Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 47, Dated Dec 08 , 2007
|CULTURE & SOCIETY
IIT mindset feeds into the fascist nature of the Right’
political philosopher Martha Nussbaum speaks to SHOMA CHAUDHURY about her new book and the roots of Hindutva
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.
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.
five years since Gujarat 2002, are you still feeling optimistic about
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 —
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
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.
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.
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.
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.