The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future – Book Review

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future
Author:  Martha Nussbaum
Publisher:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
ISBN 13:  9780674030596

Book Review by Rabbi Jayakaran, recent MA student at Redcliffe College.

Martha Nussbaum, in this penetrating look at India today, establishes that the forces of the Hindu right pose a disturbing threat to its democratic traditions and secular state. The book is written for the Western audience, though relevant to others too. The intended aims of this book as stated by the writer are:

1. To bring to the attention of the Americans and Europeans a complex and chilling case of religious violence that does not fit contemporary stereotypes about the sources of religious violence.
2. To use this case to study the phenomenon of religious violence and, more specifically, to challenge the popular ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis, notably articulated by Samuel Huntington, according to which the world is currently polarized between a Muslim monolith, bent on violence, and the democratic cultures of Europe and North America.

She does emphatically convey both these aims through the book. The book clearly communicates  to the readers albeit through an oriental example, the fact that threat to democracy comes not from Muslims or from any ‘clash’ between European and non-European civilizations, but from a romantic European conception of nationalism, based on ideas of blood, soil, purity, and the Volksgeist (a German term for folk or national spirit). She argues at length that the greatest threat comes not from between civilisations, but from a clash within each of us, as we oscillate between self-protective aggression and the ability to live in the world with others. India’s story is a cautionary political tale for all democratic states striving to act responsibly in an increasingly dangerous world.

Nussbaum presents to American and the European audience, the details of the Gujarat pogrom 2002, with a good deal of historical and legal background about the Indian democracy. Through the study of the case of the Gujarat Pogrom 2002, its historical background, and the ideological debates surrounding it, Nussbaum argues ‘that the real clash is not a civilizational one between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West.’ Instead, the real clash is 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.

Nussbaum’s argument is focused on India, but it is also pertinent to other countries. She quotes Nehru saying, ‘all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart’. Thus this book though about India also suggests a way to see America – both America as it faces outward, relating to a world in which cultures are complex; and America in relation to itself. She hopes that America, that has for long imagined that it can live apart, will it not merely see India’s complexities, but also attend to its own. Nussbaum breaks the simplistic assumptions by the Americans though inapplicable to India, that ‘religious extremism in the developing world is entirely a Muslim matter, and that if there is religious tension in a nation, Muslims are the ones to blame.’ She says this is exactly what the leading members of the Hindu right want Americans and other Westerners to think.

Nussbaum well emphasises the problem of religious nationalism in today’s world. This book is a story of democracy’s near-collapse into religious terror and of democracy’s survival – a story that has important lessons to offer to all nations with problems of religious extremism. In the few years prior to 2004, the right-wing Hindu nationalists controlled the central government in India. They condone and in some cases actively support violence against minorities, especially the Muslim minority. They seek fundamental changes in India’s pluralistic democracy. Despite their electoral loss, political groups and the social organisations allied with them remain extremely powerful. Democracy and rule of law have shown impressive strength and resilience, but the future is unclear.

On one hand, the writer dwells in detail on the religious animosity that has threatened this great nation of India and on the other hand bears witness to the democratic character that demonstrates people’s resilience and their deep commitment to pluralism, triumphing over a monolithic ideology based on homogeneity and fear. The thesis of this book 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, with all the vulnerability that such as life entails.

The writer gathers various debates within India generated by independent journalists and scholars and gives a detailed analysis of the events leading to 2002 Gujarat violence. She highlights the manner in which the State machinery was held captive by the Hindu-right while in a premeditated manner they violated precious lives, property and places of worship of Muslim community, not even sparing women and children.

The writer clarifies that she is not anti Hinduism or Hindu tradition as such by saying, ‘What happened in Gujarat was not violence done by Hinduism; it was violence done by people who have hijacked a noble tradition for their own political and cultural ends.’ Piety and spirituality seem to play less or no role in the choices of Hindu-right politicians; nationalism plays an all-important role, and religious ideas and images are reconstructed to suit nationalist purposes. She gives details of how the use and abuse of religion for political gain has become a threat to pluralistic democratic India.

Lack of education about religions in the post independence India, marginalization of religion that began after the partition, led to religion being equated with extremism and played into the hands of religious extremists who monopolised this important domain of human life. In Gurucharan Das words, ‘our secularism has failed to stem the tide of intolerance because most secularists do not value the religious life. In well meaning efforts to limit religion to the private life they behave as though all religious people are superstitious and stupid.’

The writer’s interview with four prominent members of the Hindu-right and her analysis of their views about the Gujarat pogrom very creatively present the spectrum of thoughts about the forces that threaten democracy in India. She makes a distinction between the motive of religious devotion, and the motive of ethnic and cultural terms that is an inspiration to these leaders.

She unpacks two strains of vision for India that exists and the resultant clash due to this. One that sees India as a pluralistic nation, built on ideas of respect for different regional, ethnic, and religious traditions, and united by a commitment to democratic and egalitarian norms. The other believes that this morally grounded unity is too fragile, that only the unity of ethnic homogeneity can really make a strong nation.

The writer looks at the history of the Indian independence struggle through the careers of three great ‘founders’ – Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru. This gives insight into how this democracy has sustained itself despite varied pressures and threats mounted against it. Nehru ignored the nation’s need for the legacy of Tagore – for a public education that would nourish critical freedom, and for a public poetry of humanity that would use art, emotion, and the humanities to construct a pluralistic public culture. In the place of this legacy, the Hindu-right went to work at the grassroots level, creating a public culture of exclusion and hate.

‘Nehru’s failure to acknowledge the importance of religion and emotion in civil society was to great extent offset by the well-designed governmental framework he helped to institute.’ The two areas such as affirmative action and the personal law have fuelled opposition to Nehru’s legacy, aiding the rise of the Hindu-right. The rise of the Hindu-right is well covered with adequate details and this has enabled the readers to understand the background while grappling with the complexities of Gujarat pogrom 2002 and at the same time to stretch ones creative imagination towards formidable prevention of such violence in the future.

Nussbaum in her analysis has extensively dwelt upon the nature and forms of violence inflicted particularly on women – sexual atrocities. She draws on philosophical accounts of the emotions, on cultural history of the emotions, and to some extent on (philosophically examined) psychoanalytic materials, although her arguments are independent of the psychoanalytic materials. The writer brings out the contradiction in the thoughts of the Hindu-right, where on one hand the symbolic association between a woman’s body and the body of the nation lead to veneration of women and delicate treatment like in the case of worshipping ‘Bharata Mata’ and on the other hand they brutally and sadistically killed Muslim women during Gujarat massacre. The writer dwells deep into the deep-seated emotions of shame, disgust, humiliation and revenge that perhaps are a result of accumulated catastrophe of being subjugated for many centuries, first by the Muslims and later by the British, now once again by the richer nations of the world.

The ‘clash’ appears to be a clash between two different sorts of democratic citizens, employing different versions of the Hindu tradition- one who do not fear difference, who seek peaceful relations with people from other religions and ways of life, and who see democratic institutions as strong enough to provide the groundwork for a future of mutual respect. The other are those who fear religious and ethnic differences as a deep threat to order and safety, who have learned to hate people who insist on living in a way that sets them off from the majority, and whose anxious desire for control leads them to legitimize violence. The second ‘clash’ is a clash inside the person, between the forces of fear and reactive domination and the forces that lead to compassion and respect – a ‘clash’ that must be mediated through effective education and a decent public culture.

The writer pursues the question, ‘what subverts democracy, and what preserves it?’ consistently and comprehensively digging deep the historical evolution of contemporary India. The chapter Human Face of the Hindu Right is a valuable one as it sets a strong basis for the analysis of the spectrum of Hindu thought. The face-to-face interview with KK Shastri, Devendra Swarup, Arun Shourie and Gurucharan Das, and juxtaposing their thoughts and responses with the historical and legal background of democratic India, seems to give a greater authenticity to the vision of the Hindu right as perceived by the author.
In addition, Fantasies of Purity and Domination is a valuable chapter that analyses the violence directed against women, which I consider is very important while seeking to deal with the brutality of violence, healing and prevention. The writer’s drawing attention of the readers to Tagore’s education model as highly appropriate to the formation of citizens who respect differences is another strength of the book, as this has been a lacunae in the post independent India. However, in the context of the Hindu right being powerful in the grassroots through various frontal organisations as well as emerging stronger in the premier research and educational institutions, I find the space and resource for the implementation of the Tagore’s model remains scarce. However, in my understanding, the need for innovation and creative ways of peace-building processes and strengthening pluralistic nature of Indian society becomes inevitable. This is applicable to the West also.

Affirmative action related to the caste and the personal laws based on religion could have been dealt with in more detail as they are some of the most sensitive issues that are related to large-scale poverty in India and inter-religious relationships.

The author has remained focused on and has well pursued the aims as stated in the beginning of the book. Overall, it is a very enriching book, a must read for students of international relations, philosophy & religion, social workers & counsellors, peace activists, aid workers, administrators, teachers & educationists etc in the context of ever growing intolerance and violence around the world.

Back to Issue 30

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