The Undeveloped Heart:  Gandhi on Education

(Third in an occasional series that will run for several months on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.)

October 2nd, Gandhi Jayanti, has come and gone.  Thousands of statues of Gandhi were doubtless garlanded, and I suspect that some new statues were installed.  We all know, of course, that Mohandas Gandhi would have sharply disapproved of these celebrations. He never had much use for statues, having noted that they were perhaps most useful to pigeons.  That flowers should be plucked to create garlands which make their way from statues to streets and garbage bins struck him as not merely senseless but as a form of violence. Barely anyone listened to him in his lifetime, certainly not in his last painful years, and fewer still are those who listen to him now.

And then there are the customary homilies to him. No one has to have listened to the Indian Prime Minister’s speeches this October 2nd to know that he would have exhorted the nation and especially school children to follow the example of Bapu.  School principals all over the country would have done the same, taking Gandhi as an example of someone who, as they believe, understood the value of education and was himself a product of a well-established educational system.  If there is one thing that “reasonable” and “sensible” people agree upon, even if they are not predisposed to a liberal point of view, it is that education is the sine qua non of the progress of individuals, communities, and nations.

Thus it behooves us to consider, howsoever briefly, what Gandhi thought of education. He had, on this subject as much as anything else that occupied his attention, strong, carefully reasoned, and wholly unconventional views.  Since nearly everything that he stood for has been consigned to oblivion in modern India–even, let it be clear, his views on “cleanliness”, notwithstanding the hullabaloo over the “Swachh Bharat” [Clean India] mission launched by the Prime Minister some years ago–it is scarcely surprising that his outlook on education has similarly been dismissed by Indians as hopelessly idealistic, old-fashioned, and utterly unworthy of their attention.  The Gandhians who have encapsulated his thinking under the term “Nai Taleem”—and it is quite irrelevant that Gandhi himself used the term—have not helped, given that the term is calculated to send middle class Indians into a panic.  Middle class Indians know that those who follow “Nai Taleem” [New Education] will never gain entrance to even a second-rate Indian university, much less St. Stephen’s College, JNU, Ashoka University, or the yet more exalted institutions of higher education in Britain and especially the United States.

The story of Gandhi’s radical skepticism about modern education is best told, in the first instance, through an anecdote from his life around 1927.   He was visited by an American clergyman by the name of Reverend John R. Mott, with whom Gandhi would have subsequent meetings in 1936 and 1938 as well.  Mott would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.  According to Mukulbhai Kalarthi [Anecdotes from Bapu’s Life, Navajivan Publishing House, 1960, p. 33], Mott and Gandhi engaged in extended conversations over the course of several days. Towards the end of his stay, seeking to crystallize their discussions into a few important insights, Rev. Mott posed two questions.  “Tell me, Mahatmaji”, he asked Gandhi, “what is it that, after nearly two decades of the freedom struggle, still gives you the greatest hope”?  Gandhi unhesitatingly replied, “What gives me the greatest hope is that the Indians masses, despite the grave provocation, do not abandon nonviolence [ahimsa].”  Rev. Mott then moved on to the next question:  “And what is it that fills you with the greatest fear and makes you exceedingly unhappy”?  Gandhi, we are told, paused and then said:  “The hardheartedness of the educated is a matter of the constant concern and sorrow to me.”

It is more than likely that today Gandhi would have had reason to question his faith in the adherence of his fellow Indians to ahimsa. But, on the question of education, it is rather remarkable that, at a time when the educated comprised a relatively tiny community, Gandhi already was deeply suspicions about the value and utility of formal education.  Some people have thought it hypocritical that, having availed of higher education in London, Gandhi was not inclined to let his two older sons pursue the same course of action. At a time when Gandhi and the Congress were championing swadeshi or indigenous institutions, he could ill afford to let his own children acquire higher education in England. But Gandhi wasn’t merely trying to look good or be, in contemporary jargon, “politically correct”. It is precisely his own experience with higher education that, in his view, conferred on him the moral authority to repudiate its alleged benefits.

Modern education, as Gandhi understood it, thrives on a number of disjunctions that are absolutely fatal to the development of a person’s moral faculty and thus to the conception of the person as a whole entity.  Such formal education, which begins as children start going to school and is amplified over the years, receiving its most pronounced expression in university education, aggravates the divide between the head and the heart, between mind and body, between intellectual work and the work of labor, between reason and emotion, indeed between thought and feeling. “I would develop in the child”, wrote Gandhi in Young India on 12 March 1925, “his hands, his brain and his soul. The hands have almost atrophied.  The soul has been altogether ignored.”

He spoke often of how education in India had to be “revolutionized.  The brain must be educated through the hand.  If I were a poet, I could write poetry on the possibilities of the five fingers” (Harijan, 18 February 1939).  Time and again, Gandhi wrote, and wrote insistently, passionately, and from the viewpoint of some whose certitude derives from a lifetime of thought and experience, in this vein.  “Now, I wish to say that whatever is taught to children, all of it should be taught necessarily through the medium of a trade or handicraft.”  So he said in his address to the Wardha Education Conference on 22 October 1937.  But Gandhi anticipates the objections of those who, pointing to its “irrelevance” in the modern world, might scorn at learning a “handicraft”, by arguing that “we aim at developing the intellect also with the aid of such trade or handicraft.”  The takli [spindle] shall also be the medium through which students “would be able to learn a substantial part of the history of cotton, Lancashire and the British empire.”

When Gandhi adverted to the hardheartedness of the educated, he also had in mind the view that modern educational systems are not designed to teach compassion or empathy for the poor and the wronged.  Education may inspire a well-meaning economist to draw up a model for the alleviation of poverty, but almost nothing in the economist’s education gives him or her a feel for the lives of the poor.  If anything, the economist’s model is much more likely to worsen the condition of the poor:  entranced by his own artful games, the economist overlooks the fact that most models rarely have any relationship to the reality that they purport to describe.  Their referential world is other models, and the work of other economists; and before the well-meaning economist knows it, the lives of the poor themselves get reduced to a series of numbers and abstractions.  In all this, the meaning of “poverty” itself never gets interrogated.  Perhaps the economist might begin fruitfully with some reflections on the sheer poverty of his discipline.

For all its failings, Gandhi did not give up on education.  One keeps on learning to the end of one’s life.  He regretted the “hardheartedness” of the educated, not their heartlessness—which is a rather different thing.  I very much doubt that Gandhi thought of anyone as ‘heartless’, and he would have agreed with the novelist E. M. Forster that the British had an “undeveloped heart”.  Education had hardened the British, too, and in his visit to Britain in 1931 he found that the warmest receptions he received were from the working class, particularly the mill workers of Lancashire who had suffered the most from the boycott of British textile manufactures that Gandhi had initiated in India.

There are many indices one can use to measure the shocking failures of education, even as it is conventionally understood, in India today. The stories of state-run schools that are in absolute shambles are legion, and have been documented by thousands of researchers, journalists, and social workers.  More than seventy years after independence, the effective countrywide literacy rate is less than 50%; in some districts of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh, female literacy rates still hover at 10%.  The best public universities have been gutted; all that is left is a shambolic display of awards of “excellence”, a word as shorn of content as any.  In one instance the award has been to an institute of higher education that does not even exist.  Yet all this is far from what Gandhi had in mind when he pondered over the ruins of education and I wonder how he would have struggled to even comprehend the “hardheartedness” of the educated in India today. Let there be no mistake:  what really ails Indian education is the fact that at its center is the “undeveloped heart.”

 

(NB:  This is a revised version of the piece published on 13 October 2019 under the same title on the ABP Network, here.  A conversation between Gandhi and Mott reported in the December 19 and 26, 1938, issues of Harijan, another magazine founded and edited by Gandhi, seems to have gone over the same ground eleven years later. Gandhi was asked the same two questions, but described the “ignorance and poverty of the masses of India,” and the treatment meted out to the Harijans, as the matters of the greatest sorrow to him.  It may be that Mukulbhai Kalarthi was mistaken about the date of the conversation and reported it inaccurately; but it is just as likely, perhaps even more so, that Gandhi did speak about the hardheartedness of the educated, considering the highly critical views that he held about the state of Indian education.)

Gandhi and the Ecological Sensibility

(Second of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The word ‘ecology’ appears nowhere in Gandhi’s writings and similarly he never spoke on environmental protection as such. Yet, as the Chipko Movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or, in a very different context, the manifesto of the German Greens and the action against the Mardola dam in Norway have clearly shown, the impress of Gandhi’s thinking on ecological movements has been felt widely.  The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who traveled through India in 1969 with Johan Galtung and Sigmund Kvaloy, and with whose name “deep ecology” is associated, confessed that it is from Gandhi that he came to the realization of “the essential oneness of all life.”  Gandhi was a practitioner of recycling decades before the idea caught on in the West and he initiated perhaps the most far-reaching critiques of the ideas of consumption and that fetish of the economist called “growth” that we have ever seen.  Thus, in myriad ways, we can begin to entertain the idea that he was a thinker with a profoundly ecological sensibility.

In one of several books that he wrote on India, the late V. S. Naipaul skewered Gandhi for his narcissism.  Adverting to the three years that Gandhi spent in London as a law student, Naipaul points out that his autobiography is stunningly silent about the landscape, trees, vegetation, or the much vaunted English notion of ‘nature’.  It is certainly the case that Gandhi was sparse in his discussion of the relationship of humans to their external environment.  Similarly, though Gandhi was a great admirer of Thoreau, and had read, besides his famous essay on the duty of civil disobedience, Walden and the essay on ‘Walking’, I wonder what he made of Thoreau’s enterprise of retreating into the woods for a two-year stay.  Gandhi was no naturalist. When the English historian Edward Thompson once expressed his concern to him about the rapid disappearance of wildlife in India, Gandhi reportedly replied, “wildlife is decreasing in the jungles, but it is increasing in the towns.”

The ecological dimensions of Gandhi’s thinking cannot be comprehended unless one is prepared to accept that ecology, ethics, and politics were deeply enmeshed into the very fabric of his being. Take, for example, his practice of observing twenty-four hours of silence on a regular basis. The maun vrat has a honorable place in Hindu religiosity and one might be tempted into thinking that Gandhi was only following Hindu tradition, and, to take the argument further, it was his way of entering into an introspective state and making himself receptive to the still voice within. A more political reading might suggest that it was also his way of bending the English to communicate on his terms.  But it was also an ecological gesture, a mode of conserving energy and a devastating indictment of the modern industrial culture of noise and consumption.  We talk too much, eat too much, and consume too much.  The phrase “noise pollution”, and India is the most egregious example of it in the world, is nowhere in Gandhi but he tacitly had a full-fledged critique of it.

There are other respects, and I shall take up only three, in which the ecological vision of Gandhi’s life opens itself up to us.  First, he was of the considered opinion that nature should be allowed to take its course.  The environmental crises and “extreme weather events” that are upon us have been precipitated by the gross and appalling instrumentalization of nature. The earth is not merely there to be mined, logged, farmed, domesticated, and hollowed out.  However, we have to first preserve the ecological equanimity of the body.  Nature’s creatures mind their own business:  if humans were to do the same, we would not be required to legislate the health of all species.  Thus Gandhi did not, for instance, prevent others from killing snakes but a cobra entering his room was left alone.  “I do not want to live”, he said, “at the cost of the life even of a snake.”

Secondly, Gandhi mounted a rigorous critique of the “waste” that is behind modern industrial civilization in more ways than we imagine.  European colonization the world over was justified with the claim that natives and indigenous people “wasted” their land and did not render it sufficiently productive. But Gandhi also held to the view that humans are prone to transform whatever they touch into waste.  His close disciple and associate, Kaka Kalelkar, narrates that he was in the habit of breaking off an entire twig merely for four or five neem leaves he needed to rub on the fibers of the carding-bow to make its strings pliant and supple.  When Gandhi saw that, he remarked:  “This is violence. We should pluck the required number of leaves after offering an apology to the tree for doing so. But you broke off the whole twig, which is wasteful and wrong.”

Thirdly, as is well known, Gandhi was a staunch vegetarian, and he would have been pleased with a great deal of modern research which has established that the extreme pressures upon the soil and water resources have also been induced by the meat industry and the massive increase in levels of meat consumption when people start entering into the middle class in countries such as India.  But to be ‘ecological’ in sensibility also means harboring a notion of largesse towards others; it is a way of being in the world.  European visitors to his ashram, where only vegetarian meals were prepared, had meat served to them if they desired.  To inflict a new diet upon someone who was habituated to meat at every meal was, in Gandhi’s thinking, a form of violence. As he once told Mirabehn, “People whose custom it is to eat meat should not stop doing so simply because I am present.”

Gandhi strikes a remarkable chord with all those who have cherished the principles of non-injury, cared for the environment, practiced vegetarianism, worked energetically to conserve our air, soil, and water, resisted the depredations of developers, recycled paper, or accorded animals the dignity of humans. In contemplating his life, his anticipation of the Anthropocene is striking. “God forbid that India”, Gandhi told an interlocutor in 1928, “should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West.  The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” What if, Gandhi is also asking, nature was the bearer of rights?  What would nature have to say on this subject?

Not less remarkably, though Gandhi wrote no ecological treatise, he made one of his life.  This is one life in which every minute act, emotion, or thought was not without its place:  the brevity of Gandhi’s enormous writings, his small meals of nuts and fruits, his morning ablutions and everyday bodily practices, his periodic observances of silence, his morning walks, his cultivation of the small as much as of the big, his abhorrence of waste, his resort to fasting—all these point to the manner in which he orchestrated the symphony of life. No philosopher of ecology could have done as much.

(First published in a slightly different form as “An Environmentalist by Nature”, The Hindu (2 October 2019), special supplement, Gandhi@150, 18-19.)

This article is also available in a French translation by Mathilde Guibert here:  https://mathildeguibert.imedix.fr/gandhi-et-la-sensibilite-ecologique.html

 

Gandhi’s Religion

Gandhi Jayanti, 2 October 2019

(First of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The subject of Gandhi’s “religion” has never been more important than at present when Hindu nationalism is sharply ascendant and Hindu pride is being championed as a necessary form of the reawakening of a long subjugated people.  The contemporary Hindu nationalist narrative also feeds on other propositions, among them the conceit that Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, the view that Hinduism is uniquely tolerant, the apprehension that Hinduism’s tolerance has historically rendered it vulnerable to more aggressive faiths, and the twin conviction that Indian civilization is fundamentally Hindu in its roots and that secularism is alien to India.

Gandhi would not have abided by much of this worldview.  Indeed, he would have been sharply critical of what is represented by Hindu nationalism, and therefore it becomes imperative to assess what he understood by Hinduism, what it meant for him to be a Hindu, the relationships that he forged with Muslims and Christians, and the centrality of Hindu-Muslim unity in his thinking. It is well to remember that Gandhi’s assassin felt justified in killing him partly on the grounds that Gandhi had betrayed the Hindu community.

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The more secular-minded have thought it fit, with some justification, to characterize his religion as manavta (humanity), manav seva (the service of humankind), or sarvodaya (the welfare of all).  But the fact remains that Gandhi often declared his belief in varnasrama dharma and he remained a devout Hindu.  The roots of Gandhi’s religious worldview and conduct must be located in the religious milieu from which he emerged and in which he was raised.  Gandhi’s predilection for the Vaishnavism of his household and the region was reflected later in his life, one might say, by his fondness for Narsi Mehta’s bhajans, most famously “Vaishnava Janato”, and Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas. His mother belonged to the Pranami sect which, if centered on Krishna worship, showed a remarkable ecumenism in also drawing upon the Quran and the Bible and multiple linguistic traditions.  But Jainism also left a deep impress upon Gandhi from the outset, and Gandhi drew upon all three traditions in his thinking about ahimsa and what Jains call anekanantavada, “the many-sidedness of perspective”.

Gandhi has himself said that he first acquired an understanding of textbook Hinduism in England. He first became familiar with the Gita, a work which would in time become his life-companion, in the English rendering of it by Edwin Arnold called “The Song Celestial”. The world of Christianity really opened itself up to him in South Africa: the Old Testament put him to sleep, but portions of the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, moved him deeply.  And it is in South Africa that he encountered a great many missionaries, who all came to the conclusion that it was impossible to convert Gandhi to Christianity since he was a much better Christian than any they had ever encountered.

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Gandhi had known Indian Muslims in South Africa and he addressed the question of Hindu-Muslim unity in Hind Swaraj (1909). Nevertheless, it was upon his return to India in 1915 and his immersion into Indian public life that made him gravitate to the view that the question of Hindu-Muslim unity was pivotal.  Indians, and most historians, have gravely misunderstood his advocacy of the Khilafat as an attempt by him to extract from Muslims in exchange their support for a ban on cow-slaughter. Rather, he had by this time, around 1920, come around to the position, radical then and now, that both the Hindu and the Muslim are incomplete without each other. This would remain one of the cornerstones of his religious belief.

In reflecting upon what endures from Gandhi’s lifelong and extremely rich understanding of the religious life, some principles stand out. First, in moving from the proposition that ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’, Gandhi sought to signal a certain inclusiveness and suggest that the core of ethical life is the quest for Truth.  A confirmed non-believer such as the social reformer Gora, who wrote a fascinating little book called An Atheist with Gandhi, could partake of Gandhi’s religious universe.  Secondly, he stood by the idea that no religious outlook was acceptable, no matter how venerable a text, until it passed the litmus test of one’s individual conscience.  He unequivocally rejected passages from the Ramacaritmanas and the Quran that he found unacceptable.

Thirdly, Gandhi firmly rejected the idea that there is any kind of hierarchy to religions.  This is one among several reasons why he was not sympathetic to the idea of conversion, even as he recognized the absolute right of an individual to her religion.  The individual who seeks to convert has an inadequate comprehension of his faith, and there is practically nothing that one religion has to offer which is not to be found in other religions. Fourthly, Gandhi believed strongly that the practitioner of a religion has a moral obligation to understand other faiths.  He was a strong advocate of the fellowship of religions, and he pioneered the prayer-meeting as a new form of intercommunal and intercultural samvad.  The Hindu should pray, Gandhi was to write, that he should become a better Hindu, that the Muslim and Christian should become a better Muslim and Christian, respectively; similarly, a Muslim should pray not that the Hindu should convert, but that the Hindu should be a better Hindu, the Muslim a better Muslim; and so on.

Finally, and most critically, Hinduism to Gandhi was a religion of mythos not of history.  He couldn’t care an iota whether Krishna had been a historical person and arguments about the historicity of Krishna or Ram not only left him wholly unimpressed, but he found them singularly unproductive and antithetical to everything that he understood by Hinduism. When we consider that the entire Ramjanmabhoomi movement has been predicated on demonstrating the historicity of Ram, we can see how far modern-day Hindu nationalists have drifted from the spirit of Hinduism.  They claim to be freeing the Anglicized and deracinated Hindus from the stranglehold of Western interpretations but nowhere is the colonized Hindu to be seen more clearly than in the figure of the Hindu nationalist.  Their Hinduism and Gandhi’s Hinduism have almost nothing in common.

(First published on 2 October 2019 in the Daily Mail newspaper in a slightly shorter version under the title, “Gandhi preached a unity of religions“.)

Readers can access at least fifteen other essays on Gandhi on this blog using the search function.  Some of those essays include the following:

The Imprint of a Man’s Life:  Visualizing Gandhi’s Biography” (27 Oct 2018)

Footloose and Fancy Free:  The Killers of Gandhi in Modern India” (2 Oct 2018)

“The Homeless Gandhi” (30 January 2018)

Vaishnava Janato:  Gandhi and Narsi Mehta’s Ideal of the ‘Perfect Person'” (25 February 2015)

 

 

 

 

The Phenomenon of Bhagat Singh

(September 28th marks the 112th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh.)

 

“This is the story of a phenomenon.”  So begins Christopher Isherwood’s famous and mesmerizing biography of Sri Ramakrishna.

Bhagat Singh is not just the name of a famous revolutionary whose flame flickered briefly before burning out.  Bhagat Singh is the name of a phenomenon.

It was the late 1920s and the name of Bhagat Singh was everywhere.  Gandhi burst upon the national scene in 1919 and had soon taken the country by storm.  He transformed the Congress into a mass organization, galvanized the country through the non-cooperation movement, and even, in some places in northern India, paralyzed the British administration. The Anglicized Jawaharlal Nehru, taken in as was everyone else by Gandhi, thought he had seen everything.  The Gandhi era of Indian history was well under way.

And then came Bhagat Singh, a young lad who had grown up in the Lyallpur district of Punjab under the shadow of revolution.  Several male members of the family, including his father and uncles, had been associated with the Ghadar Movement—or so it is told.  A sure sign of the canonical status occupied by Bhagat Singh in the Indian imaginary is the thick lore that circulates around him. One story has it that the young Bhagat was all of three years old when his father and a fellow sojourner in revolutionary politics found him digging in the field outside the family home.  When Bhagat was asked what he was planting, he replied:  “I am sowing guns, so that we will be able to get rid of the British.”

Another story, accepted by most biographers and given a prominent place in Bollywood films such as Rajkumar Santoshi’s Legend of Bhagat Singh, places the young Bhagat, now eleven years old, at the site of Jallianwala Bagh the day after General Dyer and his troops mowed down thousands of Indians and left at least 379 dead.  Bhagat collected, writes his biographer Hansraj Rabhar, “a thimbleful of soil which was coloured with the blood of martyrs” and applied some to his forehead while preserving the rest in a glass vial.  Some say that he took a vow to avenge this atrocity.

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Bhagat Singh at Jallianwala Bagh:  a scene from Rajkumar Santoshi’s film, “The Legend of Bhagat Singh”.

We can let the positivist-minded historians worry about whether these stories are apocryphal or not.  These stories have been critical in giving shape to a certain view of Bhagat Singh as a hero who was born and bred in the lap of revolution; but what has also determined the place of Bhagat Singh in the national imaginary is his densely rich albeit brief political career.  The arc of his political life takes us from his initial reverence for Gandhi to disenchantment when the Mahatma, after the outbreak of violence at Chauri Chaura in early 1922, called off the non-cooperation movement.  At Lahore’s National College, Bhagat Singh acquired another kind of political education, and soon thereafter he came to be associated closely with revolutionaries who had constituted themselves into the Hindustan Republican Association, later reborn, quite likely under the influence of Bhagat Singh, as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

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Bhagat Singh in jail, awaiting the execution of the sentence of capital punishment handed out at his trial in the Saunders murder case.

The death of the nationalist icon, the so-called “Lion of the Punjab” Lala Lajpat Rai, from wounds inflicted on him by the police at a demonstration in 1928 against the Simon Commission, which had been appointed to inquire into political conditions, enraged Bhagat Singh and his comrades. They hatched a plot to assassinate the Superintendent of Police, James Scott.  In a case of mistaken identity, they shot and killed John P. Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police.

The murder of Saunders, and there is no other word for it, raises, to say the least, difficult ethical questions that virtually no biographer has adequately addressed.  Writing some years later in his autobiography, Nehru had this to say:  “Bhagat Singh was not previously well known; he did not become popular because of an act of violence, an act of terrorism. Terrorists have flourished in India, off and on, for nearly thirty years, and at no time, except in the early days in Bengal, did any of them attain a fraction of that popularity which came to Bhagat Singh.”

Bhagat Singh had enlisted the help of Shivaram Rajguru, Sukhdev, and Chandrasekhar Azad.  They fled the crime scene.  To escape capture, Bhagat Singh cropped his hair and shaved his beard. He put on a fedora:  and so came into being the iconography of a political rebel.

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The following year, Bhagat Singh came up with the yet more dramatic idea of exploding a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly, but doing so in a manner that would not take the life of anyone. It has been argued, quite rightly, that Bhagat Singh and his comrades desired that they should be taken captive.  The idea was that the British would launch a prosecution, and that Bhagat Singh would find a stage to air publicly his grievances, and that of a nation, against British colonialism.

Bhagat Singh would have known that, with his action, he would be walking into the jaws of death. I would like to believe, however, that Bhagat Singh had had enough of killing.  Saunders may have been the instrument of colonial rule, and by that logic was as guilty as Scott; nevertheless, the wrong man had been killed. There may have been a Gandhi in that Bhagat Singh who threw a bomb with the express intention of not killing anyone.

Bhagat Singh must have learned something about how publicity can act as the oxygen of a nationalist movement; he doubtless also understood, from his study of nationalism, how Gandhi, Tilak, and many others had mastered the courtroom and turned that quintessential British space against the British themselves.  But there is something more profound at stake here:  If violence is inescapably present to the practitioner of nonviolence at every turn, we should also think of the nonviolence within some forms of violence that signals the reverence for life.

Bhagat Singh got his wish: though the many twists and turns in the story are interesting enough, they need not detain us, and it suffices to say that he went on trial for both the Assembly bombing and, later, the Saunders murder case.  Sukhdev, Rajguru, and Bhagat Singh were sentenced to death.  I have said that Nehru thought he had seen everything; but he had not, since, for a time, the popularity of Bhagat Singh appeared to exceed the popularity of Gandhi.  He found the popularity of Bhagat Singh “amazing”.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades went to the gallows, and the country went into mourning.

With Bhagat Singh’s death, the phenomenon of Bhagat Singh found a new, extended, and more complicated lease of life.  There are many troubling aspects to the appropriation of his legacy, none more so than the attempt by Hindu nationalists to claim him as their own.  Bhagat Singh was an atheist; he was also a committed communist; and, for someone his age, well-read in the extreme.  I suspect that he also understood well the difference between a nationalist and a patriot. We can be certain of one thing.  He was everything that the Hindu nationalists of today are not.

First published on September 28 at ABP News Network under the same title, here.

 

“Howdy, Modi”:  The Limits of the Indian American Imagination

The spectacle is over.  Some 50,000 Indian Americans showed up a few days ago at the NRG Stadium in Houston to greet Narendra Modi, who was joined by his soulmate in narcissism and fellow sojourner in “rally politics”, Donald J. Trump.  “Howdy, Modi,” as the event was billed, has been described in much of the Indian and Indian American media as hugely successful and as another feather in Modi’s cap as he attempts to showcase India to the world and present himself as a “world leader”.  Prime Minister Modi, according to this narrative, had only one visibly uncomfortable moment when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer described India as a country that, like America, was “proud of its ancient traditions to secure a future according to Gandhi’s teaching and Nehru’s vision of India as a secular democracy where respect for pluralism and human rights safeguard every individual.”

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Rowdy Howdy animated video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-CZIJpWXgQ

Narendra Modi has taken every opportunity, both in India and abroad, to describe Gandhi in the most venerable terms.  He is astute enough to realize that Gandhi, whatever criticisms he may be subject to, still commands more cultural capital worldwide than any other Indian in modern history.  But Nehru is a different matter.  Modi despises him as some kind of effete, highly Anglicized weakling who did not have the muscle to stand up to Muslims and was, to paraphrase from the American context, “out of touch with India”.  Dislike is too mild a word to describe the visceral hatred that he, Amit Shah, and the hardcore members of the BJP have developed for Nehru.  In this respect, too, Modi and Trump are joined at the hip:  if the very name of Barack Obama is anathema to Trump, whose policies often seen animated by nothing more than the desire to destroy the legacy of his predecessor, Modi is likewise dedicated to eviscerating the very memory of Nehru.

Trump&ModiatHouston

Just hours before Modi took to the stage in Houston, Amit Shah delivered a speech before the party faithful where he declared Jawaharlal Nehru responsible for having created PoK, Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.  It was a sight to behold as Modi stood by impassively while Hoyer had the gall to invoke Nehru’s name a second time, recalling the moment when, in his famous tryst with destiny speech, the country’s first Prime Minister called upon his countrymen and women to work together and honour Bapu, the Father of the Nation, with the resolve “to wipe every tear from every eye.”

Steny Hoyer, who like other American politicians is innocent of the socio-economic and political realities of India, perhaps inadvertently marred what might have otherwise been a perfect celebration of Modi’s arrival on the global arena.  But supposing this to be the case, a few pressing questions about the “Howdy, Modi” carnival and what it says about the Indian American community and the cultural politics of the Indian diaspora in the United States remain.  First, and foremost, some people may be puzzled about why so many Indians were gathered to hear Modi and Trump when Indians, by a very large majority, are supporters of the Democratic party and certainly vote Democrat in a presidential election.  It may be said, of course, that they came to hear Modi; and, as we know, Trump announced his decision to join Modi only some days before the event.  But this does not occlude the all-important question:  is it possible that Indian Americans, even as they support the Democratic party, nevertheless feel something of an affinity for Trump, and would have turned out in the same numbers even if the event had at the outset been described as a Modi-Trump rally?  We do not know, at this time, how many of those gathered were Gujaratis, who, whatever their party affiliation in the United States, are heavily predisposed towards their fellow Gujarati.  It is also possible that a substantial number of them are Republicans:  the Texas India Forum, the main organizer of the event, is closely linked to the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the overseas offshoot of the RSS, and feels inclined towards the worldview of the Republicans.  Nevertheless, assuming that there were a good number of Democrats at the event, just how does one explain their presence at the “Howdy, Modi” bash?

The support of the Indian American party for Democratic candidates stems from their keen awareness that they constitute a minority in the United States.  It is only with the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that restrictions on the entry of Indians into the US were lifted. Not until the 1980s did something that may be called a sizable Indian community emerge, and for at least another two decades the feeling persisted among Indian Americans that they were all but invisible.  This feeling of invisibility is still there, even if it has been greatly attenuated by the entry of Indian Americans into the political sphere in the course of the last 10-15 years—though, it is also necessary to add, Indian American politicians such as Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley barely, if at all, claimed recognition as Indian Americans and sometimes did everything within their power to disavow their connections with India.

The present scenario is doubtless more complex:  there are a large number of Indian Americans serving at all levels of the judiciary, and several have distinguished themselves as judges of federal appeals’ courts. At least two Indian judges, Sri Srinivasan and Amul Thapar, have apparently been considered for a seat on the Supreme Court, and Neomi Rao was sworn in earlier this year as US Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, which has been a stepping stone for those seeking elevation to the country’s highest court. Neomi Rao, in fact, was nominated to fill the seat vacated by Brett Kavanaugh, who now sits on the Supreme Court.  Those Indian Americans—Raja Krishnamoorthi, Pramila Jayapal, Kamala Harris, Ro Khanna, and others—who have in the last few years made their way into national and state-level politics bear the marks of their ancestry with pride.  But none of this alters the fact that Indian Americans are still a small albeit fast-growing minority, constituting just a little over 1% of the American population, and as minorities they have sought to harness the power of the American narrative of pluralism and “equal rights for all” to their advantage.

It is also necessary to register the unpalatable fact that the majority of Indian Americans have remained wholly indifferent to the plight of minorities in India itself.  Though two million Muslims in Assam now risk being rendered stateless, and “lynchings” of Muslims and Dalits over the last few years have unfortunately made India newsworthy, Indian Americans have generally shown themselves remarkably oblivious to the sufferings of minorities while they lose no opportunity to lay claim to rights as members of a minority in the US.  They would much rather gravitate towards the Republican party, which is more hospitable to business interests and free enterprise; but the party is also less accommodating to minority interests.

It is not the hostility of the Republicans to African Americans that troubles Indian Americans, and most Indian Americans accept—though many will not own up to this fact in public—the dominant white narrative which represents black people as, on the whole, lazy, insufficiently attentive to family values, prone to crime, and a liability to society.  But there is also the awareness that racism often extends to other minorities, and under Trump this feeling of insecurity has been heightened.  Indeed, Indian Americans view themselves as especially vulnerable in the present political climate, since revised immigration guidelines make it difficult for dependents of H1 visa holders—and Indians account for the bulk of such non-immigrant visas, handed out to people with specialized skills or professional expertise—to stay in the US just as henceforth extended family members are much less likely to be granted immigration visas. It is also a significant consideration that the community, again viewed in the aggregate and with awareness of the fact that there are also a considerable number of Indian Americans who live below the poverty level, is highly affluent and the majority of its members favor the Republican credo of “less tax”.  If there are few wealthy white Americans who will call for greater taxation of the very rich, there are still fewer Indians who would be prepared to advocate for such a cause.

Thus, if this should not already be transparently clear, there is absolutely no contradiction between the fact that Indians largely vote Democrat and their instinctive tendency to gravitate towards Republicans.  But there is another question that emerges from the comical “Howdy, Modi” show: is this a moment that signifies the “arrival” of the Indian Americans on the national stage and in American consciousness?  Many commentators would like to think so:  the journalist Sonia Paul, for instance, has characterized the event as a “display of Indian Americans’ Political Power.”  It may be that, but such analysis is toothless and uninstructive. Every minority of the size of the Indian American counts, and there are many such communities; but, viewed in relation to Hispanics and African Americans, Indian Americans are still far from being a highly influential voting bloc.  Hispanics and especially African Americans are embedded in the history of the nation in vastly different ways; many Indian Americans, even those who have put down roots in the US over two generations, still think of themselves as constituting the vanguard of India and would like to be important players in India itself.

But there is something else that Indian Americans must contend with before they start congratulating themselves on their emerging “political prowess”.  Americans remain fundamentally a provincial and insular people:  between their hamburgers and NFL games, cherry pie and cheerleaders, gargantuan SUVs and the big slurp, they have time for little else.  They remain blissfully unaware of what is happening in rest of the world:  the late-night comics are not the only ones to have noticed that some Americans would have a hard time locating Canada.  Central America, which Trump has described as a pest-ridden hell-hole which sends all its gang members and drug addicts to the US, would be nearly impossible for the majority of Americans to find on a map.  One can imagine in this scenario what India might mean to many Americans:  some decades ago, it mattered not an iota; today, it matters a little more, but still very little.

After having flaunted his 56-inch chest, Modi thought that he would dazzle with another display of muscularity by going on the “Howdy, Modi” rodeo.  He went from being a wrestler to a cowboy. That is the limit of his imagination—and the imagination of many in the Indian American community.  It will take something more than all this to turn Indian Americans into a truly viable political force in the US.

(For an earlier version of this, published on the ABP network site as “‘Howdy Modi’ and the Politics of the Indian American Community”, click here.  For a Hindi translation of the piece on the ABP network, click here.)

 

Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Street Protest

It is indubitably the case that the five-month long, and still continuing, protest in Hong Kong over China’s attempt to subvert the so-called ‘one nation two systems’ mode of governance and subvert democratic norms constitutes a comparatively new if still uncertain chapter in the global history of civil resistance.  The world has been rather slow in coming to a realization of the extraordinary implications of a movement that cannot really be associated with anyone who might be termed a widely accepted leader, is fundamentally hydra-headed or anarchic in impulse, and, notwithstanding both immense provocations from the state as well as occasional lapses into violence on the part of some demonstrators, has remained overwhelmingly nonviolent.

Hong Kong Protestors

By “anarchy” I signify not the absence of law and order but rather, as in the original meaning of the term, the radical devolution of power.  Though the outcome of this revolt cannot be predicted, its reverberations will be felt for years to come—and not only in Hong Kong or China.  The histories of nonviolent and civil resistance will have to add a hefty chapter to the existing narrative.  There are salutary lessons in this revolt for those who are seeking to find avenues to resist oppressive state measures, just as, I suspect, states everywhere are looking at what is transpiring in Hong Kong with fear and concern.  Their apprehension arises from China’s puzzling failure, as it appears to them, to have suppressed the revolt.  It is not that China balks at the brute exercise of power.  There is Tiananmen Square to remind rebels of the fate that is likely in store for them:  hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese were killed and disappeared in that crackdown. The Chinese have herded a million Muslims in the Xinjiang autonomous region into so-called “re-education” camps that critics are terming concentration camps.  China relentlessly hunts down dissenters, wherever they may be, and it has spared no effort in bullying other countries to hand over political asylum seekers. Whatever “Asian values” it may seem to embody in its better moments, few and far between these days, China is ruthless in its suppression of dissent and in its insistence on the imperative to maintain “law and order”.

The question why China has not acted decisively thus far in the suppression of the revolt in Hong Kong is of far more than academic importance.  The view of the economists is that China can ill-afford to antagonize other countries, particularly Western powers, at a time when the economic slowdown in China is pronounced. Hong Kong represents one of the world’s largest financial markets, with a stock exchange that is larger than London, and China may be astute in not wanting to do anything that jeopardizes its own stock markets. We need not elaborate on the ongoing war between China and the US over tariffs.  But economists are nothing if not reductionists, and it is certainly a fallacy to believe that rationality guides most economic conduct.

Another pervasive argument is that China has for decades wanted to position itself as a responsible world power and that it is hesitant to take steps that might undermine its credibility.  This kind of thinking emanates, not surprisingly, from the hubris of Western powers who somehow think that they have been models of “responsible” conduct.  The United States, of course, leads this pack of wolves—and to think that it supposes it has been a “responsible” world power!  If as a responsible power it has waged several illegal wars, raided countries, engineered coups to overthrow democratically elected governments, supported dictatorships, and sabotaged many international agreements, one can only speculate with trembling fear what it might do as an irresponsible power.  There may, perhaps, be something to the argument that rash action taken in Hong Kong could have adverse consequences for China’s bid to put to rest the long-standing rift with Taiwan and absorb it into the People’s Republic.

What if, however, China’s reluctance to take decisive steps to put a halt to the revolt in Hong Kong stems from the inability of the Chinese government to understand the nature of the resistance movement?  States know precisely how to counter violence, but nonviolent movements are known to baffle and disarm the opponent.  The present movement has its antecedents in the Umbrella Movement of 2014, which commenced with the demand for more transparent elections and throughout retained an essentially nonviolent character.  The protests of 2019 have already outlasted the previous demonstrations and are, in intensity, scope, and gravitas of an altogether different magnitude.  On a single Sunday afternoon last month, nearly two million people are said to have gathered in protest at the city’s Victoria Park.

Umbrella Movement.jpg

The protests began with opposition to an extradition bill but, in the preceding months, the demands have not only multiplied but have become diffused in the most unexpected ways.  The demonstrators have asked for fundamental reforms in how elections are conducted and in the democratic process as a whole.  They have also demanded amnesty for all political prisoners.  But, more unusually, they have also insisted that the large-scale protest on June 12, the day when the bill was scheduled for a second reading in the legislature, should not be characterized as a “riot”.  To some officials this may appear as a rather opaque demand, but it would be no surprise, for instance, to a student of colonialism who is well aware of the fact that the colonial state constantly endeavored to reduce political protests to ordinary crimes.

There is much else in the protests that has left the functionaries of the state clueless about how to tackle this rebellion and its “instigators”—that is, if there are instigators, since one of the more remarkable features of the movement is the fluid manner in which the organic impulse to demand and protect freedoms has been conjoined to grass-roots level organization and coordination.  The demonstrators have displayed astonishing ingenuity in responding to state provocations and have come up with an arsenal of innovative tactics to defang the repressive status apparatus. Tear gas canisters have been extinguished with water bottles; traffic cones have been used to snuff out the gas before it spreads.  Using elementary hand signaling systems, protestors have conveyed messages down long human supply chains to warn of impending police activity. All this is really, pardon the cliché, the tip of the iceberg:  what we have in Hong Kong is the semiotics of a new architecture of mass-scale nonviolent street protest.  Political rebels with ambitions to craft resistance movements built from the ground up would be well advised to give serious study to the Hong Kong protests.

Hong Kong Protests Traffic Cones As Shields.jpg

Protesters in Hong Kong have been using traffic cones to counter tear gas. (Photo on the left by Antony Dapiran; image (screengrab) on the right by Alex Hofford).  Source: https://observers.france24.com/en/20190805-hong-kong-traffic-cones-shield-against-tear-gas

The questions that emerge from this riveting demonstration of the power of the people would have been critically important at any time, but take on even greater significance at this unusual juncture of history.  Nearly all over the world, established as well as younger democracies are under assault.  Some would like to characterize the period as one of “strong men”:  Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Rody Duterte come to mind.  And then there is Xi Jinping, who has eliminated term limits for the President and effectively installed himself as President of the People’s Republic of China for life.  Xi has no use for Mao’s baggy trousers or worklike uniforms and dons himself in crisp suits, and could easily be confused with the tens of thousands of people who constitute the technocratic managerial elite.  He even fancies himself as some kind of intellectual successor to Mao, peddling “Xi Jinping Thought” to party faithfuls and school children.  (A previous generation of students of politics and philosophy might remember “Gonzalo Thought”, named after the supposed new theoretical construction of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism by Abimael Guzman [aka Chairman Gonzalo], the leader of the insurrectionary group Shining Path who has been serving a life sentence on charges of terrorism since 1992.) It is perhaps apt that the word ‘populism’ has been used to describe the political culture of our times, even if fewer commentators have paused to delineate the specific features of this populism. At this rate, there will be little left in a few years to distinguish between (most) democracies and authoritarian states.

The possibilities of dissent have, then, diminished greatly in most countries.  Earlier generations of nonviolent activists and civil resisters were able to deploy the media to great effect; publicity was their oxygen. It might even be argued that strategies such as those of “filling the jail”, whether in Gandhi’s India or Jim Crow South in the 1960s, were partly born out of the awareness that such actions were calculated to arouse the interest of the press. (One should be wary of abiding too readily by such a view, more particularly because the likes of Gandhi, King, James Lawson, Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, and too many others to recount in these struggles were rigorous critics of the notion of instrumental rationality.) The critic may point out that the media is, if anything, even more widely available to nonviolent activists today.  That is far from being the case:  the state everywhere has shown remarkable tenacity, will, and power to commandeer the media, in all its forms, to its own ends, and moreover in this era truth, which is intrinsically tied to notions of nonviolence, is the first casualty.  Hong Kong has gifted us not only a new architecture of street protest, the first one of its kind in the post-truth era, but also crucially alerted us to the fact that the question of dissent will be the paramount question of our times.

 

(This is a slightly modified form of the piece first published at ABP [abplive.in] September 14 as “Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Protest”.)

For a French translation of this article by Laura Beoschat, see this: http://laurabeoschat.fr/hong-kong-et-la-nouvelle-architecture-de-la-rue.html

For a Bengali translation of this article, click here.

For a Hindi translation of this article, click here.

Colonialism Should be Brought Back, Say Indian Parliamentarians

The Lower House of the Indian Parliament, The Janata Sabha (People’s House), was witness to an extraordinary debate yesterday afternoon, September 12.  More than 72 years after Britain was forced out of India, a number of Indian Parliamentarians from the ruling party, HOPE, provoked what at first was furious outrage when they argued that the time was wholly ripe to bring colonialism back.  Some members of the Indian Trotskyite Communist Party (ITC), joined by lawmakers from other opposition parties, started pounding their desks in fury and shouted, “Shame!  Shame!”  Thereupon, the Parliamentarians from the ruling party at once hastened to add that they had been grossly misunderstood.  Speaking on behalf of the group advocating for colonialism, the former Raja of Piplinagar put forward the case eloquently if succinctly: “Britain has shown that it is wholly unfit to govern itself.  White heathens have made quite a display of their buffoonery; they act like children, unnecessarily inflicting wounds on themselves.  They say that their House of Commons is the Mother of Parliaments, but no one understands motherhood as well as we Indians do. Long before Parliament was invented, we had village republics where people peacefully governed themselves.”  Before he could go on any further, the House erupted in cheers.

Since there have been very few moments in the living memory of this reporter when lawmakers from HOPE (Hindus Opposing Pakistani Extremism) and ITC were able to find common cause, the average reader would doubtless gain something from understanding the finer points of the debate.  Mr. Anand Savarkar, who was elected from the Phune constituency in Maharashtra, began with some incontrovertibly true and barely controversial remarks.  He noted that the English, judging from their food habits over the centuries before the advent of the 20th century and the arrival of Indians in Britain, were practically savages.  They lived on the uncooked meat of various dirty animals and called it steak, and, God knows from what source of inspiration, later in their so-called evolution added “kidney” to come up with something which they fancied an edible delicacy: “steak and kidney pie.”  Mr. Mooli Paranthewallah, who represents the Jatlok constituency in Haryana, asked at this point to be recognized by the chair and his wish was granted.  “Sir, while I am in agreement with my friend, I must say that he is nevertheless somewhat ill-informed about what the British construe as a ‘delicacy’. I would like to bring to the attention of the member from Phune that their real delicacy is what they call “HAG IS”.

Mr. Savarkar interjected, “Sir, we have not yet descended to the level of depravity of the English people.  I grant that the wife of an Englishman is generally a HAG, but in our culture we have brought up to treat women with respect.  Every woman is a goddess; note how often a woman goes by the name of Devi.  [Disclosure:  This reporter’s mother also goes by the name of Devi.] Moreover, even with their love of irony, my friend is stretching the point in suggesting that to the English HAG IS a delicacy.”  Mr. Paranthewallah, visibly agitated, replied: “The Honourable Member from Phune, while doubtless learned in our epics and the Sanskrit language, has some serious shortcoming in his appreciation of English.  Now if my friend had permitted me to continue, he would have learned that HAG is a rather dry stew made up of the minced heart, lungs and liver of a sheep . . .”

Mr. Savarkar, no sooner had he heard these words, was wracked by a violent fit of vomiting.  Several other members felt nauseous.  All business came to a standstill as the doctor on call was ushered in and a number of peons came in with buckets of waters and some rags.  Mr. Savarkar was duly attended to and soon the discussion resumed.  Mr. Savarkar, apologizing for the interruption, sought to explain that he was of somewhat delicate constitution and no one in his family had for at least eight generations even so much as tasted an egg, what to speak of the intestines or lungs of a sheep.  He reminded his colleagues that his ancestors were in possession of several hundred of the choicest recipes for the preparation of vegetables, and noted that the English thought that carrots and peas could only be consumed by boiling them. (Cries of, “Well said!  Hear!  Bahut Thik Bola!)

Mr. Savarkar then continued, “I think it would not be unjust to say that the English were known the world over for having the worst food.  Even the Germans have been of that opinion, and that’s saying something.  Though Hitler was a great admirer of the English, he thinks that they would have been unconquerable had they, like him, remained vegetarians.  But, Members of the House, I do not stand here to pass judgment on whether the Germans, who themselves feast on pigs and take great offense at having their sausages called pigs, or the British should take the greater responsibility for their wretched food habits.  I think that all fair-minded people understand that Britain had to colonize India so that its people could start eating well.  Imagine, they had what they proudly call the Magna Carta, but what use are all these rights if, at the end of the day, the hard-working man comes home to a plate of boiled peas, mushy carrots, and the intestines of a pig.  And if he complains, the HAG is . . .”

Mr. Savarkar was on a roll and had scarcely finished but the words, “hard-working man”, caught the attention of Mr. Palkhiwallah of Ghazni Nagar constituency of Ahmedabad.  He sprung to his feet and chimed in with some indignation, “Honorable Members of the House, I very much object to the characterization of the average British as hard-working.  My esteemed colleague has evidently not been reading the newspapers, or he would have known that British Airways has gone on a 48-hour strike.  Now, I ask you, is that what one would expect of hard-working men?  They say that men and women of this generation no longer believe in the spirit of hard work, but I beg to differ.  The problem, Honourable Members, is that this welfare state has spoiled the British and Europeans. They have a 35-hour work week, and I now hear talk of 30-hour work weeks.  What are honest, hard-working men to do the rest of the time?  Sir, I say that the problem is with these lazy natives of the British Isles.  They should look to the example of the Indian farmer, who tills the land, breaks his back on the plough, and toils until the sweat comes down as rain.  We have the moral responsible to bring the Hindu work ethic to these men and we will yet make men of them.”

(At this point, one of the attendants blew his bugle and the house adjourned for lunch break.  The Speaker announced that the debate would continue during the late afternoon session.)