Weekly Letter to the President
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INAUGURATION, January 20, 2009
Drunk in its stale air
For two hundred years.
Fettered in mind and body,
The soul, the safe escape
To let me breathe the cries
Of my heart singing
Tears of mel-an-choly.
The tears flow free today
Washing the stains of blood
And sweat in brotherhood.
Raise the curtain then an'
Let the world look in
On this promised land --
We breathe free today.... almost.
--- Arshad M. Khan
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
--- Native American proverb
June 14, 2019
Mr. President: On the evening of January 30, 1948, as he walked to his regular
interfaith prayer meeting, Mahatma Gandhi was shot and killed. The assassin
Nathuram Godse was a Hindu nationalist who opposed Gandhi's inclusiveness
towards those of other faiths, particularly Muslims.
Manifested in its worst form in the assassination of a revered figure, this conflict
between liberal and nationalist Hindus continues to this day. The chief minister of
West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, is the current target of the Hindu nationalist BJP's
In India's recent general election, the BJP and Narendra Modi the prime minister were
returned to power with an increased majority in the lower house of India's parliament.
Their usual poor showing in West Bengal, even though improved in this election, has
led to comments designed to arouse public ire -- like the state has been turned into a
mini-Pakistan. It is worth noting that Gandhi's killer was a former member of the RSS,
leaving it to form an armed group. Also the RSS is considered the ideological
fountainhead of the BJP, and Mr. Modi continues to be a member.
Not long ago, Gauri Lankesh was murdered outside her home for expressing liberal
views. This time in the Kolkata disturbances against Banerjee, it was a bust of a
secular reformist liberal that was decapitated: the venerated Ishwar Chandra
Vidyasagar (1820-1891) was a lawyer, philosopher and reformist who contributed to
rationalizing the Bengali alphabet and prose, and fought for Hindu widows' right to
But the difference between Hindu nationalists and liberals is of earlier origin. In the
19th century, social reformers like Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade were opposed by
others like B. G. Tilak. If Ranade supported the Age of Consent Bill raising the age
when girls could be married from 10 to 12, then Tilak thought it to be an interference
by foreigners in Indian customs and traditions. Tilak had also formed cow protection
societies raising communal tensions in his Bombay base -- sound familiar to the
present situation where meat eaters and leather tanners are often targeted? Ranade
sought to keep religion private and foresaw the potential conflict
The practice of celebrating the birthday of the god Ganesh was old and the 'puja' or
worship usually performed in the home. Tilak now encouraged a public 'puja',
encouraging people to bring the Ganesh idols out of their homes and celebrate
openly. The festival of loud music and idols in procession continues to this day and is
now spread out over ten days during August/September.
The consequences had been predicted by Tilak's reformist adversaries, notably
Justice Ranade and G. G. Agarkar, the latter a friend 0f Tilak who had become a
critic. In September 1893, Bombay suffered its first communal riot leaving nearly 100
dead and 500 injured. Minor clashes had already occurred over the incessantly loud
music and general disruption of daily activity.
The religious flavor so imparted to the independence movement gave pause to
Muslims; the glue binding secular society was being dissolved. Feeling marginalized,
they soon formed the Muslim League to protect their rights, and not long thereafter
began to demand a separate homeland ... Pakistan.