Book Review: Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right

Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right
Edited by Wendy Doniger and Martha C. Nussbaum (Oxford University Press, 2015)

In recent decades and particularly following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, there has been a lively debate on how the Hindu Right (or Sangh Parivar) has been changing India’s political landscape and, indeed, the very character of this constitutional democracy. Most of the work on this volume was done before the ascendance of Narendra Modi into power as the Prime Minister in 2004 but the book’s premise that there is a strong sense of insecurity on what the future holds for India seems to hold good. While the period this volume studies is now part of the past, according to the editors, it remains relevant for three reasons: First, the Hindu Right is now back in power in India. While the Sangh Parivar was on the defensive in the decades immediately following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, since 1980s it has gathered force and has now come to power in the Centre and in many states. Secondly, the period this book reviews is an important chapter in the history of modern India, and that moment is best studied at some distance from immediate events. Finally, the relevance of this period is not only for India but for all nations, as they seek to implement values of pluralism and mutual respect. At a time when Donald Trump has ascended to power in the United States, the relevance of the message of this volume cannot be overstated.

Doniger’s and Nussbaum’s book is divided into six parts: The Past and the Present, Democratic Media, Political Parties and Movements, Creating an Inclusive Public Culture, Gender and Democracy, and India’s Politics on the US Stage. In his introductory essay “The Politics of History”, Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen discusses not only the importance of history but the kind of history that we invoke in discussing contemporary affairs. He focuses on the need to have an inclusive and open-minded understanding of history, rather than a narrow and sectarian view. In the Indian context, Sen points towards the danger of the large majority of Indians (who are Hindus) reading Indian history from the point of view of the biases of majoritarian politics. “This has, in fact, happened in recent decades, often accompanied by considerable sectarian belligerence, directly connected with the form that the powerful Hindutva movement has tended to take” (22).

The volume reflects the dangers implicit in the attempts of the Hindutva groups in the United States in recent decades to influence the academic sector. With the argument that the teaching of Hinduism in the U.S. is biased against the Hindus and that it is steeped in ignorance because the teaching is carried out primarily by the Westerners, a small but influential group of Hindu nationalists in the U.S. has undertaken a systematic exercise to influence the educational institutions. The demand of the Hindutva groups is that since the history of India and Hinduism taught in the American schools and colleges is biased, it should be rewritten (The demand to rewrite history text books is, of course, a reflection of similar attempts in India earlier). While such efforts were undertaken in difference parts of the U.S., the major theatre of action was California where the Vedic Foundation and the American Hindu Education Foundation formally complained to the state’s Curriculum Commission that the coverage in sixth grade history textbooks of Indian history and Hinduism was biased against Hinduism. They, accordingly, sought the revision of these books.

In the University of California Irvine, the Hindutva groups went a step further. The Dharma Civilization Foundation – whose trustees have close links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India, and its American arm, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh – signed agreements with the University to endow chairs for the study of India and Hinduism. The agreements stated that each chair would receive $1.5 million spread across five years. The Foundation further circulated a list of scholars that it considered were acceptable for these chairs. The backlash from the academic community to this intrusion into academic freedom was swift and severe. Following protests, both the attempts – to rewrite the textbooks and to sponsor chairs in universities – were thwarted but the efforts of the religious nationalists to influence the academic scene remains a real danger.

Two eminent scholars of religion who experienced the wrath of the Hindutva movement share their insights and experiences in the volume. Paul B. Courtright (Emory University), who faced over a thousand death threats in response to his scholarly book on the Hindu god Ganesha, in his article examines links between Indian studies, religious studies, and Hindu nationalism in fostering attacks on scholars. He rejects arguments for the monopoly of the fundamentalists to define religion. As he put it, “One of the features of the emerging global culture is that, like people, ideas, and commodities, stories migrate across national boundaries. Myths, like stories, have no owners” (307).

Wendy Doniger (University of Chicago) writes her article in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding her earlier book, The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin Books, 2010). Acknowledging that the history, rituals and other traditions of mainline Hinduism (like most other major religions) evolved in a largely patriarchal and privileged context, she seeks to present an alternative account of the religion, based on the perspective of women, outcasts and animals. Doniger’s analysis becomes especially relevant in a historical context in which European Indologists, along with upper caste Indian scholars and translators during the colonial period, succeeded in creating the image of a “Unified Hinduism” aimed primarily at meeting the challenges posed by the Judeo-Christian religions. As Pankaj Mishra put it, the “British-Brahmin version of Hinduism… has continued to find many takers among semi-Westernized Hindus suffering from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the apparently more successful and organized religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.” (“Another Incarnation” in International New York Times (New York: April 24, 2009). With her book, Doniger poses a powerful critique of this carefully crafted image of Hinduism.

A note on the background of the controversy surrounding Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History is relevant in this context. Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code crafted in 1927 by the colonial rulers has time and again been employed in independent India to suppress minority and dissenting interpretations of religion. Section 295A once again became the primary weapon in countering Doniger’s book. Dina Nath Batra, an activist of RSS, filed a lawsuit under this section demanding that the publisher Penguin withdraw the book. Batra, in his petition, maintained that Doniger’s book revealed a clear intention “to ridicule, humiliate and defame the Hindus and denigrate the Hindu traditions” (Brian K. Pennington, “The Unseen Hand of an Underappreciated Law: The Doniger Affair and Its Aftermath” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 84, Issue 2, June 2016, 324). Following the lawsuit and the nationwide uproar over the matter, in February 2014 Penguin settled the matter by ceasing publication of the book and destroying the remaining copies. Section 295A that criminalizes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” was employed yet again to suppress alternative perspectives of religion and history.

The move against Doniger’s book was not an isolated one but was part of a series of attacks by Hindutva groups to suppress studies on religion and history that dare to deviate from the officially sanctioned ones. The cultural and political climate created by laws such as Section 295A has led to concerted attempts to silence several other books as well, including Aubrey Menen’s The Ramayana as told by Aubrey Menen (Praeger, 1972), Paul Courtright’s  GaṇeśaLord of ObstaclesLord of Beginnings (OUP, 1985), Jeffrey Kripal’s Kālīs Child: The Mystic and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (University of Chicago Press, 1995), James W. Laine’s ShivajiHindu King in Islamic India (OUP, 2003) and the works of A. K. Ramanujan and Doniger herself. The fact that Section 295A establishes criminal, not merely civil, charges even if it is argued that a book was “intended to outrage religious feelings” of a person or group raises serious questions on the very survival of the tradition of tolerance in India.

Doniger’s and Nussbaum’s book accepts the possibility that the influential overseas Indians can play an important role in shaping India’s future but laments the reality that so much of this community is organized along sectarian lines, Hindus, Muslims (and, we may add, Christians). There is the need to encourage nonsectarian groups where people of Indian origin can meet in a climate of respectful exchange. It is important to encourage a climate of respectful dialogue within the groups that currently hold sway so that scholars are no longer demeaned or threatened and their good faith and expertise are respected. “In this way, both scholars and group members may increasingly join in a fruitful dialogue about the past and the present that will make a positive contribution to the Indian democracy’s future” (17).

~ JMA

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