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Archive for February, 2018

(On the occasion of the 72nd anniversary of this insurrection)

For many years the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Mutiny, which broke out in in full swing on February 18, 1946, and lasted a mere five days before the leaders who acted on behalf of the disaffected soldiers surrendered, remained largely marginal in narratives of modern Indian history.  The temper of the times—shortly after the end of the war, and on the cusp of independence—seemed, both in in popular memory and in Indian historiography, to be better represented by the INA Trial that was launched in November 1945 when the British charged Colonel Prem Singh, Major-General Shah Nawaz Khan, and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon with murder and “waging war against the King-Emperor.”

RINMutinyHeraldPress

The site of that trial was the Red Fort, now converted into a courtroom:  it is here that Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, was adjudged guilty of treason and banished into exile.  If the 1858 trial brought India into the orbit of the British Empire as a Crown colony, the INA Trial became, oddly enough, the swansong of the Raj.  Indian nationalists had, over the years, mastered the oracular and spectacular space of the courtroom; for the occasion of the trial, Nehru donned his lawyer’s garb and helped to furnish the drama which catapults an event into history.  And, to cap it all, everyone understood that the INA Trial was a verdict on the absent Subhas Bose, by now elevated into the pantheon of Indian deities; in a manner of speaking, he even presided over it.

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The war years, in the nationalist imagination, are associated with “Quit India”.  But the war had precipitated other kinds of unrest, creating shortages of food and other essential items.  The Royal Indian Navy and Royal Indian Air Force were raised from a state of infancy to some prominence, and in all three services of the armed forces the end of the war brought to the fore the question of demobilization and gainful employment for men released into civilian life. There was resentment at the use of Indian troops to put down revolutionary dissent in Indonesia, and Indian servicemen chafed at the huge gap between themselves and British soldiers, as evidenced by large disparities in salaries, the quality of canteen food, and working conditions.

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Men of the Royal Indian Navy at Stamshaw Training Camp, Portsmouth, 8 July 1942.  Source:  Wiki Commons.

At the HMIS Talwar, Balai Chand Dutt, who had served in the RIN for five years, found other kindred spirits who intently watched the proceedings of the INA Trial and resented the discrimination and racism they continued to encounter as soldiers of the Empire.  On 1 December 1945, British officers found the parade ground, where the HMIS Talwar was shortly to be displayed to the public, sprayed with signs, “Kill the British”, “Revolt Now”, “Down with the Imperialists.”  Airmen at the Royal Indian Air Force station in Karachi struck a few weeks later:  that show of dissent, which would spread to over 50 stations in South Asia but remains little studied, was dealt with gingerly by the British.

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Meanwhile, at the HMIS Talwar, little acts of insurrection continued, and Dutt was apprehended for vandalism on February 2nd.  Dutt has related in his memoir, and this is confirmed in contemporary accounts appearing in the Bombay Free Press Journal, that Arthur King, commanding officer of the ship, abused the sailors with such epithets as, “Sons of bitches’, ‘Sons of Coolies’, and ‘Sons of Bloody Junglees’.  Dutt and his fellow rebels persuaded the ratings to join the revolt, commencing on February 18th with a hunger strike.  In less than three days, the revolt had spread to nearly 75 others ships and nearly 20,000 sailors, all under the age of 26, had thrown the gauntlet.  The Naval Central Strike Committee was formed and issued a series of well-thought out demands, calling for the release of all political prisoners, action against King, better pay and working conditions, employment for demobilized men, withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia, and respect from officers.  And, yet, on February 23rd, the Committee capitulated; the organized strike was over.

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Evening News of India, Bombay, 21 February 1946.

Historians are generally in agreement that the mutineers floundered since they found that the leadership of neither the Congress nor the Muslim League was supportive of the strike.  The British began to deploy troops to put down the mutiny, determined to deal firmly with the rebels.  As Field Marshall Wavell, the Viceroy of India put it in a telegram to Prime Minister Attlee, the “example of the Royal Air Force, who got away with what was really a mutiny, has some responsibility for the present situation.”  The Strike Committee called for a city-wide hartal in Bombay—not without some success.  By February 22nd, a good portion of the city had been shut down, but violence had also flared up at various places.  By the end of the day, 63 people had been killed, mainly in police firings.  Sardar Patel had been despatched by the Congress to converse with the leaders of the strike; the Strike Committee, meanwhile, though it had the support of some local Bombay Congress leaders and most notably Aruna Asif Ali, who had played a prominent role in the Quit India movement, could not produce a leader of national standing.  On Patel’s assurances that the rebels would be treated fairly, the Strike Committee ordered the end of the strike.

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Bombay:  Scene of the RIN Mutiny, February 1946.

In the received left narrative, the Congress was always a bourgeois organization, beholden to Indian capital and, especially at this juncture, mindful of the fact that, in independent India, the support of Indian business and industry leaders would be needed to build the nation.  The elites were scarcely prepared to allow petty soldiers and workers to show the way to freedom; they would not let the thunder be stolen from them.  There was perhaps little sympathy among Congress leaders, who had spent the better part of the war years in jail, for sailors whose patriotism had arrived rather late in the day.  Communist support for the Mutiny, and the Strike Committee’s call for a hartal, had given the communists an opening that Patel was determined to throttle.  Negotiations for India’s political future had commenced and were still inconclusive, but the way forward seemed unquestionably to be within some constitutional framework.

The RIN Mutiny may have been a much less momentous event than some recent commentators have imagined, and assessments of as it having hastened the end of British rule in India seem overblown.  But it nevertheless still permits us to think both about the India that came into shape and the possibilities for a better future that might have been scuttled at this pivotal moment.  In India, unlike in most other countries that went through decolonization, civilian control over the military has remained the one inviolable principle of the Republic.  Writing on 1 March 1946, Patel put forward a defense of his objection to the strike with the observation that “discipline in the Army cannot be tampered with . . .  We will want the Army even in free India.”  Patel understood better than most others the unrelenting and unforgiving logic of the democratic nation-state.  At the same time, in the suppression of the RIN Mutiny lie the seeds of the continuing inability of the nation-state to harness the power of the working-class and to address it as the motive force in history.   There is also the comforting thought that, at one time, mutinies in the armed forces spread from Bombay to Karachi—harbinger not only of the possibilities of working-class solidarity, but of the transgressive force of truly revolutionary activity.  The RIN Mutiny did not fit into any blueprint for the future; the pity of it is that the blueprint has even less space for such acts of insurrection now.

[A shorter version of this piece was published as “An Act of Insurrection”, Indian Express (23 February 2018), p. 15, also available online.]

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On Monday morning, Doug Schifter, a livery cab driver in his early 60s, took his own life in front of Manhattan’s City Hall.  He killed himself with a shotgun while seated in his car, but not before posting a suicide note on his Facebook account:

            Due to the huge numbers of cars available with desperate drivers trying to feed their families they squeeze rates to below operating costs and force professionals like me out of business. They count their money and we are driven down into the streets we drive becoming homeless and hungry. I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.

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Doug Schifter, a New York livery cab driver.

Schifter had been a professional livery driver nearly his entire adult life.  He had driven black cars, limousines, and chauffeured cars and logged, according to his own Facebook account, “4.5 million miles”; he was also “hurricane and blizzard experienced” and accustomed to ferrying celebrities to “award shows” and “movie premieres”. [The Facebook account was deleted just before I completed this essay, around 3:30 PM on February 7, Pacific Standard Time.]  He was conversant enough in the business and its intricacies to command a column in the Black Car News, the industry newsletter.  But all his experience had not prepared Schifter to withstand the constant tremors, far more than an occasional blizzard, that have rattled New York City since the arrival of Uber and other ride-share services.  Schifter goes on to describe the transformation of the 40-hour week in the 1980s which gave him an adequate living, and more, to what in the last year had become 100-hour work weeks. Like many other drivers, Schifter had lately been returning home after a long day of work with barely pocket change for his day’s earnings. In his parting post, Schifter held New York’s politicians responsible for allowing the streets of the city to be flooded with rideshare cars, and similarly he slammed the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), an organization which has had a vise-like grip on the taxi and livery business, for not only having failed to protect its most vulnerable drivers but aggravating their misery.

Though the taxi business is almost everywhere in the United States under water, nowhere has the advent of Uber been more destructive to cab drivers than in New York City.  A little more than a decade ago, Biju Mathew, a South Asian political activist who along with Bhairavi Desai and others has been a major force in the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, wrote a riveting account of the politics and political economy that have informed the taxicab business in the city.  At the center of his narrative is an obscure object that had been conferred somewhat magical properties, an object that drove the business and should have attracted the attention of anthropologists. That object is called a “medallion”: it isn’t a medal, and is something more akin to objects—whether family heirlooms, sacred books, or priestly icons with which the laity are kept in a state of mystification and subjection— whose ownership is ritually passed down from one generation to another.  The medallion is, in fact, a string of four numbers and letters—4D22, 5G11, 8A33, and so on—by which the cab is identified; it is also a license or permit sold by the city which allows its owner or manipulator to put a cab on city streets.  Only as many yellow cabs can operate on city streets as there are medallions, and only the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) can preside over the sale of new medallions.

When I first encountered Mathew’s book in 2006, there were some 13,000 medallions in New York City, though over 50,000 drivers were licensed to drive medallion cabs.  Each medallion then cost around half a million dollars.  The medallion was first introduced in 1937, and in the early 1940s it sold for $100; by the mid-1950s, the price had risen to $5,000, and two decades later it was fetching three times that amount on the open market.  Around the turn of the century, the medallion was being sold for $300,000. Generations of students of economics will aver that the iron-clad laws of supply and demand are sufficient to explain why the medallion, whose supply was strictly controlled, was able to attract such astronomical prices. But Mathew was on to something else, even before Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare services had come on to the scene, and he wove a much more complex narrative which draws upon such phenomena as globalization, outsourcing, the restructuring of the labor market, global flows of migration, and the corporatization of New York City and more broadly of so-called world cities to give us insights into the difficult lives of drivers.

Most medallion owners never drove their own cars; they leased them out, with brokers acting as middlemen. The rising cost of medallions made them increasingly more expensive to rent.  One cab driver, Khurshid, who like most others in New York City is a Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Dominican, Haitian, or from some other immigrant group, told Mathew:  “The medallion is what will keep me a driver and nothing more all my life” (p. 66). But the advent of Uber so fundamentally altered the landscape that the ethnography of the medallion will have to be rewritten. At its peak in early 2014, the medallion commanded a price of over $1.2 million; today it fetches one-fifth the price, a little less than $250,000, and it is clearly in free fall.  There is every likelihood that the price of the medallion has not bottomed out, not unless there is a rapid reassessment of rideshare services and what they signify both about an economy and the cultural mores of a society.  A few medallion owners and many brokers have been driven into despair and sometimes bankruptcy, and taxicab drivers are being plummeted into oblivion.

Mathew furnishes an interesting history of taxicab operations in New York from the 1920s onwards, even if it is his ethnography of the lives of taxi drivers that is truly gripping.  Though most people, whether in New York or anywhere else, whine about high taxicab fares, Mathew shows persuasively that taxicab drivers rarely made a comfortable living and often had 12-hour days. (Schifter, as a livery and limousine driver, would have done much better in the old days.)  Capitalism derives much of its mythos from the idea that risk takers are rewarded in a free market, but in fact the risk-taking is generally left to those who are most vulnerable. Brokers and certainly owners were assured of an income through the medallion before the dam burst after the introduction of Uber, but the immigrant driver often had nothing to show for his labor at the end of the day. The economic tendencies associated with globalization—outsourcing, low-income jobs, depressed and stagnant wages, the deployment of an immigrant labor force, the evisceration of labor unions, the loss of protection from arbitrary dismissal, among others—were all prefigured in New York’s taxicab business and are now to be seen in their more aggravated form in the advent of rideshare services.  The popular and academic ethnographies of Uber drivers—and by “Uber” I mean, of course, all rideshare services, notwithstanding the illusion by which some have been driven that “Lyft”, to take one illustration, is a more fair and equitable employer—that will be written in the near future will show the catastrophic effects of Uberization on the lives of common people.

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Danillo Corporan Castillo, a livery driver, in a photo  taken before he jumped to his death on 20 December 2017.  Source:  http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/distraught-driver-killed-weeks-city-hall-suicide-article-1.3803684

Six weeks before Schifter put a bullet through his head, 57-year old Danilo Corporan Castillo jumped to his death from the roof of an apartment building on West 135th Street.  Castillo, a livery driver, feared that his license was about to be revoked by the Taxi and Limousine Commission owing to his failure to pay fines imposed by the TLC on him for accepting illegal street hails. I do not know whether it has been alleged that Castillo was suffering from a mental illness.  This charge is, of course, how the powerful address such “tragedies”:  Mayor de Blasio, full of the usual pious platitudes about how his heart goes out to the victims and their families, suggested that Schifter almost certainly was mentally ill.  As he (grandiloquently) put it, “Look, let’s face it, for someone to commit suicide means there’s an underlying mental health challenge. Economic distress is real but a lot of people have faced economic distress and don’t turn to suicide.”

The honeymoon period with rideshare services will most likely end sooner rather than later.  And, in case someone should remind me of the offenses that Uber has already committed and query whether it is still in the ‘honeymoon’ period, there is but no question in my mind that the appetite for these rideshare services is there and yet to peak before the hazards of the Uberization of the economy become apparent.  Those hazards are not merely the ones that have already been under discussion for some time, from “surge pricing” and cheating to the risks associated with taking rides from drivers who have been cleared after inadequate security checks. Uberization is but another word for the most fundamental problem of the economy everywhere in the world, namely unchecked “greed” and the growing accumulation of immense wealth in a few hands.  There are even considerations that are far from the minds of those who, like Travis Kalanick and Jeff Bezos, have scant regard for the lives of others and whose sole purpose in life is self-aggrandizement.  What, for instance, are the implications for the faculty of memory when all the Uber driver has to do is to turn to GPS?  In a later post, I hope to turn to some of these other, equally insidious, consequences of an Uberized economy.

 

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