(On the occasion of the 72nd anniversary of this insurrection)

For many years the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Mutiny, which broke out in in full swing on February 18, 1946, and lasted a mere five days before the leaders who acted on behalf of the disaffected soldiers surrendered, remained largely marginal in narratives of modern Indian history.  The temper of the times—shortly after the end of the war, and on the cusp of independence—seemed, both in in popular memory and in Indian historiography, to be better represented by the INA Trial that was launched in November 1945 when the British charged Colonel Prem Singh, Major-General Shah Nawaz Khan, and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon with murder and “waging war against the King-Emperor.”


The site of that trial was the Red Fort, now converted into a courtroom:  it is here that Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, was adjudged guilty of treason and banished into exile.  If the 1858 trial brought India into the orbit of the British Empire as a Crown colony, the INA Trial became, oddly enough, the swansong of the Raj.  Indian nationalists had, over the years, mastered the oracular and spectacular space of the courtroom; for the occasion of the trial, Nehru donned his lawyer’s garb and helped to furnish the drama which catapults an event into history.  And, to cap it all, everyone understood that the INA Trial was a verdict on the absent Subhas Bose, by now elevated into the pantheon of Indian deities; in a manner of speaking, he even presided over it.


The war years, in the nationalist imagination, are associated with “Quit India”.  But the war had precipitated other kinds of unrest, creating shortages of food and other essential items.  The Royal Indian Navy and Royal Indian Air Force were raised from a state of infancy to some prominence, and in all three services of the armed forces the end of the war brought to the fore the question of demobilization and gainful employment for men released into civilian life. There was resentment at the use of Indian troops to put down revolutionary dissent in Indonesia, and Indian servicemen chafed at the huge gap between themselves and British soldiers, as evidenced by large disparities in salaries, the quality of canteen food, and working conditions.


Men of the Royal Indian Navy at Stamshaw Training Camp, Portsmouth, 8 July 1942.  Source:  Wiki Commons.

At the HMIS Talwar, Balai Chand Dutt, who had served in the RIN for five years, found other kindred spirits who intently watched the proceedings of the INA Trial and resented the discrimination and racism they continued to encounter as soldiers of the Empire.  On 1 December 1945, British officers found the parade ground, where the HMIS Talwar was shortly to be displayed to the public, sprayed with signs, “Kill the British”, “Revolt Now”, “Down with the Imperialists.”  Airmen at the Royal Indian Air Force station in Karachi struck a few weeks later:  that show of dissent, which would spread to over 50 stations in South Asia but remains little studied, was dealt with gingerly by the British.


Meanwhile, at the HMIS Talwar, little acts of insurrection continued, and Dutt was apprehended for vandalism on February 2nd.  Dutt has related in his memoir, and this is confirmed in contemporary accounts appearing in the Bombay Free Press Journal, that Arthur King, commanding officer of the ship, abused the sailors with such epithets as, “Sons of bitches’, ‘Sons of Coolies’, and ‘Sons of Bloody Junglees’.  Dutt and his fellow rebels persuaded the ratings to join the revolt, commencing on February 18th with a hunger strike.  In less than three days, the revolt had spread to nearly 75 others ships and nearly 20,000 sailors, all under the age of 26, had thrown the gauntlet.  The Naval Central Strike Committee was formed and issued a series of well-thought out demands, calling for the release of all political prisoners, action against King, better pay and working conditions, employment for demobilized men, withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia, and respect from officers.  And, yet, on February 23rd, the Committee capitulated; the organized strike was over.


Evening News of India, Bombay, 21 February 1946.

Historians are generally in agreement that the mutineers floundered since they found that the leadership of neither the Congress nor the Muslim League was supportive of the strike.  The British began to deploy troops to put down the mutiny, determined to deal firmly with the rebels.  As Field Marshall Wavell, the Viceroy of India put it in a telegram to Prime Minister Attlee, the “example of the Royal Air Force, who got away with what was really a mutiny, has some responsibility for the present situation.”  The Strike Committee called for a city-wide hartal in Bombay—not without some success.  By February 22nd, a good portion of the city had been shut down, but violence had also flared up at various places.  By the end of the day, 63 people had been killed, mainly in police firings.  Sardar Patel had been despatched by the Congress to converse with the leaders of the strike; the Strike Committee, meanwhile, though it had the support of some local Bombay Congress leaders and most notably Aruna Asif Ali, who had played a prominent role in the Quit India movement, could not produce a leader of national standing.  On Patel’s assurances that the rebels would be treated fairly, the Strike Committee ordered the end of the strike.


Bombay:  Scene of the RIN Mutiny, February 1946.

In the received left narrative, the Congress was always a bourgeois organization, beholden to Indian capital and, especially at this juncture, mindful of the fact that, in independent India, the support of Indian business and industry leaders would be needed to build the nation.  The elites were scarcely prepared to allow petty soldiers and workers to show the way to freedom; they would not let the thunder be stolen from them.  There was perhaps little sympathy among Congress leaders, who had spent the better part of the war years in jail, for sailors whose patriotism had arrived rather late in the day.  Communist support for the Mutiny, and the Strike Committee’s call for a hartal, had given the communists an opening that Patel was determined to throttle.  Negotiations for India’s political future had commenced and were still inconclusive, but the way forward seemed unquestionably to be within some constitutional framework.

The RIN Mutiny may have been a much less momentous event than some recent commentators have imagined, and assessments of as it having hastened the end of British rule in India seem overblown.  But it nevertheless still permits us to think both about the India that came into shape and the possibilities for a better future that might have been scuttled at this pivotal moment.  In India, unlike in most other countries that went through decolonization, civilian control over the military has remained the one inviolable principle of the Republic.  Writing on 1 March 1946, Patel put forward a defense of his objection to the strike with the observation that “discipline in the Army cannot be tampered with . . .  We will want the Army even in free India.”  Patel understood better than most others the unrelenting and unforgiving logic of the democratic nation-state.  At the same time, in the suppression of the RIN Mutiny lie the seeds of the continuing inability of the nation-state to harness the power of the working-class and to address it as the motive force in history.   There is also the comforting thought that, at one time, mutinies in the armed forces spread from Bombay to Karachi—harbinger not only of the possibilities of working-class solidarity, but of the transgressive force of truly revolutionary activity.  The RIN Mutiny did not fit into any blueprint for the future; the pity of it is that the blueprint has even less space for such acts of insurrection now.

[A shorter version of this piece was published as “An Act of Insurrection”, Indian Express (23 February 2018), p. 15, also available online.]


On Monday morning, Doug Schifter, a livery cab driver in his early 60s, took his own life in front of Manhattan’s City Hall.  He killed himself with a shotgun while seated in his car, but not before posting a suicide note on his Facebook account:

            Due to the huge numbers of cars available with desperate drivers trying to feed their families they squeeze rates to below operating costs and force professionals like me out of business. They count their money and we are driven down into the streets we drive becoming homeless and hungry. I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.


Doug Schifter, a New York livery cab driver.

Schifter had been a professional livery driver nearly his entire adult life.  He had driven black cars, limousines, and chauffeured cars and logged, according to his own Facebook account, “4.5 million miles”; he was also “hurricane and blizzard experienced” and accustomed to ferrying celebrities to “award shows” and “movie premieres”. [The Facebook account was deleted just before I completed this essay, around 3:30 PM on February 7, Pacific Standard Time.]  He was conversant enough in the business and its intricacies to command a column in the Black Car News, the industry newsletter.  But all his experience had not prepared Schifter to withstand the constant tremors, far more than an occasional blizzard, that have rattled New York City since the arrival of Uber and other ride-share services.  Schifter goes on to describe the transformation of the 40-hour week in the 1980s which gave him an adequate living, and more, to what in the last year had become 100-hour work weeks. Like many other drivers, Schifter had lately been returning home after a long day of work with barely pocket change for his day’s earnings. In his parting post, Schifter held New York’s politicians responsible for allowing the streets of the city to be flooded with rideshare cars, and similarly he slammed the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), an organization which has had a vise-like grip on the taxi and livery business, for not only having failed to protect its most vulnerable drivers but aggravating their misery.

Though the taxi business is almost everywhere in the United States under water, nowhere has the advent of Uber been more destructive to cab drivers than in New York City.  A little more than a decade ago, Biju Mathew, a South Asian political activist who along with Bhairavi Desai and others has been a major force in the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, wrote a riveting account of the politics and political economy that have informed the taxicab business in the city.  At the center of his narrative is an obscure object that had been conferred somewhat magical properties, an object that drove the business and should have attracted the attention of anthropologists. That object is called a “medallion”: it isn’t a medal, and is something more akin to objects—whether family heirlooms, sacred books, or priestly icons with which the laity are kept in a state of mystification and subjection— whose ownership is ritually passed down from one generation to another.  The medallion is, in fact, a string of four numbers and letters—4D22, 5G11, 8A33, and so on—by which the cab is identified; it is also a license or permit sold by the city which allows its owner or manipulator to put a cab on city streets.  Only as many yellow cabs can operate on city streets as there are medallions, and only the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) can preside over the sale of new medallions.

When I first encountered Mathew’s book in 2006, there were some 13,000 medallions in New York City, though over 50,000 drivers were licensed to drive medallion cabs.  Each medallion then cost around half a million dollars.  The medallion was first introduced in 1937, and in the early 1940s it sold for $100; by the mid-1950s, the price had risen to $5,000, and two decades later it was fetching three times that amount on the open market.  Around the turn of the century, the medallion was being sold for $300,000. Generations of students of economics will aver that the iron-clad laws of supply and demand are sufficient to explain why the medallion, whose supply was strictly controlled, was able to attract such astronomical prices. But Mathew was on to something else, even before Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare services had come on to the scene, and he wove a much more complex narrative which draws upon such phenomena as globalization, outsourcing, the restructuring of the labor market, global flows of migration, and the corporatization of New York City and more broadly of so-called world cities to give us insights into the difficult lives of drivers.

Most medallion owners never drove their own cars; they leased them out, with brokers acting as middlemen. The rising cost of medallions made them increasingly more expensive to rent.  One cab driver, Khurshid, who like most others in New York City is a Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Dominican, Haitian, or from some other immigrant group, told Mathew:  “The medallion is what will keep me a driver and nothing more all my life” (p. 66). But the advent of Uber so fundamentally altered the landscape that the ethnography of the medallion will have to be rewritten. At its peak in early 2014, the medallion commanded a price of over $1.2 million; today it fetches one-fifth the price, a little less than $250,000, and it is clearly in free fall.  There is every likelihood that the price of the medallion has not bottomed out, not unless there is a rapid reassessment of rideshare services and what they signify both about an economy and the cultural mores of a society.  A few medallion owners and many brokers have been driven into despair and sometimes bankruptcy, and taxicab drivers are being plummeted into oblivion.

Mathew furnishes an interesting history of taxicab operations in New York from the 1920s onwards, even if it is his ethnography of the lives of taxi drivers that is truly gripping.  Though most people, whether in New York or anywhere else, whine about high taxicab fares, Mathew shows persuasively that taxicab drivers rarely made a comfortable living and often had 12-hour days. (Schifter, as a livery and limousine driver, would have done much better in the old days.)  Capitalism derives much of its mythos from the idea that risk takers are rewarded in a free market, but in fact the risk-taking is generally left to those who are most vulnerable. Brokers and certainly owners were assured of an income through the medallion before the dam burst after the introduction of Uber, but the immigrant driver often had nothing to show for his labor at the end of the day. The economic tendencies associated with globalization—outsourcing, low-income jobs, depressed and stagnant wages, the deployment of an immigrant labor force, the evisceration of labor unions, the loss of protection from arbitrary dismissal, among others—were all prefigured in New York’s taxicab business and are now to be seen in their more aggravated form in the advent of rideshare services.  The popular and academic ethnographies of Uber drivers—and by “Uber” I mean, of course, all rideshare services, notwithstanding the illusion by which some have been driven that “Lyft”, to take one illustration, is a more fair and equitable employer—that will be written in the near future will show the catastrophic effects of Uberization on the lives of common people.


Danillo Corporan Castillo, a livery driver, in a photo  taken before he jumped to his death on 20 December 2017.  Source:  http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/distraught-driver-killed-weeks-city-hall-suicide-article-1.3803684

Six weeks before Schifter put a bullet through his head, 57-year old Danilo Corporan Castillo jumped to his death from the roof of an apartment building on West 135th Street.  Castillo, a livery driver, feared that his license was about to be revoked by the Taxi and Limousine Commission owing to his failure to pay fines imposed by the TLC on him for accepting illegal street hails. I do not know whether it has been alleged that Castillo was suffering from a mental illness.  This charge is, of course, how the powerful address such “tragedies”:  Mayor de Blasio, full of the usual pious platitudes about how his heart goes out to the victims and their families, suggested that Schifter almost certainly was mentally ill.  As he (grandiloquently) put it, “Look, let’s face it, for someone to commit suicide means there’s an underlying mental health challenge. Economic distress is real but a lot of people have faced economic distress and don’t turn to suicide.”

The honeymoon period with rideshare services will most likely end sooner rather than later.  And, in case someone should remind me of the offenses that Uber has already committed and query whether it is still in the ‘honeymoon’ period, there is but no question in my mind that the appetite for these rideshare services is there and yet to peak before the hazards of the Uberization of the economy become apparent.  Those hazards are not merely the ones that have already been under discussion for some time, from “surge pricing” and cheating to the risks associated with taking rides from drivers who have been cleared after inadequate security checks. Uberization is but another word for the most fundamental problem of the economy everywhere in the world, namely unchecked “greed” and the growing accumulation of immense wealth in a few hands.  There are even considerations that are far from the minds of those who, like Travis Kalanick and Jeff Bezos, have scant regard for the lives of others and whose sole purpose in life is self-aggrandizement.  What, for instance, are the implications for the faculty of memory when all the Uber driver has to do is to turn to GPS?  In a later post, I hope to turn to some of these other, equally insidious, consequences of an Uberized economy.


*The Homeless Gandhi

Los Angeles, 30 January 2018

On this day, seventy years ago, Mohandas Gandhi was felled by three bullets from a gun fired by Nathuram Godse, a Chitpavan Brahmin who nursed a number of grudges against the man anointed as the “Father of the Nation”.  Most people in India mourned; some cheered.  More than a few held him chiefly responsible for the vivisection of India and declared that he, more than Muhammad Iqbal or Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had played a critical role in birthing Pakistan; in the days before his death, Gandhi had been taunted by some as “The Father of Pakistan”.  Godse held that Gandhi was an effete man whose womanly ways and petulant behavior, which led the old man to fast whenever he could not get his way, had emasculated the country.  Thus, in Godse’s view, Gandhi deserved to die.


Nathuram Godse. Getty Image.

Unlike, however, those who at present rejoice in Gandhi’s death, even as they garland his statues and mouth the customary platitudes about his “continuing relevance”, Godse was quite candid in holding forth that India could never become a powerful nation-state that the rest of the world might envy so long as Gandhi was alive to guide the country’s destinies.  Godse was also genuinely reverential in his feelings towards Gandhi, a part of his story that is little recognized:  the Mahatma loved the nation and had awakened the slumbering masses, so Godse thought, but he had deviated from the path and gone astray.  Gandhi, that inveterate user of trains, had derailed the country.  His murder would be the first step in the yet unnamed project of ghar wapsi:  even as Gandhi was being returned to his Maker, the country would supposedly be returned to its roots.

Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents described the battle within everyone between eros (the instinct to love) and the death wish (thanatos).  While we need not be beholden to Freud’s precise reading of the death wish, it may be said that, in a peculiar way, Gandhi did not mind being killed.  By this I do not merely mean what most who are familiar with Gandhi’s life will at once infer, namely that he often spoke in the last few years of his life, and particularly in the aftermath of the partition killings, of having lost the desire to live.  He had a premonition of his own death; and, yet, he had also said on more than one occasion that he wished to live until he was 125 years old.

I have in mind something quite different.  Though there have been many compelling interpretations of his life, Gandhi has increasingly struck me as someone who felt himself at sea in the world.  Everyone has her or his own Gandhi:  political activists, nudists, vegetarians, environmentalists, prohibitionists, civil resisters, and pacifists are only some among the dozens of constituencies that have claimed him as their own and sometimes even adopted him as their mascot.  It is time for the homeless to claim him as their own, though we should first strive to unravel a few of the meanings of home and dispossession.  We often make a home and dispossess others by our act.  The home that we long for, when realized, suddenly loses all its attractions.  Our home might come to burden or haunt us, creating other forms of dispossession.  Our actual home may well be elsewhere than the home in which we live.  We may be at home in not being at home at all, and the home that we call home may have no relation to the home that is in the heart.  That home with which we draw a boundary to keep out others becomes more than a marker of territory, helping shape conceptions of the outside and the inside, the other and the self, the alien and the familiar. We may, like the reluctant exile, gain a political home and lose our cultural home.  We may have several homes, and yet feel dispossessed; or we may have no home at all, and feel that the world is at our fingertips.

Gandhi’s life offers fleeting impressions of someone who, even as his feet were firmly planted on the ground, was curiously unmoored.  For much the greater part of his adult life, Gandhi was bereft of a family home, sharing not even an extended family home that was overwhelmingly the norm in his lifetime.  He shared his life not merely with Kasturba and their sons but with dozens and often hundreds of inmates in communes and ashrams, and was deeply resented by some members of his family for being insufficiently attentive to them and their needs.  If, for instance, the notion of home implies the idea of a private sphere, Gandhi displayed not merely indifference to the idea of privacy but was inclined to see it as a species of secrecy and thus deception.  It cannot be an accident that, having vowed not to return to Sabarmati Ashram until India had been delivered from the shackles of colonial rule, Gandhi went on the Dandi March and then drifted around, somewhat like a homeless man, for a few years until he settled upon Wardha in central India.  In early April 1936, he set himself up in the desperately poor and mosquito-infested village of Segaon, which then had a population of less than 700.  Segaon had the virtue only of being, it is said, the dead center of India, home to everything and nothing.


Gandhi in Noakhali, 1946:  When No One Walks With You, Walk Alone.

Gandhi was beginning to feel homeless in the India that was taking shape even before partition tore apart his country and his heart alike.  He was an early critic of what in post-World War II would begin to be called “development”; but he was also, and this is the greater irony, in view of his role as the chief architect of the Indian independence struggle, never at home with the idea of the nation-state.  No nationalist was less invested in the nation-state that he had helped to forge.  That is one of the measures of his greatness and of his distinct mode of being (at home) in the world.  Gandhi had once appealed to Ambedkar to put aside their differences and work him in the interest of the country, and Ambedkar famously replied, “Mahatmaji, I have no country.”  Little could Ambedkar have known that Gandhi would just become his statues.  We can in any case think of their exchange as the most extraordinary recorded conversation between two homeless men.


[This is a slightly revised version of a piece published in the print and online editions of the Indian Express on 30 January 1948; in the print edition, the piece appears on p. 1; the online version is here: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mahatma-gandhi-jayanti-father-of-the-nation-5044076/]

[The online version of the piece as it appears in the Indian Express of course invites comments from readers.  One reader remarked that, in highlighting the fact that Nathuram was a Chitpavan Brahmin, I was clearly displaying my prejudice against Hindus.  This is not even remotely the case, though the culture of trolling has now made it far too easy for people to engage in slander, cant, and humbug.  It is not unimportant that Nathuram Godse came from a Chitpavan Brahmin background: not only were there other attempts on Gandhi’s life by Chitpavan Brahmins, but the community as a whole felt especially aggrieved at the loss of its power as a consequence of British rule.  Having a Gujarati bania such as Gandhi at the helm of power was not calculated to make Chitpavans, who bemoaned the loss of their masculinity, feel emboldened as the sun began to set on British rule in India. But an extended commentary on all this is scarcely necessary, since Ashis Nandy’s “Final Encounter:  On the Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi”, offers a complex and brilliant interpretation of the sources of Chitpavan Brahmin anxiety about Gandhi.  Another reader, quite predictably, counsels that my piece may be ignored since it stems from the pen of a Non-Resident Indian.  Gandhi himself spent over 20 years in South Africa, and I suppose that some nationalist Hindus are still inclined to take the view that Gandhi remained a foreigner to India.]

On the evening of 30 January 1948, Mohandas Gandhi, known the world over as the “Mahatma” and in India as “Bapu”, was assassinated as he walked towards the prayer ground at Birla House.  Nathuram Godse, a Maharashtrian Brahmin from Pune, fired three bullets from a revolver and Gandhi died instantly.  Godse was wrestled to the ground by a couple of onlookers; but he had no intention of escaping, and was indeed keen that he should be apprehended alive and have his say in court.  This was one of the many things that Godse learned from Gandhi, for whom he had a curious admixture of reverence and hatred:  the courtroom can be commanded to great advantage by the accused, and the audience might even be swayed into believing that the accused had just cause.

John Keane, “Experiments with Truth” (1996), oil and collage on canvas.  Source:  http://www.johnkeaneart.com/index.php/welcome/cat/31/2/2

Nathuram Godse was no doubt assisted in his plans by a motley group of men who had various reasons for harboring a real grudge against Gandhi.  The Government of India insisted that there had been a conspiracy to murder the “Father of the Nation” and Vinayak Savarkar was thought to have been the brains behind the conspiracy.  But Godse remained unequivocally clear to the end of his life that he alone bore responsibility for Gandhi’s death.  Godse did nothing to exculpate himself and sought to shift the blame from others who also stood accused of having conspired to murder Gandhi.  Some of the supposed conspirators were released for lack of evidence, among them Savarkar; a few others, including Nathuram’s younger brother Gopal, were handed stiff prison terms; and Nathuram and Narayan Apte were sent to the gallows.

The indubitable fact, of course, is that Nathuram Godse alone pulled the trigger.  He was the sole assassin.  If that is the case, the alert reader might wonder why the title of the piece adverts to Gandhi’s “assassins”.  In speaking of his assassins, I do not intend to revisit the debate, which persisted for a very long time, about the supposed conspiracy that felled Gandhi.   There can be little doubt that Savarkar, who had a long and unsavory history of instrumentalizing other men in the pursuit of his own political objectives, was something of an ideological bulwark for Nathuram and others of his ilk.  Justice Jivanlal Kapur, who headed a one-man commission in 1966 to inquire into Gandhi’s assassination following some disclosures that various government officials may have been negligent in safeguarding Gandhi’s life, conducted an extensive probe and issued a lengthy report in 1969 where he stated that the facts that had come to his attention “taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”

I would like to suggest both that Nathuram Godse was fundamentally right in accepting sole culpability for Gandhi’s death and that Justice Kapur underestimated the degree to which Gandhi’s death was, in the words of his biographer Robert Payne, a “permissive assassination”.  The word ‘conspiracy’ is not particularly conducive to a discussion which would allow us to understand the circumstances which, as it were, conspired to lead to Gandhi’s death and which apparently make it necessary to murder Gandhi all over again.  The Government of India was drawing upon the colonial apparatus of law and a juridical conception of “conspiracy” when it drew up charges against Savarkar, the Godse brothers, and others, and the limitations of this exercise are all too apparent when we consider that India, as a nation, is far from being done with Gandhi.  We must thus begin with this inexorable fact:  men such as Gandhi have to be killed repeatedly. A cartoonist for the Chicago Sun-Times in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), appears to have understood this well:  a seated Gandhi looks up to the slain civil rights leader and remarks, “The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”


Let us begin, however, with the idea of a “permissive assassination”.  India had emerged as a new nation-state from two centuries of colonial rule and India’s elites, among them some who were Gandhi’s associates, were keen that the country should take its place in the world as a strong nation-state resolutely committed to modernization, industrialization, and the kind of central planning that characterized the policies of the Soviet Union.  Yet Gandhi had initiated a far-reaching critique of industrial civilization and the very precepts of modernity in his tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj, and his critics worried that his pervasive influence would be detrimental to the development of India as an economic and political power.  Gandhi was, though this could scarcely be admitted, a nuisance, even a hindrance; and when Nathuram pulled the trigger, there were certainly others who thought that the man had died a moment not too soon.  When the Government cast the murder as a “conspiracy” in the narrow legal sense, they did not of course mean to implicate the bureaucrats and modernizing elites who, viewing Gandhi as expendable, had secretly conspired to let him die.


A 32-inch bust of Nathuram Godse installed in the Daulatgang office of the Hindu Mahasabha in Gwalior, central India.  Source:  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/hindu-mahasabha-sets-up-nathuram-godse-mahatma-gandhis-assassin-temple-kicks-up-row-4939797/

If the Bengal Renaissance is, as someone I knew once quipped, the longest continuing renaissance in the world, Gandhi’s assassination seems to have unfolded over seven decades and remains one long unremitting exercise in exorcising him.  In a piece I published a decade ago, I pointed out that every constituency in India—Marxists, Hindu nationalists, rationalists, feminists, Dalits, modernizers, militarists, and the myriad worshippers at the altar of science, development, progress, and the nation-state—“loves to hate” Gandhi.  Notwithstanding all the utterly predictable homilies that issue forth from the mouths of politicians, it is amply clear that very few in the Indian government or the wider middle class have any use for him.  To be sure, his name still constitutes a form of cultural capital, and propriety and national respect alike dictate that his name should be held up with reverence in the presence of foreign dignitaries.  Most of Gandhi’s fellow Gujaratis, in and out of India, have largely effaced him from their worldview.  The guardians of his own Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, from where Gandhi set out on the Salt March, shut close the doors of the ashram in the face of the Muslim refugees seeking protection from the hoodlums baying for their blood in the killings of 2002.

Much more may be written about the rehabilitation of both Vinayak Savarkar and Nathuram Godse over the last decade or two, particularly in the last few years since the BJP has become the dominant force in Indian politics.  A portrait of Savarkar was unveiled in the Central Hall of Parliament in 2003 when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP was in power, and it is scarcely surprising that Narendra Modi should have paid his homage to Savarkar on many occasions, not only after assuming the office of the Prime Minister.


Tribute being paid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Savarkar on his birth anniversary in the Indian Parliament.  Source:  https://www.telegraphindia.com/1140529/jsp/nation/story_18393712.jsp

Narendra Modi paying homage to Savarkar on 26 February 2013.  Source:  https://www.narendramodi.in/cm-pays-tributes-to-veer-savarkar-on-his-punya-tithi-5126

In 2015, the Hindu Mahasabha, an organization to which both Savarkar and Nathuram swore their allegiance, announced plans to install busts and statues of Nathuram in Hindu temples across north and western India. Though their plans to build temples in honor of Godse have thus far not materialized, in the central Indian city of Gwalior the Mahasabha has installed a bust of Godse at their office and described it as the foundation stone of a temple which has been named ‘Hutatma Nathuram Godse Mandir’ [Temple of the Martyr Nathuram Godse].  Whatever opprobrium may still be attached in some measure to celebrating Nathuram Godse as a martyr, it is unquestionably the case that the circumstances which made possible a “permissive assassination” have now produced widespread agreement with the views embraced by Nathuram.


Hindu Mahasabha Bhavan, Gwalior:  Hutatma Nathuram Godse Mandir [Temple of the Martyr Nathuram Godse].  Source:  https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/gwalior-now-has-a-temple-of-mahatma-gandhi-s-killer-nathuram-godse-why-on-earth-was-it-needed-333801.html

Yet, however much India’s elites and middle classes have attempted to relegate Gandhi to the margins, engaging in campaigns of slander, obfuscation, and trivialization, Gandhi also continues to surface in the most unexpected ways.  He is the (sometimes hidden) face of most of many of India’s most significant ecological movements, from Chipko to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, just as he is the face of intellectual dissent, little insurrections, and social upheaval.  Every so often someone comes along purporting to unmask the ‘real’ Gandhi hidden from history.  The hagiographic representation of Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s film of the same name in late 1982 produced in reaction one such wave of supposed exposés of the Gandhi that, in the phrase of one of his most staunch detractors, Richard Grenier, “no one knows”.  We were then led into believing that Gandhi was a fiend who was patriarchal, a sexual puritan, and a crazy luddite; many others have over the decades added to that picture, describing Gandhi as a racist and particularly contemptuous of Africans, an enemy of reason, a foe of his fellow Hindus (to some) and a Hindu wolf in sheep’s clothing (to others), even a ‘friend of Hitler’.  (Gandhi authored two short very short letters to Hitler, neither of which the war-time British censors permitted to reach the intended recipient, urging him to renounce violence.)

Yet Gandhi refuses to disappear:  we heard some years ago of the Gandhian moment in Iran’s Green Revolution and recently dissidents in Turkey have described themselves as inspired largely by him.  There is the Gandhi that appears on the Separation Wall and I daresay that there is the ‘little Gandhi’ that has been thrown up by every revolution over the last few decades.  The Gandhi of the shining bald head, the pair of round spectacles, the timepiece, the walking stick, the sandals, the pet goat, and the Mickey Mouse ears has become an ineradicable part of the national imaginary in India.  Gandhi is everywhere, in every act of nonviolence and, more significantly, every act of violence—a spectral presence to remind us of the supreme importance of the ethical life.

India has just finished celebrating Republic Day, and as the chests of millions of Indians swelled with pride at the thought of our immense diversity and imagined military prowess, it is well to reflect on what kind of Republic the country has become.  We may begin with some elementary if often forgotten meanings of the word “republic”:  a republican form of government is not merely one in which the head of state is not a hereditary monarch; rather, the modern republic rests on the idea that sovereignty resides in the people, and that the will of the people, as expressed through their representatives, is supreme.

What has, however, been critical to the idea of the ‘republic’ everywhere is the notion of inclusiveness, even if this does not form part of the word’s typical dictionary definition. In this respect, the stories that have been coming out of India in recent years tell a tale that is chilling to the bones, a tale which leaves behind a stench that no amount of sloganeering about ‘swacch Bharat’ or even something more than a symbolic wielding of the broom can eradicate.  If inclusiveness is the touchstone of a Republic, what is characteristic of India today is how increasingly large constituencies are being excluded from the nation. Muslims and Dalits have been hounded, garroted, and lynched; the working class is being trampled upon; the Adivasi is nothing more than an obstacle course for a mining company.  None of this is news, some might argue; perhaps things have only become worse.  Such a view is profoundly mistaken, because whatever India may have been in the past, it has never been, certainly not to the extent it is today, a Republic of Inhospitality.

There are other ways, too, of understanding the pass at which we have arrived.  On his last day of office some months ago, the Vice President, Hamid Ansari, warned that Muslims were feeling increasingly insecure in India and that there was a corrosion of Indian values.  His successor, Venkaiah Naidu, was dismissive of these remarks and shot back, “Some people are saying minorities are insecure. It is a political propaganda. Compared to the entire world, minorities are more safe and secure in India and they get their due.” The Prime Minister, who appears a model of graciousness when he is in the company of foreign dignitaries but has been glaringly contemptuous of political opponents and previous occupants of his office, could not resist taking a dig at Mr. Ansari.  The veteran politician, Mr. Modi suggested, had spent too much time in the company of Muslims—at Aligarh Muslim University, as a member of the Minorities Commission, and as a representative of India to West Asia—and his sympathies did not really lie with India.  One should, of course, not expect anything else from this Prime Minister, What Naidu and the Prime Minister failed to understand was Ansari’s unease at the fact that India no longer seemed a hospitable place to him. India does not even remotely feel like a hospitable place to the Africans who have been set upon by mobs or to those from the Northeast who been humiliated and killed since they seem too much like the Chinese—aliens all.


African students injured in mob attacks in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, April 2017.  Source:  http://www.sikhpa.com/sikh-group-condemns-racist-mob-attack-against-africans-in-india/

More than anything else, India has long been a land of hospitality.  I use the word hospitality with deliberation and with the awareness that our present crop of middle-class Indians who study hotel management and business administration with gusto will assume that I am speaking of the ‘hospitality industry’.  There is a different story to be told here about how some of the richest words in the English language have been hijacked for the narrowest purposes.  I use hospitality in place of tolerance since both the right and the left have demonstrated their intolerance for ‘tolerance’.  To liberals and the left in India, all discussion of Hindu tolerance is merely a conceit and at worst a license to browbeat others into submission.  Surprisingly, but perhaps not, the advocates of Hindutva are equally unenthusiastic about proclaiming the virtues of ‘Hindu tolerance’.  It was Hindu tolerance that, in their view, made the Hindus vulnerable to the depredations of foreign invaders.  ‘Hindu tolerance’ is only for the weak and the effete.



A delegation of students protesting the death of 19-year old Nido Taniam, a student from Arunachal Pradesh killed in the south Delhi colony of Lajpat Nagar.  Photo Source:  Press Trust of India.

What, then, does it mean to speak of the culture of hospitality that has long characterized India and that is eroding before our very eyes, turning this ancient land into a most inhospitable place not only for foreign tourists, African students, and the various people of northeast India, but even for the greater majority of its own citizens?  We may take as illustrative of this culture of hospitality three narratives that are humbling in their complex simplicity.  There is a story that is often told about the coming of the Parsis to India, although some doubt its veracity.  As they fled Iran, so the story goes, they were stopped on the border as they sought to make their way into India.  The Indian king already had far too many people in his dominions and could not accommodate any more refugees.  The cup was full.  The Parsis are said to have responded, ‘We shall be like the sugar that sweetens the cup of milk.’



Parsis outside their Fire Temple, Mumbai.

Those who wish to make the story plausible will offer dates and there may be mention of the political dynasty that prevailed in Western India in the 8th century with whom the first batch of Parsis would have come into contact.  The story may well be apocryphal, though if that is the case it is wholly immaterial:  its persistence suggests something not only about the tenor of those times but the continuing attractiveness of the idea that those who came to India have each, in their own fashion, sweetened the pot and added something to the country.  But there may have been many other registers of hospitality in India, as Tagore sought to explain to his audience on a visit to China.  The Mahsud, a Pathan tribe inhabiting the South Waziristan Agency in what is now the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan, were being bombed from the air.  A plane crash landed in one of the villages; the pilot was desperately trying to extricate himself from the plane which was already on fire.  Though the villagers had been plummeted by this very pilot, they ran to the plane and lifted him out of the cockpit; he was wounded, but they nursed him back to health; and some weeks later he made his way back to England.  It was a culture, indeed an ideal, of hospitality, and their notion of dharma, that made the villagers act as they did; however, as Tagore tellingly adds, their behavior was “the product of centuries of culture” and was “difficult of imitation.”

Though Nehru shepherded the country after independence, it was Mohandas Gandhi more than anyone else who was committed to the constituent idea of the Republic, that is inclusivity and what I have described as hospitality.  It is, therefore, fitting that my last story should end with him.  Gandhi was a staunch vegetarian, but he often had visitors to the ashram who were accustomed to having meat at nearly every meal.  He took it upon himself to ensure that they were served meat; and he also adhered to the view that if he had insisted that they conform to the rules of the ashram and confine themselves to vegetarian food, he would be visiting violence upon them. Although reams and reams have been written upon his notion of ahimsa, little has been said of how hospitality was interwoven into his very notion of nonviolence.  And, yet, it is in this very India that Muslims and Dalits have been killed on the mere suspicion of eating, hoarding, and transporting beef.  On this Republic Day, at least, Indians should ponder on precipitous has been the decline of their country into a Republic of Inhospitality.


[A slightly shorter version of this was published under the same title in the online edition of The Indian Express, 27 January 2018.]


The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birth anniversary is being celebrated today, was all of 39 years old when he was assassinated in 1968.  Most political careers are far from having been established at that somewhat tender age:  the man that had King had looked up to, Mohandas Gandhi, had made something of a name for himself when he was forty, but Gandhi was at that time still living in South Africa and no one could have anticipated that within a decade he would have been transformed into the leader of the Indian independence struggle.  King was only in his late 20s when, perhaps somewhat fortuitously, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 launched him onto the national stage; thereafter, his position as the preeminent face of the Civil Rights Movement was never in doubt.  This is all the more surprising considering that King was scarcely stepping into a political vacuum:  there was already a tradition of black political leadership and several of those who would become close associates of King had developed local and regional constituencies well before he arrived on the scene.

King has been the subject of several essays on this blog over the last few years.  I have also had occasion to make reference to the extraordinary career of Reverend James M. Lawson, who initiated a nonviolent training workshop that would shape the careers of an entire generation of Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and many others.  Rev. Lawson settled in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and was until a few years ago Pastor of the Holmes Methodist Church in the Adams district of Los Angeles.  He remains firmly committed, at the age of 88, to the idea and practice of nonviolent resistance, and at the national level and particularly in the Los Angeles area his activism in the cause of social justice is, if I may use a cliché, the gold standard for aspiring activists. Over the last several years, over twelve lengthy meetings, we have conversed at length—26 hours on tape, to be precise—on the Civil Rights Movement, histories of nonviolent resistance, the Christian tradition of nonviolence, the state of black America, the notion of the Global South, and much else.



Rev. James Lawson discusses his phone call inviting Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, the meeting at his church on April 3 and plans to go forward with a march with or without the court injunction in place.   Copyright:  Jeff McAdory/The Commercial Appeal.  Source: http://www.commercialappeal.com/videos/news/2017/01/12/rev.-james-lawson-recalls-inviting-martin-luther-king-jr.-memphis/96495746/

What follows is a fragment, what I think is a remarkable piece, of one lengthy conversation, which took place on 31 January 2014, revolving around some of the difficulties that King encountered, the circumstances of his political ascendancy, the so-called “failure” of the Albany campaign, and the challenge posed to him by one white supremacist, the Sheriff of Albany, Laurie Pritchett.  The fragment, which begins as it were mid-stream, has been only very lightly edited.  I have neither annotated the conversation nor removed some of the rough edges.

Vinay:              At this time, we’re talking about the Easter weekend 1960.  I’ve read in various accounts that there was a bit of impatience with King on the part of a number of people; they thought he was not radical enough, he was too cautious.

Rev. Lawson:   I think that’s reading into it.

Vinay:              You think it’s reading into it?

Rev. Lawson:   It’s also something else.  Such a view does not understand how an organization espousing nonviolence comes into being.

Vinay:              Can you say more?

Rev. Lawson:   How the person who’s become the singular spokesperson in the country for Negroes.

Vinay:              Was he at that time?

Rev. Lawson:   Oh, absolutely.

Vinay:              Already? In early 1960?

Rev. Lawson:   Oh, yes.

Vinay:              Undisputedly so.

Rev. Lawson:   Undisputedly so.  I watched it.

Vinay:              Yeah.

Rev. Lawson:   I saw some of the difficulties that he went through. He had a hard time because he was not supposed to become [the leader], he was not supposed to be.  Traditional leadership in the Negro community, in the political community, did not anticipate a young man, 26 years of age, emerging at the head of an effective bus boycott that shakes the nation and the system and spreads around the world.  He was not the chosen one.  I watched this in ’58, ’59, ’60, ’61, ’62.  The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] leadership said that mass action is not the way.  They said it then.

Vinay:              Yes.

Rev. Lawson:   They said that legal action, clean up the constitution—that is the way.  King actually as he emerged and saw what was happening with the bus boycott—he proposed to the NAACP a special direct action department of work.  They rejected that idea, and said no to that.

It’s under that aegis, then, that King starts in ’57 meeting with other clergy and then organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC].  Martin King had enough wisdom and humility that he wanted to add this dimension of life to the work of the NAACP, and the NAACP said very clearly no, that’s not possible.  That’s excluded from these [academic] books.  Worst of all, and excluded from these books, is the idea that a social campaign or movement is a social organism.  It does not arrive fully structured, fully ideologically framed.  It does not arrive with tactics in place.

Vinay:              Yes, it’s a process.

Rev. Lawson:   It’s a process. Especially it’s a process because all of the people who are attracted to it, I mean at least I my case I know, and Martin’s case I know, this was something brand new.  We had not had any experience like that in our own limited backgrounds.  I said boldly in ’59, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.

Vinay:              I find your phrase “He was not the Chosen One” striking.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah.

Vinay:              I think that perhaps it was fortuitous that Martin King was in Montgomery rather than in a place with traditional Black Leadership.

Rev. Lawson:   In Atlanta.

Vinay:              In Atlanta, because that would have been an obstruction.

Rev. Lawson:   What these scholars have no inkling about is that when Martin in ’57 organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the help of Bayard Rustin and a number of other people, and creates SCLC; when he sets up and begins to set up the office in Atlanta, and knows that eventually he’s going to leave Montgomery and go to Atlanta to work, Martin King has made a commitment to himself.  That commitment is, ‘I’m going back to Atlanta, I will be a co-pastor with my father, but I am not going to initiate any program in Atlanta.’

Why?  Because Atlanta has an organized, traditional Black Leadership group who gather once a month maybe; business, churches and clergy, artists, presidents of colleges, and they talk about their situation together.  They talk about every situation that’s coming up in Atlanta.  His father is a member of that group.  King knows that if he initiates something in Atlanta, he will have to deal with that traditional Black leadership and he does not want to.  Julian Bond and Lonnie King, and John Mac, and Maryann Wright Edelman are people who are students in Atlanta at this time.  They go to King to persuade King to take part in the sit-in campaign against riches [?] in downtown Atlanta.  King is hesitant.  He has probation problems legally, but that’s only one of them.

King’s major problem is that if he steps out in Atlanta, he will bypass Black traditional leadership.  That will stir up the hornets in Atlanta.  Now the students do not understand that.  I’m not even sure that I recognized it at that time. I mean I discovered this in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but when I discover it, I’m pretty sure is ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, not in those first months; these books don’t understand that.

King wants to be in the sit-in campaign, I have no doubt about that.  Ralph Abernathy had no doubt about that.  Others close to him had no about that.  He would prefer to be with them without reservation, but he has to deal with the fact that when he does it, he’s got all the criticism in the Black traditional leadership who are already upset with this young whippersnapper who they helped to raise, who’s coming back to work in Atlanta, and will eclipse all of them.

Vinay:              Yes, all of them, right.

Rev. Lawson:   Now none of that is in these books.

Vinay:              Yeah.  Again, in many respects this story is rather similar [Lawson laughs, in anticipation] to you-know-who.  Mohandas.

Rev. Lawson:   Yes.  Mohandas K.

Vinay:              Gandhi, yes.  Mohandas K.

Rev. Lawson:   That’s right.

Vinay:              He comes out of Ahmedabad; much of the political leadership is based in Bombay, Calcutta.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah.

Vinay:              He’s able to in fact completely change the landscape.

Rev. Lawson:   He comes to India and he is the best known Indian in India.

Vinay:              Yeah.

Rev. Lawson:   He hasn’t paid none of the price of living in India of the previous 15 years.

Vinay:              Yup, and he hadn’t paid any of the dues as they would have said.

Rev. Lawson:   Exactly, Exactly, and yet here he is.  Exactly.  You know that seems to be really the case when you have a social movement that’s going to set itself against the status quo of oppressions and tyrannies.  It takes a different leadership in the first place to really do it, I think.  In the second place that leadership immediately gets involved with the traditional leadership that’s been around.  You create a whole new dynamic that’s not there before that.

Vinay:              Let’s take apropos of this discussion, let’s take what is generally viewed, now your perspective might be different—that’s why I think it would be interesting to talk about it—let’s take the illustration of what is supposed to be one of Martin King’s more difficult moments.  Still in the early ‘60s we are speaking about, and here I’m referring to what happens in Albany, Georgia.  Now as you know very well the movement in Albany commences without King initially.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah, it’s locally started.

Vinay:              Right yeah.  It’s locally started, locally initiated.

Rev. Lawson:   That’s right, it’s locally started.

Vinay:              SNCC is not particularly keen on having King there, and he’s eventually invited by the local businessmen.

Rev. Lawson:   By Anderson who is president of the movement in Albany.   I can’t think of his first name, but he’s a doctor.

Vinay:              Right.

Rev. Lawson:   He’s a well-known doctor who is concerned for these changes and lends himself to it, and gets involved in helping make it happen.

Vinay:              Right, so one perspective on what happened in Albany is the following.  It’s been argued by a number of people; it’s also by the way shown in [the documentary] Eyes on the Prize; and is mentioned in quite a few of the scholarly works have delved into this.  Generally, the view is that this was a failure for King, what happened in Albany.  The perspective then generally amounts to the following.

Number one, that there King met, and the civil rights movement met, its’ match in Laurie Pritchett, who was the sheriff, I think, in Albany.  Apparently, Pritchett had studied what had happened in India.  In fact, this little clip in Eyes on the Prize, I was very surprised when I saw this clip where he’s interviewed, and he says I’m looking at what Gandhi did in India because that’s what these chaps are doing over here.  This whole idea of filling up the jails, apparently what he did was he decided that he was going to spread out the prisoners across jails …


Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is arrested by Albany’s Chief of Police, Laurie Pritchett, after praying at City Hall, on July 27, 1962.  Source:  AP Photo.


Rev. Lawson:   Yes, I know the story.

Vinay:              That Pritchett himself is now using the weapons of nonviolence as it were against the resistors themselves, right? That’s one part of the story.  The other part of the story as I have encountered it, is that King comes in and that he misjudges the situation considerably.  Ultimately, he has to sort of leave in defeat from Albany because the ultimate objectives of the movement were not met there.  Now what is your perspective on what happened in Albany?


Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett & Martin Luther King, Jr.  Source:

Rev. Lawson:   Well, in the first place, I don’t think academics have the right to go and critique it when it is an emerging social process and organism, in which none of the people in Albany have done it before; they have limited experience; where the fledgling SCLC is still trying to organize its staff.  It has an executive director who’s a good man, and a smart man, Wyatt T. Walker, but it’s still fledgling.  When they yield to the invitation from the movement in Albany, and Dr. Anderson, they go in.

There are a handful of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people who are operating in the area as well, who have helped to launch the movement themselves.  How this takes place I think is greatly overlooked.   One of the key figures in that business was Charles Gerard.  Good man, still is a very good man, and Charles tells me, “Those who claim it was a failure don’t know what they’re talking about.”  He said that boldly years ago to me.

King later of course says, in assessing it, that I had problems and SCLC had problems, but it was not a failure.  Now the tensions that rose up among people is understandable.  I don’t know them myself.  King wants me to come there and I don’t go, but he doesn’t put any pressure on me to come.


Part V of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

Most histories of the Taj Mahal that have ventured into politics advert either to Aurangzeb’s intolerance for what he took to be idolatry or to Hindutva accounts of the Taj as narrated in the first three parts of this article.  Shah Jahan watched as his sons competed to succeed him on the throne, with Aurangzeb eventually emerging triumphant.  The war of succession was brutal, as such wars are—everywhere.  It is said that Aurangzeb had his father imprisoned:  as narrated to me by my father decades ago, the pitiful old man was put behind bars in a room from where he could view the Taj.  The commonly accepted account is that Shah Jahan was confined to the Agra Fort, where his daughter Jahanara tended to his needs for eight years before he passed away in 1666.  One of the more moving compositions of the great artist Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabindranath and the younger brother of the celebrated Gagendranath, is called “The Passing of Shah Jahan.”  The Emperor’s last thoughts were evidently on the Taj. He reposes in bed with Jahanara at its foot; his head is turned towards his greatest creation.  The longing in his eyes is palpable, but the object of his attentions is ever so far away.  Jahanara’s own tomb, though elegant, was to be very simple by comparison: it is open to the sky and part of the famous Nizamuddin complex in Delhi.


‘The Passing of Shah Jahan’ (1902), a painting by Abanindranath Tagore.  At the foot of the bed is Jahanara Begum, the daughter of Shah Jahan; the Taj Mahal is in the background.


The cenotaph of Jahanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan, in Nizamuddin, Delhi.

The political history of the Taj, for the present, thus appears to be bookended by Aurangzeb at one hand and the Hindutva nationalists, whose loathing for Aurangzeb is unqualified, at the other end.  There are a few numbers which appear in nearly every history of the Taj that is more than a paragraph long:  20,000 workers are said to have labored over a period of 22 years.  There would seem to be something in this for the historian of the working class.  The craftsmen appear to have come from as far as Baghdad and Constantinople.  But just exactly how were ‘workers’ and ‘craftsmen’ distinguished?  We can imagine that those who inscribed the verses from the Koran, wove the jewels into the stone, or carved out the most delicate windows from the stone were all “craftsmen”. The dome of the Taj is nearly 20 stories high; it required a ramp one mile in length to take the workers to the top.

But, moving beyond the construction of the Taj, why is it that we hear so little about the Taj in the colonial period?  In the mid-19th century, apparently, the Taj was little more than a honeymooning site and a pleasure resort.  The histories tell us that at this degenerate point, when neither the Indians nor the British cared much for the Taj—the Indians because they were supremely indifferent to their own cultural achievements, the British because they were indubitably certain of their own superiority—the intrepid and far-sighted British hero came along. That hero was none other than Nathaniel George Curzon, later Earl Curzon of Kedleston, who commenced his Viceroyalty at the close of the 19th century and served until 1905.  A popular Balliol College rhyme on Curzon summed it up neatly:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim [the ancestral home of Churchill] twice a week.

George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India. Source:  Wikimedia.

Curzon had the Taj Mahal restored and the canals repaired and filled with water; the gardens, which had fallen into decline, were likewise spruced up though Curzon did not entirely follow the original design. The Taj was finally becoming a candidate for admission into the modern age.  It is around this time that Jamsetji Tata opened the first luxury hotel owned by an Indian and named it, perhaps not coincidentally, the Taj Mahal Palace, which since 1903 has remained one of the most iconic landmarks of Bombay.

It took something like 250 years for the Taj Mahal to become part of the traveler’s itinerary, another fifty years before it became part of the tourist trail, and another two to three decades before it would become an item of consumption.  The Taj’s history would henceforth be inextricably linked up with the ugly trinity of modernity in India:  banality, corruption, and terrorism. First, the banality: one imagines that this is easily explained.  The Taj is unlike any other building in the world: a visit to Buckingham Palace, the Kremlin, the White House, or the Forbidden City counts for something, but nothing mesmerizes like the Taj. A visit to the Taj without having oneself photographed in front of it is nearly inconceivable; the photograph is a rite of passage, almost. We may think of something like the selfie before “the selfie” was invented.  But that is only the most predictable source of the banality behind a visit to the Taj.  I was astounded to learn that, on the 50th anniversary of Indian independence in 1997, the Greek musician Yanni was allowed the rare honor of giving a live concert at the Taj Mahal.  Those who have even the remotest kind of familiarity with Yanni’s music will recognize it as something like a slightly superior kind of ‘elevator music’. To suppose that the Government of India could find no more elevated specimen of a musician, and that in a country like India, to perform live at the Taj is staggering to the imagination.  Yanni has his fans, and they will take umbrage at my verdict, but the fact that the Government of India associated the sentimental hogwash around Yanni’s music with the Taj tells us something about the kind of Mills & Boon romanticism in which the Taj is drenched.

The banality offends or one may just shrug one’s shoulders.  One may also view the decision of the Government of India to permit a live concert at the Taj as a challenge to the terrorists, though it would not explain the choice of Yanni.  Last year, terrorists affiliated to the Islamic State appear to have issued a threat against the Taj, but terrorist threats to blow up the Taj have a much longer history.  The most palpable of these threats emanated from Sikh secessionists in the mid-1980s, who were enraged when the government of then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi launched an attack on the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, Amritsar’s Golden Temple, in an attempt to weed out militants who had holed up in the shrine and amassed a large arsenal of firearms and bombs. They promised to blow up the Taj Mahal in retaliation, and I recall days in the mid-1980s when the Taj was shut down.  Viewings of the Taj by moonlight were halted.  The militant secessionists had for some years been targeting not only Hindus but ‘moderate’ Sikhs, those who—like men shorn of beards—refused to keep the symbols of the faith, but in issuing threats to blow up the Taj they may have, quite unknowingly perhaps, been triggering off a new chapter in the history of Sikh-Muslim animosity.  Two of the Sikh Gurus had been martyred at the hands of Mughal Emperors, one at the hands of Aurangzeb and another by the command of his grandfather, Jahangir. If the Sikh militants thought they were sending a message to the Government of India and their Hindu persecutors in issuing a threat against the Taj, the message was quite possibly being read and interpreted by Indian Muslims as an assault on their history and cultural memory.  A political history of the Taj revolving around semiotics and what I would characterize as ‘message panics’ is yet to be attempted.

The political history of the Taj, however, can be written in other idioms as well. I have briefly alluded to ‘corruption’ and others will have in mind the ‘pollution’ that has at times disfigured the Taj and remains an ever-present threat.  Agra, for all the great monument that characterize the city, a city which was the capital—an exceedingly short-lived one—of the Mughals and even of Sikandar Lodi before the Lodis were sent packing by Babur, has long been in shambles; the state of Uttar Pradesh is nearly rock-bottom in India with respect to most of the important markers of economic and social progress.  Small-scale industries—highly polluting, largely unregulated—have over the decades sprung up around the Taj, in both very close and medium proximity.  The Taj, by the late 1980s, was beginning to look dirty, disfigured, decrepit; soot had formed around the minarets and domes; even the marble in the interior was losing its sheen.  Intellectuals, ‘concerned citizens’, environmentalists, the various keepers of India’s heritage:  these were among the groups that agitated for government action to save India’s most famous monument from irreparable harm.  Others sought the same outcome for the more practical reason that the Taj was then, as it is today, a principal revenue earner for a state government that is not only strapped for cash but is corrupt to the core. The Supreme Court ordered these unregulated industries around the Taj shut down: however, in India, as in other countries where there is a separation of powers, the Court can command change but cannot execute it.  Moreover, in India the stories of ‘pollution’ and ‘corruption’ are intertwined.  Far too many local and state-level politicians were invested in the industries; some only received bribes from the businessmen who owned these interpreters, others were themselves owners.  Most of these industries would eventually be shuttered:  when it comes to the question of the Taj, the country’s reputation is at stake.  Whatever else the Taj may be good for, it is also likely to exercise something of a restraining effect on those who only act because they long that India should look good before the world.


See also:

Part I:  “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/

Part III:   Communalism and the Politics of the Taj Mahal

Part IV:  Towards Another History of the Taj:  Rumors, Legends, Longings