Nussbaum Fears for Democracy in India

Fears for Democracy in India
Martha C. Nussbaum
The Chronicle of Higher Education
May 18, 2007

On February 27, 2002, the Sabarmati express train arrived in the station of Godhra, in the state of Gujarat, bearing a large group of Hindu pilgrims who were returning from a trip to the purported birthplace of the god Rama at Ayodhya (where, some years earlier, angry Hindu mobs had destroyed the Babri mosque, which they claimed was on top of the remains of Rama's birthplace). The pilgrimage, like many others in recent times, aimed at forcibly constructing a temple over the disputed site, and the mood of the returning passengers, frustrated in their aims by the government and the courts, was angrily emotional. When the train stopped at the station, the Hindu passengers got into arguments with Muslim passengers and vendors. At least one Muslim vendor was beaten up when he refused to say Jai Sri Ram ("Hail Rama"). As the train left the station, stones were thrown at it, apparently by Muslims.

Fifteen minutes later, one car of the train erupted in flames. Fifty-eight men, women, and children died in the fire. Most of the dead were Hindus. Because the area adjacent to the tracks was made up of Muslim dwellings, and because a Muslim mob had gathered in the region to protest the treatment of Muslims on the train platform, blame was immediately put on Muslims. Many people were arrested, and some of those are still in detention without charge -- despite the fact that two independent inquiries have established through careful sifting of the forensic evidence that the fire was most probably a tragic accident, caused by combustion from cookstoves carried on by the passengers and stored under the seats of the train.

In the days that followed the incident, wave upon wave of violence swept through the state. The attackers were Hindus, many of them highly politicized, shouting slogans of the Hindu right, along with "Kill! Destroy!" and "Slaughter!" There is copious evidence that the violent retaliation was planned before the precipitating event by Hindu extremist organizations that had been waiting for an occasion. No one was spared: Young children were thrown into fires along with their families, fetuses ripped from the bellies of pregnant women. Particularly striking was the number of women who were raped, mutilated, in some cases tortured with large metal objects, and then set on fire. Over the course of several weeks, about 2,000 Muslims were killed.

Most alarming was the total breakdown in the rule of law -- not only at the local level but also at that of the state and national governments. Police were ordered not to stop the violence. Some egged it on. Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, rationalized and even encouraged the murders. He was later re-elected on a platform that focused on religious hatred. Meanwhile the national government showed a culpable indifference. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee suggested that religious riots were inevitable wherever Muslims lived alongside Hindus, and that troublemaking Muslims were to blame.

While Americans have focused on President Bush's "war on terror," Iraq, and the Middle East, democracy has been under siege in another part of the world. India -- the most populous of all democracies, and a country whose Constitution protects human rights even more comprehensively than our own -- has been in crisis. Until the spring of 2004, its parliamentary government was increasingly controlled by right-wing Hindu extremists who condoned and in some cases actively supported violence against minority groups, especially Muslims.

What has been happening in India is a serious threat to the future of democracy in the world. The fact that it has yet to make it onto the radar screen of most Americans is evidence of the way in which terrorism and the war on Iraq have distracted us from events and issues of fundamental significance. If we really want to understand the impact of religious nationalism on democratic values, India currently provides a deeply troubling example, and one without which any understanding of the more general phenomenon is dangerously incomplete. It also provides an example of how democracy can survive the assault of religious extremism.

In May 2004, the voters of India went to the polls in large numbers. Contrary to all predictions, they gave the Hindu right a resounding defeat. Many right-wing political groups and the social organizations allied with them remain extremely powerful, however. The rule of law and democracy has shown impressive strength and resilience, but the future is unclear.

The case of Gujarat is a lens through which to conduct a critical examination of the influential thesis of the "clash of civilizations," made famous by the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. His picture of the world as riven between democratic Western values and an aggressive Muslim monolith does nothing to help us understand today's India, where, I shall argue, the violent values of the Hindu right are imports from European fascism of the 1930s, and where the third-largest Muslim population in the world lives as peaceful democratic citizens, despite severe poverty and other inequalities.

The real "clash of civilizations" is not between "Islam" and "the West," but instead within virtually all modern nations -- between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single "pure" religious and ethnic tradition. At a deeper level, as Gandhi claimed, it is a clash within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails.

This argument about India suggests a way to see America, which is also torn between two different pictures of itself. One shows the country as good and pure, its enemies as an external "axis of evil." The other picture, the fruit of internal self-criticism, shows America as complex and flawed, torn between forces bent on control and hierarchy and forces that promote democratic equality. At what I've called the Gandhian level, the argument about India shows Americans to themselves as individuals, each of whom is capable of both respect and aggression, both democratic mutuality and anxious domination. Americans have a great deal to gain by learning more about India and pondering the ideas of some of her most significant political thinkers, such as Sir Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi, whose ruminations about nationalism and the roots of violence are intensely pertinent to today's conflicts.

A ccording to the Huntington thesis, each "civilization" has its own distinctive view of life, and Hinduism counts as a distinct "civilization." If we investigate the history of the Hindu right, however, we will see a very different story. Traditional Hinduism was decentralized, plural, and highly tolerant, so much so that the vision of a unitary, "pure" Hinduism that could provide the new nation, following independence from Britain in 1947, with an aggressive ideology of homogeneity could not be found in India: The founders of the Hindu right had to import it from Europe.

The Hindu right's view of history is a simple one. Like all simple tales, it is largely a fabrication, but its importance to the movement may be seen by the intensity with which its members go after scholars who present a more nuanced and accurate view: not only by strident public critiques, but by organized campaigns of threat and intimidation, culminating in some cases in physical violence. Here's how the story goes:

Once there lived in the Indus Valley a pure and peaceful people. They spoke Vedic Sanskrit, the language of the gods. They had a rich material culture and a peaceful temper, although they were prepared for war. Their realm was vast, stretching from Kashmir in the north to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in the south. And yet they saw unity and solidarity in their shared ways of life, calling themselves Hindus and their land Hindustan. No class divisions troubled them, nor was caste a painful source of division. The condition of women was excellent.

That peaceful condition went on for centuries. Although from time to time marauders made their appearance (for example, the Huns), they were quickly dispatched. Suddenly, rudely, unprovoked, invading Muslims put an end to all that. Early in the 16th century, Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty, swept through the north of Hindustan, vandalizing Hindu temples, stealing sacred objects, building mosques over temple ruins. For 200 years, Hindus lived at the mercy of the marauders, until the Maharashtrian hero Shivaji rose up and restored the Hindu kingdom. His success was all too brief. Soon the British took up where Babur and his progeny had left off, imposing tyranny upon Hindustan and her people. They can recover their pride only by concerted aggression against alien elements in their midst.

What is wrong with that picture? Well, for a start, the people who spoke Sanskrit almost certainly migrated into the subcontinent from outside, finding indigenous people there, probably the ancestors of the Dravidian peoples of South India. Hindus are no more indigenous than Muslims. Second, it leaves out problems in Hindu society: the problem of caste, which both Gandhi and Tagore took to be the central social issue facing India, and obvious problems of class and gender inequality. (When historians point to evidence of these things, the Hindu right calls them Marxists, as if that, by itself, invalidated their arguments.) Third, it leaves out the tremendous regional differences within Hinduism, and hostilities and aggressions sometimes associated with those. Fourth, it omits the evidence of peaceful coexistence and syncretism between Hindus and Muslims for a good deal of the Mughal Empire, including the well-known policies of religious pluralism of Akbar (1542-1605).

In the Hindu-right version of history, a persistent theme is that of humiliated masculinity: Hindus have been subordinate for centuries, and their masculinity insulted, in part because they have not been aggressive and violent enough. The two leading ideologues of the Hindu right responded to the call for a warlike Hindu masculinity in different ways. V.D. Savarkar (1883-1966) was a freedom fighter who spent years in a British prison in the Andaman Islands, and who may have been a co-conspirator in the assassination of Gandhi. M.S. Golwalkar (1906-73), a gurulike figure who was not involved in the independence struggle, quietly helped build up the organization known as RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteers Association), now the leading social organization of the Hindu right. Savarkar's "Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?," first published in 1923, undertook to define the essence of Hinduness for the new nation; his definition was exclusionary, emphasizing cultural homogeneity and the need to use force to ensure the supremacy of Hindus.

Golwalkar's We, or Our Nationhood Defined was published in 1939. Writing during the independence struggle, Golwalkar saw his task as describing the unity of the new nation. To do that, he looked to Western political theory, and particularly to Germany, where what he called "race pride" helped bring "under one sway the whole of the territory" that was originally held by the Germani. By purging itself of Jews, he wrote, "Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by."

In the end, Golwalkar's vision of national unity was not exactly that of Nazi Germany. He was not very concerned with purity of blood, but rather with whether Muslim and Christian groups were willing to "abandon their differences, and completely merge themselves in the National Race." He was firmly against the civic equality of any people who retained their religious and ethnic distinctiveness.

At the time of independence, such ideas of Hindu supremacy did not prevail. Nehru and Gandhi insisted not only on equal rights for all citizens, but also on stringent protections for religious freedom of expression in the new Constitution. Gandhi always pointedly included Muslims at the very heart of his movement. He felt that respect for human equality lay at the heart of all genuine religions, and provided Hindus with strong reasons both for repudiating the caste hierarchy and for seeking relationships of respect and harmony with Christians and Muslims. A devout Muslim, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, was one of his and Nehru's most trusted advisers, and it was to him that Gandhi turned to accept food when he broke his fast unto death, a very pointed assault on sectarian ideas of purity and pollution. Gandhi's pluralistic ideas, however, were always contested.

On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot at point-blank range by Nathuram Godse, a member of the Hindu political party Mahasabha and former member of the RSS, who had long had a close, reverential relationship with Savarkar. At his sentencing on November 8, 1949, Godse read a book-length statement of self-explanation. Although it was not permitted publication at the time, it gradually leaked out. Today it is widely available on the Internet, where Godse is revered as a hero on Hindu-right Web sites.

Godse's self-justification, like the historical accounts of both Savarkar and Golwalkar, saw contemporary events against the backdrop of centuries of "Muslim tyranny" in India, punctuated by the heroic resistance of Shivaji in the 18th century. Like Savarkar, Godse described his goal as that of creating a strong, proud India that could throw off the centuries of domination. He was appalled by Gandhi's rejection of the warlike heroes of classical Hindu epics and his inclusion of Muslims as full equals in the new nation, and argued that Gandhi exposed Indians to subordination and humiliation. Nehru believed that the murder of Gandhi was part of a "fairly widespread conspiracy" on the part of the Hindu right to seize power; he saw the situation as analogous to that in Europe on the eve of the fascist takeovers. And he believed that the RSS was the power behind this conspiracy.

Fast-forward now to recent years. Although illegal for a time, the RSS eventually re-emerged and quietly went to work building a vast social network, consisting largely of groups for young boyscalled shakha, or "branches"which, through clever use of games and songs, indoctrinate the young into the confrontational and Hindu-supremacist ideology of the organization. The idea of total obedience and the abnegation of critical faculties is at the core of the solidaristic movement. Each day, as members raise the saffron flag of the warlike hero Shivaji, which the movement prefers to the tricolor flag of the Indian nation (with its Buddhist wheel of law reminding citizens of the emperor Ashoka's devotion to religious toleration), they recite a pledge that begins: "I take the oath that I will always protect the purity of Hindu religion, and the purity of Hindu culture, for the supreme progress of the Hindu nation." The organization also makes clever use of modern media: A nationally televised serial version of the classic epic Ramayana in the late 1980s fascinated viewers all over India with its concocted tale of a unitary Hinduism dedicated to the single-minded worship of the god Rama. In 1992 Hindu mobs, with the evident connivance of the modern political wing of the RSS, the party known as the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, or National People's Party), destroyed a mosque in the city of Ayodhya that they say covers the remains of a Hindu temple marking Rama's birthplace.

Politically, the BJP began to gather strength in the late 1980s, drawing on widespread public dissatisfaction with the economic policies of the post-Nehru Congress Party (although it was actually Congress, under Rajiv Gandhi, that began economic reforms), and playing, always, the cards of hatred and fear. It was during its ascendancy, in a coalition government that prevented it from carrying out all its goals, that the destruction of the Ayodyha mosque took place. The violence in Gujarat was the culmination of a series of increasingly angry pilgrimages to the Ayodyha site, where the Hindu right has attempted to construct a Hindu temple over the ruins, but has been frustrated by the courts. Although the elections of 2004 gave a negative verdict on the BJP government, it remains the major opposition party and controls governments in some key states, including Gujarat.

For several years, I have studied the Gujarat violence, its basis and its aftermath, looking for implications for how we should view religious violence around the world. One obvious conclusion is that each case must be studied on its own merits, with close attention to specific historical and regional factors. The idea that all conflicts are explained by a simple hypothesis of the "clash of civilizations" proves utterly inadequate in Gujarat, where European ideas were borrowed to address a perceived humiliation and to create an ideology that has led to a great deal of violence against peaceful Muslims. Indeed, the "clash of civilizations" thesis is the best friend of the perpetrators because it shields them and their ideology from scrutiny. Repeatedly in interviews with leading members of the Hindu right, I was informed that no doubt, as an American, I was already on their side, knowing that Muslims cause trouble wherever they are.

What we see in Gujarat is not a simplistic, comforting thesis, but something more disturbing: the fact that in a thriving democracy, many individuals are unable to live with others who are different, on terms of mutual respect and amity. They seek total domination as the only road to security and pride. That is a phenomenon well known in democracies around the world, and it has nothing to do with an alleged Muslim monolith, and, really, very little to do with religion as such.

This case, then, informs us that we must look within, asking whether in our own society similar forces are at work, and, if so, how we may counteract them. Beyond that general insight, my study of the riots has suggested four very specific lessons.

The rule of law: One of the most appalling aspects of the events in Gujarat was the complicity of officers of the law. The police sat on their hands, the highest officials of state government egged on the killing, and the national government gave aid and comfort to the state government.

However, the institutional and legal structure of the Indian democracy ultimately proved robust, playing a key role in securing justice for the victims. The Supreme Court and the Election Commission of India played constructive roles in postponing new elections while Muslims were encouraged to return home, and in ordering changes of venue in key trials arising out of the violence. Above all, free national elections were held in 2004, and those elections, in which the participation of poor rural voters was decisive, delivered a strongly negative verdict on the policies of fear and hate, as well as on the BJP's economic policies. The current government, headed by Manmohan Singha Sikh and India's first minority prime ministerhas announced a firm commitment to end sectarian violence and has done a great deal to focus attention on the unequal economic and political situation of Muslims in the nation, as well as appointing Muslims to key offices. On balance, then, the pluralistic democracy envisaged by Gandhi and Nehru seems to be winning, in part because the framers of the Indian state bequeathed to India a wise institutional and constitutional structure, and traditions of commitment to the key political values that structure embodies.

It should be mentioned that one of the key aspects of the founders' commitments, which so far has survived the Hindu-right challenge, is the general conception of the nation as a uni-ty around political ideals and values, particularly the value of equal entitlement, rather than around ethnic or religious or linguistic identity. India, like the United States, but unlike most of the nations of Europe, has rejected such exclusionary ways of characterizing the nation, adopting in its Constitution, in public ceremonies, and in key public symbols the political conception of its unity. Political structure is not ev-erything, but it can supply a great deal in times of stress.

The news media and the role of intellectuals: One of the heartening aspects of the Gujarat events was the performance of the national news media and of the community of intellectuals. Both print media and television kept up unceasing pressure to document and investigate events. At the same time, many scholars, lawyers, and leaders of nongovernnmental organizations converged on Gujarat to take down the testimony of witnesses, help them file complaints, and prepare a public record that would stand up in court. The only reason I felt the need to write about these events further is that their analyses have, by and large, not reached the American audience.

We can see here documentation of something long ago observed by the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen in the context of famines: the crucial role of a free press in supporting democratic institutions. (Sen pointed out that there has not been a famine in recent times in a nation where a free press brings essential information to the public; in China, by contrast, in the late 1950s and early 60s, famine was allowed to continue unabated, because news of what was happening in rural areas did not leak out.) And we can study here what a free press really means: I would argue that it requires a certain absence of top-down corporate control and an easy access to the major news media for intellectual voices from a wide range of backgrounds.

Education and the importance of critical thinking and imagination: So far I have mentioned factors that have helped the Indian democracy survive the threat of quasi-fascist takeover. But there are warning signs for the future. The public schools in Gujarat are famous for their complete lack of critical thinking, their exclusive emphasis on rote learning and the uncritical learning of marketable skills, and the elements of fascist propaganda that easily creep in when critical thinking is not cultivated. It is well known that Hitler is presented as a hero in history textbooks in the state, and nationwide public protest has not yet led to any change. To some extent, the rest of the nation is better off: National-level textbooks have been rewritten to take out the Hindu right's false ideological view of history and to substitute a more nuanced view. Nonetheless, the emphasis on rote learning and on regurgitation of facts for national examinations is distressing everywhere, and things are only becoming worse with the immense pressure to produce economically productive graduates.

The educational culture of India used to contain progressive voices, such as that of the great Tagore, who emphasized that all the skills in the world were useless, even baneful, if not wielded by a cultivated imagination and refined critical faculties. Such voices have now been silenced by the sheer demand for profitability in the global market. Parents want their children to learn marketable skills, and their great pride is the admission of a child to the Indian Institutes of Technology or the India Institutes of Management. They have contempt for the humanities and the arts. I fear for democracy down the road, when it is run, as it increasingly will be, by docile engineers in the Gujarat mold, unable to criticize the propaganda of politicians and unable to imagine the pain of another human being.

In the United States, by some estimates fully 40 percent of Indian-Americans hail from Gujarat, where a large proportion belong to the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism, distinctive for its emphasis on uncritical obedience to the utterances of the current leader of the sect, whose title is Pramukh Swami Maharaj. On a visit to the elaborate multimillion-dollar Swaminarayan temple in Bartlett, Ill., I was given a tour by a young man recently arrived from Gujarat, who delighted in telling me the simplistic Hindu-right story of India's history, and who emphatically told me that whenever Pramukh Swami speaks, one is to regard it as the direct voice of God and obey without question. At that point, with a beatific smile, the young man pointed up to the elaborate marble ceiling and asked, "Do you know why this ceiling glows the way it does?" I said I didn't, and I confidently expected an explanation invoking the spiritual powers of Pramukh Swami. My guide smiled even more broadly. "Fiber-optic cables," he told me. "We are the first ones to put this technology into a temple." There you see what can easily wreck democracy: a combination of technological sophistication with utter docility. I fear that many democracies around the world, including our own, are going down that road, through a lack of emphasis on the humanities and arts and an unbalanced emphasis on profitable skills.

The creation of a liberal public culture: How did fascism take such hold in India? Hindu traditions emphasize tolerance and pluralism, and daily life tends to emphasize the ferment and vigor of difference, as people from so many ethnic, linguistic, and regional backgrounds encounter one another. But as I've noted, the traditions contain a wound, a locus of vulnerability, in the area of humiliated masculinity. For centuries, some Hindu males think, they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors, and Hindus have come to identify the sexual playfulness and sensuousness of their traditions, scorned by the masters of the Raj, with their own weakness and subjection. So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to seem the best way out of subjection. One reason why the RSS attracts such a following is the widespread sense of masculine failure.

At the same time, the RSS filled a void, organizing at the grass-roots level with great discipline and selflessness. The RSS is not just about fascist ideology; it also provides needed social services, and it provides fun, luring boys in with the promise of a group life that has both more solidarity and more imagination than the tedious world of government schools.

S o what is needed is some counterforce, which would supply a public culture of pluralism with equally efficient grass-roots organization, and a public culture of masculinity that would contend against the appeal of the warlike and rapacious masculinity purveyed by the Hindu right. The "clash within" is not so much a clash between two groups in a nation that are different from birth; it is, at bottom, a clash within each person, in which the ability to live with others on terms of mutual respect and equality contends anxiously against the sense of being humiliated.

Gandhi understood that. He taught his followers that life's real struggle was a struggle within the self, against one's own need to dominate and one's fear of being vulnerable. He deliberately focused attention on sexuality as an arena in which domination plays itself out with pernicious effect, and he deliberately cultivated an androgynous maternal persona. More significantly still, he showed his followers that being a "real man" is not a matter of being aggressive and bashing others; it is a matter of controlling one's own instincts to aggression and standing up to provocation with only one's human dignity to defend oneself. I think that in some respects, he went off the tracks, in his suggestion that sexual relations are inherently scenes of domination and in his recommendation of asceticism as the only route to nondomination. Nonetheless, he saw the problem at its root, and he proposed a public culture that, while he lived, was sufficient to address it.

In a quite different way, Tagore also created a counterimage of the Indian self, an image that was more sensuous, more joyful than that of Gandhi, but equally bent on renouncing the domination that Tagore saw as inherent in European traditions. In works such as Nationalism and The Religion of Man, Tagore described a type of joyful cosmopolitanism, underwritten by poetry and the arts, that he also made real in his pioneering progressive school in Santiniketan.

After Gandhi, however, that part of the pluralist program has languished. Though he much loved and admired both Gandhi and Tagore, Nehru had contempt for religion, and out of his contempt he neglected the cultivation of what the radical religions of both men had supplied: images of who we are as citizens, symbolic connections to the roots of human vulnerability and openness, and the creation of a grass-roots public culture around those symbols. Nehru was a great institution builder, but in thinking about the public culture of the new nation, his focus was always on economic, not cultural, issues. Because he firmly expected that raising the economic level of the poor would cause them to lose the need for religion and, in general, for emotional nourishment, he saw no need to provide a counterforce to the powerful emotional propaganda of the Hindu right.

Today's young people in India, therefore, tend to think of religion, and the creation of symbolic culture in general, as forces that are in their very nature fascist and reactionary because that is what they have seen in their experience. When one tells them the story of the American civil-rights movement, and the role of both liberal religion and powerful pluralist rhetoric in forging an anti-racist civic culture, they are quite surprised. Meanwhile, the RSS goes to work unopposed in every state and region, skillfully plucking the strings of hate and fear. By now pluralists generally realize that a mistake was made in leaving grass-roots organization to the right, but it is very difficult to jump-start a pluralist movement. The salient exception has been the women's movement, which has built at the grass roots very skillfully.

It is comforting for Americans to talk about a clash of civilizations. That thesis tells us that evil is outside, distant, other, and that we are perfectly all right as we are. All we need do is to remain ourselves and fight the good fight. But the case of Gujarat shows us that the world is very different. The forces that assail democracy are internal to many, if not most, democratic nations, and they are not foreign: They are our own ideas and voices, meaning the voices of aggressive European nationalism, refracted back against the original aggressor with the extra bile of resentment born of a long experience of domination and humiliation.

The implication is that all nations, Western and non-Western, need to examine themselves with the most fearless exercise of critical capacities, looking for the roots of domination within and devising effective institutional and educational countermeasures. At a deeper level, the case of Gujarat shows us what Gandhi and Tagore, in their different ways, knew: that the real roo