Identity and the Colossal Failure of Contemporary Electoral Politics

Part III of The Trouble with Kamala:  Identity and the Death of Politics

In an effort to understand what the rise of Harris might mean, it may be more productive to enter into the vortex of her life and the belly of that beast called American politics in a more tangential fashion.  I would wager to say, on no authority except my own hunch as a reasonably educated and moderately well-read person, that Kamala Devi Harris was very likely named after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-88).  That this hunch is far from being a demonstrable fact is immaterial since the invocation of Kamaladevi’s name suggests both the possibilities that are inherent in Kamala Harris’s gradual and probable ascendancy to the pinnacle of American politics and, though this will be less evident to most people, the profound misgivings that one must necessarily have about electoral politics–especially at this juncture of history.   It is almost inconceivable that Kamala’s mother, Shyamala, was not inspired by Kamaladevi, a fiery Indian nationalist, socialist, and feminist who was a major figure in India’s struggle for freedom and a close associate of Mohandas Gandhi.  Kamaladevi was not only a staunch advocate of women’s rights but a leading exponent, at a time in the 1930s when even feminists in the West were reluctant to advocate for the complete equality of women, of the idea of equal pay for women and men. She was the first woman in India to stand for elected office, losing her bid for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1926 by a mere 60 votes!  Kamaladevi forged extensive contacts with socialist feminists around the world, led satyagraha campaigns in India, and preceded Shyamala Gopalan in making her way to the United States as a single—or, more accurately in this case, divorced—woman for a lengthy visit which took her to prisons, American Indian reservations, and reform institutions in an attempt to understand the underbelly of American life and initiate a transnational solidarity of the oppressed.

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Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (center), with her sister-in-law, Sarojini Naidu, to her left, at the Simla Conference

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Identity and Beyond:  Families, Nations, and Interculturality

Part II of The Trouble with Kamala:  Identity and the Death of Politics

Those who do not recognize the manner in which identity politics dominates nearly all conversation in America understand little if anything of America.  What the nomination of Kamala Devi Harris by the Democratic party to the Vice-Presidency of the US signifies is not so much the fact that women have finally arrived on the political scene, or are on the verge of breaking the glass ceiling that has held them back, an argument that was advanced when Hillary Clinton became the party’s nominee for the President, but rather the sheer impossibility of escaping the identity question in American public life.  Let us consider her, in the first instance, as an African American as Harris has herself weighed in on these matters often, describing herself as a Black on most occasions and adverting to her pride in being African American. Her 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey is explicit on one particular detail that merits some consideration.  Her parents separated when she was around five years old, and they divorced a few years later; but her mother, who had come from India as a graduate student, was not therefore bereft of a family. Kamala’s parents had a shared political life for some years:  they participated in political demonstrations against racism, discrimination, and injustice, discussed decolonization in Africa, and declared their support for liberation movements in ‘the developing world’.  These dissenters and rebels became, Harris writes, “my mother’s people.  In a country where she had no family, they were her family—and she was theirs.  From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community.  It was the foundation of her new American life.”  In consequence, Shyamala Gopalan raised her daughters, Kamala and Maya, as black children:  “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as two black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

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A baby Kamala Harris with her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and her paternal grandfather, Oscar Joseph, during a visit to Jamaica. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)

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A Country in Search of Itself:  Brief Reflections on the Occasion of India’s Independence Day

Los Angeles, August 15th

As India marks the 73rd anniversary of its independence, it is once again an opportune moment to reflect on what remains of the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle that led to India’s deliverance from colonial rule.  The country might seem to have weightier subjects on its mind: the coronavirus continues to cut a blazing trail through much of the country, and whatever actions the state has taken to stem the transmission of the disease have evidently been woefully inadequate.  Tens of millions of people have been thrown into the ranks of the unemployed.  Many people have been cheered, and some startled and dismayed, by the bhoomi pujan conducted by the country’s Prime Minister, who is supposed to represent every citizen without distinction, at Ayodhya in consequence of the 2019 Supreme Court decision that left the path open to Hindu nationalists to raise a grand temple in honor of Rama at his alleged birth place.  That such a ceremony, which seems to be not only about building a temple to augment Hindu pride but also coronating a king, should have taken place at a time when the pandemic is exacting an immense toll says something about the priorities of the present regime.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the bhoomi pujan, Ayodhya, 5 August 2020.

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Emergency in India, Faux and Real

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On the night of June 25-26, forty-five years ago, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, acting at the behest of Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, imposed an emergency in India and suspended all civil liberties. Speaking to the country on the morning of the 26th from the studios of All India Radio, Mrs. Gandhi stated that the emergency had been necessitated by “the deep and widespread conspiracy which has been brewing ever since I began to introduce certain progressive measures of benefit to the common man and woman of India.” She warned that “forces of disintegration” and “communal passions” threatened to tear apart India and that she was impelled to act from the desire to preserve the country’s unity. “There is nothing to panic about”, she advised her fellow Indians, and, as if to assure them that the drastic step that had been taken to put the Constitution of India into abeyance was not being done to advance her own interests, she insisted that “this is not a personal matter” and that it “is not important whether I remain Prime Minister or not.” Continue reading

The Perils of Love and Dissent in a Lawless State:  The Ordeal of Harsh Mander

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Harsh Mander in his office at the Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi. Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar.  Source:  The Hindu Group.

Once upon a time, Harsh Mander was a member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).  His predecessors in the colonial-era Indian Civil Service were known as the ‘heaven-born’.  Then, in 2002, Gujarat was convulsed by hatred and orchestrated violence, and at least 1044 people—and more likely as many as 2000, according to the Concerned Citizens Tribunal as well as other independent investigative bodies—were killed, predominantly Muslims. More than 100,000, and perhaps twice as many, Muslims were displaced.  It is at this time that Mander resigned from the IAS, giving up what has long been one of the most coveted jobs in the country, and turned to a life of political and social activism. One might say that he had found his voice and his calling. Since those dark days in Gujarat nearly two decades ago, Mander has more than distinguished himself as a human rights activist, a tireless advocate of social justice, a friend sans pareil to the poor, the homeless, and the hungry, and as the very conscience of a nation that is now being undone by those who are utterly bereft of principles, compassion, and the ethical mores that make possible brotherhood and sisterhood.

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Deconstruction of an Icon of Resistance

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

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Poster of Ambedkar outside Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, with the exhortation:  “Save the nation, Save the Constitution.”  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 23 January 2020.

As if Hinduism was not sufficiently offensive, repugnant to every person with only a modicum of moral sensibility and not altogether devoid of the notion of human dignity, India had to bear the oppressive burden of a faith that, whatever its history in other countries, further diminished the prospects of human freedom in that ancient land.  “Islam speaks of brotherhood”, and “everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste”, but, in truth, says Ambedkar, “Islam divides as inexorably as it binds” and it cannot but abide by a firm distinction between “Muslims and non-Muslims”.  The brotherhood it promises is “for Muslims only”, and for “those outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” But this is far from being its only offense in this respect, since the Muslim is also enjoined, by the terms of “Muslim Canon Law”, to withdraw his cooperation from non-Muslims if he should happen to live in a country that is not governed by his brethren.  Ambedkar is quite clear on this—grist for the mill for those Hindus who have long harbored a suspicion that the Indian Muslim’s loyalty to Islam precedes his or her loyalty to India.  What Ambedkar understood by the requirement of “Muslim Canon Law” may have been very different than what is understood by those who are content to insist that many Indian Muslims would rather cheer for the visiting Pakistani cricket team than for the Indian team, but the sense that the Muslim is disinclined to live under the jurisdiction of any religion other than Islam is pervasive.  Whether the Muslim is singularly alone in having such a disposition is however a question that is seldom posed.

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Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past

(in multiple parts)

Part III of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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A popular print of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, and founder of Navayana Buddhism.

In his writings on Buddhism, Ambedkar drew overwhelmingly upon his understanding of the Indian past and the place of religion in it.  It is the historical specificity of Buddhism in India to which he was drawn when Ambedkar would make his final case for Buddhism and its attractiveness to Dalits.  There are a number of arguments that Ambedkar advances which it will suffice to mention.  First, his own research led him to the conclusion, which finds its most elaborate exposition in a book entitled The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), that the Untouchables were ur-Buddhists or none other than the original Buddhists of India.  Secondly, and consequently, in converting to Buddhism, the Dalits would only be returning to their home.  We, in India, have heard in recent years of ghar wapsi, or the attempt to steer Muslims and Christians back to the Hindu fold from where they were allegedly enticed by clever proselytizers, but Ambedkar had something quite different in mind when he would counsel the Dalits to convert.  This was going to be a different form of ghar wapsi, the return, in myriad ways, to the warmth, security, and nourishment of the womb.  Thirdly, the very fact that the Hindu caste order had reduced the ur-Buddhists to the status of Untouchables pointed to the twin facts that Buddhism alone had offered resistance to Brahminism and had not succumbed to the hideous system of caste.  On Ambedkar’s reading, the “Four Noble Truths” that the Buddha had discovered, even as they constituted a set of precepts for humankind in general, held a specific and historically conditioned meaning for Dalits.  Too much has sometimes been made of Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism as a religion that came out of the soil of India, but there can be no doubt that in his mind Buddhism’s very constitutive being had been shaped by the experience of the lower castes.  Thus Buddhism alone could become a spiritual and political home for Dalits.

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Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a “Modern Religion”

(in multiple parts)

Part II of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

I have argued in the first part of this essay that Ambedkar was never far removed the ideal of spiritual fulfillment and that he sought to achieve this within the matrix of institutionalized religion in some form or the other.  What, then, of his relationship to Marx?  In spite of his relentless critique of Hinduism, some would say more specifically Brahminism, Ambedkar could not escape some of the very idioms that have given Hinduism and the other religions that have arisen from the soil of India their distinctive character.  As an illustration, and at least as a provocation, one might want to consider his warm acceptance of the idea of a guru, a status he bestowed on the Buddha and, quite possibly, on Kabir and Jyotirao Phule.  He had a more complicated relationship to Marx, with whose writings he had acquired considerable familiarity as a student of Vladimir Simkhovitch at Columbia University in 1913-14.  Simkhovitch had published in 1913 a book entitled Marxism versus Socialism, the very title of which is suggestive of the critical if appreciative outlook that Ambedkar’s teacher, and later Ambedkar himself, would have of Marx’s body of thought and all that it had wrought.

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

(in multiple parts)

Part I of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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B. R. Ambedkar

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

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The Fear of Dissent:  India’s New Colonial Masters

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

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

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