Gandhi’s Religion

Gandhi Jayanti, 2 October 2019

(First of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The subject of Gandhi’s “religion” has never been more important than at present when Hindu nationalism is sharply ascendant and Hindu pride is being championed as a necessary form of the reawakening of a long subjugated people.  The contemporary Hindu nationalist narrative also feeds on other propositions, among them the conceit that Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, the view that Hinduism is uniquely tolerant, the apprehension that Hinduism’s tolerance has historically rendered it vulnerable to more aggressive faiths, and the twin conviction that Indian civilization is fundamentally Hindu in its roots and that secularism is alien to India.

Gandhi would not have abided by much of this worldview.  Indeed, he would have been sharply critical of what is represented by Hindu nationalism, and therefore it becomes imperative to assess what he understood by Hinduism, what it meant for him to be a Hindu, the relationships that he forged with Muslims and Christians, and the centrality of Hindu-Muslim unity in his thinking. It is well to remember that Gandhi’s assassin felt justified in killing him partly on the grounds that Gandhi had betrayed the Hindu community.

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The more secular-minded have thought it fit, with some justification, to characterize his religion as manavta (humanity), manav seva (the service of humankind), or sarvodaya (the welfare of all).  But the fact remains that Gandhi often declared his belief in varnasrama dharma and he remained a devout Hindu.  The roots of Gandhi’s religious worldview and conduct must be located in the religious milieu from which he emerged and in which he was raised.  Gandhi’s predilection for the Vaishnavism of his household and the region was reflected later in his life, one might say, by his fondness for Narsi Mehta’s bhajans, most famously “Vaishnava Janato”, and Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas. His mother belonged to the Pranami sect which, if centered on Krishna worship, showed a remarkable ecumenism in also drawing upon the Quran and the Bible and multiple linguistic traditions.  But Jainism also left a deep impress upon Gandhi from the outset, and Gandhi drew upon all three traditions in his thinking about ahimsa and what Jains call anekanantavada, “the many-sidedness of perspective”.

Gandhi has himself said that he first acquired an understanding of textbook Hinduism in England. He first became familiar with the Gita, a work which would in time become his life-companion, in the English rendering of it by Edwin Arnold called “The Song Celestial”. The world of Christianity really opened itself up to him in South Africa: the Old Testament put him to sleep, but portions of the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, moved him deeply.  And it is in South Africa that he encountered a great many missionaries, who all came to the conclusion that it was impossible to convert Gandhi to Christianity since he was a much better Christian than any they had ever encountered.

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Gandhi had known Indian Muslims in South Africa and he addressed the question of Hindu-Muslim unity in Hind Swaraj (1909). Nevertheless, it was upon his return to India in 1915 and his immersion into Indian public life that made him gravitate to the view that the question of Hindu-Muslim unity was pivotal.  Indians, and most historians, have gravely misunderstood his advocacy of the Khilafat as an attempt by him to extract from Muslims in exchange their support for a ban on cow-slaughter. Rather, he had by this time, around 1920, come around to the position, radical then and now, that both the Hindu and the Muslim are incomplete without each other. This would remain one of the cornerstones of his religious belief.

In reflecting upon what endures from Gandhi’s lifelong and extremely rich understanding of the religious life, some principles stand out. First, in moving from the proposition that ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’, Gandhi sought to signal a certain inclusiveness and suggest that the core of ethical life is the quest for Truth.  A confirmed non-believer such as the social reformer Gora, who wrote a fascinating little book called An Atheist with Gandhi, could partake of Gandhi’s religious universe.  Secondly, he stood by the idea that no religious outlook was acceptable, no matter how venerable a text, until it passed the litmus test of one’s individual conscience.  He unequivocally rejected passages from the Ramacaritmanas and the Quran that he found unacceptable.

Thirdly, Gandhi firmly rejected the idea that there is any kind of hierarchy to religions.  This is one among several reasons why he was not sympathetic to the idea of conversion, even as he recognized the absolute right of an individual to her religion.  The individual who seeks to convert has an inadequate comprehension of his faith, and there is practically nothing that one religion has to offer which is not to be found in other religions. Fourthly, Gandhi believed strongly that the practitioner of a religion has a moral obligation to understand other faiths.  He was a strong advocate of the fellowship of religions, and he pioneered the prayer-meeting as a new form of intercommunal and intercultural samvad.  The Hindu should pray, Gandhi was to write, that he should become a better Hindu, that the Muslim and Christian should become a better Muslim and Christian, respectively; similarly, a Muslim should pray not that the Hindu should convert, but that the Hindu should be a better Hindu, the Muslim a better Muslim; and so on.

Finally, and most critically, Hinduism to Gandhi was a religion of mythos not of history.  He couldn’t care an iota whether Krishna had been a historical person and arguments about the historicity of Krishna or Ram not only left him wholly unimpressed, but he found them singularly unproductive and antithetical to everything that he understood by Hinduism. When we consider that the entire Ramjanmabhoomi movement has been predicated on demonstrating the historicity of Ram, we can see how far modern-day Hindu nationalists have drifted from the spirit of Hinduism.  They claim to be freeing the Anglicized and deracinated Hindus from the stranglehold of Western interpretations but nowhere is the colonized Hindu to be seen more clearly than in the figure of the Hindu nationalist.  Their Hinduism and Gandhi’s Hinduism have almost nothing in common.

(First published on 2 October 2019 in the Daily Mail newspaper in a slightly shorter version under the title, “Gandhi preached a unity of religions“.)

Readers can access at least fifteen other essays on Gandhi on this blog using the search function.  Some of those essays include the following:

The Imprint of a Man’s Life:  Visualizing Gandhi’s Biography” (27 Oct 2018)

Footloose and Fancy Free:  The Killers of Gandhi in Modern India” (2 Oct 2018)

“The Homeless Gandhi” (30 January 2018)

Vaishnava Janato:  Gandhi and Narsi Mehta’s Ideal of the ‘Perfect Person'” (25 February 2015)

 

 

 

 

The Phenomenon of Bhagat Singh

(September 28th marks the 112th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh.)

 

“This is the story of a phenomenon.”  So begins Christopher Isherwood’s famous and mesmerizing biography of Sri Ramakrishna.

Bhagat Singh is not just the name of a famous revolutionary whose flame flickered briefly before burning out.  Bhagat Singh is the name of a phenomenon.

It was the late 1920s and the name of Bhagat Singh was everywhere.  Gandhi burst upon the national scene in 1919 and had soon taken the country by storm.  He transformed the Congress into a mass organization, galvanized the country through the non-cooperation movement, and even, in some places in northern India, paralyzed the British administration. The Anglicized Jawaharlal Nehru, taken in as was everyone else by Gandhi, thought he had seen everything.  The Gandhi era of Indian history was well under way.

And then came Bhagat Singh, a young lad who had grown up in the Lyallpur district of Punjab under the shadow of revolution.  Several male members of the family, including his father and uncles, had been associated with the Ghadar Movement—or so it is told.  A sure sign of the canonical status occupied by Bhagat Singh in the Indian imaginary is the thick lore that circulates around him. One story has it that the young Bhagat was all of three years old when his father and a fellow sojourner in revolutionary politics found him digging in the field outside the family home.  When Bhagat was asked what he was planting, he replied:  “I am sowing guns, so that we will be able to get rid of the British.”

Another story, accepted by most biographers and given a prominent place in Bollywood films such as Rajkumar Santoshi’s Legend of Bhagat Singh, places the young Bhagat, now eleven years old, at the site of Jallianwala Bagh the day after General Dyer and his troops mowed down thousands of Indians and left at least 379 dead.  Bhagat collected, writes his biographer Hansraj Rabhar, “a thimbleful of soil which was coloured with the blood of martyrs” and applied some to his forehead while preserving the rest in a glass vial.  Some say that he took a vow to avenge this atrocity.

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Bhagat Singh at Jallianwala Bagh:  a scene from Rajkumar Santoshi’s film, “The Legend of Bhagat Singh”.

We can let the positivist-minded historians worry about whether these stories are apocryphal or not.  These stories have been critical in giving shape to a certain view of Bhagat Singh as a hero who was born and bred in the lap of revolution; but what has also determined the place of Bhagat Singh in the national imaginary is his densely rich albeit brief political career.  The arc of his political life takes us from his initial reverence for Gandhi to disenchantment when the Mahatma, after the outbreak of violence at Chauri Chaura in early 1922, called off the non-cooperation movement.  At Lahore’s National College, Bhagat Singh acquired another kind of political education, and soon thereafter he came to be associated closely with revolutionaries who had constituted themselves into the Hindustan Republican Association, later reborn, quite likely under the influence of Bhagat Singh, as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

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Bhagat Singh in jail, awaiting the execution of the sentence of capital punishment handed out at his trial in the Saunders murder case.

The death of the nationalist icon, the so-called “Lion of the Punjab” Lala Lajpat Rai, from wounds inflicted on him by the police at a demonstration in 1928 against the Simon Commission, which had been appointed to inquire into political conditions, enraged Bhagat Singh and his comrades. They hatched a plot to assassinate the Superintendent of Police, James Scott.  In a case of mistaken identity, they shot and killed John P. Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police.

The murder of Saunders, and there is no other word for it, raises, to say the least, difficult ethical questions that virtually no biographer has adequately addressed.  Writing some years later in his autobiography, Nehru had this to say:  “Bhagat Singh was not previously well known; he did not become popular because of an act of violence, an act of terrorism. Terrorists have flourished in India, off and on, for nearly thirty years, and at no time, except in the early days in Bengal, did any of them attain a fraction of that popularity which came to Bhagat Singh.”

Bhagat Singh had enlisted the help of Shivaram Rajguru, Sukhdev, and Chandrasekhar Azad.  They fled the crime scene.  To escape capture, Bhagat Singh cropped his hair and shaved his beard. He put on a fedora:  and so came into being the iconography of a political rebel.

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The following year, Bhagat Singh came up with the yet more dramatic idea of exploding a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly, but doing so in a manner that would not take the life of anyone. It has been argued, quite rightly, that Bhagat Singh and his comrades desired that they should be taken captive.  The idea was that the British would launch a prosecution, and that Bhagat Singh would find a stage to air publicly his grievances, and that of a nation, against British colonialism.

Bhagat Singh would have known that, with his action, he would be walking into the jaws of death. I would like to believe, however, that Bhagat Singh had had enough of killing.  Saunders may have been the instrument of colonial rule, and by that logic was as guilty as Scott; nevertheless, the wrong man had been killed. There may have been a Gandhi in that Bhagat Singh who threw a bomb with the express intention of not killing anyone.

Bhagat Singh must have learned something about how publicity can act as the oxygen of a nationalist movement; he doubtless also understood, from his study of nationalism, how Gandhi, Tilak, and many others had mastered the courtroom and turned that quintessential British space against the British themselves.  But there is something more profound at stake here:  If violence is inescapably present to the practitioner of nonviolence at every turn, we should also think of the nonviolence within some forms of violence that signals the reverence for life.

Bhagat Singh got his wish: though the many twists and turns in the story are interesting enough, they need not detain us, and it suffices to say that he went on trial for both the Assembly bombing and, later, the Saunders murder case.  Sukhdev, Rajguru, and Bhagat Singh were sentenced to death.  I have said that Nehru thought he had seen everything; but he had not, since, for a time, the popularity of Bhagat Singh appeared to exceed the popularity of Gandhi.  He found the popularity of Bhagat Singh “amazing”.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades went to the gallows, and the country went into mourning.

With Bhagat Singh’s death, the phenomenon of Bhagat Singh found a new, extended, and more complicated lease of life.  There are many troubling aspects to the appropriation of his legacy, none more so than the attempt by Hindu nationalists to claim him as their own.  Bhagat Singh was an atheist; he was also a committed communist; and, for someone his age, well-read in the extreme.  I suspect that he also understood well the difference between a nationalist and a patriot. We can be certain of one thing.  He was everything that the Hindu nationalists of today are not.

First published on September 28 at ABP News Network under the same title, here.

 

Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Street Protest

It is indubitably the case that the five-month long, and still continuing, protest in Hong Kong over China’s attempt to subvert the so-called ‘one nation two systems’ mode of governance and subvert democratic norms constitutes a comparatively new if still uncertain chapter in the global history of civil resistance.  The world has been rather slow in coming to a realization of the extraordinary implications of a movement that cannot really be associated with anyone who might be termed a widely accepted leader, is fundamentally hydra-headed or anarchic in impulse, and, notwithstanding both immense provocations from the state as well as occasional lapses into violence on the part of some demonstrators, has remained overwhelmingly nonviolent.

Hong Kong Protestors

By “anarchy” I signify not the absence of law and order but rather, as in the original meaning of the term, the radical devolution of power.  Though the outcome of this revolt cannot be predicted, its reverberations will be felt for years to come—and not only in Hong Kong or China.  The histories of nonviolent and civil resistance will have to add a hefty chapter to the existing narrative.  There are salutary lessons in this revolt for those who are seeking to find avenues to resist oppressive state measures, just as, I suspect, states everywhere are looking at what is transpiring in Hong Kong with fear and concern.  Their apprehension arises from China’s puzzling failure, as it appears to them, to have suppressed the revolt.  It is not that China balks at the brute exercise of power.  There is Tiananmen Square to remind rebels of the fate that is likely in store for them:  hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese were killed and disappeared in that crackdown. The Chinese have herded a million Muslims in the Xinjiang autonomous region into so-called “re-education” camps that critics are terming concentration camps.  China relentlessly hunts down dissenters, wherever they may be, and it has spared no effort in bullying other countries to hand over political asylum seekers. Whatever “Asian values” it may seem to embody in its better moments, few and far between these days, China is ruthless in its suppression of dissent and in its insistence on the imperative to maintain “law and order”.

The question why China has not acted decisively thus far in the suppression of the revolt in Hong Kong is of far more than academic importance.  The view of the economists is that China can ill-afford to antagonize other countries, particularly Western powers, at a time when the economic slowdown in China is pronounced. Hong Kong represents one of the world’s largest financial markets, with a stock exchange that is larger than London, and China may be astute in not wanting to do anything that jeopardizes its own stock markets. We need not elaborate on the ongoing war between China and the US over tariffs.  But economists are nothing if not reductionists, and it is certainly a fallacy to believe that rationality guides most economic conduct.

Another pervasive argument is that China has for decades wanted to position itself as a responsible world power and that it is hesitant to take steps that might undermine its credibility.  This kind of thinking emanates, not surprisingly, from the hubris of Western powers who somehow think that they have been models of “responsible” conduct.  The United States, of course, leads this pack of wolves—and to think that it supposes it has been a “responsible” world power!  If as a responsible power it has waged several illegal wars, raided countries, engineered coups to overthrow democratically elected governments, supported dictatorships, and sabotaged many international agreements, one can only speculate with trembling fear what it might do as an irresponsible power.  There may, perhaps, be something to the argument that rash action taken in Hong Kong could have adverse consequences for China’s bid to put to rest the long-standing rift with Taiwan and absorb it into the People’s Republic.

What if, however, China’s reluctance to take decisive steps to put a halt to the revolt in Hong Kong stems from the inability of the Chinese government to understand the nature of the resistance movement?  States know precisely how to counter violence, but nonviolent movements are known to baffle and disarm the opponent.  The present movement has its antecedents in the Umbrella Movement of 2014, which commenced with the demand for more transparent elections and throughout retained an essentially nonviolent character.  The protests of 2019 have already outlasted the previous demonstrations and are, in intensity, scope, and gravitas of an altogether different magnitude.  On a single Sunday afternoon last month, nearly two million people are said to have gathered in protest at the city’s Victoria Park.

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The protests began with opposition to an extradition bill but, in the preceding months, the demands have not only multiplied but have become diffused in the most unexpected ways.  The demonstrators have asked for fundamental reforms in how elections are conducted and in the democratic process as a whole.  They have also demanded amnesty for all political prisoners.  But, more unusually, they have also insisted that the large-scale protest on June 12, the day when the bill was scheduled for a second reading in the legislature, should not be characterized as a “riot”.  To some officials this may appear as a rather opaque demand, but it would be no surprise, for instance, to a student of colonialism who is well aware of the fact that the colonial state constantly endeavored to reduce political protests to ordinary crimes.

There is much else in the protests that has left the functionaries of the state clueless about how to tackle this rebellion and its “instigators”—that is, if there are instigators, since one of the more remarkable features of the movement is the fluid manner in which the organic impulse to demand and protect freedoms has been conjoined to grass-roots level organization and coordination.  The demonstrators have displayed astonishing ingenuity in responding to state provocations and have come up with an arsenal of innovative tactics to defang the repressive status apparatus. Tear gas canisters have been extinguished with water bottles; traffic cones have been used to snuff out the gas before it spreads.  Using elementary hand signaling systems, protestors have conveyed messages down long human supply chains to warn of impending police activity. All this is really, pardon the cliché, the tip of the iceberg:  what we have in Hong Kong is the semiotics of a new architecture of mass-scale nonviolent street protest.  Political rebels with ambitions to craft resistance movements built from the ground up would be well advised to give serious study to the Hong Kong protests.

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Protesters in Hong Kong have been using traffic cones to counter tear gas. (Photo on the left by Antony Dapiran; image (screengrab) on the right by Alex Hofford).  Source: https://observers.france24.com/en/20190805-hong-kong-traffic-cones-shield-against-tear-gas

The questions that emerge from this riveting demonstration of the power of the people would have been critically important at any time, but take on even greater significance at this unusual juncture of history.  Nearly all over the world, established as well as younger democracies are under assault.  Some would like to characterize the period as one of “strong men”:  Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Rody Duterte come to mind.  And then there is Xi Jinping, who has eliminated term limits for the President and effectively installed himself as President of the People’s Republic of China for life.  Xi has no use for Mao’s baggy trousers or worklike uniforms and dons himself in crisp suits, and could easily be confused with the tens of thousands of people who constitute the technocratic managerial elite.  He even fancies himself as some kind of intellectual successor to Mao, peddling “Xi Jinping Thought” to party faithfuls and school children.  (A previous generation of students of politics and philosophy might remember “Gonzalo Thought”, named after the supposed new theoretical construction of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism by Abimael Guzman [aka Chairman Gonzalo], the leader of the insurrectionary group Shining Path who has been serving a life sentence on charges of terrorism since 1992.) It is perhaps apt that the word ‘populism’ has been used to describe the political culture of our times, even if fewer commentators have paused to delineate the specific features of this populism. At this rate, there will be little left in a few years to distinguish between (most) democracies and authoritarian states.

The possibilities of dissent have, then, diminished greatly in most countries.  Earlier generations of nonviolent activists and civil resisters were able to deploy the media to great effect; publicity was their oxygen. It might even be argued that strategies such as those of “filling the jail”, whether in Gandhi’s India or Jim Crow South in the 1960s, were partly born out of the awareness that such actions were calculated to arouse the interest of the press. (One should be wary of abiding too readily by such a view, more particularly because the likes of Gandhi, King, James Lawson, Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, and too many others to recount in these struggles were rigorous critics of the notion of instrumental rationality.) The critic may point out that the media is, if anything, even more widely available to nonviolent activists today.  That is far from being the case:  the state everywhere has shown remarkable tenacity, will, and power to commandeer the media, in all its forms, to its own ends, and moreover in this era truth, which is intrinsically tied to notions of nonviolence, is the first casualty.  Hong Kong has gifted us not only a new architecture of street protest, the first one of its kind in the post-truth era, but also crucially alerted us to the fact that the question of dissent will be the paramount question of our times.

 

(This is a slightly modified form of the piece first published at ABP [abplive.in] September 14 as “Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Protest”.)

For a French translation of this article by Laura Beoschat, see this: http://laurabeoschat.fr/hong-kong-et-la-nouvelle-architecture-de-la-rue.html

For a Bengali translation of this article, click here.

For a Hindi translation of this article, click here.

The Assault on Public Universities and l’affaire Romila Thapar 

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There has been much outrage expressed, and quite rightly so, over the action taken some days ago by the administration at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to ask Professor Emerita Romila Thapar for her CV to determine if she was still fit to hold that distinguished title which was conferred on her more than 25 years ago.  JNU has, since its inception, easily been one the country’s leading universities; and Professor Thapar, one can say with even greater certitude, has added more lustre to JNU than nearly anyone else in the humanities and social sciences, and that too over the course of half a century, including the 21 years that she was on its faculty from 1970-91.  Professor Thapar is recognized the world over for her scholarship on ancient Indian history, having earned accolades that most academics can only dream of, but in India she has also had an outsized presence as a prolific public intellectual.

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As a Professor Emerita, Thapar receives no salary from the university:  though she may gain something from this affiliation, it is the university that stands to profit from a continuing association with one of India’s most widely recognized scholars.  Emeritus Professors are not typically “evaluated” once they have been accorded that honor, though the JNU administration claims, quite falsely, that leading American universities subject Emeritus Professors to such reviews.  It is transparent to everyone that Thapar is being subjected to such an ignominious demand to punish her for her principled and fearless critiques of the Hindu nationalists who have run the country since the last five years and whose minions have been installed in many of the country’s leading educational and research institutions.  The JNU administration, in its defense, has pointed out that other Emeritus Professors have likewise been asked to submit their CVs for review by a committee appointed by the Academic Council, but these new “regulations” were put into place just weeks ago.  It is, of course, wholly disingenuous of the administration to camouflage its intense dislike of Thapar with the pretense that she was not being singled out for retribution.

It should be wholly unnecessary to come to the defense of Professor Thapar.  One might have some intellectual differences with her, as the present writer does, but nothing can even remotely justify the utterly shameless and wretched conduct of the university administration. It would be a considerable understatement to say that JNU has seen better days.  Its decline in recent years, more precisely since the administration was packed with people who are virtually illiterates, insofar as they are wholly clueless about what constitutes a university and what makes for something called “the life of the mind”, has been precipitous.  It speaks volumes for the senility of those charged with the administration of the university that its Vice Chancellor two years ago suggested that a battle tank be placed on the campus to instill “love for the army” among its students.  Faculty are increasingly being treated as children, subjected to roll-calls and being marked for “attendance”. Those among the faculty who are known to be critical of the university administration, or who have expressed misgivings about the ominous directions into which the country is being taken, are having their petitions for leave to attend conferences or deliver lectures denied.

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While it would be idle to pretend that public institutions such as JNU were ever free of politics, or that patronage systems did not flourish under previous administrations, leading public universities today face threats unlike any witnessed in the past.  The culture of vindictiveness, openly on display in the insult to Professor Thapar, is deplorable just as it is alarming.  But far more is at stake than a petty meanness on the part of the administration, and it is instructive to understand what makes the university a different kind of battlefield in the attempt of the Indian government to stifle all intellectual dissent.  If the assaults on the freedom of speech and expression are being experienced in other domains—in the literary world, in the attempts to induce conformity and patriotism in the film industry, in the vicious trolling of those few journalists who have dared to adopt a critical stance—then one might what ask what makes the assaults on public universities even more objectionable?

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“When I hear the word culture,” the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany Joseph Goebbels is reported to have said, “I reach for my gun.”  (It is immaterial, I may add, whether the story is apocryphal; that Goebbels and his ilk were philistines is well-established.)  The contempt for intellectuals in the present Indian government runs very high, and those in public universities are especially vulnerable. What may be described as an unprecedented assault on universities such as JNU, which are all too easily seen (and accordingly punished) as bastions of “anti-national” activity, stems from something more than a virulent Hindu nationalism and the intolerance for dissent.  It is no surprise, for example, that the country’s educational administrators are people of intensely bureaucratic disposition and most often engineers and scientists by training, utterly lacking in humanistic education.  They reflect the values, too, of India’s burgeoning middle class, which generally sees education merely as an avenue to job procurement and as an investment that is likely to yield social and financial dividends, rather than as a social process leading to ethical thinking, self-reflexivity, intellectual growth, and an appetite for inquiry into the human condition.  It is not only the staff at Indian universities who do not understand what is meant by a “university”:  many of the administrators who run our universities, and who are willing to do the bidding of their political patrons, are singularly lacking in any understanding of the nature of intellectual work.  Thinking is alien to them.

What remains to be said at this juncture is that, whatever the sins of previous governments, and there are many, the present BJP-led government is driven by the ambition to gut the public university in India.  The two finest public universities in India, Delhi University and JNU, are being strangulated. The government is not unaware that public universities the world over have often been the sites of dissent, and l’affaire Romila Thapar, it is useful to recall, follows the strident and calumnious attacks three years ago on Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya for alleged anti-national activities. Though the administrators who run JNU will not say so openly, they evidently think that Professor Romila Thapar, who has brought more distinction to the study of Indian history than nearly any other historian, is also anti-national.  What could be more pathetic?  The decimation of public universities furnishes, as well, an opening to even greater privatization of higher education.  And what could be more desirable for a government that, notwithstanding all the noise about “swadeshi”, is openly in cahoots with the most self-aggrandizing capitalists that India has ever seen?  But that is another story.

(This is a very slightly modified version of what was published under the same title at ABP on 9 September 2019).

*History, the Nation-State, and Self-Liberation:  A Gandhian Reading of Kashmir

New Delhi, August 15, “Independence Day”

The “integration” of Kashmir into India, or what some (if a distinct minority) would call its annexation by the Indian nation-state, has been discussed largely from the legal, national security, policy, and geopolitical standpoints.  But what might a Gandhian reading of Kashmir look like?  The BJP claims that it is now freeing Kashmir from the stranglehold of a colonial-era politics and the Nehruvian dispensation which had no stomach for a truly manly politics.  The BJP is thus in the process of creating a narrative around the abrogation of Article 370, the removal of J & K’s “special status”, and the “opening up”—an expression that, in such contexts, has meant nothing more than asking for the abject surrender of a people to the regimes of neo-liberalization and rapacious “development”—of the state as the beginning of the “liberation” of Kashmir.

All of history is the constant struggle of people for liberation from forces of oppression.  We need a narrative of liberation different from that which has peddled by the BJP, which I shall frame in three fragments, to unfold the history of Kashmir and the possibilities of redemption for its people. Swami Vivekananda, in a long visit to the Valley in 1897, is said to have been anguished at seeing the desecration of images of Hindu gods and goddesses.  Bowing down before an image of Kali, Vivekananda asked in a distressed voice, “How could you let this happen, Mother?  Why did you permit this desecration?”  It is said that the Divine Mother said in response, “What is to you, Vivekananda, if the invader defiles my images?  Do you protect me?  Or do I protect you?”

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Vivekananda in Kashmir, 1897:  he is seated, 2nd to the left.

Secondly, it is an indubitable if deplorable fact that a considerable number of people, especially in north India, began to view Gandhi towards the end of his life as “The Father of Pakistan”.  Nathuram Godse was not alone in adopting this viewpoint: some others, too, saw him as the author of Pakistan and therefore willed Gandhi dead.  The BJP MP, Anil Saumitra, who recently put up a Facebook post declaring Gandhi the Father of Pakistan, is scarcely alone among his party colleagues in holding to these views.  “Since Pakistan was carved out of the silent blessings of Mahatma Gandhi, so he could be the rashtripita of Pakistan.”

But the designation of the “The Father of the Nation”, I would argue, is somewhat misleading for a wholly different reason.  No nationalist was such a staunch critic of the idea of the nation-state; and no one endeavored with such assiduousness as Gandhi to bring women into the orbit of public life and feminize politics. Long before society started expecting men to be nurturing, Gandhi was articulating a space for the view that men should remain men even as they should seek to bring out the feminine within them just as women should remain womanly but seek to bring out the best of the masculine within them.  The Mother in the “Father of the Nation” was doubtless more interesting than the Father in the “Father of the Nation” but in Modi’s India there is only contempt for such a view.

Thirdly, Gandhi’s little text of 1909, Hind Swaraj, must be recognized as the unofficial constitution of India.  Gopalkrishna Gokhale, held up by Gandhi as one of his gurus, was acutely embarrassed by this tract and was certain that it was destined for oblivion.  He advised Gandhi to dump it, but its author, as obdurate as ever, is famously on record as saying towards the end of his life that, barring a single word, he stood by everything he had written nearly 40 years ago.  Its subtitle, Indian Home Rule, has led most readers to read it as a tract for political emancipation from British rule.  But deeper reflection has led other readers to the awareness that Hind Swaraj argues for a more profound conception of liberation, a liberation that frees one from the baser instincts, gives one raj (rule) over one’s own self, and allows one to own up to notions of the self that we may otherwise be inclined to discard.

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Just how, then, do these fragments inform our understanding and move us closer to a long-term and not merely forced resolution of the conflict over Kashmir?  It is the Home Minister’s contention that now, post-Article 370, terrorism will cease and Kashmir will be set on the path to “development”.  But this is wholly delusory:  my three fragments on offer point, respectively, to the necessity of liberation from history, liberation from the idea of the nation-state, and liberation from a strangulating conception of the ‘self’.

The champions of Hindutva have imagined themselves as the liberators of Hinduism itself, but their understanding of Vivekananda, whom they hold up as an icon of muscular India, is as shallow as their understanding of everything else.  Hinduism can do very well without Golwalkar and Amit Shah:  Do I protect you, or do you protect me, the Divine Mother asks.  History is no guide here:  many imagine that we only have to sift ‘myth’ from ‘history’, then install a “true history”, but history shackles as much as it emancipates.  As Gandhi might have said, history takes care of itself.  India is no ordinary nation-state, even if the greatest and most pathetic desire of the present political administration is to turn it into one:  thus the obsessive fixation on Akhand Bharat, on the national flag, and on the national anthem.

There is no Hindu or even Indian “self” without the Muslim partaking in it.  Munshi Ganesh Lal, who visited Kashmir in 1846 and recorded his observations in ‘Tuhfa-i-Kashmir (“Wonders of Kashmir”), found little to distinguish even the Kashmiri Pandits from Muslims.  The world of Indian Islam is very different from the putatively authentic Islam of Arabia and west Asia. This is well understood in Pakistan, where, since at least the time of Zia-ul Haq, a rigorous attempt has been made to disown the indubitable fact that Islam in Pakistan belongs to the Indic world more so than it does to the world of West Asian Islam.  The purists in Pakistan have met their match in the ideologues of Hindutva in and outside the Indian state who would like a pure nation-state even if they understand how mouthing pieties about Indian pluralism and the glories of diversity is political correctness.  What is singular about Kashmir, then, is precisely this:  here we can see with clarity the impossibility of redemption until we have unshackled ourselves, as did Gandhi, from debilitating notions of history, an impoverished conception of the self, and the decrepit notion of the nation-state as the culmination of history.

First published at ABP Live as “History, the Nation-State, and Self-Liberation:  A Gandhian View of Kashmir” on 14 August 2019

 

 

*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

*How Democracies Wither:  The BJP’s Constitutional Coup d’état in Kashmir

“History, in one stroke,” declared the Indian Express on August 6th in a large headline extending across the width of the newspaper.  That, we may say, was an objective rendering of the decision taken by the BJP-led Government of India to remove the “special” status occupied by Jammu & Kashmir over the last seven decades and, in its own estimation, truly “integrate” it into the Union of India.  Though the word “historic” has been utterly trivialized in contemporary discourse, who can doubt, whatever the shade of one’s political views, that August 5th marks a “historic” or red-letter day in the history of the Republic?  But, on a less objective note, the lines from Hamlet may resonate strongly for some:  “Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes” (I.ii.256).

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A deed most foul has been done.  A veil has come down upon Kashmir, but it shall surely lift—even if there will be no suhaagraat, no night of consummation.  The country has been overwhelmed and, for the present, few understand, and even fewer are willing to accept, that a constitutional coup d’état has taken place in India.  The very idea of a constitutional coup will be foreign to those who are accustomed to thinking of a coup as the overthrow of a democratically elected government and, more likely, the imposition of a dictatorship or military rule.  Coups bring to mind tanks on streets, subterfuge, massive misinformation, and fallen heads—a nasty affair.  It has already been argued by the present government and its supporters that everything that was done by the Centre was within the parameters of the law and that Parliament has only exercised its sovereignty.  A bill was introduced to bifurcate the State of Jammu & Kashmir into two Union Territories, one (J & K) with a Legislative Assembly and one (Ladakh) without, and the bill was passed by the required majority both in the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha.  On this view, the BJP has, if anything, done everything within its power to affirm and even embellish the sovereignty of Parliament, and all talk of a “constitutional coup” should be construed as nonsense.

Let us, however, first consider only the circumstances—and not the legal conundrums—under which Kashmir was blanketed into such darkness that overnight a State of the Union was wiped out and ceased to exist as such.  Misinformation would be a mild word to describe how the Centre prepared for the coup by describing, in vaguely worded statements, some “terrorist” threats of which it had received information that compelled it to cancel, for the first time in living memory, the Amarnath Yatra, order tourists to leave the Valley, and move in more troops into what is already the most heavily fortified piece of territory in the world.  The word “terrorist” has, of course, become a license for the most egregious offenses—more often than not, by the state, and not merely in India.  The state has only to shout the word “terrorist” and everyone is expected to become compliant, submissive, and patriotic.

On late Sunday, August 4th, the government took the next steps necessary to pull off the constitutional coup.  In the stealth of the night, it placed democratically elected leaders under house arrest.  Then, in the hours following, it placed the Valley under lockdown.  All internet, mobile, and landline connections with Kashmir were snapped:  the reader might like to think of quarantine being imposed, not just on a mere few suspected of harboring a contagious disease, but on an entire population of some 12 million.  Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which imposes curbs on people assembling together and owes its origins, not surprisingly, to colonial-era legislation, was brought into effect.  Yet more troops were airlifted into Kashmir—as if there weren’t enough over the 600,000 or more Indian army soldiers, CRPF, and BSF who have already turned the state into a heavenly paradise for large-scale corruption, all of course overlooked in the name of “national security”.  This is, need it be said, exactly how a clandestine state operates—a state, in other words, that bears no responsibility to its citizens.

It would take the Home Minister to put the constitutional touches to the coup.  Much has been written in the last few days on whether the actions of the Centre will withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court.  It cannot be said that the present Supreme Court inspires much confidence in those who believe in democratic values and the unfettered reign of the “rule of law”. Since many others have commented on the legal questions, it will suffice to make only two points which touch on the question of what I have termed a constitutional coup d’état.  First, unlike other States or Union Territories to which J & K has been likened, for instance with respect to the question of restrictions on the sale of land or property to non-residents or “foreigners”, J & K is distinct in that its relationship to India is also and uniquely governed by the Instrument of Accession which Maharaja Hari Singh signed on 26 October 1947.  “Nothing in this Instrument shall be deemed to commit me”, states Article 7 of the Instrument signed by Hari Singh, “in any way to acceptance of any future constitution of India . . .”, by which it is meant in part that there is nothing which warrants the argument that J & K must necessarily be subject to the Constitution of India.

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Secondly, we must understand the sleight of hand by which the Home Minister was able to argue that it had followed the letter of the Constitution.  One particular provision (sec 3) of Article 370 makes possible an amendment, but it stipulates in no uncertain terms that “the recommendation of the Constituent Assembly of the State . . . shall be necessary before the President issues such a notification.”  The Constituent Assembly of the State of J & K, it should be noted, was dissolved—not merely adjourned—on 17 November 1956.  Thus the legislative body without which the President of India is not empowered to make a decision does not exist.  The Centre took upon itself to argue that, in lieu of the Constituent Assembly, the State Assembly of J & K could well serve the purpose—except that, rather conveniently, since J & K has been under Governor’s or Central Rule, it then devolved upon the Parliament of India, as the next highest sovereign body, to take the matter into its hands.  And so the constitutional coup was accomplished.

Constitutional coups are, if anything, more dangerous than the classic type of putsch where the dismissal of a government and “regime change”, or the replacement of one type of dictatorship by another, takes place in the open.  Even many who are critical of the BJP and its aggressive championing of Hindu supremacy, however much it may be disguised by platitudes about an “inclusive society”, or the utterly pedestrian and insincere slogan of “sabka saath sabka vikas sabka vishwas” (everyone’s support, everyone’s development, the trust of all), have been taken in by the coup effected by the Centre.  Indeed, it is possible to argue that the BJP is far from being the only party that was hostile to Articles 370 and 35(A), and students of Indian politics are well aware of the fact that many of the provisions of Article 370 had been hollowed out over the years.  J & K has also been under Governor’s rule on previous occasions.  (For all practical purposes, President’s Rule and Governor’s Rule are the same, except that, since many provisions of the Constitution of India were not applicable to J & K, the state was placed under Governor’s Rule.)  Why, then, some will argue, should a ruckus be made over the Centre’s arrogation to itself of the right to dismantle the State of Jammu & Kashmir, create two new “Union Territories”, and ensure that the Constitution of India applies to this state as much as it does to every other state of the Union?

What makes a constitutional coup far more dangerous in certain circumstances to the survival of a democracy than the common army-led putsch or dictatorship is the fact that it obscures the vital question of the relationship of means to ends.  However much the Centre may have felt justified in abrogating Articles 370 and 35(A), the fundamental question of the sovereignty of the people, on which the idea of a Republic rides, cannot be dodged.  The people of Kashmir were, needless to say, not consulted in the least; to the contrary, they have been isolated, much like hardened criminals who are placed in an isolation cell.  A democracy is also to be distinguished from other forms of government in its attentiveness to people and common citizens; in a different language, it is distinguished by its sensitivity to means.  It is all the more ironic that a constitutional coup d’état should have taken place in India, since it is difficult to think of anyone else in modern history who was more attentive to the question of means than Mohandas Gandhi, the so-called “Father of the Nation”. Gandhi went so far as to argue that it was enough that those who were in politics paid attention to the means.  The present government, on the other hand, is dedicated to the proposition that ends alone matter:  only the faint-hearted, the romantics, the idealists, and the effeminate think of means.  The constitutional coup effected by the BJP is yet another one of its orchestrated blows to eviscerate the memory and legacy of Mohandas Gandhi.

First published on 9 August by ABP, here:  https://www.abplive.in/blog/how-democracies-wither-the-bjps-constitutional-coup-detat-1050840