The Pub Crawl and the Sprint of the Virus: Britain, COVID-19, and Englishness

(Seventh in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

Part II of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”


“The Tavern Scene”, also known as “The Orgy”, third in a series called “The Rake’s Progress”, painting by William Hogarth, 1735, from the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

The diary of Samuel Pepys, which gives us unusual insights into everyday life in London among the upper crust during the Great Plague, raises some fundamentally interesting questions about what one might describe as national histories and the logic of social response in each country to what is now the global pandemic known as COVID-19.  The diary is taken by social historians to be the supreme example of the English sensibility at work, a claim that may appear to be controverted in my suggestion that much in Pepys’ representation of what the plague wrought appears to anticipate the questions that are being asked the world over in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.  It may appear to be the case that I am advocating for the view that if one has seen one plague, one has seen all; quite to the contrary, we ought to take seriously the view commonly encountered among epidemiologists, “If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic.”  The so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-19 was, for reasons that have not been entirely understood to the present day, especially fatal to young men in their 20s and 30s, and even infants; on the other hand, COVID-19, though now known to strike people of all ages, has been the death knell more particularly for the very elderly.  If, thus far, the advanced industrialized countries of the West appear to have borne the brunt of COVID-19, in the influenza that accompanied the “Great War” countries such as India and Indonesia, both of which were under colonial rule, and China, which was mired in poverty and deeply fractured by internal strife, suffered the most. But, these differences apart, to what extent is it possible to say that the Englishness of the English informed Pepys’ thinking as it does of the English at present, and that the American, French, Chinese, Indian, or other responses to the coronavirus pandemic have, in turn, been shaped both by the contours of national histories and the sensibilities born of sharply varying conceptions of ‘culture’ and ways of experiencing notions of self, identity, and community.

The World Health Organization has from the outset of the pandemic pushed for “social distancing” as a universal protocol and national governments have generally followed suit, prescribing it to different degrees and designating the measures that have restricted the movements of people, confined them largely to their homes, and strangulated the public sphere under various names such as “lockdown”, “shelter-in-place”, “stay-at-home”, and “Movement Control”.  Yet, days before Britain on March 20th fell in with the rest of the world and Boris Johnson called for the closure of all non-essential businesses and a ban on public meetings, the British government had signaled its intention to defy the widely accepted international protocol on social distancing and continue to permit limited social gatherings and keep Britain, to use the clichéd expression, open for business.  As Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser to the British government, explained on Sky News, draconian measures designed to keep people entirely confined to their homes might work for a period of time, but the virus was bound to return once those restrictions were lifted.  Besides, as the Prime Minister had said, the British public would experience “behavioral fatigue” if they could not exercise their freedoms.  If, on the other hand, the onset of infections could be staggered by not shuttering the economy, thereby also relieving health systems of a crushing load of cases, “herd immunity” might develop among the people.

The public commentary on Great Britain’s “herd immunity” debacle has been profuse, but nearly without exception it has focused both on the quite possibly flawed epidemiological understanding of COVID-19 and the poor messaging of the government. It is vaccination that typically generates herd immunity, and the notion that an immune population might be created by a lethal infectious agent opens up the possibility that some lives, perhaps a great many lives, are viewed as expendable.  On March 12th, while warning the British public that the country faced “the worst public health crisis for a generation” and that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”, Prime Minister Johnson nevertheless said that he was neither prepared to close schools nor join Scotland in banning gatherings of more than 500 people. Johnson was prepared only to advise those over 70 that they should desist from taking cruises just as schools were to refrain from taking pupils on trips abroad. It is not in Britain alone that people were aghast at such pronouncements emanating from the highest offices of the land that seemed to suggest that the British government was aiming at creating an epidemic by having a significant portion, perhaps as much as 60 percent, of the populace get infected in the expectation that the “herd immunity” thus developed would eventually render the virus impotent.

The death toll in Britain from the coronavirus stood at 12 on March 12th; eight days later, when Johnson in a televised address to the nation declared the decision of the British government to reverse course and join the world in advocating for a total ban on public gatherings and the virtual shuttering of the economy, the number had risen to nearly 150. “We are collectively telling cafes, pubs, bars, restaurants”, Johnson said as indicated in the transcript of his remarks released by the Prime Minister’s Office, “to close tonight as soon as they reasonably can, and not to open tomorrow. . . . And listening to what I have just said, some people may of course be tempted to go out tonight.  But please don’t.  You may think you are invincible, but there is no guarantee you will get mild symptoms, and you can still be a carrier of the disease and pass it on to others.”  Counseling, as he had done earlier in the address, the public to stay at home, Johnson had this to add:  “I know how difficult this is, how it seems to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people.”  He appears also to have said, as reported in the liberal Guardian, “We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub”, though the more conservative Sun rendered it quite differently:  “Mr Johnson said he realized it [the government order] went against what he called “‘the inalienable free-born right of people born in England to go to the pub.’”


English Pubs and London’s Night Scene, before the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020.

Let us not quibble at the moment over the differences, significant as they are, in the accounts of Johnson’s remarks as found in the Guardian and the Sun:  if it is only people “born in England” who have the inalienable right to go to the pub, that would seem to exclude the millions of immigrants who have put down roots in Britain and taken citizenship, not to mention the Irish, the Scots, and the Welsh.  One can scarcely imagine a more offensive remark at a time when immigrant doctors and health workers who staff Britain’s National Health Service, which Johnson has more recently thanked profusely for restoring him to health after his dangerous flirtation with coronavirus-induced death, have clearly gone out of the way to render service to a nation that has often been inclined to treat them as something little better than second-class citizens.  There is yet a more grave consideration here:  In Johnson’s extraordinary invocation of the restrictions demanded by the pandemic as an affront to the freedom-loving instincts of the British and most certainly English people, and as a violation of their inalienable right to the pub, we are face-to-face with the political epidemiology of COVID-19.  Enough has been said by virologists, medical practitioners, and scientists about the epidemiology of the coronavirus; and increasingly, though this language is opaque to most journalists, we are also hearing a good deal about its social epidemiology and the visibly greater vulnerability of the poor, the working-class, and the socially and politically disadvantaged to COVID-19.  It is Friedrich Engels who, in his majestic The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), furnished the grounds of an incipient social epidemiology in his penetrating analysis of the greater susceptibility of the working class to deprivation, desolation, and disease.  The “usual consequences of inhaling factory dust”, he wrote in a characteristically blunt passage on the workers of Manchester amongst whom he lived and worked for two years, “are the spitting of blood, heavy, noisy breathing, pains in the chest, coughing and sleeplessness.”  It is in fact social epidemiology that is now helping us to chart the disproportionately detrimental effects of COVID-19 as it makes its way across prison populations, slums, chawls, ghettos, favelas, banlieues, shantytowns, immigrant neighborhoods, and working-class enclaves. [For an excellent discussion of what Engels saw in Manchester, the reader is referred to Howard Waitzkin, “The Social Origins of Illness: A Neglected History”, in Embodying InequalityEpidemiologic Perspectives, ed. Nancy Krieger (Routledge, 2016.]

Gustave Dore London 1872

London, by Gustave Dore (1872).

Political epidemiology, however, takes us still further afield to a larger set of questions on how national histories and conceptions of national character have shaped the response of politicians and the populace alike to the coronavirus across countries and political systems. England has long prided itself on its essential distinction from everyone else, but nothing is more critical to English political life and self-awareness than the idea that it is apart from continental Europe even as it partakes fully of the legacies of Western civilization.  The idea—the Englishness of the English—is present in Shakespeare; it is there in the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens; and it was cemented by what is commonly thought to be, and has in England itself been represented as, the crowning moment of glory in Britain’s modern history as it became the vanquisher of a militant Germany in World War II.  The Nazis took Paris almost effortlessly, a palpable demonstration (though this was not always loudly proclaimed) of Gallic effeminacy and cowardice:  all that stood between civilization and barbarism, as the English would come to believe, was their own indomitable will to resist naked militarism and keep out the barbaric German invader. Some have characterized the English demeanor through the expression, “the stiff upper lip”, but it is perhaps better captured in the storied history of the Londoner’s stoic and yet nonchalant resistance to the carpet bombing of their city.  People went into the Underground as the bombs incessantly rained down on their beloved city; once the air raid siren sounded the “all clear”, they emerged into the streets—and headed for the ale-house, Boris Johnson’s much vaunted “pub”.


“Behind the Bar”, a painting by John Henry Henshall, 1883.

“No man is an island entire of itself”, John Donne famously wrote, but the notion of Great Britain as an island complete unto itself, standing forth as something like the Rock of Gibraltar, never more so than in the face of adversity, has been pervasive in the history of English self-representation.  It has played a significant part in fueling Britain’s exit from the European Union, just as it informs both Boris Johnson’s initial decision to separate Britain from the herd, ironically in the name of attempting to have the British acquire “herd immunity”, and later his seemingly quaint invocation of the “inalienable right” of the English—or did he say British, which is quite a different thing, when one considers the history of England’s suppression of Scotland, or the virulent English hatred until comparatively recent times of the Irish as infernal Papists—to “go to the pub”.  George Orwell was mindful of “the insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously”, but if this has been “a folly that has to be paid for heavily from time to time” he also thought that the same characteristic had helped to “keep out the invader.”  Orwell’s war-time essay, “England Your England”, is a paean to this very Englishness:  “When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air.”  The feeling one has in England is bound up “with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes”—and, above all, with the awareness that this is one country where “the liberty of the individual is still believed in”, a liberty which has “nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit”, but rather the liberty “to have a home of our own . . . to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above”.  The freedom-loving instincts of the English people send them, Boris Johnson has told us, to the pub and the coronavirus pandemic must not be permitted to strip them of this ancient right:  as Orwell put it, the culture of England has hovered around the “pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea.’”

(to be continued)

See also Part I, “Life in the Time of Plague:  Samuel Pepys in London, 1663-66”, here.

Remote Learning and Social Distancing:  The Political Economy and Politics of Corona Pedagogy

(Third in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

The advent of COVID-19, or a novel coronavirus, has, it appears, virtually overnight altered the nature of university instruction and student learning.  Throughout the months of January and February 2020, while the virus created havoc in China before turning Italy into the new epicenter, life proceeded on American university campuses without any real thought to what was transpiring in that ‘distant’ country. By January 25, a cordon sanitaire had been placed around the entire province of Hubei Province, which with a population of 60 million has as many people as Italy, but this did not leave any real impression on Americans nor on universities.  As late as February 20, Italy had reported less than a handful of cases, and though there was the whole spectacle of a cruise ship marooned just outside the port city of Yokohama (really a ‘suburb’ of greater Tokyo) with hundreds of passengers stricken with the virus, COVID-19 must still have appeared as an overwhelmingly ‘Asian’ problem.  In truth, even the alleged world-class universities in the most cosmopolitan cities of the United States are overwhelmingly insular.  This is, needless to say, partly the consequence of being ‘American’:  in universities, as in other spheres of life, ‘American exceptionalism’ reigns supreme, and there is frankly little interest in what transpires in the rest of the world. One hopes that, in rejoinder, one will not be told that most of the major American universities, and even many of the minor ones, have “global studies” programs, vast number of area studies programs and departments, and instruction in host of languages.  They doubtless do but even naivety has its limits.  Hegemons must command vast areas of knowledge as much as they wield dazzling military power, use their power to bend other nations to their will, or attempt to set the global agenda in various domains of life.

By early March, as COVID-19 continued on its relentless search for new terrains, panic was beginning to set in and on March 6th Stanford became the first university to announce that it was moving all classes online.  Harvard followed suit some days later, as did the gigantic 10-campus University of California, and within hours nearly hundreds of college and university had suspended in-class instruction.  The letter of the President of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow, to members of the Harvard University of March 10th serves as a useful template for understanding how university leaders across the nation have sought to normalize the transition to what is called “remote learning”.  It begins with the customary acknowledgment that the crisis at hand has been “a powerful reminder of just how connected we are to one another”: barely had this platitude left the mouth of this “leader” of the world’s richest university, it became known that Harvard had no plans to offer any aid to students from working class families who were being asked to vacate their dormitory rooms instantly and had nowhere to go and inadequate funds to support themselves in independent housing. One student on financial aid, interviewed for a New York Times article, said that Harvard’s edict felt “like an eviction notice.” Harvard is well-connected indeed—what else is it but well-connected, we may ask—but its niggardly conduct and miserliness is as well-known as its propensity for being connected with the elect.

Without much fanfare, Bacow then proceeds to state that Harvard will “begin transitioning to virtual instruction for undergraduate and graduate classes”, and that students are asked “to meet academic requirements remotely until further notice” and be prepared to stay at home. “The decision to move to virtual instruction was not made lightly”, avers Bacow, but members of the community were given no insights into the supposed ponderous deliberations in which he and other university administrators were engaged.  The Chancellor of UCLA, the institution from which I derive my livelihood, similarly emailed members of the “campus community” about the “transition to online instruction” on March 10th.  The wording of his missive, announcing the immediate suspension of “in-person classes” and the “transition to online platforms”, is similarly entirely opaque about the substantive nature of the deliberations, though the “community” is sought to be reassured that the decision was taken “after detailed and thoughtful discussion, consultation with experts, and planning and preparation”.  I suppose it is enough these days to mention “experts” and expect that, willy-nilly, everyone will quietly fall into line. Presidents of even leading universities long ago ceased to be intellectuals—and I am hopeful that the distinction between “intellectuals” and academics, especially academic “experts”, still resonates with some—and the preponderant number, notwithstanding their academic credentials, have more of an aptitude for administrative work, fund-raising, and parleying with the legislature and the corporate world rather than anything else. Lately, considering this or that crisis—gun shootings and ICE raids on undocumented students, to name two—they serve eminently as conduits of information, as grief counselors, as consolers-in-chief, and as purveyors of messages of the “thoughts and prayers” variety. What is striking is that nowhere in these messages from Presidents, Chancellors, and Provosts is there any substantive discussion of the implications of “remote learning”.

The extraordinary ease with which the highest-level university administrators have sought to effect the transition to “online” or “remote” learning should, however, be a matter of grave concern.  It is not that administrators have not anticipated the concerns that some faculty and students alike have expressed:  some students do not own computers, while others, particularly in rural areas, have limited or unstable internet connections; and there are yet other students, especially from poor or working-class families, who share their rooms with siblings or do not have quiet places where they can work.  And there are even students, if a miniscule number, who are without any roof over their head.  All these and other akin considerations are highly pertinent, if predictable: they point to the fact that higher education is as hierarchical an enterprise as any, and that its political economy in the US reflects the nakedly capitalist system in which it is embedded.  But these concerns, genuine as they are, do not begin to approximate the perils of the mass transition to “remote learning” that is now taking place under the cover of the coronavirus.

Several considerations may be brought forward as a prolegomenon to further discussions on the subject.  First, though the present transition to “remote learning” is being presented as a temporary measure, there is every possibility that it will become a permanent feature of the American educational landscape to a far greater degree than is the case at present.  There are many people, representing a range of interests, who have been asking why, if brick-and-mortar bookstores have been replaced with Amazon and other online book vendors, and even grocery stores have lost a substantial portion of their business to online merchants, colleges and universities as we have known them should not fold and turn strictly to online learning. The initial investment in preparing a proper online course in a studio setting can be hefty, but is quickly recovered as the course can be recycled to tens of thousands of students in multiple setting over a long span of time; moreover, the “remote learning” that is now being peddled as the substitute for in-class teachings does not even remotely require such an investment.  Those who have been hired to offer online instruction at community colleges or 4-year state level institutions over the last several years are generally paid a pittance, sometimes as low as $2500 for a full semester-long course or even a lesser amount for a course with a handful of students.

The growing attraction for online learning stems, however, from considerations besides the fact that online education is much cheaper than the “traditional” classroom setting.  The university is one of the few remaining sites of dissent in most countries; the university is, comparatively speaking and to use a colloquialism, a “messy business”.  University cafes have everywhere been recognized as the place where the real learning takes place, and where fellowship and conviviality become possible.  Democracies have to allow, at least to a minimal extent, a public space to radical, dissenting, and eccentric ideas, and that space, to the extent that it exists at all in a country where nearly everyone subscribes to the capitalist ethos, is occupied preeminently by the university. Few people really understand what universities represent, and to most people, indeed even to most students, the university is merely a passport to secure employment and a job-training factory. The corporate and managerial types, as well as many politicians, have long fretted over the inefficiency of the modern university, where, lo and behold, a professor of art history, anthropology, or English literature may—in the best of circumstances—end up making upwards of $200,000 annually, and that too for teaching two to four courses every year. Though the corporation has made deep inroads into the American university, and rendered some units of the university—economics department, and the business and law schools, to name a few—largely servile to its own interests, the feeling persists that much more needs to be done to put the university on a “business model.”

The increasing encroachment of the business model, the ascendancy of the managerial and administrative types, and the relentless quest for profits have all had the effect of already altering the university in the US, and in countries such as India where the American model of privatization resonates strongly with the present government and Indian elites, to an appreciable degree. Nowhere is the present turn more palpable than in the increasingly diminished ranks of tenured faculty and the resort to adjunct and part-time instructors, many of whom are paid abysmally low wages, lack union representation, have no medical insurance, and of course have absolutely no protection against dismissal.  A recent review article in the New York Review of Books (12 March 2020) of some 15-20 books on higher education terms these adjuncts not incorrectly as the “serfs of academe”.  The brute fact is that the same administrators who are effortlessly pushing for remote learning, without any discussion whatsoever with tenured faculty, are also in favor of increasing the ranks of adjunct faculty. They cost the university a fraction of what tenured faculty do, particularly at the most prestigious institutions.  All of this transpires amidst the charade of what at the University of California is called “shared governance”: naturally, university administrators are not keen on conversing with tenured faculty whom they would like to see replaced with cheaper and more vulnerable academic labor.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it is also transparently clear that “remote learning” is in the most insidious ways the apposite form of pedagogy for the “social distancing” that we are all enjoined to practice diligently.  One of the many unfortunate trends in American higher education, which I now fear is going to become more prominent with “remote learning”, is the destruction of the relationship between the professor and the student. It would take a volume to etch the narrative of this corrosive decline as there are myriad factors which have led to such a state of affairs. Many students in American universities, even at the better ones, are woefully underprepared for any serious intellectual inquiry, and the vast majority, as I have already argued, have no intrinsic interest in learning.  But leaving aside these considerations, if one may turn to a very different illustration of the corruption of pedagogy, it is astonishing that a preponderant number of the faculty, at American universities and indeed now in universities in many other countries, such as Australia and Britain, have readily embraced such technologies as Turnitin [turn-it-in]. It has been ostensibly designed to prevent students from plagiarizing and thus, as the company states, to promote “academic integrity”.  Such technologies amply illustrate the place of surveillance in a modern liberal society and the various ways in which the state has encouraged the practice of self-surveillance.  There is a further problem here, though no one seems much bothered by it:  the assumption is that potentially every student is adept at cheating, and students must establish that the work is their own and not plagiarized.  (We may leave aside, for obvious reasons, such finer points as what is meant by plagiarism, how ideas are borrowed, or how in borrowing an idea might find a more interesting life than in the ‘original’ text; we may also ignore the argument advanced by compliant faculty that their recourse to Turnitin derives merely from considerations of expediency, just as it discourages students from leaning blatantly on the work of others without due acknowledgment.)

The effect of modern university learning, I would submit, has been to distance faculty from students.  I am also mindful of the fact that there are arguments to be made for some forms of distancing:  some faculty, to take one example, might argue that such distancing has been critical in keeping some male professors from preying on female students.  The university is, needless to say, a very different institution than what it was three or four decades ago, but what is unquestionably true, to my mind, is that relationships built on trust have become increasingly difficult. “Remote learning” and “social distancing” are, in the milieu of university education, cognate categories:  what remote learning will undoubtedly do is render students even more distant from faculty.  University education is headed entirely in the direction of becoming another business, just merely another enterprise in a society that knows no other kind of person than homo economicus.  The coronavirus pandemic is likely to hasten the end of the traditional university as we have known it over the decades and centuries.

















Gandhi and the Ecological Sensibility

(Second of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The word ‘ecology’ appears nowhere in Gandhi’s writings and similarly he never spoke on environmental protection as such. Yet, as the Chipko Movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or, in a very different context, the manifesto of the German Greens and the action against the Mardola dam in Norway have clearly shown, the impress of Gandhi’s thinking on ecological movements has been felt widely.  The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who traveled through India in 1969 with Johan Galtung and Sigmund Kvaloy, and with whose name “deep ecology” is associated, confessed that it is from Gandhi that he came to the realization of “the essential oneness of all life.”  Gandhi was a practitioner of recycling decades before the idea caught on in the West and he initiated perhaps the most far-reaching critiques of the ideas of consumption and that fetish of the economist called “growth” that we have ever seen.  Thus, in myriad ways, we can begin to entertain the idea that he was a thinker with a profoundly ecological sensibility.

In one of several books that he wrote on India, the late V. S. Naipaul skewered Gandhi for his narcissism.  Adverting to the three years that Gandhi spent in London as a law student, Naipaul points out that his autobiography is stunningly silent about the landscape, trees, vegetation, or the much vaunted English notion of ‘nature’.  It is certainly the case that Gandhi was sparse in his discussion of the relationship of humans to their external environment.  Similarly, though Gandhi was a great admirer of Thoreau, and had read, besides his famous essay on the duty of civil disobedience, Walden and the essay on ‘Walking’, I wonder what he made of Thoreau’s enterprise of retreating into the woods for a two-year stay.  Gandhi was no naturalist. When the English historian Edward Thompson once expressed his concern to him about the rapid disappearance of wildlife in India, Gandhi reportedly replied, “wildlife is decreasing in the jungles, but it is increasing in the towns.”

The ecological dimensions of Gandhi’s thinking cannot be comprehended unless one is prepared to accept that ecology, ethics, and politics were deeply enmeshed into the very fabric of his being. Take, for example, his practice of observing twenty-four hours of silence on a regular basis. The maun vrat has a honorable place in Hindu religiosity and one might be tempted into thinking that Gandhi was only following Hindu tradition, and, to take the argument further, it was his way of entering into an introspective state and making himself receptive to the still voice within. A more political reading might suggest that it was also his way of bending the English to communicate on his terms.  But it was also an ecological gesture, a mode of conserving energy and a devastating indictment of the modern industrial culture of noise and consumption.  We talk too much, eat too much, and consume too much.  The phrase “noise pollution”, and India is the most egregious example of it in the world, is nowhere in Gandhi but he tacitly had a full-fledged critique of it.

There are other respects, and I shall take up only three, in which the ecological vision of Gandhi’s life opens itself up to us.  First, he was of the considered opinion that nature should be allowed to take its course.  The environmental crises and “extreme weather events” that are upon us have been precipitated by the gross and appalling instrumentalization of nature. The earth is not merely there to be mined, logged, farmed, domesticated, and hollowed out.  However, we have to first preserve the ecological equanimity of the body.  Nature’s creatures mind their own business:  if humans were to do the same, we would not be required to legislate the health of all species.  Thus Gandhi did not, for instance, prevent others from killing snakes but a cobra entering his room was left alone.  “I do not want to live”, he said, “at the cost of the life even of a snake.”

Secondly, Gandhi mounted a rigorous critique of the “waste” that is behind modern industrial civilization in more ways than we imagine.  European colonization the world over was justified with the claim that natives and indigenous people “wasted” their land and did not render it sufficiently productive. But Gandhi also held to the view that humans are prone to transform whatever they touch into waste.  His close disciple and associate, Kaka Kalelkar, narrates that he was in the habit of breaking off an entire twig merely for four or five neem leaves he needed to rub on the fibers of the carding-bow to make its strings pliant and supple.  When Gandhi saw that, he remarked:  “This is violence. We should pluck the required number of leaves after offering an apology to the tree for doing so. But you broke off the whole twig, which is wasteful and wrong.”

Thirdly, as is well known, Gandhi was a staunch vegetarian, and he would have been pleased with a great deal of modern research which has established that the extreme pressures upon the soil and water resources have also been induced by the meat industry and the massive increase in levels of meat consumption when people start entering into the middle class in countries such as India.  But to be ‘ecological’ in sensibility also means harboring a notion of largesse towards others; it is a way of being in the world.  European visitors to his ashram, where only vegetarian meals were prepared, had meat served to them if they desired.  To inflict a new diet upon someone who was habituated to meat at every meal was, in Gandhi’s thinking, a form of violence. As he once told Mirabehn, “People whose custom it is to eat meat should not stop doing so simply because I am present.”

Gandhi strikes a remarkable chord with all those who have cherished the principles of non-injury, cared for the environment, practiced vegetarianism, worked energetically to conserve our air, soil, and water, resisted the depredations of developers, recycled paper, or accorded animals the dignity of humans. In contemplating his life, his anticipation of the Anthropocene is striking. “God forbid that India”, Gandhi told an interlocutor in 1928, “should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West.  The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” What if, Gandhi is also asking, nature was the bearer of rights?  What would nature have to say on this subject?

Not less remarkably, though Gandhi wrote no ecological treatise, he made one of his life.  This is one life in which every minute act, emotion, or thought was not without its place:  the brevity of Gandhi’s enormous writings, his small meals of nuts and fruits, his morning ablutions and everyday bodily practices, his periodic observances of silence, his morning walks, his cultivation of the small as much as of the big, his abhorrence of waste, his resort to fasting—all these point to the manner in which he orchestrated the symphony of life. No philosopher of ecology could have done as much.

(First published in a slightly different form as “An Environmentalist by Nature”, The Hindu (2 October 2019), special supplement, Gandhi@150, 18-19.)

This article is also available in a French translation by Mathilde Guibert here:


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

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

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Rowdy Howdy animated video:

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.


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:


Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Street Protest

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

Hong Kong Protestors

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

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

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

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

Umbrella Movement.jpg

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

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

Hong Kong Protests Traffic Cones As Shields.jpg

Protesters in Hong Kong have been using traffic cones to counter tear gas. (Photo on the left by Antony Dapiran; image (screengrab) on the right by Alex Hofford).  Source:

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

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


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

For a French translation of this article by Laura Beoschat, see this:

For a Bengali translation of the ABP version of this article, click here.

For a Hindi translation of the ABP version of this article, click here.

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

For a Gujarati translation oft the AbP version of this article, click here.]



*A Loss too Great to Behold:  The Passing of S. M. Mohamed Idris (1926-2019)


S M Mohamed Idris, the Grand Old Man of Penang to the world, or “Uncle Idris” as he was known affectionately to his younger friends—and everyone was younger to him—passed on a late Friday afternoon a little less than three weeks ago.  He was the last of his kind:  kind and devout, yet fiercely disciplined and a taskmaster to everyone but never more so than to himself, a man of intense moral probity and perhaps more than anything else a relentless enemy of injustice, wherever and in whatever form it appeared.  Oh, yes, there was something else about him:  it was nearly impossible not to feel affectionate towards Uncle Idris, such was the radiance and goodwill that emanated from him.

Though born in India, Idris spent by far the greater portion of his nearly 93 years in Malaysia, most of them in Penang.  He arrived in the Straits Settlement in 1938, but, as far as I can recall from our conversations, he did not finish his education owing to the turmoil induced by World War II.  We did not speak very much about his past; in fact, he cared to speak little about himself, not only viewing that as a form of self-indulgence but as something that distracted from the urgency of the moment.  I first met him in February 2002 when he hosted a meeting in Penang, organized both at his initiative and at the behest of our mutual friend Claude Alvares, of a group that came to be known as Multiversity.  His sponsorship and mentorship of Multiversity tells us a good deal about him:  though Idris was not a man of strictly academic disposition, and was (some would say) impatient for results, he was not at all among those activists who had disdain for the academic world.  Multiversity may be described as an intellectual endeavor aimed at both the decolonization of the modern university and liberation from the intellectual dominance of the modern West.  Through a series of meetings in Penang, the last of which I attended in 2011, Idris continued to retain a vibrant interest in Multiversity and the projects that grew out of it.


However, to Penang and the rest of Malaysia, Idris was the supreme builder of institutions who gave birth to the consumer rights’ movement in the country and whose name also became synonymous with struggles intended to provide the common people of Penang, and Malaysia more widely, with clean air and water, sensible mass transportation systems, and accurate information on the toxins that people are increasingly putting into their bodies, the perils of climate change, the problems of soil erosion, the desirability of forest cover, and so on.  The organization with which his name was indelibly linked for nearly five decades, the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP), was founded by Idris and some friends and soulmates in 1970 and it became renowned throughout the world among consumer rights’ advocates.  However, it is critical to understand that CAP was never merely a successful “consumer’s association” in the narrow sense of the term, advocating for the rights of the public as consumers and ensuring that corporations and manufacturers abide by the highest standards and state regulations in the matter of consumer goods.  To be sure, if CAP determined that a product was defective and deserved to be recalled, the organization made known the facts to the public and prevailed upon corporations to do their bit.  But Idris was, as all right thinking people are, inherently suspicious of corporations and I doubt he was ever deceived into thinking that these behemoths could shed their intrinsic nature to be engaged in the unchecked pursuit of profit.  He might have thought that “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) was a shade better than corporations acting with total disregard of their responsibilities to communities, but Idris knew of course that CSR is nothing but a cover which permits corporations to gain credibility and win wider markets.

Since there was nothing by way of a consumer movement in the rest of southeast Asia, CAP’s mandate grew as well.  In its initial years, as I have already suggested, it appears to have worked on entirely local issues, rendering advise to the public on consumer-related matters, and drafting public policy documents on land redistribution and tenant rights.  This continued to be the most laborious aspect of its work, and consumers were given assistance on how complaints could be filed about faulty goods or services.  CAP’s work spread through the rest of Malaysia and into other parts of Southeast Asia.    But Idris then took CAP on to another plane of existence, and by the mid-1980s he brought CAP into conversation with other international NGOs, especially with a view to enhancing South-South cooperation; he also sought a platform to make known CAP’s views on such global issues as human rights, sustainable development, global warning, foreign aid, GATT [later superseded by WTO], alternative medicine, South-North relations, and so on.


At a conference on “The Third World: Development or Crisis?” hosted by Idris and CAP in Penang in 1984 attended by over 100 participants from 21 countries, the Third World Network (TWN) was brought into existence with the intention of furnishing southeast Asian countries, in particular, with a forum for addressing the aforementioned issues.  Though closely associated with CAP, the Third World Network, with an international secretariat in Penang and offices in Kuala Lumpur and Geneva, and researchers based in Jakarta, Manila, Delhi, Montevideo, Accra, and elsewhere, had from the outset an independent existence and an extraordinarily wide-ranging publication program.  Its main organ, Third World Resurgence, is published monthly in English and Spanish, and has an international reputation; Third World Economics is a fortnightly economics magazine, also published in English and Spanish versions.  In addition, TWN furnishes articles to the media every week, and its Geneva offices publish a daily South-North Development Monitor, the SUNS Bulletin.


It was as a consequence of CAP’s efforts and its wide-ranging work in the public sphere that the Malaysian government finally, sometime in the late 1970s, set up a Department of Environment. Idris led Sahabat Alam Malaysia, or Friends of the Earth Malaysia, for 40 years:  this organization, founded to combat environmental deterioration, was ahead of most similar organizations in the rest of the world, and Idris himself was attentive to the problem of climate change well before it became a commonplace in certain circles to start referencing it as the gravest challenge to humankind. Throughout, with the various NGOs that Idris had founded, Idris sought to insert itself into the debates raging around intellectual property rights, globalization, the role of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other facets of the imperial architecture of global trade and finance, the alleviation of poverty in the South, and growing disparities in wealth in, and among, nations.  But these grand issues were not the only ones to which he diverted his energy.  He was just as passionate, and perhaps more so, about “mundane” issues–alerting the public, for instance, to the growing resistance to antibiotics and our ominous love affair with sugar—or, what has for many become the same thing, death.  I don’t think I ever saw him with any drink in his hand except a plain glass of water:  in comparatively alcohol-free Malaysia, with one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world, Idris was mercifully free of the cola addiction.


S. M. Mohamed Idris on World Diabetes Day.

Idris played as well a key role in the civic and political life of Penang, serving as city councilman and ombudsman.  It is no wonder that the “Who’s Who” of Penang turned up at his Georgetown residence after Idris’s passing to offer their respects.  One might go in this vein and continue to enumerate the remarkable achievements of S. M. Mohamed Idris.  He was a person of indefatigable energy:  though his last several months were difficult and he was in and out of the hospital, CAP officer and his long-time assistant, Ms. Uma Ramaswamy, told me during our phone conversation a few days before Idris passed that he was at his office desk the moment that his health permitted him and that, from his hospital bed, he continued to dictate letters and conduct the affairs of CAP.  To those who knew him, however extraordinary his achievements, it is his personal qualities that marked out him as a person of absolutely unimpeachable moral probity. He never made any demands on others that he did not first impose on himself and it is entirely characteristic of his utterly self-effacing nature that he rejected nearly all awards.  The sickening self-aggrandizement and vulgar performativity of celebrity seekers was entirely foreign to him.  He had little use for Twitter and Facebook:  the ordinary phone was enough for him.


Paying their Respects to S. M. Mohamed Idris, 6 December 1926 – 17 May 2019.

But even all this cannot capture the peerless character of Uncle Idris. Four images of him resonate with me and will stay with me whenever my thoughts turn to him.  He had the most wonderful smile—as guileless as one can imagine.  Secondly, I never saw him in anything but his trademark white kurta and sarong, topped off by the songkok:  as he aged, the black kopiah and his generous white beard offer a luminous contrast.  Then there is the remark he once made to me, after one of the Multiversity meetings:  “We want the West off our backs.”  Idris fought the foul air and the stench of colonialism and neo-colonialism with equal vigor.  And, finally, the image that is indelibly etched into my memory:  invited to his home on numerous occasions for dinner, I was positively humbled by the fact that Idris always washed his own plate after the meal. Each member of his family did so.   The democratic spirit has to be inculcated at home before we dare to carry it abroad.

Earth, receive an honoured guest.

The Grand Old Man of Penang is laid to rest.

Let the Malaysian skies pour

As Idris travels to another shore

(after Auden, in memory of Yeats)










*On Being at the Top of the World:   Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest

I opened the newspapers on May 24th to two disconcerting even stupefying stories that are wholly unrelated and yet, to my mind, seem strangely if not inextricably linked in several ways.  Both stories captured the world’s attention, if for altogether different reasons.  In India, the incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had not only retained his seat in Varanasi by a huge margin but he had led his party to a crushing and decisive victory over his political foes, scattering his opponents like atoms in the dust.  The Indian Express’s chief political columnist, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, headlined the achievement of Modi with the phrase, “Staggering Dominance”.  Some in the media spoke of his “landslide reelection”, while others described the unambiguous “mandate” he had received from the country.


The Tweeting Yogi: Narendra Modi meditating at Kedarnath. He tweeted this image, just before the conclusion of the elections. Source: Hindustan Times.

In neighboring Nepal, meanwhile, the summit of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world at 29,028 feet, had become something like a clogged highway. “On Mt. Everest,” the article in the New York Times stated, “Heavy Traffic isn’t Just Inconvenient.  It Can Be Deadly.”  The photograph accompanying the article tells a story staggering in the extreme:  mountaineers are queued up, as people in South Asia often are at bus stations, railway ticket offices, cinema halls, and government offices, to climb the summit.  The line is several hundred meters long, perhaps even longer than a mile. Death at the highest point on earth can be caused by frostbite, oxygen depletion, long exposure to the inclement weather, high altitude sickness—and, now, a traffic jam.  Two climbers had died under these difficult circumstances when the first reports appeared on May 23-24; in the following days, at least another eight climbers died.  In 2018, by contrast, five climbers had died during the entire climbing season.


The Zoo Atop the World: The line for the summit at Mt. Everest, May 2019. Source: Getty Images.

So what does it feel like being at the top of the world?  Narendra Modi would know, and what is wholly distinct about him is that he stands in singular and sinister isolation at the summit of Indian politics. The BJP had almost wiped out the Congress, and nearly all other opposition, in 2014; no one, barring perhaps the BJP, which in the voice of Modi has declared that it aims to win the votes of all 900 million Indian voters, thought that the 2019 election outcome would result in the further decimation of the opposition. Under the existing rules of the Indian Parliament, established by the first Lok Sabha speaker, G. V. Mavlankar, and finally codified under the Parliament (Facilities) Act 1998, an official “leader of the opposition” in either House cannot be declared until an opposition party has at least 10% of the seats.  With 44 seats in 2014 the Congress did not qualify as the “opposition” in the Lok Sabha, which has a membership of 543.  Having fallen short of the target of 55 seats by 3 seats this year, the Congress still does not quality.


PM Jawaharlal Nehru with Ganesh Vasudev Mavalankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Source: The Hindu Group.

We may say, then, that Modi rules the Indian political scene much as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi did in their times.  It may be comforting for Modi’s critics to believe that those who rise so spectacularly to the top are likely to have a precipitous fall:  that is not always the case.   The greater concern, to invoke Lord Acton’s maxim, is that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  If Modi and the BJP have captured all the institutions of state power, and bankrupted or emasculated those which are not so readily pliable to the will of the party, the circumstances for the longevity of Indian democracy in any meaningful sense of the term cannot be described as propitious.  More than 70 years after independence, the summit should have been crowded—with ideas, with the play of the imagination, with parties speaking in different tongues and articulating compelling narratives of social justice.  Instead, what do we find?  The Congress has become moribund, the Communists eviscerated.  There is only one narrative now—call it Hindu pride or call it the Hindu nation-state, but it is more effectively captured by one word:  Modi.  “In New India,” as one newspaper put it, “the prime minister towers above all parties, including his own.”


An Image from Pakistani Television. Source: You Tube.

Ironically, at the summit of Mt. Everest, where it should have been all quiet, the parking lot is full. The Arizona doctor who arrived on the summit was in for a surprise:  on the flat part of the summit, about the size of two ping-pong tables, 15-20 mountaineers were jockeying for positions to take selfies.  He thought he had arrived at a “zoo.”  The saints who in India have for millennia been arguing that there is no solitude anywhere except within one’s own self perhaps knew a thing or two that we may be recognizing today—even atop Everest.  Why do people climb Everest?  We doubtless know all the answers:  the thrill associated with taking risks, the flirtation with death, the challenge it poses to even experienced climbers, the human need to continue to scale new heights, and others in that vein.  One person, I forget who, put it starkly, and with likely greater plausibility:  because it is there.


Line Up, Please, for the Summit: The delights of Mt. Everest and Being on Top of the World. Source: National Geographic.

The history books which speak of Everest being first “conquered” by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norway in 1953 are still closer to the truth in that they suggest, if unwittingly, that the narrative of conquest has all along triggered the exodus to Everest.  This exodus has, besides the zoo at the summit, created a veritable garbage dump all along the path from the base camp to the summit.  Though Modi stands singularly at the top of the world, and Everest as the top of the world has become a crowded place, Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest share, in more ways than we can imagine, threads of the same narrative of conquest, of twitter and selfies, and the difficulties of solitude and reflection in these times.  We don’t know how many lives have been discarded on the ascendant path to Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest and where it will stop.

(First published on ABP Live Blog under the same title, here.)