Saturday, September 30, 2017

Remembering Shankari Devi, the quiet Shakti of Trinco

One year ago, today, on the first morning of Navaratri, I was in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, scheduled to drive back to Colombo. Of course, the day--and Navaratri--had to begin with a visit to Shankari Devi, the Amman, whose presence makes the Tirukoneeswarar Temple a Shakti Peeth.

The first time I went to visit her, I could barely find her. I kept asking where the Shakti Peeth was and no one around knew. She sits on the side, quietly, uncelebrated and waiting her turn for attention, even during Navaratri. That's patriarchy for you. 

I reach on time for the 6:30 a.m. aarti. I have 'tickets' for archanai at both sannidhis. But all the screens are down. There is no activity in the temple. Suddenly, as happens in Sri Lankan temples, there is a frantic burst and people run out of the temple. I don't understand and I stay in place, till a kind gentleman calls me outside.

The main aarti, the main lingam is actually in the open air, and that is where the first poojai takes place. I am entranced. I have passed this lingam and paid it little attention.

But now, as the sun rises directly over the impossibly beautiful sea behind, sitting under a pipal, almost invisible beneath the incense and dhuni and chanting and flowers, I am touched by a magic I never expected. This is one of the most beautiful aartis I have ever seen. I am so grateful for this moment of exquisite beauty.

And then, it's over, and the same crowd runs (literally, runs) back into the temple where then the main idol gets an aarti and finally, suddenly, it's Shankari Devi's turn. Mine is the solitary archanai chit for her. And her aarti takes barely a minute.

And so we celebrate Navaratri at this Shakti Peeth. I go home, entranced and sad, and a little angry (my mother later admonishes me, "Don't bring gender into the temple!"). I wonder what her neglect means for the people of her town. If you love and treasure him so much, how can she who empowers him, mean so little to you? A good question for many families, isn't it?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki: A Chance for World Peace?

One month short of the seventy-second anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, one hundred and twenty-two countries met and voted to ban nuclear weapons. The one hundred and twenty-two countries did not include those who hold nuclear weapons, nor the only country to ever experience their use, Japan.

At the 72-year mark, it may be important to remember what happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. At 8:14 that morning, as commuters headed to work and school-children into school, an atomic bomb was dropped on central Hiroshima.

Suddenly--the time is approximately 8:14--the whole valley is filled by a garish light which resembles the magnesium light used in photography, and I am conscious of a wave of heat. I jump to the window to find out the cause of this remarkable phenomenon, but I see nothing more than that brilliant yellow light.” (Father John Siemes)
“Suddenly, a strong flash of light startled me - and then another. So well does one recall little things that I remember vividly how a stone lantern in the garden became brilliantly lit and I debated whether this light was caused by a magnesium flare or sparks from a passing trolley.
Garden shadows disappeared. The view where a moment before had been so bright and sunny was now dark and hazy. Through swirling dust I could barely discern a wooden column that had supported one comer of my house. It was leaning crazily and the roof sagged dangerously.Moving instinctively, I tried to escape, but rubble and fallen timbers barred the way. By picking my way cautiously I managed to reach the roka [an outside hallway] and stepped down into my garden. A profound weakness overcame me, so I stopped to regain my strength. To my surprise I discovered that I was completely naked How odd! Where were my drawers and undershirt?” (Dr. Michihiko Hachiya)
Well, it was like a white magnesium flash. I lost consciousness right after or almost at the same time I saw the flash. When I regained consciousness, I found myself in the dark. I heard my friends, Ms. Asami, crying for her mother. Soon after, I found out that we actually had been attacked. Afraid of being caught by a fire, I told Ms. Asami to run out of the building. Ms. Asami, however, just told me to leave her and to try to escape by myself because she thought that she couldn't make it anywhere. She said she couldn't move. I said to her that I couldn't leave her, but she said that she couldn't even stand up. While we were talking, the sky started to grow lighter. Then, I heard water running in the lavatory. Apparently the water pipes had exploded. So I drew water with my helmet to pour over Ms. Asami's head again and again. She finally regained consciousness fully and went out of the building with me. We first thought to escape to the parade grounds, but we couldn't because there was a huge sheet of fire in front of us. So instead, we squatted down in the street next to a big water pool for fighting fires, which was about the size of this table. Since Hiroshima was completely enveloped in flames, we felt terribly hot and could not breathe well at all. After a while, a whirlpool of fire approached us from the south. It was like a big tornado of fire spreading over the full width of the street. Whenever the fire touched, wherever the fire touched, it burned. It burned my ear and leg, I didn't realize that I had burned myself at that moment, but I noticed it later.…
The whirlpool of fire that was covering the entire street approached us from Ote-machi. So, everyone just tried so hard to keep away from the fire. It was just like a living hell. After a while, it began to rain. The fire and the smoke made us so thirsty and there was nothing to drink, no water, and the smoke even disturbed our eyes. As it began to rain, people opened their mouths and turned their faces towards the sky and try to drink the rain, but it wasn't easy to catch the rain drops in our mouths. It was a black rain with big drops....
They were so big that we even felt pain when they dropped onto us. We opened our mouths just like this, as wide as possible in an effort to quench our thirst. Everybody did the same thing. But it just wasn't enough. Someone, someone found an empty can and held it to catch the rain.
No, no it didn't. Maybe I didn't catch enough rain, but I still felt very thirsty and there was nothing I could do about it. What I felt at that moment was that Hiroshima was entirely covered with only three colors. I remember red, black and brown, but, but, nothing else. Many people on the street were killed almost instantly. The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire and the fire gradually spread over their entire bodies from their fingers. A light gray liquid dripped down their hands, scorching their fingers. I, I was so shocked to know that fingers and bodies could be burned and deformed like that. I just couldn't believe it. It was horrible. And looking at it, it was more than painful for me to think how the fingers were burned, hands and fingers that would hold babies or turn pages, they just, they just burned away. For a few years after the A-bomb was dropped, I was terribly afraid of fire. I wasn't even able to get close to fire because all my senses remembered how fearful and horrible the fire was, how hot the blaze was, and how hard it was to breathe the hot air. It was really hard to breathe. Maybe because the fire burned all the oxygen, I don't know. I could not open my eyes enough because of the smoke, which was everywhere. Not only me but everyone felt the same. And my parts were covered with holes.” (Akiko Takakura)
The citizens of Hiroshima will never be able to forget August 6, 1945. On that morning, exactly two years ago today, the first atomic bomb to be unleashed on a city in the history of mankind fell on Hiroshima; it instantly reduced the city to ashes and claimed the precious lives of more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens. Hiroshima turned into a city of death and darkness. Yet as some slight consolation for this horror, the dropping of the atomic bomb became a factor in ending the war and calling a halt to the fighting. In this sense, mankind must remember that August 6 was a day that brought a chance for world peace. This is the reason why we are now commemorating that day by solemnly inaugurating a festival of peace, despite the limitless sorrow in our minds. For only those who most bitterly experienced and came to know most completely the misery and the guilt of war can utterly reject war as the most terrible kind of human suffering, and ardently pursue peace.” (Shinzo Hamai, Peace Declaration 1947) (Emphasis added)
The impact of the bombs was immediately destructive but the injuries and radiation sickness they left behind ruined the health and well-being of more than one generation. There are places we visit to remember our best moments as a species and there are places that are reminders of the worst we have been. Hiroshima and Nagasaki should belong to the latter.

The seven decades since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been three parallel movements. First, several nuclear arms races—between pairs or groups of states that have nuclear weapons, are trying to build them or are trying to stop each other from getting them—have shaped international relations globally and regionally. Second, the idea that nuclear energy has peaceful applications and offers a clean, safe and cost-effective solution to the world’s growing energy hunger took off in the 1950s and 1960s and still influences government policies around the world. This idea has been shaken by human acts of omission (Chernobyl and the Rajasthan Power Plant) and the catastrophic impact of disasters (Fukushima, raising questions about Koodankulam). Third, anti-nuclear struggles persist around the world, like voices in the wildnerness but also like stubborn weeds that resist destruction.

Women have played an important part in anti-nuclear struggles everywhere.  The women hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been advocates, raising awareness around the world of the impact on health and life of atomic weapons. The women’s peace camp at Greenham Common stayed put from 1982 to 2000, to protest a US missile base in rural England, raising questions about the legitimacy of both the base and of nuclear weapons. The women of Jaitapur and Idinthakarai are raising questions about safety, environmental and health impact of the nuclear installations in their neighbourhood. These are just three examples from around the world. But despite this, and despite the growing numbers of women nuclear physicists, there are very few of them at policy tables  (also, this)and there is no reason to expect that women physicists will have different views on weaponisation or even the efficacy of nuclear energy, but the fact that the physical and social impact of nuclear weapons or even accidents are gendered should make diversity imperative.

Women too, fight shy of learning to engage with technical discussions—an ingrained patriarchal notion of both capability and interest that is taught at home and in school. This week, marking the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may be a good time to commit to gender inclusivity in the nuclear debate:
  • Do we understand the gendered consequences of our choices?
  • Are we inclusive in whose accounts we read?
  • Whose voices do we consider authoritative?
  • What do we know about the century-old legacy of women’s peace and anti-nuclear work?
  • What do women know (bother to/ have the chance to learn) about nuclear energy, nuclear policy and nuclear weapons?
  • How do we build capacity among women professionals to engage with these issues?
  • How do we ensure women’s inclusion in policy discussions on matters nuclear? 
The challenge is that we are forgetting. Seventy years is a very long time, and even the memories of Chernobyl and Fukushima now seem distant, as new topics and controversies claim our attention everyday. As we clamour for uninterrupted power supply, it is easy to forget that we never quite settled the debates over nuclear energy and never adequately supported research into alternatives—indeed, by voting with our consumption habits, we are now pronouncing our verdict.

And yet, when the world votes to ban nuclear weapons, and there are prominent absences and abstentions, it seems we are still standing where we were seventy-odd years ago, and the promise of world peace, optimistically held out by the Mayor of Hiroshima in 1947, has not come to fruition. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Reflections from Dhauli, July 2017

A Rock-Face Mirror to Indian Politics: Reflections from Dhauli

You would think that a medium-sized rock-face that can only carry so much text would evoke a reaction that is finite. Wrong. On my third visit to Dhauli, the location of a rock edict promulgated by Asoka, I was again struck by its relevance to our time and this time, it was the text on the Archaeological Survey of India’s information board that had me thinking. They summarise the First Special Rock Edict thus: “Addressing the Mahamatras of Samapa, Asoka proclaims that all his subjects are just like his own children and he wishes their welfare and happiness both in this world and the other as he desires for his own children. He orders his officials to be free from anger and hurry so that no body will be punished without trial.”

The last sentence stays with me.

The drama inherent in the story of Asoka’s renunciation of war is irresistible. It captures the imagination the first time you hear it and stirs your soul when you think of the enormity of the epiphany. You forget the years of terrible, often fratricidal violence that preceded the epiphany, and Asoka’s change of heart seems to fill yours with forgetfulness and forgiveness both. You stand at the top of the Dhauli rock and think, “This was the field, this was the river of blood and that was a moment the world should be proud of.” Not quite the same field or stream, but it is hard not to be humbled by the imagined memory of that moment.

The times we inhabit are surely what the Chinese point to in their curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Bad news is everywhere—war, oppression, discrimination, cupidity and stupidity. In such times, the story of Asoka’s epiphany lights a candle of hope. Dare we dream of just such a change of heart in our times?

This time, my third visit, I remember that the drama of the epiphany is captured by another edict (the 13th Major Rock Edict) that is found at locations outside Kalinga—the king’s transformation stopping short of telling the conquered people that he felt bad about conquering them—but this line reminds me of certain qualities of governance which we have prized in other times: “He orders his officials to be free from anger and hurry so that no body will be punished without trial.” Vindictiveness is not acceptable, nor is acting in such haste that the person at the receiving end is defenceless.

I read this in the age of an Aadhaar expansion that feels like the death-grip of a python, in the aftermath of a demonetisation that seems to have been characterised by prioritising speed over preparation and in the long-time coming but no clearer for it adoption of the Goods and Services Tax. In an age where governments—across parties—regard people as impediments and dissent as disloyalty, it is the coercive potential of instruments they create to regulate our activities that we must consider more than any transformative potential governments claim. We will lose our privacy and personal security to Aadhaar and I can no longer remember what benefits we are supposed to receive from it. Though WhatsApp polemic dismisses it decisively, real world, ground-level reports are that people did suffer greatly as a result of demonetisation. And GST seems to have created several layers of compliance—where compliance is potentially and in fact, a lever for control.  Haste is disguised as efficiency and the instruments for many a future vendetta lie embedded in these policies. This is history; this is how the state operates.

What we know from Kautilya’s Arthasastra and from Megasthenes’ Indika about Maurya administration tell us about the importance given to two-way communication between the government and local communities. Officials at different levels were required to regularly tour and report back to their supervisors in a chain that ended in the Emperor’s chamber. The first Separate Rock Edict at Dhauli states, “This edict is to he proclaimed on the eighth day of the star Tisya, and at intervals between the Tisya-days it is to be read aloud, even to a single person.” The 14th Major Rock Edict states that the edicts are to be found all over the empire in longer or abridged formats so that people may learn about and conform to them.

To be fair, our government believes in talking to the people—but when the feedback loop is usually left incomplete, either in the design or by not listening, it is not really communication, is it? And this is the question I now have about Asoka’s empire too. So he promulgated these messages and had them carved everywhere, and we learn from other sources that in his time, administrative structures provided for a feedback loop, but did he listen? Did any of the other idealised kings of Indian history listen to anyone who could not insistently ring the bell before their palace and demand justice? Rama acted on popular opinion that he had been wrong to accept Sita after her abduction by Ravana, but did he not act in haste? Did he ask Sita to share with the public her experience of abduction and life as a hostage? Did he consider alternative actions? We know Asoka’s ‘mann ki baat’ but did he know what was in the hearts of his people? We are so impressed by his renunciation of war that we do not stop to ask; everything else he did must also be ideal. In an age where we have both the Right to Information and the means to learn for ourselves, are we asking enough questions of our own governments, persistently enough?

Our credulity is apparently age-old, as we like to claim about everything else—culture, democracy, tolerance. I write these words of doubt, not to detract from Asoka’s moment, but to remind myself that it is one thing to give the benefit of the doubt to a distant king more than two millennia removed from my life and another thing to forsake the right to ask questions in our moment. We all need faith and magic, and as a peace activist, I am unwilling to lose the hope Asoka’s epiphany holds out to me—I need to believe changes of heart are possible. I need to believe in the power of love, to use Kenneth Boulding’s words. I need to be able to hope that those who have an ‘accidents happen’ perspective on communal violence, state-sanctioned coercion or militarisation, will someday see things differently—but I cannot afford to grant them anticipatory forgiveness. If the easiest way to raise questions about today is to raise them in the context of a 2000 year old edict, so be it.

Usually associated with a realist, pragmatic, ruler-centred politics, Kautilya’s Arthasastra recognises that the people will and have the right to rebel when their rulers are greedy or unjust. Rulers should guard against rebellion first and foremost by remaining righteous and of course, concerned with the security of the state, the text suggests measures for countering rebellion and treachery but it does not equate the two. But the beginnings of disaffection can only be understood by those who pay attention and want to learn, and disaffection festers. If you suppress or ignore it, it does not go away.

In Indira Gandhi’s centenary year, we are reading a great deal about the Emergency and it is instructive to remember that the road to that hell was also paved with good intentions. Mrs. Gandhi had a closed circle of counselors and she completely misread public opinion, so that the outcome of the 1977 election came as a shock to her. Like Asoka’s edicts and the Prime Minister’s ‘Mann ki baat’ episode recordings, the mission of the 20 Point and 5 Point Programme were also laid out on street corners and in advertisements. In the interest of “order,” censorship silenced those who would have asked questions. “All men are my children,” every government tells us—this implies they know what is good for us and we should trust them—but the citizens of a democracy are not children, and anyone who spends time around children know they start out instinctively curious, egalitarian, fair and open. In a democracy, governments should consult and debate with citizens and citizens should pay attention, be informed, question and communicate with the government. Government exists to serve the public interest and this means, all kinds of people. This is the message that Asoka’s edicts also convey repeatedly: That Asoka, seeks the welfare and love of the people; that officials should behave respectfully towards them and that there should be both the perception and reality of fair-play. We are credulous about Asoka because these are values we today hold dear but these very values require us to be sceptical—our Constitution has given us all speaking parts in the unfolding drama of Indian democracy. The success of this play depends also on how we play our roles—with preparation, with courage, with faith in our values but doubt about everything else! 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Book Review: Women and militarism in Pakistan

Reviewer’s revelation: I have known the author of this book for over two decades.

I bought my friend Aneela Zeb Babar’s book We Are All Revolutionaries Here as soon as I heard about it—one of the first copies SAGE sold, I think?!—because I know Aneela is a very lively writer and an insightful observer of the everyday realities that make up a social moment. Now, I often buy books enthusiastically and then they sit on my bookshelf for years, waiting for that project which would call for them. Aneela’s, I actually have read right through!

The rate of growth of new subfields in security studies is directly related to government investment in their propagation. A couple of years ago, there was a conference in Washington DC on ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ or CVE. In two year, investment in conferences and research projects has grown apace to generate a minor library of studies that largely recycle the same information—a portion of government perspective, a portion of UN/INGO values, a little nod to empiricism and recommendations, directed at anyone who will listen. I know this because I have had my moment with this, having researched and written a short background note on women and CVE last year.

Into this discursive moment, enters Aneela’s book, a compilation of work done meticulously over a decade or longer, reminding us of the kind of research that actually builds knowledge.

What is this book about? Aneela writes about one of the most-discussed puzzles of our time—what draws people towards worldviews that seem extremely radical and even irrational to others of us? She approaches this question with an open mind and heart, and writes with an honesty that allows us to walk with her. We are in those classrooms and living rooms and offices and discussion groups that she attends, hearing people speaking about what faith has come to mean for them and how it enjoins them to live—not as diktat but as choice. The researcher listens with empathy and writes critically.

One of the charming features of Aneela’s writing is that she blends the personal with the external narrative allowing us to understand her location and her baggage.

The first chapter is about madrassahs and the new hybrid seminaries. Outside Pakistan, we get to read about madrassahs but how many of us know about these new institutions that anchor contemporary curricula in religious education? Graduates enter a variety of professions but share “religious values and a network of contacts” (page 34). These networks are emerging as significant and Aneela suggests are an end in themselves. But students grow up with religious—essentially, status quo—values so deeply ingrained that this schooling deprives “their students of the will to change or challenge all that is flawed in Pakistani society.” There is no reinterpretation or will to resist the challenges that face state and society. Rather than engage with these challenges, young people are choosing to express their values through consumerism of a particular sort.

Aneela’s second and third chapters describes a world many of us will never enter—the world of expatriate Pakistani women and their rediscovery of faith and a faith-based identity. She writes specifically of women she has interviewed in Canberra and the influence of Farhat Hashmi’s Al Huda, an organisation that offers religious lectures and seminars for women. In this world view, the “intrusion of women into the public sphere defined as the ‘men’s area of control’ is seen as leading to the disruption, if not the destruction, of the fundamental order of things” (page 53). Dress, and veiling, are of importance to this discussion. The chapter allows us to hear how women see their own journeys to faith and why this leads them to make the choices they do. More than anything, it takes that amorphous image of veiled, devout women in a mass and turns them into individuals who, we learn, have thoughtfully made choices. Aneela closes her second chapter by pointing out that before the Intefada, few Pakistani women wore the veil but that they now do, may ironically signal that women are part of public life (page 74).

The third chapter, which describes Al Huda’s apparoach and work, is also interesting for what it shows you about gender and class relations in Pakistani society. Drawing women away from frivolous pastimes into religious education and then social service (page 88) without upsetting the patriarchal applecart (page 90), is what Al Huda sets out to do. What sort of social service is not discussed here but it is safe to assume it would not be a social change agenda that disrupts traditional equations.

With the madrassas and hybrid schools as well as Al Huda, Aneela points out that there is a homogenizing drive—a simplification of interpretation, an erasure of ethnic, linguistic and maybe theological difference. In her style, she then draws the narrative to herself and underscores what is lost when such essentialism takes over. What she writes about Islam in Pakistan is also true of other faiths in other places.

In ‘Texts of War,’ Aneela shows us that when militarism is deeply entrenched in a society, carrying guns is a common dream among young women as well as men. This chapter literally wanders through the rooms of this reality—with a literature review on the role of the military, its relationship with religion, women in the military and media representations thereof and the mirror image of all this in a society where girls and boys receive a religious education. Where does Pakistan’s only female Prime Minister fit into this picture? “Yes, we did salute her but you have to understand that the elation was not there in the heart of the soldier,” an officer told Aneela (page 122). Interviews with teenagers conducted in 1999 form a part of this chapter.

Ten years ago, almost to the date, the Pakistani army laid siege to Lal Masjid, which along with the attached Jamia Hafsa madrassa had come under the sway of a pair of militant brothers. In that siege, 154 were killed.  Aneela uses eyewitness and first-person accounts to narrate what happened from the perspective of those within the walls of the complex, many of them young girls. In fact, the chapter is largely made up of the translation of one such account by Umme Hassan. The polemics of this account showed that the young women had thought about issues beyond defending the mosque but they were not, Aneela tells us, feminist because they continued to reinforce “traditional, static and unchanging articulations of Muslim women” (page 167).

This book allows us to peer over a neighbourly wall and to eavesdrop on conversations that women are having about life, world and faith, and inevitably, politics. We get to meet the women that do not attend Southasian track two programmes or seminars and we are privy to their journeys. Aneela tells us that we will see a “more firebrand generation of young women” (page 170). When we do, this book will remind us of the influences that shaped them and our time.

Coming back then to this idea of ‘extremism,’ what this book allows you to see is that there is nothing really extreme about it when you are inside that society, on your journey. It is your evolution, seeking answers for your life and following those answers logically. To understand is to justify, and that is one reason to other that which threatens what we hold dear, but without understanding and empathy, can we resolve? Will there be a solution to the violence of this historical moment that is not rooted in understanding and empathy—that you feel as you do because of where you come from and what you have been through, and what you believe is what allows you to make sense of your life? I don’t know. But reading Aneela’s book allowed me to look long and hard and try to learn something about a world that is just outside the limits of mine, but finding its way into my backyard as well.
My big complaint with this book is that it could have been better edited. It is the writer’s prerogative to spill words on a page and the editor’s job to clean, sort and craft them into a higher form of her art. The result is an absorbing text that is sometimes stream-of-consciousness—you get the gist but cannot find the point—or a structure you can recapitulate or argument you can summarise. For a work that is so unusual and important, the apparent absence of editorial engagement is a big setback.   
You can read this book for many reasons. You can read it to learn about what women’s lives are really like in Pakistan and what ideas about masculinity and femininity are now circulating. You can read it for the insights it offers into “radicalisation” and extremism, especially how the state becomes complicit in this process. You can read it for the many stories and anecdotes it is built around, which allow you to visit Pakistan in a way that other academic writing will not. You can read it for the meticulous research that is reported (like translations of original literature, for instance). You can read it because it’s a really good example of feminist scholarship and writing—in its approach, its transparency. But really, if you pretend to have an interest in gender, Pakistan (or Southasia) extremism or social change, you should read this book.

PS: Aneela, please review my review kindly!