Archive for November, 2007

A lesson in humility for the smug West

Many of the western values we think of as superior came from the East and our blind arrogance hurts our standing in the world

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About 100 miles south of Delhi, where I live, lie the ruins of the Mughal capital, Fateh-pur Sikri. This was built by the Emperor Akbar at the end of the 16th century. Here Akbar would listen carefully as philosophers, mystics and holy men of different faiths debated the merits of their different beliefs in what is the earliest known experiment in formal inter-religious dialogue.

Representatives of Muslims (Sunni and Shi’ite as well as Sufi), Hindus (followers of Shiva and Vishnu as well as Hindu atheists), Christians, Jains, Jews, Buddhists and Zoroastrians came together to discuss where they differed and how they could live together.

Muslim rulers are not usually thought of in the West as standard-bearers of freedom of thought; but Akbar was obsessed with exploring the issues of religious truth, and with as open a mind as possible, declaring: “No man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to any religion that pleases him.” He also argued for what he called “the pursuit of reason” rather than “reliance on the marshy land of tradition”.

All this took place when in London, Jesuits were being hung, drawn and quartered outside Tyburn, in Spain and Portu-gal the Inquisition was torturing anyone who defied the dogmas of the Catholic church, and in Rome Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Campo de’Fiori.

It is worth emphasising Akbar, for he – the greatest ruler of the most populous of all Muslim states – represented in one man so many of the values that we in the West are often apt to claim for ourselves. I am thinking here especially of Douglas Murray, a young neocon pup, who wrote in The Spectator last week that he “was not afraid to say the West’s values are better”, and in which he accused anyone who said to the contrary of moral confusion: “Decades of intense cultural rela-tivism and designer tribalism have made us terrified of passing judgment,” he wrote.

The article was a curtain-opener for an Intelligence Squared debate in which he and I faced each other, along with David Aaronovitch, Charlie Glass, Ibn Warraq and Tariq Ramadan, over the motion: “We should not be reluctant to assert the superiority of western values”. (The motion was eventually carried, I regret to say.)

Murray named western values as follows: the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, equality, and freedom of expression and conscience. He also argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the ethical source of these values.

Yet where do these ideas actually come from? Both Judaism and Christianity were not born in Washington or London, however much the Victorians liked to think of God as an Englishman. Instead they were born in Pales-tine, while Christianity received its intellectual superstructure in cities such as Antioch, Constanti-nople and Alexandria. At the Council of Nicea, where the words of the Creed were thrashed out in 325, there were more bishops from Persia and India than from western Europe.

Judaism and Christianity are every bit as much eastern religions as Islam or Buddhism. So much that we today value – universities, paper, the book, printing – were transmitted from East to West via the Islamic world, in most cases entering western Europe in the Middle Ages via Islamic Spain.

And where was the first law code drawn up? In Athens or London? Actually, no – it was the invention of Hammurabi, in ancient Iraq. Who was the first ruler to emphasise the importance of the equality of his subjects? The Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC, set down in stone basic freedoms for all his people, and did not exclude women and slaves, as Aristotle had done.

In the real world, East and West do not have separate and compartmentalised sets of values. Does a Midwestern Baptist have the same values as an urbane Richard Dawkins-read-ing atheist? Do Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama belong to the same ethical tradition as Osama Bin Laden?

In the East as in the West there is a huge variety of ethical systems, but surprisingly similar ideals, and ideas of good and evil. To cherry-pick your favourite universal humanistic ideals, and call them western, then to imply that their opposites are somehow eastern values is simply bigoted and silly, as well as unhistorical.

The great historian of the Crusades, Sir Steven Runciman, knew better. As he wrote at the end of his three-volume history: “Our civilisation has grown . . . out of the long sequence of interaction and fusion between Orient and Occident.” He is right. The best in both eastern and western civilisation come not from asserting your own superiority, but instead from having the humility to learn from what is good in others, as well as to recognise your own past mistakes. Ramming your ideas down the throats of others is rarely a productive tactic.

There are lessons here from our own past. European history is full of monarchies, dictatorships and tyrannies, some of which – such as those of Salazar, Tito and Franco – survived into the 1970s and 1980s. The relatively recent triumph of democracy across Europe has less to do with some biologically inherent western love of freedom, than with an ability to learn humbly from the mistakes of the past – notably the millions of deaths that took place due to western ideologies such as Marxism, fas-cism and Nazism.

These movements were not freak departures from form, so much as terrible expressions of the darker side of western civilisation, including our long traditions of antisemitism at home.

Alongside this we also have history of exporting genocide abroad in the worst excesses of western colonialism – which, like the Holocaust, comes from treating the nonwestern other as untermenschen, as savage and somehow subhuman.

For though we like to ignore it, and like to think of ourselves as paragons of peace and freedom, the West has a strong militaristic tradition of attacking and invading the countries of those we think of as savages, and of wiping out the less-developed peoples of four continents as part of our civilising mission. The list of western genocides that preceded and set the scene for the Holocaust is a terrible one.

The Tasmanian Aborigines were wiped out by British hunting parties who were given licences to exterminate this “inferior race” whom the colonial authorities said should be “hunted down like wild beasts and destroyed”. Many were caught in traps, before being tortured or burnt alive.

The same fate saw us exterminate the Caribs of the Caribbean, the Guanches of the Canary Islands, as well as tribe after tribe of Native Americans. The European slave trade forcibly abducted 15m Africans and killed as many more.

It was this tradition of colonial genocide that prepared the ground for the greatest western crime of all – the industrial extermination of 6m Jews whom the Nazis looked upon as an inferior, nonwestern and semitic intrusion in the Aryan West.

For all our achievements in and emancipating women and slaves, in giving social freedoms and human rights to the individual; for allthat is remarkable and beautiful in ourart, literature and science, our continuing tradition of arrogantly asserting this perceived superiority has led to all that is most shameful and self-de-feating in western history.

The complaints change – a hundred years ago our Victorian ancestors accused the Islamic world of being sensuous and decadent, with an overdeveloped penchant for sodomy; now Martin Amis attacks it for what he believes is its mass sexual frustration and homophobia. Only the sense of superiority remains the same. If the East does not share our particular sensibility at any given moment of history it is invariably told that it is wrong and we are right.

Tragically, this western tradition of failing to respect other cultures and treating the other as untermenschen has not completely died. We might now recognise that genocide is wrong, yet 30 years after the debacle of Vietnam and Cambodia and My Lai, the cadaver of western colonialism has yet again emerged shuddering from its shallow grave. One only has to think of the massacres of Iraqi civilians in in Falluja or the disgusting treatment meted out to the prisoners of Abu Ghraib to see how the cultural assertiveness of the neocons has brought these traditions of treating Arabs as subhuman back from the dead.

Yet the briefest look at the foreign policy of the Bush administration surely gives a textbook example of the futility of trying to impose your values and ideas – even one so noble as democracy – on another people down the barrel of a gun, rather than through example and dialogue.

In Iraq itself, we have succeeded in destroying a formerly prosperous and secular country, and creating the largest refugee problem in the modern Middle East: 4m Iraqis have now been forced abroad.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the US attempt to push democracy in the region has succeeded in turning Muslim opinion against its old client proxies – by and large corrupt, decadent monarchies and decaying nationalist parties. But rather than turning to liberal secular parties, as the neocons assumed they would, Muslims have everywhere lined up behind those parties that have most clearly been seen to stand up against aggressive US intervention in the region, namely the religious parties of political Islam.

Last week, the Islamic world showed us the sort of gesture that is needed at this time. In a letter addressed to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders, 138 prominent Muslim scholars from every sect of Islam urged Christian leaders “to come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions.” It will be interesting to see if any western leaders now reciprocate.

We have much to be proud of in the West; but it is in the arrogant and forceful assertion of the superiority of western values that we have consistently undermined not only all that is most precious in our civilisation, but also our own foreign policies and standing in the world. Another value, much admired in both East and West, might be a simple solution here: a little old-fashioned humility.

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@ William Dalrymple The Sunday Times, October 14, 2007. His new book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, published by Bloomsbury, has just been awarded the Duff Cooper Prize for history.  http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article2651452.ece

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Faith Communities in a Civil Society – Christian Perspectives

On September 11th, 1906, Mohandas Gandhi addressed a meeting of some 3,000 people in the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg to protest against the introduction of registration and fingerprinting for all Indians in South Africa – part of the first wave in the terrible history of legal racism in South Africa which ended at last in the final decade of the last century.  It was a Muslim in the audience, Haji Habib, who firstproposed that the decision for non-violent resistance to the legislation should be taken ‘in the name of God’. Gandhi stressed the great solemnity of such a form of words, but the meeting rose to affirm this as their will.  The satyagraha movement was born, the movement of ‘soul force’ whose central principle was that our behaviour must witness to truth whatever the cost – and that this witness to truth can never, of its very nature, involve  violence or a response to oppression that simply mirrors what has been done by the oppressor.  In Gandhi’s vision, Christ’s prohibition against retaliation came together with his own Hindu heritage to inspire a lifetime of absolutely consistent labour on behalf of this ‘soul power’; and on that day in Johannesburg, as at many other points in his life, Gandhi was wholeheartedly supported by his Muslim allies. 

The ironies don’t need to be spelled out today.  It is also the anniversary of an act of nightmare violence which has set in motion a further chain of retaliation, fear and misery.  In 1906, the convergence of traditions and disciplines of faith signalled the possibility of escaping from the calculations of ordinary political struggle, the world in which we simply go on imitating the behaviour that has damaged us inthe insane hope that we might somehow arrive at a point where someone has a sufficient monopoly of the power to generate fear to guarantee stability.  A hundred and one years on, that system of political calculation seems stronger than ever in much of our world; and worse still, religious communities are regularly blamed for its persistence and power.  If we ask whether the coming together of religious groups works today as a sign of hope, the response from a good part of the educated public is not very encouraging.  Part of our agenda, then, both in the working of the Christian-Muslim Forum and in the discussions of this meeting, has to be to recover that sense of a convergent belief in the possibility of liberation from the systems of violent struggle, in a way that genuinely opens doors in our world. 

Gandhi’s own conversion to a consistent philosophy of non-violence was, he tells us in My Experiments with Truth (p.195), greatly assisted by an insight that brought together legal training with his study of the Gita: ‘I understood the Gita teaching of non-possession to mean that those who desired salvation should act like the trustee, who, though having control over great possessions, regards not an iota of them as his own.’ This offers a very useful way in to the question of what it is that makes or ought to make the perspective of religious faith liberatingly distinctive in human society – both in the sense Gandhi intended and in a much wider and more radical sense.  Gandhi is reflecting on the emphasis in the Bhagavad-Gita on detachment: our natural or instinctive way of operating in the world is to imagine ourselves as controlling both our own destiny and the conditions in which we live, so that we struggle for the conditions that promise us such control.  But the divine imperative is that our actions should be determined not by this but by the fixed resolve to act in accordance with the truth – that is, with the truth of who and what he actually are both in society and in the universe itself.  When we have learned to act in this way, we are free from fear; we give up the anxious effort to master our circumstances by force.  Who we are and what we have come to us from God, and what they communicate to us of God’s goodness can never be lost; so it is possible for us to see both who we  are and what we have as given for the sake of others.  Hence we are trustees: we own nothing absolutely, but are commissioned to communicate to others in spiritual and in directly practical ways the assurance that God has given us. 

Gandhian satyagraha is thus rooted in an attitude which, in his eyes, should be fundamental to all religious practice and belief worth the name, an attitude that relativizes the claim of the self to absolute possession or absolute control.  But it does not entail – as the superficial observer might think – absolute passivity or the acceptance of injustice; as Gandhi’s witness so consistently shows, it is rather that it dictates the way in which we resist.  We do not resist in such a way that we appear to be seeking the same kind of power as is now injuring or frustrating us.  We do not imitate anything except the truth: our model is the divine communication of what is good.  But beyond this obvious principle is the further point which Gandhi implies but does not fully state: belief itself is not a possession, something acquired by the ego that will henceforth satisfy the ego’s needs for security and control.  To believe in God is to be a ‘trustee’ of God’s truth.  My belief is not a thing I own; I might say, truthfully enough, that it ‘owns’ me, that I am at its service, not that it is at mine. When I claim truth for my religious convictions, it is not a claim that my opinion or belief is superior, but a confession that I have resolved to be unreservedly at the service of the reality that has changed my world and set me free from the enslavement of struggle and rivalry.  To witness to this in the hope that others will share it is not an exercise in conquest, in signing up more adherents to my party, but simply the offer of a liberation and absolution that has been gratuitously offered to me.  When Gandhi reminded his Johannesburg audience that a promise made in the name of God was a serious matter, he was underlining for them the fact that commitment to God in their work for justice involved them in an act of renunciation in the name of truth, the renunciation of any style of living and acting that simply reproduced the ordinary anxieties and exchanges of force that constitute the routine of human society. 

Now not all of us are going to agree about how far the claims of Gandhi’s legacy extend, how far he was able to see their full implications within his own Indian context or how they are to be implemented in our contemporary setting.  But if we are asking about the place of religious commitment in modern civil society, it seems to me that these aspects of his vision of satyagraha are a very suggestive starting-point.  What he is asserting is that the religious witness is at its most clearly distinctive in society when it most plainly declares itself answerable to an order quite beyond the balances and negotiations of social conflict and its containments; and when it thus renounces the claim to have a place among others in the social complex. 

This is, I grant, a startling way of putting it; surely what any religious believer wants is to have the voice of faith heard within the pluralist debate, to have a guaranteed place at the table?  Surely that’s why we are discussing the whole question of faith and civil society and why we want to answer once and for all the reproach that religion is a dangerous and destabilizing presence in our culture? Well, yes; but the point which Gandhi invites us to consider is that we shall persuade our culture about this only when religion ceases to appear as yet another human group hungry for security, privilege and the liberty to enforce its convictions.  To have faith, Gandhi might say, is to hold something in trust for humanity – a vision of who and what humanity is in relation to a truth that does not depend on worldly victory.  And to witness to a truth that does not depend on worldly victory – a truth that, in Plato’s terms, is not just the interest of the strong or successful – implies that we do not battle for its survival or triumph in the way that interests and parties do in the world around us.  In a paradox that never ceases to challenge and puzzle both believers and unbelievers, it is when we are free from the passion to be taken seriously, to be protected or indeed to be obeyed that we are most likely to be heard.  The convincing witness to faith is one for whom safety and success are immaterial, and one for whom therefore the exercise of violent force against another of different conviction is ruled out.  And the nature of an authentically religious community is made visible in its admission of dependence on God – which means both that it does not fight for position and power and that it will not see itself as existing just by the license of human society.  It proclaims both its right to exist on the basis of the call of God and its refusal to enforce that right by the routine methods of human conflict. 

All this is, for the Christian believer, rooted in the gospel narrative and in the reflections of the first Christians.  Jesus himself in his trial before Pilate says that his royal authority does not derive from anything except the eternal truth which he himself embodies as the incarnate Word of God; only if his authority depended on some other source would his servants fight (Jn 18.36-7). Earthly authority needs to reinforce itself in conflict and dominance; if the community of Jesus’ followers reinforced itself in such a way, it would be admitting that its claims were derived from this human order.  The realm, the basileia, of God, to which Jesus’ acts and words point is not a region within human society any more than it is a region within human geography; it is that condition of human relationships, public and private, where the purpose of God is determinative for men and women and so becomes visible in our history – a condition that can be partially realized in the life of the community around Jesus but waits for its full embodiment in a future only God knows.  And for the first and second generations of believers, the community in which relation with the Risen Jesus transforms all relationships into the exchange of the gifts given by Jesus’ Spirit has come to be seen as the historical foretaste of this future, as it is here and now the embodiment of Jesus’ own identity – the Body of Christ – to the extent it shows this new quality of relation.  

The Church is, in this perspective, the trustee of a vision that is radical and universal, the vision of a social order that is without fear, oppression , the violence of exclusion and the search for scapegoats because it is one where each recognizes their dependence on all and each is seen as having an irreplaceable gift for all.  The Church cannot begin to claim that it consistently lives by this; its failure is all too visible, century by century.  But its credibility does not hang on its unbroken success; only on its continued willingness to be judged by what it announces and points to, the non-competitive, non-violent order of God’s realm, centered upon Jesus and accessible through commitment to him.  Within the volatile and plural context of a society that has no single frame of moral or religious reference, it makes two fundamental contributions to the common imagination and moral climate.  The first is that it declares that, in virtue of everyone’s primordial relation to God (made in God’s image), the dignity of every person is non-negotiable: each has a unique gift to give, each is owed respect and patience and the freedom to contribute what is given them. This remains true whether we are speaking of a gravely disabled person – when we might be tempted to think they would be better off removed from human society, or of a suspected terrorist – when we might be tempted to think that torture could be justified in extracting information, or of numberless poor throughout the world – when we should be more comfortable if we were allowed to regard them as no more than collateral damage in the steady advance of prosperity for our ‘developed’ economies. 

But the point of this first contribution, as it affects civil society, is this: the presence of the Church, not as a clamorous interest group but as a community confident of its rootedness in something beyond the merely political, expresses a vision of human dignity and mutual human obligation which, because of its indifference to popular success or official legitimation, poses to every other community a special sort of challenge.  ‘Civil society’ is the recognized shorthand description for all those varieties of human association that rest on willing co-operation for the sake of social goods that belong to the whole group, not just to any individual or faction, and which are not created or wholly controlled by state authority.  As such, their very existence presupposes persons who are able to take responsibility for themselves and to trust one another in this enterprise.  The presence of the Christian community puts to civil society the question of where we look for the foundation of such confidence about responsibility and trustworthiness: does this set of assumptions about humanity rest on a fragile human agreement, on the decision of human beings to behave as if they were responsible, or on something deeper and less contingent, something to which any and every human society is finally answerable? Is the social creativity which civil society takes for granted part of a human ‘birthright’?

The second major contribution made by the presence of the Church is what we might in shorthand call universalism – not in the technical theological sense, but simply meaning the conviction that every human agent is involved in either creating or frustrating a common good that relates to the whole human race.  In plainer terms, we cannot as Christians settle down with the conclusion that what is lastingly and truly good for any one individual or group is completely different from what is lastingly and truly good for any other.  Justice is not local in an exclusive sense or limited by circumstances; there are no classes or subgroups of humanity who are entitled to less of God’s love; and so there are no classes entitled to lower levels of human respect or compassion or service.  And since an important aspect of civil society is the assumption that human welfare is not achieved by utilitarian generalities imposed from above but requires active and particularized labour, the fact of the Christian community’ presence once again puts the question of how human society holds together the need for action appropriate to specific and local conditions with the lively awareness of what is due to all people everywhere.  This is not only about a vision of universal human justice as we normally think of it, but also applies to how we act justly towards those who are not yet born – how we create a just understanding of our relation to the environment. 

In short, the significance of the Church for civil society is in keeping alive a concern both to honour and to justify the absolute and non-negotiable character of the human vision of responsibility and justice that is at work in all human association for the common good. It is about connecting the life of civil society with its deepest roots, acknowledged or not.  The conviction of being answerable to God for how we serve and respect God’s human and non-human creation at the very least serves to ensure that the human search for shared welfare and responsible liberty will not be reduced to a matter of human consensus alone.  And if the Church – or any other community of faith – asks of society the respect that will allow it to be itself, it does so not because it is anxious about its survival (which is in God’s hands), but because it asks the freedom to remind the society or societies in which it lives of their own vulnerability and their need to stay close to some fundamental questions about the nature of the humanity they seek to nourish.  Such a request from Church to society will be heard and responded to, of course, only if the Church genuinely looks as though it were speaking for more than a self-protecting set of ‘religious’ concerns; if it appears as concerned for something more than self-defense.  To return to what was said earlier, it needs to establish its credentials as ‘non-violent’ – that is, as not contending against other kinds of human group for a share in ordinary political power.  To put it in severely condensed form, the Church is most credible when least preoccupied with its security and most engaged with the human health of its environment; and to say ‘credible’ here is not to say ‘popular’, since engagement with this human health may run sharply against a prevailing consensus.  Recent debates on euthanasia offer a case in point; and even here, it is surprisingly often claimed that the churches are concerned here only to sustain their control of human lives – which sadly illustrates what all too many in our society have come to expect of the Church. 

I have spoken so far, as I was invited to do, about the Christian understanding of the role of faith in civil society, and have attempted to connect it with some of the most fundamental elements of the Christian revelation – the absolute difference of the power and action of God as against human power (embodied in the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion as the climax of God’s incarnate work), and the universal promise offered in the Resurrection (embodied in the mission of the Church as mediating Christ’s living presence).  In doing this, of course, it is impossible not to be aware of the distinct ways in which other religious traditions understand their role in relation to the ambient society.  As many have observed, Islam takes as central the conviction that the law and public practice of a society ought ideally to conform to revealed law; Muslims are often puzzled by the Christian insistence on separation between the religious and the political, and it might well be thought that the vision outlined here is so antithetical to the Islamic frame of reference that there is no possible convergence.  

Yet there are three considerations that should make us hesitate before settling for this conclusion.  The first is that, in understanding divine law as universal and equally applicable to all, Islam, like Christianity, refuses to make faith either subservient to the social order or simply an aspect among others of social life: it is something that offers transformation to the entire range of human activity.  The second is that Islam itself recognizes the reality of potential conflict between political power and faithful obedience to revealed law; nothing in Islamic tradition suggests that there could be a guarantee of fidelity to God simply through formal allegiance to Islam by the ruling authority, and the legitimacy of passive resistance to unjust authority is acknowledged.  And third, the Qur’anic dictum that there is no compulsion in religion is the foundation for any Muslim account of the imperative of non-violence.  This stands, of course, alongside the no less significant tradition of the imperative to jihad as the duty to  defend the Muslim community wherever its integrity and survival are at risk; but the question which is bound to arise in our day is whether, given the complex realities of today’s world, there would ever now be the kind of situation which would justify the same sort of defensive jihad that was envisaged in the earliest days of Islam – or whether those commentators are right who insist that the only jihad now justifiable is the struggle against evil in the heart and the resistance to a culture of cruelty and indifference to suffering, a struggle which of its nature must be non-violent. 

I look forward to hearing reflection on this and related issues; but my chief point is that the convergence that occurred on this day in Johannesburg in 1906 was not an illusory or opportunistic affair.  Both our faiths bring to civil society a conviction that what they embody and affirm is not a marginal affair; both claim that their legitimacy rests not on the license of society but on God’s gift.  Yet for those very reasons, they carry in them the seeds of a non-violent and non-possessive witness.  They cannot be committed to violent struggle to prevail at all costs, because that would suggest a lack of faith in the God who has called them; they cannot be committed to a policy of coercion and oppression because that would again seek to put the powerof the human believer or the religious institution in the sovereign place that only God’s reality can occupy.  Because both our traditions have a history scarred by terrible betrayals of this, we have to approach our civil society and its institutions with humility and repentance.  But I hope that this does not mean we shall surrender what is most important – that we have a gift to offer immeasurably greater than our own words or records, the gift of a divine calling and a renewal of all that is possible form human beings. 

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(c) Address by Rowan Williams – The Archbishop of Canterbury to the Christian Muslim Forum at Kings Collage, Cambridge – circulated among South Asia Contact group on 11 September 2007.

Civil Society, Citizenship & Subaltern Counterpublics in Post-colonial India

ABSTRACT: Taking into account the growing social mobilizations and large-scale transformations in the society and polity in last few decades, the paper looks into the issues of how the ‘civil public’ gets transformed into, what Habermas calls, the ‘political public’? How do the marginalized and subaltern groups in civil society use the language of rights to decenter domination, assert selfhood and chart out democratic discourses affecting the politics of everyday social life? And, how the morphology of the public sphere, which was restricted among the elites as an agency of upholding capitalist state hegemony (Gramsci) instead of mediating between civil society and the state (Habermas), has gone through a metamorphosis over time? Addressing these questions, the paper argues that the post-colonial welfare state in India which assumed the role of provider of social services created a mass of depoliticized citizenry incapable of their own social reproduction. The rolling back of the welfare state from the socio-economic sphere and the penetration of market mechanisms carried serious implications for the public and political life of the nation. This led to the assertion of right based mobilizations at the grassroots level (democratization) which had significant effects on liberal democracy and local governance in India. India during the same period also witnessed the upsurge of communal and sectarian movements or what Radhika Desai (2004) calls systematic ‘saffronization’ of state and civil society. Despite of the existence of such uncivil social elements within the civil society, the ‘subaltern counterpublics’ have been successful in carving out a space for themselves and widening the scope of democratic participation. The potential of the subaltern classes and their ideologies of discontent and resistance in reshaping the state have prevented the bourgeois in instituting its hegemony over civil society. The legitimacy of democracy no longer depends on the hegemony of the elites but on ‘the politics of the governed’.

civil-society-and-subaltern-counterpublics-in-india.pdf

Midnight’s Citizens

India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy
by Ramachandra Guha
688pp, Macmillan, £25

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It’s in the nature of nations to be addicted to their own histories. Older, pre- national communities, one imagines, occupied themselves with mythology. The secular nation, agog, rehearses its history, the very reasons and outcomes of its existence, to itself. What’s common to both activities is the endless familiarity of the subject-matter to the audience. It’s safe to assume that very few people in a group of devotees listening to, say, the Indian epic Ramayana being read out would not have heard it before. It’s equally prudent to assume that almost all the Indian readers of Ramachandra Guha’s capacious history of democratic India would be familiar with a great deal of the story. What is it, then, that gives myths and national histories their appeal?

In mythic retelling, it is repetition itself, accompanied by improvisatory flourishes, that transfixes the audience by returning it to known terrain. Historical narrative, too, depends on familiarity enlivened by interpretative freshness and the surprise of new archival research; but there’s also, at times, something else. Guha reminds us, more than once, that it’s the historian’s job to tell us what happened, and not spend too much time speculating on what might have. Yet it is precisely the possibility of what might have happened but didn’t that gives an immediate but inexhaustible magic to some of the 20th century’s most triumphal historical narratives. Both the American film-maker embarking on the new second world war movie and the Englishwoman wearing a poppy are thinking, yet again, of events that took place many years ago, but also, in some hidden but urgent way, of the world that might have come into existence had the other side won.

Similarly, a “What if?” animates Guha’s reconstruction of the past 60 years of Indian history. Since 1947, the possibility of disaster has taken the form of certain questions and crises: “What if India were to disintegrate; or to become a totalitarian society; or a military dictatorship; or a Hindu state?” All these are scenarios that appeared plausible, at one time or another, to both the Indian and foreign observer. Guha tells us what happened elegantly, sometimes doggedly: but it’s by constantly implying what might have, while disavowing it with the professional historian’s gesture, that he brings his copious material to life. Guha’s book reminds us of what some other recent studies of India have been getting at, but without this civilised single-mindedness: that it’s not just the story of independence that’s worthy of being counted as one of the great triumphal stories of 20th-century world history; that the survival and perhaps the flourishing of free India counts legitimately as another. Once this fact is acknowledged, its political and cultural consequences, I’m sure Guha will agree, need to be viewed with suspicion.

Guha begins at the beginning, sketching the indeterminate setting for the project, with Nehru’s poetic ruminations on India’s “tryst with destiny” on the stroke of midnight. (Has any modern politician’s speech, except Churchill’s wartime orations, had as much currency?) Quickly, the demons of which the Indian psyche has still not exorcised itself appear: the irony of a secular Muslim gentleman, the pork-eating spoilsport Jinnah, being responsible for creating Pakistan. Then Partition, the original sin of our creation-myth, for which blame is apportioned to a variety of people – Jinnah, the British, Nehru, Gandhi – but more commonly to the ordinary Muslim citizen. There’s the nightmare of Kashmir, a continual challenge to the moral high ground that India, with its public posture of post-colonial certitude and humanitarian dignity, has tried to occupy since independence. Guha also brings back to us, as he must, the border dispute with China, which led to a small war that India lost, with deep repercussions for the self-esteem of a generation of Indians.

And yet, despite Kashmir, and various forms of governmental wrongdoing and blunders, the Indian middle class and intelligentsia, unlike their counterparts in Japan, England or Pakistan, have never really known what it means to inhabit a morally uneasy position. There’s a mysterious surplus to being Indian, a feelgood element comparable only to the sense of self that Americans possessed until Vietnam. Visitors wonder at how happy the poor are in India, putting it down to ancient reserves of spirituality; equally wondrous is how impervious the Indian secular middle class is, despite all sorts of setbacks, to the sense of guilt, of being morally compromised. This has less to do with spirituality than with the unassailable constitutional promise of what it means to be an Indian. The absence of moral ambiguity means that there sometimes seems to be very little critical thinking in India, only one kind of debate, a nationalism in various forms, repeated infinitely. With a few exceptions, Indians don’t know how to fashion eloquence out of a sense of being wrong or having wronged, at least not without the unmistakable timbre of self-congratulation.

There are reasons for that tenacious feelgood experience. Guha delineates them effectively: the establishment of the machinery and the miracle of the elections (there’s an excellently orchestrated chapter on how the first one happened); the creation of provinces along linguistic lines (which should have led to conflict) by forgotten historical figures; the survival of democracy and free speech in spite of poverty, corruption, sectarian strife, Indira Gandhi and, more recently, the waning of power at the centre and the rise of an opportunistic federalism. Every dubious development has a positive outcome; it’s a story of incorrigible resilience and charm. The first two-thirds of the book, where Guha is describing the consolidation of the shaky state, are, notwithstanding the deluge of facts, surprisingly absorbing; by quoting frequently and shrewdly, Guha allows us to eavesdrop on the multiplicity and richness of the conversation – between politicians, writers, civil servants, well-wishers, detractors – within which change took place.

One thing the book lacks, despite its comprehensiveness, is a sense of interiority. It’s hardly alone among recent Indian histories in this regard. Guha’s understanding of the secular basis for Indian democracy is a constitutional one; that is, the “secular” is a product, in India, of ideals, laws and institutions articulated and validated by the constitution. But the “secular” in India is not only a political construct; it is a cultural space. The domain of culture was inhabited and produced by writers and artists and their audience from the early 19th century onwards; it’s a domain that comprises the interior life of Indian secularism. In this sense, independence and the Nehruvian era that followed are not really the beginning of a history, but the last phase in the story of Indian humanism. From the 1980s onwards, the secular middle class and its culture is completely redefined; the parameters for a new free-market understanding of “Indianness” are put in place. As it happens, the single chapter Guha devotes to culture, or “entertainment”, as he calls it, is the weakest one in the book, with Wikipedia-like accounts of cultural achievements; it attempts to place culture in the constitutional idea of secularism – as providing instances of pluralism and fellow-feeling – but doesn’t locate the constitutional in the interior life that culture represents.

The epilogue, “Why India Survives” (echoing RK Narayan’s unflappable assurance to Naipaul in the 60s: “India will go on”), is a strangely moving coda, and clarifies the country’s peculiar appeal. At one point, Guha mentions he’s “speaking as a historian rather than as citizen”; but allowing the historian to be in commerce with citizenship is what provides the book with impetus, and gives it its most palpable strength. Guha, as a citizen, has been “exasperated” by India, but, in the light of historical evidence, has been won over by it. This mixture of distance and surrender is fairly emblematic of why many middle-class Indians continue to invest themselves, emotionally, in the country; it’s quite distinct from patriotism. To suggest the ambiguity of his own relationship with the country of his birth, and also his utter investment in it, Guha has often in the past used some oddball Englishman of distinction who’s lived in India or thought about it as a metaphor: Verrier Elwin, EP Thompson. In his epilogue, Guha invokes the biologist JBS Haldane, who, moved by the “wonderful experiment” India had embarked on, decided to become an “Indian citizen”. Guha’s book reminds us that the citizenly pride that permeates it is not incompatible with judgment, hindsight, intelligence and distance; that citizenship is not a natural thing, but that it is, in some cases, inevitable.

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@ Amit Chaudhuri The Guardian; Saturday April 21, 2007 http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2061321,00.html

INDIA AFTER GANDHI

INDIA AFTER GANDHI The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. By Ramachandra Guha. Illustrated. 893 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $34.95.

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Late in “A Suitable Boy,” Vikram Seth’s fictional panorama of early 1950s India, the difficult but decent politician Mahesh Kapoor receives advice from an underling: “We should think above divisions, splits, cliques! … This is India … the country where faction was invented before the zero. If even the heart is divided into four parts can you expect us Indians to divide ourselves into less than 400?”

This statement, equal parts plea and diagnosis, only begins to describe the challenge confronting modern-day India. As Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Indian leader of the Muslim League, said ruefully in a 1940 speech, seven years before he founded Pakistan: “The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs and literature. They neither intermarry, nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations.” To say that India is riven by myriad factions and castes and, more fundamentally, divided between two religions is to describe a particularly vicious curse.

One of the achievements of Ramachandra Guha’s deeply felt new history is that the author remains acutely aware of both the truths and falsehoods contained in Jinnah’s remark. A visitor to the world’s second most populous country can, without much effort, witness nasty and sectarian politicking in New Delhi or Mumbai. And the consequences — vicious religious rioting, scars on both India’s landscape and her people — are all too visible. Yet Hindus and Muslims do dine in one another’s homes, and they play on the same cricket teams. Guha’s central aim is to register these discordant notes, and for the most part he succeeds admirably.

“India After Gandhi” begins with the British, who after years of resisting Indian self-government on the grounds that the country was both too mature (“much too old to learn that business,” Kipling remarked) and too young (“they are still infants,” one colonialist said), abruptly quit the subcontinent in 1947. Gandhi was murdered less than six months later by a Hindu extremist, and millions were uprooted during the partition of India and Pakistan, many of them killed in religious violence. The new Indian state faced the dual challenges of integrating its remaining Muslim population and appeasing its Hindu majority.

Much of what was accomplished in the next 15 years was due to the popularity and will of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Despite enormous obstacles within his own Congress Party, Nehru set out to ensure more rights for women and the downtrodden. Guha expertly traces Nehru’s leadership in the writing of India’s Constitution, where legislators overcame potentially fatal disagreements over issues like what language the document would appear in. The finished product, which Guha refers to as a liberal, humanist credo, not only protected numerous basic rights but also provided reservations for “untouchables.”

Some scholars, Sunil Khilnani among them, have argued that by identifying caste as an organizing principle in Indian society, Nehru and his allies inadvertently laid the groundwork for a more schismatic political culture, greater discrimination against Muslims and eventually, the success of the Hindu right. Guha, who is perceptive about both the hardships faced by Muslims over the past 60 years and the caste-based conflicts that endure to this day, disappointingly declines to address these charges. Rather, he implies that Nehru did the best he could under the circumstances to prevent further splits. His success with the Constitution, as well as his support for bills that raised the status of Hindu women and altered unfair property laws, are just some of the ways in which he had a positive impact on India’s young democracy. Guha paints a convincing portrait of Nehru’s good political sense (if never really giving us much insight into his personality).

Still, his long tenure had its share of shortcomings. The prime minister’s self-described “nonaligned” stance, brought about by an understandable disgust with imperialism, certainly helped India avoid some of the nastier elements of the cold war. But double standards abounded: It was one thing to criticize the Anglo-French-Israeli designs on the Suez Canal, and quite another to keep a public silence when Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary the following month. Some years later, India found itself unprepared for a border war with China that had long been percolating. Guha argues persuasively that Nehru, the old anticolonialist, ignored China’s sensitivity about the border, which the Chinese saw as an illegitimate boundary drawn by the British.

Nehru’s most unfortunate legacy, however, was the family he bequeathed to his country. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, became prime minister in 1966, less than two years after his death. The resolve she displayed in supporting East Pakistan’s fight for independence led both to an enormous increase in her popularity and to the creation of Bangladesh. Then, as now, the American government invested a good deal of support in a Pakistani dictator (Yahya Khan, at the time), with diminishing returns and, in this case, tragic consequences. An angry Nixon, who needed Khan’s help in “opening” China, would refer to Gandhi as “the bitch” and Indians as “no goddamn good.”

It was particularly tragic, then, that she used her new strength to try to legitimate authoritarianism. The woman who had once told Americans that if democracy was good for them, it would also be good for the people of East Pakistan, was now saying that democracy guaranteed only mediocrity. Guha writes that Gandhi’s frustration and contempt for democratic procedure had been “manifested early, for instance, in the packing of the civil service, the judiciary and the Congress Party with individuals committed to the prime minister.” In 1975 she declared a state of emergency, restricting civil liberties and abolishing judicial independence. Illegal arrests and forced sterilizations in the name of population control were overseen by her son Sanjay.

Gandhi lifted the state of emergency in 1977, and when she was beaten at the polls a few months later, many of India’s democratic institutions were restored. Still, she won re-election in 1980 before being assassinated four years later. One journalist wrote that with her death India faced a “period of prolonged uncertainty,” a conclusion, Guha says, that “provided further proof of the late prime minister’s success in undermining institutions that stood between her and the nation.” A second son, Rajiv, took over after her death, and although he proved much less authoritarian than his mother, his weaknesses helped pave the way for the rise of the Hindu right in the 1990s. Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party is now back in power, however, and it is led by, of all people, Rajiv’s Italian-born widow, Sonia.

In present-day India, in a city like Mumbai, it is hard not to be struck by the optimism of a burgeoning middle class, people who speak glowingly of relocated Western technology companies and who serve as a counterpoint to American politicians complaining about outsourced jobs. Still, the city is now governed by Shiv Sena, a reactionary Hindu party that scorns not only Muslims but also Hindus from other parts of the country. Moreover, the unwillingness of some Muslims in India to disclose their religion even to friends and colleagues is a clear sign that something is seriously amiss. Guha terms modern-day India a “populist” democracy, which is probably as good a term as any. The question he leaves unanswered is how the country will be able to overcome crushing poverty and overpopulation without exacerbating religious tensions and imperiling its already strained environment. Guha would probably say that India’s hope lies in the strength of its democratic institutions, which have shown impressive and surprising resilience. We can only hope he is right.

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@ Isaac Chotiner has written for The Times, The New Republic and other publications. The New York Times, 26 August 2007; http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/books/review/Chotiner-t.html

Cuba Libre

My Life
by Fidel Castro, with Ignacio Ramonet, translated by Andrew Hurley
736pp, Allen Lane, £25

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 “When the Soviet Union and the socialist camp disappeared,” Fidel Castro tells Ignacio Ramonet, editor of what is in effect both Castro’s autobiography and political testament, “no one would have wagered one cent on the survival of the Cuban revolution.” Even the Cuban president’s fiercest critics would find it hard to disagree with that. The catastrophic withdrawal of Soviet support in the 1990s and the overnight loss of Cuba’s main markets and suppliers plunged the Caribbean island into a grim period of retrenchment, known euphemistically as the “special period”.

In Miami, the heirs of the grisly US-backed dictator Fugencio Batista prepared to return in triumph to reclaim the farms, factories and bordellos that Castro, Che Guevara and their followers closed or expropriated after they fought their way to power in 1959. The US government tightened the screws on their economic blockade and around the world both sympathisers and enemies waited for the Cuban regime to follow the example of its east European counterparts, bow to the global triumph of capitalism and embrace the end of history.

More than 15 years later, they’re still waiting. In defiance of the laws of political gravity, Cuba has rebuilt its shattered economy, held on to its independence, stepped back from the most damaging social compromises it had been forced to make and used Castro’s illness to begin the leadership handover outsiders assumed would never happen or would lead to precipitate collapse. Meanwhile, the leftward tide across Latin America and the consolidation of the Chávez government in Venezuela has thrown Cuba a political and economic lifeline, as has the growing economic muscle of China.

In the light of such a remarkable comeback – and given Castro’s history of survival against ridiculous odds, from the attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953 and the ensuing guerrilla campaign in the Sierra Maestra to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 – perhaps it’s not surprising that the world’s longest-serving president places such emphasis on “subjective factors” in revolutionary politics in this extraordinary account of his life and convictions. If ever there were a case of triumph of the will over objective adversity, the Cuban experience epitomises it.

Of course, the nature of that triumph remains the focus of a sharp global ideological contest, far out of proportion to Cuba’s size or strategic significance. In the past couple of weeks, what Castro calls “the empire” was outvoted by 184 votes to four in the UN general assembly over the annual demand for an end to its embargo, as George Bush openly called on the Cuban military to support an uprising against a “dying” regime. In Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, one writer ludicrously branded Castro “another version of the tyrant that he replaced in 1959”, while he is routinely dismissed as a cold war relic with nothing to say to what he himself describes as this “decisive century” for the human race.

What is striking from the hundred hours of conversations with Le Monde Diplomatique editor Ramonet which make up this book is, on the contrary, the Cuban president’s capacity to reinvent himself and his undimmed focus on contemporary struggles. Far from being beached by history, Castro has in his final years provided a vital link between the socialist and communist experiences of the 20th century and the new movements against neoliberal globalisation and imperialism that have taken root in Latin America and elsewhere in the 21st.

Which is not to say that the veteran revolutionary is in any way reluctant to hold forth on the conflagrationary events and personalities he has been been involved with, from his earliest days on his father’s sugar plantation to his round-the-clock efforts to rescue Chávez during the abortive coup in Venezuela five years ago. There is a gripping, almost cinematic quality to Castro’s recollections of some of the most dramatic episodes – under fire in the mountains with Guevara in the 50s; his chilling exchanges with Khrushchev on the brink of thermonuclear war in 1962; hands-on negotiations with US-indulged hijackers in 2003.

Just as revealing from the perspective of today’s politics are his self-critical comments on issues such as Cuba’s changing approach to gay rights (“homosexuals were most certainly the victims of discrimination”); religion (“I consider myself largely responsible” for excluding believers from the Communist party); and racism (“we were pretty ignorant about the phenomenon”). Ramonet has been attacked for being uncritical – slightly absurdly since this is supposed to be Castro’s book, which the man himself edited from his hospital bed – but he in fact presses the Cuban president on pretty well every controversial question, from caudillismo and dictatorship to press freedom and capital punishment.

Castro has never been a political theorist – Che’s ideological arguments in the early 60s over planning and the market seem to have left him slightly bemused – but his speculations about the future of socialism are tantalising. He describes himself as a Marxist and Leninist (as well as an ethical “Martí-an” after José Martí) and is convinced the human race will not survive under capitalism, but also asks: “What is Marxism? What is socialism? They’re not well defined.” He concedes that the Cuban revolutionaries may have “tried to go too far too fast”, and speculates about what a restoration of capitalism in Cuba would mean, worrying about Cuba’s failure to break the link between educational achievement and family background. “Building a new society is much harder than it might appear,” he says.

For some, Cuba’s resistance to multi-party elections, its clampdown on those who work with the US against the regime, its shortages and bureaucracy mark Castro down as a failed dictator, even if the only prisoners tortured and held without trial on the island are in the US base at Guantánamo. But for millions across the world, Cuba’s resistance to US domination, its internationalist record in Africa and Latin America, its achievements in health and education and its pursuit of an indepen-dent, anti-capitalist course remain an inspirational point of reference. Whatever happens after Castro has gone, this book will provide an indispensable perspective on that record.

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@ The Guardian, November 10, 2007 http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/biography/0,,2208414,00.html

University Ranking 2007

The increasing internationalization of universities is one of the emerging themes of recent years, through strategic global partnerships, joint teaching and research initiatives and increased international student recruitment activities. The THES-QS World University Rankings 2007 reflects the internationalization of higher education around the world, with 27 universities from 14 different countries entering the top 200 for the first time.  

Top 10: The UK and USA still dominate – Harvard University, Cambridge, Oxford and Yale retain the top four positions for the second year. University College London and Chicago join the top 10 for the first time.  

Top 50: The addition of the Netherlands sees 12 countries featured in the top 50 compared to 11 in 2006. New entrants include; Brown University, Bristol, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Osaka, Boston, Amsterdam.  

Top 100: The top 100 sees the number of Asian universities increase to 13 (12 in 2006) but the number of European Universities dropped to 35 (41 in 2006). North America strengthened to 43 Universities (37 in 2006).  

Top 200: Universities from 28 different countries represented in the top 200.  

Increases in International Faculty: 143 of the top 200 Universities reported an increase in their percentage of international faculty to total faculty.  

Increases in International Students: 137 of the top 200 Universities reported an increase in their percentage of international students to total students.     

university-ranking-2007.pdf