The View From Rezang La

I want to use this essay to ramble about anniversaries. Not the private kind – I feel modest – but the kind that is shared, remembered and imagined by millions of people at once. This autumn is the fiftieth anniversary of the India-China war, which the Indians lost. And almost exactly four years ago, a twenty-year-old Pakistani named Ajmal Kasab and nine of his colleagues went on a three-day shooting spree in Bombay. They killed one hundred and sixty-four people before they were overpowered by the security forces. Kasab was the only one captured alive. Last week he was hanged in a hidden corner of Pune’s Yeravda Prison, which used to be a sort of second home for Mahatma Gandhi.

The 1962 war left us with one unforgettable image, and quite a few that were quickly forgotten. Ironically, the unforgettable one is not a photograph but an act of imagination, a sort of charcoal drawing scratched by modern subjects from verbal reports that have become obscure. It is the image of the men of Charlie Company of the 13th Battalion of the Kumaon Regiment, frozen in a snowfield at Rezang La, in an extraordinary tableau of death. Their heads and shoulders protrude from the whiteness of the mountain pass sixteen thousand feet above sea level; in their hands are rifles, ammunition belts, syringes and bandages. Since it is not a photograph, we are free to imagine their faces according to our ideological inclinations: heroic and defiant, contorted from the impact of bullets and bayonets, or frightened and calling for their mothers. Of the one hundred and twenty-three outgunned and outnumbered men defending Rezang La on the night of November 18, all but seven were killed in a brutal battle that ended with hand-to-hand combat as the post was overrun. The Chinese suffered five hundred casualties - or considerably more, by some accounts. The war ended the next day as the Chinese declared a ceasefire and pulled back; Rezang La was the last major action of the conflict. Two months later, at the peak of the Himalayan winter, the dead of Charlie Company were discovered by a shepherd in what had by then become a no-man’s-land between India and China. It was only later that a photographic image (below) entered the picture, and it involved a survivor of Rezang La, not the dead, posing in a predictably heroic-defiant mode.

The other image from the 1962 war that I have in mind is also actually from 1963. It is a photograph – very likely carefully staged and edited, and hence fixed in the specificity of its content, unlike the unruly ghosts of Rezang La – of the new Indian Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, posing with suspiciously Chinese-looking children in the Deoli detention camp for enemy aliens. Shastri is smiling. The children are smiling. The other adults are smiling. The detention camp might as well be a holiday camp. It was a holiday camp that lasted nearly two decades, safely removed from public consciousness. Its memory survived as a sort of rumor until the unpredictable forces of the anniversary business washed it up on the pages of The Hindu, unnerving the readers of even that notoriously leftist newspaper.

1962 occupies a peculiar place in what might be considered ‘the Indian memory’: simultaneously livid and empty. Most Indians remember nothing at all: the number means nothing to them as a date or an event. I doubt very much that a Bihari sharecropper or even a Calcutta cabbie knows or cares about what happened in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh (then the North-East Frontier Agency) that fall, when the Indian Army disintegrated in the thin air of the mountains, and Nehru appeared to say goodbye to the people of Assam. But for the Indian middle class, the episode left a scar – consisting mostly of shame – that has endured remarkably well.

That remembrance of a lost war, which has increasingly acquired an obsessive quality, is not inherently odd. Memories of defeat are integral to European nationalisms, for instance. But in the Indian case, the nationalist classes were not themselves present on the battlefield in any significant numbers, apart from the officers. Battles like Rezang La, Walong and Thagla Ridge were fought by country boys with give-away names like Ram Kumar: peasants from the hills of Kumaon, Garhwal and Darjeeling who had undoubtedly been socialized into a kind of national consciousness by the army, but who were nevertheless quite distinct from the classes that owned the dominant discourses of Indian nationhood, and that were most traumatized by the outcome of the war. The scarred memory of 1962 is thus partly a false or borrowed trauma, acquired as middle-class nationalists appropriated subalterns as their historical cricket team. But partly, it is a trauma in the discourse itself: a nearly unbearable blemish in the narrative of an Asian power emerging from colonial rule to claim its place in the sun. And as the middle class has expanded sideways and downwards, the scar has expanded as well, so that 1962 has become a defining moment of sorts in the trajectory of what it means to be Indian. It has to do with feeling ashamed, which is a fate common to all colonized people.

So now that the Golden Jubilee of the war has come around, more people than ever are conjuring up the ghosts of Rezang La, who crowd out the larger picture of disgrace: the political and strategic mistakes, the total collapse (in the NEFA) of the fabled Red Eagle Division that stopped the Germans and Italians in North Africa twenty years before, the goodbye to Assam, and mental images of soldiers without winter clothes and snow boots limping wearily down the mountain.

 My own language is suspect, and it should be. Whose ‘fable’ was the Red Eagle Division? A British-colonial fable, for the most part, and one that gives away the discomfort at the heart of Indian nationhood: its fables are not necessarily its own. Rezang La is fabulous precisely because it contains a trace of Thermopylae, an echo of Verdun (Ils ne passeront pas!), and snatches of Tennyson. Even when we are dealing with what is ostensibly our ‘own’ history, the ground beneath our feet is not reliably Indian, and that injects a note of hysteria into the narrative. Nevertheless, a middle class that can adopt peasant soldiers as its cricket team can also adopt European mythologies as the stuff of its autobiography, and these fables of Red Eagles and Greeks now have an authentic national clientele that is embarrassed by the slide from El Alamein to NEFA, when there should have been an ascent. People are surprised, and even irate, that the Chinese do not seem to remember the war or care about having won, when Indians care so much about having lost. (Very inscrutable, those Chinese.) The questions that, for forty-odd years, concerned only military and diplomatic historians, are now eagerly dissected by a wider body of netizens: who started it, who was right, was Nehru naïve, could air power have made a difference, and most importantly, are we still so shameful/shameless?

The answers that are produced in the course of these new conversations rarely challenge conventional wisdom. There is still a great thirst for scapegoats and a lingering adherence to the stabbed-in-the-back theory. Some new facets have emerged nevertheless: the rehabilitation of the army, for example. The unedifying image of unshod stragglers is rapidly being replaced by the tableau on Rezang La. Even the old Lee Enfield 303 rifle, once mocked as a disastrously obsolete weapon, is now displayed honorably. The landscape of the war zone, especially Ladakh, has been repackaged with the aid of Bollywood. The surreal beauty of Pangong Tso, the lake where the ceasefire took hold, is now known to Indian tourists, thanks to films like Three Idiots (which ends on the lakeshore for no reason at all). I’ve been there myself: it really is very nice.

As the old war has been popularized by (and for) a new public, some conclusions have actually become inadmissible. There is a reluctance, for instance, consider the likelihood that the Indian debacle in the war was produced not by Nehru or General Kaul or Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith or even Defence Minister Krishna Menon, but by the immaturity of political, bureaucratic and military establishments that were only fifteen years removed from independence, utterly inexperienced, and clueless about the organizational requirements of a major war. The Chinese, on the other hand, had fought a long war against Japan, a civil war, and a war against the United States in Korea; the PRC was in that sense a highly militarized state. Conferring the ‘Field Marshall’ rank on an Indian general or two does not make good that immense imbalance of competence, although it does, of course, satisfy certain other hungers of the colonized. Nehru came close to admitting the problem when he mumbled that ‘we’ – a very ambiguous pronoun – had been ‘somewhat amateurish,’ but nobody wants to unpack that with undue care. It’s too shameful, and it threatens to overflow a few bad men into the inadequate modernity of the larger society.

My point is that the recent focus on Rezang La as an event and an image is not only part of a make-over of the 1962 war, but a reactionary make-over of Indian nationhood: a modern nation of image-consumers, a nation stabbed in the back by incompetent politicians and inscrutable Chinese, a nation of back-stabbed heroes in recognizably heroic tableaux, a nation where citizens are also soldiers and soldiers are citizens, a nation without paralyzing gaps between the state and the community. In this expanded national-public context, there is no easy fit for the photograph of Shastri at the Deoli detention camp. So certain kinds of questions are not asked: what possessed the Indian government to treat tens of thousands of Chinese-Indians as enemy aliens during the war, the place of race in Indian identity, the place of detention camps in Indian democracy, questions of acknowledgment, apology and reparation. It is not asked why Shastri was visiting a detention camp a year after the war, what he was smiling about, what the children were smiling about, and whether he and the children were chatting in Hindi or Chinese. (I assume it was the former, but photographs are mercifully silent about such awkward details.)

When war broke out in October of 1962, tens of thousands of civilians of Chinese ancestry were rounded up in India. The precise number is still unclear, but may emerge yet as historians ride the anniversary wave. Some were immigrants, some were Indian-born, some ran ‘ethnic businesses’ in Calcutta, others were well on their way to being absorbed into the ethnic mix of the Indian northeast. Many were deported to China, which could be a foreign country to them. Others went to camps like Deoli (near Kota, in Rajasthan), which had once been a site of inland penal transportation for Indians who had offended the Raj. Others were subjected to a humiliating regime of registrations, permits and police harassment. When people emerged from this bureaucratic no-man’s-land years later, they found that their homes and businesses had vanished into the opportunistic realm of ‘enemy property.’ There was never any apology or acknowledgment of wrong-doing, let alone reparations, from the government.

The Chinese-Indians were not charged with any offence, of course, since their offence – race – was clearly in evidence. Or was it? This is where the connections between race, ethnicity and citizenship begin to reveal their inherent irrationalities. Were the assimilated Chinese of Assam Chinese or Assamese? Could a policeman or a bureaucrat tell the difference without the help of foreign-sounding names and family histories? What about locally born children, who spoke the vernacular? If the Assamese of Chinese ancestry were enemy aliens on account of race, determined on the basis of how they looked to others, how safe were other Assamese? Are Bengalis, many of whom ‘look Assamese,’ more secure in their Indianness when they go along with the internment of people who ‘look Chinese’? If you follow this line of interrogation, you would have to stand sheepishly beside the prime minister and say goodbye to Assam after all. You might also have an epiphany about the predicament of ‘chinkies’ from the northeast who work as waiters in Chinese restaurants in every Indian city: stand-in aliens, whose apparent fitness for the role inevitably erodes their status as Indians. The community and the state drift apart like icebergs, necessitating that Garhwali peasants be counted as stand-ins for the urban middle class.

There are several direct precedents for the Indian government’s move to intern the ‘Chinese’ in 1962, the most direct of which is probably the colonial government’s internment of Germans (including, ironically, Jews) during the Second World War. But the most obvious parallel is the Japanese experience in America in the 1940s, and it is useful to compare the two episodes briefly. Apart from the similar calculations of race and nationality, there is the shared matter of shame. In both situations, those who were rounded up for internment felt deeply ashamed, and in the process, seemed to liberate their captors from the need for shame. Not only had they been humiliated before their children, neighbors and compatriots, they had been violated by their own government in a manner that is analogous to rape within the family. Because there was no space left for speech, and no community left for conversation, it brought an extended silence that lasted, in America, until the emergence of the Nisei writers. In India, the silence has been more persistent, enforced – or at any rate, maintained – by a stifling consensus between the victims, the perpetrators and the larger community of citizens.

There are, I think, several reasons why. Firstly, the US won its war; India lost its. Thus, in the Indian situation, the shame of defeat in Ladakh and NEFA was compensated by the authority involved in the identification and internment of the Chinese in Calcutta and Gauhati. Without an actual victory to provide reassurance, there was no question of conceding the fraudulent victory ritual where you point the guns and they huddle behind barbed wire fences.

Secondly, the discourse of race is vastly different in India and the United States. The idea of multi-racial citizenship, which has taken hold (however precariously) in America since the 1960s has no real counterpart in India, where religion, rather than race, remains at the heart of debates about insiders and outsiders. On race, among the classes that care about things like citizenship, there is a complacent agreement about what an Indian looks like, and the concept of a Chinese-Indian (or a Naga or Manipuri, for that matter) remains exotic. That agreement was cemented in the early twentieth century by social scientists like Benoy Sarkar, who took the concept of an ‘Indian race’ quite seriously (although Sarkar, with one eye on Muslims, preferred the term ‘Hindu race’), and it has not been disturbed significantly by the inclusion of the northeastern states in the Republic. Sarkar – who was both an Indian nationalist and a cosmopolitan Asian – admired China, but it was axiomatic to him that chinkies were not Indians.

The third reason is an extension of the second. The range of public opinion in India is, in some contexts, much narrower than in the US. This is not to deny the obvious: there is a much stronger hegemonic agreement in America about what constitutes a ‘normal’ arrangement of power and wealth in society. The Indian political arena is far more diverse in its convictions and affiliations. But if we narrow the field to include only the ‘proper citizens,’ i.e., the recognizably modern public, the picture changes quite dramatically. There is, in the United States, an established and reasonably flourishing tradition of bourgeois dissent, directed not so much against the state as against the mainstream of discourse. The mainstream is depressingly racist and militarist; nevertheless, on any discussion of a ‘contentious’ issue – drone attacks, support for Israel, abortion, torture, detention without trial, nuclear policy, the death penalty – opposing opinions are ubiquitous, and the existence of a policy does not indicate the closure of debate. Indian public debate, in comparison, is severely attenuated by consensus, give or take Arundhati Roy. It is as if when it comes to the state, the Indian middle class is largely in agreement as to what is right and proper, and what is most right and proper is the identification of the state with the community. So what happened to the Chinese-Indians – who are racial outsiders to the community – is not especially troubling, because all the state has done is underline the proper boundaries of the community.

Because the state is also the major agent of violence in a modern society, this emaciation of public opinion, in conjunction with the simultaneous widening of the imagined circle of racialized citizenship and its tightening to exclude certain others (‘we are all Kumaonis, but we are not chinkies’), is inevitably a moral problem. This brings me to the hanging of Ajmal Kasab. Unlike most terror suspects who have attracted American attention since 2001, Kasab got a trial, with standard procedures of representation, evidence and conviction. He was not subjected to extraordinary laws or constitutional loopholes, or even tortured. In that regard, his treatment by the Indian state was quite exemplary. But already in the early stages of his captivity, there were troubling signs, such as the virulence with which public figures and even legal associations threatened the few lawyers who came forward to defend him. For all its propriety, Kasab’s trial was always a hair’s breadth removed from the respectable mob. Inevitably, irregularities crept in, climaxing in the bizarre secrecy and haste with which he was hanged, without being informed that he had one further avenue of appeal. The government, battered by corruption scandals and a disintegrating coalition, needed the popularity of a popular execution.

The conviction and the death sentence were never in doubt, of course. The evidence was too overwhelming, and it contained irrefutable images: CCTV footage of Kasab with his black T-shirt and automatic rifle (not a Lee Enfield), firing into the crowd at the railway station.

Indian courts are much less trigger-happy than their American counterparts and the death penalty is indeed awarded quite rarely, but in Kasab’s case it was probably a foregone conclusion. The man was a cold-blooded killer, and besides, the mob wanted it. In the process, quite a few questions did not get asked. Whose scapegoat was this peasant who – like other peasants – morphed into a national icon? What did he think he was doing? Was this village boy with no education and no evident political beliefs, who was prone to giggling in the courtroom and throwing unpredictable little tantrums, mentally fit for capital punishment? Why should Kasab’s death be celebrated even as Bal Thackeray’s death was mourned, even though old Bal arguably terrorized more people over a much longer time, and did far greater damage to the rule of law in the country? Is hanging a terrorist really likely to deter men who commence their missions expecting to die? What issues are involved in any capital-punishment case: not only the legal and ethical issues of class, education, religion and process, but also the moral issues of error and irreversibility, and the brutality of keeping a man alive for four years like a pet and then suddenly murdering him like a sacrificial animal? These things simply do not exist in the mainstream of Indian public discourse, because civil society, in the process of expanding, has taken on the contours and qualities of the mob, which loudly asserts its identification with the state but is totally unconcerned with the discursive niceties of liberalism. Economic growth works in unexpected ways.

The mob took center stage after the execution, indulging in a frenzy of fireworks, cheering and handing out sweets. The demon is dead, have a kalakand. Anna Hazare, that great ‘Gandhian,’ expressed his regret that Kasab had not been hanged in public, so that the carnival of bloodlust and citizenship could have been more intense and unmediated. (In this, Hazare was quite close to the outright fascists like Thackeray, who had complained about Kasab getting a trial at all.) Others, more somber but no less vulgar, held religious services for Kasab’s victims. There was much public mourning of policemen and soldiers who had been killed in the Bombay incident, although the great majority of those who died were civilians. The ‘public’ element is central to the point that I am making. Noting the decline of public executions in early modern Europe, Foucault suggested that the unruly presence of the mob threatened to open up a gap between the state and the community that was unacceptable to the regime. That dynamic is, I think, reversed in episodes of fascism: the participation or even presence of the mob in state violence eliminates any gap that might otherwise exist. Those who were disturbed by the whole tamasha of Kasab’s hanging were almost entirely marginal to this spontaneous enactment of the unity of state and community.

None of this is exotic. Celebrations and the rhetoric of ‘closure for victims’ families’ are part and parcel of capital punishment in America. The word ‘closure,’ now being tossed about by observers of Kasab’s death, is borrowed directly from the American lexicon of psychotherapy and semi-public executions. And certainly the killing of bin Laden was greeted in America with a similar near-unanimous satisfaction. There is nevertheless a difference. Osama bin Laden was dealt with outside the legal structure. His death was an extralegal (even illegal) killing, and the public delight that followed was accordingly a kind of delinquent excess. The carnival and the justice system maintained a precarious separateness. This separateness has its own pathologies, but those are the pathologies of the state of exception.  In Kasab’s case, the regular process of governance – not a state of exception – merged with the carnival in a manner that was highly corrosive of liberal political culture, not to mention ghoulish. It came with its own photographic image: Kasab’s corpse. The image of a dead twenty-five-year-old will, apparently, bring closure, bind the community and restore the outraged state. It was a depressing revelation of moral crudity at the center of the norm, and not just in the shadow of the norm.

This essay has gone on much longer than I had intended and is becoming a disaster, so I will bring it to a close. The spectacle of Kasab’s execution was fundamentally shameless and indecent, nearly on the same scale as the shamelessness and indecency of Lal Bahadur Shastri – by all accounts a very decent man – posing with Chinese-Indian children in a detention camp, instead of closing the camp and apologizing. (Not even FDR, a man more heavily burdened by modern ideologies of race, posed with the Japanese in Manzanar.) But Shastri, having assumed office soon after a lost war, was the leader of a shamed community. Feeling ashamed is, amazingly, highly compatible with being shameless. The shamed/shameless community wraps itself in the state. This is true even for the victims of the state: among the interned Japanese Americans, the No-No Boys (who rejected the overtures of military recruiters) were far outnumbered by those who joined the 442nd and 100th Regimental Combat Teams and fought for the very community that had declared them aliens. For the victimizers, of course, there is even less daylight between the self, the community and the state, because they too perceive themselves to be victims. (We were colonized, we were stabbed in the back, we lost the war.) I am reminded of a point Ronald Inden made years ago: communities that emerge from colonialism bury themselves in the state because the state represents not the community, but the political agency that was taken away by colonialism. That agency, institutionalized and reclaimed, becomes the basis for the new community of citizens.

But there is inevitably a heavy price to pay. This price is partly aesthetic: a matter of images.  Sometimes the image is deceptive. What looks to be Chinese could be Assamese, or even Bengali. And the frozen tableau of Rezang La is, on the surface, quite beautiful. (Who says there’s no tragedy in India? We’re not savages.) But it is nevertheless a fake, bordering on kitsch. I am not saying that the battle fought at Rezang La in November 1962 was a fake, or that the soldiers (Indian and Chinese) who died were not admirable, or that what the shepherd found in January was unreal. I am saying that the image of that battle, and the reproduction of what the shepherd saw, has become increasingly fraudulent, because it expands public awareness of the 1962 war only to cover up the truth of the image of Shastri and the interned children. And partly, the price is moral and political, establishing the normalcy of a political community that flirts constantly with fascism, because morbid-heroic imagery and carnivals of communal identity take up all the public space, placing certain kinds of discussion out of bounds.

November 24, 2012