Reviews sheviews

1. All Hail Salman Rushdie. All Hail Joseph Anton.

At times, when she was reading the memoir, she was reminded of that cherished moment in her youth, when she had first read prose in Latin class. That too was a memoir, as it happens, and one also written in the third person singular.

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.

Those luminous words, so clear, so forthright, so memorable.
Caesar’s saucy decision to refer to himself as “he,” instead of “I” — it was modern then, it’s modern now. And so, she rejoiced to be reunited once again with this form of self-writing, a veritable madeleine to her tween years, that awkward time between childhood and adolescence, when burgeoning young hormone-addled bodies lock horns and begin the cosmic dance of awakening…All Gaul is divided into three parts…

2. The Global Cyber Muslim Feminist Punk Fantasy of G. Willow Wilson

There is a climactic moment in G. Willow Wilson’s new novel Alif the Unseen, in which a female character, Dina, lifts her hijab and allows the protagonist, Alif, inside. Alif is about to be separated from her, perhaps forever, and has realized that he loves her. He asks for a moment of intimacy: he doesn’t ask to kiss her; he just wants to see her. The moment is powerful and revelatory:

He could not have guessed the world she had created for herself. Sewn into the underside of her longer outer cloak were patches of bright silk: patterned, beaded, spangled with points of light; they hung above him like a tent…

In this one passage, Wilson accomplishes what innumerable trashy neo-Orientalist “Behind the Veil” books cannot: she invites us into a space that is both personal and spiritual. For Dina, her hijab is like an outer skin that protects her; allowing someone to see inside is not a sexy stripping act but an invitation to deeper knowledge. Dina is contrasted throughout the novel with Alif’s former girlfriend, Intisar, who is from the upper classes (unlike Dina), and also wears hijab. Her hijab is fancy: it’s trimmed with beads that clink together when she moves her head. She has decided to cover her face as a kind of affectation of spiritual vanity, unlike the down-to-earth Dina, whose life is rendered more inconvenient for it.

Dead Bodies Amongst

The plight of Gaza civilians has shaken many a torpor-ed digital selves recently. This was notable because the ordinary condition of Gaza, the daily quotidian plight is in itself a crisis of unbelievable moral and humanistic severity. Yet the now-sanctioned ritual sharing of photos, of inflamed or inflammatory opinion pieces, of outrage on social networks happened only after the air and drone assault. What do we make of this relationship between the everyday and the extra-ordinary?

The Israeli “precision strikes” highlights the rule of exceptional occurrence in our collective consciousness – something has to break out of the ordinary for us to see it, feel it, respond to it. The “something” itself does not need to be extra-ordinary. The Gangnam-Style dance video has nothing exceptional going for it, except that every one is looking at it. Gaze is the exceptional-making entity. The Israeli assault on Gaza was exceptional precisely because it focused a collective Gaze onto Gaza City. Once it is over – once the exceptional ends – we revert back to the opaque haze that surrounds geographies and histories mere feet away from us.

In Pakistan this opaqueness limits our sight down to the level of the house. Since 2009, the targeting of Ahmadi community has continued unabated. Assassinations, public and private, coupled with state-backed “blasphemy” witch-hunts are the ordinary state of being Ahmadi in Pakistan. Into that particular majoritarian violence enters the attempt at mass annihilation of Shi’a communities across Pakistan. This is the targeting of Shi’a civilians in Quetta or in Sindh and Karachi.

The longer history of anti-Shi’a/anti-Ahmadi violence in territorial Pakistan stretches back to the early 1950s when the Jama’at-i Islami sought public and private ascendancy against its “communist” opponents. As the aims of Maududi-led Jama’at came closer and closer to the politico-military regimes of Ayub, Bhutto and then Zia ul Haq, the religious and political organizations became para-military execution squads.

It was in 1970-71 East Pakistan that this particular form of militant politics found its working-model: as Jama’at para-military groups were first asked, by West Pakistan military junta, to target and eliminate Bangla intellectuals.

Following the brutality of 1971, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto advanced the Jam’ati militarization on two fronts: he publicly and politically aligned Pakistan’s foreign policy with the Pan-Islamic movement in Cairo and Damascus and, secondly, he publicly and politically aligned Pakistan’s domestic policy with the Sunni-majoritarian theocracy of the Jama’at. Alongside this ideological re-alignement came the economic alignment when Bhutto initiated the overseas Workers program to export mass labor to the petro-Gulf States – specifically to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. From my perspective, these particular realignments of the early 1970s remain the most important, and most damaging, events of post 1947 Pakistan. Before I move on, to remain in touch with my theme of opaqueness let me also put forth that these policies were enacted squarely removed from any public participation. The absence of the voice of the common Pakistani is stark not only then, but now.

If all of that is setting up the bonfire, then the spark was 1979 – the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Siege of Mecca, mingling nationalism, petroleum, and the capacity of Muslims to declare apostasy where they see fit. Zia ul Haq’s regime, client state of both KSA and USA, was adamant on passing as many anti-Shi’a laws as possible, fearful that the Islamic Revolution will spread across the border and the world. The attacks on Shi’a processions had intensified in 1978-9 and kept escalating throughout the 1980s. Anti-Zia groups such as the Shi’a Tahrik-i Nifaz Fiqh Ja’fariyya quickly were labelled anti-Sunni groups against whom the military regime armed new paramilitary entities like the Sipah-e Sahaba. The Jama’at remained a fully plugged-in vehicle for the distribution of anti-Shi’a and anti-Ahmadi violence especially on college and university campuses where Zia ul Haq had banned all “political” parties.

I grew up in that Pakistan, on that college campus. Our home shared a wall with an Imam Barah. My cricket team contained 8 members who were Shi’a. I participated in most, if not all, activities during Muharram. We could not field a match because we were either sore or bleeding from Matam.

There was no tolerance. I learned after almost a year that our fast bowler – named Zulfiqar – was Shi’a. I was dense in my majoritarianism and my Gulfism. I was new to Pakistan. My uncles thought that orgies happened inside the darkened Imam Barah and that women were flown in from Iraq to service men. The wailing, the crying, they were eroticized acts of othering for them. My team-mates hid their Shi’a rituals, even as they participated in our particular brands of Eid Saeed. At College, the charismatic Jama’ati leader – who is now a very prominent Lahori politician – explained how devious and evil the Shi’a were to a group of us in the University Canteen. The tone was conspiratorial. The evidence was universal. The Jew. The Shi’a. The Ahmadi. The Christian.

The long and thorough de-humanization of Pakistan’s “others” has led us to such an acute crisis that we cannot even see that amidst our urban decay and rural want are scattered hundreds and thousands of dead bodies. They are all victims of precision strikes. All living in ghettos. All with daily freedoms curtailed. All living in fear of life, limb and desire.

The para-military religious assassination squads of 1971 are now operating against the Hazara community. has a chilling indictment of Pakistan’s blinded majority in their photo and video essay I am Hazara. I urge you to see it.

I urge you to feel some outrage for the very ordinary lives of your very ordinary neighbors.

The Selective Politics of Outrage: A Response to Barkha Dutt

Barkha Dutt has expressed incredulity on Twitter at being included in my essay “Bal Thackeray’s Poisonous Legacies” as an example of those in the worlds of media, celebrity, and politics who were soft-pedaling Bal Thackeray’s legacy. Dutt’s argument, expressed here and here, is that (a) it was sloppy and careless to include her in this list, since (b) she did not report on Thackeray’s death, and that (c) she had tweeted about the generally ritualistic nature of media coverage of death in India.

I am writing in response to these accusations of sloppiness.I welcome critiques of my writing and am happy to engage in a debate with Dutt. But the suggestions of lack of rigor and untenable interpretation in my analysis are unfounded.

My essay addressed the reaction of Indian elites in media, politics, and the domain of celebrityhood (regardless of where they happened to be located at the time) to Thackeray’s death. My essay was not limited to the reactions of those in the media industry who happened to be covering it while based in Bombay on the day. In the era of the internet and satellite television, the fact of Barkha Dutt not having been physically present in Bombay on the day is a non-issue. Indian journalists did not let the limitations of geography preclude them from commenting on the recently-held US election.

Dutt’s reaction, sparing as it may have been, to Thackeray’s death confirmed my broader argument, warranting her inclusion in my essay.  I had described as “bizarre” Rajdeep Sardesai’s suggestion that Mumbai might be shut the day after Thackeray’s death because of “respect” for Thackeray as much as it might have been shut out of fear. My point was that there weren’t two sides to this issue and that this bogus debate erected on false premises obscured the culture of terror that was the Shiv Sena’s preferred strategy for ensuring compliance with its diktats.

In one of her two tweets on the subject of Thackeray’s death, Dutt expresses a similar sentiment.

In her tweet of 4:07 pm, 17 November, Dutt writes:

Does the shutdown of a city post Thakeray, signify grief or fear or an odd mix of the two in a city transformed forever by Sena politics? [sic]

This is another example of the “fair and balanced” approach I critiqued in my essay. Grief, whether expressed in private or collectively, does not involve shutting down a city, causing people to lose their livelihood and daily wages, inconveniencing those who may need to visit a hospital or loved one, or simply prohibiting others from exercising their right to live, walk, shop, and enjoy public space freely. The name for such an action is intimidation or terror. As Anant Rangaswami writes in First Post, it was out of a fear of violence, shared by citizens, police, businesses, and other groups, that Bombay shut down. A free media in a democracy needs to ask hard questions about the legal, ethical and political implications of actions such as these which are rooted in a culture of terror. These questions, equally importantly, need to be asked immediately and not just after the fact.

Dutt’s other tweet on the issue, issued two minutes later, stated the following:

We’re all complicit as Media but news coverage of Death in India remains mostly ritualistic.

The philosophical import of ruminations on the ritualistic nature of Indian media coverage of death notwithstanding, Dutt—whether she was based in Bombay at the time or not–was by no means a hapless spectator watching the Indian media cover Bal Thackeray’s death. As the Group Editor of NDTV, and a highly feted, superbly qualified, and globally renowned journalist, she, arguably, would have had some say in shaping the tenor of that coverage. Or, surely, she could have had some say in shaping the nature of NDTV’s coverage of the event.

This, again, exemplifies my broader point about the Indian media refusing to ask difficult but obvious questions raised by Thackeray’s role in the 1992-1993 riots about justice, rights, accountability, and rule of law, about tolerance, coexistence, and our responsibility to our fellow citizens.

My essay, in significant measure, was about the politics of elite responses (including but not limited to media coverage) to urgent social, political, and ethical issues, the kinds of questions raised by Bal Thackeray’s politics, career, and legacy. We need–and have the right–to ask and critique elites, including media professionals, about silences, omissions, and possible acts of self-censorship in their responses to these issues, about the issues that remain unspoken even when they beg to be asked. Mediapersons like Barkha Dutt make their living holding political and public figures and ordinary citizens to this standard. They need, themselves, to be held accountable to the same standard.

Again, I am happy to discuss all of this at length in a debate.

I hope that when Barkha Dutt is back in India she organizes a show in which the family members and friends of those who died in the 1992-1993 riots in Bombay are asked what they feel about Bal Thackeray’s deification by the Indian media, political authorities, and celebrities. I hope she will invite Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Lata Mangeshkar, Sharad Pawar, Manmohan Singh, and Pranab Mukherjee to the show and question them about their views on Thackeray’s legal, moral, and political accountability for his role in the deaths of those killed in the 1992-1993 riots. We the people would like some answers.

update: Burkha Dutt responded on twitter to this, as follows:

Bal Thackeray’s Poisonous Legacies

The Indian elite’s reaction to Bal Thackeray’s death raises profoundly disturbing question, argues Rohit Chopra.

With news breaking earlier this evening of Bal Thackeray’s death, the movers and shakers of Indian society have been in overdrive as have been their lesser-known followers, minions, and acolytes on Twitter. The event is being milked for all it is worth by news organizations, corporate sponsors, assorted media personalities engaging in “me-too” memories, and political organizations trying either to generate political capital from it or, at the very least, seeking not to alienate some imagined Hindu/ Maharashtrian/ Mumbaikar voter sentiment by appearing too critical of Thackeray.

The world of Indian mediapersons, the political establishment, and the charmed circle of Indian celebrities have been expressing their shock and grief even as they have been marveling at Thackeray’s greatness. In perfect concert with one another, these three incestuously interconnected sectors of Indian society–which feed off and sustain each other–are colluding in a massive act of amnesia. The holy trinity of Indian elites is refusing to address Bal Thackeray’s culpability in the deaths of Hindus and Muslims in the 1992-1993 riots in Bombay, the lengthy record of Shiv Sena violence and threats against Tamilians, Gujaratis, and UPites, the Sena’s collusion with industrialists to break the backs of mill workers and unions in Bombay in the 1970s, the degradation of the political culture of Maharashtra and Mumbai, and the general destruction of the city’s cosmopolitan culture.

When these fundamental, defining aspects of Bal Thackeray’s life and career are acknowledged by commentators, they are immediately balanced–according to some spurious notion of journalistic objectivity, I suspect–by paeans to his personal charisma, political acumen, ability to gauge the pulse of the people, and so on. Or they are subsumed within larger narratives that efface or mitigate the violence. (He was good and bad / He was an enigma / He was sweet to me / He was a bundle of contradictions or a complex figure).

Rajdeep Sardesai’s tweets say it all:

Gave me an interview in 1988 as a cub reporter. Was generous with his time and thoughts. Offered me beer too! RIP #Balasahed [sic]

Tiger, Godfather, Mumbai icon, hero for many, villain for others. Balasaheb Thackeray RIP.

Most bizarrely from Sardesai, the suggestion that Mumbai might be shut today because of “respect” for Thackeray.

When Delhi netas die, a city doesn’t shut down out of either fear/respect. Mumbai does. What does that say? Gnight.

Anyone who has experienced any bandh in any Indian city knows that the cause is usually not some spontaneous expression of independently-felt love for a political leader or party that expresses itself in an act of collective intelligence or emotion like a flash mob performing “Gangam Style.”

The Indian media prides itself on its independence, its critical eye, its ability to speak truth to power. Indian celebrities fancy themselves socially responsible intellectuals. Indian politicians routinely remind the world of the glorious vibrancy and dynamism of the “world’s largest democracy.” But neither the conventions of in-house obituary boilerplate nor the pithy wisdom of the tweets emanating from the finest minds in Indian media, celebrityhood, and politics have spoken today in any honest way about Thackeray’s role in one of most disgraceful episodes in the history of independent India–the pogrom against Bombay’s Muslim communities in 1992 and 1993. When they have pointed to Thackeray’s involvement, they have refused to ask the difficult but obvious questions that follow; questions about justice, rights, accountability, and rule of law, but also about tolerance, coexistence, and our responsibility to our fellow citizens.

The list of those participating in what can only be called a soft-pedaling of Bal Thackeray’s legacy, through this Fox News style “Fair and Balanced” approach, is a veritable who’s who of contemporary Indian political, social, and cultural life. The President and Prime Minister of India; politicians across parties; Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh and other cricketers; any number of Bollywood actors, directors, and producers who queued up to meet him as he lay on his deathbed; and reputed journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, and Vir Sanghvi. Dutt, on leave at the time, did not cover Thackeray’s funeral on television.  Yet her brief comments on Twitter (here and here) in response to arguably the biggest Indian news story of the day broadly conformed to the same pattern, in my view. They did not transcend nor were critical enough of the dominant elite discourse about Thackeray, a mixture of equivocation, amnesia, and silence.

This is the real legacy of Bal Thackeray. To make political violence so routine that it ceases to outrage. To make the strategy of scapegoating and targeting particular ethnic, religious, or political groups part of the calculus of everyday politics. To make fear and intimidation a legitimate, accepted part of political leadership. And to constantly remind any potential critic, in media or otherwise, of the threat of violent reprisal for saying something that Thackeray and his thugs might not appreciate.

No less part of Thackeray’s legacy is the fact that the political establishment, world of Bombay celebrities, and mediapersons who fawned over him when he was alive as much as they are doing now appear to have quiescently accepted all of this. The curious insistence on journalists addressing Bal Thackeray as ‘saheb’ — imagine, for instance, an article beginning with the words, “Herr Hitler, responsible for the death of millions of German citizens”–merely reflects this legacy.

In recent years, observers on the political situation in Maharashtra have sometimes described the Shiv Sena as a spent force, one that was condemned to lose its long-term political battles because there was no coherent object that it was fighting for. But in all these other poisonous and alarmingly permanent ways there is no doubt that Bal Thackeray won.

The free pass given to Bal Thackeray today also tells us something about the pathologies of Indian life that produced and made Bal Thackeray possible: pathologies shared across those who identify as secular and those who rant against pseudo-secularists; pathologies that unite the South Bombay whisky-drinking, rugby-playing, Bombay-Gym types with Dadar Hindu colony sons-of-the-soil; pathologies that allow diasporic Hindu nationalists in Silicon Valley and Shiv Sena footsoldiers alike to believe that they are the victims of a secret cabal of Muslims, Marxists, and Macaulayites. Thackeray did not, then, come out of nowhere. He was not the creation simply of disaffected subaltern Maharashtrian communities or of middle-class Maharashtrian communities who felt outsiders had snatched what was their due. He represented something central in Indian political society–not an essentialist, ahistorical tendency but a historically produced capacity for using violence as a form of political reason, the absence of a coherent vision of solidarity that could respect similarity and difference, and the many deep failures of the postcolonial Indian state that our exceptionalist pieties about Indian tolerance, coexistence, and secularism often obscure.

And no, we do not need to be silent on any of this just because Bal Thackeray died earlier today. I doubt any Shiv Sainiks or Thackeray himself spent a minute thinking in silence about any Muslim killed in the 1992-1993 riots in which the Shiv Sena played a key role. As Vir Sanghvi’s article on Thackeray, posthumously anointing him the “uncrowned king of Mumbai” reminds us, Thackeray’s chief objection to Mani Ratnam’s representation of him in the film Bombay was that his cinematic alter-ego expressed regret at the riots.

It is a disgrace that Bombay is shut today. It is a disgrace that Thackeray is being wrapped in the national tricolor. It is a disgrace that he is being given state honors in his death. And it is a disgrace that none of our political leaders, celebrities, or media personalities seem to think any of this is a disgrace. And that if they do they are terrified of saying so.