ANOTHER ASIA: Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin by Rustom Bharucha. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006.
Rustom Bharucha, one of our foremost cultural critics, offers in this elegant book a series of meditations on Asia. Offered under three heads – nationalism, cosmopolitanism and friendship – the meditations are set off by a particular historical friendship. That famed friendship between two luminaries of Asia – Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin – had for almost a century been idealized rather than seriously reflected upon. In Another Asia it is stripped of the mystique of idealization and understood in terms of its contradictions, difficulties and tensions. It is revealing that these contradictions, difficulties and tensions, to the extent the two friends were aware of them, were never invoked by either of them in relation to the other. Also, that the after-life of the friendship remained unmarked by any recognition of discordance. It is equally revealing, for Bharucha as well as for the present of his writing, that the conflictedness of the Tagore-Okakura relationship, and not its idealization, should be at the heart of this study.
Suspicious of what appears to be straight – in more senses than one – and homogenous, Bharucha’s is an understanding of things that inflects and complicates them. That applies even to the generic status of his study. Another Asia, he says, ‘is not so much an academic history as a play of ideas linking Tagore and Okakura to the ideals of their times, and to the troubled legacy of those ideals today.’ Because Bharucha discusses Tagore’s position about history writing, and ends the book wistfully longing for Tagore’s kind of history, he may like to be assured that Another Asia is, indeed, a different kind of history that unweaves, as it were, the continuum of diachrony and synchrony.
The study starts, self-reflexively, with the present of the narrative. With Bharucha’s account of his entry into the Asia field in the 1990s when, as a dramaturgist, he participated in a series of theatre workshops and productions, which were for the most part centred in Singapore. This experience came to him initially as ‘a refreshing contrast to the Eurocentric discourse and practice of interculturalism, marked by appropriation, decontextualization, and cultural tourism.’ Reality intervened soon, and brought him the awareness of ‘heavy investment in "Asia" as state-determined cultural capital.’ ‘Asiacentricity,’ Bharucha came to see, ‘could be the other side of the same coin as Eurocentricity... it could be even more insidious in its deceptions.’
This disenchantment is voiced at the very outset:
‘Ironically, it is in these denatured city-states where the capitalist foundations of the West have been so thoroughly assimilated that Asia should be emphatically flaunted as cultural capital: a capital that is at once legitimized and controlled by the discourse and mechanisms of New Asia’ (xvi).
Disenchantment with New Asia prompted a look at Old Asia, and that provoked the query: ‘How Does One Think Asia?’ The query in its turn led to Tagore, with whom:
‘One could travel deeply into another Asia, which for all its fuzzy ideals and political simplifications had greater emotional depth and humanitarian insight than the arrogant assertions of Asian ideologues, whose flaunting of the New Asia’s "success story" has simply played into the demagoguery of Huntington’s "clash of civilizations".’ (xix)
Tagore, inevitably, led to Okakura Tenshin, ‘who could be said to have catalyzed the very idea of Asia for Tagore and many Indians at the turn of the last century.’ And hence Another Asia. But, and this is of particular relevance for a review appearing in an issue of Seminar devoted to imagining Asia and building bridges of peace, the book refuses to provide a blueprint for a desirable Asia, let alone strategies for realizing it.
Disenchantment can work itself back cynically into the past, and as naturally imagine a romantic counterpoint there. Bharucha lets his disenchantment with contemporary Asianism do neither. Instead, he provides an analytically sophisticated and richly documented narrative of the interplay of opposite forces and tendencies that remain ever unresolved. Thus, we are shown that in the very moment and texts in which Okakura enunciates pan-Asianism, he was also inclined towards a Japanese nationalism that was barely separable from Japanese imperialism, even racism.
This is significantly different from, and more accurate than, the generally held view that credits Okakura with having renounced his early aggressive nationalism to espouse Asianism and internationalism. Still, there is something about Bharucha’s analysis that does not quite square with its self-reflexivity and sophistication. That is its reliance on deception as an explanatory category. It discerns, and exposes at considerable length, two deceptions in Okakura’s rhetorical structure of Asia. One of these relates to a rather tenacious trope in Japanese self-identity vis-à-vis Asia, according to which ‘Japan is and is not a part of Asia.’ The second deception lies in the truncated title of one of Okakura’s seminal texts which appeared as The Ideals of the East, whereas its original title – The Ideals of the East with Special Reference to the Art of Japan – was ‘more emphatically qualified.’
In that these deceptions are mentioned in the context of Okakura’s pan-Asianism, not pan-Asianism as such, it is enough that the abbreviated title, as Bharucha himself notes, was not Okakura’s doing. As for ‘Japan is and is not a part of Asia’, Bharucha’s painstaking reading of The Ideals of the East does not establish the statement to have been deception and not a genuinely held belief that carried within it tensions and problems that, in the very nature of things, remained unresolved, even unarticulated. The reading at places even betrays a readiness for convenient over-interpretation. Consider the following excerpt from Okakura:
‘The gaunt image of India, here, rises before me with an inexpressible sadness… I see before me today an orphaned child of Asia seeking in vain that parental care which she has lost forever… The Himalayas bow their heads down to the plains in this mute agony.’
Bharucha quotes this as an example of how from ‘an apparent empathy for the colonized,’ Okakura, the Asianist with his sense of Japanese superiority, ‘can suddenly shift into registers of denigration, if not contempt.’ Not many who are familiar with Indian writings from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century will share this reading. They will hear in the excerpt from Okakura echoes of his Indian contemporaries.
Could Bharucha’s reading be carrying, for all its self-reflexivity, traces of a nationalist mediation? The question is pertinent in the context of identities and ideals that, in the face of our alertness and clear choices, forever remain competing, overlapping and clashing, exercising their hold in ways not always perceptible. It is equally pertinent in the context of the role – the limits – of self-reflexivity in reading. Can one always be conscious of the underlying assumptions that mediate one’s reading? Its naïvety in the wake of deconstruction notwithstanding, the question remains valid for appreciating the problem of difference.
As in the case of Okakura, so in the case of Tagore, I find myself reading the same passages differently from Bharucha. Describing Tagore’s opposition to the nation as ‘almost pathological … bordering at times on hysteria,’ Bharucha finds that hysteria ‘embodied in the excess of language that spills into shifting registers of revulsion and fear directed at the monstrous, almost vampire-like mechanism of the nation.’ Tagore, he continues, ‘is obsessed by the predatory power of the nation, which is almost more lurid than the most strident anti-globalization discourse of our times.’ Illustrating the excess, Bharucha adds: ‘…we are warned how "our life-blood" is being drained by the "economic dragons" of Western nations, while India itself is being reduced to "predigested morsels of food", consumed by the "monster commercial organizations of the world".’ (67-8) Even without going into (or maybe because I cannot help doing that) factors such as the inurement of the Victorian hyperbole among the educated in India, the psychology of the colonized and of Tagore – factors pointing to the contextuality of the notion of excess – I see no excess in these citations.
Given the now almost axiomatic indivisibility of reading/writing, I will not attempt to settle any interpretive scores with Bharucha, whom I admire unabashedly. I will, though, hope that those chancing upon this review will feel tempted to decide for themselves. Reading Another Asia will force them to think seriously about issues like nationalism, regionalism and cosmopolitanism. And, of course, friendship in the treatment of which they will discover not only cross-cultural perspectives on issues like homosociality and sexuality, but also a most sensitive portrayal of the ineffable love between Okakura and Priyambada Devi Banerjee, the Bengali widow, who could inspire lines like ‘Words are the widow of thought.’ (143)
Talking of ineffability and the ultimate wretchedness of words, I must reproduce here the epigraph Bharucha has chosen for this book, an epigraph to which he returns at the end. It says: ‘If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel this cannot be expressed, except by answering: because it was he, because it was I.’
A PRATTLER’S TALE: Bengal, Marxism, Governance by Ashok Mitra (Translated from the Bengali by Sipra Bhattacharya). Samya, Kolkata, 2006.
THE title of the book sounds deceptive. Despite the light-hearted tone that occasionally runs through the narrative, Ashok Mitra’s autobiography is a serious and candid commentary on politics, not only in today’s Left Front-ruled West Bengal, but India in general. His analysis assumes importance because of his having been a part of much of the administrative decision-making process, in both New Delhi and Kolkata, at various times during crucial phases in the three decades of 1960-90. The list of assignments and responsibilities sounds formidable – Chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission at the early age of 38 in 1966; Chief Economic Adviser in the Union Ministry of Finance in 1970; Finance Minister in the West Bengal Left Front government in 1977 and 1982; Chairman of the West Bengal Education Commission in 1991; Member of the Rajya Sabha till 1999. Along with this, the parallel course of his political career appears equally extraordinary – moving from his early loyalty to radical nationalism to Marxism to end up in the company of a galaxy of Communist personalities like E.M.S. Namboodiripad, B.T. Ranadive, Jyoti Basu, Promode Das Gupta. All through this richly embroidered professional and political tapestry, there runs the thread of his abiding love for modern Bengali poetry and the songs of Rabindranath. By weaving all these experiences, Ashok Mitra builds up a multi-faceted story that makes the book a thoroughly exciting read for a wide range of audience. It first appeared in Bengali under the title Apila-Chapila in 2003, and the translator has done a competent job in presenting it to a non-Bengali readership.
The author’s memories of childhood, while growing up in a middle class household in the pre-independence East Bengal (now Bangladesh), and of his youth in the exciting days of political turmoil of the 1940s in Dhaka, bring alive the changing contours of Bengali social life during that period, as well as the various experiments in contemporary Bengali literature that were beginning to shape Ashok Mitra’s intellectual predilections – the major sources being the two best-known poets of that period, Jibanananda Das and Buddhadeva Bose, with whom he maintained a regular correspondence. Meanwhile, his academic and professional interests were being influenced by some of the leading teachers of Dhaka University, towering among whom was the economist A.K. Das Gupta – to whom he acknowledges a debt for his future achievements.
Sometime after the 1947 partition, Mitra’s family, like many other Bengali Hindu households, shifted to Calcutta. Although ever grateful to the city for the lasting friendships and cultural attachments that he had meanwhile developed there during his regular visits to the metropolis, he could never forgive the Calcutta University for refusing him admission to the MA course – on a flimsy technical ground – despite his topping the BA Honours examination from Dhaka University. Dhaka – or Dacca as the name was spelt in those days – was ‘considered to be "provincial" by the snooty ones in Calcutta,’ writes Mitra. What remains scalded in his memory is the comment made by a high official of the Calcutta University when rejecting his application for admission: ‘If we were to admit you, dear boy, we would have to permit the porters and coolies from the street to take admission!’ – words betraying the same disparaging mentality towards the ‘provincial’ from the backwaters that is very much on display in today’s anti-reservation agitation.
But the rejection by the Calcutta University was a blessing in disguise for Ashok Mitra, who was soon admitted to the MA course in the Banaras Hindu University, where he found his old teacher A.K. Das Gupta (who had meanwhile joined the university as the head of its economics department) whose tutelage launched him into an academic career. After his MA, Mitra joined the Delhi School of Economics as a fellow, and then following a stint in the Lucknow University (where ‘the old world civilization… was juxtaposed with the far-Left ideas aired by a host of young Marxist teachers…’), he set off for the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands on a fellowship, where he worked under the famous econometrician Jan Tinbergen. Europe in the 1950s opened up a new world to Mitra – what with the hegemony of the Communist Party in Eastern Europe and its powerful presence in France and Italy, and his exposure to a wide range of Leftist intellectuals from different parts of the world during his trips to the world capitals, as a result of which his ‘transition to Marxist beliefs was... complete.’
But unlike his predecessors of the pre-independence period (the generation of Mohan Kumaramangalam, Jyoti Basu, Bhupesh Gupta, Indrajit Gupta, and others who came back from UK as Marxists and joined the CPI as activists in trade union or other mass fronts), Ashok Mitra after completing his studies and receiving a degree from the University of Rotterdam, returned to India and accepted an offer of appointment in the Union Ministry of Finance in New Delhi. Was this a sign of the new mood of working within the constitutional framework that marked the mid-1950 politics of the post-independence CPI (following the failure of its 1948 insurrectionary tactics), and of hoping to influence central policies from within? Mitra captures the mood of Communist optimism (naïve as he feels in retrospect) of the period, generated by Nehru’s talk of socialism and planning, and growing proximity to the Soviet Union in foreign policy: ‘...we felt as if the world was at our feet, that we were at the very centre of creation and destruction…’ Mitra’s stay in New Delhi in the role of a government bureaucrat paradoxically enough brought him closer to the then undivided Communist party.
After office hours, he began to spend more time in the ‘archetypal Communist den’ of the commune in the Ferozeshah Road bungalow of the redoubtable CPI MP Bhupesh Gupta, where he met for the first time Ajoy Ghosh (the then General Secretary of the CPI), E.M.S. Namboodiripad, and other luminaries of the party. Prodded by Bhupesh Gupta and other Communist friends like Mohit Sen (who before his death, left behind an autobiography, recently published, giving us an equally fascinating account of an upper-class Anglicized Bengali’s transition to Communism, and his later disenchantment with Communist practices), Ashok Mitra began to contribute notes and articles on economic issues for the CPI’s official organ New Age under the pseudonym Charan Gupta – a name chosen by Bhupesh Gupta! The congenital anti-Communists are sure to pounce upon this revelation to pillory Mitra as a Communist mole in the Centre in those days! By the time he was offered his next job – with the ESCAFE in Bangkok – Mitra seemed to have come closer to the party, as evident from his seeking permission from E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who felt that it would deepen his experience, and who also fixed the amount of levy that he would have to pay the party every month from his salary. On his return from Bangkok after the assignment, he threw himself totally into party work, and was instructed by the leadership to go to Kerala to help his comrades frame the budget of the newly elected first Communist government there.
Through all his perambulations from bureaucratic positions at government ministries to teaching assignments in the World Bank-financed Economic Development Institute in Washington (which was frowned upon by many of his comrades), or later in the 1960s at the Indian Institute of Management of Calcutta, Ashok Mitra led a number of concurrent lives. He kept up his involvement with the world of Bengali poetry and literature, and spent his spare time in the company of its leading lights – including Samar Sen (of whose poetry he had been a ‘blind admirer’), whom he was to discover in a totally different role as the uncompromising editor (first of the weekly Now, and later Frontier) in Calcutta during the tumultuous decades of the 1960s-70s. In fact, radical journalism was the other parallel stream in which Ashok Mitra immersed himself, and which inaugurated a life-long friendship with the charismatic Sachin Chaudhuri, the founder-editor of Economic Weekly – the predecessor of today’s Economic and Political Weekly – and his continuing involvement with the prestigious journal, in the role of advisor as well as contributor.
When he comes to the 1970s, the events and figures that he describes touch a personal chord in my memories. He makes alive the people whom I had known – common acquaintances and dear friends, most of them departed, and a few still around. They are beautiful thumb nail sketches of the famous and the less known – poets like Samar Sen, Subhash Mukhopadhyay and Lokenath and France Bhattacharya; the photographer Sunil Janah and his wife Shobha; the raconteur and collector of old Calcutta memorabilia Radha Prasad Gupta; the theatre critic Kiron Raha; and numerous forgotten participants and unsung heroes of the Communist movement of the past like Robi Sen Gupta, Abdullah Rasul, Subodh Roy (Jhunku-da), Hemanta Kumar Roy, Dinesh Majumdar.
The 1980s was the period which saw Mitra’s gradual disenchantment with the party to which he had remained attached since the late 1960s – the CPI(M). He makes no bones about his misgivings regarding the present economic policies being followed by the party in West Bengal, and gives a frank account of his bitter experience with the changing norms and behaviour of a new generation of upstart party leaders and middle-ranking functionaries, with whom had to deal during his two stints as finance minister in the West Bengal Left Front government. He attributes the degeneration of the party to the feudal mindset of the Bengali Leftist leaders: ‘…the curse of feudalism hovers over their habits, attitudes and behaviour,’ and adds that the ‘modality of democratic centralism (the principle by which a Communist party functions) is wonderful in theory, but lapses in its application are widespread; the democratic element gradually wears thin, the ways of the zamindari system come to the fore in the name of centralism.’ But is the deviation peculiar to Bengal only due to the zamindari psychology? Did it not happen in advanced capitalist countries like France or Germany, where the party bureaucracy hounded out dissenters and intellectuals who questioned authoritarian centralism? Is the concept of democratic centralism itself flawed? Has not the time come for a reorientation of party functioning in a more democratic and humane direction? What should be the Leftist model of growth and development in West Bengal?
But let us leave out for the moment these ticklish questions which arise from Ashok Mitra’s reflections, and which do not have immediate press-button answers. For the readers, A Prattler’s Tale is a fascinating experience – funny and sad at times. What marks out the book from the pedestrian autobiographies of ex-bureaucrats and aged politicians which flood the market, is the absence of an abrasive tone of self-righteousness and the swagger of ‘I-serve-the-people’ type of hogwash which usually mar their narrative. Ashok Mitra bares himself, warts and all. In the last chapter, in a mood of self-introspection, he writes: ‘…there are…many irrationalities in my nature. I easily fly off the handle, I have a rough, gruff way of speaking… I love to increase my social distance from others. I have an eerie talent of alienating people,’ and adds: ‘Loneliness is the only fate waiting for such a person.’ Mercilessly analytical as he is, he recognizes the sources of such a behaviour in his ‘Bengali middle class roots,’ and ‘the tide of bourgeois selfishness,’ as well as the more basic reality of the ‘duality of a human being… as a social animal; (and) at the same time (as a) separate entity.’ Known for his famous self-ascription: ‘I am not a gentleman, I am a communist,’ he explains the context where he used those words – to shock out of his wits a managing director of the privately owned Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation, and compel him to withdraw an offensive advertisement that defended its inflated bills by peremptorily blaming the citizens for over-using electricity – who in those excruciating days of summer were suffering from a shortage of power!
But Ashok Mitra remains a ‘gentleman’ (not in the pejorative sense, but in terms of civilized norms and refined tastes) – and a Bengali bhadralok at that. I am using the term bhadralok, keeping in mind both the Bengali middle class irrationalities and egocentric hang-ups that he is ashamed of, as well as the politically progressive and intellectually creative tradition of this same middle class which Ashok Mitra had inherited. It is this awareness that makes him end his book with the skeptical comment that his life had been one of ‘comprehensive failure’, but prevents it from sagging into a story of total insolvency when he adds the rider: ‘There are nonetheless two sources of contentment: I was fortunate to be born in Tagore’s language, and my sensibilities are by and large the product of my Marxist beliefs.’
TERRIFYING VISION: M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS and India by Jyotirmaya Sharma. Penguin Viking, Delhi, 2007.
FIRST, a relevant anecdote. Former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee almost never sat on a chair when in the presence of ‘Guruji’ Golwalkar. He made it a point to sit on the floor as a mark of respect for someone he considered ‘saintly’. In fact, in his homage to the second and longest-serving sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), when the latter passed away in Nagpur on 6 June 1973, Vajpayee wrote that he had an ichha mrityu – that is, Guruji, who was suffering from cancer, knew when he was going to die and had prepared himself to welcome death. It is a rare ability acquired only by those with lifelong ascetic practices.
Jyotirmaya Sharma, who has written a highly, but unconvincing, critical ideological biography of the most important figure in the history of the RSS (Terrifying Vision: M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS and India), does refer to Golwalkar’s spiritual orientation early in life. In 1936, he suddenly abandoned his organizational responsibilities in Nagpur and went to his guru Swami Akhandananda, who founded the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram in West Bengal. ‘He went without telling anyone’, not even Dr. Keshav B. Hedgewar, founder of the RSS and one who, after four years, would anoint Golwalkar as his successor at age 34. Had Swamiji not passed away within a month of giving deeksha (spiritual initiation) to his disciple in early 1937, Golwalkar would perhaps have chosen the life of a sanyasi.
Because of his strong spiritual leanings, politics and political power did not find a central place in Golwalkar’s scheme of things for the RSS. Sharma acknowledges this in his book. ‘In Golwalkar’s mental universe,’ he writes, ‘there are two permanent enemies, the Muslims and politics.’ I shall, later in this review, show how the author grossly misrepresents Golwalkar’s thoughts about Islam and Muslims in his attempt to present the RSS leader’s vision as ‘terrifying’. The belief that Golwalkar was uncompromisingly anti-Muslim is so deep-rooted in a certain vocal section of India’s intellectual and political class that it is taken as an axiomatic truth requiring no objective scrutiny. This belief is the basis for demonising him as well as the RSS as ‘communal’ and ‘fascist’, terms that figure copiously in Sharma’s book and feed the central thesis captured in its title. However, readers should ask themselves a basic question: What kind of ‘Fuhrer’ was Golwalkar if he had aversion for politics? Could Hitler have been Hitler if he was similarly indifferent to acquiring political power?
Golwalkar wanted the Sangh and its swayamsevaks to be aloof from politics. Initially he was not in favour of establishing the Bharatiya Jana Sangh with the participation of select RSS pracharaks. In the 22 years that he lived after its formation in 1951, there is little evidence to suggest that he pushed the Jana Sangh to somehow capture governmental power and declare India a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya (1916-1968), who became the Jana Sangh’s foremost leader after the untimely death of its founder Shyama Prasad Mukherjee in 1953, was an intense thinker in his own right. He formulated the party’s ideological basis in the form of a short treatise titled ‘Integral Humanism’. It remains one of the least discussed works of political philosophy produced in the post-Independence era. Any unprejudiced student of politics who reads it is sure to find it unthreatening, undogmatic and non-communal. The BJP, a post-1980 avatar of the Jana Sangh, has also enshrined Integral Humanism as its ideological guide in its party constitution.
In the introduction to his book, Sharma describes the BJP as one of the ‘Sangh-inspired organizations’ which has ‘had a malefic influence on Indian politics.’ He is entitled to his critical view of the BJP, but the least he could have done as an author was to have examined Upadhyaya’s thoughts and leadership and shown how he, or his two successors in the Jana Sangh and BJP – Vajpayee and L.K. Advani – pursued Golwalkar’s ‘menacing’ vision in the political field. Unfortunately, he does nothing of the kind.
Surprisingly, there is only one brief, and quite trivial, reference to Upadhyaya in the entire book. Sharma does not even mention Integral Humanism, or Upadhyaya’s noteworthy presidential address at the Jana Sangh’s national council meeting at Calicut in 1967, in which he affirmed: ‘We are pledged to the service not of any particular community or section but of the entire nation. Every countryman is blood of our blood and flesh of our flesh.’ By conveniently avoiding to train his analytical gaze on a political leader with whom Golwalkar shared a strong bond of mutual respect, Sharma has introduced a major lacuna in his book.
Golwalkar never identified himself exclusively with the Jana Sangh. He maintained close personal relationships with several leaders in the Congress and Socialist parties, and they in turn respected him even if they did not fully agree with his ideology. (A rare example of a Marxist intellectual’s appreciation of Golwalkar has come in Ashok Mitra’s recently released memoirs.) Golwalkar often sharply criticized Nehru’s policies. But when India’s first prime minister passed away in May 1964, he penned a heartfelt homage praising Nehru’s patriotism and lofty idealism and hailing him as a ‘great son of Mother India.’ Sharma does not mention this in his book. But he deserves credit for mentioning the RSS chief’s respectful attitude towards Mahatma Gandhi. Despite Golwalkar’s disagreement with Gandhiji on certain issues, in 1946 ‘he called the Mahatma vishwavandaneeya, or one who is worthy of being praised across the world’ and, on another occasion, praatahsmaraneeya – one worthy of being reverentially remembered in the morning.
Critics of the RSS never tire of alleging that it is anti-dalit and supports discrimination and inequality on the basis of caste. However, as Sharma grudgingly informs his readers, the RSS ideologue rejected untouchability and held that ‘the sentiment of "high" and "low" within the caste system is not right.’ Does this make his vision ‘terrifying’?
I now turn to Golwalkar’s other alleged aversion: Muslims. Much of the intellectual debate on this subject has so far centred on certain passages in his most controversial book, We or Our Nationhood Defined (1938). However, the RSS has now disowned and withdrawn it. (Sharma mentions this and even states that Golwalkar did not author We...) Therefore, Golwalkar’s views on Muslims should be evaluated on the basis of the totality of what he wrote and spoke on the subject.
The RSS chief was indeed highly critical of what he perceived as the ‘separatist mindset’ of a section of Indian Muslims and their tendency to valorize invaders and bigoted Muslim rulers. This criticism was rooted in the specific context of the Muslim League’s demand for India’s division and the support it received from a vocal class of Indian Muslims. Golwalkar believed that this mindset persisted even after the Partition. This belief is debatable. However, two points are in order here. First, there is a category of ‘secular’ intellectuals in India who consider any criticism of political Islam and of the separatist conduct of a section of Muslims, as ‘anti-Muslim’ and unacceptable. Sharma belongs to this category. He refers to the Gujarat riots of 2002 (which were a blot on India and on Vajpayee’s six-year premiership) as an ‘example of the impact of Golwalkar’s legacy.’ But he finds nothing terrifying in the murderous campaign launched by jehadi terrorists in India, for he makes no mention of it at all.
Second, was Golwalkar alone in criticizing Muslim separatism, supremacism and aggression as a threat to India’s unity and integrity? One only has to read Ambedkar’s book Thoughts on Pakistan (1940) to know that his views were harsher than anything that Golwalkar has written on this subject. But then, it is not politically correct for anti-RSS intellectuals to critique Ambedkar’s views on this matter.
But is Sharma factual and fair in his critique of Golwalkar’s own views on Islam and Muslims? ‘For him,’ he writes, ‘Muslims were enemies who had to be fought and defeated. He did not even consider Muslims civilized. They were barbarians and raakshasas or demons.’ He adds, ‘Golwalkar was categorical that all those Muslims and Christians, whose ancestors were Hindu, must abandon their newly acquired faiths and return to the Hindu fold.’ He gives no references to show where Golwalkar said so.
In fact, many of Golwalkar’s significant articulations on Islam and Muslims completely contradict what Sharma has ascribed to him. Sharma’s omission – shall we say, suppression? – of these articulations amounts to intellectual dishonesty. Let me cite here three important interviews that Golwalkar gave on the subject (they are contained in his Collected Works, which were published in Hindi in 12 bulky volumes to mark his birth centenary in 2006) – to Khushwant Singh, editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India; Saifuddin Jeelani, a journalist and Arabic scholar in 1971; and K.R. Malkani, the editor of Organiser, the weekly journal of the RSS.
Khushwant Singh begins the interview (Illustrated Weekly of India, 17 November 1972; reproduced in ‘Guruji’ Collected Works, volume 9, page 200) with these words: ‘There are some individuals whom we start to hate without even bothering to know them. Guru Golwalkar comes first in my list of such persons.’ Khushwant Singh asked Golwalkar: What are your thoughts on Muslims’ issues? Golwalkar answered, ‘I have not the slightest doubt that historical factors alone are responsible for the divided loyalty that Muslims have towards India and Pakistan. Moreover, both Muslims and Hindus are equally to blame for this. Nevertheless, it is not right to hold the entire community responsible for the guilt of some people.’ (All emphases are mine.)
Elsewhere in the interview, Golwalkar says, ‘We have to win over the loyalty of Muslims with love. I am optimistic and I believe that Hindutva and Islam will learn to co-exist with one another.’
In the interview given to Dr. Jeelani (Bunch of Thoughts by M.S. Golwalkar, page 639), he says: ‘According to our religious belief and philosophy, a Muslim is as good as a Hindu. It is not the Hindu alone who will reach the ultimate Godhead. Everyone has the right to follow his path according to his own persuasion.’ Citing what he once told a Muslim gentleman from Kashmir, Golwalkar says, ‘Follow your own religion. The God of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism is the same and we are all His devotees… Give people true knowledge of Islam. Give people true knowledge of Hinduism. Educate them to know that all religions teach men to be selfless, holy and pious… Indianisation does not mean making all people Hindus.’
Contrast all these articulations with Sharma’s fanciful assertion that Golwalkar believed in ‘the intrinsic superiority of Hindus over all other people’ and that ‘fanaticism and religious frenzy mark all his formulations.’
Sharma’s most inexcusable omission pertains to his failure to let his readers know that Golwakar was opposed to the idea of Uniform Civil Code, an issue which agitates a majority of Indian Muslims. Consider these excerpts from the interview he gave to Malkani (Organiser, 23 August 1972; reproduced in ‘Guruji’ Collected Works, Volume 9, page 165).
Malkani: Don’t you think that Uniform Civil Code is needed to nurture the sense of nationalism?
Golwalkar: I do not think so. What I say on this issue might surprise you and many others, but this is my view. And I must speak out the truth as I see it.
Malkani: Don’t you agree that uniformity is needed to promote national unity?
Golwalkar: Harmony and uniformity are two different things. For harmony, uniformity is not necessary. There have always been limitless diversities in India. In spite of this, our nation has remained strong and well-organised since ancient times. For unity we need harmony, not uniformity… Nature does not like excessive uniformity. I think that diversity and unity can co-exist, and they do co-exist.
Malkani: Don’t you believe that Muslims are opposing Uniform Civil Code only because they want to maintain their separate existence?
Golwalkar: I have no quarrel with any caste, community or section wanting to maintain its own individual identity or existence, until and unless this desire for a separate existence causes them to distance themselves from a feeling of nationalism. Many people insist on Uniform Civil Code because they think that the Muslim population is growing in a disproportionate manner since their men are allowed to have four wives. I am afraid that this is a negative way of looking at the problem… There is no basic difference between those who favour appeasement and those who favour uniformity. So long as Muslims love this nation and its culture, they have a right to live according to their way of life.
Malkani: Is it proper to let our Muslim sisters become victims of purdah and polygamy?
Golwalkar: If your objection to Muslim customs is based on broad considerations of humanism, then it is proper. Reformist outlook in these matters is welcome. But it is not proper to try to bring about equality in a mechanical manner through the external instrumentality of laws. It is better that Muslims themselves reform their outdated laws and customs. I’ll be pleased if they come to the conclusion that polygamy is not good for them. But I would not like to impose my views on them.
Indeed, Golwalkar concludes the interview with a warning. ‘I firmly believe that uniformity is a pointer to the downfall of nations. I am in favour of preservation of diverse ways of life. At the same time, we should pay attention to ensure that these diversities nurture unity of the nation.’
Terrifying vision? Hardly.
The interview is significant for another reason, for it demolishes the whole notion that there was no place in his worldview for diversity, either within the Hindu fold or, much less, in India’s multi-faith society. Sharma’s book devotes page after page to construct this false notion.
A good part of the book is devoted to debunking Golwalkar’s concept of India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu Nation). According to me, the term suffers from both conceptual and semantic weaknesses. The RSS chief repeatedly emphasized that he used the word ‘Hindu’ to connote a national community and not a particular religious entity. This distinction, however, is not satisfactory. First, neither Golwalkar nor any other proponent of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ has been consistent in the manner in which the word ‘Hindu’ has been used. Second, in a multi-faith nation such as India, this terminological conflation creates both confusion and legitimate concern among non-religious Hindus. The BJP, the party to which I belong, does not use the term ‘Hindu Rashtra’ either in its constitution or in its political propaganda.
Sharma’s book, published soon after the conclusion of the Golwalkar birth centenary celebrations, disappoints for all these reasons. Also, it is too brief to capture and comment upon the life of a remarkable personality and a huge organization that he built with his inspiring leadership. The occasion demanded a more comprehensive and better-researched critique, one capable of provoking a serious debate not only outside the RSS but also within. Sharma’s book will make little contribution to this debate because the portrait of Golwalkar sketched by him has, in most parts, no basis in reality. It is imagined by the author, with the pre-determined objective of demonizing him. He has distorted and suppressed vital facts about Golwalkar’s life and thoughts, thereby doing injustice both to his readers and to his subject.
The anti-RSS and Hindu-baiting fraternity will of course hail it because anything that describes the Sangh’s vision as ‘terrifying’ gives it the illusion of having won the ideological battle. For it has never let facts-based and truth-respecting intellectual quest come in the way of declaring Golwalkar as the ‘Hitler of the Hindutva Brigade’.
IN SPITE OF THE GODS: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce. Little Brown, London, 2006.
WHEN Sir Thomas Roe was sent as ambassador to the court of Jahangir by Queen Elizabeth I, he arrived to find ‘religions many, laws none’ in India. He wrote a remarkable journal of his travels and remains historically an important figure. Edward Luce is legally the ‘subject’ of Queen Elizabeth II, but has a more tangible relationship with India than Roe ever managed to cement. What is common between them is their simultaneous bewilderment at the way in which religion continues to play a part in the lives of most Indians. Luce too has written a highly intelligent and entertaining account of what he calls the ‘strange’ rise of modern India.
The strengths of this book are many. Primarily, the chapter on the Indian economy is provocative and audacious. Luce argues that the Indian economy must liberalise further and be open to international competition much more than it is at the present moment. His argument in favour of free market economy and urbanization is one that is sure to evoke sharp responses from economists and policy-makers alike. The emphasis in India on the villages, as Luce seems to suggest, is not inspired by Gandhi alone, nor is it part of a romantic quest for an idyllic, bucolic utopia. Rather, it is a reaction to the apologetic way in which the urban economy has unfolded in the years after India’s independence and the way in which urbanization has led to more problems than the state or civil society can cope with.
Having said this, Luce correctly manages to locate many of India’s problems to corruption, a slothful and indolent bureaucracy, and the inability of many institutions of the Indian state to approximate to the idea of a formal and impersonal rule of law. In all this, the past, whether in the form of religion or caste, argues Luce, bears heavily on India’s path towards the future. I have a small quibble with this ‘looking forward to the past’ thesis. Indians use the past in every form to legitimize very simple utilitarian ends. Recognition and power are the motives that often marshal the gods and the cultural past (often arbitrarily defined) to ends that have very little to do with anything else other than getting on with the good life.
The great strength of this book is the acknowledgement of India’s survival and flourishing as a democracy despite all the seeming contradictions and diversity. It affirms that ‘India always wins’, not in the manner of the spindoctors of the ‘India Shining’ propaganda, but in a way which is, indeed, ‘strange’, inexplicable, unfathomable. Yet, Luce imparts a sense of realism by delineating the crisis that India ought to confront urgently. Most important among these are environment, energy, HIV, and the continued preservation and strengthening of its liberal democratic institutions. The last of these crises is largely triggered off by the rise of Hindu and Muslim fundamentalisms and the way in which identity politics appeals to a pre-political, pre-social unity at the cost of constitutional norms.
Luce’s book ought to be read not only for the way in which it seriously engages with issues of corruption, the ever obese state and its bureaucracy, identity politics and the imperatives of Indian economy, but also for the extraordinary anecdotal material in the narrative. The hall in which Luce enters to hear the new age guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is like a ‘large wedding cake.’ The guru himself is described in the following manner: ‘Alone on the stage on what looked to be a large throne sat a man in flowing white robes with an equally flowing beard and silky locks of hair falling luxuriantly around his shoulders. It looked as if Jesus were shooting a shampoo advertisement. This was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.’
My personal favourite is the writer’s visit to the Cow Protection Research Centre near Nagpur, a place I have had the privilege of visiting too. In this dung and cow urine centred institution, Luce is wheeled ‘face to face with a very fierce-looking bull, whose vast dangling testicles were the size of cricket balls.’ When he showed fear of the bull, the VHP activist accompanying him assures him that Indian bulls do not hurt, ‘[n]ot like the bulls in the West.’ Or take Luce’s visit to Amar Singh’s house in Lutyens Delhi, where the improvements to the bungalow by Singh had reduced it to something that was a cross between a James Bond film and Mogambo’s den in a celebrated Bollywood film. The ‘restless torturer’ of the last pages is a timeless narrative as well.
Luce is a journalist who has views on India, and yet does not editorialise. He is rooted in an ideology that celebrates free market economy and personal liberty, and yet does not preach. He notices the complexity as well as the quirks of Indians, and yet is never condescending or patronizing. I feel that the restless torturer of the last pages, constantly mining Luce for information, precocious, bright and demanding, is really a fictional character. It is Luce’s projection of what he wants India to be, his alter ego. He wants this character to win. The book, then, is about a lover who is constantly charmed and exasperated by his beloved.
FEARFUL SYMMETRY: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons by Sumit Ganguly and Devin T. Hagerty. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005.
WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION: Options for India edited by Rear Admiral Raja Menon. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2004.
SECURITY BEYOND SURVIVAL: Essays for K. Subrahmanyam edited by P.R. Kumaraswamy. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2004.
NUCLEAR STABILITY IN SOUTHERN ASIA edited by P.R. Chari, Sonika Gupta and Arpit Rajan. Manohar, New Delhi, 2003.
Sumit Ganguly and Devin Hagerty’s book is a comparative analysis of, in the main, four India-Pakistan conflicts and crises that have occurred since the 1980s when the two sides became first recessed, and later became full-fledged nuclear weapon states – the 1984 Operation Brasstacks, the 1990 Kashmir crisis, the 1991 Kargil border war, and the 2002 Operation Parakram. These were contained affairs. In trying to plumb the reasons why they did not spin out of control, the authors examine three factors – the role of the preeminent power, the United States; the fear of hostilities escalating to the nuclear level; and the inability of either side to muster decisive conventional military force. They conclude that it was the fear of escalation which did the trick and, more generally, that nuclear weapons in the possession of the two countries have acted as deterrents and peace-keepers.
At one level, Ganguly and Hagerty have merely proved the obvious, albeit, with a bit of theoretical flair. At another, deeper level, they have failed to look beyond the surface. A more profound analysis of India-Pakistan ‘wars’ would have examined if the nuclear-era crises differed from the ‘wars’ of 1947, 1965 and even 1971, and how. Based on the differences, judgments on the role nuclear weapons supposedly played in the first set of conflicts, could have been made. By looking only at the post-1974 contingencies, however, the authors have missed out on the paradoxical reality and context of all India-Pakistan conflicts – the vast disparity between India and Pakistan, using any indices, not being reflected in the near equal size and strength of their deployable conventional military forces. India was always in a position to field a far larger army, large enough for it to prove decisive against anything Pakistan could at any time have mustered, but chose not to do so. Therein lies the truth of India-Pakistan ‘wars’.
There is a common thread running through India-Pakistan wars since Independence. These were severely limited and controlled affairs in which both sides routinely and habitually pulled their punches; military actions were restricted in time and geographic space, and the nature of engagements was markedly defensive. The main reason for this is the fact that India and Pakistan are organically linked, ‘joined at their entrails’ as the BJP leader Jaswant Singh once somewhat graphically put it.
The shared entrails – the common ethnicity, religion, language and culture aerated by active social and familial links and kinship ties across the border, among other things, have led to the rooting of socio-political inhibitions, particularly in the much bigger, pluralistic India against waging a ‘war of annihilation’ against Pakistan. The main reason being the Indian Muslim factor. The sizable Muslim minority in India can accept an occasional bloodying of Pakistan’s nose, but will not tolerate ‘total wars’ to end Pakistan. And given its growing electoral clout in a large number of ‘swing’ constituencies, such sensitivity can be ignored by political parties across the ideological spectrum, but only at their own peril. The Indian Muslims are in a position to ensure constraints on military action.
Facing the policy of waging limited war to realize extremely limited aims, Pakistan too has reciprocated and for some of the same reasons. Hence, what has accrued are exchanges of heated rhetoric and, in case of hostilities, ‘wars of manoeuvre’. But, even in the heat of battle, the governments and especially political establishments in both countries have taken care to see that the situation is not allowed to spiral out of control and into their taking steps like counter-city bombardment or worse. The result is that the populations of the two countries, distanced from the actual war-fighting, cannot sustain their animosity for each other. The restoration of status quo ante is, therefore, easy – there being little bitterness and no precipitous fall-off in the basic goodwill the two peoples feel for each other.
Even in the one case with disastrous results for Pakistan – the 1971 war, while the above pattern obtained on the western front, in the east it quickly developed into more ambitious actions dictated, as even Pakistani analysts now concede, by Islamabad’s yoking bad domestic politics – preventing Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the Awami League from assuming the reins of government after winning the general elections in a united Pakistan, to an even worse military strategy of stretching the defences thin around the border of the then East Pakistan. The latter enabled the relatively easy break-throughs and break-outs by columns of Indian armoured and mechanized forces and their pell-mell rush to capture Dhaka, ‘liberate Bangladesh’, and accept the surrender of Pakistani forces under Lieutenant General ‘Tiger’ Niazi. The original political-military plan approved by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, as the Chief of Staff of the Indian Eastern Army, Lieutenant General J.F.R. Jacob revealed in his memoirs, was only to capture a thin sliver of territory in East Pakistan, install an Awami League ‘government in exile’ on it, and have it negotiate a political deal with General Yahya Khan’s military junta. But the unexpected success of the Indian forces in rapidly crossing the Khulna River, opened up the corridor to Dhaka which the Indian forces in the field quickly capitalized on, compelling the original political aims to adjust to a new military reality.
Had the authors scanned the literature on the subject emanating from India before writing this book, they would have found such an approach and analysis of India-Pakistan ‘wars’ in my ‘Key to Peace in South Asia: Fostering "social" links between the armies of India and Pakistan’ in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs (July 1996) or a slightly different version of it in the USI Journal (July-September 1996), and in my still more detailed and comprehensive study, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy, 2nd ed (Macmillan India, 2005, 2002). Not clued into the uniqueness of the India-Pakistan conflict dyad, Ganguly and Hagerty’s concept of nuclear ‘symmetry’ reflects more the traditional US policy bias of ‘balancing’ India and Pakistan, which presumes near equal states, than it does a realistic assessment of the power of the two countries. Indian inhibitions against conducting ‘total war’ with conventional weaponry against Pakistan would apply even more strongly when it comes to nuclear weapons, which are genuinely capable of annihilating whole states. Because the Ganguly-Hagerty book features a hackneyed approach and analytics, it is of limited value.
The curiously titled ‘Security Beyond Survival’ is ostensibly a festschrift to honour K. Subrahmanyam – a status accorded this collection of generally good quality essays by its editor, Kumaraswamy, but, seemingly, only as an afterthought. Because, other than in a generic sense, there is no discernible link between the chapters in the book and the various concepts and ideas (like ‘minimum deterrence’, for instance) that Subrahmanyam has championed over the years. It has the feel of hodge-podge of articles expediently fashioned into a compendium celebrating Subrahmanyam’s long and productive life with the addition of an appropriate ‘Preface’ and chapters of personal reminiscences by Selig Harrison and Subrahmanyam’s son, Sanjay, now teaching at UCLA.
The chapters span a range of topics. India’s place in a West-dominated world can be bolstered, says Raju G.C. Thomas, for instance, not so much by India’s ‘bandwagoning’ with the United States but by resurrecting the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) as a bloc of independent nations. Ashok Kapur makes the point that decision-making in India is highly ‘personalized’ and, comparing and contrasting the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru and the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, concludes that the liberal globalist mindset of the former was not as effective in dealing with the international reality as Vajpayee’s ‘realist’ thinking. But this disregards the latest research – see the reviewer’s Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, which reveals the finesse with which Nehru carried out his extraordinary diplomatic high wire act of the fifties when the country benefited from the competing attentions of both the US and the Soviet Union, and secured for India the protection of the western nuclear security umbrella even as he firmed up the Third World states into what became NAM.
J. Mohan Malik, in his chapter, contends that the rivalry between the two ‘Middle Kingdoms’ in Asia, i.e., between India and China, is of a civilizational nature which can be mitigated by the resolution of the Kashmir issue on the one hand and by Beijing’s treating Tibet as a genuinely ‘autonomous’ region of China, on the other. In an attempt to debunk Neville Maxwell’s thesis of Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ as the casus belli, Rajesh Rajagopalan attributes the debacle in the 1962 War with China to ‘the legendary illiteracy’ of the Indian leadership twinned to its ‘control over strategic decision-making’. While his take on the disinterest of the all important political class in national security matters is correct, he is wrong about Nehru lacking military insight. Indeed, the PM’s notings on defence ministry files reveal to the contrary that in the 1947 war for Kashmir Nehru showed an intuitive understanding of why the military operations were proving less successful than they could be. Nehru’s counsel was, however, disregarded by the residual British Raj combine of Governor-General Lord Mountbatten and the British C-in-C, General Roy Bucher, for their, perhaps, nefarious reasons. Surely, Nehru’s intuition could not have degraded so badly inside of a decade!
Ayesha Siddiqa explains Pakistan’s ‘linear’ India-centric threat perception and security policy in terms of the ‘politics of insecurity’ – a mix of weak national identity, the apprehensions about India’s controlling the Indus waters, domestic political and social imperatives, and a readymade Indian threat confirmed by provocative rhetoric emanating from India. It has led, she asserts, to Pakistan’s not realizing its full strategic potential. Stephen P. Cohen writes that India-Pakistan second track diplomacy has not, by and large succeeded because, among other reasons, each country holds on to its self-serving expectation of the other state soon falling apart at the seams, thereby resolving all outstanding disputes! But this is surely no longer the case, with the governments in both countries now willing and seemingly eager to arrive at a modus vivendi.
It is all very well to claim, unexceptionably, as Michael Krepon does, that India, China and Pakistan will find nuclear security if Pakistan refuses to compete with India and India refuses to compete with China. But, geostrategics-wise, it may be easier for Pakistan to comply with this prescription than for India to do so because as an, albeit gradually, emerging credible counterweight to China in Asia, ceding the latter a large nuclear edge is neither advisable nor politico-militarily feasible. And, finally, K. Subrahmanyam’s son, Sanjay, regrets, if only by indirection, that his father has not produced scholarly work but justifies it by saying that his father preferred to reach the people through his newspaper columns than address academics via solid scholarship. This may be true but it is also a cop-out considering that K.S. has the intellectual capacity to do both.
The compilation edited by Raja Menon is a useful and timely one considering the growing significance especially of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in an age when terrorist organizations seem able to access by means, mostly foul, the most highly protected and heinous instruments of death. Chapters in the book discussing the effectiveness of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons written respectively by retired Lieutenant Generals P.K. Pahwa and B.S. Malik and the editor himself traverse the field. But Malik’s and particularly Menon’s companion pieces on how to protect the state, society and the armed forces against chemical and biological weapons bring out the fact that the country and the government are presently neither prepared nor properly equipped to deal with contingencies involving the use of such WMD. Their prescriptions for organizing the official effort and cobbling together the necessary state mechanisms are valid and something the agencies tasked with this role ought to consider as an action template.
The treatment of formal and informal nuclear threats by Commodore M.S. Mamik (Retd) in trying to be comprehensive ends up being sketchy. The two essays each by Ambassador Arundhati Ghose and the late professor, Matin Zubeiri, constitute notable sections of the book. Ghose deconstructs in some historical depth the extant chemical and biological weapons control regimes crowned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). But, more interesting, she discusses India’s negotiating stance and future options and recommends reconsidering fealty to CWC when other signatory states have not declared their stocks and the two leading countries, the United States and Russia, have sought an extension of the deadline by which to destroy their biological and chemical arms stockpiles. Regarding BTWC, Ghose is of the view that this country can increase its ‘negotiating weight’ by, for instance, withdrawing the reservation the British Raj placed to the Geneva Convention in 1926 and enacting stricter laws to oversee the work of pathology laboratories and vaccine retailers. Zubeiri analyses at considerable length and in some detail the evolution of a deliberately skewed nuclear non-proliferation treaty regime designed to prevent the nuclear unarmed states from acquiring nuclear weapons even as it condones the activities of the five so-called ‘NPT-recognized’ nuclear weapon states, which have consistently ignored their obligations under NPT to undertake substantive nuclear disarmament.
The collection of essays edited by P.R. Chari, et al represents the views of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a think-tank propagating minimal deterrence, which last should not be confused with ‘minimum deterrence’. The latter concept, enshrined in the Indian nuclear doctrine, has in-built elasticity as far as the size and quality of the country’s nuclear arsenal is concerned – refer Section 4 of the doctrine text – and can accommodate a build-up of strategic forces as and when necessary. But ‘minimal deterrence’ admits of no such conceptual slack, as the thinking behind it seems to be rooted in the idea of ‘existential deterrence’ first mooted by McGeorge Bundy in the sixties but since then rendered obsolete by the advances in technology, like sensors and precision-guided munitions.
Even more than the minimum deterrence-wallahs, the minimalists apparently view deterrence as a magical outcome of states doing very little in the nuclear weapons arena other than coming into possession of a few basic atomic devices. In an attempt to lend credibility to their effort, they more or less doggedly stick to the lesser subcontinental India-Pakistan dyad than the more urgent nuclear strategics relating to the India-China competition and rivalry on the far bigger Asian stage. Thus, an Indian nuclear minimalist stance is justified on the basis of adequate deterrence (by retired Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, Rajesh Basrur, Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Karl-Heinz Kamp of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation), doctrine (by Raja Menon and Basrur), stability in South Asia (by Singh, Chari, Basrur, Tellis and Kamp), safety (by G. Balachandran), threat of terrorism (by Kamp), and of confidence building (by Singh and Rajen Harshe).
Nuclear minimalism may fit in with the present Indian rulers’ strategic myopia. But it is not convincing as a vehicle for the country’s legitimate ambitions, considering that advanced and high-yield nuclear and thermonuclear weapons with intercontinental delivery systems have always packed unmatched political value, leverage and utility, catapulted states to great power status, and otherwise dictated the rank ordering of nations. This is something the governments and strategic communities in the United States, Russia and China understand well but the contributors to this collection apparently don’t. Either that or most of them, for reasons known and unknown, would rather that India remain the perennial equal of, you guessed it, Pakistan and, generally, a third rate nuclear power, its capability to secure the high-value thermonuclear armaments fatally compromised by contrivances such as the underway deal with the US for ‘civil nuclear cooperation’ which, as their more recent writings show, is supported by most of the contributors to this volume.
FRAMING GEELANI, HANGING AFZAL: Patriotism in the Time of Terror by Nandita Haksar. Promilla and Co. Publishers in association with Bibliophile South Asia, Delhi, 2007.
REMEMBER 9/11. Images of the two planes crashing into the World Trade Towers, the crumbling buildings, people falling and jumping off the towers – to their death. Remember the shock of a world watching this live on TV, the disbelief that this could be happening turning to shock and then anger. And how so many of us, as we grieved with the US, went along, if not supported retributory action against those deemed responsible – the al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. From the ‘nation in danger’ to the ‘war against terror’, we not only acquiesced with a hardening of ethnic and religious stereotypes but also to a virtual dismantling of a regime of rights and freedoms accompanying the passage of new laws to help the state fight against a new enemy. We were complicit in the creation of a brave new world.
It is not that there were no dissenting voices questioning the emerging orthodoxy – what happened, how and why, who was responsible and what ought to be done. But evidently, the shock was too great, the need for action too intense. No wonder, so many of us came to agree that this was no time for critical carping, categorizing dissenters as unpatriotic.
The mood today is different as alternate versions of what happened make the rounds, winning new audiences. Whether or not the ‘truth’ ever surfaces, 9/11 will go down in history as not only a critical moment inaugurating the construction of a new world but equally a phase, albeit temporary, of a willing suspension of critical public reasoning.
Not quite in the same league, but with many similar consequences was 12/13, the day armed militants attacked the Indian Parliament. Though not live, all of us saw innumerable reruns of the attack on Parliament, the furious gun battles, the dead militants and security personnel. There was shock, anger and an outcry demanding tough action against those responsible. Amazingly, and in sharp contrast to their usual record, the Delhi Police in less than 48 hours claimed to have cracked the case, even apprehending four individuals deemed responsible – Mohammad Afzal, his cousin Shaukat Guru, Shaukat’s wife Afsan, and a Delhi University lecturer, S.A.R. Geelani.
Reams have been written on the Parliament attack case – the attack itself, the arrests, trial and conviction of the accused. Those interested may benefit from reading Nirmalangshu Mukherji’s December 13: Terror over Democracy. This, however, is a critical account. To date, we do not have a certified, official account, in part because the demand for a Parliamentary probe and White Paper have gone unheeded. It is worth remembering that though the designated court to try terrorism related cases pronounced all four accused guilty, sentencing Afzal and Geelani to death while handing out stiff sentences to Shaukat and Afsan, Geelani was subsequently exonerated by both the High and Supreme Court and the sentences against Shaukat and Afsan were reduced. Afzal though was held guilty. Currently, a plea to commute his death sentence is awaiting the President’s decision.
If despite the court verdicts and an intense campaign in sections of the media and the political class for exemplary action against the accused – all of whom had been pronounced guilty in the public mind well before even the first court judgement – doubts about the case continue to surface, credit needs to be given to the national campaign in defence of S.A.R. Geelani. Spearheaded by human rights lawyer and activist, Nandita Haksar, whose earlier ‘successes’ against the Assam Rifles for human rights abuses in the North East, or on behalf of Naga and Burmese nationalists are essential parts of human rights lore, the campaign involving both ‘personalities’ and many ‘unknowns’ was able to prise open space for alternative accounts and create sufficient doubt about the ‘official’ version. This, in these demanding times, is no mean achievement.
This somewhat extended backdrop may help explain why Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal is more than an important book; it is disturbing in the allusions it makes about our collective future as a liberal, secular, constitutional democracy. Written more in anguish than in anger as a series of ‘open’ letters, it revisits less the specifics of the case or the trials, though these do get requisite space, but more the presuppositions (biases?) with which even the dissenting radical intellectual-activists operate, in particular the ease with which we are willing to suspend the critical reasoning which we claim to exercise in matters of public interest. She targets not the usual cast of suspects that radicals focus on – Hindu nationalists, communalists, neo-liberal interlocutors and those responsible for national security. By focusing instead on those whose public intervention record we look upon with favour, she holds up a mirror to our deepest, often unstated, beliefs, in the process exposing the shallowness of our convictions.
December 13, probably, like other such ‘shocking’ episodes, may turn out to be a watershed, if only we engage with its many ramifications seriously. (It is, of course, equally likely that we as a people will merely put it behind us, preferring to forget than dwell on ugly events). Whether or not one agrees with the version that Nandita Haksar favours, it is difficult to deny that both the official and judicial accounts are unconvincing. So despite Nandita’s tendency to frequently go ‘over the top’ and Robert Ludlum like allude to ‘deep conspiracies’, as also her irritatingly moralizing and hectoring tone, the picture that emerges doesn’t bode well for Indian democracy. Every one – the investigating agencies, the judicial community, the political class, the media, and the intelligentsia – failed in demanding the exacting standards of justice that a modern, liberal democracy ought to conform to. Worse, far too many of us succumbed to the ‘demand for blood to satisfy the collective conscience of the nation.’
In some measure this may be because it was the Parliament which was attacked, that too in ‘public view’. The ‘accused’ were Kashmiri Muslims. Years of militancy and proxy war, whether for an independent Kashmir or for merger with Pakistan, has cast Kashmiri militants for most of us as anti-national. It is not surprising that so many of us are willing to believe the worst of them. This often holds true even for those who are aware of the Indian state’s shoddy record in militancy prone areas – widespread use of torture, framing innocents, even financing and creating ‘insurgent groups’ to discredit the struggles on the ground. This is why the open letters become so interesting, as much for what they say as to whom they are addressed. If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, widely regarded not just for his integrity but for his open apology for the Sikh massacres of 1984, is charged for not demanding a Parliamentary enquiry into December 13, jurist Upendra Baxi, whose labours in exposing state complicity in cases like the Bhopal gas tragedy are legion, is upbraided for preferring silence in this case, despite the evident miscarriage of justice, from disregarding of evidence to unfair trial procedures.
Equally instructive is the letter to Bipan Chandra, questioning his narrow interpretation of secularism and nationalism, which continually treats the struggles of smaller minority nationalities as divisive. Yet, it is the letter to Syed Bismillah, S.A.R. Geelani’s younger brother, a ‘believing’ Muslim trained at the Deoband seminary, which makes for the most poignant reading. For even as Nandita Haksar berates us for falling prey to the worst stereotype of a believing Muslim, she interrogates Bismillah’s faith in an exclusivist, communitarian construction of Islam which accords an unfair space to non-Muslims and women.
True, there are also the many others – those who participated in the campaigns, the lawyers who fought the cases despite hostility from their profession, the teachers who stood by and fought for Geelani notwithstanding the contrary stance of the officialdom and teacher unions, media entities that gave space to dissenting views, and, most of all the many unnamed who treated the ‘accused’ as friends and humans, entitled to the same rights and respect that we demand for ourselves. It is also worth reiterating that Geelani was pronounced ‘not guilty’ and that, barring Afzal, the sentences on others were reduced. Equally that, the higher courts passed strictures on the manner in which the cases had been prosecuted. Yet, the relative ease with which so many of us went along with (and continue to believe) media-created versions cannot but disturb.
Retaining a critical distance and subjecting the many discourses on crucial episodes, more so in situations of high emotional stress and anxiety, is rarely easy. To successfully contend with the tide, it is rarely sufficient to just poke holes in the arguments of the ‘enemy’; one cannot afford to fall prey to self-righteousness and deride potential allies for not quite meeting the standards demanded by revolutionary purity. Here Nandita Haksar has much to learn. One does not have to accept her version, agree with her assessment of various individuals or institutions, or even buy into her desired future. This reviewer does not. Yet, this is a book worth reading and thinking about. It forces us to look at ourselves, even though it does not always present a pretty picture.