*Obama’s Dinner with Gandhi: Part II, A Few Thoughts on Food, Hunger, and Power

Obama, as I wrote a couple of days ago, told a young girl on the day that he addressed the nation’s school children that if he could have dinner with anyone, it would have to be Mohandas Gandhi. It is perhaps to Obama’s credit that he picked the least likely person with whom one might, from the culinary standpoint, enjoy a meal.  Such a meal would have been bereft of wine, lobster thermidor, meat, fowl, or fish in any form, indeed even cooked vegetables.  Gandhi, incidentally, never ate after sunset, but Obama, being the President of the United States and not of Spain, where dinner commences at 10 PM, would have had at least no difficulty on this score.  So Obama’s choice of a dinner companion, if only for a night, suggests that he has a real appetite for something other than food – an appetite for conversation and the exchange of ideas.   Moreover, who one allows at one’s dinner table tells a lot about that person, just as one can say a good deal about a society from the rules of commensality that govern it.

Nevertheless, the sight of the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s mightiest army partaking of a meal with the man who authored the idea of mass nonviolent resistance and helped to bring the British Empire to its knees is an intriguing one.  There will, of course, be many who will at once chirp in with observations about the Mahatma and his many ‘myths.’  It will be argued, in a rehearsal of what has been heard many times before, that the British were exhausted by War World II and decided to give up India, which in any case had become a liability.  On the Indian side, one encounters the argument that violent revolutionaries had a far greater hand in forcing the British to quit India than has been acknowledged.  And so on.  But, overlooking these predictable objections, one must consider another constellation of facts surrounding Gandhi and his eating habits.  Gandhi is history’s most astounding master of the fast.  Obama quipped about Gandhi’s small meals, but often Gandhi had no meals at all.   The term ‘hunger strike’ has often been used to describe Gandhi’s deployment of fasting as a weapon in a political cause, but fasting and hunger strike operate on two very different sets of assumptions.  The hunger strike is directed at someone else; the fast is always directed at oneself, even if it is also intended to influence another party.   Gandhi fasted not only in an endeavor to influence the actions or thinking of someone else, but because he viewed it as a way of cleansing the body:  if silence, which Gandhi observed one day a week, is another form of fulfilling the idea of emptiness, so is fasting.  But on such distinctions hang many other narratives.

Something like the dinner that Obama envisioned took place when Gandhi met the King Emperor at a tea party in his honor at Buckingham Palace on his last visit to London to negotiate for Indian independence.  I seem to recall that his companion and aide, Mirabehn, has narrated what transpired at that meeting.  The King Emperor was somewhat rude, since Gandhi had caused immense trouble in his realms.  Now, to top it all, the seditious Gandhi took out a pinch of salt that he had saved from the Salt March – which had forced the British to the negotiation table – and put it in a bowl of yogurt.   It is hard to think of Gandhi as a man rubbing salt into one’s wounds, but he may have done just that on that evening.  I daresay that Obama would have met more than his match at the dinner table with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

*Obama, Gandhi, and a Few Morsels of Food: Part I, On the Ideal Dinner Guest

Earlier this month, as Barack Obama prepared to deliver a national address to school-children, conservative politicians, radio talk-show hosts, and many ordinary citizens went on the offensive at the thought that the President was proposing to indoctrinate young minds with communist ideology.  School boards were instructed in a number of states that parents who wished to spare their wards the ordeal of being addressed by a sitting President of the United States could withdraw their children for the day from school or at least from a live viewing of Obama’s address.  Indeed, the White House even made the speech available to schools before it was broadcast, lest anyone should have occasion to accuse the President of secretly hoisting dirty or radical ideas upon the young.  (No lesser a person than Socrates, let us recall, was compelled to consume poison after he was found guilty of leading the young astray.)  As it transpires, Obama gave a harmless little speech, venturing forth, as he often does, to inspire the nation’s youth with sunny thoughts about the virtues of schooling, the gains to be wrought from hard work, the importance of education in shaping a bright future, learning from one’s failures, and the desirability of dreaming.   This talk should be described as an improvement of sorts upon the efforts of his predecessor who, at a commencement address, I think at his alma mater Yale, lovingly described how he had managed to secure the Presidency of the United States even as a ‘C’ student in his undergraduate days.  (And then we’ve been told that in banana republics high elected offices are for sale, when not appropriated at the barrel of a gun.)  We might say that Obama’s speech is in a similar mold, if more elevated in style, substance, and elegance of delivery:  dream the best dreams, and they may well come true.  The road to the White House is less crooked than is imagined.

Leaving aside for the present the question of whether there is anything more than a liberal bone in Obama’s body, and the even more interesting question as to why this kind of political comedy is peculiar to the United States, there is a little detail about his visit with 32 ninth-graders at Wakefield High School in Arlington before his address that demands attention.  One girl by the name of Lily posed this question to the President: “And if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?”  The room shook with genial laughter.  “Well, you know, dead or alive, that’s a pretty big list,” Obama replied to more mirth making. “You know, I think that it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine.”  Had Obama said Marx, Mao, or Che – let us stick with the dead, with known ‘revolutionary’ figures, and with those who are of foreign vintage – there would have been an uproar, to say the least.   But Gandhi:  isn’t he the harmless little chap, Jesus-like, who spoke about turning the other cheek, and giving away the cloak (not that Gandhi owned one)?  So, though Gandhi has his detractors, as I recall from some of the vitriolic reviews of the hagiographic film by Attenborough that appeared in late 1982, for the most part he is viewed as the champion of non-violence, the apostle of peace, the messenger of love, and so on – pick your favorite cliché.  In the received version of what Gandhi wrought, he used non-violence successfully against the somewhat gentlemanly British, who having failed to hold on to their colonies on the east coast of America moved on to India.  (And, here’s a small history lesson from a history professor, all this is captured in the figure of Lord Cornwallis, who disgraced himself by conceding defeat to George Washington – see the painting by John Trumbull, ‘Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown’, 1797 — and was at once sent to India to lord it over the natives, which Cornwallis proceeded to do with a reckless piece of legislation called the ‘Permanent Settlement.’)  If Obama had picked a somewhat unusual figure as his ideal dinner guest, at least he had picked a charming if somewhat quixotic world historical figure.

In a later blog, I shall turn my attention to the idea of Gandhi as one of Obama’s heroes.  For now, let us try to digest the idea of Obama dining with Gandhi.  What would the evening have looked like?   Obama himself elaborated on the possibilities:  “Now, it would probably be a really small meal because, he didn’t eat a lot.”  Indeed, Gandhi ate very little, often nothing more than small raw or boiled vegetables, a small bowl of curds or yogurt, and, apparently, quite a few nuts.  It is the nuts, which are not the poor man’s food, that might have prompted Gandhi’s close friend, the poetess Sarojini Naidu, to quip, “It costs a lot of money to keep Gandhi in poverty.”  Had Obama wanted to make his audience go nuts with laughter, he could have cited Naidu, but among the hordes of his advisors there is evidently no Gandhi specialist.  Now let us continue with Obama, who immediately added the following:  “But he’s somebody who I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. King, so if it hadn’t been for the nonviolent movement in India, you might not have seen the same nonviolent movement for civil rights here in the United States. He inspired César Chávez”, the last a reference to the eminent Chicano political activist and labor union leader.  So Gandhi ate very little, “but he’s somebody who I find a lot of inspiration in.”   Obama’s use of “but” is, to put it gently, bizarre:  the supposition is that though Gandhi ate very little, it is still possible to be inspired by him.  Perhaps, in a land where food is plenty, one has to be a huge or at least generous consumer of food to be taken seriously?

The next course of the dinner — Part II of ‘Obama, Gandhi, and a Few Morsels of Food’ — to follow tomorrow.

*A Frayed Multiculturalism: The ‘Cowhead’ Protest in Malaysia

Six Muslim men have been charged under Malaysia’s Sedition Act – a relic of the colonial period, like the notorious Internal Security Act – over what has been termed as the ‘cowhead’ protest in Shah Alam.   Several weeks ago, they were among a group of some 50 to 100 people who marched from the state mosque to the state secretariat building with the head of a cow to protest at the planned relocation of a Hindu temple from Section 19 to their neighborhood (Section 23).   The Sri Maha Mariamman Temple is reportedly about 150 years old, and was left standing when Section 19 was brought under the jurisdiction of the State Economic Development Corporation and razed to make way for a housing estate.  The protestors claim that Section 19 is a Muslim majority area and that Hindu temples, a sure sign of idolatrous belief, offend the sensibility of Muslims.   One of the long-standing and controversial leaders of the Malaysian Indian Congress, S. Samy Vellu, has weighed in as a representative of Malaysia’s Hindu community, alleging that such conduct is calculated to promote ill-will against members of one community and bound to poison social relations between the Muslims and Hindus.  He has called for the strict disciplining of those who seek to disrupt the country’s racial harmony.

The Sedition Act might seem to be a curious piece of legislation under which to charge people for insulting practitioners of another faith, but in fact its present application is consistent with the history of its previous deployment.  The Sedition Act was promulgated in 1948 with the intention of putting down nationalist resistance to colonial rule.  Action or speech that would “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the government”, or engender “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races”, is proscribed under the Sedition Act and turned into a punishable offence.   The framers of the law had in mind, of course, feelings of ill will and hostility against the white race, and the legislation was utilized in the colonial state’s attempted repression of the Malay insurgency.   Both the Sedition Act, and the present action – the ‘cowhead’ protest — that it seeks to criminalize, have antecedents in the experience of the British in India.  Among many others, Mohandas Gandhi was charged under British India’s sedition laws.  Reports of official committees of inquiry appointed to look into law and order problems, as well as various other archival records, often pointed to incidents of religious animosity and provocation where, as it was argued, colonial intervention was required to keep peace between the two communities.  Hindu nationalists, it was alleged, would often throw a dead pig into a mosque; similarly, Muslim communalists would toss a dead cow’s head into a temple courtyard.

Malaysia has, not without some justification, long claimed that it is the site of one of the world’s most interesting experiments in multiculturalism – and without the noise that one hears constantly about America as a multicultural society.  The Malays constitute a numerical majority, but the Chinese (24%) and Indians (8%) constitute significant chunks of the population.  Most people in Malaysia are bilingual, many are multilingual:  though Malay [Bahasa Melayu] is the national language, English, Chinese, and Tamil are widely spoken.  More significantly, though the Malays, Chinese, and Indians occupy, to a considerable degree, different strata of society, in everyday life Malaysian society shows many signs of being integrated.  Nevertheless, over the last decade, as I have argued elsewhere [Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), 41, no. 35 (2 September 2006)], the state’s commitment to pluralism and religious ecumenism has been seriously called into question.  The distinct impression that Malays are first among equals is hard to dismiss, and Islam, notwithstanding the frequent proclamations of freedom of religious worship and belief, is unquestionably viewed as having priority over other religious faiths.  Under Malaysia’s laws, Muslims may proselytize to non-Muslims, but non-Muslims may not convert Muslims; even more egregiously, Malays cannot be other than Muslims, and courts have refused to recognize as legitimate conversions of Muslims to other faiths.

With the present ‘cowhead’ protest, which is certainly calculated to raise tensions, Malaysia’s frayed multiculturalism is being put to new tests.  There have been reports, over the last few years, of Hindu temples being destroyed or otherwise subjected to vandalism.  Some estimates speak of one temple being razed every three weeks.  It may be that many Hindu temples, which originated in the plantation and were rather ad hoc or casual affairs, are being torn down because plantations and estates where such temples were housed have themselves become obsolete in Malaysia’s onward drive to full development.  Such an explanation is not, however, likely to satisfy Hindus, who naturally want to know why Hindu temples must bear the burden of development.  The only thing that is reasonably clear is that, under conditions of industrial modernity, relations between Hindus and Muslims have deteriorated.  Should Malaysia, I wonder, be chalked up as another example of the nation-state’s inability to accommodate difference?

*On Drawing the Line, Twice: Obama, Fox News, and Illegal Immigrants

Yesterday, in what is already being described as an unprecedented event, Barack Obama appeared on five television talk shows. Today’s New York Times has five nearly identical photographs on the front page, each featuring Obama with one of his interlocutors. Somehow, poring over the photographs, I kept on thinking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Apart from the fact that his interlocutors were all white men — Jorge Ramos, anchor at Univision, is Hispanic, Mexican-born, but only someone like him can represent Mexican-Americans, not a woman or man of Indian descent — since they are evidently still the public face of America, those apparently still best entitled to an audience with the President of the United States, the most interesting news item pertained to the audience Obama did not have. Quite uncharacteristically, stated the New York Times, echoing what is doubtless a wider sentiment, Obama decided, in retaliation for Fox News’s decision not to broadcast his health care address to the nation some days ago, that he would not grant Fox News an audience. Obama drew the line.

Obama would not have been speaking to the choir had he chosen to engage directly with Fox News. The viewers of Fox News are almost certainly among his most dedicated foes, and Obama, so goes the conventional wisdom, has never been shy of taking the battle to his enemies. If he is to convert his skeptics and critics, it seems imperative that he should continue to engage them. So Obama’s decision to draw the line at Fox News is being viewed with some surprise, all the more so since he has represented himself, on numerous occasions, as someone who unites rather than divides. However, Obama appears to me to have acted judiciously, and not merely because Fox News is quite bereft of the norms of civility that do guide most other people in the conduct of human affairs. It is high time that Obama questioned his own self-presentation as the supreme ‘Unifier’ and began to understand that more, rather than less, divisiveness in some matters may be desirable in leading the country.

What is far more germane in assessing Obama is how he drew the line when he delivered his address on health care reforms to a joint session of the Congress and why he has not been taken to task for certain egregious assumptions about who all constitute the body of people known as ‘Americans’ or ‘citizens’. His address has now become famous for that infamous heckler, Joe Wilson, Republican member of the House from South Carolina, who publicly accused Obama with the words, ‘You lie.’ Little time need be wasted on troglodytes such as Wilson, but the words that provoked his outburst deserve far more attention: Obama said, “There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms – the reforms that I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.” So, as far as ensuring the health of people is in consideration, the ‘universal’ coverage of which Obama is a proponent would extend only to citizens and immigrants who are in the US legally. How can Obama abide by that distinction in the first place, and if the election of Obama marks a break-through, a watershed moment in American politics as his most fervent supporters claim, what does Obama’s strident repudiation of the rights and entitlement of all people present in the Untied States to health care benefits (and, for that matter, other social services and public schooling) tell us about his politics?

When will we relinquish the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, between documented and undocumented workers, citizens and non-citizens? Or is the response merely going to be that politics is for pragmatists, not idealists? The distinction that has been the pillar of immigration policy, between legal and illegal immigrants, is nearly sacrosanct in American political circles, and few are even the liberals in number who have taken a critical position on this matter. To describe a person as ‘undocumented’ is to render the person into oblivion, into a non-entity, and it staggers the imagination to suppose that undocumented or illegal aliens should be viewed as undesirables while those politicians elected to high places who repeatedly violated the United States constitution should be living comfortably in splendid retirement. As I wrote in my blog on May 31, in defense of ‘undocumented’ students who at great risk have advocated for their rights to state aid, it is these students, and their parents, who have embodied the finest aspirations of human beings. If at all the United States is to claim to being the most distinct immigrant society in human history, it can only do so with the awareness that no ethnic, racial, linguistic or religious group can now lay claim to this country, and the country belongs to all those who choose, as an expression of the right to unfettered movement across borders, to make it their home. Obama is yet to show that he is even remotely close to embracing this view.

*Cochin’s Jews: History’s Last Gasp

Samuel Hallegua, 79 years old, has died at his home in Fort Kochi. The Hindu, which reported his death yesterday, described Mr Hallegua as a ‘community leader’ and, more poignantly, as someone who resented, not without reason, the transformation of Cochin’s once flourishing Jewish community into a tourist relic. Mr Hallegua’s family is said to have been present in Cochin since 1592, and it is his family members who, in the mid-eighteenth century, helped to reconstruct the famous synagogue in Mattancherry that Mr Hallegua had, not without considerable misgivings, been showing, as the Warden of the Cochin Jewish Synagogue, to the tourists who flock to Cochin.

A number of scholars, among them Nathan Katz and Joan Roland, have done much justice to the extraordinary history of the Jewish presence in India. The story of Jews being sheltered in Shanghai – which I have described in a previous blog — while they were being butchered wholesale in the home of what is charmingly described as the Enlightenment is remarkable enough, considering that their protector was the Japanese commander of the ghetto who refused to implement orders for their final extermination, but still more remarkable is their centuries-old sojourn in India. India is one country where they did not only not face persecution, but where, much as adherents of many other religions have found, they could openly practice their faith and signal their own distinct contributions to the making of Indian civilization. India remains singular in the worldwide Jewish experience, and Professor Katz justly wrote some years ago, in his book Who Are the Jews of India?, that “Jews navigated the eddies and shoals of Indian culture very well. They never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination.” He goes on to describe in what respect India could have served as a model for the world: “Indians Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live: free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”

Among the three distinct Jewish communities that have been present in India, the Cochin Jews numbered about 2,500 shortly before the independence of India in 1947. Only a dozen Jews remain in Cochin today, none of them under the age of 50. How and why their numbers dwindled will seem no mystery to those who, citing the creation of the state of Israel, the horrendous experience of European Jews, the long history of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, and the passage of the Law of Return, deem it but natural that India’s Jews also sought to migrate to Israel. But surely the matter cannot be allowed to rest there, unless one is prepared to concede that the modern nation-state is the only entity capable of commanding the loyalties of human beings, and that primordial ties, of blood and religion for instance, reign supreme in human affairs. This part of the story, it appears to me, has been inadequately understood. Just what is this thing we call home, and does the geography of the landscape that might be called ‘home’ correspond to the psychogeography of home? In their passage from India to Israel, many Indian Jews may have gained much – solidarity with other Jews, new employment prospects, and the sense of freeing themselves from their hitherto eternal diasporic condition. But, equally, it should also be understood that they may have lost much, just as India lost much from their departure. With the decimation of Cochin’s Jewish community in the aftermath of independence and the creation of Israel, we might say that the logic of the nation-state has triumphed over the possibilities of civilization, and that the modern arithmetic of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ has triumphed yet again. How are those who are in the majority ever to learn about the traditions, norms, civilities, and graces of hospitality?

The Hindu has reported Mr Hallegua as recently saying of India, “It has been more than tolerant. The Santa Cruz High School I went to was run by Jesuit priests. My sister studied in a school which was managed by Italian nuns. But we were never under pressure to shun Judaism. The country accepted us as we have been. I am a proud Indian. I’m also a Hindu in an apolitical sense.” Mr Hallegua resisted the arithmetic of modern politics to the last. That, among many other reasons, is why he should be honored as he now become among those who are departed.