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Archive for the ‘South Asian Politics’ Category

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.”

King&GandhiAssassinationsChicagoSun-Times

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.

HutatmaNathuramGodseMandir

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.

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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.

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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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India and Pakistan are so close and yet so far apart.   One is tempted into saying that no two countries are so similar, and yet the two countries have gone to war, and have been nearly lured into war, on several occasions.   The distance from Amritsar to Lahore, the two greatest cities of the undivided Punjab, is a mere 53 kilometres.  A super-fast train, of the kind found in Japan, China, and in most of western Europe, would have traversed this distance in 10 minutes.  However, approaching the border from either end, travelers must navigate the shoals and eddies of the modern nation-state system at Wagah.  On the Indian side, the last station is Attari; from here, it is a mere 3 kilometres to Wagah; and, in between, one might say, is “no man’s land”, where the “formalities” that are necessary at border crossings are transacted.

The distance from Wagah to Lahore is 29 kilometres, and a tad less is the distance from Wagah to Amritsar.  But this is one crossing that is not meant to be navigated at will, and certainly not in a vehicle of one’s choosing.  One might cross on foot, provided one had a visa; more commonly, the crossing is attempted on the Samjhauta [Agreement] Express, as the train that ferries Pakistanis and Indians across the border is optimistically if not gallantly named.   But supposing one was looking to take a journey from Amritsar to Lahore in one’s own car, as one might from, say, Seattle (Washington State, USA) to Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada).   Google Maps tells me that on Interstate 5, I can cover the distance of 147 miles in less than 3 hours.  However, when I put in Amritsar and Lahore into Google Maps and sought directions, I was advised, as would anyone else who cared to undertake such an exercise, that the distance between the two cities by car is 5,385 kilometres and would ordinarily be covered in 110 hours!  If, like most drivers from South Asia, one cannot be even remotely bothered by posted speed limits, one might perhaps knock off a few hours, though I suspect that the continuous transgression of such limits, in certain parts of Tibet or the PRC, may pose some hazards.  Why, however, mention Tibet at all?   The stated route takes one not due west, but rather south to New Delhi (as if in tacit acknowledgement of the fact that no such trip would be possible without the mandarins that staff the corridors of power at the Secretariat), and from there southeast to Uttar Pradesh and thence to Nepal, and then west and largely north through Tibet and China to just east of the eastern border of Tajikistan before one makes one’s descent through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK, though, naturally, it is known as Azad Kashmir in Pakistan), Islamabad, and finally through Pakistan’s province of Punjab to Lahore.  What else need one say about the impossible distance that intimacy often creates?

Google Maps:  Driving Directiosns from Amritsar (India) to Lahore (Pakistan), a distance of 53 kilometres.

Google Maps: Driving Directiosns from Amritsar (India) to Lahore (Pakistan), a distance of 53 kilometres.

It is characteristic of the peculiar relationship into which Pakistan and India are now bound that Wagah chiefly occupies a place in popular lore as the site of one of the most unusual rituals of the nation-state system.  Tourists flock in numbers each evening to see, shortly before sunset, the Beating Retreat Ceremony:  across the divide, the two countries lower their flags and armed soldiers stage a highly orchestrated set of maneuvers.  For the ethnographer of nationalism, Wagah is as rich a site as any to comprehend the semiotics and rituals of the modern nation-state and the mobilization of symbols and sentiments in creating a nationalist sensibility.  Pomp and ceremony have long been handmaidens to nation-state exhibitionism; and there is, of course, no nation-state without a national flag.  What is most striking about the spectacle is that the audience, at either end of the border, are permitted the sight of the other but no more, the thought of intimacy but nothing that would occasion its realization.

Every Indian visitor to Pakistan has recounted the warmth with which he or she was received in that country; Pakistan feels very much like ‘home’.  Much the same can be said of Pakistani visitors to north India.  It is also apparent that, in some fundamental respects, the two countries, notwithstanding their shared heritage, have moved in different directions; nevertheless, the sense of what is common to both is overwhelming.  Why, then, the distance?  Many people are inclined to argue that the animosity that exists between India and Pakistan reflects not the sentiments of the people of the two countries but rather is an attribute of the logic of the nation-state system and the zero-sum politics that shapes the foreign policy of each country.  This is unquestionably true; and, similarly, there can be no gainsaying the fact that what NGOs describe as people-to-people contacts are likely to make a much greater difference in facilitating peace than ministerial-level dialogues, meetings between foreign secretaries and other bureaucrats, and yet more state-sanctioned conferences.

Still, once one has conceded that enhanced civil society interactions are the sine qua non of a peace between Pakistan and India, the nagging feeling persists that there is something a bit more  inexplicable which characterizes the relationship between India and Pakistan, producing distance when is there is so much intimacy.  In a number of his writings, Freud noted the tendency of people who are very close to each other to exaggerate what divided them:  he referred to this phenomenon as the narcissism of minor differences, sometimes substituting “small” for “minor”.  His magisterial essay of 1930, Civilization and Its Discontents, offers a commentary on this dynamic with an observation about “communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other.”  Elsewhere he had occasion to comment, “Every time two families become connected by a marriage, each of them thinks itself superior to or of better birth than the other.  Of two neighboring towns each is the other’s most jealous rival; every little canton looks down upon the others with contempt.”  The Scots and the English, Shias and Sunnis, Serbs and Croats, Hutus and Tutsis:  to these pairs, and to the loveless rivalries that beset English football clubs, one might add Pakistan and India.  It may, perhaps, require more than the display of brotherly and sisterly sentiments to bring Pakistan and India out of the curve of enmity.

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A local election in India is not likely to garner world attention, but the outcome of the recently concluded Legislative Assembly elections in Delhi, a sprawling city of more than twenty million people, portends much for the future of democracy—not merely in India, but all over the world.  The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), founded a little over two years ago by a rather nondescript former revenue service officer, has secured 67 of 70 seats in the State Assembly.  These results, confounding the expectations of pollsters and the party’s most optimistic supporters, would have been astounding at any time but are now all the more remarkable in view of the fact that AAP, which speaks for the “common man”, had been written off after the national elections last May which brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power with a clear indeed compelling majority.  Moreover, Arvind Kejriwal, who has now taken the oath of office as Delhi’s Chief Minister, was widely viewed as having irreparably imperiled his political career when he resigned from the same position after a mere 49 days in office in February 2014.

Pollsters, Predictions . . . and Results

Pollsters, Predictions . . . and Results

The extraordinary electoral triumph of AAP can certainly be read in various registers.  Some people are likely to view the mandate for AAP as the electorate’s expression of strong disapproval of the BJP’s tolerance, if not instigation, of Hindu extremism.  The ideologues of Hindu nationalism have been enjoying an unchecked run of privileges since the BJP came to power, running down minorities, glorifying the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, and putting considerable resources into “reconverting” Muslims, Christians, and others to Hinduism.  Gandhi, however venerated he may be in the rest of the world, is despised by many of these Hindu ideologues as an effeminate and wooly-minded Hindu who was soft on Islam.  (The shared dislike for Gandhi among the Hindutvavadis and those who pride themselves on their staunchly progressive credentials—measured these days by, more than anything else, a declaration of supreme and often unqualified admiration for Ambedkar—is another interesting story about the complicity of the right and the left, but one that will have to be told another time.)  The Hindu extremists profess, however, to have much concern for the Muslims, and euphemistically describe their efforts to bring Muslims back into the Hindu fold as a homecoming (ghar wapsi), a form of return to the mother’s bosom.  Though one can see why the AAP victory might be interpreted as an affirmation of the secular values of the republic, there is little evidence to substantiate this view.

AAP’s electoral victory, and in particular Kejriwal’s personal triumph, is also being projected as yet another round in the eternal conflict of David and Goliath.  Many commentators are viewing the electoral outcome as a crushing defeat for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the immensely popular—and to some charismatic—leader of the BJP who campaigned for his party candidates and vilified Kejriwal as a “Naxal”, the term used to designate political activists who are inspired by Maoism and are committed to the use of violence to overthrow the bourgeois state.  In last year’s national elections, Modi gained considerable mileage among the voters when the ruling Congress party’s elites scoffed at his humble origins as a chaiwallah (tea-seller).  Kejriwal has shown that he is just as adept at this game:  he describes himself as a simple man and dresses humbly.  Indeed, if Modi is inclined towards high ethnic fashion, Kejriwal has similarly shown a flair for a different kind of sartorial politics.  The “muffler man” makes appearances in public with a scarf wrapped around his head, so signifying his solidarity with working class people.

The Mufflerman:  More Illusions about a "World Class City"?

The Mufflerman: More Illusions about a “World Class City”?

There are, of course, more substantive ways in which the tussle in Delhi between AAP and BJP might be cast as a battle between David and Goliath.  It is now almost easy to forget that the quest for power in Delhi originated as a three-way contest, and that AAP’s victory eviscerated the Congress, the ruling party in India and Delhi alike for decades.  The BJP is also an established political party:  in its present shape its history goes back to the early 1980s, though earlier incarnations of the party have been around since 1951.  The BJP could draw upon a gigantic electoral machinery, millions of supporters and volunteers, and immense financial resources.  And yet it was humbled, indeed decimated, by a political party which has barely gotten off the ground.  Contrary to the widely held view that elections cannot be waged and won without insanely large sums of money, AAP has unequivocally shown that, at least in India, elections are not necessarily the preserve of those who are wealthy, well-connected, or the scions of political families.

There is much else that is tremendously exciting about AAP’s sweeping victory in the Delhi Legislative Assembly elections, but the critical question is whether there might be some lessons in this triumph for those interested in democracy’s prospects globally.  We have been living, since the end of the Cold War, in the age of what might be called new democracy movements.  The ‘Arab Spring’ was celebrated the world over.  However, the embers of hope have been extinguished in most places.  The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square languish in jails, when they have not been killed outright; in Syria, meanwhile, the uprising against Bashar al-Assad has produced the world’s greatest refugee crisis in decades.  But these revolts were at the outset tarnished by violence, and there is some justification for saying that what begins in violence will end in violence.  India’s masses may be poorly educated, often illiterate, and generally not too well-informed about political processes.  Yet it is indubitably the case that they have repeatedly and insistently shown their wisdom at the voting booth and expressed a clear preference for the ballot over the bullet.  Whatever democracy’s failings in India, and they are very considerable, when we consider the shocking inability of the state in nearly seven decades after independence to provide the majority of Indians with minimal guarantees of livelihood, well-being, and security, disempowered communities of various hues are beginning to understand that violence must be eschewed and that the ballot has given them new prospects for advancement.  Delhi’s mainly poor citizens have shown yet again that there is nothing like the ballot box to check the arrogance of power. The rest of the world should take heart from India’s continuing experiments in democracy.

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