In Defense of The Hindus: An Alternative History

It seems like only yesterday that I was present in Foster Hall for Wendy Doniger’s book launch. After I posted on it on CM, a healthy discussion happened, to which Wendy graciously responded. The generosity of her response showcases her unmatched pedagogic spirit and how, with humor and humility, she has shaped our collective understanding of the past.

In the aftermath of Penguin’s rather shameful decision to pull the book from India, a number of responses have emerged. I happen to concur with EPW’s take.

Below is a statement from some of her students at UChicago, to which CM adds its name:
This statement expresses the views of the individuals listed below and does not represent the views of the University of Chicago or any of its departments.

We, the undersigned, as students of South Asia, strongly condemn the withdrawal by Penguin Press India of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History from distribution in India. We believe that this work has been attacked because it presents a threat to orthodox Brahminical interpretations of Hinduism. We believe that this attack is part of ongoing attempts by upper­caste extremist Hindu forces to stifle any alternative understandings of Hinduism. As students in the United States, we are acutely aware that North American organizations of the Hindu right initiated the protests against Wendy Doniger’s scholarship. Hindu right wing organisations in India have worked in tandem with their North American counterparts to suppress alternative voices in India and too often violently. We are deeply concerned about the alarming increase in attacks on any academic study of Hinduism that does not fit these groups’ narrow and exclusionary vision of Hinduism which is part of their desire to create a Hindu India that excludes the religious minorities of Indian Muslims and Indian Christians.
Wendy Doniger, a respected scholar who is devoted to the study of Hinduism, has astutely recognized the great danger to human life and the plural practices and beliefs of Hindus posed by these groups. She has courageously refused to bow to their pressures to curtail her scholarship and has consistently challenged the Hindu right. By tracking the formation of myth through history, her work undermines these groups’ exclusionary claims on the past.

As researchers we know that a singular narrative of Hinduism, as of any living tradition, is completely untenable. This incident is indicative of the genocidal imagination of these groups that seek to extinguish the idea of a plural and secular India. This attack on Wendy Doniger’s scholarship is reminiscent of the earlier attacks on the scholarship of AK Ramanujan carried out by Hindu fundamentalist student organisations. We protest the rise of majoritarian narratives that curtail different ways of knowing the world and urge scholars, researchers, academics and people of all persuasions to call for Wendy Doniger’s book to be brought back into circulation in India. We join others who have articulated their protest against the withdrawal in refusing the singular, elitist and exclusionary imaginings of the past that are used to do violence to our shared present.

Shefali Jha
Malarvizhi Jayanth
Ahona Panda
Aakash Solanki
Sayantan Saha Roy
Tejas Parasher
Suchismita Das
Abhishek Bhattacharyya
Joya John
Emma Meyer
Kyle Gardner
Erin Epperson
Victor D’Avella
Joseph Grim Feinberg
Ranu Roychoudhuri
Ishan Chakrabarti
Margherita Trento
Adam O’Brien
Madlyn Wendell
Jeff Wilson
Jetsun Deleplanque
Leah Richmond

In solidarity:
Ankit Agrawal

The Delhi Durbar and the Indian Diplomat by Rafia Zakaria

a guest post by Rafia Zakaria, columnist Dawn Pakistan.

Delhi Durbar

A ripe 110 years ago, in the year 1903, the Second Imperial Durbar was held in Delhi, to celebrate the coronation of King Edward the VII and Queen Alexandria as Emperor and Empress of India. Neither could attend, but Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of the Indian colony, decided that it would be a great opportunity to appropriate the spectacle as homage to the British rule of India. To insure that the spectacle would be appropriately, spectacular he ordered all the minion Maharajas of the Empire to arrive in their traditional garb, with large retinues, silks and elephants and punkahs; so they would look like Maharajas. In this neat directive, the Indian love of protocol was thus successfully employed in the service of Empire. That the arriving “rulers’ were not “rulers” but vassals of Empire, that their retinues and turbans and everything else meant nothing at all in relation to their ability to rule themselves, was the farce behind it all.

The British left and Pakistan and India exchanged their misgivings against the British Empire with petty barbs and nuclear weapons directed at each other. It is a consuming concern; and has occupied millions on either side with its continuing pettiness and puffery for a near century. On either side; the love of pomp and protocol has remained; flagellated into democratic norms on one side and military machinations on the other. Indians and Pakistani leaders are united in their love of appropriating the discriminatory racism that was once heaped on them on the lesser others of their respective countries. Importance, value, worth on either side of the border equals never being mistaken for those ordinary hordes; And nowhere is this most visible than in the constellations of power, the subcontinent elected office means command over convoys of cars, flashing lights, security details and never, ever, the ignominy of being treated “just like everyone else”
Continue reading The Delhi Durbar and the Indian Diplomat by Rafia Zakaria

OMG, Orya Maqbool Jan

[This guest post is Abdul Majeed Abid’s translation of his Urdu column for Dawn. Abdul Majeed Abid is a doctor and a freelance writer from Lahore. He writes about socio-political issues and contemporary history.]

By Abdul Majeed Abid


Britain ruled over the subcontinent for ninety years (1857-1947). The task of governance during this period was supervised by the civil bureaucracy. From 1857 till 1947, the number of British officers never exceeded one thousand, and the number of British officers at the time of partition (in 1947) was a paltry Six Hundred and Forty (640). Even with such meager number of officers, the British Raj controlled millions of subjects and a vast stretch of land. A British Prime Minister termed the bureaucracy as the “Steel Frame” of the Monarchy.

Initially, only British citizens were eligible for serving as civil officers but ‘Indian-ization’ started after a few years. Indian officers were trained in the same traditions as British Officers and they served the Monarchy as well as their British counterparts. On the eve of parturition, Pakistan inherited the Muslim civil officers who became part of Pakistan Civil Services (PCS).

Following independence, inept policies and shenanigans by Politicians paved the way for bureaucrats to take the reins of power. Chaudary Muhammad Ali (who remained Prime Minister c.1955-56) and Ghulam Muhammad (who remained Governor General c. 1951-55) were bureaucrats that rose to prominence amid the uncertain initial years of Pakistan.

The successors of this tradition stayed away from direct control of political power but remained hand in glove with Military Dictator Ayub Khan(who ruled Pakistan between 1958-69). This group included the likes of Qudratullah Shahab and Altaf Gauhar. Many of the abovementioned gentlemen tried their hands at becoming writers after retirement. Chaudary M. Ali wrote a book (The Emergence of Pakistan) that is considered a precursor in the quest of Pakistan’s “Ideological direction”. Altaf Gauhar and Shahab also indulged in this tradition.
Shahab Nama by Qudratullah Shahab

Their books are full of their own heroic achievements and an “expert” analysis of the ills that Pakistan faces.

Whenever Urdu literature was discussed during my student days, some particular books and authors were always mentioned, as most people had read them or at least heard about them. One of the most popular books in that regard was Shahab Naama (written by Shahab). According to one of my teachers, Shahab Naama is basically a potpourri of history, fiction, autobiography, spirituality and humor.  Continue reading OMG, Orya Maqbool Jan

An American Show

[ Following is a guest post by Hannah Green. CM readers may remember her JLF diary from earlier this year. Green completed her B.A. in Asian and Middle Eastern History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at Northwestern University in 2012. Since then, she has spent her time between the United States and India, writing and learning Urdu. Her work has also appeared in OPEN Magazine and Asia Times Online. Follow her on twitter: @write_noise.]

In the early 1980s, an idealistic young American and a group of Mujahideen trekked for thirty-six hours through the Hindu Kush Mountains, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, toward a battle. The journey would have been much shorter if the American had not been there. He was a burden to them, although he convinced himself he was there to help. His broad goal was to “be of service” to the Afghans, and the best way he could think of was to report their story, take their pictures, and convince the Americans back home to send more money and guns for the fight against the Soviets. (This would fail.) As he stumbled and fell through rocky rivers and cold mountain peaks, the Mujahideen helped him as much as they could. They carried his pack and his heaviest camera. They found fruit and picked it for him to eat, even as they themselves maintained the Ramazan fast. When the American could go on no longer, they carried him. To add to our collection of images of the region, it is good for us just to picture it. Mujahideen wearing sandals, feet bleeding, carry a sickly American in Italian hiking boots over dusty hills in the dark.

1992.coverThe American was William T. Vollman and he recounts this trek in his memoire, An Afghanistan Picture Show. The memoire was first printed in 1992, by Farrar Straus & Giroux. This July, Melville House released a new edition of An Afghanistan Picture Show, after it had been out of print for years.

Reading this book feels like taking a journey with an eternally hapless guide. You see different sights, experience all kinds of rough and unfamiliar terrain, but never are able to hold your footing long enough to see what’s really going on or to form an opinion. That’s what Vollmann wants. His time in Afghanistan and Pakistan taught him a lesson about his own limitations, and those of his government. ”It continues to astonish me how easy it is to harm people and how difficult it is to help him,” he writes in his introduction to the 2013 edition.

In order to distance himself from the youth who foolishly believed he could be of service to the Afghans, Vollmann refers to his 23-year-old self as “the Young Man” throughout his narration.  He recreates the sense of confusion and helplessness the Young Man experienced in Afghanistan, Vollmann jumbling vignettes about his failures and humiliation, descriptions of his weakness and illness, his distaste for the food, unsettling philosophical questions, various jabs that Afghani and Pakistani military leaders directed toward him, interviews of waiters, refugees, politicians and government employees, facts about Afghanistan, and anecdotes about his dreams and his past.

Continue reading An American Show

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire

I reviewed a couple of new(ish) books. Following are snippets from the two reviews.

Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora

A few days after 9/11, Mark Stroman walked into a Dallas petrol pump and shot the attendant, Rais Bhuyian, in the face. Before pulling the trigger, he asked the Bangladeshi immigrant where he was from. His answer did not matter. Bhuyian survived, but not Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani immigrant whom Stroman had shot a few days earlier. A few days later, he would kill again. This time it was an Indian immigrant, Vasudev Patel. All three of his victims worked at convenience stores. All three were South Asian immigrants. After his arrest, Stroman boasted of being the “Arab Slayer” avenging 9/11.




Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.

The racism at the heart of modern imperial violence operates on indifference as much as on explicit hatred. The indifference to the many that die “over there” in the “badlands,” that such brutal military assaults can only be launched at will on a non-Western population, that the blatant state surveillance of entire neighbourhoods inside the US based on ethnicity and religion can only happen to the ‘Little Pakistans’ — all of this requires rendering certain people as justified ‘collateral damage’ to the civilising imperial mission. It is this imperial racism and the dehumanising Islamophobic rhetoric of the so-called ‘war on terror’ that Kumar brings into focus in this most valuable primer. “Drawing on my academic training as a cultural theorist,” Kumar writes, “I situate the rhetoric of Islamophobia within the broader political, historical, legal, and social context from which it emerges to show that anti-Muslim racism has been primarily a tool of the elite in various societies.”

South Side Chicago and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border: The Logics of Collective Responsibility and Collective Punishment in the Post-9/11 Security State

This is the second, and concluding, reflection of a two-part essay. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Michael Hastings.

Following the first part of this essay, I want to outline here some thoughts on how the practices of the post-9/11 security state in the US dovetail with the current social forms of American patriotism and paranoia.  This convergence represents a remapping of the world within and beyond the borders of the US.  The entity responsible for redrawing the world thus is a nexus of US technology firms, military companies, and the state, a partnership of the private and public sectors that is partly visible and partly submerged. The relationship between the imperatives of profit and national security is easy to discern at work here [1]. Less visible are the ways in which hierarchies of racial inequality within the US and America’s homegrown brand of ethnic-racial nationalism feed into and, in turn, are reinforced by the techniques employed by the American state in its Bush-Obama era colonial ventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

The recent revelations about the NSA spying on the private telephone and Internet communications of Americans and others and the reactions of the US media to the controversy capture something essential about this phenomenon. The activities of the NSA have elicited a predictable set of responses from several well-known media pundits, which are characterized by three general qualities: an eagerness to approximate public sentiment on the issue; a rhetoric of hedging and balance, expressed as concern about the need to protect both civil liberties and America; and a dim awareness of the ideological assumptions underlying their arguments. New York Times op-ed columnists Thomas FriedmanDavid Brooks, and Bill Keller offered ruminations largely in the good German idiom. Another rhetorical strategy, exemplified by Jeff Toobin, David Gregory, and Farhad Manjoo, might be termed arguing-by-takedown-of-Snowden. Andrew Sullivan, with his remarkable ability to anticipate the pulse of the nation, was chill with it, “neither shocked nor outraged.” Sure enough, after a few days of low-to-moderate outrage, 56 percent of Americans  “shrugged off” the NSA spying. According to the US media, there was quite a lot of “shrugging off” of the espionage. The Washington Post reported the Taliban shrugging off the news, and the Huffington Post reported that the Internet, likewise, had shrugged off the fact of being spied on.

The most troubling aspect of the controversy, however, may be the consensus among many of America’s respected journalists and bloggers that it is legitimate for the state to monitor certain classes of citizens and non-citizens in this manner. This consensus, in turn, legitimates policies predicated on a number of assumptions about the behavior of people, Americans and non-Americans alike, who might possess a particular faith, bear one of several names, hail from certain countries in the present generation or one, two, or three generations back, or possess a certain amount of melanin in their skin: a logic of evaluation which, it is worth noting, America’s own policies forbid in the sphere of education, employment, or housing.

It seems to have escaped our media pundits that news of NSA’s spying reflected a perversely egalitarian moment of racial, religious, and ethnic profiling. Indeed, America’s outrage–no matter how short-lived and low-key–seemed to stem from precisely the anxiety that all Americans had suffered a descent into temporary subalternity usually reserved for untrustworthy minorities of one kind or another. For just that brief window of time, all Americans were subject, at least in theory, to the kind of interest that Muslim Americans and Arab Americans have drawn since 9/11 as a matter of routine. And till Mike Rogers, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, clarified that the NSA was not listening in on the conversations of US citizens, Americans were also theoretically subject to the scrutiny directed at foreign nationals within and outside the US.
Continue reading South Side Chicago and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border: The Logics of Collective Responsibility and Collective Punishment in the Post-9/11 Security State

Authoritarianism and an NSA Utopia Circa 1984

Sarah Waheed

I grew up in Saudi Arabia during the pre-internet age, in the garrison corporate enclave of Dhahran. Located in the Eastern Provinces, it is home to Saudi Aramco, the largest, wealthiest oil company in the world. When people ask me what it was like to grow up in Saudi Arabia—wincing with pity as they do—I am often unsure how to explain. But over the past week, as I’ve been following the breaking stories over the expansion of the US surveillance state  I now have a short-hand way of answering that question: an NSA utopia.

I lived in the one of the most privileged parts of Saudi Arabia, a gated community of American expats, not far from a US military base, one of nearly a thousand the world over. Within the confines of Aramco’s Dhahran camp, the same rules that govern the rest of the population did not apply: women can drive, residents can water their lawns in their shorts, and on the days they don’t feel like it, they have their “houseboys” do it for them. That was the term used by expats to refer to adult male workers from South Asia.
Continue reading Authoritarianism and an NSA Utopia Circa 1984