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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A Country in Search of Itself:  Brief Reflections on the Occasion of India’s Independence Day

Los Angeles, August 15th

As India marks the 73rd anniversary of its independence, it is once again an opportune moment to reflect on what remains of the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle that led to India’s deliverance from colonial rule.  The country might seem to have weightier subjects on its mind: the coronavirus continues to cut a blazing trail through much of the country, and whatever actions the state has taken to stem the transmission of the disease have evidently been woefully inadequate.  Tens of millions of people have been thrown into the ranks of the unemployed.  Many people have been cheered, and some startled and dismayed, by the bhoomi pujan conducted by the country’s Prime Minister, who is supposed to represent every citizen without distinction, at Ayodhya in consequence of the 2019 Supreme Court decision that left the path open to Hindu nationalists to raise a grand temple in honor of Rama at his alleged birth place.  That such a ceremony, which seems to be not only about building a temple to augment Hindu pride but also coronating a king, should have taken place at a time when the pandemic is exacting an immense toll says something about the priorities of the present regime.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the bhoomi pujan, Ayodhya, 5 August 2020.

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*The INA Trial:  The Politics of Prosecuting Rebels

  

 

 

The history of colonial India was, one might say, bookended by political trials.  The crimes of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India, were showcased in lengthy impeachment proceedings against him in the British Parliament from 1788-95; towards the end of 1945, the first of a series of Indian National Army (INA) trials generated an extraordinary upsurge of sentiment against the British and doubtless hastened the end of two hundred years of colonial rule.  Nearly every pivotal moment in the history of British India was similarly marked by a political trial:  one can enumerate in this respect the trail of Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1857-58, which signified the formal end of the Mughal Empire, the two trials (in 1897 and 1908) of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who represented, in the colonial vision, the ‘extremist’ phase of Indian politics, or the various trials, on charges of sedition, treason, conspiracy, or revolutionary violence, of Aurobindo, Mohandas Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, M. N. Roy, and Lala Lajpat Rai, each of whom nonetheless represented a different constituency of anti-colonial Indian politics.

 

Occupying a remarkable place in the arena of state activities in colonial India, political trials were never just only a form of contestation between the state and its colonized subjects.  Such trials of state were generally never convened without the expectation that, in the dramatic setting of the courtroom, the performance of both the state and the rebels would be received with utmost attention; and though not all trials were accompanied by fanfare, by the loud trumpeting of the triumph of justice, they were each in their own way spectacles to which the entire nation stood witness.

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Subhas Bose with Officers of the INA

The setting for the INA Trials was indeed dramatic:  having fled from India in January 1941, Subhas Chandra Bose eventually made his way to Berlin where the Nazis assisted him in setting up a Free India Center.  In December 1941, the German army had agreed to hand over to Bose such captured prisoners from the (British) Indian Army as were agreeable to joining the Indian Legion, a military force that Bose was establishing though it was to be placed under German command.  It is in Europe, then, that Bose started recruiting captured Indian POWs to aid in the liberation of India, though he had comparatively little success:  only 2,500 of the approximately 17,000 POWs could be induced to join the Indian Legion.  Meanwhile, the theatre of war had moved to the Asia and the Pacific, and it is in September 1942 that the first Division of the INA comprised of 16,300 men was raised under the leadership of Captain Mohan Singh.  A year later, Bose summoned the remnants of the INA, renamed it the Azad Hind Fauj [Free India Army], and energized it, in a move reminiscent of Gandhi’s “Do or Die”, with a simple but entrancing slogan:  “Chalo Delhi.”

 

In 1943-44, the British had instituted the first courts-martial of British Indian Army personnel captured as INA troops.  However, these trials excited little attention, and even most historians have scarcely paid any attention to them:  much of the Congress leadership was behind bars, and, moreover, the Congress position, as articulated by Nehru, was that however patriotic and well-meaning INA men might be, they had “put themselves on the wrong side and were functioning under Japanese auspices.”  What has become known as the INA Trial, launched in November 1945, was a different story.  The INA had seen significant military action in the Imphal-Kohima sector and INA troops had become the stuff of legends.  Bose himself had died in a plane crash in August 1945; though the circumstances of his death were deemed highly suspicious by many, his apotheosis as the great martyr had taken place.  Nevertheless, Britain’s victory in World War II as part of the Allied forces was decisive, and the INA had been disbanded in May 1945.   Soldiers who had engaged in traitorous conduct could not be allowed to go unpunished.

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Military Parade of the INA at Padang

In putting Colonel Prem Sahgal, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, and Major-General Shah Nawaz Khan on trial on the charges of murder, abetment to murder, and “waging war against the King-Emperor”, the British scarcely anticipated the uproar that ensued.  The Congress Working Committee passed a resolution in sympathy with the prisoners.  Nehru, in a speech delivered on November 3, two days before the prosecution was launched, stated that “the trial of the three INA officers will be of historical importance. . . .  It touches the sentiments of the whole nation.”  Demonstrations in solidarity with the accused were held throughout the country, and Gandhi and Patel were among those who visited the accused in jail.  A Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim had been put on trial, in unintended homage to Bose’s own defiance of communal divisions, and the Congress defended all three men.  The Defence Committee was made up of a stellar list of legal and political luminaries, headed by Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru.  Bhulabhai Desai, who argued that the accused could not be tried under the Indian Penal Code and that international law was applicable in this case, was largely responsible for the defence; and much has been of the fact that Nehru, who had ceased to practice law at least 25 years ago, donned his barrister’s gowns and made a couple of appearances in court.

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Jawaharlal Nehru and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, to his right, proceeding to the INA Trial.

The outcome was preordained:  all three accused were found guilty and handed down a sentence of deportation for life.  Meanwhile, however, a mutiny had broken out on several of the ships and shore establishments of the Royal Indian Navy, and all this made transparent that, in the words of the feminist and socialist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, “it was really freedom versus bondage that was really on trial.”  Acting under immense pressure, army chief Claude Auchinleck, in whom rested the final authority to dispose off the case, commuted the sentences of the three defendants.

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Crowds Gathered Outside the Red Fort during the INA Trial

The trial, I have implied, can well be seen as a locus for the colonialist sociology of knowledge, the micro-politics of power, and the cultural politics of resistance. To appreciate, nonetheless, the singularity of the principal INA Trial, I shall suggest only three lines of inquiry.  First, it is striking but not surprising that the trial was held at the Red Fort, rather than a courtroom. The Red Fort had been the seat of the Mughal Empire, and the British chroniclers of the great rebellion of 1857-58 noted that when the British reoccupied Delhi in late 1857, they signified their dominion over India by rendering profane the sacred space of the Mughals and defiling it with the consumption of pork and wine, both taboo to observant Muslims.  He who seeks to show his authority over India must command the Red Fort.

 

Secondly, why did the Congress, which had earlier adopted the view that the INA recruits were patriots but nevertheless misguided in their willingness to join a fighting force aided by fascists, so unambiguously take up the defence of the INA accused? Were Congress leaders positioning themselves for the provincial elections and the struggle ahead?  Was this a final attempt on the part of the Congress to project itself as an organization that alone could withstand the furies of communalism?  And, finally, does the mass popular sentiment in support of the INA accused suggest that Gandhi had been sidelined or does it contrariwise point to the fact that the Quit India movement had moved India irrevocably towards freedom?  Whatever’s one outlook on these questions, the centrality of the INA Trial in the narrative of late nationalism cannot be doubted.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in print as “The Call to Freedom:  How the INA Trial Hastened the End of British Rule”, The EyeIndian Express (Sunday) Magazine (3 January 2016).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Remembering Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay:  Nationalist, Feminist, Socialist

 The gifted Indian writer Raja Rao, in introducing Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s memoirs, Inner Recesses Outer Spaces (1986), did Kamaladevi (3 April 1903-29 October 1988) the unusual honor of describing her as “perhaps the most august woman on the Indian scene today.  Firmly Indian and therefore universal, highly sophisticated both in sensibility and intelligence, she walks with everyone, in city and country with utter simplicity.”

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

We shall not linger on what exactly Raja Rao may have intended to convey when he suggested that she was firmly Indian and “therefore” universal, for surely not everything Indian is universal, nor does India, whatever the conceit of those who always applaud it as the “greatest” or oldest civilization, have a monopoly on the “universal”.  The greater puzzle is why Kamaladevi, who left behind the impress of her intelligence, insights, and remarkable energy on everything that she touched, and whose contributions to so many diverse fields of human activity are such as to stagger the imagination, is so little remembered today in India and is virtually unknown outside the country.

Born into a Saraswat Brahmin family in Mangalore, Kamaladevi was initiated into politics at an early age.  Her memoirs are scanty on early dates and details:  she lost her father, who had not written a will, when she was but seven years old, and the family wealth and properties all went to a stepbrother with whom there was little contact.   At a stroke, Kamaladevi and her mother were left disinherited.  This dim awareness of the precariousness of women’s lives would, in time, lead to the recognition that, as she wrote in her memoirs, “women had no rights”.  At the home of her maternal uncle, Kamaladevi received another kind of political education:  he was a notable social reformer and visitors to the home included eminent lawyers, political luminaries, and public figures, among them Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Srinivas Sastri, Pandita Ramabai, and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru.  Throughout, however, Kamaladevi’s mother and grandmother left the deepest impression on her.  Both women were educated, ecumenical in their interests, and enterprising, and it is from them that Kamaladevi inherited her own love of books.

Kamaladevi

Like many educated upper-caste Hindu women of her generation, Kamaladevi was brought into the political life of the nation in the 1920s and 1930s by the ascendancy of Gandhi and his insistence on adhering to a nonviolent struggle.  Kamaladevi’s relationship to Gandhi, whom she acknowledged as a titan without peers, is a vast and complex subject.  By 1923, she had fallen under his spell and she enrolled herself in the nationalist struggle as a member of the Congress party.  Three years later, she had the unique distinction of being the first woman in India to run for political office.  Kamaladevi competed for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly and lost by a mere 55 votes.  Along with the rest of the nation, she was completely captivated by the Salt Satyagraha, but she differed with Gandhi’s decision to exclude women among the initial group of marchers.  Though Kamaladevi was charged with violation of the salt laws and sentenced to a prison term, the most dramatic moment that brought her to the nation’s attention occurred when, in a scuffle over the Congress flag, she clung to it tenaciously.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

While Kamaladevi’s admiration for Gandhi never wavered, and the ideals to which he aspired became her own, she occasionally felt stifled by the authoritarian strands within his personality and felt restless at the slow pace of change.  She had been slowly drifting towards the socialist wing of the Congress party and in 1936 she took over leadership of the Congress Socialist Party.  Meanwhile, Kamaladevi had been establishing extraordinary networks of political solidarity within and outside India.  In 1926 she met the Irish-Indian suffragette Margaret Cousins, who founded the All India Women’s Conference and remained its President until Kamaladevi assumed that role in 1936.  Kamaladevi’s first writings on the rights of women in India date to 1929; one of her last books, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, was published in 1982.  Over a period of some five decades, Kamaladevi articulated in dozens of writings and speeches a distinct position, one that was mindful of the liabilities faced by Indian women that were both peculiar to them and common to women everywhere.  While she became an advocate of positions that are now commonplace to women’s movements all over the world, such as equal pay for equal work, she also resisted the idea that the experience of the West was to furnish the template for women’s movements in India.

Kamaladevi was, however, also a key figure in the international socialist feminist movement.  From the late 1920s to the 1940s and beyond, Kamaladevi became not only an emissary and spokesperson for Indian women and political independence, but for larger transnational causes, such as the emancipation of colored people around the world from colonial rule and political and economic equity between nations.  She attended the “International Alliance of Women in Berlin” in 1929, only to become aware of how race and national boundaries might become obstacles to the solidarity of women:  it was a “misnomer” to call it “International”, she says, as the only non-Western representatives were from Egypt and India.  At the International Session of the League Against Imperialism in Frankfurt, Kamaladevi could discuss problems encountered in common by colonized peoples in West Africa, North Africa, Indochina, the American south, and elsewhere.  Though this has never been recognized as such, Kamaladevi facilitated India’s emergence as the leader of the non-aligned movement and the crafting of the Bandung Declaration of 1956 which was nothing other than a clarion call for a fundamental reordering of the world order.

Kamaladevi was a prolific writer, and her twenty odd books furnish unimpeachable evidence of the wide array of her intellectual and political interests, and a global outlook which shunned alike a narrow nationalism and a superficial cosmopolitanism.  She traveled to Nanjing and Chongqing and met with resistance leaders during the country’s occupation under Japanese rule:  from this resulted a small book, In war-torn China (1944).  Yet, given her spirit of inquiry, she also took it upon herself to visit Japan and came to the conclusion, in Japan:  Its Weakness and Strength (1944), that the Japanese, who had sought to be the vanguard of a pan-Asianism, had bloodied their hands with the most virulent strands of materialism and imperialism.  She is also among a handful of people in India in the 1930s-1950s who wrote widely on the US.  In Uncle Sam’s Empire (1944) and America:  The Land of Superlatives (1946), she reverses the gaze.  Reams and reams have been written of the saffron robe-clad monk, known to the world as Swami Vivekananda, visiting Chicago in 1993 and thereby bringing Hinduism to the New World; and yet we know little of the sari-clad Kamaladevi wandering around the United States, making her way into prisons, union meetings, political conventions, black neighborhoods, and American homes, and leaving behind the distinct impressions of an Indian feminist with strong nationalist and socialist inclinations of the possibilities and limitations of the experiment with democracy.

Kamaladevi was arguably the best traveled Indian woman of her generation, and built up a resume of foreign trips that enabled her to enhance remarkably international networks of political solidarity; yet, as her work in social, political, and cultural domains amply showed, she remained solidly grounded in the ethos of Indian life.  The lives of common people were of abiding interest to her. The city of Faridabad today has a population of around 1.5 million; but hardly anyone is aware of the fact that Kamaladevi played the critical role in giving birth to this industrial township, a flagship project that she undertook as the founding leader of the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) to resettle nearly 50,000 Pathans from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the wake of the post-partition migrations.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

The Kamaladevi that most Indians are familiar with is a figure who, above all, revived Indian handicrafts, became the country’s most well-known expert on carpets, puppets, and its thousands of craft traditions, and nurtured the greater majority of the country’s national institutions charged with the promotion of dance, drama, art, theatre, music, and puppetry.  It must seem strange to those acquainted with the first half of her life that someone who was so intensely political should have eschewed every political office in independent India.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi.  Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi. Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Did she abandon “the political center” as she acquired prominence as an authority on India’s craft traditions and the country’s tribal populations?   Greatly disillusioned by the partition, Kamaladevi had come to recognize that India was not going to even remotely take the shape that she had envisioned at the dawn of freedom.  However, it may be a mistake to partition her life in this fashion.  Her life offers many cues about the intersection of politics and aesthetics and in her resolute insistence on autonomy and the integrity of every life we find the threads that enable us to fold the various Kamaladevis into one majestic figure.

[The Plural Universe of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, co-edited by Ellen DuBois and Vinay Lal, will be published by Zubaan Books, New Delhi, in 2016.]

(Originally published in the Indian Express, Sunday Magazine (The Eye), 25 October 2015, as “A Beautiful Mind:  Looking Back at the Life of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay”