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Vaishnava janato

A recent trip to Porbandar and Rajkot, where Gandhi spent his adolescent years, set me thinking yet once again about his religiosity.  Much like nearly everything else in his life, Gandhi’s religion defies easy description. Though Gandhi viewed himself as a Hindu, he also maintained that a man could describe himself as a Hindu and yet not believe in God. Many of his most determined foes harbored no doubts about Gandhi’s betrayal of the Hindus, but others were equally certain that he contaminated public life in India by his insistent resort to the paraphernalia of Hinduism—its stories, myths, symbols, and much else.  He almost never visited temples and everything in his conduct suggests that he remained indifferent to the temple-going experience; yet no one made as concerted an attempt as he did to open up Hindu temples to Dalits (or, as they were then known, the Untouchables).  Indeed, it is Gandhi’s attempts to open up the temples to Dalits that earned him the wrath of Ambedkar.  But the conundrums do not end here:  Gandhi venerated the Ramacaritmanas, the immensely popular version of the Ramayana penned by the poet-saint Tulsidas in the late fifteenth century, but he also insisted that passages in Tulsidas which were anathema to one’s conscience and reason—such as the one which characterizes drums, the illiterate, animals, the lower castes, and (disobedient) women as fit to be beaten—ought to be summarily rejected. To the end of his life Gandhi persisted in describing himself as a believer in the idea that Hinduism rightly prescribed duties for each of the castes (varnashrama dharma), but he made it known that he would only bless intercaste weddings. Moreover, much to the chagrin of upper-caste Hindu society, Gandhi displayed absolutely no qualms in picking up a broom and sweeping toilets, work that in Hindu society was considered fit only for the “lowest of the low.”  (As an aside, it is unthinkable that the Aam Aadmi Party could have embraced the broom as its symbol had Gandhi not set the precedent.)  He went so far as to declare that he would only want to be reborn as a scavenger (bhangi) whose very presence would be polluting to an upper-caste Hindu. Perhaps nothing underscores his anomalous standing as a Hindu more than two facts: while M.A. Jinnah—his staunchest political foe and eventually the chief instigator of the idea of Pakistan—persisted in viewing Gandhi as the supreme representative of the Hindu community, Gandhi’s assassin—a Brahmin from Pune by the name of Nathuram Godse—partly justified his act with the observation that Gandhi was not Hindu enough.

 

Unraveling the religious life of Gandhi is thus no trifling matter. Nevertheless, his life—extraordinarily complex in some respects, and equally straightforward from another vantage point—furnishes various windows into his religious thought and practice. The Bhagavad Gita was, to Gandhi, a manual for daily living; and it is in the Gita that we first encounter a description of bhakti yoga, the way to God through devotion. What is often referred to as the ‘bhakti movement’ had swept India from around the ninth to the sixteenth centuries, and in Gandhi’s native Gujarat the most famous exponent of bhakti was doubtless Narasinha Mehta, born into the orthodox caste of Nagar Brahmins around 1414. Much like other bhakta-poets, Narsi (as he is commonly known) was oblivious to caste differences and scarcely moved by bookish learning; and his biographers are agreed that he deeply offended his own community of Brahmins as he would often consort with the lower castes, even singing in the houses of the Untouchables and spending his nights in their homes. Narsi’s fellow Brahmins eventually excommunicated him, but Narsi was no more perturbed on that account: “They say I am impure, and they are right. / I love only those who love Hari [Krishna]. / I see no difference between one Harijana and another.” It is Narsi’s term Harijans, meaning “children of God,” that Gandhi would controversially adopt in the 1920s to designate the Untouchables.

 

Narasimha Mehta No Choro, Junagadh:  The spot where Narsi and his followers gathered in ecstatic devotion to Krishna.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narasimha Mehta No Choro, Junagadh: The spot where Narsi and his followers gathered in ecstatic devotion to Krishna. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narsi Mehta No Choro:  The spot in Junagadh where Narsi and   his fellow bhaktas gathered in devotion to Krishna.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narsi Mehta No Choro: The spot in Junagadh where Narsi and his fellow bhaktas gathered in devotion to Krishna. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

 

Gandhi’s unbound affection for Narsi’s composition Vaishnava janato is as good a way as any to gauge the Mahatma’s religious sensibility. Vaishnavism—which takes its name from the god Vishnu—was an important part of the religious milieu in which Gandhi grew into adolescence, and in the opening chapter of his autobiography Gandhi describes his mother as a saintly woman for whom a visit to the “Vaishnava temple” was “one of her daily routines.” Gandhi was not particularly interested in the sectarian divide between Vaishnavas and Saivites (the followers of Shiva), and he sought to endow the term “Vaishnava” with a more capacious meaning. Narsi’s bhajan, or devotional song, permitted him to enter into the state of being of a true Vaishnava. Narsi sings: Vaishnavajana to tene kahiye, je pira parayi jaane re / par dukha upkaar kare, to ye man abhiman na aane re. Call only him a Vaishnava, says Narsi, who feels another’s pain as his own, who helps others in their sorrow but takes no pride in his good deeds. The rest of the bhajan further adumbrates the qualities of a Vaishnava, who is pure in thought, action, and speech; despising no one, and treating the low and the high alike, the Vaishnava adopts the entire human family as his own and so works for the liberation of everyone. It is from Narsi, and not from the Gita alone, that Gandhi imbibed the values of nonattachment, humility, and the renunciation of avarice. When, as Narsi says, “all pilgrimages sites are embodied within the body of the Vaishnava” (sakal tirtha tena tanma re), we are better positioned to understand why Gandhi did not share the Hindus’ propensity towards pilgrimage sites.

 

Text of Vaishnava Janato, from a plaque at Birla House, Delhi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Text of Vaishnava Janato, from a plaque at Birla House, Delhi. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

Vaishnava janato was sung at Gandhi’s daily prayer meetings. As Gandhi commenced his almost 250-mile march to the sea in 1930, writes his biographer Narayan Desai, he was handed his walking stick by his close associate Kaka Kalelkar, and Narayan Khare sang Vaishnava janato. The bhajan remained on the lips of Gandhi and his companions throughout the Dandi March. Widely known as Narsi’s Vaishnavajana to may have been to Gujaratis, it was Gandhi who popularized it through the length and breadth of India. It has been set to music by some of India’s famous instrumentalists, among them Shivkumar Sharma, Amjad Ali Khan, and Hariprasad Chaurasia. M.S. Subbalakshmi’s rendition has done much to give it an iconic status in the country’s staggering musical pharmacopeia, and more recent performances by the likes of Lata Mangeshkar have ensured its popularity. One of the more intriguing testimonies to the afterlife of Narsi’s bhajan is the fact that Sahmat, an activist cultural organization with a distinctly left-secular outlook founded in the 1990s, thought it fit to print a large poster of the bhajan in attractive calligraphy and circulate it widely. We may say that Gandhi attempted to live by the ideals described in Narsi’s devotional song, and he would have seen in the song’s popularity at least some faint signs of what he took to be India’s enduring interest in the spiritual life.

 

NOTE:  This piece will also appear in a new blog tentatively called “Gandhi Scrapbook” and to be launched shortly.  See

Gandhiscrapbook.blogspot.com.  Pieces on Gandhi will be posted on both this blog and the new blog until such time as the new blog is well established.

 

 New York’s former mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, dubbed by the adoring American media as “America’s mayor” after the events of September 11 cast him in the spotlight and even turned him into a hero in the eyes of many, has long had a habit of attempting to insert himself into the public sphere after his “retirement” and failed attempt to gain America’s presidency.  Giuliani was always known for his machismo rather than his intelligence, and it is not surprising that one of the many sinecures that came his way after he supposedly brought New York back on its feet—first by tackling crime on the city’s mean streets, acting tough with criminals, and then by showing terrorists that New Yorkers could not be cowed into submission by turning their twin towers into burning infernos—was as a consultant to various law enforcement agencies, in and outside the United States, on cultivating “zero tolerance” with respect to crime.  For Giuliani, as for many others who are habituated to the idea that certain human beings should be treated as a lower species, “zero tolerance” is produced not by tackling the social roots of crime—and “crime” is, needless to say, never the actions of Wall Street bankers who plunder the wealth of common people, or the backroom dealings that enable many of the country’s wealthiest people and corporations to evade taxes—but merely by packing the jails.

 

That Giuliani has always had “zero tolerance” for those who do not meet his exacting standards of patriotism has become amply clear with his latest pronouncement, relayed not surprisingly on Fox News, that President Barack Obama has never expressed love for the United States.   (If a man is known by the company he keeps, it is worth recalling that Fox News, Giuliani’s favorite news channel, in the aftermath of l’affaire Charlie Hebdo described the city of Birmingham as a “Muslim-only” city where non-Muslims could not go at all.  Even David Cameron, scarcely the champion of liberal views or the model of perspicacious reasoning, could not restrain himself from describing Fox News’ anchors as “idiots”.)  “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say,” Giuliani told a dinner meeting of business executives, “but I do not believe that the president loves America.  He doesn’t love you.  And he doesn’t love me.  He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”  Giuliani has now elaborated his views in an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal, but one need not bother oneself excessively with his words of explanation.  Giuliani avers that he did not mean to question Obama’s “motives or the content of his heart”, and that he only sought to convey his feeling that Obama’s words and actions have often had the effect of lowering the morale of Americans.  It is surprising, indeed, that Giuliani concedes that Obama has a heart; some, myself included, have wondered whether the same could be said of Giuliani.  “America’s mayor” claims that he only seeks to open a national conversation on this question, though it sounds very much like a national conversation, which quite animated some Americans, on whether Barack Hussain Obama could really claim to have been born in the United States.

UncleSam

 

Giuliani challenged the media to furnish examples of Obama’s unqualified love for his country—a challenge that the gallant New York Times found irresistible.  This weighty newspaper, in a piece entitled “Criticism Aside, Obama Has Stated Love for U.S.” (February 23), defends Obama with chapter and verse from his numerous speeches.  When Obama was but a presidential candidate in 2008, he confided to his audience:  “I also know how much I love America.”  At the Democratic National Convention that same year, Obama told the wildly cheering crowd, “I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain.”  Moreover, as the New York Times reminds its readers, Obama’s love for his fellow countrymen and women appears not to have diminished a jot even after the first difficult years of his presidency, since in 2011 at a town-hall meeting in Illinois he sought to explain to his audience “why I love this country so much.”  Obama could well be forgiven if, in this love-drenched environment, he might have not quite mustered the will or ability to love Rudolph the red-necked moose.

 

The question, one that can barely be contemplated in America, is not whether Obama loves his country enough, but whether he loves it too much.  There is a strand of thought associated with the sentiment voiced by Samuel Johnson, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”  Assuming, however, that most people do love their country, and that Americans are no more exceptional in this respect than any other people, and assuming as well that most people will be inclined to see some measure of patriotism as both desirable and reasonable, let us grant that patriotism may in itself not be an unhealthy sentiment.  Even the most hardened critics of their country are likely to succumb to patriotism, and the recent events surrounding the killings of French cartoonists have amply demonstrated how quickly people are ready to circle the wagons and fall back upon patriotism.  However, the patriotism of Giuliani demands something else, something much more stringent than mere affection for one’s country.  “I don’t hear from him”, complained Giuliani about Obama, “what I heard from Harry Truman, what I heard from Bill Clinton, what I heard from Jimmy Carter, which is these wonderful words about what a great country we are, what an exceptional country we are.”  Lest Giuliani, now a staunch Republican, should be accused of pillorying a Democratic President, he makes it a point to invoke the patriotism of three Democratic presidents.

 

So, as has happened so often in American history, the affirmation of America’s greatness and its exceptionality itself becomes a necessary condition for being considered a true-blooded American.  That Obama has, sadly, passed Giuliani’s stringent test all too often is not something that would interest much less confound Giuliani, since falsehood and deception are intrinsically part of his being.  Obama has repeatedly and with evident conviction described the United States as “the greatest democratic, economic, and military force for freedom and human dignity the world has ever known”; this piece of pompous and offensive banality is only exceeded by his pronouncement, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”  Not unlikely, such of Obama’s defenders who might still cringe at this shameless exhibition of American exceptionalism will almost certainly point out that the latter remarks were uttered at the commencement ceremony of the United States Military Academy and must only be viewed as a tactical attempt by the president to engage the country’s brightest young soldiers.  It is Obama’s predecessors, Bill Clinton and George Bush, who called America the world’s “one dispensable nation”, but it is Obama who has made this phrase his signature line.  “America remains”, so stated Obama in his State of the Union address in 2012, “the one indispensable nation in world affairs”, a sentiment reaffirmed in precisely the same language—“So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation.  That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come”—and with almost defiant conviction at the aforementioned US Military Academy commencement ceremony.

Rosie the Riveter, WW II

Rosie the Riveter, WW II

 

Let us not merely console ourselves with the thought that hubris has brought down many countries and empires and that the United States will not be spared by history either.  The calamitous consequences of American exceptionalism will have to be borne by others.  We may also bemoan the fact that the illusory difference between Democrats and Republicans has been the bedrock of what passes for politics in the United States.  Both these trajectories of thought must be pursued at greater length by those keen on seeding the grounds for a much richer conception of politics and ecumenical futures.  In the meantime, however, it is worth asking whether there may be yet other modes besides pity, contempt, and condescension with which to question the scandalous patriotism of public figures or contemplate the vexed question of love for one’s country.  In closing, I am reminded of these hauntingly moving lines by the twelfth-century Saxon writer on mystical theology, Hugo of St. Victor:  “It is, therefore, a source of great virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about invisible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether.  The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.  The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”

 

 

 

A local election in India is not likely to garner world attention, but the outcome of the recently concluded Legislative Assembly elections in Delhi, a sprawling city of more than twenty million people, portends much for the future of democracy—not merely in India, but all over the world.  The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), founded a little over two years ago by a rather nondescript former revenue service officer, has secured 67 of 70 seats in the State Assembly.  These results, confounding the expectations of pollsters and the party’s most optimistic supporters, would have been astounding at any time but are now all the more remarkable in view of the fact that AAP, which speaks for the “common man”, had been written off after the national elections last May which brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power with a clear indeed compelling majority.  Moreover, Arvind Kejriwal, who has now taken the oath of office as Delhi’s Chief Minister, was widely viewed as having irreparably imperiled his political career when he resigned from the same position after a mere 49 days in office in February 2014.

Pollsters, Predictions . . . and Results

Pollsters, Predictions . . . and Results

The extraordinary electoral triumph of AAP can certainly be read in various registers.  Some people are likely to view the mandate for AAP as the electorate’s expression of strong disapproval of the BJP’s tolerance, if not instigation, of Hindu extremism.  The ideologues of Hindu nationalism have been enjoying an unchecked run of privileges since the BJP came to power, running down minorities, glorifying the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, and putting considerable resources into “reconverting” Muslims, Christians, and others to Hinduism.  Gandhi, however venerated he may be in the rest of the world, is despised by many of these Hindu ideologues as an effeminate and wooly-minded Hindu who was soft on Islam.  (The shared dislike for Gandhi among the Hindutvavadis and those who pride themselves on their staunchly progressive credentials—measured these days by, more than anything else, a declaration of supreme and often unqualified admiration for Ambedkar—is another interesting story about the complicity of the right and the left, but one that will have to be told another time.)  The Hindu extremists profess, however, to have much concern for the Muslims, and euphemistically describe their efforts to bring Muslims back into the Hindu fold as a homecoming (ghar wapsi), a form of return to the mother’s bosom.  Though one can see why the AAP victory might be interpreted as an affirmation of the secular values of the republic, there is little evidence to substantiate this view.

AAP’s electoral victory, and in particular Kejriwal’s personal triumph, is also being projected as yet another round in the eternal conflict of David and Goliath.  Many commentators are viewing the electoral outcome as a crushing defeat for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the immensely popular—and to some charismatic—leader of the BJP who campaigned for his party candidates and vilified Kejriwal as a “Naxal”, the term used to designate political activists who are inspired by Maoism and are committed to the use of violence to overthrow the bourgeois state.  In last year’s national elections, Modi gained considerable mileage among the voters when the ruling Congress party’s elites scoffed at his humble origins as a chaiwallah (tea-seller).  Kejriwal has shown that he is just as adept at this game:  he describes himself as a simple man and dresses humbly.  Indeed, if Modi is inclined towards high ethnic fashion, Kejriwal has similarly shown a flair for a different kind of sartorial politics.  The “muffler man” makes appearances in public with a scarf wrapped around his head, so signifying his solidarity with working class people.

The Mufflerman:  More Illusions about a "World Class City"?

The Mufflerman: More Illusions about a “World Class City”?

There are, of course, more substantive ways in which the tussle in Delhi between AAP and BJP might be cast as a battle between David and Goliath.  It is now almost easy to forget that the quest for power in Delhi originated as a three-way contest, and that AAP’s victory eviscerated the Congress, the ruling party in India and Delhi alike for decades.  The BJP is also an established political party:  in its present shape its history goes back to the early 1980s, though earlier incarnations of the party have been around since 1951.  The BJP could draw upon a gigantic electoral machinery, millions of supporters and volunteers, and immense financial resources.  And yet it was humbled, indeed decimated, by a political party which has barely gotten off the ground.  Contrary to the widely held view that elections cannot be waged and won without insanely large sums of money, AAP has unequivocally shown that, at least in India, elections are not necessarily the preserve of those who are wealthy, well-connected, or the scions of political families.

There is much else that is tremendously exciting about AAP’s sweeping victory in the Delhi Legislative Assembly elections, but the critical question is whether there might be some lessons in this triumph for those interested in democracy’s prospects globally.  We have been living, since the end of the Cold War, in the age of what might be called new democracy movements.  The ‘Arab Spring’ was celebrated the world over.  However, the embers of hope have been extinguished in most places.  The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square languish in jails, when they have not been killed outright; in Syria, meanwhile, the uprising against Bashar al-Assad has produced the world’s greatest refugee crisis in decades.  But these revolts were at the outset tarnished by violence, and there is some justification for saying that what begins in violence will end in violence.  India’s masses may be poorly educated, often illiterate, and generally not too well-informed about political processes.  Yet it is indubitably the case that they have repeatedly and insistently shown their wisdom at the voting booth and expressed a clear preference for the ballot over the bullet.  Whatever democracy’s failings in India, and they are very considerable, when we consider the shocking inability of the state in nearly seven decades after independence to provide the majority of Indians with minimal guarantees of livelihood, well-being, and security, disempowered communities of various hues are beginning to understand that violence must be eschewed and that the ballot has given them new prospects for advancement.  Delhi’s mainly poor citizens have shown yet again that there is nothing like the ballot box to check the arrogance of power. The rest of the world should take heart from India’s continuing experiments in democracy.

Five decades after his death, Jawaharlal Nehru still generates passions among Indians who are animated by questions over the country’s future.  Writing from my perch in Los Angeles, I do not, for example, see anything remotely resembling the buzz about Nehru in American discussions about John F. Kennedy, another immensely charismatic leader of a democracy who was assassinated just months before Nehru passed away in 1964.  We could say, of course, that Nehru was a titan among men, and that unlike Kennedy, who occupied the American presidency for less than three years, Nehru held sway as independent India’s first Prime Minister for seventeen years.  If Amartya Sen is to be believed, it is the argumentative Indian in every Indian that keeps Nehru visible to the Indian public, loathed and perhaps admired in equal measure.

To a great many of his detractors, Nehru is easily pigeonholed as a somewhat effete, Oxbridge-educated quasi-dreamer whose indecisiveness, socialist leanings, and moral highhandedness cost India its place in the pantheon of world powers. The principal elements of this narrative are too well known to require more than the briefest mention.  His disposition towards centralized state planning is said to have kept India back for decades before the country, in the parlance of the free market cheerleaders, ‘opened’ itself up to the world:  thus the infamous ‘Hindu rate of growth’.  Even his defenders are constrained to admit that India’s record on various social fronts under Nehru is appalling, and one might summon the exceedingly slow advancement in improving literacy as a prominent instance of misplaced priorities, though it must also be said that India’s record in the 25 years since neo-liberalization policies were introduced has if anything been worse.

Nehru’s political failings are described by his critics as even greater.   How often have we not heard that he faltered badly in turning the Kashmir dispute over to the United Nations?  We have been incessantly reminded that his naive trust in the Chinese, embodied in the slogan ‘Hindi chini bhai bhai’ [Indians and Chinese are brothers], was repaid back with China’s invasion of India.  These criticisms are most often accompanied with jejune ramblings about how India would have long ago taken the world by storm had not fate unkindly intervened to remove India’s ‘Iron Man’, Sardar Patel, from the scene and thereby leave Nehru without a peer to question his dictatorial and yet highly confused exercise of authority.  (I wonder if it was the karma of nationalist Hindus that left them bereft of their leader, but we may leave that aside for the moment.)   Nehru’s defenders, on the other hand, appear to think that all they have to do is merely summon the fact that India has persisted as a democracy, a distinct achievement when we consider what has transpired in other countries that gained their independence from colonial powers.  His admirers naturally admit his record in this respect is far being unblemished:  Nehru agreed to the dismissal of the elected communist government of Kerala in 1959, and the take-over of Goa by the Indian government in December 1961, even if it was inspired by his distaste for the remnants of colonial rule in India, dent a huge hole in his reputation as an upholder of the rule of law.  Nevertheless, the singularity of Nehru’s achievement in making India abide by democratic norms has been all too often stressed by his defenders.

Newspaper headlines on the Chinese invasion of India

Newspaper headlines on the Chinese invasion of India

 

Chinese Premier, Chou En-lai (left), with Nehru and an interpreter (right)

Chinese Premier, Chou En-lai (left), with Nehru and an interpreter (right)

What, then, are we to make of Nehru?  Looking back at the twentieth century, there can be no doubt that in the aftermath of the conclusion of World War II, and in the period extending to the glorious defeat of the mightiest military force assembled in the world by the (as more than one European social theorist would say) puny and rice-eating Vietnamese, decolonization was the greatest political force in the world.  Most Western, and especially American, historians have not seen it this way, obsessed as they are with the Cold War. The Cold War impinged on decolonization as well, since the Soviet Union, itself a totalitarian regime without an iota of capacity for tolerating dissent, was keen on being seen as a champion of the struggles of third world peoples against their imperial oppressors.  The United States, on its part, consistently came down on the wrong side of nearly every anti-colonial struggle, either choosing to remain on the sidelines or, more often, supporting the most reactionary elements.  What must be said unequivocally about Nehru is that he played a critical role in supporting anti-colonial and decolonization movements throughout the world.  India’s support of the African National Congress under Nehru is perhaps only the most well-known instance of his principled support of resistance movements, but similar testimony has been furnished by other political leaders such as Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta.  His friendship with Paul Robeson, an African American artist of extraordinary gifts who was hounded by the country’s political elites, is unfathomable except on the premise that both shared a profound aspiration for the freedom of all colored peoples.

Nasser of Egypt (left), Nehru (2nd from the right), and an aide to Nasser, ushering in the Burmese New Year at Bandung, Indonesia, 1955.

Colonel Gamal A. Nasser of Egypt (left), Burmese Prime Minister U Nu (2nd from left), Nehru (2nd from the right), and an aide to Nasser, Major Salah Salem, ushering in the Burmese New Year in traditional costume at Bandung, Indonesia, Aapril 1955.

Nehru Discovers an American to Admire:  an article in the Chicago Tribune, 25 November 1958, about the growing friendship of Robeson and Nehru

Nehru Discovers an American to Admire: an article in the Chicago Tribune, 25 November 1958 (bottom left corner), about the growing friendship of Robeson and Nehru

 

We have heard in recent years that Nehru nurtured not just democracy but diversity.  We might inquire what precisely that means:  India is nothing if not ‘diverse’, but how exactly is it that one nurtures diversity?  Does diversity increase if one nurtures it?  Those who are intolerant of minorities can justifiably be seen as not promoting ‘diversity’, but does the institution of multicultural policies, as in the United States, where the forces of homogenization are immense, lead to diversity?  Diversity’s advocates barely understand that today’s dictators are all required to undergo diversity appreciation courses.  One should say, rather, of Nehru that he was inspiringly ecumenical, but more than just a person of astonishingly wide reading and the proverbially insatiable curiosity of the polymath.  It is doubtful that a more ecumenical history of the world has ever been written than is contained in his Glimpses of World History (1934), a large collection of letters written by Nehru to his daughter Indira.  Letter 112 is almost apologetic about having given over more time and space to India than to other countries; and Letter 44 advises Indira that “we have the whole world to consider, and if a small part of it, even though it may be the part where we live, took up much of our time, we would never get on with the rest.”  Such ecumenism is not merely charming—it is a reminder of a cosmopolitanism that is still foreign to most people.  We have not yet begun to take the measure of the man known as Jawaharlal Nehru.

(Originally published as “The Measure of a Man” in the Sunday Times of India, 9 November 2014.)

 

 

Jeremy Seabrook, an independent writer, journalist, and chronicler of the human condition who has long had an interest in South Asia, probing especially the lives of those who inhabit India’s slums and Muslim ghettos, turns his attention in his most recent book to the workers of Bangladesh’s garment industries who clothe the world but, like the weavers of Bengal in colonial India, barely have enough to cover their own nakedness. The book takes its title from Thomas Hood’s elegy on the women workers in Lancashire’s textile mills, “The Song of the Shirt” (1843):  working “in poverty, hunger, and dirt,” moving their fingers to the command of “Stich! Stich! Stich!”, they sowed at once, “with a double thread, A Shroud as well as a Shirt.”

 

If Bangladesh has emerged at all in the news in recent years, it is on account of the disasters that have befallen its garment industry, none as calamitous as the collapse of the Rana Plaza commercial building under whose debris over 1,100 people were left dead.  Seabrook’s book is a searing indictment of the callousness of factory owners and others in the global system of the circulation of capital who are complicit in creating miserable working conditions for those employed in Bangladesh’s largest and most profitable industrial venture.  Yet it is also an extraordinary tribute to the workers who pile into Dhaka and other centers of the garment industry from all corners of the country.  Their lives are sketched not so much in detail as in poignantly suggestive prose.  Do people flee to that “washed out concrete jungle” that is called Dhaka, which Seabrook unflinchingly describes as one of the world’s ugliest cities, to escape the narrowing of human possibilities that Marx sought to capture in his brutal condemnation of the “idiocy of the rural countryside”?  One might suppose that it is the aspiration to become something in life, or merely to earn a livelihood, that brings people to the city from the interior, but what would then make the story of Bangladesh so distinct?

 

Rana Plaza Building Collapse, Dhaka

Rana Plaza Building Collapse, Dhaka

The recent migrants coming into Dhaka “bring the sincerity and artlessness of rural life—qualities ripe for transformation into exploitable labour” (37); yet the city where they arrive with such hope becomes another prison, reduced as they are to 12-hour working days in window-less rooms and under the watchful eyes of cruel taskmasters.  But the specificity of their stories is to be derived from the particular conditions which push them to the city—the loss of ancestral land, the inability to feed too many mouths, the need for money to secure a dowry for a sister, and so on.  Perhaps more than anything else, Bangladesh is a land dense with rivers and scarred by cyclones.  The rivers are teeming with fish but the river is also “thieving” and “hungry”; when the Meghna overflows, its ravenous maw swallows up whole houses, agricultural land, and people (105-9).

 

Garment Factory in the Mohakhali area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2010.  Credit:  Clean Clothes Campaign.

Garment Factory in the Mohakhali area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2010. Credit: Clean Clothes Campaign.

In this short yet compelling book, Seabrook skillfully weaves together tales of peasants with stories of weavers, moving back and forth between the village and the city, water and land, lush green fields and the ramshackle appearance of South Asia’s urban patches, even the poetic and the idioms of history.  He is versed in historical sources but not burdened by them; and only someone with the sensibility of a poet can ruminate on the strange interplay of fire and water that has shaped the contours of the lives of his subjects.  Water, in the form of “tidal surges, cyclones and floods”, has “always been the most usual element that brings death to Bangladesh” (29); the villagers flee this menace to arrive as laborers in the city’s garment factories, often to be consumed by the fires that have time and again struck the garment industry’s ill-regulated factories and warehouses.  One might have thought that water fights fire, but in Bangladesh the two often collude—as if the poor did not have enough wretchedness in their lives.  There are other desultory facts, almost poetic bits, that take the breath away:  who would have thought that Murshidabad, once the world centre of silk weaving and now a haunted culture, perhaps once accounted for “5 percent” of the world’s total product (176-77)?

 

The Song of the Shirt, writes Seabrook, “is a reflection on the mutability of progress.”  The dominant narrative of human progress presupposes “a deterministic and linear process,” but Seabrook insistently reminds us that “experience in the clothing and fabric industry suggests certain areas of the world are liable to periods of industrialization, but equally to de-industrialization” (17).  The most ambitious aspect of Seabrook’s intellectual enterprise, and not surprisingly the one that is most fraught with hazards of interpretation, is his attempt to suggest the various ways in which Bengal and Lancashire offer a mirror image of each other.  The demise of the weaving industry in Bengal under colonial rule “coincided with the rise of the mechanized production of cotton goods” in the greater Manchester area; even as Dhaka became a ghost town, “Manchester became the centre of intense economic dynamism”.  Lancashire is now utterly denuded of its textile mills, and Manchester has lost population; but, in “a ghostly replay of traffic in the other direction” of “the machine-made clothing” that wiped out Bengal’s famed spinners and weavers (17), Dhaka with its 2500 garment factories has become nearly the epicentre of the world’s manufactured clothing.  Seabrook invests much in this comparison, constantly suggesting similarities between 19th century Britain and contemporary Bangladesh with respect to the lives of the workers, the nexus between the state and manufacturers, working conditions, and much else.

 

One might be moved, by Seabrook’s comparisons, to accept that widely quoted French expression, “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.  But this temptation must be resisted, if only because a sensitivity to the politics of knowledge should introduce some caution in comparisons between Europe’s past and the global South’s present.  Nevertheless, in Song of the Shirt, Seabrook has accomplished the enviable task of rendering naked the social processes which have helped to clothe the world and disguise some unpalatable truths about the treacherousness of what is usually celebrated as entrepreneurial capitalism.

 

[Review of Jeremy Seabrook, The Song of the SpiritCheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries (New Delhi:  Navayana, 2014;  ISBN:  9788189059644; 288 pp.  Rs 495), first published as “The Textile Jungle”, The Indian Express (18 October 2014).

 

In his recently concluded visit to the United States, where he addressed a jubilant crowd of around 19,000 people, Narendra Modi all but dedicated his government to the Non-resident Indians gathered to celebrate his triumph.  “You have given me a lot of love”, he told his admirers:  “This kind of love has never been given to any Indian leader, ever.  I’m very grateful to you.  And I will repay that loan by forming the India of your dreams.”  This was music to the ears of his devoted listeners, whose achievements Modi has promised to teach his countrymen and women to emulate:  “I want to duplicate your success.  What do we do to duplicate that success?”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, 28 September 2014.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, 28 September 2014.

 

The members of the Indian Civil Service who governed India after it became a Crown Colony were described as, and believed themselves to be, “heaven-born”.  Many Indian Americans similarly believe themselves to be not merely fortunate and hard-working but as the vanguard of what may be described as a post-industrial Vedic civilization.  To understand what it is that enables Indian Americans, and mainly the Hindus among them, to think of themselves both as immensely spiritually gifted, as the true inheritors of a Vedic civilization, and as the ideal representatives of the world’s most advanced material culture, certain aspects of the history of Indian Americans must be revisited.  Though they are today the most educated and affluent of any ethnic group in the United States, they have long bemoaned their fate as an ‘invisible minority’.  Five decades ago, the Punjabi American farmer Dilip Singh Saund served three terms (1957-63) in the House of Representatives.   Until very recently, however, Indian Americans have scarcely made any other dent in politics.  But it is other forms of invisibility that touch a raw nerve:  as the savvy and yet aggressive young professionals who form part of the comparatively new Hindu American Foundation often point out, Hinduism is barely understood in the US and is, from their standpoint, unjustly maligned as a bizarre religion of false gods, demi-gods, demons, and such strange figures as Hanuman and Kali.

 

Hindus everywhere are inclined to believe that their religion, characterized by the notion of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (‘the earth is one family’), uniquely fosters tolerance, but Hindus in the United States see themselves as especially blessed and charged with the dual mission of rejuvenating India and helping America fulfill its destiny as the mecca of multicultural democracy.  The formal dedication of many Hindu temples in the US, such as the Rama Shrine of the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, has taken place on July 4th, which marks the anniversary of American independence.  Hindus thus signify their acceptance of the idea that they share in the blessings of American “freedom”, while at the same time conveying to Americans that Hinduism permits a richer and more spiritual conception of freedom centered on the notion of self-realization.  The secular American formula, E Pluribus Unum, ‘From Many, One’, is countered by, and complemented with, the Vedic affirmation of idea that ‘Truth is One; Sages Name It Variously’ (‘Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti’; Rig Veda 1.164.46).

 

Now A Rock Star:  The New York Times was one among many newspapers that described the reception Narendra Modi received at Madison Square Garden as befitting a rock star

Now A Rock Star: The New York Times was one among many newspapers that described the reception Narendra Modi received at Madison Square Garden as befitting a rock star

Indian American Hindus are exceedingly astute in their understanding of how discourses of multiculturalism might be deployed in the US to their advantage.  Several years ago, a number of Hindu organizations rallied together in a concerted attempt to force alterations in history textbooks used in California schools.  They objected, for example, to the fact that such textbooks characterized Hinduism as a polytheistic rather than monotheistic faith, or that women in ancient India were described as having fewer rights than men.  American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) almost serves as a vigilante group, observing a hawk-like look-out for those who offend against Hindu sentiments.   However, their support of “multiculturalism” in India, where the religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity dwarfs anything seen in the US, is remarkably muted.  Apparently, on their world view, multiculturalism is much to be admired in the US even as it may safely be ignored in India.  Indeed, many Hindus in the US adhere to the view that the practice of their faith is not hobbled by the constraints that a pseudo-secular Indian state has imposed upon Hindus in their homeland.

 

There is a remarkable convergence in the worldview of the NRI—and the model of the successful NRI is the Indian American—and Narendra Modi.  The political ascendancy of a former tea vendor reminds Indian Americans of the opportunities made available to them in the supposed land of milk and honey, though such a narrative obscures the fact that many of the immigrant Indians who have done exceedingly well in the US already came from advantaged backgrounds.   NRIs and Modi alike crave to see a new, resplendent India that can take its place as a great power, but India in its present state is an embarrassment to them.  Its faults—the appalling poverty, the ramshackle appearance of every town, the indescribable filth in public spaces, widespread evidence of malnutrition and open defecation, and much else—need not be rehearsed at length, and Modi has signaled his attempt to meet such objections by launching the Swachch Bharat Mission.  But there are more compelling parts of the story and the anxiety of influence extends much further.  The Indian middle classes and the non-resident Indians have long agonized over the fact that India, as a friend once remarked to me, is ‘the largest most unimportant country in the world’, and that the same Indians who flounder in their homeland yet make something significant of themselves outside India.

 

Modi at Madison Square Garden:  A Who's Who of Indian American corporate types

Modi at Madison Square Garden: A Who’s Who of Indian American corporate types

It is under these circumstances that Modi has appeared, to the Indian middle classes and to NRIs, as the appointed one.  The well-to-do physicians, software engineers, scientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and other professionals in the Indian American community have long hankered for an Indian leader who would be imposing and decisive, and they are convinced that India requires a strong dose of authoritarian leadership if it is to prosper.  They are much more hospitable to the idea of a prosperous authoritarian state than they are to the idea of an India that is flaunted as a democracy but registers poor growth and continues to be an insignificant player in world politics.  Modi’s concentration of power is calculated to furnish, from their standpoint, some of the advantages found in the Presidential system of government.  Yet Modi also stands for what they view as ‘spiritual India’, a land synonymous with great yogis, teachers of spiritual renown, and sacred rivers that are personified as goddesses.  Thus, in the figure of Narendra Modi, Indian Americans see the possibilities of a prosperous yet spiritual India which they believe is already embodied in their own life histories.

 

(First published in OUTLOOK [Print and Web editions], 20 October 2014, as ‘The Prophet of Boom Times’].

 

 

In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), one of the two or three largest school districts in the United States, this Thursday, September 25th, was a school holiday.  Some weeks ago, in studying the 2014-15 school calendar so that, as a parent of two teenage children who attend two different schools in the LAUSD school district, I could be better prepared in planning my children’s schedules and my own, I noticed that September 25th was listed as a holiday and described as “an unassigned day”.  The calendar doesn’t explain what an “unassigned day” means; and I wondered what the occasion might be for a school holiday.  Apart from the long winter recess, which of course revolves around Christmas, and the spring recess, LAUSD’s holidays generally follow the pattern found in the rest of the country, and the holidays are meant to mark significant milestones in the country’s history or celebrate the lives of notable individuals, such as Martin Luther King Jr—though, of course, the King holiday is of comparatively recent vintage, and aroused enormous resentment among those who were hostile to him or thought that far more eminent (white) Americans had not been similarly honored.  In California, though apparently not in most of the nation, Cesar Chavez is dignified (as indeed he should be) with a holiday:  the LAUSD school calendar lists April 6th as an “unassigned day”, but a note explains that the holiday is meant to mark the observance of Cesar Chavez’s birthday.  The United States also observes, rather strangely, President’s Day:  if the intent here was to celebrate the founding fathers who rose to the office of the President, or “great” American presidents, such as those figures—Jefferson, Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln—who have been conferred immortality at Mt. Rushmore, one can imagine many Americans nodding their head in assent.  President’s Day in actuality marks the birthday of George Washington, but not every state celebrates it as Washington’s birthday; indeed, there is the tacit recognition, signified by the designation of “President’s Holiday”, that every American president is to be felicitated.  But why should that be so?  Are Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Martin van Buren—assuming that anyone remembers him at all—Jimmy Carter, and George Bush to be equally honored?  Should war-mongers among the presidents be honored or rather pitied, critiqued, and ostracized?

ReligiousHolidayChristianSentimentInUS

 

This is all by way of saying that a good deal can be inferred about a country from its holidays.  That much should be obvious, once we set our minds to thinking about little things like these; though it is these little and often unremarked upon things that reveal far more about a nation than the more common representations that a country encourages and engenders about itself.  The world observes Labor Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, on May 1st—but, as is commonly known, in the United States Labor Day is observed on the first Monday of September.  One might explain this away as yet another instance of American exceptionalism, as yet one more illustration of some insatiable need on the part of the United States to signify its difference from others and proclaim itself as the last great hope of humankind.  Just about the only other country where Labor Day is similarly celebrated in September is Canada, but this is barely surprising:  notwithstanding its pretensions at being a ‘softer’ state than its neighbor to the south, more humane and sensitive to the considerations of common people, Canada is clearly incapable of having any independent policy and has slavishly accepted the American lead in most affairs of life.  (Yes, I am aware that Canada has nationalized health care.)  We need not be detained here by the history of how it transpired that the United States came to observe Labor Day in September:  suffice to say that a certain American president, Grover Cleveland, was alarmed at the proximity of Labor Day (May 1) to the commemoration of the Haymarket riot (May 4), and wanted to ensure that celebrations of Labor Day would not furnish a pretext to remember the communists and anarchists who, it was argued, precipitated the Haymarket riot.

 

christmas2013-1

For the present, however, I am rather more animated by how Thursday, September 25th, became a school holiday in Los Angeles—an “unassigned day”, though most other holidays are known by their proper names, such as Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, and so on.  (Schools in the Los Angeles school district are shut down for the entire week of Thanksgiving; the first three days of that week are also marked as “unassigned days”, though it is understood that they are appended to Thanksgiving Day and form part of a week-long recess.)  I am also struck by what appears to be a wholly unrelated fact, but on reflection helped me unravel this puzzle.  The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where I have been teaching for two decades, is commencing the fall quarter rather late.  The fall quarter always begins on a Thursday, since later in the quarter Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday; this ensures that there are ten complete weeks of instruction.  Ordinarily, classes commence in the last week of September; this year, fall quarter instruction begins on Thursday, October 2nd.  As in almost any other major American university, the Jewish element is disproportionately reflected in faculty ranks; indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that in some departments, whether at UCLA, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, and other like institutions, Jewish faculty predominate.  (Thankfully, the American university is one institution where Jews could go about doing their work relatively unhindered, though this is scarcely to say that the university has always been free of anti-Semitism or that Jews did not have to struggle against all odds to find a hospitable home.)  And it is surely no coincidence that the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, this year falls on Thursday, September 25th.

 

In poring through the LAUSD calendar for 2014-15, it becomes palpably clear that only the adherents of Christianity are openly permitted their holidays.  Nothing in the school calendar confers similar recognition upon Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Taoists, and so on; much the same can be said for the UCLA academic calendar.  The Buddha’s birthday, Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali:  none of these auspicious days is given the recognition that is conferred upon many of the principal holy days in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Never mind the fact that universities such as UCLA are increasingly greedy for foreign undergraduate students, many of them Hindus and Muslims, since they furnish the dollars that help universities maintain their bloated administrations.  The Hindu can have his holy cows just as long as the cash cows make their way to America and its “world-class” universities.  We are accustomed to much noise about the greatness of America as a multicultural nation, and one is almost nauseated by the constant and rather pious sermons about the need to value “diversity”.  If Hermann Goring wanted to reach for his gun whenever he heard the word ‘culture’, I am tempted to reach for Shiva’s trident whenever I hear the word ‘diversity’.  There was never any doubt that the United States has been and remains a resolutely Christian nation; nevertheless, it is critical to inquire why, and that too in a state which describes itself as the vanguard of progressive thinking and liberal attitudes, the academic calendar reinforces the notion that we all live under the Christian dispensation.  In religious matters, it seems, there is to be little or no diversity, and certainly no parity among the religions.

 

Having said this, the question about “the unassigned day”, which turns out to be the Jewish New Year, remains to be resolved.  Why isn’t the day simply declared a Jewish holiday?  Does this subterfuge arise from the fear that if Jews are openly permitted their holidays, the practitioners of at least some of the other ‘world religions’ will have to be allowed similar concessions?  On the other hand, the idea that Jewish people might remain unrecognized is altogether impermissible in American society.  The Jewish presence in Los Angeles is considerable; in certain sectors of American society, among them higher education and the film industry, the Jewish element is all but indispensable.  Then there is the consideration, to which I have already alluded, that the Judeo-Christian tradition is commonly viewed as the bedrock of American society:  if that is the case, it becomes perforce necessary, and critically vital to any conception of American politics, that Jewish customs and traditions be acknowledged and given their just due.  Yet, to complicate matters further, a latent hostility to Judaism and to Jews is inextricably part of the Christian inheritance, and there is a tacit compact which underscores the idea that the Jew in America should never be altogether visible.  Here, as has so often been the case before, the liminal status of the Jew—thus the “unassigned day”—is once again reaffirmed.

 

Religious Holidays at Pacific University

Religious Holidays at Pacific University

There have been, and continue to be, societies where religious pluralism is understood differently.  In my previous blog, in reviewing a book on Iraq under sanctions, I was struck by the authors’ claim, which is substantiated by other accounts, that in Iraq each religious community was permitted its paid religious holidays before the commencement of the Gulf War.  To admit this much does not diminish the other horrors of living under a dictatorship.  India is scarcely without its problems, and no one could say that religious minorities have not experienced discrimination; but it is nonetheless an unimpeachable fact that Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs are all recognized by the state and that the religious holiday calendar has some space for each community.  The notion that the founding fathers of the United States were deeply committed to the separation of church and state, and that this principle has ever since guided American society, is part of American ‘common sense’ and rarely questioned.  It is this cunning of reason, this fundamental dishonesty, which mars America’s engagement with the question of religious pluralism.

 

 

 

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