Me too

In 2012, after Jyoti Singh Pandey was savagely raped and murdered on a Delhi bus, thousands of middle-class men and women took to the streets to protest the so-called ‘rape culture’ of the Indian capital, the failure of the government to provide adequate security to the city’s women, and the reluctance of the state to sentence rapists to death. Quite a few observers, mostly leftist academics, pointed out that the citizens braving the batons and water cannons of the Delhi Police had not cared enough even to write an angry letter when poor women were raped by employers, tribal women were raped by the police, or Dalits were raped by upper-caste landlords. They had been less than outraged when Muslims in Gujarat were raped by Hindu nationalists, and they generally refused to believe that Kashmiri and Manipuri women could have been raped by the Army and the CRPF. The protesters, it was pointed out, were not only insisting that they were the primary victims of sexual violence in India, they were appropriating the unspeakable horror that the woman on the bus had experienced. It was a reasonable observation. Ironically, the same critics of middle-class self-absorption have jumped on board the ‘Me Too’ bandwagon, which is a similar exercise in self-absorption and conspicuous outrage, this time by the denizens of the global First World, which includes the aspirational First Worlds within the Third.

‘Me Too,’ which began with actresses accusing a movie producer of harassment and assault, has  become a wider phenomenon. It remains, however, limited to middle and upper class women who have come forward to speak of their trauma. As with any declaration of victimhood by the privileged and the determination of the comfortable to weep for their moments of discomfort, this is both aesthetically and ideologically suspect. The ‘Me Too’ class of Americans, for instance, has shown no comparable outrage when it comes to refugees and migrants raped beyond the borders of America, or even those raped by American troops. Few who are flooding social media with their ‘confessions’ have given such eager support to Black Lives Matter, concerned themselves with the bombing of civilians in Afghanistan or Syria, or mobilized against the general violence of inequality. Yet the thought of white actresses being accosted by famous men in expensive hotel rooms was apparently enough to remind them of their own suffering, producing a rush of solidarity. This is not just a matter of selective empathy. Like the refusal of Indian protesters to ‘see’ rape in Kashmir and their conviction that sexual violence was their problem, the selectivity of ‘Me Too’ is a protection of one’s own complicity in the violence that is not protested.

Within the circle of elite protest, the need to declare ‘me too’ has produced strange conflations and contrivances. On the one hand, it has cobbled together – under a hashtag – revelations of child molestation and rape with narratives of ‘inappropriate’ conduct and innuendo, justifying the eclecticism with vague references to ‘the patriarchy’ and an absurdly simplistic notion of ‘power’ that eviscerates adulthood and consent. On the other, it has borrowed the vocabulary of law enforcement and criminal justice ('repeat sexual offender,' etc.) and merged it with the language of campus bureaucracy (the domain of the 'inappropriate'), effectively stretching the boundaries of rape to the point where it is defined entirely by how the victim claims to ‘feel,’ and covers everything from extreme force to bad jokes and bad sex. Elie Wiesel is accused of an 'assault' (an unwanted ass-grab lasting a second) at a public function: his victim claims the incident (which she describes in lurid terms, using words like 'inserted,' 'molested' and 'shoved') left her with eighteen years of suicidal depression and panic attacks. She is not otherwise bothered by Wiesel's politics; her trauma stems partly from her belief that he is a great humanitarian. An actress has stepped forward to accuse the octogenarian George H.W. Bush of ‘sexual assault’ because he supposedly reached out of his wheelchair to pat her posterior and tell her a dirty joke. An article in the New York Times described Donald Trump’s dismissal of Megyn Kelly during the 2016 election campaign (she was, he had said, menstruating when she asked him difficult questions) as a ‘horrific sexual violation.’ Trump’s remark was certainly horrific in its coarseness and its sexism, but can it really be called sexual violation? And is Kelly's experience with Trump's oafishness automatically horrific? This is not just a debasement of language that inflates the significance of some violations and deflates that of others. It is the deployment of language to appropriate the pain of others to amplify one’s own discomfort.

‘Me Too’ exemplifies, also, the confessional culture that is the hallmark of the Internet age, and that has been embraced as feminist ‘self-expression.’ Women, it is assumed, not only may but should ‘confess’ their experiences - particularly sexual experiences, good and bad - publicly and heroically, as part of the recovery of the female voice that would otherwise be silenced by ‘power.’ Parts of the formulation are quite misleading. ‘Confession’ is a morally meaningful idea only if the confessing individual is going to admit a crime or sin, which is clearly not the case here. What is being invested with the heroic value of confession is actually exhibition: the narcissistic glow of revealing yourself to admirers and sympathizers in relative safety, like conspicuously carrying a mattress around campus as protest and as an ‘art project,’ expecting a grade at the end of the semester. Such exhibition reflects the cult of psychiatric selfhood that has become a middle-class entitlement. It is deeply reactionary, fed by decades of corporate incitement to self-love as self-expression, and now by the culture of the selfie shared on social media. The choice of 'me too' as the hashtag of this herd behavior is entirely apt.

In the process of that ‘heroic’ self-expression, accusation itself is enveloped in a halo of saintly suffering and ‘courage’ that apparently eliminates the need for skepticism, due process (including the presumption of innocence) and evidence. To accuse is to warrant protection, love and solidarity; to be accused is to be damned. This has generated a proliferation of irresponsible, damaging and malicious finger-pointing: mischief masquerading as justice, and the substitution of ‘feelings’ for legality. (The privileging of ‘feelings,’ we would do well to remember, is not only a part of the culture of ‘hurt sentiments’ that has wrecked liberalism in India, but also a hallmark of fascism.) On American campuses, it has generated the oddly sentimental kangaroo courts of Title IX, which are a travesty of due process and ludicrous enough that Laura Kipnis was subjected to Title IX proceedings for having criticized Title IX proceedings. Some ‘Me Too’ supporters have opined that since due process has ‘not worked’ as a deterrent to sexual violations, it is dispensable. By that logic, the failure of the criminal courts to prevent murder and theft should give us the license to lynch. Revisiting due process is entirely counterproductive if it means the enhancement of "victims' rights," a pedigreed right-wing ideology.

Those who are less comfortable with lynching have hedged by pointing to the urgency of systemic change. There is no doubt that systemic change is a good idea, just as there is no doubt that unsolicited pussy-grabbing is an especially repulsive masculine entitlement. But to jump from that to jettisoning all sense of proportion, wallowing in one's conviction of victimhood, and celebrating or defending the circulation of lists of ‘sexual harassers’ – named by anonymous accusers, compiled without question or corroboration – is to accept the doctrine of collateral damage, which makes (other) individuals expendable if one’s (own) cause appears worthy. That is a dangerous road for a movement to take, no matter what its bona fides. Few allies will remain when the fingers of accusation are so random and reckless.

October 27, 2017

The Crisis of the Indian World

The relationship between cosmopolitanism and nationalism is, generally speaking, not mutually sympathetic. Nationalists tend to regard cosmopolitans with suspicion, and cosmopolitans look upon nationalists with alarm and condescension. The two ways of constructing the Self are, of course, not mutual incompatible either. Kwame Appiah suggested that an ethically meaningful cosmopolitanism necessarily begins with strong affiliation with a specific community. Certainly, cosmopolitan nationalism can be imagined in at least two different ways: a nationhood that is internally cosmopolitan, and one that engages actively with a community of nations. I want to talk about how these two possibilities have come together, and come apart, in modern India. I want to suggest that the limits of internal cosmopolitanism in India – most specifically, a sweeping delegitimization of the concept of national minorities – have set up the limits of being Indian in the world, and that these limits are particularly evident in the present historical moment.

I want to begin on the margin of India, with ‘Muslim Zion,’ as Faisal Devji called Pakistan. I do not need to go into details of Devji’s thesis now, except to point out that such ‘Zionism’ – Muslim or Jewish – rested upon a willingness to think of nationhood outside majorities, well before it reached the point of imagining a new state with a new majority. Even when such a state emerged on the horizon, it remained connected to communities that were, apparently, within the nation but without the state. It can be argued that the failure of the first phase of Pakistan in 1971 reflected the pitfalls of this kind of cosmopolitan nationhood: whereas the patriots of the West Wing remained over-attached to a Muslim identity that transcended the nation-state, and failed to cultivate an affiliation with their subcontinental fellow-citizens, those of the East Wing possessed and cultivated the more conventional, compact nationalism in which ties beyond the territorial state are not relevant to your identity, and being the majority counts for something.

The Iqbalian nationalism of the West Wing had relevance beyond the 'nation' of Indian Muslims. Here again Faisal Devji has been an illuminative historian, arguing that for Gandhi in South Africa and even afterwards, nationalist politics was about negotiation between groups dispersed over a wide geography that could be imperial or Indian, but in either case was unconcerned with majorities and borders. Devji implies that this cosmopolitanism is precisely why Gandhi fell afoul of Savarkar, Godse and their ilk, and Godse himself was quite explicit about it. The refusal to grant an absolute value to the majority concept, as much as any quixotic attachment to non-violence, made Gandhi a misfit and a traitor in the new nation.

Gandhi was especially dangerous because he was not such an outlier in the last decades of colonial rule. There was, of course, Rabindranath Tagore, whose universalist humanism could be at odds with the politics of organized nationalism, and who notoriously wrote, ‘That what you call a patriot, I am not.’ The words and the posture are easy to misconstrue, and indeed, they have been misconstrued. Far from disavowing national identity, Rabindranath was articulating a way of being Indian in the world, and more generally, of being a nationally-identified subject in the world. What he was rejecting was the primacy of allegiance to a single state and its defining majority.

That rejection could be the foundation of moral responsibility for people anywhere in the world, as it was for Rabindranath. But it could also be the basis for establishing a relationship with people who were of the nation but not of the state, and here, it was relevant to nationalists who have actually been located on the right wing of Indian politics and intellectual history. The sociologist Benoy Kumar Sarkar, for instance, was not a bleeding-heart lover of all people. Between the world wars, he spent much of his time in Germany and Italy, and became a little too fond of the governing strategies he saw here. He wrote voluminously about the Indian relationship with the world in the past, present and future, and was an unsentimental ‘hard’ nationalist, who imagined sovereignty in terms of state power.

Yet Sarkar did not get along well with the mainstream of the Indian National Congress, who in the late 1930s and 1940s were on the verge of inheriting the Indian state. They saw him as an unreliable nationalist. The reason was Sarkar’s evident indifference to the Congress’ goal of a single, unified Indian state. What matters, he wrote, was independence; it mattered less whether there was one independent Indian state, or several. Also, he seemed to care nothing for majorities and their natural privileges: the vanguard of modernity, for Sarkar, was necessarily a minority. There was, of course, a particular context for Sarkar’s remarks, and that was the demand for Pakistan. We should keep in mind that Pakistan was not the only ‘secessionist’ proposal on the table: there were also demands from various princes that their states remain outside the control of a centralized Indian government. In that context, Sarkar’s willingness to accept multiple independent states was, from the Congress perspective, close to treason.

Treason, however, is a complicated thing. Sarkar’s openness to multiple Indias was similar to Jinnah’s, which is all the more reason to revisit the cosmopolitanism of ‘Muslim Zion.’ Muslim ‘separatism’ in India was not merely, or even primarily, a matter of being enchanted by a globally dispersed minority-nation. For Jinnah and arguably many others, the enchantment, so to speak, was with an Indian minority-nation, whose dispersal was a political problem that could not be solved within a unified state in the time available. That vision of cosmopolitan nationhood as a political problem, and a limited timeline for a solution, was explicit in Sarkar. To wait indefinitely for a nationhood that could be politically organized into a single state, he suggested, was to prolong colonial rule. It is possible to read this attitude as stemming from an internationalism that was not oriented towards the sovereign nation-state, as Manu Goswami has done. I think, however, that such a reading is incorrect. Sarkar remained, to his core and to his death in 1948, an ideologue of the sovereign state, and specifically an Indian state, maneuvering in a world of sovereign states. But the contours of that state were negotiable.

So were the contours of the nationalized Self, up to a point. Multi-state adjustments were simultaneously a dispersal and a shrinking of the Self, coupled with a partial relinquishing of claims upon the part amputated. The Bengalis of eastern Bengal must now accept that they are foreigners, Sarkar wrote in 1948, thinking specifically of Pakistan’s Hindu minority, not Muslims. He did not claim special privileges for Indian Hindus, laid no claim upon a Hindu diaspora on behalf of an Indian state, conceded that many erstwhile compatriots would be foreigners to the specific state that would henceforth be known as India, but implied also that foreigner did not necessarily mean alien. There could, in other words, be overlapping Indian subjectivities, which were both rooted (in specific states) and dispersed (across borders).

Sarkar would be strictly loyal to only one India, but remain cognizant of his kinship with the others. Likewise, when Jinnah insisted that there was no such thing as an Indian nation, he was not saying that he saw Hindus as aliens. He was articulating the difficulty of reconciling peoplehood with statehood. Multiple centers of sovereignty produced new possibilities, not only in the form of federalism within the state, but also as a trans-state federalism, or a multiplication of sovereignty. For Sarkar, as for Jinnah, the adjusted, compact Self was both affiliated with one particular state, and linked to a nationally identifiable region, in the process of being located in the world.

Jinnah and Sarkar were able to ‘problem-solve’ in these terms because they occupied an intersectional moment, when multiple, overlapping ways of imagining the nationalized self could be brought to bear upon emerging states and citizenships. The Republic of India had not yet acquired its monopoly on Indianness. We might recall that in 1947, Sarat Bose and Shaheed Suhrawardy, men with very different political allegiances, could join forces in suggesting that Bengal remain united and external to both India and Pakistan. Sarat Bose, certainly, was not disavowing his Indianness. But he and Suhrawardy were Bengali patriots at a moment when that identity could be governmentally expressed outside an Indian nation state, or a Pakistani state for that matter, without nullifying either their conviction that nation-states were key instruments of dignity and sovereignty, or their investment in a capacious sovereignty that accommodated many kinds of Indian subjectivities.

The degree to which the Indian National Congress shared in these cosmopolitan possibilities is a vexed question, not least because the Congress had many ideological factions. Even if we were to look at the overtly cosmopolitan Nehru, there is no easy answer. We can certainly hold Nehru responsible for pushing so hard for a centralized, unitary state that alternative formulations of sovereignty were nipped in the bud. When he wrecked the Cabinet Mission Plan, for instance, he aborted not only the last chance to avert the Partition, but also what would have been, in some ways, a binational state. It has been suggested by Ayesha Jalal that Nehru and the Congress deliberately expelled ‘Muslim India’ from ‘India,’ in order to bypass the political challenges of governing a binational state. Unlike Sarkar, they restricted Indianness to the rump state for which they settled, effectively partitioning not just a state, but an identity. It can be argued, therefore, that Nehru gave us a curtailed Indianness.

That model of Indianness, however, was also a way of being engaged in the world, not just as a sovereign power (as Sarkar wanted) but as an instrument of justice. It was that cosmopolitanism of justice, an extension of the Nehru-and-Ambedkar-driven nationhood of justice, that caused India to take on quixotic positions like the boycott of apartheid South Africa, to support the Palestinians, and to criticize the Western wars in Suez and Vietnam.

We can also say that Nehru’s government presided over a formative important stage of Indian federalism, which made it possible for a federal identity and administrations to coexist with their provincial counterparts. The connections between this internal federalism and internationalism in foreign policy are not immediately obvious, but they are real. We know that Nehru initially resisted linguistic federalism; it was, to some extent, forced upon him. But he – and more importantly, large numbers of his compatriots – came to accept the arrangement as a reasonable solution to the problem of ‘unity in diversity.’ While it may very well have complicated the project of ‘national unity’ and made secessionist agendas easier to formulate, it was also visibly a countermeasure against a monolithic nationhood premised on, say, the dominance of Hindus or Hindi-speakers. Nehruvian India had a Hindu majority and a legitimate Muslim minority (whose legitimacy was bemoaned by some as ‘appeasement’); it was, simultaneously, a nation in which all ethnic groups – even Hindi-speakers – were minorities. It was, in that sense, a citizenship of accommodation and mutual engagement: a big-tent nationhood, oriented towards a big-tent world.

If we compare that Indianness with the subjectivity of Hindutva or the Hindu right, there are some obvious overlaps. Savarkar, who coined the term Hindutva, was a Maharashtrian nationalist and an Indian nationalist who wanted a Bengali sister-in-law. He was representative of an Indianizing agenda within the Hindu right that was impatient with narrow or provincial identity-projects, seeking to complement them with something that was new and pan-Indian, and that could be articulated in terms of national culture or even race, as in M.S. Golwalkar’s writings.

Those new structures, however, were often quite coercive, in that they relied upon the state to steamroller political opposition. They were also narrow, being upper-caste, north-Indian, Hindu, and Hindi-speaking, even when articulated by Maharashtrians or Bengalis. To use a couple of American metaphors, if federated Indianness was a salad-bowl, the Indianness of Hindutva was a melting-pot in which the final product had been preordained. Moreover, as the RSS and VHP became the principal institutions for setting the agenda of Hindutva, the nature of the preordination moved sharply away from the relatively secular Hindu nationalism of Savarkar, towards a Hindu nationhood that was nakedly concerned with religion and mythology.

The nationhood of Hindutva has its vision of the world, but it is a different world – different not only from the worlds of Sarkar, Gandhi and Jinnah, but also from that of Nehru. It saw no world at all beyond India. Ironically, this India was not the truncated India of Nehru, but the India-as-neighborhood of Sarkar and Jinnah, nostalgically and aggressively reimagined as Akhand Bharat. Whereas Sarkar and Jinnah had been willing to entertain a pragmatic disaggregation, Hindutva fantasized about reaggregation of territorial sovereignty, although not of people. But beyond the reaggregated neighborhood, lay a void of knowledge and imagination, akin to the horizon at the edge of the flat earth. When Indians were forced by circumstances to engage that world, it filled with monsters of the local imagination, like Stephen Greenblatt's New World. Engaging 'realistically' with that horizon, either in terms of justice or in terms of realpolitik, was unimportant. It was, essentially, a modern peasant’s view of the world, stopping at the edge of the neighborhood: a small world, not much bigger than a small nation.

To illustrate how his shift in Indian cosmopolitanism has played out, I want to compare, very briefly, the Indian responses to two crises: the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, and the Myanmar crisis of the present time. To recapitulate very quickly, in 1971, India took in around ten million Bengali refugees, remained clear that they would have to go back to their territory, began to intervene in the civil war in Pakistan on the side of the Bengalis, engaged in a complicated diplomacy involving the US, the Soviet Union, China, and the UN, and eventually went to war. Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s government did these things for a number of reasons, some of which can be called unsentimental and others humanitarian, but in either case, they have to do with a particular notion of cosmopolitan Indianness. They involved, for instance, a sophisticated understanding of a world of nation-states, whose postures and possibilities were shaped by history and politics. They involved a sensitivity to Indian federalism, in which Bangladeshi refugees generated sympathy in West Bengal and resentment in other border states. They involved the recognition that Bangladeshis – or Pakistanis, for that matter – were not Indians who could simply stay on (even when they were Hindus, which the majority of the refugees were). But they were not aliens either, and Indians were linked to them by ties of history and affect, and by political and moral responsibilities that could not be encapsulated within the sovereignty of any single state. The Indian calculus involved, thus, a particular understanding of the location of the self in the nation, the nation in the state, the state in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood in the world.

In the current situation involving the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya from Myanmar, the Indian position has been (i) to give almost unqualified support to the Myanmar regime, which is conducting the ethnic cleansing, (ii) to categorize the Rohingya as a threat to Indian ‘national security,’ and (iv) to not only refuse to take in Rohingya refugees, but to deport the ones already in India. In the process, the current Indian government has not only shown itself to be on the wrong side of a humanitarian crisis, it has also seriously damaged its relations with Bangladesh, which is bearing the brunt of the exodus from Myanmar without diplomatic support from the largest, most powerful state in South Asia.

The Indian position can be hard to understand, in the sense that it is a departure from older patterns of policy, and in that the ‘national security’ argument is absurd. (Arguably, there would be a greater threat to Indian security if the Rohingya became another permanently stateless and homeless people.) But the position does have a logic of its own: there is an expectation that supporting the Myanmar junta will balance Chinese influence, there are the oil fields that the Reliance corporation has acquired in Myanmar, there is fear of Muslims, there is contempt for Bangladesh. ‘Bangladeshi’ has long been the Hindu right’s synonym for ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘undesirable alien.’ Even among many Indians who can agree that the Rohingya are being ill-treated by the Myanmar regime, there is a feeling that it is not an Indian problem, and that the Indian state has no obligations in the matter.

But what there is, more than anything else, is that warped new way of thinking about the self, the nation, the state, the neighborhood and the world. Not only is there none of the worldliness, i.e., the solidarity with the alien, that was the hallmark of Nehruvian cosmopolitanism, there is no sense of kinship or empathy with a Bengali-speaking people, including Hindus as well as Muslims, in the immediate neighborhood of India. Indianness has receded further within the neighborhood: there is no sense of responsibility that comes from a historical bond with Bangladesh, i.e., that sense of Bangladesh as another India. There is none of the regret and responsibility that animated people of the Partition generation, from Manto to Ritwik Ghatak, who remained cognizant that the borders of the new nation-states were ethnically untrue, and who continued to recognize themselves on the other side of the line. Indianness has, in fact, been diminished even within the Indian state, where questions of whether being a Bengali-speaker makes you at least contextually a Bengali, and whether being Bengali gives you a claim on India, have been swept aside by the all-powerful claim of citizenship. Whereas the apparent Bengaliness of the Rohingya has gained them a measure of sympathy in Bangladesh, provincial and parochial identities (as legitimate political claims upon the whole) have lost ground in India. There is now only a national majority. To be a minority is to be anti-national. This investment in a majority responsible only for itself is reinforced by the post-1991, neoliberal cult of the individual living in a gated community, stepping and sometimes driving over the homeless.

Where a wide spectrum of ideologues once saw a natural multiplicity of identities, responsibilities and centers of affiliation, there is now an Indianness of exclusiveness, that excludes from empathy, fellow-feeling and responsibility all those who cannot be captured within the shrunken boundaries of the majority, the state and the self. I want to close with two observations. One is that this shrinking is an abdicating of liberalism, and democracy without liberalism is inherently fascist. The failure of Indian cosmopolitanism is thus a part of a graver crisis of Indian society, with its majoritarianism and mob violence. The political consolidation of a national majority – pushed to the point of majoritarian nationalism – has, ironically, not only diminished the Indian ability to act in the world, it has precipitated a moral leprosy that can only be demoralizing to those who value an ethical society. The other is that this is not a peculiarly Indian problem. It may be acute in India, where liberalism has historically had shallow roots. But we see it also in Brexit and in Trump’s America. It forces us to face the inherent tension between nationalism and liberalism in the best of circumstances, and the reality that whereas nationalism finds its fulfillment in the mobilized majority, liberalism (especially in the nation-state) is always a minority ideology. Cosmopolitan nationhood is the resolution of that tension, but it is also, much of the time, a contradiction in terms.

September 21, 2017

Public history and India

 An examination of ‘public history’ in India – or rather, public history and India – has taken on a special urgency in recent years, not least because the Republic of India is in the middle of an unprecedented crisis of the relationship between the state, the public and the citizen. In this situation, it has become necessary to scrutinize not only Indian publics and their histories, but also the public’s uses of history, and the problems and possibilities of writing history for the public. At the core of the crisis is a breakdown of the alliance between liberalism and history without which the democratic nation-state becomes ethnocratic and, in some contexts, fascist. This breakdown has become inescapable in India, where a rampant and frequently violent majoritarianism – unchecked by the state, and increasingly inseparable from the state – has been feeding off, and feeding, narratives of bridges to Lanka, the pre-Mughal origins of the Taj Mahal, and alternative outcomes of the Battle of Haldighati. The problem cannot be pinned on any particular government; it is woven into the fabric of a public that has, by and large, fetishized sovereignty without liberalism since the inception of the Indian nation.

History, in this situation, is both the disease and the remedy, because the weakness of liberal institutions and principles of governance in India is compounded by readily identifiable political and discursive fallacies, such as allegation of ‘pseudo-secularism’ and the discourse of ‘Muslim appeasement.’ These fallacies are undergirded by a narrative of indigenes and invaders, tyrants and victims, that is not only reactionary in the context of a multi-ethnic society, but that has not been challenged consistently by liberal nationalists. In the late nineteenth century, for instance, the Congress Moderates and their Extremist challengers generally agreed that Aurangzeb was the devil. They differed mainly in what they wished to emphasize: whereas one historically-minded group dwelled on the diabolical, the other preferred to divert attention to the available angels (Akbar, Dara Shukoh, even benign Europeans).

In subsequent decades, when the Extremist/Moderate divide had become obsolete, two broad factions continued to mark nationalist politics, both overflowing the conventional boundary between the ‘secular’ and the ‘communal.’ One group saw the public project of the nation-state as historical revenge, the other emphasized the reconciliation of old enmities in a newly shared citizenship. They did not, however, disagree fundamentally about the content of the past, or about a dichotomy of options in the present between vengeance and forgetting. Since history tends to work against forgetting, it is not surprising that a nation founded on a history of conflict with a resident enemy has become more focused on vengeance, and more overtly majoritarian, as it has become more democratic. Also, since the illiberal state has typically functioned as the gatekeeper to public forums such as museums, archaeological sites, the cinema, and above all the school, the liberal historian – where she has existed – has had a limited and fiercely contested access to the public, especially that part of the public that has constituted itself as the ‘majority.’

What is public history, and can it mean the same thing in all contexts? Acknowledging that the concept of public history is notoriously hard to define, Robert Weible nevertheless suggested that it involves an attempt by scholars to bridge the gaps between academic and popular uses of historical discourse. He gave as his example the engagement of historians in the provision of texts that might accompany monuments and exhibits, those being sites where the public performs its public function. Such a conceptualization may be appropriate in the democratic states of the West, where even in the midst of intense disagreement about what history should inform public policy, there is a consensus of sorts about what history is, about what ‘the public’ is, about the public’s investment in history, and about the public’s claim upon the state, i.e., about the connections between public and policy. It is not adequate in the case of India, where no such consensus is apparent. R.K. Laxman and Arvind Kejriwal notwithstanding, the Indian ‘common man’ is a fragmented and contentious animal, and one cannot take for granted a notion of citizenship that is anchored either in popular sovereignty or in liberalism, which have become politically opposed to each other in India. Here, multiple publics – sometimes including the same people – vie to establish not only the content of history, but the contours and significance of history as a discipline with a privileged place in the nation-state. Academic history in India is only precariously located in the public. Its narratives are challenged constantly and effectively by those who claim the prestige of history as a discipline but are uninterested in its methods and unaware of its content, and it has no ready response to the argument that disciplinary prestige can have no assurance of authority in a democracy. ‘Sentiments’ can be as important as history in determining policy.

Under the circumstances, the ‘public history’ of the historical space that now includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh must be structured broadly and pursue multiple projects simultaneously. The structure should accommodate three main objectives: studying the formation of particular publics, studying public experiences, and writing for the public in a society at war with itself. These should be intertwined goals, but they can nevertheless be discrete enough to guide historians as they set out to define what they are trying to do.

We might begin with histories of becoming a public, or the processes and debates through which ‘people’ become a ‘public.’ These must contend with the layered nature of assertions of public identity in India since the early nineteenth century. Not only have specific politically mobilized identities (structured as ethnicity, nationality, class, caste, etc.) produced a multiplicity of publics, a new general identity (that of being a member of ‘the public’ as a concept equipped with entitlements and even obligations) has functioned as the glue holding these compartments together. The latter, however, is not universal, because while it is constructed with reference to global notions of being a public, it is also, invariably, limited by national citizenship. Exploring the tensions and resolutions between the particularity, generality, and universality of public-formation is critical to understanding the contextual and essentially federal practice of Indian nationhoods, in which there is a constant awareness of outsiders who are also insiders, and one learns to function in overlapping and not easily reconciled modes. These modes include the regional and the transregional, the Bengali and the Indian, the Baidya and the bhadra, the Indian and the modern. Each has its particular relationship to what can be either one state, carefully differentiated layers and segments of the state, or institutions below (or alongside) the state. In any case, the analysis must spotlight the development of a relationship with instituted authority. Without the relationship, which can be proprietorial or oppositional, there can be no public to speak of.

Such histories of becoming are also, necessarily, projects of distinguishing between private and public worlds, a task that includes the construction of the ‘private’ as an appropriate subject for public debate. Here, Partha Chatterjee indicated in The Nation and its Fragments and Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe, colonialism generated private and semi-private national domains that were fraught but also reassuringly conservative. It generated, in conjunction, a ferociously contested domain of public experiences, in which ‘private’ subjects locked out of the chambers of policy-making could not only articulate a public-hood grounded in the shared experience of powerlessness, but experience alternative modalities of power grounded in resistance or (more typically) indifference to formal authority, coupled with an intensely creative willingness to identify and defend alternative theaters of agency. These experiences are, indeed, key to our understanding of the public in a society that has, as often as not, bypassed civil society on the way to modernity, and in which civil society – where it exists –remains deeply ambivalent about liberalism. In other words, close examination of ‘being (in) public’ as a set of experiences and projects of self-making is essential to the study of not only nationalism without a nation-state, but also the post-1947 South Asian predicament of illiberal democracy.

That predicament is precisely what creates, for the ‘public historian,’ a space and a responsibility to speak across publics, as it were. It is not enough to dissect the public, although that task remains essential. It is important, also, to acknowledge that what is being dissected is not dead, is unlikely to be killed by academic historians, and is something of a killer in its own right. Academic historians must speak to it, about it, and (at least strategically) from within it: recovering from the past the alternatives to a public project of existential revenge and placing them within the lived realities of the present. It is, therefore, essential to address what the public itself considers important to public life: institutions and experiences like working, dining, sport, school, the cinema, the shop, the street, and the war zone. If the everyday world of the public citizen – the experiences that generate difference from some and commonality with some others – can be unpacked and explained in terms that are comprehensible to those who are arguably modern but not liberal, we may be able to recover, from the mob, a critical mass of citizens who recognize that lynching is a specific, and inferior, form of public action.

August 22, 2017


As anyone who follows Indian public discourse is aware, the rhetoric of ‘Muslim appeasement’ is now ubiquitous. No longer limited to the rabid Hindu right, it has penetrated the language and perception of citizens who consider themselves secular and moderate, and who are, indeed, often opposed to the nakedly violent elements of the Sangh Parivar. These moderates nevertheless offer the word up as a reason, if not a justification, for the behavior of the rabid, conceding that the various phenomena of Hindutva in Indian political life were produced by the appeasement of minorities (specifically Muslims) by politicians (specifically the Congress and the Left parties). Effectively, then, they agree with a key plank of the Hindutva platform, and reflect its increasingly hegemonic presence in what constitutes common sense in both private and public life.

The word ‘appeasement’ has a wider history. Its popular usage began with British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to postpone the Second World War by agreeing to Adolf Hitler’s demand for the Sudetenland in 1938. It soon became shorthand for a range of interconnected political faults: shortsightedness, cowardice, cynicism, betrayal. Its application in the Indian case has included all those implications. This is curious, because Chamberlain’s perceived mistake was to have appeased a foreign enemy. His appeasement was a foreign policy, rather than an ideological position. Appeasement in India, on the other hand, has been a discourse anchored in domestic politics and national ideology. It is more heavily loaded and pernicious than a handshake in Munich. The original implications of the accusation are very much present in India, but the line between foreign and domestic enemies has become blurred. Indeed, the rhetoric of appeasement is useful precisely because it blurs that line, continuously turning a portion of the Indian population into an alien entity and democratic politics into treason.

Objectively, the idea that minorities – and Muslims in particular – have been pampered by the Indian state is ludicrous. Muslims in India are, on average, considerably poorer than Hindus. Their presence in the institutions of government and public life does not remotely approach their percentage of the population, and they suffer from chronic discrimination in housing and employment. Harassment, intimidation and worse by the police, army and paramilitary forces is a fact of life. They are increasingly subject to the violence of vigilantes and lynch mobs that are either ignored or assisted by the state. They cannot complain about intolerance or criticize the Indian state – let alone the army and other sacred cows – without immediately provoking a firestorm of public outrage and being told to shut up or move to Pakistan. They are, moreover, subject to pervasive and unquantifiable abuse in what might be called personal interactions with the majority community. This abuse overflows into the public domain, saturating the press and online forums with vitriol about ‘mullahs,’ ‘terrorists,’ ‘love jihad,’ people who have too many babies, and the rape of disinterred corpses. If Indian Muslims have been appeased for seventy years, it has not accomplished very much.

If we look at the body of evidence that is held up to demonstrate appeasement, it quickly falls apart. Nobody can demonstrate how this appeasement has hurt the majority community, let alone been illegitimate. Indian Muslims can vote, it is pointed out defensively, as if this is some sort of extraordinary generosity in what is supposed to be a democratic republic. They are allowed to live in India, it is proclaimed in the same vein. Again, what generosity, ‘allowing’ people to live and vote in their own country! Indian democracy and pluralism are not charity to an undeserving minority; these are gifts that, in the words of the Constitution, the Indian people gave to themselves. Not only are these the substance of freedom and the justification of independence (because otherwise, what is independence for?), they are essential to multi-ethnic nationhood.

The Muslim Civil Code and Article 370 of the Constitution (which gives ‘special status’ to Jammu and Kashmir) are perennial targets of those who believe that appeasement is real. Such claims reflect a total obliviousness of the historical context of these policies. Article 370 came out of the extraordinary political, military and legal circumstances of Kashmir’s accession to the Indian Union. Without it, the National Conference would not have given its assent to the annexation of the state, and without that assent, the Indian position would have been untenable. The Instrument of Accession was not enough to ensure either legitimacy or order, and negotiators in Delhi and Srinagar understood that a measure of popular consent was needed that could be acquired only through political concessions. The ‘special status’ of Kashmir is not some inexplicable foolishness on Nehru’s part; it is a hard-headed compromise based on recognition of the actual specialness of the political situation. Muslim personal law is a product of the aftermath of the Partition, when it was important for the Congress to demonstrate its commitment to the principle that India was neither Pakistan nor Jinnah’s version of Hindustan, i.e., to ensure that the Indian state did not belong to any particular ethno-religious community. Moreover, given the horrendous violence that had just taken place, it was necessary to reassure the remaining Indian Muslims that they were safe in India, not just individually but as a community. That reassurance was essential to the stabilization of the fledgling state and its fragile institutions.

The Muslim Civil Code is quite rightly a contentious body of law. It authorizes the most reactionary elements of Indo-Muslim society to speak for the community, and consequently it infringes upon the rights of women as equal citizens of a democratic state. It can also be argued, albeit tenuously, that a nationally-organized society should have a uniform code of civil law. (Why? The assumption is reminiscent of the case for a national language that was abandoned in 1965.) In any case, the Indian Constitution unambiguously looks forward to a uniform civil code; religion-specific legality was originally intended to be a temporary arrangement. But while the activism of Muslims who want to abolish triple-talaq and reform unjust divorce laws is entirely admirable, the professed sympathy of Hindus must be viewed with great suspicion. Hindus can legitimately protest the plight of divorced Muslim women only when they give up their own habit of turning away Muslim renters, and are ready to welcome Muslim sons-in-law. Until then, they would do well to examine the reactionary elements within their own civil code (there is a considerable body of scholarship on this), to stop beating their wives and bullying daughters who make their own sexual choices, and to insist upon the recognition of marital rape as a criminal offense – none of which they are willing to do. They might also try to understand that the reform of Muslim personal law will become politically feasible – i.e., acceptable to those Muslims who are themselves ambivalent about it – only in an environment of security and tolerance, or in the absence of the naked hate that now runs casually through Indian society and its public discourse. A beleaguered minority will cling to the symbols of its identity even when those symbols are themselves oppressive. Not even majorities are exempt from this dynamic: it is worth noting that the ‘reformed’ Hindu civil code became possible only when colonial rule had ended. Until then, the most repressive laws and customs were zealously protected as markers of national sovereignty, and even Vidyasagar found it necessary to oppose the Age of Consent Act of 1891, which outlawed sex with girls under the age of twelve.

For the appeasement-wallas, there is also a constant accumulation of petty and local complaints: about municipal authorities telling Hindus to desist from playing music near mosques, state-subsidized Haj, government support for madrasas, Muslim criminals who are supposedly protected by politicians, and the tendency of non-Sanghi political parties to protect (occasionally) what are understood as ‘Muslim interests.’ They barely notice that Hindu pilgrimages are also subsidized by the state, Hindu criminals also receive the patronage of politicians, and that Hindus are louder and more effective than Muslims when it comes to demanding that the state protect their ‘sentiments’ from assorted insults. They forget that so-called 'vote-bank politics' - the articulation and protection of particular interests - is the normal stuff of democratic politics, and not the equivalent of giving in to a foreign enemy (unless Muslims themselves are imagined as aliens) or some peculiar ‘pseudo-secular’ vice. Do Hindus not form 'vote banks' when they organize themselves by caste, class and language? Democracy without vote banks would require a level of individuated citizenship that does not exist anywhere in the world, let alone India. These complaints are typically accompanied by outrage at the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits and religious minorities in Pakistan, the implication being not only that the ill-treatment of Muslims in India (and Kashmir) is a reasonable retribution, but also that Pakistan is the preferred model of the relationship between the individual, the community and the state. For them, democracy and politics – i.e., the need to work through constitutional means and make concessions at the negotiating table – are weaknesses. They would prefer that the Indian state simply bludgeon its way to produce the results desired by ‘the majority,’ even if that means killing, terrorizing, disenfranchising or expelling a hundred and fifty million people. Those options are still voiced mainly as wistful fantasies and in private conversations, but the overflow into the media and the street – slogans of ‘Pakistan ya kabristan’ (‘to Pakistan or to the graveyard’) –  is already apparent.

‘Appeasement’ in the Indian context is thus a fundamentally anti-democratic discourse in more ways than one. It equates the citizenship – i.e., freedom – of a minority community with an intolerable weakness of the nation-state. Any sign of the political equality of the minority becomes not only a sign of treason (by minorities and their sympathizers), but a sign of the superior power of the minority, inverting the actual status quo in a perverse nightmare of Hindus ‘losing control of their own country.’ The ultimate version of that nightmare is the frequently-expressed anxiety about the ‘Muslim birth-rate,’ or the fear that Hindus will cease to be a majority in India. Not only is this highly paranoid and numerically improbable, it negates a basic principle of the liberal-democratic nation state, which is that there can be no permanent majority and minority. Today’s minority must, hypothetically, be able to become tomorrow’s majority without nullifying the nationhood that is expressed in the state. If that prospect is so horrifying that one would rather resort to ethnic cleansing or invent a mythology of appeasement/treason, then it is necessary to ask what kind of nation Hindus (or Israeli Jews who resent having to share their state with Arabs, or white Trump supporters who also complain incessantly about 'pampered' minorities and the 'neglected' majority) inhabit. An objectively dominant majority that feels, acts and speaks in the mode of an oppressed and aggrieved minority is one of the surest symptoms of fascism. It is a danger to itself as well as to others, because its peevish violence inevitable rebounds against itself, eroding its own democratic rights and freedoms. That erosion, in which the state has repeatedly compromised its own liberal principles at the behest of the majority, is where 'appeasement' is truly manifested in India.

In this situation, ironically, the fate of liberal democracy comes to rest more with the minority, which is invested in it, than with the majority, which chafes against it and longs for the unrestrained ability to coerce. The idea that minorities are the conscience-keepers of liberalism has a history that goes back to the early twentieth century. It has generated one of the roles played by Jews in American political life until the late 1960s, and as Faisal Devji has pointed out, by Muslims at one point in the history of the subcontinent. I will go a step further and suggest that democracy needs minorities to survive. Majorities are thuggish by nature, undeserving of democracy and resentful of it. They do not ensure the democratic rights of minorities; it is the other way around. Freedom - understood as a rights-bearing relationship with the liberal state - is inherently a minority condition.

April 18, 2017

Hometowns and ghost towns

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Most modern societies have a romance of the hometown: a place that ‘one is from,’ and that serves as an anchor of reference and identity when one is adrift, happily or unhappily. It – or rather, the idea of it – provides continuity when the spaces and compartments we inhabit collapse or converge. In much of the world, the hometown is detached from everyday life. It is a place that one has left behind, and that functions as an identifier even when a permanent return is unlikely. In the refugee and migrant worlds of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for instance, hometowns have been not only the places left behind as people moved in search of education, work, safety and nationalities, but also the unseen places that parents and grandparents had once known. Such hometowns – Pabna, Lucknow, Lahore – are constituted by the thinnest of nostalgia. A cousin of mine recently crossed the India-Bangladesh border to see the ancestral family home in Dhaka (‘lost’ since 1947), could not find the building, went back disappointed, and only later realized that he had gone to the wrong address.

The American hometown is less ethereal. It is a place that one has never left. Its heart is the local high school, with its football rituals that one continues to attend as an adult, and mascots that one continues to revere. Those who actually play football or basketball expect to be recognized and flattered at the local hardware store or diner, or to run the store itself someday. Students graduate from these schools – which their parents also attended –  with the expectation that they will never leave town. Their circle of acquaintances will not expand much further beyond those who are already their friends and enemies. They will, they hope, find jobs or take over family businesses that allow them to marry and have kids, to divorce and pay child support, to buy a home and a couple of cars, to retire, sicken and die with dignity.

That hometown is easy to find but hard to hold on to. It is, one might say, a mythology of community and reassurance in a vast, thinly populated land, where pioneers could go only so far before needing to stop. The place where you stopped became home: homestead, little house on the prairie, island in the wilderness, Mayberry, surrounded by the combination of emptiness and savagery that gives shape and meaning to the settler colony. Unarguably, only a part of America has actually lived even a portion of this dream, and today the hometown is more beleaguered than ever. The savages have multiplied faster than the homesteaders, and the economy has moved to the wilderness of university towns, coastal cities and foreign parts, demanding that people follow. The wilderness is also America, a competing myth with its own power and cruelties, but without that paranoid insularity.

The American hometown is a historical phenomenon. It is a product of datable, identifiable and intersecting episodes in the recent past: industrial employment, unionized wages, job security, home ownership and welfare assurance, brought together by the New Deal, the Second World War, the unchallenged manufacturing hegemony of the 1950s, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. These brave new hometowns fattened on the mythical homesteads; the self-righteous and existentially imperiled innocence of William Jennings Bryan became the images and soundtracks of the multi-layered ‘security’ that was a central part of American ‘greatness’ at a particular moment in time, which was the Cold War.

When the Cold War economy unraveled, hometowns became unsustainable. High school degrees became inadequate for securing jobs, and the self-inflicted injuries of the Reagan era not only weakened the unions that had allowed white workers to live middle class lives, but also began to gut the concept and institutions of social security. It became necessary to contemplate Tom Joad all over again, and this could only be a stepping down from greatness. People who should have left found themselves unable to contemplate actually leaving, because they imagined they would be leaving themselves behind, and because they were afraid of where they might have had to go. Not surprisingly, it was in this period – the 1980s – that the hometown was reified as a melancholy myth of an endangered American identity: the subject matter of Bruce Springsteen’s songs, charged with betrayal. Because that betrayed place had been more real between the 1940s and the 1970s than, say, in Bryan’s time, it was now that much more frightening to see it turning into yet another American mythology of place: the ghost town, in which you were the ghost.

In the last election, the ghosts turned out in force to vote for Donald Trump. In the process, they aggravated the injury that their Reagan-loving parents had inflicted. They did so for reasons that have to do with the nature of the hometown itself: the security and superiority conveyed by the conviction of roots in the soil and separateness from the rootless, and, of course, fear of being uprooted. They did not just vote for a fascist leadership that is contemptuous of every liberal safeguard within democracy; they revealed the Volkisch underpinnings and fascist possibilities of an existentially insecure Homeland made up of hometowns, in which folksiness is an established political idiom, indulged without reflection by liberals and conservatives alike.

The fetish of roots and the folk’s fear of the unrooted is, of course, a common aspect of fascism. It brings together entitlement and anxiety, typically expressed as racism, because race is among other things a perceived relationship to place. Those who are out of place, without a place, or indifferent to place are not only races apart, but also racial enemies and enemies of race itself. Like any matter out of place, they constitute dirt: the dirty Jew in Germany, the dirty Arab in Israel, the dirty Mexican in the American southwest, refugees in upstate New York, immigrants everywhere. And as dirt in the age of sanitation, they are invitations to cleansing and other forms of intervention. As animals that have wandered in from the wilderness, they threaten the hometown resident with the prospect of invasion, or of having to enter the wilderness himself. It generates music like “Welcome to the Jungle,” the Indiana redneck’s response to Los Angeles.

Along with the fear of savages and animals, the prospect of being exiled to the jungle brings the fear of emasculation. The narrative of the American hometown is a richly gendered text, consisting not only of the culture of team sports, guns, pick-up trucks (or muscle cars) and the predictable comfort of marrying your ‘high school sweetheart,’ but also the ritualized expectation that you will, upon graduation, become a newly-carded member of the same labor union to which your father belongs. When these expectations and rituals become threadbare even as mythology, the crisis of manhood takes the form of racist, homophobic and misogynistic violence, and overrides rational calculations of economic and political self-interest, not to mention ethical considerations and the niceties of liberal democracy, which can only appear effeminate. It produces the compulsive bullying and the stormtrooper phenomena that Arthur Rosenberg identified, in 1934, as the essential ingredient of full-blown fascism.

The citizen in that mode of reaction functions as a modern peasant, hostile to science, even more hostile to the arts, resentful of educated outsiders and of education itself. (The American high school is primarily a location of socialization, and only secondarily of learning.) The modern peasant is, in one sense, a contradiction in terms, but is actually a common creature. He or she retains the provinciality of the peasant and the fetish of the soil, but it is now national soil, and suspicious outsiders are national enemies. The forms of hate remain familiar and assimilate the old, but the content is substantially new. Hannah Arendt once remarked of European anti-Semitism that it was ‘not about the Jews,’ indicating a difference between the ‘classical’ pogroms of rural bigots and the nineteenth-century urban Gentile’s dislike of the emancipated Jew. The new hate, she suggested, was more about the nationalizing citizen’s resentful relationship with the liberal state and its allies. The particular target was incidental. In present-day America, it would be inaccurate to say that the racism, anti-intellectualism and gender norms of the hometown are merely byproducts of a government policy or even a cluster of policies such as neoliberal capitalism; they are imbedded in much deeper histories of the settlement of the continent. But they are nevertheless intertwined with global economic currents that have made the American hometown obsolete, and made it necessary for the peasants to do what other peasants have typically done, which is to embrace the city. The obsolescence of the hometown is inseparable from the reluctance of its denizens to do move to where the colleges are, where the jobs are, where the strangers and savages are.

The American hometown – which is not just a place, but an idea in which Trump and Springsteen are both complicit – is not a benign sentimentality. It is a nostalgia of arrested development, intertwined with white privilege, violent masculinity, and the fundamentally unreasonable and unhealthy refusal to grow up and leave home. There is something pathological about a political reality in which adults who cling to their high school selves vote for a man who consistently behaves like a spoiled child. It is, after all, not rational to confuse cities and the wilderness, or to expect that manufacturing jobs that have disappeared due to automation will return if foreign-made products are hit with tariffs, or to act as if the mass deportation of undocumented aliens will help unemployed Americans who do not want to pick oranges or drive cabs. It is irrational to be terrified of Muslims when the overwhelming share of the killing in this country is done by Christians, and by the police. Rationality in political decision-making may be unfashionable and ‘elitist’ (on this point, there is a perverse agreement between the far right and the post-modern left), but if we are going to have a modern state, then the primacy of verifiable information over ‘feelings’ in governance is an essential hedge against fascism. 

February 9, 2017