Gandhi’s Religion

Gandhi Jayanti, 2 October 2019

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

The subject of Gandhi’s “religion” has never been more important than at present when Hindu nationalism is sharply ascendant and Hindu pride is being championed as a necessary form of the reawakening of a long subjugated people.  The contemporary Hindu nationalist narrative also feeds on other propositions, among them the conceit that Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, the view that Hinduism is uniquely tolerant, the apprehension that Hinduism’s tolerance has historically rendered it vulnerable to more aggressive faiths, and the twin conviction that Indian civilization is fundamentally Hindu in its roots and that secularism is alien to India.

Gandhi would not have abided by much of this worldview.  Indeed, he would have been sharply critical of what is represented by Hindu nationalism, and therefore it becomes imperative to assess what he understood by Hinduism, what it meant for him to be a Hindu, the relationships that he forged with Muslims and Christians, and the centrality of Hindu-Muslim unity in his thinking. It is well to remember that Gandhi’s assassin felt justified in killing him partly on the grounds that Gandhi had betrayed the Hindu community.

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The more secular-minded have thought it fit, with some justification, to characterize his religion as manavta (humanity), manav seva (the service of humankind), or sarvodaya (the welfare of all).  But the fact remains that Gandhi often declared his belief in varnasrama dharma and he remained a devout Hindu.  The roots of Gandhi’s religious worldview and conduct must be located in the religious milieu from which he emerged and in which he was raised.  Gandhi’s predilection for the Vaishnavism of his household and the region was reflected later in his life, one might say, by his fondness for Narsi Mehta’s bhajans, most famously “Vaishnava Janato”, and Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas. His mother belonged to the Pranami sect which, if centered on Krishna worship, showed a remarkable ecumenism in also drawing upon the Quran and the Bible and multiple linguistic traditions.  But Jainism also left a deep impress upon Gandhi from the outset, and Gandhi drew upon all three traditions in his thinking about ahimsa and what Jains call anekanantavada, “the many-sidedness of perspective”.

Gandhi has himself said that he first acquired an understanding of textbook Hinduism in England. He first became familiar with the Gita, a work which would in time become his life-companion, in the English rendering of it by Edwin Arnold called “The Song Celestial”. The world of Christianity really opened itself up to him in South Africa: the Old Testament put him to sleep, but portions of the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, moved him deeply.  And it is in South Africa that he encountered a great many missionaries, who all came to the conclusion that it was impossible to convert Gandhi to Christianity since he was a much better Christian than any they had ever encountered.

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Gandhi had known Indian Muslims in South Africa and he addressed the question of Hindu-Muslim unity in Hind Swaraj (1909). Nevertheless, it was upon his return to India in 1915 and his immersion into Indian public life that made him gravitate to the view that the question of Hindu-Muslim unity was pivotal.  Indians, and most historians, have gravely misunderstood his advocacy of the Khilafat as an attempt by him to extract from Muslims in exchange their support for a ban on cow-slaughter. Rather, he had by this time, around 1920, come around to the position, radical then and now, that both the Hindu and the Muslim are incomplete without each other. This would remain one of the cornerstones of his religious belief.

In reflecting upon what endures from Gandhi’s lifelong and extremely rich understanding of the religious life, some principles stand out. First, in moving from the proposition that ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’, Gandhi sought to signal a certain inclusiveness and suggest that the core of ethical life is the quest for Truth.  A confirmed non-believer such as the social reformer Gora, who wrote a fascinating little book called An Atheist with Gandhi, could partake of Gandhi’s religious universe.  Secondly, he stood by the idea that no religious outlook was acceptable, no matter how venerable a text, until it passed the litmus test of one’s individual conscience.  He unequivocally rejected passages from the Ramacaritmanas and the Quran that he found unacceptable.

Thirdly, Gandhi firmly rejected the idea that there is any kind of hierarchy to religions.  This is one among several reasons why he was not sympathetic to the idea of conversion, even as he recognized the absolute right of an individual to her religion.  The individual who seeks to convert has an inadequate comprehension of his faith, and there is practically nothing that one religion has to offer which is not to be found in other religions. Fourthly, Gandhi believed strongly that the practitioner of a religion has a moral obligation to understand other faiths.  He was a strong advocate of the fellowship of religions, and he pioneered the prayer-meeting as a new form of intercommunal and intercultural samvad.  The Hindu should pray, Gandhi was to write, that he should become a better Hindu, that the Muslim and Christian should become a better Muslim and Christian, respectively; similarly, a Muslim should pray not that the Hindu should convert, but that the Hindu should be a better Hindu, the Muslim a better Muslim; and so on.

Finally, and most critically, Hinduism to Gandhi was a religion of mythos not of history.  He couldn’t care an iota whether Krishna had been a historical person and arguments about the historicity of Krishna or Ram not only left him wholly unimpressed, but he found them singularly unproductive and antithetical to everything that he understood by Hinduism. When we consider that the entire Ramjanmabhoomi movement has been predicated on demonstrating the historicity of Ram, we can see how far modern-day Hindu nationalists have drifted from the spirit of Hinduism.  They claim to be freeing the Anglicized and deracinated Hindus from the stranglehold of Western interpretations but nowhere is the colonized Hindu to be seen more clearly than in the figure of the Hindu nationalist.  Their Hinduism and Gandhi’s Hinduism have almost nothing in common.

(First published on 2 October 2019 in the Daily Mail newspaper in a slightly shorter version under the title, “Gandhi preached a unity of religions“.)

Readers can access at least fifteen other essays on Gandhi on this blog using the search function.  Some of those essays include the following:

The Imprint of a Man’s Life:  Visualizing Gandhi’s Biography” (27 Oct 2018)

Footloose and Fancy Free:  The Killers of Gandhi in Modern India” (2 Oct 2018)

“The Homeless Gandhi” (30 January 2018)

Vaishnava Janato:  Gandhi and Narsi Mehta’s Ideal of the ‘Perfect Person'” (25 February 2015)

 

 

 

 

The Phenomenon of Bhagat Singh

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Colonialism Should be Brought Back, Say Indian Parliamentarians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Assault on Public Universities and l’affaire Romila Thapar 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*History, the Nation-State, and Self-Liberation:  A Gandhian Reading of Kashmir

New Delhi, August 15, “Independence Day”

The “integration” of Kashmir into India, or what some (if a distinct minority) would call its annexation by the Indian nation-state, has been discussed largely from the legal, national security, policy, and geopolitical standpoints.  But what might a Gandhian reading of Kashmir look like?  The BJP claims that it is now freeing Kashmir from the stranglehold of a colonial-era politics and the Nehruvian dispensation which had no stomach for a truly manly politics.  The BJP is thus in the process of creating a narrative around the abrogation of Article 370, the removal of J & K’s “special status”, and the “opening up”—an expression that, in such contexts, has meant nothing more than asking for the abject surrender of a people to the regimes of neo-liberalization and rapacious “development”—of the state as the beginning of the “liberation” of Kashmir.

All of history is the constant struggle of people for liberation from forces of oppression.  We need a narrative of liberation different from that which has peddled by the BJP, which I shall frame in three fragments, to unfold the history of Kashmir and the possibilities of redemption for its people. Swami Vivekananda, in a long visit to the Valley in 1897, is said to have been anguished at seeing the desecration of images of Hindu gods and goddesses.  Bowing down before an image of Kali, Vivekananda asked in a distressed voice, “How could you let this happen, Mother?  Why did you permit this desecration?”  It is said that the Divine Mother said in response, “What is to you, Vivekananda, if the invader defiles my images?  Do you protect me?  Or do I protect you?”

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Vivekananda in Kashmir, 1897:  he is seated, 2nd to the left.

Secondly, it is an indubitable if deplorable fact that a considerable number of people, especially in north India, began to view Gandhi towards the end of his life as “The Father of Pakistan”.  Nathuram Godse was not alone in adopting this viewpoint: some others, too, saw him as the author of Pakistan and therefore willed Gandhi dead.  The BJP MP, Anil Saumitra, who recently put up a Facebook post declaring Gandhi the Father of Pakistan, is scarcely alone among his party colleagues in holding to these views.  “Since Pakistan was carved out of the silent blessings of Mahatma Gandhi, so he could be the rashtripita of Pakistan.”

But the designation of the “The Father of the Nation”, I would argue, is somewhat misleading for a wholly different reason.  No nationalist was such a staunch critic of the idea of the nation-state; and no one endeavored with such assiduousness as Gandhi to bring women into the orbit of public life and feminize politics. Long before society started expecting men to be nurturing, Gandhi was articulating a space for the view that men should remain men even as they should seek to bring out the feminine within them just as women should remain womanly but seek to bring out the best of the masculine within them.  The Mother in the “Father of the Nation” was doubtless more interesting than the Father in the “Father of the Nation” but in Modi’s India there is only contempt for such a view.

Thirdly, Gandhi’s little text of 1909, Hind Swaraj, must be recognized as the unofficial constitution of India.  Gopalkrishna Gokhale, held up by Gandhi as one of his gurus, was acutely embarrassed by this tract and was certain that it was destined for oblivion.  He advised Gandhi to dump it, but its author, as obdurate as ever, is famously on record as saying towards the end of his life that, barring a single word, he stood by everything he had written nearly 40 years ago.  Its subtitle, Indian Home Rule, has led most readers to read it as a tract for political emancipation from British rule.  But deeper reflection has led other readers to the awareness that Hind Swaraj argues for a more profound conception of liberation, a liberation that frees one from the baser instincts, gives one raj (rule) over one’s own self, and allows one to own up to notions of the self that we may otherwise be inclined to discard.

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Just how, then, do these fragments inform our understanding and move us closer to a long-term and not merely forced resolution of the conflict over Kashmir?  It is the Home Minister’s contention that now, post-Article 370, terrorism will cease and Kashmir will be set on the path to “development”.  But this is wholly delusory:  my three fragments on offer point, respectively, to the necessity of liberation from history, liberation from the idea of the nation-state, and liberation from a strangulating conception of the ‘self’.

The champions of Hindutva have imagined themselves as the liberators of Hinduism itself, but their understanding of Vivekananda, whom they hold up as an icon of muscular India, is as shallow as their understanding of everything else.  Hinduism can do very well without Golwalkar and Amit Shah:  Do I protect you, or do you protect me, the Divine Mother asks.  History is no guide here:  many imagine that we only have to sift ‘myth’ from ‘history’, then install a “true history”, but history shackles as much as it emancipates.  As Gandhi might have said, history takes care of itself.  India is no ordinary nation-state, even if the greatest and most pathetic desire of the present political administration is to turn it into one:  thus the obsessive fixation on Akhand Bharat, on the national flag, and on the national anthem.

There is no Hindu or even Indian “self” without the Muslim partaking in it.  Munshi Ganesh Lal, who visited Kashmir in 1846 and recorded his observations in ‘Tuhfa-i-Kashmir (“Wonders of Kashmir”), found little to distinguish even the Kashmiri Pandits from Muslims.  The world of Indian Islam is very different from the putatively authentic Islam of Arabia and west Asia. This is well understood in Pakistan, where, since at least the time of Zia-ul Haq, a rigorous attempt has been made to disown the indubitable fact that Islam in Pakistan belongs to the Indic world more so than it does to the world of West Asian Islam.  The purists in Pakistan have met their match in the ideologues of Hindutva in and outside the Indian state who would like a pure nation-state even if they understand how mouthing pieties about Indian pluralism and the glories of diversity is political correctness.  What is singular about Kashmir, then, is precisely this:  here we can see with clarity the impossibility of redemption until we have unshackled ourselves, as did Gandhi, from debilitating notions of history, an impoverished conception of the self, and the decrepit notion of the nation-state as the culmination of history.

First published at ABP Live as “History, the Nation-State, and Self-Liberation:  A Gandhian View of Kashmir” on 14 August 2019

 

 

*Reterritorialization and Neo-Liberalization:  “Opening Up” Kashmir

Even as much of the country has erupted with joy at the BJP’s audacious steps in abolishing the state of Jammu & Kashmir, creating two new Union Territories—little more than “Bantustans”, say some—and thereby, as is assumed to be the case, “integrating” the Kashmir Valley into the Union of India, some serious questions have arisen about the possible consequences of these changes.  Article 35(A), which was added to the Constitution through a Presidential Order on 14 May 1954, conferred on the legislature of Jammu & Kashmir the power to define “permanent residents” and the rights that accrued solely to them, among them the privilege of being able to buy land and property in Kashmir.  This provision has now been scrapped.

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Will Kashmir now be flooded by non-Kashmiris, as many are stating and some are hoping, and should we now expect real “development” as the Home Minister has promised?  Let us, for the moment, ignore the fact that, in comparison with most other Indian states, Kashmir already fares better on development indices, whether one considers infant or maternal mortality rates, under five mortality, levels of malnutrition, or the extent to which children have been immunized against common diseases. The painful truth is that almost no state in India can be described as truly “developed” in the conventional sense of the term; and some states—Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, to name a few—lag well behind the preponderant number of the world’s countries, and can only be compared to countries such as the Congo, Burundi, Niger, and the Central African Republic.  Will development for Kashmir mean direct investment in infrastructure, the creation of manufacturing jobs, and the growth of education, or will it also mean, which is absolutely certain, the purchase of properties in Kashmir as holiday homes by the rich of Delhi and Mumbai and unchecked environmental degradation?

There is an expression which for 200 years has guided colonial enterprises.  Africa was described by rapacious European explorers as finally having entered into the pages of history when the continent was “opened up” to European exploration, trade, and ruthless exploitation.  The “opening up” of Australia meant the evisceration of entire peoples just as the “opening up” of the Americas led to the genocide of native peoples and the disappearance of different modes of being in the world.  The narrative is now cast in a different if related language:  the “opening up” of Eastern Europe after the demise of the Soviet Union and the dismemberment of the Eastern Bloc signified the emergence of new markets and the entry of millions of people into the paradise of consumption.  Our Home Minister cannot stop gushing over the imminent “development” of Kashmir, but does this mean anything more than “opening up” the state to the unabated greed of Indian industrialists, loan sharks, and predatory capitalists?

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This book was first published in 1911.

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The possible further consequences of what is entailed by the “opening up” of Kashmir are perhaps best understood by turning to what may be described as the reterritorialization of Tibet.  In the first half of the 20th century, following the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was largely an independent nation. After the communists triumphed over the nationalists in China, Mao sought to integrate the TAR or Tibet into the People’s Republic.  The Dalai Lama was told in no uncertain terms that such integration could be accomplished peacefully, by his voluntary accession to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), or by force.  The Dalai Lama accepted Mao’s 17-point agreement in August 1951, and Beijing lost no time in rolling out the narrative, which had been some years in the making, that Tibet had now been liberated from its feudal past and that Tibetans would no longer live as slaves to theocratic leaders. That surrender is captured in the farcical “Peaceful Liberation” Monument, now dominating Lhasa’s Potala Square, which also celebrates the entry of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into Tibet.

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The Peaceful Liberation (of Tibet) Monument, Potala Square, Lhasa; photograph: A. Bleus; source: https://alixbleus.me/2016/11/01/tibet-peaceful-liberation-monument-potala-square-lhasa-mg_3620/

Some commentators have adverted to the cultural genocide effected by the Chinese in Tibet; others hotly dispute the use of the term “genocide.”  What is unquestionably the case is that, from the outset, the Chinese sought with utter deliberation to alter the demographic composition of Tibet—as they have done so in Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, otherwise known as XUAR).  The strategy of territorialization did not commence with the Communists: indeed, it is the Qing who, in the 18th century, started bringing the Han Chinese, and settlers from other ethnic groups, into northern Xinjiang. Still, the 1953 census showed 75% Ugyurs and 6% Han; by 2000, the Han portion of the population had grown to 40%.

The settlement of Han Chinese into Tibet, as a matter of deliberate state policy, has a more complex history.  In 1949, shortly before Tibet’s absorption into the PRC, the population of Lhasa stood at around 130,000, not including the Potala Palace and some 15,000 monks. The Han Chinese amounted to a mere 300-400.  The dramatic demographic shift is captured in the 1992 census statistics on Lhasa:  in a population of 140,000, the ethnic Tibetan population had shrunk to 96,431 while the Han Chinese had grown to 40,387.  This shift was accompanied by the widespread destruction of monasteries, libraries, and other manifestations of the cultural inheritance of the Tibetan people.  This is what may rightly be described as reterritorialization, or the defacement and obliteration of the physical, cultural, and intellectual landscapes of a people and the imposition of a new demographic and socio-political reality.  Should we at all be surprised that China justified the introduction of Han Chinese into Tibet with the argument that “after the democratic reform”—that is, the annexation of Tibet—“the People’s Government helped all the former slaves, about 5% of Tibet’s population, and large number of homeless serfs to settle down.”  To introduce improvements in livestock breeding, agriculture, and medical care, it was necessary to bring the Han as instruments of “revolutionary change” to a “backward” place.  While China was thus “helping” and civilizing the hapless Tibetans, it was allowing millions of Chinese back home to die of hunger—again, with the absolute complicity of party officials.  This is what the Chinese, and our own Home Minister and his cheerleaders, call “development.”

Still, if the picture in Tibet is complex, it is because the Tibetan Autonomous Region as a whole remains 90% Tibetan.  The Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959; the Potala Palace is now a museum; and dissent is dealt with sternly and swiftly.  There are Tibetans who dream of independence, no doubt, as indeed they should, but the Chinese shred these dreams into pieces. Some activists claim that the Tibetans have been reduced into a minority in their homeland: not only is this patently false but they fail to understand that the Chinese have accomplished what they set out to do.  To return, then, to Kashmir:  Some are prophesizing a Hindu invasion of Kashmir and the erosion of what is called Kashmiriyat.  That may well be alarmist, and the more pertinent question for those who follow events in Kashmir is whether the Indian state will effect something similar to what has transpired in Tibet by way of reterritorializing the Kashmir Valley.  What will they seek to efface from the extraordinary cultural legacy of Kashmir and how will they effect the changes in such a manner as to absorb Kashmir while giving it the semblance of “autonomy”?

First published on 12 August 2019 by ABP network:

https://www.abplive.in/blog/reterritorialization-and-neo-liberalization-opening-up-kashmir-1052781