*The Importance of Defiance: ‘Undocumented’ Students and the Desire for Freedom

A rather remarkable conference, which seeks to empower immigrant youth and focus attention on the rights of undocumented students, was held at UCLA today. I had the good fortune to be asked to deliver one of the keynote addresses to a gathering comprised of students at high school community college, and four-year colleges and universities such as UCLA – and some of their parents. What is common to all those present is that they are ‘undocumented’, and have displayed much courage and conviction in coming to this gathering; and, of course, they share the same aspirations and dreams that do others who are ‘legal’ or ‘lawful’ residents. This is in part what I said:

I am a permanent resident of the US, and have been one for over a decade. But there are people very close to me who for many years were ‘undocumented’, and lived often in fear of being caught. I have long held that no one in the US who has not had some experience of the inaptly named department of immigration and justice – I say inaptly, or inappropriately, for the reason that this is the most draconian arm of the government, the one that has least shown any spark of humanity, and I think it would be better called the department of immigration and injustice – can really say anything about whether this is the land of freedom or something else. I could tell you at some length about my own experience with the Department of Immigration and Justice, now subsumed under Homeland Security, but I will keep my narrative short: twice, as I sought permanent residency of the US, I had to arrive at the immigration building in downtown Los Angeles in the middle of the night, around 2 AM, and stand in line for something like 12 hours on the first occasion and ten hours on the second occasion, all so that I could submit an application for permanent residency. The supposition, of course, is that only citizens have rights, as though the rights that accrue by virtue of being human do not supersede the rights one acquires as a citizen.

What is this category called ‘undocumented’? Let no one tell you that you are ‘undocumented’, and understand that before they break you in the flesh, they will break you in the spirit and in the mind. To say that you are undocumented is to suggest that you leave no trace, that you leave no mark on the present; indeed, to characterize a person as undocumented is to wish that person away. Let me say outright that I recognize no such category, by which I mean that I make no distinction between legal immigrants and those who are undocumented. What has been your fault? None, whatsoever. Let the fault be put squarely on the shoulders of those, among them the so-called leaders of this nation in the previous administration, authorized the torture of human beings, engaged in a fraudulent war, and thus violated the letter and spirit of the American constitution. If at all anyone has to be deported, it should be those leaders who, betraying the trust reposed in them by ordinary people, debased the US constitution and have brought shame to this country.

Whatever others may call you, I am quite certain that you embody the finest aspirations of human beings. Indeed, you have exercised to your capacity your right, the right of every human being and yet to be recognized as a birthright, to absolute unhindered freedom of movement. In thinking about the intrinsic desire of humans to be free, I want to place before you a metaphor and will ask you to turn your attention for a moment to water. What is the nature of water? Its very nature is to be free, to go the path of least resistance; water will travel wherever it can, down gullies or roads, through cracks, around corners and wherever there is an opening. When a civil or hydraulic engineer sees water, his immediate instinct, if I may put it this way, is to dam it, contain it, throttle it if you will; and so there are those in the public sphere whose instinct is to allow some (chosen) people freedom but prevent others from the exercise of this freedom. Yet, as I have said, water will go where it will. Some of it will merge with other bodies of water, and these streams join together and become a river; and rivers in turn flow into the sea. Similarly, you will find that once you leave your fear behind you, and begin to think of yourself as free, you will soon find others who are like-minded; what begins in an individual’s mind turns into a sea of people striving to be free, a movement of freedom.

*Prabhakaran’s Death and the Politics of the Double

It is reported that when the Americans captured Saddam Hussein, one of the first questions that arose in their minds was whether their captive was the ‘real’ Saddam. Their captive, over intense questioning, denied that he had ever manufactured his double. But I suspect that the rumor of Saddam’s double will never entirely disappear, not even after many books have been published, each purporting to give the true and real story of Saddam. The question of the ‘real’ Saddam has many more layers than the Americans can imagine, and one must begin with the question of how real Saddam was to his subjects. He led a shadowy existence, one might say: by his own confession, for fear of his life, long before the American invasion of Iraq, he moved from one spot to another and rarely slept in the same bed twice. So, even when he was not being hunted, he lived the life of a fugitive. Saddam also imagined himself as a Saladin, a Haroun Rashid, even a Hammurabi. When Saddam denied that he had a double, he meant it in more than the literal sense. What is a double to one with multiple identities?

With the death of Prabhakaran, the question of the double will doubtless come up again. Men such as Prabhakaran are always believed to have a double: the mythography of the ‘spectacularly evil one’ can entertain no other outlook. The double is supposed to confound the opponent; but the double is also a sign of the evil one’s moral turpitude, a clear sign of the fear in which he lives. If the villain plots to have his double, his opponents are even keener that he should have one – as if that were a vindication of their moral superiority.

I have read on Tamil diaspora websites that the LTTE denies that Prabhakaran has been killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces. The man who has been identified as Prabhakaran is, according to his supporters, his double. And it would not be surprising if the LTTE were to produce a photograph or two of Prabhakaran purporting to establish that he is alive, most likely watching with bemusement his body being displayed before TV audiences.

Prabhakaran’s supporters and his detractors are, then, equally invested in the idea of the double. For many of Prabhakaran’s supporters, the will to believe that it is his double that is being displayed is the last desperate act of fealty. It may be well and good to believe that your hero is immortal, but for the present the imperative is to deny the fact of his death and claim that the struggle is alive. For his opponents and detractors, the double points to the moral cowardice of Prabhakaran. The cowardly leader sends others to their death, but has a morbid fear of plunging into death himself. That the idea of the double, however, need not be so utterly compromised or morally vacuous is amply demonstrated by Kurosawa’s film Kagemusha, “The Shadow Warrior.” Set in medieval Japan, the shadow warrior or impersonator, none other than a common thief, plays the part of Lord Shingen, whose death is to be kept a secret for three years. With great skill, the kagemusha creeps into Shingen’s skin and begins to play the part so well that he himself is confounded about his own identity. As Shingen, he keeps the enemies at bay; and when, towards the end, his fall from a horse reveals his ‘real’ identity to others and he is dismissed from the royal household, the members of the clan begin to perceive that the man they had taken to be a mere double was the fount of their reality. With the double’s ignominious departure, the Takeda clan changes course and is sent to a crushing defeat. The kagemusha himself becomes a martyr – but martyr to what, one might ask?

*Prabhakaran: In the Shadow of Che?

Velupillai Prabhakaran, the much-feared and notoriously secretive leader of the Tamil Tigers, is dead. The obituaries come pouring in, but it seems somewhat odd that Prabhakaran should be remembered with an obituary. An obituary is not merely a notice of the death of some well-known personality; it is an appreciation of a life that has come to a close. Perhaps, in the very appearance of obituaries of Prabhakaran in the New York Times and the Guardian, there is an implicit acknowledgment that Prabhakaran, who was among the most wanted ‘terrorists’ of the world, also had the approbation of many Tamils, in Sri Lanka and wider diasporic communities, who looked to him as the embodiment of their aspirations and the person most likely to turn the dream of Tamil autonomy into something like reality?

One famous photograph of Prabhakaran, the one featured in today’s Guardian, shows him seated below a large framed print of Che Guevara, flanked on either side by an armed bodyguard. Every armed revolutionary over the last several decades has attempted to lay claim to Che’s legacy, though it has been reliably said of Prabhakaran that he spent the greater part of the last twenty years, when he made rare public appearances and was holed up in his jungle hideouts, watching Clint Eastwood’s films and practicing the fast draw. Prabhakaran’s lifestyle was surely not calculated to earn him a large following as a renowned revolutionary. Leaving aside the question of whether the portly Prabhakaran could have been, in the market-driven economy of the modern world with an accent on the cool and the sexy, a match for the irrepressibly handsome features of a youthful but pensive-looking Che, Prabhakaran’s influence appears to have been confined to the band of the hard-core following that he had acquired among Tamils at home (and especially abroad).

It is true as well that Che’s posters are plastered everywhere, while Prabhakaran barely had a public presence in the ordinary sense of the term except in the posters and pamphlet literature of the LTTE. Once every year, on the occasion of Maveerar Naal, or Great Heroes Day, his speech to LTTE cadres would be keenly awaited for signs of his thinking or political and military strategy. And, yet, in a curious way, Prabhakaran seems to have held his own against Che, and might even have had a more lasting impact. His presence in the Tamil diaspora can only be underestimated at great peril: the anger even despair of his many ardent supporters in the Tamil diaspora may subside over time, but the diaspora’s dreams persist long after the country imagined as the ‘homeland’ has been transformed. Many Tamils will continue to swear by Prabhakaran even if fundamental political changes are effected in Sri Lanka. Secondly, there can be little question that while Che remains an enduring even romantic symbol of the revolution, or rather I should say the unfulfilled revolution, Prabhakaran did far more to transform insurgent warfare than anyone else one can think of in the last few decades. The LTTE, under his leadership, was among the first armed organizations to deploy the internet effectively to raise funds. Before there were Palestinian, Iraqi, and Pakistani suicide bombers, there were LTTE cadres who showed the way. Among their most prominent victims was Rajiv Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of Gandhi. Indeed, in virtually every innovation of insurgent warfare or (as some would say) terrorism, Prabhakaran’s LTTE has been the pioneer.

In death as in life, Prabhakaran remains elusive. I shall say more on that tomorrow.

*A Pyrrhic Victory? The ‘End’ of the LTTE and the ‘Tamil Question’

The Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse, has proclaimed the end of the three-decades old civil war that reportedly has taken more than 100,000 lives. In a speech to the nation, Rajapakse has declared that Sri Lanka has achieved a military triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or, as they are commonly known, the Tamil Tigers. The LTTE leadership has been killed, and among the dead are, reportedly, the secretive Prabhakaran, who forged a unique if ferocious and unrelenting fighting force and led it in a bitter war to the end with the Sri Lankan army and state; Pottu Amman, the LTTE’s intelligence chief; and Soosai, commander of the Tiger’s naval forces.

Many more details of the last stage of the war will surely emerge as human rights organizations and journalists, who had hitherto been barred from the scenes of military action, swoop into the pockets of northeast Sri Lanka from where the Tigers staged their last futile acts of resistance. But this much is already clear: in its drive for military supremacy, the Sri Lankan army put tens of thousands of Tamil civilians at great risk, often in sheer defiance of calls to ensure the safety of civilians, and the 7,000 odd Tamils who lost their lives in the last stage of conflict stand forth as mute testimony to the reckless disregard for human life shown by both the Sri Lankan army and the Tigers. The Sri Lankan army claims, as official armies generally do on such occasions, that the Tigers used the civilians as ‘human shields’; the Tigers, on the other hand, allege that the Sri Lankan army, in its single-minded and bloody pursuit of a victory that had seemed ever so elusive, was determined that nothing, not even the lives of innocents, would be allowed to stand in the way of total victory. That both views should have some credibility is evidence enough of the reputation that both the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers had deservedly acquired for brutality, senseless killings, and the callous disdain for human lives that have signaled the hostilities in this long-drawn war. It is characteristic of both the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamil Tigers that, down to the very end, they should have been so fiendishly true to the reputations that they wore around themselves as ornaments of their sincerity.

Wars have been described as tragic and senseless by countless number of commentators, though there is no end to them in sight. When it is the rebels or insurgents who triumph, they often find that a military victory is perhaps more easily accomplished than the task of reconstruction. Rebels have, as well, been known to become dictators. But the triumph of states over insurgents is almost always a pyrrhic victory, unless one is willing to accept the idea that a nation-state can be something other than a repressive force in history. For the present, the question is: having compelled the LTTE into submission, is the Sri Lankan state prepared to treat the Tamil as equals? Is it prepared to take seriously the question of autonomy within a federal republic, and is it willing to persuade the Sinhalese that they have to disown some of their privileges? Had these questions not been ignored in the first place, what might have been the need for LTTE? Much the greater part of the task of the state, which does not inspire much confidence, is before it: not only will it have to work with a subjugated and angry Tamil population, it will have to keep the hounds among the Sinhalese at bay. So much for victories.

*The centre will hold (with apologies to Yeats): Reading the Indian Elections of 2009

The people of India, supremely indifferent to the prognostications of policy makers, psephologists, political scientists, and the various other pandits that populate the public sphere, have gone about their business and delivered a verdict at the polls that has delivered an emphatic victory to the Congress party and the United Progressive Alliance that it leads. Last year, having survived a no-confidence vote in the Lok Sabha, and, a few months later, a terrorist assault upon the nation that had left many wondering about the government’s ability to thwart terrorist threats, Manmohan Singh and the Congress may not have appeared to be the fittest candidates to serve out another five-year term. One might, on the other hand, quite reasonably argue that Manmohan Singh, who started his tenure as a something of a reluctant Prime Minister and has established a reputation as a man of unimpeachable integrity and decency, had shown his mettle when he outclassed Prakash Karat and his other detractors over the nuclear deal. If Manmohan Singh’s triumph at that time should have sent signals to Karat and many others that he could be shrewd, savvy, and determined in his ability to persevere against unremitting and often unprincipled opposition, those signs were obviously not read by many who were predicting, until just before the counting commenced, difficult times ahead for Congress. Similarly, notwithstanding the somewhat inept handling of the crisis that erupted in Mumbai when the city was taken hostage by a handful of terrorists late last November, it is clear that the electorate refused to be taken in by the thunderous criticism that the government was ‘soft’ in its handling of terrorism and that the reigns of power should be handed over to a party that prides itself on an apparently more masculinist and hard-nosed response to terrorism.

The results of the Indian election of 2009 may be parsed for many arresting developments and portents of things to come, but it will be difficult to resist the overwhelming impression that the electorate has embraced a party that is a centrist in Indian politics. The voters, it seems, have embraced the Congress as a party most likely to furnish political stability to the nation and also steer it, under the able hands of a Prime Minister who as an economist first ushered in the reforms that moved India beyond its infamous ‘Hindu rate of growth’, to safety and even growth at a time when the word has been beset by a financial crisis of proportions that are unsettling to people in two generations. However, it appears to me that what the electorate voted for is much less clear than what they rejected. What the voters repudiated, in the first instance, is the Hindu nationalist agenda of the BJP, as poisonous a brew as any that has been put before the Indian public. Those who are interested in the future of the BJP can engage in rumination over the causes of its comparatively poor performance, from the lack of young faces in the party to the evidently egregious error of casting the election as a Presidential battle between Manmohan and Advani. But it is the punishment meted out to the Left Front, and in particular to the CPM, that is in some respects the most interesting result of this election. One might say that Karat has now had to pay the price for his decision to withdraw support to the UPA over the nuclear deal, but this would be far too generous an assessment of the limitations of the CPM. The CPM has long thought of itself as the guardian of the interests of farmers and the working class, but the events at Nandigram showed amply the party’s inability to tolerate dissent, as well as the huge distance between the commitment of some of its cadres to grass-roots political changes and the capitulation of much of the party’s leadership to the free market economy.

Though it would be distinctly premature if not foolish to speak of the demise of the CPM, the fact can barely be disguised that the party had succeeded in rendering itself irrelevant. The post-mortem will doubtless suggest where the party leadership erred, but the party’s demise at the electoral booths calls for the kind of introspection that party apparatchiks, Karat and Buddhadeb included, have seldom shown themselves capable of displaying. The party leaders have long fancied themselves as the vanguard leading the listless, misled, and unenlightened masses to freedom, and at the heart of this bureaucratic and official Marxism lies a deep-seated contempt for the very masses in whose name revolutions are to be fought. The Marxists in West Bengal certainly have, for the most party, displayed the same kind of contempt for the masses that the advocates of Hindutva have for Hinduism, the very religion that they purport to defend and champion. It is these twin pretensions, at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, which have been put to rest in this election. The fact that so intellectually vacuous and unprincipled a person as Mamata Banerjee, at the helm of the Trinamool Congress, could prevail in West Bengal suggests the depths to which the CPM has shrunk in public estimation.

In 1977, supremely confident that she would stand vindicated by the electorate, misled perhaps into thinking that she had won the affection of the masses by, so to speak, making the trains run on time, Indira Gandhi called for elections and suffered a crushing defeat. She had underestimated the people of India, the same people in whose ability to distinguish between right and wrong Mohandas Gandhi — who knew a thing or two about politics, popular passions, and the wisdom of the illiterate — had something of an abiding faith. That was not the only revolt of the masses. The BJP ran a ‘shining India’ campaign in 2004, and it was, as I was to write at that time, a ‘shining moment’ in Indian democracy when the voters sent the BJP to a humbling defeat. The same loud noises which pass for ‘analysis’ were content to point to the anti-incumbency factor in Indian politics, but luckily they will have no easy satisfactions this time. As I wrote in the postscript to the new edition of my The History of History (Oxford UP, 2003, 2005), ‘Whatever the shortcomings of electoral democracy in India, the untutored Indian voter still retains the capacity to surprise and inflict punishment.’ The voter in Andhra, for instance, did not mistake the posturings of Chandrababu Naidu, who paraded himself as a CEO as much as a CM and was busy earning the applause of the elites as a technology-savvy politician while the farmers in increasing numbers committed suicide, for progress, growth, and social change. We can say that, with the election of 2009, the Indian electorate has once again established itself as one of the most formidable forces for democracy anywhere in the world today.