Sangam and Agora:  A Forum of Poets, Philosophers, Scholars, and Autodidacts

A Short Note or Informal Manifesto

Vinay Lal and Grzegorz Kwiatkowski

Though the idea for a new international forum comprised of poets and philosophers, writers and scholars, and activists and public intellectuals was conceived by us some months ago and has been germinating in our minds for much longer, the recent turn of events signaled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the desirability of such a venture.  However reprehensible this act of aggression, and whatever the geopolitics that inform the present circumstances, we aver that war is always a crime against humanity.

The uncomfortable fact is that the world has been spiraling out of control for some years, oddly enough in the wake of the triumphant declaration by the United States, following the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that the entire world appeared to be gravitating towards liberal democracy and the ethos of the free market economy.  Even as countries such as China and Russia have hardened their resolve to suppress dissent at home, many established democracies have been veering towards authoritarianism in recent years. On the economic front, it is widely conceded that inequality in nearly every country has grown immensely, and the various goals that the United Nations and its myriad agencies have set from time to time for the elimination of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, or illiteracy are not even remotely close to being met. The goalposts, whether with regard to literacy, access to health care, schooling, and so on, have shifted an innumerable number of times in the last half century.

However, the tenor of our present malaise or, to use an overly wrought word, “crisis”, cannot be captured by the decline of liberal democracy or the obscene economic disparities that make a mockery of our pretensions to a world where considerations of equity, social justice, and peace reign supreme.  Beyond all this, the stark, brutal, and unremitting reality of climate change threatens to make every other misfortune or even catastrophe look puny in comparison.  The most recent “Sixth Assessment Report” (2021) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes for grim reading, unequivocally clear as it is that the efforts to mitigate global warming have been woefully insufficient.  It declares that “global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades”, and it goes on to warn that “continued global warming is projected to further intensify the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation and the severity of wet and dry events.”  The extreme weather events that have plagued the world—not the least of them 100°F temperatures in Siberia—in recent years will almost certainly increase, though speaking of plague should of course remind us of the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic that gripped the world.

War, political authoritarianism, the drift away from democracy, unmitigated climate change, the spiraling increase in consumption, the reduction of the human to homo economicus:  catastrophic as all this is, it is insufficient to describe what ails us today.  Nor will it be adequate to add to the above narrative other elements of the global situation in the hope that we will better comprehend the temper of our times. It is entirely reasonable, for instance, to suggest that the seductions of globalization have given way to the recrudescence of nationalism.  Some of us, especially if we have been life-long students of anti-colonial movements and have partaken of them in our own modest ways, recognize nationalism as a ‘disease’.  The difficulty of persuading those who have been at the receiving end of colonialism to think beyond nationalism must be recognized, but nationalism cannot be deflected or confronted merely with anodyne expressions of the fact that people are fundamentally ‘good’ and affirmations of the necessity of being a ‘world citizen’.  All too often, the ‘world citizen’ is a citizen of nowhere, and therefore bears none of the responsibilities that attach to the idea of citizenship. The ‘world citizen’ is only another expression of the rights-bearing individual who in principle has become the normative expression of what it means to be human, a stark indication of how far we have moved away from the language of ‘duties’.

The malaise of which we speak points to something deeply disturbing in the human condition at present—something akin to the end of imagination, even as all around the world common people take to the streets to signify their dissent, publishing flourishes, and the internet seems abuzz with thousands of ideas.  Language can restrain, limit, and enslave us as much as it liberates us. Everywhere there is the injunction ‘to think outside the box’, though it should be obvious that anyone using so cliched a phrase is unlikely to ever do anything like that.  Whoever heard anyone proudly declaring that they would like to think inside the box?  (A similar problem exists with the vastly overused and banal word, ‘excellence’, regarding which Bill Readings made the most apposite observation, in The University in Ruins, that it signifies absolutely nothing.) T. S. Eliot, in “Little Gidding” (The Four Quartets), put it this way, “History may be servitude, history may be freedom.” To the great detriment of the world, the languages in which the human predicament has been framed in the post-World War II have been largely shaped by the practices of the social sciences in the United States.  The problems of America become, willy-nilly, the problems of the rest of the world; when America sneezes, the rest of the world sneezes.  When the master is sick, as Malcolm X put it inimitably, “we sick”.  Identity politics of the sort that is exceedingly common on the American university campus and has slowly made its way into other sectors of American society has now become part of the common conversation in many countries, but we do not think that ‘identity politics’ is a very productive way of delivering a just society or an equitable social order.

What is required is a greater appreciation of more fundamental questions that underscore the precarity, ambiguity, and uncertainty of human experience.  Every generation, admittedly, tends to think that its own woes are the worst, but we would do well to inquire what makes our malaise profound and distinct. We have already pointed to the conjuncture of various circumstances, at the apex of which stands the problem of the Anthropocene, but the gravity of the problem can be amplified by seeking to understand what makes our gross indifference to our common future, as well as man’s inhumanity to man, different in these times.  The 20th century was a century of total war, but first World War I—the “Great War”, the war that was supposed to wean us from all wars—and then World II put an end to the idea that humankind had freed itself of the addiction to war.  We need not add to the tally of these “world wars” the wars generated by the Cold War or modern-day genocides such as the one that decimated Rwanda in 1994.  In the last two to three decades alone, just exactly what have diversity training—little do the bureaucrats know that even dictators have to undergo “diversity training”—corporate social responsibility, “respect” training, and other respected shenanigans wrought except the great delusion that somehow we have become more sensitive and caring human beings and the idea that incrementally societies will free themselves of their prejudices.  The late David Graeber wrote wittingly and illuminatingly on ‘bullshit jobs’, but it is just as true that trillions of dollars are expended on ‘bullshit’ research that over the last several decades has yielded very little.

There is a character in Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, who says that at the end of the day there is only one way to address the plague—“decency”.  But whatever happened to decency?  Or, even more tellingly, whatever happened to the idea of “shame”?  Does the idea of ‘shame’ have any currency at all in most societies these days?  We would go so far as to say that “shame” has virtually disappeared from the public vocabulary of our times.  Whoever speaks of “virtue”—except perhaps students of Greek philosophy, immersed in the reading of Plato and Aristotle.  The malaise of which we speak is captured in the unimpeachable and disturbing fact that every language of dissent has been hijacked, first and foremost by the gargantuan world of the American university.

This enterprise, which seeks no corporate or foundation funding, and is premised on the hope that goodwill, intellectual appetite and rigor, and imagination taken singly and in combination can command an audience, is thus animated by the conviction that poets, philosophers, writers, public intellectuals, scholars, and others must assume a greater place in thinking about the human condition and working on producing an ethical praxis more in congruence with ideas of social justice, equity, compassion, and even wisdom. Poetry makes nothing happen, wrote Auden, but of course as someone dedicated to the craft over decades he secretly pined for the day when Shelley’s apotheosization of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” might bear fruit.  There is no such expectation on our part, but we would like to see what we can do across borders—the borders that persist between nations-state, between self and other, between disciplines, between the cerebral and the manual, and the other borders too numerous to mention that make radical transgression a key political and ethical imperative of our times.

Our modest hope is to convene this forum once a month, or at least every six weeks, and have a poetry reading, short presentations, and vigorous discussion.  Meetings will be held over zoom, and we may even in time use the transcripts to create volumes of collective authorship.  If, after several meetings, it appears that the enterprise does not inspire us enough, it can be abandoned—or passed on to others who are able to marshal creativity and intellectual insights more forcefully.

We will have our first meeting via zoom on Saturday, April 23rd, at 10:30 AM (Los Angeles), or 6:30 PM—London; 7:30 PM—Poland; 11 PM—New Delhi.  Registration at this link is required:

https://ucla.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJIvf-uqqjgqEtHmmbAMikxJcbUDWXXTuCye

Vinay Lal, Los Angeles/Delhi: cultural critic, public commentator, blogger, and Professor of History, UCLA [email:  vlal@history.ucla.edu]

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, Gdańsk:  poet, writer, musician, and co-host of the Oxford workshop, “Virus of Hate” [email:  gregor.kwiatkowski@gmail.com]

Sangam=from the Sanskrit, meaning confluence of rivers, especially of the Ganga, Yamuna, and the (mythical) Saraswati at Prayag; also refers to the Tamil Sangam poets, who flourished 500 BCE-300 CE; Agora=from the Greek, an open public space for markets, assemblies, and itinerant philosophers

Militants Strike, Britain Out:  The 1946 Naval Indian Mutiny

The Naval Indian Mutiny (RIN) mutiny, which ‘erupted’ on February 18, 1946, has long been overshadowed by the political trials of INA (Indian National Army) officers and soldiers which commenced in November 1945 and captured the nation’s attention. What was, of course, behind the INA was the charismatic figure of ‘Netaji’ Subhas Bose, whose storied exploits had been the talk of India and won him the affection of tens of millions of his countrymen and women.  In 1939, running for the Presidency of the Congress for a second time, against the express wishes of Gandhi, Bose had triumphed only to discover within weeks that the Congress machinery was behind the Mahatma and that he could not function effectively as President of the Congress.  In 1941, while placed under house arrest, Bose staged a daring escape from his Calcutta home from where he made his way to Afghanistan and eventually to Germany where he managed to get an audience with Hitler.  All this was theatrical enough, but merely icing for the cake:  in 1943, he took over the Azad Hind Fauj (INA) and in October that year he formed the Provisional Government of Free India.  The INA would see military action, most famously at Imphal and Kohima, and in Burma, but months before the war ended the INA had been decimated.  Bose’s own immediate future was uncertain at best, considering that Britain triumphed at the end of the war and that he had fought for the enemy, but providence had something else in store for Bose.  He is reported to have been killed in an air crash near Taiwan in September 1945.  Many in India refused to believe reports of his death; some still do so. It seemed a bizarre, certainly an unfair, death for one anointed ‘Netaji’, the hero of the nation.

The country was still reeling from the death of Subhas Bose when the British decided to initiate legal proceedings against some of its officers on charges of sedition, murder, and waging illegal war against the King-Emperor. That may explain, in part, why the RIN mutiny went into near obscurity, but oddly enough it was the saga of the INA that was, again in part, the catalyst for the RIN strike.  What cannot be doubted is that the naval mutiny was, as Sumit Sarkar, one of India’s leading historians, wrote, ‘one of the most truly heroic, if also largely forgotten, episodes in our freedom struggle.’  The rebels themselves underscored the importance of what they had achieved: ‘Our strike has been a historic event in the life of our nation.  For the first time the blood of men in the Services and in the streets flowed together in a common cause.  We in the Services will never forget this.  We know also that you, our brothers and sisters, will not forget.  Long live our great people!  Jai Hind!’

The enlisted sailors (or ‘ratings’, as they are known in naval jargon) had grievances galore. They were recruited under false promises of a decent salary, prospects for some advancement, good food, and a steady uniformed job in the defence of their nation.  What they got in return was rotten food, poor working conditions, and the racial insults that Indians were expected to bear chin up, even in good humour, with the alleged stoicism of their English officers.  It is not only conventional to think that subalterns cannot think for themselves, but also that they cannot look beyond their own little worlds to the world outside. Yet, the words of the ratings, and the pronouncements of the Naval Central Strike Committee, formed to represent the demands of the rebels, unequivocally suggest that they had other concerns as well.  The end of the war meant that men would be released back into civilian life and prospects for employment for demobilized men were poor.  Moreover, the ratings objected to the fact that they were being deployed in Indonesia, where the Dutch were determined to restore the colonial order after the Japanese interregnum, to stifle the genuine political aspirations of Indonesians. Besides all this, there was also the brute fact that there was a yawning gap between the treatment of British and Indian sailors.

On February 18, the ratings at the HMIS Talwar, a signals training establishment, struck.  The groundwork, one might say, had been laid weeks before.  The Commanding Officer of HMIS Talwar was given to vile racial abuse and contemptuous treatment of the ratings and had earned notoriety among them.  He commonly addressed them as ‘sons of bitches’, ‘sons of coolies’, and sons of bloody junglees’.  On 1 December 1945, the HMIS Talwar and other naval ships and shore establishments were expected to be displayed to the elites of the city, but early that morning British officers found the parade ground sprayed with signs, among them ‘Quit India’, ‘Revolt Now’, and ‘Down with the Imperialists’.  This was later determined to be the handiwork of Balai Chand Dutt, a senior telegraphist who had served with the navy for five years, and whose published memoirs furnish one of the key expressions of subaltern dissent.  Pramod Kapoor, whose book on the RIN mutiny is being released as this essay is being written, has shared precious and little-known details which suggest that, however spontaneous the uprising, the mutineers worked with the design of precipitating the revolt.  As one instance, the young journalist, Kusum Nair, later the author of such classics on Indian agriculture as Blossoms in the Dust and In Defence of the Irrational Peasant, engineered crushed stones to be placed on the evening of February 17 in the dal that was dished out to the ratings.  The food was customarily inedible; more so would it be on the day of the uprising.

“Rioting on the Streets in Bombay”, Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, 18-23 February 1946.

Just how widespread was the disaffection became clear soon enough:  in less than three days, at the height of the strike, the revolt had spread to over 75 ships, 20 shore establishments, and 20,000 sailors, all under the age of 26.  The British were inclined to respond with force, more particularly because, as Field Marshall Wavell, the Viceroy of India, put it in a telegram to Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the ‘example of the Royal Air Force, who got away with what was really a mutiny, has some responsibility for the present situation.’  The alarm in the establishment can be gauged from the fact that, astonishingly, Admiral John Henry Godfrey declared that he was prepared to see the navy decimated but that he would not tolerate insurrection.  What is not less remarkable is the widespread support the striking ratings received from workers and the residents of Bombay who responded to the Naval Central Strike Committee’s call for a city-wide hartal with enthusiasm.  Though, as shall be seen shortly, neither the Congress nor the Muslim League, the two main political parties of the day, were supportive of the strike, common people engaged in uncommon acts of fraternization. Many of the ratings had been on a hunger-strike; others, besieged by British troops, had run out of food; but, as the newspaper accounts and other testimonials suggest, people freely distributed food to the ratings and shopkeepers even encouraged them to take whatever they needed and refused payment.  Meanwhile, the strike spread to naval establishments over the country, and in Karachi the HMIS Hindustan was subdued after a gun battle.  The state of affairs in Bombay is suggested by the headlines, generally spread across the entire length of newspapers, that appeared on February 23, the day after Bombay no longer seemed under the control of the colonial state: ‘Bombay in Revolt: City a Battlefield’ (The Hindustan Times); ‘Nightmare Grips Bombay’ (Dawn—then published in Bombay); and ‘Rioters Machine-Gunned in Bombay (The Statesman).

HMIS-Hindustan after the British reasserted their control.

Around 400 people would be killed in the conflict.  Yet, after all this, the strike came to an end on February 23—suddenly, all too suddenly. The capitulation of the Strike Committee is said to have been forced by the fact that, barring Aruna Asaf Ali, none of the political leaders were behind the strike.  One might reasonably expect that Gandhi, who at least took a principled stand against violence, would throw in his weight to persuade the ratings to give up their arms.  Just how much influence he could still exercise in such an affair is a question that few have asked.  It is, nevertheless, the position of the other principal political figures that has in the historiography of the naval mutiny come under scrutiny and sometimes withering criticism. Nehru is said to have wanted to rush to the sailors and lend his support to them, but the conventional narrative states that Patel, who had been authorized by the Congress to converse and negotiate with the members of the Strike Committee, dissuaded Nehru from doing anything so rash.  It is on Patel’s assurance to the ratings that their grievances would be addressed, and that equally they would not be punished if they surrendered, that they are said to have called off the strike.

As Kapoor has detailed in his book, 1946—The Last War of Independence:  Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, the story of the betrayal of the ratings is one of the more wretched chapters in the history of Indian nationalism and the failure of political leadership. The sailors were imprisoned, put into camps, dismissed without payment of past dues, and sent back to their villages.  They would be lost to history. Yet ‘failure’ is an anodyne word to describe the hard-boiled realism that prompted Patel, Azad, Nehru, and Jinnah to throw the ratings to the wolves.  That is a reasonable interpretation, especially from the standpoint of those who have always been inclined to view the Congress as a bourgeois organization that was only interested in the trappings of power.  Independence was on the horizon and an insurrection in the armed forces of the nation—a nation that was about to be parceled out between the Congress and the Muslim League—was not to be tolerated.  As Patel (in)famously wrote in defence of his action to persuade the ratings to surrender, doubtless with the steely pragmatism and determination for which he is now admired by the country’s political leaders, ‘discipline in the Army cannot be tampered with. . . . We will want the Army even in free India.’

There are far too many other interesting questions that emerge from the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946 that cannot be addressed here, but two points may, in conclusion, be raised for further reflection on the part of the reader.  The communists alone are credited with having given the ratings their full support, but one must recall that communists had lost ground owing to their failure to support the Quit India movement.  They had now found an opening for redemption that they were scarcely likely to give up.  What is of course in many ways distinctive about Indian communism is the fact that there are many strands within it, and that most Indian communists have long been reconciled to working within the constitutional framework.  One suspects that a more nuanced reading of the communist support of the mutiny is needed, more particularly because in most countries communist regimes have been ruthless in suppressing dissent within the armed forces.  Secondly, nearly every commentator has pointed to the fact, highlighted by the ratings themselves, that Hindus and Muslims found themselves joined in a common cause and exhibited what appear to be feelings of brotherhood. If that was indeed the case, then there is all the more reason, given the fact that some within India would like to move the country towards the path of a Hindu rashtra, to celebrate the ability to transgress the religious divide.  It is a pity that this act of insurrection, coming at the tail end of the long struggle for freedom, has remained hidden from history considering that in its course and outcome it has something in it for nearly everyone, not least for those who think that it hastened the end of the British Raj.

This is a slightly revised version of a piece first published under the same title at abplive.in.

For a Gujarati translation, 1946નો ભારતીય નૌસેના બળવો: ક્રાંતિકારી હડતાલ, બ્રિટન ધરાશાયી, click here.

See also a companion piece, substantially different, published in The Indian Express in February 2018 and republished at this site called “An Inconvenient Insurrection“.

The Peregrinations of a Supposed Revolutionary:  The Many Guises of Udham Singh

Part II of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Sardar Udham is curiously both an ambitious film that is lured by the idea of the epic and at the same time marred by a profound unself-reflexivity and insularity that also characterized Udham’s own life.  To say this much is already to invite the wrath of those who have canonized Udham as a great shaheed, a worthy addition to the country’s gallery of martyrs, but the film inadvertently furnishes grounds for taking the view that however courageous Udham may have been, he worked with a very limited if not impoverished conception of ‘revolution’.  The film does not purport to be a full-length biography, but it is tempted into being one.  The viewer acquires no knowledge of his life before the massacre, except for the fleeting remarks shared between police officers about his childhood at an orphanage after the loss of both his parents at an early age.  Attempts to claim Udham as a Khalsa Sikh doubtless also have something to do with the fact that he was raised at the Central Khalsa Orphanage from 1907 onwards.  The film commences in 1931, when Udham was released after four years in jail after being caught with a cache of arms and prohibited political literature which led to his conviction under the Arms Act.  We see Udham moving from one country to another, assuming aliases, taking up jobs in which he had little interest but which apparently allowed him time to foment his plan to assassinate O’Dwyer. Udham worked in various factories, as a peddler, carpenter, and engineer, and even as a lingerie salesman and as an extra on a film set. Throughout his adult life, the film suggests, Udham remained laser-focused on his objective just as Bhagat Singh remained his idol.  Whatever the vicissitudes and setbacks of life, Udham never lost sight of the objective he had set for himself, and similarly it is the teachings and memory of Bhagat Singh that animated him.  Just why it took him more than twenty years after the massacre, and some seven years after his arrival in England, to snuff out O’Dwyer’s life remains something of a mystery.  But what is even more striking is that Udham does not appear to grow very much in these years:  he was never a very lettered man to begin with, and where Bhagat Singh was to the end of his young life—he was sent to the gallows at the age of 23 in 1931—a keen if not voracious reader, Udham does not seem to have had any attachment to books.  The only book that left an impression on him was Heer Ranjha, perhaps in the rendering of Waris Shah, and it on this book that he chose to take an oath when he was put on trial for the murder of O’Dwyer.

It may be that, in Sircar’s own view, some of Udham’s movements do not quite add up to the main narrative, but their omission from his film point perhaps to Udham’s provincialism and certainly to the filmmaker’s own inability to comprehend the place of the wider Indian diaspora in the making of Udham Singh.  The film is silent on Udham’s intriguing years in Africa—according to some accounts, in Nairobi, and more likely in Uganda, where Indian labour was the backbone of the railways—where the young political rebel could conceivably have developed a sharper sense of the solidarity of the working class.  Even more tellingly, Udham’s first long trip to the US in 1924, resulting in a long stay of three years, is omitted from the narrative.  Udham is said to have become involved with the Ghadar movement in the US, but the American sojourn also netted him a wife—a Mexican woman, no less, if only because the Johnson-Reed (Immigration) Act of 1924 and other anti-Asian legislation shut out virtually all Asians from the US and compelled Indian men already in the US to take Hispanic women for their brides.  The only half-decent biography of Udham by Anita Anand, The Patient Assassin, furnishes more details than we have ever had of Udham’s life with Lupe Hernandez, whom he deserted, along with their two children, when he left the US in 1927.  Apparently Udham’s many supporters seem to have swallowed whole the notion that revolutionaries can be forgiven not only their excesses but such derelictions of family duty and parental responsibility if for no other reason than that making “revolution” is a forbidding task and that revolutionaries must not be subjected to the standards of bourgeois society.  In the US, in any case, Udham would for some time have been part of the Punjabi-Mexican community, though we can also locate him in the vortex of what the scholar Vivek Bald has charmingly described as ‘Bengali Harlem’, a network of Indians who merged into Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and African American communities where present-day Global South solidarities were anticipated in their own fashion.  These already elusive histories do not even leave a trace in Sircar’s film.

Udham Singh’s comings and goings may suggest to some that he was a man of cosmopolitan interests, or a theorist of revolution who was inspired by the idea of contributing to a worldwide upheaval of the working class, but this would be a very charitable interpretation of a peripatetic existence that remains something of an enigma.  To be sure, the film hints that Udham was aware of some of the immense footprint of the British empire, and he would have come to know that the Irish were among those who had withered under English oppression.  He was at one time even a gunrunner for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and in one scene he tells an IRA man, ‘We had our Bloody Sunday’, a reference of course both to the Amritsar massacre and to the killings of civilians by British troops at a football match in Dublin in 1920 during the Irish War of Independence. In his broken English, Udham explains to the Irishman, ‘Your revolution and mine are the same.  You lamb, I lamb:  the butcher the same.’ But there is no hint that, in twenty years of this itinerant living, Udham derived a keener understanding of the struggle in India, or that he arrived at fresh insights after his interactions with the working class and communist political activists in Africa, Europe, and the United States.  Udham’s links to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA) were largely through Bhagat Singh, though the precise historical record of their association is tenuous at best, and even Udham’s activities as a HSRA member were quite limited.  He seems in the film to go in and out of shadowy meetings with self-styled revolutionaries in Moscow and London, and there is much talk of ‘revolution’, but slogans do not make a revolution.  Indians, V S Naipaul would have said with his characteristic cynicism, are exceedingly good at shouting and sometimes coining slogans; but what is the more surprising thing is how many academics have been taken in by stories of the gallantry of the HSRA, which was as much of a slogan-making factory as it was a bomb-making workshop.

‘Let the world know’, Udham says to detective inspector John Swain at their last meeting before he goes to the gallows, ‘that I was a revolutionary.’  We are no wiser at the end of this film than we were at the beginning as to what is a revolutionary. Udham was in the vicinity of the massacre and, the film strongly avers, arrived at the blood-soaked Jallianwala Bagh later in the evening; and he then took an oath that he would avenge the massacre.  He nursed this grudge for twenty-one years before felling O’Dwyer with shots from his revolver and thereby demonstrating his patriotism, but what is “revolutionary” about such a practice of politics?  It is doubtful that Udham knew, but the one man who had reflected for decades on these matters, on political upheaval, violence, and the radical transformation of society, was Mohandas Gandhi.  We do not need the life of Udham Singh to write about Gandhi; however, it is impossible to engage with either Bhagat Singh or Udham Singh except in the backdrop of Gandhi, who absolutely dominated the political scene and whose presence was inescapable to anyone who sought to enter into politics.  One would not know this from watching the film, where Gandhi is mentioned but once, and from which the innocent viewer might walk away with the impression that freedom from colonial rule was wrought by a bunch of young boys and some girls wielding country-made guns and shouting themselves hoarse with the slogan, ‘Inquilab zindabad’ (‘Long Live Revolution’).  The martyr’s supporters, no doubt, have little time to spare for Gandhi, who was as usual forthright and uncompromising in his denunciation of the assassination of O’Dwyer and the injuries inflicted on Lord Zetland (Secretary of State for India) and two other English politicians as an act of ‘insanity’ which had caused him ‘deep pain’. While expressing his condolences to ‘the deceased’s family’, Gandhi noted that ‘such acts have been proved to be injurious to the causes for which they are committed’ (Statement to the Press, 14 March 1940).  Unlike the enterprising and brilliant if self-serving V. K. Krishna Menon, who at first unequivocally repudiated Udham’s act as ‘abhorrent’ but then engineered his appointment as junior counsel for the defence of Udham once he saw the enthusiasm with which expatriate Indians as well as Indians at home were willing to embrace the assassin, Gandhi remained consistent in adhering to the view that his differences with O’Dwyer and Zetland alike did not permit him to condone murder or an act of insanity. Writing a few days after the death of O’Dwyer, Gandhi described it as incumbent on the exponent of nonviolence to ‘make every Englishman feel that he is as safe in our midst as he is in his own home.  It fills me with shame and sorrow that for some time at least every Indian face in London will be suspect’ (Harijan, 23 March 1940).

What Sardar Udham misses, in common with nearly every film that has ever been made on Bhagat Singh, the HSRA, and Udham Singh, is the opportunity to cast the relationship between these revolutionaries and Gandhi as something other than purely adversarial.  It is Gandhi who was the principal author of the Congress Committee Report on the Punjab Disturbances, an extraordinary retort to the official Hunter Commission and a devastating indictment not only of the colonial machinery of repression but specifically of the culture of violence bred by both O’Dwyer and Dyer.  O’Dwyer knew of Gandhi’s role in the making of the Congress report, and there is a point in the film where O’Dwyer, shown promoting his book, The India That I Knew (1928), critiques Gandhi for suggesting that he, O’Dwyer, had sought to suppress political consciousness among Indians. Whether Udham—and the HSRA revolutionaries—knew or even cared is an interesting consideration.  But there is another point of intersection, one which often escapes the attention of commentators.  Whatever his distaste for violence, and his principled repudiation of acts of political sabotage and assassination, Gandhi was adamant that the colonial state was never to be permitted to cast political acts as common crimes.  Gandhi abjured the methods adopted by the HSRA, and even more so the rank opportunism of someone such as Vinayak Savarkar, but he recognized the political nature of their acts.  It is this outlook which shaped even his relationship to Savarkar, whose tendency to political chicanery and encouragement of violence among others Gandhi deplored even as he saw it fit to state that Savarkar deserved attention as a political offender.  Udham, one hopes, would have seen in Gandhi a supporter of his own adamant repudiation of the colonial attempt to cast him as a common criminal, as this exchange in the film between the prosecutor and Udham shows:

            Udham:  I was in jail for four years [1927-31].  But not for a crime.

            Prosecutor:  Why on earth would anyone be in prison for four years if they

                        had not committed a crime?

            Udham:  No, no, no crime.  I was fighting – fighting for freedom . . .

(to be continued)

See also Part One, The Making of Sardar Udham: A Massacre, a Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge.

Objects and the(ir) Objective: The Story of India

[A Review article on India:  A Story Through 100 Objects, by Vidya Dehejia.  Delhi:  Lustre Press/Roli Books, 2021.  ISBN:  978-81-94969174.  279 pp.]

Some years ago Sunil Khilnani, author of the elegantly written The Idea of India, a long discursive essay on post-independent India very much shaped by a Nehruvian sensibility, embarked on a rather different enterprise as he attempted to grapple with a country characterized by a long past.  How might we imagine the history of India if we were to view it through the lives of some of its most arresting men and women—and equally some who won little recognition beyond their own community, fell into obscurity, or were architects of policies that have long since been disowned?  The outcome was a book that Khilnani called Incarnations:  India in 50 Lives (2016).  It is understandable that his narrative should be peopled by the likes of the Buddha, Ashoka, Shankara, Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai, and Gandhi, but the choice of Charan Singh, a wily politician who served as the country’s caretaker Prime Minister for six months at the head of a wobbly coalition, will seem odd to many except perhaps to those who remember his reputation as an unstinting champion of the rural peasantry.  The choice of Satyajit Ray may seem inspired to film afficionados who recognize him as one of world cinema’s supreme auteurs, and whose Apu Trilogy is a landmark of humanism, but I suspect that the hundreds of millions who follow Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan have barely heard of a director who crafted his films in the image of Mozart’s operas where, as Ray once explained, ‘groups of characters maintain their individuality through elaborate ensembles’.

Khilnani did not claim to be writing about the 50 most influential Indians, or the ‘greatest’ Indians, but it is in the nature of things that his 50 lives should have been construed as in some ways the lives of the most eminent Indians.  Any enterprise such as Khilnani’s must be marked by eccentricity.  It is a similar eccentricity, if that is the word to designate choices that sometimes appear unstable, quirky, and occasionally outlandish, that characterizes Vidya Dehejia’s audacious and intellectually provocative attempt to narrate the story of India through 100 objects.  Dehejia is principally an art historian and would doubtless have been inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), an attempt by Neil MacGregor to write a ‘world history’ through 100 objects in the gargantuan collection of the British Museum of which he was then the Director.  MacGregor was constrained only by the parameters set for him:  ‘The objects had to cover the whole world, as far as possible equally’, and address the totality of human experience, not only the lives of the rich and the powerful; consequently, the objects chosen could not merely be great works of art but had to speak to everyday life.  Dehejia in principle sets for herself a somewhat similar task with regards to the objects that she chooses, stating that she has tried not to privilege any political standpoint and that she has sought to be ‘even-handed and fair-minded’ in the story that she tells.  The desire to be ‘even-handed and fair-minded’ may evoke some cynicism from the reader with a knowledge of the British attempt in India to represent themselves as neutral gatekeepers, but others might say only that Dehejia is being true to the calling of her profession.

It is, however, in the structure of her book, lavishly illustrated and meticulously produced by New Delhi-based Roli Books, that she most closely emulates MacGregor with one significant difference.  Both books are divided into twenty chapters and generally four to five objects illustrate the thematic argument of each chapter; however, where MacGregor proceeds strictly chronologically, moving from one phase of history to another, Dehejia’s fidelity to chronology extends only within each chapter. Thus, for example, in discussing ideals of womanhood in India, Dehejia moves from a bronze statue of Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, c. 900 CE, to a watercolour on paper from 1615 of Nur Jahan, whom some readers may perhaps be surprised to discover was an expert markswoman; and from there to a recent statue of Ahilyabai Holkar, who was an astute ruler as much as she was a pious Hindu in the mid-18th century, to two early nineteenth century representations of Saraswati and Bharat Mata.

To understand the circumstances that have conspired to make possible a work such as Dehejia’s, it is necessary to recapitulate a few recent developments in historical scholarship.  There is, after some decades where cultural studies predominated and the gaze was riveted on the politics of representations, once again the turn to material history. It is immaterial that the Chola Temple Walls which Dehejia adroitly describes as a ‘Public Record Office’ (pp. 68-69), covered as they are with inscriptions, cannot quite be held in one’s hands as is generally true of many objects. Her objects are artefacts that inscribe a past, speak to the present, and occasionally portend the future. Secondly, Dehejia is still beholden to one of subaltern history and postcolonial theory’s most potent insights, namely the place of the ‘fragment’ in the imaginary of the nation.  Taken together, her objects—and other like objects—are more than the sum of the parts; but each is a fragment, sometimes calling forth other associations, occasionally a whole unto itself, and sometimes orphaned.  Thirdly, and relatedly, since national histories have become suspect to enlightened liberals, more particularly as they generally degenerate into becoming nationalist histories, scholars have had to search for new ways to write national histories without succumbing to the nationalist malady. Dehejia’s history of India through 100 objects can certainly be read in this vein.

It is as an art historian that Dehejia comes to her task and this shows equally in her choice of themes and the objects to illustrate the themes. Though four to five principal objects are apportioned for each part, the section on the ‘Art of the Illustrated Book’ is an exception with seven objects—and all these are examples of what may be called ‘high art’, folios from rare manuscripts and miniature paintings. At least half of the objects chosen by her are sculptural works or miniature paintings and the overwhelming and some will surely say misleading impression left upon the reader is of a civilization that was shaped predominantly by the artistic sensibility of Indian people.  One hundred objects are numbered but the ‘100’ is not to be taken literally, nor are the objects always drawn from India, even if they are clearly ‘Indic’ in origin or produced in some fashion under the sign of the Sanskrit cosmopolis:  thus, for example, a 9th-century Sri Lankan statue of the Buddhist goddess Prajnaparamita is offered as an illustration of the ‘yogic body’, but the argument is supplemented both with seals from the Indus Valley (ca. 2000 BCE) to suggest the antiquity of yoga in India’s imagination and the famous 7th century CE open-air ‘Great Penance’ relief carved on two boulders at Mamallapuram where yogic postures are depicted (pp. 34-37). The commentary that ensues is what one might expect from an art historian, though here Dehejia’s declared intent to eschew a political position here perhaps does short shrift to the subject.  There has been a lively debate in recent years, particularly in the United States, on whether yoga is intrinsically related to Hinduism: both the Christian right and Hindu nationalists have affirmed (though for different reasons) such a relationship, while many especially liberal practitioners of yoga claim that it is a wholly secular practice shorn of any religious underpinnings.  There is some controversy over whether the main motif of this magnificent sculptural relief is Arjuna’s penance or the descent of the Ganga, but in either case yoga’s associations with Hinduism seem unimpeachable. 

-Great Penance Relief at Mamallapuram (formerly Mahabalipuram), Tamil Nadu, 7th century CE. The figure of the ascetic in a yogic pose can be seen at the center, about a third of the way down from the top.

Dehejia is less reticent, however, on how what objects tell us about Hindu-Muslim relations and the contemporary project to read Hindu aspirations into the past.  She does not state her position bluntly but her repudiation of the communalist standpoint is clear enough.  It is a measure of the restraint with which she writes that the discerning reader will at once understand her position while the reader who is disposed towards Hindu nationalism is perhaps likely to think anew his or her own position.  Consider her treatment of this subject through two objects. A Chalukyan period (ca. 1000 CE) granite sculpture of a dvarapala (door guardian) interests her since it frequently changed hands, moving one from Hindu king to another in a tale of vanquishers and the defeated (pp. 62-63). Sometimes objects, and sacred centres—most famously Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, otherwise known as Sancta Sophia—fell to the conqueror of another faith, a phenomenon that she rightly points out can be seen ‘in most parts of the world’.  The communalist would like to read such phenomena exclusively through the lens of religious animosity, but it is the politics of conquest and the quest for power that characterize this history rather than the politics of religion. More arresting for many reasons, not the least being that even educated Indians know very little about the Deccan sultanates (1527-1686) and their extraordinary cosmopolitanism, is her choice of two miniatures from Bijapur (ca. 1604, pp. 106-7).  One features Ibrahim Adil Shah, Sultan of Bijapur, who wore the rudraksha beads associated with Shiva, playing the tambura; in the other miniature, produced at the Sultan’s behest, the goddess Saraswati, a veena resting on her left rap against her right shoulder, is rendered much like a Mughal princess.  This hybridized painting is emblematic of the syncretism of the Muslim courts.  Adil Shah had inscribed along the top the words, ‘Ibrahim, whose father is guru Ganapati and mother the pure Saraswati.’  Should we be surprised that in more recent times Ustad Bismillah Khan, the master of the shehnai (the double-reeded oboe common in north India) nonpareil, played at the Kashi Viswanath temple and that he regularly prayed to Saraswati?

Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah playing the tambura; ascribed to Farrukh Beg in an inscription written by Muhammad Hussain Zarin Qalam, c. 1610-11. From an album page. Collection: National Museum, Prague.

I would like to insist that one cannot begrudge Dehejia her choices.  Nevertheless, even as she candidly terms them ‘idiosyncratic’, the debate is not thereby closed.  Each object tells a story, and she is adept in narrating the story, but thousands of other objects, each illuminating in its own fashion, would have served her equally well. A number of arguments may be raised in this connection, again less so as criticism than as provocations. First, I wonder if it is not the case that Dehejia has been perhaps overly influenced by trends highlighting “diversity” and the occluded subjects of history.  A watercolour from 1615 of Empress Nur Jahan underscores her abilities as ruler and as an expert markswoman (pp. 236-37), and the aforementioned bronze statue of the 10th century Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi and the 2011 statue of the 18th century Ahilyabai of the House of Holkar are in the same vein (pp. 234-35, 238-39). In recent years there has been a spate of biographies of Mughal women of the royal household, some written, it seems, to counterbalance the lavish attention bestowed on the great Mughal rulers.  This is all fine and admirable, but still at the end a rather anodyne exercise, establishing only, as Dehejia argues more than once, that patriarchy in India (and elsewhere) has prevented women from attaining their full potential.  The more critical question is whether women in politics may furnish us a politics that will yield a more just and equal society. Secondly, and somewhat in this vein, India has historically provided richer possibilities of imagining a world that is not tethered to rigid conceptions of male and female, masculinity and femininity.  The stunning statue from a copper alloy of ca. 1000 of God as ardhnari (half-woman) points to a world where both masculinity and femininity were preceded by androgyny (pp. 84-85).  According to Dehejia, ‘the dominance of the male is clear in the fact that the composite image is called Shiva as Half-Woman’, but one must perforce ask:  ‘called’ by whom?  There is nothing intrinsic in the image which suggests the conception of God as predominantly female or male.  But supposing that Dehejia were right, one is then moved to inquire whether the art of the West, or of China, Japan, or Africa, also allowed for such imagery of the divine godhead?  Is the dualistic framework of thinking as much a problem in classical Indian thought as it is in the philosophical systems of the West?

Shiva as Ardhnari (Half-woman), c. 1000 CE, from Nepal. Copper alloy with gemstones. Approximately 83 cms. Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The colonial civil servant and ethnographer William Crooke wrote a delightful and now forgotten book called Things Indian (1906). There are some 175-200 odd essays on subjects such as amulets, bamboo, the bazaar, camels, carpets, curry, diamonds, elephants, embroidery, fairs, rice, salt, tea, and snakes.  I am tempted to ask, after reading about amulets in Crooke’s book, why ‘bangles’ are not one of the 100 objects that Dehejia writes about:  the bangle-seller has been a ubiquitous presence in our bazaars and fairs, and the scene of a woman breaking her bangles upon learning of her husband’s death is to be found in scores of Hindi movies. A similar thought might arise regarding the mango and the banyan tree, but here Dehejia anticipates the reader in capturing these two ‘objects’ alongside the tiger, the peacock, and the lotus flower in the definitive stamps released by the Indian government’s post and telegraphs department (pp. 260-61). But their reproduction in this doubly diminutive form nevertheless suggests once again that everyday objects are slighted in favour of works of arts.  Where, the reader may also ask, is the cricket bat? If cricket is, alongside popular cinema, the enduring passion of so many in the country, it would appear to be deserving of some attention.  I was thinking likewise of the matka (clay water pot), the belna (rolling pin), and the pots and pans of the Indian kitchen.  The pressure cooker—the traditional one, not the new incarnation known as ‘instant pot’—was invented in the US and became practically obsolete there, except as a retrofitted bomb, but in India it has found an enduring home and the Indian kitchen is unthinkable without it.  Yet it is a mark of the suppleness of Dehejia’s thinking that some of these pots and pans do make their appearance in her ‘objects’, having entered into the imaginary of the contemporary artist Subodh Gupta’s massive installations, ‘Spill’ and ‘Very Hungry God’ (pp. 268-69). Objects with which we have lived for a very long time may take on new forms.  We can read new meanings into them.  It is to Dehejia’s credit that her book allows for this fecund play of possibilities.

Subodh Gupta, “Spill”, 2007.

[First published in a slightly shorter version in Open magazine (26 July 2021) under the title “An Objective History” and also available online (16 July 2021) here.]

Anyone but England: Race, Empire-Building, and Some Thoughts on the Euro Final 2020

Sunday afternoons are proverbially meant for relaxation and time with that simultaneously oddest and most ‘natural’ of social institutions called ‘the family’.  And what better way apparently to relax than to watch the Euro 2020 Final between England and Italy, both vying yesterday, July 11, for the trophy after a long drought:  Italy last won it in 1968 and England last won any major international football tournament in 1966 when it lifted the World Cup with a 4-2 defeat over Germany.  England has never owned the European Cup.  But England is nothing if it is not a football nation:  however, though it is scarcely alone in its passion, its fans are singular in having earned a notoriety all their own.  Indeed, the American journalist Bill Buford wrote in 1990 an engaging book on football hooliganism, Among the Thugs, focusing largely on English football fans from Manchester United with whom he traveled to many matches.  He found these football hooligans, whose devotion to their team rivals in intensity the religious feelings that the devout have for their faith, also shared some traits with those English who are affiliated to the white nationalist party, the National Front.  More pointedly, as he was caught in riots among these football fans in 1990 in Sardinia where the World Cup was being played, he unexpectedly found the violence to be ‘pleasurable’.  Violence, he wrote of these football fanatics, ‘is their antisocial kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenaline-induced euphoria’ that shares ‘many of the same addictive qualities that characterize synthetically-produced drugs.’

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The Creative Scholar: A Tribute to James Carse, Philosopher of Religion

Finite players win titles; infinite players have nothing but their names. — James Carse

           

James Carse, a philosopher of religion ‘by profession’ and an extraordinarily creative thinker at large, died on September 25 last year.  He was 87 years old. 

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Australia and India in the Time of Covid: Racism, Colonialism, and Geopolitics

There was a time when Australia, a poor country cousin to both Britain and the United States,  was never on the minds of Indians—except when it came to the subject of cricket.  Australians have long had a reputation for being ferociously competitive in all sports and I recall from my childhood in the 1970s Indian commentators lamenting that their own sportsmen, unlike the Aussies, lacked ‘the killer instinct’. Defeating Australia on their home ground remained for Indian test cricket an objective that was only achieved thirty years after the two countries played their first test series in 1947-48.  If the first test on Australian soil was won in 1977, it took a little more than seventy years for India to win a test series in Australia.  But India’s most spectacular win might have been just months ago in January, when, much to the astonishment of Indians and Australians alike, indeed the entire cricketing world, India cast a spell at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, where Australia had been undefeated against any team in 32 years, and won the test—and the series—with three wickets to spare.

A celebration by the Indian cricket test team at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, January 2021. Source: https://www.sportskeeda.com/cricket/news-that-shows-strength-character-courage-michael-clarke-lauds-team-india-historic-series-win
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Some Thoughts and Doubts about the Chinese Century

There is but one political question in most people’s minds once one is past the pandemic:  is China poised to become in the third, or even the fourth, decade of this century the world’s supreme power? 

In an opinion piece that I published in the Indian Express some days ago and that then appeared on this blog site, I described 2020 as the “year of American reckoning”.  America’s wars overseas over the last half a century have not gone well:  though the generals complain that they were forced to fight against the communists in Vietnam with one hand tied behind their back, the brutal fact is that the Vietnamese waged a war of attrition against the Americans and with a miniscule fraction of the firepower available to their foes dealt the United States a humiliating blow—though paying dearly with their lives.  In the Middle East, there is little to show for decades of massive, incessant, and mindless American intervention except the crumbling of some dictatorships, the installation of new ones, the emergence of warlords, and the descent of traditional societies into chaos.  The trillions of dollars expended on Afghanistan do not tell a very savory story either.  And, yet, it is still possible to think of 2020 as the year when the United States truly began to unravel.  Not only did the project of bringing democracy to countries that had little or no experience of it fail dismally:  democracy in the United States itself become imperiled.  On top of that, the United States, which gloated over the thought that it was the envy of the world, has become pitiable to much of the world.  It accounts, with 350,000 deaths, for a fifth of the world’s casualty toll from the coronavirus pandemic with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and is now even experiencing difficulties in rolling out the vaccine.

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Imagining Beethoven in India

This month marks the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven.  In ordinary times, Germany, Austria, and a good part of the world beyond Europe would have been ablaze with celebrations:  as the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, a man whose reputation in some circles would be just as great, remarked: “Before the name of Beethoven, we must all bow in reverence.”  However, in India, even without the coronavirus pandemic, there would not have been much of a stir.  Beethoven’s name is by no means unknown, and India doubtless has its share of afficionados of Western classical music.  Fifty years ago, the Indian government even issued a postage stamp in his honor.  But it is an unimpeachable fact that unlike in China, Korea, and Japan, where Western classical music has over the decades gained enormous ground, there has never been anything more than a miniscule constituency in India for such music.  A few years ago the German violinist Viktoria Elisabeth Kaunzner wrote that a “performance by the Seoul Philharmonic conducted by Eliahu Inbal of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11 prompted the same kind of enthusiasm from the audience that one sees after a goal is scored at the FIFA World Championship”.  This would be unthinkable in India—even, to be quite clear about it, in Russia, Germany, or elsewhere in Europe or the United States.

Ludwig van Beethoven: undoubtedly the most famous portrait of him, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.
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Secession in Ethiopia: Pluralism in a Modern Nation-State

Ethiopia, a country of around 115 million people, has been over the last few weeks in the thick of a civil war that, the Ethiopian government submits, is now drawing to a close.  The attempted secession of the Tigray region has apparently been thwarted by decisive military action.  It remains to be seen whether the proclamation of victory is justified or premature, but what has been unfolding there should be of special interest to multiethnic states and particularly democracies which are struggling to contain the rising tide of ethnic particularism and xenophobia which is sweeping the world.  For most of the 20th century, the Amhara, with 27 percent of the population, held sway over a country with seventy ethnic groups, among them the Oromo (34%), the Tigray (6%), and Somalis (6%).  The more than four decades long rule of Haile Selassie was brought to an end in September 1974 when the 82-year old Emperor was deposed and a military junta known as the Derg assumed power.  Ethiopia was transformed into a single party Marxist-Leninist state.  For much of that period, the country became indelibly linked, in the worldview of the outsider, with the image of famine; internally, the “Red Terror”, the campaign of repression unleashed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Derg’s point man, made short work of the regime’s political opponents.

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