Sunday, July 12, 2020

Bias and Nostalgia in Hergé’s Tintin

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A collection of Tintin Comics | Source: Mills Baker via Flickr

Some of my fondest memories involve sitting under the guava or the European gumtree, perched on the wall of our garden as the sunlight dappled on an old copy of a Tintin comic. For some years, at least, before the gumtree was cut down, the leaves bore witness to me following the globe-trotting adventures of the Belgian reporter, replete with hilariously-named companions and witty play of words. My nostalgia is as much for the inked characters and words on the paper, as for the musty smell of the oft-thumbed and yellowed pages of the comic, and the permanently romanticized view of the sunny garden. The comics have left a palpable imprint on my sense of humour and love of a certain kind of literature. And perhaps it is this imprint, along with my pleasant nostalgia, that makes it a struggling task to accept Hergé’s racism through his Tintin comics.

Hergé’s (or Georges Prosper Remi’s) writings were, undeniably, a product of their times. His first two series in the Adventures of Tintin comics, Tintin in the land of the Soviets (1929) and Tintin in Congo (1931), have famously been the subject of much debate, since the late 1900s. In Soviets, Hergé offers a crude critique against Marxism – meant to inculcate anti- Soviet sentiments in the European youth at the time, by portraying the Bolsheviks as inherently evil without a full comprehension of how they rose to power or what their political views were.

In Congo, African tribes and leaders are portrayed as either infantile, or in need of saving, to the extent that Tintin becomes the embodiment of fairness for young Africans, even having a temple made after him. Congo itself was a colony of Belgium from 1908 to 1960, one of the two colonies that Belgium governed, and the comics grossly ignore the labour politics of the Congolese and their efforts in both the World Wars. It was not until after the decolonisation of Africa that European perception of ex-African colonies changed.

Much of the modern debate surrounding the banning of select Tintin comics is centred around the depicitons of big-game hunting in Congo and the anti-Semitism in the The Shooting Star. Besides the uncomfortable portrayals of the Congolese, a few panels in the 1931 edition of Congo depicted Tintin drilling a hole into a live Rhinoceros, filled with dynamite, and blown up. In the 1946 edition, this scene was replaced, with Herge apologizing for what he recognized as “youthful transgressions''. In the Shooting Star, the villainous financer was renamed, from the Jewish Blumstein to the innocuous Bohlwinkel.

Hergé’s subsequent works became politically neutral, written after the German occupation of Belgium and the German takeover of Le Vingtième Siècle, the conservative Catholic newspaper he wrote for. While the white-saviour narrative continued with Tintin leading as the embodiment of Europe that “natives” had to follow, the later works are much less politically biased.

However, he prefaced Tintin in America with a critique against the racism in the United States, alongside his anti-imperial stance in The Blue Lotus. He is also known, famously, for not joining with the far-right extremist forces in German-occupied Belgium at the time, as many of his colleagues had. Michael Farr, a British expert on The Adventures of Tintin series, claimed after a meeting with Hergé that “you couldn’t meet someone more open and less racist”. Others have called him an opportunist, heaving towards the side that was popular. Perhaps this was indeed the case, or equally, perhaps Hergé did change his views, and his writings in Soviet and Congo are merely reflective of the predominant Belgian culture at the time.

At any rate, the question still remains: how do we read, or re-read, Hergé (or many such childhood-favourite authors, like Dr. Seuss)? Shelving the books and forgetting the authors is undoubtedly impossible, and misguided besides. A recognition of the biases, and a plethora of context surrounding these texts must be made available at all times. A celebration of a character or a person must not come at the cost of ignoring their uncomfortable stances.

The depiction of Africa in 20th century comics has been abysmal. A tendency of depicting the 'other' as a 'noble-savage' is a familiar concern to those readers who have spent much of their lives in recently liberated colonies. It is, perhaps, especially imperative for such readers to keep this in mind and not repeat them.

In our Consumerist times, it seems, we sometimes forget to start dialogues on themes that are unfamiliar and maybe even uncomfortable to us. We forget which stories desperately need to be told and which have not seen the light of day under the shadow of popular literature.

This, at least, is what I have strived to do: to maintain a balance between nostalgia and a recognition of biases. My memory of the Tintin comics will remain just as romantic as the idyllic memory I started with in the beginning of this article.

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October 18, 2020 6:46 PM

Bhagat Singh: The Man, The Life, And The Beliefs

Bhagat Singh is one of the ‘big names’ immortalised in the history of India’s freedom struggle and eternally cherished even after almost ninety years of his martyrdom. What makes him stand out is his popularity among the masses being almost on par with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his beliefs and actions being diametrically opposite to theirs.

Of the freedom fighters who remain mainstream in today’s India— a crowd predominantly made up of politicians with center or right of centre leanings, Bhagat Singh occupies a relatively lonely spot as a young, staunchly left-wing revolutionary who outrightly rejected Gandhi’s philosophy, and preferred direct action over politics.

Newspaper headline after Central Legislative Assembly non-lethal bombing

Bhagat Singh is most commonly and widely remembered in association with an incident where he, along with his friend and comrade B.K. Dutt dropped non-lethal smoke bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly from its balcony in 1929. They also scattered leaflets by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), which he was a major part of and was aided by in orchestrating the bombings. He is said to have been inspired by French anarchist Auguste Vaillant, who had bombed the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in 1893.

The bombing gathered widespread negative reaction due to the use of violence, especially from those who supported the Gandhian method. While Bhagat Singh and the HSRA wanted to protest exploitative legislatures such as the Public Safety Act and the Trades Disputes Bill, it is also widely accepted that they additionally intended to use the drama and public attention of the ensuing trial to garner attention to socialist and communist causes. Bhagat Singh and Dutt did not escape under the cover of panic and smoke despite the former carrying a pistol, and waited for the police to find and arrest them. During the trial Bhagat Singh frequently chanted a variety of slogans, such as ‘Inquilab Zindabad,’ which is even today often raised in protests across India.  

March 25th Newspaper carrying the news about execution of Bhagat Singh | Source: Tribune India

However, this was not the trial that ended in Bhagat Singh receiving his execution sentence. Before the Assembly bombings, Bhagat Singh had been involved in the shooting of police officer John Saunders, in connection to the death of freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai. At that time he and his associates had escaped, but after Bhagat Singh was awarded a life sentence for the Assembly bombing, a series of investigations led to his rearrest as part of the Saunders murder case. It was this trial— generally regarded as unjust— that led to his much protested execution sentence.

Bhagat Singh was hanged to death on the eve of March 23rd, 1931 and he was just twenty-three years old.

Despite the criticism he received for his actions, his execution sentence was widely opposed and many attempts were made to challenge it. In fact, his execution came on the eve of the Congress party’s annual convention, as protests against it worsened. He was memorialised nationwide as a martyr, and is often addressed with the honorific Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh.

Apart from being a socialist, Bhagat Singh was attracted to communist and anarchist causes as well. In ‘To Young Political Workers,’ his last testament before his death, he called for a “socialist order” and a reconstruction of society on a “new, i.e, Marxist basis.” He considered the government “a weapon in the hand of the ruling class”, which is reflected in his belief that Gandhian philosophy only meant the “replacement of one set of exploiters for another.” Additionally, he wrote a series of articles on anarchism, wanting to fight against mainstream miscontrusions of the word and explain his interest in anarchist ideology.

Bipin Chandra, who wrote the introduction to Why I am an Atheist by Bhagat Singh | Source: Wikimedia

While writing the introduction to Bhagat Singh’s remarkable essay Why I am an Atheist in 1979, Late Bipan Chandra described the Marxist leaning of Bhagat Singh and his associates in the following way;

Bhagat Singh was not only one of India’s greatest freedom fighters and revolutionary socialists, but also one of its early Marxist thinkers and ideologues. Unfortunately, this last aspect is relatively unknown with the result that all sorts of reactionaries, obscurantists and communalists have been wrongly and dishonestly trying to utilise for their own politics and ideologies the name and fame of Bhagat Singh and his comrades such as Chandra Shekhar Azad.”

Bhagat Singh is often admired and celebrated for his dedication to the cause of liberation. However his socialist, communist and anarchist beliefs were suppressed by the successive governments in Independent India. This in a way is the suppression of a revolutionary who has the potential to inspire, unite and motivate the growing population of a spectrum of activists all over India, in direct response to the fast-spreading divisiveness and intolerance in the country, often patronised by the groups and organizations professing the right-wing fascist ideology.

Bhagat Singh’s dreams of a new social order live on, not just in his writings, but also reflected in the hearts of every activist, protester, and dissenting citizen. The fight for freedom, revolution, Inquilab, may have changed in meaning, but it is far from over.

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