Monday, September 7, 2015

How the West Looks at India: Debating the Hindu Right

(published in The Pioneer, Delhi, 6 September 2015)


How does the West look at India? The Western public is completely, and the professional India-watchers largely, dependent on information filtered by a Delhi bottleneck under firm Nehruvian control. This is not a matter of “sepoy” intellectuals blackening India and Hinduism at the behest of an American conspiracy. It is a two-way influence, with Indians trying to live up to Western fashions and Westerners trying to align with Indian ideological norms.

An important new book exemplifies this American-Indian cooperation against any political mobilization in the name of Hinduism: Pluralism and Democracy in India. Debating the Hindu Right (OUP, New York 2015). It is a collection of twenty essays mostly based on updated versions of contributions to a 2005 conference in Chicago. The editors are religious historian Wendy Doniger and law scholar Martha Nussbaum, both from the top-ranking University of Chicago. Doniger’s name has gained some currency in India ever since her book The Hindus, an Alternative History, was withdrawn by the publisher under Hindu pressure. This way, a biased, flippant and error-ridden book, already exposed in detail in Vishal Agarwal’s counter-book, was given a false aura of martyrdom. The episode also confirmed her enmity for any Hindu self-assertion, as is obvious from the introduction she co-authored with Nussbaum.

About the outspokenly partisan perspective of the book, we can be brief because no attempt is made to hide it. Thus, if we are going to discuss "democracy in India", it should be hard to leave the Emergency and the Sangh Parivar's opposition to it unmentioned; yet these are carefully and completely hushed up. The year Zero of the book's time horizon is explicitly said to be 2002, because of the Gujarat riots. On these, the old progressive party-line is still strictly observed, assuming “Modi’s complicity in the riots” (p.14). Herewith, they consciously overrule the fact that “he has not been convicted in court” (p.1), though not for want of trying. But if riots are deemed so important, surely attention is paid to the far larger killing of the Sikhs in 1984 by Congress secularists; or to the East Bengali massacre of Hindus in 1971 that dwarfed all Indian communal killings since Independence combined? No, this book only notices killings when Hindus are (or can be portrayed as) the perpetrators.

The Ayodhya controversy is mentioned a number of times, but without the decisive information, quite new to the American target audience, that the temple claim has meanwhile proved historically correct. The whole lambasting of the centuries-old pro-temple consensus, challenged by the secularists in 1989 and rebaptized the “Hindu fundamentalist claim”, carried along all of American academe, yet it was wrong.  The paper specifically about “the road from Ayodhya” has 40 footnotes, all referring to partisan anti-Hindutva sources except for one in which BJP stalwart Ram Madhav provides some hard data. And that count is representative for most papers, but then Hindus should admit that they themselves have produced few intellectual works worth quoting.

The editors call Naredra Modi’s accession to power “ominous for India’s very future as a democracy” (p.1). In American academe, the demand of objectivity, on which scholarly authority is based, is suspended in works about Hindu politics.

The subtitle could suggest that a debate with the so-called Hindu Right is being envisaged. That is not the case. The debate is in fact between different sections of the secularist Left (with its American extension), as exemplified by Amartya Sen’s response to Ramachandra Guha’s review of his The Argumentative Indian. The Hindu Right is only an object. The token contribution from Ved Nanda as former head of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (US section of the RSS) has no argumentative thrust, it merely details all the historical and numerical facts about Hinduism in the US.

Yet, many of the separate papers in this book are certainly worth reading. Most papers require a review in themselves, but to settle for one example, Mushirul Hasan’s paper on the BJP’s textbook’s reforms provides interesting data on the BJP’s intellectual agenda as seen by the secularists. Once you have accepted that this is not a scholarly account but a veteran’s memoir giving the view of one of the warring camps, it becomes a very worthy read. Incidentally, on p.255, Hasan labels Hindu history-rewriting an “attempt to Talibanise India’s history”, thus holding up an Islamic movement as the level to which Hindus could stoop. Thereby, he implicitly admits that the ideologically streamlined textbooks which he fights in India are a routine fact of life in Pakistan.

A serious drawback of this book is that it narrows its focus to the Sangh Parivar, all while announcing a treatment of the “Hindu Right”. Perhaps this was still passable in 2005, but anyone moderately informed about the ideological scene should know that it is not in 2015. At the mass level, scholars ought to have noticed that the Hindu self-defence network in West Bengal, Hindu Samhati, has been set up by  a dissatisfied ex-Swayamsevak because the RSS was just not living up to its promises. The Sangh’s enemies, such as the editors of this book, portray it as a formidable Hindu force, but insiders know better. It might have number, and today it might even hold office, but its commitment to Hindu victory is wobbly and lackadaisical. More and more, Hindus are locally organizing outside the Sangh. They even continue to do so now that “their” side is in power in Delhi and proving to be no more than time-servers. Mostly they are happy that Modi is at the helm, but for an actual Hindu dimension to politics, more will be needed.

While this trend is still marginal, it is already very visible on the media front, where internet papers have become the arteries of new communities shedding the Sangh baggage and trying to serve the Hindu cause through new analyses: VijayVaani, India Facts, Hindu Human Rights, Swarajya, Bharat-Bharati, the India Inspires Foundation. These people have no power yet, but they do have ideas. More up-to-date and more aware of international trends in political thinking than the gerontocratic Sangh, their thought is far more interesting. It also is more rooted, more Hindu than the Hindutva current, which is stuck in the 1920s’ borrowed nationalist paradigm. If “debate” with the Hindu side is what you want, it is they who are the ones to talk to.


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