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What would it be like driving overland from London -- East of Suez and over the Khyber Pass -- to India ? Day by day and mile by mile, we found out, recording our impressions and experiences of people, landscape and encounters as we drove a 107" wheel base Land Rover from London to Jaipur.
Taiwan easily satisfies the traditional requirements for statehood: a permanent population, effective control over a territory, a government, and the capacity to interact with other states. Yet the realities of global power politics have kept Taiwan from being recognized as such.
Just when you thought the news about North Korea and the movies couldn't get any weirder, here comes a spectacular account of the real-life kidnappings of South Korea's biggest film stars by the late Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il. The central story is thrilling, but Fischer's narrative really shines in its stranger-than-fiction descriptions. Books mentioned in [...]
In May last year, Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine, in partnership with Projects Abroad, offered one lucky medical student the chance to practice their clinical skills abroad in an international placement. The winner was Ruth Jones from the University of Nottingham, who impressed the judging panel with her sincerity, dedication, and willingness to become the best doctor she can be.
In 1979, one of the most prominent Russian classical scholars of the later part of the twentienth century, Mikhail Gasparov, stated: "Vergil did not have much luck in Russia: they neither knew nor loved him." Gasparov mostly blamed this lack of interest on the absence of canonical Russian translations of Vergil, especially when it came to the Aeneid.
Nyla Ali Khan’s recent book The Life of a Kashmiri Woman: Dialectic of Resistance and Accommodation, though primarily a biography of her grandmother Akbar Jehan, promises to be much more than that. It is also a narration of the story of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the charismatic political leader who is still recognized as the greatest political leader that Kashmir ever produced.
In his famous essay, French philosopher Julien Benda indicted intellectuals for treason to their destiny, and blamed them for betraying the very moral principles that made their existence possible. Nehru was not one of them. His avowedly cultural and intellectual orientation is sufficiently well-known. His father had refused to perform a purification ceremony on his return from England and had been ostracised by the Brahman orthodoxy. Nehru too didn’t submit to irrational authority, be it religion or dogma, though he went along with certain social customs. He did not approve of his father’s shraddha ceremony, but took part in it for his mother’s sake.
Religion and atheism, remarked his niece Nayantara Sahgal, lived lovingly together in Anand Bhawan and both were aspects of India’s enquiring and assimilative mind. The daily life of the Nehrus was a seamless blend of tradition and modernity. This is best exemplified by Nehru’s mother and wife Kamala. Both were religious, and yet they lived with Motilal’s intellectual modernism and Nehru’s scepticism on matters of religion and faith. But in the end their influences prevailed.
Nehru once said to a distinguished author-journalist that the spirit of India was in the depth of his conscience while the mind of the West was in his head (by virtue of what he studied in Harrow, Cambridge, and all over London). He was, thus, driven or dominated by the urge to see reason in people’s thinking and action. Sometimes he’d convince them to narrow their differences by concentrating on the “economic factor”, but the upsurge of religiosity or the assertion of communitarian identities weakened or nullified his efforts.
Nehru’s distance from the masses is too readily assumed. The fact is that he spent years not in comfortable and argumentative exile, but in India itself where he led the life of an activist with its attendant challenges and hazards. There is a tale, perhaps apocryphal, yet poignant, to the effect that, upon being released from prison after long confinement for speeches he had made, Nehru went directly to a large meeting, stood up and stated quite unaffectedly, “As I was saying…”
Nehru placed jail-going as a “trivial matter” in a world that was being shaken to its foundation. His first confinement was in the Lucknow district jail from 6 December 1921 to 3 March 1922; the second from 11 May 1922 to 31 January 1923. In 1930, it was 180 days; in 1931, 99 days; in 1932, 612 days; and in 1934, 569 days. By March 1938, he had actually spent five-and-a-half years in prison. On 13 March 1945, he had completed over 31 months in Ahmadnagar Fort. From there, he was “repatriated” to Bareilly Central prison after nearly 32 months. He complained of the typical jail atmosphere — the slow, stagnant and rather oppressive air, the high walls closing on him, iron bars and gates, and the noise of the warden at night as he kept watch or counted the prisoners in the different barracks.
All these years, Nehru was moved from one jail to another — to Naini, Lucknow, Bareilly, and Dehradun. Was it worthwhile? In the last paragraph of the Autobiography, he explained: “There is no hesitation about the answer. If I were given the chance to go through my life again, with my present knowledge and experience added, I would no doubt try to make many changes in my personal life.”
To begin with, the young Nehru had no idea what happened behind the grim gates that swallowed any convict. But soon enough he managed to overcome the nervous excitement and bear an existence full of abnormality, a dull suffering, and a dreadful monotony. His inspiration came from Gandhiji. He had for company his father, who was tried as a member of an “illegal” organisation of Congress volunteers.
One of his fellow inmates commented later that it was ironic that, from an early age, people had started looking upon him as a desh bhakt, and he sacrificed his youth and its charms to satisfy public expectations. With arrest and prosecution becoming a frequent occurrence, jails turned into places of pilgrimage. Sometimes he felt as if he richly deserved a spell of jail to make quiet his excitable nature. Sometimes he felt almost cut off from the outside and longed for a quick return. More often than not, he’d wait for a tomorrow to bring deliverance to his people. To Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, he wrote: “Without that steel frame of the mind and body, or spirit if you will, we bend before every wind that blows and disintegrates.”
This said, Nehru bore the petty tyrannies of life. With about 50 persons in the barrack, their beds were just about three or four feet apart. The lack of privacy was difficult to endure. “It was the dull side of family life magnified a hundred-fold with few of its graces and compensations and all this among people of all kinds and tastes,” Nehru aptly remarked. Nights in prison were dreadful, more so with a prisoner snoring, “a gigantic disharmony of ugly noises — grunt, groan, growl, howl, whine, whistle, hiss, etc. etc.”
All day he sat or lay under the neem trees spinning, reading, or writing. At night he’d sit under the starry canopy. Thus when one of his comrades was promoted to Class A, Nehru felt relieved: “Man is a social animal and too much solitude is not good.” But he felt lonely after another friend from Cambridge days moved to Gonda jail. His passion was to spin, so he asked for a new charkha from Sabarmati Ashram. To write in Urdu, he asked his father to send him an Urdu dictionary. He read newspapers and wrote letters, though he preferred not to read about the battles of his comrades when forced to be idle himself.
Given his sense of movements and changes in history, Nehru agreed that one must follow them without losing sight of the main trend, and that some day, as if by the stroke of a magician’s wand, India and the world may be transformed.
Headline image credit: President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy greet Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Mrs. Gandhi on the North Portico of the White House, as the visitors from India arrive at the Executive Mansion to attend a dinner given in their honor. US Embassy New Delhi. CC BY-ND 2.0 via usembassynewdelhi Flickr.
Congratulations on your new posting in the Punjab. Rather than riding eight-hours-a-day on horseback, suffering motion-sickness on a camel’s heaving back, or breaking your back sitting on hard wooden boards in a mail-cart, you’ll be travelling on the Bombay Government Flotilla, one of four flotillas that carry thousands of Europeans and Indians up and down the Indus.
While you may question the expenditure of a government flotilla, we assure you it’s a lot simpler than loading a squadron onto a small fleet of country boats, with indifferent crews, in varying states of repair, which might never reach their destinations. On board we’ll keeping the regiment together arriving as it started out — in one piece and maintaining proper discipline in transit.
So what can you expect on this exciting journey?
1. Expect sun and swelter. Everything you touch will be red hot. You won’t be able to go below in the daytime, but the thin awnings on deck will do little to relieve you in the 115 degree heat. Many soldiers ask whether they should sleep with a berth next to a furnace or choose a wall of heat on deck. With dry winds that come down from the ‘burnt-up hills’, laden with fine sand, everything and everyone will be covered in a layer of fine grey grit. And don’t forget the sand-flies — they bite hard.
2. Expect an uproarious time. Remember that you’re travelling on white man’s mastery of nature, so don’t expect to be the most important thing afloat. Your accommodation will be conveniently crushed between the machinery of furnaces, boilers, pistons, transmission, and paddle-wheels. Passengers trapped in close proximity to the machinery enthuse about the clamour of pistons ‘working up to four or five hundred horse-power’, the splash of paddle-wheels beating the river-water into foam, and the deafening hurricanes when engineers blow off the boiler’s steam ‘half-a-dozen times a day’. And if you’re lucky enough to have the wind blowing in your direction, look forward to being choked by the smoke, singed by the sparks, and splattered by smuts from the funnels.
3. Expect to get intimate with your fellow passengers. When moving to a theatre of war, you’ll be squashed together on the decks ‘like pigs at a market in a pen at night’. Your comrades may jostle to get enough space to lie down; the top of a hatch is a prize reserved for the best bare-knuckle fighter. Never mind about a restless colleague, you’ll be packed so tight in the gaps between the baggage, that once you’re settled down it’ll be impossible to move until the morning.
4. Expect cool nights with fresh dew. As you lay on deck with only a thin cotton awning over your head, gather round the funnel to get a little warmth. Be sure to hang on to your guttery [very thin duvet stuffed with raw cotton] as there will be no great-coats among the soldiers. Not to worry, the women and children suffer most.
5. Expect to be out of your element and out of sorts. Feeling exposed? Living on the open decks for weeks on end in the winter will reduce your resistance to all common Indian diseases. Should you be lucky enough to get an attack fever and dysentery, you’ll lay stretched upon the hard planking without anything under or over you. The sepoys’ conditions, as one would expect, are the best of all. It will be impossible to cross the deck without walking on sick and dying invalids. If they die in the night, they will be ‘instantly thrown overboard’. And after the steamer arrives in the delta, the survivors are off-loaded into sea-going ships destined for Bombay.
6. Expect unbelievable meals. Passengers praise our ‘coarse and unpalatable’ food. Everyone from the boat captains to the cooks have their special arrangements with prices too high for poorer travellers and meals ‘so indifferent’ that passengers who had paid for them refuse to eat them. Even the water is undrinkable! Perhaps your whole regiment will be reduced to foraging in the villages along the banks. Sheep and cows can be bought for a few rupees; Muslim butchers slaughter them; and you can enjoy broiling away till midnight.
7. Expect a tranquil environment. It takes a month or more to get up the whole navigable length of the Indus and they’ll be nothing to see on long stretches of the rivers, except ‘a vast dreary expanse’ of desert stretching out to the horizon, or an endless belt of tamarisk trees running along the low, muddy banks. Many villages are miles from the river to escape the floods, so it’s possible to sail all day without seeing another human being. Throughout the journey you’ll receive small stimulations from a native boat spreading its sail to taking pot shots at the largest living creatures to hand. Never mind the cost of the cartridges: simply steal rounds from the pouches of sick sepoys.
8. Expect a friendly drink or two. Fed up with watching the ‘dreary wilderness’ floating slowly past? Drink yourself stupid. As a hundred soldiers boarded the Meanee en route to the siege of Multan, one of them – delirious from drink – ‘slipped from the men who led him and fell overboard’, a second died of delirium tremens during the voyage, and a third ‘was expected to do so’. En route they ‘lost three or four in the river from drowning’. Worried the military authorities will restrict the sale of alcohol on the boats? Buy country liquor from the villagers – it has roughly the same side-effects.
9. Expect genuine thrills. The most intense excitement on a voyage on the Indus is the occasional shipwreck. Test your phlegm, and proof of national identity. Charles Stewart dismissed the danger of drowning with the utmost nonchalance on his sinking vessel. The really serious inconvenience was the interruption to his meals. React with that much aplomb, and we’ll know you’re British.
10. Expect to see people working together in new ways. Watch every latent animosity in race relations come to the surface. British captains beat Indian pilots every time a boat runs aground; engineers beat the lascars feeding logs into the furnaces if the steam pressure falls; and soldiers beat the cooks if they make a mess of the grub. Passengers straight from England are often shocked.
Remember, in an alien and often threatening environment, it’s worth paying a premium for the reassurance of a European-style cocoon: a steam-hotel, albeit a poor one, gliding along the river while the guests sit on the decks.
Tan Yuhua was sixteen when the Imperial Japanese Army raided her hometown in Hunan Province in 1944. Her father, unable to move quickly because of a disabled leg, was easy prey. Forcing him to kneel, the soldiers threatened to kill him with a sword. Tan Yuhua couldn’t help crying out from her hiding place, so she too was caught. Locked in a military “comfort station” in the nearby town of Zhuliang-qiao together with other abducted girls and women, Tan was forced to service a Japanese officer as his sex slave.
In 2008, I met Tan Yuhua, then eighty, in Shanghai. Recounting her brutal abduction, Tan’s small body visibly trembled. “One of my aunts died during that attack,” she recalled. “The soldiers arrested my father and forced him to work for them, but he was unable to perform hard labor due to his disability, so the Japanese soldiers killed him.” She paused, her face frozen in deep sorrow.
Tan Yuhua was one of hundreds of thousands of Chinese women kidnapped by Imperial Japanese forces during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945). Her abduction and sexual servitude exemplify the experiences of many other comfort women drafted from regions under Japanese occupation across Asia. Because these women were nationals of imperial Japan’s enemies, they suffered unimaginable brutality in the military comfort stations. And, as in the case of Tan Yuhua, torture and murder of their family members frequently occurred alongside abduction and sexual violence.
Although a large number of survivors’ testimonies and ample historical evidence have come to light since the 1990s, steadfast denial of the Japanese military’s involvement in forcing women into sexual slavery continues. In recent months the government of Japan launched another campaign to whitewash the history of Imperial Japan’s wartime “comfort women.”
On 14 October 2014, a Japanese official was sent to New York to ask Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, former United Nations Special Rapporteur, to reconsider her 1996 report on Imperial Japan’s coercion of women and girls into sexual slavery. A week later, the Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan charged that his predecessor, Yôhei Kôno, created a “major problem” for the country with his 1993 statement that admitted administrative and military involvement in recruiting comfort women.
This tide of denial rose higher after Asahi Shimbun’s retraction of articles on “comfort women” in August 2014. The retracted articles, published by Asahi two decades ago, cited former Japanese soldier Seiji Yoshida’s fictitious account of forcibly rounding up Korean women during World War II. Researchers have long pointed out the fabrication in Yoshida’s account, which has not been cited by the scholarly community in determining that the comfort women system was sexual slavery. Nonetheless, historical revisionists seized upon the newspaper’s retraction to repudiate Japanese military involvement in setting up the comfort women system, and they pressed the news media to muzzle their reporting. Earlier in October Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, banned any reference to the infamous Nanking Massacre and comfort women. By the end of November, the Daily Yomiuri had also issued an apology for having used “sex slave” and “other inappropriate expressions” from February 1992 to January 2013 in reporting on the comfort women.
Ultranationalists in Japan present the denial of war crimes as a patriotic act to protect Japan’s honor. They regard the recognition of comfort women’s sufferings as damaging to the nation’s international image. However, denial only makes Japan look worse. As Keio University Professor Eiji Kojima points out, “their efforts to rectify the recognition of historical facts have no prospect of winning approval in the global community and will only backfire if they are accompanied by intentions to restore the honor of the former Axis power and deny the postwar international order.”
Contrary to ultranationalist rhetoric, throughout the postwar era, Japanese citizen groups, researchers, lawyers, intellectuals, and lawmakers who care about humanitarian principles and the long-term prosperity of their own country have confronted Imperial Japan’s past wrongs. They have also played a crucial role in the international movement of redress for comfort women of all nations.
Japanese attorney Noriko Ômori, who has worked devotedly since the early 1990s to represent comfort station victims in China in their litigation for redress, sees the Japanese government’s failure to take responsible action to help heal the victims’ wounded hearts as unacceptable. “If we truly care about Japan’s future,” she writes, “we must ensure that Japan can obtain full trust from the world in terms of moral principles, and particularly, that Japan can form a truly friendly relationship with Asian countries.” Advocates like Ms. Ômori reflect the true honor of humanity, and they deserve the world’s trust and respect as the campaign for redress continues.
Seth Rogen isn’t the only actor to have a film about North Korea nixed: A script helmed by Bob Hope met a similar fate in 1954.
If US government sources are correct, North Korea cowed Sony Pictures into withholding a bawdy comedy about assassinating supreme leader Kim Jong-Un. Sony’s corporate computers were hacked and many bytes of tawdry Hollywood secrets were disgorged. The technical achievement lent credibility to the hackers’ threats of mass murder in theaters if Rogen’s The Interview was released. (Editors’ note: The Interview is currently in limited release and no attacks have been reported.) Governments can be expected to decry movies about murdering sitting presidents, but the bombast of Pyongyang’s apparent reaction lacks proportionality and appreciation of blowback from global audiences, which are sure to make Kim Jong-un a universal punch line. This cluelessness no doubt derives from the cultish isolation of Pyongyang, but it is not the first comedy set in North Korea to discomfit officials.
In 1954, the military-friendly jokester Bob Hope dropped plans for a screwball comedy on the Korean peninsula after the US Army refused to support it. The similarities and differences from the current episode tell us something about government influence over cinema, a vital conduit to the mass mind.
Only months after the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), Hope pitched a film to the Army’s Motion Picture office for approval. The military routinely lent expensive war equipment and technical advice to movie studios in return for a veto over scripts. Hope’s timing was awful. The “sour little war” was so unpopular it ended the political career of President Harry Truman and prompted years of soul searching into the American character and its failure to vanquish the enemy. The Army was touchy about cinematic portrayals of anything Korea, so much so that it reversed itself on a Ronald Reagan movie it had previously supported.
In March 1954, the same month Hope’s proposal was under consideration, the Army yanked approval of MGM’s P.O.W. Military bands had to cancel plans to play at premiers and all Army commands were ordered to cease publicizing the film. This was curious since the Army Motion Picture office had assisted P.O.W. throughout production, providing a former prisoner as consultant and requesting and receiving four pages of script revisions. The problem? Image management. The hastily-made movie was coming out at the same time the Army was beginning prosecutions of former prisoners accused of collaborating with their captors. The Chinese ran the prison camps in North Korea and persuaded some inmates to assist them on shortwave radio and other propaganda tasks. Collaboration became a big stir in the United States, especially after 21 American POWs defected to China after the war. Court martials of repatriated prisoners were part of a Cold War panic that the nation’s youth had gone soft, unable to resist Chinese indoctrination.
The difficulty with the Reagan film P.O.W. was that it was relentlessly brutal, even by today’s standards. Prisoners were subjected to awful tortures that were sure to arouse audience sympathy just when court martials were underway. Movies too heavy on torture or brainwashing would seem to excuse the behavior of soldiers who were now facing years at hard labor. Hence the Army bands repacking their instruments.
The delicacy of national morale helps explain the Army’s discomfort with the Bob Hope proposal. Donald E. Baruch, head of the Motion Pictures office, wrote Hope’s agent that the Army valued its previous work with the comedian:
However, in this instance, we believe no military purpose would be served in the production of this story. When Mr. Hope called while recently here, I did not react negatively because all he mentioned was that the story was about a U.S.O. tour to Korea and the repatriation of a prisoner. The subject is considered of too great importance and seriousness especially at this time to be treated in the farcical manner indicated by the outline. Other basic story objections are ‘stealing’ of the helicopter, Jane, Jimmy and Bob in North Korea, and the rescuing of Lloyd.
A serious prisoner of war movie that did get Army approval was MGM’s The Rack (1956) with Paul Newman. This courtroom-bound film was a psychological exploration of an officer’s conscience and why he failed to resist collaboration. However, The Rack was broody and talky and made no impression on the box office. The same occurred with Time Limit (United Artists, 1957), another courtroom film approved by the Army that failed to move audiences. To get a Pentagon subsidy and imprimatur, POW films set in Korea could not follow the tried and true formula of action and escape; collaboration was too imposing an issue. The small sub-genre of Korea POW films was steered into amnesia.
US Army influence on Korea POW films was gentle. Studios wanted subsidies and association with the military brand, so they were usually cooperative. In itself, Rogan’s The Interview has little in common with the patriotic cinema of the 1950s, but the apparent reaction of North Korea provides an interesting contrast. Some pundits have been quick to accuse Sony of letting Pyongyang become a censor by holding the film industry hostage. With this one film, they might have a point. But Pyongyang’s method of influencing movie content is really one of weakness. The Pentagon, neither today nor in the 1950s, has to threaten Hollywood, it simply waits for producers to come to it for set pieces and shrouds of official martial aura. In contrast, Kim Jong-Un’s royal court is so isolated and unable to shape the narrative that it resorted to the threats of a desperate loner. If North Korea’s apparent intervention in Hollywood still has an effect two years from now, it will only serve to focus more attention on the regime worldwide. Look for more hidden camera documentaries. Any other lasting influence is unlikely, since Kim Jong-Un can’t open a Hollywood office or even do lunch.
Featured image: Bob Hope (center) and other guests salute while “The Star Spangled Banner” is played during a ceremony to award Hope the Distinguished Public Service Award. Jan. 31, 1971. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
This timeline below shows the development of data privacy laws across numerous different Asian territories over the past 35 years. In each case it maps the year a data privacy law or equivalent was created, as well as providing some further information about each. It also maps the major guidelines and pieces of legislation from various global bodies, including those mentioned above.
Featured image credit: Data (scrabble), by justgrimes. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
The Reformation was a seismic event in history, whose consequences are still working themselves out in Europe and across the world. The protests against the marketing of indulgences staged by the German monk Martin Luther in 1517 belonged to a long-standing pattern of calls for internal reform and renewal in the Christian Church. But they rapidly took a radical and unexpected turn, engulfing first Germany and then Europe as a whole in furious arguments about how God’s will was to be discerned, and how humans were to be ‘saved’. However, these debates did not remain confined to a narrow sphere of theology. They came to reshape politics and international relations; social, cultural, and artistic developments; relations between the sexes; and the patterns and performances of everyday life.
Below we take a look at some of the key events that shaped the Reformation. In The Oxford Illustrated History of the ReformationPeter Marshall and a team of experts tell the story of how a multitude of rival groups and individuals, with or without the support of political power, strove after visions of ‘reform’.
Featured image credit: Fishing for Souls, Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne, 1614. Rijksmeseum, Amsterdam. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Just when you thought the news about North Korea and the movies couldn't get any weirder, here comes Paul Fischer's spectacular account of the real-life kidnappings of South Korea's biggest film stars by the late Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il. The central story is thrilling, but Fischer's narrative really shines in its stranger-than-fiction descriptions of North [...]
In Japan, there is a common myth of the spirit of language called kotodama (言霊, ことだま); a belief that some divine power resides in the Japanese language. This belief originates in ancient times as part of Shintoist ritual but the idea has survived through Japanese history and the term kotodama is still frequently mentioned in public discourse. The notion of kotodama is closely linked with Japanese linguistic identity, and the narrative of kotodama has been repeatedly reinterpreted according to non-linguistic factors surrounding Japan, as well as the changing idea of “purity” of language in Japan.
The term kotodama literally means “the spirit of language” (koto = language, dama (tama) = spirit or soul). It is a belief based on the idea of Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan which worships divinity in all natural creation and phenomena. In ancient Japan, language was believed to have a spirit, which gives positive power to positive words, negative power to negative words, and impacts a person’s life when his or her name is pronounced out loud. Wishes or curses were thus spelled out in a particular manner in order to communicate with the divine powers. According to this ancient belief, the spirit of language only resides in “pure” Japanese that is unique and free from foreign influence. Therefore, Sino-Japanese loanwords, which were numerous by then and had a great impact on the Japanese language, were eschewed in Shintoist rituals and Japanese native vocabulary, yamatokotoba, was preferred. Under the name of kotodama, this connection between spiritual power and pure language survived throughout Japanese history as a looser concept and was reinvented multiple times.
One of the most significant historical moments in which the myth of kotodama was reinvented was during the Second World War. In order to strengthen national solidarity, the government reintroduced the idea of kotodama, coupling it with the idea of kokutai (国体, こくたい, koku = country or nation, tai = body), the Japanese national polity. The government promoted the idea that the use of “pure” and traditional Japanese language was at the core of the national unity and social virtue that is unique to Japan, while failing to use the right language would lead to violation of the national polity. Under the belief of kotodama, proposals to abolish or reduce the use of kanji (Chinese characters), which had been introduced since the modernization of the country in the second half of the nineteenth century, were fiercely rejected. Instead, the use of kanji as well as traditional non-vernacular orthographic style was encouraged. Furthermore, based on the kotodama myth, the use of Western loanwords was strictly banned as they belonged to the language of the enemy (tekiseigo) and those words were replaced by Sino-Japanese words. For example, the word ragubî, which is the loan from the English word “rugby,” was replaced by tôkyû, a Sino-Japanese word meaning “fight ball.” The word anaunsâ, which is the loan from the English word “announcer,” was replaced by hôsôin, a Sino-Japanese word meaning “broadcasting person.”
It is interesting to note that the kotodama myth was reinvented to encourage the use of Sino-Japanese elements, whereas in the ancient belief the myth promoted the Japanese native elements and eschewed Sino-Japanese elements. In other words, Sino-Japanese was redefined as the essential element of the “pure” and “traditional” Japanese language. Even the movements to simplify the Japanese orthographic system by abolishing the use of Chinese characters and using only kana (phonetic syllabaries) to write Japanese were considered to be violations of kotodama, despite the fact that kana was invented in Japan. This complete reversal of the position of Sino-Japanese elements can be explained by the belief that the increasing use of Western loanwords was creating a new threat to the Japanese linguistic identity. The idea of kokutai, along with other militarist propaganda, was stigmatized in post-war Japanese society and faded away. However, the idea of kotodama survived through the post-war democratization period into contemporary Japan with yet another face.
You still hear the word kotodama today. A song titled “Ai no Kotodama [Kotodama of Love] – Spiritual Message” performed by a Japanese pop rock band, Southern All Stars, is a well-known hit which has sold over a million since it was recorded in 1996. Above all, one frequently sees the term kotodama used in public debates on the subject of foreign loanwords (gairaigo, which excludes Sino-Japanese loans). For example, an article from a nationwide newspaper stated that “loanwords are threatening the country of kotodama.” Thus the idea of kotodama is still linked to the purity of language in contrast to Western loanwords but, unlike the link between kotodama and political identity of the country made during World War Two, it seems that the myth is now linked to its cultural and social identity while recent waves of globalization have increased the diversity within the contemporary Japan.
The diversity of Japanese society goes hand in hand with the diversity of its vocabulary, which we can see from the rapid increase of loanwords in Japanese. However, at the same time, this increases a sense of insecurity in relation to the linguistic and cultural identity of Japan. As a result, the ancient myth of kotodama has been reinvented as a way to manifest Japanese linguistic identity through the idea of a “pure” language. Kotodama has no fixed definition, and continues to transform as Japanese society undergoes changes. It is questionable if the Japanese still really believe in the spiritual power of language — however, the myth of linguistic purity persists in the mind of the Japanese through the word kotodama.
Issues concerning Imperial Japan’s wartime “comfort women” have ignited international debates in the past two decades, and a number of personal accounts of “comfort women” have been published in English since the 1990s. Until recently, however, there has been a notable lack of information about the women drafted from Mainland China. Chinese Comfort Women is the first book in English to record the first-hand experiences of twelve Chinese women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese Imperial forces during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945). Here, author and translator Peipei Qiu (who wrote the book in collaboration with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei), answers some questions about her new book.
What is one of the most surprising facts about “comfort women” that you found during your research?
One of the shocking facts revealed in this book is that the scope of military sexual slavery in the war was much larger than previously known. Korean and Japanese researchers, based on the information available to them, had estimated that the Japanese military had detained between 30,000 and 200,000 women to be sex slaves during the war. These early estimations, however, don’t accurately reflect the large number of Chinese women enslaved. Investigations conducted by Chinese researchers suggest a much higher number. My collaborating researcher Su Zhiliang, for example, estimates that between 1931 and 1945 approximately 400,000 women were forced to become military “comfort women,” and that at least half of them were drafted from Mainland China.
Although it is not possible to obtain accurate statistics on the total number of kidnappings, documented cases suggest shockingly large numbers. For instance, around the time of the Nanjing Massacre, the Japanese army abducted tens of thousands of women from Nanjing and the surrounding areas, including over 2,000 women from Suzhou, 3,000 from Wuxi, and 20,000 from Hangzhou. These blatant kidnappings continued throughout the entire war, the youngest abductee’s being only nine years old.
Chinese and Malayan girls forcibly taken from Penang by the Japanese to work as ‘comfort girls’ for the troops. The Allied Reoccupation of the Andaman Islands, 1945. Lemon A E (Sergeant), No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit. War Office, Central Office of Information and American Second World War Official Collection. IWM Non Commercial Licence. Imperial War Museums.
What impressed you most deeply when you heard the stories of these women?
What struck me most deeply were the “comfort women’s” horrendous sufferings. I felt strongly that their stories must be told to the world. Many of the women were teenagers when the Japanese Imperial Forces kidnapped them. They were given the minimum amount of food necessary to keep them alive and were subjected to multiple rapes each day. Those who resisted were beaten or killed, and those who attempted to escape would be punished with anything from torture to decapitation, and the punishment often included not only the woman but also her family members.
The brutal torture was not only physical. These women confined in the so-called “comfort stations” lived in constant fear and agony, not knowing how long they would have to endure and what would happen to them the following day, worrying what their families went through trying to save them, and witnessing other women being tortured and killed. During research and writing I often could not hold back tears, and their stories always remain heavily and vividly in my mind.
I was also deeply impressed by their resilience and faith in humanity. These women were brutally tortured and exploited by the Japanese imperial forces during the war, and when the war ended, members of their own patriarchal society discarded them as defiled and useless. Many of them were ignored, treated as collaborators with the enemy, or even persecuted. Yet what the survivors remember and recount is not only suffering and anger but also acts of humanity – no matter how little they themselves have witnessed. Wan Aihua, though gang-raped multiple times and nearly beaten to death by Japanese troops, never forgot an army interpreter who saved her from a Japanese officer’s sword. She told us, “I didn’t know if the interpreter was Japanese, but I believe there were kind people in the Japanese troops, just as there are today, when many Japanese people support our fight for justice.”
What motivated you to write this book?
In part, I was shocked by the lack of information available. In this day and age, it feels like every fact or story to be known is easily at our fingertips. However, in this instance, it was not the case. Even after the rise of the “comfort women” redress movement, most of the focus was on the “comfort women” of Japan and its colonies, and little was known about Chinese “comfort women” outside of China. This created a serious issue in understanding the history of the Asia-Pacific war and to the study of the entire “comfort women” issue. Without a thorough understanding of Chinese “comfort women’s” experiences, an accurate explication of the scope and nature of that system cannot be achieved.
In the past two decades, how to understand what happened to “comfort women” has become an international controversy. Some Japanese politicians and activists insist that “comfort women” were prostitutes making money at frontlines, that there was not evidence of direct involvements of Japanese military and government. And they say telling the stories of “comfort women” disgraces the Japanese people.
One of the main purposes for me to write about Chinese “comfort women” is to help achieve a transnational understanding of their sufferings. To understand what happened to the “comfort women,” we must transcend the boundaries of nation-state. I hope to demonstrate that fundamentally confronting the tragedy of “comfort women” is not about politics, nor is it about national interests; it is about human life. Dismissing individual sufferings in the name of national honor is not only wrong but also dangerous, it is a ploy that nation-states have used, and continue to use, to drag people into war, to deprive them of their basic rights, and to abuse them.
Peipei Qiu is the author and translator of Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves, which she wrote in collaboration with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei. She is currently professor of Chinese and Japanese on the Louise Boyd Dale and Alfred Lichtenstein Chair and director of the Asian Studies Program at Vassar College.
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To analyze the personal, political, and intellectual trajectory of Akbar Jehan—the woman, the wife, the mother, and the Kashmiri nationalist, not simply an iconic and often misunderstood political figure—has been an emotionally tempestuous journey for me. The Kashmiri political and social activist is my maternal grandmother. I am so interested in studying her life and work because, to my mind, there is a historical value in challenging the historical narratives about the political actors of pre-and post-1947 Jammu and Kashmir and the movement for an autonomous and pluralistic Kashmir. I have attempted to steer clear of delimiting and constricting narratives about her life and work in my recent book. It is important to reshape the collective historical memory so that it includes the humanitarian and pluralistic endeavors of leaders of the movement at that critical time after the partition of India.
While teaching classes on Women’s and Gender Studies at the Universities of Nebraska and Oklahoma, I realized that history has done a rather inadequate job of memorializing the contributions of women political and social activists. Akbar Jehan’s work of sustaining the community, caring for the marginalized and disempowered at a turbulent time, has not been captured by professional historians, who have peripheralized the work of women in rebuilding societies following armed conflict.
With the oral and historical resources available to me, I investigated the impact of Akbar Jehan’s work on the legal, social, and economic status of women in Jammu and Kashmir. She was a passionate advocate of women’s education who sought to place girls—including those of impoverished backgrounds—in the modern and vibrant world of intellectual and scientific pursuits. Working with Lady Mountbatten, wife of the first Governor General of post-Partition India, Lord Mountbatten, Akbar Jehan advocated for repatriating young women who had been forcibly removed from their families during the partition of the country. According to my mother Suraiya and her older sister Khalida, Akbar Jehan also worked to restore the honor of those women who had borne the brunt of communal vendetta. Following the partition, she helped to form the Relief Committee and served on the chair of the Food Committee, which sought to address economic losses resulting from the collapse of the tourism sector and the subsequent rise in the cost of living. Later, Akbar Jehan founded the institute Markaz Behbudi Khawateen, still in operation today, which imparts literacy, training in arts and crafts, health care, and social security as tools of empowerment.
All of these efforts constitute a powerful rebuttal of the tendency among Western observers to conflate Islamic norms with practices. Western feminist epistemologies in particular, as I have observed in Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir,can impair the research paradigms, hypotheses, and field work on women in Islamic societies. Akbar Jehan believed that women citizens should be accorded equal rights with men in all fields of national life—economic, cultural, political, and in government services. She reinforced the idea that women should have the right to work in every line of employment for terms and wages equal to those for men; women would be assured of equality with men in education, social insurance and job conditions, though she argued that the law should also give special protections to mothers and children. In contrast to many Western feminists, however, Akbar Jehan gave equal credence to the path-paving work of women within religious, familial, and communal frameworks. Moreover, she sought to motivate education within minority communities (as opposed to state-controlled education), and above all she recognized culture and history as sites of political and social struggle.
Akbar Jehan understood that reforms and consciousness-raising could occur most decisively at the grassroots level, not in the corridors of power in New Delhi, nor in the plush halls of parliament. I would venture to say that the many harangues, digressions, dogmatic statements, and red tape of parliament could not intimidate an activist who had worked in the trenches and walked shoulder to shoulder with the leaders of the anti-monarchical, anti-colonial, and Independence movements of the Indian subcontinent. Akbar Jehan was of the opinion that enfranchisement of both women and men, and assuring women of equal opportunities in education, are not empowering in themselves, but would cause a momentous shift in traditional gender relationships. To address these political obstacles, women who were active in politics in the 20th century sought not only to improve the position of their particular organizations but also to forge connections between the various women’s groups. One of their major accomplishments came in 1950, when the government of Jammu and Kashmir developed educational institutions for women on a large scale, including the first University, as well as a College for women. There remains much scholarly work to be done in exploring how women in civic associations and in government led the way toward a peaceful pluralistic democracy.
By virtue of her status among the major Kashmiri institutions, Akbar Jehan earned the authority to make major policy decisions. Thus, she enjoyed a privilege that other intelligent visionary women did not have. For example, she represented Srinagar and Anantnag constituencies of Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian parliament from 1977 to 1979 and 1984 to 1989, respectively. Akbar Jehan was also the first president of the Jammu and Kashmir Red Cross Society from 1947 to 1951. She was the first lady of Jammu and Kashmir from 1948–1953 and again from 1975–1982. So, it would be difficult to deny that making one’s vision a reality, particularly for a woman in the South Asian context, is contingent, to a certain extent, on socioeconomic privilege and political clout. And though Akbar Jehan’s critics have pointed out that her elite position gave her visibility and access to the echelons of power, this by no means diminishes her legacy.
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Power and memory combined to produce the Deccan Plateau’s built landscape. Beyond the region’s capital cities, such as Bijapur, Vijayanagara, or Golconda, the culture of smaller, fortified strongholds both on the plains and in the hills provides a fascinating insight into its history. These smaller centers saw very high levels of conflict between 1300 and 1600, especially during the turbulent sixteenth century when gunpowder technology had become widespread in the region. Below is a selection of images of architecture and monuments, examined through a mix of methodologies (history, art history, and archaeology), taken from our new book Power, Memory, and Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600.
Raichur. Kati Darwaza gateway (as reconstructed c. 1520)
When an important fort changed hands in the early modern Deccan, victors often gave its gates “face-lifts” to publicize their possession of the site. When Krishna Raya of Vijayanagara seized Raichur from Bijapur, he erased features of this gate that were associated with Bijapur and stamped it with architectural markings of his own dynasty.
In the mid-16th century the sultanate of Bijapur made notable advances in gunpowder technology, marking in some respects a local “Military Revolution”. This is seen in the crude adaptation of the idea of small swivel cannons to very large guns that were placed on high bastions and could be maneuvered both laterally and vertically.
Hyderabad: southern portal of the Char Kaman ensemble (1592)
Though conventionally thought to have been patterned on “Islamic” models of urban design, Hyderabad was actually modeled on the Kakatiya capital of Warangal, indicating that dynasty’s lasting memory. Thus, four portals were positioned around the famous Charminar just as four toranas had been positioned around Warangal’s cultic center, the Svayambhu Shiva temple (see first image).
Warangal Fort: Panchaliraya temple, assembled by Shitab Khan (16th c.)
In 1504 Shitab Khan, an upstart local chieftain, seized the city of Warangal from its Bahmani governor and at once associated himself with the memory of the illustrious Kakatiya dynasty, which had ruled from this city two centuries earlier. To this end, he made several architectural interventions, including assembling this temple from reused structural elements dating to Kakatiya rule.
Like their Vijayanagara rivals to the south, the sultans of Bijapur also revered the memory of the imperial Chalukyas. This is seen in the twenty-four reused Chalukya columns that, in the early 16th century, they inserted in the citadel’s entrance courtyard, their capital’s most prominent site.
Vijayanagara: two-storeyed hall at the end of Virupaksha bazaar
To identify themselves with Chalukya glory, rulers of Vijayanagara in the 16th century inserted into this hall’s lower storey finely polished reused Chalukya columns, carved from blue-green schist. By contrast, the hall’s less visible upper storey exhibits columns in the style of Vijayanagara’s own period, crudely carved from nearby granite.
Kuruvatti. Bracket figure from the Malikarjuna temple, ca. 11th c.
Just as the memory of Roman imperial splendor inspired Europeans for centuries after the collapse of Rome, the memory of the Deccan’s prestigious Chalukya dynasty (10th-12th c.), preserved by material remains such as this stunning sculpture, inspired actors four or five centuries later to identify their own regimes with Chalukya glory.
Warangal fort: Remains of the Tughluq congregational mosque
Architecture and power are interwoven in the remains of this mosque, built in the former capital of the Kakatiya dynasty. Foreground: rubble of the temple of the Kakatiyas’ state deity, Svayambhu Shiva, destroyed in the early 14th century by armies of the Delhi Sultanate. Background: one of the temple’s four majestic gateways (torana) that the conquerors preserved in order to frame the mosque.
To understand China, it is essential to understand Confucianism. There are many teachings of Confucianist tradition, but before we can truly understand them, it is important to look at the vision Confucius himself had. In this excerpt below from Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction, Daniel K. Gardner discusses the future the teacher behind the ideas imagined.
Confucius imagined a future where social harmony and sage rulership would once again prevail. It was a vision of the future that looked heavily to the past. Convinced that a golden age had been fully realized in China’s known history, Confucius thought it necessary to turn to that history, to the political institutions, the social relations, the ideals of personal cultivation that he believed prevailed in the early Zhou period, in order to piece together a vision to serve for all times. Here a comparison with Plato, who lived a few decades after the death of Confucius, is instructive. Like Confucius, Plato was eager to improve on contemporary political and social life. But unlike Confucius, he did not believe that the past offered up a normative model for the present. In constructing his ideal society in the Republic, Plato resorted much less to reconstruction of the past than to philosophical reflection and intellectual dialogue with others.
This is not to say, of course, that Confucius did not engage in philosophical reflection and dialogue with others. But it was the past, and learning from it, that especially consumed him. This learning took the form of studying received texts, especially the Book of Odes and the Book of History. He explains to his disciples:
“The Odes can be a source of inspiration and a basis for evaluation; they can help you to get on with others and to give proper expression to grievances. In the home, they teach you about how to serve your father, and in public life they teach you about how to serve your lord”.
The frequent references to verses from the Odes and to stories and legends from the History indicate Confucius’s deep admiration for these texts in particular and the values, the ritual practices, the legends, and the institutions recorded in them.
But books were not the sole source of Confucius’s knowledge about the past. The oral tradition was a source of instructive ancient lore for him as well. Myths and stories about the legendary sage kings Yao, Shun, and Yu; about Kings Wen and Wu and the Duke of Zhou, who founded the Zhou and inaugurated an age of extraordinary social and political harmony; and about famous or infamous rulers and officials like Bo Yi, Duke Huan of Qi, Guan Zhong, and Liuxia Hui—all mentioned by Confucius in the Analects—would have supplemented what he learned from texts and served to provide a fuller picture of the past.
Still another source of knowledge for Confucius, interestingly, was the behavior of his contemporaries. In observing them, he would select out for praise those manners and practices that struck him as consistent with the cultural norms of the early Zhou and for condemnation those that in his view were contributing to the Zhou decline. The Analects shows him railing against clever speech, glibness, ingratiating appearances, affectation of respect, servility to authority, courage unaccompanied by a sense of right, and single-minded pursuit of worldly success—behavior he found prevalent among contemporaries and that he identified with the moral deterioration of the Zhou. To reverse such deterioration, people had to learn again to be genuinely respectful in dealing with others, slow in speech and quick in action, trustworthy and true to their word, openly but gently critical of friends, families, and rulers who strayed from the proper path, free of resentment when poor, free of arrogance when rich, and faithful to the sacred three-year mourning period for parents, which to Confucius’s great chagrin, had fallen into disuse. In sum, they had to relearn the ritual behavior that had created the harmonious society of the early Zhou.
That Confucius’s characterization of the period as a golden age may have been an idealization is irrelevant. Continuity with a “golden age” lent his vision greater authority and legitimacy, and such continuity validated the rites and practices he advocated. This desire for historical authority and legitimacy—during a period of disrupture and chaos—may help to explain Confucius’s eagerness to present himself as a mere transmitter, a lover of the ancients. Indeed, the Master’s insistence on mere transmission notwithstanding, there can be little doubt that from his study and reconstruction of the early Zhou period he forged an innovative—and enduring—sociopolitical vision. Still, in his presentation of himself as reliant on the past, nothing but a transmitter of what had been, Confucius established what would become something of a cultural template in China. Grand innovation that broke entirely with the past was not much prized in the pre-modern Chinese tradition. A Jackson Pollock who consciously and proudly rejected artistic precedent, for example, would not be acclaimed the creative genius in China that he was in the West. Great writers, great thinkers, and great artists were considered great precisely because they had mastered the tradition—the best ideas and techniques of the past. They learned to be great by linking themselves to past greats and by fully absorbing their styles and techniques. Of course, mere imitation was hardly sufficient; imitation could never be slavish. One had to add something creative, something entirely of one’s own, to mastery of the past.
Thus when you go into a museum gallery to view pre-modern Chinese landscapes, one hanging next to another, they appear at first blush to be quite similar. With closer inspection, however, you find that this artist developed a new sort of brush stroke, and that one a new use of ink-wash, and this one a new style of depicting trees and their vegetation. Now that your eye is becoming trained, more sensitive, it sees the subtle differences in the landscape paintings, with their range of masterful techniques an expression. But even as it sees the differences, it recognizes that the paintings evolved out of a common landscape tradition, in which artists built consciously on the achievements of past masters.
Featured image credit: “Altar of Confucius (7360546688)” by Francisco Anzola – Altar of Confucius. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
One hundred years ago today, far from the erupting battlefields of Europe, a small German force in the city of Tsingtau (Qingdao), Germany’s most important possession in China, was preparing for an impending siege. The small fishing village of Qingdao and the surrounding area had been reluctantly leased to the German Empire by the Chinese government for 99 years in 1898, and German colonists soon set about transforming this minor outpost into a vibrant city boasting many of the comforts of home, including the forerunner of the now-famous Tsingtao Brewery. By 1914, Qingdao had over 50,000 residents and was the primary trading port in the region. Given its further role as the base for the Far East Fleet of the Imperial German Navy, however, Qingdao was unable to avoid becoming caught up in the faraway European war.
The forces that besieged Qingdao in the autumn of 1914 were composed of troops from Britain and Japan, the latter entering the war against Germany in accord with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Alliance had been agreed in 1902 amid growing anxiety in Britain regarding its interests in East Asia, and rapidly modernizing Japan was seen as a useful ally in the region. For Japanese leaders, the signing of such an agreement with the most powerful empire of the day was seen as a major diplomatic accomplishment and an acknowledgement of Japan’s arrival as one of the world’s great powers. More immediately, the Alliance effectively guaranteed the neutrality of third parties in Japan’s looming war with Russia, and Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 sent shockwaves across the globe as the first defeat of a great European empire by a non-Western country in a conventional modern war.
In Britain, Japan’s victory was celebrated as a confirmation of the strength of its Asian ally, and represented the peak of a fascination with Japan in Britain that marked the first decade of the twentieth century. This culminated in the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition in London, which saw over eight million visitors pass through during its six-month tenure. In contrast, before the 1890s, Japan had been portrayed in Britain primarily as a relatively backward yet culturally interesting nation, with artists and intellectuals displaying considerable interest in Japanese art and literature. Japan’s importance as a military force was first recognized during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, and especially from the time of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan’s military prowess was popularly attributed to a supposedly ancient warrior spirit that was embodied in ‘bushido’, or the ‘way of the samurai’.
The ‘bushido’ ideal was popularized around the world especially through the prominent Japanese educator Nitobe Inazo’s (1862-1933) book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which was originally published in English in 1900 and achieved global bestseller status around the time of the Russo-Japanese War (a Japanese translation first appeared in 1908). The British public took a positive view towards the ‘national spirit’ of its ally, and many saw Japan as a model for curing perceived social ills. Fabian Socialists such as Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) and Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) lauded the supposed collectivism of ‘bushido’, while Alfred Stead (1877-1933) and other promoters of the Efficiency Movement celebrated Japan’s rapid modernization. For his part, H.G. Wells 1905 novel A Modern Utopia included a ‘voluntary nobility’ called ‘samurai,’ who guided society from atop a governing structure that he compared to Plato’s ideal republic. At the same time, British writers lamented the supposed decline of European chivalry from an earlier ideal, contrasting it with the Japanese who had seemingly managed to turn their ‘knightly code’ into a national ethic followed by citizens of all social classes.
The ‘bushido boom’ in Britain was not mere Orientalization of a distant society, however, but was strongly influenced by contemporary Japanese discourse on the subject. The term ‘bushido’ only came into widespread use around 1900, and even a decade earlier most Japanese would have been bemused by the notion of a national ethic based on the former samurai class. Rather than being an ancient tradition, the modern ‘way of the samurai’ developed from a search for identity among Japanese intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century. This process saw an increasing shift away from both Chinese and European thought towards supposedly native ideals, and the former samurai class provided a useful foundation. The construction of an ethic based on the ‘feudal’ samurai was given apparent legitimacy by the popularity of idealized chivalry and knighthood in nineteenth-century Europe, with the notion that English ‘gentlemanship’ was rooted in that nation’s ‘feudal knighthood’ proving especially influential. This early ‘bushido’ discourse profited from the nationalistic fervor following Japan’s victory over China in 1895, and the concept increasingly came to be portrayed as a unique and ancient martial ethic. At the same time, those theories that had drawn inspiration from European models came to be ignored, with one prominent Japanese promoter of ‘bushido’ deriding European chivalry as ‘mere woman-worship’.
In the first years of the twentieth century, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance contributed greatly to the positive reception in Britain of theories positing a Japanese ‘martial race’, and the fate of ‘bushido’ in the UK demonstrated the effect of geopolitics on theories of ‘national characteristics’. By 1914, British attitudes had begun to change amid increasing concern regarding Japan’s growing assertiveness. Even the Anglo-Japanese operation that finally captured Qingdao in November was marked by British distrust of Japanese aims in China, a sentiment that was strengthened by Japan’s excessive demands on China the following year. Following the war, Japan’s reluctance to return the captured territory to China caused British opposition to Japan’s China policy to increase, leading to the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1923. The two countries subsequently drifted even further apart, and by the 1930s, ‘bushido’ was popularly described in Britain as an ethic of treachery and cruelty, only regaining its positive status after 1945 through samurai films and other popular culture as Japan and Britain again became firm allies in the Cold War.
Headline image credit: Former German Governor’s Residence in Qingdao, by Brücke-Osteuropa. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Late September and October 2014 saw Hong Kong experience its most significant political protests since it became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997. This ongoing event shows the inherent creativity of language, how it succinctly incorporates history, and the importance of context in making meaning. Language is thus a “time capsule” of a place.
China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong after it stopped being a British colony in 1997, promised universal suffrage in its Basic Law as the ‘ultimate aim’ of its political development. However, Beijing insists that candidates for Hong Kong’s top job, the chief executive, must be vetted by an electoral committee made up largely of tycoons, pro-Beijing, and establishment figures. The main demand of the protesters is full democracy, without sifting candidates through a selection mechanism. Protesters want the right to nominate and directly elect the head of the Hong Kong government.
The protests are a combination of movements. For instance, the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” movement is a civil disobedience movement that calls on thousands of protesters to block roads and paralyze Hong Kong’s financial district if the Beijing and Hong Kong governments do not agree to implement universal suffrage according to international standards.
The humble umbrella has become the predominant symbol of the 2014 protests – largely because of its use as protection against police pepper spray. I’m sure you will have seen the now-iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while clouds of tear gas swirl around him. Thus, the terms “umbrella movement” or “umbrella revolution” came into being.
Yellow or “democracy yellow” as the colour became known, became the symbolic colour of the 2014 protests. As the protests wore on, yellow ribbons have been tied to fences, trees, lapels and Facebook profile pictures as indicators of solidarity with the “umbrella movement”.
How yellow and the crossed yellow ribbon became the symbol of the campaign for democracy in Hong Kong is unclear. The yellow ribbon often signifies remembrance (“Tie a yellow ribbon round that ole oak tree”, a hit song from 1973 about a released prisoner hoping that his love would welcome him back). Perhaps it relates to the fact that in 1876, during the U.S. Centennial, women in the suffrage movement wore yellow ribbons and sang the song “The Yellow Ribbon”. Interestingly, one political party in Hong Kong’s uses the suffragette colours (green, white, and violet) as its political colours.
From previous colour revolutions, we know that colour is significant (Beijing saw it as a separatist push, and the interchangeable use of “umbrella movement” and “umbrella revolution” did not help). Historically, in imperial times only the emperor could wear yellow. Nobles and commoners did so on pain of death. Yellow has now become a colour for the masses.
A blue ribbon movement also arose, signifying support for the police and against the action of the occupiers; the “blue ribboners” were also known as the “anti-occupiers”. Currently, Hong Kong society seems divided between the pro-occupiers and the anti-occupiers. Subsequently, there has been massive “unfriending” of people on Facebook. Thus arose a new verb: “to go blue ribbony”; as in “my friend said the group chat [FB] has gone blue ribbony so she left.”
Numbers have always been important in Hong Kong’s recent history. In 1984, with the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the year 1997 became important as that was the date of day Hong Kong “reverted” to Chinese sovereignty. The first opportunity to ask for universal suffrage was 2007 (denied), and then 2012 (also denied).
“689” is the “the number that explains Hong Kong’s upheaval” (quipped The Wall Street Journal). Invoked constantly in the streets and on social media, “689” is the protesters’ nickname for Hong Kong’s leader. The chief executive is elected by a 1,200 member Election Committee made up mostly of elite, pro-Beijing individuals after first being nominated by that committee. C.Y. Leung, the current chief executive, was elected by 689 members of that committee. This small circle election is at the heart of protesters’ frustrations, so they use “689” as an insult that emphasizes Leung’s illegitimacy. When they chant “689, step down!” they indict Mr. Leung along with the Beijing-backed political structure that they see threatening their city’s autonomy and freedoms. There is an expression “689 冇柒用” (there is no 7 in 689), where “柒” means “7” and “7冇柒用” means “(he is) no fucking use.” Interestingly, “689” could be read as “June 1989”, the time of the Tiananmen protests in Beijing.
In addition to protest songs such as ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna (naturally), ‘Do you hear the people sing’ from Les Miserables, and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, just to name a few, a very mundane ditty served as a tool of antagonism. This was the song “Happy Birthday”. Employing the happy birthday tactic was used by protesters when others shouted abuse at them. Singing “happy birthday” (sàangyaht faailohk, in Cantonese) to opponents, which served to annoy and disorientate them no end.
Chinese characters are made up of components called ‘radicals’. After the now iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while being tear-gassed, an enterprising individual came up with the following character扌傘, a combination of two ‘radicals’: 手 for “hand” → becoming 扌 on the left and the character for “umbrella” (傘) literally, a hand raising an umbrella. The definition for this character is to “to protest and persevere with peace and rationality until the end”, explaining that “with the radical ‘hand’, the word symbolizes the action of opening an umbrella”. The character ultimately has the meaning of “withstanding, supporting and not giving up the faith”.
The protests in Hong Kong are an ongoing phenomenon. The outpouring of linguistic and semiotic creative has been breath-taking.
Feature image credit: Hong Kong Protests, by Leung Ching Yau Alex. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
In December 2013, Turkish authorities arrested the sons of several prominent cabinet ministers on bribery, embezzlement, and smuggling charges. Investigators claimed that the men were contributing members in a conspiracy to illicitly trade Turkish gold for Iranian oil gas (an act which, among other things, violates the spirit of United Nations’ sanctions targeting Tehran). The scheme purportedly netted a vast fortune in proceeds in the form of dividends and bribes. Among those suspected of benefiting from the trade was Prime Minister (now President) Tayyip Erdoğan and members of his family. The firestorm from this scandal was initially so furious many feared that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party would not survive its implications. Yet as of this September, the investigation into this scandal has all but come to an end. The officials involved in propagating and executing the investigation have all been dismissed or transferred. Consequently, virtually all charges related to the case have been dropped.
Most of the analysis of this scandal has focused upon the political implications of the arrests and the subsequent purges of Turkey’s national police force. Events since December have indeed underscored the intense levels of strife within Turkey’s governing institutions as well as the growing authoritarian tendencies of the country’s ruling party. Yet Turkey’s “oil for gold” corruption scandal also illuminates fundamental, yet long-standing, aspects of the relationship between prominent illicit trades and the country’s politics.
Turkey’s black market, by all accounts, is exceeding large and highly lucrative. As a country sitting at a major intersection in global commerce, Turkey acts as a spring, valve and spigot for multiple illicit industries. Weapons, narcotics and undocumented migrants, as well as contraband carpets, petroleum, cigarettes, and precious metals all pass in and through the country’s borders on a regular basis. Official statistics on cigarette smuggling offer a few hints of the extent of smuggling in and out of Turkey. According to Interior Ministry sources, Turkish seizures of smuggled cigarettes grew fourteen fold between 2009 and 2012 (with ten million cigarettes seized in 2009 and over 145 million in 2012). In January of this year, Bulgarian customs officials purportedly confiscated fourteen million cigarettes illegally imported from Turkey in one seizure alone. The numbers of arrests for cigarette smuggling has also climbed precipitously, with over 4000 people arrested in 2009 and over 24000 arrests in 2012.
Organized crime takes other forms in Turkey. Criminal networks, builders, and lawmakers have been known to violate laws governing land sales, usage, building safety, and contracting. Bribes and kickbacks to government officials and regulators historically have been essential elements in the rapid building projects undertaken throughout the country for much of the last century. Charges levied against the managers of Istanbul’s Fenerbahce soccer club stand as an example of the match fixing and extortion scandals that have rocked professional sports in Turkey in recent years. Gangsters and extortionists, known as kabadayı, have been counted among Turkey’s most noted and notorious figures in the public spotlight. All in all, organized criminal trades have generated an untold number of fortunes for a select few and have provided a subsistence living for an even larger number of average citizens for a very long time in Turkey.
If Tayyip Erdoğan and his family did glean a great fortune as a result of illicit doings (which some reports claim to amount to total in the tens of millions of dollars), Turkey’s president joins a fairly sizable host of Turkish politicians who have benefited from organized criminal trades. American officials in the 1950s, for example, secretly suspected that noted members of Adnan Menderes’ Democratic Party had protected major Turkish heroin traffickers. During the 1970s, at least four members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly were official charged with attempting to transport heroin abroad. Other politicians from this era, including one-time Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, were unofficially suspected of engaging in the drug trade but never charged. Accusations of theft and corruption especially dogged the governments of the tumultuous 1990s. Tansu Ciller, the country’s first female prime minister, was implicated in organized criminal activity both before and after she was first elected to office. Tayyip Erdoğan’s JDP came to power in 2002 with the promise of bringing discipline and respectability to politics. Yet even as recent as last year, a regional JDP chairman was implicated in trading in heroin in the province of Van. The revelations of December 2013 now has many in Turkey convinced that the JDP is as dirty and corruptible as any of the parties that had preceded it.
Erdoğan’s ability to deflect last year’s corruption charges has not put the specter of smuggling and corruption to rest. Local media reports and other studies suggest that the Syrian civil war has stimulated a surge in smuggling along Turkey’s southern border. It is now estimated that fuel, cigarette, and cell phone smuggling has risen by 314%, 135%, and 563% respectively since the war began. The initial efforts to arm and maintain resistance groups in Syria were deeply indebted to Turkey’s smuggling trade. As smuggling continues, it is clear that some groups have attempted to tax trade into and out of Syria (al-Nusrah, for example, purportedly levies a fee of 500 Syrian lira for every barrel of fuel that crosses the border). What this means for the present and future of Turkey’s government is not entirely clear. Suggestions that Ankara has allowed for the passage of large numbers of foreign fighters into Syria has cast doubt over the country’s police and customs officials stationed on its borders (particularly after the official purges earlier this year). Trading schemes and corruption allegations like those revealed in December may yet again manifest themselves considering what international watchdogs call Turkey’s “grey” status as a state with loose embezzlement and money laundering controls. Whether these trends will dent the image of Tayyip Erdoğan or upend JDP control over Turkey remains to be seen.
Headline Image: Turkish flag photo by Abigail Powell. CC BY-NC 2.0 by Flickr
As Nehru was India’s longest serving prime minister, and both triumph as well as tragedy had accompanied his tenure, this is a fit occasion for a public debate on what had been attempted in the Nehru era and the extent of its success. I must per force confine myself to the economics. This, though, serves as a corrective to the tendency of political historians to mostly concentrate on the other aspects of his leadership. For instance, Sarvepalli Gopal’s noted three-volume biography bestows a single chapter on Nehru’s economic policy. However, reading through the speeches of Nehru we would find that the economy had remained his continuing pre-occupation even amidst the debates on social policy in the Lok Sabha or on de-colonisation in the United Nations. Reading these speeches is indeed advisable, as strongly held positions on the economy in the Nehru era have often been crowded in by ideological predilection when they have not been clouded over by ignorance.
The objective of economic policy in the 1950s was to raise per capita income in the country via industrialisation. The vehicle for this was the Nehru-Mahalanobis strategy, the decision to this end having been taken as early as 1938 by the National Planning Committee of the Congress constituted by Subhas Chandra Bose during his all-too-brief and ill-fated presidentship of the Party. The Committee was chaired by Nehru. The cornerstone of the strategy was to build machines as fast as possible as capital goods were seen as a basic input in all lines of production. While a formal model devised by Prasantha Chandra Mahalanobis had lent a formal status to the strategy it was the so-called ‘plan frame’ that had guided the allocation of spending. In retrospect, the allocation of investment across lines of production in the Second Five-Year Plan was quite balanced with substantial attention given also to infrastructure, the building of which, given the state of the economy then, the public sector alone would have initiated.
The Nehru-Mahalanobis strategy had attracted criticism. I discuss two of these criticisms at this stage and turn to the third at a later stage. Thus, Vakil and Brahmananda argued that the Mahalanobis model neglected wage goods, being those consumed by workers who were the majority of the country. While important per se, in practical terms, this criticism, turned out to be somewhat academic, as the plan frame – as opposed to the model – had given due importance to agriculture. In fact, the Green Revolution which is dated from the late 60s cannot entirely be divorced from the attention paid to agriculture in the Nehru era. The Grow More Food campaign and the trials in the country’s extended agricultural research network all contributed to it. Next, B.R. Shenoy had written a note of dissent to the Second Five-Year Plan document which queried the use of controls as part of the planning process. Shenoy’s is a well-known position in economic theory that the allocative efficiency of the competitive market- mechanism cannot be improved upon. While this is a useful corrective to ham-handed government intervention it was known even by the 1950s that a free market need not necessarily take the economy to the next level. The Pax Britannica had been a time of free markets, though coated with political repression, and this had not helped India much during the two centuries since Plassey. Moreover many of the extant controls were war-time controls that had not been rescinded. Investment licensing though was a central element in planning in India and Shenoy was right in identifying it as such.
As the maxim ‘the proof of the pudding lies in the eating’ must apply most closely to matters economic, the Nehru-Mahalanobis strategy can be considered only as good as its outcomes. It had aimed to raise the rate of growth of the economy. With the distance that half a century affords us and the aid of superior statistical methods we are now in the position to state that its early success was nothing short of spectacular. Depending upon your source, per capita income in India had either declined or stagnated during the period 1900-47. Over 1950-65, its growth was approximately 1.7 percent. India’s economy, which was no more than a colonial enclave for more than two centuries had been quickened. It is made out that this quickening of the economy in the fifties was no great shakes as the initial level of income was low and a given increase in it would register a higher rate of growth than at a later stage in the progression. This confounds statistical description with an economic assessment. It is a widely recognised feature of economic growth that every increase in wealth makes the next step that much easier to take due to increasing returns to scale. The principle works both ways, rendering the revival of an economy trapped at a low level of income that much more difficult. It is worth stating in the context that the acceleration of growth achieved in the nineteen fifties has not been exceeded since. Also, that India grew faster than China in the Nehru era.
So if the Nehru-Mahalanobis strategy had led to such a good start, why were the early gains not sustained? The loss of the early vitality in the economy had to do partly with political economy and partly with a flaw in the strategy itself. The death of Nehru created a crisis of leadership in the Congress Party which was transferred to the polity. It took almost a decade and a half for stability to be restored. The consequence was felt in the governance of the public sector, and public investment which had been the engine of growth since the early fifties slowed. Additionally, the private corporate sector, which contrary to conventional wisdom had flourished under Nehru, was initially repressed by Indira Gandhi. Private investment collapsed. This held back the acceleration of economic growth.
Even though we now have reason to believe that the mechanism of long-term growth that remains to this day, which is that of cumulative causation, had been ignited by the Nehru-Mahalanobis strategy, the strategy itself was incomplete. This is best understood by reference to the Asian Development Model as it had played out in the economies of east Asia. These economies had pursued more or less the same strategy as India in that the state fostered industrialization. But a glaring difference marks the Indian experience. This was the absence of a serious effort to build human capabilities via education and training. In the east this had taken the form of a spreading of schooling, vocational training and engineering education. In India on the other hand public spending on education had turned towards technical education at the tertiary level too early on. The slow spread of schooling ensured that the growth of productivity in the farm and the factory remained far too slow. Now the pace of poverty reduction also remained slow, and via positive feedback slowed the expansion of demand needed for faster growth of the economy.
It is intriguing that the issue of schooling did not figure majorly among India’s planners, especially as it was part of Gandhi’s Constructive Programme. This had not gone unnoticed even at that time. B.V. Krishnamurthi, then at Bombay University, had pointed out that the priorities of the Second Five-Year Plan undergirded by the Mahalanobis model were skewed. He castigated it for a bias toward “river-valley projects”, reflected in the paltry sums allocated to education. But it was the argument advanced by him for why spending on schooling matters that was prescient. He argued that education would enable Indians to attend to the question of their livelihood themselves without relying on the government, thus lightening the economic burden of the latter, presumably leaving it to build more capital goods in the long run as envisaged in the Mahalanobis model. But this was not to be, with enormous consequences for not only the economy but also the effectiveness of democracy in India.
While the failure to initiate a programme of building the capabilities of the overwhelming majority of our people is a moral failure of colossal proportions, we would be missing the wood for the trees if we do not recognize the economic significance of the short Nehru era in the long haul of India’s history. A moribund economy had been quickened. This would have been the pre-condition for most changes in a country with unacceptably low levels of per capita income. It is yet to be demonstrated how this could have been achieved in the absence of the economic strategy navigated through a democratic polity by Jawaharlal Nehru.
On 17 and 18 December 1961, on Nehru’s orders, Indian troops marched into Goa, an area of about 1,500 square miles on the country’s western coast, to ‘liberate’ it from the Portuguese, who had ruled the territory since 1510. Condemnation was swift, both from critics at home and abroad.
In the election campaign that took place immediately after the invasion Nehru was able to strike a patriotic chord, capitalising on ‘restoring Goa to the Motherland’. His ruling Congress party was re-elected in 361 out of 494 parliamentary seats and was back in power for a third successive term. Yet, in spite of the criticism, no one could foresee that the triumphant note sounded over Goa also marked the countdown to the end of Nehru’s leadership. The military conflict with China that broke out in full force in October 1962 would be momentous for India, bringing about extraordinary tribulations for Nehru. In its aftermath came growing tensions with Pakistan, political unrest in the Kashmir valley and domestic criticism and challenges to his political authority.
In November 1961, just before the Goa campaign, in response to stinging criticism in parliament, Nehru and his defence minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, had taken steps to reclaim from the Chinese some territory by setting up forward posts. Arguably, this much debated ‘forward policy’ inflamed the situation. In August 1962 Nehru informed parliament that Indian soldiers had re-occupied around 4,000 sq km of some 19,000 sq km of territory that the Chinese had taken.
Yet, when the Chinese strike came on 19 and 20 October, the Indian leadership called it an unprovoked and sudden offensive, a ‘Himalayan Pearl Harbor’. A month later, on 21 November, a unilateral ceasefire was called by the Chinese; by then they had wrestled over 23,200 sq km of territory from India, retaining 4,000 sq km in the Ladakh region.
The Himalayan War was a dramatic turning point for Nehru’s leadership. Although India and the Soviet Union had signed a deal in August 1962 for MiG-21 fighter planes, these never materialized during the hostilities, leading to speculation that the Soviets would not permit the use of their weapons against another Communist country.
Nehru was upset that US and British offers of military help came with strings attached. India was now forced to accept outside mediation and to open a dialogue with Pakistan over the highly contentious issue of Kashmir. Both the US and UK governments had used the Himalayan crisis to put pressure on India to make concessions to Pakistan and to settle the Kashmir issue. Nehru’s carefully nurtured policy of non-alignment suffered a setback and India’s stature on the global stage, which he had worked so hard to build, diminished.
In April 1963 the Congress Party lost three critical parliamentary by-elections. In parliament’s monsoon session Kripalani moved a motion of no confidence, the first such challenge to his leadership Nehru had faced since 1947. Although defeated, the motion was deeply symbolic of the shifting political dissatisfaction with the government.
Anxious stirrings within the Congress party reflected the mood. The Congress party heavyweights realised that they had to face up to the inevitable question: ‘After Nehru Who?’ The party had to survive, take care of its electoral interests and move on in uncertain times. Some of these men, including Kamaraj, met quietly in October 1963 in the temple town of Tirupati in southern India to form what came to be known as the ‘Syndicate’, an informal leadership collective to manage the question of political succession.
The outbreak of war with China brought another hopelessly tangled issue to Nehru’s urgent attention, that of Kashmir. Talks began between the Indian minister Swaran Singh and the Pakistani foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Held over six prolonged rounds between December 1962 and May 1963, the talks proved unproductive and only hardened attitudes on both sides. American and British diplomatic efforts now turned to getting Nehru and Ayub Khan to accept third party international mediation to solve the Kashmir deadlock, a proposal that went against the grain of Nehru’s creed of non-alignment.
Meanwhile, in Kashmir – from where Nehru’s ancestors came and a region with which he identified strongly – the political crisis deepened. People regarded the detention of Abdullah, imprisoned for 11 years without trial, as being part of a political vendetta. To aggravate the situation, on 26 December 1963 a crisis arose due to the mysterious theft of a relic of the Prophet Muhammad from the shrine of Hazratbal in Srinagar.
The Hazratbal incident had far-reaching consequences. Sectarian violence broke out Nehru dreaded the vicious cycle of Hindu-Muslim violence, with its inevitable displacement of people from their homes. He had lived through the horrors of Partition. To his distress it had begun once again.
Through these turbulent months, Nehru kept his nerve. Even in the gloomiest moments of the war he did not seek scapegoats. Neither did he conceal his grief for the loss of Indian soldiers. In January 1963 he is said to have been moved to tears before more than 50,000 people when the singer Lata Mangeshkar performed the patriotic Hindi elegy ‘Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon!’ (Oh the People of My Country!). During this time he continued to seek the counsel of President Radhakrishnan and of close Cabinet colleagues such as Shastri, T.T. Krishnamachari and Y.B. Chavan, who took over the defence portfolio from Menon.
On 7 January 1964 Nehru suffered a mild stroke at Bhubaneswar in eastern India. Arrangements were now made to lighten Nehru’s responsibilities. Lal Bahadur Shastri was appointed to the Cabinet as minister without portfolio. Shastri was to ‘look after’ Nehru’s work relating to foreign affairs, planning and atomic energy, besides handling all important matters requiring the prime minister’s attention. Nehru soon recovered and from March onwards resumed attending parliament.
On the morning of 27 May after returning in apparently good health from a few days’ holiday at Dehra Dun, Nehru suffered a sudden heart attack. He died later that afternoon.
Among the mourners was a tearful Sheikh Abdullah, who, on learning of Nehru’s death, had cancelled his tour of the Pakistani-held ‘Azad Kashmir’ and rushed back to Delhi.
Deeply respectful of the norms and processes of a young democracy, Nehru always believed that the question of succession should be decided by the party and the people after he was gone. The political transition that followed his death was remarkably smooth. With the support of the Syndicate, Lal Bahadur Shastri was unanimously elected Nehru’s successor.
Shastri’s unexpected death in January 1966 brought about yet another political succession. This propelled to the fore Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi – the beginning of a political dynasty, of which Nehru would have strongly disapproved for a democratic country such as India.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s contribution would have had a much longer life had not members of his family systematically tarnished it. From breaking the Congress organization in 1969, to the declaration of Emergency, to the initiation of caste wars, to the encouragement of Sikh militancy, to the decision on Shah Bano, to the opening of the Babri Masjid, and the list goes on, it was Nehru’s bloodline that most effectively downgraded his memory. Experts and commentators connived in this for they were blindsided by the family connection and failed to see the break that was being repeatedly wrought on Nehru’s memory first by his daughter, then his son and then his daughter-in-law and great grandson. So when the time came, and come it would, the haters and baiters of the first Prime Minister easily positioned his memory in the short hairs of their blunderbusses and shot it down.
As it is, Nehru tripped himself up on a number of policies he had staked his reputation on. In times of economic crisis or border threats — as from China — he sidestepped non-alignment and turned to America first. Or, when it came to socialism, he made it known that he would never stand for the Soviet model and preferred the mixed economy instead. That this position was supported by India’s fledgling entrepreneurs of the time only made Nehru’s claim to be a socialist”’ somewhat contrived. Even if socialism were to be interpreted as “welfare statism”, he did precious little on issues like universal health and education.
Nehru, however, played a sterling role in keeping India together in its most critical years after Independence. He was not alone in this, but without his whole hearted support to the making of the Indian Constitution, we would have been a poorer Republic. He weighed in heavily in favour of anti- untouchability, minority rights, and the abolition of feudal privileges which, together, make our Constitution so outstanding. India was a young Republic in 1950, but it looked, talked and walked like a seasoned democratic nation-state. True, he was not alone in this, but as Prime Minister, it was Nehru, more than anybody else, who fleshed out these most singular aspects of our Constitution. It would have been the easiest thing to renege on them given the tensions and uncertainties India faced in the early post- Independence years, but Nehru remained firm.
What made Nehru stand out was his insistence on the principle of fraternity. Unfortunately, it is not difficult to undermine him on this score as fraternity is fashioned on intangibles; it is not made of brick and mortar, nor can it be measured monetarily. Yet, without this all important attribute, neither liberty nor equality makes much sense- they actually ring hollow. Nehru’s contribution to fraternity came through in his insistence on secularism which went all the way from anti-casteism to anti religious sectarianism. He made no compromises on any of these but, unfortunately for him, these can easily be shafted in the name of political expediency. And this is exactly what his daughter, grandson and the succeeding generation did. Secularism has been the single greatest casualty in the five decades of Congress rule after Nehru. It is for this reason that ‘secularism’ today has become the butt of ridicule, and even half literates have a field day in mocking it.
Nehru’s industrialization programme required a long gestation period which people, with a limited time horizon, found difficult to accept. Further, for the mixed economy to succeed, state enterprises had to be super efficient in infrastructure creation. Without laying out this groundwork it would be difficult for the other half of the mixed economy to come of age. This was the true meaning of self-reliance as Nehru saw it and all autarkic versions of it put out by his enemies, and some admirers too, are contrary to this vision. None of this could be accomplished overnight by token gestures and oratorical flourishes; they all required careful calculation, and hard core research and development. Mistakes were made, plans recalibrated, Constitutional impasses overcome and before any of these could be firmed up, Nehru was gone.
Perhaps his record as Prime Minister would have been different had he lived longer. True, he had set himself a gigantic task by standing up for India’s economic sovereignty and battling ceaselessly against traditional prejudices. Yet, sadly and oddly, he failed most monumentally in his lifetime not so much on these grounds as he did because he was an extremely prickly nationalist. Whenever India’s physical integrity faced a threat, even imaginary ones, he was unable to take a proper democratic decision. He blundered on Kashmir and we are still paying for it; he totally miscalculated on China; he did not understand the Sikhs or the sentiments that had been stirred up in the North-East. One could possibly excuse him for these sins for India had just emerged as a Nation-State and the fear of Balkanization was very real in the minds of many. In fact, he feared the breakup of India so profoundly that he was even against the formation of Maharashtra and Gujarat as well as the unilingual state of Punjab.
That is not quite all. Nehru could have set an example and kept his daughter out of politics instead of making her the Congress President. This was the first big nepotistic step in Indian politics which was later justified on all kinds of specious grounds by many Nehru acolytes. The other unpardonable thing he did was to choose Teen Murti, the biggest house in the capital, as his official residence. This encouraged pomp and splendour among ministers and bureaucrats, and this strain has only become worse over time. The subsequent conversion of Teen Murti as Nehru Memorial Museum and Library has also set up a negative precedence. Since then, children of many departed Prime Ministers and political heroes have turned their dead ancestor’s home into public monuments.
In balance, Nehru’s legacy is on its way out. It is, however, in our national interest to keep alive his devotion to the cause of “fraternity”. This can best be done if we do not see the regimes of Indira or Rajiv or Rahul as a continuation of what Nehru stood for. If ever fraternity truly becomes relevant in our country again, nobody will remember that Jawaharlal Nehru was its prime mover once upon a time.
Headline image credit: Lord Mountbatten swears in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India at the ceremony on August 15, 1947. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons