Saturday, August 16, 2008

REVIEW: Defence of pluralism in a rupturing world

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India's Future
By Martha C. Nussbaum
Harvard University Press, 432pp, $50.95

MARTHA Nussbaum is no ordinary academic. Her research and writing interests cover a broad spectrum of social sciences, including constitutional law, political science, theology, ethics and philosophy. In an age of academic specialisation, she is one of the few modern renaissance scholars.

Nussbaum is also proof that pigeon holes weren't created for towering intellectuals. Brought up in the Episcopalian Church, she converted to Judaism later in life. While enthusiastically embracing secularism, she rejects claims that the US constitution explicitly guarantees absolute separation of church and state.

Instead, Nussbaum seems to adopt a view of secularism long held by South Asian writers: that it serves to mediate between the conflicting claims of otherwise exclusivist religions. The secular state does not champion atheism or hostility to religion. Rather, it champions religious pluralism: it should aim to treat all faiths (indeed, all beliefs) equally and impartially.

Such themes resonate in Nussbaum's passionate study of Indian democracy, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India's Future. She focuses on the political theology of Hindutva adopted by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which ruled India from 1998 to 2004. The BJP's website describes Hindutva as cultural nationalism. Yet many devout Hindus regard it as a theocratic corruption of Hinduism, borrowing much from far-Right European national socialist ideology (Nussbaum refers to the influence of "romantic/fascist European ideas of blood and purity" on Hindutva).

The BJP's power base grew rapidly out of sectarian riots that followed the destruction of a 400-year-old mosque built in the town of Ayodhya. Anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sectarian bigotry can still be found in documents posted on the BJP website. In power, the BJP sought to combine neo-liberal free market economic reforms with neo-fascist sectarian politics. However, the realities of democratic politics softened much of the BJP's hardline sectarianism. Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was far more moderate than his colleagues in the BJP.

Despite losing power at the federal level, the BJP continues to rule various states. Among then is the northwestern state of Gujarat, the home state of Mahatma Gandhi. Nussbaum focuses particular attention on the Gujarat massacres of 2002, in which more than 2000 Muslim and Christian civilians were massacred and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes. The Gujarat massacres were sparked by an explosion on a train carrying pilgrims from Ayodhya, believed to have been caused by a Muslim mob.

Nussbaum argues that the architect of those riots was Gujarat's BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Her view is shared by many in the US State Department, which denied him a diplomatic visa and even revoked his tourist-business visa in March 2005.

Perhaps more chilling than her detailed description and analysis of the Gujarat massacres is Nussbaum's account of interviews with BJP ideologues and intellectuals. These men use the most anti-intellectual sectarian rhetoric to justify and excuse the actions of rioters responsible for these massacres.

Among her interviewees is Devendra Swarup, who tells Nussbaum:
You see it all over the world. I am not aware of any country where Muslims have been able to live in peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims. You have three backgrounds -- American, German and Jew -- so you are well aware of how Islam has created havoc all over the world.

Apart from being anti-Muslim, such rhetoric is inherently anti-Semitic in that it presumes Jews must necessarily engage in attributing negative characteristics to an entire group.

Nussbaum also devotes significant chapters to the cultural, history and education wars that often accompanied the BJP's sectarian politics.

Unfortunately, she relies too heavily on English-language media, textbooks and other resources. Although many Indians, especially the growing middle class, are proficient in English, much of India's cultural and political conversation is conducted in Hindi and various regional languages.

A number of Nussbaum's explanations for the rise of the Hindutva far Right also seem somewhat curious. She argues that India's education system, with its emphasis on rote learning as opposed to a more nuanced analytical approach to subjects, has made it easier for Indians to accept the more simplistic policy formulas of BJP ideologues.

Such arguments seem to ignore the reality thateven highly educated Indians supported the BJP, not for sectarian reasons but for its economic credentials. Many of these same Indians, including prominent management guru and former Procter & Gamble executive Gurcharan Das (whom Nussbaum interviews), ceased their support for the BJP when its divisive sectarian agenda compromised its economic management credentials.

A leading theme of The Clash Within is Nussbaum's direct assault on Samuel Huntington's (now almost cliched) clash of civilisations thesis, so often used by simplistic sectarian voices to support claims about an inevitable battle between monolithic Islam and the monolithic West (or, as Nussbaum puts it, to allege "the world is currently polarised between a Muslim monolith, bent on violence, and the democratic cultures of Europe and North America"). Nussbaum's clash isn't between supposedly monolithic civilisations but ...
... instead a clash within virtually all modern nations: between people who are prepared to live with others who are different on terms of equal respect, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity, achieved through the domination of a single religious and ethnic tradition.

It's a powerful argument, made stronger by the fact that Nussbaum's case study focuses on a nation that happens to be the world's largest democracy and an emerging economic, political and military power.

The Clash Within should be read not only by those interested in India's present and future, but by anyone seeking to understand the processes by which even the most complex and sophisticated societies can navigate their way into a morass of violent intolerance.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and recipient of the 2007 Allen & Unwin Iremonger award for public affairs writing. This article was first published in the Revew section of The Weekend Australian on 16-17 August 2008.