The Undeveloped Heart:  Gandhi on Education

(Third in an occasional series that will run for several months on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.)

October 2nd, Gandhi Jayanti, has come and gone.  Thousands of statues of Gandhi were doubtless garlanded, and I suspect that some new statues were installed.  We all know, of course, that Mohandas Gandhi would have sharply disapproved of these celebrations. He never had much use for statues, having noted that they were perhaps most useful to pigeons.  That flowers should be plucked to create garlands which make their way from statues to streets and garbage bins struck him as not merely senseless but as a form of violence. Barely anyone listened to him in his lifetime, certainly not in his last painful years, and fewer still are those who listen to him now.

And then there are the customary homilies to him. No one has to have listened to the Indian Prime Minister’s speeches this October 2nd to know that he would have exhorted the nation and especially school children to follow the example of Bapu.  School principals all over the country would have done the same, taking Gandhi as an example of someone who, as they believe, understood the value of education and was himself a product of a well-established educational system.  If there is one thing that “reasonable” and “sensible” people agree upon, even if they are not predisposed to a liberal point of view, it is that education is the sine qua non of the progress of individuals, communities, and nations.

Thus it behooves us to consider, howsoever briefly, what Gandhi thought of education. He had, on this subject as much as anything else that occupied his attention, strong, carefully reasoned, and wholly unconventional views.  Since nearly everything that he stood for has been consigned to oblivion in modern India–even, let it be clear, his views on “cleanliness”, notwithstanding the hullabaloo over the “Swachh Bharat” [Clean India] mission launched by the Prime Minister some years ago–it is scarcely surprising that his outlook on education has similarly been dismissed by Indians as hopelessly idealistic, old-fashioned, and utterly unworthy of their attention.  The Gandhians who have encapsulated his thinking under the term “Nai Taleem”—and it is quite irrelevant that Gandhi himself used the term—have not helped, given that the term is calculated to send middle class Indians into a panic.  Middle class Indians know that those who follow “Nai Taleem” [New Education] will never gain entrance to even a second-rate Indian university, much less St. Stephen’s College, JNU, Ashoka University, or the yet more exalted institutions of higher education in Britain and especially the United States.

The story of Gandhi’s radical skepticism about modern education is best told, in the first instance, through an anecdote from his life around 1927.   He was visited by an American clergyman by the name of Reverend John R. Mott, with whom Gandhi would have subsequent meetings in 1936 and 1938 as well.  Mott would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.  According to Mukulbhai Kalarthi [Anecdotes from Bapu’s Life, Navajivan Publishing House, 1960, p. 33], Mott and Gandhi engaged in extended conversations over the course of several days. Towards the end of his stay, seeking to crystallize their discussions into a few important insights, Rev. Mott posed two questions.  “Tell me, Mahatmaji”, he asked Gandhi, “what is it that, after nearly two decades of the freedom struggle, still gives you the greatest hope”?  Gandhi unhesitatingly replied, “What gives me the greatest hope is that the Indians masses, despite the grave provocation, do not abandon nonviolence [ahimsa].”  Rev. Mott then moved on to the next question:  “And what is it that fills you with the greatest fear and makes you exceedingly unhappy”?  Gandhi, we are told, paused and then said:  “The hardheartedness of the educated is a matter of the constant concern and sorrow to me.”

It is more than likely that today Gandhi would have had reason to question his faith in the adherence of his fellow Indians to ahimsa. But, on the question of education, it is rather remarkable that, at a time when the educated comprised a relatively tiny community, Gandhi already was deeply suspicions about the value and utility of formal education.  Some people have thought it hypocritical that, having availed of higher education in London, Gandhi was not inclined to let his two older sons pursue the same course of action. At a time when Gandhi and the Congress were championing swadeshi or indigenous institutions, he could ill afford to let his own children acquire higher education in England. But Gandhi wasn’t merely trying to look good or be, in contemporary jargon, “politically correct”. It is precisely his own experience with higher education that, in his view, conferred on him the moral authority to repudiate its alleged benefits.

Modern education, as Gandhi understood it, thrives on a number of disjunctions that are absolutely fatal to the development of a person’s moral faculty and thus to the conception of the person as a whole entity.  Such formal education, which begins as children start going to school and is amplified over the years, receiving its most pronounced expression in university education, aggravates the divide between the head and the heart, between mind and body, between intellectual work and the work of labor, between reason and emotion, indeed between thought and feeling. “I would develop in the child”, wrote Gandhi in Young India on 12 March 1925, “his hands, his brain and his soul. The hands have almost atrophied.  The soul has been altogether ignored.”

He spoke often of how education in India had to be “revolutionized.  The brain must be educated through the hand.  If I were a poet, I could write poetry on the possibilities of the five fingers” (Harijan, 18 February 1939).  Time and again, Gandhi wrote, and wrote insistently, passionately, and from the viewpoint of some whose certitude derives from a lifetime of thought and experience, in this vein.  “Now, I wish to say that whatever is taught to children, all of it should be taught necessarily through the medium of a trade or handicraft.”  So he said in his address to the Wardha Education Conference on 22 October 1937.  But Gandhi anticipates the objections of those who, pointing to its “irrelevance” in the modern world, might scorn at learning a “handicraft”, by arguing that “we aim at developing the intellect also with the aid of such trade or handicraft.”  The takli [spindle] shall also be the medium through which students “would be able to learn a substantial part of the history of cotton, Lancashire and the British empire.”

When Gandhi adverted to the hardheartedness of the educated, he also had in mind the view that modern educational systems are not designed to teach compassion or empathy for the poor and the wronged.  Education may inspire a well-meaning economist to draw up a model for the alleviation of poverty, but almost nothing in the economist’s education gives him or her a feel for the lives of the poor.  If anything, the economist’s model is much more likely to worsen the condition of the poor:  entranced by his own artful games, the economist overlooks the fact that most models rarely have any relationship to the reality that they purport to describe.  Their referential world is other models, and the work of other economists; and before the well-meaning economist knows it, the lives of the poor themselves get reduced to a series of numbers and abstractions.  In all this, the meaning of “poverty” itself never gets interrogated.  Perhaps the economist might begin fruitfully with some reflections on the sheer poverty of his discipline.

For all its failings, Gandhi did not give up on education.  One keeps on learning to the end of one’s life.  He regretted the “hardheartedness” of the educated, not their heartlessness—which is a rather different thing.  I very much doubt that Gandhi thought of anyone as ‘heartless’, and he would have agreed with the novelist E. M. Forster that the British had an “undeveloped heart”.  Education had hardened the British, too, and in his visit to Britain in 1931 he found that the warmest receptions he received were from the working class, particularly the mill workers of Lancashire who had suffered the most from the boycott of British textile manufactures that Gandhi had initiated in India.

There are many indices one can use to measure the shocking failures of education, even as it is conventionally understood, in India today. The stories of state-run schools that are in absolute shambles are legion, and have been documented by thousands of researchers, journalists, and social workers.  More than seventy years after independence, the effective countrywide literacy rate is less than 50%; in some districts of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh, female literacy rates still hover at 10%.  The best public universities have been gutted; all that is left is a shambolic display of awards of “excellence”, a word as shorn of content as any.  In one instance the award has been to an institute of higher education that does not even exist.  Yet all this is far from what Gandhi had in mind when he pondered over the ruins of education and I wonder how he would have struggled to even comprehend the “hardheartedness” of the educated in India today. Let there be no mistake:  what really ails Indian education is the fact that at its center is the “undeveloped heart.”

 

(NB:  This is a revised version of the piece published on 13 October 2019 under the same title on the ABP Network, here.  A conversation between Gandhi and Mott reported in the December 19 and 26, 1938, issues of Harijan, another magazine founded and edited by Gandhi, seems to have gone over the same ground eleven years later. Gandhi was asked the same two questions, but described the “ignorance and poverty of the masses of India,” and the treatment meted out to the Harijans, as the matters of the greatest sorrow to him.  It may be that Mukulbhai Kalarthi was mistaken about the date of the conversation and reported it inaccurately; but it is just as likely, perhaps even more so, that Gandhi did speak about the hardheartedness of the educated, considering the highly critical views that he held about the state of Indian education.)

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Gandhi and the Ecological Sensibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article is also available in a French translation by Mathilde Guibert here:  https://mathildeguibert.imedix.fr/gandhi-et-la-sensibilite-ecologique.html

 

Gandhi’s Religion

Gandhi Jayanti, 2 October 2019

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

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

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

Gandhi_prayer_meeting_1946

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

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

GandhiPrayerMeetingBirlaHouse.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Homeless Gandhi” (30 January 2018)

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

 

 

 

 

The Phenomenon of Bhagat Singh

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

BhagatSinghAtJallianwalaBagh

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

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

BhagatSinghInJail.jpg

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

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

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

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

Bhagat_Singh_1929_WithFedora.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Colonialism Should be Brought Back, Say Indian Parliamentarians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Assault on Public Universities and l’affaire Romila Thapar 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Delhi, August 15, “Independence Day”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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