Just look at Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia. Bolivia was the richest country in all of the Americas at the beginning of the conquest period. They were the owners of the silver, which made possible the enrichment of Europe. Bolivia is now the poorest country in South America. Her richness was her main damnation. Morales is now trying to break with this shameful and humiliating tradition of always working for another’s prosperity. When he nationalized the gas and the oil, it was a scandal all over the world. “How could he? It’s terrible!” Why is it terrible? Because recovering dignity is a cardinal sin. But he’s also committing another cardinal sin: He’s doing what he promised he would do. We in Latin America are suffering with special intensity the divorce between words and facts. When you say yes, you do no. When you say more or less, you do less or more. So facts and words are never encountering each other. When they pass each other by random accident, they don’t say, “Hello, how are you?” because they have never met before. We are trained to lie. We are trained to accept lies as a way of life.
A google search for Sahir’s Parchaeyaan brings Himayun to a post on this blog.
Himayun- whose parents were born in India and migrated to Pakistan.
Me- whose parents were born in what is now Pakistan and migrated to India.
Does that make him a Pakistani of Indian descent ?
And me, an Indian of Pakistani descent ?
The word desi makes it easier to define ourselves- it makes us one.
Desi, a small, plebian word, contains the world for us- demolishes boundaries, nations, nation- states in one swift sweep two syllables long.
Update (13 Jan 07): I have setup a blog for DD Kosambi, as a supplement to the main site. I find it easier to update the blog.
It pains one today when only Muslims are identified with the Urdu language, as if they are seeking to have a separate identity for themselves by asserting Urdu as their mother tongue.
While Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) students across the country celebrated their success recently, for some in the Muslim community there was absolutely no reason to rejoice.
Why the report has to mention only Muslims that have “absolutely no reason to rejoice” is seemingly very “natural”- few others study the language in India.
Urdu is a language that symbolizes the syncreticism of India- the script and much of vocabulary derived from Persian/Arabic/ and the grammar that is from Hindi.
If Muslims retain Urdu as their language, they are not assering separateness, but are only upholding the syncretic, secular and a beautifully poetic Indian tradition.
Richard Gott, long time reporter from Latin America and author of a biography on Hugo Chavez, writes the story behind the perhaps the most famous picture of a revolutionary- that of Che Guevara taken by Alberto Korda.
No one knew, but, at the funeral ceremony for the dockers held the next day, Fidel Castro claimed immediately that it was the work of the Americans. Crowded on to the improvised platform beside him were Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and behind, in a zippered jacket arriving late, was Che Guevara, the man who had invited them to Cuba. Alberto Korda, a photographer then working for the newspaper Revolución, snapped away at the celebrities, recalling the event years later to Jorge Castañeda, one of Che’s biographers. “Che was not visible; he was standing behind the rostrum. But for a moment there was an empty space in the front row, and in the background the figure of Che appeared. He unexpectedly entered my viewfinder and I shot the photo horizontally. I immediately realised that the image of him was almost a portrait, with the clear sky behind him.”
Link via Withinandwithout
Misrepresenting the process of European colonization of North America, making everyone an immigrant, serves to preserve the “official story” of a mostly benign and benevolent USA, and to mask the fact that the pre-US independence settlers, were, well, settlers, colonial setters, just as they were in Africa and India, or the Spanish in Central and South America. The United States was founded as a settler state, and an imperialistic one from its inception (“manifest destiny,” of course).
Though May Day originated in the USA, it is observed in its incarnation as ‘Labor Day’ in September. Certainly the most exploited of all workers in the USA, the permanent underclass of “illegal aliens”, as they are derisively termed by leading media like the CNN, have revived the tradition of May Day with massive demonstrations in major US cities cities today.And remembering the bomb that went off in Haymarket, Chicago, May 1886:
What is the legacy of Haymarket? Does it still resonate today?Haymarket resonates today more than it has at any other time in recent years. The original Haymarket affair of 1886 was part and parcel of a massive, national May Day rally and strike led, by and large, by America’s immigrant workers. Today, precisely 120 years later, the May 1, 2006 Immigrant General Strike — also known as the “Day without Immigrants” and the “Great American Boycott” — looks set to inherit and reinvigorate the legacy of Haymarket.
Link via Chapati Mystery.
Basij Mostazafan–or “mobilization of the oppressed” and explains it in the context of the Shia tradition of martyrdom.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Ayatollah Khomeini imported 500,000 small plastic keys from Taiwan. The trinkets were meant to be inspirational. After Iraq invaded in September 1980, it had quickly become clear that Iran’s forces were no match for Saddam Hussein’s professional, well-armed military. To compensate for their disadvantage, Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies. Before every mission, one of the Taiwanese keys would be hung around each child’s neck. It was supposed to open the gates to paradise for them. (
Mike Davies, author of The City of Quartz and more recently of the Planet of Slums, among other works, investigates the history of the car bomb and traces its history from the first car bomb exploded by an anarchist in Wall Street in 1919. The next usage of the car bomb was much later in 1947 by an extremist Jewish outfit to blow up a British police station in Palestine.
“jihadists join a roiling crowd of less-than-peaceful car-bombers that has included Jews, Christians, Hindus, anarchists, French colonials, Mafiosos, members of the Irish Republican Army, and CIA operatives among others.”
(source Tom’s Dispatch)
The article brougt to mind Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American to which Davies alludes in this essay, and, on a slightly different note Josef Conrad’s The Secret Agent where an anarchist tries to blow up the the Greenwich Observatory in an attempt to destroy Time itself (no car bomb involved though.)
Here is Mr Vladimir, the First Secretary of a Central Asian country in London, explaining the reasons for selecting the target:
Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion, or bribes. Moreover, I am a civilized man. I would never dream of directing you to organize a mere butchery, even if I expected the best results from it. But I wouldn’t expect from a butchery the result I want. Murder is always with us. It is almost an institution. The demonstration must be against learning–science. But not every science will do. The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy. Since bombs are your means of expression, it would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics. But that is impossible. I have been trying to educate you; I have expounded to you the higher philosophy of your usefulness, and suggested to you some serviceable arguments. The practical application of my teaching interests you mostly. But from the moment I have undertaken to interview you I have also given some attention to the practical aspect of the question. What do you think of having a go at astronomy?”
(Source: The Secret Agent)
Link via Economist’s View.
Indian Express sums up well the man who had the chutzpah to proclaim himself a socialist while helping to prop up the most right wing government in India.I hope his loss of the Presidentship of the JDU (S) is really his political obituary.
Here was a man who espoused Socialist politics and went on to broker a rightwing political arrangement that presided over the country for six years. Here was a man who took on the might of the Indian state, and went on to become one of its pillars. Here was a man who threatened to blow up railway tracks, and went on to become a railway minister. Here was a man who had once sharply criticised the Babri Masjid demolition and went on to defend Narendra Modi’s handling of the Gujarat riots. Here was a man who talked of world peace and Hiroshima, but found himself the country’s defence minister during Pokhran II. Here was a man who dropped out from Catholic priesthood and went on to offer a whitewash of an inquiry report on the heinous killing of Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two sons.
His profile at Wikipedia is hagiographic by any standards.
Picture acknowledgement: Punjab Panorama
Before the anti- Mandal Commission Report riots changed the nature of political discourse in India, Bhagat Singh was one of the key icons of the Indian Left- then the natural habitat of the young and of the intelligentsia.23 March used to be a day of commemoration marked by lectures, rallies and distribution of his book Why I am an Atheist.
Nowadays, the day passes almost unnoticed.My old comrade and friend- years have thinned the differences between the two- Balram perceptively writes on how Bhagat Singh has been appropriated by the Hindutva brigade and underlines the need to see his life and thought as a whole- as an evolution of this wonderfully precocious mind. It is often forgotten than he had not yet turned 23 when hanged by the British.
Various political movements- from the Right wing Hindutva to extreme Left wing Naxalite Maoists, tend to highlight one or the other aspect in the evolution of Bhagat Singh’s rapid movement from Arya Samaji sympathies to revolutionary socialism- a movement that gathered particular immediacy in the aftermath of the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930.
Balram’s rhetorical flourish towards the end about Bhagat Singh’s ‘spiritual relationship’ with Gandhi is overstated, but the point that he makes is still moot.
The success of BJP, VHP types in stealing into academics and public consciousness the concept of cultural nationalism is a case in point. This has become possible for first time that a political movement has arisen without the help of heroes of national revolution. Owing to lack of any specific programme for social or economic reorganization, this movement has to take recourse to mythological heroes instead of historic ones, who can be moulded as they like into their programme of cultural reconstruction. Ramjanambhoomi movement is an example.
The immense treasure of heritage of Bhagat Singh would be open to us if we could see Bhagat Singh as someone who dared to dream and had it in himself to live or die for it, instead of seeing him simply as a freedom fighter or a person committed to a particular ideology. But while doing so we would have to not only renew Bhagat Singh who has become a symbol of revolution but the dust that has settled on his spiritual relationship with Gandhi will also have to be cleaned up.It is obvious that it is impossible to safeguard the relevance of Bhagat Singh without Gandhi and of Gandhi without Bhagat Singh.
Read the complete article here.
Khan Abdul Wali Khan, son of Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan passed away last Thursday. A report and a tribute to one of the few people of historical importance who walked the patchy road of mutual goodwill between Pakistan and India till the “thaw” in recent years. Among others was of course Faiz Ahmed Faiz who is as much loved in India as in Pakistan. Among the politicians it was the Khans- both father and son.
It is said that nothing grows under a banyan tree. The same is believed to be true of a towering leader, whose progenies are generally no patch on his greatness. There are glorious exceptions though, and veteran politician and leader of Pakistan’s Awami National Party, Abdul Wali Khan, who died at a ripe age of 89 last Thursday, was one of them. He was the son of as tall a leader as Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar and yet became an undisputed leader in his own right.
A longer and more critical remembrance by Rahimullah Yusufzai:
One could argue that the ANP’s declining popularity was due to extraneous factors and on account of manoeuvrings by the all-powerful military and the use of money and religious agendas. But political parties and their leaderships should be adapting to changed circumstances and strengthening their organisations to meet new challenges. In any case, refusal to move beyond the single-point agenda of Pakhtun nationalism at a time when other issues had become important and relevant wasn’t going to fetch more votes.
Pakistan’s founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a leading freedom fighter, belonging to the more radical wing of the Congress before switching over to the demand for Pakistan. Both his political and personal life was more chequered than popular images both in India and Pakistan tend to conjure. Here is Jinnah, for example, defending Bhagat Singh and his comrades.
…A rare exception, according to Noorani, is the work by the veteran human rights activist I.A. Rehman, who praised the speech for the `coolly logical and convincing manner’ in which Jinnah “played a major role in foiling the attempt to make trial in absentia lawful”. Well, that was what the Government wanted to achieve through what came to be called `the Hunger-Strike Bill’.
…After adjournment, when he spoke again, he pleaded that the House consider `the real cause of the trouble’: “Is there today in any part of the globe a civilised government that is engaged, day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, in prosecuting their people?” And there was more: “Do you think any many wants to exceed the bounds of law for the purpose of making a speech which your law characterises as a seditious speech, knowing full well the consequences, that he may have to go to jail for six months or a year?Do you think that this springs out of a mere joke or fun or amusement? Do you not realise yourself, if you open your eyes, that there is resentment, universal resentment, against your policy, against your programme?”
Jinnah was married to Rattenbai, from the Parsi family of Sir Dinshaw Petit, here is a review of the book ‘Ruttie Jinnah- The Story, told and Untold’:
Jinnah married his fabulously rich and renowned magnate Parsi friend Sir Dinshaw Petit’s daughter, Ruttie, when she was 18 and he was 42. Love has no logic. Sir Dinshaw opposed her daughter marrying Jinnah, but she stood firm and walked out of her parental home to which she was never to return.
… the author throws light on Ruttie’s life-style. Reading and horse-riding were her pleasures. She recited English poetry, and her favourite poet was Oscar Wilde. Besides law, Jinnah’s special interest lay in Shakespeare. While in London, he had acted in some of Shakespearean plays. He had thought of taking acting as his profession. Possibly, his interest in Shakespeare gave him insight into the intricacies of human character which he was to use for grasping the essentials of Indian politics.
After their marriage, the couple travelled a lot in India and abroad. Ruttie watched with a great sense of pride the feverish political activity of her husband. She came closely in touch with Mahatma Gandhi who advised her to speak in Hindi or Gujarati. The author narrates Jinnah’s encounter with Lord Willingdon, Governor of Bombay, who had invited Jinnah and his wife for dinner in Government House. Ruttie’s unconventional and “low-cut dress” upset Lady Willington who asked her A.D.C. to bring in a wrap for her. At this remark, Jinnah said, “When Mrs Jinnah needs a wrap, she will ask for it.” Thereafter, the couple walked out of the house.
According to the author, the relations between Jinnah and Ruttie became strained in January 1928. She fell ill and shifted to the Taj Mahal hotel. Accompanied by her mother, she went to Paris for medical treatment. Dewan Chiman Lall, who found her “delirious” in a Paris clinic, states that again both Jinnah and Ruttie quarreled. Ruttie returned to the Taj Mahal hotel on October 26, 1928, while Jinnah too reached Bombay. Ruttie’s condition deteriorated, and finally, death struck her on her birthday, February 20, 1929.
No big admirer of Pankaj Mishra otherwise, I found his review to be the only meaningful one, actually trying to engage with the economist’s book, though somewhat rhetorical towards the end.
A pdf file of Sen’s lecture refering to his book is available at the Indian Planning Commision site.
Having said that, one only needs to reiterate the necessity for this Reader- the self- proclaimed student of another passionately argumentative Sen, to read the book too.
I may be wrong and perhaps need to read more of A. Sen, but I do have a gnawing feeling that he tends to tread delicately (diplomatically?) between liberalism and the Left- between Mill and Marx, the two of the three influences on him that he mentioned in his Nobel speech. This is not to berate the man, but perhaps what he is articulating is nothing more than an academic variation of ‘The Third Way’ charted by Anthony Giddens, Manuel Castells and of course, in political terms most obviously by Tony Blair.
Manmohan Singh’s speech at the release of Sen’s book.
On the Edge of the New Century by Eric Hobsbawm
In conversation with Antonio Polito
The New Press, New York
$21, Pages 176, April 2000
This is most evident in his treatment of the globalization phenomenon. While most people believe that it is not only unstoppable but is increasingly gaining ground, Hobsbawm questions both these views.
He observes: “Globalization is primarily based on the elimination of technical obstacles rather than economic ones. It is the abolition of distance and time. For example, it would have been impossible to consider the world as a single unit before it had been circumnavigated at the end of the fifteenth century… the turning point (for the enormous acceleration and global spread of good transport) was the appearance of modern air freight… Until the seventies, a company that wanted to produce motor cars in a country other than the country of origin would have to build an entire production process on the spot.”
” Now it is possible to decentralize the production of engines and other components, and then have them brought together wherever the company wants. For practical purposes, production is no longer organized within the political confines of the state where the parent company resides… thus while the global division of labor was once confined to the exchange of products within the particular regions today it is possible to produce across the frontiers of states and continents. This is what the process is founded on.”
“The abolition of trade barriers is, in my opinion, a secondary phenomenon. This is the real difference between the global economy before 1914 and today. Before the Great War, there was pan- global movement of capital goods and labor. But the emancipation of manufacturing and occasionally agricultural products from the territory in which they were produced was not yet possible”.
The drive for globalization requires that ideally the world be seen not as a globe with national boundaries but as a map of the major corporations of the world.
And this, Hobsbawm avers, is not only an impossible but a very dangerous ideal. For one, it considers only the production aspect leaving out the distribution aspect altogether. Another, for the ideal to be realized necessitates standardization and homogenization. The point that Hobsbawm raises is that there are bound to be physical limitations and resistance to these attempts. That is the real Y2K problem that will determine the limitations to globalization however omnipotent it may seem today.
Some indications to these limits are borne out by developments in the European Union itself, where it has become “extremely difficult to determine a common foreign and defense policy and this proves that there aren’t the necessary conditions for an effective and total political integration, whereas there are for social and economic matters. The enlargement of the European Union will make the situation even more difficult”.
The only two important fields in which Europeans have come close is the recognition by governments that European jurisprudence takes precedence over their national laws. The other aspect that unites Europeans is protectionism in order to resist competition from the United States and mass immigration from the Third World.
Hobsbawm is equally emphatic regarding the failure of the free market. “When historians in fifty years time look back on our era, they will probably say that the last part of the short twentieth century ended with two things: the collapse of the Soviet Union and also the bankruptcy of free market fundamentalism that dominated government policies from the end of the Golden Age ” (1970s). The global crisis of 1997- 98 may very well be taken as the turning point”.
The other is of course the implementation of the purest free market policies in the former Soviet Union whose tragedy has still not been well understood.
“The scale of the human catastrophe that has struck Russia is something we simply don’t understand in the West. It is the complete reversal of historical trends: the life expectancy of men has dropped by ten years over the last decade and a large part of the economy has been reduced to subsistence agriculture. I don’t believe there has been anything comparable in the twentieth century… I believe it is (entirely due to the application of free market rules) if for no other reason than that free market rules, even if adapted, require a certain kind of society. If that kind of society does not exist, the result is a disaster”.
That globalization is not unstoppable is controverted by historical experience- control of immigration (humans being a necessary, even if an “evil” part of the production process) is an example.
The author regards Pope John Paul to be the last great ideologue to criticize capitalism for what it is, though it is “eccentric” in relation to Western conformist thought and the dominant political and intellectual consensus”. This, of course, implicitly underlines the ineffectiveness of the Left to articulate this criticism- indeed the Left itself has been divided as the European socialists who are in government in most of Western Europe have demonstrated. Tony Blair and his guru Anthony Giddens term it the “Third Way”. Hobsbawm expresses his disagreement, rather brutally one feels, by terming Blair as the “Thatcher in trousers”.
Neither does Francis Fukuyama escape his acerbic taunt- he is branded as the Dr. Plongloss of the 20th century (Dr. Plongloss is a character in Voltaire’s Candide).
Hobsbawm feels that it is also incorrect to consider the liberal and left traditions as unrelated if not divergent. It was only with the Bolshevik revolution that the Left came to be identified with the specific form of Soviet socialism that ultimately failed to sustain itself and collapsed. On the other hand the liberals too did not exactly manage to change the nature of the state. The welfare state always operated within the capitalist framework.
Some of Hobsbawm’s comments are personal in nature- for example he comments that he deliberately chose to study 19th century history so as to remain above the debates regarding contemporary issues.
“I… have to admit that while I hope I have never written or said anything about the Soviet Union that I should feel guilty about, I have tended to avoid dealing with it directly, because I knew that if I had, I would have had to have written things that would have been difficult for a communist to say without affecting my political activity and the feelings of my comrades”.
Some of Hobsbawm’s comments are disconcerting, for example, when he notes that ethnic cleansing can actually solve problems. Others are subtler, for example his observation that modern nationalism is generally top down. “Human beings were not created for capitalism”, Hobsbawm remarks tongue in cheek elsewhere in the book.
As a reversal of a centuries long process, the long historical wave which moved toward the construction and gradual strengthening of territorial states or nation- states comes to an end (the end itself starting around 1960s and deeply accelerating after 1989), Hobsbawm notes that it has become increasingly difficult to mobilize people on collective lines specially in the West. This underlines the crisis of class based action today and also the reason why Hobsbawm considers the most appropriate symbol for the 20th century not to be the working class or the peasantry but a mother with her children.
“The people who have most in common are mothers, wherever they live on the face of the earth and inspite of their different cultures, civilizations and languages. In some ways, a mother’s experience reflects what has happened to a large part of humanity in the 20th century”.
These intensely humanistic insights remind one of what Antonio Gramsci in another era termed as the optimism of the will overcoming the pessimism of the mind. From the “Age of Extremes” to the present book, Hobsbawm has displayed tremendous optimism of the will and fired a salvo that may not completely overcome the pessimism of the mind, but somewhat lights up the darkness that has characterized the last decade. Alas! There is none of his caliber and perseverance after him in sight.
June 15, 2000
Published: The Tribune 02 July 2000
Indian Nationalism: A Study in Evolution
By Sitanshu Das
Har- Anand Publications, New Delhi 1999. Pages: 291 Price Rs. 325/-
The author of the book under review, however, has a different opinion and views nationalism from a religio- cultural angle. According to Sitanshu Das, the defining element of Indian nationalism was essentially anti- Muslim. His study on nationalism is confined to the 19th century Bengal, Maharashtra and the Punjab. In all the three places he thinks that nationalism had a unifying anti- Muslim thread.
According to him, the ‘Bengal Renaissance’ is a myth and there were other contending streams of nationalism that Bengal produced in the immediate aftermath of the British rule. These were expressed in religious terms and were essentially anti- Muslim. The Hindus of Bengal had welcomed the initial British rule as it gave them some freedom that had been “stifled” under Muslim rule.
He holds the basis of nationalism in Maharashtra to be the “nationalism” of Shivaji. Before the coming of Ranade and Tilak, the Chitpavan Brahmins- as inheritors of the Peshwa dynasty (despite its degenerate rule) saw themselves as the natural nationalist leaders. Their nationalism was also essentially anti- Muslim.
The author’s understanding of nationalism in Punjab is equally superficial. In the Punjab, he feels, the question was essentially between the Muslims on the one hand, and the Hindus and Sikhs on the other. Sikhs were the defenders of the Hindu faith. Guru Gobind Singh practically represented Hindu nationalism. Till the 19th century, the Hindus sought the protection of the Sikhs. The British created a separate Sikh identity and the latter sided with the British government after the Anglo- Sikh wars. Modern nationalism, therefore, came to be represented by the emergence of the Arya Samaj under Lala Lajpat Rai.
Das opines that Nehru and Bose were wrong to read a syncretic tradition in the medieval age and instead it was Vivekananda who represented the best stream of Indian nationalism. Hindu resistance to Muslim rule was present throughout the medieval period. Vivekananda revived this “tradition” in a package of militant nationalism (the discerning reader may be reminded here of what Hobsbawm once termed as the “invention of tradition”).
The author’s basis for understanding 19th century Indian history in general and nationalism in particular is flawed on a number of counts.
Das views Indian history in terms of religious identity and confines himself only to the “high tradition”. His work belongs to what has been termed by Sumit Sarkar as the “older kind of work on nationalism focused on politics inspired or manipulated from the top” and one that is a rather unreliable guide to what the rank and file of the common people actually thought and felt.
The writer assumes an a priori notion of nationalism as an ever-present phenomenon, while today there is more or less a consensus that nationalism emerged only in the early 19th century Europe (see Raymond Williams’s excellent summary in his compendium Keywords).
Das also fails to locate Indian nationalism in the context of current debates on nationalism, significantly the works of Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawn. The author is blissfully unaware not only of these, but also the excellent work done by Sudipto Kaviraj and Partha Chatterjee in this decade and the Marxist and subaltern schools previously. Sumit Sarkar’s extremely relevant essay on Ram Mohan Roy is not even mentioned. The least one could have expected on a work on India nationalism is a discussion, if not a critique on some of the issues raised by these historians.
Sumit Sarkar has recently observed, rather self critically, that even in the context of the modern Indian history written as late as the early 1980s (including his own work Modern India, 1983): “The common sense or textbook understanding of late colonial Indian history, for instance, is still in large part grounded on the assumption that the entire meaningful world of political action and discourse can be comprehended through categories of imperialism, nationalism and communalism… Such an assumption involves an uncritical acceptance of holistic ideological claims of ‘Indian nationalism’ and ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim communalism’ “. (See his “Identity and Difference: Caste in the Formation of Ideologies of Nationalism and Hindutva” in Writing Social History, 1997). Das, woefully, continues to sell his wares in an even older and long defunct paradigm that comes close to articulate the unifactory projects of Hindutva and Indian nationalism. Incidentally, if not intentionally, this well suits the Sangh Parivar’s current offensive for saffronizataion of history.
The author’s attempt at writing the history of Indian nationalism can be described as belonging to a school of historiography that is at best outdated and at worst discredited.
Hobsbawm notes in his Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990) that nationalism is a complex business. He quotes the French historian Renan as saying: “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation”.
Whether India is or was ever a nation, will it ever be a nation or whether it is a nation in the making or in the unmaking, whether it a cultural unity or a civilizational unity or whether India has to be discovered or invented- these are questions that are at the center of the debate and contest today not only in academics but also significantly at the political level. As far as the work under review is concerned, it does not attempt to raise or answer any of these and trace their evolution. It does, however, qualify the first part of Renan’s observation- it magnificently manages to get its history wrong.
13th Oct 1999
Published: The Tribune 05 Dec 1999
Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz
By Eric Hobsbawm
Weinfeld and Nicolson, London
Eric Hobsbawm differs with this line of thought. He does not accept the opposite version either- that each one of us is “as big as you and I”. He feels that little people may not be “as big as you and I” as individuals but collectively, such men and women are major historical actors. For this reason, he calls this book about them as Uncommon People. Hobsbawm should know. He has spent an entire lifetime studying and writing about the common peoples’ history, starting from Primitive Rebels in 1959. He is considered to be the greatest living historian, even by sceptics who otherwise feel that he is a brilliant man unfortunately caught in the time warp of Marxism. It is about him it can be said that it to be as learned as he is, and to write as well, would be enough for most historians, to be as gifted with flashes of brilliance is a rarity even among the greatest writers.
The present work is a collection of the writer’s essays and reviews written between the 1950s and mid 1990s’ The essays are collected under four sections: The Radical Tradition, Country People, Contemporary History and Jazz.
The first section is related to the evolution of working class and its movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An essay on Tom Paine, the American “moderate” revolutionary is illuminating. Paine belonged to an era of self- made men at a time when it was difficult to divide people as employers and the employed, the exploiter and the exploited. Despite his moderation even by the standards of his time, his Age of Reason was the first book to say in common man’s language that the Bible was not the word of God- a classic statement of working class rationalism.
The Luddite movement has for long been considered to be a frenzied, pointless and ultimately historically doomed movement. Hobsbawm opines that it was a mode of collective bargaining devised by the working people in the initial years of mechanisation. Also, the use of machines was more of a defensive weapon in the early years of capitalism rather than an offensive means of increasing profits.
Another essay probes into the different labour traditions in France and Britain. Though the latter was the country, in Marx’s words, of “classic capitalism”, it was the working class of France that was much more revolutionary in nature while the British working class remained more susceptible to religion. The reason, Hobsbawm avers was, because that religion in England displayed streaks of radicalism but in France, Roman Catholicism was demonstratively conservative and hence the working class movement developed fully independently of it.
The Labour Party in England emerged as a distinct party of working people only after 1918. An essay on Harold Laski marks him out as a person who, despite being “neither an original thinker nor a natural writer” (none of his 25 works have survived), was the left’s “megaphone” for a long time, leading to the most radical labour government ever in Britain in 1945 under Attlee. Incidentally, Laski, like so many leaders of the Left in Europe and Russia, was a Jew (Hobsbawm is of Jewish parentage too).
In “May 1968″, a study of the leadership of the student movement in that memorable year of student radicalism, rightly traces the origin of the movement in the alienation of the young people in the developed world. It expressed only the social and cultural discontents and did not have political aims itself, though it used political phraseology.
He also points to the persistent affinity between revolution and puritanism, though the founders of Marxism were quite unpuritanical, and in the case of Engels, quite anti- puritanical. Among the rebellious young, those who are, or were, closest to the traditional left wing politics tended to be most hostile to any forms of personal dissidence.
The seven essays related to jazz reflect the passion the writer has for the strand of music owing its roots to Black music as an early form of Black protest in this century.
The concluding essay on the contribution of America to the Old World, is perhaps one of the finest one. This contribution Hobsbawm locates not in the contribution of the elite urban culture of which the United States is the centre of the world, but in the contribution of the common and especially native people on the rest of the world. It was the discovery of America that precipitated the idea of Utopia in the minds of the radical Europeans. Its discovery stimulated the researches of Darwin and Wallace culminating in the formulation of the evolution theory. It was also the first European transatlantic country that made a more complete break with the institutions of the Old World. Four of the seven most important agricultural crops in the world today are of American origin: potatoes, maize, manioc and sweet potatoes (the other three being wheat, barley and rice).
For these and many other insights one feels pleased to have read this book. Even though most of the essays have themselves passed into historical classics, the flashes of brilliance are as fresh as ever. Sample the following:
Latin America is the last bastion of the left in the world. For this reason its literature has so far escaped the worst consequences of the privatization of the imagination. But for how long?
Indeed, it is a cynical world today. No longer the world that produced such outstanding social historians as Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. For that reason alone, one wishes that Hobsbawm’s writings never end.
10 September 1998, Sydney
Published: The Tribune October ?? 1998
The Ardent Pilgrim: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Mohammed Iqbal
By Iqbal Singh
Oxford University Press, 1997
Pages: 183, Price Rs. 295/-
The book under review is one of the latest to be published after the celebration of Iqbal’s birth centenary in 1977. Though largely still largely ignored in this country, some of the books on Iqbal to hit the market in recent years have been Khushwant Singh’s translation of Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa, Rafiq Zakaria’s Iqbal: Poet and the Politician and Ish Kumar’s Ghalib and Iqbal. Iqbal Singh’s revised edition of the book he wrote in 1951 comes as a welcome addition to the contemporary literature on Iqbal.
The strength of the present work lies in the tracing of the philosophical ideas of Iqbal. The son of a tailor, Iqbal won fame early in life while still a student of Government College, Lahore. At this stage his poetry was under the heavy influence of Sufi mysticism. It was only when he travelled abroad later in life to study at London and Heidelberg that he underwent a metamorphosis. Specially in Germany, he was thunderstruck, as it were by the considerable body of philosophical thought he encountered. Specially notable is the impact of Hegel, Bergson and Nietzche. Later in life he was to spurn the entire idealist tradition in Western philosophy. It was in London, too, that he started writing in Persian, which afforded him a more versatile form as well as sophistication for his ideas to find expression. Indeed, all the great writers in Urdu, have like Ghalib, either written extensively in Persian or like Faiz, made extensive use of Persian expressions. In the case of Iqbal, however, this switchover to Persian for some of his most mature poetry was to be a great loss for the development of the Urdu language.
It was at this crucial period of his stay in Germany that Iqbal was to be faced with serious misgivings regarding nationalism. It was the decade before the First Word War and the undercurrent of the conflicts between the European nations were already present. These rivalries were based on greed- and Iqbal was repulsed by these developments. The culmination of these into the First World War was to confirm his misgivings. Iqbal’s response to come to terms with the question of nationalism led him not towards socialist internationalism, but, on account of his psychological make up and instinct, towards early Islam, which for him had subsumed various tribal loyalties into a powerful spiritual movement. The Bolshevik Revolution was yet to take place and the ideas inspired by Bolshevism were yet to sway the intelligentsia.
He quoted with proud approval the well known remark of the famous Arab conqueror, Tarik, who, when he led his forces from Africa across to the coast of Andalusia, asked his soldiers to burn the boats in which they had crossed and cheered his homesick followers with the declaration:
Every country is our country because it is the country of our God.
Iqbals’ self perception as the harbinger of Islamic revivalism was beginning to show its contours. His entire life subsequently, and his poetry too, was to be directed towards this goal.
The militant mood of the young Muslim intelligentsia that was asserting itself at the time of the Khilafat movement was reflected in the Al Hilal, the paper edited by Maulana Azad. Iqbal remained politically unmoved, but his writings now began to have a definite and pronounced anti- modern and anti- Western bias.
The alternative that Iqbal now started espousing was that of pan- Islamism, and in the development of this doctrine, he was considerably influenced by the ideas of Saiyad Jamal-ud- din Afgani whose lectures and travels in the 19th century across the Muslim world had deeply influenced the intelligentsia in the respective countries. This positive ideal, as opposed to Iqbal’s denouement of nationalism, became his leit motif and became the cornerstone of his poetry.
This was also the time of the progressive disintegration of the Ottoman hegemony and it was soon after Italy grabbed Tripoli from the Turks that Iqbal’s anger found its vent in Shikwa where he blamed Allah for the misfortunes of the Muslims on earth. The poem was read and recited all over the country. In it the Muslim intelligentsia found its words. Iqbal now attained popularity and above all came to be recognised as the most eloquent voice of Muslims in the country. With his brilliant academic background- in philosophy (Cambridge), philosophy and poetics (Heidelberg) and a bar at law , also from England, his firm grounding in Arabic and Persian, his inborn gift as a poet and finally his insatiable intellectual thirst and prowess all ensured that he would be among the towering and most eloquent personalities that modern India was to throw up in the first half of this century. He was the poet- philosopher, if ever there was one in this country.
Iqbal now went through a process of catharsis and self- purification starting with Asrar-e- Khudi . Influenced by Rumi, he turned away from the Sufi mysticism of Hafiz and western idealist influences, essentially the Greek influences on Islamic thought between 9th and 13th century. This logically led to his repudiating Sufism in general and the Hafiz tradition in particular.
As part of his critique of Sufism, he began to stress on the development of the ego or self. While Sufism emphasised the need to merge the self into the whole, Iqbal took a diametrically opposed stand- that of the development of the ego. Thence:
Tu shab afridi, charag afreedam
Sayal afridi, ayagh afreedam
Man aanam ke az sang aina saazam
Man aanam ke az zahar naushina saazam
(God, You created the night, I made the lamp
You created the earth, I made earthen pot out of it
It is me who created the mirror out of stone
It is me who made elixir out of poison)
In tracing the evolution of Iqbal’s thought, Singh also devotes considerable space to link his evolution to the specific social, political and cultural development in the early twentieth century. Peppered with insights and keen observations accumulated over half a century, Singh is at the very best, his treatment of the subject scholarly and his critical faculty acute. His zest for the subject finds expression in the book- which is impassioned and dispassionate at the same time.
This said, there is at least one point that the present reviewer feels that Singh falls short of “brimming over”. In th enature of things, the philosophy of Iqbal overwhelmingly overshadows his poetry and the author too has concentrated more on the philosophy of Iqbal at the expense of his poetry .
This leads to two problems. One, the poetic milieu in which Iqbal’s poetry arose is at best understated, and at worst ignored. Specially, Iqbal’s inheritance from Ghalib is completely left unmentioned- besides that of contemporary poets. The second result is that while Iqbal emerges as a poet of Islamic Revivalism (which undoubtedly he was, just as Vivekanand was for Hindu Revivalism), he was also the poet who captured the hearts and minds of the non- Muslim intelligentsia as well, specially after the strongly leftward turn that came over in the 1930s. The intrinsic humanistic appeal, specially relevant for the “awakening Asia” , and which transcended Islam, fails to emerge.
That, unfortunately, continues to be a major cause for Iqbal’s relative ignorance this side of the border. This ignorance also reflects what MN Roy had in 1939 in his small but illuminating book The Historical Role of Islam had observed- the Hindus are perhaps the only people, who despite the advent of Muslims in India, never tried to understand and learn from the revolution of Islam, unlike the Europeans, whose Renaissance was borne from the encounter with Islam.
Published: The Tribune July 1997