The Muslim Face – on policing the resistance from within

The recent furore in the University of Yale for inviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to deliver a speech has been for me the most unsettling of all the controversy that had Hirsi Ali in it. The thing about Hirsi Ali is that she is representative of the dichotomy that ex-Muslims in general, and ex-Muslim women in particular, have to go through, especially in countries where Muslims are a minority. One is to be seen as a traitor of one’s community for speaking out against the atrocities committed within and other is to be seen as an apologist for speaking out against unwarranted and bigoted suspicion and fear with which Muslims are seen by the majority. Kenan Malik has spoken about this in his article “Is There Something About Islam?“, in which the following anecdote is very telling.

The Danish MP Naser Khader once told me of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. “He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims”, Khader recalled. “I said I was not insulted. And he said, ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’.”

Ayaan chose to not be that real Muslim and chose to be the traitor. For which she became the darling of the conservative and the right, while attracting the scorn of liberals and leftists from privileged classes.

And it is this dichotomy that unraveled at Yale, once she was invited to speak. There are two things to be considered here. First is the academic freedom of Hirsi Ali as an ex-Muslim woman. Michelle Goldberg in the Nation have put this matter very well, by comparing Hirsi Ali’s and Steven Salaita’s cases.

… it’s worth recognizing that arguments privileging “respect” and civility above freedom on campus are always double-edged. If you believe that Hirsi Ali shouldn’t be allowed to speak because she denigrates Islam and makes many students uncomfortable, then it’s hard to see how you can simultaneously claim that Salaita, a professor who has tweeted, “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948,” deserves a place in the classroom.

Second is the expectations that are put upon ex-Muslims when they choose to criticise Islam and the practices within their respective communities. Here is the letter by the Yale Muslim Students Association, where the following statement is something that I found to be extremely repugnant.

While we have legitimate concerns from what we know, and while we cannot overlook how marginalizing her presence will be to the Muslim community and how uncomfortable it will be for the community’s allies, we are hopeful that the discussion is constructive and that Ms. Hirsi Ali speaks only to her personal experiences and professional expertise.

Not only does the above statement have the implication that they are being generous by not denying her her experiences, but they expect her to limit her expression to her experiences and “expertise”, read she’s not qualified to speak on Islam. So she is allowed to express herself but not allowed to interpret her experiences with Islam. Similar arguments were made by Hindu apologists against Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit ex-Hindu writer and academic, for his trenchant and passionate criticism of Hinduism. In fact as a friend once pointed to us in Nirmukta, Hirsi Ali’s and Ilaiah’s experiences parallel each other. Both are denied the right to be passionate and also denied the right to hate the very institution that was the cause of their experiences. Despite being much close to oppression than privilege they are denied to opine and interpret on the same institution in the manner they deem fit.

But it doesn’t stop there. Here is the statement by the Yale Humanist Community, one of the signatories of the above letter,

As a diverse group of undergraduates with a membership that includes ex-Muslims and atheists from Islamic cultures, we do not believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents the totality of the ex-Muslim experience.

True, she may not represent the totality of the ex-Muslim experiences, but her experiences do belong to that totality. Her experiences and interpretations of the same constitute the larger ex-Muslim experience, and she has every right to be taken as seriously as any other ex-Muslim in that regard. One may disagree with plenty of her opinions, especially ones regarding minority rights of Muslims, but one simply doesn’t get to trivialise her experience by making such patronising statements as saying she does not represent the whole.

Another argument that comes against Hirsi Ali is that feeds the anti-Muslim/Islamophobic frenzy of the right and the conservative. But how fair is it to police her speech and expression by putting the blame of bigotry of the, well, bigots on her? Bigots have historically appropriated and misconstrued sane arguments for their own agenda, many a times even by going against the original intentions. How fair and constructive is it to point fingers at her, instead of engaging her?

Such policing and patronising of resistance within Islam while bringing down the credibility of secular humanism, greatly harms the larger struggle for a tolerant and secular future. Excluding the likes of Hirsi Ali will do none of us any good.

The Muslim Face and the Image of Islam

Two articles have prompted me to write this post. One by Kenan Malik titled “Is there something about Islam?” and the other by Mehdi Hasan titled “What the Jihadists Who Bought ‘Islam For Dummies’ on Amazon Tell Us About Radicalisation”. Both deal with certain crucial questions that are almost always missing in current discourses on Islam, Islamism, and Islamic Terrorism. These questions are especially necessary when the world has to deal with the current crisis of the Islamic State in the Arabic world.

To what extent does Islam Influence the actions of Muslims, especially actions that are violent?

I understand that many here would have problems with me quoting Hasan, and for valid reasons, but his article is an interesting read if anybody is interested in understanding how or why the head-choppers of ISIS are behaving the way they do. He doesn’t answer them, but does present us with an approach in which non-Muslims can deal with these issues. The first question that needs to be answered is what is the relationship between the scriptures and the actions of Muslim terrorists. Hasan gives us the example of two self-proclaimed Jihadists, Yususf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who pleaded guilty of terrorism in Syria and who have also recently (after returning from Syria) reported to have bought a book titled Islam for Dummies. Hasan tries to argue that religious literacy has little to do with acts of violence by believers, in the name of their belief.

I for one, do see the point in his argument. Take for instance, the self-proclaimed Caliphate of ISIS and compare that with the historical Sunni institution of the Caliphate. The first Rashiddun Caliphate that was established after the death of Mohammed was structured according to the Islamic nation built by the prophet in Medina. This Islamic polity was based on the Constitution of Medina, a charter signed by the leaders or representatives of various warring tribes in the region which is today known as Hejaz. One of the responsibilities of the Caliph was also to extend protection of life, trade, property and personal faith of non-Muslims who pay taxes, in accordance with Islamic conjectures, and who owe their allegiance to the Caliphate as its subjects. Apart from that the first four Caliphs were also elected by a constellation of leaders (and also some elected representatives) of all tribes that follow the Muslim faith and accept the Caliphate (this primitive system of representational/oligarchic democracy is also believed to have its roots from the then defunct Roman Republic). All this is very much unlike the murderous gun-trotting butchers that call themselves the Islamic State.

Malik too raises this argument in his article regarding violence committed by Muslims, and the portrayal and treatment of such violence.

The relationship between religion, interpretation, identity and politics can be complex. We can see this if we look at Myanmar and Sri Lanka where Buddhists – whom many people, not least humanists and atheists, take to be symbols of peace and harmony – are organizing vicious pogroms against Muslims, pogroms led by monks who justify the violence using religious texts. Few would insist that there is something inherent in Buddhism that has led to the violence. Rather, most people would recognize that the anti-Muslim violence has its roots in the political struggles that have engulfed the two nations. The importance of Buddhism in the conflicts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka is not that the tenets of faith are responsible for the pogroms, but that those bent on confrontation have adopted the garb of religion as a means of gaining a constituency and justifying their actions. The “Buddhist fundamentalism” of groups such as the 969 movement, or of monks such as Wirathu, who calls himself the “Burmese bin Laden”, says less about Buddhism than about the fractured and fraught politics of Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

And yet, few apply the same reasoning to conflicts involving Islam. When it comes to Islam, and to the barbaric actions of groups such as ISIS or the Taliban, there is a widespread perception that the problem, unlike with Buddhism, lies in the faith itself. …

Before we continue, it has to be noted that neither Hasan nor Malik (or even me for that matter) declare that the radicals or fundamentalist never justify their actions or opinions on the religion that they follow. The point here is that the assumption that everything that Muslims do wrong is primarily because of whatever is written in their scriptures is not only lop-sided but also extremely problematic. Most of the time, the role of the religion is usually a cover for power struggle or for a very heinous practice. Take for instance, the practice of female genital mutilation among certain group of Muslims, and Sati that was practiced in India. In both case the proponent or the apologists argue(d) for it as a part of their religion, while neither is in any manner or interpretation prescribed in either religion. While the media has been reporting brutal murder of Shias, Christians, and Yazidis by the ISIS militants, not many are reporting the fact that it is the Sunni Muslim Kurdish militias in northern Iraq and eastern Syria that are putting up a brave fight against the ISIS. Even the part where the same Kurdish militias created a humanitarian route for both aid and supply, and an escape to a safe region for their Yazidi counterparts was heavily under-reported by major international news media, including Al Jazeera (see here and here). Another thing that did not come up in the news was how the world’s largest Sunni Muslim nation, Indonesia, dealt with advocates of ISIS, by instituting an outright ban of and a threat of revocation citizenship (see here and here). Both these examples are to give a context of the perceptions and narratives.

Who is a true Muslim? And who represents Muslims?

Malik also raises the question of the what, or rather who, is representative of Islam and Muslims in general.

The Danish MP Naser Khader once told me of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. “He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims”, Khader recalled. “I said I was not insulted. And he said, ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’.”

“You’re not a real Muslim.” Why? Because to be proper Muslim is, from such a perspective, to be reactionary, to find the Danish cartoons offensive. Anyone who isn’t reactionary or offended is by definition not a proper Muslim. Here leftwing “anti-racism” meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. For many leftwing anti-racists, opposing bigotry means accepting reactionary ideas as authentically Muslim. For many rightwing bigots (and, indeed, for many leftwing bigots, too), there is something about Islam that makes it irredeemably violent, even evil, and that makes all Muslims potentially dangerous.

Here also, liberal so-called anti-racism becomes a vehicle for buttressing the most reactionary, conservative voices in Muslim communities and for marginalizing the progressive. It becomes a means of closing down debate, censoring criticism, and giving power and legitimacy to “community leaders’ spouting the most backward of views. “The controversy over the cartoons”, as Naser Khader observed, “was not about Muhammad. It was about who should represent Muslims. What I find really offensive is that journalists and politicians see the fundamentalists as the real Muslims.” Which is why many Muslims, ironically, often have more liberal views on free speech than many so-called liberal non-believers.


… The problem is also the attitudes of non-Muslim commentators, policymakers and activists, both liberals and bigots, as to what constitutes an authentic Muslim, the failure to see beyond the conservative or the reactionary as the true Muslim, the inability to distinguish between the faith of ordinary believers and the politicised use of faith for reactionary ends by power-grabbing, control-seeking individuals and organizations. The problem is also government policy, particularly in the West. Policy makers have all too often treated minority communities as if each was a distinct, homogeneous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. They have ignored the diversity within those communities and taken the most conservative, reactionary figures to be the authentic voices.

We need to seriously deal with popular image of Muslims, among non-Muslims. Take for instance, the Shah Bano case and the Indian National Congress’s bending over backwards for reactionary and regressive Muslims. This case is very much apt to describe what Malik is trying to say. Despite the support and advocacy by several major Muslim and ex-Muslim personalities, politicians, organisations, NGOs, academics for the Supreme Court judgement, the ruling INC misused the overwhelming majority it had in the Parliament to overturn the judgement putting Muslim women at the mercy of the regressive elements within the community. Let’s also take the fact that many a times when a non-Muslim politician belonging to centrist or centre-left political party has to reach out to the Muslim electorate they would usually pay visit to some very questionable and controversial ulemas and community leaders for their campaigns, whose influence and social capital within the community itself would be very limited.

To conclude, a nuanced treatment of the subject is the need of the hour. Divorcing Islam from Islamism and Islamic terrorism is not the way to go about, but neither is looking at the phenomena of Hamas, Hezbollah, and even ISIS purely from a anti-religious and anti-theistic stand. While fighting against Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism without apology is extremely necessary, it is equally necessary to recognise and promote the efforts from within the community against the regressive elements, by recognising the diversity within the Muslim world. Doing that is neither fence-sitting nor apologism.

A Question to Put to the Ayurveda Crowd

Health minister Harsh Vardhan spoke again in support of Ayurveda and “alternative” medicine yesterday, as reported in The Hindu (Harsh Vardhan bats for Ayurveda):

Dr. Vardhan recommended that the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) commit itself “to promoting Ayush” (Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy). NIMHANS and SVYAS should work in coordination and share scientific expertise, he said. “The supremacy of Indian fields of medicine has been established… Today, we do not have to convince people about yoga and Ayurveda.” However, the country needs evidence-based medicine, he said, adding that research on practices such as meditation and yoga could help empirically prove the efficacy of these Indian health systems.

The bit about evidence-based medicine is most welcome. My suspicion though is that they are not serious about it. His remarks here and previously (see Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy to be included in AIIMS system: Harsh Vardhan) suggest that he has already decided that Ayurveda works, and the evidence-based support is going to be selectively painted on – perhaps dishonestly – to give it a respectable veneer.

In a previous post titled How Ayurveda Works (Not Really) I argued against Ayurveda based on issues of plausibility. Perhaps we should also keep this different question handy to put to them:

Can you describe some Ayurveda remedies which were examined using the techniques of evidence-based medicine, found ineffective, and therefore discarded?

This would give some idea of whether they are seriously following evidence-based medicine or not. Mind you, this question is very valid even for modern medicine, as Ioannidis and co. have found – biases like publication bias are very real in modern medicine (Why Most Published Research Findings Are False). So if you put this same question to a doctor or researcher of modern medicine, you won’t get as many examples as you’d like. But you will find some, as a little searching on Google reveals. You will also find disputes, re-evaluations and controversies, like in the case of statins. So, in the future when our health ministry has its way on AYUSH, we should see at least this amount of failure and controversy in the news. If my suspicion is correct, we will not – instead we’ll see one positive result after another. Time will tell.


A Year of Grand Slam Data: Men’s Tennis and Women’s Tennis

Since the 2013 US Open, I’ve been collecting the statistics published by the grand slam tennis tournaments in a spreadsheet. This was prompted by a discussion on sexism in tennis about a year ago, where I saw someone say he didn’t watch women’s tennis these days as it was “full of unforced errors”. So I decided to have a look at what the stats were. And since they publish stats not only on unforced errors but many other measures as well, and they use an identical tabular format (links: Aus, French, Wim, US), it was easy to compare and aggregate them.

I chose a number of “metrics”, some I’m sure most tennis fans will agree on, some based on what I like in tennis. I also did a per-game/per-set normalisation to get around the 3-set/5-set difference (more on the number-of-sets issue later). Here are the metrics I chose:

(1) Winners per game (the more the better), (2) winners rate (the more the better), (3) unforced errors per game (the lower the better), (4) unforced errors rate (the lower the better), (5) winners to unforced errors ratio (the more the better), (6) points per game (the more the better), (7) games per set (the more the better), (8) %age of straight-sets matches (the lower the better), (9) %age of final-set matches (the more the better), (10) %age of tie-break sets (the more the better), (11) double-faults per game (the lower the better), (12) service breaks rate (the more the better).

Before looking at the data, try to do a estimate in your mind of what you think these numbers will be like.

The Data

Here are the results: you can view the Google spreadsheet here (hopefully the Excel-to-Google conversion preserved all the formulas), or you can simply see the aggregates in the screenshot below (click to enlarge):

Spreadsheet showing aggregated statistics of the four grand slams. (Please see article body for the main results in text form.)

Spreadsheet showing aggregated statistics of the four grand slams. (Please see article body for the main results in text form.)

The results (aggregate of all 4 tournaments):

(1) Winners per game: men 2.0, women 1.8

(2) Winners rate (as % of total points): men 31%, women 27%

(3) Unforced errors per game: men 1.7, women 2.1

(4) Unforced errors rate (as % of total points): men 27%, women 33%

(5) Winners to unforced errors ratio: men 1.14, women 0.83

(6) Points per game: women 6.6, men 6.3

(7) Games per set: men 9.8, women 9.2

(8) %age of straight-sets matches: men 50%, women 69%

(9) %age of final-set matches: women 30%, men 17%

(10) %age of tie-break sets: men 18%, women 9%

(11) Double-faults per game: men 0.2, women 0.3

(12) Service breaks rate (as % of total games): women 35%, men 20%


Arguments that women should receive less prize money than men are more generally arguments about value – i.e. does men’s tennis have more value than women’s tennis. The measurement of this value can take many forms – prize money is one of them; other forms are things like the amount and nature of media coverage, and the amount and nature of public appreciation. The higher the prize money, and the more and better the media coverage and public appreciation, the more the tennis is valued.

Most commonly one hears the argument that since men play best-of-5 and women play best-of-3, therefore men’s tennis deserves more prize money (i.e. it has more value). Leaving alone the fact that the WTA is willing to play best-of-5 too (links: Major obstacle to women’s call for five sets, WTA chief says women ‘ready, willing’ for five sets), the main flaw in these arguments is inconsistency – if number of sets really determines value, then that metric ought to be applied uniformly across the board rather than only on two sides of an arbitrarily chosen divide of men’s tennis and women’s tennis – i.e. it ought to be applied to all tennis matches, period. So a man who loses in 3 straight sets should receive less prize money (and less and worse media coverage and public appreciation) than a man who loses in 5 sets – because going by the logic of that particular metric, there is a difference in value the two men have provided. The same principle holds for any of the metrics above, or any other metric of your choosing, such as market demand (ticket sales, TV ratings etc.). Today the prize money is already equal, so what of the other measures of value – the media coverage and the public appreciation? It’s quite easy to see the inconsistency – a men’s match is treated kindly even when it ought not to be (as per these metrics). The media tends to be generous with praise and emphasizes the positive rather than the negative, with far more interview quotes and coverage for the men in general. One example from recent times – Maria Sharapova’s final-set defeat to Angelique Kerber in this year’s Wimbledon only got one sentence of coverage in The Hindu. Yet it devoted several paragraphs to Andy Murray’s straight-sets defeat (on a different day) – and this discrepancy in coverage was repeated on many days. This issue is something that would be worth doing a proper study on.

The fact that nobody is demanding “variable value” based on such metrics, yet noises about men-vs-women keep being made, indicates just how deeply embedded gendered thinking is – the divide shows up artificially even when it isn’t relevant, all the while appearing to be perfectly natural. (If you did make this proposal there would be an outcry against it, from players and fans alike – particularly if it involves prize money. I think the reason goes back to Michael Sandel’s Moral Limits of Markets. Market evaluations and incentives have a degrading and corrupting effect on certain goods and practices, and sports is one of them. Sports is bound up in all kinds of human emotion and values – honour, courage, beauty, skill, triumph over adversity – perhaps that’s why we wouldn’t like this idea. It also explains why we get angry when players aren’t loyal to their teams and play for the highest bidder.)

Another thing worth noting is, it’s debatable whether the 5-set format is better. It results in less straight-sets matches, but it also results in less final-set matches than the best-of-3 format. Yet you don’t see anyone arguing, “Women play more final-set matches, so women should receive more prize money”. Which leads me to to think that reason “5 sets” is used in the argument is that it’s what men play. Personally, I find a three-straight-sets match even worse than a two-straight-sets match, because the loser had three opportunities to win a set – over two-plus hours of my life which I’m never going to get back – and he couldn’t do it. A final set is the only thing I’m willing to watch in a tennis match these days, unless I have an emotional investment in one of the players. So I think the tennis authorities should instead revamp the scoring system entirely – neither best-of-3 nor best-of-5, but something completely different. Games like badminton, volleyball, squash and table-tennis have all experimented with scoring changes to make the game more appealing, so it’s worth trying. There will be objections to it, but I suspect these objections will mostly be a case of status-quo bias.

Finally, all the above is even before you take into account other important premises that ought to be included in any argument about men’s tennis and women’s tennis: the biological advantage that men have, and the barriers of sexism that women face and men don’t: implicit bias, explicit bias, objectification, sexualisation, infantilisation, body shaming, and policing of “femininity”. So taking all this into account, I conclude that we ought to value men’s tennis and women’s tennis equally, and also that the tennis authorities should look into changing the scoring system to make the game more appealing.

PS: any errors you find in the spreadsheet are honest mistakes; please point them out if you find any. I got tired of validating the data and the formulas and was seeing stars by the end of it, so I’m just going to go ahead and publish this post now.



On Why Gandhi Is Casteist

Today in the morning I was greeted by an article in the Open Magazine on my news feed. The article titled Arundhati Roy’s Ahistorical Fiction, was a retort to Roy’s speech for her Mahatma Ayyankali address at the University of Kerala, where she was quoted for criticising Gandhi’s “casteist tendencies“. Before I continue I must say this beforehand that I am not without problems with Roy’s work, especially with her recently published introduction to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, but for different reasons. This post is not in defence of Roy. My problem here is with writer’s assertion of Gandhi’s anti-caste credentials.

From the time of Gautam Buddha in the 6th Century BCE, several great reformers have attempted to reduce or eliminate the injustice and inequity created by the caste system in India. They did not succeed. It was only in the 20th century that, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the people of India made the struggle against the caste system an integral part of their quest for freedom from British rule and succeeded in declaring untouchability a crime under the Constitution of the Republic of India.

The entire article is sickeningly dedicated to maintaining Gandhi’s messianic status as some kind of anti-caste revolutionary. The author makes several incorrect assertions in the article, but I will list down only some of them (or at least ones I found to be extremely disturbing).

1. Let’s begin with the paragraph quoted above. The author sweepingly declares all anti-caste movements, except that of Gandhi’s as a failure. He even went to the extent of appropriating the hard work of Ambedkar, the Constitution of India and the stringent anti-discrimination laws put in place by the Constituent Assembly, to Gandhi. The fact that Ambedkar was the chairman of the Drafting Committee and that Gandhi wasn’t even present in the Constituent Assembly, escaped the attention of the author. Furthermore, he forgets that it was because of Ambedkar’s prolonged efforts that led to the Untouchability Offences Act and the Protection of Civil Rights Act to be legislated in the year 1955, not Gandhi’s. The only thing that can be attributed to Gandhi would be that it was under his leadership that the Indian National Congress included ‘abolition of untouchability’ in its manifesto, nothing more.

The greatness of Gandhi lies in the fact that in the course of his public life, he came to realise this, and once he did, he struggled hard to break out of it. He tried to exorcise the devil. He went out of his way to serve those who were referred to as ‘untouchables’, helped them gain a measure of self-respect by calling them Harijans, the ‘children of God’.

2. He went out of his way to serve those who were referred to as ‘untouchables’… What exactly did he do? It would be pertinent here to point out that Gandhi for most of his life did not engage or endorse any anti-caste movement, including the 1927 Mahad Satyagraha, despite the fact that he was in a position to do so (he acquired the titles of Mahatma and Bapuji shortly after his return to India in 1915). It was only in the mid-20s that he began engaging publicly and politically with caste, and even when he did, he (deliberately or otherwise) confined himself with the practice of ‘untouchability’. His opinions regarding caste and intercaste marriage evolved at a very glacial pace, and I suspect it was because there was no other person other than Ambedkar who continuously challenged him and his authority. Still, we find the extremely regressive writings coming from him till the late 30s, for instance the infamous 1936 article in the Harijan The Ideal Bhangi, where he stated the work of a bhangi, which is to clean other people’s shit, as an honourable occupation,

I call scavenging as one of the most honourable occupations to which mankind is called. I don’t consider it an unclean occupation by any means. That you have to handle dirt is true. But that every mother is doing and has to do. But nobody says a mother’s occupation is unclean.

He in fact even blamed the Dalits for their own plight and dehumanising social stature, and demands that they give up their “filthy” habits.

I know many scavengers eat carrion and beef. Those who are doing this must abstain. Many of them are given to the evil habit of drink. Drink is a bad, filthy, unclean, degrading habit. A man who drinks intoxicating liquor forgets the distinction between wife, mother and sister. I would beseech you to give up all evil habits…

Some will obviously argue that his sanctification of sanitation work as “honourable” was not superficial as he himself practised it in his ashram in Sabarmati and demanded his other inmates and even his wife, much to their chagrin, to do the same. True, he did clean toilets and even made his followers and comrades do the same, and he did so as an act to demolish the basis of untouchability. But that doesn’t change the fact that he wasn’t casteist. Why?

3. Opposing untouchability does not mean opposing caste, just the way opposing slavery doesn’t necessarily mean opposition to the idea and construct of race (case in point, the racist anti-slavery crusader Abraham Lincoln). This is the biggest and the most glaring fallacy in the author’s argument, and similar arguments are made by several historians and intellectuals (you will find some of them at end of the TOI news article that I have linked above). Gandhi till the fag end of his life believed in caste (which he called varna) and advocated against intercaste marriages. He was also trenchantly and adamantly against any kind of affirmative action or separate electorate for the non-Savarnas, to the dismay of both Jinnah and Ambedkar.

But still you will find all kinds of Savarna historians, from the marxist Romila Thapar to the liberal Ramachandra Guha, defending Gandhi’s anti-caste credentials one way or the other. The reason for this is obvious. After Periyar, Gandhi (apart from Shahaji II of Kolhapur and maybe Vinayak Savarkar) is the only Savarna historical figure that came the closest to actually doing something for the Dalits. Yes, he’s the second best Savarna anti-caste “revolutionary”, but turned out to also be the most blatant casteist of the lot and the best advocate of status-quo of his time. And it is but a natural reaction for the Savarnas to hold on to his Mahatma-ness in the face of damning evidence. Any attempt at questioning Gandhi at the caste front, makes you either an attention-whore or a someone incapable of seeing the greatness of the Mahatma. Here, the Hindutvavadis have nothing worry about, and righfully so, because they still have Savarkar who with regards to his engagement with caste is far better than Gandhi.

But the progressive Savarnas need to buckle-up, because even their Goddess has now started questioning the progressive credentials in ways they did not expect.

BDSM and Burqas: an argument against the veil


When one thinks about BDSM, first things that come to mind are leather costumes, nipple-clamps, collar belts, whips, and so on. But believe me when I tell you that BDSM actually made me rethink my stand against ban on burqa.

I can assume that most liberal-minded (for the lack of better words) out there, even after being repulsed by the practice, would tolerate it as something confined to a private space, which is an individual’s sexuality (I sincerely hope so since I do occasionally indulge in it). What makes it so tolerable? The things that people do in the name of BDSM can be categorised as torture, slavery and even rape. There is a good amount of possibility that physical injuries will be inflicted. But there is one crucial factor that makes BDSM so radically different from torture, slavery and rape, and even tolerable for many. Consent.

But, questions arise. Why should consent sanctify something that is otherwise considered morally reprehensible? Thought experiments on consensual slavery is brought up, to drive the point home. But another crucial difference between a consensual whipping and inflicting of pain, and a hypothetical consensual slavery would be that the former allows one to retain their agency. When I enter into an agreement with a partner to be whipped or slapped, one thing is very certainly and explicitly agreed upon: I can unilaterally withdraw my consent at any point in the act, even for no reason at all. That’s why we have “safewords”. My point here is that, consent is only morally valid if the party concerned doesn’t have to give up their agency, i.e., the liberty to choose and the liberty to withdraw consent. It is such consent that differentiates (hypothetical) consensual slavery from any kind of unpaid labour, rape from sex, and BDSM from torture.

Now let me come to the Burqa and the bans instituted by France and Belgium, and reinforced by the EU court. One of the central arguments, or at least the ones I have come across, against the ban is that the right of a woman to choose to cover her face in public, even if she cites religious reasons. The big question that comes here is, while they “choose” to cover their face in public do they retain their agency? For me the answer was completely clear: No. It never has and it never will. Without a face, I’m pretty sure it’s extremely difficult for a person to assert their identity as an individual. And when that happens exercising one’s agency is very complicated. But if one assumes that a woman with her face covered can somehow retain their agency, then the assumption would entail a possiblity that the said woman can say no to the niqaab at any point? Notionally, it should, but it doesn’t. One only has to look around the world, to see that societies that doesn’t require woman to have a full face covering have very small proportion of women actually wearing the veil, and most of the time there would be external factors influencing the decisions of these women.

It is this lack of agency that one must take into account before defending the veil, no matter what you call it, burqa, niqab, jilbab, etc. But do I still support the blanket ban on face-covering by Belgium or France? I’m not sure. The anarchist in me is still reluctant to embrace it. If such a ban were introduced in India, I would have fought against it vehemently. Here I’m also considering my right to wear whatever I feel like, without having to give a reason to anybody, including the state.

The Inversion of Responsibility

“Be Responsible”, requests the sign. It’s titled “Hate Mongering” and was seen recently in the city of Pune:

Sign seen at a traffic intersection in Pune (see article for text of the sign).

Sign seen at a traffic intersection in Pune (see article for text of the sign).

Who is it addressed to, you might wonder. Is it addressed to the terrorists of the Hindu Rashtra Sena (“Hindu National Army”) who went on a rampage in the city last month and beat a Muslim man to death? No, it’s addressed to… people on Facebook. The sign advises its readers:

Choose carefully what you Comment, Like or Share on Social Media.

And it adds an upside-down image of a Facebook “Like” icon – i.e. a thumbs-down – for emphasis.

[Read more...]

A Retort to Bret Stephens

This WSJ article is making rounds declaring that “a culture that celebrates kidnapping is not fit for statehood”, referring to the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers. With an assertion that one has to ask uncomfortable questions, Bret Stephens (the author) demands to know why Palestinians condone and celebrate the violence committed by some people among them.

Two things that came to my mind while reading the article:

a. The decree that a purportedly violent culture doesn’t deserve statehood.

Whether or not the Palestinian/Muslim culture is violent is a separate question altogether, but the assertion that for statehood a nation has to be non-violent is laughable. The very fundamental of any given statehood is violence. It is in fact, described as a social community that monopolises violence.

And also look who’s talking: a person coming from a nation-state built on the legacy of mass-murder, mass-kidnapping, mass-thievery, and at least two centuries of chattel slavery. But the same is the case of every other nation-state in the world. Each has a legacy of unspeakable brutalities committed in their name, and none have actually repented or gone through “moral rehabilitation”. India, Pakistan, ChinaTurkey, almost every other Western European nations, and any nation-state you name will have its own baggage of violence.

The author cites post-war Germany as having gone through moral rehabilitation, which in itself is questionable, but one can’t help but overlook the fact that anti-semitism was neither an indigenous invention of the Germans nor was it a patented ambition of the Nazi Germany. There was a reason why Hitler, Mussolini and Franco came to power, and were allowed to do the things they did against the Jewish people. There is a reason why almost all of the European nations were keen to have them leave for Israel. And there is also a reason why most of the Jewish refugees either left for the US or were sent to Mandate Palestine. I hope Stephens do not forget that.

b. The expectations of moral integrity from Palestine, without expecting the same from the Israelis.

Are the latter not guilty of condoning everything that Israeli state has done to the Palestinians, including the virtual disenfranchisement of an entire population, occupation of Palestinian homes, killing and displacement and forced impoverishment? Or is it so that because it’s done by the military and not average Israeli citizens it becomes legitimate? Maybe I misread him but at one point it seemed like Stephens was implying that getting killed by the military is different than getting killed by average people. Such blanket absolution for sovereign state militaries is quite common. We hear it in cases like Kashmir, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. And it’s such normalising and legitimising of state violence that is problematic, because it sends out a message that violence inflicted by any powerful authority is fine and justified.

Also such high expectations put on the colonised to be peaceful and morally upright, is reminiscent of the expectations of moral integrity and non-violence that the British colonial discourse had put on the Indian anti-colonial movement, especially after the Chauri Chaura Incident of 1922.

On “India vs. Hinduphobia”

Mr. Juluri (“India v. Hinduphobia: What Narendra Modi’s Election as Prime Minister Really Means”),

Firstly, let me congratulate you for analysing the most recent elections in India and figuring out what the “youth” really want – a unified India, as opposed to Hinduphobia – which would apparently mean Mr. Modi losing. According to you, it seems to be a rather black and white issue – a divided India or Hinduphobia (the proof being “orientalist” articles in The Economic Times, The New York Times and The Guardian?).

I would like to disagree with you. I’ll admit it – when I read your article, it made me angry (we’ll come to that later) but then, it seemed ridiculous. I’m not going to lie, I laughed. I laughed at the utopian Hindu world you’ve experienced and lived (perhaps even live) in and I’m angry that this does not reflect my experience of Hinduism and “Hindu worldviews”, even though I was born in a Hindu household and bombarded with those worldviews whether I liked it or not. I laughed because my experience of these worldviews in Hindustan has been shockingly different. So you will understand, I think, if I try to put forward my perspective in response to yours.

We disagree on many points, but foremost amongst them has to be your assertion that respect needs to be accorded to the very little intellectual, emotional or moral purchase the “anointed” secular position has in “large sections of India’s young today”. Your belief seems to be that it is not really secular (“sickular”, perhaps) and has been anointed (but by whom?) and that a large majority of the voters (by association, youth) voted for Narendra Modi, secular criticisms against him have little influence or endorsement. Here, I want to point out that only 31% of the voters voted for him and no party has ever before won more than half the seats with a vote share of just 31%, which emphasises how fragmented the vote actually was this election. But I won’t go into figures and all that jazz now, since it seems that doing so only makes us hold on to our positions with renewed determination.

Apart from that, even if it were true that a large majority of “young people” (or is it young Hindus? Never mind) disregarded secular criticisms and viewpoints in the last general elections, does that automatically make it something which should be respected?

The “new way of being Hindu” which is being equated with everything nice, starting from tolerance to universal good – I don’t see that, I have never seen that.

What I have seen, however, is a resurgence of ideas which talk of how India is “finally” becoming the country it was “meant” to be – the Prime Ministerial candidate goes to temples, offers pujas and respects the Ganges. Have you ever seen anybody do that? No, sir. You haven’t. Here is a true Hindu, a real man who will finally show Muslims their place in the country and get rid of those bloody immigrants (only Muslim ones, mind you).

Yes, India will belong to the Hindus, to us. That seems to be the overriding sentiment when they talk. I don’t know how Hindus practice their worldviews in your (seemingly) utopian world, but these are their worldviews in mine.

And no, this does not exclude “young people”. Yes, most of us are not overt about it, but there is still an “us” versus “them” mentality. Very much so, we would like to hide it, hide from it, deny it – and we do. But that does not mean it is not present. It is everywhere. No, we are not what you think we are, at least not in my (admittedly not utopian) world. And this does not refer clear cut lines based only on religion. It extends to ethnicity, language, caste and class. In a country where you have a multitude of identities, you are bound to have a multitude of loyalties – especially since most social life still revolves around the identities assigned to us with our birth in a particular family.

Allow me to point out yet another assertion of yours I majorly disagree with and which is perhaps the whole premise on which your article is built. I don’t think this election can be as simple as “India vs. Hinduphobia”. Among the 31% voters for Modi, “Hinduphobia” was the least important worry on the minds of at least one camp. Incidentally, this is the “camp” that has the greatest number of “young people”. This camp has taken into account the accusations against him but satisfy themselves with clean chits and speeches where development is mentioned more than the Ram Temple, and how can Modi win without Muslim support (the number of Muslim MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha will be the lowest in 15 years. The BJP has fielded only 5 Muslim candidates but none of them have won) and the Gujarat model of development. We lust after jobs, security, no reservations and the Indian rupee. Many of us seem to have found in Modi a charismatic, interactive leader who portrays himself as being poles apart from Dr. Manmohan Singh, who has often been the butt of jokes due to the silent and formal nature of his interaction with the public. Hinduphobia is so far removed from the truth for them, it’s absurd.

However, to another camp, this election means something else. They are glad that there are only 23 Muslim MPs. They are against anything which does not fit in with their idea of “traditional, Hindu” values (read: gay rights, etc).

You state that different faiths divided by language, custom etc still share a land and history due to Hinduism’s “ancient legacy” of respecting all faiths more than the secular constitution India has. Do you not believe that Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains have a legacy of respecting all faiths? Even if we assume your statement to be true, peace and coexistence cannot be achieved if only one religion is doing all the “respecting” and “tolerating”. Taali ek hath se nahi bajti [you can't clap with one hand] as we like to say, you know, as Indians.

The government which is to preside over us for the next five years has just been formed, and trust me, all of us who have voted want nothing but the best for India, even though our ideas about what “the best” really is might vary. Let’s see the direction India takes in the next five years. Acche din? For everybody, I hope.


How to Say Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu posted an audio pronounciation guide for his name on Tumblr yesterday, adding:

My career goal is to make people say my name properly. This kind of success is called THE GALIFIANAKIS. Hopefully this post will help.

Hari is such an easy name I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t pronounce it correctly (after hearing someone else say it correctly). Kondabolu is harder, but just like Hari, there aren’t any syllables in it which don’t exist in English and most modern languages right? It should to be easy to teach yourself to say Hari correctly. Just say hurry. Or say hubby and replace the b sound with an r sound.

My experience in the UK was that most people said Soooo-nil for some reason – and it grated like hell. This despite them hearing me say it any number of times. The u in my name is actually pronounced like foot, and the i is pronounced either like eel or ill – I use the former, though most Sunils seem to use the latter.

I think it’s a basic courtesy to pronounce someone’s name the way they pronounce it, provided you can say all its syllables. If you can’t say them all, at least say the ones you can – make a “good faith” effort. If you’re not sure, ask! Some of my Indian friends don’t pronounce my name with the pronounciation I use either – I wish they would. (I also have friends who don’t say my name at all – I don’t want to think about what that means.) I’m not immune to this myself; but I try to correct myself. When realisation dawned that I’d been mispronouncing one of my oldest friends’ name for years, I corrected it overnight. When I had a colleague named Sarah I taught myself to say it – “say stair-ah and remove the t“. I’m not sure how to pronounce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s name, but I’m confident that once I hear someone say it correctly, I’ll learn that correct pronounciation.

The phenomenon of name mispronouncation takes on a more serious tone when the person whose name is being mispronounced belongs to an out-group – say immigrants or ethnic minorities. I did some searching on Google Scholar and came across this thesis The Racialisation of Names: Names and the Persistence of Racism in the UK by sociologist Emily Jay Wykes, which examines the racialisation of names including mispronounciation. It’s interesting stuff and there’s free access to the PDF, do take a look.