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Impasse in India

Last summer Foreign Affairs, Time, Newsweek, and The Economist highlighted a major shift in American perceptions of India when, in cover stories that appeared almost simultaneously, they described the country as a rising economic power and a likely “strategic ally” of the United States. In 1991, India partly opened its protectionist economy to foreign trade and investment. Since then agriculture, which employs more than 60 percent of the country’s population, has stagnated, but the services sector has grown as corporate demand has increased in Europe and America for India’s software engineers and English-speaking back-office workers.1 In 2006, India’s economy grew at a remarkable 9.2 percent.

Dominated by modern office buildings, cafés, and gyms, and swarming with Blackberry-wielding executives of financial and software companies, parts of Indian cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Gurgaon resemble European and American downtowns. Regular elections and increasingly free markets make India appear to be a more convincing exemplar of economic globalization than China, which has adopted capitalism without embracing liberal democracy.

However, many other aspects of India today make Foreign Affairs‘ description of the country—“a roaring capitalist success-story”—appear a bit optimistic. More than half of the children under the age of five in India are malnourished; failed crops and debt drove more than a hundred thousand farmers to suicide in the past decade.2 Uneven economic growth and resulting inequalities have thrown up formidable new challenges to India’s democracy and political stability. A recent report in the International Herald Tribune warned:

Crime rates are rising in the major cities, a band of Maoist-inspired rebels is bombing and pillaging its way across a wide swath of central India, and violent protests against industrialization projects are popping up from coast to coast.3

Militant Communist movements are only the most recent instance of the political extremism that has been on the rise since the early Nineties when India began to integrate into the global economy. Until 2004 the central government as well as many state governments in India were, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it in her new book,

increasingly controlled by right-wing Hindu extremists who condone and in some cases actively support violence against minorities, especially the Muslim minority. Many seek fundamental changes in India’s pluralistic democracy.

In 1992, the Hindu nationalist BJP (Indian People’s Party) gave early warning of its intentions when its members demolished the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque in North India, leading to the deaths of thousands in Hindu–Muslim riots across the country. In May 1998, just two months after it came to power, the BJP broke India’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing by exploding five atomic bombs in the desert of Rajasthan. Pakistan responded with five nuclear tests of its own.

The starkest evidence of Hindu extremism came in late February and March 2002 in the prosperous western Indian state of Gujarat. In a region internationally famous for its business communities, Hindu mobs lynched over two thousand Muslims and left more than two hundred thousand homeless. The violence was ostensibly in retaliation for an alleged Muslim attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in which a car was set on fire, killing fifty-eight people. Nussbaum, who is engaged in a passionate attempt to end “American ignorance of India’s history and current situation,” makes the “genocidal violence” against Muslims in Gujarat the “focal point” of her troubled reflections on democracy in India. She points to forensic evidence which indicates that the fire in the train was most likely caused by a kerosene cooking stove carried by one of the Hindu pilgrims. In any case, as Nussbaum points out, there is “copious evidence that the violent retaliation was planned by Hindu extremist organizations before the precipitating event.”

Low-caste Dalits joined affluent upper-caste Hindus in killing Muslims, who in Gujarat as well as in the rest of India tend to be poor. “Approximately half of the victims,” Nussbaum writes, “were women, many of whom were raped and tortured before being killed and burned. Children were killed with their parents; fetuses were ripped from the bellies of pregnant women to be tossed into the fire.”

Gujarat’s pro-business chief minister, Narendra Modi, an important leader of the BJP, rationalized and even encouraged the murders. The police were explicitly ordered not to stop the violence. The prime minister of India at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, seemed to condone the killings when he declared that “wherever Muslims are, they don’t want to live in peace.” In public statements Hindu nationalists tried to make their campaign against Muslims seem part of the US-led war on terror, and, as Nussbaum writes, “the current world atmosphere, and especially the indiscriminate use of the terrorism card by the United States, have made it easier for them to use this ploy.”

A widespread fear and distrust of Muslims among Gujarat’s middle-class Hindus helped the BJP win the state elections held in December 2002 by a landslide. Tens of thousands of Muslims displaced by the riots still live in conditions of extreme squalor in refugee camps. Meanwhile, the Hindu extremists involved in the killings of Muslims move freely. Though denied a visa to the US by the State Department, Narendra Modi continues to be courted by India’s biggest businessmen, who are attracted by the low taxes, high profits, and flexible labor laws offered by Gujarat.4

Describing the BJP’s quest for a culturally homogeneous Hindu nation-state, Nussbaum wishes to introduce her Western readers to “a complex and chilling case of religious violence that does not fit some common stereotypes about the sources of religious violence in today’s world.” Nussbaum claims that “most Americans are still inclined to believe that religious extremism in the developing world is entirely a Muslim matter.” She hints that at least part of this myopia must be blamed on Samuel Huntington’s hugely influential “clash of civilizations” argument, which led many to believe that the world is “currently polarized between a Muslim monolith, bent on violence, and the democratic cultures of Europe and North America.”

Nussbaum points out that India, a democracy with the third-largest Muslim population in the world, doesn’t fit Huntington’s theory of a clash between civilizations. The real clash exists

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… domination of a single religious and ethnic tradition.

She describes how Indian voters angered by the BJP’s pro-rich economic policies and anti-Muslim violence voted it out of power in general elections in 2004. Detailing the general Indian revulsion against the violence in Gujarat and the search for justice by its victims, she highlights the “ability of well-informed citizens to turn against religious nationalism and to rally behind the values of pluralism and equality.” Insisting on the practical utility of philosophy, Nussbaum has often attacked the theory-driven feminism of American academia. “India’s women’s movement,” she claims, “has a great deal to teach America’s rather academicized women’s movement.” She is convinced that from India “we Americans can learn a good deal about democracy and its future as we try to act responsibly in a dangerous world.”

Nussbaum thus casts India’s experience of democracy in an unfamiliar role: as a source of important lessons for Americans. Such brisk overturning of conventional perspective has distinguished Nussbaum’s varied writings, which move easily from the ideas of Stoic philosophers to international development. Few contemporary philosophers in the West have reckoned with India’s complex experience of democracy; and even fewer have engaged with it as vigorously as she does in The Clash Within.

Nussbaum, who has frequently visited India to research how gender relations shape social justice, is particularly concerned about the situation of women in contemporary India. She sensitively explores the colonial-era laws that, upheld by the Indian constitution, discriminate against Muslim women. She describes how Gujarat, which has had economic growth but has made little progress in education and health care, became a hospitable home to Hindu nationalists. She details, too, tensions within the Indian diaspora, many of whom are Gujarati, whose richest members support the BJP. She reveals how the BJP initiated India’s own culture wars by revising history textbooks, inserting in them, among other things, praise for the “achievements” of Nazism.

Her interviews with prominent right-wing Hindus yield some shrewd psychological insights, particularly into Arun Shourie, an economist and investigative journalist who, famous initially for his intrepid exposés of corruption, became a cabinet minister and close adviser to BJP prime minister Vajpayee. She suggests that the anti-Muslim views of Shourie, who is otherwise capable of intelligent commentary, may owe to “something volatile and emotionally violent in his character…something that lashes out at a perceived threat and refuses to take seriously the evidence that it might not be a threat.”

In a chapter that forms the core of the book, she examines the ideas and legacies of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Rabindranath Tagore, founding fathers of India’s democracy. Her admiration for Tagore and Gandhi is deep. However, she offers only qualified praise for Nehru, India’s resolutely rationalist first prime minister. Nussbaum laments that Nehru neglected “the cultivation of liberal religion and the emotional bases of a respectful pluralistic society”—a failure that she thinks left the opportunity wide open for the BJP’s “public culture of exclusion and hate.”

According to Nussbaum, Nehru may have been good at building formal institutions, but it was Gandhi who gave a spiritual and philosophical basis to democracy in India by calling “all Indians to a higher vision of themselves, getting people to perceive the dignity of each human being.” She approves of Gandhi’s view that only individuals who are critically conscious of their own conflicts and passions can build a real democracy. In fact, much of Nussbaum’s own rather unconventional view of democracy in this book derives from the Gandhian idea of Swaraj (self-rule), in which control of one’s inner life and respect for other people create self-aware and engaged rather than passive citizens. The “thesis of this book,” she writes in her preface, is

the Gandhian claim that the real struggle that democracy must wage is a struggle 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.

However, Nussbaum’s strongly felt and stimulating book deepens rather than answers the question: How did India’s democracy, commonly described as the biggest in the world, become so vulnerable to religious extremism?

Ideological fanaticism stemming from personal inadequacies, such as the one Nussbaum identifies in Arun Shourie, is certainly to blame. But as Nussbaum herself outlines in her chapter on Gujarat, religious violence in India today cannot be separated from the recent dramatic changes in the country’s economy and politics. The individual defects of Indian politicians only partly explain the great and probably insuperable social and economic conflicts that give India’s democracy its particular momentum and anarchic vitality.

  1. 1

    Though the service sector employs only 23 percent of the population, it accounts for 54 percent of India’s GDP.

  2. 2

    Somini Sengupta, “On India’s Despairing Farms, a Plague of Suicide,” The New York Times, September 19, 2006.

  3. 3

    Anand Giridharadas, “Rising Prosperity Brings New Fears to India,” International Herald Tribune, January 26, 2007.

  4. 4

    See Saba Naqvi Bhaumik, “Gujarat’s Guru,” Outlook, January 29, 2007.

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