Us against us in the land of Mahatma

The Clash Within
June 29, 2007

Thom Brooks explores Martha Nussbaum's theory of fundamentalism

The 2002 Gujarat riots saw Hindu extremists murder almost 2,000 Muslims. These riots followed an earlier tragedy where five dozen people, mostly Hindus, were killed in a fire on a passenger train, and Muslims were blamed for starting the fire. Subsequently, the rule of law collapsed - the police were often complicit in committing crimes. This event was presented by the Hindu Right as yet another example of the clash between Muslims and others. Was this then a spontaneous act of violence or something more sinister, signalling a deepening crisis in India's political life?

Martha Nussbaum's The Clash Within presents a powerful analysis of the Hindu Right in contemporary India that is insightful and penetrating. She conclusively demonstrates, for example, that local Muslims were not to blame for the fire that precipitated the riots. Instead, the fire was started accidentally by passengers in the train, and the failure of India's Railways Board to ensure health and safety standards contributed to the deaths and injuries suffered that fateful day.

Nor were the 2002 riots a spontaneous event. Instead, the riots were a product of the Hindu Right's programme. The Hindu Right is composed of the members and supporters of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) - characterised as "possibly the most successful fascist movement in any contemporary democracy" - and its political arm, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). Together they argue for a new understanding of Hindu life: a history full of humiliation and victimisation by others, mainly Muslims, who are characterised as violent and undemocratic. The self-view of humiliation becomes projected as disgust of non-Hindus, who are seen as threats, and embodied in violence, including the rape and murder of Muslim women.

With devastating effect, Nussbaum argues against this view of Hindus in India. Her arguments are informed by revealing interviews she conducted with a variety of leading figures in the right-wing Hindu movement. It soon becomes clear that fear of domination by non-Hindus is immaterial given that Hindus enjoy primary control over Indian politics and account for more than 80 per cent of the general population. Moreover, it is clear that India's crisis arose not merely because of the Hindu Right's increased popularity, but from the failure of democratic pluralists to create a grassroots-led alternative vision.

Nussbaum argues that the foundation for democratic pluralism in India is found in the work of Rabindranath Tagore, Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. All three argued against traditional hierarchy and equivocating India with Hinduism; all defended a multicultural society and the empowerment of women. The Hindu Right, conversely, represents a clear break from this established pluralist tradition, betraying India's noble founding ideals. Their tactic is to reinvent Hinduism, presenting us with a highly selective view of Rama and Hindu deities and a false view of Hindu and Muslim relations in previous generations. It fosters this view through education and defends it ruthlessly and violently against dissenters. Young people are subjected to "antischolarship terrorism" whereby the Hindu Right distributes textbooks that are misleading and inaccurate about "the entire shape of India's history". This education war has exacerbated problems within India's education system, such as its reliance on rote learning, and Nussbaum charts any number of material concerns with these textbooks and the damaging image of India it presents to children, including the idea that students should be grouped according to both IQ and "SQ" (spiritual quotient). Children learn only a distorted picture that portrays Hindus as a humiliated and persecuted group. They do not learn the proud pluralist history of the Indian sub-continent over many generations; instead "the music of the military band drowns out Krishna's flute".

Of course, the Hindu Right has been recently rejected at the polls. What is illuminating about its rise up until then is that it provides the backdrop for a novel understanding of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are often portrayed as a group that clashes against "us". Yet, in India, the clash is not between two cultures an ocean or more apart, but between two different visions of how we relate to one another in a community. Nussbaum argues convincingly that the conflict is nothing like "the West" versus "the rest", but is between competing conceptions of the self, setting "the tendency to seek domination as a form of self-protection" against "the ability to respect others who are different and to see in difference a nation's richness rather than a threat to its purity".

It is a clash within each of us, not between us and someone else. Fundamentalists desire an unattainable purity, defended against contamination by difference. This view neglects the absence of purity in any group, especially Hinduism. Anti-fundamentalists recognise the vulnerability of being human and the need to educate ourselves about other people in order to live together with compassion and respect. The key is in an education that includes the arts and cultivates critical thinking, exercising our capacities and moral imagination. This vision of an "effective education and a decent public culture" is epitomised in the work of Tagore, a leading figure in the creation of India's modern democratic pluralism. The problem of fundamentalism then exists globally, but a common strategy can be mounted to challenge it.

It is difficult to criticise such an intelligent and moving work. I would briefly note only three points. First, I was surprised that more was not said about the relationship between the riots taking place in Gujarat and Gujarat as Gandhi's place of origin. Perhaps nothing more starkly demonstrates the departure of the Hindu Right from Gandhi's message than their participation in the riots in Gujarat. Second, I expected more to be said about Bhimrao Ambedkar, who helped draft the Indian Constitution and was once taught by John Dewey. Ambedkar was well known in the struggle against traditional caste hierarchies for his leadership of a mass movement of low-caste Hindus who converted to Buddhism, which lacks a caste system.

This movement provides further support to Nussbaum's narrative, along with a possible link to Dewey's views on education reforms that could more clearly relate his project to Tagore's. Finally, Nussbaum is absolutely right in her characterisation of where conflict lies. She weaves a rich tapestry of how Hindu thought has been reshaped and distorted to create this perspective. She is correct to say "the clash within" that we find in India lies everywhere. However, it would have been interesting to learn more about how this view more directly plays itself out elsewhere.

The Clash Within is another remarkable achievement from the most exciting political philosopher of our age. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Thom Brooks is a reader in political and legal philosophy, Newcastle University.

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future

Author - Martha C. Nussbaum
Publisher - Belknap/Harvard University Press
Pages - 432
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 9780674024823

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