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Religion and democracy in India.

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future Martha C. Nussbaum (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2007), 403 pages.

As anyone familiar with India can attest, Indians take great delight in describing India as the world's largest democracy. The subtext, it seems, is often a gentle reproach to the pretensions of Americans, who generally take their own country as in all respects the measure of successful democracy In her new book Martha Nussbaum shares this impulse to reverse American perspectives. Rather than seeking to export lessons gleaned from the great American experiment in democracy, she aims, in part, to cast reflected light on the shortcomings of American democracy by turning the attention of Americans to the trials facing democracy in India. India and the United States share more than democratic governments and large populations. Both countries were founded with the nation conceived not in terms of shared ethnicity, culture or religion, but in terms of shared allegiance to liberal ideals. With its profound linguistic, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, India faced an even greater challenge in establishing a pluralistic nation than did the United States.

India's extraordinary success can be measured by how resoundingly it has invalidated Churchill's famous remark that, "India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator." (1) In the last twenty-five years or so, however, the vision of India as a pluralistic nation has faced a potent challenge from a vivified religious nationalism. One recent result has been some of the worst communal violence since partition. In The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future, Nussbaum traces the sources (and fortunes) of religious nationalism in India and offers suggestions for sustaining the public culture of a pluralistic democracy

The focal point of The Clash Within is the horrifying event in Godhra in February 2002, where fifty-eight mostly Hindu kar sevaks (Hindu activists) burned to death in a railway car, and the ensuing mob violence throughout Gujurat in which at least 800, and maybe more, Muslims died. Nussbaum finds this episode instructive because it defies both the American stereotype of religious violence--in this instance Muslims are the victims, not the perpetrators, of religious violence--and Samuel Huntington's well-known "clash of civilizations" hypothesis--in this instance it is not militant Islam instigating conflict with the West, but rather Hindu nationalism with a European intellectual pedigree bent on violence against Muslims. If the case of India belies Huntington's thesis, Nussbaum argues, it is because the relevant clash is not between Islam and the West, but rather within "virtually all modern nations--between people who are prepared to live with others who are different...and those who seek the protection of homogeneity," and 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." (2) What happened in the aftermath of the fire at Godhra is testimony to the stakes riding on the outcome of these nested clashes. It is an example "of the bad things that can occur when a leading political party bases its appeal on a religious nationalism wedded to ideas of ethnic homogeneity and purity.'3

Because the clash between religious nationalism and pluralism occurs between types of people and within every individual, Nussbaum dedicates much of her analysis of the Indian situation to the biographies and personalities of pertinent individuals. She includes a chapter recounting her interviews with prominent figures in the Hindu Right (K.K. Shastri, Devendra Swarup and Arun Shourie) and another chapter describing the lives and legacies of three central figures in the creation of modern independent India: Nobel Prize-winning writer and critic Rabindranath Tagore, Mohandas Gandhi, leader of the independence movement and Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first prime minister. With her interviews, Nussbaum hopes to show that in resolving the inner clash, these leading figures of the Hindu right have succumbed to an anxious fear and hatred of difference. However much one might share Nussbaum's distaste for their politics, her hasty conclusions regarding these men's inner lives come across as tendentious. In the chapter on the founders, she attempts a balanced discussion of each, identifying both their signal contributions to Indian democracy and their shortcomings that in one way or another help explain the rise of Hindu nationalism.

Nussbaum praises Tagore as a pedagogical innovator, as a champion of pluralism and as the author of India's "public poetry" (including the "stirringly beautiful" national anthem). (4) Tagore sought a via media between a nationalism rooted in ethnicity and religion, on the one hand, and a washed out cosmopolitanism, on the other. He extolled a form of liberal pluralism that both endorses the autonomy of individuals and acknowledges that true autonomy is only possible in the context of cultural traditions. Autonomy consists not in rising above tradition, but in critically engaging with tradition. The capacity to think critically about oneself and one's traditions, the ability courageously to put them to the test posed by the example of others and their ways of life, forms the key ingredient in Tagore's conception of autonomy. To view other ways of life as a spur to self-expression, and not merely as a threat to be managed, requires, Tagore believed, the cultivation of sympathetic imagination. In 1901, Tagore founded a school in what is now West Bengal at Santiniketan to implement this vision. Nussbaum lauds Santiniketan as providing the kind of education essential to democratic citizenship. Education for democratic citizenship, she argues, must 1) inculcate habits of questioning, critical reasoning and deliberation, 2) teach about cultural difference at home and abroad and 3) nourish the "narrative imagination" through immersion in literature and the arts. (5) Although she holds up Tagore's Santiniketan as the embodiment of this ideal schooling in the free exchange of reasons and the ioyful exercise of the sympathetic imagination, Nussbaum faults Tagore for his reluctance to delegate leadership of the educational institutions he established; his innovative pedagogy did not long endure institutionally, nor was it disseminated more widely. The emphasis on rote learning and the inattention to the arts and humanities in Indian public schools produces, Nussbaum suggests, a citizenry more susceptible to the blandishments of nationalist rhetoric.

Gandhi's strengths, in Nussbaum's estimation, include his "passionate egalitarianism, his rhetorical brilliance and his compelling critique of the desire for domination." (6) Nussbaum admires Gandhi's gift for political theatre, his ability to mobilize a vast population strategically, but what she most honors in Gandhi is his moral vision. Political freedom, Gandhi believes, presupposes personal freedom. Freedom from domination at the political level depends on one's freedom from domination by one's own desires. Personal self-rule, in other words, conditions political self-rule. Among the desires threatening to tyrannize the self is the desire to dominate others. Gandhi believes that democracy requires a psychological revolution in which individuals achieve their inner freedom by gaining mastery of their desires for domination and aggression.

Despite his admiration for Gandhi, this positive conception of freedom gave Tagore pause. He viewed it as imperiling the liberal freedom he so passionately espoused. In 1921, he wrote of Gandhi's movement, "What I heard on every side was, that reason, and culture as well, must be closured. It was only necessary to cling to an unquestioning obedience.... So easy is it to overpower, in the name of outside freedom, the inner freedom of man." (7) Tagore here complains that Gandhi's conception of renunciatory freedom squelches critical, expressive freedom. In effect, Tagore bears witness to the phenomenon that Isaiah Berlin later theorized so famously in his "Two Concepts of Liberty." Nussbaum for her part both celebrates Tagore's liberal freedom and places Gandhi's notion of the inner struggle at the center of her vision of democratic freedom. Although she finds fault with Gandhi's moral rigidity, his hesitancy about the arts and his brand of sexual puritanism that disregards women's sexuality, she never really addresses the more fundamental tensions that Tagore observed between Gandhi's conception of inner freedom and his own. She merely writes that we must "amend Gandhi's too-ascetic vision in light of the insights of Tagore, who insisted on finding strength and joy in the body's complexity and desire." (8) Given that Nussbaum hangs the fate of pluralistic democracy on the outcome of the clash within, one would expect a fuller discussion of how to reconcile Tagore's and Gandhi's orientations toward the inner life. Nussbaum also indicts Gandhi's rejection of progress and his repudiation of modernity. These attitudes, she notes, prevented him from envisioning any realistic economic program for independent India.

Nehru comes in for the sharpest criticism. Nussbaum praises his personal integrity and energy, and lauds his practical skill and vision as a statesman. Further, she gives Nehru plaudits for industrializing India, and credits him with independent India's early economic growth. Nevertheless, Nehru's "disdain for religion, together with his idea of a modernity based upon scientific rather than humanistic values, led to what was perhaps the most serious defect in the new nation: the failure to create a liberal-pluralistic public rhetorical and imaginative culture whose ideas could have worked at the grassroots level to oppose those of the Hindu right." (9) Had Nehru, she claims, imagined the Indian masses more sympathetically, he would have better acknowledged their emotional needs and carried through with Gandhi's attempt to root Indian politics in a "universalistic 'religion of humanity'." (10) He would also have worked to foster the kind of public poetry and institutionalize the kind of enriching education that Tagore created. Nehru serves as Nussbaum's foil. She contends that for better or worse the emotions and the imagination play a central role in political life, and that the arts and humanities, as well as liberal religion, sustain a democratic public culture. By neglecting to wait upon the emotions and imagination of the populace, Nehru left India prey to the Hindu Right.

In a chapter on the Indian constitution, Nussbaum demonstrates that she recognizes that the waxing of Hindu nationalism cannot be laid entirely at Nehru's feet. She identifies two features of the document that have served to exacerbate religious discord. First, as is well known, the Indian constitution makes provision for formally unequal treatment of members of "socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or ... the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes" in order to bring about substantive economic and social equality. (11) This formal inequality has taken the form of quotas in public employment, higher education and the legislature. The unintended effects of this formal inequality include a reinforcement of caste identities, and deepened communal resentments. Second, rather than instituting a uniform civil code, the Indian constitution recognizes several divergent systems of religious personal law. Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Christians in India are bound to different codes pertaining to property and family law. Nussbaum correctly concludes that this feature of the constitution in effect amounts to "a system of plural religious establishment." (12) This situation creates a number of problems for a liberal state. Delegating responsibility for the content of the codes to the religious community makes it harder to ensure sex equality, for instance. Because, to give another example, family property is governed by the law of the religion to which one's family belonged, one's freedom to choose one's religion is inhibited. Additionally, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, who are legally classified as Hindus, have no power to shape the Hindu system. (13) Finally and most pertinent to Nussbaum's concerns, the disparities created by multiple systems of law inflame communal resentments. While acknowledging that these two features of the Indian constitution contribute to the appeal of Hindu nationalism, she perversely, it seems to me, places her focus on Nehru's "failure to follow the path sketched out by Tagore and Gandhi." (14) Even granting that a more robust public poetry would be desirable, these well-intentioned, but damagingly divisive provisions woven into the statement of the basic terms of political association surely better account for the power of chauvinistic politics than Nehru's failure to be Tagore or Gandhi.

Nussbaum includes in The Clash Within what she describes as a "gender-based analysis of ethnic violence." (15) She notes that many of the victims of the mob violence in Gujurat were female Muslims who were impaled vaginally with large metal objects before being burned. Nussbaum appeals to the perpetrators' sense of humiliation concerning their male gender roles to explain this religious violence. To this extent her account is commonplace. Nussbaum elaborates this theme more fully than most however. She argues that shame about our needs, our weakness and helplessness, especially when conjoined with a sense of political humiliation, can turn aggressive. Our self-hatred results in violent attempts to refashion the world into a domain beyond vulnerability. British nationalism, she continues, emphasized controlled sexual virtue, which included strict sex roles: aggressive masculinity and passive femininity. National achievement depended on sexual virtue. The British viewed Hindu men as the antithesis of their aggressive, controlled ideal, and transmitted their impression that Hindu males could never achieve national success. In this context Hindu men came to adopt the oppressor's ethic. Masculine "control over the female body came to represent control over the nation." (16) Nussbaum further argues that the obvious bodily markers of our shameful needfulness and animal vulnerability (e.g., feces, blood, corpses) become the primary objects of disgust, and that dominant groups stigmatize other groups of people as disgusting--smelly, slimy, etc.--as a way of further distancing themselves from their animality. Women too assume this role of the disgusting other for men in all societies. In India, Muslims, as the erstwhile conquerors of the subcontinent, stand in for the British and represent aggressive masculinity, but they are also a despised, feminized disgusting other. Nussbaum argues that the bizarre sexual tortures acted out in 2002 reflect this complex of meanings. Killing Muslim women by inserting large metal objects in their vaginas constructs a representation of controlled, aggressive, dominant sexuality, linked to national achievement, but a sexuality impervious to defilement by slime, a marker of vulnerability.

The Clash Within is an enormously ambitious and impressive book. In addition to the topics already discussed, it offers rich discussions of recent Indian history and politics, revisionist accounts of ancient India, the disturbing threats made against American scholars of Hinduism and the ambiguous relationship between the Indian diaspora community and the Hindu Right in India. For all its many virtues, however, a paradox lies at the heart of the book. Nussbaum features "religious violence" in the subtitle and on the first page describes the topic of the book as "the impact of religious nationalism on democratic values," but she consistently downplays the religious nature of the violence and the nationalism. (17) In part, I suspect, this impulse derives from her naively normative view of Hinduism. Echoing George W. Bush, who in his 20 September 2001 Address to Congress and the American People rebukes the 9/11 hijackers for "hijack[ing] Islam itself," Nussbaum writes that the rioting mobs "hijacked a noble tradition for their own political and cultural ends." (18) Who gets to speak for Hinduism? Nussbaum arrogates for herself the right to pronounce not only which Hindu traditions are authentic, but also on the right understanding of those traditions. (19) Hinduism, in its diversity of emerging and evolving varieties, even its "noble" varieties, has always served political and cultural ends. The role of the scholar is not to make normative theological judgments. For the scholar, Hinduism refers to the beliefs and behaviors of those who label them Hindu. This dictum does not, of course, prevent the scholar from describing some phenomenon as an innovation, or as a departure from previous Hindu practice, but it does help prevent the scholar from missing the religious significance of the phenomenon because of theological blinders. The eclipse of religion in The Clash Within may owe to the fact that Nussbaum judges so many of the phenomena she discusses not to be authentic Hinduism.

One word that is conspicuously absent from The Clash Within is "fundamentalism." There are legitimate scruples about employing the term; one might object to its inflammatory connotations, or one might object to using a term whose home is in American Protestantism as a comparative term. Nevertheless, many scholars of religion readily apply the term to some Hindu nationalists. This perspective suggests the eclipse of religion in The Gash Within is misguided. Nussbaum makes much of the fact that the founders of the Hindu right (M.S. Golwalkar and V.D. Savarkar) were not especially pious, but were deeply influenced by European nationalist and fascist ideology and set out self-consciously to reconfigure Hindu self-understanding. This fact by itself provides no reason to think that Hindu nationalism in India today is not a profoundly religious movement. Scholars have shown that fundamentalism can sometimes provide a suitable idiom for expressing political and cultural aspirations. Once the idiom is adopted, however, it assumes a life of its own. This dynamic seems to have occurred in India. Even if Golwalkar and Savarkar were not religiously motivated, that does not mean that after decades of fundamentalist borrowings the kar sevaks who tore down the Babri mosque in Ayodhya with their bare hands were not religiously motivated.

The comparative phenomenological profile of fundamentalism casts doubt, furthermore, on one of Nussbaum's main theses. Fundamentalism arises not in response to out-and-out irreligion, but rather it arises in response to theological liberalism within the fold. Theological liberals generally espouse some form of religious universalism, interpret religion through the lens of morality and are willing on this basis to look askance at offending passages of scripture, and tend to worry about the moral consequences of modern technology Fundamentalists, by contrast, denounce religious universalism, refuse to trim religion to morality, insist on the inerrancy of scripture and enthusiastically embrace technology By these criteria, Gandhi was a paradigmatic theological liberal. Gandhi held that all religions are one and that the essence of religion is morality. He insisted that the scriptures that teach something contrary to morality should not be considered divinely inspired. Gandhi, moreover, felt that modern technology is morally corrupting. (20) Nussbaum argues that had Nehru espoused something akin to Gandhi's "universalistic 'religion of humanity,'" replete with "public symbols and celebrations," the dramatic rise of Hindu nationalism might have been headed off. (21) To recognize the current of fundamentalism running through Hindu nationalism suggests otherwise. It suggests that a more robust Gandhian (or Tagorean) civil religion could well have added fuel to the nationalist fire and that Nehru's irreligious rationalism may well have been the very key to his extraordinary success. Nehru largely rose above interreligious and intrareligious antagonism (in a way that Gandhi did not).

In The Clash Within Nussbaum intends to reverse the usual American perspective and use her analysis of the Indian political situation to reflect back on American democracy Direct attention to the vigorous debates about American civil religion and the basis for a shared commitment to American democracy, however, would have enriched and complicated her analysis of Indian democracy. As Bellah points out, the United States has embraced in uneasy combination both civic republican and liberal ideals. (22) The tensions between these political conceptions map closely onto the tensions between Gandhi's and Tagore's conceptions of freedom. American civil religion has deteriorated, and the prospects for renovating it seem poor. It has come under attack from the Left as illiberal and oppressive. Rorty's more left-wing, explicitly non-religious version of something like a civil religion, rooted in the poetry of Whitman--what he calls the American Sublime--has been rejected as a basis for a shared commitment to American democracy by a theological conservative, Nicholas Wolterstorff, for the same reasons. Jeffrey Stout has sought grounds on which theological conservatives as well as liberals can commit to American democracy. (23) Both the United States and India need to cultivate attachment to their respective pluralistic nations, but universally acceptable grounds for that attachment are frustratingly elusive. To have the government promote a universal religion of humanity would not succeed, and would probably do more harm than good.


(1) Winston Churchill, Royal Albert Hall, London, March 18, 1931.

(2) Martha C. Nussbaum, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religions Violence, And India's Future (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), ix.

(3) Ibid., 2.

(4) Ibid., 80, 14.

(5) Ibid., 290-296.

(6) Ibid., 82.

(7) Ibid., 105.

(8) Ibid., 333.

(9) Ibid., 82.

(10) Ibid., 118.

(11) The Constitution of India, Article 15.

(12) Nussbaum, 143.

(13) Ibid., 142.

(14) Ibid., 337.

(15) Ibid., xi.

(16) Ibid., 201.

(17) Ibid., 1.

(18) Ibid., 8.

(19) Ibid., 76-78.

(20) Ibid., 98-99, 107.

(21) Ibid., 173.

(22) Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

(23) Richard Rorty, "Education as Socialization and as Individualization," Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 114-126; Nicholas Wolterstorff, "An Engagement with Rorty," The Journal of Religious Ethics 31, (March, 2003): 129-139; and Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
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Title Annotation:The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future
Author:Bagger, Matthew
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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