SACW - 28 May 2018 | Bangladesh: Rohingya Deportations / Pakistan: ‘Salam Centre’ Brouhaha; Notice to Dawn / India: Threats to Journalists: Killings of Sterilite Protestors; Girish Karnad / China: Before the Revolution

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at
Sun May 27 14:18:38 EDT 2018

South Asia Citizens Wire - 28 May 2018 - No. 2989 
[via South Asia Citizens Web - since 1996]

1. Concerned Citizens Call For Bangladesh To Respond in Support of ICC Prosecutor’s Submission on Rohingya Deportations
2. Bangladesh: Criticizing political leaders on social media lands you in jail - a report by Human Rights Watch
3. India: Secularism and the State: Categorising the Nehru Model | Anil Nauriya
4. India: Death threats to journalists from an army of right-wing trolls with links to the ruling BJP or from Hindutva related groups
5. India: Killing & violence on Anti-Sterilite Protestors - Statements by NAPM and other citizens initiatives + news report
6. Book Review: Dreams of a Muslim Cosmopolis | Keerthik Sasidharan
7. Recent on Communalism Watch:
 - India: Gyms on Panchayat Land in Haryana to be Used for RSS 'Shakhas'
 - Savarkar’s thwarted ‘racial dream’ on Nepal | Manu S. Pillai
 - I’m a target because I’m an outsider: Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock
 - India: Ram Puniyani - speaking on social polarisation based on religious communities [in Hindi]
 - Apoorvanand talks about Lumpenised grassroot's religious nationalism [in Hindi]
 - India: Law commission continuing consulatations on uniform civil code
 - India: Ghettoisation and segregation in Gujarat
 - India - Uttar Pradesh: Yogi Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini splits
 - excerpt from Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev by Priyanka Pathak-Narain
 - Launch of Citizens Report on 4 Years of the Modi Govt (2014-2018)
 - India: Swami Shashi - The political Hinduism of Shashi Tharoor
 - India: The Karnataka lesson - Congress, electoral discourse must go beyond identities | Suhas Palshikar
 - India: Reasoning and origins of Hindutva’s love for ‘mythoscience’
 - India: ‘. . Beat Up Girls Who Drink & Dance in Pubs’: says Vishwa Hindu Parishad Leader in Mangalore
 - India: What's Going On, Have They Now Renamed The Akbar Road in Delhi ?
 - India: Shia leaders are drawing closer to the Hindutva agenda in UP under Yogi Adityanath’s chief ministership
 - India: Let’s not be deluded on RSS
::: URLs & FULL TEXT :::
8. The ‘Salam Centre’ Brouhaha | Pervez Hoodbhoy
9. Pakistan: HRCP sounds alarm over notice served on Dawn
10. God has a foreign policy | Syed Badrul Ahsan
11. India - Pakistan: J-K border villages turn into ghost towns as 1,00,000 flee shelling
12. India: The Grand Disconnect | Rajesh Ramachandran
13. The quiet patriot: In praise of Girish Karnad | Ramachandra Guha
14. India: Amid increasing communalisation in Assam, anxieties are deepening over the Citizenship Amendment Bill | Pratap Bhanu Mehta 
15. Proportional representation would have been better for India | Devangshu Datta
16. China: Before the Revolution | Louisa Chiang and Perry Link

1. Concerned Citizens Call For Bangladesh To Respond in Support of ICC Prosecutor’s Submission on Rohingya Deportations
statement endorsed by 41 Bangladeshis concerned about the request from the Pre Trial Chamber 1 of the International Criminal Court requesting observations from the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The statement was submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [Bangladesh] on 27 May 2018

2. Bangladesh: Criticizing political leaders on social media lands you in jail - a report by Human Rights Watch
On April 9, 2018, Bangladesh listed its new Digital Security Bill in parliament, which was then sent to a parliamentary standing committee for review. The proposed law is in part intended to replace section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act) 2006, which has been widely criticized for restricting freedom of expression and has resulted in scores of arrests since 2013. However, the current draft of the Bill replicates, and even enhances, existing strictures of the ICT Act. This report documents abuses under section 57 of the ICT Act to warn that any new law should protect rights, not be used to crack down on critics.

3.  Secularism and the State: Categorising the Nehru Model
by Anil Nauriya
In most circles where opinion-making on behalf of minorities takes place, one of the reasons for appreciation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s approach towards the minorities generally is his statement that majority communalism, that is, sectarianism, is more dangerous than minority communalism. He said that “the communalism of a majority community must of necessity bear a closer resemblance to nationalism than the communalism of a minority group”.

4. India: Death threats to journalists from an army of right-wing trolls with links to the ruling BJP or from Hindutva related groups
NDTV’s Ravish Kumar gets death threats. His family threatened with violence. At a time when the debate around intolerance and the threat to free speech is peaking. A report on NDTV

5. India: Killing & violence on Anti-Sterilite Protestors - Statements by NAPM and other citizens initiatives + news report
After nearly hundreds days of protest demanding closure of Vedanta Sterlite Copper unit in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, protesters turned violent, clashing with the police and setting vehicles on fire. At least 11 people have died in police firing.

6. Book Review: Dreams of a Muslim Cosmopolis | Keerthik Sasidharan
This was an essay written after reading Venkat Dhulipala’s fascinating book (’Creating a New Medina’, Cambridge University Press) on how Pakistan came to be. After sending this essay to a few editors in mainstream press, from none of who I heard back, I abandoned the idea of getting this published.

 - India: Gyms on Panchayat Land in Haryana to be Used for RSS 'Shakhas'
 - Savarkar’s thwarted ‘racial dream’ on Nepal | Manu S. Pillai
 - I’m a target because I’m an outsider: Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock
 - India: Ram Puniyani - speaking on social polarisation based on religious communities [in Hindi]
 - Apoorvanand talks about Lumpenised grassroot's religious nationalism [in Hindi]
 - India: Law commission continuing consulatations on uniform civil code
 - India: Ghettoisation and segregation in Gujarat
 - India - Uttar Pradesh: Yogi Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini splits
 - excerpt from Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev by Priyanka Pathak-Narain
 - Launch of Citizens Report on 4 Years of the Modi Govt (2014-2018)
 - India: Swami Shashi - The political Hinduism of Shashi Tharoor
 - India: The Karnataka lesson - Congress, electoral discourse must go beyond identities | Suhas Palshikar
 - India: Reasoning and origins of Hindutva’s love for ‘mythoscience’
 - India: ‘. . Beat Up Girls Who Drink & Dance in Pubs’: says Vishwa Hindu Parishad Leader in Mangalore
 - India: What's Going On, Have They Now Renamed The Akbar Road in Delhi ?
 - India: Shia leaders are drawing closer to the Hindutva agenda in UP under Yogi Adityanath’s chief ministership
 - India: Let’s not be deluded on RSS

 -> available via:
::: URLs & FULL TEXT :::
Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy
Dawn, May 12, 2018

In another country naming or renaming a university’s physics centre or department would be considered utterly unremarkable. But here in Pakistan — if the name is that of Abdus Salam (1926-1996, physics Nobel Prize 1979) — instant controversy is guaranteed. That’s because, on the one hand, Salam commands the devotion of his embattled Ahmadi community. On the other hand, mere mention of his name inspires religious fury among sections of the population.
Some welcomed it — while others were livid — but all were astonished in late December 2016 when national newspapers and TV channels reported that Quaid-i-Azam University’s physics department had just become the ‘Abdus Salam Department of Physics’ (it had not!). Soon thereafter, that the Nati­o­nal Centre for Physics (housed on the QAU campus) was now the ‘Professor Abdus Salam Centre for Phy­sics’ (again, false!). The putative changes were attri­buted to pre-Panama prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
For 17 months everything went quiet. Then front pages filled up again. A parliamentary resolution tabled by Captain Safdar, son-in-law of Nawaz Sharif and a parliamentarian, demanded that the QAU physics department be renamed the ‘Al-Khazani department’ to honour Mansur al-Khazani, an 11th-century Seljuk-Persian star gazer.

    Science suffocates when scientists are judged by their religion, race or ethnicity.

Safdar probably took this initiative because he thought that the QAU physics department had indeed been renamed after Salam. But was his resolution — which came suddenly out of the blue — intended to spite or taunt his father-in-law? To garner election support from Ahmadi-hating radicals of the TLP? Or was it to drum up religious sentiment at a time when Safdar is under a NAB investigation for corruption?
In any case he certainly hit sympathetic religious chords. Safdar’s resolution was unanimously approved by parliament, the text of which states that Al Khazani deserves this belated recognition for having shaken the world of physics with his astonishing works (hairat angaiz karnamay).
This time the reporting was factual (I have the Urdu text). But the exaggerated claim amuses for its plain silliness — Khazani was not a physicist, just a court astronomer known only to a few historians. One wonders who proposed his name. Did our parliamentarians fall victim to some prankster or a trickster?
Sloppy journalism, the intellectual laziness of parliamentarians, a general cultural antipathy to the scientific method, and overtly expressed religious prejudice generated fevered emotions. Over the last week, social media erected yet another Tower of Babel and produced tonnes of trash. Surely it’s time to get the facts straight.
Here’s what actually happened. On Dec 29, 2016, the president of Pakistan, on the summary advice of the prime minister of Pakistan, signed his approval to a document titled, ‘Proposal to Rename NCP at QAU as Professor Abdus Salam Centre for Physics’. The summary had been vetted on Dec 26, 2016, by the minister of state for education and professional training. It was then sent to QAU for necessary action.
One does not know for sure what made Mian Nawaz Sharif recognise Salam’s importance as a scientist, belated though it was. During his first tenure as prime minister, while speaking at Government College Lahore in 1992, he read out a long list of distinguished alumni and faculty but had conspicuously omitted Salam’s name.
The change probably came because in early 2016 (third tenure) Sharif visited Cern (European Nuclear Research Centre, the world’s largest laboratory) to cement the Pak-Cern collaboration. It is said he was much impressed to learn that major parts of Cern’s research — including the search for the Higgs boson — revolved around discoveries made by Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg. He was also taken for a drive on Rue de Salam, a road named after Salam.
The official order for renaming NCP — duly signed by the Pakistani state’s highest executives, president and prime minister — was received at QAU (a state university) and conveyed onward to NCP (a state-owned centre affiliated to QAU). But at NCP it died a quiet death. More than anything else, Pakistanis should worry when state institutions wilfully ignore executive orders.
About NCP: it is now largely funded and operated by the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) of the Pakistan Army. Although NCP has no connection with nuclear weapons research, the SPD is charged with maintaining and handling the country’s nuclear weapons. It also seeks to widen its influence within civil society, particularly in universities.
Earlier, however, NCP had been an independent centre open and easily accessible to all. Like other centres on campus, it was affiliated with QAU. NCP had been conceived in the 1980s jointly by Salam and his student Riazuddin (1930-2013), a respected theoretical physicist who also became NCP’s founding director. Though underfunded, it started off in 1999 on modest temporary premises on the QAU campus.
NCP’s original goal had been to eventually duplicate, albeit on a far smaller scale, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy. Founded by Abdus Salam, the ICTP (now renamed Abdus Salam-ICTP), hosts thousands of researchers from around the world to work in an open, cordial, and intellectually vibrant atmosphere on cutting-edge scientific problems.
But in 2007, NCP underwent a character change and a change of director. No longer was it an open institution. Instead it has fearsome fortifications and an ambience befitting a military institution, not an academic one. Local professors and students have been frightened away as have been the few visiting scientists from other countries. Several have vowed never to return. NCP is now largely staffed by bored retirees, civil and military. With so much deadwood, it offers little of intellectual value.
The bottom line: the brouhaha is over. QAU is highly unlikely to rename its physics department after a barely known 11th-century star-gazer, and it is highly unlikely that SPD (i.e. the Pakistan Army) will implement the orders of a deposed prime-minister with whom its relationship has been problematic.
Physics — or for that matter every kind of science — needs an enabling cultural and social environment to flourish. Science suffocates when scientists are judged by their religion, race, ethnicity or any criterion other than scientific achievement. Though it was but a storm in a teacup, this Salam episode tells us how far Pakistan needs to travel before our soil can produce science of worth.

May 19, 2018

The Newspaper's Staff Reporter

LAHORE: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has expressed concern over a notice served by the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) on Dawn for what it called violating the Ethical Code of Practice by publishing an interview of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

It urged the authorities not to interfere with the media’s right to report fairly.

Speech limits: Where did censorship originate from?

The commission posted on Friday a statement on Twitter which said it was concerned that the newspaper’s circulation had been subjected to seemingly arbitrary curbs.

In his interview, Mr Sharif had stated: “Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?”

The former premier added: “We have isolated ourselves. Despite giving sacrifices, our narrative is not being accepted. Afghanistan’s narrative is being accepted, but ours is not. We must look into it.”

The commission noted: “There is no evidence to suggest that Dawn has undermined Pakistan’s sovereignty or integrity under the PCP Ordinance 2002 by publishing an interview with the former prime minister speaking on the record.”

The commission described such moves as harassment of the media. “Such curbs are tantamount to press harassment and only chip away further at the shrinking space for Freedom of Expression,” it said.

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Dhaka Tribune
May 24th, 2018

Nonsense grounded on bigotry is a story that has been hurled in our faces for years now

Bigotry is often irritating, for the right reasons. 

Sometimes it can be pretty amusing. Recall the story of the Jamaat-e-Islami man, here in Bangladesh, whose image was “seen” by his followers on the moon. The naïve among us were told the story -- and they believed it -- of how this “holy man” accused of crimes against his own people in 1971 was actually one beloved of God. 

Why else would his face shine on the face of the moon? Of course, people lost little time in pulling the story down. 

The moon stayed in its place in time and space. The “holy man” remained the collaborator of the enemy he was, all those decades ago. The fanaticism underpinning this falsehood could not have been missed. 

And now rises another equally virulent bigot in the form of the American televangelist John Hagee. He informs us, in his insane wisdom, that God has a foreign policy. Prior to Hagee, we did not know that even the Almighty practises diplomacy in the way we do it here on Earth, did we? 

Hagee is one of those ignorant men whose claim to public attention comes through the hoarseness -- and coarseness -- of his fanatical beliefs. One wonders what Jesus would have thought of this diabolical Christian. Jesus died on the cross and yet this fanatic, in his zeal to defend a demented president’s decision to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, thinks nothing of the cruelty being perpetrated on Palestinians by a band of Zionists in occupied Arab land. 

But, of course, Hagee does not see things that way. He brings God into it, which is a deviously clever way of letting the likes of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu off the hook. It was not Trump who made the decision on Jerusalem. He only implemented a policy first enunciated by God. 

It was God’s foreign policy perspective that Jerusalem would be the capital of Israel, that the American embassy would operate from a city captured whole by Israeli soldiers in June 1967. And there you have it. 

If you have any problem with the Jerusalem question, do not point the finger of blame at mere mortals. But go to the Bible and read of the foreign policy God pursues on Earth. 

The only problem here is that God does not say anywhere in the Bible that America could have its embassy in the occupied city, that Israel is His passion. Hagee, the charlatan that he is, will not see the truth, for to fanatics like him it is the lie which is the truth.

But why blame only Hagee? In recent days, a video of a Bengali Muslim fanatic spewing blasphemy -- he thinks he is defending the faith of the pure -- has gone viral on social media. Nearly frothing at the mouth, apart from quivering in the manner of an epileptic, he curses women in his perverted view of Islam. 

Women, says he without an ounce of shame, are a curse simply by birth. They are a scandal. Men who have their women scour markets for vegetables to buy for the home should be ashamed, for their women are being pushed and jostled by other men as they haggle and argue with traders. And before this ignorant man, sat those others and none of them had the boldness to call a halt to his nonsense. 

Ah, but nonsense grounded on bigotry is a story that has been hurled in our faces for years now. Remember the Taliban? And al-Qaeda? And IS? Those beheadings in Middle Eastern deserts of innocent non-Muslims by Muslims who looked and spoke more like butchers than protagonists of religion? 

Remember the Taliban dictum on the length of the beards men would need to have below the chin and the tent-like robes women would be required to confine themselves in?

Religious fanaticism is tribalism working away in frenzy. Tribes suffer from the smug self-satisfaction of informing themselves that they are the true inheritors of the Earth, that indeed they are the chosen of God. The rest of humanity is a bunch of infidels and apostates for whom the fires of hell burn night and day. 

Muslim bigots humiliate the gods in the Hindu pantheon. In turn, Hindu bigots are willing to kill Muslims in their defense of the holy cow. And that is not all. The Hindutva chief minister of the Indian state of Tripura pooh-poohs modern technology by “enlightening” people with his revelation that the internet was invented in the age of the Ramayana, long ages before the birth of Jesus Christ. 

And the Nazis were quite a different tribe. They saw all the “evil” around them, and then made the “discovery” that the roots of that evil were the Jewish community. They solved the problem by carting six million Jews off to the gas chambers.

In his day, the late Menachem Begin would not speak of the Arab land his nation had commandeered in war. To him, this occupied land was the biblical Judea and Samaria. To the bigot that is Donald Trump, the world would be a fine place if only Muslims could be kept away from his country. 

In Pakistan, the land of the pure, fanatical Muslims keep the country clean of impurity by taking away from the Ahmadiyya community their faith. Sir Zafarullah Khan and Professor Abdus Salam, two truly illustrious Pakistanis, are brushed out of memory because they had the temerity of looking for God through the prism of the Ahmadiyya faith.

God, you see, does not merely have a foreign policy. The bigots would have you know that He is a partisan father of the heavens and the Earth, and practises, without any qualms, the politics of expediency.

Lord, what fools these mortals be! 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist. 

Hindustan Times
May 24, 2018

Fear dominates as Pakistani soldiers have targeted villages and BSF posts all along the 198km-long border. Twelve people have been killed in Pakistan shelling since May 15.

Hindustan Times, Ramgarh

Nanga village in Jammu wears a deserted look after shelling from the Pakistani side of the border. A week of relentless Pakistani shelling has driven 1,00,000 people from their homes in Jammu and Kashmir, reducing their villages to ghost towns.
Nanga village in Jammu wears a deserted look after shelling from the Pakistani side of the border. A week of relentless Pakistani shelling has driven 1,00,000 people from their homes in Jammu and Kashmir, reducing their villages to ghost towns.(Nitin Kanotra/HT Photo)

A week of relentless Pakistan shelling has driven 1,00,000 people from their homes in Jammu and Kashmir, reducing their villages to ghost towns and leaving their homes pockmarked, bearing the telltale signs of hostilities from across the border.

Soonam Kundal is busy gathering her belongings at her home in Keso village, a few kilometers from the border.

The 19-year-old is alone at home. On Tuesday evening, her father was curing a newly built boundary wall when a mortar shell landed in the compound of their house, injuring him, her mother and brother.

“My family has been shifted to government medical college hospital in Jammu,” says Kundal, who escaped unhurt as she was inside. She will be shifting to her aunt’s home.

Like Kundal, most of the people forced out of their homes in border villages of Jammu, Kathua and Samba districts have chosen to live with relatives. A few have opted for relief camps.

A village of 1,500, Keso is all but abandoned. Women and children have moved to relief camps, men join them at sunset.

Kundal’s aunt Ruby is critical of the government for leaving people to fend for themselves. “We have pleaded with politicians to provide us land at safer locations,” she says.

Fear dominates as Pakistani soldiers have targeted villages and BSF posts all along the 198km-long border. In the last one week, four people have died and 25 injured in Ramgarh alone.

A retried soldier, 61-year-old Des Raj blames the government for the situation. “We have experienced firing from across for decades but the intensity has increased ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre,” he says. Raj was to join his family at a relief camp in the evening.

The last border village of Nanga resembles a ghost town. Only a handful of the 3,500 people have stayed back, to look after houses and cattle. Ashok Kumar 53, whose neighbour’s house was damaged in firing, directed his anger at Pakistan. “They are killing innocent people in the month of Ramzan. How can we talk of peace when they have unleashed bloodshed on us,” he says.

Rajesh Ramachandran
The Tribune
May 19, 2018

New economy’s liberalism trashed old values pushing the masses to the religious right

GLARING DISCONNECT: The post-liberalisation idiom has turned the village and its attendent cultures into the other, the enemy.

Rajesh Ramachandran
Every time the BJP wins an election there is a collective gasp of disbelief and a sigh of resignation from the liberal elite. A large section of the commentariat often fails to understand or analyse election results that go so completely contrary to its prognosis. Well, it is simply because there exists a terrible disconnect between the masses, that is the voters, and the liberal elite and its commentariat. This chasm has grown bigger in the last three decades of economic reforms and liberalisation. Now, there is no organic link between the city and the village. The migration of the village to the city is into the slums not into its middle class colonies. The cities have become independent modern republics which cannot understand or converse with the pre-modern villages. They talk different languages and idioms and their belief systems are often mutually contradictory.

MN Srinivas talked about the migration of the village elite reinforcing their dominant caste status in Rampura, the locus of his field work. But there are no Cities of Gold any longer, turning carpetbaggers into tycoons overnight. In fact, migration now doesn't ensure empowerment or affluence to unskilled or semi-skilled aspirants at all. Post-liberalisation even the patterns of migration have been skewed. The migrant labourers, domestic helps and rickshaw pullers remain outside the limits of the city's imagination. The city is only for those who speak English, study in English medium schools with a universal syllabi like that of the CBSE or the ICSE, gain degrees from respectable institutions and universities and use a global idiom of what is supposed to be fashionably liberal and progressive. 

This post-liberalisation or, if I may, po-lib intellectual idiom, interestingly, is something that has turned the village into the other, the enemy. The first casualties of the po-lib intellectual or political project were the Indian Left, Gandhi, Nehru and the rural-urban continuum. To be politically fashionable, the media, the publishing houses and the universities had to ridicule the Left, call venerable old leaders like EMS names and to trample on everything that was held sacred by the generation of freedom fighters. Nobody was ready to tell the po-lib intellectual that calling Gandhi a casteist and a Hindu was like accusing Martin Luther King of being a Klu Klux Klan activist. For this new-generation political activists in the universities, religious secessionism of the militant Islam variety was suddenly kosher, with a new far Left platform coming up to project an idea of India that is divisive, secessionist and elitist, all in the name of the unwashed masses. This was a cynical attempt to knowingly or unconsciously reframe the colonial perception of India as a conglomeration of conflicting identities, groups, and even nations (let us not forget the Adhikari thesis). But wasn't that exactly the colonial construct: “There is no, and never was, an India, or even any country of India… no Indian nation, no people of India… that men of the Punjab, Bengal, the North-West Province and Madras should ever feel that they belong to one great Indian nation, is impossible,” wrote Sir John Strachey in late 19th century. It could as well have been a fiery liberal elite Indian intellectual from any of the country’s big universities in 21st century seeking a separate nation for a community.

The colonial project failed because of the vision of the leaders of the national movement and their idealism. For instance, The Tribune wrote on March 19, 1881, “We do not believe in the theory that India is an assemblage of countries and that her people are an assemblage of nations. The vast continent from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, and from the Brahmaputra to the Indus, forms one great country, and Bengalis, Punjabis and Mahrattas, the Rajputs of Mewar, the Nairs of Travancore and the Gurkhas of Nepal, the Hindus, the Sikhs and the Mohammedans, all constitute members of one great nation, bound together by affinities of language and similarities of manner and customs, and by a community of intellectual, social and political interest.”

That was the national mainstream sentiment till liberalisation brought new capital into media, publishing and the universities. Along with Nehruvian socialism, his idea of India too was discarded. All the ills of the nation were attributed to him (yes, today’s trolls are but unlettered, unintelligent versions of edit page arguments of early 1990s). But the new economy and new liberalism were limited to the cities, where CBSE schools mushroomed. There was no capital infusion into rural educational institutions which remained backward, regressive and superstitious. That was the beginning of the making of two Indias. A rural student educated in a regional language medium school could become anything three or four decades ago, but no longer. The best example is KR Narayanan who went on to become Harold Laski's  favourite student at London School of Economics. When the elite or the dominant castes withdrew their wards from government schools, these schools became mere dole-dispensing mechanisms for shameless teachers who never taught.

The city was getting more liberal, logical, reasonable and globally connected, but the village was getting poorer, isolated and destined to serve the city forever. In fact, even the city is only a metaphor now. The labourers, domestics, autodrivers and delivery boys from villages numerically dominate the urban space and its elections. No wonder Delhi is now a poorvanchali or an East Indian city -— a geographical contradiction indeed. These poor villagers do not understand the underlying liberalism in the slogans of secession and the elite's intense hatred for things the masses claim as their customs. Unless the po-lib intellectual finds a new idiom, the masses will drift towards false narratives and find security in a past which didn't exist. The ideas of Rani Padmini's honour and internet during the Mahabharata times are but symptoms of a disease deep-rooted in a pre-modern mind that is fearful of the modern. Unfortunately, the cynical po-lib politician is worse than the intellectual. He has no agenda to transform the lives and politics of the villages. He merely pushes the masses into the waiting laps of the Ram Lila troupe, which just needs grease and grime to turn men into beasts.

Ramachandra Guha
The Telegraph
May 12, 2018

Like most other Indians of my generation, I first saw Girish Karnad on the screen in one of Shyam Benegal's films. I first saw him in the flesh in New Delhi's India International Centre, circa 1990, dining alone. Many eyes went to him - apart from being famous, he was also incredibly handsome, with a shining skin - but while everyone knew who he was, no one dared disturb him.

In 1995, my wife Sujata and I moved to Bangalore, where Karnad and his wife, Saras - a person of great charm, intelligence, and wit - also lived. A mutual friend introduced us, and we began to meet, mostly at each other's homes. Karnad's classic early plays had explored ethical dilemmas through innovative adaptations of myth and history. He was now experiencing a rich vein of late creativity, in part because he was doing fewer films, in part because a spell as the Director of the Nehru Centre in London allowed him to reconnect with what was best in world theatre. Among the fine plays of this period that Sujata and I saw were Flowers and Broken Images, the latter about a rivalry between two writer-sisters, one who wrote in English and the other in Kannada. This play had a dig or two at literary nativism, this seen by some as aimed at U.R. Ananthamurthy, who had long championed the cause of bhasha writers, complaining that they weren't taken seriously enough or paid as much as those Indians who wrote in English.

Karnad was ambivalent about Ananthamurthy, and for several reasons. There was his perhaps excessive valorizing of the vernacular, for one. There was his undeniable love for publicity, for another. That Ananthamurthy hung out so often with politicians and had political ambitions of his own irritated Karnad, whose own ambitions were always literary and aesthetic. (That Ananthamurthy had allowed the role of 'public intellectual' to so completely subsume and replace the role of 'creative writer' was something other Kannada writers also worried about.) Finally, there might have been an element of sibling rivalry here, based on the fact that Ananthamurthy was five years older than him, and had achieved literary fame (in Kannada) before him.

My own sense is that, for his part, Ananthamurthy craved Karnad's affection and approval. I recall a conversation organized by The Caravan magazine between Ananthamurthy and myself, about literature and politics or some such subject. This was held in a hotel where all the seats, except ours, were at the same level, so that those who came late and sat in the back rows could not be seen by the speakers. When it came to questions from the audience, a hand from the back came up. I went to it first, because it was Karnad's. I had recognized him, whereas Ananthamurthy, older and more short-sighted than me, had not. When the (thankfully non-combative) question was posed, Ananthamurthy turned to me and said, a warm and satisfied smile on his face: "Girish bandidare!' (So, Girish has also come!)".

Girish Karnad is far less likely than Ananthamurthy was to join a procession, shout slogans, publicly praise or chastise a politician, or sign a petition. But he cherishes as much as his more 'political' contemporary the idea of a plural, tolerant India he grew up in. Like URA, he detests religious chauvinism. In June 2017, after a wave of lynchings of innocent Muslims by Hindutva mobs in northern India, 'Not in my Name' protests were held in many parts of India. The Bangalore event was organized by students from the Indian Institute of Science, and held on the steps of the Town Hall on a weekday evening. This was one of the busiest parts of the city, at the busiest time of the day, with roads choked with buses, trucks, cars, scooters, and more. To get to the protests, one had to park half a mile away and walk. This I did, to join the ranks of young, middle-aged and old Indians standing up for decency and civility in our public (and private) life.

For me to join the protest was normal, routine; I wrote about these matters in the press, and I lived close by anyway. Girish Karnad, however, stayed well to the south of the Town Hall - an hour-and-a-half's drive in the evening. He was in his late seventies, and suffering from a degenerative respiratory disorder, which obliged him to carry a cylinder at all times which sent oxygen to his lungs through tubes stuck into his nose.

I did not expect Karnad to come. Nor did anyone else. As we stood silently holding up our placards, it began to rain. We carried on standing, in the open. A figure slipped in silently on my left. It was Girish. He had walked at least ten minutes in the rain from whichever side road his driver had parked his car in, carrying his cylinder and his tubes with him. He stood, and asked the person to his left if he could hold his placard. A student rushed in with an umbrella, which he opened and passed on to Karnad, who immediately shared it with the person to his right (me). Meanwhile, a group of Muslim men, in the row in front of us, murmured with delight and approval. One of them said to the other, in English: "Girish Karnad Sir has arrived!" That so many Hindus (and Christians) had come from all parts of the city mattered to them; that this particular Indian had come mattered most of all.

Earlier this year, I visited Girish Karnad's hometown, Dharwad. His publisher, Manohara Grantha Mala, was holding its annual literary festival; all the talks would be in Kannada, except mine. The day before the festival opened, Girish took me to the office of his publisher, in the second floor of an old building in Subhas Road. It was here, fifty and more years ago, that Girish had come to deliver the script of his first play, Yayati. Manohara Grantha Mala had since published all his plays, and his autobiography too.

The publisher's office was more-or-less as when Girish had first visited it: one large room, perhaps twenty feet by fifteen feet, with a few desks on which manuscripts were piled up, with shelves on the wall stocking books the press had published. There was an open space for sitting; on which a dozen chairs were laid out, where sat local poets, novelists and critics whom Karnad had kept in touch with all these years.

Girish Karnad does not parade his politics, nor indeed his patriotism. Yet in his own understated way he has remained admirably devoted to his hometown and his home state, while never losing sight of his country or the world. He could, if he wished, write a splendid cultural history of India. For no one I know has his breadth of knowledge and understanding of all our arts - music, literature, dance - of the North as well as of the South of India; of folk forms and of popular and classical genres as well. (And he speaks and reads six Indian languages too).

If he has resisted writing such a book, it must be because Karnad values original creative work more than synthesis. While he published his autobiography in Kannada, he has since steadily refused to translate it into English. This may be because he doesn't want chaps like me to read it; or (more likely) because he still has plots in his head. As he approaches his eightieth birthday (which falls on May 19), may I wish my great compatriot the soundness of mind and body to craft the plays he wants to write, and which we all wish to see.

by Pratap Bhanu Mehta 
The Indian Express
May 23, 2018

The controversy in Assam over amendments to the Citizenship Bill 2016 may not make national headlines. But it has the potential of becoming a perfect storm in the near future. The BJP’s own ally, the AGP, several governments in the Northeast and even sections of the BJP are opposed to the bill. The Citizenship Amendment Bill was introduced in 2016 to enable India to grant citizenship to individuals from six minority communities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The bill lowers the waiting period for these minorities to be granted citizenship. While the bill has all-India significance, its stakes are high in Assam where the politics of migration has an unusual intensity.

The protests over the bill have constitutional and political significance beyond Assam. The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 raises several issues. It makes illegal migrants eligible for citizenship based on their religion. It clearly violates Article 14 of the Constitution. Proponents of the bill argue that even though it does not explicitly state it, the bill grants citizenship based on a reasonable classification. On this view, these minorities are likely to be persecuted in the three states in question; it is unlikely that any other state would grant them citizenship; and therefore, a special dispensation for them is justifiable. The claim that India has special obligations only to persecuted minorities of particular religions is debatable. But even if we grant for a moment that the historical circumstances of these persecuted minorities are different, the form of the bill matters.

Instead of simply saying that members belonging to particular religions will be eligible for differential treatment, the bill should have laid down some general secular criteria (persecution history, history of migration etc) which could, in principle, at least, be applied to all groups. But the direct exclusion of Muslims from being eligible for this pathway under any circumstances makes the constitutional form and citizenship communal. The BJP could easily have achieved the substantive objective by a more general framing. But the fact that it chose to discriminate on the basis of religion suggests the bill was more about sending a signal to its constituents than about resolving a genuine problem. Form matters. There was no need to communalise the form of the law.

Second, the bill clearly violates the Assam Accord. Whatever one may think of it, the issue of the credibility of an accord signed by the Union of India is not entirely a trivial one. And it may have ramifications for future negotiations. Third, the bill has potentially interesting implications for asymmetric federalism. One of the proposals under consideration is to exempt Assam from the purview of the bill while making it applicable to the rest of India. There is not much opposition to this bill in other states. The political consequences of this bill are not nearly as severe as in Assam.

But these arguments are not about the niceties of constitutional law. In fact, this debate exposes the limits of constitutional law in resolving intense problems of migration and identity. The protests over the bill have reminded us of the fragility of legal resolutions in Assam. The traditional faultlines in Assam have not gone away. There are multiple anxieties at stake. Assam has borne the brunt of migration in ways that unsettled so many identities and created distributive conflicts. The process of completing the National Register of Citizens is on, and either way its results are going to leave large numbers of people disaffected and vulnerable.

As Sanjoy Hazarika has tirelessly pointed out, the real challenge for India will begin after the process of identifying immigrants is done. What do we do with people we will have declared stateless? Are mass deportations, camps or even large-scale disenfranchisement, really an option for a polity that claims to be a democracy? How do we address these concerns without a disproportionate burden falling on Assam? But under the current dispensation and logic of political argument, it is hard to see how India avoids this inhumane outcome.

The second anxiety is the one that fuelled the Assam movement in the first place: The dilution of Assamese identity. This is the local Bengali-Assamese opposition overlaid over what the BJP has constructed as a Hindu-Muslim difference. Once again, the imperatives of the BJP’s national agenda have run up against regional identity claims. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, the hero of the anti-illegal migration movement, will not have his political skills tested. Vigorous opposition to the bill in Assam is stoked by fears and memories of Bengali domination.

This faultline will have to be deftly managed. But two things will make it difficult: First, the nature of competitive politics, where the incentives to take radical positions and polarise is increasing. Second, Bengali-Assamese tensions have a greater possibility of spilling over into West Bengal where, too, the political climate is becoming more fragile. Third, there is the conflict in the micro geographies of Assam. The bill has evoked different reactions in the Brahmaputra and Barak Valley. In Barak Valley, Hindu Bengali migrants welcome the bill. This issue comes under the shadow of the still practically unresolved matter of the implications of migration for the other constitutional promise of protecting Fifth and Sixth Schedule areas.

The truth is that the Assam quagmire will not be solved easily. Pulling a thread that tries to disentangle one part of the solution immediately puts strains on other parts of the problem. Nor can any political party claim either wisdom or full credibility in Assam. It is perhaps with this in mind that the Joint Parliamentary Committee has been proceeding cautiously on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, trying to take in all the stake-holders. None of these issues are new or unexpected. But what makes this moment fraught is the fact that anxiety levels are going up. There is increasing communalisation in the state. Most importantly, the nature of competitive politics is such that the incentives of political parties to try and outbid each other using the card of ethnic politics has increased.

No solution in Assam is an easy solution. But a cross-party dialogue and consensus, on throwing cold water on simmering conflicts and lowering the stakes will help at the margins. It is high time issues in Assam take national priority once again. Or we will be sleep walking into yet another tragic conflict in Assam, whose consequences will be national.
The writer is vice chancellor, Ashoka University. Views are personal

Devangshu Datta
Proportional representation offers better representation of the entire electorate's views
During elections in Ex-PM Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, citizens would be ordered to queue up and sign a folded, filled-in ballot paper, which they would then put into the box. If any innocent dared to ask, "Who am I voting for?" the stock answer was, "It's a secret ballot".
​ ​
That's pretty much the only type of election, which doesn't produce surprising results. As Kenneth Arrow proved, it's mathematically impossible to create a fair election process that cannot throw up unfair outcomes, given at least three candidates.
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To take a simple case, assume seven voters have to choose between three candidates, A, B and C. In a first past the post (FPTP) system, two voters vote for each of the three. The seventh voter has a casting “super-vote". The candidate who wins, is also not the first choice of the majority.
In a proportional representation (PR) system, voters rank the three candidates. Say, two voters choose A, followed by B, with C last. Two voters choose C, followed by A, B last. Three voters choose B, followed by A, C last. B has three first places. But four voters prefer A over B. Who wins?
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FPTP can give a massive majority to a party that wins a small vote share. It favours concentration, where voters are clustered in specific seats. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has suffered due to lack of concentrated support. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP won 4.19 per cent of votes cast. But it did not win any seats. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) won 1.6 per cent of the vote and took six seats.
The Indian National Congress (INC) suffered in the 2018 Karnataka Assembly elections from lack of concentration. The INC won 38 per cent vote share but only 78 seats (out of 224). The Bharatiya Janata Party won 36.2 per cent of votes and 104 seats.
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India has always had a FPTP system. Would a PR system be fairer? Probably, since PR offers better representation of the entire electorate's views and India has a very diverse, heterogeneous electorate.
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But there are several different types of PR. All have drawbacks. The simplest PR system involves party lists. Say, there are 100 seats. Every party produces a manifesto and a “closed list” of 100 candidates. Voters vote only for the party. Once the tally is done, the seats are split in the ratio of the vote share. A party that wins 30 per cent of the vote gets 30 seats and the party picks its 30 MPs.
The biggest drawbacks: Independents can't get a look-in and voters cannot choose candidates with a closed list. An open list where the voter can pick the candidate as well as the party is better. In an open list, a voter can select a specific candidate of XYZ party. List PR systems are used in over 80 countries.
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Another drawback with PR is that a party with a very small vote share can become a kingmaker in a hung house. One way to massage this out of the system is to have a threshold: Parties must get a stipulated minimum vote share to be allotted seats.
Another popular PR system combines FPTP with PR, giving each voter a "double-vote". One vote goes to a specific individual candidate in a number of seats decided by FPTP. The other vote goes to a party which has an open/closed list. This allows independents into the picture (in the FPTP).
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Would any of this work better in India? Historically, given vote shares
since 1950, India would always have had coalitions! Even in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi won an overwhelming mandate with 404 seats (out of 543) but the INC got just 49 per cent of the vote.
Do you think coalitions offer more effective governance than single-party governments? Do you think coalitions reduce the danger of communal violence? Your views will colour your opinion of PR.
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The historical record in India suggests that both may be true. Certainly coalitions have delivered more in the way of better-distributed economic growth.
Maybe India would have done better if it had adopted a PR system from the outset.

Louisa Chiang and Perry Link
The New York Review of Books
June 7, 2018 Issue

Little Reunions	
by Eileen Chang, translated from the Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz
New York Review Books, 332 pp., $16.95

Forever Young
a film directed by Li Fangfang

In 2012, as he ascended to the top of the Chinese Communist Party and its government, Xi Jinping began giving speeches about a “Chinese Dream”: China was to become wealthy, powerful, beautiful, and unified. Of these four goals, wealth and power were especially important because, in an official narrative that had been repeated for decades in schools and the media, China for too long had been bullied by Western powers.
Ailing Zhang (Eileen Chang) Papers, USC Libraries
Eileen Chang, Hong Kong, circa 1954

The sense of national humiliation that has seeped into popular consciousness in China has, for many, led to a deep ambivalence toward the West: Chinese admire its wealth, modernity, and freedoms, yet we are rivals, not friends. China’s great modern writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) several times observed that his fellow Chinese look either up at the West or down on it—never straight across. The usual results are caricatures that further impede the possibility of getting a clear look.

In the last ten years, there have been signs in China that a growing number of people want to move beyond the look-up-or-look-down trap, and the popularity of Eileen Chang’s novel Little Reunions is one of them. Finished in 1976 but not published until 2009, fourteen years after her death, the book sold 700,000 copies in China in its first six months of publication. It is Chang’s most autobiographical work, so some of its allure has been as a trove of clues to the author’s life. More than that, though, the novel recalls a vanished China of the 1930s and 1940s that was both rooted in Chinese culture and open to the West; its scenes offer an antidote to the mood of indignant rivalry and, at least in the imagination, an alternative to the Xi Jinping version of what it means to be a modern Chinese. In Chang’s assured cosmopolitanism, Westerners are neither models nor victimizers but three-dimensional human beings who go through pains and triumphs just as Chinese people do. Writing in California during years when her home country was writhing in torrid “class struggle,” Chang depicts everyday human experience in prose that is elegant, erudite, and trenchant.

Born in 1920 into an elite but declining family of scholar-officials, Chang grew up with only intermittent parenting by a mother who was often traveling abroad and an aloof father who spent considerable time with opium and courtesans. Following her Western-style schooling in wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong, she began publishing brilliant short novels—Love in a Fallen City and The Golden Cangue, among others—that are reminiscent of Austen in their preoccupation with romantic and family relationships portrayed against a backdrop of upper-class dysfunction in a semicolonial world. Chang quickly found a large following. She remained in China for three years after the Communist victory in 1949, and in The Rice-Sprout Song and Naked Earth produced two of the most penetrating accounts of those years. Her works were banned in China until the 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, as readers thirsted for an alternative to the mediocre entertainment fiction of the post-Tiananmen era on the one hand and the jaw-breaking modernism of the avant-garde on the other, an “Eileen Chang fever” took hold.

Little Reunions follows Julie Sheng—the fictionalized Eileen Chang—through a thick web of relationships in war-torn upper-class China and eventually into a passionate romance and doomed marriage with a Japanese collaborator who is distracted by his several other sexual liaisons. The English translation appends a “Character List” of 124 entries, and it is needed. Julie’s integrity and moral insight give the novel some unity, but it is a kaleidoscope.

Chang approaches her characters, whether Western or Chinese, ready to empathize. Colonists have their problems, too. By showing their vexations (without condoning their faults) Chang asserts a moral power that rejects victimhood. She seems aware that scolding the conqueror is only another way of acknowledging his privileged position. Her empathy serves to vindicate the nation and culture from which she has emerged.

For example, Chudi (Judy), who is Julie’s surrogate mother, has a secret affair in wartime Shanghai with a Nazi school principal, Herr Schütte. He pays for her braces, a marvel of Western technology that improves Judy’s looks more than anyone thought possible. In return, after Germany loses the war, Judy helps Schütte to buy his fare home by selling his greatcoat. Such barter between lovers trumps—at least temporarily—the caste system within which they live. Part of Herr Schütte wishes to be free from that system, but entrenched racism warps his world in ways that are too fundamental for him to notice. When his German wife gives birth to a son in Shanghai, the couple nickname the boy “the Chinaman.” For Chang, the detail of the nickname is a tool for showing the tensions that exist in his mind: a mocking parental love, racial exultation, and creeping cheater’s guilt, among others. She shows Herr Schütte’s human yearnings and their perversions just as she does for her Chinese characters.

Chang’s equitable worldview, made possible by her bicultural background, does much to explain why Little Reunions sold so well when it appeared in 2009. Many middle-class Chinese readers, wealthier and better-informed than their predecessors but feeling morally adrift, hoped for a vision of enlightened forgiveness and dignified equality with the West. Such a prospect was a bracing alternative to the draining tantrums about national humiliation and payback that suffused the Internet and continued to appear in state-approved books like Unhappy China, another best seller in 2009.

The 2009 “fever” over Little Reunions was part of a longer-term trend that has been called “Republican fever”—“Republican” refers to the years 1912–1949, when the Kuomintang (KMT) ruled most of China, and sometimes refers also to Taiwan and Hong Kong after 1949. Before Little Reunions, there had been fevers over the classic stories of Eileen Chang; over Qiong Yao, a Taiwanese writer of romances; Jin Yong, the master of historical martial-arts fiction from Hong Kong; and Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese crooner of love songs. For young people, these artists seemed to be lifting a curtain on another way to be Chinese; for older people, they recalled a bygone time whose cultural resources, after the Maoist blight, might once again prove useful.

An important issue in the fascination with the Republican era has been questions about what really happened among the Nationalists, the Communists, and the Japanese during the War of Resistance (1937–1945) and the ensuing Civil War (1945–1949). Was it true, as the Communists claimed in their textbooks and novels, that their guerrilla fighters expelled the Japanese? Or as historians and journalists were now discovering, did Nationalist troops do most of the fighting?

In 1984 the government built a museum in Nanjing to commemorate the horrific 1937–1938 “Nanjing massacre” in which Japanese troops slaughtered as many as 300,000 noncombatant Chinese. Now, though, writers were comparing that massacre with the Communists’ 1948 siege, during the Civil War, of the northeastern city of Changchun, where a similar number of innocents died, in this case of starvation. On the Changchun disaster, Communist textbooks note only that “Changchun was liberated without a shot.” In a 2007 essay Liu Xiaobo, China’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died in prison last year, argued that the Communist government’s lies about the war made Japanese lies about the war more plausible.*

Chinese readers’ sense that they had been lied to about the war fueled a desire to reexamine the Republican years more broadly. Were they really as bad as official textbooks claimed? After 1949 Mao had started violent political campaigns, a famine that killed thirty million or more people, and a devastating Cultural Revolution. Was “liberation” really better than what had gone before?

The urban young not only began to imitate Republican-era fashion—such things as qipao gowns, high-heeled shoes, and wire-rimmed glasses with round lenses—but sometimes chose to write Chinese in traditional characters rather than the simplified characters that the Communists had introduced in 1955. Shopkeepers took to using traditional characters on their signs until the government banned the practice in 2015. Intellectuals looked to the Republican era for possible remedies for contemporary moral bankruptcy and cultural malaise. Some sought out Republican-era textbooks to give their children for extracurricular reading.

New editions of the works of intellectual luminaries from the Republican period—including Liang Qichao (1873–1929), the polymath humanist-reformer; Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940), the president of Peking University and famous champion of academic freedom; and Chen Yinke (1890–1969), the preeminent China historian of his time—appeared sporadically through the 1980s and 1990s. The trend accelerated between 1999 and 2013 and eventually included dozens of distinguished writers. In 2011 a three-volume work by Yue Nan called Crossing to the South and Returning to the North compared the fates of Republican-era intellectuals who went to Taiwan or abroad in 1949 with those who stayed behind, and between 2013 and 2016, four volumes by Tian Xiaoqing called Currents in Republican Thought appeared.

These publications made political comments in two ways: first, they spotlighted Republican-era liberal thinkers who had envisioned a different route for China. Reexamining their works in the present raised the question What if…? Second, and more subtly, Republican liberals were useful for those who wished to comment on the present. A writer in the Xi Jinping era might be barred from calling explicitly for certain intellectual freedoms but could show how far liberals in the Republican era were able to go. He or she might know full well that the freedoms back then existed mostly in spite of the government, not because of it, but the goal was to make a point about today.

Collected works of scholars were attractive only to the very well educated, but Republican fever spread beyond the elite, to popular books and articles and middlebrow television shows. In 2015 a three-volume work called The Deeply Historic Republican Era by Jiang Cheng claimed on its front cover to be “recommended by one million readers on the Web.” Yuan Tengfei, a high school history teacher in Beijing, used the Internet to charm people with his sharp insights, delivered with sprightly sarcasm, into every decade of twentieth-century Chinese history. In one of his barbs, he juxtaposes Chiang Kai-shek’s “white terror” of 1927, in which several hundred Communists were massacred, with Mao’s slaughter of 710,000 counterrevolutionaries in 1950, then poses the question, “How many do you have to kill in order to attain the level of Great Leader?” Before his social media accounts were shut down in September 2017, Yuan had 16 million online fans.

On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, the philosopher and diplomat Hu Shih (1891–1962) loomed as the image of the flawless scholar-official, unswerving in his defense of tolerance and academic freedom in the face of political interference. People noted that Chiang Ching-kuo (1910–1988), the son of Chiang Kai-shek, helped bring democracy to Taiwan in the late 1980s—the very era when mainland politics were moving in the other direction, culminating in a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989. The Republican comparison fed a growing public perception that the Nationalists were not, after all, as bad as the Communists, who seemed to stop at nothing to maintain their grip on power.

But comparisons to the Republican past could also go too far. A contrast with the ills of the Communist era could lead to nostalgia for only its better side. Thus Mao’s extreme violence could make Chiang Kai-shek’s seem less notable; the obscene wealth of the Communist elite today could adumbrate the severe social inequality of the Republican era. Disillusionment following the discovery of Communist lies could lead pro-democracy intellectuals to lurch uncritically in the opposite direction. Because Mao’s spectacular human rights abuses were perpetrated in the name of economic justice, for example, some were led to dismiss concerns over economic inequality as resurgent Marxist baloney in disguise.
Magnum Photos
Street view from inside an antique dealer’s shop, Beijing, 1965; photograph by Marc Riboud

Most Chinese fans of Republican nostalgia, though—notably including Eileen Chang fans—have better-grounded views. They can see the difference between Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo and are admirers of Taiwanese democracy. The author of Little Reunions does not tell her readers what to think, but a left-leaning sympathy with the underclass can be inferred from her art. Masters and servants in her pages live in everyday proximity, and exploitative relationships, although not labeled as such, are obvious. Maids are taken as concubines. Nannies substitute as parents. Septuagenarian servants, having outlived their utility, are abandoned to the destitute countryside from which they originally were drawn. The servant-to-serf continuum shows no real difference from life in Cao Xueqin’s great novel Dream of the Red Chamber, of two hundred years earlier. No careful reader of Little Reunions in 2009 could have used it to look back on Republican life as idyllic or to see the class issue as a mere Marxist obsession.

What Little Reunions does do, along with similar works in the Republican fever, is to invite a counterfactual question: Could China have taken a different path in the twentieth century? What if Japan had not invaded and the Republican effort at modernization had not been aborted? How wealthy and strong might the country have become, how happy its citizens, how attractive its soft power? Beneath these questions about modernization has lurked another about China’s cultural identity: How much Chineseness was lost when the Republic collapsed on the mainland? In the 1950s Mao began to model China after the Soviet Union. Later he split with the Soviets, but the country has suffered cultural confusion and moral malaise ever since. The Republican era, whatever its flaws, seemed the last in which an authentic China could be found.

In 2013 China’s authorities began pushing back against Republican fever. A set of instructions called “Document No. 9” was circulated internally to officials around the country. It warned against “constitutional democracy,” “civil society,” “press freedom,” “historical nihilism,” and other maladies that had been seeping into China. The phrase “historical nihilism,” which seemed puzzling at first, was political code for denying the glorious record of the Chinese Communist Party. Censors set to work enforcing Document No. 9, and two years later Republican fever began to recede.

This year, though, the release of an unusual movie has begun to revive it. One of China’s leading universities, Tsinghua, marked its hundredth anniversary in 2011, and it commissioned a fiction film, directed by Li Fangfang, to celebrate its history. Called in English Forever Young, it is technically awkward, even amateurish, but it tells the important story of how war and revolution ravaged Tsinghua’s humanistic beginnings, and it pleads for the restoration of those values today. Completed in 2012, the film was blocked by censors until January 2018, but when it was released it quickly became a box-office hit.

Tsinghua was founded in Beijing as a preparatory school for Chinese students who were headed for the United States on the Boxer Indemnity Scholarships that were established with funds that China’s last dynasty, the Qing, was obliged to pay to the US as reparations for American losses in the Boxer uprising of 1899–1901. In 1924, the year before Tsinghua instituted its four-year college curriculum, the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore visited the campus, where, according to Forever Young, he left students with deep impressions of humanistic values. “Do not forget your vocation,” he urges in the film, and avoid “the lure of profit.”

After the Japanese invasion of northern China in 1937, Tsinghua merged with Peking University and Nankai University in Tianjin; the schools transferred their students and teachers to the southwestern city of Kunming to form Southwestern Associated National University, where, in the film, asceticism, patriotism, honesty, and intellectual integrity are paramount. The environment is rustic and simple. Nationalist soldiers are preparing to fight the Japanese, and the US military is helping to train them. The Americans are appropriately gruff, but for a PRC film to show either them or Nationalist soldiers as good guys is a first for PRC cinema.

After the war, back in Beijing and under heavy Soviet influence in the 1950s, Tsinghua’s purpose became the training of engineers, and it did this until 1966, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution shut China’s universities down. Tsinghua reopened in 1978, after which the humanities made a modest comeback. But science and technology have still predominated.

The apparent mission of Forever Young is to revive Tsinghua’s humanist roots. The film opens with scenes of modern furniture and equipment inside clean modern buildings inhabited by people who do not trust one another. Is the baby formula fake? Why did a pork shop where I’d been a loyal customer for four years trick me into buying fatty pork? Look at our “great masters” of Chinese culture today: they are semiliterate soothsayers who, in picking names for infants, recommend words that connote “fiend” or “femme fatale.” Where are the real cultural masters we once had?

Moving back in time, the film invites the question of what caused the ethical and intellectual wasteland we see today. Was it imperialism and war? Did we have no room for anything but patriotism? Through several episodes the film shows that there need be no conflict between humanism and patriotism. Shen Guangyao, a Tsinghua graduate who has enlisted in China’s air force and whose plane is fatally hit in a dogfight, chooses to crash into a Japanese ship rather than bail out with his parachute. He does this of his own volition and in spite of his training by an American military officer that a pilot’s life is always more precious than an airplane. The contrast to the fate of Japanese kamikaze pilots is plain—but so, for Chinese viewers, is the contrast to the endlessly repeated Communist stories about martyrs who forfeit their lives for the party.

Another episode follows a young woman whose small mistakes lead to political charges that result in her social ostracism, torture, and, eventually, suicide. Is this a reference to the Cultural Revolution? Of course. But that cannot be made explicit in the film; it would be “historical nihilism.” Rather these scenes are moved up about five years, to 1962. One can only imagine the negotiations between the filmmakers and the censors on this point.

And on many other points as well. The humanist values that the film shows to be deep in Tsinghua’s origins are in part Christian. The university’s president from 1931 to 1948, Mei Yiqi, was a Boxer Indemnity scholar in 1909 who studied electrical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and became a Christian in 1912. In the film we see the unassuming and kind Mei at Southwest Associated University, where we also meet an American missionary who is close to the local Chinese Christians and sings “Amazing Grace” with them. For the film, the lyrics are changed to remove any specifically Christian connotations. The new words in the opening lines are:

    Amazing grace flows into my heart
    As heaven and earth look on
    That grace unfolds for all to see
    From here to the edges of dawn

    Stripped of hope and tested by fire
    My faith still leads me on
    Through exhaustion, over dangers
    Until every cloud is gone

It cannot have been easy to get the censors to accept the song, whatever the words. Most remarkable, moreover, is that its melody is played, without words, in the background of scenes in the two later historical settings of the film—the Mao era and contemporary times. The tune seems to be saying: “the Tsinghua spirit endures.”

Christianity is only one component in that spirit, though; its general message of truth, justice, and civility is secular and broad. In fact it comes close to what Document No. 9 denounces as “universal values.” The film’s name in Chinese is highly significant: wuwen xidong, which literally means “not asking if it’s West or East,” echoes an idea that has been at the heart of human rights advocacy in China ever since the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi declared, in the late 1980s, in an allusion to the universality of human rights, that “I don’t do Eastern physics or Western physics; I do physics.”

The filmmakers had cover for their provocative title because the phrase wuwen xidong appears in the third stanza of Tsinghua’s school anthem, composed in 1923. But that cover itself was ambiguous: Did it not also suggest that universal values were in the Tsinghua spirit right from the beginning? That question is potentially embarrassing to Chinese leaders like Xi Jinping or Hu Jintao, the president before him, because both are Tsinghua graduates. Which is wrong, they might have to ask themselves—their school spirit or Document No. 9?


South Asia Citizens Wire
Buzz for secularism, on the dangers of fundamentalism(s), on
matters of peace and democratisation in South
Asia. Newsletter of South Asia Citizens Web:

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