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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Farmers marching to Parliament Street.  Source:  Hindustan Times.  Some Indian newspapers seemed rather more concerned about the disruption to traffic and gave real time updates on Twitter and Facebook so the public could avoid thoroughfares through which the farmers were marching.  Perhaps in future some intrepid souls will give updates in the hope that people will join rather than avoid the demonstrating farmers.

Thirty-five thousand farmers, from across the nation, marched in Delhi this past weekend to highlight their long-standing grievances and to move a largely indifferent country into giving some thought to the fact that Indian agriculture is in a state of acute and precipitous decline.  To say that the farmers also acted to stir the conscience of the present government would be true but for the circumstance that there is little to suggest that the vast majority of those who run the country have any conscience at all. Even the word “crisis” is inadequate to describe the depth of the problems which afflict farmers, constituting a monstrous assault on their dignity and reducing them to a state of destitution.  Their plight and unfathomable despair is captured by the fact that, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 300,000 farmers committed suicide between 1995-2015.  The NCRB has thus far not released final figures for 2016 and 2017, and even the data that it released for 2014 and 2015 suggests that some of it was doubtless manipulated.  Who will believe, for instance, that there were no farmers’ suicides in 12 states in 2014?  The brute fact of the matter is that conditions for Indian farmers have not improved an iota in recent years.  The problems did not begin with the present government, but they have doubtless become much worse under the present dispensation.  The BJP led by Narendra Modi ran in 2014 on the electoral promise, “Acche din aane wale hain” (“Good days are about to come”), and farmers have seen what misery that has been wrought in their lives in the wake of the present administration’s unabashed collusion with many of the country’s wealthiest men.

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A typical newspaper headline from an English daily in India.

I remember a visit with Sunderlal Bahuguna, the renowned Chipko activist, at his ashram near Ghansali in the Tehri-Garhwal region three decades ago.  He told me then, “Bharat ki atma desh ke lakhon gaon me hain” (“India’s soul resides in its countless villages”).  Some might construe this as an idealized account of the torpid Indian village, the village that never was except in the imagination of those who are critical of industrialized modernity, but there can be little doubt that village life revolved around agricultural seasons and agriculture was the main source of livelihood.  The classics of Hindi cinema, from Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Mother India (1957) to Upkaar (1967), spoke to this sensibility.  Even with the extraordinary growth of Indian cities over the last several decades, it is only with the last census in 2011 that urban India for the first time added more people than rural India.  The recent report, “State of Indian Farmers”, by the nationally reputed Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), based on a survey of over 5000 farming households across 274 villages in 137 districts, confirms that 76% of farmers would rather do some other work, and 61% of the farmers said they would rather be employed in the city.

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The children of an Indian farmer who committed suicide hold up a photograph of their father.  Source:  BBC.

If farmers are abandoning their ancestral profession by the droves, or would like to give it up for good, they are doing so for sound reasons. The problems are too numerous, but some may be enumerated briefly.  Many farmers—62% of the interviewed farmers in the CSDS study—are not even aware of the Minimum Support Price (MSP), and those who are agree that this price is woefully inadequate.  Water shortages have critically impacted Indian agriculture and the evidence is overwhelming that such shortages will become more acute in the near future.  Climate change has introduced more unpredictability, and aggrieved farmers everywhere complain of damage to crops owing to unseasonal rains, floods, and droughts.  Rural indebtedness is a grave calamity, accounting for a huge number of suicides, and the scourge of the moneylender remains even as Indian banking has truly expanded its tentacles throughout the countryside.  Indian farming cannot be understood without an appreciation of the fact that large farmers, each owning ten acres or more of land, account for only 7% of all farmers; 60% are small owners, in possession of 1-3 acres, and another 14% are landless.  The remaining, 19%, are farmers who own 4-7 acres of land.  The huge majority of those who have benefited from government schemes, subsidies, and bank loans at low interest rates are large farmers:  thus the credit crisis afflicts mainly the small and poor farmers, since most of them are compelled to take recourse to the moneylender who lend money at usurious rates.  The intensification and corporatization of agriculture under capitalism, though it does not account for every ill, has certainly played a huge part in the impoverishment of the small farmer. It is for this reason that there have been sustained protests and demonstrations against the encroachment upon Indian agriculture of the notorious biotechnological giant, Monsanto, whose predatory practices have been the scourge of farmers in India and elsewhere.

The present agitation of Indian farmers is shaped both by short-term demands and long-term grievances. The Farmers’ Freedom from Indebtedness Bill (2018) and the Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill (2018) have been languishing in Parliament since the early part of the year.  Though loan waivers and an increase in the MSP are critically important, it must be understood that these are of little if any interest to landless laborers; among them, there are other problems, such as the fact that in most states, women are paid only half of what men earn for the same amount of labor and as little as Rs 100-150 a day. The farmers and their supporters are demanding the implementation of the recommendations of the commission headed by the eminent agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan which issued five reports between December 2004 and October 2006, and insisting that Parliament devote 21 days to a discussion of the plight of farmers and the perils to Indian agriculture.

Volume Two of the Fifth and Final Report of the Swaminathan Commission commences with two epigrams, one from Gandhi—“To those who are hungry, God is bread”—and the other from Nehru:  “Everything else can wait, but not agriculture.”  The majority of Indian farmers and members of their households have only two meals a day, and at least 10% have only one meal a day.  That those whose labour helps put the food on the tables in the country’s towns and cities should not have enough food for themselves is particularly odious and cruelly ironic.  The indisputable fact is that a third of the world’s malnourished children live in India, just as it is clear that the problem is not one of scarcity but rather of accessibility to food.

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Farmers march to Mumbai, March 2018.  Source:  The Hindu newspaper.

However, this is not just another “crisis” and what is at stake is more than even the dire state of the Indian farmer and agriculture.  Though I advert in the title of this article to the “lonely battle” being waged by farmers, it is heartening that the march organized by the Kisan Sabha earlier this year which saw 40,000 Maharashtrian farmers walking over 200 kilometres before making their entry into Mumbai earned them the goodwill of the city and the support of students, academics, urban workers, and many others.  Nevertheless, the work of reigniting the links between the rural and the urban has barely begun, and urban India has to recognize that it has brutally eviscerated the village and excised the farmer from its imagination.  What we banish in this fashion will come back to haunt us.  India cannot be made whole until and unless it confers on farmers the centrality that they, the toilers of the soil and the sustainers of the nation, deserve.

[First published under the same title but in a shorter version on ABP Live, 5 December 2018]

 

 

 

 

 

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 (This is a slightly revised and somewhat longer version of a piece first published at ABP Live on 26 November 2018: https://www.abplive.in/blog/the-kartarpur-corridor-sikhism-and-the-power-of-in-betweenness)

The proposed establishment of a corridor that would link Dera Babak Nanak, an important Sikh pilgrimage site on the Indian side which nearly straddles the border, to Kartarpur Sahib, which is about 3 kilometres into Pakistan from the border and one of the principal sites associated with Sikhism, is not merely a step in the right direction.  It has always been a struggle for the two countries to find openings for dialogues, and the Kartarpur Corridor, if it comes to fruition, would likely be, as commentators in both countries realize, one of the greatest measures taken to bring some semblance of peace and civility in the relations between Pakistan and India.  In this respect, the Kartarpur Corridor may seem to take its place alongside Indo-Pak Bus Diplomacy, the Samjhauta Express, and various so-called “confidence-building” measures.

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Kartarpur Sahib. Source: Live Mint.

The critical significance of such a gesture cannot be overestimated, but the reasons for this are more complex than is commonly imagined.  To gauge the vital importance of this proposed measure, it is best to begin with a brief narrative of the place of Kartarpur in Guru Nanak’s life and the onerous burdens that, centuries later, partition placed particularly on the Sikhs in the Punjab.  Nanak traveled widely in his time, as far away as Mecca:  he was at heart an itinerant preacher.  His extensive travels over a period of nearly three decades ceased when he settled down at a spot on the Ravi above Lahore.  Here, as elsewhere, so the tradition says, Nanak first met with opposition from a wealthy landlord, Karoria, who was initially rattled not only by Nanak’s teachings but by his ability to draw to himself people from ordinary walks of life.  When, and so the hagiographies say, Karoria got on his horse in an attempt to see what he could do to contain Nanak, he fell down from his horse and broke a limb; on a second occasion, the horse wouldn’t budge.  After these mishaps, Karoria naturally—what else, if not naturally—came to the awareness that Nanak was a divine being.  The convert Karoria now offered to build a village for Nanak and his disciples and it is at Nanak’s urging that this village became known as Kartarpur, after the word ‘Kartar’ meaning the creator.  The township flourished as Nanak acquired an ever greater following and it is here that, eighteen years later, he passed away in September 1539.  The Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur that stands there presently is said to have been built at the site where Guru Nanak breathed his last.

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Guru Nanak, the Itinerant Preacher:  Returning from Udasis.

Whatever the Sikh aspirations for their own homeland, the partition of 1947 was particularly hard on the Sikhs, the vast majority of whom opted to settle in India. Kartarpur is one among many vitally important sites of Sikh religion and history, among them Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Nanak, the shrine of Guru Arjan Dev in Lahore, and the samadhi (also in Lahore) of Ranjit Singh, that became largely inaccessible to Indian Sikhs.  In 1974, Pakistan and India signed a Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines to facilitate the granting of visas to pilgrims, but the brute fact remains that the draconian visa regime followed by both countries has made sites such as Kartarpur all but out of bounds for most pilgrims.  Though Dera Nanak Sahib is, as I have pointed out, important in Sikh history in its own right, nothing could be more poignant than the fact that it is also a destination for pilgrims who from its precincts can see the Gurdwara at Kartarpur, the final resting place of Guru Nanak, and thereby also get a darshan of the great founder of their faith:  if I may indulge in a cliche, so close and yet so distant.

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Delhi-Lahore-Delhi Bus Service.  Source:  India Today.

It is sign of the pettiness of the governments of both India and Pakistan, and their sheer incapacity to understand the extraordinary and distinct significance of the Sikh faith, that both countries are now squabbling about who first initiated the idea of the Kartarpur Corridor and should thus be able to claim political mileage.  The Modi Government timed the announcement to coincide with the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak, who was born on 23 November 1469.  India, the announcement says, “approached and urged the Pakistan government to recognise the sentiments of Sikh community and build a corridor with suitable facilities in their territory to facilitate easy and smooth visits of pilgrims from India”, but Pakistan’s Information & Broadcasting Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain tweeted that “this proposal was initiated by Pakistan.”  Indeed, Mr. Hussain has argued that the Pakistan Army Chief “spoke about the opening of the Kartarpur border for the first time.  It’s a matter of record.”

Though it is predictable that each government should attempt to lay claim to this initiative, by far its greater import is that Sikhism occupies a space of in-betweenness with respect to Hinduism and Islam.  At his death, Hindus and Muslims quarreled over the performance of the last rites, thus furnishing testimony that they had barely understood his teachings.  They may have acknowledged him as a saint—“To the Hindu a Guru, to the Mussulman a Pir”—but to the end they insisted on viewing him from the perspective of their faith.  Thus the Hindus sought a cremation for Nanak, while the Muslims a burial: when they tugged at the sheet that covered his body, they found a heap of flowers.  The Guru Granth Sahib, for those who recognize the holy book of Sikhism, draws upon elements from both Islam and the worldview of Hinduism.

For students of “religion”, one of the perennially interesting questions is to ponder over what is common and what is distinct in each faith.  The distinctiveness of Sikhism resides in its quality of in-betweenness, in the particular manner in which Sikhs straddle several worlds both in the material and spiritual domains.  As a people, Sikhs have been energetic, generous, and marvelously receptive and adaptive to new cultures.  Any political initiative that holds out the promise of improving relations between Pakistan and India, and strengthening the ties between the peoples of the two countries, is to be welcomed.  But in all such measures, Sikhs have a special role to play, if only they—and the governments of the two countries—would recognize that.  The Sikhs are themselves, if I may put it this way, a corridor between Muslims and Hindus.  One hopes that the Kartarpur Corridor, if at all it should become a reality, will push the Sikhs to play a greater role in mediating peace between India and Pakistan.

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First published under the same title on ABP Live on 18 November 2018 (IST).

Nearly two months after the Supreme Court on September 28 ruled by a majority of 4-1 to allow women of menstruating age to enter the temple at Sabarimala, the battle-lines appear to have been firmly drawn.  The dispute has been represented largely as one which pits tradition against modernity, religious conservatism against liberalism, patriarchy against women’s equality, and faith against science.   A former Justice of the Supreme Court, Markandey Katju, has stated quite unequivocally that “regarding the Sabarimala verdict, either one can agree with it or disagree with it – there is no middle ground.”

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A protest on the re-opening of the Sabarimala Temple on 17 October 2018, around 20 days after the Supreme Court’s verdict of September 28.

But is that really so?  That someone of Katju’s standing thinks so illustrates the predictably circumscribed nature of public discourse, and is also a stark reminder of the fact that we have become increasingly incapable of recognizing the imperative of moral ambiguity.  A court is obviously burdened with the necessity of delivering a judgment that has the force of law, but it is open to every individual to consider an issue from every perspective.  The Jaina doctrine of anekantavada, or many-sidedness, suggests that, in nearly every case of this kind, every position is partially right and partially wrong.

Let us consider first the perspective of those who are convinced that matters of faith and religious tradition cannot be legislated.   This view is not without merit, and indeed one might reasonably argue that even social equality cannot be achieved primarily through legislation.  If there is no widespread social acceptance of a proposed or legislated reform, the law will not only be ineffective and resented, but it may also have the effect of aggravating social tensions and, oddly enough, obfuscating the problem.  Legislation against the giving and taking of dowry was passed in India over four decades ago, but such legislation never had widespread acceptance; moreover, once the legislation was passed, some people supposed that the problem had been ‘resolved’.  The Indian Constitution states that discrimination against Dalits is a punishable offence, but atrocities against Dalits have scarcely diminished—and, if they did, it would surely not be on account of any new-found respect that the upper castes have developed for the lower castes.  As Gandhi famously declared at his trial in 1922 on charges of sedition, “Affection cannot be manufactured by the law.”

There are yet other arguments that have been advanced against the Supreme Court’s decision, some by liberals and centrists who have declared their opposition on the grounds that the Court’s decision furnishes the RSS with the opening that it had been looking for in Kerala.  This objection is only of marginal interest and is in fact quite erroneous in some respects:  not only has the RSS been making inroads into Kerala for some time, but what Sabarimala brings to the fore is the problem not of religious mobilization but rather the consolidation of social conservatism.  It has also been argued that Kerala is a matrilineal society, with an extraordinarily high female literacy rate, and that many women, perhaps a majority, are themselves opposed to opening the doors of Sabarimala to females between the ages of 10-50.  Some elements of this view, however, cannot be sustained.  The anthropological and empirical fact of matriliny in Kerala notwithstanding, the indubitable fact is that Kerala records one of the highest rates of violence against women in India, and the percentage of women in the workforce is an abysmal 25%.

The arguments in support of the Supreme Court’s decision are, as I have already hinted, many.  To suggest that progressive legislation is often ineffective is not to say that legislation cannot be a tool for social reform.  Those who advocate for change are under no illusion that, under a regime of liberalism and social equality, we will all start loving each other.  But there is a much stronger argument.  It is claimed that by “tradition” women of menstrual age have never been permitted in the temple and that the prohibition on their entry is “centuries-old”.  Quite to the contrary, the restriction on their entry was first enacted into law by the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, and the Kerala High Court in its decision of 1991 unfortunately, and quite erroneously, argued that the restriction “is in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial.”  This is what historians have described as “the invention of tradition”.  The Supreme Court’s decision takes note, quite explicitly, of the presence of women worshippers between the ages of 10-50 in the temple on many previous occasions.

There is, finally, the most pertinent set of considerations. The devotees and protestors who have been gathered to obstruct the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision argue that the reigning deity, Lord Ayappa, is celibate and the presence of females of menstruating age is an affront to his dignity and violates his asceticism. The trope of the male ascetic and saint being tempted by women is, shall we say, as old as Indian civilization. There is, further, the supposition that menstruating women are polluting.  These twin arguments have long offered a pretext both for the suppression of women and even for suggesting that women do not have the same reservoirs of spirituality as men. We may ask why there is no comparable narrative tradition of holy women being tempted by men, and equally whether it might not be the case that contemporary Indian society has not come to terms with the fact of women’s sexuality.  What can we say about a society that has little faith in its women, and, ironically, in its gods?

 

 

 

 

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Fig. 1:  “Pujya Gandhiji Ki Jivan Caritra”, or The Life Story of Revered Gandhiji: a print from the famous workshop of Hemchander Bharagava & Co., Delhi.

One more Gandhi Jayanti [Birth Anniversary: October 2nd] has gone by and the thought that occurs to me is this:  just how was the life of Gandhi conveyed, in his own lifetime and in the aftermath of his death, to his countrymen and women, across towns and in India’s hundreds of thousands of villages?  What did they, who could not read, know of his life in panchayats and little hamlets?  Did the Patuas or Chitrakars move from village to village and unfold the panels of their scrolls and so make vivid the episodes drawn from Gandhi’s life?  If they did so, the scrolls appear not to have survived.  There is something suggestive, in this regard, about a touching scene in the classic movie, Garam Hawa:  the workers at the shoe factory of Mirza Sahib are gathered around a man who reads from a newspaper an account of Gandhi’s assassination.

There may thus have been many modes by which the life of Gandhi was put into circulation and the mind instinctively turns to biographies.  Of biographies of Gandhi there is now no end, and each generation, so says Ramachandra Guha in justification of yet another life of Mohandas, needs its own Gandhi.  India sent us Mohandas, Mandela is reported to have said, and we sent back a Mahatma, and it is in South Africa that the first slim biography of Gandhi was penned.  Many of the biographies that followed are, as befits an epic life, gargantuan in scope.  There was, at first, D. G. Tendulkar’s Mahatma in 8 volumes; various volumes by Pyarelal appeared at a leisurely pace over the course of a few decades. But these works were published many years after independence, as is true of something like 700-800 biographies of Gandhi in English alone.

Anthologies of Gandhi’s writings began to proliferate around the mid-1920s, and his own ‘lieutenants’, most famously Mahadev Desai and later Pyarelal, were quick in bringing out systematic narratives of his satyagraha campaigns. The two volumes of Gandhi’s autobiography, written in Gujarati and rendered into English by Mahadev, appeared in 1927 and 1929, but the autobiography takes the story of his life only to the early 1920s. Gandhi’s writings began to be disseminated by Navajivan Trust, a publishing house that he had established in 1929, but nevertheless it is unlikely that most Indians would have become acquainted with the contours of his life through published works.

By the early 1920s, print makers, working out from a number of cities, among them Delhi, Kanpur, Allahabad, Lahore, Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, had begun to take the narrative of the nationalist movement to the masses.  These prints may have been passed from one hand to another; they may have been framed and placed prominently in homes, but it is also likely that they were affixed to walls, doors, or poster boards in public spaces.  Gandhi figured prominently in these prints, many shaped around the non-cooperation movement, the Salt Satyagraha, or the teachings with which he became associated on subjects such as the constructive programme, swadeshi, and the economic impoverishment of India under colonial rule.  One of the more striking of such prints, from the Delhi-based Hemchander Bhargava & Co., takes as its subject the totality of Gandhi’s life, from cradle to ‘martyrdom’, and offers cues on how Gandhi’s life was stitched into the fabric of the nation.

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Fig. 1a:  “M. Gandhi Jivani”, that is “The Life of M. Gandhi.”  This is a variation of Fig. 1: the print is identical, except for the fact that the background blue is a darker shade of blue, and the longer caption of Fig. 1 has been replaced with a shorter and less ornate caption.

Entitled “Poojya Gandhiji ki Jivan Caritra” (The Life Story of Revered Gandhiji; fig. 1), the print invites the viewer to read Gandhi’s life through rites of passage or critical events.  The narrative commences at the bottom left with the infant Gandhi; moving along a vertical axis, the viewer encounters him at various stages of schooling in his native Gujarat and England before he arrived in South Africa as an attorney.  It is there that he developed the idea of nonviolent resistance:  in doing so, he stripped himself of his Western clothes and donned the garb of a satyagrahi.  As the viewer moves along the horizontal axis at the top of the print, the next phase of his life is vividly brought to the fore.  In 1915, Gandhi returned to India with Kasturba, and campaigns at Champaran and Kheda acquainted him with the conditions of Indian peasantry.  By the mid-1920s, Gandhi was preoccupied with the constructive programme, and finally in 1930 he launched the next phase of mass nonviolent resistance with the Salt Satyagraha.

The viewer, at this point, moves vertically down the right side of the print.  Gandhi made his way to London for the Round Table Conference to negotiate the terms of India’s future; he also met with the King-Emperor. In the mid-1930s, he installed himself at an ashram in central India.  Visitors to his ashram almost invariably found him spinning. He appeared to have withdrawn, once again, from the struggle for political emancipation; however, the print can also be read as inviting the viewer to reflect on the relationship of political independence to economic independence and social change in Gandhi’s thinking.  He launched the final phase of the freedom struggle with the call for the British to ‘Quit India’.  With this, the print-maker turned to some of the people who filled the last years of Gandhi’s life:  Nehru, children, and his grandnieces Manu and Abha.  The two young women were his constant companions and sometimes dubbed his ‘walking sticks’.  Finally, Gandhi’s life is brought to a close with his assassination:  the martyred Gandhi is placed squarely in the center of the print and both dominates and anchors the entire narrative.

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Fig. 2:  “Bapuji ki Amar Kahani”, the Immortal Story of Bapuji.  This artist is described as the Chitrakar Lakshminarayan Sharma, and the publisher is Picture Publishing Corporation, Bombay.

Other similar prints of Gandhi’s life story circulated as well.  From Picture Publishing Corporation in Bombay we have a print, created by Lakshminarayan Sharma, with some significant, indeed extraordinary, variations (fig. 2).  The narrative is structured in a like fashion, but the Indian tricolor, which is noticeably missing in the first print, occupies a good portion of the lower third of Sharma’s print and offers a different framing device.  The baby’s cradle is draped in the tricolor, as if to suggest that Gandhi was ordained from birth to lead the country to freedom; on the bottom right, Gandhi foregrounds the flag and the words, ‘Sampurna Swaraj, 15 August 1947’, suggesting that he successfully shepherded the country to its destiny.  Most significantly, Gandhi lies in complete repose, his body adorned by the tricolor.  The script at the bottom enumerates the date of his death; the smoking gun suggests that the satyagrahi met a violent end.  “He Ram” are the words that Gandhi is thought to have uttered as the bullets pierced his body and he fell to the floor, but both the assassin, Nathuram Godse, and his younger brother Gopal would dispute that Gandhi said anything at all.  The text to the right, “Bapuji Ne Diya Jalaya / Uski Jyoti Barayen Hum” (‘Bapuji lit the flame, It is for us to further that light’), read in conjunction with his draped body and the globe that he has conquered with his stride suggests not only that Gandhi has merged into the nation but that he belongs to the world.

There is much else that is captivating in Sharma’s print, but it is in the juxtaposition of the two prints that we can discern what is remarkably different in openly pronouncing Gandhi the “Father of [the] Nation.”  I have had various occasions to remark, elsewhere in my published work, that Gandhi was just as much Mother to the Nation as he was Father of the Nation.  It is not even remotely accidental that Manu’s greatest testimonial to Gandhi is a little book called, Bapu, My Mother.  The print from Picture Publishing is, if we may put it this way, far more masculine in its sensibility and representational apparatus. It excises not only Kasturba, who was Gandhi’s life companion for something like 60 years, from the narrative but all women.  One can dispute the degree to which Gandhi was comfortable with idea of women’s complete autonomy, but it is inarguably the case that Gandhi played a critical role in bringing women into the public sphere.  There is not a hint of this in Lakshminarayan Sharma’s rendering of Gandhi’s life story (fig. 2).  The Bhargava print (fig. 1), by contrast, is sensitive to the place of women in Gandhi’s life, and in its recognition of the role of women in the Salt Satyagraha it offers more than just an affirmation of how women came into the freedom struggle. Gandhi sought not only to liberate India from colonial rule but to emancipate politics from its association with an unforgiving masculinity.

A biography is seldom only a chronological narrative of a person’s life; these prints are no exception.  We may, in conclusion, take a few illustrations of how the print from Hemchander Bhargava’s workshop seeks to offer a decisive interpretation of Gandhi’s life.  It is attentive, for example, to the sartorial Gandhi:  as we encounter Gandhi along the different stages of his life, we find him stripping himself of clothes and trying, in his own words, to reduce himself to zero.  Of Gandhi it can be said that he commenced his adult life vastly over-dressed and ended it, by the reckoning of some, vastly under-dressed.  His dhoti and shawl are not just blood-stained; blood drips down.  The nation, too, has been stained by the dastardly act of the assassin; the country is drained, dripping with the blood of the innocents.  The loss of blood points to the sacrifice of the Mahatma, but was this sacrifice in vain?  Was the martyrdom of Gandhi necessary so that he could begin life anew?

(First published in a shorter version in the Hindu Sunday Magazine (6 October 2018) as “The Imprint of a Man’s Life”; the online version called “Gandhi and the Printed Image” can be accessed here: https://www.thehindu.com/society/gandhis-story-in-images/article25113640.ece)

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(On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti)

India is once again poised to celebrate the birthday of Mohandas Gandhi today, on October 2nd as, it has done so over the previous seven decades.  The official importance of Gandhi Jayanti is underscored by the fact that it is one of only three national holidays, alongside Independence Day and Republic Day.  The President and Prime Minister set the example for the prescribed set of rituals on this auspicious day.  We can be certain that wreaths of flowers will be laid at Rajghat, the simple yet elegant and moving memorial to the architect of Indian independence, and dignitaries will bow in reverence to the ‘Father of the Nation’.  There will be the usual speeches pointing to the sacrifices made by Bapu, as Gandhi was known in his lifetime to fellow Indians, and exhortations, especially to the young, to take some lessons from Gandhi’s life and dedicate themselves to the task of nation-building.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Rajghat, 2 October 2017.  Source:  Twitter Account of Modi.

The country’s Prime Ministers have in the past spent a few minutes at the spinning wheel on Gandhi Jayanti, once again in a show of leading the country and in an effort to demonstrate that their understanding of Gandhi is not entirely hollow. Narendra Modi will doubtless do the same; however, as he is given to theatrics and gifted the country the slogan of ‘Swachh Bharat’, it is very likely that he will also pick up a broom.  (As an aside, one can say that the leaders of India are very much in need of brooms to sweep the cobwebs that have cluttered their minds.) A touch of humility, even if for a few minutes, is always calculated to make the powerful feel invincible. Outside the capital, elsewhere in India, the same protocols will be followed with some variations:  Governors and Chief Ministers will place garlands around Gandhi’s statues, homilies will be sung to the great man, and Bapu’s favorite bhajans may be sung by choirs of young women and women dressed in khaddar.

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Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, garlanding a portrait of Gandhi in the capital Patna on October 2nd, 2017.  Photo:  Press Trust of India.

Once the country is past all this, a few hours after sunrise, the politicians, functionaries of the state, and the pracharaks of the RSS will get down to the business of doing what they do best these days—aiding the killers of Gandhi and ensuring that absolutely nothing that is viable in Gandhi’s thought survives.  The phrase, “killers of Gandhi”, especially in reference to events in the present may strike those who thought that Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948 as obtuse.  That evening, Nathuram Godse, a Chitpavan Brahmin from Pune, plugged three bullets into Gandhi’s body and the Mahatma died almost instantly.  The Government of India claimed that Godse was part of a larger conspiracy to kill Gandhi:  eventually, after a long drawn-out trial, Godse and Narayan Apte were convicted on charges of murder and sent to the gallows.  Nathuram’s brother, Gopal Godse, was among those who received a prison sentence.  Vinayak Savarkar, the alleged mastermind of the conspiracy, was acquitted.  Savarkar had a special gift for being able to have others do his dirty work:  he wriggled out of many a difficult situation during the course of his political career, and would doubtless have been happy that younger, more virile, and certainly more gullible men were available to shoulder the work of political assassination. Today his portrait hangs in Parliament House.

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A Largely Cheerful Lot of Conspirators, and a (characteristically) Morose Mastermind:  Nathuram Godse and Friends at their trial for the Murder of Gandhi at the Red Fort, Delhi, 22 June 1948.  Left to Right, Front to Back:  Nathuram Godse, Narayan Apte, Vishnu Karkare, Digambar Badge (approver), Madanlal Pahwa, Gopal Godse, Shankar Kistayya, V. D. Savarkar, and Dr. Parachure (hidden).

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The statue of Gandhi in Thaliparambha, in north Kerala’s Kannur district, after vandals hurled stones and bottles, damaging the spectacles.  Photo:  Hindustan Times.

In speaking of the “killers of Gandhi”, I do not advert even remotely to Nathuram Godse and his friends and associates who had sworn their allegiance to the idea of an undivided India in which the Hindu would reign supreme.  One of Gandhi’s more perceptive biographers, Robert Payne, wrote about the killing of Gandhi as a “permissive assassination”.  His submission, quite simply, was that though Nathuram Godse fired the fatal shots, a great many among the middle class desired Gandhi’s death.  Some viewed Gandhi as authoritarian, though that was scarcely their objection:  more importantly, he struck the aspiring middle and upper classes, who saw the independence of India as an opportunity to advance their careers and create economic opportunities and wealth for themselves, as an obstructionist who was out of sorts in the modern world.  The old man had already become obsolete and dispensable, and Nathuram was not mincing words when, at his trial, he spoke bitterly and mockingly of Gandhi’s fasts, spinning, his ‘inner voice’, and the Mahatma’s other mannerisms which, in Nathuram’s view, had effeminized Indian politics and would have made India incapable of a muscular response to attacks in a world where nations vie for advantage and supremacy.  Gandhi had to die if India were to survive.

What Nathuram did not at all understand was that men such as Gandhi have to be shot dead repeatedly.  It is not only that a Gandhi can be killed in the flesh but not in the spirit.  That is only one, and the more predictable, part of the story.  The spectre of Gandhi is everywhere and October 2nd is not the only day when he looms large, except of course to those who are unpleasantly reminded by his birth anniversary of the fact that there is much work still to be done in eviscerating Gandhi from the public sphere.  Even those who do not care an iota for him have to invoke his name; love him or hate him, he is inescapable.  He is everywhere, on billboards, mugs, tee-shirts, car stickers, murals, graffiti, television ads, cartoons, and much else.  The present-day killers of Gandhi can, however, live with the merchandizing of Gandhi, and nearly all of them, even as they despise him, would have no reluctance in capitalizing on his name.  The idea of cultural capital may be a conceptual black hole to them, but they instinctively understand that the invocation of Gandhi’s name can open many doors in the right places.

What is, then, truly worrisome to the killers of Gandhi is that, much like the obdurate old man, some of Gandhi’s ideas refuse to go away.  Nathuram Godse and his implicit patrons must have hoped and certainly thought that Gandhi, a few years after his assassination, would become a distant memory.  Quite to the contrary, much of the contemporary global common sense about, for example, the hazards of unchecked consumption, the problems that inhere in the very idea of the nation-state, and the inverse relationship of militarism to well-being is anticipated in the life and writings of Gandhi.  The so-called “toxic masculinity” that is on witness in the streets of every town and city in India is not only a manifestation of Hindu rage and a will to shape a decisive understanding of the past but also a reaction to the androgynous values that Gandhi embodied and which the Hindu nationalist tacitly knows are enshrined in Indian culture.  What is different about the killers of Gandhi today is that act with total impunity.  They are aware of the fact that the present political dispensation is favorable to them, and that much of the ‘ruling class’ despises Gandhi.  The mandarins who stalk the corridors of power and sit on corporate boardrooms know that all they have to do is hold a conference every now and then on “the relevance of Gandhi” to cover up for the complete contempt and even hatred they harbor for the “Mahatma”.  That is, of course, why middle class Indians think nothing of circulating poems—I hope to discuss one in the next few days—on What’s App describing Gandhi as a fool and traitor to the nation, and why they think that his assassin should be installed as a deity in a temple.

One could go in this vein, but this much is clear:  Nathuram botched the assassination.  This is why the killers of Gandhi are still on the loose, making hay while the sun shines. The official pieties surrounding Gandhi Jayanti may be nauseating to behold, but October 2nd is a necessary provocation.

 

There are numerous other essays on Gandhi on this blog; readers might find especially interesting the following essays:

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/30/the-homeless-gandhi/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/a-reputation-and-more-in-ruins-gandhi-at-the-aga-khan-palace-pune/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/vaishnava-janato-gandhi-and-narsi-mehtas-conception-of-the-ideal-person/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/a-strange-case-of-doppelgangers-hitler-and-gandhi-in-india/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/gandhis-photograph-and-the-politics-of-the-frame/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/gambling-on-gandhi-on-being-timid-and-taking-risks/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2009/10/02/gandhi%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98relevance%E2%80%99-one-more-round-of-humbug/

 

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Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh and other ministers and MLAs at the Vidhan Sabha [Punjab Assembly], Chandigarh, March 2017.  Photo & Copyright: Keshav Singh, Hindustan Times.  

The Cabinet of the Punjab Government has approved an amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code and will place a bill before the Assembly to secure passage of legislation that would impose a life sentence upon those convicted of desecrating religious texts.  Sec. 295A presently stipulates a prison term of no more than three years for anyone found guilty of outraging, or attempting with malicious intent to outrage, the religious sentiments of the practitioners of any faith.  A number of commentators have in recent days objected strenuously and with passionate conviction to legislation that is unquestionably liable to abuse and will almost certainly further undermine the already endangered secular structure of the Indian polity, but their arguments, as I shall suggest shortly, do not go far enough; indeed, their arguments do not as much as recognize the principal intellectual shortcoming of the proposed legislation.

Before a consideration of the immense difficulties that inhere in this proposed legislation, let it be said that most of the commonplace arguments that have been raised against this extremely foolish and dangerous gesture on the part of the Congress government are not insignificant.  First, it must be recognized that there was a spate of incidents in late 2015 involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and police firing in Faridkot against aggrieved demonstrators.  Consequently, the concern with desecration of religious texts is not without substance. There is, secondly, the question of political expediency: the country will be going to elections in much less than an year, and the Congress is keen to remind voters in one of the few states where it has a real presence that it has done more than the Akali Dal to defend the religious sentiments of the Sikhs. This would scarcely be the first time, of course, that the Congress would be attempting to position itself as a champion of religious minorities. Judging from its previous forays in this direction, one can hazard the speculation that the outcome on this occasion will once again do no credit to the Congress.

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Demonstration by SGPC [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] activists agains the allleged descration of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Punjab, 2015.  Photo copyright: Agence France-Presse (AFP).  

Thirdly, the Akali Dal government in 2016 did pass legislation that sought life imprisonment for desecrating the Sikh holy book, as well as an enhanced prison term of ten years for offenders against other religious faiths, but the Central Government returned the legislation both on the grounds that the prescribed punishments were “excessive in law” and, more importantly, in violation of the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The violation was construed as emanating not even remotely from the fact that the state had no business in using its coercive powers to enforce religious belief, but rather from the curious fact that in prescribing a higher penalty for desecrators of the Guru Granth Sahib than for those had insulted the holy books of other faiths, the Centre charged the state government with elevating one religion over another and thereby violating the central tenet of Indian secularism which insists on parity for all religions.  It is for this reason that the proposed amendment to Sec. 295A stipulates that “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life”.  What was deemed as “excessive” punishment is now sought to be imposed with uniformity upon an offender found guilty of the said offence, regardless of religion.  Apparently, barbarism towards all is to be preferred to a barbarism that is partial.

Much else has been said, and with due reason, against the amendment to the IPC.  The application of “blasphemy laws” in neighboring Pakistan, about which I shall have much more to say in another essay soon, demonstrates the extraordinary hazards of such legislation:  people often falsely charge others to settle personal scores, and those alleged to have committed an offence have sometimes been killed in acts of vigilante justice by mobs acting at the instigation of religious zealots.  Existing laws in India are sufficient to deal with whatever cases of the desecration of religious books or sites of worship might arise; in this matter as in in nearly every other, such as for instance the entire question of ‘lynching’, the laws are rigorous enough and it has long been recognized that the problem resides rather in the fact that there is no will to enforce them.  There is also the equally substantive issue that the threshold for what is deemed ‘religious hurt’ continues to be lowered.  The three dozen retired civil servants, many with considerable standing in Indian society, who have addressed an open letter to the Punjab Chief Minister quite rightly point to the “ill-founded prosecutions” that are likely to arise from such legislation, and they are doubtless right in arguing that “blasphemy laws are a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right.”

While all these arguments have merit, they nevertheless occlude the most fundamental problem not only in the framing of the new legislation but in the interpretation of Indian society.  Let us note the use of the phrase, “blasphemy laws”, common to nearly everything that has been written on the subject.  The legislation in question does not use the word “blasphemy”, but all commentators have understood the gist of it as prescribing penalties for blasphemy.  Like many of the categories that inform our intellectual discourse in India, “blasphemy” is part of the Judeo-Christian inheritance that was handed down to India in the wake of colonial rule.  Moses is told by the Lord to tell the Israelites, “When any man whatever blasphemes his God, he shall accept responsibility for his sin . . . . all the community shall stone him; alien or native, if he utters the Name, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:15-16).  Moral theologians regarded blasphemy as a sin; some, such as Aquinas, held it as a sin against faith.  The Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I, decreed the death penalty for blasphemy, and in large parts of the Christian world blasphemy remained punishable by death until comparatively recent times.

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A cartoon by the Brazilian Carlos Latuff.  Copyright:   Carlos Latuff.  Source: https://theintercept.com/2015/01/09/solidarity-charlie-hebdo-cartoons/

What is absolutely striking, and germane for us in India, is the fact that the idea of blasphemy has no point of reference or analogue in Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism. The idea is absolutely foreign to at least the adherents of these religions.  Indians, whatever their religious faith, understand the reverence in which holy books are to be held, or the respect that is to be paid to religious shrines, but it is questionable whether most of them would be moved by arguments about “blasphemy”.   What does blasphemy mean to a Hindu, and what is “the holy book” that is being blasphemed against?  On whose authority does the Punjab Government pronounce that the Bhagavad Gita is to the Hindu what the Bible is to the Christian or the Quran to the Muslim?  How did the view of a certain, and to a considerable extent Anglicized, element of the Hindu middle class about the Gita, come to represent the view of all Hindus?  How does one even begin to understand that every faith, and not only Hinduism, began to be shaped in the image of Protestant Christianity commencing in the late 18th century?  We have here, in the present debate about “blasphemy laws”, another instance of how our thinking takes place without any reference to the categories produced by Indian thought and without any awareness of the fact that the intellectual legacies of the Judeo-Christian tradition are unthinkingly deployed to frame very different experiences.

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So should we view this as “Hindu Blasphemy”?  The cover of Business Today shows cricketer M. S. Dhoni, one of the many new Gods of modern India.

I am reminded, finally, of an anecdote from the life of Vivekananda.  It is reported that on a visit to Kashmir, some of Vivekananda’s followers were both despondent and angry at seeing the broken images of the goddess strewn over the countryside.  They swore that henceforth they would not permit the images of the goddess to be defiled. Vivekananda turned to them with a retort, “Do you protect the Goddess, or does the Goddess protect you?”  The Chief Minister and the other self-appointed guardians of religion can usefully take home a lesson from this story.  It is arrogant for them to believe that the great faiths of India require the protections of the Indian state; and this is, of course, apart from any consideration of whether the Indian state, which has more often than not shown reckless disregard for the citizens of this country, has any moral standing to uplift these faiths.  On nearly every ground that one can think of, the Punjab and Central governments would be well advised to withdraw the contemplated amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

(A shorter version of this was published as “A Foreign Offence” in the Indian Express (print edition), 11 September 2018.

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