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

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.


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

Cross posted at Desicritics.

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Karma, and Rebirth

Uruguyan author Eduardo Galeano in an interview with Scott Witmer, speaks on why we need to remind ourselves of being born again- because we have a long tradition of being betrayed.

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.

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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.

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Urdu, Muslims and Others

Jawaharlal Nehru was pulled up by an elderly conservative member of the Constituent Assembly when Jawaharlal described his mother tongue as Urdu: Brahman hoke Urdu ko apni mathribhasha kehte ho, or words to that effect (recounted in Hindi Nationalism by Alok Rai).

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.

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Che Guevara- the Story behind the Picture

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

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Not a Nation of Immigrants

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz– feminist, revolutionary and historian- succintly deconstructs the myth of the United States being ‘a nation of immigrants’.

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).

read on…

Image Source

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May Day

Link Source: Left I
Source: Vic Lee

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.

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Tradition, Revolution and Confrontation in Iran

Political scientist Matthias Küntzel gives a devastating background to the volunteer militia Basij Mostazafan–or “mobilization of the oppressed” and explains it in the context of the Shia tradition of martyrdom.

Küntzel concludes that this is leading to the “showdown” between the zealous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad- a product of the Basij– and the Western world. He ignores, of course, the war mongering that the neo- cons have indulged in, training their guns now towards Iran, as if the deepening quagmire in Iraq was not enough. Küntzel’s own account provides the reasons on the dangers of confrontation with a country where the (counter) revolutionary energy has not yet died down. Every revolution eventually devours its own children- the Iranian one has not yet reached that stage.In the background of the tradition of martyrdom and the continuation of the Islamic Revolution, confrontation with the present Iranian regime is only a recipe for further disaster.

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. (read on, need to register at TNR)

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Car Bombs: The Poor Man’s Air Force

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.

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The Man who called himself Socialist

George Fernandes, fiery former “socialist” and the ‘Right’ hand man of the NDA, is as Janus faced as the man whom he helped to hoist for six years- Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

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.

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Remembering Bhagat Singh

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.

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Khan Abdul Wali Khan

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.

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The Other Faces of Jinnah

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.

The Argumentative Economist

Amartya Sen’s new book “The Argumentative Indian” is reviewed by Sunil Khilani, Soumya Bhattacharya, Pankaj Mishra and John Walsh.

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.

Sunil Khilani is as wry as he was in his somewhat weak defence of Nehru in “The Idea of India”. Soumya Bhattacharya seems to be too much in awe of Sen to present us comprehensively with either what Sen says in the book or stops short of saying. John Walsh offers only a slightly more informative, but still less argumentative review.

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.

Review of: On the Edge of the New Century by Eric Hobsbawm

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

If Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Age of Extremes’ was an anguished, even if intellectually stimulating reflection on the 20th century from the vantage point of the early nineties, the present book is marked by a renewed exuberance. There are numerous questions that Hobsbawm is still vague on or treads hesitantly, but the change in mood is evident. The historian par excellence, now in his eighties, is back with perceptive insights and his characteristic ability to question accepted wisdom.

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

Review of: Indian Nationalism: A Study in Evolution by Sitanshu Das

Indian Nationalism: A Study in Evolution
By Sitanshu Das
Har- Anand Publications, New Delhi 1999. Pages: 291 Price Rs. 325/-

The historian Bipan Chandra has shown, nearly three decades back, that the economic critique of imperialism by Naoroji, Ranade and others formed the bedrock of Indian nationalism. An essentially anti- imperialist movement led to the formation of a national state- though not really a nation in the West European sense.

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