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Lex Talionis I: the matter of Subramaniam Swamy and Harvard

Friday, December 9th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — Harvard controversy, free speech vs hate speech, Hindutva, moral high ground & sanctions for and against violence ]


I am grateful to various members of the New Religious Movements list for pointing me to the recent events in Harvard, where a group of scholars led by the formidable Diana Eck (her book on Banaras is a masterpiece and greatly treasured) have persuaded the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to omit two courses in economics usually taught by Subramaniam Swamy from their Summer School offerings next year, on the ground that an op-ed he published in Daily News and Analysis titled “How to Wipe Out Islamic Terror” fell under the category of hate-speech (as opposed to free speech).

The article in question is no longer available on the DNA site, but can be found on Pamela Geller‘s Atlas Shrugged blog.  An account of the controversy can be found on Inside Higher Ed, and Harvard Faculty’s debate was reported in the Harvard Magazine.

Subramaniam Swamy is President of what remains of the once powerful Janata Party and former Union Cabinet Minister.

With that as background, I would like to address the issue of the varying principles and rule-sets invoked as offering a moral high ground – or a necessary safeguard – in various religious and other traditions.


I have read Dr Subramaniam Swamy’s article, and while the various quotes in it recommending specific actions — such as “Remove the masjid in Kashi Vishwanath temple complex, and 300 others in other sites as a tit-for-tat” and “Enact a national law prohibiting conversion from Hindu religion to any other religion” – give western readers a sense of Swamy’s overall mindset and intentions, it was another quote that held my attention:

This is Kaliyug, and hence there is no room for sattvic responses to evil people. Hindu religion has a concept of apat dharma and we should invoke it. This is the moment of truth for us.

I suspect the reason this quote has not been featured in the reports I’ve read of the debate have to do with the number of words in it that are unfamiliar to the western reader.

I’m acquainted with Kaliyug (the Age of Darkness) and with the concept of the sattvic (“Sattva is a state of mind in which the mind is steady, calm and peaceful” to quote the sacred Wiki), but had to dig a bit to discover that apat dharma is essentially “righteousness in emergencies”:

There are special Dharmas during critical and dangerous circumstances. They are called Apat-Dharma.

Swami Sivananda

Apat Dharma: They are duties that come to one under extraordinary circumstances, in crisis or in emergencies (apatmulakah). In such circumstances, even that which under normal circumstance is deemed wrong becomes dharma (tatra adharmo’pi dharmah). Here the righteous motives guide our actions (bhava-suddhimattvat). Normally a doctor gives anaesthesia before operating the patient but an emergency operation performed on the battlefield to save the life or limb of a soldier on the battlefield may be done without anaesthesia and with the instruments available, be they sterilized or not. When emergency is declared in the country, the elected parliament can be dismissed, the Constitution suspended and the ruler assumes extra-ordinary powers to deal with the situation. When peace prevails, the youth of a country should get education and work, but during war, the country may call upon its youth to sacrifice their education and fight in defence of the country, sometimes with hardly any training.

Sanjeev Nayyar

So that quote – “This is Kaliyug, and hence there is no room for sattvic responses to evil people. Hindu religion has a concept of apat dharma and we should invoke it. This is the moment of truth for us” – is essentially the abstract principle on which Swamy’s various proposals are based, and thus corresponds to the principles articulated by PM Netanyahu in his recent opening of the Knesset as underlying his government’s policies with regard to national security:

Our policy is guided by two main principles: the first is “if someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first,” and the second is “if anyone harms us, his blood is on his own hands.”

If you want a sense of how important that quote about apat dharma is to a Hindu (and a fortiori, a Hindutva) reader, see the way it is singled out and quoted with an illustration of Krishna driving Arjuna‘s chariot into battle by “Sanchithere (I’ve used the same illustration at the head of this post):


What am I after here?

It seems to me that we could use a brief yet definitive scholarly account of what the guiding principles of the various religions and secular worldviews allow their adherents, in terms of justice, forgiveness, pre-emption, retribution and retaliation.

This would need to include, compare and contrast such principles as:

  • The Judaic notions of pre-emptive killing (Netanyahu’s first principle, found in the Talmud and commonly quoted as ‘ha’Ba Lehorgecha, Hashkem Lehorgo, If someone tries to kill you, rise up and kill him first) and the injunction, in fighting the Amalekites, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Samuel 15:3).
  • Christ’s “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you.” (Luke 6.27)
  • Christian “just war” theology.
  • The western / UN “norm” that some actions are simply beyond the pale, unacceptable under any circumstances (essentially the basis for war crimes tribunals)
  • Game theory’s “tit for tat” strategy in an iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma as proposed by Anatol Rapaport and articulated by Robert Axelrod in his book, The Evolution of Cooperation.
  • The Islamic tradition’s notion of response in kind (Qur’an: 2.194, “and so for all things prohibited, — there is the Law of Equality. If then anyone transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him but fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves”) – which would appear to imply that actions that would not normally be acceptable may be appropriate in response to an enemy that has already “transgressed” in that specific manner
  • Gandhi’s ahimsa, together with his corollaries, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” (attributed) and “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.”
  • Swamy’s own “This is Kaliyug, and hence there is no room for sattvic responses to evil people” and “the nation must retaliate — not by measured and ‘sober’ responses but by massive retaliation.”
  • Buddha’s “Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live giving up victory and defeat” (Dhammapada15,5)…

… and so forth.


I am grateful for further pointers and comments you may care to offer.

I hope to follow this post up with another, Lex Talionis II, which will address the use of private rewards for revenge killings in the Israeli / Palestinian matter.

Obama’s “Brain”

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

A brief sojurn into grubby electoral politics: 

Recall from years ago, the enormous amount of press received by GOP strategist Karl Rove as George W. Bush’s political “Brain” ? A similar role with Barack Obama is played by Illinois Democratic political consultant David Axelrod, except that Axelrod keeps a far lower profile than Rove did and Axelrod has inifinitely better relationships with the working press, notably with the nominally Republican Chicago Tribune where Axelrod was formerly a political reporter and columnist.  Axelrod is also tightly connected to Chicago’s all-powerful Democratic Party boss, Mayor Richard M. Daley, another longtime Axelrod client; and to Exelon/Com. Ed. , the politically powerful Illinois utility that contracts with Axelrod’s public relations firm and whose employees have been among the largest financial donors in Illinois to the Obama campaign.

What kind of campaign can we expect from Axelrod in the general election? Overtly positive themes and public posturing  complemented by covertly delievered and mercilessly negative “stiletto” attacks against key people around John McCain that are not directly traceable to Axelrod. The model for this strategy is the previous Obama senatorial campaign in Illinois, where Obama’s two most formidible, centimillionaire, rivals, Democrat Blair Hull and Republican Jack Ryan were personally destroyed in the primaries when salacious details from their sealed divorce records were mysteriously leaked to the media, which then pressured for their full release, notably in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. Thus, ultimately permitting Obama to run against an out-of-state, clown candidate, religious conservative firebrand Alan Keyes, in the general election.

 Negative political advertising is reliably effective, something known since the days of Murray Chotiner running Richard Nixon’s California races, but the information age imposes “blowback” costs when it is used too openly by a candidate. Axelrod’s long courtship of the media will permit similar “fingerprint free” attacks against the GOP to work unless McCain’s campaign is smart enough to start doing social network analysis of key media people crossreferenced with Obama Campaign functionaries and Axelrod associates.

It’s also noteworthy of how little escapes Axelrod’s attention. The conservative intellectual and writer, Dr. Stanley Kurtz, has been digging into the UIC archives on Senator Obama’s extensive political relationship with Dr. William Ayers, the 60’s radical and unrepentant ex-Weatherman terrorist, now a professor of Education at UIC where he is a leading advocate of politicizing teacher certification programs along Leftist lines (Ayers is the son of the late, prominent Chicago business leader, Thomas Ayers, former chairman/CEO of Commonwealth Edison and board member at he Chicago Tribune). Kurtz was invited to be a guest last night on Dr. Milt Rosenberg’s highbrow Extension720 WGN-AM radio show and discuss his research and Rosenberg’s switchboard and email system was instantly flooded and essentially shut down by an orchestrated wave of Obama supporters ( here is the Obama Campaign action alert).  While something of a local legend, Rosenberg’s radio show is, in the national media scheme of things, a fairly obscure program. Sort of a conservative NPR, except a lot smarter and writ small.

I would expect the ante be upped against Obama critics to include nuisance suits and worse  if the fall campaign tightens.


It appears that the Obama-Ayers-Annenberg story, which I expect will soon feature the infamous pic of Ayers trampling a U.S. flag in an alley, is making it on to the MSM radar. Michael Barone does a superb job as political anthropologist here, explaining the ” Chicago Way” to Americans in more normal communities:

Obama Needs to Explain His Ties to William Ayers

….Ayers was one of the original grantees of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school reform organization in the 1990s, and was cochairman of the Chicago School Reform Collaborative, one the two operational arms of the CAC. Obama, then not yet a state senator, became chairman of the CAC in 1995. Later in that year, the first organizing meeting for Obama’s state Senate campaign was held in Ayers’s apartment. Ayers later wrote a memoir, and an article about him appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 11, 2001. “I don’t regret setting bombs,” Ayers is quoted as saying. “I feel we didn’t do enough.”

Ayers was a terrorist in the late 1960s and 1970s whose radical group set bombs at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol.

You might wonder what Obama was doing working with a character like this. And you might wonder how an unrepentant terrorist got a huge grant and cooperation from the Chicago public school system. You might wonder-if you don’t know Chicago. For this is a city with a civic culture in which politicians, in the words of a story often told by former congressman, federal judge, and Clinton White House counsel Abner Mikva, “don’t want nobody nobody sent.” That’s what Mikva remembers being told when he went to a Democratic ward headquarters to volunteer for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, and it rings true. And it’s a civic culture in which there’s nobody better to send you than your parents.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, March 11th, 2007


People send me many things. Too much in fact, for me to ever post them all unless blogging becomes a paying gig but I do look at and read everything you send to me. This was just em,ailed and it’s hilarious – as well as an indicator of where 2008 is going and possibly a harbinger of the role Web 2.0 apps may play in the presidential race. ( Hat Tip: to Fabius Maximus).

This was posted by “Parkridge47” as if it was by a contemporary of Hillary from her High School days at Maine South. Perhaps it is. Some folks have long memories for slights or insults. But if I was to hazard a guess, I’d say the subtle stiletto of David Axelrod (Senator Barack Obama’s “political brain”) was behind this 4GW move to hit Hillary with some negative advertising in the youth demographic that leaves no forwarding address.

I’d take pride in saying that Republicans were behind this but I can’t see the Bush administration pulling off something quite this smart. Or even being aware of Youtube.

And if you think this was something, wait until they engage the social networking platforms.

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