A Country in Search of Itself:  Brief Reflections on the Occasion of India’s Independence Day

Los Angeles, August 15th

As India marks the 73rd anniversary of its independence, it is once again an opportune moment to reflect on what remains of the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle that led to India’s deliverance from colonial rule.  The country might seem to have weightier subjects on its mind: the coronavirus continues to cut a blazing trail through much of the country, and whatever actions the state has taken to stem the transmission of the disease have evidently been woefully inadequate.  Tens of millions of people have been thrown into the ranks of the unemployed.  Many people have been cheered, and some startled and dismayed, by the bhoomi pujan conducted by the country’s Prime Minister, who is supposed to represent every citizen without distinction, at Ayodhya in consequence of the 2019 Supreme Court decision that left the path open to Hindu nationalists to raise a grand temple in honor of Rama at his alleged birth place.  That such a ceremony, which seems to be not only about building a temple to augment Hindu pride but also coronating a king, should have taken place at a time when the pandemic is exacting an immense toll says something about the priorities of the present regime.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the bhoomi pujan, Ayodhya, 5 August 2020.

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The Dominant and the Dominated:  A Short Tribute to Albert Memmi

. . .  with an aside on Frantz Fanon and Edward Said

I read a couple of days ago of the passing of Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-born Jewish novelist, political thinker, sociologist, and essayist who exiled himself to Paris after Tunisia’s proclamation of independence in 1956.  At his death, on May 22 on the outskirts of Paris, he was just a few months shy of being 100 years old.  I found myself surprised at reading his obituary in the New York Times, if only because it has been years since anyone had ever even mentioned him; to be brutally honest, having known him of him as a writer who had been most active, as I thought, in the 1950s and 1960s, it never occurred to me that Continue reading

The National Imaginary: Patriots and the Virus in the West

(Eighth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

Part III of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”

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A demonstration with around 2,500 people outside the state capitol in Washington against Governor Inslee’s stay-at-home order, April 19. Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The contours of each country’s national history appear to be on display in the responses that have been witnessed across the world to the coronavirus pandemic.  However, in suggesting this, I do not by any means wish to be seen as subscribing to the ideas of distinct personality traits that were behind “the national character” studies undertaken in the 1940s, a project that involved Continue reading

The Coronavirus and the Humbling of America

(Fourth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

One of the most striking aspects of the novel coronavirus pandemic which has created an upheaval all over the world has to be the astonishing sight of the world’s richest society brought to its knees and appearing as a suppliant before the very country, China, that it holds responsible for the virus.  No doubt everyone serving the sitting President will take deep offense at this suggestion, and certainly the United States has made every effort to show to the world that, if anything, it intends to capitalize on this opportunity to further punish its enemies and show that it remains the world’s predominant power.  “While coronavirus ravages Iran,” noted the Washington Post in a headline two weeks ago, “U.S. sanctions squeeze it.”  The United States has not only Continue reading

Remote Learning and Social Distancing:  The Political Economy and Politics of Corona Pedagogy

(Third in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

The advent of COVID-19, or a novel coronavirus, has, it appears, virtually overnight altered the nature of university instruction and student learning.  Throughout the months of January and February 2020, while the virus created havoc in China before turning Italy into the new epicenter, life proceeded on American university campuses without any real thought to what was transpiring in that ‘distant’ country. By January 25, a cordon sanitaire had been placed around the entire province of Hubei Province, which with a population of 60 million has as many people as Italy, but this did not leave any real impression on Americans nor on universities.  As late as February 20, Italy had reported Continue reading

The Real Emergency in “Climate Emergency”: Consumption, Social Anomie, and Loss of Meaning

Concluding part of “The Politics of ‘Climate Emergency'” 

Viewed in totality, and over a long-term historical perspective, the one and only inescapable conclusion is that the United States remains, by far, the worst polluter in the world.  Some 400 billion tons of CO2 had been released into the atmosphere between 1751 and 2017, and the United States accounted for 25% of these emissions.  It is no longer the manufacturing Goliath of the world, just as its share of the world’s CO2 emissions has decreased to the point where another colossus, China, has now overtaken it to claim this dubious honor.  Nevertheless, it is unimpeachably true that the 340 million residents of the United States, constituting some 5% of the world’s population, consume a quarter of the world’s energy.  The average American consumes as much energy as 13 Chinese, or 31 Indians, or 128 Bangladeshis.  The levels of consumption in the United States are, in a word, obscene; and to the extent that the ‘American Dream’ has become everyone’s dream, the obscenity of consumption is the regnant pornography of our times.  The rest of the world has for decades watched America consume.  There is a voyeurism of consumption, too; and Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Indonesians and others want nothing more than to consume much like the Americans—and their country cousins, the allegedly benign Canadians and the allegedly easy-going Australians who have their own sordid, or rather I should say, malignant history of exterminating and cordoning off ‘undesirables’. Those who have been left out of this grand narrative want not only cars, refrigerators, and flat-screen TVs, but meat on the table, the chimera of choice, the luxury of luxury goods.

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Global Warming and co2 Emissions–in the Here and Now, and in the Past

Part II of “The Politics of ‘Climate Emergency'”

The periodic reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body charged with assessing the science related to climate change, and the World Meteorological (WMO), a specialized agency of the UN which monitors changes in weather and climate and assesses the behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere, have charted the impending disaster in increasingly ominous language. Extreme climate events, far in excess of the occasional hurricane or drought that made it to the world news twenty years ago, have been aplenty: raging fires in Australia and the United States; record flooding in Europe, Africa, and Kerala; droughts in Argentina, Uruguay, and Afghanistan; and heat waves in London, Paris, and, to add a new gloss to the idea of the surreal, Greenland.  The scenes of devastation are writ large in the language of apocalypse.  “Australia’s hellish fire season has eased,” states a recent article in the New York Times, “but its people are facing more than a single crisis.”  The word “hellish” alerts us to the extraordinarily trying times that Australians have already experienced and will doubtless have to go through before their ordeal is over—if it is over:  the cycle of “drought, fire, deluge” is repeated with intensifying effect.

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Perhaps the most iconic image from the wildfires in Australia 2020: A kangaroo rushes past a burning house amid apocalyptic scenes in Conjola, New South Wales. Picture: Matthew Abbott / New York Times / Redux / eyevine)

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Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past

(in multiple parts)

Part III of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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

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

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Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a “Modern Religion”

(in multiple parts)

Part II of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

I have argued in the first part of this essay that Ambedkar was never far removed the ideal of spiritual fulfillment and that he sought to achieve this within the matrix of institutionalized religion in some form or the other.  What, then, of his relationship to Marx?  In spite of his relentless critique of Hinduism, some would say more specifically Brahminism, Ambedkar could not escape some of the very idioms that have given Hinduism and the other religions that have arisen from the soil of India their distinctive character.  As an illustration, and at least as a provocation, one might want to consider his warm acceptance of the idea of a guru, a status he bestowed on the Buddha and, quite possibly, on Kabir and Jyotirao Phule.  He had a more complicated relationship to Marx, with whose writings he had acquired considerable familiarity as a student of Vladimir Simkhovitch at Columbia University in 1913-14.  Simkhovitch had published in 1913 a book entitled Marxism versus Socialism, the very title of which is suggestive of the critical if appreciative outlook that Ambedkar’s teacher, and later Ambedkar himself, would have of Marx’s body of thought and all that it had wrought.

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The Centrality of “Religion” in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar

(in multiple parts)

Part I of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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B. R. Ambedkar

“There is no doubt in my mind that in the majority of quarrels”, wrote a famous Indian, “the Hindus come out second best.  My own experience but confirms the opinion that the Mussulman [the everyday Hindustani world for Muslim] as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.”  These rather querulous words belong to Mohandas Gandhi, writing at the tail end of the Khilafat Movement at a difficult moment in the struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity, a subject which was to preoccupy Gandhi his entire adult life in India.  But they could just as easily have emanated from the pen of B. R. [Babasaheb] Ambedkar, whose withering critiques of caste Hindu society are now part of the commonsense of the liberal and secular Hindu worldview but whose views on Islam, and more specifically on the history of Muslims in India, have received little critical scrutiny.  Ambedkar would almost certainly have contested whether there is even such a thing as a “liberal and secular Hindu”, but let that pass:  what cannot, however, be doubted is that, beyond seeing Hindu-Muslim unity as a chimera, he was predisposed, and for good reasons, towards viewing nearly everything from the standpoint of the Dalits.  His observations at the First Round Table Conference in London, held between November 1930 and January 1931, are telling in this respect:  “The Depressed Classes welcomed the British as their deliverers from age-long tyranny and oppression by the orthodox Hindus.  They fought their battle against the Hindus, the Mussalmans and the Sikhs, and won for them this great Empire of India.”  The particular manner in which Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs are, without any fanfare, merely placed in apposition to each other points to Ambedkar’s own priorities and the historical and philosophical viewpoint from which he assessed the Indian past. He earmarked the Hindu as the eternal and mortal foe of the Dalits, their unrepentant and degenerate oppressor, but, for reasons that he would delve into here and there, he also found it difficult to embrace Sikhs and Muslims, religious minorities in India, as brothers bound together in a fellowship of suffering.

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