Monday, December 31, 2012

Is There a Hierarchy in Rapes?

There is no hierarchy in rapes but the culture that allowed deep divisions must be ready to introspect and apologise before it seeks healing.
Yes, it is time for mourning. Many of us prayed for her. We hoped against hope that she might survive. But she did not. On the night of 29 December 2012, the 23-year-old victim died due to multiple organ failure in a faraway hospital in Singapore.
Yes, it is time for mourning. Unwarranted death, even that of a complete stranger, must aggrieve us.
Yes, it is time for mourning. Innocence is trampled far too often in this sinful world.
But time such as this also forces some questions on us.
Here’s one: Is there a hierarchy in rapes?
As the news of this gruesome, literally gut-wrenching, gang rape began unfolding in the national media, the middle-class, metropolitan children of post-liberalization India began to crowd at key spots in key cities giving vent to the justifiable anger a tragedy like this must evoke.
But there is another India, some refer to it as Bharat, to which this all seemed a bit odd. Make no mistake. That second India did feel outraged at this act of violence against a young girl. After all, it gets affected by such incidents as a matter of routine. So, the irony of it was too blatant to escape notice. Crime against women is not something new in this country. Despicable acts like rapes, gang rapes, brutalization of women, parading them naked are not unknown in our part of the world. Let us list only the most well-known ones:
  1. Phoolan Devi, former Member of Parliament and an ex-bandit, was raped repeatedly, first by police and then by upper-caste men in her village. She was perhaps the only one out of hundreds like her who chose to pick up the gun to seek revenge.
  2. Not too long ago, stones were thrust into Soni Sori’s vagina by our Dabangg police officers, while—I tend to believe—casually whistling away to glory in the thana!
  3. Mukhtaran Mai in our neighbouring pious land was allegedly ordered by the village court to be gang raped as a punishment.
  4. Khairlanji created but a ripple and was smothered. Disrobed dead bodies of mother and daughter lay around there, just like that.
  5. Parading Dalit and Tribal women naked remains the most favoured torture tactic of the power elites in the hinterlands.
  6. Aruna Shaunbag, who has been in vegetative state for more years than my entire lifetime, has her “friend” asking for euthanasia.
  7. A tribal woman in Assam was disrobed and chased around on the streets. Hit on her genitals.
  8. Manorama in Manipur was raped and shot repeatedly at her crotch.
  9. There was Bilquis, gang raped in Gujarat, and the nun in Kandhamal and many other Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Dalit, Tribal women in innumerable state-sponsored or state-supported “communal” riots in the country.
Misogyny (hatred of women) is deeply ingrained in the cultural DNA of South Asia, despite its much-touted goddess-worshipping pretence. Rapes, along with other forms of sexual violence, continue unabated, even unchallenged. If we had done something about the very first rape that was ever reported from one of our dusty villages, we may not have had to lose yet another of our daughters. Or was it that the vulnerable women from the so-called weaker and backward sections (which most of us Indians are) were never owned like India’s daughters? Is it possible that these women were not worthy or valuable enough to be worried about? Was their honour expendable and their suffering well-deserved? How else can one explain the selective pangs of conscience?
With deepest sympathy for this latest victim of women-hating culture, for our young sister, we, the second India, only asked a question why no such outrage in any of the earlier instances of rape and brutalization and murder.
And the first India asks us in return: Is there a hierarchy in rapes?
An Indian journalist writing on an American news Web site counts various lessons this incident taught him—them. Here’s one: “We learned that it’s an exercise in futility to try and assign a hierarchy to rape as if one rape is more deserving of attention than the other. It’s a recipe for doing nothing. Let’s not question why this jolted us more than other rapes now. Let’s be thankful we are capable of being jolted.”
What this self-congratulatory remark assumes that those who have actually been fighting lone and largely losing battles to ensure justice to themselves or their daughters, sisters and friends do not exist; their sufferings, battles do not exist either. It is only now that something will be done. In the end, he is happy to discover that he and others like him are after all a sensitive lot. They care. Trust me, it is a consolation for us too that you are jolted. But we want to help you that you don’t slip right back into your earlier trance-like slumber induced by number of social privileges you enjoy. Try moving beyond the demand for castration and shouting “gallows”. How about working towards an egalitarian world? How about a little humility? If you are really serious, own up to your past insensitivity. How about seeing the world as it is? Recognize that there are deep and diabolic divisions in this culture you never tire of praising ad nauseam. Accept yours is the society that is built on rigid hierarchies of caste, gender and class. Admit you have graded human beings on the basis of their birth communities.
Many “noble souls” have even called for a change in the entire societal mindset without taking the trouble to hint what that might mean. But when the gentleman dreads that this jolt-worthy tale may “end in recriminations about how we care because this is a middle class girl and not a lower caste woman gathering firewood”, the second India understands exactly the mindset that needs to change, which humanly speaking is impossible—though with God all things are possible.
So, be truly brave and resolute.
More than us, you must convince your own inner self that you are serious about the change. You are not faking it. And “you” here is the entire chattering class of India, of which Indian media is only a subset.
You are under no obligation to listen to the second India but let it be said:
Stand up and say that you are sorry for not standing up earlier.
Say that you are sorry for not speaking up earlier.
Say that you are sorry for turning a blind eye to all the earlier brutalities to which women, men and children of lesser gods were subjected to.
Say that your fabled Mother India does not play favourite daughters.
Say that each and every instance of rape and sexual violence will be pursued with this same intensity.
And say that there is indeed a hierarchy; not of rapes and other crimes, but the way our society and culture views and values human beings, both men and women.
And then you will suddenly realize that how irrelevant is this questions: Is there a hierarchy in rapes?

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Jabbar Patel’s "Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar": An Exercise in Domesticating the Giant

“India has already graduated beyond Gandhi to Ambedkar…” Vishal Mangalwadi made this pronouncement in a letter he wrote to Arun Shourie about 17 years ago. Shourie had just published a book Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes and Dilemmas (1994) in which he presented a devastating critique of the Christian missionaries whose service in India overlapped with the colonial rule. An admirer and follower of Gandhi, Arun Shourie is, like his idol, against missionaries, against conversion and against the rise of the Dalits. This letter was written in February 1995. Kanshi Ram’s BSP was already a force to reckon with in North India. Ambedkarism was swelling in appeal with five years of debates and discussions around the Mandal Commission Report. As if to counter this assertion, and reclaim the lost ground for Gandhi, Shourie wrote his next book denouncing Ambedkar, Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar, and the Facts Which Have Been Erased in 1997. Did Shourie succeed in what he intended to do?

A few months ago, about 17 years after the above-mentioned letter reached Mr Shourie, the mainstream Indian media and the Indian middle-class woke up to the same truth, when the result for the Greatest Indian After Gandhi poll was declared. Ambedkar was heads and shoulders above Nehru and the galaxy of other popular Indian personalities. Many dared to believe if Gandhi was among the contenders he too would have been relegated to No. 2. Gandhian nationalists, within the Congress party as well as the BJP, could not stem the tide of rising popularity of the man whose only contribution to the country according to the official text books is that he was the “father of the Indian Constitution”. The emergence and rise of Ambedkar in the mainstream media and cultural life has posed a serious threat to Gandhism and the Gandhian view of social and political philosophy. Or has it really?

It is instructive to keep this context in mind while remembering Jabbar Patel’s film Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000). Any discussion of Ambedkar must turn sooner or later to Gandhi, his older contemporary and, socially and politically, his bête noir. Similarly, his representation must be contrasted with the way Gandhi is represented in the film. When Richard Attenborough made Gandhi in 1982, there was no mention of Ambedkar in the film. Gandhians could live under the illusion that Ambedkar can be relegated to oblivion. However, Ambedkar and his legacy were alive and thriving. With Ambedkar’s birth centenary approaching in 1991, a demand was begun to be made for a full-length film on Ambedkar too.

The film, released a dozen years ago, no doubt, has high production values. Technically, it is brilliant. After all, you expect that when some of the best names of Indian cinema come together to create a masterpiece. Bhanu Athaiya, Shyam Benegal, Mammootty, Ashok Mehta were all there to aid Jabbar Patel in fashioning a historically credible biopic that is also aesthetically appealing.

But what is it’s evaluation of Gandhi? To be sure, the film lampoons Gandhi, shows him to be a shrewd and obstinate man but ultimately a benevolent moral dictator, who convinces Nehru to bring Ambedkar into his first cabinet. However, mocking and lampooning Gandhi is not the most radical thing a filmmaker or, say, a creative writer can do with the mahatma. He did that to himself, for instance, in his autobiography. In any case, contrary to the popular notions, we Indians are not uncomfortable with the whims and fancies and even moral failings of our great men or even gods.

Recently, Ram Jethmalani, a member of parliament representing the Hindu nationalist party BJP, made a controversial remark that he thought Ram was a bad husband and for that he did not like him. Innocent people can be forgiven for being scandalized with this apparently anti-Hindu remark. But Ram Jethmalani was only being a good, more complete modern Hindu himself. Hinduism does allow one the freedom to be playful with its gods, to the extent of mocking them. Jethmalani will continue to serve in the party that draws its inspiration from Ram the king, Ram the warrior, Ram the brother, Ram the son, Ram the Kshatriya, though he may have a minor bone to pick with Ram the husband. This is because Hinduism does not require absolute moral purity or perfection from its gods. It is perfectly possible to be a good Ram bhakta while complaining about this or that moral failing in Ram. Similarly, it is perfectly possible to be an ardent Gandhian despite quibbling over this, that or the other aspect of Gandhi’s personality.

So Jabbar Patel can lampoon Gandhi but ultimately Ambedkar is shown to depend on Gandhi’s magnanimity to rise up the ladder. The film is a perfect example of how the forces of Brahmanism have incorporated and hierarchised, to use Louis Dumont idea, Ambedkar in the neo-Hindu pantheon of nationalist leaders.

A film that sought to underline the uniqueness of Ambedkar’s life and thoughts should have emphasized how Ambedkar’s diagnosis and cure for India’s Depressed Class’ problems differed from Gandhi’s Harijan cause.

This ultimate impact of the film became clear to me when an accidental reference to it was made in a discussion I was having with a small group of students from Bahujan backgrounds. Since all of us had seen the film a long time back, the only thing these students seemed to remember was the benevolence of Gandhi in bringing Ambedkar on board!

The film does not break the mould but only finds a place for Ambedkar in the cracks that have appeared over a period of time in the grand narrative of Indian nationalism; and thus it plugs that gap. The film falls in line with the larger nationalist design where space for Ambedkar will be made only as a compliment to Gandhi and not as his counter point.

If politics is any indication, India has graduated from Gandhi to Ambedkar. But in cultural and aesthetic spheres, there’s still some catching up to do.

(Published in December 2012 issue of FORWARD Press)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Masochistic West?

British media must truly be in masochistic mode to be promoting a book like that. Sometime I wonder if those guys have really begun taking pleasure in this intellectual self-flagellation ... Anything gone wrong with their former colonies has to be their doing ... All historical tragedies in those societies must be their handiwork ... and when facts fail them, they love falling for half-truths and plain lies ... And this is the way they want to continue to be involved in their former colonies ... I mean it's kind of a peculiarly perverse kind of self-obsession!

One must find a way to define this strange streak of residual imperialism

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Friday, April 06, 2012

Good Friday 2012

The description of Crucifixion in all the four gospels is very plain, all of them use obnoxiously laconic expressions: “Then they crucified him” (Matthew 27:33–34); “And when they crucified Him” (Mark 15: 22–24); “...there they crucified Him” (Luke 23: 33–34); “...where they crucified Him” (John 19: 17–18). You have to be careful reading these four passages or you will miss the reference to this rather ironic elevation of the messiah. There is no drama, no graphic details, no mention of nails going through Jesus’s palms and feet, no gory details—not even a word that is not essential for recording the mere fact that they crucified him. It is as matter-of-fact description as it comes. THEY CRUCIFIED HIM.
This seems strange given that all the movies made on the life of Jesus—in stark contrast to the gospel narratives—make this incident particularly poignant. We have seen Jesus screaming and writhing in pain as he lies nearly all naked on the wooden cross, even as a couple of soldiers hold him down while another one goes on doing his job of hammering in those 6-inch-long nails one by one. 
Why such a difference in representation?
To my mind, this is because Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not telling a “story”. They are not poets in any classical sense. They are not “creative writers” commissioned by a powerful monarch or a church to dramatize—or poeticize—the story of a god, or a hero. They are not constructing a beautiful myth with all sublimity and pathos. All four of them were possibly eye witnesses to the event; two of them, Matthew and John, most probably were. In any case, John was certainly there. What they were writing was not art. They were recording a real, historical, public event, which no doubt affected them personally.
When the Church became very strong, almost a hegemonic institution in the Western world, in the 4th century AD, it still did not replace these narratives with splendid epics that could compete with the classics across the globe. In the last two millennia, when the Church has had tons of money, it did not think it necessary to make them more “classy”. The bestselling authors of the world set aside all scruples when they use emotive sentences like “history is written by the victors” to assert that Christian Scriptures are nothing more than expressions of power politics. The four gospels were, after all, written by men who belonged to a subjugated nation. The gospels still told the story of, in words of Terry Eagleton, the “sick joke of a messiah” and did not transform him to a figure of grandeur. There is no triumphalism. There is humiliation, there is defeat, there is death. As religious mythology, gospel narratives do not stand a chance against the grand designs of epics, either Eastern or Western. The reason is that the “rough-and-ready” form of the gospels narratives was never supposed to work like epics, that is, to satisfy the aesthetic impulses of the elite or to induce somnolence in the masses. To the writers of the gospels, truth and fidelity to facts was paramount. Embellishments were left to the likes of A. Bhimsingh and Mel Gibson.
Indifference to suffering
What this style—or the non-style—of writing does do is to lay bare a central fact about suffering. It is all so matter of fact. It is this truth that makes it perennially appealing. While one suffers, the world goes along with its own chores, ambitions and cares. To my mind, what all these four gospel writers have achieved is a devastating insight into the nature of suffering. It doesn’t matter to the world that you suffer, a fact that becomes the basis of W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée De Beaux Arts”:
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
 One wonders if this is not the most telling image of the crucifixion. Now, let a filmmaker show. 

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Remembering Saul Bellow

Writing the foreword of Alan Bloom’s classic on higher education in America The Closing of the American Mind, Saul Bellow remarked that the style of the book “will seem to modern readers marred by classical stiffness”—‘Truth,’ ‘Knowers,’ ‘the Good,’ ‘Man’—but we can by no means deny that behind our objection to such language is a guilty consciousness of the flimsiness, and not infrequently the trashiness, of our modern talk of ‘values’.”

Saul Bellow challenged this “flimsiness” and the “trashiness” throughout his writing career and, as the newspapers report, died “peacefully” last Tuesday. Recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976 for “the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work,” Bellow wrote tirelessly against the deterministic and mechanistic interpretations of human life. The post-Depression and post-War mood of disillusionment that pervaded the Western man’s consciousness in the second half of the last century never overwhelmed Bellow’s unwavering conviction in the higher destiny of mankind. The writer with a Jewish background, Saul Bellow inherited memories of two millennia of oppression and anti-Semitism, but his “larky” spirit never gave into the modern melancholia or encashed “victimhood”. In The Victim, his second novel, Bellow explores the relationship between a Catholic and a Jew each being an unwarranted victim of the other’s action yet each not without human sympathy which binds them together. In his most celebrated book, The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow but mentions in  passing the anti-Semitic outburst Augie experienced in his childhood and how, instead of taking it to hear, he designates it to the “lunatic fringe” present in every society. Bellow’s characters do not dwell on suffering of their race but are active beings continually engaging with the environment, rescuing it from the dark forces of the time. Instead of focusing on the limiting memories of the past they grapple with the constraining mindsets of the age. They test the celebrated philosophies on the touchstone of day-to-day life. Bellow’s most memorable characters are deeply sensitive character having predilection for the philosophical. Moses E. Herzog, the protagonist of what some consider his signature work Herzog typifies a modern intellectual, a Ph.D. from a leading American University, who falls apart when his wife leaves him for another man. Through this novel Bellow shows how little strength “higher education” has to offer a troubled man. The flimsiness of now prevalent educated responses is appalling to Bellow. Though sometimes criticized for having highbrow airs, Bellow stood up against the “disheartening expansion of trained ignorance and bad thought,” now spread in the institutions of higher learning. “People ‘inside’ are identical in their appetites and motives with the people ‘outside’ the university,” wrote Bellow in the same foreword.

Philip Roth has called Saul Bellow, along with William Faulkner, “the backbone” of American Literature. Bellow has indeed written some great American novels, but his vision is much more encompassing. Alluding to antiquity while meditating upon contemporary landscape, invoking the East while delving deep into the Western spirit, Bellow creates modernist world fiction reminiscent of T. S. Eliot, another American whose neurotic characters and religious overtones are reflected in Bellow’s fiction. In Herzog Bellow has his protagonist, Moses, thinking how he liked Pather Panchali and is inspired to donate his assets to Dr. Bhave, an Indian social activist working for the poor.  In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, another of his much-acclaimed book, Bellow has an Indian character Dr V. Govind Lal, author of a book on astronomy. There is a warm understanding of other cultures and their achievements in his fiction dealt with care one does not come across frequently.

Reader of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky Bellow has moral vision that respects life and seeks to extend human strengths. There is deep existential resonance in his novels but his existentialism is neither morbid like Camus’s nor nauseated like Sartre’s. Man’s seeming failure is not his final destiny as he remarks at the end of Augie March: “Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”

But besides all this what was truly remarkable about Saul Bellow was his humility. Bellow refused to be enamoured by the Romantic illusion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and that they should establish some “fixed modes of experience”. Bellow saw the futility of such universal appeals and portrays that “Humility is endless.” Last words to Bellow himself. This is what he said in his Noble accepting speech. “No one can bear to be ignored. I would, however, have been satisfied with a smaller measure of attention and praise. For when I am praised on all sides I worry a bit. I remember the scriptural warning, ‘Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you.’ Universal agreement seems to open the door to dismissal.”


Monday, January 23, 2012

ALL-ROUND JUSTICE: The Call of the Master

I chose Isaiah 42:1-9 as the text for my sermon at the Chandigarh Bible Fellowship this morning. I came back with the feeling that perhaps more than anyone else, the Word spoke to me. The primary "task" of the Servant, about whom the text speaks, is to establish justice. The word justice is repeated three times in the first four verses. It is clearly a concern close to God's heart. Right now the state of Punjab is gearing up for assembly elections due next month. The candidates are going at it with hammer and tongs. They can't seem to wait to serve the state and its people. Now, politicians are meant to be servants of the people and work towards justice. But, then, who believes them? There are reports that the prime minister's rally in Amritsar today was poorly attended. Politics and politicians, at least for the time being, have lost all credibility. Now when I spoke to the congregation about the text, it hit me rather strongly, that as far as the issues of justice are concerned, the Church must wrest the responsibility. It's the church's primary task: to ensure justice being done in all aspects of our personal and corporate lives. Don't leave it to the government alone. The Church must take charge. It should not continue to feel and behave like a victim but stand up for justice for all, like it's Lord and Master did. This minor change in perspective is nothing short of a paradigm shift.