Meat and Murder

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Some days ago, in a nondescript village named Dadri in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a mob dragged a blacksmith named Mohammed Akhlaq out of his home and bludgeoned him to death. They also beat his son, leaving him with severe head injuries and possibly brain damage. The “provocation” was a rumor that a cow had been killed in the village for its meat, and the Akhlaqs – one of only two Muslim families in Dadri – has some meat in their freezer. The mob included multiple BJP men and their relatives. Some have been arrested, although trial and conviction are another matter; various high-ups in the party are already clamoring for their release. The meat in the freezer was sent off to a lab to determine if it was in fact beef; the lab has gone mysteriously silent about its findings. Because the incident was both shocking and commonplace (another lynching has already occurred), it is far from over.

The commonplace character of what happened in Dadri should be readily apparent to those familiar with the politics of lynching in modern India. It has all the usual ingredients: not just religious identity, but caste, class, gender, and the complicity of the state. It’s a Thakur village, the locals sullenly told journalists, as if that explained the murder, and indeed, it provides a part of the explanation. Lynching, along with rape, is an established mechanism of the maintenance of upper-caste dominance in the rural north. It was in a Thakur village, Behmai, that Phoolan Devi was famously gang-raped and paraded naked. In Dadri, as in Behmai, it was a male crowd; such violence is a normative performance of masculine dominance and a reminder that public space in northern India is pathologically homosocial. The perpetrators seem to have come from the demographic that straddles the village and the city in a country that is economically liberalized but ideologically illiberal: cell-phone-toting goons, not poor but viscerally hostile both to the cosmopolitan elite and to the marginal. Typically, the police come from the same classes and show the same inclinations. Days after the killing of Mohammed Akhlaq, a video emerged of a Dalit family in Dankaur (on the outskirts of Delhi), naked before a milling crowd of cops and onlookers. The family had wanted to report a theft; the police had refused to file a report. Dalit activists claimed the family was stripped and beaten by the police for complaining too much; the police insisted the family had stripped in a voluntary act of protest. The Dadri and Dankaur incidents are "old" phenomena, rooted in patterns of dominance and vulnerability, uppity-ness and punishment, that have marked the informal exercise of power in India for decades.These things happen, as Jyoti Basu once said.

Pointing out that “oldness” has, in fact, been the response of the government and its defenders, confronted with the backlash from liberal intellectuals. Most prominently, forty-odd writers, Sahitya Akademi prize-winners, have returned their awards in protest against the Akademi’s silence in the face of violence and repression, leading the BJP Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma – whose views on culture are disturbingly reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels – to retort that the protesters expressed no comparable outrage when “these things” happened in the past. Sharma and his ilk have a point, in the sense that Indian liberals have generally treated egregious violations of the rights of minorities as an aberration, albeit a chronic problem, within a nationhood they embraced.

But what the defenders of the regime refuse to acknowledge is that the current situation is also substantially new. The lynching of Akhlaq is one piece of a larger crisis of Indian nationhood, marked by, among other things, the BJP’s energetic efforts to police meat-eating, the murder of the “rationalist” writer M.M. Kalburgi, the banning of Pakistani musicians from Mumbai, the exclusion of Muslims and Christians from Garba celebrations in Gujarat, and a pattern of silence and vitriol from the government in which the prime minister maintains an icy silence while his underlings and affiliates spew hate (and eventually claim they were misquoted). Indeed, it was Kalburgi’s murder, not Akhlaq’s, that precipitated the current protests; the death of a liberal Hindu and Sahitya Akademi member has miraculously enfolded the death of a Muslim villager. Similarly, the Shiv Sena’s assault on the journalist Sudheendra Kulkarni – a former BJP man who had refused to back down from promoting a book by a former Pakistani minister – has enfolded and highlighted the relentless drip-drip of hate-crimes against Muslims. Now that Hindutva has reached the stage of devouring its own, its other depredations touch the lives of those who never had occasion to doubt their place in the nation. That package of problems is more or less unprecedented in India, although not in Bangladesh or even Pakistan. And it is that proximity – the realization that India, with its smugness about democratic traditions and constitutional liberties, is now unmistakably like Bangladesh or Pakistan – that is at the heart of the outrage. The yeh daag daag ujaala moment, which came early to Pakistan, is finally, undeniably, India's moment also.

What appears to be a quixotic and hypocritical protest, targeting a literary association for the failings of the state, is thus increasingly coherent and meaningful. It is not really aimed at the Sahitya Akademi or even its feckless leadership. Everybody – including the government – understands that it is aimed at the state. This is why the police have already begun visiting the protesting writers, asking questions about conspiracies that might have a bearing on “security,” and harassing journalists who publicize the politics of beef. It is not limited to the state either. Rather, it recognizes that the state is functioning in a mutually sustaining but deniable and sometimes conflicted partnership with an assortment of reactionary forces, including a section of civil society. It is, in that sense, an unprecedented rebellion against a dispensation that is diffused through Indian society, and the discovery of a “voice” that had been all but lost after the BJP’s victory in the last general election.

The protests are unprecedented because the dispensation itself has no apparent precedent. Indian nationalism has had a powerful reformist element from the outset. From Ram Mohun Roy through Vidyasagar and Vivekananda to Rabindranath, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar, to be Indian was to see moral reevaluation and social reform – sometimes articulated along the lines of the Enlightenment and sometimes in more innovative idioms, but always in terms of an incomplete structure of social justice – as desirable. This provided a way of answering the most basic questions of anti-colonial nationalism in a newly imagined  polity – “Who is Indian?” and “What is independence for?” – in ways that were not narrowly ethnic or self-defeating, and it underlay Indian secularism and cosmopolitanism. It was a minority position, and few “reformists” actually married widows, forgot their caste, or told their daughters that careers mattered more than marrying "a suitable boy." Nevertheless, the premise that nationhood must be transformational outlasted the colonial specter that had long made reformism suspect. It informed the ability of Calcutta-born Bengali-speakers to feel at home in Kerala, Rajasthan and Delhi, the writing of the Indian Constitution, the phenomenon of Nehruvian optimism, and respectable public discourse well beyond Nehru. It may have been inconsistent and internally conflicted, but it was real, the outcome of generations of political and intellectual labor.

The major premises of the new dispensation, on the other hand, deny that reform and social justice are existential concerns of nationhood. One is the Savarkarite formulation that Indianness is ethnic even when it is transregional: when Hindu identity is complete, so is Indianness. Another is the older idea that reformism is “western” and antithetical to a stable national essence. The third, which particularly suffuses the BJP’s urban, NRI and middle-class supporters, is that they are already reformed and introspection and change are both unnecessary and offensive. The rhetoric of people like Mahesh Sharma and Narendra Modi encapsulates all three premises. Taken together, they amount to a violently exclusionary and majoritarian posture of citizenship.

The triumph of that posture cannot be blamed entirely on the Modi government. It has been nearly thirty years since India did away with jus soli, which automatically conferred citizenship upon those born on Indian soil. The new doctrine of inherited citizenship and naturalization at the discretion of the state brought India in line with Margaret Thatcher’s Britain (which also discarded birthright citizenship) and other European countries with strong ethnic anxieties, seeking to keep the pitribhumi safe from Bangladeshi migrants, Pakistani infiltrators and overstaying hippies. (Pakistan, it is worth noting, still has jus soli, as a residue of its foundational ideology and English common law.) The Indian intelligentsia accepted it, barely noticing either the amendment of the law or its ideological implications. In doing so, it displayed the timid, shallow, backsliding liberalism of a class that not only lacked confidence, but felt guilty about its place in the national vanguard.  Because it remained unconvinced by what it might say in protest, the right to free expression remained compromised and muted for all but those who had recourse to the brute force of majorities and mobs. I am reminded of another writerly spat: Sunil Gangopadhyay refusing to defend Taslima Nasreen, saying “We are not ready for that kind of freedom of speech.” By that fearful logic, “we” are ready for neither independence nor universal suffrage. It is precisely this complicity in repression that set the stage for the predicament of the present time, when membership in the national community is literally a matter of flesh and blood.

In this citizenship of pure and impure DNA, what you eat is intertwined with where you belong, and anything can happen to the impure of mouth and mind. The Chief Minister of Haryana can resort to dietary intimidation, blacksmiths and intellectuals can be murdered, Northeastern women can be sexually victimized in the national capital because they are whores anyway, and Muslim journalists who criticize the dispensation can be abused in the filthiest terms on online forums. Naseeruddin Shah, the most acclaimed actor India has produced, can find himself under attack for the mildest praise of Pakistan, and must respond that he is a patriot who has never been aware of being Muslim. Shah's response is a nicety of secular-Indian speech, but it is nevertheless true that there were contexts in which Indians could forget their “communities.” Now those contexts have shrunk dramatically not just for “minorities” and the “sickular,” but also for insufficiently pure insiders, as L.K. Advani discovered a few years ago when he was nearly drummed out of the BJP for praising Jinnah, and a blackened Kulkarni (Advani’s erstwhile adviser) discovered last week. But this collapsing of the lines between the safe majority and unsafe minorities has made it possible to connect the dots between dead blacksmiths and dead rationalists, naked Dalit women charged with public indecency and middle-class girls assaulted by the Shri Ram Sene for going to a nightclub, embattled thespians of "a certain community" and the embattled liberal arts, the silence of writers and artists clinging to their awards and the silence of the prime minister.

The web of lines connecting the dots holds up the little rebellion of artists and intellectuals. Indians who greeted the election results of 2014 with a phlegmatic refusal to catastrophize, choosing to give the pragmatists and moderates in the dispensation the benefit of the doubt, are less sanguine now; indeed, few would have foreseen how bad things would get, and how quickly. “We” are now one step away from a situation in which boycott, divestment and international isolation would be not only justified but an ethical imperative. It might be said, borrowing a phrase from Zionist discourse, that such a move would “delegitimize” India. But by falling back on an ethnic-majoritarian raison d’etre, the Indian nation-state has come very close to delegitimizing itself. It is only fitting that this week, the Indian president was in Tel Aviv, telling his hosts that India and Israel are separated twins, united by their love of democracy and diversity. And by increasingly valid questions about legitimacy, he might have added.

For “patriots,” a conventional measure of the legitimacy of the nation is the question, “Would you fight for it?” That is no longer a simple question in the Indian case, because what would the patriot be fighting for? An expansive circle of justice, or the squalid vulgarity of the ethnic group? Mohammed Akhlaq had a son in the Indian Air Force, and another who looked forward to joining. Naseeruddin Shah's brother was a general in the Indian Army. When that is not enough to guarantee inclusion in the nation, the nation-state has become indefensible.

October 17, 2015

The Apotheosis of Alfred Cooke

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On September 7 of 1965, as the fighting between India and Pakistan spread beyond Kashmir, a young Indian pilot named Alfred Cooke found himself in a swirling dogfight over the campus of IIT Kharagpur, near the Kalaikunda air force station. It was the second Pakistani air raid on Kalaikunda that morning. There were two Indian jets versus four Pakistanis, but the Indians got the better of the intruders, and Cooke managed shoot down one Pakistani plane and damaged another. By all accounts, he showed great skill and courage, and fully deserved his Vir Chakra – in fact, he probably deserved a higher award. At the time, however, his action was not seen as especially memorable. Cooke’s role in the rest of the war is obscure, and he himself disappeared into obscurity, emigrating to Australia a couple of years later, having retired at the same rank.

Since then, Alfred Cooke has made a remarkable comeback, virtually from the dead. The Kalaikunda dogfight was rediscovered, as it were, by two amateur military historians, Samir Chopra and Jagan Mohan, in their informative book about squadron-level air operations in the 1965 war, published in 2005. Still, not many people took notice: the authors were, for instance, faced with a frustrating indifference on the part of book-review editors. Sections of the book appeared on a website for military fanboys, war-porn aficionados and Hindu nationalists, but outside that small community of self-described ‘jingoes,’ Cooke remained unknown. That he has now re-emerged as a minor star is quite revealing about the place of history and militarism in Indian national discourse.

The immediate reason for Cooke’s newfound stardom is simple. This year being the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 war, the BJP-led government in New Delhi has decided to ‘celebrate India’s victory.’ The media, eager as ever for a good party, has leapt on board, scraping the barrel for bona fide war heroes. Cooke, now in his mid-seventies and finally discovered, has been brought back from Australia, dusted off and paraded before the television cameras, and a fair multitude of people who have no clue about the politics of the war, know nothing about ‘what really happened,’ and couldn’t tell a Sabre from a 747, are ready to celebrate the return of the native son.

It’s a highly Indian phenomenon, for various reasons. Even countries that won unambiguous victories in war don’t ‘celebrate’ them anymore, especially if they’re liberal democracies. It’s considered poor taste. In Indian democracy, the ‘liberal’ part died with Nehru and Ambedkar, and the combination of kitsch and melodrama is the national taste. So celebrations are in order. (Jai ho.) But it’s also something new, as indicated by the lukewarm reception given to the book by Chopra and Mohan just a decade ago. Military history is not a new genre of literature in India. In the first decades of independence, when the country fought virtually all its wars, several books by retired officers and analysts appeared in print, and some of them – like John Dalvi’s Himalayan Blunder – were serious and thoughtful works of non-academic history, although one might quarrel with the conclusions. The readership was very small, but that reflected the limited size of the public that was invested in the universal model of the modern nation-state, with its languages of foreign policy, strategy and military tactics. The enthusiasms of this public – which had no illusions about the fact that it lived in a poor and ‘backward’ country – were appropriately modest, with a minimum of cheerleading and salivating.

A different realism was apparent at the popular level of picturing war: commercial cinema. The war movies (or movies including war) from this earlier period were hopelessly ‘unrealistic,’ in the sense that they did not try very hard to achieve verisimilitude. The combat footage in Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana, for instance, is clearly from the Korean War and World War II, or Hollywood movies about those conflicts: the ‘Indian’ planes have US markings. Samanta was working with an assumption that his middle- and working-class audiences would neither notice nor care about the use of generic and crudely inserted imagery. War action on screen was meant to allude to war, in much the same way that embracing trees in picturesque valleys alluded to romantic/sexual goings-on. Since the audience understood and accepted the allusion, it was real enough.

It can, moreover, be argued that in the 1960s, war itself had a certain reality for Indian consumers of the media, although in a country without conscription or widespread military service, few expected to put on a uniform. It was a mundane, low-level anxiety: the periodic border conflicts put family members in harm’s way, and even people who were not well-acquainted with the machines or the tactics knew the routine of pasting over their window-panes. The representation in the media was, accordingly, sentimental rather than glamorous or pornographic.

In the forty-plus years since the Bangladesh War, however, two generations have grown up that have never known war at all, give or take the Kargil clash of 1999. The present-day media market in India is not only much larger than it was in the past, it is qualitatively different: more accustomed to consumption, more sophisticated in its taste for images, hungrier in its visions of power, and less patient with the ignominy of Third World status. It understands, at a level just below the surface of what it will acknowledge, that it inhabits a country whose everyday mode of violence is not the tech-tech contest of missiles and submarines, but the riot with swords, tridents and kerosene cans. So a new combination of the real and the unreal has emerged: the new public wants Top-Gun-like ‘realism’ in its images and stories of war, but its images and stories are more fantastic than ever.

This combination has given us some extraordinary visuals. In a recent television commercial for a cell phone service provider, a squad of Indian soldiers, looking a bit tired, are supposedly returning from a battle, when one smiling fellow whips out his phone, calls home, and declares “Mom! We won!” It’s farcical, but no satire is intended. Kargil was nothing if not a carefully packaged media product, complete with Bollywood starlets and preening TV anchors. Today, virtually the only Indian journalist who provides readable analyses of defense news is Shekhar Gupta. He is outnumbered by fanboys exemplified by Vishnu Som, who ask no difficult questions and only drool at the machines and warrior-gods, and the greatest number are simply incompetent. Recently, the Indian Army has put out an eleven-minute recruitment ad that puts the American ‘Be all that you can be’ campaign to shame, although it is obviously modeled after it. Alfred Cooke, poor man, has been brought back from the underworld by the same frenzied market for military 'glory.'

There is a great deal that is wrong with this picture, including the televised image of Cooke. It cannot be called ‘military history’ even by the loose standards of popular history. It’s actually a kind of anti-history. At the most basic level, by trying to cherry-pick ‘success,’ it buries the long catalogue of ineptitude that constituted the Indian war effort. Even the action that starred Cooke was marked by incompetence: the Pakistani air raids on the Kalaikunda air base were highly successful, half the Indian planes that were ordered to intercept the second raid failed to engage the attackers, and Cooke’s aircraft was armed with the wrong kind of ammunition. It elides S.C. Mamgain, who was Cooke’s partner in that fight, turning a two-against-four battle (which was apparently not impressive enough) into a one-against-four affair. It turns a few short minutes in the life of a twenty-five-year-old into a ‘victory’ that can stand for, and compensate for, several thousand instances of heroism and absurdity.

More pertinently, it casts the politics of the war into the oblivion of total irrelevance, contributing both to the Indian determination to not talk about Kashmir, and to the nationalist myth of war without politics. It makes it tasteless to ask what factors in Indian society led Anglo-Indians like Cooke to emigrate en masse, even as it turns war into a spectator sport. That latter connection is not new; it’s familiar to us from the associations between football and American militarism that Garry Trudeau satirized, not to mention the older British discourse of ‘playing the game.’ But the Indian maneuver goes a step further: it bypasses the game and goes straight to the victory podium. The story becomes unimportant, even distasteful; only the ending matters, even (especially) when the ending is a public-relations product. In this regard, it replicates what has happened in Indian cricket in recent years, as the flush new market (the same one that consumes the war narratives) has shown its preference for shorter and shorter versions of the game. What the public consumes is victory itself, and it consumes its own consumption – i.e., celebration – of victory. The rest is boring.

That appetite for distilled victory is not benign. The new military ‘history’ is inseparable from the building climate of fascism in India. The craving for heroes who shine above general incompetence, the consumption of technology into pornography, and the total abstraction of war from political and social context are all hallmarks of that fascism, and it occupies precisely the same political and social space as Hindu nationalism. It is not a coincidence that websites that cater to these appetites also harbor the crudest forms of anti-Muslim bigotry, and that their members take time out to pour vitriol on the liberal arts, advocating their abolition and using the rhetoric of treason – plus the terminology of the American far right (‘libtard’, etc.) – to condemn academics who recently signed a petition against Narendra Modi.

This is a different level of anti-liberalism from the sentimental view of war that existed forty years ago. That older anti-liberalism has been fattened by the market forces that developed in the 1990s, and its sentimentality has been supplemented by the acute abstraction of what is imagined from what is lived. That a large part of the Indian public feels the need to ‘celebrate’ a fifty-year-old ‘victory’ and continues to use the vocabulary of ‘glory’ to describe military action is, at best, a form of ideological immaturity. But it also signifies the deep damage done by colonial subjugation, which has left a violent complex about inferiority and weakness, and by a navel-gazing nationalism that has never ‘won’ adequately because it has not eliminated its existential enemy, which – having been located next door and within – cannot be eliminated without eliminating Indianness itself.

It is politically na├»ve, in this context, to ‘celebrate’ Alfred Cooke and others like him, and to cast the celebration as an act of historical memory. It’s like celebrating American pilots who achieved ‘victories’ in Vietnam. Who celebrates Charles Hartman and Clinton Johnson, although there too, fifty years have passed? Such celebrations would be regarded as absurd, outside fringe communities of military enthusiasts. They would be absurd not because Vietnam was a ‘bad’ war and the Indo-Pak war a ‘good’ one, but because American society has developed ways of talking about war – debate, protest, criticism, analysis, retrospective vision – that, however imperfect, enable meaningful judgments of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and ensure that the memory of war is not the preserve of ‘jingoes’ alone. There are serious, thoughtful histories of the Vietnam War that make it impossible to mistake Rambo for the real thing for very long. In India, without such histories to provide context, pose hard questions and generate introspection, remembering and recording the exploits of individuals like Cooke becomes fodder for the anti-liberal politics of the day.

Stories like Cooke’s should not, however, be dismissed as unimportant. Critics of militarism and ‘macho nationhood’ must understand that these are attractive stories: that there is indeed something appealing about the narrative of a young pilot who fights off multiple enemies, lands, has to be lifted from the cockpit because his body has gone limp, and can barely remember his experience, leaving gun-camera footage to fill in the blanks in his memory. That appeal is central to the erotics of nationalism and citizenship; the male citizen is normatively a military fanboy. Moreover, the Indian nation-state is a particular kind of modern community: a democracy that dispensed early with liberalism, preferring authoritarianism and technocracy as its dominant ethos. Its elites have long been enamored of war, but rarely deviated from the arc between sentimentality and self-pleasuring fantasy. In that setting, the rhetoric of ‘victory’ and ‘glory’ is especially pernicious: there is something reckless and intoxicated about it that resembles but exceeds the notorious ‘innocence’ of American militarism. The clearest danger it poses is not the threat of war, but that of normalizing illiberal democracy, with its visions of traitors, fifth columns, sabotaged majorities and uniformed chains of command. It becomes particularly important, then, to be mindful of the company stories keep, and to compensate actively for the guilty pleasures of celebrating victory, beginning with recognizing it as a guilty pleasure.

There is, obviously, no such thing as innocent military history – or innocent history of any kind – in the modern age, when national communities immediately claim and use that history for their own purposes. The insistence on innocence is itself a political position. Telling war stories as a feel-good exercise is like telling police stories (which also have their share of heroics and sacrifice, and their constituencies of police fans and families) without talking about the politics of policing: it invariably becomes a reactionary exercise. One must, in those circumstances, inquire about the purposes and tactics of remembering the particulars of war.

I want to end, therefore, with a suggestion for how the story of Alfred Cooke can be remembered without conceding it to fascism. Cooke and other Anglo-Indians in the air force (there were many) had to deal with the racism of their ‘authentically Indian’ fellow-officers, who did not always try very hard to hide their contempt for what they saw as the low-born bastards of empire. That racism, while not as devastating as what Muslims have faced, was a semi-acknowledged fact of life in independent India, and it was closely related to the majoritarian understanding of Indianness. It left a guilty trace in the movies (Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, K.S. Sethumadhavan’s Julie, Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane), and in the sizeable community of Anglo-Indian ex-IAF officers in Australia (who have traded one marginal condition for another). The way to remember Cooke is to tell his story – and that of other ‘celebrated’ Anglo-Indians from 1965, such as Pete Wilson and the Keelor brothers – in the context of that part of the modern Indian experience, alongside the stories of exclusion, discrimination, early retirement and emigration.

That contextualization would be resisted immediately as ‘divisive’, ‘parochial’ and ‘communal’ by the majoritarians who insist upon the fantasy of undivided nationality (the familiar 'don't call them Anglo-Indian officers, they're simply Indian officers' objection) even as they exclude and discriminate, in order to delegitimize minorities who complain or organize. But for that reason alone, it would restore soldiers – who, like athletes, are supposedly ‘above politics’ – to politics, forcing the recognition that the innocence of heroism is already political. It would, in the process, withhold a powerful piece of historical memory from the forces that drive the very real fascist predicament in India today, and place military history in the service of justice and a livable nationhood.

September 21, 2015