*On Being at the Top of the World:   Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest

I opened the newspapers on May 24th to two disconcerting even stupefying stories that are wholly unrelated and yet, to my mind, seem strangely if not inextricably linked in several ways.  Both stories captured the world’s attention, if for altogether different reasons.  In India, the incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had not only retained his seat in Varanasi by a huge margin but he had led his party to a crushing and decisive victory over his political foes, scattering his opponents like atoms in the dust.  The Indian Express’s chief political columnist, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, headlined the achievement of Modi with the phrase, “Staggering Dominance”.  Some in the media spoke of his “landslide reelection”, while others described the unambiguous “mandate” he had received from the country.

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The Tweeting Yogi: Narendra Modi meditating at Kedarnath. He tweeted this image, just before the conclusion of the elections. Source: Hindustan Times.

In neighboring Nepal, meanwhile, the summit of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world at 29,028 feet, had become something like a clogged highway. “On Mt. Everest,” the article in the New York Times stated, “Heavy Traffic isn’t Just Inconvenient.  It Can Be Deadly.”  The photograph accompanying the article tells a story staggering in the extreme:  mountaineers are queued up, as people in South Asia often are at bus stations, railway ticket offices, cinema halls, and government offices, to climb the summit.  The line is several hundred meters long, perhaps even longer than a mile. Death at the highest point on earth can be caused by frostbite, oxygen depletion, long exposure to the inclement weather, high altitude sickness—and, now, a traffic jam.  Two climbers had died under these difficult circumstances when the first reports appeared on May 23-24; in the following days, at least another eight climbers died.  In 2018, by contrast, five climbers had died during the entire climbing season.

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The Zoo Atop the World: The line for the summit at Mt. Everest, May 2019. Source: Getty Images.

So what does it feel like being at the top of the world?  Narendra Modi would know, and what is wholly distinct about him is that he stands in singular and sinister isolation at the summit of Indian politics. The BJP had almost wiped out the Congress, and nearly all other opposition, in 2014; no one, barring perhaps the BJP, which in the voice of Modi has declared that it aims to win the votes of all 900 million Indian voters, thought that the 2019 election outcome would result in the further decimation of the opposition. Under the existing rules of the Indian Parliament, established by the first Lok Sabha speaker, G. V. Mavlankar, and finally codified under the Parliament (Facilities) Act 1998, an official “leader of the opposition” in either House cannot be declared until an opposition party has at least 10% of the seats.  With 44 seats in 2014 the Congress did not qualify as the “opposition” in the Lok Sabha, which has a membership of 543.  Having fallen short of the target of 55 seats by 3 seats this year, the Congress still does not quality.

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PM Jawaharlal Nehru with Ganesh Vasudev Mavalankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Source: The Hindu Group.

We may say, then, that Modi rules the Indian political scene much as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi did in their times.  It may be comforting for Modi’s critics to believe that those who rise so spectacularly to the top are likely to have a precipitous fall:  that is not always the case.   The greater concern, to invoke Lord Acton’s maxim, is that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  If Modi and the BJP have captured all the institutions of state power, and bankrupted or emasculated those which are not so readily pliable to the will of the party, the circumstances for the longevity of Indian democracy in any meaningful sense of the term cannot be described as propitious.  More than 70 years after independence, the summit should have been crowded—with ideas, with the play of the imagination, with parties speaking in different tongues and articulating compelling narratives of social justice.  Instead, what do we find?  The Congress has become moribund, the Communists eviscerated.  There is only one narrative now—call it Hindu pride or call it the Hindu nation-state, but it is more effectively captured by one word:  Modi.  “In New India,” as one newspaper put it, “the prime minister towers above all parties, including his own.”

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An Image from Pakistani Television. Source: You Tube.

Ironically, at the summit of Mt. Everest, where it should have been all quiet, the parking lot is full. The Arizona doctor who arrived on the summit was in for a surprise:  on the flat part of the summit, about the size of two ping-pong tables, 15-20 mountaineers were jockeying for positions to take selfies.  He thought he had arrived at a “zoo.”  The saints who in India have for millennia been arguing that there is no solitude anywhere except within one’s own self perhaps knew a thing or two that we may be recognizing today—even atop Everest.  Why do people climb Everest?  We doubtless know all the answers:  the thrill associated with taking risks, the flirtation with death, the challenge it poses to even experienced climbers, the human need to continue to scale new heights, and others in that vein.  One person, I forget who, put it starkly, and with likely greater plausibility:  because it is there.

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Line Up, Please, for the Summit: The delights of Mt. Everest and Being on Top of the World. Source: National Geographic.

The history books which speak of Everest being first “conquered” by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norway in 1953 are still closer to the truth in that they suggest, if unwittingly, that the narrative of conquest has all along triggered the exodus to Everest.  This exodus has, besides the zoo at the summit, created a veritable garbage dump all along the path from the base camp to the summit.  Though Modi stands singularly at the top of the world, and Everest as the top of the world has become a crowded place, Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest share, in more ways than we can imagine, threads of the same narrative of conquest, of twitter and selfies, and the difficulties of solitude and reflection in these times.  We don’t know how many lives have been discarded on the ascendant path to Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest and where it will stop.

(First published on ABP Live Blog under the same title, here.)

 

 

 

 

 

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*The Victory of the Hollow Men:  India’s Lost Generation

(First of an occasional series on the Indian Elections of 2019 and its outcome)

In the mid-1920s, a few years after he had published his early masterpiece, The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot wrote a poem which is apt for our times.  He called it “The Hollow Men”.  Eliot had witnessed a generation lost to what, until that time, had unquestionably been the most brutal war of modern history.  World War I took millions of lives, leaving behind a trail of misery, destruction, and deep depression.  The wise men of the times, and those with a sunny disposition, called it the “war to end all wars”; and, yet, it paved the way, though scarcely anyone could have imagined it at that time, for a still more destructive war.

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Narendra Modi and Amit Shah: Architects of a Victory.

Narendra Modi has achieved in India a victory of such calamitous proportions that its consequences will reverberate for decades to come.  He has amassed power on a scale unwitnessed in the experience of the vast majority of Indians.  The BJP and its supporters are describing it as a magnificent achievement, a stupendous outcome—and stupendous it is, not merely on account of the evisceration of what one even hesitates to call “the opposition”, but because the victory has been delivered by a massive and largely unsuspecting electorate rather than having been achieved at the barrel of the gun or even by coercion.  It is pointless at this juncture to argue whether some EVMs were tampered with, or whether the outcome was foretold by the extraordinary resources that the BJP brought to this election, including vast sums of unaccounted money contributed by the crony capitalists who must be exulting yet again at the victory of their champion, a self-proclaimed ordinary chai-wallah.  The indisputable fact established by the electoral results is that the BJP, even if the playing field had been somewhat more level, would easily still have been triumphant.

Most analyses of the election have focused on Narendra Modi’s spectacular success in projecting himself as indispensable to the nation and as the only person at all capable of catapulting India on to the global stage as a supposed world power.  One study after another has shown, or has attempted to establish, that many electors cast their vote for Modi, and Modi alone.  If Donald Trump is now the Republican Party, Modi is the BJP.  Doubtless, the BJP has a massive following, and many among the ranks of the party’s acolytes have an ideological commitment to political positions advocated by the party, just as Amit Shah has displayed, as he has since his rehabilitation within the BJP before the 2014 election, a mastery of organizational details and a ravenous appetite for propaganda.  Nevertheless, it is also necessary to recognize that Modi stands, singularly so, at the summit of Indian politics.

The consequences of this election, however, cannot be reduced to questions about the future of the Congress, the personality of Modi or his style of governance, and whether the BJP will have the grace to rule with something that might be described as civility, and even whether the battle lines are likely to harden between the Hindu extremists who have been emboldened by the victory and all those who are rightly alarmed if not terrified at the prospect of a Hindu Rashtra.  The BJP’s warriors may already be starting to prepare for the next battle, but the rot has unfortunately, indeed I should say tragically, already set in.  The BJP spent the previous five years in decimating the institutions that are the bulwark of any democracy.  The country’s leading public universities, among them Delhi University and JNU, have been gutted; the Election Commission has not merely seen better days, but is shorn of much of its credibility; and the army, which was long been distinguished from the army of neighboring Pakistan as an institution that stayed outside the fray of politics, has increasingly been drawn into political scandals.

It would be difficult to identify institutions of the state that have not been hollowed out.  That is what hollow men do.  The BJP is utterly devoid of any imagination, and for intellectuals the party hacks and their devoted followers have nothing but absolute contempt.  The Prime Minister has made the customary noises, following the election, about carrying everyone along with him and the need for “inclusive growth”.  There are the usual slogans about sabka saath, sabka vikas, and the call to the party to strive for sabka vishwas:  all mindless chatter, the most predictable ploys to shore up the idea of the magnanimous victor.  Among the vanquished, there will be much talk about weathering the storm for the next five years.

I have described the electorate that delivered a victory to Modi and the BJP as “unsuspecting”, and I do so with the full awareness that, as will doubtless be pointed out to me, among those who voted for the incumbent many did so with the expectation that he will stand up for the Hindu, fill (as it is imagined) the much maligned Hindus with pride, make India Congress-free, and—to speak of hope against hope—vindicate “the common man”.   But the electorate is unsuspecting because there is, in my view, little realization that with this victory an entire generation of Indians is now lost to values of civility, decency, and moral probity.  It is, for the moment, immaterial whether the BJP implodes five years from now, or, miraculously, the Congress or some other force emerges to offer viable opposition.  An entire generation will now have to pay the price for the obliteration of social goods that we hold in common and the values that are enshrined in the Constitution of India.  The BJP has already, in effect, described this victory as total, as, so to speak, the war that ends all wars.  It will take a generation, I suspect, to recover our humanity even partially from what has been wrought by “the hollow men” of our times.

 

*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.

Bharat-Ratna

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.

 

 

 

*“The Problem of Kashmir” and the Inner Demons of India & Pakistan

(For the preceding part of this essay, see the previous blog, “Nationalism in South Asia:  India, Pakistan, and the Containment of Terrorism”)

Within the present geopolitical framework, a “solution” to the Kashmir problem appears to me to be all but inconceivable.  Still, unless one is to accept the notion that the two countries must be prepared to live in a state of perpetual low-intensity warfare, descending into open and increasingly lethal conflict every decade or two, it behooves us to reflect on whether the “problem” that persists in relations between Pakistan and India has been correctly identified.  Many commentators who have lived in, or traveled to, both Pakistan and north India have identified the cultural ethos and modes of lifestyle that they share in common, and the indisputable fact is that both India and Pakistan are largely afflicted by the same problems.  Both countries have a singularly dismal record in meeting the minimum and legitimate needs of their citizens, whether that be access to decent schooling, electricity, safe drinking water, healthcare, or anything that comes close to resembling a social safety net.  The most polluted cities in the world are in South Asia; women in both countries lead imperiled lives in various respects; and both countries suffer from massive unemployment and under-employment.  One could go in this vein ad infinitum, and the narrative remains unpleasant to the extreme.

Zia-ul Haq

Muhammad Zia-ul Haq ruled as President of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988. He declared martial law in 1977; he died in a plane crash. The Islamicization of Pakistan did not, contrary to common belief, commence with him; but the pace of Islamicization doubtless greatly increased under him. He is shown her with army staff officers; photo: White Star archives.

However, much also divides the two countries, and with the passage of time the rifts have grown deeper.  It has been said that Pakistan is an army with a state, which is not merely a reference to the fact that there have been long stints when Pakistan was governed by army officials.  The army has entered into the very sinews and pores of Pakistani society.  Some who are uncomfortable with the outsized role of the Pakistani army in the affairs of the country have nevertheless argued that without the stability furnished by the army, Pakistan would have disintegrated long ago.  India is thought to offer a sharp contrast in this respect, and it can certainly be said that in India a concerted attempt was made to keep the army out of civil society, though, as nationalism becomes a potent and even unmanageable force in Indian life, encroachments on this critical feature of democracy are becoming more common.  But such conversations are grist to the mill of the traditional political scientist and, in my judgment, do not engage with still more fundamental questions about what ails the country today.  What is most germane to an understanding of how Pakistan has evolved, more particularly over the course of the last four decades, is the country’s steady drift towards the most extreme and intolerant versions of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia and the close links that the political and military elites of both countries have forged.  Muslim ideologues in Pakistan have for decades sought to persuade ordinary Pakistanis that the proximity of Hinduism to Islam contaminated South Asian Muslims, and that the deliverance of Pakistan’s Muslims now lies in an inextricable bond with Saudi Arabia, the purported home of the most authentic form of Islam. Pakistan, according to this worldview, must unhinge itself from its roots in Indic civilization and repudiate its Indo-Islamic past.  The insidious influence of the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia can now be experienced in nearly every domain of life in Pakistan, from the growing intolerance for Sufi-inspired music to the infusion of enormous sums of money to introduce Saudi style mosques and “purify” Pakistani Muslims.  This remains by far the gravest problem in Pakistan.

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Amjad Sabri, a famous Pakistani Qawaali singer, was assassinated in June 2016 in broad daylight in Karachi.

India, meanwhile, has veered towards militant forms of Hindu nationalism.  The sources of the explosive growth of Hindu militancy are many, and many commentators, myself included, have written about these at length.  Not least of them is the anxiety of Hindus who imagine that they are besieged by Muslims and who contrast the worldwide Muslim ummah to the fact that historically Hindustan remains the singular home of Hindus.  The last few years in particular furnish insurmountable evidence of the disturbing rise of anti-Muslim violence.  The intolerance towards all those who cannot be accommodated under the rubric of “Hindu” has increased visibly.  Hindu militants brought down a 16th century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, in the wake of which portions of the country were engulfed in communal violence.  Ten years later, a pogrom directed at the Muslims in Gujarat left well over 1,000 of them dead and displaced another 100,000.  Since the ascendancy of Narendra Modi—who was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 and under whose watch the perpetrators of the violence acted with utter impunity—to the office of the Prime Minister of India in 2014, civil liberties have eroded, dissenting intellectuals have become sitting ducks for assassins who murder at will, and Muslims have been, in the jargon of the day, ‘lynched’.  The fact that roving mobs have attacked many others, among them African students and Dalits or lower-caste Hindus, should offer clues that while Indian Muslims may be soft and convenient targets for Hindu militants, the real problem goes beyond the question of the place of the Muslim in contemporary India.

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Narendra Dabholkar, an Indian secular intellectual who was a staunch advocate of rationalism, was assassinated by two gunmen in Pune on 20 August 2013.

Some scholars have spoken about the collapse of the consensus around secularism during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Prime Minister from 1947 until his death in 1964; others, myself included, would also like to consider the evisceration of the Indian ethos of hospitality.  Nationalism may be a scourge worldwide, but among Hindus it is also animated by what is deemed an awakening after centuries of oppression and slumber. Just as Islamic preachers in Pakistan exhort Muslims to rid themselves of the creeping and often unrecognized effects of Hinduism in their practice and understanding of Islam, so Hindu nationalism rests on a platform of resurgent Hindu pride, the construction of a glorious past that is said to have been contaminated by foreigners (the Muslim preeminent among them), and the notion of a Hindu Rashtra (nation) where everyone else, particularly Muslims, is dependent on the goodwill of Hindus.  What is transparent in all this is that, howsoever much India is tempted to blame Pakistan, it has plenty of work to do to confront its own inner demons.

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The Babri Masjid, a sixteenth century mosque in the North Indian city of Ayodhya, was destroyed by Hindu militants on 6 December 1992.

As I have already averred, no resolution to what is commonly described as “the problem of Kashmir” appears even remotely possible within the present socio-cultural and geopolitical framework.  If military action by either country carries the risk of blowing up into a full-scale war, and is nearly unthinkable owing to the unprecedented fact that the two neighbors are nuclear-armed powers, diplomatic negotiations are also unlikely to alter the status quo.  Indeed, for the foreseeable future, low-intensity gun battles, exchanges of fire, and skirmishes along the Line of Control will almost certainly continue, punctuated only by very occasional and ceremonial declarations by one or both countries to introduce “confidence-building measures”, improve trade relations, and encourage limited border crossings.  I suspect, however, that the dispute over Kashmir can only be “resolved” if, in the first instance, both countries are attentive to the problems that are present within their own borders.  Kashmir, it must also be said, is a region unlike any other in India: though the dispute has been cast in the popular imagination as instigated by animosity between Hindus and Muslims, one third of Kashmir is overwhelmingly Buddhist. Even in the Kashmir Valley, which is predominantly Muslim, the long and complicated history of religious sensibilities renders obtuse a history that is shaped merely around a modern notion of “religion” and a demography based on the idea of religious communities as, in the language of the scholar Sudipta Kaviraj, “bounded” rather than “fuzzy”.  I would go so far as to say that the day when South Asian Muslims—in Pakistan and Bangladesh as much as India—began to recognize the Hindu element within them, and, likewise, Hindus acknowledge the Islamic element within them, both countries will be well on the way to resolving the problem of Kashmir and acknowledging that Kashmiris alone have the right to move towards the full autonomy that they deserve.

(concluded)

The two parts of this essay were published as one single essay in a substantially shorter form, “Nationalism in South Asia and ‘The Problem of Kashmir'”, in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (4 April 2019).

*Footloose and Fancy Free:  The Killers of Gandhi in Modern India

(On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti)

India is once again poised to celebrate the birthday of Mohandas Gandhi today, on October 2nd as, it has done so over the previous seven decades.  The official importance of Gandhi Jayanti is underscored by the fact that it is one of only three national holidays, alongside Independence Day and Republic Day.  The President and Prime Minister set the example for the prescribed set of rituals on this auspicious day.  We can be certain that wreaths of flowers will be laid at Rajghat, the simple yet elegant and moving memorial to the architect of Indian independence, and dignitaries will bow in reverence to the ‘Father of the Nation’.  There will be the usual speeches pointing to the sacrifices made by Bapu, as Gandhi was known in his lifetime to fellow Indians, and exhortations, especially to the young, to take some lessons from Gandhi’s life and dedicate themselves to the task of nation-building.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Rajghat, 2 October 2017.  Source:  Twitter Account of Modi.

The country’s Prime Ministers have in the past spent a few minutes at the spinning wheel on Gandhi Jayanti, once again in a show of leading the country and in an effort to demonstrate that their understanding of Gandhi is not entirely hollow. Narendra Modi will doubtless do the same; however, as he is given to theatrics and gifted the country the slogan of ‘Swachh Bharat’, it is very likely that he will also pick up a broom.  (As an aside, one can say that the leaders of India are very much in need of brooms to sweep the cobwebs that have cluttered their minds.) A touch of humility, even if for a few minutes, is always calculated to make the powerful feel invincible. Outside the capital, elsewhere in India, the same protocols will be followed with some variations:  Governors and Chief Ministers will place garlands around Gandhi’s statues, homilies will be sung to the great man, and Bapu’s favorite bhajans may be sung by choirs of young women and women dressed in khaddar.

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Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, garlanding a portrait of Gandhi in the capital Patna on October 2nd, 2017.  Photo:  Press Trust of India.

Once the country is past all this, a few hours after sunrise, the politicians, functionaries of the state, and the pracharaks of the RSS will get down to the business of doing what they do best these days—aiding the killers of Gandhi and ensuring that absolutely nothing that is viable in Gandhi’s thought survives.  The phrase, “killers of Gandhi”, especially in reference to events in the present may strike those who thought that Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948 as obtuse.  That evening, Nathuram Godse, a Chitpavan Brahmin from Pune, plugged three bullets into Gandhi’s body and the Mahatma died almost instantly.  The Government of India claimed that Godse was part of a larger conspiracy to kill Gandhi:  eventually, after a long drawn-out trial, Godse and Narayan Apte were convicted on charges of murder and sent to the gallows.  Nathuram’s brother, Gopal Godse, was among those who received a prison sentence.  Vinayak Savarkar, the alleged mastermind of the conspiracy, was acquitted.  Savarkar had a special gift for being able to have others do his dirty work:  he wriggled out of many a difficult situation during the course of his political career, and would doubtless have been happy that younger, more virile, and certainly more gullible men were available to shoulder the work of political assassination. Today his portrait hangs in Parliament House.

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A Largely Cheerful Lot of Conspirators, and a (characteristically) Morose Mastermind:  Nathuram Godse and Friends at their trial for the Murder of Gandhi at the Red Fort, Delhi, 22 June 1948.  Left to Right, Front to Back:  Nathuram Godse, Narayan Apte, Vishnu Karkare, Digambar Badge (approver), Madanlal Pahwa, Gopal Godse, Shankar Kistayya, V. D. Savarkar, and Dr. Parachure (hidden).

GandhiStatueVandalized

The statue of Gandhi in Thaliparambha, in north Kerala’s Kannur district, after vandals hurled stones and bottles, damaging the spectacles.  Photo:  Hindustan Times.

In speaking of the “killers of Gandhi”, I do not advert even remotely to Nathuram Godse and his friends and associates who had sworn their allegiance to the idea of an undivided India in which the Hindu would reign supreme.  One of Gandhi’s more perceptive biographers, Robert Payne, wrote about the killing of Gandhi as a “permissive assassination”.  His submission, quite simply, was that though Nathuram Godse fired the fatal shots, a great many among the middle class desired Gandhi’s death.  Some viewed Gandhi as authoritarian, though that was scarcely their objection:  more importantly, he struck the aspiring middle and upper classes, who saw the independence of India as an opportunity to advance their careers and create economic opportunities and wealth for themselves, as an obstructionist who was out of sorts in the modern world.  The old man had already become obsolete and dispensable, and Nathuram was not mincing words when, at his trial, he spoke bitterly and mockingly of Gandhi’s fasts, spinning, his ‘inner voice’, and the Mahatma’s other mannerisms which, in Nathuram’s view, had effeminized Indian politics and would have made India incapable of a muscular response to attacks in a world where nations vie for advantage and supremacy.  Gandhi had to die if India were to survive.

What Nathuram did not at all understand was that men such as Gandhi have to be shot dead repeatedly.  It is not only that a Gandhi can be killed in the flesh but not in the spirit.  That is only one, and the more predictable, part of the story.  The spectre of Gandhi is everywhere and October 2nd is not the only day when he looms large, except of course to those who are unpleasantly reminded by his birth anniversary of the fact that there is much work still to be done in eviscerating Gandhi from the public sphere.  Even those who do not care an iota for him have to invoke his name; love him or hate him, he is inescapable.  He is everywhere, on billboards, mugs, tee-shirts, car stickers, murals, graffiti, television ads, cartoons, and much else.  The present-day killers of Gandhi can, however, live with the merchandizing of Gandhi, and nearly all of them, even as they despise him, would have no reluctance in capitalizing on his name.  The idea of cultural capital may be a conceptual black hole to them, but they instinctively understand that the invocation of Gandhi’s name can open many doors in the right places.

What is, then, truly worrisome to the killers of Gandhi is that, much like the obdurate old man, some of Gandhi’s ideas refuse to go away.  Nathuram Godse and his implicit patrons must have hoped and certainly thought that Gandhi, a few years after his assassination, would become a distant memory.  Quite to the contrary, much of the contemporary global common sense about, for example, the hazards of unchecked consumption, the problems that inhere in the very idea of the nation-state, and the inverse relationship of militarism to well-being is anticipated in the life and writings of Gandhi.  The so-called “toxic masculinity” that is on witness in the streets of every town and city in India is not only a manifestation of Hindu rage and a will to shape a decisive understanding of the past but also a reaction to the androgynous values that Gandhi embodied and which the Hindu nationalist tacitly knows are enshrined in Indian culture.  What is different about the killers of Gandhi today is that act with total impunity.  They are aware of the fact that the present political dispensation is favorable to them, and that much of the ‘ruling class’ despises Gandhi.  The mandarins who stalk the corridors of power and sit on corporate boardrooms know that all they have to do is hold a conference every now and then on “the relevance of Gandhi” to cover up for the complete contempt and even hatred they harbor for the “Mahatma”.  That is, of course, why middle class Indians think nothing of circulating poems—I hope to discuss one in the next few days—on What’s App describing Gandhi as a fool and traitor to the nation, and why they think that his assassin should be installed as a deity in a temple.

One could go in this vein, but this much is clear:  Nathuram botched the assassination.  This is why the killers of Gandhi are still on the loose, making hay while the sun shines. The official pieties surrounding Gandhi Jayanti may be nauseating to behold, but October 2nd is a necessary provocation.

 

There are numerous other essays on Gandhi on this blog; readers might find especially interesting the following essays:

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/30/the-homeless-gandhi/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/a-reputation-and-more-in-ruins-gandhi-at-the-aga-khan-palace-pune/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/vaishnava-janato-gandhi-and-narsi-mehtas-conception-of-the-ideal-person/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/a-strange-case-of-doppelgangers-hitler-and-gandhi-in-india/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/gandhis-photograph-and-the-politics-of-the-frame/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/gambling-on-gandhi-on-being-timid-and-taking-risks/

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2009/10/02/gandhi%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98relevance%E2%80%99-one-more-round-of-humbug/

 

*Fast, Counter-Fast, Anti-Fast

An epidemic of fasting has of late engulfed India.  Some months ago, the social reformer Anna Hazare, whose activities over the last three decades had been largely confined to his village Ralegan Siddhi or the area around it, or at most to his native Maharashtra, burst upon the national scene with a 5-day fast at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to highlight the problem of corruption.  Hazare again pressed his demand for a Jan Lokpal Bill with a spectacular show of force at the Ramlila Grounds in August, and much of India’s attention was riveted on the 74-year old man who, having put his body on the line with an indefinite fast, seemed to have stunned the government into submission.  Many decades ago, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, George Orwell, in an appreciative if critical assessment of his life, marveled at the fact that Gandhi would take a public decision to fast and, as it seemed to Orwell, the entire country would come to a standstill –– not once, or twice, but on a dozen or more occasions.  Not for nothing was Gandhi the Mahatma.  Some in our times have marveled at the fact that a former truck driver who has something of the appearance of a country bumpkin, and who seems to have little in his personal appearance, demeanor, oratorical skill, or worldview that might resonate with the middle classes, should be the one to revive memories of a time when Gandhian nonviolent resistance rewrote the rules governing dissent.

 

When Hazare went on a fast, so did 65 other men and women at Azad Maidan in Mumbai.  Seventeen of them persisted to the end, breaking their fast on the thirteenth day alongside Hazare.  One other who followed in Hazare’s wake has now come into the limelight:  Anna Hazare and Narendra Modi, the detractors of both say, are joined at the hip. They have openly expressed admiration for each other, though Hazare has stated that his advocacy of Modi does not extend beyond the Chief Minister’s apparent skills in shepherding Gujarat to the model ‘development state’ in India.  Two weeks ago, Modi commenced his ‘Sadbhavana’ mission, and his letter to the public, issued as a full-page advertisement in newspapers across India and featured on his slick website, which is available in five languages, described his 72-hour fast as ‘a prayer for togetherness’.

 

The twenty first century, wrote Modi, ‘did not begin well for Gujarat.  In 2001, the devastating earthquake on our Republic day, took a very heavy toll.  In the subsequent year, Gujarat became the victim of communal violence.  We lost innocent lives, suffered devastation of property and endured lot of pain.’  Many see this statement as the first expression of atonement by Modi in the nearly ten years since the pogrom against Muslims, in which Modi and many senior officials in his government are believed to be implicated, took over 2,000 lives and rendered tens of thousands more homeless.  ‘I am grateful to all those’, Modi adds, ‘who pointed out my genuine mistakes during [the] last 10 years.’  Modi does not, of course, admit that it was largely the Muslims who were the victims; indeed, like any good officer of the law, he is careful not to mention any community by name.  It is Gujarat that became ‘the victim of communal violence’:  the passive construction encourages the reader to believe that there was no agency in the killings; no responsibility can be assigned for the crimes that occurred.

 

Every action, Modi had infamously said when the killings were taking place, leads to a reaction, ‘Kriya pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai’; as Donald Rumsfeld put it, apropos of the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad and other atrocities following the American invasion of Iraq, ‘Stuff happens.’  When the Supreme Court ruled that it would send the case against Modi back to the High Court, Modi and his friends swiftly interpreted the gesture as a vindication of the Chief Minister.  ‘God is great’, Modi had tweeted, but his public letter on the eve of his fast does not even remotely advert to this background.  His letter concludes with the rationale for his fast:  Modi will ‘continue to pray to the Almighty’ so that he develops the strength that prevents him from harbouring ‘any ill-feeling or bitterness’ towards those who defamed the state of Gujarat and maligned him personally.

 

No sooner had Modi announced his fast than he began to be taken to task.  The Congress, not surprisingly, described it as a ‘gimmick’, and it was soon characterized as a ‘five-star’ fast and public ‘spectacle’ when it surfaced that Modi would hold the fast in Gujarat University’s Convention Hall amidst 2,000 policemen, elaborate media arrangements, LCD screens, ten counters to receive bouquets and gifts, and teams of medical specialists.  Meanwhile, Shankersinh Vaghela, a one-time BJP leader who is now one of the more prominent faces of the Congress in Gujarat, announced that he would counter Modi with his fast at Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Ashram.   The Sabarmati Ashram is a hugely symbolic site, but not only for the obvious reason that it was here that Gandhi established a foothold upon his return from South India or that it is from the ashram that Gandhi launched his march to Dandi.  Sabarmati Ashram, in a shocking repudiation of everything that Gandhi stood for, shuts it doors to Muslims seeking refuge from marauding bands of killers in 2002.  Even if Gandhi’s legacy has been mercilessly dumped in his home state, even if at every turn middle class Gujaratis have rejected him as the very antithesis of what a modern, developed, and respected nation-state ought to look like, Modi and Vaghela have not been slow to understand that Gandhi’s name still carries immense cultural capital.

 

Hazare, Modi, Vaghela:  these are only the more visible faces among countless numbers who in India have taken to fasting, and in their midst are the likes of Irom Sharmila, a 38-year old woman from Manipur who has been fasting since 2000 in her quest to have the state repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a draconian piece of legislation that activists describe as the death-knell of democracy.  Gandhi never had to suffer the indignity of being force-fed; Irom Sharmila, by contrast, has often been force-fed, released, and then re-arrested on her resumption of fasting.  Her long struggle is more reminiscent of the ‘cat and mouse’ game waged between English suffragettes, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and the British government which led to the imposition of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act in 1913, popularly dubbed the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.  Nevertheless, in India the comparison with Gandhi is almost always unavoidable.

 

Gandhi was the modern master of the fast; and, yet, he did not just stumble upon fasting, nor was he the first to come to an awareness of how the body could be inserted into the body politic and create waves.  In one of his lesser-known plays, “The King’s Threshold”, William Butler Yeats wrote about a practice long extant in Ireland (and, though Yeats was not entirely aware of this, in India).  When a creditor was unable to collect an outstanding loan from a debtor, and found himself unable to call upon the forces of the state to help in the redressal of his grievance, he would come and sit outside the debtor’s door and refuse to move –– and thus refuse to eat.  To sit dharna in India similarly means to render oneself into an obstacle; and this act of ‘door-sitting’, as more than one Indian medieval text in India informs us, has fasting as its necessary concomitant.  India even had its own form of the medieval duel.  It was not unknown for the debtor to commence fasting when the creditor refused to partake of food at his doorstep.  We speak today of surrogate mothers and fathers, but India had long pioneered the idea of surrogate hunger strikers.  If, as was often the case, the creditor was a moneylender, he occasionally hired a Brahmin to sit and fast in his place.  Whoever prevailed could claim justice on his side.

 

There can scarcely be as dramatic a text for insights into traditions of political fasting in India as Kalhana’s 12th century ‘Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir’ known as the Rajatarangini.  This book by a Kashmiri Brahmin furnishes incontrovertible evidence of the widespread recourse to fasting.  King Chandrapida himself fasted as a form of penance, in atonement for his inability to bring to justice the murderer of a man whose widow sought death by starvation unless punishment were inflicted on the guilty man (IV:82-99).  The remedy of fasting, however, appears generally to have been available only to Brahmins, and Kalhana was not averse to passing sharp remarks on the ease with which members of his community would, singly or collectively, stage a hunger strike to safeguard their interests.  As an illustration, Kalhana describes the events that transpired in the year 1143, in the reign of Jayasimha.  Enraged by a plot to overthrow the king, in which they suspected the hand of the ministers Trillaka and Jayaraja, ‘and anxious to safeguard the country’, the Brahmins commenced a hunger strike ‘directed against’, notes Kalhana, ‘the king’ –– the king because he had, through his weakness and inaction, permitted the kingdom to fall into ruins.  Kalhana suggests that the Brahmins may at first have been moved by noble intentions; but, ‘intoxicated with their own knavery’, they ‘obstinately persisted in their perfidious course’ until they had prevailed upon the king to dismiss his honest minister Alamkara and promise them that he would ‘uproot Trillaka after he had disposed of the pretenders to the crown’ (VIII:2737).    Elsewhere Kalhana describes the contagion of fasting:  in 1211 AD, when the Brahmins at Aksosuva ‘held a solemn fast directed against the king’ to protest against the pillage of their monastery, the Brahmins ‘in the capital’ followed suit, and were in turn emulated by ‘the members of the Temple Purohit Association’ (VIII:898-900).  Hunger strikes had become so common, if Kalhana is to be believed, that officials were appointed to be especially ‘in charge of hunger-strikes’ (VI:14).

 

Though there is nothing to suggest that Gandhi was aware of the Rajatarangini, there is but no question that he had some familiarity with Indian traditions of hunger striking.  He termed most hunger strikes, which he distinguished from fasts, as a form of ­duragraha –– a distinction that today is upheld in the contrast between anshan and upvasa.  Gandhi would have been the first to recognize that there may never be anything like a pure fast, entirely free of coercion –– certainly not if one’s fast is in the public domain, or likely to have political consequences.  Many of the principles of fasting to which he adhered are now common knowledge, and everyone recognizes, for example, Gandhi’s insistence on listening to one’s inner voice, or his idea that fasting is a form of communion between oneself and one’s own God.  Rather than trying to resolve whether Hazare, Modi, Vaghela, and others meet the standards that Gandhi set for himself when he embarked on a fast, we might try to aim at a different comprehension of the Gandhian universe itself.  Gandhi’s many fasts, his enemas, his weekly day of silence, and much more:  all this was a way of emptying himself, reducing himself to zero, silencing the noise within, rejuvenating his tired limbs and mind –– all the more so that he could lead life to the fullest.  How does one begin to comprehend the enormity of a life where one’s own body becomes the site of ecological homage to mother Earth?

First published in The Times of India, The Crest Edition (1 October 2011), p. 10.