Terence MacSwiney, Hunger-Striking, and the Intertwined Histories of India & Ireland

No one in India today remembers the name of Terence MacSwiney, but in his own day his name reverberated throughout the country.  He was such a legend that, when the Bengali revolutionary Jatin Das, a key figure in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army and a comrade of Bhagat Singh, died from a prolonged hunger-strike in September 1929, he was canonized as ‘India’s own Terence MacSwiney’.

Terence MacSwiney died this day, October 25th, in 1920.  Ireland, in the common imagination, is a land of poetry, anguished lovers, political rebels, verdant greenery—and drunkards. All of this may be true; one can certainly spend far too many evenings in an Irish pub, downing a pint of Guinness or Harp.  MacSwiney was a poet, playwright, pamphleteer, and a political revolutionary who got himself elected as Lord Mayor of Cork, in south-west Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence. Indian nationalists followed events in Ireland closely, for though people of Irish extraction may have played an outsized role in the brutalization of India during the British Raj, the Irish themselves were dehumanized by the English and waged a heroic anti-colonial resistance.  In India, the Irish were called upon to suppress such resistance.  One has only to call to mind Reginald Dyer, the perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, who though born in Murree (now in Pakistan) was educated at Middleton College in County Cork and subsequently at Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons, and Michael O’Dwyer, the Limerick-born Irishman who as Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab gave Dyer a free hand and even valorized the mass murder of Indians as a ‘military necessity’.

England did little in India that they had not previously done in Ireland, pauperizing the country and treating the Irish as a sub-human species.  The Irish were ridiculed as gullible Catholics who gave their allegiance to the Pope.  They were no better, from the English standpoint, than the superstitious Hindus.  MacSwiney, born in 1879, came to political activism in his late 20s, and by 1913-14 he had assumed a position of some importance both in the Irish Volunteers, an organization founded ‘to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland’, and the Sinn Fein, a political party that advocated for the independence of the Irish.  He was active during the ill-fated Easter Rebellion of April 1916, an armed insurrection that lasted all of six days before the British Army suppressed it with artillery and a massive military force.  Much of Dublin was reduced to rubble. It is unlikely that the uprising would have disappeared into the mists of history, but in any case William Butler Yeats was there to immortalize ‘Easter 1916’:  ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’  For the following four years, MacSwiney was in and out of British prisons, interned as a political detainee.

It is, however, the hunger-strike that MacSwiney undertook in August 1920 that would bring him to the attention of India and the rest of the world.  He was arrested on August 12 on charges of being in possession of ‘seditious articles and documents’—an all too familiar scenario in present-day India—and was within days convicted by a court that sentenced him to a two-year sentence to be served out at Brixton Prison in England.  MacSwiney declared before the tribunal, ‘I have decided the term of my imprisonment.  Whatever your government may do, I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.’  He at once started on a hunger-strike, protesting that the military court which had tried him had no jurisdiction over him, and eleven other Republican prisoners joined him.  It was one thing for the large Irish diasporic population in the United States, whose predilection for Irish Republicanism was pronounced, to support him; but far more arresting was the fact that from Madrid to Rome, from Buenos Aires to New York and beyond to South Australia, the demand for MacSwiney’s release was voiced not only by the working class, but by political figures as different as Mussolini and the black nationalist Marcus Garvey.  The days stretched on, and his supporters pleaded with him to give up his hunger-strike; meanwhile, in prison, the British attempted to force-feed him.  On October 20, MacSwiney fell into a coma; seventy-four days into his hunger-strike, on October 25, he succumbed.

The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Euston, London, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M
The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Cork, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M

In India, MacSwiney’s travails had similarly taken the country by storm.  It is assumed by many, as a matter of course, that Gandhi was greatly ‘influenced’ by MacSwiney, but though he was doubtless moved by his resolve, patriotism, and endurance, Gandhi distinguished between the ‘fast’ and the ‘hunger-strike’.  Nevertheless, MacSwiney was a hero to armed revolutionaries—and to Jawaharlal Nehru.  Writing some years after MacSwiney’s death to his daughter Indira, Nehru noted that the Irishman’s hunger-strike ‘thrilled Ireland’ and indeed the world:  ‘When put in gaol he declared that he would come out, alive or dead, and gave up taking food.  After he had fasted for seventy-five days his dead body was carried out of the gaol.’  It is unquestionably MacSwiney’s example, rather than that of Gandhi, that Bhagat Singh, Bhatukeshwar Dutt, and others implicated in the Lahore Conspiracy Case had in mind when in mid-1929 they commenced a hunger-strike to be recognized as ‘political prisoners’.  That hunger-strike was joined by the Bengali political activist and bomb-maker, Jatindranath Das, in protest against the deplorable conditions in jail and in defence of the rights of political prisoners.  Jatin died after 63 days on 13 September 1929.  The nation grieved:  as Nehru would record in his autobiography, ‘Jatin Das’s death created a sensation all over the country.’  Das would receive virtually a state funeral in Calcutta and Subhas Bose was among the pallbearers.

A nationalist print from around 1930 called ‘Bharat Ke MacSwiney’ (‘India’s MacSwiney’).  It shows Jatindranath Das, who died on the 63rd day of his hunger-strike on 13 September 1929, in the lap of Bharat Mata, reposing in ‘eternal sleep’ having done his duty to the nation.  Image:  Courtesy of Vinay Lal.

Though Gandhi was the master of the fast, the modern history of hunger-striking begins with Terence MacSwiney. It is quite likely that Gandhi recognized, more particularly after MacSwiney’s martyrdom, how the hunger-strike as a form of political theatre could galvanize not just a nation but world opinion.  However, the life story of MacSwiney should resonate in India for many other reasons besides the singularity of MacSwiney’s admirable defence of the rights of his own people.  As I have suggested, England under-developed Ireland before laying India to waste, and Ireland was in many respects as much a laboratory as India for British policies with regard to land settlement, taxation, famine relief, the suppression of dissent, and much else. It is equally a highly disconcerting fact that the story of the Irish in India suggests that those who have been brutalized will in turn brutalize others.  The precise role of the Irish in the colonization of India requires much further study.  On the other hand, the legend of Terence MacSwiney points to the exhilarating if complicated history, which in recent years has begun to be explored by some scholars, of the solidarity of the Irish and the Indians.  Indians have long been familiar, for instance, with the figure of the Irishwoman Annie Beasant, but transnational expressions of such solidarity took many forms.  At a time when the world seems convulsed by insularity and xenophobic nationalism, the story of MacSwiney points to the critical importance of sympathy across borders.

The Return of the Taliban and the Arrogance of Empire

Second in a series on the Taliban, Afghanistan, and the United States

It is less than three days ago that American newspapers, in their coverage of rapidly developing events in Afghanistan, cited ‘experts’ in American foreign policy as being of the opinion that Kabul was not likely to be breached by the Taliban before 30 days.  Six days ago, an analysis by the US military suggested that the fall of Kabul could take place in 90 days; and in June American analysts had forecast a collapse of the government led by Ashraf Ghani in 6-12 months if the US adhered to its plan to withdraw its forces. Many of these experts and other public commentators would have sensed over the course of the last few weeks as the Taliban overran one city after another that something was amiss in American military intelligence and the assessments of the State Department.  What is most striking is that at a White House press conference on July 8, Biden was unequivocal in the affirmation of his view that the US in withdrawing from Afghanistan was not handing over the country to the Taliban:

Q    Mr. President — do you trust the Taliban, Mr. President?
Q    Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?
THE PRESIDENT:  No, it is not.
Q    Why?
THE PRESIDENT:  Because you — the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban.  It is not inevitable.

This is far from being the first time that American military analysts, policy wonks, and the myriad number of ‘experts’ have proven to be wholly inept.  The ‘mother of all terrorist attacks’, as Saddam Hussein might have said, though he had no hand in that affair, was the September 11 bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which caught Americans wholly unaware and to revenge which they launched an attack of Afghanistan where the mastermind of the bombings, Osama bin Laden, was believed to be sheltering.  Then President Bush declared that the United States would go to the ends of the earth to bring the perpetrators of the terrorist attack to justice and American troops would smoke them out of caves if necessary.  Vengeance may not be the way of Jesus, but it is nevertheless biblical; and though pious words and phrases such as ‘justice’, ‘human rights’, the ‘scourge of terrorism’, and the assault on the integrity of the ‘international community’ were mentioned as inspiring the US to wage war on Afghanistan, there was never any doubt that the US was thirsting for blood.  The US mainland had not been attacked since British troops burnt much of Washington DC to the ground in 1812 and it must have been particularly grating for the Americans that they had survived the cold war, outspent the Soviets and brought down the Soviet empire, but were outdone by a bunch of Islamic terrorists who had then gone into hiding in a country that more than one American commentator has described as the home of ‘primitive’ people.

One year into the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001, bin Laden was known to have made his way out of Afghanistan to some other country—identified, a decade later, as Pakistan.  Biden has now denied that the US had any set for itself any mission, as he put it in his address yesterday morning (August 16), to create the conditions that would facilitate Afghanistan’s transition to a ‘unified centralized democracy’, and he has similarly said that ‘our mission in Afghanistan was never nation-building.’  This retrospective justification of the decision to pull out of Afghanistan is simultaneously correct and incorrect.  On the one hand, much as Biden may deny it, nation-building was undoubtedly the rhetoric that informed the decision of one American administration after another to keep troops despite the escalating costs of a quasi-American occupation.  The core mission of the US in Afghanistan, the first Obama administration declared in opposition to the Bush administration’s design of attempting a vast project of nation-building, was ‘to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future’, but at the same time it was understood that this objective could only be achieved by introducing democracy in Afghanistan in at least some rudimentary form. Thus, in this respect, Biden’s statement yesterday is not merely incorrect, but suggests rather an elementary failure to recognize, or perhaps acknowledge, that the ‘core mission’ as set out by Obama cannot be disentangled from the introduction of democratic reforms and what is called nation-building.

In seeking to understand some though not all dimensions of the extraordinary return of the Taliban to power after two decades, we can attempt to identify some elements of the present discourse around Afghanistan that are now, and will remain, of critical importance—not just for the people of Afghanistan but for the rest of the world.  Twenty years ago, writing an article called ‘Terrorism, Inc.:  The Family of Fundamentalisms’, for the now defunct The Little Magazine (September-October 2001 issue), I suggested that Americans had been ‘warned that Afghanistan has never been conquered in the last millennium, and that it will be their graveyard:  the British were unable to subdue the Afghans, the Soviets got quagmired in that hostile terrain, and it is the fate of each superpower to be humbled by the intractable Afghans.’  It may be a cliché to speak of Afghanistan as ‘the graveyard of empires’, certainly modern empires, but the Taliban themselves have declared that their victory shows the resolve of the Afghans to never be governed by foreigners.  One might think that for this reason alone the Americans, who are prone to speak with pride of their own past as one shaped by the ardent desire for self-determination, might find common cause with the Taliban.  Somehow, such a sentiment has never entered into American calculations and never became part of the American discourse on Afghanistan, not even in those very limited circles that are highly critical of US foreign policy.

Just how the Taliban were able to run the opposition into the ground and make the government fall in a matter of days cannot of course be accounted for only by the notion that the American enterprise was doomed to failure from the outset since the Afghans will never tolerate foreigners as occupiers in their midst. There are many considerations at work here.  In my last essay, I wrote about the Taliban as non-state actors, but we can at this juncture profitably invoke the brilliant work of the anthropologist James Scott who drew a distinction between state and non-state spaces.  The fact of the matter is that the reach of the state in Afghanistan is always very limited and American boots on the ground for twenty years did not change that.  There are large tracts of the country where the state has no reach and is all but invisible.  The terrain is rugged, uncharted, hostile, and impervious to the penetration that technologies of the state have achieved elsewhere.  There are many consequences that follow, among them that the Taliban, who knew the terrain and could count on the hospitality—a key ethic among the Afghans, and one that Americans scarcely recognized—of local people, always had places where they could seek refuge.  But there are denser philosophical and psychological implications of the idea behind non-state spaces, the gist of which is that non-state spaces defy the logic of the master and make incapable the mastery that Americans have long assumed comes with technologies of the state.

Secondly, and relatedly, the so-called failure of the Afghan security forces must be scrutinized in a different language than that made familiar to us from all of contemporary political discourse, whether form the right, center, or left.  Nearly everyone is puzzled by how the Afghan security forces crumbled like tenpins in a bowling alley.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken repeatedly of ‘the inability of Afghan security forces to defend their country’ and Biden likewise stated with some weariness that the Afghan military gave up easily, ‘sometimes without fighting’. The Taliban is not one group and there is no entirely reliable account of their numbers, but the most generous estimates place their strength at no more than 150,000. The Afghan security forces, in contrast, numbered over 300,000, and over the years billions of dollars have been spent on ‘training’ them.  Yet, it is reliably reported that in most cities little or no opposition was offered to the Taliban and when their fighters entered Kabul through its four main gates they were not met with any resistance.  Much before entering Kabul, or cities such as Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Jalalabad—which they walked into without any shots being fired practically hours before making their way to the capital—as well as smaller towns, the Taliban are said to have struck deals with local elders and security forces.  Not only were the Taliban able to make inroads with little or no fighting but often arms were surrendered without resistance and the Taliban came into the possession of a large arsenal of armored vehicles, arms, ammunition, grenades, mortar, artillery, night sights, and rocket launchers—and now, after the capitulation of the Afghan security forces, tanks and over 200 fighter jets and choppers. Some have sought to explain their conduct by pointing to the corruption endemic in the security forces; others have pointed to the indiscipline within the security forces or argued that Afghans in uniform feared for their lives and chose the easier option of surrendering without a fight. 

Some of these arguments are merely lazy and rehearse worn-out ideas about the endemic corruption of the ‘native’.  To understand corruption, one might turn equally profitably to the machinations of the Trump White House and the nauseous shenanigans of the oligarchy in the US—but that is another subject.  None of the arguments about how the Afghan security forces virtually disappeared can be reconciled easily with the long-standing image of the Pathan and the Afghan more generally as an indomitable fighter who cannot be separated from his rifle.  But just what does it mean to have ‘trained’ Afghan men?  An average American soldier carries 27 pounds of gear and a few carry as much as 70 pounds; the Afghan fighter, by contrast, sports a rifle and some rounds of ammunition.  When you put the Afghan fighter and the American soldier side-by-side, the latter looks ridiculous—much as the American policeman often looks puffed up, overburdened, and something akin to a sack of potatoes in comparison with the English bobby.  There is some arrogance in supposing that men—even ‘civilians’, though it must be noted that there is no easy distinction in Afghanistan between ‘civilians’ and the ‘Taliban’—born into a culture of the rifle, wholly familiar with the terrain, and habituated to different notions of kinship can just be ‘trained’ into becoming ‘soldiers’ of the type familiar to us from a modern army. It is the Americans, on the contrary, that should have been receiving training:  barely any American soldiers or even commanding officers and generals know any of the languages spoken in Afghanistan and the history of the country is wholly foreign to them.  The American soldier, not surprisingly, reflects the general indifference of the US to most parts of the world, as well as what we can call the technological fallacy—the hubris of supposing that technology can overcome all shortcomings.

I have already suggested that whatever the differences among the Afghans, and the hostilities between ethnic groups, Americans were clearly seen as foreigners and as members of an occupying force.  While I have suggested that the Taliban may have forged links with local communities, the Afghans have a history of resistance to centralized state authority and to that extent there is no doubt that there will continue to be resistance to the Taliban as they once again take over the functions of a ‘state’. It would be difficult to overstate the sheer indifference with which most Afghans evidently treated the notion of Americans as liberators.  Many will dispute this characterization, pointing especially to their role, as the Americans themselves fondly imagined, of freeing Afghan women and girls from the shackles of drudgery, sexual abuse, illiteracy, and servitude.  The question of gender, the Taliban, and the American occupation and mission in Afghanistan is critically important and I will take it up in the following essay as it is deserving of lengthier treatment.  For the present, however, the resurgence and return of the Taliban poses difficult questions not only for those who seek to promote democracy around the world and are enamored of the idea that ‘democracy’ is the culmination (or nearly so) of the human aspiration for freedom, but even for those who live in those countries which are generally seen as established democracies.  The unpleasant truth is that democracies are under severe, indeed unprecedented, stress everywhere in the world.  The US presents perhaps the starkest example of the peril to established democracies, given that many Republicans are, by every measure, the Taliban of their own country.  The world will now have to ponder whether the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is not in fact an ominous portent of the impending demise worldwide of the short-lived idea of democracy.

An Ignominious End for a Superpower: Run, America, Run

First in a series of 2-4 articles on Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the United States

Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban and the United States is scrambling to evacuate Americans.  So screamed a headline in the New York Times all of yesterday and so say the images being flashed on television and mobile phone screens.  How the Americans are running with their tails between their legs!  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on the air defending the Biden administration’s decision to undertake a rather abrupt withdrawal of American forces and the most striking pronouncement that came from his lips was surely this:  ‘This is manifestly not Saigon.’  The very fact that he attempted to disabuse people from recalling the humiliation that the United States suffered on 30 April 1975 as North Vietnamese troops occupied the city and the US sought to evacuate its personnel from its embassy in Saigon suggests the potency of the analogy.  Then, and now, the most iconic image from the end game is of American helicopters ferrying US personnel and ‘collaborators’, as the enemy dubs them, to safety—this time to a secure location at the airport the perimeter of which is ringed by American military forces.  Then it was the evil communists; now it is the dreaded Islamic terrorists.  But it is America, once again, which is fleeing from scenes of chaos—the very chaos that it engendered in the first place.

The United States, the preeminent military power of the post-World War II period, has suffered yet another crushing defeat.  Let us not minimize the enormity of this defeat.  Many commentators have sought to soften the blow:  some are calling it an ‘embarrassment’, others are speaking of the loss of American ‘prestige’, and yet others are speaking of how the US military has been caught flat-footed.  It is all this and far more than just the end of the US era in Afghanistan.  It cannot suffice to say that the Americans were committed to a withdrawal in any case and that Biden and his advisors only miscalculated if severely the extent to which Afghan security forces would be able to hold back the Taliban.  On this view, the present ‘humiliation’ can be put down to failures in strategic thinking and implementation of a policy laid down by Biden’s predecessor, though many American themselves will wonder why a ‘trillion dollars’ have gone down the drain.  This is the amount that is being mentioned as the cost of the 20-year war, allowing for expenses incurred in military engagements, maintaining a massive American presence, and nation-building in an attempt, as the Americans saw it, to secure the ‘free world’ from the scourge of terrorism and bring ‘civilization’ to tribal ‘savages’.  Such a view shows a complete unawareness of the culture of militarism, which is another form of savagery, which is as intrinsic to American foreign policy and even the American character as the purported love of liberty. 

Last Days in Vietnam: The Evacuation of American Personnel from the American Embassy, Saigon, 29-30 April 1975. Source: PBS.
Last Days in Afghanistan: Evacuation from the US Embassy in Kabul, 14 August 2021. Source: AP Photo, Ahmad Gul.

The brute fact of the matter is that, since the end of World War II with the decisive victory of the US and the Allies against the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan, the US has not won a war outright, if it has won a war at all.  The Korean War (June 1950 – July 1953) ended in a stalemate, marked by an armistice agreement, and its bitter legacy continues to the present day.  In Vietnam, the Americans assumed the responsibilities, as it saw them, that the French were no longer able to carry out of stemming the menacing advance of communism.  Then, two decades later, in what can be called another protracted entanglement, this time in Iraq, the Americans sought the submission of Saddam Hussein first by bombing Iraq back into the stone age and then, some years later, by cornering the Iraqi dictator and literally digging him out from a hole before he was sent to the gallows.  In the process, they not only left the country in shambles, but their ambition to introduce democratic reforms—when they had enough to do in their own country, as the rise of white supremacists and xenophobic militarists has established all too clearly—would have the effect of unraveling entire societies all over West Asia (or the Middle East as the Americans call it).  The debacles in Syria, where the atrocities committed by the Western-educated Bashar al-Assad make Iraq under Hussein look tame, as well as the civil war in Libya, precipitated by the US resolve to bring down the government of Muammar Gaddafi, bear the imprint of US foreign policy, even as one recognizes the role of other states such as Russia and Saudi Arabia in creating the unholy mess in which the Arab world is now enmeshed.  Now, to cap it all, is the story of twenty years of the presence of American troops dissolving into capitulation to armed tribesmen over a matter of a few days. Some might argue that the US did win the Cold War:  if it did so, which thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union is far from being clear, it is worthwhile asking what the implications might be of winning only a ‘cold’ rather than ‘hot’ war.

What should be unambiguously clear now is that military power, indeed overwhelming military power, has limitations and indeed is even a liability. There is a lesson in this for other powers, especially China, though one should never underestimate the human tendency to forgo what historians fondly and sometimes wistfully call ‘the lessons of history’.  The US never fully acknowledged its military defeats and the generals only took back the lesson that they would not fight a war with one hand tied behind their back. American counter-insurgency operations would henceforth be focused on developing tools and the skills required to fight guerrillas and what are called non-state actors.  In the operations against the al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and other jihadi outfits, the Americans thought that they had learnt something about how to engage non-state actors. However, none of this should be allowed to obscure the fact that overwhelming military power does not necessarily confer advantages as it once did, even when the asymmetry of firepower is astronomical.  What is seldom mentioned about the American triumph over Germany, in contrast to the wars that the US has fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is the element of the shared culture between the US and Germany as one of the torch-bearers of ‘Western civilization’.  This had a great many implications:  the US forces were never viewed as alien in Germany, just as the Taliban, whatever one might hear in the Western press about the dislike for them among common Afghans, have capitalized on the shared culture between them—even allowing for differences between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and the handful of other ethnic groups—and the myriad other insurgent groups and political parties. The newly appointed Taliban mayor of Kunduz, Gul Mohammed Elias, is reported to have said that ‘our jihad is not with the municipality, our jihad is against the occupiers and those who defend the occupiers’.  The return of the Taliban, to which I shall turn in a subsequent essay, owes much to this consideration, not merely to realist political assessments of foreign policy, geopolitics, military strategy, and the like. 

A Polish translation of this article by Marek Murawski is available here.

A translation into Georgian by Ana Mirilashvili is available here.

Objects and the(ir) Objective: The Story of India

[A Review article on India:  A Story Through 100 Objects, by Vidya Dehejia.  Delhi:  Lustre Press/Roli Books, 2021.  ISBN:  978-81-94969174.  279 pp.]

Some years ago Sunil Khilnani, author of the elegantly written The Idea of India, a long discursive essay on post-independent India very much shaped by a Nehruvian sensibility, embarked on a rather different enterprise as he attempted to grapple with a country characterized by a long past.  How might we imagine the history of India if we were to view it through the lives of some of its most arresting men and women—and equally some who won little recognition beyond their own community, fell into obscurity, or were architects of policies that have long since been disowned?  The outcome was a book that Khilnani called Incarnations:  India in 50 Lives (2016).  It is understandable that his narrative should be peopled by the likes of the Buddha, Ashoka, Shankara, Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai, and Gandhi, but the choice of Charan Singh, a wily politician who served as the country’s caretaker Prime Minister for six months at the head of a wobbly coalition, will seem odd to many except perhaps to those who remember his reputation as an unstinting champion of the rural peasantry.  The choice of Satyajit Ray may seem inspired to film afficionados who recognize him as one of world cinema’s supreme auteurs, and whose Apu Trilogy is a landmark of humanism, but I suspect that the hundreds of millions who follow Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan have barely heard of a director who crafted his films in the image of Mozart’s operas where, as Ray once explained, ‘groups of characters maintain their individuality through elaborate ensembles’.

Khilnani did not claim to be writing about the 50 most influential Indians, or the ‘greatest’ Indians, but it is in the nature of things that his 50 lives should have been construed as in some ways the lives of the most eminent Indians.  Any enterprise such as Khilnani’s must be marked by eccentricity.  It is a similar eccentricity, if that is the word to designate choices that sometimes appear unstable, quirky, and occasionally outlandish, that characterizes Vidya Dehejia’s audacious and intellectually provocative attempt to narrate the story of India through 100 objects.  Dehejia is principally an art historian and would doubtless have been inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), an attempt by Neil MacGregor to write a ‘world history’ through 100 objects in the gargantuan collection of the British Museum of which he was then the Director.  MacGregor was constrained only by the parameters set for him:  ‘The objects had to cover the whole world, as far as possible equally’, and address the totality of human experience, not only the lives of the rich and the powerful; consequently, the objects chosen could not merely be great works of art but had to speak to everyday life.  Dehejia in principle sets for herself a somewhat similar task with regards to the objects that she chooses, stating that she has tried not to privilege any political standpoint and that she has sought to be ‘even-handed and fair-minded’ in the story that she tells.  The desire to be ‘even-handed and fair-minded’ may evoke some cynicism from the reader with a knowledge of the British attempt in India to represent themselves as neutral gatekeepers, but others might say only that Dehejia is being true to the calling of her profession.

It is, however, in the structure of her book, lavishly illustrated and meticulously produced by New Delhi-based Roli Books, that she most closely emulates MacGregor with one significant difference.  Both books are divided into twenty chapters and generally four to five objects illustrate the thematic argument of each chapter; however, where MacGregor proceeds strictly chronologically, moving from one phase of history to another, Dehejia’s fidelity to chronology extends only within each chapter. Thus, for example, in discussing ideals of womanhood in India, Dehejia moves from a bronze statue of Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, c. 900 CE, to a watercolour on paper from 1615 of Nur Jahan, whom some readers may perhaps be surprised to discover was an expert markswoman; and from there to a recent statue of Ahilyabai Holkar, who was an astute ruler as much as she was a pious Hindu in the mid-18th century, to two early nineteenth century representations of Saraswati and Bharat Mata.

To understand the circumstances that have conspired to make possible a work such as Dehejia’s, it is necessary to recapitulate a few recent developments in historical scholarship.  There is, after some decades where cultural studies predominated and the gaze was riveted on the politics of representations, once again the turn to material history. It is immaterial that the Chola Temple Walls which Dehejia adroitly describes as a ‘Public Record Office’ (pp. 68-69), covered as they are with inscriptions, cannot quite be held in one’s hands as is generally true of many objects. Her objects are artefacts that inscribe a past, speak to the present, and occasionally portend the future. Secondly, Dehejia is still beholden to one of subaltern history and postcolonial theory’s most potent insights, namely the place of the ‘fragment’ in the imaginary of the nation.  Taken together, her objects—and other like objects—are more than the sum of the parts; but each is a fragment, sometimes calling forth other associations, occasionally a whole unto itself, and sometimes orphaned.  Thirdly, and relatedly, since national histories have become suspect to enlightened liberals, more particularly as they generally degenerate into becoming nationalist histories, scholars have had to search for new ways to write national histories without succumbing to the nationalist malady. Dehejia’s history of India through 100 objects can certainly be read in this vein.

It is as an art historian that Dehejia comes to her task and this shows equally in her choice of themes and the objects to illustrate the themes. Though four to five principal objects are apportioned for each part, the section on the ‘Art of the Illustrated Book’ is an exception with seven objects—and all these are examples of what may be called ‘high art’, folios from rare manuscripts and miniature paintings. At least half of the objects chosen by her are sculptural works or miniature paintings and the overwhelming and some will surely say misleading impression left upon the reader is of a civilization that was shaped predominantly by the artistic sensibility of Indian people.  One hundred objects are numbered but the ‘100’ is not to be taken literally, nor are the objects always drawn from India, even if they are clearly ‘Indic’ in origin or produced in some fashion under the sign of the Sanskrit cosmopolis:  thus, for example, a 9th-century Sri Lankan statue of the Buddhist goddess Prajnaparamita is offered as an illustration of the ‘yogic body’, but the argument is supplemented both with seals from the Indus Valley (ca. 2000 BCE) to suggest the antiquity of yoga in India’s imagination and the famous 7th century CE open-air ‘Great Penance’ relief carved on two boulders at Mamallapuram where yogic postures are depicted (pp. 34-37). The commentary that ensues is what one might expect from an art historian, though here Dehejia’s declared intent to eschew a political position here perhaps does short shrift to the subject.  There has been a lively debate in recent years, particularly in the United States, on whether yoga is intrinsically related to Hinduism: both the Christian right and Hindu nationalists have affirmed (though for different reasons) such a relationship, while many especially liberal practitioners of yoga claim that it is a wholly secular practice shorn of any religious underpinnings.  There is some controversy over whether the main motif of this magnificent sculptural relief is Arjuna’s penance or the descent of the Ganga, but in either case yoga’s associations with Hinduism seem unimpeachable. 

-Great Penance Relief at Mamallapuram (formerly Mahabalipuram), Tamil Nadu, 7th century CE. The figure of the ascetic in a yogic pose can be seen at the center, about a third of the way down from the top.

Dehejia is less reticent, however, on how what objects tell us about Hindu-Muslim relations and the contemporary project to read Hindu aspirations into the past.  She does not state her position bluntly but her repudiation of the communalist standpoint is clear enough.  It is a measure of the restraint with which she writes that the discerning reader will at once understand her position while the reader who is disposed towards Hindu nationalism is perhaps likely to think anew his or her own position.  Consider her treatment of this subject through two objects. A Chalukyan period (ca. 1000 CE) granite sculpture of a dvarapala (door guardian) interests her since it frequently changed hands, moving one from Hindu king to another in a tale of vanquishers and the defeated (pp. 62-63). Sometimes objects, and sacred centres—most famously Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, otherwise known as Sancta Sophia—fell to the conqueror of another faith, a phenomenon that she rightly points out can be seen ‘in most parts of the world’.  The communalist would like to read such phenomena exclusively through the lens of religious animosity, but it is the politics of conquest and the quest for power that characterize this history rather than the politics of religion. More arresting for many reasons, not the least being that even educated Indians know very little about the Deccan sultanates (1527-1686) and their extraordinary cosmopolitanism, is her choice of two miniatures from Bijapur (ca. 1604, pp. 106-7).  One features Ibrahim Adil Shah, Sultan of Bijapur, who wore the rudraksha beads associated with Shiva, playing the tambura; in the other miniature, produced at the Sultan’s behest, the goddess Saraswati, a veena resting on her left rap against her right shoulder, is rendered much like a Mughal princess.  This hybridized painting is emblematic of the syncretism of the Muslim courts.  Adil Shah had inscribed along the top the words, ‘Ibrahim, whose father is guru Ganapati and mother the pure Saraswati.’  Should we be surprised that in more recent times Ustad Bismillah Khan, the master of the shehnai (the double-reeded oboe common in north India) nonpareil, played at the Kashi Viswanath temple and that he regularly prayed to Saraswati?

Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah playing the tambura; ascribed to Farrukh Beg in an inscription written by Muhammad Hussain Zarin Qalam, c. 1610-11. From an album page. Collection: National Museum, Prague.

I would like to insist that one cannot begrudge Dehejia her choices.  Nevertheless, even as she candidly terms them ‘idiosyncratic’, the debate is not thereby closed.  Each object tells a story, and she is adept in narrating the story, but thousands of other objects, each illuminating in its own fashion, would have served her equally well. A number of arguments may be raised in this connection, again less so as criticism than as provocations. First, I wonder if it is not the case that Dehejia has been perhaps overly influenced by trends highlighting “diversity” and the occluded subjects of history.  A watercolour from 1615 of Empress Nur Jahan underscores her abilities as ruler and as an expert markswoman (pp. 236-37), and the aforementioned bronze statue of the 10th century Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi and the 2011 statue of the 18th century Ahilyabai of the House of Holkar are in the same vein (pp. 234-35, 238-39). In recent years there has been a spate of biographies of Mughal women of the royal household, some written, it seems, to counterbalance the lavish attention bestowed on the great Mughal rulers.  This is all fine and admirable, but still at the end a rather anodyne exercise, establishing only, as Dehejia argues more than once, that patriarchy in India (and elsewhere) has prevented women from attaining their full potential.  The more critical question is whether women in politics may furnish us a politics that will yield a more just and equal society. Secondly, and somewhat in this vein, India has historically provided richer possibilities of imagining a world that is not tethered to rigid conceptions of male and female, masculinity and femininity.  The stunning statue from a copper alloy of ca. 1000 of God as ardhnari (half-woman) points to a world where both masculinity and femininity were preceded by androgyny (pp. 84-85).  According to Dehejia, ‘the dominance of the male is clear in the fact that the composite image is called Shiva as Half-Woman’, but one must perforce ask:  ‘called’ by whom?  There is nothing intrinsic in the image which suggests the conception of God as predominantly female or male.  But supposing that Dehejia were right, one is then moved to inquire whether the art of the West, or of China, Japan, or Africa, also allowed for such imagery of the divine godhead?  Is the dualistic framework of thinking as much a problem in classical Indian thought as it is in the philosophical systems of the West?

Shiva as Ardhnari (Half-woman), c. 1000 CE, from Nepal. Copper alloy with gemstones. Approximately 83 cms. Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The colonial civil servant and ethnographer William Crooke wrote a delightful and now forgotten book called Things Indian (1906). There are some 175-200 odd essays on subjects such as amulets, bamboo, the bazaar, camels, carpets, curry, diamonds, elephants, embroidery, fairs, rice, salt, tea, and snakes.  I am tempted to ask, after reading about amulets in Crooke’s book, why ‘bangles’ are not one of the 100 objects that Dehejia writes about:  the bangle-seller has been a ubiquitous presence in our bazaars and fairs, and the scene of a woman breaking her bangles upon learning of her husband’s death is to be found in scores of Hindi movies. A similar thought might arise regarding the mango and the banyan tree, but here Dehejia anticipates the reader in capturing these two ‘objects’ alongside the tiger, the peacock, and the lotus flower in the definitive stamps released by the Indian government’s post and telegraphs department (pp. 260-61). But their reproduction in this doubly diminutive form nevertheless suggests once again that everyday objects are slighted in favour of works of arts.  Where, the reader may also ask, is the cricket bat? If cricket is, alongside popular cinema, the enduring passion of so many in the country, it would appear to be deserving of some attention.  I was thinking likewise of the matka (clay water pot), the belna (rolling pin), and the pots and pans of the Indian kitchen.  The pressure cooker—the traditional one, not the new incarnation known as ‘instant pot’—was invented in the US and became practically obsolete there, except as a retrofitted bomb, but in India it has found an enduring home and the Indian kitchen is unthinkable without it.  Yet it is a mark of the suppleness of Dehejia’s thinking that some of these pots and pans do make their appearance in her ‘objects’, having entered into the imaginary of the contemporary artist Subodh Gupta’s massive installations, ‘Spill’ and ‘Very Hungry God’ (pp. 268-69). Objects with which we have lived for a very long time may take on new forms.  We can read new meanings into them.  It is to Dehejia’s credit that her book allows for this fecund play of possibilities.

Subodh Gupta, “Spill”, 2007.

[First published in a slightly shorter version in Open magazine (26 July 2021) under the title “An Objective History” and also available online (16 July 2021) here.]

Anyone but England: Race, Empire-Building, and Some Thoughts on the Euro Final 2020

Sunday afternoons are proverbially meant for relaxation and time with that simultaneously oddest and most ‘natural’ of social institutions called ‘the family’.  And what better way apparently to relax than to watch the Euro 2020 Final between England and Italy, both vying yesterday, July 11, for the trophy after a long drought:  Italy last won it in 1968 and England last won any major international football tournament in 1966 when it lifted the World Cup with a 4-2 defeat over Germany.  England has never owned the European Cup.  But England is nothing if it is not a football nation:  however, though it is scarcely alone in its passion, its fans are singular in having earned a notoriety all their own.  Indeed, the American journalist Bill Buford wrote in 1990 an engaging book on football hooliganism, Among the Thugs, focusing largely on English football fans from Manchester United with whom he traveled to many matches.  He found these football hooligans, whose devotion to their team rivals in intensity the religious feelings that the devout have for their faith, also shared some traits with those English who are affiliated to the white nationalist party, the National Front.  More pointedly, as he was caught in riots among these football fans in 1990 in Sardinia where the World Cup was being played, he unexpectedly found the violence to be ‘pleasurable’.  Violence, he wrote of these football fanatics, ‘is their antisocial kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenaline-induced euphoria’ that shares ‘many of the same addictive qualities that characterize synthetically-produced drugs.’

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Gasping for Oxygen: Homage to Sunderlal Bahuguna, 1927-2021

With the passing of Sunderlal Bahuguna on May 21, the great social activist who added the “Chipko Movement” to the glossary of environmentalists worldwide, COVID has found one of its most illustrious victims.  Bahuguna was hospitalized on May 8 after testing positive for the coronavirus and breathed his last nearly two weeks later, dying from complications arising from COVID.  His death is rightly being mourned as a monumental loss to the Indian environmental movement.  He was also, however, one of the last great witnesses to the Gandhi era—that is a loss which is almost inestimable.

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The Creative Scholar: A Tribute to James Carse, Philosopher of Religion

Finite players win titles; infinite players have nothing but their names. — James Carse

           

James Carse, a philosopher of religion ‘by profession’ and an extraordinarily creative thinker at large, died on September 25 last year.  He was 87 years old. 

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

Vinay Lal

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

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

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

A celebration by the Indian cricket test team at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, January 2021. Source: https://www.sportskeeda.com/cricket/news-that-shows-strength-character-courage-michael-clarke-lauds-team-india-historic-series-win
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Modi Goes Down to Crushing Defeat in West Bengal: A Ray of Hope for India?

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

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

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

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