Dr Kusum Gopal has served as a Chief Technical Advisor to various UN agencies. Her gender-sensitive ethnographic expertise covers a diverse subject matters: Education, Social Development, Civic and Informal Legal understandings, Children’s welfare, Reproductive Health, Refugee Rehabilitation, Relief work, Reconstruction and Conflict Resolution, Public Health (HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Cholera), Domestic Violence, Religious Strife, Human Rights, Environmental protection and, related concerns.
Civil rights activist Dr Salah AL-Bander interviewed Dr Gopal for the Kashmir Observer recently.
Q. The world knows about Mahatma Gandhi and his mission for a peaceful world. How best can Gandhism are applied in these very turbulent times. Please elaborate
The essential philosophy of Gandhism is about individual and collective morality by Satyagraha or soul force, establishing the truth, granting the rights of self-dignity and self-determination to a people and their industry against brutal injustice, putting an end to the two hundred years of colonial exploitation through ahimsa or non-violence. By walking through the villages, dressed in a loin cloth, he more than anyone else, ignited ordinary men and women to participate against colonialism, democratising and widening the struggle for freedom. He also believed that suffering was to be endured, for a complete renunciation of violence of the heart and, consequent active exercise of the force generated by the great renunciation–that individuals who neither submit passively nor retaliate to violence find in themselves a new sense of strength, dignity, and courage. There was an ethical code for each satyagrahi to follow and, that meant not just wearing the khadi or spun cotton but an implicit adherence to specific strictures. What is often not acknowledged is that moral valuations have tremendous popular appeal because they are grounded in the cultural and, in both the oral textual belief systems such as the Upanishads, if I may add ethnographic traditions of the Indian subcontinent. In the regions bordering Afghanistan, for example, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan came to be known as the Frontier Gandhi, for his adoption of Gandhian principles. More recently, Nelson Mandela and, now Baba Anna Hazare, a retired army driver have advocated Gandhism and won national support against the fight against corruption and social injustices. And, we have President Obama who is an ardent admirer of Gandhi.
Different historical and social contexts of conflicts and wars result in different expressions. Nevertheless, recognising the critical significance of soul-force as the embodiment of feelings, of deep emotions of the people from the both sides is an entry point towards any form of conflict resolution: both warring parties acknowledging that conflict whatever its dimension also represents the angst as indeed, anger as also an opportunity for dialogues, if not immediate reconciliation. There are painful truths that need to be accepted but what we need to emphasise is the similarities and, mutual interdependence – common grounds rather than differences within a culture of trust and respect.
Q: Can Gandhism be applied in the context of Arab- Israeli conflicts?
Only Mahatma Gandhi could answer this important question. Satyagraha has been drawn from the philosophical traditions in the Subcontinent in the sense that we had Satyagrahas before following the first Partition of Bengal when the British divided it as an act of cauterization to crush the agitation against colonial rule, the Swadeshi movement for example. A Satyagragha to take root in the Arab- Israeli context will need to draw upon mutually understood terms of reference and people on both sides willing to participate jointly in these efforts can succeed. This is also such a sacred region as it is the birthplace of three great world religions and so many accompanying forms of expression. And, to most peoples all over the world, peace here would resonate in creating prosperity in their lands.
Could you elaborate?
We understand and often attempt to analyse events or happenings as they have unfolded without examining the philosophical and historical roots of conflicts and wars, we need to mediate on what it means to learn from teachers one has never met. On level, what needs to be brought to the fore is that for the two nation state to be established, the roots of the rage that both peoples feel in this region needs to be expressed through dialogues, making compulsory to respect Arabic and Hebrew cultures. The Holocaust, a very traumatic reminder of human bestiality was engineered by a civilised nation in Europe, which forced the need for an independent state for the Jewish people so that it could not happen again. At a poignant lecture I attended whilst a student in Cambridge, Prof. George Steiner said as Hitler wanted the Jews exterminated and out of Europe, his father told him to stay in Europe as that would defeat Hitler’s goal so he did. What is important to reiterate is that Arab peoples were not responsible for the persecution of the Jewish people. And, race and tribe were not matters that affected interaction between the various communities. These cultures, like ancient cultures are very hospitable, kind and generous. And, there are Arab Jews, Arab Christians and Arab Muslims and, to attribute an ethnic or racial identity goes against the spirit of these cultures which have contributed immeasurably to the learning and progress of humanity. Indeed, persecution and ill-treatment of any peoples or individuals is against the charter of human rights but also against the constitutions of most countries.
For millennia, in these ancient cultures, Arabs, Jews and Christians who lived here contributed to a vibrant syncretism and, continue to share deep connections. The shared use of metaphors in the languages, customs, music, cuisine reflects such ancient connections. This is itself a very powerful ground for conflict resolution. Even more importantly, they shared their land of their ancestors with those who came and settled and founded Israel. The dialogues now should focus on similarities and sharing legacies. As eminent scholars have noted that the Torah and the Quran are very similar. In fact that in itself provides the moral and intellectual foundations for conflict resolution dialogues. Control and availability of natural resources such as water and land form a major point of grievance and, separate settlements have caused deep rifts within this very sacred region, the birthplace of three great world religions. It is important to begin negotiations between the main parties and, come to an agreement on sharing resources and respecting the rights of all individuals equally. Clearly, solutions can only come from the soil: Hezbollah, Hamas, the Israeli government and all parties alone can solve these issues with people who are living with so much mistrust and fear. The USA and other governments can at best provide supporting roles.
Q: What paths should these Dialogues take?
The aim of such Dialogues is to come to an agreement through a process of restoration, reconciliation, and unity. There are, as you know, great eminent officials, scholars and, governments who have at present initiated interfaith dialogues. I am not a scholar of religion but am studying the philosophical syncretic bridges between different faiths. There are many bridges that can be traversed. One for example, are the Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher Maimuni, believed that Sufi practices and doctrines continue the tradition of the Biblical prophets. He introduced into the Jewish prayer such practices as reciting God’s name, prostration, or dhikr, stretching out hands, kneeling, and ablution of the feet. Some of these Sufi-Jewish practices are still observed in a few Synagogues. Abraham Maimuni’s principal work entitled Kitab al–kifayah fi ‘ilm al–riwayah (A Comprehensive Guide for the Servants of God) was compiled in Arabic. In the book, Maimuni evidences a great appreciation for, and affinity to, Sufism. Followers of his path continued to foster a Jewish-Sufi form of pietism for at least a century setting up the pietistic school in Egypt. The followers called, interchangeably, Hasidism or Sufism (Tasawwuf), practiced spiritual retreats, solitude, and fasting and sleep deprivation. Interestingly, the Ottomans through the tanzimat sought to incorporate various faiths cultures within, governance by inclusion. By embracing the Hanafi School and, drawing upon all four schools in its law making, it permitted maximum flexibility within the limits of Islamic tradition placating disparate populations of Jews, Christians and, indeed, various schools within the Sunni Islamic traditions. Many of the spiritual exercises of the Hesychast movement championed by St Gregory Palamas whilst at the Ottoman court were derived from Sufi and Islamic practices. And, of course we cannot forget the wonderful contributions of the Mughals. We have inspiring precedents to guide us to make the impossible a reality.
Q: Is there a solution for Afghanistan?
Ours is a century of great turmoil as the balance of power has been dramatically transformed and, such an understanding is being met with some difficulties. Well, in Afghanistan, there has been since the 1970s, raging civil wars beginning with the Soviet occupation and, the people are suffering immeasurably. For any effective solution, the promise to work towards establishing a culture of trust and respect is necessary- and currently that seems to be a remote prospect. There is an urgent need to acknowledge all interests openly and, the Taliban and all other mujaheedin groups be they in Pakistan or Pakistani Kashmir. There has to be a thorough understanding of the history and culture of the Afghan people that goes back three hundred years or more, and the indigenous forms of governance they appreciate and identify with.
For instance, we need to respect that this region remained for millennia a free and open frontier that facilitated the movement of peoples, trade, armies and, new communities across its strategic terrainaccepting all groups of peoples. That its civilization has been profoundly influenced by the geography and historical affinity with Central Asia, the Iranian plateau as definitively, as with the rest of the Indian subcontinent unifying the two parts of inner and outer Asia. By such time honoured open frontier traditions and practices, Afghanistan has emerged primarily as a confederation of tribes and khanates, a legacy of several hundred centuries. It is also a form of government that the Afghans have preferred, as they are a fiercely independent, egalitarian people who have never favoured a central authority, particularly, if it is seen as being imposed from the outside. With diverse settlements of peoples in the hostile terrain a pluralistic culture emerged with the passage of time. Ethnicity as it is currently interpreted using colonial and Euro-American terms of reference, therefore needs to be qualified within the context of the history and syncretic culture of this region, for instance, the nomenclature Pathan and Afghan have been used synonymously; however there are over twenty different groups that had coexisted, interacted and, assimilated through several hundred centuries. Nowadays, Pashtuns are referred to as Pathans. Whilst they are in the majority, many other groups exist such as Tajiks, Turks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Baluchis Aymak, Irani, Farsiwan, Brahui, Turkoman Arab, Nuristani, Kohistani, Pamir, Kyrgyz Gujar, Mongols, Arabs, Qizilbash, Punjabi, Sindhi each having contributed to a rich linguistic diversity, with Pashtu and Dari being spoken by the majority.
Prof David Edwards, an excellent scholar has correctly noted that Afghanistans troubles have less to do from divisions between groups or ambitions of particular individuals than from the imposition of the ideal of a nation state. Nation state, he notes is not inevitability but rather a product of specific cultural and historical events. There has been no moral discourse on statehood in Afghan society that is shared by the majority. It has always been competing forms of moral authority such as the qawm that are challenging the state and its legitimacy and indeed, its role in providing meanings to events. He observes, that Afghans acknowledge that they fight among themselves, that bitter enmity exists as it does everywhere, but in comparison to the hierarchical, centralised world; theirs is a world of definitive ethical standards and fierce loyalties. He notes further, that in Afghanistan other notions of community have persisted on an equal level with the state, other moral orders have endured despite the consolidation of power by the state and these orders continue to challenge the state and its assertion of supremacy. Thus, by respecting indigenous cultural sensitivities, engaging with local support and by revitalising traditional institutions in the process of reconstruction and recovery it is possible that the international community will be able to contribute more positively to Afghanistans future. It is a region that has been experiencing continuously, lacerations. This will stop if we combine cultural sensitivities with political solutions.
Q: What in your opinion would reduce the bloodshed and violence, wars and occupations leading to peaceful governance?
That is a tough question. There is an urgent need for reflection going back in time before we go forward and, initiating a long conversation with all conflicting groups. There exists in modern political analysis to borrow from Bourdieu, meconaissance (loosely, translated, misrecognition), considerations and interpretations remain outdated thus fresh appraisals by all governments and policy makers who are working with such preconceived erroneous, belief systems need to engage in this joint conversation. If we study the histories of these regions that are experiencing the worst turmoil just now Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, many parts of the Arab world, and, certainly, Africa what comes to mind is the spirited, egalitarian customs that inspired great civilizations; there has always been great respect for the individual, discriminations based on the colour of one’s skin, physical features, ethnicity indeed status were not valued. These are ancient cultures with extremely powerful traditions of knowledge, of learning, fine arts and, hospitality which have made rich contributions to humanity. Traditional forms of conflict resolution in each culture must be brought to bear and, we need to go back to the pre-colonial times to resuscitate indigenous understandings of democracy whilst locating the roots of the present conflicts.
Q: The greatness of Indian civilisation is widely appreciated. Yet there is so much inequality, for example, caste. Can you explain and elaborate?
Yes, certainly. Caste today is supposed to have been derived from Manusmriti or Manu Dharma sastra, a facet of the richly diverse Indian philosophical systems. The Manusmriti is not a legal code in the sense of the word, but a darshana or interpretation of philosophic systems: all ancient philosophical systems in India are known as darsanas, literally meaning, calling insights or points of view. None of the darsanas — almost 3000 verses codify cosmogony; four ashramas, government, domestic affairs, caste and morality are binding. In the etymology of Indian words, Manusmriti has come to be erroneously interpreted during the colonial period as the Laws of Manu. Eminent Sanskrit scholars do not accept the translation of smriti as laws. Smritis are remembered knowledge of the sages, derived from shrutis or divine revelations and thus are not binding. The philosophical and lexical richness of the darsanas needs to be interpreted within the cultural context of Sanskrit.
Under colonial rule, for the first time, through random physical measurements, classification and separation of the subject populations using anthropometry, skin colour, racial classifications, and, creation of ethnic identities occurred. H H Risley, an influential administrator for example, ludicrously determined that, the social position of the caste varies inversely as the nasal index, that, caste status was fixed, unchangeable; nearly all native practices and customs were reinterpreted distorting indigenous understandings and legislated customary ways of being out of existence. The colonial system supplemented its own formal institutions by manipulating these indigenous social networks in producing and reproducing social and political identities. In the experience of ordinary people such official social identities ultimately determined their fate, and they were forced by circumstance into relying upon those identities.
What is important to note is that the right of land ownership was transferred to the zamindars and those designated as the lower castes were turfed out causing widespread poverty. It is now clear from authoritative research that although one was born into a caste, his or her caste status was not fixed; one could change and did change caste and intermarriage was rife. With the movements of people, occupations and social relationships were always in a state of flux. For example, under the Turko-Afghans, the Mughals, groups of people who came to be known as the Kayasths became the backbone of the administration married into the Pathans, Turks and other groups of people or, the Banjaras who are now reduced to poverty, were once very influential and wealthy traders – salt carriers of the Mughals. The rich and romantic language of Urdu developed from these camps from Arabic, Persian and, Indian languages as did Hindustani.
Q: Why have these interpretations been accepted? How can this be changed?
The ancient cultures of the Indian subcontinent are immanent cultures, cultures of acceptance. And, for any change to be effected knowledge needs to be disseminated. For millennia, various peoples have traversed the landscape from the time of the Indus Valley civilisation almost five thousand years ago to the Mughals. Undeniably, the offer of lands, sanctuary, intermarriage, exchange of material goods made explicit through ceremonial rituals of mutual hospitality and acceptance of one another. Thus, for example, suli or bond-brotherhood concerned kinship relations between different peoples and, individuals through formal adoption of one by the other. With diverse settlements of peoples in this terrain, flourishing syncretic traditions, a fusion of indigenous Indo-Persian, central Asian, Turkish (and other influences, a pluralistic culture emerged with the passage of time nurturing diverse range of belief systems, philosophies as indeed, also, poetry, music, dance, cuisine, couture and so forth. Race and ethnicity as it is narrowly interpreted using colonial and Euro-American terms of reference, therefore needs to be qualified within the context of the history and syncretic culture of this region. The same is true of religion. As cultures of acceptance, all influences are taken and incorporated within, thus, we have integrated and accepted colonial readings. Prior to the British all those who came to Indian subcontinent had intermarried, integrated and, accepted the people as they were accepted by them. This is why colonialism was markedly different from previous empires and governance- it emphasised differences and created separatism. For nearly two hundred years, the formal codification of differences among peoples their religions, racial/ caste discrimination, separatist movements of language purification led to the Partition. Indeed, these impairments which created widespread moral, social, cultural dislocations with damaging consequences on personhoods and, identities need to be researched. There is to date, an absence of well researched accounts of the Partition of the Subcontinent. However, there are some profound films such as Garam Hawa with the actor Balraj Sahni.
Thus, what is often overlooked in understanding India, indeed the Subcontinent, is the continued domination of Anglo-Saxon interpretations although people are struggling with the unwieldy post-colonial infrastructure, their loss of lands and grinding poverty remains an extremely serious problem. And, solving these dilemmas remains the responsibility of subsequent governments since Independence.
Q: Please elaborate on Hinduism.
The term Hindu needs qualification as these tensions have less to do with religion than normally acknowledged. Syncretic beliefs have always been integral to the Subcontinent for millennia. For over thousand years, the prolixity of Indo-Islamic aetiologies was woven into the fabric of everyday existence, there was harmonious co-existence. As a matter of fact Urdu was the awaam ki zaban, the language of the common person in Mughal and, post-Mughal India. And, Arabic was taught in madrassas even as far south as Madras during the Mughal times as also, Indian languages. There is no mention of the word Hindu or Hinduism in any ancient religious texts of India. Gandhi observed that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. There are important texts such as the six schools of Indian philosophy, the Dharmasastras, four Vedas, Upanishads etc., are compilation of centuries of wisdom. None of the philosophical traditions of Hinduism endorse a religion of the Book: neither do they depend on the authority of a single set of scriptures or exclusive ministerial councils to embody belief systems, nor, is there a definitive liturgy as is the case with the monotheistic Judaeo-Christian traditions. In the subcontinent, various sects and communities have simply coexisted within a pantheistic belief system: the absorption of a deity or belief from another religion does not affect its pluralistic character; it is assimilative, encouraging co-existence. Anyone can gain salvation, a good Muslim, Jew or Christian as long as he or she follows their moral duty as prescribed by their religious texts- as one who is born as a Hindu can.
In the Indian subcontinent, it is not so much religion as we understand it within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but rather the open-ended nature of the experience of the sacred that is central to the way spiritual experience is both conceived and understood. Life is seen to have no beginning and no end. Thus, the sacred does not necessarily imply belief in God, Gods or ghosts but also is influenced by the lunar calendar times of the day, musical forms, cuisine, different seasons, as indeed, intent is regarded as essential to the collective life of a people, a planet or a cosmic system. Prayers, vows and chants were seen as ferries to a shore of experience beyond the temporal state. The doctrines with its rich vocabulary relating to the subjective and psychic states, functions and phenomena from moksha, mukti, punya, maya, karma and the concept of detachment, are pervasive themes. It is seriously inaccurate to understand Hinduism as an ism, a religious-cultural phenomenon, an essence with fixed properties to which Hindus, in so far as they are Hindus, subscribe. It cannot be encompassed as an index of standardization unlike Islam, Christianity, and, Judaism. The term Hindu many scholars have established is extra local and, some note it was first used in 1815 in India when the arbitrary religious classification of the population, introducing practices of control, discipline and exclusion. With colonial rule, the establishment of what came to be known as Hindoo legal codes; similarly Mohammedan laws were distorted borrowings from Mughal legal framework which were re-written. Muslims were represented as separate and foreign when nothing could be further from the truth. Islam has always been vital to the Subcontinent and, is firmly integrated within all the regional cultures. The Act of Separate Electorate in 1935 is a good example; none of these laws had the sanction of the people or their leaders. And, modern India continues to be detrimentally governed by outdated administrative infrastructures and representations as indeed, do most post-colonial countries.
Q: What about India and Pakistan? Is there a solution?
Yes, the Partition, the proverbial heart of darkness. Immeasurable, callous meddlings having produced these deep wounds, these wounds still fester and they will not heal. What is not known is that there were seven partitions of the Subcontinent, two partitions of Afghanistan in 1879 and 1893, the partition of Bengal in 1903-04, the loss of Burma in April 1937 and west Aden, Musta‘marat ‘Adan in 1937, Ceylon in 1947, and the same year between India and Pakistan and all these partitions continue to have a ripple effect throughout the region, the last being the bloodiest. It is noted that over fifteen million people were displaced, millions massacred, but it is reckoned over twenty million were forced to leave their home. This loss of heimat- painful estrangement from their lands of their birth, their childhoods, their languages, and biradaris reverberates as families remain forced apart on either side of the divide. And, those who were tragically dispossessed remain bitter such as the Sindhis who lost Sindh and, Punjabis who were forced to flee from west Punjab. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan were most affected but also, Nepal, Tibet, Burma and Sri Lanka suffered. We have had in the not so distant past – shared over five thousand years of cultures, shared histories- millennial connections with the movement of peoples, trade and inter-marriages which generated at the same time as it nurtured a rich cultural diversity, the vitality being expressed as we understand it today, particularly under the Mughals. There are in these foundations deeply powerful syncretism’s, traditions of co-existence of all religions, philosophies and peoples which flourished prior to colonialism and the policies of divide and rule. The political events that led to the partition of the lands and subsequently the separatist politics has poisoned this vitality.
Modernity in Europe is about national identities and boundaries which evolved gradually and, in some parts remain an unsettled reality. However, in Africa, Post Ottoman Empire and, the Indian Subcontinent happened over a few weeks and the locals were not consulted. Over the last sixty-four years much has happened to widen the rift, though people on both sides desire peace as religious pilgrimages and inter-marriages continue to happen. Certainly, geopolitics has a critical bearing here and, when the crisis of terrorism abates, in time, an EU sort of arrangement would be useful to end the tension and create a zone of peace. In the end, it is the struggle for land and resources that needs to be addressed and safety of all citizens to be guaranteed. I think, despite the enormous problems, such wisdom will ultimately come to prevail, we can only hope sooner rather than later.
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