Deconstructing Martha Nussbaum: The Hindu Right Revisited
Martha Nussbaum, Professor of Law, Religion and Philosophy at the University of Chicago launches her book this week titled The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India's Future. The Harvard University Press published this. She had a preview published at The Chronicle for Higher Education on May 18, 2007. Here are my preliminary impressions on the latter.
I give her the benefit of the doubt. Nussbaum appears to be a genuine liberal, a well wisher and broad minded. Her criticisms of the Hindu right are not without reason and she makes some valid points. The 2002 Gujarat riots deserved criticism. This said, she makes huge leaps of argument without substantiating them, provides zero context and stands accused of several factual inaccuracies. This makes me query her credentials as a lawyer-academic. Nussbaum lacks the rigor one would have expected of a senior academic. Let me illustrate.
Hers is a foreign policy prescription directed at a liberal democrat audience. She argues that democratic institutions are vulnerable to the challenge posed by religious nationalism. In India, this is epitomized by the Hindu right as witnessed in the Gujarat riots. The phenomenon was largely unnoticed in the United States preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalism. She iterates that such threats need to be confronted.
Nussbaum is not entirely incorrect. The RSS represents an insular atavistic world view that is often coarse. The rhetoric of the Bajrang Dal exemplifies this. But Hinduism and the BJP-led National Development Alliance (NDA) can not be equated with the RSS. The NDA when in power included Dalit activists such as Ram Vilas Paswan, the Kashmir-based National Conference, anti-Brahmanic "Dravidian" parties and veteran socialists like George Fernandez! It cut across regions and the social divide. She needs to temper her strident critique with a more nuanced and accurate view.
Nussbaum distorts history with her slipshod analysis and facile methodology. At one point she describes "traditional Hinduism" as "decentralized, plural and highly tolerant". She contrasts that with the Hindu right and proceeds to outline what she thinks to be their version of history. She concludes that "Hindus are no more indigenous [to India] than Muslims" in light of the Aryan invasion. Her history needs to be corrected.
The colonial-era hypothesis of "a people who spoke Sanskrit migrating into the Indian subcontinent finding indigenous, probably Dravidian peoples there" needs to be revised in its chronology and sequence . The Indo-European speaking peoples purportedly migrated at a much earlier time period, were far fewer in number and certainly did not speak Sanskrit which evolved later. I refer to archeologists such as Colin Renfrew, J.N. Kenoyer and Marija Gimbutas and to the geneticist Cavalli-Sforza. Whether the purported indigenes were "Dravidian" is uncertain as well. It is more likely that the introduction of iron and improved technology facilitated the spread of civilizational ideas associated with those speaking Indo-European dialects. Hinduism had evolved over the centuries in the Indian subcontinent drawing from multiple sources be they Aryan or Dravidian by the time the earlier verses of the Rig Veda were first uttered in the Punjab circa 1,500 BCE. Hinduism had its origins in the region!
Nussbaum views events in isolation. She repeatedly fails to provide political context. She relies on V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar to illustrate the Hindu right emphasizing their alleged Nazi German ideological antecedents. I do not intend to defend either except to add that the German and Japanese defiance of the West during World War II found resonance not just in India but in Latin America, the Middle East and South East Asia. Mohammed Iqbal, the intellectual forerunner of Pakistan, found inspiration in Germany. Subhas Chandra Bose of the Indian left was another example. Many were attracted by the discipline, defiance and success on the battlefront. This fascination across continents had little to do with the Nazi treatment of European Jewry though Nussbaum would understandably be aghast given her adopted Jewish heritage.
It is indeed correct that Golwalkar extolled Germany in 1939. The Muslim League had upped the campaign for partition the previous year by accusing the Congress under Mohandas K. Gandhi and Nehru of sidelining Muslim interests. Religious riots had assumed a new ferocity, the seeds for partition had been sowed and a program of religious polarization initiated. This was exemplified in the Muslim League's Pirpur report of 1938. Nussbaum is unaware of context. She should therefore not arrogate the right to comment on issues that she knows little about.
She asks "how did fascism take such a hold in India?" Context is key once again. India is surrounded by neighbors that epitomize raw aggression and violence. The recent history of Afghanistan hardly needs reiteration. Bangladesh, the erstwhile East Bengal, had a Hindu population of 29% in 1947. This fell to 10% in 2001 due to the eviction, intimidation and land grab over the decades. Bhutan expelled 1/7th of its population because they spoke Nepalese. 30 million people might have died in the great Chinese famine in the late 1950s. China's treatment of Tibet in the late 1960s had elements of genocide. Hindus and Sikhs comprised 19% of what is today Pakistan in 1947. This declined to 1% where the rest were subject to sectarian ethnic cleansing. Pakistan unleashed terror in East Bengal in 1970 that led to the death of 1.5 million Bengalis. India stands out by its commitment to pluralism and democracy despite setbacks.
The RSS became influential in a political vortex fueled by multiple actors. A credible analysis needs to factor this in and not view things in isolation. India's only Muslim majority state i.e . Kashmir expelled its centuries old Hindu minority from the valley in 1989. Nussbaum fails to cover the rise of fundamentalism in Kashmir while she zeroes in on it in Gujarat! Rather than condemn the Hindu right alone, one needs to contextualize the competing religious fundamentalisms, each of which fed upon the other to cause mayhem. Islamic fundamentalism has had a vigorous presence in India as witnessed in efforts to stall the reform of Muslim Personal Law, the rights of Muslim women, bomb attacks and riots triggered by reported attacks on Islam in the West etc. The international campaign against Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses had its origins in India.
Nussbaum draws inspiration from Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas K. Gandhi. She fails to mention that both were profoundly influenced by the Hindu ethos of inclusivism, tolerance and restraint. M.K. Gandhi, a devout Hindu, turned to the Bhagavad Gita each day to seek spiritual strength to fight injustice. He termed this Satyagraha or the power of truth. Rabindranath Tagore was leader of the Hindu reformist Brahmo Samaj having established Vishwa Bharati as a center of learning and culture. If one were to meaningfully counter the Hindu right, one has to incorporate the wellsprings of the 20th century Hindu enlightenment rather than rely on a flawed Nehruvian secularism.
This said, the Gandhian movement to alleviate poverty known as Sarvodaya (the awakening of all) and Bhudan (land to the landless), and the Brahmo Samaj failed to sustain the empowerment of the marginalized. The Brahmo Samaj and Sarvodaya are no longer active. The RSS affiliates conversely strengthened their grass roots presence. The Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram provides service to the scheduled tribes. The Seva Bharati works with the largely scheduled caste urban poor. Vidya Bharati works on education in remote rural India.
While the intelligentsia may condemn the rhetoric of the Hindu right, they lack a similar calling to serve the poor and downtrodden. So rather than decry political Hinduism, Nussbaum should perhaps assess why the tolerant Hindu ethos as represented by Tagore and Gandhi failed to retain a social service ethos. The two movements lost their civilizational moorings and relevance in their embrace of "Nehruvian secularism". The decline was therefore inevitable despite the real needs on the ground.
Nussbaum makes sweeping statements , each of which can be critiqued. Her hypothesis of the "wounded masculinity" of India partakes of an unsubstantiated pop psychology. She refers to the "rote learning" and the "lack of critical thinking" reportedly pervasive in Indian public schools. I would stay free of such facile generalizations. I am not sure how nuanced the average American student is or whether "rote learning" is a phenomenon confined to India. Her narrative of events be it with regards to the Gujarat riots, the Indian general elections or the fractured poll verdict is wrong. More importantly, she fails to illustrate the threats to Indian liberalism in a meaningful, nuanced and factually accurate manner.
Nussbaum is not alone in her critique of the Hindu right in American circles. The American conservative has sought to cultivate good ties with a resurgent India only to stymie it. This is witnessed in the provisions of the proposed Indo-American nuclear deal. This is a barely disguised attempt to coerce India to throw open its nuclear reactors to international inspections, halt fissile material production and commit to a nuclear test ban, all under the garb of a purported energy deal!
The American Atlanticist on the other hand flaunts his commitment to liberalism and uses that to urge greater scrutiny of China, India, Iran and Russia. The pro-Israel lobby, of which I count Nussbaum as one, is alarmed by the Islamic resurgence that threatens Israel's existence. It attempts to divert Islamist attention away from Israel to other instances of alleged persecution of Muslims be it in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Indian subcontinent. Nussbaum is not all that kosher after all given the wider effort to "deconstruct" potential geo-strategic competitors. In this, she has the powerful backing of academics like Frykenburg and Witzel, of newspapers like the New York Times with its former editor Rosenthal and one time correspondent Barbara Crossett, not to mention Indian journalists of the ilk of Pankaj Mishra who writes to the Atlantic Magazine!
Authored by Jaffna
Deconstructing Martha Nussbaum: The Hindu Right Revisited
- » Published on May 24, 2007
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