Sunday, January 11, 2009

Breaking the Disconnect

“There is no humanitarian crisis in the strip” -Tzipi Livni, Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, January 3, 2009

There is only one thing more awful, more grotesque, and more vile than genocide. And that is the indifference which accompanies genocide. As new pictures of bloody children and fresh testimonies of grieving parents mount into the hundreds and then thousands, the limits of our compassion, along with our pretensions of solidarity, are challenged. But what really plumbs the depths of horror, more than the suffering, is the tranquil lack of interest with which it is perceived. There are two horror stories being written in the Holy Land today -- one on the shattered streets of Gaza, and the other in the quiet and calm homes of the killers and their societies. “[S]uch ubiquitous indifference,” writes John Berger in his latest book Hold Everything Dear, “is crueler than any mutilation.” (p92) This is the disconnect. This is what makes genocide possible.

The disconnect grows just as the violence does. If you are feeling more alienated than ever, it is no coincidence -- the world is more violated than ever. Indifference is the prerequisite for genocide. Indifference creates the impunity that is grease for machines of mass murder. Without it they will grind to a halt. If you don’t care, you are the culprit.

The wall that has been built around Gaza embodies the disconnect. But it is only emblematic of the billions of walls that the people of the world build inside of themselves. Psychic walls hold up all physical walls against the decay of time. Speaking of Palestine, Berger writes that

“The choice of meaning in the world today is here between the two sides of the wall. The wall is also inside each one of us. Whatever our circumstances, we can choose within ourselves which side of the wall we are attuned to. It is not a wall between good and evil. Both exist on both sides. The choice is between self-respect and self-chaos.” (p64)

Walls divide us, but they will never excuse our inhumanity. A wall built between us can never justify walls built inside us. Nevertheless, and with all pretenses of justice, we do build walls inside of ourselves. Somehow, anyhow, even if we are against the murder, we find a way to tolerate the systems and structures that lead to murder, again and again and again. Today, the people of Gaza suffer the consequences of the world’s indifference, and tomorrow it will be another people in another place. In an insane appetite for unlimited freedom, we indulge in disinterest. And in our perpetual indifference, we cultivate a world that is ripe for genocide.

The disconnect must be broken. Everyone needs to be self-critical; to stop, breathe, and re-connect. Hearts must be opened to what they have closed themselves to. We need to return to the deep part of ourselves that has no borders. And having returned, we have to proceed. We have to move not only ourselves but each other. We have to help the movements that are breaking the disconnect. Only where the disconnect crumbles can dignity grow. “[I]t takes only a little care,” wrote Federico Garcia Lorca, “and the will to resist one’s own indifference, to discover the imposture and put it and its crude artifice to flight.”

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Green Revolution in India

Echoes of Colonization, from Starvation to Suicide

“You see there, on the other side of the road. That land is owned by a very big upper caste farmer whose name I will not mention. Now that land is as good as mine. But he grows only one crop. And he is getting five to six -- a maximum of eight -- quintals of wheat in an acre -- which is the lowest one can get. We are getting twenty. The difference is that on the other side of the road it is India, and on this side it is America.”
-Mohinder Sing, rich farmer (quoted by Kusum Nair, In Defense of the Irrational Peasant, p31)

“Science makes progress funeral by funeral”
-Max Planck

Millions of pages fill shelves all over the world about the Green Revolution in India. And yet it is still not at all clear what happened, why it happened, and what is happening now. Decades later, hundreds of different authors marshal reams of statistics that point to totally opposing conclusions about what the Green Revolution meant for the people of India. Hindsight in this case is decidedly not 20-20. Rather, it is schizophrenic. Today, forty years after the Green Revolution began, the whole gamut of experts; historians, economists, agronomists and anthropologists, seem further from consensus than ever before. Having turned thousands of pages on the subject, it’s my own impression that no amount of writing will bring this discourse closer to consensus. The differences of opinion are ideological, not empirical. I will not attempt here to “settle” the debate. If and when any such debate is settled, it will be the farmers who settle it. My humble aim in this paper is to show how the Green Revolution, on a variety of levels, revised and reconstituted a particular colonial process that began with the East India Company several centuries ago.

To begin with, there is a fair amount of confusion as to what the Green Revolution actually was. “The term ‘Green Revolution’,” writes G. B. Singh, was “coined and used for the first time by William Gaud -- the administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development in a speech before the Society for International Development, Washington in 1968.” (p401) Specifically, it referred to a massive agricultural reform adopted by India in the mid-1960s. This consisted of the widespread adoption of a higher-yielding variety of wheat grain from Mexico, and the transition from traditional South Asian agriculture to mechanized monocultures with high inputs of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, characteristic of Western (and particularly United States) agriculture. “Collectively,” writes Kusum Nair, “the changes in farm practices, production and productivity were considered so remarkable that the phenomena earned the title of a revolution... Twenty million acres were covered within two years or so.” (p43) Years later, Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Prize for his work promoting the Green Revolution, wrote that “Never before in the history of agriculture has a transplantation of high-yielding varieties coupled with an entirely new technology and strategy been achieved on such a massive scale, in so short a period of time and with such great success.” (Singh, p411) This, empirically, was the Green Revolution. There is much much more to be said, however, about its causes and consequences.

The Green Revolution arrived amidst and in response to an immense agricultural crisis. C. Subramaniam, India’s minister for food and agriculture during the implementation of the Green Revolution, explained the conditions in which it arrived: “We had on hand a worsening inflationary spiral with demand for food going up as a consequence of increased incomes and population and the supplies growing but not fast enough. Even with an abundant crop, there was an imminent shortage of food.” (Nair, p41) By promising to drastically increase yields, proponents of the Green Revolution promised to stave off the specter of starvation that haunted the subcontinent. The savior was to be fertilizer, and a foreign species of wheat that could produce more than the Indian varieties. “The tall Indian variety gave an average yield just below fourteen bushels an acre, while the average yield of the [Mexican] semidwarf varieties was above thirty bushels an acre.” (Bickel, 313) Over the next decade, the higher-yielding Mexican varieties swept the country, exceeding most expectations and revolutionizing agricultural practices throughout the subcontinent. In 1968, India had a record harvest of 16 million tons. (Bickel, 312) Only a year earlier, the government had declared the North East a disaster area as a result of famines (Bickel, 298) Wheat harvests were approximately doubled (Pringle, p151). Writing in 1999, G.B. Singh summarized the successes of the Green Revolution:

“India’s biggest achievement is self-sufficiency in foodgrains despite the fact that population has shot up from 359 million in 1950-51 to 845 million in 1990-91 (now 940 million). This obviously has saved millions of people from starvation. The very fact that now we have a sufficient buffer stock to offset the negating effects of floods, droughts and other calamities is indeed very satisfying.” (p413)

Thus presented, the narrative of the Green Revolution in India appears quite rosy; a triumph of science over starvation, a legacy of famine vanquished by a legion of fertilizers. But all has not been told. While averting the threat of famine, the Green Revolution has had far reaching adverse consequences. The costs of high yields loom in a variety of sectors: human health, the environment, employment and inequality.

Singh again is concise in summarizing: “[T]he Green Revolution has not helped reduce poverty and generate employment at desired levels. Overall degradation of environment has also emerged.” (p412) The adverse effects of the Green Revolution on overall human health are numerous. Massive application of chemical pesticides and herbicides has had massive consequences. “In India,” writes Peter Pringle in Food, Inc., “chemically treated areas expanded from 15 million acres in 1960 to more than 200 million acres in the mid 1980s. There were hundreds of thousands of accidental human poisonings... and several thousand deaths.” (p52) The Green Revolution filled bellies, yes, but with what? “The pain of all pains,” writes Singh, “is that most of the food including cereals pulses, oilseeds, vegetables and fruits are pesticide-contaminated today, which is directly contributed by Green Revolution technology.” Moreover, Michael Perelman writes that “higher yields are bought at the cost of a lower protein content.... Thus the Green Revolution might actually lower the protein production of Asia.”

Environmental degradation has also emerged as a potentially catastrophic result of the Green Revolution. Beyond high levels of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc, that contaminate soils and watersheds, high-intensity ‘exploitative” agriculture exhausts the soil. Many organizations, experts and texts warn of increasing desertification as a result of Green Revolution technology and practices on the subcontinent. Something like this happened in the MidWest United States not so long go. John Steinbeck wrote a relevant story about it.

Employment levels have also taken a turn for the worse since the Green Revolution. “One study,” cites Perelman, “shows that mechanization of farms reduces the need for labor by 50 percent.” Studies also show that income inequality has been exacerbated by the effects of the Green Revolution. “[E]ven at the end of five years following 1970-71,” writes Nair,

“when the Green Revolution was at the height of its glory, the agricultural income per head of the rural population as a whole had declined below the 1960-61 level... Nevertheless, because of the increase in relative prices in favor of farm products, rich farmers... became much richer. But the real income of the lower strata, of small, subsistence cultivators with little or no marketable surplus, became still lower.” (p92)

Despite high yields which have stemmed starvation and sustained a degree of food sufficiency, Singh asks us to remember that, decades after the Green Revolution, “one fifth of the Indian population is chronically malnourished”. (p412) However, the intention of this paper is not to make a roster of all the painful consequences and inadequacies of the Green Revolution. This has been done already at length (see in particular The Violence of the Green Revolution, by Vandana Shiva). Instead, I cite these perspectives by way of introduction to begin to explain how the Green Revolution, which began with the best of intentions, shows undeniable continuities with colonialism.

Any good intentions aside, colonial agricultural policy was a disaster from start to finish. Colonial rule was framed in famine: “The British Colonial rule began with drought and famine in Bengal in 1770 during which one third of the population of the province perished. The Colonial period also ended with great Bengal famine of 1943 in which over three million people died of hunger.” (Singh, p402) To better understand the Green Revolution in India, it is enlightening to investigate the history of agriculture in South Asia. “The process of agricultural change in India,” continues Singh, “has its roots as far back as the colonization schemes of Punjab and Sindh, introduced during the British Period in response to food shortages being experienced in the country at the time.” (p402) Norman Borlaug and M.S. Swaminathan, revered as the fathers of the Green Revolution, were not the first to introduce new varieties of wheat to South Asia in the attempt to avert widespread starvation. Kusum Nair writes that “[t]he Secretary of State for India called for a complete report on Indian wheats as early as 1877. And in 1889, John Augustus Voelcker, Consulting Chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society, was sent to advise on how best to improve the colony’s agriculture.” (p103) In the 1920s, British agronomists introduced new varieties of wheat in an attempt to increase yields. “By 1926, the Pusa No.4 and Pusa No.12 varieties had spread to every wheat-growing tract in the country... Further work to improve the strains continued... And so, within half a century, the ‘traditional’ wheats of India were twice transformed.” (Nair, p104) Intensive application of fertilizers is also a continuity from the colonial era. “[T]he importance of nitrogen was clearly understood,” continues Nair: “By 1925, India was manufacturing around 15,000 tons of sulphate of ammonia.” (p105) Recognizing these continuities takes us closer to understanding the Green Revolution. While intentions have varied over the centuries, the trajectory hasn’t so much. While the Green Revolution is not colonialism per se, it replicates and reconstitutes colonial relations in several specific ways. In particular, the land reforms, economic dependency, geopolitics, and ideology of the Green Revolution are all highly reminiscent of the colonial era.

Land Reform. Colonialism was all about land revenue. To help facilitate the extraction of these revenues, the colonizers undertook a process of manufacturing a loyal native ruling class of landowners to serve them as middlemen. Thus, colonization sparked off a massive redistribution of land. “The very first settlements in the 1850s,” writes Nair,

"...produced tens of thousands of owner-cultivators with new legal rights of sale, mortgage, and hereditary transfer of land. That along with new laws, civil court procedures, and lower but more rigorously collected taxes than had been customary under the Sikhs resulted in a ruinous expansion of peasant indebtedness. For the first time, land that had been practically unsaleable became a valuable asset and an attractive investment. Also for the first time, it became easy for the urban and professional classes with capital to acquire land.” (p81)

The institutional legacy of colonial agricultural policy was the zamindari system. A zamindar was basically a feudal estate; dozens or hundreds of tenant farmers would work the land and pay tribute and service to the non-working zamindar. In the days of the Raj, this zamindar would in turn pay tribute to the British. In the years and decades following independence, the Indian National Congress officially abolished the zamindari system. But zamindars have no more disappeared than caste has in postcolonial India. “A galaxy of land reforms followed the abolition of zamindari in Bihar and the rest of the country.” writes Nair. “They did not materially alter the degree of concentration of agricultural land, or the caste and class composition of its owners.” (p88) The Indian National Congress, itself composed of many wealthy landowners, never implemented rigorous land reforms, and the colonial land distribution remained mostly intact. “The policy was to ensure that the bigger zamindars,” writes Nair,

“...were not hurt by the landmark reform meant to remove their stranglehold on agrarian property and power structure. Thus compounding the original error of the colonial administrators in conferring zamindari rights on nonagriculturists, hundreds and, in many cases, several thousand acres of land were handed over gratuitously to the same ‘feudal’ or ‘parasitic’ landlords, with absolute freedom to utilize it as they wished. In addition, handsome rates of compensation were paid to the zamindars, without any discrimination on the basis of accumulated wealth, size of property, or how the title to it had originated.” (p86)

Instead of conferring property rights directly on tenant farmers, and giving the land to those who worked it, the post-independence land reforms gave zamindars the option of selling their land. [M]ost of it was sold and not surrendered,” writes Nair. (p12) In many cases, the only difference was that tenant farmers became landless agricultural wage-laborers.
Zamindars were notoriously poor agriculturists. Insulated by accumulated wealth, these large landowners had no particular incentive to be efficient farmers. This, along with inadequate distributional mechanisms, is the primary cause of the famines that were the trademark of colonial agriculture: The majority of land was not owned by those worked and knew it. Even the greater profits that would result from harder work on average aren’t sufficient to incentivize harder work by those who already have more than enough. “[T]hey chose not to strive for larger profits because they... did not need to,” writes Nair:

"They have sufficient wealth and income to meet their familial and social obligations, and do not aspire for more. Besides, it is both economic and legitimate for farmers in Bihar and the country to be grossly inefficient -- the floor is a bottomless pit -- and yet retain possession of the land.” (p90)

So then. What was the effect of the Green Revolution on land distribution in India? Essentially, it let the wealthy landowners off the hook. Nair writes that
“their transparent lack of will to work and proven ineptitude in farming -- 200 years of reckless waste, neglect, and abuse of land -- were forgiven and forgotten. Wiped out. On the contrary, the erstwhile nonworking and rack-renting landlords were expected to transform themselves into “owner-cultivators” and substantially step up agricultural production!” (p86-87)

Furthermore, while the Green Revolution takes the blame off of the wealthy landowners and indeed proposes them as become the saviors of the nation by producing the high yields that will prevent famines, the capital-intensive farming that the high yielding crops necessitate further privilege the already wealthy. “[I]t costs a lot of money to become a Green Revolutionary,” writes Perelman.

“ better-off farmers mechanize they will have an incentive to buy up neighboring farms until their holdings reach a size that gives them the full advantage of their machines. Average farm size will increase and machines will replace people on the land; these small farmers will join the landless in the cities to wait for employment... while a few rich “farmers” accumulate their land monopolies.”

In other words, the Green Revolution effectively reverses the meagre land reforms that were implemented since independence. The International Development Economics Associates elaborate:

“with the advent of the capital-intensive Green Revolution technology and mechanised farming, the efforts at redistributive land reforms were reversed...The technology could have benefited the poor farmers if land reforms, and subsequently land consolidation, was completed before the introduction of the technology, and co-operativisation was encouraged by the government through offers of easy credit and expertise to the small peasants to enable them to make the switch to collective farming... In the absence of such support the small landowners simply found it uneconomical to cultivate and often sold their plots back to the richer farmers. These small landowners joined the stream of landless labourers, ensuring a steady supply of cheap agricultural labour to work on the lands of the richer farmers. With international donor agencies, including the World Bank, backing and funding Green Revolution technology, whatever success the countries depending on these agencies had achieved in the area of redistributive land reforms was overturned. These countries then started witnessing what may be called reverse land reforms, meaning increasing concentration of land holdings in the hands of big farmers.”

The miracle of the Green Revolution was that it was able to momentarily prevent the consequences of inequality while simultaneously (even if unintentionally) exacerbating inequality. The long term solution to the threat of famine is land reform. In aiming to eliminate the necessity for land reform, the Green Revolution was not only an attempt to fight hunger, but a ploy to protect and preserve capital.

Economic Dependency. Another way in which the Green Revolution represents of continuity with the colonial era is the way in which it has established a situation of economic dependency. What’s new this time around is scientific agriculture. Enter biotechnology. In the colonial era, the British destroyed Indian textile industries, and turned India into a market for their own cloth. Today, Indian varieties of seeds in many places have all but vanished, and farmers are buy their seeds from U.S. corporations. Nair quotes a rich farmer:
“Desi is practically finished. Cannot find desi seed any more even in a village. I wanted to sow some this year, of the old variety. Had to bring the seed from Patna -- could get very little. Everyone says the new varieties are better. They give higher yields.” (p16)

To grow the high-yielding varieties, Indian farmers must buy not only seeds, but fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, all from the companies who own patents on them. The arrival of biotechnology is a definite novelty in the colonial narrative. In his essay Tomorrow Is Too Late, Fidel Castro writes that “the possession and control of genetic resources constitutes a new way of plundering the Third World.”(p32) Several centuries ago, South Asian peasants grew indigo and opium for the East India Company. Today, they purchase their seeds and fertilizers from Monsanto. “In effect,” writes Perelman, “the Green Revolution makes the Third World dependent on the United States.”

We shouldn’t be too hasty in drawing broad conclusions. Again, the Green Revolution is not colonialism per se. But we would be foolish not to see the continuities. It has re-established and reconstituted the dynamics of economic dependency that characterized the colonial era. And the implications of are almost essentially the same. “The most serious question,” writes Castro, is at the bottom, the same as it was centuries ago: “with the extension of market forces to the problems of conservation of biological diversity, we could be setting out on a path toward the loss of national sovereignty over natural resources.” (p3)

Geopolitics. “The Green Revolution,” wrote Harry Cleaver,

“is usually thought of narrowly as the current, accelerated growth in Third World grain production which results from combining the new seeds ... mostly wheat and rice ... with heavy applications of fertilizer and carefully controlled irrigation... Yet... the Green Revolution is far more than one of plant breeding and genetics. It is woven into the fabric of American foreign policy and is an integral part of the postwar effort to contain social revolution and make the world safe for profits.” (quoted by Perelman)

The geopolitics of the Green Revolution devolve upon the world. The Green Revolution has arrived in Asia, Latin America, and is currently being pushed on Africa. The goal, to reiterate, is, whether intentionally or not, to preserve capital by preventing upheaval. The methodology is to make land more productive without redistributing it. In the process, whether by default or design, relations of economic dependency are established between farmers and the owners of the new technology (ie, patented seeds and fertilizers, in addition to the usual moneylenders, landlords, etc). “In the end,” writes Pringle, “the Green Revolution was more a triumph of American technology than of science.” If farmers were to triumph over technology instead of technology ruling farmers, it could potentially be a massive threat. None said it better than Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution: “Don’t people realize we are dealing with potential social and political chaos that can affect every system of government in the world?” (Bickel, p359)

Ideology. Norman Borlaug and M.C. Swaminathan were not colonizers, they were scientists, and saw themselves as hunger fighters. They were not beholden to power and authority, and they were not motivated by personal profit or fame. And yet there is a definite continuity between the ideology of the Raj and the ideology of the Green Revolution.

The ideology of colonialism in South Asia was liberalism. An important aspect of liberalism is utilitarianism; it is the belief that all people everywhere, at all times and places, are essentially the same, that all societies can be transformed for the better through the workings of education, private property and individualism, and that the greatest good is whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. While interpreted and made use of by the colonizers and the hunger fighters in different ways, there is a definite ideological continuity. In his biography of Borlaug, Lennard Bickel recounts an anecdote from one of Borlaug’s many visits to South Asia: “One senior government man said he thought Borlaug would have trouble getting acquainted with India’s customs and need. Borlaug was blunt: he said that he understood all human bellies to be constructed on the same blueprint.” (p261) This is liberal ideology at work. Nair also invokes this continuity: “[L]ike Adam Smith, who believed that ‘there was a Scotchman inside every man,’... [they] visualized the Midwestern corn farmer inside every peasant.” (p44)

Like liberal colonizers before them, the pioneers of the Green Revolution in India believed that the society they saw as backwards (incapable of preventing famine without the advanced scientific help of the “developed world”) could be wholly and completely transformed. Edward Woolf writes that “[a] report by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee warned in 1966 that ‘the very fabric of traditional societies must be rewoven if the situation is to change permanently.’” (p24) And finally, the ideology of utilitarianism holds that the greatest good is the highest aggregate happiness of society. Borlaug and Swaminathan were utilitarian to the core. They saw hunger and its supreme unhappiness to the exclusion of everything else. Their intentions and convictions as hunger fighters were highly admirable, but their myopia of hunger alleviation drove them to promote policies that would do anything to feed the hungry. Was it worth it? If statistics are to be believed, millions (some even say billions) of lives were saved as a result of their efforts. The costs, however, were environmental degradation, severe health risk, regressive land reform, economic dependency and generally reconstituted colonial power relations.

Was it worth it? Liberalism is a colonial ideology, and we must beware of where it leads us. Is it better to die on our feet, or live on our knees? Is aggregate happiness the greatest good? Or do we live not by bread alone?

What is at stake in this question? The problems that the Green Revolution set out to solve are back to haunt us again. “The Green Revolution has come and is practically over,” wrote Nair almost thirty years ago. In many parts of the world, we are confronted with the same problems India faced in the mid-1960s, only on a larger scale. The specter of famines and food riots has returned, and this time the technology probably will not save us. “After 20 years of research,” writes Lester Brown in The Agricultural Link,

"biotechnologists have not yet produced a single high-yielding variety of wheat, rice, or corn. ...plant breeders using traditional techniques have largely exploited the genetic potential for increasing the share of photosynthate that goes into seed. Once this is pushed to its limit, the remaining options tend to be relatively small... The one major option left to scientists is to increase the efficiency of the process of photosynthesis itself -- something that has thus far remained beyond their reach.” (p48)

Thomas R. Sinclair, from the United States Department of Agriculture, corroborates:“except for a few options, which allow small increases in the yield ceiling, the physiological limit to crop yields may well have been reached under experimental conditions.” (Brown, p49) Pringle also chimes in on this: “Increased yields have depended in the past on additional fertilizers, but in the fantastic yield increases of the Green Revolution, fertilizer is approaching its limit.” (p201) And on top of all the same problems (now in greater magnitude) that the Green Revolution temporarily alleviated, we are now faced with the incalculable damage that has been done to the environment. Desertification and the poisoning of soils and watersheds will have ramifications that we can’t imagine. Brown warned some time ago that “the food system is likely to be the sector through which environmental deterioration eventually translates into economic decline.” (p6)

Once again, the questions of the Green Revolution; economic, ecological and ideological, devolve upon the world. The time is running out for us to answer. Two specters now haunt both local and transnational capital: famine and ecosystem collapse. Both portend upheaval. “What begins as environmental degradation,” writes Brown, “eventually translates into political instability.” (p6) The Green Revolution has reaped momentary reprieve for politicians and sown chaos in the future. The Green Revolution temporarily delivered farmers from starvation -- and into suicide. As more and more farmers are driven into odious debts and off the land, as deserts grow and cancers spread, the grapes of wrath, as they have elsewhere, will grow ripe on the vine. The solution -- that the land belong to those who work it -- is simple. Capital and its ideologies stand in the way. As Nair concludes, “there cannot be an agricultural revolution -- without a revolution.” (p101)

In Defense of the Irrational Peasant, Indian Agriculture after the Green Revolution, by Kusum Nair, 1979
Green Revolution in India: Gains and Pains by G.B. Singh, 1999, from Voice of Concern, edited by Anu Kapur, 2002
Facing Starvation, Norman Borlaug and the Fight Against Hunger by Lennard Bickel, 1974
Food, Inc. Mendel to “Monsanto -- The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest by Peter Pringle, 2003
The Green Revolution: American Agriculture in the Third World by Michael Perelman, from Radical Agriculture, edited by Richard Merrill, 1976
Land Reforms: An Evaluation of World Bank Strategies, from the website of the International Development Economics Associates:
Tomorrow Is Too Late. Development and the environmental crisis in the Third World by Fidel Castro, 1992
Beyond the Green Revolution: New Approaches to Third World Agriculture, by Edward C. Woolf, Worldwatch Paper 73, October 1986
The Agricultural Link: How Environmental Deterioration Could Disrupt Economic Progress by Lester R. Brown, Worldwatch Paper 136, August 1997
The Violence of the Green Revolution, Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics, by Vandana Shiva, 1991

The Politics of Tango

Violence, Sex and Revolution

To understand the politics of tango in the modern world isn’t simple. Tango is danced on every populated continent in a wide variety of styles and contexts. And different people dance for different reasons. And so the dance differs as well, and there are distinct classes of tango. As societies splinter and cultures separate people, so tango splinters and separates. In an urban metropolis within this neoliberal world-system, tango is split, like people, into classes: bourgeoisie and proletarian.

Bourgeoisie tango is the tango of the ballroom, the tango of elaborate embellishments, the tango of fashion and flashy steps. Bourgeoisie tango has no awareness of politics. Proletarian tango is the tango of the small studio in the barrio, the tango of a more radical simplicity, the tango of passion and deep politics.

If we are to hope to understand this kind of tango, much less think of dancing it ourselves, we need to know its history. In her book Paper Tangos, Julie Taylor writes “the tango mines certain experiences and poses certain unanswered questions, but it does so in the context of certain lives and certain historical moments.” (p44) To have our own experiences with tango, as dancers or as spectators, and learn to pose our own unanswered questions, we have to know something about the history of Argentina.

Tango was first danced in the poor immigrant neighborhoods of Buenos Aires in the late 1800s. “Far from Flamenco ruffles and roses,” writes Taylor, “Argentines invented the tango at the turn of the century in brothels on the outskirts of Buenos Aires as it thrust its slums ever further into the pampas.” (p2) As danced by the urban poor of Argentina, the tango has been shaped by and become a reflection of the experience of the communities who kept it alive amidst untold suffering. Many kinds of violence were reflected and confronted in their tango; and the history of the tango is the history of a people who suffered and survived this violence.

The early tango was inspired in the melancholy of modernization. As both a song and dance form it is a reflection of an era in painful, uncertain and unwelcome transitions. In particular, early tango was a subaltern political expression of the torments of urbanization. Taylor writes:

“The city center represents wealth, success, fame -- a chance to climb the social ladder at the price of the human values left behind. But the emptiness of these goals provokes the tango’s lament for the lost neighborhood or barrio on the edge of Buenos Aires, where the sophisticated but disillusioned tango singer spent his youth.” (p6)

Tango also became a reflection of the violent experience of poor immigrants in Buenos Aires.

“[T]he tango expresses suffering under terror imposed initially by economic violence that formed the context of the invention of the dance and its songs among impoverished immigrants who did not share a language but who managed to share a dance.” (Taylor, p61)

Throughout the 1900s, the tango went from being ignored or shunned by the Argentine bourgeoisie to being danced by them. By the Peron era, tango had become one of the most celebrated expressions of Argentine identity. But it was and is now a conflicted identity, torn, like the tango, between different classes. After the dirty wars of the 1970s and 1980s, throughout which many tens of thousands were killed under the military dictatorship of a cabal of generals and many millions were immiserated under and the economic dictatorship of the International Monetary Fund, tango took on yet more depth and complexity. Writing about her experience as a dancer in Argentina throughout this period, Taylor writes that “the tango’s meanings shifted not only to include a unique Argentine identity, but also trespass as well the particular forms of disorientation, loss, and uncertainty of the nation’s fate inculcated by years of terror.” (p19)

Dance is both a vehicle to express the suffering of lived experience and an arena to confront it. As the dance form develops over time, it acquires aspects and attributes that reflect the dancers and their society. Dancers are reflected in their dance forms with an intense intimacy. In the tango especially, the insecurities, vulnerabilities and sufferings of the dancers are invoked in the spirit of the dance as much as their beauty, resilience and creativity. And so dance becomes a unique social space where history can be confronted and identity can be explored and better understood. “In Argentina,” writes Taylor, “the tango, with its many exclusions and mirrors of exclusions, can create a space to reflect on power and terror.” p71

Just as the tango expresses the terror of modernity, it also invokes an older kind of violence: the violence of men against women. The history of tango is a patriarchal history, from the early immigrant male proletarian tanguero, to the tango as a symbol of the paternal nationalism of Peron, to survival under the extreme patriarchy of the military dictatorship. “In all eyes,” writes Taylor,

“women have the most difficulty laying claim to a dance that they love and that they see as beautiful. Both men and women, inside and outside of the dance halls, tell me that in their eyes, the tango dances around relations between men and women, relations that dancers and observers alike question. And many Argentine dancers and observers imply that, especially in the wake of decades of political violence, they also fear the tango bears the weight of other forms of authoritarianism.” (p13)

Both bourgeoisie and proletarian tango dancers must contend with the violence of men. Pure patriarchy has no class consciousness. “All the women were on guard against dominating men,” writes Taylor. “They were a problem in the tango as they were in our jobs and families.” (p107) Just as tango expresses the history of political terror, it expresses a history of male dominance, and as it does so it creates an arena where the embodiment of our fears and memories of oppression can be confronted.

Tango is a patriarchal dance form par excellence. It brings together two archetypical gender roles into a verbally explicit power relationship in which the man leads and the woman follows. The uniquely sexualized content of the dance form, when invoked, expresses male control and female submission. All this is true, and yet the tango is also more complicated than this. As much as the tango is a dance of passionate control, it is also a dance of melancholy and doubt. “In the tango,” Taylor writes, the dancers

“often attempt to seek out and affirm self-definition -- a self definition at whose core is doubt. The dance, sometimes including elaborately staged behavior, can be one way of confronting this result of their search. The lyrics... insist that an assertive facade should betray no hint that its aggressiveness could have arisen from an anguished sense of vulnerability.” p3

Speaking of the leader, Taylor writes that “[a]s he protects himself with a facade of steps that demonstrates perfect control, he contemplates his absolute lack of control in the face of history and destiny.” (p11) Again, while tango invokes a history of violence, it creates a space where this history can potentially be confronted, understood, challenged and survived. And herein lies the possibility for a revolutionary politics of tango.

When the tango recalls for us the miseries of modernization or the terror of a dictatorship, it also calls to us to dance ourselves through it, to persevere through pains and uncertainties and to empower ourselves with an embodiment of our beauty and resilience in the face of any oppression. When the tango recalls patriarchy, it also calls for us as followers and leaders to examine it, to understand its history, and to confront the archetypical gender roles which are caricatured in the dance. “[T]he tango,” a dancer told Taylor, “elaborates all the elements and all the doubts involved in confronting differences.” (p82) It is here, as a nexus of differences expressing themselves in harmony and in the process reflecting and reconstituting social relations, that the tango acquires revolutionary politics.

“[D]ance floors are the spaces of urban utopia,” writes Doris Summer in an article titled Dancehall Democracy. “[E]veryone fits in, not by looking and acting the same, but by improvising variations on a given theme because dance is a creative art that values difference over conformity.” While the dance hall as a whole collectively embodies the fluid synchronicity of differences, the dancing couple unto themselves also are capable of creating a utopian space where differences are improvised and power is shared in harmony and rhythm. In particular, the opportunities that tango provides to understand, confront and change gender relations and power dynamics are of revolutionary interest.

A tango can be danced between a domineering male leader and a submissive follower. But it doesn’t have to be danced this way. In moving towards a revolutionary style of dance as both leaders and followers, we can challenge the patriarchal dynamics of difference and share power as leaders and followers, without even altering the steps. To help rethink the politics of leading and following, I look to three maxims of the Zapatistas: preguntar caminando, mandar obedeciendo, and somos iguales porque somos diferentes.

To preguntar caminando is to walk while asking, to go while questioning. To improvise and change and to stay in motion. It is a perfect metaphor for the constantly renegotiated power politics of revolutionary tango. Mandar obedeciendo is to command while obeying, to order while yielding, to follow while leading. Mandar obedeciendo can be understood, embodied and improvised by leaders and followers in revolutionary tango. Finally, somos iguales porque somos diferentes: we are equal because we are different. Our history has divided us. What makes us equal now are our inescapable differences. When we renegotiate these differences together, we plant the seeds of a new history. When we nurture these seeds with our skill, our beauty and our passion, whether we know it or not, whether or not anyone else is watching, we are dancing a new world in the shell of the old.


Paper Tangos by Julie Taylor, 1998
Dancehall Democracy, Social Space as Social Agency, by Doris Sommer, from ReVista, Harvard Review of Latin America, fall 2007

Communalism and Partition

Explaining the Paradox and Challenging the Paradigm

Desde entonces un rio nos divide: / agua sangrienta, barro de marismas! / No hay nadie en esta tierra que lo olvide. / Desde entonces la patria no es la misma.1 -Pablo Neruda

“Inertia is ever immune to experience. So horrors follow upon horrors.” -Eqbal Ahmad

I would like to take up here some very serious and unanswered questions raised by the history of decolonization in South Asia. Specifically, I would like to address and consider communalism and partition. While these terms might not immediately invoke for everyone the images and emotions that they do for most South Asians, I fear that, for better or worse, the modern world is united in confronting these complicated and painful phenomena, even as it is divided by them. “Now the time has come,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore nearly a century ago, “when we must make the world problem our own problem...” (Nationalism, p87)

The idea that something called communalism leads to something called partition will likely sound paradoxical to anyone unacquainted with South Asian history. However, I would like to suggest and warn that what we are confronted with in understanding the path from communalism to partition, is not a paradox, but a paradigm. Moreover, it is a paradigm that every modern political organization must confront, whether it is an affinity group of friends or a nation-state of millions.

The South Asian scholar Bipan Chandra explains communalism as an ideology or belief system that often begins as an innocuous set of assumptions, but which can easily and quickly develop into extremist and violent behavior. Chandra describes this development as a process that takes place in three stages. The first stage is the belief that everyone who is part of a certain identity group shares a common set of interests. Next, the nascent communalist takes it a step further: people who belong to different identity groups have a different sets of interests. Finally, in the third stage, the communalist comes to believe that the interests of different identity groups are incompatible. The development and spread of communalist ideologies can thus lead to confrontation, conflict, and, if things get bad enough, the demand for partition.

The world has a lot to learn from the history of communalism and partition in South Asia. But before we begin to investigate the particularities of this history, it is important that we begin by remembering that there are a lot of wrong questions and wrong answers out there. I feel that the questions which dominate the discourse surrounding partition in South Asia tend to avoid the heart of the matter. Principally, I am thinking of two questions which continue to confuse and confound us without getting us anywhere.

The first question is, was the partition of South Asia inevitable? Whether we answer in the affirmative or negative, so what? How does an answer to this question inform our understanding of the ongoing dilemmas that Indians and Pakistanis continue to struggle with today? Neither a yes or a no will really get us anywhere; they won’t explain the paradox and they won’t challenge the paradigm.

The second question is, who is to blame? Was it the Muslim League, as the dominant history reads, or was it the Indian National Congress, as recent scholarship suggests? While the diplomatic record is interesting, I think it is esoteric. The causes for partition are certainly worth investigating, but the specific individuals and institutions who carried it out are not solely responsible for its occurrence. As the saying goes, society prepares the crime, and the criminal only commits it. Knowing who was responsible will not explain for us what to do about the paradigm that plagues us.

There are also many wrong answers to the question of where to place the blame for communalism and partition. Before I go any further I feel impelled to challenge some of these answers. I am especially inclined to challenge them because they come from the same radical discourse to which I wish to contribute. I think that the legacy and trajectory of these questions is well-intentioned, but pernicious.

The first wrong answer is to place the blame on colonialism. Now I must be careful here. Without a doubt, insurmountable culpability is on the colonizers. The enormity of their crimes and their guilt and their debt is really horrific beyond imagination. How on Earth could I possibly say that the colonizers aren’t to blame? Communalism was actively encouraged by the Raj, and a Brit drew the line which cut the subcontinent in two. Chandra writes:

“Above all, communalism was one of the by-products of the colonial character of the Indian economy, of colonial underdevelopment... Every existing division of Indian society was encouraged to prevent the emerging unity of the Indian people... It was, of course, the communal division which survived to the end and proved the most serviceable.... it was to become the main prop of colonialism, and colonial authorities were to stake their all on it... In fact, communalism was the route through which colonialism was able to extend its narrow social base to sections of workers, peasants, the middle classes and the bourgeoisie whose interests were otherwise in contradiction with colonialism...The British administrators also followed a policy of relative inactivity and irresponsibility in dealing with communal riots...” 403-409

So why is ‘blame the British’ still the wrong answer? Bearing the infinite crimes of colonialism in mind, where can this answer take us? Where can we go next? How can we heal ourselves and our societies if the legacy of colonialism still rules both? In this case, placing colonialism at the center of our analysis grotesquely fulfills the colonial project. By allowing it to define everything, we surrender even the possibility of authenticity. It imprisons us in an indeterminate prison of ‘post-colonialism’. Colonization thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; its determination to find the world stagnant and backwards holds the world in stagnation and backwardness. In the absolute claim that partition is the fault of the Raj, the colonized are denied any agency or responsibility for their behavior, past and present. It is not my place to say it, but I fear that until the colonized can internalize the blame for their collective position in the world, they cannot be free enough to change it. This may be difficult to swallow, but colonialism will not be escaped until colonization is no longer the determining force in society. And this will not happen while it is treated as the sole determining force in our understanding and analysis.

The second wrong answer is to place the blame on religion. This is a particularly frequent allegation in the context of South Asia because communalism and partition developed along religion lines, between Hindus and Muslims. Chandra recommends that “we must distinguish between religion as a belief system... and the ideology of a religion-based socio-political identity, that is, communalism. In other words, religion is not the ‘cause’ of communalism”. (p413) The principal problem with condemning religion for the violence and trauma of partition is that it excludes the vast majorities (who are religious) from taking part in any kind of solution. Condemnation of religion is another problematic tendency of radical discourse. It excludes those whom it presumes to advocate for. Long-term solutions to problems of religion cannot be secular. Especially when mandated by a centralized hierarchy like a nation state, strictly secular politics create a vacuum at the center of power that the most opportunistic and extreme of religious politicians will eventually if not immediately come to fill. I will return to this problem at the end.

Assigning blame will not in itself contribute towards any lasting kind of liberation, but it is always useful to investigate and understand causes. If partition was at least partly a result of communalism, to what can we attribute the rise of communalism in South Asia? Colonization is one answer, but it is not sufficient to explain present-day life in South Asia, which is more than ever afflicted with the problems of communalism and partition. As Eqbal Ahmad wrote in his essay Partitioned Land, Divided Sentiments,

“Partition did not resolve the problems it aimed to solve. Rather, the problems -- of ensuring the rights and representation of minority groups and of containing expressions of religious and cultural chauvinism -- have been vastly augmented by a host of new impediments to the common weal.” (p403)

While the immense work of decolonization cannot by any means be announced as accomplished, it is no longer pragmatic to “heap all our problems on the doorstep of colonialism”.2 To explain the ongoing problems of communalism and the concurrent demands for partition that persist today throughout South Asia, it is necessary that we look not only at colonial legacies but at endogenous factors within “postcolonial” society.

It is tempting but specious to try and “solve” these problems by pointing to a few causes. A radical holistic approach demands that we not seek to impose a single analysis onto South Asian reality. Therefore I will direct my energy in the remainder of this essay to invoking some unanswered questions about elements of South Asian history that I feel have received less criticism than they deserve. Foremost among these is the lauded ideal of democracy.

Democracy is popularly perceived as a panacea to all varieties of social unrest and discontent. In his book The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani urges his readers to look twice at this contentious assumption: “Liberal pieties that claim democracy to be a pacifying force can be no more reassured by India’s experience in this regard than by the evidence provided by long periods in the history of the United States of America or France.” (p49-50) Much analysis and governance on all scales of the political spectrum suffer from severe near-sightedness when it comes to understanding the history and trajectory of democracy. ‘Rule of the people’ is a highly ambiguous prerogative. As Michael Mann has documented extensively in his chilling book The Dark Side of Democracy, democratic polities have been some of the most genocidal regimes in history. While I think it would be rash and dangerous to take this as grounds for abandoning popular sovereignty, it is nevertheless important to not see any promises inherent in the idea of democracy. Here especially, the world has much to learn from South Asia.

Khilnani writes that “[t]he language of representative politics... entered India through a utilitarian filter, at a time when British liberalism was at its most rampantly collectivist and paternalist.” (p24). Institutionalized democratic politics in South Asia was born in the context of a highly constraining colonial order which inevitably shaped its institutional development. This was no secret, however, to the nationalist leadership that lead the anti-colonial struggle. Mohandas Gandhi in particular is to be credited and revered, but only along with countless others, for their tireless and visionary work in combatting the incipient communalism that they saw emerging before and at the time of independence. Many invoked Hindu-Muslim unity and were outspoken in their condemnation of communalist tendencies. Unfortunately, Gandhi’s leadership was not inherited by his successors in power.

“The national leadership had never invoked religious identities for electoral purposes,” Khilani continues, “This taboo fell in the 1980s, and religious and caste sentiments were now routinely invoked in national elections... The Indian nationalism of Gandhi and Nehru had not only resisted invoking religion, but had also scrupulously avoided defining the nation in terms of a majority community. But the populist turn in Indian politics redefined democracy as majority rule.” (p183) Whether or not this process of development, from democracy to majority rule, is an inevitability, is an open question. It has certainly proven highly difficult to reverse. One factor that is specifically responsible for this in South Asia is the electoral process.

In South Asia as elsewhere, the transition from democratic rhetoric to electoral politics was a quick and seamless one. On the face of it there seems no great contradiction; the distinction between the rule of the people and the rule of the representative is more or less accepted as an inevitability in modern day nation-states. But the distinction has immense consequences. Khilnani writes:
“The centrality of elections, and the desperate value staked on winning them, made for ingrained political corruption in the public arena... The increased electoral participation encouraged politicians to make communal appeals, and they had to become more ingenious in mustering political support.” (p54) “Electoral volatility foreshortened the horizons of political time: the mere capture of power rather than its responsible exercise became the exclusive aim of politicians... As elections gained in importance, levels of democratic participation in both national and provincial politics climbed... So, too, did levels of violence, and the connection was not random.” (p49)

The correlation between violence and democratic party politics cannot be dismissed as an anachronism of a postcolonial society. Too many minorities, from the Armenians to the Tamils, to indigenous peoples all over the world, have been oppressed and exterminated by majorities, for us not to consider this with utmost seriousness. But it is not as simple as ‘democracy equals genocide’. The transition is not immediate; there is a definite process.

Representative politics and the electoral process are highly prone to degenerate party behavior over the long term. Electoral competition encourages a ‘race to the bottom’ in the politics of constituency building. The premium placed on speed and size encourage parties to appeal to the lowest common denominator of mass political psychology. “Democracy was intended to recognize the claims of Indians as individuals.” writes Khilnani. “In practice, it was led also to recognize the claims of groups, and this certainly scattered seeds of future tension.” (p173) The process of recruiting constituencies, which seems to be a definite necessity of any form or representative politics, is highly susceptible to domination by communal politics and ideology. “Thus, paradoxically,” Khilnani continues, “democratic politics must itself produce the very identities and interests which it presupposes in order to function in the first place. And this process of identity creation is a dangerous business, more akin to conflict than competition.” (p49) I don’t think that there is no easy solution to this dilemma. It is a global problem, within communities and across continents. The rule of the people can quickly become the rule of the majority. And majority rule is only a crisis away from mob rule. This is not hyperbole; this is as serious as it gets. This is how democracy turns into fascism.

I don’t think that the answer to this tendency is to reject popular sovereignty. A murderous majority is no alibi for an equally murderous dictatorship. Nonetheless, if we are to preserve any kind of legitimacy for the idea of popular sovereignty, we must understand and confront what makes majorities murderous. And I don’t think we can really understand any of this if we don’t think critically about the whole project of modernity and its chosen institutional structure: the nation-state.

In the same article on partition, Eqbal Ahmad writes that “[i]n the age of nationalism and mass politics, alienation is likely to translate into the demand for ‘self-determination’ and separate statehood.” (p404) From inception, the organized anti-colonial movements in South Asia were nationalist and they clamored for a state. Anti-colonial and separatist movements the world over have demonstrated this memetic effect: the oppressed mimic the institutions of the oppressor. There are reasons, of course, but the consequences are predictable. Ahmad continues: “As nationalists everywhere have been prone to do throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, India’s leaders, too, equated national unity and good governance with centralized power arrangements.” (p408) This kind of centralized power, whatever its possible merits, must not evade our analysis if we are to understand the fascist tendencies of democratic regimes.

It is important to understand the demand for a strong center. It is a demand not only of fascist dictators but of revolutionary socialists. It is the prerequisite not only for the immense militaries that the Right loves, but also for the ‘development’ and redistribution that is a consistent theme among the global Left. According to the recent scholarship of Ayesha Jalal, Asim Roy and others, it was this demand that was chiefly responsible for partition in South Asia. Their work argues that the insistence of the Indian National Congress on a strong center prompted their refusal to accommodate to the demands of the Muslim League for a weaker center that would tolerate some degree of provincial autonomy. Thus, Asim Roy writes, “it was not the League but the Congress who chose, at the end of the day, to run a knife across Mother India’s body.” (p387) In the end, for better or worse, it was the unconditional demand for an ideal nation-state that cut the continent in two.

Tagore recognized long ago that “[t]he political civilization which has sprung up from the soil of Europe and is overrunning the whole world, like some prolific weed, is based upon exclusiveness. It is always watchful to keep at bay the aliens or to exterminate them.” (p76) The conflicts and consequences of nation-states take different forms and have different vocabularies, which often renders comparisons less than obvious. Nonetheless, I believe that the movements of communalism and partition are a paradigm of the modern nation-state. It would be erroneous to lump all these distinct experiences together; there is a world of difference between, for example, black nationalism in the United States and the Chechnyan resistance.. But they both result from an endemic tendency of the modern nation-state. The tyranny of the majority, and the rule of the mob. The persecuted need protection, and the only language that tyranny speaks is the language of the nation-state. In an essay on Pakistan, Eqbal Ahmad gives insight into what I think is one of the primary sources of conflict of the modern world:

“We are witnessing the emergence of two clearly identifiable, seemingly hostile, but symbiotically linked trends toward fascism and separatism. Of these, fascism is the more serious threat although separatism is generally being viewed as the imminent danger... The two trends complement each other no less than they are antagonistic. The separatists draw sustenance from the excesses of the emerging fascist elements and from the increasingly protofascist practices and attitudes of the present government. The fascist elements will expand and their values will become institutionalized through their growing participation in the repression of alleged ‘separatist’ ‘subversive’ ‘threats’ to national security. Thus, separatism would derive its increasing popularity from the growth of fascism, and fascism its justification from the existence of separatists. These complementary enemies, incapable of destroying each other, shall nevertheless damage the society and the peoples they pretend to serve. Symbiotically linked, they may sustain each other while devouring the healthier, progressive elements in... society.” (p431-2)

I think this passage not only explains the culmination of communalism in South Asia into the partition into India and Pakistan, it also explains the modern day separatist movements in South Asia, most violently eminent in Kashmir and Sri Lanka. Most importantly, we must remember the legacy of separation in South Asia. Far from solving the problems, partition seems to have doubled the problems. Both India and Pakistan today are torn between new fascists and separatists. As Ahmad encourages us to understand, it is usually the separatist movements that are maligned, but it is the fascist tendencies that are most dangerous in the long run. And in an essay titled In Truth, Dark Times, Tarun Tejpal chillingly reminds us that

“[f]ascism almost never rings the bell. It slips in through the backdoor, climbs in over window-sills, pads up the basement, locates a rotten rafter to make its covert entry. Dictatorship is showy. It lodges itself in the living room, confident it commands the house. Fascism is sneaky. It quietly settles into every room, knowing it runs the house. Dictatorships can be overthrown by the people. Fascism is the people.”

We are lead by this history to question whether any of these problems can be resolved in the long run within the context of the nation state. The track record of these things is pretty hideous. The ‘strong centre’ that justified partition to the Indian National Congress, has proven disastrous. By some measures, modernization has been three times more catastrophic than partition. Ashis Nandy writes that there are

“an estimated fifty million Indians whom development has uprooted during the last fifty years. This more than three times the number of people displaced during the Partition riots in 1946-48. People have not forgotten the sixteen million displaced by Partition but they have forgotten these fifty million. A large potion of the displaced are tribals and Dalits; one-third of India’s entire tribal population has been uprooted in the last fifty years, and fifteen percent of our tribes have been fully uprooted.” (p139)

I have not tried to formulate any easy answers here to the problems of communalism and partition. Instead I have endeavored to demonstrate that these are not questions limited to Indians and Pakistanis. The menace of communalism and partition hangs over the whole world. Much of the world is already deep in it. Eqbal warned us: “[c]lass struggle will be overshadowed by civil conflict. The voices of reason and revolution will be drowned by those of reaction and revolt. Nothing will grow except the defense and security services.” (p441) I hope that by considering the history of democratic politics and nation-states, we can better conceive that the question of whether partition was inevitable in South Asia, is really a question that devolves upon the whole world. Our answer is ongoing. Partition was a ‘blunder of Himalayan proportion’, but the rise of communal violence made into an inevitability. “Like the South Asian subcontinent,” Eqbal wrote, “our sentiments remain divided... Indians and Pakistanis make awkward, complementary enemies. While opposing nationalisms, which is for us a recent ideology, pit us against each other, history and nature are against the rivalry between us.” (p408)

Can large and diverse nation-states avoid such inevitable blunders? Can democracies protect and empower the minorities that live within them? Is there an escape from majority rule that doesn’t destroy the practice of popular sovereignty? These are open questions, but to answer them, especially within the context of the modern heterogeneous societies in which we live, we must shed many pretensions about how power should work. Tagore entreats: “know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.” (p159)

Are partitions in every community, country and continent inevitable? Perhaps this question evades the heart of the matter by suggesting that the answer is outside of our own hearts. To return to a point I left unfinished, we cannot end communalism by condemning religion. In the short run, secular solutions can help mitigate the spread of religious problems to some extent. But in the long run, solutions to problems of religion must be religious, or they will never go away. “[G]ods and goddesses,” suggests Ashis Nandy, “are integrally related to the anti-gods or demons. No theory of violence, no metaphysics of evil... is complete unless it takes into account this relationship.” (p135) To avoid the terrors of partition, we would do well to think of what Gandhi said: “the only devils in the world are the ones inside our own hearts.”

It is the trauma within our own hearts that allows the fascism to creep in, that nurtures the politics of exclusion and extermination. Until we can tame our hearts, we cannot hope to free our societies from the paradigm of communalism and partition. In pursuit of freedom, we can fall into murderous self-love, or we can climb into a healing respect for difference.


1. From now on, a river divides us: / bloody water, mud of swamps, / There is no one in this land that forgets it / From now on the country is not the same. (translation mine) From the poem Es Triste.

2. The phrase is from Chinua Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah.

Nationalism, by Rabindranath Tagore, 1917
India’s Struggle for Independence, by Bipan Chandra
The Idea of India, by Sunil Khilnani, 1997
The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, edited by Carollee Bengelsdorf, Margaret Cerullo, and Yogesh Chandrani, 2006. Referenced chapters: Partitioned Lands, Divided Sentiments, 1997, and Pakistan: Signposts to a Police State
The High Politics of India’s Partition: The Revisionist Perspective, by Asim Roy, 1990
In Truth, Dark Times, by Tarun Tejpal, Tehelka Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 40, Oct. 2008
A Report on the Present State of Health of the Gods and Goddesses in South Asia, by Ashis Nandy, 2001