The Phenomenon of Bhagat Singh

(September 28th marks the 112th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh.)

 

“This is the story of a phenomenon.”  So begins Christopher Isherwood’s famous and mesmerizing biography of Sri Ramakrishna.

Bhagat Singh is not just the name of a famous revolutionary whose flame flickered briefly before burning out.  Bhagat Singh is the name of a phenomenon.

It was the late 1920s and the name of Bhagat Singh was everywhere.  Gandhi burst upon the national scene in 1919 and had soon taken the country by storm.  He transformed the Congress into a mass organization, galvanized the country through the non-cooperation movement, and even, in some places in northern India, paralyzed the British administration. The Anglicized Jawaharlal Nehru, taken in as was everyone else by Gandhi, thought he had seen everything.  The Gandhi era of Indian history was well under way.

And then came Bhagat Singh, a young lad who had grown up in the Lyallpur district of Punjab under the shadow of revolution.  Several male members of the family, including his father and uncles, had been associated with the Ghadar Movement—or so it is told.  A sure sign of the canonical status occupied by Bhagat Singh in the Indian imaginary is the thick lore that circulates around him. One story has it that the young Bhagat was all of three years old when his father and a fellow sojourner in revolutionary politics found him digging in the field outside the family home.  When Bhagat was asked what he was planting, he replied:  “I am sowing guns, so that we will be able to get rid of the British.”

Another story, accepted by most biographers and given a prominent place in Bollywood films such as Rajkumar Santoshi’s Legend of Bhagat Singh, places the young Bhagat, now eleven years old, at the site of Jallianwala Bagh the day after General Dyer and his troops mowed down thousands of Indians and left at least 379 dead.  Bhagat collected, writes his biographer Hansraj Rabhar, “a thimbleful of soil which was coloured with the blood of martyrs” and applied some to his forehead while preserving the rest in a glass vial.  Some say that he took a vow to avenge this atrocity.

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Bhagat Singh at Jallianwala Bagh:  a scene from Rajkumar Santoshi’s film, “The Legend of Bhagat Singh”.

We can let the positivist-minded historians worry about whether these stories are apocryphal or not.  These stories have been critical in giving shape to a certain view of Bhagat Singh as a hero who was born and bred in the lap of revolution; but what has also determined the place of Bhagat Singh in the national imaginary is his densely rich albeit brief political career.  The arc of his political life takes us from his initial reverence for Gandhi to disenchantment when the Mahatma, after the outbreak of violence at Chauri Chaura in early 1922, called off the non-cooperation movement.  At Lahore’s National College, Bhagat Singh acquired another kind of political education, and soon thereafter he came to be associated closely with revolutionaries who had constituted themselves into the Hindustan Republican Association, later reborn, quite likely under the influence of Bhagat Singh, as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

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Bhagat Singh in jail, awaiting the execution of the sentence of capital punishment handed out at his trial in the Saunders murder case.

The death of the nationalist icon, the so-called “Lion of the Punjab” Lala Lajpat Rai, from wounds inflicted on him by the police at a demonstration in 1928 against the Simon Commission, which had been appointed to inquire into political conditions, enraged Bhagat Singh and his comrades. They hatched a plot to assassinate the Superintendent of Police, James Scott.  In a case of mistaken identity, they shot and killed John P. Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police.

The murder of Saunders, and there is no other word for it, raises, to say the least, difficult ethical questions that virtually no biographer has adequately addressed.  Writing some years later in his autobiography, Nehru had this to say:  “Bhagat Singh was not previously well known; he did not become popular because of an act of violence, an act of terrorism. Terrorists have flourished in India, off and on, for nearly thirty years, and at no time, except in the early days in Bengal, did any of them attain a fraction of that popularity which came to Bhagat Singh.”

Bhagat Singh had enlisted the help of Shivaram Rajguru, Sukhdev, and Chandrasekhar Azad.  They fled the crime scene.  To escape capture, Bhagat Singh cropped his hair and shaved his beard. He put on a fedora:  and so came into being the iconography of a political rebel.

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The following year, Bhagat Singh came up with the yet more dramatic idea of exploding a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly, but doing so in a manner that would not take the life of anyone. It has been argued, quite rightly, that Bhagat Singh and his comrades desired that they should be taken captive.  The idea was that the British would launch a prosecution, and that Bhagat Singh would find a stage to air publicly his grievances, and that of a nation, against British colonialism.

Bhagat Singh would have known that, with his action, he would be walking into the jaws of death. I would like to believe, however, that Bhagat Singh had had enough of killing.  Saunders may have been the instrument of colonial rule, and by that logic was as guilty as Scott; nevertheless, the wrong man had been killed. There may have been a Gandhi in that Bhagat Singh who threw a bomb with the express intention of not killing anyone.

Bhagat Singh must have learned something about how publicity can act as the oxygen of a nationalist movement; he doubtless also understood, from his study of nationalism, how Gandhi, Tilak, and many others had mastered the courtroom and turned that quintessential British space against the British themselves.  But there is something more profound at stake here:  If violence is inescapably present to the practitioner of nonviolence at every turn, we should also think of the nonviolence within some forms of violence that signals the reverence for life.

Bhagat Singh got his wish: though the many twists and turns in the story are interesting enough, they need not detain us, and it suffices to say that he went on trial for both the Assembly bombing and, later, the Saunders murder case.  Sukhdev, Rajguru, and Bhagat Singh were sentenced to death.  I have said that Nehru thought he had seen everything; but he had not, since, for a time, the popularity of Bhagat Singh appeared to exceed the popularity of Gandhi.  He found the popularity of Bhagat Singh “amazing”.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades went to the gallows, and the country went into mourning.

With Bhagat Singh’s death, the phenomenon of Bhagat Singh found a new, extended, and more complicated lease of life.  There are many troubling aspects to the appropriation of his legacy, none more so than the attempt by Hindu nationalists to claim him as their own.  Bhagat Singh was an atheist; he was also a committed communist; and, for someone his age, well-read in the extreme.  I suspect that he also understood well the difference between a nationalist and a patriot. We can be certain of one thing.  He was everything that the Hindu nationalists of today are not.

First published on September 28 at ABP News Network under the same title, here.

 

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“Howdy, Modi”:  The Limits of the Indian American Imagination

The spectacle is over.  Some 50,000 Indian Americans showed up a few days ago at the NRG Stadium in Houston to greet Narendra Modi, who was joined by his soulmate in narcissism and fellow sojourner in “rally politics”, Donald J. Trump.  “Howdy, Modi,” as the event was billed, has been described in much of the Indian and Indian American media as hugely successful and as another feather in Modi’s cap as he attempts to showcase India to the world and present himself as a “world leader”.  Prime Minister Modi, according to this narrative, had only one visibly uncomfortable moment when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer described India as a country that, like America, was “proud of its ancient traditions to secure a future according to Gandhi’s teaching and Nehru’s vision of India as a secular democracy where respect for pluralism and human rights safeguard every individual.”

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Rowdy Howdy animated video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-CZIJpWXgQ

Narendra Modi has taken every opportunity, both in India and abroad, to describe Gandhi in the most venerable terms.  He is astute enough to realize that Gandhi, whatever criticisms he may be subject to, still commands more cultural capital worldwide than any other Indian in modern history.  But Nehru is a different matter.  Modi despises him as some kind of effete, highly Anglicized weakling who did not have the muscle to stand up to Muslims and was, to paraphrase from the American context, “out of touch with India”.  Dislike is too mild a word to describe the visceral hatred that he, Amit Shah, and the hardcore members of the BJP have developed for Nehru.  In this respect, too, Modi and Trump are joined at the hip:  if the very name of Barack Obama is anathema to Trump, whose policies often seen animated by nothing more than the desire to destroy the legacy of his predecessor, Modi is likewise dedicated to eviscerating the very memory of Nehru.

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Just hours before Modi took to the stage in Houston, Amit Shah delivered a speech before the party faithful where he declared Jawaharlal Nehru responsible for having created PoK, Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.  It was a sight to behold as Modi stood by impassively while Hoyer had the gall to invoke Nehru’s name a second time, recalling the moment when, in his famous tryst with destiny speech, the country’s first Prime Minister called upon his countrymen and women to work together and honour Bapu, the Father of the Nation, with the resolve “to wipe every tear from every eye.”

Steny Hoyer, who like other American politicians is innocent of the socio-economic and political realities of India, perhaps inadvertently marred what might have otherwise been a perfect celebration of Modi’s arrival on the global arena.  But supposing this to be the case, a few pressing questions about the “Howdy, Modi” carnival and what it says about the Indian American community and the cultural politics of the Indian diaspora in the United States remain.  First, and foremost, some people may be puzzled about why so many Indians were gathered to hear Modi and Trump when Indians, by a very large majority, are supporters of the Democratic party and certainly vote Democrat in a presidential election.  It may be said, of course, that they came to hear Modi; and, as we know, Trump announced his decision to join Modi only some days before the event.  But this does not occlude the all-important question:  is it possible that Indian Americans, even as they support the Democratic party, nevertheless feel something of an affinity for Trump, and would have turned out in the same numbers even if the event had at the outset been described as a Modi-Trump rally?  We do not know, at this time, how many of those gathered were Gujaratis, who, whatever their party affiliation in the United States, are heavily predisposed towards their fellow Gujarati.  It is also possible that a substantial number of them are Republicans:  the Texas India Forum, the main organizer of the event, is closely linked to the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the overseas offshoot of the RSS, and feels inclined towards the worldview of the Republicans.  Nevertheless, assuming that there were a good number of Democrats at the event, just how does one explain their presence at the “Howdy, Modi” bash?

The support of the Indian American party for Democratic candidates stems from their keen awareness that they constitute a minority in the United States.  It is only with the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that restrictions on the entry of Indians into the US were lifted. Not until the 1980s did something that may be called a sizable Indian community emerge, and for at least another two decades the feeling persisted among Indian Americans that they were all but invisible.  This feeling of invisibility is still there, even if it has been greatly attenuated by the entry of Indian Americans into the political sphere in the course of the last 10-15 years—though, it is also necessary to add, Indian American politicians such as Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley barely, if at all, claimed recognition as Indian Americans and sometimes did everything within their power to disavow their connections with India.

The present scenario is doubtless more complex:  there are a large number of Indian Americans serving at all levels of the judiciary, and several have distinguished themselves as judges of federal appeals’ courts. At least two Indian judges, Sri Srinivasan and Amul Thapar, have apparently been considered for a seat on the Supreme Court, and Neomi Rao was sworn in earlier this year as US Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, which has been a stepping stone for those seeking elevation to the country’s highest court. Neomi Rao, in fact, was nominated to fill the seat vacated by Brett Kavanaugh, who now sits on the Supreme Court.  Those Indian Americans—Raja Krishnamoorthi, Pramila Jayapal, Kamala Harris, Ro Khanna, and others—who have in the last few years made their way into national and state-level politics bear the marks of their ancestry with pride.  But none of this alters the fact that Indian Americans are still a small albeit fast-growing minority, constituting just a little over 1% of the American population, and as minorities they have sought to harness the power of the American narrative of pluralism and “equal rights for all” to their advantage.

It is also necessary to register the unpalatable fact that the majority of Indian Americans have remained wholly indifferent to the plight of minorities in India itself.  Though two million Muslims in Assam now risk being rendered stateless, and “lynchings” of Muslims and Dalits over the last few years have unfortunately made India newsworthy, Indian Americans have generally shown themselves remarkably oblivious to the sufferings of minorities while they lose no opportunity to lay claim to rights as members of a minority in the US.  They would much rather gravitate towards the Republican party, which is more hospitable to business interests and free enterprise; but the party is also less accommodating to minority interests.

It is not the hostility of the Republicans to African Americans that troubles Indian Americans, and most Indian Americans accept—though many will not own up to this fact in public—the dominant white narrative which represents black people as, on the whole, lazy, insufficiently attentive to family values, prone to crime, and a liability to society.  But there is also the awareness that racism often extends to other minorities, and under Trump this feeling of insecurity has been heightened.  Indeed, Indian Americans view themselves as especially vulnerable in the present political climate, since revised immigration guidelines make it difficult for dependents of H1 visa holders—and Indians account for the bulk of such non-immigrant visas, handed out to people with specialized skills or professional expertise—to stay in the US just as henceforth extended family members are much less likely to be granted immigration visas. It is also a significant consideration that the community, again viewed in the aggregate and with awareness of the fact that there are also a considerable number of Indian Americans who live below the poverty level, is highly affluent and the majority of its members favor the Republican credo of “less tax”.  If there are few wealthy white Americans who will call for greater taxation of the very rich, there are still fewer Indians who would be prepared to advocate for such a cause.

Thus, if this should not already be transparently clear, there is absolutely no contradiction between the fact that Indians largely vote Democrat and their instinctive tendency to gravitate towards Republicans.  But there is another question that emerges from the comical “Howdy, Modi” show: is this a moment that signifies the “arrival” of the Indian Americans on the national stage and in American consciousness?  Many commentators would like to think so:  the journalist Sonia Paul, for instance, has characterized the event as a “display of Indian Americans’ Political Power.”  It may be that, but such analysis is toothless and uninstructive. Every minority of the size of the Indian American counts, and there are many such communities; but, viewed in relation to Hispanics and African Americans, Indian Americans are still far from being a highly influential voting bloc.  Hispanics and especially African Americans are embedded in the history of the nation in vastly different ways; many Indian Americans, even those who have put down roots in the US over two generations, still think of themselves as constituting the vanguard of India and would like to be important players in India itself.

But there is something else that Indian Americans must contend with before they start congratulating themselves on their emerging “political prowess”.  Americans remain fundamentally a provincial and insular people:  between their hamburgers and NFL games, cherry pie and cheerleaders, gargantuan SUVs and the big slurp, they have time for little else.  They remain blissfully unaware of what is happening in rest of the world:  the late-night comics are not the only ones to have noticed that some Americans would have a hard time locating Canada.  Central America, which Trump has described as a pest-ridden hell-hole which sends all its gang members and drug addicts to the US, would be nearly impossible for the majority of Americans to find on a map.  One can imagine in this scenario what India might mean to many Americans:  some decades ago, it mattered not an iota; today, it matters a little more, but still very little.

After having flaunted his 56-inch chest, Modi thought that he would dazzle with another display of muscularity by going on the “Howdy, Modi” rodeo.  He went from being a wrestler to a cowboy. That is the limit of his imagination—and the imagination of many in the Indian American community.  It will take something more than all this to turn Indian Americans into a truly viable political force in the US.

(For an earlier version of this, published on the ABP network site as “‘Howdy Modi’ and the Politics of the Indian American Community”, click here.  For a Hindi translation of the piece on the ABP network, click here.)

 

Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Street Protest

It is indubitably the case that the five-month long, and still continuing, protest in Hong Kong over China’s attempt to subvert the so-called ‘one nation two systems’ mode of governance and subvert democratic norms constitutes a comparatively new if still uncertain chapter in the global history of civil resistance.  The world has been rather slow in coming to a realization of the extraordinary implications of a movement that cannot really be associated with anyone who might be termed a widely accepted leader, is fundamentally hydra-headed or anarchic in impulse, and, notwithstanding both immense provocations from the state as well as occasional lapses into violence on the part of some demonstrators, has remained overwhelmingly nonviolent.

Hong Kong Protestors

By “anarchy” I signify not the absence of law and order but rather, as in the original meaning of the term, the radical devolution of power.  Though the outcome of this revolt cannot be predicted, its reverberations will be felt for years to come—and not only in Hong Kong or China.  The histories of nonviolent and civil resistance will have to add a hefty chapter to the existing narrative.  There are salutary lessons in this revolt for those who are seeking to find avenues to resist oppressive state measures, just as, I suspect, states everywhere are looking at what is transpiring in Hong Kong with fear and concern.  Their apprehension arises from China’s puzzling failure, as it appears to them, to have suppressed the revolt.  It is not that China balks at the brute exercise of power.  There is Tiananmen Square to remind rebels of the fate that is likely in store for them:  hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese were killed and disappeared in that crackdown. The Chinese have herded a million Muslims in the Xinjiang autonomous region into so-called “re-education” camps that critics are terming concentration camps.  China relentlessly hunts down dissenters, wherever they may be, and it has spared no effort in bullying other countries to hand over political asylum seekers. Whatever “Asian values” it may seem to embody in its better moments, few and far between these days, China is ruthless in its suppression of dissent and in its insistence on the imperative to maintain “law and order”.

The question why China has not acted decisively thus far in the suppression of the revolt in Hong Kong is of far more than academic importance.  The view of the economists is that China can ill-afford to antagonize other countries, particularly Western powers, at a time when the economic slowdown in China is pronounced. Hong Kong represents one of the world’s largest financial markets, with a stock exchange that is larger than London, and China may be astute in not wanting to do anything that jeopardizes its own stock markets. We need not elaborate on the ongoing war between China and the US over tariffs.  But economists are nothing if not reductionists, and it is certainly a fallacy to believe that rationality guides most economic conduct.

Another pervasive argument is that China has for decades wanted to position itself as a responsible world power and that it is hesitant to take steps that might undermine its credibility.  This kind of thinking emanates, not surprisingly, from the hubris of Western powers who somehow think that they have been models of “responsible” conduct.  The United States, of course, leads this pack of wolves—and to think that it supposes it has been a “responsible” world power!  If as a responsible power it has waged several illegal wars, raided countries, engineered coups to overthrow democratically elected governments, supported dictatorships, and sabotaged many international agreements, one can only speculate with trembling fear what it might do as an irresponsible power.  There may, perhaps, be something to the argument that rash action taken in Hong Kong could have adverse consequences for China’s bid to put to rest the long-standing rift with Taiwan and absorb it into the People’s Republic.

What if, however, China’s reluctance to take decisive steps to put a halt to the revolt in Hong Kong stems from the inability of the Chinese government to understand the nature of the resistance movement?  States know precisely how to counter violence, but nonviolent movements are known to baffle and disarm the opponent.  The present movement has its antecedents in the Umbrella Movement of 2014, which commenced with the demand for more transparent elections and throughout retained an essentially nonviolent character.  The protests of 2019 have already outlasted the previous demonstrations and are, in intensity, scope, and gravitas of an altogether different magnitude.  On a single Sunday afternoon last month, nearly two million people are said to have gathered in protest at the city’s Victoria Park.

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The protests began with opposition to an extradition bill but, in the preceding months, the demands have not only multiplied but have become diffused in the most unexpected ways.  The demonstrators have asked for fundamental reforms in how elections are conducted and in the democratic process as a whole.  They have also demanded amnesty for all political prisoners.  But, more unusually, they have also insisted that the large-scale protest on June 12, the day when the bill was scheduled for a second reading in the legislature, should not be characterized as a “riot”.  To some officials this may appear as a rather opaque demand, but it would be no surprise, for instance, to a student of colonialism who is well aware of the fact that the colonial state constantly endeavored to reduce political protests to ordinary crimes.

There is much else in the protests that has left the functionaries of the state clueless about how to tackle this rebellion and its “instigators”—that is, if there are instigators, since one of the more remarkable features of the movement is the fluid manner in which the organic impulse to demand and protect freedoms has been conjoined to grass-roots level organization and coordination.  The demonstrators have displayed astonishing ingenuity in responding to state provocations and have come up with an arsenal of innovative tactics to defang the repressive status apparatus. Tear gas canisters have been extinguished with water bottles; traffic cones have been used to snuff out the gas before it spreads.  Using elementary hand signaling systems, protestors have conveyed messages down long human supply chains to warn of impending police activity. All this is really, pardon the cliché, the tip of the iceberg:  what we have in Hong Kong is the semiotics of a new architecture of mass-scale nonviolent street protest.  Political rebels with ambitions to craft resistance movements built from the ground up would be well advised to give serious study to the Hong Kong protests.

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Protesters in Hong Kong have been using traffic cones to counter tear gas. (Photo on the left by Antony Dapiran; image (screengrab) on the right by Alex Hofford).  Source: https://observers.france24.com/en/20190805-hong-kong-traffic-cones-shield-against-tear-gas

The questions that emerge from this riveting demonstration of the power of the people would have been critically important at any time, but take on even greater significance at this unusual juncture of history.  Nearly all over the world, established as well as younger democracies are under assault.  Some would like to characterize the period as one of “strong men”:  Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Rody Duterte come to mind.  And then there is Xi Jinping, who has eliminated term limits for the President and effectively installed himself as President of the People’s Republic of China for life.  Xi has no use for Mao’s baggy trousers or worklike uniforms and dons himself in crisp suits, and could easily be confused with the tens of thousands of people who constitute the technocratic managerial elite.  He even fancies himself as some kind of intellectual successor to Mao, peddling “Xi Jinping Thought” to party faithfuls and school children.  (A previous generation of students of politics and philosophy might remember “Gonzalo Thought”, named after the supposed new theoretical construction of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism by Abimael Guzman [aka Chairman Gonzalo], the leader of the insurrectionary group Shining Path who has been serving a life sentence on charges of terrorism since 1992.) It is perhaps apt that the word ‘populism’ has been used to describe the political culture of our times, even if fewer commentators have paused to delineate the specific features of this populism. At this rate, there will be little left in a few years to distinguish between (most) democracies and authoritarian states.

The possibilities of dissent have, then, diminished greatly in most countries.  Earlier generations of nonviolent activists and civil resisters were able to deploy the media to great effect; publicity was their oxygen. It might even be argued that strategies such as those of “filling the jail”, whether in Gandhi’s India or Jim Crow South in the 1960s, were partly born out of the awareness that such actions were calculated to arouse the interest of the press. (One should be wary of abiding too readily by such a view, more particularly because the likes of Gandhi, King, James Lawson, Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, and too many others to recount in these struggles were rigorous critics of the notion of instrumental rationality.) The critic may point out that the media is, if anything, even more widely available to nonviolent activists today.  That is far from being the case:  the state everywhere has shown remarkable tenacity, will, and power to commandeer the media, in all its forms, to its own ends, and moreover in this era truth, which is intrinsically tied to notions of nonviolence, is the first casualty.  Hong Kong has gifted us not only a new architecture of street protest, the first one of its kind in the post-truth era, but also crucially alerted us to the fact that the question of dissent will be the paramount question of our times.

 

(This is a slightly modified form of the piece first published at ABP [abplive.in] September 14 as “Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Protest”.)

For a Bengali translation of this article, click here.

For a Hindi translation of this article, click here.

Colonialism Should be Brought Back, Say Indian Parliamentarians

The Lower House of the Indian Parliament, The Janata Sabha (People’s House), was witness to an extraordinary debate yesterday afternoon, September 12.  More than 72 years after Britain was forced out of India, a number of Indian Parliamentarians from the ruling party, HOPE, provoked what at first was furious outrage when they argued that the time was wholly ripe to bring colonialism back.  Some members of the Indian Trotskyite Communist Party (ITC), joined by lawmakers from other opposition parties, started pounding their desks in fury and shouted, “Shame!  Shame!”  Thereupon, the Parliamentarians from the ruling party at once hastened to add that they had been grossly misunderstood.  Speaking on behalf of the group advocating for colonialism, the former Raja of Piplinagar put forward the case eloquently if succinctly: “Britain has shown that it is wholly unfit to govern itself.  White heathens have made quite a display of their buffoonery; they act like children, unnecessarily inflicting wounds on themselves.  They say that their House of Commons is the Mother of Parliaments, but no one understands motherhood as well as we Indians do. Long before Parliament was invented, we had village republics where people peacefully governed themselves.”  Before he could go on any further, the House erupted in cheers.

Since there have been very few moments in the living memory of this reporter when lawmakers from HOPE (Hindus Opposing Pakistani Extremism) and ITC were able to find common cause, the average reader would doubtless gain something from understanding the finer points of the debate.  Mr. Anand Savarkar, who was elected from the Phune constituency in Maharashtra, began with some incontrovertibly true and barely controversial remarks.  He noted that the English, judging from their food habits over the centuries before the advent of the 20th century and the arrival of Indians in Britain, were practically savages.  They lived on the uncooked meat of various dirty animals and called it steak, and, God knows from what source of inspiration, later in their so-called evolution added “kidney” to come up with something which they fancied an edible delicacy: “steak and kidney pie.”  Mr. Mooli Paranthewallah, who represents the Jatlok constituency in Haryana, asked at this point to be recognized by the chair and his wish was granted.  “Sir, while I am in agreement with my friend, I must say that he is nevertheless somewhat ill-informed about what the British construe as a ‘delicacy’. I would like to bring to the attention of the member from Phune that their real delicacy is what they call “HAG IS”.

Mr. Savarkar interjected, “Sir, we have not yet descended to the level of depravity of the English people.  I grant that the wife of an Englishman is generally a HAG, but in our culture we have brought up to treat women with respect.  Every woman is a goddess; note how often a woman goes by the name of Devi.  [Disclosure:  This reporter’s mother also goes by the name of Devi.] Moreover, even with their love of irony, my friend is stretching the point in suggesting that to the English HAG IS a delicacy.”  Mr. Paranthewallah, visibly agitated, replied: “The Honourable Member from Phune, while doubtless learned in our epics and the Sanskrit language, has some serious shortcoming in his appreciation of English.  Now if my friend had permitted me to continue, he would have learned that HAG is a rather dry stew made up of the minced heart, lungs and liver of a sheep . . .”

Mr. Savarkar, no sooner had he heard these words, was wracked by a violent fit of vomiting.  Several other members felt nauseous.  All business came to a standstill as the doctor on call was ushered in and a number of peons came in with buckets of waters and some rags.  Mr. Savarkar was duly attended to and soon the discussion resumed.  Mr. Savarkar, apologizing for the interruption, sought to explain that he was of somewhat delicate constitution and no one in his family had for at least eight generations even so much as tasted an egg, what to speak of the intestines or lungs of a sheep.  He reminded his colleagues that his ancestors were in possession of several hundred of the choicest recipes for the preparation of vegetables, and noted that the English thought that carrots and peas could only be consumed by boiling them. (Cries of, “Well said!  Hear!  Bahut Thik Bola!)

Mr. Savarkar then continued, “I think it would not be unjust to say that the English were known the world over for having the worst food.  Even the Germans have been of that opinion, and that’s saying something.  Though Hitler was a great admirer of the English, he thinks that they would have been unconquerable had they, like him, remained vegetarians.  But, Members of the House, I do not stand here to pass judgment on whether the Germans, who themselves feast on pigs and take great offense at having their sausages called pigs, or the British should take the greater responsibility for their wretched food habits.  I think that all fair-minded people understand that Britain had to colonize India so that its people could start eating well.  Imagine, they had what they proudly call the Magna Carta, but what use are all these rights if, at the end of the day, the hard-working man comes home to a plate of boiled peas, mushy carrots, and the intestines of a pig.  And if he complains, the HAG is . . .”

Mr. Savarkar was on a roll and had scarcely finished but the words, “hard-working man”, caught the attention of Mr. Palkhiwallah of Ghazni Nagar constituency of Ahmedabad.  He sprung to his feet and chimed in with some indignation, “Honorable Members of the House, I very much object to the characterization of the average British as hard-working.  My esteemed colleague has evidently not been reading the newspapers, or he would have known that British Airways has gone on a 48-hour strike.  Now, I ask you, is that what one would expect of hard-working men?  They say that men and women of this generation no longer believe in the spirit of hard work, but I beg to differ.  The problem, Honourable Members, is that this welfare state has spoiled the British and Europeans. They have a 35-hour work week, and I now hear talk of 30-hour work weeks.  What are honest, hard-working men to do the rest of the time?  Sir, I say that the problem is with these lazy natives of the British Isles.  They should look to the example of the Indian farmer, who tills the land, breaks his back on the plough, and toils until the sweat comes down as rain.  We have the moral responsible to bring the Hindu work ethic to these men and we will yet make men of them.”

(At this point, one of the attendants blew his bugle and the house adjourned for lunch break.  The Speaker announced that the debate would continue during the late afternoon session.)

The Assault on Public Universities and l’affaire Romila Thapar 

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There has been much outrage expressed, and quite rightly so, over the action taken some days ago by the administration at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to ask Professor Emerita Romila Thapar for her CV to determine if she was still fit to hold that distinguished title which was conferred on her more than 25 years ago.  JNU has, since its inception, easily been one the country’s leading universities; and Professor Thapar, one can say with even greater certitude, has added more lustre to JNU than nearly anyone else in the humanities and social sciences, and that too over the course of half a century, including the 21 years that she was on its faculty from 1970-91.  Professor Thapar is recognized the world over for her scholarship on ancient Indian history, having earned accolades that most academics can only dream of, but in India she has also had an outsized presence as a prolific public intellectual.

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As a Professor Emerita, Thapar receives no salary from the university:  though she may gain something from this affiliation, it is the university that stands to profit from a continuing association with one of India’s most widely recognized scholars.  Emeritus Professors are not typically “evaluated” once they have been accorded that honor, though the JNU administration claims, quite falsely, that leading American universities subject Emeritus Professors to such reviews.  It is transparent to everyone that Thapar is being subjected to such an ignominious demand to punish her for her principled and fearless critiques of the Hindu nationalists who have run the country since the last five years and whose minions have been installed in many of the country’s leading educational and research institutions.  The JNU administration, in its defense, has pointed out that other Emeritus Professors have likewise been asked to submit their CVs for review by a committee appointed by the Academic Council, but these new “regulations” were put into place just weeks ago.  It is, of course, wholly disingenuous of the administration to camouflage its intense dislike of Thapar with the pretense that she was not being singled out for retribution.

It should be wholly unnecessary to come to the defense of Professor Thapar.  One might have some intellectual differences with her, as the present writer does, but nothing can even remotely justify the utterly shameless and wretched conduct of the university administration. It would be a considerable understatement to say that JNU has seen better days.  Its decline in recent years, more precisely since the administration was packed with people who are virtually illiterates, insofar as they are wholly clueless about what constitutes a university and what makes for something called “the life of the mind”, has been precipitous.  It speaks volumes for the senility of those charged with the administration of the university that its Vice Chancellor two years ago suggested that a battle tank be placed on the campus to instill “love for the army” among its students.  Faculty are increasingly being treated as children, subjected to roll-calls and being marked for “attendance”. Those among the faculty who are known to be critical of the university administration, or who have expressed misgivings about the ominous directions into which the country is being taken, are having their petitions for leave to attend conferences or deliver lectures denied.

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While it would be idle to pretend that public institutions such as JNU were ever free of politics, or that patronage systems did not flourish under previous administrations, leading public universities today face threats unlike any witnessed in the past.  The culture of vindictiveness, openly on display in the insult to Professor Thapar, is deplorable just as it is alarming.  But far more is at stake than a petty meanness on the part of the administration, and it is instructive to understand what makes the university a different kind of battlefield in the attempt of the Indian government to stifle all intellectual dissent.  If the assaults on the freedom of speech and expression are being experienced in other domains—in the literary world, in the attempts to induce conformity and patriotism in the film industry, in the vicious trolling of those few journalists who have dared to adopt a critical stance—then one might what ask what makes the assaults on public universities even more objectionable?

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“When I hear the word culture,” the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany Joseph Goebbels is reported to have said, “I reach for my gun.”  (It is immaterial, I may add, whether the story is apocryphal; that Goebbels and his ilk were philistines is well-established.)  The contempt for intellectuals in the present Indian government runs very high, and those in public universities are especially vulnerable. What may be described as an unprecedented assault on universities such as JNU, which are all too easily seen (and accordingly punished) as bastions of “anti-national” activity, stems from something more than a virulent Hindu nationalism and the intolerance for dissent.  It is no surprise, for example, that the country’s educational administrators are people of intensely bureaucratic disposition and most often engineers and scientists by training, utterly lacking in humanistic education.  They reflect the values, too, of India’s burgeoning middle class, which generally sees education merely as an avenue to job procurement and as an investment that is likely to yield social and financial dividends, rather than as a social process leading to ethical thinking, self-reflexivity, intellectual growth, and an appetite for inquiry into the human condition.  It is not only the staff at Indian universities who do not understand what is meant by a “university”:  many of the administrators who run our universities, and who are willing to do the bidding of their political patrons, are singularly lacking in any understanding of the nature of intellectual work.  Thinking is alien to them.

What remains to be said at this juncture is that, whatever the sins of previous governments, and there are many, the present BJP-led government is driven by the ambition to gut the public university in India.  The two finest public universities in India, Delhi University and JNU, are being strangulated. The government is not unaware that public universities the world over have often been the sites of dissent, and l’affaire Romila Thapar, it is useful to recall, follows the strident and calumnious attacks three years ago on Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya for alleged anti-national activities. Though the administrators who run JNU will not say so openly, they evidently think that Professor Romila Thapar, who has brought more distinction to the study of Indian history than nearly any other historian, is also anti-national.  What could be more pathetic?  The decimation of public universities furnishes, as well, an opening to even greater privatization of higher education.  And what could be more desirable for a government that, notwithstanding all the noise about “swadeshi”, is openly in cahoots with the most self-aggrandizing capitalists that India has ever seen?  But that is another story.

(This is a very slightly modified version of what was published under the same title at ABP on 9 September 2019).