Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hindus and Jews, India and Israel

One of the most sensational papers at the American Academy of Religion conference in Montreal was Shana Sippy's on Hindu-Jewish religious rapprochement as a corollary of Indian-Israeli military cooperation. A promising alliance whose time has come, bypassing the power of its jaundiced critics in academe.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Narasimha Rao (r.1991-96) lost no time in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel (1992) and, more importantly, replacing the USSR with Israel as India's chief arms supplier. Between India and Israel, weapons have long replaced diamonds as the most important trade good.

Dr. Shana Sippy presented a commercial film shown by the Israeli arms dealers at trade fairs. Daringly crystal-clear. Indian girls were dancing in between upstanding missiles and singing: "I need protection, I need strength" etc. Then a stereotypical Israeli guy hops onto the stage, with a broad smile, gracefully receiving the compliments of the Indian girls: "Safety and protection, security and perfection" etc. The Israelis reportedly congratulate themselves at having "won the Kargil war for India" by sending India weapons tailored to the specific challenges of the Paki occupation of peak terrain.

Then she focused on joint Hindu-Jewish initiatives in the USA and internationally. She acknowledged the strength of this alliance, though clearly begrudging the Hindu community the benefits of any alliance. She tried to muster reasons why Jews should refrain from this alliance: these are not just Hindus but the "Hindu Right"; these are the people who have issued a history textbook praising Hitler (a canard, thoroughly analysed and refuted in the first chapter of my book *Return of the Swastika*); Hindus are idolaters; at least Jews should have demanded that Hindus guarantee the religious rights of the many thousands of Jews who visit India annually (are these rights threatened?!); as a minority, Jews should side with the minorities in India, etc. Her understanding was that the Jews purposely ignore a lot of troubling facts or take them in stride because this alliance is politically so useful to them. On the Hindu side, meanwhile, she saw (quite correctly) an absolute ignorance of specific Jewish agendas.

The joint Hindu-Jewish declaration, earlier this year in Jerusalemn, between Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi and some more worthies on both sides, was a natural target of her criticism. She lambasted some of the points the two sides had agreed on, obviously at the Hindu side's insistence:
* the much-maligned swastika is innocent (banal);
* the Aryan Invasion Theory is bunk (totally misplaced, and strange that the Jewish side bothered to agree, but perhaps a way of saying that the much-maligned term "Aryan" is innocent too);
* Hinduism is monotheistic too (questionable, an imposition by a particular faction within the Hindu spectrum);
* Hindu murtipuja is not "idolatry" per Halakhic definition;
* the opposition to the Christian mission, which according to SS is no longer an issue for the Jews (nearly true in Israel in so far as Christian denominations have agreed to stop conversion attempts among Jews, but unchangingly a concern elsewhere when intermarriage mostly means conversion to Christianity or Islam);
* the obviously anti-Islamic rejection of "terrorism".

An orthodox Jewish member of the audience remarked that the meeting would have been impossible without a preliminary agreement between the Rabbi and the Israeli Government. The Israelis are not uptight about separating religion and politics, so this is quite likely. Shana Sippy alleged that the Jerusalem meeting had been sponsored by Rajiv Malhotra, whom she mislabelled as a Hindutva man. After all those years of Hindutva-watching, most supposed experts haven't even noticed the sharp divisions in the spectrum of Hindu activism.

On the whole, though, I was quite impressed with Shana Sippy's presentation. No silly pieties, not too much holy/hollow indignation at Hindutva schemes, not as soporific as so much theological and sociological talks at such conferences, her finger really on the pulse of the Yahudi-Hindu-bhai-bhai scene, and most of all, a truly important and consequential topic.

I refrained from volunteering my own experiences with this alliance, e.g. when in 1993 a Mr. Tiwari of the Washington DC chapter of the VHP took me along on a vsit to the office of the American-Israeli Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the spider in the web of the fabled Jewish Lobby. We got an impressive demonstration in some of the AIPAC feats in influencing US Congress decisions. The idea was that Hindu activists would get some training there in the noble art of lobbying. (Not that I've seen them put their new skills to any use since then.)

During the discussion, I learned that this annual panel on "Hinduisms and Judaisms" was from the beginning mistrusted by the AAR, initially because it looked like a joint Hindu-Jewish platform against Christianity, now because it looks like a gang-up against Islam. There is no substance to this, every speaker went out of his way to placate Islam, absolve it of any role in terrorism, and to lambast "Islamophobia" both in India and in the West. Perhaps on Christianity some Jews have taken a firm stand, but certainly no one on the "Hindu" side. In the three years I have attended these sessions, I have never heard a Hindu-bron speaker or an Indologist take as his own any known pro-Hindu (i.c. anti-mission) positions. In this session too, Hindu assertiveness was only present as the whipping-boy.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

The output of the Mumbai film industry largely consists of superficial plots with light-hearted music and little contact with pressing social and political realities. By contrast, Danny Boyle's movie Slumdog Millionaire, set in Mumbai, is not that innocent.

When people from the so-called Third World complain about lingering colonial attitudes, I am inclined to yawn, knowing the self-hate and the guilt-trip of Europeans and Euro-Americans that have replaced their colonial-age pride. All these anti-colonial rants sound so anachronistic. But then I saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire, about a young man who can answer the questions of a TV quiz thanks to his experiences as a slum kid.

About this Oscar-winning movie, the following points have been made on Hindu forums, and by Rajiv Malhotra at last week's Montréal DANAM conference, and partly also by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, the very author of the book on which the movie was based:

1) The poverty and neglect in Mumbai are a bit overdone in the movie. In the book, protagonist Jamal meets his heroine Latika not as a child thrown out into the rain then to live on the streets, but as a teenager living in an apartment, after having spent his childhood in a Catholic orphanage. Likewise, the cruelty is a bit overdone, as with the gory scene of a child blinded in order to make it more lucrative as a beggar. Flemish-born sister Jeanne Devos, founder of a trade-union for house personnel in Mumbai, commented that in her decades of work among the underclass there, she has heard stories of children thus mutilated, but has so far never come across an actual instance. Now that India is projecting a less miserable, more modern and confident image of itself, this movie revives the Mother-Teresa image of India as the ultimate in material and human misery and in heartless exploitation of fellow human beings. If you have seen the movie, you will have noticed that, as French India-watcher François Gautier puts it, "Slumdog literally defecates on India from the first frame".

2) The book's protagonist is a transreligious pan-Indian kid, Rama Mohammed Thomas (the commonest names for Hindus, Muslims c.q. Indian Christians), abandoned as an infant in a church by his mother, whose religion remains unknown. The movie turns him into a Muslim kid, Jamal, orphaned by a Hindu mob killing his mother in a pogrom in the name of Rama. The insertion of a quiz question about "the weapon with which the Hindu god Rama is depicted" (a total non-starter as quiz question in India, because everybody knows the answer: a bow) and Jamal's memory of seeing a boy with hate-filled eyes enacting Rama-with-bow at the start of the anti-Muslim pogrom, serve to give body to the mediatic fiction of India as a land where an overbearing Hindu majority terrorizes hapless fearful minorities.

The effect is to drive the nail deeper into the coffin of Hinduism's former reputation for tolerance and confirm its newly crafted image as hateful and a threat to non-Hindus. As François Gautier has observed: "Can there be a more blatant lie? Hinduism has given refuge throughout the ages to those who were persecuted at home: the Christians of Syria, the Parsis, Armenians, the Jews of Jerusalem, and today the Tibetans, allowing them all to practise their religion freely."

We may add that Hindus in Kerala also permitted Muslims to settle and to marry native girls, hence their name Mapilla-s or Moplahs, "sons-in-law". This hospitality was repaid with military conquest by other Muslims and with large-scale anti-Hindu pogroms in the 1920s by the Moplahs themselves. It made even Mahatma Gandhi say that Muslims are "bullies" while Hindus are "cowards"; but in the movie, the Muslims are poor hapless victims of Hindu bullying. That is how Western interests like to imagine India, among other reasons because it justifies their anti-India position in the Cold War (as during the Bangladesh war of 1971) and its support to Pakistan even now. It also allows them to take a pro-Muslim stand and to depict Muslims as victims rather than terrorists, which looks progressive in the West's internal multiculturalism debate. For the US, pro-Muslim positions in South Asia (like in the Balkans or in the question of Turkey's EU accession) serve to appease Muslim anger at the American support to Israel in the Palestinian question.

The anti-Hindu twists in the movie form the typical second phase of a propaganda/disinformation campaign. After the actual meessage is hammered in by specialists, i.c. India-watchers misreporting on India's religious conflict invariably shifting the blame to the Hindu side, it is fixated in popular consciousness by repeating it not as a news item but as a piece of received wisdom, common knowledge. This is done not through thematic channels (i.e. papers and reports on India's religious conflict) but through general channels moulding opinion indirectly, such as TV shows, women's magazines, tourist guidebooks and others related only tangentially to the theme. In the first phase there is still a risk of getting countered by better-informed and less partisan specialists; but in the second, propagandists can work on the masses ignorant of the specifics, i.c. the Western cinema audience whose knowledge of India's religio-politics is hazy at best.

3) Jamal is handed to the police for torture on the pretext that he must have cheated, for how else could a "slumdog" know all the answers? In the book, this is done by an American visiting India in connection with the legal rights to the quiz format. In the movie, it is done by the Indian quiz master, who comes across as a lurid incarnation of the well-to-do Indians' smug and callous mistreatment of their poorer fellow-countrymen. Likewise, the movie's American tourists in Agra are an incarnation of sanity and benevolence contrasting with the barbarity of the ambient Indian society. This is a throwback to colonial-age stereotypes about India as a backward society in dire need of benevolent Western intervention.

4) No surprise then that according to a mastermind of the Christian mission, Joseph D'Souza, the movie has caused a windfall in donations for the mission's work in India. Director Danny Boyle has declared that as a boy he had wanted to become a missionary, and that the same spirit still animates him.

5) Finally, a detail that may have escaped the notice of Western critics: successful as the English movie was in the West and among the anglicized Indian elite, its Hindi version has flopped. As Rajiv Malhotra has testified: when he and some friends wanted to see the movie in Delhi, the queue for the English version was very long, so they moved to the hall where the Hindi version was showing and there they could go in without waiting. This follows a pattern: Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and other Indian writers produce English novels for the Western and westernized-Indian audience, get the Man Booker prize and other Western awards, but leave the Indian public cold. This is not because Indians are xenophobic and averse to novelties. Thus, the Western TV quiz format Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire? has indeed caught on mightily among the Indian TV viewers in vernacular versions like Kaun Banega Krorpati? They use the foreign-borrowed format and turn it into a game of their own, filling it in with the native Indian genius. But novels like Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things or now the movie Slumdog Millionnaire are rightly mistrusted as products designed to curry favour with non- and anti-Indian audiences by disparaging India.

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Impressions from Montréal on Remembrance Day

Canada looks like one of the most secure parts of the world, a cornerstone that isn't swayed by the troubles rocking ordinary countries. I'm touching wood as I write this, for I really wish the country and its people(s) all the best after the good time I just had there. Here only a few impressions.

Except for the inside of some conference halls in Toronto and the Niagara Falls, I had never seen anything of Canada. Now I just got back home from a week in Montréal, where I attended the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion and of the Dharma Association of North America. This amazing megalopolis seems to combine the best of Europe and America. It is safe and relaxed and full of activity, and seems to be a rare counterargument against the now-widespread feeling that multiculturalism is a hopeless dead end. The numerous Haitian taxi-drivers and service personnel are the most visible face of Québec's policy of attracting immigrants from French-speaking countries. Which implies that as a citizen of Belgium and fluent in French, I could make a similar move: walk on water to Acadia!

The conference was a major affair, an intense concatenation of numerous parallel and successive sessions with thousands of scholars attending. Apart from the actual academic brainstorming, there were some entertaining talks by star intellectuals, esp. Tariq Ramadan (barred from last year's conference in Chicago when the US authorities denied him a visa) and Slavoj Zizek. The congress centre was in the Chinese neighbourhood and could be reached through underground routes from my hotel, which was located next to the Rue Sainte-Cathérine. The latter is referred to in a well-known pop song, Complainte pour Sainte-Cathérine by Kate & Anna McGarrigle: "Moi je me promène sous Sainte-Cathérine, j'profite de la chaleur du métro... quand il fait trente en d'sous d'zéro" ("I'm walking underneath Sainte-Cathérine, profiting from the underground's warmth... when it's 30 centigrade below zero"). No need for the underground, though: after a few freezing days, temperature jumped up to 18° and stayed there till after I left: the fabled Indian summer, "une saison qui n'existe que dans le nord de l'Amérique". So I got a quick introduction to all I need to know for bluffing my way through a Canada conversation.

It was easy enough for me to curry favour with the Québecois, standing out between all those Americans as the only one to address them in French. They especially liked my assurance that in Belgium, everyone supports their cause: the Walloons because they are French-speaking, the Flemish because they side with the underdog. I'm not sure, though, that Québecois visiting Brussels would side with the Flemish underdog.

The really touching discovery for me was how serious Canadians take Remembrance Day. From a week before, most of them wear poppies reminding of Flanders' Fields. The author of the WW1 poem In Flanders' fields, John McCrae, was indeed Canadian. By contrast, in the country where it all happened, and where the poppies still grow on Canadian soldiers' graves, row on row, interest is limited to strictly official ceremonies without popular resonance. For Anglo-Saxons, it is a day to commemorate sacrifice and victory, for us a day to contemplate the senseless pity of war. That is why the Yser Tower, the Flemish war monument in WW1 site Diksmuide, carries the caption No More War, a testimony to post-war pacifist zeal rather than to the war psychology of triumphalism c.q. vengeance.

Only the quaint minority of Belgian royalists try to make 11 November a victory celebration, but the fact is that the then Belgian king kept his army out of the great offensives, until 1918 merely standing guard behind the flooded Yser plain that prevented further German advances, then only releasing his forces for the final American-backed offensive (not to mention his secret attempt to reach a separate peace with the Kaiser). That's why Albert 1, our "king-soldier", was so popular with his soldiers: he didn't ask them to die for their country. By contrast, the Commonwealth, that was only dragged into the war because our king's cousin on the British throne wouldn't tolerate Germany's "rape of Belgium", intended to drive the Germans back, and in this endeavour sacrificed hundreds of thousands of soldiers' lives in futile offensives. Logical then that their commemoration of all those wasted heroes is far more serious than the artifical patriotic hoompapa of the Belgian royalists.

Nonetheless, for me it was a good time of the year to introduce myself as a Fleming, born and raised moreover in Leuven/Louvain. That was WW1's martyr town where the university library was destroyed by German fire, in Commonwealth propaganda the symbol of the destruction of civilization by the "furor Teutonicus". To Canadians, a Flemish visitor must look like those poppies invoked on Remembrance Day celebrations: a sign of life living on after the slaughter.

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Fleming for EU president

The expected choice of Herman Van Rompuy as first-ever "EU president" would end his still-brief term as Belgian Prime Minister, a job he never wanted in the first place. It would also reward the Belgian state and the Flemish nation for their pioneering role in the story of Europe's unification.

Herman Van Rompuy, currently Prime Minister of Belgium, is rumoured to be the big EU countries' favourite choice as first-ever "EU president". He is known to be diplomatic, reasonable to the point of being pliable, to speak four languages fluently including French (a must for France, and an argument against Dutch candidate Jan-Peter Balkenende), and to be a leading member of Europe's leading political family, the Christian-Democrats. I would applaud his selection for the job.

With the capitalized "Van" (meaning "of", "from"), insiders will immediately recognize his name as Flemish: Frenchmen/Walloons would have "de" or "De", while Dutchmen would have the "van" with small v, which is disallowed in Belgium, on analogy of the similarly common prefix "de" ("the"), which if non-capitalized could be mistaken for the French nobility prefix "de". Unlike the numerous Walloons with Flemish names, indicating the post-Napoleonic Flemish ancestry that burdens one third of them, this one is a real Fleming. At least, he is from a Dutch-speaking family all while being Belgian, which is the definition of a Fleming, but his enthusiasm for the Flemish cause against Francophone dominance is lukewarm at best. In that respect, he is a real Belgian.

Flemish Christian-Democrats like him have always been inclined to compromise and half-heartedness, even proverbially so, and Herman even more than most. So, it would be quite misplaced to wave banners on account of anything achieved by or associated with him. But a moderate note of satisfaction would be appropriate on the hoped-for occasion of his promotion to the post of EU figurehead.

As a Fleming, I think it would be entirely right and just if a Fleming were to lead a long chain of future presidents of a glorious European Union. If George Washington's example is anything to go by, "Van Rompuy" may once outdo "Waterloo" as the best-known Flemish name. From its inception, the European Community, now Union, has never had more loyal supporters than us. We can also take credit for one of the EU's institutional multilinguism, one of its finest traits, though to outsiders one of its most incomprehensible (e.g. Kishore Mehboobani in a recent interview extolling the ASEAN's choice of English as its sole working language and lambasting the EU alternative). The story is as follows.

When the first six-nation European associations were founded in the fifties, a decision had to be made on their working language. Everybody expected it would be French, the official language of France, the dominant language of Belgium and also official language in Luxemburg. The Dutch in those days still still learned French in school, they couldn't think of a reason to object. Germany and Italy were so bruised from the war that they were in no position to take positions that might be considered nationalistic. There was no one left to object except the Flemish element in Belgium, a numerical majority but politically the underdog. When they proposed linguistic equality between the official languages of all the member states, no one could object to the holy principle of equality, so multilinguism carried the day.

As new members joined the Union, one after another their official languages gained the same status in the EU institutions. This led to an unwieldy translation bureaucracy, a small price to pay for upholding such a lofty principle. Jobs for the boys, om condition that they are bilingual in, say, Latvian-Maltese or Irish-Slovak. In practice, the use of the smaller languages is limited, but there is still a plurality French-German-English even for everyday working purposes. This fits the EU's guiding motto of "unity in diversity".

Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, we can now say that the French, or the Francophones, missed the opportunity of a lifetime when they gave in to the Flemish demand. Suppose they had insisted on having French as the sole EU official language. The Flemish would have ended up giving in, they always do, and French would have regained its waning importance with every institutional and territorial expansion of the EU. Even the UK would have accepted it; when it joined in 1973, British officials for the European institutions were handpicked for knowledge of French. In the 1990s, all the ambitious young people in Central Europe whose countries prepared for accession would have taken up studying French, the language of the new European empire. This in turn would have encouraged outsiders (say, Kishore Mehboobani) to study French once more. The imperial dream of Louis XIV and Napoleon would have been fulfilled after all, at least at the (to the French) all-important level of language.

But in the fifties, nobody foresaw that the little committees co-ordinating the coal and steel industries of six war-worn countries would expand to become the administration of a nearly continent-spanning superstate. So the Flemings could get away with their multilingual alternative for the EU's governance. Good for Europe.

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