Laughing in the Face of Death – A Review of “Dead Funny” by Rudolph Herzog

I came across this book serendipitously. A few months back, there was a debate raging on GR (even now going on with reduced decibel levels) that whether anyone should be allowed to satirise Hitler. This was triggered by the publication of Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes. One member, without even reading the book, effectively cursed all the people who would read this book and post a positive review about it.

I was intrigued. Being a person who finds humour in everything, I was surprised that someone could take such an extreme view. Then I found that she was not alone in her views; for many people, the Holocaust was a tragedy which cannot be compared to anything which came before and after, and Hitler was an evil beyond description, which should not be analysed or interpreted, just condemned. As far as I was concerned, this was pure poppycock. Hitler was a dictator who committed genocide to a previously unprecedented level, and I would not choose him as a dinner companion – but he was human, just like you and me.

So I embarked on a journey to discover Hitler and the Third Reich in general, and came across a reference to this book in one of the discussions. Immediately, I decided that it was a must-read. Thankfully, I could find a copy online.

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This is not just a history of humour in the Reich, though it is that too. Herzog traces the evolution of political humour and satire in Germany during Hitler’s ascent, reign, decline and demise: and in the process, asks some relevant questions.

IS IT PERMISSIBLE to laugh at Hitler? This is a question that is often debated in Germany, where, seeing the magnitude of the horrors the Third Reich committed in their name, many citizens still have difficulty taking a satirical look at it. And when others dare to do precisely that, they are accused of trivializing the Holocaust. Nonetheless, German humorists are always trying to tackle this most sensitive of topics, and jokes at the expense of the Nazis are at their most powerful and revealing when they are spoken in the economical, matter-of-course tone of the satirist.

Is it legitimate to approach Auschwitz using techniques of satire, or would doing so downplay crimes so monstrous that they can hardly be put into words? Whatever one’s answer to this question, the fact is that Germans have always laughed at Hitler, even during the twelve years of his terrifying reign.

Yes, the Germans have always laughed.

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Political humour existed in Germany for a long time. The first German adventure novel, The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus, follows the exploits of a simple shepherd in the devastated and lawless landscape of Europe after the Thirty Years’ War. The horrors that Simplicius sees, Herzog writes, is described in language that is “cheerful and disarmingly ironic”. To quote from the book:

At first glance a novel featuring a rogue hero but really about a decades long bloodbath may itself seem like a bizarre idea. Why didn’t Grimmelshausen just write a chronicle of events? The message of Simplicissimus is that fear and terror are only half as bad when one can laugh in their face.
Ironically, the tradition of the German novel begins with the sort of humor that still occasions controversy today, when people try to treat Hitler comically. Yet the truth is that terrible events seem to call for humor. In the aftermath of a catastrophe, humor often appears as the only effective antidote against lingering horror. One could cite dozens of examples of how the deepest human abysses make people laugh.

Herzog says the same black humour can be found in Jewish jokes, who may have found the strength to tolerate their unbearable situation by laughing at it.

A Swiss visiting a Jewish friend in the Third Reich asks him: “So how do you feel under the Nazis?” He answers: “Like a tapeworm. Every day, I wriggle my way through a mass of brown stuff and wait to be excreted.”

Two Jews are waiting to face a firing squad, when the news arrives that they are to be hanged instead. One turns to the other and says: “You see—they’ve run out of ammunition!”

The second joke, when Germany had its back to the wall during the war and Hitler was trying to finish off all the Jews as quickly as possible, made me laugh out loud and brought tears to my eyes at the same time.
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Up until the Reichstag fire, the Nazis were not seen as the dangers to society they were, and consequently the butt of many political jokes, albeit in a good-natured way. Hitler’s over-the-top rhetoric and shameless posturing was especially suited for satire.

Some of the Hitler jokes (one of which was popular even in my schooldays) show an extremely irreverent approach:

Hitler visits a lunatic asylum, where the patients all dutifully perform the German salute. Suddenly, Hitler sees one man whose arm is not raised. “Why don’t you greet me the same way as everyone else,” he hisses. The man answers: “My Führer, I’m an orderly, not a madman!”

Tünnes and Schäl are walking across a cow pasture, when Tünnes steps in a mound of cowshit and almost falls down. Immediately he raises his right arm and yells, “Heil Hitler!” “Are you crazy?” asks Schäl. “What are you doing? There’s no one else around here.” “I’m following regulations,” Tünnes answers. “Whenever you step into anywhere, you’re supposed to say ‘Heil Hitler.’ ”

A drunkard passes a vendor on the street who is crying, “Heilkräuter!”(“Medicinal herbs!”). “Heil Kräuter?” he ponders. “We must have a new government.”

It seems that the Nazi leadership did not crack down on the jokers in the initial phases of the consolidation of power. In fact, they even promoted it to a certain extent, to make a show of the liberal nature of the government. One interesting case in point is the publication of a book of anti-Hitler caricatures, edited by Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, the Nazi responsible for dealing with the foreign press. Hanfstaengl published the cartoons with explanatory notes to show how the foreign press was “maligning” the beloved Fuhrer.

One has to understand there was an even more ludicrous entity to be made fun of in Germany – the ineffective Weimar democracy. Many people saw Hitler’s assumption of power as a good thing, something to bring the broken nation back to its feet. And jokes at the expense of the Weimar government were welcome to the Nazis.

There were many artists and intellectuals who were fans of the Nazi government. The Munich cabaret performer and early Nazi sympathizer Weiß Ferdl, for example, wrote a song praising Nazification and comparing it to the Nazi campaigns against jazz and other forms of “nigger music.” He wrote a song, in all seriousness, about how Hitler has brought all supposedly degenerate elements “into line”. (Sadly, we can see this attitude among many people in modern democracies too: people don’t understand how valuable freedom is until they lose it.)

Nazis also used humour to their advantage by encouraging the creation of slapstick without any satirical content, and by encouraging offensive and tasteless anti-Jew jokes which nobody would find funny today (to be frank, I find many similarities among these jokes and present-day political jokes targeting Muslims). People, in their need to vent off frustration, must have laughed at these – it must have helped satisfy their hidden anti-Semitic urges also.

However, those comedians who refused to toe the Party line soon fell out of favour. The creation of the Reich Chamber of Culture which was affiliated to Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, which required any artist, writer or actor who wanted to work in Germany to join it effectively killed all creative protest, by ensuring that they would get no work. Also, acts of active persecution like book burnings, the jailing of artists and writers etc. started in right earnest, supported by intellectuals like Ferdl.

The German cabaret, however, decided not to sit idle – and it is this entity which has the longest comic (and tragic!) history under the Reich.

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The cabaret had a long history of satirical humour, and they lampooned everybody mercilessly, including the Nazis. The story of Werner Finck is a case in point. This courageous comedian kept on lampooning the Nazis under their very own noses, and was tolerated for a surprisingly long time. Herzog quotes the following verses, built on Nazi slogans but cleverly putting them on their head:

                         Werner Finck

A fresh wind is blowing
We want to laugh again
Humor, awaken!
We’ll give you free rein.

While the lion is crowned
And Mars rules the hour
Good cheer, which we all love,
Is slowly turning sour.

Let’s not allow the devil
Or any other powers
To rob us of the fun
That is rightfully ours.

Let the power of words
Vibrate the eardrums
And if anyone objects, he can
Kiss us on our bums.

Finck was ultimately arrested and sent to a concentration camp. However, his relative popularity helped spare him the guards’ brutality. Finck managed to keep his humour alive even within the camp, and Herzog quotes the following lines from an evening’s entertainment he managed to put up there:

Comrades, we are going to try to cheer you up, and our sense of humor will help us in this endeavor, although the phrase gallows humor has never seemed so logical and appropriate. The external circumstances are exactly in our favor. We need only to take a look at the barbed wire fences, so high and full of electricity. Just like your expectations.

And then there are the watchtowers that monitor our every move. The guards have machine guns. But machine guns won’t intimidate us, comrades. They just have barrels of guns, whereas we are going to have barrels of laughs.

You may be surprised at how upbeat and cheerful we are. Well, comrades, there are good reasons for this. It’s been a long time since we were in Berlin. But every time we appeared there, we felt very uneasy. We were afraid we’d get sent to the concentration camps. Now that fear is gone. We’re already here.

(I find this equivalent to the story of the Jester who was sentenced to be hanged for making puns. Reprieved at the last minute on the condition that he will pun no more, he cannot pass up the chance to say “No noose is good news!” and is immediately hanged. You can’t keep the wisecrackers down!)

Many of the cabaret performers migrated to Austria, among them Klaus and Erika Mann, the children of Thomas Mann. Their cabaret house, known as the “Pepper Mill”, subjected the Nazi regime to scathing criticism, using the medium of metaphors and allusions. The following lines from Erika, which are transparently about Hitler, illustrate the point:

I am the prince of the land of lies
I can lie to shake the trees
Good lord, am I a skillful liar!
No one lies so brilliantly.

I lie so inventively
That the blue falls from the sky
See lies flying through the air
That lying gale’s source am I.

Now summer is a-comin’ in
And the trees are all in bud
The field are full of violets
And war does not shed blood.

Ha, ha. You fell for it.
In your faces I can read it.
Although it was completely false,
Every one of you believed it.

Lying is nice
Lying is fine
Lying brings luck
Lying bucks you up.
Lying has lovely long legs.
Lies make you rich
Lies are well-stitched
Seem like they’re true
Wash sin from you
And follow on a leash like dogs.

Back in my home, the land of lies,
The truth must remain unspoken.
A colorful web of lying strands
Keeps our great Empire unbroken.

We have it good, we have it nice
We kill all our enemies
And award ourselves the highest device
Of honor for our false glories.

Once a liar, nevermore trusted;
Always a liar, always believed!
That he speaks anything but truth
Is an utterly intolerable idea.

Lying is easy
Everything’s grand
If you can do it,
False means to our end.
To the land of lies
Lying brings fame
Lies are colorful and elegant
While gray truth looks always the same.

In order to protect my land
I mix the poison and set the fires
If you doubt me, I’ll shut you up,
I, the prince of the land of lies.

                             Kurt Gerron

This is only an example: there were many others who were equally vitriolic. However, as Hitler increased his geographic spread, there was nowhere for the satirists to run to, and criticism within the Reich stopped.

The most tragic fate befell the Jewish comedians, who could not even escape by toeing the Nazi line. The case of Kurt Gerron is illustrative. Gerron tried to escape the horror by emigrating; but he was ultimately captured and sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in the Czech Republic. The Nazis used to use this ghetto to fool the Danish Red Cross workers into thinking that the Jews were getting humane treatment. So, immediately ahead of a visit from them, the camp commandants would ship off large numbers of inmates to Auschwitz, set up temporary facades of coffee-shops and theatres, and the prisoners would be ordered to stage operas.

Gerron was forced to form a cabaret inside the ghetto with fellow Jewish performers waiting for deportation to the gas chambers, and perform for the benefit of fellow inmates and camp officers – not only when the Red Cross visited, but whenever the sadistic Nazis were in mood for entertainment. (He was once even forced to perform in an area in which dead corpses had been piled up. Gerron took the help of blind inmates who could not see the bodies to pass them from hand to hand and clear the area before the performance.) He was even forced to direct a propaganda film.

Ultimately, just a couple of days before Auschwitz was closed down, Kurt Gerron met his end in the gas chambers there – a tragic end to a life dedicated to laughter.

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In the last chapter of the book, Herzog asks the pertinent question: are we allowed to laugh at Hitler?

In a previous chapter, he had cited the instance of two great comedies from Hollywood, one a huge hit (Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) and the other a failure (To Be or Not To Be by Ernst Lubitsch). According to Herzog, Chaplin’s movie was a success because it was released before the USA entered the war: the events of Europe were still far away. In the case of To Be or Not To Be, Americans were fighting on the front when the movie came out, the scale of Nazi atrocities were more clearly understood, and people felt that it was no laughing matter –so the film was universally panned.

In a way, this informs the critique of the whole question of laughing at Hitler. American Holocaust scholar Terence Des Pres has summed up three conventions regarding representations of the Holocaust, which has been added to by cultural historians Kathy Laster and Heinz Steinert to form five rules in all:

1. The Holocaust shall be represented, in its totality, as a unique event, as a special case and kingdom of its own, above or below or apart from history.

2. Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason—artistic reasons included.

3. The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even sacred event with seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead.

4. The province for depictions of the Holocaust is “high culture.” Popular cultural productions are automatically considered suspect and more superficial. Comedies appeal mostly to an audience that isn’t necessarily well educated. Therefore, it’s more difficult for comedies to be taken seriously as high culture.

5. The artist needs to have the correct attitude and motivation: altruism, good intentions, the proper moral and didactic aims. Even when a piece of culture is comic, the artist has to display appropriate seriousness.

                                    A Scene from “The Producers”

However, in 1968, Mel Brooks (a Jew himself) broke all conventions with The Producers, and followed it up with his remake of To Be or Not To Be in 1983. Roberto Benigni of Italy came up with Life is Beautiful in 1997, a fairy tale story of heartbreak and survival in a concentration camp – an “almost-fantasy”. There was a British TV comedy in 1990 titled Heil, Honey, I’m Home depicting Hitler as a suburban twit which was criticised widely; and most provocatively, the German cartoonist Walter Moers’ comic series Adolf, the Nazi Sow in which Hitler has survived the war and is living in suburban Germany along with Goering, who is working as a transvestite prostitute.

And of course, the book which I mentioned in the beginning, which started me on this trail.

Clearly, taboos are melting.

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I think I will end this review with a final quote from Herzog.

Is it permissible to laugh at Hitler? Is a comedy like Mel Brooks’s The Producers immoral? The respective answers are yes and no. Brooks’s film does not decrease the significance of the Holocaust; it reduces Hitler to human dimensions so that people can see him as something other than the evil demon promoted by the historiography of the 1950s. Germans in the Third Reich were neither possessed by an evil spirit nor collectively “hypnotized” by their Führer. They have no claim upon either mitigating circumstance. When we laugh at Hitler, we dismiss the metaphysical, demonic capabilities accorded to him by postwar apologists. All the more pertinent is the question of how the empty trickery of the Nazis, which was already all too well exposed by critics in the late 1920s and 1930s, could have ended in the Holocaust.

(Emphasis mine)

Yes, that is indeed the pertinent question – and one that we should be asking ourselves in the current political scenario, when xenophobia is on the rise worldwide. There may be potential Hitlers waiting in the wings, waiting to ride to power on our prejudices.

The Darkest Chapter in the History of Secular India

A word of warning: if you are an adherent of the Hindutva philosophy espoused by the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, the following review will disturb you.

The book: “Gujarat – Irakalkku Vendi Oru Porattam” (“Gujarat – a Fight for the Victims”) should be read by all secular Indians to learn how government machinery and police were ruthlessly used for ethnic cleansing – written by a former Police Chief himself.

On 27 February, 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from the city of Ayodhya was allegedly set alight by Muslim rioters in the Godhra railway station in Gujarat state in western India, resulting in the death of 59 people. Over the next three days, crazed mobs of Hindu right-wing fanatics went on a rampage all over Gujarat, mainly the city of Ahmedabad. The police stood by impotently while Muslims were slaughtered mercilessly. It was the vilest incident of a sectarian attack, after the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984.

R. B. Sreekumar was Additional Director General of Police in Gujarat at the time. In this book, he comes up with the shocking revelation that the riots were systematically engineered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the hard-core Hindu component of the BJP, and they were blessed and abetted by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who allegedly told the police chiefs that “there would be Hindu backlash, and they were not to interfere”.

The carnage that followed boggles the mind. From Wikipedia:

It is estimated that at least 250 girls and women had been gang raped and then burned to death. Children were killed by being burnt alive and those digging mass graves described the bodies as “burned and butchered beyond recognition”. Children were force fed petrol and then set on fire, pregnant women were gutted and their unborn child’s body then shown to the women. In the Naroda Patiya mass grave of 96 bodies 46 were women. The murderers also flooded homes and electrocuted entire families inside. Violence against women also included their being stripped naked, objects being forced into their bodies and then their being killed. According to Kalpana Kannabiran the rapes were part of a well organized, deliberate and pre-planned strategy, and that this puts the violence in the area of a political pogrom and genocide. Other acts of violence against women were acid attacks, beatings and the killing of women who were pregnant. Children were also killed in front of their parents…

…Children and infants were speared and held aloft before being thrown into fires. Describing the sexual violence perpetrated against Muslim women and girls, Renu Khanna writes that the survivors reported “that sexual violence consisted of forced nudity, mass rapes, gang-rapes, mutilation, insertion of objects into bodies, cutting of breasts, slitting the stomach and reproductive organs, and carving of Hindu religious symbols on women’s body parts…

…Dionne Bunsha, writing on the Gulbarg Society massacre and murder of Ehsan Jafri, has said that Jafri begged the crowd to spare the women, he was dragged into the street and forced to parade naked for refusing to say “Jai Shri Ram”. He was then beheaded and thrown onto a fire, following this the rioters returned and burned Jafri’s family, including two small boys, to death. After the massacre Gulbarg burned for a week.



Sreekumar also had to stand by while the violence went on – he could not intervene without instructions from his superiors – but later on, he decided to go on a one-man mission to see that justice was done. Against the advice of his colleagues and superiors, he began filing honest reports. When the Justice Nanavati commission was set up to probe the riots, Sreekumar submitted an affidavit which proved to be political dynamite. The commission published the report. The Gujarat government tried to pressurise Sreekumar into disowning it. He refused, and submitted a second affidavit.

However, even with all this activism, nothing happened – the UPA government (whose main component was the Indian National Congress) at the centre, even though theoretically in the opposite camp of the BJP, was hesitant to take decisive action. The reaction of the Gujarat government was as expected: Sreekumar was harassed and punished – transferred to a sinecure post and his deserved promotion denied. But he did not stop, and along with the help of human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, succeeded in bringing many of the perpetrators of violence to justice: but due to interference from the state government (controlled by Modi) and lack of will-power of the Central Government, only the lowest level of the criminals – the one who actually carried out the rape, murder and pillage – were brought to justice. Those who gave the orders at the top could use their clout to escape.

The picture Sreekumar paints of Gujarat is less than edifying, to say the least. Government machinery is used regularly to destroy evidence and subvert justice. The cops who side with the government – even convicted and jailed in some cases – are regularly rewarded, while the honest ones are punished mercilessly. Muslims are forced to live in abject terror as second-class citizens. Muslim youth are regularly done away with in “police encounters” which are little more than cold-blooded murders. The government – any government – is powerless as all the key posts in the bureaucracy are filled with Hindu right-wing sympathisers.

The million-dollar question: is it a true memoir, or is the author a paid lackey of the opposition Indian National Congress as the BJP alleges?

As far as I am concerned, the book absolutely exudes honesty. Also, if Sreekumar is a Congress lackey as the BJP portrays him to be, why was he not “blessed” by the powers that be who was in power at the centre from 2004 to 2014? His battles seem to be lone affairs, with help from only a group of mavericks like himself.

I do not know whether Modi is the veritable monster that Sreekumar makes him out to be – we are all human, and there can be prejudices – but there is no doubt that his government stood by and allowed Hindu fanatics to murder Muslims. In my book, this indictment of Narendra Modi is enough.

Well, that person has gone through and image makeover and is currently the Prime Minister of India. Promising good governance, Modi seems to be subdued nowadays on the Hindutva (hard-core Hindu right wing) rhetoric. He has made all the right moves since occupying the highest seat in the Indian polity. But the experience of history teaches us that the tiger does not change his stripes.

I am keeping my fingers crossed.

A Review of “In Search of Fatima”

May 1book cover5, 1948. The world (at large) knows of it as the Israeli Independence Day. But the Palestinians call it by another name: Yawm-an Nakba (“Day of Catastrophe”) – for what name is more fitting for a day when daylight robbery was legitimised?

It is true that history is always written by the victors. So the “heroes” always win, and the “villains” always get defeated. This is the story we hear. But what about the narrative of the defeated? Who are the heroes and villains in that tale?

The formation of Israel is one of the most romanticised historic events, more so in the West. The tale of a homeless people, wandering around for centuries, endlessly persecuted, ultimately almost wiped out in the most horrific incident of planned and scientific genocide known in history; finally returning back to their mythic homeland and carving out a nation for themselves in the midst of hostile neighbours is the stuff of mythical sagas. What is sad is, the other side of this story, the tale of a people uprooted from their homeland and thrown out to become the flotsam of the modern world is largely unknown on misunderstood.

Yes, I am talking about the Palestinians. Those crazed terrorists as depicted in Western media, who take pleasure in killing women and angelic Israeli children. A race which has been so marginalised and demonised that they have lost all common decency accorded to human beings, and are on the way to becoming a footnote people in history.

It is in this context that I believe books like In Search of Fatima by Dr. Ghada Karmi becomes relevant. Because she gives a face to these “terrorist demons”. And we find with a shock that it is a human face, not very different from ours.

History

Palestinian_refugeesThe country called “Palestine” has never existed as a sovereign state (but then, never has Israel). “Palestine” is more a name of an area than a country. The birthplace of three of the world’s biggest religions, the area has been claimed exclusively by all three (although Christianity has relinquished its exclusive rights recently, I think). And it has resulted in contests and counter-conquests to capture the holiest of all holy cities – Jerusalem.

Palestine and the nearby areas had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire since the early sixteenth century: a rule which was to end only after the First World War, when the Ottomans picked the losing horse. Britain, getting control of all of the Middle East with the help of Arabs by promising them a Pan-Arabic state, did their usual job betrayal after the war was won. Palestine came under the British mandate in 1922.

Jews, who had been displaced from their homeland in prehistoric times, had been meanwhile returning since the late nineteenth century. Even though mistrust existed between them and the Arabs in the region, both religions managed to exist side-by-side in relative harmony. Of course, there were uprisings against the British, and also in-fighting between various Arab groups (some things don’t change in the Middle East, it seems). However, as the years went by, Jewish immigration to the area became alarming, and the immigrants became more and more aggressive. In the period of 1936 to 1939, there was general uprising against Britain, which was suppressed: however, Britain was forced to go back from its intent to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

After the Second World War, the immigration of European Jews to Palestine increased tremendously in numbers, and the Zionist lobby grew in power all over the Western world. Britain tried to restrict these numbers, but by then the Zionist lobby was physically and financially strong. Right-wing Zionist groups like the Irgun openly warring against the occupiers. So the British Empire went back to its time-tested formula: leave a colony which had become a losing proposition. Accordingly, the English withdrew, and the immigrants settled down clinically to the task of driving the Palestinians out. The Arabs were too disunited and lacked the will- and muscle-power to fight them. Ultimately, on 29th November 1947, the UN General Council passed a resolution legitimising the formation of independent Arab and Jewish states. And on 15th of May the following year, the state of Israel came into being.

The Book

The book is divided into three parts: Palestine, England and In Search of Fatima. In the first part, the author describes her early childhood in a relatively peaceful country ending with the ultimate violent uprooting; in the second, her coming of age in England and the realisation that she is an unfortunate hybrid, English in upbringing and Arab in spirit, belonging neither here nor there; and in the third, her return to Palestine to find her roots, symbolised by her childhood nurse, Fatima.

Ghada Karmi was born (possibly -because in those days, Arabs did not keep any note of birthdays) on the 19th of November, 1939, into a world at war and a country passing through the final stages of a violent uprising. She says her mother never wanted to have her, because it was no world to bring a child into. However, soon after Ghada’s birth, the country entered a stage of peace between the Jews, Christians and Muslims in Palestine. Her childhood memories are peaceful, almost idyllic.

Ghada’s mother was from Damascus and her father was from the small village of Tulkarm. They were typical upper middle class people, and Mr. Karmi was a literate man with a collection of books. Ghada’s mother was relatively advanced in her views and socialised extensively. The children were more or less left to the nurse-cum-housekeeper, Fatima, a peasant woman whom little Ghada idolised. They lived in the prosperous neighbourhood of Qatamon in Jerusalem. One could say that little Ghada had a fortunate life in turbulent times.

However, all that was to change as the Zionist lobby gained strength, and the fights between Jews and Muslims escalated. But the author’s family, it seems, lived in the fools’ paradise that most of us live in (“This cannot happen in MY country!”) and did not see the writing on the wall until it was too late, even when their neighbourhood was rocked by extreme violence. Even if they had foreseen their eviction from their homeland, it is doubtful whether they could have done anything, because the hopelessly divided Arab lobby was anything but capable of standing up to Zionist power. So finally, in April 1948, they had to evacuate to Syria, to the house Ghada’s maternal grandparents.

Ghada’s mother, unable to accept permanent exile and always maintaining until the end of her life that they would return to Palestine one day, gave the key of her house to Fatima for “safekeeping”. They moved away in a rickety taxi to the music of exploding bombs. It is at this point, when the author realised that she had to leave her dog Rex behind, the force of loss struck her in its enormity for the first time. This is captured poignantly in the book’s prologue:

Another explosion. The taxi, which had seen better days, revved loudly and started to move off. But through the back window, a terrible sight which only she could see. Rex had somehow got out, was standing in the middle of the road. He was still and silent, staring after their retreating car, his tail stiff, his ears pointing forward.

With utter clarity, the little girl saw in that moment that he knew what she knew, that they would never meet again.

This is the first wake-up call which signifies the death of childhood for ever – the harsh reality of permanent loss.

They stayed for a year in Syria, but by the time Ghada’s father had realised that there was no future for him there; and he was realistic enough to accept that an immediate return to Palestine was out of the question. Post-war England beckoned. Against his wife’s protests, he took a job in the Arabic service of the BBC and moved to London. He ultimately succeeded in coaxing his reluctant wife to join him, along with her children. So at nine years of age, Ghada set foot on English soil for the first time, the country which was to be her adoptive motherland.

Little Ghada was not at all unhappy to leave the house of her grandparents in Damascus, which was crowded with members of the joint family. The situation was further exacerbated due to the influx of more and more refugee members. Also, the country and the household was fairly traditional, more so than the relatively cosmopolitan Jerusalem. Girls were supposed to be subordinate, women had to cover their hair and one had to pray five times a day. So it must have been something of a relief to relocate to city like London.

However, Mrs. Karmi refused to accept it as home. In their small apartment in Golders Green, she “created a little Palestine” (in Ghada’s words). Their house became a centre for all displaced Arabic people. Ghada’s mother staunchly refused to learn English and to go out and socialise with the locals. She built a cocoon around herself and became totally insular. The author says this embittered her and from her expression in the photographs in the book, one would tend to agree with her.

Ghada’s elder sister, Siham, was marked out to be a doctor: however, due to the subtle racial prejudice prevalent in British society, she could not get admission and ultimately chose chemistry as her vocation. Her brother Ziyad chose engineering, so Ghada was instructed to become a doctor by her father, even though her talent was more in literature and the humanities. But in an Arab family, you did not argue with the father – so a doctor she had to be.

Ghada talks of her school years in England as pleasant enough: racism, even though present, was basically an undercurrent. In fact, among the Arab Muslim and the Jew, the inherent racist bias was more against the latter. However, Egyptian president Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956 changed all that. Overnight, Arabs became barbarian aggressors in the minds of the British.

In school, Ghada began to be isolated more and more. One incident of outright bullying by a Jewish classmate, Zoe Steiner, almost ended in an incident of physical violence. Incidentally, it succeeded in sowing the seed of a crucial existential question in the author’s mind: was she Arab or English?

This dilemma persisted throughout her teens and twenties. On the one side, she was enjoying the freedom of a liberated woman, unthinkable in the Middle East: on the other, Arab nationalism and pride were being ground into dust by Israel and her Western allies. Ghada says that at this time, the existence of a country such as Palestine was unknown in England, and she had to lie about her nationality when questioned to avoid confusion.

At this time, a Pan-Arab movement was taking shape under the charismatic leadership of Nasser, watched warily by Israel. But Ghada had no time for politics because of two important events in her life – she graduated from medical school, and married a classmate (an Englishman) against her family’s wishes.

The marriage was doomed from the start. Ghada’s family (especially her mother) was unvaryingly hostile to John, her husband – all placatory efforts from his side proved futile. And Ghada’s slowly emerging nationalism as an Arab distanced them even more. But what brought things to a head was the six-day war of 1967 between Egypt and Israel which Israel won with ridiculous ease. This foreshadowed the shape of things to come in the area – unlimited expansion of Israeli borders with impunity. Naturally, Ghada was outraged but her husband was on the side of “plucky” Israel who won against enormous odds. She felt totally betrayed, and the rickety marriage collapsed a year later.

Now, in the final part of the book, we see a new Ghada Karmi: a proud Palestinian who has embraced her identity. After the collapse of her marriage, she continued working as a doctor, feeling more and more isolated from fellow Britons when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation entered the scene, under the charismatic leadership of Yasser Arafat. Their tactics of hijacking, bombing and isolated acts of violence against Israelites helped to bring international attention to the plight of Palestinians – it also dubbed them forever as terrorists. And being unabashedly Palestinian, Ghada was automatically stamped with the label.

After a frightening encounter with a group of Jewish doctors in 1971, Ghada decided to embrace the Palestinian Cause – and the PLO – fully. She established “Palestine Action” in England with a group of sympathisers and began to travel all over the Arab world, visiting Palestinian refugee camps and meeting leaders of the PLO. She also participated in protests and political action in England. Ghada describes the magical moment when she met Yasser Arafat, the legend, face-to-face. It seemed as though she had finally found herself.

However, by 1978, the PLO had been recognised by the world at large, and Arafat was seen as the leader in exile of the Palestinian nation. Ghada says she saw no need of continuing her organisation, as it had become redundant. She felt, like many other Palestinians, that the birth of a legitimate Palestine was only a matter of time.

But Israel had other ideas: it invaded Lebanon in 1978 and forced the PLO out of its Beirut headquarters. From then on, the organisation was always on its back foot, pressurised time and again by Israel until Arafat was forced to sign the Oslo Agreements of 1993 – in the eyes of Palestinians, a shameful capitulation. On the personal front, Ghada found it difficult to adjust to Arab society, especially women’s role in it – she says that as a divorcee, she was seen as fair game by men. The most she could hope for was to be a second wife to somebody, or secret liaisons with married men. By the 1980’s Ghada began to see that

…in effect, I had no natural social home in England or any other place. Did we all feel the same?…. When and where was their (her siblings’ and hers) real home?

To get to the root of the question, she had to

…go to the source, the origin, the very place, shunned fearfully for years, where it all began…

…that is, Israel.

The book concludes with Ghada’s 14 day visit to Israel in August 1991 (something denied to most Palestinians), which she could do because of her British passport. She was helped by her Israeli friends. Ghada was shocked at what she saw in “her” country: in her opinion, nothing short of apartheid practised by Jews on Arabs, a minority without voice in what had once been their country. Even though Ghada ultimately located her house (now occupied by strangers), it was “dead, like Fatima, like poor Rex, like us.”

The book ends on a positive note, however, as Ghada lies on her hotel bed in Jerusalem. Suddenly the call to prayer comes floating in through the window. The author says:

I closed my eyes in awe and relief. The story had not ended, after all – not for them, at least, the people who lived there, though they were herded into reservations of a fraction of what had been Palestine. They would remain and multiply and one day return and overtake. Their exile was material and temporary.

Ghada feels however that her personal exile is “undefined by space and time”, from where “there would be no return.”

***

Is this a great book? I cannot honestly answer in the affirmative. Ghada Karmi’s style is rambling, and one feels the book would have benefited from the services of a good editor. The author rushes off on tangents many a time without returning to where she started from.

The memoirs are so steeped in her feeling for Palestine and the outrage that they have suffered that the human touch is missing in many areas (especially where she is discussing relationships). Sometimes, one feels that she has to pigeonhole people (“my Jew friend”, “my Catholic colleague”) racially just to put things in perspective. Even her relationship with her husband and subsequent breakup is only superficially treated, other than as confirmation of her growing Arab identity and its incompatibility with the normal English milieu.

Most importantly, the metaphor of Fatima, as a symbol for the lost Palestine, never takes hold in the mind of the reader.

Still, this is a book which deserves to be read.

map

In 1969, Golda Meir said: “It was not as though there were a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” This was the fate of the Palestinians before the PLO entered the scene with their isolated acts of terrorism – total oblivion. The PLO made them crazed terrorists in the Western mind, which was better – at least they existed!

Of late, with the increasing demonisation of Islam and Muslims in general in the West, the Palestinians have been added to those evil beings like the Al Queida who deserve to exterminated, to make the world safe for democracy. One almost feels that the crusades never ended.

Well, my friends, Palestinians are neither mythical beings nor devils in human guise. They are a people who have been unjustly expelled from their home country to wander the earth as waifs, much like the Jews in previous centuries. They are human beings like you and me, who laugh, cry, eat, drink, love, hate, live and die. They do not get the justice they deserve: let them at least have a voice.

Ghada Karmi provides that voice. Listen to it. Even if it evokes a single tear from you for the suffering of fellow human beings, she would not have spoken in vain.

The Philosophy of Hatred

I have finished reading Godless: the Church of Liberalism by Ann Coulter. Whew! I didn’t think I would survive the ordeal.

Ann Coulter is a prominent right-wing media personality in America. However, it is not her conservative views which get her attention: it is the outright hatred she has for the “other”, and the purposefully rude way in which she expresses her opinion, that does it. Liberals hate her, and she revels in it.

I read this book to see whether Ann is as black as she’s painted. Well, she’s blacker. I did not think a human being could spew so much hate and still remain sane (unless it’s all an act to gain media attention, as some of her detractors say, which is quite possible).

Ann Coulter’s main argument in this book is against the separation of the Church and the State. As a conservative Christian, she would like to see the USA become a theocracy; however, this is effectively prevented by the constitution which is secular. So she goes on to attack secularism itself as a godless religion, rather than a logical frame work where all kinds of thoughts can coexist side by side.

The book is very badly written, with plenty of her pet peeves surfacing time and again, interspersed with snide remarks and name-calling, so there is no coherent central argument. However, the main points Ms. Coulter tries make can be summarised as:

  • Liberal thought is a godless religion, less logical than Christianity, which is being forced on Americans through public institutions and state schools.
  • Liberals want to live a life free of any moral code.
  • Liberals are hell-bent on supporting criminals who have done heinous crimes against humanity, and time and again have sent prisoners out on parole who have again committed more serious crimes.
  • Liberals are in favour of abortion, just because they don’t mind killing babies to enjoy indiscriminate sex.
  • Muslims are a danger to the world. President George Bush is right in attacking Iraq and killing Saddam Hussein. However, Liberals support Islamic terrorists.
  • Liberals support public school teachers who (in her opinion) are a bunch of overpaid slackers, responsible for Americans’ decline in the intellectual field.
  • Liberal science has no evidential support: the deleterious effects of pesticides, global warming, the fact that AIDS attacks heterosexuals as well as gays, the benefits of embryonic stem cell research… these are all myths created by liberals to further their political agenda. Anybody who speaks out against these is hounded out of the scientific establishment.
  • And most importantly – the theory of evolution (which she calls “Darwinism”) – is absolute nonsense.

Most of the “arguments” (if they can be called that) the author presents for each of the above are pretty shaky – most of them are straw men, and will convince only the already converted. She is in fact preaching to the choir. However, she purposefully misrepresents facts. These half-truths are more dangerous than outright lies; even those who dislike her rhetoric may fall for the veneer of truth in her analysis.

(I did a quick research on two cases which Ann Coulter presented as proof of the liberal penchant for loosening inhuman criminals on society. The first, the case of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920’s who purportedly murdered two payroll carriers, she presents as an open-and-shut case. What is more, she says that their liberal supporters were aware that they were guilty, but still lied to the authorities and public. However, it seems that there is plenty of evidence to believe that Vanzetti was innocent; and Sacco’s guilt is not proved beyond doubt. More importantly, there is every reason to believe that the defendants were not given a fair trial.

The second case is more distressing. Dennis Dechaine was convicted of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in Maine. The way Coulter describes it, the case is airtight: Dechaine is another monster that the liberals are trying to save. But a quick search on the net will bring out the full facts – there were at least two other people who could be guilty. Dechaine’s supporters are asking only for a retrial, not an acquittal, with newly acquired DNA evidence: however, the state is adamant that it will not budge. It seems more of a case of government obstinacy than a conspiracy to free a convicted criminal.)

If Ann had her way, lynch mobs would replace trial courts. She is angry with the drawn-out trials, the pleas for leniency, and the mounting pressure to ban capital punishment. In her opinion, harsh punishment is the only deterrent for violent crime: for all her hatred of Sharia law, one feels that Saudi Arabia would be her ideal country.

(Ironically, for a person hell-bent on the death penalty, she considers herself “pro-life”, which means against abortion. It seems that the conservatives value human life only when in the foetal stage!)

Ms. Coulter singles out some individuals for special treatment – one of the main recipients of her venom is Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Dukakis is the ultra-liberal: a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union (something akin to a witches’ coven in Ann’s view), he advocated furloughs for even convicted first-degree murderers during his term in office. (Dukakis also declared August 23, 1977 as “Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day”, to atone for their “unfair trial and conviction” – sacrilege according to Ms. Coulter.)

Dukakis lost the 1988 election to George H. W. Bush, helped in a large part due to a racist campaign focussing on the convicted murderer Willie Horton Dukakis allowed to go on furlough, and who committed a vicious assault and rape during his time outside the prison. Ann Coulter however, glosses over the campaign itself, playing down the racist angle. According her, Dukakis lost because his liberal views, especially the ones regarding the treatment of criminals, were rejected by the public (even so, Ann’s racial bias is evident throughout: at one point, she calls him the “Greek midget”).

Ms. Coulter uses gutter language to criticise many prominent Democrats including Bill Clinton and Al Gore (her sexual innuendos about Clinton are nauseating), and fawns over Republicans, especially George W. Bush, who in her opinion is a sort of divine incarnation come to rescue America. Needless to say, she considers America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq legitimate – it is “protecting America”. From the hindsight of 2014, when the USA is crawling back from the Middle East with its tail between its legs, her contention that America would have won the Vietnam War had not protests at home forced the government to abandon it seems laughably silly. She writes at a point of time when Republicans are still waiting for the imminent discovery of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” hoarded by Saddam! One could feel pity for her, if she were not so contemptuous of the mothers who have lost sons in Iraq.

According to Ann, all liberals are anti-science: they use the scientific method just to push their agenda on abortion, gay rights, global warming, etc. No wonder, as the conservatives view science as a tool just to help them exploit nature and other human beings. She favours the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels: the protection of environment is anathema to her, as she views it from the biblical perspective as man’s natural bounty, to be consumed at will. The view that man is part of nature will sound like common sense to most normal human beings, but not to conservatives of Ms. Coulter’s ilk. To quote an example: “We believe in populating the Earth until there’s standing room only and then colonizing Mars; they believe humans are in the twilight of their existence.” – I rest my case.

But it is when it comes to the theory of evolution that Ann Coulter really outdoes herself. According to her, evolution is only a theory, having absolutely no basis in fact that the liberals are “forcing” on Americans, by making it mandatory in schools. Creation theory is much more solid in her opinion. Ann is clever enough not to argue for the Biblical creation myth as science: she knows that she will be laughed out of court. Her theory of choice Intelligent Design (ID) as propounded by the biologist Michael Behe, which posits a supernatural intelligence behind the development of various life-forms. Ms. Coulter says despite many scientists favouring this theory, liberals are using their hold on the scientific establishment and academia to keep it out of schools.

As a person who followed the ID debate with interest, I know most of what Ann Coulter says is contrary to facts. ID was thrown out of the science curriculum in schools because it was not science: it did not present any alternative to evolution; rather, it only argued that there was a divine will behind the process. As any college student knows, such a theory can never be refuted as it is not falsifiable. The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District judgement has become famous not without reason.

This does not deter the creationists, however: they try to sneak ID into schools every now and then. The case of Roger DeHart is a classic example. This is what Ann Coulter has to say about it:

Roger DeHart used to teach biology at Burlington-Edison High School in Washington State, where he supplemented his curriculum with newspaper stories on the Chinese fossils from newspapers like the Boston Globe and the New York Times. He never mentioned God. The ACLU threatened to sue and the school removed DeHart from his class, replacing him with a recent teachers’ college graduate who had majored in physical education. Thus were the students of Burlington-Edison High School saved from having to hear scientific facts that might cause them to question their faith in the official state religion.

This is what Wikipedia says:

In 1997 it became known to the public that longtime biology teacher Roger DeHart had been teaching intelligent design in his curriculum through excerpts of Of Pandas and People and Inherit the Wind. This event brought forth national attention and controversy. From 1986 to 1997, Roger DeHart had subtly posed the intelligent design theory in the classroom. After parents of one of DeHart’s students notified the American Civil Liberties Union, the group threatened to sue the Burlington-Edison School District if DeHart didn’t stop teaching intelligent design. The event sparked large debate, and support groups for both sides were formed. DeHart was later reassigned to earth sciences, and in 2001 he resigned and took a teaching job at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. He taught there for one year before transferring to a Christian school in California.

See the subtle twisting of facts? Goebbels would have been envious! Of course, it is possible that Wikipedia is wrong or controlled by scheming liberals, but I find it much more believable than Ann Coulter.

Richard Sternberg is another example, who as an unpaid research associate at the Smithsonian, published a controversial article about Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a journal of which he was the editor. There was a doubt as to whether the article may not have undergone the normal peer-review procedure, so the magazine disowned it. Subsequent to this turn of events, Sternberg filed a complaint against the Smithsonian for harassment; a complaint which did not stick as he had no locus standi since he was unpaid. Sternberg’s impartial credentials are also doubtful since he is an open proponent of ID. However, in Ms. Coulter’s version of the narrative, he is a martyred scientist tortured by the big, bad liberal establishment.

It is also interesting to note that most of the “scientists” quoted in the book belong to the Discovery Institute, which

…is a non-profit public policy think tank based in Seattle, Washington, best known for its advocacy of the pseudoscience “intelligent design” (ID). Its “Teach the Controversy” campaign aims to teach creationist anti-evolution beliefs in United States public high school science courses alongside accepted scientific theories, positing a scientific controversy exists over these subjects.

-Wikipedia.

The Discovery Institute, by their own admission as set forth in their manifesto, follows the “Wedge Strategy”.

The wedge strategy is a political and social action plan authored by the Discovery Institute, the hub of the intelligent design movement. The strategy was put forth in a Discovery Institute manifesto known as the Wedge Document, which describes a broad social, political, and academic agenda whose ultimate goal is to defeat materialism, naturalism, evolution, and “reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” The strategy also aims to affirm what it calls “God’s reality.” Its goal is to change American culture by shaping public policy to reflect conservative Christian, namely evangelical Protestant, values. The wedge metaphor is attributed to Phillip E. Johnson and depicts a metal wedge splitting a log to represent an aggressive public relations program to create an opening for the supernatural in the public’s understanding of science.

It is hardly surprising that scientists resist the Discovery Institute’s attempts to gate-crash the science party. It has nothing to do with science, and plenty to do with religion. It is religious dogma’s last-gasp attempt to enter the science classroom through the backdoor, after reason has pushed it out of the front door. Please note that this has nothing to do with religious freedom: it is the attempt to teach religious belief as science which is being resisted. Ironically, as Ms. Coulter bemoans all these true scientists being persecuted by liberals, she is resoundingly silent about the history of the persecution of scientists by the religious establishment.

***

To sum up: the book is nothing but a polemic. It will delight the conservatives and disgust the liberals. However, I see one danger: any neutral person reading the book might believe the “facts” presented by Ms. Coulter, because of the superficial semblance to truth they carry. I would advise such readers with “open” minds to read the other side of the debate also. To balance Ann, I suggest Michael Moore!

***

One last word, especially to Indian readers:

  • Ann Coulter considers liberals’ tolerance of Muslims as treasonous, as she considers most Muslims as terrorists and Islam as a religion of violence.
  • She considers any consideration of the environment as a potential roadblock in the path of development and progress.
  • She believes Democrats develop African-Americans as a vote bank; she believes that illegal immigration is encouraged by them to swell their vote banks.
  • She believes gays and lesbians have no legal rights.
  • She believes there should not be any separation of the Church and the State, and America should be a Christian nation.

…Any of the above ring a bell?

Yes, conservatives are the same everywhere. Their philosophy is one of hatred – hate the “Other”, because they hate you. Kill them, before they kill you. If you listen to them, sooner or later fear will get into your heart – then hatred. From that to murder is only a step. It happened in Germany in the last century.

Beware.

Secularism in the Indian Context

Continuing the same thread from my previous blog post, I thought I should do a little bit more research into the concept of secularism. Everyone in India bandies the word about, but nobody (including yours truly) seems to know what it actually means.

“Secularism” as defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary – the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society; indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations” – is essentially a Western concept, and I decided to start my reading from Western authors. The first book I selected was The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur.

Paul Cliteur is a Dutch jurist and philosopher known for his liberal atheistic views, and this book enhances that reputation. It is divided into four parts, which the author considers as the pillars of a secular outlook.

Atheism

According to Cliteur, an atheistic worldview is a prerequisite for a secular frame of mind. He makes it clear that this need not be of the public and militant variety of Dawkins and Hitchens; and he is vehement that it should not be a state philosophy enforced on hapless citizenry like that of China or the former Soviet Union. Cliteur’s atheism is “a-theism” or “non-theism” – the denial of an absolute and personal God, like that of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Atheism does not negate the philosophical concepts of God; neither does it purport to prove the non-existence of God. It is not belief in the non-existence of a concrete God, rather, it is the absence of belief. In this sense, Cliteur ranks it superior to agnosticism, which he considers to be a purposeful decision to politically defer a troublesome question.

Criticism of Religion

Cliteur posits two facets of “freethought” as essential for a secular outlook. The first of this is criticism of religion; not the religious establishment, but the basic tenets themselves. He does not subscribe to the viewpoint that religion “per se” is good, it is only the interpretation that is the problem – you cannot stretch what is written in the holy text to mean what you want it to mean, like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass. If a terrorist reads a passage in a holy book which exhorts the believer to murder the infidel and acts on it, the fault of the person is not for “misinterpreting” the passage: the fault is blind faith, and of the holy book for having the passage there in the first place. The secular person should learn to understand and reject such facets of religion.

Freedom of Expression

The second facet of freethought, Cliteur defines as the freedom of expression. It is not only necessary that one should be able to take a critical look at religion – one should also be willing and able to express that criticism. Cliteur has the same opinion as John Stuart Mill, the apostle of free speech, that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against its will, is to prevent harm to others.” To put it in simple terms, any citizen of a free society should be able to say what he/ she wants to as long as it is not intended to provoke physical harm to other human beings. In this context, Cliteur is severely critical of the contemporary mindset of many of the liberal democracies that religious sentiments should be treated with special respect.

Secularist Ethics

In the final chapter, the author ties together all the discussion into the million-dollar question: can a moral human being exist without religious values: or will we descend into the utter chaos of moral relativity, a world where “anything goes” depending upon the hedonistic impulses of people?

It is no secret on which side of the debate Cliteur stands. He does a fine job of establishing that moral values are inbuilt in human beings, and a mature society will foster those intrinsic values rather than impose them as derived from a heavenly authority – which he considers infantile. In this context, he quotes Lawrence Kohlberg, the famous American psychologist, who had posited the following stages of moral development in children.

  1. Orientation to punishment and reward, and to physical and material power.
  2. Hedonistic orientation with an instrumental view of human relations (“You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”).
  3. “Good Boy” orientations; seeking to maintain expectations and win approval of one’s immediate group.
  4. Orientation to authority, law and duty, to maintaining a fixed order, whether social or religious, assumed as a primary value.
  5. Social-contract orientation, with emphasis on equality and mutual obligation within a democratically established order; for example, the morality of the American Constitution.
  6. Principles of conscience that have logical comprehensiveness and universality. Highest value placed on human life, equality, and dignity.

Cliteur writes:

The first two stages are typical of young children and delinquents. According to Kohlberg they are “pre-moral”. Decisions are made largely on the basis of self-interest. Stages 3 and 4 are “conventional”. They are the ones on the basis of which most of the adult population operate. The final stages are the “principled” stages. Those are characteristic of 20 to 25 percent of the adult population. Perhaps only 5 or 10 percent arrive at the sixth and final stage. Only at stage 6 is each life seen as inherently worthwhile, aside from other considerations.

Religious ethics, or “Divine Command” ethics, is stuck at stage four, according to Cliteur. The believer obeys God without questioning the inherent fairness of His dictum. Here, the author brings up two issues discussed at length in chapters two and three and ties them up with the concept of ethics in general – the question of God’s cruelty towards his creation (the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Phinehas and Jephtha) in the Bible, and the intolerance of contemporary Islam towards its critics, which sanctions murder even transcending national boundaries (the plight of Salman Rushdie and Theo van Gogh). Cliteur’s argument is very explicit: here, the believer is urged to forego all human values and follow the command of God as set down in the Holy Text to the letter. No earthly law or court matters to him or her; judgement is in the court of God.

In this context, Cliteur is scathing in his criticism of religious apologists such as Karen Armstrong, who argue for the inherent goodness of all religions, and point to the interpretation of the text as the problem. According to him, it is an invalid argument: a believer is more likely to interpret what is written down literally than search for esoteric explanations. What the apologists do in trying to make the religious texts acceptable to modernity is reinterpret them in the light of universally acceptable ethics; thus cutting the foot to fit the shoe. In his view, this is dangerous, as it exonerates religion from historical guilt. What is required is the realisation that ethics is secular in nature, and the total rejection of the inhuman aspects of religion. Here, we are back to the “non-theism” of the first chapter.

***

Paul Cliteur seems to have written this book as a reaction to growing Islamic fundamentalism in Europe. The murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri and the violent reactions in the Islamic world to the Danish cartoons mocking Islam is mentioned in many contexts. Obviously, growing fundamentalism and its attendant terrorism among the Muslim fanatics is indeed a cause for concern; however, I seriously doubt whether a total rejection of religion can be the solution. I do not see a move towards Western style atheism in the East in the conceivable future. Maybe, an appreciation of the metaphoric value of myth as opposed to literalism is the real solution.

Secularism and India


A long time ago, at a book exhibition, I happened to wander into the book stall of Indian Atheist Publishers. They are known for their religious and social criticism. Scanning their shelves, I was struck by a curious fact: while there were a lot of books criticising the Hindu scriptures, there were very few on Islam and Christianity. This was made even more interesting by the fact that social criticism of all three religious establishments was available in equal measure. This was during a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party were making their mark for the first time in Indian politics. One of their main arguments – that the secularism practised in India was “Pseudosecularism” and in reality, it only meant appeasement of the minorities – seemed to be borne out by this particular experience.

Looking back now, when the Hindu Right has grown enormously in political clout and become very vociferous, I can see this in a new light. The Indian establishment pussyfoots around religious sentiments – criticism of Hindu tenets are allowed because the religion includes that criticism also within its fold. There is no “religious authority” in Hinduism, so various interpretations are possible: till recently, they were encouraged.

However, Hinduism also seems to be tilting towards the intolerance shown by “religions of the book” to any criticism – the recent decision of Penguin to pull Wendy Doniger’s book from publication seems to be an ominous indication of things to come. In this context, I personally feel that educated Hindus have the responsibility to bring the healthy spirit of criticism back into the religion, and encourage the same in other religions. It is this Indian open-mindedness which gave birth to Kapila, the Buddha, Adi Sankara, Vivekananda et al. That we can do this without forsaking our essential spirituality is our great advantage. It is what makes India different: we do not need “a-theism” as defined by Cliteur to be secular. We are religiously secular!

What Hindutva Means to Me

Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has just ridden in to power at the head of the biggest democracy in the world. This has naturally created some apprehension in the minds of liberal thinkers, because the BJP is known for its rejection of secularism (which it calls “pseudosecularism”) and wholesale advocacy of Hindutva (“Hindu-ness”), a term coined by V. D. Savarkar. To be fair, however, he did not mean any kind of fundamentalism by the word – from Wikipedia, in Savarkar’s own words:

Hindutva is not a word but a history. Not only the spiritual or religious history of our people as at times it is mistaken to be … but a history in full … Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the whole Being of our Hindu race.

In this sense, Hindutva means only being Indian in the true sense; accepting its multi-flavoured culture while at the same time recognising that there is a common thread which unites us all, rather like beads of different colours and size being strung together on to make a necklace. Indians were called Hindus by the Persians, because they occupied the land beyond the Sindhu (Indus) river. It was a term more geographical than religious, and used in this sense, there is nothing objectionable in it.

But is “Indian” and “Hindu” synonymous in the current historical context? Unfortunately, I will have to say no.

Hinduism

Even though Hindus like to call their religion the Sanatana Dharma (“Eternal Law”), there is nothing eternal about it – it is a mixture of the beliefs of the Aryans who migrated to India around 1700 B.C.E, and the indigenous people of the subcontinent. Over a period of time, the mythologies of the nomadic and warlike Aryans melded and merged with a kaleidoscope of local beliefs to create the rich tapestry we know by the name “Hinduism” today. There is no standard textbook for it, nor is there any standard ritual. What may be sacred for Hindus in one part of India may be the most heinous sin in other parts.

However, over a period of time, this religion took on an organised structure, and in terms of humanitarian principles, one of the worst ever in the history of world religions – the hierarchy of caste. Brahmins ruled over this mega structure without contributing anything to society (except esoteric “learning”) while the actual working class was thrown out of the social framework altogether: they were considered too “unclean” even to touch. The lowest stratum of society lived on in abject poverty while working themselves to death, while the top layer enjoyed life without doing a day’s productive work.

One can argue that this was the condition of humanity in almost all human societies in the ancient and medieval world, and one would be right. However, what set the Indian society apart was that this structure was doomed to stasis. Since caste was inherited, there was no way to escape from its tyranny in this life – so Hindus posited multiple lives in which the soul will be born again and again, either higher up or lower down in the hierarchy depending upon how virtuous one was in the current life. And the yardstick of virtuousness was how one adhered to the “Dharma” of one’s caste. So the maintenance of the status quo was firmly established. The Manu Smriti (“Laws of Manu”) sets forth the “ISO standard” (so to say!) for this system.

I do not know how such a non-egalitarian society came into being, or how a small minority was able to lord it over a huge majority for such a long time without the use of force. But it happened.

The Philosophical Aspect

Indians always had the tendency to run away from public life and meditate. So it is not unusual that while producing one of the most unfair societies, India also produced some of the world’s deepest philosophies. The sages went to the forest and meditated, and came up with one of the most advanced notions of God ever formulated – that of the Brahman. The Brahman, which may be roughly translated as “World Soul”, is the be-all and end-all of everything, the bedrock of all existence. Individual Atman (soul, consciousness) comes from it, and goes back to it after death. It is without time or space, containing everything, and finding expression in everything. The ultimate end of any Hindu is the realisation of Aham Brahma Asmi (“I am the Brahman”) or Tat Tvam Asi (“Thou Art That”), as found in the Upanishads.

It is interesting to note that such a lofty philosophy existed side by side with a religion which was extremely cruel in its treatment of human beings: and that too, without conflict. Indeed, when the Buddha turned this philosophy on its head and said that there was no Atman or Brahman, it was also assimilated into Indian culture – and the Buddha was turned into an incarnation of Vishnu! This is the strength of this religion, this assimilatory nature: pluralism is inbuilt. This is why Hindus and Hinduism have continued even under trying times.

As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: “People the world over worship me in different forms. Ultimately they all come to me.”

You can’t get more inclusive than that.

The Coming of Christianity and Islam

The coming of the Levantine religions to India was also relatively peaceful. Christianity and Islam came to the Malabar Coast via the trade routes. According to all historical records, the rulers of Kerala gave these people land and the permission to build places of worship, and also to proselytise and spread their religion: this happened when bloody wars were being fought in the name of God elsewhere in the world.

The entry of Islam to northern India was a bit more problematic, as it was brought in by warlike tribes from Asia and not peaceful Arab traders as it happened in Kerala. Under waves and waves of invasions by Muslim warlords, and the reigns of various Muslim dynasties, there is sure to have been bad blood between Muslims and Hindus. The intolerance of Christian and Muslim rulers all over the world towards other religions is generally well-documented: there is no reason to assume it was different in India under Islamic rule. But we must not forget that religious tolerance is a relatively recent idea in history, before judging them; we must also note that even in such intolerant times, India produced an enlightened emperor like Akbar.

Secularism, the Indian Way

I have heard it repeated ad nauseam that it was the English that gave India the concept of a democratic and secular country. While this may be true in the case of democracy, I would beg to differ in the case of secularism – because secularism was practised in India much before this idea arose in the West.

I got the following definition from the web, from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Secularism: the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society

Full Definition of SECULARISM: indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations

As one can see, secularism here is more concerned with the exclusion of religion from the public sphere. It is etymologically related to secularisation, which means “the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious (or irreligious) values and secular institutions”(from Wikipedia): that is, a slow movement away from religion. Many scientists and progressive thinkers (Richard Dawkins being one vociferous example) in the West still believe that society will become fully atheistic in the future – they in fact see this as a desirable outcome. Secularism is seen as the first step to this Godless utopia.

I think Indian secularism is markedly different from this. It has its roots in the concept of Sarva Dharma Sama Bhavana as propounded by Gandhi – accepting the equality of all religions as valid pathways to enlightenment. Here, the state embraces all religions equally. It is driven by the principle of inclusion rather than exclusion – acceptance of all religions and appeasement of none.

The Resurgence of Hindutva

Unfortunately, the above principle would work only if all religions get enlightened. In India, it has led to minorities banding in communal terms and becoming vote banks, which politicians exploit. This has lead to dissatisfaction among the majority Hindus, which the BJP has been exploiting in a big way since 1989: twenty-five years hence, they have stormed into power.

The worrying factor here is the fact that the BJP’s interpretation of Hindutva is not one of inclusiveness. By calling Hinduism the Sanatana Dharma, they go back to Vedic Brahmanism with all its reactionary baggage. It is true that the caste hierarchy is condemned by the party, but the texts they consider sacred are the same ones which justified this system. The BJP’s requirement to accept the whole of Hindu thought and history per se as “true” and “sacred” precludes any critical review of the same – in this they are as bad as any Levantine religion. Only, they use the pluralism of Indian history very cleverly to promote the notion of “Hindu tolerance”. That they could do this while tearing down a religious edifice of another religion must be recorded as one of the ironies of Indian history.

***

To summarise: I do not reject the concept of Hindutva as “Indian-ness”. Rather, I consider it superior to Western secularism. But my notion of Hindutva embraces Charvaka, the atheist philosopher; it draws energy from the concept of Aham Brahma Asmi and Tat Tvam Asi of the Upanishads; it looks upon the Buddha and Adi Sankara with the same reverence. My concept rejects the Laws of Manu, which forced a king to kill a lower caste person for doing Sannyasa (the Hindu way of meditation and penance to attain enlightenment); it rejects the sentiments of a crazed mob which tore down a place of worship in the name of a mythical Hindu king who is hailed as “Maryada Purushottama” (a morally perfect human being).

I am an Indian, and a Hindu – and I stand by right to reject the Vedas, the “Holy” Scriptures, and “God” as defined by the pundits, and still remain a Hindu.

This is what “Hindutva” means to me.

American Imperialism – The Disney Way (A Review of “How to Read Donald Duck” by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart)

…This book, conceived for the Chilean people, and our urgent needs, produced in the midst of our struggle, is now being published far from Chile in the uncleland of Disney, behind the barbed wire network of ITT.

Mr. Disney, we are returning your Duck. Feathers plucked and well-roasted. Look inside, you can see the handwriting on the wall, our hands still writing on the wall:

Donald, Go Home!

  • Dorfman and Mattelart, January 1975, in exile

Donald Duck as the agent of American imperialism? Surely it’s a joke, right?

Not according to Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, exiles from the Chilean dictatorship. They are in dead earnest – and they do a good job of convincing the reader, in this slim volume of less than a hundred pages.

Donald Duck (and later on, Uncle Scrooge) was my personal favourite among the Disney characters. In an age bereft of TV and computers, comic books were very popular among the bookish kids – and Walt Disney was a sort of god in the field. If anybody would have mentioned that there was anything political in those harmless fantasies in those days, he would have been ridiculed to death.

But that was India. In Latin America, a turbulent continent struggling with lawlessness on one hand and dictators backed by the USA on the other, anything and everything was political. In Chile, a country with an unfortunate history, the struggle between capitalistic despotism and communism was fought on the arena of comic books – unlikely as it may seem.

***

In 1973, the democratic government in Chile was overthrown by the military with the blessings of the USA and with liberal help from the CIA. Liberals and leftists were jailed and tortured. Democratic institutions were closed down. Books were burned, including this one. Even now, this book is not available in Chile: in those days, to be found in possession of one was to risk death at the hands of the authorities.

This “War of the Comics” had started in 1971. In 1970, after the Popular Unity government came to power, there was a marked shift to the left. This worried the US, because Chile was totally in their economic control till then. However, as David Kunzle says (in the introduction to the book), it was easier to nationalise the copper industry than to remove the influence of insidious American popular media. Chile took the effort anyway: apart from this book, a local comic called Cabro Chico (“Little Kid”) was created to counter Disney. How effective these measures were can be seen by the violent reaction of El Mercurio, a reactionary daily (funded by the CIA, no less), who claimed these comics were a plot to seize the control of young minds by Marxist media – which was true in a sense. What they forgot to mention was this was already being done by America, through its “free” press!

The inevitable happened: the military stepped in with the blessings of the US. In the words of David Kunzle:

On September 11, 1973 the Chilean armed forces executed, with U. S. aid, the bloodiest counterrevolution in the history of the continent. Tens of thousands of workers and government supporters were killed. All art and literature favourable to the Popular Unity was immediately suppressed. Murals were destroyed. There were public bonfires of books, posters and comics. Intellectuals of the left were hunted down, jailed, tortured and killed: among those persecuted, the authors of this book.

To illustrate where Disney stood in this fight, Kunzle reproduces a cartoon which is chilling in its implications. A couple of vultures, Marx and Hegel (see the blatant politicisation in the names) are attacking innocent animals, and Jiminy Cricket as the voice of conscience is trying to dissuade them. However, they attack Jiminy (“Get him, comrade!”) who says “Occasionally I run up against guys who are immune to the voice of conscience“. However, the farmer comes with his guns and chases the birds away, cheered on by Jiminy: “Ha! Firearms are the only thing these bloody birds are afraid of.” Emphasis is mine, to clarify the message – shoot the communist.

Definitely not the Uncle Walt I knew as a child – so let’s now look at Disney the man before diving into the book.

Disney the Man

Like many famous people, there is a wide chasm between Disney’s public persona and his private. Publicly, he is Uncle Walt, pandering to the all the children of the world and the universal child in all of us. He is the creator of innocent dreams, the merchant of fun and frolic worldwide. In an entertainment industry tainted by sex and violence, he stands as a beacon of clean fun.

In reality, Disney is now known to be a ruthless businessman whose eye is firmly fixed on the dollar (like the ‘$’ which lights up Uncle Scrooge’s eyes time and again). Almost all his work is the production of hapless wage slaves who are not given credit for their creative output. Walt is also a man of dysfunctional family relationships. Instead of being an animal lover, he only loved the money the animals brought in: especially shocking is the story where his film crew ran lemmings off a cliff into the sea, to show them committing “mass suicide” in his movie – a myth which has been disproven now. Uncle Walt is most definitely not Mickey Mouse: he is more akin to Uncle Scrooge.

Walt Disney, by his own admission, never learned to draw and never put pen to paper since 1926. What he did was assimilate and market the creative a genius of a group of people. The case of Carl Barks is illustrative: Barks retired in 1967 from the Disney Empire and was unknown until relatively recently even though he drew most of the popular Donald Duck stories and created many endearing and enduring characters – the most popular being Uncle Scrooge. In actuality, the relationship between Disney and Barks was almost a parallel of that between Scrooge and Donald (one almost wonders whether Barks did it tongue in cheek). Walt did not consider any of his employees as creators or what he did as art, it seems – he was interested more in its marketability. This trend is continued by the Disney studios even now. It is the god of capitalism and consumerism at the altar of whom they worship.

Walt’s family life also informs his stories. His father was a carpenter and failed farmer, who subjected him gruelling labour – getting up at 3:30 in the morning to deliver newspapers, sometimes in biting cold, to augment the family income. He also occasionally beat him with a leather strap for no good reason. The memories of a mother are absent from Disney’s memories, so is that of his little sister: there is no feminine touch. Walt did not keep in touch with his parents as a grown-up. According to the authors of this book, this dysfunctional childhood and subsequent development as a capitalist shapes Disney’s worldview, and those of his characters.

Now, onward to Duckburg!

Juvenile Literature

We tend to think of “Children’s Literature” as different. Children are supposed to live in a world of innocence, free from all subterfuge and deception. Their world accordingly, has to be “sanitised” from such “evils” as violence and sex: and above all, from politics. As the authors say in the introduction:

Inasmuch as the sweet and docile child can be sheltered effectively from the evils of existence, from the petty rancours, the hatreds, and the political and ideological contamination of his elders, any attempt to politicise the sacred domain of childhood threatens to introduce perversity where there once reigned happiness, innocence and fantasy.

It is this mythical world which Disney aims to protect with his magical world of talking animals.

According to Dorfman and Mattelart, this ideal child’s world is creation of the adult, based on their concept of what a child should be. Children’s literature envisages a magical world which is nothing but a projection of the adult’s inner child which wants to shut out the unpleasantness and angst of existence, prevent all forms of questioning, and ensure the perpetuation of the current society with its status quo. And this lie is self-sustaining: children nurtured in such an environment grow into adults who will continue to recreate this fantasy world of the nursery and the vicious circle is maintained.

So the apolitical world of the child is anything but: its lack of politics is its politics. And Donald and company invades this universe with their own subliminal messages which affect the mind of children in insidious ways.

The Uncle-controlled Universe

In Disney, there are no fathers, mothers, wives, brothers or sisters – we have instead a plethora of uncles, aunts, cousins and girlfriends. There is no reference to parents at all. The characters have no biological roots, and seem to have originated out of a vacuum. Moreover, there is no sexuality other than of the most puerile kind – the ladies (Daisy Duck, Minnie Mouse) exist just to be courted, and they display all the drawbacks of the traditional nineteenth century female stereotype: bossy, temperamental, vain and foolishly romantic. There are no husbands or wives, just fiancés.

Disney’s “uncle-land” is, however, strictly hierarchical; and it is the authors’ argument that the lack of any strong biological ties makes this world even more arbitrarily disciplinarian than a real family ever would be. Scrooge McDuck exercises absolute control over Donald and his nephews by the threat of “cutting them out of his will” (in fact, this threat is used in more than one place in the Disney stories, showing where the real power lies – money), and makes them do grossly unreasonable tasks. Similarly, the slacker Donald also exerts total power over his nephews: however, the tables are usually turned when the kids prove much more resourceful than their uncle. Here is another significant fact according to Dorfman and Mattelart: it is only by mimicking adult behaviour and becoming “little men” that children are able to take control of their universe

The World Outside Duckburg

Donald and company constantly move out of Duckburg into the wild blue yonder. Disney is a stern critic of the city and its pollution, and the characters are always trying to move out into the “clean” world of nature. Like fairy tales, the woods are always available nearby. Also, once in a while Donald, Scrooge et al. make adventurous trips into the uncharted wilds of Africa or the Amazon: however, the aim of these trips is usually to bring home some priceless artefact or to make money otherwise. The dollar is always the bottom line.

The “natives” the Disney characters meet outside the sanitised environs of Duckburg are of two categories. The first is the “noble savage” popularised in colonial literature: the black, brown or yellow man who is full of an innate goodness but who did not get a chance to become civilised like the white man. These natives are shown as having plenty of natural resources (gold, diamond, oil etc.) which are no good to them (sometimes even a curse). Scrooge usually “helps” them by relieving them of these things in return for trinkets. (There are also bad characters like Black Pete and the Beagle Boys who steal from them. The only difference between them and Scrooge is that the latter does it openly under a patently unbalanced trade agreement! However, more about that later.)

The second type is anything but noble. These are the evil revolutionaries and insurgents who disrupt the natural order (read: feudal or capitalistic) of a country and try to impose a military dictatorship (read: socialism). Donald and Scrooge usually get caught in these disputes and are always shown fighting on the side of the “good” guys: i.e. the king or democratically elected president. Towards the end of the story, the natives realise that the revolutionaries are traitorous agents of “enemy” countries and turn against them and re-establish the monarchy or the capitalist republic. McCarthy would have been proud!

The Good, Bad and Ugly

Who are the bad persons in Disney?

Simple. They are the thieves who steal private property.

Private property is sacred for Disney, no matter how it’s made. Scrooge’s millions, even if made unscrupulously, are legitimately his: the Beagle Boys who try to take it away are evil. And as we saw earlier, those who try to “steal” the wealth from third-world countries are thieves, while those who take it away through patently unfair trade agreements are good: because commerce, the lifeblood of capitalism, is sacred.

There is hardly any manufacturing activity going on in Duckburg. The people are work in the tertiary service sector. So where is the money rolling in from? Maybe children don’t think about it, but it comes from manufacturing and industry, which keeps tycoons like Scrooge rich. By keeping Duckburg sanitised from its corrupting influence, all the Disney characters are kept firmly in the field of the imagined capitalist utopia of America. People have money-making “ideas” here, however, there is no explanation of how the ideas actually make money.

Take the central character of Donald. He is a slacker who is permanently broke, yet can’t hold down a steady job. Donald continuously has ideas which more often than not turn out disastrous; however, he manages to survive. And it is worthwhile to note that Donald is not concerned about where his next meal is coming from – he’s concerned about his next payment on the mortgage or the TV instalment! Donald is not a representative of the downtrodden poor – his poverty is lack of luxury, and the comics show that only his lack of enterprise is the reason for this. The lesson: poverty is due to the unworthiness of the person.

Contrast this with Mickey, the only really “heroic” character in Disney’s stories. Mickey is extremely smart and resourceful. His only aim in life is helping others. Like Donald, Mickey is never shown having a steady job yet he lives comfortably. One thing he’s always doing is helping the police nab malefactors, just for the fun of it. Mickey is the symbol of stability in a chaotic world, a “world policeman”. Need I say more?

A Static World

For all its hectic activity, nothing changes in Duckburg. The stories are endless repetitions: the characters are static in their nature. The Beagle Boys, for example, walk about with their masks and their convict tags around their necks! Even when Disney characters move across time to do historical stories, their nature and the type of societal relations does not change. However, by giving the “upper class” characters in his stories little quirks which allow them to oscillate within a permitted range, Walt Disney creates an illusion of fluidity and randomness which is not present in the usual superhero comics. He allows the status quo to be maintained while providing the feeling that it is being destroyed and recreated every time. Therein, according to the authors, lies his victory.

***

I cannot dispute the depth of research and the clarity of analysis on the side of Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. They have written very lucidly, and most of their conclusions are hard to refute. Having read a lot of Donald Duck, I could recollect and remember many of the stories analysed here and look at them afresh through the eyes of the authors – and I saw a wholly different world. The book influenced me despite myself. Kudos, gents.

What I was thinking all the while I was reading was how popular media informs and sustains stereotypes which maintain the status quo: just look at most of our Indian movies and TV soaps. They have to, if they want to sell their product! This is the inherent nature of capitalism, or any philosophy which depends upon the perpetuation of social inequality to maintain itself.

But I still love Donald, because I believe that characters have a life of their own apart from their social context. I can still read Disney’s stories, and laugh at this silly little duck in the sailor suit with his grandiose ideas and short temper without thinking about the imperialist baggage he carries.

 

 

A Rejection of Hinduism – “Why I am not a Hindu” by Kancha Ilaiah

Who – or what – is a Hindu?

There are no easy answers to this question.

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

Hinduism: A major religious and cultural tradition of South Asia, which developed from Vedic religion.

From Cambridge Dictionary:

Hinduism: An ancient religion with Indian origins whose characteristics include the worship of many gods and goddesses and the belief that when a person or creature dies, their spirit returns to life in another body.

Please note that both are stressing the Vedic roots, the former explicitly and the latter implicitly (the belief that the spirit returns to life in another body).

This bears witness to the fact that how much standardisation the term has undergone over the years: originally, “Hindu” meant anybody who lived in the vast tract of land eastward of the Sindhu (Indus) river. Sindhu was pronounced as Hindu by the Persians who did not have an “s” in their vocabulary. Subsequently, after the British conquest, it came to mean any Indian who was not Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Jew – and all the various gods and goddesses proliferating the countryside gained official status. However, by this time, the so-called “upper” castes had tightened their grip on the religion: Vedic Brahmanism was accepted as canonical, prescribing the strict hierarchy of castes (the Oxford definition quoted above goes on to say that the caste system is an integral part of Hinduism). The most miserable were the untouchable outcasts who were treated worse than animals.

Which is where Kancha Ilaiah comes in.

Kancha ilaiah is a Dalit social activist and writer. The term “Dalit” is used to describe anybody outside the Chaturvarnyam (four-caste system). It is a rebellious term, a challenge to categorising of the “lower” castes as Harijan (Children of God – a term coined by Gandhi and seen as patronising) or as Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST – a government term referring to their “protected” status and also considered insulting). “Dalit” means crushed or beaten, and is meant to indicate their centuries-old maltreatment at the hands of the upper-caste Hindus.

In the book under discussion, Ilaiah categorically rejects his official status as a Hindu, in the wake of the renewed upsurge of Hindu nationalism of the early nineties which lead to meteoric rise of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rejects the secular constitution of India for “Hindutva” – a term which signifies a broad acceptance of a common Indian culture on the moderate side or a strict enforcement of the Vedic religion as state religion on the fanatic side. What Ilaiah is worried about is the induction of millions of people under the Hindu wing, who were miserable outcasts in its original implementation – by stressing the pluses of a pluralistic culture, the BJP is trying recruit people to what essentially is a fascist agenda. To counter this, he presents arguments why most of the former untouchables and the majority of the Sudras (the lowest rung of the four-caste system – the servant class), whom he clubs together as Dalitbahujans, should not consider themselves as Hindus.

The BJP’s Hindutva rocket blasted off with a vengeance on December 6, 1992 when a fanatic mob of Hindu fundamentalists tore down the centuries-old Babri Masjid (“Babur’s Mosque”) in Ayodhya – the birthplace of the Hindu hero Rama, whom they consider an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. This was the culmination of decades of anger against the mosque, which was allegedly built on the exact spot where Rama was born – according to legend, the Moghul emperor Babur demolished a temple to build it. But the reason why it was suddenly brought to a head in the early nineties is, according to many, is the Mandal Commission Report, which advocates greater number of reserved seats for the backward castes in educational institutions and government jobs, which the Janata Dal government implemented a couple of years before.

The Janata Dal government was a mix of political parties, headed by V.P. Singh. They had come into power riding on the popular anti-incumbency wave against the Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi: however, the coalition was a contradiction in terms, comprising mostly secular and casteist parties, and supported from outside by the leftists and the right-wing BJP. The implementation of the Mandal Report was Singh’s attempt to consolidate power among the masses. There was widespread anger against this move by forward caste Hindus all over the country, even to the point of self-immolation by some students. The BJP, who is mainly supported by upper-caste Hindus, immediately demanded the demolition of the mosque and the building of a Rama temple in Ayodhya. This was a clever counter-move, as they knew the government could only refuse, and they could withdraw their support thus ensuring its collapse and the non-implementation of the report.

In the turbulent era following the fall of V.P. Singh’s ministry, the BJP slowly consolidated power, pulling more and more people into its predominantly upper-caste fold, until they really became a pan-Hindu movement: drawing on the resentment against the sops provided to Muslims as minority, they became even more belligerent. Castes which were marginalised were slowly accepted as “Hindu”, and they were encouraged to proclaim their “Hindutva” (Hindu-ness) in preference to their caste identity. In this process, what happened was not a positive disappearance of caste and creation of an egalitarian vision of Hinduism; rather, the Vedic religion was accepted as canonical, its gods were made universal, and attempts are still on to standardise Hindu rituals across India.

Dalits have always resisted this attempt at assimilation: Phule, Ambedkar and Ramaswamy Naicker are the prominent examples. During the struggle for independence, Gandhi was on one side, trying to include the backward castes under the Hindu fold as Harijans while Ambedkar was on the other, advocating a separate and rather combative identity. The Dalit struggle has continued since, attaining renewed vigour in the seventies and eighties as more and more marginalised castes became educated and came into the mainstream. There have always been two conflicting visions regarding the question of caste in Indian society: the beatific one of castes slowly melting away as more and more people get absorbed into the mainstream and the more revolutionary one of the downtrodden groups grabbing power and restructuring the Indian Democracy radically. Mr. Ilaiah is a subscriber to the second vision.

***

The book explores the socio-economic and cultural differences between Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas on the one hand and the Dalits on the other based on an experiential framework. The author argues that “this is the only possible and the most authentic way in which the deconstruction and reconstruction of history can take place”. He is aware of the problems that such an approach can create, as how do you analyse the experience of another? For this, Ilaiah has relied on extensive interactions with people who came from Brahmin families (he says “particularly feminists”). He has analysed the differences between Hindus and Dalitbahujans with regard to childhood, family relations, power structures, religion etc. on the basis of this first-hand and second-hand experience.

(The perceptive reader will immediately spot problems with this approach. While it is excellent for a biography or a memoir, it runs the risk of missing out on a multitude of viewpoints in compiling a social critique. Moreover, analysing second-hand experience is always dangerous as the cross-section one utilises may not be representative: in this case, it is a given, because Ilaiah has relied upon information provided by progressive thinkers from the Brahmin community who are most likely to be prejudiced towards their own, reactionary social set-up.)

The author explores the Dalitbahujan experience vs. the Hindu experience under the following chapter headings:

  1. Childhood Formations
  2. Marriage, Market and Social Relations
  3. The Emergence of Neo-Kshatriyas and the Reorganization of Power Relations
  4. Contemporary Hinduism
  5. Hindu Gods and Us; Our Goddesses and Hindus
  6. Hindu Death and Our Death
  7. Dalitization Not Hinduization

The arguments are mostly repetitive, so instead of analysing them in detail chapter-wise, I will try to present the gist of what I gathered here.

  • Hindus (comprising Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Baniyas) and Dalitbahujans (Sudras and the so-called ‘Untouchables’) are two totally different communities, having nothing in common with each other. However, historically Hindus have managed to incorporate Dalits into their worldview at a very low level, not even allowing them the common human dignities – a position the Dalits seems to have largely accepted till recently.
  • All the social and political systems of Hindus are geared to keep them on the top socially and financially without doing productive labour. The productive Dalits are exploited to keep this order in place. The current educational system, modelled on the Hindu system of the past, actively prevents Dalits from coming to the fore.
  • Hindu family and social systems are rigidly patriarchal with women having no voice or power, while Dalit systems are more democratic.
  • The Hindu religion comprises mostly patriarchal gods, whose exploits mainly describe acts of violence against Dalits. The Dalit deities (goddesses mostly), in contrast, are more earth-bound and benign.
  • Post-independence, Brahmins and other upper-castes have retained power because of the educational advantage they wielded: the systems are skewed in their favour. Even the communist revolutions have been hijacked by Brahmins. More and more Sudras have become ‘Neo-Kshatriyas’ (i.e. gained political power – in traditional Hindu system, the Kshatriyas were the rulers), and they have moved more into the Hindu fold than out of it. Even the urbanised Dalits have started adopting Hindu lifestyles.
  • What is required in India is Dalitization; i.e. radical restructuring of Indian society by totally destroying the Hindu culture and replacing it with Dalit culture. This should be done in a peaceable way, through the ballot-box and re-education of Indian society.

Of these, I have absolutely no disagreement with the first two points. The traditional Hindu caste system is one of the most vile and disgusting systems ever implemented anywhere in the history of humankind. Man has always tried to subjugate fellow-man; however, only in India has it been legitimised with the stamp of religion and a complicated system of beliefs so that the downtrodden also came to believe in his unworthiness. Over the years, a small group of people have lived in luxury out of the riches eked out of the lifeblood of the large substrata of society.

However, when Ilaiah says that Hindu systems are rigidly patriarchal, I will have at least to partially disagree. I agree that this is the Hindu ‘virtue’ projected in traditional movies, novels and sitcoms and the ‘vice’ derided by progressive writers – but the truth is that all Hindu societies are not patriarchal, nor are all Dalit societies democratic. In Kerala, the Kshatriyas and Nairs are fiercely matriarchal, while the Ezhavas (a technically ‘backward’ class – though of late, they have come up in a big way) are patriarchal. However, the point he makes about both sexes being equal in work among Dalit societies is largely true; excepting the fact that all housework is still considered to be the woman’s share.

I also partially agree to the author’s analysis of how Hindu society has evolved post-independence. Many of the castes who were considered ‘low’ by upper-caste Hindus have come up politically, financially and socially. However, instead of trying to forge a classless society, they have been busy forming their own caste-based platforms and more importantly, aligning to the traditional Hindu model of attaining power based on caste. Thus, the Brahmin model has not been destroyed: it has been reinterpreted, introducing new castes into the power equation.

However, I have a slight caveat when he says that the communist revolution has been hijacked by Brahmins. The first democratically elected communist ministry in the world (in Kerala in 1957) was headed by a Brahmin (E.M.S. Namboothiripad), true. But one should understand that the whole concept of communism as a tool of social revolution was developed in Kerala mostly by Brahmins inspired by the evils prevalent within their community. Communism, however, has to side with the downtrodden, whatever caste he/ she may belong to, and is therefore prevented from addressing things exclusively from a caste point of view. I am also sure that the same goes for many Brahmin members of the Congress and other secular parties.

In my opinion, the book collapses when it comes to addressing religion, as it parrots many of the early Dalit arguments without taking into account the latest historical discoveries: i.e. Aryans destroyed the Indus Valley civilisation and pushed all the people to the south; Buddha was an anti-caste crusader; the whole of India became Buddhist at one point of time, and was forcibly converted back to Hinduism using strong arm tactics. All these arguments are partially true (except the first one – the Indus Valley Civilisation was long defunct before the Aryans set foot in India). Successive waves of Aryan migrations from Middle Asia did indeed subjugate and displace other cultures, but it was a slow process of assimilation. The Aryan Gods merged with the indigenous ones and created the rich tapestry that is the Hindu pantheon today. The Buddha was indeed anti-caste, but not at the social level: he destroyed the whole philosophical basis of Hinduism by positing the atman (soul) as a transitory entity which dies along with the body. The reincarnating monad was thus negated. And Buddhism was not destroyed, but assimilated by crafty Hindus, who made Buddha an incarnation of Vishnu! The Bhakti movement which originated in South India, which posited salvation was possible for anyone regardless of caste, creed or colour, brought a lot of the lower caste people into the Hindu fold.

Ilaiah describes the Hindu myths as wilful stories created by Brahmins to enslave Dalits – and here he does go overboard, trying to make the Hindu religion as evil as possible. I do not go into his criticism about the Bhagavad Gita or the Ramayana, which are widely discussed and carry considerable weight (according to me, at least): the Ramayana myth and the incarnations of Vishnu can be clearly viewed as the twisted history of an invading race. But myth is not only history – it springs from the unconscious, and there are many motifs in Indian Mythology which have clear parallels elsewhere in world myth. It is evident that the mythology we have now is a mix of the Vedic with the local.

According to Ilaiah, only the Hindu gods are violent or advocate violence (obviously he is unfamiliar with the Greek myths); the Hindu polytheism is somehow flawed and primitive, Levantine monotheism is more advanced (Hindu polytheism is actually pantheism, going much beyond monotheism, seeing God everywhere in life); and only male Gods of the Hindus have power. He even says that Brahma and Vishnu, the Aryan Gods, are placed above Siva, who is at least partly Dravidian! These are factual mistakes: Brahma has been relegated to a footnote in Hindu theology, much below Vishnu and Siva; and one of the most powerful Goddesses of the world – if not the most powerful – is Durga/ Shakti/ Kali, who is connected to the local Goddess culture prevalent all over India.

Which brings me to another point – the regional Gods and Goddesses Ilaiah mentions, who are outside the Vedic pantheon. Not all of them are derided by the Brahmins like he says. Lord Ayyappa, the local God of Kerala and arguably one of the most popular Gods in South India (worshipped by Brahmin and Dalit alike) is most probably a mountain God later adopted into the Hinduism, and given celestial parents and a royal foster father. This was the method of Hinduism: rather than confront, assimilate and sublimate. The same is the case of Mahabali, who is even now worshipped as an ideal king in Kerala (Ilaiah gives an interesting variant of the Mahabali myth in the book, but I do not know where he got it from). In fact, the stories of this sublimation can be read from the ten incarnations, but the author does not pursue this interesting concept.

Lastly, I also differ with Mr. Ilaiah on Dalitisation. The concept of one caste or religion taking over the polity and the society, however benign it may be, is anathema to the pluralistic Indian society. We have seen the oppressed grabbing power and becoming oppressors in their turn time and again in history; the same thing should not happen in India. What we have to aim for is a secular society where the underprivileged, regardless of caste, creed or colour, are protected and supported. What we should aim for is the destruction of caste in totality.

***

After reading the book through, I find myself in the curious position of agreeing totally with Kancha Ilaiah on his premise, but not at all with his analysis and the arguments he have brought to support it. Maybe I am too much of a leftist to agree to a caste revolution. Maybe, my love of Indian culture (moulded by my upper-caste Hindu prejudices, most probably) rejects his reductionist analysis of Hindu mythology. Whatever be the reason, the putting off of a potential sympathetic reader does not speak in support of the way the argument has been presented.

However, one thing is sure – unless the demon of caste is exorcised, India will never progress.

 

 

The Mythical Roots of Election Symbols (A Whimsy!)

The Worthing Malayali forum gifted me the beautiful Book of Symbols for writing them a play: and I must say that the gift is out of all proportion for the services rendered (it was chosen by my brother-in-law, a member of that esteemed organisation who knows my tastes inside-out). This book, published by Taschen Books, is a compilation of musings on universal symbols in art and myth, and for a Jungian like me, a veritable treasure-trove. The book is not scholarly or psychological – the focus is on the artistic and mythical, and stimulation of the imagination, not analysis, is the aim. I am keeping it by my bedside, dipping into it now and then, savouring the beautiful images and allowing my mind to ruminate.

In this context, I suddenly found that almost all the symbols used by the major political parties of India had deep mythical roots. Was it just coincidence or had the subconscious guided the powers that be in choosing those symbols? I was on a whimsical ride suddenly, trying to dig up the possible connections between Jung and the political parties of India! What follows is the result.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

I will start with the BJP because their symbol, the lotus, is connected to religion – purposefully. Being a party which consciously promotes Hinduism as the guiding principle of India (rather than the secularist principles enshrined in the constitution), they could not have chosen a better one: because the lotus is a symbol which carries a depth of meaning for Indians. A lotus originates from the navel of Vishnu, as he lies asleep dreaming the universe into being: Brahma sits on it, continuously engaged in Srstih (“creation”). The Buddha sits in it, untouched and untouchable, as he surveys the world. According to yoga, the highest chakra (vital energy centre) in the subtle body is a thousand-petalled lotus seated in the brain.

According to the book in question, India is not the only culture which connected the lotus to myth: in Egypt, the sun god Re is symbolised by this flower rising from the primordial ocean. The blue lotus of the Nile is sacred to the goddess. There is also the photograph of a beautiful sculpture of a Mayan god emerging from the folds of a water-lily, a flower of the same genus, thus proving that the sacred nature of the lotus was prevalent in Mesoamerica also.

What makes the lotus so special?

From the book:

…its roots sink into the murky soil of a pond or river bottom. From there, stems rise above the water surface to present bright flowers to the sun… As a poetic image and visual icon, the lotus symbol evokes the realisation that all life, rooted in mire, nourished by decomposed matter, growing upward through a fluid and changing medium, opens radiantly into space and light. The mire and fluidity symbolize the grosser, heavier qualities of nature, including the mind’s nature. The flower, beautifully multipetalled, symbolises the array of subtler, more lucid qualities, with the golden hue, the radiance of spirit, at its center.

Not a bad choice for a party which plans to promote a pan-Hindu culture.

Indian National Congress

India’s oldest party, the Indian National Congress (or just Congress for short) is a hoary old man on the Indian political scene, having been in existence much before India gained freedom from British rule – in fact, it was originally a movement to promote self-rule for India in a peaceful way, created by an Englishman! The advent of Gandhi changed all that, and the Congress became the spearhead of the Indian Independence movement. After gaining independence, however, the party has not had a consistent or coherent platform – officially they are socialistic, but in practice leaning to the liberal right.

The Congress adopted the symbol of the “Hand” in the early eighties and has stuck with it since. Although on first glance, the image is bereft of any mythical significance, there is more here than meets the eye.

Again, from the book:

In religions throughout the world, the Hand of God denotes supreme, inexorable agency. As primary instruments of the creative, the hands of the homo faber imitate the mythic shaping of matter into discriminated being by deities who chisel, mold, sculpt, weave and forge creation. Hands signify the sovereign, world-creating reach of consciousness; they embody effectiveness, industry, adaptation, invention, self-expression and the possession of a will for creative and destructive ends.

The book talks about the language of hands – the ‘mudra’s – in Indian dance, and a possible reason for the Congress’s choice of this particular symbol seems highly likely: the raised hand, palm outward, is the standard posture for conferring a blessing. Many gods, the Buddha, and various godmen are frequently shown in this pose. The Congress tries to similarly project omnipotence with regard to Indian politics: this symbol was chosen at the time of Indira Gandhi, who is almost a demigod in the party’s canon.


A secular image which still conveys a powerful mythic message.

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)

Aam Aadmi (‘Common Man’) Party is the joker in the pack. It came out of nowhere in the Delhi Assembly Elections and dethroned the ruling Congress – worse, relegated it to third place. The novel thing about this party is that it consists of a bunch of mavericks from various walks of life, who have been fed up with the corruption and decay in the world of the career politician. They plan to totally change the system by rooting out corruption and changing the country so that focus is shifted to the common man, rather than the moneyed and influential. The sweeping changes they intend to make to the system are also reflected in their election symbol: the broom.

Does the broom have a mythical significance? It appears that it does.

From the book:

Throughout the world, the sweeping of house or shop with a broom is one of the first acts in the ordering of the day; it is reality and ritual. Zen Buddhism embraces the broom as an emblem of the sage, signifying contact with the world that must accompany pureness of thought. Broom suggests simplicity through the elimination of what is unnecessary – the sweeping away of the illusions, strivings and attachments that clutter consciousness – and alludes to the emptiness in which unforeseen possibilities of enlightenment can spontaneously emerge.

I do not know whether such deep thought has gone into the choosing of this particular symbol, but I am sure another thing, mentioned in the book, has: the association of the broom with the woman, and in India, specifically with one of lower class and caste. Because in India, the broom, though it cleans, is itself considered unclean: so are its wielders. Hitting somebody with a broom is the ultimate insult. So in a way, the AAP is consciously projecting its lower status – as well as the power of its weapon, which the higher class cannot counter.

Will it work? Only time can tell.