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.

Kamaladevi&SarojiniNaidu

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

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*Thesis Seven: The Geography and Psychogeography of Home

In a trenchant and famous critique of Edward Said to which I have previously alluded, the Marxist scholar Aijaz Ahmad drew attention to what he described as postcolonialism’s fetish with the idea of exile.  Ahmad had in mind the fact that the most compelling figures in Said’s intellectual landscape – among them Conrad, Adorno, Auerbach, Mahmud Darwish, C L R James, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz — lived as exiles.  Said placed himself squarely in that lineage, but went much further in his claim that modern Western culture was fundamentally a creation of exiles.  Said advanced this claim in yet another,  perhaps more compelling, language:  modern culture, he wrote, could be described as the product of a conflict between the ‘housed’ and the ‘unhoused’.  Ahmad’s criticism that Said and postcolonial intellectuals who have fetishized the idea of exile are quite oblivious to their own positions of immense privilege is not without some merit, but can we locate a different and less acrimonious point of entry into this question?  There are obvious and pertinent considerations that remain tacit in Ahmad’s critique.  We are living in an era characterized not only by the mobility of émigrés and exiles, but by nearly unprecedented movements of masses, such as domestic and sex workers, political and economic refugees, stateless persons, immigrants, and so-called undocumented aliens.  The intellectual émigré is surely member of a miniscule minority, but does such an admission suffice as a basis on which Said might be critiqued?

To the extent that the ‘nation’ remained, if only as the subject of critique, the fundamental operative category in postcolonial writings, the idea of home went unexamined.  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?  That little-noticed passage in Said, where he characterizes the problem of modern culture as the conflict “between the unhoused and housed”, helps to push his insights further.  The death, less than two years ago, of Samuel Hallegua, a Jew whose family had been resident in the coastal city of Cochin for a little more than four centuries, brought home to me the problem of ‘home’ in modern thought.  Every scholar of global Jewish history admits that, in India at least, Jews never encountered the slightest trace of anti-Semitism. Nathan Katz, author of Who Are the Jews of India?, writes candidly 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.”  Yet, in the aftermath of the creation of Israel, there was an exodus of Indian Jews to the new Jewish state. How and why their numbers dwindled will seem no mystery to those who, citing 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 is it really all that ‘natural’ that the modern nation-state should be construed as the only entity capable of commanding the loyalties of human beings, and should we effortlessly concede that primordial ties, of blood and religion for instance, reign supreme in human affairs?

In their passage from India to Israel, many Indian Jews may have gained much – solidarity with other Jews, perhaps new employment prospects, and the sense of freeing themselves from their hitherto eternal diasporic condition.  Some of them, it is certain, would also have experienced a sense of loss – not just a feeling of nostalgia, but even discrimination as they found themselves representing strands of Judaism all but foreign to other Jews.  Their children and grandchildren will perhaps not be privy to such sentiments.  But what of Mr. Hallegua’s contemporaries?  If they desired the comfort of numbers, what enabled Mr. Hallegua, who never left Cochin, to resist that easy temptation?  Should we conclude that he was less enterprising than his peers and less willing to take the risk of dislocation?  Or should we entertain the possibility that Mr. Hallegua, in his own quiet manner, was registering a dissent against the ethos of modern political and social identity?  The Hindu, in reporting the death of Mr. Hallegua, quoted him as 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’m a proud Indian.  I’m also a Hindu in an apolitical sense.”  With the decimation of Cochin’s Jewish community in the aftermath of Indian independence and the creation of Israel, we might say that the logic of the nation-state prevailed over the possibilities of civilization, and that the modern political arithmetic of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ triumphed – as it has so often in our times.

I do not wish to say that Mr. Hallegua heroically mounted a resistance to the arithmetic of modern politics; but he nevertheless refused to give this arithmetic his endorsement.  He did not speak the language of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, and he refused to be drawn into thinking that identity is reducible to some primordial markers of religion, ethnicity, and the like.  Or, let us put it this way, Mr. Hallegua had an expansive conception of the politics of home.  He may even have recognized Israel as the longed-for home, but perhaps it was the home to which he could not or would not return.  He may have refused to idealize Israel; or, if he did, he could have thought that it would be best to hold up the idea of Israel and yet have no truck with the reality of a nation-state predicated on the notion of religious identity.  What is  certain to my mind is that new paradigms in the aftermath of postcolonialism will have to help us resist the debilitating arithmetic of modern politics.

See also previous posts in this series:

Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

Thesis Five: The Moral and Political Imperative of South-South Dialogues

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)