God and Country



British Prime Minister David Cameron recently raised a few eyebrows by declaring that Britain is a Christian country. Cameron and his allies in the Church then explained, somewhat defiantly, that Christianity had supplied the core of Britain’s culture and history, and that to ignore the contribution was untruthful. This need not be especially controversial. Cameron is a Tory, after all, and the enshrinement of the Church of England within the official structure of the British state is not new. Still, Cameron’s remark and the reaction that has followed are worth unpacking, for what they suggest about secularism in democracy. For while Cameron may simply have repeated an old bit of dogma, he also highlighted the instability of the opposition between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ nationhoods, and the place-specific nature of the instability.

Is Britain a Christian country? It is less ‘Christian’ today than it was ten, fifty or a hundred years ago: a much smaller percentage of the population identifies itself as Christian. In 2001, seventy-two percent of Britons identified themselves as Christian, whereas in 2011, the percentage figure was fifty-nine. By 2030, Christians will be a minority in what a Church of England official emphasized was ‘their own land.’ There are too many people around with names like Hasan and Patel, and obviously Cameron was dog-whistling to a beleaguered Little England of people with names like Smith, Jones and Morrissey. As a political tactic, it has its immediate roots in the rhetoric of the National Front and BNP (not to mention Margaret Thatcher): this is our own land, not theirs/yours. The sharp reaction is a commendable, if unsurprising, refusal by liberal nationalists to accept such naked racism. But it is also a sign of a problem within supposedly unproblematic white Britain: if Albion is a Christian country, then it has shrunk by as many as four million souls in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

While naked and clothed racists usually spotlight post-1965 immigration from Asia and Africa, implying that it threatens Anglo-Christian culture, there are other reasons for the apparent dwindling of the flock. The Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales noted recently that the nature of British Christianity and Christians has changed. In the past, the bishops pointed out, Christianity was both a ‘culture’ and a ‘religion.’ People who never went to church and gave no thought to the Gospel nevertheless claimed to be Christian. Christian identity was for them a loosely worn cultural cloak, made up of a family name and shared experiences: chapel attendance at school, nuns with canes, Sundays off, Christmas trees, knowing the words to a hymn or two, and having no particular objection to God saving the Queen. This is not necessarily what the Church of England means by Christian culture and history, but it is nevertheless a real cultural fabric, interwoven with Britishness. This fabric has become less meaningful in Britain: Christian identity is now asserted only by the true believers, i.e., the church-going Evangelical set.

Under the circumstances, the Christian element in Britishness recedes even if immigration by Muslims, Hindus and Rastafarians is discounted. Like much in 'British culture,' British Christianity has become American: a matter of personal faith (albeit with public claims), rather than a diffuse form of ethnicity, which is how religious identity functions elsewhere in the modern world. In India, for instance, ‘being Hindu’ does not require any particular belief, let alone a specific notion of heresy, and ‘being Muslim’ is entirely compatible with being agnostic. Nehru and Jinnah are the best examples among public figures, but the formulation is ubiquitous. The fact that Khushwant Singh wore a turban all his life never led anybody to doubt his fondness for whisky, but it did identify him as a Sikh. My being Hindu has almost nothing to do with the specifics of my views on God: it derives, rather, from the fact that I am familiar and comfortable with a ‘culture’ that includes language, stories, holidays and food. Its boundaries are neither precise nor fuzzy: they are functional, or adequate to the needs of dealing with other Indians of various religious affiliations. Not so with Americans, who tend to insist that since I assert a specific religious identity, I must have specific religious beliefs. (The major exceptions are Reform Jews, whose understanding of the connection between ethnicity and religion can be very South Asian.)

On the face of it, the Indian ‘system’ may seem to better fit anti-fundamentalist understandings of diversity and tolerance. That appearance can hardly be straightforward, since Indian voters are currently in the process of electing a distinctly intolerant man and his political cohort to form the next government. These are men and women who claim to represent the ‘Hindu majority,’ dismiss anti-Muslim pogroms with the metaphor of running over puppies (which is expected to evoke not horror or remorse, but nonchalance), and strategize openly about forcing Muslims out of ‘Hindu neighborhoods.’ A portion of this constituency is perhaps made up of Hindus of ‘faith.’ But a great many others are Hindus in the same way that I am Hindu: they belong to the cultural, rather than doctrinal, circle of religious identity. They are uninterested in my relationships with God, women or Scottish distillers, although connections with Muslims or Pakistanis are another matter. It could be argued that the Indian dynamic is in some ways the opposite of what has happened in Britain: a largely secular culture of Hinduness has expanded, become more stable in its content and its utility, and consolidated its claim upon national identity. ‘Believing’ Hindus – or fundamentalists – have become, if anything, even less relevant to questions of who-is-Hindu than when Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay (a believer and a conservative) and V.D. Savarkar (agnostic) downplayed belief in religious identity.

I am suggesting, here, that writers like Pankaj Mishra, who have pointed to the Semiticization of Hinduism since the nineteenth century – i.e., its transformation into a single, compact faith – and connected that streamlining to the rise of parties like the BJP, have got it slightly wrong. It is not that there was no streamlining of dogma. But that dogma is not especially relevant to the body politic. What matters more is the consolidation of cultures identified as Hindu, Muslim and Sikh, which can lend themselves as easily to the Congress or the CPI(M) as to the BJP or the Akali Dal. They are, in that sense, simultaneously secular and threats to secularism.

We thus have, on the one hand, an Anglo-American crisis of the secular state, in which the assertion of religious nationhood comes from an increasingly narrow community of believers and their allies among the racists and the cynical. On the other hand, we have a model of majoritarianism in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (Pakistan’s problems now fall in a different category), in which the comfortable fusion of culture, religious identity and nationhood threatens to eradicate marginal locations and identities wherever these might be found. The former is a whine (by the religiously identified) against history; the latter an expression of affinity with history, in which the alignment of culture, religion and nation-state constitutes a climax.

Is one worse than the other? Clearly, declarations of ‘Christian Britain’ and ‘Hindu India’ both raise the question of whether  a nation can  have an identity that is autonomous of the population. If nearly half the British population is not Christian, and Britain is nevertheless a ‘Christian country,’ it puts Britain in the position of a Balkan state like Kosovo, if not ‘Greater Israel.’ There must then be, openly or tacitly, a hierarchy of citizenships. Similarly, the Hindutwit vision of India leaves no doubt about the provisional status of non-Hindu citizens. But the Indian predicament is arguably more violent and oppressive than the British, because although India is officially secular and Britain is not, the Christians of ‘Christian Britain’ must negotiate politically with the heathens. In India, where there is no contradiction between being secular and being Hindu, the negotiation with Muslims is over, although negotiation within ‘Hindu society’ continues, and constitutes a part of the substance of Indian politics. (Which is one reason why India may not be declared Hindu rashtra anytime soon.) As late as the 1930s, Indian politics had a discourse of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity,’ which implied a political relationship between two substantial, if not numerically equal, entities. That discourse has been replaced entirely by the discourse of ‘communal harmony,’ which is essentially a rhetoric of law and order. The potential for fascism is accordingly greater.

All the same, I prefer the expansiveness of religious identity in South Asia. Religion is too rich to leave to the peddlers of dogma, and I generally find religious people to be less inclined than atheists to shallow cleverness. When I was fifteen, my mathematics teacher and high school tennis coach was a tough, slightly tragic Irishman named Dr. Waldron. He caught me reading James Joyce one day, which gave us a bond of sorts. I would ride in his car on the way to tennis practice. He didn’t care much that I had no talent for either tennis or math, and taught me a few things about Parnell and Irish-republican politics, and the right way to pronounce Sinn Fein. Dr. Waldron, I discovered, was a lapsed Jesuit. Having previously gone to a school where the Jesuit headmaster was impossibly remote, I seized the opportunity to interrogate one up close, curious not only about what was involved in being one, but what might be involved in leaving a very serious club. (Leaving serious clubs was relevant to an emigrant.) The ex-Jesuit did not, of course, go into the details of a crisis of faith with a teenager, suggesting only that a conflict had arisen between beliefs and allegiances. Pleased to have found a fellow-rebel, I blurted out that I was an atheist. Dr. Waldron was amused and less affirming than I had expected. “Ah, my atheist,” he chuckled affectionately, and changed the subject. God and church remained frustratingly unexamined, but I had a glimpse of the possibility that doubt can be nested within religion, even belief.

My teenage atheism has left a residue of tension. To put it bluntly, I recoil from the public display of religiosity: yarmulkes, puja tilaks, beards. But the secularism of the modern Indian, which I find I have retained, also makes publicly displayed religiosity legitimate. Besides, everyday life in New York City is based on accepting people you find annoying. The French insistence that public space be swept clean of religion strikes me as, well, fascist, not to mention discriminatory, because such a decisive separation of culture and religion is inevitably more hostile to some religions than to others. My ambivalence also has to do with how much – and what – information is conveyed by religious signs. Not all signs are as empty as a patka. Some are, or appear to be, texts of intolerance. A Hindu with a tilak on his forehead is possibly a Hindutwit who donates to the VHP and sees me as ‘pseudo-secular’ (which is the Hindu equivalent of a ‘self-hating Jew’). Skullcaps and beards suggest other politics of intolerance. Between the bushy-faced Pakistani cricketers of Inzamam’s generation and the clean-shaven ones of Imran Khan’s, I know which I might have a drink with. (Does Imran still drink? Not in public, I imagine.) But these texts are also easy to misread. The bearded batsman might be Hashim Amla: not exactly a fire-breathing fanatic. The guys with kippah might be Naturei Karta. And I do know Hindus who might enter a temple and leave with a tilak, but who are also totally opposed to the politics of Hindu domination.

April 23, 2014

Gandhi and the Holocaust

(Making Sense of a Bit of Nonsense)

In 1906, the British authorities in South Africa embarked upon the suppression of the so-called Zulu Rebellion. The name given to the conflict by the colonial regime may conjure up images of savages swarming around the circled wagons of civilization. The reality of the counterinsurgency was much shabbier: modern military units pursued, shot and flogged scattered and practically unarmed Africans who posed no credible threat to an empire at the height of its power, and whose major offense was their objection to a new tax calculated to force them into Natal’s labor market. Several thousand Zulus were killed; hardly any whites died. (It was, in that sense, the sort of war that Americans came to see as a reasonable expectation after Operation Desert Storm.)

It’s well known that M.K. Gandhi participated in the 1906 affair. The Zulu Rebellion was the second of Gandhi’s South African wars. He reactivated the medical unit he had created during the Boer War six years previously, recruiting South Africa’s Indian community to fight for the empire that had done so much for them. Gandhi, in fact, tried to persuade the government to give Indians a wider role in smashing the Zulu Rebellion, but the white regime saw this as both unnecessary and undesirable, and Gandhi and his men had to be content with ambulance work. Gandhi’s objective may very well have been to promote the rights of Indians in South Africa, not only by making a display of their loyalty to the Empire, but also by bringing them into the field of colonial war, i.e., the political circle of the laager, where citizenship and arms-bearing were joined at the hip. But as Erik Erikson observed many years ago, there was more to it than expediency and ideology. Gandhi’s relationship with the Empire and its administrators had the quality of the rebellion of a son: he tended to swerve violently between fierce opposition and an almost groveling loyalty, rejecting the ‘father’ in the first mode, and desperately seeking his approval in the second.

That swerving habit gave Gandhi’s responses to violence one of its most basic qualities, which is inconsistency. Having signed up for the anti-Zulu ‘war,’ Gandhi quickly discovered that it was not a war at all, but a series of manhunts (as he later described it). He and his men spent much of their time taking care of badly injured Africans that white doctors and nurses were reluctant to treat. Out of this experience came the outraged, almost abusive prose of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi’s best-known piece of polemic, in which he laid out his case against violence and Western civilization. But five years later, he was back in uniform, so to speak, recruiting Indian soldiers to fight for Britain in the First World War.

Even Hind Swaraj is not the inflexible polemic it is sometimes assumed to be. Gandhi makes it clear, for instance, that the appropriate moral response to violent injustice depends on a variety of factors, including the identity of the adversary, the balance of physical capabilities, and the circumstances of the provocation. (There must, Gandhi wrote in his analogy of the armed burglar, be one response for your father, and another for a stranger.) But at other points in the same tract, and certainly in other tracts, he appears to insist that the tactics and premises of satyagraha are independent of context. There were thus two levels of inconsistency, or, seen another way, flexibility: one within the ideology, another without. Raghavan Iyer called this the maintenance of a distinction between ‘ahimsa as policy’ and ‘ahimsa as creed.’ Thus, even the very late ‘inconsistencies’ in Gandhi’s career – his apparent acceptance of ‘any means necessary’ in the Quit India uprising of 1942-43, or his endorsement of military force in national defense in 1947 – need not be seen as lapses or surprising acts of desperation. Satyagraha made allowances for desperation.

It is in the context of this flexibility, then, that we might look at Gandhi’s most notorious application, or misapplication, of the concept of satyagraha: the Holocaust. When the Nazi persecution of the European Jews began, Gandhi began to receive requests for his reaction, or even a prescription. The queries sometimes came from old Jewish friends and collaborators; there had been many in Gandhi’s South African years. Sometimes they came, in rhetorical form, from gleeful adversaries who believed that Gandhi had finally met his ideological match in Hitler. And sometimes they came from people like George Orwell, who found Gandhi’s moral certainties oppressive but nevertheless wanted him to have an answer. Gandhi disappointed them all, taking a remarkably hardline stance: yes, the German-Jewish predicament was horrendous, but those targeted by the Nazis must nevertheless offer satyagraha. In a line that has become justifiably infamous, he suggested that the Jews should hurl themselves from cliffs rather than ‘submit’ to their tormentors. The suggestion need not be taken literally, but the meaning is unmistakable: Gandhi was saying that non-violent resistance against the Nazis was morally necessary and even ‘viable,’ and that Jews who allowed themselves to be rounded up and herded to their deaths had not only contributed to their own destruction, but failed in their moral responsibilities. Responsibilities to whom, one might ask. Well, to themselves, Gandhi seemed to be saying, but also to those whose lives they might have saved, to other Germans, and arguably to humanity itself.

In his generally excellent book on Gandhi, Faisal Devji argued that Gandhi’s position on the Holocaust belongs within a coherent and consistent ideology of moral action through satyagraha. Unlike European anti-fascists (and like many other Indian observers, such as Subhas Bose and Benoy Sarkar), Gandhi refused to see fascism as a special evil. He therefore refused to see in it a circumstance that warranted moral exceptions, Devji wrote, endorsing the perspective. Like Gandhi, Devji conceded that satyagraha would not have prevented the deaths of many Jews, and he too pointed out the obvious: neither submission nor violent opposition succeeded in preventing those deaths. Devji also argued that while the ultimate purpose of politics may not be separable from the preservation of life, Gandhi had committed himself to a ‘hard’ morality that was separate from, and superior to, the logic of political action. Thus, the preservation of life became a secondary consideration, detachable from an autonomous calculus of ‘doing the right thing.’ To miss the courage of Gandhi’s commitment to that autonomy, Devji wrote, is to sentimentalize Gandhi.

Devji is, I think, too generous to Gandhi on several counts. One has to do with the relationship between information and ideology. Gandhi was aware of a general fact of persecution. He knew that Jews in Europe were being terrorized, and even killed, by the Nazi regime: he had received letters from his Jewish friends, and there was of course the news media. But he did not know the particulars; neither, it must be said, did most of those who corresponded with him between 1933 and January of 1948. The episode, for Gandhi, remained a problem of German Jews and their Aryan neighbors: he had nothing to say about Poland and Galicia, or about the wider European implications of the Wannsee Conference. The details that constitute the most visceral content of the Holocaust-as-history, marking it out as something extraordinary – memoirs, photographs and films, archival data and trial transcripts – were only just beginning to filter through in the final two years of Gandhi’s life, when he was already preoccupied with the political and human calamity of the Indian Partition. In those circumstances, just as it is unfair to expect Gandhi to have formulated an informed opinion on the Holocaust, it is also a mistake to endow thinly-informed opinion with the dignity of ‘ideology,’ instead of seeing it as a bit of nonsense to which even Gandhi is entitled.

It is, after all, in the details that the devils of the Holocaust lie. Details differentiate it from counterinsurgency in South Africa and the carnage of the First World War. The assumption that ‘fascism is not extraordinary’ in the context of the modern state is contentious but defensible, since there is rarely a clear line where the merely oppressive ends and the fascist begins. But to assume that there is no distinction between garden-variety fascism and Nazi practice is much more problematic, and the widespread Indian tendency to see Nazi Germany as just another ‘hard state’ (that is admirable or objectionable depending on whether the observer is ‘right’ or ‘left’ in Indian politics) misses both the trees and the wood. Obviously, the Holocaust was not the original case of mass murder, and Gandhi knew from personal experience that it was not the first time that industrial products had been used against unarmed targets. But Gandhi, who relied heavily on personal experience in the formulation of his ideological positions, had neither direct nor indirect experience of the application of industrial methods to murder, in which the factory model was utilized to manufacture death itself. He could not grasp, therefore, what his informants failed to explain, but what those who engineered the shift from Einsatzgruppen to extermination camps did grasp: one cannot appeal to the conscience of 'neighbors,' or make any kind of moral gesture at all, when the neighborhood has been replaced by the assembly line.

It has become increasingly fashionable to see Gandhi as all-purpose critic of whatever is unappetizing about modernity. He fits the bill: he was an eccentric Asian, he had a certain resemblance to Yoda, his writing is shot through with an idiom of mid-Victorian Christianity that was stilted and dated in his own lifetime, and, of course, he was a critic of modernity. But there is something dangerously ahistorical in the scope that is often allotted to Gandhi. It covers everything and all periods from civil rights to environmentalism, antiwar politics to anti-corporate activism, British imperialism to the occupation of Palestine. Surely Gandhi had the answer! ‘Maoists’ in Madhya Pradesh might actually be ‘Gandhians with guns’! But Gandhi was a man from a particular time and particular places, dealing with a particular set of issues and enemies. Placing him in situations he did not inhabit even in a library turns him into a Forrest Gump of sorts, and it stretches Gandhian ideology well beyond its breaking point. Gandhi was there when colonial troops savaged the Zulus; it produced a powerful little book. But he was nowhere near the death camps or Josef Mengele’s work-station. Nothing that he had to say about the Nazis – or their victims – is especially useful in thinking through that particular form of state terror.

March 7, 2014

Military History and the Bangladesh War



History is popularly understood to be a narrative of wars. I mean ‘popularly’ in both senses of the term: not only is that understanding of history ‘mainstream,’ it has many fans, especially on the right. These fans, who are almost entirely male, are commonly known as 'history buffs.' (The readership for leftist historiography includes women, but is miniscule in comparison; in no sense is it popular.) The history that 'sells' is military history, which is assumed to be right-wing by default. At the college where I teach, a standing joke among faculty worried about enrollments is that they should insert the words “World War Two” into the title of the course, as in “Alternative Chinese Sexualities in World War Two.” Students will come.

Sadly for history buffs as well as historians, there is very little Indian military history. This is not surprising, since military history of the popular sort requires a particular kind of population: the kind that writes, reads and can afford to buy mass-marketed books that stimulate a national identity that everybody agrees upon. In India, that market and the industry that feeds it are only now reaching critical mass. Also, there is not a whole lot to write, read or feel good about, since India has had no wars in which a significant portion of the country was involved. In spite of the ostentatious display of hardware at the annual Republic Day parade in Delhi (which appears Stalinist but is actually colonial in inspiration), the military has had a fairly small public profile in India, unlike in Pakistan or the US. There has never been a draft, no compulsory military service, and very little fighting. India’s wars since independence have all been fought on the margins of the land, by marginal institutions and personnel. None except the first Kashmir conflict has lasted more than a few weeks. The casualties have numbered in the hundreds or thousands, not in the five, six, seven or eight figures. Most Indians have never encountered a soldier, let alone known a dead one. Hardly anyone would be able to name the current army chief, which can only be a good thing.

Some of that is changing. Since the Kargil skirmish of 1999, there has been a visible cult of military-worship. Cricket stars are now given honorary ranks in the army and promised rides in fighter planes. But military history still remains marginal and under-developed: developing, one might say tactfully. There are a handful of memoirs by retired officers like P.C. Lal, L.P. Sen and John Dalvi, and there is Neville Maxwell’s banned account of the 1962 war with China. These are often informative and, indeed, fascinating, but the genre is very small, both in volume and in scope.

So when one comes across a well-written and substantial work of Indian military history, it can be gratifying. Samir Chopra (my colleague at CUNY) and Jagan Mohan happen to be two of the more active military historians of India, specializing in air force history. They recently came out with Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the Liberation War of 1971: a nice, fat addition to their book on the 1965 air war. A third book – a study of the air war over West Pakistan in 1971 – is in the works.

It should be said at the outset that Eagles Over Bangladesh (EOB) is not an academic history. As anyone who has read John Dower, Stanley Karnow or Neil Sheehan will confirm, military history as an academic and even semi-academic discipline has changed tremendously over the past generation: it now not only requires a thorough engagement with the political context of war, but also overlaps with social and cultural history, including histories of race, gender and class. EOB has very little of that. It is for the most part a straightforward analysis of battle, and as such, an old-fashioned book of the sort that appeals immediately to history buffs and armchair warriors. If one considers the nature of the project, however, it is a fascinating book that raises some broad questions about South Asian history and historiography. EOB ‘works’ quite well within the limits the authors have set for themselves, but whether those limits are helpful or obstructive is another matter. So I shall first discuss the book on its own terms, and then take up the issue of what remains to be done in a history of the 1971 war. 

EOB is, first of all, a meticulously researched study of one portion of the fighting that led to the bloody break-up of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh. Using sources ranging from interviews and squadron logs to newspaper reports and video footage, Mohan and Chopra provide a vivid picture of the air war in November and December of 1971, from the particulars of individual missions to the processes of operational planning. That thoroughness is occasionally counterproductive. Sections of the book can be tedious: it is really not necessary to detail every mission flown in the eastern sector of the war, or to reproduce every bit of information available on the movement of squadrons from base to base. The authors seem to have proceeded under the impression that information must be included regardless of its value, without first establishing the criteria for what makes information relevant. The result is a methodological slippage: the work drifts periodically from the terrain of the historian, who must evaluate and organize material with a ‘so what’ question in mind, into that of the chronicler, who wants to catalog ‘everything that happened.’

All the same, if one objective of military history is to place the reader in the cockpit or briefing room, the book succeeds. It is absorbing, poignant and witty. Chopra and Mohan write obviously from an Indian perspective and Indian research materials are predominant, but EOB is mercifully free of jingoism or cheap insults directed at the enemy. The authors have, in fact, gone out of their way to consult Pakistani sources when these have been available. That has heightened their credibility and enriched the narrative with details and perspectives that would otherwise be lost. This also a well-produced book. The index is frustratingly inadequate, but as if to compensate, an excellent collection of photographs is included.

Not only does the book provide a wealth of information about the operations themselves, at its best it historicizes the war effectively, illuminating the shifting objectives and perceptions of those who planned and participated in it. The narrative confirms that the Indian decision to go to war was taken quite early in the year. By the time fighting actually broke out in late November, the air force – and presumably the army and navy as well – had spent months planning and training. Squadrons had been assigned their tasks and territories, pilots had been assigned their partners, weapons and strategy had been rationalized, and the modalities of inter-services coordination worked out. This allowed the Indian military to avoid some of the amateurish mistakes it made in the 1965 conflict with Pakistan, not to mention the war with China three years before that. As the Pakistani air force officer Sajjad Haider (who planned one of the most effective operations of the 1965 war) noted wryly, the Indians learned from their mistakes, the Pakistanis did not.

At the same time, EOB makes clear that the Indian war effort was not as effortless, lubricated and rational as it is sometimes made out to be. The well-known destruction of the runway at Tejgaon is a case in point. The M-62 bomb which was used with spectacular success in those missions had been in the air force’s possession for years; yet few pilots were aware of it, and none had trained with it. The necessary tactics had not been devised or tested. Even after the frustrating and expensive raids on Sargodha in September 1965, the IAF had not bothered to find out what works, and what does not work, in disabling a heavily-defended enemy airfield. Those lessons had to be improvised quickly after another day of frustration and high costs (the December 4 attacks on Tejgaon). Intelligence was astonishingly poor: in spite of the defection of large numbers of Bengali PAF personnel, the IAF had not learned the layout of the airfields in Dhaka, and flew sortie after sortie looking in vain for aircraft shelters and radar installations. There was much wastage of effort, resources and lives: targets were bombed even after intelligence had confirmed they were worthless, simply because attacking aircraft had already loaded up with ordnance and fuel and were ready to go.

Now for what EOB does not do, which is also a plea for a different type of Indian military history. 'Air force history' is by definition a troublesome concept: unless the historian is very careful, it remains airborne, abstracted from the mess on the ground. Yet it is the mess that is the stuff of history. The 1971 war is obviously not just about Indian bombing tactics. It is, for instance, also about curious medical nomenclature. In Indian Bengal, the common name for conjunctivitis is Joi Bangla (the slogan of the Bangladeshi rebels), because the conflict coincided with a plague of eye infections. A forty-year-old war has remained embedded within language and inflamed eyes. On a more serious level, the war is a complex text of about what went wrong with Pakistan, and the Indian investment in a particular neighborhood and world order. Chopra and Mohan do try to include a political narrative, especially in the introduction, but it is somewhat cursory: they are anxious to get to the real topic, which is the fighting. The war tends to get cut off from its own political context. (The exception to this is the very good discussion of Kilo Flight, the rebel air force.) This leads of unfortunate errors of omission. There is insufficient discussion of the American posture, which leaves Task Force 74 sailing in a contextual void. The Blood Telegram gets no mention, and the very interesting section on Dhaka on the eve of surrender has no reference to the massacre of the city's intellectuals on December 14 (image below) as Indian forces closed in on the city, although it was one of the most dramatic and sinister episodes of the war.
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 1971 is also a highly compelling ideological text of race and gender, which inform the origins and conduct of the war. The conflict cannot fully explained without analyzing anti-Bengali racism in West Pakistan. Where did this racism come from and why was it so pervasive? India also has Punjabis and Bengalis, after all, but their relationship has not been marked by the contempt and violence that emerged in Pakistan. To understand racism in Pakistani history, we need to ask why the Martial Races Theory became institutionalized in Pakistan to a degree that had no parallel in India. It seeped into the economy (as the work of Ayesha Siddiqa shows), into the administration, into popular culture, and of course into the military itself. Any history of the Bangladesh War needs to confront that dynamic.

The Bangladesh War remains to a great extent an unconfronted war. The reluctance to confront is, understandably, most acute in Pakistan: not only was this a lost war, it was a particularly shameful one, marked by mass murder and rape. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Pakistani memory of 1971 is marked either by outright denial (there were no massacres and rapes) and blustery accusations (bloody traitors), or by a grudging admission (mistakes were made) that  acknowledges neither responsibility nor the scale of the crime. It’s similar, in some ways, to the American retrospective on Vietnam.

Other silences are peculiar to Pakistan. Going into 1971, the two most celebrated combat pilots in the PAF were M.M. Alam, with four victories against the IAF in the 1965 war, and Saif-ul-Azam, who had one victory against India in 1965 and three against Israel in the Six Day War. (By way of comparison, no Indian pilot had more than one to his credit.) Alam, in fact, was a much-hyped hero: he was credited (incorrectly) with an absurd number of kills in 1965, including five in a single battle. Pakistan’s Air Force Day was created to commemorate his exploits. Yet in 1971, both men were grounded and took no part in the air war. Alam and Saif were both East Wingers. Even that political identity is complicated: Alam was not a Bengali. He was a religious fundamentalist at a time when Pakistani officers were mostly secular. His grounding reflected not so much ethnicity as the politics of faith and zeal in the Pakistani military, which cannot be talked about too openly. But Saif was a Bengali, and shared the fate of other Bengali officers in the Pakistani forces: they were harassed, grounded, imprisoned and worse. None of this is easy to talk about within a narrative of perfidy and treason.

But the Bangladeshi and Indian retrospectives of 1971 come with their own silences. Saif had the chance to leave the PAF before the war; he refused. He had already been humiliated and removed from flying duties, but he chose to sit out the war behind a desk in the West Wing, moving to Bangladesh only afterwards. Many other Bengali officers, who had been trained to think of themselves as Pakistanis, did the same, while others – like A.K. Khandokar and Sultan Ahmed – joined the Mukti Bahini or Kilo Flight. M.G. Tawab left the PAF and moved to Germany, but remained pro-Pakistan in exile. Khandokar, Tawab and Saif all went on to head the new Bangladesh air force. Who was the traitor and who was the patriot? The answer is not always clear, either for the Pakistani or for the Bangladeshi: salt can be a tricky thing. In a similar vein, the role of the Biharis in the terror of 1971, the savage reprisals against them after the Pakistani surrender, and their internment for years in independent Bangladesh, do not fit the narrative of the Liberation War. The role of Bengali collaborators has only recently entered mainstream political debate in Bangladesh, although it has been simmering on the edge of polite conversation for years.

Then there are the rapes, which defined the conflict as much as anything else. That tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of Bengali women were raped between March and December of 1971 is both well-known and obscure; it has been shouted from the rooftops and also hushed up. There is a curious echo here of the British narrative of rape-by-darkies in the ‘Sepoy Mutiny.’ In 1857-58, whites who talked or wrote about the ‘Mutiny’ highlighted rape: the imagined violation of white womanhood by natives was a basic justification for counter-insurgency. After the war, the rape-talk suddenly vanished, white women who had fallen into Indian hands did a second disappearing act, and the sahibs themselves insisted that there had been no rape. The restoration of political normalcy required an end to talk of sexual disarray. Similarly, Bangladeshi hesitations on the issue of the birangana – simultaneously national heroines and icons of shame – reflect the difficulty of coming to terms with what was, for the women and men of East Pakistan, very much a total war: not a marginal war, as it was for India.

In Bangladeshi discourse, 1971 was a genocide. EOB accepts that highly charged terminology at face value. This is not necessarily incorrect, but it is a missed analytical opportunity. How many people were killed in the East Wing by Pakistani troops and their local allies between March and December? Why does the number matter? Three million died, according to conventional wisdom in Bangladesh. That number gives ‘genocide’ a certain credibility. If we look at news reports closer to 1971, the number falls, but still remains very high, in the vicinity of a million. If we look at the Pakistani military’s own report, we have a precipitous drop in numbers, to about thirty thousand. That is also the number given recently by the Indian historian Sharmila Bose in her deeply flawed book (in which she relied primarily on Pakistani military sources). Would thirty thousand still be genocide? Would three hundred thousand be genocide? When Mujibur Rahman was released from Pakistani custody after the war, he tried to ascertain what had happened in his absence by asking aides how many people had been killed. About three lakh (hundred thousand), we think, they told him. To their shock, Mujib promptly told the British press that the number of dead was ‘three million.’ Was this the common South Asian error of translating ‘lakh’ as ‘million,’ or a deliberate tenfold exaggeration? Whatever the truth, once a number becomes iconic within a national narrative, it becomes almost impossible to walk back, or talk back.
           
       There is an additional problem with talking about genocide in Bangladesh. Who was murdered? Who became refugees? Here we are on firmer numerical ground, since the UN gives us a figure of nine million refugees. The Indian government’s figure was ten million. Of those refugees, seventy percent were Hindus, although Hindus were barely twenty-five percent of the population of the East Wing. There can be little doubt that Hindus were deliberately targeted by the Pakistan Army for ethnic cleansing. So although Hindu and Muslim Bengalis were both killed in large numbers, we can talk more confidently about a genocide of Pakistani Hindus. But Pakistani discourse cannot acknowledge this for obvious reasons, and Bangladeshi discourse cannot acknowledge it without fracturing the narrative of Bengali martyrdom. Just as interestingly, India has not acknowledged it either. If the Indian government had let on in 1971 that Hindus were disproportionately the victims of the Pakistani military crackdown, the conflict would have become uncontrollable. Mrs. Gandhi might not have been able to gain public support for a war to help Bengali Muslims, and probably faced an anti-Muslim pogrom at home. It remains difficult for Indian nationalists on the left to talk about the killing of Hindus in 1971, because the topic itself holds the door open for right-wing politics of communal grievance.

For Indians who think about military history, 1971 was the ‘good war,’ almost American in its combination of altruism and righteousness. We acted to save those poor bastards, or alternately, we did nothing until we were attacked. (Which was it? Never mind.) It is an enormously compelling narrative: as Chopra and Mohan’s interviews reveal, Indian officers entering Dhaka after December 16 felt like Americans entering Paris after D-Day. That 'American' feeling makes it unnecessary to face details, or even be consistent with details. When did the war begin? December 3, says the accepted Indian narrative, pointing at the PAF raids on Indian airfields. Unprovoked aggression! Yet the first air battles took place on November 22, or November 21 if you count attempted interceptions. By then, Indian Army units were already operating inside East Pakistan. It can be argued with considerable force that the Indian decision to go to war was morally justified in view of what was happening in Pakistan. Yet the Indians have felt the need to sugarcoat their own medicine with a ‘They attacked us’ myth. Mohan and Chopra don’t try to hide the contradiction; it can be discerned between the lines. But they don’t talk about it either, although these little self-deceptions are precisely what make history interesting.

 Sugar-coating the war has made it easy for Indians to forget certain things. For instance, the Pakistani POWs who were sent home instead of being handed over to Bangladesh to be tried for war crimes can be forgotten. The fact that Indian soldiers stood by and watched the Bengali reprisals against Biharis can be forgotten. The hundreds, probably thousands, of East Wing refugees who died in Indian refugee camps can be forgotten. These were mostly children succumbing to malnutrition and disease, in terrible conditions of overcrowding and filth. The Indian government could not provide for them adequately, but it would not let them leave the camps either, insisting that they – Muslims and Hindus – must return eventually to Pakistan/Bangladesh. To talk about them would be to concede at least some Indian responsibility in the genocide.

The language of a good war makes it difficult to talk about collateral damage. On the night of December 8, a bomb dropped from an IAF Caribou destroyed the Rahmat-e-Alam Islamic Mission orphanage in Dhaka, leaving a crater thirty feet deep and killing between two dozen and three hundred children. (The different numbers come from different sources.) It was an accident; the Caribou was aiming for the airfield. But the airfield was already out of action, the PAF was already grounded, and in any case, the declared objective of the bombing was merely ‘harassment’ of Pakistani forces in the area. For that, the IAF loaded 1000 lb. bombs on to transport aircraft, and when the crews thought they were generally over the airfield, pushed the bombs out the back. One missed by a mile. Indians don’t talk about this, and the Bangladeshis don’t either: there’s no point in spoiling your Liberation story by bringing up children killed by your own allies. (The French and Belgians know that very well.) The Pakistanis did try to talk about it but nobody believed them, assuming they had done it themselves.

The Indian use of an extremely crude bombing technique in a populated area at night, for negligible gains, can be described only as criminally irresponsible. Mohan and Chopra, to their credit, lay this episode bare, although they also try to downplay it. The bombing was not vicious, after all. It was just some mid-level officer’s idea of jugaad, or the improvisation at which the Indian and Pakistani militaries have excelled for decades. The Caribou pilots had been asked if they had any objections; no one had raised his hand, because a twenty-five-year old air force officer has been trained to solve technical problems, not ponder the ethical implications of the solutions.

Indeed, one wishes that the authors had told us more about the pilots involved in the 1971 operations, converting their interviews into oral histories. Who were these men? What were their backgrounds, and what drove them? What role did ethnicity play - why, for instance, were there so many Anglo-Indians in the IAF (and the PAF, for that matter), and why did so many of them emigrate to Australia? How did Bengali and Muslim officers in the IAF perceive the war and their role in it? These questions are vital to understanding the place of the IAF in Indian society as well as the internal culture of the air force, and those details matter enormously in military history.

Neither India nor Pakistan has fought a major war since 1971. That in itself is interesting, because between 1947 and 1971, India fought three major and four minor wars. Five of those came in just about a decade, beginning with the eviction of the Portuguese from Goa in 1961. The calm since then reflects the heightened costs of war in a nuclear-armed environment, and perhaps a more stable neighborhood, in which some irregularities – like the East Wing – have ceased to exist. Ironically, military-consciousness in India has emerged in this atmosphere of relative peace. This is, I think, a very good thing, because it allows for a more contemplative and ‘comprehensive’ military history, which begins with the presumption that modern wars are fought in society as much as they are fought in bunkers and cockpits. Restricting our field of vision to the latter not only limits our ability to grasp the big picture, it also replicates a segregation between the bazaar and the cantonment, which ultimately allows soldiers and civilians to disavow complicity in the actions and ideologies of the other. Chopra and Mohan have one book on 1971 left, and I hope they will approach it as a challenge to write a fleshed-out and nuanced military history, engaging with a wider scholarship on the place of war in modern South Asian society. They would then be doing full justice to the demands and possibilities of the genre.

January 24, 2014

The Maid and the Diplomat



The diplomatic ‘crisis’ that has flared between India and the United States over the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian vice-consul in New York, is what is called a tamasha: entertaining farce. It is of no real importance, but an awful lot of people are looking on with interest, exhibiting various degrees of vitriol, righteous indignation and amusement.

For those who have not seen an Indian newspaper lately, or read the American papers carefully, the basic story is that the vice-consul was arrested for having paid her imported maid, Sangeeta Richard, a decidedly sub-minimum-wage salary. She is also alleged to have lied about Richard’s wages on the visa application she submitted to the US government. Richard went AWOL last summer, and this week an ambitious federal prosecutor (is there any other kind?) Preet Bharara – Indian-born, as luck would have it – had Khobragade arrested, strip-searched, cavity-searched, thrown briefly in jail (‘with drug addicts and common criminals’), and charged. The maid, it turns out, was not missing at all, but working with Bharara’s office. Her family has been since then ‘evacuated’ from India and spirited to safety in the US. They're all here somewhere, hiding from RAW assassins and NDTV reporters. If found guilty of the charges against her, the vice-consul faces ten years in prison.

Indians are upset. They understand, correctly enough, that a strip search and cavity inspection constitute a sanitized sexual assault, and nationalist patriarchies are highly sensitive to sexual encroachments. They also suspect, again correctly, that US diplomats are treated with greater indulgence by the Indian authorities than their Indian counterparts are in America. So American diplomats have had their diplomatic privileges sharply reduced by an Indian government determined to show its toughness in the run-up to elections. The various political parties are competing for the Most Patriotically Outraged prize, and it is not all posturing: people are quite genuinely outraged.

All of this was unnecessary. In an ideal world, the Indian government would issue its diplomats with instructions that occur naturally to the rest of us: if you can’t afford a maid, make do without. The US government, which has conducted itself with spectacular clumsiness and stupidity, would know better than to engineer a diplomatic incident where a discreet warning (or better visa processing) would have done the job. And no prosecutor with an eye on the governor's office would presume to ‘evacuate’ foreign citizens from their own country. These outcomes reflect poor coordination between bureaucracies, arrogance, and probably a measure of racism as well. If in doubt, play the scenario in reverse: female American diplomat, suspected of underpaying an employee, being made to spread her cheeks for the police in Delhi. The New York Post editors would die of joy. But I too love a good tamasha, and this one has all three elements of a really good one: race, class, gender.

So I marvel at Ms. Khobragade, who is barely denying that she provided false information on the maid’s visa application and then quietly negotiated a second agreement, for a lower salary, with the maid. Nor is she denying that when the maid threatened to go to the authorities if she was not paid her legally due minimum salary (and compensated for the extra hours she had been made to work, being an Indian servant), she tried to have her arrested, and got an Indian court to issue an order blocking the maid from filing a civil suit. She is either not very bright, or befuddled by a runaway sense of entitlement.

In the vice-consul’s defense, this sort of visa fraud is probably very common. The American officials who processed Richard’s visa application could easily see that a diplomat who earns $4000 per month could not pay her maid more than $4000. Yet the visa was issued. Obviously, these things are usually handled with a nudge and wink, and prosecutors who want to demonstrate their American credentials are not on hand to make trouble. Khobragade can hardly be the first Indian diplomat to have brought her servant with her on these dubious terms.

But what strikes me most sharply about the vice-consul is how utterly provincial she is. Here is a highly-educated woman who has signed up for a career in the Foreign Service. Yet she remains the typical Indian memsa’ab, who must have servants to boss around. Her standing in life, her sense of her own worth, and the normalcy of her world all depend upon it. Of course, the servant has to be Indian, accustomed to a particular idiom of command and deference. When Ms. Khobragade came to New York, she never left Bombay. She had no intention of seeing, let alone absorbing, local norms of housework, dignity, employer-employee relations and legality. She has no idea that she has done something wrong, and does not understand – or care to understand – why others might feel otherwise. Such people, who are essentially tourists with the expectation of immunity to consequences, are the worst kind of diplomat. Yet they are the norm and not the exception. The Ugly American is in good company.

The same provinciality and entitlement are evident in the Indian media’s complaints that the vice-consul was treated like a ‘common criminal,’ locked up with ‘drug addicts,’ and so on. There is no reason to assume that Ms. Khobragade is an uncommon criminal, after all, or that she is morally superior to somebody whose major vice is substance-abuse. Strip searches and body-cavity inspections are indeed ‘barbaric,' as the Indian government noted in its protest against the vice-consul’s arrest. They are rituals of power and humiliation dressed up as security measures, like much of law enforcement in America. Now, it would be one thing if Ms. Khobragade’s sympathizers were outraged that anybody should be treated in that manner. But their outrage is rooted in an obscene distinction between common and uncommon people: it is apparently acceptable to violate the bodies of the former, but not of the latter.

It is precisely this distinction – that differential assessment of the worth of human beings – that leads to the exploitation and mistreatment of servants by their employers. It is also why middle-class Americans seldom make a fuss about how the police treat their victims. They know that these rituals are intended for a different demographic from themselves, although the expectation of ‘uncommon’ treatment is rarely naked. Indians, on the other hand, let it all hang out. When Shah Rukh Khan was profiled by American airport officials a couple of years ago, Indians protested not because a Muslim had been harassed, or even because a brown man had been harassed, but because the dumb firangis had failed to treat an uncommon man with uncommon respect. Had it been some other brown man, or a poor man, they wouldn’t have cared. And, of course, poor brown men and women face this sort of shit every day: in New York, in the Gulf states, at Heathrow. There’s no national outrage there.

Ms. Khobragade faces two sets of charges: one having to do with visa fraud, and another with the exploitation of an employee. The first accusation seems irrefutable, but the second is more interesting. To some Indian and most American observers, the exploitation is obvious. As per US and NY labor laws, Sangeeta Richard was entitled to a minimum wage of nearly $10 per hour, for a maximum of 40 hours a week. She was also entitled to vacation time. Instead, she was working longer hours, and instead of getting four thousand dollars a month, she was getting about five hundred.

The issue, however, is not so straightforward. First of all, people who depend on cheap labor overseas to maintain their First-World lifestyles are in no position to be self-righteous about exploitation. And American diplomats abroad don’t pay their native employees an American minimum wage. Secondly, like most live-in servants, Ms. Richard had a free place to live, food, clothing and medical care. So it is not quite true that she was being forced to survive in Manhattan on $500 a month. Had she wished, she could have saved or remitted her entire salary, which is precisely the expectation in these arrangements. If I had five hundred dollars left over every month after all my basic expenses had been met, I would be delighted. So would anybody who is actually paid the minimum wage in America. And $500, which works out to thirty thousand rupees, is a middle-class salary in India.

Ms. Richard clearly agreed in advance to the lower salary. She cannot claim to have expected four thousand dollars and then been surprised to receive five hundred. She is an adult who entered into an agreement with Ms. Khobragade; nobody forced her to take the job. It can, of course, be argued that she was forced by poverty, but if we take that position then we effectively argue that the poor have no agency or accountability. In any case, Richard was not in dire poverty before she accompanied the vice-consul to New York. Her father works for the US embassy, and she herself has worked for an American diplomat in the past. She appears to have known what she was doing.

That does not, however, mean that there was no exploitation. When you pay someone $500 a month to be your live-in servant in America, you render that person totally dependent upon you and your goodwill. This is especially true if that employee has limited English-language skills, no driver’s license, and no local structure of social support: friends, family, alternative options for employment. At that point, notions of consent and contract become unsustainable. Employers often hold on to the passports of their servants, hold wages in arrears, or pay in rupees (which means the servant has no access to her own earnings while in America). When Sangeeta Richard wanted to take a second job, she needed Khobragade’s permission, and permission was refused. Moreover, we are not talking about just any employer: Khobragade, as vice-consul and employer-patron, had nearly total power over Richards’ visa status in America. Khobragade clearly counted on that power, which is why she refused to allow her maid to take a second job. Also clearly, she was willing to abuse that power: when Richard left and Khobragade complained to the police, she had to be reminded that Richard is an adult. Khobragade filed charges of petty theft against her maid, when clearly the missing property was the maid herself. She assumed that she was dealing with a common servant, and did not consider the possibility that the servant might be a smarter, cannier player of the system than herself, converting a disadvantage into an effective immigration plan for herself and her family.

December 19, 2013