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Archive for the ‘South Asian Politics’ Category

In my previous essay on this blog, on the foolishness of the legislation that is now before the Vidhan Sabha or legislature of the Punjab Government that would render “blasphemy” an offence punishable with a life sentence, I adverted to the application of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, a close study of which suggests just how vulnerable such legislation is to exploitation not only by the state but by those who terrorize the population in the name of adherence to Islam.  Political repression is a problem in every country in South Asia, and the recent crackdown on human rights activists in India, and the arrest of the acclaimed photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh, are ominous signs of how the repressive apparatus of the state has been deployed to stifle the freedom of speech and create a climate of fear in which agents of the state can act with utter impunity.

The problem in Pakistan is, if anything, more acute.  There is widespread agreement among scholars, experts, political commentators, and those who have been keenly observing developments in Pakistan that the country has been overwhelmed by political turbulence in the last two decades. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are quite innocent of any real self-reflexivity and are impervious, in their own fashion, to critiques of a notion of “human rights” which often has done little except serve, even if inadvertently, imperialist regimes.  This is apart from other, equally pressing, considerations of the questionable ontological bases of conceptions of ‘rights’. Nevertheless, whatever the soundness of such critiques, the reports of these organizations and other similar human rights group do furnish something of a barometer by which we may judge how far states are observant of the rights of their subjects and whether they treat most of their subjects with dignity.

Going by these reports, Pakistan’s record on the human rights front has been abysmal. Successive reports over the last five years of Human Rights Watch, quite possibly the most respectable international organization of its kind in the world alongside Amnesty International, provide unimpeachable evidence of the breakdown of the rule of law and the arbitrary dispensation of justice. Extrajudicial killings and political assassinations are all too common, corruption in the police forces is rampant, and security for common people can no longer be even remotely guaranteed by the state.  But let us begin with this fact: The official religion of Pakistan is Islam. That was not the case at the inception of Pakistan, even if the country was founded as a Muslim-majority state. Though there are small numbers of adherents of other religions, principally Hindus and Christians, Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country.   There is substantial and even conclusive evidence, which emanates from a wide array of sources, that religious minorities are at grave risk in Pakistan—though, again, having said this, one must also allow for the fact that there are equally reliable reports and ethnographies of Hindu communities which suggest that Hindus continue to have a place in Pakistani society.

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Protestors holding up placards at a rally in Karachi in 2010 demonstrating against the death sentence handed down to a Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, on charges of blasphemy, and also calling for an end to discrimination against religious minorities. Photo: Akhatar Sumroo, Reuters. Source: http://time.com/3969035/asia-bibi-death-sentence-stayed-appeal-pakistan/

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2014 Annual Report, expressed alarm at the declining environment for religious tolerance in Pakistan and went so far as to recommend that it be designated, alongside nations such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea, a “Country of Particular Concern” (p. 8).  Once again, we shall have to leave aside the politics of this commission, and the question of why it should be viewed as having any real standing:  the right that American organizations have arrogated to themselves to pontificate on the shortcomings of others is much more than suspect. “The past ten years”, state the report’s authors, “have seen a worsening of the already-poor religious environment in Pakistan” (p. 10),  and they add that “in the past year, conditions hit an all-time low due to chronic sectarian violence targeting mostly Shia Muslims but also Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus” (p. 80).  Though the Ahmadis, or Ahmadiyyas, accept all five pillars of Islam and are rigorous adherents of their faith, Pakistan is the only country in the world to have them officially declared non-Muslims since, in addition to the Prophet, they also accept Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) as a Messiah.  (Ahmadis face considerable persecution in Bangladesh; however, they have not officially been branded as ‘kafirs’.) The Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan as well as Ordinance XX of 1984, promulgated during the military administration of General Zia-ul-Haq, not only deprive Ahmadis of their religious rights but even debar Ahmadis from reading the Quran, reciting the Kalima (the Muslim creed), or from joining other Muslims in prayer.  The level of religious intolerance in Pakistan towards those who are deemed as heretics may be gauged from the fact that an Ahmadi who uses the Muslim greeting, “As-salam alaykum”, has committed a criminal offence under the laws of Pakistan and can be prosecuted accordingly.  One does not have to accept the authority or even legitimacy of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to come to such conclusions.

A recent December 2014 report by the London-based Minority Rights Group, the most respected non-governmental global organization of its kind, furnishes more decisive evidence of the climate of religious intolerance in Pakistan and the “daily challenges faced by Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and other groups in the country.”  The executive summary of the report, entitled Searching for SecurityThe Rising Marginalization of Religious Communities in Pakistan (London:  Minority Rights Group International, 2014), states that though minority religious communities “have suffered discrimination in Pakistan for decades, their persecution has intensified in recent years and has now reached critical levels” (p. 3). Among other forms of discrimination, the report notes “the frequent use of blasphemy laws” (p. 3) to denigrate non-Muslims and points out that the extremists among some Sunnis, who constitute the vast majority in Pakistan, view Shias as apostates and have thus directed violence at them.  Apostates, the authors stated unambiguously, may “face regular hostility from extremists and public calls for members to be killed” (p. 8).

Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary both define an apostate as a person who “renounces a religious or political belief or principle”, and furnish the following words as synonyms:  traitor, defector, turncoat, deserter, among others.  The December 2013 report of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam, makes the point that apostasy is no longer a crime anywhere in the world except in Muslim countries (p. 7).  Twenty-seven countries where Islam is the only or the predominant religion inflict punishment on apostates or blasphemers, including those who are “atheists, secularists, and freethinkers” (pp. 6, 8).  Pakistan is not among those eleven countries—including Sudan, Yemen, and two countries that see themselves as implacable foes of each other, Iran and Saudi Arabia—where apostasy is a capital offence, punishable by death, and there are no explicit anti-apostasy laws in Pakistan.  However, this report is unequivocal in its description of the consequences for apostates in Pakistan: “Other countries without apostasy laws, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, use blasphemy and other religious protection laws to persecute apostates” (p. 6).  The report describes the introduction of blasphemy laws (Sections 295-B, 295-C, and 298A-C) into Pakistan’s Penal Code in the 1980s and the restrictions henceforth on the right to freedom of speech with regard to religion, and states that “since then, it has been extremely dangerous to express dissent against Islam.”  Though apostasy itself is not explicitly punishable, blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan under the Pakistan Penal Code:  defiling the name of Muhammad carries a death sentence, as affirmed by the federal Sharia Court which in 1990 ruled that defiling Muhammad’s name is “death and nothing else” (p. 67).  Moreover, it is important to emphasize that blasphemy laws are, in fact, stringently enforced:  between 1986 and 2010, at least 1,274 people were charged under the law.

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Demonstration calling for the death sentence of 34-year old Nadeem James, who was charged with blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam in a WhatsApp message to a friend.  Mr. James was handed down a death sentence by the court in Gujrat in eastern Pakistan.

The Political and Legal Status of Apostates highlights other features that need to be underscored. A charge of blasphemy is often a cover for an ordinary crime: now, five years after the publication of this report, the Pakistani press reports the death of a young artist, Qutab Rind, who was killed by a landlord on account of an alteration over rent and then falsely accused of blasphemy.  An accusation can be made falsely, and often is made, without any consequences for the accuser though the accused might face enormous risks including oppression by an enraged public.  Owing to the number of false accusations, the government in 2005 passed a law requiring the police to investigate accusations of blasphemy before filing charges, but this law is not always followed and certainly has not precluded mob justice.  The report thus notes a climate of vigilante justice; in other words, even where the state may not take action against an apostate or a blasphemer, this does not preclude people from taking the law into their own hands.  The report notes that “at least 51 people accused of blasphemy were murdered before their respective trials were over” (p. 67); the newspaper report from last month on the death of Qutab Rind states that “nearly 70 people had been lynched to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges whereas another 40 are currently on death row or serving life sentence for blasphemy charges in Pakistan since 1990.”  As is well known, and as was reported widely in Indian, British, and American newspapers, the Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, a Muslim, was assassinated in broad daylight on 4 January 2011 for his opposition to the blasphemy laws; so was, ironically, the Minister for Minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, specifically for his support of Asia Noreen Bibi, the first woman sentenced to death, allegedly for defaming the name of Muhammad, under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

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Demonstration against Blasphemy Laws by the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. Photo:  Abid Nawaz/Express Tribune.

There is corroboration for the views stated in the report The Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam in various other authoritative reports from organizations in Canada and the US.  Let me return to the afore-mentioned report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, where it is argued that blasphemy-like codes in Pakistan have stifled religious freedom and emboldened extremists to commit violence.  In the report’s own words, “In Pakistan, such codes fuel extremist violence threatening all Pakistanis” (p. 3), and again:  “Pakistan’s laws and practice are particularly egregious in this regard, with its constantly-abused law penalizing blasphemous acts with the death penalty or life in prison” (p. 27).  The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency, issued a report in 2013 entitled Pakistan:  Religious conversion, including treatment of converts and forced conversions (2009-2012) which again substantiates these finds. The report states, and I quote, “In all mainstreams of Islamic jurisprudence abandoning Islam is considered a capital crime, particularly for men”. This is true for those who have converted to another religion as it of those who have abandoned Islam without taking up another religion.

With all this evidence from a neighboring country before it, does the Punjab Government want to push forward a blasphemy laws to protect worshippers from blasphemers?  Emphatically not; indeed, wherever such laws are to be found in India, they should be summarily scrapped.

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An Open Letter to the Home Minister of Bangladesh, Mr. Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali, MP, Calling for the Immediate Release of Shahidul Alam

Dear Sir,

On August 5th, nearly a month ago, Shahidul Alam was taken away from his home in the middle of the night by twenty-five officers of the detective branch of the police which is ultimately responsible to you.  Shahidul Alam is an internationally acclaimed photojournalist, human rights activist, social entrepreneur, and much more.  He has played a singularly critical role in putting Bangladesh on the international map as far as photography is concerned, and he has nurtured the talents of two generations of Bangladeshis who have grown up on the camera.  As I’m certain you know, he is the founder of the picture gallery DRIK, the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, and the Pathshala Institute where hundreds of young photographers have been trained.  It would be safe to say that he has also done as much as anyone else in Bangladesh to highlight the lives of those who are dispossessed, marginalized, and most vulnerable to exploitation.  Mr. Alam, as those who know him or are at least conversant with his work will tell you, does not allow his sentiments of humanity and his craving for social justice to stop at the borders of the country which you serve as its Home Minister.  He was one of the first to speak of “the majority world” to signify the solidarities that exist between the peoples of what is more often described as the “Third World” or “the developing countries”.

Mr. Alam is therefore one of those comparatively rare intellectuals, artists, and social activists who has been a fearless and persistent advocate of the rights of those who are in fact in a majority in the world—the poor, the working class, the politically oppressed, and the exploited, the preponderant portion of them in countries that were formerly colonized.  It is perhaps because he represents the majority that he is feared by your government.  Does that not explain why no fewer than 25 police officers were assembled to arrest a nonviolent and unarmed activist who has never carried anything other than a camera?  Why was he abducted in the middle of the night, if not because under the cover of darkness the state hoped to disguise its own unlawful action?

A week after his arrest, Mr. Shahidul Alam was produced in court without being given an opportunity to have his lawyer represent him.  He was charged at his arrest, under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (2016), with disseminating “false, confusing and provocative statements that could deteriorate the law and order situation, as well as incite the sentiments of students to engage in destructive activities.”  Mr. Alam has not only denied all these charges, he has also alleged that he was tortured by the police in jail.  He was certainly beaten badly on the night that he was hauled away and he can be heard screaming in footage that is widely available.  No one who knows him well is at all prepared to believe that there is even an iota of truth in any of these charges; moreover, it is quite apparent that the charges have been framed in such a fashion as to enable the apprehension of anyone whose views might appear even remotely hostile to those who wield political power.  Mr. Alam exemplifies the idea of nonviolence in practice and in spirit, and he is one of the gentlest persons I have had the good fortune of knowing.  He left an extremely favorable impression on everyone during the one week that he spent at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2009 as a Regents’ Fellow at my invitation.

Mr. Alam has now filed a petition in the court asking for bail and he has stated that he would appear in court whenever a hearing might be set in his case.  Leading human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as hundreds of internationally renowned intellectuals and activists from India, Australia, Britain, and the United States, have called for Mr. Alam’s unconditional release and the removal of all the charges that have been alleged against him.  I join them in asking that Mr. Alam be released at once, but I would like to place before you two others considerations which I hope will appeal to your imagination and moral sensibility. I hope you will find my first point particularly germane in view of the fact that the present government is headed by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  Let me remind you that it is the repression of intellectuals in what was then East Pakistan that, among other things, inspired Sheikh Mujib  to advocate for the independence of East Pakistan and which eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh.  Mr. Alam’s arrest and continued detention points to your government’s desire to intimidate intellectuals and silence all voices of opposition.  My earnest entreaty to you, therefore, is not to repeat the very same mistakes that characterized the egregious conduct of the Government of (West) Pakistan.

Secondly, even if the Information and Communication Technology Act under which Mr. Alam has been charged is of recent vintage, in spirit it is unfortunately guided by colonial-era legislation.  In this respect, as well, it does the state of Bangladesh absolutely no credit at all to be moved by archaic and repressive legislation.  We are all aware that in the name of preserving “law and order”, states often undertake actions which can only cast a blot on their reputation.  Surely a country guided by the spirit of Sheik Mujib and the great poet Kazi Nazrul Islam can do a lot better than take into unlawful custody one of its most prominent citizens who is widely recognized as a person of unimpeachable integrity and who has done selfless work on behalf of especially the less fortunate citizens of your country.

I end, therefore, once again with the call for Mr. Shahidul Alam’s immediate release and request from you an assurance of his safety.  I remain entirely open to an exchange with you on any of the points raised in this appeal, which I have now made public as the private letter that I addressed to you a week after Mr. Alam’s arrest did not elicit any response.

Yours sincerely,

Vinay Lal, Professor of History, UCLA

 

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On the evening of 30 January 1948, Mohandas Gandhi, known the world over as the “Mahatma” and in India as “Bapu”, was assassinated as he walked towards the prayer ground at Birla House.  Nathuram Godse, a Maharashtrian Brahmin from Pune, fired three bullets from a revolver and Gandhi died instantly.  Godse was wrestled to the ground by a couple of onlookers; but he had no intention of escaping, and was indeed keen that he should be apprehended alive and have his say in court.  This was one of the many things that Godse learned from Gandhi, for whom he had a curious admixture of reverence and hatred:  the courtroom can be commanded to great advantage by the accused, and the audience might even be swayed into believing that the accused had just cause.

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John Keane, “Experiments with Truth” (1996), oil and collage on canvas.  Source:  http://www.johnkeaneart.com/index.php/welcome/cat/31/2/2

Nathuram Godse was no doubt assisted in his plans by a motley group of men who had various reasons for harboring a real grudge against Gandhi.  The Government of India insisted that there had been a conspiracy to murder the “Father of the Nation” and Vinayak Savarkar was thought to have been the brains behind the conspiracy.  But Godse remained unequivocally clear to the end of his life that he alone bore responsibility for Gandhi’s death.  Godse did nothing to exculpate himself and sought to shift the blame from others who also stood accused of having conspired to murder Gandhi.  Some of the supposed conspirators were released for lack of evidence, among them Savarkar; a few others, including Nathuram’s younger brother Gopal, were handed stiff prison terms; and Nathuram and Narayan Apte were sent to the gallows.

The indubitable fact, of course, is that Nathuram Godse alone pulled the trigger.  He was the sole assassin.  If that is the case, the alert reader might wonder why the title of the piece adverts to Gandhi’s “assassins”.  In speaking of his assassins, I do not intend to revisit the debate, which persisted for a very long time, about the supposed conspiracy that felled Gandhi.   There can be little doubt that Savarkar, who had a long and unsavory history of instrumentalizing other men in the pursuit of his own political objectives, was something of an ideological bulwark for Nathuram and others of his ilk.  Justice Jivanlal Kapur, who headed a one-man commission in 1966 to inquire into Gandhi’s assassination following some disclosures that various government officials may have been negligent in safeguarding Gandhi’s life, conducted an extensive probe and issued a lengthy report in 1969 where he stated that the facts that had come to his attention “taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”

I would like to suggest both that Nathuram Godse was fundamentally right in accepting sole culpability for Gandhi’s death and that Justice Kapur underestimated the degree to which Gandhi’s death was, in the words of his biographer Robert Payne, a “permissive assassination”.  The word ‘conspiracy’ is not particularly conducive to a discussion which would allow us to understand the circumstances which, as it were, conspired to lead to Gandhi’s death and which apparently make it necessary to murder Gandhi all over again.  The Government of India was drawing upon the colonial apparatus of law and a juridical conception of “conspiracy” when it drew up charges against Savarkar, the Godse brothers, and others, and the limitations of this exercise are all too apparent when we consider that India, as a nation, is far from being done with Gandhi.  We must thus begin with this inexorable fact:  men such as Gandhi have to be killed repeatedly. A cartoonist for the Chicago Sun-Times in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), appears to have understood this well:  a seated Gandhi looks up to the slain civil rights leader and remarks, “The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”

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Let us begin, however, with the idea of a “permissive assassination”.  India had emerged as a new nation-state from two centuries of colonial rule and India’s elites, among them some who were Gandhi’s associates, were keen that the country should take its place in the world as a strong nation-state resolutely committed to modernization, industrialization, and the kind of central planning that characterized the policies of the Soviet Union.  Yet Gandhi had initiated a far-reaching critique of industrial civilization and the very precepts of modernity in his tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj, and his critics worried that his pervasive influence would be detrimental to the development of India as an economic and political power.  Gandhi was, though this could scarcely be admitted, a nuisance, even a hindrance; and when Nathuram pulled the trigger, there were certainly others who thought that the man had died a moment not too soon.  When the Government cast the murder as a “conspiracy” in the narrow legal sense, they did not of course mean to implicate the bureaucrats and modernizing elites who, viewing Gandhi as expendable, had secretly conspired to let him die.

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A 32-inch bust of Nathuram Godse installed in the Daulatgang office of the Hindu Mahasabha in Gwalior, central India.  Source:  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/hindu-mahasabha-sets-up-nathuram-godse-mahatma-gandhis-assassin-temple-kicks-up-row-4939797/

If the Bengal Renaissance is, as someone I knew once quipped, the longest continuing renaissance in the world, Gandhi’s assassination seems to have unfolded over seven decades and remains one long unremitting exercise in exorcising him.  In a piece I published a decade ago, I pointed out that every constituency in India—Marxists, Hindu nationalists, rationalists, feminists, Dalits, modernizers, militarists, and the myriad worshippers at the altar of science, development, progress, and the nation-state—“loves to hate” Gandhi.  Notwithstanding all the utterly predictable homilies that issue forth from the mouths of politicians, it is amply clear that very few in the Indian government or the wider middle class have any use for him.  To be sure, his name still constitutes a form of cultural capital, and propriety and national respect alike dictate that his name should be held up with reverence in the presence of foreign dignitaries.  Most of Gandhi’s fellow Gujaratis, in and out of India, have largely effaced him from their worldview.  The guardians of his own Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, from where Gandhi set out on the Salt March, shut close the doors of the ashram in the face of the Muslim refugees seeking protection from the hoodlums baying for their blood in the killings of 2002.

Much more may be written about the rehabilitation of both Vinayak Savarkar and Nathuram Godse over the last decade or two, particularly in the last few years since the BJP has become the dominant force in Indian politics.  A portrait of Savarkar was unveiled in the Central Hall of Parliament in 2003 when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP was in power, and it is scarcely surprising that Narendra Modi should have paid his homage to Savarkar on many occasions, not only after assuming the office of the Prime Minister.

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Tribute being paid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Savarkar on his birth anniversary in the Indian Parliament.  Source:  https://www.telegraphindia.com/1140529/jsp/nation/story_18393712.jsp

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Narendra Modi paying homage to Savarkar on 26 February 2013.  Source:  https://www.narendramodi.in/cm-pays-tributes-to-veer-savarkar-on-his-punya-tithi-5126

In 2015, the Hindu Mahasabha, an organization to which both Savarkar and Nathuram swore their allegiance, announced plans to install busts and statues of Nathuram in Hindu temples across north and western India. Though their plans to build temples in honor of Godse have thus far not materialized, in the central Indian city of Gwalior the Mahasabha has installed a bust of Godse at their office and described it as the foundation stone of a temple which has been named ‘Hutatma Nathuram Godse Mandir’ [Temple of the Martyr Nathuram Godse].  Whatever opprobrium may still be attached in some measure to celebrating Nathuram Godse as a martyr, it is unquestionably the case that the circumstances which made possible a “permissive assassination” have now produced widespread agreement with the views embraced by Nathuram.

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Hindu Mahasabha Bhavan, Gwalior:  Hutatma Nathuram Godse Mandir [Temple of the Martyr Nathuram Godse].  Source:  https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/gwalior-now-has-a-temple-of-mahatma-gandhi-s-killer-nathuram-godse-why-on-earth-was-it-needed-333801.html

Yet, however much India’s elites and middle classes have attempted to relegate Gandhi to the margins, engaging in campaigns of slander, obfuscation, and trivialization, Gandhi also continues to surface in the most unexpected ways.  He is the (sometimes hidden) face of most of many of India’s most significant ecological movements, from Chipko to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, just as he is the face of intellectual dissent, little insurrections, and social upheaval.  Every so often someone comes along purporting to unmask the ‘real’ Gandhi hidden from history.  The hagiographic representation of Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s film of the same name in late 1982 produced in reaction one such wave of supposed exposés of the Gandhi that, in the phrase of one of his most staunch detractors, Richard Grenier, “no one knows”.  We were then led into believing that Gandhi was a fiend who was patriarchal, a sexual puritan, and a crazy luddite; many others have over the decades added to that picture, describing Gandhi as a racist and particularly contemptuous of Africans, an enemy of reason, a foe of his fellow Hindus (to some) and a Hindu wolf in sheep’s clothing (to others), even a ‘friend of Hitler’.  (Gandhi authored two short very short letters to Hitler, neither of which the war-time British censors permitted to reach the intended recipient, urging him to renounce violence.)

Yet Gandhi refuses to disappear:  we heard some years ago of the Gandhian moment in Iran’s Green Revolution and recently dissidents in Turkey have described themselves as inspired largely by him.  There is the Gandhi that appears on the Separation Wall and I daresay that there is the ‘little Gandhi’ that has been thrown up by every revolution over the last few decades.  The Gandhi of the shining bald head, the pair of round spectacles, the timepiece, the walking stick, the sandals, the pet goat, and the Mickey Mouse ears has become an ineradicable part of the national imaginary in India.  Gandhi is everywhere, in every act of nonviolence and, more significantly, every act of violence—a spectral presence to remind us of the supreme importance of the ethical life.

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Part Three of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”

The Hindu nationalists whose writ runs large in much of India today have amply demonstrated that Islamic extremists are scarcely alone in their vicious instrumentalization of religion to political ends.  And India is by far from being the only example of a country where the virulent disease of nationalism has brought what are called “strong” men into power and emboldened their followers, who more often than not exhibit extreme forms of xenophobic conduct, to terrorize and intimidate political opponents as well as those who are, on one account or another, deemed alien to the nation.  In the United States, at least, evangelical Christianity has played a considerable if understated role in stoking the fires of xenophobic nationalism.

 

It is, however, the subject of Islam and American Muslims with which I would like to stay as I turn my attention from Pakistani Muslims to Indian Muslims.  What these days is termed the “radicalization” of Muslims is increasingly on display in India as well, and both the indifference of the state to the marginalization of Muslims, as well as the provocations to which they are subjected by belligerent Hindus, are likely to accentuate the trend toward such “radicalization”.  Kashmir is often pointed to as the most blatant example of the marginalization of the Indian Muslim, and Kashmir has long appeared in the manifestos of radical jihadi groups as among those Muslim-predominant places that need to be liberated from the rule of the infidel.

 

Nevertheless, as many commentators in and outside India have noted, Indian Muslims themselves have remained strikingly unreceptive to calls to global jihad.  More Muslims have been enlisted in various Islamic terrorist organizations from Britain, where they number in the vicinity of 3 million, than from all of India.  “India, with 180 million Muslims, has produced almost no jihadis.”  So ran a recent headline in the Indian Express, a major English-language daily, which continues in this vein:  “Muslims here see stake in political system.”  If one is perhaps inclined to dismiss such a view as propaganda from an Indian publication, we may consider that the stodgy and highly respected The Economist, which cannot be accused of being partial to India, ran an article in 2014 entitled, “Why India’s Muslims are so Moderate.”  While noting that “India’s Muslims generally have reasons for some gloom”, enduring, for example, lower levels of education, poorer employment prospects, and diminished representation in government jobs in comparison with Hindus, the article also highlights the repudiation of violence across a broad swathe of Indian Muslim communities and their engagement with members of other religions.  “The contrast with the sectarian bloodletting, growing radicalism and deepening conservatism in Pakistan next door”, states the author, “is striking.”  This is much the same conclusion reached by the New York Times correspondent who shortly thereafter wrote on “Why India’s Muslims Haven’t Radicalized.”

 

I am aware, I think, as much as anyone else of how much of the present political discourse has pivoted around the ‘Good Muslim’ vs. ‘Bad Muslim’, or around the ‘extremist Muslim’ vs. the ‘moderate Muslim’.  So, I am cognizant of the perils of such discourse, and likewise of how the ‘Good Muslim’ is really a cloak for anti-Muslim sentiment that cares not to reveal itself as such.  There is, for those who decry or lament the very presence of Islam in their midst, some capital to be derived from speaking of the ‘Good Muslim’ with approbation.  The discourse of the ‘Bad Muslim’ is, in the present political climate, here to stay: the question is whether we might derive a different kind of politics from the figure of the Muslim who is not merely an object to be appropriated into the framework of a conservative or liberal politics.

 

The anomalous figure of the Indian Muslim in contemporary politics to which I have adverted thus deserves much greater attention than anyone has been lavished on him thus far.  One would not know any of this from a reading of contemporary Western ‘authorities’ on the politics of Muslim societies.  Gilles Keppel’s The War for Muslim Minds:  Islam and the West (Harvard University Press, 2004), makes absolutely no reference to India:  apparently, on this, rather not uncommon reading, India partakes neither of the West nor of Islam and thus has no say or investment in this matter. I fear similarly that when “Muslim Americans” are invoked, it is a certain kind of Muslim, the supposedly “authentic” Muslim who is of ‘Middle Eastern’ provenance, who is generally being brought to mind.  There is little if any cognizance of just who these Muslim Americans are and very little acknowledgement that they are the inheritors of a great many different, and often conflicting, traditions and histories.

Early_American_Ahmadis

Early converts to the Ahmadiyya movement. Two missionaries, Sufi Bengalee and Khalil Nasir, are sitting at the center.  Source:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmadiyya_in_the_United_States

 

Ten percent of the Asian Indian population of around four million in the US is comprised of Muslims, though there is virtually no mention of them in the voluminous commentary on Muslims that appears in the press every day.  If they are to any degree representative of the strands of Indian Islam to which I have very briefly alluded, should we say that they are perhaps uniquely positioned to mediate between Asian Americans and Muslim Americans, as well as between Muslim Americans and American society at large?  While Moustafa Bayoumi’s attempt to briefly complicate the history of Muslim Americans is commendable, and he is entirely right that “Muslim Americans” are not just a “post-2001 population”, South Asian Muslims appear nowhere in his commentary.  Consider this:  if we are to speak of the beginnings of organized Islam in the United States, and the possibilities of multiracial coalitions between South Asians, Arabs, and American Muslims, how can we possibly overlook—as he does—the role of Ahmadiyya preachers, who had arrived in the US in the 1920s from what was then undivided India, in giving Islam in the US a new lease of life and in overcoming, as Junaid Rana has put it trenchantly, “racial and ethnic separation that existed not only in the Muslim community, but the U.S. and globally”? (See “Islam and Black America:  The Story of Islamophobia”, Souls 9, no. 2 (April-June 2007), 156.)

(To be continued)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part II, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV,  see: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/

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Part Two of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”

 

I suggested in the first part of this blog piece that the place of Indians and more broadly South Asians within the fabric of Asian America Studies remains uncertain.  How, then, should we deliberate over Moustafa Bayoumi’s call for a conception of Asian American Studies that is still more inclusive and responsive to the increasing presence of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans?  “The complexity of the Muslim American experience”, he avers, “is something that Asian American studies has never really grappled with, I believe.” One can hardly disagree, except to ask if there is any other field of study, or discipline, that has “grappled with” the “complexity of the Muslim American experience”?  And this notwithstanding the fact that the academic industry around Islam and Muslim societies has shown a phenomenal increase:  the study of Hinduism, by contrast, falls under the ambit of a very small number of scholars.  The American university is chock full of courses on Islam, Muslim societies, Middle Eastern history, and the contemporary politics of the Middle East.  The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which has 60 institutional members, testifies to the growth of Middle East and Near East studies departments at American universities.  There are, of course, a good many reasons for these developments, which extend from American political and economic interests in the Middle East to the archaeological interest in the Fertile Crescent and the kinship that Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity as an ‘Abrahamic’ religion.  It is during the time of George H. W. Bush that one heard the remark that if Iraq—and obviously the same holds true for the area as a whole—was broccoli-rich rather than oil-rich, saving Iraq from itself and ‘securing’ the roots of democracy in this part of the world would never have struck the Americans as a desirable objective.  All this is apart from the consideration whether Western scholarly attention has been good for countries in the Middle East; nor am I, at present, inquiring into the politics of knowledge which has long enabled the study of the rest of the world by the West.

Sadly, as the remarks that follow will suggest, even Islamic Studies programs in the American academy do little to reflect the “complexity of the Muslim American experience”, judging at least from the narrow conception of Islam peddled by such programs.  Whatever the shortcomings of Asian American Studies, and there are many, they may be less egregious than the sins of omission and commission with which Islamic Studies programs and other sectors of the American academy have engaged Muslim Americans.  At least some Asian American scholars will balk at Bayoumi’s suggestion that their field encompass the histories and experience of Muslim Americans, even if one takes to heart his plea that “Asian American Studies is not about the geography of Asia, really, but about the ways in which people are interpellated and organized and come together within the United States as different types of ‘Asians.’” He means to say that the place where one is has no necessary or even any relationship to geographical determinism:  that place is really a function of the psychogeography to which one has habituated oneself.  Yet, the geographical coordinates are not altogether indeterminate, and so we find Bayoumi suggesting, in contradiction to his previous avowal that “Asian American Studies is not about the geography of Asia”, that Asian American Studies should “at least include those Arab Americans who hail from West Asia and those Muslim Americans who hail from Asia generally”.  It thus appears that Asian American Studies both is and is not incipiently about “the geography of Asia”.

Before we speak of Muslim Americans, whether they be Arabs, North Africans, or South Asians—all candidates, it seems, for being viewed as “Asian American”, no doubt alongside Muslim Americans with origins from Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and elsewhere—it would be fruitful to advert to the problems that inhere in speaking of Islam as such.  In the United States, especially, the Middle East, or what is otherwise called West Asia, is assumed to be the ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ home of Islam. It comes as a surprise to most Americans to be told that South Asia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world, and that India, where fewer than 15% of the people are Muslims, and Pakistan, which is overwhelmingly a Muslim-majority state, each have around 180-200 million Muslims.  Demography has its own politics; but numbers aside, by far the more germane consideration is that Islam developed in South Asia over a course of a millennium along considerably different trajectories than in West Asia.  The tendency in the West, noticeable even in the works of distinguished scholars of Islam such as Ernest Gellner and Stephen Humphreys, has been to altogether ignore Islamic South Asia.  The tacitly held view is that Islam in South Asia is something of a deviant form, an inauthentic and bastardized version of the true faith housed in the Arab world.  When the “Islamic World” is referenced, it is at once the Middle East that is being called into attention—and then Indonesia, North Africa, and other Muslim-majority societies. As an experiment, I invite the reader to put “map of Islam” into the Google search engine:  what it brought up at once was “the Islamic world”, which is defined as the 57 countries that belong to the “Organization of the Islamic Conference.”  This is the default view of Islam in the West, replicated in thousands of books, web sites, media platforms, and in the opinion pages of journalists, policy makers, and so-called experts.

The consequence of this disposition is not merely that one becomes oblivious to what we might call the varieties of Islam.  The more disturbing implications of such ignorance become apparent when one turns to an assessment of the turn that Islam has taken in Pakistan since the late 1970s.  Pakistan is assuredly a part of the Muslim world, but it is as much, however difficult it may be for orthodox Muslims in Pakistan to concede this, a part of the Indic world.  Over the course of the second millennium CE, the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis that was forged in the Indian sub-continent led to the brilliant efflorescence of music, architecture, cuisine, art, literature, and religious expression.  Moreover, contrary to the commonplace view, Muslim-majority Pakistan was not explicitly forged as an Islamic state—which is not the same thing as a Muslim-majority state—when it was carved out of India in 1947.  But Pakistani Muslims have increasingly been drilled with the idea, most particularly following the Islamicization policies of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan from 1978-1988, that their practices of Islam have been contaminated through centuries of close proximity to Hinduism, and that in turning their gaze westward, towards the historic homeland of the Prophet Muhammad, they will be liberating themselves from the cunning tyranny of effete Hindus.  It is not even remotely surprising that the Islamic terrorists who have been wreaking havoc on the streets of Pakistan have been targeting not just religious minorities but also, just as ominously, those Muslims who in various ways have defied the creeping drumbeat of a Wahhabi-infused Islam which has now taken a vise-like grip over growing arenas of Pakistani society.  One of the most prominent victims of the extremists last year was the great exponent of Sufi music, Amjad Sabri, killed in broad daylight after being accused of blasphemy—effectively a death sentence.

(To be continued)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/

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Los Angeles, 25 June 2016

Amjad Sabri, 45, was shot dead on a Karachi street Wednesday morning.  To millions of people around the world, he and other members of his famous family have been the torch-bearers of Sufi qawwali music since the late 1950s when the two brothers, Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, released their first album under the EMI Pakistan label, Mera Kohin Nahin Hai Teray Siva [I Have None Other Than You].  Amjad Sabri not only inherited the legacy of his father, Ghulam Sabri, but was in every way a worthy legatee.

amjad-sabri-qawwal

Amjad Sabri

Pakistan has gone well beyond being in a state of crisis.  It has been so long in a crisis that one needs a more trenchant, soul-searching, and analytically penetrative vocabulary to describe the abysmal state to which it has long been reduced.  This nation-state, not yet 70 years old, is now in its death-throes.  It is, as the world’s affairs have made evident, and as is suggested by the turmoil in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, to mention only a few other countries, far from being the only country where common people can no longer expect to live with any assurance of even minimal security and dignity.  No Indian, such as myself, should ever be able to throw a stone at Pakistan without casting a glance at India’s own sordid state of affairs.  India has had its own share of open assassinations of intellectuals and its suppression of voices of dissent is alarming.

Nevertheless, the problems of Pakistan are not only quite distinct but of an altogether different order, even if the assault on freedom of expression and religious worship has taken on menacing overtones even in relatively robust democracies.  One splinter group of the Taliban, the so-called Hakimullah Mehsud faction, has claimed responsibility for Amjad Sabri’s murder and described the music of which he was a superb exponent as “blasphemous.”  The charge of blasphemy is not to be taken lightly in Pakistan, where people so accused—Christians, Ahmadis, non-believers, apostates, even those who are just resolutely secular—have even been killed in custody while awaiting trial.  If an accusation of blasphemy is in many instances nothing short of a death warrant, Sabri’s offense was, from the Taliban perspective, compounded by the fact that Sufi qawwali music is seen as an absolute anathema to Islam.  This view stems from a profound ignorance among the extremists both about the status of music and indeed the place of Sufism in Islam.  Far from being an aberration, Sufism had been central to Islam for centuries; indeed, it would be safe to say that most Muslims, until the advent of ‘modernity’, would have had some affinity to a Sufi order.  What is perhaps even more germane is that the notion that music ought to be abhorrent to a believing Muslim is an idea that is of very recent vintage with little or or no credibility in Islamic history.

The assassination of Amjad Sabri, then, fits the template of interpretation that is now firmly in place.  We have been hearing for many years about the rigid intolerance and fanaticism of the Taliban.  Pakistan is in the grip of several insurgencies, in Balochistan, Waziristan, and among Afghan Pashtuns, but to outside observers, especially in the United States and Western Europe, the battle for Pakistan is essentially between the state and the Taliban.  We may ignore, for the present, the fact that the Taliban is far from being one single entity, and that various Taliban factions do not all share the same ideology.  There is, more pertinently, a lurking suspicion in the foreign policy establishments of India, the US, and most Western powers that the Pakistani political elites only make a show of being committed to the eradication of the Taliban.  Many of them are believed to be sympathetic to the Taliban and extremist ideology is supposed to have many adherents among Pakistan’s politicians and army officers.  A variation of this argument, and it is little more than that, posits the deep discord that is apparently tearing apart the country as one between “moderates” and “extremists”.  In this scenario, whatever the local elements that might be feeding into the conflict, Pakistan is yet another stage where ideologues who are wholly beholden to the Wahhabi and Salafi elements are making an extremely violent and desperate bid to impose a puritanical, harsh, and ferociously punishing version of Islam throughout the world.

While this standard template of interpretation has much merit, it is oblivious to the most critical component that distinguishes the Muslim extremists in Pakistan from their brethren in the Middle East.  Muslims in Pakistan are not only part of the ummah, the global community of Muslims, but they also partake of what might be called the Indic worldview.  Much before the rise of the Taliban, South Asian Islam, especially in Pakistan, was beginning to fall hostage to the notion that it was an inauthentic and feebler version of the Islam of Muhammad’s homeland.  The purists in Pakistan, whatever their misgivings about the political implications of the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, have always been troubled by the sheer proximity of Islam to Hinduism in South Asia, and Bengali Muslims in particular were seen as the source of contamination which both enfeebled and compromised true, muscular Islam.  Thus the loss of East Pakistan was a blessing in disguise, and Muslims in Pakistan could be weaned, as has been happening over the last 45 years, from those distinct socio-cultural and religious practices, such as visits to the dargahs of Sufi saints, that reeked of Hindu influence and idolatry.

Students of Pakistani society are aware of the close and ever growing ties between the Saudis and Pakistan.  But Pakistan, again, is not even remotely the only country where the Wahhabi state of Saudia Arabia has successfully sought to peddle its noxious and virulent version of Islam.  It thus becomes imperative to understand what is distinct about Islamic extremism in Pakistan and why the stakes are extraordinarily high.  It cannot be emphasized enough that, unlike in the Middle East, the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis that developed in South Asia over several centuries, from the advent of the Delhi Sultanate in the early 13th century to the end of Mughal rule, is a glorious monument of world culture and a testament to the ability and resilience of the practitioners of two very different faiths to cohabit the same space in the most productive fashion.  The terrorists who murdered Amjad Sabri are seeking to undermine this past, little realizing that they will have succeeded in turning Pakistan into a desert:  not the desert of Muhamamad’s time but akin to a wasteland following a holocaust.

 

 

 

 

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Review of Yasmin Khan, The Raj At WarA People’s History of India’s Second World War (Gurgaon, Haryana:  Random House India, 2015).   Published as “When the War Came Home”, The Indian Express (29 August 2015), p. 25, with slight modifications.  .

World War II has never much been on India’s horizon, excepting of course the role thought to have been played by the Indian National Army and Subhas Chandra Bose, who remains a legendary figure, and not only in his native Bengal, in moving India closer to liberation from colonial rule.  Most Indians have long believed that this was not their war, and there is a case to be made for the view, notwithstanding the mobilization of over two million Indian soldiers who served in Europe, Africa, and Asia, that the Second World War is best understood as part of a long history of bitter struggle for supremacy in Europe.  In the nationalist narrative, it is the Quit India movement that hogs the limelight.

Yasmin Khan, an Oxford-based historian whose previous book on the making of India and Pakistan, The Great Partition, was well received, notes in her introduction that while researching the Partition of India she came to the awareness that the war years were critical in helping shape the political conditions that would lead to negotiations for independence.  She subscribes to the argument that has been advanced by many scholars and commentators that the Congress, owing to its declared position of neutrality and its consequent banishment into political wilderness, found itself confronting political realities at the end of the war that it could not comprehend (308). Jinnah openly declared that the war “proved to be a blessing in disguise” (135):  the Muslim League found itself ascendant and took every opportunity to reiterate the threat of a Hindu Raj.  At Aligarh Muslim University, the entire atmosphere had changed within a few years such that by 1942 the idea of Pakistan commanded wide allegiance among Muslims (136).  But Khan avers much more than that, making bold to state that in the aftermath of the war there was a “new belief in the power of violence to release India from colonial control” (x), and she conveys the centrality of the war as an Indian experience with the argument that “the war delivered decolonization and the Partition of 1947—neither of which were inevitable or foreseen in 1939” (xvi).

Independence, as we know, did not occur overnight, and Khan is quick to recognize “the considerable achievement of the nationalists over the long duration” (xvi).  The strengths of this volume, however, lie elsewhere, in the mass of material that Khan has assiduously gathered from numerous archives and hundreds of sources and in the extraordinary stories, often juxtaposed with startling effect, which lend credence to her view that “Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did” (xiii).  Her book is unprecedented in scope, peopled by a motley group of characters, and rich both in detail and in its unique insights into the socio-cultural and military history of the war years. Her endeavor, in the first instance, is to underscore the signal part played by India in the war, to make visible to those who remember, for example, only the Blitz the contributions of the “Asian merchant sailors who kept the British ports going” (319), not to mention the back-breaking labour of those who built the 500-mile Ledo Road through the mountains of northern Burma to link India to China (259-63).

British Indian Troops in Florence, Italy.

British Indian Troops in Florence, Italy.

Secondly, she strives to show the untold number of ways in which the war impacted ordinary people throughout the country:  recruitment officers often made their way to the remotest villages, the “War Fund” imposed burdens on people already living at the brink of poverty, paddy fields were requisitioned—usually with inadequate compensation—to build over 200 aerodromes, and wardens patrolled the streets of major cities to ensure that blackouts were being observed.  Khan’s India in the war years had room enough for 10,000 Poles escaping ethnic cleansing by the Soviets and Nazis (123), a camp in Ramgarh, Jharkhand, where over 50,000 Chinese soldiers received training (271), and 22,000 American black servicemen who, already intimately familiar with racism, encountered a Calcutta where at the only service swimming pool there were “white days and black days” (268).  Many histories have sought to convey the impression that the war barely touched India, once we leave aside Subhas Bose’s theatrics; but the effect of Khan’s narrative is to suggest the near total immersion of a society into a war in which, wrote Orwell, India had become, “it is hardly an exaggeration to say, the centre of the world” (93).

African American Servicemen Riding Rickshaws in India, July 1943.  Source:  National Achives, Wsashington DC.

African American Servicemen Riding Rickshaws in India, July 1943. Source: National Achives, Wsashington DC.

What lends Khan’s history poignancy is her ability to draw the reader into the lives of common people and her ear for nuance and irony.  One of the most sensitive subjects for Indians was the recruitment drives, and Khan notes the moral pressure that women, in a patriarchal society, were successfully able to apply “in determining whether their sons left home for the war or not” (227).  In Rajinder Dhatt’s family two brothers who fought for the empire returned home safely but the third, whom the mother kept close to her bosom, died of typhoid (312).

The Bengal Famine, with the numbing accounts of bodies littered on the streets, the proliferation of beggars who had been reduced to skeletons, the acute shortages of food and clothing, and the requisitioning and destruction of boats that eviscerated a people and their lifestyle, appears and reappears throughout Khan’s book.

The Bengal Famine Inquiry Report, Khan says, was published the same week that VE Day was announced.  Even as Khan indicts the British for their cynicism and callousness, she hints at the enormity of the tragedy in quoting a British woman in Calcutta who, when shown pictures of starved concentration camp inmates from Buchenwald, commented thus: “The German atrocities apparently do not compare with the Bengal famine so the pictures don’t shock the folks out here” (299).

While there are theoretical and historiographic questions to be asked about what exactly are the contours a “people’s history”, Khan’s history has paved the way for a more complex understanding of the Second World War as India’s war too.

India in 1940.

India in 1940.

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