THE HINDU RIGHT Literary Review

On the left side of life

Pluralism and Democracy in India - Debating the Hindu Right; Wendy Doniger and Martha C. Nussbaum, Oxford University Press, Rs.895.  

The book under review, Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right — the result of a conference in November 2005 at the University of Chicago Law School — is one that engages with ideas of political freedom, pluralism and democracy in India. This it does by looking at its history, politics, news reporting and popular culture to make sense of the country’s drift to right-wing majoritarianism. The scholarly essays nudge one towards intellectual introspection on how such a political equation came to pass. The catalyst for both the conference and the volume was the brutal violence against Muslim civilians in Gujarat in 2002. The volume, thought of in a time of optimism — after the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general elections in 2004 and 2009 — describes the feelings of the editors at the juncture of the Narendra Modi-led BJP victory in 2014 as the inability to “feel confident about what the future holds…”

Political circumstances have since changed drastically, from the time the volume was planned to its publication. Yet, the 20 essays, by prominent historians, economists, journalists/columnists, litterateurs, sociologists, political scientists and scholars of philosophy and religious studies, are not only relevant today because they “debate the Hindu right” but also because they try to provide answers to some of our contemporary dilemmas.

For example, Amartya Sen, Mushirul Hasan, Akeel Bilgrami and Martha C. Nussbaum bring out the importance of the past to contemporary life and emphasise the role of a critical and nuanced look at history to understand the present. Malini Parthasarthy, Antara Dev Sen and Arvind Rajagopal look at the print and electronic media to foreground their role in shaping the “political” and disseminating dominant, majoritarian and masculinist stereotypes — allowing themselves to be manipulated by hate propaganda often. Amrita Basu, Tanika Sarkar and Ritu Menon take up the issue of violence and democracy to demonstrate the normalisation and acceptance of ethnic violence in India especially against the minorities and vulnerable communities. Women, many a time, become both active agents of this violence and brokers of peace. Prabhat Patnaik and Zoya Hasan look at state and institutional failures that have left the vulnerable sections to fend for themselves in the arenas of welfare and well-being.

Paul B. Courtright and Wendy Doniger, scholars of the non-judgmental and non-agenda-centric history of the Hindu religion, have been accused by the Hindu right of denigrating and misinterpreting Hindu religion. They share their experiences of being the targets of threats and intimidation. Besides these essays, there are other equally engaging ones by Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Pratik Kanjilal, Gurcharan Das, Mona G. Mehta and Ved P. Nanda.

The editors and some contributors lean towards the thesis that the ascendance of the Hindu right in India is largely due to the neglect of matters of the heart — the emotional, religious and quasi-religious commitments (p.5) — coupled with an undue privileging of the notion of scientific rationality in the public realm. The editors express an unease that India’s leadership (after Gandhi) moved ahead with its ideas of progress and rationality with a social disconnect and with its back toward faith and sentiments that ultimately led to the rise of the Hindu right. The latter, in turn, realised the religious/emotional needs of the people and devised ways to satiate those needs. Thus, it got the support of the people.

This argument is resonant of the “secular-antisecular” debate which came up in the late 1980s and formed the nerve centre of debates on the idea of India in the 1990s. However, I remain a critical dissenter to this view. Rather than suppressing the emotional-religious side of its citizens, the Indian state, at best, was apologetic and defensive about its secular-ness and at worst, a violator of this secular value. It never really explained “secularism” leave aside confidently nurturing the notion as a live part of its nationalist goals. While not meddling with and fettering matters of faith in private (which in any case it should not have done), it hobnobbed with the organised and not-so-organised faith; was large-hearted about public devotional expressions; was open-armed toward ostentations associated with religiosity; was tolerant of venomous speeches that went in the garb of defending religious identity, and, was even complicit in several incidents of religious violence. All this even at times when these clearly went against the rights of the weak.

After all these years of living in India, one has yet to come across an instance where the Indian state has ever fettered a nocturnal, loud jagran or been an obstacle to neighbourhood Gita- paths or gatherings on the Bhagwat or public sacrifice of animals. Conversely, it has hardly ever unambiguously supported a rationalist’s politics or a religious dissenter or a scholarly research work from fanatical attacks. The instances it has done so have been as a result of pressure from civil society and media.

Has the Indian state then really been secular and rationalist? Has it ever really chalked out its secularism beyond the early doses of “unity in diversity”? Has it remained true to even this theorem of “unity in diversity”? These are questions which stare one in the face when exhorted about Indian state secularism and its “oppressions”. In fact, the book opens up these very questions once again for debate. By bringing together a wide range of themes and scholarly contributions on Indian democracy, secularism and the politics of the Hindu right at one place, it makes us revisit these debates in the transformed context of the present times.

Pluralism and Democracy in India - Debating the Hindu Right; Wendy Doniger and Martha C. Nussbaum, Oxford University Press, Rs.895.

Manjari Katju teaches political science at the University of Hyderabad.


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