About Vinay Lal

Vinay Lal teaches in the History Department at the University of California at Los Angeles. He writes widely on the History, Politics and Culture of India.

Women, Nonviolence, and Civil Resistance in India


Women at a demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Bill [later Citizenship Amendment Act] and NRC in Kolkata, 22 December 2019.  Photo Credit:  Reuters.

One of the more remarkable features of the country-wide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) surely has to be the fact that women have taken the lead in signaling their dissent against the heavy-handedness of the Indian state and the increasing encroachment upon constitutional liberties.  Perhaps, in describing this as “remarkable”, I may be thought by some to be doing, if inadvertently, women a disservice in suggesting that they have not been prominent in previous civil disobedience movements. That is indubitably not the case:  they were highly visible in the demonstrations that took place all over the country in the wake of the brutal sexual assault against “Nirbhaya”, just as they were in 2004 when twelve women, the Mothers of Manipur, stripped themselves naked in public to highlight the sexual violation of a young girl and, more generally, the ongoing and systemic problem of sexual violence against women.


Women at a demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Guwahati, Assam, on 21 December 2019.  Photo Credit:  Reuters.

The extraordinary courage and presence of mind that female students and indeed women from all walks of life have brought to the present demonstrations signify a more enhanced role for women in Indian public life and point to the strengths they bring in steering India towards a more democratic future.  There is a widespread feeling that the agitation against the CAA (and the Citizenship Amendment Bill that preceded the act) and now the NRC caught the government unawares, but I would also hazard the argument that one of the many things that has rattled the government is the resistance, much of it wholly unexpected, put up by women.  The statist view in India has never bothered to expend much thought on girls and women, except in its paternalistic role as conferring benefits on them as a form of “empowerment”, striving to have them retain the sacred aura of “Indian womanhood” and yet be emblematic of the “modern working woman”, and so on.  There have been countless poster campaigns by successive Indian governments enjoining the citizenry to understand that to “honour women is to honour the nation”, urging people to “protect the girl child” and suggesting that in the “education of girls lies the salvation of the nation”.


A woman carrying a placard, “PM2.0 is worse than PM2.5.”  Source:  https://www.trendsmap.com/twitter/tweet/1207658607648505857

Such slogans doubtless echo what both commonsense and justice dictate as true, but the present protests offer a more striking collage of images of women who have stepped outside the enforced cocoon of care and plunged into the muddy and wobbly waters of democratic dissent. Photographs of young female students offering roses to soldiers may appear a little cliched to those familiar with the global history of protest movements, but Indian women have been bold, inventive, resourceful, and disciplined in taking the lead, setting an example for men to follow, and incapacitating the state from taking decisive action.  They have held the most interesting placards:  “My dad thinks I am studying history.  He doesn’t know that I am busy making one”, says one, while another says simply:  “PM 2.0 is worse than PM 2.5.”  PM 2.0 refers, of course, to Modi’s second term as Prime Minister; PM2.5 refers to atmospheric particulate matters, or fine particles which have a diameter of about 3% the diameter of a human hair and are thus invisible to the naked eye, and, moreover, once lodged in the lungs can induce chronic heart disease, respiratory problems, and death. More elaborate was the placard held by a young woman who marched from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar:  Modi and Amit Shah sit around a bonfire, and Modi says:  “It’s nice to have a little warmth in this cold weather, huh?” and Shah responds:  “I’m so glad we started this fire.”


Shreya Priyam Roy, a MA history student at the University of Delhi, offering a rose to a policeman.


Roses being offered to policemen by protestors at Mandi House, Delhi, around 18 December 2019.  Photo credit:  Hindustan Times.


A woman holding a placard at the demonstration at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, around 18 December 2019.  Photo credit:  Hindustan Times.

But women’s protests have amounted to far more than all this:  Indian women have shown the power of nonviolence. A little more than two weeks ago a video “went viral” and the civil resistance movement against CAA and NRC, which has now become part of the international news cycle, inserted itself into the global history of nonviolence.  Demonstrations had been taken out by students at Jamia Millia Islamia; violence ensued, though the origins of that still remain somewhat uncertain. Three women students at Jamia—Aysha Renna, Labeeda Farzana, and Chanda Yadav—shielded a fellow male student from being beaten up by the police.  They can be seen remonstrating with lathi-wielding policemen, coming between them and the male student, and reprimanding them for their unthinking brutality. In a very different demonstration, both of civil disobedience and an envious disregard for the respectability that comes from adhering to prescribed norms of social behavior, Rabeeha Abdurehim at Pondicherry University and Debasmita Chowdhury at Jadavpur University, both gold medalists at their respective institutions, expressed their firm opposition to CAA at commencement ceremonies. Ms. Chowdhury walked up to the dais, shouted “hum kagaaz nahin dikhayenge”, and then tore up the CAA in the presence of everyone before walking off the stage with a cry of “Inquilab Zindabad”.


Labeeda Farzana (left) and Ayesha Renna (right) shielded a male student at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi from police brutality.  Photo credit:  Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera.

The women of Shaheen Bagh, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, have been waging a silent demonstration against CAA and NRC for over two weeks. They have occupied a portion of the main highway connecting the city to NOIDA. Some women have not gone home for days, others are accompanied at the sit-in by their children.  Those who are illiterate are nonetheless fully aware of what is at stake in the government plan to roll out a nation-wide NRC. They all understand that women are even more vulnerable:  property papers are generally in the name of men, and many don’t have the required documents to prove Indian citizenship.  Above all, their very presence, grit, and disciplined resistance gives the lie to the claim that the demonstrations have been fueled by “the opposition” or “outside instigators”.  These women offer as decisive a repudiation as any that could be mustered of the specious claim that the demonstrations have been violent.


Women protesting at Shaheen Bagh, Jamia Nagar, Delhi, 21 December 2019.  Photo credit:  Syeda Hameed.  Source: https://thewire.in/women/caa-nrc-protests-shaheen-bagh

That women have been at the helm of a nonviolent affirmation of the constitutional promise of equality under the law and nonviolent resistance to state thuggery would have come as no surprise to Mohandas Gandhi. He had been a keen observer of the suffragette moment in Britain and as early as 1907 wrote a piece in Gujarati, “Brave Women”, in their defense.  Women were, in his view, naturally predisposed towards nonviolence—though, as he pointed out repeatedly, it was necessary to make a distinction between “nonviolence of the weak” and “nonviolence of the strong”.  By “weak” he meant to designate not women as such, but rather those, whether men or women, who turned to nonviolence not from choice, deliberation, or moral reasoning but from dint of habit, instinct, or, most importantly, circumstances.  Women, Gandhi was convinced, could be the ideal satyagrahis, if their natural disposition towards nonviolence could be turned to generate a disciplined and systematic movement of nonviolent social transformation.

Women During The Salt March Protests

Women and children during the Salt Satyagraha, 1930.  Photo credit: Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty.

Writing in the pages of his weekly Harijan over the years, Gandhi made known his view that “woman is the incarnation of ahimsaAhimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering.”  Love and suffering are perhaps not the keywords of our times as much as are “equality” and “rights” in the discourse of nonviolence.  But, whatever language strikes one as the most apposite, the emergence of women in the present civil resistance movement is doubtless the most promising sign that the country has not yet surrendered to the tone-deaf authoritarianism of a state that is drunk on its own victories.  Women, now as many times in the past, will surely demonstrate that the democratic spirit is incompatible with naked muscularity.

[First published in a slightly shorter and different version at abplive.in on 2 January 2020 under the same title, here.]

Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past

(in multiple parts)

Part III of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

Screen Shot 2019-12-31 at 4.03.23 PM

A popular print of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, and founder of Navayana Buddhism.

In his writings on Buddhism, Ambedkar drew overwhelmingly upon his understanding of the Indian past and the place of religion in it.  It is the historical specificity of Buddhism in India to which he was drawn when Ambedkar would make his final case for Buddhism and its attractiveness to Dalits.  There are a number of arguments that Ambedkar advances which it will suffice to mention.  First, his own research led him to the conclusion, which finds its most elaborate exposition in a book entitled The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), that the Untouchables were ur-Buddhists or none other than the original Buddhists of India.  Secondly, and consequently, in converting to Buddhism, the Dalits would only be returning to their home.  We, in India, have heard in recent years of ghar wapsi, or the attempt to steer Muslims and Christians back to the Hindu fold from where they were allegedly enticed by clever proselytizers, but Ambedkar had something quite different in mind when he would counsel the Dalits to convert.  This was going to be a different form of ghar wapsi, the return, in myriad ways, to the warmth, security, and nourishment of the womb.  Thirdly, the very fact that the Hindu caste order had reduced the ur-Buddhists to the status of Untouchables pointed to the twin facts that Buddhism alone had offered resistance to Brahminism and had not succumbed to the hideous system of caste.  On Ambedkar’s reading, the “Four Noble Truths” that the Buddha had discovered, even as they constituted a set of precepts for humankind in general, held a specific and historically conditioned meaning for Dalits.  Too much has sometimes been made of Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism as a religion that came out of the soil of India, but there can be no doubt that in his mind Buddhism’s very constitutive being had been shaped by the experience of the lower castes.  Thus Buddhism alone could become a spiritual and political home for Dalits.


Babasaheb Ambedkar delivering a speech at the mass conversion at Nagpur on 14 October 1956

It should not be supposed that Ambedkar, especially as he continued his studies in both comparative religion and Indian history, never entertained any doubts about the suitability of Buddhism for Dalits.  The predominant understanding of Hinduism, especially in the public domain, insisted upon treating Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism as variations on Hinduism, certainly as cognate religions that, to use the language of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, enjoyed a “family resemblance”.  Ambedkar was fully aware that many Hindus were wholly comfortable with the idea of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. It is immaterial, for our purposes, how Ambedkar negotiated this slippery terrain and what views he held on the deviousness of the Hindu mind, and far more germane that he may have understood Buddhism’s putative similarity to Hinduism equally as an asset and a liability.  Dalit converts might benefit from conversion to Buddhism without incurring the hostility of orthodox Hindus:  if the sheer crassness of this analogy may be forgiven, it would be akin to shopping at a different branch of the same gigantic store.  On the other hand, at least in the 1920s and through the 1930s, Ambedkar very much doubted that anything was to be gained by “becoming Buddhist or Arya Samajist” as such conversions would do nothing to eradicate “the prejudices of the people who call themselves as belonging to [the] upper varna”.  The July 1927 article in his journal Bahishkrit Bharat continues thus:  “If we want to successfully confront the prejudices of Hindus, we have to convert to either Christianity or Islam in order to secure the backing of some rebellious community.  It is only then the blot of untouchability on Dalits will be washed away.”  Two years later, writing in the same journal on March 15, Ambedkar put forward the programmatic formula for possible Dalit liberation blandly and without equivocation:  “If you have to convert, become Musulman.”  The communication would be preceded by what some might have taken to be a rather ominous headline, “Notice to Hinduism.”

To what extent increasing Muslim separatism eventually turned Ambedkar away from Islam as a possible home for Dalits is an interesting question.  In arguing that Ambedkar saw Buddhism as singular in its repudiation of caste, I have already suggested the grounds on which he rejected both Sikhism and Christianity as viable alternatives. Nothing more need be said on this count except to aver that, on Ambedkar’s view, neither religion had been able to escape the dragnet of caste; moreover, the hostility of upper-caste Christian converts and Sikh leaders alike to mass conversion, which it was feared would lead to the Dalitization of the faith in each case, was all too palpable. How far one can agree with Ambedkar’s assessment of Sikhism is a question for anyone who is invested in seriously probing why he eventually opted for Buddhism rather than one of the other faiths that had originated in India or taken root in the country’s soil. Just as his understanding of Marx’s views on religion seems rather conventional, shaped partly one might say by the climate of opinion engendered at a time when Stalin’s Soviet Union had made the public profession of religious belief altogether disreputable if not hazardous, similarly one is uncertain how far he had really made a study of Sikhism and its scriptures before coming to a determination that it did not offer Dalits the religious home that he sought for the community.

Whatever benefits the converts to Christianity might have been said to have enjoyed before independence by belonging to the faith of the ruling colonial elite would obviously be short-lived in the wake of the liberation of the country from the yoke of foreign rule.  Muslims in India, on the other hand, enjoyed the security assured to a very sizable and vocal minority—indeed, even as Muslims were a minority in India, Islam was a worldwide religion and Indian Muslims had the power to make their grievances known to Muslims elsewhere in the world.  It rebounded to Islam’s credit that it had a global presence and Ambedkar appears to have held the view that, at least outside India, Islam had shown itself capable of mounting a challenge to social ills.  Muslims in some of these respects offered a stark contrast to Dalits:  if the notion of the Muslim ummah was something of a guarantee that oppression of Muslims would at least not go unnoticed, there seemed to be no one outside India who was prepared to take up the cudgels on behalf of the Dalits.


Ambedkar Yatra [Journey]:  Popular or Bazaar Print showing Dr. and Mrs. Ambedkar and the Buddha bestowing his benediction on them.

After all this, Ambedkar still found Islam inhospitable.  There is really no other way to put it, even if the impulse to disguise this sentiment is irresistible.  By the mid-1930s, the Hindu-Muslim question had been rising to the fore and had become much more than a festering sore, and the so-called “Pakistan Resolution”—so-called since Pakistan was never mentioned by name—of the All-India Muslim League, passed at the annual session of the organization at Lahore in March 1940, had spawned in the minds of Muslims the idea that a Muslim homeland in the Indian subcontinent might be theirs for the asking.  This might have been the time to lead his fellow Dalits to the promised land; to the contrary, Ambedkar made a decisive turn away from Islam. There is a noticeable and disturbing streak of positivism in some of his writings, something to which the scholarly assessments of his work have paid no attention whatsoever, but it is to his credit that he was no adherent of Social Darwinism—the very opposite of Vinayak Savarkar, whose lionization by the Hindu right as some kind of thinker and brave soul is laughable and an effrontery to all canons of evidence, reasoning, and common sense.  Had Ambedkar been so, he might have counseled the Dalits to convert to Islam at this opportune moment and add considerably to the already sizable number of Muslims in South Asia.  However, as Muslims sought to close ranks behind them, it had become inescapably clear to Ambedkar that they were so self-absorbed in their own history that any consideration for Dalits could only arise from rank self-interest.  The “Depressed Classes”, he had claimed in late 1930 at the Round Table Conference, “had no friend”:  even the “Muhammadans refuse to recognize their separate existence because they fear that their privileges may be curtailed by the admission of a rival.”

It has been an article of belief for the most loyal Ambedkar scholars that any talk of his antagonism towards Muslims is a form of mischief-making when it is not an expression of virulent misrepresentation and even hatred of the great man.  Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit scholar of formidable reputation who is also married to one of Ambedkar’s granddaughters, attempted to preempt criticisms of Ambedkar’s views on Islam with a short, poorly written, and rather ill-conceived book called Ambedkar on Islam (2003) that purports to take apart eleven “myths”.  Leaving aside the question of whether Teltumbde has any comprehension at all of “myth” outside the rather jejune and positivistic framework which places it in opposition to “history”, the question is whether, as “Myth 1” states, “Ambedkar was against the Muslims.”  Does the critical apparatus of thinking necessitate that one should be against or for something?  That Ambedkar may have formulated a highly critical history of Indian Muslims should come as no surprise and need not be construed as a sign of Islamophobia.  Ambedkar was seldom reticent in his views and in this vein appears to have subscribed to a hierarchy of religions.  He welcomed the discipline of “comparative religion” as it had helped to break down “the arrogant claims of all revealed religions that they alone are true”, but he also found it a matter of discredit to such a “science” that it had “created the general impression that all religions are good and there is no use and purpose in discriminating them.”  It may be inadvisable on the grounds of political expediency to advert to Ambedkar’s critical assessment of Islam, but Ambedkar himself never shirked from adopting positions which he had arrived at after careful study and reflection.

(to be continued)

For Part I, “The Centrality of ‘Religion’ in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar”, go to: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2019/12/30/the-centrality-of-religion-in-the-life-of-b-r-ambedkar/

For Part II, ‘Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a ‘Modern Religion’, go to:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2019/12/31/buddha-not-marx-ambedkars-unequivocal-affirmation-of-a-modern-religion/


Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a “Modern Religion”

(in multiple parts)

Part II of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

I have argued in the first part of this essay that Ambedkar was never far removed the ideal of spiritual fulfillment and that he sought to achieve this within the matrix of institutionalized religion in some form or the other.  What, then, of his relationship to Marx?  In spite of his relentless critique of Hinduism, some would say more specifically Brahminism, Ambedkar could not escape some of the very idioms that have given Hinduism and the other religions that have arisen from the soil of India their distinctive character.  As an illustration, and at least as a provocation, one might want to consider his warm acceptance of the idea of a guru, a status he bestowed on the Buddha and, quite possibly, on Kabir and Jyotirao Phule.  He had a more complicated relationship to Marx, with whose writings he had acquired considerable familiarity as a student of Vladimir Simkhovitch at Columbia University in 1913-14.  Simkhovitch had published in 1913 a book entitled Marxism versus Socialism, the very title of which is suggestive of the critical if appreciative outlook that Ambedkar’s teacher, and later Ambedkar himself, would have of Marx’s body of thought and all that it had wrought.

Ambedkar continued his studies in economic history, social thought, and sociology over the years, and he accepted most of Marx’s theses about the oppressive nature of capitalism and the inevitability of class struggle even if he found his ideas of historical materialism and what may be called the iron laws of history somewhat rigid and overly determined by Marx’s grounding in the history of the West.  Marx read widely, no doubt, but much of what he had to say of India can be encapsulated under the Asiatic Mode of Production.  (No doubt, too, some of his more rigid defenders will take umbrage at this characterization, but many of Marx’s sources have to read with extreme circumspection.) Besides all this, of course, was the brute fact that, as a Dalit, Ambedkar was assimilated to the experience of oppression from birth.  Books could sharpen his understanding of humiliation and exploitation, and move him to explore what drove men to find satisfaction even enjoyment from degrading others, but he knew firsthand what it meant for a people to be born into poverty, reduced to indignity at every turn, thwarted in every endeavor to improve themselves, and ground into the dust. “Had Karl Marx been born in India and written his famous treatise Das Capital sitting in India,” Ambedkar was to say, “he would have had to write in an entirely different fashion.”  The very first question that Ambedkar might have put to Marx would have most likely been this:  How would the dictatorship of the proletariat contend with caste? Did Marx really have a comprehension of this phenomenon called caste?

The late essay, “Buddha or Karl Marx”, a fragment from a larger book that Ambedkar may have written but the manuscript of which has not been found, offers the reader a keener sense of the shortcomings that he attributed to Marxism and the reasons for his attraction and conversion to Buddhism—all this, perforce, also being the backdrop to his outlook on the history of Islam in India.  We need only to turn to it very briefly.  He argues that little survives of Marxism of the mid-19th century and “much of the ideological structure raised by Karl Marx has broken to pieces.  There is hardly any doubt that [the] Marxist claim that his socialism was inevitable has been completely disproved.”  What remains of the “Marxist creed”, says Ambedkar, can be summarized in a Buddha-like four-fold path:  the function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world; there is class conflict; the private ownership of property entails exploitation and sorrow; and, lastly, as private property is the source of such sorrow, it must be abolished.


Dr. Ambedkar is shown delivering his historic speech, “The Buddha and Karl Marx”, on 20 November 1956 before delegates of the 4th World Buddhist Conference held at Katmandu, Nepal. KIng Mahendra of Nepal (extreme right) and Mrs. Ambedkar are also shown in the photograph.

In the achievement of these objectives, Ambedkar argues, communism commits its gravest sins.  The Marxist creed is addicted to violence and to the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  The Buddha, by contrast, was a proponent of ahimsa, but he did not adhere to as rigid a conception of ahimsa as did Mahavira, the founder of Jainism.  To this end, he was more reasonable since he recognized that the use of “force” may be necessitated at times and that it is critical to distinguish between “force as [creative] energy” and “force as violence”.  As for dictatorship, the idea was entirely foreign to the Buddha:  “he would have none of it” and he was a “thorough equalitarian.”  The Buddha and Marx may have sought similar ends, but Ambedkar declares that the Buddhist way is far more efficacious and far more in keeping with notions of human dignity and freedom: “One has to choose between government by force and government by moral disposition.”  The Buddha sought only that each person brought up under his teachings should “become a sentinel for the kingdom of righteousness”, a paragon for others in that he would do what was good not because he had been forced to do so but because his “moral disposition” had shaped him to do the same “voluntarily”.  Ambedkar rounds off the essay with a denunciation of communism’s moral failings with what should by now be recognized as a characteristic affirmation of the centrality of religious life:  “But to the Communists religion is anathema.  Their hatred of religion is so deep-seated that they will not even discriminate between religions which are helpful to Communism and religions which are not.”


The reasons that led Ambedkar to steer clear of Marxism also explain, in part, his turn towards Buddhism. So much has been written on what finally led him to embrace Buddhism that it is unnecessary to visit this terrain except in the briefest terms to clear the path that leads us to his views on Islam.  The Buddha, to reiterate, was to him a figure who was democratic to the core and without peers as a moral exemplar.  In one speech after another, Ambedkar described how his political philosophy was enshrined in three words:  “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” People might naturally imagine that he had derived these values from the French Revolution, but they were mistaken in holding to this conception:  “My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science.  I have derived them from the teachings of my master, not Marx.”  Classical liberal thought compromised on equality, and communism had little regard for liberty:  “It seems that the three can co-exist only if one follows the way of the Buddha.”

(to be continued)

The Centrality of “Religion” in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar

(in multiple parts)

Part I of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”


B. R. Ambedkar

“There is no doubt in my mind that in the majority of quarrels”, wrote a famous Indian, “the Hindus come out second best.  My own experience but confirms the opinion that the Mussulman [the everyday Hindustani world for Muslim] as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.”  These rather querulous words belong to Mohandas Gandhi, writing at the tail end of the Khilafat Movement at a difficult moment in the struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity, a subject which was to preoccupy Gandhi his entire adult life in India.  But they could just as easily have emanated from the pen of B. R. [Babasaheb] Ambedkar, whose withering critiques of caste Hindu society are now part of the commonsense of the liberal and secular Hindu worldview but whose views on Islam, and more specifically on the history of Muslims in India, have received little critical scrutiny.  Ambedkar would almost certainly have contested whether there is even such a thing as a “liberal and secular Hindu”, but let that pass:  what cannot, however, be doubted is that, beyond seeing Hindu-Muslim unity as a chimera, he was predisposed, and for good reasons, towards viewing nearly everything from the standpoint of the Dalits.  His observations at the First Round Table Conference in London, held between November 1930 and January 1931, are telling in this respect:  “The Depressed Classes welcomed the British as their deliverers from age-long tyranny and oppression by the orthodox Hindus.  They fought their battle against the Hindus, the Mussalmans and the Sikhs, and won for them this great Empire of India.”  The particular manner in which Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs are, without any fanfare, merely placed in apposition to each other points to Ambedkar’s own priorities and the historical and philosophical viewpoint from which he assessed the Indian past. He earmarked the Hindu as the eternal and mortal foe of the Dalits, their unrepentant and degenerate oppressor, but, for reasons that he would delve into here and there, he also found it difficult to embrace Sikhs and Muslims, religious minorities in India, as brothers bound together in a fellowship of suffering.

Ambedkar was a serious student of history and politics and one might reasonably suppose that the best way to apprehend his views on Indian Muslims is to wade through his voluminous writings. There is something to be said about such an approach, but the conceptual framework must stem, in the first instance, from two anterior considerations.  First, though it is not fashionable to speak of him in this vein, he was a man of intense religiosity. He is associated with his (to Hindus) infamous pronouncement that he had been born a Hindu but was not going to die as one. Though of course the fact of his conversion to Buddhism, to which I shall advert later, is well known his remark has often been interpreted as a sign of his disavowal of religion altogether.  Indeed, there have been many attempts to sequester him into the camp of Marxism, and there was much in Marx’s worldview that he admired.  However, his concern for the oppressed and his championing of the idea of equality do not suffice to turn him into a Marxist. What is rather more striking is Ambedkar’s lifelong quest for spiritual fulfillment, though here again this scarcely comports with the public view of him as the most trenchant critic of the institution of caste and as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. His statues in which the country is awash commonly depict him as a lawgiver, as the Moses of modern India, not as a figure of serenity or religious contemplation.


2500th Buddha Jayanti celebrations at Ambedkar Bhavan, New Delhi. From left are Mr. Shankranand Shashtri, Dr. Ambedkar (here, rather unusually, without spectacles), Mrs. Savita Ambedkar and Buddhist monks. Source:  Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.

Secondly, Ambedkar was not content to only abandon Hinduism, but found it necessary to embrace another religion. He found it impossible to think of a life of fulfillment, either for himself or his people, outside religion:  as he declared before his followers at a speech on 18 March 1956, “Without religion, our struggle will not survive.”  Later that year in October, just two months before his passing in December, he led some half a million Dalits on a mass conversion to Buddhism, or rather a neo-Buddhism which he termed Navayana, “The New Way”.  Scholars have been very much interested in how Ambedkar’s Buddhism differs from the more conventional understandings of Buddhism, but for the present purposes the more salient question are these:  Why did he convert at all?  And, when he did so, why did he not convert to Christianity, Sikhism, and even more so Islam?  What might have led him, considering the country’s circumstances, to embrace a religion that had but few followers in India and could not have offered the comfort or security of numbers?

The postcolonial scholar may object to representations of Ambedkar as someone who thought that life in India was wholly inconceivable without religion as a species of Orientalism, but Ambedkar was unequivocally clear about how religion had shaped him and the place it was destined to occupy in the liberation of Dalits.  “Character is more important than education”, he was to tell a gathering of Depressed Class youth at a Conference of Untouchable Railway Workers in February 1938, but what he adds thereafter is what is most instructive:  “It pains me to see youths growing indifferent to religion.  Religion is not an opium as it is held by some.  What good things I have in me or whatever have been the benefits of my education to society, I owe them to the religious feelings in me.  I want religion but I do not want hypocrisy in the name of religion.”

In passing, at least, it is impossible to escape the observation that, word to word, Ambedkar’s injunction to the young could have come from the mouth of Gandhi.  We know as well who is being targeted with these words:  “Religion is not an opium as it is held by some.”  There is a very considerable strand of work on Ambedkar that, uncomfortable as it is with his attachment to religion, laboriously struggles to locate his religiosity within the matrix of liberalism.  What is hereby obscured, to take one illustration, is the extent to which Ambedkar committed himself to the accoutrements of institutionalized religion.  He undertook a visit to Sri Lanka in 1950 with the express purpose of witnessing a Buddhist ceremonial:  as he explained at a public gathering, “Ceremonial is an important part of religion.  Whatever rationalists might say, ceremonial is a very essential thing in religion.” If the Buddha slayed ritual, and the rituals of the Vedas were odious to him, Ambedkar nonetheless saw the place of ritual in creating a community of sojourners even, I might say, a sense of citizenship that far exceeds liberalism’s staid if not platitudinous understanding of citizenship.  He crafted a set of rituals that would constitute the diksha ceremony for those seeking to enter the portals of Navayana.


First World Fellowship of Buddhists Conference, Sri Lanka, 1950, at which Dr. Ambedkar was present.  Photo Credit:  Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.

Ambedkar’s sense of what constitutes “religion” and what place it has in the struggle to achieve equality similarly did not permit him to place bhakti on the same footing as he might have placed Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity. This point cannot be underscored enough since the turn to bhakti has often been seen as the default move for those disenchanted by Brahminical Hinduism or otherwise left deeply disturbed by dogmas of upper caste norms and behavior.  Ambedkar may well have accepted some elements of the interpretive framework that has long dominated the common understanding of bhakti, such as the indifference of the great bhaktas to notions of respectability, their rejection of the idea that Brahmins were the repository of wisdom, and their disavowal of the authority of the Vedas, but he was far less certain of the emancipatory place that had been assigned to bhakti.  Ambedkar’s biographers have noted that his father was a member of the Kabir Panthis and Ambedkar’s own outlook is said to be imbued with the spirit of Kabir, who was equally dismissive of pandits and maulvis, Hindus and Muslims. The scathing missives that Kabir directed at believers startle with their candidness and frontal assault:

Qazi, what book are you lecturing on?

Yak yak yak, day and night . . .

If God wanted circumcision,

why didn’t you come out cut?

If circumcision makes you a Muslim,

what do you call your women? . . .

If putting on the thread makes you Brahmin,

what does the wife put on?

That Shudra’s touching your food, pandit

How can you eat it?

Hindu, Muslim—where did they come from?

Who started this road?

Look in your heart, send scouts:

where is heaven? [from the Bijak]


If all this quite likely went straight to Ambedkar’s heart, and his attitude towards Kabir bordered on reverence, he still could not see bhakti, not even the path laid out by Kabir, as offering a home to himself or to Dalits. What weighed on his mind was far more than the rejection of ceremonies and rituals in bhakti sects.  Caste had a way of insinuating itself into every institution and the tiniest pores of Indian society and Ambedkar did not see bhakti cults as immune from the poisonous contamination of caste.  Moreover, in view of the rather uncritical framework with which he viewed industrial and Enlightenment modernity, it is safe to say that he shared some of the critical perspective of late 19th century Indian nationalism with regards to the unsuitability of bhakti for a nation striving to become free and modern.  The novelist and intellectual Bankimcandra Chatterjee, no friend of Muslims, was quite certain that the excessive devotionalism of Hindus had enfeebled them and made them vulnerable to foreign domination.  Thus, in his Krsnacaritra, a treatise on Krishna, Bankim forcefully advanced the view that the salvation of Hindu India lay in jettisoning the Krishna who frolicked on the green with the gopis and danced with them under the dazzling light of a full moon and instead embracing the Krishna of the Mahabharata who had showed himself adept at modern statecraft and was full of political cunning.  Though Ambedkar would have had little use for ruminations on awakening the Hindu from his stupor, there can be no doubt that he viewed bhakti as incompatible with his idea of a religion that was modern, rational, and scientific in outlook.

The Impeachment of Trump:  The Unbearable Stench of White Supremacism

Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States, has been impeached by the House of Representatives, and not a moment too soon.  He was never fit to occupy the exalted office that he has held for the last three years and, many are saying, may well hold for another four years after the election of November 2020.  Many of the commentators who fill the airwaves in the United States were until recently describing him as “unpresidential” and the slightly less timid ones called him “unhinged.”  These were very mild and almost guarded critiques of a man who boldly characterized Mexicans as “rapists”, women as “pigs” and “dogs”, and brazenly declared that he could stand in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue and shoot someone dead without losing any voters or facing any consequences from law enforcement authorities.

The House of Representatives has done its duty.  Jerome Nadler, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that it was necessary to impeach Trump to prevent democracy from being handed over to a dictator. The Democrats uniformly argued that the President could not be permitted to sacrifice the national security for his own gain and that he had abused the power of his office by enlisting the aid of a foreign government to investigate a political rival ahead of the Presidential election next year.  Trump also stood accused of a second charge, namely that he obstructed Congress by withholding documents, engaging in outright lies and prevarications, forbidding anyone on his staff or cabinet from testifying, and failing to respond to Congressional subpoenas. All of this is indubitably true.


Many Americans, even some who secretly may not be wholly unsympathetic to Trump, will crow about how the impeachment represents the triumph of American democracy .  The world will be reminded that the will of the American people has prevailed though, as everyone also knows, it is nearly—I say nearly since there is seldom absolute certainty in politics—a foregone conclusion that Trump will be acquitted by the Republican-led Senate.  But all of this should fade into insignificance if one is willing to go beyond the limited conceptual framework that informs the politics of the Democrats.  What, for instance, does their outrage at “foreign intervention” mean when we consider that the United States, under Republican as much as Democratic Presidents, has intervened in dozens of elections in foreign countries and even engineered the removal of democratically elected leaders around the world?

Detractors and admirers of Trump alike are describing the impeachment of Trump as “historic”.  Trump has already been gloating about his impeachment as not merely “historic” but as something “unprecedented” in American history, as the greatest witch-hunt ever launched in this country.  He calls it “impeachment lite”, since only two articles of impeachment were drawn up against him; but, had he been charged with more articles of impeachment than any other President, we can be absolutely certain that he would have boasted of having won the impeachment heavyweight crown.  Boast he must, as must he shit, pee, eat, or taunt women:  it is intrinsic to his personality.  He has even argued that the unfortunate women—and some men—who were tried as witches at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-93 and then hanged received more due process than he has.  This is, needless to say, errant nonsense—much like nearly everything else that comes tumbling out of his mouth. We have all heard that “like attracts like”, but the circumstances of his impeachment suggest another important variation: “imbecile attracts imbecile”. What else might explain the conduct of Barry Loudermilk, Republican from Georgia, who stated on the House floor that “Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than Democrats have afforded this president and this process.”

Getting impeached is thus, in Trump’s books, something of an achievement, and surviving it, which he surely will, is going to be chalked up by him as a yet more momentous accomplishment.  All this is possible because Trump is the best living example of a grave problem for every ethical person:  how does one make someone who cannot be shamed accountable to others?  How can one respond to a man who feels that he cannot be disgraced, who, rather perversely, might be likened to the lotus leaves that stay dry even when water drops on them.  I say perversely for the obvious reason that the lotus has, in every culture and across time, been viewed as a symbol of purity.  Trump is as far removed from purity as can be imagined, but nothing seems to touch him.

Let it be said clearly:  There is nothing in the impeachment of Trump that is “historic”, and not merely because Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were also impeached.  (Nixon resigned before he could be impeached: once the Watergate tapes went public, even his supporters knew that lies could not be covered up.) By far the most important fact in the present proceedings is that not a single Republican voted in favor of the articles of impeachment.  Commentators are describing this as the “partisan divide”, and nearly everyone is agreed that the divide has grown sharper in recent years.  It is quite immaterial exactly when the gap between the Democrats and Republicans, which was already stark at the time of Clinton’s impeachment two decades ago, started widening further, and how far the election of Barack Obama, whose election was unfathomable to white racists who felt that the America that they knew had vanished before their eyes and had to be “reclaimed”, contributed to the emerging political climate.

Some people may think that the partisan divide is “just politics”, but could it be that it means something much more?  Should we simply go along with the narrative that America is divided between the red states and the blue states, mainly the coastal areas versus the large hinterland, the urban educated with higher-paying jobs ranged against those in the heartland with lower-paying blue-collar jobs?  It may be entirely coincidental, considering how important committee assignments are parceled out, but the three Democratic figures most closely associated with the impeachment proceedings—Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi; Adam Schiff, Chairman of the Intelligence Committee; and Nadler—all represent New York or California, the two states that Trump (who is himself a New Yorker) and Republicans deride as ultra-left, “out of touch” with the rest of America, and elitist.  They have no idea what a “left” political party really looks like, but the only question is this:  does this widely accepted narrative disguise something greater that is at stake?

What almost no one wants to talk about is the bitter truth underlying the “partisan divide” and the fatuous claims about American democracy.  The Republican Party is not just made up of a few relentless bigots, racists, and “white property-holders” as they used to be called in the days of the “Founding Fathers” and slavery.  It is a party, in every respect and without exception, a party of unrepentant, degenerate, spiteful white supremacists.  Racism lies at the very core of the Republican Party, which is not to say that there are no racists within the Democratic Party. One can be “progressive” in some respects and be entirely retrograde in other matters.  But the Republican Party is distinguished by the fact that its entire leadership, as is demonstrated by their unstinting support for the white supremacist Donald Trump, lives and breathes racism. And what is true of the leadership is also true of the faithful millions who gather at his rallies and who are seen, on TV screens, standing dutifully and happily behind the Führer.  America will soon need a new word for these stormtroopers.

Will the impeachment of Donald Trump make any difference?  To be sure, one can play the game of political calculations and discuss endlessly which party will gain more from this outcome when the country goes to the polls a year from now. But this is precisely the trivialization of the grave issue at stake that we must resist.  Feminists may argue that sexism and misogyny are the most persistent problems before Americans, just as Marxists may be inclined to say that the enormous and still-widening economic gap between the super-rich and the poor presents the greatest challenge to Americans (and around the world).  They would be within their rights to think so, but the singularity of the Republican Party, which has inherited the thinking of the slave-holders who forced the secession of the Southern states that led to the Civil War, resides in its deep-seated adherence to the ideology of white supremacism.  The impeachment, to this extent, means nothing at all.  It will mean nothing until the virulent white racism that lies at the core of the story of America is extirpated, root and branch, from the soil.

[First published in a slightly shorter version under the same title on abplive.in:  https://news.abplive.com/blog/the-impeachment-of-trump-the-unbearable-stench-of-white-supremacism-1128209%5D

{Hindi translation of the ABP version, ट्रम्प का महाभियोग: श्वेत वर्चस्ववाद की असहनीय दुर्गंध, can be accessed by clicking here.]

[For a Gujarati translation of the ABP version of this article, click here.]

[For a Bengali translation of the ABP version : ট্রাম্পের ইমপিচমেন্ট: উগ্র শ্বেতাঙ্গ আধিপত্যবাদের অসহনীয় দুর্গন্ধ, see this:

The Fear of Dissent:  India’s New Colonial Masters


Protest in Assam against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed into law as Citizenship Amendment Act on 12 December 2019.  Source: Zee News.

There is almost nothing as fearful as a lawless state.  India is on the brink of being such a state, as the actions taken by the government to squash dissent against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) so clearly demonstrate.  It is not “lawless” in the sense of being a political despotism, “empty of law” as India’s former colonial rulers characterized the supposed state of the country before they took the reins in hand.  India is on the verge of being “lawless” in the more unsettling and insidious sense of falling into a system of political authoritarianism where law itself is deployed to subvert both the spirit of law and the rule of law.

Protests against the CAA first commenced in Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura among segments of the general population even before the law had come into force on December 12, and have in the last several days been spearheaded by students at universities across the country.  Many in the country have been shocked by the scenes of violence, captured in this age and day in scores of videos, that have turned universities into battlegrounds.


Demonstration at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.  (Photo Credits: @fotosbyshadab)

At least five people were killed in police firings in Assam.  The police deployed tear gas and lathi-charged students at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia, both institutions with a storied past.  Though not all the CCTV coverage has been analyzed, and there are conflicting accounts of what happened, this much is unequivocally clear:  hundreds of police barged into Jamia’s campus, wielding their lathis indiscriminately and seriously wounding dozens of students. They assaulted female and male students studying in the library.  The idea of learning, as opposed to mere job training, is so far from the minds of most of the anti-intellectuals who now occupy the positions of leadership in the BJP that it would be no exaggeration to suggest that universities are themselves something like alien territory for the present government.  The police acted, at Jamia and AMU, much as an invading army does. Perhaps the police and the politicians whose bidding they do were also venting their frustration at Muslims for exhibiting an interest in learning. Why else would a library be attacked, if not to convey a message to Muslim students that books are not meant for them?


No need for a caption:  the image is from the National Capital Region (NCR).

Jamia Millia was, it is important to note, founded in 1920 by faculty and students who defected from AMU.  Distressed at their university’s rather pro-British leanings, they decided to heed Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation and the intellectual awakening of India.  Sarojini Naidu was to say of the Indian nationalist Muslims who created the university that they built it up “stone by stone and sacrifice by sacrifice”, but the autocrats who now run the country cannot be expected to know all this.  They don’t read books, and would rather see libraries vandalized and universities become factories for producing a docile labour force.  It is evidently enough for the Home Minister and his underlings to know that AMU and Jamia are predominantly Muslim universities, which immediately makes the students and faculty at these universities suspect and a fifth column acting on behalf of Pakistan.


Scenes from the violence and police attack at Jamia Millia Islamia. A video of two young female students shielding a reporter from assault by the cops went viral:  See https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/cops-slammed-girls-and-boys-alike-my-brave-woman-friends-shielded-me-jamia-student-whose-assault-video-is-viral-1628720-2019-12-16

The present Indian government is of the view that all Indian Muslims are anti-national, though not all anti-national people are Muslims: intellectuals, Naxalites, political dissenters, critics of the state, and especially Nehruvian-style secularists are all anti-nationals, too.  The Prime Minister talks of brotherhood but shares kinship only with hard-core Hindu nationalists.  His bear hug is intended only for foreign leaders, not for most fellow Indians and certainly not for those who do not meet his criteria of the true nationalist Indian subject.  He has mastered the art of clichés:  just how hollow “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas” sounds is apparent to everyone but the author of this slogan, especially now that he has, after the commencement of his second term as Prime Minister, bared his fangs.

Whether it is the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, or, to take an illustration, the junior Railway Minister, who has said that the only fitting reply of the government to demonstrators found destroying railway property is to “shoot them at sight”, the response of those presently in power to dissenting opinions is utterly predictable and follows a set pattern.  The particularities of a demonstration directed at the state matter little, since there is already in place a vocabulary for dealing with such contingencies, though, as dissent grows and the authoritarian state hardens, the knives are sharpened and the vocabulary fattened.

One element of this vocabulary of the suppression of dissent is to condemn the “fear psychosis” allegedly being created by anti-social elements, rumor mongers, and the “opposition”.  But the key elementary step is that protestors must at once be branded as “anti-social”:  this has been a feature of the Indian political landscape for decades, indeed dates back even to the colonial period, and the BJP gets no credit for inventing the term.  However, with the spectacular rise to power of the BJP with the electoral victory of 2014, the term “anti-national” was added and quickly came into vogue, becoming the favorite of the internet trolls who constitute a large unpaid cyber military force for the BJP.  Lately, “anti-national” has been embellished with the notion of the “urban naxal”, the supposed city-bred intellectual who sympathizes with Pakistanis, terrorists, and Maoists and is cut off from “real Indians”, but cleverly poses as a social worker, human rights activist, or liberal intellectual.  Now that the protests have spread to other universities and beyond, the Prime Minister not surprisingly had to fall back on this vocabulary, and at his Jharkhand rally held “urban naxals” responsible for the violence.

There can be no doubt, of course, that “the opposition” has something to gain from the current protests. No one has said that the Congress or the other parties which belong to that ragtag group called the “opposition” are models of anything remotely resembling innocence.  Similarly, one must condemn the violence and the destruction of public property. But none of this should obscure some fundamental issues that have come to the fore in the present demonstrations.  First, though many of the protestors have wholly legitimate differences with the government over the Citizenship Amendment Act, the issue now goes beyond the CAA and also has to do with the very right to voice dissenting opinions.  The demonstrations, taken as a whole, have been largely peaceful; the police resort to violence has been wholly disproportionate.

Secondly, it is absurd to suggest that the protests have all been instigated by “the opposition” or “outsiders”.  This supposes that ordinary people who are troubled by unjust laws, rank discrimination, police brutality, brute state force, or other exhibitions of inequality or the relegation of some people to second-class citizenship or worse are incapable of acting on their volition.  The absolutely deplorable idea of attributing all dissent to “outsiders” or “instigators” is the gravest insult to people’s own autonomy and sense of justice, and it suggests the deep-seated fear of dissent among the country’s present set of rulers.

Thirdly, in everything that has been done by the present government, Indians are being reminded that the country has a new set of colonial masters.  Once upon a time, a highly placed functionary of the state condemned the protests organized by people against an unjust act as “puerile demonstrations”, indicative of “how easily the ignorant and credulous people, not one in a thousand of whom knows anything of the measure, can be misled.”  The agitators, he warned, “have a day of reckoning in store for them.” These words could easily have been spoken by our Prime Minister; certainly the substance of them is found in nearly all his pronouncements upon dissenters.  But the words belong to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, who days later, one hundred years ago, would approve of the massacre committed by General Dyer at the Jallianwala Bagh.  Political dissenters in India must be forewarned of the “day of reckoning [that] is in store for them” under the present political dispensation.

[First published under the same title at abplive.in, here.]

[Translated into Hindi as नागरिकता संशोधन कानून के विरोध में उठती आवाज और पुलिसिया कार्रवाई, available by clicking here.]


Belated Recognition for a Genocide:  The Armenian Holocaust

In the midst of the noise and clamor, and—in the jargon of the day—“bitter partisan divide” generated by the imminent impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, people may be forgiven if they have overlooked the fact that, more than 100 years after the Turks set themselves the task of engaging in the mass murder of Armenians, the United States Senate on Thursday voted unanimously to recognize the Armenian Genocide.  One cannot simply ascribe the inordinate delay in acknowledging the brute fact of the Armenian Genocide to amnesia, since Armenians have been especially vigilant in drawing the world’s attention to what has sometimes been termed the “first holocaust” of the 20th century.  Nevertheless, Armenians have also had to live with the fact that the world has often chosen to overlook the genocide that was directed at them.


Cover of the massive compendium put together by Richard Diiran Kloian (1980), and distributed by Armenian Commemorative Committee of San Francisco Bay Area.  Collection: V. Lal.  The following three images are drawn from the same source.

It may well be a cliché to invoke Hitler’s chilling observations on the Armenian Genocide, but they remain as disturbing now as they were when he issued a statement on 22 August 1939 in anticipation of his plan to attack Poland. His war aim, Hitler said, was not merely to break the barriers of defense and, together with Stalin, to carve up the world between the two of them, but to aim at “the physical destruction of the enemy.”  His death squads had orders “to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language.  Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need.  Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians? [emphasis added].

Who, indeed, would have heard of the annihilation of gypsies, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, Slavs, and many others that the Nazis deemed deviants and worthy only of extermination if the Third Reich had triumphed?  Perhaps that may have been, in those circumstances, the fate, too, of Jews—six million in all. And yet, in those twists that history is forever heir to, the very word “genocide” appears to have arisen, we may say, in consequence of Hitler’s observation.  It was the Polish Jew Ralph Lemkin, who made his way out of Warsaw—five days after the beginning of the German onslaught—to Lithuania and then to Stockholm, before leaving two years later for the United States, who coined the word. “I became interested in genocide”, he was to say some years later in a television interview, “because it happened so many times.  It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”


The US Senate’s first explicit acknowledgment of Armenian Genocide comes after decades of such similar attempts, all foiled on the pretext that American foreign policy objectives would not be served well by antagonizing Ankara. Even the present action by the Senate came in the teeth of determined opposition from the White House, which has described even such symbolic recognition as the Senate vote offers to the Armenian people as inimical to American national interest. We may put aside, as a matter of greater interest to those who feed on the nitty-gritty of realpolitik, the question of how the tangled foreign policy objectives of both Turkey and the United States impinge on the question of recognition of the Armenian Genocide.  What is rather more germane is that Turkey has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that the killings amount to genocide.  Turkey does not deny that some killings of Armenians occurred at the hands of the Ottoman military, but it disputes both the alleged scale of the atrocities—estimates of those killed vary, from 600,000 to 1.7 million, with most scholars settled upon something in the vicinity of a million deaths—and the supposition that the intent was to, in the words of contemporaries, “assassinate a race”. Ottoman officers and soldiers behind the killings of Armenians, on this view, acted of their own volition rather than at the behest of superiors or because of a clear directive of a state policy of extermination.  World War I, the Turkish argument goes, disturbed the social order of things:  millions of people were killed, innocents and civilians as much as soldiers; many more were displaced, as people were forced out of their homes and the borders between political entities shifted; and in this state of acute social anomie Armenians were sometimes killed, but more often than not succumbed to disease and starvation.


The Turkish view has been rebutted by a legion of witnesses and scholars, and those who deny the Armenian Genocide have no more standing than those who deny the Shoah. There are, however, intellectual questions worthy of exploration:  why is it, for example, that the Armenians, who had been subjects of the Ottoman Empire since the 15th century, only faced the threat of extermination in the late 19th century? No one pretends that Armenians, as a Christian minority in the Ottoman Empire, had (to use what is really an anachronism) “equal rights”; at the same time, it is also widely accepted among scholars of the Ottoman Empire that Armenians (and Jews), despite the liabilities under which they suffered, such as the payment of the jizya (until 1856) and the baddal-sarkari in lieu of military service thereafter, did quite well for themselves and even flourished.  Armenians were better educated than Turks and excelled in trade and entrepreneurship.  Their success would not only come to be deeply resented but, as the Ottoman Empire began to crumble in the second half of the nineteenth century, may have been one of the reasons why they began to be perceived both as a provocation and as scapegoats.  Jews were similarly better integrated into socio-cultural life and educational institutions in Germany than they were in France and Britain:  as Freud might have said, it was the proximity of Jews to German national life that eventually made them, in the eyes of the Nazis, so dangerous.


Contemporary scholarship on the Armenian Genocide has delved into many of these questions at length.  Those who are of the view that American foreign policy calculations forestalled the recognition of the genocide have, it could be argued, a relatively benign and, ironically, even apolitical view of the matter. In 1980, Richard Diran Kloian released a massive compendium, distributed by the San Francisco-based Armenian Commemorative Committee, entitled The Armenian Genocide:  First 20th Century Holocaust.  What astonishes is the extent to which the genocide was reported in 1915-17 in leading American publications, among them the New York Times, New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, Current History, The Century, Current History, Literary Digest, Living Age, and The Outlook. The headlines state the truth candidly, unequivocally, even brutally:  “Turks Depopulate Towns of Armenia: 600,000 Starving on Road” (New York Times), 27 August 1915; “1,500,000 Armenians Starve” (New York Times), 5 September 1915; “Why the Armenians Were Killed” (The Literary Digest), 11 November 1916; “The Assassination of Armenia” (The Missionary Review of the World), November 1915; and “Exterminating the Armenians” (The Literary Digest), 9 October 1915.  There were hundreds even thousands more such pieces in this vein.  The reporters and commentators were incredulous that starving women and children could be described as the “enemy”.  “500 Armenians Slain under Turkish Order”, a New York Times reporter put it in a brief newspaper article on 15 January 1916, adding this sub-heading to his piece:  “Forced by Cold and Hunger to Surrender, Men, Women, and Children Were Put to Death.”  Or, as the young Los-Angeles based poet David Garyan has put it in his epic poem, “Armenian Genocide” (2019):

The murderer lies, claiming Armenians

were the enemy and had to be destroyed,

but I’ve never seen enemies who were women

and children die without weapons in hand.

The murderer lies, claiming Armenians

were dangerous and the desert marches

served as brief relocations,

but I wasn’t aware that people must be raped

and deprived of food on long

walks to their new home.

The United States has never had an easy time with the subject of genocide, for the more than obvious reason that its own history is thoroughly blood-stained. As American power diminishes, we should not be surprised if countries will be demanding that the US openly acknowledge the genocides it has wrought, at home and abroad.  It is even conceivable that countries will pass resolutions condemning the treatment of native Americans and African Americans.  That the present US Congress hosts a sizable number of legislators who feel that the United States has absolutely nothing to be apologetic about is of course known to everyone, but it would not be too much to say that it also hosts a number of legislators who, as their conduct in the recent impeachment hearings and conduct of the President suggests, remain unrepentant racists. It will take a lot more than supposed “foreign policy objectives” to understand the deep-seated American anxieties around the idea of genocide.