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Archive for the ‘Mohandas Gandhi’ Category

Los Angeles:  October 2nd, 2017

Today, October 2nd, is designated by the United Nations as the “International Day of Non-Violence.” A General Assembly resolution to this effect was passed in 2007, with the hope that a day so designated would be an occasion to “disseminate the message of non-violence, including through education and public awareness” throughout the world.  The choice of October 2nd was, of course, no accident:  the day marks the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the principal architect of the idea of mass nonviolent resistance.

Today, October 2nd, I woke up like millions of others to the news that a gunman, identified as Stephen Paddock, 64 years of age, had positioned himself in a room on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel from where, on the night of October 1st, he fired dozens of rounds of bullets from an automatic rifle on thousands of people attending a country music concert before turning the gun on himself and preventing his capture by the police outside his door.  When the firing ceased, at least 50 people had been killed; another 500 had been wounded.  The death toll, some 20 hours later, now stands at 59.

This is how America celebrates the international day of non-violence.  Oh, yes, it does—loud and unmistakably clear.  I can already hear the din of noises disturbed by what they will characterize as a caricature of this nation.  I can hear them saying that what Paddock did is not what the United States is about.  There will be the furious hashtag messaging — #thisisnotus – and thousands of others will point to the first responders, to those who have graciously given blood to the hundreds now lying on surgery tables, and even more so to those who gallantly even chivalrously laid down their lives—such as the young 29-year old man who had been married for just a year, shielded his wife’s body with his own, and so took the bullets that spent his life—as representing the real story of America.  They are right:  that is the story of America, but not uniquely so:  there are such decent and good people everywhere.

The story of America is, however, uniquely a story of violence in a certain idiom.  There is no other country in the world which has such a troubled relationship with violence, beginning with the genocidal impulse that swallowed up a continent and its indigenous peoples.  From thence we move on to slavery and to wars of extermination, to the saturation bombing of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and of course to the regime of guns.  Some others have enumerated in detail the many catastrophes that I have omitted which ensued worldwide in the wake of American foreign policy; yet others have hinted at the metaphysical foundations of American violence.  The indubitable fact remains that the United States is, in this respect as in so many others, an anomaly on the world stage—even as it, of course, claims leadership of that mystical entity which has become a license to police the world, that thing called “the international community”.  India was long under British rule; the United States is under the rule of guns.

The wounded are still being attended to but the so-called “debate” over gun control laws has already led to the firing of missives from various parties.  We will doubtless hear an argument fit only for imbeciles, namely that guns do not kill, people do:  by this logic, those who can afford to keep tanks to protect themselves from drones or large mobs of people should be allowed to do so, since tanks do not kill people and only gunners do.  A veritable arsenal was found in Paddock’s hotel room:  15-20 firearms have been mentioned in media reports, and around the same number of firearms have been recovered from his residence.  I doubt if in the entire city of Osaka, to take one illustration, there are as many firearms as Paddock had stuffed in suitcases that he brought to his hotel room.  (Osaka city has a population of around 2.7 million; the greater metro area is home to about 20 million people.)

The precise nature of his firearms is now being discussed:  should they be characterized as machine guns, assault rifles, automatic or semi-automatic rifles?  Most if not all of the assault weapons in Paddock’s room had a telescope.  It appears that only a few days ago he purchased three rifles, and passed a background check.  But of course: should one have expected otherwise?  How many rifles should a man be allowed to purchase?  Should background checks be more rigorous?  What if a killer moves from a state where firearms are regulated “tightly” to one where open carry policies are followed?  What does one do when the assassin is a “lone wolf”?  What if, like many a Nazi, he goes about the business of killing during the day, gassing a few people here and there, machine-gunning others for practice, before returning home in the evening to his wife and children and reading the Bible to his children before putting them to bed?  These “debates”, as they are called, will go on—assuredly, as  night follows day.  Meanwhile, Congress is preparing to vote on a bill which would remove a tax on gun silencers.  Perhaps, perhaps, passage of the bill will be derailed for a few days, or weeks, out of “respect” for the victims of the shooting:  par for the course.  And then of course it will pass:  more par for the course.

In a previous blog, then occasioned by a mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, I called for having a law passed that would lead to the abolishment of the NRA and having it declared a criminal organization.  It is necessary only to gesture at the arguments that I then advanced at some length.  There are countries such as Australia, which historically has shared a culture of addiction to guns and violence with the US, where gun buy back provisions have fundamentally removed firearms from the public domain.  Of course, the scale of any such measure in the US would be immensely different, considering that 300 million firearms are in private hands:  but if gun violence were viewed as a public health hazard, akin let’s say to the poisoning of the water supply of all major cities in the country, it would receive the attention it requires. It matters not a jot whether there are “genuine hunters”, which is another anomaly, and even less whether fidelity to an arcane provision of the United States Constitution should hold millions of people hostage to a wretched conception of ‘American freedoms’.  Adherents of the 2nd Amendment might suitably be given an extended course on “how to read a text”.

Paddock took at least fifty-nine lives.  But what he has done on the day of nonviolence is to eviscerate the voices of those who have resolutely stood for nonviolence, in word, deed, or thought.  He ensured that October 2nd would not be remembered as a day dedicated to nonviolence, and that the voice of Gandhi would be drowned out by a cascade of bullets and the cacophony of a mindless debate over something that Americans call “gun control”.  So, in that respect, the crime of Paddock is much greater—but the crime is not solely his.  He only pulled the trigger; he is only an assassin of ideas and ideals acting at the behest of others, whether those be members of the NRA, the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of guns and firearms, the politicians who extend their patronage to the gun lobby, and the myriad others who have turned America into a spectacle of murderous idiocy for the world to behold.

At the end of the day, then, we should let Gandhi speak. His most famous expressions have now been mass marketed, blanketed on t-shirts, coffee mugs, car stickers, billboards, and much of the rest of the paraphernalia of modern life.  But, at this juncture, even a clichéd aphorism from Gandhi stands forth as a salutary aphorism on how nonviolence alone can call us to the ethical life:

An eye for an eye only ends up

making the whole world blind.

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Journeys in the Deep South IV:  The Murder of M L King, Jr. and Medgar Evers

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics VII

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is indisputably a world-historical figure.  One cannot say what would have become of him had he not been assassinated in Memphis on the evening of April 4, 1968.  His peer, the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is far from being a household name in the United States.  The airport in Jackson, Mississippi, is now named after Medgar Evers, but even in his native Mississippi I found that many did not recognize his name; to the rest of the world, he is all but an unknown entity.  Yet one might still reasonably call Evers an “icon”, since in the histories of the civil rights movement he is justly a celebrated figure.

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Statue of Medgar Wiley Evers, outside the Medgar Evars Public Library at 4215 Medgar Evers Boulevard, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Martin Luther King was 39 years old when he was silenced: I would not say ‘forever silenced’, because he speaks to us still; or, as a cartoonist from the Chicago Sun-Times put it more arrestingly, men such as him have to be assassinated repeatedly. This is something of which assassins are profoundly unaware.  Medgar Evers was not quite 38, yet almost there, when a sniper took his life outside his own home as he returned home around midnight after another day of work organizing his people to equip them to resist racism and oppression.  Evers, born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, had a stint in the US army before he earned a degree in business administration from Alcorn A&M College.  As an insurance salesman working for Magnolia Mutual Life, moving from one house to another, he came to see first-hand what he already knew by virtue of being a black in Mississippi, namely the deep poverty that afflicted most black homes in his native state.  In 1954, he applied, without success, to Mississippi Law School and at once moved to accept the position, which had been offered to him on the basis of ad hoc work that he had already been doing on behalf of the NAACP, of regional field secretary for the same organization.

The murder of Emmett Till the following year would draw Medgar Evers deeper into civil rights work.  His voice was loud and clear in insisting on a civil rights investigation into Till’s murder and Evers was relentless in seeking to bring the murderers to justice.  As Medgar’s wife, Myrlie, recalled decades after, “Looking back, I know that from that time on [that is, after he had resolved to track down Till’s killers,] I never lost the fear that Medgar himself would be killed.”[i] Only months later, Martin Luther King, then a young preacher of little renown, was cast into the limelight when he accepted the call of black leaders in Montgomery and agreed to take leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  King’s rapid rise to fame has been documented in hundreds of books:  he would go on to become a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and in the early 1960s a series of interventions and engagements —the Albany Campaign, the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington—made him indisputably into the public face of the Civil Rights movement.  The conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize was, some reckoned, the crowning glory.

Meanwhile, Medgar Evers, perhaps the epitome of a grass-roots organizer, worked incessantly to bring black voter registration to every hamlet and town in Mississippi.  Such work, in much of the Deep South, was an invitation to an assassination.  In June 1963, shortly after SCLC had commenced a campaign against economic injustice and racial segregation in Birmingham, the situation in neighboring Mississippi had become tense.  White-owned businesses had been targeted for boycott by black leaders; and students from Tougaloo College had initiated sit-ins at Woolworth’s.  On the evening of June 11, President Kennedy gave a televised address to the nation billed as a “Report to the American People on Civil Rights.”  The President affirmed that the “nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”  Several hours after President Kennedy delivered his address, Medgar Evers pulled up in the driveway to his home and slid the car under the car port.  He opened the trunk to his car to take out a stack of t-shirts bearing the logo, “JIM CROW MUST GO”—t-shirts that were to be used in a demonstration in the morning in downtown Jackson. Just then, he was felled by a bullet in his back which tore through his chest, shattering the living room window and passing through the kitchen wall before ricocheting off the refrigerator.

 

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The driveway of the Medgar Evers home where Evers was killed in the very early hours of 12 June 1963.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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Medgar Evers had pulled up in his car and parked behind the family station wagon. Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The bullet hole in the kitchen wall can still be seen in what was then the family home of Medgar and Myrlie Evers and their children.

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The hole in the kitchen wall created by the trajectory of the bullet after it had ripped apart Medgar Evers.  Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The white t-shirts were stained with Medgar Evers’ blood.

The country, too, was indelibly stained—except that the country was never white, not white in fact, in color, in purity, or in nobleness of intent.

Medgar Evers’ killer was a sniper, a former army man by the name of Byron de la Beckwith who served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of the war. He responded to the Supreme Court decision that held segregation in schools unconstitutional by becoming a member of the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist organization; he also attended Ku Klux Klan rallies.  Twice he was tried for Evers’ killing; on both occasions, an all-white male jury acquitted him.  In Mississippi then, though to what degree this is substantially different now is an open question, the possibility that a white man would be convicted for the death of a black man was impossibly remote.  Not until 1994 was Beckwith, who had over the years openly boasted of killing Evers at KKK rallies, finally convicted.  To the end of his days, Beckwith remained not merely unrepentant:  he described himself as disgusted and repulsed by the touch of a black person, and he tried to ensure that no black doctor or nurse would attend to him at the University of Mississippi Medical Center where he passed on, not a moment too soon, on 21 January 2001.

Beckwith had scouted the neighborhood where Evers lived for days before he finally took his life, shooting him from a home that was set further back diagonally across the street with an Enfield .30-06 caliber rifle equipped with a telescope.  I wonder whether he inspired James Earl Ray, the supposed assassin of Martin Luther King, who also shot the civil rights leader from a building across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, where King had been staying when he was called to Memphis by Reverend James M. Lawson to help with the sanitation workers’ strike.  Ray apparently used a Remington Model 760 rifle with a telescope, and positioned himself in a bathroom on the top floor of the rooming house diagonally across from the hotel:  when King stepped out onto the balcony outside Room 306, he was a sitting duck.  A .30-06 bullet entered his right cheek and ripped apart several vertebrae as it traveled down the spinal cord.

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The bullet that killed Medgar Evers was fired by Beckwith, who had positioned himself in the house, here in the background, diagonally across from the Evers family home.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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James Earl Ray, or whoever the assassin of King may have been, fired from a bathroom adjoining this window on the top floor of the rooming house across from the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis; the spot where King was standing when he was felled by a bullet is marked by the wreath.  The assassin had a clear view of his target.   Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

Both King and Evers were tireless workers for the cause:  they went into the trenches and soldiered on, whatever the setbacks, disappointments, obstacles, and threats.  Evers was almost 38 years old at the time of his murder, and King was just a little older than him when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet.  Neither reached the ripe old age of 40.  There is no controversy as such over Evers’ assassination; the facts of it are well-established.  The same cannot be said of the assassination of King, about which doubts linger on and will surely never be dispelled.  But the modus operandi of the assassinations seems to have been remarkably similar in many respects.  And yet, as I commenced this piece, Medgar Evers is now little known outside his native Mississippi, except to students of the Civil Rights movement, while Martin Luther King, Jr has taken his place among the immortals and has been adjudged alongside Gandhi as one of the supreme exponents of nonviolent resistance.

The contrasting trajectories of Evers and King in the aftermath of their assassination say something perhaps about the vicissitudes of fame. King wanted to be remembered only as a “drum major” for the cause; he didn’t know that he would be credited as the orchestrator, conductor, and drum major of a movement.  Is it King’s oratory that his endeared him to history, or are there accidents of history that pushed him to the fore?  Perhaps we would be better served spending less time trying to probe the conspiracy theories that swirl around King’s assassination and reflecting rather more on how some people enter into history and others in rather similar circumstances become relegated to footnotes. And yet a foonote, as Anthony Grafton reminds us in his marvelous book, The Footnote: A Curious History, is no small thing.  Sometimes it endures when the text it is meant to embellish, illuminate, or explicate has all but vanished.

 

[i] Myrlie Evers with William Peters, “Mississippi Murders”, Civil Rights since 1787, eds. Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor (New York:  New York University Press, 2000), 355-57.

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Journeys in the Deep South I – A Birthday Tribute, September 22, to Reverend James M. Lawson

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics IV

 

Here I am at long last, at the site of what can likely be described as the first workshop of nonviolence in Jim Crow South.  The attempt to desegregate lunch counters was, of course, far from being the first step in the long road to gain equal rights for black people in the US during the course of what is now characterized as the Civil Rights Movement.  It had been preceded by the Montgomery Bus Boycott—and, in turn, concerted struggles to integrate transportation services in a large number of cities in the southern states.  The Nashville Sit-ins, long in the planning, were not even the first such act of nonviolent resistance.  When over a hundred students from Nashville’s historically black colleges and universities such as Fisk sat down in segregated lunch counters on 10 February 1960 in open defiance of the law, they had already been preceded by four black students who had initiated the same action at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

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A plaque that commemorates the site of the Nashville Sit-ins, on Fifth Avenue.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Nevertheless, what transpired in Nashville marks an extraordinary moment in the history of nonviolent resistance in the United States:  to reiterate, it is here that we can justly speak of the first workshop of nonviolence in the deeply segregated South.  The architect of this movement was the Reverend James M. Lawson, on whom I expect to lavish many entries in the weeks and months ahead.  Reverend Lawson, who is 89 years old today, had spent a long stint in India during the 1950s—three years, from 1953 to 1956, as a Methodist minister in Nagpur, to be precise.  Though the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were all steeped in the writings of Gandhi, Lawson was the only principal figure to have lived in India—an assignment that the young clergyman accepted readily since, as he thought, it would give him an opportunity to study at first hand the life of Gandhi and understand how he had forged a movement of mass nonviolent resistance in India.

When the Montgomery bus boycott was first organized, Lawson was still in India; he returned to the US a year later and shortly thereafter, as he has put it me on more than one occasion, “shook hands with Martin”.  Lawson brought to the movement a detailed knowledge of the strategies of nonviolent resistance deployed by Gandhi that no one else, possibly barring Bayard Rustin, could claim.  In the Deep South, the iron law of segregation prevailed in every domain of life and in every visage of social relations between the races.  The landmark Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) had signaled the intent of civil rights activists to break the barriers of segregation, but the legislatures of the southern states had effectively adopted the stance attributed to President Andrew Johnson in the celebrated case of Worcester v. Georgia (1832) where the Court had ruled that the Federal Government had sole jurisdiction in dealing with Indian (ie, Native American) nations:  “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”  If progress in desegregating schools was thus stalled, in other domains of public life the Brown decision had barely scratched the surface.

In 1958, then, Lawson set upon a course of action that would alter the face of the Civil Rights Movement.  He was determined to integrate lunch counters:  not only was the segregation pervasive here, but Lawson would have understood that who one eats with and who one shares one’s bread with are among the most significant markers of social existence.  The lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store was the most visible face of segregation in a public space.  Lawson had arrived in Nashville in 1958, enrolling as a student in the Master’s program at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University.  But he was already one of the leaders of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and committed to nonviolent activism.  Nashville was also home to several universities—not just Vanderbilt, but historically black colleges and universities such as Fisk, Tennessee State University, and the American Baptist College (Seminary).

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Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee:  this “Gothically imposing structure” is less than 300 meters from Clark Memorial Church, and it is from Fisk, among other universities, that black students were drawn to the Reverend Lawson and the Civil Rights Movement.  Photo: Vinay Lal, September 2017.

In September 1958, Lawson gathered students around him and commenced what would become a year-long workshop in nonviolent civil action and resistance.  The red-brick Clark Memorial Methodist Church, at 14th Avenue North, less than 300 meters from Fisk University, would become the nursery where an entire generation of activists—Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, to mention only some of those who would become prominent in the civil rights movement and in American public life—were trained by Lawson to live out the principles of nonviolent resistance.

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Clark Memorial Methodist Church, 1014 Fourteenth Avenue North, Nashville.  It is in mainly in the basement of this church that the Rev. Lawson conducted his famous workshops in nonviolent resistance.  “Clark Memorial”, wrote John Lewis in his memoir of 1998, “is still there today, a modest redbrick chapel two blocks away from the Gothically imposing structures of Fisk. There are no plaques, no monuments, nothing to suggest that anything historic happened there.  It’s just a little church on a sleepy street . . .  But from the autumn of 1958 into the following fall, that little building played a major role in educating, preparing and shaping a group of young men and women who would lead the way for years to come in the nonviolent struggle for civil rights in America.”  (Walking with the Wind, p. 76). Photo:  Vinay Lal.

He assigned students, or might one say his protégés, readings from Gandhi, Thoreau, Lao-Tzu, and Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian who would author the influential Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), a work that is also said to have been important to the thinking of Barack Obama.  John Lewis, the long-time Congressman from Georgia who is Lawson’s most celebrated protégé, has furnished a reasonably long description in Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998) of Lawson’s workshop; as he put it, “We discussed and debated every aspect of Gandhi’s principles, from his concept of ahimsa … to satyagraha—literally, ‘steadfastness in truth,’ a grounding foundation of nonviolent civil disobedience, of active pacifism” (p. 76).

Lawson taught his students how to take the blows of injustice upon their own shoulders and, with forbearance, humility, and patience, transform the perpetrators of violence; more precisely, he had them enact, time and again, the roles of both violent segregationists and nonviolent civil resisters at lunch counters.  A group of black people would be seated at lunch counters intended for white people; another group of white men would sneer and spit at them, empty bottles of ketchup and mustard on their heads, throw punches at them, and kick them while they writhed in pain on the ground.  Lawson trained his students not only to forgo any retaliation, but to endure whatever insults the segregationists threw their way.  “Back in that fall of ‘58”, Lewis would reminiscence in his memoir, “we were just kids, totally mesmerized by the torrent of energy and ideas and inspiration washing over us every Tuesday night in those Jim Lawson workshops” (p. 80).

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The reverse side of the plaque.  Photo:  Vinay Lal.

Malcolm X, perhaps the most significant (and in his own way mesmerizing) detractor of nonviolent resistance in his days, had quite a few cynical things to say about the sit-ins.  We’ve done plenty of sitting around, he told a captive audience in his famous “The Bullet or the Ballot” speech.  Malcolm could be compelling, even enthralling, but it is his very seductiveness of which we should be wary.  Meanwhile, nearly sixty years later, the Reverend James Lawson is still carrying out workshops in nonviolent resistance in Los Angeles, which he adopted as home over forty years ago.  His very life, one might say, is an object lesson on the meaning of fortitude and patience as part of the grammar of a life steeped in the ethos of nonviolence.

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The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics III

Dick Gregory passed away at the age of 84 on August 19 in Washington, DC.  I never had the good fortune to meet him; now, in retrospect, I wish I had taken the trouble to seek him out.   But why do I even characterize it as “trouble”?  Somehow I am, in such situations, always reminded of what Ezra Pound purportedly told T S Eliot when the latter had first come to meet the older poet, ‘You have an obligation to meet the great men of your times.”  Or at least that is my recollection of how one of my teachers, Professor Hugh Kenner, narrated the meeting between the two poets.

I first heard of Dick Gregory, effectively the first black man to break the racial barrier at comedy clubs, in the early 1980s.  The “Troubles”, as they were called, in Northern Ireland were at their height; and among those whose names was constantly in the news was Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died on the 66th day of a hunger strike in protest against prison conditions in Her Majesty’s Prisons and in quest of the recognition that as a political prisoner he could not be treated as a common criminal.  Bobby Sands, of course, never recognized the legitimacy of the division of Ireland and the English occupation of Northern Ireland.

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Dick Gregory at Ohio University, Feb 1968.

It is around this time that there was in the American press frequent mention of Dick Gregory, who, it turns out, engaged frequently in political fasts.  Much like Gandhi, Gregory disavowed the word ‘hunger strike’; he would have understood hunger striking as something rather different from fasting, which, whatever its political implications, was also seen as a form of spiritual, moral, and bodily cleansing.  This distinction is scarcely understood, and almost never acknowledged in public commentary; it is also, not surprisingly, lost on the writer of Gregory’s obituary in the New York Times, who has this to say:  “There seemed few causes he would not embrace.  He took to fasting for weeks on end, his once-robust body shrinking at times to 95 pounds. Across the decades, he went on dozens of hungers strikes, over issues including the Vietnam War, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, South African apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug abuse and American Indian rights.”

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Dick Gregory with Muhammad Ali.

Francis Watson once described Gandhi as “Master of the Fast”. Whether the same can be said of Dick Gregory I do not know. When Gandhi fasted in the public domain, it was an event. George Orwell was not the only to marvel at the fact that when Gandhi fasted, the entire country appeared to come to a standstill. Gregory’s fasts were noted, sometimes barely so.  There are reports in the American media, from time to time, of “hunger strikes” waged by political prisoners, immigrants detailed in unhealthy conditions, and political activists. In the American political landscape, however, it has been largely activist priests (such as the Berrigan brothers) from the Catholic Church, social workers such as the remarkable Dorothy Day (who was born into a nominally Christian, or rather Episcopalian, family before converting to Catholicism), or political activists and labor leaders such as Cesar Chavez, who took recourse to fasting.

Much has been made, justly, of Gregory’s extraordinary gift for political humor and his indefatigable fight to secure the rights not just of African Americans but all those who have suffered injustice. I shall turn to this shortly; but, perhaps even more arrestingly, what is nearly singular about Dick Gregory is that he is quite likely the only major African American figure from the period of the civil rights movement and beyond who recognized fasting as part of the arsenal of nonviolent resistance.  Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, James Lawson, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, among others, African Americans offered concerted nonviolent resistance; and so, as a matter of course, they filled the jails, led boycotts, took part in strikes, used the power of the word, and shamed, or tried to shame, their oppressors into relinquishing their privileges, listening to their conscience, and accepting the black person on an equal footing.  But American Civil Rights leaders never fasted; indeed, fasting was never part of their political lexicon.  One could say, without implying any moral import, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the most well-known face of the movement, even had a weakness for food.

Dick Gregory was thus virtually alone among the most recognized African American political activists who took recourse to fasting.  His resort to fasting made him publicly known; however, fasting remained fundamentally alien to American political traditions, except, as I have noted, among those who took their inspiration from the Catholic tradition.  One hopes that Gregory’s unique place in the American political tradition, at least in this respect, will receive much greater recognition in the years ahead.

Gregory’s obituaries, notably in the New York Times, the Guardian (London), and the Washington Post, certainly do justice to his gift with words, his incisive political humor and wit, and the resilience that carried Gregory through hard times, from his birth under conditions of poverty to the fact that his increasing activism came at a steep price for himself and his family.  The articles detail at some length how he came to conquer the comedy club scene, particularly after a break at Chicago’s Playboy Club in January 1961, and this at a time when black comedians were shut out of the lucrative club scene.  This history, therefore, need not be rehearsed.  But what stands out is the fact that, unlike modern-day comedians, whose routines are not merely laced with obscenities but are deadeningly juvenile and colossally repetitive, Dick Gregory throughout remained politically engaging and inventive.  On the subject of segregation, who else but Dick Gregory could say this:  “Segregation is not all bad.  Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”  Even as he joined others in the classic demonstrations and marches that came to signify the Civil Rights movement, he retained a certain perspective that one might expect from a more distant observer.  Thus, as a way of suggesting that outcomes were unpredictable, however keen and meticulous the planning, Gregory once remarked:  “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months.  When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”

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Dick and Lillian Gregory; they married in 1959.  She survives him.

So rich a life, so much to write about.  He had his weaknesses, among them a penchant for conspiracy theories.  One can forgive this weakness in any person of African descent, whether in Africa, Haiti, the US, the British Caribbean, or elsewhere; the whole world must seem at times to them to have conspired against them.  And yet Gregory was magnificently funny.  One only hopes that his life will not be reduced to another morality tale about ‘an American life’ and the ‘greatness of America’.  A careless reading of his life might suggest precisely this.  “Where else in the world but America”, he remarked, “could I have lived in the worst neighborhoods, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus, and get paid $5,000 a week for just talking about it?”  Oh, yes, I can hear all those who can’t detect the obvious note of humor screeching about the great singularity of ‘the American dream’.  One might point to Gregory’s scathing indictment in 2005, on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, of the United States as the “most dishonest, ungodly, unspiritual nation that ever existed in the history of the planet.”  But this dénouement would be less characteristic of Dick Gregory than his response to being honored with the key to the city of St. Louis by its mayor and then being denied a hotel room in his hometown:  “They gave me the key to the city and then they changed all the locks.”

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

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

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Sant Tukaram, in a popular representation

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime III

 

Nearly ten years ago I received an email from someone who had apparently been my peer when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins (1978-82).  I had nearly no recollection of him at all, but I must clearly have left something of an impression on him:  we were from being friends and had never exchanged any correspondence. He was now writing to me in the hope that he could enlist me as a foot-soldier in the crusade against abortion, and he was so emboldened in thinking because he remembered me as someone who talked often of Gandhi.  Surely, he told me, given that Mohandas Gandhi was almost certainly opposed to abortion, I had much the same abhorrence for abortion as did the Mahatma.  To press home the point about the undiminished evil of abortion and the wreckage of lives it entailed, he sent as attachments a number of grisly photographs of aborted fetuses. My computers screen seemed splattered with blood, fluids, and tissue. These images were calculated to provoke the same reaction of disgust and horror, and more, that photographs of the slaughter-house are intended to induce in the somewhat ambivalent meat-eater who might be on the fence.

Mohandas Gandhi had little occasion to write about abortion, but his position on this question may perhaps quite reasonably be inferred from his unstinting opposition to contraception.  Gandhi even met with Margaret Sanger, the American champion of contraception as a pill of liberation for women, but he remained unpersuaded that contraception heralded an advance for humanity.  However, certitudes about Gandhi are never easy, as scholars of Gandhi are keenly aware:  he retains, almost seventy years after his death and after a mound of scholarship, the ability to surprise.  Whatever his views on abortion, there can be little doubt that he would have found the violence and ferocity of the anti-abortionists, whose disdain and unbridled contempt for many of the living is matched only by their ingenuity in having themselves described as pro-lifers, deeply objectionable.  The subject of this brief rumination, however, is not Gandhi’s views on abortion, but rather the unfettered and single-minded devotion of the greater majority of Republicans, and especially what is called the Republican “leadership”, to the cause of making America abortion-free.  It is perfectly acceptable, on their world view, that the United States should remain the undisputed world leader in wasteful consumption, incarceration, solitary confinement, obesity, and other monstrosities that form the horror cabinet of everyday American life, but the country’s landscape should not be marred by abortion clinics.  All this, of course, is also on the assumption that the fetus is as much as a human as a Latina, an African-American, or the poor white.

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An anti-abortion demonstration. Credit: AP/Orlin Wagner.

This Republican “concern” for the dignity of human life may seem, at first glance, to be rather touching.   But to dissect the obsession over abortion that is the most distinctive characteristic of the American religious and political scene, one must ask the question that everyone is loathe to ask.  Nowhere else in the world do we witness the pitched battles over abortion that are played out in the Congress, on the airwaves, in demonstrations, and in arguments before American courts.  Why is that the case?  To be sure, there are a few other countries where disputes over abortion have triggered public disputes, as has been the case in predominantly Catholic Ireland.   Abortion, however, is not illegal in Ireland; but it is illegal in six countries, among them, not unsurprisingly, the Holy See (the seat of the Vatican), as well as—once again, mainly Catholic—Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic.  There are also another dozen countries, among them Iran, Haiti, and Malawi, where abortion is severely restricted.  One can be sure that the United States does not care to be lumped with these countries; if any Republican such as Vice-President-elect Michael Pence, whose own undisguised love affair with the fetus will be the subject of another blog, were to argue otherwise, one might encourage him to take residence in one of these exemplary lands.  On the other hand, the countries—among them, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, and Great Britain, to name just a few—that the United States does see as its friends and natural partners in the aim of bringing democratic freedoms to less fortunate people have permissive abortion laws.

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Two teens from an anti-abortion summer camp in Southern California that drew 1000 youngsters protesting at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Credit: Timothy Bella/America Tonight

To reiterate:  whatever the status of abortion in any other country, nowhere else in the world have the anti-abortionists displayed such venom towards not only advocates of abortion but towards women who seek recourse to abortion, and in no other “free” country does abortion animate with such intensity the passions of its opponents.  Abortion clinics have been bombed; abortion providers have been murdered and listed on “Wanted” posters by anti-abortion activists organized in groups such as the “Army of God” and “Operation Rescue”.  There is a contradiction writ large here, since in anti-abortion discourse it is the wanton and heedless enactment of passion that leads women to the path of evil.  What to speak of abortion, even contraception is described by many anti-abortionists as deplorable and an unmitigated sin.  Mick Huckabee, a former presidential candidate and one of the torch-bearers of the anti-abortion crusade, has said that “women are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido . . . without the help of government.”  In comparison with his soul-mate Rush Limbaugh, Huckabee seems almost moderate.  “So Miss [Sandra] Fluke and the rest of you feminazis,” Limbaugh announced on his radio talk show, “here’s the deal.  If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something.  We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

One might, of course, argue that the unregulated sexuality of women remains a pervasive concern among men everywhere, even in so-called “enlightened” societies.  But this common recourse to the template of “patriarchy” cannot explain why the dispute over abortion remains a raging fire in American society, to an extent that seems incomprehensible in much of the rest of the world.  The massive commentary on abortion that appears in print, on television and radio, and increasingly on social media sites has shed little or no light on this matter.  And yet the singularity of the anti-abortion movement, a holy crusade, in the United States begs for an explanation.  America, in the eyes of its most devoted champions, has long been envisioned as the shining city on the hill:  here, and here alone, in this fabulist narrative can every child make something of himself or herself.  It is the country where, from the standpoint of anti-abortionists, women should want to have babies.  If the United States is the promised land, women must surely want to be mothers—more so, that is, in the general sense in which women are enjoined to be mothers and thus fulfill themselves and do credit to men, their family and community, and the nation. Feminists who have explicated on the social reproduction of motherhood are doubtless right in pointing to the various ways in which the notion of the sanctity of motherhood works to restrain and confine women to certain spheres of life, but the anti-abortion crusade in the United States points to a more ominous conclusion.  Women who seek an abortion, and their supporters, are in the anti-abortion discourse which has now found a fresh lease of life fundamentally traitors—not just to the race of women, but to the nation called America—who have jettisoned the enchantments of the promised land and thus forfeited their own entitlement to liberty.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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