Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK in India: His Address on All India Radio

Martin Luther King, Jr. visited India in 1959, an event which is described in detail at the King Encyclopedia. King, as is well known, modeled his approach to civil rights in the United States on Gandhi's successful mass non-violence/civil disobedience campaign for Indian independence.

On NPR last week, there was a story about how All India Radio has recently discovered in its archives the recorded version of the address given by Dr. King at the end of his visit to India.

Through a little bit of digging on Google, I found the actual recording posted on the internet, at the website of the Indian Consulate of Chicago.

For me the highlight of the address is the closing, which I'll take the liberty of including here:

Many years ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot – and incidentally, he was shot for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shot for; namely, for committing the crime of wanting to heal the wounds of a divided nation. And when he was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by the dead body of the great leader and said these words: “now, he belongs to the ages.” And in a real sense, we can say the same thing about Mahatma Gandhi, and even in stronger terms: “now, he belongs to the ages.”

And if this age is to survive, it must follow the way of love and non-violence that he so nobly illustrated in his life. Mahatma Gandhi may well be God’s appeal to this generation, a generation drifting again to its doom. And this eternal appeal is in the form of a warning: they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword.

We must come to see in the world today that what he taught, and his method throughout, reveals to us that there is an alternative to violence, and that if we fail to follow this we will perish in our individual and in our collective lives. For in a day when Sputniks and explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war.

Today we no longer have a choice between violence and non-violence; it is either non-violence, or non-existence. (link)

Perhaps the meanings of King and Gandhi's respective messages have changed as times have changed. India is no longer a country with a colonial chip on its shoulder, and minorities in the U.S. have a shining example of success in President Barack Obama (among many other signs of progress). It is probably a bit too easy and nostalgic to simply savor those past struggles without continually seeking to apply them to our messy current situations; with too much familiarity and Big Talk, these two icons of struggle risk becoming bloated relics. (For example, by the 1970s, Gandhianism in India had become an easy symbol, devoid of substance -- one thinks of the overweight Congress politicians in homespun, happily siphoning off crores of Rupees for Swiss bank accounts.)

Concomitantly, it may be that rigorous non-violence cannot mean the same thing for us today as it did for African Americans who demanded a seat at the American table, or Indians who demanded sovereignty -- a seat at the table of nations. Perhaps King and Gandhi's shared dream of a total, worldwide movement away from a social order based on violence, active or potential, is one we'll have to put away for the foreseeable future, as simply not in keeping with human nature. Satyagraha is a brilliant strategy for mobilizing the Indian masses to defeat the most powerful, thoroughly armed Empire the world has ever known, without bloodshed. But in my view it is neither effective nor appropriate as a response to Jihadists on the streets of Mumbai, or Maoist rebels in eastern India, to name just two examples. (I am not a pacifist myself for this reason.)

And yet, is it not still chastening to hear these words, even in these times? (Listen to the speech.) As I say, some of the diacritics may have changed, but I think King's warning still stands: "they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword." Gaza*. Sri Lanka. Iraq. India-Pakistan. Isn't that still the truth we need to hear?

[* Update: Just to be clear, I'm using the name "Gaza" here as a short-hand for the current Israel-Palestinian conflict, not as a way of suggesting that the Palestinians need to hear this message more than the Israelis. Both sides might benefit from hearing this message.]

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Monday, May 07, 2007

A Challenger in Pakistan

We're starting to see real signs that Pervez Musharraf's hold on power in Pakistan may not be absolute. Pakistan's suspended Supreme Court Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry gave a speech in front of thousands of supporters in Lahore yesterday, expressing dissent with the current government. Chaudhry has been under house arrest in Islamabad since March, and it isn't completely clear to me how he was permitted to address the public on the grounds of the Lahore High Court. But he's clearly become a popular icon of secular dissent with Musharraf's rule, and his speech has to be making authorities nervous:

Speaking to the crowd, including many lawyers, the suspended chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, said, “The concept of an autocratic system of government is over.” He added, “Rule of law, supremacy of the Constitution, basic human rights and individual freedom granted by the Constitution are essential for the formation of a civilized society.

“Those countries and nations who don’t learn from the past and repeat those mistakes get destroyed,” he said.

He said the government had no right to impose laws that violated basic human rights.

Mr. Chaudhry spoke at the compound of the Lahore High Court, under the scorching Lahore sun. Seventeen judges from the Lahore High court also attended. Many of the supporters covered their heads with newspapers to escape the heat. Banners urging the independence of the judiciary and denouncing the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, hung on boundary walls surrounding the compound. Political workers, who were not allowed inside, listened to the speech outside the boundary wall. (link)

Chaudhry was also greeted by thousands of cheering bystanders on the side of the road between Islamabad and Lahore; the fanfare was so intense that what is normally a four hour journey took twenty-five hours!

I briefly and irreverently mentioned this brewing crisis back in March, but a much more thorough analysis of the back-story of Justice Chaudhry's dissent by Anil Kalhan can be found at Michael Dorf's "Dorf on Law" blog.

As Anil maps it out, probably the most important issue is actually Pakistan's prosecution of the war on terror, specifically its policy of "disappearing" hundreds of people accused of being Al-Qaeda supporters. While Pakistan's hunt for terrorists has resulted in some important catches, including especially Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, its growing dependence on authoritarian practices has become increasingly unpalatable to many Pakistanis. And the presumed cooperation between the ISI and the CIA, the latter with its secret detention facilities, has to be galling to both Pakistan's secular liberals (they do exist) and the Islamists on the right.

There are other issues on the table too (human rights in Balochistan, and corruption surrounding the privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills), and Justice Chaudhry has apparently built up a reputation as an activist and a progressive over some years, as this detailed analysis suggests.

Of course, it's an open question as to whether Musharraf will continue to let Iftikhar Chaudhry speek freely. And one has to wonder whether the feeling of dissent represented by the support for Justice Chaudhry can be transformed into an actual political movement in Pakistan.

As a final note, the following Faiz Ahmed Faiz ghazal was being played over the loudspeakers at Justice Chaudhry's rally. The Times gave it to you in English, but here it is in transliterated Urdu as well:

Jab Zulm-o-Sitam ke Koh-e-garaan
When the mountains of cruelty and torture

Ruii ki Tarah Urd Jain Gay
Will fly like pieces of cotton

Hum Mehkumoon ke Paun Talay
Under the feet of the governed

Yeh Dharti Dhard Dhard Dhardkay gi
This earth will quake

Aur Ehl-e-Hukum ke Sar Uper
And over the head of the ruler

Jab Bijli kard Kard Kardke gi
When lightening will thunder

Hum Dekhain Gay
We shall see (source)

Yes, Hum dekhain gai. That is probably about all that can be said at this point.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Recycling While Brown

Given what happened last week in Virginia, the events described in this post might seem trivial, but I feel quite strongly that they are not. What's at issue is a fundamental question of civil rights -- the right to live one's life without being harrassed, investigated, or needlessly spied on.

The Indian-American poet Kazim Ali teaches at Shippensburg University, which is a little west of Harrisburg, PA.

On his website (and at Inside Higher Ed), Ali recently posted an account of being detained for "suspicious" behavior. The behavior in question? Recycling. He was doing nothing other than dropping off a stack of printouts of poems to be recycled when someone from the campus ROTC called the police:

A young man from ROTC was watching me as I got into my car and drove away. I thought he was looking at my car which has black flower decals and sometimes inspires strange looks. I later discovered that I, in my dark skin, am sometimes not even a person to the people who look at me. Instead, in spite of my peacefulness, my committed opposition to all aggression and war, I am a threat by my very existence, a threat just living in the world as a Muslim body.

Upon my departure, he called the local police department and told them a man of Middle Eastern descent driving a heavily decaled white Beetle with out of state plates and no campus parking sticker had just placed a box next to the trash can. My car has New York plates, but he got the rest of it wrong. I have two stickers on my car. One is my highly visible faculty parking sticker and the other, which I just don't have the heart to take off these days, says "Kerry/Edwards: For a Stronger America."

Because of my recycling the bomb squad came, the state police came. Because of my recycling buildings were evacuated, classes were canceled, campus was closed. No. Not because of my recycling. Because of my dark body. No. Not because of my dark body. Because of his fear. Because of the way he saw me. Because of the culture of fear, mistrust, hatred, and suspicion that is carefully cultivated in the media, by the government, by people who claim to want to keep us safe. [...]

One of my colleagues was in the gathering crowd, trying to figure out what had happened. She heard my description--a Middle Eastern man driving a white beetle with out of state plates--and knew immediately they were talking about me and realized that the box must have been manuscripts I was discarding. She approached them and told them I was a professor on the faculty there. Immediately the campus police officer said, "What country is he from?"

"What country is he from?!" she yelled, indignant. (link)

I've had just about enough of these incidents. Don't the campus police at Shippensburg U. have a minimum criterion for "suspicious"? Was it necessary to call the state police and the bomb squad? A faculty member dropping off a box of papers by a recycling bin at a semi-rural university simply ought not to have to deal with this kind of nonsense. It's just insane.

It must have been a harrowing experience, but fortunately it ended without further incident, and Ali was released.

The University wrote a statement to Ali following this incident, but Kazim Ali isn't at all satisfied with it, presumably because the university wouldn't want to acknowledge that Ali's race was a factor in an incident where his civil rights may have been violated:

The university's bizarrely minimal statement lets everyone know that the "suspicious package" beside the trashcan ended up being, indeed, trash. It goes on to say, "We appreciate your cooperation during the incident and remind everyone that safety is a joint effort by all members of the campus community."

What does that community mean to me, a person who has to walk by the ROTC offices every day on my way to my own office just down the hall--who was watched, noted, and reported, all in a days work? Today we gave in willingly and whole-heartedly to a culture of fear and blaming and profiling. It is deemed perfectly appropriate behavior to spy on one another and police one another and report on one another. Such behaviors exist most strongly in closed and undemocratic and fascist societies.

The university report does not mention the root cause of the alarm. That package became "suspicious" because of who was holding it, who put it down, who drove away. Me.

It was poetry, I kept insisting to the state policeman who was questioning me on the phone. It was poetry I was putting out to be recycled. (link)

"Fascism" is a strong word, but sometimes you need to go there. Perhaps the key difference is, at least here the police have to adhere to basic concepts of due process. In a truly fascist society, none of that would apply. (We could, of course, debate matters such as Guantanamo Bay, CIA secret detention facilities, the practice of "rendition," and the currently blurry line between "interrogation techniques" and torture. None of those practices by themselves make the U.S. a "fascist" society, but they do call into question the nature of American democracy.)

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