Blogs > Cliopatria > Saffron Infusion

Feb 1, 2004 11:57 pm

Saffron Infusion

I've just posted (well, a few hours ago) a really fascinating new article by Latha Menon on the fundamentalist Hindutva movement and the dire effects it's having on education, history, rational inquiry, scholarship, textbooks and similar areas in India. It's a highly discouraging picture she paints, but all the more worth knowing about for that.

There is no doubt that the Orientalists of the 19th century framed and periodized Indian history in accordance with certain assumptions concerning the ‘other’, which coloured and constrained their otherwise impressive achievement in building a vast corpus of knowledge about aspects of Indian history and culture. But Indology has moved on since then. The approach of leading Western scholars of Indian history today is far more self-aware and sensitive to such assumptions, while remaining appropriately rigorous and critical in its analysis. Yet in the intensely Hindu nationalist climate currently pervading India and flourishing in sections of the Indian diaspora, even distinguished Indologists such as Wendy Doniger are attacked in a knee-jerk response for daring to critically evaluate Hindu texts. Those Indian historians who question the agenda of Hindutva or ‘Hindu-ness’ fare even worse. Eminent, internationally respected historians such as Romila Thapar have been threatened and vilified. But these courageous individuals refuse to be silenced.

History is not faring well in India right now.

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Mary Hicks - 6/8/2005

I'd like to point out a few things - The Indian system of governance is not secular, that is, religion-neutral. Rather, it gives privileges to minority religions: government-funded pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia for the Haj, government funding for minority schools, that is, madrassas and Christian schools, while any teaching (historic? cultural contributions? philosophical?) about the Indic civilization have been forbidden. In Kashmir, Article 370 disenfranchises Hindus from 370 the same rights that citizens in the rest of India have.

The Hindu worldview is tolerant of others, to its own detriment. Perhaps unique in the world, Jews have never been persecuted in India. Early Christians in Kerala flourished until the Portuguese came along, and horrified by the Syrian (non-Roman) Christianity they found, destroyed all their texts and decimated their numbers.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 2/3/2004

"More importantly, this is not an academic issue. It is a moral issue. Something very bad is happening, and unless something changes the situation, it will get worse. Eventually, it will affect us directly, but that's just rationalization as far as I'm concerned."

It's already coming closer. Did you look at the link in the first footnote in the article that Ms. Benson linked to? It talks about Hindutva activists getting innocent companies like Cisco to charitably give significant sums to Hindutva front groups.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/2/2004

I would agree with Ophelia to a point. I think Singh is projecting the present backwards in an unhelpful way. I think it's important to remember that the struggle to free India from British rule was a nationalistic struggle; though Gandhi himself might have been more of a universalist than a fundamentalist, the very concepts of "nation" and "people" in the early and mid-20th century was very much tied up with religious identities. There were Hindu nationalists at that point who were far more radical and violent than the Islamic secessionists (Gandhi's assassin is being considered for honors by BJP leaders).

Partition was a tragedy, in human terms, and a failure of political idealism. But there was clearly an undercurrent of tension and violence in India/Pakistan which made it both plausible and perhaps useful. In other words, I'm not entirely sure that it didn't prevent (or at least delay) equally tragic long-term inter-communal violence. I like to think than an unpartitioned society would have been more inclined towards secularism, or at least less inclined towards radical identity politics, but I'm just not sure.

I'm also a little troubled by the implications of Singh's comment "There would be no problem with Islam, no ‘‘clash’’ of any kind, if it would restrict its jehad to its own boundaries." This strikes me as short-sighted, at least, and more likely a kind of intellectual buffer against criticism of the, so far, contained Hindu nationalist "struggle."

Jonathan Dresner - 2/2/2004


As much as I love academia, there is only so much we can do. This is not something that will be dealt with primarily in academic conferences (how much good has the Euro-boycott of Israeli academics done?), or discussion lists (H-Asia has dealt with this discussion some, but it's mostly at the level of "you are" "sez you" rather than a discussion of so far uninvolved parties) but needs to be brought into foreign policy, aid policy, human rights policy discussions. Even economic policy (look up white-collar outsourcing at the NYTimes) is a component of this discussion.

More importantly, this is not an academic issue. It is a moral issue. Something very bad is happening, and unless something changes the situation, it will get worse. Eventually, it will affect us directly, but that's just rationalization as far as I'm concerned.

I'm open to ideas from anywhere, from anyone. Please.

Ophelia Benson - 2/2/2004

I think she is 'fair' - though she says herself that her view is not the as it were approved one (she says politically correct but I'm a little allergic to that phrase - it's too imprecise). Certainly there is a range of opinion on the reasons for partition, but I don't think it's terribly unusual for, say, Indian secularists to think it was a terrible mistake. Just as I would if for instance a few Southwestern states of the US seceded to form a Catholic republic. India is (or used to be until the BJP came along) a secular state, a state that prides itself precisely on not being a state that coincides with a particular religion. Pakistan is the opposite of that. So yes, surely it is fair to say that partition has some connection with militant Islam. Though it also had to do with histories of communal violence, fears of being outnumbered and so persecuted, etc.

Ophelia Benson - 2/2/2004

I'm not an academic, for one. I take 'we' to mean anyone who worries about the situation Latha Menon describes. My answer, such as it is, is that one thing we can do is what we're doing here - shed the light of publicity on the matter. I'm doing what I can that way, by, for instance, yammering away to all and sundry about Meera Nanda's new book, which so far has not been as widely reviewed as it ought to be. That's one thing we can do: simply spread the word. It's notorious that Americans are not very good at paying attention to international affairs, especially in places where we don't have troops on the ground. So, as writers, bloggers, editors of online magazines or teachers, we can bring attention to the matter.

From the coverage I've been reading of the BORI incident, the publicity has in fact embarrassed Vajpayi, and he has condemned the attack. Would he have if there hadn't been so much publicity? I tend to doubt it. We know from South Africa, etc, that publicity can have strong effects.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 2/2/2004

Mr. Dresner, I wasn't asking if I should care or not, because I do care about traditionalist-fascist movements in the most populous English-speaking country on the planet, with many affluent and well-educated expatriates here in the USA.

I was asking who you were addressing. I'll be more explicit: were you addressing only academics who specialize in Asia, only academics, or any American who cares? If you're asking what "we" should do in academic conferences when faced with people like the unpleasant man that you described earlier (yes, I do remember), I could offer no useful ideas because I'm not an academic. If the question is not restricted to academics, you might get different answers.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 2/2/2004

Is this Indian journalist fair in her characterization of reason for the Pakistan secession, and if not, could any of you take a guess as to her agenda?

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 2/2/2004

Jonathan Dresner - 2/2/2004

Mr. Greenland,

I'm tempted to reply, "if you don't think I mean you, then I probably don't."

The question was a continuation of a discussion Ms. Benson and I and a few others have been having (check the January archives). Some of us are concerned about the politicization of scholarship, the hardening of traditionally flexible attitudes towards identity and culture, the increasingly violent nature of inter-ethnic conflict, all of which are hallmarks of this "saffron wave."

To clarify my question: the rise of illiberal fundamentalism did not just affect the minority members of nationalistic societies, but disrupted the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Even if you're put off by my phrasing the question in terms of supporting "liberalism" (by which I mean something much less American than you probably think) I think it's fair to say that the success of a fascistic Hindu movement to become politically dominant would have a serious destabilizing effect in South Asia, East Asia, Central Asia (OK, I think I've covered most of Asia) and, because of our increasingly complex and deep economic and personal relationships with India, would certainly have an effect in the US as well.

Be interested. Or be surprised. Your choice.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 2/2/2004

"How can we challenge Hindutva, or strengthen liberalism, without making the problem worse?"

Depends who "we" is. Who do you mean by us, Mr. Dresner?

Jonathan Dresner - 2/2/2004

OK, we've identified the problem pretty clearly: India is developing a fundamentalist ethnic nationalism which is structurally and politically indistinguishable from the toxic nationalism of Europe's last century (Japan, too) or the current pan-nationalist extremism of the Middle East.

Now the tough part. What do we, as non-Indians, do? How can we challenge Hindutva, or strengthen liberalism, without making the problem worse? What can we learn from the failure of the early 20th century internationalist movement, and from the failure of liberal forces in Europe that is applicable to the Indian situation?

Honestly, I don't know. But god help us if we do nothing.

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