*Remembering Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay:  Nationalist, Feminist, Socialist

 The gifted Indian writer Raja Rao, in introducing Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s memoirs, Inner Recesses Outer Spaces (1986), did Kamaladevi (3 April 1903-29 October 1988) the unusual honor of describing her as “perhaps the most august woman on the Indian scene today.  Firmly Indian and therefore universal, highly sophisticated both in sensibility and intelligence, she walks with everyone, in city and country with utter simplicity.”

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

We shall not linger on what exactly Raja Rao may have intended to convey when he suggested that she was firmly Indian and “therefore” universal, for surely not everything Indian is universal, nor does India, whatever the conceit of those who always applaud it as the “greatest” or oldest civilization, have a monopoly on the “universal”.  The greater puzzle is why Kamaladevi, who left behind the impress of her intelligence, insights, and remarkable energy on everything that she touched, and whose contributions to so many diverse fields of human activity are such as to stagger the imagination, is so little remembered today in India and is virtually unknown outside the country.

Born into a Saraswat Brahmin family in Mangalore, Kamaladevi was initiated into politics at an early age.  Her memoirs are scanty on early dates and details:  she lost her father, who had not written a will, when she was but seven years old, and the family wealth and properties all went to a stepbrother with whom there was little contact.   At a stroke, Kamaladevi and her mother were left disinherited.  This dim awareness of the precariousness of women’s lives would, in time, lead to the recognition that, as she wrote in her memoirs, “women had no rights”.  At the home of her maternal uncle, Kamaladevi received another kind of political education:  he was a notable social reformer and visitors to the home included eminent lawyers, political luminaries, and public figures, among them Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Srinivas Sastri, Pandita Ramabai, and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru.  Throughout, however, Kamaladevi’s mother and grandmother left the deepest impression on her.  Both women were educated, ecumenical in their interests, and enterprising, and it is from them that Kamaladevi inherited her own love of books.


Like many educated upper-caste Hindu women of her generation, Kamaladevi was brought into the political life of the nation in the 1920s and 1930s by the ascendancy of Gandhi and his insistence on adhering to a nonviolent struggle.  Kamaladevi’s relationship to Gandhi, whom she acknowledged as a titan without peers, is a vast and complex subject.  By 1923, she had fallen under his spell and she enrolled herself in the nationalist struggle as a member of the Congress party.  Three years later, she had the unique distinction of being the first woman in India to run for political office.  Kamaladevi competed for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly and lost by a mere 55 votes.  Along with the rest of the nation, she was completely captivated by the Salt Satyagraha, but she differed with Gandhi’s decision to exclude women among the initial group of marchers.  Though Kamaladevi was charged with violation of the salt laws and sentenced to a prison term, the most dramatic moment that brought her to the nation’s attention occurred when, in a scuffle over the Congress flag, she clung to it tenaciously.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

While Kamaladevi’s admiration for Gandhi never wavered, and the ideals to which he aspired became her own, she occasionally felt stifled by the authoritarian strands within his personality and felt restless at the slow pace of change.  She had been slowly drifting towards the socialist wing of the Congress party and in 1936 she took over leadership of the Congress Socialist Party.  Meanwhile, Kamaladevi had been establishing extraordinary networks of political solidarity within and outside India.  In 1926 she met the Irish-Indian suffragette Margaret Cousins, who founded the All India Women’s Conference and remained its President until Kamaladevi assumed that role in 1936.  Kamaladevi’s first writings on the rights of women in India date to 1929; one of her last books, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, was published in 1982.  Over a period of some five decades, Kamaladevi articulated in dozens of writings and speeches a distinct position, one that was mindful of the liabilities faced by Indian women that were both peculiar to them and common to women everywhere.  While she became an advocate of positions that are now commonplace to women’s movements all over the world, such as equal pay for equal work, she also resisted the idea that the experience of the West was to furnish the template for women’s movements in India.

Kamaladevi was, however, also a key figure in the international socialist feminist movement.  From the late 1920s to the 1940s and beyond, Kamaladevi became not only an emissary and spokesperson for Indian women and political independence, but for larger transnational causes, such as the emancipation of colored people around the world from colonial rule and political and economic equity between nations.  She attended the “International Alliance of Women in Berlin” in 1929, only to become aware of how race and national boundaries might become obstacles to the solidarity of women:  it was a “misnomer” to call it “International”, she says, as the only non-Western representatives were from Egypt and India.  At the International Session of the League Against Imperialism in Frankfurt, Kamaladevi could discuss problems encountered in common by colonized peoples in West Africa, North Africa, Indochina, the American south, and elsewhere.  Though this has never been recognized as such, Kamaladevi facilitated India’s emergence as the leader of the non-aligned movement and the crafting of the Bandung Declaration of 1956 which was nothing other than a clarion call for a fundamental reordering of the world order.

Kamaladevi was a prolific writer, and her twenty odd books furnish unimpeachable evidence of the wide array of her intellectual and political interests, and a global outlook which shunned alike a narrow nationalism and a superficial cosmopolitanism.  She traveled to Nanjing and Chongqing and met with resistance leaders during the country’s occupation under Japanese rule:  from this resulted a small book, In war-torn China (1944).  Yet, given her spirit of inquiry, she also took it upon herself to visit Japan and came to the conclusion, in Japan:  Its Weakness and Strength (1944), that the Japanese, who had sought to be the vanguard of a pan-Asianism, had bloodied their hands with the most virulent strands of materialism and imperialism.  She is also among a handful of people in India in the 1930s-1950s who wrote widely on the US.  In Uncle Sam’s Empire (1944) and America:  The Land of Superlatives (1946), she reverses the gaze.  Reams and reams have been written of the saffron robe-clad monk, known to the world as Swami Vivekananda, visiting Chicago in 1993 and thereby bringing Hinduism to the New World; and yet we know little of the sari-clad Kamaladevi wandering around the United States, making her way into prisons, union meetings, political conventions, black neighborhoods, and American homes, and leaving behind the distinct impressions of an Indian feminist with strong nationalist and socialist inclinations of the possibilities and limitations of the experiment with democracy.

Kamaladevi was arguably the best traveled Indian woman of her generation, and built up a resume of foreign trips that enabled her to enhance remarkably international networks of political solidarity; yet, as her work in social, political, and cultural domains amply showed, she remained solidly grounded in the ethos of Indian life.  The lives of common people were of abiding interest to her. The city of Faridabad today has a population of around 1.5 million; but hardly anyone is aware of the fact that Kamaladevi played the critical role in giving birth to this industrial township, a flagship project that she undertook as the founding leader of the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) to resettle nearly 50,000 Pathans from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the wake of the post-partition migrations.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

The Kamaladevi that most Indians are familiar with is a figure who, above all, revived Indian handicrafts, became the country’s most well-known expert on carpets, puppets, and its thousands of craft traditions, and nurtured the greater majority of the country’s national institutions charged with the promotion of dance, drama, art, theatre, music, and puppetry.  It must seem strange to those acquainted with the first half of her life that someone who was so intensely political should have eschewed every political office in independent India.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi.  Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi. Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Did she abandon “the political center” as she acquired prominence as an authority on India’s craft traditions and the country’s tribal populations?   Greatly disillusioned by the partition, Kamaladevi had come to recognize that India was not going to even remotely take the shape that she had envisioned at the dawn of freedom.  However, it may be a mistake to partition her life in this fashion.  Her life offers many cues about the intersection of politics and aesthetics and in her resolute insistence on autonomy and the integrity of every life we find the threads that enable us to fold the various Kamaladevis into one majestic figure.

[The Plural Universe of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, co-edited by Ellen DuBois and Vinay Lal, will be published by Zubaan Books, New Delhi, in 2016.]

(Originally published in the Indian Express, Sunday Magazine (The Eye), 25 October 2015, as “A Beautiful Mind:  Looking Back at the Life of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay”

*Bernie Sanders and the Noose of American Politics — Part III: Tweedledum, Tweedleedee, and the Third Party

Part III: Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and the Third Party

(continued from October 24 and 25 and now concluded)

There is nothing in Sanders’ declared positions which points to a desire on his part to critique the idea of empire to which the US is wedded, nor has he ever really weighed in with a critique of militarism.  It is a telling fact that when the US Air Force relayed its decision to locate the horrendously expensive F-35, the latest generation of its combat aircraft, at Vermont’s Burlington International Airport, Sanders and his two Vermont colleagues from the US Congress jubilantly celebrated this triumph with a press release where they stated:  “The Air Force decision to base its newest generation of planes in Burlington is a tribute to the Vermont Air National Guard, which is the finest in the nation. It reflects the Guard’s dedication to its mission and long record of outstanding performance. The Air Force has made clear that this aircraft, which will anchor our national air defenses, is the Air Force’s future.”  Sanders has never declined any opportunity to bring military jobs to his state:  exasperated by his advocacy of military Keynesianism, one of Sanders’ critics has put it in bald language:  “He [Sanders] stands behind all military contractors who bring much-needed jobs to Vermont.”

Major General Steven Cray, Adjutant General of the Vermont National Guard , announces that the U.S. Air Force has decided to base the F-35 fighter jet at Burlington, Vermont. Source:  http://www.vnews.com/news/state/region/9634017-95/air-force-to-base-f-35-fighter-jets-in-vermont

Major General Steven Cray, Adjutant General of the Vermont National Guard , announces that the U.S. Air Force has decided to base the F-35 fighter jet at Burlington, Vermont.
Source: http://www.vnews.com/news/state/region/9634017-95/air-force-to-base-f-35-fighter-jets-in-vermont

In attempting to position Sanders in the American political landscape, we should recall his fond admiration for Eugene Debs, whose portrait hangs in Sanders’ office, and the fundamental fact that everything in American politics oscillates between Democrats and Republicans, Tweedledum and Tweedledee.  Though Sanders is the longest-serving independent in the history of the US Congress, on the vast majority of issues he votes alongside the Democrats; more critically, let us once again recall, he is seeking to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for the President.  His supporters argue that his candidacy cannot otherwise be viable, since no one outside the two main political parties has won the White House after Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party was elected President of the US in 1848.  Sanders has declared that, were he to lose the battle for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, he will throw his weight—not merely his endorsement, but his entire organization—behind the Party’s nominee.  But this is scarcely what would have been done by Eugene Debs, “Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary, 1855-1926,” whom a younger Bernie Sanders introduced for a Smithsonian Folkways audio documentary in 1979 with the following words:  “It is very probable, especially if you are a young person, that you have never heard of Eugene Victor Debs.  If you are the average American, who watches television forty hours a week, you have probably heard of such important people as Kojak and Wonder Woman, have heard about dozens of different underarm spray deodorants . . .  Strangely enough, however, nobody has told you about Gene Debs, one of the most important Americans of the twentieth century.”   Sanders go on to say that the deafening silence surrounding Debs owes everything to “the handful of people who own and control this country, including the mass media, and the educational system, [who] still regard Debs and his ideas as dangerous.”

The most apposite fact about Debs, considering Sanders’ run for the presidency, is not that America’s most principled and radical politician was the Socialist Party’s candidate for the Presidency five times, or even that Debs spent three years in prison, 1918-21, after his conviction under the Espionage Act for obstructing government recruitment efforts during World War I.  “Let the capitalists do their own fighting”, Debs urged American workers, “and furnish their own corpses and there will never be another war on the face of the earth.”  The most striking fact, and here Sanders is not a patch on the man he professes to admire, is that Debs was astute enough to recognize that the United States had been spectacularly successful in creating an institutionalized form of illusory democracy.  The Republican and Democratic parties, “or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party”, Debs told his audience in Indianapolis in September 1904 while accepting the Socialist Party’s nomination for the presidency, “are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.  With either of those parties in power, one thing is always certain, and that is that the capitalist class is in the saddle and the working class under the saddle.”  Objecting to the arrest in 1918, before his own confinement, of three socialists for their opposition to the draft, Debs tore away at the idea that the US was in any manner a democracy:   “They tell us that we live in a free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people.  This is too much, even for a joke.”.

However liberal Sanders may be in relation to his adversaries from either party, he signifies the constraints that are intrinsic to the system.  Every four years the most progressive faction of the Democratic Party takes heart at the candidacy of someone who promises, if not a “new dawn”, power to the people, checks on corporate power, respect for mainstream America, opposition to an unpopular war—and the US is nearly always at war—and even the return of the country to its real roots—though what are those roots, one might ask, if not genocide and slavery?  The last third party candidate with any viability at all, Ralph Nader (Green Party), one of the few figures in American political life over the decades who can speak of a sustained opposition to corporate America and an unblemished record of public service, would suffer the ignominy of being derided as a spoiler when he was held accountable for Al Gore’s narrow margin of defeat to George Bush in the 2000 Presidential election.  Most often, of course, the supposed Messiah of the progressives has come from within the Democratic Party—Howard Dean in 2004 and, of course, Barack Obama in 2008.  Such candidates may have the effect of energizing the activist base, always a little uneasy at the ludicrous spectacle and scandalous money-laundering machine that the US Presidential election has become, but more importantly it is now a matter of nearly spiritual faith among “progressives” to hope that American democracy is more than the dead letter of the law.  Some of Sanders’ followers will be candid enough to admit that their support for him is a matter of tactics rather than principle; in common parlance, when the choice is between a hawk such as Hillary Clinton, or xenophobes like Donald Trump, not to mention other candidates who help illustrate the fifty different shades of lunacy, one has the moral obligation to vote for Sanders and prepare the way for “the real revolution”.  They would do well perhaps to read a little more of Marx, such as his March 1850 address to the Communist League in London:  “Even where there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat.”  The “democratic party” that Marx spoke of is not, of course, the Democratic Party of the US.  But what strikes one is how little has changed, and Sanders inspires, at least at present, little hope that his election would introduce any fundamental alterations in the American Republic.

(See also parts I and II)

A revised and slightly shorter version of all the three parts, put together, has been published as Bernie Sanders  and the Noose of American Politics in the Economic and Political Weekly Vol 50 (24 October 2015).

Bernie Sanders & the Noose of American Elections — Part II: Foreign Policy in an Ugly World

While Sanders may not necessarily be of the school of thought which holds that “small is beautiful”, he has also expressed a preference for the Scandinavian countries as models of social welfare states.  The main plank on which he is running is the promise that he will work towards the reduction of glaring and still growing class inequalities, champion the rights of the working class, and arrest the decline of the middle class.  In speech after speech, and in his declared “Agenda for America:  12 Steps Forward”, he has highlighted his plan to have the minimum federal wage increased from $7.25 an hour which he rightly describes as “starvation wage” to a “livable wage”, strengthen the hands of trade unions, introduce gender pay equity, make collage affordable to all, and “take on Wall Street”.  Sanders argues, quite reasonably, that a majority of Americans agree share his aspirations, but he must know that agreement on these objectives does not correspond with agreement on the precise measures that might be taken to make his agenda a reality.  “Our country belongs to all our people and not just a handful of billionaires”, he told an audience in Minneapolis in late May, and around the same time, and while deploring the “grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in the US” at a press meeting, he called for a “political revolution in this country.“   Even elements of this rhetoric are shared by others, such as those activists who instigated Occupy Wall Street and the subsequent Occupy movement.  Where Sanders has certainly gone beyond other politicians, and almost certainly the great majority of Americans, is in in his analysis of the undeclared class warfare that the “wealthiest and most powerful people” in the country have been waging “against working families, against the disappearing and shrinking middle class of our country.  The billionaires of America are on the warpath.  They want more and more and more.”  On conservative late-night TV shows, and elsewhere in the US, all of this is evidence writ large of Sanders’ “communist” credentials.


If domestic policy appears to be Sanders’ main strength, notwithstanding his ambivalence on the issue of gun control, he is hardly exceptional among American presidential candidates.  One of the stories that was widely circulated at the time of George W. Bush’s successful campaign for the first of his two terms as President stated that at that time he did not hold a US passport:  apparently the only two countries he had ever visited were Canada and Mexico, both of which are countries that Americans were long accustomed to treating as their own backyard.  That the story is most likely apocryphal is less interesting than what it suggests about the insularity of American politicians and their ignorance about the rest of the world.  But many Americans, even as they recognize and applaud the unique place that the US continues to occupy in global politics and the world economy, maintain that a candidate’s foreign policy credentials are much less important than the candidate’s ability to speak to the American people about issues—the availability of jobs, stagnant wages, the future of Social Security, immigration reform—that appear to be more central to their well-being and the prosperity of American families and communities.  If Sanders’ foreign policy prescriptions have shortcomings, it is not clear that these would be much of a liability for him.

Nevertheless, it is important to probe briefly Sanders’ positions on US foreign policy, more particularly since they might help reveal whether there is anything that marks him as someone who might help dim the long-burning flame of American hubris or even distinguishes him from the incumbent in his grasp of geopolitics.  Two examples will suffice.  On the vexed question of the “Iran Deal”, which Republicans, with unstinting support from the state of Israel and American Zionists, attempted to scuttle with one of the most relentless political campaigns in recent memory, Sanders came out in full support of President Obama.  He has described the deal as a victory “for diplomacy over saber-rattling”, and more generally his agreement with Obama’s disposition to negotiate political solutions is signified by his remark that “diplomatic relations, even with adversarial countries, are integral to long term security.”

Considering that the American political landscape is extremely permissive of individuals such as the former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who unambiguously called for the bombing of Iran in the New York Times, Sanders may at least be applauded for his reasoned views and his faith in diplomacy.  In April 2015, however, Sanders affirmed a view that is the bedrock of American politics with respect to its long-time nemesis in the Middle East:  “It is imperative that Iran not get a nuclear weapon.”  One can understand that to advocate a position even remotely at odds with this view is to banish oneself into political oblivion in the US.  While Sanders obviously supports nuclear nonproliferation, he has not called for universal nuclear disarmament.  The supposition here, which Sanders shares with everyone else across the American political spectrum, is that a so-called “rogue state” must be denied the nuclear option, though evidently one must not have any qualms about the US, the only state to have deployed the atomic bomb, continuing to exercise a role as the world’s supreme guardian.   Not only that, Sanders’ policy on Iran offers no acknowledgement of the catastrophic role played by the US in instigating the 1953 coup that led to the removal of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh.  The implication here is obvious:  unless one is simply going to swallow the received opinion in the US, which holds that the Ayattolahs are fanatics who do not follow the language of reason, and that Iran took a terrible turn with the Islamic Revolution, then it becomes imperative to understand that the origins of the present hostility between the two nations are based in neo-colonial designs by the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1950s to topple an established government that was inimical to the Anglo-American oil industries and critical of capitalism’s obliviousness to social welfare policies.

Thus far, as we have seen, Sanders’ foreign policy is unexceptionally predictable, scarcely signaling any departure from staid assumptions about American exceptionalism.  Liberals point out that he was opposed to the invasion and then occupation of Iraq, but this measure of sanity on his part says little about Sanders and much more about the jingoism and lunacy that are pervasive in the American public sphere.  His supporters at freethebern.org allege that his Jewish identity has not predisposed him towards favoring Israel in the conflict with Palestinians. Sanders is described as advocating a two-state solution that would permit Israel security and furnish Palestinians with their own state, though on the specifics of such a state which, as some critics have noted, would be an exceedingly truncated piece of land with no lifeline of its own, he has had nothing to say.  He was admittedly the first person in the US Senate to announce his boycott of Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of the US Congress, itself a brazen attack on President Obama, and Sanders is also one of twelve US senators who refused to lend their signatures to a letter from 88 Senators, backed by the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), which warned the Palestinian leadership from undertaking any unilateral actions regarding Israel at the United Nations.  If all of this suggests that Sanders may be inclined to jettison American policy towards Israel, it is worthwhile noting that the July 2014 passage in the US Senate by “unanimous consent” of Senate Resolution 498, which essentially furnished Israel with a free hand to pound and terrorize Gaza, an attack of brute force which led to more than 2000 Palestinian fatalities, shows the enormous difficult that any elected American official might have in daring to stand up to Israel.  Bernie Sanders has never been an exception in this respect and there is absolutely nothing to warrant a belief to the contrary.

Sanders’ record over a lifetime points, as nothing else, to the abysmal failure of imagination that is at the heart of American politics and the constraints of a well-oiled system that brooks no significant dissent.  If he sounds “radical” to many Americans, it is again no reflection on his politics but rather a commentary on the degree to which the US is an outlier with respect to the social norms which define much of the civilized world, whether the matter under consideration be restraints on gun ownership, incarceration as an institutionalized form of racial discrimination, or restraints on the national security state.  It may be admirable that, much like Obama in the run-up to his campaign for the presidency in 2007-08, Sanders is relying upon tens of thousands of individual donors to finance his campaign rather than the handouts of the very rich and super Political Action Committees.  But once we are past this sentimental populism, which even forbids us to ask why the American elections cannot be managed with state funds allocated in equal part to each candidate, difficult questions remain.  Sanders’ foreign policy shows that the system will permit some degree of tinkering but no substantive critique is at all possible. Sanders might refuse to cower before the bully who leads Israel, but he can well afford to do so; taking a militant, or at least principled, stand on the extraordinary and pernicious influence that is exercised by AIPAC in American politics is well-nigh impossible.

see also part I:  ” ‘Socialist’ Among Hunters”

Part III to follow

*Bernie Sanders and the Noose of American Elections – Part I: A “Socialist” among Hunters

Part I:  A “Socialist” Mayor in a State of Hunters

(in 3 or 4 parts)

In the early 1960s, a young Jewish man from Brooklyn, New York, by the name of Bernard Sanders enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.  Sanders’ father was the sole member of his family to escape the Holocaust; in high school, Sanders reportedly ran for president of the study body and argued for “scholarships to war orphans in Korea.”  His political awareness would be at once sharpened at the University of Chicago, where the student chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was just reorganizing itself as a chapter of the more militant Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).  The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been established in 1960, was similarly pushing American civil rights leaders into adopting more militant positions.  Sanders plunged into this political ferment, assuming a position as chairman of CORE’s social action committee and committing himself to a struggle to integrate student housing at the university.  Sanders led the first sit-in at the university in 1962 and, the following year, joined the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The political career of Bernie Sanders, who is now in the race to be anointed the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, has by now been thoroughly rehearsed:  the narrative touches upon his unsuccessful run over a decade for various state offices in Vermont, the tiny northeastern state which he had adopted as his residence, before his election by ten votes as mayor of Burlington in 1981, eight two-year terms in the House of Representatives as Vermont’s only congressman commencing in January 1991, and his successful run for office as US Senator from Vermont, the position that he still holds, in 2006. Sanders’ decade in political wilderness, 1971-80, is associated with his candidacy for state offices as a member of the Liberty Union Party, which grew out of the anti-war, student, and popular movements of the 1960s.  In his outlook towards third parties, Sanders may have been chastened by his early political failures; when he did finally win office, he did so as an independent and by defeating a six-term Democratic incumbent.  His term as mayor of Burlington, in retrospect, anticipates Sanders’ ability over the decades to work within a capitalist framework and yet visibly lend his support to anti-establishment positions.  In Burlington, Sanders, much to the surprise of many critics and commentators who did not expect him to last beyond the initial two-year term, successfully courted businesses and engaged in ambitious programs to revitalize the downtown district; but, rather unusually for the mayor of an American town, Sanders also visited Cuba and the Soviet Union.  In his second term as mayor, Sanders did what few if any elected officials in the US would ever do:  he invited Noam Chomsky to Burlington City Hall and then introduced him with the following remarks, “At a time when many intellectuals… find it more comfortable to be silent and to go with the flow as it were, it is comforting to find on occasion individuals who have the guts to speak out about the importance of issues of our time. And certain Noam Chomsky has been the person to do it.”

Sanders’ years as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, thus furnish in many respects the template for cues to his subsequent political career, pointing both to an uncanny will to political survival and advancement and the limitations that will almost certainly put a brake on his ambition to win the White House.  Vermont is the second smallest state of the union, with a population of less than 650,000; the “city” of Burlington has fewer than 50,000 people, and the state is predominantly white.  Leaving aside the question, which is scarcely unimportant, of how Sanders will reach out to African Americans and Latinos, large constituencies where his name is little known, the critical consideration is how far the experience of Vermont has shaped his worldview and political priorities.  On the issue of gun control, for instance, Sanders has adopted positions that have sometimes earned him sharp rebukes from fellow liberals but plaudits from the Republican party where gun ownership is nearly an article of faith. Even among those who are sympathetic to him, he is sometimes described as a “gun nut.”  Most critically, Sanders cast a vote—a decision that may come to haunt him—in 1993 against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which mandates federal background checks for gun purchasers, a minimum five-day waiting period, and greatly restricted access for felons to firearms.

An ad produced by a Martin O'Malley Super PAC.

An ad produced by a Martin O’Malley Super PAC.

The United States is, of course, exceptional among the wealthy nations of the global North in the rate of homicide by firearms, and in countries such as Holland or, better still, Japan—where over the last few years the number of homicides by firearms is about ten each year—it would be a laughable proposition that the Brady Act should be construed as a “progressive” piece of legislation.  And, yet, Sanders could not bring himself to vote for an exceedingly modest legislative intervention in a public sphere dominated by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its supporters.  Sanders may claim in his defense that he represents the entire state of Vermont, not just progressives and liberals, but the fact remains that Vermont has a high gun ownership rate, a culture of hunting, and comparatively lax gun control laws; the state allows anyone to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

A Progressive Politician?  Bernie Sanders:  Friend or Foe of the NRA?

A Progressive Politician? Bernie Sanders: Friend or Foe of the NRA?

Though Sanders has also cast votes for measures that would increase minimum sentencing for gun crimes and ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons, his tacit support for the gun lobby is nowhere more apparent than in his egregious support of the NRA-backed Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a piece of legislation, introduced by the Republicans in 2005, which shields gun manufacturers and dealers from liability when their firearms are used for criminal activity.  Reportedly, Sanders is said to ascribe to the view that “there’s an elitism in the anti-gun movement”; or, in a different language, on this measure at least he stands with small-town America.

(to be followed by Part 2)

(First published in a revised version, including subsequent parts, under the same title in Economic and Political Weekly Vol 50 (24 October 2015).

*Waking Up Lord Vishnu:  A Debate in the Indian Supreme Court

A vast majority of TV viewers and others following news websites would have been astounded to have learnt that the learned judges of the Indian Supreme Court spent over an hour today listening to two lawyers spar on the question of whether the Sanskrit shlokas from the hymn, Venkatesa Suprabhatam, can be recited to wake up Lord Vishnu at the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram (or, as it is otherwise known, Trivandrum).

Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.  Photo:  PTI.

Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Photo: PTI.

This is the same temple whose secret chambers were directed by the Court to be opened in June 2011, and where the authorities discovered a massive hoard of Roman coins, idols made of pure gold and studded with diamonds and rubies, and tons of jewelry, together estimated in value at $18 billion to $180 billion (depending on the market price of rare coins and antiques).

Treasure from the Underground Vault at Padmanabhaswamy Temple.  Source:  Rediff.com

Treasure from the Underground Vault at Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Source: Rediff.com

Gopuram of Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple as seen from the street.

Gopuram of Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple as seen from the street.

Interesting as that find was, the present news item presents equally rich possibilities to the imagination.  One can be certain that this news item will fill some in the Indian educated middle-class with outrage:  those who are resolutely secular and similarly devout believers will, predictably, object that such matters of faith (recondite faith, one might say in this case) should never come under the jurisdiction of the courts.   The rationalists will be hyper-ventilating, fuming at the idiocy and superstition of the Hindus, mumbling that it is precisely these maddening events which explain why India continues to be a developing nation.  And one can be quite certain that there will be others in the Indian middle-class who will be amused and will simultaneously deplore the fact that the highest court of the land has to squander its valuable time on such frivolous matters.  It’s not as if India is bereft of weighty problems, from the “cultural cleansing” that has been promised by the country’s Culture Minister to the immense and catastrophic destruction of communities and landscapes as a consequence of climate change.  As colonial officials were fond of saying, the Hindu readily, indeed constitutionally, by the very nature of his being, falls into obscurantism.

The verses in question are not to be taken lightly:  they are an established part of the spiritual and ritual literature of Vaishnavas, and their popularity may be gauged from the fact that M S Subbalaxmi’s rendering of the Sri Venkatesa Suprabhatam alone has more than three million views on youTube.  Vishnu is being implored to wake up as the sun begins to rise:  the flowers are opening up their petals, the goddesses—Saraswati, Parvati, Indrani—stand with their hands folded in prayer, eager to cast an eye upon Lord Vishnu, and the great sages (maharishis) forge ahead in their attempt to get a glimpse of the Lord.  Celestials and all living beings are equally desirous of obtaining the Lord’s darshan (literally, sight; blessings).

Vishnu in Anantha Sayana pose

Vishnu in Anantha Sayana pose

Vishnu as Anantha Sayana

Vishnu as Anantha Sayana

Why the recital of the shlokas should give rise to dispute can only be understood if one is aware that the principal idol that is installed in the temple features Vishnu in the Anantha Sayanam pose, one of the nine postures in which the Lord is found in eternal yogic sleep on the serpent Adishesha.  As argued by advocate K K Venugopal, who represents the Royal family of Travancore, for whom Sri Padmanabhaswamy is the tutelary deity, Vishnu is in eternal yogic sleep and thus cannot, and must not, be woken up from his deep slumber.  Venugopal further submitted that the recitation of the Suprabhatam at Tirumala, where Vishnu is installed in the form of Venkatachalapathy, is appropriate since here the idol is in a standing position.  Speaking as amicus curiae, Gopal Subramanium took the opposite stance; according to NDTV news, he “argued that Suprabhatam is being recited in the temple and since stanzas of the shlokas mention Lord Padmanabhaswamy it must continue.”

As the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court (wisely) noted, “How [the] Lord is awakened and by what song is a matter of faith.  We would not like to go into this.  Let the Chief Tantri (priest) decide.”  The secularists will likely find some relief at this pronouncement, even if they are unhappy that the court’s time should have been wasted when there are urgent problems calling for the court’s attention.  But what, really, are the pressing issues that call for the court’s attention, and how attentive has the country been in any case to the Supreme Court’s rulings?  If one were inclined to take even a remotely sympathetic view of this matter, one might perhaps shrug one’s shoulders and look upon the entire event as furnishing some comic relief from the daily digest of news in India that revolves around instigation to communal violence, politically inspired assassinations, the molestation of women, the denigration of Dalits, the intolerable levels of pollution, and the various shenanigans of those who have style themselves the defenders of Hindus.  It’s pleasant, indeed, to be reminded that Vishnu needs no alarm clock to wake up, and that where one is accustomed to hear of babies being serenaded to sleep, that the Lord is partial to opening his eyelids to the accompaniment of music and chants.

No, I daresay that one can go much further and suggest that something is perhaps right rather than wrong in the Republic of India if the highest court of the land must contend once in a while with what are apparently frivolities.  Whatever one may say of India, and of the putrid stench with which it is increasingly being filled—by a culture of consumption in the middle classes unhindered by any notion of the social good, by a culture of violence where rage is directed at those who do not conform to the present ruling elites’ idea of “Hindu culture” and “Indian values”, and by the rapid evisceration of social mores and the norms of civility which once set the parameters of social engagement—it is perhaps one of the country’s redeeming features that not everything has yet been surrendered to the cult of efficiency and the tyranny of Taylorism.  There is still room for play in this culture; there is still the possibility that Time does not make slaves of everyone.  India has long been a land of storytelling and the Supreme Court’s leisurely attentiveness to esoteric matters about Vishnu’s sleep suggests that we have not yet lost our appetite for stories and parables.  Vishnu, at least, should be pleased that the secular socialist Republic of India still makes time to discuss what is pleasing to him and likely to stir him from sleep.  How else will we have another avatar to deliver us from the wicked, the stupid, and the ignorant?

(Also published in slightly modified form as “Should Lord Vishnu be woken up with Suprabhatham? A welcome debate in Supreme Court”, at Scroll.in on 11 October 2015)

*Declare the NRA a Terrorist Organization

I recall a conversation that some friends and I were having more than twenty years ago, on the eve of America’s bombing of Iraq months after Saddam Hussein had moved into Kuwait.  We all agreed that war was engineered into the American psyche:  the country seemed then, as it is now, to be on a war footing.  The bombing seemed imminent and thousands were bound to die, reduced to the indignity of being viewed as mere “collateral damage”.  Someone then remarked that while the United States was busy bombing other countries into submission, relegating them (as one American official declared with much pride) to the stone age, enough people were being killed on American streets from gun-related violence.

Another Olympic Gold for the US

Another Olympic Gold for the US

The newspapers carry the story of yet another massacre, this one at a community college in Oregon.  Lovely small-town America has had its share of mass killings and the end is nowhere in sight.  The killer, Chris Harper Mercer, is now reported to have taken nine lives before being killed in a gun battle with law enforcement officers.  Rather predictably, we are now being told that the gunman was a “loner” with quite likely a history of mental illness.  A Washington Post headline sums it up, “Oregon shooter left behind online portrait of a loner with a grudge against religion.”  The lack of “community”, the inability to forge relationships with others, the desire to go down in glory:  all these are the stable ingredients of a story that has been foretold.  Thus, we read, “Mercer was a quiet, withdrawn young man who struggled to connect with other people, instead seeking attention online or, ultimately, through violence.”  In nearly all such instances—the Charleston shooting, most recently, comes to mind—there is mention of the killer’s real or alleged membership in neo-Nazi groups, or other so-called “fringe” groups which bear a grudge against the de-whitening of America, and the Washington Post is unfailingly true to form in this respect.  The article states that “Mercer’s e-mail address referenced an iron cross, a symbol often associated with Nazis.”

The aftermath equally will hold no surprises.  All of America will come together in grief, there will be much hand-holding and some soul-searching, and a few noises will be made about gun control.  The country will be unanimous in declaring Mercer a “coward”:  there are, of course, much stronger words to be used for a mass killer, but cowardice is always deplorable and one can expect consent around such a characterization even amongst those who might otherwise disagree about the killer’s motives, the relative responsibility of an individual and society in such cases, the desirability for gun control, and so on.  In about a week’s time, or perhaps as soon as the funerals of the victims have been held, the news will have disappeared from the media.  The Pope will no doubt be saying a few prayers seeking God’s mercy for Mercer, particularly since the killer appears to have borne a grudge against “organized religion”.

We are being told that at least one thing is already different about the aftermath of this shooting, namely that President Obama is now coming out with all his guns blazing.  His acolytes, mindful of the ‘fact’ that he is no longer hobbled by the need to appease Republicans, argue that Obama is now showing true grit and determination, and according to some liberals he has already been redeemed by the political positions he has embraced over the course of the last year.  His comments on the Oregon shooting have been described by the media as displaying his “rage” and frustration, as he asked the American people to reflect on how they could get the government to change gun ownership laws and give young people at least an opportunity to grow up.  Obama, according to the New York Times, took a “swipe” against the NRA with these rather modest words:  “And I would particularly ask America’s gun owners who are using those guns properly, safely, to hunt for sport, for protecting their families, to think about whether your views are being properly represented by the organization that suggests it is speaking for you.”  But Obama, evidently still smarting from his resounding defeat by legislators from both parties to introduce gun control in 2013, admitted that he was powerless to change anything at all.

Only in the United States would Obama’s remarks be viewed as “radical”.  They are in fact nothing more than another instantiation of the pussyfooting which for decades has characterized what rather comically and tragically passes for ‘debate’ on gun control.  There will be the usual arguments about background checks and the desirability of keeping guns out of the hands of criminal elements and those who are mentally unsound; others will discuss whether schools and colleges should implement safety precautions; and there will be mention of a lengthier waiting period.  Thus, in this fashion, the ‘debate’ will go on ad nauseam—not moved an iota by the news that thirteen firearms were found in the possession of the gunman Mercer, all acquired legally.

Debate and Discussion in a Free Society:  Bullet-Proof Vests for Children in the Land of the Brave

Debate and Discussion in a Free Society: Bullet-Proof Vests for Children in the Land of the Brave

The Big Gulp:  More is Better

The Big Gulp: More is Better

Meanwhile, the NRA will go on the offensive, though the sheer idiocy of its position may be gauged from the comment put forward by Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s long-time executive vice president, in the aftermath of the school shootings in Newton, Connecticut:  “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Wayne LaPierre, Messiah of the Gun Lobby

Wayne LaPierre, Messiah of the Gun Lobby

One hopes that we will be spared the usual indescribably stupid remarks that are bound to follow from one spokesperson or another of the NRA and its supporters in Congress, something akin to this:  ‘Guns don’t kill, people do.’  What has been indubitably clear for decades is that the NRA makes or breaks political fortunes, waging a jihad against its opponents that has taken far more lives than the acts of terrorism ordinarily termed jihad.

What is called for is simple:  The National Rifle Association should at once be declared a terrorist organization.   The preponderant portion of even those who favor strict gun control, whatever may be meant by that phrase, will at once ferociously object that many members of the NRA, whose membership in 2013 was announced at 4.5 million—joined by “tens of millions supporters”, according to the NRA’s own spokesperson—are not only law-abiding citizens but recreational sportsmen who use their guns for simple pastimes such as hunting.  The rights of the hunter are, in America, described as sacrosanct.

The Hunter's Moment of Sublime Pleasure:  The Peace and Quiet of the Gun

The Hunter’s Moment of Sublime Pleasure: The Peace and Quiet of the Gun

Indeed, it is a reasonable supposition that Bernie Sanders, who represents Vermont in the US Senate and is now being projected as the radical or at least socialist wing of the Congress—the idea that there is a “socialist wing” is laughable, too preposterous for words—has often voted against gun control legislation because Vermont has a disproportionately large number of hunters and heavy gun ownership.  The ethical arguments against the slaughter of animals for pleasure aside, the days of Davy Crockett are long gone. As for those who point to the Second Amendment, its anachronism must go the same way as those odious measures which for centuries kept women, African Africans, and native Americans in subjection. When religious-minded people are prepared to concede that passages from their scripture or holy works must be rejected if they are repellent to the conscience, absolutely nothing requires allegiance to a portion of the US Constitution that is obsolete.

When, moreover, an organization is deemed to be a terrorist outfit, consequences must follow.  The NRA’s members might be given 30-60 days to comply with the ban on their organization and surrender their arms, and failure to do should lead to a freeze on their bank accounts and the issuance of an alert by Interpol which would prevent their travel outside the US.  Perhaps a leaf should be taken out of the methods routinely deployed in Maoist China:  a long stint, extending over several months and perhaps much longer, in a re-education camp for offenders would be highly desirable.  LaPierre and his fellow gun enthusiasts might perhaps learn that in all of Japan, there were two firearm-related homicides in 2006; in 2008, the number had gone up to a staggering, comparatively speaking, eleven—about the number killed in Oregon.  Private ownership of guns in Japan is nearly impossible.  With a population that is more than 1/3rd of the US, the number for 2008 might proportionately be raised to about 30—compared to 12,000 firearm-related homicides in the US the same year.  Lest the NRA dismiss the Japanese as “Orientals” who do not understand the spirit of American democracy, it is worthwhile noting that a background paper on gun ownership and gun fatalities released by the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2015 shows that the US has 88.8 guns for every 100 people, Australia 15, and the United Kingdom 6.2; the firearms-related homicide rate for every 100,000 people is 3.1, 0.14, and 0.07, respectively.

The NRA does not, of course, even remotely represent all firearm owners in the US:  as Obama himself noted in his remarks some hours ago, there is “a gun for roughly every man, woman and child in America.  So how can you with a straight face make the argument that more guns will make us safer?”  Moreover, the problem of guns in the US runs exceedingly deep, and the same militarism that has turned the US into a lethal military machine has every relation to the pervasive culture of guns that has turned the US into a country of gun shows, ammunition shops, firing ranges, massive gun ownership, and of course the mass killings that mark the exceptionality of the US.  The NRA is the most visible face of this barbarism and must be a dealt a blow which would render it extinct.