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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.”

MartinLutherKingLeaderOfSCLC

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.

Youth Congress members protest

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.

GovindPansare

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)

  

 

 

The history of colonial India was, one might say, bookended by political trials.  The crimes of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India, were showcased in lengthy impeachment proceedings against him in the British Parliament from 1788-95; towards the end of 1945, the first of a series of Indian National Army (INA) trials generated an extraordinary upsurge of sentiment against the British and doubtless hastened the end of two hundred years of colonial rule.  Nearly every pivotal moment in the history of British India was similarly marked by a political trial:  one can enumerate in this respect the trail of Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1857-58, which signified the formal end of the Mughal Empire, the two trials (in 1897 and 1908) of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who represented, in the colonial vision, the ‘extremist’ phase of Indian politics, or the various trials, on charges of sedition, treason, conspiracy, or revolutionary violence, of Aurobindo, Mohandas Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, M. N. Roy, and Lala Lajpat Rai, each of whom nonetheless represented a different constituency of anti-colonial Indian politics.

 

Occupying a remarkable place in the arena of state activities in colonial India, political trials were never just only a form of contestation between the state and its colonized subjects.  Such trials of state were generally never convened without the expectation that, in the dramatic setting of the courtroom, the performance of both the state and the rebels would be received with utmost attention; and though not all trials were accompanied by fanfare, by the loud trumpeting of the triumph of justice, they were each in their own way spectacles to which the entire nation stood witness.

SubhasBoseWithOfficersOfTheINA

Subhas Bose with Officers of the INA

The setting for the INA Trials was indeed dramatic:  having fled from India in January 1941, Subhas Chandra Bose eventually made his way to Berlin where the Nazis assisted him in setting up a Free India Center.  In December 1941, the German army had agreed to hand over to Bose such captured prisoners from the (British) Indian Army as were agreeable to joining the Indian Legion, a military force that Bose was establishing though it was to be placed under German command.  It is in Europe, then, that Bose started recruiting captured Indian POWs to aid in the liberation of India, though he had comparatively little success:  only 2,500 of the approximately 17,000 POWs could be induced to join the Indian Legion.  Meanwhile, the theatre of war had moved to the Asia and the Pacific, and it is in September 1942 that the first Division of the INA comprised of 16,300 men was raised under the leadership of Captain Mohan Singh.  A year later, Bose summoned the remnants of the INA, renamed it the Azad Hind Fauj [Free India Army], and energized it, in a move reminiscent of Gandhi’s “Do or Die”, with a simple but entrancing slogan:  “Chalo Delhi.”

 

In 1943-44, the British had instituted the first courts-martial of British Indian Army personnel captured as INA troops.  However, these trials excited little attention, and even most historians have scarcely paid any attention to them:  much of the Congress leadership was behind bars, and, moreover, the Congress position, as articulated by Nehru, was that however patriotic and well-meaning INA men might be, they had “put themselves on the wrong side and were functioning under Japanese auspices.”  What has become known as the INA Trial, launched in November 1945, was a different story.  The INA had seen significant military action in the Imphal-Kohima sector and INA troops had become the stuff of legends.  Bose himself had died in a plane crash in August 1945; though the circumstances of his death were deemed highly suspicious by many, his apotheosis as the great martyr had taken place.  Nevertheless, Britain’s victory in World War II as part of the Allied forces was decisive, and the INA had been disbanded in May 1945.   Soldiers who had engaged in traitorous conduct could not be allowed to go unpunished.

MilitaryParadeOfINAAtPadang

Military Parade of the INA at Padang

In putting Colonel Prem Sahgal, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, and Major-General Shah Nawaz Khan on trial on the charges of murder, abetment to murder, and “waging war against the King-Emperor”, the British scarcely anticipated the uproar that ensued.  The Congress Working Committee passed a resolution in sympathy with the prisoners.  Nehru, in a speech delivered on November 3, two days before the prosecution was launched, stated that “the trial of the three INA officers will be of historical importance. . . .  It touches the sentiments of the whole nation.”  Demonstrations in solidarity with the accused were held throughout the country, and Gandhi and Patel were among those who visited the accused in jail.  A Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim had been put on trial, in unintended homage to Bose’s own defiance of communal divisions, and the Congress defended all three men.  The Defence Committee was made up of a stellar list of legal and political luminaries, headed by Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru.  Bhulabhai Desai, who argued that the accused could not be tried under the Indian Penal Code and that international law was applicable in this case, was largely responsible for the defence; and much has been of the fact that Nehru, who had ceased to practice law at least 25 years ago, donned his barrister’s gowns and made a couple of appearances in court.

SapruNehruAtINATrial

Jawaharlal Nehru and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, to his right, proceeding to the INA Trial.

The outcome was preordained:  all three accused were found guilty and handed down a sentence of deportation for life.  Meanwhile, however, a mutiny had broken out on several of the ships and shore establishments of the Royal Indian Navy, and all this made transparent that, in the words of the feminist and socialist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, “it was really freedom versus bondage that was really on trial.”  Acting under immense pressure, army chief Claude Auchinleck, in whom rested the final authority to dispose off the case, commuted the sentences of the three defendants.

CrowdsGatheredOutsideTheRedFortDuringINATrial

Crowds Gathered Outside the Red Fort during the INA Trial

The trial, I have implied, can well be seen as a locus for the colonialist sociology of knowledge, the micro-politics of power, and the cultural politics of resistance. To appreciate, nonetheless, the singularity of the principal INA Trial, I shall suggest only three lines of inquiry.  First, it is striking but not surprising that the trial was held at the Red Fort, rather than a courtroom. The Red Fort had been the seat of the Mughal Empire, and the British chroniclers of the great rebellion of 1857-58 noted that when the British reoccupied Delhi in late 1857, they signified their dominion over India by rendering profane the sacred space of the Mughals and defiling it with the consumption of pork and wine, both taboo to observant Muslims.  He who seeks to show his authority over India must command the Red Fort.

 

Secondly, why did the Congress, which had earlier adopted the view that the INA recruits were patriots but nevertheless misguided in their willingness to join a fighting force aided by fascists, so unambiguously take up the defence of the INA accused? Were Congress leaders positioning themselves for the provincial elections and the struggle ahead?  Was this a final attempt on the part of the Congress to project itself as an organization that alone could withstand the furies of communalism?  And, finally, does the mass popular sentiment in support of the INA accused suggest that Gandhi had been sidelined or does it contrariwise point to the fact that the Quit India movement had moved India irrevocably towards freedom?  Whatever’s one outlook on these questions, the centrality of the INA Trial in the narrative of late nationalism cannot be doubted.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in print as “The Call to Freedom:  How the INA Trial Hastened the End of British Rule”, The EyeIndian Express (Sunday) Magazine (3 January 2016).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The gifted Indian writer Raja Rao, in introducing Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s memoirs, Inner Recesses Outer Spaces (1986), did Kamaladevi (3 April 1903-29 October 1988) the unusual honor of describing her as “perhaps the most august woman on the Indian scene today.  Firmly Indian and therefore universal, highly sophisticated both in sensibility and intelligence, she walks with everyone, in city and country with utter simplicity.”

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

We shall not linger on what exactly Raja Rao may have intended to convey when he suggested that she was firmly Indian and “therefore” universal, for surely not everything Indian is universal, nor does India, whatever the conceit of those who always applaud it as the “greatest” or oldest civilization, have a monopoly on the “universal”.  The greater puzzle is why Kamaladevi, who left behind the impress of her intelligence, insights, and remarkable energy on everything that she touched, and whose contributions to so many diverse fields of human activity are such as to stagger the imagination, is so little remembered today in India and is virtually unknown outside the country.

Born into a Saraswat Brahmin family in Mangalore, Kamaladevi was initiated into politics at an early age.  Her memoirs are scanty on early dates and details:  she lost her father, who had not written a will, when she was but seven years old, and the family wealth and properties all went to a stepbrother with whom there was little contact.   At a stroke, Kamaladevi and her mother were left disinherited.  This dim awareness of the precariousness of women’s lives would, in time, lead to the recognition that, as she wrote in her memoirs, “women had no rights”.  At the home of her maternal uncle, Kamaladevi received another kind of political education:  he was a notable social reformer and visitors to the home included eminent lawyers, political luminaries, and public figures, among them Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Srinivas Sastri, Pandita Ramabai, and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru.  Throughout, however, Kamaladevi’s mother and grandmother left the deepest impression on her.  Both women were educated, ecumenical in their interests, and enterprising, and it is from them that Kamaladevi inherited her own love of books.

Kamaladevi

Like many educated upper-caste Hindu women of her generation, Kamaladevi was brought into the political life of the nation in the 1920s and 1930s by the ascendancy of Gandhi and his insistence on adhering to a nonviolent struggle.  Kamaladevi’s relationship to Gandhi, whom she acknowledged as a titan without peers, is a vast and complex subject.  By 1923, she had fallen under his spell and she enrolled herself in the nationalist struggle as a member of the Congress party.  Three years later, she had the unique distinction of being the first woman in India to run for political office.  Kamaladevi competed for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly and lost by a mere 55 votes.  Along with the rest of the nation, she was completely captivated by the Salt Satyagraha, but she differed with Gandhi’s decision to exclude women among the initial group of marchers.  Though Kamaladevi was charged with violation of the salt laws and sentenced to a prison term, the most dramatic moment that brought her to the nation’s attention occurred when, in a scuffle over the Congress flag, she clung to it tenaciously.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

While Kamaladevi’s admiration for Gandhi never wavered, and the ideals to which he aspired became her own, she occasionally felt stifled by the authoritarian strands within his personality and felt restless at the slow pace of change.  She had been slowly drifting towards the socialist wing of the Congress party and in 1936 she took over leadership of the Congress Socialist Party.  Meanwhile, Kamaladevi had been establishing extraordinary networks of political solidarity within and outside India.  In 1926 she met the Irish-Indian suffragette Margaret Cousins, who founded the All India Women’s Conference and remained its President until Kamaladevi assumed that role in 1936.  Kamaladevi’s first writings on the rights of women in India date to 1929; one of her last books, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, was published in 1982.  Over a period of some five decades, Kamaladevi articulated in dozens of writings and speeches a distinct position, one that was mindful of the liabilities faced by Indian women that were both peculiar to them and common to women everywhere.  While she became an advocate of positions that are now commonplace to women’s movements all over the world, such as equal pay for equal work, she also resisted the idea that the experience of the West was to furnish the template for women’s movements in India.

Kamaladevi was, however, also a key figure in the international socialist feminist movement.  From the late 1920s to the 1940s and beyond, Kamaladevi became not only an emissary and spokesperson for Indian women and political independence, but for larger transnational causes, such as the emancipation of colored people around the world from colonial rule and political and economic equity between nations.  She attended the “International Alliance of Women in Berlin” in 1929, only to become aware of how race and national boundaries might become obstacles to the solidarity of women:  it was a “misnomer” to call it “International”, she says, as the only non-Western representatives were from Egypt and India.  At the International Session of the League Against Imperialism in Frankfurt, Kamaladevi could discuss problems encountered in common by colonized peoples in West Africa, North Africa, Indochina, the American south, and elsewhere.  Though this has never been recognized as such, Kamaladevi facilitated India’s emergence as the leader of the non-aligned movement and the crafting of the Bandung Declaration of 1956 which was nothing other than a clarion call for a fundamental reordering of the world order.

Kamaladevi was a prolific writer, and her twenty odd books furnish unimpeachable evidence of the wide array of her intellectual and political interests, and a global outlook which shunned alike a narrow nationalism and a superficial cosmopolitanism.  She traveled to Nanjing and Chongqing and met with resistance leaders during the country’s occupation under Japanese rule:  from this resulted a small book, In war-torn China (1944).  Yet, given her spirit of inquiry, she also took it upon herself to visit Japan and came to the conclusion, in Japan:  Its Weakness and Strength (1944), that the Japanese, who had sought to be the vanguard of a pan-Asianism, had bloodied their hands with the most virulent strands of materialism and imperialism.  She is also among a handful of people in India in the 1930s-1950s who wrote widely on the US.  In Uncle Sam’s Empire (1944) and America:  The Land of Superlatives (1946), she reverses the gaze.  Reams and reams have been written of the saffron robe-clad monk, known to the world as Swami Vivekananda, visiting Chicago in 1993 and thereby bringing Hinduism to the New World; and yet we know little of the sari-clad Kamaladevi wandering around the United States, making her way into prisons, union meetings, political conventions, black neighborhoods, and American homes, and leaving behind the distinct impressions of an Indian feminist with strong nationalist and socialist inclinations of the possibilities and limitations of the experiment with democracy.

Kamaladevi was arguably the best traveled Indian woman of her generation, and built up a resume of foreign trips that enabled her to enhance remarkably international networks of political solidarity; yet, as her work in social, political, and cultural domains amply showed, she remained solidly grounded in the ethos of Indian life.  The lives of common people were of abiding interest to her. The city of Faridabad today has a population of around 1.5 million; but hardly anyone is aware of the fact that Kamaladevi played the critical role in giving birth to this industrial township, a flagship project that she undertook as the founding leader of the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) to resettle nearly 50,000 Pathans from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the wake of the post-partition migrations.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

The Kamaladevi that most Indians are familiar with is a figure who, above all, revived Indian handicrafts, became the country’s most well-known expert on carpets, puppets, and its thousands of craft traditions, and nurtured the greater majority of the country’s national institutions charged with the promotion of dance, drama, art, theatre, music, and puppetry.  It must seem strange to those acquainted with the first half of her life that someone who was so intensely political should have eschewed every political office in independent India.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi.  Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi. Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Did she abandon “the political center” as she acquired prominence as an authority on India’s craft traditions and the country’s tribal populations?   Greatly disillusioned by the partition, Kamaladevi had come to recognize that India was not going to even remotely take the shape that she had envisioned at the dawn of freedom.  However, it may be a mistake to partition her life in this fashion.  Her life offers many cues about the intersection of politics and aesthetics and in her resolute insistence on autonomy and the integrity of every life we find the threads that enable us to fold the various Kamaladevis into one majestic figure.

[The Plural Universe of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, co-edited by Ellen DuBois and Vinay Lal, will be published by Zubaan Books, New Delhi, in 2016.]

(Originally published in the Indian Express, Sunday Magazine (The Eye), 25 October 2015, as “A Beautiful Mind:  Looking Back at the Life of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay”

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