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….please click below and add the new feed URL to your reader:
Or just click on;
The previous site will remain up, but all new posts will now appear only on the new site.
Thank you all for your support.
I am moving The Spinning Head to a new location and would love for you to mark it in your Readers.
The new The Spinning Head website is now at: http://www.asimrafiqui.com/tsh or click on the image below
All posts from January 2011 onwards have been shifted to the new URL, though all previous posts will continue to reside on the older site until I can complete the transfer process.
I hope you like the new version. And thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who continues to read it, support it and inform it.
A new website has been created for the Dream Palaces Project work. All posts related to the work on Tibetan poets, and all subsequent work on this community in exile, will now be posted at the site below (click on image to go to site)
Amina Masood Junjua forward me the following this morning and I am posting it here as an act of support. For those of you unfamiliar with the work of this amazing woman, and the campaign for justice for those Pakistani’s who have become victims of the irrational, unjust and unquestioned tentacles of the ‘war against terror’ and have disappeared into Pakistani and American detention, torture and elimination. Her’s is a campaign inspired by the disappearance of her husband Masood in 2005. She has been instrumental in helping me meet families of those who have been picked up by the Pakistani military, intelligence and police, as part of my larger work on the impact of the ‘war against terror’ on the lives of ordinary Pakistani citizens.
The writer and journalist Malcolm Garcia wrote an extensive piece about her, her campaign and the issue of the missing in Pakistan in a piece called “The Missing” which appeared in the October 2010 issue of Guernica Magazine.
Today, on the auspicious day of Eid being celebrated across the Muslim community, Amina sent out yet another plea. I am reposting it here in support for her campaign, and as another voice demanding justice and due process, the rights promised to all Pakistani citizens, regardless of their crimes or background, by the nation’s much tattered constitution.
Below is an excerpt, and you can read the original statement EidStatement2011:
Year 2011 has turned into a doubly sorrowful symbol for the families of Missing persons of Pakistan as International day of the victims of enforced disappearance and Eid fall on consecutive days. This year has an another significance because from today United Nations has also officially marked it as the International day of the victims of enforced disappearance.
For some of us it is the first Eid without one of our family member, for some it is fifth and for some of us it is tenth. But we are not talking about deceased family members whom one bury with their hands instead these are the missing loved ones subjected to enforced disappearance. Here one must remember that “Enforced Disappearance” is a legal term of international law coined by United Nation’s legal instruments. It denotes a disappeared or missing person who has been kidnapped and detained illegally by state run institutions, placing them outside the protection of law; the very institutions which are created and constituted to prevent citizens from all atrocities including kidnapping. It is like being robbed by your own watchman.
There are abundant and over whelming evidences, affidavits and eye witnesses which have already confirmed the presence of loved ones in the custody of local agencies, many of whom have been handed over to foreign agencies. The irony of the situation is that ex president Gen Perwaiz Musharraf and ex minister of interior Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao have authenticated, with a criminal pride, in their books and media statements that they have been enforce disappearing Pakistani citizens in exchange for American dollars. Even more distressing is the fact that the crime of enforced disappearance has accelerated in the present democratic government. We assert that if Gillani government denies this fact than it means that they have no control on agencies who are still in pursuit of American money.
The perpetrators of this crime not only kidnap people but harass their families so much that most of them don’t dare to launch a complaint. More than 1200 families have contacted and registered their cases with Defence of Human Rights. Due to different hurdles and lack of enough funds Defence of Human Rights is representing only 322 cases in Supreme Court. Punjab stands at number one with 174 cases whereas KPK , Balochistan, Sindh, Azad Jammu Kashmir, Islamabad Capital Territory follow with 96, 19, 25, 7, 11 cases respectively.
In a Statement by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or involuntary Disappearances to mark the first UN International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances it asserts, “Unfortunately, enforced disappearances continue to be used by some States as a tool to deal with situations of conflict or internal unrest. We have also witnessed the use of the so-called ‘short term disappearances,’ where victims are placed in secret detention or unknown locations, outside the protection of the law, before being released weeks or months later, sometimes after having been tortured and without having been brought in front of a judge or other civil authority.
This very worrisome practice, whether it is used to counter terrorism, to fight organized crime or suppress legitimate civil strife demanding democracy, freedom of expression or religion, should be considered as an enforced disappearance and as such adequately investigated, prosecuted and punished.”
On this day Defence of Human Rights Pakistan wants to draw your attention to the thousands of Pakistani families which are aggrieved for years whose loved ones, brothers, fathers, husbands, sons, daughters and even children are abducted by local and foreign intelligence agencies.
From official Eid Statement of the Defense of Human Rights, Pakistan
The procedures and tactics used by the Pakistani military, intelligence, political and police establishment against its own citizens are largely in violation of its own laws. These procedures have been utilized against domestic dissidents e.g. those from Baluchistan, and others who dared speak out against our American ally.
Justice in Pakistan is often a conundrum, frequently a miscarriage and almost always a luxury. However, we have in the need to serve the interests of this war of choice, dispensed with even these pretensions. People are simply being abducted and lost into the darkness of a domestic and international detention and torture machinery that may today be one of the largest multi-national businesses in the world.
For some of us the question is not of guilt, of criminality, of an inappropriate fundamentalism, or the crime of seeking truth and ideas of justice on the wrong side of the master narratives being dictated from Washington D.C. They are questions of due process, rights, representation and constitutionality. This may shock some, but I believe that event the worst of Al Qaeda deserves his / her day in court. As the Norwegians are demonstrating with their arrest and prosecution of the mass murderer Breivik, due process of law and protection of the humanity of a citizen is perhaps the best means of curtailing further acts of violence and criminality.
The hysteria that has been used to simply eliminate Pakistani citizens, and the many so-called humane, left leaning, liberal voices who have offered justifications for summary executions (and they say the tribal areas are wild!), rampant war and mass killings, is dismaying and frankly abhorrent. They speak often about a ‘war against pakistan’ or a ‘war on pakistan’, and yet had nothing to say as our and American bombs began to rain down on our citizens in the frontier regions. Apparently for such left liberals the idea of Pakistani citizenship and its associated rights does not extend too far from the cushioned elegance of their drawing rooms in Islamabad or Karachi.
We celebrate Eid with a heavy heart, as we have for many years.
Eid Mubarak to everyone.
The evidence of new money from the Gulf is vividly evident at the shrine of the female warrior saind Beema Biwi. It is evident in the large, ostentatious and garishly pink structure that now surrounds what was once a small shrine. Donations have helped transform this remote shrine located near the ocean front and directly in the parth of jet aircrafts landing a Trivandrum airport into perhaps one of the most well known and powerful shrines in the state of Kerala. The influence is also evident in the large market filled with smuggled and contraband consumer goods from the Gulf states. WIth stores sporting signs such as Al-Haj cosmetics, Dubai Electronics, and Medina Traders the market is a uniquely modern version of the markets that traditionally welcome devotees to shrine. Where one would expect to numerous small stalls selling garlands of roses, prayer mats, devotional chadors (sheets), sweet meats, music videos and CDs celebrating the life of the saint, here one can find cheap, Chinese copies of the essentials of ‘the good life’ – washing machines, CD players, mobile phones, microwave ovens, flat screen televisions and much else. I could not find a flower seller but a number of touts offered to sell me pirated copies of the latest Hollywood blockbusters.
The reasons for the absence of such vendors of devotional goods became evident to me once I stepped into the shrine and realized that devotees are no longer able to approach the tomb of the saint, and neither would the caretakees entertain the draping of the coffin with a devotional chador or garlands of flowers. The tomb itself today lies hidden behind a curtain which is only pulled apart when a devotee steps up to receive a blessing. Otherwise the curtains are pulled closed. A huge hall, complete with lotus topped pillars, surrounds the sanctum of the shrine, and devotees can be seeing resting, prayer, sleeping and generally milling about inside. There is an austere atmosphere here, and one of the least welcoming that I have experienced in a shrine. The imposing architecture, the surly caretakers and the perfunctory nature with which the blessings and rituals seem to be performed leaves one feeling uncomfortable hanging about.
There are two tombs inside this shrine – one to Beema Biwi and alongside it another to her son, Abu Bakr. The two were martyred in a battlesome 500 years ago it seems, but few seem to know what the battle was about and against whom. I suspect that the dates of their arrival in India and martyrdom are also not accurate. This seems quite typical of the legend of the saints in the area: their stories are largely forgotten and their past seems to hold no real importance for both the families that maintain and care for the shrines and the devotees who come here seeking solace, salvation and blessings. Just outside the main shrine is another mausoleum – this one to a saint called Mastan Baba. Built sometime in the 1980s the shrine is to a wandering mystic whose history and real name are unknown.
Dominique Sila-Khan, in her work Sacred Kerala: A Spiritual Pilgrimage describes how many of the rituals performed at the Beema Biwi complex echo rituals typically associated with worshop and devotion at Hindu temples. The viewing of the sacred sanctum containing the tombs of Beema Biwi and her son Abu Bakr is called didar a persian word for ‘the blessed glimpse’ and whose equivalent may be the Hindi word darshan. During the annual Chandanakuda mahotsavam festival devotees bring clay and earthen pots, also known as kudans, which have been smeared with chandanam, sandalwood paste, and filled with coins. These can often be seen lying close to the tombs themselves. The tombs are frequently washed and the blessed water offered to devotees – an act quite similar to amrit a ritual typically associated with practices in Sikh temples.
The female saints of Kerala are a powerful influence here for people of all faiths. I had earlier written about the shrine of Manubam Bibi located on the shores close to the Keralan town of Ponnani. Just as there at the ocean front shrine of Manubam Bibi, people of all faiths congregate here in this imposing shrine of Beema Biwi. The shrine today is overtly Islamic but it is clear that the influence, and power of these saints transcends the borders of orthodox faith and sectarian divisions. It was difficult not to see the grandiose architecture of the shrine as an attempt to take control of the Biwi and bring her into the fold of an acceptable and palatable Islamic heritage. As if sheer scale would be enough to claim the right to her power, her meaning, her heritage and her power. The thousands who come here however seem oblivious to these material designs, and quietly go about in their many religious ways and methods of sitting at her feet and asking for her blessings. The remnants of her original, simpler shrine can still be seen under the dome of the new structure. Someone its humble appearance seemed more in keeping with the idea of a woman who traveled here from Arabia and died in the path of faith. The new, garish, and frankly tacky structure seems to want to veil the materialism that now pervades this entire complex and impress upon the faithful that piety is best expressed through power and privilege of wealth. The cold, dismissive attitude of the caretakers, the thriving consumer goods markets, the rather touristy atmosphere, distract from the meaning of the pilgrimage to this shrine. Here, much as I have felt at some other important shrines in India, blessings have become a business.
This post was originally written in response to France’s decision to ban the burqa but many of its arguments find new relevance in the aftermath of Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of over 90 Norwegians. Many of my arguments are also echoed in a recent piece written by Remi Nilson, editor of the Norwegian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, called “Why Norway?”
It is not about the burqa. And it’s not even about the dignity of the woman. Neither the French, nor the Dutch will admit it. But we have to look past the hysteria to attempt to understand what lies behind it. Though we use our love of ‘women’s liberation’ arguments to wage war, repress minorities, erase diversity, deny individuality, and of course silence difference, the fact remains that what is taking place in France and other European nations today concerning the burqa or its Muslim immigrants, is just not about the burqa or about the Muslims.
It’s about Europe and the impact the creation of the European Union has had on nations, their idea of themselves, and their economic and social realities. The immigrants are merely victims of the helpless.
The Europeans are suffering economically, and her citizens are in the midst of what can only be described as some of the most gut-wrenching economic and public services cut backs in their modern history. Europe’s new generations are being told that much of the social stability, security and safety nets their parent’s generations were used to are about to be eliminated. This same generation is seeing massive cuts in its education budgets and services, an erasure of its health care coverage, a loss of its pension networks, a gradual cutting away of job related benefits, rising unemployment, greater social and economic uncertainty and much else that national leaders like Sarkozy and their apparatchiks can do little or nothing about. Most of all this is taking place because of the economic crisis gripping European economies, new-found political priorities and a determined desire to connect to the requirements of a globalized economic and financial marketplace. And though the impact is being felt within the borders of each nation, the nation-state is unable to really do anything about it.
The massive demonstrations that gripped nations like France were clear call and warning to governments. But the fact remains that unlike in the past, these public demonstrations are now largely futile as the decisions about a nation’s economy, its financial sectors, and the civic and social services it once promised it citizens, are no longer in its governments hands. As Serge Halmi, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, pointed out, in an editorial called ‘France Says No‘:
France hasn’t seen demonstrations like this for 40 years. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s character, his arrogance and determination to crush the “enemy” have aroused wide opposition. But one man’s whims do not account for all the sound and fury. This is a response to a fundamental and unjust change of social direction chosen by European governments with allegiances ranging from confident right to compliant left, on the pretext of dealing with the financial crisis. Berlusconi has done no more good or harm in Italy than the socialists under Papandreou in Greece and Zapatero in Spain. They all threaten the viability of public services and social security. To please the bean-counters on the stock exchange, they all propose to make ordinary people pay for the havoc wrought by the banks, who carry on just as before, free from any obligation to show “courage” (like the workers) or solidarity with future generations.
And it is precisely at such moments, particularly in what the writer and intellectual Arjun Appadurai called Fortyn Pim’s Europe (France, Italy, Austria, Holland, Romania), when there is a clear loss of national and government sovereignty, that the nation-state turns on its ‘other’, the weaker and the ‘different’ and raises the specter of their threat to ‘our way of life’.
As Arjun Appadurai discusses in his book The Fear Of Small Numbers: An Essay On The Geography Of Anger, the rise in fundamentalism and nationalist rhetoric reflects a growing loss in economic and social cohesion and control, as governments and societies confront the realities and strains of our fast changing, globally inter-connected world. Appadurai is more articulate, and points out that we now live in a world where….
…some essential principles and procedures of the modern nation-state – the idea of a sovereign and stable territory, the idea of a containable and countable population, the idea of a reliable census, and the idea of a stable and transparent categories – have become unglued in the era of globalization… (page 6)
We are seeing a phenomenon as government’s lose their ability to maintain control over their economies and industries, turning increasingly towards managing and encouraging a greater nativism, a more infantile celebration of imagined ideas of national culture, values and heritage. France is merely a specific situation of a phenomenon we have seen in India, Malaysia, Italy, and also today in the USA. As Appadurai further elaborates, that at such moments of loss of national sovereignty, we find nations caught in….
…panics about foreign goods, or about foreign languages, foreign migrants, or foreign investments. Many states find themselves caught between the need to perform dramas of national sovereignty and simultaneous feats of openness calculated to invite the blessings of…capital and the multilaterals…the virtually complete loss of even the fiction of a national economy, which had some evidence for its existence in the eras of strong socialist states and central planning, now leaves the cultural field as the main one in which fantasies of purity, authenticity, borders, and security can be enacted…the nation-state has been steadily reduced to the fiction of its ethos as the last cultural resource over which it may exercise full domination. (Page 22, 23)
And so in France, as in the rest of Europe, where an impotent leader, unable to offer any solutions to her flaying economic issues, has happily distracted us with the ‘threat’ to the great French republic posted by about 1800 or so Muslim women who apparently are ‘repressed’ and ‘unenlightened’ and need to be saved from themselves. In a nation of 65 million people, these women are not even a statistic and yet have become the focus of a nation’s hysteria, resulting in scenes that simply shame the human conscience. As Naima Bouteldja, writing for the Open Society Foundation, tells us:
As a direct result of the political and media hubbub, niqabis who ventured outside their house found themselves facing frequent verbal abuse ranging from “ghost” and “Darth Vader” to “whore” and “slut,” used as a back-handed way of defending women’s dignity. Some also had their pictures taken as if they were circus freaks, while a small number of women were also spat on or physically confronted by passersby who tried to rip off their veils.
It takes as much prejudice, misogyny, repression and brutality to compel a woman to take off a burqa as it does to compel her to put one on. Both acts deny her as an agent, an individual, a mind, a person, and a sovereign member of a family and a society with the capacity to speak, think, act and change. If you are not convinced, look closely at this scene, and tell me you do not realize where we have arrived. Tell me that this moment is not truly one of shame and lament.
In the same piece Bouteldja continues and tells us that:
Indeed by claiming this ban on the full-face veil will protect women, the result, as Jameelah, 24, told me has been the exact opposite: “I had the feeling that I was no longer human, that I was a monster,” she said, “while they should have respected me because at least I was a human being like them… at least for that reason I wanted some respect.”
Far from the wastelands of Afghanistan where the image of the burqa became synonymous with the repression of women and the presence of patriarchical pathologies, the urban byways of Paris have become theaters of the absurd where articulate, autonomous, independent women demonstrating on the streets of the city have been subjected to arrests, forced removal of their burqas, violent attacks, and verbal and physical abuse by the nation’s citizenry.
Oddly, these apparently oppressed women seem to have an annoying way of behaving and speaking as intelligent and articulate individuals, something that of course does not bother the righteous to reconsider their prejudice and generalizations. What is at play here is political manipulation of an old Orientalist prejudice, one that negates the independence and individuality of these women, and insists that they, regardless of what they as lucid and autonomous adults say, do not have the capacity to think and judge for themselves.
As someone said, freedom is untidy. We have to bring it to them under the benign guidance of bombings and outright war, and now also with benign laws. Its for their good. The mission civilisatrice continues.
But more importantly, as Tzvetan Todorov has warned that:
There’s a difference between criticising a triumphant ideology and criticising a marginalised, persecuted group: the one is an act of courage, the other an act of hatred.
Racism and xenophobia represent a major cause of concern in connection with the current economic crisis. They lead governments and political elites to take a tough line on immigration. Roma and travelers, Muslims or Jews, and more generally, those who are different, experience hostility and social exclusion in many of our societies.
There is a rise in electoral support for political parties which portray immigration as the main cause of insecurity, unemployment, crime, poverty and social problems. The rise in popular fears about immigration and minorities has led to larger popular support for marginal political parties. However, I am even more concerned by the reaction of mainstream political parties in addressing such popular fears.
The European left and her public intellectuals have failed the test of their time. Most all has scurried to the corners of conventionalism, and refused to stand by the ideals they once propounded for the likes of the victims of Soviet repression. When it has come to defend the humanity, equality and individuality of the darker races, they have succumbed to paranoia, racism and outright hypocrisy. The few that have stood consistent, and have been pilloried by the rest for their stance, include people like Ian Baruma. For the last five years, if not more, Baruma has been speaking out to Europe, trying to clarify her malaise, and warn her against her easy resort to hate. In an essay called Europe Turns Right Baruma argued that:
European populism focuses on Islam and immigration, but it may be mobilizing a wider rage against elites expressed by people who feel unrepresented, or fear being left behind economically. They share a feeling of being dispossessed by foreigners, of losing their sense of national, social, or religious belonging. Northern Europe’s political elites, largely social or Christian democrats, have often been dismissive of such fears, and their paternalism and condescension may be why the backlash in those liberal countries has been particularly fierce.
The strains on national identities that the European Union project has wrought has not been sufficiently studied. Europe is the home of some of the most desperately and violently manufactured nationalism and national identities. In complete negation of their lived reality, most Europeans think they live in ethnically homogenous and culturally uniform nations. Even the Swedes think so, never allowing facts to intervene and transform this myopia. The hundreds of millions of dead from WWI and WWII attest to methods required to arrive at our still-not-quite-pristine national purity. But it has been the project of the European Union has torn at what have until recently been a people blindly comfortable in their concocted identities and sense of national purity.
Pushed by the changing global economic environment, and Europe’s need to remain competitive and relevant, and project has bought it into question issues of economic autonomy, and economic policy management. What was once a national concern, overseen by national banks and national politicians, has passed onto people the Europeans never see and can never communicate with. And with the European economies dancing with economic straits, many now bankrupt and laid waste, the fears and uncertainties are pushing it citizens to extremes of regressive and xenophobic behavior. Again, as Ian Baruma had pointed out in an interview with Der Spiegel:
Immigration and the Muslim issue in particular has become the focal point of a much larger sense of anxiety which has to do with the European Union, globalization, erosion of the authority of the nation-state and economic uncertainty. That general sense of insecurity and resentment makes a country very vulnerable to the kind of populist demagoguery that you get from people like Wilders and Pim Fortuyn before him.
We have been here before, for example during the minaret ban in Switzerland, and we will return here many times in the coming months. Today they will go after the burqa, the hijab, the dupatta, claiming security and French cultural values, tomorrow they will target other aspects of the immigrants life and culture and claim that it threatens the very foundation of the republic. Maybe they will eventually go completely against the idea of Islam as a belief, outlawing it completely on the grounds that it provokes violence and represses its practitioners. The leap isn’t as large as you may think. The conversations will move from dress, to food, to modes of worship, to financial transactions, to charities, to schools, to social gatherings, to language, too much else.
Faced with a growing social and cultural complexity, confronted with economic and financial systems that today no longer respect or adhere to the controls of regional dictates, and unable to offer solutions and ideas that address the real personal and social fears of its citizens, the Europeans are reacting by trying to construct walls to ward off change.
But it may be late. The die has been cast and nothing short of an economic miracle can turn us around. The economic situation in Europe is not about to improve, and the levers of national economic control and policy will remain beyond the ability of regional governments. That is, French and other politicians will not be able to respond to the real, economic and social demands and difficulties of their citizenry. They will instead turn towards demagoguery and denigration of the ‘other’ to stave off thought and questioning of their impotence.
The only thing now left to wonder is to what level of violence Europe’s citizenry will rise against her ‘other’, for there is really no other place to go if such cultural and nationalist programs continue. The Muslim immigrants of Europe stand dehumanized and degraded in her eyes. They are the un-human, the mass that has a core ‘essence’ that programs them towards barbaric and uncivilized behavior. They are unable to change, do not have the ability to reflect, cannot contemplate, or be individual. They can only do what is in their ‘essence’, an ‘essence’ defined by something called ‘Islam’ which of course the Europeans know and can define, though its practitioners prefer to practice it in a million different and diverse ways. Shockingly, many of its practitioners choose not to practice it either, but lets not bother ourselves with that possibility.
We can now only wonder whether we will go the way of Italy, a nation that has already sanctioned the use of violence against the taint of the ‘outsider’? The violence used to wrest a young woman’s burqa, or that used by armed men to drag her to jail, should give us reason to pause because when we decide that our liberties require a resort to illiberal actions, we have crossed the line from being open, democratic, tolerant and vibrant nations that respect the right of individuals (the individual and her rights to freedom of speech, access to justice, right to life etc. being of course the central concept of a liberal state) and have drifted towards insecure, fear ridden and weakened people closing off our minds, intellects, humanity and courage to the purveyors of lies and obfuscations.
Its time to see past the veil of lies and begin to ask the hard questions about what is happening to the world around us. Europe has to turn to herself, see within herself, to transform this debate into a meaningful one. She does not serve her citizens, nor her future generations, by easily succumbing to the fear-mongering of a few elitist politicians, or the egregious racism of a few paranoid racists. The future will insist that European nations be multi-ethnic and multi-religious, but more importantly that Europe’s story and history be that of all its people who have come there, thrive there, live there and make it what it is. There is no return to an imagined pure nationalism or nation. There is no return to the Europe that never was, other than in our imaginations. We will have to return to a point where the individuality and autonomy of each European is respected, even if that means that some individuals will dress, eat, live and speak in ways that we cannot fathom or appreciate. The individual is sacrosanct, and for as long as their personal choices are personal choices and they do not impose them upon others, we will have to tolerate them regardless of how much their choices may confuse us.
I have decided to take a short break from the field work on the The Idea Of India project. The monsoon and exhaustion have collaborated and pushed me to return to Delhi to rest, and also to rethink my work plan for the coming months. But as always, I now find myself immersed in readings, some of which were recommended to me by friends, others I found on friend’s bookshelves, and some that I had ordered online. So what am I reading:
Anatol Lieven’s rather interesting work, Pakistan: A Hard Country. Lieven is an anthropologist by training and hence his rather interesting and unique approach to the country through its kinship networks and their role in the stability of the country, and its resistance to change.
What is certainly refreshing about this work is that it eschews so many of the mindless clichés that almost all foreign journalists and writers attempting reporting, reportage and books on Pakistan fall prey to. Lieven brings a wonderfully open mind and manages to spend time with a wide range of Pakistanis. This is perhaps one of the better general texts about a very complex country that I have read in a long time. Its earliest chapters do suffer from some simplicities, for example, when he draws a rather straight line between Islamic history in South Asia and Pakistan’s modern religious and political struggles. I found this opening section rather weak, particularly when it is obvious that he has read some of the most important works on South Asian history, including that by Ayesha Jalal. To then continue the habit, as his opening sections of the book do, of simplistically constructing Pakistan’s modern history by seeing it exclusively through things ‘Islamic’ and/or ‘Muslim’ is lamentable. I await a work gleefully reveals the many varied and wonderful non-Islamic, non-Arab, non-Muslim heritages that reside within the borders of Pakistan and have directly and overtly influenced the cultures of the people who now go to make the nation. The influence of the Indus valley civilizations, the inherited norms of non-Muslim communities, and the deep impressions of Buddhist and Hindu cultures reside deep in the heart of the country’s people, and are as crucial a determinant of its social and cultural makeup as anything ‘Islamic’.
Despite this weakness the work is complex, engaged, open-minded and provocative. And it is certainly a departure from the norms and offers us many interesting insights into the country. There are a number of online reviews of the book two which I found interesting can be found here, and here.
An exciting review of Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live Or A Life Of Montaigne In One Question And Twenty Attempts At An Answer in Le Monde Diplomatique proved too much to resist and I have in my hands a copy of the work.
To be honest I have never quite been intrigued by Montaigne and frankly I would not have started reading it had it not reminded me of the works and methods of Theodore Zeldin and his wonderfully fun An Intimate History Of Humanity.
Zeldin’s work remains one of my favorite reads in the last decade. I do remember that it was the work where I first read about the origins of romantic, all-consuming love as we understand it today. I in fact used this in an essay I wrote later about Kashmir called Whats Love Got To Do With It?. And so a few pages into Bakewell’s How To Live reminded me of Zeldin’s voice and I was hooked. Its a fabulous journey into a varied and questioning mind with the rare talent of speaking and writing with clarity and insight. I don’t know Montaigne’s work, but Bakewell’s book is a lovely introduction for me into his life and thoughts. There are various reviews of the book here, here and here.
I also have in front of me a book that I wasn’t very sure about, but a recommendation by the lovely Ananya Vajpeyi convinced me to at least give it a chance. Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India
The book was banned in certain states in India. In all such bans, the reasons were specious and foolish. Even this was not enough to convince me to read it. But I decided to and have a copy of it with me now, but as I make my way through its pages I realize that my original misgivings may have been correct. Certainly the earliest chapters of the work suffer from a desperate, near artificial attempt to being Gandhi ‘down to earth’. It is written as if each small revelation of Gandhi’s being human, weak, petty, or wrong is meant to pierce a hole in the veneer that defines him as the Mahatma. Lelyveld is unable to see the man, the mind and the intellectual and spiritual efforts of an inquisitive, intelligent young lawyer confronting a world that defied his idealistic ideals and that he then decided to take on one step at a time. Lelyveld paints him as inconsistent, hypocritical, petty, cowardly and narcissistic. And yet, despite Lelyveld’s efforts he cannot hide from the reader the fact that Gandhi was a young man becoming what he willed and believed rather than what he was. If Lelyveld writes him as petty, a mere few sentences later we see an act of tremendous intellectual and spiritual courage that overturns that judgement. If Lelyveld suggests that he was hypocritical, a few sentences later we are provided evidence to the contrary. And yet Lelyveld refuses to connect the dots, and, as Pankaj Mishra said in a review of the book in the New Yorker, ‘…rarely zooms out to a broader picture…’
Another book I am going through has perhaps one of the most appropriate and poignant cover photographs I have seen in a long time. Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful And The Damned: Life In The New India has a classic, modern image of India as it is unfolding all around us.
I love this image. I want to congratulate the designer for putting it together on this cover. The context of the work informs the entire photograph with the history of post 1990′s India. Right there, on this woman, sits the uncomfortable foisting of an imported idea of the modern and the future. It reminds me of that terrible judgement that Ashis Nandy passed about India…that we (South Asians) have a past, a present, and a future that is someone else’s present. Siddharta Deb as a smart and savvy journalist and writer. The work is basically journalistic in nature, and in sensationalism. Despite those flaws it makes for poignant reading. But it lacks an edge, and it lacks a commitment. I don’t have a better way to describe than by linking to a recent BBC Radio 3 interview that Arundhati Roy and Siddharta Deb where Deb’s ‘nuanced’ voice is made to stand alongside the far more pointed, critical and committed voice of Arundhati Roy.
Even a cursory comparison of Arundhati Roy’s new work, based on her recent reportage on the Maoist insurgency in India’s East, is a strikingly different work than Deb’s. I have not read Roy’s new work, but I know her voice and I know it well. I love her voice. And at least two of the essays in this new book were published elsewhere and are known to me.
But where Roy is precise is analysing the dysfunctions of India’s democracy, and its unthinking, blind spiral towards a neo-capitalist nightmare, a nightmare that is being lived out by hundreds of millions of her citizens, Deb’s is a quieter voice revealing the lived consequences of India’s new emerging ‘middle class’ and the horrors of their new world. The two works together create a powerful understanding of how one set of social and economic pathologies is being constructed while entire worlds – tribal, rural, ethnically diverse, environmentally complex, are being pillaged to feed the gods that have already failed and died across the modern industrialized Western world. What we are witnessing in India today is an internal colonialism that is cannibalising entire communities, ethnicities, eco-systems, and centuries of indigenous knowledge to satisfy a narrow-minded idea of material success complete with its delusion belief in the trickle down benefits that have never emerged elsewhere and will not do so in India either.
Keynes may have studied India, but he does not seem to be relevant to her modernity. I recommend both books.
Of course, there are more books, but those still sit on a shelf in my room and I will need more time to get to them. Christopher Pinney’s exciting Photos Of The Gods, Annu Jalais’ Sundarbans: Folk Deities, Monsters & Mortals, and the tonnage of G Pandey’s new Omnibus wait not-so-quietly, insisting on being held, opened and absorbed.
I am on a break from the project. Apparently.
The Hindu temple contains two shrines, both to men who were once Muslims. As I write last statement this I realize that the two religious categories mentioned here – Hindu and Muslim actually make little sense. The fact remains that neither the word Hindu nor the word Muslim used here describes a set of clear, precise, differentiated, and orthodox ideas of the two religions. Here, in the village of Deoli, deep in the heart of Eastern Maharashtra where I have been traveling for some weeks, one comes face to face with the realization that these definitional categories hide more than they reveal.
More importantly, that by labeling someone as Muslim or Hindu tells us almost nothing about their life, values, experiences and outlook. It may not even tell us that they are followers of even the basic and simple tenets of the religion. And most importantly, it does not tell us how the lived practice of the religion was influenced, physically, emotionally, intellectually and psychologically, by the other religious practices occurring close by. These categories idealize and mislead. They lie.
Muslim modernists have remained uncomfortable with the complexity, fluidity and the indigenous nature of South Asian Islam. It is a discomfort that gives shape to a concerted effort on the part of the orthodox to eradicate any and all variations to the ‘orthodox’ ideas of the religion largely imported from what is seen to be the ‘true’ place of Islam – the Middle East. Oddly, this prioritizing of the alien in fact negates the lived practice of the majority of the world’s Muslims in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia. It takes the popular, the larger, the more complex, the genuinely regional and attempts to cleanse it and reject it. What makes us uniquely South Asian Muslims is precisely what the modernists and reformists reject most vehemently. Their attacks of ‘deviations’ and ‘heretics’, their rejection of the shrines of saints, and regional practices with direct and clear influences of India’s pre-Islamic past e.g the nerchas of the Mapila Muslims of Kerala, are a reflection of these attempts at erasure.
The category of Hindu is even more complex, as it is meant to incorporate into it thousands of years of religious practice, with thousands of different deities and rituals, none of which can effectively be lumped under any one title. In fact, the word Hindu was once associated with all those people who practiced any faith outside the regions main religions like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism and so on. But Hinduism as we know it today, the official, orthodox variety is a product of 19th century reform movements. Pankaj Mishra argued this powerfully in an essay called The Invenstion Of The Hindu argued that there was:
…no such thing as Hinduism before the British invented the hold all category in the early nineteenth century, and made India seem the home of a “world religion” as organised and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam. The concepts of a “world religion” and “religion” as we know them now, emerged during the late 18th and early 19th century, as objects of academic study, at a time of widespread secularisation in western Europe…But academic study of any kind imposes its own boundaries upon the subject. It actually creates the subject while bringing it within the realm of the intellect. The early European scholars of religion labelled everything; they organized disparate religious practices into one system, and literally brought into being such world religions as Hinduism and Buddhism.
Hinduism’s boundaries, once near infinite, being constricted by, as Ashia Nandy has argued, the values and priorities of Brahmanical, middle-class, westernizing Indians to their uprooting, cultural and geographical. Their reforms were, and remain, a direct criticism of Hinduism as it is lived and practiced across this land. As Nandy states in his essay ‘The Twilight of Certitudes’ in his work Bonfire of Creeds:
The votaries of Hindutva (modern Hindu nationalism) will celebrate the death of Hinduism. For they have all along felt embarassed and humiliated by Hinduism as it is. Hindutva is meant for those whose Hinduism has worn off. It is a ware meant for the supermarket of global mass cuture where all religions are available in their consumable forms, neatly packaged for buyers…To those who live in Hinduism, Hindutva is one of those pathologies that periodically afflict a faith. Hinduism has…handled many such pathologies; it still retains the capacity…to handle one more. (page 129)
Nandy’s argument is very simple: Hindu modernists were deeply anti-Hinduism, going so far as to be embarrassed of its millions of gods and their rather human like frailties and inconsistencies. As Nandy points in another essay called ‘A Report on the Present State of Health of the Gods’ again in Bonfire of Creeds that:
…if you read the literature of Hindutva you will find a systematic, consistent and often direct attack on Hindu gods and goddesses. Most stalwarts of Hindutva have not been interested in Hindu religion and have said so openly. Their tolerance towards the rituals and myths of their faith have even been lower. Many of them have come to Hindutva as a reaction to everyday, vernacular Hinduism.
And this vagueness of religious definition, this ‘fuzziness’ of religious practice and sense of identity, as Kaviraj has argued, did not allow for hard separation of beliefs into categories of religion as those found on British period census forms. Kumar Suresh Singh’s survey of Indian communities showed that hundreds of communities can be classified as having more than one religion. That there were at least 116 communities that are both Hindu and Christian and at least 35 that are Hindu and Muslim. Again, the definitions Muslim and Christian and Hindu remain problematic in this idea i.e. that there are no concrete definitions of these terms to begin with. We can only loosely approximate their meaning and boundaries in identity and cultural terms.
Both Hindu and Muslim modernists share their revulsion of the vernacular practices of their faiths. They both tried to tear down the lived faiths. As Pankaj Mishra points out,
Only a tiny minority of upper-caste Indians had known much about the Bhagavad-Gita or the Vedas until the eighteenth century when they were translated by British scholars and then presented as sacred texts from the paradisiacal age of something called “Hinduism.” in the nineteenth century, movements dedicated to reforming Hinduism and recovering its lost glory grew very rapidly. The inspiration or rhetoric of these neo-Hindu movements might have seemed archaic. In fact, they were largely inspired by the ideas of progress and development that British utilitarians and Christian missionaries aggressively promoted in India.
As I stand here at this shrine to a man who was born a Muslim and later adopt as a Hindu guru, these thoughts run through my head. Miranath was born a Muslim but adopted Viswanath Maharaj, a Brahmin, as his guide and teacher. I am reminded of the story of the great Indian poet Kabir, who too was born a Muslim, but raised, educated and nurtured under a Hindu guru. The temple also contains a shrine to a Muslim friend of Miranath, the saint Dina Shahwali. The devotees who flock here for puja, and the thousands who congregate for the annual mela, are largely Hindus. Their devotion to a man whose identity, ideas of faith and spirituality, trespass boundaries of accepted religions, reflects a cultural continuity that defies the modernist definitions and categorization. They represent a necessary, alive and passionate faith that is not transcribed in books, or sustained through mass campaigns of control and direction.
It is here that one begins to understand that the census like precision of categories such as Muslim or Hindu make little sense and do little to help us understand the ease with which these men, and this community transcended the boundaries between faith. It is as Farina Mir, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, keeps reminding me, that we can’t begin to understand such trespassing of faiths by assuming the clarity and precision of categories such as Muslim or Hindu. Here, standing outside this unique temple to a Muslim man, in this small village of Deoli on the outskirts of the town of Wardha in Eastern Maharashtra, I am beginning to understand her argument.
A new photographer’s collective takes on America’s social deprivations and economic struggles. Facing Change describes itself as a non-profit collective of dedicated photojournalists and writers coming together to explore America and to build a forum to chart its future.
They have recently announced a collaboration with the Library of Congress. My friends at the wonderful dvafoto recently wrote about this. The official Library of Congress statement announcing the collaboration likened the efforts of this new generation of American photographer’s work, to that of an earlier, justifiably famous, group of photographers who worked for what was then called the Farm Security Administration. It said that:
Facing Change … is a contemporary counterpart to the work done in the 1930s and 1940s by photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration, a federal project that documented the experiences of Americans at all economic levels during the Great Depression and World War II.
I respectfully disagree.
You see, the words ‘…a federal project‘ in the statement above caught my eye. These three words tell us so much about how we are no longer in the social, political and cultural world of the 1930s, and how in fact, this new group of talented and committed photographers faces a challenge far greater than anything the FSA group of photographers ever did.
The FSA efforts involved a group of photographers who went on to make some of the most iconic images of America in the depression years. The works they produced went on to influence almost every photographer who came later, and how issues of poverty, famine, and social deprivation were depicted for decades to come. Some would argue that the visual language they created remains the definitive measure of how such issues and stories need to be depicted. Photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and many others, under the guidance of Roy Stryker, the FSA information division, set out to show America to Americans. The works produced by the FSA photographers remains a crucial if not one of the most significant photographic documents of American history if not photographic history.
But the Farm Security Administration’s photographic program was a government supported project, with the explicit aim of creating a visual documentation of the conditions of Americans, and providing a powerful argument for the social and institutions changed that would enable the New Deal to be pushed through. It was part of a number of programs tried out by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a federal program. Roy Stryker, the director of FSA’s photographic documentary effort, was a man who had more than a little influence on how the photographers worked in the field. More importantly, he was a Columbia University trained economist, with a stark understanding of how photography and economics can work together to make specific points. In fact, he had used photography in his work economic works. His involvement with this group of photographers was close and immediate. He worked with them on everything from the stories they covered, to the themes they needed to explore. He ensured that America’s publications made their pages available for the presentation of this work. He knew what he was looking for, and his photographers knew the kinds of works that had to be produced to make the political argument Roosevelt’s government was trying to make as it fought to push through radical new legislation that would lead to the New Deal.
Few remember the radical and transformative effect and intent of the New Deal. It’s a subject that warrants an entirely separate post. Suffice it to say, that it was a period of concentrated and determined federal intervention to chart a new economic and social course for American. It gave birth to such important programs as Social Security Systems, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the (now largely castrated but more needed than ever) Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It also gave birth to the unique Works Progress Administration (WPA) which supported artists, writers, painters, and other creative individuals with subsidies and commissions.
The publication world was also very different. The photographic works produced received massive publication support. Stryker used the media, and the media collaborated closely with him by giving the stories being produced about American’s economic and human struggles mass coverage. It was a time when media offered stories and images of change, confronting the citizens of the country with a view of their fellow citizens that was aimed to moving them to action.
It was also a time of some of the greatest American literature – Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, E Wilson, West to name just a few. The Federal Writers Program was in effect – yet another federal effort to raise awareness of the plight of the Americans and the political, legislative and economic changes that had to be implemented to lift the country from its economic depths. Steinbeck, Aiken, Bellow, Cheever, Ellison, Terkel, Wright, West were just some of the amazing writers who worked for this program.
It was a world – political, cultural, artistic, and social, completely different from what we face in American today. The FSA photographers were producing works in a political and social atmosphere that was supporting their projects, responsive to their depiction of America, anxious to read and understand it through a news media that was anxious to publish it. It was a time when there were politicians, academics, artists, writers, painters, editors, journalists, photographers, house wives, congressmen and women, social workers, and ordinary citizens who believed in social change, in radical involvement of government in directing and building the nation, on the responsibility of the individual to the collective.
We no longer live in that world. The photographers of Facing Change must face an America that is politically and culturally the polar opposite of the one the FSA photographers faced. The Facing Change effort is being initiated in a time when there is little or no political support for social welfare intervention or federal focus on the needs of America’s working class. It is a time of the individual over the public. It is a time of wealth over welfare. It is a time of the corporate elite, whose interests are overwhelmingly served by our political leaders and done so at the overt detriment of our ordinary citizens. It is a time when our media outlets are busy producing entertainment and voyeurism, refusing to see their responsibility to the citizenry and the Republic. Owned largely by corporations, or trading on the stock exchanges, our news papers and news magazines are beholden to the marketplace priorities of their owners, and the profit/return algorithms of their accountants. In their pages the intolerable, not-so-beautiful American working class can only spoil the appeal of the Photoshop-perfect fashion models and always-smiling American mall shopper. In their pages today, they justify trillions for wars, while insisting further cuts for programs for our citizens. It is a time when our political leaders are more interested in games of violence, racism, petty posturing and cozying up to corporate power. It is a time when citizen intervention in government affairs or a demand for accountability of our leaders, is considered treason. It is an American whose collective idea of itself is not the struggling working class, but the individual corporate elite, jet-setting across the globe, consuming at the boutiques of SoHo, New York, and partaking of the consumerist pleasures and luxuries that only excess money and excess acquisitiveness can offer. It is an America where we no longer produce important writers, merely navel gazing ones. Just look at the collective works of the modern giants of American literature like Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon and you will see writers who refuse to engage with American realities and American social concerns. They are just in a world of their own, completely insular, and completely indifferent.
This is a new America.
Unlike the FSA, which was a program sanctioned and supported at the highest levels of government that consisted of people attempted radical social and economic change in a struggling America, Facing Change is largely a grass-roots efforts in an atmosphere of the highest level of government indifference and impotency in the face of a struggling America. In many ways I believe Facing Change may be the braver effort given the world in which it has been given birth, and the world into which it must now fight to have its works seen, published, promoted, discussed and acted on. The FSA was near propaganda, while Facing Change is activism, and hence more democratic, and in a political world that is increasingly less democratic, a more difficult effort.
So I will, as I said before, respectfully disagree with the Library of Congress. The importance and relevance of photography comes from the social and political context in which it is produced. Mere documentation does not make it important. It can make it a record, but it cannot make it relevant. When Helena Zinken of the Library of Congress states that “we feel confident that t…he documentation provided in these contemporary photographs will be treasured by historians, photographers and the public—much as the FSA collection, which arrived newly minted back in the 1940s, is treasured by all those groups today,” she forgets that it was not documents of history alone that the FSA set out to produce, but documents of immediate political and social change. That the importance of the FSA effort was in its intent, its use, and its impact on political, economic, and social realities of America. It changed the world we lived in and we never looked back.
That impact on the world is what made FSA the amazing and important effort that it is now rightfully seen to be. Whether Facing Change becomes that amazing and important effort, the equivalent of the FSA, is less a matter of photographic skill and documentation, but about the ways in which we can work to link their stories and images to political action. This is the key challenge of the moment, and the Library of Congress can do much more I believe to help make this happen. This work has to transform political will in an America where political will is today confused with political wealth.
This is a brave project, and it is a talented group of photographers. I can’t think of a better collective with a stronger commitment to the nation and her citizens. Their individual works point to their commitment and determination. I can only wish them well, and say that I write this post out of respect for what they are trying to do, and to remind us that they are doing it against some of the greatest odds we as citizens have ever faced. The challenges they will encounter in getting their works to make a difference, is the same challenge we citizens face today in getting our politicians to give a damn about our public and social welfare.
I wish the photographers of Facing Change all the luck in the world. Theirs is not an enviable task.