*Islam and Asian American Studies

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/

*The Murder of a Sufi Qawwal and a Nation-Sate in Its Death-Throes

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.

 

 

 

 

*When the War Came Home: India and the Second World War

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.

*India, Pakistan, and the Narcissism of Minor Differences  

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.

*Delhi and the Global Prospects for Democracy

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.

*Clothing the World:  Poetics, Poverty, and Politics

 

 

Jeremy Seabrook, an independent writer, journalist, and chronicler of the human condition who has long had an interest in South Asia, probing especially the lives of those who inhabit India’s slums and Muslim ghettos, turns his attention in his most recent book to the workers of Bangladesh’s garment industries who clothe the world but, like the weavers of Bengal in colonial India, barely have enough to cover their own nakedness. The book takes its title from Thomas Hood’s elegy on the women workers in Lancashire’s textile mills, “The Song of the Shirt” (1843):  working “in poverty, hunger, and dirt,” moving their fingers to the command of “Stich! Stich! Stich!”, they sowed at once, “with a double thread, A Shroud as well as a Shirt.”

 

If Bangladesh has emerged at all in the news in recent years, it is on account of the disasters that have befallen its garment industry, none as calamitous as the collapse of the Rana Plaza commercial building under whose debris over 1,100 people were left dead.  Seabrook’s book is a searing indictment of the callousness of factory owners and others in the global system of the circulation of capital who are complicit in creating miserable working conditions for those employed in Bangladesh’s largest and most profitable industrial venture.  Yet it is also an extraordinary tribute to the workers who pile into Dhaka and other centers of the garment industry from all corners of the country.  Their lives are sketched not so much in detail as in poignantly suggestive prose.  Do people flee to that “washed out concrete jungle” that is called Dhaka, which Seabrook unflinchingly describes as one of the world’s ugliest cities, to escape the narrowing of human possibilities that Marx sought to capture in his brutal condemnation of the “idiocy of the rural countryside”?  One might suppose that it is the aspiration to become something in life, or merely to earn a livelihood, that brings people to the city from the interior, but what would then make the story of Bangladesh so distinct?

 

Rana Plaza Building Collapse, Dhaka

Rana Plaza Building Collapse, Dhaka

The recent migrants coming into Dhaka “bring the sincerity and artlessness of rural life—qualities ripe for transformation into exploitable labour” (37); yet the city where they arrive with such hope becomes another prison, reduced as they are to 12-hour working days in window-less rooms and under the watchful eyes of cruel taskmasters.  But the specificity of their stories is to be derived from the particular conditions which push them to the city—the loss of ancestral land, the inability to feed too many mouths, the need for money to secure a dowry for a sister, and so on.  Perhaps more than anything else, Bangladesh is a land dense with rivers and scarred by cyclones.  The rivers are teeming with fish but the river is also “thieving” and “hungry”; when the Meghna overflows, its ravenous maw swallows up whole houses, agricultural land, and people (105-9).

 

Garment Factory in the Mohakhali area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2010.  Credit:  Clean Clothes Campaign.

Garment Factory in the Mohakhali area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2010. Credit: Clean Clothes Campaign.

In this short yet compelling book, Seabrook skillfully weaves together tales of peasants with stories of weavers, moving back and forth between the village and the city, water and land, lush green fields and the ramshackle appearance of South Asia’s urban patches, even the poetic and the idioms of history.  He is versed in historical sources but not burdened by them; and only someone with the sensibility of a poet can ruminate on the strange interplay of fire and water that has shaped the contours of the lives of his subjects.  Water, in the form of “tidal surges, cyclones and floods”, has “always been the most usual element that brings death to Bangladesh” (29); the villagers flee this menace to arrive as laborers in the city’s garment factories, often to be consumed by the fires that have time and again struck the garment industry’s ill-regulated factories and warehouses.  One might have thought that water fights fire, but in Bangladesh the two often collude—as if the poor did not have enough wretchedness in their lives.  There are other desultory facts, almost poetic bits, that take the breath away:  who would have thought that Murshidabad, once the world centre of silk weaving and now a haunted culture, perhaps once accounted for “5 percent” of the world’s total product (176-77)?

 

The Song of the Shirt, writes Seabrook, “is a reflection on the mutability of progress.”  The dominant narrative of human progress presupposes “a deterministic and linear process,” but Seabrook insistently reminds us that “experience in the clothing and fabric industry suggests certain areas of the world are liable to periods of industrialization, but equally to de-industrialization” (17).  The most ambitious aspect of Seabrook’s intellectual enterprise, and not surprisingly the one that is most fraught with hazards of interpretation, is his attempt to suggest the various ways in which Bengal and Lancashire offer a mirror image of each other.  The demise of the weaving industry in Bengal under colonial rule “coincided with the rise of the mechanized production of cotton goods” in the greater Manchester area; even as Dhaka became a ghost town, “Manchester became the centre of intense economic dynamism”.  Lancashire is now utterly denuded of its textile mills, and Manchester has lost population; but, in “a ghostly replay of traffic in the other direction” of “the machine-made clothing” that wiped out Bengal’s famed spinners and weavers (17), Dhaka with its 2500 garment factories has become nearly the epicentre of the world’s manufactured clothing.  Seabrook invests much in this comparison, constantly suggesting similarities between 19th century Britain and contemporary Bangladesh with respect to the lives of the workers, the nexus between the state and manufacturers, working conditions, and much else.

 

One might be moved, by Seabrook’s comparisons, to accept that widely quoted French expression, “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.  But this temptation must be resisted, if only because a sensitivity to the politics of knowledge should introduce some caution in comparisons between Europe’s past and the global South’s present.  Nevertheless, in Song of the Shirt, Seabrook has accomplished the enviable task of rendering naked the social processes which have helped to clothe the world and disguise some unpalatable truths about the treacherousness of what is usually celebrated as entrepreneurial capitalism.

 

[Review of Jeremy Seabrook, The Song of the SpiritCheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries (New Delhi:  Navayana, 2014;  ISBN:  9788189059644; 288 pp.  Rs 495), first published as “The Textile Jungle”, The Indian Express (18 October 2014).

*Another Partition: Some Questions about the Ayodhya Judgment

One of the most keenly awaited judicial decisions in independent India was handed down on September 30th by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court when it passed judgment on the title suits regarding ownership of the disputed land on which once stood the Babri Masjid.  There is something askance, one might say, in the language that I have used, since the question of “title suits” appears to obscure the brute fact of the demolition of the mosque on 6 December 1992.  One might easily argue that the court was not called upon to comment on the demolition, but that view too easily permits one to obliterate the very fact that, in some respects, riveted the nation’s attention upon the title suits.  Who would have been paying attention to the title suits had the Babri Mosque not been brought down?  The judges may not have had any legal obligation to address the question of the demolition of the mosque and assign responsibility, though one may assume that none of them condones the mosque’s destruction, but what of the ethical burden placed upon them?

The judgment, not yet two days old, has already been replayed endlessly across television screens, and reasonable people have had to add the proviso that all interpretations of the judgment must be viewed as tentative until such time as it has been studied at length.  Running to close to 8,200 pages, the High Court’s judgment is very unlikely to be read in its entirety, and we shall have to await the assessment of assiduous aspirants for the doctorate degree to get some sense of the small print.  Yet, the bold brush strokes with which the judgment has been painted permit one to pose some striking questions.  What does it mean, for example, that questions of theology should have to be resolved by a court of law?  Courts in other democracies are not generally called upon to adjudicate such questions as were brought before the three judges.  Has it become something of a habit in India to turn to our courts for matters that cannot by a sensible person be viewed as falling under the purview of jurisprudence or legal reasoning?  What does it say about civil society in India that a court should have been asked to adjudicate whether the ‘disputed site’ was the birthplace of Rama, and what can a court tell us on this matter that might not have been told to us by historians, archaeologists, or other scholars?  Do we not have enough resources among us as a people to be able to come to some common understanding on these matters?

Justice Sharma gave it as his opinion that one could not speak of the destruction of a mosque since no mosque ever stood on the alleged Ramjanmasthan site.  He does not deny that a building was brought down on 6 December 1992, but he denies that the building was a mosque, even if it bore the name of ‘Babri Masjid’.  On Justice Sharma’s view, the structure that came to be known as the ‘Babri Masjid’ was not built according to the tenets of Islam, and therefore it cannot be construed as a mosque.  Perhaps the detailed judgment will reveal how Justice Sharma came to this conclusion, but even then some questions will persist on the politics of the knowledge that he embraces.  One would think that this matter ought to have been left to Muslim theologians and legal experts, who perhaps are best positioned to pass judgment on what standards a building must meet before it can be viewed as a mosque.  I do not recall encountering in the voluminous literature surrounding the mosque or ‘disputed site’ this particular argument.  If Justice Khan could not think of any objection to calling the Babri Masjid a mosque, why should this matter have struck Justice Sharma?  Since when did Justice Sharma become an expert on Islam and the protocols that guide the construction of mosques?  And, most tellingly, how does Justice Sharma presume to speak for Muslims, in effect telling them that they have not been scrupulous in adhering to the canons of their faith and that it behooves them to consider whether the Babri Masjid ever bore the characteristics of a mosque?

A “massive Hindu religious structure”, Justice Sharma intoned in his judgment, is proven to have existed at the same site where the ‘Babri Masjid’ once stood.  Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that he is right.  But how can that fact, if fact it is, be construed to mean that it was the site of a temple built to mark the precise spot where Rama took birth (i.e., the Ramjanmasthan)?  Even Justice Khan does not deny that the Babri Masjid was most likely built with the remnants of a Hindu temple.  Yet, the two arguments are dramatically different both in intent and in their command over how the past can be best put to interpretation.  Many temples were built and destroyed, not always or even often at the hands of the Muslim conqueror; some fell to the elements, others were vandalized, and yet others bore the brunt of battle, sometimes between Indian rulers.  Who can deny that the architects and masons picked up pieces of temple sculpture and wove them into the architecture of the new mosque?  It would have been foolish to do otherwise; and if at all one is going to speak of facts, as Justice Sharma purports to do, then it is instructive that not only Muslims but Hindus and Jains in India, and Christians elsewhere in the world, did exactly the same, utilizing the remains of previous religious structures to build new ones.  Much of history, one might go so far as to say, is nothing but spoliation – we plunder and rob not only religious structures but the past, sometimes as the only way of making the past alive, co-terminus with the present.

Justice Sharma similarly insists, again rather erroneously, that it is a proven fact that this is the site where Rama was born.  This site, and no other?  No Hindu text bears testimony to such an assertion.  Tulsidas has nothing to say about the exact birthplace of Rama; indeed, Rama’s most righteous devotee, who was writing around the time that the temple would have been destroyed, is stunningly silent on the question of the alleged destruction of the temple.  Now, had Justice Sharma really gone with the softer version of his argument, he might have had a better case:  he could have maintained that it is a proven fact that Hindus have believed that this is the birthplace of Rama, the Ramjanmasthan.  But, even then, there are pressing questions:  since when did Hindus begin to believe so strongly in the Ramjanmasthan in Ayodhya?  Did they always believe this, or did they begin to profess this belief after the Babri Masjid was built?  And if such a belief can only be traced to relatively recent times, might it have something to do with the particular ways in which Hinduism was starting to get political in the nineteenth century?

In a further post, I hope to speak briefly on a question on which I have written extensively in the past, namely the particular role of historical discourse in the conflict over the Babri Masjid – Ramjanmasthan.  Meanwhile, readers can turn to my long 1994 paper, “The Discourse of History and the Crisis at Ayodhya”, available online at http://www.vinaylal.com, and subsequently included in a revised version in my book, The History of HistoryPolitics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford University Press, 2003; new rev. ed., 2005).

*Eulogy for the Unsung: The Death of Bo and Boa Sr.

The Great Andamanese relaxing by the water, 1920.

Great Andamanese Couple, 1876

Great Andamanese children & Maurice Portman, 1874

An indescribable feeling of sadness crept over me when I read some days ago of the passing away of Boa Sr., the last known speaker of Bo (also known as Aka-Bo and Ba), one of ten languages belonging to the Great Andamanese group.  Though Boa Sr. had learnt Hindi and was able to converse with the outside world, over the last three decades she remained Bo’s sole speaker.   What great many thoughts could she not convey to others?  How must she have felt to know that she was the only surviving speaker of a language and the link to a world that only she could apprehend?  How must it feel to know a language and yet not be able to communicate in it with anyone else?

In an earlier time, Boa Sr. would have been rendered into a museum piece.  Her death brought to mind the fate of Truganini, the last of the Tasmanian Aboriginals.  The few thousand Tasmanian aboriginals encountered by European colonizers had, through genocide, disease, and murderous neglect, been reduced to 47 women, men, and children by 1847, and for the last three years, before her death in 1876, Truganini led a solitary existence in Hocart as the last Tasmanian aboriginal.  Shortly thereafter, her skeleton would be exhibited for the benefit of the curious-minded and the scientific-minded alike.  Those were the indignities to which people such as her, and the Andamanese, have been subjected since they came into contact with what is called ‘civilization’.  In the barbarous language of the day, occasionally still encountered when, for example, the Americans come into contact with ‘unruly’ tribesmen in Afghanistan, the unquestionable duty of the Europeans was to pacify the wild islanders.

The Andamans have long been the haunt of anthropologists and criminologists. In the mid-19th century, the British established a penal colony at Port Blair, reserving the infamous ‘circular jail’, also studied by those who are entranced with the idea of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, for political prisoners transported for life.  A man sent across the kaala paani [literally, ‘the black waters’], so the British figured, was as good as dead, and not merely because no “convict” was expected to return alive to civilization.  Before the convict entered into what we might call ‘social death’, he was supposed to have suffered what we might understand as ‘psychic death’ since the passage across ‘the black waters’ was deemed to have led the person to lose caste.  That, in the British view, was horrible enough a suffering for a caste Hindu.  Later in the 19th century, as anthropometry and craniology, among many of the other supposed sciences gifted by the West to the rest, became the rage among European and American scientists, anthropologists, criminologists, and psychologists, the British began to arrive in the Andamans with rulers and other measuring instruments.  The intent was to ascertain where the Great Andamanese belonged in the ‘scale of civilization’, a determination that apparently could be made by measuring the distance from the navel to the nose, from the nose to the eyebrow, and so on.  No wonder idiocy is known by many names!  The only firm lesson to be learnt from all this appears to be that if one wants to lead a European somewhere, lead him by the nose.

The twin processes of pacification and assimilation had the unsurprising consequence of decimating the population of the Andamanese and other tribes on the Andaman islands.  Some tribes were rendered extinct – the Aka-Kol in 1921, the Oko-Juwoi and the Aka-Bea by 1931.  In 1858, when the Great Andamanese first came into contact with the British, they numbered around 5,000 people.   Attempts with which we are familiar from the long history of colonialism to ‘civilize’ them were, of course, nothing but another name for genocide.  In one experiment, children born between 1864 and 1870 were placed in what came to be called ‘Andaman Homes’, but none of the 150 children lived beyond the age of two.  Nevertheless, the colonial administrator Maurice Portman gave it as his opinion that ‘Under any circumstances the Homes should certainly be maintained until the whole of the Andaman Tribes are friendly’ [quoted in Madhusree Mukherjee, The Land of Naked People (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 66].  One way to ensure that people are friendly, which is to say not hostile, is to eliminate them.  In 1901, the Census still recorded 600 Great Andamanese, but by 1951 their numbers had been reduced to 23.  The Sentinelese, who have miraculously evaded all attempts at contact, had been reduced to 10 in number by 1951. Today, according to the Indian linguist Anvita Abbi, who came to have a close association with Boa Sr. over the last decade and whose work in the Andamans is reflected in the “Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese” (VOGA) project, there are about 50 Great Andamanese still alive.

The Great Andamanese, we are told in this obituary of Boa Sr. published in Survival International, “are thought to have lived in the Andaman Islands for as much as 65,000 years, making them the descendants of one of the oldest human cultures on Earth.”  If it were true, one should marvel at this fact – and consider the possibility that, in this age of dazzling technology, that unbroken link may be snapped before our own eyes.  Either way, the question of just who the Andamanese are, and what they represent for the history of humankind, is not easily resolved.  For even the most well-intentioned linguists and anthropologists, the Great Andamanese – and the other three main groups on the islands, namely the Jarawa, Onge, and Sentinelese – still represent principally a crucial picture of the puzzle about the origins of human societies, language groups, the migrations of people and their languages, and so on.  The quest to know everything, manifested in Enlightenment-inspired projects to create vast compendiums of knowledge, remains undiminished, even if we are committed to multiculturalism and diversity and are more cognizant of the genocidal policies that led to the extermination of entire tribes and their cultures.  How we can best be committed to such ecological survival of plurality without instrumentalizing humans, animals, or nature is an ethical question that may determine the course of the future.

*Terrorism’s Drones: Cowardice and the New Front of American Warfare

Mrs. Clinton, we are told, has been having a tough time in Pakistan, where students and journalists have apparently been subjecting her to some ‘grilling’. The intellectual standards of American media being what they are, namely pathetic, one should not marvel at the fact that any serious questioning is immediately termed ‘grilling’. It is not any less interesting that such ‘grilling’ as takes place occurs largely in countries that the US otherwise imagines as ‘unfree’.

Under the “remorseless gaze of the Pakistan news media”, says today’s New York Times, Mrs. Clinton returned punch for punch. She castigated Pakistani officials for allowing al-Qaeda safe havens, and in turn was asked whether she did not think that American predator drone attacks in South Waziristan and elsewhere in Pakistan’s frontier areas constitute terrorism. “No, I do not,” Hilary Clinton replied.

Terrorism, as we all know, is not something that the Americans engage in: it has long been an article of faith that America wages (just) wars, engages in defensive conduct, or otherwise acts to free the world of the scourge of terrorism. In recent years, Americans – functionaries of the state, policy experts, and the numerous ‘independent’ commentators whose sole ambition appears to be to authorize the actions of the state — have been particularly insistent in advancing the view that their actions always seek to minimize civilian casualties, and that technological advancements have given them the capacity to wage relentless war with precision attacks that spare civilian lives.

The most notable, and increasingly visible, arsenal in American warfare technology is the invisible predator drone. The drone attack has become the new front of American warfare, and its incidence has increased markedly over the last two US administrations, and most notably since Barack Obama occupied the White House. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially, drone attacks are bitterly resented, but not only because many civilians have been killed. To take one instance, only into the third day of Obama’s administration, on January 23rd, one of two predator strikes run by the CIA eliminated the entire family of a pro-government tribal leader just outside Wana in South Waziristan.

Whatever the rhetoric about precision attacks and the reverence for life that is the supposed feature of American liberal democracy, there is but no question that drone attacks permit the execution of an untamed and aggressive foreign policy in new and unheralded ways. Though President Gerald Ford’s executive order of 1976 banning American intelligence agencies from carrying out political assassinations has in principle never been repudiated, predator attacks are only the latest and most shameless instantiation of the repeated violation of this order. That some of the people who have been assassinated, such as the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud — killed (along with much of his family) by a Predator drone in early August — themselves led lives of violence is not disputed. There is yet a more significant consideration: if histories of war stress, in ancient times, the face-to-face combat and the rules of chivalry that guided combat, we have now moved to the other extreme where the entire intent is to wage as faceless a war as is possible. Apparently bravery, in an extension of merciless air power, now consists in bombing people into extinction, all the while ensuring that no lives should be lost on one’s own side.

As Obama struggles to reach a decision on American involvement in Afghanistan, an increasing number of voices purport to take the middle ground. The US, these voices argue, cannot win the war in Afghanistan, certainly not without a major escalation of the conflict and increase in commitment of troops; on the other hand, the US cannot merely abandon Afghanistan. The question of ‘losing face’ aside, the ‘Great Game’ must continue, unless the US is prepared to concede ground to all others who have eyes on Afghanistan, including Iran, China, Russia, and Pakistan. The war, then, must be waged off-shore, with a full deployment of intelligence, cruise missiles, drones, guerrilla units, and so on. What rules of conduct will apply to this warfare? The military and the CIA, as a policy of matter, already do not make public any information on drone attacks, but the entire idea consists in ensuring that there shall be no accountability for American attacks. This is indeed the new front of American warfare: faceless, cowardly, geographically indeterminate, indeed groundless in every respect. Let us recognize terrorism’s drones for what they are.

*Gandhi’s ‘Relevance’: One More Round of Humbug

It is that time of the year when reverence will be paid to Bapu, the ‘Father of the Nation’.   There will be prayer meetings at Rajghat, the national memorial to Gandhi and, in a manner of speaking, his final resting place.  The prayer meetings will be led by the President, Prime Minister, and other dignitaries of the state.  October 2 is Mohandas Gandhi’s birthday, and the politicians, leaders of society, and other well-wishers and do-gooders in India will be lined up to garland statues of Gandhi, utter a few homilies to the great man, and proclaim his (ever-increasing, it will be affirmed) ‘relevance’ to the world.   And then some of these leaders and politicians will head home – home being one place where the laws of prohibition, a cause dear to Gandhi, cannot be enforced on Gandhi Jayanti – to chat on their cell phones, strike a few business deals, and cook up a few new ways of screwing the much-celebrated ‘common man’.

According to some of Gandhi’s detractors, the old man ought more appropriately to have been designated as the ‘Father of Pakistan’.  His assassin was unquestionably of that view, and many others in India have thought the same though in Pakistan it will be impossible to dislodge the Qaid-e-Azam from his pedestal.  Whatever similarities and differences there may be between Pakistan and India, the laudatory and hagiographic view of Jinnah has not yet taken the kind of beating to which Gandhi has been subjected in India, notwithstanding the halo of divinity which surrounds Gandhi in official pronouncements.

The characterization of Gandhi as ‘Father’ of the ‘Nation’ hides much more than it reveals in many other respects.  It has been argued that Gandhi could be ‘father’ to the nation, but found it difficult to be a father, or at least a good one, to his own sons; but perhaps the more interesting way of putting the designation of father into question is to probe whether he was not also a mother to many.  His assassin, and Nathuram Godse’s admirers among some who serve in high office in Gujarat, never doubted that the effeminate Gandhi was not fit to lead an emergent nation-state in a world that shows no mercy to those who are soft.  Gandhi just didn’t have enough manliness about him, a point that Narendra Modi, who fancies himself a ‘Chota Sardar’, seeks to make by flaunting his masculinity and flashing a sword.  There was, as I argued many years ago in the pages of Manushi, too much of the ‘mother’ in the ‘father’ to make Gandhi palatable to the restless modernizing elements in Indian society, and we are not surprised that one of his constant companions in the last years of his life wrote a book entitled, Bapu, My Mother.

In 1998, when India went nuclear, some stalwarts of the Shiv Sena were heard stating with euphoria, ‘We have shown them [Pakistanis and enemies of other varieties, including, one should assume, secular and ‘pseudo-secular’ Hindu liberals] that we are not eunuchs.’  Assuming, then, that the use of nonviolence did not render him into a eunuch, and that Gandhi did not fail his sons at every moment, did Gandhi abide very much by the idea of the ‘nation’?  Architect of the independence struggle that he was, Gandhi continued to harbor much ambivalence about the nation, or certainly about the nation-state.   His presence in Delhi on 15 August 1947 might have sanctified the idea of the nation-state, but Gandhi chose to be in Calcutta where he was attempting to broker the peace between Hindus and Muslims – more ammunition, of course, for those who always thought of Gandhi as too attentive to the needs of the Muslims.  Gandhi presents an extraordinary anomaly of a political figure who, though having led a country to freedom, had almost no emotional, cultural, intellectual, or spiritual investment in the idea of the nation-state.

So, when the prayers are sung and platitudes fill the air at Rajghat, it also becomes necessary to inquire what it means for the samadhi of the ‘Father of the Nation’ to be at Rajghat, the Ghat of Kings.  There is a civilizational touch, no doubt, in the idea that a commoner – for, in the last analysis, Gandhi held no office and was singularly devoid of possessions – alone commands the place of King of Kings.   At least in principle the idea of celebrating Gandhi’s life by inscribing his presence at Rajghat is congruent with the notion that Indian civilization has honored renunciants, and men and women of wisdom, more than kings.   But Rajghat has become a crowded place, and its other occupants are, with one exception, all previous office-bearers, Prime Ministers and President of India, distinguished and otherwise.  That exception is the wannabe King of Kings, Sanjay Gandhi.  One does really begin to wonder how Mohandas Gandhi landed up in Rajghat.