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Archive for the ‘Indian Society’ Category

   

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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The idea of a “bhakti movement” has long been one of the largely unexamined verities that have played a critical role in the idea of “Indian civilization” and, more specifically, the notion of a “composite culture”.  Bhakti is in English generally rendered as “devotion”; in the generally accepted narrative, a devotional movement originating in the Tamil country in the 8th century gradually made its way north and eventually engulfed the entire country.  India’s history for a thousand years, from the early medieval period until around 1650, a period perhaps not quite accidentally coinciding with the advent and then ascendancy of Islam, is thus described as having been preeminently shaped by a remarkable number of men (and often women) whose philosophical and literary compositions were marked by an intense devotional spirit.  Whatever the differences amongst these great devotees (bhaktas) of God, and whether they considered themselves followers of Shiva or Vishnu or conceived of God as formless (nirguna), they are supposed to have shared certain attributes.  The bhakti movement is said to have opened the doors to God to women and the lower castes; where Brahminism affirmed the ritual superiority of the Brahmins, the infallibility of the Vedas, and the idea that each person was bound to the observance of his ‘caste’ duties, the adherents of bhakti are said to have rebelled against the authority of the Vedas and the upper castes and prioritized the idea of personal experience of God.

Much of the scholarly literature on bhakti has pivoted around certain themes.  The distinction between saguna (conceiving of God with form) and nirguna (the notion of God as formless) was a bedrock of the literature for a long time.  Another strand of the scholarly literature focused on differentiating women bhaktas from men bhaktas.  From around the early 20th century, some colonial writers had dwelled on what might be called the social capaciousness of bhakti, or, to put it with a tinge of provocation, the insurrectionary and rebellious aspects of bhakti.  Some of the more recent scholarly works on bhakti, showing an awareness of how the language in which we speak of bhakti has changed, have worked in themes of subaltern agency and Dalit consciousness into their discussions of the works of bhakti poets such as Kabir and Tukaram.

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Sant Tukaram, in a popular representation

John Stratton Hawley of Barnard College has been a student of bhakti over the last several decades, and in his most recent study of the subject he takes the study of bhakti in very different directions.  The fundamental achievement of A Storm of Songs is to probe how the idea of a “bhakti movement” came about and what Indian scholars, inspired by nationalism, might have contributed in giving rise to a canonical narrative about bhakti’s place in shaping an Indian sensibility.   Hawley hints, though he could have dwelled on this idea at greater length, that the colonial period generated an anxiety, which Indian nationalists commencing in the late 19th century were eager to address, about the basis of Indian unity.  From the late 18th century, it became a staple of colonial writing to argue that India had never constituted a “nation”.  If the colonial claim that only British rule had succeeded in giving geographical integrity to a people divided by immense differences of caste, religion, and language was to be ably contested, some palpable evidence of India’s cultural unity had to be put on offer.  The Sanskritist V. Raghavan, in his 1964 Sardar Vallabhai Patel Memorial Lectures, led his hearers on a tour where the itineraries of bhakti and its most sublime exponents—the Alvar poets, Virasaivas, Jnandev, Narsi Mehta, Jayadev, Caitanya, Kabir, Nanak, Ravidas, Tulsidas, Surdas, Mirabai, Laldeo, Tukaram, among many others—might reasonably be construed as having wrought a tapestry of emotional and territorial integration that led inescapably to the idea of “India” itself.  Raghavan described his religious subjects as “The Great Integrators: The Saint-Singers of India”, but he was scarcely alone in giving voice to such a view.  Two decades earlier, working in an entirely different medium, the artist Binodbihari Mukherji and his students created frescoes of these “Medieval Saints” on the walls of the Hindi Bhavan at Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati (pp. 275-83), a “world university” envisioned as a monument to interculturality, civilizational dialogue, and an integrated conception of the “human”.

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Kabir, the Poet-Weavr, with his Disciple, a painting from around 1825.

The more precise contribution of Hawley’s impressive study, which draws upon his four decades of experience of India’s massive devotional literature and the concomitant scholarship in a number of Indian languages, however lies in his delineation of the two major constituents of what would become known as the bhakti movement.  The central part of his story revolves around the notion of the four sampradays, that is the traditions of teaching and reception which were the conduits through which bhakti was thought to have made its way to the north from the south.  Secondly, two prominent Hindi scholars, Ramchandra Shukla and especially Hazariprasad Dvivedi, emerge as the principal figures who helped to shape the commonplace understanding of the bhakti movement.  This portion of Hawley’s narrative, esoteric and rather detailed at times, will be of interest mainly to specialists, but its wider import can be estimated if we pause to think how the idea of a bhakti movement became enmeshed with the desire to carve out a space for Hindi as something like a national language.

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Binodebihari Mukherji, “Medieval Saints”, a fresco at Visvabharati, Hindi Bhavan (North Wall)

Few scholars can claim the wide and erudite command over the literature that Hawley brings to his subject.  His articulation of the politics of knowledge that has informed the idea of the bhakti andolan (movement) is enviable and forces us to consider anew some of the most important strands of the cultural and intellectual history of India. However, some readers might find it amiss that there seems to be comparatively little analysis of bhakti compositions, and readers will get acquainted with very few bhakti poems or compositions as such.   Most of the verses that Hawley chooses to quote and analyze have a bearing on his discussion of the four sampradays: having dwelled on the notion of ‘movement’, the reader might perhaps in vain look for the spirit of bhakti.  More striking, still, is the comparatively understated role and near omission of certain major figures who, in various ways, were critical to the consolidation of the idea of a bhakti movement.  India, the great Bengali writer Bankimcandra Chatterji was to proclaim in Krsnacaritra (“The Life of Krishna”), had become overwhelmingly captive to the idea of bhakti, and this passivity and devotionalism seeded the country’s oppression under the Muslims and then the British.  The question of whether Bankim’s essay is at all persuasive aside, the influence of this long essay was very considerable and remains to be gauged.  Similarly, while Hawley recognizes the supreme importance of Narsi Mehta’s bhajan (devotional song), “Vaishnava Janato” (p. 28), in the Gandhian rhetoric of resistance to colonialism in the language of love, he might perhaps also have considered the fact that Gandhi dared to describe the venerated Rammohan Roy, the author of the “Bengal Renaissance” and by some measures the architect of Indian modernity, as a “pygmy” in comparison with Kabir and Nanak.  Nevertheless, in A Storm of Songs, Hawley has succeeded in gifting us an exceptional study of India’s much lauded bhakti movement.

 

[This is a modified and slightly lengthier version of my review of John Stratton Hawley, A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 2015), first published in the Canadian Journal of History (Spring-Summer 2017).]

 

 

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Annals of the President Trump Regime IX

Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer from Hyderabad, and all of 32 years old, was shot dead in a bar in the city of Olathe, Kansas, on Wednesday night.  He and his friend, Alok Madasani, were nursing a Jameson whiskey at Austins Bar and Grill when a Navy veteran, Adam Purinton, 51, fired on the two men.  Madasani survived the attack; so did Ian Grillot, 24, another patron who confronted the gunman after mistakenly thinking that he may have run out of ammunition.

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Srinivas Kuchibhotla. Source: Indian Express.

A surge in hate crimes has been reported from across the country, and not only since Trump gained the White House; there is ample empirical data to suggest that hate crimes began to increase once Trump had clinched the Republican nomination for the Presidency.  The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that on one single day, November 9, immediately after the election had been decided, 202 hate crimes were reported from across the country; in the ten days following the election, 867 such crimes of “harassment and intimidation” were reported.  “Many of the incidents involved harassers invoking Trump’s name, the Center’s report states unequivocally, “making it clear that the outbreak of hate was primarily due to his success in the election.”  In recent days, dozens of Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated.  The racists have evidently been feeling greatly emboldened since Trump promised to ‘Make America Great Again’ and take the country back—though back from whom, and back to what, are almost never specified.

The history of the US is drenched in hate crimes, but the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla will in time to come surely be seen as forming an extraordinarily distinct chapter in this troubled history.  The killer, the New York Times has reported, was “tossing ethnic slurs at the two men and suggesting they did not belong in the United States” (Saturday, February 25:  “Drinks at a Bar, Ethnic Insults, Then Gunshots).  There are few hates crimes which are not accompanied by ‘ethnic slurs’; and doubtless the most common form of opprobrium that immigrants have continued to face is to be told, especially if they dare to be at all critical of the US, to return to where they came from.  Thus far, then, the killer, Adam Purinton, seems to have said nothing spectacularly vile.  However, it is Mr. Madasani’s testimony which furnishes the more pertinent clue to the unusual characteristics of this killing.  Mr. Madasani recalled, “He [Purinton] asked us what visa we are currently on and whether we are staying here illegally.”

The fact that both Mr. Kuchibhotla and Mr. Madasani had been living in the United States for many years, and had received their graduate degrees from American universities before becoming gainfully employed, is beside the point.  The shooting would have been no more justified had the victims been illegal, Muslims, refugees, or from working-class backgrounds.  The killer did not bother very much with their answers, since he pulled out a revolver and then shot one of them dead—but not before he yelled at them to “get out of my country”.  Ever heard of a killing where a victim was asked what kind of visa he had before bullets were pumped into his body?  One is accustomed to hear of killings over botched drug deals, a sex triangle, or a disputed inheritance, but what kind of hate crime is it where the victim is interrogated over his visa status?

The White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, forcefully rejected on Friday any suggestion that the murder of Mr. Kuchibhotla and attempted murder of Mr. Madasani could even remotely be linked to the ferociously anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been emanating from the Trump administration. Spicer is not known for his command over the English language:  naturally gifted in being incoherent, he nevertheless made himself quite clear, “I mean, obviously, any loss of life is tragic, but I’m not going to get into, like, that kind of – to suggest that there’s any correlation, I think, is a bit absurd.  So I’m not going to go any further than that.”  But why should such a “correlation” be “absurd”?  If Trump’s followers, acolytes, and foot soldiers are sold on the idea that immigrants have stolen ‘their’ country, taken ‘their’ jobs, and made America unsafe, why is it at all unreasonable that the present administration, which has done everything within its power to incite hatred against immigrants, Mexicans, refugees, Muslims, Syrians, and various other classes of foreigners, should be forced to acknowledge it has opened the flood-gates of racial and religious hatred?

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Srinivas Kuchibhotla and his wife Sunayana Dumala in happier days. Source: Live Mint.

Mr. Kuchibhotla’s widow, Sunayana Dumala, who is employed by another IT company in the same area, said that her husband’s killing had forced her to confront the question:  “Do we belong here?”  She has gone on record as saying that she awaits an answer from the US government about what “they’re going to do to stop this [kind of] hate crime.”  The entire country awaits such an answer.

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Annals of the President Trump Regime VII

A month into his “administration”, Donald J. Trump, who claims to have achieved more in one month than any of his predecessors in the White House, has issued a new executive order.  Though the text of this Executive Order is unambiguously clear, commentators are divided about whether it can withstand a court challenge.  The brevity of the Executive Order calls to mind various articles of the US Constitution, which are similarly short, pithy, and exemplary in their sense of gravitas.  President Trump, sitting at his massive desk which, as has been the case since he assumed office, is singularly devoid of documents, files, memoranda or any other paraphernalia of governance, issued the following order last evening:

PUNJABI PEOPLE WHO ADD WATER TO EXPENSIVE SCOTCH WILL BE DEPORTED.

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Executive Order to Preserve Scotch Whisky Against Its Punjabi Enemies Posing as Friends

To gauge the monumental significance of his latest missive, entitled “Executive Order to Preserve Scotch Whisky Against Its Punjabi Enemies Posing as Friends”, this reporter has prepared a short background paper which may be of some use to those who are attempting to grapple with this extraordinary decree and its implications:

1  Having spent the better part of his month in office arguing that (a) his inauguration was an unprecedented show of numbers of his followers, (b) that he gained more electoral votes than any other president, and (c) that his ratings both as President and Reality TV star have shot through the roof, Trump has now signaled his desire to move on to weightier matters of state.

2  It has long been reported that Indians, especially Punjabis, consume more scotch whisky than is actually produced in the entire British Isles.

3  The scotch whisky industry in 2014 alone earned the British exchequer more than 5 billion Pounds. As was the case throughout the 17th and 18th century, when the British had absolutely nothing—barring bullion—that they could ship to India and China, nothing that is by the way of goods and consumables that was desired by the people of these two massive countries, so now Britain must rest its case for its usefulness to the world on its ability to pump scotch whisky into the global economy.  Leaders of the industry were, just hours after the Executive Order was issued, still studying it for the possible implications on their livelihoods and the British economy.

4  Sources close to President Trump confirmed that he, and members of his family, are teetotalers. Consequently, it is not certain why Trump has been so animated by a beverage which he does not even imbibe.

5  Much has rightly been made of the fact that President Trump’s Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, popularly dubbed the ‘Muslim Ban’, explicitly identifies all the people of seven Muslim-majority states as potential terrorists and therefore, in appearing to target adherents of one religion, is most likely unconstitutional. Punjabis are outraged that though the new Executive Order targets one ethnic group, no one is prepared to take to take up the cudgels on their behalf.

6  Punjabis in Pakistan and India, two countries that have fought several years, were for once united in their condemnation of a decree aimed at a people whose forefathers helped to transform the state of California into the world’s agricultural powerhouse.

7  Punjabi connoisseurs of scotch whiskey complained bitterly that Trump had failed to distinguish between filtered and unfiltered water, and was similarly oblivious to various distinctions to which he should have been more sensitive before issuing his decree. Proper vetting would have brought to light the distinctions between distilled water, spring water, mineral water, artisan water, water bottled at the source, Perrier, bubbles, and so on.

8  Some Punjabis expressed alarm that a similar executive order, which in its draft form has already been leaked to the press, would lead to the deportation from the US of those Punjabis who have been agitating to replace the turkey with tandoori chicken as the national bird of the United States.

An emergency meeting of the worldwide Punjabi Confederation of Diluted Spirits has been called to contemplate a possible rejoinder to the Executive Order.  The Confederation of Scotch Purists has announced that in the event of a judicial challenge to President Trump’s far-sighted Executive Order, it will file an amicus curiae brief.

 

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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:

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Los Angeles, 25 June 2016

Amjad Sabri, 45, was shot dead on a Karachi street Wednesday morning.  To millions of people around the world, he and other members of his famous family have been the torch-bearers of Sufi qawwali music since the late 1950s when the two brothers, Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, released their first album under the EMI Pakistan label, Mera Kohin Nahin Hai Teray Siva [I Have None Other Than You].  Amjad Sabri not only inherited the legacy of his father, Ghulam Sabri, but was in every way a worthy legatee.

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Amjad Sabri

Pakistan has gone well beyond being in a state of crisis.  It has been so long in a crisis that one needs a more trenchant, soul-searching, and analytically penetrative vocabulary to describe the abysmal state to which it has long been reduced.  This nation-state, not yet 70 years old, is now in its death-throes.  It is, as the world’s affairs have made evident, and as is suggested by the turmoil in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, to mention only a few other countries, far from being the only country where common people can no longer expect to live with any assurance of even minimal security and dignity.  No Indian, such as myself, should ever be able to throw a stone at Pakistan without casting a glance at India’s own sordid state of affairs.  India has had its own share of open assassinations of intellectuals and its suppression of voices of dissent is alarming.

Nevertheless, the problems of Pakistan are not only quite distinct but of an altogether different order, even if the assault on freedom of expression and religious worship has taken on menacing overtones even in relatively robust democracies.  One splinter group of the Taliban, the so-called Hakimullah Mehsud faction, has claimed responsibility for Amjad Sabri’s murder and described the music of which he was a superb exponent as “blasphemous.”  The charge of blasphemy is not to be taken lightly in Pakistan, where people so accused—Christians, Ahmadis, non-believers, apostates, even those who are just resolutely secular—have even been killed in custody while awaiting trial.  If an accusation of blasphemy is in many instances nothing short of a death warrant, Sabri’s offense was, from the Taliban perspective, compounded by the fact that Sufi qawwali music is seen as an absolute anathema to Islam.  This view stems from a profound ignorance among the extremists both about the status of music and indeed the place of Sufism in Islam.  Far from being an aberration, Sufism had been central to Islam for centuries; indeed, it would be safe to say that most Muslims, until the advent of ‘modernity’, would have had some affinity to a Sufi order.  What is perhaps even more germane is that the notion that music ought to be abhorrent to a believing Muslim is an idea that is of very recent vintage with little or or no credibility in Islamic history.

The assassination of Amjad Sabri, then, fits the template of interpretation that is now firmly in place.  We have been hearing for many years about the rigid intolerance and fanaticism of the Taliban.  Pakistan is in the grip of several insurgencies, in Balochistan, Waziristan, and among Afghan Pashtuns, but to outside observers, especially in the United States and Western Europe, the battle for Pakistan is essentially between the state and the Taliban.  We may ignore, for the present, the fact that the Taliban is far from being one single entity, and that various Taliban factions do not all share the same ideology.  There is, more pertinently, a lurking suspicion in the foreign policy establishments of India, the US, and most Western powers that the Pakistani political elites only make a show of being committed to the eradication of the Taliban.  Many of them are believed to be sympathetic to the Taliban and extremist ideology is supposed to have many adherents among Pakistan’s politicians and army officers.  A variation of this argument, and it is little more than that, posits the deep discord that is apparently tearing apart the country as one between “moderates” and “extremists”.  In this scenario, whatever the local elements that might be feeding into the conflict, Pakistan is yet another stage where ideologues who are wholly beholden to the Wahhabi and Salafi elements are making an extremely violent and desperate bid to impose a puritanical, harsh, and ferociously punishing version of Islam throughout the world.

While this standard template of interpretation has much merit, it is oblivious to the most critical component that distinguishes the Muslim extremists in Pakistan from their brethren in the Middle East.  Muslims in Pakistan are not only part of the ummah, the global community of Muslims, but they also partake of what might be called the Indic worldview.  Much before the rise of the Taliban, South Asian Islam, especially in Pakistan, was beginning to fall hostage to the notion that it was an inauthentic and feebler version of the Islam of Muhammad’s homeland.  The purists in Pakistan, whatever their misgivings about the political implications of the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, have always been troubled by the sheer proximity of Islam to Hinduism in South Asia, and Bengali Muslims in particular were seen as the source of contamination which both enfeebled and compromised true, muscular Islam.  Thus the loss of East Pakistan was a blessing in disguise, and Muslims in Pakistan could be weaned, as has been happening over the last 45 years, from those distinct socio-cultural and religious practices, such as visits to the dargahs of Sufi saints, that reeked of Hindu influence and idolatry.

Students of Pakistani society are aware of the close and ever growing ties between the Saudis and Pakistan.  But Pakistan, again, is not even remotely the only country where the Wahhabi state of Saudia Arabia has successfully sought to peddle its noxious and virulent version of Islam.  It thus becomes imperative to understand what is distinct about Islamic extremism in Pakistan and why the stakes are extraordinarily high.  It cannot be emphasized enough that, unlike in the Middle East, the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis that developed in South Asia over several centuries, from the advent of the Delhi Sultanate in the early 13th century to the end of Mughal rule, is a glorious monument of world culture and a testament to the ability and resilience of the practitioners of two very different faiths to cohabit the same space in the most productive fashion.  The terrorists who murdered Amjad Sabri are seeking to undermine this past, little realizing that they will have succeeded in turning Pakistan into a desert:  not the desert of Muhamamad’s time but akin to a wasteland following a holocaust.

 

 

 

 

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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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