Commentary on current issues related to education,
rights and wider social matters
With apologies to my good friends Sunil, Jayashree and Johnson. Picture taken at Lal Bagh Bengaluru
Citizenship and Secularism at Risk in India
March 3rd 2020
Before my most recent visit to India I was aware of the controversy surrounding recent legislation put in place by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the Indian Parliament on 11 December last year and the proposal to instigate a National Register of Citizens (NRC) has provoked demonstrations across the country. The concerns surrounding these measures are that whilst the law now provides a means of gaining Indian citizenship for both legal and illegal migrants of the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religion from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who arrived in the country before 2014, many escaping from religious persecution, it does not afford the same opportunities to Muslims or to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, Rohingyas from Myanmar, or Buddhists from Tibet.
Furthermore, many Indians, including those from Scheduled Tribes (ST) or from the poorest rural communities do not have the necessary paperwork to prove their identity. Indeed, there remains a significant number of individuals in these communities whose literacy levels are low and who have major difficulties in negotiating the bureaucracy involved in such legislation.
Whilst in India in January I was aware of demonstrations against the legislation in many of India’s cities. During my stay in Hyderabad there were posters across the city advertising protest events and I was in touch with colleagues who had either been directly involved, or whose lives had been disrupted by demonstrations in Bangalore and Kolkata.
It is simplistic to believe that these demonstrations are populated only by members of those groups who feel that they are being discriminated against. My conversations with friends and colleagues in India reveal that many of them have sympathies with the protesters and some have participated themselves. These include colleagues who are Hindu and Christian and others who profess no specific religion. The Indian Historian and Gandhi biographer Ramachandra Guha was arrested during one such protest whilst holding a picture of the Mahatma and peacefully making his point that it took many years to create a united and secular nation after centuries of division promoted under British rule. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/historian-ramachandra-guha-detained-during-protest-in-bengaluru-against-citizenship-amendment-act-2151152 . India, these protesters rightly state, is a secular nation as defined in the National Constitution and they are appalled by the idea that any members of their communities should feel that they are the victims of discrimination.
A couple of days ago Mukul Kesavan https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mukul_Kesavan who holds a post at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, wrote a thoughtful article in the Guardian. In this article he made a number of important points about the violent demonstrations that erupted in Delhi to coincide with the visit of USA President Donald Trump. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/25/delhi-rocked-by-deadly-protests-during-donald-trumps-india-visit
During these events several people, including a police officer, lost their lives, in what was seen as an escalation of the more peaceful demonstrations that had taken place across India during the previous weeks.
Sadly, even the more liberal newspaper and broadcast media channels reported the Delhi riot and other demonstrations across Indian cities as a Hindu versus Muslim conflict. Such reportage is at best naïve and in some instances mischievous. This prompted me to write a letter to the Guardian, a newspaper normally associated with fair reporting, who sadly blundered into a similar pattern of lazy reporting.
Poster announcing demonstration in Hyderabad
In India a number of extreme Hindu groups have recently supported the erection of statues and other memorials to Nathuram Godse, the man who shot and killed Mahatma Gandhi.
News items related to this situation can be read on the following links.
What then follows is a personal reflection on this news.
Murder is Just that, No Matter How it is Portrayed
What do John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray and Nathuram Godse all have in common? Apart from the obvious answer, that they were all cold-blooded murderers of prominent internationally known figures, I would suggest that they were also pathetic unknowns, who gained notoriety only through a violent act of assassinating individuals whose names were familiar to millions across the globe. Each one through an act which took no more than seconds, assured that their names would be written into history, and that they would gain notoriety not for some deed of great heroism, or as a result of notable achievements, but simply because they chose to destroy the life of an individual whose contributions to society were many and revered by significant numbers of the population.
Now let me ask a different question. What is a significant difference between John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray and Nathuram Godse? A simple, but I suspect to many people surprising answer, is that of these murderous assassins only Nathuram Godse has come to be held in reverence by a small but significant number of individuals and groups, who have appropriated his sad character to represent their misinterpretation of history, and to perpetuate their own political agenda.
In recent years statues and busts, only a few of which bear any true resemblance to Nathuram Godse,whom they purport to represent, have been unveiled in several parts of India. As an example; in November 2017 the Hindu Mahasabha unveiled a shiny, though not terribly life like bust of Gandhi’s assassin at their Gwalior Office, whilst also announcing their intention to plan a temple to his memory. A few years ago, the production of a film Desh Bhakt Nathuram Godse (Nathuram Godse the Patriot), which attempted to raise him to the status of a martyr, was banned by a Pune court order. Personally, I have always opposed the banning of works of art, even when these may present a viewpoint different from my own, but I suspect that this particular film, along with other projects from the supporters of Godse, was intended more to provoke a reaction than to add to some great canon of artistic works.
It is of course, easy to argue that the Hindu Mahasabha is a minority organisation that represents the views of a relatively small number of Indians, but that should not detract from a need to understand how one small sector of society feels it appropriate to make a martyr of an individual who committed a heinous crime.
A few years ago, I read an excellent account of the days leading up to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi written by Tushar Gandhi, the grandson of the “Father of the Nation” and son of Manilal Gandhi. In his book “Let’s Kill Gandhi” (1) the author presents a wealth of documentary evidence, court reports and eye witness accounts of a terrible crime that appalled not only the Indian public, but citizens across the world. Of course, it can quite rightly be argued that in his presentation of this tragic story Tushar Gandhi can lay little claim to impartiality; a fact with which I feel sure he would concur. Similarly, many who have written accounts of the life of Gandhi, including Narayan Desai who was closer to him than most and has left us with a most detailed biography (2), would never suggest that their interpretation of events was totally devoid of bias. But whatever views these and other followers or detractors from Gandhi’s life and philosophy might believe, the simple truth is that murder is just that, an unjustifiable violent ending of the life of a fellow human being.
Can assassination ever be justified? This may not be as simple a question to answer as one might assume. In July 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg an officer in the German army, along with other conspirators, attempted to detonate a bomb at the Wolfsschanze or Wolf’s Lair as it is commonly called, near Rastenburg now situated in north east Poland. Had their mission succeeded the target of their attack Adolf Hitler, would have been killed and the second world war might possibly have ended sooner. As every student of twentieth century European history knows, von Stauffenberg and his colleagues failed, thus forfeiting their own lives to a Nazi firing squad in the early hours of the following morning.
Few would dispute the fact that Hitler and his coterie of Nazi thugs were a despicable and malicious gang, who brought wholesale destruction to much of Europe and beyond and were responsible for the deaths of millions. Whether or not his assassination would have led to an earlier conclusion to the war is a point which has been subject to continuing debate. If this had been the case, would von Stauffenberg today be lauded as a hero? Would his murderous act have been justified? Quite possibly so, though this remains a matter of speculation.
A second example of assassination, but in this instance one that did succeed, can in some ways be more closely associated with the bloody deed committed by Nathuram Godse. On 13 March 1940, at Caxton Hall in London, Udham Singh shot and killed Sir Michael O' Dwyer, a former Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab. As recorded in Anita Anand’s well researched book “The Patient Assassin” (3), Udham Singh spent many years planning to take bloody revenge for the massacre perpetrated at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar by Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. At the time of the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity, O’Dwyer was in his position of authority in the Punjab and along with many other representatives of the British government, sought not only to justify this grotesque crime against Sikhs going about their daily business, but also to shield Dyer from justice.
Udham Singh’s anger was fully justified and to an extent understandable. The slaughter of more than 400 innocent men, women and children who had gathered to celebrate the important Sikh festival of Baisakhi in the Jallianwala Bagh in April 1919, was never properly addressed through judicial procedures, leading to resentment and a reinforcement of negative beliefs about British justice. It is difficult to imagine a more horrendous act committed during the period of colonial rule in India. However, Udham Singh’s revenge did nothing to alleviate the suffering of Sikh families affected by the massacre that took place 21 years earlier, and whilst he is now regarded as a hero in some quarters, to most of the world his name is today largely unknown. As with most assassins his name has passed along a trajectory from obscurity to notoriety, only to return once more to obscurity. Following the publication of Anand’s book, I had a conversation with three young Indian friends in Bangalore, none of whom were familiar with the name Udham Singh.
Since the murder of O’Dwyer in 1940, many more assassinations of prominent leaders and heads of state have been committed. Liaquat Ali Khan (1951), Robert Kennedy (1968), Anwar Sadat (1981), Indira Gandhi (1984), Rajiv Gandhi (1991), Benazir Bhutto (2007); the list goes on. In most cases the perpetrators of these terrible crimes are forgotten long before those who were killed. There is of course, a very good reason for this. In the eyes of most decent human beings, the assassins are villains who have committed one of the most dreadful of crimes; that of taking away the lives of those whose opinions stood in opposition to their own.
In democratic societies the rule of law and due diligence on the part of those charged with its administration, provides a well-respected and appropriate system for bringing the perpetrators of criminal acts to justice. In such democracies the opportunity to elect political representatives ensures that leaders and officials can be held to account through a fair and transparent system of elections. Whilst it is true to say that all such democracies are flawed, as things stand they still provide the best means of ensuring equity and justice that we have managed to establish thus far. Democracy has emerged as a system based upon a desire to see fair play, with a recognition that whilst we may not always agree with the ideals of our elected representatives or the parties that they lead, we will at least have an opportunity to hold them accountable for their actions every few years.
In the world’s strongest democracies free speech is encouraged and allowed to flourish. Whilst dissidence may be uncomfortable for those in power, it is recognised as an essential element of the process of debate and interrogation of ideas that enables justice and democracy to thrive. Those of us who hold these principles dear have at times taken to the streets to protest those actions, which we perceive to be an infringement of rights, or a challenge to the freedoms that have often been won only after significant historical struggles.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century many courageous individuals from all communities across India protested the pernicious imperial rule of my countrymen. The successes achieved by great leaders who united the vast majority of the Hindu, Moslem, Sikh and secular communities throughout this period, stand as a tribute to the possibilities of bringing about change through a unified approach. Great Indian community leaders such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Tara Singh and Vallabhbhai Patel often had their differences, but were all committed in opposition to British rule and their desire for independence. At various times each of these significant figures looked to Mahatma Gandhi for inspiration, including on those occasions when they did not necessarily agree with his strategies. This even included his detractors, who at least recognised that he above all Indians had the ability to unite activists from across the political and religious spectrum. Gandhi remained a devout Hindu, even proclaiming his faith with his last utterance as he fell to the earth having been shot three times, in the grounds of Birla House in Delhi. He also proclaimed the rights of those of other faiths and none, to be recognised as Indian citizens.
The importance of unity in creating the conditions for freedom was tragically forgotten too soon after the establishment of Independent Indian and Pakistani states in 1947. The cataclysm of partition, which resulted in the deaths of so many innocents from both the Hindu and Moslem communities fleeing their homes, and the bitter wrangling between political and religious leaders, created a climate of untruth and disaffection that resulted in the assassination of Gandhi, by a man who was manipulated by others for their own iniquitous purpose.
Nathuram Godse as the perpetrator of a savage crime was in some ways himself a victim. Many of those who had encouraged him to assassinate Gandhi, denied their part in the plot and distanced themselves from Godse immediately after the event. There have been suggestions that Godse throughout his life suffered some form of traumatic mental illness related to his upbringing. Manohar Malgonkar in his book “The Men Who Killed Gandhi” (4), relates stories from Godse’s childhood and aberrant parenting, which he believes may have left him with complex personality problems. There is much speculation around the character of this man, but what is known is that he remained defiant and attempted to justify his actions, even as he went to the gallows at Ambala Jail in November 1949.
There can be no doubt that Mahatma Gandhi would have been a vociferous opponent of the death penalty that was meted out to Godse at his trial in the Punjab High Court in Shimla. Gandhi regarded the life of every individual as sacred and would have rejected any suggestion that his assassin should be excepted from this belief. Indeed, Gandhi’s sons Manilal and Ramdas, sought to have the death penalty overturned, but their objections were overruled by Nehru and his immediate cabinet associates.
Statues of Mahatma Gandhi are to be found in cities across India and beyond. In London, Tavistock square has become a site of pilgrimage to Fredda Brilliant’s beautiful memorial to the Mahatma for many devotees of Gandhian thought, and provides a focus for celebration of his life on 2nd October each year. Whilst memorials in the UK commemorate individuals who we now understand were guilty of the perpetuation of crimes committed during a period of colonial imperialism, such as Cecil Rhodes, it seems inconceivable that there would be an agreement today to erect a statue to a known murderer.
I am quite certain that Gandhi would have been appalled by the execution of Godse. He would have been amongst the first to say that those who have opinions that differed from his own had every right to express these. He would undoubtedly have expected that his assassin should face justice through the courts, but he would never have condoned the issuing of a death penalty. The installation of a statue in tribute to a murderer in the country that he loved and for which he worked for so much of his life, would also have horrified Gandhi. Yet I believe that he would have been equally opposed to the raising of expensive memorials to himself, when the work that he began in hope of creating a more just and equitable society, has failed to achieve the results that he desired. When we erect memorials to the departed we do so for the sake of those who remain, possibly more so than as a tribute to the dead.
Those who have chosen to commemorate the lives of an assassin are probably deserving if not of our sympathy, then perhaps a little understanding. They have elected to celebrate an event which for most decent and reflective people across the world remains as one of the most shocking crimes of the twentieth century. In their attempts to portray Nathuram Godse as a martyr, they are reinforcing the failure of evil to triumph over human goodness, and to reject violence as a means of solving the problems that still confront all of our societies. Such men are clutching at straws. Perhaps we should throw them a lifebelt.
(1) Tushar A. Gandhi. Let’s Kill Gandhi: A Chronicle of his Last Days, The Conspiracy, Murder, Investigation and Trial. Published by Rupa in 2007.
(2) Narayan Desai. My Life is My Message. A biography of Mahatma Gandhi. Translated by Tridip Suhrud. Published by Orient Black Swan in 2009
(3) Anita Anand. The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj. Published by Simon and Schuster in 2019
(4) Manohar Malgonkar. The Men Who Killed Gandhi. Published by Roli Books in 2008
Richard Rose, December 2019
Is it Possible to be "Over Educated"?
An article in the Guardian newspaper (Monday 29th April 2019 reported that the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) believes that almost a third of graduates are overqualified for their job, with students of the arts, biology and humanities the most likely to be "over-educated."
This seems to suggest that the purpose of education is solely about preparation for employment, rather than having an intrinsic value beyond the workplace. It is not clearly stated who the authors of this report from the ONS are, though it would appear that they would regard, for example a taxi driver with a degree in the history of art to be "over-educated" because he could be perfectly competent as a taxi driver without such knowledge or interest.
I suppose for those who suggest that the function of education is simply to ensure that an individual may become an effective cog in the economic food chain, this is a logical form of thinking. However, for those of us who believe that it should be about enhancing lives, creating enthusiasm and providing interest outside of the employment sphere, this simplistic notion of education in utilitarian terms, is anathema. Not surprisingly, the Guardian article provoked a number of responses through its letters page - and I was not the only one to pick up a pen (or go to the keyboard) to express an opinion.
A link to the article, and to letters in response can be found here.
Richard Rose, May 2019