Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Guest Post by Narayan: More on Madras, Elihu Yale, Hiram Bingham

I have been blogging lightly this month, mainly at Sepia Mutiny, while trying to finish a draft of my monograph on Mira Nair. My friend Narayan contacted me after a post a few weeks ago regarding Vinay Lal's "The Other Indians," and I suggested he consider writing up a guest post. The following is that post.

Guest Post by narayan

I, Eli & Hi

Madraspatnam / Medras / Chennai

Phonetics and orthography were at odds when the British named the city lately called Chennai. In 1639, factors of the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) trying to get a foothold on the South-Eastern coast of India, the Coromandel, leased land from the local Nayaks at Madraspatnam, a name of dubious origins. S. Muthiah, the popular-historian of Chennai, in his admirable and informative book "Madras Rediscovered”, says that it was by all accounts "a God forsaken place … a narrow protected peninsula [sic], but a site without a safe landing place". Francis Day, the junior factor, who was "a hard-drinking, enthusiastic gambler and lusty womaniser", finalized the deal, justifying his choice with the report that the hinterland offered "excellent long Cloath and better cheape by 20 percent than anywhere else”. Plus ça change! Muthiah credits the senior factor, Andrew Cogan, with "encouraging the boisterous Day, making the first official landing, building the first fortified factory which was to grow into Fort St. George, and colonizing the place – the result of which industry is Madras today". Neither Cogan and Day, nor their Indian aides, Thimmappa and Nagabattan, are memorialized anywhere in the city.

My 1980 trip to Medras (which native ever pronounced it otherwise?) was doomed from the start, a favor to a well-meaning uncle. I spent the morning on the verandah of a mansion, stretching out polite conversation with a taciturn woman, a scientist with a PhD from Europe, past marriageable age like myself. She too had a well-meaning uncle as I soon surmised. I had to catch a bus to Pondy in four hours and was determined to wait it out. Watching the sly antics of a chhipkali in the bushes outside helped. There was a brief interview with the ageing father, then the special lunch for the prospective son-in-law. She insisted on accompanying me to the bus station in their chauffeured Ambassador with cloth covered seats. In her relief at my departure she became voluble, pointing out landmarks to me as we skirted Marina Beach, the one place I remembered from occasional family trips in childhood. At one point she pointed to a large brick structure and said, "And that’s Yale’s Ice House". Seconds later I reacted, "What do you mean – Yale?" "You know, Yale – from the university. He was Governor here."

Kafka would have wept at the struggle at the bus station just to buy a ticket; he would have soiled his pants on the bus ride back from Pondy. Understandably, I forgot all about the Medras fiasco until I was safely back in Boston. Months later, while browsing through the stacks at the public library, I came upon Hiram Bingham’s 1939 book "Elihu Yale - The American Nabob of Queen Square". Excuse me? Shouldn’t that be "Welsh Nabob of Medras"? After a prefatory nod to Kipling, a man who had never ventured south of the Vindhyas, Bingham begins : "Before the War it was exciting to go and find behind the ranges of the Andes the white temples of Machu Picchu and the palace of the last of the Incas." More about this later.


Elihu Yale’s father David, unmarried at twenty-three, emigrated from Wales to Boston, with his mother Anne, two siblings, his stepfather Theophilus Eaton, and two Eaton children. Shortly after, they moved to the new settlement of New Haven, then back to Boston after six years of domestic and social instability. David married at thirty and engaged in trade, but chafing at the theocratic rule of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to try his luck in Cromwell’s England. Elihu, David’s second child, was three in 1652 when he left Boston; he never set foot in America again. David succeeded in trade and became a man of property. He used his influence to get Elihu a berth in the HEIC as a Writer, paying a bond of £500 for the privilege.

When he set foot in Fort St. George in June 1672 after a six month voyage from England, Elihu was twenty three and at the bottom rung of the company. By the time he left India in February 1699 he had become Governor of the colony, only to be recalled under a cloud of suspicion. The story of the intervening years is Bingham’s to tell; it would be foolish of me to attempt a précis here. Rushdie and Swift together could not have conjured up the Munchausenesque events, intrigue, and personalities that inhabit the two hundred pages of Bingham’s book that detail Elihu’s twenty-seven year tenure in India.

In an article in The Hindu, Yale University student Ajay Gandhi summarizes Elihu’s Governorship adequately :

"As governor of Fort St. George, Yale purchased territory for private purposes with East India Company funds, including a fort at Tevnapatam (present-day Cuddalore). He imposed steep taxation towards the upkeep of the colonial garrison and town. His punitive measures against Indians who defaulted included threats of property confiscation and forced exile. This spurred various Indian revolts, which were ruthlessly quelled by Company soldiers. Yale was also notorious for arresting and trying Indians on his own private authority, including the hanging of a stable boy who had absconded with a Company horse.

“More audaciously, Yale amassed a private fortune through secret contracts with Madras merchants, against the East India Company's directives. This imperial plunder, which enabled his patronage of the American university, occurred through his monopolisation of traders and castes in the textiles and jewel trade. By 1692, Elihu Yale's repeated flouting of East India Company regulations, and growing embarrassment at his illegal profiteering resulted in his being relieved of the post of governor.”

Some blame for the first half of this assessment may be ascribed to the robber-baron ruthlessness of Sir Josiah Child, then head of the HEIC, but the second half rings entirely true.

Even after his return to England, Elihu continued in the profitable and possibly illegal import business in which he was enabled by his equally culpable successor as Governor, Thomas Pitt. The story of his donation to the Connecticut Collegiate School starts eighteen years into this prosperous retirement. The lobbyists for the donation are acknowledged to be Cotton Mather, the famous Bostonian of many parts, Jeremy Dummer, the equally accomplished and erudite London Agent for the Bay Colony, and Gen. Francis Nicholson, the militant and religious erstwhile Governor of Maryland. Why Elihu decided to favor their suit instead of some college in Oxford has to be a matter for conjecture, since New Haven was a place of regrettable history and unhappiness for the Yale-Eaton family. Mather and Dummer must have been uncommonly persuasive. Elihu’s son by his wife Katherine had died at four in Fort St. George; Charles, his son by his mistress Hieronima de Paivia died in Cape Town at the age of twenty-one en-route to England in 1712. Having no male heir, Elihu had considered taking the son of a Connecticut cousin under his wing. An ardent social climber, he had become a donor of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), and had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). He might plausibly have been trying to make his peace with God in his waning years.

The first donation was a gift of thirty-two books, among them a copy of ‘Principia’ gifted by fellow FRS, Isaac Newton, and an Armenian Dictionary, which might have found more use in a Medras library. Other members of the SPG contributed in kind. Harvard at the time was beginning to harbor religious dissenters, and there was friction between the college and Rev. Mather on that score. Nor did the government of Massachusetts want to encourage missionaries from the Church of England. The funding of a college in New Haven that might offset radical trends in Boston was an ideal project to be exploited by the SPG.

Mather’s 1718 letter to Yale is characterized by Bingham as a historic document.

“Ingeniously worded, adroitly suggesting both spiritual and worldly advantage to a possible patron who had lost his two sons, he believed it planted a seed which bore important fruit.”

Bingham follows this with several excerpts and his own commentary. An opening sentence of the letter may resonate with Indian-Americans :

“There are those in these parts of western India, who have had the satisfaction to know something of what you have done and gained in the eastern, and they take delight in the story.”

The italics are probably Bingham’s, but let me say this – WOW! Then there is this :

“Sir, though you have your felicities in your family, which I pray God continue and multiply, yet certainly, if what is forming in New Haven might wear the name YALE COLLEGE, it would be better than a name of sons and daughters. And your munificence might easily obtain for you such a commemoration and perpetuation of your valuable name, which would be better than an Egyptian pyramid.”

Double WOW! Mather’s coup de grâce might well have resulted in a coup de foudre at the receiving end. The rest, as they say, is history - and we know how history gets written.


Enthusiasts of travel and exploration lore will recognize Hiram Bingham as the man who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. He was the third in a line of Hiram Binghams, born in Honolulu to a Protestant missionary whose father had also been a missionary in Hawaii. Phillips Academy, Yale, Berkeley, and Harvard feature in his academic résumé. He had worked as a chemist, a lecturer of history and politics, and a preceptor under Woodrow Wilson at Princeton. After his explorations in the Andes he went on to serve the state of Connecticut as Lt. Governor, Governor and Senator. In short, he was the quintessential WASP of impeccable credentials and accomplishments.

Those who care to follow up on the fine print may have read that he is in the process of being discredited in favor of prior claimants to that re-discovery dating back to the mid 1800s. His sponsors, Yale University and the National Geographic Society are being tarred with the same brush as the Government of Peru seeks to recover national treasures and antiquities taken from the Andes. His detractors may also note that he was censured by the US Senate for fiscal improprieties. Sound like anyone we know?

The Internet, which makes child’s work of the acquisition of such trivia, was not around when I started on my personal quest for Elihu in the 80’s. My copy of Bingham’s biography retains a bill for $58 from an antiquarian book dealer in New York City in 1990; it was a Christmas gift to myself. I cannot claim to have read the book from cover to cover – there’s too much there for a casual history buff to absorb. Readers of this article who have read the book more carefully will be justified if they disagree with some of my unguarded criticisms of it. The first few times I delved into it I had vague intentions of writing a novel about Elihu’s times in India. The notion had a long gestation, the pregnancy proved ectopic, and while the act of procreation had been pleasurable, post-partum depression set in. I packed the book away for many years.

I had and still maintain great admiration for Bingham. His research on Elihu was, for his time, a monumental effort – would that I had his tenacity and endurance. My recent disaffections come out of a maturation of feelings about history, starting with a chance encounter with a collection of essays on subaltern history. One essay recounted an incident in British India where the Army was called in to quell a riot by farmers, resulting in several deaths by shooting. It was a minor event, no Jallianwala Bagh, but, based on their research, the authors went on to draw an alternative picture of the incident that was totally at odds with the contemporary accounts favored by the Raj. Over the years a fanatical skepticism has taken root in me. It is a skepticism not just of history as written by the victors, but also directed at the motives of those who betray unreasoned and intemperate attitudes toward Western accounts of India.

It is patently clear that Bingham reached out for credible source material to unearth information about his subject. My first readings were uncritical, eager as I was to take in stories that I could never have imagined in the years we were fed pap in high school. In my schoolboy consciousness the Raj had its roots in the East India Company, and the story of the Company started with Clive in the mid XVIII Century. Indian history came from text-books and was to be taken on faith. I was approaching middle-age when I discovered that I could access contemporary accounts of travelers through the centuries. I had known only of Alberuni, Ibn Batuta, Marco Polo, Fa Xian, Xuan Zang when I found antiquarian books in the stacks and vaults of the Boston and Brookline public libraries. Till then I had never heard of Duarte Barbosa, Bernier, Tavernier, Manucci and a handful of other travelers to pre-colonial India, nor the volumes of Hakluyt Society where their narratives are enshrined. Even at second hand Bingham became a vital source to me.

In my latest reading of him though, I have found him less than reliable. His biography is really a history that might be found flawed by the norms of scholarship of today. To his credit he went to various archives in London; but why didn’t he go to India? The British would surely have welcomed and paid him for his whitewash, as they did his compatriot and contemporary, the agent provocateur Katherine Mayo. He could have sought out Shafa’at Ahmad Khan, whose book, “Sources for the History of British India in the XVII Century”, kick-started Bingham’s own quest for Elihu. Undoubtedly, he would have found much material in India to augment, confirm and correlate with what he found in London. He might have gotten a feel of the country, experienced, even at arm’s length, life in the towns and villages that feature in his story. Could he not even have consulted a British map of India and provided a glossary of place names? I pored over two maps and couldn’t identify a third of the places he mentions in the arbitrary and un-phonetical spellings he merely copied off antique records. I could find on my maps no place names in the Coromandel littoral remotely approximating Conimeed, Brontispatinam, Yencatanipeets, Edelumburoo, Arramimpetts, Cheratunepolle, Jekeery, Maimra - while most of the name endings sound familiarly Tamil or Telugu, the names might as well be for villages in Brobdingnag.

Bingham thanks many people for help rendered in his research; there is not one Indian name among them. I am quite sure that there were accomplished Indians reading history in Oxbridge in the 30s; what concerns me is the thought that Bingham would not have cared to consult them. Often enough in his text he makes snide remarks about Indians of his own accord that would have been unacceptable from scholars of his day. They are gratuitous solecisms that would be branded racist today. To an Indian eye they jump off the page. One might overlook this in an Elihu, but it is unforgivable coming from Bingham. Well before his time English historians had published a trove of historical research on India. While he lists several exemplars in his bibliography it is apparent that Bingham’s reading was selective. He mentions Aurangzeb and Shivaji, but couldn’t care less about the politics of the region. Rajas, Nayaks, Poligars, Muslims, Hindus, Moghuls, Marathas make no difference to him, as though social taxonomy and administrative hierarchy were gifts the white man bore to the natives. The reader is left to fend for himself in unraveling the Byzantine political situation on the ground (India owes nothing to Byzantium in this sense).

Lastly, what do we learn about Elihu from Bingham? My latest reading informs me that the book is blatant hagiography. Much is made of small favors that Elihu extended to individuals in need and distress. On the other hand, at the slightest hint of wrongdoing on his subject’s part, the author serves up apologia as commentary, presenting convoluted and hypothetical alternative explanations. He gives credible arguments to contest the accusation of Elihu having strung up a groom for going AWOL, but my skepticism kicks in because of the numerous instances of such favorable analyses. Bingham’s constant theme is that Elihu could do no wrong, and all his detractors had an axe to grind. Besides lacking the wit to handle this quandary in a subtle way, he does not seem to know that readers are willing to empathize with deeply flawed humans when the writer coaxes them in that direction. He fails to pursue the London proceedings against Elihu in a systematic way, preferring instead to dwell on his ascent in society and on details of his wealth. Clearly, he is the wrong man to have tackled this subject. As a descendant of Protestant missionaries, a graduate of Yale, and recipient of patronage from the university, how could he possibly make a balanced assessment of the man? Then again, faced with the looming influence of the university and the Ivy-WASP establishment, who can?


This has been a case study in the failures of historiography. I doubt that anyone will make another attempt at researching and writing a serious and balanced history of Elihu Yale and his times. Who would care to fund such a project about a man who has been a minor myth for centuries already? The question is rhetorical – the answer unacceptable.

A Hakluyt Society volume of 1889 included a biographical addendum that conflated Elihu’s wife with his mistress. The historian at fault, John Anderson, published a correction elsewhere and accepted full blame for the blunder. In 1984 an eminent biographer of Mather wrote this of Elihu :

“...a London diamond merchant. ... As a young man Yale had emigrated to Madras, India, where he made a fortune. Becoming President of the East India Company, he had lived protected by several hundred guards carried on an ostrich-fan-shaded palanquin.”

Where does Kenneth Silverman get his stuff? Had he said ‘peacock’ I might have given him a B-minus. That the Yale affair gets three paragraphs in a Mather biography merits a C-minus. Instead, he got a Pulitzer Prize for his scholarship, so I don’t expect a corrigendum from him – an I grade perhaps?

The groom hanging incident is well on its way to becoming an important event in Elihu’s life. Bingham’s chapter on the case gives a creditable historian’s account. Conversely, I find Gandhi’s gratuitous mention of it reprehensible for the implied lie which is bound to be perpetuated through easy access over the Internet. The inference to be drawn from Gandhi’s compound sentence is that the “stable boy” was Indian. Not true! From Bingham’s research we know that the unfortunate fellow, Charles Cross, was English, a Company soldier who had been demoted to stable duty as punishment for theft. Upon their arrest all parties involved were duly court-martialed by the Governing Council. So much for Gandhi’s oxymoronic “private authority”! Cross was hanged, presumably for being recidivist, his companion, George Isaac, was shot for desertion, three confederates were transported to Sumatra, and two others made to “runne the Gantlett”. Bingham surmises that Elihu’s offence here lies in the severity of the sentences in light of the promise of mercy he had made to the Raja of Kanchipuram who had delivered up the two runaways. Indian readers of Gandhi’s polemic might not be disturbed by the facts Bingham unearthed; it is far more convenient to be outraged by the arbitrary hanging of an Indian stable boy.

It is a sign of our Internet obsessed times that bad information passes for the real thing, with no distinction made between the verifiable and apocrypha, between the plausible and fantasy. Everyone knows the story of the naming of the university and each wants to embellish it with his own two cents worth, thereby compounding the mess. It’s the whispering game of cyberspace. He was Governor of Fort St. George – no, the President of Madras – no, Director of the Company. The college was named for him – no, only a building – no, the name was assumed ten years later – no, he founded the university. He had one mistress – no, two, possibly more; one son by her – no, five by them. He was a Second on the Council – no, the Second Governor of Madras. He donated a bale of cloths – no, a box of precious textiles; fifty-seven books – no, hundreds; worth £567 – no, more than £800. Every article on the Internet has some or all of it wrong, or simply made up from whole cloth - sad to say that the authors might have actually benefited from reading Bingham’s hagiography.

Even Muthiah doesn’t seem to know the book even though his own history has as much to say of Yale as of Clive. However, thanks to Muthiah I now know something about the Ice House. This old government building was leased out and converted to an ice storage facility in 1845, the year Frederic Tudor of Boston began shipping ice from Boston to Madras, to be sold for an-anna-and-a-pice the pound. It was harvested at Walden Pond, a process described by Thoreau who felt compelled to add :

“The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well … The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges...”

Distant as the Ganges is from Medras and Bombay, I doubt that Thoreau cared a whit for Indian geography, preferring instead the facile fantasy.

And since we are back on Indian soil, who am I to fault the somber lady scientist for misinforming me about a building off the beach that was established as an Ice House a century and a half after Yale’s stay in Medras? She will never know how her casual remark has affected me. I sincerely hope she married well!

Guest Post by narayan

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Vinay Lal, "The Other Indians"

We finally have a pedagogically useful introductory book on the history of the South Asian American community, Vinay Lal’s The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America (see an earlier post on Vinay Lal by Abhi here). Lal’s book covers some of the same topics as Prashad's The Karma of Brown Folk but is much more heavily factual and closely researched -– it’s a work of history rather than a political polemic –- and it’s rich with useful and well-sourced statistics. If I were to ask students to read something about the history of South Asians in the U.S., say, in conjunction with a segment of a course relating to Indian immigrant fiction, I would probably assign this book.

In lieu of a comprehensive review, below are a few highlights and interesting tidbits from The Other Indians that I picked up on: Elihu Yale, early Immigration/Legal issues, Religion, and the old terminology question.

Elihu Yale

Lal's chapter on the early American relationship with India was interesting to me, specifically the account of Elihu Yale (i.e., the Yale who gave Yale University its name):

Well before Indians first began to arrive in some numbers in the United States a little before 1900, trade had brough the products of ‘East India’ –tea, spices, silk, muslin, opium—to New England homes. Salem owed its greatness to the commerce with the East . . . It is the ‘magnificent Oriental plunder’ accumulated by Elihu Yale in India, who served as a lowly clerk in the East India Company’s offices before he rose to assume charge of the Madras Presidency, that lifted a New England college founded in 1676 from the doldrums and prompted its founders to rename the college in honor of the wealthy donor. As a young boy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, later to be known as the ‘Sage of Concord’ and the leader of a group of writers and thinkers who would be characterized as the ‘Transcendentalists,’ often visited Boston’s ‘India Wharf’ which had by his time becomethe leading center of trade with China and India. Emerson confided to his journal in 1836 that everything in ‘this era’ had been made ‘subservient’ to ‘Trade,’ and ‘On us the most picturesque contrasts are crowded. We have the beautiful costume of the Hindoo and the Turk in our streets.’ (Lal, 8)

I have sometimes wondered whether folks at Yale today ever stop to think about the colonial legacy of Elihu Yale. (Is there anyone reading this who went to Yale, who's looked into it?)

The Dark Years: Bhagat Singh Thind, 1920-1940

I also found Lal’s account of the legal history of Indian-American citizens following the Asian Exclusion Act informative. After allowing a first wave of immigrants from India around the turn of the century, U.S. immigration authorities started to tighten restrictions on Indian immigrants by 1910, rejecting more and more applicants, in part because of fears about the Ghadr movement, and in part because of rising general xenophobia about immigrants from Asia. Still, prior to 1923, many Indians could get around racial restrictions by claiming to be ’Caucasian.’ In 1923, this was reversed, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Bhagat Singh Thind needed to be ‘de-naturalized’:

In early 1923, the Supreme Court heard on appeal from the Immigration Bureau the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, whose application for naturalization had been granted in the face of the Bureau’s opposition. Thind, a Caucasian of ‘high-caste Hindu’ stock ‘of full Indian blood,’ enterd the U.S. through Seattle in 1912, enrolled as a student at Berkeley in 1913, and was one of a handful of Indians who fought in World War I under the U.S. army. . . . Thind’s lawyers rested their case on the two-fold argument that, on the anthropological evidence, north Indians were Aryans and thus Caucasians, and, secondly, by judicial precedent Caucasians were to be construed as whites. Justice Sutherland took the contrary view: in the ‘understanding of the common man,’ . . . ‘white’ clearly denoted a person of European origins. ‘It may be true,’ wrote Sutherland, ‘that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity, but the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable profound differences between them today.’ The ‘Aryan theory’ had been ‘rejected by most, if not all, modern writers on the subject of ethnology,’ and the word ‘Caucasian,’ Sutherland argued, ‘is in scarcely better repute.’ (Lal, 37-38)

Funny that Judge Sutherland, in 1923, was casting doubt on the Aryan invasion theory even then. (Isn’t it strange that some people still want to believe it’s true, even today?)

Another surprise in Lal’s account is of the years subsequent to the Thind case: despite the fact that the U.S. had decided it could de-naturalize Indian immigrants who had achieved citizenship, in practice, it happened to very few people. A lawyer named Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen, successfully went to the Supreme Court in 1927, to defend his naturalization as valid, and after that de-naturalization was quite rare. The real impact of the Asian Exclusion Act and the Thind case was that Indians no longer immigrated to the U.S., and many who had already settled here decided to leave. According to the U.S. census, there were 8000 Indians in California in 1917, but only 1,476 by 1940 (Lal, 40). Throughout the entire country, there were only 2,045 self-identified Indians present in the U.S. in 1940. (Just forty years later, in 1980, the Census recorded 387,223 Indians in the U.S., and that number has of course jumped again in both 1990 and 2000.)

Religion: Hindu Temple Architecture

I also learned from Lal’s treatment of religion as it is practiced by Indian Americans. He does not ignore some of the radical religious groups, like the VHP-A. But he doesn’t obsess over them either, and he makes space for a detailed account of the complexities of Hinduism as it is actually practiced in the U.S. by ordinary people. He has, for instance, interesting details on houses of worship, referring to some of the new temples that have been built with strict adherence to architecture stipulated the Shilpa Sastras, as well as the more syncretic temples that are structured very differently than they would be in India. I thought the following was interesting, along these lines:

A large metropolitan center such as Los Angeles is home to a Murugan temple, at least two Radha Krishna temples, a Kali Mandir, a Devi Mandir, a Sanatan Dharma Mandir, a Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, a Sri Venkateswara temple, and close to a dozen other temples. The nondescript Valley Hindu Temple of Northridge, where a sizable Indian community has developed over the last two decades, is representative of the other, nonsectarian tradition of Hindu temples in the United States, insofar as the temple houses a diverse array of deities—Shiva, Ram, Krishna, Durga, Lakshmi, to name a few—and welcomes Hindus in the diaspora of all persuasions. It has sometimes been suggested that Hindus in the diaspora may be less attentive to distinctions which hold sway in India, such as those between north and south, Vaishnavites and Saivites, and so on. Whether this is partly on account of their own minority status in the U.S. is an interesting and yet unresolved question. Whether this phenomenon is as distinct as is sometimes argued is also questionable. While images of both Vishnu and Shiva are not usually housed under one roof in Hindu temples in India, and the mythological works known as the Puranas—where the history, genealogy, and worship of these gods is articulated—are exceedingly sectarian, the Puranas are less exclusive than is commonly argued. Thus, a Vaishnava Purana usually elevates Vishnu as the supreme God but still has ample room for Shiva; a Saivite Purana inverses the order. A Devi Purana, dedicated to the Goddess, will similarly render secondary the male Gods. (Lal, 73-74)

I wonder if any readers who have been to different temples around the U.S. (and perhaps also in India) might have any comments on temple construction in the U.S. vs. India. (It might seem like an obscure topic, but actually I think architecture of houses of worship says a lot about the way people practice their faiths.)

The Old Terminology Problem: Desi, South Asian, etc.

Though I think very highly of Lal’s book, his discussion of terminology did raise some questions for me at certain points. Lal eschews the word “desi,” and settles on “Indian-American,” and explains carefully why he’s doing so. I can’t reproduce all of Lal’s arguments along these lines, but the following paragraph stood out to me as an interesting (though not necessarily compelling) critique of “desi”:

Though there is no gainsaying the fact that many proponents of the term ‘desi’ similarly seek to invoke its widest and most pluralistic meanings, calling forth the shared lives of many South Asians, the term operates on many different and disjunctive registers. As I have often been reminded by an old friend from Jaisalmer, in Western Rajasthan, words such as ‘country’ mean quite different things to people from metropolitan centers and those who earn their livelihoods in India’s tens of thousands of villages and smaller towns. When my friend chances to remark ‘Hamare desh me aisa hota hai’ (‘This is how it happens in our country’), by desh he clearly means his part of the country. The observation invokes not so much the nation in the abstract, much less Bharat, but rather a frame of mind and a set of habits. The word ‘desi’ also calls to mind home-grown products: thus, for example, no that liberalization has opened the Indian market to a whole array of foreign goods, including Western/hybrid varieties of fruits and vegetables, one hears often of the contrast between foreign vegetables and those branded ‘desi’—the latter being small and (in common belief) much more palatable to the taste than foreign varieties. There is, it appears to me, something unsettling and certainly odd about the fact that the most enthusiastic proponents of the word ‘desi’ are precisely those diasporic Indians who, in many ways, have least claim to the word and its multiple inheritances, considering their location in metropolitan centers of thought and their immense distance from local and vernacular knowledge systems. For these reasons among many, I have, except in a few particular instances, eschewed the word ‘desi’ when speaking of Indian Americans. (Lal, xi)

I understand Lal’s reasoning, though I don’t think it’s necessarily always a mark against "desi" that many people who use the term are diasporic, and perhaps less connected to South Asian culture. I don't think the variations in the way "desi" (and videsi and pardesi) is used within northern India necessarily make the diasporic deployment of it less true within its context. Language can change.

Later, Lal also addresses the term "South Asian American," and introduces some concerns about it that will be familiar to readers of the endless debates over terminology that have taken place on Sepia Mutiny over the years (to wit: the problem of tokenizing or ignoring ‘smaller’ countries in South Asia; the fact that few people outside of secular/progressive communities would actually identify themselves primarily as “South Asian”; the confusion of South Asia with Southeast Asia; the difficulties of limiting South Asia geographically, with Afghanistan on the west and Burma on the east, etc.).

[Incidentally, I also address the terminology question in this published essay.]

Again, while the problems with the term "South Asian" (or "South Asian American") are real, they are not insurmountable, and Lal’s reasons for electing not to use the term were not entirely convincing to me. In the end, he seems to settle on "Indian American" because, "it appears to me to best do justice to those people who are the subject of this book." In effect, it seems to me that Lal may have decided for practical reasons to focus primarily on immigrants from India in particular as the subject of his book, and some of his arguments about the problems with the term “South Asian” (or “South Asian American”) might be beside the point.

That said, The Other Indians is a great read and a very helpful book overall.

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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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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shivaji: Beyond the Legend

The following post was inspired by the news last week that the government of Maharasthra is planning to build a huge statue of Shivaji off the coast of Bombay (that's right, I said Bombay), on the scale of the American statue of liberty. The statue will be built off-shore, on an artificial island constructed especially for the purpose.

I'm not actually opposed to the idea of the statue -- as far as I'm concerned, it's all part of the great, entertaining tamasha of modern Bombay -- though obviously I think there could be some other figures from Indian culture and history who might also be worth considering (how about a 300 foot bust of a glowering Amitabh Bachchan, for instance?). But reading the news did make me curious to know some things about the historical Shivaji that go beyond the hagiographical myths and legends one sees on Wikipedia, so I went to the library and looked at a book I had been meaning to look at for a couple of years, James Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (Oxford, 2003).

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In 2004, James Laine became a target of the Hindu right after the publication of his book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, but as is often the case the people burning down libraries, and destroying priceless works of India's cultural heritage, clearly did not read the book. If one actually reads Laine's work, one finds that Laine is quite careful not to frontally challenge the myth of Chatrapati Shivaji, the 17th century Maratha warrior. Indeed, there is much there that actually supports the pride that many Maharasthrians feel about Shivaji.

The conclusions Laine comes to after surveying the evidence on Shivaji were surprising to me. Though I obviously came to the book looking for objectivity as an antidote to the bloated mythology loudly propagated by the Shiv Sena, I presumed that "objectivity" and "secularism" would be more or less synonymous. The reality may be somewhat more complex in Shivaji’s case. Though he’s clearly not quite what his partisans believe he was, Shivaji’s story remains inspiring and heroic even after some scholarly scrutiny. And though he was more secular than many Hindu chauvinists will admit, Shivaji certainly did pointedly assert his identity as a Hindu and promote symbolic elements of Hindu religion and culture against the increasingly intolerant imposition of Islam during the Mughal empire under Aurangzeb and the final years of the Bijapur Sultanate (see Adil Shah).

Here is how Laine describes his project near the beginning of the book:

The task I have set myself is not that of providing a more accurate account of Shivaji’s life by stripping away the legends attributed to him by worshipful myth makers or misguided ideologues, but rather to be a disturber of the tranquility with which synthetic accounts of Shivaji’s life are accepted, mindful that the recording and retaining of any memory of Shivaji is interested knowledge. . . . In the modern popular imagination, many of [the different strands of the Shivaji story] are woven together and reproduced in both bland textbooks and dramatic popular accounts as though the simple facts can be taken for granted. In other words, the dominance of a certain grand narrative of Shivaji’s life is so powerful that the particular concerns of its many authors have been largely erased. (8)

The scholarly debunker is sometimes a powerful ally in ascertaining the often complex and nuanced truth behind historical legends, but in this book Laine doesn’t see confrontational debunking as his primary task. Rather, he wants to get back to the fundamentals of the Shivaji story (i.e., what can be objectively known based on primary historical sources), before following the path of the revisionist, nationalist, patriotic remaking of that story through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Laine starts by looking directly at the 17th century sources (in Sanskrit and Marathi) written by those who were close to Shivaji himself.

The primary texts he works with were written in Marathi and Sanskrit, both of which are languages in which Laine is proficient. Afzal Khan Vadh (“The Killing of Afzal Khan”) is a series of Marathi heroic ballads, authored by a poet alternately known as Agrindas or Ajnandas in 1659 (while Shivaji was still alive). Two other primary sources cited by Laine are written in Sanskrit, by Brahmin authors who were commissioned directly by Shivaji himself: the Sivabharata (or Shivabharata), an epic poem written by Kavindra Paramananda in 1674 (at the time of Shivaji’s coronation as "Chatrapati" – Lord of the Umbrella/Umbralla-Lord), and the Srisivaprabhuce, a historical chronicle written by Krishnaji Anant Sabhasad, in 1697.

The first surprise is that there’s little reason to doubt the best-known aspects of the Shivaji legend: the three works are surprisingly consistent with one another, especially regarding Shivaji’s childhood and upbringing, his emergence as a warrior with the killing of Afzal Khan, the punishment of Shaista Khan, the escape from Aurangzeb’s court at Agra, and the conquest of Simhagad in 1670. The most significant “humanizing” point Laine makes (and this is also one of the major sources of controversy) is his suggestion, late in his book, that Shivaji’s parents seem to have been estranged from one another –- Shivaji was brought up by his mother in one principality, while his father was a soldier for another, rival kingdom, who left before Shivaji was born. (Later hagiography would smooth over this aspect of the history, suggesting that Shivaji’s father sent him and his mother to Pune as part of a great plan.) The point of raising this is not to "take Shivaji down a notch" or find shame or scandal in the story. Rather, from my point of view at least, humanizing Shivaji in this way gives us a certain (modern) psychological explanation for why Shivaji was so driven as an adult: he had something to prove.

The second surprise for me is Laine’s acknowledgment that all the evidence supports the idea that Shivaji was assertive about Hindu religion and culture. It’s still wrong to use him symbolically as some kind of nationalist Hindu "freedom-fighter," who devoted his life to killing mleccha invaders (for Laine, it’s more correct to say that Shivaji was a kingdom-builder). But it’s also not accurate to say that religion is somehow completely irrelevant to his story. This comes out first with reference to Shivaji’s coronation in 1674:

One important moment for the construction of an official biography was surely the grand event of Shivaji’s coronation. For the last decade of his life, he was relatively free of Mughal pressure, and in 1674, was enthroned chatrapati of an independent Hindu kingdom in an orthodox lustration ceremony (abhisheka). The ceremony, which had fallen out of use in Islamicate India, was seen as a revival of royal Hindu traditions. In other words, there is clear evidence that at the end of his career Shivaji began to think in new ways about his exercise of military and political power, ways that drew upon ancient symbols of Hindu kingship. He called upon a prominent pundit from Benares, Gaga Bhatta, to establish his genealogy and claim of true kshatriya status before investing him with the sacred thread, performing an orthodox wedding, and then a royal lustration ceremony of enthronement. At this time, Shivaji lavished great wealth on all the Brahmins who were gathered to confer legitimacy, and he employed two poets to write laudatory epic poems about him. On was Paramananda, whom we have mentioned as the author of the Sanskrit Sivabharata, a text that is clearly composed for the coronation though never finished . . . The second was Kavi Bhusan, who wrote the Sivarajabhusan in the Braj dialect of Hindi. (30)

And Laine expands upon the implications of his interpretation of the coronation a few pages later:

Shivaji himself, growing up in Pune, at that time a remote and insignifican town far away from the Bijapuri court, was unlike his father and grandfather in being not only less content to be in vassalage to a Muslim sultan but also concerned to extend the scope of Hindu culture. Moreover, he dealt with sultans who adopted a more rigorous religious policy than their predecessors. I would argue that his elaborate Sanskritic coronation, his choice of Sanskrit rather than Persian titles for his ministers, and his patronage of Brahmin pundits . . . are all signs that he wished to extend the boundaries in which his religion reigned, not so much geographically as socially and politically. These may have been gestures of legitimation, but he could very well have chosen better-known Persianate ways of achieving the same end.

In other words, Shivaji was raised at some distance from what Laine is describing as the "Islamicate" culture dominant in north and central India in the 17th century. He also clearly went out of his way to assert Hindu/Sanskritic symbols during his rule, when that was not the norm, even for other Hindu kings of the time.

Laine continues:

This is to say that Shivaji was not only discontended with the idea of being Islamic, he was discontented with even being Islamicate, that is, he read his religion not as a strict constructionist or in purely theological or essentialist ways, but saw religion as broadly diffuse throughout culture. We might say that he saw ‘religion’ as dharma. Thus, although Richard Eaton has emphasized the new Islamic rigorism in the Adil Shahi regime after 1656, a rigorism that parallels the later policies of Aurangzeb (Eaton 1978), I would say that Shivaji was similarly disposed to see Hindu and Muslim subcultures —- not just theologies -- as distinct. There would be constraints on Shivaji’s religious agenda, as there were for Aurangzeb of course, and there were ways in which Shivaji was not wholly consistent in his Hindu policy. For example, he wore Persian royal dress and used words such as faqir and salaam quite unself-consciously, as well s being qt times quite willing to accept vassalage to the Adil Shah or Mughal emperor. But I would have to disagree with Stewart Gordon, who has written: ‘Shivaji was not attempting to construct a universal Hindu rule. Over and over, he espoused tolerance and syncretism. He even called on Aurangzeb to act like Akbar in according respect to Hindu believes and places. Shivaji had no difficulty in allying with Muslim states which surrounded him… even against Hindu powers" (Gordon 1993). I do not think I am disputing the evidence Gordon adduces, but my interpretation depends on how one uses the word ‘Hindu.’ (39)

This is a more complicated set of academic arguments, relating to how one interprets the idea of "religion" in an earlier historic moment, outside of Abrahamic norms. Putting it quite simply: to see Hindu religion as "diffuse throughout culture" doesn’t necessarily weaken it; rather, it was one of the ways Shivaji could find a new way of asserting it against the dominant powers of the time.

Secondly, Laine is arguing that though it’s wrong to read Shivaji as a kind of proto-communalist, it’s also a mistake to see him as someone who primarily espoused "tolerance and syncretism." He was actually somewhere in between.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rushdie @ Google

Last week I was in New York for just a few hours, accompanying some family members who had a chore at the Canadian Consulate. My three hour visit to the city happened to coincide with Salman Rushdie's reading at the New York corporate office of Google, on 8th Ave, so I left my family members to fend for themselves for an hour, and hopped on the A/C/E. I'm related to someone who works in the office, so even though I am a bearded English professor, I was able to enter the Googleplex for lunch (at their legendary cafeteria), and see the reading at this unusual venue.

First of all, the turnout was striking, considering that this is an office comprised mainly of software engineers and sales/marketing people working for an internet search/advertising giant. The auditorium within the office was full, with about 200 people -- about what you might expect to see at a college or university with an English department. Quite a number of people had copies of Rushdie's new novel with them. In short, Googlers read.

Second, the reading was being teleconferenced live with three other Google offices, which you could see on a screen projected behind Rushdie's head. (By contrast, when we have readings at Lehigh, we have enough trouble just getting the microphones to work...)

Third, in keeping with Google's "do your thing" office environment, there was a bright red exercise ball just hanging out on the floor of the auditorium, about 10 feet from the podium. It was unclear to me whether it was there as a seating option, or simply as decoration (the bright red goes well with the Google office's bright, "primary colors" palette).

Rushdie himself tailored his comments to his environment quite nicely, reinforcing my impression of Rushdie as a demi-God of public speaking engagements.

First and foremost, Rushdie acknowledged the role that search engines and the internet in general have come to play for him as he researches and writes his books. The new book, The Enchantress of Florence, is a historical novel set in the Early Modern period (the time of Akbar the Great in India). The idea of the book is to link the cultural and historical milieu of Akbar's India to Europe in the Renaissance, using an abducted Indian princess who ends up in Florence.

While earlier, the internet "had a lot of breadth, but not a lot of depth," Rushdie said, now there are major resources available for serious scholars, who earlier might have had to travel to several research libraries to gain access to rare historical documents.

Rushdie did a fair amount of research online for the project, and for the first time, he decided he needed to include a bibliography of web sites along with the extensive bibliography of books he consulted while writing the new novel.

Some of the websites he mentioned are: Persian Literature in Translation (where you can find the Akbar-Nama, Akbar's Regulations, and Muntakhab ut-tawarikh), Gardens of the Mughal Empire, and Richard Von Garbe's Akbar, Emperor of India.

Rushdie also talked a bit about the way in which the growing availability of information about world history in the internet might transform how we think about history. Again he was in some sense talking to the employees at Google: "though you are all people interested in the future," the kind of work being done by companies like Google has a significant potential to transform contemporary understandings of the past.

An audience member asked the question, along the lines of, "what could we at Google do to make your job easier?" and in response Rushdie mentioned his reservations about the digitization of in-copyright literary works that has been part of the Books.Google.com project. He wasn't opposed to digitizing current books in principle, but argued that it has to be done in a way so as to make sure that authors are fairly compensated for their works. (Otherwise, he stated, rather direly, "it could destroy the publishing industry.") In my experience using Books.Google.com, the "snippets" view seems to work quite well to limit access to in-copyright texts, so perhaps Rushdie was being overly alarmist here.

As for the novel itself, Rushdie managed to convey a lot about what he's up to in The Enchantress of Florence without actually reading an excerpt. The anecdotes about "Angelica" in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Akbar's sacrificed sister, and the gay culture of Renaissance Florence, all piqued my curiosity, anyway.

At the end of the reading, I dutifully took my copy of The Enchantress of Florence up to the author for signing, and was pleased that, for once, I wouldn't have to spell out my name.

(As for my thoughts about the new book -- wait just a bit. I'm about 60 pages into the novel, and enjoying what I'm reading thus far. The story he published in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, The Shelter of the World, is part of the new book, so if you liked that you might enjoy the new novel as a whole.)

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Friday, April 11, 2008

"Satyagraha," by Phillip Glass

The New York Times has a behind-the-scenes look at a new version of Phillip Glass's modernist opera, "Satyagraha," which is playing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York until May 1. There is also a companion video piece, which I could watch but not listen to from the computer I'm working on this morning.

The libretto uses the Bhagavad-Gita as a source, and the opera as a whole aims to index some of the key events in Gandhi's early political awakening in South Africa with the plot and text of the Gita. That alone might be a little confusing, since the central question facing Arjuna in the Gita, as most readers will know, is whether or not to fight -- and Gandhi's signature political contribution ("Satyagraha") is the philosophy of non-violent resistance. The choice could of course be defended depending on your interpretation of the Gita, and indeed, I gather that Gandhi did his own translation -- with commentary -- of the Bhagavad-Gita in 1924. I haven't read Gandhi's version, though I should note that it has recently been re-published as a volume called Bhagavad-Gita According to Gandhi.

The current interpretation of Glass's work adds some new elements, including a strong focus on newsprint and newspaper culture as a theme in Gandhi's story (that at least seems dead-on). There are also towering puppets, made of "newspaper, fiberglass kite poles, light cotton cloth and lots of latex glue," which symbolize historical figures from Gandhi's past (Tolstoy), present, and future (MLK).

It seems like an interesting work, though I have to admit I'm not sure I personally would enjoy it. (And most tickets under $100 have already been sold out, so it's not something where a person would go casually...) Has anyone seen this? Is anyone planning to?

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Language-Based States (Guha Chapter 9)

[Part of an ongoing series on Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's entry can be found here. Next week, we will look at Chapter 10, "The Conquest of Nature," on India's approach to development and the modernization of agriculture.]

Guha's Chapter 9, "Redrawing the Map," is about the early phase in the movement to establish language-based states, with particular emphasis on the south (the creation of Andhra Pradesh out of what was formerly the state of Madras), the status of Bombay vis a vis Maharashtra, and the delineation of Punjab.

As Guha points out, though reorganizing states according to language was part of the Congress plank from the 1930s, after Independence/Partition, both Nehru and Sardar Patel were strongly opposed to rushing into any reorganization of states, especially if there was a danger that such reorganizations could lead to the destabilization of the union. The logic behind this hesitation was understandable and quite sound: if the idea of "India" could be broken along the lines of religion, why not also language?

The first new state to be created along the lines of language was Andhra Pradesh, and this was largely due to the hunger strike of Gandhian activist and Telugu leader Potti Sriramulu, who is another one of those great, largely forgotten (well, forgotten outside of Andhra Pradesh at least) "characters" from post-independence Indian history who probably should be better known than he is:

Sriramulu was born in Madras in 1901, and studied sanitary engineering before taking a job with the railroads. In 1928 he suffered a double tragedy, when his wife died along with their newborn child. Two years later he resigned his position to join the Salt Satyagraha. Later, he spent some time at Gandhi's Sabarmati ashram. Later still, he spent eighteen months in jail as part of the individual Satyagraha campaign of 1940-41. . . .

Gandhi did regard Sriramulu with affection but also, it must be said, with a certain exasperation. On 25 November 1946 the disciple had beugn a fast unto death to demand the opening of all temples in Madras province to untouchables. Other congressmen, their minds more focused on the impending freedom of India, urged him to desist. . . .

Potti Sriramulu had called off that fast of 1946 at Gandhi's insistence. But in 1952 he Mahatma was dead; and in any case, Andhra meant more to Sriramulu than the untouchables once had. This fast he would carry out till the end, or until the government of India relented.

Potti Sriramulu died of his hunger strike on December 15, 1952. Three days later, Nehru announced that the formation of the state of Andhra out of the eleven Telugu-speaking districts of Madras.

Of course, with Andhra the reorganization was just beginning. Three years later, the national States Reorganization Committee announced a number of other changes. In the south, the job was easy, as there were four clear language regions (Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam) that could be allocated their own states.

In Bombay, the situation was more complicated, as the Marathi-speakers in Bombay comprised a plurality (43%) but not a majority of the city's residents as of 1955. Moreover, the economically dominant ethnic communities of Bombay -- especially Gujaratis -- strongly resisted the idea of making Bombay part of a Marathi-speaking state. However, following growing unrest and a series of "language riots" (memorably described in Rushdie's Midnight's Children), this merger eventually did happen in 1960, as Bombay was declared the capital of the new state of Maharashtra. (Suketu Mehta's book, Maximum City, has a lot more on how language and ethnicity politics have evolved in Bombay over the years -- warts and all.)

This Guha chapter doesn't detail how things would play out later in Punjab, where the Sikhs' early demand for a Punjabi-language state was denied by the States Reorganization Committee in 1955. (Sikhs have always anecdotally blamed this failure on the census of 1951, where Punjabi-speaking Hindus by and large described their primary language as "Hindi," confusing matters greatly.) When reorganization eventually did occur in Punjab in 1966, it caused lots of other problems, some of which would lead to a resurgent Akali movement, and eventually to the rise of Sikh separatism in the 1970s.

Partly as a result of what happened in Punjab (and we'll get to that in a few chapters), Guha's rather easy acceptance the language reorganization movements seems a bit glib to me:

When it began, the movement for linguistic states generated deep apprehensions among the nationalist elite. They feared it would lead to the balkanization of India, to the creation of many more Pakistans. 'Any attempt at redrawing the map of India on the linguistic basis,' wrote the Times of India in February 1952, 'would only give the long awaited opportunity to the reactionary forces to come into the open and assert themselves. That will lay an axe to the very root of India's integrity.'

In retrospect, however, linguistic reorganization seems rather to have consolidated the unity of India. True, the artifacts that have resulted, such as Bangalore's Vidhan Souda, are not to everybody's taste. And there have been some serious conflicts between states over the sharing of river waters. However, on the whole the creation of linguistic states has acted as a largely constructive channel for provincial pride. It has proved quite feasible to be peaceably Kannadiga, or Tamil, or Oriya--as well as contentedly Indian. (207-208)

Guha's premise that language-based politics works somewhat differently from the politics of religious communalism seems right to me. The latter seems inevitably divisive (and almost always destructive), while the former seems to have had several positive benefits (especially as it has led to support for regional literatures and the arts). And it's also clear that the reorganization along linguistic lines didn't lead to what was feared, "the creation of many more Pakistans."

But isn't it still true that the language-based politics that led to the creation of new states starting in the 1950s has also led state governments to certain excesses along linguistic/ethnic lines? Two such excesses might include the renaming of Bombay as 'Mumbai', and the recent renaming of Bangalore as 'Bengluru'. I'm also concerned about the language-based "reservations" that exist in some states, favoring the dominant ethno-linguistic community over other ethnic groups (though I admit I am not a specialist on this latter issue). Now that the states have been permanently established, is the perpetuation of language-based politics really that benign?

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Non-Aligned Nehru (Guha Chapter 8)

[Part of an ongoing series on Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's entry can be found here. Next week we will look at Chapter 9, "Redrawing the Boundaries," on the Language Movements of the 1950s]

With 20-20 hindsight, many people criticize Nehru today for pursuing a foreign policy oriented to "nonalignment" -- that is, independence from both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Here is one of Nehru's most famous statements articulating that policy, from a speech given at Columbia University:

"The main objectives of that policy are: the pursuit of peace, not through alignment with any major power or group of powers but through an independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue, the liberation of subject peoples, the maintenance of freedom, both national and individual, the elimination of racial discrimination and the elimination of want, disease and ignorance, which afflict the greater part of the world's population."

The idealism in that statement is admirable, and still worth thinking about, even if the world order has changed dramatically since Nehru first uttered these words. The idea of taking an "independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue" is one I personally strive for as a writer, and may be something that would in my view serve as a helpful corrective to many partisan ideologues -- on both the left and the right -- who tend to only see the world through one particular ideological filter or the other.

Ideals aside, Nehru's government did make some serious mistakes in foreign policy in the first few years. One of the significant failures Guha mentions in this chapter involved an inconsistency in the response to two international crises: 1) Anglo-French military action in response to Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 (the Suez Crisis), and 2) the Soviet invasion of Hungary following an anti-Communist uprising, also in 1956 (the Hungarian Revolution). India publicly condemned the first act of aggression by western powers, but not the second, which today seems like a clear indication that India was leaning towards the Soviets more than it let on.

Guha suggests there were some internal differences between Nehru and the famous leftist Krishna Menon, who represented India at the U.N., over the Hungary question. Nehru publicly defended Menon's abstention at the U.N. on the resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but privately he was deeply upset about the invasion. Part of the problem here might have been Nehru's lack of clarity over the correct course to take, but certainly Krishna Menon's independent streak must have been a factor as well.

A similar kind of diplomatic confusion was present in India's relationship with China starting in 1950. Here, the Indian ambassador to China, K.N. Panikkar (who is also very well-known as a historian), seems to have fatally misread Mao Zedong and the personality of Chinese communism:

In May 1950 Panikkar was granted an interview with Mao Zedong, and came away greatly impressed. Mao's face, he recalled later, was 'pleasant and benevolent and the look in his eyes is kindly.' There 'is no cruelty or hardness either in his eyes or in the expression of his mouth. In fact he gave me the impression of a philosophical mind, a little dreamy but absolutely sure of itself.' The Chinese leader had 'experienced many hardships and endured tremendous sufferings,' yet 'his face showed no signs of bitterness, cruelty, or sorrow.' Mao reminded Panikkar of his own boss, Nehru, for 'both are men of action with dreamy, idealistic temperaments,' and both 'may be considered humanists in the broadest sense of the term.' (176)

And here is Guha's explanation of the failure:

This would be laughable if it were not so serious. Intellectuals have always been strangely fascinated by powerful men; George Bernard Shaw wrote about Lenin in much the same terms. Yet Shaw was an unaffiliated writer, responsible only to himself. Panikkar was the official representative of his government. What he said and believed would carry considerable weight. And here he was representing one of history's most ruthless dictators as dreamy, soft, and poetic. (176)

I think Guha has it right on here -- and as a side note, this observation about intellectuals who misread charismatic leaders is intriguing. (Are there other examples you can think of?)

Within the Indian administration, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel at least did see the danger posed by the Chinese, and in November 1950 -- just after the Chinese invaded and annexed Tibet -- he wrote Nehru a strongly-worded letter to that effect. In hindsight, Sardar Patel's letter seems incredibly prescient, as it anticipates in some sense the Sino-Indian war of 1962, as well as some of the secessionist movements that continue to plague India along its northeastern border to this very day. The letter is posted in its entirety here, and it is well worth reading. Following are some long extracts:

The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intention. My own feeling is that at a crucial period they managed to instill into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means. There can be no doubt that during the period covered by this correspondence the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet. The final action of the Chinese, in my judgement, is little short of perfidy. The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence. From the latest position, it appears that we shall not be able to rescue the Dalai Lama. Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions. As the External Affairs Ministry remarked in one of their telegrams, there was a lack of firmness and unnecessary apology in one or two representations that he made to the Chinese Government on our behalf. It is impossible to imagine any sensible person believing in the so-called threat to China from Anglo-American machinations in Tibet. Therefore, if the Chinese put faith in this, they must have distrusted us so completely as to have taken us as tools or stooges of Anglo-American diplomacy or strategy. This feeling, if genuinely entertained by the Chinese in spite of your direct approaches to them, indicates that even though we regard ourselves as the friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends. (link)

One of the really tragic consequences of the Indian failure to read Chinese intentions correctly at this point is the impact it would have on Tibet and its ancient culture -- which would later be marked by the Chinese for forcible merger into the mainstream of China. It's not India's fault, of course -- it is China's fault -- but one does wonder if things might have played out differently had Nehru played his cards differently, or if someone other than K.N. Panikkar had been ambassador at the time.

More from Sardar Patel's letter:

In the background of this, we have to consider what new situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, as we knew it, and the expansion of China almost up to our gates. Throughout history we have seldom been worried about our north-east frontier. The Himalayas have been regarded as an impenetrable barrier against any threat from the north. We had a friendly Tibet which gave us no trouble. The Chinese were divided. . . . China is no longer divided. It is united and strong. All along the Himalayas in the north and north-east, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids. The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to the Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of the potential trouble between China and ourselves.Recent and bitter history also tells us that Communism is no shield against imperialism and that the communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other. Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side but also include the important part of Assam. They have their ambitions in Burma also. Burma has the added difficulty that it has no McMahon Line round which to build up even the semblance of an agreement. Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lie concealed racial, national or historical claims. The danger from the north and north-east, therefore, becomes both communist and imperialist. (link)

And finally, Patel assesses the potential impact on the various border regions, all of whom are in some sense in a gray area ethnically and nationally with regards to China and India:

Let us also consider the political conditions on this potentially troublesome frontier. Our northern and north-eastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal areas in Assam. From the point of view of communication, there are weak spots. Continuous defensive lines do not exist. There is almost an unlimited scope for infiltration. Police protection is limited to a very small number of passes. There, too, our outposts do not seem to be fully manned. The contact of these areas with us is by no means close and intimate. The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices. During the last three years, we have not been able to make any appreciable approaches to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam. European missionaries and other visitors had been in touch with them, but their influence was in no way friendly to India or Indians. In Sikkim, there was political ferment some time ago. It is quite possible that discontent is smouldering there. Bhutan is comparatively quiet, but its affinity with Tibetans would be a handicap. Nepal has a weak oligarchic regime based almost entirely on force: it is in conflict with a turbulent element of the population as well as with enlightened ideas of the modern age. In these circumstances, to make people alive to the new danger or to make them defensively strong is a very difficult task indeed and that difficulty can be got over only by enlightened firmness, strength and a clear line of policy. (link)

From earlier posts on Guha's book, I know there are many readers who feel frustrated with Nehru's foreign policy errors from the 1950s and 60s. To some extent I'm inclined to be forgiving; things were happening very fast, and there really was no historical precedent for what Mao did with Communist China. Some of Nehru's close associates from the Nationalist movement (i.e., Krishna Menon) were oriented to Marxism/Communism as part of their anti-Imperialist intellectual orientation.

Sardar Patel, on the other hand, was able to reverse the prevalent orthodoxy, and see -- clearly and, as we now know, correctly -- that Communism could potentially be as ruthlessly "Imperial" an ideology as European colonialism itself. In effect, he was one of the few politicians of his era who was actually able to perform in practice ("an independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue") the values that Nehru preached in his speeches.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Diversity in the Indian Constitution (Guha Chapter 6)

[Part of an ongoing series on Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's entry can be found here. Next week we will skip a chapter, and go directly to Chapter 8, "Home and the World," which explains how India evolved its "non-aligned" status.]

I've actually written a longish post on the idea of "secularism" in the Indian constitution in the past, but of course there's more to say. The entire proceedings (more than 1000 pages of text!) of the Constituent Assembly have been posted online by the Indian Parliament here. Guha's account comes out of reading through those proceedings, and is also deeply influenced by Granville Austin's classic book, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, which is still, as I understand it, the definitive book on the subject.

As many readers may be aware, the Indian Constitution was worked out over the course of three years (1946-1949), by a Constituent Assembly that contained 300 members, including representation by religious minorities, members of marginal groups (i.e., Adivasis), as well as a small but vocal group of women.

Three of the profound disagreements that the members of the Assembly had to resolve included: 1) the proper role of Gandhian philosophy in defining the new nation, 2) the question of "reservations" for Dalits and Tribals (Scheduled Castes and Tribes), and 3) the status of Indian languages, and the idea of an "official" language.

1. Panchayats.

Let's start with the question of the Gandhian idea of village panchayats, which was essentially rejected by the Constituent Assembly in favor of a strong, modern, centralized government. The lead voice in rejecting the Panchayat system was of course the Dalit lawyer and political figure B.R. Ambedkar. Here is Guha:

Some people advocated a 'Gandian constitution,' based on a revived panchayat raj system, with the village as the basic unit of politics and governance. This was sharply attacked by B.R. Ambedkar, who held that 'these village republics have been the ruination of India.' Ambedkar was 'surprised that those who condemn Provincialism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?'

These remarks provoked outrage in some quarters. The socialist H.V. Kamath dismissed Ambedkar's attitude as 'typical of the urban highbrow.' The peasant leader N.G. Ranga said that Ambedkar's comments showed his ignorance of Indian history. 'All the democratic traditions of our country [have] been lost on him. If he had only known the achievements of the village panchayats in Southern India over a period of a millenium, he would not have said those things.' However, the feisty female member of the United Provinces, Begum Aizaz Rasul, 'entirely agreed' with Amdedkar. As she saw it, the 'modern tendency is towards the rights of the citizen as against any corporate body and village panchayats can be very autocratic.' (119)

(Incidentally, the entire text of Ambedkar's speech is at the Parliament of India website, here. Go check it out -- it's a fascinating document.)

I know that there are still neo-Gandhian thinkers out there who value highly decentralized government as a way of preventing tyranny. And it has to be admitted since independence, the Indian "Centre" has often overstepped its bounds, culminating perhaps in Indira Gandhi's 1975 "Emergency" (many other instances could be mentioned).

But the fact that the most prominent Dalit representative and one of the most prominent women in the Assembly saw the "village" as a site of backwardness and repression, not liberation, cannot simply be ignored. They saw the move to centralization -- and a focus on individual, rather than group or "corporate" rights -- as a necessary step towards nudging Indian society towards caste and gender equality.

In my view, it's a remarkable thing that the Indian Constitution essentially rejected Gandhian thinking, especially given how powerful Gandhi's ideas and political methods had been in achieving the state of independence that led to the writing of this Constitution to begin with. But it may be that Gandhi had too much faith that people were going to be good to one another, and even in 1948 itself some members of the Assembly were aware that something stronger than mere idealism would be required to guarantee the rights of the disenfranchised.

2. Reservations.

Reservations is a huge topic, one that I can't possibly deal with in a very substantive way right now (see this Wikipedia page for a brief tutorial). Suffice it to say that when the Constitution was ratified in 1950, it contained reservations for Scheduled Caste (SC) and Tribe (ST) groups in Parliament and State Assemblies, but not for what were known as "Other Backward Castes" (OBCs), though reservations for those groups would be recommended later. (And this latter question became a hot issue yet again in 2006, though as far as I know the recommendation for national OBC reservations in Indian higher education has not yet been implemented.)

Guha's brief account of the debate over this question focuses on an Adivasi (tribal) political figure I hadn't heard of, Jaipal Singh from Chotanagpur in the southern part of Bihar. Jaipal Singh had been sent by missionaries to study at Oxford, where he became a star at field hockey, and indeed, won a gold medal in the sport in 1928. In the Constituent Assembly, he made the following remarkable speech:

As a jungli, as an Adibasi, I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Resolution. But my common sense tells me that every one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6000 years. The history of the Indus Velley civilization, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the newcomers--most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned--it is the newcomers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastness. . . . The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter in of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.

You can see the anger and the pain -- but also the impressive willingnes to turn a new page, and cooperate fully in an "independent India where there is equality of opportunity."

3. "Hindi imperialism."

Finally, one of the most divisive questions of all was the status of English vis a vis Indian languages. At the moment of independence, it's not surprising that a large number of participants in the Constituent Assembly found it galling that the proceedings were occurring largely in English, and some were insistent that the Indian constitution be "primarily" written in Hindi. There was also a strong movement to make Hindi India's national language, which was of course rejected.

The simple truth is that there is no one, universal Indian language, and the people who were insisting that Hindi should be become that language had to give way, or risk provoking separatist sentiments from South Indians. Guha quotes one particular figure, T.T. Krishnamachari of Madras, along those line:

We disliked the English language in the past. I disliked it because I was forced to learn Shakespeare and Milton, for which I had no taste at all. . . . [I]f we are going to be compelled to learn Hindi . . . I would perhaps not be able to do it because of my age, and perhaps I would not be willing to do it because of the amount of constraint you put on me. . . . This kind of intolerance makes us fear that the strong Centre which we need, a strong Centre which is necessary will mean the enslavement of people who do not speak the language of the Centre. I would, Sir, convey a warning on behalf of people of the South for the reason that there are already elements in South India who want separation. . . , and my honorable friends in U.P. do not help us in any way by flogging their idea [of] 'Hindi Imperialism' to the maximum extent possible. Sir, it is up to my friends in U.P. to have a whole India; it is up to them to have a Hindi-India. The choice is theirs. (131)

What's interesting about this for me is the way it already shows the contradictions in the desire to have a strongly centralized government -- it can't be done easily in a country with such strong regional language traditions.

For more on how "official language" questions in India have evolved since the writing of the Constitution, see this Wikipedia entry.

People have lots of complaints about the Indian Constitution -- it's ridiculously long, for one thing, and punted on several highly controversial questions (one of them being language, the other being the "Uniform Civil Code"). People who dislike caste reservations also often cite the Constituent Assembly as in effect the starting point for a system they feel has spiraled out of control.

But what I think is impressive about this process is the strong attempt made to include as many of India's diverse voices as possible, without sacrificing a vision of effective centralized government. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution may be clearer and simpler, but it was written exclusively by property-holding white men who all spoke a single language (early America was actually much more linguistically diverse than people think). Native Americans were not invited, though in fact this was their land before the colonists came. Women were not invited, nor were African Americans. Despite its flaws, India's Constitution did a much better job at defining the new nation inclusively than America's did.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Displaced People, Especially Women (Guha Chapter 5)

(Part four in an ongoing series dedicated to Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's post can be found here. Next week we will look at chapter six, on the Constituent Assembly and the writing of India's constitution. )

There are lots of interesting bits in Guha's fifth chapter, on the resettlement of refugees scattered across India after Partition. The part I will focus on in particular is the status of women who were abducted, forcibly married, and then forcibly returned to their families. But to begin with, here are some general facts on the displaced people who ended up in India:

  • Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of refugees in Punjab were temporarily housed in camps. The largest of these was at Kurukshetra, where there were some 300,000 refugees. Over time, a major land redistribution effort was initiated, so that farmers who had been displaced from land in Pakistan were granted land in India. More than 500,000 claims were processed through this effort. (According to Guha, the effort worked, by and large; withing a few years, many displaced Punjabis from farming villages were back at work on new lands.)

  • Nearly 500,000 refugees ended up in Delhi, fundamentally changing the character of the city. Some settled in outer districts like Faridabad, while others were given land immediately to the south and west of New Delhi. Many of Delhi's new residents thrived in trade, and came to hold a "commanding influence" over the economic life of the city.

  • About 500,000 refugees also ended up in Bombay, including a large number of Sindhis. Here resettlement did not go as well, and Guha states that 1 million people were sleeping in the streets (even in the early 1950s).

  • 400,000 refugees came into West Bengal during and immediately after the Partition, but another 1.7 million Hindus left East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) following communal riots there in 1949-50. At least 200,000 ended up in desperate straits in "squatter colonies" in Calcutta, where the refugees effectively overwhelmed the city. Conditions here were much worse than they were in Delhi or in the resettlement camps in the Punjab. The government may have been slow to respond because it presumed that many of the refugees would be returning -- and that communal feelings in Bengal were not quite as bad as they were in Punjab. (A mistaken presumption, Guha suggests.)

Those are some of the general facts Guha gives us. What stands out to me is how effective the new Indian government was, on the whole, in responding to the mass influx of people. There were failures -- and again, Guha singles out West Bengal as the worst -- but if you think about the numbers involved, it's astonishing that the process was as orderly as it was. Hundreds of thousands of displaced families were allotted land through a rationalized, transparent process oriented to ensuring their survival. And food relief and temporary shelter was provided to thousands more (not without international help).

However, one area where the state really did fail -- astoundingly -- is with women who had been abducted, converted, and forcibly married in the Partition. Guha's account here is quite thin, so I'm supplementing what he says with material from Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin's book, Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition.

The abductions happened on both sides, and both India and Pakistan agreed to cooperate in the effort to restore abducted women to their families. Here are some of the numbers, from Menon and Bhasin's book:

The official estimate of the number of abducted women was placed at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan. Although Gopalaswami Ayyangar (minister of Transport in charge of Recovery) called this figures 'rather wild,' Mridula Sarabhai believed that the number of abducted women in Pakistan was ten times the 1948 official figure of 12,500. Till December 1949, the number of recoveries in both countries was 12,552 for India and 6,272 for Pakistan. The maximum number of recoveries wre made from Punjab, followed by Jammu and Kashmir and Patiala. (from Menon and Bhasin)

In 1949, Indian Parliament passed a rather bizarre law called the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Bill, which gave the government virtually unlimited power to remove abducted women in India from their new homes, and transport them to Pakistan. The government could use force against abducting families, and it could also hold abducted women in camps if needed.

The problem with this process is that nothing in the law, or the major humanitarian effort that followed, was oriented to ascertaining the will of the women themselves. While some were in fact eager to rejoin their families, quite a number (no one knows exactly how many) were not at all eager to return. The biggest reason is of course the sense of anxiety and shame about being marked as "fallen women" -- they weren't at all convinced that they would be accepted by their families. Other times, the women had had children by their new husbands, and were at least resigned (if not happy) with their new lives. (Nothing in the law passed by Parliament dealt with the situation of women who had had children, nor was the final status of children born of these marriages determined by the Bill.)

But there were other reasons not to return as well. Menon and Bhasin have a fascinating account from Kamlaben Patel, a social worker working with abducted women for the Indian government. She was stationed in Lahore between 1947 and 1952, and worked on a number of cases. She became personally involved with one particular young woman, and Menon and Bhasin give us the story in her own words:

I have written about a case where the parents thought it was alright to sacrifice the life of a young girl in order to save a whole family. And when we were arguing about her recovery then the father said, this is our girl, and the girl denied it because she was terribly hurt by their behaviour. She said, 'I don't want to go back. I have married of my own free will, I don't want anything from my parents.' When she refused to return, it became very awkward. She was in the home of a police inspector. We felt that if we have found an abducted woman in the house of a police inspector, then how can we expect the police to do any recovering? That is why we had to bring her back.

After interviewing the woman, Kamlaben found out why she was so adamant:

That girl kept saying that she didn't want to go to her parents, she wouldn't budge an inch. After two or three days she broke down, she told us that her parents had been told by the police inspector, 'If you leave your daughter, gold and land with me, I will escort you all to the cantonment in India.' That man was already married, had children. He had told her father, you give me this girl in exchange for escorting you all to an Indian cantonment. Then her father gave him his daughter, 30 tolas of gold and his house. One night I called the girl to my bedside and said, if you want to go back (to the inspector) then I will send you. If you don't want to go back to your parents, don't go, but please tell me why.'

What happened in the end: the young woman said she didn't want to go back to the police inspector (in Pakistan), but she also refused to go back to her parents. Acting beyond the call of duty (and beyond the mandate given her by Mridula Sarabhai), Kamlaben was able to arrange a marriage for the woman to a displaced young man living in Amritsar. She later had a child, and came to thank Kamlaben personally for her efforts. (At the same time, Kamlaben was castigated by Mridula Sarabhai for getting too personally involved.)

For me this story illustrates some of the basic problems in the government's "recovery" effort, though it also suggests how individuals can sometimes intervene to try and respond to the particularities of individual cases, and more importantly, the will of individual women affected by the Partition.

Menon and Bhasin don't suggest that the recovery effort that was undertaken shouldn't have happened. Rather, they point out that the way it was done was flawed -- it was, in effect, an arrangement between the men ruling the two new countries, carried out to protect national (and familial) "honor," rather than to ensure the best possible result for the affected women. Though the goal was to rectify a wrong, one could argue that it in some ways continued the patriarchal mentality that led to the atrocities against women in the Partition in the first place.

I should point out that most of the stories about women abducted in the Partition do not end as happily as the one above. Many "recovered" women committed suicide, while others ended up as prostitutes. But there are many, many stories, which you'll find recounted in books like Borders and Boundaries as well as Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence. Amrita Pritam also wrote about this in her novella Pinjar, which was made into what I thought was a decent Hindi film a few years ago.

What comes up again and again in these stories is the failure of the government's blanket policy to address the particular experiences of women who had been abducted. On the other hand, it might not be the government's problem entirely: in the late 1940s neither Indian nor Pakistani society was really set up to accommodate women who had been so brutally alienated from their families and communities. What these women really needed, perhaps more than anything, was the ability to determine their own fates, to be enabled to become independent, both socially and financially. But it appears that that, which is to say, freedom, simply wasn't an imaginable conclusion in the vast majority of the cases.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sheikh Abdullah and Kashmir 1947-8 (Guha Chapter 4)

(Part 3 in an ongoing series dedicated to Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi; see last week's post here. This week's post is dedicated to Chapter 4, "A Valley Bloody and Beautiful"; next week we will look at Chapter 5, "Refugees and the Republic," which looks at the problem of integrating millions of refugees into the new Indian republic.)

Guha's first chapter dealing with Kashmir, I must admit, left me with more questions than answers, but it may be that the subject of Kashmir (even restricted to two years at a time) is simply too complex to deal with in a thirty page overview chapter. Guha's goal is to provide a balanced account of what happened in 1947-8 with the Accession of Kashmir to the Indian union (October 26, 1947), and the war between India and Pakistan that followed (which is actually well-summarized at Wikipedia). Guha goes with the line that the Pathans who marched on Srinagar in the autumn of 1947 were surely armed by Pakistan, and were not exactly a "liberation" army (they were only too happy to loot Kashmiri Muslims as well as Hindus and Sikhs in the towns they entered). He also stresses the close ties between Sheikh Abdullah and Nehru, and derides Hari Singh as just another useless Maharaja. He also acknowledges that the role of the UN in 1948 was not particularly helpful, and that effectively the whole issue was going to be punted (1965), and then punted yet again (1999).

We could go back and forth on Kashmir forever. The two major positions in the debate, I think, are the following:

  • (1) The Maharajah of Kashmir, Hari Singh, legally joined the Indian union in 1947, and therefore the territory belongs to the Indian union, irrespective of whether Hari Singh's action represented the desires of the majority of Kashmiris. A popularly elected Constituent Assembly, led by Sheikh Abdullah, did unanimously ratify the Accession in 1951.
  • (1a) As a practical matter, the Line of Control should now be formalized.
  • (2) The people of Kashmir have the right to self-determination. When it signed the ceasefire in 1948, India promised to offer Kashmiris a plebiscite, where they could decide whether to join India or Pakistan, or remain independent. This it has never done. Moreover,
  • (2a) Sheikh Adbullah always asked for more autonomy for Kashmir, and was eventually imprisoned for it. Even if a plebiscite is not granted, the demand for autonomy should be taken seriously.

(Is that a fair characterization of the two major positions, and the ancillary points that follow from them?)

My goal here is not to reaffirm my own position, but rather to find out something I didn't know before, and explore new ways of thinking about the subject. From Guha's account, the figure I've become most interested in is Sheikh Abdullah, a secular Muslim who saw himself as the natural leader of all Kashmiris. He sided with India in the conflict with Pakistan, but was later imprisoned by the Indian government for continuing to demand autonomy for the region. His complexities are perhaps emblematic of the extraordinarily complex political problem that is Kashmir.

To begin with, here is what Guha has to say about Sheikh Abdullah:

Whether or not Abdullah was India's man, he certainly was not Pakistan's. In April 1948 he described taht country as 'an unscrupulous and savage enemy.' He dismissed Pakistan as a theocratic state and the Muslim League as 'pro-prince' rather than 'pro-people.' In his view, 'Indian and not Pakistani leaders. . . had all along stood for the rights of the States' people.' When a diplomat in Delhi asked Abdullah what he thought of the option of independence, he answered that it would never work, as Kashmir was too small and too poor. Besides, said Abdullah, 'Pakistan would swallow us up. They have tried it once. The would do it again.' (91-92)

And here is what Abdullah did, as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir (a post he held starting in 1948):

Within Kashmir, Abdullah gave top priority to the redistribution of land. Under the maharaja's regime, a few Hindus and fewer Muslims had very large holdings, with the bulk of the rural populations serving as labourers or as tenants at will. In his first year in power, Abdullah transferred 40,000 acres of surplus land to the landless. He also outlawed absentee ownership, increased the tenant's share from 25% to 75% of the crop, and placed a moratorium on debt. His socialistic policies alarmed some elements in the government of India, especially as he did not pay compensation to the dispossessed landlords. But Abdullah saw this as crucial to progress in Kashmir. As he told a press conference in Delhi, if he was not allowed to implement agrarian reforms, he would not continue as prime minister of Jammu and Kahsmir. (92)

I quote that second paragraph because it's important to remember that this Kashmiri politics in 1948 was not merely a Hindu-Muslim problem. And Abdullah's ideology was not only "Kashmiri autonomy within India." He was also fiercely invested in democratization (and opposed to any vestiges of monarchy or feudalism) and land redistribution.

But here's the crucial thing. Though Abdullah accepted what he saw as "Kashmir's constitutional ties with India," he never really accepted the idea that Jammu and Kashmir was merely a state like other states, integrated within the Indian union. For him, Kashmir was always a nation, even if it ceded all military and some legal/executive controls to India. You can see this in the speech he gave at the J&K Constituent Assembly meeting in 1951, the text of which is online here:

One great task before this Assembly will be to devise a Constitution for the future governance of the country. Constitution-making is a difficult and detailed matter. I shall only refer to some of the broad aspects of the Constitution, which should be the product of the labors of this Assembly.

Another issue of vital import to the nation involves the future of the Royal Dynasty. Our decision will have to be taken both with urgency and wisdom, for on that decision rests the future form and character of the State.

The Third major issue awaiting your deliberations arises out of the Land Reforms which the Government carried out with vigor and determination. Our "Land to the tiller" policy brought light into the dark homes of the peasantry; but, side by side, it has given rise to the problem of the landowners demand for compensation. The nation being the ultimate custodian of all wealth and resources, the representatives of the nation are truly the best jury for giving a just and final verdict on such claims. So in your hands lies the power of this decision.

Finally, this Assembly will after full consideration of the three alternatives that I shall state later, declare its reasoned conclusion regarding accession. This will help us to canalize our energies resolutely and with greater zeal in directions in which we have already started moving for the social and economic advancement of our country. (link)

(I would recommend reading the whole speech, if you have a chance.) Keep in mind -- when Sheikh Abdullah says "nation" or "country," he is not talking about India, but Kashmir.

And here is what he says about Accession and the 1947-8 war:

Finally we come to the issue which has made Kashmir an object of world interest, and has brought her before the forum of the United Nations. This simple issue has become so involved that people have begun to ask themselves after three and a half years of tense expectancy. "Is there any solution ?" Our answer is in the affirmative. Everything hinges round the genuineness of the will to find a solution. If we face the issue straight, the solution is simple.

The problem may be posed in this way. Firstly, was Pakistan's action in invading Kashmir in 1947 morally and legally correct, judged by any norm of international behavior ? Sir Owen Dixon's verdict on this issue is perfectly plain. In unambiguous terms he declared Pakistan an aggressor. Secondly, was the Maharajah's accession to India legally valid or not ? The legality of the accession has not been seriously questioned by any responsible or independent person or authority.

These two answers are obviously correct. Then where is the justification of treating India and Pakistan at par in matters pertaining to Kashmir ? In fact, the force of logic dictates the conclusion that the aggressor should withdraw his armed forces, and the United Nations should see that Pakistan gets out of the State.

In that event, India herself, anxious to give the people of the State a chance to express their will freely, would willingly cooperate with any sound plan of demilitarization. They would withdraw their forces, only garrisoning enough posts to ensure against any repetition of that earlier treacherous attack from Pakistan.

These two steps would have gone a long way to bring about a new atmosphere in the State. The rehabilitation of displaced people, and the restoration of stable civic conditions would have allowed people to express their will and take the ultimate decision.

We as a Government are keen to let our people decide the future of our land in accordance with their own wishes. If these three preliminary processes were accomplished, we should be happy to have the assistance of international observes to ensure fair play and the requisite conditions for a free choice by the people. (link)

It's clear that even in 1951, Abdullah's position is not going to make the Nehru or the Indian government happy. He wants Pakistan out of the picture, but he also never wavers on the demand for a plebiscite -- which fits squarely with his obvious ideological passion for pure democracy in Kashmir, does it not?

I think Sheikh Abdullah fatally failed to realize that without political and military sovereignty, the idea of "nationhood" is meaningless. Autonomy within the Indian union is not really a meaningful solution; it could never work as a practical matter as long as Pakistani and Chinese troops are massed on the borders. My hunch is that Abdullah was so invested in maintaining his own centrality to Kashmiri politics that he couldn't see that the compromised position he was taking was destined to fail.

I do not have very deep knowledge about what happened to Sheikh Abdullah after 1953. As I understand it, he was imprisoned for eleven years, and on his release was briefly reconciled with Nehru (before the latter's death in 1964). Abdullah was in and out of detention through the 1960s, and finally in 1975 signed the controversial "Kashmir Accord," a legalistic document which gives somehow everything to the government and pays lip service to Kashmiri autonomy at the same time.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Hyderabad and the Princely States (Guha Part 2)

Part 2 in an ongoing series. Last week we talked about Chapter 2 of Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. This week's topic is Chapter 3, which deals with the accession of the Princely States. Next week is Chapter 4, on the turmoil surrounding Kashmir in 1947-8

When they think about 1947, most people naturally think about the tragedy of Partition, which left millions of people dead and displaced. Partition resulted in the creation of two states, but what is left out of this story is an alternative history where instead of two new nations, independence might have seen the formation of three, or five, or five hundred independent nations.

For there were more than five hundred Princely States in existence in 1947. Each of these had its own ruler and court, and many had the trappings of fully independent states (such as railroads, currency, and stamps). All the same, they had to pay significant taxes to the British crown, and none were allowed to maintain their own armies. The Princely States were also, one might add, the most backward in India when it came to the situation of ordinary people. While British India had begun to build schools and universities, and develop the foundations of republican governance, the various Maharajahs were perfectly comfortable keeping their subjects in total, feudal subjection.

Very quickly, between the fall of 1946 and the summer of 1947, the vast majority of Princely States signed "Instruments of Accession," whereby they agreed to hand over their sovereignty to India. The chief architects of this development were Vallabhbhai Patel and his agent, V.P. Menon. While Patel and Mountbatten did much of the formal negotiation from Delhi, it was Menon who went to hundreds of different Maharajahs all over India, and worked out agreements. According to Guha, because of his indefatigability and his remarkable competence, Menon is one of the unsung heroes of this story.

After Kashmir (which we'll talk about next week), the state that gave the most difficulty in agreeing to Accession was Hyderabad, which was governed by a Muslim Nizam, but with a Hindu majority.

At 80,000 square miles, Hyderabad was a huge state, bigger geographically than Great Britain. The Nizam of Hyderabad was one of the wealthiest men in the world, and it's not hard to see why he resisted turning over his position of power and eminence to what would surely be a diminished role in a united India. Faced with the request that he integrate Hyderabad with India, he preferred independence, but at various points he suggested he might throw in his lot with Pakistan.

There were pro-Congress/Democracy groups in the state under the Nizam, as well as a significant Communist movement. But the most important group was the Nizam's own Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen, a kind of proto-Islamist movement, led by a radical (fanatic?) named Kasim Razvi (sometimes spelled Qasim Razvi). With the Nizam's support Kasim Razvi organized thousands of armed "Razakars" to protect the Nizam's interests and harrass his opponents.

This Kasim Razvi turns out to be quite an interesting character. Guha describes him as follows:

In April 1948, a correspondent of The Times of London visited Hyderabad. He interviewd Kasim Razvi and found him to be a 'fanatical demagogue with great gifts of organization. As a 'rabble-rouser' he is formidable, and even in a tete-a-tete he is compelling.' Razvi saw himself as a prospective leader of a Muslim state, a sort of Jinnah for the Hyderabadis, albeit a more militant one. He had a portrait of the Pakistani leader prominently displayed in his room. Razvi told an Indian journalist that he greatly admired Jinnah, adding that 'whenever I am in doubt I go to him for counsel which he never grudges giving me.'

Pictures of Razvi show him with a luxuriant beard. He looked 'rather like an oriental Mephistopheles.' His most striking feature was his flashing eyes, 'from which the fire of fanaticism exudes.' He had contempt for the Congress, saying, 'we do not want Brahmin or Bania rule here.' Asked which side the Razakars would take if Pakistan and India clashed, Razvi answered that Pakistan could take care of itself, but added: 'Wherever Muslim interests are affected, our interest and sympathy will go out. This applies of course to Palestine as well. Even if Muslim interests are affected in hell, our heart will go out in sympathy.' (68-69)

I quote this passage about Kasim Razvi because I think it hints at how much worse things could have gone in Hyderabad. By 1948, Razvi's Razakars were known to be harrassing Hindus in some of Hyderabad's larger cities (Aurangabad, Bidar, and the city of Hyderabad); some Hindus were beginning to flee to surrounding regions, causing refugee problems in neighboring Madras. There were also rumors that arms were being smuggled into Hyderabad from Pakistan as well as eastern Europe, which was just recovering from the mother of all wars. While the Nizam resisted acceding to India out of self-interest, Kasim Razvi and his Razakars were resisting out of ideology, and they had the numbers -- and would eventually have the arms -- to pose a threat to a new Indian government with lots of other problems to deal with.

After Mountbatten's departure in June 1948, the Indian union's patience with Hyderabad ran out, and in September 1948, a military force moved in. Within a few days the Razakars were out of business, and the Nizam publicly agreed to accede to India.

Today, I think, few people could seriously imagine a different outcome. But if the Indian government had been less focused on its objective, or if it had decided that military force wasn't necessary, or even if it had delayed further in using force, I think it's a distinct possibility that Hyderabad might have remained free for at least a few years longer, and the story of accession could have been much bloodier.

As to whether Hyderabad could have remained independent forever, it seems like a rather remote possibility -- though it is interesting to contemplate. (Perhaps someone should write a fictional, "bizarro world" version of modern South Asian history, with a massive, independent Hyderabad smack in the middle of the Deccan peninsula...)

[Cross posted at Sepia Mutiny]

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Chapter a Week: Ram Guha's "India After Gandhi"

I've had Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi on my shelf for a couple of months, waiting to be seriously cracked. Why not read it together? It's not a book club that I'm suggesting, or at least, not exactly -- since anyone who proposed an 850 page historical tome as a book club selection would have to be out of his mind.

What I propose is this: we'll look at a chapter or so a week, and go in sequence. In each case, I'll try and present some of the main ideas in each chapter in a blog post, so readers can participate in the discussion even if they haven't read that chapter of the book. The idea is to do a survey of post-independence Indian history with emphasis on the conflicts that have occurred in various states. Guha tends to be much more pro-Nehru than is fashionable these days (since liberalization, many people blame Nehru for keeping India behind; I think this is mistaken). He is also scrupulous in looking at "marginal" communities such as the tribals, who are often left out of major histories. From the chapters I've read, Guha seems to be quite fair in his approach, and his style of writing is accessible without being 'dumbed down' in the least.

Next week's topic will be chapter 3, "Apples in the Basket," where Guha looks at how the Princely States were incorporated into the union -- sort of a neglected topic. For now, however, I wanted to look at a controversy that has come up around one of the earlier chapters (Chapter 2), where Guha talks about the events leading up to Partition.

* * *

Reihan Salam has given his opinion, on the "Partition" chapters, and on the book as a whole, which he disliked. The following is from a blog post Salam did at the blog The American Scene shortly after Tyler Cowen announced he would be discussing the book at his own blog:

Because I hold Tyler Cowen in the highest esteem, so much so that I will buy almost anything he recommends, I purchased Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi.

And it's bad. Really, really bad.

Basically, this is a work of hagiography (of Nehru, specifically, who deserves better by dint of having been an actual human being, and a quite shrewd one at that) that reflects an intensely partisan outlook: Guha is a partisan of the India's bien-pensant upper-middle left. You'd be far better served by reading anything by Ayesha Jalal or the Marxist intellectual Aijaz Ahmad. Amazingly, given that Guha is a serious scholar and (supposed) left intellectual who has considerable spent time outside India, he offers a Attenborough-esque portrait of a dastardly Jinnah and he demonizes Pakistan. (link)

I couldn't disagree with Reihan more. First of all, I'm not sure how Ramachandra Guha is "intensely partisan," and I'm not sure exactly what is mean by "India's bien-pensant upper-middle left." If he is referring to Indian leftists who come from privileged backgrounds, I think all leftists who are academics would probably be described that way, including, without question, Aijaz Ahmad. Having been a reader of Ram Guha's essays in magazines like Outlook for the past few years, I'm not even really sure it's accurate to say that Guha is a "leftist" at all -- if anything, his recent opinions have seemed to me to be more centrist than anything else. (We could discuss this.)

I also think Salam is wrong on substance. I don't think Guha demonizes Jinnah or Pakistan, certainly not in the early chapters. In chapter 2, Guha allocates blame for the disaster of the Partition three ways: 1) the Congress Party, especially Nehru, who early on disregarded the demands of Jinnah and the Muslim League, 2) Jinnah and the Muslim League, and 3) the British, who to some extent fanned the flames of communal hatred to protect their own interests.

Here are two paragraphs where Guha gives a brief account of the political break-down between Congress and the Muslim League that led the Muslim League to seek Partition:

It is true that Nehru and Gandhi made major errors of judgment in their dealings with the Muslim League. In the 1920s, Gandhi ignored Jinnah and tried to make common cause with the mullahs. In the 1930s, Nehru arrogantly and, as it turned out, falsely, claimed the Muslim masses would rather follow his socialist credo than a party based on faith. Meanwhile, the Muslims steadily moved over from teh Congress to the League. In the 1930s, when Jinnah was willing to make a deal, he was ignored; in the 1940s, with the Muslims solidly behind him, he had no reason to make a deal at all.

It is also true that some of Jinnah's political turns defy any explanation other than personal ambition. He was once known as an 'ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity' and a practitioner of constitutional politics. Even as he remade himself as a defender of Islam and Muslims, in his personal life he ignored the claims of faith. . . . However, from the late 1930s on he began to stoke religious passions. The process was to culminate in his calling for Direct Action Day, the day that set off the bloody violence and counter-violence that finally made partition inevitable. (41-42)

Jinnah is certainly being criticized here for stoking the fires of communalism to his own advantage. But I think Guha is being fair when he refers to Nehru as "arrogant" earlier on in the process.

Guha argues that partition was inevitable by 1946, and nearly inevitable as early as the 1940s. The Muslim League, which in 1927 was quite small, had expanded rapidly in the 1930s, running largely on a platform of "Muslim Unity," and by 1940 started calling for a separate state. The communal platform worked: Guha points out that by 1944 the party had 500,000 members in Bengal and 200,000 members in Punjab. It was not just Jinnah's ambition -- the Muslim League was a genuine mass-movement.

Guha also looks at the Provincial Assembly elections of 1946, which pretty much sealed the deal for Partition. Again, the Muslim League ran on a Muslim Unity/Pakistan platform, and was highly successful. Of the 492 "reserved" seats for Muslims in 1946, the League won 429 seats. The Congress still had an overall majority (927 seats), but the anti-Pakistan Muslim representatives were effectively swept out of power, leaving the Congress with no negotiating power whatsoever.

As for whether Jinnah was right or wrong, it's now hardly worth arguing over. All but the most extreme religious partisans now accept the division of India as a fact, not likely to ever be reversed.

However, it is interesting to compare Jinnah's account of why he desired Partition with that of a pro-Congress Muslim intellectual, Maulana Azad. Both of these quotes are epigraphs to Guha's Chapter 2, and I find them quite telling:

M.A. Jinnah: the problem in India is not of an intercommunal but manifestly of an international character, and must be treated as such. . . . It is a dream that Hindus and Muslims can evolve a common nationality, and this misconception of one Indian nation has gone far beyond the limits, and is the cause of most of our troubles, and will lead India to destruction, if we fail to revise our actions in time. The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature. They neither intermarry, nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspects on and of life are different. (from Jinnah's Presidential Address, 1940)

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: It was India's historic destiny that many human races and cultures should flow to her, finding a home in her hospitable soil, and that many a caravan should find rest here. . . . Eleven hundred years of common history [of Islam and Hinduism] have enriched India with our common achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour. . . . These thousand years of our joint life [have] moulded us into a common nationality. . . .Whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No fantasy or artificial scheming to separate and divide can break this unity. (from Azad's Congress Presidential Address, 1940)

Again, it probably isn't fair to ask Jinnah to play by today's standards, but I find myself much more in agreement with Maulana Azad's view of history and of the shared, hybrid Indian culture he espouses.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

New vs. Old U.S. Citizenship Tests

It's fair to say that we ought to be able to pass the tests we ask other people to take. The U.S. citizenship test has traditionally had enough oddball questions in its question pool that I suspect many citizens wouldn't actually pass. Now it's been revised, and the Times surveys a range of ideological responses to the changes -- some immigrants groups are outraged, etc. However, if you look at the actual exams (the new exam question pool is here; a comparison of the new and old exams is here), it seems clear that the new exam is a huge improvement from the point of view of mechanics: the clarity and phrasing of the questions is now much, much better.

For example, one old question was "Where does freedom of speech come from?" What is that asking, exactly? Another bad one: "Why are there 100 senators in the U.S. Senate?" It's obvious what is meant (50 states X 2 senators per state), but the phrasing is bad. It's now so much why as how you get 100 senators.

Another poorly phrased question from the old exam is "What are some of the basic beliefs of the Declaration of Independence?" Again, it's a bit strange to refer to the "beliefs" of a written document. Better phrasing might be, "What are some of the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence?"

Among the new questions, there are very few that have these kinds of problems. Admittedly, some of them are a bit more difficult from a straight historical perspective ("What territory did the United States purchase from France in 1803?"), but it's not hard to go learn (and yes, memorize) the answers.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Coolies -- How Britain Re-Invented Slavery

On Video.google, the BBC has itself posted a complete one-hour documentary, exposing the 19th-century British practice of Indentured Labour, through which more than 1 million Indian workers were transported all over the world -- only to be told there was no provision to return. They were effectively only slightly better off than the African slave laborers they were brought in to replace. The latter had been emancipated in 1833, when the British government decided to end slavery and the slave trade throughout the Empire.

The documentary is brought to you by... who else? The BBC!

Some of the speakers include Brij Lal, an Indo-Fijian who now teaches in Australia, and David Dabydeen, an Indo-Guyanan novelist who now teaches in Warwick, UK. I've watched about 25 minutes of it so far, and it seems to be pretty well designed -- some historical overview, but not too much. Most of the focus is on the descendents of Indian indentured laborers, who are now trying to work out the implications of their history.

Incidentally, it looks like this video can be downloaded for free to your PC -- in case you're going to be sitting in a train or an airport for an hour sometime this weekend, and wanted a little "light" entertainment. (You will also need to download Google's Video Player application.)

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

History Lessons: From the Sepoy Mutiny (1857) to Iraq (Today)

I'm sorry I've been a slack blogger of late -- I was finishing up another article for a journal, this time on blogging, anonymity, and the changing concept of "authorship." It would be a shame to neglect this blog just as I'm starting to write professionally about blogging!


At any rate, here's one recommendation: last week's Radio Open Source conversation with William Dalrymple. Many of the points Dalrymple makes will be familiar to people who have been following the reviews of his new book, The Last Mughal. (I blogged about it here)

What is new in this conversation is the attempt to make a direct parallel between the changing behavior of the British in the months and years leading up to the Mutiny, and the attitude of today's neo-conservative Hawks on the policy of "regime change" and "spreading democracy" around the Middle East.

The show was inspired by Ram Manikkalingam's excellent review of the book (along with Imperial Life in the Emerald City) up at 3 Quarks Daily.

Manan Ahmed, ("Sepoy" of Chapati Mystery -- highly appropriate to this topic) also makes an appearance in the last 20 minutes, talking about the work postcolonial historians have been trying to do to bring forward the kinds of stories Dalrymple's book focuses on.

The entire show is available for downloading as an MP3; if you are into downloading podcasts, this might be a good one. Otherwise, if you have 40 minutes, you might just want to listen to it right on the web.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

What did Guru Nanak look like? Textbooks in California

In California, the Times reports that the School Board unanimously voted last week to alter a seventh grade textbook image relating to Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion (or panth), after protests from the Sikh community.

The controversial image isn't the big one pictured, but the small one (I've added a circle to make it clearer). The image is a 19th century painting of Guru Nanak wearing a crown and what looks like a somewhat cropped beard. Both the crown and the beard shape are troubling to Sikhs, who are accustomed to seeing images of Guru Nanak more along the lines of the bigger image to the right -- flowing white beard, and humble attire.

Though the New York Times has good interviews with community members on this, the Contra Costa Times actually spells out the issue more clearly:

The image is taken from a 19th-century painting made after Muslims ruled India. The publisher used it because it complies with the company's policy of using only historical images in historical texts, said Tom Adams, director of curriculum for the Department of Education.

After Sikhs complained that the picture more closely reflected a Muslim man than a Sikh, Oxford offered to substitute it with an 18th-century portrait showing Guru Nanak with a red hat and trimmed beard. But Sikhs said that picture made their founder look like a Hindu.

The publisher now wants to scrap the picture entirely from the textbook, which was approved for use in California classrooms in 2005. There are about 250,000 Sikhs in California.

Sikh leaders say they want a new, more representative image of Guru Nanak, similar to the ones they place in Sikh temples and in their homes. The publisher has rejected those images as historically inaccurate. No images exist from the founder's lifetime, 1469 to 1538. (link)

All of this raises the question -- what, in fact, did Guru Nanak look like? We don't have any images from his lifetime, and the later ones are clearly products of the values of their eras. What, historically, do we actually know? I went to Navtej Sarna's recent book, The Book of Nanak, to see what I could find out.

First off, I would recommend Navtej Sarna's book -- it's part of a series Penguin is doing, that also includes The Book of Mohammed. It's short, but it's well-written and accessible.

Secondly, Sarna states the obvious problem with any historical account of Guru Nanak: we don't have official (as in modernized, chronological) histories to work with, but rather a series of Janamsakhis, some of which were written down shortly after Guru Nanak's lifetime by personal associates, while others were written down a bit later -- at two or three degrees of separation. Some of the relevant manuscripts are mentioned, sketchily, at the Wikipedia site for Janamsakhis. (This Wikipedia entry could be improved!)

Some professional historians simply opt out of saying anything concrete about Guru Nanak's life. J.S. Grewal, for instance, in The Sikhs of the Punjab, goes right into textual analysis of passages from the Adi Granth, and doesn't mention any Janamsakhis. Sarna, for his part, acknowledges that his own work is based on the Janamsakhi materials, and proceeds on the basis that some of what is described is factual, while some must be under the category of folklore, and educated guesses have to be made. Along those lines, he comes up with a surprising description of Guru Nanak's attire:

Nanak was accompanied by Mardana on his travels, who carried his rabab. He dressed in strange clothes that could not be identified with any sect and symbolized the universality of his mesage. He wore the long, loose shirt of a Muslim dervish but in the brownish red colour of the Hindu sanyasi. Around his waist he wore a white kafni or cloth belt like a faqir. A flat, short truban partly covered a Qalandar's cap on his head in the manner of Sufi wanderers. On his feet, he wore wooden sandals, each of a different design and colour. Sometimes, it is said, he wore a necklace of bones around his neck. (53-54)

Unfortunately, Sarna does not tell us which Janamsakhi this derives from -- and I'm sure people would be interested to know, since this is a bit different from the common image of Guru Nanak. Sarna does later mention that at the end of his travels, Guru Nanak gave up these "travel clothes" and adopted the ordinary dress of a "householder."

At every point, however, what's emphasized is the strength of Guru Nanak's personal humility and his rejection of personal wealth or political power (which is not the same as a rejection of the material world). So the crown that's pictured in the first version of the California textbook is certainly incorrect. The rest, however, is probably open to conjecture and argument.


One other thought: this controversy is obviously part of a new pattern of textbook contestation in California. An earlier chapter occurred last year, when the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation wrote long reports offering their criticisms and suggestions of the representation of Hinduism in California school textbooks. In a post on the subject, I reviewed the details of those reports, and came to feel that some were good suggestions, while others seemed to be cases of whitewashing history. Though some of the dynamics are similar, this is a very different (and indeed, much simpler) case.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Payless Shoes, Lipton Tea.... and the British Empire

A connection made through the magic of semiotics. The following is from an interview in n+1 Magazine:

A.S. Hamrah [ASH]: But you can barely see it [the new Payless Shoes logo] as it is. It’s like the orange from the old logo is haunting the new logo. Payless is haunting itself.

n+1: Is that a term semioticians use?

ASH: It’s a term I use.

n+1: What’s another example of haunting?

ASH: I don’t know if you can picture the Lipton’s tea box. Lipton is named for Sir Thomas J. Lipton, the founder of the company, who was a yachtsman and became a symbol of the British Empire . There’s a tiny picture of him in the corner of the box. He’s all white, not like a white colonialist, but white like a ghost. But no one ever notices that or thinks about Sir Thomas Lipton anymore. In fact he’s not even “Sir” anymore on the box, he’s just Thomas J. Lipton. They made him really small and they pushed him into the corner, where he now haunts his own brand. I guess they don’t want their tea to be associated with imperialism.Payless doesn’t have a figure like Thomas J. Lipton, but they’re haunting their own brand just the same. (link)

You could also reverse this logic: By drinking Lipton tea, the "native" is cannibalizing the colonial master's body, via metonymy. The ghost of Thomas Lipton in the logo is the spectre of colonial history, now reduced to a vestige.

More prosaically, here is some interesting background on the story of the rise of Lipton's tea empire (including the plantations in Ceylon/Sri Lanka).

Can anyone think of other examples of semiotic "haunting," in advertising or elsewhere?

(While you're at n+1, also check out the moving testimonial to the assasinated Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, on n+1's main page)

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