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Posts Tagged ‘hospitality’

India has just finished celebrating Republic Day, and as the chests of millions of Indians swelled with pride at the thought of our immense diversity and imagined military prowess, it is well to reflect on what kind of Republic the country has become.  We may begin with some elementary if often forgotten meanings of the word “republic”:  a republican form of government is not merely one in which the head of state is not a hereditary monarch; rather, the modern republic rests on the idea that sovereignty resides in the people, and that the will of the people, as expressed through their representatives, is supreme.

What has, however, been critical to the idea of the ‘republic’ everywhere is the notion of inclusiveness, even if this does not form part of the word’s typical dictionary definition. In this respect, the stories that have been coming out of India in recent years tell a tale that is chilling to the bones, a tale which leaves behind a stench that no amount of sloganeering about ‘swacch Bharat’ or even something more than a symbolic wielding of the broom can eradicate.  If inclusiveness is the touchstone of a Republic, what is characteristic of India today is how increasingly large constituencies are being excluded from the nation. Muslims and Dalits have been hounded, garroted, and lynched; the working class is being trampled upon; the Adivasi is nothing more than an obstacle course for a mining company.  None of this is news, some might argue; perhaps things have only become worse.  Such a view is profoundly mistaken, because whatever India may have been in the past, it has never been, certainly not to the extent it is today, a Republic of Inhospitality.

There are other ways, too, of understanding the pass at which we have arrived.  On his last day of office some months ago, the Vice President, Hamid Ansari, warned that Muslims were feeling increasingly insecure in India and that there was a corrosion of Indian values.  His successor, Venkaiah Naidu, was dismissive of these remarks and shot back, “Some people are saying minorities are insecure. It is a political propaganda. Compared to the entire world, minorities are more safe and secure in India and they get their due.” The Prime Minister, who appears a model of graciousness when he is in the company of foreign dignitaries but has been glaringly contemptuous of political opponents and previous occupants of his office, could not resist taking a dig at Mr. Ansari.  The veteran politician, Mr. Modi suggested, had spent too much time in the company of Muslims—at Aligarh Muslim University, as a member of the Minorities Commission, and as a representative of India to West Asia—and his sympathies did not really lie with India.  One should, of course, not expect anything else from this Prime Minister, What Naidu and the Prime Minister failed to understand was Ansari’s unease at the fact that India no longer seemed a hospitable place to him. India does not even remotely feel like a hospitable place to the Africans who have been set upon by mobs or to those from the Northeast who been humiliated and killed since they seem too much like the Chinese—aliens all.

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African students injured in mob attacks in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, April 2017.  Source:  http://www.sikhpa.com/sikh-group-condemns-racist-mob-attack-against-africans-in-india/

More than anything else, India has long been a land of hospitality.  I use the word hospitality with deliberation and with the awareness that our present crop of middle-class Indians who study hotel management and business administration with gusto will assume that I am speaking of the ‘hospitality industry’.  There is a different story to be told here about how some of the richest words in the English language have been hijacked for the narrowest purposes.  I use hospitality in place of tolerance since both the right and the left have demonstrated their intolerance for ‘tolerance’.  To liberals and the left in India, all discussion of Hindu tolerance is merely a conceit and at worst a license to browbeat others into submission.  Surprisingly, but perhaps not, the advocates of Hindutva are equally unenthusiastic about proclaiming the virtues of ‘Hindu tolerance’.  It was Hindu tolerance that, in their view, made the Hindus vulnerable to the depredations of foreign invaders.  ‘Hindu tolerance’ is only for the weak and the effete.

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A delegation of students protesting the death of 19-year old Nido Taniam, a student from Arunachal Pradesh killed in the south Delhi colony of Lajpat Nagar.  Photo Source:  Press Trust of India.

What, then, does it mean to speak of the culture of hospitality that has long characterized India and that is eroding before our very eyes, turning this ancient land into a most inhospitable place not only for foreign tourists, African students, and the various people of northeast India, but even for the greater majority of its own citizens?  We may take as illustrative of this culture of hospitality three narratives that are humbling in their complex simplicity.  There is a story that is often told about the coming of the Parsis to India, although some doubt its veracity.  As they fled Iran, so the story goes, they were stopped on the border as they sought to make their way into India.  The Indian king already had far too many people in his dominions and could not accommodate any more refugees.  The cup was full.  The Parsis are said to have responded, ‘We shall be like the sugar that sweetens the cup of milk.’

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Parsis outside their Fire Temple, Mumbai.

Those who wish to make the story plausible will offer dates and there may be mention of the political dynasty that prevailed in Western India in the 8th century with whom the first batch of Parsis would have come into contact.  The story may well be apocryphal, though if that is the case it is wholly immaterial:  its persistence suggests something not only about the tenor of those times but the continuing attractiveness of the idea that those who came to India have each, in their own fashion, sweetened the pot and added something to the country.  But there may have been many other registers of hospitality in India, as Tagore sought to explain to his audience on a visit to China.  The Mahsud, a Pathan tribe inhabiting the South Waziristan Agency in what is now the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan, were being bombed from the air.  A plane crash landed in one of the villages; the pilot was desperately trying to extricate himself from the plane which was already on fire.  Though the villagers had been plummeted by this very pilot, they ran to the plane and lifted him out of the cockpit; he was wounded, but they nursed him back to health; and some weeks later he made his way back to England.  It was a culture, indeed an ideal, of hospitality, and their notion of dharma, that made the villagers act as they did; however, as Tagore tellingly adds, their behavior was “the product of centuries of culture” and was “difficult of imitation.”

Though Nehru shepherded the country after independence, it was Mohandas Gandhi more than anyone else who was committed to the constituent idea of the Republic, that is inclusivity and what I have described as hospitality.  It is, therefore, fitting that my last story should end with him.  Gandhi was a staunch vegetarian, but he often had visitors to the ashram who were accustomed to having meat at nearly every meal.  He took it upon himself to ensure that they were served meat; and he also adhered to the view that if he had insisted that they conform to the rules of the ashram and confine themselves to vegetarian food, he would be visiting violence upon them. Although reams and reams have been written upon his notion of ahimsa, little has been said of how hospitality was interwoven into his very notion of nonviolence.  And, yet, it is in this very India that Muslims and Dalits have been killed on the mere suspicion of eating, hoarding, and transporting beef.  On this Republic Day, at least, Indians should ponder on precipitous has been the decline of their country into a Republic of Inhospitality.

 

[A slightly shorter version of this was published under the same title in the online edition of The Indian Express, 27 January 2018.]

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Samuel Hallegua, 79 years old, has died at his home in Fort Kochi. The Hindu, which reported his death yesterday, described Mr Hallegua as a ‘community leader’ and, more poignantly, as someone who resented, not without reason, the transformation of Cochin’s once flourishing Jewish community into a tourist relic. Mr Hallegua’s family is said to have been present in Cochin since 1592, and it is his family members who, in the mid-eighteenth century, helped to reconstruct the famous synagogue in Mattancherry that Mr Hallegua had, not without considerable misgivings, been showing, as the Warden of the Cochin Jewish Synagogue, to the tourists who flock to Cochin.

A number of scholars, among them Nathan Katz and Joan Roland, have done much justice to the extraordinary history of the Jewish presence in India. The story of Jews being sheltered in Shanghai – which I have described in a previous blog — while they were being butchered wholesale in the home of what is charmingly described as the Enlightenment is remarkable enough, considering that their protector was the Japanese commander of the ghetto who refused to implement orders for their final extermination, but still more remarkable is their centuries-old sojourn in India. India is one country where they did not only not face persecution, but where, much as adherents of many other religions have found, they could openly practice their faith and signal their own distinct contributions to the making of Indian civilization. India remains singular in the worldwide Jewish experience, and Professor Katz justly wrote some years ago, in his book Who Are the Jews of India?, that “Jews navigated the eddies and shoals of Indian culture very well. They never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination.” He goes on to describe in what respect India could have served as a model for the world: “Indians Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live: free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”

Among the three distinct Jewish communities that have been present in India, the Cochin Jews numbered about 2,500 shortly before the independence of India in 1947. Only a dozen Jews remain in Cochin today, none of them under the age of 50. How and why their numbers dwindled will seem no mystery to those who, citing the creation of the state of Israel, the horrendous experience of European Jews, the long history of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, and the passage of the Law of Return, deem it but natural that India’s Jews also sought to migrate to Israel. But surely the matter cannot be allowed to rest there, unless one is prepared to concede that the modern nation-state is the only entity capable of commanding the loyalties of human beings, and that primordial ties, of blood and religion for instance, reign supreme in human affairs. This part of the story, it appears to me, has been inadequately understood. Just what is this thing we call home, and does the geography of the landscape that might be called ‘home’ correspond to the psychogeography of home? In their passage from India to Israel, many Indian Jews may have gained much – solidarity with other Jews, new employment prospects, and the sense of freeing themselves from their hitherto eternal diasporic condition. But, equally, it should also be understood that they may have lost much, just as India lost much from their departure. With the decimation of Cochin’s Jewish community in the aftermath of independence and the creation of Israel, we might say that the logic of the nation-state has triumphed over the possibilities of civilization, and that the modern arithmetic of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ has triumphed yet again. How are those who are in the majority ever to learn about the traditions, norms, civilities, and graces of hospitality?

The Hindu has reported Mr Hallegua as recently saying of India, “It has been more than tolerant. The Santa Cruz High School I went to was run by Jesuit priests. My sister studied in a school which was managed by Italian nuns. But we were never under pressure to shun Judaism. The country accepted us as we have been. I am a proud Indian. I’m also a Hindu in an apolitical sense.” Mr Hallegua resisted the arithmetic of modern politics to the last. That, among many other reasons, is why he should be honored as he now become among those who are departed.

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