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ScenesFromLifeOfGandhi1950

Fig. 1:  “Pujya Gandhiji Ki Jivan Caritra”, or The Life Story of Revered Gandhiji: a print from the famous workshop of Hemchander Bharagava & Co., Delhi.

One more Gandhi Jayanti [Birth Anniversary: October 2nd] has gone by and the thought that occurs to me is this:  just how was the life of Gandhi conveyed, in his own lifetime and in the aftermath of his death, to his countrymen and women, across towns and in India’s hundreds of thousands of villages?  What did they, who could not read, know of his life in panchayats and little hamlets?  Did the Patuas or Chitrakars move from village to village and unfold the panels of their scrolls and so make vivid the episodes drawn from Gandhi’s life?  If they did so, the scrolls appear not to have survived.  There is something suggestive, in this regard, about a touching scene in the classic movie, Garam Hawa:  the workers at the shoe factory of Mirza Sahib are gathered around a man who reads from a newspaper an account of Gandhi’s assassination.

There may thus have been many modes by which the life of Gandhi was put into circulation and the mind instinctively turns to biographies.  Of biographies of Gandhi there is now no end, and each generation, so says Ramachandra Guha in justification of yet another life of Mohandas, needs its own Gandhi.  India sent us Mohandas, Mandela is reported to have said, and we sent back a Mahatma, and it is in South Africa that the first slim biography of Gandhi was penned.  Many of the biographies that followed are, as befits an epic life, gargantuan in scope.  There was, at first, D. G. Tendulkar’s Mahatma in 8 volumes; various volumes by Pyarelal appeared at a leisurely pace over the course of a few decades. But these works were published many years after independence, as is true of something like 700-800 biographies of Gandhi in English alone.

Anthologies of Gandhi’s writings began to proliferate around the mid-1920s, and his own ‘lieutenants’, most famously Mahadev Desai and later Pyarelal, were quick in bringing out systematic narratives of his satyagraha campaigns. The two volumes of Gandhi’s autobiography, written in Gujarati and rendered into English by Mahadev, appeared in 1927 and 1929, but the autobiography takes the story of his life only to the early 1920s. Gandhi’s writings began to be disseminated by Navajivan Trust, a publishing house that he had established in 1929, but nevertheless it is unlikely that most Indians would have become acquainted with the contours of his life through published works.

By the early 1920s, print makers, working out from a number of cities, among them Delhi, Kanpur, Allahabad, Lahore, Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, had begun to take the narrative of the nationalist movement to the masses.  These prints may have been passed from one hand to another; they may have been framed and placed prominently in homes, but it is also likely that they were affixed to walls, doors, or poster boards in public spaces.  Gandhi figured prominently in these prints, many shaped around the non-cooperation movement, the Salt Satyagraha, or the teachings with which he became associated on subjects such as the constructive programme, swadeshi, and the economic impoverishment of India under colonial rule.  One of the more striking of such prints, from the Delhi-based Hemchander Bhargava & Co., takes as its subject the totality of Gandhi’s life, from cradle to ‘martyrdom’, and offers cues on how Gandhi’s life was stitched into the fabric of the nation.

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Fig. 1a:  “M. Gandhi Jivani”, that is “The Life of M. Gandhi.”  This is a variation of Fig. 1: the print is identical, except for the fact that the background blue is a darker shade of blue, and the longer caption of Fig. 1 has been replaced with a shorter and less ornate caption.

Entitled “Poojya Gandhiji ki Jivan Caritra” (The Life Story of Revered Gandhiji; fig. 1), the print invites the viewer to read Gandhi’s life through rites of passage or critical events.  The narrative commences at the bottom left with the infant Gandhi; moving along a vertical axis, the viewer encounters him at various stages of schooling in his native Gujarat and England before he arrived in South Africa as an attorney.  It is there that he developed the idea of nonviolent resistance:  in doing so, he stripped himself of his Western clothes and donned the garb of a satyagrahi.  As the viewer moves along the horizontal axis at the top of the print, the next phase of his life is vividly brought to the fore.  In 1915, Gandhi returned to India with Kasturba, and campaigns at Champaran and Kheda acquainted him with the conditions of Indian peasantry.  By the mid-1920s, Gandhi was preoccupied with the constructive programme, and finally in 1930 he launched the next phase of mass nonviolent resistance with the Salt Satyagraha.

The viewer, at this point, moves vertically down the right side of the print.  Gandhi made his way to London for the Round Table Conference to negotiate the terms of India’s future; he also met with the King-Emperor. In the mid-1930s, he installed himself at an ashram in central India.  Visitors to his ashram almost invariably found him spinning. He appeared to have withdrawn, once again, from the struggle for political emancipation; however, the print can also be read as inviting the viewer to reflect on the relationship of political independence to economic independence and social change in Gandhi’s thinking.  He launched the final phase of the freedom struggle with the call for the British to ‘Quit India’.  With this, the print-maker turned to some of the people who filled the last years of Gandhi’s life:  Nehru, children, and his grandnieces Manu and Abha.  The two young women were his constant companions and sometimes dubbed his ‘walking sticks’.  Finally, Gandhi’s life is brought to a close with his assassination:  the martyred Gandhi is placed squarely in the center of the print and both dominates and anchors the entire narrative.

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Fig. 2:  “Bapuji ki Amar Kahani”, the Immortal Story of Bapuji.  This artist is described as the Chitrakar Lakshminarayan Sharma, and the publisher is Picture Publishing Corporation, Bombay.

Other similar prints of Gandhi’s life story circulated as well.  From Picture Publishing Corporation in Bombay we have a print, created by Lakshminarayan Sharma, with some significant, indeed extraordinary, variations (fig. 2).  The narrative is structured in a like fashion, but the Indian tricolor, which is noticeably missing in the first print, occupies a good portion of the lower third of Sharma’s print and offers a different framing device.  The baby’s cradle is draped in the tricolor, as if to suggest that Gandhi was ordained from birth to lead the country to freedom; on the bottom right, Gandhi foregrounds the flag and the words, ‘Sampurna Swaraj, 15 August 1947’, suggesting that he successfully shepherded the country to its destiny.  Most significantly, Gandhi lies in complete repose, his body adorned by the tricolor.  The script at the bottom enumerates the date of his death; the smoking gun suggests that the satyagrahi met a violent end.  “He Ram” are the words that Gandhi is thought to have uttered as the bullets pierced his body and he fell to the floor, but both the assassin, Nathuram Godse, and his younger brother Gopal would dispute that Gandhi said anything at all.  The text to the right, “Bapuji Ne Diya Jalaya / Uski Jyoti Barayen Hum” (‘Bapuji lit the flame, It is for us to further that light’), read in conjunction with his draped body and the globe that he has conquered with his stride suggests not only that Gandhi has merged into the nation but that he belongs to the world.

There is much else that is captivating in Sharma’s print, but it is in the juxtaposition of the two prints that we can discern what is remarkably different in openly pronouncing Gandhi the “Father of [the] Nation.”  I have had various occasions to remark, elsewhere in my published work, that Gandhi was just as much Mother to the Nation as he was Father of the Nation.  It is not even remotely accidental that Manu’s greatest testimonial to Gandhi is a little book called, Bapu, My Mother.  The print from Picture Publishing is, if we may put it this way, far more masculine in its sensibility and representational apparatus. It excises not only Kasturba, who was Gandhi’s life companion for something like 60 years, from the narrative but all women.  One can dispute the degree to which Gandhi was comfortable with idea of women’s complete autonomy, but it is inarguably the case that Gandhi played a critical role in bringing women into the public sphere.  There is not a hint of this in Lakshminarayan Sharma’s rendering of Gandhi’s life story (fig. 2).  The Bhargava print (fig. 1), by contrast, is sensitive to the place of women in Gandhi’s life, and in its recognition of the role of women in the Salt Satyagraha it offers more than just an affirmation of how women came into the freedom struggle. Gandhi sought not only to liberate India from colonial rule but to emancipate politics from its association with an unforgiving masculinity.

A biography is seldom only a chronological narrative of a person’s life; these prints are no exception.  We may, in conclusion, take a few illustrations of how the print from Hemchander Bhargava’s workshop seeks to offer a decisive interpretation of Gandhi’s life.  It is attentive, for example, to the sartorial Gandhi:  as we encounter Gandhi along the different stages of his life, we find him stripping himself of clothes and trying, in his own words, to reduce himself to zero.  Of Gandhi it can be said that he commenced his adult life vastly over-dressed and ended it, by the reckoning of some, vastly under-dressed.  His dhoti and shawl are not just blood-stained; blood drips down.  The nation, too, has been stained by the dastardly act of the assassin; the country is drained, dripping with the blood of the innocents.  The loss of blood points to the sacrifice of the Mahatma, but was this sacrifice in vain?  Was the martyrdom of Gandhi necessary so that he could begin life anew?

(First published in a shorter version in the Hindu Sunday Magazine (6 October 2018) as “The Imprint of a Man’s Life”; the online version called “Gandhi and the Printed Image” can be accessed here: https://www.thehindu.com/society/gandhis-story-in-images/article25113640.ece)

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(On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti)

India is once again poised to celebrate the birthday of Mohandas Gandhi today, on October 2nd as, it has done so over the previous seven decades.  The official importance of Gandhi Jayanti is underscored by the fact that it is one of only three national holidays, alongside Independence Day and Republic Day.  The President and Prime Minister set the example for the prescribed set of rituals on this auspicious day.  We can be certain that wreaths of flowers will be laid at Rajghat, the simple yet elegant and moving memorial to the architect of Indian independence, and dignitaries will bow in reverence to the ‘Father of the Nation’.  There will be the usual speeches pointing to the sacrifices made by Bapu, as Gandhi was known in his lifetime to fellow Indians, and exhortations, especially to the young, to take some lessons from Gandhi’s life and dedicate themselves to the task of nation-building.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Rajghat, 2 October 2017.  Source:  Twitter Account of Modi.

The country’s Prime Ministers have in the past spent a few minutes at the spinning wheel on Gandhi Jayanti, once again in a show of leading the country and in an effort to demonstrate that their understanding of Gandhi is not entirely hollow. Narendra Modi will doubtless do the same; however, as he is given to theatrics and gifted the country the slogan of ‘Swachh Bharat’, it is very likely that he will also pick up a broom.  (As an aside, one can say that the leaders of India are very much in need of brooms to sweep the cobwebs that have cluttered their minds.) A touch of humility, even if for a few minutes, is always calculated to make the powerful feel invincible. Outside the capital, elsewhere in India, the same protocols will be followed with some variations:  Governors and Chief Ministers will place garlands around Gandhi’s statues, homilies will be sung to the great man, and Bapu’s favorite bhajans may be sung by choirs of young women and women dressed in khaddar.

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Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, garlanding a portrait of Gandhi in the capital Patna on October 2nd, 2017.  Photo:  Press Trust of India.

Once the country is past all this, a few hours after sunrise, the politicians, functionaries of the state, and the pracharaks of the RSS will get down to the business of doing what they do best these days—aiding the killers of Gandhi and ensuring that absolutely nothing that is viable in Gandhi’s thought survives.  The phrase, “killers of Gandhi”, especially in reference to events in the present may strike those who thought that Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948 as obtuse.  That evening, Nathuram Godse, a Chitpavan Brahmin from Pune, plugged three bullets into Gandhi’s body and the Mahatma died almost instantly.  The Government of India claimed that Godse was part of a larger conspiracy to kill Gandhi:  eventually, after a long drawn-out trial, Godse and Narayan Apte were convicted on charges of murder and sent to the gallows.  Nathuram’s brother, Gopal Godse, was among those who received a prison sentence.  Vinayak Savarkar, the alleged mastermind of the conspiracy, was acquitted.  Savarkar had a special gift for being able to have others do his dirty work:  he wriggled out of many a difficult situation during the course of his political career, and would doubtless have been happy that younger, more virile, and certainly more gullible men were available to shoulder the work of political assassination. Today his portrait hangs in Parliament House.

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A Largely Cheerful Lot of Conspirators, and a (characteristically) Morose Mastermind:  Nathuram Godse and Friends at their trial for the Murder of Gandhi at the Red Fort, Delhi, 22 June 1948.  Left to Right, Front to Back:  Nathuram Godse, Narayan Apte, Vishnu Karkare, Digambar Badge (approver), Madanlal Pahwa, Gopal Godse, Shankar Kistayya, V. D. Savarkar, and Dr. Parachure (hidden).

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The statue of Gandhi in Thaliparambha, in north Kerala’s Kannur district, after vandals hurled stones and bottles, damaging the spectacles.  Photo:  Hindustan Times.

In speaking of the “killers of Gandhi”, I do not advert even remotely to Nathuram Godse and his friends and associates who had sworn their allegiance to the idea of an undivided India in which the Hindu would reign supreme.  One of Gandhi’s more perceptive biographers, Robert Payne, wrote about the killing of Gandhi as a “permissive assassination”.  His submission, quite simply, was that though Nathuram Godse fired the fatal shots, a great many among the middle class desired Gandhi’s death.  Some viewed Gandhi as authoritarian, though that was scarcely their objection:  more importantly, he struck the aspiring middle and upper classes, who saw the independence of India as an opportunity to advance their careers and create economic opportunities and wealth for themselves, as an obstructionist who was out of sorts in the modern world.  The old man had already become obsolete and dispensable, and Nathuram was not mincing words when, at his trial, he spoke bitterly and mockingly of Gandhi’s fasts, spinning, his ‘inner voice’, and the Mahatma’s other mannerisms which, in Nathuram’s view, had effeminized Indian politics and would have made India incapable of a muscular response to attacks in a world where nations vie for advantage and supremacy.  Gandhi had to die if India were to survive.

What Nathuram did not at all understand was that men such as Gandhi have to be shot dead repeatedly.  It is not only that a Gandhi can be killed in the flesh but not in the spirit.  That is only one, and the more predictable, part of the story.  The spectre of Gandhi is everywhere and October 2nd is not the only day when he looms large, except of course to those who are unpleasantly reminded by his birth anniversary of the fact that there is much work still to be done in eviscerating Gandhi from the public sphere.  Even those who do not care an iota for him have to invoke his name; love him or hate him, he is inescapable.  He is everywhere, on billboards, mugs, tee-shirts, car stickers, murals, graffiti, television ads, cartoons, and much else.  The present-day killers of Gandhi can, however, live with the merchandizing of Gandhi, and nearly all of them, even as they despise him, would have no reluctance in capitalizing on his name.  The idea of cultural capital may be a conceptual black hole to them, but they instinctively understand that the invocation of Gandhi’s name can open many doors in the right places.

What is, then, truly worrisome to the killers of Gandhi is that, much like the obdurate old man, some of Gandhi’s ideas refuse to go away.  Nathuram Godse and his implicit patrons must have hoped and certainly thought that Gandhi, a few years after his assassination, would become a distant memory.  Quite to the contrary, much of the contemporary global common sense about, for example, the hazards of unchecked consumption, the problems that inhere in the very idea of the nation-state, and the inverse relationship of militarism to well-being is anticipated in the life and writings of Gandhi.  The so-called “toxic masculinity” that is on witness in the streets of every town and city in India is not only a manifestation of Hindu rage and a will to shape a decisive understanding of the past but also a reaction to the androgynous values that Gandhi embodied and which the Hindu nationalist tacitly knows are enshrined in Indian culture.  What is different about the killers of Gandhi today is that act with total impunity.  They are aware of the fact that the present political dispensation is favorable to them, and that much of the ‘ruling class’ despises Gandhi.  The mandarins who stalk the corridors of power and sit on corporate boardrooms know that all they have to do is hold a conference every now and then on “the relevance of Gandhi” to cover up for the complete contempt and even hatred they harbor for the “Mahatma”.  That is, of course, why middle class Indians think nothing of circulating poems—I hope to discuss one in the next few days—on What’s App describing Gandhi as a fool and traitor to the nation, and why they think that his assassin should be installed as a deity in a temple.

One could go in this vein, but this much is clear:  Nathuram botched the assassination.  This is why the killers of Gandhi are still on the loose, making hay while the sun shines. The official pieties surrounding Gandhi Jayanti may be nauseating to behold, but October 2nd is a necessary provocation.

 

There are numerous other essays on Gandhi on this blog; readers might find especially interesting the following essays:

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/30/the-homeless-gandhi/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/a-reputation-and-more-in-ruins-gandhi-at-the-aga-khan-palace-pune/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/vaishnava-janato-gandhi-and-narsi-mehtas-conception-of-the-ideal-person/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/a-strange-case-of-doppelgangers-hitler-and-gandhi-in-india/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/gandhis-photograph-and-the-politics-of-the-frame/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/gambling-on-gandhi-on-being-timid-and-taking-risks/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2009/10/02/gandhi%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98relevance%E2%80%99-one-more-round-of-humbug/

 

In an earlier essay about three weeks ago, I wrote in part on the increasing inability, as it seems to me, of people in our times to live with themselves and with their thoughts. Other commentators have spoken of this age as one of ‘instant gratification’, but I would underscore the word ‘instant’.  Even ‘thoughts’ must be shared instantly.  That essay was prompted by some reflections on the news that the British government had effectively appointed a “minister of loneliness”. Those who are not afflicted by cancer, diabetes, obesity, or a heart condition may nevertheless be overcome by loneliness.  I distinguished between solitude, the virtues of which have been extolled by writers across generations and cultures, and loneliness—the latter a largely modern-day pathology.  Loneliness is not singular either: there is the loneliness that one experiences when one arrives in a large city, knowing no one and feeling somewhat adrift; there is also the loneliness one sometimes feels amidst a very large crowd of people, even a crowd of well-wishers or fellow travelers; and then there is the loneliness in moments of intimacy.  Perhaps some moments of loneliness are also critical for self-realization:  it is, I suspect, only when loneliness becomes the norm that it starts to take on the characteristics of a pathology.

Solitude may perhaps be similarly parsed, but my subject at present is the prison cell and the education that the Reverend James M. Lawson, who turns 90 tomorrow, derived from his time after his first prison term following his arrest and conviction for resistance to the draft in 1950.  I do not speak here of solitary confinement, which in the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries alike is nothing but barbarism, but of the prison as a site of reflection, education, contemplation, quietude, as much as a site where revolutionaries have often been made.  The movie industry, to the contrary, has largely feasted on the idea of the prison as a place where criminals are hardened, the will of political prisoners is broken, men are sodomized and women raped, and sadistic prison guards rule like little kings.  In what follows, in two parts, I relay the conversation that transpired between Rev. Lawson and myself, first around Nelson Mandela and Robben Island, and then on the circumstances that led to Lawson’s own confinement to Mill Point Federal Prison in West Virginia.  Our very first conversation took place a few days after the passing of Nelson Mandela in early December 2012; it has been only slightly edited:

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Nelson Mandela, on his return to his cell at Robben Island in 1994, after being elected as the first President of a free South Africa.  Photo:  Jurgen Schadeberg/Getty Images.

VL:  I just want to go back to Mandela for a moment.  I think whatever one might say about Mandela and the founding of the Umkhonto we Sizwe [the armed wing of the African National Congress], and his decision to embrace violence alongside nonviolence—Mandela was very clear that nonviolence would not be given up entirely—so, whatever one might say about all of that, I think to most people the Mandela that comes to mind is the man who walked out of prison after an eternity in there.  Those years in Robben Island—those become the heroic years.  There are, very often, two kinds of outcomes when people have spent many years in jail, the better part of their lives behinds bars.  One is, they come out really bitter.  And, very often, we know that this has been one of the critiques of the prison system… I mean, other than the kind of argument, which I think you and I are familiar with, and we need not enter into at the present moment, and that’s about the so-called prison industrial complex, about the fact that the prison construction industry is one of the largest revenue earners for the state of California—the whole relationship between the prison complex and capitalism and so on… And I think that those are very important and interesting questions. But, here we are interested in the other outcome, something that may be seen from the life of Mandela.  He came out of prison not just, in a manner of speaking, ‘intact’, however reservedly one might use that word; he came out of it, remarkably, with a more enhanced sense of the need for inclusiveness in a new South Africa.

JL: Stronger in his character and his visions…

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VL: And I daresay this is where his generosity is most palpable…  You know, the way in which he decides to handle certain problems, the way in which he decides to look at the whole issue of, well, what are we going to do with the Afrikaners now, what will be the place of white people in this society?… And this is where, as I said, his sense of inclusiveness is really very palpable. Much the same can be said for people like Gandhi, King, Nehru, and many others who spent [time in jail].

JL: Also, Castro.

VL: Castro… I hadn’t quite thought of him in this regard, but you may be right, when we think of the two years to which he was confined to jail by Bautista.  But many people who served fairly long prison terms, they actually –in the case of Gandhi, I am quite certain of that because I’ve looked  at his life in very great detail, I think that he almost welcomed prison terms because . . .

JL: He did.

VL: . . . it helped him to renew his sense of life, it energized him, it also gave him solitude; he was far from the maddening crowds, it gave him time for deep introspection and reflection.  And I think that this is what happens in Mandela’s life, too.  Now, here perhaps Mandela had far too much time for introspection, so to speak, because I have the distinct feeling that one of the things that happened is that Mandela really was no longer in contact with what was happening in the wider world outside; he no longer had the full pulse of the nation he would later have guide through the first flush of freedom.

JL: But, but, he turns Robben Island into what they called at one point the University.

VL:  Absolutely.

JL:  The prisoners, sharing what they did know, really engaged in long conversations about their situation, about their country, about their philosophy.  And that, of course, he may have learned from Gandhi.  I learned it from Gandhi. And that is very clear in Gandhi’s life.  I’ll never forget the first time I was arrested in Nashville, in 1960.  I was physically exhausted, though very intellectually and spiritually alive.  And I welcomed the knowledge that the police issued a warrant for me. And we arranged for us to do it jointly. And I went to First Baptist Church, and I was arrested out of First Baptist Church; but I had an armful of books with me that my wife had brought to me from home, and she came to the church.  And as I got arrested, there was a great sigh of relief, and I had these books… and when I hit the jail, my first impulse was, first of all, to sleep through the night, get up in the morning, and begin over with the books. And I’ve read that in Gandhi as well. I’ve read that about Gandhi on two or three occasions.  He welcomed jail in the Champaran campaign. He came to the court ready to go to jail because he knew it was going to be a time for him to do reflection and the rest of it… rejuvenate himself there in the isolation that he would have.

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Yerwada Central Jai, Pune, where Gandhi was confined more than once.

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VL: And he’d had that experience already in South Africa.

JL: That’s right. Exactly.

VL: You’re right by the way about the prison yard at Robben Island being turned into a university.  There’s an Indian sociologist in South Africa by the name of Ashwin Desai, a good friend of mine, who published a book very recently last year [2011], called “Reading Revolution:  Shakespeare on Robben Island”.

JL:  Oh, really!  My goodness!

VL:   And this whole book is really a study of how people like Mandela and Tambo and Ahmad Kathrada and many others, how they actually read Shakespeare and discussed Shakespeare and each person marked their favorite passage.  Because, of course, to read Shakespeare is also to enter into discussions of ethics, political rebellions, and the whole idea of—we were talking about it earlier—assassinations, as an example.  So, I think that what you are saying is absolutely on the mark.  Nevertheless, I think there are some serious questions that have to be entertained, such as Mandela’s views on globalization–what did he really understand by globalization? Because I think, to some extent, Mandela was not sufficiently aware of the manner in which the world has changed in the long years that he was actually confined to prison. When you look at Mandela’s economic policies, what I would call something of a capitulation to free-market policies takes place rather quickly.

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The Robben Island Shakespeare was wrapped in a cover with images of Hindu deities.

(to be continued)

 

RevJamesLawsonAtVanderbilt

 The Reverend James M. Lawson of Los Angeles is quite likely the greatest living exponent of nonviolent resistance in the United States, and he turns a glorious 90 on September 22nd.  This is as good a time as any to pay tribute to a person who has the distinction, though it has never been acknowledged as such, of having been a dedicated and rigorous practitioner of nonviolence for longer (nearly seven decades, by my reckoning) than anyone else in recorded American history.

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Most scholarly histories of the American Civil Rights movement have recognized the distinct contribution of Rev. Lawson, presently Pastor Emeritus of the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles’ Adams District, as one of the most influential architects of the movement.  In his dense, indeed exhaustive, narrative of the Freedom Rides, Raymond Arsenault recounts how James Lawson, who commenced his nonviolent training workshops in the late 1950s, gathered what would become a stellar group of young African American men and women—Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, John Bevel, among others—around him in Nashville.  Martin Luther King Jr. himself acknowledged Lawson’s Nashville group as “the best organized and most disciplined in the Southland,” and King and other activists were “dazzled” by Lawson’s “concrete visions of social justice and ‘the beloved community’” (Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Oxford UP, 2006, p. 87).

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Rev. Lawson (in sunglasses, front) with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and others at the James Meredith March Against Fear, Mississippi.

Andrew Young similarly speaks of Lawson in glowing terms as the chief instigator of the sit-ins and “as an expert on Gandhian philosophy” who “was instrumental in organizing our Birmingham nonviolent protest workshops”; Lawson was, as Young avers, “an old friend of the movement” when, in 1968, he invited King to Memphis to speak in support of the sanitation workers’ strike (see An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996).  Most strikingly, the chapter on the campaign for civil rights in the American South in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s global history of nonviolent resistance, A Force More Powerful (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), is focused not on King, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, or Roy Wilkins, to mention four of those who have been styled among the “Big Six”, but rather unexpectedly revolves around the critical place of Lawson’s extraordinary nonviolence training workshops—most recently featured in the feature film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler—in giving rise to what became some of the most characteristic expressions of nonviolent resistance, among them the sit-ins, the freedom rides, and the strategy of packing jails with dissenters.  Ackerman and Luvall echo the sentiments of Lafayette, who credited Lawson with creating “a nonviolent academy, equivalent to West Point”; they pointedly add that though Lawson was “a man of faith, he approached the tasks of nonviolent conflict like a man of science” (pp. 316-17).

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A mug shot of Rev. James M. Lawson after he was arrested in Mississippi for his role in the Freedom Rides.  Source:  https://breachofpeace.com/blog/?p=18

It is no exaggeration to suggest that King derived much of his understanding of Gandhi from Bayard Rustin and Rev. Lawson, though most histories mention only Rustin in this regard.  John D’Emilio’s exhaustive biography, Lost ProphetThe Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (New York:  Free Press, 2003) affirms what has long been known about King, namely that he “knew nothing” about Gandhian nonviolence even as he was preparing to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  D’Emilio states that “Rustin’s Gandhian credentials were impeccable”, and it fell upon Rustin to initiate the process that would transform King “into the most illustrious American proponent of nonviolence in the twentieth century.”  Though Rustin’s command over the Gandhian literature is scarcely in question, the more critical role of Lawson in bringing King to a critical awareness of the Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha, and more generally in inflecting Christian traditions of nonviolence with the teachings of Gandhi and other vectors of the Indian tradition, has been obscured.

Uniquely among the great figures of the Civil Rights Movement, as I noted in an essay penned last year, Lawson spent three formative years in his early twenties in central India.  As a college student in the late 1940s, Lawson discovered Christian nonviolence, most emphatically in the person of A. J. Muste, who was dubbed “the No. 1 US Pacifist” by Time in 1939 and would go on to be at the helm of every major movement of resistance to war from the 1920s until the end of the Vietnam War.  Lawson was a conscientious objector during the Korean War and spent over a year in jail; as Andrew Young remarks, “His stand on the Korean War was courageous and unusual in the African-American community” (An Easy Burden, p. 126).  Lawson spoke to me about his year in jail at considerable length during the course of our fourteen meetings from 2013-16 during which we conversed for something like 26 hours, and in future essays I shall turn to some of these conversations.  Following his release from jail, Lawson, who had trained as a Methodist Minister, left for India where for three years he served as an athletic coach at Hislop College, Nagpur, originally founded in 1883 as a Presbyterian school.  He deepened his understanding of Gandhi and met at length with several of Gandhi’s key associates, including Vinoba Bhave.  When he returned to the US in June 1956, Lawson uniquely embodied within himself two strands that would converge in the Civil Rights movement:  Christian nonviolence and Gandhian satyagraha.  Lawson was never in doubt that satyagraha was to be viewed as a highly systematic inquiry into, and practice of, nonviolent resistance.

Strangely, notwithstanding Reverend Lawson’s place in the Civil Rights Movement and American public life more generally, very little systematic work has been done on his life and, in particular, on his six decades of experience as a theoretician and practitioner of nonviolent resistance.  It is worth recalling that Lawson was a student of Gandhian ideas and more generally of the literature of nonviolence several years before King’s ascent into public prominence; five decades after the assassination of King, he regularly conducts workshops on nonviolence .  No American life, in this respect, is comparable to his.

I shall be writing on Rev. Lawson often, I hope, in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, I offer him my warmest felicitations on his 90th birthday!

 

For previous essays on Rev. Lawson on this blog, see:

The Nashville Sit-ins:

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/09/23/the-nashville-sit-ins-the-workshop-of-nonviolence-in-jim-crow-america/

and “Martin Luther King and the Challenge of Nonviolence”:

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/martin-luther-king-and-the-challenge-of-nonviolence/

 

 

In my previous essay on this blog, on the foolishness of the legislation that is now before the Vidhan Sabha or legislature of the Punjab Government that would render “blasphemy” an offence punishable with a life sentence, I adverted to the application of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, a close study of which suggests just how vulnerable such legislation is to exploitation not only by the state but by those who terrorize the population in the name of adherence to Islam.  Political repression is a problem in every country in South Asia, and the recent crackdown on human rights activists in India, and the arrest of the acclaimed photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh, are ominous signs of how the repressive apparatus of the state has been deployed to stifle the freedom of speech and create a climate of fear in which agents of the state can act with utter impunity.

The problem in Pakistan is, if anything, more acute.  There is widespread agreement among scholars, experts, political commentators, and those who have been keenly observing developments in Pakistan that the country has been overwhelmed by political turbulence in the last two decades. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are quite innocent of any real self-reflexivity and are impervious, in their own fashion, to critiques of a notion of “human rights” which often has done little except serve, even if inadvertently, imperialist regimes.  This is apart from other, equally pressing, considerations of the questionable ontological bases of conceptions of ‘rights’. Nevertheless, whatever the soundness of such critiques, the reports of these organizations and other similar human rights group do furnish something of a barometer by which we may judge how far states are observant of the rights of their subjects and whether they treat most of their subjects with dignity.

Going by these reports, Pakistan’s record on the human rights front has been abysmal. Successive reports over the last five years of Human Rights Watch, quite possibly the most respectable international organization of its kind in the world alongside Amnesty International, provide unimpeachable evidence of the breakdown of the rule of law and the arbitrary dispensation of justice. Extrajudicial killings and political assassinations are all too common, corruption in the police forces is rampant, and security for common people can no longer be even remotely guaranteed by the state.  But let us begin with this fact: The official religion of Pakistan is Islam. That was not the case at the inception of Pakistan, even if the country was founded as a Muslim-majority state. Though there are small numbers of adherents of other religions, principally Hindus and Christians, Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country.   There is substantial and even conclusive evidence, which emanates from a wide array of sources, that religious minorities are at grave risk in Pakistan—though, again, having said this, one must also allow for the fact that there are equally reliable reports and ethnographies of Hindu communities which suggest that Hindus continue to have a place in Pakistani society.

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Protestors holding up placards at a rally in Karachi in 2010 demonstrating against the death sentence handed down to a Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, on charges of blasphemy, and also calling for an end to discrimination against religious minorities. Photo: Akhatar Sumroo, Reuters. Source: http://time.com/3969035/asia-bibi-death-sentence-stayed-appeal-pakistan/

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2014 Annual Report, expressed alarm at the declining environment for religious tolerance in Pakistan and went so far as to recommend that it be designated, alongside nations such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea, a “Country of Particular Concern” (p. 8).  Once again, we shall have to leave aside the politics of this commission, and the question of why it should be viewed as having any real standing:  the right that American organizations have arrogated to themselves to pontificate on the shortcomings of others is much more than suspect. “The past ten years”, state the report’s authors, “have seen a worsening of the already-poor religious environment in Pakistan” (p. 10),  and they add that “in the past year, conditions hit an all-time low due to chronic sectarian violence targeting mostly Shia Muslims but also Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus” (p. 80).  Though the Ahmadis, or Ahmadiyyas, accept all five pillars of Islam and are rigorous adherents of their faith, Pakistan is the only country in the world to have them officially declared non-Muslims since, in addition to the Prophet, they also accept Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) as a Messiah.  (Ahmadis face considerable persecution in Bangladesh; however, they have not officially been branded as ‘kafirs’.) The Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan as well as Ordinance XX of 1984, promulgated during the military administration of General Zia-ul-Haq, not only deprive Ahmadis of their religious rights but even debar Ahmadis from reading the Quran, reciting the Kalima (the Muslim creed), or from joining other Muslims in prayer.  The level of religious intolerance in Pakistan towards those who are deemed as heretics may be gauged from the fact that an Ahmadi who uses the Muslim greeting, “As-salam alaykum”, has committed a criminal offence under the laws of Pakistan and can be prosecuted accordingly.  One does not have to accept the authority or even legitimacy of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to come to such conclusions.

A recent December 2014 report by the London-based Minority Rights Group, the most respected non-governmental global organization of its kind, furnishes more decisive evidence of the climate of religious intolerance in Pakistan and the “daily challenges faced by Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and other groups in the country.”  The executive summary of the report, entitled Searching for SecurityThe Rising Marginalization of Religious Communities in Pakistan (London:  Minority Rights Group International, 2014), states that though minority religious communities “have suffered discrimination in Pakistan for decades, their persecution has intensified in recent years and has now reached critical levels” (p. 3). Among other forms of discrimination, the report notes “the frequent use of blasphemy laws” (p. 3) to denigrate non-Muslims and points out that the extremists among some Sunnis, who constitute the vast majority in Pakistan, view Shias as apostates and have thus directed violence at them.  Apostates, the authors stated unambiguously, may “face regular hostility from extremists and public calls for members to be killed” (p. 8).

Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary both define an apostate as a person who “renounces a religious or political belief or principle”, and furnish the following words as synonyms:  traitor, defector, turncoat, deserter, among others.  The December 2013 report of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam, makes the point that apostasy is no longer a crime anywhere in the world except in Muslim countries (p. 7).  Twenty-seven countries where Islam is the only or the predominant religion inflict punishment on apostates or blasphemers, including those who are “atheists, secularists, and freethinkers” (pp. 6, 8).  Pakistan is not among those eleven countries—including Sudan, Yemen, and two countries that see themselves as implacable foes of each other, Iran and Saudi Arabia—where apostasy is a capital offence, punishable by death, and there are no explicit anti-apostasy laws in Pakistan.  However, this report is unequivocal in its description of the consequences for apostates in Pakistan: “Other countries without apostasy laws, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, use blasphemy and other religious protection laws to persecute apostates” (p. 6).  The report describes the introduction of blasphemy laws (Sections 295-B, 295-C, and 298A-C) into Pakistan’s Penal Code in the 1980s and the restrictions henceforth on the right to freedom of speech with regard to religion, and states that “since then, it has been extremely dangerous to express dissent against Islam.”  Though apostasy itself is not explicitly punishable, blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan under the Pakistan Penal Code:  defiling the name of Muhammad carries a death sentence, as affirmed by the federal Sharia Court which in 1990 ruled that defiling Muhammad’s name is “death and nothing else” (p. 67).  Moreover, it is important to emphasize that blasphemy laws are, in fact, stringently enforced:  between 1986 and 2010, at least 1,274 people were charged under the law.

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Demonstration calling for the death sentence of 34-year old Nadeem James, who was charged with blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam in a WhatsApp message to a friend.  Mr. James was handed down a death sentence by the court in Gujrat in eastern Pakistan.

The Political and Legal Status of Apostates highlights other features that need to be underscored. A charge of blasphemy is often a cover for an ordinary crime: now, five years after the publication of this report, the Pakistani press reports the death of a young artist, Qutab Rind, who was killed by a landlord on account of an alteration over rent and then falsely accused of blasphemy.  An accusation can be made falsely, and often is made, without any consequences for the accuser though the accused might face enormous risks including oppression by an enraged public.  Owing to the number of false accusations, the government in 2005 passed a law requiring the police to investigate accusations of blasphemy before filing charges, but this law is not always followed and certainly has not precluded mob justice.  The report thus notes a climate of vigilante justice; in other words, even where the state may not take action against an apostate or a blasphemer, this does not preclude people from taking the law into their own hands.  The report notes that “at least 51 people accused of blasphemy were murdered before their respective trials were over” (p. 67); the newspaper report from last month on the death of Qutab Rind states that “nearly 70 people had been lynched to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges whereas another 40 are currently on death row or serving life sentence for blasphemy charges in Pakistan since 1990.”  As is well known, and as was reported widely in Indian, British, and American newspapers, the Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, a Muslim, was assassinated in broad daylight on 4 January 2011 for his opposition to the blasphemy laws; so was, ironically, the Minister for Minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, specifically for his support of Asia Noreen Bibi, the first woman sentenced to death, allegedly for defaming the name of Muhammad, under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

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Demonstration against Blasphemy Laws by the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. Photo:  Abid Nawaz/Express Tribune.

There is corroboration for the views stated in the report The Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam in various other authoritative reports from organizations in Canada and the US.  Let me return to the afore-mentioned report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, where it is argued that blasphemy-like codes in Pakistan have stifled religious freedom and emboldened extremists to commit violence.  In the report’s own words, “In Pakistan, such codes fuel extremist violence threatening all Pakistanis” (p. 3), and again:  “Pakistan’s laws and practice are particularly egregious in this regard, with its constantly-abused law penalizing blasphemous acts with the death penalty or life in prison” (p. 27).  The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency, issued a report in 2013 entitled Pakistan:  Religious conversion, including treatment of converts and forced conversions (2009-2012) which again substantiates these finds. The report states, and I quote, “In all mainstreams of Islamic jurisprudence abandoning Islam is considered a capital crime, particularly for men”. This is true for those who have converted to another religion as it of those who have abandoned Islam without taking up another religion.

With all this evidence from a neighboring country before it, does the Punjab Government want to push forward a blasphemy laws to protect worshippers from blasphemers?  Emphatically not; indeed, wherever such laws are to be found in India, they should be summarily scrapped.

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Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh and other ministers and MLAs at the Vidhan Sabha [Punjab Assembly], Chandigarh, March 2017.  Photo & Copyright: Keshav Singh, Hindustan Times.  

The Cabinet of the Punjab Government has approved an amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code and will place a bill before the Assembly to secure passage of legislation that would impose a life sentence upon those convicted of desecrating religious texts.  Sec. 295A presently stipulates a prison term of no more than three years for anyone found guilty of outraging, or attempting with malicious intent to outrage, the religious sentiments of the practitioners of any faith.  A number of commentators have in recent days objected strenuously and with passionate conviction to legislation that is unquestionably liable to abuse and will almost certainly further undermine the already endangered secular structure of the Indian polity, but their arguments, as I shall suggest shortly, do not go far enough; indeed, their arguments do not as much as recognize the principal intellectual shortcoming of the proposed legislation.

Before a consideration of the immense difficulties that inhere in this proposed legislation, let it be said that most of the commonplace arguments that have been raised against this extremely foolish and dangerous gesture on the part of the Congress government are not insignificant.  First, it must be recognized that there was a spate of incidents in late 2015 involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and police firing in Faridkot against aggrieved demonstrators.  Consequently, the concern with desecration of religious texts is not without substance. There is, secondly, the question of political expediency: the country will be going to elections in much less than an year, and the Congress is keen to remind voters in one of the few states where it has a real presence that it has done more than the Akali Dal to defend the religious sentiments of the Sikhs. This would scarcely be the first time, of course, that the Congress would be attempting to position itself as a champion of religious minorities. Judging from its previous forays in this direction, one can hazard the speculation that the outcome on this occasion will once again do no credit to the Congress.

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Demonstration by SGPC [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] activists agains the allleged descration of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Punjab, 2015.  Photo copyright: Agence France-Presse (AFP).  

Thirdly, the Akali Dal government in 2016 did pass legislation that sought life imprisonment for desecrating the Sikh holy book, as well as an enhanced prison term of ten years for offenders against other religious faiths, but the Central Government returned the legislation both on the grounds that the prescribed punishments were “excessive in law” and, more importantly, in violation of the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The violation was construed as emanating not even remotely from the fact that the state had no business in using its coercive powers to enforce religious belief, but rather from the curious fact that in prescribing a higher penalty for desecrators of the Guru Granth Sahib than for those had insulted the holy books of other faiths, the Centre charged the state government with elevating one religion over another and thereby violating the central tenet of Indian secularism which insists on parity for all religions.  It is for this reason that the proposed amendment to Sec. 295A stipulates that “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life”.  What was deemed as “excessive” punishment is now sought to be imposed with uniformity upon an offender found guilty of the said offence, regardless of religion.  Apparently, barbarism towards all is to be preferred to a barbarism that is partial.

Much else has been said, and with due reason, against the amendment to the IPC.  The application of “blasphemy laws” in neighboring Pakistan, about which I shall have much more to say in another essay soon, demonstrates the extraordinary hazards of such legislation:  people often falsely charge others to settle personal scores, and those alleged to have committed an offence have sometimes been killed in acts of vigilante justice by mobs acting at the instigation of religious zealots.  Existing laws in India are sufficient to deal with whatever cases of the desecration of religious books or sites of worship might arise; in this matter as in in nearly every other, such as for instance the entire question of ‘lynching’, the laws are rigorous enough and it has long been recognized that the problem resides rather in the fact that there is no will to enforce them.  There is also the equally substantive issue that the threshold for what is deemed ‘religious hurt’ continues to be lowered.  The three dozen retired civil servants, many with considerable standing in Indian society, who have addressed an open letter to the Punjab Chief Minister quite rightly point to the “ill-founded prosecutions” that are likely to arise from such legislation, and they are doubtless right in arguing that “blasphemy laws are a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right.”

While all these arguments have merit, they nevertheless occlude the most fundamental problem not only in the framing of the new legislation but in the interpretation of Indian society.  Let us note the use of the phrase, “blasphemy laws”, common to nearly everything that has been written on the subject.  The legislation in question does not use the word “blasphemy”, but all commentators have understood the gist of it as prescribing penalties for blasphemy.  Like many of the categories that inform our intellectual discourse in India, “blasphemy” is part of the Judeo-Christian inheritance that was handed down to India in the wake of colonial rule.  Moses is told by the Lord to tell the Israelites, “When any man whatever blasphemes his God, he shall accept responsibility for his sin . . . . all the community shall stone him; alien or native, if he utters the Name, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:15-16).  Moral theologians regarded blasphemy as a sin; some, such as Aquinas, held it as a sin against faith.  The Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I, decreed the death penalty for blasphemy, and in large parts of the Christian world blasphemy remained punishable by death until comparatively recent times.

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A cartoon by the Brazilian Carlos Latuff.  Copyright:   Carlos Latuff.  Source: https://theintercept.com/2015/01/09/solidarity-charlie-hebdo-cartoons/

What is absolutely striking, and germane for us in India, is the fact that the idea of blasphemy has no point of reference or analogue in Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism. The idea is absolutely foreign to at least the adherents of these religions.  Indians, whatever their religious faith, understand the reverence in which holy books are to be held, or the respect that is to be paid to religious shrines, but it is questionable whether most of them would be moved by arguments about “blasphemy”.   What does blasphemy mean to a Hindu, and what is “the holy book” that is being blasphemed against?  On whose authority does the Punjab Government pronounce that the Bhagavad Gita is to the Hindu what the Bible is to the Christian or the Quran to the Muslim?  How did the view of a certain, and to a considerable extent Anglicized, element of the Hindu middle class about the Gita, come to represent the view of all Hindus?  How does one even begin to understand that every faith, and not only Hinduism, began to be shaped in the image of Protestant Christianity commencing in the late 18th century?  We have here, in the present debate about “blasphemy laws”, another instance of how our thinking takes place without any reference to the categories produced by Indian thought and without any awareness of the fact that the intellectual legacies of the Judeo-Christian tradition are unthinkingly deployed to frame very different experiences.

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So should we view this as “Hindu Blasphemy”?  The cover of Business Today shows cricketer M. S. Dhoni, one of the many new Gods of modern India.

I am reminded, finally, of an anecdote from the life of Vivekananda.  It is reported that on a visit to Kashmir, some of Vivekananda’s followers were both despondent and angry at seeing the broken images of the goddess strewn over the countryside.  They swore that henceforth they would not permit the images of the goddess to be defiled. Vivekananda turned to them with a retort, “Do you protect the Goddess, or does the Goddess protect you?”  The Chief Minister and the other self-appointed guardians of religion can usefully take home a lesson from this story.  It is arrogant for them to believe that the great faiths of India require the protections of the Indian state; and this is, of course, apart from any consideration of whether the Indian state, which has more often than not shown reckless disregard for the citizens of this country, has any moral standing to uplift these faiths.  On nearly every ground that one can think of, the Punjab and Central governments would be well advised to withdraw the contemplated amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

(A shorter version of this was published as “A Foreign Offence” in the Indian Express (print edition), 11 September 2018.

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The US Open Women’s Final on Saturday between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka was as unusual a match as any in the annals of professional tennis history and has generated an intense commentary which will doubtless continue for the next few days and, among tennis professionals, into the foreseeable future.   Let me state at the outset that, with this brief essay, I do not intend to contribute to the chatter in the ordinary fashion; rather, I intend to focus on one issue, “racquet abuse”, and pursue the philosophical and cultural implications of this idea.  Let us dispense quickly, for the benefit of those readers who have little interest in tennis and have not kept abreast of the “controversy”, with the fundamentals:  the match pitted Serena Williams, who had 23 Grand Slam singles titles and was in quest of her 24th, which would have tied her with Margaret Court for the world record, against 20-year old Naomi Osaka of Japan who was in the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.  At their only previous meeting, earlier this year, Osaka had defeated Williams quite handily; but the latter, who had given birth to a daughter just months ago, was not quite in her element.  The outcome at the US Open was expected to be rather different.

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Williams was down by one set, and—though the outcome of tennis matches, as indeed of other sporting matches, is often uncertain except when the match is extremely lopsided—the young Osaka was most likely on her way to a victory in the second set and thus the match when trouble erupted.  Williams got called for a violation of the rules by the veteran Umpire, Carlos Ramos, on the grounds that she had received illegal coaching from the stands.  Williams denied that she had received such coaching, and told Ramos that she would rather lose a match than win it by cheating.  Some 10-15 minutes later, unable to capitalize on the service break she had achieved and finding herself being outplayed by Osaka, she smashed her racquet on the ground and was docked a point for “racquet abuse”.  It is immaterial whether Williams was expressing her frustration at squandering her advantage, or whether she felt outraged at what she perceived to be the insinuation that she was violating the rules or, quite simply, cheating.  Her heated words at Ramos would turn into a volley of recriminations; her “rant”, as it is being called, can be heard clearly on video.  She threatened Ramos that she would see to it that he would never again preside over any of her matches:  one hopes, whatever one’s view of the matter, and for the sake of the integrity of the game—or whatever integrity is possible in an age when professional sports is only another form of blood-capitalism—that such a threat will never be acted upon.  Indeed, it is imperative that Ramos should be called upon to preside over another Serena Williams’ match, unless the tennis world is prepared to capitulate to the whims and dicta of a sporting superstar.  And, then, to cap it all, Williams went on to call Ramos a “thief”, since she had been docked a point.  For this third violation of “verbal abuse”, Ramos, playing by the rule book, docked her an entire game.  Williams went on to lose, 6-2, 6-4.

We need not be detained by the details, and there is much in this set of events that calls for an extended commentary.  The words “sexism” and “racism” are in the air, quite predictably so, but let me turn to the little explored question of “racquet abuse”.  The discussions thus far in the public domain have focused on whether docking a point for breaking one’s racquet from a player’s score sheet is an excessive penalty or should even invite a penalty at all. The common, all too common, view is that players are “human”, as though this were not a self-evident truth, and that in the heat of the moment a player might lose his or her cool.  The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rulebook sets out the player’s code in Chapter 8, and the portion on “Racquet or Equipment Abuse” appears under “Offenses” and states the following:

Racquet or Equipment Abuse i) Players shall not violently, dangerously or with anger hit, kick or throw a racquet or other equipment within the precincts of the tournament site. For purposes of this rule, abuse of racquets or equipment is defined as intentionally, dangerously and violently destroying or damaging racquets or equipment or intentionally and violently hitting the net, court, umpire’s chair or other fixture during a match out of anger or frustration. ii) Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $500 for each violation. In addition, if such violation occurs during a match [emphasis added], the player shall be penalized in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule.

Ramos was, then, clearly within his rights in penalizing Williams for “racquet abuse” by issuing a point against her, as specified in the Point Penalty Schedule.  (Note:  I am aware that professional women tennis players fall under the jurisdiction of the WTA, Women’s Tennis Association, but the rulebook is one and the same.)  But just exactly what is “racquet abuse” and why should it incur a penalty at all?  It is understandable that, had Serena threatened to hit another player with her racquet, she would have been called out for her offence—and that the penalty would have been far more stringent.  Let us suppose that she had destroyed communal property:  here, too, it is unlikely that anyone would have disputed the decision to penalize her.  But Williams destroyed her own racquet and in common law one’s possessions and property are for one to dispose as one pleases.  There may well be circumstances under which the state might prevent one from treating one’s own property or possessions as purely one’s own and might even claim jurisdiction over them.  If, for instance, I was in possession of the sole copy of the first Bible printed in the Americas, or I had made my home in the oldest surviving building in the state of California, I might well be prevented on pain of severe punishment from burning the Bible or tearing the building down and using the lumber for my fireplace.  Yet the most that can be said of Williams is that she squandered a few hundred dollars:  more likely, given capitalism’s voracious appetite for pecuniary inventiveness, the destroyed autographed racquet will end up on the auction block and become worth a few thousand dollars overnight. For all we know, it may even be used to raise some money in the name of charity, or it may find a place in a museum.

The answer to the question is obvious:  racquet abuse calls for a penalty because it shows the lack of sportsmanship.  This answer is, not so obviously, little more than drivel.  We are not living in an age of chivalry; the very word, “chivalry”, is no longer part of the lexicon of most modern societies.  (Ladies, in any case, cannot be chivalrous; that quality is strictly a masculine preserve.) The idea of “sportsmanship” is attractive in the abstract but it exists only to be violated, mocked, and transgressed at every turn.   Patrick Mouratoglou, who showed not the slightest hesitation in admitting that he had indeed been coaching his pupil from the stands, giving it as his justification that every coach did so, had something rather more revealing to say:  “It is not a big deal breaking a racquet.  She [Serena] will struggle to get back from this.”  The fact that he thinks is it “not a big deal” suggests to me that there is something seriously amiss.  Mouratoglou, I make bold to say, exemplifies the modern condition:  he is only functionally literate, and thought is entirely alien to him.  He is, of course, far from being the only one partaking of this sinister condition.

Williams has made her living from tennis racquets and acquired a fortune in the process.  Her disrespect for the humble racquet is all the more disturbing for that reason.  I suspect that a racquet to her is only an object which serves a purpose; it exists to be instrumentalized.  Not surprisingly, Williams has a habit of abusing her racquet: in 2014, during a WTA final against Caroline Wozniacki, she smashed it repeatedly on the ground and after the match explained with a hint of thrill in her voice, “I don’t know how many times I hit it but, boy, that racket will never do me wrong again.” Her racquet is to her also a disposable object, purely inanimate.  There is a story to be told about homo consumerus, with a nod to the orgiastic delights of shopping experienced by certain specimens of homo erectus, but I have a different story to relate at this juncture.

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A garlanded tool at Vishwakarma Puja, Delhi.  Source:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Iy3vUwSrmw [video footage]

That story begins with an exploration of the worker and her tools.  Vishwakarma Puja, the Indian ‘festival’ which is observed in factories, workshops, and industrial areas, has always struck me as one of the more inspired instantiations of worship.  Vishwakarma is the divine architect, credited with having built the city of Dwarka and crafted the weapons of the Gods.  In much of India, especially northern and eastern India, during the annual Vishwakarma Puja workers—carpenters, welders, mechanics, electricians, smiths, artisans, electrical engineers, network engineers, and others—lay aside their tools and worship them.  This is a grateful admission of the fact that the worker acknowledges the life-giving properties of his or her tools.

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Vishwarkarma Puja, Amrtisar, 2012.  Source:  https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/vishwakarma-day-keeps-all-markets-closed-today-121403-2012-11-14

It is singularly interesting, then, that the professional tennis players’ code includes a provision against “racquet abuse”, a provision all the more arresting in that it specifies that a player may not even abuse or throw the racquet “in anger”.  My own view is that modern culture, which is nothing if not barbarous in its self-aggrandizing and narcissistic drives, often retains a place, howsoever unself-consciously, for characteristically pre-modern ways of thinking. The ATP code is but a reflection of norms from which we have all become distanced, never more so when money does all the talking. Serena Williams owes, I dare say, a great many apologies, most evidently to the young Naomi Osaka and the Umpire Carlos Ramos.  But her road to redemption can only begin with an apology to the humble racquet with which she crafted an entire universe for herself and her adoring fans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
https://www.atpworldtour.com/-/media/files/rulebook/2017/2017-atp-rulebook.pdf