Emergency in India, Faux and Real

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On the night of June 25-26, forty-five years ago, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, acting at the behest of Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, imposed an emergency in India and suspended all civil liberties. Speaking to the country on the morning of the 26th from the studios of All India Radio, Mrs. Gandhi stated that the emergency had been necessitated by “the deep and widespread conspiracy which has been brewing ever since I began to introduce certain progressive measures of benefit to the common man and woman of India.” She warned that “forces of disintegration” and “communal passions” threatened to tear apart India and that she was impelled to act from the desire to preserve the country’s unity. “There is nothing to panic about”, she advised her fellow Indians, and, as if to assure them that the drastic step that had been taken to put the Constitution of India into abeyance was not being done to advance her own interests, she insisted that “this is not a personal matter” and that it “is not important whether I remain Prime Minister or not.”

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Mrs. Gandhi holds an election rally at Ramlila Grounds in Delhi, February 1977. Source: Indian Express.

 

Far more so than the democratic leader of a state, the despotic ruler likes to believe that he (or she, as in this case) only acts in the interest of the people. Two weeks earlier, acting on a petition filed by Mrs. Gandhi’s political opponent, Raj Narain, a judge of the Allahabad High Court delivered a judgment which unseated Mrs. Gandhi.  Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha declared her election to Parliament “null and void” on the grounds that she had engaged in corrupt election practices. Mrs. Gandhi stood convicted of two charges: the state government of Uttar Pradesh, which was very much in the hands of the Congress Party, had apparently built a stage which allowed her to address election meetings “from a dominating position”; and, secondly, that her election agent was in government service and was therefore barred from any political activity. That Mrs. Gandhi’s election could be set aside on what today would be deemed entirely frivolous charges, if they were noticed at all, is a testament not so much to the honesty and innocence of those days but rather to the steep decline in morals in public and political life.

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Justice Sinha gave Mrs. Gandhi leave to file an appeal to the Supreme Court within twenty days, and the Supreme Court convened for the first hearing on the 23rd; but before the Court could deliver its judgment, Mrs. Gandhi had already acted.  Her fall might have seemed inconceivable to many observers, considering that she was hailed for leading India to a decisive military victory over Pakistan in December 1971 and orchestrating the dismemberment of India’s arch enemy.  In May 1974, in an operation termed “Smiling Buddha”, India carried out a “peaceful nuclear explosion”—we shall pass without comment in the interest of brevity the politics of this twisted expression—and Mrs. Gandhi thereby signaled to the world India’s intention to become the hegemon in South Asia.

Nevertheless, in spite of Mrs. Gandhi’s popularity, India was restless. Almost thirty years into independence, the country remained desperately poor; the literacy rate for women in some districts was in the single digits. Growth had been agonizingly slow, yet the population continued to swell.  Some economists jibed at the country’s “Hindu rate of growth”:  the annual growth rate of the economy appeared to run in tandem with the birth rate. Milk, butter, sugar, cooking oil, and other essential items remained in short supply.  It was not uncommon even for middle-class people, let alone the poor, to have to wait in long lines for rations. Far too many people were beginning to ask: is this the freedom for which we dreamed and waged an anti-colonial struggle?

Though the Congress under Mohandas Gandhi, Nehru, and others had shepherded the country to freedom, allegiance to the party was beginning to wear off.  Opposition to the Congress had been fragmented, but by early 1974 the Gandhian socialist leader, Jayaprakash Narain, known to everyone as JP, was able to bring together students, peasants, workers, and intellectuals under the slogan of “Total Revolution”. A nationwide strike led by the union representing the employees of Indian Railways, the largest employer in the country, was doubtless interpreted by Mrs. Gandhi as an ominous sign of difficult days ahead for her.

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Jayaprakash Narain, known to the people as JP, addresses a rally.

What Mrs. Gandhi called an “emergency”, which would last until March 1977, was a deadly stab at democracy in action.  And democracy is a frightening prospect to despots, however they may be clothed. It was a fake emergency, nothing more than an odious attempt at rule by one person. The odd thing is that today, forty-five years later, India is doubtless facing a real and undeclared emergency that dwarfs the social, economic, and political problems that India faced at that time. The country has been brought to a condition of utter ruination by the ruling party and the middle-class elites that have sought to profit in every respect from their willing acquiescence to an economic and political program, now six years in the making, that rests on nothing else but power and personal gain.

It does the government no good to impute that its present problems are on account of the coronavirus pandemic.  Early last year, the country’s unemployment rate was the highest since 1974, and readers will recall that the government made every attempt to stop the publication of the data before the election.  The government need not have feared, as the election results showed.  Manufacturing has been in a slump for the last three years.  Car sales, a measure that the government uses to point to the growth of the middle class, were down by 35% at the end of 2018.  80 percent of the population, according to all available indices, still lives on the equivalent of $2 a day. The vast majority of the people still have little or no access to health care, even as the country prides itself on being the world’s pharmacist, and the concept of a social security net is virtually non-existent to the hundreds of millions of slum-dwellers, migrant laborers, and farmers.

As a democracy, India has languished.  Human rights advocates and political activists, even those whose adherence to nonviolence has been exemplary, have been hauled into jail on fraudulent charges. Various stratagems, including colonial-era pieces of legislation, have been deployed with intensity to harass, silence, and liquidate journalists and intellectuals who speak in the language of dissent. In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, India slipped a further two notches and now ranks a lowly 142, lower than even Myanmar which is ruled by a military junta. On the Democracy Index’s global ranking, India dropped 10 places to 51: that it maintains even something of a place as a “flawed democracy” has to do with the relatively smooth functioning of the election machinery, though the data shows the severe erosion of “civil liberties”.

The country’s foreign policy is an embarrassment.  Relations with China have been deteriorating and some days ago India got badly mauled at the contested border in Ladakh.  The government’s account of what happened has convinced not one individual, except for those who are clearly incapable of thinking for themselves and who shout themselves hoarse in pronouncing critics as “anti-national”. India is barely on speaking terms with Pakistan. Communication from both sides consists of taunts, insults, and vacuous displays of muscularity. Most tellingly, neighboring Nepal, an ally and friend for decades, and the only other country in the world with a shared Hindu heritage, has spurned India. In the most recent act of defiance to India’s exertion of its influence, Nepal’s Parliament voted unanimously just days ago to issue a new map which shows territory disputed with India within its own borders.

The coronavirus pandemic has greatly aggravated the country’s ills. Cases of infected people are rising exponentially.  There are stories aplenty, if people in the government will only listen, of hospitals closing their doors to Covid-19 infected patients and people being left to die. It will surprise no one that India’s vastly stretched and wholly inadequate medical care facilities are entirely unequal to the task at hand.  In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the government is still engaged in a relentless assault on critics, human rights activists, and dissenting intellectuals, as if it did not have the far more urgent and mightier task of making India a true and hospitable home to all of its residents (nagariks). One shudders to think what other powers the government might assume if it were to formally declare an emergency. In the midst of this undeclared emergency, I am tempted to think, with Albert Camus, that “the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”

First published on 26 June 2020 at abplive.in under a slightly different title, “Emergency in India, Fake and Real”.

Hindi translation published at abplive.in under the title “भारत में आपातकाल, नकली और असली”

 

 

 

Was Mohandas Gandhi a Racist?

Part II of The Desecration of a Statue:  Gandhi and Race

The desecration of Gandhi’s statue in Washington DC, it should be made clear, was no accident.  Those who vandalized Gandhi’s statue had anything but diplomacy in mind: if anything, we might say that they belong to the school of thought which holds that it is time to stop being diplomatic about Gandhi and to bare the truth about the supposed Mahatma.  A “new” narrative has been coming into shape about Gandhi over the course of the last ten years, one which is openly hostile to him and intent on exposing the venerated man for all his evils. (That it is not altogether new is not a subject that I can take up here: criticism of Gandhi in India dates back to at least the early 1920s, though it was not “race” that was in question then.) We have been told that Gandhi never fought for the working class, just as he never opposed caste; he was also, as some would have it, unspeakably cruel to his wife, neglected his own children while posing as the “Father of the Nation”, and should be held responsible for practically having handed over a large chunk of India to Muslims and therefore authoring the idea of Pakistan.  The intelligence of some of these critics can be discerned from the fact that they claim that Gandhi was also a friend of Hitler—this on the grounds that he addressed, which indeed he did, two letters to the Nazi leader which began with the salutation, “Dear Friend.”  There is not the slightest recognition here that Gandhi knew no enemies:  he recognized that he had political opponents, but the word “enemy” was not part of his vocabulary. Nor is there any understanding on their part that Gandhi was a firm believer in the idea that the spark of divinity resides in every human being: as I have written elsewhere, a man’s acts may be monstrous, but no man is a monster. This is one reason among many why he was a firm opponent of capital punishment, being of the view that it is given to no human being to take the life of another human being.  When he wrote to Hitler, he did so in the hope, not the expectation, that he might be able to make him see the desirability of abandoning the path of violence. He wrote to him for the same reason that Churchill, in a direct broadcast to the United States as late as 8 August 1939, declared that “If Herr Hitler does not make war, there will be no war.”  Gandhi may have been hopelessly naïve, but that is no crime.  British censors ensured that his letters never reached Hitler.

To all his previous sins, another one has come to the fore in very recent years: Gandhi was, it is said, a racist. Thus the vandalization of his statue during these “Black Lives Matter” protests, and similarly, as some readers might recall, the demand, ultimately conceded, for the removal of his statue from the Accra campus of the University of Ghana two years ago.  There is no question that Gandhi used the word “kaffir” on numerous occasions to refer to the black population of South Africa, and equally there is unimpeachable evidence that he was keen that the Indians should not be classified alongside black people.  It has also been argued, not incorrectly, that though he waged a struggle for the rights of Indians in South Africa, Gandhi did absolutely nothing to plead for black people or to seek to involve himself in their own struggle to gain some measure of rights and dignity in their own homeland.

The matter, however, is far from being as straightforward as Gandhi’s critics would have us believe, though I shall offer only the shortest rejoinder here since each point may be discussed at great length.  We may begin with the word “kaffir” which, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) usefully reminds us, has “since the mid 20th century been considered extremely offensive”.  It is noteworthy that the offensiveness of this usage is dated to the mid-20th century, or some three to four decades after Gandhi left South Africa.  What its usage was between 1890-1914 merits considerable exploration:  as the OED makes clear, it was also used widely to designate, apart from black people, non-Muslims and members of certain groups, among them the Xhosa and Nguni peoples.  Secondly, those who speak of “Indians” and “black” people in South Africa do so on the assumption, which is entirely erroneous, that these were monolithic communities. Not only Gandhi’s own record of the struggle, best embodied in his book Satyagraha in South Africa, but innumerable other documents offer incontrovertible evidence that the “Indian” community was itself deeply divided, and Gandhi had enough to do to bring some semblance of unity to Indians splintered along lines of religion, linguistic affiliation, caste, and profession.  His critics do not tell us which black people Gandhi was supposed to dialogue with, or appeal to, making it all the more necessary that we critically examine what is meant by the “black” community.  Thirdly, we do not have it on record that any black community ever approached Gandhi to involve him in their struggle, and Gandhi was altogether consistent in never taking up a community’s struggle unless he was asked for his help.  Fourthly, and rather strikingly, whatever we know of his attitudes towards black people comes from his own writings, and it is an indubitable fact that his writings have long been known to black South African leaders as well as the leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement to whom Gandhi was unquestionably the figure of greatest inspiration and indeed veneration.  They may have understood that Gandhi had outgrown his views, which is the argument commonly advanced in Gandhi’s defense; they also understood, which we have not, that Gandhi was his own best critic. And, fifthly, in this vein, we must be attentive to the critical praxis that Gandhi extended to the views that he advocated.  Whatever he did say might also be measured, as one instance, against the ethics of hospitality that he clearly and unequivocally offered to the Zulus when he led a large team of Indian volunteers to nurse the wounded Zulus when no white man was even willing to touch the African.

Nevertheless, for argument’s sake, let us grant his present adversaries their due and concede that Gandhi was a racist; indeed, let us go further than some of them, and let us suppose that he remained an unrepentant racist to the end of his life. But can one grant that he was not a racist like the slave trader, Edward Colston, whose statue was rolled over into Bristol Harbor?  I assume that is the case. Surely one can also grant that he was not a racist in the mold of Leopold II, or even someone in the mold of the militant white segregationists in Mississippi who did not hesitate to kill civil rights workers? Just what kind of racist was he, then, and just how did his racism harm others?  Is there any evidence whatsoever that might lead us to the conclusion that his racism instilled a hatred or dislike for black people among Indians in South Africa, or that black people in South Africa suffered in consequence of his racism?  Perhaps his critics should labor to make clear what they understand by “racism” as such, and whether they think, to pursue one line of inquiry, that racism and prejudice are the same thing? To be sure, one might have a prejudice about sex, or sexual orientation, but not about race; and so racism and prejudice are not quite synonymous:  if we refine the question, are racism and a prejudice about race the same thing?  Black people doubtless have some prejudices about white people, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to think of black people as racist.

There is, finally, this story that must be told.  In 1936, Gandhi was visited at his ashram by Howard Thurman, a prominent African American theologian, intellectual, and educator.  They had an intense conversation, recorded both in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi and in Thurman’s own autobiography, With Head and Heart (1979).  At the end of it, Gandhi told him:  “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”  His critics and the defacers of his statues should ask themselves if these are the words of a racist.

(concluded)

See also Part I, “What’s in a Statue?  The Downfall of Icons, and Lately, of Mohandas Gandhi

The two parts were published as one single albeit much shorter piece under the title of “The Desecration of a Statue: Gandhi and Race” on June 15, 2020, at abpliv.org. The original article can be accessed here.

What’s in a Statue?  The Downfall of Icons, and Lately of Mohandas Gandhi

First of two parts of The Desecration of a Statue:  Gandhi and Race

A month into the national civil uprising that has shaken the United States, the rage of common people, and doubtless their own sense of social justice, has led to many outcomes—some with precedent, some without, and some on a scale never witnessed before.  The looting of the first few days received outsized attention from the press and managed, in some respects, to divert attention from the much larger and well-organized nonviolent protests that were far more characteristic of the demonstrations precipitated by the brutal killing of George Floyd.

The United States entered about two weeks ago into a different phase of the struggle in the mode of the spectacular.  Statues of Confederate generals, often astride horses—for that is what generals did in those days—have been lassoed off their pedestals; other Confederate monuments have been defaced; and some have been removed by city or local authorities in the stealth of the night. These statues—most prominently of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, and Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia—have drawn the ire of protestors before, and the “Unite the Right” Rally of 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, became the occasion for a renewed demand for their removal as eternal symbols of the subjugation and humiliation of black people.  What could not be achieved before has evidently been achieved this year as reports continue to come in of the destruction, removal, and vandalization of these statues. But it is not only these symbols of the Confederacy, which itself dared the American Republic to extinguish slavery and struggled to retain “a way of life” whose justification was sought in the Bible, in history, in Social Darwinism, and simply in the pleasure and profit that some men derive from exploitation, that have been uprooted in the last fifteen to twenty days.

This time, the outrage of the protestors has found other targets, among them Christopher Columbus, with whom the whole sordid story of European genocide, slavery, and barbarism in the Americas commences. Statues of Columbus have been vandalized or removed in Virginia, Texas, New Jersey, and Minnesota, and others will surely fall or be removed in the days ahead.  What yet distinguishes even more the present outrage is that statues have been felled in other parts of the world.  The statue in Antwerp of the butcher of the Congo, King Leopold II of Belgium, who ran an area in central Africa that was 75 times the size of his native Belgium as his personal fiefdom, and whose henchmen may have orchestrated the death of around 10 million Africans, was set fire to and has since been removed.  In what is perhaps the most visceral display of the anger directed at the memorials which stand forth as testimony to the mass enslavement of Africans, the statue of the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, Britain, was toppled by protestors, rolled through the streets, and finally dumped into Bristol Harbor.  The protestors who toppled the statue had the good sense to tie its hands and feet—if only to signify the manner in which African slaves were caged, denied their freedom, bound to servitude, and literally rendered immobile during that long journey on the slave ship known as the Middle Passage.

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The statue of slave-trader Edward Colston being dumped into Bristol Harbor, England. Source: cnn.com

Much greater icons than Jefferson Davis or Robert Lee have taken a beating at the hands of protestors. The day before yesterday, protestors were thwarted in their attempt to bring down the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States whose face adorns the $20 bill.  On many previous occasions, Trump has declared his unqualified admiration for Jackson, though at least once the remarks of the present incumbent of the White House appeared to suggest that he thought that Jackson might still be alive!  Jackson’s notoriety among liberals stems principally, though not solely, from his policy—encapsulated in the Indian Removal Act of 28 May 1830—that led to the removal of the Cherokees to west of the Mississippi River, though he also enslaved hundreds of African Americans. This forced resettlement of thousands of Native Americans, known as the “Trail of Tears”, might be described as an act that was critical in sealing the fate of all American Indians, not only the Cherokees. Though some were critical of Jackson’s worldview even at the time, he himself remained thoroughly unrepentant:  as he put it in his second annual message to Congress, “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?”

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Protestors attempt to bring down the statue of Andrew Jackson at Lafayette Square, Washington, DC. Source: ABC News. The police intervened: 23 June 2020.

Whatever Jackson’s renown in the United States, which remains considerable, he cannot be viewed as a ‘world historical figure’ or even in the league of George Washington, the Republic’s first President and himself a slave-owner. If the desecration of Jackson’s statue is to be justified, it is not altogether clear by what logic statues of Washington or Jefferson might be spared; and if they are not to be spared, why stop with statues and not burn to the ground—or abandon it to the dogs and other feral creatures—the very capital of the country, since it takes its name after Washington himself.  The iconography of slavery is embedded into most institutions and artefacts of American society—it is present not merely in the Confederate flag, or in the sentimental expressions of gratitude for supposed Southern chivalry across the American landscape put up by the Daughters of the American Revolution, but is embedded in the very fabric of American life, present in the names of schools—as a little aside, I myself spent a little over one year after coming to the United States in 1976 at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia—colleges, universities, insurance companies, financial institutions, and countless number of towns and cities. Statues are only the outward, the most public and oracular, manifestations of what resides in the pores and sinews of American society.

But matters have now gone beyond Jefferson and Washington.  There is outrage in London, for instance, over the desecration of the statue of Winston Churchill, the war-time Prime Minister of Britain who came to be cast as the last man standing between barbarism and civilization. I have nothing to offer, he said, “but blood, sweat and tears”, and in politically conservative circles, and I suspect in some beyond that too, he is viewed with utter veneration as the gritty political leader who led Britain to a decisive triumph over Nazi Germany.  In anti-colonial circles, however, Churchill has long had an altogether different and even odious reputation as someone who was racist to the core. Just precisely how he was a racist is a question that must be treated with diligence, something not possible within the confines of this essay, but there is little doubt that he persistently adhered to the view that Africans and Indians, among others, were incapable of exercising responsible self-government. He was scarcely alone in holding to this view. Growing up in India, I came to learn of him as the obdurate and relentless foe of Indian independence, and as someone who despised Mohandas Gandhi: as he put it rather infamously, on the eve of the Indian leader’s negotiations with the Viceroy for Indian self-representation, it was “alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, an Inner Temple lawyer, now become a seditious fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” For many years, while being intensely troubled by Churchill’s outlook, I also marveled at his enviable command over the English language.

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Statue of Winston Churchill outside Parliament Square, London, 7 June 2020. Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8398909/Defiant-Black-Lives-Matter-protestor-says-desecrated-Churchills-statue.html. The masked BLM protestor who defaced it explains in a short video why he did so; the video is at the same source.

It is thus all the more ironical that even the statue of Mohandas Gandhi has not been spared.  The desecration of his statue in the American capital—paint was sprayed over it and it appears to have been partially defaced—will seem inexplicable, perhaps some form of collateral damage in the heat of the moment as protestors went from one site to another, to the hundreds of millions who know of him only as the architect of Indian freedom and as the principal exponent of the idea of nonviolent resistance.  Gandhi may have been reduced to a set of clichés, quotations adorned on mugs, T-shirts, posters, billboards, and car stickers, but it is instructive that among the many aphorisms attributed to him there is famously this one: “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”.  If I may use the anodyne language that characterizes the remarks of corporate managers, liberal politicians, and well-intentioned university administrators, most “good people” everywhere are bound to feel horrified that the statue of no lesser a person than the Mahatma, ‘the Great Soul’, should have been vandalized.  The American Ambassador to India, Ken Juster, seems to have been expressing precisely these sentiments when he tweeted with an Indian audience in mind, “So sorry to see the desecration of the Gandhi statue in Wash, DC. Please accept our sincere apologies.  Appalled as well by the horrific death of George Floyd & the awful violence & vandalism.”

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Gandhi’s statue in Washington, I might add, is no ordinary statue. It is not its aesthetic brilliance that distinguishes it, even as it is pleasing to the eye, but rather its location in the nation’s capital, a space reserved, with but a handful of exceptions, to commemorate the lives of those Americans who are deemed to have been decisive in shaping the nation’s history and endowing it with greatness.  Indeed, the placement of statues and memorials in Washington is no easy matter, subject to immense bureaucratic hurdles, and falls under the jurisdiction of the US Congress itself; and Ambassador Juster’s apology must be read not only as an expression of atonement for the country’s inability to safeguard the statue of a person associated the world over with the idea of nonviolence but as a necessary diplomatic gesture.

GandhiStatueWashingtonColdStorage

However, as I shall suggest in the forthcoming part, there is a more complex politics underlying the desecration of Gandhi’s statue, which has followed the path to which Gandhi himself has been confined by some:  cold storage.

(to be continued)

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

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

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

The National Imaginary: Patriots and the Virus in the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perils of Love and Dissent in a Lawless State:  The Ordeal of Harsh Mander

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Harsh Mander in his office at the Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi. Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar.  Source:  The Hindu Group.

Once upon a time, Harsh Mander was a member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).  His predecessors in the colonial-era Indian Civil Service were known as the ‘heaven-born’.  Then, in 2002, Gujarat was convulsed by hatred and orchestrated violence, and at least 1044 people—and more likely as many as 2000, according to the Concerned Citizens Tribunal as well as other independent investigative bodies—were killed, predominantly Muslims. More than 100,000, and perhaps twice as many, Muslims were displaced.  It is at this time that Mander resigned from the IAS, giving up what has long been one of the most coveted jobs in the country, and turned to a life of political and social activism. One might say that he had found his voice and his calling. Since those dark days in Gujarat nearly two decades ago, Mander has more than distinguished himself as a human rights activist, a tireless advocate of social justice, a friend sans pareil to the poor, the homeless, and the hungry, and as the very conscience of a nation that is now being undone by those who are utterly bereft of principles, compassion, and the ethical mores that make possible brotherhood and sisterhood.

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

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

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

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Deconstruction of an Icon of Resistance

(concluding part of 5 parts of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)

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Poster of Ambedkar outside Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, with the exhortation:  “Save the nation, Save the Constitution.”  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 23 January 2020.

As if Hinduism was not sufficiently offensive, repugnant to every person with only a modicum of moral sensibility and not altogether devoid of the notion of human dignity, India had to bear the oppressive burden of a faith that, whatever its history in other countries, further diminished the prospects of human freedom in that ancient land.  “Islam speaks of brotherhood”, and “everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste”, but, in truth, says Ambedkar, “Islam divides as inexorably as it binds” and it cannot but abide by a firm distinction between “Muslims and non-Muslims”.  The brotherhood it promises is “for Muslims only”, and for “those outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” But this is far from being its only offense in this respect, since the Muslim is also enjoined, by the terms of “Muslim Canon Law”, to withdraw his cooperation from non-Muslims if he should happen to live in a country that is not governed by his brethren.  Ambedkar is quite clear on this—grist for the mill for those Hindus who have long harbored a suspicion that the Indian Muslim’s loyalty to Islam precedes his or her loyalty to India.  What Ambedkar understood by the requirement of “Muslim Canon Law” may have been very different than what is understood by those who are content to insist that many Indian Muslims would rather cheer for the visiting Pakistani cricket team than for the Indian team, but the sense that the Muslim is disinclined to live under the jurisdiction of any religion other than Islam is pervasive.  Whether the Muslim is singularly alone in having such a disposition is however a question that is seldom posed.

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The Muslim Conqueror Comes “Singing a Hymn of Hate”

(Part 4 of 5 of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)

To understand further Ambedkar’s misgivings about Islam, we can profitably turn to his reading of the Indian past and the vexed question about the disappearance of Buddhism from the land of its birth.  Ambedkar agonized that Buddhism had not only “ceased to live in India but even the name of Buddha has gone out of memory of most Hindus.”  He does not, as modern scholars are wont to do, furnish a plethora of reasons to account for Buddhism’s disappearance:  the growing distance between the monks and the laity; the re-emergence of Hindu kingship and the shrinking patronage for Buddhist monasteries; the growing similarities between Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism; the spread of vegetarianism among Hindus; the Brahminization of Buddhism; the defeat of the Buddhists in debates with Shankaracharya; and so on.  We can surmise, given his learning, that Ambedkar was not unaware of some of the scholarly literature surrounding the disappearance of Buddhism from India, but the scholarly narrative on this question appears to have been of little interest to him. Ambedkar distinguishes between the decline and the fall of Buddhism, but he does not hide his punches:  “There can be no doubt that the fall of Buddhism in India was due to the invasions of the Musulmans.  Islam came out as the enemy of the ‘But’ [idol].”  Islam was destructive of Buddhism wherever it went, and Ambedkar quotes with approval the verdict of the British historian Vincent Smith:  “The furious massacre perpetrated in many places by Musalman invaders were more efficacious than Orthodox Hindu persecutions, and had a great deal to do with the disappearance of Buddhism in several provinces (of India).”  He anticipates the objection that Islam was hostile as much to Brahminism as it was to Buddhism, but this, far from falsifying the claim that the “sword of Islam” was responsible for the evisceration of Buddhism, only suggests that we need an interpretation that would render an account of the circumstances that permitted Brahminism but not Buddhism to survive “the onslaught of Islam.”

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The Ruins at Nalanda, in Bihar, India, the seat of a famous university and a large monastery that was destroyed in 1193 by the conqueror Bhaktiyar Khilji. This is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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