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The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future

A Disappointing Exploration Neera Chandhoke Nussbaum employs her study of India to modify the much celebrated Huntingtonian thesis of a

ussbaum employs her study of India to modify the much celebrated Huntingtonian thesis of a “clash of civilisation” (between a democratic west and an undemocratic Islam). She asserts that the clash exists not between, but within nations, whether the nation be the US or India. For within any country, different ways of conceptualising the nation, its civilisation, and the project of living together, both coexist and conflict. Accordingly, India, as Nussbaum perceives, can be basically understood in terms of two polarities: the liberal democratic vision; and the fundamentalist project of the Hindu right. The power of the Hindu right, she suggests, “has been a power based upon fear, shame, and humiliation, playing to the psychology of people who seek a nationhood that is masculine and aggressive to compensate for the deep wounds of empire. The power of the Gandhi-Nehru vision of the nation, by contrast, is a power based on compassion and respect” (p 333). Not surprisingly, the volume begins with an effort to map the pogrom of the Muslim minority in Gujarat in 2002, and with an attempt to detail the political, the cultural, and the psychological ramifications of Hindu fundamentalism. The book ends with a chapter that narrates the strength of India’s democracy, the vigour of India’s democratic institutions, the healthy and vibrant tradition of public debate, and the discernment of the political public, which rejected the politics of the Hindu right in the 2004 elections.

For Nussbaum, this axis (Hindu right versus the liberal-democratic left of centre) constitutes a dominant referral for an investigation into the many aspects of India’s polity-democracy, pluralism, education wars, institutions, fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy, the intolerance of the Hindu right, and the disposition of the Diaspora. In between she narrates her encounters with “this” or that “individual” (why she chooses these

book review

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future by Martha C Nussbaum;

The Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007; pp 403, $ 29.95 (published in India by Permanent Black, Rs 595).

individuals, and not others who are perhaps more significant in and for public life, remains a mystery), develops an understanding of the culture of the country, and of its mindsets through the deployment of psychology, and analyses the strengths and weaknesses of India’s leaders. Her study, which is astonishingly wide ranging, is fascinating at times; and tediously familiar on others. And if she shows an uncanny ability to go to the heart of the matter on some topics, she merely skims the surface of other themes.

A Hazy Secularism?

The problem is that the reworked clash of civilisations thesis, somehow, and somewhere, retains the flaws of the original one. Nehru and Gandhi were great leaders and visionaries, but even the organisation which these leaders inspired and led, the Indian National Congress, has been, but, incompletely committed to secularism. For instance, when Nehru expressed great unease with the attention paid by his ministers and the president of India to the rebuilding of the Somnath temple, K M Munshi, a cabinet minister in Nehru’s government and the chief patron and promoter of the project, was to write to Nehru thus: “the collective subconscious of India today is happier with the scheme of reconstruction of Somnath sponsored by the government of India than with many other things that we have done and are doing”. It is well known that since the 1920s, the support base and the political affiliations of sections of the party overlapped to an alarming degree with that of Hindu religious movements. And as historians have pointed out, there was a glaring contradiction between the secular credentials of the Congress Party, and the commitment of its members to quite a different vision.

Moreover, most Indians exhibit an un

canny capacity to speak of democracy in the public domain, and practise casteism or discrimination based on religious affiliation, when it comes to social transactions in the private. And increasingly restraints on the use of the communal idiom in the public domain have been pushed back, ever since Hindutva erupted onto the political domain as an ideology in the mid-1980s. Several well-meaning people, who are otherwise committed to democracy and to “rational” economics, are guilty of this. Fortunately Indians have been compelled to exercise caution when it comes to discussing caste in the public domain. This is largely due to the clout of the dalit movement, and notions of political correctness. In sum, there is, frankly, no clear divide between these two socalled incompatible visions in the country, most people slide between one commitment to another with the greatest of ease, and this Nussbaum with her grasp over individual and collective psychology should have recognised.

Nussbaum has been writing on the capabilities approach to human development for some time now, so it is surprising that her analysis of the other great dividing factor in Indian society, caste, is so cursory. Caste-based reservations are discussed in barely two and a half pages, without any discussion on how the entire concept of social justice has been reduced to quotas, how social justice can or should be publicly justified, or without problematising the manner in which quotas have been substituted for meaningful provisioning of social goods such as health, education, shelter, and employment. In part intensive discussion on any one theme is pre-empted by the fact that Nussbaum rushes from topic to topic. So after one hasty paragraph on how quotas should be introduced for the Muslim community, which is backward, she rapidly proceeds to discuss party politics based on caste, gives


some attention to Laloo Prasad Yadav, mentions how Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu engages in dirty party politics, and concludes astonishingly that whether “Laloo deserves a major cabinet appointment might also be disputed – although he has so far performed decently in that role” (p 140). The superficial treatment of themes that have occasioned much public debate, as well as deep scholarly attention, is a matter for some disappointment, considering that Nussbaum is one of the most respected philosophers in the academic community.

In a lighter vein, Nussbaum regrets that the leadership did not give India public poetry that would move large numbers of people. But we do have public poetry. This public poetry comes as much as from the devotional singing of Subbalakshmi, as from the music industry in Bollywood. That songs like “Rang de Basanti” and “Chak de India” have become hugely popular, evoking as they do a spirit of deep commitment to the nation, is enough proof. What more could a musically minded nation want?

The book at times reads like an introductory text to India, and at time as a lightly borne philosophical discourse on what holds a nation together, despite the many clashes, the repeated confrontations, and various efforts to impose a single ideology upon the people. It is clearly a book in the celebratory mode, an anniversary book so as to speak, meant not so much for the well-read Indian, as for the not so well-read Americans. One wishes that Nussbaum could have been less journalistic and more philosophically reflective. Situated as we are in a historical juncture where accepted modes of understanding are in a process of dissolution, and new ones have not yet become clear, we need more of reflection and less of celebration.


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