Tuesday, April 11, 2006

History Lessons

The Partition of America

Niranjan Ramakrishnan

Coming from India, the only country in the world, as someone once observed ruefully, which would celebrate the loss of one fourth its territory and one third its people as 'Independence Day', I have often envied the United States for having been blessed with an Abraham Lincoln.

The loss of territory and population here is a reference to the partition of the nation. India had neither a sovereign state, nor (perhaps on account of not having a state) a leader of Lincoln's stature, at the time it was cut in two in 1947. The Muslim League, which was demanding a separate homeland for the Muslims of India, decided to show both the British rulers and their main opposition, the Congress Party, a glimpse of its growing clout -- calling for what it termed a day of Direct Action, to be observed on August 16, 1946. Within a year, India had been partitioned.

Flexing muscles, showing clout. Hearing terms like these in reference to the huge marches this weekend, I was further reminded of Direct Action Day when I heard one of the organizers of yesterday's marches talk of an upcoming Immigrant Power Day. That day, he said, immigrants would show, "Where would America be without us?". His TV interviewer asked, wryly, "And where do you think you would be without America?"

However unpersuaded one might be by the arguments and demands of the rallies that have convulsed America's major cities these past days, one may still admire their organizers and participants for how well they have mobilized and how peacefully they have expressed themselves. The illegal immigrants have shown themselves to be more aware of First Amendment Rights than the natives! (See also Liberty - Use it or Lose it).

They said they were sending a wake-up message to America, and they certainly succeeded in ringing the alarm bell loud and clear. Loud enough for Edward Kennedy to address their rally in Washington DC, Hillary Clinton (and Chuck Schumer too, if I recall) to grab the mike in New York and John Kerry to speak in their favor someplace else.

Note well, none of these Democrats could be caught dead near an anti-war or Impeach Bush rally in the past 3 years. But here they were, proud to participate in demonstrations where, only yesterday the crowds were waving the Mexican Flag (so much for that poor, ubiquitous, US lapel pin which all American politicians flaunt shamelessly after 9-11). One Hispanic newspaper even wrote the rally showed that LA had always belonged to Mexico! The word reconquista has by no means been retired from the Mexican Lexicon (pardon the pun). But focus for a second on the delicious irony here -- some of the nation's top lawmakers, speaking at rallies whose main demand, all said and done, is that lawbreaking be overlooked.

Is it any surprise that such leaders would also connive at changing the wiretapping law retroactively after the president began violating it three years ago? (See also Destination: Amnesty Nation).

But back to our history lesson. When the English first dropped anchor in India in 1607, and made their way to the court of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir at Agra, it was the capital of one of the (if not The) most fabulous empires in the world, and certainly pre-eminent in India. No one could have suspected that this small band of men, supplicants begging for a few trading rights, would one day topple the Mughal Empire and rule the subcontinent from the Hindu Kush to the Indian Ocean. But the tipping point came soon enough (on a historical scale), on a small battlefield in Bengal called Plassey, in 1757.

Take another story, from another part of the world, one that Prof. Michael Neumann and others like him have written about extensively. When the first Jews arrived from Europe, which Palestinian would have suspected that, in half a century, many of his compatriots would be roaming about the world, exiled from their own lands? Sovereignty is everything, as any Palestinian can attest.

Or consider a story a little closer to the issue, the European conquest of the Americas. A few explorers came at first, uncertain of what they would find. In a century, they were running large parts of the continent, imposing their language and their customs. In three centuries they had captured it all. The lives of the Native Americans were altered forever.

This is the real history of conquest. No one lands on a foreign shore or crosses a border declaring that he wants to rule the country. It always happens over time, and with the uncomprehending cooperation of the natives. Gandhi, never shy to examine one's own faults, taxed his fellow Indians thus, "The English have not taken India; we have given it to them...They had not the slightest intention (when they first came) to establish a kingdom. Who assisted the (East India) Company's officers? Who was tempted at the sight of their silver? Who bought their goods? History testifies that we did all this. In order to become rich all at once we welcomed the Company's officers with open arms. If I am in the habit of drinking bhang and a seller thereof sells it to me, am I to blame him or myself? By blaming the seller, shall I be able to avoid the habit? And, if a particular retailer is driven away, will not another take his place?"

Similarly might we ask ourselves, "Who encouraged illegal immigration? Who wanted cheap goods at any cost? Who wanted to eat Florida Oranges and California Peaches at bottom dollar? Who wanted his yard landscaped for a song? Etc. And that's part of the truth.

But there are a couple of other things noteworthy in Gandhi's statement. Notice that he talks about the problem of addiction to bhang (an poppy intoxicant). Whenever I hear someone saying, "...but, for our economy, we need these workers...Americans won't do these jobs, so we need a guest worker program...", I wonder whether these leaders even think before they open their mouths. This is exactly the addiction Gandhi is talking about. Just as we live beyond our means in the financial arena, with a mounting budget deficit and trade deficit, we also seem to be runnning a labor deficit. Why have an industry if you cannot have Americans do a job? It is reminiscent of the old joke, "We will live within our means, even if we have to borrow to do so". Perhaps it wasn't a joke after all.

Second, the fact that Gandhi recognized Indian complicity in the loss of their country's sovereignty didn't cause him to throw up his hands and accept the Raj as a fait accompli. He fought against it with determination. He knew what the loss of sovereignty meant. It was not an elastic concept for Gandhi, as it appears to be to many of our intellectuals.

The lessons of history are obvious. A vacuum of state, usually accompanied by a weak and corrupt leadership, leads inevitably to the eventual disempowerment, sometimes even subjugation, of a country.

There are no words to describe adequately the cheap and tawdry grandstanding by the senators and congressman who attended these rallies. And when a Mexican president publicly demands a hand in crafting America's immigration policy, following which an American president goes to Mexico to assure the former that his will be done, it is time to ask, "Where is the American State?"

Out of commission, is the short answer. With Ronald Reagan, business began superseding what little was left of the American state, a development promoted vigorously by Bill Clinton, and revved up several notches by George W Bush. Whatever the fate of the 12 million illegal immigrants, a dissolute state renders that of America bleak.

'Prevention is better than cure', goes the adage. How did we miss that gem of wisdom? Perhaps because the saying is English, and we are, above all things, multicultural these days.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com.

1 comment:

Shyam Jha said...

Niranjan, you hit the nail on the head. The Arizona Daily Star published my article titled "Entrants Want Benefits without Values" [My original title was The Great Mexican Dream] generated a wide email response from both sides of the debate.

One Hispanic reader wrote, and I quote: "We are here to stay, we are growing stronger and more determined to shape Arizona, not into Mexico Norte, but into a state that reflects the priorieties of its inhabitants. The Anglos did it when they had the numbers, now it is our turn."

Other Hispanics wrote that they do not want to learn English because they do not want to buy into the Anglo culture.

Yet another Mexican emigre said that the white man had taught me well.

Your depiction of two Americas is very poignant.

See my article here: