Deconstruction of an Icon of Resistance

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


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.


In terms highly reminiscent of colonial writings, such as W. W. Hunter’s The Indian Musulmans (1876), Ambedkar suggests that the tendency to divide the world into two camps, Dar-ul-Islam (abode of Islam) and Dar-ul-Harb (abode of war), makes it impossible for the Muslim to think of India as the “common motherland of the Hindus and the Musulmans”—and certainly not one where both might live “as equals”.  There is something yet more disturbing in Ambedkar’s understanding of Indian Islam, which he views more critically and unfavorably than Islam elsewhere, as for example in Turkey.  One might have thought that Ambedkar might have found the world of Indian Islam more hospitable than its more austere and putatively “authentic” version in Arabia, but that is far from being the case since, to his mind, social reform movements succeeded in altering Islam for the better in some Islamic countries but certainly not in India. When Ambedkar revisits the Indian past, he does not do so from the standpoint of taking up the challenge, as the Congress-appointed Kanpur Riots Inquiry Committee (1931) did so in its extraordinary report, of seeking, and then affirming, the myriad ways in the convergence of Hindus and Muslims wrought a distinct Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis.  That the artistic and cultural achievements of the Indo-Persian and more broadly Indo-Islamic world taken as a whole constitute one of the glories of the world is not an idea that appears to have struck Ambedkar as being of any consequence.  What is equally conspicuous is his firm, even unbending allegiance to the idea that Hindu-Muslim unity is a mirage, and that nothing in the character, disposition, customs, and manners of Indians even remotely suggests that they ever strove for “unity” or “fusion”.

Barbarism upon barbarism:  that is the standpoint from which Ambedkar considers the encroachment of Islam in India. The insularity and stagnation that mark the history of Muslims in India become, in his narrative, yet another dead weight sitting atop that putrid mass called Hinduism. Ambedkar’s unsparing indictment of Hindu caste society is widely known and, at least according to the canons of liberal thought, largely acceptable. What appears not to be acknowledged is that he found even less in Indian Islam that he could commend to anyone else, and in Pakistan or the Partition of India he took it upon himself to nail the truth about the endemic “social stagnation” in which the Muslims of India were trapped.  Katherine Mayo’s notorious Mother India (1930), he notes, exposed the world to the “social evils” that had beset Hindu society, but the work had created the “unfortunate impression throughout the world that while the Hindus were groveling in the mud of these social evils and were conservative, the Muslims in India were free from them, and as compared to the Hindus, were a progressive people.” Ambedkar declares his astonishment that such an impression should prevail:  “One may well ask if there is any social evil which is found among the Hindus and is not found among the Muslims?”  To the contrary, he says, “the Muslims have all the social evils of the Hindus and something more”, adducing as an example “the compulsory system of purdah for Muslim women.”

One might go on in this vein, ad infinitum.  This may not seem like an opportune moment to deliver a critical reading of Ambedkar’s views of the history of Islam in India.  There has been reason to believe since Narendra Modi rose to power in 2014 that the ruling party over which he presides is committed to the project of turning India into a Hindu state (rashtra) and some Muslims undoubtedly fear that in such a state they may be reduced to second-class citizens.  The recent passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, against which the country has erupted in protests, gives not only Muslims but many others in India who recognize discrimination for what it is reason for grave alarm.  Moreover, Indian Muslims would be within reason to experience the assault upon them as emanating not only from the state but from a good number of their Hindu countrymen.  Dalits and Muslims have been the targets of roving mobs—and I say this with full awareness of how the very word “mob” has, at other times and at other places, also been deployed to minimize and even criminalize public gatherings—that, acting as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, have engaged in barbaric acts of public lynching.

One of the more distinctive aspects of the demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act, now in their third month, is that the protestors are everywhere seen holding aloft pictures of Ambedkar and often Gandhi.  The historian, novelist, and public commentator, Mukul Kesavan, observed that Gandhi is “missing” from these protests, since the radical satyagrahi has been turned into a “sarkari saint”.  He may have mis-read whether Gandhi is indeed missing from these protests, but that is another story:  what is more sustainable is his claim that “Ambedkar is, quite literally, the face of the movement”.  The gist of it is that Ambedkar is held in great regard not only by Dalits but by many Muslims and other Indians who are committed to notions of equality, social justice, and secularism.  Some readers of this essay may thus be tempted to rush to judgment, declaring it to be an affront to Ambedkar, an unnecessary provocation at such a juncture, and even as a source of solace to the “enemy”, and to them these questions may be posed:  Is there ever an “opportune moment” for inviting one to reflection, to a reconsideration of the received narrative, and to a quest for the truth?  What has brought us to our present state if not the fact that there has never been an opportune moment for subjecting Ambedkar to the same stringent critiques that he rightfully and unhesitatingly levelled at others?  Or should we in our “post-truth” times just resign ourselves to saying that there Ambedkar is the last “post” beyond which we may not pass?


Anti-CAA protests in solidarity with students at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, late December 2019.  Photo:  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar.  Source:  The Hindu.

See also Part I:  “The Centrality of ‘Religion’ in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar”, here.

Part II:  “Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a ‘Modern Religion’”, here.

Part III:  “Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past”, here.

Part IV:  “The Muslim Conqueror Comes ‘Singing a Hymn of Hate'”, here.

The five parts of this article together constitute a longer and slightly revised version of a piece first published as “Was Ambedkar Anti-Islamic?”, Open Magazine (27 December 2019), New Year’s Double Issue.  The article can be accessed here.

Readers are also invited to view my lecture on “Ambedkar and Religion” delivered at the Kerala Literary Festival, Kozikhode [Calicut], January 2020, here.

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.”


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.

Ambedkar did not advert to the “sword of Islam” thesis lightly.  The chapter of Revolution and Counter-Revolution in India from which his assessment is drawn speaks repeatedly of the Buddhist priesthood that “perished by the sword”, “the greatest disaster that befell the religion of Buddha in India.” Where the priesthood—“however detestable it may be,” adds Ambedkar—is put to death, the religion likewise perishes:  “The sword of Islam fell heavily upon the priestly class”, and no one remained “to keep the flame of Buddhism burning.” Nothing, absolutely nothing, in Ambedkar’s narrative offers an exculpation of the Brahmins:  indeed, he follows this up with a brief narrative detailing the persecution of Buddhists and Jains by Hindu kings. We see in this work, of uncertain date and left unfinished at the time of his death, intimations of the view that Ambedkar would press forth in Pakistan or the Partition of India (1940).  It in this book that the reader is offered the most sustained treatment that is to be found in Ambedkar’s writings of the Muslim demand for a homeland, the troubled history of Hindu-Muslim relations in the first decades of the 20th century, the impossibility of Muslim-Hindu unity, and, most significantly, what Ambedkar evidently took to be the impoverished worldview of Indian Muslims.  Disdainful as he was of everything that the Hindu stood for, Ambedkar could declare that “the Muslim alternative is really a frightful and dangerous alternative.”


The ruins of Nalanda and its library.

Strangely, though liberals and secularists, and others who style themselves progressives, have advocated for Ambedkar as the unflinching spokesperson for truth, they have been wholly reluctant to subject to critical scrutiny many of the emphatic pronouncements on Islamic history or the nature of the Indian past which line the pages of Pakistan or the Partition of India.  We may take an instance or two of these before moving, by way of a conclusion, to a brief assessment of some of his rather uncharitable if not merciless readings of Muslim character and the near impossibility of “social reform” among Indian Muslims.  “The Muslim invaders, no doubt,” writes Ambedkar, “came to India singing a hymn of hate against the Hindus.”  If a Hindu had advanced such an argument, he would indubitably have been branded a “communalist”, accused of reading communalism back into the Indian past.  What is that element of certainty that Ambedkar presumes will make the reader accede to his insistence—“no doubt”, he says—on the impossibility of any other reading of the design entertained by the Muslim invaders.  Was the Hindu especially earmarked for the hatred of the Muslim invader?  Did not the same Muslim invaders also kill Shias and destroy everything else that stood on their warpath?  Is Ambedkar unable to distinguish the politics of conquest from the politics of religion?  Do invaders act otherwise than how Muslims did when they came in search, as Hegel would have said, of India’s fabled wealth?  If the Muslim invaders “came to India singing a hymn of hate against the Hindus”, should we not simply resign ourselves to admitting, as the colonial state and its functionaries had been arguing all along, that the Indian past is one long record of bitter Hindu-Muslim animosity. Ambedkar seems almost to relish in this view: in another chapter, he characterizes Hindus and Musalmans as “not merely two classes or two sects” but as “two distinct species” who cannot be conjoined “in one bosom.”  Jinnah could have been speaking here; the same holds true of Savarkar.  Interestingly enough, British officials also described the immense gulf between Hindus and Muslims in their own inimitable fashion:  while the Hindu loved to worship the cow, the Muslim loved to eat it. Did Ambedkar think any differently?

The defender of Ambedkar is, at this juncture, likely to rush forward with the claim that he has been read “out of context” and that the passage in question has only been quoted in part.  But does the situation for the Muslim at all improve as Ambedkar further improvises on the deleterious consequences over the centuries of the Muslim invasions:  “But, they did not merely sing their hymn of hate and go back burning a few temples on the way.  That would have been a blessing.  They were not content with so negative a result.  They did a positive act, namely, to plant the seed of Islam.  Its growth is so thick in Northern India that the remnants of Hindu and Buddhist culture are just shrubs.”  Had they looted and plundered, it might well have been tolerable; it would even have been a “blessing”, since the structures of Indian society would have remained fundamentally unaltered. But the invaders were determined to plant their religion on alien soil.  India was not to be spared the zeal of the crusaders, whose every victory emboldened them to think that right corresponded to might.  That monstrous growth of Islam snuffed out Buddhism and left “remnants” only of Hindu culture in the north.

(to be continued)

See also Part I:  “The Centrality of ‘Religion’ in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar”, here.

Part II:  “Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a ‘Modern Religion'”, here.

Part III:  “Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past”, here.

The Centrality of “Religion” in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar

(in multiple parts)

Part I of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”


B. R. Ambedkar

“There is no doubt in my mind that in the majority of quarrels”, wrote a famous Indian, “the Hindus come out second best.  My own experience but confirms the opinion that the Mussulman [the everyday Hindustani world for Muslim] as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.”  These rather querulous words belong to Mohandas Gandhi, writing at the tail end of the Khilafat Movement at a difficult moment in the struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity, a subject which was to preoccupy Gandhi his entire adult life in India.  But they could just as easily have emanated from the pen of B. R. [Babasaheb] Ambedkar, whose withering critiques of caste Hindu society are now part of the commonsense of the liberal and secular Hindu worldview but whose views on Islam, and more specifically on the history of Muslims in India, have received little critical scrutiny.  Ambedkar would almost certainly have contested whether there is even such a thing as a “liberal and secular Hindu”, but let that pass:  what cannot, however, be doubted is that, beyond seeing Hindu-Muslim unity as a chimera, he was predisposed, and for good reasons, towards viewing nearly everything from the standpoint of the Dalits.  His observations at the First Round Table Conference in London, held between November 1930 and January 1931, are telling in this respect:  “The Depressed Classes welcomed the British as their deliverers from age-long tyranny and oppression by the orthodox Hindus.  They fought their battle against the Hindus, the Mussalmans and the Sikhs, and won for them this great Empire of India.”  The particular manner in which Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs are, without any fanfare, merely placed in apposition to each other points to Ambedkar’s own priorities and the historical and philosophical viewpoint from which he assessed the Indian past. He earmarked the Hindu as the eternal and mortal foe of the Dalits, their unrepentant and degenerate oppressor, but, for reasons that he would delve into here and there, he also found it difficult to embrace Sikhs and Muslims, religious minorities in India, as brothers bound together in a fellowship of suffering.

Ambedkar was a serious student of history and politics and one might reasonably suppose that the best way to apprehend his views on Indian Muslims is to wade through his voluminous writings. There is something to be said about such an approach, but the conceptual framework must stem, in the first instance, from two anterior considerations.  First, though it is not fashionable to speak of him in this vein, he was a man of intense religiosity. He is associated with his (to Hindus) infamous pronouncement that he had been born a Hindu but was not going to die as one. Though of course the fact of his conversion to Buddhism, to which I shall advert later, is well known his remark has often been interpreted as a sign of his disavowal of religion altogether.  Indeed, there have been many attempts to sequester him into the camp of Marxism, and there was much in Marx’s worldview that he admired.  However, his concern for the oppressed and his championing of the idea of equality do not suffice to turn him into a Marxist. What is rather more striking is Ambedkar’s lifelong quest for spiritual fulfillment, though here again this scarcely comports with the public view of him as the most trenchant critic of the institution of caste and as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. His statues in which the country is awash commonly depict him as a lawgiver, as the Moses of modern India, not as a figure of serenity or religious contemplation.


2500th Buddha Jayanti celebrations at Ambedkar Bhavan, New Delhi. From left are Mr. Shankranand Shashtri, Dr. Ambedkar (here, rather unusually, without spectacles), Mrs. Savita Ambedkar and Buddhist monks. Source:  Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.

Secondly, Ambedkar was not content to only abandon Hinduism, but found it necessary to embrace another religion. He found it impossible to think of a life of fulfillment, either for himself or his people, outside religion:  as he declared before his followers at a speech on 18 March 1956, “Without religion, our struggle will not survive.”  Later that year in October, just two months before his passing in December, he led some half a million Dalits on a mass conversion to Buddhism, or rather a neo-Buddhism which he termed Navayana, “The New Way”.  Scholars have been very much interested in how Ambedkar’s Buddhism differs from the more conventional understandings of Buddhism, but for the present purposes the more salient question are these:  Why did he convert at all?  And, when he did so, why did he not convert to Christianity, Sikhism, and even more so Islam?  What might have led him, considering the country’s circumstances, to embrace a religion that had but few followers in India and could not have offered the comfort or security of numbers?

The postcolonial scholar may object to representations of Ambedkar as someone who thought that life in India was wholly inconceivable without religion as a species of Orientalism, but Ambedkar was unequivocally clear about how religion had shaped him and the place it was destined to occupy in the liberation of Dalits.  “Character is more important than education”, he was to tell a gathering of Depressed Class youth at a Conference of Untouchable Railway Workers in February 1938, but what he adds thereafter is what is most instructive:  “It pains me to see youths growing indifferent to religion.  Religion is not an opium as it is held by some.  What good things I have in me or whatever have been the benefits of my education to society, I owe them to the religious feelings in me.  I want religion but I do not want hypocrisy in the name of religion.”

In passing, at least, it is impossible to escape the observation that, word to word, Ambedkar’s injunction to the young could have come from the mouth of Gandhi.  We know as well who is being targeted with these words:  “Religion is not an opium as it is held by some.”  There is a very considerable strand of work on Ambedkar that, uncomfortable as it is with his attachment to religion, laboriously struggles to locate his religiosity within the matrix of liberalism.  What is hereby obscured, to take one illustration, is the extent to which Ambedkar committed himself to the accoutrements of institutionalized religion.  He undertook a visit to Sri Lanka in 1950 with the express purpose of witnessing a Buddhist ceremonial:  as he explained at a public gathering, “Ceremonial is an important part of religion.  Whatever rationalists might say, ceremonial is a very essential thing in religion.” If the Buddha slayed ritual, and the rituals of the Vedas were odious to him, Ambedkar nonetheless saw the place of ritual in creating a community of sojourners even, I might say, a sense of citizenship that far exceeds liberalism’s staid if not platitudinous understanding of citizenship.  He crafted a set of rituals that would constitute the diksha ceremony for those seeking to enter the portals of Navayana.


First World Fellowship of Buddhists Conference, Sri Lanka, 1950, at which Dr. Ambedkar was present.  Photo Credit:  Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.

Ambedkar’s sense of what constitutes “religion” and what place it has in the struggle to achieve equality similarly did not permit him to place bhakti on the same footing as he might have placed Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity. This point cannot be underscored enough since the turn to bhakti has often been seen as the default move for those disenchanted by Brahminical Hinduism or otherwise left deeply disturbed by dogmas of upper caste norms and behavior.  Ambedkar may well have accepted some elements of the interpretive framework that has long dominated the common understanding of bhakti, such as the indifference of the great bhaktas to notions of respectability, their rejection of the idea that Brahmins were the repository of wisdom, and their disavowal of the authority of the Vedas, but he was far less certain of the emancipatory place that had been assigned to bhakti.  Ambedkar’s biographers have noted that his father was a member of the Kabir Panthis and Ambedkar’s own outlook is said to be imbued with the spirit of Kabir, who was equally dismissive of pandits and maulvis, Hindus and Muslims. The scathing missives that Kabir directed at believers startle with their candidness and frontal assault:

Qazi, what book are you lecturing on?

Yak yak yak, day and night . . .

If God wanted circumcision,

why didn’t you come out cut?

If circumcision makes you a Muslim,

what do you call your women? . . .

If putting on the thread makes you Brahmin,

what does the wife put on?

That Shudra’s touching your food, pandit

How can you eat it?

Hindu, Muslim—where did they come from?

Who started this road?

Look in your heart, send scouts:

where is heaven? [from the Bijak]


If all this quite likely went straight to Ambedkar’s heart, and his attitude towards Kabir bordered on reverence, he still could not see bhakti, not even the path laid out by Kabir, as offering a home to himself or to Dalits. What weighed on his mind was far more than the rejection of ceremonies and rituals in bhakti sects.  Caste had a way of insinuating itself into every institution and the tiniest pores of Indian society and Ambedkar did not see bhakti cults as immune from the poisonous contamination of caste.  Moreover, in view of the rather uncritical framework with which he viewed industrial and Enlightenment modernity, it is safe to say that he shared some of the critical perspective of late 19th century Indian nationalism with regards to the unsuitability of bhakti for a nation striving to become free and modern.  The novelist and intellectual Bankimcandra Chatterjee, no friend of Muslims, was quite certain that the excessive devotionalism of Hindus had enfeebled them and made them vulnerable to foreign domination.  Thus, in his Krsnacaritra, a treatise on Krishna, Bankim forcefully advanced the view that the salvation of Hindu India lay in jettisoning the Krishna who frolicked on the green with the gopis and danced with them under the dazzling light of a full moon and instead embracing the Krishna of the Mahabharata who had showed himself adept at modern statecraft and was full of political cunning.  Though Ambedkar would have had little use for ruminations on awakening the Hindu from his stupor, there can be no doubt that he viewed bhakti as incompatible with his idea of a religion that was modern, rational, and scientific in outlook.

The Fear of Dissent:  India’s New Colonial Masters


Protest in Assam against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed into law as Citizenship Amendment Act on 12 December 2019.  Source: Zee News.

There is almost nothing as fearful as a lawless state.  India is on the brink of being such a state, as the actions taken by the government to squash dissent against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) so clearly demonstrate.  It is not “lawless” in the sense of being a political despotism, “empty of law” as India’s former colonial rulers characterized the supposed state of the country before they took the reins in hand.  India is on the verge of being “lawless” in the more unsettling and insidious sense of falling into a system of political authoritarianism where law itself is deployed to subvert both the spirit of law and the rule of law.

Protests against the CAA first commenced in Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura among segments of the general population even before the law had come into force on December 12, and have in the last several days been spearheaded by students at universities across the country.  Many in the country have been shocked by the scenes of violence, captured in this age and day in scores of videos, that have turned universities into battlegrounds.


Demonstration at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.  (Photo Credits: @fotosbyshadab)

At least five people were killed in police firings in Assam.  The police deployed tear gas and lathi-charged students at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia, both institutions with a storied past.  Though not all the CCTV coverage has been analyzed, and there are conflicting accounts of what happened, this much is unequivocally clear:  hundreds of police barged into Jamia’s campus, wielding their lathis indiscriminately and seriously wounding dozens of students. They assaulted female and male students studying in the library.  The idea of learning, as opposed to mere job training, is so far from the minds of most of the anti-intellectuals who now occupy the positions of leadership in the BJP that it would be no exaggeration to suggest that universities are themselves something like alien territory for the present government.  The police acted, at Jamia and AMU, much as an invading army does. Perhaps the police and the politicians whose bidding they do were also venting their frustration at Muslims for exhibiting an interest in learning. Why else would a library be attacked, if not to convey a message to Muslim students that books are not meant for them?


No need for a caption:  the image is from the National Capital Region (NCR).

Jamia Millia was, it is important to note, founded in 1920 by faculty and students who defected from AMU.  Distressed at their university’s rather pro-British leanings, they decided to heed Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation and the intellectual awakening of India.  Sarojini Naidu was to say of the Indian nationalist Muslims who created the university that they built it up “stone by stone and sacrifice by sacrifice”, but the autocrats who now run the country cannot be expected to know all this.  They don’t read books, and would rather see libraries vandalized and universities become factories for producing a docile labour force.  It is evidently enough for the Home Minister and his underlings to know that AMU and Jamia are predominantly Muslim universities, which immediately makes the students and faculty at these universities suspect and a fifth column acting on behalf of Pakistan.


Scenes from the violence and police attack at Jamia Millia Islamia. A video of two young female students shielding a reporter from assault by the cops went viral:  See

The present Indian government is of the view that all Indian Muslims are anti-national, though not all anti-national people are Muslims: intellectuals, Naxalites, political dissenters, critics of the state, and especially Nehruvian-style secularists are all anti-nationals, too.  The Prime Minister talks of brotherhood but shares kinship only with hard-core Hindu nationalists.  His bear hug is intended only for foreign leaders, not for most fellow Indians and certainly not for those who do not meet his criteria of the true nationalist Indian subject.  He has mastered the art of clichés:  just how hollow “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas” sounds is apparent to everyone but the author of this slogan, especially now that he has, after the commencement of his second term as Prime Minister, bared his fangs.

Whether it is the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, or, to take an illustration, the junior Railway Minister, who has said that the only fitting reply of the government to demonstrators found destroying railway property is to “shoot them at sight”, the response of those presently in power to dissenting opinions is utterly predictable and follows a set pattern.  The particularities of a demonstration directed at the state matter little, since there is already in place a vocabulary for dealing with such contingencies, though, as dissent grows and the authoritarian state hardens, the knives are sharpened and the vocabulary fattened.

One element of this vocabulary of the suppression of dissent is to condemn the “fear psychosis” allegedly being created by anti-social elements, rumor mongers, and the “opposition”.  But the key elementary step is that protestors must at once be branded as “anti-social”:  this has been a feature of the Indian political landscape for decades, indeed dates back even to the colonial period, and the BJP gets no credit for inventing the term.  However, with the spectacular rise to power of the BJP with the electoral victory of 2014, the term “anti-national” was added and quickly came into vogue, becoming the favorite of the internet trolls who constitute a large unpaid cyber military force for the BJP.  Lately, “anti-national” has been embellished with the notion of the “urban naxal”, the supposed city-bred intellectual who sympathizes with Pakistanis, terrorists, and Maoists and is cut off from “real Indians”, but cleverly poses as a social worker, human rights activist, or liberal intellectual.  Now that the protests have spread to other universities and beyond, the Prime Minister not surprisingly had to fall back on this vocabulary, and at his Jharkhand rally held “urban naxals” responsible for the violence.

There can be no doubt, of course, that “the opposition” has something to gain from the current protests. No one has said that the Congress or the other parties which belong to that ragtag group called the “opposition” are models of anything remotely resembling innocence.  Similarly, one must condemn the violence and the destruction of public property. But none of this should obscure some fundamental issues that have come to the fore in the present demonstrations.  First, though many of the protestors have wholly legitimate differences with the government over the Citizenship Amendment Act, the issue now goes beyond the CAA and also has to do with the very right to voice dissenting opinions.  The demonstrations, taken as a whole, have been largely peaceful; the police resort to violence has been wholly disproportionate.

Secondly, it is absurd to suggest that the protests have all been instigated by “the opposition” or “outsiders”.  This supposes that ordinary people who are troubled by unjust laws, rank discrimination, police brutality, brute state force, or other exhibitions of inequality or the relegation of some people to second-class citizenship or worse are incapable of acting on their volition.  The absolutely deplorable idea of attributing all dissent to “outsiders” or “instigators” is the gravest insult to people’s own autonomy and sense of justice, and it suggests the deep-seated fear of dissent among the country’s present set of rulers.

Thirdly, in everything that has been done by the present government, Indians are being reminded that the country has a new set of colonial masters.  Once upon a time, a highly placed functionary of the state condemned the protests organized by people against an unjust act as “puerile demonstrations”, indicative of “how easily the ignorant and credulous people, not one in a thousand of whom knows anything of the measure, can be misled.”  The agitators, he warned, “have a day of reckoning in store for them.” These words could easily have been spoken by our Prime Minister; certainly the substance of them is found in nearly all his pronouncements upon dissenters.  But the words belong to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, who days later, one hundred years ago, would approve of the massacre committed by General Dyer at the Jallianwala Bagh.  Political dissenters in India must be forewarned of the “day of reckoning [that] is in store for them” under the present political dispensation.

[First published under the same title at, here.]

[Translated into Hindi as नागरिकता संशोधन कानून के विरोध में उठती आवाज और पुलिसिया कार्रवाई, available by clicking here.]


Belated Recognition for a Genocide:  The Armenian Holocaust

In the midst of the noise and clamor, and—in the jargon of the day—“bitter partisan divide” generated by the imminent impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, people may be forgiven if they have overlooked the fact that, more than 100 years after the Turks set themselves the task of engaging in the mass murder of Armenians, the United States Senate on Thursday voted unanimously to recognize the Armenian Genocide.  One cannot simply ascribe the inordinate delay in acknowledging the brute fact of the Armenian Genocide to amnesia, since Armenians have been especially vigilant in drawing the world’s attention to what has sometimes been termed the “first holocaust” of the 20th century.  Nevertheless, Armenians have also had to live with the fact that the world has often chosen to overlook the genocide that was directed at them.


Cover of the massive compendium put together by Richard Diiran Kloian (1980), and distributed by Armenian Commemorative Committee of San Francisco Bay Area.  Collection: V. Lal.  The following three images are drawn from the same source.

It may well be a cliché to invoke Hitler’s chilling observations on the Armenian Genocide, but they remain as disturbing now as they were when he issued a statement on 22 August 1939 in anticipation of his plan to attack Poland. His war aim, Hitler said, was not merely to break the barriers of defense and, together with Stalin, to carve up the world between the two of them, but to aim at “the physical destruction of the enemy.”  His death squads had orders “to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language.  Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need.  Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians? [emphasis added].

Who, indeed, would have heard of the annihilation of gypsies, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, Slavs, and many others that the Nazis deemed deviants and worthy only of extermination if the Third Reich had triumphed?  Perhaps that may have been, in those circumstances, the fate, too, of Jews—six million in all. And yet, in those twists that history is forever heir to, the very word “genocide” appears to have arisen, we may say, in consequence of Hitler’s observation.  It was the Polish Jew Ralph Lemkin, who made his way out of Warsaw—five days after the beginning of the German onslaught—to Lithuania and then to Stockholm, before leaving two years later for the United States, who coined the word. “I became interested in genocide”, he was to say some years later in a television interview, “because it happened so many times.  It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”


The US Senate’s first explicit acknowledgment of Armenian Genocide comes after decades of such similar attempts, all foiled on the pretext that American foreign policy objectives would not be served well by antagonizing Ankara. Even the present action by the Senate came in the teeth of determined opposition from the White House, which has described even such symbolic recognition as the Senate vote offers to the Armenian people as inimical to American national interest. We may put aside, as a matter of greater interest to those who feed on the nitty-gritty of realpolitik, the question of how the tangled foreign policy objectives of both Turkey and the United States impinge on the question of recognition of the Armenian Genocide.  What is rather more germane is that Turkey has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that the killings amount to genocide.  Turkey does not deny that some killings of Armenians occurred at the hands of the Ottoman military, but it disputes both the alleged scale of the atrocities—estimates of those killed vary, from 600,000 to 1.7 million, with most scholars settled upon something in the vicinity of a million deaths—and the supposition that the intent was to, in the words of contemporaries, “assassinate a race”. Ottoman officers and soldiers behind the killings of Armenians, on this view, acted of their own volition rather than at the behest of superiors or because of a clear directive of a state policy of extermination.  World War I, the Turkish argument goes, disturbed the social order of things:  millions of people were killed, innocents and civilians as much as soldiers; many more were displaced, as people were forced out of their homes and the borders between political entities shifted; and in this state of acute social anomie Armenians were sometimes killed, but more often than not succumbed to disease and starvation.


The Turkish view has been rebutted by a legion of witnesses and scholars, and those who deny the Armenian Genocide have no more standing than those who deny the Shoah. There are, however, intellectual questions worthy of exploration:  why is it, for example, that the Armenians, who had been subjects of the Ottoman Empire since the 15th century, only faced the threat of extermination in the late 19th century? No one pretends that Armenians, as a Christian minority in the Ottoman Empire, had (to use what is really an anachronism) “equal rights”; at the same time, it is also widely accepted among scholars of the Ottoman Empire that Armenians (and Jews), despite the liabilities under which they suffered, such as the payment of the jizya (until 1856) and the baddal-sarkari in lieu of military service thereafter, did quite well for themselves and even flourished.  Armenians were better educated than Turks and excelled in trade and entrepreneurship.  Their success would not only come to be deeply resented but, as the Ottoman Empire began to crumble in the second half of the nineteenth century, may have been one of the reasons why they began to be perceived both as a provocation and as scapegoats.  Jews were similarly better integrated into socio-cultural life and educational institutions in Germany than they were in France and Britain:  as Freud might have said, it was the proximity of Jews to German national life that eventually made them, in the eyes of the Nazis, so dangerous.


Contemporary scholarship on the Armenian Genocide has delved into many of these questions at length.  Those who are of the view that American foreign policy calculations forestalled the recognition of the genocide have, it could be argued, a relatively benign and, ironically, even apolitical view of the matter. In 1980, Richard Diran Kloian released a massive compendium, distributed by the San Francisco-based Armenian Commemorative Committee, entitled The Armenian Genocide:  First 20th Century Holocaust.  What astonishes is the extent to which the genocide was reported in 1915-17 in leading American publications, among them the New York Times, New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, Current History, The Century, Current History, Literary Digest, Living Age, and The Outlook. The headlines state the truth candidly, unequivocally, even brutally:  “Turks Depopulate Towns of Armenia: 600,000 Starving on Road” (New York Times), 27 August 1915; “1,500,000 Armenians Starve” (New York Times), 5 September 1915; “Why the Armenians Were Killed” (The Literary Digest), 11 November 1916; “The Assassination of Armenia” (The Missionary Review of the World), November 1915; and “Exterminating the Armenians” (The Literary Digest), 9 October 1915.  There were hundreds even thousands more such pieces in this vein.  The reporters and commentators were incredulous that starving women and children could be described as the “enemy”.  “500 Armenians Slain under Turkish Order”, a New York Times reporter put it in a brief newspaper article on 15 January 1916, adding this sub-heading to his piece:  “Forced by Cold and Hunger to Surrender, Men, Women, and Children Were Put to Death.”  Or, as the young Los-Angeles based poet David Garyan has put it in his epic poem, “Armenian Genocide” (2019):

The murderer lies, claiming Armenians

were the enemy and had to be destroyed,

but I’ve never seen enemies who were women

and children die without weapons in hand.

The murderer lies, claiming Armenians

were dangerous and the desert marches

served as brief relocations,

but I wasn’t aware that people must be raped

and deprived of food on long

walks to their new home.

The United States has never had an easy time with the subject of genocide, for the more than obvious reason that its own history is thoroughly blood-stained. As American power diminishes, we should not be surprised if countries will be demanding that the US openly acknowledge the genocides it has wrought, at home and abroad.  It is even conceivable that countries will pass resolutions condemning the treatment of native Americans and African Americans.  That the present US Congress hosts a sizable number of legislators who feel that the United States has absolutely nothing to be apologetic about is of course known to everyone, but it would not be too much to say that it also hosts a number of legislators who, as their conduct in the recent impeachment hearings and conduct of the President suggests, remain unrepentant racists. It will take a lot more than supposed “foreign policy objectives” to understand the deep-seated American anxieties around the idea of genocide.

The Citizenship Question: Unsettling Facts and the Ethos of Hospitality

Governments lie all the time.  It is not only authoritarian, despotic, and totalitarian states that lie, but democracies, or what are alleged to be as such, do so too.  Contrary to the cherished view of some liberals, who like to represent the Trump administration as having uniquely departed from the moral standards of previous administrations, especially the Obama administration, which many are now inclined to view nostalgically as some kind of gold standard of moral probity, the entire fabric of American governance has for generations been based on a tissue of falsehoods. Obama lied through his teeth—about the use of drones, the war in Afghanistan, his regime of deportations.  We will be told, of course, that “context” matters—that the deportations, for example, were largely of hardened criminals, though one would need a vivid imagination to construe the majority of the two million as falling in this category. Admittedly, in the department of post-truth, Obama is not a patch on Trump, who, it goes without saying, almost always lies—as do most of his henchmen, honchos, and hired guns.  Lies, too, take various forms:  a lie is not only a patent falsehood, or a statement made with the intention to deceive, but it may also be a promise made with the knowledge that it cannot be kept.

The present Indian government is, needless to say, no exception. Most of its promises, especially those not made specifically with a Hindu constituency in mind, lie in shambles.  The economy is in tatters: unemployment figures are at a record high, and true to its form the government sought to have the figures withheld before the election.  The Prime Minister has declared India “open defecation free”, though there isn’t a shred of evidence to support this claim. Detailed reports, some produced by the government’s own agencies, contradict Modi’s grandiose declaration. But let us leave all that aside, since the Lok Sabha passed by a vote of 311-80 the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill [hereafter CAB], as has the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Indian Parliament).  The government initiative was spearheaded by the Home Minister; indeed, so confident was the government, and evidently so inconsequential the matter, that the Prime Minister’s presence was not even deemed necessary. After all, the party had enough to do to sweep the polls in Jharkhand behind Modi’s campaigning.


As the Prime Minister was declaring India “Open-Defecation Free”, two Dalit kids were beaten to death for defeacating in the open.  Cartoon by Sajith Kumar.                    Source:  Deccan Herald.

Amit Shah’s robust defence of the CAB poses some difficult problems which suggest that, even when a government or its principal functionaries do not lie, they may be on the wrong side of both history and justice.  There may be promises in his remarks that may not be kept—such as the assurance to Indian Muslims that the Bill is not directed at them, and is not even remotely designed to render them “stateless”—but no one knows this for a fact.  Authoritarian states may and do create distress for minorities, but they have sometimes been known to safeguard the rights of minorities, so long as such minorities do not create political unrest. These days, even autocratic rulers must show at least the outward signs of fidelity to norms of pluralism and diversity.

Screen Shot 2019-12-11 at 12.46.11 PM

To understand what is truly at stake in the debate over the CAB, which amends the Citizenship Act of 1955 and was first introduced unsuccessfully in 2016, it will suffice to scrutinize its principal and certainly most controversial provision.  It offers “any person belonging to [the] Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan” who entered India before 31 December 2014 not merely relief from deportation but citizenship of India through registration or naturalization.  The critics of this provision have pointed out that the deliberate exclusion of Muslims who entered from these countries is yet another stab at Muslims and an attempt to stoke fear and insecurity among Muslims, just as it is another milestone in the long-desired plan to transform India into a Hindu nation.  In more legal terms, the CAB is violative of the spirit and letter of the Constitution’s promise of equality as laid out in Article 14.

In a debate that lasted for nearly eight hours until the stroke of midnight, Amit Shah defended himself vigorously against the opposition.  We may disregard, for the purposes of my argument, his repeated jabs at both Nehru and the Congress and his absurdly poor grasp of history.  For contemporary Hindu nationalists, whose most inspirational figures such as M. S. Golwalkar were unabashed admirers of Nazis and whose own contribution to the struggle for freedom amounts to precisely zero, to accuse the Congress of betrayal of the nation is just breathtaking audacity. Shah’s contempt for Nehru is palpable, and it is not coincidental that the vote was taken at midnight—for it was at the stroke of midnight that Nehru delivered his speech pronouncing India a free country.  Amit Shah and the BJP have long been promising Hindus the “freedom” that was withheld to them by the country’s Muslim rulers, the British, and finally deracinated secularists in Nehru’s mold.  But the Home Minister’s observations, which are calculated to produce discomfort among secularists and liberals, are nevertheless worthy of consideration.

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From M. S. Golwalkar, We or Our Nationhood Defined (1939).

First, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan are predominantly Muslim countries. The logic that informs the CAB is that it is minorities that are in need of protection, not a majority—especially not a preponderant majority.  The CAB does not, for example, furnish the promise of citizenship to a Hindu who may have come from Hindu-majority Mauritius or, more significantly, neighbouring Nepal before 2014.  Once one is committed to the language of “minorities” and “majorities”, one is also committed to the corollary proposition: if anyone is in need of protection, it would be someone from a minority.  Secondly, Shah takes it as demonstrably true that minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are indubitably in need of protection.  It may be argued that he is on reasonably sound ground here.  The treatment of minorities in these countries has been deplorable, even as the population of Hindus in 1951 in what was West Pakistan has remained stable in Pakistan at 1.6% since then. But, overall, the share of minorities in Pakistan’s population declined from around 23% in the late 1940s to around 3.5% at present.  Non-Muslim minorities in ethnically diverse Afghanistan are practically non-existent, and the once thriving Hindu and Sikh communities have suffered precipitous decline in the preceding four decades. One may ascribe the near evisceration of these non-Muslim communities to the civil war which commenced 40 years ago, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that the ascendancy of the Mujahideen and Islamic resurgence had nothing to do with the disappearance of non-Muslims from Afghanistan.

One might go on in this vein, but one might also pose sticky questions. How would the government, by way of one illustration, handle the claim of Ahmadiyyas, who view themselves as Muslims but have not merely been declared as heretics in both Pakistan and Bangladesh but have been subject to virulent persecution?  The Bill has nothing to say on this matter, and, as critics aver, it is also silent on the matter of migrants and refugees from Sri Lanka.  Shah did, however, have something to say on the matter of refugees from Sri Lanka, pointing out that the accord signed in 1964 allowed, among other provisions, for the repatriation of 525,000 Tamils to India.  His third line of defence, therefore, appears to be that “whenever there has been an intervention on citizenship, it has been specific to a problem. This time, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan refugees are getting it.”  Fourthly, refuting the notion that the Bill is designed to produce a “Hindu Rashtra”, Shah noted that the percentage of Hindus in India has declined since 1951, the first census in post-independent India, from 84% to 79%.  Conversely, the share of Muslims in India’s population has increased from 9.8% to 14.23%.  It is no surprise that social media sites are awash with Hindu nationalist buzz around the “decline of the Hindus”.

Such facts as Amit Shah produced, or which may be mustered on his behalf, do not appear to furnish evidence that the project of creating a “Hindu Rashtra” is at hand.  But neither do such metrics tell the whole story. The secularists would be well with their right to remind everyone of the old adage which says that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  But there is another tacit argument that informs the Home Minister’s observations and that has now become a critical element in the Hindu narrative of identity, prosperity, and growth.  The Muslim has scores of countries—all Muslim-majority states, whether in West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and even Europe—that he can claim as his own, but does the Hindu really have even one country?  What else can the Hindu call his or her home other than India?  (Nepal, no doubt, but the Hindu is inclined to see Nepal, which transitioned in recent years from a constitutional monarchy to federalism, as part of the Indic world rather than as a nation.) Not every nationalist Hindu may proceed to the question that logically follows, but an increasing number, taking their cue from the ideologues that have informed the Sangh Parivar, do:  Does it not therefore fall upon the Hindu to decide with whom he wants to share his home, and under what conditions?  Indian Muslims would be entirely right in pouncing upon the last consideration as a charter for their oppression, as a pronouncement of their eternal foreignness.

Secularists and Muslims have chosen to respond to all this in the twin languages of constitutionalism and pluralism.  Those are potent languages but, at least at this moment in the nation’s history, they appear to have little traction. To be sure, there are pressing questions made possible by the invocation of pluralism, secularism, and constitutionalism.  Does CAB, for instance, impose a religious test for citizenship?  Though the government claims that there is nothing in the bill that adversely affects Indian Muslims, what of those Indian Muslims who may not have papers to demonstrate they belong to the soil of the country as much as Hindus, Sikhs, or Jains?  And what of those Muslims who fled from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh to India and have made their home in India for decades?  The argument that will be advanced by the government and its supporters is that all nations, even those that claim to be democracies, retain the privilege of allowing some outsiders and excluding others.  Though countries such as Sweden and Denmark are often touted as examples of progressive democracies, they exercise near draconian control on whom they permit within their borders and they have normalized anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments.

We may have to take recourse to a different language and find more productive ways of entering into these debates besides furnishing, as the Indian government does, statistics and a rather pathetic understanding of history.  One might remind Hindus that the measures being undertaken by the present government will succeed in making India look very much like Pakistan, but irony is not the strong suit of the government.  In India, at least, we could speak of the rich histories of hospitality.  The Hindu has been made as much by sanatan dharma as by the presence, sometimes the pounding presence, of countless others in his midst.  It took everyone else to make the Hindu into what he or she is today.  The nationalist Hindus who oddly complain that they have had no country to call their own and that the present government is now fulfilling a long-held dream scarcely realize that whatever singularity India has had will utterly vanish if the country persists in the present course of action.  Their Hinduism will begin to look very much like Islam and Christianity.

Citizenship may have been very far from the mind of Rabindranath Tagore, but the rest of the world had no difficulty in dubbing him a “citizen of the world”.  Tagore had the distinct idea that a culture that is no longer aware of its own dharma is practically lost in the world.  He was once traveling in his native Bengal and, at a place some 150 kilometres from Calcutta, his car overheated; every ten kilometres he had to stop and ask for water so that he could cool down the engine. The entire area was suffering from a severe drought; time after time, through fifteen villages, Tagore had quite the same experience. Though the villagers had little water to spare, and almost none to drink, their sense of hospitality made it impossible for them to refuse him water. It was their dharma, Tagore told his audience in China and then some years later at Oxford when he delivered the Hibbert Lectures on the “The Religion of Man”, that moved them to such generosity: it is the same dharma that made them reject the idea that they could, as a consequence, claim any merit or reward. What others were likely to mistake as the acts of simpletons arose from a “simplicity [that] is the product of centuries of culture” and is “difficult of imitation”; as Tagore further argues, “to be absolutely simple in one’s hospitality to one’s enemy, or to a stranger, requires generations of training.”

Who will explain this to the Home Minister and the Prime Minister, whose narcissism has led them into thinking that they are required by the nation to save Hinduism from its enemies?



Rosa Parks, Gandhi’s Trail, and the Extraordinariness of the Ordinary

Los Angeles, 1 December 2019:  64th anniversary of the rebellion of Rosa Parks

(Fourth in an occasional series that will run for several months on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.  Also, one in the series:  The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics.)


The police report on the arrest of Rosa Parks, 1 December 1955.

It was December 1, 1955, around 6 o’clock in the evening.  Rosa Parks boarded a bus belonging to the Montgomery City Lines, paid her fare, and sat in the first seat in the section of the bus reserved for colored people.  The first ten rows, towards the front of the bus, could only be occupied by white people:  such were the strict laws of segregation that governed the South.  As the bus moved on, and other passengers boarded the bus at subsequent stops, it gradually filled up.  All the seats were taken; eventually a few white people found themselves standing, according to some sources.  The driver, James F. Blake, halted the bus and moved the sign demarcating the “colored” section to the row behind Ms. Parks.  He ordered her and the three other black passengers seated in that row, two on each side of the aisle, to vacate their seats and move to the back of the bus.  One of the more prominent historians of the Civil Rights Movement, Taylor Branch, has offered a somewhat different if related account:  apparently only one white man was standing, but nevertheless Blake, acting according to the city bus code, which forbid colored and white people from being seated in the same row, had perforce to ask all four black passengers to remove themselves.  Parks resisted, and felt, naturally—oh, not so naturally, said the master race—that she had every right to remain seated.  She had as much right to that seat as anyone else—white, black, colored, or American Indian (and Parks, though this is seldom discussed, had a good deal of Cherokee blood in her).


Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Lt. D. H. Lackey of the Montgomery Police, 1 December 1955.

Blake would have nothing of this, if only because, as he argued in his defense the rest of his life, he was determined to uphold the city bus code and follow company policy.  When he passed away in 2002, just a little shy of his 90th birthday, the newspaper obituaries related ‘his side’ of the story.  In an interview given to the Washington Post, Blake recalled:  “I called the company first, just like I was supposed to do.”  Blake parked the bus, found a pay phone, and got his supervisor on the line.  “Did you warn her, Jim?”  When Blake replied in the affirmative, his supervisor said:  “Well then, Jim, you do it, you got to exercise your powers and put her off, hear?”  “And that’s just what I did”, recalled Blake.  Rosa Parks had been warned. The police were summoned: Parks was forcibly removed, arrested, and hauled off to the city jail.

In the late 19th century, only days after he had arrived in Natal, barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was thrown off a train since he refused to give up his first-class seat.  He thereby came to an awareness of racism and, on the conventional account, this event would set him on the long road that would lead to his transformation from Mohandas to the Mahatma of world fame.  What was traumatic for Gandhi would become catastrophic for the British Empire.  Rosa Parks’ ejection from a city bus has, in many narratives of the Civil Rights Movement, occupied something of a similar place.  Parks, unlike the young Gandhi that evening of 7 June 1893, was however something of a veteran civil rights activist at the time of her arrest.  That was not the impression conveyed by the popular accounts of the life of Rosa Parks which came to my attention in my school years, in which she was represented as a seamstress.  It was only much later that I became acquainted with her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP).  Parks was also involved in the Voters’ League and, just months before the infamous incident of 1 December 1955, had spent two weeks at the Highlander Folk School, a social justice training center in Monteagle, Tennessee.  Her arrival there that summer might have quite fortuitous; as the late Professors Suzanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd Rudolph explained in a letter written to the New York Times on 25 April 2013, “Parks’s refusal to yield her seat to a white man, in defiance of a city segregation ordinance, was a self-conscious and deliberate act of Gandhian civil disobedience. She had learned about Gandhi and was trained in Gandhian techniques at the school, where Ram Manohar Lohia, the Gandhian socialist, had introduced them.”  Lohia was on a visit to the US that summer and had been called to share his expertise with activists.


An empty bus during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-56.  Source:  Christian Science Monitor.

Parks’ activism, and her long involvement with social justice issues, explains in part why her act of defiance would eventually produce an outcome unlike any in the past.  We are better positioned to understand, in other words, how it is that only three days after her arrest, a decision had been taken by a number of black leaders to launch a boycott of Montgomery city buses.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott would catapult the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on to the national, and shortly thereafter, the world stage. Many others previous to Rosa Parks had sought to defy segregation codes on buses, but they did not become one of the many public faces of the movement.  Pauli Murray, one of two black women who were arrested outside Petersburg, Virginia, in 1940 for defying segregations laws as they traveled on a bus, comes to mind. Murray, much like Parks, had at least a fleeting acquaintance with Gandhi’s ideas.  By her own admission years later, her knowledge of satyagraha was “sketchy” and yet she and her companion “applied” what they “knew of satyagraha on the spot.” She was of the same mind as Bayard Rustin, who had made a detailed study of Gandhi and was by the early 1940s already applying his ideas in an attempt to break down the segregation that informed every aspect of life in the US, when she wrote that “pacifism believes that the means must be suited to the ends to be attained and that war is irreconcilably unsuited to the attainment of democracy.”  Murray worked assiduously towards the creation of what she called an “American Satyagraha Movement”, and in 1943-44 led Howard University students in Washington DC in picketing two restaurants that denied service to black patrons.


Rev. Dr. Puali Murray (1910-1985), a prominent civil rights activist, a law professor at Yale University, and a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW).  Source:  The Weekly Challenger.

There are yet others, many of them women and no less brave than Rosa Parks and Pauli Murray, who went into near obscurity and whose stories have only surfaced in recent years. As we pause to remember Rosa Parks, it is well to reflect on the fact that fame and obscurity are often equally matters of happenstance.  White women, in particular, have been largely written out of the Civil Rights Movement, but they were also lending their voices to the narrative.  Juliette Hampton Morgan, a librarian in the Montgomery Public Library system, used to ride the city buses where she frequently witnessed the gross mistreatment of black passengers. It seems that Morgan, a Christian who was intensely disturbed by the racism that she encountered in everyday life and could not reconcile this racism to her faith, commenced interracial prayer meetings with black women.  I wonder if, in this respect, she may have been inspired by the public prayer meeting that Gandhi had pioneered.  A future biographer of Morgan will perhaps shed some light on this subject. But, more germane to the present argument, Morgan was an inveterate letter writer and wrote frequently to newspapers to express her outrage at the city’s segregation statutes.  Eleven days after Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1st, the Montgomery Advertiser published a remarkable letter from Morgan.  Likening the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which brought King to the attention of America, to the Dandi March, Morgan gave it as her opinion that the “Negroes of Montgomery seem to have taken a lesson from Gandhi . . . Their own task is greater than Gandhi’s, however, for they have greater prejudice to overcome.”


Letter entitled “Lesson from Gandhi”, by Juliette Morgan, Montgomery City librarian, published in the Montgomery Advertiser on 12 December 1955.

Morgan’s approbation of the “quiet dignity, discipline and dedication with which the Negroes have conducted their boycott” earned her the notoriety of many of Montgomery’s white citizens. In January 1957, the editor of the Tuscaloosa News, Buford Boone, came to Montgomery and spoke forcefully against the racism and violence directed at the black community.  Our “‘Southern way of life’ must inevitably change”, wrote Morgan in appreciation, adding that Boone had shown the courage “to stand alone, to walk out naked as it were”:  “I had begun to wonder if there were any men in the state – any white men – with . . . any good will, and most especially the moral courage to express it.” She started receiving hate mail and obscene phone calls.  On a spring day in 1957, a cross was burned in the front yard of her home in one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods.  On July 17, Morgan’s mother found Juliette dead, an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her bedside with a suicide note:  “I am not going to cause any more trouble to anybody.”  Morgan’s life is, putting it plainly, a testament to the courage of common people.  She stands forth as a striking exemplification of what, following Gandhi, we can call the extraordinariness of the ordinary.


Juliette Morgan