Dignity for the exploited, the hounded, the paperless, the Other

Tag: india

The cost of silence is murder

They murdered a man in Dadri, a small town in India I had never heard of, and it made me think of Greifswald, another town of sixty thousand, host to one of the world’s oldest universities. The university’s name was changed in 1933 to Ernst Moritz Arndt on the instructions of Hermann Göring, a decorated soldier of the First World War, whose nationalist credentials can scarcely be disputed. Arndt too was a bit of a nationalist, and adolescent boys may be forgiven for admiring one of his ideas, “Da ist Freiheit, wo du in den Sitten und Gesetzen deiner Väter leben darfst; wo dich beglücket, was schon deinen Ureltervater beglückte”. (Freedom is where you can live according to the customs of your fathers; where you are made happy by that which made your most distant ancestors happy)

That is the connection to Dadri – for the man they murdered was Mr. Mohammad Akhlaq, 50 years old, a blacksmith and a Muslim. While he was resting at home with his family, so the accounts go, an accusation was made in a nearby Hindu temple that he had killed a calf and consumed its flesh. The cow being holy to Hindus, this outraged the faithful, and they found their way to his home, dragged him out of bed, and beat him to death with bricks and sticks. They also attacked his son, and the female members of his family. The men who murdered him were probably not scholars of Arndt, but they would have agreed with his ideas on freedom, for is India not their land, and are not the Muslims outsiders, with foreign ways? In their romantic view of ancient India, cows were treasured, and slaughtering them quite unthinkable. When they heard of Mr. Akhlaq’s alleged transgression, they decided that mercilessly beating him and his family would pave the way to a return to a nobler age. They dispensed with contemptible innovations such as due process, tolerance, privacy, and respect for human dignity. The rumor of a basic value of the community being outraged is reminiscent of Göring’s goons who spread tales of the ritual killing of (Christian) children by Jews as part of a vilification campaign that resulted in loot and murder.

A man was torn from his home and viciously torn apart by a mob – but that is not the saddest and scariest bit. That questionable honor belongs to the reaction that ensued. At least one journalist titled his piece, “No beef consumed in Dadri murder”, and the local authorities confirmed that the meat found in Mr. Akhlaq’s home was “simply mutton and not beef”. A man was murdered, but the “local authorities” thought they would best serve by running tests to identify foodstuffs, and the press considered it a vital enough angle for the headline. A common refrain on Internet comments was along the lines of “Yes, well, but what about that other incident where a Hindu person was attacked?” Another appears to complain about “liberals” letting down the side by tarnishing the national image. The word “liberal”, standing for “person daring to put individual freedom and human dignity ahead of national or racial interests” appears to have the same connotation in some circles as did the appellation “intellectual” back in the Soviet Union. The police showed up, arrested some suspects, which lead to more violence, and shocking statements made by politicians. All that notwithstanding, the most detestable reaction was silence. Bertolt Brecht’s verse, inspired by the era of Göring, comes to mind: “Was sind das für Zeiten, wo ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist, weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!” (What terrible times are these, when an ordinary conversation about trees is almost a crime, because it tacitly implies an acceptance of the injustice around us!)

Mr. Akhlaq is beyond our help. His death is yet another warning that we may not stay silent, not just when the mob is gathering in an unknown provincial town, but when we hear the intolerant remarks at the breakfast table in our own homes. Quite harmless remarks, and everyone is entitled to an opinion, surely, and it is tiresome to have a political debate over a casual utterance. Yet every unchallenged remark disparaging a certain group of humans confirms a certain antagonistic weltanschauung, and someone will pay with blood. Surely, this we have learnt.




The flag is a pernicious distraction

Indien bild

August 15, 1947 — called the Day of Independence for a thousand million people, although it is a bit of a misnomer, for India was created on that day, in a sense, and so could not be made ‘independent’ of anything. Of course, Indies is ancient — and even if we take the recent historical view of India, ‘independence’ was accompanied by two massive chunks of land, almost a million square kilometers, breaking away.

One of them, Pakistan, went on to fight, and be fought by, India in multiple wars and additional decades-long, systematic conflict, with the concomitant death and suffering of multitudes. Even before the wars, at the moment of ‘independence’, millions were uprooted from their homes, with mass-murder and rape. There’s an additional angle to it: Hyderabad State, a piece of land larger than England, did not become part of the new India on 15 August 1947, or even in the later months of that year. There also remained a Portuguese enclave for years afterwards, but a relatively small one. Much larger in territory were the Princely States, which, de jure, had been independent — if anything, independence was lost, presumably for millions. Considering the significant geographies of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Hyderabad State, and, more importantly, their millions of denizens, we must ask whether a brutal amputation and a partial agglomeration is to be celebrated?

However, perhaps we may ignore considerations of what are the de jure borders of which nations, as these notions are arbitrary, in any case — surely, what matters is the reality on the ground?

Instead of ‘independence’, then, let us celebrate freedom — the freedom to express an opinion without having goons come to our doorsteps, the freedom to be a woman or casteless person without adverse consequence, the freedom to speak one’s language without being disadvantaged in the job market, the freedom to participate in government, the freedom to access education and cultural resources, the freedom to question exploitative and unjust practices without fear of reprisal, the freedom to either worship certain Gods or refuse to join in communal adoration without being subject to genocide, and the freedom to use a toilet.

Unfortunately, these we cannot celebrate.

Indies has endured since millennia, in spite of a stream of invaders from a plethora of cultures — or perhaps they contributed to the story of India. India will survive. Far more precarious are individual freedom, human dignity, and social justice for many millions of her living residents. Till we succeed to establish them as norms, ‘independence’ is a hollow, pernicious celebration.

How long till the last slave?

“We were slaves for a thousand or twelve hundred years”

– Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, nominal representative of a billion-plus people, in New York to a rapt audience of many thousands.

A two-century margin of error is at least curious, if not an abomination, when cherished liberty is spoken of, surely?

Even if we may tolerate this frivolity, the statement reveals more. What happened in India in 800 – 1000 CE that apparently so strongly relates to the notion of ‘slavery’? Foreign invasions, yes; but by far not the first. Alexander came to India more than two thousand years ago. A hundred years before him, Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote of India paying homage to Persia, and that was earlier still, and must have been drawn in the aftermath of battles. Also, India, like Germany in later times, has always been a term perhaps best stated within quotes, because borders were not fixed, and there was no formal political unity.

The more recent invaders of 1000 CE were Muslims – Islam was relatively young – from the west, some with a religious bent to their marauding; some of them went on to found an empire that ruled a large chunk of what is commonly thought of as India. Perhaps that is why the Prime Minister, who belongs to a Hindu-leaning political alliance – in a part of the world where Hindu and Islamic philosophies have often bloodily clashed – picked that as the advent of slavery. Choosing the Islamic invasions as the starting point of a supposed Indian slavery might be defensible, but it is scarcely conciliatory. It is especially surprising coming from an acutely intelligent orator, and a little worrying given his great influence. Moreover, the past in its entirety belongs to all of us – the good bits, the glorious bits, the embarrassing bits, the absolutely despicable bits.

India saw so many invaders, travelers, traders and immigrants over the many millennia, and developed or adopted so many tongues, races, Gods, arts, and customs at meat, that the notion of identity, of ‘we’, is necessarily complicated, going far beyond the demarcation of land borders. Who was enslaved, who did the enslaving?

As an aside, the term ‘slavery’ itself is not very precise. Surely, we may not restrict it to the legally-sanctioned ownership of a human being? Are not some forms of exploitation the same as slavery, as well as some forms of forced dependence, and also institutionalized or widespread discrimination against certain groups of people on arbitrarily chosen grounds? The latter includes the caste system, racism in general, the outlawing of homosexuality, and the persecution of religious minorities, and those who rebel against taboos.

Going back to the original statement, ‘We were slaves for a thousand or twelve hundred years’: this is largely irrelevant – at least, it has become so since the time the people of France conceived of the ideas of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. What does it matter whether a nation is ‘free’, if large numbers of her citizens languish in unending misery and debilitating indigence, and are bereft of a voice, of justice, and of access to humanity’s cultural wealth? Indeed, the definition of liberty would have to be changed, before such a nation be deemed to be free. To insist upon a country being ‘free’ only because the ruling class has a few external characteristics in common with the exploited class, is anachronistic nationalism.

We have many freedoms, but we are slaves, all of humanity, and we shall not rid ourselves of this ghastly mark till every single one of us is free.

Language choice – identity, segregation and genocide

Language can be a source of great beauty, and can allow us to share our story as we experience and contemplate the mystery and void of human existence. Of course, it also allows trade as well as maintenance of knowledge systems, and is probably a cornerstone of civilization. This is not a scientific or neurological analysis of the human phenomenon of language, nor a catalog of its richness, nor of the history of its evolution. Many mighty tomes have been filled with these topics. Instead, this is an examination of how language can be perverted from being a tool of communication to one of segregation, ostracism and mass-murder, and a perspective on what lovers of personal freedom and human dignity might wish to consider as they make their choices around the use of languages.

Consider the word shibboleth. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) suggests that it is “a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people..” Its origin is, however, blood-soaked. The incident is from the Bible (Judges 12:6) as the Gileadites warred against Ephraim and captured the fords of the Jordan opposite Ephraim.

And it happened when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Say now, ‘Shibboleth.'” But he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it correctly. Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.

That is quite a lot of people who were killed just because they could not pronounce a certain word correctly. That was a long time ago; but we have heard rumor that the practice was followed in modern warfare, as spies in Holland less than a century ago were made to speak the word “Scheveningen” with fatal consequences for getting it wrong.

In any case, language has remained a key attribute of human identity. One major factor in the bloody break-up of East and West Pakistan was the insensitivity shown towards the Bengali language by Punjabi- and Urdu- speaking politicians. Language proved stronger than religion, in this case, and Bangladesh emerged, in joy and marigolds, but not without grief. Consider also the staggering achievement of Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda, who rejuvenated Hebrew, and caused his son Ben-Zion to be the first person in many centuries to grow up speaking it as a first language, laying the framework for the modern state of Israel. These are just two examples out of many from recent history, which illustrate how the choice of language can affect millions of human lives – and the conditions of those lives.

Language is an emotive issue. Let us look at two, fairly common, scenarios of people refusing to speak a language even when they can – either because of their relationship with the language, or because of their perception of their interlocutor.

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

What the now-deceased Führer declares here in Mein Kampf, his mass-reproduced magnum opus, is:

“It is however an almost incredible fallacy to believe that a Negro or a Chinaman, say, could become a German because he has learnt the German language and is ready to evermore speak it.”

Many of Hitler’s theses are no longer widely accepted, and this one too would not find resonance in today’s Germany, the preamble to whose constitution starts off with the notion of human dignity. But perhaps you happen to be a German ultra-nationalist whose proud soul shudders at the notion of speaking the sacred German language to an Outsider, someone of swarthy complexion, or strangely-shaped eyes, or of the Jewish or Slavic persuasions – someone for whom you have little more than rabid hatred or cold contempt? Consider then the curious case of Friedrich the Great, King in and from Prussia, admired by generations of patriotic Germans, and, crucially, one Russian – he too struggled with the German language, preferring the tongue of France. Consider also that some of the greatest stylists of the German language were open to and tolerant of other cultures and languages: Heine, Goethe, Kafka and Nietzsche. Two of these were, quelle horreur, Jews. Perhaps it is time to move beyond Hitler. The idea extends, of course, to all über-nationalist tendencies in language, and the German case is only an illustrative example.

A similar, less violent example is from Nepali history, when some powers were taken away from the monarch in the 1900s. He was expected to use the polite form of the second person pronoun with his courtiers, but could not bring himself to adapt to his changing world, and solved the problem by speaking English with them, which language has in “you” its only form of the second person direct pronoun. During the same time, it so happened that the Indian ambassador to Nepal was a retired General of the Gurkhas, who therefore spoke fluent Nepali, and, given his rank, was happy to be addressed with the informal form of the second person pronoun. Thus, the Nepali King spoke Nepali with a foreigner, and a foreign language with his own courtiers. The other scenario has to do with people who refuse to speak a particular language for it has connotations of repression, as evidenced by a Catalonian, on occasion or in general, feeling uncomfortable speaking the Castilian language, as Castilian represents the modern Spanish monarchy some Catalonians wish to break away from; or by an African in a post-colonial world not acquiescing in speaking English or French, the language of the formal colonial oppressors; or by a survivor of the Holocaust in Israel not wishing to speak German, even though it might be his or her “mother tongue”, because the language is associated with memories of pain and degradation.These examples focus on Castilian (Spanish), English (or French) and German, but the rule is obviously general. Would it be anything other than churlish or cruel to compel persons to speech in languages they command but have chosen to disdain?

To sum up, refusing to speak a language one can speak, may well be fuelled by a political philosophy. Such a refusal must remain the individual’s choice, although it is, generally speaking, easier to respect the act when done out of solidarity with the weaker side or out of a desire to integrate into the community, rather than when it derives from anachronistic racism.

Mother tongue: The language that a person has grown up speaking from early childhood. (OED)

Not only is the term sexist (why not father tongue, or, for that matter babysitter tongue?), it is obsolete, for the OED assumption that people grow up speaking only one language is not true for many millions, and globalization is making it increasingly false. Also, it is largely irrelevant, as many people do not speak their mother tongues as adults. This is one of the reasons why languages die out. The related term “native language” too is defective, for it has come to indicate a high level of proficiency, rather than accident of birth. There are many who have been born and brought up in the fair land of England, and know no other tongue, and who must therefore be considered native speakers of English – yet, many of these are not precisely connoisseurs of the English language, and routinely make errors in usage. Also, how many words of Thai must one know to be regarded as a speaker of the Thai language, and must one be able to satisfactorily explain ten thousand of them if one is not to be prosecuted for perjury? Can we not simply formulate the bureaucratic demand as “Languages comfortable with”?

The issue of language is further complicated by accents, and by the phenomenon of code-switching, wherein a speaker alternates between two or more languages or dialects, in the context of a single conversation. If the occasional use of foreign words for “computer” or “internet” causes pain to the National Committee for Pure Language, imagine how aghast they must be when people employ whole sentences and phrases from outside. Both accents and code-switching have been used to identify classes of people and to discriminate against them. Perhaps we are slowly moving beyond killing, or being killed, on account of a language, but social and economic discrimination based on how people speak, independent of the content of their ideas, remains a reality.

Language is an important marker of human identity, and perhaps even defines or heavily influences how its adherents think about the world, through the concepts it makes available to them, and those it does not provide. However, it can also be a tool used to bring people together. In this spirit of human community, perhaps it might be an idea to tolerate other languages being spoken in the boulevards of our cities; to tolerate our own language being spoken with a strange accent, or perhaps not quite in the most polished of manners; to tolerate some refusing to speak a language even when possessed of the ability to do so. This tolerance in the emotive domain of language can only increase the pleasantness of human interaction and pave the way for a greater exchange of ideas.