Category Archives: History

Eric Hobsbawm: An Uncommon Life

Eric Hobswam (1917- 01 October 2012) is no more.

I first read Hobsbawm’s three volume work on the 19th century in the early nineties, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those were the years of intellectual disarray- and the first piecing realization was that my history of humankind started from Marx, I knew little of even extant socialist traditions, not to mention the Enlightenment and Renaissance. Hobsbawm’s writings, particularly his 3 volume trilogy  formed the anchor around which I got introduced to 19th century history and also the history of socialism.

It was the late Mohit Sen who introduced me to Hobsbawm’s works. He had been a student of Eric Hobsbawm in the 1940s Cambridge and he recounted a number of anecdotes about him that made me feel closer to Hobsbawm- his ability to rattle off statistics even when he was just about 30, his lectures that were attended by students from all over the university and his letters to Mohit Sen over the decades.

Both went on to recount those years in their respective biographies, though Mohit must have felt very crestfallen on discovering that Hobsbawm had not even mentioned his name on his otherwise long recollection with Indian students, while Mohit  spent considerable ink on his former teacher.

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What is the People’s History of the World?

British writer Chris Harman, author of A People’s History of the World (2008) explains in an interview about why he wrote the book at the blog Grits & Roses

I wrote the book out of frustration at the fact that although there were many radical accounts of particular episodes and phases in history, mainly influenced by the insights of Marx and Engels, there was not over-reaching account. In the earlier part of the book the major influence was the Australian archaeologists of the first half of the 20th Century, Gordon Childe. But his account had to be updated to take into account new research by archaeologists and radical anthropologists like Richard Lee and Eleanor Leacock since his death in 1957. For the Roman period there was the writing of St Croix, for India the work of D D Kosambi, Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar, for the rise of slavery, Eric Williams and CLR James, for Britain that of Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson, for the French revolution Albert Soboul and Andre Guerin,…and so on.
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VG Kiernan

For those of us in South Asia, Victor Kiernan was known primarily as the translator of Mohammad Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. His works as a historian are relatively unknown. Even his translations, for that matter, are not so much read as they are appreciated, mainly because few need to when they can read the original in Urdu. His relative ignorance in India is also difficult to understand because he was one of the few of the British Marxist Historians who actually spent some time in India. In Kiernan’s case, he was even married to an Indian lady, though for a short time. For all this, however, India (and Pakistan) seems to have been a passing interest for him and his personal and intellectual association ended pretty much around 1950. He lived to the ripe age of 95, and passed on earlier this week on 18th February.

A google search yesterday led to a tract ‘Marxism and Gramsci‘ (pdf), written by Kiernan  in 1972 when Gramsci’s works were being introduced to English readers. Besides a number of insightful and critical comments on both Marxism and Gramsci, he provides a comment on the state of Marxism in India as well:

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Visions Belied

Independence Day of Pakistan is on 14th August, that of India, 15th August.

This post, a slightly abridged version of the one written two years ago, reflects on the speeches that Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru made on 11 August 1947 and midnight of 14/15 August 1947 respectively.

***

Jawahar Lal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah were delivering the most important speeches of their lives on the eve of India/ Pakistan’s freedom from British rule.

Both had lead their peoples from the front and carried immense responsibilities on their shoulders. Both must have been aware that their speeches were historic not only for them as individuals and leaders but also in the life of their respective nations.

It is to be presumed, therefore that these were carefully prepared and sought to both paraphrase the past and look into the future.

As one reads the two speeches, one finds them startingly similar.

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Kosambi Festival of Ideas

Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (1907- 1966) embodied the quintessential Indian Renaissance man that came into its own in the immediate years after independence.

He was a polyglot- an accomplished mathematician and a self- trained historian. He was well trained in Sanskrit and had a very good knowledge of Buddhism acquired from his father, a noted Buddhist scholar of his times. Educated in the United States, he returned to India not only to make contributions to mathematics but, above all, lay the basis of the current historiography of ancient India.

His orientation was firmly Marxist, and his works are a very good example of how the Marxist method can be used to give surprisingly innovative results. Many of his formulations have been proven incorrect by subsequent researches, but anyone reading his works even today cannot be but impressed not only by the wide scholarship and fascinating field work that he carried out, but also illuminating insights.

His deeply humanistic streak that still inspires many to read his works is best reflected in his own words.

“The subtle mystic philosophies, torturous religions, ornate literature, monuments teeming with intricate sculpture and delicate music of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed of the ‘cultured’ strata, sullen, uncoordinated discontent among the workers, general demoralization, misery, squalor and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other, one is the expression of the other…it is necessary to understand that history is not a sequence of haphazard events but is made by human beings in the satisfaction of daily needs.”

The DD Kosambi Festivals of Ideas being celebrated in Goa right now was inaugurated by Vice President MH Ansari on 5th February. P Sainath delivered a lecture on the 6th and Romila Thapar, who can easily be considered his most deserving succesor (along possibly with RS Sharma), had a talk yesterday. The events are being covered at the DD Kosambi blog. A news video there covers the speeches of Vice President Ansari and Dr. Meera Kosambi, DD Kosambi’s sociologist daughter.
 
For anyone who at any time has bathed in that suffusing glow of enlightenment when reading any of Kosambi’s works, reading and watching (the video) of the tributes to him, would be both nostalgic and re- assuring.

(A short biographical note appears here, as well as some of his other writings.)

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Suharto- ‘Water will wear away the Stone’

Death, even of dreaded criminals like Suharto who died today, comes as a shock. It is also a reminder of events- in this case, the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians in the 1960s- mostly communists in a predominantly Muslim country. Outside the officially communist countries, Indonesia had the largest communist party in the world before Suharto brutally decimated it. (news report at npr)

Closer home, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr Modi- he brought ‘economic development’ and ‘stability’ to the country.

Here is a poem by the great Indonesian poet, WS Rendra written during the 1998 student demonstrations that brought down Suharto.

Because we have to eat roots
while grain piles up in your storeroom…
Because we live crowded together
and you have more space than you need…
Therefore we are not on the same side.Because we’re all creased and crumpled
and you’re immaculate…
Because we’re crowded and stifled
and you lock the door…
Therefore we are suspicious of you.

Because we’re abandoned in the street
and you own all the shelter…
Because we’re caught in floods
while you have parties on pleasure craft…
Therefore we do not like you.
Because we are silenced
and you never shut up…
Because we are threatened
and you impose your will by force…
therefore we say NO to you.

Because we are not allowed to choose
and you can do what you like…
Because we wear only sandals
and you use your rifles freely…
Because we have to be polite
and you have the prisons…
therefore NO and NO to you.

Because we are like a flowing river
and you are a stone without a heart
the water will wear away the stone.

Source

As to the barbaric political repression under the former general, Tariq Ali quotes the Indonesian writer Pripit Rochijat:

Usually the corpses were no longer recognisable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn open. The smell was unimaginable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled upon, bamboo stakes. And the departure of the corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] banner grandly flew . . . Once the purge of Communist elements got under way, clients stopped coming for sexual satisfaction. The reason: most clients–and prostitutes–were too frightened, for, hanging up in front of the whorehouses, there were a lot of male Communist genitals–like bananas hung out for sale.’

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An Interview with Sunil Janah

Faiz’s photograph Faiz’s photograph by Sunil Janah
(I am now doubtful about the earlier picture attributed to Sunil Janah, so I have replaced it with one I am more sure about)

Thanks to Kamla Bhatt, we have podcasts (Part 1 and Part 2) of an interview with the legendary photographer Sunil Janah. Sunil Janah was one of the finds of the CPI General Secretary PC Joshi and became well known in the 1940s for pictures of the Bengal famine.There is a video of his photographs too that appears below.

Youtube Link

A number of pictures by Sunil Janah have been previously used in this blog (with due credit, of course). At the top of this post appears the famous picture of Faiz, with a very,well, Faizian look.

Link to Sunil Janah’s website.

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The Battle of Algiers- in Iraq

World Literature’s November issue has excerpts from “My Father, The Rebel”, written by Maissa Bey., the daughter of Larbi bin M’hidi on whom was based one of the characters in the film The Battle of Algiers, a  movie as disturbing today as it was when it was released in 1966. The daughter’s memoir about her father, who was tortured, denied a trail and hanged by the French colonialists during what was termed as the ‘Battle of Algiers’, is touching. The author’s father was summarily executed by the French colonialists, along with others like Larbi bin M’hidi, the FLN head on whom was based one of the characters in the movie The Battle of Algiers, a  movie as disturbing today as it was when first released in 1966.*

Screened at the Pentagon in 2003, the film has been subsequently re- released and has often been recalled in context of the Iraqi “resistance”. In the same issue of the magazine, the book’s translator Suzanne Ruta brings out a more gory dimension of the movie.

The film- released in 1966- could only speculate about the death of M’Hidi. Now we know that General Paul Ausssaresses, one of the commanding officers in Algiers that year, had him hanged at a farm outside the city a month after he was arrested. Ben M’Hidi died surrounded by his jailers, who denied him his last request, that he be allowed to die with his eyes open. They blindfolded him and then told the world that he had committed suicide in his jail cell with his necktie….. Protected by amnesties concluded in the 1960s, Aussaresses could not be persecuted for war crimes. But he was prosecuted successfully for ‘complicity in apology for war crimes’, along with his publisher, then stripped of his rank and the right to wear his uniform in public.

And yet, in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the run-up to the Iraq war, Aussaresses’s shocking book, in English translation, was studied by our (i.e. US) military as a contribution to the new debate on the uses of torture. “To cause sufferring is not the same as torture, no matter how intense or sustained the pain- as long as there is no other alternative and the pain is in proportion to the desired outcome”. This sounds like Rumsfield or Gonsalves. In fact, it is taken from instructions given his troops in Algiers in 1957 by Aussaresse’s colleague and mentor in the Battle of Algiers, Colonel Roger Trinquier. The resemblance is probably not accidental.

A note about the online World Literature site: limited pages available online, and whatever is there is in barely readable font color and the pages appear as image files! Apparently this is a further regression from the pdf files that used to appear earlier.

If you have not seen the movie, it is very highly recommended. It was much discussed when its director Gillo Pontecorvo passed away a year ago, on 22 Oct 2006.

In the trailer below, M’Hidi appears briefly 1:21s from the end (the bespectacled man speaking the sentence: “It is difficult to start a revolution, even more to sustain one and still more to win one.”)

youtube link

*Note: This blogger’s (imaginative!) deduction that Marissa Bey is Larbi bin M’hidi’s daughter, stands corrected by Suzanne Ruta who has commented:

Bey is NOT the daughter of Larbi Ben M’Hidi…the French tortured and summarily executed thousands of Algerian rebels, her father and Ben M’Hidi met the same fate, but M’Hidi was the head of the FLN in Algiers, Bey’s father was a school- teacher in el Boghari…I took a round about way into the subject, sorry if it wasn’t clear. Part I is about Algeria and the ways its history has been used lately by the Pentagon, part II is about Bey.

Also the essay stands by itself, Bey hasnt written a book length memoir about her father, but she has written a number of novels, all marked by early trauma.

glad to see people are reading WLT. best wishes, S Ruta

Thanks for the correction, Suzanne! And thanks, of course, for the translation and the essay.

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Discovering Che- Forty Years Later

“It is impossible to eclipse the life of Che, nobody could do that. One could consider themselves the successor of Che only if they give their life for humanity.”

- Evo Morales, first indigenous President of Bolivia speaking today on the 40th anniversary of the Latin American revolutionary’s summary execution

***

My discovery of Che Guevara started on a false note when I met “Guevara”, the tall, lanky leader of the student union. He had just managed to flunk, I believe for the second time, his second year in B.A in the local government college. A sticker on the front of his light chocolate coloured Vespa two wheeler had a picture of a man with flaming eyes and another on the rear number plate  read “Guevara”. He called himself “Guevara”, all other students called him “Guevara” and that is what I thought his real name was– until I discovered his real name. My curiosity simply sky rocked: who is, or in this case was Guevara? Only then I discovered, that our local hero had taken the name after a person called Che Guevara, the harbinger of the Cuban revolution.

I went on to read Che’s biography at the library. The otherwise informative hagiography written with typical Soviet dryness failed, however, to transform me into a wide- eyed admirer of the Argentina born revolutionary, even as I sympathized with his politics.

Meanwhile, the “Guevara” that I knew went on to flunk a few more examinations, finally dropping off and taking up a distance education course to complete his bachelors and then his law degree from the local university. By then, his escapades were well known. He had always been very energetic and had once slapped a senior political activist in his face during a drunken brawl. I mean he was energetic in that sort of way.

Soon thereafter, on my first travel abroad, I chanced on a just published book in Amsterdam airport- The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara and found myself carried away by the adventures of the 23 year old medical student venturing to travel all over South America on a motorbike. His descriptions of a continent that he, as Simon Bolivar before him, believed to be essentially one, are evocative, touching and peppered with insights. For the brief time that Che and his friend Alberto spend with the inmates of a leprosy hospital, for example, they establish an instant rapport.

‘Although it was very simple, one of the things which affected us most in Lima was the send- off we received from the hospitals inmates. They collected 100.50 soles (the local currency), which they presented to us with a very grandiloquent letter. Afterwards, some of them came up personally and some of them had tears in their eyes, spending time with them accepting their presents, sitting listening to football on the radio with them. If anything were to make us seriously specialize in leprosy, it would be the affection of the patients’.

This is how Che describes a working class couple in the copper mines of Chuquicamata.

‘In the light of a candle, drinking maté and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features stuck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language, he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife, and his children left in the care of a kindly neighbor, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades, who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea’. These copper mines – ‘ spiced with the lives of poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths, when all they want is to earn is their daily bread’- produce 20 percent of all the world’s copper…’

The book made me respect Che more than I did earlier and the reason was not far to seek.

Meeting the “Guevara” of my university had not been a pleasant experience. The Soviet book had dwelt on the political exploits and ideology of Che. The Motorcycle Diaries, on the other hand, presented the young Che, the Che that had not yet become a legend and was a well meaning, inquisitive medical student out to discover the people and humanity of South America– a continent bruised by centuries of colonization and conflict, much before he went on to discover an armed revolution there. The political Che, I realized, was an outgrowth of his deep seated humanism.

His legacy, however, has turned out to be an inversion in which his aura as an armed insurgent seems to overshadow his humanism.

To some extent this is understandable, after all if Marxism was the face of humanism for many in the twentieth century, armed revolution was nothing but an extension of the same in the 1960s South America and elsewhere. The appeal of his persona finds resonance in every upstart generation everywhere while the appeal of his humanism echoes only in the silence of the jungles as it were. The self- styled inheritors of his name and legacy continue to be all sorts- the lumpen as well as young people revolting without any cause in particular. Entrepreneurs profit from his name by printing his pictures on T- shirts and coffee mugs. Che, the revolutionary, has become a money-mill for his nemesis, Capital. Cuba wallows in his name to justify Castro’s dictatorship. His legacy, therefore, is confusing, and seems to appeal to all and sundry, and it is disconcerting to find his admirers especially among the  ‘wrong set’ of people, sending out wrong messages about the man.

In my case, for example, my introduction to Che started with a person with whom I would rather not be friends. It created little interest let alone respect for Che. Nevertheless, I persisted and tried to discover him in his politics, first via the Soviet hagiography and then via his book On Guerrilla Warfare. Both left me cold and uninspired.

I finally found Che in The Motorcycle Diaries, in the deep humanism of a 23 year old student, as frightened by a pair of a cat’s eyes in the night as anyone else in his place would be.

I realized then that to discover Che, one has to trudge through various layers of reality, through the phases in his life and his deeply sensitive reactions to the world that he lived in.

To discover Che, one has to go with him to his youth and grow up with him.

To discover Che, one has to accompany him to the ruins of Machu Picchu, and observe with him in quiet poignance- ‘gold doesn’t have the same quiet dignity as silver which acquires new charm as it ages’.

To discover Che, one has to realize that Che is talking as much about himself as about the ruins of Machu Picchu.

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Ramar Sethu and Common Sense

One does not have to be a Marxist to see common sense.

Romila Thapar writes on the Ramar Sethu controversy.

Some detailed discussion is necessary as to what would be the economic benefits of such a scheme in enhancing communication and exchange. Such benefits should also be seen in terms of the future of local livelihoods in case they are negatively affected. Are there plans for the occupational relocation of local communities that may at the end be at a disadvantage?  We have become a society so impressed with figures and graphs that we tend to forget that each number is actually a human being.

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PC Joshi on Gandhi

There is pathetically little on the web about  PC Joshi, the General Secretary of the CPI in the thirties and forties. While searching for his letters to the Mahatma, I found this quote which is worth remembering on the latter’s birthday on 2nd October.

…the secret of Gandhi’s greatness lay not in the absence of human failings and foibles, but in his inner restlessness, ceaseless striving and intense involvement in the problems of mankind. He was not a slave to ideas and concepts, [which] were for him also aids in grappling with human problems, and were to be reconsidered if they did not work”

- P.C. Joshi,  in  Gandhi and Nehru (quoted here)

Photo Credit: Comrade Sunil Janah, the ace photographer of the CPI during Joshi’s days

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Unsecular Ambiguities of Mohammad Ali Jinnah

Pervez Hoodbhoy, physicist, scholar, activist, has a most dispassionate appraisal of Jinnah’s attitude towards the secular state in the current issue of EPW (“Jinnah and the Islamic State: Setting the Record Straight”; Issue : VOL 42 No. 32 August 11 – August 17, 2007). He concludes that Jinnah’s attitude was at best ambiguous and often suited towards the inclinations of his immediate audience. The oft quoted part of his speech:
“You are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

made on 11 Aug 1947 regarding the attitude of the state towards non Muslims, Hoodbhoy feels is a valiant but insufficiently grounded attempt to project Jinnah as a secularist.

I think it is pointless to seek a consensus on the nature of the state that Jinnah wanted for Pakistan. He certainly did not want a theocracy or a Taliban state, nor one in which the non-Muslim minorities would be persecuted and harassed (as they are today). But Jinnah’s statements at different times and circumstances are far too widely spread out to conclude anything substantial beyond these truths. Not being sufficiently wellversed in Islamic history or theology, Jinnah’s allusions to establishing an Islamic state in Pakistan cannot be taken seriously. The future of Pakistan – how secular or how Islamic it is to be – can only be decided by the citizens of the country that Jinnah made.

In a related post comparing the speeches of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru, this blogger had observed:

Anti- Nehruvians who currently dominate the Indian scene blame Jawaharlal for the statist model of development that India followed, his perceived “softness” on Kashmir and for “pampering the minorities”.

In the same vein, Jinnah may also be held responsible for some of the faults in Pakistan today- for creating a State based on religion, and also for not having reared the next line of leadership.

But death deprived Jinnah the time and possibility of leading Pakistan- something that he shares with Mahatma Gandhi, which is probably the reason for the adulation that the Quaid e Azam still gets in Pakistan, like Gandhi gets in India, compared to the rather beleagured stature of Jawaharlal Nehru in India today.

In Pakistan, the view is that the country did not live up to the ideals of the Quaid e Azam.

In India, it is Jawaharlal Nehru who is blamed for not living up to the possibilities of India.

Hoodbhoy’s article just goes to underline how onerous the task for liberals in Pakistan is, with a very fragile defence for secularism in the speeches and writings of Pakistan’s last Congressman.

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Martin Luther King: “I am an Untouchable”

As chance would have it, when I picked up the autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography I Have a Dream at a bookstore yesterday, it opened on Chapter 13: Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, which is about his visit to India in 1959.

Reading on, I was struck by Dr. King’s experiences during this historic visit. admittedly, till this instant, I was not aware that he had ever visited India.

In fact, he was in India for one full month, which is a reasonably long duration.

His observations during the visit are striking, and speak of both the respect that he had for Mahatma Gandhi as well the sheer idealism that he seems to have experienced- in fact so surreal that it is almost suspicious.

We were looked upon as brothers, with the color of our skins as something of an asset. But the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and, colonial peoples in America, Africa, and Asia struggling to throw off racism and imperialism.

We had the opportunity to share our views with thousands of Indian people through endless conversations and numerous discussion sessions. I spoke before university groups and public meetings all over India. Because of the keen interest that the Indian people have in the race problem these meetings were usually packed.

This is in stark contrast to what most Africans or African- Americans would experience today and one wonders what Dr King would have written if he visited India today.

But what is most touching is the following anecdote that he recalls from a visit to a school for the (then so called) “untouchables” (now called the Dalits).

“I AM AN UNTOUCHABLE”

I remember when Mrs. King and I were in India, we journeyed down one afternoon to the southernmost part of India, the state of Kerala, the city of Trivandrum. That afternoon I was to speak in one of the schools, what we would call high schools in our country, and it was a school attended by and large by students who were the children of former untouchables ….

The principal introduced me and then as he came to the conclusion of his introduction, he says, “Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.”

And for a moment I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable ….

I started thinking about the fact: twenty million of my brothers and sisters were still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in an affluent society. I started thinking about the fact: these twenty million brothers and sisters were still by and large housed in rat-infested, unendurable slums in the big cities of our nation, still attending inadequate schools faced with improper recreational facilities.

And I said to myself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.”

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Inventing India

Arvind N Das, who died seven years ago at a tragically young age at 52, nevertheless packed a lot in his intense life. A product of the “Spring Thunder over India” in the late 1960s, he was part of the brilliant team at the Times of India in the late 1980s which is when one became acquainted with his insightful writings.

Trained as a historian, he moved, first to print journalism and then to the medium of TV setting up Asia Pacific Communications to produce a nuanced documentary on the history of India. In the documentary, as in his writings, he showed himself as a student of DD Kosambi to whom he dedicated the documentary that appeared in 13 parts on Doordarshan. He remained an engaged social historian in the tradition of DD Kosambi and EP Thompson.

In his book “India Invented”, he made the observation that India is not something waiting to be discovered, as Jawaharlal Nehru had treated it in his Discovery of India, but something that is to be constantly invented in the process of understanding it- that was his statement of praxis.

The first part of the documentary is now available at google videos. It is also available from Asia Pacific Communications and can be ordered, I believe, from the address given at the google videos site.

Link to Google Videos

Needless to say, it is a very ennobling, and educative experience to be able to watch this documentary once again. One of the best in the series is the one where Das delves into the emergence and decadence of Buddhism (part 5), though this one doesn’t seem to be available online as yet. DD Kosambi had himself written very insightfully on the decline of Buddhism in India in his collection of essays Exasperating Essays.

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A New Blog for DD Kosambi

I had set up a site on the Indian historian D.D. Kosambi many years back, perhaps in the late nineties, as a tribute to a man who has contributed so much to applying the dialectical method in investigating ancient Indian history. In my student days, it was very inspiring to read his books starting with The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline. Over the years I have received a number of emails on the site which only indicates the interest that still exists in Kosambi.

A lot more material is now available on the internet about D.D. Kosambi than when I started out. My initial project was to scan and make available on the internet works by the number of Marxists that have contributed to our understanding of India and its history. For various reasons, the original project never beyond putting up some of his works online.

Only a few months back, I was amazed to find that Arvind Gupta has made available all the significant works by Kosambi on the internet. It lessens my feeling of guilt at not having completed my initial project.

Since his death in 1966, many of Kosambi’s formulations have been disapproved. Still, his works retain their significance for their pioneering efforts and rigour that has laid the foundations of modern Indian historiography.

His quintessentially humanistic streak that still inspires many to read his works is best reflected in his own words.

“The subtle mystic philosophies, torturous religions, ornate literature, monuments teeming with intricate sculpture and delicate music of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed of the ‘cultured’ strata, sullen, uncoordinated discontent among the workers, general demoralization, misery, squalor and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other, one is the expression of the other…it is necessary to understand that history is not a sequence of haphazard events but is made by human beings in the satisfaction of daily needs.”

This blog will serve the purpose of collecting links to internet resources on Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi and his works. There is a Wikipedia entry on Kosambi now, and has a number of useful links, this blog will supplement the Wiki entry and link to a wider range of information on the internet.

The new blog is here.

Dr. Ambedkar and Sikhism

Kanshi Ram’s last rites were performed last week as per Buddhist rites. His family has apparently not approved of this. What is interesting in this episode is that Kanshi Ram was born in a Sikh family, and as far as I can recollect, he hasn’t ever said anything on the issue of Dalits and Sikhism- whose tenets deny casteism. Nor did he convert to Buddhism.
Kanshi Ram’s family said they suspected foul play in Kanshi Ram’s death and would file a case against Mayawati. They sought a probe into the circumstances leading to Kanshi Ram’s death and objected to the last rites being performed according to Buddhist traditions.

(news report)

However, there is more to the relationship between Dalits and Sikhism. The founder of the Dalit movement Dr. Ambedkar had once himself seriously considered conversion to Sikhism at one point. His interest then waned, though the reasons are not known, and he finally converted to Buddhism with half a million of his followers.

***

By 1935, Dr. BR Ambedkar’ s disgust with Hinduism and its caste system was complete. His patience at reforming Hinduism from within by securing for the untouchable castes the right to drinking water from public places, using metal utencils and receive education, was wearing thin. Earlier in 1929, he had advised his followers to embrace any religion that would give them respectability. Following this advice, some of his followers took to Islam.

Referring to his own personal decision in the matter, Ambedkar said that unfortunately for him, he was born a Hindu Untouchable. It was beyond his power to prevent that, but he declared that it was within his power to refuse to live under humiliating and ignoble conditions.

“ I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu”, he thundered.

He called for an end to the decade long struggles he had led for temple entry and which was brutally opposed by caste Hindus. Ambedkar’s call to the Untouchables to stop frittering away their energies over fruitless attempts and to devote themselves to carve out an honorable alternative for themselves shocked the nation, especially the caste Hindus.

As to conversion, he said it will be done in five years and he would reconsider his decision if caste Hindus assured him by positive results. He added that he wanted to absorb his community into some powerful community and was thinking of embracing Sikhism.

On April 13-14 1936, Dr. Ambedkar addressed the Sikh Mission Conference at Amritsar. He had earlier indicated that this would be his last speech he would deliver as a Hindu. The main feature of the conference, however, turned out to be the conversion of five prominent Depressed Class leaders of the Thiyya community of Kerala headed by Dr. Kuttir and 50 others from UP and Central Provinces to Sikhism.

In May 1936, he called a conference of the Mahar community to which he belonged, and his abominations and the condemnation of Hinduism was biting, coarse and yet smashing and dissecting. He ended his speech with a quotation from the lips of the dying Buddha- he asked his people to seek refuge in Buddhism. This quotation from the Buddha led to speculations that Bhimrao was veering towards Buddhism. He himself, however, avoided a straight answer. A few days before, however, he had sent his son and nephew to Harminder Sahib as a gesture of goodwill towards Sikhism. They stayed there for over one and half months.

By June of that year, Ambedkar after consulting his colleagues decided to embrace Sikhism- his friends and colleagues felt that he should seek the support of the Hindu Mahasabha leaders in their conversion to Sikhism, for the Mahasabha leaders believed that Sikhism was not an alien religion. It was an offspring of Hinduism and therefore the Sikhs and Hindus were allowed to intermarry and the Sikhs were allowed to be members of the Mahasabha. In his proposal, Dr. Moonje agreed to the inclusion of these neo- Sikhs in the list of Scheduled Classes and enjoy the benefits under the Poona Pact, if Ambedkar preferred to embrace Sikhism in preference to Islam and Christianity and that he agreed to counteract the Muslim movement to draw the Depressed Classes into the Islamic fold.

Ambedkar said that he preferred to embrace Sikhism which offered less than social, political and economic power than Islam and less material attractions than Christianity (western nations). He favoured Sikhism in the “interests of Hindus”.

Dr. Moonje and Dr. Kurtakoti (the Shankracharya) in giving their blessings obvioulsy chose the “least evil”. In choosing thus, they also showed their belief that Sikhism is another branch of Hinduism and that it owed the same culture and principles.

Gandhi voiced concern over the proposed conversion, but Ambedkar continued to increase his contacts with the Sikh Mission. There was even a proposal to start a college in Bombay for the proposed neo- Sikhs. 13 of his followers who were asked to study the Sikh religion at Amritsar actually converted to Sikhism and returned to Bombay, where, writes Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer, they were coldly received as they had only been asked by Ambedkar to study and not to convert.

Soon, Bhimrao went on a tour of Europe. It seems after returning in 1937 his love for Sikhism had evaporated. He continued to talk of his proposed conversion though, and in 1955 along with half a million adherents went over to Buddhism.

(Much of the above I had written in 1997, and as far as I recollect is mainly based on the notes I took from the wonderful biography of Dr. Ambedkar written by Dhananjay Keer.)

Update: The Story of Kerala’s first Sikh Convert
(Thanks to Bajinder for pulling the story out of his archives)

a story by Ramesh Babu
in hindustan times(cannot get exact date)

Nintyone-year old Sardar Bhupinder Singh from Kadakarapally is the only living Malayalee Sikh in Kerala. People call him “Sikh Chettan”, that is, elder brother.

On Baisakhi day in 1936, fed up of caste barriers, Bhaskaran embraced Sikhism and became Bhupinder Singh. he was not alone. Around 300 families, mostly from backward castes, converted at that time.

There is a historical background to this conversion. During Vaikkom Satyagraha in 1922, at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi, a few Akalis came to Vaikkom to make langar for satyagrahis. After successful completion of satyagraha and the Temple Entry Proclamation, some of the Akalis stayed back. Some youth were attracted by the discliplined life and joined Sikhism.

Bhupinder has a different story to tell: “After Vaikkom Satyagraha, backward castes basked in a renewed vigour. At that time, Ambedkar exhorted people that if you don’t get self-respect and dignity in your own religion, you should get out of it. This prompted many of us to join Sikhism.

Initially it was tough. “My father was liberal enough but his brother opposed my conversion tooth and nail. But I stuck to my belief.”

After becoming a Sikh, Bhupinder went to Gujaranwallah and Lahore for theological studies. He worked some time in Khalsa College. But the returns were inadequate. So he joined the British Royal Army as a technician in 1940. He retired in 1968 as Subedar.

Though he married a Sikh, his daughters and sons are Hindus and married under Hindu Ezhava customs. “When the community shrank we found it very difficult to find matches. So none of us insisted the second generation to follow our example. Many families later re-converted to Hinduism. It is one of the reasons for our decline in Kerala.”

Bhupinder complains that when numbers became dwindled, the Sikh Committee stopped showing any interest in them.

Every Sunday Bhupinder visits the only gurdwara in the State of Elamakkara in Kochi. Recently the Kochi Gurdwara Committee honoured him with a saropa.

The nonagenarian always keeps a low profile. “Once S S Barnala came here. He was eager to know more about Malayalee Sikhs. He asked me so many things and wanted me to write a book, but I politely refused.:

Leading a solitary life after his wife’s death, Sardar Bhupinder has only one wish: “Till thee last breath I want to be a true follower of the Panth.”


Picture Acknowledgement

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The Underdogs- A Novel of the Mexican Revolution by Mariano Azuela


Few novelists have managed to create a successful short novel- some that instantly spring to mind are Turgenev (Father and Sons, Rudin), Juan Rulfo (Pedro Paramo), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Fiftyfive Five ), even Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and perhaps a few more complete the list.

To this short list also belongs Mariano Azuela’s classic novel about the Mexican Revolution: The Underdogs. In a mere 150 pages, Azuelo captures the tribulations of an Indian peasant leader- Demetrio Marcías and through him, the tribulations of the Mexican Revolution. Suffice would be to quote a a few lines from the novel that also serves as the summary of the novel:

Villa? Obregon? Carranza? Who do I care? I love the Revolution like I love the volcano that’s erupting! The volcano because it is a volcano; the Revolution because it’s the Revolution!… But the stones left above or below after the cataclysm? What are they to me?

“Why do you keep on fighting, Demetrio?”

Demetrio, frowning deeply, absentmindedly picks up a small stone and throws it to the bottom

of the canyon. He stares pensively over the precipice and says:

“Look at the stone, how it keeps going…”

The stone falling into a bottomless precipice is allegorical about the fate of the Mexican Revolution itself.

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Midnight’s Children- Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah

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This post reflects on the speeches that Quaid e Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru made on 11 August 1947 and midnight of 14/15 August 1947 respectively.

Independence Day of Pakistan is on 14 th August, that of India, 15th August.

Thanks to Adil for his wonderful post at All Things Pakistan, and the comments there, that led me to read the two speeches in their entirety.

***

Jawahar Lal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah were delivering the most important speeches of their lives on the eve of India/Pakistan’s freedom from British rule.

Both had lead their peoples from the front and carried immense responsibilties on their shoulders. Both must have been aware that their speeches were historic not only for them as individuals and leaders but also in the life of their respective nations.

It is to be presumed, therefore that these were carefully prepared and sought to both paraphrase the past and look into the future.

As one reads the two speeches, one finds them startingly similar.

Their thrust is similar, the challenges that they foresee for their nations are nearly the same- in fact, each speech, with very little changes, could have been delivered in either country- Jawaharlal’s in Pakistan and Jinnah’s in India.

They differ only in their style and to some extent in their stress on certain themes.

Jawaharlal’s speech is full of literary, some would say even rhetorical, flourish while that of Jinnah is more pragmatic and straightforward.

Both speeches are, trusting that internet versions are faithfully reproduced, relative short. JLN’s speech is about 1100 words, and MAJ’s about 1700.

Both the speeches dwell very little on the British and look more into their own people.

Jawaharlal seeks to place the independence in context of a long, even mythical, history:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long supressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of Inida and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?

On the other hand, Jinnah speaks of much more practical issues like bribery, corruption and nepotism and the role of the State in ensuring law and order:

The first observation that I would like to make is this: You will no doubt agree with me that the first duty of a government is to maintain law and order, so that the life, property and religious beliefs of its subjects are fully protected by the State.

The second thing that occurs to me is this: One of the biggest curses from which India is suffering – I do not say that other countries are free from it, but, I think our condition is much worse – is bribery and corruption. That really is a poison. We must put that down with an iron hand and I hope that you will take adequate measures as soon as it is possible for this Assembly to do so.

Black-marketing is another curse. Well, I know that blackmarketeers are frequently caught and punished. Judicial sentences are passed or sometimes fines only are imposed. Now you have to tackle this monster, which today is a colossal crime against society, in our distressed conditions, when we constantly face shortage of food and other essential commodities of life. A citizen who does black-marketing commits, I think, a greater crime than the biggest and most grievous of crimes. These blackmarketeers are really knowing, intelligent and ordinarily responsible people, and when they indulge in black-marketing, I think they ought to be very severely punished, because the entire system of control and regulation of foodstuffs and essential commodities, and cause wholesale starvation and want and even death.

The next thing that strikes me is this: Here again it is a legacy which has been passed on to us. Along with many other things, good and bad, has arrived this great evil, the evil of nepotism and jobbery. I want to make it quite clear that I shall never tolerate any kind of jobbery, nepotism or any any influence directly of indirectly brought to bear upon me. Whenever I will find that such a practice is in vogue or is continuing anywhere, low or high, I shall certainly not countenance it.

But both underline the need for a secular State in their respective countries. JLN says:

We are citizens of a great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.

Jinnah devotes a lot more words than Jawaharlal on this theme and is much more emphatic:

We should begin to work in that spirit and in course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community, because even as regards Muslims you have Pathans, Punjabis, Shias, Sunnis and so on, and among the Hindus you have Brahmins, Vashnavas, Khatris, also Bengalis, Madrasis and so on, will vanish. Indeed if you ask me, this has been the biggest hindrance in the way of India to attain the freedom and independence and but for this we would have been free people long long ago. No power can hold another nation, and specially a nation of 400 million souls in subjection; nobody could have conquered you, and even if it had happened, nobody could have continued its hold on you for any length of time, but for this. Therefore, we must learn a lesson from this. You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. As you know, history shows that in England, conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some States in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. The people of England in course of time had to face the realities of the situation and had to discharge the responsibilities and burdens placed upon them by the government of their country and they went through that fire step by step. Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain and they are all members of the Nation.

Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

Again, Jinnah spends a lot more words on the justification of the partition (nearly 400 words):

I know there are people who do not quite agree with the division of India and the partition of the Punjab and Bengal. Much has been said against it, but now that it has been accepted, it is the duty of everyone of us to loyally abide by it and honourably act according to the agreement which is now final and binding on all. But you must remember, as I have said, that this mighty revolution that has taken place is unprecedented. One can quite understand the feeling that exists between the two communities wherever one community is in majority and the other is in minority. But the question is, whether it was possible or practicable to act otherwise than what has been done, A division had to take place. On both sides, in Hindustan and Pakistan, there are sections of people who may not agree with it, who may not like it, but in my judgement there was no other solution and I am sure future history will record is verdict in favour of it. And what is more, it will be proved by actual experience as we go on that was the only solution of India’s constitutional problem. Any idea of a united India could never have worked and in my judgement it would have led us to terrific disaster. Maybe that view is correct; maybe it is not; that remains to be seen. All the same, in this division it was impossible to avoid the question of minorities being in one Dominion or the other. Now that was unavoidable. There is no other solution. Now what shall we do? Now, if we want to make this great State of Pakistan happy and prosperous, we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor. If you will work in co-operation, forgetting the past, burying the hatchet, you are bound to succeed. If you change your past and work together in a spirit that everyone of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges, and obligations, there will be on end to the progress you will make.

On the other hand, Jawaharlal, speaks more about the need for economic and distributive justice, while Jinnah spares a sentence on this theme without, however, using the words “workers and peasants”. Clearly, the socialist inclinations of JLN contribute to this.

To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.

However great the stature of the leaders, it would be too much to expect them to sum up the past and the future aspirations of the millions of people of the sub- continent with surgical precision.

But one cannot help noticing that between the two of them, they are pretty much right in the priorities that they set out for their nations.

The future developments in both the countries have belied the hopes that their speeches contained. Nearly all the challenges that they indicate continue to plague the two nations. The speeches are rather contemporary in that sense.

And it is also here that the similarties between Jinnah and Jawaharlal end.

Anti- Nehruvians who currently dominate the Indian scene blame Jawaharlal for the statist model of development that India followed, his perceived “softness” on Kashmir and for “pampering the minorities”.

In the same vein, Jinnah may also be held responsible for some of the faults in Pakistan today- for creating a State based on religion, and also for not having reared the next line of leadership.

But death deprived Jinnah the time and possibility of leading Pakistan- something that he shares with Mahatma Gandhi, which is probably the reason for the adulation that the Quaid e Azam still gets in Pakistan, like Gandhi gets in India, compared to the rather beleagured stature of Jawaharlal Nehru in India today.

In Pakistan, the view is that the country did not live upto the ideals of the Quaid e Azam.

In India, it is Jawaharlal Nehru who is blamed for not living up to the possibities of India.

Picture Courtesy: The Hindu

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Nanak Lama


While there is a lot of similarity in the beliefs of Buddhism and Sikhism, specially in the advocacy of the middle path and stress on this wordliness and non- ritualism, it is difficult to understand why there has been little or no direct influence of the Buddha in the writings of Guru Nanak

While Nanak borrowed much from other religions specially Upanisaidic Hinduism and Islam, he doesn’t seem to have indicated any direct influence of the Buddha.

The land of Guru Nanak- the Punjab- was also the land where Buddhism had once flourished- Gandharva, and as the historian Romilla Thapar has pointed out- Islam and other non- Hindu religions have an unusual overlap with the geographical areas where Buddhism had once reigned.

Some of the janam sakhis- the stories of uncertain origin related to Guru Nanak bear a strong similarity to some of the stories that one heard about the Buddha as well.

The two, however, seem to have encountered each other in Tibet when Guru Nanak, also called Nanak Shah, visited the place in the 16th century.

Harjinder Singh explores and explains why Guru Nanak is referred to as the Guru Rinpoche or Nanak Lama in Tibet, some of the tales he recounts are mythological but fascinating since this is an area that has not been sufficiently explored in both thelogical and historical studies.

If you go to the Golden Temple one of the most interesting things you will observe are some Tibetan pilgrims who come to pray there, bowing down at each of their steps. These people are Buddhists who may belong to one of the numerous sects of Tibetan Buddhism, who regard Guru Nanak as Guru Rinpoche. Guru Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to Tibet and they regard the Guru as a reincarnation of the precious one, ‘Rinpoche’….

(The picture above is) of gurdwara in Sikkim India where locals hang scriptures along with Nishan sahib and hang sikh scriptures in prayer in bodhic style.

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Ayodhya 6 December 1992 by PV Narasimha Rao

Barring Jawaharlal Nehru, it is unusual for Indian Prime Ministers to have authored books giving their political perspectives. P.V. Narasimha Rao was an exception. He authored a novel, The Insider during his own lifetime. The book under review Ayodhya 6 December 1992 appears posthumously.

The author’s objective for writing the book is stated unambiguously in the Introduction:
…this book attempts to examine the broad factual, Constitutional, judicial, legal and political aspects of the events that culminated in the tragedy of 6 December 1992. It is not intended as an exercise in self- righteousness or justification of anything done or not done.

It is a tribue to PV as a writer that he has distilled from a vast amount of material to put together a racy, 188 page book without compromising the seriousness of the topic. There are less than a dozen pages that are tedious- mainly because of the long quotes from judicial and other reports whose complete text has been incorporated in the appendices.

PV does a meticulous job in the first six chapters recounting the history of the dispute, interspersing what could have become a dry narrative with perceptive insights. He points out, for example, that the RJM was already gathering significant momentum at the time of Indira Gandhi’s assassination that brought the DCM Toyota yatra to a grinding halt inflcting a temporary setback to the movement.

He is also fair enough to credit Mulayam Singh Yadav’s firm handling of the Ayodhya crisis in 1989 when he effectively used Central forces to halt Advani’s jaggernaut.

It is in the later chapters, specially, ” Ayodhya 6 December 1992″ and “Why was Article 356 not invoked” that PV’s book is at its weakest as it loses its initial promise of not being a self justification on the inaction of the Central government to thwart the destruction of the Babri Masjid on the fateful day.

Paragraph after paragraph, PV gets into hair splitting details as a defence for his and his government’s inaction. The objectivity of the initial chapters gives way here to repetitive citing of facts, rhetorical questions and labyrinthine arguments.

In not too subtle a language, he indicates that he was “betrayed” by the Kalyan Singh government, that there were insincere machinations by leaders of his own party, the unique and unprecedented situation that 6 December presented in the history of the Republic, the dubious role played by the non Congress, non BJP parties and the perceived lapses on part of the Supreme court.

In other words, all the stars conspired to paralyse the government into inaction.

Even as PV swings from one argument to another, sometimes contradicting himself (for example, on the “crucial” role of logistics on page 174 only to point out, a few pages later, that it was not the crucial factor), he slips in a sentence that this reviewer feels is central to understanding the reasons for the paralysis of his government. PV here lets the cat out of the bag as it were.

He indicates that the BJP leaders stepped up the aggressiveness of the movement when they felt that PV was getting too close to the sants and the sadhus, in the four months before 6 December. These sants and sandhus consitituted the vast and dispersed middle leadership that expanded the reach of the previously urban based party.

This “subtle aspect of the RJM”, as PV terms it, not only indicates that PV was hobnobbing with these elements, but in the very next sentence shows his own susceptibilities to the Hindutva cause: ” … the undeniable fact that while Hindu masses were swayed by their devotion to Ram and their intense desire for the temple, the political forces behind the issue could not care less for the temple.”

Earlier, he had promised to construct a Ram temple in his Independence Day speech.

In other words, he was trying to display a holier than thou attitude with the BJP and hijack its agenda. He clearly failed in his calculations or machinations, the BJP trumped him in any case. He evidently had no workable backup plan.

This political failure lies at the heart of the problem- the beginning of the 1980s was marked by Indira Gandhi’s tilt away from the Left, if not to the Right, progressing during the years of Rajiv Gandhi to a confused dalliance with both Hindu and Muslim communalism.

PV’s era marked a consolidation of this swing towards Hindutva- culminating in the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Interestingly, PV does not use the word “Babri Masjid” anywhere in the book (though he does in his speeches in the appendices)- it is referred to as a “structure” or as the “Babri structure”.

Despite the scholarly collection of facts, that well document the main events culminating on the single biggest attack on Indian secularism after Partition, PV’s defence is unconvincing and one cannot but help recall Shakespeare:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

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Related posts: review of “The Anatomy of a Confrontation: The Babri masjid- Ram Janmabhumi Controversy”

Cross posted at Desicritics.

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