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RevJamesLawsonAtVanderbilt

 The Reverend James M. Lawson of Los Angeles is quite likely the greatest living exponent of nonviolent resistance in the United States, and he turns a glorious 90 on September 22nd.  This is as good a time as any to pay tribute to a person who has the distinction, though it has never been acknowledged as such, of having been a dedicated and rigorous practitioner of nonviolence for longer (nearly seven decades, by my reckoning) than anyone else in recorded American history.

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Most scholarly histories of the American Civil Rights movement have recognized the distinct contribution of Rev. Lawson, presently Pastor Emeritus of the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles’ Adams District, as one of the most influential architects of the movement.  In his dense, indeed exhaustive, narrative of the Freedom Rides, Raymond Arsenault recounts how James Lawson, who commenced his nonviolent training workshops in the late 1950s, gathered what would become a stellar group of young African American men and women—Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, John Bevel, among others—around him in Nashville.  Martin Luther King Jr. himself acknowledged Lawson’s Nashville group as “the best organized and most disciplined in the Southland,” and King and other activists were “dazzled” by Lawson’s “concrete visions of social justice and ‘the beloved community’” (Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Oxford UP, 2006, p. 87).

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Rev. Lawson (in sunglasses, front) with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and others at the James Meredith March Against Fear, Mississippi.

Andrew Young similarly speaks of Lawson in glowing terms as the chief instigator of the sit-ins and “as an expert on Gandhian philosophy” who “was instrumental in organizing our Birmingham nonviolent protest workshops”; Lawson was, as Young avers, “an old friend of the movement” when, in 1968, he invited King to Memphis to speak in support of the sanitation workers’ strike (see An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996).  Most strikingly, the chapter on the campaign for civil rights in the American South in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s global history of nonviolent resistance, A Force More Powerful (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), is focused not on King, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, or Roy Wilkins, to mention four of those who have been styled among the “Big Six”, but rather unexpectedly revolves around the critical place of Lawson’s extraordinary nonviolence training workshops—most recently featured in the feature film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler—in giving rise to what became some of the most characteristic expressions of nonviolent resistance, among them the sit-ins, the freedom rides, and the strategy of packing jails with dissenters.  Ackerman and Luvall echo the sentiments of Lafayette, who credited Lawson with creating “a nonviolent academy, equivalent to West Point”; they pointedly add that though Lawson was “a man of faith, he approached the tasks of nonviolent conflict like a man of science” (pp. 316-17).

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A mug shot of Rev. James M. Lawson after he was arrested in Mississippi for his role in the Freedom Rides.  Source:  https://breachofpeace.com/blog/?p=18

It is no exaggeration to suggest that King derived much of his understanding of Gandhi from Bayard Rustin and Rev. Lawson, though most histories mention only Rustin in this regard.  John D’Emilio’s exhaustive biography, Lost ProphetThe Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (New York:  Free Press, 2003) affirms what has long been known about King, namely that he “knew nothing” about Gandhian nonviolence even as he was preparing to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  D’Emilio states that “Rustin’s Gandhian credentials were impeccable”, and it fell upon Rustin to initiate the process that would transform King “into the most illustrious American proponent of nonviolence in the twentieth century.”  Though Rustin’s command over the Gandhian literature is scarcely in question, the more critical role of Lawson in bringing King to a critical awareness of the Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha, and more generally in inflecting Christian traditions of nonviolence with the teachings of Gandhi and other vectors of the Indian tradition, has been obscured.

Uniquely among the great figures of the Civil Rights Movement, as I noted in an essay penned last year, Lawson spent three formative years in his early twenties in central India.  As a college student in the late 1940s, Lawson discovered Christian nonviolence, most emphatically in the person of A. J. Muste, who was dubbed “the No. 1 US Pacifist” by Time in 1939 and would go on to be at the helm of every major movement of resistance to war from the 1920s until the end of the Vietnam War.  Lawson was a conscientious objector during the Korean War and spent over a year in jail; as Andrew Young remarks, “His stand on the Korean War was courageous and unusual in the African-American community” (An Easy Burden, p. 126).  Lawson spoke to me about his year in jail at considerable length during the course of our fourteen meetings from 2013-16 during which we conversed for something like 26 hours, and in future essays I shall turn to some of these conversations.  Following his release from jail, Lawson, who had trained as a Methodist Minister, left for India where for three years he served as an athletic coach at Hislop College, Nagpur, originally founded in 1883 as a Presbyterian school.  He deepened his understanding of Gandhi and met at length with several of Gandhi’s key associates, including Vinoba Bhave.  When he returned to the US in June 1956, Lawson uniquely embodied within himself two strands that would converge in the Civil Rights movement:  Christian nonviolence and Gandhian satyagraha.  Lawson was never in doubt that satyagraha was to be viewed as a highly systematic inquiry into, and practice of, nonviolent resistance.

Strangely, notwithstanding Reverend Lawson’s place in the Civil Rights Movement and American public life more generally, very little systematic work has been done on his life and, in particular, on his six decades of experience as a theoretician and practitioner of nonviolent resistance.  It is worth recalling that Lawson was a student of Gandhian ideas and more generally of the literature of nonviolence several years before King’s ascent into public prominence; five decades after the assassination of King, he regularly conducts workshops on nonviolence .  No American life, in this respect, is comparable to his.

I shall be writing on Rev. Lawson often, I hope, in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, I offer him my warmest felicitations on his 90th birthday!

 

For previous essays on Rev. Lawson on this blog, see:

The Nashville Sit-ins:

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/09/23/the-nashville-sit-ins-the-workshop-of-nonviolence-in-jim-crow-america/

and “Martin Luther King and the Challenge of Nonviolence”:

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/martin-luther-king-and-the-challenge-of-nonviolence/

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh and other ministers and MLAs at the Vidhan Sabha [Punjab Assembly], Chandigarh, March 2017.  Photo & Copyright: Keshav Singh, Hindustan Times.  

The Cabinet of the Punjab Government has approved an amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code and will place a bill before the Assembly to secure passage of legislation that would impose a life sentence upon those convicted of desecrating religious texts.  Sec. 295A presently stipulates a prison term of no more than three years for anyone found guilty of outraging, or attempting with malicious intent to outrage, the religious sentiments of the practitioners of any faith.  A number of commentators have in recent days objected strenuously and with passionate conviction to legislation that is unquestionably liable to abuse and will almost certainly further undermine the already endangered secular structure of the Indian polity, but their arguments, as I shall suggest shortly, do not go far enough; indeed, their arguments do not as much as recognize the principal intellectual shortcoming of the proposed legislation.

Before a consideration of the immense difficulties that inhere in this proposed legislation, let it be said that most of the commonplace arguments that have been raised against this extremely foolish and dangerous gesture on the part of the Congress government are not insignificant.  First, it must be recognized that there was a spate of incidents in late 2015 involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and police firing in Faridkot against aggrieved demonstrators.  Consequently, the concern with desecration of religious texts is not without substance. There is, secondly, the question of political expediency: the country will be going to elections in much less than an year, and the Congress is keen to remind voters in one of the few states where it has a real presence that it has done more than the Akali Dal to defend the religious sentiments of the Sikhs. This would scarcely be the first time, of course, that the Congress would be attempting to position itself as a champion of religious minorities. Judging from its previous forays in this direction, one can hazard the speculation that the outcome on this occasion will once again do no credit to the Congress.

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Demonstration by SGPC [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] activists agains the allleged descration of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Punjab, 2015.  Photo copyright: Agence France-Presse (AFP).  

Thirdly, the Akali Dal government in 2016 did pass legislation that sought life imprisonment for desecrating the Sikh holy book, as well as an enhanced prison term of ten years for offenders against other religious faiths, but the Central Government returned the legislation both on the grounds that the prescribed punishments were “excessive in law” and, more importantly, in violation of the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The violation was construed as emanating not even remotely from the fact that the state had no business in using its coercive powers to enforce religious belief, but rather from the curious fact that in prescribing a higher penalty for desecrators of the Guru Granth Sahib than for those had insulted the holy books of other faiths, the Centre charged the state government with elevating one religion over another and thereby violating the central tenet of Indian secularism which insists on parity for all religions.  It is for this reason that the proposed amendment to Sec. 295A stipulates that “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life”.  What was deemed as “excessive” punishment is now sought to be imposed with uniformity upon an offender found guilty of the said offence, regardless of religion.  Apparently, barbarism towards all is to be preferred to a barbarism that is partial.

Much else has been said, and with due reason, against the amendment to the IPC.  The application of “blasphemy laws” in neighboring Pakistan, about which I shall have much more to say in another essay soon, demonstrates the extraordinary hazards of such legislation:  people often falsely charge others to settle personal scores, and those alleged to have committed an offence have sometimes been killed in acts of vigilante justice by mobs acting at the instigation of religious zealots.  Existing laws in India are sufficient to deal with whatever cases of the desecration of religious books or sites of worship might arise; in this matter as in in nearly every other, such as for instance the entire question of ‘lynching’, the laws are rigorous enough and it has long been recognized that the problem resides rather in the fact that there is no will to enforce them.  There is also the equally substantive issue that the threshold for what is deemed ‘religious hurt’ continues to be lowered.  The three dozen retired civil servants, many with considerable standing in Indian society, who have addressed an open letter to the Punjab Chief Minister quite rightly point to the “ill-founded prosecutions” that are likely to arise from such legislation, and they are doubtless right in arguing that “blasphemy laws are a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right.”

While all these arguments have merit, they nevertheless occlude the most fundamental problem not only in the framing of the new legislation but in the interpretation of Indian society.  Let us note the use of the phrase, “blasphemy laws”, common to nearly everything that has been written on the subject.  The legislation in question does not use the word “blasphemy”, but all commentators have understood the gist of it as prescribing penalties for blasphemy.  Like many of the categories that inform our intellectual discourse in India, “blasphemy” is part of the Judeo-Christian inheritance that was handed down to India in the wake of colonial rule.  Moses is told by the Lord to tell the Israelites, “When any man whatever blasphemes his God, he shall accept responsibility for his sin . . . . all the community shall stone him; alien or native, if he utters the Name, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:15-16).  Moral theologians regarded blasphemy as a sin; some, such as Aquinas, held it as a sin against faith.  The Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I, decreed the death penalty for blasphemy, and in large parts of the Christian world blasphemy remained punishable by death until comparatively recent times.

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A cartoon by the Brazilian Carlos Latuff.  Copyright:   Carlos Latuff.  Source: https://theintercept.com/2015/01/09/solidarity-charlie-hebdo-cartoons/

What is absolutely striking, and germane for us in India, is the fact that the idea of blasphemy has no point of reference or analogue in Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism. The idea is absolutely foreign to at least the adherents of these religions.  Indians, whatever their religious faith, understand the reverence in which holy books are to be held, or the respect that is to be paid to religious shrines, but it is questionable whether most of them would be moved by arguments about “blasphemy”.   What does blasphemy mean to a Hindu, and what is “the holy book” that is being blasphemed against?  On whose authority does the Punjab Government pronounce that the Bhagavad Gita is to the Hindu what the Bible is to the Christian or the Quran to the Muslim?  How did the view of a certain, and to a considerable extent Anglicized, element of the Hindu middle class about the Gita, come to represent the view of all Hindus?  How does one even begin to understand that every faith, and not only Hinduism, began to be shaped in the image of Protestant Christianity commencing in the late 18th century?  We have here, in the present debate about “blasphemy laws”, another instance of how our thinking takes place without any reference to the categories produced by Indian thought and without any awareness of the fact that the intellectual legacies of the Judeo-Christian tradition are unthinkingly deployed to frame very different experiences.

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So should we view this as “Hindu Blasphemy”?  The cover of Business Today shows cricketer M. S. Dhoni, one of the many new Gods of modern India.

I am reminded, finally, of an anecdote from the life of Vivekananda.  It is reported that on a visit to Kashmir, some of Vivekananda’s followers were both despondent and angry at seeing the broken images of the goddess strewn over the countryside.  They swore that henceforth they would not permit the images of the goddess to be defiled. Vivekananda turned to them with a retort, “Do you protect the Goddess, or does the Goddess protect you?”  The Chief Minister and the other self-appointed guardians of religion can usefully take home a lesson from this story.  It is arrogant for them to believe that the great faiths of India require the protections of the Indian state; and this is, of course, apart from any consideration of whether the Indian state, which has more often than not shown reckless disregard for the citizens of this country, has any moral standing to uplift these faiths.  On nearly every ground that one can think of, the Punjab and Central governments would be well advised to withdraw the contemplated amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

(A shorter version of this was published as “A Foreign Offence” in the Indian Express (print edition), 11 September 2018.

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The US Open Women’s Final on Saturday between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka was as unusual a match as any in the annals of professional tennis history and has generated an intense commentary which will doubtless continue for the next few days and, among tennis professionals, into the foreseeable future.   Let me state at the outset that, with this brief essay, I do not intend to contribute to the chatter in the ordinary fashion; rather, I intend to focus on one issue, “racquet abuse”, and pursue the philosophical and cultural implications of this idea.  Let us dispense quickly, for the benefit of those readers who have little interest in tennis and have not kept abreast of the “controversy”, with the fundamentals:  the match pitted Serena Williams, who had 23 Grand Slam singles titles and was in quest of her 24th, which would have tied her with Margaret Court for the world record, against 20-year old Naomi Osaka of Japan who was in the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.  At their only previous meeting, earlier this year, Osaka had defeated Williams quite handily; but the latter, who had given birth to a daughter just months ago, was not quite in her element.  The outcome at the US Open was expected to be rather different.

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Williams was down by one set, and—though the outcome of tennis matches, as indeed of other sporting matches, is often uncertain except when the match is extremely lopsided—the young Osaka was most likely on her way to a victory in the second set and thus the match when trouble erupted.  Williams got called for a violation of the rules by the veteran Umpire, Carlos Ramos, on the grounds that she had received illegal coaching from the stands.  Williams denied that she had received such coaching, and told Ramos that she would rather lose a match than win it by cheating.  Some 10-15 minutes later, unable to capitalize on the service break she had achieved and finding herself being outplayed by Osaka, she smashed her racquet on the ground and was docked a point for “racquet abuse”.  It is immaterial whether Williams was expressing her frustration at squandering her advantage, or whether she felt outraged at what she perceived to be the insinuation that she was violating the rules or, quite simply, cheating.  Her heated words at Ramos would turn into a volley of recriminations; her “rant”, as it is being called, can be heard clearly on video.  She threatened Ramos that she would see to it that he would never again preside over any of her matches:  one hopes, whatever one’s view of the matter, and for the sake of the integrity of the game—or whatever integrity is possible in an age when professional sports is only another form of blood-capitalism—that such a threat will never be acted upon.  Indeed, it is imperative that Ramos should be called upon to preside over another Serena Williams’ match, unless the tennis world is prepared to capitulate to the whims and dicta of a sporting superstar.  And, then, to cap it all, Williams went on to call Ramos a “thief”, since she had been docked a point.  For this third violation of “verbal abuse”, Ramos, playing by the rule book, docked her an entire game.  Williams went on to lose, 6-2, 6-4.

We need not be detained by the details, and there is much in this set of events that calls for an extended commentary.  The words “sexism” and “racism” are in the air, quite predictably so, but let me turn to the little explored question of “racquet abuse”.  The discussions thus far in the public domain have focused on whether docking a point for breaking one’s racquet from a player’s score sheet is an excessive penalty or should even invite a penalty at all. The common, all too common, view is that players are “human”, as though this were not a self-evident truth, and that in the heat of the moment a player might lose his or her cool.  The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rulebook sets out the player’s code in Chapter 8, and the portion on “Racquet or Equipment Abuse” appears under “Offenses” and states the following:

Racquet or Equipment Abuse i) Players shall not violently, dangerously or with anger hit, kick or throw a racquet or other equipment within the precincts of the tournament site. For purposes of this rule, abuse of racquets or equipment is defined as intentionally, dangerously and violently destroying or damaging racquets or equipment or intentionally and violently hitting the net, court, umpire’s chair or other fixture during a match out of anger or frustration. ii) Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $500 for each violation. In addition, if such violation occurs during a match [emphasis added], the player shall be penalized in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule.

Ramos was, then, clearly within his rights in penalizing Williams for “racquet abuse” by issuing a point against her, as specified in the Point Penalty Schedule.  (Note:  I am aware that professional women tennis players fall under the jurisdiction of the WTA, Women’s Tennis Association, but the rulebook is one and the same.)  But just exactly what is “racquet abuse” and why should it incur a penalty at all?  It is understandable that, had Serena threatened to hit another player with her racquet, she would have been called out for her offence—and that the penalty would have been far more stringent.  Let us suppose that she had destroyed communal property:  here, too, it is unlikely that anyone would have disputed the decision to penalize her.  But Williams destroyed her own racquet and in common law one’s possessions and property are for one to dispose as one pleases.  There may well be circumstances under which the state might prevent one from treating one’s own property or possessions as purely one’s own and might even claim jurisdiction over them.  If, for instance, I was in possession of the sole copy of the first Bible printed in the Americas, or I had made my home in the oldest surviving building in the state of California, I might well be prevented on pain of severe punishment from burning the Bible or tearing the building down and using the lumber for my fireplace.  Yet the most that can be said of Williams is that she squandered a few hundred dollars:  more likely, given capitalism’s voracious appetite for pecuniary inventiveness, the destroyed autographed racquet will end up on the auction block and become worth a few thousand dollars overnight. For all we know, it may even be used to raise some money in the name of charity, or it may find a place in a museum.

The answer to the question is obvious:  racquet abuse calls for a penalty because it shows the lack of sportsmanship.  This answer is, not so obviously, little more than drivel.  We are not living in an age of chivalry; the very word, “chivalry”, is no longer part of the lexicon of most modern societies.  (Ladies, in any case, cannot be chivalrous; that quality is strictly a masculine preserve.) The idea of “sportsmanship” is attractive in the abstract but it exists only to be violated, mocked, and transgressed at every turn.   Patrick Mouratoglou, who showed not the slightest hesitation in admitting that he had indeed been coaching his pupil from the stands, giving it as his justification that every coach did so, had something rather more revealing to say:  “It is not a big deal breaking a racquet.  She [Serena] will struggle to get back from this.”  The fact that he thinks is it “not a big deal” suggests to me that there is something seriously amiss.  Mouratoglou, I make bold to say, exemplifies the modern condition:  he is only functionally literate, and thought is entirely alien to him.  He is, of course, far from being the only one partaking of this sinister condition.

Williams has made her living from tennis racquets and acquired a fortune in the process.  Her disrespect for the humble racquet is all the more disturbing for that reason.  I suspect that a racquet to her is only an object which serves a purpose; it exists to be instrumentalized.  Not surprisingly, Williams has a habit of abusing her racquet: in 2014, during a WTA final against Caroline Wozniacki, she smashed it repeatedly on the ground and after the match explained with a hint of thrill in her voice, “I don’t know how many times I hit it but, boy, that racket will never do me wrong again.” Her racquet is to her also a disposable object, purely inanimate.  There is a story to be told about homo consumerus, with a nod to the orgiastic delights of shopping experienced by certain specimens of homo erectus, but I have a different story to relate at this juncture.

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A garlanded tool at Vishwakarma Puja, Delhi.  Source:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Iy3vUwSrmw [video footage]

That story begins with an exploration of the worker and her tools.  Vishwakarma Puja, the Indian ‘festival’ which is observed in factories, workshops, and industrial areas, has always struck me as one of the more inspired instantiations of worship.  Vishwakarma is the divine architect, credited with having built the city of Dwarka and crafted the weapons of the Gods.  In much of India, especially northern and eastern India, during the annual Vishwakarma Puja workers—carpenters, welders, mechanics, electricians, smiths, artisans, electrical engineers, network engineers, and others—lay aside their tools and worship them.  This is a grateful admission of the fact that the worker acknowledges the life-giving properties of his or her tools.

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Vishwarkarma Puja, Amrtisar, 2012.  Source:  https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/vishwakarma-day-keeps-all-markets-closed-today-121403-2012-11-14

It is singularly interesting, then, that the professional tennis players’ code includes a provision against “racquet abuse”, a provision all the more arresting in that it specifies that a player may not even abuse or throw the racquet “in anger”.  My own view is that modern culture, which is nothing if not barbarous in its self-aggrandizing and narcissistic drives, often retains a place, howsoever unself-consciously, for characteristically pre-modern ways of thinking. The ATP code is but a reflection of norms from which we have all become distanced, never more so when money does all the talking. Serena Williams owes, I dare say, a great many apologies, most evidently to the young Naomi Osaka and the Umpire Carlos Ramos.  But her road to redemption can only begin with an apology to the humble racquet with which she crafted an entire universe for herself and her adoring fans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
https://www.atpworldtour.com/-/media/files/rulebook/2017/2017-atp-rulebook.pdf

 

Part II of Decriminalizing Homosexuality in India

(in three or four parts)

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, portions of which criminalized all same-sex relations between adults, has rightly been described as a vestige of colonial-era legislation.  For that matter, much of the legislative and administrative apparatus through which India is governed today, including the Indian Penal Code, is a legacy of colonial rule.  The Indian Penal Code was drafted by a commission that, as I mentioned in Part I of this essay, was led by Thomas Macaulay, rather more infamous as the author of the Minute on Education of 2 February 1835 which, if I may it put this way, formally inaugurated the regime of English language in India.  Macaulay’s ambition was to facilitate the rise of a class of intermediaries educated in English who would help in the machinery of governance.  By most accounts, he succeeded admirably well; indeed, according to the most critical perspectives on this question, the colonization of India by a certain elite, steeped in the ideas that were part of Macaulay’s intellectual inheritance, continues apace.

The long history of same-sex relations is well outside the purview of the present essay, but the “inheritance” of the West of which I speak included “An Acte for the Punishment of the Vice of Buggerie” (1533), passed during the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547) whose love for fornication with women—six wives, and doubtless many other women with whom he shared his bed—conjoined with the sexual attitudes of the time, might help explain in part why an act that would penalize sodomy was passed into law.  Most histories of Section 377 do not look past the Indian Penal Code, and show no awareness of the fact that Macaulay and the Commission did not create the IPC from a vacuum.  The Criminal Law (India) Act of 1828 had already specified “buggery” as a capital offence, adding that penetration rather than completion of the act, marked by “emission of seed”, was sufficient to procure conviction.  England’s own Buggery Act would go through various twists and turns, and by Macaulay’s time was known as the Offences against the Person Act (1828).  Buggery, as it was still known at that time in common parlance, and even in legal usage (thus Act 24 & 25 in Victoria’s reign, 1861, which make reference to “the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with any animal”), remained a capital offence in England until 1861.  Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (passed in 1860, put into effect in early 1862), let us recall, specified as much as a term of life imprisonment for “unnatural” acts of intercourse between men, or between a man and an animal.

VatsyayanaKamaSutra

India’s history of same-sex relations outside the colonial fold remains a complicated one.  Let us dispense immediately with the most cliched example of Hinduism’s real or purported permissiveness towards the question of sexuality: I refer, of course, to the Kama Sutra.  A few years ago, Interfaith Radio, Los Angeles, interviewed me for the segment on “Homosexuality and Hinduism” in the series on “Gay in the Eyes of God”.  My interviewer stated quite emphatically at least twice that a text such as the Kama Sutra, which may be dated to around 200-300 CE, would have been quite impossible in the West.  The word she used to describe the likely attitude of the West towards the Kama Sutra until perhaps a few decades ago was “scandalous”.  The Kama Sutra is far more than a manual of love-making, but this is not the place to describe its place within the purusarthas, or the four ends of life as described in Hindu texts:  kama (love), artha (economy, material well-being in this world), dharma (conduct, duty, virtue), and moksha (liberation or spiritual emancipation). Suffice it say that it has some exciting bits, some charming and naughty parts, and some boring parts—something of the nature of sex, perhaps?  As I have advised my undergraduate students who have taken my introductory course on Indian civilization, they would be well-advised to have an orthopedic surgeon standing by if they are adamantly determined on attempting all the sexual positions described in the Kama Sutra.  The author of the Kama Sutra, Vatsyayana, borrowed a good deal from other manuals on love-making, which were extant at that time and have since been lost.  It is certainly true that there is nothing comparable to the Kama Sutra from that time period, or even from centuries later, in the West—though there is, of course, an erotic literature from antiquity, of which we find ample evidence in the love poems of Sappho, or in the celebration of the mystery and beauty of sexual love in the Song of Songs [also known as Song of Solomon], even if it was read by Church fathers and others as an allegory of God’s love for Israel.

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Khajuraho:  Kandariya Mahadeva Temple.  Source:  https://lakshmisharath.com/stories-erotic-sculptures-of-khajuraho/

Proponents of the idea that Hindu culture has an easy-going attitude towards sexuality almost invariably also point to the famous temple complexes at Khajuraho and Konark, though the preponderant number of the sculptured figures in erotic poses or positions are not engaged in homosexual or lesbian relations.  The Lakshmana temple in the Khajuraho complex which can be dated to the 10th century has a frieze where a man is clearly seen performing oral sex on another man, but should one read this as decisive evidence of the wide acceptance of homosexuality in India?  Perhaps the “evidence” is less conclusive than one would like to think so, and this apart from the question of how one might interpret the large Khajuraho group of monuments as a whole.  To understand why that is the case, we can return, albeit briefly, to the Kama Sutra.  Chapter 9 of Book Two is the portion that is most germane to a consideration of whether the acceptance of homosexuality was widespread in Hindu culture.  Its subject matter is “Auparishtaka”, or what the Victorian-era rake and translator of the Kama Sutra, Richard Burton, described as “Mouth Congress”, that is oral sex.

While the text is unequivocally clear in its description of fellatio, the interpretation of the character of the parties to the act can vary immensely.  It is not commonly realized that ancient Indian texts, not only philosophical works such as the Upanishads but even law treatises (dharma sastras), sex manuals (kama sastras), and works of grammar (vyakarana), were almost always read with one or more commentaries at hand.  The commentator’s gloss could be critical.  However, a modern reader, even without a commentary, might find much room for ambiguity.  A translator such as Burton rendered the male sexual partner of a man as a ‘eunuch’, though the term used in the Sanskrit is generally tritiya-prakriti, ‘of the third gender’.  The two men in a homosexual relationship are more accurately described as having more ‘masculine’ or more ‘feminine’ characteristics.  A more contemporary translator such as Alain Danielou, The Complete Kama Sutra, is more sensitive in rendering the Sanskrit terms in colloquial English, though it doesn’t help when he speaks of oral sex as “buccal coition” (for example, KS 2.9.25, 28).  There is more than the suggestion that many homosexual relations were quite undesirable, and the evidence of verse 40 from Part I, Chapter Nine seems quite unimpeachable:  “The various forms of buccal coition should be avoided by Brahmans, men of letters, ministers and other government officials, as well as by those who have become famous.”  The insinuation here is that while homosexual relations will doubtless be encountered, men of a certain class standing should certainly refrain from them.  On the other hand, Vatsyayana was entirely willing to go the entire length in accepting homosexuality as part of the order of nature, and taking it as a fact of life that some men are attracted to other men and may be inclined to choose them as life partners:  “There are also citizens [men], sometimes greatly attached to each other and with complete faith in one another, who get married [parigraha] together” (KS 2.9.35).

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Mural at Mattanchery Palace, Fort Kochi:  Shiva and Mohini are locked in embrace (left), while Parvati, the consort of Shiva, looks at them astride a white bull (right).

In this vein, one might summon a great deal of other textual and visual evidence.  The Puranic literature is prolific in the stories of sexuality:  in my radio interview from more than five years ago to which I have adverted above, I offer some additional pointers.  There are stories of gods seduced by beautiful women, gods making out with other gods (if unknowingly), men who become pregnant, men and women who cross-dress, and more.  The culture of pre-modern India certainly cannot be accused of prudishness, whatever else one may say of it; yet, it is also unmistakably the case that all this seems nearly impossible to divine from the present state of India, where heterosexual marriage exercises an oppressive crush, monopolizing social life, societal norms, and the imaginary of the nation in every domain.  My own reading suggests two formulations which I am hopeful may be of some use in contemporary discussions of homosexuality in India and, in particular, the nature of the “Hindu inheritance”.  There is no singular Hindu view of homosexuality, even if both the proponents or detractors of the view that Hinduism was hospitable to same-sex relations are convinced that the truth is unequivocally on their side.  One might plausibly argue that homosexuality, on the evidence of Puranic literature, should not necessarily be viewed as the opposite of heterosexuality but rather as constituting something of a continuum with it.  Secondly, and more decisively, the Hindu past furnishes no evidence of homophobia.  If some critics should construe Hindu texts as not celebratory of homosexuality, they are nevertheless recognizably more accommodating of views and lifestyles outside the norm of what these days is termed heterosexual normativity.  Those who are now committed to obstructing the Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 377 of the IPC, and one hopes that their numbers will be insignificant, would do well to bear this in mind.

 

(to be continued)

(in three or four parts)

Part I:  Free at Last:  A Supreme Court verdict for LGBT Identity

Thursday’s decision of the Indian Supreme Court to decriminalize homosexuality is justly being celebrated as a historic moment in the country’s modern history.  Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which dates back to 1860 and in its elements was drafted by a commission in the 1830s headed by none other than Thomas Macaulay, made voluntary “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” an offence punishable “with imprisonment for life”.  The Delhi High Court in 2009 [Naz Foundation v. Government of NCT of Delhihad given the LGBT community a lease on life in ruling that Section 377 could not be applied to consensual sex between homosexuals, but on appeal to the Supreme Court the high court was reversed in 2013.  In overturning its earlier decision, the Supreme Court in Thursday’s ruling admitted that it had made an egregious mistake and, quite unusually, tendered an apology to “members of the community for the delay in ensuring their rights.”  The Court noted that, in its earlier decision, it had been swayed by the fact that only “a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitutes lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders”, and had come to the false conclusion that the rights of such a minority could not be permitted to fashion the laws for an entire country.  However, the Supreme Court now holds that though a majority may be entitled to govern, it cannot abrogate the rights of a minority, whatever its numerical strength.  The Supreme Court has admitted that it had abrogated not only the right of privacy of LGBT people, but even the fundamental rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution.

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A Rainbow Pride Walk in Kolkata. Copyright:  Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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LGBTQ community people, with a rainbow flag, celebrate the Supreme Court verdict which decriminalises consensual gay sex, in Bengaluru, Thursday, Sept 6, 2018. (PTI Photo)
Source: https://www.deccanherald.com/national/lgbtq-rights-activists-welcome-691377.html

 

The euphoria being experienced in the LGBT is understandable.  The bold headlines carried by the country’s leading newspapers on Friday tell the story in outline.  The Times of India opined that India had been “ushered into the 21st Century” and they headlined the story thus:  “Independence Day-II.”  The Hindustan Times could, however, muster little more than “Rainbow Nation”:  noting that “Justice is Served”, they characterized the Court’s decision as a “Landmark Ruling” that had been given all the more weight in that all the five justices concurred.  The Indian Express was far bolder with its headline, “Love at First Sight”, above a photograph of two well-dressed petitioners kissing on the cheek.  The Hindi-language Navbharat Times was inventive, expressing the verdict in the formula “377=0”, explaining that the court had rendered Section 377 nought. One might continue in this vein: from all the available evidence, parties had broken out across the country’s metropolitan centers.  A friend sent me an article from the South China Morning Post:  the photographs accompanying the article show men and women holding tearful celebrations as the verdict was being read out and over the course of the day.

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People belonging to the LGBT community celebrating after the Supreme Court’s decriminalization of consensual homosexual sex at an NGO in Mumbai, India, September 6, 2018. Photo:  Reuters.
Source:  Deccan Herald (newspaper)

 

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A portion of the judgment of Chief Justice Deepak Mishra where he quotes from the philosopher John Rawls.

 

The 495-page judgment of the Court, rendered as four different if concurring opinions, is not likely to be read by more than a few lawyers and scholars, law students, and activists, and there will be time enough to ponder over the finer points of the Court’s reasoning.  Nevertheless, there are activists who are already cognizant of the fact that the road ahead is littered with shards of glass.  Conservative elements in all the religious communities have already pronounced their opposition to the judgment but there is no element of surprise here at all.  There are a large number of people who will continue to remain hostile to members of the LGBT community; but it is also quite likely that a large number of people, whose attitude is perhaps best described as indifference, will in time come to accept the Supreme Court’s opinion as the settled law of the land.  Even among many of those who are educated, and often of liberal dispensation, the feeling persists that in a country such as India there are far more pressing issues than the elimination of Section 377—not only the threat to Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution under the present political dispensation, but the crushing poverty of much of India’s countryside, the grave problem of large unemployment, the pandemic of violence against women, the suicides of over 300,000 farmers, and so on.

What is certainly striking in the coverage of the Court’s decision thus far, and in the pictures that have been posted, is that the celebrations appear to have been held entirely in urban areas, and most of those in metropolises such as Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai.  No one has argued that Section 377 was not without an impact in the metropolises, but the educated middle classes have, in this matter as in most others, protections which would have been denied to those with fewer privileges in life.  Prosecutions under this section have been comparatively uncommon: according to figures maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2015 fewer than 1,500 arrests were made.  One cannot minimize the immense psychological hold that Section 377 had over large segments of the LGBT community, giving rise to fear and silence on their part and, conversely, emboldening not only a largely corrupt police but many who sought to blackmail LGBT people.  At the same time, we shall have to ask how, and in what respect, the abolition of the most egregious portions of Section 377 impacts rural India where half of the country still lives.  In raising this question, I am not at all adverting to the common liberal view that the countryside is more conservative and therefore less progressive.  If by conservative one means, for example, that the pace of social change in the countryside is slower, than that is doubtless true of India’s hundreds of thousands of villages; however, the same countryside has, mercifully, been much less prone to accept the communal narratives of the Indian past which are now destroying India, though the extremist Hindus who are these days accustomed to acting with impunity are doing everything to communalize the country’s rural populations.  What is most pertinent is that in rural India one cannot quite escape one’s identity:  a person may proclaim herself a Christian or a lesbian one day, but those identities do not become accepted merely because they have been affirmed.  Above all this is of course the consideration, common to every part of the country, that the law can outlaw certain forms of discrimination, as the Supreme Court has now wisely done in holding Section 377 (except with respect to the provisions about the unlawfulness of bestiality, or sex between a human and an animal) contrary to the Constitution, but it cannot make people have affection for those who are deemed ‘different’.

(to be continued)

 

 

 

 

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

Dear Sir,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

Vinay Lal, Professor of History, UCLA