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Yes, I do know that Tom Alter, the gifted film and television actor and theater artist who died in Mumbai

TomAlter

Tom Alter.  Source:  Indian Express.

a little more than two weeks ago, was not an Englishman but rather an American.  I doubt, however, that most people in India knew that he was an American:  he was a firangi (“foreigner”, of foreign origins), and the firangi, when all is said and done, is an Englishman—at least in India.  Jawaharlal Nehru once described himself in a conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, the American Ambassador to India—and others too have said this of him—as the “last Englishman” in India.  He had not reckoned with Tom Alter, who, in his love for cricket, was thoroughly English—and Indian.

Tom Alter was born in India to American parents.  He attended Woodstock School in Mussoorie, and I suspect that his attachment to Mussoorie remained throughout his life.  His parents moved to Rajpur, a small town which is 25 kilometers from Mussoorie on the road to Dehradun, when he was 14 years old, but it is in Landour, which is but a few kilometers from Mussoorie and can be reached by foot in a little more than half an hour to those who are familiar with the terrain, that he chose to get married to a fellow Woodstock student, Carol Evans.  They were married at St. Paul’s Church in Char Dukan, literally “Four Shops”, which is more than a charming little place where many people engage in guftagoo.  And “guftagoo”, the art of conversation, is something of which Tom Alter, from what I have heard, was a keen and admirable exponent.

I never had the good fortune of meeting Tom Alter.   I wish it had been otherwise.  He had a few hundred roles in Indian films and was the actor of choice for those Indian film directors, working mainly though not exclusively in Hindi, who were looking to cast a role for a white man.  But Tom, let it be clear, did not take on only the role of a firangi, or white man; he could easily pass himself off as Indian.  In a long interview that he gave recently for Rajya Sabha TV, Alter described how he came to love Indian cinema.  The films of Rajesh Khanna got him hooked to mainstream Hindi movies; as he put it in an interview in 2009, “I still dream of being Rajesh Khanna. For me, in the early 1970s, he was the only hero — romantic to the core, not larger than life, so Indian and real — he was my hero; the reason I came into films and he still is.”  This may be thought of as an unusual confession:  of course, Rajesh Khanna had an extraordinarily large following, particularly in his heyday, and the stories of young Indian women swooning over him are legion.  I have some recollection of his visit to Indonesia in the early 1970s when I was living there and of the absolute crush of young women who had gathered at the airport to receive him.  Where Khanna went, pandemonium followed.  Rajesh Khanna not Amitabh Bachchan was the first superstar of Bollywood, even if that is not known to those in the present generation.

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Rajesh Khanna serenading his lady love, in Aradhana.

Rajesh Khanna’s following, however, was overwhelmingly young women—or at least that is the impression one received from television, newspapers, and popular film magazines.  The popular film magazine Stardust had been launched in 1971, and scandal and gossip, always a characteristic feature of Bollywood and Hollywood, received a new boost.  One early Stardust cover had this headline, “Is Rajesh Khanna married?”  Now Alter may not have thought of himself as an intellectual, but in some circles it would be something of an embarrassment to admit that one had a weakness for Rajesh Khanna, that “evergreen” star who, with his trademark tilt of the head and cherubic countenance, seemed positively silly; when he ran around trees in the gentle pursuit of women, he looked, even more so than other actors, hilariously comical. Rajesh Khanna’s following seemed to be comprised largely of those very women who entertained ideas of romance derived entirely from Mills & Boon novels, if perhaps a notch below in their class background.  So there is something unquestionably something charming, even disarming, in hearing Alter speak of his unbound affection for Rajesh Khanna.

Alter’s first role in a Hindi film was in 1976; the following year, in one of his most memorable roles, he played Captain Weston, the aide-de-camp to General Outram, the British Resident at the court of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, in Satyajit Ray’s film, Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”, 1977), itself based on a short story by Munshi Premchand.  I saw the film a year later, in late 1978, and the scene is memorably etched in my mind.  Weston is summoned by Outram, who in his own fashion attempts to fathom the mind of the inscrutable Oriental Despot.  Outram has heard that Wajid Ali Shah is a poet—well, whoever heard of a king who fancied himself a poet.  “Tell me, Weston, you know the language, you know the people here—I mean, what kind of poet is the King? Is he any good, or is it simply because he’s the King they say he’s good?”  “I think he’s rather good, sir.” “You do, eh?”  So Weston is asked to recite a poem; he complies with the request, if reluctantly.  When he’s done, and has rendered the poem in translation as well, Outram—who has pronounced himself not much of a “poetry man”—pompously declares, “Doesn’t strike me a great flight of fancy.”

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Tom Alter as Capt. Weston, aide-de-camp to General Outram, Resident of Lucknow, in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”), 1977.

Alter was known to aficionados of Indian cinema and theater lovers as someone with an enviable command over both Hindi and Urdu.  He delivers the lines in Shatranj ke Khilari, as well as in other films where he appeared, with absolute ease and comfort; indeed, it was pointed out that his interlocutors, many of them native speakers of Hindustani, often resorted to English words when Alter didn’t. In his love for Hindustani, for Hindi and Urdu alike, for Urdu literature and the everydayness of Indian life, Alter showed that it was possible to repudiate the idea of exclusive loyalties.  Perhaps, as an Englishman born of American parents in India, he could be singularly free of the virulent disease of nationalism.

It is no surprise that in recent years Tom Alter was called upon to play the role of Maulana Azad more than once, most recently in a TV series on the Indian Constitution (“Samvidhaan”), and that he did so with brilliance. In fact, it could not be otherwise in many respects.  If Alter was celebrated for his chaste Urdu, much more so was the case with Maulana Azad, whose mastery of Urdu has been commented upon by those who are familiar with the language.  But we may say that Tom Alter stands in for the figure of Maulana Azad in yet more touching ways.  Though Alter was born in India three years after partition, it is his American grandparents who had first made their way to India in November 1916, settling down in Lahore.  Alter’s father was born in Sialkot; at the time of partition, Tom’s grandparents elected to stay in what became Pakistan, while his parents opted for India.  One doesn’t ever think of English families in undivided India that were divided by the partition:  that is another story in the making.  Maulana Azad famously stayed behind in India, and he remained firmly committed as a secular and practicing nationalist Muslim to the idea of India.  Maulana Azad was too fine a match—as a thinker, writer, scholar, and principled man—for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but that, too, is another story.

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Tom Alter as Maulana Azad.  YouTube Screen Grab.

Alter’s life is interesting and salutary, above all else, not only for his affection for India and his understanding of the country, but because as an “Englishman” he had the liberty of putting forth views which Indian secularists and liberals have eschewed and often vigorously attacked.  Over a decade ago I published a very long scholarly article on the trajectory of the word ‘tolerance’ in contemporary Indian political discourse.  The Hindu nationalists no longer want to hear anything about the much-touted “Hindu tolerance”, since in their view “Hindu tolerance” has over the centuries made Hindus vulnerable to rapacious foreigners and especially Muslim conquerors.  The idea of Hindu tolerance, on this reading, has been the graveyard of Hinduism.  The left, however, repudiates the idea of Hindu tolerance for altogether different reasons.  Some argue that it is a complete fiction; others find it a mockery, pointing, for instance, to centuries of caste oppression.  The idea of “Hindu tolerance”, they argue, is nothing but a frightful and bloated conceit.  This is what I termed “intolerance for ‘Hindu tolerance’”.

Alter had a different reading of what India has stood for and, notwithstanding the tremendous assaults on Indian pluralism of the last few years, still embodies to those who can recognize India for what it is.  In the aforementioned hour-long interview that he gave to Rajya Sabha TV in August 2016, he speaks about the time of partition and the aftermath [start at 58:30].  The killings and the bitterness would not preclude the Constitution of India from stating that every Indian had every right to be a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, or the practitioner of any other faith.  Alter speaks of his father who unhesitatingly described himself and other Christians as living in a land between the Ganga and the Yamuna:  it is a Christian father who recognizes that to Hindus this land is holy, pure (“pak”).  This is a Christian father saying this; for Christians these are not holy rivers; but “crores” (tens of millions) of people believe that they are holy rivers, and there is a force in that belief.  That, to the mind of Tom Alter, was secularism in practice.  In India, Alter noted, there has never been a point of view which dictated, ‘My path alone is right, yours is wrong’.  It is doubtful, Alter said, that there is anywhere in the world another country where such a worldview, such a sensibility of tolerance, has prevailed for such a lengthy stretch of time.

Alter feared that this delicate fabric which has been stitched over time is beginning to tear apart.  But he had no difficulty in characterizing what he saw as a wondrously unique culture of tolerance that had defined India.  Alter, in his interview, appears with a bandaged thumb.  His thumb had to be amputated, as melanoma tore into his body.  The cancerous rise of militant Hindu nationalism, if Indians are not watchful, will lead to the amputation of India.

Alter’s grandparents had come to India as Christian missionaries.  It is fitting that Tom Alter should have departed this life as a missionary for an unheralded India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On 12 July 2017, the Deputy Editor of the Indian Express, Ms. Seema Chisthi, interviewed me at my residence in New Delhi on the lynchings in India and on the political situation in the country.  Excerpts from the interview were published in the Indian Express a few days later under the title, “What We See in India Today is the Difference Between Formal and Real Citizenship”.  The interview as published in the newspaper can be accessed here:  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/what-we-see-in-india-is-the-difference-between-formal-and-real-citizenship-historian-vinay-lal-ucla-professor-4755247/

What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the published excerpts.

In the light of the recent cases of lynchings in India, is there a shift in the way communal tension has been exploding on the surface from how it did in earlier decades?

Yes, there is. There is no doubt in my mind that the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that we have seen in the US or parts of Western Europe has repercussions in India, emboldening the advocates of Hindutva. The notion among some in India is that if Muslims, particularly in the so-called modern West, can be attacked, then we can do that too, we have the license to do that with impunity. In the US, I see many advocates of Hindutva who are now suggesting that the US, India and Israel form a natural alliance with one another as, in their worldview, these democracies are being “threatened” by forces of Islam and are under assault from radical Muslims. This certainly was not the international environment in the 1960s or 1970s. That’s at the macro level. It is not just the RSS or VHP but a slightly larger strand of Indian society that has become complicit in these attacks or lynchings that we see in India, exactly like in the US. There was a virulent white racism that was so pervasive that you did not need to have institutional membership in the KKK or John Birch Society, people were complicit in it without a formal association with white supremacist groups.

What is the kind of signal that a political dispensation like India has now send to the law enforcement machinery?

I think the problem is twofold. What do you do when the state becomes somewhat thuggish?  So, the people who are targeted are not just Muslims, but also Dalits and Africans. We should be attentive to it because there are groups of people whose very lives are at risk.  In all authoritarian states, signals are sent down to the people from the top. We don’t need to take the example of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s totalitarian state, you can turn to authoritarian states now where you can see very clearly, it is same attitude at the top, middle and bottom.  Once the masses imbibe the idea that the leadership will tolerate extreme intolerance, the oppressive attitude becomes pervasive. These problems are not distinct to India today, we see a similar repression and acute intolerance—think of the United States.  Similarly, Turkey is in dire straits. China, Russia, [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines… the list goes on. This could be attributed to what is being termed the ‘strongman’ phenomenon. But I feel the problem is much greater and we have to speak of ‘nationalism’.  What is happening today shows the limits of the nationalist project and what a disease nationalism can become in certain circumstances. Now this is very hard for the newly independent and formerly colonized countries to accept, which fought for freedom on the basis of the idea of nationalism; but wherever you had nationalist movements, you have had to rethink the nationalist idea. It has become the only kind of political community to which we all have to pay obeisance. What we see in India — and which is clear in a large number of other countries, especially US – is the difference between formal citizenship and real citizenship on the ground. In the US, African-Americans are for the most part only formal citizens without the rights of a citizen on the ground. This is the case for a large number of people in India.

So how does one un-thug the state?

It’s always a difficult question. We need to consider what are the sources of resistance in the society and there is a gamut of forms of resistance. We can take the view that one has to work with the institutions in the land, but such a position is clearly inadequate and I think India has mastered the subterfuge. That subterfuge is that India has, in most domains of life, the most progressive legislation in the world. So, in some ways, the progressive legislation obfuscates the nature of the problem and clouds it.  Let us recognize that the law cannot regulate my prejudices or feelings. But it can certainly do something to regulate prejudicial conduct, particularly when repercussions are extraordinarily severe for someone at the other end.  So we would certainly have to think of the rule of law, even as I am cautioning against viewing it as the solution to all our ills.  I would argue for a greater need for satyagraha as an instrument than which has a place in democracy. Especially where the law is sometimes used as an instrument for either doing nothing or installing new regimes of repression. As we are living in a democracy, at least pro forma, and we have a functioning court system, it is very important that what can be gained through satyagraha must be recognized.  Organised, non-violent civil resistance has a place. It need not follow exactly what Gandhi did.  We may have to, we certainly will have to, use satyagraha in different ways. This can’t just be done through social media or Facebook or Twitter — this needs people on the ground to build resistance. We need masses of people together, congregating in public spheres in opposition to injustice. It cannot be left to social media.

Are you optimistic about India today?

Yes, we must be clear that we should not let Hindutva forces hijack what we have. Unlike my friends on the Left-liberal end of the spectrum, I have great respect for the spiritual resources of the Indic civilisation, which includes aspects of the Indo-Islamic tradition which developed here, which was unprecedented.  Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism—all this is part of our legacy. We have had writers, philosophers, artists, and reformers who have reckoned with these questions for hundreds of years, and I am not ready to call all that inconsequential. So, yes, I am optimistic, on the whole.

 

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A few months ago, Harsh Mander, who is one of India’s most committed activists, a staunch anti-communalist, a fearless advocate of human rights, and—if I may add a personal note—an old and trusted friend, wrote an opinion piece for the Indian Express which gave me pause for some thought. I have since had other moments to think about Mander’s piece, which is entitled “Unlike America”; its sub-heading more than adequately suggests the tenor of his argument: “In India, voices of public protest against hate-mongering targeting Muslims have been far too muted and infrequent.”  Mander is among the millions who throughout the world was filled with a “dark foreboding” after Donald J. Trump’s electoral triumph, and Trump’s reckless actions and pronouncements since his inauguration on January 20 would have done little to alleviate the deep misgivings about the American President that Mander like many others (myself included) have experienced.

Less than two weeks into his administration, Trump issued what became known as the “Muslim Ban”.  It is at this point, Mander suggests, that many Americans woke up to the unpleasant reality that they would have to live for at least four years with a Commander-in-Chief and President who is boorish, narcissistic, and habitually prone to lying.  Though Mander does not say so, Trump is fundamentally not merely uninterested in issues of social justice and equality but, to the contrary, a blatant example of the absolutely vacuous Ayn Rand school of thought which believes that man is born to self-aggrandizement.  (To my mind, the notion of Trump as a disciple, howsoever much he may detest the very idea considering his proclivity to think of himself only as a ‘winner’ and ‘leader’, of Ayn Rand has barely been noticed in the prolific public commentary.)  The “Muslim Ban” had just been issued before a court put a stay order on it; the revised version of the ban, issued days later, similarly did not survive judicial review.

But none of this is the subject matter of Mander’s article, which is rather on how, in the wake of the “Muslim Ban”, Americans rose to the occasion in a vivid demonstration of what has made America ‘great’ and a beacon of light to other countries.  Mander speaks approvingly and many would say justly of the “luminous, spontaneous public display of solidarity and empathy with the targeted Muslims by millions of ordinary Americans”, which to his mind is an affirmation of the fact that “a politics of hate, however powerful, can never triumph if people defy attempts to divide them with bigotry and fear.”  Moving towards the last third of his opinion piece, Mander thoughtfully asks whether in India good-natured and well-intentioned people have done enough to resist “the fear and animosity that has been systematically fostered against the Indian Muslim minority in the Modi era.”  Many Muslims in India view themselves as second-class citizens, and Mander poignantly inquires whether “Indian people have reached out to defend and reassure their Muslim neighbours in ways that many Americans have”.

It is doubtless true that within hours of the issue of the “Muslim Ban”, protestors came out on the streets of America to lodge their opposition against the xenophobic turn in the new administration and attempts to ‘secure’ America against supposed enemies of the state.  The country’s airports, especially, became sites of concerted resistance, and hundreds of immigrant attorneys offered their services pro bono to immigrants and refugees.  Elsewhere in the country, as Mander writes, what are called ‘faith leaders’ representing Christianity and Judaism also made it known that they would not abide by any executive orders or regulations that clearly target Muslims.  One cannot but agree with Mander that this apparent display of solidarity with Muslims has been admirable.

However, I am slightly discomforted by certain assumptions that underlie Mander’s claim, and would like to conjoin some general queries with the specifics of the politics of protest in the US and India by way of opening up a space for discussion.  First, there is the question that in the Indian liberal imagination, the US becomes the benchmark by which other countries are judged.  The US scarcely has any monopoly on what we might call the architecture of popular protest:  if anything, American streets see much less protest than do the streets in most other countries.  Of course, one can anticipate the rejoinder, namely that the street protests in, for example, Russia and Venezuela have been waged not on behalf of the rights of various other religious, racial, ethnic, or gendered others, but rather by ordinary citizens who feel their rights have been trampled upon or who seek to create a space for political dialogue.  By the same token, however, it is indubitably the fact that the United States is essentially and in its core an immigrant society.  The “Muslim Ban”, in other words, is not merely an issue with implications for Muslims, or even those, like Sikhs or brown-skinned people in general, who might be mistaken for Muslims.  If the Muslim is a metaphor for the immigrant, then effectively most Americans are Muslims. 

Thus, in this respect, the “Muslim Ban” can be described as something that is experienced viscerally as a ban upon every immigrant, or even ancestors of immigrants, which is the preponderant portion of the American population—as a rebuke, in other words, to every American.  Mander could have perhaps made a stronger case if he had advanced the view that the Muslim in India is similarly a part of the Indian self, a part of every Hindu, just as every Hindu is a part of every Muslim self, even if the gravitational pull of South Asian politics, particularly in Pakistan, over the last course of the last century has been to try to demarcate the Muslim as an altogether separate entity from the Hindu.

Secondly, as a corollary to the above argument, it is thus easier to understand why the politics of agitation in the US has not, generally speaking, extended to a great many other issues.  Trump’s “divisive politics”, as it is often termed, is unpleasant and even deeply offensive to many, but very few of the other equally odious measures that his administration has passed have given rise to mass demonstrations.  To take one illustration, the various pushbacks in the Trump administration against measures designed to safeguard the environment, and even his rejection of the Paris climate accord, have not led to anything like the kind of demonstrations that we have seen over the “Muslim Ban”, though the implications of his administration’s repudiation of the scientific consensus over climate change are far-reaching and in some respects dwarf many other pertinent social issues.  It may be that organization of resistance around climate change, which may seem something like an abstraction to some people, particularly in an affluent country such as the US, is no easy task.  But this only goes to suggest that there is, in some ways, a singularity of concern that the “Muslim Ban” is able to evoke.  Empathy, that is to say, is also selective. 

Thirdly, then, there is something anodyne in the observation that Mander has put forward when he writes, to quote him again, that “a politics of hate, however powerful, can never triumph if people defy attempts to divide them with bigotry and fear.”  My point here is not merely that “a politics of hate” does triumph all too often:  if this were not the case, mass murders, genocide, and the carefully managed orchestration of hatred would not be routine facts of history.  There may be, indeed there is, an ethical imperative to affirm, and affirm repeatedly, our capacity to overcome the politics of hate, bigotry, and fear.  But there is also the need to reckon with the fact that the “politics of hate” is not an isomorphic phenomenon but rather is inextricably intertwined with the brute facts of nationalism, class hierarchies, and ideologies of exclusion.

We are left, moreover, with other questions which hover in the background of Mander’s piece.  It was a mass movement of resistance, waged over three decades, which brought to an end colonial rule in India.  In the mid-1970s, again, a popular movement, which saw meetings and demonstrations in north India, put an end to the authoritarianism that had guided Mrs. Indira Gandhi.  In recent years, the issue of corruption has riled the middle class.  It is unnecessary, at this juncture, to probe the politics of protest over “corruption”.  Mander seeks to inquire:  why is it that the ill-treatment of Muslims does not similarly evoke the anger or an anxiety over injustice and bring the people of the streets to India?  It is not that the people of India will not take to the streets:  but why do they fail to do so in the case of palpable forms of injustice and discrimination against Muslims?  Mander has described the symptom, but not the disease.  Is the disease Hindu nationalism?  Is it a new-found adherence to the ideology of ‘each man to himself’?  Is it the collapse of some notion of a social commons?  Is it the decline of the ‘moral economy’?  Has some kind of zero-sum politics become the norm?  Even if Mander has not posed these questions, his piece should certainly be read as a necessary provocation to ponder over the profound malaise that has afflicted India.

 

 

 

 

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Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime V

(Being, a gentle reminder to the reader, a cornucopia of assertions, satire, commentary, interpretation, Trump-comedy, and much else, but always grounded in at least some facts.)

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The Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, Ohio, founded and shuttered in 1977 on September 19, a remembered in the area as “Black Monday”. Source: http://postindustrialrustbelt.blogspot.com/2014/10/rust-belt.html

Few phrases have done the round as much in this election cycle in the United States as the “Rust Belt”. On Washington’s Beltway, jubilant Republicans and morose Democrats will doubtless be talking about the Rust Belt for a long time, indeed until such time as rust begins to acquire around the idea of the Rust Belt and, like all others phrases that have done their time, this one too becomes a hazy memory. Contrary to received opinion, the phrase “Rust Belt” is not of recent vintage, dating, as is commonly imagined, to around 20-30 years ago, a period which witnessed both NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the emergence of China as a global economic powerhouse.  This is when jobs began leaving the United States, corporations started taking recourse to outsourcing, and the industrial heartland in the Midwest—and especially the area around Pittsburgh and other steel-producing towns—went into decline.

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The Rust Belt of the United States. Source: https://unitedstateshistorylsa.wikispaces.com/Sunbelt+and+Rustbelt

The veracity of this claim is not my concern at this juncture.  However, what is interesting is that though the term “Rust Belt” began to acquire popularity around the late 1980s, similar uses of the term can be dated back much earlier.  The Oxford English Dictionary informs us that the phrase “Rust Belt” was used as early as 1869, when the San Francisco Bulletin stated that “a foreign demand for wheat and barley would set a good many farmers on their pins . . . The demand will not, of course, help those who rented lands within the rust belt.”  More tellingly, a good decade before NAFTA entered into force, well before, as Trump and common wisdom would have it, Mexico, China, India, and other countries began swallowing up well-paying jobs that had sustained decent American families, an Associated Press story, published on 30 November 1982, stated that “unemployment is extremely high in many areas of the so-called ‘Rust Belt’, the heavy industry areas of the Midwest and parts of the Northeast.”  For all the tens of thousands of economists—the anointed ‘queens’ of the social sciences—writing on this subject, the claim that unemployment in the Rust Belt surged following the enactment of NAFTA and the packaging of jobs to China remains largely unexamined.  The rust on the Rust Belt has a longer history than is commonly imagined.

There is a consensus among commentators or “pundits”—proud Indians will doubtless have taken note of this, pointing to it as one of myriad signs of how Indian words have now become normalized in English—that the Rust Belt states won Trump his Presidency.  It is Hillary Clinton’s neglect of these states, and her presumption that the working-class was in her pocket, that is supposed to have sunk her bid for the presidency.  Of course, as scholars in particular are wont to say, such a claim is “problematic”, since even many outside the Rust Belt voted for Trump.  A majority of white women, 53% to be precise, appear to have voted for Trump, notwithstanding the fact that well over a dozen white women stepped forward with allegations of being sexually abused and assaulted by him; similarly, though Trump reeks of racism, fewer black people voted for Hillary Clinton than did for Barack Obama.  One could easily multiply such facts, but there is nevertheless a widespread and credible view that the Rust Belt states proved critically important and perhaps decisive in Trump’s victory.

So much for the view from the Rust Belt.  India’s much derided (or vaunted, by some) ‘Cow Belt’ furnishes us another perspective on the US Elections in myriad ways about which I shall be only tantalizingly suggestive.  Both India and the US are what may be called ‘bovine’ countries:  the cow is venerated in India among the Hindus and devoured in the US; in the Midwest, especially, beef jerky is a delicacy.  But let me not venture forth, for fear of being targeted by the internet gau rakshaks, on the numerous delectable ways in which India and the US, joined at the hip as the world’s two largest democracies, are bovine-minded.  The Cow Belt, which some view as a derogatory term, refers to India’s Gangetic heartland from where Narendra Modi drew his strongest supporters in 2014.  It is sometimes called the ‘Saffron Belt’:  in either case, it is in this densely populated part of the country that Hindu nationalism has its widest appeal and where gangs of young men have organized themselves into vigilante groups that terrorize Muslims and “pseudo-secularists” (as they are described by the advocates of Hindutva) who do not pay obeisance to the cow.

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Four young Dalit men stripped and beaten with belts, allegedly for transporting beef–not a crime under any Indian law, but a heinous offense to the Motherland and to Gau Mata from the standpoint of self-appointed Guardians of the Cow. The incident took place in July 2016 and was video-taped. Source: India Today.

It is here that a person might get beaten to pulp on the mere suspicion of eating beef or transporting dead cows to the slaughter-house.  In both countries, the narrative takes on the same hue, registering the disaffection of the ‘majority’ in the ‘heartland’ who are bereft of jobs and hobbled by some form of political correctness.  White racism in the United States, of course by no means confined to the ‘Rust Belt’, meets its match in Hindu chauvinism in the ‘Cow Belt’.

But there is seemingly another obvious reference when we speak of the perspective from the ‘Cow Belt’ on the US Elections.  Many commentators have pointed to the ‘strong man’ who seems to be trending worldwide today and have suggested, as did Pankaj Mishra in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, that Narendra Modi, with his boasts about his 56-inch chest, may have set the example.  Trump’s all but explicit remarks about the shriveled penis of one of his opponents in the Republican primary might seem to bolster such a view.  But it is doubtful that Trump emulates anyone except himself:  he has an equally long history both of boasts and of parading his own masculinity. Moreover, was there ever a time in the politics of the last two to three decades when the ‘strong man’ did not reign?  Have we forgotten Manuel Noriega? Or Saddam Hussein? Commentators would have been more on the mark if they had been sensitive to the shifts in the register of masculinity among ‘strong men’, shifts which portend what I would call an incredulous masculinity.  What could be more fantastic, for example, then the fact that Rodrigo Duterte, now President of the Philippines, as a candidate promised that if he were elected President he would gun down drug users and traffickers and, as President, would immediately exercise his privileges in granting himself immunity from charges of murder!  Whatever one may say of Modi, he lacks this kind of devilish humor and ingenuity.

There is also the matter, finally, of the Chastity Belt. chastitybelt American feminists and women’s organizations have rightfully expressed alarm at the looming erosion of women’s rights, and in particular women’s reproductive freedoms, under a Trump Presidency.  The sexual profligacy of Donald Trump, who even hinted that he would have made a stab at his daughter if she were not his daughter, should at once remove the slightest suspicion that anyone might have that the President-elect would like women to be decorous.  He may like, one suspects, women to be the playthings of men, but he is no advocate of the view that women should be chaste.  The same cannot be said of his Republican allies in Congress, whose views on abortion I discussed in a previous blog and who, it would not be too much to say, certainly think that some women—black women, Latinas, poor women, working-class women, Muslim women—should regulate their sexuality.  The metaphor of the ‘chastity belt’, nowadays a sex toy but in its heyday an instrument for ensuring that women did not step out of bounds and remained available to their husbands, was brought home to me when I stumbled upon this gem from Sarah Palin, another wondrous specimen of American political comedy:

With so many belts to go around, I wonder if we might not all want to make a lunge for the lungi:

lungisdonthavebelts

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He may be the “Father of the Nation”, but it is more than his reputation, lately under assault from all the wise ones, that lies in tatters.  A plaque at the entrance to the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where Gandhi was confined for two years after he issued a call to the British to “Quit India” in August 1942, furnishes a brief introduction to this “monument of national importance”.

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Aga Khan’s Palace, Pune.  Source:  Khushroo Cooper, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kcooper/3074143937/sizes/o/in/photostream/

 

On my visit to this monument in March of this year, I found it in a state of utter dilapidation.  This is far from being India’s only “national monument” that has suffered from neglect and indifference; however, its association with Gandhi most likely ensures that it is not likely to see a revival of its fortunes.  If the murder of Gandhi was a permissive assassination, one celebrated by those elites who were enraged at the thought that the old man would if alive continue to exert an influence upon the affairs of a young nation-state struggling to find its feet in an evil world, permissive neglect seems to be the modus operandi through which Gandhi is slowly being sent into oblivion.

 

The Aga Khan Palace is remembered not only as the place where Gandhi served out the last of the many prison terms handed down to him by the colonial regime.  One of the most moving photographs in the vast archive of images of Gandhi shows a forlorn Mahatma sitting in a corner of the room across from the body of the deceased Kasturba.  She has lately, and not a moment too soon, come into the awareness of many as a woman who did not merely stand by her husband but was in the front ranks of those whose names are inscribed in the annals of anti-colonial resistance.  (No, it is not political correctness that has provoked an interest in Kasturba.) It is here, at the Palace, that their marriage which lasted over 60 years was brought to an end by her demise.  Not only that:  Mahadev Desai, reputedly closer to Gandhi than any of his sons, and often characterized in the Gandhi literature as his Boswell, also died during his confinement at the Aga Khan Palace.  In any other age, Mahadev, an uncommonly good writer and translator with a gift of observation and an exceedingly disciplined mind, would have achieved recognition as something more than the amaneunsis of Gandhi.

 

One might have expected, then, the Aga Khan Palace to be preserved as a treasured place in the nation’s history.  There are nearly a dozen large oil canvases; not all of the paintings are of great artistic merit, but they are a distinct and unique part of the repertoire of visual representations of Gandhi.  The canvas showing Kasturba in the cradle of Gandhi’s lap is not only unusual, but suggests a quiet intimacy between them which may not be visible to those who are determined to establish Gandhi as someone who exercised a tyrannical sway over Kasturba.

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One of the somewhat better preserved paintings, though “Rural India” is not very much on the minds of the Government of India or the country’s elites.  Photo: V. Lal, 2016.

“New Hope for Rural India” is one of the rare paintings of Gandhi that points to his engagement with the “Constructive Programme”.  All of the paintings are clearly in want of restoration:  the colors have uniformly faded, on occasion there are pigeon droppings, and the wooden frames show signs of decay.  Some paintings, shockingly, are now beyond repair.  Gandhi is little more than a white ghost in “A Crusader for Humanity”; many of the other figures are blurred.

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The artist was not attempting to create a blurred effect with his painting on Gandhi as a “crusader for human equality”.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

As is common in India, the museum displays resonate with inspiring slogans and exemplary didactic lessons—except that the unmistakable impression that is conveyed is that once the duty of parading homilies has been fulfilled, they can be easily dismissed as bearing little or no relationship to life.  Gandhi experimented for the greater part of his life with toilets that would work with little or no water.  One display in the Aga Khan museum complex is entitled “bhangi mukti” [freedom for the scavenger], but the lower half of the exhibit has been wiped out; the following panel, on the subject of “Cleanliness and Public Hygiene”, is one big blur.

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The slate of Gandhi’s teachings on cleanliness has been wiped clean!  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

Perhaps there is nothing accidental here: notwithstanding the hullabaloo over ‘Swacch Bharat’, the country has for decades blotted out the very idea of public hygiene from its consciousness.  V S Naipual had something nasty to say about this years ago, and however intolerable he is on most occasions, he had the gift both of observation and of writing.  But he was, not unexpectedly, roundly derided for reminding everyone of the shit that mars nearly every Indian landscape.  India, let us recall, holds—and by an exceedingly large margin—the world record for open defecation.  But there is something else about these paintings and displays that grabs the eye. Gandhi, even as he wrestled with issues of the greatest gravity, was always supremely attentive to the minutest details.  Here, at a museum dedicated to his life, the aesthetic sensibility is entirely lacking; not one frame or exhibit suggests any interest on the part of the curators, caretakers, or administrative staff in the extraordinary legacy that is under their charge.  The entire Palace and museum complex reeks of decay, indifferent, and neglect.

 

The shocking state of disrepair in which the Aga Khan Palace—a monument, let us reiterate, dedicated to the nation both for its place in the struggle for self-determination at a pivotal stage, and as the site of events critical to Gandhi’s life—has been allowed to languish is not likely to excite anyone’s attention.  The hostility to Gandhi among the advocates of Hindu nationalism is palpable.  Considerable segments of the RSS have thought nothing of glorifying his assassin, Nathuram Godse, who not coincidentally was born in Pune District.  Whatever the culpability, which cannot be doubted, of previous local administrations, neither the present local nor the state government can be expected to have any interest in reviving an institution intended to celebrate the life of a man whom they view as guilty of appeasing the Muslims and weakening the Hindu nation.  The Government of Maharashtra is securely in the hands of a BJP-Shiv Sena combine; the Shiv Sena’s former leader, the late Bal Thackeray, was often heard deriding Gandhi as a eunuch.  It is also worth recalling that Pune is the site of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a venerable research institution that was ransacked by Shiv Sena goons for none other than the reason that an American scholar, Jim Laine, had some years ago done research there to produce a book on Shivaji which his modern-day acolytes found to be inadequately reverential to their hero.  For those who pride themselves on the imagined glory of their martial traditions, a shrine dedicated to an effete Gujarati bania is just as soon forgotten.

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At this rate, all that will be left of Gandhi is pigeon droppings.  This panel is illustrative of the condition of many of the displays.  Photo:  V. Lal, March 2016.

However, the country’s left intellectuals will not be rushing to register their dismay at the state of this monument either.  Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a piece in the Economic and Political Weekly entitled “The Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate”, arguing that every constituency in India had a grievance with him.  In the intervening years, it has become almost obligatory to denounced Gandhi as a sexist and racist; and there are even websites that claim that he raped virgins and should have been jailed as a serial sex offender.  Some of his critics had been long been convinced that he had prevented the possibility of a “real” revolution—apparently, unless several million people have not been killed, or the enemy has not been exterminated in a calculated genocide, a genuine upheaval cannot be viewed as having taken place—in India, but lately we have also heard that his empathy for Dalits was nothing but a sham and that he even fortified the British empire in South Africa and India alike.  Arundhati Roy is, of course, much too smart and sophisticated to write a book with a title akin to something like ‘The Gandhi You Never Knew’, but the substance of her critique is effectively the same.  And that critique is nothing other than the stupid idea that the “real” Gandhi has been hidden from history.  If the state of the exhibits at the Aga Khan Palace suggests anything, it will not be long before Gandhi disappears altogether from public view.  Then India can celebrate its “real” independence and manhood.

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Sunil Khilnani, IncarnationsIndia in 50 Lives.  London:  Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2016.  636 pp. + xvii.

“India’s history”, Sunil Khilnani argues, “is a curiously unpeopled place.  As usually told, it has dynasties, epochs, religions and castes—but not many individuals.”  The colonial scholar-administrators who governed India through the first half of the 19th century, and their largely pedestrian successors, were firmly of the opinion that the individual as such did not exist in India.  By the second half of the 19th century, colonial anthropology peopled India with “types”; in short time, India was then rendered a land of collectivities, where religion and then caste reigned supreme and the individual as an atom of being remained unknown.  That, in good measure, would become the origin of ‘communalism’.

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Statue of Aryabhata (c.476-550 CE), Indian astronmer, at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune.

Mohandas Gandhi, one of fifty individuals who sits between the pages of Khilnani’s tome, was fully aware that in writing his autobiography, he was engaged in a task that was relatively novel to the Indian scene.  He would, I suspect, have agreed that biography is another related genre at which Indians are spectacularly poor, though Khilnani seeks to rectify this shortcoming in this beautifully produced and elegantly written work which spans around 5000 years of history through fifty lives.  There is no suggestion that other lives might not have been equally interesting, pointers to India’s complex and variegated history, and Khilnani advances a number of arguments to justify his choices.  Many of India’s most compelling minds, he submits, have been compelled “to exist in splendid isolation”, and his endeavor is to put those lives into conversation with “other individuals and ideas across time and border”, though, as is often the case with Indian intellectuals, it is principally “the West” that he has in mind when he is thinking of cross-border exchanges and fertilizations.

 

There is also the more familiar argument that the omission of some well-known names allows Khilnani to rescue from obscurity some who scarcely deserved that fate.  Thus, alongside the predictable pantheon of the greats—the Buddha, Mahavira, Akbar, Adi Shankara, Guru Nanak, Gandhi, Ambedkar, to name a few—we come across a slew of characters who are little remembered today.  Among the more memorable of his cast are Chidambaram Pillai (1872-1936), a Tamilian lawyer whose Swadeshi Team Navigation Company created a sensation in nationalist circles before the British found a pretext for removing him from the political scene, and Nainsukh (1710-1784), a master of the Pahari school of miniature painting in whose work Khilnani finds ample evidence of humanity, warmth, individuality, and, most significantly, a modern sensibility.

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A Share Certificate from the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, Tuticorin, established by Chidambaram Pillai. [From the Hindu files.]

Yet more remarkable still is Malik Ambar (1548-1626), an Abyssinian slave whose journey took him from Ethiopia to Baghdad and thence to the Deccan, a journey at the same time from subjection to overlordship.  Racial prejudice, Khilnani rightfully notes, has obscured the rich history of linkages between India and Africa and the place of Africans in India’s history.

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Murtaza Nizam Shah II, ruler of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate, and Malik Ambar.

 

Khilnani rather admirably is able to do justice to his subjects in comparatively short but crisp essays.  On occasion, there are even startling insights or formulations.  He writes of Jinnah with sympathy, but the critique in the concluding paragraph could not be more forceful:  every dream of homogeneity is undercut by the fact that there is “some aspect of identity, some sect, some culture or language, that doesn’t fit”; in other words, “identity is prone to be secessionist.”  The essay on Charan Singh, whose most thorough biographer is the American political scientist Paul Brass, is against the grain:  he has been willfully forgotten, perhaps an index of the contempt in which recent governments have held the Indian peasant, but Khilnani is appreciative of his ability to command the voice of the peasants even if he is mindful of Charan Singh’s inability to speak for the landless farmer.

 

Everything in Khilnani’s charming book is reasonable—and that, perhaps, defines the limits of his imagination.  About everyone gets the same number of pages, and one could say that the king (Ashoka, to name one) and the pauper (Kabir) are treated with radical equality.  No man (or woman, though there are few and far between) is treated with reverence as such.  Criticisms of Gandhi are these days dime a dozen, but even the Buddha is reprimanded for exhibiting patriarchal values.  The principle of selection is anodyne at worst and liberal at best.  It is, after all, a mark of the liberal sensibility that one should be able to view one’s subject with warts and all, and Khilnani is scrupulous in the observance of this principle.  The accent is unquestionably on the modern:  nearly thirty of his fifty individuals, commencing with Rammohun Roy, lived in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Doubtless, modern lives are better documented, but perhaps Khilnani reveals something of his sensibility in his predilection towards the modern.  He bemoans the fact that Indian women’s lives are not well documented, but one might counter by asking why Razia Sultan, Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Lata Mangeshkar are omitted from his narrative.  There is, however, a greater problem:  if Khilnani is constrained by his sources from speaking about women, he is surely not precluded from venturing into the politics of gender, femininity, and masculinity.  There is precious little of that in Incarnations, since he lets a rather elementary even procrustean conception of women’s lives guide his treatment of gender.

 

As with an anthologist, one should perhaps not begrudge Khilnani his choices.  There is a perfectly good reason why each of those fifty Indians becomes one of Khilnani’s “Lives”, though one should not imagine that they are necessarily, in Emerson’s phrase, “representative men”.  It is not as if Kabir is representative of the nirguna bhakta while Mirabai is the preeminent voice of saguna bhakti, assuming that the vast swathe of what is called the “bhakti movement’ may be divided into these two camps.  Nevertheless, as Khilnani himself would recognize, one can be certain that much of the animated discussion of his book will revolve around his choices, and some will deplore the absence of their heroes while others will wonder why a Sheikh Abdullah is being placed in the lofty company of Gandhi or Ambedkar.

 

Rammohun, Vivekananda, Tagore, Satyajit Ray:  one can have only so much of (as someone once quipped) the still-continuing Bengal Renaissance.  If one were attempting, say, 50 American Lives, I think it quite likely that Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth would certainly have made the cut if not Michael Jordan and Jackie Robinson.  Yet, not a single sportsperson is represented in Khilnani’s Incarnations, though for two decades the hockey wizard, Dhyan Chand, made millions of Indian hearts flutter.

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Dhyan Chand, India’s “Hockey Wizard”.

P. T. Usha never won India a single Olympics medal, not even a measly bronze, yet for a decade the hopes of an entire country were invested in her.  The chest-beating that takes place in Indian middle-class homes every four years, when a country of much more than one billion finds itself possessed of a medal or two, outclassed by countries such as Belarus, Georgia, and Jamaica, points to the deep anxieties that afflict the Indian middle class.  Had Khilnani been attentive to the politics of recognition, it is quite likely that he would have come up with quite a different set of Indian lives.

[A slightly different version of this review has been published in The Indian Express, 2 April 2016, as “From Aryabhata to Vivekananda”.]

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Recent events at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India’s premier university, are an ominous sign of the Modi Government’s relentless assault upon democracy.  The arrest, around ten days ago, of Kanhaiya Kumar, a graduate student at JNU who serves as the JNU Students Union President, on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy under Sec. 124A of the Indian Penal Code has been roundly condemned all over India.  If convicted under this colonial-era legislation, Kumar could in principle receive a sentence of life imprisonment.  The campus of this venerable institution, whose alumni feature prominently in the political, social, and intellectual life of the country, was turned for several days into a fortress with armed police at every corner.  Widespread demonstrations by faculty and students at the police crackdown led to suspension of classes and campus life remains seriously disrupted at this time.

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JNUSU President, Kanhaiya Kumar, Being Arrested by the Delhi Police.

It is not the first time that Indian democracy has been put under severe stress, but this is surely one of the gravest tests to which the country is being subjected since an emergency was imposed by then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi for 21 months commencing in mid-1975.  The present chain of events was set in motion when some students at JNU decided to hold a protest meeting on February 9 to mark the third anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri militant who was founded guilty of the attack upon the Indian Parliament in 2001 and handed a death sentence by Indian courts. Afzal Guru’s conviction was always under a cloud of suspicion.  In its 2003 judgment, the Delhi High Court implied that Guru had been tried by the court of popular opinion and found guilty, and that the court was obligated to follow “the collective conscience of the society.” The JNU students are not the only ones who have termed the hanging of Afzal Guru, carried out in Delhi’s Tihar Jail in secret, a “judicial killing”.

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Sitting in Dharna: Protests by JNU students on February 18.

At JNU’s student-organized protest, however, a number of participants were also heard chanting slogans calling for the destruction and fragmentation of India.  The campus, as is widely known, is a hotbed of politics; in recent elections for the Student Union’s post of President, the candidate representing the student organization linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which flaunts its Hindu nationalist credentials, lost to the left-affiliated student organization to which Kanhaiya Kumar belongs.  Acting upon a complaint that the JNU campus was being used to stage “anti-national” activities, the Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, issued a statement warning that “if anyone raises anti-India slogans, tries to raise questions on the country’s integrity, they will not be spared.  Strongest possible action will be taken against them.”  Within hours of the Home Minister’s pronouncement, the Delhi Police had swung into action and taken Kumar into custody.

Over-reach and lunacy, strong as these words are, do not begin to describe the tyranny that is being unleashed by a government that fears democracy.  The law on “sedition” was framed by the colonial state to repress and silence Indian nationalists, and none other than Mohandas Gandhi was put on trial in 1922 on the charge of “bringing or attempting to bring into hatred or contempt or exciting or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government by law in British India.”  Sec. 124A, as Gandhi noted ironically, was the prince of the legislative masterstrokes by which the British government sought to contain Indian nationalism.  The state in independent India has trotted out this obscene and obsolete piece of legislation from time to time to punish dissenters.  However, as the Indian Supreme Court has noted on more than one occasion, speech cannot be deemed seditious unless it is accompanied by violence, or incitement to violence.

Kanhaiya Kumar has denied that he was chanting the incendiary slogans calling for India’s destruction and thus far those engaging in sloganeering have not been identified.  Indeed, it is now reasonably certain that the videos which purport to capture the sloganeering were themselves doctored.  Be that as it may, what is most germane about Kanhiaya Kumar is that he has always openly stated that calls for India’s ruin and the fragmentation of the country must be unequivocally repudiated.  Kumar has also been captured on video making a fiery yet eloquent extempore speech where he swears by India’s constitution and denounces the attempt by the Hindu nationalists in power to impose their worldview upon all Indians.

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The oratory of Kanhaiya Kumar

 

His speech, a striking display of rhetorical skills, is a ringing critique of upper-caste domination and the oppression of the poor.  It is his unsparing indictment of the present government, rather than any so-called “anti-national” activities, that has brought down the power of the state upon him.  It is a reflection of the pathetic composition of this government that Smriti Irani, the Minister of Human Resource Development, a former actress who has barely finished high school, has under her charge the subject of education.  Since the government is incapable of an intellectual or reasoned response to criticism, it wields the power of the stick.  That has been the timeless way of bullies.

 

There is but no question that a battle is looming large between an inept and tyrannical government and those elements within civil society who are deeply committed to the idea of India as an ecumenical democracy that has a long way to go in enabling every Indian to lead an unimpeded life of dignity.  It is also worthy of note that those who are describing JNU as a bastion of Maoist politics, or a breeding ground for terrorists, and who have now branded a young man from one of India’s poorest regions as a sedition-monger, hail from political organizations that contributed not an iota to India’s own freedom struggle.  Many of the present government’s highest-level ministers and functionaries are lifelong members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh (RSS), a paramilitary organization staunchly wedded to the idea of India as a Hindu state.  The RSS was implicated in the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Gandhi on 30 January 1948 and the organization was at once banned.  It is their narrow, provincial, and bigoted conception of Indian society that Kumar has contested and his implicit call to join the struggle must be heeded if Indian democracy is not only to survive but thrive.

 

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