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Crisis at Columbia By: Hugh Fitzgerald
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, March 06, 2006


The wife of a Columbia University administrator, Assistant Professor Janaki Bakhle shares the teaching duties for a basic course with Joseph Massad, called “Introduction to Major Topics in the Civilizations of the Middle East and India” in which students explore a “range of cultural issues, institutional forces, textual sources, and figures of authority.”

Bakhle’s field is Indian Music, a field that one would suspect would not lend itself to politicizing. But even here politics manages to intrude. She has just published a book called Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. As one might expect it is Muslims who were excluded in the “construction” of modern Indian music, which was Hindu, Brahmanic and elitist. The colonial and nationalist “projects” (which along with the term “construction” reduces the overwhelming task of creating a country to something like a hobbyist building a spice rack in the basement) sought classical India’s origins, and thus unfairly skipped over Islam’s “contribution.”

Of course the “colonialism” in question is not that of Aurangzeb and the Muslim conquerors, who were the first on the subcontinent to practice colonialism in the classic sense – with exploitation of local populations, seizure of booty, and transplantation of colonists from outside – but rather the British “colonialists” who restored and revived, by ending Mughal rule, Hindustani culture.

The sinister linkages between colonialism and the present are pervasive in Bakhle’s eyes. On April 2, 2004, at the Graduate Students’ Colloquium at the University of Pennsylvania, she gave a talk on music and its role “in the process of nation-building in colonial India.” She “concluded her talk by pointing out the linkages between the notation/classification of music, its performance and the political history of colonial India.”

One has the feeling that Bakhle is interested in Indian music because – well, because she is interested in Indian Music. And one feels further that there is something half-hearted about going through the motions of relating that music to “colonialism.” But what can be unrelated to colonialism at Columbia? Perhaps its much-debated plans to expand its campus, although upon further reflection, what could be a more perfect example of Columbia’s own colonialism and nation-building?

It is disturbing that Janaki Bakhle, the wife of a Columbia administrator, was part of the Committee chosen to investigate charges of intimidation and indoctrination at MEALAC. She had signed an anti-Israel petition; she is a close colleague of Massad, one of those under investigation, and her future at Columbia depends, in large part, on the goodwill of three senior professors – Khalidi, Saliba, and Dabashi, two of whom have been charged with violating standards of conduct. To make matters worse, Khalidi is a friend, colleague, and long-time supporter of Massad’s.

Hugh Fitzgerald wrote this piece for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, which is designed to critique and improve Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities.

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Hugh Fitzgerald is a lecturer on the manipulation of language for political ends.


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