An Ignominious End for a Superpower: Run, America, Run

First in a series of 2-4 articles on Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the United States

Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban and the United States is scrambling to evacuate Americans.  So screamed a headline in the New York Times all of yesterday and so say the images being flashed on television and mobile phone screens.  How the Americans are running with their tails between their legs!  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on the air defending the Biden administration’s decision to undertake a rather abrupt withdrawal of American forces and the most striking pronouncement that came from his lips was surely this:  ‘This is manifestly not Saigon.’  The very fact that he attempted to disabuse people from recalling the humiliation that the United States suffered on 30 April 1975 as North Vietnamese troops occupied the city and the US sought to evacuate its personnel from its embassy in Saigon suggests the potency of the analogy.  Then, and now, the most iconic image from the end game is of American helicopters ferrying US personnel and ‘collaborators’, as the enemy dubs them, to safety—this time to a secure location at the airport the perimeter of which is ringed by American military forces.  Then it was the evil communists; now it is the dreaded Islamic terrorists.  But it is America, once again, which is fleeing from scenes of chaos—the very chaos that it engendered in the first place.

The United States, the preeminent military power of the post-World War II period, has suffered yet another crushing defeat.  Let us not minimize the enormity of this defeat.  Many commentators have sought to soften the blow:  some are calling it an ‘embarrassment’, others are speaking of the loss of American ‘prestige’, and yet others are speaking of how the US military has been caught flat-footed.  It is all this and far more than just the end of the US era in Afghanistan.  It cannot suffice to say that the Americans were committed to a withdrawal in any case and that Biden and his advisors only miscalculated if severely the extent to which Afghan security forces would be able to hold back the Taliban.  On this view, the present ‘humiliation’ can be put down to failures in strategic thinking and implementation of a policy laid down by Biden’s predecessor, though many American themselves will wonder why a ‘trillion dollars’ have gone down the drain.  This is the amount that is being mentioned as the cost of the 20-year war, allowing for expenses incurred in military engagements, maintaining a massive American presence, and nation-building in an attempt, as the Americans saw it, to secure the ‘free world’ from the scourge of terrorism and bring ‘civilization’ to tribal ‘savages’.  Such a view shows a complete unawareness of the culture of militarism, which is another form of savagery, which is as intrinsic to American foreign policy and even the American character as the purported love of liberty. 

Last Days in Vietnam: The Evacuation of American Personnel from the American Embassy, Saigon, 29-30 April 1975. Source: PBS.
Last Days in Afghanistan: Evacuation from the US Embassy in Kabul, 14 August 2021. Source: AP Photo, Ahmad Gul.

The brute fact of the matter is that, since the end of World War II with the decisive victory of the US and the Allies against the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan, the US has not won a war outright, if it has won a war at all.  The Korean War (June 1950 – July 1953) ended in a stalemate, marked by an armistice agreement, and its bitter legacy continues to the present day.  In Vietnam, the Americans assumed the responsibilities, as it saw them, that the French were no longer able to carry out of stemming the menacing advance of communism.  Then, two decades later, in what can be called another protracted entanglement, this time in Iraq, the Americans sought the submission of Saddam Hussein first by bombing Iraq back into the stone age and then, some years later, by cornering the Iraqi dictator and literally digging him out from a hole before he was sent to the gallows.  In the process, they not only left the country in shambles, but their ambition to introduce democratic reforms—when they had enough to do in their own country, as the rise of white supremacists and xenophobic militarists has established all too clearly—would have the effect of unraveling entire societies all over West Asia (or the Middle East as the Americans call it).  The debacles in Syria, where the atrocities committed by the Western-educated Bashar al-Assad make Iraq under Hussein look tame, as well as the civil war in Libya, precipitated by the US resolve to bring down the government of Muammar Gaddafi, bear the imprint of US foreign policy, even as one recognizes the role of other states such as Russia and Saudi Arabia in creating the unholy mess in which the Arab world is now enmeshed.  Now, to cap it all, is the story of twenty years of the presence of American troops dissolving into capitulation to armed tribesmen over a matter of a few days. Some might argue that the US did win the Cold War:  if it did so, which thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union is far from being clear, it is worthwhile asking what the implications might be of winning only a ‘cold’ rather than ‘hot’ war.

What should be unambiguously clear now is that military power, indeed overwhelming military power, has limitations and indeed is even a liability. There is a lesson in this for other powers, especially China, though one should never underestimate the human tendency to forgo what historians fondly and sometimes wistfully call ‘the lessons of history’.  The US never fully acknowledged its military defeats and the generals only took back the lesson that they would not fight a war with one hand tied behind their back. American counter-insurgency operations would henceforth be focused on developing tools and the skills required to fight guerrillas and what are called non-state actors.  In the operations against the al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and other jihadi outfits, the Americans thought that they had learnt something about how to engage non-state actors. However, none of this should be allowed to obscure the fact that overwhelming military power does not necessarily confer advantages as it once did, even when the asymmetry of firepower is astronomical.  What is seldom mentioned about the American triumph over Germany, in contrast to the wars that the US has fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is the element of the shared culture between the US and Germany as one of the torch-bearers of ‘Western civilization’.  This had a great many implications:  the US forces were never viewed as alien in Germany, just as the Taliban, whatever one might hear in the Western press about the dislike for them among common Afghans, have capitalized on the shared culture between them—even allowing for differences between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and the handful of other ethnic groups—and the myriad other insurgent groups and political parties. The newly appointed Taliban mayor of Kunduz, Gul Mohammed Elias, is reported to have said that ‘our jihad is not with the municipality, our jihad is against the occupiers and those who defend the occupiers’.  The return of the Taliban, to which I shall turn in a subsequent essay, owes much to this consideration, not merely to realist political assessments of foreign policy, geopolitics, military strategy, and the like. 

A Polish translation of this article by Marek Murawski is available here.

Objects and the(ir) Objective: The Story of India

[A Review article on India:  A Story Through 100 Objects, by Vidya Dehejia.  Delhi:  Lustre Press/Roli Books, 2021.  ISBN:  978-81-94969174.  279 pp.]

Some years ago Sunil Khilnani, author of the elegantly written The Idea of India, a long discursive essay on post-independent India very much shaped by a Nehruvian sensibility, embarked on a rather different enterprise as he attempted to grapple with a country characterized by a long past.  How might we imagine the history of India if we were to view it through the lives of some of its most arresting men and women—and equally some who won little recognition beyond their own community, fell into obscurity, or were architects of policies that have long since been disowned?  The outcome was a book that Khilnani called Incarnations:  India in 50 Lives (2016).  It is understandable that his narrative should be peopled by the likes of the Buddha, Ashoka, Shankara, Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai, and Gandhi, but the choice of Charan Singh, a wily politician who served as the country’s caretaker Prime Minister for six months at the head of a wobbly coalition, will seem odd to many except perhaps to those who remember his reputation as an unstinting champion of the rural peasantry.  The choice of Satyajit Ray may seem inspired to film afficionados who recognize him as one of world cinema’s supreme auteurs, and whose Apu Trilogy is a landmark of humanism, but I suspect that the hundreds of millions who follow Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan have barely heard of a director who crafted his films in the image of Mozart’s operas where, as Ray once explained, ‘groups of characters maintain their individuality through elaborate ensembles’.

Khilnani did not claim to be writing about the 50 most influential Indians, or the ‘greatest’ Indians, but it is in the nature of things that his 50 lives should have been construed as in some ways the lives of the most eminent Indians.  Any enterprise such as Khilnani’s must be marked by eccentricity.  It is a similar eccentricity, if that is the word to designate choices that sometimes appear unstable, quirky, and occasionally outlandish, that characterizes Vidya Dehejia’s audacious and intellectually provocative attempt to narrate the story of India through 100 objects.  Dehejia is principally an art historian and would doubtless have been inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), an attempt by Neil MacGregor to write a ‘world history’ through 100 objects in the gargantuan collection of the British Museum of which he was then the Director.  MacGregor was constrained only by the parameters set for him:  ‘The objects had to cover the whole world, as far as possible equally’, and address the totality of human experience, not only the lives of the rich and the powerful; consequently, the objects chosen could not merely be great works of art but had to speak to everyday life.  Dehejia in principle sets for herself a somewhat similar task with regards to the objects that she chooses, stating that she has tried not to privilege any political standpoint and that she has sought to be ‘even-handed and fair-minded’ in the story that she tells.  The desire to be ‘even-handed and fair-minded’ may evoke some cynicism from the reader with a knowledge of the British attempt in India to represent themselves as neutral gatekeepers, but others might say only that Dehejia is being true to the calling of her profession.

It is, however, in the structure of her book, lavishly illustrated and meticulously produced by New Delhi-based Roli Books, that she most closely emulates MacGregor with one significant difference.  Both books are divided into twenty chapters and generally four to five objects illustrate the thematic argument of each chapter; however, where MacGregor proceeds strictly chronologically, moving from one phase of history to another, Dehejia’s fidelity to chronology extends only within each chapter. Thus, for example, in discussing ideals of womanhood in India, Dehejia moves from a bronze statue of Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, c. 900 CE, to a watercolour on paper from 1615 of Nur Jahan, whom some readers may perhaps be surprised to discover was an expert markswoman; and from there to a recent statue of Ahilyabai Holkar, who was an astute ruler as much as she was a pious Hindu in the mid-18th century, to two early nineteenth century representations of Saraswati and Bharat Mata.

To understand the circumstances that have conspired to make possible a work such as Dehejia’s, it is necessary to recapitulate a few recent developments in historical scholarship.  There is, after some decades where cultural studies predominated and the gaze was riveted on the politics of representations, once again the turn to material history. It is immaterial that the Chola Temple Walls which Dehejia adroitly describes as a ‘Public Record Office’ (pp. 68-69), covered as they are with inscriptions, cannot quite be held in one’s hands as is generally true of many objects. Her objects are artefacts that inscribe a past, speak to the present, and occasionally portend the future. Secondly, Dehejia is still beholden to one of subaltern history and postcolonial theory’s most potent insights, namely the place of the ‘fragment’ in the imaginary of the nation.  Taken together, her objects—and other like objects—are more than the sum of the parts; but each is a fragment, sometimes calling forth other associations, occasionally a whole unto itself, and sometimes orphaned.  Thirdly, and relatedly, since national histories have become suspect to enlightened liberals, more particularly as they generally degenerate into becoming nationalist histories, scholars have had to search for new ways to write national histories without succumbing to the nationalist malady. Dehejia’s history of India through 100 objects can certainly be read in this vein.

It is as an art historian that Dehejia comes to her task and this shows equally in her choice of themes and the objects to illustrate the themes. Though four to five principal objects are apportioned for each part, the section on the ‘Art of the Illustrated Book’ is an exception with seven objects—and all these are examples of what may be called ‘high art’, folios from rare manuscripts and miniature paintings. At least half of the objects chosen by her are sculptural works or miniature paintings and the overwhelming and some will surely say misleading impression left upon the reader is of a civilization that was shaped predominantly by the artistic sensibility of Indian people.  One hundred objects are numbered but the ‘100’ is not to be taken literally, nor are the objects always drawn from India, even if they are clearly ‘Indic’ in origin or produced in some fashion under the sign of the Sanskrit cosmopolis:  thus, for example, a 9th-century Sri Lankan statue of the Buddhist goddess Prajnaparamita is offered as an illustration of the ‘yogic body’, but the argument is supplemented both with seals from the Indus Valley (ca. 2000 BCE) to suggest the antiquity of yoga in India’s imagination and the famous 7th century CE open-air ‘Great Penance’ relief carved on two boulders at Mamallapuram where yogic postures are depicted (pp. 34-37). The commentary that ensues is what one might expect from an art historian, though here Dehejia’s declared intent to eschew a political position here perhaps does short shrift to the subject.  There has been a lively debate in recent years, particularly in the United States, on whether yoga is intrinsically related to Hinduism: both the Christian right and Hindu nationalists have affirmed (though for different reasons) such a relationship, while many especially liberal practitioners of yoga claim that it is a wholly secular practice shorn of any religious underpinnings.  There is some controversy over whether the main motif of this magnificent sculptural relief is Arjuna’s penance or the descent of the Ganga, but in either case yoga’s associations with Hinduism seem unimpeachable. 

-Great Penance Relief at Mamallapuram (formerly Mahabalipuram), Tamil Nadu, 7th century CE. The figure of the ascetic in a yogic pose can be seen at the center, about a third of the way down from the top.

Dehejia is less reticent, however, on how what objects tell us about Hindu-Muslim relations and the contemporary project to read Hindu aspirations into the past.  She does not state her position bluntly but her repudiation of the communalist standpoint is clear enough.  It is a measure of the restraint with which she writes that the discerning reader will at once understand her position while the reader who is disposed towards Hindu nationalism is perhaps likely to think anew his or her own position.  Consider her treatment of this subject through two objects. A Chalukyan period (ca. 1000 CE) granite sculpture of a dvarapala (door guardian) interests her since it frequently changed hands, moving one from Hindu king to another in a tale of vanquishers and the defeated (pp. 62-63). Sometimes objects, and sacred centres—most famously Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, otherwise known as Sancta Sophia—fell to the conqueror of another faith, a phenomenon that she rightly points out can be seen ‘in most parts of the world’.  The communalist would like to read such phenomena exclusively through the lens of religious animosity, but it is the politics of conquest and the quest for power that characterize this history rather than the politics of religion. More arresting for many reasons, not the least being that even educated Indians know very little about the Deccan sultanates (1527-1686) and their extraordinary cosmopolitanism, is her choice of two miniatures from Bijapur (ca. 1604, pp. 106-7).  One features Ibrahim Adil Shah, Sultan of Bijapur, who wore the rudraksha beads associated with Shiva, playing the tambura; in the other miniature, produced at the Sultan’s behest, the goddess Saraswati, a veena resting on her left rap against her right shoulder, is rendered much like a Mughal princess.  This hybridized painting is emblematic of the syncretism of the Muslim courts.  Adil Shah had inscribed along the top the words, ‘Ibrahim, whose father is guru Ganapati and mother the pure Saraswati.’  Should we be surprised that in more recent times Ustad Bismillah Khan, the master of the shehnai (the double-reeded oboe common in north India) nonpareil, played at the Kashi Viswanath temple and that he regularly prayed to Saraswati?

Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah playing the tambura; ascribed to Farrukh Beg in an inscription written by Muhammad Hussain Zarin Qalam, c. 1610-11. From an album page. Collection: National Museum, Prague.

I would like to insist that one cannot begrudge Dehejia her choices.  Nevertheless, even as she candidly terms them ‘idiosyncratic’, the debate is not thereby closed.  Each object tells a story, and she is adept in narrating the story, but thousands of other objects, each illuminating in its own fashion, would have served her equally well. A number of arguments may be raised in this connection, again less so as criticism than as provocations. First, I wonder if it is not the case that Dehejia has been perhaps overly influenced by trends highlighting “diversity” and the occluded subjects of history.  A watercolour from 1615 of Empress Nur Jahan underscores her abilities as ruler and as an expert markswoman (pp. 236-37), and the aforementioned bronze statue of the 10th century Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi and the 2011 statue of the 18th century Ahilyabai of the House of Holkar are in the same vein (pp. 234-35, 238-39). In recent years there has been a spate of biographies of Mughal women of the royal household, some written, it seems, to counterbalance the lavish attention bestowed on the great Mughal rulers.  This is all fine and admirable, but still at the end a rather anodyne exercise, establishing only, as Dehejia argues more than once, that patriarchy in India (and elsewhere) has prevented women from attaining their full potential.  The more critical question is whether women in politics may furnish us a politics that will yield a more just and equal society. Secondly, and somewhat in this vein, India has historically provided richer possibilities of imagining a world that is not tethered to rigid conceptions of male and female, masculinity and femininity.  The stunning statue from a copper alloy of ca. 1000 of God as ardhnari (half-woman) points to a world where both masculinity and femininity were preceded by androgyny (pp. 84-85).  According to Dehejia, ‘the dominance of the male is clear in the fact that the composite image is called Shiva as Half-Woman’, but one must perforce ask:  ‘called’ by whom?  There is nothing intrinsic in the image which suggests the conception of God as predominantly female or male.  But supposing that Dehejia were right, one is then moved to inquire whether the art of the West, or of China, Japan, or Africa, also allowed for such imagery of the divine godhead?  Is the dualistic framework of thinking as much a problem in classical Indian thought as it is in the philosophical systems of the West?

Shiva as Ardhnari (Half-woman), c. 1000 CE, from Nepal. Copper alloy with gemstones. Approximately 83 cms. Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The colonial civil servant and ethnographer William Crooke wrote a delightful and now forgotten book called Things Indian (1906). There are some 175-200 odd essays on subjects such as amulets, bamboo, the bazaar, camels, carpets, curry, diamonds, elephants, embroidery, fairs, rice, salt, tea, and snakes.  I am tempted to ask, after reading about amulets in Crooke’s book, why ‘bangles’ are not one of the 100 objects that Dehejia writes about:  the bangle-seller has been a ubiquitous presence in our bazaars and fairs, and the scene of a woman breaking her bangles upon learning of her husband’s death is to be found in scores of Hindi movies. A similar thought might arise regarding the mango and the banyan tree, but here Dehejia anticipates the reader in capturing these two ‘objects’ alongside the tiger, the peacock, and the lotus flower in the definitive stamps released by the Indian government’s post and telegraphs department (pp. 260-61). But their reproduction in this doubly diminutive form nevertheless suggests once again that everyday objects are slighted in favour of works of arts.  Where, the reader may also ask, is the cricket bat? If cricket is, alongside popular cinema, the enduring passion of so many in the country, it would appear to be deserving of some attention.  I was thinking likewise of the matka (clay water pot), the belna (rolling pin), and the pots and pans of the Indian kitchen.  The pressure cooker—the traditional one, not the new incarnation known as ‘instant pot’—was invented in the US and became practically obsolete there, except as a retrofitted bomb, but in India it has found an enduring home and the Indian kitchen is unthinkable without it.  Yet it is a mark of the suppleness of Dehejia’s thinking that some of these pots and pans do make their appearance in her ‘objects’, having entered into the imaginary of the contemporary artist Subodh Gupta’s massive installations, ‘Spill’ and ‘Very Hungry God’ (pp. 268-69). Objects with which we have lived for a very long time may take on new forms.  We can read new meanings into them.  It is to Dehejia’s credit that her book allows for this fecund play of possibilities.

Subodh Gupta, “Spill”, 2007.

[First published in a slightly shorter version in Open magazine (26 July 2021) under the title “An Objective History” and also available online (16 July 2021) here.]

Deconstruction of an Icon of Resistance

(concluding part of 5 parts of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)

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Poster of Ambedkar outside Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, with the exhortation:  “Save the nation, Save the Constitution.”  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 23 January 2020.

As if Hinduism was not sufficiently offensive, repugnant to every person with only a modicum of moral sensibility and not altogether devoid of the notion of human dignity, India had to bear the oppressive burden of a faith that, whatever its history in other countries, further diminished the prospects of human freedom in that ancient land.  “Islam speaks of brotherhood”, and “everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste”, but, in truth, says Ambedkar, “Islam divides as inexorably as it binds” and it cannot but abide by a firm distinction between “Muslims and non-Muslims”.  The brotherhood it promises is “for Muslims only”, and for “those outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” But this is far from being its only offense in this respect, since the Muslim is also enjoined, by the terms of “Muslim Canon Law”, to withdraw his cooperation from non-Muslims if he should happen to live in a country that is not governed by his brethren.  Ambedkar is quite clear on this—grist for the mill for those Hindus who have long harbored a suspicion that the Indian Muslim’s loyalty to Islam precedes his or her loyalty to India.  What Ambedkar understood by the requirement of “Muslim Canon Law” may have been very different than what is understood by those who are content to insist that many Indian Muslims would rather cheer for the visiting Pakistani cricket team than for the Indian team, but the sense that the Muslim is disinclined to live under the jurisdiction of any religion other than Islam is pervasive.  Whether the Muslim is singularly alone in having such a disposition is however a question that is seldom posed.

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The Muslim Conqueror Comes “Singing a Hymn of Hate”

(Part 4 of 5 of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)

To understand further Ambedkar’s misgivings about Islam, we can profitably turn to his reading of the Indian past and the vexed question about the disappearance of Buddhism from the land of its birth.  Ambedkar agonized that Buddhism had not only “ceased to live in India but even the name of Buddha has gone out of memory of most Hindus.”  He does not, as modern scholars are wont to do, furnish a plethora of reasons to account for Buddhism’s disappearance:  the growing distance between the monks and the laity; the re-emergence of Hindu kingship and the shrinking patronage for Buddhist monasteries; the growing similarities between Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism; the spread of vegetarianism among Hindus; the Brahminization of Buddhism; the defeat of the Buddhists in debates with Shankaracharya; and so on.  We can surmise, given his learning, that Ambedkar was not unaware of some of the scholarly literature surrounding the disappearance of Buddhism from India, but the scholarly narrative on this question appears to have been of little interest to him. Ambedkar distinguishes between the decline and the fall of Buddhism, but he does not hide his punches:  “There can be no doubt that the fall of Buddhism in India was due to the invasions of the Musulmans.  Islam came out as the enemy of the ‘But’ [idol].”  Islam was destructive of Buddhism wherever it went, and Ambedkar quotes with approval the verdict of the British historian Vincent Smith:  “The furious massacre perpetrated in many places by Musalman invaders were more efficacious than Orthodox Hindu persecutions, and had a great deal to do with the disappearance of Buddhism in several provinces (of India).”  He anticipates the objection that Islam was hostile as much to Brahminism as it was to Buddhism, but this, far from falsifying the claim that the “sword of Islam” was responsible for the evisceration of Buddhism, only suggests that we need an interpretation that would render an account of the circumstances that permitted Brahminism but not Buddhism to survive “the onslaught of Islam.”

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The Ruins at Nalanda, in Bihar, India, the seat of a famous university and a large monastery that was destroyed in 1193 by the conqueror Bhaktiyar Khilji. This is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past

(in multiple parts)

Part III of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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A popular print of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, and founder of Navayana Buddhism.

In his writings on Buddhism, Ambedkar drew overwhelmingly upon his understanding of the Indian past and the place of religion in it.  It is the historical specificity of Buddhism in India to which he was drawn when Ambedkar would make his final case for Buddhism and its attractiveness to Dalits.  There are a number of arguments that Ambedkar advances which it will suffice to mention.  First, his own research led him to the conclusion, which finds its most elaborate exposition in a book entitled The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), that the Untouchables were ur-Buddhists or none other than the original Buddhists of India.  Secondly, and consequently, in converting to Buddhism, the Dalits would only be returning to their home.  We, in India, have heard in recent years of ghar wapsi, or the attempt to steer Muslims and Christians back to the Hindu fold from where they were allegedly enticed by clever proselytizers, but Ambedkar had something quite different in mind when he would counsel the Dalits to convert.  This was going to be a different form of ghar wapsi, the return, in myriad ways, to the warmth, security, and nourishment of the womb.  Thirdly, the very fact that the Hindu caste order had reduced the ur-Buddhists to the status of Untouchables pointed to the twin facts that Buddhism alone had offered resistance to Brahminism and had not succumbed to the hideous system of caste.  On Ambedkar’s reading, the “Four Noble Truths” that the Buddha had discovered, even as they constituted a set of precepts for humankind in general, held a specific and historically conditioned meaning for Dalits.  Too much has sometimes been made of Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism as a religion that came out of the soil of India, but there can be no doubt that in his mind Buddhism’s very constitutive being had been shaped by the experience of the lower castes.  Thus Buddhism alone could become a spiritual and political home for Dalits.

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The Fear of Dissent:  India’s New Colonial Masters

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Protest in Assam against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed into law as Citizenship Amendment Act on 12 December 2019.  Source: Zee News.

There is almost nothing as fearful as a lawless state.  India is on the brink of being such a state, as the actions taken by the government to squash dissent against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) so clearly demonstrate.  It is not “lawless” in the sense of being a political despotism, “empty of law” as India’s former colonial rulers characterized the supposed state of the country before they took the reins in hand.  India is on the verge of being “lawless” in the more unsettling and insidious sense of falling into a system of political authoritarianism where law itself is deployed to subvert both the spirit of law and the rule of law.

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The Citizenship Question: Unsettling Facts and the Ethos of Hospitality

Governments lie all the time.  It is not only authoritarian, despotic, and totalitarian states that lie, but democracies, or what are alleged to be as such, do so too.  Contrary to the cherished view of some liberals, who like to represent the Trump administration as having uniquely departed from the moral standards of previous administrations, especially the Obama administration, which many are now inclined to view nostalgically as some kind of gold standard of moral probity, the entire fabric of American governance has for generations been based on a tissue of falsehoods. Obama lied through his teeth—about the use of drones, the war in Afghanistan, his regime of deportations.  We will be told, of course, that “context” matters—that the deportations, for example, were largely of hardened criminals, though one would need a vivid imagination to construe the majority of the two million as falling in this category. Admittedly, in the department of post-truth, Obama is not a patch on Trump, who, it goes without saying, almost always lies—as do most of his henchmen, honchos, and hired guns.  Lies, too, take various forms:  a lie is not only a patent falsehood, or a statement made with the intention to deceive, but it may also be a promise made with the knowledge that it cannot be kept.

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The Ayodhya Verdict:  What Does it Mean for Hindus?

 

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Ayodhya:  November 2019.

The Supreme Court verdict of November 9th on the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute case, resolved unanimously in favor of the Hindu parties, has deservedly come in for much criticism by Muslims, liberals, and many others who remain anguished over the diminishing prospects of secularism and the future of the Republic.  It remains unnecessary to recapitulate everything that may be found wanting or contradictory in the court’s judgment, though some aspects of the ruling will surely continue to puzzle those who have more than a rudimentary understanding of the issues at the heart of the dispute.  Just how did the Supreme Court, for example, arrive at the view that “on a balance of probabilities, the evidence in respect of the possessory claim of the Hindus to the composite whole of the disputed property stands on a better footing than the evidence adduced by the Muslims” (paragraph 800)?  The reasoning here seems to be perfunctory, to say the least:  since the Court admits that Muslims did offer worship from 1857 until 1949, it must have some account of what purpose the Babri Masjid served for the 300 years preceding 1857.  It doesn’t.

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*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.

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*A “Natural Alliance”:  India, Israel, the United States, and the Muslim in the National Imaginary

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi shortly after Modi’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, 4 July 2017. Source: Times of Israel.

As Israel prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its founding on May 14, 1948, the transformation in its relationship with India over the course of the last seven decades offers a palpable demonstration of the fact that there are no permanent foes or friends in politics.  India voted with Arab states in opposition to the UN Partition Plan that divided Palestine into two states, and formal diplomatic relations between India and Israel date back only to 1992.  Yet today India, the world’s second largest importer of arms and accounting for 9.5% of the global total, is Israel’s largest arms market just as Israel is the second largest exporter, after Russia, of arms to India.  Over the past decade, Indian imports of Israeli arms have increased by 285 percent.  In July 2017, Narendra Modi not only became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, but he pointedly, unlike Indian cabinet ministers on previous official visits, did not go to Palestine—not on that trip. Benjamin Netanyahu returned the compliment with the following official pronouncement on 13 January 2018:  “This evening I am leaving on an historic visit to India.  I will meet with the Prime Minister, my friend Narendra Modi, with the Indian President and with many other leaders. . . . We are strengthening ties between Israel and this important global power.  This serves our security, economic, trade and tourism interests . . . This is a great blessing for the state of Israel.”

Netanyahu&ModiAtSpinningWheel

Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara by his side tries his hand at a spinning wheel — where else but at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, January 2018. With devoted followers such as these, Mohandas Gandhi scarcely needs any enemies. Source of the photograph: Times of India.

It must have made Indians proud to hear their country being described as an “important global power”, but it isn’t one.  Nor should it be a fact of life that being one such power is necessarily a virtue:  “the meek shall inherit the other”, says one revered text, though I am fully aware of the modern wisdom which thinks that virtue only belongs to those nations which are “important global powers”.  But let us leave aside these esoteric considerations for the present.  There are yet other, often little considered, registers of the friendly ties developing between India and Israel: along with an influx of Israeli arms, young Israeli men and women have poured into India for long stays. According to the Jerusalem Post, so many young Israeli citizens swarm to India to enjoy a post-military training repose that one can now chart a “Hummus Trail” through various Indian landscapes and a proliferation of restaurants serving local kosher cuisine.  Israel’s own Foreign Ministry has reported that there is more support for Israel in India than in any other country of the world, the United States not excepted.  In one study, 58% Indians expressed support and admiration for Israel, exceeding the 56% Americans who responded in like fashion.

The bonhomie between the two nations is all the more remarkable considering the frosty relations between the two nations at the time of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.  One might think that India, with the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, did not want to antagonize its own Muslim population and was indeed keen to cultivate the idea that India would remain a home for Muslims even after Pakistan had been carved out of the country.  Nor, as a country heavily dependent on oil imports, could India afford to antagonize Muslim-majority Arab states or Iran—all of which, for decades after the creation of Israel, displayed unremitting hostility to the Jewish state.  As one of the principal architects of the idea of non-alignment, Nehru was also wary of close relations with a U.S.-friendly Israel.  Some might think that India, not unlike most other countries, surrendered to anti-Semitism in not having diplomatic ties with Israel for well over four decades.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  as every scholar of global Jewish history knows, India, with a history of Jewish presence dating back to perhaps as early as 79CE, is nearly singular in having absolutely no history of anti-Semitism and, to the contrary, in having a clear historical record of offering hospitality to Jews.  Nathan Katz, author of the scholarly study, Who are the Jews of India? (UC Press, 2000), unequivocally states that “Indian Jews never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination”, and lived “as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”

Cochin_Jewish_Inscription1344

The emergence of an India-Israel nexus, and, as is becoming patently clear, a tripartite alliance of India, Israel, and the United States, owes everything to the changing place of the Muslim in the national imaginary of India and the United States.  It was in the mid-1990s that the notion of Israel and India as two democracies surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations that had an aversion to democracy, and having in common the problem of communal violence, first arose.  The Indian middle class, I suggested in a piece published in the Indian magazine Outlook in 2006 entitled “Emulating Israel”, has long admired Israel as a tough, no-nonsense state with zero tolerance for terrorism from which India—a comparatively soft state in this imagination—can learn to confront the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and, as Hindu nationalists increasingly argue, Muslim fifth columnists within the country.  Middle class Indians have long demanded an aggressive response against terrorists (and, as they argue, their patrons in Pakistan) and they hold up Israel as a country that India should emulate.

It is also no secret that India furnishes sinecures to retired Israeli army generals who serve as consultants to anti-terrorist operations in India.  In 2000, when L. K. Advani, then the Minister of Home Affairs in the BJP-led government, visited Israel, the two governments pledged to stand together against terrorism.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his aforementioned visit to India in January 2018, pointedly harkened back to both the devastating terrorist attacks on Mumbai’s suburban train network in 2006 that killed 209 people and the grisly attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in 2008 that led to 166 fatalities.  It is no surprise, then, that one Indian academic has called attention to the “ideological convergence” between India’s BJP and Israel’s Likud Party since “both promote a narrative of their respective populations being victims at the hands of Muslims.”

Matters do not, however, end here:  we can now speak of an emerging tripartite alliance between India, the US, and Israel, the logic of which has been captured by one scholar of public policy, Vivek Dehejia:  “India, Israel, and the United States are natural allies. All three are democratic and pluralistic societies, and all have suffered grievously from the scourge of Islamic terrorism.”  One might question a good deal in this assessment, such as what it means for three very diverse countries to be deemed “natural allies”—and why only these three democracies?  The US, to raise another difficulty, appears to be suffering from the scourge of white supremacism, not “Islamic terrorism”.  For Dehejia to imply that Palestinians are but a synonym for “Islamic terrorism”, which appears to be the case from his formulation, is objectionable in the extreme, even if one were to agree that Hamas is, notwithstanding its façade as a social welfare organization, at the very least a quasi-terrorist outfit.  But questions of the merit of his observations apart, what is most striking is that countries such as Pakistan, and the Muslim world more broadly, may be taking notice of this tripartite alliance. The Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Raza Rabbani, in a speech in January 2018 warned his fellow legislators about the “changing world scenario” and described the developing “nexus between the US, Israel, and India” as “a major threat to the Muslim world.”

Is it then the foreign policy wisdom in India, Israel, and the United States that these three democracies are, or ought to be, united by the menace posed by Muslim extremists?  To what extent are these countries collaborating in anti-terrorist and surveillance activities, more particularly with the thought of containing “Muslim terrorists”, and might such collaboration have implications for the exercise of their democratic rights by Muslim residents of these nations?  If India’s friendly relations with Israel on the one hand, and its growing ties with the U.S. on the other, augur new trilateral links, can we speak of such an alliance as a new force in geopolitics?  And, if we can, what might be the implications of such an alliance for the global world order?          

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at abplive.in on 13 May 2019, under the title:  “India, Israel, and the Geopolitics of an Emerging Tripartite Alliance, accessible here.)