It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere thirty years ago, as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and what Winston Churchill had famously called the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted from eastern Europe, that commentators in the West were jubilantly pronouncing (to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) “the end of history”. The supposition was that the entire world seemed on course to accept the idea that the liberal democracies of the West, and more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market. It mattered not a jot on their view that, precisely at this time, the US was cajoling nations into joining an international coalition designed to bring Saddam Hussein to heel and bomb Iraq, as American officials with pride and insouciance declared, “back into the stone age”. Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for the prospects of democracy and social justice were dismissed as some pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognize the dawn of a new age of freedom. “Muslim rage”, the phrase made popular by the likes of the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, was a variant on the idea that those who failed to recognize the supremacy of the free market economy and the rights-bearing individual as the apotheosis of the idea of human liberty were religious fanatics, troglodytes, or just under-developed.Continue reading
Part II of The Trouble with Kamala: Identity and the Death of Politics
Those who do not recognize the manner in which identity politics dominates nearly all conversation in America understand little if anything of America. What the nomination of Kamala Devi Harris by the Democratic party to the Vice-Presidency of the US signifies is not so much the fact that women have finally arrived on the political scene, or are on the verge of breaking the glass ceiling that has held them back, an argument that was advanced when Hillary Clinton became the party’s nominee for the President, but rather the sheer impossibility of escaping the identity question in American public life. Let us consider her, in the first instance, as an African American as Harris has herself weighed in on these matters often, describing herself as a Black on most occasions and adverting to her pride in being African American. Her 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey is explicit on one particular detail that merits some consideration. Her parents separated when she was around five years old, and they divorced a few years later; but her mother, who had come from India as a graduate student, was not therefore bereft of a family. Kamala’s parents had a shared political life for some years: they participated in political demonstrations against racism, discrimination, and injustice, discussed decolonization in Africa, and declared their support for liberation movements in ‘the developing world’. These dissenters and rebels became, Harris writes, “my mother’s people. In a country where she had no family, they were her family—and she was theirs. From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community. It was the foundation of her new American life.” In consequence, Shyamala Gopalan raised her daughters, Kamala and Maya, as black children: “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as two black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
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.
Part II of The Desecration of a Statue: Gandhi and Race
The desecration of Gandhi’s statue in Washington DC, it should be made clear, was no accident. Those who vandalized Gandhi’s statue had anything but diplomacy in mind: if anything, we might say that they belong to the school of thought which holds that it is time to stop being diplomatic about Gandhi and to bare the truth about the supposed Mahatma. A “new” narrative has been coming into shape about Gandhi over the course of the last ten years, one which is openly hostile to him and intent on exposing the venerated man for all his evils. (That it is not altogether new is not a subject that I can take up here: criticism of Gandhi in India dates back to at least the early 1920s, though it was not “race” that was in question then.) We have been told that Gandhi never fought for the working class, just as he never opposed caste; he was also, as some would have it, unspeakably cruel to his wife, neglected his own children while posing as the “Father of the Nation”, and should be held responsible for practically having handed over a large chunk of India to Muslims and therefore authoring the idea of Pakistan. The intelligence of some of these critics can be discerned from the fact that they claim that Gandhi was also a friend of Hitler—this on the grounds that he addressed, which indeed he did, two letters to the Nazi leader which began with the salutation, “Dear Friend.” There is not the slightest recognition here that Gandhi knew no enemies: he recognized that he had political opponents, but the word “enemy” was not part of his vocabulary. Nor is there any understanding on their part that Gandhi was a firm believer in the idea that the spark of divinity resides in every human being: as I have written elsewhere, a man’s acts may be monstrous, but no man is a monster. This is one reason among many why he was a firm opponent of capital punishment, being of the view that it is given to no human being to take the life of another human being. When he wrote to Hitler, he did so in the hope, not the expectation, that he might be able to make him see the desirability of abandoning the path of violence. He wrote to him for the same reason that Churchill, in a direct broadcast to the United States as late as 8 August 1939, declared that “If Herr Hitler does not make war, there will be no war.” Gandhi may have been hopelessly naïve, but that is no crime. British censors ensured that his letters never reached Hitler. Continue reading
. . . 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
(concluding part of 5 parts of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)
As if Hinduism was not sufficiently offensive, repugnant to every person with only a modicum of moral sensibility and not altogether devoid of the notion of human dignity, India had to bear the oppressive burden of a faith that, whatever its history in other countries, further diminished the prospects of human freedom in that ancient land. “Islam speaks of brotherhood”, and “everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste”, but, in truth, says Ambedkar, “Islam divides as inexorably as it binds” and it cannot but abide by a firm distinction between “Muslims and non-Muslims”. The brotherhood it promises is “for Muslims only”, and for “those outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” But this is far from being its only offense in this respect, since the Muslim is also enjoined, by the terms of “Muslim Canon Law”, to withdraw his cooperation from non-Muslims if he should happen to live in a country that is not governed by his brethren. Ambedkar is quite clear on this—grist for the mill for those Hindus who have long harbored a suspicion that the Indian Muslim’s loyalty to Islam precedes his or her loyalty to India. What Ambedkar understood by the requirement of “Muslim Canon Law” may have been very different than what is understood by those who are content to insist that many Indian Muslims would rather cheer for the visiting Pakistani cricket team than for the Indian team, but the sense that the Muslim is disinclined to live under the jurisdiction of any religion other than Islam is pervasive. Whether the Muslim is singularly alone in having such a disposition is however a question that is seldom posed.
Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU as it is known in Delhi and beyond, has once again been in the news for the last three weeks. Its students have been protesting not only against large hikes in hostel fees, but against other features of the draft hostel manual which imposes a dress code and sets a curfew for students. The university and nearby residential colonies have been swarming with police, but the students have been successful in taking their demonstrations to many parts of central Delhi and the area around Parliament. There are reliable reports, and video footage, of students, including some who are disabled, who have been beaten by the police. Students have been lathi charged, and many have been detained. The Delhi Police has, predictably, denied all charges of police brutality, and rests its case upon the fact that the imposition of Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlaws public assemblies of more than five people, means that the protestors are in violation of the law.
Even as much of the country has erupted with joy at the BJP’s audacious steps in abolishing the state of Jammu & Kashmir, creating two new Union Territories—little more than “Bantustans”, say some—and thereby, as is assumed to be the case, “integrating” the Kashmir Valley into the Union of India, some serious questions have arisen about the possible consequences of these changes. Article 35(A), which was added to the Constitution through a Presidential Order on 14 May 1954, conferred on the legislature of Jammu & Kashmir the power to define “permanent residents” and the rights that accrued solely to them, among them the privilege of being able to buy land and property in Kashmir. This provision has now been scrapped.
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.”
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.”
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.)
Before a consideration of the immense difficulties that inhere in this proposed legislation, let it be said that most of the commonplace arguments that have been raised against this extremely foolish and dangerous gesture on the part of the Congress government are not insignificant. First, it must be recognized that there was a spate of incidents in late 2015 involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and police firing in Faridkot against aggrieved demonstrators. Consequently, the concern with desecration of religious texts is not without substance. There is, secondly, the question of political expediency: the country will be going to elections in much less than an year, and the Congress is keen to remind voters in one of the few states where it has a real presence that it has done more than the Akali Dal to defend the religious sentiments of the Sikhs. This would scarcely be the first time, of course, that the Congress would be attempting to position itself as a champion of religious minorities. Judging from its previous forays in this direction, one can hazard the speculation that the outcome on this occasion will once again do no credit to the Congress.Thirdly, the Akali Dal government in 2016 did pass legislation that sought life imprisonment for desecrating the Sikh holy book, as well as an enhanced prison term of ten years for offenders against other religious faiths, but the Central Government returned the legislation both on the grounds that the prescribed punishments were “excessive in law” and, more importantly, in violation of the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The violation was construed as emanating not even remotely from the fact that the state had no business in using its coercive powers to enforce religious belief, but rather from the curious fact that in prescribing a higher penalty for desecrators of the Guru Granth Sahib than for those had insulted the holy books of other faiths, the Centre charged the state government with elevating one religion over another and thereby violating the central tenet of Indian secularism which insists on parity for all religions. It is for this reason that the proposed amendment to Sec. 295A stipulates that “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life”. What was deemed as “excessive” punishment is now sought to be imposed with uniformity upon an offender found guilty of the said offence, regardless of religion. Apparently, barbarism towards all is to be preferred to a barbarism that is partial.
Much else has been said, and with due reason, against the amendment to the IPC. The application of “blasphemy laws” in neighboring Pakistan, about which I shall have much more to say in another essay soon, demonstrates the extraordinary hazards of such legislation: people often falsely charge others to settle personal scores, and those alleged to have committed an offence have sometimes been killed in acts of vigilante justice by mobs acting at the instigation of religious zealots. Existing laws in India are sufficient to deal with whatever cases of the desecration of religious books or sites of worship might arise; in this matter as in in nearly every other, such as for instance the entire question of ‘lynching’, the laws are rigorous enough and it has long been recognized that the problem resides rather in the fact that there is no will to enforce them. There is also the equally substantive issue that the threshold for what is deemed ‘religious hurt’ continues to be lowered. The three dozen retired civil servants, many with considerable standing in Indian society, who have addressed an open letter to the Punjab Chief Minister quite rightly point to the “ill-founded prosecutions” that are likely to arise from such legislation, and they are doubtless right in arguing that “blasphemy laws are a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right.”
While all these arguments have merit, they nevertheless occlude the most fundamental problem not only in the framing of the new legislation but in the interpretation of Indian society. Let us note the use of the phrase, “blasphemy laws”, common to nearly everything that has been written on the subject. The legislation in question does not use the word “blasphemy”, but all commentators have understood the gist of it as prescribing penalties for blasphemy. Like many of the categories that inform our intellectual discourse in India, “blasphemy” is part of the Judeo-Christian inheritance that was handed down to India in the wake of colonial rule. Moses is told by the Lord to tell the Israelites, “When any man whatever blasphemes his God, he shall accept responsibility for his sin . . . . all the community shall stone him; alien or native, if he utters the Name, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:15-16). Moral theologians regarded blasphemy as a sin; some, such as Aquinas, held it as a sin against faith. The Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I, decreed the death penalty for blasphemy, and in large parts of the Christian world blasphemy remained punishable by death until comparatively recent times.
What is absolutely striking, and germane for us in India, is the fact that the idea of blasphemy has no point of reference or analogue in Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism. The idea is absolutely foreign to at least the adherents of these religions. Indians, whatever their religious faith, understand the reverence in which holy books are to be held, or the respect that is to be paid to religious shrines, but it is questionable whether most of them would be moved by arguments about “blasphemy”. What does blasphemy mean to a Hindu, and what is “the holy book” that is being blasphemed against? On whose authority does the Punjab Government pronounce that the Bhagavad Gita is to the Hindu what the Bible is to the Christian or the Quran to the Muslim? How did the view of a certain, and to a considerable extent Anglicized, element of the Hindu middle class about the Gita, come to represent the view of all Hindus? How does one even begin to understand that every faith, and not only Hinduism, began to be shaped in the image of Protestant Christianity commencing in the late 18th century? We have here, in the present debate about “blasphemy laws”, another instance of how our thinking takes place without any reference to the categories produced by Indian thought and without any awareness of the fact that the intellectual legacies of the Judeo-Christian tradition are unthinkingly deployed to frame very different experiences.
I am reminded, finally, of an anecdote from the life of Vivekananda. It is reported that on a visit to Kashmir, some of Vivekananda’s followers were both despondent and angry at seeing the broken images of the goddess strewn over the countryside. They swore that henceforth they would not permit the images of the goddess to be defiled. Vivekananda turned to them with a retort, “Do you protect the Goddess, or does the Goddess protect you?” The Chief Minister and the other self-appointed guardians of religion can usefully take home a lesson from this story. It is arrogant for them to believe that the great faiths of India require the protections of the Indian state; and this is, of course, apart from any consideration of whether the Indian state, which has more often than not shown reckless disregard for the citizens of this country, has any moral standing to uplift these faiths. On nearly every ground that one can think of, the Punjab and Central governments would be well advised to withdraw the contemplated amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code.
(A shorter version of this was published as “A Foreign Offence” in the Indian Express (print edition), 11 September 2018.