*Unthugging the State in India


On 12 July 2017, the Deputy Editor of the Indian Express, Ms. Seema Chisthi, interviewed me at my residence in New Delhi on the lynchings in India and on the political situation in the country.  Excerpts from the interview were published in the Indian Express a few days later under the title, “What We See in India Today is the Difference Between Formal and Real Citizenship”.  The interview as published in the newspaper can be accessed here:  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/what-we-see-in-india-is-the-difference-between-formal-and-real-citizenship-historian-vinay-lal-ucla-professor-4755247/

What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the published excerpts.

In the light of the recent cases of lynchings in India, is there a shift in the way communal tension has been exploding on the surface from how it did in earlier decades?

Yes, there is. There is no doubt in my mind that the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that we have seen in the US or parts of Western Europe has repercussions in India, emboldening the advocates of Hindutva. The notion among some in India is that if Muslims, particularly in the so-called modern West, can be attacked, then we can do that too, we have the license to do that with impunity. In the US, I see many advocates of Hindutva who are now suggesting that the US, India and Israel form a natural alliance with one another as, in their worldview, these democracies are being “threatened” by forces of Islam and are under assault from radical Muslims. This certainly was not the international environment in the 1960s or 1970s. That’s at the macro level. It is not just the RSS or VHP but a slightly larger strand of Indian society that has become complicit in these attacks or lynchings that we see in India, exactly like in the US. There was a virulent white racism that was so pervasive that you did not need to have institutional membership in the KKK or John Birch Society, people were complicit in it without a formal association with white supremacist groups.

What is the kind of signal that a political dispensation like India has now send to the law enforcement machinery?

I think the problem is twofold. What do you do when the state becomes somewhat thuggish?  So, the people who are targeted are not just Muslims, but also Dalits and Africans. We should be attentive to it because there are groups of people whose very lives are at risk.  In all authoritarian states, signals are sent down to the people from the top. We don’t need to take the example of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s totalitarian state, you can turn to authoritarian states now where you can see very clearly, it is same attitude at the top, middle and bottom.  Once the masses imbibe the idea that the leadership will tolerate extreme intolerance, the oppressive attitude becomes pervasive. These problems are not distinct to India today, we see a similar repression and acute intolerance—think of the United States.  Similarly, Turkey is in dire straits. China, Russia, [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines… the list goes on. This could be attributed to what is being termed the ‘strongman’ phenomenon. But I feel the problem is much greater and we have to speak of ‘nationalism’.  What is happening today shows the limits of the nationalist project and what a disease nationalism can become in certain circumstances. Now this is very hard for the newly independent and formerly colonized countries to accept, which fought for freedom on the basis of the idea of nationalism; but wherever you had nationalist movements, you have had to rethink the nationalist idea. It has become the only kind of political community to which we all have to pay obeisance. What we see in India — and which is clear in a large number of other countries, especially US – is the difference between formal citizenship and real citizenship on the ground. In the US, African-Americans are for the most part only formal citizens without the rights of a citizen on the ground. This is the case for a large number of people in India.

So how does one un-thug the state?

It’s always a difficult question. We need to consider what are the sources of resistance in the society and there is a gamut of forms of resistance. We can take the view that one has to work with the institutions in the land, but such a position is clearly inadequate and I think India has mastered the subterfuge. That subterfuge is that India has, in most domains of life, the most progressive legislation in the world. So, in some ways, the progressive legislation obfuscates the nature of the problem and clouds it.  Let us recognize that the law cannot regulate my prejudices or feelings. But it can certainly do something to regulate prejudicial conduct, particularly when repercussions are extraordinarily severe for someone at the other end.  So we would certainly have to think of the rule of law, even as I am cautioning against viewing it as the solution to all our ills.  I would argue for a greater need for satyagraha as an instrument than which has a place in democracy. Especially where the law is sometimes used as an instrument for either doing nothing or installing new regimes of repression. As we are living in a democracy, at least pro forma, and we have a functioning court system, it is very important that what can be gained through satyagraha must be recognized.  Organised, non-violent civil resistance has a place. It need not follow exactly what Gandhi did.  We may have to, we certainly will have to, use satyagraha in different ways. This can’t just be done through social media or Facebook or Twitter — this needs people on the ground to build resistance. We need masses of people together, congregating in public spheres in opposition to injustice. It cannot be left to social media.

Are you optimistic about India today?

Yes, we must be clear that we should not let Hindutva forces hijack what we have. Unlike my friends on the Left-liberal end of the spectrum, I have great respect for the spiritual resources of the Indic civilisation, which includes aspects of the Indo-Islamic tradition which developed here, which was unprecedented.  Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism—all this is part of our legacy. We have had writers, philosophers, artists, and reformers who have reckoned with these questions for hundreds of years, and I am not ready to call all that inconsequential. So, yes, I am optimistic, on the whole.


*No Room for the Muslim

Part III of “The Implications of American Islamophobia” (concluded)

The short history offered in the previous post of attempts to exclude those viewed in mainstream American society, or by a considerable majority of Americans, as ‘undesirables’ tempts one to conclude that xenophobia is intrinsic to American history, and that the fear, suspicion, and hatred of the Muslim is only the latest instantiation of an inability to live with the Other.  However, such a conclusion stops considerably short of pursuing the implications of present-day Islamophobia, if only because disdain for the Chinese or hatred for the Japanese did not entail wholesale contempt for Confucianism, Shintoism, or Buddhism.  Indeed, religion has seldom entered into American discussions of China or Japan, and Zed Buddhism’s attractiveness to a certain class of Americans resides in, if one could put it this way, its secular qualities.  The Muslim from Iraq, Iran, Libya, or Syria is a different kettle of fish.  The Middle East, or West Asia as it is known in other parts of the world, has to Americans been largely synonymous with oil; if it conjures any other image, it is of a barren landscape and a cultural desert.  It is doubtful, for example, that most Americans have ever heard of a single poet of writer from any of these countries, even if Iranian cinema has now been acknowledged as having produced masterpieces of world cinema.  The closest most Americans are likely to get to a feel for this part of the Muslim world is perhaps a taste for Persian food or some belly-dancing from Egypt or north Africa.  Some Americans who are sensitive to criticisms about insularity might suggest that Arabs themselves have conceded that nothing remains of their culture. Did not, after all, the Syrian poet Adonis say in an interview he gave to the New York Times in 2002:  “There is no more culture in the Arab world.  It’s finished.  Culturally speaking, we are part of Western culture, but only as consumers, not as creators.”  Insert into this landscape what appears to Americans to be an arid, sterile, and humorless religion, and one can begin to fathom the deeper roots of Islamophobia.  There is also the matter, which is perhaps tacitly present in the vast resentment against Islam that has long been brewing in the US, that it is the fastest growing religion in the world, and it presents the stiffest possible competition to American evangelical proselytization.  If there are two religions which have not eschewed proselytization, they are certainly Christianity and Islam:  and it is their proximity and nearness to each other, in far many more respects than can be enumerated here, that of course feeds the anxiety of Trump, Cruz, Carson, and their ilk.

It is important, as well, that the difficult questions about the nature of “American” identity not be deflected by considerations that, while they are important, are not centrally important in the present discussion about the implications of Islamophobia in the “land of freedom”.  Many Americans and even some Muslims, for example, will argue that Trump and his ilk are only proposing to do what Muslim nations have already done.  The treatment of non-Muslims in most predominantly Muslim countries is shabby at best, and more often simply horrendous.  On this account, merely being a non-Muslim is hazardous in a country such as Saudi Arabia.  Pakistan, to name another country, even requires all Muslims who are applicants for a passport to take an oath denouncing Ahmadis.  A second argument, which is increasingly being heard in Muslim communities and has been voiced by most American public officials, including President Barack Obama, is that law-abiding and “good Muslims” must increasingly take responsibility for the “bad Muslims”; or, in somewhat more sophisticated language, the onus falls on the vast majority of Muslims to understand how radicalization has affected their youth, and then isolate and rehabilitate the “bad Muslims” and “evil jihadists” among them.  But when Christians engage in mass shootings in the US, which happens rather often, we do not hear calls for the Christian community to take responsibility for the evil ones in their midst.  Moreover, surprisingly little attempt has been made to situate the present controversy in relation to the widespread language of “diversity”, which today is conceivably the single most important issue in the American workplace.  Diversity has most been understood as a way of accommodating women, ethnic minorities, and increasingly members of the LGBTQ communities; however, there has been scant discussion of religious diversity.  Ignorance of Islam is widespread; the greater majority of Americans admit that they have never known a Muslim.


Five years ago, there was a storm of resentment over the proposed installation of an Islamic center and mosque at ‘Ground Zero’, the “hallowed ground” where two planes struck the World Trade Center towers and made martyrs of some 2500 Americans.  (I wrote about this in two previous posts .)  Obama, echoing Lincoln, declared that “I understand the emotions that this issue engenders.  Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”  There was indignation that Muslims were being allowed to lay claim to the very ground that their fellow Muslims had desecrated:  the unstated supposition, which has never been allowed to tarnish the barbarism of any white Christian, was that all Muslims stood condemned.  The public remarks that were then on display could reasonably have led one to the view that the abuse of Islam is the new form of anti-Semitism in America.  Yet the implications of Islamophobia are still deeper.  Arguments that the ban on Muslims will keep America safe from violent terrorists, or that America is in dire need of controlling its borders, are a smokescreen.   Immeasurably more Muslims have paid with their lives for the terrorist attacks of September 2001 than Americans, or practitioners of any other faith, though an American can only recognize this if a Muslim life is viewed as equivalent to an American life.  Those who denied Muslims an Islamic Center on ‘Ground Zero’, on the grounds that it is sacred space, arrived at a conception of the sacred that has no room for the Muslim at all.  That is the fundamental problem that lurks behind American Islamophobia.

See also Parts I, “Trump and the Spectacle of Xenophobic Buffoonery”, and II, “The Deep Roots of Xenophobia in US History”

[The three parts were published as a single piece, of considerably shorter length, entitled “The Implications of American Islamophobia”, Economic and Political Weekly 50, no. 51 (19 December 2015), pp. 12-14.]

*Günter Grass and the anti-Semitism Canard

Günter Grass, some say, invites controversy.  For many years, he excoriated his fellow Germans to come clean about their past and confront the brute facts that might help explain how Germany became the seat of most terrifying machinery of human extermination that the world had ever witnessed.  However, not until Grass was nearly 80 years old did he confess that, as a 17-year old at end of the war, he was conscripted into the Waffen-SS, a paramilitary force attached to the Nazi party.  Grass is in the eye of the storm again, this time with a poem, published in several European newspapers on April 4th and rendered in English as ‘What Must Be Said’, that warns the world that ‘Israel’s atomic power endangers / an already fragile world peace’.    Declaring himself sick of ‘the West’s hypocrisy’, Grass hopes that with his poem

many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger

we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.

Israel has, in consequence, declared Günter Grass persona non-grata.  A once eminently diasporic people, formerly scattered to the ends of the earth and living their lives in exile until they could claim Palestine as their homeland, have apparently surmised that the banishment of Grass from Israel represents the most fitting punishment for the aged but unrepentant poet.

Just what, we must surely ask, was Grass’s sin?   The fury whipped up in Israel, and among Israel’s supporters in the West, points to several considerations.  Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed outrage that Grass should have had the audacity to compare Israel to Iran.  Netanyahu described the comparison as shameful, offensive, shall we say, to the dignity of every civilized person:  ‘In Iran there is a regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel.  This comparison says very little about Israel and a great deal about Mr. Grass. It is Iran, not Israel, which poses a threat to world peace. It is Iran, not Israel, which threatens to destroy other countries.  It is Iran, not Israel, which supports terror organizations that fire missiles on innocent civilians. It is Iran, not Israel, which supports the massacre that the Syrian regime is carrying out on its civilians. It is Iran, not Israel, which stones women, hangs gay people, and ruthlessly suppresses the tens of millions of citizens in its country.’  No doubt, the present regime in Iran cannot be viewed as other than highly authoritarian, though there is no reason to suppose that the suppression of some freedoms has stifled all dissent, or creativity in art, music, cinema, and literature.  It has not helped Iran that its most public face is provided by Mahmud Ahmedinejad, succinctly and not inaccurately described in Grass’s poem as a ‘loudmouth’ who earned undying notoriety in the West when he described the Holocaust as a fiction.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to resist the view that Netanyahu protests too much.   However enormous the misgivings one may have about Iran’s political regime, Iran has never posed a threat to any other country, nor has it launched an attack on another nation.  Netanyahu is no less boorish than Ahmedinejad, and it is idle for him, or indeed for any other Zionist, to pretend that Israel has not been the perpetrator of untold number of atrocities against the Palestinians –– choking, numbing, and starving them into submission in a war of gravely disproportionate resources.  It is no surprise that the list of accusations hurled against Iran did not include its real or alleged sponsorship of political assassinations, since Israel is likely without peer in its mastery in this department of covert politics.  But there is something else underlying the swashbuckling behavior of Netanyahu and his predecessors in high office:  Iran and Israel have long fought a shadow war, and they need each other desperately.  The ayatollahs in Iran say and do enough to keep states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan frothing at the mouth; similarly, the Shia clergy can always count on the presence of Israel to summon the faithful, particularly when internal dissent appears to pose grave threats to the regime.  Whether or not the relationship of Iran and Israel can be characterized as one informed by what Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences”, there is no gainsaying the fact that these two countries understand each other very well.

The more Iran and Israel begin to look alike, the greater the swagger with Israel must contemptuously dismiss Iran as the irredeemable other. Israel has long thought of itself as the sole democracy in the Middle East, ringed by unruly Arabs within and hostile states beyond; and if on occasion its unmitigated repression of Palestinians has evoked a mild rebuke from its allies in the West, it has nearly always conducted itself in world politics with the assurance that it may act with impunity.  Iran, on the other hand, has for an equally long time labored under it reputation in the West as, in the vocabulary of our times, a ‘rogue’ state.  The nationalism of countries such as Iran has always seemed to many in the West, even those who style themselves liberals, as ‘problematic’.  The nationalization of Iran’s oil industry in 1951 was bound to lead to serious repercussions for then Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who would be removed in a coup two years later.  His overthrow, orchestrated by the CIA and British military intelligence, brought Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whose gratitude to his benefactors would amply be on display in the decades ahead, to the helm of power.  Since the revolution of 1979, which installed the mullahs in power, and the subsequent Iranian hostage crisis, a rather humbling experience for the Americans, Iran has effectively been shunned as a ‘pariah state’ by the West.

The countries in the West which for years have rallied behind the United States to declare Iran a ‘rogue’ state have, historically speaking, treated their Jewish population much worse than did Iran, which even today has the largest population of Jews outside Israel in the Middle East.  It is barely necessary to recall, for example, the barbarism of the French, whether with respect to the Jews or their colonial subjects in Algeria, Indochina, and elsewhere.  On the received narrative, however, the anti-Semitism that was so characteristic a feature of European society is a thing of the past; indeed, what generally gives Western civilization its distinct prominence over other civilizations is its capacity for atonement and repentance.  It is precisely in this respect that Grass has been found by Netanyahu and other like minded yahoos to be severely wanting:  as Grass had disguised his past for over six decades, he is said to have been absolutely stripped of credibility.  Writing for Haaretz, long established as the voice of Israeli liberals, Anshel Pfeffer ponders in a piece entitled ‘The Moral Blindness of Günter Grass’ why ‘a highly intelligent man, a Nobel laureate no less’, does not understand that ‘his membership in an organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualifies him from criticizing the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization began. What could be more self-evident?’ For the likes of Grass, there is, quite self-evidently, no atonement, no remorse, only the certitude of eternal condemnation.  Yet the poet had clearly anticipated it all:

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

When critiques of Zionism, or of Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians, cannot be adequately answered, there is always the weapon of last resort, the ultimate weapon with which to tarnish the voice of informed democratic and humanistic criticism:  the charge of anti-Semitism.  ‘This general silence on the facts’ –– the fact, which Israel is in no position to repudiate, and which Grass’s poem has now uncomfortably brought into the limelight, namely that Israel’s own nuclear program remains without supervision, inspection, or verification, subject to no constraints except those which its leaders might impose upon themselves in the light of reason –– forced Grass’s hand; and it was not without awareness on his part of how the end of the narrative was foretold.  Writes Grass,

This general silence on the facts,

before which my own silence has bowed,

seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,

leading to a likely punishment

the moment it’s broken:

the verdict “Anti-Semitism” falls easily.

To consider just how easily the verdict of ‘anti-Semitism’ falls on the critics of Israel, let us recall the opprobrium that Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi and the co-founder and then President of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, had to face when he penned a short blog for the Washington Post (20 January 2008) entitled, ‘Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence’.  Though Arun Gandhi recognized that Israel was far from being the only purveyor of violence in that part of the world, he nevertheless thought that ‘Israel and the Jews’ were the ‘biggest players’ in promoting the ‘culture of violence’.  On a visit to Tel Aviv in 2004, Gandhi wrote, he was surprised to hear even peace activists defending the separation wall and the military build-up as the unavoidable condition of their secure existence.  The future of Jewish identity struck Arun Gandhi as ‘bleak’:  too many Jews remained ‘locked into the holocaust experience’, not merely convinced of the absolute exceptionality of the Holocaust but firm in their view that their victimhood gives them unique entitlements.  The case of Israel, Gandhi argued, ‘is a very good example of [how] a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends. . . . the Jews today not only want the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews.’  What hope is there, asks Arun Gandhi, that Israel will ever come around to the view that its existence cannot be secured by ‘bombs and weapons’?

Fast and furious was the response to Arun Gandhi, and in much less than a week he had been forced to step down as President of the M. K. Institute for Nonviolence.  Though Arun Gandhi cannot be accused of disguising his Nazi past, nothing prevented him from being brandished with the scarlet letters of anti-Semitism.  One cannot downplay the persistence of anti-Semitism over the centuries, and it is similarly instructive to what extent a forgery such as the ‘Protocol of the Elders of Zion’ continues to resonate among those who are convinced that the Jews are uniquely capable of conspiring to ensure their domination over the world’s financial markets and the power elites in the United States and Europe.  But it is a form of totalitarianism to insist that all criticism of Israel is itself a form of anti-Semitism.   Even the Jew might not critique Israel; if he or she does so, the Zionists have a phrase for such a person: a self-hating Jew.  Moreover, it is imperative to recognize that in the United States and much of Europe, it is not anti-Semitism but rather a visceral hatred and fear of Islam which is by far the greater problem.  In large swathes of respectable European and American society, the open display of xenophobic behavior towards Muslims is not burdened by the fear of censure.

It is Israel, rather than Günter Grass, that has come across poorly in this recent exchange.  This has happened all too often in the past, and Israel will have to do more than hide behind those gigantic scarlet letters that spell ‘anti-Semitism’ if it is to confront the reality of its own demons.

— First published in the Economic and Political Weekly XLVII, no. 17 (28 April 2012), 23-24, under the same title; for much shorter version, see ‘Stake in the Grass’, Times of India – Crest Edition (21 April 2012), p. 14.