Monday, August 21, 2017

On a perilous path: India is being unmade, a lynching at a time

communal strife

The core of our secular-pluralist democracy has survived mass communal violence. But it may not survive the ongoing normalisation of hate and bigotry.



India, as we know it, is being unmade with every passing day. In this bewilderingly changing land, hatred and bigotry are fast becoming the new normal. Hate-mongering is led powerfully and charismatically from the top – a kind of “command bigotry” – and Muslims are fast being reduced to second class citizens. Everywhere, on the streets, in workplaces, in living rooms, in neighbourhoods, in television studios and on the internet, there is a permissive environment for hate speech and mob violence that labels and targets Muslims, but also Dalits, Adivasis, Christians, women, people of colour, ethnic minorities from India’s North East, and liberals.

A climate of everyday, mostly unspoken, dread has mounted because of the reckless stoking of embers of recurrent, divisive and considered provocative hate speech, threats, incitement and assaults. The aim is to force a single way of living upon all Indians – a homogenised faith system and set of cultural practices, with violent prohibitions on what you can eat, whom you can love and what you can think.

If this pattern of routinising systematic hate violence is not effectively resisted, the danger is that it will spiral downwards into unending cycles of dark and deepening strife, which will continue to target innocents and ultimately tear us apart as a people. India already has an ancient and troubled history of socially legitimised inequality and violence against savagely oppressed castes and women, and a more recent history of horrific bloodletting in the name of religion. But it also has an iridescent tradition of pluralism, and respect and protection for diverse religious faiths going back to the time of King Ashoka in 270 BC. A tradition sustained – after centuries of brutal violence against Buddhists, wiping them out from the land of their birth – by Emperor Akbar in 1556 AD and Mahatma Gandhi during the anti-colonial freedom struggle.

After attaining freedom, we tried to put behind us our history of cruelty and segregation against the browbeaten, subjugated castes and women, and claim instead that part of our civilizational history that was comfortable in diversity and tolerant, as we forged a compact of unity as a pluralist, humane and inclusive democratic nation.

Despite frequent failures, setbacks and betrayals, there were significant efforts over seven decades of independence to live up to those promises. Successive governments compromised cynically with secular and egalitarian principles over and over again, thereby failing both their constitutional mandate and the people of India. But through all this, the constitutional core of secular and pluralist democracy held. However, it increasingly appears that the central organising principle of the current ruling establishment is to deny religious minorities their right to exist with dignity as equal citizens.

Deadly history

Independent India has witnessed sporadic bloodletting against people because of their religious identity as part of a political and social enterprise to break their economy and spirit. These bloodbaths are often described as communal riots. These episodes typically constitute targeted hate killing, gang rape, arson of homes and businesses, large-scale looting, and destruction and desecration of places of worship. I have grave reservations with calling these riots, because the term “riot” suggests people of two communities battling each other, usually spontaneously. But this is most often not the case. For instance, it is a travesty to describe the violence against the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 as anti-Sikh riots, because it was exclusively the Sikhs who were the victims of violence in almost all these attacks. The same is the case with many, if not most, other episodes of communal violence. The survivors in Gujarat widely describe the mass violence against Muslims in 2002 as toofan, or storm.

I observe three distinct phases in India’s troubled history of periodic mass attacks on Muslims and other minorities since it became free in 1947 amid the Hindu-Muslim riots that took a million lives.

Beginning with a communal conflagration in Jabalpur in 1961, 14 years after India’s freedom, many parts of the country have witnessed sporadic episodes of hate violence victimising people because of their religious identity. Especially since the 1980s, this sectarian violence has spiked, targeting Bengali Muslims in Assam in 1983; the Sikhs in the nation’s capital after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 and subsequent years of Khalistani militancy; and Muslims in many parts of the country during the movement that led to the destruction of Babri Masjid, beginning with the Bhagalpur massacre in 1989 and peaking in the Gujarat carnage in 2002.

Post-Gujarat, I believe we see the emergence of a new phase, with much in common with the phase stretching from Nellie 1983 to Gujarat 2002 – the creation of hatred around issues such as cow protection, religious conversion and alleged sexual predation, one-sided targeted pogroms, sexual violence, rural riots, violence against minorities other than Muslims, social and economic boycott, sustained social divides and population divisions, and so on. The big difference in this phase is much less loss of life than in the worst massacres of 1983, 1984, 1989, 1992-93 and 2002, but significant damage to property and far greater displacement of populations. I speculate that the intense legal accountability enforced by actions of many organisations, and the international odium and disrepute which followed in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage, has resulted in a shift to attacks with far fewer deaths but extensive social mobilisation through hate, attacks on property, and much larger displacement of populations.

In this phase, we see first the Kandhamal violence of 2008. We also see the extensive low-intensity hate mobilisation in coastal Karnataka from around 2006. The violence in Lower Assam in 2012 saw comparatively fewer deaths, but half a million people were displaced, the largest displacement by targeted violence after the Partition. (I must add strong caveats here that Assam did not see communal violence of the kind seen in other parts of India. Here, oppressed minorities attack other oppressed minorities. In this particular case, Muslims did to Bodos in Muslim-majority areas exactly what Bodos did to them). In 2013, Muzaffarnagar again saw limited number of deaths (at least 62) but more than 50,000 people were displaced in just two districts (Remember, Gujarat saw two lakh people displaced by violence that affected 20 districts and two large cities). This scale of displacement – often permanent – was rarely witnessed in the communal violence of the 1960s and 70s.


More than 50,000 Muslims were displaced by the Muzaffarnagar communal carnage in 2013. Photo credit: Reuters

Everyday dread

The current phase of lynch attacks on minorities and Dalits is another mutant of low-intensity localised communal violence. It is too early to say if this represents an evolving fourth phase of communal violence after Independence, or whether lynching will continue to coexist with low-intensity, dispersed episodes of communal violence.

Lynching is fast becoming the new normal in these times of orchestrated hate and rage in India. The targets of furious public bloodletting are most often Muslims, but Dalits are also in danger. It has become increasingly common for mobs to gatherand to publicly attack, lynch and murder people they claim have broken the law or hurt their (Hindu) sentiments. The excuse for the mob killings is often the claim that the victims were transporting cows for slaughter. In Jammu in April 2017, even women and a young girl from a pastoral Muslim tribal community that traditionally rears livestock were attacked while they were taking their animals to the higher mountain reaches, where they migrate every summer. If the animals being transported turn out not to be cows, the vigilantes claim instead to be animal rights activists, and beat the transporters for alleged cruelty to the animals. In Assam in May 2017, two young Muslim men were killed by villagers because they suspected them to be cow thieves. But the claimed love of cows is not the only reason for murderous attacks. In Jharkhand, rumours of child kidnapping circulated on social media and led to mobs brutally killing seven men. In Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, six men alleged to be members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a private militia raised by Chief Minister Adityanath, killed a 59-year-old Muslim villager only because he was the neighbour of a Muslim man who had eloped with a Hindu woman. One of the most sensational instances of lynching occurred in 2015 when a mob broke into the Dimapur Central Jail in Nagaland, dragged out a 35-year-old Muslim man accused of raping a Naga woman. He was stripped naked, paraded and beaten to death in the city square.

Only a tiny fraction of the most dramatic of such mob killings make it to the front pages of newspapers or television screens. In most contemporary instances of mob lynching, the police are absent or merely stand by, and defend themselves by claiming they were outnumbered. Both in cases of cow vigilantism and those where Muslim men and Hindu women have even consensual relations, the police are seen to tacitly or openly encourage mob attacks. Often, the attacks are recorded on mobile phone cameras and uploaded to the social media because the attackers gloat over what they see as acts of valour. Part of the new normal is also that no one comes to the rescue of the people attacked. Afterwards, it is common for the police to charge the victims for alleged offences, thereby constructing a rationale for the mob violence, while the attackers are recorded as anonymous men enraged by the illegal activities of the victims.

The internet has become a handy tool for communal mobilisation. The carnage in Muzaffarnagar was triggered partly by an unrelated video circulated on social media, and the lynching of seven men in Jamshedpur early this year was spurred by WhatsApp rumours about child-kidnappers.
In the political and social enterprise of reducing minorities to second class citizens, lynching is a critical instrument. Mass communal and caste violence created fear among the targeted communities, but it was still bounded by geography and time. Lynching respects no boundaries, of either space or time. Every person of the targeted community feels vulnerable everywhere and at all times. For them no place feels safe – they can be attacked in their homes, or on trains, buses or public roads. Christian minorities, especially in the tribal regions, are being terrorised not by lynching but by attacks on their places of worship as well as by draconian anti-conversion laws of the kind the Jharkhand government has just approved.

Hindu Yuva Vahini is a private militia raised by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. Photo credit: Reuters

State complicity

The culpability for each of these incidents – lynch attacks as well as small decentralised communal clashes – lies with the organisations bent on fomenting communal animosities. But it is shared equally by the shamefully weak-kneed (or actively prejudiced) responses of the state and district administrations. Each of these episodes could have been prevented or rapidly quelled, if only local officials had effectively dispelled hate rumours and expeditiously arrested those who spread the falsehoods and organised violence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi periodically speaks a few lines of condemnation for lynch attacks, apparently only to allow his domestic supporters and foreign governments to absolve him of any responsibility for such crimes. IndiaSpend reported in June that of all the cow-related attacks since 2010, 97% happened after Modi was elected in May 2014. Lynching is a device by which the ruling establishment outsources violence against minorities to mobs. It creates an enabling environment for people to violently act out their hate against minorities with assured impunity, while allowing governments to absolve itself of any responsibility.

Much of the blame lies with the central government. It is true that law and order is primarily the responsibility of states, but it is no secret that the Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power with the active support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres. The decisive victory of 2014 has emboldened these cadres – raised on a staple diet of anti-Muslim propaganda, and further encouraged by the open deployment of these sentiments to reap a profoundly polarised vote in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Assam – to pursue their intensely divisive agendas even more vigorously. High-pitched communal tempers are not a genie that can be released and then pushed back into a bottle at will.

Now, a sense of dread mounts, almost invisibly, as communal tempers are cynically and perilously being overheated for a series of electoral harvests, and for drawing ever larger sections of low caste Hindus to stand with their upper caste oppressors against the Muslim “other”, who is cultivated as their common enemy. The Congress, socialists and the Left are too decimated and dispirited – and most importantly too weak in their convictions – to convincingly take to battle.

India has survived as a relatively peaceful nation, rebuilding itself from the ravages of colonial rule and the desperate poverty of millions of its people, because it has forestalled the path of majoritarian dominance, protected minority rights and respected difference and diversity. India’s admittedly imperfect adherence to its core constitutional values has so far enabled it to avoid the enormous civil discord and violence that several other countries in the neighbourhood and beyond have experienced since their independence. But today, we are witnessing the growing destruction of the egalitarian and humane principles of secular democracy. India as we know it – both as an idea and an aspiration – stands profoundly threatened.

After the general election of 2014, we are increasingly witnessing the dispersed low death but high hate, fear and displacement communal violence as well as lynch attacks that threaten to grow into a new normal. Is this the new normal?

It is imperative that people do not allow hatred and bigotry to be routinised into a new “normal” that would have been morally and politically unacceptable in the past. Solidarity with and between religious, ethnic and sexual minorities; oppressed castes and tribal people; women; poor and dispossessed people; immigrants and working class people; and people of colour must be forged and strengthened. Above all, in these times of normalising hate, a new imagination must be nurtured – that of people, of differences of religion, caste and gender, within and across borders, bound together by love and respect.

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Source: scrollin

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

India at 70: Humans of Hindutva founder on ripping apart bigotry

By Humans of Hindutva
@DailyO | 2017-08-15 19:40:09

We need to remember that a truly independent country always has room for multiple voices.


People often message to ask me why I do what I do. And my reply to them is: "Because I live in a free country". Some of these people hold the misconception that because I satirise some politicians, I must hate India and everything about it.

It boggles my mind to think how some people have managed to create an environment in which any criticism of the government is tantamount to criticising the country. This is not a sign of progress; it’s a symptom of a deep malady.

I have always been enamoured with India’s diversity. I grew up in the north, south and east of this country and witnessing the cultural quirks of each region first-hand made an indelible mark on me. It is precisely because I was exposed to this diversity at an early age that I strive to preserve it now when I see it being attacked by an imposed uniformity.

If I had a penny for every time someone told me to go to Pakistan/Saudi Arabia/Iran, then I would be Gautam Singhania. For some reasons these people think that by bringing up these regressive countries, they are winning an argument that exists solely in their heads. They tell me to be glad that I live in India and not in these countries because none of them would allow me to say the things I say.

I find this reasoning hilarious; I love India precisely because it is a free and secular nation. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution promises all Indian citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression.

However, there is one important caveat in this arrangement: our freedom of speech is not absolute. There are restrictions on our freedom of speech it they affect the security of the state, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, defamation, incitement to offence and the sovereignty and integrity of India.

Our government, both past and present, have used this caveat to craft a sedition law that can be used to silence dissidents. 

I love India, but every now and then I ask myself if we’re truly independent. How did we arrive at a junction where the right to be offended trumps the right to offend?


On every street of India, there is someone ready to be offended at the drop of a hat. They are offended when you bring someone of the opposite sex to your housing complex.

They are offended when you eat something they don’t like. They are offended if you wear something they don’t like. They are offended if you watch something they don’t like. And most importantly, they are offended if you say something that they don’t want to hear.

Molly Ivins once said that "satire is traditionally a weapon of the powerless against the powerful". The problem with doing political satire in India is that the powerful use archaic laws to their advantage by painting any criticism as being detrimental to the national cause. It is telling that the people arrested under such laws are always whistle-blowers or activists or students while politicians and their affiliates make hate speech openly and without any fear of consequence.

This Independence Day I urge my fellow Indians to be more vigilant about the news they consume and share online.

I urge you to not fall for emotional blackmail and see things for what they are. We are a serious lot so I also urge my fellow Indians to lighten up a little.

On the 70th anniversary of our independence, we need to remember that a truly independent country always has room for multiple voices… even the ones that allegedly criticise her. Those who died fighting for our freedom did so because they envisioned a free country where Indians could speak their mind without fear.

Our freedom to express ourselves is perhaps our most important freedom. So, let’s not take it for granted.  

Source: dailyO

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Much before the Partition, Prithviraj Kapoor was warning of its horrors in gut-wrenching plays

The thespian’s Partition Quartet received hostile responses from both the Muslim League as well as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

by  Malini Nair


"Artistic foresight

“The alacrity of this group to perform Partition-themed plays should compel us to rethink the notion that there was somehow a wariness in discussing or representing partition in the 1940s and early 1950s,” said Siddique. “Prithvi was important in interpreting for its audience what Partition would mean, at a time when it was only a possibility and not an eventuality. For a cultural historian, this pre-emptive treatment of Partition is immensely insightful.”

Deewar ran to packed houses across India, reducing leaders such as Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel to tears. At the end of each performance, Kapoor would give a passionate speech, asking the audience to seek unity and communal peace. According to Siddique, Deewar was not subtle in its allegorical references: Suresh’s feuding brother Ramesh was said to have resembled Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.

Pathan, staged in April 1947, was a melodrama about a Frontier Muslim who saves his Hindu employer from a deadly assault. Years later, the Hindu’s son is chased by a vengeful Muslim bandit who is willing to let him go only if the Pathan sacrifices his own son – he does, leading to such a pathos-filled scene that veteran actor Zohra Sehgal once said: “…every time in the climax of Pathan, when Sher Khan [Prithviraj] handed over his young son [played by his real sons Raj Kapoor and later Shammi Kapoor] to the enemies honouring the creed of an eye for an eye, there was not a dry eye in the house.”.

Kapoor’s Ghaddar, staged after the Partition, told the story of a fervently nationalist Muslim reluctant to move to Pakistan, and finally done in by his own party for being a traitor. It led to a lot of teeth-gnashing in the Muslim League.

“What one can surmise and gather from these plays is a hope placed on long-existing ties and shared history, which could rescind the plan to define new national identities in terms of religious and regional demarcations,” said Siddique. “So the allegorical restoration of ‘Akhand Bharat/Undivided India’ within Deewar was a possibility that those closely associated with the Prithvi Theatres held dear and hoped that the ending of the play, the undoing of Partition, would also be part of the clairvoyance.”

Ahooti, Kapoor’s last play on India’s division, was about the multiple blows women suffered during Partition – abductions, rape and the worst, being branded as dishonoured once they were returned. A Hindu woman in Ahooti is turned away by her in-laws when she returns home, a victim of sexual violence."


Prithvi, the theatre company, soon moved to other socially relevant plays. The Partition Quartet was performed only for a few more years, but the plays are significant in the cultural, political and social landscape of today. They provoked debate in drawing rooms, affected the political discourse, and of course, infuriated bigots. The films on Partition actually came later, after the plays. Chinnamul (1950), Ritwik Ghatak’s masterpieces Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1965) told the story of the partition of Bengal. In Hindi, Dharmputra came only in 1961, followed by the stunning Garm Hawa (1974).

Read full article: scrollin


India at 70, and the Passing of Another Illusion

The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Contributor



Credit Daniel Zender

August 15, 1947, deserved to be remembered, the African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois argued, “as the greatest historical date” of modern history. It was the day India became independent from British rule, and Du Bois believed the event was of “greater significance” than even the establishment of democracy in Britain, the emancipation of slaves in the United States or the Russian Revolution. The time “when the white man, by reason of the color of his skin, can lord it over colored people” was finally drawing to a close.

It is barely remembered today that India’s freedom heralded the liberation, from Tuskegee to Jakarta, of a majority of the world’s population from the degradations of racist imperialism. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, claimed that there had been nothing “more horrible” in human history than the days when millions of Africans “were carried away in galleys as slaves to America and elsewhere.” As he said in a resonant speech on Aug. 15, 1947, long ago India had made a “tryst with destiny,” and now, by opening up a broad horizon of human emancipation, “we shall redeem our pledge.”

But India, which turns 70 next week, seems to have missed its appointment with history. A country inaugurated by secular freedom fighters is presently ruled by religious-racial supremacists. More disturbing still than this mutation are the continuities between those early embodiments of postcolonial virtue and their apparent betrayers today.

Du Bois would have been heartbroken to read the joint statement that more than 40 African governments released in April, denouncing “xenophobic and racial” attacks on Africans in India and asking the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate. The rise in hate crimes against Africans is part of a sinister trend that has accelerated since the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.

Another of its bloodcurdling manifestations is the lynching of Muslims suspected of eating or storing beef. Others include assaults on couples who publicly display affection and threats of rape against women on social media by the Hindu supremacists’ troll army. Mob frenzy in India today is drummed up by jingoistic television anchors and vindicated, often on Twitter, by senior politicians, businessmen, army generals and Bollywood stars.

Hindu nationalists have also come together to justify India’s intensified military occupation of Muslim-majority Kashmir, as well as a nationwide hunt for enemies: an ever-shifting and growing category that includes writers, liberal intellectuals, filmmakers who work with Pakistani actors and ordinary citizens who don’t stand up when the national anthem is played in cinemas. The new world order — just, peaceful, equal — that India’s leaders promised at independence as they denounced their former Western masters’ violence, greed and hypocrisy is nowhere in sight.

Back in 1947, Du Bois had good reason to hope that India would offer a superior alternative to the West’s destructive modernity. His hero, Mohandas K. Gandhi, had lived on three continents by the time the first phase of globalization violently ended with World War I. Gandhi had intimately experienced how Western imperialists and capitalists blended economic inequalities with racial hierarchies, entrenching, as Du Bois wrote, “a new industrial slavery of black and brown and yellow workers in Africa and Asia.” Gandhi was determined not to let postcolonial India replicate the injustices built into modern civilization or, as he put it, “English rule without the Englishman.”

From that perspective, Gandhi may seem to have chosen his protégé unwisely: Nehru was the scion of a family of rich Brahmin Anglophiles. But Nehru received his own education in global inequities through people he met in international left-wing networks. On a wide range of international issues, the two men shared a rhetoric that expressed a preference for solidarity, compassion and dialogue over violence.

Gandhi claimed to “understand the longing of a Jew to return to Palestine,” but warned Zionists against doing so “under the shadow of the British gun.” As early as 1946, Nehru, then prime-minister-in-waiting, sacrificed India’s lucrative trade links with South Africa in protest against apartheid. In 1947, India voted at the United Nations against the partition of Palestine because, Nehru explained to Albert Einstein, the Zionists had “failed to win the good will of the Arabs.” Distrustful of American motives, Nehru spurned a potentially rewarding partnership with the United States during the Cold War.

But Indian leaders very seldom practiced domestically what they preached internationally. Though committed to parliamentary procedures, Nehru never let go of the British-created colonial state and its well-oiled machinery of repression. The brute power of the Indian police and army was used in 1948 to corral the princely state of Hyderabad into the Indian Union. Up to 40,000 Muslims were killed, and the episode remains the single-largest massacre in the history of independent India.

Nehru shared with Hindu nationalists a mystical faith in the essential continuity of India from ancient civilization to modern nation. Determined to hold on to Kashmir, for example, he abandoned his promise of organizing a referendum to decide the contested region’s political status. In 1953, he deposed a popular Kashmiri politician (and friend) and had him sent to prison, inaugurating a long reign of puppet leaders who continue to enrich themselves under the long shadow of the Indian gun.

As early as 1958, Nehru’s regime introduced the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the forerunner of repressive legislation that today sanctions murder, torture and rape by Indian soldiers in central India and border provinces. It was under Nehru that Indian troops and paramilitaries were unleashed on indigenous peoples in India’s northeastern states in the 1950s and ’60s. It was Nehru who in 1961 made it a crime to question the territorial integrity of India, punishable with imprisonment.

Yet in the eyes of the world, India maintained its exceptional status for decades, as many promising postcolonial experiments with democracy degenerated into authoritarianism, if not military rule. The country’s democratic politics appeared stable. But they did so only because they were reduced to the rule of a single party, the Congress, which was itself dominated by a single family — Nehru’s. And far from being socialist or redistributionist, Nehru’s economic policies boosted India’s monopoly capitalists. His priorities were heavy industries and elite polytechnics, which precluded major investments in primary education, health and land reform.

The Congress’s reliance on reactionary upper-caste Hindus also prevented the very possibility of emancipatory politics for dalits until the early 1990s. (It was those upper-caste Hindus, incidentally, who were the first in the republic’s history to ban cow slaughter, in several states in the 1950s.) By the 1980s — after Nehru had been replaced by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, at the helm of both the Congress and the country — the party had chosen Hindu majoritarianism, and hostility to Muslims and Sikhs, as the low road to electoral success. It was a nasty and dangerous strategy, which emboldened extremists on all sides. Many more people died in the Congress-led anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 than in the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat that Modi is accused of supervising while he was the state’s chief minister.

India’s lynch mobs today represent the latest and most grisly expression of such cynical political ideologies. As the sheer brutishness of Mr. Modi’s populism becomes clear, the memory of the aristocratic Nehru becomes more sacred, especially among politicians and commentators from India’s English-speaking upper castes. But Mr. Modi has also turned that legacy of high-flown promises to his political advantage.

Nehru and his followers had articulated an influential ideology of Indian exceptionalism, claiming moral prestige and geopolitical significance for India’s uniquely massive and diverse democracy. Only many of those righteous notions also reeked of upper-caste sanctimony and class privilege. Mr. Modi has effectively mobilized those Indians who have long felt marginalized and humiliated by India’s self-serving Nehruvian elite into a large vote bank of ressentiment.

Virtuous talk of unity in diversity and secularism has been replaced by a barefaced Hindu nationalism: The tattered old masks, and the gloves, have come off. The state, colonized by an ideological movement, is emerging triumphant over society. With the media’s help, it is assuming extraordinary powers of control — telling people what they should eat at home and how they should behave in public, and whom to lynch.

Mr. Modi’s rule represents the most devastating, and perhaps final, defeat of India’s noble postcolonial ambition to create a moral world order. It turns out that the racist imperialism Du Bois despised can resurrect itself even among its former victims: There can be English rule without the Englishman. India’s claims to exceptionalism appear to have been as unfounded as America’s own.

And so one can, of course, mourn this Aug. 15 as marking the end of India’s tryst with destiny or, more accurately, the collapse of our exalted ideas about ourselves. But a sober reckoning with the deep malaise in India can be bracing, too. For it confirms that the world as we have known it, molded by the beneficiaries of both Western imperialism and anti-imperialist nationalism, is crumbling, and that in the East as well as the West, all of us are now called to fresh struggles for freedom, equality and dignity.

Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is “Age of Anger: A History of the Present.”

Source: nytimes


Monday, August 14, 2017

After ‘Dunkirk’, a starter list of 10 engaging books (and a bonus) on India’s role in the World Wars

Literature and history

Don’t go looking in history texts. The books to read are elsewhere.


Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday · 08:30 am

Since the release of the movie Dunkirk, there has been a fair bit of commentary on news and social media about the whitewashing of non-British forces who were either conscripted or volunteered in large numbers in World War II. Christopher Nolan may have had his reasons for leaving them out, but it will remain his cross to bear.

In India, the film industry – by many accounts, the largest in the world – has responded with, generally speaking, an apathetic kind of protest. For those who have raised their voices louder than usual, the writer, Sandip Roy, threw down the gauntlet, and rightly so, saying they ought to make WWII movies that tell our stories and take control of our own narratives. Clearly, the Indian film industry has all the resources, talent, and know-how to be able to do so.

But is the increased griping about denied representation due to concerns about distortion of history and/or being unappreciated by the West for India’s considerable wartime contributions? I venture to say: no. For the average middle-class Indian, when it comes to understanding India’s role during that particular time in history, the emphasis in both formal education and popular culture has mostly been on India’s freedom struggle at the expense of almost all other narratives. 

Certainly, growing up in 1970-80s India, the only battles and wars that I recall being made aware of – whether in school texts or other reading or popular culture – were those related to the Mughals, the Marathas, or India’s independence from the British. These days, there is a new story nearly every month in Indian media about school history texts being altered and/or books and movies being censored/tailored to fit a nationalist agenda.

Also, we are not so innocent in how we portray other nationalities or history in popular media. The last big period movie with the British in it was the Oscar-nominated Lagaan, which showed the British colonialists as either saviors or sinners. Entire groups of people can hardly be described in such binary terms, can they?

It is more bothersome that there continues to be a lack of curiosity and knowledge about India’s WWII history – not just within the film industry but also across large groups of movie-watching audiences. The American author, George Santayana, famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Here, we have a case of not even knowing the past, which is, surely, even more egregious.

Further, to avoid succumbing to the various dangers of a “single story,” as authorChimamanda Ngozi Adichie has described so beautifully, we would do well, as a community or nation, to expand our view of all that we were capable of in the past and what came of those capabilities. To that end, here is a starter list of 10 well-researched and well-written books about India’s role in the two World Wars.

Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, Raghu Karnad

Through the personal stories of three young men from his own family, Karnad, a journalist, unfolds India’s little-known WWII story. The prose and sweeping narrative are both novel-like and make for a gripping read.

WWII was different from WWI in many respects, of course, but for Indians, it was also the first time that many were college-educated and became officers less out of financial necessity and more from a desire for glamour and adventure. The Fifth Indian Infantry Division, which the book mostly follows, fought in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Libya, Egypt from 1940 to 1944. 

But Karnad also shows us that many Indian soldiers and officers did not actually fight enemy forces. Rather, they worked toward maintaining the British empire and even the domination of certain Indian classes over others.

India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War, Yasmin Khan

A historian and professor, Khan reveals not only the personal stories of many individual Indian soldiers and their families but also how this war shaped social, economic, and cultural changes across all of South Asia.

Khan also goes deeper into what happened to the families the Indian soldiers left behind at home to face hard labour, starvation, disease, steep price inflation, and more. Beyond the descriptions of campaigns and battles, she gives us the lives of people across all walks of life – peasants, politicians, businessmen, seamen, brothel owners, English memsahibs, prisoners of war. In particular, she describes how the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed more than three million people, was a direct result of WWII and, thus, caused the greatest number of war-related mass casualties that India has ever seen.

India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia, Srinath Raghavan

This book draws us into the many battles both abroad (West Asia, North and East Africa, and Europe) and at home, showing how and why WWII helped end colonial rule in South Asia. It covers a wide arc from Gandhi’s early support of Britain’s war efforts to the Burma Campaign.

Prior to his distinguished academic career in the UK, Raghavan spent six years as an infantry officer in the Indian army. So his descriptions of frontier action and battles, including some rather obscure ones, are vividly brilliant. It is also marvellous that, in this hefty volume, he manages to dive deeper into war economics than most other books on the list to reveal how, toward the end, the British owed India an unbelievable £1.3 billion.

The Indian Spy: The True Story of the Most Remarkable Secret Agent of World War II, Mihir Bose

This is the story of a quintuple spy, a Hindu Pathan from British India, who worked for Britain, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Russia. His espionage adventures and daring escapades ought to be a movie by now.

Codenamed “Silver” by the British, Bhagat Ram Talwar is known in India for his role in helping Subhash Chandra Bose escape to Germany to get Hitler’s help to free India from the British. However, beyond that daredevilry, Talwar played a much larger role in the global war by playing the British off the Germans, the Germans off the Russians, and so on. In the British Intelligence Services, he worked under Peter Fleming, brother of Ian Fleming who famously created James Bond. Talwar was so highly regarded by the British that they rewarded him handsomely at the end of the war with a house, money, and more. The Germans rated him highly too, awarding him the Iron Cross.

Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, Shrabani Basu

A descendant of the legendary Indian ruler, Tipu Sultan, Khan was a Muslim princess and had quite the dashing, daring spy life in wartime Europe before the Nazis captured, tortured, and shot her to death at Dachau. She was only 30 years old and, tough to the end, she did not give away any of her secrets. Her final word was “Liberté”.

Born in Russia before WWI, she had grown up in England and France and, after her father’s death in India and the subsequent grief-driven seclusion of her mother, she had raised her younger siblings. When she joined the British Special Operations Executive organisation, she become one of their most resourceful and efficient spies helping the French Resistance and escaping the Gestapo for at least three months – longer than most others who had done similar work. Though trained as a guerrilla fighter in bomb-making, sabotage, and secret communications, Noor also had a gentler, creative side – having been raised in a tolerant, pacifist Muslim Sufi tradition, where she wrote children’s stories and studied and played music.

For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front – 1914-18, Shrabani Basu

The first Great War changed the world forever, causing the collapse of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. Over a million Indian soldiers fought in it. Basu gives us well-researched personal stories of both the soldiers and their officers and, again, how the experiences ignited the flame for the call for India’s independence.

The biggest challenge for historians trying to uncover India’s WWI story is that most of the soldiers were illiterate. So, for personal first-person accounts, there are no wartime memoirs or vast troves of letters back to India as with the rest of Europe. The few literate Indian soldiers who did manage to write letters back home painted a very different picture of trench warfare and how the wounded were treated than we might assume from the letters of European soldiers. Prejudice and racism – both by the British and between the various Indian classes and castes – were rife even as Indian bravery was awarded Victoria Crosses. There are several shocking details in this book and, for me, none more so than the fact that some of the Indian soldiers were no more than 10 years old.

If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me? India and the First World War, Vedica Kant

At the start of the first Great War, there were more Indian soldiers in the British armies than the British themselves. Through personal letters, army archives, and rare photographs, Kant gives us a view of a war that, through exposure to other cultures and politics, also changed India forever.

In his foreword to this book, Amitav Ghosh, whose own Ibis trilogy of novels covers many other wars involving India, wrote, “… the Indian soldier’s experience of the First World War resists appropriation by those who would like to merge it seamlessly into the triumphal narrative of the winning side. The sepoy’s ambivalence, as much as the anomalous circumstances of the army to which he belonged, made sure that his story could not be fitted into the usual frames of ‘victor’ and ‘vanquished’. This is another reason why the sepoy’s role in the war is so often overlooked.” And it is this ambivalence of the Indian soldier, between loyalty and mutiny, that Kant captures here.

Sepoys in the Trenches: The Indian Corps on the Western Front 1914-15, Gordon Corrigan

As a commanding officer in the Brigade of Gurkhas, Corrigan is a military historian and a compelling storyteller, weaving together a narrative from interviews and archives across India and Nepal. Here, he gives us the troubles and heroics of an Indian corps of two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade – all fighting against enemies they hardly knew for a cause that was not their own.

Corrigan had a military education and career (in the British Army’s Royal Gurkha Rifles.) In addition to describing the mundane activities of the everyday life of Indian and British soldiers, he also gives us the sheer terror and, yes, exhilaration of Indian soldiers who spent days in “no man’s land” or in the firing line. Interestingly, based on his own 30 years in the Gurkhas, Corrigan posits that a very strong bond existed between the British officer and the Indian soldier. And the most interesting bits, for me, are when Corrigan describes how the Indian soldiers brought something unique to the British in trench warfare: jugaad or the ability to improvise things like trench mortar or hand grenades from, say, wood bound with wire or steel tubing. There are also various fascinating anecdotes of Indian bravery – or suicidal stupidity, as was the case sometimes.

The Indian Army on the Western Front: India’s Expeditionary Force to France and Belgium in the First World War, George Morton-Jack

Despite the ever-emerging accounts of resilience and bravery, India’s role in both the Great Wars is still riddled with controversies. Specifically on the Western Front, Indian soldiers who fought alongside the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from 1914 to 1918 were considered to have performed poorly. However, like many other writers on this list, Morton-Jack also holds the belief that the British would not have lasted without Indian soldiers.

He starts well before WWI began to give us a thorough description of the Indian army – their capabilities and weaknesses and how skills in mountain or tribal warfare and lack of skills in trench warfare both helped and hindered. He then goes on to show, through accounts of how these particular Indian Expeditionary Force soldiers adapted, organised, and eventually contributed greatly to modern warfare. Morton-Jack asserts that, had these Indian Corps continued serving on the Western Front for the entire First World War, they would have become one of the most elite and formidable forces of their time. Instead, of course, they were sent on to fight in other theatres, putting to good use all that they had gained.

World War One in Southeast Asia: Colonialism and Anti-colonialism in an Era of Global Conflict, Heather Streets-Salter

This book was only released earlier this year and covers a wider region beyond present-day India: British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and French Indochina. Indian expatriate revolutionaries were spread all across these regions and, during WWI, they collaborated against the Allies by smuggling arms and people in the cause of Indian independence from the British and the French.

Streets-Salter takes us thousands of miles away from the Western Front, which is the primary theater of battle most of us are familiar with for WWI. In her introduction, she writes, “The stories I tell about empire and colonialism are about connections between colonies – and between colonies and independent states – rather than simply colonial connections with their various metropoles. And the stories I tell about world history begin with individuals in a small place and move outward, from the local to the regional and global.” And she shows how, during WWI, the interconnected influences between the British, French, and Dutch colonies were consular, diplomatic, anti-colonial and, above all, highly porous.

Bonus books

Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia and Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper

Both of these books provide spectacular, nuanced accounts of the end of the British empire in Asia after and as a direct result of WWII. We find that “forgotten” is a deliberate misnomer for “never reported” war-related atrocities that happened after Hiroshima across the British empire in Asia. For these parts of Asia, WWII never really ended but continued in the form of bloody civil wars, anti-colonial freedom movements, and communal massacres.

As the British empire crumbled and receded, it left behind a terrible, messy backwash of conflict and devastation that, for much of the region, is still being reckoned with. Drawing on a vast range of Indian (including Pakistani and Bangladeshi), Burmese, Chinese, Malay, British, American, and Japanese voices, the authors show how modern south and southeast Asia rose from the ashes of the British empire.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Lab notes: Marriages within castes may have harmed the health of many communities in India

Research Digest

Endogamous marriages over generations has led to genetic isolation leaving many groups vulnerable, a new study finds.

Wikimedia Commons

Jul 19, 2017

Dinesh C Sharma

The occurrence of genetic diseases in certain subpopulations in India and other countries in South Asia is well known. Indian scientists now suspect that this could be due to genetic isolation caused by endogamous marriages over generations.

Endogamous marriages - meaning people marrying within a subpopulation based on caste, gotra, language or culture - lead to reduced genetic variation. They are different from marriages among close relatives (consanguineous marriages) – a practice also prevalent in parts of South India.

In genetics, the phenomenon of a small number of ancestors giving rise to many descendants is known as “founder event” or a population bottleneck. A study of anthropologically different subpopulations in South Asia has revealed that many of them are a result of strong “founder events”. In each of such groups, large stretches of DNA originates from a common founder in the last about 100 generations.

There is less genetic variation because these subpopulations have lived in genetic isolation despite co-living with other groups for centuries due to various factors including caste. Such populations are vulnerable to recessive genetic diseases (in which an offspring gets disease-causing genes from both parents). This risk, researchers say, is very different from that due to marriages among close relatives.

The study, led by scientists at Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology , appeared in scientific journal Nature Genetics on Tuesday. Scientists analysed samples from over 2,800 individuals from over 275 distinct South Asian populations belonging to various social and linguistic groups from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. They developed an algorithm to quantify impact of “founder events” in each group based on stretches in DNA shared from a common founder over generations.

“We found that 81 out of 263 unique South Asian groups, including 14 groups with estimated census sizes of over a million, have a strong founder event,” said Dr Kumarasamy Thangaraj, who led the study along with David Reich of Harvard Medical School. These large population groups with founder events include Gujjar (Jammu & Kashmir), Baniyas (UP), Pattapu kapu (AP), Vadde (AP), Yadav (Puducherry), Kashtriya Aqnikula (AP), Naga (Nagaland), Kumhar (UP), Reddy (Telangana), Kallar (TN), Brahmin Manipuri (Manipur), Arunthathiyar (TN) and Vysya (Telangana).

Researchers have highlighted the problem through example of Vysya population which has size of more than 3 million. The Vysyas have about 100-fold higher rate of a metabolic disorder called Butyrylcholinesterase deficiency compared to other groups. Such people are highly sensitive to anesthesia administered prior to surgery.

“The next step would be to identify specific recessive diseases among various subpopulations and identify genes responsible for them,” Thangaraj told India Science Wire. The research can have significant public health applications, as has been done with some population groups like Ashkenazi Jews, Finns, Amish, Hutterites, Sardinians, and French Canadians in the West. Once recessive genetic diseases specific to different groups are mapped, preventive steps like prenatal testing, premarital counseling and screening can help decrease burden of such diseases in communities.

The team of researchers came from Columbia University, Broad Institute of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Manipal University, Centre for Human Genetics in Bangalore, Mangalore University, Fetal Care Research Foundation in Chennai, Amity University in Noida, Genome Foundation in Hyderabad, Anthropological Survey of India in Kolkata and Birbal Sahani Institute of Paliosciences in Lucknow. The research was funded by Department of Science and Technology, Department of Biotechnology and the Indian Council of Medical Research.

This article first appeared on India Science Wire.

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Why the lack of Indian and African faces in Dunkirk matters


Tuesday 1 August 2017 08.00 BST Last modified on Tuesday 1 August 2017 12.19 BST

The blockbuster purports to be a historical portrayal, but in fact it’s a whitewash. And these decisions help corrode societal attitudes

Sunny Singh is a British-based writer. Her latest novel is Hotel Arcadia


‘The French army deployed at Dunkirk included soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies, and in substantial numbers. But we don’t see them.’ Photograph: Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

What a surprise that Nigel Farage has endorsed the new fantasy-disguised-as-historical war film, Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s movie is an inadvertently timely, thinly veiled Brexiteer fantasy in which plucky Britons heroically retreat from the dangerous shores of Europe. Most importantly, it pushes the narrative that it was Britain as it exists today – and not the one with a global empire – that stood alone against the “European peril”.

To do so, it erases the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, which were not only on the beach, but tasked with transporting supplies over terrain that was inaccessible for the British Expeditionary Force’s motorised transport companies. It also ignores the fact that by 1938, lascars – mostly from South Asia and East Africa – counted for one of four crewmen on British merchant vessels, and thus participated in large numbers in the evacuation.

But Nolan’s erasures are not limited to the British. The French army deployed at Dunkirk included soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies, and in substantial numbers. Some non-white faces are visible in one crowd scene, but that’s it. The film forgets the racialised pecking order that determined life and death for both British and French colonial troops at Dunkirk and after it.

This is important, firstly, because it is a matter of factual accuracy in what purports to be an historical portrayal – and also because it was the colonial troops who were crucial in averting absolute catastrophe for the allies. It is also important because, more than history books and school lessons, popular culture shapes and informs our imagination not only of the past, but of our present and future.

The stories that we share among ourselves give us the vision of our individual and collective identities. When those stories consistently – and in a big budget, well-researched production like Dunkirk, one must assume, purposefully – erase the presence of those who are still considered “other” and less-than-equal, these narratives also decide who is seen as “us” as opposed to “them”. Does this removal of those deemed “foreign” and “other” from narratives of the past express a discomfort with the same people in the present? More chillingly, does it also contain a wish to excise the same people from a utopian, national future?


British soldiers fight a rearguard action during the evacuation at Dunkirk. Photograph: Grierson/Getty Images

A vast, all-white production such as Nolan’s Dunkirk is not an accident. Such a big budget film is a product of many hundreds of small and large decisions in casting, production, directing and editing. Perhaps Nolan chose to follow the example of the original allies in the second world war who staged a white-only liberation of Paris even though 65% of the Free French Army troops were from West Africa. Perhaps such a circumscribed, fact-free imagination is a product of rewriting British history over the past decades, not in the least by deliberate policies including Operation Legacy? Knowingly or not, Nolan walks in the footsteps of both film directors and politicians who have chosen to whitewash the past.

But why is it so important for Nolan, and for many others, that the film expunge all non-white presence on the beach and the ships? Why is it psychologically necessary that the heroic British troops be rescued only by white sailors? What would change if brave men fighting at Dunkirk wore turbans instead of helmets? What would alter if some of the soldiers offered namaaz on the sands before rising to face the advancing enemy for that one last time?

Why is it so important that the covering fire be provided by white French troops rather than North African and Middle Eastern ones? Those non-white faces I mentioned earlier – they were French troops scrabbling to board British boats to escape. The echoes of modern politics are easy to see in the British-first policy of the initial retreat that left French troops at the mercy of the Nazis. In reality, non-white troops were at the back of the queue for evacuation, and far more likely to be caught and murdered by Nazi soldiers than their white colleagues who were able to blend into the crowd.

Could we still see our neighbours as less than human if we also saw them fight shoulder-to-shoulder with “our boys” in the “good” war? Would we call those fleeing war “cockroaches” and demand gunboats to stop them from reaching our white cliffs if we knew they had died for the freedoms we hold so dear? More importantly, would anti-immigration sentiment be so easy to weaponise, even by the left – in the past and the present – if the decent, hardworking Britons knew and recognised how much of their lives, safety and prosperity are results of non-British sacrifices? In a deeply divided, fearful Britain, Nolan’s directorial choices succeed as a Brexiteer costume fantasy, but they fail to tell the story of Operation Dynamo, the war, and Britain. More importantly, they fail us all, as people and a nation.

All storytellers – and novelists, poets, journalists, and filmmakers are, ultimately, just that – know the power we hold. Stories can dehumanise, demonise and erase. Such stories are essential to pave the way for physical and material violence against those we learn to hate. But stories are also the only means of humanising those deemed inhuman; to create pity, compassion, sympathy, even love for those who are strange and strangers. Stories decide the difference between life and death. And that is why Dunkirk – and indeed any story – is never just a story.

Source: theguardian