Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Apathy towards antiquities

Opinion » Comment            April 27, 2016       

Updated: April 27, 2016 00:35 IST

A. Srivathsan

 — Photo: By Special Arrangement
Database: “Providing sufficient information on theft cases has been a struggle.” A mid-19th century Thanjavur painting showing Serfoji II with Shivaji II was sold by Subhash Kapoor using false documents to Peabody Essex Museum in the U.S.

Database: “Providing sufficient information on theft cases has been a struggle.” A mid-19th century Thanjavur painting showing Serfoji II with Shivaji II was sold by Subhash Kapoor using false documents to Peabody Essex Museum in the U.S.

With poor documentation of existing and stolen artefacts, outdated laws, and unqualified investigative agencies, India’s record in preserving its past is deplorable

The Indian government’s response in the Kohinoor case has exposed its insensate ignorance. It not only got the facts wrong, but appeared embarrassingly out of depth in understanding restitution of antiquities. Given the poor track record in restitution, it seems unlikely that India will get the Kohinoor back. But the greater worry is its apathy towards antiquities. While countries such as Italy have not only successfully pursued stolen artefacts abroad but also effectively protected them locally, India, which is equally archaeologically rich and a victim of illicit trading, is far from it.

Studies have exhaustively documented the origins of the Kohinoor diamond in India, its complicated trail, and its eventual placement in the British royal crown. History does not leave to doubt that Lord Dalhousie forcefully acquired it from the young king Duleep Singh in 1849 when the East India Company annexed Punjab. Dalhousie compelled Singh to gift the diamond to Prince Albert and Queen Victoria as a “memorial of conquest”. However, later, as historian Danielle Kinsey’s research would show, Singh unsuccessfully demanded the return of the diamond.

Kohinoor was not the most spectacular stone in the Indian royal treasuries. Prof. Kinsey observed that Singh’s treasury, along with the Kohinoor, had the Darya-i-Noor, which was far more lustrous. But Lord Dalhousie knew the symbolic importance of the Kohinoor diamond and wanted it to be part of the Queen’s jewels. Prince Albert, equally aware of the lore, publicised its history and the Indian legends associated with it.

A puzzling stance

The historical and cultural significance of the Kohinoor, as in all other cases of antiquities, is what propels India’s demand for its return. The U.K. government has consistently refused to acknowledge this. This is expected, but the Indian government’s position has been puzzling.

Till the 1980s, India did not ask for the return of the Kohinoor diamond. By 2000 it changed its position and tried to “satisfactorily resolve” the issue. However, in 2010, after U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron visited India, it again changed its stand. To a question raised in Parliament in August 2010, the government categorically stated that Kohinoor was not covered “under the UNESCO’s Convention 1972 [sic] dealing with the restitution of cultural property”, and hence the question of recovery “does not arise”.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention prohibits illicit trading and transfer of ownership of cultural properties including antiquities. However, it does not cover any recovery claims of antiquities either smuggled or exported before 1970. This instantly puts a significant number of antiquities lost by colonised countries beyond any hope of return.

The government’s statement that the UNESCO Convention does not cover Kohinoor may appear legally right, but its belief that the year 1970 is ironclad is short-sighted. By conceding so, it also misses out the cultural, political and ethical dimensions of restitution.

Historian Elazar Barakan demonstrated in his insightful writings that restitution is not a legal category but a cultural concept which defines international morality. Loot and plunder may have been a practice in earlier times, but not anymore. It was 1815 that was the turning point, he wrote, when European powers agreed that the plundering of national art was “immoral and illegal”. However, this agreement was limited to European countries, while the colonies were merrily plundered. When the colonised countries became independent, they rightfully demanded the return of looted artefacts.

As Prof. Barakan remarked: “The need for restitution to past victims has become a major part of national politics and international diplomacy.” It has become a way of correcting historical injustices. The Indian government, taking cues from such arguments, should build a mature understanding of restitution rather than hastily draft myopic responses.

Whenever countries of origin demand the return of their stolen antiquities, museums and Western experts have refused. They have repeatedly derided that antiquities are not safe in the countries of origin. These specious arguments can be rejected. However, the fact remains that antiquities are not adequately cared for in India.

Information on theft

To start with, simple things, such as an integrated database of existing and stolen artefacts, hardly exist. Providing sufficient information regarding theft cases has been a struggle. For instance, to a question raised in Parliament in 2010 about the number of antiquities stolen, the government provided a list of 13 thefts that occurred between 2007 and 2010. This list did not include that of Subhash Kapoor, an international antiquities dealer currently in prison for his alleged involvement in the theft of 18 idols from Tamil Nadu. The number of thefts reported also appears too few to be true.

Compare this with the accomplishment of the cultural heritage squad of Carabinieri, the Italian armed police force. It has built an impressive database of about 1.1 million missing artefacts. Set up in 1969, the Carabinieri is the most acclaimed police force in protecting antiquities. The officers are well-trained in art history, international law, and investigative techniques. In the last 45 years, the force has recovered more than 8,00,000 stolen artefacts within the country. The squad is also known for its aggressive pursuit of restitution cases.

Indian investigative agencies pale in comparison. At the national level, the Central Bureau of Investigation handles antiquities theft as a part of its special crimes division. The division also handles cases of economic offences as well as those relating to dowry deaths, murders, and so on. It has not built the capacity to deal with stolen antiquities. A few State governments have special wings as part of their police force, but these are also understaffed and unqualified.

National laws have not helped the cause either. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, mandates compulsory registration of antiquities. However, the process is so cumbersome that not many antiquities are registered. There is also fear that registration would attract unnecessary government attention, and prevent the legitimate transfer of the objects. As a result, a large number of private collectors do not register antiquities in their possession. The Act, which is meant to deter thefts, is outdated and has to be amended. Though the Justice Mukul Mudgal committee submitted a report recommending changes in 2011, the government is yet to take action.

The state of India’s museums is another sad story. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s Performance Audit of Preservation and Conservation of Monuments and Antiquities in 2013 had scathing remarks about the country’s poor acquisition, documentation and conservation systems. A government initiative to document antiquities in its collection has also not progressed well. In 2007, the Ministry of Culture launched the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities to complete documentation of about 70,00,000 antiquities. Until 2014, it had documented only 8,00,000 artefacts. The audit also raised serious concerns about the “discrepancies in the number of antiquities reportedly available in museums” including the National Museum in Delhi.

If the government is serious about the future of Indian antiquities, it has to, without delay, overhaul woefully inadequate institutions and improve legal measures and ill-prepared investigative agencies.

A. Srivathsan is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Views expressed are personal

Source: thehindu

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A life of learning: Wendy Doniger on becoming the woman who pretended to be who she was

First Person

The noted scholar on what she fled when she chose to learn Sanskrit at 17 – and how the hostile Hindutva response made her choose to fight on her own turf.

Yesterday · 08:00 am    Updated Yesterday · 02:00 pm

Wendy Doniger


Excerpts from the 2015 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture, presented at the Annual Meeting of American Council of Learned Societies in Philadelphia, PA, on May 8, 2015.

My life of learning, and of the love of learning, has been one of learning from books given in love. Most of what I learned came from someone I loved, beginning with my mother, Rita Doniger, born Rita Roth... When I was still very young, perhaps six or seven, she gave me a copy of her favourite set of books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the latter, in my opinion, the greatest work of European mythology since Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The Red Queen, who believed that she was always right about everything and brooked no disagreement, strongly reminded me of my mother; and the White Queen, who always cried out in pain before she pricked her finger, became for me, throughout my life, a way of resisting my own tendency to fall prey to paralysing anxiety about things that might never happen.

Through the Looking Glass was also strongly influenced by Indian philosophy (a connection noted by Swami Vivekananda and other Vedantin philosophers). Think, after all, of the idea that we are all part of the dream of the White King... She gave me books about India. When I was about 12, she gave me EM Forster’s A Passage to India, which seared my soul. It’s one of the books that I read in a single 24-hour binge, and that I remember exactly where I was when I read it: in my room in our house on the Long Island Sound.

I stayed up all the hot, humid summer night, with all the windows open, listening to the crickets and the moaning of the foghorns in the Sound, and then to the birdsong in the morning. It made me want to study India, to go to India, to go into those caves that Forster described. I cited certain key in- sights and metaphors from Forster in my own books throughout the years.

And then, in 1954, when I was 13, my mother gave me a copy of Aubrey Menen’s newly published, wickedly satirical retelling of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. I didn’t know then that Menen’s book had already been banned in India under Indian Penal Code 295A, and of course I could not know that I myself would run headlong into that same law over half a century later...

During the McCarthy Era, people like Pete Seeger and Zero Mostel drifted in and out of our house; I learned my first Sanskrit words from Pete Seeger, in Gandhi’s song, “Raghupati Raghava.”...

My father, Lester Doniger, had come to America from the village of Raczki, in the Polish corridor, in 1920, and worked his way through a degree in English literature at NYU night school, where Irwin Edman and Thomas Wolfe were among his teachers. He had become a very successful publisher. As he was a staunch FDR man, later a Stevenson man, there were often violent arguments at the dinner table; napkins were thrown down, plates pushed away only half touched. He had worked with the New York Times and published reference works, and so he would come back to the table with some such text and read out the figures – how many people Stalin had murdered, or something of that sort – only to hear my mother reply, “Well, if you believe those Capitalist rags.” I learned then that there are some arguments you cannot win.

My mother also felt that the world would not be fit to live in until the last rabbi was strangled with the entrails of the last priest. When, in 1954, under McCarthy, the phrase “under God” was inserted in the pledge of allegiance, she wouldn’t let me say it, and I had to go and sit in the principal’s office each day during the assembly in which all the other children said the pledge of allegiance. In 1991, a few months before she died, Adam Phillips did an NPR program about me, and interviewed her too. At one point he asked her how, given her views of religion, she felt about the fact that I made my living writing about religious texts. She laughed and turned to me and said, “But you don’t believe any of it, do you?”


But by the end of high school I had burnt out. I no longer thought that Communism could fix the world. I didn’t think anything could fix the world, and I was tired of the political arguments that could never be won. From my mother’s political activism I fled to my father’s profession of publishing, trading in my red diaper for a red pencil. He made books, while my mother collected books, particularly first editions. I wanted to be like him and not like her...

A refuge in Sanskrit

Sanskrit was also another kind of refuge for me, a refuge from the intense ambition and competitiveness that was bred into me, as it was into so many children of Jewish refugees, and exacerbated in my case by my mother’s own frustrated intellectual ambitions, which she visited upon me, to use the Biblical phrase. I had become burnt out by the pressure, in high school, to excel in all of my studies, to get the kind of grades that got a Jewish girl into Radcliffe. I guessed, rightly as it turned out, that I would have no competition if I studied Sanskrit, and this, too, was a source of welcome respite from the fray. And so I did the right thing for some of the right reasons and some of the wrong reasons, and began the study of Sanskrit at Radcliffe when I was 17.

At Radcliffe, I fled almost literally to the pinnacle of the ivory tower, for the Sanskrit room at Harvard was at the very top of Widener Library, Widener A, so far up that the window opened directly onto the flat roof, and during class I could see the pigeons waddling around right at the level of the windowsill, their cooing a kind of background music for my recitations. I had become an old-fashioned Orientalist femme de cabinet, and my cabinet was Widener A, its dusty air perfumed with the sweet, slightly mouldy smell of old Indian books. This heavenly sky-walking was balanced by the other half of my intellectual work, down in the dark rows of the Widener stacks, where on some occasions, finding what I was looking for or something even better that I had not even intended to look for, I actually broke out into a sweet sweat of excitement.

I studied Sanskrit with the great Daniel Henry Holmes Ingalls, who taught me not only Sanskrit but Indian literature, Indian history, and Indian religion – he was a one-man band for Indian culture. He also taught me something else, harder to define, something about the pleasure of scholarship, the elegance of the written word, the luxury of the world of the mind. He told me once that he regarded it as a waste of time to educate women, since they just got married and had children, but he continued to teach me generously and to encourage me to go on with my studies. He had me read Kalidasa’s great poem, Kumarasambhava, “The Birth of the Prince,” an elegant poetic riff on the story of the marriage of the god Shiva and the goddess Parvati.

But Ingalls also told me that the same story was narrated in the Puranas, a far simpler, sloppier, popular form of Sanskrit, which the highbrow, high-born Ingalls (his family owned the Homestead Inn in West Virginia, which was restricted – no Jews allowed) regarded as the equivalent of pulp fiction. To his horror, I much preferred the Puranas to the court poetry, and this was a turning point in my academic life: I had found my level, as a lowbrow Sanskritist, a rare crossbreed. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the myths of Shiva in the Puranas, and it eventually became my first book, Shiva: The Erotic Ascetic.

So I was trained as a Sanskritist. But I was not a real Sanskritist; real Sanskritists (Ingalls was not at all typical) are cold-blooded pedants interested only in verbs and nouns, and I was a hot-blooded ex-ballet dancer still interested in stories. Real Sanskritists, on several continents, have been known to turn and leave a room when I entered it...

My Passage to India

When I went on to graduate school at Harvard, my life as a Sanskritist floated on in its tiny, unstructured paradise: no PhD qualifying exams, no need to fill out long application forms for grants; the relatively few people who applied to go to India were more or less automatically financed. (The jaws of my students drop when I tell them about all this.)

In 1963, Ingalls sent me to India to work with Rajendra Chandra Hazra, the world expert on the Puranas. Upon arriving in Calcutta, and checking in at the Ramakrishna Mission, I duly wrote to Hazra and then went to see him; he gave me tea and said that he couldn’t work with a woman. And that was the end of my training as a Sanskritist in India.

I spent that year beginning to get to know India in reality, after all those years of fantasy. I went up to Shantiniketan in the Bengal countryside and learned to speak Bengali and to sing Tagore songs and to dance in the Manipuri tradition; I went down to Madras and studied Bharat Natyam with the great Balasarasvati. I went back up to Calcutta and met Ali Akbar Khan, who helped me buy a sarod and taught me to play it. I went to the Kailasa temple at Ellora and the erotic temples of Khajuraho and the temple of the sun at Konarak and the caves of Shiva on the island of Elephanta and the great frieze by the sea at Mahabalipuram.

With her mother Rita at Mahabalipuram, India, 1964.

I rode camels in Jaisalmer and elephants in Ajmer and trains everywhere, sleeping on the upper berths of trains or on the floor in the Third Class Ladies’ Waiting Room at the stations. And all of it, including my round-trip airfare from New York, on $6,000 from the American Institute of Indian Studies, with money left over to buy the complete critical editions of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Rig Veda, every Purana that had ever been published, and a three-foot high solid bronze statue of the goddess Parvati, from the Vijayanagar period...

The Oxford decade

In Oxford, during intervals from riding on the Downs, I eventually wrote a DPhil dissertation with Robin Zaehner, whose supervision consisted entirely in taking me out once a year to a very good dinner at the Elizabethan Restaurant, right above the shop that Lewis Carroll had immortalised as the Sheep’s Shop, and giving me increasingly drunken bits of what turned out to be very good advice about my subject, the concept of heresy in Hinduism. Zaehner at that time was obsessed with Charles Manson, about whom he was writing a book (Our Savage God), and it took a great deal of effort on my part to keep Manson and Aristotle, another obsession of Zaehner’s, out of my dissertation, which eventually became my second book, The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology.

The Sanskrit dream world continued to work its magic. I never had a job interview; I just seemed to meet people and they offered me jobs. (Again, my students’ jaws drop.) Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf (an anthropologist) wanted to hire me to teach in the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he was acting as director; finding it impossible to sell me to the Sanskritists, he winkled me instead into the History Department, where Bernard Lewis welcomed me and protected me from the Sanskritists, and Ken Ballhatchet taught me some history.

As a teacher, still despairing of ever changing the world, I settled instead for a chance to mend it bird by bird, stone by stone – tikkun olam, as the Hebrew expression puts it – through small, random acts of kindness, as a teacher, scholar, and writer. I remained alienated from the world of action – politics, reform, marching in protest – but deeply committed to my non-actions, my trivial, personal acts, with great passion for helping each student, writing each book. To this day, my idea of perfect happiness is to sit in a quiet, beautiful place and write, with my dog at my feet.

With her mother Rita in Oxford, 1973.

'If you commit suicide now, you’ll be sorry later'
In my decade in Oxford, my father became an important influence on my writing. He was, after all, a successful publisher, a man who knew how to read a manuscript and make it better; he read everything I wrote (I sent him all my notes from India), and invariably loved it...

My father died in 1971, while I was pregnant with my son Michael, who my father knew was on the way. A combination of post-partum depression and grieving for my father put me into the Warneford Hospital (first named the Oxford Lunatic Asylum in 1826, later the Warneford Lunatic Asylum). They actually still did basket weaving there, and when I protested that it was a waste of my time, they let me bring in my typewriter, and there I wrote much of my book on evil in Hindu mythology, while working through my own first personal experience of radical evil.

Eventually I was discharged by a wise psychiatrist, a Holocaust survivor, who had once told me, “If you commit suicide now, you’ll be sorry later,” and assured me, as I left and asked her if she thought I’d end up back there again, “I think you will never again experience simultaneously the death of your father and the birth of your first son.” And she was right.

The distrust of argument

My father remains my ideal, imagined reader to this day; he was always on my side. His voice, still strong in my ears, encourages me to take risks, to have confidence that I will find some readers who will get my jokes, love the stories that I love, and respect my opinions even when they do not share them.

I sound out every line I write, imagining the reader reading it, and never imagining as the reader certain scholars, who shall remain nameless, who might be watching with an eagle eye, poised to pounce on any mistake I might make; no, I always imagine the reader as my father, on my side. I try to be that person to my students, who are otherwise vulnerable to an imaginaire of hostile reception that can block their writing, as it keeps some of my most brilliant colleagues from publishing. My father saved me from that.

The distrust of argument that had been bred in me at my parents’ contentious dinner table made me, in my own work, very non-confrontational. In this I took after my father, who may have learned the same lesson in the same place but was also, I think, by nature a man who wanted everyone to like him.

In personal encounters, I would always go around an opponent rather than try to go through. I would refuse to write a review of a book I didn’t like. But I didn’t want to write about what other people wrote about; the maternal genes in me were also quietly working their magic there. I would express my dissident opinions, but only on my own turf; if I read in a book something that I thought wrong, that ignored texts that revealed another aspect of the subject, the “wrong” book would inspire me to write the “right” book, using those neglected texts to make my own point.

If the dominant paradigm was that the karma theory solved everything and that the Hindu gods were always loving and truthful, I wrote about the many alternative narratives that had been advanced by Hindus who did not think that karma was the answer, and the many myths in which the gods were deceitful or hurtful.

In England, though Richard Gombrich was my companion in arms in the world of Sanskrit, it was again the anthropologists who supplied much of my intellectual nourishment – EE Evans-Pritchard and Rodney Needham in Oxford, Edmund Leach in Cambridge, Mary Douglas in London, and, later, Claude Lévi- Strauss.

I first encountered the works of Lévi-Strauss in Moscow, where I had accompanied my husband, a Russian historian, for a year (1970-71) at the height of the Cold War, under Brezhnev. While my husband was burrowing in the archives, I wandered over to the Oriental Institute and discovered the structuralists and semioticists of the Tartu school. (This was the only time in my life when I found Sanskrit of practical use: since all the Moscow Sanskritists I knew were dissidents, the Sanskrit library at the Oriental Institute was bugged; we met there and spoke what amounted to pidgin Sanskrit to baffle the KGB eavesdroppers.)

Later I met Lévi-Strauss in person, in Paris, and we corresponded until his death. Among the many things I learned from him was an answer to the puzzle of the proliferation and repetition of myths: that each version addresses a paradox that can never be solved, and so you try again, and again, and again; this also showed me the way to deal with the apparent paradox of Shiva’s asceticism and eroticism.

On a more practical level, Lévi-Strauss’s structural patterns provided me with a way to discuss hundreds of variants of a myth at once, instead of printing them out in a large, separate volume, as I had done for my 950- page Harvard dissertation. And Lévi-Strauss also showed me the best resolution of the senseless arguments advanced to explain the coincidence of myths across cultures, borrowing versus independent origination: he reasoned that one culture borrows from another only those things that are attractive and sensible to the receiving culture, hence in a sense original in that culture too.
This validation of the link between versions of a myth in several cultures justified, I felt, my persistence in writing about cross-cultural patterns of myth, a subject that had fallen into disrepute in my academic world.

Imposter nightmares

When, in 1975, I followed my husband back from England to Berkeley (giving up my tenured lectureship at the School of Oriental and African Studies), again an anthropologist, Alan Dundes, was my best friend (indeed almost my only friend; I was spurned by the Berkeley South Asianists). Only when I reached my final academic home, the University of Chicago, in 1978, did I find Indologists broad-minded enough to welcome me in – Hans van Buitenen, Milton Singer, AK Ramanujan, the Rudolphs, Ed Dimock, Kim Marriott – though even there, the historians of religions Mircea Eliade and Frank Reynolds were in many ways my closest colleagues and my first teachers in the field of the history of religions.

I came to Chicago under colours even more false than those I had worn as a historian in London. In 1968, Mircea Eliade had been the only official reader (besides Ingalls) of my PhD dissertation (again, the jaws drop); he had liked it, and published two long essays from it in the journal that he had just founded (in 1961), History of Religions, of which I now serve as the senior editor. Eliade encouraged me to come to Chicago. Ten years later, in 1978, I accepted the offer of Eliade’s colleague, the dean of the Divinity School, Joe Kitagawa, and arrived in Chicago as a full professor and chair of the History of Religions Area, having taken only one course in religion in my whole life (and that one from the highly eccentric Arthur Darby Nock). I was able to hold my imposter nightmares at bay only by reassuring myself that I was, at least, a real South Asianist, and I had an appointment in that department too.

But I also had an appointment in the Committee on Social Thought, which changed my life. In those days, the Committee was a truly motley group (nowadays the term would be interdisciplinary) of people who called themselves a salon des refusés – maverick anthropologists, art historians, historians of religions, Islamicists, Sinologists (one was the chair), Indologists, novelists (Saul Bellow), musicologists (Charles Rosen), classicists, economists, historians of religion (Eliade was there, too) – all of them slightly out of step with their own official academic caste and very, very good at whatever they did.

I thought I had died and gone to heaven. All of them, but particularly David Grene, encouraged me to draw upon everything I knew, not just what I had been certified to know, in my writing and teaching, and so I gained the courage to rush in where classicists and scholars of English literature, film, Freud, and feminism feared to tread. Never again would I write only about India, and never again would I have to apologise for not being a real Sanskritist. The nourishment I drew from supportive colleagues in such a wide range of academic disciplines is reflected in the rather eclectic nature of the work I did then and have continued to do. The ugly duckling had become a swan – or, to quote one of my own favourite myths, I had become the woman who pretended to be what she was...

I seem to chain smoke my books, lighting each from the embers of the last, or, if you prefer, making new yogurt from a bit of yogurt from the last batch.
Each book left something unsolved, unsatisfied, and that drove me on to the next; the leftovers from the Shiva book (in which the god violates many of the Hindu codes of chastity and caste purity) spilled over to make the book about the origins of evil (in which other gods, too, break their own rules). Some of the stories about Sita and Helen in Splitting the Difference turned out to be bedtricks, and demanded a book of their own; some of the bedtricks turned out to be self-masquerades, and demanded a book of their own; some of the self-masquerades were about rings, and that’s where I am now, finishing up The Ring of Truth, and Other Myths of Sex and Jewelry. The red thread through all of them seems to be the intersecting themes of rebellion and masquerade. More recently, I have been drawn away from masquerade, and into rebellion.

Whom I write for

I have always felt that what I do is translation, both in the literal sense (translating Sanskrit texts into English for Penguin Classics and Oxford World Classics and the late lamented Clay Sanskrit Series) and in the broader sense of translating India for Americans... For of all the beautiful things that are made in India, the stories are the most beautiful of all.

In 1987, the Brooklyn Academy of Music inaugurated its Majestic Theatre with a production of Peter Brook’s stage version of the Mahabharata, an all-night, nine-hour production for which my old Great Neck classmate Barbara Stoler Miller had served as the Sanskrit advisor. Watching the Brooklyn audience, my people, watching the Indian characters, the heroes of the Mahabharata, my people, I felt as I had felt introducing a new boyfriend to my parents, hoping so much that they would like him. I was delighted that my fellow New York Jews (and others) stayed up all night for an Indian play (as Indian audiences often do) and adored it. I was similarly delighted when my American students and, after a while, scholars and non-scholars in the broader world of letters liked my translations of Indian stories. Eventually I discovered that I had a very appreciative Indian audience as well, both in America and in India; most of my books were co-published in Indian editions. Yet it has only been recently that I’ve taught myself to stop assuming a New Yorker as my reader, so that I no longer say “we” (in contrast with “Hindus”), just as I had to learn to stop using “he” as the default pronoun.

I never ever imagined a pious, self-righteous Hindu as my reader.
It never occurred to me that I could possibly make anyone mad at me by writing, full of appreciation, about Sanskrit texts whose authors had been dead for thousands of years. How foolish I was.

The problem now with (some) Hindus

And so, in 2003, the hostile response to my books from the rightwing Hindu community blind-sided me. After all those happy years of pure fantasy, both in my subject matter and, I now realise, in my own self-perception, suddenly I found myself fighting against real live bad guys again, just as I had done standing beside my mother in the barricades in the McCarthy days. Indeed, the seed of my problems may have been sown way back in 1954, when my mother gave me that copy of Aubrey Menen’s satire on the Ramayana that was banned for its blasphemous attitude to the god Rama. And so began what I have come to think of as my Indian wars.

Attacks began first in the Hindu diaspora in America, in the early years of the twenty-first century, and then in India. First came assaults on other peoples’ books, and then on mine and those of some of my students. The attackers, in both India and the American diaspora, were members of a movement called Hindutva, “Hinduness,” a nationalist group with roots in the early twentieth century, who aim to restrict discussions of Hinduism to their own narrow, bowdlerised version of this rich and often earthy tradition, and who grotesquely misrepresent its history. They therefore care very much about what I was saying about people who had died thousands of years ago.

My response was, as always, tempered by the memory of those old, unwinnable dinnertime Stalin arguments; I did not engage in a direct confrontation with the off-the-wall Internet tirades. Instead, I stayed on my own turf and published, in 2010, a book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, highlighting, more clearly and directly, I hoped, precisely those elements that they wanted to erase: the earthier, often satirical stories of the gods, the skeptical and even antinomian arguments, the less than pious folk versions of the great myths, the criticisms of caste and protests against the mistreatment of women. Almost immediately, a Hindutva group brought a lawsuit against me and Penguin Books, India, demanding that my book be withdrawn from publication and all remaining copies destroyed.

Penguin’s lawyers fought the suit for four years and finally settled in 2014, agreeing to the demands (though in fact no copy was destroyed, or “pulped”, despite the media claims: all remaining copies were quickly bought out). To my surprise, there was a massive, international protest. The book became a cause célèbre, “the Doniger affair.” Demonised by the Indian right, I became the poster girl of the Indian left. When the dust settled, Penguin generously agreed to let the Indian publication rights revert to me, and the book – which continued to be available illegally, in brown paper wrappers and in PDFs on the Internet, and legally but expensively (Penguin India now imports the New York edition) – is soon to be republished in India by another Indian publisher [This lecture was given in 2015]. My response to the attacks on The Hindus was to publish another book, this time a 700-page source-book, the Norton Anthology of Hinduism, bringing together the texts that proved that I wasn’t making it all up.

And so, in the end, I was dragged bei den Haarn, as my mother would have said, “by the hair,” back to the world of politics from which I had fled half a century ago. I was reminded of the man who, living in Europe in the 1930s, realised that there was going to be a terrible war there and decided to get out while he could; he sold all his possessions and fled to the safety of a remote island in the South Seas. It was Iwo Jima. The tale of the Appointment in Samarra also comes to mind: running into what you are running away from. Or Alice, trying to get to the garden and always coming back into the house. Here I was, fighting the good fight after all. Well, I had been trained to do it. I was a bit rusty, but I still knew what to do when the bad guys tried to shut you up: keep talking. I realised that I had to fight what my students couldn’t fight, because they were vulnerable in ways that I was not: they might be denied visas to India, their books turned down by nervous publishers, their employers pressured – by wealthy, conservative Hindu donors – to fire them. But I, being near the end of my career, had nothing to lose. Was I a Sanskritist in political activist’s clothing, or the reverse?

Becoming My Mother

When I entered the fray in India, fighting for my book but also fighting for Penguin, for all publishers, in a way, my reflexive thought was that my father was standing me in good stead; no, said my son Mike, grandma is standing by you.

Suddenly I found that I was living my mother’s life after all. Like a character in the recognition narratives I wrote about, like Cinderella, or Oedipus, I realised who I was: not my father, but my mother. More precisely, I had become not my mother but what she wanted me to become, and what she herself would have wanted to become had she had the chances that she had given me, starting with those first books given with love. Recognising the seed of my present moment in her hopes for me so long ago, I thought, as I did so often, of the words at the end of Gatsby:

    “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

©2015 by Wendy Doniger. Full text of this Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture, presented at the Annual Meeting of American Council of Learned Societies in Philadelphia, PA, on May 8, 2015 is available here.

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Monday, April 25, 2016

Ambedkar vs Dronacharya: Why Gurugram is just the RSS telling us who's boss


Changing the name of Gurgaon is a decision taken after due deliberation.

Apr 20, 2016 · 04:30 pm      Updated Apr 21, 2016 · 10:51 am

Kancha Ilaiah


Changing the name of Gurgaon to Gurugram is clearly a decision taken after due deliberation. It is no coincidence that its announcement was timed with the celebrations of Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary.

We are reminded once again of the Mahabharata story based on mythological Guru Dronacharya, who trained the Pandavas and Kuarvas in archery, but had to remain with Kaurvas as he was duty bound when it came to the crunch.

The contestation between the Kauravas and the Pandavas is generally projected as a battle between Dharma and Adharma, but it could well be read as war between majority (Kauravs ) and minority (Pandavs) basically over land rights and political power.

Historically, the Brahmin gurus always stood by the minority that constituted Brahmins and Kshatriyas (not even Vaisyas) in ancient times. The 6th century BC Buddhist literature shows us enough evidence how the Brahmins were against the majority that constituted of Shudras and Vaisyas. India had a massive tribal population at that time, which did not come into the orbit of the caste system. The Brahmins-Kshatriys were against the tribals, whom the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh refers to as Vanavasis, or the forest-dwellers.

The Brahmin gurus worked out the theories with an upside down ideology of Dharma and Adharma as that suited them very well. At that time they approved whatever the minority did as Dharma and whatever the majority did as Adharma based on Varna division.

Eklavya and Karna

Two stories that tell us about the absolute casteist nature of Dronacharya are those of Eklavya and Karna. That Dronacharya asked for tribal Eklavya’s thumb as guru-dakshina, so as to impair his archery skills is too well-known to need recounting. But let’s not forget that he also refused to teach Karna for not being a Kshatriya, insulting him for being a suta-putra or the son of a charioteer and therefore not fit for learning warfare.

In present day terminology, Dronacharya can thus easily be seen as being against the Dalit-Bahujan classes, also known as other backward classes and scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

If we map the Dronacharya’s cultural ideology on the present social relations it should not allow Narendra Modi to become the prime minister of the country, as he happens to be an OBC. The RSS’s inner ideology is that of Dronacharya but its posture is that it is for all, including Eklavya and Karna.

It should not really be a surprise therefore for Narendra Modi to be saying that he became the prime minister because of BR Ambedkar and the Constitution he gave India. Modi also repeatedly invokes the name of Gautam Buddha, at least in his foreign tours, just as he invokes Ambedkar’s name at home. It should also not be a surprise that no Brahmin or Kshatriya leader from the Bharatiya Janata Party or the RSS takes the names of Buddha and Ambedkar as frequently as Modi does.

Which is what explains the name change. The caste culture works both ways. Just as Modi appealed to the SC/ST/OBCs, Haryana Chief Minister Khattar was brought in to assuage the upper castes, the BJP-RSS’s core constituency. It is meant to be a signal to the old faithful that the core ideology has not changed. In its intent, Khattar’s move in changing the name to Gurugram and invoke Dronacharya is of a piece with the Vande Mataram controversy and Maharashtra’s Brahmin Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ recent pronouncements. “There is still a dispute over saying ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ ,” he was quoted as having said recently. “Those opposed to say it should not have any right to stay in India. Those living here should say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.

These are not accidental pronouncements. The short point is that as the BJP goes about appropriating Dalit icons such as Ambedkar in search of newer vote-banks, it needs to reassure its old and ideological votaries too.

Casteist soul

The Brahmin and upper caste intellectuals – be they right wing, left wing or of liberal persuasion – have a tacit understanding of such hegemonic cultural agenda. They have common views about opposite icons like Mahisasur and Dronacharya. This is not a recent phenomenon and was no different under the earlier Congress governments either. Let’s not forget that the top most sports award too is named after Dronacharya.

The problem is that there is no strong Shudra intellectual force that could re-read the Brahmin mythology and fight them back with their own cultural symbols. For example, the Jats in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh did not produce qualitative English educated intellectuals. So is the case with Patels of Gujarat and Gujjars of Rajasthan.

There is some amount of re-reading of the Indian Brahmin mythology from the Dalit point of view because of Ambedkar, but there is no serious re-reading from Shudra point of view. So long as there is no strong Shudra intellectual force in the country, the productive people’s history and narratives will not get their due recognition in the cognitive map of the country.

Till then, the RSS roadmap is clear. Its pracharak chief ministers can be called upon to moderate and balance all the praise showered on Ambedkar in search of newer vote banks. The timing of the re-naming of Gurgaon as Gurugram tells the story more effectively than anything else as it was changed in the midst of the Ambedkar Jayanthi celebrations.

The RSS’s inner soul belongs to Dronacharya – not to Eklavya and Karna. It is delusional therefore to expect any real progress towards an egalitarian nation from a government that is controlled by them. Their idea of sab kaa saath, sab kaa Vikas has to be true to its soul – and pay obeisance to their casteist idols.
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Friday, April 15, 2016

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems

Financial meltdown, environmental disaster and even the rise of Donald Trump – neoliberalism has played its part in them all. Why has the left failed to come up with an alternative?

George Monbiot @GeorgeMonbiot

Friday 15 April 2016 12.00 BST Last modified on Friday 15 April 2016 15.27 BST

‘No alternative’ … Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the White House. Photograph: Rex Features

Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?

Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.

Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.

Among the results, as Paul Verhaeghe documents in his book What About Me? are epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now.


The term neoliberalism was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Among the delegates were two men who came to define the ideology, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum as nazism and communism.

In The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, Hayek argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Like Mises’s book Bureaucracy, The Road to Serfdom was widely read. It came to the attention of some very wealthy people, who saw in the philosophy an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and tax. When, in 1947, Hayek founded the first organisation that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations.

With their help, he began to create what Daniel Stedman Jones describes in Masters of the Universe as “a kind of neoliberal international”: a transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists and activists. The movement’s rich backers funded a series of thinktanks which would refine and promote the ideology. Among them were the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.

As it evolved, neoliberalism became more strident. Hayek’s view that governments should regulate competition to prevent monopolies from forming gave way – among American apostles such as Milton Friedman  – to the belief that monopoly power could be seen as a reward for efficiency.

Something else happened during this transition: the movement lost its name. In 1951, Friedman was happy to describe himself as a neoliberal. But soon after that, the term began to disappear. Stranger still, even as the ideology became crisper and the movement more coherent, the lost name was not replaced by any common alternative.

At first, despite its lavish funding, neoliberalism remained at the margins. The postwar consensus was almost universal: John Maynard Keynes’s economic prescriptions were widely applied, full employment and the relief of poverty were common goals in the US and much of western Europe, top rates of tax were high and governments sought social outcomes without embarrassment, developing new public services and safety nets.

But in the 1970s, when Keynesian policies began to fall apart and economic crises struck on both sides of the Atlantic, neoliberal ideas began to enter the mainstream. As Friedman remarked, “when the time came that you had to change ... there was an alternative ready there to be picked up”. With the help of sympathetic journalists and political advisers, elements of neoliberalism, especially its prescriptions for monetary policy, were adopted by Jimmy Carter’s administration in the US and Jim Callaghan’s government in Britain.

After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the package soon followed: massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world. Most remarkable was its adoption among parties that once belonged to the left: Labour and the Democrats, for example. As Stedman Jones notes, “it is hard to think of another utopia to have been as fully realised.”


It may seem strange that a doctrine promising choice and freedom should have been promoted with the slogan “there is no alternative”. But, as Hayek remarked on a visit to Pinochet’s Chile – one of the first nations in which the programme was comprehensively applied – “my personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism”. The freedom that neoliberalism offers, which sounds so beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for the pike, not for the minnows.

Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.

Naomi Klein documented that neoliberals advocated the use of crises to impose unpopular policies while people were distracted. Photograph: Anya Chibis for the Guardian

As Naomi Klein documents in The Shock Doctrine, neoliberal theorists advocated the use of crises to impose unpopular policies while people were distracted: for example, in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, which Friedman described as “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system” in New Orleans.

Where neoliberal policies cannot be imposed domestically, they are imposed internationally, through trade treaties incorporating “investor-state dispute settlement”: offshore tribunals in which corporations can press for the removal of social and environmental protections. When parliaments have voted to restrict sales of
cigarettes, protect water supplies from mining companies, freeze energy bills or prevent pharmaceutical firms from ripping off the state, corporations have sued, often successfully. Democracy is reduced to theatre.

Another paradox of neoliberalism is that universal competition relies upon universal quantification and comparison. The result is that workers, job-seekers and public services of every kind are subject to a pettifogging, stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers. The doctrine that Von Mises proposed would free us from the bureaucratic nightmare of central planning has instead created one.

Neoliberalism was not conceived as a self-serving racket, but it rapidly became one. Economic growth has been markedly slower in the neoliberal era (since 1980 in Britain and the US) than it was in the preceding decades; but not for the very rich. Inequality in the distribution of both income and wealth, after 60 years of decline, rose rapidly in this era, due to the smashing of trade unions, tax reductions, rising rents, privatisation and deregulation.

The privatisation or marketisation of public services such as energy, water, trains, health, education, roads and prisons has enabled corporations to set up tollbooths in front of essential assets and charge rent, either to citizens or to government, for their use. Rent is another term for unearned income. When you pay an inflated price for a train ticket, only part of the fare compensates the operators for the money they spend on fuel, wages, rolling stock and other outlays. The rest reflects the fact that they have you over a barrel.

In Mexico, Carlos Slim was granted control of almost all phone services and soon became the world’s richest man. Photograph: Henry Romero/Reuters

Those who own and run the UK’s privatised or semi-privatised services make stupendous fortunes by investing little and charging much. In Russia and India, oligarchs acquired state assets through firesales. In Mexico, Carlos Slim was granted control of almost all landline and mobile phone services and soon became the world’s richest man.

Financialisation, as Andrew Sayer notes in Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, has had a similar impact. “Like rent,” he argues, “interest is ... unearned income that accrues without any effort”. As the poor become poorer and the rich become richer, the rich acquire increasing control over another crucial asset: money. Interest payments, overwhelmingly, are a transfer of money from the poor to the rich. As property prices and the withdrawal of state funding load people with debt (think of the switch from student grants to student loans), the banks and their executives clean up.

Sayer argues that the past four decades have been characterised by a transfer of wealth not only from the poor to the rich, but within the ranks of the wealthy: from those who make their money by producing new goods or services to those who make their money by controlling existing assets and harvesting rent, interest or capital gains. Earned income has been supplanted by unearned income.

Neoliberal policies are everywhere beset by market failures. Not only are the banks too big to fail, but so are the corporations now charged with delivering public services. As Tony Judt pointed out in Ill Fares the Land, Hayek forgot that vital national services cannot be allowed to collapse, which means that competition cannot run its course. Business takes the profits, the state keeps the risk.

The greater the failure, the more extreme the ideology becomes. Governments use neoliberal crises as both excuse and opportunity to cut taxes, privatise remaining public services, rip holes in the social safety net, deregulate corporations and re-regulate citizens. The self-hating state now sinks its teeth into every organ of the public sector.

Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts. Instead, neoliberal theory asserts, people can exercise choice through spending. But some have more to spend than others: in the great consumer or shareholder democracy, votes are not equally distributed. The result is a disempowerment of the poor and middle. As parties of the right and former left adopt similar neoliberal policies, disempowerment turns to disenfranchisement. Large numbers of people have been shed from politics.

Slogans, symbols and sensation … Donald Trump. Photograph: Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters 

Chris Hedges remarks that “fascist movements build their base not from the politically active but the politically inactive, the ‘losers’ who feel, often correctly, they have no voice or role to play in the political establishment”. When political debate no longer speaks to us, people become responsive instead to slogans, symbols and sensation. To the admirers of Trump, for example, facts and arguments appear irrelevant.

Judt explained that when the thick mesh of interactions between people and the state has been reduced to nothing but authority and obedience, the only remaining force that binds us is state power. The totalitarianism Hayek feared is more likely to emerge when governments, having lost the moral authority that arises from the delivery of public services, are reduced to “cajoling, threatening and ultimately coercing people to obey them”.


Like communism, neoliberalism is the God that failed. But the zombie doctrine staggers on, and one of the reasons is its anonymity. Or rather, a cluster of anonymities.

The invisible doctrine of the invisible hand is promoted by invisible backers. Slowly, very slowly, we have begun to discover the names of a few of them. We find that the Institute of Economic Affairs, which has argued forcefully in the media against the further regulation of the has been secretly funded, has been secretly funded by British American Tobacco since 1963. We discover that Charles and David Koch, two of the richest men in the world, founded the institute that set up the Tea Party movement. We find that Charles Koch, in establishing one of his thinktanks, noted that “in order to avoid undesirable criticism, how the organisation is controlled and directed should not be widely advertised”.

The words used by neoliberalism often conceal more than they elucidate. “The market” sounds like a natural system that might bear upon us equally, like gravity or atmospheric pressure. But it is fraught with power relations. What “the market wants” tends to mean what corporations and their bosses want. “Investment”, as Sayer notes, means two quite different things. One is the funding of productive and socially useful activities, the other is the purchase of existing assets to milk them for rent, interest, dividends and capital gains. Using the same word for different activities “camouflages the sources of wealth”, leading us to confuse wealth extraction with wealth creation.

A century ago, the nouveau riche were disparaged by those who had inherited their money. Entrepreneurs sought social acceptance by passing themselves off as rentiers. Today, the relationship has been reversed: the rentiers and inheritors style themselves entre preneurs. They claim to have earned their unearned income.

These anonymities and confusions mesh with the namelessness and placelessness of modern capitalism: the franchise model which ensures that workers do not know for whom they toil; the companies registered through a network of offshore secrecy regimes so complex that even the police cannot discover the beneficial owner; the tax arrangements that bamboozle governments; the financial products no one understands.

The anonymity of neoliberalism is fiercely guarded. Those who are influenced by Hayek, Mises and Friedman tend to reject the term, maintaining – with some justice – that it is used today only pejoratively. But they offer us no substitute. Some describe themselves as classical liberals or libertarians, but these descriptions are both misleading and curiously self-effacing, as they suggest that there is nothing novel about The Road to Serfdom, Bureaucracy or Friedman’s classic work, Capitalism and Freedom.


For all that, there is something admirable about the neoliberal project, at least in its early stages. It was a distinctive, innovative philosophy promoted by a coherent network of thinkers and activists with a clear plan of action. It was patient and persistent. The Road to Serfdom became the path to power.

Neoliberalism’s triumph also reflects the failure of the left. When laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929, Keynes devised a comprehensive economic theory to replace it. When Keynesian demand management hit the buffers in the 70s, there was an alternative ready. But when neoliberalism fell apart in 2008 there was ... nothing. This is why the zombie walks. The left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.

Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure. To propose Keynesian solutions to the crises of the 21st century is to ignore three obvious problems. It is hard to mobilise people around old ideas; the flaws exposed in the 70s have not gone away; and, most importantly, they have nothing to say about our gravest predicament: the environmental crisis. Keynesianism works by stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth. Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction.

What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.

Source: theguardian

Blogger's Note:
A must read article.


Appearance of untouchability can be dated to over 2,000 years ago: Romila Thapar

Thapar said clearly those who enforced this found it greatly to their advantage to push entire communities into permanent exclusion so much so that successive generations too were decreed untouchable.

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi | Updated: April 15, 2016 8:56 am

Romila Thapar in New Delhi on Thursday. (Express Photo by Anil Sharma)

Babasaheb B R Ambedkar, who she had been reading “more and more over the years”, had contributed tremendously to her understanding of the abomination untouchability system in Hinduism, eminent historian and Professor Emerita at JNU, Romila Thapar, said while delivering the eighth Dr BR Ambedkar lecture, organised by Ambedkar University of Delhi, on Thursday.

In a talk lasting over an hour-and-a-half, apart from select questions she fielded, Thapar said a stratified caste-based society has existed in India for millennia, but the appearance of untouchability probably can be dated to more than two millennia ago, when the word ‘asprishya’ makes an appearance and the Chandals were discussed.

Speaking on “permanently excluding” an entire set of people which made untouchability unique, and even worse than slavery (“because under some conditions slaves could become free and citizens”), Thapar said clearly those who enforced this found it greatly to their advantage to push entire communities into permanent exclusion so much so that successive generations too were decreed untouchable.

The central premise of her talk — ‘Rethinking Civilisation as History’ — was on the limitations of how the term ‘Civilisation’ was used, with a focus on “cultural singularity” to discuss or understand events, creating the idea of ‘the other’ or a mistaken ‘clash of civilisation’ to define a people. She began by elaborating on how the phrase civilisation came about, was of European origin, seeking to define others as either savages or barbarians. Citing the creation of the ‘barbarous’ by the Greece or the ‘Mlechh’ or ‘das’ idea of the ‘other’ by Brahmins in Vedic times, Thapar dwelt on colonial history, 18th century European ideas and its impact on how India was seen by them and how Indians see themselves to date.

Thapar said that the term was used to denote a system with singularity of language, religion, fixed territory and a set of ideas. Eventually, when the term civilisation was used to denote the history of a particular time, it ended up representing the life of the dominant group at any point of time. So, Thapar argued, whenever ‘civilisation’ was used to talk about India, it did not fully represent India either fairly or accurately.

On territory, Thapar elaborated on how a ‘section of people’, arguing for Indian civilisation over a fixed territory, usually, following the description of colonial historians like James Mill, referred to British India as the boundaries, not speaking of Jambudwipe, Aryavarta or Al-Hind as alternative boundaries; “but even that changed so dramatically, that binding Indian civilisation between fixed boundaries was meaningless.”

Thapar spoke of the importance of culture at the frontiers of the boundaries and how it influenced things inside, but that having received inadequate attention so far.

On one religion, Thapar elaborated how for millennia, the wide spectrum of sects, between the Brahmans and Shramans or the Astiks and Nastiks and aajivikas defined a much richer variety of faith. But after colonial European historians came to India and put all non-Muslim and Christian faiths under the ‘Hindu’ label, it was an oversimplification of what was happening here.

She said dialogue between various sects between the Brahmans and Shramans resulted in each one calling the other ‘Pashandas’, or frauds, and levels of intolerance were on display with reference to Buddhism and castes and sects treated as lower and untouchable. In a statement significant with debates today about portrayal of ancient India as tolerant, Thapar said: “The degree of tolerance and ideas of non-violence in the past need to be re-examined.”

On language, too, Thapar spoke of how high-quality debates and arguments took place in Prakrit, which remained a very popular but ignored language as ancient India is characterised as having just a Sanskrit base, ignoring both Prakrit and Pali, and of course languages in peninsular India. While Sanskrit was also the language which the elites and several royals patronised, with a rich repository of literature and philosophy, it was not the only language of the land.

Thapar emphasised on interactions between cultures and across boundaries and even high, dominant cultures executed by often smaller and less dominant castes, such as artisans and craftsmen, about whose interaction we know little. She spoke of the importance of “interface between what see as distinct cultures, which civilisation is about and not separation”. She spoke of co-mingling of people, engagement and cultures who spoke to each other as agents of change and growth, internally and across boundaries accepted (mistakenly) as static and eternal that often generated the maximum activity.

Speaking before her, the Vice Chancellor of AUD, Dr Shyam Menon spoke of plans in the university to institute a Chair for Dr BR Ambedkar Studies and, soon, to have a Centre for Critical Ambedkar Studies. Menon spoke of how the 125th anniversary of Ambedkar had coincided with difficult times for ideals Ambedkar held close to him. “We are seeing distressing times when there is the silencing of rationality, which is under attack.” He also spoke of the “acute intolerance” on display, when “public universities were become epicentres of contestation” to debate whether “difference in ideas can be debated”.

Menon defined a university as a “liberal space” and a “protected space”, which acts as a “testing ground for several ideas”.

The lecture was chaired by Dean, School of Liberal Studies, Prof Denys Leighton.

Source: indianexpress

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Saturday, April 09, 2016

A Hinduism that is the mirror opposite of Hindutva: Anand Patwardhan on the making of 'Ram Ke Naam'

History revisited

The noted filmmaker recalls the horrific events captured in his landmark documentary.

Mar 31, 2016 · 10:30 am        Updated Mar 31, 2016 · 11:05 pm

Anand Patwardhan, sabrangindia.in

 Image credit:  AFP

In 1984 after her Sikh bodyguards assassinated Indira Gandhi, a revenge pogrom took the lives of over 3,000 Sikhs on the streets of Delhi. Many killer mobs were led by Congress Party members, but some were led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party as well. This is a fact forgotten by history but recorded in newspaper headlines of the day. It was this massacre that set me on the to road to fight communalism with my camera. For the next decade I recorded different examples of the rise of the religious right, as seen in diverse movements from the Khalistani upsurge in Punjab to the glorification of Sati in Rajasthan and the movement to replace the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya with a temple to Lord Ram.

The material I filmed was very complex and if I had tried to encompass it all into a single film, it would have been too long and confusing. Eventually three distinct films emerged from the footage shot between 1984 and 1994, all broadly describing the rise of religious fundamentalism and the resistance offered by secular forces in the country. Una Mitran Di Yaad Pyaari/ In Memory of Friends, the first film to get completed, spoke of the situation in the Punjab of the 1980s where Khalistanis as well as the Indian government were claiming Bhagat Singh as their hero, but only people from the Left remembered the Bhagat Singh who from his death cell wrote the booklet, Why I am an Atheist.

The second film was Ram Ke Naam/In the Name of God on the rise of Hindu fundamentalism as witnessed in the temple-mosque controversy in Ayodhya. The third was Pitra, Putra aur Dharmayuddha/Father, Son and Holy War on the connection between religious violence and the male psyche. All three films tackled communalism, but each used a different prism to analyse what was happening. In Memory of Friends highlighted the writings of Bhagat Singh suggesting that class solidarity was the antidote to religious division. Father, Son and Holy War looked at the issue from the prism of gender.

The long march

For this article, I will concentrate on Ram Ke Naam, the middle film of what became a trilogy on communalism. While the film covers a two-year span from 1990 onwards, the back story begins in the mid-1980s when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and sister organisations of the Hindutva family (the Sangh Parivar) were searching for a way to capture the imagination of the Hindus of India who at 83%, constitute the real vote bank of this country. A Dharam Sansad (Parliament of Priests) in 1984 (the year Indira Gandhi was killed and the Congress rode to power on a sympathy wave) identified 3,000 sites of potential conflict between Hindus and Muslims that could mobilize the sentiments of Hindus and polarise the nation. The top three sites chosen were at Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura. The Dharam Sansad decided to start with the Ram temple/Babri Mosque in Ayodhya.

Soon, a nationwide village to village campaign to collects bricks and money to build a grand Ram temple in place of the Babri mosque began. The campaign went international as NRIs chipped in from distant lands. By design or by remarkable coincidence, India’s state controlled TV channel, Doordarshan started to run a never-ending-serial on the Hindu epic – The Ramayana. In those days there were few other TV channels and the whole nation was hooked onto mythology. These were the ingredients already at play when BJP stalwart LK Advani set out on his chariot of fire.

Ram Ke Naam follows the rath yatra of Advani, who in 1990 traversed the Indian countryside in an air-conditioned Toyota dressed up by a Bollywood set-designer to look like a mythological war chariot. The stated objective was to gather volunteers, or “kar sevaks”, to demolish a 16th-century mosque built by the Mughal emperor Babar in Ayodhya and build a temple to Lord Ram in its exact location. The rationale for this act of destruction and construction was that Babar had supposedly built this mosque after demolishing a temple to Lord Ram that had marked the exact location of Lord Ram’s birth. This was justified as an act of historic redress for the many wrongs inflicted by Muslim invaders and rulers on their native Hindu subjects, a theme that runs through all Hindutva discourse like a flaming torch.

I started the film instinctively, shooting the rath yatra when it arrived in Bombay in 1990 and then following it through various segments of its journey. At many places the rath passed through, it left a trail of blood as kar sevaks attacked local Muslims either for not showing due respect or just to display their might. By the end of its journey over 60 people had been killed and many more injured in the wake of the rath.

Basic equipment

Most of our shoot was done with a two-person crew consisting of myself with an old 16 mm camera and colleagues who accompanied me on different legs of the shoot. For the leg that eventually reached Ayodhya, Pervez Merwanji recorded sound on our portable Nagra. Pervez was a dear friend and a filmmaker in his own right, having just made his brilliant debut feature Percy, which went on to win a major award at the Mannhein International Film Festival. Despite this he was not too proud to don the mantle of sound recordist on an unheralded independent documentary project like ours. It turned out to be the last film he would ever work on. Pervez contracted jaundice, probably during our shoot, seemed to recover, but then his liver failed him and he passed away never having seen the final edit of our film.

Our actual filming was staggered over a year-and-a-half, and we were able to research as well as shoot in this period. We learned that contrary to the theory that votaries of Hindutva were propagating that claimed that there was a temple underneath the mosque, the artefacts that archaeologists had originally found in digs in the vicinity had nothing to do with any temple. According to historians, in the 7th century at the location of present-day Ayodhya, probably stood the Buddhist city of Saket. We learned that the proliferation of akhadas (military wings attached to temples) in Ayodhya had nothing to do with the long war to liberate the birthplace of Lord Ram as was being claimed by Hindutva ideologues, but owed their origin to the ongoing rivalry between armed Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects in the middle ages.

Most importantly we learned that in the 16th century, the poet Tulsidas visited Ayodhya many times as he composed his famous Ram Charit Manas, a text which converted the relatively obscure Sanskrit Ramayana into khadi boli, a form of Hindi, that popularised the story of Lord Ram for the ordinary folk of North India. Not only does Tulsidas never mention that a temple marking the birthplace of Lord Ram was just demolished by Babar, there is another telling fact. Until the 16th century the Rama legend was largely restricted to the few Brahmins who knew Sanskrit. It is only after Tulsidas’s Hindi version had spread that Ram became a popular god for the masses and Ram temples sprouted across the country. In other words in the middle of the 16th century when the Babri Mosque was built, it is highly unlikely that there were any Ram temples at all. Today, Ayodhya is full of Ram temples and at least 20 of them claim to be built at the birthplace of Ram. The reason is obvious. Any temple that establishes itself as the birthplace of Ram gets huge donations from its devotees.

Making it cinematic

Some of this research is hinted at in the finished film but rarely made explicit as I felt that it would be more powerful for our film to rely on the logic of events unfolding before the camera in 1990-'91 rather than become a theoretical and didactic treatise. Ideally I, or someone else, should have made an accompanying booklet to point out the many footnotes and annotations that such a film really needs.

October 30, 1990, had been declared by Advani as the target date for Kar Seva at the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Mosque site in Ayodhya. Pervez and I headed to Uttar Pradesh. We were trying to catch up with the rath at some of its scheduled stops. The trains were already jam-full. We squeezed into a Third Class compartment where we could barely sit on top of our luggage. We had got on a wrong train and it was impossible to get out! It turned out to be a stroke of luck as the train took us to Patna, Bihar, where the Left Front along with Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav were holding a huge anti-Rath rally at the Gandhi Maidan.

AB Bardhan of the Communist Party of India made a brilliant appeal to preserve India’s syncretic culture and Lalu Prasad Yadav gave a stern warning telling Advani to turn back from the brink. A few days later, he kept his promise. Advani was arrested and the rath yatra finally came to a halt in Bihar. Not so the kar sevaks who used all modes of transport to continue to head towards Ayodhya.

We caught a train back to Lucknow. There we spent almost 10 days trying to get permission to enter Ayodhya. Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav had vowed to protect the Babri Mosque and claimed that he had turned Ayodhya into an impenetrable fortress where not just kar sevaks but “parinda par na kar payega” (not a bird could fly cross). As it turned out in the end the only people who had difficulty getting into Ayodhya were journalists and documentarians like us.

We finally reached Ayodhya on October 28, two days before the planned assault on the mosque. Here we met Shastriji, an old Mahant (temple priest) who in 1949 had been part of the group that had broken into the Babri Mosque at night and installed a Ram idol in the sanctum sanctorum. From that day on, the site had become disputed territory as District Magistarate KK Nair refused to have the idols removed. As Ram Ke Naam points out, Nair after retiring from government service went on to join the Jan Sangh Party (precursor of the BJP) and became a Member of Parliament.

Shastriji, the Mahant, was proud of installing the idols and a little miffed that everyone had forgotten his role. Hindutva videos, audios and literature had proclaimed that what happened in 1949 was a “miracle” where Lord Ram appeared at his birthplace. Shastri was arrested and released on bail by the District Magistrate, Nair. Till the day we met him 41 years later, he had remained free.

On the other side

We went across the Saryu bridge to Ayodhya’s twin city, Faizabad. Here we met the old Imam of the Babri Mosque and his carpenter son who recounted the 1949 story from their perspective. The District Magistrate had told them after the break-in that order would soon be restored, and that by next Friday they could re-enter their mosque for prayers. As the Imam’s son put it, “We are still waiting for that Friday."

As October 30 dawned and we made our way on foot to the Saryu bridge at Ayodhya, we could see that Chief Minister Mulayam Singh’s promise that no one would get through to Ayodhya was proving false. Already several thousands had gathered by the bridge, despite the curfew. There had been a small lathi charge while shoes and footwear were scattered all over the bridge. Busloads of arrested karsevaks were being driven away after arrest. What we did not notice at the time was that many of these buses would stop at a short distance and the kar sevaks would disembark to rejoin the fray. By the side of the bridge thousands were chanting at the police “Hindu, hindu bhai bhai, beech mein vardi kahan se aayee?" All Hindus are brothers. Why let a uniform get between us?

As the day progressed it was heartbreaking to those of us who knew that any attack on the mosque would rent apart the delicate communal fabric of the nation. We had believed Mulayam Singh’s strong rhetoric that he would stop kar sevaks long before they reached the mosque. What we saw on the ground was bewildering. Not only were thousands pouring in despite the curfew but at many places there was active connivance from the police and paramilitary forces. There was utter confusion. In the end some kar sevaks did break through to attack the mosque but at the very last instance, the police opened fire. Some kar sevaks reached the top of the mosque’s dome and tied their orange Hindutva flag. Others broke into the sanctum sanctorum where the idols were kept but police firing prevented the larger crowd from demolishing the mosque. In all 29 people, young and old, lost their lives. Later, BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad propaganda claimed that over a thousand had been killed and thrown into the Saryu river. The think-tank of Hindutva then initiated another rath yatra across the country carrying the ashes of their Ayodhya “martyrs”.

On the night of the 30th, in the sombre mood that the attack had spawned, we met Pujari Laldas, the court-appointed head priest of the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Mosque site. Laldas was an outspoken critic of Hindutva despite being a Hindu priest and had received death threats. The Uttar Pradesh government had provided him with two bodyguards. It is this wonderful interview of one of independent India’s unsung heroes that gives Ram Ke Naam its real poignancy. Laldas spoke out against the VHP, pointing out that they had never even prayed at the site but were using it for political and financial gain. He spoke of the syncretic past of Ayodhya and expressed anguish that Hindu-Muslim unity in the country was being sacrificed by people who were cynically using religion. He predicted a storm of mayhem that would follow but expressed confidence that this storm too would pass and sanity would return.

Finding a lens

For In Memory of Friends, I had used a prism of class as seen through the writings of Bhagat Singh to speak of the Punjab of today. In reality, by the late 1980s classical Marxist analysis and class solidarity were no longer exclusively effective tools in an India and a world where the ideas of the Left were losing out to consumer capitalism. The Soviet Union was collapsing and China was embracing state capitalism. The US was the only superpower left in the world, which itself was fragmenting into its religious and ethnic sub-parts. Yugoslavia disintegrated into internecine warfare. The US with its ally, Saudi Arabia, stoked Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight communism, which in turn helped Kashmiri militants take up the gun. In Punjab, Sikh militants were rising and in Northern India, Hindu militants came into their own.

For Ram Ke Naam, the sane voice of the Hindu priest Pujari Laldas played the role that Bhagat Singh’s writings had done in my previous film. The Left antidote to communalism was still present through the Patna speech of CPI’s AB Bardhan. But it was now joined by a liberation theologist in the form of Pujari Laldas. The violent reaction of upper-caste Hindus to the attempt by Prime Minister VP Singh to implement a Mandal Commision report granting reservations to "backward" castes, had led to upper caste Hindus embracing Hindutva and the Mandir movement. This had not yet trickled down the caste order. Wherever we went in UP, Dalits and “Backward Castes” spoke out against the Ram temple movement. This became the third spoke in the anti-communal wheel.

The film was complete by late 1991. We had some hiccoughs and delays from the censors but finally cleared this hurdle without cuts. The film went on to win a national award for Best Investigative Documentary as well as a Filmfare Award for Best documentary. At the 1992 Bombay International Documentary Film Festival, Jaya Bachchan was head of the jury. Ram Ke Naam did not get a mention. Several critics commented that the film was raking up a dead issue as the Babri Mosque was intact and the film would unnecessarily give the country a bad name abroad. Later that month, I attended the Berlin Film Festival with Ram Ke Naam. I learned to my horror that Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, who were also guests at this festival, had told the Festival authorities that they should not have selected such an “anti-India” film.

On the strength of our national award, I submitted it for telecast on Doordarshan. Any government that actually believed in a secular India, would have shown such a film many times over so that our public could realise how religious hatred is manufactured for narrow political and financial gains. Widespread exposure may have undermined the movement to demolish the mosque. The BJP was not yet in power. Yet Doordarshan refused to telecast the film and I took them to court. Five years later we won our case and the film was telecast, but the damage had long been done.

The aftermath

After the October 30 attack in 1990 and the death of 29 kar sevaks, the BJP, which had been in coalition with VP Singh’s Janata Dal Party government at the centre, pulled out its support. Chandra Shekhar briefly came to power at the centre but quickly lost to Narsimha Rao’s Congress in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. In UP, Mulayam Singh’s government gave way to a BJP government. One of its first steps was to have Pujari Laldas removed as head priest of the Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Masjid, and then to remove his bodyguards. Conditions were now ripe for the major assault.

On December 6, 1992 with the BJP in power in UP, and a strangely acquiescent Narasimha Rao led Congress government at the centre, the Hindutva brigade finally succeeded in demolishing the Babri Mosque. Pujari Laldas’s predictions of large-scale violence in the region came true. The old Imam and his son from Faizabad I had interviewed were put to death on 7th December 1992. While Muslims were slaughtered across India, in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Hindu minority was targeted and temples destroyed. In March 1993, bomb blasts in Mumbai organised by Muslim members of the mafia killed over 300 people. The chain reaction set into motion since those days has still to abate.

Back in 1991 our première had been held in Lucknow, capital of UP. Pujari Laldas came for the screening and asked for several cassettes of the film. When I asked about his own safety, he laughed and said he was happy that now his views would circulate more widely. As he put it, if he had been afraid, he would not have spoken out in the first place.

A year later, a tiny item on the inside pages of The Times of India noted, “Controversial priest found murdered.” Pujari Laldas had been killed with a country-made revolver. The newspaper article never told us that the real “controversy” was the fact that this brave priest believed in a Hinduism that is the mirror opposite of Hindutva.

This article first appeared on Sabrang.

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