction was imposed upon Australians in the US or Britain when those countries were reeling from the onslaught of the virus. Legal experts have raised questions about the constitutional validity of such a measure.  The Australian Human Rights Commission has stated that the travel ban, accompanied by “criminal sanctions under the Biosecurity Act, raises serious human rights concerns”, and the United Nations has also said that it is gravely disturbed by such a measure.  The Australian government and its spokespersons, meanwhile, remain adamant that the travel ban and the severe restraints it imposes are not in the least racist.

In Australia, it must be said, racism is ingrained into the “Australian way of life”, present in the very pores, arteries, and lifeways of Australian society, part of the very lore of a settler colonial society born in genocide and until a century ago beholden to a “White Australia” policy.  Aboriginals were hunted by white Australians, sometimes—as in the case of the Tasmanians—into extinction, but the treatment of immigrants and now refugees has not lagged far behind.  Indians as an immigrant group as such are relatively late entrants into Australia but their numbers have grown more rapidly in the last five years than all other immigrants, barring those from Britain, jumping from 449,000 to 721,000.  They now constitute 2.6 percent of the population. In 2009-10, Melbourne earned considerable notoriety as the site of a series of vicious attacks on Indian students.  These nakedly racist attacks were widely reported in the Indian and international press; relations between the two countries plummeted; and when the government of then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd finally responded, it did so because enrollment of Indian students, who have been a windfall for the Australian higher education sector, had declined dramatically.

A collage of images from attacks on Indian students in Australia: from NDTV, source: https://www.ndtv.com/photos/news/indians-attacked-in-australia-8479#photo-103452

What is indubitably clear is that Australia is far from mending its ways.  Its notorious treatment of refugees has been the focus of some international criticism, but the insidious racism that is inherent in the structures and exchanges of everyday life is far too potent a force to be eradicated merely by multicultural education, mandates for diversity training, or the pieties of liberal thought.  Australia will have to engage in a form of rigorous self-reflection that will shake the country to the core.  While nothing, absolutely nothing, excuses Australia from its execrable conduct, it is also unequivocally clear that India continues to be vulnerable, uniquely so considering the size of its population and its vaunted ambition to be viewed as an emerging great power.  If the present ban has not elicited the kind of knee-jerk response from the Indian government that one might have expected, it is not only because the fires of Covid are burning bright and the country is preoccupied in its desperate quest for oxygen. The brute fact is that a country that has shown itself incapable of safeguarding the lives of its own citizens, on the sacred land (bhoomi) that is called “Bharat Mata”, has little or no leverage with most countries when it comes to overseas citizens of Indian origin.  A country that has little respect for its own citizens is not calculated to make an impression upon the world stage.  As long as the government remains oblivious to this indubitable fact, India is likely to remain at the receiving end of third-class treatment.

First published at ABP under the same title on 6 May 2021, here.

Modi Goes Down to Crushing Defeat in West Bengal: A Ray of Hope for India?

(First in a projected mini-series on the West Bengal Assembly Elections. For non-Indian readers or others not immersed in the nitty-gritty of Indian politics, the state assembly elections determine which party will rule the state. In the present round of assembly elections, five states went to the polls in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has wrought havoc in India in recent weeks. Far from being suspended, elections in West Bengal were held over a period of five weeks.)

The incumbent Chief Minister of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Mamata Banerjee, popularly known in Bengal as “Didi” (literally, older sister), addressing a crowd from her wheelchair.

Indian elections have seldom been pretty affairs, certainly not in the last decade, and the gargantuan scale as well of even state legislative assembly elections makes elections in most countries look like tame affairs.  However, even by the rough-and-tumble standards set by politicians and their followers in India, the just concluded elections to the West Bengal Vidhan Sabha will go down not only as one of the most keenly and even bitterly contested elections in the country’s recent history but as a sure indicator of the depth of depravity to which the BJP has sunk and the manner in which it has dragged down institutions such as the Election Commission in its naked quest for power.

However, before assessing the possible implications of the defeat of the BJP and in particular its chief stewards, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Home Minister Amit Shah, it is necessary to anticipate some of the objections that may be raised to the idea that this electoral loss is the most significant one suffered by the BJP in the last seven years.  Having captured 77 seats and 38.1% of the vote, the BJP might even have reason to feel proud.  Surely, what is most consequential is that the Congress, in West Bengal as well as in the elections fought in Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and Assam, has shown that the party is in its present state unelectable.  Similarly, it is the absolute evisceration of the CPM, which not so long ago dominated the politics of West Bengal, that must strike any observer.  The Left-Congress alliance has not won a single seat; yet, in the 2016 assembly elections, the Left won 76 seats.  So, the defender of the BJP might argue, the party’s defeat is scarcely a “crushing” blow.  The party improved its vote share from 10.2% in 2016, when it won all of three seats out of 294, to 38.1% in 2021.  Nearly all of the seats that the BJP has won have been at the expense of the Left and the Congress.

But this is of course far from being the whole picture.  The previous benchmark is not in fact the 2016 state elections but rather the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where the BJP won 40.2% of the vote.  The decline of 2% in the party’s vote share may appear insignificant, especially to the person who swears by statistics. The real story, of course, lies in the fact that Modi and Shah, whose writ does not run in much of South India, as the resounding defeat of the BJP in Tamil Nadu and Kerala confirm yet again, have long been eyeing Bengal as the last big prize in the non-Dravidian Aryavarta (broadly defined) that had been evading their clutches.  Consequently, Modi put his heart and soul into making Bengal submissive to him, and thus made it tacitly clear that the election was practically a verdict on him.  Only some days ago, while addressing a large rally, he observed with his characteristic pomp that he saw only a sea of faces around him, more faces indeed than had ever been seen at any election rally.  This remark has justly earned him notoriety around the world:  all around him, thousands have been dying on account of Covid-19 because of his government’s willful obliviousness to the pandemic.  His principal deputy, Amit Shah, had similarly prophesized that the BJP would win 200 seats.

There is still far more to this crushing defeat—a defeat that, it should be stressed, is even more so than a loss for the BJP an absolute humiliation for Modi.  Though the Election Commission as an institution must in principle be respected as a guardian of Indian democracy, Modi had rendered it into his handmaiden.  The first piece of engineering was to have the West Bengal election held in eight phases staggered over a period exceeding five weeks. This is itself unprecedented, except in a national election—and of course that alone is a sign of the fact that Modi construed the election to be as vital as the Lok Sabha elections.  The supposition was that the BJP could over weeks pour in vast sums of money and put to use its massive machinery which serves no other purpose except to win electoral battles and thereby gain an advantage over the Trinamool and other opposition parties.  And still the BJP and Modi lost.  Then various central agencies, all of them firmly in Modi’s pocket, summoned TMC leaders to answer often decade-old corruption charges, while other TMC leaders were literally purchased and seduced into defecting en masse into the BJP camp.  And still the BJP and Modi lost.  The BJP is, of course, far from being the first party in India to have exploited the communal card.  But Modi and Shah played the communal card with vengeance, showing utter contempt for Muslims and instigating Hindus to revive Hindu pride.  The Election Commission mouthed the usual pieties advising politicians to abjure from stirring communal passions and then did nothing.  And still the BJP and Modi lost.

No doubt, in the days ahead, a full autopsy of this election will be carried out by television channels, newspapers, and social media.  The anti-incumbency factor has long been viewed by the political pandits and psephologists as a key factor in Indian politics but West Bengal and Kerala show amply the futility of such predictions and the increasing irrelevance of what passes as social science wisdom.  In an election marked by obscenities—the rank appeal by the BJP to the worst communalist sentiments, the vast sum of money thrown into the elections, the BJP’s massive command over social media and its deployment of trolls whose appetite for tactics of terror and intimidation is insatiable, and, most of all, the impunity with which lives have been sacrificed while a pandemic devours the country—what also stands out is the singular fact that the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a man who knows how to win elections has been shattered.

In ancient Aryavarta, the ruler upon achieving victory let loose a horse and performed the Ashwamedha yagna.  Modi will not be performing this sacrifice, not yet; but he did let loose Covid and sacrificed tens of thousands lives so that he and Amit Shah could hold their roadshows.  What is remarkable is that it is still too early to say whether his popularity will have been considerably dented by the triple loss of Bengal, the drubbing that his image has had to endure in the international press, and the catastrophic loss of lives in the wake of his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.  Mamata Banerjee, following her victory, pronounced that ‘Bengal Saved India Today’.  But it would be a mistake to accept her verdict as anything more than a rhetorical gesture in a moment of exultation.  For one thing, it must be said loud and clear that the TMC is not much more principled than the BJP.  One hopes that one will be spared that aphorism in which Bengal has long reveled, ‘What Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow’. Whatever the veneration for ‘Didi’ in Bengal, the rest of the country would be better advised to view the outcome not as an endorsement of her but rather simply as a defeat for Modi and the BJP and the politics of relentless divisiveness. Modi will almost certainly see this as a passing phase and his followers will, to invoke an old cliché, remind the country that he may have lost a battle but is still primed to win the war.  The bitter and inescapable truth is that the country will require a new political imagination to take it out of the morass of adharma and asatya in which it is mired.  The electoral outcome in West Bengal is only that slight sliver of hope in one of the country’s darkest moments in recent history that there are perhaps better days ahead.

First published at the ABP website under the title, “Modi Goes Down to Crushing and Wholly Deserved Defeat in West Bengal”, here.

Also translated into these languages:

Hindi:

https://www.abplive.com/blog/west-bengal-election-results-2021-narendra-modi-big-loss-maybe-better-days-ahead-bjp-1909762

Bengali: 

https://bengali.abplive.com/news/wb-election-2021-pm-modi-goes-on-crushing-defeat-in-this-assembly-election-for-bengal-813017

Marathi:

https://marathi.abplive.com/blog/blog-by-vinay-lal-on-modi-goes-down-to-crushing-and-wholly-deserved-defeat-in-west-bengal-985022

Tamil:

https://tamil.abplive.com/news/india/vinay-lal-takes-on-why-bengal-victory-for-trinamool-congress-is-not-mamata-banerjee-but-due-to-amit-shah-modi-too-2566

Punjabi:

https://punjabi.abplive.com/blog/it-is-too-hasty-to-say-that-the-defeat-in-west-bengal-has-tarnished-the-image-of-prime-minister-narendra-modi-621002

Gujarati:

https://gujarati.abplive.com/blog/west-bengal-elections-results-modi-goes-down-to-crushing-and-wholly-deserved-defeat-in-west-bengal-726155

The Assassins of Gandhi’s Memory

Vinay Lal

The assassins of Gandhi’s memory are everywhere in India today.  They lurk in many of the highest offices of the land, in legislative buildings, in the alleys and byways of Indian cities, and most of all in middle-class homes where it is an article of faith to hold Gandhi responsible for the partition of India, condemn him for his purported appeasement of Muslims, dismiss him as an anti-modernizer, ridicule his unstinting and principled advocacy of nonviolence, and sneer at him for his effeminizing politics.

Statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the Indian Parliament complex, New Delhi.

Yet, it is the time of the year when the “Father of the Nation” has to be brought out from cold storage and the rituals of veneration have to be carried out, if only to show the world that prophets are not without honor in their own country.  The anniversary of his assassination on January 30 is upon the country.  On this day, year after year, powerful politicians lead the country in observing two minutes of silence on what is officially designated as “Martyr’s Day”.  There are shows of piety, visits to Rajghat by dignitaries, and some utterly forgettable homilies on peace (shanti) come forth from the mouths of those described as leaders.  Then the government promptly goes back to the task of silencing dissenters and jailing human rights activists.

In recent years, the assault on Gandhi and, correspondingly, the revival of the reputation of his assassin, Nathuram Godse, have become the new commonsense of India, where perhaps two millennia ago the Mahabharata announced ‘ahimsa paramo dharma’ (nonviolence is the greatest dharma or duty).  Just two weeks ago, a large crowd of Hindu nationalists gathered in the city of Gwalior, which sits around 200 miles south of Delhi in central India, to celebrate the inauguration of Godse Gyan Shala, a memorial library created with the intent of offering the citizens of this city ‘knowledge’ of a man now being lauded as a great Indian patriot.  The glorification of Godse, who was sent to the gallows in 1949, was for some decades confined to fringe elements who largely met in secret in the Maharashtrian city of Pune where he was born to celebrate his martyrdom.  In 1964, Gopal Godse (the assassin’s brother) and Vishnu Karkare, both of whom had been sentenced to terms of life imprisonment for their role in the conspiracy to murder Gandhi, were released from prison. A reception attended by some 200 people was held by Hindu nationalists to honor the two men where Nathuram Godse was described as a ‘desh bhakt’ (patriot).  When this matter was brought to the attention of the Indian Parliament, it created an uproar.

The resurgence of Hindu nationalism in the late 1980s, however, emboldened some to speak up on his behalf, and the number of Godse’s devotees has grown enormously since the present Hindu nationalist government came to power nearly seven years ago. In the last general election in May 2019, Pragya Thakur, a woman confined in prison on terrorism charges for several years who however poses as a Hindu holy woman, was forthright in stating that ‘Nathuram Godse desh bhakt thhe, hain, or rahenge’ (Godse ‘was, remains, and will continue to be a lover of the motherland’).  As the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for a Parliamentary seat in Bhopal, Thakur went on to win her seat handily. 

The glorification of Gandhi’s assassin evidently is a passport to political success in India.  Some may argue that Godse’s following is exaggerated:  the memorial library in Gwalior was open for but two days before public outrage compelled its closure.  But the opposite could be argued just as easily.  Pragya Thakur has a following of over 200,000 on her Twitter account, a number which would grow ten-fold overnight but for the fact that the BJP leadership must perforce, given the official view of Gandhi as the “Father of the Nation”, disavow her views on Godse as a great patriot. The indisputable fact is that the assassin’s acolytes have a large and rapidly growing social media presence.

One cannot, however, gauge how far the pendulum has swung in the direction of Gandhi’s assassin only by simple metrics or the loud noise made by his admirers.  By far the most critical consideration is that the very language of nonviolence of which Gandhi was the supreme exponent at least in modern history, has disappeared from the lexicon of everyday Indians.  Nonviolence is no longer, to use a colloquialism, part of the conversation.  The state almost everywhere is a purveyor of violence; but in India the state had come to the realization that it can outsource violence to large segments of civil society.  Thus, as many have observed, the trolls in India are especially abusive, obscene, and alarmingly violent, just as thugs who have appointed themselves vigilantes dole out violence on the streets nearly at will.  In the land of ahimsa, violence is in the air.

In his own lifetime, Gandhi had achieved such stature that his close associate and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, could simply say to foreigners:  ‘India is Gandhi.’ The supposition was that, in having wrought India’s independence largely through nonviolent resistance, Gandhi had given something that Indians could proudly claim as their achievement and that the world would be well advised to emulate.  Gandhi had to struggle valiantly to liberate the notion of nonviolence from the triple yoke of weakness, womanliness, and other worldliness to which it had been tethered.  Perhaps it should not surprise that Hindu nationalism, which offers the manna of resurgent militant masculinity to its followers, has become wholly susceptible to the idea that nonviolence is merely the weapon of the weak.

Still, as recent events have shown, the assassins of Gandhi’s memory still have some work to do in a country where the spectre of the Mahatma remains.  In December 2019, predominantly Muslim women, many of them quite elderly and some without any education, forged an extraordinary movement of nonviolent resistance to signal their opposition to multiple state measures, including the passage of legislation known as the Citizenship Amendment Act, which they construe as calculated to disenfranchise and disempower them.  The Delhi neighborhood where this resistance commenced, Shaheen Bagh, would give rise to dozens of Shaheen Baghs throughout the country.  The government found in the coronavirus pandemic three months later a pretext to shut down a movement that they were barely able to control.  Now the farmers’ movement has opened yet another and utterly absorbing chapter in India’s tryst with ahimsa.  One way to circumvent the assassins of Gandhi’s memory is, in keeping with his own thinking, to reinvent and reimagine the idea of nonviolence for our own times. There can be no greater task than this at this juncture of history.

First published by ABP at abplive.in under the same title on 30 January 2021.

Also published in these Indian languages:

in Hindi as कैसे लड़ें गांधी की स्मृतियों के हत्यारों से?

in Bengali as ব্লগ: মহাত্মা গাঁধীর ঘাতকদের স্মৃতিতে

in Marathi as गांधींच्या स्मृतींची हत्या

in Punjabi as ਕੌਣ ਹੈ ਗਾਂਧੀ ਦੀਆਂ ਯਾਦਾਂ ਦਾ ਕਾਤਲ, ਕਿਵੇਂ ਕੀਤਾ ਜਾਵੇ ਨਾਕਾਮ?

Translated into Ukranian by Anna Matesh as Убивці пам’яті Ганді

Translated into Polish by Marek Murawski and available here.

Translated into Uzbek by Sherali Niyazova and available here.

Translated into Norwegian by Lars Olden and available here.

The Impunity of White Terrorists

Vinay Lal

What transpired at the US Capitol on January 6, President-elect Joe Biden noted, amounted to “sedition”, an act not of “protest” but of “insurrection”.  He was joined in this characterization at that time by a few other Senators and since then many public commentators have endorsed this view.  Some are inclined to use somewhat softer language, deploring the shocking lawlessness and descent into anarchy.  Many other elected officials and public figures bemoan the desecration of the “temple of democracy” and still others wonder whether America can any longer boast of being “the shining city on the hill”.

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Some Thoughts and Doubts about the Chinese Century

There is but one political question in most people’s minds once one is past the pandemic:  is China poised to become in the third, or even the fourth, decade of this century the world’s supreme power? 

In an opinion piece that I published in the Indian Express some days ago and that then appeared on this blog site, I described 2020 as the “year of American reckoning”.  America’s wars overseas over the last half a century have not gone well:  though the generals complain that they were forced to fight against the communists in Vietnam with one hand tied behind their back, the brutal fact is that the Vietnamese waged a war of attrition against the Americans and with a miniscule fraction of the firepower available to their foes dealt the United States a humiliating blow—though paying dearly with their lives.  In the Middle East, there is little to show for decades of massive, incessant, and mindless American intervention except the crumbling of some dictatorships, the installation of new ones, the emergence of warlords, and the descent of traditional societies into chaos.  The trillions of dollars expended on Afghanistan do not tell a very savory story either.  And, yet, it is still possible to think of 2020 as the year when the United States truly began to unravel.  Not only did the project of bringing democracy to countries that had little or no experience of it fail dismally:  democracy in the United States itself become imperiled.  On top of that, the United States, which gloated over the thought that it was the envy of the world, has become pitiable to much of the world.  It accounts, with 350,000 deaths, for a fifth of the world’s casualty toll from the coronavirus pandemic with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and is now even experiencing difficulties in rolling out the vaccine.

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Imagining Beethoven in India

This month marks the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven.  In ordinary times, Germany, Austria, and a good part of the world beyond Europe would have been ablaze with celebrations:  as the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, a man whose reputation in some circles would be just as great, remarked: “Before the name of Beethoven, we must all bow in reverence.”  However, in India, even without the coronavirus pandemic, there would not have been much of a stir.  Beethoven’s name is by no means unknown, and India doubtless has its share of afficionados of Western classical music.  Fifty years ago, the Indian government even issued a postage stamp in his honor.  But it is an unimpeachable fact that unlike in China, Korea, and Japan, where Western classical music has over the decades gained enormous ground, there has never been anything more than a miniscule constituency in India for such music.  A few years ago the German violinist Viktoria Elisabeth Kaunzner wrote that a “performance by the Seoul Philharmonic conducted by Eliahu Inbal of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11 prompted the same kind of enthusiasm from the audience that one sees after a goal is scored at the FIFA World Championship”.  This would be unthinkable in India—even, to be quite clear about it, in Russia, Germany, or elsewhere in Europe or the United States.

Ludwig van Beethoven: undoubtedly the most famous portrait of him, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.
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The Year that America Unraveled

It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere thirty years ago, as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and what Winston Churchill had famously called the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted from eastern Europe, that commentators in the West were jubilantly pronouncing (to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) “the end of history”.  The supposition was that the entire world seemed on course to accept the idea that the liberal democracies of the West, and more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market. It mattered not a jot on their view that, precisely at this time, the US was cajoling nations into joining an international coalition designed to bring Saddam Hussein to heel and bomb Iraq, as American officials with pride and insouciance declared, “back into the stone age”.  Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for the prospects of democracy and social justice were dismissed as some pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognize the dawn of a new age of freedom.  “Muslim rage”, the phrase made popular by the likes of the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, was a variant on the idea that those who failed to recognize the supremacy of the free market economy and the rights-bearing individual as the apotheosis of the idea of human liberty were religious fanatics, troglodytes, or just under-developed.

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Politics, National Interest, and Legal Cultures at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial

A review essay on Transcultural Justice at the Tokyo TribunalThe Allied Struggle for Justice, 1946-48, ed. Kerstin von Lingen (Leiden:  Brill, 2018).

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), or the Tokyo Trial as it is more widely known, has since its very inception in May 1946 been the country cousin to the more famous, and most scholars would argue more consequential, Nuremburg Trial.  Writing in Foreign Affairs in January 1947, Henry L. Stimson, who had served as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of War between 1940-45, was unequivocal in his assessment of the Nuremberg Trial as “a landmark in the history of international law.”  Sitting in judgment on the war criminals who had taken Nazi Germany and indeed the world to the brink of destruction, the judges representing the US, USSR, Britain, and France succeeded in advancing a number of principles that would become critical in shaping the international law around war crimes, wars of aggression, crimes against humanity, and genocide.  The movement that would in time lead to the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court arose out of the deliberations at Nuremberg.

Maj.Ben Bruce Blakenley, defense counsel, addresses the court at the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Far East, Tokyo, on 14 May 1946. Source: http://mylib.nlc.cn/web/guest/djsp/picturelibrary?pictureLibrary.id=47433800F29E4EC9A363C8D2CBC23CA0
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In-Betweenness and Migrancy: A Tribute to Manglesh Dabral–Migrant, Poet, and a Quiet Rebel

Vinay Lal

The Hindi poet, Manglesh Dabral, died in New Delhi last week, felled as many others have been by COVID-19.  Dabral was a quiet, unassuming man, and, according to those who are truly conversant in Hindi poetry, quite likely among the two or three of the greatest Hindi poets of his generation.  He had a long career as a journalist, having been associated with many leading Hindi newspapers and magazines—in Bhopal, Allahabad, and Delhi—over the course of several decades, and his stewardship of the Sunday literary magazine of the newspaper Jansatta, known as Ravivari, was quite legendary.  His obituaries make note of his many distinguished contributions to Indian literature and journalism and all those need not be rehearsed here at length. Though Dabral’s poetry was translated into English and nearly a dozen other European languages, he was himself an accomplished translator into Hindi of the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, and Zbigniew Herbert among others. 

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