The Decency of Child Removal

The Trump regime’s policy of taking away the children of “illegal immigrants” and locking them in cages, warehouses and “tent cities” is a monstrosity even by the standards of criminality-in-governance to which we have become accustomed over the past year and a half. The children include breastfeeding babies, toddlers, the blind and the terrified. They have no idea where their parents are or whether they will see them again. Parents have been thrust into a parallel ignorance of their children’s whereabouts; at least one parent has committed suicide. We have been given multiple and incoherent explanations and justifications: that this policy is “punishment” for people who have committed a crime by entering the country illegally, that it will deter those contemplating illegal entry, that it will pressure the Democratic Party into making a “deal” with Trump that presumably includes funding his wall, that this is a sign of “toughness” or “zero tolerance” in the pursuit of the national interest, that the regime is merely enforcing a settlement reached by the Clinton administration in 1997 and a law passed by the Bush administration in 2008. None of that disguises the basic reality of the torture of children and their parents. Even without rehashing old arguments about the banality of evil, we can see that this evil is recognizably banal, perpetrated by “working people” who are simply “doing their jobs.” The concept of “working people,” in America as in Germany in the 1930s, is itself a nugget of evil banality, closely aligned with a vision of decency centered on conformity and exclusion.

If we go beyond the banality and ask where it is coming from, we can identify a crisis of aesthetics and history. This is not the first time that the US government (or any other government) has tormented children. We can point to the accelerated deportations initiated by the Obama administration, the devastating effects on Iraqi children of the Clinton-Albright sanctions, and the bombing of civilians in a state of war that is chronic rather than episodic. Those crimes cannot be detached from the current horror of the deliberate targeting of families, and they can be only partially differentiated as “collateral damage,” since collateral damage is only a partial disavowal of intent. It is also easy to see the wider range of historical precedents, from the taking of Native American children and the breakup through sale of slave families, to instances that do not involve children directly, such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. We can see the continuity in the deployment of rhetoric such as “tough on crime” and “zero tolerance,” which have become not only politically advantageous but also self-evidently desirable: the discourse of common sense. When this is common sense, it becomes possible for otherwise reasonable and decent people to believe that the University of California reserves two-thirds of its funded admissions for the children of illegal immigrants. At that point, what Trump does to children and their parents becomes forgivable. These developments are all national crimes, in the sense that they are part of the fabric of our nationhood. It is not entirely honest to say, as some critics of Trump have been saying out of a sincerely outraged decency, that child-removal is un-American, or “This is not who we are.”

All the same, some aspects of the current atrocity are unprecedented. Trump is a uniquely horrifying phenomenon in American history, and not simply because his regime is a political calamity that will leave a legacy of damage. It, and he, inspire in critics a visceral revulsion akin to the revulsion that Idi Amin and Caligula once inspired with their rumors of cannibalism, bestiality and incest. The rumors may or may not have been literally true, but their source is real enough. It is the revulsion that comes from encountering the human animal in its grossest form, composed entirely of fleshy appetites and impulses: the mindless, soulless, shameless lunging for food, sex, instant gratification and dominance that one accepts in pigs and tolerates in children, but recoils from when it appears in human adults. It is repulsive not simply because of what it is, but also because of what it is not, for this pathological excess of urges that come from the gut is also the total absence of empathy, reason and reflection. These are people who cannot even fake an apology, let alone repent. When dealing with those who supposedly defecate in toilets of gold even as they order that frightened toddlers be held by the state but not held by humans, the principle of “appealing to the humanity of the evil-doer” that one associates with Gandhi or Jesus breaks down, leaving us with a bare cupboard of countermeasures. Revulsion is all we have to begin with.

Under the circumstances, we must recognize first of all the broad complicity of our society, including its “decent” actors and elements, in vicious and often illegal practices that have not been confronted and punished. Obama did not punish the torturers from the Bush administration, Nixon placed Lieutenant Calley in comfortable house arrest, Ford pardoned Nixon, and Trump has already turned the presidential pardon into an instrument of witness tampering. The failures to confront and punish have preserved in American governance a bipartisan zone of extra-legality that is not just useful to the powerful but constitutive of power itself. Within the state and civil society, a tacit consensus has emerged that this extra-legality is itself legitimate and governance must transcend legality: authority cannot be limited by law, including not only international law (which is blocked by national sovereignty), but also the law of the land in question. Since the state supposedly acts in the name of the people, the patriotic citizen can and must accept that legality is not necessary for legitimacy, which can come instead from the transferred will – i.e., the identity expressed in the community of the nation-state – of the patriot, who can be either actively supportive or passively tolerant of government action. That is, obviously, an inherently fascist principle. One does not need a “fascist state” to confirm its operation, but its existence makes it easier for the state to accommodate fascism.

In freeing governance and legitimacy from legality, a basic liberal principle has been suspended and its associated institutions corroded, the suspension hidden and the corrosion justified by the expectation that decent people can be counted on to do the decent thing without the need for legal consequences. Thus, the Bush-Cheney torturers could be forgiven as fundamentally decent “working people” who would not do it again, since a decent leadership would not tell them to do it again. But when political leadership is reliant on the presumption that legality does not fully apply to governance, and that government must keep in reserve (if not in active deployment) the power to act without restraint, decency becomes quite compatible with conduct that might otherwise be illegal and punishable. Not only does the temptation to exceed the law become irresistible, the law itself becomes inapplicable; it withers away, leaving behind a trace or shell. The shell is not without its uses, but the utility is the hollowness itself. For instance, the 1997 and 2008 laws that the Trump regime has used to justify its recent actions do not, in fact, require border authorities to separate children from their parents. Citing them is an obfuscation and a ritual of legitimacy, underlining the useful emptiness of law in governance.

We must recognize, second, that our current predicament is not a problem of universal corruption, in which one set of leaders and followers are as malevolent as another. Obama, Clinton and Ford were all recognizably “decent” politicians. That decency was not fake or meaningless: it meant, for instance, that they would not have ordered the kidnapping of children, or even the torture of adults. They were empathetic, capable of feeling remorse for the harm they did more or less accidentally. The same understanding of decency, however, also allowed them to tolerate kidnapping, torture and drone attacks as behavior that can be accommodated within the extralegal space of governance, to bury the photographs from Abu Ghraib, to refuse to see (and even more pertinently, to show, because that would bring legality into play) what they would not themselves have done while declining to strengthen the institutions that might have prevented Trump from doing what is so indecent that it can only be called obscene.

We cannot, in other words, count on decency to prevent indecency, or to keep the truly pathological from abusing of the machinery of government. It is essential that we see the Trump phenomenon not only as a freakish malignancy, but also as the consequence of a reactionary decency that we have already normalized, and that enables forms of racism, fascism and assorted cruelty that we have already woven into our sense of who and what we are as a political community. It must, in the longer term, be uprooted or at least confronted if this is not to happen again. It is not a coincidence that “zero tolerance” is the signature phrase of this evil.

Finally, it is useful to recall what the author of the notion of the banality of evil wrote about forgiveness. In the follow-up to her work on totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt described forgiveness as a central aspect of freedom: it is, she suggested, an act that disrupts the causality of offense and retaliation (karma, a Hindu might say), and thus makes human initiative in history possible. It is an elegant argument, but it makes sense only in a context where the offender is potentially penitent and forgiveness is accompanied by systemic corrections, and I do not mean the feel-good pablum of si se puede chants. It has been possible to forgive Germans for their crimes of decency because the Nazi leadership was punished, and because the children of the followers went beyond decency and became, very substantially, a different kind of political community. Until the current American regime is recognized and treated as what they are – which is a collection of criminals – and concrete steps are taken to make it legally impossible to get away with what they have done, talk of forgiveness, accommodation, compromise, civility or decency would be fundamentally indecent.

June 19, 2018

Murder and Memory

In a lodge outside Namib-Naukluft National Park, I chatted with the Herero bartender about tribes, politics and mass murder in Namibia. She was surprised (and probably amused) by my interest, and gave me a free beer. Later that day, I saw her serving dinner to a table full of German men: solid, middle-aged, Middle European types on a group Urlaub. No one looked awkward or apologetic, and nobody mentioned genocide. It was an ordinary transaction between a waitress and diners, or rather between a local and tourists in a Third World country, and it was the ordinariness that made me recoil, because it represented two distinct cultures of forgetfulness: one of the community of killers, and another of the killed.

In the first years of the twentieth century, in what is now Namibia, German forces killed about a hundred thousand Herero and Nama people on the basis of ethnicity. Lothar von Trotha, the senior commander in the colony, made a decision to exterminate the tribes, which had risen in rebellion against the inescapable curtailment of their political autonomy and territory, the rampant use of slave labor by the colonial regime, and the growing pressure of white settlement. With the support of the government in Berlin, von Trotha’s troops shot and hanged the males from teenagers up, shot some of the women and younger children as well, chased the rest into the desert, and prevented them from accessing the water holes. Most of those who survived the bullets died of hunger and thirst. Von Trotha’s orders regarding the shooting of women and children were ambiguous: on the one hand, he worried that such shootings would injure ‘the good reputation of the German soldier’ (a notion that had not yet acquired its heavy coat of irony), and gallantly suggested that firing over their heads might suffice to frighten them to death. On the other, he was clear about his goal: he was engaged in a ‘race war,’ and ‘I shall spare neither women nor children.’ With men and boys he was even clearer: ‘All will be shot.’

Ethnic extermination is almost never complete, however, partly because of the slippery nature of ethnicity, and partly because bodies consigned to death by the racist state have uses even when alive. While the majority of the Herero and Nama died, others ended up in the concentration camp on Shark Island, where they were subjected to ‘scientific’ experiments that often killed them. Their heads were then shipped to German universities for study and display. Some survivors were relatively fortunate, managing to cross the desert to the relative safety of British-controlled territory.

The murder of the Herero and Nama has entered the history of modern genocide somewhat retrospectively: it has become common to see it as a precursor of the Holocaust, i.e., an earlier sign of the genocidal inclinations of the German state, and an experiment that produced lessons that would be put to a larger use in the 1940s. This reading is not incorrect, but it is nevertheless limited and misleading, because it gives the Namibian episode a pioneering status that disconnects it from the wider history of whiteness. The extermination of indigenous populations already had a long pedigree in settler colonialism, the indiscriminate murder of racially marked civilians was, likewise, a commonplace of colonial counterinsurgency, and concentration camps had already entered the lexicon of war and population-management in southern Africa. Rituals of mutilation and body-snatching had been part and parcel of the colonialism of ‘pacification’ and would remain so through the Vietnam War, and the scientific-exhibitionist allure of the bodies of the undead – established in southern Africa in the Saartjie Baartman exhibitions a century before the taking of Namibian heads – would continue through the Tuskeegee experiments with syphilis.

The genocide of the Herero and Nama was, in that sense, an ordinary affair. It might be argued that its only pioneering feature was the level of control exercised by a centrally directed metropolitan state. Even that was, in some respects, a sign of weakness: German colonists in Southwest Africa were too few, and their colonial project too underdeveloped discursively and institutionally, to achieve without direct state intervention what Afrikaner and Anglo-identified settlers had achieved semi-autonomously (but rarely without the backing of troops) in South Africa, Australia and America. Bypassing militias and mobs, imperial Germany resorted immediately and exclusively to the military to clear its colonial space. It was, one might say, more efficient. Also, in the sense that it established terror as both a ubiquitous administrative modality and a monopoly of the state, it was a closer ancestor of totalitarianism than other, more conventionally genocidal, settler colonial societies. Von Trotha’s exercise in mass murder was thus radical as well as ordinary: generically white, but not disconnected from the specific atrocities of the post-1941 Third Reich.

When it comes to the remembrance of mass murder, however, the Namibian tribes and the victims of the Holocaust occupy very different historical niches. As a brown man, I winced at the sight of the Herero woman bringing the German tourists their dinner, visited involuntarily by the shadow of the radical within the ordinary. But I may not have recoiled similarly from the sight of Germans being served by a Jewish woman in a New York restaurant, even if the ethnic identities were reliably evident to all parties. Since 1945, Germans, Jews and ‘the West’ have had a conversation about the Holocaust in particular, about anti-Semitism generally, and even more generally about civilized codes of racism and murder. This conversation has become a foundation of a revised West. The new West is signified not only by a penitent and anti-militarist German nationhood, and an elaborate culture of European introspection, acknowledgment and apology epitomized in a vast body of literature, art, scholarship, memorial infrastructure, common sense, and language itself, but also policies of reparation and compensation. Most importantly, it is marked by a consensus about the reality of ‘Judeo-Christian civilization,’ which has become the publicly admissible code for ‘whiteness.’ In other words, the hypothetical encounter between the waitress and the tourist in New York is structured around a profound historical reckoning, and a major revision of the boundaries of identity on the part of the genocidal community: an erstwhile Other is now normatively part of the Self. This accommodation is the most fundamental reparation for the Holocaust. The waitress and the tourist are both aware of it, as is an eavesdropping ‘third party,’ who knows better than to be disturbed by an encounter of insiders.

In the case of the Herero and Nama, none of that reckoning and revision has occurred. The post-Holocaust German state belatedly acknowledged the genocide, issued an apology and returned the severed heads, but it was a diplomatic gesture, unattached either to reparations or to a wider culture of acknowledgment and self-transformation. While it is possible that individual Germans ‘know about’ von Trotha’s exploits, that knowledge is not backed up by a repertoire of films, novels and essays that constitutes national culture, let alone civilization. There is no Günter Grass or Heinrich Böll of the Herero genocide. Namibia was done somewhere else, by people who can be disavowed as belonging to a different time and hence a different nation, and to people who are ultimately of limited relevance to being German or European. Even Hannah Arendt, the most brilliant philosopher of ‘western civilization’ after the Holocaust, and who famously made the connection between colonialism in Africa and totalitarianism in Europe, took no notice: there is hardly a word about Namibia in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt’s silence was entirely consistent with the limits of her critique of racism and fascism: post-war Europe – which remained the locus of a salvaged liberalism – could include within its civilizational ambit some, but not all, of its victims. Thus, even in the most generous circumstances, there could be sympathy but not identification. It might be argued, further, that Arendt’s eagerness to situate the roots of totalitarianism in South Africa and Rhodesia rather than Namibia was compatible with the post-war German embrace of a dispersed European collective, making it easier for Germans to relegate certain episodes from the national past to a slippery, transnational legacy. The weakening of nationalism, ironically, also weakened the ethical imperative of ownership.

There was, consequently, no imperative to remember Namibia. Nor was there a discursive product like ‘Never again,’ which is ambiguous to begin with: it can mean either ‘never again to us,’ or ‘never again to anybody,’ and the two meanings undergird very different types of memory-politics. Europe – which, like whiteness in general, retains its nationally-identified kernels but also loses them forgetfully in the vagueness of a fragmented past – has, after all, been remarkably efficient at forgetting colonialism, not in the sense that it does not acknowledge it, but in that it can be dealt with dishonestly and desultorily, or, all too often, with nostalgia and narcissism. The British East India Company’s famine of 1770 may have killed ten million people, and the 1943 redux another four million, but these catastrophes have left no imprint upon either ‘western civilization’ or ‘Britishness.’ Located entirely outside Europe, colonial crimes require no adjustments of identity or boundary. Germans in Namibia can thus segue effortlessly from seeing the Herero as colonial vermin to seeing them as servers in exotic tourist space – a maneuver that is not possible with Jews or Russians (although it may be possible with the Roma and Sinti).

The connections between memory and responsibility are quite different when it comes to Namibians themselves. The Herero waitress knew about the mass killings, but only in very general terms. She gave no indication that the knowledge informed her identity – especially her sense of her political responsibility – in the way that awareness of the Holocaust is a part of Jewishness. In the museums of Windhoek, we find some memorialization of the events of 1904-1907, but once again, it is quite different from the European – or the aboriginal – template of remembering mass murder, in which genocide itself is a privileged category, producing ethnicity and undergirding the justification for either statehood or a particular claim upon the state. It is tempting to read that difference as a form of underdevelopment: as the failure of Namibians (and not just waitresses) to fully grasp the power of the discourse of genocide and its associated modes of self-representation. That grasp, however, is enabled by particular political configurations: the state acting in the name of the remorseful but secure killer, the victim claiming reparation, or the outsider-turned-insider.

All of those configurations are visible in the (highly contested) importance that memorializing genocide has taken on in settler-colonial societies since the 1960s, where indigenous people have found in the memory not only the symbols of their present-day political marginality, but the substance of community. (American Indians and Australian Aborigines are the most obvious examples.) It must be kept in mind, however, that ‘native,’ ‘indigenous’ and ‘aboriginal’ are not automatically interchangeable terms. The latter two acquire meaning primarily in the context of settler colonialism accompanied by the near-eradication of a particular ‘native’ category, the residue of which becomes ‘aboriginal,’ defined against the numerical, political and cultural dominance of the settler-ethnicity. In Namibia, neither the Herero nor the Nama – whose populations have rebounded – are aborigines. The Nama in particular, with their origins in the Dutch, San and Malay racial stew of the Cape region, are a relatively new ethnicity. They are, on the one hand, members of a large indigenous majority that is in control of the state. On the other hand, they are minorities within the indigenous population. They are politically weaker than a relatively large ‘tribe’ like the Ovambo (who dominated the organized struggle against South African rule and have a greater presence in the political establishment), but they are not subject to the discourse of imminent eradication that marks the aboriginal condition, relative to either blacks or whites. The roughly seven percent of the population that is white/settler includes German-speakers, but Afrikaans-speakers predominate, and its visible roots are in the long occupation of the country by the white-supremacist South African regime that displaced the Germans in 1915. They do not, as such, represent the genocidal element. They are better educated and wealthier than most Namibians, but the political reins and considerable wealth lie in the hands of a new, post-occupation black elite. The settlers, in other words, are not powerful enough to produce aboriginality among the indigenous. They were not powerful enough in 1904 either; it took the military resources of the German state to produce, through genocide, a temporary aboriginality in the Herero and Nama.

The sites in Windhoek that memorialize the violence of Namibia’s colonial past are the Independence Memorial Museum (known to local guides as ‘the coffee maker,’ due to its odd architecture), and Heroes’ Acre, the sprawling complex to the south of the city. At each place, and the former in particular, the genocide of 1904-07 is absorbed into standard narratives and iconographies of wars of national liberation, i.e., rendered not as victimhood but as heroism. At the Independence Memorial Museum, images of German soldiers and the victims of von Trotha’s ‘extermination order’ are situated amidst Soviet rocket launchers and South African armored vehicles from the liberation war of the 1980s, and old photographs of hanged Herero are placed near new friezes that depict a tormented but defiant Namibian nation. Sam Nujoma, the SWAPO leader who became the first president of independent Namibia (and whose statue stands Moses-like on the steps of the museum), is highlighted as the direct legatee of Herero chief Hosea Kutako (after whom Windhoek’s airport is named), and also as a friend and partner of Castro and Mandela. At Heroes’ Acre, the trajectory is even less subtle: at the top of a hill studded with the names of dead nationalists and allies, we find a frieze in which colonial mass murder is only the starting point in an increasingly mechanized and triumphant struggle. There is, throughout, an absence of the sentimentality that marks the iconography of individual suffering, such as Steven Spielberg's notorious girl-in-the-red-coat. There is no appeal to the psychologized personhood that is a hallmark of the modern West, and that, in its genocide-remembering manifestation, undergirds a subjectivity (and indeed, ethnicity) defined by trauma and entitled to various kinds of ‘post-traumatic’ political conduct. There is, instead, a tendency to lapse into the crude rhetoric of national glory that marks the self-representation of a ‘Third World country’: the over-investment of identity in the state to compensate for the weakness of civil society, and a parallel investment in the most powerful instruments of violence available in the present to compensate for the weaknesses and humiliations perceived in the past. (It is fitting, although ironic, that a giant Iron Cross sits at the base of Heroes' Acre.) Emphasizing genocide without the surrounding images of fighters and clenched fists would be to underline that weakness: the sense of shame that many Jews felt about ‘being led to the slaughter,’ which tightened their embrace of a state.

The memorialization of genocide in Namibia is thus somewhat crowded, i.e., without a privileged space of its own. It has lacked a constituency that might create that space, because the Herero and Nama have been neither the dominant groups within Namibian nationalism, nor existentially marginal within that nation. In a relatively poor society, the development of space in which the past is remembered is necessarily dependent upon state patronage. For the Namibian state that has inherited a history of genocide, memory-making has been eclipsed by other agendas, including especially the need to ‘nation-build’ across tribal identities, within which focusing on the victimhood of particular tribes would not only threaten the narrative of national unity, but also challenge the unacknowledged hierarchies within that nationhood. This is not necessarily a failure, any more than absence of Indian memorials to the dead of 1770 should be a matter of regret. The urge to remember 'what they did to us' is a second-rate sentiment (one that is literally sentimental) compared to the imperative of recalling what 'we' have done or are capable of doing to 'others.' Indeed, there is something salutary about the ‘low-key’ way in which Namibian nationalism has structured the memory of genocide, using it as a historical bridge to other victims and adversaries of colonialism, rather than a fetish of exceptional victimhood that calls for exceptional measures in the pursuit of reparation or deterrence (which is essentially the marriage of ethno-nationalist ‘Never again’ discourse with state power). As a source of justice, memorializing genocide is more necessary for the murderers than for the murdered. The rest is therapy.

Friezes at Heroes' Acre, The Iron Cross at Heroes' Acre, the Coffee Machine, Sam Nujoma on the steps of the National Independence Museum.

January 3, 2018

Me too

In 2012, after Jyoti Singh Pandey was savagely raped and murdered on a Delhi bus, thousands of middle-class men and women took to the streets to protest the so-called ‘rape culture’ of the Indian capital, the failure of the government to provide adequate security to the city’s women, and the reluctance of the state to sentence rapists to death. Quite a few observers, mostly leftists, pointed out that the citizens braving the batons and water cannons of the Delhi Police had not cared enough even to write an angry letter when poor women were raped by employers, tribal women were raped by the police, or Dalits were raped by upper-caste landlords. They had been less than outraged when Muslims in Gujarat were raped by Hindu nationalists, and they generally refused to believe that Kashmiri and Manipuri women could have been raped by the Army and the CRPF. The protesters, it was pointed out, were not only insisting that they were the primary victims of sexual violence in India, they were appropriating the unspeakable horror that the woman on the bus had experienced. It was a reasonable observation. Ironically, the same critics of middle-class self-absorption have jumped on board the ‘Me Too’ bandwagon, which is a similar exercise in self-absorption and conspicuous outrage, this time by the denizens of the global First World, which includes the aspirational First Worlds within the Third.

‘Me Too,’ which began with actresses accusing a movie producer of harassment and assault, has  become a wider phenomenon. It remains, however, limited to middle and upper class women who have come forward to speak of their trauma. As with any declaration of victimhood by the privileged and the determination of the comfortable to weep for their moments of discomfort, this is both aesthetically and ideologically suspect. The ‘Me Too’ class of Americans, for instance, has shown no comparable outrage when it comes to refugees and migrants raped beyond the borders of America, or even those raped by American troops. Few who are flooding social media with their ‘confessions’ have given such eager support to Black Lives Matter, concerned themselves with the bombing of civilians in Afghanistan or Syria, or mobilized against the general violence of inequality. Yet the thought of white actresses being accosted by famous men in expensive hotel rooms was apparently enough to remind them of their own suffering, producing a rush of solidarity. This is not just a matter of selective empathy. Like the refusal of Indian protesters to ‘see’ rape in Kashmir and their conviction that sexual violence was their problem, the selectivity of ‘Me Too’ is a protection of one’s own complicity in the violence that is not protested.

Within the circle of elite protest, the need to declare ‘me too’ has produced strange conflations and contrivances. On the one hand, it has cobbled together – under a hashtag – revelations of child molestation and rape with narratives of ‘inappropriate’ conduct and innuendo, justifying the eclecticism with vague references to ‘the patriarchy’ and an absurdly simplistic notion of ‘power’ that eviscerates adulthood and consent. On the other, it has borrowed the vocabulary of law enforcement, criminal justice ('repeat sexual offender,' 'zero tolerance,' etc.) and tabloid media (a world of 'predators') and merged it with the language of campus bureaucracy (the domain of the 'inappropriate'), effectively stretching the boundaries of rape to the point where it is defined entirely by how the victim claims to ‘feel,’ and covers everything from extreme force to bad jokes and bad sex. Elie Wiesel is accused of an 'assault' (an unwanted ass-grab lasting a second) at a public function: his victim claims the incident (which she describes in lurid terms, using words like 'inserted,' 'molested' and 'shoved') left her with eighteen years of suicidal depression and panic attacks. She is not otherwise bothered by Wiesel's politics; her trauma stems partly from her belief that he is a great humanitarian. An actress has stepped forward to accuse the octogenarian George H.W. Bush of ‘sexual assault’ because he supposedly reached out of his wheelchair to pat her posterior and tell her a dirty joke. An article in the New York Times described Donald Trump’s dismissal of Megyn Kelly during the 2016 election campaign (she was, he had said, menstruating when she asked him difficult questions) as a ‘horrific sexual violation.’ Trump’s remark was certainly horrific in its coarseness and its sexism, but can it really be called sexual violation? And is Kelly's experience with Trump's oafishness automatically horrific? This is not just a debasement of language that inflates the significance of some violations and deflates that of others. It is the deployment of language to appropriate the pain of others to amplify one’s own discomfort.

‘Me Too’ exemplifies, also, the confessional culture that is the hallmark of the Internet age, and that has been embraced as feminist ‘self-expression.’ Women, it is assumed, not only may but should ‘confess’ their experiences - particularly sexual experiences, good and bad - publicly and heroically, as part of the recovery of the female voice that would otherwise be silenced by ‘power.’ Parts of the formulation are quite misleading. ‘Confession’ is a morally meaningful idea only if the confessing individual is going to admit a crime or sin, which is clearly not the case here. What is being invested with the heroic value of confession is actually exhibition: the narcissistic glow of revealing yourself to admirers and sympathizers in relative safety, like conspicuously carrying a mattress around campus as protest and as an ‘art project,’ expecting a grade at the end of the semester. Such exhibition reflects the cult of psychiatric selfhood that has become a middle-class entitlement. It is deeply reactionary, fed by decades of corporate incitement to self-love as self-expression, and now by the culture of the selfie shared on social media. The choice of 'me too' as the hashtag of this herd behavior is entirely apt.

In the process of that ‘heroic’ self-expression, accusation itself is enveloped in a halo of saintly suffering and ‘courage’ that apparently eliminates the need for skepticism, due process (including the presumption of innocence) and evidence. To accuse is to warrant protection, love and solidarity; to be accused is to be damned. This has generated a proliferation of irresponsible, damaging and malicious finger-pointing: mischief masquerading as justice, the confusion of empathy and ‘belief’ to the degree that the need to believe accusers has taken precedence over the concept of reasonable doubt, the substitution of ‘feelings’ for legality, and demands for 'zero tolerance,' the one-size-fits-all reaction to public anxiety beloved of administrators and politicians seeking to show their toughness. On campuses, it has generated the oddly sentimental kangaroo courts of Title IX, which are a travesty of due process and ludicrous enough that Laura Kipnis was subjected to Title IX proceedings for having criticized Title IX proceedings. Some ‘Me Too’ supporters have opined that since due process has ‘not worked’ as a deterrent to sexual violations, it is dispensable. By that logic, the failure of the criminal courts to prevent murder and theft should give us the license to lynch. Revisiting due process is entirely counterproductive if it means the enhancement of "victims' rights," a pedigreed right-wing ideology.

Those who are less comfortable with lynching have hedged by pointing to the urgency of systemic change. There is no doubt that systemic change is a good idea, just as there is no doubt that unsolicited pussy-grabbing is an especially repulsive masculine entitlement. But to jump from that to jettisoning all sense of proportion, wallowing in one's conviction of victimhood, and celebrating or defending the circulation of lists of ‘sexual harassers’ – alternately described as 'sex offenders' or 'sexual assailants,' named by anonymous accusers, compiled without question or corroboration – is to accept the doctrine of collateral damage, which makes (other) individuals expendable if one’s (own) cause appears worthy. It may be argued that scholars who have spent their careers celebrating hools, jacqueries and ‘political society’ should expect nothing more liberal than a well-intentioned mob trial. But it is a dangerous road for a movement to take, no matter what its bona fides. Few allies will remain when the fingers of accusation are so random and reckless.

October 27, 2017

The Crisis of the Indian World

The relationship between cosmopolitanism and nationalism is, generally speaking, not mutually sympathetic. Nationalists tend to regard cosmopolitans with suspicion, and cosmopolitans look upon nationalists with alarm and condescension. The two ways of constructing the Self are, of course, not mutual incompatible either. Kwame Appiah suggested that an ethically meaningful cosmopolitanism necessarily begins with strong affiliation with a specific community. Certainly, cosmopolitan nationalism can be imagined in at least two different ways: a nationhood that is internally cosmopolitan, and one that engages actively with a community of nations. I want to talk about how these two possibilities have come together, and come apart, in modern India. I want to suggest that the limits of internal cosmopolitanism in India – most specifically, a sweeping delegitimization of the concept of national minorities – have set up the limits of being Indian in the world, and that these limits are particularly evident in the present historical moment.

I want to begin on the margin of India, with ‘Muslim Zion,’ as Faisal Devji called Pakistan. I do not need to go into details of Devji’s thesis now, except to point out that such ‘Zionism’ – Muslim or Jewish – rested upon a willingness to think of nationhood outside majorities, well before it reached the point of imagining a new state with a new majority. Even when such a state emerged on the horizon, it remained connected to communities that were, apparently, within the nation but without the state. It can be argued that the failure of the first phase of Pakistan in 1971 reflected the pitfalls of this kind of cosmopolitan nationhood: whereas the patriots of the West Wing remained over-attached to a Muslim identity that transcended the nation-state, and failed to cultivate an affiliation with their subcontinental fellow-citizens, those of the East Wing possessed and cultivated the more conventional, compact nationalism in which ties beyond the territorial state are not relevant to your identity, and being the majority counts for something.

The Iqbalian nationalism of the West Wing had relevance beyond the 'nation' of Indian Muslims. Here again Faisal Devji has been an illuminative historian, arguing that for Gandhi in South Africa and even afterwards, nationalist politics was about negotiation between groups dispersed over a wide geography that could be imperial or Indian, but in either case was unconcerned with majorities and borders. Devji implies that this cosmopolitanism is precisely why Gandhi fell afoul of Savarkar, Godse and their ilk, and Godse himself was quite explicit about it. The refusal to grant an absolute value to the majority concept, as much as any quixotic attachment to non-violence, made Gandhi a misfit and a traitor in the new nation.

Gandhi was especially dangerous because he was not such an outlier in the last decades of colonial rule. There was, of course, Rabindranath Tagore, whose universalist humanism could be at odds with the politics of organized nationalism, and who notoriously wrote, ‘That what you call a patriot, I am not.’ The words and the posture are easy to misconstrue, and indeed, they have been misconstrued. Far from disavowing national identity, Rabindranath was articulating a way of being Indian in the world, and more generally, of being a nationally-identified subject in the world. What he was rejecting was the primacy of allegiance to a single state and its defining majority.

That rejection could be the foundation of moral responsibility for people anywhere in the world, as it was for Rabindranath. But it could also be the basis for establishing a relationship with people who were of the nation but not of the state, and here, it was relevant to nationalists who have actually been located on the right wing of Indian politics and intellectual history. The sociologist Benoy Kumar Sarkar, for instance, was not a bleeding-heart lover of all people. Between the world wars, he spent much of his time in Germany and Italy, and became a little too fond of the governing strategies he saw here. He wrote voluminously about the Indian relationship with the world in the past, present and future, and was an unsentimental ‘hard’ nationalist, who imagined sovereignty in terms of state power.

Yet Sarkar did not get along well with the mainstream of the Indian National Congress, who in the late 1930s and 1940s were on the verge of inheriting the Indian state. They saw him as an unreliable nationalist. The reason was Sarkar’s evident indifference to the Congress’ goal of a single, unified Indian state. What matters, he wrote, was independence; it mattered less whether there was one independent Indian state, or several. Also, he seemed to care nothing for majorities and their natural privileges: the vanguard of modernity, for Sarkar, was necessarily a minority. There was, of course, a particular context for Sarkar’s remarks, and that was the demand for Pakistan. We should keep in mind that Pakistan was not the only ‘secessionist’ proposal on the table: there were also demands from various princes that their states remain outside the control of a centralized Indian government. In that context, Sarkar’s willingness to accept multiple independent states was, from the Congress perspective, close to treason.

Treason, however, is a complicated thing. Sarkar’s openness to multiple Indias was similar to Jinnah’s, which is all the more reason to revisit the cosmopolitanism of ‘Muslim Zion.’ Muslim ‘separatism’ in India was not merely, or even primarily, a matter of being enchanted by a globally dispersed minority-nation. For Jinnah and arguably many others, the enchantment, so to speak, was with an Indian minority-nation, whose dispersal was a political problem that could not be solved within a unified state in the time available. That vision of cosmopolitan nationhood as a political problem, and a limited timeline for a solution, was explicit in Sarkar. To wait indefinitely for a nationhood that could be politically organized into a single state, he suggested, was to prolong colonial rule. It is possible to read this attitude as stemming from an internationalism that was not oriented towards the sovereign nation-state, as Manu Goswami has done. I think, however, that such a reading is incorrect. Sarkar remained, to his core and to his death in 1948, an ideologue of the sovereign state, and specifically an Indian state, maneuvering in a world of sovereign states. But the contours of that state were negotiable.

So were the contours of the nationalized Self, up to a point. Multi-state adjustments were simultaneously a dispersal and a shrinking of the Self, coupled with a partial relinquishing of claims upon the part amputated. The Bengalis of eastern Bengal must now accept that they are foreigners, Sarkar wrote in 1948, thinking specifically of Pakistan’s Hindu minority, not Muslims. He did not claim special privileges for Indian Hindus, laid no claim upon a Hindu diaspora on behalf of an Indian state, conceded that many erstwhile compatriots would be foreigners to the specific state that would henceforth be known as India, but implied also that foreigner did not necessarily mean alien. There could, in other words, be overlapping Indian subjectivities, which were both rooted (in specific states) and dispersed (across borders).

Sarkar would be strictly loyal to only one India, but remain cognizant of his kinship with the others. Likewise, when Jinnah insisted that there was no such thing as an Indian nation, he was not saying that he saw Hindus as aliens. He was articulating the difficulty of reconciling peoplehood with statehood. Multiple centers of sovereignty produced new possibilities, not only in the form of federalism within the state, but also as a trans-state federalism, or a multiplication of sovereignty. For Sarkar, as for Jinnah, the adjusted, compact Self was both affiliated with one particular state, and linked to a nationally identifiable region, in the process of being located in the world.

Jinnah and Sarkar were able to ‘problem-solve’ in these terms because they occupied an intersectional moment, when multiple, overlapping ways of imagining the nationalized self could be brought to bear upon emerging states and citizenships. The Republic of India had not yet acquired its monopoly on Indianness. We might recall that in 1947, Sarat Bose and Shaheed Suhrawardy, men with very different political allegiances, could join forces in suggesting that Bengal remain united and external to both India and Pakistan. Sarat Bose, certainly, was not disavowing his Indianness. But he and Suhrawardy were Bengali patriots at a moment when that identity could be governmentally expressed outside an Indian nation state, or a Pakistani state for that matter, without nullifying either their conviction that nation-states were key instruments of dignity and sovereignty, or their investment in a capacious sovereignty that accommodated many kinds of Indian subjectivities.

The degree to which the Indian National Congress shared in these cosmopolitan possibilities is a vexed question, not least because the Congress had many ideological factions. Even if we were to look at the overtly cosmopolitan Nehru, there is no easy answer. We can certainly hold Nehru responsible for pushing so hard for a centralized, unitary state that alternative formulations of sovereignty were nipped in the bud. When he wrecked the Cabinet Mission Plan, for instance, he aborted not only the last chance to avert the Partition, but also what would have been, in some ways, a binational state. It has been suggested by Ayesha Jalal that Nehru and the Congress deliberately expelled ‘Muslim India’ from ‘India,’ in order to bypass the political challenges of governing a binational state. Unlike Sarkar, they restricted Indianness to the rump state for which they settled, effectively partitioning not just a state, but an identity. It can be argued, therefore, that Nehru gave us a curtailed Indianness.

That model of Indianness, however, was also a way of being engaged in the world, not just as a sovereign power (as Sarkar wanted) but as an instrument of justice. It was that cosmopolitanism of justice, an extension of the Nehru-and-Ambedkar-driven nationhood of justice, that caused India to take on quixotic positions like the boycott of apartheid South Africa, to support the Palestinians, and to criticize the Western wars in Suez and Vietnam.

We can also say that Nehru’s government presided over a formative important stage of Indian federalism, which made it possible for a federal identity and administrations to coexist with their provincial counterparts. The connections between this internal federalism and internationalism in foreign policy are not immediately obvious, but they are real. We know that Nehru initially resisted linguistic federalism; it was, to some extent, forced upon him. But he – and more importantly, large numbers of his compatriots – came to accept the arrangement as a reasonable solution to the problem of ‘unity in diversity.’ While it may very well have complicated the project of ‘national unity’ and made secessionist agendas easier to formulate, it was also visibly a countermeasure against a monolithic nationhood premised on, say, the dominance of Hindus or Hindi-speakers. Nehruvian India had a Hindu majority and a legitimate Muslim minority (whose legitimacy was bemoaned by some as ‘appeasement’); it was, simultaneously, a nation in which all ethnic groups – even Hindi-speakers – were minorities. It was, in that sense, a citizenship of accommodation and mutual engagement: a big-tent nationhood, oriented towards a big-tent world.

If we compare that Indianness with the subjectivity of Hindutva or the Hindu right, there are some obvious overlaps. Savarkar, who coined the term Hindutva, was a Maharashtrian nationalist and an Indian nationalist who wanted a Bengali sister-in-law. He was representative of an Indianizing agenda within the Hindu right that was impatient with narrow or provincial identity-projects, seeking to complement them with something that was new and pan-Indian, and that could be articulated in terms of national culture or even race, as in M.S. Golwalkar’s writings.

Those new structures, however, were often quite coercive, in that they relied upon the state to steamroller political opposition. They were also narrow, being upper-caste, north-Indian, Hindu, and Hindi-speaking, even when articulated by Maharashtrians or Bengalis. To use a couple of American metaphors, if federated Indianness was a salad-bowl, the Indianness of Hindutva was a melting-pot in which the final product had been preordained. Moreover, as the RSS and VHP became the principal institutions for setting the agenda of Hindutva, the nature of the preordination moved sharply away from the relatively secular Hindu nationalism of Savarkar, towards a Hindu nationhood that was nakedly concerned with religion and mythology.

The nationhood of Hindutva has its vision of the world, but it is a different world – different not only from the worlds of Sarkar, Gandhi and Jinnah, but also from that of Nehru. It saw no world at all beyond India. Ironically, this India was not the truncated India of Nehru, but the India-as-neighborhood of Sarkar and Jinnah, nostalgically and aggressively reimagined as Akhand Bharat. Whereas Sarkar and Jinnah had been willing to entertain a pragmatic disaggregation, Hindutva fantasized about reaggregation of territorial sovereignty, although not of people. But beyond the reaggregated neighborhood, lay a void of knowledge and imagination, akin to the horizon at the edge of the flat earth. When Indians were forced by circumstances to engage that world, it filled with monsters of the local imagination, like Stephen Greenblatt's New World. Engaging 'realistically' with that horizon, either in terms of justice or in terms of realpolitik, was unimportant. It was, essentially, a modern peasant’s view of the world, stopping at the edge of the neighborhood: a small world, not much bigger than a small nation.

To illustrate how his shift in Indian cosmopolitanism has played out, I want to compare, very briefly, the Indian responses to two crises: the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, and the Myanmar crisis of the present time. To recapitulate very quickly, in 1971, India took in around ten million Bengali refugees, remained clear that they would have to go back to their territory, began to intervene in the civil war in Pakistan on the side of the Bengalis, engaged in a complicated diplomacy involving the US, the Soviet Union, China, and the UN, and eventually went to war. Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s government did these things for a number of reasons, some of which can be called unsentimental and others humanitarian, but in either case, they have to do with a particular notion of cosmopolitan Indianness. They involved, for instance, a sophisticated understanding of a world of nation-states, whose postures and possibilities were shaped by history and politics. They involved a sensitivity to Indian federalism, in which Bangladeshi refugees generated sympathy in West Bengal and resentment in other border states. They involved the recognition that Bangladeshis – or Pakistanis, for that matter – were not Indians who could simply stay on (even when they were Hindus, which the majority of the refugees were). But they were not aliens either, and Indians were linked to them by ties of history and affect, and by political and moral responsibilities that could not be encapsulated within the sovereignty of any single state. The Indian calculus involved, thus, a particular understanding of the location of the self in the nation, the nation in the state, the state in the neighborhood, and the neighborhood in the world.

In the current situation involving the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya from Myanmar, the Indian position has been (i) to give almost unqualified support to the Myanmar regime, which is conducting the ethnic cleansing, (ii) to categorize the Rohingya as a threat to Indian ‘national security,’ and (iv) to not only refuse to take in Rohingya refugees, but to deport the ones already in India. In the process, the current Indian government has not only shown itself to be on the wrong side of a humanitarian crisis, it has also seriously damaged its relations with Bangladesh, which is bearing the brunt of the exodus from Myanmar without diplomatic support from the largest, most powerful state in South Asia.

The Indian position can be hard to understand, in the sense that it is a departure from older patterns of policy, and in that the ‘national security’ argument is absurd. (Arguably, there would be a greater threat to Indian security if the Rohingya became another permanently stateless and homeless people.) But the position does have a logic of its own: there is an expectation that supporting the Myanmar junta will balance Chinese influence, there are the oil fields that the Reliance corporation has acquired in Myanmar, there is fear of Muslims, there is contempt for Bangladesh. ‘Bangladeshi’ has long been the Hindu right’s synonym for ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘undesirable alien.’ Even among many Indians who can agree that the Rohingya are being ill-treated by the Myanmar regime, there is a feeling that it is not an Indian problem, and that the Indian state has no obligations in the matter.

But what there is, more than anything else, is that warped new way of thinking about the self, the nation, the state, the neighborhood and the world. Not only is there none of the worldliness, i.e., the solidarity with the alien, that was the hallmark of Nehruvian cosmopolitanism, there is no sense of kinship or empathy with a Bengali-speaking people, including Hindus as well as Muslims, in the immediate neighborhood of India. Indianness has receded further within the neighborhood: there is no sense of responsibility that comes from a historical bond with Bangladesh, i.e., that sense of Bangladesh as another India. There is none of the regret and responsibility that animated people of the Partition generation, from Manto to Ritwik Ghatak, who remained cognizant that the borders of the new nation-states were ethnically untrue, and who continued to recognize themselves on the other side of the line. Indianness has, in fact, been diminished even within the Indian state, where questions of whether being a Bengali-speaker makes you at least contextually a Bengali, and whether being Bengali gives you a claim on India, have been swept aside by the all-powerful claim of citizenship. Whereas the apparent Bengaliness of the Rohingya has gained them a measure of sympathy in Bangladesh, provincial and parochial identities (as legitimate political claims upon the whole) have lost ground in India. There is now only a national majority. To be a minority is to be anti-national. This investment in a majority responsible only for itself is reinforced by the post-1991, neoliberal cult of the individual living in a gated community, stepping and sometimes driving over the homeless.

Where a wide spectrum of ideologues once saw a natural multiplicity of identities, responsibilities and centers of affiliation, there is now an Indianness of exclusiveness, that excludes from empathy, fellow-feeling and responsibility all those who cannot be captured within the shrunken boundaries of the majority, the state and the self. I want to close with two observations. One is that this shrinking is an abdicating of liberalism, and democracy without liberalism is inherently fascist. The failure of Indian cosmopolitanism is thus a part of a graver crisis of Indian society, with its majoritarianism and mob violence. The political consolidation of a national majority – pushed to the point of majoritarian nationalism – has, ironically, not only diminished the Indian ability to act in the world, it has precipitated a moral leprosy that can only be demoralizing to those who value an ethical society. The other is that this is not a peculiarly Indian problem. It may be acute in India, where liberalism has historically had shallow roots. But we see it also in Brexit and in Trump’s America. It forces us to face the inherent tension between nationalism and liberalism in the best of circumstances, and the reality that whereas nationalism finds its fulfillment in the mobilized majority, liberalism (especially in the nation-state) is always a minority ideology. Cosmopolitan nationhood is the resolution of that tension, but it is also, much of the time, a contradiction in terms.

September 21, 2017

Public history and India

 An examination of ‘public history’ in India – or rather, public history and India – has taken on a special urgency in recent years, not least because the Republic of India is in the middle of an unprecedented crisis of the relationship between the state, the public and the citizen. In this situation, it has become necessary to scrutinize not only Indian publics and their histories, but also the public’s uses of history, and the problems and possibilities of writing history for the public. At the core of the crisis is a breakdown of the alliance between liberalism and history without which the democratic nation-state becomes ethnocratic and, in some contexts, fascist. This breakdown has become inescapable in India, where a rampant and frequently violent majoritarianism – unchecked by the state, and increasingly inseparable from the state – has been feeding off, and feeding, narratives of bridges to Lanka, the pre-Mughal origins of the Taj Mahal, and alternative outcomes of the Battle of Haldighati. The problem cannot be pinned on any particular government; it is woven into the fabric of a public that has, by and large, fetishized sovereignty without liberalism since the inception of the Indian nation.

History, in this situation, is both the disease and the remedy, because the weakness of liberal institutions and principles of governance in India is compounded by readily identifiable political and discursive fallacies, such as allegation of ‘pseudo-secularism’ and the discourse of ‘Muslim appeasement.’ These fallacies are undergirded by a narrative of indigenes and invaders, tyrants and victims, that is not only reactionary in the context of a multi-ethnic society, but that has not been challenged consistently by liberal nationalists. In the late nineteenth century, for instance, the Congress Moderates and their Extremist challengers generally agreed that Aurangzeb was the devil. They differed mainly in what they wished to emphasize: whereas one historically-minded group dwelled on the diabolical, the other preferred to divert attention to the available angels (Akbar, Dara Shukoh, even benign Europeans).

In subsequent decades, when the Extremist/Moderate divide had become obsolete, two broad factions continued to mark nationalist politics, both overflowing the conventional boundary between the ‘secular’ and the ‘communal.’ One group saw the public project of the nation-state as historical revenge, the other emphasized the reconciliation of old enmities in a newly shared citizenship. They did not, however, disagree fundamentally about the content of the past, or about a dichotomy of options in the present between vengeance and forgetting. Since history tends to work against forgetting, it is not surprising that a nation founded on a history of conflict with a resident enemy has become more focused on vengeance, and more overtly majoritarian, as it has become more democratic. Also, since the illiberal state has typically functioned as the gatekeeper to public forums such as museums, archaeological sites, the cinema, and above all the school, the liberal historian – where she has existed – has had a limited and fiercely contested access to the public, especially that part of the public that has constituted itself as the ‘majority.’

What is public history, and can it mean the same thing in all contexts? Acknowledging that the concept of public history is notoriously hard to define, Robert Weible nevertheless suggested that it involves an attempt by scholars to bridge the gaps between academic and popular uses of historical discourse. He gave as his example the engagement of historians in the provision of texts that might accompany monuments and exhibits, those being sites where the public performs its public function. Such a conceptualization may be appropriate in the democratic states of the West, where even in the midst of intense disagreement about what history should inform public policy, there is a consensus of sorts about what history is, about what ‘the public’ is, about the public’s investment in history, and about the public’s claim upon the state, i.e., about the connections between public and policy. It is not adequate in the case of India, where no such consensus is apparent. R.K. Laxman and Arvind Kejriwal notwithstanding, the Indian ‘common man’ is a fragmented and contentious animal, and one cannot take for granted a notion of citizenship that is anchored either in popular sovereignty or in liberalism, which have become politically opposed to each other in India. Here, multiple publics – sometimes including the same people – vie to establish not only the content of history, but the contours and significance of history as a discipline with a privileged place in the nation-state. Academic history in India is only precariously located in the public. Its narratives are challenged constantly and effectively by those who claim the prestige of history as a discipline but are uninterested in its methods and unaware of its content, and it has no ready response to the argument that disciplinary prestige can have no assurance of authority in a democracy. ‘Sentiments’ can be as important as history in determining policy.

Under the circumstances, the ‘public history’ of the historical space that now includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh must be structured broadly and pursue multiple projects simultaneously. The structure should accommodate three main objectives: studying the formation of particular publics, studying public experiences, and writing for the public in a society at war with itself. These should be intertwined goals, but they can nevertheless be discrete enough to guide historians as they set out to define what they are trying to do.

We might begin with histories of becoming a public, or the processes and debates through which ‘people’ become a ‘public.’ These must contend with the layered nature of assertions of public identity in India since the early nineteenth century. Not only have specific politically mobilized identities (structured as ethnicity, nationality, class, caste, etc.) produced a multiplicity of publics, a new general identity (that of being a member of ‘the public’ as a concept equipped with entitlements and even obligations) has functioned as the glue holding these compartments together. The latter, however, is not universal, because while it is constructed with reference to global notions of being a public, it is also, invariably, limited by national citizenship. Exploring the tensions and resolutions between the particularity, generality, and universality of public-formation is critical to understanding the contextual and essentially federal practice of Indian nationhoods, in which there is a constant awareness of outsiders who are also insiders, and one learns to function in overlapping and not easily reconciled modes. These modes include the regional and the transregional, the Bengali and the Indian, the Baidya and the bhadra, the Indian and the modern. Each has its particular relationship to what can be either one state, carefully differentiated layers and segments of the state, or institutions below (or alongside) the state. In any case, the analysis must spotlight the development of a relationship with instituted authority. Without the relationship, which can be proprietorial or oppositional, there can be no public to speak of.

Such histories of becoming are also, necessarily, projects of distinguishing between private and public worlds, a task that includes the construction of the ‘private’ as an appropriate subject for public debate. Here, Partha Chatterjee indicated in The Nation and its Fragments and Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe, colonialism generated private and semi-private national domains that were fraught but also reassuringly conservative. It generated, in conjunction, a ferociously contested domain of public experiences, in which ‘private’ subjects locked out of the chambers of policy-making could not only articulate a public-hood grounded in the shared experience of powerlessness, but experience alternative modalities of power grounded in resistance or (more typically) indifference to formal authority, coupled with an intensely creative willingness to identify and defend alternative theaters of agency. These experiences are, indeed, key to our understanding of the public in a society that has, as often as not, bypassed civil society on the way to modernity, and in which civil society – where it exists –remains deeply ambivalent about liberalism. In other words, close examination of ‘being (in) public’ as a set of experiences and projects of self-making is essential to the study of not only nationalism without a nation-state, but also the post-1947 South Asian predicament of illiberal democracy.

That predicament is precisely what creates, for the ‘public historian,’ a space and a responsibility to speak across publics, as it were. It is not enough to dissect the public, although that task remains essential. It is important, also, to acknowledge that what is being dissected is not dead, is unlikely to be killed by academic historians, and is something of a killer in its own right. Academic historians must speak to it, about it, and (at least strategically) from within it: recovering from the past the alternatives to a public project of existential revenge and placing them within the lived realities of the present. It is, therefore, essential to address what the public itself considers important to public life: institutions and experiences like working, dining, sport, school, the cinema, the shop, the street, and the war zone. If the everyday world of the public citizen – the experiences that generate difference from some and commonality with some others – can be unpacked and explained in terms that are comprehensible to those who are arguably modern but not liberal, we may be able to recover, from the mob, a critical mass of citizens who recognize that lynching is a specific, and inferior, form of public action.

August 22, 2017