*A “Natural Alliance”:  India, Israel, the United States, and the Muslim in the National Imaginary

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi shortly after Modi’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, 4 July 2017. Source: Times of Israel.

As Israel prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its founding on May 14, 1948, the transformation in its relationship with India over the course of the last seven decades offers a palpable demonstration of the fact that there are no permanent foes or friends in politics.  India voted with Arab states in opposition to the UN Partition Plan that divided Palestine into two states, and formal diplomatic relations between India and Israel date back only to 1992.  Yet today India, the world’s second largest importer of arms and accounting for 9.5% of the global total, is Israel’s largest arms market just as Israel is the second largest exporter, after Russia, of arms to India.  Over the past decade, Indian imports of Israeli arms have increased by 285 percent.  In July 2017, Narendra Modi not only became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, but he pointedly, unlike Indian cabinet ministers on previous official visits, did not go to Palestine—not on that trip. Benjamin Netanyahu returned the compliment with the following official pronouncement on 13 January 2018:  “This evening I am leaving on an historic visit to India.  I will meet with the Prime Minister, my friend Narendra Modi, with the Indian President and with many other leaders. . . . We are strengthening ties between Israel and this important global power.  This serves our security, economic, trade and tourism interests . . . This is a great blessing for the state of Israel.”

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Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara by his side tries his hand at a spinning wheel — where else but at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, January 2018. With devoted followers such as these, Mohandas Gandhi scarcely needs any enemies. Source of the photograph: Times of India.

It must have made Indians proud to hear their country being described as an “important global power”, but it isn’t one.  Nor should it be a fact of life that being one such power is necessarily a virtue:  “the meek shall inherit the other”, says one revered text, though I am fully aware of the modern wisdom which thinks that virtue only belongs to those nations which are “important global powers”.  But let us leave aside these esoteric considerations for the present.  There are yet other, often little considered, registers of the friendly ties developing between India and Israel: along with an influx of Israeli arms, young Israeli men and women have poured into India for long stays. According to the Jerusalem Post, so many young Israeli citizens swarm to India to enjoy a post-military training repose that one can now chart a “Hummus Trail” through various Indian landscapes and a proliferation of restaurants serving local kosher cuisine.  Israel’s own Foreign Ministry has reported that there is more support for Israel in India than in any other country of the world, the United States not excepted.  In one study, 58% Indians expressed support and admiration for Israel, exceeding the 56% Americans who responded in like fashion.

The bonhomie between the two nations is all the more remarkable considering the frosty relations between the two nations at the time of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.  One might think that India, with the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, did not want to antagonize its own Muslim population and was indeed keen to cultivate the idea that India would remain a home for Muslims even after Pakistan had been carved out of the country.  Nor, as a country heavily dependent on oil imports, could India afford to antagonize Muslim-majority Arab states or Iran—all of which, for decades after the creation of Israel, displayed unremitting hostility to the Jewish state.  As one of the principal architects of the idea of non-alignment, Nehru was also wary of close relations with a U.S.-friendly Israel.  Some might think that India, not unlike most other countries, surrendered to anti-Semitism in not having diplomatic ties with Israel for well over four decades.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  as every scholar of global Jewish history knows, India, with a history of Jewish presence dating back to perhaps as early as 79CE, is nearly singular in having absolutely no history of anti-Semitism and, to the contrary, in having a clear historical record of offering hospitality to Jews.  Nathan Katz, author of the scholarly study, Who are the Jews of India? (UC Press, 2000), unequivocally states that “Indian Jews never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination”, and lived “as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”

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The emergence of an India-Israel nexus, and, as is becoming patently clear, a tripartite alliance of India, Israel, and the United States, owes everything to the changing place of the Muslim in the national imaginary of India and the United States.  It was in the mid-1990s that the notion of Israel and India as two democracies surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations that had an aversion to democracy, and having in common the problem of communal violence, first arose.  The Indian middle class, I suggested in a piece published in the Indian magazine Outlook in 2006 entitled “Emulating Israel”, has long admired Israel as a tough, no-nonsense state with zero tolerance for terrorism from which India—a comparatively soft state in this imagination—can learn to confront the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and, as Hindu nationalists increasingly argue, Muslim fifth columnists within the country.  Middle class Indians have long demanded an aggressive response against terrorists (and, as they argue, their patrons in Pakistan) and they hold up Israel as a country that India should emulate.

It is also no secret that India furnishes sinecures to retired Israeli army generals who serve as consultants to anti-terrorist operations in India.  In 2000, when L. K. Advani, then the Minister of Home Affairs in the BJP-led government, visited Israel, the two governments pledged to stand together against terrorism.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his aforementioned visit to India in January 2018, pointedly harkened back to both the devastating terrorist attacks on Mumbai’s suburban train network in 2006 that killed 209 people and the grisly attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in 2008 that led to 166 fatalities.  It is no surprise, then, that one Indian academic has called attention to the “ideological convergence” between India’s BJP and Israel’s Likud Party since “both promote a narrative of their respective populations being victims at the hands of Muslims.”

Matters do not, however, end here:  we can now speak of an emerging tripartite alliance between India, the US, and Israel, the logic of which has been captured by one scholar of public policy, Vivek Dehejia:  “India, Israel, and the United States are natural allies. All three are democratic and pluralistic societies, and all have suffered grievously from the scourge of Islamic terrorism.”  One might question a good deal in this assessment, such as what it means for three very diverse countries to be deemed “natural allies”—and why only these three democracies?  The US, to raise another difficulty, appears to be suffering from the scourge of white supremacism, not “Islamic terrorism”.  For Dehejia to imply that Palestinians are but a synonym for “Islamic terrorism”, which appears to be the case from his formulation, is objectionable in the extreme, even if one were to agree that Hamas is, notwithstanding its façade as a social welfare organization, at the very least a quasi-terrorist outfit.  But questions of the merit of his observations apart, what is most striking is that countries such as Pakistan, and the Muslim world more broadly, may be taking notice of this tripartite alliance. The Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Raza Rabbani, in a speech in January 2018 warned his fellow legislators about the “changing world scenario” and described the developing “nexus between the US, Israel, and India” as “a major threat to the Muslim world.”

Is it then the foreign policy wisdom in India, Israel, and the United States that these three democracies are, or ought to be, united by the menace posed by Muslim extremists?  To what extent are these countries collaborating in anti-terrorist and surveillance activities, more particularly with the thought of containing “Muslim terrorists”, and might such collaboration have implications for the exercise of their democratic rights by Muslim residents of these nations?  If India’s friendly relations with Israel on the one hand, and its growing ties with the U.S. on the other, augur new trilateral links, can we speak of such an alliance as a new force in geopolitics?  And, if we can, what might be the implications of such an alliance for the global world order?          

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at abplive.in on 13 May 2019, under the title:  “India, Israel, and the Geopolitics of an Emerging Tripartite Alliance, accessible here.)                                 

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*Fidelity to the Constitution of India:  An Illiterate Muslim Woman and Her Relentless Search for Justice

Do not be surprised if you never heard the name of Bilkis Bano. Much of the world is unlikely to have heard her name.  From a conventional standpoint, she has absolutely no claim on the world’s attention.  She is a Muslim woman of little education and from a working-class background.  She commands neither looks nor wealth.  It is all but inconceivable that she would ever have a “wardrobe failure”, if only because she has barely enough to wear.  If all this were not enough to make her into a non-entity in a world that is dazzled only by riches, the inanities of ‘celebrity culture’—ask the Kardashian sisters, and they could write a modern-day epic with their thousands of mindless exploits, still counting—or “achievements” as these are usually understood, Bilkis Bano is also “damaged goods”.

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Bilkis Bano with her husband, Yakub Rasool, at a press conference in New Delhi, April 2019.

The year was 2002.  Muslims were being slaughtered in Gujarat.  Its Chief Minister at the time, Narendra Modi, later claimed before a special investigative team that he was unaware of the hundreds of killings that were taking place practically under his nose.  Thousands of people were injured, killed, maimed, wounded in spirit; few suffered as much as Bilkis Bano, a 21-year old who on March 3 was gang-raped in her village home near Ahmedabad while she was seven months pregnant.  Bano’s 3-year old was also killed before her very eyes.  Altogether 14 members of her family were murdered.  Bano was left alive, as the killers thought, to nurse her wounds—and, more importantly, to serve as a palpable reminder to members of her community of how they should mind their place in a predominantly Hindu society.

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In January 2008, nearly six years after Bilkis Bano was abandoned by her rapists as among the living dead, a special court convicted 11 men of murder, rape, and criminal conspiracy and sentenced them to life imprisonment.  I then argued in an editorial piece, “Mother Courage”, for the Hindustan Times (4 February 2008) that Bilkis Bano be awarded the Bharat Ratna [literally, “Jewel of India”], which is the highest civilian honor available to an Indian citizen and had thus far only been conferred on fewer than 40 people since its inception in 1954.  “In the loud din being heard these days over the emergence of a new, young, and confident India, typified as much by India’s cricketing triumphs as by the launch of a dream car for the ‘common man’ and brash talk of India as a global power,” I wrote at that time, “Bilkis represents a genuine ray of hope that there is something to live for in the idea of Indian democracy.”

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Bilkis Bano with her husband and daughter a year ago in New Delhi, shortly before a Supreme Court hearing. Credit: Shome Basu.

My argument would have seemed bizarre to those who are aware that the Bharat Ratna is supposed to be conferred on those who have rendered exceptionally meritorious public service to the nation or whose accomplishments do the nation proud.  Many of its recipients have doubtless been worthy of this supreme civilian honor, among them eminent practitioners of the arts such as Satyajit Ray, M. S. Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, and Ustad Bismillah Khan. Close to half of the awardees of the Bharat Ratna, including six former Prime Ministers, held high political office.  It is understandable that the luminaries so honored should include Jawaharlal Nehru, who served as the country’s first Prime Minister for seventeen years but whose formidable place within the struggle for independence is equally indisputable.  One need not even speak of his large and rather rich corpus of writings and his mastery of English prose.  Nevertheless, it is worth asking why the notion of “public service of the highest order” has been so narrowly defined as to preponderantly favor those who, as holders of elected office, were perforce performing their duties—and sometimes, to be candid, abusing the privileges of their office.  The real question is not whether all recipients of the Bharat Ratna honored for “public service” have been worthy of the honor, but whether holders of office, who are getting recognition enough, should at all be rewarded.

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So what might qualify Bilkis Bano, an illiterate woman, for the Bharat Ratna?  Where most others in her situation would have succumbed and fled to safety, Bano filed a First Information Report (FIR), something that people in her position are rarely able to do so, and thus compelled the police—and, later, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)—to open an investigation against the suspects.  We must weigh her remarkable resolve against the fact that the middle class in Gujarat would, just months after the pogrom against the Muslims, vote Mr. Modi back into power, which he would certainly have interpreted as an endorsement of the chilling culture of authoritarianism and militant Hindu nationalism which he encouraged in his home state and which he has since then carried over into the rest of India.  Mr. Modi has spoken of the Gujarat “model of development”, but the state which gave the world Mohandas Gandhi has in the last two decades become India’s laboratory for seeding new modes of barbaric hatred.  Some portions of India, judging from the news in last few years, seem intent on emulating Gujarat’s model of hate.  In her quest for justice, Bano received not an iota of assistance from the state government; to the contrary, since her life was under constant threat, she had to move more than a dozen times, and her apprehensions that witnesses could be harmed and the evidence tampered with were doubtless well-grounded. Her lawyers successfully had the court case, which commenced in Ahmedabad, shifted to Mumbai.

The trial dragged on but Bano was not one to be intimidated.  Few would have thought her likely to have such resilience. I have already spoken of what transpired in 2008:  though her rapists and the killers who snatched members of her family from her were convicted, the court found the evidence inadequate to convict either the policemen who characteristically failed to come to her aid or the doctors who tampered with the medical evidence.  Yet Bano persisted:  finally, in July 2017, a court convicted seven policemen and doctors of criminal negligence in the performance of their duties.

Bilkis Bano is now, this week, once again in the news.  Her quest for justice, it appears, has finally come to an end.  The Supreme Court of India has directed the state government of Gujarat to pay her Rs 50 lakhs (nearly $72,000), provide her with a job, and furnish her accommodation. For every Bilkis Bano who has prevailed, there are tens of thousands of ordinary women and men in India whose sufferings have not even entered the history books.  While the ruling in the Supreme Court might justly be celebrated, dozens of other cases languish in the courts.  Nevertheless, for the moment we must be focused on how we might understand the singular achievement of Bilkis Bano.  Though Bilkis is not a lettered woman, she recognized that the communal outlook is so deeply entrenched in Gujarat that no institution of either state or civil society can be said to be free of its grip or reach.  She did not wilt under rigorous and aggressive cross-examination by the defence, unflinchingly identified all the accused in court, and could not be cowed into abandoning or contradicting her testimony.

Remarkable as all that is, there is still something more exceptional about Bilkis Bano.  The rich in India have been opting out of the state over the course of the last two decades, except of course in the matter of receiving subsidies in the form of tax breaks, easy access to credit lines, and so on.  They certainly have no use for the Constitution of India.  Bano’s courage, dedication to the truth, and faith in the judicial system offer a faint glimmer of hope that Indian democracy is not entirely moribund.  It appears that her husband and lawyers stood by her through the long dark years while she struggled for justice, but the greater marvel is that Bano sustained her faith in the Constitution of India when all the odds were stacked against her.   The Constitution is the only document that every Indian can stand by, and perhaps that may one of the many reasons why so few are willing to put their trust in it.  The educated in India should take some lessons from Bilkis Bano.

There is not the remotest possibility that Bilkis Bano will receive even the slightest recognition from the Gujarat Government or even the Government of India. It will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of an needle than for her to be conferred the Bharat Ratna.  I would not be surprised if the Gujarat Government, which has abandoned the slightest semblance of decency or moral probity, found some way to dodge, dilute, or desecrate the orders of the Supreme Court.  But, whatever the outcome, it is more than a minor relief to know that at least one Indian citizen, and that too a person who is unlikely to appear on any one’s mental horizon, is prepared to defend the Constitution of India with her life.

 

 

 

*Paul Robeson:  A Nagging Doubt about the Civil Rights Movement   

Journeys in the Deep South II:  The Lorraine Hotel, Memphis

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics V

Paul Robeson was quite possibly nay certainly the most talented person in 20th Century America and a gigantic figure on the world stage.  This will strike many people as an absurd claim:  Robeson is now a largely forgotten figure, even if known in passing to many among those with more than a modicum of knowledge about American arts, letters, and politics.  Some will object that he is commemorated with an American postage stamp, a sure sign of his recognition and even admission into the ranks of the establishment.  At this juncture, I will not speak at length of the politics of postage stamps; suffice to say that the postage stamp is practically obsolete.  The philatelist is now akin to a troglodyte, a remnant of a different age; certainly, judging from the example of my own children, the postage stamp is barely even an object of curiosity.  Few American children of the present generation have ever mailed a letter:  a subject for another set of reflections.  So, all this is by way of suggesting that a postage stamp no longer redeems an individual or puts him or her on a pedestal, and one can barely conclude from Robinson’s deification on a postage stamp that America recognizes him for the supreme genius that he was.

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Robeson first acquired a reputation as American college football’s greatest star, though as a black person even this recognition was very late in coming; he also went on to earn varsity letters in track, basketball, and football.  It is doubtful that there was ever a more accomplished college athlete than Robeson.  But should one think that he had merely set the example for the professional black athlete, and paved the way for a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a Michael Jordan, it is well to recall that he graduated from Rutgers in 1919 as the class valedictorian.  He then went on to build a reputation as an international opera star, singer, and movie and theater actor; he was the first black man to play the role of Othello, first in London and then, during World War II, on Broadway, in which role he had a longer run than any other actor, white or black:  300 performances.  By the 1920s, Robeson, born in April 1898, had earned a law degree from Columbia University; he was, moreover, already a committed political activist, and in the late 1930s he became part of the international brigade of volunteers determined to confront the rise of fascism in Spain.

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Paul Robeson with Uta Hagen in the Theatre Guild production of Othello (1943–4).  Source:  Wiki Commons.

It is also in the 1930s that Robeson turned towards Africa, in an attempt to understood his own roots and heritage; at home, in the United States, this had already led him to become a forceful voice against lynching and a ferocious advocate of the rights of the working class, white as much as black.  In 1934, by which time Robeson had made London his home, he enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he is said to have studied a score of African dialects.  To his many other gifts, which make words such as ‘extraordinary’ appear positively pedestrian, we can add his flair for languages.  The National Archive webpage on Robeson mentions, quite casually, that he sang in more than 25 languages, a claim substantiated by the archival record and many of his biographers; the short biography of him that appears on the PBS website states “that he spoke fifteen languages”. In his late 50s, Robeson turned to the study of Arabic and Hebrew.  The phrase ‘Renaissance Man’, clichéd as it is, seems wholly inadequate to describe a person of his oceanic accomplishments.

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Peggy Ashcroft and, as Othello, Paul Robeson, 1930.

In 1939, on the eve of the war, Robeson returned to the United States where he was at once established as the country’s “Number One” entertainer.  But Robeson’s political awakening had also taken him to the Soviet Union.  His son has described his father’s intellectual journey aptly: “Freedom movements in the European colonies of Africa and Asia faced fierce repression, with many top leaders in prison or in exile.  The eloquent voices of Gandhi and Nehru in India, as well the compelling appeals of freedom movement leaders from the length and breadth of the African continent, were eliciting ever greater international support as the Soviet Union threw its considerable weight behind the anticolonialist cause” (Paul Robeson, Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939 [New York:  John Wiley & Sons, 2001], 285).  Though Robeson’s support for the American war effort was unequivocal, his concert tour in the Soviet Union (1936-37), refusal to criticize Soviet policies, and outspoken defense of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the war earned him the enmity of anti-communist crusaders.  He was among the most prominent people in the country to be investigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his committee; his passport was revoked.  The exchange that transpired between him and members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities on 12 June 1956 is a remarkable document, a timely and chilling reminder of the revival of brute strategies of compelling fealty to flag and country in our own times:

“Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. . . .  The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too.”

“This United States Government”, Robeson told the court of inquisition, “should go down to Mississippi and protect my people.  That is what should happen.”  Why, as Robeson had asked more than once, would Negroes fight on behalf of a government that had ruthlessly put them down for 300 years against a nation [the Soviet Union] where racial discrimination was prohibited?  Let us listen to another portion of the exchange:

“In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being. Where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel [it] in this Committee today.

“Mr. SCHERER: Why do you not stay in Russia?

“Mr. ROBESON: Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear? I am for peace with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people.”

As their exchange winds up, Robeson ends with a devastating indictment: “You are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” The damage, however, had been done; Robeson was a wounded, marked man.  In consequence of his public defilement, he found that he was shunned by artists, intellectuals, and former colleagues and fellow-travelers in ideas.  His income declined sharply and Robeson was forced into early retirement.  In the late 1950s, by virtue of the decision of the Supreme Court, in the case of Kent v. Dulles, Robeson’s passport was returned to him.  He had a triumphant thunderous concert tour in the Soviet Union in 1959, but this ‘rehabilitation’ came too late as the ostracism had taken a physical and mental toll of his life.  For the remainder of his life, until his death in 1976, Robeson became largely a recluse.

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Paul Robeson, “Negro Songs”, a recording in Russian issued by the Soviet Ministry of Culture.

This brings me, then, to the Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination and now a majestic Civil Rights Museum.  I shall speak of it as a memorial site to King elsewhere.  For now, I have another nagging doubt.  Whatever the differences between the movement’s most well-known advocates, and whatever, for example, the strategic differences between major organizations such as SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and others, the adherence to nonviolence remained common to the movement’s different constituent elements. Even Malcolm X is acknowledged, with respect.  How is it, then, that in this museum, where the struggle of African Americans to claim a rightful place for themselves in the history of America is documented with such sensitivity, the name of Paul Robeson is—as far as I can tell—entirely missing from the grand narrative which takes us from the Emancipation Proclamation to King’s “I’ve Seen the Mountain-top” speech and the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965)?  How is it that Paul Robeson, a colossus among giants, remains unrecognized, unacknowledged, unsung in this shrine to the struggle of black people—a shrine shaped by Robeson’s own people?  Is it the case that the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights movement, many of whom remained committed to a staunch anti-communism, were never reconciled to Robeson, perhaps seeing in him a well-meaning naïve human rights advocate who could not and would not recognize the unmitigated evils of Stalinist Russia?

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Editorial drawing of Paul Robeson by Charles Alston, 1943.  Source:  National Archives of the United States.  http://www.archives.gov/files/images/alston-drawing.jgp

Through the mid-1950s, after that is the murder of Emmett Till, the commencement of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the activism of Medgar Evers that would lead to his assassination, Robeson continued to be recognized, more particularly in the African American press, as a unique spokesperson for black people.  The Afro-American, published from Baltimore, was forthright in its headline reporting what had transpired at Robeson’s investigation by the House Committee: “Mr. Robeson is Right” (23 June 1956).  The Sun-Reporter of San Francisco, on the same day, affirmed his place in the American public sphere: “Robeson as far as most Negroes are concerned occupies a unique position in the U.S., or the world, for that matter.  Whites hate and fear him simply because he is the conscience of the U.S. in the field of color relations.”  The Charlottesville-Albermale Tribune on June 22 declared the House Committee’s persecution of Robeson a “fiasco” and ventured to give forth the opinion that denying Robeson the right to travel or sing “is more hurtful to American prestige abroad than any intemperate statement he ever made.”  Other black-owned newspapers, none that could be characterized as communist in their ideological predisposition, were similarly effusive in their praise of Robeson as the preeminent voice “for justice, happiness and freedom”, as the supreme embodiment of “the unrestrained and righteous rage that has broken bonds” (California Voice, Oakland, 22 June 1956).

What is thus clear is that Robeson remained not merely in the limelight in the mid-1950s but that he was generally recognized as the conscience of black America.  His evisceration from the public record is deplorable enough, but the fact that he should have been excised from the memory even of much of black America and from the narratives of the struggle for civil rights is something that is profoundly troubling.  In 1948, W. E. B. DuBois had been forced out of the NAACP, which considered DuBois’s sympathies for communism a liability; a decade later, the NAACP was itself marginalized as SCLC and the radicals of SNCC pushed for a more aggressive stance against segregation and racism.  The Civil Rights Movement might well be the only revolution that the United States has ever had; even here, though, the absence of Paul Robeson from the received narrative points to what the conventional language of Marxism would characterize as its essentially “bourgeois” characteristic.  Whatever else might be required to bring the still unredeemed promise of the Civil Rights movement to fruition, Paul Robeson will certainly have to be given his due, and more.

*Nehru:  The Measure of a Man

Five decades after his death, Jawaharlal Nehru still generates passions among Indians who are animated by questions over the country’s future.  Writing from my perch in Los Angeles, I do not, for example, see anything remotely resembling the buzz about Nehru in American discussions about John F. Kennedy, another immensely charismatic leader of a democracy who was assassinated just months before Nehru passed away in 1964.  We could say, of course, that Nehru was a titan among men, and that unlike Kennedy, who occupied the American presidency for less than three years, Nehru held sway as independent India’s first Prime Minister for seventeen years.  If Amartya Sen is to be believed, it is the argumentative Indian in every Indian that keeps Nehru visible to the Indian public, loathed and perhaps admired in equal measure.

To a great many of his detractors, Nehru is easily pigeonholed as a somewhat effete, Oxbridge-educated quasi-dreamer whose indecisiveness, socialist leanings, and moral highhandedness cost India its place in the pantheon of world powers. The principal elements of this narrative are too well known to require more than the briefest mention.  His disposition towards centralized state planning is said to have kept India back for decades before the country, in the parlance of the free market cheerleaders, ‘opened’ itself up to the world:  thus the infamous ‘Hindu rate of growth’.  Even his defenders are constrained to admit that India’s record on various social fronts under Nehru is appalling, and one might summon the exceedingly slow advancement in improving literacy as a prominent instance of misplaced priorities, though it must also be said that India’s record in the 25 years since neo-liberalization policies were introduced has if anything been worse.

Nehru’s political failings are described by his critics as even greater.   How often have we not heard that he faltered badly in turning the Kashmir dispute over to the United Nations?  We have been incessantly reminded that his naive trust in the Chinese, embodied in the slogan ‘Hindi chini bhai bhai’ [Indians and Chinese are brothers], was repaid back with China’s invasion of India.  These criticisms are most often accompanied with jejune ramblings about how India would have long ago taken the world by storm had not fate unkindly intervened to remove India’s ‘Iron Man’, Sardar Patel, from the scene and thereby leave Nehru without a peer to question his dictatorial and yet highly confused exercise of authority.  (I wonder if it was the karma of nationalist Hindus that left them bereft of their leader, but we may leave that aside for the moment.)   Nehru’s defenders, on the other hand, appear to think that all they have to do is merely summon the fact that India has persisted as a democracy, a distinct achievement when we consider what has transpired in other countries that gained their independence from colonial powers.  His admirers naturally admit his record in this respect is far being unblemished:  Nehru agreed to the dismissal of the elected communist government of Kerala in 1959, and the take-over of Goa by the Indian government in December 1961, even if it was inspired by his distaste for the remnants of colonial rule in India, dent a huge hole in his reputation as an upholder of the rule of law.  Nevertheless, the singularity of Nehru’s achievement in making India abide by democratic norms has been all too often stressed by his defenders.

Newspaper headlines on the Chinese invasion of India

Newspaper headlines on the Chinese invasion of India

 

Chinese Premier, Chou En-lai (left), with Nehru and an interpreter (right)

Chinese Premier, Chou En-lai (left), with Nehru and an interpreter (right)

What, then, are we to make of Nehru?  Looking back at the twentieth century, there can be no doubt that in the aftermath of the conclusion of World War II, and in the period extending to the glorious defeat of the mightiest military force assembled in the world by the (as more than one European social theorist would say) puny and rice-eating Vietnamese, decolonization was the greatest political force in the world.  Most Western, and especially American, historians have not seen it this way, obsessed as they are with the Cold War. The Cold War impinged on decolonization as well, since the Soviet Union, itself a totalitarian regime without an iota of capacity for tolerating dissent, was keen on being seen as a champion of the struggles of third world peoples against their imperial oppressors.  The United States, on its part, consistently came down on the wrong side of nearly every anti-colonial struggle, either choosing to remain on the sidelines or, more often, supporting the most reactionary elements.  What must be said unequivocally about Nehru is that he played a critical role in supporting anti-colonial and decolonization movements throughout the world.  India’s support of the African National Congress under Nehru is perhaps only the most well-known instance of his principled support of resistance movements, but similar testimony has been furnished by other political leaders such as Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta.  His friendship with Paul Robeson, an African American artist of extraordinary gifts who was hounded by the country’s political elites, is unfathomable except on the premise that both shared a profound aspiration for the freedom of all colored peoples.

Nasser of Egypt (left), Nehru (2nd from the right), and an aide to Nasser, ushering in the Burmese New Year at Bandung, Indonesia, 1955.

Colonel Gamal A. Nasser of Egypt (left), Burmese Prime Minister U Nu (2nd from left), Nehru (2nd from the right), and an aide to Nasser, Major Salah Salem, ushering in the Burmese New Year in traditional costume at Bandung, Indonesia, Aapril 1955.

Nehru Discovers an American to Admire:  an article in the Chicago Tribune, 25 November 1958, about the growing friendship of Robeson and Nehru

Nehru Discovers an American to Admire: an article in the Chicago Tribune, 25 November 1958 (bottom left corner), about the growing friendship of Robeson and Nehru

 

We have heard in recent years that Nehru nurtured not just democracy but diversity.  We might inquire what precisely that means:  India is nothing if not ‘diverse’, but how exactly is it that one nurtures diversity?  Does diversity increase if one nurtures it?  Those who are intolerant of minorities can justifiably be seen as not promoting ‘diversity’, but does the institution of multicultural policies, as in the United States, where the forces of homogenization are immense, lead to diversity?  Diversity’s advocates barely understand that today’s dictators are all required to undergo diversity appreciation courses.  One should say, rather, of Nehru that he was inspiringly ecumenical, but more than just a person of astonishingly wide reading and the proverbially insatiable curiosity of the polymath.  It is doubtful that a more ecumenical history of the world has ever been written than is contained in his Glimpses of World History (1934), a large collection of letters written by Nehru to his daughter Indira.  Letter 112 is almost apologetic about having given over more time and space to India than to other countries; and Letter 44 advises Indira that “we have the whole world to consider, and if a small part of it, even though it may be the part where we live, took up much of our time, we would never get on with the rest.”  Such ecumenism is not merely charming—it is a reminder of a cosmopolitanism that is still foreign to most people.  We have not yet begun to take the measure of the man known as Jawaharlal Nehru.

(Originally published as “The Measure of a Man” in the Sunday Times of India, 9 November 2014.)