Rosa Parks, Gandhi’s Trail, and the Extraordinariness of the Ordinary

Los Angeles, 1 December 2019:  64th anniversary of the rebellion of Rosa Parks

(Fourth in an occasional series that will run for several months on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.  Also, one in the series:  The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics.)

RosaParksPoliceReportOfArrest

The police report on the arrest of Rosa Parks, 1 December 1955.

It was December 1, 1955, around 6 o’clock in the evening.  Rosa Parks boarded a bus belonging to the Montgomery City Lines, paid her fare, and sat in the first seat in the section of the bus reserved for colored people.  The first ten rows, towards the front of the bus, could only be occupied by white people:  such were the strict laws of segregation that governed the South.  As the bus moved on, and other passengers boarded the bus at subsequent stops, it gradually filled up.  All the seats were taken; eventually a few white people found themselves standing, according to some sources.  The driver, James F. Blake, halted the bus and moved the sign demarcating the “colored” section to the row behind Ms. Parks.  He ordered her and the three other black passengers seated in that row, two on each side of the aisle, to vacate their seats and move to the back of the bus.  One of the more prominent historians of the Civil Rights Movement, Taylor Branch, has offered a somewhat different if related account:  apparently only one white man was standing, but nevertheless Blake, acting according to the city bus code, which forbid colored and white people from being seated in the same row, had perforce to ask all four black passengers to remove themselves.  Parks resisted, and felt, naturally—oh, not so naturally, said the master race—that she had every right to remain seated.  She had as much right to that seat as anyone else—white, black, colored, or American Indian (and Parks, though this is seldom discussed, had a good deal of Cherokee blood in her).

ROSA PARKS

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Lt. D. H. Lackey of the Montgomery Police, 1 December 1955.

Blake would have nothing of this, if only because, as he argued in his defense the rest of his life, he was determined to uphold the city bus code and follow company policy.  When he passed away in 2002, just a little shy of his 90th birthday, the newspaper obituaries related ‘his side’ of the story.  In an interview given to the Washington Post, Blake recalled:  “I called the company first, just like I was supposed to do.”  Blake parked the bus, found a pay phone, and got his supervisor on the line.  “Did you warn her, Jim?”  When Blake replied in the affirmative, his supervisor said:  “Well then, Jim, you do it, you got to exercise your powers and put her off, hear?”  “And that’s just what I did”, recalled Blake.  Rosa Parks had been warned. The police were summoned: Parks was forcibly removed, arrested, and hauled off to the city jail.

In the late 19th century, only days after he had arrived in Natal, barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was thrown off a train since he refused to give up his first-class seat.  He thereby came to an awareness of racism and, on the conventional account, this event would set him on the long road that would lead to his transformation from Mohandas to the Mahatma of world fame.  What was traumatic for Gandhi would become catastrophic for the British Empire.  Rosa Parks’ ejection from a city bus has, in many narratives of the Civil Rights Movement, occupied something of a similar place.  Parks, unlike the young Gandhi that evening of 7 June 1893, was however something of a veteran civil rights activist at the time of her arrest.  That was not the impression conveyed by the popular accounts of the life of Rosa Parks which came to my attention in my school years, in which she was represented as a seamstress.  It was only much later that I became acquainted with her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP).  Parks was also involved in the Voters’ League and, just months before the infamous incident of 1 December 1955, had spent two weeks at the Highlander Folk School, a social justice training center in Monteagle, Tennessee.  Her arrival there that summer might have quite fortuitous; as the late Professors Suzanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd Rudolph explained in a letter written to the New York Times on 25 April 2013, “Parks’s refusal to yield her seat to a white man, in defiance of a city segregation ordinance, was a self-conscious and deliberate act of Gandhian civil disobedience. She had learned about Gandhi and was trained in Gandhian techniques at the school, where Ram Manohar Lohia, the Gandhian socialist, had introduced them.”  Lohia was on a visit to the US that summer and had been called to share his expertise with activists.

MontgomeryBusBoycott1955-56

An empty bus during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-56.  Source:  Christian Science Monitor.

Parks’ activism, and her long involvement with social justice issues, explains in part why her act of defiance would eventually produce an outcome unlike any in the past.  We are better positioned to understand, in other words, how it is that only three days after her arrest, a decision had been taken by a number of black leaders to launch a boycott of Montgomery city buses.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott would catapult the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on to the national, and shortly thereafter, the world stage. Many others previous to Rosa Parks had sought to defy segregation codes on buses, but they did not become one of the many public faces of the movement.  Pauli Murray, one of two black women who were arrested outside Petersburg, Virginia, in 1940 for defying segregations laws as they traveled on a bus, comes to mind. Murray, much like Parks, had at least a fleeting acquaintance with Gandhi’s ideas.  By her own admission years later, her knowledge of satyagraha was “sketchy” and yet she and her companion “applied” what they “knew of satyagraha on the spot.” She was of the same mind as Bayard Rustin, who had made a detailed study of Gandhi and was by the early 1940s already applying his ideas in an attempt to break down the segregation that informed every aspect of life in the US, when she wrote that “pacifism believes that the means must be suited to the ends to be attained and that war is irreconcilably unsuited to the attainment of democracy.”  Murray worked assiduously towards the creation of what she called an “American Satyagraha Movement”, and in 1943-44 led Howard University students in Washington DC in picketing two restaurants that denied service to black patrons.

Rev.Dr.PauliMurray

Rev. Dr. Puali Murray (1910-1985), a prominent civil rights activist, a law professor at Yale University, and a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW).  Source:  The Weekly Challenger.

There are yet others, many of them women and no less brave than Rosa Parks and Pauli Murray, who went into near obscurity and whose stories have only surfaced in recent years. As we pause to remember Rosa Parks, it is well to reflect on the fact that fame and obscurity are often equally matters of happenstance.  White women, in particular, have been largely written out of the Civil Rights Movement, but they were also lending their voices to the narrative.  Juliette Hampton Morgan, a librarian in the Montgomery Public Library system, used to ride the city buses where she frequently witnessed the gross mistreatment of black passengers. It seems that Morgan, a Christian who was intensely disturbed by the racism that she encountered in everyday life and could not reconcile this racism to her faith, commenced interracial prayer meetings with black women.  I wonder if, in this respect, she may have been inspired by the public prayer meeting that Gandhi had pioneered.  A future biographer of Morgan will perhaps shed some light on this subject. But, more germane to the present argument, Morgan was an inveterate letter writer and wrote frequently to newspapers to express her outrage at the city’s segregation statutes.  Eleven days after Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1st, the Montgomery Advertiser published a remarkable letter from Morgan.  Likening the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which brought King to the attention of America, to the Dandi March, Morgan gave it as her opinion that the “Negroes of Montgomery seem to have taken a lesson from Gandhi . . . Their own task is greater than Gandhi’s, however, for they have greater prejudice to overcome.”

MorganJulietteLessonFromGandhi

Letter entitled “Lesson from Gandhi”, by Juliette Morgan, Montgomery City librarian, published in the Montgomery Advertiser on 12 December 1955.

Morgan’s approbation of the “quiet dignity, discipline and dedication with which the Negroes have conducted their boycott” earned her the notoriety of many of Montgomery’s white citizens. In January 1957, the editor of the Tuscaloosa News, Buford Boone, came to Montgomery and spoke forcefully against the racism and violence directed at the black community.  Our “‘Southern way of life’ must inevitably change”, wrote Morgan in appreciation, adding that Boone had shown the courage “to stand alone, to walk out naked as it were”:  “I had begun to wonder if there were any men in the state – any white men – with . . . any good will, and most especially the moral courage to express it.” She started receiving hate mail and obscene phone calls.  On a spring day in 1957, a cross was burned in the front yard of her home in one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods.  On July 17, Morgan’s mother found Juliette dead, an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her bedside with a suicide note:  “I am not going to cause any more trouble to anybody.”  Morgan’s life is, putting it plainly, a testament to the courage of common people.  She stands forth as a striking exemplification of what, following Gandhi, we can call the extraordinariness of the ordinary.

JulietteMorgan

Juliette Morgan

 

The Profound Ambivalences of Thanksgiving ; Part I:  Jefferson on an American ‘Tradition’

(in two parts)

 Los Angeles, Fourth Thursday of November 2019

As an immigrant with a certain political sensibility, I have always been filled with ambivalence towards Thanksgiving—and that is putting it mildly.  July 4th doubtless has a more honored place on the American calendar in many respects, but Thanksgiving has long appeared to most people as the quintessential American holiday.  It was a religious celebration before it became a holiday and its history predates by more than 150 years the founding of the Republic.  Most holidays (of this kind) are full of good cheer, but Thanksgiving is much more than that, and not only because the Thanksgiving table is overflowing with food and that one eats to one’s fill—and more.  Thanksgiving appears to endorse a more democratic conception of what it means to be American:  thus, as an illustration, we may witness a 3-star General, or the Vice President, serving Thanksgiving meals to soldiers stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Thanksgiving, I was long inclined to believe, was that one day when the foreign student in the US was positively supposed to feel welcome and find herself invited to an American home.  On this singular occasion, at least, fellowship and conviviality often seemed to triumph over race, religion, and identity politics more generally.

NormanRockwell_Freedom_From_Want

Norman Rockwell, “Freedom From Want” (source:  Wikipedia)

My conflicted feelings towards Thanksgiving arise from far more than the fact that turkey is scarcely the most delectable of all meats, an opinion that is rather widely shared even if some people are, for reasons of sentimentality or political correctness, unwilling to go public with their view, especially on Thanksgiving Day.  But one may put this down to matters of taste and therefore relegate the question of the wholesomeness of the comestibles under which the traditional Thanksgiving Table groans to the sidelines, considering that the rather more stern misgivings about Thanksgiving which I now propose to delve into (especially in the second part of the essay) will be even less palatable to many readers.  There is, to begin with, the matter of the conflicted status of Thanksgiving as a secular holiday.  Thomas Jefferson was the principal architect of the idea of the separation of church from state, and it is his singularity as well that he appears to have been the only American president, at least among the presidents with wide recognition, to openly decry the public celebration of Thanksgiving.

Jefferson’s reservations against Thanksgiving are best understood in an exchange of views he had with Baptists. Congress had declared a national day of Thanksgiving after the American triumph of arms at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, but in the years following Thanksgiving was associated with fasting and prayer more so than with bountiful meals.  Sometime in late December 1801, in the first year of his first term as President of the United States, some Baptists wrote to him from Connecticut to express their concern that the state’s constitution did not have a specific provision safeguarding the freedom of worship and religious expression.  Was Jefferson, as President, they wanted to know, prepared to assure that they would have religious liberty? In reply, Jefferson wrote to express his firm conviction that no legislature of American people ought to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” His brief letter continues in this vein, pointing to his conviction that declarations of thanksgiving were expressions of religion; however, as the editors of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton University Press, 2009) note, he omitted from his draft reply a passage which, he was informed by friends, “might give uneasiness to some of our republican friends in the eastern states where the proclamation of thanksgivings &c by their Executive is an antient habit, & is respected.”  On Jan 1, 1802, addressing one Mr. Lincoln of the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson began with the observation that he was “averse” to receiving addresses, but was “unable to prevent them”; and so he sought to make the best use of each such occasion to sow “useful truths & principles among the people”, and on this occasion found it apt to explain “why [he] did not proclaim fastings and thanksgivings, as my predecessors did” (Vol 36, pp. 256-7).

That Jefferson was not averse to Thanksgiving as such becomes clear from a letter he penned to the Rev. Samuel Miller in 1808, during the second term of his presidency.  Here his argument is made to rest on a different consideration:  while affirming that the Constitution forbid the “government of the US” from meddling “with religious institutions, their doctrines, disciplines, or exercises”, Jefferson noted that the Constitution reserved “to the states powers not delegated to the U.S.”  It was then a matter best left to each state:  “Fasting & prayer are religious exercises.  The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them . . . and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.”  Thus, as Governor of Virginia, Jefferson had no qualms about declaring, as he did on 11 November 1779, “A Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer”; however, as President of the United States of America, he could do no such thing without violating the Constitution that he had sworn to uphold.

 

(to be concluded)

 

 

 

 

“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.”

Screen Shot 2019-09-25 at 10.02.41 PM.png

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.

Trump&ModiatHouston

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, see: “हॉउडी मोदी और भारतीय-अमेरिकी समुदाय की राजनीति”; online:  https://abpnews.abplive.in/blog/howdy-modi-and-the-politics-of-the-indian-american-community-blog-by-vinay-lal-1208209

 

*A “Natural Alliance”:  India, Israel, the United States, and the Muslim in the National Imaginary

Netanyahu&Modi

Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi shortly after Modi’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, 4 July 2017. Source: Times of Israel.

As Israel prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its founding on May 14, 1948, the transformation in its relationship with India over the course of the last seven decades offers a palpable demonstration of the fact that there are no permanent foes or friends in politics.  India voted with Arab states in opposition to the UN Partition Plan that divided Palestine into two states, and formal diplomatic relations between India and Israel date back only to 1992.  Yet today India, the world’s second largest importer of arms and accounting for 9.5% of the global total, is Israel’s largest arms market just as Israel is the second largest exporter, after Russia, of arms to India.  Over the past decade, Indian imports of Israeli arms have increased by 285 percent.  In July 2017, Narendra Modi not only became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, but he pointedly, unlike Indian cabinet ministers on previous official visits, did not go to Palestine—not on that trip. Benjamin Netanyahu returned the compliment with the following official pronouncement on 13 January 2018:  “This evening I am leaving on an historic visit to India.  I will meet with the Prime Minister, my friend Narendra Modi, with the Indian President and with many other leaders. . . . We are strengthening ties between Israel and this important global power.  This serves our security, economic, trade and tourism interests . . . This is a great blessing for the state of Israel.”

Netanyahu&ModiAtSpinningWheel

Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara by his side tries his hand at a spinning wheel — where else but at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, January 2018. With devoted followers such as these, Mohandas Gandhi scarcely needs any enemies. Source of the photograph: Times of India.

It must have made Indians proud to hear their country being described as an “important global power”, but it isn’t one.  Nor should it be a fact of life that being one such power is necessarily a virtue:  “the meek shall inherit the other”, says one revered text, though I am fully aware of the modern wisdom which thinks that virtue only belongs to those nations which are “important global powers”.  But let us leave aside these esoteric considerations for the present.  There are yet other, often little considered, registers of the friendly ties developing between India and Israel: along with an influx of Israeli arms, young Israeli men and women have poured into India for long stays. According to the Jerusalem Post, so many young Israeli citizens swarm to India to enjoy a post-military training repose that one can now chart a “Hummus Trail” through various Indian landscapes and a proliferation of restaurants serving local kosher cuisine.  Israel’s own Foreign Ministry has reported that there is more support for Israel in India than in any other country of the world, the United States not excepted.  In one study, 58% Indians expressed support and admiration for Israel, exceeding the 56% Americans who responded in like fashion.

The bonhomie between the two nations is all the more remarkable considering the frosty relations between the two nations at the time of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.  One might think that India, with the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, did not want to antagonize its own Muslim population and was indeed keen to cultivate the idea that India would remain a home for Muslims even after Pakistan had been carved out of the country.  Nor, as a country heavily dependent on oil imports, could India afford to antagonize Muslim-majority Arab states or Iran—all of which, for decades after the creation of Israel, displayed unremitting hostility to the Jewish state.  As one of the principal architects of the idea of non-alignment, Nehru was also wary of close relations with a U.S.-friendly Israel.  Some might think that India, not unlike most other countries, surrendered to anti-Semitism in not having diplomatic ties with Israel for well over four decades.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  as every scholar of global Jewish history knows, India, with a history of Jewish presence dating back to perhaps as early as 79CE, is nearly singular in having absolutely no history of anti-Semitism and, to the contrary, in having a clear historical record of offering hospitality to Jews.  Nathan Katz, author of the scholarly study, Who are the Jews of India? (UC Press, 2000), unequivocally states that “Indian Jews never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination”, and lived “as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”

Cochin_Jewish_Inscription1344

The emergence of an India-Israel nexus, and, as is becoming patently clear, a tripartite alliance of India, Israel, and the United States, owes everything to the changing place of the Muslim in the national imaginary of India and the United States.  It was in the mid-1990s that the notion of Israel and India as two democracies surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations that had an aversion to democracy, and having in common the problem of communal violence, first arose.  The Indian middle class, I suggested in a piece published in the Indian magazine Outlook in 2006 entitled “Emulating Israel”, has long admired Israel as a tough, no-nonsense state with zero tolerance for terrorism from which India—a comparatively soft state in this imagination—can learn to confront the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and, as Hindu nationalists increasingly argue, Muslim fifth columnists within the country.  Middle class Indians have long demanded an aggressive response against terrorists (and, as they argue, their patrons in Pakistan) and they hold up Israel as a country that India should emulate.

It is also no secret that India furnishes sinecures to retired Israeli army generals who serve as consultants to anti-terrorist operations in India.  In 2000, when L. K. Advani, then the Minister of Home Affairs in the BJP-led government, visited Israel, the two governments pledged to stand together against terrorism.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his aforementioned visit to India in January 2018, pointedly harkened back to both the devastating terrorist attacks on Mumbai’s suburban train network in 2006 that killed 209 people and the grisly attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in 2008 that led to 166 fatalities.  It is no surprise, then, that one Indian academic has called attention to the “ideological convergence” between India’s BJP and Israel’s Likud Party since “both promote a narrative of their respective populations being victims at the hands of Muslims.”

Matters do not, however, end here:  we can now speak of an emerging tripartite alliance between India, the US, and Israel, the logic of which has been captured by one scholar of public policy, Vivek Dehejia:  “India, Israel, and the United States are natural allies. All three are democratic and pluralistic societies, and all have suffered grievously from the scourge of Islamic terrorism.”  One might question a good deal in this assessment, such as what it means for three very diverse countries to be deemed “natural allies”—and why only these three democracies?  The US, to raise another difficulty, appears to be suffering from the scourge of white supremacism, not “Islamic terrorism”.  For Dehejia to imply that Palestinians are but a synonym for “Islamic terrorism”, which appears to be the case from his formulation, is objectionable in the extreme, even if one were to agree that Hamas is, notwithstanding its façade as a social welfare organization, at the very least a quasi-terrorist outfit.  But questions of the merit of his observations apart, what is most striking is that countries such as Pakistan, and the Muslim world more broadly, may be taking notice of this tripartite alliance. The Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Raza Rabbani, in a speech in January 2018 warned his fellow legislators about the “changing world scenario” and described the developing “nexus between the US, Israel, and India” as “a major threat to the Muslim world.”

Is it then the foreign policy wisdom in India, Israel, and the United States that these three democracies are, or ought to be, united by the menace posed by Muslim extremists?  To what extent are these countries collaborating in anti-terrorist and surveillance activities, more particularly with the thought of containing “Muslim terrorists”, and might such collaboration have implications for the exercise of their democratic rights by Muslim residents of these nations?  If India’s friendly relations with Israel on the one hand, and its growing ties with the U.S. on the other, augur new trilateral links, can we speak of such an alliance as a new force in geopolitics?  And, if we can, what might be the implications of such an alliance for the global world order?          

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at abplive.in on 13 May 2019, under the title:  “India, Israel, and the Geopolitics of an Emerging Tripartite Alliance, accessible here.)                                 

*Anxieties over Sabarimala Temple-entry: Menstruation as Sex Strike

SabarimalaDevotees.jpg

Devotees queue up to offer prayers at Lord Ayappa’s temple, Sabarimala, during the Malayalam month of ‘Vrischikom,’ 20 November 2018.  Photo:  Press Trust of India.

It needs to be said at the outset, and in the most unequivocal terms, that the still ferocious dispute — about which I blogged here around two weeks ago — over the Supreme Court’s decision of September 28 which opened the doors of the Sabarimala temple to females between the ages of 10-50 is fundamentally about the deep and pervasive anxieties among men over menstruation.  Everything else is a camouflage.

SabarimalaMenstruationTabboo.jpg

By a majority decision of 4-1, the Court ruled that the prohibition of girls and women from the ages of 10 to 50 on their entry into the Sabarimala temple was unconstitutional.  Though the court ordered that the temple be opened to females of menstruating age, protestors have blockaded the temple doors and completely obstructed the implementation of the court order.  The Supreme Court verdict over the right of women of menstruating age to entry a Hindu temple speaks to problems that afflict women all over the world, but for the present it will suffice to largely confine these remarks to the implications for Indians.

The terms in which the Court’s decision have been debated are clear enough.  Those who applaud the decision have described it both as an affirmation of Indian Constitution’s guarantee of equality between the sexes and as an individual’s right to freedom of worship.  Liberals decry the custom which has encroached on the liberty of women as a remnant of an atavistic past, and they salute the Court’s embrace of law as a tool to remedy social injustices.  As they point out, though restricting women from entering Sabarimala is generally defended in the name of “centuries-old tradition”, prohibitions on women were first enacted into law as late as 1965.  Indeed, to extend the liberal argument, what is given as a brief on behalf of a timeless custom is nothing more than what historians call “the invention of tradition”.  Customs that are often believed to have persisted from “time immemorial” are in fact very much a creation of the modern spirit.  Some liberals have also argued strongly that construing menstruation as something which is disgusting and polluting is not only indefensible but a sign of ignorance and demeaning to women.

The Court’s critics, on the other hand, argue that women feature prominently among the demonstrators who object to the Court’s decision and they are oddly enough being denied a voice in the matter.  Conservatives are firmly of the view that the Court and its secular allies in the media and intellectual class have disdain for Hindu religious customs, and they have put forward the more compelling argument that social change is ineffective and even resented when it is seen as an imposition from above.  Matters of religious faith, it is argued, cannot be legislated.

The dispute over Sabarimala, however, is also distinct from other controversies that have erupted over judicial intervention in matters of religious faith in that the reigning deity of the temple, Lord Ayappa, is said to be celibate.  Thus the presence of females of menstruating age is said to be an affront to his dignity.  As an affidavit filed in 2016 by those who sought to preserve the ban on women states, the temple authorities and devotees are bound to ensure that “not even the slightest deviation from celibacy and austerity observed by the deity is caused by the presence of such women.”

The trope of a male ascetic or even a god being fatally tempted by an attractive female is as old as Indian civilization and is present in many other traditions as well.  It is, however, the menstrual politics that more than anything else which informs the dispute, even if menstruation remains the unspeakable.  The notion that a menstruating woman is polluting or should remain in the shadows is scarcely unique to India and anthropologists have documented the practice of isolating a woman during her menses across dozens of societies.  Nor should one suppose that only so-called lesser developed or “traditional” societies treat menstruation as discomforting and polluting.  We might wish to remind ourselves that during one of the Presidential debates, then candidate Donald Trump, rattled by some questions from Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, characterized her as having “blood coming out of her wherever”, a barely disguised reference to her periods.  Menstrual pads have been sold in the United States for over a century as “sanitary napkins”.

There can scarcely be a society where men have not sought to regulate women’s sexuality.  The entry of women of menstrual age into Sabarimala, a temple in a state where the female literacy rate is at least 92%, has been curtailed because menstruation is one domain over which men have little or no control. Indeed, if men have often assumed that they have sexual entitlements over women—an assumption in defiance of which the “Me Too” movement has been launched in many countries—a woman’s period constitutes what may be called a sex strike.  It is the one time of the month that, especially in societies where the vulnerability of most women is acute, a woman can refuse sexual advances, whether of her husband, sexual partner, or of any other man, and generally get her way.  This is not a liberty that she is otherwise able to exercise often, but she may still be punished in other ways.  This is the larger and unstated aspect of what may be described as the menstrual politics—of Sabarimala, and, in a wider context, of human societies where a woman’s most intimate bodily function is not merely a “biological fact” but rather a cultural and social fact pregnant with immense implications.

*The Prison Cell and the Education of James M. Lawson

In an earlier essay about three weeks ago, I wrote in part on the increasing inability, as it seems to me, of people in our times to live with themselves and with their thoughts. Other commentators have spoken of this age as one of ‘instant gratification’, but I would underscore the word ‘instant’.  Even ‘thoughts’ must be shared instantly.  That essay was prompted by some reflections on the news that the British government had effectively appointed a “minister of loneliness”. Those who are not afflicted by cancer, diabetes, obesity, or a heart condition may nevertheless be overcome by loneliness.  I distinguished between solitude, the virtues of which have been extolled by writers across generations and cultures, and loneliness—the latter a largely modern-day pathology.  Loneliness is not singular either: there is the loneliness that one experiences when one arrives in a large city, knowing no one and feeling somewhat adrift; there is also the loneliness one sometimes feels amidst a very large crowd of people, even a crowd of well-wishers or fellow travelers; and then there is the loneliness in moments of intimacy.  Perhaps some moments of loneliness are also critical for self-realization:  it is, I suspect, only when loneliness becomes the norm that it starts to take on the characteristics of a pathology.

Solitude may perhaps be similarly parsed, but my subject at present is the prison cell and the education that the Reverend James M. Lawson, who turns 90 tomorrow, derived from his time after his first prison term following his arrest and conviction for resistance to the draft in 1950.  I do not speak here of solitary confinement, which in the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries alike is nothing but barbarism, but of the prison as a site of reflection, education, contemplation, quietude, as much as a site where revolutionaries have often been made.  The movie industry, to the contrary, has largely feasted on the idea of the prison as a place where criminals are hardened, the will of political prisoners is broken, men are sodomized and women raped, and sadistic prison guards rule like little kings.  In what follows, in two parts, I relay the conversation that transpired between Rev. Lawson and myself, first around Nelson Mandela and Robben Island, and then on the circumstances that led to Lawson’s own confinement to Mill Point Federal Prison in West Virginia.  Our very first conversation took place a few days after the passing of Nelson Mandela in early December 2012; it has been only slightly edited:

MandelaAtRobbenIsland1994

Nelson Mandela, on his return to his cell at Robben Island in 1994, after being elected as the first President of a free South Africa.  Photo:  Jurgen Schadeberg/Getty Images.

VL:  I just want to go back to Mandela for a moment.  I think whatever one might say about Mandela and the founding of the Umkhonto we Sizwe [the armed wing of the African National Congress], and his decision to embrace violence alongside nonviolence—Mandela was very clear that nonviolence would not be given up entirely—so, whatever one might say about all of that, I think to most people the Mandela that comes to mind is the man who walked out of prison after an eternity in there.  Those years in Robben Island—those become the heroic years.  There are, very often, two kinds of outcomes when people have spent many years in jail, the better part of their lives behinds bars.  One is, they come out really bitter.  And, very often, we know that this has been one of the critiques of the prison system… I mean, other than the kind of argument, which I think you and I are familiar with, and we need not enter into at the present moment, and that’s about the so-called prison industrial complex, about the fact that the prison construction industry is one of the largest revenue earners for the state of California—the whole relationship between the prison complex and capitalism and so on… And I think that those are very important and interesting questions. But, here we are interested in the other outcome, something that may be seen from the life of Mandela.  He came out of prison not just, in a manner of speaking, ‘intact’, however reservedly one might use that word; he came out of it, remarkably, with a more enhanced sense of the need for inclusiveness in a new South Africa.

JL: Stronger in his character and his visions…

RobbenIslandPrisonMuseum

VL: And I daresay this is where his generosity is most palpable…  You know, the way in which he decides to handle certain problems, the way in which he decides to look at the whole issue of, well, what are we going to do with the Afrikaners now, what will be the place of white people in this society?… And this is where, as I said, his sense of inclusiveness is really very palpable. Much the same can be said for people like Gandhi, King, Nehru, and many others who spent [time in jail].

JL: Also, Castro.

VL: Castro… I hadn’t quite thought of him in this regard, but you may be right, when we think of the two years to which he was confined to jail by Bautista.  But many people who served fairly long prison terms, they actually –in the case of Gandhi, I am quite certain of that because I’ve looked  at his life in very great detail, I think that he almost welcomed prison terms because . . .

JL: He did.

VL: . . . it helped him to renew his sense of life, it energized him, it also gave him solitude; he was far from the maddening crowds, it gave him time for deep introspection and reflection.  And I think that this is what happens in Mandela’s life, too.  Now, here perhaps Mandela had far too much time for introspection, so to speak, because I have the distinct feeling that one of the things that happened is that Mandela really was no longer in contact with what was happening in the wider world outside; he no longer had the full pulse of the nation he would later have guide through the first flush of freedom.

JL: But, but, he turns Robben Island into what they called at one point the University.

VL:  Absolutely.

JL:  The prisoners, sharing what they did know, really engaged in long conversations about their situation, about their country, about their philosophy.  And that, of course, he may have learned from Gandhi.  I learned it from Gandhi. And that is very clear in Gandhi’s life.  I’ll never forget the first time I was arrested in Nashville, in 1960.  I was physically exhausted, though very intellectually and spiritually alive.  And I welcomed the knowledge that the police issued a warrant for me. And we arranged for us to do it jointly. And I went to First Baptist Church, and I was arrested out of First Baptist Church; but I had an armful of books with me that my wife had brought to me from home, and she came to the church.  And as I got arrested, there was a great sigh of relief, and I had these books… and when I hit the jail, my first impulse was, first of all, to sleep through the night, get up in the morning, and begin over with the books. And I’ve read that in Gandhi as well. I’ve read that about Gandhi on two or three occasions.  He welcomed jail in the Champaran campaign. He came to the court ready to go to jail because he knew it was going to be a time for him to do reflection and the rest of it… rejuvenate himself there in the isolation that he would have.

Yerwada-Central-Jail

Yerwada Central Jai, Pune, where Gandhi was confined more than once.

YervadaJailImportantPrisoners

VL: And he’d had that experience already in South Africa.

JL: That’s right. Exactly.

VL: You’re right by the way about the prison yard at Robben Island being turned into a university.  There’s an Indian sociologist in South Africa by the name of Ashwin Desai, a good friend of mine, who published a book very recently last year [2011], called “Reading Revolution:  Shakespeare on Robben Island”.

JL:  Oh, really!  My goodness!

VL:   And this whole book is really a study of how people like Mandela and Tambo and Ahmad Kathrada and many others, how they actually read Shakespeare and discussed Shakespeare and each person marked their favorite passage.  Because, of course, to read Shakespeare is also to enter into discussions of ethics, political rebellions, and the whole idea of—we were talking about it earlier—assassinations, as an example.  So, I think that what you are saying is absolutely on the mark.  Nevertheless, I think there are some serious questions that have to be entertained, such as Mandela’s views on globalization–what did he really understand by globalization? Because I think, to some extent, Mandela was not sufficiently aware of the manner in which the world has changed in the long years that he was actually confined to prison. When you look at Mandela’s economic policies, what I would call something of a capitulation to free-market policies takes place rather quickly.

RobbenIslandShakespeare

The Robben Island Shakespeare was wrapped in a cover with images of Hindu deities.

(to be continued)

 

*James M. Lawson:  An American Architect of Nonviolent Resistance

RevJamesLawsonAtVanderbilt

 The Reverend James M. Lawson of Los Angeles is quite likely the greatest living exponent of nonviolent resistance in the United States, and he turns a glorious 90 on September 22nd.  This is as good a time as any to pay tribute to a person who has the distinction, though it has never been acknowledged as such, of having been a dedicated and rigorous practitioner of nonviolence for longer (nearly seven decades, by my reckoning) than anyone else in recorded American history.

Lawson&King

Most scholarly histories of the American Civil Rights movement have recognized the distinct contribution of Rev. Lawson, presently Pastor Emeritus of the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles’ Adams District, as one of the most influential architects of the movement.  In his dense, indeed exhaustive, narrative of the Freedom Rides, Raymond Arsenault recounts how James Lawson, who commenced his nonviolent training workshops in the late 1950s, gathered what would become a stellar group of young African American men and women—Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, John Bevel, among others—around him in Nashville.  Martin Luther King Jr. himself acknowledged Lawson’s Nashville group as “the best organized and most disciplined in the Southland,” and King and other activists were “dazzled” by Lawson’s “concrete visions of social justice and ‘the beloved community’” (Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Oxford UP, 2006, p. 87).

RevLawson&RevKingJamesMeredithMarch

Rev. Lawson (in sunglasses, front) with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and others at the James Meredith March Against Fear, Mississippi.

Andrew Young similarly speaks of Lawson in glowing terms as the chief instigator of the sit-ins and “as an expert on Gandhian philosophy” who “was instrumental in organizing our Birmingham nonviolent protest workshops”; Lawson was, as Young avers, “an old friend of the movement” when, in 1968, he invited King to Memphis to speak in support of the sanitation workers’ strike (see An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996).  Most strikingly, the chapter on the campaign for civil rights in the American South in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s global history of nonviolent resistance, A Force More Powerful (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), is focused not on King, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, or Roy Wilkins, to mention four of those who have been styled among the “Big Six”, but rather unexpectedly revolves around the critical place of Lawson’s extraordinary nonviolence training workshops—most recently featured in the feature film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler—in giving rise to what became some of the most characteristic expressions of nonviolent resistance, among them the sit-ins, the freedom rides, and the strategy of packing jails with dissenters.  Ackerman and Luvall echo the sentiments of Lafayette, who credited Lawson with creating “a nonviolent academy, equivalent to West Point”; they pointedly add that though Lawson was “a man of faith, he approached the tasks of nonviolent conflict like a man of science” (pp. 316-17).

LawsonMugShotMississippiRiderArrest1961

A mug shot of Rev. James M. Lawson after he was arrested in Mississippi for his role in the Freedom Rides.  Source:  https://breachofpeace.com/blog/?p=18

It is no exaggeration to suggest that King derived much of his understanding of Gandhi from Bayard Rustin and Rev. Lawson, though most histories mention only Rustin in this regard.  John D’Emilio’s exhaustive biography, Lost ProphetThe Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (New York:  Free Press, 2003) affirms what has long been known about King, namely that he “knew nothing” about Gandhian nonviolence even as he was preparing to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  D’Emilio states that “Rustin’s Gandhian credentials were impeccable”, and it fell upon Rustin to initiate the process that would transform King “into the most illustrious American proponent of nonviolence in the twentieth century.”  Though Rustin’s command over the Gandhian literature is scarcely in question, the more critical role of Lawson in bringing King to a critical awareness of the Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha, and more generally in inflecting Christian traditions of nonviolence with the teachings of Gandhi and other vectors of the Indian tradition, has been obscured.

Uniquely among the great figures of the Civil Rights Movement, as I noted in an essay penned last year, Lawson spent three formative years in his early twenties in central India.  As a college student in the late 1940s, Lawson discovered Christian nonviolence, most emphatically in the person of A. J. Muste, who was dubbed “the No. 1 US Pacifist” by Time in 1939 and would go on to be at the helm of every major movement of resistance to war from the 1920s until the end of the Vietnam War.  Lawson was a conscientious objector during the Korean War and spent over a year in jail; as Andrew Young remarks, “His stand on the Korean War was courageous and unusual in the African-American community” (An Easy Burden, p. 126).  Lawson spoke to me about his year in jail at considerable length during the course of our fourteen meetings from 2013-16 during which we conversed for something like 26 hours, and in future essays I shall turn to some of these conversations.  Following his release from jail, Lawson, who had trained as a Methodist Minister, left for India where for three years he served as an athletic coach at Hislop College, Nagpur, originally founded in 1883 as a Presbyterian school.  He deepened his understanding of Gandhi and met at length with several of Gandhi’s key associates, including Vinoba Bhave.  When he returned to the US in June 1956, Lawson uniquely embodied within himself two strands that would converge in the Civil Rights movement:  Christian nonviolence and Gandhian satyagraha.  Lawson was never in doubt that satyagraha was to be viewed as a highly systematic inquiry into, and practice of, nonviolent resistance.

Strangely, notwithstanding Reverend Lawson’s place in the Civil Rights Movement and American public life more generally, very little systematic work has been done on his life and, in particular, on his six decades of experience as a theoretician and practitioner of nonviolent resistance.  It is worth recalling that Lawson was a student of Gandhian ideas and more generally of the literature of nonviolence several years before King’s ascent into public prominence; five decades after the assassination of King, he regularly conducts workshops on nonviolence .  No American life, in this respect, is comparable to his.

I shall be writing on Rev. Lawson often, I hope, in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, I offer him my warmest felicitations on his 90th birthday!

*************

For a translation into Russian of this article by Angelina Baeva, click here.

For previous essays on Rev. Lawson on this blog, see:

The Nashville Sit-ins:

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/09/23/the-nashville-sit-ins-the-workshop-of-nonviolence-in-jim-crow-america/

and “Martin Luther King and the Challenge of Nonviolence”:

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/martin-luther-king-and-the-challenge-of-nonviolence/