XQs III: A Conversation with Arafaat Valiani

The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship

valiani-150x150Arafaat A. Valiani earned his doctoral degree from Columbia University. From September 2014, he will be Associate Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Oregon. He is the author of Militant Publics in India: Physical Culture and Violence in the Making of a Modern Polity, published by Palgrave (2011).

[Interview conducted by Sanyasi, via email, May-August, 2014]

1. Could you explain what you mean by physical culture?

Sure. Though I argue in my book that physical culture is central to various nationalist movements in South Asia I’ll start with Hindu nationalist understandings of it. The founding organization of the Hindu nationalist movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has sought to introduce a set of physical practices comprising drills and games to young men and women residing in the cities, towns, and villages India. Performed during daily meetings in local branches, such routines of physical culture are framed as a set of bodily exercises described in Vedic texts that only the most privileged (usually high-caste) Hindus are permitted learn and perform. For the RSS, as well as other Hindu nationalist organizations today like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and the Bajrang Dal, the collective performance of these physical practices affords the practitioner with physical power, courage and self-mastery while also reforming him/her morally because of the discipline required to undertake these physical practices on a daily basis.

These practices also have broader national goals in that they are also supposed to unite all Hindus because they consistently attract young men and women to branch meetings, in which they train together and thus form affective bonds, all the while incorporating them into the moral and institutional sphere of Hindu nationalist organizations throughout the country (and globally). (One striking thing about neighborhood shakhas is that in my research, many Hindus and certain Indian minorities of all castes and classes confirmed some kind of experience with a local branch when they were growing up so it is a common experience among Indian youth in large metropolises as well as provincial cities and towns in India.) For particularly adept swayamsevaks and sevikas (male and female volunteers respectively), branches are an entry point into a vast national and international network of branches whose members are selected by branch shikshaks (teachers) to attend periodic training camps. For Hindu nationalists, the project of enracinating this particular vision of physical culture among all Hindus is crucial because it seeks to repair what its founders viewed as a divided, cowardly and physically weak Hindu nation.
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The Monster Within: Our Collective Complicity in Modi’s Silence

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The savage violence in Badaun and Pune reveals an abiding moral ugliness at the heart of present-day elite Hindu society, argues Rohit Chopra

It is an ethical obscenity to even try to imagine what the parents of the Badaun girls or Mohsin Shaikh must be going through. The iron on the flesh is the iron on the flesh. We might know though, all of us, that the pain of those we love devastates more, burns fiercer, than the pain we ourselves experience. We might know, too, that there is no pain like the pain of a child. There are few things harder to watch, no knowledge worse to bear than witnessing a child suffering.

The images haunt. The parents of the Badaun girls falling at the feet of politicians. They are begging for justice for their murdered children. Mohsin Shaikh, the young Muslim man in his twenties, beaten to death by Hindu terrorists. He is smiling, slightly self-conscious. It is the kind of photograph the local photo studio in any Indian lane would proudly display on their walls.
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Beyond Batra and Doniger: Reflections on the study of Hinduism in the American academy

For anyone aware of the militant Hindu Right’s hounding of academics whose research engages with Hinduism, the recent events related to Wendy Doniger’s Book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, must appear as a predictable sequel that replays the plot of the original with minor, if equally unpleasant, variations; a Grudge or Insidious set at the intersection of the American academy and transnational Hinduism, in which, eventually, the malevolent spirits get their victims or, to put it less dramatically, the bad guys eventually wear the good guys down.

A decade ago, another book on Hinduism, Paul Courtright’s Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, had similarly incensed some Hindus in the US and India. The litany of charges leveled against Courtright, a professor at Emory University, was similar to that against Doniger—disrespecting Hinduism, an obsession with sexuality, promoting a Christian agenda, and the like. And like the ominous suggestions of violence contained in the lawsuit against Doniger, some of the comments related to Courtright’s book in online petitions (long since taken down) were borderline threatening.

I was a graduate student at Emory University at the time, working on a dissertation on how Hindu communities were using the Internet to articulate conservative understandings of Indian identity. I had developed an interest in the topic while working for rediff.com in Bombay in the late 1990s right before I moved to Emory. rediff had tapped into, and, to an extent, shaped an online right wing Hindu culture, with star columnists like Varsha Bhosle, Rajeev Srinivasan, and Francois Gautier. Essays by Arvind Rajagopal and Vinay Lal had already drawn attention to the Hindu nationalist attempt to mark cyberspace as its own domain. Important work by Paula Chakravartty and Sunil Khilnani had mapped the complex web of relations between liberalization, diaspora, and shifting ideas of nationhood among global Indian communities. (Sorry, Indian media, your recent discovery of “Internet Hindus” is neither original nor nuanced). My argument was that there was a long and complex history of the relationship between technology and nationalism in India, rooted in the nineteenth century, that informed online Hindu nationalism and that the phenomenon, accordingly, needed to be seen in the light of both this history and the logic of online communication.
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Scripting Changes, Changing Scripts

The occasional series on South Asian political life and public culture continues with Roshan Shahani’s review of Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy (eds. Anand Teltumde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books 2012). Dr. Roshan Shahani retired as reader and head of the Department of English at Jai Hind College, University of Bombay, where she taught for thirty-nine years. She serves as a trustee for SPARROW, the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women. A slightly different version of the review was first published in the SPARROW July 2013 bulletin.

One has almost begun to dread the coming of March 8 for International Women’s Day has become a celebration by, of, and for celebrities. However, “far from the unseeing eyes of the media, far from the flash and glitter of TV cameras,” March 8 has been celebrated differently. Anuradha Ghandhy–a senior Maoist activist, whose untimely death in 2008 has been mourned by family, friends, fellow activists, and, of course, the tribals she worked with—-takes us “deep into the forests and plains of central India, to the backward regions of Andhra Pradesh and up in the hills among tribals,” where celebrating March 8 meant women and children marching through villages in Bastar and other remote regions to demand schooling, blocking roads to protest against innumerable rape cases, and speaking out against rampant economic exploitation. If there have been changes wrought in these regions, it has been in large measure thanks to the ideology and activism of men and women like Anuradha, often hunted down as Maoist-terrorists.

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Art, Terror, and Politics: Reading CNN Reading Daisy Rockwell

Over the course of the last year and a bit, CM’s own Daisy Rockwell, a.k.a Lapata, has been featured on CNN on three occasions. The first of these, on Erin’s Burnett’s CNN blog, “OutFront,” featured Daisy’s The Little Book of Terror as the subject of a sensationally titled discussion, “Norman Rockwell’s granddaughter paints terrorists,” and invited CNN readers to weigh in with their thoughts on the matter. Earlier this year in May, OutFront also conducted a detailed interview with Daisy on her translation of Upendranath Ashk’s book, Hats with Doctors. And most recently, CNN interviewed Daisy for her thoughts on the flap concerning the Rolling Stone cover that featured Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokar Tsarnaev.

CNN has been fair in giving Daisy the opportunity to discuss her work and to speak her piece without sacrificing complexity or nuance, more than one can say of most media organizations whose bread and butter, the soundbite, is the natural enemy of both. There are, however, some peculiar and telling aspects of the way in which these conversations and discussions have been framed by CNN. Peculiar because CNN’s framing directly contradicts what I think is one of the crucially important aspects of Daisy’s art and writing. Telling because CNN’s framing of these discussions also reflects something fundamental about the relationship of art (or representation, more broadly) and politics in our times, namely, a conservative turn in the culture about the subjects proper of art, writing, and scholarship.

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Welcome Home Mr. Modi

Narenda Modi’s global makeover owes much to neoliberal democracy and the ideology of developmentalism argues Sanyasi.

The global rehabilitation of Narendra Modi is well underway. A lunch meeting in January this year at German Ambassador Michael Steiner’s home between Modi and representatives from the states of the European Union “ended a decade-long unofficial EU boycott of the 62-year-old politician” for his alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. It is not quite as clear whether the US is warming up to Modi, but some Republican lawmakers have indicated that they intend to get Modi a visa to travel to the promised land.

The same Germany and Europe who endlessly exhort the rest of the world never to forget the Jewish Holocaust have after all of a decade conveniently forgotten Gujarat 2002. The amnesia is, to an extent, explained by the West’s centuries-long history of hypocrisy on such matters, which involves innumerable instances of subordinating its professed commitment to rights to its base economic, political, and material interests. (Think of the coddling and arming of Saddam Hussein by the Thatcher regime and Rumsfeld’s role in helping him secure chemical weapons. Or, more recently, the use of Malala Yousafzai’s ordeal and heroic struggle to indict Pakistani culture at large, while laws in US states that violate American women’s reproductive rights and deny them sovereignty over their own selves draw no such generalizations about American culture. [1]) With his image as a pro-business, pro-investment politician, Modi promises Western economies a means for accessing India’s markets. India’s consuming middle classes are his oil, his blood diamonds. But this is only part of the story. Modi’s reentry into the civilized world–now defined as a global world in which a globalizing India anxiously seeks to assert itself–is enabled by two other factors that are more significant than the self-serving inconsistency of the West.

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On the Poetics of Refugee Life and Space

Excerpted from “Refuge: A Work of Memory, Cities, and Loss.”

I. Delhi
….
Rising tides of wealth tossed them around, these men and their families in the one or two-storied houses painted yellow, colony after colony, a small park every three blocks, a cluster of shops every five, the children studying at the dining tables till late into the nights. But the families managed to hold on to the worlds they had created within the old city, one more layer of life in its thousand-year history, entire neighborhoods of refugees with similar sounding names, or they reached outward into the wilderness to strike new roots once more, as Delhi proliferated into new colonies, gobbling up vast stretches of plains well past the Yamuna on the east and the airport on the west. In their adopted neighborhoods, they made the strange yield to familiarity over time through the act of limiting their lives to a narrow, well-defined set of routines, of realistic, modest ambitions and precise expectations, and through denying themselves, even when they had the opportunity, the luxury of leisure or vacations.

In and around these routines, followed with a fierce discipline, they added touches of an elsewhere. The chairpais converted small front yards into the traditional courtyards of bigger homes and past memory, a smattering of potted plants, a 40-watt bulb with anemic light left burning on through the night. Small dabs of bright or black paint on the sides or front of the houses to ward off the evil eye. Minor indulgences like a particular brand of shaving soap or winter socks manufactured in a city that now belonged to another country. These were purchased from shopkeepers in the old city who, in turn, obtained them through networks that did not recognize borders that to the collective memory of the city still seemed recent. In the kitchens, an egalitarianism of steel, ceramic, and plastic. Two shelves of books, the Bertrand Russells and Bernard Shaws from the Indian arms of international publishing conglomerates, others in Indian languages from local publishers bound by red or white thread and dislodged from their loud covers. The clothes washed with coarse industrial-strength soap billowing in monochromatic colors off clotheslines in balconies and backyards, plastic bottles of oil on windowsills in bedrooms, unnamed and identified by expertise alone. The habit of bringing home each day something from one of the city’s many streets dedicated to food. The men disgorged from buses and autorickshaws, briefcases in one hand, oil-stained paper bags of food delicately clutched in the other. These lightly rendered brushstrokes gave Delhi’s worlds of refugees depth beyond the brute achievement of survival. Not just in language and dress, in faith and tongue, but here, too, culture survived and grew, a compact between the old and new, the nostalgic and the pragmatic forming an alloy, distinct and unique to the neighborhoods away from the centers of official or elite cultural activity.

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