Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Revisiting Vaishnavism

Wednesday, September 19th, 2018


A meticulous study of the evolution of religion, caste and gender.

PROFESSOR Suvira Jaiswal’s magnum opus, The Origin and Development of Vaishnavism, published more than half a century ago, broke new ground in the study not only of Vaishnavism but also of religious history as a whole in the country. It had brought out, within the framework of a materialist philosophy and with extreme fidelity to both sources and the method with which to analyse them, the way in which many cults and practices got coalesced and were appropriated in the making of a single faith. Suvira Jaiswal has since broadened the area of her inquiry to include problems such as caste and gender, staying firmly within the articles of faith that she adopted in her magnum opus.

The essays in the book under review are those that she has been publishing on these questions for the past four decades and more. The three factors that Suvira Jaiswal takes up—religion, caste and gender—are of particular relevance in our society today, what with the kind of obscurantism of some sections in trying to present a Hindu religion of a monolithic nature and seeking to wish away the tensions, contradictions and even outright violence within. The book is welcome for that reason as well, apart from for the substantial research that has gone into its making.

Suvira Jaiswal opens the book with a regulation survey of previous research on the subject of caste in its relation with class, ethnicity and power. Colonial understanding and its neocolonial glosses receive their attention and are promptly exposed. She examines the bases of such assumptions and shows that they are not valid going by the canons of historical research: neither do the sources warrant nor does sound methodology allow such formulations. The sinister and not-so-sinister implications of these are brought out well.

Frontline for more

Sadh Belo temple: An abode of Udasipanth in Sindh

Wednesday, September 19th, 2018


The beautiful marble balconies of Sadh Belo.—All photos by the author

The monks’ cells lie empty with cobwebs and dust, but the white marble of this Udasi shrine glitters still.

Through arch of snowy marble
A throng of people pours
To worship in the temple

With shimmering silver doors

O Man! What pious spot is this?
Sadh Belo…Sadh Belo…

With saints and temples white –
The islet of delight

—Elsa Kazi

Sadh Belo — whenever I heard the name, it felt like an ancient incantation, a wave on water, a ripple caressing the smooth surface of the Indus.

I came across this beautiful temple complex while writing on Udasipanth in Sindh. Whenever I went to an Udasi establishment and interviewed someone there, people would ask, Have you been to Sadh Belo?

And after discovering I haven’t, they would exclaim, But that is exactly why you must visit it, because that is the most important centre of Udasis in Sindh.

So, like magnet pulled by metal, I found myself drawn to it. That’s how my longing to see that famed place with my own eyes grew immensely, but it took me some time before I could materialise that dream.

The dream finally came true one fine morning in late spring 2017. Accompanied by one of my students, I travelled to Khairpur and stayed at Shah Abdul Latif University Khairpur’s guest house.

The very next morning, we went to visit the temple.

A few men were sitting under a makeshift shelter, two or three boats were moored to the platform and right in front stood the majestic white marbled and buff-sandstone building of the Sadh Belo.

The sun was still low and a gentle breeze was setting the waves in motion.

We sat in a boat; the fishermen had oars in hands, their sweat-soaked dresses reminded me of the indigenous inhabitants of the Indus valley.

Sitting there, we could see the Lansdowne Bridge and its graceful arches on one side, and the island shrine of Zinda Pir Khwaja Khizr on the other side.

Sadh Belo is an Udasi tirath (pilgrimage) founded by Baba Bankhandi, an Udasi missionary and who came from Nepal to settle in Sukkur in 1823.

Udasipanth is a religious tradition that was founded by Sri Chand (1494-?), the elder son of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), founder of the Sikh faith.

The Udasis are ascetics, they do not possess any property and spend their life disciplined by yoga, meditation and reciting the prescribed texts.

The island was just a clump of trees when Bankhandi first arrived there, but he liked the place so much that he chose it as a place to set up his dhuni (sacred fire).

Watching the sun setting over Sadh Belo, Iqbal’s verse came to my mind:

Awwal-o-akhir fana, batin-o zahir fana
Naqsh-e kuhan ho kay nau, manzil-e akhir fana

Annihilation is the end of all beginnings; annihilation is the end of all ends
Extinction, the fate of everything, hidden or manifest, old or new

Dawn for more

Equality with a vengence: The over-incarceration of women

Wednesday, September 19th, 2018


The increased incarceration of women for violence-related offences in some Australian and overseas jurisdictions points to pervasive systemic gender bias and discrimination in the criminal justice process. Emerging anecdotal and recent research and court-related data are disturbing and suggest that women’s fundamental human rights and freedoms are under attack.

The national imprisonment rate has increased faster for women than for men over the past decade: in the previous ten years, the national rate of imprisonment of women increased 40 per cent which was almost double that of men; while from 1995 to 2009, the number of female prisoners increased by 154.5 per cent compared with an increase in male prisoners of 63.9 per cent.1

Similar trends are evident in other countries including the US, the UK, and the Netherlands.2

According to NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics Director, Don Weatherburn, this trend is fuelled by a change in policing and toughness being exercised by the courts rather than an actual increase in the incidence of female crime.3

Rather than delivering justice, the police and judiciary would appear to be delivering ‘equality with a vengeance’. This approach fails to acknowledge the distinct characteristics of female defendants and the inherent dynamics of domestic violence – including women’s lower reoffending rates, their histories of trauma, increased suffering in custody and greater caregiving responsibilities.4

Further, domestic and intimate partner violence perpetrated against women is experienced very differently by women and children compared with men, due to a fundamental asymmetry and imbalance in power and control between men and women.5

While some acts of violence reflect escalation in couple conflict, much domestic and family violence is driven by a desire to subjugate.6

Violent behaviour is one of a variety of tactics that form a perpetrator’s pattern of behaviour directed towards gaining power and control of the victim.7

Violence towards women is therefore a product of male desire for control, influenced, facilitated and perpetuated by the male-dominated structures of the community.8

Judicial failure to consider this particular context and the impact of domestic and family violence means that individual acts of violence are often misunderstood.9

LINKS for more

A new interpretation of the Bakufu’s refusal to open the Ryukyus to Commodore Perry

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018



In this article I seek to show that, while the Ryukyu shobun refers to the process by which the Meiji government annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom between 1872 and 1879, it can best be understood by investigating its antecedents in the Bakumatsu era and by viewing it in the wider context of East Asian and world history. I show that, following negotiations with Commodore Perry, the bakufu recognized the importance of claiming Japanese control over the Ryukyus. This study clarifies the changing nature of Japanese diplomacy regarding the Ryukyus from Bakumatsu in the late 1840s to early Meiji.

The Ryukyu Islands are a chain of Japanese islands that stretch southwest from Kyushu to Taiwan. The former Kingdom of Ryukyu was formally incorporated into the Japanese state as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879.

From the end of the fourteenth century until the mid-sixteenth century, the Ryukyu kingdom was a center of trade relations between Japan, China, Korea, and other East Asian partners.

According to his journal, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry demanded that the Ryukyu Islands be opened to his fleet in 1854, the Tokugawa shogunate replied that the Ryukyu Kingdom “is a very distant country, and the opening of its harbor cannot be discussed by us.”2 The few English-language studies3 of this encounter interpret this reply as evidence that the bakufu was reluctant to become involved in discussions about the international status of the Ryukyus; no further work has been done to investigate the bakufu’s foreign policy toward the Ryukyus between 1854 and the early Meiji period. In what follows, I compare American sources with Japanese documents to show that in 1854 the bakufu did not define the Ryukyus as a “country,” that is, as a state completely independent from Japan. More importantly, I point out that during negotiations with Perry, the bakufu’s understanding of the status of the Ryukyus was very similar to that of the Matsumae domain in Hokkaido, which the bakufu considered a territory under the authority of the Matsumae clan. In short, the bakufu never used the word “country” to describe either the Ryukyus or Matsumae and it deliberately defined its relations with these distant territories in ambiguous terms in order to deter interest by foreign powers.

According to earlier studies by Japanese scholars,4 sometime between Perry’s first visit to Japan (1853/6/3 to 6/125) and his second (1854/2), the head of the shogunate’s senior councilors, Abe Masahiro, drafted guidelines outlining answers to possible questions about the Ryukyus’ political status to be used in negotiations with Perry on his return to Japan. This manual, which unfortunately lacks a precise date, is an extremely important document which shows that Abe intended to claim that the Ryukyus were under the political authority of both China and Japan. It is clear that Abe recognized that the Ryukyuan issue would arise during negotiations with Perry and since bakufu officials had told Perry that the Ryukyus were “very distant,” the shogunate apparently would not assert itself as a controlling power over Ryukyu. As a result, previous studies have characterized bakufu policy toward the Ryukyus in 1854 as a passive one that did not significantly influence subsequent events.

The Asia-Pacific Journal – Japan Focus for more

Thomas Friedman’s crazy poor economics

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018


Thomas Friedman (New York Times, 9/4/18) went to the movies and his takeaway from seeing Crazy Rich Asians is that if they made a film about the Middle East, it could be called Crazy Poor Middle Easterners:

The region of the world that should be naturally rich has made itself poor by repeatedly letting the past bury the future and the region that is naturally poor has made itself rich by letting the future bury the past.

As with many columns by Thomas Friedman, this one prompts the question: What is he talking about?

Aside from the racism of the column’s headline—note that it’s different to say that some individuals in an ethnic group are “crazy rich” than it is to say that a group as a whole is poor because they’re crazy—it’s just empirically wrong to suggest that Middle Eastern countries are poorer as a whole than Asian countries.

One has to assume that by “Asia” Friedman means “East Asia,” because the Middle East is wholly or partially (depending on how it’s defined) in Asia; the column references China and Japan as countries that have done well “without natural resources.” (This is not really true for China, at least, which is the world’s largest producer of coal, gold, mercury, tin and zinc, and the second-largest producer of copper and silver.) As the movie that set Friedman off is set in Singapore, we have to assume that he considers Southeast Asia to be part of “Asia” as well.

The Middle East, rather famously, is home to some of the wealthiest countries in the world; using the IMF’s figures, three of the ten wealthiest countries in the world are Mideastern—including the wealthiest, Qatar, with a per capita GDP of $125,000, along with Kuwait ($70,000) and the United Arab Emirates ($68,000).* Two of what Friedman would call Asian countries—Singapore ($91,000) and Brunei ($77,000)—are in the top 10. (Note that Brunei is up there because of its oil wealth, like the Mideastern nations, if that’s thought to somehow disqualify a country as “rich.”)

In the next ten, you find two more Mideastern countries, Saudi Arabia ($55,000) and Bahrain ($52,000), and another East Asian country, Taiwan ($50,000). Continuing down, you pass another country from the Middle East—Oman ($45,000)—before you find the first East Asian success story cited in the column, Japan ($43,000). China, Friedman’s other poster child for “Rich Asia,” with a per capita GDP of nearly $17,000, is still behind such Mideastern countries as Cyprus ($37,000), Turkey ($26,000), Lebanon ($19,000) and Iraq ($17,000)—not to mention Israel ($36,000), which is a Middle Eastern country discussed at some length in Friedman’s column, though it’s unclear whether he intends readers to include Israelis in the category of “crazy poor Middle Easterners.”

One country that plainly is in that category is Iran, which has “far overstretched itself, extending its malign military and religious influence into Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.” The per capita GDP of “overstretched” Iran is $20,000, $3,000 more than in “prosperous” China. (Yes, China has a high growth rate—though currently not as high as Iraq’s.)

It’s true that there are genuinely poor countries in the Middle East—notably Yemen ($2,300) and Syria, whose economy is so ravaged that the IMF doesn’t even offer an estimate of its per capita GDP, though the CIA put it at $2,900 in 2015. These countries come closest to Friedman’s description of places “fighting over who owns which olive tree,” with “cities turned to rubble by rival sects.” But to describe them that way is to blame the victims of intensely destructive foreign intervention.

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting for more

To restore civil society, start with the library

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018


Louie Chin

This crucial institution is being neglected just when we need it the most.

Is the public library obsolete?

A lot of powerful forces in society seem to think so. In recent years, declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led prominent critics to argue that libraries are no longer serving their historical function. Countless elected officials insist that in the 21st century — when so many books are digitized, so much public culture exists online and so often people interact virtually — libraries no longer need the support they once commanded.

Libraries are already starved for resources. In some cities, even affluent ones like Atlanta, entire branches are being shut down. In San Jose, Calif., just down the road from Facebook, Google and Apple, the public library budget is so tight that users with overdue fees above $20 aren’t allowed to borrow books or use computers.

But the problem that libraries face today isn’t irrelevance. Indeed, in New York and many other cities, library circulation, program attendance and average hours spent visiting are up. The real problem that libraries face is that so many people are using them, and for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans ages 16 and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.”

Libraries are being disparaged and neglected at precisely the moment when they are most valued and necessary. Why the disconnect? In part it’s because the founding principle of the public library — that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage — is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our world. But it’s also because so few influential people understand the expansive role that libraries play in modern communities.

Libraries are an example of what I call “social infrastructure”: the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact. Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people.

I recently spent a year doing ethnographic research in libraries in New York City. Again and again, I was reminded how essential libraries are, not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for helping to address all manner of personal problems.

For older people, especially widows, widowers and those who live alone, libraries are places for culture and company, through book clubs, movie nights, sewing circles and classes in art, current events and computing. For many, the library is the main place they interact with people from other generations.

For children and teenagers, libraries help instill an ethic of responsibility, to themselves and to their neighbors, by teaching them what it means to borrow and take care of something public, and to return it so others can have it too. For new parents, grandparents and caretakers who feel overwhelmed when watching an infant or a toddler by themselves, libraries are a godsend.

In many neighborhoods, particularly those where young people aren’t hyper-scheduled in formal after-school programs, libraries are highly popular among adolescents and teenagers who want to spend time with other people their age. One reason is that they’re open, accessible and free. Another is that the library staff members welcome them; in many branches, they even assign areas for teenagers to be with one another.

The New York Times for more

(Thanks to reader)

The carnival of homelessness: How the filthy rich react

Monday, September 17th, 2018


“Under a proposal from Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, rough sleepers like these people at Flinders St Station would be banned.” PHOTO/Paul Burston/The University of Melbourne

An aggressive sign of an affluent society can usually be gauged by its invidious misuse of its privilege. Poverty is deemed necessary, and the rich must try to understand it. To be privileged is to be guilty, a tickling of the conscience as the pennies pile up and the assets grow; and from that premise, efforts must be made to give shape to the forgotten, and, in most cases, the invisible.

To be guilty is a spur for works that supposedly highlight those nagging reasons for feeling guilty. You might supply donations. You can become a philanthropist. You can join a charity. Obscenely, you can become a creature of mocking persuasion, a person of pantomime: you can assume the position of a poor person, a homeless person, and pretend to be him. And let it be filmed.

“When I was given the opportunity to spend 10 days experiencing different forms of homelessness for an SBS documentary, I jumped at the chance to understand more about a crisis that now sees more than 116,000 Australians homeless on any given night.” So go the words of veteran thespian Cameron Daddo, a person who never explains how understanding Sydney’s poverty leads to results, other than spending time on the screen and proving rather awkward to boot.

The individuals involved in the tawdry Australian spectacle Filthy Rich & Homeless have various reasons for participating. They have a chance, not merely to appear before the cameras, but to explore another part of Sydney. What matters for Skye Leckie is the anger of authenticity. Socialite that she is, she does not believe that her participation in the venture is “poverty porn” despite being the very same creature who benefits from having a good quotient of poor around. “Those who say it’s stunt TV are being totally ignorant to the homeless situation out there.” This is a delicious way of self-justification, a positioned blow to excuse how her exploitation of a social condition is entirely justified by a mysterious, holy insight. Her pantomime, in other words, is heralded as genuine.

Benjamin Law, author and very much an identity beacon (those things help these days), played the cool cat. In such ensembles, it’s always good to have the confidently composed, the person who won’t fall for the pathos of the show. “I went to Filthy Rich and Homeless being adamant that it was only 10 days, and that I wasn’t going to cry – I felt it’d almost be insulting to people who were actually homeless.” So goes his justification for actually participating in the project: he would hold firm, stay calm, keep his tear ducts dry. “But when it’s demonstrated that this could easily be a family member, and someone you love, I couldn’t not be affected.”

Scoop for more

Crazy Rich Asians: The return of Sham-East Asia?

Monday, September 17th, 2018


Cast member Constance Wu poses at the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians in Los Angeles, on August 7, 2018 PHOTO/Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

While Chu’s film is celebrated as a diversity win in the West, in the East it’s seen as more of the same Western gaze.

The blockbuster rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians, has earned much praise from critics and millions at the box office. The film has dominated discussions in entertainment news and talk shows, with many welcoming its all-Asian cast – a first for Hollywood in a long time.

One can easily see why this romantic comedy has become such a hit in the West so quickly: because Hollywood, and by extension liberal America, hungers for a win on diversity.

In Hollywood, the growing criticism of white men dominating the industry culminated in the outrage over #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, which pushed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the institution responsible for the Oscars, to pledge to diversify its members to include more women and minorities by 2020.

Meanwhile, with the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, latent tensions over race and socioeconomic inequality have escalated and shocked liberal America. The current society-wide crisis – from a resurgent white supremacy movement to the forceful separation of migrant families at the US border with Mexico to the many ugly revelations of the #MeToo movement – has left many Americans longing for reassurance that things are not as bad as they seem.

Crazy Rich Asians and other successful films that have cast minority actors in leading roles, like Get Out or Moonlight are seen as a response to bigotry. Judging by the astounding media attention and the overwhelmingly positive reviews Jon Chu’s film garnered, it seems liberal America got what it wanted: a self-congratulatory pat on the back for scoring another point on diversity.

In Singapore, the film produced mixed reactions. Some Singaporeans also celebrated it because its success meant that their nation has finally “joined the West”. Singapore can now be known for something glitzier than its chewing gum ban or its ironic moniker “Disneyland with the death penalty”.

Yet, other Singaporeans were incensed by the film’s blatant misrepresentation of their society. Crazy Rich Asians relegates Singapore’s brown Asians to the periphery. In the few scenes, they appear in the film, Malays and Indians play the roles of “servants” to rich folks of East Asian descent.

The film symbolically strips Singapore’s ethnic minorities of their dignity and agency for leading meaningful, non-dependent lives. Such representation reinforces the advantageous position of the Chinese, Singapore’s majority ethnic group. This “Sinofication” is basically the Asian equivalent of “whitewashing” – Hollywood’s favourite tool to make non-Western stories more digestible for Western audiences (think Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and the all-white cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings).

The politics of Chinese identity inadvertently raised in the film is complicated.

Al Jazeera for more

Masih Alinejad: ‘What made me different was that I took action’

Monday, September 17th, 2018


Iranian activist-journalist Masih Alinejad reveals the importance of saying no to repressive regimes in her memoir

The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran by Masih Alinejad, Little, Brown and Company,| 400 pages

Her crime was dance. Eighteen-year-old Maedeh Hojabri was an Instagram celebrity with videos of her swaying and shimmying, pirouetting and pouting to Iranian and Western pop music, including Shakira and Justin Bieber. Her oomph quickly attracted thousands of likes and shares on social media. But then she was arrested by Iranian authorities. In July, a state-run TV programme showed her weeping and stating, in what was a “forced confession”, that the videos weren’t to attract attention, but for her followers—“I did not have any intention to encourage others doing the same.” She was released on bail later.

In the early 90s, Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad was arrested for being part of a political group in her high school. She was kept in a dank cell for days and forced to write her confessions over and over— who were her friends, how did the group come together, did she ever think about killing a leader. News of Hojabri’s arrest surfaced just weeks after Alinejad’s memoir The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran (Little, Brown and Company; 400 pages; Rs1,932) was published, proving that when it came to women’s freedom, little had changed in Iran in over two decades.

“I was 19 when I gave that false confession in Iran. I saw Maedeh’s clip, and it took me back to that dark time when I was scared and miserable. The government and the situation of oppressing people, forcing them to give false confessions hasn’t changed. But what has changed is us,” says Alinejad, over a Skype conversation from her home in Brooklyn, New York. Shortly after Maedeh’s arrest, Alinejad started a hashtag on Instagram, urging women to dance in her support. Soon, dozens of Iranian women were flooding social media with their dance videos, some within their homes, others in public parks and on the streets. The women’s rebellion embodied a key feature of Alinejad’s own journey, political and personal—the power of saying no.

Alinejad grew up in Ghomikola, a tiny village of 100 or so families in northern Iran. She was the youngest of six children, and also the most distinct looking—slight and dark-featured, her hair “coils of thick snarling curls”. In 1979, when she was just a toddler, the Islamic Revolution erupted, overthrowing years of rule by Persian kings. This spelled doom for women’s rights—compulsory hijab became the law, the value of a woman’s testimony became half of a man’s, and beaches, cinemas and other public spaces were segregated. Alinejad’s father—Aghjan—enlisted in the Basij, a paramilitary group created to protect the regime.

In the new regime, girls were expected to stay indoors and out of sight. While her brother Ali played for hours in the summer sun, she was told “girls can’t do that”. The women in the family had to wear head scarves at all times, even while asleep. But Alinejad was “never the obedient child”. At a school event where she was chosen to recite the Quran, she began by intoning a holy verse before switching to a love poem by the influential Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou. She challenged the religious teachers in school with questions on god’s existence and abandoned the chador, much to her father’s chagrin.

Open for more

Weekend Edition

Friday, September 14th, 2018