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OUTLOOK INDIA Interview on ‘Digital India’ & PM Narendra Modi

14 Sep

[Prefatory Note: I am posting here an interview with the magazine OUTLOOK INDIA associated with an open letter that was signed by more than 100 Indian scholars and intellectuals, as well as those such as myself with a long research and human interest in India, expressing concern about the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Silicon Valley to promote his vision of ‘Digital India.’ I feel strongly about these issues, especially in light of the Snowden disclosures and the general use of digital capabilities to encroach upon personal freedom and a climate of liberty in post-9/11 America. The link to the original text is <http://www.outlookindia.com/article/the-future-of-india-as-a-democratic-country-is-at-risk/295251&gt;  The quoted remark at the beginning of several questions are taken from the text of the letter, which is referred to in the interview as ‘a petition.’ FYI, the full text of the letter and a partial list of signatories is appended after the interview.]

 

 

[Editorial Preface of OUTLOOK]: Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Silicon Valley later this month. But over 137 US-based academics and intellectuals have already filed a petition to the Silicon Valley Enterprises expressing concern about Modi and his ‘Digital India’ campaign. It is not surprising that Richard A. Falk is one of the petitioners. The professor emeritus of law at Princeton University, a highly respected academic, has always been an outspoken critic of governments and policies that violate human rights and civil liberties. At 84, he has authored and co-edited more than 40 books and is a well-known commentator on his own. As former UN rapporteur on Palestine, Falk is also one of the few Jews who was denied a visa by Israel for his outspoken views about Israeli atrocities and occupation of Palestinian territory. He tells Pranay Sharma why he’s a signatory to the petition against Modi.] 

Q: What is the prime concern you have against Narendra Modi’s ‘Digital India’ campaign?

I and others on the list have questions about Narendra Modi’s record on religious tolerance, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression. Some of those who signed the letter have also been subject to a campaign of harassment from Hindu nationalist followers, which raises particular worries about academic freedom. “Digital India” as an initiative has enormous potential to affect positive social change, but it simultaneously poses dangers for abuse under the Modi administration that can make use of digitalization to target members of minority communities or those who are critical of its policies. It is my impression that the Modi government has been particularly sensitive to criticism and unfriendly to critics, making our concern more credible.

Q: Does this fear stem from the individual-Narendra Modi in this case -or the proposed campaign itself?

It’s not too clear at this stage exactly what “Digital India” will become programmatically, and this is precisely why we wrote to register our concerns-to influence the course the debate will take. Most of the media treatment that I and my colleagues have seen is so far more concerned with branding the campaign rather than focusing on its substance, The plan as outlined on the Government of India website, http://deity.gov.in/sites/upload_files/dit/files/Digital%20India.pdf is appropriately ambitious, and commendably has the “empowerment of citizens” at its core. But the potential for disempowerment is also present as the gap widens between those who have access to internet technology and those in India who still lack water and electricity. I believe that some of my colleagues have reasonable grounds to worry that the planned heavy investment in digital infrastructure will widen this gap, and along with it, socio-economic disparities.. There is no present indications that the Indian government is implementing policies designed to reduce, if not eliminate, the gap. And with respect to your underlying question it is impossible to disentangle the Modi Government or Modi as a political personality from the Digital India Campaign.

Q: Are there real reasons for such apprehensions given the fact that much of the proposed programme was actually undertaken by Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh? “Digital India has great potential, but under the Modi government it poses dangers for abuse.”

Some of the same concerns would have surfaced in all likelihood under any Indian government.These concerns are magnified given Modi’s record on freedom of expression leading me and my colleagues to have apprehensions about a process of digital consolidation that can lead to further breaches not only of privacy but of individual security. A realization that the previous government in India has been working toward e-governance, and that these issues are ones faced by other governments in the world does not in any way make it irrelevant to raise issues associated with Modi’s specific record. As an American, with a deep commitment to the wellbeing and positive development of India, I have joined with Indian colleagues because I have seen what digital age abuses have occurred in my own country. The Snowden disclosures should serve as a reminder that citizens of all countries need to exert unprecedented vigilance in the defense of freedom and in support of societal equity given the contemporary interface between totalizing governmental security and technological capabilities.
Modi was a three-time elected chief minister of Gujarat and in 2014 successfully won an impressive mandate to become India’s Prime Minister. How do you see the obvious support he has among a sizeable section of Indians?

The fact that a policy or programme is popular or even that the majority of people at any moment in time is in favor does not make it right or suggest the inappropriateness of constructive criticism. We have witnessed this tension between what is popular and what is right numerous times in recent history, and speaking personally, perhaps most vividly with respect to the implementation of U.S. foreign policy on a global scale. We can recall with remorse a lone American Congress woman, Barbara Lee, who held out as the sole dissenting voice against authorizing the US president to go to war against Afghanistan-a policy that the entire US Congress and the rest of the country favored at the time, but produced disastrous consequences. Modi’s support appears to rest on several factors, but he and his administration have at times disturbingly invoked Hindu nationalist rhetoric to gain the enthusiastic backing of the Hindu majority in the country raising insecurities among minorities.

Q: Do you think democratic institutions in India have been weakened or seriously threatened since Modi became the Prime Minister?

My response to this question is shaped by the opinion of Indian colleagues and trusted friends, so I will not comment too much on internal dynamics. At the same time, we are living in a borderless world, not least because of the impact of the digital dimensions of modern life, and so as concerned citizens of the world we cannot shut our eyes to threatening developments even in distant countries, while at the same time being respectful of norms of non-intervention and of rights of self-determination. From this perspective, I have come to believe that democratic institutions have been weakened under Modi’s administration. It’s true that some of these anti-democratic tendencies were already evident in the behavior of prior Indian governments, but it is also the case that the last administration brought out the “Right to Information” package of reforms that has greatly increased government transparency and empowered people to hold the Indian government accountable. It’s not clear at this point whether “Digital India” in Modi’s hands will lead to increased transparency. The background of his record as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and the experience of his first year as Prime Minister gives rise to a legitimate concern that the future of India as a democratic country is at sufficient risk to justify a petition raising questions that need to be discussed.

Q: The petition mentions Modi’s alleged role in the Gujarat riots. But given the fact that large number of world leaders including President, Barack Obama, now engage with him, do you think these charges are still relevant? “Modi’s background as CM and his first year as PM raises concern that India’s democracy is at risk.”

Yes, they are still relevant even legally: there is currently an undecided appeal in the Gujarat judicial system that raises serious questions about whether Modi took adequate steps to control the Gujurat violence in 2002, and whether he was actively implicated in its unfolding. Whether or not this unfinished legal process produces an adverse assessment of his conduct, Modi’s speeches at the time were themselves sufficient by themselves to validate continuing worries. They were inflammatory, and made no effort to restore calm and avoid violence. Such behavior signals the reasonableness of seeking clarifications and reassuring procedures. The fact that Obama and other world leaders engage Modi diplomatically is to be expected, especially when it is considered that he is the head of the world’s largest democracy and important actor in the world economy. We have seen many examples in history in which leaders lead people in a terrible direction, and yet are treated as normal and legitimate for purposes of international relations. The legacy of George W. Bush is a painful instance of a leader who did the US and the world a great deal of harm without undermining his legitimacy. Ariel Sharon when acting on behalf of Israel committed what many regarded as crimes against humanity, but when he was democratically elected in 2000 the world dealt with him without looking back. It is up to people of conscience to look back. When wrongs are done to people whether internationally or at home they do not fade from view with the passage of time. If there is to be democracy based on the rule of law then citizens and persons of conscience must treat equals equally, whether it be the poorest citizen or the most powerful politician. We are aware that there are many in India who are critical of Modi’s policies and whose right of dissent is being challenged, and their voices silenced or intimidated. Modi may be speaking on behalf of some kind of majority in India, but that does not invalidate opposition, even strenuous opposition. One crucial test of a true democracy is whether it protects the rights of minorities, especially when in tension with governing authorities. This is so whether the tension be with political minorities, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, or sexual minorities. A democracy only flourishes when divergent voices can be freely heard without fear of an official or populist backlash.

Q: You also mention the Silicon Valley Enterprises have a code of responsibility that they should be mindful of not being violated by Modi. Could you specify what this code of responsibility is?

I do not claim any special knowledge about this code of responsibility. Silicon Valley Enterprises have a great deal of influence and wealth, perhaps now in some respects greater than that possessed by any government. The New York Times Magazine did stories recently about Chinese factories making Apple products that were run as a sweat shops. Does Apple have the right or strength to insist on at least monitoring working conditions for those who make its products? The Saipan Sweat Shop case resulted in a settlement that required several clothing manufacturers to end the most egregious forms of labor abuse. Outsourcing labor is very convenient for many corporations, and not just for Silicon Valley Enterprises, but it is a prominent feature of Silicon Valley operations. So some of the questions we have about the “Digital India” initiative involve anticipated impacts on basic labor conditions in India that are presently poor and often abusive, but that do make labor costs of doing any kind of business in India more profitable. It is important that “Digital India” evolves in tandem with the protection and advancement of fundamental rights of all workers.

Q: How successful have these Silicon Valley Enterprises been so far in safeguarding their code of conduct while dealing with various governments?

So far, voluntary codes of conduct with respect to business practices, as has been promoted within the United Nations, have elicited pledges from corporations eager to uphold their reputations but the record of compliance ranges from mixed to poor.

Q: The US in general and the Obama administration in particular, have been accused of spying and abusing personal information of individuals by leaders and people of different countries. What has been your reaction to that? 

The pursuit of reasonable levels of state security has become indistinguishable with the Orwellian state.

This is a confusing area of governmental operations, not only for the United States, but for all countries. On the one side, especially given the current agenda of security threats, all governments engage in spying and espionage. On the other side, all states criminalize these activities that target its state’s secrets. This creates a situation of ethical and political confusion, making it difficult to distinguish heroes from villains. The United States as the world’s first global state with interests and involvements throughout the planet has the most extensive, sophisticated, and intrusive system of surveillance and espionage in all of history. As mentioned, the Snowden and Wikileaks disclosures, while viewed as criminal acts in the United States, divulged such excessive abuses that the U.S. Congress took some steps to curtail some of these intelligence operations. One of the reasons to be concerned about “Digital India” or “Digital America” is that the borderline between the pursuit of reasonable levels of state security has become almost indistinguishable from the Orwellian nightmare state of permanent war and total control over people. It is up to citizens within their own country and those with concern for the future of their region and the world to insist on scrutiny of intelligence operations to avoid their encroachment on individual and group rights.My colleagues who co-signed this petition are extremely concerned about this, and some of the signatories to the letter have expertise in this area. In criticizing India, we are not saying, nor do we believe, that the US record must not be scrutinized, protested, and reformed. Modi’s visit to the US provides an occasion for some of these shared issues to be discussed in a more global forum. But a focus on the severe dangers of US practices in the collection and use of digital information should never be interpreted to mean that scrutiny should be lessened in relation to what is, or may happen under Modi’s governmental authority.

Q: Most governments in the world today are committed to fight the “menace of terrorism.” In such a scenario do you think individual privacy and their fundamental rights are bound to be curtailed?

I think the evidence to date the answer worldwide is a resounding ‘yes.’ Partly this is the nature of threats posed by non-state actors that have no territorial address making everyone everywhere a potential suspect, which seems to serve as a rationalization for the expanded intelligence activities undertaken in the name of fighting against terrorism. This challenge of identifying and removing the threat before it materializes, also creates pressure for racial and ethnic profiling that gets translated in practice into arbitrary and discriminatory treatment of minorities, especially if perceived as anti-regime minorities.

A second level of explanation is associated with technological innovations that make the collection of meta-date feasible and economical. These capabilities are also enhanced by the development of drones and various forms of robotic activity, with even greater capabilities and intrusiveness on the technological horizon.

Because this transformed security and technological atmosphere endows the state with dangerous totalizing powers, it is more important than ever that the peoples of the world uphold freedom for themselves and others. It is only through the challenges of a petition such as ours that some hope exists for establishing a dynamic balance between state and society in the digital age. It is in this spirit that I joined with my Indian and other colleagues and friends as a signatory.

 

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Here is the full statement issued by the academicians, and a partial list of signatories:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley highlights the role of a country that has contributed much to the growth and development of Silicon Valley industries, and builds on this legacy in extending American business collaboration and partnerships with India. However Indian entrepreneurial success also brings with it key responsibilities and obligations with regard to the forms of e-governance envisioned by ‘Digital India’.

We are concerned that the project’s potential for increased transparency in bureaucratic dealings with people is threatened by its lack of safeguards about privacy of information, and thus its potential for abuse. As it stands, ‘Digital India’ seems to ignore key questions raised in India by critics concerned about the collection of personal information and the near certainty that such digital systems will be used to enhance surveillance and repress the constitutionally-protected rights of citizens. These issues are being discussed energetically in public in India and abroad. Those who live and work in Silicon Valley have a particular responsibility to demand that the government of India factor these critical concerns into its planning for digital futures.

We acknowledge that Narendra Modi, as Prime Minister of a country that has contributed much to the growth and development of Silicon Valley industries, has the right to visit the United States, and to seek American business collaboration and partnerships with India. However, as educators who pay particular attention to history, we remind Mr. Modi’s audiences of the powerful reasons for him being denied the right to enter the US from 2005-2014, for there is still an active case in Indian courts that questions his role in the Gujarat violence of 2002 when 1,000 died. Modi’s first year in office as the Prime Minister of India includes well-publicized episodes of censorship and harassment of those critical of his policies, bans and restrictions on NGOs leading to a constriction of the space of civic engagement, ongoing violations of religious freedom, and a steady impingement on the independence of the judiciary.

Under Mr Modi’s tenure as prime minister, academic freedom is also at risk: foreign scholars have been denied entry to India to attend international conferences, there has been interference with the governance of top Indian universities and academic institutions such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Indian Institutes of Technology and Nalanda University; as well as underqualified or incompetent key appointments made to the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Film and Television Institute of India, and the National Book Trust. A proposed bill to bring the Indian Institutes of Management under direct control of government is also worrisome. These alarming trends require that we, as educators, remain vigilant not only about modes of e-governance in India but about the political future of the country.

We urge those who lead Silicon Valley technology enterprises to be mindful of not violating their own codes of corporate responsibility when conducting business with a government which has, on several occasions already, demonstrated its disregard for human rights and civil liberties, as well as the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions.

Signatories

Meena Alexander, Distinguished Professor of English, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

Arjun Appadurai, Paulette Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University

Anjali Arondekar, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, UC Santa Cruz

Fredrick Asher, Professor of Art History and South Asian Studies, University of Minnesota

Paola Bacchetta, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies University of California, Berkeley

Sarada Balagopalan, Associate Professor of Childhood Studies, Rutgers University, Camden

Radhika Balakrishnan, Prof of Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University

Shahzad Bashir, Professor of Religious Studies, Stanford University

Manu Bhagavan, Professor of History and Human Rights, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, The City University of New York

Mona Bhan Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology DePauw University

Srimati Basu, Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Kentucky

Prashant Bharadwaj, Associate Professor of Economics, University of California, San Diego

Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, Faculty Fellow, Barrett Honors College, Arizona State University

Nandini Bhattacharya, Professor of English, Texas A &M University, College- Station

Tithi Bhattacharya, Associate Professor of South Asian History, Purdue University

Amit R Baishya, Assistant Professor of English, University of Oklahoma

Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy and Director, South Asian Institute, Columbia University

Purnima Bose, Associate Professor, English and International Studies, Indiana University-Bloomington

Christopher Candland, Associate Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College

Paula Chakravartty, Associate Professor, Gallatin School, & Department of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University

Shefali Chandra, Associate Professor of South Asian History Washington University, St. Louis

S Charusheela, Associate Professor, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington, Bothell

Partha Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies, Columbia University

Indrani Chatterjee Professor of History and South Asian Studies, University of Texas, Austin

Swati Chattopadhyay Professor History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara

Marty Chen, School of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School and Affiliated Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Rohit Chopra, Associate Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University

Elora Chowdhury Associate Professor & Chair, Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston

E Valentine Daniel, Professor of Anthropology, Colombia University

Monisha Das Gupta, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies, University of Hawaii, Manoa

Jigna Desai, Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota

Pawan Dhingra, Professor of Sociology, Tufts University

Wendy Doniger, Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago

Richard Falk, Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University

Bishnupriya Ghosh, Professor of English University of California, Santa Barbara

Huma Ahmed-Ghosh, Professor and Chair of Women’s Studies, San Diego State University

Durba Ghosh, Associate Professor of History, Cornell University

Sumanth Gopinath, Associate Professor of Music Theory, School of Music, University of Minnesota

Nitin Govil, Associate Professor of Cinema & Media Studies, University of Southern California

Paul Greenough, Professor of History and Community and Behavioral Health and Director, South Asian Studies Program, University of Iowa

Inderpal Grewal, Professor of South Asian Studies, Yale University

Sumit Guha, Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor of History, University of Texas, Austin

Thomas Blom Hansen, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for South Asia, Stanford University

Syed Akbar Hyder, Associate Professor of South Asian Studies, University of Texas, Austin

Nalini Iyer, Professor of English, Seattle University

Priya Jaikumar, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, University of Southern California

Pranav Jani, Associate Professor of English, Ohio State University

Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard University, John F Kennedy School of Government

Arun W Jones, Associate Professor, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

May Joseph, Professor of Social Science, Pratt Institute

Priya Joshi, Associate Professor of English and Associate Director, Center for the Humanities, Temple University

Sampath Kannan, Henry Salvatore Professor of Computer and Information Science, University of Pennsylvania

Suvir Kaul, A M Rosenthal Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania Waqas Khwaja, Professor of English, Agnes Scott College

Naveeda Khan, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University

Nyla Ali Khan, Visiting Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Oklahoma, Norman

Satish Kolluri, Associate Professor of Communications, Pace University

Ruby Lal, Professor of Middle East and South Asian Studies, Emory University

Sarah Lamb, Professor of Anthropology and Head of the Division of Social Sciences, Brandeis University; Co-Chair of South Asian Studies

Karen Leonard, Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, University of California, Irvine

David Lelyveld, Professor of History, Emeritus, William Paterson University

Jinee Lokaneeta, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Drew University

Ania Loomba, Catherine Bryson Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania

David Ludden, Professor of History, New York University

Ritty Lukose, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and South Asian Studies, the Gallatin School, New York University

Sudhir Mahadevan Assistant Professor of Film Studies, Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media, University of Washington, Seattle

Tayyab Mahmud, Professor of Law and Director, Center for Global Justice Seattle University School of Law

Sunaina Maira, Professor of Asian American Studies, University of California, Davis

Bakirathi Mani, Associate Professor of English Literature, Swarthmore College

Rebecca J. Manring, Associate Professor of India Studies and Religious Studies Indiana University-Bloomington

Monika Mehta, Associate Professor, Department of English, Binghamton University

Jisha Menon, Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies, Stanford University

Kalyani Devaki Menon, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, DePaul University

Sally Engle Merry, Silver Professor of Anthropology, New York University

Raza Mir, Professor of Management, Cotsakos College of Business, William Paterson University

Deepti Misri, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies University of Colorado, Boulder

Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Chair and Distinguished Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies, and Dean’s Professor of Humanities, Syracuse University

Satya P Mohanty, Professor of English, Cornell University

Megan Moodie, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Projit B Mukharji, Martin Meyerson Assistant Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies, History & Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania

Madhavi Murty, Assistant Professor of Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

Vijaya Nagarajan, Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, Program in Environmental Studies, University of San Francisco

Gyanendra Pandey, Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History, Emory University

Carla Petievich, Visiting Professor of South Asian Studies, University of Texas, Austin

Sheldon Pollock, Professor of South Asian Studies, Columbia University Kavita Philip, Associate Professor of History, University of California, Irvine

Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History, Trinity College

Jasbir K Puar, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University

Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Professor of Law and Development, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

R Radhakrishnan, Chancellor’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine

Gloria Raheja, Professor of Anthropology, University of Minnesota

Junaid Rana, Associate Professor of Asian American Studies, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana

Anupama Rao, Professor of Anthropology, Barnard College

Velcheru Narayana Rao, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, Emory University

Kasturi Ray, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies/Co-Director, South Asian Studies, San Francisco State University

M V Ramana, Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University Sumathi Ramaswamy, Professor of History, Duke University

Chandan Reddy, Associate Professor of English, University of Washington, Seattle

Gayatri Reddy, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Illinois, Chicago

Parama Roy, Professor of English, University of California, Davis

Sharmila Rudrappa, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin

G S Sahota, Assistant Professor of Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz

Yasmin Saikia, Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies & Professor of History, Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, Arizona State University

Arun Saldanha, Associate Professor of Geography, Environment and Society University of Minnesota

Juned Shaikh, Assistant Professor of History, University of California, Santa Cruz

Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence and Associate Professor of African American Studies and Asian American Studies, Northwestern University

Elora Shehabuddin, Associate Professor of Humanities and Political Science, Rice University

Bhaskar Sarkar, Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

Priya Satia, Associate Professor of History, Stanford University

Aradhana Sharma, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Wesleyan University

Snehal Shinghavi, Associate Professor of English and South Asian Studies, University of Texas, Austin

Ajay Skaria, Professor of History, University of Minnesota

Shalini Shankar, Chair and Associate Professor of Asian American Studies, Northwestern University

S Shankar, Professor of English, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Amritjit Singh, Langston Hughes Professor of English, Ohio University

Mytheli Sreenivas, Associate Professor of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Ohio State University

Rajini Srikanth, Professor, English, University of Massachusetts Boston Nidhi Srinivas, Associate Professor of Nonprofit Management, The New School

Ajantha Subramanian, Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies, Harvard University

Banu Subramaniam, Professor, Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago

Raja Swamy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Tennessee Tariq Thachil, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Yale University

Ashwini Tambe, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Maryland, College-Park

Vamsi Vakulabharanam, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Jyotnsa Vaid, Professor of Psychology, Texas A&M University

Sylvia Vatuk, Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, University of Illinois, Chicago

Kamala Visweswaran, Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of California, San Diego

Kalindi Vora, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of California, San Diego

Bonnie Zare, Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies, University of Wyoming

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The Undisclosed Second Paradox in Michael Walzer’s The Paradox of Liberation

20 Jun

 

There is little doubt that several of Michael Walzer’s contributions to political theory will long remain influential (Revolution of the Saints (1965); Just and Unjust Wars (1977); Spheres of Justice (1983)). Although his work lacks the cumulative weight of a major philosophic presence, the ideas and issues Walzer has been exploring in the last several decades with great conceptual coherence and originality. His work exhibits a consistent practical relevance to the realities of the unfolding world around us. His writing is lucid, well informed, and is mainstream enough to be non-threatening. Walzer’s worldview is congruent with widely shared ethical presuppositions prevalent among liberals in Western society. Added to this, Walzer’s writings are tinged with a socialist nostalgic edge that imparts a now harmless progressive resonance. This is somewhat soothing for all those suffering varying degrees of guilty conscience as we go on as before, enjoying life in non-sustainable consumptive Western societies.

 

Aside from John Rawls, Jacques Derrida, Jürgens Habermas who enjoy preeminence, only Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, and Amartya Sen have had a comparable contemporary influence to that of Walzer by way of philosophic commentary on major public issues. Apart from Walzer’s strong scholarly emphasis on Judaic Studies and ideological support for Israel, it is Rorty who seems closest to Walzer in ethos, philosophic stance, and intellectual style. As I read this latest extended essay by Walzer I kept thinking of the lines from Auden’s great poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:

                        “Time with that with this strange excuse

                        Pardoned Kipling and his views

                        And will pardon Paul Claudell

                        Pardon him for writing well”

The point being that despite often finding Walzer’s views suspect, I never find his writing dull or his ideas without force and relevance, and that maybe in the end what flourishes through time is more style than substance.

 

Walzer has been a strong and consistent advocate of Israel and outspoken adherent of moderate Zionism throughout his career. Sometimes his eloquent partisanship has been hidden below the surface of his theorizing, giving his undisclosed messages the status of a sub-text, adored by the faithful and repudiated by the critical. Among critics this Walzer tendency to hide his political commitments beneath his theoretical generalization, creates an impression of a rather sneaky lack of forthrightness. For instance, his influential Just and Unjust Wars can be read (without any acknowledgement from Walzer) as a show of strong support for Israel’s approach to Palestinian armed resistance that is expressed in the abstract language of the ethics of counter-terrorism. Walzer’s tendency to be not straight forward about his ideological agenda is intriguingly relevant to his latest book, The Paradox of Liberation, which sets forth a bold and challenging general thesis—that the distinct secular movements that produced national liberation in Algeria, India, and Israel a few generations ago have each most unexpectedly and progressively yielded their identities to intense religious counter-revolutions. These counter-revolutions have each sought to restore tradition and religious observance in public spaces, including the governing process. This religious turn against the secular came as an unwelcome surprise to the founding generation of national liberation leaders whose successors find themselves pushed aside by more socially conservative elites.

 

These secularizing movements were rooted initially in the opposite belief that only by breaking with societal traditions can liberation be achieved for a national people that is being oppressed or acutely denied its true destiny. As Walzer summarizes: “The old ways must be repudiated and overcome totally. But the old ways are cherished by many of the men and women whose ways they are. That is the paradox of liberation.” (19) In the Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions (Yale University Press, 2015). Walzer is preoccupied by this paradox, and devotes himself to its explication. He contends that the paradox arises from the tension between the mobilization of a people around the negation of that which the majority society affirms (that is, religious values) and while this negation seems useful (even to many of the religiously oriented) during the struggle against alien oppression, it will itself be negated a generation or so after liberation, a phenomenon of negating the negation that can also be understood as the return of the repressed in the form of religious resurgence. The secularists enjoyed a temporary ascendancy because they were active resisters to oppressive circumstances rather than as was the case with religiously oriented leaderships, which tended to be passive and even deferential to the status quo.

 

This pattern of secularist victory giving way to religion is reproduced in a nationally distinctive form in each of these specific historical circumstances by the seemingly inexplicable rise and potency of religious zeal. In each of Walzer’s three cases, the political moment of successful liberation by secularists was soon to be superseded to varying degrees by the religious moment, an entirely unexpected sequel. The liberators whether led by Ben Bella, Jawaharlal Nehru, or David Ben Gurion were modernizers who strongly believed that religion was being and should be superseded by science and rationality. This meant that religion was largely a spent force with respect to cultural identity and public policy, and should in the future be confined in its role to state ritual occasions and private devotional practice. Walzer argument explains the central misunderstanding of these secular leaders, and expresses his own hope that the religious resurgence should not be viewed as the end of the national narrative. Also, Walzer would not welcome the Algerian phase three sequel to the religious challenge by way of bloody civil war, followed by military autocracy and renewed societal passivity.

 

What makes the book challenging is its main prescriptive argument that runs as follows. The secular nationalists made a crucial initial mistake, according to Walzer, by basing their movement on the negation of religion rather than byseeking its incorporation. If their secularist goal was sustainable liberation, which it certainly was, then the adoption of an either/or orientation toward religion and its practice was wrong from the start. Instead the attitude of the secular liberators toward religion should have one of constructive engagement, and not negation. What this means in the context of each movement is not spelled out by Walzer. The stress is placed on a recommended (re)incorporation of religious values into the reigning secular ideology combined with sensitivity to traditional values and practices. Walzer is fully aware that his proposed approach becomes problematic as soon as it is pursued unconditionally. As he recognizes, the traditions in each of these nations denies equality to women, often in cruel and unacceptable ways. Walzer does not want secularists to give up their commitment to gender equality for the sake of reconciliation with religiously oriented sectors of society. What he encourages is a sympathetic awareness of traditional attitudes toward gender while seeking to overcome their embedded biases. As is often the case, Walzer is more persuasive in diagnosis than prescription, delineating the problems far better than finding credible solutions.

 

One difficulty with the framework we are offered in the book is the failure to consider the discrediting relevance of the corruption and incompetence of the liberators, which amounted to a betrayal of their promises to lead a new and happy society of free people. Whether through corruption or the failure to deliver a better life to a large portion of the population, a post-liberation mood of disillusionment takes hold in different patterns, but they share in common the search for an alternative orientation.

 

In other words the excitement of liberation is hard to sustain during the state-building rigors of governance, and also in most cases, the personalities suitable for liberation are not well adapted to handle the routines and typical challenges of post-liberation existence. Israel, in particular, was an outlier from these perspectives, as its claims of liberation were at all stages shadowed by doubts as a result of fears, threats, uncertainties, and opposition to its underlying legitimacy claim from within its ethnic ranks and more so from those it sought to subdue by either displacement or subjugation. The anti-colonial liberations of India and Algeria never faced such basic challenges to its core identity.

 

There is for me a closely related yet more fundamental problem with the misleading comparisons relied upon by Walzer to develop his argument. India and Algeria were genuine liberation movements waged by indigenous nations to rid from the entire territorial space of their respective countries a deeply resented, exploitative, and domineering foreign presence. To place Israel in such a category is to foster several deep misunderstandings—there is the master presupposition that the Zionist movement is being properly treated as a case of ‘national liberation’ even if the Jewish nation was not engaged in reclaiming control over its residential territorial space. Jews were scattered in enclaves around the world when the Zionist movement was launched and most of its leaders relied on biblical claims to Palestine to ground its territorial claims. Although the early debate about whether a homeland in Uganda would fulfill Zionist goals illuminates the distinctiveness of the Zionist quest. Beyond this Zionists became legally dependent upon British colonialist support to carry forward their efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine with the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Zionism cannot be meaningfully regarded as a revolt against alien rulership, although in its last pre-state stage it did try to expel Britain from Palestine so as to compel an abandonment of its mandatory administration. Unlike standard anti-colonial movements, Zionism is more correctly perceived as an activist effort to overcome the realities of diaspora Judaism confronted by the persecution, discrimination, and assimilation in an array of national settings.

 

Given this background, it seems dubious, indeed polemical, to treat Israel’s establishment as an instance of ‘liberation,’ a terminology that obscures the centrality of the ‘dispossession’ experienced by the majority indigenous Palestinian Arab population in the course of Israel’s acquisition of statehood. In passing, Walzer does somewhat acknowledge some of these differences that distinguish Israel from India and Algeria, but regards them as inconsequential contextual issues that do not raise for him any serious doubts about the basic reasonableness of regarding Israel as coming into being as a result of national liberation led by the Zionist movement. Walzer’s focus is rather upon whether Israel fits the pattern of a secularist phase one giving way to a religious phase two, leaving us with a big question mark as to whether there will be a phase three, and if so, whether it will reflect Walzer’s hopes for a belated constructive engagement with religion rather than an Alegerian style relapse into civil strife and autocracy. Although Walzer expresses his personal wish for the Palestinians to have their own sovereign state (53) at some point, this wish is never contextualized or concretized by reference to criteria of equality between the two peoples. The Palestinian national liberation movement is discussed by Walzer as correlative to his main thesis. Walzer notes that even prior to achieving Palestinian statehood, the PLO’s secular leadership has been increasingly challenged and even discredited by a rising Islamist alternative. (53-55)

 

This reference to the Palestinian national movement is an interesting aside in relation to Walzer’s essential set of contentions relating to the paradox he is depicting, but it fails to engage the issue I find central, which is whether Israel’s establishment can qualify as an instance of national liberation. To be sure Zionism generated an extraordinary international movement that overcame many formidable obstacles that stood in its way, and none more formidable than an indigenous Palestinian Arab majority population that did its best to prevent Zionists from reaching their goal of statehood on behalf of the Jewish people. Although Walzer notes that the early secularist Zionist leaders stressed a commitment to equality when articulating their ideas about the preferred relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the Israeli state. In my view, it is questionable in the extreme whether this idealistic goal ever represented the actual intentions of Zionist leaders. It should be evident to all that such egalitarianism was never expressive of Israeli policies and practices on the ground from even before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

 

More problematic still, was the dispossession and displacement from the land of most of the indigenous Arab population that had been living in Palestine for many generations. Surely this Palestinian experience is profoundly different in character and consequence from the repudiation of exploitative rule of a country by a foreign, usually European, elite and its native collaborators. Again Walzer’s sub-text, whether consciously intended or not, seems to be the retroactive legitimation of Israel’s claim to be an example of national liberation of the sort achieved by Algeria and India, and hence to be situated in the highest echelon of 20th century state-building undertakings. As many of us realize this ‘liberation’ was for Palestinians a catastrophe, known by its Arabic word nakba.

 

Overall, this is a peculiar book, developing a general view of religious counter-revolutions against secular movements of national liberation, but due to the inclusion of Israel as a principal case despite not seeming to fit, there is an implicit polemical motivation that involves whitewashing the criminality of Israel’s emergence. Acknowledging such criminality is not meant to be a covert argument for delegitimizing the present state of Israel that has now been in existence for more than 67 years, and is a member state of the United Nations. My critique of Walzer, in other words, is not meant to lay the groundwork for a second Palestinian dispossession, this time directed toward Jews. I side with Edward Said in a commitment to fair future for both peoples based on their shared rights under international law and on diplomacy to negotiate compromises where rights overlap. I do agree with Said that such a jointly conceived future cannot be undertaken without a prior Israeli acknowledgement of the recent past as epitomized by the nakba, and such rituals of redress must include a formal apology to the Palestinian people for the suffering they have for so long endured.

 

In the end, the paradox that Walzer dwells upon is less consequential than the paradox he ignores: namely, that what is being represented as ‘national liberation’ of the Jewish people by Zionist ideologues is more objectively presented as the ‘national oppression’ of the Palestinian people. This oppression is experienced in different sets of circumstances: as a subjugated minority; as an occupied people; as a nation of refugees and exiles; as a community of resistance aspiring to Palestinian ‘national liberation’; as communities victimized by state terrorism. This second paradox is that what is portrayed as ‘liberation’ for one people serves at the same time as pretext and rationale for the ‘oppression’ of another people. In my view, the second paradox raised life or death questions for both peoples to a far greater extent than does the first paradox that seems to control Walzer’s own Zionist imagination.

 

Michael Ignatieff, whose political orientation resembles that of Michael Walzer, in the course of a mostly laudatory review of The Paradox of Liberation confirms my suspicion that the undisclosed intent of this book is to connect Israel’s fate with that of such exemplary liberation movements as those that took place in India and Algeria. Consider Igantieff’s revealing language innocently proclaiming this reading: “While Israel remains the central focus of The Paradox of Liberation, Walzer has made a major contribution to the question of what’s happening there simply by arguing that Israel may not be so special after all: the same kinds of problems may be occurring in other states created by national liberation movements. He compares what happened to Ben-Gurion’s vision with what befell Jawaharlal Nehru’s in India and Ahmed Ben Bella’s in Algeria.” [Michael Ignatieff, “The Religious Spector Haunting Revolution,” NY Review of Books, 19 June 2015] In a stunning instance of ‘benign neglect’ Ignatieff never once even mentions the relevance of Palestinian dispossession in his lengthy

assessment of Walzer’s version of Israel’s ‘national liberation’ story. Instead, he makes the opposite point, suggesting that Walzer in an indirect way diminishes Israel by his implicit denial of Israeli exceptionalism. As the language quoted above seems to suggest, Israel is upgraded by its similarities with (rather than differences from) other liberation narratives.

 

In closing, it is plausible, even morally, to argue that the Zionist cause was in keeping with a variety of attempts over the course of the last century by many nations and peoples to possess a state of their own that is defined by ethnic or religious boundaries that transcend in psycho-political relevance geographic boundaries, which incidentally have yet to be authoritatively drawn to delineate Israel’s territorial scope. Yet what is not plausible is to lump together the Israeli experience with that of India and Algeria just because the founding generation of leaders shared a secular ideology that was later subjected to a religious challenge once the state was established. For India and Algeria their respective anti-colonial struggles each possessed its originality, but without raising doubts about the delineation of the scope of territorial sovereignty and without needing to coercing the native population to submit or leave. This became integral to Zionism in the course of the struggle between opposed nationalisms, with expulsion necessary to ensure Jewish dominance over the development and governance of the country.

 

If Jewish biblical claims to territorial sovereignty are dismissed, as surely should be a major premise of secular thinking, then the Zionist project needs to be conceived of as essentially one of colonizing a foreign country. The presence of a deeply rooted Jewish minority, less than 5% when the Zionist movement got started in the late 19th century, does not make Palestine any less of a foreign country from the perspective of Jews who settled in Palestine in a spirit of missionizing zeal. As Walzer himself makes clear, Zionists were self-consciously opposed to the Judaism they had experienced in the diaspora that was premised on passivity and deference to the rulers of their country of residence and religiously expressed by the message of patience, the religious duty to wait for the Messiah, the only religiously acceptable experience of liberation. The founders of Zionism, and its current leaders, were determined to reconstitute Jewish life on the basis of assertiveness and even aggressiveness, overcoming the alleged diasporic legacy of passivity, and this feature of their movement has been transformative for even religious Jews. From this perspective, the historic triumphal event was undoubtedly Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, which became inspirational for diasporic Jewish communities identified more strongly than ever with the state of Israel, and questioned their own traditional postures of passivity.

 

My contention is that Walzer’s paradox dissolves as soon as the claim to categorize Zionism as a mode of ‘national liberation’ is deconstructed, while the second paradox remains to be explained. This second paradox dwells on the moral and political interplay of what transpires when the liberation of the self is organically linked to the dispossession of the other. In a postscript (134-146) Walzer explains why America does not belong with his three cases, which is because America’s original founding never truly embraced secularism. What he might have also said, but doesn’t, is that what the founding of America and Israel have most in common is the dispossession of the native populations, and it is this foundational fact that shapes the state-building experiences of both countries more than either has been willing to acknowledge. In this sense, we might invite Walzer to write a sequel on this second more consequential paradox, but realizing that such an invitation is certain to be refused. Its acceptance would implicitly repudiate the ideological benefits and normative authority of the first paradox that treats the establishment of Israel as if it is entitled to be regarded as one of the illustrious examples of 20th century anti-colonial struggles.