The Lynching of JNU

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.

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JNU has long been one of the country’s most distinguished universities.  That, some might argue, says little considering that no Indian university, going by the Times’ Higher Education World University Rankings (2020), ranks within the world’s top 300 institutions of higher education, and JNU falls within the 601-800 rankings.  Even within Asia alone, JNU is ranked a measly 95th.  Nevertheless, the university has exercised an outsized influence in Indian public and intellectual life, and some of its graduates have gone on to gain global renown.  JNU justly celebrated the award of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics to one of its graduates, Abhijit Banerjee, and a number of its graduates now occupy very high positions in the present government and the civil services.

Such rankings should, in any case, be treated be severe skepticism if not dismissed outright.  JNU has much else to its credit, all of which has made it the target of the present government and the university administration headed by a Vice Chancellor who has shown himself utterly incapable of exercising independent judgment.  More than any other university in the country, JNU remains a site of dissent.  Whatever distinctions its graduates and faculty have earned in the academic sphere, in scientific research, or in public life, many of them have shown that in a modern civilized society it is imperative that the university be safeguarded as one of the last bastions of free speech and dissent.  Four years ago, the government attempted to silence some PhD students—among them, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya—by charging them with sedition and criminal conspiracy, for no better reason than they had held a demonstration against the sentence of capital punishment that had been handed out to Afzal Guru, convicted of an attack on the Indian Parliament.

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Kanhaiya Kumar, JNU Student Union leader. Source: Hindustan Times, 7 March 2016.

The culture of dissent, and independent thinking, cannot however by gauged only by an occasional show of protest, and what makes JNU stand out is the spirit of inquiry which informs intellectual and cultural life on campus.  This was demonstrated, in the aftermath of the government’s heavy-handed and much critiqued handling of the sedition case, by an extraordinary series of lectures on nationalism that were held outside the administration building.  The BJP government has sought, since it came to power in 2014, to capture nearly every state institution, and its inability to silence students at JNU has doubled its resolve to bring the university to heel.  JNU’s students are similarly emboldened to stand their ground, indeed for reasons that the government fears and cannot dare to acknowledge.  JNU is unique in that it draws half of its student body from families that live at the edge of poverty, living on Rs 12,000 or less a month. There are students whose fathers work as hawkers and landless laborers, and in hazardous industries as daily wage laborers.  The supposition of the government, of course, is that such students have no reason to study; they certainly have no right to dream of a better livelihood than their parents.

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If all of this were not enough to bring distinction to JNU, there is yet something more that makes the university absolutely singular in India. It is doubtless the first university to be publicly lynched.  The country has been witness for the last several years to many lynchings of Muslims and Dalits. Make hay while the sun shines, so goes the proverb, and some Hindu nationalists have been on the rampage knowing fully well that that they can commit, with full impunity, heinous crimes.  The idea of an institution being “lynched” may strike some as bizarre, but I doubt very much that the public lynching of JNU has any parallels in modern Indian history.  It may well be JNU’s misfortune that, being named after Jawaharlal Nehru, and having, on top of that, something of a reputation (deservedly or otherwise) as a left-wing institution, it was bound to exercise the attention of the present government, which absolutely loathes the name of Nehru and has lost no opportunity to ridicule the achievements and legacy of India’s first and longest serving Prime Minister.  Most recently, BJP Vice President Shivraj Singh Chouhan has charged Nehru with the “crime” of introducing Article 370 and “announcing ceasefire in war with Pakistan”, a view at once endorsed by Bhopal BJP MP Pragya Thakur who agrees that Nehru, having hurt “our motherland”, was “surely” a “criminal”. Thakur, we should remember, spent nearly a decade in jail on charges of being a terrorist and is technically still out on bail. One might speak of the pot calling the kettle black, but such proverbs would be lost on the illiterates who now command India’s destiny.

The government, having done whatever it deemed necessary to tame JNU, has now left the shaming and lynching of the university to the country’s middle class.  We all know of the television anchor whose trademark harangue, which would be comical if it were not so incendiary, begins with this line:  “The country wants to know . . .”  JNU students are now routinely accused of being anti-national, an allegation which makes a traitor of anyone who does not subscribe to the idea of Hindu supremacy.  But the demonization of JNU students has many other, equally disturbing, features.  A BJP MLA from Rajasthan’s Alwar District had claimed, following the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, that “3,000 used condoms, 500 used abortion injections, 10,000 cigarette pieces, among other things,” are found at JNU “daily”, and that “girls and boys dance naked in cultural programmes” at the university.

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Cartoon by R. Prasad, Mail Today.

What he claimed then is now claimed by thousands of middle class Indians posturing as guardians of public morals who are convinced that JNU is a den of vice:  here girls dance naked and they are shameless in flaunting their bodies, both girls and boys are hooked on drugs, and university hostels are little better than places where sex can be had for the cheap.  JNU students, it is being said, are generally engaged in worthless research and are, in any case, much too old to be students.  Social media is awash with such stories.  One story doing the rounds on Facebook, shared 1,400 times within hours of it being posted, represented a 43-year old woman as a student whose daughter was also a student at JNU!  The story circulated with the hashtag, #ShutDownJNU.  The 43-year old woman was a figment of the imagination.

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An illustration of the stories circulating about JNU in social media: this one has the endorsement of IIT Madras Junta Against Leftist APSC [Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle] and bears the hashtag #ShutDownJNU. Source: https://www.thequint.com/news/webqoof/jnu-protest-fake-news-pictures-of-student-protesters-fact-check

Those agitating for the closure of JNU, or stern disciplinary action against students, are pathetic for yet other reasons.  Some of them have taken recourse to the argument, drawn entirely from the playbook of American populism, that JNU is a drain on public resources and that “tax-payers” should not have to subsidize lazy, old, and left-inclined students so that they can write on worthless topics which do nothing for the country’s economy.  The sheer poverty of such thinking is what should alarm the country.  This is apart from the fact that India’s middle class is notorious for tax evasion, and it can be safely said that many objecting to the waste of tax-payers’ money are evading the payment of their own taxes.  India has a seriously ailing economy.  As the loud shouting against JNU shows, what ails the imagination in India is equally frightening.

 

*Reterritorialization and Neo-Liberalization:  “Opening Up” Kashmir

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.

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Will Kashmir now be flooded by non-Kashmiris, as many are stating and some are hoping, and should we now expect real “development” as the Home Minister has promised?  Let us, for the moment, ignore the fact that, in comparison with most other Indian states, Kashmir already fares better on development indices, whether one considers infant or maternal mortality rates, under five mortality, levels of malnutrition, or the extent to which children have been immunized against common diseases. The painful truth is that almost no state in India can be described as truly “developed” in the conventional sense of the term; and some states—Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, to name a few—lag well behind the preponderant number of the world’s countries, and can only be compared to countries such as the Congo, Burundi, Niger, and the Central African Republic.  Will development for Kashmir mean direct investment in infrastructure, the creation of manufacturing jobs, and the growth of education, or will it also mean, which is absolutely certain, the purchase of properties in Kashmir as holiday homes by the rich of Delhi and Mumbai and unchecked environmental degradation?

There is an expression which for 200 years has guided colonial enterprises.  Africa was described by rapacious European explorers as finally having entered into the pages of history when the continent was “opened up” to European exploration, trade, and ruthless exploitation.  The “opening up” of Australia meant the evisceration of entire peoples just as the “opening up” of the Americas led to the genocide of native peoples and the disappearance of different modes of being in the world.  The narrative is now cast in a different if related language:  the “opening up” of Eastern Europe after the demise of the Soviet Union and the dismemberment of the Eastern Bloc signified the emergence of new markets and the entry of millions of people into the paradise of consumption.  Our Home Minister cannot stop gushing over the imminent “development” of Kashmir, but does this mean anything more than “opening up” the state to the unabated greed of Indian industrialists, loan sharks, and predatory capitalists?

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This book was first published in 1911.

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The possible further consequences of what is entailed by the “opening up” of Kashmir are perhaps best understood by turning to what may be described as the reterritorialization of Tibet.  In the first half of the 20th century, following the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was largely an independent nation. After the communists triumphed over the nationalists in China, Mao sought to integrate the TAR or Tibet into the People’s Republic.  The Dalai Lama was told in no uncertain terms that such integration could be accomplished peacefully, by his voluntary accession to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), or by force.  The Dalai Lama accepted Mao’s 17-point agreement in August 1951, and Beijing lost no time in rolling out the narrative, which had been some years in the making, that Tibet had now been liberated from its feudal past and that Tibetans would no longer live as slaves to theocratic leaders. That surrender is captured in the farcical “Peaceful Liberation” Monument, now dominating Lhasa’s Potala Square, which also celebrates the entry of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into Tibet.

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The Peaceful Liberation (of Tibet) Monument, Potala Square, Lhasa; photograph: A. Bleus; source: https://alixbleus.me/2016/11/01/tibet-peaceful-liberation-monument-potala-square-lhasa-mg_3620/

Some commentators have adverted to the cultural genocide effected by the Chinese in Tibet; others hotly dispute the use of the term “genocide.”  What is unquestionably the case is that, from the outset, the Chinese sought with utter deliberation to alter the demographic composition of Tibet—as they have done so in Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, otherwise known as XUAR).  The strategy of territorialization did not commence with the Communists: indeed, it is the Qing who, in the 18th century, started bringing the Han Chinese, and settlers from other ethnic groups, into northern Xinjiang. Still, the 1953 census showed 75% Ugyurs and 6% Han; by 2000, the Han portion of the population had grown to 40%.

The settlement of Han Chinese into Tibet, as a matter of deliberate state policy, has a more complex history.  In 1949, shortly before Tibet’s absorption into the PRC, the population of Lhasa stood at around 130,000, not including the Potala Palace and some 15,000 monks. The Han Chinese amounted to a mere 300-400.  The dramatic demographic shift is captured in the 1992 census statistics on Lhasa:  in a population of 140,000, the ethnic Tibetan population had shrunk to 96,431 while the Han Chinese had grown to 40,387.  This shift was accompanied by the widespread destruction of monasteries, libraries, and other manifestations of the cultural inheritance of the Tibetan people.  This is what may rightly be described as reterritorialization, or the defacement and obliteration of the physical, cultural, and intellectual landscapes of a people and the imposition of a new demographic and socio-political reality.  Should we at all be surprised that China justified the introduction of Han Chinese into Tibet with the argument that “after the democratic reform”—that is, the annexation of Tibet—“the People’s Government helped all the former slaves, about 5% of Tibet’s population, and large number of homeless serfs to settle down.”  To introduce improvements in livestock breeding, agriculture, and medical care, it was necessary to bring the Han as instruments of “revolutionary change” to a “backward” place.  While China was thus “helping” and civilizing the hapless Tibetans, it was allowing millions of Chinese back home to die of hunger—again, with the absolute complicity of party officials.  This is what the Chinese, and our own Home Minister and his cheerleaders, call “development.”

Still, if the picture in Tibet is complex, it is because the Tibetan Autonomous Region as a whole remains 90% Tibetan.  The Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959; the Potala Palace is now a museum; and dissent is dealt with sternly and swiftly.  There are Tibetans who dream of independence, no doubt, as indeed they should, but the Chinese shred these dreams into pieces. Some activists claim that the Tibetans have been reduced into a minority in their homeland: not only is this patently false but they fail to understand that the Chinese have accomplished what they set out to do.  To return, then, to Kashmir:  Some are prophesizing a Hindu invasion of Kashmir and the erosion of what is called Kashmiriyat.  That may well be alarmist, and the more pertinent question for those who follow events in Kashmir is whether the Indian state will effect something similar to what has transpired in Tibet by way of reterritorializing the Kashmir Valley.  What will they seek to efface from the extraordinary cultural legacy of Kashmir and how will they effect the changes in such a manner as to absorb Kashmir while giving it the semblance of “autonomy”?

First published on 12 August 2019 by ABP network:

https://www.abplive.in/blog/reterritorialization-and-neo-liberalization-opening-up-kashmir-1052781

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.)                                 

*Blasphemy and the Colonized Indian Mind

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Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh and other ministers and MLAs at the Vidhan Sabha [Punjab Assembly], Chandigarh, March 2017.  Photo & Copyright: Keshav Singh, Hindustan Times.  

The Cabinet of the Punjab Government has approved an amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code and will place a bill before the Assembly to secure passage of legislation that would impose a life sentence upon those convicted of desecrating religious texts.  Sec. 295A presently stipulates a prison term of no more than three years for anyone found guilty of outraging, or attempting with malicious intent to outrage, the religious sentiments of the practitioners of any faith.  A number of commentators have in recent days objected strenuously and with passionate conviction to legislation that is unquestionably liable to abuse and will almost certainly further undermine the already endangered secular structure of the Indian polity, but their arguments, as I shall suggest shortly, do not go far enough; indeed, their arguments do not as much as recognize the principal intellectual shortcoming of the proposed legislation.

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.

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Demonstration by SGPC [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] activists agains the allleged descration of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Punjab, 2015.  Photo copyright: Agence France-Presse (AFP).  

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.

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A cartoon by the Brazilian Carlos Latuff.  Copyright:   Carlos Latuff.  Source: https://theintercept.com/2015/01/09/solidarity-charlie-hebdo-cartoons/

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.

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So should we view this as “Hindu Blasphemy”?  The cover of Business Today shows cricketer M. S. Dhoni, one of the many new Gods of modern India.

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.

*The Abrahamic Revelation and the Walls of Separation: A Few Thoughts on the  “Resolution” of the Palestinian-Israel Conflict

Fourth and Concluding Part of “Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  Seventy Years of Occupation in Palestine” 

As I argued in the last part of this essay, there is no gainsaying the fact that anti-Semitism remains rife among most Arab communities—and indeed among Christians in many parts of the world, as the attacks on synagogues, which have increased since the time that Mr. Trump assumed high office, amply demonstrate.  Nevertheless, it is equally the case that the charge of anti-Semitism has itself become a totalitarian form of stifling dissent and an attempt to enforce complete submissiveness to the ideology of Zionism.  On the geopolitical plane, the leadership (as it is called) of the United States, has done nothing to bring about an amicable resolution, even as the United States is construed as the peace-broker between Israel and the Palestinians.  Indeed, one might well ask if the United States is even remotely the right party to position itself as an arbiter, and not only for the all too obvious reason that its staunch and nakedly partisan support for Israel, punctuated only by a few homilies on the necessity of exercising restraint and Israel’s right to protect itself in the face of the gravest provocations, makes it unfit to insert itself into the conflict as a peacemaker. We have seen this all too often, most recently of course in the carnage let loose on the border last week as Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding and the Palestinians marked seventy years of the catastrophe that has befallen them: even as Israel was mowing down Palestinian youth and young men, most of them unarmed and some evidently shot in the back, the United States was applauding Israel for acting “with restraint”.

13 Falk cover

In an essay that Richard Falk wrote a few years ago at my invitation, entitled The Endless Search for a Just and Sustainable Peace: Palestine-Israel (2014), he advanced briefly an argument the implications of which, with respect to the conflict and its possible resolution, have never really been worked out.  Falk observed that the Abrahamic revelation, from which the two political theologies that inform this conflict have taken their birth, is predisposed towards violence and even an annihilationist outlook towards the other.   There is, in Regina M. Schwartz’s eloquently argued if little-known book, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (The University of Chicago Press, 1998), an extended treatment of this subject, though I suspect that her view that monotheistic religions have an intrinsic predisposition towards exterminationist violence will all too easily and with little thought be countered by those eager to demonstrate that religions guided by the Abrahamic revelation scarcely have a monopoly on violence.  It has, for example, become a commonplace in certain strands of thinking in India to declare that nothing in the world equals the violence perpetrated in various idioms by upper-caste Hindus against lower-caste Hindus over the course of two millennia or more.  One could, quite plausibly, also argue that there is a long-strand of nonviolent thinking available within the Christian dispensation, commencing with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s injunctions towards nonviolent conduct in Romans and exemplified in our times by such dedicated practitioners of Christian nonviolence as A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, the Berrigan Brothers, and the stalwarts of the Civil Rights Movement, among them the Reverends M. L. King, James M. Lawson, and Fred Shuttleworth.

SchwartzCurseOfCain

Whatever one makes of the view that the political theologies that inform the Abrahamic revelation make a peaceful resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict an immense challenge to the ethical imagination, what is perhaps being tacitly expressed here is a serious reservation about the fitness of the United States, which evangelicals would like to have openly recognized as a land of Abrahamic revelation, to intervene in this debate. I would put it rather more strongly. The supposition that the United States, which has all too often harbored genocidal feelings towards others, and has been consistently committed, through the change of administrations over the last few decades, to the idea that it must remain the paramount global power, can now act equitably and wisely in bringing a just peace to the region must be challenged at every turn.  There is, as well, the equally profound question of whether there is anything within the national experience of the United States that allows it to consider such conflicts on a civilizational plane, not readily amenable to the nation-state framework and the rules that constitute normalized politics.Pa

Richard Falk sees, in the willingness of British government after decades of violence, arson, terrorist attacks, and a bitterness that surprised even those hardened by politics, to negotiate with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a political entity some precedent for discussions that might lead to a framework for an equitable peace.  Assuming this to be the case, one must nevertheless be aware that all proposed solutions to the conflict are fraught with acute hazards.  Those who are inclined to see the conflict entirely or largely through the prism of religion have displayed little sensitivity to the idea that if religion repels frequently because of its exclusiveness it just as often attracts because of its potential inclusiveness. Those who look at the conflict entirely as a political matter will not concede what is palpably true, namely that the present practice of politics precludes possibilities of a just peace.  The advocates of the two-state solution, clearly in an overwhelming majority today, must know that if such a solution becomes reality, Palestine will be little more than a Bantustan.  Some may claim that even an impoverished, debilitated, and besieged but independent Palestine would be a better option for its subjects than the apartheid which circumscribes and demeans their lives today, but any such solution cannot be viewed as anything other than a surrender to the most debased notion of politics.

Israel should not be permitted to use the rantings of the Holocaust deniers, or the more severe anti-Semitic pronouncements of its detractors, as a foil for the equally implausible argument that the Palestinians are committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.  The greater majority of the Palestinian leaders and intellectuals, as many commentators have points out, have signaled their acceptance of the pre-1967 borders of Israel provided that Israel withdraws from the territory it has occupied since the 1967 war and displays a serious willingness to address the refugee problem.  In a more ideological vein, most Palestinians are reconciled to the idea that the Zionist project, originating in a desire to establish a Jewish state on Arab lands, is a fait accompli.  However equitable a political solution—and that, too, seems to be a remote possibility—the more fundamental questions to which the conflict gives rise are those which touch upon our ability to live with others who are presented to us as radically different, even if the notion of the ‘radical’ that is at stake here is only grounded in historical contingencies.  Living with others is never easy, and is not infrequently an unhappy, even traumatic, affair; but it is certainly the most challenging and humane way to check the impulse to gravitate towards outright discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and extermination.  “We cannot choose”, Hannah Arendt has written, “with whom we cohabit the world”, but Israel appears to have signified its choice, terrifyingly so, not only by the erection of the Separation Wall, but also by imposing a draconian regime of segregationist measures that reek of apartheid.  In so doing, it behooves Israel to recognize that victory is catastrophic for the vanquisher as much as defeat is catastrophic for the vanquished.

(concluded)

See also Part III, “Settlements, Judaization, and Anti-Semitism”

Part II, “A Vastly Unequal Struggle:  Palestine, Israel, and the Disequilibrium of Power”

Part I, “Edward Said and an Exceptional Conflict”

For a Norwegian translation of this article by Lars Olden, see: http://prosciencescope.com/fjerde-og-avsluttende-delen-av-bortvising-fortvilelse-og-defiance-sytti-ar-med-okkupasjon-i-palestina/

*The Homeless Gandhi

Los Angeles, 30 January 2018

On this day, seventy years ago, Mohandas Gandhi was felled by three bullets from a gun fired by Nathuram Godse, a Chitpavan Brahmin who nursed a number of grudges against the man anointed as the “Father of the Nation”.  Most people in India mourned; some cheered.  More than a few held him chiefly responsible for the vivisection of India and declared that he, more than Muhammad Iqbal or Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had played a critical role in birthing Pakistan; in the days before his death, Gandhi had been taunted by some as “The Father of Pakistan”.  Godse held that Gandhi was an effete man whose womanly ways and petulant behavior, which led the old man to fast whenever he could not get his way, had emasculated the country.  Thus, in Godse’s view, Gandhi deserved to die.

Nathuram-Godse_GettyImage

Nathuram Godse. Getty Image.

Unlike, however, those who at present rejoice in Gandhi’s death, even as they garland his statues and mouth the customary platitudes about his “continuing relevance”, Godse was quite candid in holding forth that India could never become a powerful nation-state that the rest of the world might envy so long as Gandhi was alive to guide the country’s destinies.  Godse was also genuinely reverential in his feelings towards Gandhi, a part of his story that is little recognized:  the Mahatma loved the nation and had awakened the slumbering masses, so Godse thought, but he had deviated from the path and gone astray.  Gandhi, that inveterate user of trains, had derailed the country.  His murder would be the first step in the yet unnamed project of ghar wapsi:  even as Gandhi was being returned to his Maker, the country would supposedly be returned to its roots.

Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents described the battle within everyone between eros (the instinct to love) and the death wish (thanatos).  While we need not be beholden to Freud’s precise reading of the death wish, it may be said that, in a peculiar way, Gandhi did not mind being killed.  By this I do not merely mean what most who are familiar with Gandhi’s life will at once infer, namely that he often spoke in the last few years of his life, and particularly in the aftermath of the partition killings, of having lost the desire to live.  He had a premonition of his own death; and, yet, he had also said on more than one occasion that he wished to live until he was 125 years old.

I have in mind something quite different.  Though there have been many compelling interpretations of his life, Gandhi has increasingly struck me as someone who felt himself at sea in the world.  Everyone has her or his own Gandhi:  political activists, nudists, vegetarians, environmentalists, prohibitionists, civil resisters, and pacifists are only some among the dozens of constituencies that have claimed him as their own and sometimes even adopted him as their mascot.  It is time for the homeless to claim him as their own, though we should first strive to unravel a few of the meanings of home and dispossession.  We often make a home and dispossess others by our act.  The home that we long for, when realized, suddenly loses all its attractions.  Our home might come to burden or haunt us, creating other forms of dispossession.  Our actual home may well be elsewhere than the home in which we live.  We may be at home in not being at home at all, and the home that we call home may have no relation to the home that is in the heart.  That home with which we draw a boundary to keep out others becomes more than a marker of territory, helping shape conceptions of the outside and the inside, the other and the self, the alien and the familiar. We may, like the reluctant exile, gain a political home and lose our cultural home.  We may have several homes, and yet feel dispossessed; or we may have no home at all, and feel that the world is at our fingertips.

Gandhi’s life offers fleeting impressions of someone who, even as his feet were firmly planted on the ground, was curiously unmoored.  For much the greater part of his adult life, Gandhi was bereft of a family home, sharing not even an extended family home that was overwhelmingly the norm in his lifetime.  He shared his life not merely with Kasturba and their sons but with dozens and often hundreds of inmates in communes and ashrams, and was deeply resented by some members of his family for being insufficiently attentive to them and their needs.  If, for instance, the notion of home implies the idea of a private sphere, Gandhi displayed not merely indifference to the idea of privacy but was inclined to see it as a species of secrecy and thus deception.  It cannot be an accident that, having vowed not to return to Sabarmati Ashram until India had been delivered from the shackles of colonial rule, Gandhi went on the Dandi March and then drifted around, somewhat like a homeless man, for a few years until he settled upon Wardha in central India.  In early April 1936, he set himself up in the desperately poor and mosquito-infested village of Segaon, which then had a population of less than 700.  Segaon had the virtue only of being, it is said, the dead center of India, home to everything and nothing.

Gandhi_in_Noakhali,_1946

Gandhi in Noakhali, 1946:  When No One Walks With You, Walk Alone.

Gandhi was beginning to feel homeless in the India that was taking shape even before partition tore apart his country and his heart alike.  He was an early critic of what in post-World War II would begin to be called “development”; but he was also, and this is the greater irony, in view of his role as the chief architect of the Indian independence struggle, never at home with the idea of the nation-state.  No nationalist was less invested in the nation-state that he had helped to forge.  That is one of the measures of his greatness and of his distinct mode of being (at home) in the world.  Gandhi had once appealed to Ambedkar to put aside their differences and work him in the interest of the country, and Ambedkar famously replied, “Mahatmaji, I have no country.”  Little could Ambedkar have known that Gandhi would just become his statues.  We can in any case think of their exchange as the most extraordinary recorded conversation between two homeless men.

 

[This is a slightly revised version of a piece published in the print and online editions of the Indian Express on 30 January 1948; in the print edition, the piece appears on p. 1; the online version is here: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mahatma-gandhi-jayanti-father-of-the-nation-5044076/]

[The online version of the piece as it appears in the Indian Express of course invites comments from readers.  One reader remarked that, in highlighting the fact that Nathuram was a Chitpavan Brahmin, I was clearly displaying my prejudice against Hindus.  This is not even remotely the case, though the culture of trolling has now made it far too easy for people to engage in slander, cant, and humbug.  It is not unimportant that Nathuram Godse came from a Chitpavan Brahmin background: not only were there other attempts on Gandhi’s life by Chitpavan Brahmins, but the community as a whole felt especially aggrieved at the loss of its power as a consequence of British rule.  Having a Gujarati bania such as Gandhi at the helm of power was not calculated to make Chitpavans, who bemoaned the loss of their masculinity, feel emboldened as the sun began to set on British rule in India. But an extended commentary on all this is scarcely necessary, since Ashis Nandy’s “Final Encounter:  On the Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi”, offers a complex and brilliant interpretation of the sources of Chitpavan Brahmin anxiety about Gandhi.  Another reader, quite predictably, counsels that my piece may be ignored since it stems from the pen of a Non-Resident Indian.  Gandhi himself spent over 20 years in South Africa, and I suppose that some nationalist Hindus are still inclined to take the view that Gandhi remained a foreigner to India.]

*Towards another History of the Taj Mahal:  Rumors, Legends, Longings

Part IV of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

I recall hearing a number of stories about the Taj Mahal, which I first visited around the summer of 1987, through my teens and into my twenties.  Some Greek philosopher or savant—it may have been Heraclitus, Parmenides, or perhaps Homer, but not Socrates—said that you cannot go anywhere without running into a story.  Human civilization can do without history, anthropology, indeed all the academic disciplines that in their own bloated fashion think of themselves as indispensable, but it cannot do without stories.  The fire around which primeval men and women huddled was meant not only to keep away wild animals, provide warmth, and cook raw meat:  so long as the fire kept burning, the stories kept flowing. Civilizations are known by the kind of stories they tell:  the fact that social scientists, about whom I know a thing or two, have so little interest in stories, and even less a capacity to narrate them, tells us something about the state of civilization. The most egregious offenders in this respect, as in most others, are the economists:  one pathetic specimen, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, whom I met several years ago in the lion’s den, that is at a gathering of professional economists that I visited out of anthropological curiosity, assured me that he could “model love” and do economic regressions to establish the best conditions for suitors, consensual fornication, and pure lust.  But even professional historians, a tribe that I know well, generally disavow stories in favor of a rank positivism—a positivism that is rarely admitted as such and is now disguised by work that purports to be global, interdisciplinary, mindful of ‘networks of exchange’, etcetera.

TajMahalSymmetry

Source:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/eight-secrets-taj-mahal-180962168/  The article also discusses what it calls the greatest “myths” about the Taj.

 

The dazzling and venerable “magic” of the Taj itself owes everything to the story of the love that Shah Jahan, ‘Emperor of the World’, apparently had for Arjumand Banu, upon whom the Emperor conferred the title, ‘Exalted One of the Palace’.  When she died bearing his 14th child, his grief was as deep as the ocean; and so he resolved to build her a mausoleum that would be worthy of this love.  Six of their children died before reaching the age of four, another at the age of seven—and that is perhaps why Shah Jahan kept subjecting Mumtaz Mahal to pregnancy.  However, except for her first-born, the five children that followed all survived—and among them were Aurangzeb, Shah Shuja, Dara Shikoh, and the Emperor’s two famous daughters, Jahanara Begum and Roshnara Begum. One might quite easily put Mumtaz’s constant state of pregnancy down to “the times”: in predominantly agricultural societies, and certainly in pre-modern societies, it seems to have been common for women to bear a very large number of children.  One could also say that not enough was known about the perils of repeated pregnancy for women.  But considering that the first half of her flock survived infancy and early adolescence, and that three of Mumtaz’s children, before her last pregnancy, were to die in infancy, we must ask what kind of love Shah Jahan bore for Mumtaz. It may be that one conception of love for a woman demands of her that she be a child-producing machine, but whatever one’s opinion of the matter the received view of Shah Jahan’s unmatched love for Mumtaz requires some deliberation and reconsideration.

Mumtaz&ShahJahan

Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan:  A contemporary painting (2010) in the Mughal ‘miniature’ style.

However, it is not this kind of story that I have in mind when I advert to the rumors and legends that swirled around the Taj.  My father was the source of some of these stories about the Taj; but I also heard them from family friends, acquaintances, and others whose views I sought in my endeavor to be something of an ethnographer of Taj legends.  Two such stories I heard frequently. Shah Jahan, I was told, had apparently planned on having another Taj built for himself from across the white-domed splendor on the banks of the Yamuna, except that his mausoleum was going to be in black marble.  It had to be black, of course, or how else would one have a radiant symphony in black & white.  I didn’t ask where the black marble would have been mined:  the white marble in the Taj is quarried from Makrana in Rajasthan’s Nagour District.  But Aurangzeb, who waged an eventually successful battle to eliminate his brothers (and thus, some have said, almost certainly rewrote history) in the struggle over succession, had other plans for his father in his own quest for the Mughal throne.  And how common is black marble, anyhow? Common enough to build a Taj?

Another widely circulating story has Shah Jahan ordering the amputation of both arms of the architect of the Taj Mahal so that the building would never be replicated.  Often the same person who told me the first story would tell me the second story!  So, either Shah Jahan would have the Taj in black or no one else would have it:  such are the prerogatives of Emperors, something akin to the tantrums of children.  But surely Shah Jahan would have known that once you replicate the Taj, it is no longer the Taj.  Moreover, an armchair architect, as it were, could easily have presided over the construction of a second Taj, guiding junior architects and supervising the workers.  Accordingly, this story survives in variants:  one version has Shah Jahan directing that the architect be killed, while another version points to a more draconian expedient, the only one calculated to ensure that the rays of the sun would never fall upon another Taj Mahal:  all the 20,000 workers were, on completion of the Taj, blinded, maimed, or put to death.

Luckily, there is no archive contemporary to Shah Jahan to tell us the story of the Taj. Historians may lament this omission, but storytellers should rejoice.  Lovers should celebrate that we know little in concrete; if we knew more, it is not impossible that we might have the most pedestrian explanation for the Taj’s existence.  Who is to say that Shah Jahan might not have been a pre-modern Donald Trump:  the latter, in any case, has not been reticent in appropriating the legacy of the Taj, as we know from the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.  The architectural plans do not survive; almost nothing has been recorded about its construction. There is some discussion that the architect may have been European in origin: just as P N Oak held it impossible that any Muslim could have built anything so beautiful as the Taj Mahal, there are Europeans who have long held that it is inconceivable that any Indian could have built something so majestic. A Venetian architect has been mentioned in this connection.  Florentine influence has been detected in the pietra dura gemstones.

Whoever the architect, every visitor has been most impressed by the symmetry that the building and the complex presents to the naked eye; and some would perhaps have thought of these lines from Blake: “What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” Yet the story is not complete. Shah Jahan had placed the marble cenotaph beneath which Mumtaz’s body rests in the dead center, in open view from the outside; however, Aurangzeb, who otherwise left the Taj, placed the body of Shah Jahan next to that of his wife. Was Aurangzeb being the dutiful son, rendering homage to the father whose death he precipitated, by placing Shah Jahan alongside his dearly beloved wife? Or did he wish to ruin the perfect symmetry and trouble his father’s soul? Was this perhaps the most expeditious way that he could leave his mark on a wretched but ever so beautiful building? Or should we perhaps pay some credence to the “Hindu Brahmin” guide who told the New York Times reporter, Amy Waldman, that in Islam symmetry is reserved only for God and that Aurangzeb, “a fanatic Muslim”, was only doing his duty?

CenotaphOfMumtazMahal

The Cenotpah of Mumtaz Mahal at the Taj Mahal.

(To be continued)

See also:

Part I:  “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/

Part III:   Communalism and the Politics of the Taj Mahal

Part V:  A Political History of the Taj Mahal:  A Few Thoughts for Researchers