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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Babasaheb Ambedkar delivering a speech at the mass conversion at Nagpur on 14 October 1956

It should not be supposed that Ambedkar, especially as he continued his studies in both comparative religion and Indian history, never entertained any doubts about the suitability of Buddhism for Dalits.  The predominant understanding of Hinduism, especially in the public domain, insisted upon treating Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism as variations on Hinduism, certainly as cognate religions that, to use the language of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, enjoyed a “family resemblance”.  Ambedkar was fully aware that many Hindus were wholly comfortable with the idea of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. It is immaterial, for our purposes, how Ambedkar negotiated this slippery terrain and what views he held on the deviousness of the Hindu mind, and far more germane that he may have understood Buddhism’s putative similarity to Hinduism equally as an asset and a liability.  Dalit converts might benefit from conversion to Buddhism without incurring the hostility of orthodox Hindus:  if the sheer crassness of this analogy may be forgiven, it would be akin to shopping at a different branch of the same gigantic store.  On the other hand, at least in the 1920s and through the 1930s, Ambedkar very much doubted that anything was to be gained by “becoming Buddhist or Arya Samajist” as such conversions would do nothing to eradicate “the prejudices of the people who call themselves as belonging to [the] upper varna”.  The July 1927 article in his journal Bahishkrit Bharat continues thus:  “If we want to successfully confront the prejudices of Hindus, we have to convert to either Christianity or Islam in order to secure the backing of some rebellious community.  It is only then the blot of untouchability on Dalits will be washed away.”  Two years later, writing in the same journal on March 15, Ambedkar put forward the programmatic formula for possible Dalit liberation blandly and without equivocation:  “If you have to convert, become Musulman.”  The communication would be preceded by what some might have taken to be a rather ominous headline, “Notice to Hinduism.”

To what extent increasing Muslim separatism eventually turned Ambedkar away from Islam as a possible home for Dalits is an interesting question.  In arguing that Ambedkar saw Buddhism as singular in its repudiation of caste, I have already suggested the grounds on which he rejected both Sikhism and Christianity as viable alternatives. Nothing more need be said on this count except to aver that, on Ambedkar’s view, neither religion had been able to escape the dragnet of caste; moreover, the hostility of upper-caste Christian converts and Sikh leaders alike to mass conversion, which it was feared would lead to the Dalitization of the faith in each case, was all too palpable. How far one can agree with Ambedkar’s assessment of Sikhism is a question for anyone who is invested in seriously probing why he eventually opted for Buddhism rather than one of the other faiths that had originated in India or taken root in the country’s soil. Just as his understanding of Marx’s views on religion seems rather conventional, shaped partly one might say by the climate of opinion engendered at a time when Stalin’s Soviet Union had made the public profession of religious belief altogether disreputable if not hazardous, similarly one is uncertain how far he had really made a study of Sikhism and its scriptures before coming to a determination that it did not offer Dalits the religious home that he sought for the community.

Whatever benefits the converts to Christianity might have been said to have enjoyed before independence by belonging to the faith of the ruling colonial elite would obviously be short-lived in the wake of the liberation of the country from the yoke of foreign rule.  Muslims in India, on the other hand, enjoyed the security assured to a very sizable and vocal minority—indeed, even as Muslims were a minority in India, Islam was a worldwide religion and Indian Muslims had the power to make their grievances known to Muslims elsewhere in the world.  It rebounded to Islam’s credit that it had a global presence and Ambedkar appears to have held the view that, at least outside India, Islam had shown itself capable of mounting a challenge to social ills.  Muslims in some of these respects offered a stark contrast to Dalits:  if the notion of the Muslim ummah was something of a guarantee that oppression of Muslims would at least not go unnoticed, there seemed to be no one outside India who was prepared to take up the cudgels on behalf of the Dalits.

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Ambedkar Yatra [Journey]:  Popular or Bazaar Print showing Dr. and Mrs. Ambedkar and the Buddha bestowing his benediction on them.

After all this, Ambedkar still found Islam inhospitable.  There is really no other way to put it, even if the impulse to disguise this sentiment is irresistible.  By the mid-1930s, the Hindu-Muslim question had been rising to the fore and had become much more than a festering sore, and the so-called “Pakistan Resolution”—so-called since Pakistan was never mentioned by name—of the All-India Muslim League, passed at the annual session of the organization at Lahore in March 1940, had spawned in the minds of Muslims the idea that a Muslim homeland in the Indian subcontinent might be theirs for the asking.  This might have been the time to lead his fellow Dalits to the promised land; to the contrary, Ambedkar made a decisive turn away from Islam. There is a noticeable and disturbing streak of positivism in some of his writings, something to which the scholarly assessments of his work have paid no attention whatsoever, but it is to his credit that he was no adherent of Social Darwinism—the very opposite of Vinayak Savarkar, whose lionization by the Hindu right as some kind of thinker and brave soul is laughable and an effrontery to all canons of evidence, reasoning, and common sense.  Had Ambedkar been so, he might have counseled the Dalits to convert to Islam at this opportune moment and add considerably to the already sizable number of Muslims in South Asia.  However, as Muslims sought to close ranks behind them, it had become inescapably clear to Ambedkar that they were so self-absorbed in their own history that any consideration for Dalits could only arise from rank self-interest.  The “Depressed Classes”, he had claimed in late 1930 at the Round Table Conference, “had no friend”:  even the “Muhammadans refuse to recognize their separate existence because they fear that their privileges may be curtailed by the admission of a rival.”

It has been an article of belief for the most loyal Ambedkar scholars that any talk of his antagonism towards Muslims is a form of mischief-making when it is not an expression of virulent misrepresentation and even hatred of the great man.  Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit scholar of formidable reputation who is also married to one of Ambedkar’s granddaughters, attempted to preempt criticisms of Ambedkar’s views on Islam with a short, poorly written, and rather ill-conceived book called Ambedkar on Islam (2003) that purports to take apart eleven “myths”.  Leaving aside the question of whether Teltumbde has any comprehension at all of “myth” outside the rather jejune and positivistic framework which places it in opposition to “history”, the question is whether, as “Myth 1” states, “Ambedkar was against the Muslims.”  Does the critical apparatus of thinking necessitate that one should be against or for something?  That Ambedkar may have formulated a highly critical history of Indian Muslims should come as no surprise and need not be construed as a sign of Islamophobia.  Ambedkar was seldom reticent in his views and in this vein appears to have subscribed to a hierarchy of religions.  He welcomed the discipline of “comparative religion” as it had helped to break down “the arrogant claims of all revealed religions that they alone are true”, but he also found it a matter of discredit to such a “science” that it had “created the general impression that all religions are good and there is no use and purpose in discriminating them.”  It may be inadvisable on the grounds of political expediency to advert to Ambedkar’s critical assessment of Islam, but Ambedkar himself never shirked from adopting positions which he had arrived at after careful study and reflection.

(to be continued)

For Part I, “The Centrality of ‘Religion’ in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar”, go to: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2019/12/30/the-centrality-of-religion-in-the-life-of-b-r-ambedkar/

For Part II, ‘Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a ‘Modern Religion’, go to:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2019/12/31/buddha-not-marx-ambedkars-unequivocal-affirmation-of-a-modern-religion/

 

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.

Protests against the CAA first commenced in Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura among segments of the general population even before the law had come into force on December 12, and have in the last several days been spearheaded by students at universities across the country.  Many in the country have been shocked by the scenes of violence, captured in this age and day in scores of videos, that have turned universities into battlegrounds.

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Demonstration at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.  (Photo Credits: @fotosbyshadab)

At least five people were killed in police firings in Assam.  The police deployed tear gas and lathi-charged students at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia, both institutions with a storied past.  Though not all the CCTV coverage has been analyzed, and there are conflicting accounts of what happened, this much is unequivocally clear:  hundreds of police barged into Jamia’s campus, wielding their lathis indiscriminately and seriously wounding dozens of students. They assaulted female and male students studying in the library.  The idea of learning, as opposed to mere job training, is so far from the minds of most of the anti-intellectuals who now occupy the positions of leadership in the BJP that it would be no exaggeration to suggest that universities are themselves something like alien territory for the present government.  The police acted, at Jamia and AMU, much as an invading army does. Perhaps the police and the politicians whose bidding they do were also venting their frustration at Muslims for exhibiting an interest in learning. Why else would a library be attacked, if not to convey a message to Muslim students that books are not meant for them?

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No need for a caption:  the image is from the National Capital Region (NCR).

Jamia Millia was, it is important to note, founded in 1920 by faculty and students who defected from AMU.  Distressed at their university’s rather pro-British leanings, they decided to heed Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation and the intellectual awakening of India.  Sarojini Naidu was to say of the Indian nationalist Muslims who created the university that they built it up “stone by stone and sacrifice by sacrifice”, but the autocrats who now run the country cannot be expected to know all this.  They don’t read books, and would rather see libraries vandalized and universities become factories for producing a docile labour force.  It is evidently enough for the Home Minister and his underlings to know that AMU and Jamia are predominantly Muslim universities, which immediately makes the students and faculty at these universities suspect and a fifth column acting on behalf of Pakistan.

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Scenes from the violence and police attack at Jamia Millia Islamia. A video of two young female students shielding a reporter from assault by the cops went viral:  See https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/cops-slammed-girls-and-boys-alike-my-brave-woman-friends-shielded-me-jamia-student-whose-assault-video-is-viral-1628720-2019-12-16

The present Indian government is of the view that all Indian Muslims are anti-national, though not all anti-national people are Muslims: intellectuals, Naxalites, political dissenters, critics of the state, and especially Nehruvian-style secularists are all anti-nationals, too.  The Prime Minister talks of brotherhood but shares kinship only with hard-core Hindu nationalists.  His bear hug is intended only for foreign leaders, not for most fellow Indians and certainly not for those who do not meet his criteria of the true nationalist Indian subject.  He has mastered the art of clichés:  just how hollow “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas” sounds is apparent to everyone but the author of this slogan, especially now that he has, after the commencement of his second term as Prime Minister, bared his fangs.

Whether it is the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, or, to take an illustration, the junior Railway Minister, who has said that the only fitting reply of the government to demonstrators found destroying railway property is to “shoot them at sight”, the response of those presently in power to dissenting opinions is utterly predictable and follows a set pattern.  The particularities of a demonstration directed at the state matter little, since there is already in place a vocabulary for dealing with such contingencies, though, as dissent grows and the authoritarian state hardens, the knives are sharpened and the vocabulary fattened.

One element of this vocabulary of the suppression of dissent is to condemn the “fear psychosis” allegedly being created by anti-social elements, rumor mongers, and the “opposition”.  But the key elementary step is that protestors must at once be branded as “anti-social”:  this has been a feature of the Indian political landscape for decades, indeed dates back even to the colonial period, and the BJP gets no credit for inventing the term.  However, with the spectacular rise to power of the BJP with the electoral victory of 2014, the term “anti-national” was added and quickly came into vogue, becoming the favorite of the internet trolls who constitute a large unpaid cyber military force for the BJP.  Lately, “anti-national” has been embellished with the notion of the “urban naxal”, the supposed city-bred intellectual who sympathizes with Pakistanis, terrorists, and Maoists and is cut off from “real Indians”, but cleverly poses as a social worker, human rights activist, or liberal intellectual.  Now that the protests have spread to other universities and beyond, the Prime Minister not surprisingly had to fall back on this vocabulary, and at his Jharkhand rally held “urban naxals” responsible for the violence.

There can be no doubt, of course, that “the opposition” has something to gain from the current protests. No one has said that the Congress or the other parties which belong to that ragtag group called the “opposition” are models of anything remotely resembling innocence.  Similarly, one must condemn the violence and the destruction of public property. But none of this should obscure some fundamental issues that have come to the fore in the present demonstrations.  First, though many of the protestors have wholly legitimate differences with the government over the Citizenship Amendment Act, the issue now goes beyond the CAA and also has to do with the very right to voice dissenting opinions.  The demonstrations, taken as a whole, have been largely peaceful; the police resort to violence has been wholly disproportionate.

Secondly, it is absurd to suggest that the protests have all been instigated by “the opposition” or “outsiders”.  This supposes that ordinary people who are troubled by unjust laws, rank discrimination, police brutality, brute state force, or other exhibitions of inequality or the relegation of some people to second-class citizenship or worse are incapable of acting on their volition.  The absolutely deplorable idea of attributing all dissent to “outsiders” or “instigators” is the gravest insult to people’s own autonomy and sense of justice, and it suggests the deep-seated fear of dissent among the country’s present set of rulers.

Thirdly, in everything that has been done by the present government, Indians are being reminded that the country has a new set of colonial masters.  Once upon a time, a highly placed functionary of the state condemned the protests organized by people against an unjust act as “puerile demonstrations”, indicative of “how easily the ignorant and credulous people, not one in a thousand of whom knows anything of the measure, can be misled.”  The agitators, he warned, “have a day of reckoning in store for them.” These words could easily have been spoken by our Prime Minister; certainly the substance of them is found in nearly all his pronouncements upon dissenters.  But the words belong to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, who days later, one hundred years ago, would approve of the massacre committed by General Dyer at the Jallianwala Bagh.  Political dissenters in India must be forewarned of the “day of reckoning [that] is in store for them” under the present political dispensation.

[First published under the same title at abplive.in, here.]

[Translated into Hindi as नागरिकता संशोधन कानून के विरोध में उठती आवाज और पुलिसिया कार्रवाई, available by clicking here.]

 

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.

The present Indian government is, needless to say, no exception. Most of its promises, especially those not made specifically with a Hindu constituency in mind, lie in shambles.  The economy is in tatters: unemployment figures are at a record high, and true to its form the government sought to have the figures withheld before the election.  The Prime Minister has declared India “open defecation free”, though there isn’t a shred of evidence to support this claim. Detailed reports, some produced by the government’s own agencies, contradict Modi’s grandiose declaration. But let us leave all that aside, since the Lok Sabha passed by a vote of 311-80 the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill [hereafter CAB], as has the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Indian Parliament).  The government initiative was spearheaded by the Home Minister; indeed, so confident was the government, and evidently so inconsequential the matter, that the Prime Minister’s presence was not even deemed necessary. After all, the party had enough to do to sweep the polls in Jharkhand behind Modi’s campaigning.

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As the Prime Minister was declaring India “Open-Defecation Free”, two Dalit kids were beaten to death for defeacating in the open.  Cartoon by Sajith Kumar.                    Source:  Deccan Herald.

Amit Shah’s robust defence of the CAB poses some difficult problems which suggest that, even when a government or its principal functionaries do not lie, they may be on the wrong side of both history and justice.  There may be promises in his remarks that may not be kept—such as the assurance to Indian Muslims that the Bill is not directed at them, and is not even remotely designed to render them “stateless”—but no one knows this for a fact.  Authoritarian states may and do create distress for minorities, but they have sometimes been known to safeguard the rights of minorities, so long as such minorities do not create political unrest. These days, even autocratic rulers must show at least the outward signs of fidelity to norms of pluralism and diversity.

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To understand what is truly at stake in the debate over the CAB, which amends the Citizenship Act of 1955 and was first introduced unsuccessfully in 2016, it will suffice to scrutinize its principal and certainly most controversial provision.  It offers “any person belonging to [the] Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan” who entered India before 31 December 2014 not merely relief from deportation but citizenship of India through registration or naturalization.  The critics of this provision have pointed out that the deliberate exclusion of Muslims who entered from these countries is yet another stab at Muslims and an attempt to stoke fear and insecurity among Muslims, just as it is another milestone in the long-desired plan to transform India into a Hindu nation.  In more legal terms, the CAB is violative of the spirit and letter of the Constitution’s promise of equality as laid out in Article 14.

In a debate that lasted for nearly eight hours until the stroke of midnight, Amit Shah defended himself vigorously against the opposition.  We may disregard, for the purposes of my argument, his repeated jabs at both Nehru and the Congress and his absurdly poor grasp of history.  For contemporary Hindu nationalists, whose most inspirational figures such as M. S. Golwalkar were unabashed admirers of Nazis and whose own contribution to the struggle for freedom amounts to precisely zero, to accuse the Congress of betrayal of the nation is just breathtaking audacity. Shah’s contempt for Nehru is palpable, and it is not coincidental that the vote was taken at midnight—for it was at the stroke of midnight that Nehru delivered his speech pronouncing India a free country.  Amit Shah and the BJP have long been promising Hindus the “freedom” that was withheld to them by the country’s Muslim rulers, the British, and finally deracinated secularists in Nehru’s mold.  But the Home Minister’s observations, which are calculated to produce discomfort among secularists and liberals, are nevertheless worthy of consideration.

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From M. S. Golwalkar, We or Our Nationhood Defined (1939).

First, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan are predominantly Muslim countries. The logic that informs the CAB is that it is minorities that are in need of protection, not a majority—especially not a preponderant majority.  The CAB does not, for example, furnish the promise of citizenship to a Hindu who may have come from Hindu-majority Mauritius or, more significantly, neighbouring Nepal before 2014.  Once one is committed to the language of “minorities” and “majorities”, one is also committed to the corollary proposition: if anyone is in need of protection, it would be someone from a minority.  Secondly, Shah takes it as demonstrably true that minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are indubitably in need of protection.  It may be argued that he is on reasonably sound ground here.  The treatment of minorities in these countries has been deplorable, even as the population of Hindus in 1951 in what was West Pakistan has remained stable in Pakistan at 1.6% since then. But, overall, the share of minorities in Pakistan’s population declined from around 23% in the late 1940s to around 3.5% at present.  Non-Muslim minorities in ethnically diverse Afghanistan are practically non-existent, and the once thriving Hindu and Sikh communities have suffered precipitous decline in the preceding four decades. One may ascribe the near evisceration of these non-Muslim communities to the civil war which commenced 40 years ago, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that the ascendancy of the Mujahideen and Islamic resurgence had nothing to do with the disappearance of non-Muslims from Afghanistan.

One might go on in this vein, but one might also pose sticky questions. How would the government, by way of one illustration, handle the claim of Ahmadiyyas, who view themselves as Muslims but have not merely been declared as heretics in both Pakistan and Bangladesh but have been subject to virulent persecution?  The Bill has nothing to say on this matter, and, as critics aver, it is also silent on the matter of migrants and refugees from Sri Lanka.  Shah did, however, have something to say on the matter of refugees from Sri Lanka, pointing out that the accord signed in 1964 allowed, among other provisions, for the repatriation of 525,000 Tamils to India.  His third line of defence, therefore, appears to be that “whenever there has been an intervention on citizenship, it has been specific to a problem. This time, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan refugees are getting it.”  Fourthly, refuting the notion that the Bill is designed to produce a “Hindu Rashtra”, Shah noted that the percentage of Hindus in India has declined since 1951, the first census in post-independent India, from 84% to 79%.  Conversely, the share of Muslims in India’s population has increased from 9.8% to 14.23%.  It is no surprise that social media sites are awash with Hindu nationalist buzz around the “decline of the Hindus”.

Such facts as Amit Shah produced, or which may be mustered on his behalf, do not appear to furnish evidence that the project of creating a “Hindu Rashtra” is at hand.  But neither do such metrics tell the whole story. The secularists would be well with their right to remind everyone of the old adage which says that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  But there is another tacit argument that informs the Home Minister’s observations and that has now become a critical element in the Hindu narrative of identity, prosperity, and growth.  The Muslim has scores of countries—all Muslim-majority states, whether in West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and even Europe—that he can claim as his own, but does the Hindu really have even one country?  What else can the Hindu call his or her home other than India?  (Nepal, no doubt, but the Hindu is inclined to see Nepal, which transitioned in recent years from a constitutional monarchy to federalism, as part of the Indic world rather than as a nation.) Not every nationalist Hindu may proceed to the question that logically follows, but an increasing number, taking their cue from the ideologues that have informed the Sangh Parivar, do:  Does it not therefore fall upon the Hindu to decide with whom he wants to share his home, and under what conditions?  Indian Muslims would be entirely right in pouncing upon the last consideration as a charter for their oppression, as a pronouncement of their eternal foreignness.

Secularists and Muslims have chosen to respond to all this in the twin languages of constitutionalism and pluralism.  Those are potent languages but, at least at this moment in the nation’s history, they appear to have little traction. To be sure, there are pressing questions made possible by the invocation of pluralism, secularism, and constitutionalism.  Does CAB, for instance, impose a religious test for citizenship?  Though the government claims that there is nothing in the bill that adversely affects Indian Muslims, what of those Indian Muslims who may not have papers to demonstrate they belong to the soil of the country as much as Hindus, Sikhs, or Jains?  And what of those Muslims who fled from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh to India and have made their home in India for decades?  The argument that will be advanced by the government and its supporters is that all nations, even those that claim to be democracies, retain the privilege of allowing some outsiders and excluding others.  Though countries such as Sweden and Denmark are often touted as examples of progressive democracies, they exercise near draconian control on whom they permit within their borders and they have normalized anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments.

We may have to take recourse to a different language and find more productive ways of entering into these debates besides furnishing, as the Indian government does, statistics and a rather pathetic understanding of history.  One might remind Hindus that the measures being undertaken by the present government will succeed in making India look very much like Pakistan, but irony is not the strong suit of the government.  In India, at least, we could speak of the rich histories of hospitality.  The Hindu has been made as much by sanatan dharma as by the presence, sometimes the pounding presence, of countless others in his midst.  It took everyone else to make the Hindu into what he or she is today.  The nationalist Hindus who oddly complain that they have had no country to call their own and that the present government is now fulfilling a long-held dream scarcely realize that whatever singularity India has had will utterly vanish if the country persists in the present course of action.  Their Hinduism will begin to look very much like Islam and Christianity.

Citizenship may have been very far from the mind of Rabindranath Tagore, but the rest of the world had no difficulty in dubbing him a “citizen of the world”.  Tagore had the distinct idea that a culture that is no longer aware of its own dharma is practically lost in the world.  He was once traveling in his native Bengal and, at a place some 150 kilometres from Calcutta, his car overheated; every ten kilometres he had to stop and ask for water so that he could cool down the engine. The entire area was suffering from a severe drought; time after time, through fifteen villages, Tagore had quite the same experience. Though the villagers had little water to spare, and almost none to drink, their sense of hospitality made it impossible for them to refuse him water. It was their dharma, Tagore told his audience in China and then some years later at Oxford when he delivered the Hibbert Lectures on the “The Religion of Man”, that moved them to such generosity: it is the same dharma that made them reject the idea that they could, as a consequence, claim any merit or reward. What others were likely to mistake as the acts of simpletons arose from a “simplicity [that] is the product of centuries of culture” and is “difficult of imitation”; as Tagore further argues, “to be absolutely simple in one’s hospitality to one’s enemy, or to a stranger, requires generations of training.”

Who will explain this to the Home Minister and the Prime Minister, whose narcissism has led them into thinking that they are required by the nation to save Hinduism from its enemies?

 

 

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.

The Supreme Court ruling is, in spirit, contradictory and even disturbing in yet more fundamental ways.  The Court went so far as to say that “the exclusion of the Muslims from worship and possession took place on the intervening night between 22/23 December 1949 when the mosque was desecrated by the installation of Hindu idols. The ouster of the Muslims on that occasion was not through any lawful authority but through an act which was calculated to deprive them of their place of worship” (paragraph 798). Similarly, the court condemned in clear and unequivocal terms the destruction of the mosque on 6 December 1992 as an “egregious violation of the law” (paragraph 788, sec. XVII).  Why, then, should law-breakers and the perpetrators of violence be rewarded rather than penalized, which is doubtless what appears to have happened in this case?  Those who have come out in defense of the judgment have of course argued that the Court only weighed in on the matter of whether the Muslims or the Hindus had a better claim to the land, but this reasoning cannot remotely be reassuring to those who would like the nation to contend with the one indisputable fact:  a mosque that once stood there for almost five centuries is no longer in existence.  The Court’s tacit uneasiness with its own judgment is conveyed in the ringing declaration that “the Muslims have been wrongly deprived of a mosque which has been constructed well over 450 years ago” (paragraph 798).

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The Destruction of the Babri Masjid, 6 December 1992.

It is perhaps for this reason, among others, that the court’s judgment has also come in for some praise, and not only by those who one might expect to be jubilant at the outcome:  here the argument seems to be that the Supreme Court had to deal with a very difficult and potentially explosive situation, and that it made the best of an altogether bad situation. The acknowledgment by the court of the harrowing loss of the mosque and the harm to the Muslim community may be read both as an act of contrition and as an exemplary demonstration of the delicate balancing act that judicial bodies in India may have to perform at a time when a Hindu nationalist party controls nearly all the levers of power.  The recent statement signed by some 100 Muslims, among them prominent artists, activists, and writers, as well as farmers, engineering students, and home-makers, urging their fellow Muslims to refrain from further litigation cannot of course be construed as signaling their agreement with the Supreme Court’s decision, but it acknowledges the brute fact that “keeping the Ayodhya dispute will harm, and not help, Indian Muslims.”  Their note makes for painful reading, reminding Muslims that every iteration of the dispute has led to the loss of Muslim lives:  “Have we not learnt through bitter experience that in any communal conflict, it is the poor Muslim who pays the price?”

Many commentators of liberal and secular disposition have thus sought to consider the implications of the Supreme Court verdict for the future of the Muslim community.  But there is another equally critical, and little considered, question:  what does it mean for Hindus?  The answer seems too obvious to most commentators to even require mention.  The project of building a Hindu rashtra, on this view, has received a massive boost.  Both the supporters and critics of the court verdict are in agreement that the transformation of India from a secular polity—to the extent that it has been one—to a Hindu nationalist state will be witnessed in most domains of life, from educational and cultural institutions to cultural norms, altered patterns of social intercourse, and claims on the public sphere.  The process of altering textbooks to suit new narratives of Hindu glory has been ongoing for many years; it will almost certainly receive more state funding.  The secularists will deplore the increasing intolerance on part of Hindus, while the nationalists will argue that, for the first time in a millennium, the Hindu can finally feel at ease in the only country which he can justly call his own.  The supposed “tolerance” of the Hindus will, on the secular-liberal view, be put to a severe test and they are almost certainly bound to fail the test; from the standpoint of the Hindu nationalist, Hindus will no longer feel ashamed to own up to their religion and the entire world will be compelled to recognize India for what it is, namely a country that in its origins and soul is fundamentally Hindu.

What is at stake for Hindus is, however, something yet more profound.  Let us consider briefly some implications, each of which lends itself to much greater explication.  First, Hinduism, as even those who are not Hindus recognize, may reasonably be said to be more accommodating of diversity than any other faith in the world.  Some who call themselves Hindus do nothing more than read the Gita, the Ramayana, the Bhagavatam, the Upanishads, or one or more of hundreds of texts; others visit temples; and yet others do neither but may only meditate, perform seva, or undertake a quiet form of puja at home before their ishta devata.  One may think of a thousand other scenarios and we would not still be even remotely close to approximating the fecundity and diversity of religious practices that have been gathered under the umbrella of Hinduism.  Yet there appears to be a gravitational shift towards “temple Hinduism”, a growing intolerance not merely, as right-minded people would argue, against Muslims and Dalits but rather within the faith itself towards adherents of other practices and conceptions of Hinduism.  Temple Hinduism may be viewed as a mode of establishing communality, but it is also a public display of one’s religious adherence and a tacit declaration of the strength of numbers. The question is whether the Supreme Court verdict does not feed into this worldview of temple Hinduism.

Secondly, if one considers that the entire Ayodhya movement has been a loud, aggressive, and garrulous enterprise, is it not the case that the entire tenor of what it means to be a Hindu has changed radically over the last several decades?  Hinduism has never, as I have already suggested, been one thing; nevertheless, the Hinduism that some of us grew up with was the religion of the sants and bhaktas, of sweet and often mesmerizing devotional songs, and of the quiet devotion of one’s mother (and sometimes father) at home.  The modern phase of the Ayodhya movement, by contrast, started with the rath yatra in 1990, undertaken by Advani across the country in an air-conditioned Toyota retrofitted as a chariot.  It was nothing if not a raucous affair, orchestrated as a spectacle and designed for the media; much the same can be said of the various other stages of this movement, from loud displays of their devotion to the cause by kar sevaks to the very visible, media-driven, and almost outlandish destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992.  In its verdict, the Supreme Court, which does not appear to have given much thought to this matter, and which in any case would have been outside of its purview, has perhaps inadvertently surrendered to this loud, restless, and even strident form of Hinduism.

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The Rath Yatra of L.K. Advani, 1990:  the slogan at the head of the bus says, ‘From Somnath to Ayodhya’. Photo:  Outlook India.  Mahmud of Ghazni’s multiple attacks on Somnath 1,000 years ago have long rankled many Hindus, especially Hindu nationalists, and the resconstruction of the Somnath temple became one of the principal projects of the new nation-state following the attainment of independence in 1947.

Thirdly, however unpalatable such a proposition may be to especially middle-class Hindus, those who might be described as the most likely supporters of an aggressive Hindu nationalism, Hinduism is a religion of mythos rather than of history.  Its most remarkable strength has been that it is singularly devoid of a historical founder, just as it has never had any “scripture”—a word that must always be used advisedly when speaking of Hinduism, and that here I use with extreme reservation—that may be construed as the equivalent of the Quran or the Bible.  No “Hindu” until comparatively recent times was ever bothered by the fact that neither Rama nor Krishna could be viewed as historical figures in the vein of Jesus or Muhammad.  But history has, alas, become the master narrative of our modernity, and in the verdict of the Supreme Court we see the tragic and nearly always destructive tethering of history to the telos of the nation-state.  Hindus may have won a temple and, as they think, avenged their “humiliation” and gained back their pride, but if the nation continues along this trajectory they would have lost their very religion.

 

(First published under the same title at abplive.in, here.]

Translated into Hindi as सुप्रीम कोर्ट के अयोध्या फैसले का आखिरकार हिंदुओं के लिए मतलब क्या है? and available here:  https://www.abplive.com/blog/the-ayodhya-verdict-what-does-it-mean-for-hindus-1245933

A much longer version has been published with the slightly revised title of “The Ayodhya Verdict:  What It Means for Hindus” (8 December 2019), at thebeacon.in here:  https://www.thebeacon.in/2019/12/08/the-ayodhya-verdict-what-it-means-for-hindus-between-the-lines/

[Note:  My previous piece on Ayodhya dates to 2 October 2010, and was written in the wake of the judgment of the Allahabad High Court.  It can be accessed here.]

 

*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

 

 

*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.)                                 

*A Woman’s Curse and the Death of a Hero

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Pragya Thakur, May 2019. Source: Hindustan Times.

 

On Wednesday, April 17, Pragya Singh Thakur enrolled in the BJP.  Hours later, she was nominated by the party to contest the elections from Bhopal, where the BJP has not lost in nearly three decades.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended his party’s decision to give her a ticket with these words, “They defamed a 5000-old culture that believes in Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam. They called them terrorists. To answer them all, this is a symbol and it will cost Congress.”

What a supposedly “5000 year-old culture” has to do with the nomination of a woman charged with heinous crimes of murder, terrorism, and the incitement of hatred between religious communities is far from being clear, but the Indian Prime Minister is not known to be a clear-headed thinker.  No one has even remotely suggested that Hinduism—which is not the same thing as either Hindutva or Hindu nationalism—ought to be linked to the terrorist attacks in Malegaon, Ajmer, and elsewhere more than a decade ago, and for Modi and the BJP to pretend otherwise points to the desperation, deceit, and rank opportunism that drives them to play the communal card.  Obfuscation is the first weapon of those whose only conception of worship involves the naked admiration for power and a ruthless determination to wield it in their own self-interest.

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Malegaon Bomb Blast 2008: Accused Muslim Men were Made Scapegoats, according to a headline in the Times of India.

Let us be clear about what is at stake in the BJP putting forward the name of Pragya Thakur as the party’s candidate for a Lok Sabha seat from Bhopal.  On 8 September 2006, during the festival of Shab-e-Barat, three serial blasts rocked Malegaon in District Nashik, Maharashtra, leaving 40 dead (mainly Muslims) and 125 injured.  The police and Mumbai’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) took into custody nine Muslim men and extracted false confessions after torturing them and conducting Narcoanalysis tests that were not authorized by any court.  Two years later, bomb blasts once again shook Malegaon:  this time the bomb was fitted on a Hero Honda motorcycle registered to Pragya Thakur, who was arrested a month later in October 2008.  She was charged with offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and spent eight years in jail, and is presently out on bail—furnished partly on the grounds that she is in poor health, though whatever ailments she has have clearly not prevented her from running for office.  Indeed, she has been campaigning vociferously for the Bhopal seat.

Meanwhile, in January 2008, Hemant Karkare was appointed head of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), and it in consequence of the investigations by him and members of his team that a conspiracy among Hindu extremists, in which Pragya Thakur played a critical role, to terrorize Muslims was uncovered.  In December 2010, a man going by the name of Assemanand, whose real name is Naba Kumar Sarkar, confessed before a magistrate that the Malegaon blasts of 2006 and 2008 had been carried out by a radical Hindu group in “revenge against Jihadi terrorism”.  Pragya Thakur was named as the person who had assumed responsibility for assembling terrorist teams to carry out the 2008 Malegaon attack.  According to the chargesheet filed by the National Investigative Agency, Thakur, Aseemanand, and various other radicals had lengthy discussions and they “developed (a desire for) vengeance not only against the misguided jihadi terrorists but against the entire Muslim community.”  Aseemanand subsequently retracted his confession.

Just how exactly the investigations against these Hindu extremists proceeded, and with what consequences, is another story.  What emerges quite clearly from the reports is that Pragya Thakur is not only unprincipled, ruthless, and vituperative in her hatred towards Muslims, but that she has played the role of a ‘holy’ and aggrieved Hindu woman who is animated purely by love for the motherland to her advantage.  She calls herself Sadhvi, a devout woman given to the cultivation of spirituality, but this designation grossly ill suits her.  She would not, of course, be the first spiritual renunciate to hunger after power.

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Hemant Karkare (left); Pragya Thakur (right).

Pragya Thakur’s recent remarks regarding Hemant Karkare, who was killed in the line of duty during the coordinated attacks on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in late November 2008, are if anything more illuminating of her disingenuousness and her extraordinary capacity for manipulation.  Karkare was declared a hero for his part in attempting to neutralize or kill the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists and posthumously conferred the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest peacetime award for gallantry.  Less than two months before his death, Karkare had traced the Malegaon bomb blast to Pragya Thakur and it is his investigation that led to her being taken into custody.  Thakur now claims that Karkare had to die—and, so to speak, at her hands as in sending her and her fellow conspirators to jail, he had caused Hinduism’s custodians grievous harm.  Pragya Thakur says that she cursed Karkare, “I had told him you will be finished, and he was killed by terrorists in less than two months.”

As Pragya Thakur spoke these words at a press conference, the members of the BJP who stood by her side clapped.  It says something about the execrable state to which the BJP has fallen that a woman who stands charged of terrorist offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, as well as charges under the Indian Penal Code of murder, criminal conspiracy, and incitement to hatred against members of another community, should now be championed as a defender of the faith and be rewarded with political patronage.  But it is her “curse” that is striking:  in India, at least, the curse remains a potent force of excommunication and revenge, as much as a peculiar demonstration of the power of primal (female) energy.  The curse is everywhere in the Mahabharata and Ramayana; it is part of the sensibility of the epic.  It has worked its way into the sinews of Indian society; it speaks in a language that resonates with many.

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Gandhari curses Krishna, from the Mahabharata.

In stating that she had hurled a curse on Karkare, and that he was thus doomed to death, Pragya Thakur has cast herself as a woman wronged.  The power of the virtuous is thought to form the backdrop of the curse.  Many commentators have supposed that Hindutva is most “successful” or effective when it exercises its muscle, but Pragya Thakur’s invocation of the curse suggests that Hindutva’s pharmacopeia runs deep.  I have long argued that Hindutva cannot be combated merely by producing better histories, or exposing what the secularists call ‘myths’, and Pragya Thakur’s “curse” on Karkare points to the fact that the forces arrayed against Hindu nationalists, bigotry, xenophobia, and religious hatred will have to be inventive and similarly resourceful in their deployment of Indian traditions, cultural norms, and popular lore if they are to force Hindutva on to the back foot and bring back civility and a genuine commitment to pluralism in Indian politics and society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The men with puffed-up and bloated chests who have run the country, or rather have run the country into the ground, are now counting upon a woman who claims that her shaap (curse) sent the leader of the anti-terrorism squad of one of the country’s principal police forces to his death.