Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Resistance and Dissent’ Category

 

On 12 July 2017, the Deputy Editor of the Indian Express, Ms. Seema Chisthi, interviewed me at my residence in New Delhi on the lynchings in India and on the political situation in the country.  Excerpts from the interview were published in the Indian Express a few days later under the title, “What We See in India Today is the Difference Between Formal and Real Citizenship”.  The interview as published in the newspaper can be accessed here:  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/what-we-see-in-india-is-the-difference-between-formal-and-real-citizenship-historian-vinay-lal-ucla-professor-4755247/

What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the published excerpts.

In the light of the recent cases of lynchings in India, is there a shift in the way communal tension has been exploding on the surface from how it did in earlier decades?

Yes, there is. There is no doubt in my mind that the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that we have seen in the US or parts of Western Europe has repercussions in India, emboldening the advocates of Hindutva. The notion among some in India is that if Muslims, particularly in the so-called modern West, can be attacked, then we can do that too, we have the license to do that with impunity. In the US, I see many advocates of Hindutva who are now suggesting that the US, India and Israel form a natural alliance with one another as, in their worldview, these democracies are being “threatened” by forces of Islam and are under assault from radical Muslims. This certainly was not the international environment in the 1960s or 1970s. That’s at the macro level. It is not just the RSS or VHP but a slightly larger strand of Indian society that has become complicit in these attacks or lynchings that we see in India, exactly like in the US. There was a virulent white racism that was so pervasive that you did not need to have institutional membership in the KKK or John Birch Society, people were complicit in it without a formal association with white supremacist groups.

What is the kind of signal that a political dispensation like India has now send to the law enforcement machinery?

I think the problem is twofold. What do you do when the state becomes somewhat thuggish?  So, the people who are targeted are not just Muslims, but also Dalits and Africans. We should be attentive to it because there are groups of people whose very lives are at risk.  In all authoritarian states, signals are sent down to the people from the top. We don’t need to take the example of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s totalitarian state, you can turn to authoritarian states now where you can see very clearly, it is same attitude at the top, middle and bottom.  Once the masses imbibe the idea that the leadership will tolerate extreme intolerance, the oppressive attitude becomes pervasive. These problems are not distinct to India today, we see a similar repression and acute intolerance—think of the United States.  Similarly, Turkey is in dire straits. China, Russia, [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines… the list goes on. This could be attributed to what is being termed the ‘strongman’ phenomenon. But I feel the problem is much greater and we have to speak of ‘nationalism’.  What is happening today shows the limits of the nationalist project and what a disease nationalism can become in certain circumstances. Now this is very hard for the newly independent and formerly colonized countries to accept, which fought for freedom on the basis of the idea of nationalism; but wherever you had nationalist movements, you have had to rethink the nationalist idea. It has become the only kind of political community to which we all have to pay obeisance. What we see in India — and which is clear in a large number of other countries, especially US – is the difference between formal citizenship and real citizenship on the ground. In the US, African-Americans are for the most part only formal citizens without the rights of a citizen on the ground. This is the case for a large number of people in India.

So how does one un-thug the state?

It’s always a difficult question. We need to consider what are the sources of resistance in the society and there is a gamut of forms of resistance. We can take the view that one has to work with the institutions in the land, but such a position is clearly inadequate and I think India has mastered the subterfuge. That subterfuge is that India has, in most domains of life, the most progressive legislation in the world. So, in some ways, the progressive legislation obfuscates the nature of the problem and clouds it.  Let us recognize that the law cannot regulate my prejudices or feelings. But it can certainly do something to regulate prejudicial conduct, particularly when repercussions are extraordinarily severe for someone at the other end.  So we would certainly have to think of the rule of law, even as I am cautioning against viewing it as the solution to all our ills.  I would argue for a greater need for satyagraha as an instrument than which has a place in democracy. Especially where the law is sometimes used as an instrument for either doing nothing or installing new regimes of repression. As we are living in a democracy, at least pro forma, and we have a functioning court system, it is very important that what can be gained through satyagraha must be recognized.  Organised, non-violent civil resistance has a place. It need not follow exactly what Gandhi did.  We may have to, we certainly will have to, use satyagraha in different ways. This can’t just be done through social media or Facebook or Twitter — this needs people on the ground to build resistance. We need masses of people together, congregating in public spheres in opposition to injustice. It cannot be left to social media.

Are you optimistic about India today?

Yes, we must be clear that we should not let Hindutva forces hijack what we have. Unlike my friends on the Left-liberal end of the spectrum, I have great respect for the spiritual resources of the Indic civilisation, which includes aspects of the Indo-Islamic tradition which developed here, which was unprecedented.  Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism—all this is part of our legacy. We have had writers, philosophers, artists, and reformers who have reckoned with these questions for hundreds of years, and I am not ready to call all that inconsequential. So, yes, I am optimistic, on the whole.

 

Read Full Post »

   

A few months ago, Harsh Mander, who is one of India’s most committed activists, a staunch anti-communalist, a fearless advocate of human rights, and—if I may add a personal note—an old and trusted friend, wrote an opinion piece for the Indian Express which gave me pause for some thought. I have since had other moments to think about Mander’s piece, which is entitled “Unlike America”; its sub-heading more than adequately suggests the tenor of his argument: “In India, voices of public protest against hate-mongering targeting Muslims have been far too muted and infrequent.”  Mander is among the millions who throughout the world was filled with a “dark foreboding” after Donald J. Trump’s electoral triumph, and Trump’s reckless actions and pronouncements since his inauguration on January 20 would have done little to alleviate the deep misgivings about the American President that Mander like many others (myself included) have experienced.

Less than two weeks into his administration, Trump issued what became known as the “Muslim Ban”.  It is at this point, Mander suggests, that many Americans woke up to the unpleasant reality that they would have to live for at least four years with a Commander-in-Chief and President who is boorish, narcissistic, and habitually prone to lying.  Though Mander does not say so, Trump is fundamentally not merely uninterested in issues of social justice and equality but, to the contrary, a blatant example of the absolutely vacuous Ayn Rand school of thought which believes that man is born to self-aggrandizement.  (To my mind, the notion of Trump as a disciple, howsoever much he may detest the very idea considering his proclivity to think of himself only as a ‘winner’ and ‘leader’, of Ayn Rand has barely been noticed in the prolific public commentary.)  The “Muslim Ban” had just been issued before a court put a stay order on it; the revised version of the ban, issued days later, similarly did not survive judicial review.

But none of this is the subject matter of Mander’s article, which is rather on how, in the wake of the “Muslim Ban”, Americans rose to the occasion in a vivid demonstration of what has made America ‘great’ and a beacon of light to other countries.  Mander speaks approvingly and many would say justly of the “luminous, spontaneous public display of solidarity and empathy with the targeted Muslims by millions of ordinary Americans”, which to his mind is an affirmation of the fact that “a politics of hate, however powerful, can never triumph if people defy attempts to divide them with bigotry and fear.”  Moving towards the last third of his opinion piece, Mander thoughtfully asks whether in India good-natured and well-intentioned people have done enough to resist “the fear and animosity that has been systematically fostered against the Indian Muslim minority in the Modi era.”  Many Muslims in India view themselves as second-class citizens, and Mander poignantly inquires whether “Indian people have reached out to defend and reassure their Muslim neighbours in ways that many Americans have”.

It is doubtless true that within hours of the issue of the “Muslim Ban”, protestors came out on the streets of America to lodge their opposition against the xenophobic turn in the new administration and attempts to ‘secure’ America against supposed enemies of the state.  The country’s airports, especially, became sites of concerted resistance, and hundreds of immigrant attorneys offered their services pro bono to immigrants and refugees.  Elsewhere in the country, as Mander writes, what are called ‘faith leaders’ representing Christianity and Judaism also made it known that they would not abide by any executive orders or regulations that clearly target Muslims.  One cannot but agree with Mander that this apparent display of solidarity with Muslims has been admirable.

However, I am slightly discomforted by certain assumptions that underlie Mander’s claim, and would like to conjoin some general queries with the specifics of the politics of protest in the US and India by way of opening up a space for discussion.  First, there is the question that in the Indian liberal imagination, the US becomes the benchmark by which other countries are judged.  The US scarcely has any monopoly on what we might call the architecture of popular protest:  if anything, American streets see much less protest than do the streets in most other countries.  Of course, one can anticipate the rejoinder, namely that the street protests in, for example, Russia and Venezuela have been waged not on behalf of the rights of various other religious, racial, ethnic, or gendered others, but rather by ordinary citizens who feel their rights have been trampled upon or who seek to create a space for political dialogue.  By the same token, however, it is indubitably the fact that the United States is essentially and in its core an immigrant society.  The “Muslim Ban”, in other words, is not merely an issue with implications for Muslims, or even those, like Sikhs or brown-skinned people in general, who might be mistaken for Muslims.  If the Muslim is a metaphor for the immigrant, then effectively most Americans are Muslims. 

Thus, in this respect, the “Muslim Ban” can be described as something that is experienced viscerally as a ban upon every immigrant, or even ancestors of immigrants, which is the preponderant portion of the American population—as a rebuke, in other words, to every American.  Mander could have perhaps made a stronger case if he had advanced the view that the Muslim in India is similarly a part of the Indian self, a part of every Hindu, just as every Hindu is a part of every Muslim self, even if the gravitational pull of South Asian politics, particularly in Pakistan, over the last course of the last century has been to try to demarcate the Muslim as an altogether separate entity from the Hindu.

Secondly, as a corollary to the above argument, it is thus easier to understand why the politics of agitation in the US has not, generally speaking, extended to a great many other issues.  Trump’s “divisive politics”, as it is often termed, is unpleasant and even deeply offensive to many, but very few of the other equally odious measures that his administration has passed have given rise to mass demonstrations.  To take one illustration, the various pushbacks in the Trump administration against measures designed to safeguard the environment, and even his rejection of the Paris climate accord, have not led to anything like the kind of demonstrations that we have seen over the “Muslim Ban”, though the implications of his administration’s repudiation of the scientific consensus over climate change are far-reaching and in some respects dwarf many other pertinent social issues.  It may be that organization of resistance around climate change, which may seem something like an abstraction to some people, particularly in an affluent country such as the US, is no easy task.  But this only goes to suggest that there is, in some ways, a singularity of concern that the “Muslim Ban” is able to evoke.  Empathy, that is to say, is also selective. 

Thirdly, then, there is something anodyne in the observation that Mander has put forward when he writes, to quote him again, that “a politics of hate, however powerful, can never triumph if people defy attempts to divide them with bigotry and fear.”  My point here is not merely that “a politics of hate” does triumph all too often:  if this were not the case, mass murders, genocide, and the carefully managed orchestration of hatred would not be routine facts of history.  There may be, indeed there is, an ethical imperative to affirm, and affirm repeatedly, our capacity to overcome the politics of hate, bigotry, and fear.  But there is also the need to reckon with the fact that the “politics of hate” is not an isomorphic phenomenon but rather is inextricably intertwined with the brute facts of nationalism, class hierarchies, and ideologies of exclusion.

We are left, moreover, with other questions which hover in the background of Mander’s piece.  It was a mass movement of resistance, waged over three decades, which brought to an end colonial rule in India.  In the mid-1970s, again, a popular movement, which saw meetings and demonstrations in north India, put an end to the authoritarianism that had guided Mrs. Indira Gandhi.  In recent years, the issue of corruption has riled the middle class.  It is unnecessary, at this juncture, to probe the politics of protest over “corruption”.  Mander seeks to inquire:  why is it that the ill-treatment of Muslims does not similarly evoke the anger or an anxiety over injustice and bring the people of the streets to India?  It is not that the people of India will not take to the streets:  but why do they fail to do so in the case of palpable forms of injustice and discrimination against Muslims?  Mander has described the symptom, but not the disease.  Is the disease Hindu nationalism?  Is it a new-found adherence to the ideology of ‘each man to himself’?  Is it the collapse of some notion of a social commons?  Is it the decline of the ‘moral economy’?  Has some kind of zero-sum politics become the norm?  Even if Mander has not posed these questions, his piece should certainly be read as a necessary provocation to ponder over the profound malaise that has afflicted India.

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

(Second of two parts)

 

The story of the anti-apartheid struggle is not only one, or even mainly, of ‘great figures’.  Kally’s probing and incisive camera is sensitive to the transgressive moments that periodically signified that the enclosures that apartheid sought would be broken by those animated by the quest for equality and social justice or otherwise willing to take risks.  One of Kally’s most stunning photographs, which he has described as a “scoop at the time”, shows a dazzling Rose Bloom hand-in-hand with Syrub Singh as they leave the court after a bail hearing.  I am tempted to say that true love is almost always “forbidden”, but in South Africa the anti-miscegenation laws were particularly severe; moreover, the idea that a white woman, the holiest of the holies, might desire to marry a coloured man was absolute anathema to white society.  Ms. Bloom’s offense is compounded:  she wears a sari and has thus gone native or rather ‘Indian’.  Mr. Singh looks pleased as punch, though some might say that he is clearly smitten.

KB078 052

Syrub Singh and Rose Bloom emerging from the magistrate’s court after a bail hearing.  Photograph and Copyright:  Ranjith Kally

 

Others, of greater fame, too committed the sins of sexual transgression.  Those who know something of Miriam Makeba remember her marriages to trumpeter Hugh Masakela and the African-American activist Stokey Carmichael.  But the first of Miriam Makeba’s several marriages was to the balladeer Sonny Pillay—and Kally was there to capture those short-lived moments of tenderness even as the Indian community fumed. In his flat, where he had asked them over one evening, Kally recorded their “wonderful chemistry”:  Sonny looks over Miriam’s shoulder at a magazine or LP record sleeve, and the two are a picture of youthful love and exuberant joy.  Kally evidently spent many an evening at The Himalaya Hotel in Durban’s Casbah area, one of the few places in Natal where segregation was not rigidly enforced and blacks, whites, and coloured people mingled.  But Kally’s roving eye camera found the transgressive in other milieus, often far more dangerous. One of the resistance movement’s most iconic images must surely be the photograph that Kally took of Florence Mkhize, later to be known as “Mama Flo”, as she burnt her passbook during the Defiance Campaign.  Acts of resistance to the prescribed social and political order rarely led to anything but an unhappy ending.

 

What is remarkable about Kally is that he remained attuned to the vicissitudes and vagaries of the political over the course of several decades culminating in the end of apartheid.  What is just as striking in his large and still largely unknown body of work is his attentiveness to the quotidian or the everyday life of Indians in and around Durban.  But let it first be said that he was not alone in documenting their lives, as Riason Naidoo’s 2008 book, The Indian in Drum Magazine in the 1950s, unequivocally demonstrates.  Close to half a decade after the end of the indentured system, the greater majority of Indians still lived below the bread line.  The Drum photographer and Kally’s estimable contemporary, G. R. Naidoo, spent one afternoon in 1952 at the one-room shack of the Pillay family in Clairwood South to bring home some bare facts of life at the margins.  Pillay had many mouths to feed, apart from himself:  his wife, his mother, and his five daughters shared a grim existence where the next meal was remote from certainty.  In one photograph, Mr. Pillay is seen emerging from a storefront where a large sign reads, “No Vacancies.” The caption below the photograph states, “In spite of the sign outside Mr. Pillay tried for work.  They told him:  ‘Go away. Can’t you read?’”  The hard-working persistence of the Indian under-class would, in India, South Africa, and elsewhere in the Indian diaspora ironically earn them the epithet, “The Lazy Native”.

 

The question, then, is whether Kally’s lucid camera gaze inflects the quotidian with a different sensibility.  In one photograph, an Indian woman scrubs dishes outside a group of shacks; a very young girl, clutching a toddler, stands by her side.  In another picture, a woman and two young women scrub clothes in an open field.  These are pictures of poverty and they may be construed as ethnographic studies.  There is sometimes despair in his representations of Indian life yet it seldom overwhelms the viewer.  His 1957 photograph, “Children gotta work”, is illustrative of not only Kally’s approach to the grittiness of Indian life in Natal but of the self-reflexivity in much of his work.  Four Indian children, some unmistakably teenagers, are on their way to work in the fields.  Shovels are flung across their shoulders; two of them firmly grasp lunch boxes in their hands.  They walk barefooted in the morning light.  The photograph seems familiar, and why not?  It resonates with pictures of the Indian partition, where the columns of refugees were monstrously large, but there are also shades of the historic march of Indian miners from Natal to the Transvaal in 1913.  Workers on the move, the daily walk, the look of determination:  all this is part of the ensemble.

KB079 pg 055

An Indian woman scrubbing dishes, in a village on the outskirts of Durban.  Photograph copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

 

I didn’t know Kally well enough to aver that he was a man of sunny optimism, but his photographs nevertheless suggest an eye for the whimsical and a zest for life.  The whimsical touch is nowhere better captured than in his photograph of a boy with a large tortoise on his head.  The wide grin on the boy’s face reveals the unmistakable fun he is having in ferrying his slow-moving companion. I wonder if Kally–and the boy–knew that in Indian mythology, the tortoise carries the weight of the world on its back.  Tortoises can live well past 200 years: in a piece I wrote some years earlier, I looked back, whimsically, on the death 250 years later of the pet tortoise of Robert Clive, the conqueror of India.  Long after the sun set had set on the British empire, Adwaitya the tortoise was still there to help us reflect on the transience of what are touted as the great achievements of history.

KB088 000034

Boy with a Tortoise.  Copyright and Photograph:  Ranjith Kally.

In South Africa, as elsewhere, the emergence of the ‘modern woman’ in the 1950s was becoming a subject of much discussion.  Kally’s snapshot of “Miss Durban 1960”, which is very much done in the vein of the pin-up girl poster that was the mainstay of the soldier’s barracks or the bachelor’s pad, points to the total ease with which Rita Lazarus embraced a bathing suit and her comfort with her own body.  The photograph is inviting without being salacious.  But perhaps the boldest expression of this element of joie de vivre, conjoined with the whimsical, in Kally’s work is his photograph, from the late 1950s, which he called “The Big Bump”.  ‘Pumpy’ Naidoo, owner of Durban’s Goodwill Lounge, bounced into Springbok Radio announcer McKay one evening at the Durban City Hall:  the two men, both amply endowed at the waist, rubbed against each other.  Each seems to be saying, ‘My tummy is larger than yours, and all the better for it.’  Ranjith Kally, I am certain, would have wanted to be remembered as much for this photograph as for any other in his capacious body of work.

 

(Concluded)

 

[This second part was originally published in a slightly different version as “Kally’s captured works” on 19 June 2017 in The Mercury South Africa (p. 7).]

Read Full Post »

(First of two parts)

 

With the passing of Ranjith Kally in Johannesburg on June 6, apartheid-era photography has lost one of its stalwarts. From his appointment in 1956 as a photographer to Drum, a magazine which Bob Crisp and Jim Bailey launched in 1951 as a vehicle for the expression of black urban life, until his retirement in the mid-1980s, Ranjith Kally worked assiduously and yet creatively to furnish a record that is nearly without equal of the racial element in South African life and, just as importantly, of both the heroic and everyday transgressions of the insidious racial boundaries that make South Africa’s struggle against apartheid one of the most arresting chapters in the modern history of the triumph over oppressive adversity.  His sprawling oeuvre is a veritable library of what are now recognized as iconic snapshots of the principal political and artistic figures who brought the struggle in South Africa to the world’s attention.  But Kally was equally a chronicler of Indian life in and around Durban, working-class culture, the politics of the street, and the quotidian element in the social lives of South Africa’s black, colored, and Indian communities.  His camera was to become an object lesson in how one might begin to understand the extraordinariness of the ordinary.

rajith kally2

Ranjith Kally

Kally was born in 1925 in Isipingo, which lies just south of Durban and had been a ‘whites only’ area before it was reclassified as Indian.  His grandfather had been among those who had worked on the sugar plantations; his father, Kallicharan, was similarly born into this work, leaving for the fields at 3:30 am where he executed his duties as an overseer.  One of Kally’s earliest and most moving photographs is of his father poring over a Sanskrit text:  reproduced in Kally’s Memory Against Forgetting (2014), it conveys an impression of his father as a learned man rather than as a farm worker.  His father is foregrounded against a black sheet, which accentuates the early morning light; as Kally was to write, “I had wanted to use an old book which he would read often and this is the pose by which I’ve come to remember him.”

KB162 000006

Ranjith Kally’s father, Kallicharan, poring over a Sanskrit text.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

Kally walked the three kilometres along a dirt road to school every day.  Schooling among Indian and black school-children seldom extended beyond adolescence in his days, and Kally took a position in a shoe factory after finishing standard six.  Meanwhile, a Kodak Postcard camera, which Kally had picked up at a jumble sale, had spurred his interest in photography, and after a part-time stint at the Durban-based newspaper The Leader, Kally assumed a paid position with Drum and the Golden City Post.  Sometime, perhaps in the early 1950s, a photograph by Kally was selected in a competition sponsored by the Japanese firm Pentax for third prize among 150,000 entries.  (However, in an interview that Kally gave to my friend, the historian Goolam Vahed, on 9 February 2016, he placed this event in 1957; however, in the introduction to Memory against Forgetting, as well as in The Indian in Drum, by Riason Naidoo, the competition is described as having taken place in 1964.)

 

Kally’s first photographs of anti-apartheid figures would be taken in the late 1950s.  At a break during the Treason Trial in Pretoria in 1958, the young photojournalist saw his opportunity.  Among those on trial were Monty Naicker, a doctor who turned to trade union activism before assuming leadership of the Natal Indian Congress and offering the NIC’s cooperation in the Defiance Campaign.  Monty played a key role in making possible the close cooperation between Africans and Indians that would signal the solidarity that would mark the distinctiveness of the anti-apartheid movement.  In his photograph, Monty commands the center; a young Nelson Mandela and the communist leader Yusuf Dadoo are in the background.

KB032B pg 010

Monty Naicker at the Treason Trial, Pretoria, 1958; in the background, Nelson Nandela and Yusuf Dadoo.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

Monty remained among Kally’s favorite subjects, and he was one of the Indian political leaders who was featured regularly in Drum; but Kally’s proximity to the Indian community, and his own awareness of the political moment, led him to other Indians who were staunch advocates of racial solidarity.  A photograph from the 1970s shows the attorney Phyllis Naidoo who engineered the escape of many prominent anti-apartheid activists:  taken at her offices in Maseru after she had herself gone into exile, a pensive Naidoo reflects on her narrow escape from an assassination attempt.

Kally would capture, in a series of striking photographs, the travails of the Meer family.  In the early 1960s, Ismail Meer, then in detention, sought a portrait of his wife, Fatima, and their three young children to keep him company in his prison cell.  In Durban’s Botanical Gardens, Kally seated Shamin, Shehnaaz, and Rashid around their buoyant-looking mother.  There is no hint here of anxiety, fear, or the oppressiveness of racial terror.  Less than twenty years later, Kally would snap a photograph of Fatima Meer, a gigantic figure in the struggle in her own right, emerging from a courtroom with steely determination flanked by three lawyers who represented her as she sought to fight the repressive apparatus of the state.  Taken together, the two photographs do not only point to the passage of time:  writ large there is the tale, inter alia, of women assuming a place in the public sphere, the many guises of the political, and the little-discussed role of Indian Muslims in shaping secular narratives of freedom.

KB039_40 000013

However, for reasons that likely tell us something about Kally’s own political disposition, it is above all the figure of Albert Luthuli, the leader of the African National Congress, to which he was likely most drawn.  Kally was despatched to Groutville in 1961 when the news of the award of Nobel Peace Prize to Luthuli, who was under a banning order, was made public.  Kally photographed Luthuli against a rustic window frame, looking out at what is perhaps an uncertain future.  He is dressed in a workman’s overalls—rather apt, if we consider that he was a man of the people.  The frame tells its own story, of a man who had been framed by the state.  We may say that the framing device surfaces elsewhere in a different register, as in Kally’s photograph of a peace rally where a handful of men are holding aloft a huge photograph of Luthuli—a photograph also taken by Kally.  It is perhaps fitting that Kally concludes Memory Against Forgetting with a facial portrait of a smiling Luthuli who never stooped to the level of his opponent while reminding his readers that “as we celebrate freedom, we would do well to equally remember the legacy of the other great man of peace, Inkosi Albert John Luthuli.  While Madiba taught us how to forgive, Chief Luthuli first taught us how to love.”

KB013 04 to print

Chief Albert Luthuli:  photograph taken of him in Groutville after he had been informed of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally

Ranjith Kally was 91 years old when he passed away.

 

Note:  I met Ranjith Kally thrice on my second trip to South African in November 2015.  I was keen on doing an exhibition of some of his works and arranging for him to visit UCLA.  But, alas, I was too slow in moving things along. Kally was kind enough to share with me high resolution images of some of his work; the photographs here are all under copyright with him and his heirs.  This part first of my tribute was published in The Mercury South Africa as “Photographer’s oeuvre a vision of urban black life” (14 June 2017, p. 7).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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

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

SantTukaram

Sant Tukaram, in a popular representation

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

KabirWithDisciple1825

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

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

MukherjiLife-of-Medieval-Saints-North-wall-Hindi-Bhavan

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

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

 

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

 

 

Read Full Post »

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

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till
               -Bob Dylan, “The Death of Emmett Till” (from the Bootleg Series, Vol 9 [1962-64]

 

It was the summer of 1955, in Mississippi. The temperatures can rise to the high 90s, but this state had been burning for another reason.  The previous year, three young civil rights activists, who had been championing racial integration and attempting to register black voters, had disappeared.  Their bodies would be recovered from an earthen dam more than six weeks later.  The head of one of the Ku Klux Klan chapters in the state of Mississippi, who doubled as a preacher, was acquitted by an all-white jury that declared itself unable to convict ‘a man of God’.  Two of the three men were white, and the good old folks of Mississippi doubtless thought of them as race traitors; as for the one black men among them, James Chaney, the only good “Nigger” was a dead one—few white men doubted that.

Fourteen-year old Emmett Till, visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi from Chicago in the summer of 1955 would have been unaware of much of this.  On August 25th, he reportedly wolf-whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, a local beauty queen who ran a little provisions store.  Three days later, at 2 AM, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett Till from his uncle’s home.  They bludgeoned young Emmett’s body until his face was unrecognizable and then shot him dead; his mutilated body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River, from where it was recovered three days later.

EmmettTill&MamieTillMutilatedBody

The Mutilated Body of Emmett Till, with his mother, Mamie Till. Photograph by David Jackson. Copyright: Time Magazine.

EmmettTill

Emmett Till in 1955.

Once again, an all-white and all-male jury acted to preserve the interests of the white race.  Bryant and Milam were acquitted of the charge of murder; the grant jury that convened to discuss kidnapping charges against the two men refused to indict them.  In the town of Sumner, where the trial was held, visitors were greeted with the slogan, “A good place to raise a boy.”

MamieTill

Mamie Till at the Funeral of Her son, Emmett Till.  Copyright:  New York Times.

Months after the trial, Bryant and Milam confessed to the killing; their story appeared in the January 1956 issue of Look. But they could not be tried again, having been acquitted of that charge.  For their story, they received the tidy if not princely sum of $4000:  murder pays, literally.  Till might well have been forgotten, destined to become another statistic in the log book of white atrocities against black people, but for the fact that his mother, Mamie Till, took the bold step of having her son’s body displayed in an open coffin on September 3. Mourners recoiled at seeing Emmett’s horribly mutilated body; indeed, his body was in such an advanced stage of decomposition that he could only be identified by his initials on a ring on one of his fingers. Photographs of Emmett’s body were reproduced widely and appeared in hundreds of publications.  Mrs. Till, who died in 2003 at the age of 81, did not live long enough to see her son receive justice, but his killing is nevertheless said to have spurred on the civil rights movement.  Most histories of the Civil Rights Movement commence with Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, but Ms. Parks herself would go on record to say, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”  The most influential documentary ever filmed on the Civil Rights Movement, the epic Eyes on the Prize, would open with the story of Emmett Till.

The casket in which Emmett’s body was placed is now displayed in the Smithsonian’s new museum of African American history.  There have been many other developments in the story of Emmett Till:  early this year, Carolyn Bryant, whose whiteness and lies—an ugly pairing that has destroyed many lives, indeed been the undoing of entire cultures—sent Emmett to his ghastly death, confessed that Emmett had made no physical or verbal advances on her.  “That part’s not true”, she told the author of a new book on the Emmett Till case.  But even more recently, Emmett Till is back in the public consciousness, this time with a controversial painting by Dana Schutz entitled “Open Casket” that was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial last month.  Schutz has based her painting on photographs of Till’s body that were published in Jet, the Chicago Defender, and a number of other magazines at that time.  It is not her painting which is controversial as such; rather, according to a number of African American artists, the subject is not Schutz’s to claim.  She is white.

DianaSchutzOpenCasket

Diana Schutz, “Open Casket”, exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, March 2017.

The artist Parker Bright positioned himself, over successive days, in front of the painting, sometimes with friends and fellow artists, to block the view.  The words, “Black Death Spectacle”, were splashed across the back of the T-shirt that he was sporting.  A black British artist, in a letter written to the two Asian American curators of the show, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, called for the destruction of the painting, arguing that the rights to freedom of speech and expression are “not natural rights” and that Diana Schutz, whose works command considerable sums of money in the art market, stands to profit from Emmett Till’s death.  Schutz has declared that she never intended to sell the painting; in her defense, she admits that she cannot know what it is like to be “black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension.  Their pain is your pain.  My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”

DianaSchutzPaintingProtestAtWhitney

Protest before Diana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket”. Photograph: New York Times.

Schutz’s defense does not appear to be implausible, and we should in any case be prepared to believe her both when she says that she never intended to sell her painting and that, as a mother, she can empathize with Emmett Till’s mother.  History is, of course, a profligate narrative of people profiting from the suffering of others, and many others are guilty of much more onerous acts of commission; it isn’t absolutely clear, as well, why, had she intended to sell her painting, Schutz would have been guilty of anything more than bad taste and poor ethical judgment. We may ask why Schutz must be subjected to some imaginary litmus test. It is perhaps also a tad bit unfortunate she chose to summon the “holy” institution of motherhood in her defense: if one intends to elicit some support, the figure of the mother can always be called forth.  But, beyond all this, lie some questions that in their elemental simplicity take us to the heart of the debates surrounding the politics of representation.  Who speaks for whom? With what right? With what notion of entitlement? With what responsibilities? Does one have to earn one’s stripes in order to speak for another—provided that is what Schutz was seeking to do—and just exactly how does one earn these stripes?  Over the span of centuries, many of those whom we accept as voices of conscience have urged upon us the notion that if there is injustice anywhere in the world, it is always a threat to justice; if someone else is without freedom, I cannot be entirely free myself.  Freedom is indivisible—at least some part of us must hold on to this idea.  If there are others who are suffering, wherein is my ‘happiness’? If at all I feel this way, do I not partake of that suffering?

In every great social and anti-colonial movement of the last several decades, one common principle has persisted among various differences.  In the women’s movement, the most astute feminists welcomed the participation of men, but on the condition that women would furnish the lead.  The major anti-colonial movements of the 20th century did not disavow the support of sympathetic white liberals; but there was always the awareness that white men, even the best intentioned, often have a tendency to dominate if not hijack a movement.  Mohandas Gandhi never lacked English friends and sympathizers, in India and England alike; but they accepted the idea that they would support the freedom struggle from the side.  This seems to be an unimpeachable idea of social justice, one calculated to lead to a heightened appreciation of the dignity of the struggle itself; and these considerations, too, are not so far apart from the questions that have been raised by the black protest against Diana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s “open casket”.  Nevertheless, there is also something profoundly disturbing about the supposition that, as a white artist, the suffering of Emmett Till is not  hers to claim—at least not for purposes of representation.  If there are no “natural laws” that confer an automatic right to freedoms of speech and creative expression, surely there are no “natural rights” which would lead us to believe that blacks know blacks best, or that only women may speak for women?  It would be trivializing the issue if we took the examples of Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas to suggest the difficulties in supposing that racial solidarity trumps every other bond of fellow feeling.  But how long must we persist in the notion, which one would imagine has had its day (though of course one knows otherwise), that politics derives in the first instance from identity? Is the protest over Schutz’s painting anything really much more than this rather procrustean idea?

Read Full Post »

 

Ahmed Kathrada has been so much part of my life over such a long period that it is inconceivable that I could allow him to write his memoirs without me contributing something, even if only through a brief foreword.  Our stories have become so interwoven that the telling of one without the voice of the other being heard somewhere would have led to an incomplete narration.

  • Nelson Mandela, Foreword to the Memoirs of Ahmed Kathrada

 

KathradaWinnieNelsonSisulu

Ahmed Kathrada, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu

One afternoon around 12-13 years ago, I received a call from the office of the Dean of International Studies at UCLA inquiring if I had any interest in meeting Ahmed Kathrada.  I jumped at this rare opportunity. I don’t now recall what had brought Kathrada to Los Angeles, but he was in town on a short visit and the Dean’s office was desperately trying to find someone who could meet with him.  There seemed to be little awareness of Kathrada’s stature or the extraordinary place that he occupied in history.  But someone in the Dean’s office knew of my interest in the Indian diaspora and its variegated histories; perhaps some also knew of my long-standing interest in anti-colonial movements.  And so the privilege of taking Ahmed Kathrada to lunch was all mine.

Kathrada&NelsonMandela

Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada. Copyright: Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

The man whom I met was of gentle disposition, modest, and extremely well-spoken.  Many times after that meeting with him, I wish I had taken a tape recorder and sought his permission to record our conversation; but, then, at other times I have thought to myself that I did the right thing in just treasuring that moment.  How often Kathrada must have been recorded and surely many times he must have wished that he could speak without the slightest let or hindrance?  Ahmed Kathrada was ‘Kathy’ to his friends—and what friends they were:  Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Billy Nair, and many others who were among those convicted in the great Rivonia Trial and still others who had the privilege of being at the helm of leadership of the African National Congress (ANC).  Kathy, or “Uncle Kathy” as he came to be known later in life to his countrymen and women who adored him, was Witness Number 3 at the Rivonia Trial, following Witness Number 1 Nelson Mandela and Witness Number 2 Walter Sisulu.  Convicted like the others of organizing a “revolution” and “of the crime of conspiracy”, which Judge de Wet described as being “in essence one of high treason”, Kathrada was similarly sentenced to a term of life imprisonment with hard labor.  He would spend over 26 years behind bars, nearly 18 of them in the company of Nelson Mandela in Robben Island.

Born in 1929 on August 21 of Gujarati Muslim parents in Schweizer-Renke, a small town in northern South Africa, Kathrada moved to Johannesburg as a small child with his parents and entered political life in his late teens.  A fellow Gujarati by the name of Mohandas Gandhi had already left his mark on South African politics; but Gandhi, though he spent some twenty odd years in South Africa, eventually made his way back to India.  Kathrada was first and always a South African, deeply committed to the fundamental idea expressed in the Freedom Charter, namely that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”.  Kathrada served out his first prison sentence when he got picked up for his participation in the “Passive Campaign” organized by the South African Indian Congress in 1946 and for his opposition to legislation that restricted Asian land ownership.  In the early 1960s, after some in the ANC including Mandela had renounced their allegiance to nonviolence, Kathrada went underground and became part of the ANC’s armed wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”, or “MK”).  It is at Lilliesleaf, a ‘safe home’ in Rivonia, a northern suburb of Johannesburg, that Kathrada along with several others would be apprehended and indicated on charges of trying to overthrow the government.

FuneralOfAhmedKathrada

The State Funeral of Ahmed Kathrada in Johannesburg on 29 March 2017. Copyright: BBC.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”  These are the famous words with which Nelson Mandela commenced his ‘speech from the dock’ at the Rivonia Trial, which opened in April 1964.  They could easily have been said by Kathrada.  Much in that historic trial has been eclipsed by Mandela’s justly famous address; but Kathrada’s exchange with Dr. Percy Yutar, the lead prosecutor for the state, is no less compelling, not just as an illustration of court theatricals but also as a statement of the astuteness and moral courage of an auto-didact.  Time and again, Yutar sought to drive a wedge between Kathrada, an “Indian”, and his black comrades; but Kathrada dealt with him summarily, with an admirable firmness and probity of purpose.  Here is one exchange:

Yutar:  Were there any traitors among your own people, the Indian people?

AMK:   I suppose there are. There are traitors among all people, Indians, Jews, South Africans, Afrikaners, the lot.

Yutar:  And what are you going to do with the traitors, let’s deal just with your people, the Indian people?

AMK:  My Lord, when it comes to traitors, they are traitors.  Whatever colour they are, they are traitors.  I hope they will all be dealt with similarly.

And, on another occasion, when asked if he knew George Naicker and if he was a “co-religionist”, Kathrada replied:  “Co-religionist? He’s a Hindu and I’m a Moslem.”  And so followed this exchange:  “Oh yes, but an Indian?” “Yes. Two different religions.” “Billy Nair?” “I know Mr Billy Nair.” “Also an Indian?” “Also an Indian.” “Yes, and?” “And a human being.” “If you’re trying to be smart with me, I’m prepared to take it.” “I don’t know why you keep on saying co-religionist and Indian.”

Kathrada was far more than what Yutar, for all his legal expertise, could handle.  He was intent on establishing, with “evidence, documents and otherwise”, that Kathrada was “nothing else but a communist agitator”.  To this, Kathrada issued a scathing and yet matter-of-fact riposte:

AMK:  That’s your opinion.  I don’t know what you mean by a communist agitator.

Yutar:   That you are a member of the Communist Party and that your job is to agitate people to make them believe that they are oppressed and trying to incite them!

AMK:   My Lord, I thought we had solved this problem already.  We don’t have to make any non-Europeans believe that they are oppressed.  They know they are oppressed.

Much has been said in the obituaries that have been written of Kathrada of the last twenty-five years of his life that he spent as a free man in the continued service of South Africa.  He served as Counselor to President Nelson Mandela and took charge of the Robben Island Trust, escorting world leaders, among them Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, as much as school children to this prison that its famous inhabitants lovingly characterized as a University.  Shakespeare, as Ashwin Desai has shown in his remarkable book, flourished on Robben Island.  What, however, struck me most when I met Kathrada was the complete lack of rancor, the absence of the slightest note of bitterness at having been robbed of the best years of his life.   I suspect that this graciousness and magnanimous attitude derived from a set of circumstances, among them his long years of friendship and fellowship with the likes of Mandela and Sisulu, the example of Gandhi, and his adherence to Islam.  Kathrada remained resolutely secular to the end; but, though is something that secularists have a hard time comprehending, he derived his very secularism from his faith as a Muslim.

kathrada-mandela-and-clintons

Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela with the Clintons.

It is very likely, too, that in years to come Kathrada’s name will resonate as a striking example of what Indians and Africans working together in a spirit of fellowship can achieve.  Even as this is being written, I am ashamed to say, African students in India’s capital have been set upon by unruly groups of young men.  The conduct of most urban Indians towards Africans can only be described as execrable.  In Africa itself, the legacy of the Indian presence has been mixed at best; but all this is the subject for other commentaries.  In South Africa, at least, it cannot be doubted that Indians partook of the freedom struggle in equal measure as black people, even as the apartheid regime insistently and insidiously attempted to divide the population.  Kathrada unfailingly resisted these attempts and remained to the very end a resolute advocate of the idea of a multi-racial South Africa.  For this alone, he should be remembered as a colossus of both the struggle against apartheid and the effort to achieve a truly democratic South Africa.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »