‘Hindutva lab to test clash-of-civilisation thesis’

By Ashish Mehta


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New Delhi : Gujarat, long seen as a laboratory for right-wing Hindutva ideology, is also the ideal place to evaluate the controversial idea of "clash of civilizations", says an influential American philosopher and critic.

"The case of Gujarat is a lens through which to conduct a critical examination of the influential thesis of the 'clash of civilizations', made famous by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington," writes Martha C. Nussbaum of the University of Chicago in the latest issue of the journal "Chronicle of Higher Education: Chronicle Review".

The philosophy professor, whose book "The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future" was published last week, notes in the journal article: "What has been happening in India is a serious threat to the future of democracy in the world."

Opening her 5,000-word essay, "Fears for democracy in India", with a recap of the communal violence in Gujarat after a train burning tragedy of Feb 27, 2002, Nussbaum writes: "There is copious evidence that the violent retaliation was planned before the precipitating event by Hindu extremist organizations that had been waiting for an occasion… Most alarming was the total breakdown in the rule of law – not only at the local level but also at that of the state and national governments."

Her diagnosis? "While Americans have focused on President Bush's 'war on terror', Iraq, and the Middle East, democracy has been under siege in another part of the world. India – the most populous of all democracies, and a country whose constitution protects human rights even more comprehensively than our own – has been in crisis."

Underlining that recent events in India pose a "serious threat to the future of democracy in the world", she adds: "If we really want to understand the impact of religious nationalism on democratic values, India currently provides a deeply troubling example, and one without which any understanding of the more general phenomenon is dangerously incomplete."

Challenging Huntington whose ideas have provided the cornerstone to the US foreign policy in recent years, she notes: "His picture of the world as (divided) between democratic Western values and an aggressive Muslim monolith does nothing to help us understand today's India where… the violent values of the Hindu right are imports from European fascism of the 1930s and where the third-largest Muslim population in the world lives as peaceful democratic citizens, despite severe poverty and other inequalities.

"The idea that all conflicts are explained by a simple hypothesis of the 'clash of civilizations' proves utterly inadequate in Gujarat, where European ideas were borrowed to address a perceived humiliation and to create an ideology that has led to a great deal of violence against peaceful Muslims."

For Nussbaum, the real "clash of civilizations" is not between Islam and the West but instead "within virtually all modern nations – between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single 'pure' religious and ethnic tradition".

Recalling Mahatma Gandhi's teachings, she sees the clash at a deeper level "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".

After studying the Gujarat violence for "several years", she suggests four specific lessons:

– The rule of law: India's institutional and legal structure proved robust and played a key role in securing justice for the victims.

– The news media and the role of intellectuals: The performance of the national news media and of the community of intellectuals was "one of the heartening aspects of the Gujarat events".

– Education and the importance of critical thinking and imagination: Democracy would be in peril, when it will be run by "docile engineers in the Gujarat mold, unable to criticize the propaganda of politicians and unable to imagine the pain of another human being".

– The creation of a liberal public culture: To provide counterforce to the feeling of vulnerability and "supply a public culture of pluralism".

"Americans have a great deal to gain by learning more about India and pondering the ideas of some of her most significant political thinkers, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi, whose ruminations about nationalism and the roots of violence are intensely pertinent to today's conflicts," believes Nussbaum. She has been teaching this year "Texts of Indian Modernity: Rabindranath Tagore's Writings about Nation, Universalism, Gender and Faith".

Nussbaum, who has collaborated with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in the past, also teaches "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism", which includes discussions of leading Western political thinkers along side Hindutva ideologues like V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar.