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Part IV of “Passions of a March–and of Gun Culture

The student-initiated “March for Our Lives”, two months old to this day, has already been characterized as a novelty in the annals of American political action.  History is, of course, always being ‘made’ in the United States: in a metrics-obsessed culture, this or that phenomenon—ten dunks in a single game by LeBron James, or the single-season rushing record in a NFL game, ad infinitum—becomes ‘one for the history books’.  The “March for our Lives” has doubtless made it to the history books as the expression of a certain sentiment involving a larger number of school students than any previously recorded movement of dissent—and perhaps this is all the more ‘historical’, if one is accepting of such a worldview, in that the present age is often described as one characterized by student apathy.  It may be that the noxious and equally nauseous politics of the Trump regime and its supporters has energized student bodies into political action.

NandlalBoseGAndhiWalking

It is well to remember, however, that “the march” is not a singular thing.  The “Long March” was itself comprised of several marches; most famously, it entailed the movement by Mao and fellow comrades from Jiangxi Province to Shanxi, a distance of some 4,000 miles across mountain ranges and two dozen rivers, over a period of 370 days from October 1934 to October 1935.  The stranglehold that Chiang Kai-shek had attempted to place around the communists was broken; the march would help to seal Mao’s ascent to power.  Gandhi’s march to the sea likewise may have done more than anything else to transform him into a world-historical figure, just as Nandlal Bose’s rendition of the Gandhi of the strident walk would yield one of the most iconic images of the Mahatma.  In its wake, came the Round Table Conferences:  whatever their place in the narrative of independence, and some have critiqued the conferences as clever stratagems on the part of the colonial power that deferred Independence for another fifteen years, the British for the first time sat down to negotiate with Indians.  Numerous marches have sought to reconfigure the American landscape, none more so than the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, which itself demonstrably took a page out of Gandhi’s march to Dandi.  A quarter of a million were gathered to hear some of the stalwarts of the Civil Rights movement; none present there had any anticipation of the soaring speech that King was about to deliver.  Less than a year later, the Civil Rights Act, inarguably the most transformative piece of legislation in modern American history, was passed.

MarchOnWAshington1963

The March on Washington, 28 August 1963:  civil rights supportres carrying placards seeking equal rights, equal employment opportunities for black people, and an end to discrimination.  Photograph:  Warren Leffler.  Source:  Library of Congress.

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King,Jr. (C)

Martin Luther King, Jr. waving to supporters from the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington, 28 August 1963.  Source:  AFP/Getty Images.

The most recent “March for Our Lives” cannot be likened to any of these marches, and yet it has earned the moniker of a “march”.  Will it, in time, be similarly transformative and thus be deemed historic?  Few remember today the Million Mom March, held on Mother’s Day in 2000, when an estimated 750,000 women and men converged in Washington in support of gun-control legislation following a shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California.  Another 250,000 people then took part in sister marches held simultaneously around the country.  The legislation that may legitimately be described as having in part emerged from this activism, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (November, 1993), mandated federal background checks on firearm purchasers and imposed a five-day waiting period for purchases, though the latter provision was rendered obsolete by the introduction in 1998 of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  The NRA, expectedly, offered stiff resistance to the Brady bill; its defeat, at that moment, was roundly celebrated as a demonstration of the fact that dents can be made in the NRA armor.

The Brady Act, however, did nothing whatsoever to put into question “the gun culture” that occupies an immense space in the American imaginary.  The long-standing and militant Executive Vice President of the NRA, Wayne La Pierre, is scarcely the only exponent of American exceptionalism, and believes with many of his countrymen and women “in America as the greatest nation on earth”; but he is also certain that America’s greatness owes everything to the Second Amendment, and that gun owners were critically important in handing Hilary Clinton an unexpected defeat.  Clinton is far from being an enemy of the Second Amendment; much like the students who marched on Washington, she believes only in sensible gun control—though, it is necessary to state, gun control laws in most nations are far more stringent than anything that could be contemplated under the rubric of “sensible gun control” in the United States.

The NRA has absolute mastery over this domain: it defines, names, and maims its enemies, except that its enemies are merely somewhat more reasonable more human beings, and nothing like the radicals who, as the NRA claims, are determined to take America down and strip its citizens of their cherished freedoms.  Apart from all this, it should not be forgotten that the provisions of the Brady Act continued to be whittled down, and the NRA successfully and relentlessly waged battles to augment the rights of gun owners in other respects.  As the events of the last twenty-five years have amply shown, the Brady Act has been rendered toothless; one study, based on an exhaustive study of data from 1985 to 1997 at the National Center for Health Statistics, concludes that the Brady Act may have done something to reduce suicide rates among those who are 55 years or older, but that it had no impact nationally on homicide rates or even suicide rates for those under 55 (see Jens Ludwig and Philip Cook, “Homicide and Suicide Rates Associated with Implementation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act”, Journal of the American Medical Association 284, no. 5 (2000), 585-91.

(to be continued)

See also:

Part III, The March for Our Lives:  A New Generation of Activists?

Part II, School Shootings, the Lockdown, and an Aside on Masculinity

Part I, High School Shootings:  Fragments of Americana

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 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”

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