Archive for December, 2017

(First of five parts)

Part I:  A Monument to Love and the Shenanigans of Yogi Adityanath


Rabindranath Tagore called it a “teardrop on the face of eternity”.  He was referring to the Taj Mahal, often described in more pedestrian if less maudlin English as perhaps the world’s greatest monument to love.  When one has a “monument to love”, one suspects that the narrative is no longer only about love—but let that pass, for the moment.  The Government of India’s own webpage on the Taj Mahal adverts to Tagore’s characterization of the Taj as a “teardrop on the cheek of time”.  If time and eternity were one and the same thing, we wouldn’t have any need for the hundreds of philosophical tomes that have been written on time and its interpretation.  (I would like to thank a friend in Amsterdam who has asked not to be named for drawing my attention to the original text:  the poem from where the phrase is taken is called “Shah Jahan”, not “Taj Mahal”, and the collection is named Balaka.)  Whatever else Tagore may have meant, I suspect that he would not have been disinclined to consider the Taj Mahal as a poem to love in stone.  My late friend, Teshome Gabriel, whose own piece on “stones” dazzles and sparkles more than most diamonds, had not taken the Taj into consideration when he was writing on the life of stones.

But we have come to a different pass.  Now some idiots, egged on by the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, have called for the Taj’s removal if not destruction.  Some are moved by the thought that the Taj Mahal sits, so they think, on top of what was once a Hindu temple; others allege that it is not “Indian” enough, by which they mean of course that there is far too much in the Taj of foreign origins.  The Taj is associated, in their mind, with Muslims; and Muslims, in turn, call to their mind terror not love.  To describe Adityanath and others who share his view of the Taj Mahal as philistines is to given them more credit than they deserve:  their conduct partakes of the barbarous in various respects.  It should be recognized, however, that some Indians are alarmed by the wholly pragmatic (and, by the yardstick of the economy-obsessed modern world, not insignificant) consideration that the Taj Mahal is India’s largest foreign and domestic revenue earner among tourist sites.


Yogi Adityanath Addressing a Gathering in Uttar Pradesh.

Yogi Adityanath is, speaking in something like a neutral idiom, a “colorful” character.  Rascals may sometimes be colorful; the same may be said even of some rulers, otherwise alleged to be despots or even tyrants, such as Muhammad Shah ‘Rangeela’ (Emperor of Hindustan, 1719-1748) and Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh.  Of Robin Hood, for instance, it may be said without much controversy that he was a colorful character.  Adityanath is only colorful because he is bizarre, a firebrand, and utterly shorn of ideas and yet capable of producing mirth—though not among his followers, most of them the kind of ruffians dressed in polyester who loiter about public thoroughfares while scratching their crotches and making a nuisance of themselves.  (This is not to say that there are no khadi-clad scoundrels.) Adityanath is among those “leaders” here and there who have expressed solidarity with Trump’s ban on the entry of Muslims from several nations into the US and called for India to emulate the leader of the free world, though I doubt very much that the White House has paid any attention to this militant Hindu youth leader turned into politician.

Adityanath, much like White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, thinks that “women are sacred”—women (alongside children) exclusively so, one assumes, as opposed of course to men, elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, trees, and much else—and he has expressed himself as “bigly”—a little nod to Trump—concerned with women’s safety.  All this would be very commendable, were it not for the fact that, on the worldview of Adityanath and his followers, women can best be safe if they retreat from the workplace.  That apparently secures them from the ignominy of sexual harassment—never mind that domestic sexual abuse outweighs all other forms of sexual harassment and assault, and that across cultures women are much more likely to be face abuse and assault from men known to them, most often older male relatives, than from utter strangers.  Adityanath’s acolytes and fellow travelers in misogyny in India’s heartland have similarly suggested, apropos of female college students, that they need fear no one if they accept that a curfew commencing at dark is best calculated to preserve their moral integrity and purity.  A woman has no place out in the streets after sunset; nocturnal activities must be left to men and the devil. Women who display manly characteristics, Adityanath has noted, have a tendency to turn into demons.

But it is of course the figure of the Indian Muslim that more than anything else that animates Adityanath. The looted virginity of one Hindu woman, Adityanath told cheering crowds, can only be avenged by deflowering one hundred Muslim women, and he has called for a campaign against “Love Jihad”, or the idea that the wily Muslim in India has sought to wage jihad by seducing Hindu women and turning them into sexual slaves of the Muslim.  Adityanath has on more than one occasion also called for the installation of Hindu idols in every mosque.  So perhaps it is not altogether surprising that he should have turned his attention to the Taj Mahal, making it known in public comments in mid-June 2017 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had done the right thing in substituting copies of the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita for miniature replicas of the Taj as gifts for visiting foreign dignitaries.  The Taj Mahal “and other minarets”, Adityanath is reported as having said, did “not reflect Indian culture” .

Taking a hint from their boss, the functionaries at the Tourism Department of the Uttar Pradesh State Government released a brochure in early October of principal tourist sites in the state which omitted any mention of the Taj Mahal.   In mid-October, another BJP politician, Sangeet Som, jumped into the fray with this observation as recorded by NDTV:  “Many people were worried that the Taj Mahal was removed from the list of historical places in the UP tourism booklet. What history are we talking about? The man who built Taj Mahal imprisoned his father. He wanted to massacre Hindus. If this is history, then it is very unfortunate and we will change this history, I guarantee you.”

The young Sangeet Som is one of the principal accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013; moreover, though he is among those who have been vociferous in calling for cow-protection as in integral part of Hindu dharma and instigating the forcible closure of Muslim-owned meat-processing and export companies, he himself has considerable investments in companies engaged in the export of halal meat and was on the board of directors of one such company, Al-Dua, for two years before being exposed by the Hindustan Times in October 2015.  Som is most likely no worse than most other politicians in all these respects, and dishonesty and rank hypocrisy are just par for the course.  The more germane questions for us, to which I shall turn in the next part of this article, are really these:  what do Adityanath, Som, and others with their worldview understand by history?  From where do they derive their history?  What is the epistemic status of ‘facts’?  Should we say, as liberals and those on the left would urge everyone to do so, that ‘myths’ are being substituted for history?

(To be continued)

For Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/

Part III:   Communalism and the Politics of the Taj Mahal

Part IV:  Towards Another History of the Taj:  Rumors, Legends, Longings

Part V:  A Political History of the Taj Mahal:  A Few Thoughts for Researchers


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Fourth of four parts of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”

 In the week following the September 11, 2001, bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the non-profit advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which aims for a “more just and inclusive society in the United States”, recorded 645 hate crimes against South Asians, Sikhs, and Muslims.  The FBI in its annual survey of hate crimes recorded a lower number of “hate crimes” targeting “people of Middle Eastern descent, Muslims, and South Asians”, while conceding that the attacks had spiraled from “just 28” in 2000 to 481 in 2001.  In all likelihood, many more such crimes went unreported.  Not one of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks was of South Asian origin; indeed, fifteen of the hijackers were citizens of just one country, Saudi Arabia.  On the morning of September 15th, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man from Mesa, Arizona, was shot dead in front of his gas station.  His killer, Frank Roque, had reportedly told his friends the previous day that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.”  As he was being arrested the day following the shooting, Roque shouted, “I am a patriot!  I stand for America all the way!” Roque saw only a bearded and turbaned man in front of him; he “mistook” him for a Middle Easterner, an Osama-look alike.  In a lighter moment, had the outcome not been so tragic, I would have said that Roque reminded me of the man, made famous by the late Oliver Sacks, who mistook his wife for a hat. Sodhi would have the unfortunate distinction of being the first victim in the United States of a retaliatory hate crime after the September 11th bombings, but he would not be the last Sikh who would be at the receiving end of a hate-filled rampage.  In August 2012, the white supremacist and former US army soldier Wade Michael Page would kill six Sikhs before turning the gun upon himself at the Sikh Gurdwara, or house of worship, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Just weeks into the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, and shortly after an Executive Order popularly dubbed as the ‘Muslim Ban’ was issued, the Indian software engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who worked for a GPS navigation and communications device company, was shot dead at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, by a Navy veteran, Adam W. Purinton.  His companion and fellow Indian, Alok Madasani, escaped with a slight bullet injury.  Kuchibhotla would become the first victim in the country whose death might justly be described as having been precipitated by Trump’s Executive Order, which, among other things, barred the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.  The killer, the New York Times reported, was “tossing ethnic slurs at the two men and suggesting they did not belong in the United States”; more pointedly, according to Madasani, Purinton inquired, most unusually, into their visa status before returning a short time later to shoot at them directly.  Witnesses stated that they heard Purinton shout, “Get out of my country”, before he opened fire on the two Indians.  At an Applebee’s restaurant in nearby Clinton, Missouri, where Purinton would be apprehended some hours after the shooting, he told the bartender, according to a Washington Post article, that he had shot dead two “Middle Eastern” men. At the other end of the world, in India, the Hindustan Times did not hesitate to venture forth with the opinion that “Kuchibhotla is possibly the first casualty of the religious, racial and ethnic divisiveness that has swept the US following the election of President Donald Trump, with minorities such as Jews and Muslims reporting a surge in attacks on them and their institutions.”

Iran, India, Iraq:  they’re all the same anyhow.  Their names sound alike.  The assassin sees no difference.  Three countries that lie east of the Suez Canal, some would be so bold to say east of civilization, and they just seem to elide into each other.  Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Jain, Vaishnava, Shaivite, Buddhist, Nichiren, Parsi, Sufi, Alawite, Sikh:  in the vast archipelago of ignorance, differences are easily smothered.   Some South Asian Americans, in the wake of both the September 11th attacks and the short-lived inception of the “Muslim Ban”, might have been tempted into taking comfort from their identity and assumed that they would not be the targets of white rage. Perhaps many thought that they could be mere bystanders, if unwilling ones, to the slug-fest between Islam and the West.  But they have, time and again, been rudely awoken to the fact that their identity will not be their salvation.  Every brown-skinned person is perforce a Muslim—at least for now. It is not only American Muslims, of course, who have historically had to confront racial discrimination and xenophobic outrage, but Islam perhaps generates anxieties in the Christian West, and in Anglo-Saxon America, that are distinct.  Christianity and Islam are uniquely the two proselytizing religions; they are in competition with each other from the eschatological standpoint, trying to save souls and winning converts.

The Christian West’s anxieties over Islam have now become everyone’s anxieties.  South Asian Americans and Arab Americans; Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs:  they are all subjects of a surveillance regime.  That may be one reason why Muslim Americans should perhaps be welcomed under the ambit of ‘Asian Americans’.  “Within National Security Studies,” Moustafa Bayoumi explains, “we can see the U.S. government is already establishing an infrastructure to study Muslims and Muslim Americans, and I don’t want to be studied solely by the government.  The study of Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and Arab Americans must be critical work that is decoupled from an exclusive National Security lens, and which ought to be performed primarily by people who have connections to the grassroots and with also a social justice agenda attached.”[vi] I understand the spirit in which Bayoumi asserts that he “doesn’t want to be studied solely by the government”:  he knows for a fact that the likes of him and me will be studied, and if that is to happen, the state and its functionaries should not monopolize the narrative by which both of us are defined.  Of course, as the editor of the Edward Said Reader, Bayoumi cannot but know that the parties that have been complicit in Orientalism—and now there is “National Security Studies”—extend well beyond the state to the academy, experts, policy institutes, the corporatized media, and a great many more people who represent the sinews of power.  Does one want to be studied at all?

Whatever the bizarrely-worded “War on Terror” means, it has necessitated a fundamental reassessment of the assumptions about identity, security, and the state. Bayoumi’s plea that the imperatives of the National Security State should not be permitted to influence the study of Muslim Americans can be justifiably extended to other areas of scholarly inquiry and academic research. That, however, is the subject for a much longer deliberation; but perhaps what can be said is that the implications of his plea and critique need to be pursued in at least one further respect.  Much has been written by scholars about the origins of Asian American Studies and ethnic studies more broadly. It would not be untrue to say that, fifty years after these initiatives were launched, most students and even many mature scholars still derive their politics from their identity. The election of Donald J. Trump to the White House has shown that is unequivocally the case for most white Americans as well, not only for hyphenated-Americans. The American university, unfortunately, has done very little if anything that would enable us to look forward to the day when most students and scholars will derive their identity from their politics.


For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part II, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

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Part Three of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”

The Hindu nationalists whose writ runs large in much of India today have amply demonstrated that Islamic extremists are scarcely alone in their vicious instrumentalization of religion to political ends.  And India is by far from being the only example of a country where the virulent disease of nationalism has brought what are called “strong” men into power and emboldened their followers, who more often than not exhibit extreme forms of xenophobic conduct, to terrorize and intimidate political opponents as well as those who are, on one account or another, deemed alien to the nation.  In the United States, at least, evangelical Christianity has played a considerable if understated role in stoking the fires of xenophobic nationalism.


It is, however, the subject of Islam and American Muslims with which I would like to stay as I turn my attention from Pakistani Muslims to Indian Muslims.  What these days is termed the “radicalization” of Muslims is increasingly on display in India as well, and both the indifference of the state to the marginalization of Muslims, as well as the provocations to which they are subjected by belligerent Hindus, are likely to accentuate the trend toward such “radicalization”.  Kashmir is often pointed to as the most blatant example of the marginalization of the Indian Muslim, and Kashmir has long appeared in the manifestos of radical jihadi groups as among those Muslim-predominant places that need to be liberated from the rule of the infidel.


Nevertheless, as many commentators in and outside India have noted, Indian Muslims themselves have remained strikingly unreceptive to calls to global jihad.  More Muslims have been enlisted in various Islamic terrorist organizations from Britain, where they number in the vicinity of 3 million, than from all of India.  “India, with 180 million Muslims, has produced almost no jihadis.”  So ran a recent headline in the Indian Express, a major English-language daily, which continues in this vein:  “Muslims here see stake in political system.”  If one is perhaps inclined to dismiss such a view as propaganda from an Indian publication, we may consider that the stodgy and highly respected The Economist, which cannot be accused of being partial to India, ran an article in 2014 entitled, “Why India’s Muslims are so Moderate.”  While noting that “India’s Muslims generally have reasons for some gloom”, enduring, for example, lower levels of education, poorer employment prospects, and diminished representation in government jobs in comparison with Hindus, the article also highlights the repudiation of violence across a broad swathe of Indian Muslim communities and their engagement with members of other religions.  “The contrast with the sectarian bloodletting, growing radicalism and deepening conservatism in Pakistan next door”, states the author, “is striking.”  This is much the same conclusion reached by the New York Times correspondent who shortly thereafter wrote on “Why India’s Muslims Haven’t Radicalized.”


I am aware, I think, as much as anyone else of how much of the present political discourse has pivoted around the ‘Good Muslim’ vs. ‘Bad Muslim’, or around the ‘extremist Muslim’ vs. the ‘moderate Muslim’.  So, I am cognizant of the perils of such discourse, and likewise of how the ‘Good Muslim’ is really a cloak for anti-Muslim sentiment that cares not to reveal itself as such.  There is, for those who decry or lament the very presence of Islam in their midst, some capital to be derived from speaking of the ‘Good Muslim’ with approbation.  The discourse of the ‘Bad Muslim’ is, in the present political climate, here to stay: the question is whether we might derive a different kind of politics from the figure of the Muslim who is not merely an object to be appropriated into the framework of a conservative or liberal politics.


The anomalous figure of the Indian Muslim in contemporary politics to which I have adverted thus deserves much greater attention than anyone has been lavished on him thus far.  One would not know any of this from a reading of contemporary Western ‘authorities’ on the politics of Muslim societies.  Gilles Keppel’s The War for Muslim Minds:  Islam and the West (Harvard University Press, 2004), makes absolutely no reference to India:  apparently, on this, rather not uncommon reading, India partakes neither of the West nor of Islam and thus has no say or investment in this matter. I fear similarly that when “Muslim Americans” are invoked, it is a certain kind of Muslim, the supposedly “authentic” Muslim who is of ‘Middle Eastern’ provenance, who is generally being brought to mind.  There is little if any cognizance of just who these Muslim Americans are and very little acknowledgement that they are the inheritors of a great many different, and often conflicting, traditions and histories.


Early converts to the Ahmadiyya movement. Two missionaries, Sufi Bengalee and Khalil Nasir, are sitting at the center.  Source:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmadiyya_in_the_United_States


Ten percent of the Asian Indian population of around four million in the US is comprised of Muslims, though there is virtually no mention of them in the voluminous commentary on Muslims that appears in the press every day.  If they are to any degree representative of the strands of Indian Islam to which I have very briefly alluded, should we say that they are perhaps uniquely positioned to mediate between Asian Americans and Muslim Americans, as well as between Muslim Americans and American society at large?  While Moustafa Bayoumi’s attempt to briefly complicate the history of Muslim Americans is commendable, and he is entirely right that “Muslim Americans” are not just a “post-2001 population”, South Asian Muslims appear nowhere in his commentary.  Consider this:  if we are to speak of the beginnings of organized Islam in the United States, and the possibilities of multiracial coalitions between South Asians, Arabs, and American Muslims, how can we possibly overlook—as he does—the role of Ahmadiyya preachers, who had arrived in the US in the 1920s from what was then undivided India, in giving Islam in the US a new lease of life and in overcoming, as Junaid Rana has put it trenchantly, “racial and ethnic separation that existed not only in the Muslim community, but the U.S. and globally”? (See “Islam and Black America:  The Story of Islamophobia”, Souls 9, no. 2 (April-June 2007), 156.)

(To be continued)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part II, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV,  see: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/

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Part Two of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”


I suggested in the first part of this blog piece that the place of Indians and more broadly South Asians within the fabric of Asian America Studies remains uncertain.  How, then, should we deliberate over Moustafa Bayoumi’s call for a conception of Asian American Studies that is still more inclusive and responsive to the increasing presence of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans?  “The complexity of the Muslim American experience”, he avers, “is something that Asian American studies has never really grappled with, I believe.” One can hardly disagree, except to ask if there is any other field of study, or discipline, that has “grappled with” the “complexity of the Muslim American experience”?  And this notwithstanding the fact that the academic industry around Islam and Muslim societies has shown a phenomenal increase:  the study of Hinduism, by contrast, falls under the ambit of a very small number of scholars.  The American university is chock full of courses on Islam, Muslim societies, Middle Eastern history, and the contemporary politics of the Middle East.  The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which has 60 institutional members, testifies to the growth of Middle East and Near East studies departments at American universities.  There are, of course, a good many reasons for these developments, which extend from American political and economic interests in the Middle East to the archaeological interest in the Fertile Crescent and the kinship that Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity as an ‘Abrahamic’ religion.  It is during the time of George H. W. Bush that one heard the remark that if Iraq—and obviously the same holds true for the area as a whole—was broccoli-rich rather than oil-rich, saving Iraq from itself and ‘securing’ the roots of democracy in this part of the world would never have struck the Americans as a desirable objective.  All this is apart from the consideration whether Western scholarly attention has been good for countries in the Middle East; nor am I, at present, inquiring into the politics of knowledge which has long enabled the study of the rest of the world by the West.

Sadly, as the remarks that follow will suggest, even Islamic Studies programs in the American academy do little to reflect the “complexity of the Muslim American experience”, judging at least from the narrow conception of Islam peddled by such programs.  Whatever the shortcomings of Asian American Studies, and there are many, they may be less egregious than the sins of omission and commission with which Islamic Studies programs and other sectors of the American academy have engaged Muslim Americans.  At least some Asian American scholars will balk at Bayoumi’s suggestion that their field encompass the histories and experience of Muslim Americans, even if one takes to heart his plea that “Asian American Studies is not about the geography of Asia, really, but about the ways in which people are interpellated and organized and come together within the United States as different types of ‘Asians.’” He means to say that the place where one is has no necessary or even any relationship to geographical determinism:  that place is really a function of the psychogeography to which one has habituated oneself.  Yet, the geographical coordinates are not altogether indeterminate, and so we find Bayoumi suggesting, in contradiction to his previous avowal that “Asian American Studies is not about the geography of Asia”, that Asian American Studies should “at least include those Arab Americans who hail from West Asia and those Muslim Americans who hail from Asia generally”.  It thus appears that Asian American Studies both is and is not incipiently about “the geography of Asia”.

Before we speak of Muslim Americans, whether they be Arabs, North Africans, or South Asians—all candidates, it seems, for being viewed as “Asian American”, no doubt alongside Muslim Americans with origins from Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and elsewhere—it would be fruitful to advert to the problems that inhere in speaking of Islam as such.  In the United States, especially, the Middle East, or what is otherwise called West Asia, is assumed to be the ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ home of Islam. It comes as a surprise to most Americans to be told that South Asia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world, and that India, where fewer than 15% of the people are Muslims, and Pakistan, which is overwhelmingly a Muslim-majority state, each have around 180-200 million Muslims.  Demography has its own politics; but numbers aside, by far the more germane consideration is that Islam developed in South Asia over a course of a millennium along considerably different trajectories than in West Asia.  The tendency in the West, noticeable even in the works of distinguished scholars of Islam such as Ernest Gellner and Stephen Humphreys, has been to altogether ignore Islamic South Asia.  The tacitly held view is that Islam in South Asia is something of a deviant form, an inauthentic and bastardized version of the true faith housed in the Arab world.  When the “Islamic World” is referenced, it is at once the Middle East that is being called into attention—and then Indonesia, North Africa, and other Muslim-majority societies. As an experiment, I invite the reader to put “map of Islam” into the Google search engine:  what it brought up at once was “the Islamic world”, which is defined as the 57 countries that belong to the “Organization of the Islamic Conference.”  This is the default view of Islam in the West, replicated in thousands of books, web sites, media platforms, and in the opinion pages of journalists, policy makers, and so-called experts.

The consequence of this disposition is not merely that one becomes oblivious to what we might call the varieties of Islam.  The more disturbing implications of such ignorance become apparent when one turns to an assessment of the turn that Islam has taken in Pakistan since the late 1970s.  Pakistan is assuredly a part of the Muslim world, but it is as much, however difficult it may be for orthodox Muslims in Pakistan to concede this, a part of the Indic world.  Over the course of the second millennium CE, the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis that was forged in the Indian sub-continent led to the brilliant efflorescence of music, architecture, cuisine, art, literature, and religious expression.  Moreover, contrary to the commonplace view, Muslim-majority Pakistan was not explicitly forged as an Islamic state—which is not the same thing as a Muslim-majority state—when it was carved out of India in 1947.  But Pakistani Muslims have increasingly been drilled with the idea, most particularly following the Islamicization policies of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan from 1978-1988, that their practices of Islam have been contaminated through centuries of close proximity to Hinduism, and that in turning their gaze westward, towards the historic homeland of the Prophet Muhammad, they will be liberating themselves from the cunning tyranny of effete Hindus.  It is not even remotely surprising that the Islamic terrorists who have been wreaking havoc on the streets of Pakistan have been targeting not just religious minorities but also, just as ominously, those Muslims who in various ways have defied the creeping drumbeat of a Wahhabi-infused Islam which has now taken a vise-like grip over growing arenas of Pakistani society.  One of the most prominent victims of the extremists last year was the great exponent of Sufi music, Amjad Sabri, killed in broad daylight after being accused of blasphemy—effectively a death sentence.

(To be continued)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/

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(First of several parts; scroll down to the bottom for a note to readers on this series of articles)

Part One: “Asian American” and “Indians”:  Some Vignettes of an Uncertain History

Just a little over a decade ago, the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, perhaps the first center of its kind in the United States, published my book, The Other Indians:  A Cultural and Political History of South Asians in America.  (A separate hardcover Indian edition was published months later by HarperCollins.)  The main title of the book alluded, in part, to the difficulties inherent in speaking of South Asian “Indians” in the US:  growing up in India, the only Indians that I knew of in “the land of the free and home of the brave” were those who had been mowed down by the white man.  We called them “Red Indians”, if only because they were so described in the American comics that were to be found in lending libraries. I recall that my late father, though he was a highly educated man (especially for his times, and considering the circumstances under which he had grown up in Multan in undivided India), persisted in calling them Red Indians even if I tried many times to steer him towards a different vocabulary.  However, his usage of “Red Indians” did not at all appear to me to be inspired by racist usage, unlike the deployment of this term in dominant white narratives of the ‘settling’ and ‘taming’ of America.  If anything, my father might even have looked at somewhat sympathetically at Red Indians as somehow related to his own kinsmen.

Much later, I was brought to the awareness that those whom we knew as Indians are variously described as indigenous people, Native Americans, American Indians, and Amerindians, although as something of a student of their histories I have come to recognize that scholars generally just describe them as “Indians” and that many of the Indians themselves are not averse to being described as such.  It was, as we know, an accident of history, one of many such ill-fated accidents in European adventurism that shaped the world, that would lead to the characterization of the indigenous people of the Americas as “Indians”.  There remains a considerable amount of uncertainty about how best the indigenous people of America might be characterized.

What, then, of the ‘other’ Indians?  Transitioning to the category of “Asian American” was no easy matter either for what the US census now recognizes as “Asian Indians”.  In Britain, the term “Asian” indexes most often Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis—among them Indians who sometimes knew nothing of India and had only arrived in Britain in the wake of their expulsion from East Africa.  Rozina Visram commences her study, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (London:  Pluto Press, 1986), thus: “This book traces the history of Asian settlement in Britain from 1700 to 1947. . . .  The term ‘Asian’ as used here refers to the people from the Indian subcontinent.  I have used the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘Indian’ interchangeably; I use ‘black’ in a political sense to refer to peoples of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin” (vii).  The Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans in Britain are something of an afterthought; the “Asians”, on the other hand, were instantiations of what postcolonial scholars and anti-colonial activists wistfully characterized as “the Empire striking back”.

We’re here because you were there, the Asians told the whites. The Asian in England had become so ubiquitous by the early 1980s, as the inheritor of the proverbial corner shop, that “Mr Patel” could even find a place in Godfrey Smith’s admittedly “idiosyncratic” companion to England and Englishness [see The English Companion: An Idiosyncratic A-Z of England and Englishness, 1984).  A joke that I heard recently resonates marvelously in this connection:  the reason why the British Gujarati can never excel at soccer or make it to the English soccer team is that, no sooner is he awarded a corner, he sets up a corner shop.  The corner shop is the quintessential space in the English imagination; the Gujarati has cornered that.  In the US, contrariwise, Indians had seemed for a long time to have no place in that umbrella grouping known as “Asian American”, and this not only because at least the Chinese and Japanese had a foothold in the US many years before Indians first made their presence known on the west coast around 1890.  The ‘Orient’ may have signified mainly India to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the chief progenitors of American Transcendentalism in the 19th century, but to the other literati and in the common imagination it brought to mind the Far East, or China and Japan.  Then there was the matter that Indians had tried, though not with any success, to pass as Caucasian and thus white. The impulse to grant Indians a place within the family of “Asian Americans” was not altogether palpable.

It is thus that Indians in the US for a long time complained of their ‘invisibility’. India is a very large country, and Indian Americans are frequently heard to say with evident if misplaced pride that the US and India are the world’s two largest democracies; and yet among them the feeling persists that India is generally ignored, generally making it to the news as the site of religious killings, endemic poverty, severely malnutritioned children, and more recently, such phenomena as uncontrollable pollution and the gang rape of women.  Indian Americans are not the only ethnic group, and certainly not the only community among Asian Americans, who have complained of their invisibility, or of whom it can be said, in the words of Alex Wagner’s 2016 article in the Atlantic, that they “remain mostly invisible in the American political debate” (September 12). But, from the perspective of Indian Americans, their invisibility reflects India’s marginality to global geopolitics; and such invisibility is also the more glaring and indeed alarming when placed alongside the indisputable fact that Indian Americans are disproportionately well-educated and, on that very questionable view, should be deserving of more attention. The matter is still more complex:  the preponderant number of Indian Americans are Hindus; but Hinduism, argue the young professionals behind the advocacy group, Hindu American Foundation, remains shrouded in mystery to the vast majority of Americans—when, that is, it is not simply caricatured as the religion of monkey gods, (fraudulent) holy men, or, as in Reza Aslan’s recent story, cannibalistic yogis.

There is, then, a pervasive anxiety of influence among Indian Americans. I have addressed this issue at considerable length in some of my published work, including The Other Indians, and therefore my remarks at this juncture shall be brief.  As in India, where the most militant adherents of Hinduism secretly admire Islam as a rational, monotheistic, muscular, simple and highly organized faith while they publicly berate it as an intolerant, puritan, and terrorist-driven religion, so in the United States Indian Americans are envious of the extraordinary media coverage that Islam has been receiving over the last two decades.  I know that many Indian Americans and nationalist Indians will chafe at this characterization, but the nationalist Hindu has long been a secret admirer of Islam—not, let me be clear, for its doctrines, but rather because these Hindus pine for a Hindu Mecca, a Hindu Koran, a Hindu Allah, a Hindu Haj.  Instead of all this, what one (thankfully) has in Hinduism is a bewildering variety, a mosaic of untold number of gods and goddesses, a revealed text (the Rig Veda) that no one reads, multiple sources of doctrinal authority, a God who frolics on the green—endless confusion, really, to those whose idea of a religion has been shaped by Protestant Christianity, though of course they scarcely realize it.

So, back to Islam:  it may be largely bad press, especially these days, but it is press nevertheless: as T. S. Eliot had written admiringly of Dante, recognition in hell is better than being consigned to limbo, to that state of in-betweenness where one is deserving of neither praise nor blame. Indian Americans have long craved for recognition, a goal that, if the hate crimes to which they have been subjected since the September 11 attacks are any guide, remains not merely elusive but is intertwined with the necessary ‘misrecognition’ that marks their very presence in the US.  Similarly, though the practitioners of Asian American Studies may have become more accommodating in the last decade, many in the Indian community have asked me whether Asian American Studies is really any more ecumenical than it was in the past.  Is it any less dominated today than it has been since its inception by Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans?  Whose ‘Asia’ is being invoked, to what end, and what are the parameters and contours of the Asia embedded in ‘Asian American Studies’?

The somewhat more astute members of the Indian-American community—and to speak of it in the singular is to deliberately ignore, since it is less pertinent to my present, everything that divides one Indian from another—have other objections, not always transparent to those outside the academy or even to Asian American scholars whose interests seldom if ever touch upon the history of South Asia.  What, they ask, is the politics of deploying the term ‘South Asian’?  What are termed “progressive” scholars and activists have insisted that the political and socio-cultural realities of the Indian sub-continent are best captured by speaking of “South Asia” as a single entity; better still, to signify the possibilities of solidarity among Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Indians, their shared histories, and their common subjection to racism and discrimination in the United States, they deploy the term ‘desis’ (from ‘desh’, country, or, more tellingly, ‘mother country’).  But most Indian Americans from the community are not in the least keen on having India lumped, and thus confused, with Pakistan.  They point to the fact that Pakistan has often been described, by the United States and commentators around the world, as a “failed state”; but if this may appear to characterize a good many countries, they call attention to the common branding of Pakistan as the breeding ground for Muslim extremists.  The point here is not to call into question the authenticity of such claims, which is easily done, but rather to suggest that forging a South Asian American identity is fraught with numerous perils.

(To be continued)


A Note to Readers:  A shorter version of this piece (taken together with the two or three parts that will follow) was written as a consequence of an invitation to respond to, or reflect on, an article by Moustafa Bayoumi published as “Asian American Studies, the War on Terror, and the Changing University:  A Call to Respond”, CUNY Forum 5, no. 1 (2017).  My article only adverts to Bayoumi’s piece now and then, and for the most part can essentially be read independent of it.  Bayoumi’s piece, my own reflection, and contributions from some 25 other scholars and writers have been collected together in a recently published book, Asian American Matters:  A New York Anthology, edited by Russell C. Leong (November 2017).

For Part II:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/

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Part III of North Korea and the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation


he dividing line between North and South: United Nations forces are seen retreating from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in 1950, across the 38th parallel.  Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4454820/When-America-went-war-Korea-time.html#ixzz51JHYydbZ 

The commonplace narrative of the Korean War renders the North’s surprise attack on the South on 25 June 1960 as a desperate attempt at land-grabbing and unification by a ruthless dictatorship.  Such accounts obfuscate a number of critical developments between 1945 and 1950. The Russians quit North Korea in late 1948; the Americans did likewise, leaving South Korea around the same time.  Forces from both Koreas frequently violated the border, and a series of incursions into North Korea from the South preceded the North’s invasion of June 25th.  Thoughts of unification were ever present among political leaders both in the South and the North:  as Kim il-Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un and the founding father of the country’s political dynasty, wrote in January 1950 to the Soviet Ambassador to his country, “Lately I do not sleep at night, thinking about how to resolve the question of the unification of the whole country.” [See John Gaddis, We Now Know, 1998: 73]


Enter a captionUS Marines guarding three captured North Koreans in a picture believed to have been taken in 1950.  Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4454820/When-America-went-war-Korea-time.html#ixzz51JITdQjk 

South Korea, for its part, was determined to seek unification on its own terms.  More importantly, the allegedly democratic regime installed in South Korea was scarcely less dictatorial than the one in the North.  The leading American historian of the Korean War, Bruce Cummings, speaks of the ferocity of anti-Communist sentiment and “an orgy of state violence” in the South, suggesting that “between 100,000 and 200,000 people died as a result of political violence before June 1950, at the hands of either of the South Korean government or the US occupation forces.” “In short,” he has written in a recent issue of the London Review of Books (18 May 2017), “the Republic of Korea was one of the bloodiest dictatorships of the early Cold War period; many of the perpetrators of the massacres had served the Japanese in their dirty work—and were then put back into the power by the Americans.” It is not difficult to understand, however opaque such considerations may be to successive American administrations, why North Korea fears the axis of South Korea-Japan-United States, and why the Kim dictatorship appears to the subjects of the North Korean state as the heroic champion of revolutionary nationalism that slayed the dragon of Japanese imperialism.

If much in occluded in the commonplace narratives of Korea’s history between 1945-50, the pulverization of North Korea from the air during the war constitutes perhaps the most gruesome chapter in the global history of aerial bombing.  The “U.S. dropped 635,000 tons of explosives on North Korea, including 32,557 tons of napalm”; in comparison, 503,000 tons of bombs were dropped by the US in the Pacific Theatre, an area vastly greater than North Korea, in four years during World War II.  On “an average good day”, according to an US Eighth Army chemical officer quoted in a recent study of napalm by Robert M. Neer, American pilots dropped 70,000 gallons of napalm, which US Marines cheerfully nicknamed “cooking oil”, over North Korea (see Napalm:  An American Biography [Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2013]). The sadistic Curtis Le May, one of the architects of the American fire-bombing of Japan and the head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, quite casually admitted some years later, “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20 percent of the population” (New Yorker, 19 June 1994).  Secretary of State Dean Rusk described what may be thought of as the formula that the United States put into practice in choosing targets: “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” According to the North Koreans, as reported by one historian, “by the end of the war” there were “only two modern buildings” that “remained standing in Pyongyang”, and by the fall of 1952 “every significant town, city and industrial area in North Korea had already been bombed.” [See Charles K. Armstrong, “The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950-1960”, The Asia-Pacific Journal 7 (16 March 2009), 1-9.]


Pyongyang in 1953, after the sustained aerial bombing by Americans.



An elderly woman and her grandchild walk among the debris of their home in Pyongyang, in the aftermath of sustained aerial bombing by the Americans.   Source:  Keystone/Getty Images; see:  https://theintercept.com/2017/05/03/why-do-north-koreans-hate-us-one-reason-they-remember-the-korean-war/

The ‘forgotten’ war, when it is at all remembered, still remains in the American imagination a ‘limited’ war.  North Korea, however, experienced it as a ‘total’ war, a war of genocidal intent.  A handful of journalists and scholars have mustered the courage to speak of American war crimes in Korea, but no one has thought that the Kim dynasty in any manner stands exonerated of its own unspeakable crimes in North Korea.  Indeed, a recognition of the American role in killing close to three million civilians, the greater majority of them in North Korea, in wiping out the industrial base in North Korea, and in making impossible for some years agricultural production beyond subsistence levels, should not preclude one from recognizing the stranglehold that the Kim family dictatorship exercises over the lives of common people.  No defense of the brutal dictatorship of North Korea, which has obliterated thousands of lives and sent millions more into poverty while a handful of elites, led by the comical “Great Leader”, squander the country’s wealth to indulge in unspeakable luxuries, is implied in any criticism of American foreign policy.  What is transparently clear is that political discussions in the United States around Korea remain spectacularly oblivious both of the psychological effects of the war that persist into the seventh decade after its end and the purchase—in political, social, cultural, and educational terms—that the North Korean regime continues to derive from its masterful deployment of history and propaganda to keep in power and run the state itself as little more than a concentration camp.

Beyond all this, however, is the one unpalatable truth that is not recognized in the laws and conventions that govern relations between states and shows how much further international law still has to evolve if the notion of being ‘civilized’ is not to remain a sham.  To threaten a sovereign state with genocide and nuclear annihilation, and that too under the roof of the United Nations, should itself be construed as a crime against humanity.  It is an indubitable fact that the United States has on several occasions, since the end of World War II, contemplated the use of nuclear weapons.  In November 1950, President Truman had revealed at a press conference that the use of nuclear weapons in Korea had always been “under consideration”.  Ever since, North Korea has lived under the shadow of that threat, and numerous American politicians have called for the nuking of the country: it is an intolerable burden for any country to shoulder.  There is but no question that the calls for dialogue and negotiation must be heeded, but the admission that constructive conversation, or whatever other anodyne term one prefers, is an indispensable requirement for ensuring that the Korean peninsula is not engulfed in unquenchable flames may not have much traction in the years ahead unless the notion that no country has a legitimate interest in nuclear weapons is seriously entertained.  Nuclear weapons ought not to be a matter of inheritance; if countries insist on that privilege, that alone should be enough to render them into pariahs.


[A slightly shorter version of this 3-part piece was first published as a single article as “North Korea and the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation”, Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol 52, no. 45 (11 November 2017), pp. 20-223.]


For Part 1, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/13/north-korea-and-the-threat-of-nuclear-annihilation/

For Part 2, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/14/the-present-iteration-of-a-long-simmering-war/


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Part II of:  North Korea and the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation 

The present escalation of the war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong-un commenced after a series of missile tests over the summer of 2017 by North Korea.  North Korea’s missile testing program commenced in the late 1970s using a Scud-B from the Soviet Union and remained confined to Scuds until the late 1980s.  It is now nearly 20 years since it fired its first ballistic missile, but between 1999 and 2004 North Korea observed a moratorium on testing.  In 2005-6, testing was resumed:  perhaps not coincidentally, this is the period that followed the decisive defeat (and, eventually, execution on 30 December 2006) of Saddam Hussein, from which the father of Kim Jong-un may have drawn some lessons.  Kim Jong-un, at any rate, appears to be banking on his missile and nuclear programs to keep him from having to kowtow to the United States.  Since February 12 of this year, until its last test on November 29, North Korea has fired 22 missiles over 15 tests. On May 12, Kim presided over the launch of a Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a range of 3,000-5,500 kilometres; the same missile was tested again on August 29 and September 5, launched over Japan on both occasions.  Kim Jong-un is nothing if not unmindful of the place of July 4th, which marks Independence Day, in the American political imaginary: he chose that day to launch the Hwasong-14, an intercontinental ballistic missile which has a range that exceeds 5,500 kilometres and that Kim boasts could reach anywhere in the world.


A woman at a train station in Seoul walks by a TV screen showing a news report about North Korea’s missile test, March 6, 2017.  Source:  https://www.voanews.com/a/seoul-says-north-korea-fired-ballistic-missiles-into-ocean/3751034.html

Trump took the bait.  On September 19th, at his maiden address before the United Nations General Assembly, he issued a warning to a small band of “rogue states” that the US would not stand by idly as they violated the rights of their subjects and the sovereignty of other nations.  Had he only condemned “the depraved regime in North Korea” for the “starvation deaths of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more”, Trump would have been following in the footsteps of other American Presidents; but he chose to go beyond, caricaturing Kim thus:  “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.”  The United Nations was set up, in greater part, to enhance the prospects for global peace and cooperation:  and it is from this platform that Trump unabashedly declaimed on the possibilities of a legitimate genocide: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”


Kim took little time in responding in kind. He ridiculed Trump as “a gangster fond of playing with fire”, adverting to the “totally deranged behavior of the U.S. President”.  The “Supreme Leader” of North Korea, one of the many epithets by which the country’s despot, the “Dear Respected Comrade” and the “Beloved Father”, is known, has his own way with words: he would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” This missive would send Trump, who commands a vocabulary which is as small as his mouth is big, scurrying for the dictionary—only to find that “dotard” is nothing more than an old person, especially one who is weak and senile. And if there is anything that Trump ferociously dislikes, it is the suggestion that he is “weak”.  Promptly Trump tweeted back: “Kim Jung Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!”  Kim Jung-un fired back—not just with words, but with an ICBM that traveled for 50 minutes and reached a height of 2800 miles:  with a potential range of 8000 miles, the Hwasong-15 can reach nearly any target in the continental United States.

A view of the newly developed intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15's test that was successfully launched

The firing of Hwasong-15, November 29, 2017.  Source:  https://news.sky.com/story/us-north-korea-will-be-utterly-destroyed-in-war-11149752

The so-called “Forgotten War”

What has made possible an American consensus on North Korea such that its leader is never anything but a madman, a ruthless dictator who cares little for his people and even less for the rest of the world, and who may be “loony” enough to initiate a nuclear attack on South Korea, Japan, or—if the technology facilitates such an outcome—the United States?  What is elided in representations of Kim as the very picture of irrationality?  The Korean War is commonly described in the United States as “the forgotten war”, though it lasted three years, 1950-53, and led to upwards of 36,000 American casualties; it certainly takes a back seat in public discussions and collective memory to the Vietnam War, which lacerated American society and led to upheavals the reverberations of which are felt to the present day.

It is from Vietnam that one of the many enduring myths which have since informed American military intervention emerged, namely the idea that the war was only lost because the generals were compelled by supine politicians to fight it with one hand tied behind their backs.  The Korean War, on the other hand, has always appeared to have something of the insipid and the indecisive about it in American common understanding: three years after fighting broke out, the status quo was affirmed.  No Patton-like figure emerged from battles over a land which, if it is known for anything at all in the US, is synonymous with kimchee and barbecued meats; no stories are told in the vein of ‘Custer Died with His Boots On’; and neither is there any iconic photograph, say of soldiers gallantly and adamantly hauling the Star & Stripes to a victorious installation.  Three years gone by:  the Cold War had gone hot; it would revert to being cold. In these cold-blooded calculations, nothing is made of the immense loss of lives on the Korean side. No American monument to the dead in Vietnam, not even Maya Lin’s celebrated national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, even mentions that some 3.5 million Vietnamese were killed in the war, including 2 million civilians on both sides; but much worse is the national apathy about the Korean War, where the civilian count was higher, at around 2.73 million, and that too over a much shorter period of time.

The history of Korea in the first half of the 20th century and likewise the history of the American bombing of North Korea are both germane to the present situation.  For well over a thousand years, Korea remained a unified country.  Japanese incursions into Korea began around 1870, but Great Power politics enabled the Koreans to stave off colonization for a few more decades before Japan finally annexed Korea in 1910.  Resistance to Japanese rule intensified with the advent of communism, and the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945 led to the declaration of Korean independence. The Soviet Union was not a force in the Pacific theatre of war; it had played no direct part in the liberation of Korea. However, two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th, and a day before a second nuclear weapon incinerated Nagasaki, the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan. The consequence was that the spoils of war were, upon Japan’s surrender on August 15th, now to be divided between the victorious Americans and Russians, who carved out zones of influence.


The headline is self-explanatory.  Source:  https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2010/08/22/general/uneasy-neighbors-across-the-sea/

Korea might well have remained a unified country, had either the United States or the Soviet Union lavished any real attention on it; but Korea was, at that time, not part of the calculus of global domination and neither country paid much attention to Korea [Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, 2001, Paras 237-38, 244-45].  Unlike Germany, Korea did not appear to have any strategic importance for either superpower; as the historian John Gaddis has written, “American and Russian forces remained there more to restrain each other than from any strong conviction, in either Washington or Moscow, that the territory itself was significant.” [We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, 1998: 70] It was along the 38th parallel that two countries came into existence in 1948:  the American zone became South Korea, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with its capital in Pyongyang, was formed in North Korea.

(To be continued)

For Part 1, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/13/north-korea-and-the-threat-of-nuclear-annihilation/

For Part 3, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/bombing-and-nuking-north-korea/

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