Tehelka.comtehelkahindi.com criticalfutures.org

Search for archived stories here...

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 47, Dated Dec 08 , 2007

‘The IIT mindset feeds into the fascist nature of the Right’

Noted American political philosopher Martha Nussbaum speaks to SHOMA CHAUDHURY about her new book and the roots of Hindutva

Cherian Thomes


What’s the central premise of your book?
The book’s main thesis is that we should understand the real clash of civilisations as a clash that is internal to all modern democracies. A clash between people who are willing to respect and live with those who are different, and people who anxiously seek domination. Then, agreeing with Gandhi, I say that at a deeper level the real conflict of civilisations is the clash within the individual self as the desire to dominate other people contends against compassion and concern.

What about India makes it susceptible to the hate ideology of the Hindu Right?
When I started the book in 2002, I thought it would be a grim story about the collapse of democracy in India. But it became a story of resilience. There is something about the political culture of India, including the strength of its press that enables it to survive. But there are real weak points. The key one is the system of education. There is not enough attention on critical thinking and independence of mind in India. Not enough on stimulating the imagination. We all have the capacity to understand what happens when we inflict pain on others. But this capacity needs to be trained and developed through the arts — dance, music, theatre. Tagore understood that, Nehru less so. The people behind Hindutva, on the other hand, have been very clever about culture formation. They have formed people into a killing force by using fun and games, the lure of solidarity in the shakhas, the clever use of symbols and rhetoric, and by a genuinely altruistic and self-sacrificing ideology which is very appealing. After Gandhi, this has been completely missing in the Left. They have left symbolic cultural formation completely to the Right. Partly because they felt economic issues were more important and partly because of the contempt for religion that most in the Left had.

It’s five years since Gujarat 2002, are you still feeling optimistic about India?
It’s lucky for the progressive forces that the BJP has no competent leadership at present. They haven’t found a younger generation that can appeal to voters. I do not think Arun Jaitley can, and after the death of Pramod Mahajan —

What about Modi?
I cannot imagine he will ever make it on a national level. Even the Right wants a leader who can woo the US, and he can’t even visit there because of his record of criminality. For the US to revoke an official visa is pretty amazing. To return to your earlier question, what I’m really discouraged by is the growing dominance of a technocratic middle class that is anti-political and for whom the suffering of excluded people doesn’t mean a lot. This IIT mentality — become technically competent
engineers, forget about human values — is very dangerous, particularly for a country like India. I’m afraid the need to make deals with the US is adding to this skew. I find that Sonia Gandhi says the right things. I think of her as somebody with a keen moral imagination, who really understands what women went through, say, in Gujarat, but of course she has to play her cards really carefully.

You argue in the book that one of the reasons a fascist Hindu Right mindset has taken hold is that the creative, sensuous, almost feminine ideals of Vishnu and Krishna have been replaced by a militant, virile masculinity. Can we go back to the old view?
This is what attracted so many of my generation to the study of India in the first place — the idea of a counterculture to American masculinity. In the Vietnam War era, they wanted to turn to a culture of love and peace. That’s why so many of them wanted to write about sexuality and the sex lives of gods. I think Gandhi knew how to give those ideas a modern form, of course it was a very ascetic form; it didn’t have the playfulness and the sensuousness. Tagore captured that in his school and in dance. He could certainly make that ideal very charismatic and viable. But today, I think the last refuge of this is in Bollywood — not the feminine forms of the Geeta Govinda exactly, but there is a kind of sensuousness to Bollywood stars when they dance or sing. Part of the appeal is that it isn’t a purely military use of the body. It’s also interesting that Bollywood is the one place where Hindus and Muslims intermingle and intermarry and there is not any great sense of the gulf between them. Maybe that’s where the softer ideal still exists.

You mentioned how the Left has distanced itself from any culture formation that involves the positive use of myth, emotional or religious symbols — ceding that ground to the Right. How does one combat this?
I think it is very hard now because when people here say, we should be studying the Ramayana, others turn to them and say, oh you are becoming communal. I have friends who’ve had that experience. And because the humanities are so devalued in India, intellectuals who might have been able to lead the way to a more progressive appropriation of tradition have moved to America and are happily teaching the Ramayana there! Dipesh Chakraborty can be a leading Left wing intellectual in America, but here he wouldn’t be respected. In the US, it was great that the civil rights movement was able to latch on to African-American music — it was the only creative musical force in America at that time. Blues, jazz — everyone could relate to that. Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” — about a black man who’s lynched —pulled at everyone’s gut, all over America. I think in India, the challenge is to find such a meeting ground in popular culture. Tagore did that by writing songs that everyone could sing. But that is wearing thin — even Bengalis find Tagore a bit tedious now. I think the women’s movement can play a big role. And Bollywood, of course, has great possibilities, if it would use that power. The other area is vernacular literature. The English language market is too commercialised and too aimed at Americans, so it only touches these issues superficially. It’s really in the vernacular literature that people are confronting issues of communities and diversity. Keeping the vernacular literary and theatrical cultures going is important.

Can a utilitarian, globalised, technocratic society — with no interest in identity politics — lead to an uncommunal world?
No, I don’t think so. The minute you start thinking of people as simply inputs into an economic calculus, you’ve moved away from human respect and the ability to imagine others empathetically. This is reminiscent of the Nazi technocracy which was very efficient and found it very easy to talk about humans as things — as cargo — and this was a big part of what made the atrocities possible. I have a lot of colleagues who are economic libertarians, and they think a technocracy will be benign because people will follow their economic self-interest and hire anyone because it’s in their interest to do so. This is exceedingly naïve. People can hate others and refuse to employ them simply because of the stigma. My father was born in the deep South. He lived most of his life in the North but never lost that hatred of African-Americans and he really believed — this is a man who was a high-powered lawyer in a major urban firm — he really believed that a black person would contaminate anything he touched. When I married a Jew it was not quite as bad as if I’d married a black but he didn’t come to my wedding and didn’t speak to me for years. In some ways this has a lot to do with images of masculinity. I think, for my father, who grew up very poor, the son of factory workers, and who brought himself up, there was always deep insecurity, and the strong need to be above someone else. This operates in India in a different way. The insecurity here is historical. Hindu men have been dominated for centuries, first by Muslims (though that was not always an ugly domination) and then by the Raj. So the idea — enunciated strongly by Golwalkar — is that we have been dominated because we were weak and now we must strike back by showing that we are more aggressive even than the ones that dominated us. This is the sentiment that played itself out so horrifically in Gujarat, complicated by the fact that Muslims were economically stronger there than the elsewhere in the country.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 47, Dated Dec 08 , 2007

Print this story Feedback Add to favorites Email this story



  About Us | Advertise With Us | Print Subscriptions | Syndication | Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | Feedback | Contact Us | Bouquets & Brickbats