SACW - 16 March 2018 | Sri Lanka: Anti-Muslim Violence / Bangladesh inheritance laws / Pakistan: / India: Rewriting history; Maharashtra farmers; Fund Ankit Saxena's Family / Stephen Hawking Dies

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at
Thu Mar 15 18:31:04 EDT 2018

South Asia Citizens Wire - 16 March 2018 - No. 2976 
[via South Asia Citizens Web - since 1996]

1. Sri Lanka: Reframing the riots | Devaka Gunawardena
2. Sri Lanka: Women’s Rights Activists statement on Anti-Muslim Violence | Daily FT (Colombo) 9 March 2018
3. By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists aim to assert their dominance over India | Rupam Jain and Tom Lasseter
4. Video: The NDTV Dialogues - Romila Thapar On Centre’s Move To ’Correct’ History
5. India: Statement by PADS on post-poll violence by BJP/RSS cadre and supporters in Tripura 
6. Recent on Communalism Watch:
 - India: In Odisha, no blood spilt but the fires of communal hatred are touching the skies | Harsh Mander
 - India: Hindu-Muslim and RSS Chief Bhagwat | Ram Puniyani
 - India: 2007 Mecca Masjid blast case - Swami Aseemanand’s ‘disclosure’ file missing from court
 - India: Caught Assaulting Women In Pub, Pramod Muthalik And Co Let Off
 - India: In UP under Yogi Adityanath's Rule, Hindu festivals are State festivals
 - India: Order issued by BJP govt in Rajasthan - on the new dress code
 - Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar threatens that there will be violence if the court doesnt favour a Hindu temple ?
 - Toppled statue in Tripura and a warning to Supreme Court from Sri Sri in Ayodhya
 - India: Will the Left heed the advice of Prof Prabhat Patnaik to mobilise secular, democratic elements to fight Hindutva forces ?
 - Sri Lanka declares state of emergency after Buddhist-Muslim clash
::: URLs & FULL TEXT :::
7. Nepal seeks harmony, not hegemony, from its neighbors | Narayan Adhikari
8. Bangladesh: It’s about time we discussed our skewed inheritance laws | Masreka Khan
9. India: Maharashtra farmers' agitation and lessons for the Opposition | Bharat Bhushan
10. India: Appeal for Funds for Ankit Saxena's Family
11. Debating Partition, the Oxford way | Rajmohan Gandhi
12. The Good Historian: Vigilante Of Indian Past | Gerard Fussman
13. Colonial Construction Of A Frontier: Debating The Inner Line Regulation In Sibsagar–Naga Hills | Debojyoti Das 
14. Secularism and sectarian violence | Srinivasan Ramani
15. The statue game: Shifting signifiers of stationary figuration | Ruchir Joshi
16. Jason Cons on Daniel Haines. Rivers Divided: Indus Basin Waters in the Making of India and Pakistan
17. Mikhail Gorbachev: The U.S. and Russia Must Stop the Race to Nuclear War
18. Stephen Hawking, modern cosmology's brightest star, dies aged 76 | Ian Sample
19. Bang for the Buck | Adam Hochschild	

1. SRI LANKA: REFRAMING THE RIOTS | Devaka Gunawardena
The recent riots targeting Muslims in Kandy have provoked accusations on many sides. While mainstream conversations focus on what the riots entail in terms of immediate political consequences for the current Government and its tepid response, progressives have also had to reckon with the growing presence of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence as a feature of contemporary Sri Lankan life.

As activists engaged in the struggle for women’s rights, justice and equality for all across Sri Lanka, we strongly condemn the recent spate of violence against Muslim communities, and the communities’ homes, shops and places of worship.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appointed a committee of scholars to prove that Hindus are descended from India’s first inhabitants. Members of the country’s Muslim minority worry the government wants to make them second-class citizens.

Renowned Historian Romila Thapar says the space for dissent in India is shrinking. She talks about covert pressures in the contemporary political arena and the intersection of nationalism, secularism and democracy. Discussing the place for nationalism in the current socio-political framework, Ms Thapar distinguishes between good historians and bad historians while highlighting the dangers of ’fantasy narratives’.

Targeted violence against political opponents of BJP, as seen in Tripura, cannot be dissociated from wider processes of change. Public violence against the weak and vulnerable; poor, minorities, Dalits, women, adivasis, migrant workers, etc. has been a regular feature of Indian society.

 - India: In Odisha, no blood spilt but the fires of communal hatred are touching the skies | Harsh Mander
 - India: Hindu-Muslim and RSS Chief Bhagwat | Ram Puniyani
 - India: 2007 Mecca Masjid blast case - Swami Aseemanand’s ‘disclosure’ file missing from court
 - India: Caught Assaulting Women In Pub, Pramod Muthalik And Co Let Off
 - India: In UP under Yogi Adityanath's Rule, Hindu festivals are State festivals
 - India: Order issued by BJP govt in Rajasthan - Girls in colleges asked to wear Saree / Blouse, salwar suit; Whereas for college boys, trouser /shirts and belt is the new dress code
 - Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar threatens that there will be violence if the court doesnt favour a Hindu temple ?
 - Toppled statue in Tripura and a warning to Supreme Court from Sri Sri in Ayodhya
 - India: Will the Left heed the advice of Prof Prabhat Patnaik to mobilise secular, democratic elements to fight Hindutva forces ?
 - Sri Lanka declares state of emergency after Buddhist-Muslim clash
 - India: Lawyer Vrinda Grover on Why Top Cop in Ishrat Jahan Case Must Face Trial
 -> available via:
::: URLs & FULL TEXT :::

Asia Times
March 15, 2018

In Nepal, a country that is moving toward political stability, Bidya Devi Bhandari on Tuesday was re-elected president for a second term.

On October 28, 2015, Bhandari was elected as the first female president of Nepal, as a candidate from the left alliance. Very soon, the country will elect a new vice-president, but it is most likely that the left alliance has already chosen its preference for that post.
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Last Sunday, Nepal’s newly elected Prime Minister K P Oli gained a remarkable vote of confidence with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, or 208 votes out of the total of 268 members present in the House of Representatives.

Oli received votes from the left alliance and other parties including Rastriya Janata.

Most people believe that under the leadership of Prime Minister K P Oli, now Nepal will take the right track for its economic growth and prosperity, but there are a lot of challenges ahead in coming days. On one side he has an enormous opportunity to become a statesman for the nation, but at the same time on another side Oli and his regime will face geo-strategic games. For the past three decades, Nepal’s foreign policy has fallen into the complexity of geopolitics.
Indian hegemony

Can Prime Minister K P Oli adopt a balanced foreign policy? Or can he break away from Indian hegemony? These are major questions being asked by the public.

During the Indian blockade in 2015, Oli stood very strongly and raised his voice against the blockade, which was praiseworthy. But the people of Nepal want to see the collapse of Indian hegemony from Nepal forever, and they also want to reduce Nepal’s dependence on India in business.

Nepal and India are close neighbors; they share culture, land and many other things. Despite that, after the 2015 blockade, people in Nepal were upset with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. No matter how many times Modi and other high-level official visit Nepal, or no matter how much help they provide, it will be very difficult to improve bilateral relations.

Because of the Indian blockade, there was a big humanitarian crisis in Nepal – there was no cooking gas, no medicine in the hospitals, and schools were completely shut down. In 2015 when Nepal adopted a new constitution, India opposed it and started the blockade. India claims that it is the largest democratic country in the world, but how does that give it the right to reject Nepal’s constitution?

Actually, the new constitution was approved by more than 90% of the total strength of the Constituent Assembly of Nepal. The first thing India should not forget is that Nepal is a sovereign country and that it must maintain a policy of harmony with Nepal, not hegemony. India must correct its hegemonic attitude, otherwise relations become more complicated.

We Nepalis want harmony with India. Of course, we do have an open border system, and both countries’ people enjoy free movement through the border. But that does not mean Nepal is an Indian state, and that whatever India wants to do, it can. Indians must respect Nepal’s sovereignty.

After K P Oli and his left alliance won the majority of seats at the provincial level and in the national House of Representatives, Modi had a conversation with him and congratulated him. In the first week of February, Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj made a surprise visit to Kathmandu. That was the first step toward reconciliation. Swaraj was the first high-level visitor to Nepal after the election, and it was just before the formation of the new government of the left alliance.
Is K P Oli pro-China?

We Nepalis are neither pro-China nor pro-India. First of all, we are Nepali and we are citizens of a sovereignty country. Both India and China are good neighbors.

Nepal is a landlocked country, and as such has a natural right to access to the nearest seaport. So far Nepal has used only Indian seaports despite various obstacles. Now it wants to open another door toward China for trade and business. Maybe in the future, if Nepal and China establish a rail connection, then Nepal can use Chinese seaports as well.

In diplomatic affairs, India and China have an enormous engagement and bigger interests than Nepal. We know that India and China have border issues and recently had a military standoff, but on another side they are huge business partners as well. But no one is telling them they are playing the China card or the India card or are pro-China or for India. When Nepal maintains relations with China, why is it blamed as pro-China or for playing the China card?

These are baseless statements from a poor mind. Nepal needs economically sustainable development, not any “cards.” 

It’s about time we discussed our skewed inheritance laws
Masreka Khan
Dhaka Tribune, March 11, 2018

It’s about time we discussed our skewed inheritance laws

In a summer afternoon, a girl came to know that her father had died of a car accident on his way back from Dhaka. Her only sibling was her younger sister.

Their mother was in her late 20s, a full-time home-maker. Life has never been the same for them since.

At first, her mother was not able to figure out what to do with her deceased husband. Should she lay him down in the cemetery near their home in the same small town? It seemed logical. She and her daughters could go any time to pray for him if it was in the same town.

Or, as her in-laws were insisting, the body should be laid to rest in their family graveyard, two hours away, in their village. Of course, the relatives’ decision was final. After all, there was no “guardian” anymore in this family. Hence all decisions must be made by the male members of the extended family.

Then came the daughters. What would these girls do in the city — the extended family sounded worried. It’s not safe in this age to live alone with a young mother without a male guardian. “Let’s send them to the village,” they decided. The bereaved mother muttered: “My girls are only eight and six, are you all out of your minds?”

On the third day, after the kulkhani, the in laws started to take control of the “shongshar.” They asked for the keys to the almirah. Took the cash out from the chest of drawer, collected the cheque-books, found all the documents related to the husband’s property and savings. As expected, no property was recorded on the wife or the daughters’ names.

The relatives looked relieved.

After a few months, the wife was forced to remarry one of her brothers-in-law, so that the 2% share from her husband’s property remains within the family. Uncles and aunts got and sold their share of the property, even though the heirs, the daughters, were underaged. The daughters’ share, 8% of the property, went under the supervision of their paternal uncles.

During one summer, it was the jyatha and his sons who would take care of and enjoy the property, the next summer it would be the kakku and his sons. Meanwhile, at the mercy of their uncles, the girls are being educated in the village, and reminded of this favour every day.

However, the girls are not allowed to talk or ask about their share of the inheritance from their father. Instead, they are reminded that they are girls. They can’t manage such a big responsibility. They will get married, however educated, and their husbands will just take over the property, which is unacceptable. So, it is always better if the uncles were in charge.

    Why exactly are we so afraid to allow women equal rights on property? When can our girls feel and believe that they are not inadequate just because of their gender?

This is just one event, where the in-laws are being kind enough to take care of a family without a son after the patriarch’s demise. There are many events where the wife is sent back to her parents, the daughters are sent to orphanages, and the entire property is taken over by the extended family.

Yes, there are bigger problems right now in our country than worrying about inheritance. But this idea that absence of a son or a male guardian should change every parameter for all women in a family is unacceptable in this day and age.

At some point, many of these girls become financially independent, provide for their families, raise sons and even leave property for them. But the experiences they go through just because they did not have a biological brother or father can never be faded.

Women in our country have come a long way in education, politics, and formal labour-force participation. Government policies, NGO initiatives, grassroots movements and activism along with self-determination have all led to this point in our history, where we rank the best in South Asia in terms of women empowerment.

However, we are in denial that discriminatory property rights have significant impacts (social, psychological, and financial) on women in our society.

Fortunately, some of our feminist activists and the civil society members are vigorously voicing their opinion and are lobbying in favour of a uniform family law, and for equal property rights for sons and daughters. The present government has even taken this issue with enough gravity as to have drafted a policy on this.

But why exactly are we so afraid to allow women equal rights on property? When can our girls feel and believe that they are not inadequate just because of their gender?

Let’s broaden our heart little bit more and try to see the invisible scars left on our girls, because of one discriminatory law.

Masreka Khan is an academic and has worked extensively in the international development sector on gender issues.

Bharat Bhushan
Asian Age
March 15, 2018

In this bleak political landscape, the success of the farmers’ movement in Maharashtra points to a way forward.

 The surrender of the Devendra Fadnavis government before the 40,000-strong farmers who marched to Mumbai holds several important lessons for the Opposition.

The Opposition parties had failed to counter Narendra Modi’s political narrative in the 2014 general election campaign. That story was based on creating jobs, curbing black money and economic development in the mirror-image of

Mr Modi’s “Gujarat model”. Those unrealised dreams have since been consigned to the dustbin with Mr Modi now being described by wags as “India’s biggest non-performing asset”.

Mr Modi may well have a newer narrative for the next general election — possibly an emotive and communally divisive one. However, the Opposition parties have yet to find a counter- narrative.

In this bleak political landscape, the success of the farmers’ movement in Maharashtra points to a way forward. The surrender of the Devendra Fadnavis government before the 40,000-strong farmers who marched to Mumbai holds several important lessons for the Opposition.

After a long time, political parties across the ideological spectrum supported the farmers’ demands — ranging from the All India Kisan Sabha of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which had organised the march, to the Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and Aam Aadmi Party. Even the Shiv Sena, an estranged ally of the ruling BJP, argued against judging the farmers’ movement by its ideological colour.

The support of ordinary folk was overwhelming as they greeted the farmers with open arms. Across Mumbai, civil society groups, residents’ welfare associations, religious organisations and ordinary individuals greeted the marching farmers with packets of food, water, free medical care and even footwear, moved by the media pictures of their calloused, blistered and bleeding feet.

Even as a BJP government given to talking tough was brought to its knees, the farmers’ march offered an opportunity to develop an alternative political narrative based on issues that impact the lives of ordinary people and it was effectively articulated through a mass movement. The support that the movement has received shows that it is not impossible for the Opposition parties to sink their local contradictions to stand behind peoples’ demands.

The tribal farmers from Thane, Palghar, Nashik and Nandurbar in Maharashtra have manifestly proven that the BJP is not invincible and that its disconnect from the ground reality is all too visible.

The very government in Mumbai which completely ignored the farmers’ march for five days started quaking once it saw how much public support was drawn to it. The chief minister virtually conceded the farmers’ demands even before he met with their representatives.

In April 2017 Mr Fadnavis, even as he announced a farm loan waiver, had criticised it as an unsustainable measure. However, he was forced to concede a condition-free loan waiver for farmers left out of the previous one by extending it to loans taken between 2001 and 2008. The earlier waiver had been given only for loans taken after 2009.

He also quickly agreed to address the bottlenecks in legalising the rights of forest-dwellers to till forest land to which they were entitled under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. A host of other demands were also conceded, included giving higher minimum support price for agricultural produce, river linking projects and even the replacement of torn and damaged ration cards!

Rights, even if granted by the State, clearly remain on paper unless people ensure their implementation — by monitoring them, seeking transparency and accountability and by shaking the system periodically through agitations. This is how a coherent narrative of their demands was developed by the Maharashtra farmers, allowing them to occupy the political centre-stage.

Those in the Opposition who want to develop an alternative political narrative should see that now more than ever before, there is a need to connect with peoples’ movements. Such movements, besides civil society organisations and other grassroots organisations of peasants, workers and migrants, are the most reliable way of finding out what affects the lives of the marginalised and what political agendas of change should include.

There are even today a number of organisations that have been relentlessly asserting peoples’ right to life, liberty and livelihood. Despite the Big State turning its mighty machinery against them, they organise protests and agitations at the local, regional and national levels. These movements and groups are the best indicators of the changes that people want.

At a time when Hindutva forces are trying to subvert the secular and democratic character of this country, the Opposition parties must unite to protect the foundations of our constitutional republic. However, a unified ideological opposition to the BJP’s divisive politics also has to be combined with a programme of transforming lives.

The Opposition political parties, therefore, need to learn from the peoples’ movements, join them on the streets, help in mass mobilisation and organise protests. This will help them shed the creeping sense of diffidence and impotence in the face of the “cleverness” and organisational prowess of the BJP.

Beyond a point the public is not impressed by cleverness, especially when it conflicts with their daily experiences of the State withdrawing systematically from running quality educational institutions, communalising the curriculum, encouraging costly and privatised health services and handing over public land and other resources to corporate enterprises and reducing their access to public services. The Narendra Modi government, which had been sponsored by corporates, is busy repaying its debts to them and unwilling to regulate their “loot and scoot” strategies.

India has seen the emergence of new political leadership from mass movements in the past. This happened during the freedom movement, in the movement against the Emergency and during the Anna Hazare agitation over the Lokpal Bill. There is a new crop of leaders no one had ever heard of even four years ago — Jignesh Mewani, Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakur, Kanhaiya Kumar and Shehla Rashid are among the young political leaders to reckon with today.

The national political parties critical of the BJP must connect the pockets of resistance which exist and are constantly emerging in the country. They must join hands with them. The collective wisdom emanating from below alone can help formulate a narrative to counter the BJP.

The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.


This an appeal to raise money for the parents of a Delhi based young man Ankit Saxena who was killed only because he loved a girl from another religious community and they proposed to marry.

Yashpal Saxena’s only child Ankit Saxena was murdered by the family of the girl he loved. She happened to be Muslim. But Mr. Saxena has refused to allow the toxic politics of our times to communalize his personal tragedy. He has firmly and consistently affirmed that he bears the Muslim community no ill will. Thus,  demolishing one of the most widely used rationalisations for communal hatred. This is the idea that an entire community must collectively carry the guilt for crimes - real or imagined, committed now or in history - which any of its members may have perpetrated. This doctrine harbours a moral rationalisation of violence that people may wreak on other people in vengeance solely for sharing the same identity as the real or imagined criminal.        

Some of the most brutal mass crimes in recent history were such acts of collective vengeance against a community for the real or imagined crimes of a few of its members. More than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in 1984 in reprisal for the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikhs guards. The Gujarat carnage of 2002 was justified by the burning of the Hindus in a train. The 9/11 attack has been invoked to condone military strikes on civilian populations in faraway Afghanistan and Iraq. Each terrorist attack in Paris inevitably makes the entire Muslim population of France culpable in many eyes. It is the same idea that is invoked to justify communal violence and hate crimes in this country.

The magazine Caravan reported that when Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari went to meet Yashpal Saxena, he begged him and the media not to communalise his son’s murder. “I had one son,” he said. “If I get justice, it’s good. If not, even then I don’t have hatred against any community. I have no such (communal) thinking. I am unable to understand why the media is showing this issue in that way.”

It is these ideas of vicarious guilt and the inevitable, ‘action-reaction’ justification for violence, that Yashpal Saxena, a grieving father, has rejected with gentle firmness. His photographer son Ankit Saxena did what should be so normal in our diverse and secular country – he fell in love with a college student in his neighbourhood, who just happened to be Muslim, and they wanted to marry. Her family murdered Ankit simply because they were opposed to their relationship, in a terrible hate crime. Many such hate crimes have, and continue to be, directed against Muslims and Dalits, and countless others from all castes and creeds, who fall in love across religious and caste divides. We stand with each of those victims, and for the right of each individual to choose their partners. 

One of Ankit Saxena’s closest friends was a Muslim, Mohammed Azhar Alam. He told The Quint he accompanied Yashpal Saxena to Haridwar to immerse his son’s ashes. There he performed the puja with his friend’s father. “Uncle even showed me the way in which the holy dip is taken in the Ganga,” he said. “I took the dip with him, and prayed with him.”

We respect Yashpal Saxena for rejecting the doctrine of collective communal responsibility for the crimes of individuals, and of “actions” justifying “reactions”, particularly because in these majoritarian times, it may be easy to succumb to such thinking. In the same breath, we express our respect for the countless other families of victims of such hate crimes, from weaker and minority communities, who have, incident after incident, equally rejected this communal poison of hatred and counter-violence. These are the people who uphold our idea of India.

We have visited Yashpal Saxena many times. The parents are completely broken. They also have to cope with the prospect of old age with grave illnesses without the support of their only son. They are humble people, living in a one-room Janta Flat.

We therefore appeal to the central government, the Delhi state government, but most of all to ordinary citizens, to contribute to a fund with which we hope to buy a permanent asset like a shop for a recurring source of income for the family.  We appeal to the government to also allot to them a milk dairy or gas agency. A group of senior citizens will also appeal to the Governments of India and Delhi to assist them with any such allocation and a decent sum to enable them to live a life of dignity.

In addition, Yashpal Saxena is very keen to establish a trust in the name of his son, to spread the message of communal harmony and love in schools and colleges. If we collect enough funds, we would also use this as a corpus for this trust.

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Lambasting the British is easy. India needs to examine its own inability to nurture debate.
by Rajmohan Gandhi
The Indian Express
March 13, 2018

British rule in India, Partition of India, India Pakistan, india's Partition, the Oxford way, P Chidambaram, subhash chandra Bose, Netaji death Cyril Radcliffe is a favourite whipping boy. Though he had never been to India before 1947, he nonchalantly drew lines across Punjab and Bengal and returned home, allowing South Asians thereafter to butcher one another. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Laali Vadlamani, the young woman whose term as the Oxford Union president is just ending, is perhaps the first Telugu-origin person elected to that prestigious post. Other South Asians who have held that office include Benazir Bhutto and Tariq Ali from Pakistan, Lalith Athulathmudali from Sri Lanka, and India’s Girish Karnad and Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

That the Oxford Union is primarily a debating society and holds debates on major issues, including controversial ones, is well known. A recent one, held on March 1, was on the motion, “This house regrets the Partition of India.”

Invited to participate, I chose to speak for the proposition. Also slated to speak in favour, P Chidambaram, the former finance minister, was at the last minute unable to take part. The London-based commentator and author of a new book on Netaji’s death, Ashis Ray, spoke ably in Chidambaram’s place.

Salman Khurshid, the former foreign minister, and Mridula Mukherjee, history professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, spoke against the motion. Evidently concerned about reactions at home to what they might say, the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis requested to take part had declined.

Along with much of the UK, Oxford was hit on March 1 by a snowstorm, but despite the extreme chill, the late-night debate was attended by a full house.

Two outstanding student speakers opened: Sabriyah Saeed, who is of Pakistani origin, and Eric Sukumaran, who hails from Kerala. Half a dozen other students raising their hands, most of them looking South Asian, were also invited by President Vadlamani to speak.

Not surprisingly, the motion was comfortably carried. Speakers against it had argued persuasively that the future was of greater moment than the past. Though it can teach us, the past cannot be changed. It has to be accepted, not regretted.

Speakers for the proposition said that regretting the Partition did not imply a wish to undo it. To think that Independence was possible only through Partition was not correct.

Also, following Partition, religious majorities in both halves became preponderant majorities, capable of turning into oppressive majorities. The possibility of a nuclear war was certainly one of Partition’s unfortunate gifts.

When the debated ended, students of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin besieged the Indian speakers, said thanks for the debate’s civility and voiced longings for reconciliation in South Asia. It was obvious that free and frank dialogue among South Asians, currently almost unthinkable in Karachi or Mumbai, Delhi or Dhaka, is possible in the UK and elsewhere outside India.

To underline this possibility is one reason for writing this piece. The other is to say that it is time for South Asians to move beyond lambasting the UK for India’s Partition.

Most speakers in the Oxford debate referred to Britain’s divide-and-rule policy. Thus, I reminded the audience that in the summer of 1945, Winston Churchill had asked Viceroy Archibald Wavell — as the latter noted in his journal — to ensure India’s division into “Hindustan, Pakistan, Princestan, etc.”

However, the chief responsibility for what happened in 1947 must rest on the shoulders of the people and leaders of the Subcontinent. Churchill, Mountbatten, Radcliffe and company could never have imposed Partition or the accompanying carnage on South Asia had the people living there in 1947 been determined either to stay together or to separate peacefully.

Cyril Radcliffe is a favourite whipping boy. Though he had never been to India before 1947, he nonchalantly drew lines across Punjab and Bengal and returned home, allowing South Asians thereafter to butcher one another. Satirical poems and cartoons were inevitable.

He was whipped afresh during the Oxford debate. But wait. Radcliffe drew his lines because his fellow judges, four in Punjab and four in Bengal, all of them Indian, half of them Hindu or Sikh and the other half Muslim, could not agree. They cancelled one another, and Radcliffe drew his lines.

If Indian judges had found agreement then, Radcliffe or no Radcliffe, the Indian people would have been given an acceptable solution and acceptable borders, and Partition might have happened without carnage.

Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis can lambast the British to their hearts’ content but that will not change South Asian realities. The lambasting occurred in Oxford, and the British audience took it on the chin. No one objected, no one booed, and no one asked why the attackers had been given UK visas.

The young woman from the Telugu world, presumably a Hindu, became the Oxford Union president. Another young woman, presumably a Muslim, whose grandparents were Sindhi on one side and Jalandhari Muslims on the other, was elected the Union’s “Librarian”, also a post of prestige. These two and their white and South Asian associates in Oxford organised a meaningful debate on India’s Partition.

The event was a plus for Oxford but also for the UK. Spitting fire at the British is easy. Organising in India a candid yet civil debate about river waters, Nagaland, Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, or minority rights is another cup of tea.

Nations that sprout such debates have led the world. Nations that cannot tolerate such debates will not be loved or followed by the world, no matter their GDP, their populations, or their percentage of the young.

The writer is a historian. His latest work is ‘Why Gandhi still matters’.

Economic and Political Weekly
Vol. 53, Issue No. 6, 10 Feb, 2018 » The Good Historian

Talking History by Romila Thapar, Ramin Jahanbegloo and Neeladri Bhattacharya, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp xvi + 340, ₹795.

Professional historians seldom read books on history writing. In fact, once recognised as historians, books and papers written by colleagues are either their models, or examples they do not wish to imitate. However, Talking History is not a book on how history ought to be written. It is a book on Romila Thapar’s achievements as a historian, and as such, a book on intellectual life in India since independence. For Thapar was, and still is, one of the leading intellectuals of India since that period, the incarnation of Indian history in Europe and the United States, as well as a public figure acclaimed by the most progressive part of the society, while also subject to violent attacks for her secular vision of India and Indian past as one which cannot be reconciled with Hindutva.

Talking History is both a scholarly autobiography, and a reflection on the links between history and politics. Thapar mostly answers questions posed by Ramin Jahanbegloo, who plays the role of an intelligent layperson, while also responding to a younger historian, Neeladri Bhattacharya, who asks fewer, lengthier, and more specialised questions. The book has apparently been entirely rewritten by Thapar, and on reading it, one does hear her voice. So Talking History is truly a book by Thapar; a reflection on her whole life. I ought to specify “professional” life, because she does not talk (except occasionally) about her personal life, her circle of close friends, her celebrated brother, or the manifold invectives and honours she has received. Politics come in only in relation with her work as a historian. To be honest, there is nothing entirely new in the book; there exist a number of papers or interviews, in which Thapar has expressed herself on these subjects in the past. Talking History is, however, the most comprehensive presentation of her ideas, and may interest every reader who wishes to understand how Thapar came to be a historian, as well as the beginnings of her work in newly independent India. While the core of the book is not entirely new to me, reading it has made me much more conscious of the difference between the work of a patriotic Indian historian of India and that of a foreigner.

Which Side of History?

I suppose most of the readers of the Economic & Political Weekly would not know my name, for I write almost exclusively in French. Suffice to say, I was a graduate when Thapar was preparing the PhD which made her famous (Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, 1961). My first book was printed in 1965, my first paper on Ashoka’s inscriptions in 1974. Yet, our trainings were quite different.I trained as a Greek archaeologist, which at the time meant learning Greek and Latin. I began studying Sanskrit not from a desire to know India, but because I was fascinated with the comparative history of Indo–European languages, for which a knowledge of Sanskrit is, or should be, a requisite. I was nevertheless a historian at heart. At that time, history in French universities was almost exclusively the history of France. The narratives of foreign countries were either ignored entirely, or appeared only when they were warring with France. It was self-evident that we were not supposed to ask ourselves questions about the established identity of our country.

Quite different was the training of Thapar. She was located in Britain, and most of her professors would have been convinced that India was at its best when it was British India. The history she learnt, and was expected to write, while pursuing her degrees, was of a kind, quite foreign to the Puranas, the chronicles of the Afghan and Moghul sultans, and the Mahabharata, which her maternal grandmother would read in Hindi. None of the books she had to use and meditate upon were in her native Punjabi or Hindi. All of them were in English, a language foreign to India (she learnt later, when she travelled abroad, that there also were some valuable contributions by French and German scholars; British universities tend to be as chauvinistic as the French ones). Even the books written by Indian historians, some of them quite outstanding, were in English, and so were the handbooks used to teach Indians their own history.

While writing in a foreign language would have been unthinkable for a Frenchman, English was never an issue for Thapar. Members of her family had been employed by the British Raj, and were fluent in English as well in the other North Indian languages—Urdu, Persian, Hindi, and Punjabi. In 1947, in part even now, English was the only language understood by a majority of educatedIndians in the country. It was the language through which Thapar could address herself to Bengalis, Maharashtrians, and Tamilians alike. She was soon convinced, both as a historian and as an Indian nationalist, that the time had come to replace the outdated history she had learnt at school with a new Indian history, advanced by Indian scholars for Indian readers. It was evident to her that she should write in English, and hope to get translations in what were called “the vernaculars of India.” This was a political choice: Indian historians had to write historical narratives which, although true to the evidence, would help Indians build a new, peaceful, and democratic country. She never attempted to conceal this purpose, as is witnessed in the titles of some of her papers and books (The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History); her inroads in the Babri Masjid dispute; and the discussions on the Aryans in India. She always kept true to the ideal, of a secular India, where Muslims and Hindus could peacefully coexist as they did in her native Punjab before partition. At the same time, she had to define what was that newly independent India, whose borders were no more those of British India and which did not enclose remains of her pre-Muslim past. This past lay in Pakistan, a country to which Indians could not easily, or safely travel, and whose scientific publications could reach her in Delhi, only through London, Paris or Rome. Her conception of the Indian nation—which stemmed from experiences in her personal and professional life—is at the heart of her opposition between early India and Hindutva. The former she considered a scientific and neutral concept, the latter, a religious and divisive one, which does not rely on proved historical evidence.

In the 1960s, French historians were no more asked to give historical foundations for a new France: France was eternal; “national identity” and immigration were only topics for a handful of politicians. In my young years, historians were drawn into politics not to demonstrate the existence of the nation and the advantages of being a republic, but because they belonged to a very politicised intelligentsia, who considered it their duty to confront the immediate problems of the country. Discussions in universities on politics, philosophy, and the conception of history often demanded a return to original sources in their original languages, and featured rigorous understanding, backed by data and reasoning. Furthermore, considering France is a country of many sceptics and unbelievers, the main text of Descartes, Voltaire, and Diderot were taught magna cum laude in high schools. The Bible and Jesus’s life were examined as if they were legends and Michelet’s History of France was almost looked at as a historical novel. In the field of Oriental studies, Dumézil was arguing that the foundation of Roma according to Titus-Livius was modelled on an old Indo–European vision of the world. Erudite studies by French-speaking scholars exhibited the greatest scepticism about the Buddha’s biography as told in the Pali scriptures.

In her PhD on Ashoka, Thapar follows a classical, yet rigorous approach of dealing with every source available. She does not exhibit the kind of radical scepticism mentioned above. For instance, she tries to make the best use of the Pali and Sanskrit legends of Ashoka, although each time we compare these with Ashoka’s inscriptions, they are proven wrong. Surprisingly, in Talking History, she says that, when choosing Ashoka as her subject, she was mainly interested in the possibility of exploring the “question [of the importance] of the individual in history” (p 163).

Indeed, Ashoka is the only early sovereign whose thoughts we are able to decipher through his numerous inscriptions. In any case, it was a good choice in the 1950s: Ashoka is the only Indian king whose chronology is known with some certainty, whose dominions almost equated the extent of British India (along with a small part of modern Afghanistan), and one who publicly renounced violence (except on some occasions). No wonder the capital of a so-called Ashokan column was chosen to symbolise a newly independent India.

Curating a National History

It came to me as another surprise that, in discussions about Thapar’s book and curricula to be introduced in Delhi University, she was dubbed a Marxist, an epithet she strongly contests. Having been well acquainted with French, German and Soviet marxisms (English Marxist historians were and are almost unknown in France), I would never have imagined Thapar termed a Marxist. Like so many historians after Karl Marx, she is interested in the economic and social background of historical events. Such an approach has long become common sense among leading historians, and is no more a privilege of the Marxists. What distinguished the Marxist historians from the non-Marxists is precisely that they were neither interested in individuals, nor in religion. Rather, they were interested in identifying the economic and social forces responsible for the apparition of these individuals, the religious changes and the social classes responsible for an optimistic conception of a historical development, and in an evolution towards socialism from slave society, feudalism, capitalism and imperialism. That was a vision of the past which was congruent with the facts when Marx used to write, at least in Western Europe. You will never find such ideas or suggestions in Thapar’s books or papers. Her only preoccupation is: what India was, is, and ought to be.

There exist Marxist historians of India, some of them quite good, like D D Kosambi, whom Thapar admires. However, they face an enormous difficulty: we have almost no data on the economy and social differences in early India, except in a few inscriptions, and in the shastras (whose date, geographical origin, validity and domain are disputed). So when Thapar wanted to research beyond the role of the individual in history, she did not search for evidence of slavery or feudalism, but instead, turned to an anthropological study of the emergence of Indian states, hence her famous title, From Lineage to States. Her inspiration clearly stemmed from the British school of anthropology, and not Marx. Still, Thapar had to content with the dearth of precise data covering the whole of India, although she did search for such data in archaeological reports, inscriptions, and numismatics. In order to write her narratives, she took part of her inspiration from the eminent foreign historians and anthropologists, whom she would read and meet with. But Thapar stayed Indian. From that point of view, the most interesting pages of Talking History are those wherein she explains the choices a historian has to make. She points out that while writing history always involves selecting some facts, focusing on some themes, and choosing one system of explanation (the one which best fits the data), it is always tainted with some ideo­logy. “The difference between a good historian and a bad historian is that the good historian makes it clear why and how the selections have been made” (p 207). I would add “and never distorts the data.” Thapar never distorted the data.

Custodian of the Past

It is fascinating to see how Thapar stresses that the historians are first, members of their society, and as such, should intervene in the discussions where the past is used as an argument, in order to tell the truth, and point out misrepresentations. Thapar never shirked her responsibility in these domains, both as a historian and a citizen. The title of her book, The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India, explains her patriotic conception of history. I was admittedly puzzled when I read that huge book of 758 pages, inspired by conversations with the British historian Arnaldo Momigliano and dedicated both to him and to Kosambi. This puzzlement persisted when I read the first lines of its conclusion:

    The purpose has not been not just to ascertain whether or not there was a sense of history in early India…It has been to search for the forms this might have taken. (Thapar 2013: 681)

To a European scholar, this seemed more like history of literature than historiography. Indeed most Indological handbooks begin with that kind of survey of the sources, even if less expanded and far less intelligently written. Moreover vanshavalis (genealogies) are not history. The succession of the kings of England does not teach much about the history of Great Britain. It is only upon reading Talking History that I understood Thapar’s motivations. It becomes evident that The Past Before Us was not meant for foreign readers or scholars. It was meant for Indian readers, in order to tell them that like all peoples, they too had a sense of the past which modelled their views of the present and the future. This sense of the past did not look like the history written by Europeans since Herodotus and Thucydides, but was pan-Indian, and saying so stressed the unity of Indian thought over the whole of the subcontinent. At the same time, it was diverse, different according to times, places, dynasties and creeds. The unity of India was not made by a unified creed, less so one that was supposed to have existed from “immemorial times” (the so-called sanatana dharma or “eternal Hinduism”), as espoused by the advocates of Hindutva. Thus, trying to unify India according to only one creed and doctrine, now called Hinduism, does not correspond to its past, essence and destiny.

Smritis or Itihasa?

This is obviously the underlying purpose of Thapar’s studies of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. In Sanskrit they are called itihasa (thus it was); she calls them “epics.” But epics are studied by historians of literature. Two centuries of critical studies of the Greek epics, Iliad and Odyssey, as well as many others, have demonstrated that although they contain reminiscences of the past, they are not historical documents. Historians can use the data these epics preserve, only when they are substantiated by other data, such as archaeological excavations and inscriptions. Still, Thapar argues that she studies the epics as a historian, stating, “the Mahabharata is telling us primarily about clan society, and how it is organized, how it functions, what are its values, and so on” (p 236). That may be true, but history requires some chronology as well as a geographical location. The main story of the  Mahabharata is dated between the 4th century BCE and the 4th century CE. Furthermore, the events it records, and as such the society it depicts, are dated any time between 1500 and 1000 BCE (some even say 4000 BCE). Can one then construct history using a document whose date could lie anywhere between 1200 and 2000 years? Thapar is right in her observation that the Mahabharata depicts a clan society, but when exactly did that society exist? Was it at the time of the great war, when the epic was first recited, or when it was
enlarged to its present core?

The analysis made by Thapar makes sense only if we consider the present situation of India. Itihasa means a historical narrative, and for many Indians the epics are both religious (smritis)1 and historical documents, true to the facts. The Ramayana is thus at the root of the dispute over the Babri Masjid. By calling them epics and studying them as a historian, Thapar claims that they are man-made poetry, with many layers, with huge variants, not historical documents to be adduced in politics. She could have added (she alludes to it in the first chapter of Talking History) that the epics were also known and appreciated by the Muslims in India, in the same way that many Hindus know Muslim poetry in Urdu.

Indeed these epics are fascinating texts for a historian. One would like to understand how the Mahabharata—which recounts a war that took place near Delhi at least 3,000 years ago; whose participants left no descendants; whose heroes, the Pandavas, were modelled on a very ancient Indo–European scheme of five male gods and one goddess, and thus partake of the same wife (an abomination condemned by all the dharmashastras)2—quickly became known over the whole of the subcontinent, and was one of the main vehicles of its “sanskritisation.” Further, how it could inspire playwriters in far-off Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as well as in South-east Asia and Indonesia; how it still fascinates both Hindu and Muslim Indians, as one witnessed when it aired on television; how it can still attract Pakistani Muslims through Bollywood movies; and how it is now known the world over, are all worth studying. Yet we have no sure data to conduct such a study until the 18th century, except some sculptures, the date and origin of the most ancient manuscripts, and the adaptations made in the “vernaculars” of India and in Persian.

Thapar would have been able to carry out such a study if the data existed; this is precisely what she did in her studies on Shakuntala, and especially in Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History. There she is at her best, as she demonstrates how a legend is made, how it develops, as well as how and why one version (often not the most reliable) may become popular and be mistaken for a true historical narrative. Her book also demonstrates the limits of thehistorian’s powers. It could hardlyprevent the rebuilt Somnath temple frombecoming one of the greatesttemples of India.

Doyenne of Indian History

A review of Thapar’s latest work ought to be much longer, for reading Talking History forces every historian, Indian or foreign, to reflect on what they are doing and what they should do. It also demonstrates how one can take the best of Western authors and thinkers, while still remaining entirely and passionately Indian, true to one’s roots. It reminds professional historians and readers that there exists no neutral history, that historical narratives are always dependent on the vision of their authors, that new nations need roots and search for them in a past which is always reconstructed (and sometimes deliberately imaginary). History played a major role in French and German nationalisms in the 19th century, in 20th century Israel and many other new countries. India is no exception. India can, however, boast having given the world one of the best 20th century historians, a great writer, an innovative scholar, and a true patriot. She is now paying a heavy price for the courage she has demonstrated during her entire life.

Gérard Fussman (gerard.fussman[at] is emeritus professor at the College de France, Paris.


1 Religious truths as transmitted by human personages.
2 Hindu codes of laws.

Thapar, Romila (2013): The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India, Raniketh: Permanent Black.

by Debojyoti Das 
Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 53, Issue No. 7, 17 Feb, 2018 » Colonial Construction of a Frontier
Colonial Construction of a Frontier
Debating the Inner Line Regulation in Sibsagar–Naga Hills

Debojyoti Das (ukdebodas[at] is at the University of Sussex.

​An examination of the emergence, shifts and perceptions surrounding the Inner Line Regulation in the North East Frontier reveals that the Inner Line seems to be more of a civilisational frontier than a territorial one. Regulation of the Inner Line has played an important role in postcolonial political construction of the highland–lowland duality and in the creation of a contested social space in the Sibsagar–Naga Hills.

The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for their valuable comments and suggestions; the Felix Scholarship for supporting ethnographic and archival field research in Nagaland; and the Christopher Von Furer-Haimendorf Fieldwork Grant, the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Emslie Horniman Grant, and the University of London’s Central Research Fund for supporting 14 months of fieldwork among the Yimchunger Nagas. The author is also grateful to Johan Pottier, Willa Zhen, and Brian Morris for their valuable advice, guidance, and mentorship during the writing of this paper.

This paper critically engages with the text (colonial records and correspondences) and the social context that led to the adoption of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, commonly known today as Inner Line Regulation, and further draws attention to its subsequent implementation in the Naga Hills as what is popularly known as the Sibsagar Inner Line, which demarcated the administered and unadministered territories of British India in Sibsagar district (Seebsaugor, as per colonial records), bordering the Naga Hills of the then colonial Assam. The central argument of my paper revolves around the idea that the Inner Line was a political rather than protective tool introduced by the colonial government in the North East India. Contemporary explanations of the Inner Line in social science, historical, and official literature on the North East have a singular understanding of this strategic and complex legislation that altered once and for all the relation of administration over hill tracts with control over population mobility.

The Inner Line, as I will argue, was not just an administrative boundary between administered British subjects and those that were unadministered under the common codes of British India jurisprudence; it was also instrumental in the inclusion of territories that were strategic for revenue generation within the general administration of British India. It also acted as an instrument of panoptic control over population mobility between the Assam plains and the Naga Hills. Further, the Inner Line, as I will show, was never static and permanent in the Sibsagar frontier as it constantly oscillated to include and exclude territories that were central to tea plantations and the creation of forest reserves and included tracts that had been identified in surveys as potential sites of rich mineral deposits, primarily coal.

Nowhere in the colonial records can we see references to the Naga1 people’s customary rights over the land being maintained by the legislation. Colonial correspondences refer to boundary disputes, claims for wasteland creation, contest over reserving forest, and using the Inner Line to extend control over unclaimed territories of the Nagas. The Inner Line was used conveniently to deny the Nagas the right over their unused (fallow) territories: land used for jhum (slash and burn) agriculture. The populist discourse of the Inner Line, being a type of benevolent protectionist paternalism of the colonial government constituted to safeguard the interest of the hill people in the Naga Hills, broadly undermined the administrative and strategic significance of the Inner Line. In fact, looking at the nature of its adoption and subsequent modification, we see that it denied the native Nagas their claim over territories bordering Sibsagar district. Further, the legislation was strategically used to politically control the hill tribes while protecting the interests of villages and populations in the Assam plains and tea garden estate that were British subjects.2

This historiography is aimed at engaging with the text and context of colonial policymaking in the frontier that was part of the excluded and partially excluded areas of Bengal’s East India frontier. Postcolonial academic and administrative as well as civil society literature gives a very ambivalent picture of the regulation that has been in place for more than a hundred years defining the territorial space of native communities and outsiders (people entering from the plains) in the Naga Hills. The ambivalence of postcolonial writings lies in their underexplored historiography and the claims made based on secondary sources and on personal opinions of colonial writers. Even anthropological writings do not skip populist discourses that appear to be inspired by colonial ethnography that championed “protectionism of tribal culture” rather than systematic critical enquiry of existing writings and opinions. In fact, there is no historiography that directly deals with the sociopolitical and economic implications and realpolitik of the Inner Line Regulation and how it aided colonial empire building and expansion of state spaces in the North Eastern Frontier of British India.

This paper makes a small beginning in this direction, looking at colonial policymaking and how the Inner Line Regulation acted as a governmentality tactic of the colonial local government, interpreted uncritically by postcolonial academic and non-academic spokespersons. While discussing the Inner Line Regulation in the Naga Hills and the policies that guided its adoption and subsequent modification, one has to critically engage with the colonial text focusing on three vital points. First, to investigate the correspondences between the different departments involved in the implementation and modification of the Inner Line. Second, to look at the differences in opinion shared through official queries and responses between local military, administrative, forest, political, and foreign department officials. Third, to analyse the very nature of the regulation and the history of how it came into existence.

The idea of the Inner Line emerged in the North East Frontier out of the constraints upon the British Indian government to maintain its territorial boundaries. As one colonial official observed, the limits of the district were at first thrown very far forward, too far to exercise jurisdiction all the way up to the hills; it therefore became necessary to draw a line up to which the colonial administration intended to work. This was the “Inner Line.”3 The limit of the district as originally proposed became the outer line, and in the intermediate tract it was only proposed to use personal influence. Beyond this Inner Line, the tracts were left unadministered. The outer line was purposely left indefinite so that the Inner Line could be advanced as and when necessary. Arthur Hobhouse, who coined the term “Inner Line” observed, “I would call the line by some neutral term, say the ‘Inner Line,’ and leave its use to be explained by the detailed regulation.”4 [. . .]

Srinivasan Ramani
The Hindu, 
March 13, 2018

In this Feb. 21, 2013, photo, Pakistani Shia Muslim children hold candles and banners next to photographs of people, who were killed by a bomb blast in market on Saturday, February 16, 2013, in Quetta, Pakistan. Terrorized by ferocious attacks that have killed nearly 400 ethnic Hazaras in the past 18 months, with almost half of those deaths occurring in the first two months of this year, Shia leaders blamed the inaction of Pakistan’s security service for the rising violence against them in Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan province.   | Photo Credit: AP
Do secularist parties deal better with religious violence?

This is a time when the Islamic world is engulfed in religious violence and also when many Muslim-majority countries in West Asia, northern Africa and South Asia are increasingly adopting democracy as a system of government. Is there a link between electoral outcomes in relatively new democracies with a religious majority and sectarian/ethno-religious violence? Does the presence or the success of moderate/secular outfits limit or exacerbate sectarian violence in such countries? Gareth Nellis and Niloufer Siddiqui sought to answer these questions in “Secular Party Rule and Religious Violence in Pakistan” in the American Political Science Review in November 2017.

The authors looked at closely fought elections in Pakistan from 1988 to 2011, a period featuring a substantive, albeit fragile, democratic political environment, and events involving sectarian violence during that time to find if secularists managed to stamp out such violence better or not. The hypothesis was that secularist parties have constituencies of support among ethno-religious minorities. These minorities face the brunt of sectarian violence and are therefore likely to punish such parties for failing to protect them while in power.

The authors found that it was indeed the case that violence was tamped down better when secularists were in power in places where the contest was close and minorities helped swing the election in their favour. They also found that secularists won such elections largely due to their party’s stated positions on secularism rather than the presence of specific political leaders. They also found that the ability of these parties to stem the violence was best when there was a substantive presence of security forces/police.

The findings are useful as they indicate that in countries such as Pakistan with a relatively fragile democratic environment, the substantive presence of secularist/moderate forces is more likely to yield outcomes on addressing issues related to religious violence. The authors suggest that international help to moderate/secularist governments would help peace-building efforts in these societies riven by religious tensions.

They, however, caution that the findings cannot be directly interpreted to hold true for other Muslim-majority countries that are only newly democratic or have only a fledgling moderate or a secularist force.

The Telegraph
March 13, 2018

The Thin Edge [column]

Something there is that doesn't love a statue. Specifically, all statues of kings, queens, leaders and political figures are installed and stay erected at least partly against something, against an idea or against a group of people; and for all the motivation behind the installation of this sort of statue there is also the implication of a counter-force, an opposition, and the statue is also the symbol of the vanquishing of this opposition, of the victory over the countervailing idea or ideology; every statue of a political figure is surrounded by the invisible presence of the obstacles and rivals the figure overcame in his or her lifetime. So, to start with a simple equation: a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte reminds us of the man's victories against the great armies of Europe that were ranged against him, while a statue of Wellington can never quite shake off the ghost of Napoleon who he was most famous for defeating; a statue of Queen Victoria lauds the idea of the British Empire whereas a statue of Gandhi or Nehru alludes to the dismantling of that Empire; statues of Garibaldi, Bismarck and Lenin mark not only the formation of three nation-states, of Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union respectively, but also the defeat of the forces that opposed the formation of those states.

At some point, however, things in the statue-game start to get complicated. The title of the story by the Bangla avant-garde writer, Subimal Mishra, "The Corpse of Haaraan Majhi's Widow or the Golden Gandhi Statue", is a bitter satire on the condition of the poor living under the gaze of a golden statue of Gandhi. The idea of a statue of Gandhi, an imaginary, obscenely opulent golden one, challenges what we are told MKG stood for, that is, simplicity, truth, non-violence, and it also skewers the hypocrites who have used the symbol of Gandhi to maintain the status quo in the country and shore up the huge, violently iniquitous gap between the rich and the vast majority of the poor. Gandhi and his legacy have also been challenged by the hundreds of thousands of statues of his sharpest critic, Bhimrao Ambedkar, that have been put up across the country. From another direction, Gandhi's memory has been undercut by the statues and portraits of the men who murdered him or who instigated his murder. Every bust of Nathuram Godse, every portrait or statue of Vinayak Savarkar is testimony to the fact that these men who hated Gandhi and his ideology are revered heroes for a small group of powerful people in this country. History has a habit of playing the cheapest of tricks and so it's unsurprising that these people, who have always hated Gandhi and Ambedkar, now want to have their cake and eat it too, or, to use another old saying 'want a bit of bacon on their beef'; therefore we have the naked effrontery of some political leaders garlanding a statue of Gandhi one day, one of Ambedkar the next and one of Savarkar on the third. When they have spare time, these leaders also manage to include Bhagat Singh (an atheist and an admirer of Lenin) as a garlanding target.

Statuary semiotics, or, if you like, the shifting signifiers of stationary figuration, pose all sorts of challenges in changing contexts. I, for instance, grew up in this city where Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao were openly worshipped as deities from the time I was a small boy. Yet, one strong memory I have from that time is going through a book of photographs of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Among the grainy black and white photos of young people protesting on the streets and confronting the Red Army's T-34 tanks, of feet trampling smashed portraits of the then recently dead Stalin, were also images of a huge metal statue of Lenin being brought down. It was a whole sequence of images, ropes being tied around the statue, the ropes being pulled, the figure rupturing from around the ankles and then people standing on the feet-less figure. I understood then that both Stalin and Lenin had become symbols of grotesque oppression, of the subjugation of Hungary by the Soviets, and something in me actually exulted at the fact that people could actually take matters into their own hands and collectively act to destroy such symbols of power. Later down the years we were to see images and footage of many Stalins and Lenins bite the dust, along with the still living Ceausescus and Jaruzelskis. In 2003, we would also see footage of Saddam statues being torn down in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. While all these provided a certain satisfaction, the most satisfying moment had to be when, during mass protests in London, someone climbed on to the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square and placed a lurid green mohawk wig on the old white supremacist's bald head, turning him into an ageing thuggish skinhead. I wondered then, whether it might not be a better idea to leave offending statues in place and do something to them rather than disappear them altogether.

Of course such foolish considerations cannot compete with the visceral urge to destroy the visual representation of an ideology or a rival for power. This urge actually goes back a long way beyond modern history. As we know, in older times, kings relished the thought of destroying other kings' deities and temples. This led to Hindu kings destroying innumerable Buddhist and Jain temples and shrines, and also to Hindu kings paying their mercenary Muslim soldiers to destroy the rival Hindu king's temples complete with the gods and goddesses inside. The Muslim kings who destroyed Hindu temples didn't invent the idea, they were merely following this barbaric tradition. From those times to today, some base instincts have remained unchanged and yet other ideas have come into play. The statues of the odious British Empire were removed from New Delhi and planted in a park where coming generations could examine them as artefacts of another age. In Berlin, a lot of the Sovietique monuments and architecture and even some of the Nazi stuff has been kept intact, again, so that it can come under the scrutiny of history. On the other hand, when the CPI(M) rule finally ended here in Bengal, one could completely understand the glee with which the hammer and sickle symbols were painted over on the streets; that was not akin to the destruction of the enemy's statuary, it was more like 'your vandalism of these walls will now be taken over by our vandalism'.

You can say that behind every statue of Lenin is the hand of its sculptor, Stalin. You can point out that the whole worship-cult of Lenin (along with the erasure of Trotsky) was instituted by Stalin as part of strengthening his grip on power. In certain contexts you can argue that if wiping out Stalin's evil works means the odd statue of Lenin is also toppled then it can be put down to the genuine progress of the Revolution. And yet, in another context, as in Tripura, the pulling down of a Lenin statue can and should cause outrage. Because it is not so much the Left ideology (which has actually benefited Tripura) that is being ripped up as it is the idea of tolerating Opposition, any Opposition, that is being uprooted. Even as the powers that be spend criminally obscene amounts constructing 'golden' (read massive) statues of Shivaji (him with the Muslim generals) and Vallabh Patel (the implacable enemy of the RSS), even as they garland the portrait of Savarkar in the gallery of the Lok Sabha, they should remember history, its habit of playing nasty tricks and the way it can shift the ground from under solid-looking symbols.

 Daniel Haines. Rivers Divided: Indus Basin Waters in the Making of India and Pakistan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 272 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-064866-4.

Reviewed by Jason Cons (University of Texas at Austin)
Published on H-Asia (March, 2018)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Sharing the Indus Waters

Scholarship on state formation, especially in South Asia, has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. On the one hand, renewed attention to the workings of bureaucracy and infrastructure has directed anthropologists and sociologists back to the everyday workings of the state. On the other hand, renewed attention to the politics of territory making has heralded a set of new ways to think about the historical production of space and borders in colonial and postcolonial South Asia. This later field draws on a rich tradition of scholarship tracing the everyday practices of border formation in the moments leading up to and following Partition, as exemplified by such authors as Willem van Schendel and Joya Chatterji. It also draws on new work in critical geography, perhaps most closely associated with Stuart Elden, on the making of territory. A focus on territory, as much of this new work shows, breathes new life into the study of borders, sovereignty, and security. It opens new ways to understand the relationship between the political technologies of measuring, managing, and controlling space; the material and ecological properties of landscapes; and the affective dimensions of national territory—the politics of blood and soil. Daniel Haines’s excellent and highly readable book is a worthy contribution to this literature. By rewriting the history of the Indus Water Treaty through the lens of territory, Haines shows how landscapes and bodies of water are transformed into political objects—central sites in the making of postcolonial state and nation. In doing so, Haines places environmental politics at the heart of postcolonial South Asian borders.

Divided Rivers tells the story of water sharing in the post-Partition Indus basin. The centerpiece of the story is the negotiation around the 1960 Indus Water Treaty. Haines is at pains to complicate narratives of the treaty as a techno-rational solution to an environmental problem. Instead, he situates his discussion of the treaty across scales: addressing both the geopolitics of the Cold War and the everyday, quotidian negotiations of water management across this newly minted border. Haines grounds his analysis in what he argues were emergent, contested, and differential understandings of territory in India and Pakistan. He shows that various projects of working out the relationship between territory and citizenship, nation, identity, and state form the troubled backdrop of the question of water sharing. Indeed, they shaped the specific logics and claims to sovereign control and access to water in a sensitive political space.

The book is roughly divided into three sections. In the first two chapters, Haines lays out the logic of his territorial framework. He contrasts an emergent Indian ideology of absolute sovereignty over water flows—an argument that upstream powers can do what they wish with water within their own border—with Pakistan’s downstream claim to a principle of territorial integrity, the right to continue receiving the water to which it has been historically accustomed. Haines traces the ways that these ideologies were leveraged, showing the origins of the Indus dispute as a search for power and legitimacy. The water of the Indus was of critical economic necessity for both states. But the claims to the Indus also were a form of nation making, where control of the water became a marker of fitness to govern.

If these two absolutist territorial notions structured political debate, they by no means constitute a comprehensive way to understand the politics of cross-border water. In the subsequent two chapters, Haines goes about complicating these visions by arguing that they were never adequate to explain the actual politics of water management on the ground. He demonstrates this by examining the complicated riverine and political geographies of Kashmir, and the divided canal networks of Punjab. In doing so, he is particularly attentive to the ways that the actual physical shapes and flows of river and canal networks were themselves generative of politics. As he notes, such networks “were not a neutral backdrop to the playing out of the India-Pakistan rivalry, but actively shaped border disputes” (p. 106).

In the final three chapters, Haines gets to the heart of his subject: the 1960 Indus Water Treaty and its aftereffects. Here, he presents a revisionist reading of this process that borrows heavily from scholars of development and techno-politics. He offers a lively exploration of US and the World Bank’s involvement in the water negotiations, showing that the inability of the bank and its representatives to conceive of the problem of water sharing as anything other than a technocratic problem set the stage for a range of increasingly politicized negotiations to come. The treaty, and its agreement to make the control of water systems as mutually independent as possible, was, as Haines shows, an outcome of a highly contingent set of negotiations—the product of a political moment in which cross-border cooperation, temporarily, seemed to enhance political futures of politicians on both sides. Thus, while the treaty may have provided a solution for water sharing, it fundamentally failed to address the sources of tension behind the dispute itself. In a final chapter, Haines assesses the relationship between the Indus Water Treaty and a range of other cross-border water challenges, notably those in Bengal, showing that the image of cooperation that emerged from the Indus Water Treaty was more phantasmagoric than a durable reality.

Haines’s book makes for gripping reading. He writes in a lively fashion while still remaining engaged with a range of contemporary theoretical concerns. His study thus productively contributes to a growing critical literature that brings the tools of geography and political ecology to bear on the question of colonial and postcolonial state formation in South Asia. It also articulates new scholarship on the history of development, spearheaded by such authors as Daniel Immerwahr and Nick Cullather. Yet the book’s true strength lies in Haines’s ability to animate the complex geophysical and political details of water sharing and his ability to map the fraught interplay between national (and nationalist) imperative and the everyday demands of making the border work. It offers a strong argument for rethinking history through the lenses of water and territory.

The problems with this work are, to my mind, few. Haines’s writing is clear and accessible, making this a book ripe for adoption in graduate and undergraduate classes across multiple fields. But this accessibility does mean that there are lengthy passages that rehearse well-known stories of Partition and its aftermath. These are summaries rather than fresh takes for area experts. Moreover, some of Haines’s claims to the novelty of his approach are perhaps overstated. While putting environmental politics and territory back into the narrative of decolonization may be an unfinished project, it is hardly a novel one in South Asia or beyond. Finally, while Haines is conscious of the ways that issues in river management articulate with other border questions, the book is much more concerned with placing rivers at the heart of debates over the border than with exploring their imbrications with other issues. This is especially notable in his discussion of river sharing in Bengal, where the problem of river management appears as the central problem in postcolonial border negotiations, rather than one of a set of vexed challenges in the newly divided territories.

These are minor quibbles with a book that is, overall, an excellent contribution to historicizing notions of territory and animating discussions of environmental politics in colonial and postcolonial settings. Divided Rivers is critical reading for scholars interested in the history of contemporary debates over water sharing in the region. It demonstrates the value of taking hydropolitics seriously: of attending not only to the physical properties of rivers but also to the ways that they become bound up in broader debates about the nature of sovereignty and territory.


Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union, and President Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in the White House on Dec. 8, 1987. Reuters


March 9, 2018

Mikhail Gorbachev was the president of the Soviet Union and is the author of The New Russia.

When I became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, I felt during my very first meetings with people that what worried them the most was the problem of war and peace. Do everything in order to prevent war, they said.

By that time, the superpowers had accumulated mountains of weapons; military build-up plans called for “space combat stations,” “nuclear-powered lasers,” “kinetic space weapons” and similar inventions. Thank God, in the end none of them were built. What is more, negotiations between the U.S.S.R. and the United States opened the way to ending the nuclear arms race. We reached agreement with one of the most hawkish U.S. presidents, Ronald Reagan, to radically reduce the arsenals.

Today, those achievements are in jeopardy. More and more, defense planning looks like preparation for real war amid continued militarization of politics, thinking and rhetoric.

The National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review published by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration in February orients U.S. foreign policy toward “political, economic, and military competitions around the world” and calls for the development of new, “more flexible” nuclear weapons. This means lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons even further.

Against this backdrop, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his recent address to the Federal Assembly, announced the development in Russia of several new types of weapons, including weapons that no country in the world yet possesses.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, published in Chicago, set the symbolic Doomsday Clock half a minute closer to “Midnight” in January. As the scientists see it, we are now within two minutes of a global catastrophe. The last time this level of danger was recorded in 1953.

The alarm that people feel today is fully justified.

How should we respond to this new round of militarization?

Above all, we must not give up; we must demand that world leaders return to the path of dialogue and negotiations.

The primary responsibility for ending the current dangerous deadlock lies with the leaders of the United States and Russia. This is a responsibility they must not evade, since the two powers’ arsenals are still outsize compared to those of other countries.

But we should not place all our hopes on the presidents. Two persons cannot undo all the roadblocks that it took years to pile up. We need dialog at all levels, including mobilization of the efforts of both nations’ expert communities. They represent an enormous pool of knowledge that should be used in the interest of peace.

Things have come to a point where we must ask: Where is the United Nations? Where is its Security Council, its Secretary General? Isn’t it time to convene an emergency session of the General Assembly or a meeting of the Security Council at the level of heads of state? I am convinced that the world is waiting for such an initiative.

There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of people both in Russia and in the United States will agree that war cannot be a solution to problems. Can weapons solve the problems of the environment, terrorism or poverty? Can they solve domestic economic problems?

We must remind the leaders of all nuclear powers of their commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to negotiate reductions and eventually the elimination of nuclear weapons. Their predecessors signed that obligation, and it was ratified by the highest levels of their government. A world without nuclear weapons: There can be no other final goal.

However dismal the current situation, however depressing and hopeless the atmosphere may seem, we must act to prevent the ultimate catastrophe. What we need is not the race to the abyss but a common victory over the demons of war.

The Guardian
14 March 2018

The physicist and author of A Brief History of Time has died at his home in Cambridge. His children said: ‘We will miss him for ever’

    Stephen Hawking obituary

Professor Hawking’s insights shaped modern cosmology and inspired global audiences in the millions. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Stephen Hawking, the brightest star in the firmament of science, whose insights shaped modern cosmology and inspired global audiences in the millions, has died aged 76.

His family released a statement in the early hours of Wednesday morning confirming his death at his home in Cambridge.

Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert and Tim said in a statement: “We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today.

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years. His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world.

“He once said: ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him for ever.”

For fellow scientists and loved ones, it was Hawking’s intuition and wicked sense of humour that marked him out as much as the fierce intellect which, coupled with his illness, came to symbolise the unbounded possibilities of the human mind.

    I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first
    Stephen Hawking

Hawking was driven to Wagner, but not the bottle, when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963 at the age of 21. Doctors expected him to live for only two more years. But Hawking had a form of the disease that progressed more slowly than usual. He survived for more than half a century.

Hawking once estimated he worked only 1,000 hours during his three undergraduate years at Oxford. “You were supposed to be either brilliant without effort, or accept your limitations,” he wrote in his 2013 autobiography, My Brief History. In his finals, Hawking came borderline between a first and second class degree. Convinced that he was seen as a difficult student, he told his viva examiners that if they gave him a first he would move to Cambridge to pursue his PhD. Award a second and he threatened to stay at Oxford. They opted for a first.

Those who live in the shadow of death are often those who live most. For Hawking, the early diagnosis of his terminal disease, and witnessing the death from leukaemia of a boy he knew in hospital, ignited a fresh sense of purpose. “Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research,” he once said. Embarking on his career in earnest, he declared: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

He began to use crutches in the 1960s, but long fought the use of a wheelchair. When he finally relented, he became notorious for his wild driving along the streets of Cambridge, not to mention the intentional running over of students’ toes and the occasional spin on the dance floor at college parties.
The life of Stephen Hawking – in pictures

Hawking’s first major breakthrough came in 1970, when he and Roger Penrose applied the mathematics of black holes to the entire universe and showed that a singularity, a region of infinite curvature in spacetime, lay in our distant past: the point from which came the big bang.

Penrose found he was able to talk with Hawking even as the latter’s speech failed. But the main thing that came across was Hawking’s absolute determination not to let anything get in his way. “He thought he didn’t have long to live, and he really wanted to get as much as he could done at that time,” Penrose said.

    There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark
    Stephen Hawking

In 1974 Hawking drew on quantum theory to declare that black holes should emit heat and eventually pop out of existence. For normal black holes, the process is not a fast one, it taking longer than the age of the universe for a black hole the mass of the sun to evaporate. But near the ends of their lives, mini-black holes release heat at a spectacular rate, eventually exploding with the energy of a million one-megaton hydrogen bombs. Miniature black holes dot the universe, Hawking said, each as heavy as a billion tonnes, but no larger than a proton.

His proposal that black holes radiate heat stirred up one of the most passionate debates in modern cosmology. Hawking argued that if a black hole could evaporate into a bath of radiation, all the information that fell inside over its lifetime would be lost forever. It contradicted one of the most basic laws of quantum mechanics, and plenty of physicists disagreed. Hawking came round to believing the more common, if no less baffling explanation, that information is stored at the black hole’s event horizon, and encoded back into radiation as the black hole radiates.

Marika Taylor, a former student of Hawking’s and now professor of theoretical physics at Southampton University, remembers how Hawking announced his U-turn on the information paradox to his students. He was discussing their work with them in the pub when Taylor noticed he was turning his speech synthesiser up to the max. “I’m coming out!” he bellowed. The whole pub turned around and looked at the group before Hawking turned the volume down and clarified the statement: “I’m coming out and admitting that maybe information loss doesn’t occur.” He had, Taylor said, “a wicked sense of humour.”

Hawking’s run of radical discoveries led to his election in 1974 to the Royal Society at the exceptionally young age of 32. Five years later, he became the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, arguably Britain’s most distinguished chair, and one formerly held by Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and Paul Dirac, the latter one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics.

Hawking’s seminal contributions continued through the 1980s. The theory of cosmic inflation holds that the fledgling universe went through a period of terrific expansion. In 1982, Hawking was among the first to show how quantum fluctuations – tiny variations in the distribution of matter – might give rise through inflation to the spread of galaxies in the universe. In these tiny ripples lay the seeds of stars, planets and life as we know it. “It is one of the most beautiful ideas in the history of science” said Max Tegmark, a physics professor at MIT.

But it was A Brief History of Time that rocketed Hawking to stardom. Published for the first time in 1988, the title made the Guinness Book of Records after it stayed on the Sunday Times bestsellers list for an unprecedented 237 weeks. It sold 10m copies and was translated into 40 different languages. Some credit must go to Hawking’s editor at Bantam, Peter Guzzardi, who took the original title: “From the Big Bang to Black Holes: A Short History of Time”, turned it around, and changed the “Short” to “Brief”. Nevertheless, wags called it the greatest unread book in history.

Hawking married his college sweetheart, Jane Wilde, in 1965, two years after his diagnosis. She first set eyes on him in 1962, lolloping down the street in St Albans, his face down, covered by an unruly mass of brown hair. A friend warned her she was marrying into “a mad, mad family”. With all the innocence of her 21 years, she trusted that Stephen would cherish her, she wrote in her 2013 book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen.

In 1985, during a trip to Cern, Hawking was taken to hospital with an infection. He was so ill that doctors asked Jane if they should withdraw life support. She refused, and Hawking was flown back to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge for a lifesaving tracheotomy. The operation saved his life but destroyed his voice. The couple had three children, but the marriage broke down in 1991. Hawking’s worsening disability, his demands on Jane, and his refusal to discuss his illness, were destructive forces the relationship could not endure, she said. Jane wrote of him being “a child possessed of a massive and fractious ego,” and how husband and wife became “master” and “slave”.

Four years later, Hawking married Elaine Mason, one of the nurses employed to give him round-the-clock care. Mason was the former wife of David Mason, who designed the first wheelchair-mounted speech synthesiser Hawking used. The marriage lasted 11 years, during which Cambridgeshire police investigated a series of alleged assaults on Hawking. The physicist denied that Elaine was involved, and refused to cooperate with police, who dropped the investigation.

Hawking was not, perhaps, the greatest physicist of his time, but in cosmology he was a towering figure. There is no perfect proxy for scientific worth, but Hawking won the Albert Einstein Award, the Wolf Prize, the Copley Medal, and the Fundamental Physics Prize. The Nobel prize, however, eluded him.

    My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all
    Stephen Hawking

He was fond of scientific wagers, despite a knack for losing them. In 1975, he bet the US physicist Kip Thorne a subscription to Penthouse that the cosmic x-ray source Cygnus X-1 was not a black hole. He lost in 1990. In 1997, Hawking and Thorne bet John Preskill an encyclopaedia that information must be lost in black holes. Hawking conceded in 2004. In 2012, Hawking lost $100 to Gordon Kane for betting that the Higgs boson would not be discovered.

He lectured at the White House during the Clinton administration – his oblique references to the Monica Lewinsky episode evidently lost on those who screened his speech – and returned in 2009 to receive the presidential medal of freedom from Barack Obama. His life was played out in biographies and documentaries, most recently The Theory of Everything, in which Eddie Redmayne played him. He appeared on The Simpsons and played poker with Einstein and Newton on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He delivered gorgeous put-downs on The Big Bang Theory. “What do Sheldon Cooper and a black hole have in common?” Hawking asked the fictional Caltech physicist whose IQ comfortably outstrips his social skills. After a pause, the answer came: “They both suck.”

Hawking has argued that for humanity to survive it must spread out into space, and has warned against the worst applications of artificial intelligence, including autonomous weapons.

Hawking was happy to court controversy and was accused of being sexist and misogynist. He turned up at Stringfellows lap dancing club in 2003, and years later declared women “a complete mystery”. In 2013, he boycotted a major conference in Israel on the advice of Palestinian academics.

Some of his most outspoken comments offended the religious. In his 2010 book, Grand Design, he declared that God was not needed to set the universe going, and in an interview with the Guardian a year later, dismissed the comforts of religious belief.

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,” he said.

He spoke also of death, an eventuality that sat on a more distant horizon than doctors thought. “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first,” he said.

What astounded those around him was how much he did achieve. He leaves three children, Robert, Lucy and Timothy, from his first marriage to Jane Wilde, and three grandchildren.

New York Review of Books
April 5, 2018 Issue

Armed in America: A History of Gun Rights from Colonial Militias to Concealed Carry	
by Patrick J. Charles
Prometheus, 555 pp., $28.00
Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment	
by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
City Lights, 237 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West	
by James Pogue
Holt, 304 pp., $28.00 (to be published on May 22)

John Locher/AP Images
Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, December 2015

“Welcome, Patriots! Gun Show Today,” says a big sign outside the Cow Palace in Daly City, California, just south of San Francisco, where the Republican National Convention nominated Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Inside, past the National Rifle Association table at the door, a vast room, longer than a football field, is completely filled with rows of tables and display cases. They show every conceivable kind of rifle and pistol, gun barrels, triggers, stocks, bullet keychain charms, Japanese swords, telescopic sights, night-vision binoculars, bayonets, a handgun carrier designed to look like a briefcase, and enough ammunition of every caliber to equip the D-Day landing force. Antique guns on sale range from an ancient musket that uses black powder to a Japanese behemoth that fires a bullet 1.2 inches in diameter.

Also arrayed on tables are signs, bumper stickers, and cloth patches you can sew onto your jacket: 9-11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB; THE WALL: IF YOU BUILD IT THEY CANT COME; HUNTING PERMIT UNLIMITED FOR ISIS. Perhaps 90 percent of those strolling the aisles are men, and at least 98 percent are white. They wear enough beards and bushy mustaches to stuff a good-sized mattress. At one table a man is selling black T-shirts that show a map of California in red, with a gold star and hammer and sickle. Which means? “This state’s gone Communist. And I hate to say it, but it was Reagan that gave it to them. The 1986 amnesty program—which granted legal status to some 2.7 million undocumented immigrants.”

If reason played any part in the American love affair with guns, things would have been different a long time ago and we would not have so many mass shootings like the one that took the lives of seventeen high school students in Parkland, Florida on February 14. Almost everywhere else in the world, if you proposed that virtually any adult not convicted of a felony should be allowed to carry a loaded pistol—openly or concealed—into a bar, a restaurant, or classroom, people would send you off for a psychiatric examination. Yet many states allow this, and in Iowa, a loaded firearm can be carried in public by someone who’s completely blind. Suggest, in response to the latest mass shooting, that still more of us should be armed, and people in most other countries would ask you what you’re smoking. Yet this is the NRA’s answer to the massacres in Orlando, Las Vegas, Newtown, and elsewhere, and after the Parkland killing spree, President Trump suggested arming teachers. One bumper sticker on sale here shows the hammer and sickle again with GUN FREE ZONES KILL PEOPLE.

Nor, when it comes to national legislation, do abundantly clear statistics have any effect. In Massachusetts, which has some of America’s most restrictive firearms laws, three people per 100,000 are killed by guns annually, while in Alaska, which has some of the weakest, the rate is more than seven times as high. Maybe Alaskans need extra guns to fend off bears, but that’s certainly not so in Louisiana, another weak-law state, where the rate is more than six times as high as in Massachusetts. All developed nations regulate firearms more stringently than we do; compared with the citizens of twenty-two other high-income countries, Americans are ten times more likely to be killed by guns. In the last fifty years alone, more civilians have lost their lives to firearms within the United States than have been killed in uniform in all the wars in American history.1

Congress, terrified of the NRA, not only ignores such data but has shielded manufacturers and dealers from any liability for firearms deaths, and has prevented the Centers for Disease Control from doing any studies of gun violence. As of last October—the figure has doubtless risen since then—the top ten recipients of direct or indirect NRA campaign funds in the US Senate had received more than $42 million from the organization over the past thirty years. Funneling a river of money to hundreds of other members of Congress as well, the NRA has certainly gotten what it pays for.

In Armed in America, Patrick J. Charles points out that after each horrendous mass shooting, like the one we’ve just seen at Parkland, not only does the NRA once again talk about good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns, but gun purchases soar and stock prices of their makers rise. However, only a tiny fraction of the more than 30,000 Americans killed by guns each year die in these mass shootings. Roughly two thirds are suicides; the rest are more mundane homicides, and about five hundred are accidents. Some 80,000 additional people are injured by firearms each year. All these numbers would be far less if we did not have more guns than people in the United States, and if they were not so freely available to almost anyone.

Although not the definitive study of the NRA that David Cole called for in these pages recently,2 Armed in America does cast a shrewd eye on what is probably the most powerful lobbying organization in Washington. For almost a century the NRA has pursued a two-faced strategy. It “would tout itself to lawmakers as the foremost supporter of reasonable firearms restrictions. At the same time, the NRA informed the gun-rights community that virtually all firearms restrictions would either make gun ownership a crime or somehow lead to disarmament.” The NRA presents itself to the public as “a voice of compromise” and boasts of its courses in gun safety, but skillfully mobilizes its five million members and annual budget of more than $300 million to make sure Congress never passes any meaningful gun control. The poignant, outspoken campaigning by the Florida high schoolers who survived the Parkland shooting may spur somewhat tightened gun control in a few states, but, at least at the national level, don’t expect new laws to be sweeping and significant.

The Koch brothers have been major financial supporters of the NRA because it so reliably turns out right-wing voters on election day. A vocal and militant NRA also helps protect people like the Kochs by encouraging the illusion that the real source of political power in America is gun ownership—rather than, say, great wealth.

Guns were essential tools in our early history, but as the frontier disappeared, a mystique about them grew only stronger. Charles quotes Sports Afield from 1912: “Perfect freedom from annoyance by petty lawbreakers is found in a country where every man carries his own sheriff, judge and executioner swung on his hip.” Last year, someone who would dearly love to wield such powers against his enemies became the first sitting president to address the NRA in more than three decades. “The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end,” Donald Trump told the organization’s annual convention. “You have a true friend and champion in the White House.”

For more than a century, the NRA and its opponents have argued over the meaning of that amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Gun enthusiasts claim that this protects almost anyone who wants to carry a rifle down the street or a pistol to church, and therefore that gun control violates the Constitution. Liberals, on the other hand, maintain fervently that the rights granted by the Second Amendment refer only to a “well regulated Militia,” such as that which fought the redcoats at Lexington and Concord or that makes up the National Guard today.

Charles takes the second position, which he argues at ponderous length, firing salvos at rival scholars and tracing the amendment’s ancestry back to Britain’s Militia Acts of 1661 and 1662. Yet something feels sterile about this dispute over what the Founding Fathers had in mind. It is tragic that we should still have to battle over the intentions of that assembly of men in frock coats and powdered wigs when, all around us, the carnage from gun violence continues.

And so it was with little appetite that I picked up yet another book that takes the history of guns back to colonial times, but Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded is like a blast of fresh air. She is no fan of guns or of our absurdly permissive laws surrounding them. But she does not merely take the liberal side of the familiar debate. “Neither party,” she writes of that long squabble, “seems to have any idea what the Second Amendment was originally about.” Of course the amendment was written with militias in mind, she says, but, during and after the colonial era, just what were those militias? They were not merely upstanding citizens protecting themselves against foreign tyrants like King George III. They also searched for runaway slaves and seized land from Native Americans, often by slaughter.

Loaded quotes former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson: “Without guns, there would be no West.” But in this sense, the West began at the Atlantic seaboard, where settler militias were organized from the seventeenth century onward. Before long, members could collect bounties for the heads or scalps of Native Americans—an early case, incidentally, of the privatization of warfare. When the thirteen colonies declared their independence, one grievance was the king’s Royal Proclamation of 1763, by which the British, fretting over the expense of sending troops across the Atlantic to fight endless Indian wars, placed land beyond the Appalachian-Allegheny mountain range off-limits to white settlement.

Many well-armed settlers, however, thirsted for that land and crossed the mountains to take it. Among them was the eager young George Washington, who went on to make a fortune speculating in land far to the west of coastal Virginia where he had been born. As settlement expanded across the Great Plains, US Army troops took over the job of suppressing the doomed Native American resistance, but militias had long preceded them.

The militias also kept slaves in line. Dunbar-Ortiz quotes a North Carolina legal handbook of 1860 on such duties: “The patrol shall visit the negro houses in their respective districts as often as may be necessary, and may inflict a punishment, not exceeding fifteen lashes, on all slaves they may find off their owner’s plantations…[and] shall be diligent in apprehending all runaway negroes.” If a captured slave behaved “insolently” the militia could administer up to thirty-nine lashes. Some militias, such as the Texas Rangers, did double duty, both seizing land and hunting down escaped slaves. After the Civil War, when the South was still awash in guns and ammunition, militias morphed easily into the Ku Klux Klan—and into private rifle clubs; by 1876 South Carolina alone had more than 240.

Cleansed of its origins, some of this history has been absorbed into our culture. Dunbar-Ortiz comes, she tells us, from rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a “proletarian cowboy,” and grew up on romantic stories of bandits like Jesse James who were said to be American Robin Hoods. But who was Jesse James? He was a veteran of a particularly brutal militia, in which he had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Dunbar-Ortiz points out, have been sanitized in a different way, remembered not as conquerors of Native American or Mexican land, but as frontiersmen roaming the wilderness in their fringed deerskin clothing—and as skilled hunters. This has powerful resonance with many gun owners today, who hunt, or once did, or at least would like to feel in themselves an echo of the hunter: fearless, proud, self-sufficient, treading in the footsteps of pioneers. One of those fringed leather jackets (although not deerskin, the salesman acknowledges) is on sale at the gun show, as is a huge variety of survival-in-the-wilderness gear: canteens, beef jerky, buffalo jerky, bear repellent, and hundreds of knives, many of them lovingly laid out on fur pelts: coyote, beaver, muskrat, possum, and the softest, badger.

The early militias are one strand of ancestry Dunbar-Ortiz identifies for gun enthusiast groups like the NRA. Another is the legacy of America’s wars—not those with defined front lines, like the two world wars and Korea, but the conflicts in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, Afghanistan.3 In those wars it was often unclear who was friend and who was enemy, mass killings of civilians were common, and many a military man evoked the days of the Wild West. General Maxwell Taylor, Lyndon B. Johnson’s ambassador to South Vietnam, for instance, called for more troops so that the “Indians can be driven from the fort and the settlers can plant corn.”

One of the greatest predictors of American gun ownership today is whether someone has been in the military: a veteran is more than twice as likely as a nonveteran to own one or more guns. Among the bumper stickers and signs at the gun show are JIHAD FREE ZONE and I’LL SEE YOUR JIHAD AND RAISE YOU A CRUSADE; the latter shows a bloody sword. Many a vet is strolling the aisles, happy to talk about fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. The first of the chain of mass shootings that have bedeviled the United States over the last half-century or so, from atop a tower at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, was by Charles Whitman, an ex-Marine.

The passion for guns felt by tens of millions of Americans also has deep social and economic roots. The fervor with which they believe liberals are trying to take all their guns away is so intense because so much else has been taken away. In much of the South, in the Rust Belt along the Great Lakes, in rural districts throughout the country, young people are leaving or sinking into addiction and jobs are disappearing. These hard-hit areas have not shared the profits of Silicon Valley and its offshoots or the prosperity of coastal cities from Seattle to New York. Even many of his supporters know in their hearts that Trump can never deliver on his promises to bring back coal mining and restore abundant manufacturing jobs. But the one promise he, and other politicians, can deliver on is to protect and enlarge every imaginable kind of right to carry arms.

People passionate about guns often display a sense of being under siege, left behind, pushed down, at risk. One of the large paper targets on sale at the gun show shows a scowling man aiming a pistol at you. On bumper stickers, window signs, flags, is the Revolutionary era DON’T TREAD ON ME, with its image of a coiled rattlesnake. At one table, two men are selling bulletproof vests. For $500 you can get an eight-pound one whose plates—front, back, side—are made of lightweight compressed polyethylene. “They used to use it to line the bottom of combat helicopters,” said one of the men. For only $300, you can get one with steel plates, but it weighs twenty-three pounds. Also on sale is a concealable vest that goes under your clothing: medium, large, and X-large for $285; XX-large and XXX-large for $315.

Who buys these? I ask.

“Everybody—who sees the way the world is going.”

The most bellicose descendants of the American militias of centuries past are the forces that go under the same name today. We have seen a lot of these camouflage-clad men (and the occasional woman) in the past few years: striding through Charlottesville, Virginia, last August with their rifles and walkie-talkies under Confederate flags, traveling in convoys with gun barrels poking through the windows of pickup trucks and SUVs to camp near the Mexican border and watch for immigrants slipping across, and, most often, tangling with US Forest Service or other federal officials in theatrically orchestrated standoffs over the use of federal land in the Far West. Four hundred armed militiamen were on the scene in 2014 at the height of a standoff in Nevada; one hundred appeared at another in Montana the next year, and three hundred at one in Oregon the year after that. Similar armed confrontations have taken place in New Mexico, Texas, and California, and a militia leader from Utah was arrested in 2016 after apparently trying to bomb a Bureau of Land Management outpost in Arizona. Between 2010 and 2014 alone there were more than fifty attacks on BLM or Forest Service employees, including two by snipers.

James Pogue’s Chosen Country is a young journalist’s account of spending many weeks with participants in several of these western land occupations. A would-be Hunter S. Thompson, he includes far more than you want to know about his own drinking, smoking, drug use, tattoos, girlfriends, beloved grandmother, and brushes with the law. Nonetheless, there is an extravagant verve to his writing (three armed riflemen at a roadblock “gave us looks sort of like what you’d give a couple of college boys you found at your daughter’s slumber party”; young militiamen romanticize “a glossy magical cowboy past”) and, more important, amid the overblown gonzo riffs, he has genuine compassion for the suffering of some of those “on the angrier fringes of the rancher subculture.”

The Endangered Species Act has thrown both loggers and ranchers out of work, and even though there are good reasons for limiting grazing on federal land (such as preventing erosion or the pollution of drinking water), a new restriction can push a small struggling sheep farmer into bankruptcy. Pogue gets in amazingly deep with these western rebels, even joining a carful of them on a madcap expedition to Salt Lake City to enlist Mormon elders in defusing one standoff. But he is wise enough to know that those who will really benefit from any privatization of the vast federally owned territory in the West are not the militiamen with their “Ranchers’ Lives Matter” yard signs but those who have the capital to exploit the land’s riches: agribusiness, mining companies, oil and gas drillers. It’s no surprise that many of those interests enthusiastically support the militia occupations.
Alon Reininger/Contact Press Images
Beretta handguns at an NRA convention, San Antonio, Texas, April 1991

There are rivalries aplenty between various militia groups, but one undercurrent in almost all of them, whether spoken or denied, is white nationalism. The first attempt to plant a private militia on the Mexican border was made by David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan. Of African-Americans, Cliven Bundy, patriarch of the family behind several of the western land standoffs, has said, “I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton…?” Two of Bundy’s sons were among those who occupied federal buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon; one of their collaborators had recently aired a video that showed him wrapping pages of the Koran in bacon and setting them on fire. The Malheur occupiers rifled through a collection of Native American relics, and turned the site of a nearby archaeological dig containing more artifacts into a latrine. It is not hard to see the continuity with the militias of two hundred years ago.

American right-wingers in uniform have been around since the Nazi and blackshirt groups of the 1930s. Later militias came and went; a new wave of them was spurred into being by the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Their ideology tends to echo that of others on the far right: the New World Order and its minions (the Kenyan-born Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Soros, most people in Hollywood, and many others) favor the spotted owl over loggers and ranchers and black people over white, patrol the skies with black helicopters, and are conspiring to flood the United States with immigrants and refugees, install United Nations rule, impose Sharia law, and seize guns from their rightful owners. As long as I’m alive and breathing, sings the country and western artist (and Trump supporter) Justin Moore, You won’t take my guns. One bumper sticker on sale at the gun show says, AMERICA HAS BEEN OCCUPIED BY GLOBALIST FORCES. Militias go farther than other right-wing groups in promising to resist this imposition of the New World Order with arms. “When the ballot box doesn’t work,” says John Trochmann, founder of the Militia of Montana, “we’ll switch to the cartridge box.”

Some of this, of course, is hot air. The number of active militia groups actually fell by 40 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors the movement closely. One “key factor” was that when the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their followers seized buildings at Malheur in early 2016, the federal government hung tough, shooting dead one militia leader when he tried to pull a gun on officers at a roadblock, arresting many more, and indicting them on serious charges.

There has been one huge change since then: the election of Donald Trump. A few years before, during an earlier standoff, Trump voiced qualified support for Cliven Bundy. (He was uneasy about the occupation and suggested Bundy cut a deal with Obama, but said, “I like him, I like his spirit, his spunk, and the people that are so loyal…. I respect him.”) Several friends of the Bundys or supporters of their Malheur occupation became prominent Trump backers, and one, oilman Forrest Lucas, was on the president’s shortlist for secretary of the interior. A judge’s recent declaration of a mistrial was the latest in a series of setbacks the government has had in prosecuting the Bundys. Since the election, militia members have been increasingly visible around the country, providing “security” for right-wing demonstrators and speakers. One such speaker is Cliven Bundy, newly released from jail. And, in contrast to their decline as Obama cracked down on the land occupations, under Trump the number of armed militia groups in the United States has soared ominously, from 165 in 2016 to 273 in 2017.

What happens with them next? I see two dangers. The first is that the next militia standoff over a federal land occupation in the West may end differently. It is hard to imagine Trump’s Justice Department firmly enforcing the law against people who so represent the concentrated essence of his base. Does that mean that the armed seizure of some National Forest land, say, might be unhindered and become permanent? And might that, in turn, encourage dozens of similar land grabs? The rural areas of western states are filled with people—including thousands of county sheriffs’ deputies and other state and local officeholders—who believe no one should tell them where they can’t graze their cattle, hunt game, cut a tree, or dig for gold. And what right do the feds have to own all that land, anyway? Promoting oil drilling in National Parks, Trump clearly feels the same way.

The second danger is this: Trump may well be forced out of office—by defeat in 2020 if not by other means before then. If that occurs, we know it will be a stormy process, in which he will try in every possible way to inflame and rally his supporters, with more dark charges of “rigged” voting if he loses the election. To anyone on the far right his defeat or removal will be virtual proof of a conspiracy to restore the New World Order. Will these gun-toting men in boots and camouflage flak jackets accept his departure from the White House quietly? And, if they can’t prevent it, will they somehow take revenge?

— March 8, 2018

    1 If you want to arm yourself with such statistics for arguments with gun enthusiasts, you’ll find plenty in “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People” and Other Myths about Guns and Gun Control by Dennis A. Henigan (Beacon, 2016), although the book’s usefulness is hampered by the lack of an index. ↩
    2 “The Terror of Our Guns,” July 14, 2016. ↩
    3 Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America by Kathleen Belew (Harvard University Press, 2018) makes the same point, by tracing the roots of much white racist violence from the 1970s through the early 1990s to the Vietnam War and some of its veterans. ↩


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