*Turmoil in the Great City: Shahrukh and the Shiv Sena

Lebensraum for the 'Maratha Manush': Thackeray and Hitler, Soulmates

The Shiv Sena are at it again.  This band of troglodytes and common thugs cannot rest for more than a few months without causing a huge stir.  Many things animate their passions, many are their grievances and the imagined humiliations that arouse their hostility.  They have some steady targets against which they fire away at will, but there is also an equally steady stream of moving targets.  In recent years, their most sustained agitations have been against those deemed foreigners, by which the Shiv Sena means non-Maharashtrians.  Indeed, one suspects that non-Indians (barring, of course, Pakistanis and all Muslims, whatever their country of origin) pose no problems as such for the Shiv Sena, since the Sena reserves its animus for those, such as Punjabis, Biharis, and others from the great Gangetic plains who are suspected of having ‘stolen’ jobs from Maharashtrians.  Some months ago, India’s supreme cricketing icon, Sachin Tendulkar, himself a Mumbaikar, received a stinging rebuke from the Sena for daring to suggest that Mumbai belonged to all of India rather than to Maharashtrians alone.  One can say, then, that the Sena is democratic in at least one respect, resolutely upholding the law of equal opportunity.  The mighty and the low, the famous and the obscure – none are spared if they do not meet the exacting standards of xenophobia, prejudice, and outright hooliganism established by the Sena.

Shahrukh Khan, often described as the reigning star of Bollywood, is the most recent enemy of the nation identified by Bal Thackeray, the aging and agitated but still agile leader of the Shiv Sena.  The sin with which Shahrukh is charged is none other than the suggestion, aired by some others as well, that the cricket teams which comprise the Indian Premier League (IPL) may have done an injustice to the Pakistani players by failing to make a bid for a single Pakistani player.  Why the IPL teams did not make any such bid is an interesting question in itself, and what it says about the sentiments which predominate among the truly moneyed classes in India, is a matter that I shall have to leave aside for the moment.   Shahrukh is alleged to have betrayed the nation by his remarks, but of course the matter is more complex.  As a Muslim, he has always been suspect; and one of the canards to which the Sena subscribes is the view that the first loyalty of Indian Muslims is to Islam [the ummah] rather than to the Indian nation.  Shahrukh and the other Khans of Bollywood, Salman and Aamir, and now Saif Ali, have long been resented for their domination of the Hindi film world.

Many people in Mumbai are anguished that the threats to Shahrukh reflect poorly on the city often imagined as India’s greatest metropolis.   There are many considerations that are germane to this discussion.  It is less important whether the reputation of Mumbai is diminished in the eyes of outsiders, or whether Mumbai will fail to make the grade of a ‘world-class city’.  Mumbai has survived many indignities and assaults, and, much as New York did in the aftermath of the September 11 bombings, it attempted to respond in one voice and assert ‘the spirit of Mumbai’.  These appear to be laudable sentiments, though they disguise the indignities to which millions in a city such as Mumbai are subjected every day. Of perhaps more lasting significance is the fact that the Indian state appears to be powerless and certainly unwilling to reign in lawless elements and subject Shiv Sena cadres and their leaders, not least of them Thackeray and much of his thuggish clan, to the rule of law.   The public sphere cannot be held hostage to those who perceive themselves as beyond the reach of law, and the fact that must be faced squarely is that the Shiv Sena represents the most fundamental repudiation of the very idea of democracy.

Only a few months ago, on a visit to the US to promote his film ‘My Name Is Khan’, Shahrukh was detained at Newark airport and held for questioning.  That created uproar in India, though one wishes that there would be similar umbrage when lesser-known people are harassed or deprived of their liberties.  As Shahrukh’s film is released in India, the Sena has promised to disrupt screenings of ‘My Name Is Khan’.  That would be a fitting tribute to Shahrukh, and surely an unintended endorsement of the film which is an exploration of the travails of being a Muslim in the post-9/11 world.  The recent incidents, however, suggest that the Shiv Sena, which has competed in elections but is most in its element when its members and hired guns are out in the streets terrorizing common people and creating disorder, is in its death throes.  Its electoral support has diminished over the last few years and, as is well known, Thackeray’s family is exceedingly dysfunctional.  Like bullies elsewhere, the Shiv Sena’s cadres have no appetite for a real fight, and the most ample sign of their cowardice is the indisputable fact that in the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai they quickly went into hiding.  It is much too late for Thackeray to return to cartooning, an art in which he excelled and where, had he persisted, he might well have made a name for himself as India’s most imaginative cartoonist.  Now he should be happy if, in a few years from now, he it at least remembered as a character somewhat out of cartoons.

*Eulogy for the Unsung: The Death of Bo and Boa Sr.

The Great Andamanese relaxing by the water, 1920.

Great Andamanese Couple, 1876

Great Andamanese children & Maurice Portman, 1874

An indescribable feeling of sadness crept over me when I read some days ago of the passing away of Boa Sr., the last known speaker of Bo (also known as Aka-Bo and Ba), one of ten languages belonging to the Great Andamanese group.  Though Boa Sr. had learnt Hindi and was able to converse with the outside world, over the last three decades she remained Bo’s sole speaker.   What great many thoughts could she not convey to others?  How must she have felt to know that she was the only surviving speaker of a language and the link to a world that only she could apprehend?  How must it feel to know a language and yet not be able to communicate in it with anyone else?

In an earlier time, Boa Sr. would have been rendered into a museum piece.  Her death brought to mind the fate of Truganini, the last of the Tasmanian Aboriginals.  The few thousand Tasmanian aboriginals encountered by European colonizers had, through genocide, disease, and murderous neglect, been reduced to 47 women, men, and children by 1847, and for the last three years, before her death in 1876, Truganini led a solitary existence in Hocart as the last Tasmanian aboriginal.  Shortly thereafter, her skeleton would be exhibited for the benefit of the curious-minded and the scientific-minded alike.  Those were the indignities to which people such as her, and the Andamanese, have been subjected since they came into contact with what is called ‘civilization’.  In the barbarous language of the day, occasionally still encountered when, for example, the Americans come into contact with ‘unruly’ tribesmen in Afghanistan, the unquestionable duty of the Europeans was to pacify the wild islanders.

The Andamans have long been the haunt of anthropologists and criminologists. In the mid-19th century, the British established a penal colony at Port Blair, reserving the infamous ‘circular jail’, also studied by those who are entranced with the idea of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, for political prisoners transported for life.  A man sent across the kaala paani [literally, ‘the black waters’], so the British figured, was as good as dead, and not merely because no “convict” was expected to return alive to civilization.  Before the convict entered into what we might call ‘social death’, he was supposed to have suffered what we might understand as ‘psychic death’ since the passage across ‘the black waters’ was deemed to have led the person to lose caste.  That, in the British view, was horrible enough a suffering for a caste Hindu.  Later in the 19th century, as anthropometry and craniology, among many of the other supposed sciences gifted by the West to the rest, became the rage among European and American scientists, anthropologists, criminologists, and psychologists, the British began to arrive in the Andamans with rulers and other measuring instruments.  The intent was to ascertain where the Great Andamanese belonged in the ‘scale of civilization’, a determination that apparently could be made by measuring the distance from the navel to the nose, from the nose to the eyebrow, and so on.  No wonder idiocy is known by many names!  The only firm lesson to be learnt from all this appears to be that if one wants to lead a European somewhere, lead him by the nose.

The twin processes of pacification and assimilation had the unsurprising consequence of decimating the population of the Andamanese and other tribes on the Andaman islands.  Some tribes were rendered extinct – the Aka-Kol in 1921, the Oko-Juwoi and the Aka-Bea by 1931.  In 1858, when the Great Andamanese first came into contact with the British, they numbered around 5,000 people.   Attempts with which we are familiar from the long history of colonialism to ‘civilize’ them were, of course, nothing but another name for genocide.  In one experiment, children born between 1864 and 1870 were placed in what came to be called ‘Andaman Homes’, but none of the 150 children lived beyond the age of two.  Nevertheless, the colonial administrator Maurice Portman gave it as his opinion that ‘Under any circumstances the Homes should certainly be maintained until the whole of the Andaman Tribes are friendly’ [quoted in Madhusree Mukherjee, The Land of Naked People (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 66].  One way to ensure that people are friendly, which is to say not hostile, is to eliminate them.  In 1901, the Census still recorded 600 Great Andamanese, but by 1951 their numbers had been reduced to 23.  The Sentinelese, who have miraculously evaded all attempts at contact, had been reduced to 10 in number by 1951. Today, according to the Indian linguist Anvita Abbi, who came to have a close association with Boa Sr. over the last decade and whose work in the Andamans is reflected in the “Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese” (VOGA) project, there are about 50 Great Andamanese still alive.

The Great Andamanese, we are told in this obituary of Boa Sr. published in Survival International, “are thought to have lived in the Andaman Islands for as much as 65,000 years, making them the descendants of one of the oldest human cultures on Earth.”  If it were true, one should marvel at this fact – and consider the possibility that, in this age of dazzling technology, that unbroken link may be snapped before our own eyes.  Either way, the question of just who the Andamanese are, and what they represent for the history of humankind, is not easily resolved.  For even the most well-intentioned linguists and anthropologists, the Great Andamanese – and the other three main groups on the islands, namely the Jarawa, Onge, and Sentinelese – still represent principally a crucial picture of the puzzle about the origins of human societies, language groups, the migrations of people and their languages, and so on.  The quest to know everything, manifested in Enlightenment-inspired projects to create vast compendiums of knowledge, remains undiminished, even if we are committed to multiculturalism and diversity and are more cognizant of the genocidal policies that led to the extermination of entire tribes and their cultures.  How we can best be committed to such ecological survival of plurality without instrumentalizing humans, animals, or nature is an ethical question that may determine the course of the future.