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Sunil Khilnani, IncarnationsIndia in 50 Lives.  London:  Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2016.  636 pp. + xvii.

“India’s history”, Sunil Khilnani argues, “is a curiously unpeopled place.  As usually told, it has dynasties, epochs, religions and castes—but not many individuals.”  The colonial scholar-administrators who governed India through the first half of the 19th century, and their largely pedestrian successors, were firmly of the opinion that the individual as such did not exist in India.  By the second half of the 19th century, colonial anthropology peopled India with “types”; in short time, India was then rendered a land of collectivities, where religion and then caste reigned supreme and the individual as an atom of being remained unknown.  That, in good measure, would become the origin of ‘communalism’.

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Statue of Aryabhata (c.476-550 CE), Indian astronmer, at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune.

Mohandas Gandhi, one of fifty individuals who sits between the pages of Khilnani’s tome, was fully aware that in writing his autobiography, he was engaged in a task that was relatively novel to the Indian scene.  He would, I suspect, have agreed that biography is another related genre at which Indians are spectacularly poor, though Khilnani seeks to rectify this shortcoming in this beautifully produced and elegantly written work which spans around 5000 years of history through fifty lives.  There is no suggestion that other lives might not have been equally interesting, pointers to India’s complex and variegated history, and Khilnani advances a number of arguments to justify his choices.  Many of India’s most compelling minds, he submits, have been compelled “to exist in splendid isolation”, and his endeavor is to put those lives into conversation with “other individuals and ideas across time and border”, though, as is often the case with Indian intellectuals, it is principally “the West” that he has in mind when he is thinking of cross-border exchanges and fertilizations.

 

There is also the more familiar argument that the omission of some well-known names allows Khilnani to rescue from obscurity some who scarcely deserved that fate.  Thus, alongside the predictable pantheon of the greats—the Buddha, Mahavira, Akbar, Adi Shankara, Guru Nanak, Gandhi, Ambedkar, to name a few—we come across a slew of characters who are little remembered today.  Among the more memorable of his cast are Chidambaram Pillai (1872-1936), a Tamilian lawyer whose Swadeshi Team Navigation Company created a sensation in nationalist circles before the British found a pretext for removing him from the political scene, and Nainsukh (1710-1784), a master of the Pahari school of miniature painting in whose work Khilnani finds ample evidence of humanity, warmth, individuality, and, most significantly, a modern sensibility.

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A Share Certificate from the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, Tuticorin, established by Chidambaram Pillai. [From the Hindu files.]

Yet more remarkable still is Malik Ambar (1548-1626), an Abyssinian slave whose journey took him from Ethiopia to Baghdad and thence to the Deccan, a journey at the same time from subjection to overlordship.  Racial prejudice, Khilnani rightfully notes, has obscured the rich history of linkages between India and Africa and the place of Africans in India’s history.

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Murtaza Nizam Shah II, ruler of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate, and Malik Ambar.

 

Khilnani rather admirably is able to do justice to his subjects in comparatively short but crisp essays.  On occasion, there are even startling insights or formulations.  He writes of Jinnah with sympathy, but the critique in the concluding paragraph could not be more forceful:  every dream of homogeneity is undercut by the fact that there is “some aspect of identity, some sect, some culture or language, that doesn’t fit”; in other words, “identity is prone to be secessionist.”  The essay on Charan Singh, whose most thorough biographer is the American political scientist Paul Brass, is against the grain:  he has been willfully forgotten, perhaps an index of the contempt in which recent governments have held the Indian peasant, but Khilnani is appreciative of his ability to command the voice of the peasants even if he is mindful of Charan Singh’s inability to speak for the landless farmer.

 

Everything in Khilnani’s charming book is reasonable—and that, perhaps, defines the limits of his imagination.  About everyone gets the same number of pages, and one could say that the king (Ashoka, to name one) and the pauper (Kabir) are treated with radical equality.  No man (or woman, though there are few and far between) is treated with reverence as such.  Criticisms of Gandhi are these days dime a dozen, but even the Buddha is reprimanded for exhibiting patriarchal values.  The principle of selection is anodyne at worst and liberal at best.  It is, after all, a mark of the liberal sensibility that one should be able to view one’s subject with warts and all, and Khilnani is scrupulous in the observance of this principle.  The accent is unquestionably on the modern:  nearly thirty of his fifty individuals, commencing with Rammohun Roy, lived in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Doubtless, modern lives are better documented, but perhaps Khilnani reveals something of his sensibility in his predilection towards the modern.  He bemoans the fact that Indian women’s lives are not well documented, but one might counter by asking why Razia Sultan, Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Lata Mangeshkar are omitted from his narrative.  There is, however, a greater problem:  if Khilnani is constrained by his sources from speaking about women, he is surely not precluded from venturing into the politics of gender, femininity, and masculinity.  There is precious little of that in Incarnations, since he lets a rather elementary even procrustean conception of women’s lives guide his treatment of gender.

 

As with an anthologist, one should perhaps not begrudge Khilnani his choices.  There is a perfectly good reason why each of those fifty Indians becomes one of Khilnani’s “Lives”, though one should not imagine that they are necessarily, in Emerson’s phrase, “representative men”.  It is not as if Kabir is representative of the nirguna bhakta while Mirabai is the preeminent voice of saguna bhakti, assuming that the vast swathe of what is called the “bhakti movement’ may be divided into these two camps.  Nevertheless, as Khilnani himself would recognize, one can be certain that much of the animated discussion of his book will revolve around his choices, and some will deplore the absence of their heroes while others will wonder why a Sheikh Abdullah is being placed in the lofty company of Gandhi or Ambedkar.

 

Rammohun, Vivekananda, Tagore, Satyajit Ray:  one can have only so much of (as someone once quipped) the still-continuing Bengal Renaissance.  If one were attempting, say, 50 American Lives, I think it quite likely that Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth would certainly have made the cut if not Michael Jordan and Jackie Robinson.  Yet, not a single sportsperson is represented in Khilnani’s Incarnations, though for two decades the hockey wizard, Dhyan Chand, made millions of Indian hearts flutter.

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Dhyan Chand, India’s “Hockey Wizard”.

P. T. Usha never won India a single Olympics medal, not even a measly bronze, yet for a decade the hopes of an entire country were invested in her.  The chest-beating that takes place in Indian middle-class homes every four years, when a country of much more than one billion finds itself possessed of a medal or two, outclassed by countries such as Belarus, Georgia, and Jamaica, points to the deep anxieties that afflict the Indian middle class.  Had Khilnani been attentive to the politics of recognition, it is quite likely that he would have come up with quite a different set of Indian lives.

[A slightly different version of this review has been published in The Indian Express, 2 April 2016, as “From Aryabhata to Vivekananda”.]

 

Recent events at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India’s premier university, are an ominous sign of the Modi Government’s relentless assault upon democracy.  The arrest, around ten days ago, of Kanhaiya Kumar, a graduate student at JNU who serves as the JNU Students Union President, on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy under Sec. 124A of the Indian Penal Code has been roundly condemned all over India.  If convicted under this colonial-era legislation, Kumar could in principle receive a sentence of life imprisonment.  The campus of this venerable institution, whose alumni feature prominently in the political, social, and intellectual life of the country, was turned for several days into a fortress with armed police at every corner.  Widespread demonstrations by faculty and students at the police crackdown led to suspension of classes and campus life remains seriously disrupted at this time.

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JNUSU President, Kanhaiya Kumar, Being Arrested by the Delhi Police.

It is not the first time that Indian democracy has been put under severe stress, but this is surely one of the gravest tests to which the country is being subjected since an emergency was imposed by then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi for 21 months commencing in mid-1975.  The present chain of events was set in motion when some students at JNU decided to hold a protest meeting on February 9 to mark the third anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri militant who was founded guilty of the attack upon the Indian Parliament in 2001 and handed a death sentence by Indian courts. Afzal Guru’s conviction was always under a cloud of suspicion.  In its 2003 judgment, the Delhi High Court implied that Guru had been tried by the court of popular opinion and found guilty, and that the court was obligated to follow “the collective conscience of the society.” The JNU students are not the only ones who have termed the hanging of Afzal Guru, carried out in Delhi’s Tihar Jail in secret, a “judicial killing”.

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Sitting in Dharna: Protests by JNU students on February 18.

At JNU’s student-organized protest, however, a number of participants were also heard chanting slogans calling for the destruction and fragmentation of India.  The campus, as is widely known, is a hotbed of politics; in recent elections for the Student Union’s post of President, the candidate representing the student organization linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which flaunts its Hindu nationalist credentials, lost to the left-affiliated student organization to which Kanhaiya Kumar belongs.  Acting upon a complaint that the JNU campus was being used to stage “anti-national” activities, the Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, issued a statement warning that “if anyone raises anti-India slogans, tries to raise questions on the country’s integrity, they will not be spared.  Strongest possible action will be taken against them.”  Within hours of the Home Minister’s pronouncement, the Delhi Police had swung into action and taken Kumar into custody.

Over-reach and lunacy, strong as these words are, do not begin to describe the tyranny that is being unleashed by a government that fears democracy.  The law on “sedition” was framed by the colonial state to repress and silence Indian nationalists, and none other than Mohandas Gandhi was put on trial in 1922 on the charge of “bringing or attempting to bring into hatred or contempt or exciting or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government by law in British India.”  Sec. 124A, as Gandhi noted ironically, was the prince of the legislative masterstrokes by which the British government sought to contain Indian nationalism.  The state in independent India has trotted out this obscene and obsolete piece of legislation from time to time to punish dissenters.  However, as the Indian Supreme Court has noted on more than one occasion, speech cannot be deemed seditious unless it is accompanied by violence, or incitement to violence.

Kanhaiya Kumar has denied that he was chanting the incendiary slogans calling for India’s destruction and thus far those engaging in sloganeering have not been identified.  Indeed, it is now reasonably certain that the videos which purport to capture the sloganeering were themselves doctored.  Be that as it may, what is most germane about Kanhiaya Kumar is that he has always openly stated that calls for India’s ruin and the fragmentation of the country must be unequivocally repudiated.  Kumar has also been captured on video making a fiery yet eloquent extempore speech where he swears by India’s constitution and denounces the attempt by the Hindu nationalists in power to impose their worldview upon all Indians.

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The oratory of Kanhaiya Kumar

 

His speech, a striking display of rhetorical skills, is a ringing critique of upper-caste domination and the oppression of the poor.  It is his unsparing indictment of the present government, rather than any so-called “anti-national” activities, that has brought down the power of the state upon him.  It is a reflection of the pathetic composition of this government that Smriti Irani, the Minister of Human Resource Development, a former actress who has barely finished high school, has under her charge the subject of education.  Since the government is incapable of an intellectual or reasoned response to criticism, it wields the power of the stick.  That has been the timeless way of bullies.

 

There is but no question that a battle is looming large between an inept and tyrannical government and those elements within civil society who are deeply committed to the idea of India as an ecumenical democracy that has a long way to go in enabling every Indian to lead an unimpeded life of dignity.  It is also worthy of note that those who are describing JNU as a bastion of Maoist politics, or a breeding ground for terrorists, and who have now branded a young man from one of India’s poorest regions as a sedition-monger, hail from political organizations that contributed not an iota to India’s own freedom struggle.  Many of the present government’s highest-level ministers and functionaries are lifelong members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh (RSS), a paramilitary organization staunchly wedded to the idea of India as a Hindu state.  The RSS was implicated in the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Gandhi on 30 January 1948 and the organization was at once banned.  It is their narrow, provincial, and bigoted conception of Indian society that Kumar has contested and his implicit call to join the struggle must be heeded if Indian democracy is not only to survive but thrive.

 

 

As the United States observes a holiday in memory of Martin Luther King, it is well to reflect on the possibilities of nonviolence today.   Whatever the difficulties that King encountered in his relentless struggle to secure equality and justice for black people, and whatever the temptations that were thrown in his way that might have led him to abandon the path that he had chosen to lead his people to the “promised land”, it is remarkable that King’s principled commitment to nonviolence never wavered through the long years of the struggle.  “From the very beginning”, he told an audience in 1957, “there was a philosophy undergirding the Montgomery boycott, the philosophy of nonviolent resistance.”  His own “pilgrimage to nonviolence” commenced, King wrote in Stride Toward Freedom (1958), with the realization that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

Over the years, even as King encountered determined resistance to his advocacy of nonviolent resistance, both among white racists and black activists who taunted him for coddling up to the white man, his faith in the efficacy of nonviolence intensified.  In his last years, he increasingly embraced the idea that nonviolence would be deployed not only against the oppression of the state, and to arouse the moral conscience of his white opponents, but also to secure greater equality and social justice for the working class in American society.  It was King’s support of the sanitation workers’ strike that brought him to Memphis where, on the eve before his assassination, he delivered the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech with the exhortation to his listeners to “give ourselves to this struggle until the end.  Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis.  We’ve got to see it through.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Ralph Abernathy

In this March 28, 1968 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of striking Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Sam Melhorn, File)

What remains of the grand idea of nonviolence?  If the twentieth century was perhaps the most violence-laden century in recorded history, a time of ‘total war’, it is befitting that the most creative responses to the brutalization of the human spirit should have also come in the twentieth century, in the shape of nonviolent movements led by Gandhi, American civil rights activists, Cesar Chavez, Chief Albert Luthuli in South Africa, and others.  But it cannot be said that the need for nonviolence has diminished, considering that large parts of the world appear to be enflamed by violence and turmoil.  Entire towns in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have been reduced to rubble, and there is every possibility that all three countries will eventually unravel and fragment.  Over 4.6 million Syrians are officially registered as refugees, but there are many other countries outside the Middle East that have been torn apart by violence, among them Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

The United States, far removed as it is from falling bombs, drone attacks, or the refugee crisis, has nonetheless seen its share of discussions about escalating violence.  Though gun shootings are now commonplace, the soul-searching has produced not a new wave of activists committed to nonviolence but rather a substantial upsurge in sales of firearms and ammunition.  What is striking about American political discourse is the ease with which so many people, not just members of the NRA, have accepted the view that they can best protect themselves and their families from random gun shootings by arming themselves to the teeth.  The other central issue around which much political mobilization has taken place, namely police violence against black people, has similarly not spurred activists to the creative use of nonviolent modes of resistance.

 

Some people will point to the “Black Lives Matter” movement to suggest that nonviolent resistance has in fact found a new lease of life.  It is not to be doubted that BLM has mobilized social media, staged marches and demonstrations, and highlighted not only police brutality but even more systemic forms of injustice and discrimination that justify the characterization of the United States as an incarceration state, especially with respect to black people.  But nonviolence, in the hands of its most famous practitioners and theorists, never meant merely the abstention from violence, nor is it encompassed solely by the embrace of tactics designed as ad-hoc gestures to meet the exigencies of a situation.  Intense nonviolence training workshops were an intrinsic and critical part of the movements that shaped the struggle for civil rights in the US.

 

One does not see, within the Black Lives Matter movement, or in the writings and public lives of contemporary African American intellectuals, anything even remotely resembling the kind of extraordinary leadership that characterized the American civil rights movement.  It is not just nostalgia that leads one to ask where are to be found the likes of King, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, or A. Philip Randolph.  The Rev. James Lawson, now 87 years old, still soldiers on and remains the stellar example of a life dedicated to the idea of nonviolence.  For him, as for King and others, nonviolence was never simply an afterthought, or something that was to be resorted to when all other options had failed.  Nonviolence was stitched into the fabric of their being.  What has become all too common now is to try out nonviolence and shelf it if it does not offer instant results or gratification, and then proclaim it a “failure”; on the other hand, it must be human ingenuity, and an enchantment with violence, which enables people to continue to resort to it even as its horrific toll mounts.  It is well to remember at this juncture, as Gandhi and King insistently repeated, that when nonviolence seems not to have succeeded, it is not because nonviolence has failed us but rather because we have failed nonviolence.

 

 

 

 

File Photo of MM Kalburgi

Former Vice-Chancellor of Hampi University, MM Kalburgi, who was shot dead at his Kalyan Nagar residence by unidentified gunmen, in Dharwad, Karnataka on 30 August 2015

A little less than six months ago, on August 30th, M M Kalburgi, described in Indian media reports as an “eminent” writer of Kannada literature, was assassinated by two unidentified young men who had the audacity to shoot him at point-blank range in his own home in the Dharwad district of Karnataka.  Given the colossal ineptitude of the police forces in India, it is no surprise that his assassins have thus far not been tracked down, though the police have put a man described as Rudra Patil on the “most wanted” list for this crime; one can never be certain that those who are apprehended, if at all that happens, will be the real culprits.

 

But let us leave aside the sordid story of Indian police-keeping for the present or the thought that India is one country where the death penalty should never be exercised, even in the “rarest of rare cases”, considering the real possibility that the wrong person will be sent to the gallows.  The assassination of Kalburgi has rightfully been denounced by all sane-minded Indians as another sign of our deeply troubled times.  The nation has been under extreme stress, the news at every turn is not merely disheartening but chilling, and hoodlums and their political patrons rule the streets.  Kalburgi was apparently a very distinguished writer, educator, and literary critic:  he served as the Vice-Chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi, and was conferred the Sahitya Akademi award in 2006 for Marga 4, a collection of his research articles.  It is as a scholar of vachana literature that he seems to earned the greatest distinction, and several scholars and commentators have speculated that his interpretation of the vachanas, and in particular his critical reading of the 12th century poet-philosopher, Basava, may have offended various members of the dominant Lingayat community for whom Basava remains a supreme figure.  If there is any truth in these claims, it is all the more deplorable that in India we have been reduced to settling intellectual differences through the barrel of the gun.

 

Kalburgi’s assassination has been viewed all across India as a sign of the growing intolerance in Indian society and the assault on reason.   Let us describe the genuinely felt expressions of shock at the cowardly murder of Kalburgi as a settled view, even if there is a tiny coterie of people who have condoned the killings and seek to impose their views through various tactics of intimidation and terrorism.  But this should not excuse us from turning to very different and critically important questions—just so long as we are clear that airing these questions should not even remotely be construed as exculpating the assassins.  Above all, before we pose any further questions about Kalburgi’s murder, let us acknowledge that the mere brute fact of the assassination is a cold and grim truth that casts a dark shadow on India.

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Bengaluru: Youth Congress members protest against the killing of Former Vice-Chancellor of Hampi University M M Kalburgi.

Nevertheless, there is this overwhelming question:  Who is Kalburgi and what do we know of him? And, as I shall dwell upon it later, what are the implications of the ritual incantation of names, even if the names in question are being invoked to condemn brutal acts and issue calls for justice?  Let us recall that Kalburgi’s murder has often been mentioned alongside the equally cowardly and deplorable assassinations of the Marathi writers and scholars, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar.  In Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, and elsewhere, similarly very little was known about Pansare and Dabholkar when their murders took place.  Upon reading the news of Kalburgi’s assassination, and then watching it being constantly replayed on television, I set out to ask some friends and acquaintances in Delhi, where I had arrived the day before his murder, if they had ever heard of Kalburgi.  The answer, in each and every case, was a resounding no.

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Govind Pansare, member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and biographer of Shivaji; attacked on February 16, 2015, and succumbed to his wounds on February 20.

Among those known to me are people who, even if they are not academics or litterateurs, are widely read and even have a passion for reading.  They are conversant with writers and social commentators—and this list is purely random—such as Meghnad Desai, Paul Krugman, and Thomas Piketty, as well as novelists such as Orhan Pamuk, J M Coetzee, and Philip Roth.  If asked about contemporary Indian writers, they can reel off the names of those who have acquired a reputation for themselves in Anglophone Indian literature—Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Neal Mukherjee, to name just a few.   The English-speaking literary class in Delhi may read some Hindi fiction every now and then, though it is not very likely; in that case, some of the contemporary writers who might elicit a bit of attention would include Geetanjli Shree, the poet Mangalesh Dabral, and the late Nirmal Verma.  However, when it comes to contemporary Indian literature in translation, the last person most of them are likely to have heard of is Rabindranath Tagore, who has been dead for a very long time.

 

Lest it should be inferred that I am putting this down to the ignorance of the educated middle-class in Delhi—and we know how much Delhi is abused as the city of philistines, as though Mumbai is just ablaze with writers and serious readers—I should state at once that I, similarly, had absolutely no knowledge of Kalburgi before I heard the news of his assassination.  Of course, I may be an example of ignorance writ large and the case might be closed at once.  But let me plead for a different reading.  I am far from being a specialist in vachana literature, though an education in the 1980s at the University of Chicago, in part under the tutelage of A K Ramanujan, introduced me to the writings of Basava and Mahadeviyakka [also known as Akka Mahadevi, c. 1130-1160).  I have since heard Ramanujan’s translations being critiqued by a few other scholars, but I am no judge of this matter; no one doubts, in any case, that Ramanujan was a brilliant scholar, translator, and literary critic, and that Speaking of Siva itself occupies a significant place in Indian literary history.    But if one knows neither Kannada nor is a specialist in vachana literature, and knows little of Kannada literature beyond, say, the late Ananathamurthy’s Samskara (also translated by Ramanujan), how likely is it that one would know of Kalburgi?

 

There is, of course, the nearly (as it seems) insurmountable problem of translation.  There are long-standing traditions of translations into French and German from English, or into French from German and vice-versa, or into English from various European languages, and the Japanese have been extraordinarily quick at translating significant literary and scholarly works, especially from European languages, into Japanese.  In India, traditions of translation have yet to take root, and of course one recognizes the complexity of the Indian linguistic scene.  Writers who have been conferred the Sahitya Akademi award are in fact more fortunate than those who have not been so honored, since the Akademi’s own mandate requires that writers whose works have won national recognition be made available in English and Indian languages.  Very little of Kalburgi’s work is available in English:  there is a play called Fall of Kalyana, released by an altogether obscure publisher in Delhi, and a collection of his translations of Basava published in Bangalore by the Basava Samiti, which is far from being a household name in most parts of India.  Try finding these translations at a bookstore in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, or Ahmedabad, or even on Flipkart—provided, of course, that one had heard of Kalburgi.  The vast majority of India’s writers who are working in Kannada, Gujarati, Tamil, Assamese, or any of the other Indian languages with enviable literary traditions remain unknown to the rest of their countrymen and women.

 

My set of reflections, however, does not intrinsically touch upon the subject of translation nor do I wish to venture into the question of whether such translations as are available are even adequate let alone of sparkling literary quality.  One consideration is that educated middle-class Indians in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, and Bangalore are far more likely to know something of the West and especially the United States than they are to know of the literary, aesthetic, and intellectual traditions of the rest of their own country.  For the Bengali bhadralok in the nineteenth century and moving into the twentieth century, one went from Calcutta to London—there was nothing beyond.  There are other cities on the horizon now, and those who can afford it in India are flocking to American universities; in many respects, however, the frame remains the same even if elements within the frame have changed and are arranged differently.  The colonization of the Indian mind has just entered another phase.

 

However, beyond all this, there is a yet more troubling question.   The reaction to Kalburgi’s assassination suggests that the aftermath of such acts is now played out as a set piece.  An assassination is just that, and so is the condemnation—and nearly everyone will argue, quite reasonably, that a condemnation of an abomination loses nothing by virtue of the fact that the condemnation is made both in ignorance and as a collective act of catharsis.  But perhaps we should pause a little to reflect on the ethical implications of such incantatory acts of denunciation.  Assuming, as also seems quite reasonable, that very few of those who joined in the denunciation of Kalburgi’s murder had even the faintest idea of who he was, other than what they had read in the papers or heard on television hours beforehand, is there at least a touch of inauthenticity in their actions?  Some will argue that authenticity is of little consequence in the face of a public emergency, but it is possible to adopt the opposite positon and suggest that authenticity matters the most precisely when the stakes are so high.  Surely, if there is a touch of inauthenticity or more, does that not compromise the action itself?  And, more significantly, is it possible to infer that inauthenticity in acts of denunciation is perceived as such by the perpetrators of assault and assassination and that it viewed as a provocation to greater acts of infamy?  Does the inauthentic diminish the prospects of a dialogue?  Surely we do not believe that bringing the perpetrators to justice, and let us hope for such an outcome, will clear the poisonous air?  It is not only the assassinations and lynchings that have rocked India, but even those responses that we deem to be enlightened and marks of progressive thinking, that open up deeply troubling questions about who we are as a people and the future of the nation.

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Protest at Kollam against the murder of Professor Kalburgi.

*No Room for the Muslim

Part III of “The Implications of American Islamophobia” (concluded)

The short history offered in the previous post of attempts to exclude those viewed in mainstream American society, or by a considerable majority of Americans, as ‘undesirables’ tempts one to conclude that xenophobia is intrinsic to American history, and that the fear, suspicion, and hatred of the Muslim is only the latest instantiation of an inability to live with the Other.  However, such a conclusion stops considerably short of pursuing the implications of present-day Islamophobia, if only because disdain for the Chinese or hatred for the Japanese did not entail wholesale contempt for Confucianism, Shintoism, or Buddhism.  Indeed, religion has seldom entered into American discussions of China or Japan, and Zed Buddhism’s attractiveness to a certain class of Americans resides in, if one could put it this way, its secular qualities.  The Muslim from Iraq, Iran, Libya, or Syria is a different kettle of fish.  The Middle East, or West Asia as it is known in other parts of the world, has to Americans been largely synonymous with oil; if it conjures any other image, it is of a barren landscape and a cultural desert.  It is doubtful, for example, that most Americans have ever heard of a single poet of writer from any of these countries, even if Iranian cinema has now been acknowledged as having produced masterpieces of world cinema.  The closest most Americans are likely to get to a feel for this part of the Muslim world is perhaps a taste for Persian food or some belly-dancing from Egypt or north Africa.  Some Americans who are sensitive to criticisms about insularity might suggest that Arabs themselves have conceded that nothing remains of their culture. Did not, after all, the Syrian poet Adonis say in an interview he gave to the New York Times in 2002:  “There is no more culture in the Arab world.  It’s finished.  Culturally speaking, we are part of Western culture, but only as consumers, not as creators.”  Insert into this landscape what appears to Americans to be an arid, sterile, and humorless religion, and one can begin to fathom the deeper roots of Islamophobia.  There is also the matter, which is perhaps tacitly present in the vast resentment against Islam that has long been brewing in the US, that it is the fastest growing religion in the world, and it presents the stiffest possible competition to American evangelical proselytization.  If there are two religions which have not eschewed proselytization, they are certainly Christianity and Islam:  and it is their proximity and nearness to each other, in far many more respects than can be enumerated here, that of course feeds the anxiety of Trump, Cruz, Carson, and their ilk.

It is important, as well, that the difficult questions about the nature of “American” identity not be deflected by considerations that, while they are important, are not centrally important in the present discussion about the implications of Islamophobia in the “land of freedom”.  Many Americans and even some Muslims, for example, will argue that Trump and his ilk are only proposing to do what Muslim nations have already done.  The treatment of non-Muslims in most predominantly Muslim countries is shabby at best, and more often simply horrendous.  On this account, merely being a non-Muslim is hazardous in a country such as Saudi Arabia.  Pakistan, to name another country, even requires all Muslims who are applicants for a passport to take an oath denouncing Ahmadis.  A second argument, which is increasingly being heard in Muslim communities and has been voiced by most American public officials, including President Barack Obama, is that law-abiding and “good Muslims” must increasingly take responsibility for the “bad Muslims”; or, in somewhat more sophisticated language, the onus falls on the vast majority of Muslims to understand how radicalization has affected their youth, and then isolate and rehabilitate the “bad Muslims” and “evil jihadists” among them.  But when Christians engage in mass shootings in the US, which happens rather often, we do not hear calls for the Christian community to take responsibility for the evil ones in their midst.  Moreover, surprisingly little attempt has been made to situate the present controversy in relation to the widespread language of “diversity”, which today is conceivably the single most important issue in the American workplace.  Diversity has most been understood as a way of accommodating women, ethnic minorities, and increasingly members of the LGBTQ communities; however, there has been scant discussion of religious diversity.  Ignorance of Islam is widespread; the greater majority of Americans admit that they have never known a Muslim.

 

Five years ago, there was a storm of resentment over the proposed installation of an Islamic center and mosque at ‘Ground Zero’, the “hallowed ground” where two planes struck the World Trade Center towers and made martyrs of some 2500 Americans.  (I wrote about this in two previous posts .)  Obama, echoing Lincoln, declared that “I understand the emotions that this issue engenders.  Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”  There was indignation that Muslims were being allowed to lay claim to the very ground that their fellow Muslims had desecrated:  the unstated supposition, which has never been allowed to tarnish the barbarism of any white Christian, was that all Muslims stood condemned.  The public remarks that were then on display could reasonably have led one to the view that the abuse of Islam is the new form of anti-Semitism in America.  Yet the implications of Islamophobia are still deeper.  Arguments that the ban on Muslims will keep America safe from violent terrorists, or that America is in dire need of controlling its borders, are a smokescreen.   Immeasurably more Muslims have paid with their lives for the terrorist attacks of September 2001 than Americans, or practitioners of any other faith, though an American can only recognize this if a Muslim life is viewed as equivalent to an American life.  Those who denied Muslims an Islamic Center on ‘Ground Zero’, on the grounds that it is sacred space, arrived at a conception of the sacred that has no room for the Muslim at all.  That is the fundamental problem that lurks behind American Islamophobia.

See also Parts I, “Trump and the Spectacle of Xenophobic Buffoonery”, and II, “The Deep Roots of Xenophobia in US History”

[The three parts were published as a single piece, of considerably shorter length, entitled “The Implications of American Islamophobia”, Economic and Political Weekly 50, no. 51 (19 December 2015), pp. 12-14.]

Part II of “The Implications of American Islamophobia”

 

Michael Moore’s passionately felt response permits us to grapple with some of the questions that are central to the question of Islamophobia:  what defines an ‘American’, the nature of the American past, the essential characteristics of America as an immigrant society, and the conception of the sacred that undergirds what purports to be a secular society.  Some might ask why the United States is being described here as a society that “purports” to be secular, considering that the separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution, and that the first Amendment states clearly that the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.  But neither the “establishment clause” nor the “free exercise clause” have ever prevented any American president from making a show of his Christian faith, nor have the constitutional provisions or considerations of morality constrained those American politicians who in recent works have been heard arguing that only “Christian refugees” among the Syrians would be admitted into the US.  According to Ted Cruz, “there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror”, and consequently Syrian Christians might be allowed in even as the idea of “tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees” being permitted entry into the US is nothing short of “lunacy”.  If one should be inclined to dismiss his views as those befitting a man who temperamentally is a fascist, it is well to remember that the so-called “moderate” Republican candidate, Jeb Bush, whose family for at least two generations has been coddling the orthodox Saudi royal house, in an interview a few days after the Paris attacks gave it as his opinion that the US “should focus [its] efforts as it relates to refugees on the Christians that are being slaughtered.”  One might additionally cite hundreds of instances of the profoundly Christian foundations of the American political establishment.

 

Before moving to explore the ramifications of the question, ‘To whom does America belong’, it is well to recognize, as Moore’s brief recounting of the American past tacitly does so, both that Islamophobia has deep roots in American history and that Trump is at best an egregious example of a disease that is pervasive across all ranks of the Republican party and indeed in large sectors of American civil society.   Among Republican Presidential candidates, the retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who led the pack before he was dislodged by Trump, has said that a Muslim should not be permitted to occupy the White House, and he expressed a widespread concern that the election of a Muslim to the Presidency would lead to the sovereignty of Sharia and the abrogation of the US constitution.  Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has advocated racial profiling; when asked if he had any particular groups in mind, he unhesitatingly said:  “Obviously Muslims would be someone you’d be looking at, absolutely.”  Mike Huckabee has shed all decorum in speaking of Muslims:  in a speech delivered in 2013, he asked “why it is that we tiptoe around a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet in their so-called holiest days.”  One could go on in this vein, ad infinitum; but what remains unsaid thus far is the fact that no candidate appears to be any worse off as a consequence of their naked embrace of bigotry and ethnocentrism.  Indeed, as a poll conducted on 22-23 September 2015 established [youguv.com], 57% of all Americans, and an overwhelming 83% of Republicans, agreed with Carson that a Muslim ought not to be put “in charge of this nation”; only 27% of Americans expressed disapproval with this view.

 

Secondly, it would be disingenuous to suppose that the call to ban Muslims is un-American or a fundamental departure from the entire course of American history.  Most Americans, even those who are educated, are aware of only one major precedent for which they believe the country has atoned enough.  By Executive Order 9066, the removal of over 110,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them US citizens, to various concentration camps—or, in the more anodyne language of the apologists, “relocation centers”—was effected after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor.  The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by Ronald Reagan, offered an apology and financial remuneration to 100,000 people of Japanese descent for their unlawful incarceration.  Many Americans see this repentance as more characteristic of the spirit of the country, and some are bold enough to ask how and why the US seems to have so quickly relapsed to an earlier age, unmindful of the drone-like insistence on ‘never again’.  But even the more liberal narratives have little if any room for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, or the 1917 Immigration Act, repealed only in 1952, which prevented large classes of “aliens” from entering the US, among them “idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, poor, beggars, criminals, polygamists, anarchists, and prostitutes”; it also defined an “Asiatic Barred Zone”. Thus all Asians, except for Filipinos, were shut out from the US; they were also given the none-too-subtle message that they were no different from imbeciles, criminals, and anarchists—in a word, “undesirables”, one and all.

(to be continued)

 

Part I of “The Implications of American Islamophobia” (in 3 parts)

 

The swirling controversy that has arisen over the remarks made in recent weeks by Donald Trump regarding the place of Muslims in American society has far-reaching implications that extend well beyond the question of whether it has now become acceptable in certain circles to be openly Islamophobic.  We had previously heard much about “the Muslim mind”, and among academics, and not only those who have been persuaded by the late Samuel Huntington’s thesis about “the clash of civilizations”, there were certainly some who had always thought that the adherents of Islam posed special problems in the narrative of American integration.  But what has been transpiring recently, especially in the ranks of Republican politicians and their base following, is of a different magnitude than the arguments prevailing about Muslims in polite circles.  In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks a little than two months ago, Trump described himself as open to the idea that mosques might have to be shut down in the United States.  A few days later, he came out with what seemed akin to a suggestion that a national registry may have to be established for all Muslims in the United States.  Trump has explicitly warned that American Muslims are incapable of extending their loyalty to the United States.  Thus he has repeatedly circulated the discredited story that a large number of Muslims cheered when the Twin Towers were brought down by terrorists on September 11, 2001.  Though not an iota of evidence lends credence to his narrative, Trump has sought to give it the stamp of veracity with the imprimatur of his own experience:   “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down”, Trump told an audience in Alabama on November 19, “and I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building came down.”  Trump would not budge from this story when he appeared on the ABC network:  “It did happen, I saw it.  It was on television.  I saw it.”

 

We shall have to leave aside for the present the question, which would be of paramount importance to a philosopher and social scientist, of how experience is theorized, the evidentiary claims behind experience, and the nature of perception. All too often people have been heard saying that they saw ‘something’ unfold before their eyes, but a handful of “witnesses” to the same event may produce a handful of varying accounts.   Some interpreters will be reminded of the ‘Rashomon effect’.  It may be, too, that Trump remembers what he heard and saw on television as something that transpired before his own eyes, and there is of course the much simpler and far more attractive explanation that Trump is a congenital liar.  To lavish too much attention on Trump is perhaps not very different than throwing pearls before swine.  When Trump first announced his candidacy, he was dismissed as something of a buffoon; since then, his “staying power” has dazzled all his opponents and public commentators, even if some are convinced that each outrage from Trump is merely calculated to raise his stock precisely when it appears he might falter.  Meanwhile, however, Trump’s latest pronouncement has rattled a good many people, and, not less importantly, given him a commanding lead over his Republican opponents.  Following the murderous rampage in California, where a Muslim couple now believed to share the ideological sentiments that animate the Islamic State shot dead 14 people and wounded many more, Trump declared that he would ban Muslims from entering the United States.  He has admitted that his statements are “probably not politically correct”, but adds:  “I don’t care.”  Perhaps hypocrisy at least is something that Trump is not excessively guilty of, though his case here furnishes demonstrable proof that hypocrisy, however insufferable, is far from being the greatest sin.

 

There has been, not unexpectedly, huge outrage around the world over Trump’s pronouncements.  One of the more noteworthy responses has emanated from Britain, where 600,000 people thus far have signed a petition that calls for Trump to be refused entry into the United Kingdom.  Any petition that draws more than 100,000 signatures is now required to be debated in Parliament and a discussion on the issue is scheduled for January 18th.  If the English might be applauded for this daring piece of thinking, which is a rare enough thing in Britain, it should also be noted that 40,000 British petitioners have expressed their solidarity with Trump.   But at least one other response to Trump’s call is worthy of attention.  The most unlikely figures, none of them even remotely noted for their democratic credentials, such as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or the other half dozen Republican candidates who in varying degrees are convinced that Obama is a communist, have condemned Trump for his “insensitive” and “slanderous” remarks.  Many ordinary Americans themselves have balked at his ideas, and the Detroit Free Press, which serves one of the largest Muslim communities in the United States, took the unusual step of issuing an unequivocal denunciation of Trump’s “rank bigotry and racism” in a front-page editorial.  The newspaper’s editors noted that “some slurs are so heinous that they must be answered.  And some lies are so vile that they become dangerous if not met with truth, and strength.”  We can well imagine the response of the filmmaker Michael Moore, who is nearly singular in his suggestion that a country with an intense history of genocide mocks only itself with the insinuation that people of a particular faith are not deserving of being Americans.   In a letter castigating the Governor of Michigan in the most forceful terms for backtracking on his previously announced commitment to welcome Syrian refugees, Moore wrote that “What you’ve done is anti-American. This is not who we are supposed to be. We are, for better and for worse, a nation of descendants of three groups: slaves from Africa who were brought here in chains and then forced to provide trillions of dollars of free labor to build this country; native peoples who were mostly exterminated by white Christians through acts of mass genocide; and immigrants from EVERYWHERE around the globe. In Michigan we are fortunate to count amongst us tens of thousands of Arab and Muslim Americans.”

(to be continued)

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