The Death of a Jew


Following close upon the golden jubilee celebrations of ‘victory’ in the 1965 war against Pakistan, with its imbedded celebration of the Anglo-Indian hero Alfred Cooke, has come another moment of remembrance in the history of the Indian state: the passing of J.F.R. Jacob. Jacob was, more or less famously, the only ‘Jewish general’ in the Indian Army and one of the architects of the Pakistani surrender in the Bangladesh War. His visage graces the iconic photograph of the surrender ceremony in Dhaka in 1971. (Jacob stands towards the right of the frame, above, with a young Air Force officer gripping his arm.) By his own admission, Jacob was not a religious man and may not have been entirely comfortable with the tendency of his admirers – mainly Indian and Israeli – to underline his Jewishness. Nevertheless, every obituary has led with some version of ‘Jake the Jew.’
How extraordinary this treatment is must be emphasized. When Sam Maneckshaw, the most celebrated soldier in Indian history, died not long ago, few headline-writers in the mainstream press thought to describe him as ‘the Parsi general,’ and no eulogist gloated about the fact that a Zoroastrian had led the Indian Army. Likewise, when Air Chief Marshall Idris Latif, the only Muslim to head an Indian military service, passes away, his religion will be mentioned politely in the small print, as is only right. Denis La Fontaine will not be 'India's Christian air chief'; Christians are too prosaic. Clearly, being a ‘minority,’ in and of itself, is not all that noteworthy. When it is noteworthy, it is unevenly so:  Alfred Cooke was embraced in spite of his Anglo-Indian ancestry (and even then, nobody mentioned his religion), but Jacob was celebrated because he was an Indian Jew. Coming at a time when minorities are not especially popular in India, this invites us to think about the conditions under which a national majority becomes generous towards the impurities it contains.
The concept of a ‘minority’ is something of a novelty. It became meaningful only in the nineteenth century, as a corollary of the new institutions of popular sovereignty and the democratic nation-state. In India, the term was most firmly associated with Muslims, beginning with colonial historiography, proceeding through Aligarh’s foundational debates and the nationalist polemics of the 1880s and 1890s, and becoming concretized in the Minto-Morley reforms of 1909. Partition reinforced the concrete, but also added a new complication by making policy (management) rather than politics (accommodation) the normative idiom of relations between the majority and the minorities. Throughout this trajectory, the concept secreted layers of negative connotations: not only was it a calamity to be a minority, it was a misfortune to have minorities. In much of this, the Indian experience was consistent with trends in political demography elsewhere in the world that emerged from the Great War.
Yet models exist in that world for ‘good minorities’ and even happy minorities. The best known such model is, conveniently, known in America as the ‘model minority.’ That term has been used since the 1970s to refer explicitly to ‘Asian immigrants,’ who do well at school, do not trouble the police, and appear to affirm the ‘American’ values of hard work, self-reliance (not relying upon government assistance), single-minded acquisitiveness and ‘family,’ at a time (the aftermath of the Counterculture and the Civil Rights Movement) when ‘Americans’ themselves had evidently wavered in their faith in those things. The deconstruction of the model minority, coming in the first instance from Asian American scholars like Ronald Takaki, has been very thorough. Its critics have noted that while the notion compensated somewhat for the virulence of the Asian Exclusion Acts, the lynch mobs in the Pacific Northwest, the wartime internment of people of Japanese ancestry, and seventy years of murder and dehumanization of ‘gooks’ and ‘slopes’ (who can breathe easier now that attention has turned to ‘ragheads’ and ‘Art Malik’), it has been more pernicious than generous. It has highlighted the success of some Asians (mainly Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and Indians from middle-class backgrounds), blacked out the less advantaged and successful, and trapped all Asian Americans within the exotic category of ‘immigrant,’ to be contrasted with real Americans, whose realness is reified by their imperiled virtues. The model minority is a handy stick with which to beat other minorities (including Asians, but always and primarily blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans) for their apparent fecklessness. Beyond that, it has imposed on all minorities – the successful and the feckless – a constricting model of citizenship that emphasizes docility: not challenging the prerogatives of the majority, not questioning the meanings of success, not taking over the ‘good schools’ and ‘excellent neighborhoods,’ not making waves. The model minority is, in the final analysis, a model of apolitical citizenship as the subjectivity of a ‘good’ minority, which allows the majority to bury its history and politics of racism.
The notion of a ‘good minority’ is not alien to India, where linguistic minorities have been a fact of political life since the 1920s. In the Presidency capitals, an expanded political pie and massive in-migration made it necessary for regional politicians to work out a language that could accommodate – or isolate – the misfits. But who was a good minority at the national level? For a long time, the answer was obvious: the model minority in India were the Sikhs. Not only did they fit easily into the anti-Muslim thrust of nationalist historiography, they were endowed with qualities that Hindus were often unsure they possessed: Sikhs were industrious, ‘martial’ and hyper-patriotic. It was a nationalist redemption of the colonial trope of the simple, loyal peasant-soldier. Sikhs themselves seemed to embrace their role as semi-detached Hindus, and happily referred to themselves as the ‘sword arm of the nation.’
The fragility of this model of minority citizenship became inescapable in the 1980s, with the onset of Sikh terrorism, the Delhi pogrom, and the years of profiling and ‘encounter’ killings. When Shabeg Singh, another icon of the 1971 war, used his military expertise against the Indian Army in Operation Blue Star, the hero became the traitor in shockingly literal terms. The wounds healed with Manmohan Singh’s stint as prime minister, but not completely. The romance was gone, and the good minority is nothing if not a romantic concept: a specter of the majority’s love affair with its own national mythology.
What went wrong with the Sikhs? It was not simply the demands for autonomy or secession. It was the revelation of a reluctance to accept the status of quasi-Hindus, which fully-credentialed Hindus could neither understand nor forgive. (Nothing is as embarrassing as interrupted self-love.) Just as pertinently, Sikhs asserting their separateness – whether from Hindus or from India – were able to mobilize politically. Even a two-percent minority can do that when two percent is more than fifteen million people, concentrated geographically and already equipped with political organizations and useful histories. The otherwise useful Sikhs, therefore, failed that crucial test of a lovable minority: docility.
If we return to the photograph of the Pakistani surrender in 1971, in which the romance of Indian cosmopolitanism is fully on display, we see immediately that Sikhs are well represented, notably by General Arora, the senior Indian commander in the eastern theater. They are not, however, performing as a minority. Being politically alive and viable, Sikhs are not exotic. They are not in the frame as curiosities. General Jacob is. Some three decades ago, a relative of mine – a retired group captain in the Indian Air Force – told me that Jacob’s presence at the ceremony was intended to compound the Pakistani humiliation by forcing them to surrender to a Jew. It is difficult to imagine Indira Gandhi and Jagjivan Ram plotting such a detail, but it is significant that it was the perception of Indian officers with some awareness of world politics. Jacob in 1971 was already a symbolic Jew.
He was also the most perfect kind of minority: a man with a race but without a racial community. The number of Jews in India is so small (barely five thousand) that mobilizing as a community – coming together with an agenda and a means of applying pressure – would seem to be out of the question. Indian Jews can, at most, express their dismay when some fool in Ahmedabad opens a boutique called ‘Hitler.’ They are, in that sense, a docile minority, and can be placed on the shelf of the nation's trophies. The same can be said for Parsis. They too are a model minority, running gracefully out of bodies and vultures. The Tatas have put to rest the old Parsi reputation of being ‘bum-lickers of the English’: a stigma that Anglo-Indians could not fully escape. In Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Cracking India, a Parsi woman in newly independent Pakistan explains to her child that they are, and must remain, like sugar in a cup of tea: sweetening and invisible. But the Parsi predicament is also different from that of Indian Jews. Jews are more useful. Being Parsi has no global significance. Jewishess does, and that meaning dovetails with specific Indian agendas, historical and contemporary.
The post-1945 Zionist tendency to deploy an exceptional and existential victimhood – ‘everybody hates us, so everything is justified’ – has made it possible for Indian nationalist discourse to claim an exception of its own. In India, the narrative goes, Jews were never persecuted. This may very well be true, give or take the Inquisition in Goa. But the assertion has not only allowed the spokesmen of the Indian majority to proclaim their own ‘tolerance’ and inherent cosmopolitanism (which, it turns out, is compatible with fascist imaginings of nationhood), it has also aligned them with a strand within contemporary Zionism, which is its anti-Muslim animus. This promises to take Hindutva politics out of the backwater, connecting it to another national narrative and a global concern (articulated in terms of ‘terror,’ ‘security' and 'Islam'). It also cements the relationship between India and Israel at a time when both states have reached a majoritarian nadir.
It may be, of course, that eulogists casually invoking 'Jake the Jew' are merely drawing attention to a harmless bit of trivia, without political 'intentions' or 'agendas.' When they do that, however, they reduce race and the racialized individual to trivia: the harmless fluff that is the essence of a model minority. The harmlessless is tied up with utility and the comfort of the majority; for that reason, it is political. The celebration of General Jacob’s Jewishness then feeds (and feeds upon) majoritarian self-congratulation and tokenism, and simultaneously sharpens the distinction between good and bad minorities in India. The more or less solitary Jew, identified with national victory and globally aligned with power and civilization, is good. The Muslim, with his numbers and birthrate and place in history, is not. He is the trouble the Jew does not give the nation. He is unser Unglück. Sikhs have proved to be manageable; they can be either pogrom victims or prime ministers.
Jacob was not an innocent observer in the politics of his identity. He may have been ambivalent about his faith, but he took racial identity seriously enough to work hard for closer ties between the Indian and Israeli states. That effort, while understandable, highlights an important dynamic of being a model minority. It shows where, and with whom, one chooses to stand, and how one is willing to be used. When a minority lacks the demographic means of political self-assertion, there still remains the option of self-assertion on behalf of other minorities, within the larger community with which it identifies. Jacob liked to say he was ‘Indian through and through.’ I would like to think that that means standing in solidarity with those Indians who are excluded from ‘model’ status. Such solidarity, however, might mean that when you die, you would not be a national icon, but merely a troublemaker.

January 18, 2016