Fears For Democracy In India

Published on The Chronicle Review, by Martha C. Nussbaum, June 22, 2007.

2 excerpts: … 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. Police were ordered not to stop the violence. Some egged it on. Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, rationalized and even encouraged the murders. He was later re-elected on a platform that focused on religious hatred. Meanwhile the national government showed a culpable indifference. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee suggested that religious riots were inevitable wherever Muslims lived alongside Hindus, and that troublemaking Muslims were to blame.

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. Until the spring of 2004, its parliamentary government was increasingly controlled by right-wing Hindu extremists who condoned and in some cases actively supported violence against minority groups, especially Muslims.

What has been happening in India is a serious threat to the future of democracy in the world. The fact that it has yet to make it onto the radar screen of most Americans is evidence of the way in which terrorism and the war on Iraq have distracted us from events and issues of fundamental significance. 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. It also provides an example of how democracy can survive the assault of religious extremism … //

… Today’s young people in India, therefore, tend to think of religion, and the creation of symbolic culture in general, as forces that are in their very nature fascist and reactionary because that is what they have seen in their experience. When one tells them the story of the American civil-rights movement, and the role of both liberal religion and powerful pluralist rhetoric in forging an anti-racist civic culture, they are quite surprised. Meanwhile, the RSS goes to work unopposed in every state and region, skillfully plucking the strings of hate and fear. By now pluralists generally realize that a mistake was made in leaving grass-roots organization to the right, but it is very difficult to jump-start a pluralist movement. The salient exception has been the women’s movement, which has built at the grass roots very skillfully.

It is comforting for Americans to talk about a clash of civilizations. That thesis tells us that evil is outside, distant, other, and that we are perfectly all right as we are. All we need do is to remain ourselves and fight the good fight. But the case of Gujarat shows us that the world is very different. The forces that assail democracy are internal to many, if not most, democratic nations, and they are not foreign: They are our own ideas and voices, meaning the voices of aggressive European nationalism, refracted back against the original aggressor with the extra bile of resentment born of a long experience of domination and humiliation.

The implication is that all nations, Western and non-Western, need to examine themselves with the most fearless exercise of critical capacities, looking for the roots of domination within and devising effective institutional and educational countermeasures. At a deeper level, the case of Gujarat shows us what Gandhi and Tagore, in their different ways, knew: that the real root of domination lies deep in the human personality. It would be so convenient if Americans were pure and free from flaw, but that fantasy is yet another form that the resourceful narcissism of the human personality takes on the way to bad behavior. (full long text).

(Martha C. Nussbaum is a professor in the philosophy department, law school, divinity school, and the college at the University of Chicago. Her book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future will be published this week by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press).

Comments are closed.