Facing Violence

In a week during which several deaths have been recorded in India – in each, the perpetrators belonged to a social group who did not wish to enter an economic or social contract with individuals from another social group perceived as simultaneously inferior and locally oppressive, and wherein each symbolic action (words, raising the national flag on Republic Day was the offensive trigger for violent retaliation (Chandan in Kasganj, Manjunath in Bangalore, Ankit in Delhi)- I connect the news to an incident I witnessed in Kolkata.

On Jan 28th, late at night, I observed three women being threatened with violent communal retaliation by an Uber driver because one of these women questioned the driver’s peremptory ride cancellation after the car was loaded and the trip had started. The driver told them to get out, physically intimidated them, declared he would block their street departure location with his car all night, and if the women didn’t shut up he would bring people back from Kidderpore. (The driver obviously guessed enough about his passengers to threaten them with violence from a different religious community). All this under the benign and smiling presence of local traffic policemen, who blamed the women because they couldn’t detain the driver.

Violence becomes real when it is personal. Up close, it is also a large emotion, inciting us to large actions. If we have learned to exteriorize and blame all our misfortunes on the ‘Other’ and its deliberate malice (person, group, entity, event), we enter the justificatory realm of virtuous scapegoating.

If I say my city has changed in 20 years, I will likely be called a bigoted bhakt or worse in India, a vile Islamophobe in the U.S., and a Modi-moron in my old discursive academic world (which told me to leave since was an unprogressive settler colonial anyway). My good interlocutors will throw Ayodhya, Kashmir, NE India and Trump at me (lumped under an imagined category in their heads that they mis-read from Anglophone media; they still ask, ‘You speak Hindu?’ To which I say I don’t).

In that accusatory and reformist narrative, women such as these in the Uber tale are collateral damage in the necessary revolution of the world and the righting of historical wrongs.

In my reasoning, retaliatory justice is short-sighted and unpardonable, especially when supported by history shortened to 500 years. Violence, no matter how ‘halal,’  neither purifies nor resolves.

And yet this is how the world begins to burn again. I invite you to think on this article: https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/civility-and-rebarbarization

The PhotoBooth app on iPad tells you in childlike ways how the user’s face can be distorted and changed. The world is the same. How we see distorts what we see.

No place for the unarmed

We have come to a point where the accident of our birth is become a sign of virtue/merit or sin/shame. It seems to me to be a rolling back of everything the 20th century fought for – that it was possible to overcome the drawbacks of our birth if we so wished. Everything was supposed to be about free will, choice, freedom, rewards for effort and the virtue of self-education. It has now become about being the ‘right’ type, learning to think in the right apocalyptic way, and to learn the right forms of political interaction and groupthink.

So folks are now going to justify bullying, shaming and silencing by saying that people ‘like’ you (with markers of nationality, ethnicity, race, and religion) have been known to do this and this so you are at fault, no matter what you have done as an individual. You deserve it. History puts you at fault, and someone else writes history now. Your turn to be oppressed. We must first reverse the balance of power before we’ll talk about equal and uniform rights for all. And we are exceptional; and while some of us may be at fault, you cannot accuse people ‘like’ me. Take it. Apologize now, and always.

I find this strange, no matter which side it comes from.

Ah, this terrible eviction of the elite….

What’s happening? People are occupying residences in Delhi’s posh locations even though they are no longer entitled to. This is (what someone else calls) “The Lutyens’ Crisis” in Delhi, India.

Who are these occupants? Former ministers, ex-Members of Parliament, bureaucrats and officials who served under governments, artistes, sportspersons, journalists, totaling about 800 persons who have overstayed their allotted time, some by decades. “The practice of allotting houses to non governmental persons started during the reign of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but the maximum allotments has happened during the tenures of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. While the Culture Ministry recommended names of eligible accredited journalists, Sports Ministry of eminent sportsmen and Home Ministry decided on those under threat from terrorist groups.” [says Manorama Online]

What are they saying? That these are all mala fide intentions of the ruling establishment against the opposition at this time.

Those who grew up in India before this century know of this culture of elite ‘squatters.’ Those who knew someone who worked for a central or state government knew it even better; if you were not at the ministerial or portfolio level, you had to leave when your time at a government flat was up, or you had to pay market rent (which took most of the paycheck under the payscale at the time).

Somehow, this mentality of rewarding a Darwinian ascent to a top job with material benefits for life to the individual and his/her extended family became so commonplace that no one questioned it, and indeed most even aspired to it. If you got those jobs, you were set for life.

Then as now, when people make the A-list of achievement, material honors accompany awards. This is known, accepted, aspired to.

But two complaints intertwine here:

1.That bureaucrats and their dependents should think of and claim state subsidized housing as a reward for their ‘seat’ in office well beyond their time in office.

  1. That stars in the worlds of culture and sports should think that they, too, deserve a ‘show’ of respect from the government in the form of material rewards throughout their lifetime.

And I want to connect point # 2 to the ‘Award Wapsi’ torrent in India, supposedly performed as a show of no-confidence in the current Prime Minister of India and his supporters, and also to the points made by a few film actors that they would not return their national awards because they felt they had been honored by the people and not by a particular government. I had praised the latter position without understanding the former (those who returned their awards but not the cash or the material rewards that had accompanied the awards). Now, I think I understand the mentality: high-achievers in media and culture and communication industries, if groomed to think their efforts would be rewarded materially by the central government, would naturally look upon those awards as a badge of recognition by a government, no matter if the institution giving them the awards was a government body or not. And they would expect each successive government to continue to honor them as they think they should be treasured. Trouble is, this sort of award-reward relationship is one imagined between the artiste and the government as a political body, not between the artiste and the people who choose to honor the artiste. Further trouble: the attitude of entitlement on the part of certain artistes, as if awards and honors are due payments, not gifts and symbolic means of respect. The artistes who returned the awards perhaps forgot that the awards are understood to be a sign of popular recognition, no matter if the actual people voting for the awardees were a select and elite in-group. Only those who think that the awards are signs of favor from a ruling government (as if the artistes were durbaaris at court) would show their pique by returning them. If they had meant to act against the intolerance they detect in the nation, they would have gone on public media to engage with the people at large in public debate. It is only when the idea of the nation in the minds of the elites becomes so circumscribed that it cannot extend beyond what exists within the award-giving, the award-receiving, and the award-influencing crowd that such a gesture of ‘return’ can be described as a gesture of protest against intolerance instead of an un-artistic gesture of no-confidence in a political party they may or may not like.

It is mind-boggling to find that respected and socially innovative achievers find it ethical and moral to break the rules that apply to all junior government servants. Why do those who are the nation’s most honored feel the nation owes them so disproportionately much for their hard work? Did they work only for the nation? Not really, most of them reject nationalism of all stripes. Did they never make any money from their achievements? Rhetorical question.

In anger the common citizen might well ask: What have you really given back? Returned awards do not equal service. Or do you not believe that others are owed, too? Are the nation’s coffers your personal allotment?

And I will ask: Why do some enormously talented, educated and intelligent people behave as if all that they feel is owed to them must be translated into material benefits? Is honor not enough?

The ‘mentality that ‘the nation owes me’ must go.

Opinion: On anthems and faiths

[Thus I anticipate my derisive critics: allow me to parade my ignorance. You may have your say later and in more public fora, I am sure, than this obscure page. And yes, I know you will take from my ill-informed arguments what you need to build your own powerful ones. ]

Within the context of the ‘Intolerance’ debates in India, some rejoice because it has been declared: ‘It is constitutional not to stand for the national anthem of India.’

Since it is so, therefore one may use any excuse or rationale to refuse to stand. The law is not broken, therefore all is well. And so ethics falls to belief.

What was the precipitating incident? This Indian Muslim family refused and was asked to leave the theatre.

An insistence on respect for the nation is seen by some as an intolerant imposition of majority (Hindu) norms on one of India’s minority communities. Just like before. Those Hindus, even multiple imperialisms haven’t taught them how to tolerate.

Some other members of non-Hindu communities do not see a conflict between faith and nation, religion and respect. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHLd1VjRfzk. But these are the people on the street. Aam aadmi. The bourgeoisie. Philistines. #Modimorons. Bhakts. What do they know?

The nation, after all, according to enlightened postcolonial intellectuals, is dead! Never again should we stand…etc. Hinduism was a construct of the British. The Indian nation was a construct of the British. Postcolonial enlightenment demands that both be cast out. Along with things such as patriotism, but do bring in Harvard whenever possible please, especially at places such as the Kumbh Mela. ‘We’ like being pre-national and post-national at once. Our own cohort of intellectuals have crafted a logic and rhetoric to make it possible, of course the ordinary Indian cannot understand or accept the vision of the subcontinent we are trying to fund and craft.

If my tone has been a touch acid so far, the next bit is straightforward.

My point is utilitarian and democratic: if you wish to avail of the benefits of citizenship in India as a member of a minority community (Special Personal Law above the law of the land, affirmative action, paid pilgrimages, money for every girl child born into specific religions, etc.; India has over 80% constitutional reservations for people of various communities and caste groups and sects, even ‘Hindu’ minorities) then you owe something to the nation. You cannot expect the country at large to submit to your demands for wellness in this life while you invest everything you get in your personal concept of the hereafter as enshrined in this or that faith. Your faith may tell you that the opinions of those who do not support your faithful behavior do not matter, but the rest of India does not need to voluntarily submit to one-sided transactional citizenship, not even when their elites tell them to, especially if your actions and loyalties support the dismantling of said nation.

You are not permitted to forego your debts or your duties if you have enjoyed your rights until now. And these apply to every state, to every disgruntled person who claims discrimination and economic backwardness as an excuse for destructive public acts, to every apologist for a libertarian, existentialist agenda in militant activity against bad faith. Take what you can give, and take and give as much as is mutually agreed upon.

If you do not wish to stand for the symbols of the nation, show your respect to the nation by some other means, and do not enter the theatre (of film or nation) until the anthem is over. If all such symbols offend you, do not ask for any special benefits from the nation by virtue of the same belief-system (religion, non-religion) that makes you a minority. Or a majority, for that matter.

We are all, supposedly, talking and fighting over a nation we want the current hapless ‘India’ to be. Make it equitable. Make it democratic.

And please make the constructed (nation, act)and the critiqued (act, law, custom) unique to the locale (the Indian subcontinent). The version of secular democracy that should be allowed to evolve in India — through the daily negotiations of the ordinary public en route to individual life goals — may not coincide with Enlightenment-inherited or foreign-foundation-funded values of what experts think it should be. And that’s as it should be.

 

Pie charts

Three links. Yours to read, juxtapose, ponder.

My view: the pie (India’s distributable resources)  is not endless, people. Let’s also talk about how to grow it in size while we decide how to fight over how to divide it up.

A South Asia without borders is also a region without a single entity to provide subsidized healthcare, aid to victims of natural disasters, incentive to industry and technology, and the privileges of reservations.

A call to divide India up still further. (Other bits of supposedly “impeccable logic” from Pakistan and JNU. ) Please set these against this call for 100 % caste-based reservations in India.

Who gets what land? What industry? How is the reservation system to be enforced if regional majorities impose their own rule in each state? Will we resettle minorities to areas where they are majorities? I wish these learned people who write such articles and propose such policy changes would consider the massive upheaval, conflict and resentment they are instigating.

Above all, how is the logic of more power to regions compatible with centrally decided logics of affirmative actions? Should India convert to a loose semi-autonomous coalition? As before the British Raj? Shall we wait for another ‘settler colonial’?

Songs of Nations

The Tale of Kings, Rajkahini, (2015), has a song of warning. And its warning is meant to rise above the complex dialectic of opinions on why audiences will listen to it and why they should not.

Some will say, with painstaking accuracy, that the song ‘Bharot bhagyo bidhaata’ is not the Indian National Anthem. The Anthem is comprised of the few lines of Rabindranath Tagore’s original poem, this song in the film is the rest of the poem. Artistes will stress they are producing culture, Bengal, music, Tagore, mela-mesha, aman ki asha, tolerance, even warning, and certainly they are not promoting nationalism. India is not their focus, Bengal is, Bangladesh is. What will be heard of their fine distinction?

Some will listen and be roused by the familiar notes of an anthem they had forgotten to sing, and then felt forbidden to sing (it is surely too parochial, too unmodern, too jingoistic to sing for a nation whose structure gives you the mediocre benefits of its citizenship) and all in conjunction with the faces and names of singers and actors they admire.

Some will be moved to tears by the beauty of the words and the symbolism of the music, in which they will hear longing and belonging to a home, see memories of a fair place, a distant ‘city on a hill,’  and remember a time before the intensification of religious and ethnic tensions in the subcontinent. They won’t stand to attention and salute a flag or a symbol, but they will feel the pull of love and longing for the spaces they call ‘bharot’ in the same place in their hearts where they keep all songs of lost innocence. Nation, god and fate are powerful words to put into any memory, any song.

And some others will see a critique of nations. They will see the blood and corpses that built the wall of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and will warn the masses that such are nations. At least, such are nations whose boundaries were drawn by modern colonizers, and that is why, they will say, we must seek to re-draw those lines to suit better the nations and tribes and kingdoms and dreams we had before the world entered the age of nations. We need to re-order and keep re-ordering our world for the ‘better.’ Let’s start with the concept of ‘India.’

This is a time of confronting the nation, accepting it or rejecting it, a time of denunciations, and a time for the making of art about it. A time when nationalist sentiment roused by wayward echoes of anthems can be denounced as negative, and people can be taught what to think of the fate of the land beneath their feet. They will be taught to choose against whatever primal defense they will be roused to by the echoes of the Anthem. And many will do so. This is still a safe time.

Some others, good audiences, will see a warning of what happens when too many divided peoples begin to fight for what they want with axe and gun and knife. Perhaps they think that films and scenes such as these will tell people to turn away from militant nationalism.

I think yet some others will look at the path to a separate nation, will see it made possible by a bridge of corpses, and will think they can pay the price and do it.

Nation, god and fate are powerful words to put into any memory, any song.

The germination experiment

We had imagined that everyone had wanted bright lights and running water, music halls and conveniences. But ultimately, the nature of the pressure generated from being crammed into smaller spaces than humans had ever been in before was different from the ecological and infrastructural pressures we had predicted.

They became pressures of preserving an identity, of keeping privacy and separateness, of keeping apart. They became problems of assimilation, of integration, of a pressing need to say ‘who am I? And who are you?’

Ultimately, it became a distinction by identification of ‘what are you?’

Questions of worth, keeping up, matching what one has to the rest of the pack one desires to be in, deliberately differentiating oneself from the larger group, a proud distinction in the crowd. The pressure of strangers was perceived as pressure to move away from what one was, what one had brought with or saved of oneself when one came to the new place and the crowd. So we pushed back. Strangers not welcome. They intruded on our dreams of what we had thought our future would be.

Trouble was, those dreams had been based on the characteristics of a past that was already changing under our feet. You cannot enlarge and project the past into a realistic future; the past is the known, the smaller and more contained world, and the future is by definition the threshold of the unknown.

Some say we don’t have our backs to the past and our faces to the future. Rather, we have our backs to the future and faces to the past, so that all of time and experience is an unrolling ribbon of inclusive history. We look over our shoulders at the unknown. But that inclusive vision must still use the combat tools of modern historiography in order to secure change in every new moment of the present (or the past).

And even in that, the strange past intrudes like a morphing virus. What we dislike about the intrusion of the strange into our consciousness — the stranger, the new odd neighbor, the strange dresses and customs, the disaster, the irritating actions of others that force us to change our route to heaven or hell — is the way they spoil our dreams.

And the new ones who enter old spaces, the migrants wanted by one group and not another, at one time and not another? Their lives are also attempts at historiography. They also come into new spaces and hope to keep some parts of the old they left behind, and they try to re-create from the seeds in their memories, in a petri-dish as it were, a new entity: the reborn old world that they fled from or that they watched sicken and change or simply abandoned for better prospects.

All these worlds and their thought-bubble Edens, jostling in the same space. And not enough earth to let all be full-grown entities.

There cannot ever be those old worlds again. Nor even nouveau ones. Each group of people has grown far beyond what their past was, what their past had once made possible. But the earth has not grown. We are tree-tops choking each other in the slow fight to air or death. Look to our roots.