The City and the City*: Space and Semiotics of Muslim Bombay**

By Sarover Zaidi

Anthropologist, architecture obsessed, studied philosophy, worked in rural India ten years.

[This text was commissioned as a guest column in The Funambulist Magazine 4 (March-April 2016): Carceral Environments. The issue is available in printed and digital versions on The Funambulist’s website.]

 

jj flyoverThe JJ flyover was built in record time with pre-fabricated concrete blocks in 2002 over what is known as the ‘native’ ‘Muslim’ town of Bombay. The narrative dominating its quick construction was explained as ‘decongestion’, an easy freeway over the old Muslim town, leading one to the financial centre of south Bombay with ease. Seen as an architectural feat the flyover running at 2.4 kilometres in length asserted what Eyal Weizman terms as a ‘sovereign verticality’ over the area below it. Covering all of Muhammad Ali road, the spatial aorta of the native town of Bombay, the JJ flyover set a new horizon of surveillance over the Muslim ‘ghetto’ of the city. What else did it do in a city already entrenched with vegetarian buildings, arbitrary arrests of Muslim boys, firing and rioting in Muslim areas and mosques, and a generally discriminatory everyday life for the Muslim populace? A swift bureaucratic decision solved not just the issue of congestion, but also provided a bypass to the ‘Muslim problems’ of Bombay.

The area below the flyover, historically dominated by different Muslim trading communities, was strongly reconstituted as a ‘problem zone’ after the Bombay riots (1992-93) spread across the different neighborhoods of this area. The stigma of the riots and the presence of the underworld involved in the Bombay bomb blasts (1993), saturated this area with a signification it could never really escape. Hence the Musalman, the outsider, the terrorist, the rioter, the anti-national came to form a metonymic chain, contrasted and highlighted heavily by the then right wing ruling party, the Shiv Sena — the Shiv Sena emerged as a Hindu right wing political party at the time and was involved in orchestrating the riots and looting in Muslim neighborhoods. If neighborhoods bear the weight of these historical events of the city, then bodies participate in this narrative through everyday locations of living with violence. Recently a public intellectual of Bombay exclaimed: “Look at these Muslim boys speeding across town, no respect for rules, civic space, probably a hangover of riding camels.” He was referring to the Muslim boys who ride their bikes between the old Muslim neighbourhood and the colonial city, today the elite financial area of Bombay. These boys due to the festival are made allowances to transgress city spaces, beyond the old Muslim neighbourhood and venture into the zones of the elite colonial city. On other days they are usually stopped, checked and fined by the traffic police, speeding or not.

The city functions as a doppelganger on itself, with different sets of rules applying to different areas, and of course to different religiously affiliated communities. Continue reading “The City and the City*: Space and Semiotics of Muslim Bombay**”

Rickshaw Diary

by Annie Ali Khan

Karachiscapes by Zehra Nawab
Karachiscapes by Zehra Nawab

While returning home one night from a reporting trip, I found myself in a rickshaw that was going so fast that I had to hold on to the tinsel wrapped poles for dear life. M.A. Jinnah Road, the road that forms the main artery of the city, was a blur of headlights and honking cars as the rickshaws weaved in between trucks and motorbikes. Seeing my face in the mirror, a young woman, her face and head uncovered, clearly a new customer, the old man with the grizzled beard laughed. “Here you have to learn to walk while holding the finger of death.” This was my first lesson navigating in the city.

His name was Lauri Baba, a word that means someone who is loved by his people. Lauri Baba, was an old resident of Lyari, the heart of the city of Karachi. But what is your real name, I asked him. “Even my own parents do not remember my real name,” he said. But he knew the city like the back of his hand.

A fellow reporter, also a young woman, told me she had taken a rickshaw home well past midnight one night. The rickshaw wallah veered off the main road. She began to scream. “If you did not want to have sex, then why are you out so late?” he said. He dropped her home. But he looked angry. Once I wanted to get home well past midnight. After standing by the roadside on Shahrah-e-Faisal, across from the Naval museum, for half an hour all I saw were strange cars slowly driving past, full of men. A flower seller sitting, who had long closed shop and was chatting with a friend on the pavement asked me where I wanted to go then called his rickshaw driver friend, who dropped me home. A friend visiting Karachi asked me what I did when I was out late. I take a rickshaw, I told her. It is the safest ride. I can always jump out. Rickshaws are pronounced “ruck-shah” and it is the Hindi word for protection. I always repeat that to myself. If you grew up on Bollywood films of the 90s there was a lot of reference to that sort of thing in those movies featuring macho men.

In an empty lot in the neighborhood of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, in one of the biggest migrant settlement, an inner-city neighborhood, beside the apartment building where my grandmother lives, there are always five or six rickshaw wallahs waiting in a row for passengers. They wait there amidst garbage heaps, where a man in tattered shalwar and no kamiz leads a herd of bony cows to graze every morning on the weeds. The paan wallah leans out of the window of his stall and cracks a betel-stained smile.

The rickshaw wallahs pass the hours playing a game using pebbles set in concentric chalk squares drawn on the roadside. They always look up and stop playing when I come by and then nods will be exchanged as to who will give me a ride. A kick to the rickshaw motor and we are on our way.

The rickshaw wallah has a hole in his ear. It is a hole the size of a small pea in the center of the cartilage. In the early morning when the sunlight is dim I believe I can see a bit of the road through his ear. Most times, there is a bright spot of light shining through. His mother pierced it with a fat needle when he was a little boy. It was back when he lived in the mountains in the north and apparently it was the only known cure for chicken pox.

A woman in a purple burqa sits by the roadside in front of the mausoleum of the Quaid, where the founder of the country is buried. The mausoleum is halfway between the area of Gulshan where my naani lives and Empress Market. A white domed structure in the center of a park. I have never been. There have been reports in the news of girls getting nabbed there so my parents never took us there. I remember reading the report of a girl who went missing while visiting the mausoleum with her family on a holiday. She was abducted by unknown men and was later raped in the basement of the mazaar. A Baloch man told me his cousin visiting from interior Sindh stopped to pray while passing by the white stone structure. “But he is no pir,” the Baloch berated his cousin who replied. “He must be have mystical powers, he gave us Pakistan.” The woman in the deep purple shuttlecock burqa is completely concealed. Nothing shows, except for her hands reaching out from the heavy folds of the burqa, moving over something on the road. It is unsettling and I see the rickshaw wallah veers a bit away from her whenever we pass by. She is there every morning, the purple of her burqa vivid and yet silent in the early morning gray.

There is another older rickshaw wallah who constantly scratches his bald head and always rushes out from the line of parked rickshaws when I come outside. He is safe I think. But sometimes I notice him adjusting the mirror and I see my face in it, and I see his eyes locking with mine. I’d much rather he kept his stare fixed on the road.
Continue reading “Rickshaw Diary”

Lahore: Marks It Bears II

Yesterday’s suicide attack on lower-and middle class citizens of Lahore, celebrating Easter or enjoying Sunday festivities in a park, is devastating to behold. The victims, now numbered in 100s, were enjoying the few, free pleasures of Lahore’s public spaces at the Gulshan Iqbal Park. In targeting a public park, knowing full well that it is where families would be, the Ahrar are hitting spaces which are not secured and which provide religious cover for them– they have claimed this, and last year’s bombings at Youhanabad in Lahore. In both cases, the claimed targets are Christians.

In the aftermath of the horrific Peshawar school assault in December 2014 a new narrative emerged in Pakistan. One in which the military, with the face of General Raheel Sharif, was provided all public support for military operations in N. Waziristan– including “indigenous drones“. That war has continued un-abated while Raheel Sharif’s personhood has become the face of a “resilient” Pakistan.

Lahore. Lahore in 2016 is a new city of enclaves, suburbs, brand new cars, boutiques, parked money from Dubai and Karachi. Its moneyed homes are well-protected. Its elite do not congregate; and when they gather in movie halls or public spaces, they do so behind security columns and checkpoints. Lahore in 2016 is also a key migratory point for young men from southern Punjab and northern territories who are enrolled in schools, madrasas or employed in the many factories dotting its circumference. The state has poured millions of tons of concrete over Lahore to build new highways and train-lines. The cement houses of “old” Lahore are now crumbling. This “old” Lahore is the Lahore of Allama Iqbal Town, Model Town, Sadr, Walton, Gulshan-e Ravi. This is the Lahore whose denizens would head to the public park to celebrate Eid or Easter. These are the Lahoris who make for easy targets– the loss of whose lives is not going to prompt the State to re-think its relationship to terrorists.

A few days ago, the attack in Brussels hit close to home for me. I have been pre-occupied by safety of loved ones. Lahore remains the only city I can ever call home. I worry about my family, friends, colleagues who are scattered across Lahore’s surface. The vast majority of them outside of securitized compounds. Raheel Sharif is promising that the aggressors behind this attack, who are from Southern Punjab, will be militarily handled. I have done my research in southern Punjab and I know well what the State sees there. There is no security that I can imagine coming to Lahore from further militarization. Nor do I imagine lack of action to be fruitful. The fact is that we have vast swathes of everyday citizenry trapped in a singular militarized discourse for nearly thirty years now. The leaders of political or religious parties, the apparatchiks, the followers, the crowds, the missing majorities, all. The textbooks remain full of incitement to violence. The media gleefully cheers shredding the few who speak against. Those who survive the media are silenced by bullets.

The Pakistani civilian state has clearly articulated its preference for a technocratic solution to Pakistan. The military state remains agnostic– supporting Nawaz Sharif when it feels like, while building its new idol, Raheel Sharif. The recent execution of the murderer of Salman Taseer, and the subsequent ‘release‘ of his son are evidences of the first state. The capture of the RAW agent and the current “dharna” in Islamabad cases in point for the latter. This is not a dialectical struggle for the soul of Pakistan, however. This is not the classic “an army for the country vs a country for the army”, either. It is the contest of who will control the flow of Capital into Pakistan and who gets to park it in which parts. This young country with an near-infinite pool of cheap labor is the final prize in a contest between the many reigning idols of chaos and commerce.

To Barney

Bernard Bate (Barney to all) was a profoundly gifted scholar of Tamil language and an anthropologist. He was currently a Humanities Fellow at Stanford– while being the HoS of Anthropology at Yale-NUS in Singapore. His sudden passing has left all of us who knew him and admired him and loved him in profound shock. He was 52. This is a great loss. Just a few days ago, he gave a wonderful talk at Berkeley on Tamil oratory.

Barney visited CM often and he commented with glee and I know that he liked the spirit and style of our work. Here is a tweet that captures his spirit well.

We will miss him. Our hearts go out to his family and friends.

XQs V: A Conversation with Eric Beverley

[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. We thank our long time friend, Qalandar, for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIII, IV.]

 

ELB_XQ_photoEric Beverley is Associate Professor in the History Department at State University of New York, Stony Brook. His book, Hyderabad, British India, and the World: Muslim Networks and Minor Sovereignty, c. 1850-1950, come out in 2015 with Cambridge University Press. Professor Beverley used to write for Chapati Mystery as Dacoit after being apprehended by Sepoy at a Chicago cabbie joint.

 

1. Over the last few years, there have been a number of books on Hyderabad in the years leading up to 1947 (e.g. Kavita Datla’s The Language of Secular Islam; Margrit Pernau’s The Passing of Patrimonialism; and of course your own)— what do you think is interesting (and/or relevant to our moment) about Hyderabad’s intersection with the modernity ushered in by colonialism?

Hyderabad, like other similar ‘minor’ states, provides a critical entry point for conceiving the making of modern South Asia outside of the rather strained and essentialized narrative of colonial or nationalist modernity. I think there are several aspects of the contemporary moment that make histories of Hyderabad particularly important now – I’ll describe three key ways this history is crucial for thinking about the past and present of South Asia and the world.

First, the history of Hyderabad (and other minor states) is critical to situating many contemporary developments in context. Historical scholarship on South Asia over the last few decades has tended to take colonialism and victorious statist nationalisms that prevailed in South Asia after decolonization as the relevant background for viewing subsequent political, social, and cultural trends, shifts, and conflicts. The limits of explanatory frameworks founded on colonialism and nationalism are becoming all the more apparent. The British dominated the subcontinent often using intensive coercion, but their power was regionally inflected in particular ways. Places like Hyderabad that were not under formal British rule maintained their own state institutions, and sheltered social and cultural domains distinct from those in Raj territory. Further, while the projects and paradigms that constituted Indian and Pakistani postcolonial nationalism were substantial and formative in many regards, the subordination of different parts of the new nation-states to these visions was highly uneven. Neither the history of British rule itself, nor of the policies of postcolonial nation-states, sufficiently explains many key trends in contemporary South Asia. Several dynamics bear out historical legacies other than those of the Raj: the enduring resonance of patrimonial political networks and particular kinds of alliances (the Muslim—Dalit alliance in the Hyderabad Deccan, for example), idioms of solidarity, and even forms of architecture or economic development in a number of places; broader trends such as movements for new provincial states or domains of autonomy in places such as Telangana, Swat, and Balochistan; the rise of radical Marxist autonomous zones in the old borderlands of minor states like Hyderabad or Bastar. Close attention to the history of places like Hyderabad provides basic historical context critical to developing nuanced explanations of these and many others dynamics.

9781107091191Second, the example of Hyderabad helps us move beyond pervasive stereotypes about the possible meaning of Muslim statecraft. Increasingly for the last few decades, and seemingly more so every day, various idioms of right-wing Islamism (from ultra-conservative to radical militant) have occupied a central position in global political discourse. Policy ‘experts’ and popular media cast these forms of politics, real and imagined, as the preeminent threat to stability and security in most of the world, and present them as proof of the incompatibility between Muslims (or at least those who regard Muslimness as a basis for political ethics) and most states and societies in the world. Viewed from Hyderabad, the widely varied dynamics of continuity and change from the early modern period, through the era of British colonial dominance in the region, and into the postcolonial period are visible in ways that they are not from the perspective of British India. Hyderabad provides examples of the ways that idioms and institutions of Muslim dynastic political authority remained resonant in South Asia owing to their vitality to existing state forms. My book, like the others you mention, traces the complex and productive engagements between Hyderabadi intellectuals and officials and dynamics in British India and elsewhere. I show that what we see in Hyderabad from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century represents an attempt to fashion a self-consciously modern state form founded on the idea of solidarity with other Muslim states, progressive principles such as inclusion and aid towards all segments of society, and technical and institutional innovation informed by contemporaneous global developments. Put another way, Hyderabad State provides a glimpse of very different manifestations of ‘the Muslim state’ than we have become accustomed to hearing about in public discourse.

SA map Continue reading “XQs V: A Conversation with Eric Beverley”

Why Sheldon Pollock

Plates from Sheldon Pollock, "Ramayana and Political Imagination in India" The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 261-297
Plates from Sheldon Pollock, “Ramayana and Political Imagination in India” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 261-297

The struggles at JNU are now reaching other institutions in India– the Lok Sabha, the courts, the media channels. Though, to be fair, the struggles at JNU were first troubles at University of Hyderabad, and before that at IIT Madras. Certainly, before that at Kashmir University. The world outside Delhi, Hyderabad, Madras, Srinagar has stood in solidarity with these struggles. Across South Asia, in UK, in America, hundreds of thousands have stood up, spoken, signed their names to be counted in the struggles. There are numerous vectors coinciding in this– anti-caste, pro-freedom of speech, pro-academy, anti-Modi and more. Sheldon Pollock, the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University is one such supporter– having signed a petition for JNU. Presumably for this support, Pollock is now the target of a petition against him– demanding that he be removed from his editorial role at a series he founded. You can read about the petition here and a rebuttal from Dominic Wujastyk here.

Given that this petition is a publicity effort aimed at harassing a scholar, I was tempted to ignore it. However, as the news of this petition has circulated, I realized that people are largely unaware of both Pollock’s scholarship, and the history of why scholarship– such as his or Wendy Doniger’s– is consistently under attack by the Hindu Right parties. Unaware of either, I see the danger of people jumping to conclusions about the validity of the slur against Pollock or why it matters that we speak up for him. It is important, I think, that we properly contextualize the intellectual work of Pollock’s career but also the claims behind his detractors. This attack on Pollock has a genealogy, more precise and more general, than what is readily evident– the Hindutva Right has long targeted historical production on Indian past that was anti-caste, anti-communal or feminist, and it has long targeted Sheldon Pollock for articulating how political imagination frames historical thinking.

This is a struggle for the right to narrate–connecting JNU and Pollock. Pollock, too, is charged as an “anti-national” because slogans were reportedly chanted for Kashmir or Pakistan at JNU. The text of the petition requires that we see the Indian nationalist state as strictly Hindu, strictly masculine, and strictly aggrieved. The Petition’s effort to ask for “native” (read Hindu) Indologist has consumed Indian politics for a while now.

Today there is a call to #removemughalsfrombooks— and it perfectly encapsulates my contention. Books, written texts, need to be cleaned out; British histories, and colonial readings of Mughals eliminated; a Hindu history written in.

That history– written history– erased Hindu pasts is a long-standing argument of the Hindu right. M. S. Golwalkar, whom the Wikipedia notes is one of the inspirations for Modi and who was a founding member of Rashtriya Swayanmsevak Sangh (RSS), condemned textbooks in his 1938 pamphlet, “We, or Our Nationhood Defined”. The very first footnote begins:

It is interesting to note the colossal ignorance of Historians of the West, about ancient History. Every child in Hindustan knows that Ramayan is the work of the father of Sanskrit poetry Valmiki and the first piece of literature in Sanskrit. … Unfortunately such misconceptions are stuffed into the brains of our young ones through text books appointed by various Universities in the country. It is high time that we studied, understood, and wrote our history ourselves and discarded such designed or un-designed distortions

The child that naturally knows better than any “Historian of the West” is the child whose mind is later filled with distortions– distortions introduced by the same Historians via textbooks; textbooks taught in schools and universities.

I merely hint at the presence of this reading of textbooks at the heart of seminal RSS texts. The nationalist and anti-colonial struggles of those decades notwithstanding, textbooks became a primary site to war over the right to narrate in South Asia.1 In India, textbooks (and schools and universities and History) was a battlefield during the Ayodhya movement to replace Babri Masjid. At the forefront of that struggle were historians– Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and many more– who published petitions, open letters, articles in defense of a better understanding of the past. Neeladri Bhattacharyya, who was himself involved with the NCERT, wrote a full account of this struggle in his “Teaching History in Schools: the Politics of Textbooks in India2:

The narratives of the Hindu right are constructed around two parallel, yet contradictory, claims: one, that Hindus have a pure Aryan descent, the other, that Hindus are the original inhabitants of India. Only through such claims could the Muslims be represented as outsiders, foreigners who came and imposed their oppressive rule in India. But such an argument could only be made through a series of other assertions. If Hindu descent was to be traced back to the Aryans, and if they were to be presented as the original inhabitants, then it was not possible to accept that Aryans came from outside, or that they were pastoralists, or that there were flourishing local cultures within India before the coming of the Aryans. Within this narrative, the Indus valley civilization (also termed Harappan civilization, from Harappa, the first of its cities to be excavated) could not be celebrated and seen as pre-Aryan at the same time. It had to be presented as contemporary with Vedic times (when the sacred Hindu texts were written), or, part of the Aryan culture.

As the Hindu right consolidated from the mid 1970s, the secular textbooks became a target of persistent attacks. The secular historians were condemned as anti-Hindu, keen on sanitizing Muslim wrongs, erasing their misdeeds. The newspaper columns of the Hindu right suggested that these secular historians should migrate to Pakistan, and settle in a Muslim country. Many of the authors regularly received anonymous letters and death threats. In 1977, after the emergency years, a coalition of parties came to power in New Delhi. Under pressure from the right within the coalition, one of the first measures of this government was to withdraw these NCERT school books from circulation – an act that led to widespread protests. In 1999, when the Hindu right came to power at the centre, the textbooks were once again the site of intense controversy. ‘Objectionable passages’ from the books (especially any that referred to beef-eating in Ancient India) were deleted as hurtful to Hindu sensibilities.7 Then the textbooks themselves were withdrawn and a new set of texts introduced – texts which for the first time actually contained many of the communal ideas that till now had only circulated in the popular press or been taught in communal schools.

Neeladri Bhattacharya, a Professor at JNU, has long been a member of this struggle and JNU a long-standing site where this struggle is enacted. In 2007, I remember Professor Bhattacharya’s visit to University of Chicago where he presented this paper. In attendance were Professor Muzaffar Alam, Wendy Doniger and others. The University of Chicago’s South Asian Languages and Civilizations department had also long been a site of struggle to write Indian pasts.

Sheldon Pollock was faculty at University of Chicago when he published, in 1993, his essay “Ramayana and the Political Imagination in India” (Journal of Asian Studies). Pollock’s essay was a direct response to BJP’s rathyātra in 1990 and the riots that followed. Led by Advani this journey through north India’s sacral sites had a distinct purpose of invoking a past to frame contemporary calls for the destruction of Babri Masjid. Pollock, a renowned philologist and Sanskritist, opened the essay with Advani to set forth his intellectual question3:

It is the symbology of these events that I want to examine in what follows. For whatever ideological cohesion the BJP secured, and the primary impetus for political mobilization– in the name of a Hindu theocratic politics and against the Muslim population– derived in large part from the invocation of specific set of symbols: the figure of the warrior-god Rāma, his birthplace temple in Ayodhyā, and the liberation of this sacred site. … There is a long history to the relationship between Rāmayaṇa and political symbology (p.262)

Pollock then provides precisely that history– of how the text and political imagination coalesce in the eleventh to fourteenth century around different imperial formations. The essay, truly a masterpiece in South Asian historiography, bears some attention here. I will skip Pollock’s recreation of how the past was remembered, and Rama interpellated, in those pasts, to concentrate on his last section where he brings us to why the struggle was on the domain of history itself. In that section– Historicist Intervention– he begins:

If the adoption of the Rāmāyaṇa to process the events of the eleventh to fourteenth centuries suggests a complex interplay of culture and political power, equally complex is the problem of the present with which I started, the reappropriation of this imaginary in contemporary India. And, indeed, all that I’ve recorded seems to have little directly to contribute to this question, to making sense of the display of cultural symbols in the pursuit of political objectives in contemporary India. There are at least two questions here, both difficult to answer: What possible relationships, if any, can be posited between the reemergence of Rāma– the Rāma of L.K. Advani of the BJP– and an earlier political semiotics of Rāma– the Rāma, say, of Pṛthvīrāja III? And what does it mean to seek to intervene in the present via an archeology such as I have presented; what is the role of history in the current contention? (p. 288)

The critique Pollock presents pivots on the foundations of objectivist history, Hegel’s “historical History”, which Pollock writes:

bears a substantial measure of responsibility for the reactionary politics and the romantic historicism driving them for the past century, in Europe as well as Asia. Ayodhyā would hardly have assumed the dimensions of the present problem were it not for the scientized historicity itself (objectified in such texts as the archaeological reports and colonial gazetteers constantly cited by the parties to the dispute) and the pursuit of origins it delusively inspires. (emphasis added, p. 292)

For Pollock to counter BJP’s utilization of sacral symbols, in 1993, was to present the construction and social function of history’s political imagination. Pollock followed up with influential texts, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India (2006), and set the agenda for a new historically situated world philology, “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World” (2009).4.

Since 1993, Pollock has remained a target for the Hindu Right in the US, especially for Rajiv Malhotra and his Infinity Foundation. Malhotra, and his various foundations, target Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock as being “Historians of the West” whose works introduce “distortions” into the minds of the “Hindu child”. Malhotra’s long effort to criminalize and ban Doniger for introducing “perversity” into Sanskrit is now moved into criticizing Pollock as a Swadeshi Orientalist.

Malhotra relies on a vast array of listserv-driven, twitter-fueled, IT-based Hindu diaspora community that writes petitions, emails, and denounces these scholars. In 2014, Malhotra began targeting Pollock over his efforts to strengthen the teaching of Sanskrit at Columbia.

On January 17, 2016, Malhotra published his call to arms, again, to target Pollock– on his blog, “Why Sheldon Pollock is a very important Indologist to engage“. Malhotra cites as a particular target, “the most prestigious feathers in his cap”, the Murty Classical Library. This attack is thus, by design and plan, and it is aimed to both boost Malhotra’s own books and rile the twitterati against a scholarly target. At his behest, and follow Malhotra’s twitter feed to see this in real action, the desh-bhakts take aim at Pollock’s position at the Murty Classical Library.

It bears stating, without too much exaggeration, that Harvard University Press’ Murty Classical Library is one of the most important and consequential projects for South Asian pasts. As Pollock was quoted in NYT’s cover on the launch last year, “The Murty will offer ‘something the world had never seen before, and something that India had never seen before: a series of reliable, accessible, accurate and beautiful books that really open up India’s precolonial past'”.

Pollock’s vision for the project is clear from that 1993 article itself. Why put new, scholarly secure, Indic texts in the hands of everyone who wishes for them? What effect does a direct access to critically edited and produced text, and its English translation have on contemporary reader? At its most basic, it reveals the space within which the political imagination operates. The MCL will, or does, have volumes from Buddhist, Sufi, Bhakti, Vedic, Courtly pasts from Tamil, Sindhi, Prakrit, Marathi, Apabhramsha, Sanskrit, Persian, Punjabi, Telegu, Pali, Old Hindi. These scripts, as they defuse through the social, will create a set of new readers who shall have the power to articulate their political as textually grounded not merely historicist. The valorization of Sanskrit as the language of Gods is precisely to remove it from our world– to envelop it in gloss.

The textbook is one particular gloss. A critical absence in education, visible to me from Pakistan and from United States, is the availability of primary Indic texts, available in English. For a student to understand the social function of a given text, it is incumbent that they articulate their way through that text– that they directly experience its structure, its texture, its illusions and its narrative. Pollock’s 1993 essay remains a classical example of such articulation. In my estimation, the greatest impact of Murty Classical Library will be felt precisely in the classroom.

I am a student of Sheldon Pollock and a graduate of University of Chicago. I am now a colleague of his at Columbia. While I was in Berlin, I worked, alongside other colleagues, to launch a project Zukunftsphilologie which built upon and situated Pollock’s work in German academy. I write today to support my teacher and colleague, and to acknowledge that his intellectual and institutional contributions have shaped the study of South Asia in this present century. No number of signatories to any petition can un-write that fact.

———
  1. In Pakistan, textbooks were sites of forgetting and erasures, whether of Hindus, Bengali, Baluchi or Sindhi. Some historians– mainly Mubarak Ali and K.K. Aziz– tried to combat such erasures but the state of Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s carried out a whole scale erasure of history programs– and historians– and that battle was quickly over. []
  2. Neeladri Bhattacharya, “Teaching History in Schools: the Politics of Textbooks in India” History Workshop Journal(2009) 67 (1): 99-110 []
  3. I should note that Pollock was joining a large number of Indian social scientists and historians who had been writing on the issue of Babri Masjid since the mid 1980s. For an overview, see Gyanendra Pandey, “Modes of History Writing: New Hindu History of Ayodhya” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, No. 25 (Jun. 18, 1994), pp. 1523-1528 []
  4. The project to understand the “pursuit of origins” remained unfinished; though I am hoping Cynthia Talbot’s new book The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Indian Past, 1200-2000 and my forthcoming book re-starts that conversation []

University of Virginia’s Statement of Solidarity for JNU

We, the undersigned students and faculty at the University of Virginia, stand in solidarity with the staff, students, and faculty at Jawarharlal University (JNU), New Delhi. We share the outrage of citizens around the world who are aggrieved at the Modi government’s criminalization of student protest and dissent. Further, we are extremely concerned by the government’s cavalier suppression of dissent as ‘sedition’ and ‘anti-national’. Freedom of speech and expression are cornerstones in any democracy. Citizens’ rights to express a plurality of beliefs and contrary opinions are essential to enabling a free, tolerant, and just society. We thus condemn the arrest, detention, and prosecution of students, including Kanhaiya Kumar (President of JNU Students Union), who have exercised this fundamental right on the JNU campus.

We also condemn the state’s wanton use of police and legal powers to subdue the rights of students to gather peaceably and debate their political beliefs. We are concerned that the persecution of students at JNU is galvanized by the state’s general repression of minorities, most notably evidenced in the tragic suicide of the Dalit student Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad and the controversial execution of Afzal Guru. We value the resilience of the members of the JNU community who are now in the midst of the struggle. We also recognize the ties between the crackdown at JNU and other similar virulent state actions against some of India’s most excellent institutions of higher education: Jadavpur University, Kolkata; the University of Hyderabad; Film and Television Institute of India; and others. JNU’s preeminent reputation in India as an institution that fosters path-breaking scholarship, social activism, and critical thought is truly global. It is our hope that this statement of solidarity, by reaching across boundaries, affirms the exalted regard with which JNU is held in the international community of scholars.

In order to ensure that JNU can carry on with its educational mission, we urge the Government of India to remedy the situation immediately. To this end, we ask that the students arrested under false charges of ‘sedition’ be released immediately, that all charges against them be dropped, and that police incursions into campus activities cease. We call on the Vice Chancellor of JNU to uphold the university’s global reputation for safeguarding free and independent thought by protecting its most vulnerable members and students.

Founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, the University of Virginia aspires to extend universally the rights of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness imagined by its founder. Even so, UVA continues to face its own struggles against discrimination based on race, class, religion, gender, and sex. It is in the name of these struggles on our own historic Grounds that members of this university find it urgent to speak out in solidarity with JNU and against the suppression of minority voices in India.
Continue reading “University of Virginia’s Statement of Solidarity for JNU”