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

May 3, 2007

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you all for joining us.

Today it is with great pleasure that we welcome to our Breakfast Program the widely acclaimed and highly accomplished academic Martha Nussbaum, whose c.v. more than speaks for itself. You all should have picked up a copy of it. If you haven't had a chance to read it, I suggest that you do.

Professor Nussbaum will be discussing her most recent book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future.

The subject of her latest work is religious extremism, and I believe this is a topic that will not only expand, but also enrich, the Carnegie Council's resources for our ongoing series on Religion in Politics. More information on this and our other programs can be found on our website, so I suggest that you visit it at

Religion in the 21st century has become a divisive force. It is the fault line along which neighbors are polarized and too often forced apart. Although Iraq is the current reference point for religious wars, India, with the world's third-largest Muslim population, can in many ways serve as another example. Yet, here the clash comes not from Muslim against Muslim, but from the Hindu Right, whose political party, the BJP, bases its appeal on religious nationalism wedded to ideas of ethnic homogeneity and purity. In fact, Gandhi, the father of modern-day India, was himself assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who accused him of pandering to Muslims.

Although India has long been known as a country of astonishing diversity, it has for decades been intermittently tormented by brutal outbursts of religious violence and extremism, thrusting thousands of ordinary Hindus and Muslims into bloody conflict, which is threatening the democratic traditions that this nation has fought so long and hard for.

In The Clash Within, Professor Nussbaum writes about the impact of religious nationalism on democratic values, democracy's future in India, and its near collapse. The Gujarat riots of 2002 are the focal point for her analysis. These riots, in which nearly 2,000 Muslims were killed, were organized by Hindu extremist members of the BJP whose intent was—and is—to create a "pure" India, unsullied by other faiths.

For Professor Nussbaum, this episode serves to demonstrate the ethical dilemma facing all religions today, which is how to affirm one's own faith without denigrating the faith of others. To this end, she searches to find the answers by asking: What undermines democracy and what preserves it?

While India has important lessons to offer all nations struggling with problems of religious extremism, its future is far from certain, as exemplified by an incident which took place on February 18th of this year, when terrorists bombed an overnight train packed with Muslims that had left Delhi on its way to the Pakistani city of Lahore. This act marked the fifth anniversary of the Gujarat riots.

Still, in the aftermath of these events, Professor Nussbaum believes that her analysis will help us to better understand not only India, but also the future of democracy and the dangers of dogmatism in this violent and conflict-ridden world, a world where respectful religious pluralism is not simply the wishful hope of liberals, but an urgent precondition for justice and peace.

Please join me in welcoming the very astute and gifted scholar, Martha Nussbaum, who left Boston at probably 5:00 o'clock this morning to be with us, so I thank you for that.


MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Thank you so much for this invitation. It's exciting to speak to this wonderful group.

This book is a bit of a detour from my usual occupation, which is writing as a philosopher about theories of social and global justice and the foundations of development ethics. I had worked a lot in India over the course of that, and so when the Gujarat riots happened, I found that the United States didn't have a lot written about that, so I started writing about it, just to convey what was going on to people here, and then out of that eventually grew this book.

On February 27, 2002, the Sabarmati Express train arrived in the station of Godhra in the state of Gujarat in western India bearing a large group of Hindu pilgrims who were returning from a pilgrimage to the alleged birthplace of the god Rama at Ayodhya, where some years earlier angry Hindu mobs had destroyed the Babri Mosque, which they claim is on top of Rama's birthplace. This pilgrimage, like many others in recent years, aimed at forcibly constructing a Hindu temple over the disputed site.

The mood of the returning passengers, frustrated in their aims by the government and the courts, was angry. When the train stopped at the station, passengers got into arguments with Muslim vendors and passengers. At least one Muslim vendor was beaten up when he refused to say "Jai Shri Ram" [hail Ram]. As the train left the station, stones were thrown at it, apparently by Muslims.

Fifteen minutes later, one car of the train erupted in flames. Fifty-eight men, women, and children died in the fire. Most of the dead were Hindus.

Because the area adjacent to the tracks was an area of Muslim dwellings, and because a Muslim mob had gathered in the area to protest the treatment of Muslims on the train platform, blame was immediately put on Muslims. Many people were arrested, and some of these still today, five years later, are in detention, held without charge, despite the fact that two independent inquiries into the event have established, through careful sifting of the forensic evidence, that the fire was most probably a tragic accident caused by combustion from cook stoves brought on by the passengers and then stored under the seats of the train.

In the days that followed, wave upon wave of violence swept through the state. The attackers were Hindus, many of them highly politicized, shouting Hindu right-wing slogans, along with others like "kill," "destroy," and "slaughter."

There is copious evidence that the violent retaliation was planned by Hindu extremist organizations before the precipitating event. In other words, there are names, lists of Muslim dwellings, just waiting there for a precipitating event to take place.

No one was spared. Young children were burned along with their families. Particularly striking was the number of women who were raped, mutilated, and in some cases tortured with large metal objects and then set on fire.

Over the course of several weeks, about 2,000 Muslims were killed, most of them in parts of the state very far from the original event.

Most alarming was the total breakdown in the rule of law, not only at the local level, but also that of state, and even national, government. Police were ordered not to stop the violence, and some even egged it on.

Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, rationalized, and even encouraged, the murders. He was later reelected on a platform that focused on religious hatred. Because evidence of his criminal activity is so overwhelming, he has been denied a visa to enter the United States.

Meanwhile, the national government showed a culpable indifference. Prime Minister Vajpayee suggested that religious riots were inevitable wherever Muslims lived alongside Hindus and that trouble-making Muslims were likely to blame. Leading politicians implied that government would treat citizens unequally—some would receive the full protection of the law and others would not.

While Americans have focused on the 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 fundamental human rights even more comprehensively than our own, has been in crisis.

Until 2004, its parliamentary government was increasingly controlled by right-wing Hindu extremists who condone, and in some cases actively support, violence against minorities,
particularly Muslims. Many seek fundamental changes in India's pluralistic democracy. Despite their electoral loss, these political groups and their allied social organizations remain powerful.

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 so many Americans is evidence of the way in which terrorism and the war in Iraq have distracted Americans 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 troubling example, and one without which any more general understanding of the phenomenon is dangerously incomplete.

It also provides an example of how democracy can survive religious extremism. In May 2004, the voters of India went to the polls in large numbers. Contrary to all predictions, they gave the Hindu Right a resounding defeat.

In my book, I use the case of Gujarat as a lens through which to conduct a critical examination of the influential thesis of the so-called "clash of civilizations" made famous by Samuel Huntington. Huntington's picture of the world as riven between democratic Western values and an aggressive Muslim monolith can't stand the confrontation with today's India, where the violent values of the Hindu Right are imports from European fascism of the 1930s and the third-largest Muslim population in the world lives in peace despite severe poverty and other inequalities.

Through a study of this case, I argue that the real clash of civilizations is not a clash between Islam and "the West," but instead a clash within virtually all modern nations between people who are prepared to live with others on terms of equal respect and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single "pure" religious and ethnic tradition.

At a deeper level, my book's thesis is the Gandhian claim that the real clash of civilizations is a clash within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other, and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails.

This argument about India will also suggest a way to see America, which is also torn between two different pictures of itself. One picture shows America and Americans as good and pure, its enemies as an external "axis of evil." The other picture, the fruit of internal self-criticism, shows America to itself as complex and flawed, torn between forces bent on control and hierarchy, and forces that promote democratic equality. At a deeper level, what I have called the Gandhian level, my internal clash picture shows Americans to themselves as people, each of whom is capable of both respect and aggression, both democratic mutuality and anxious domination.

As George Kennan once wrote, "I wish I could believe that the human impulses which give rise to the nightmares of totalitarianism were ones which Providence had allocated only to other peoples and to which the American people had been graciously left immune. Unfortunately, I know this is not true. The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of a totalitarian buried somewhere way down deep in each and every one of us."

According to the Huntington thesis, each so-called civilization has its own rather unitary picture of life and Hinduism counts as a distinctive civilization.

If we investigate the history of the Hindu Right, however, we see a very different story. Traditional Hinduism was decentralized, plural, and highly tolerant, so much so that the vision of a unitary, pure Hinduism that could provide the new nation with an aggressive ideology of homogeneity could not be found in India at all. The founders of the Hindu Right had to import it from Europe. Today, European fascism is seated right at the heart of what parades, in some quarters anyway, as Hindu civilization.

The Hindu Right's version of history is a simple one. Like all simple tales, it is largely a fabrication, but its importance to the movement may be seen by the intensity with which its members go after scholars who present a more nuanced and accurate picture.

Here's how the simple story goes. Once there lived in the Indus Valley a pure and peaceful people. They spoke Vedic Sanskrit, a language revealed as that of the gods when the immortal Vedas were given to humanity. They had a rich material culture, well suited to sustain their common life.

Their realm was vast, stretching from Kashmir in the north to Salem in the south. And yet, they saw unity and solidarity in their shared ways of life, calling themselves Hindus and their land Hindustan. No caste divisions troubled them, nor was caste a painful source of division. The condition of women was excellent.

This peaceful condition went on for centuries. Although from time to time marauders made their appearance on this people's doorstep (for example, the Huns), they were quickly dispatched because this people was aggressive when it needed to be.

Suddenly, unprovoked, invading Muslims put an end to all that. The early Medieval period saw brief incursions by Muslims bent on the destruction of Hindu temples. These, however, proved short lived.

Disaster struck with a heavier hand, however, when Babur swept through the north of Hindustan early in the sixteenth century, vandalizing Hindu temples, stealing sacred objects, building mosques over temple ruins.

For 200 years Hindus lived at the mercy of the marauders, until the Maharastrian hero Shivaji rose up against the aliens and drove them back, restoring the Hindu kingdom. His success, however, was all too brief. Soon the British East India Company, and then the British themselves, took up where Babur and his progeny had left off.

What is wrong with this picture?



  • Well, for a start, the people who spoke Sanskrit almost certainly migrated into the subcontinent from outside, finding indigenous people there, and maybe these were the ancestors of the Dravidian peoples of southern India. Hindus are no more indigenous than Muslims.

  • Second, it leaves out problems endemic to Hindu society—the problem of caste, which both Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore took to be the central social problem facing India; and problems of class and gender inequality. When historians describe these problems, they call them "Marxist," as though that by itself invalidated the argument.

  • Third, it leaves out large regional differences within Hinduism and hostilities associated with these. Many temples were vandalized by rival Hindu factions.

  • Fourth, it omits evidence of peaceful coexistence and synchrotism between Hindus and Muslims for a good deal of the Mogul Empire, including Akbar's well-known policies of religious toleration. Muslims in this story are nothing but bad and aggressive.


In the Hindu Right version of history, a persistent theme is that of humiliated masculinity. According to the received story, Hindus have been subordinate for centuries and their masculinity insulted, in part, because they have not been willing to be aggressive and violent enough. Even while the violence of the conquerors is decried, Hindu males are encouraged to emulate that aggressive and warlike demeanor.

Rabindranath Tagore, deeply perceptive here as always, represents his Hindu nationalist antihero in the novel The Home and the World (1916) as wishing he could seize the woman he desires by force and rape her, but he finds himself unable to do so. He blames this inability on his Hindu heritage and wishes for a different nature. He says there are two different sorts of music, the Hindu flute and the British military band. He wishes he could hear in his blood the sound of that military band rather than that disturbingly non-aggressive flute.

The two leading ideologues of the Hindu Right, who in different ways responded to this call for a warlike Hindu masculinity, are V.D. Savarkar, a freedom fighter who spent years in a British prison in the Andaman Islands, and who may have been a co-conspirator in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi; and M.S. Golwalkar, a guru-like figure who was not involved in the independent struggle and who quietly behind the scenes built up the organization called the RSS, which means National Corps of Volunteers, that is now the leading social organization of the Hindu Right.

For reasons of time, I will focus only on Golwalkar's book, We, or Our Nationhood Defined, published in 1939. Some of the remarks I am about to quote are embarrassing to leaders of the Hindu Right today, and members of that group hastened to assure me that Golwalkar knew nothing about the Holocaust and withdrew the offending statements in editions published after the war. But 1939 was still after the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht, and my own copy of the fourth edition, published in 1947, still contains the statements as I shall quote them here.

Writing during the independent struggle, Golwalkar sees his job as that of describing the unity of the new nation. He announces that most Indians' ideas about nationhood are mistaken: "They are not in conformity with those of the Western political scientists. It is but proper, therefore, to understand what the Western scholars state as the universal nation idea and correct ourselves." So notice this unselfconscious deference to European scholarship.

Golwalkar now turns to English dictionaries and to British and German political science. The five elements that he finds repeated as hallmarks of national unity are geography, race, religion, culture, and language. He examines each of these in turn and then analyzes several nations to see to what extent they embody the desired unities.

Germany impresses him especially for the way in which she has managed to unify a large territory under one rule. He observes: "German race pride has now become the topic of the day. To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races, the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for races and cultures having differences going to the root to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by."

In the end, Golwalkar's view of national unity is not exactly that of Nazi Germany. He is not very concerned with purity of blood, and really he can't be, because most Muslims and Christians in India are converts. He is far more concerned with the group's desire to merge into the dominant whole. Groups who fall outside the five-fold definition of nationhood, he concludes, can "have no place in the national life unless they abandon their differences and completely merge themselves in the national race."

Unlike Hitler, Golwalkar would probably be happy with the conduct of many German Jews who converted and assimilated. Nonetheless, he is firmly against the civic equality of any people who retain their religious and ethnic distinctiveness, refusing to merge into the dominant Hindu whole.

Here is his conclusion about India: "There are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at the sweet will of the national race. That is the only logical and correct solution. That alone keeps the nation safe from the danger of a cancer developing in its body politic and the creation of a state within a state. From this standpoint, sanctioned by the experiences of shrewd old nations, the non-Hindu peoples in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but that of glorification of the Hindu race and culture—in one word, they must cease to be foreigners—or they may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, not even citizens' rights. There is, at least should be, no other course for them to adopt."

At the time of independence, such ideas of Hindu supremacy did not prevail. Nehru and Gandhi insisted not only on the equal rights of all citizens, but on stringent protections for religious freedom of expression in the new constitution.

Gandhi always pointedly included Muslims at the very heart of his movement. A devout Muslim, Maulana Azad, was one of his and Nehru's most trusted advisors, and it was to him that Gandhi turned to accept food when he broke his fast unto death, a very pointed assault on sectarian ideas of purity and pollution. Gandhi's pluralistic ideas, however, were always contested.

On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot at pointblank range by Nathuram Godse. Godse, who edited a newspaper called Hindu Rashtra [Hindu Nation], had left RSS because it seemed to him not political enough. The Hindu Mahasabha, a political party, was more congenial. He had long had a close relationship with Savarkar, who was in charge of the Hindu Mahasabha. He wrote to Savarkar: "Since the time you were released from your internment at Ratnagiri, a divine fire has kindled in the minds of those groups who profess that Hindustan is for the Hindus."

At his sentencing on November 8, 1949, Godse read a book-length statement of self-explanation justifying his assassination for posterity. He argues, first, that Gandhi's pacifism undermines the culture of manliness that a new nation ought to have; second, that the inclusion of Muslims as equal citizens is also disastrous. Because Gandhi is so charismatic, he says, the only way to stop him was by killing him.

Nehru believed that the murder of Gandhi was part of what he called a fairly widespread conspiracy on the part of the Hindu Right to seize power. He saw the situation as analogous to that in Europe on the eve of the fascist takeovers and called the RSS "a private army proceeding along the strictest Nazi lines."

For reasons of time, I have to now fast-forward to recent years. Although illegal for a time, RSS eventually re-emerged and quietly went to work building a vast social network, consisting largely of groups for young boys, called branches or shakhas, which, through clever use of games and songs, indoctrinate young men into the confrontational and Hindu supremacist ideology of the organization. The idea of total obedience and the abnegation of the critical faculties is at the core of this solidaristic movement.

Each day, as members raise the saffron flag of the eighteenth-century hero Shivaji, which the movement prefers to the tricolor flag of the Indian nation with its Buddhist wheel of law at the center reminding citizens of the Emperor Ashoka's devotion to religious toleration, they recite the following pledge: "I take the oath that I will always protect the purity of Hindu religion and the purity of Hindu culture for the supreme progress of the Hindu nation. I have become a component of the RSS and will do the work of the RSS with utmost sincerity and unselfishness and with all my body, soul, and resources, and I will keep this vow for as long as I live. Victory to Mother India."

The organization also makes clever use of modern media. A televised serial version of the classical epic Ramayana in the late 1980s fascinated viewers all over India with its concocted tale of a unitary Hinduism dedicated to the single-minded worship of the god Rama and his birthplace at Ayodhya. As a result of this propaganda, in 1992 Hindu mobs, egged on by members of the BJP, the political party affiliated with RSS, destroyed a mosque at Ayodhya that they say covers Rama's birthplace.

Politically, the BJP began to gather strength in the late 1980s, drawing on widespread public dissatisfaction with the economic policies of the post-Nehru Congress Party, although it was actually Congress under Rajiv Gandhi that began the economic reforms, and playing always the cards of hate and fear. It was during their ascendancy in the coalition government that the destruction of the Ayodhya Mosque took place.

Although the elections of 2004 gave a negative verdict on the BJP government, it remains the main opposition party, and it controls state governments in some key states including Gujarat.

For several years, I have studied the Gujarat violence, its basis and its aftermath, interviewing many of the people connected with it on both sides, and looking for its implications for the ways in which we should view religious violence around the world.

One obvious conclusion to draw is that each case must be studied on its own merits, with close attention to specific historical and regional factors. The idea that all conflicts are explained by a simple hypothesis of a clash of civilizations proves utterly inadequate to the facts of Gujarat, where European ideas borrowed to address a perceived humiliation were used to create an ideology that ultimately led to a great deal of violence against peaceful Muslims.

But beyond that general insight, my study of the riots has suggested four very specific lessons:

  • Number one, the rule of law.

    One of the most appalling aspects of Gujarat was the complicity of officers of the law. The institutions of government broke down at the local level, and to some extent at the state level.

    However, the institutional and legal structure of the Indian democracy ultimately proved robust, playing a key role in securing justice for the victims. The Supreme Court and the National Electoral Commission played very constructive roles in postponing new elections, for example, while Muslims had a chance to return to their homes, and in ordering changes of venue in key trials arising out of the violence.

    Above all, there were free national elections in 2004, and these elections, in which the participation of poor rural voters was decisive, delivered a strong negative verdict on the policies of fear and hate as well as on the BJP's economic policies.

    The current government, headed by Manmohan Singh, who is India's first minority prime minister, has announced a firm commitment to end sectarian violence and has done a great deal to focus attention on the unequal economic and political situation of Muslims in the nation, as well as appointing Muslims to key offices.

    On balance, then, the pluralistic democracy designed by Gandhi and Nehru seems to be winning, in part, because the framers had bequeathed to India a wise institutional and constitutional structure, including separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and traditions of commitment to the key political values this structure embodies. Political structure is not everything, but it can supply quite a lot in times of stress.

  • Number two, the press and the role of intellectuals.

    One of the heartening aspects of Gujarat, especially for an American, was the performance of the national media and the community of intellectuals. Both print media and television kept up unceasing pressure to document and investigate the riots, and the role of key government officials was documented beyond doubt.

    At the same time, because the local police were not doing their job, many scholars, lawyers, and activists converged on Gujarat to take down the testimony of witnesses, interview women who had been raped, helped them file rape complaints, and so on, and in general to prepare a public record that would stand up in court.

    The intellectual community has easier access to the national press in India than in the United States, in part, thanks to the somewhat greater financial independence of the national media, and these intellectuals seized the opportunity, producing a wonderful outpouring of trenchant and high-quality analysis.

    We can see here documentation of something long ago observed by Amartya Sen in the context of famines, namely the crucial role of a really free press in supporting democratic institutions.

    And we can study here what freedom really means. I would argue that it requires a certain absence of top-down corporate control over the media and an easy access to the major media on the part of intellectual voices from a wide range of backgrounds. We in the United States should take note.

  • Point three, education, the importance of critical thinking and imagination.

    Now we move to warning signs for the future, areas in which the Indian democracy is currently weak and vulnerable.

    The government schools of the state of Gujarat are famous for their complete lack of critical thinking, their exclusive emphasis on rote learning, and the uncritical learning of marketable skills, and also for elements of fascist propaganda that easily creep in when critical thinking is not cultivated.

    It is well known that Hitler is presented as a hero in history textbooks in that state, and nationwide public protest has not yet led to any change. To some extent, the rest of the nation is better off than Gujarat. National-level textbooks have now been rewritten to take out the false ideological view of history loved by the Hindu Right and to substitute a much more nuanced view.

    Nonetheless, the emphasis on rote learning and on regurgitation for national examinations is distressing everywhere, and things are only becoming worse with the immense pressure to produce economically productive graduates.

    The educational culture of India used to contain progressive voices influential in the progressive education movement all over the world, especially the great Tagore, who founded one of the great progressive schools in history that influenced schools in America and in England. He emphasized that all the skills in the world were useless, even baneful, if not wielded by a cultivated imagination and refined critical faculties.

    Currently, such voices have been silenced by the demand for profitability in the global market. Parents' great pride is the admission of a child to the Indian Institutes of Technology and Management. They have contempt for the humanities and the arts.

    I fear for democracy down the road when it is run, as it increasingly will be, by docile engineers in the Gujarat mold, unable to criticize the propaganda of politicians or to imagine the pain of another human being.

    This is no humorous topic, but it can be illustrated by an odd story from my own experience investigating the Gujarati community in the United States. You may not know, but 40 percent of Indian Americans come from Gujarat.

    A large proportion of Gujarati Hindus belong to what is called the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism, distinctive today for its emphasis on uncritical obedience to the utterances of the current head of the sect, whose title is Pramukh Swami.

    On a visit to the elaborate, multimillion-dollar Swaminarayan Temple in Bartlett, Illinois, I was given a tour by a young man recently arrived from Gujarat, who delighted in telling me the simplistic Hindu Right story of India's history, and who emphatically told me that whenever Pramukh Swami speaks, one must regard it as the direct voice of god and obey without question.

    At this point, with a beatific smile, this young man pointed up to the elaborate carved marble ceiling of the temple and asked, "Do you know why this ceiling glows the way it does?" I said I didn't, and I expected some explanation invoking the spiritual powers of Pramukh Swami. My guide smiled even more broadly. "Fiber optic cables," he said. "We are the first to put this technology into a temple."

    Now, I think here you see what can easily wreck a democracy, a combination of technological sophistication with utter docility. I feel that many democracies around the world, including our own, are going down this road through a lack of emphasis on the humanities and arts and an unbalanced emphasis on profitable skills.

  • Fourth, the creation of a liberal public culture.

    How did fascism take such a hold in India? Hindu traditions emphasize tolerance and pluralism, and daily life in India, as in many great cities around the world, tends to emphasize the ferment and vigor of difference, as people from so many different ethnic, linguistic, and regional backgrounds encounter one another on a daily basis.

    But the traditions contain a wound, a locus of vulnerability, and I would locate this wound in the area of humiliated masculinity. For centuries, some Hindu males believe they have been subordinated, laughed at, treated as weak, by a sequence of conquerors. The fact that the British really did despise Hinduism as what Winston Churchill called "a beastly religion" surely made matters worse.

    And Hindus came to identify the sexual playfulness and sensuousness of their traditions with their own weakness and subjection, so a repudiation of the sensuous and a cultivation of the sort of masculinity typified by Tagore's image of the British military band came to seem the best way out of subjection. One reason why the RSS attracts such a following is this widespread sense of masculine failure, a key aspect of their rhetoric.

    At the same time, the RSS filled a social void, organizing at the grassroots level with great discipline and selflessness. The RSS is not just a quasi-fascist organization; it also provides needed social services; and also it provides fun, luring boys in with the promise of a group life that has both more solidarity and more imagination than the tedious world of the government schools.

    Golwalkar said that if he saw a peacock in his garden and wanted that beautiful bird to become his pet, he would feed it little bits of opium every day until it became addicted and then it would come to his garden every day. He said this was how the shakhas work, by the lure of fun and games. So they make boys obedient members of the organization.

    So what is needed, and was needed, is some counterforce which would supply a public culture of pluralism with equally efficient grassroots organization and a public culture of masculinity that would contend against the appeal of the warlike and rapacious Hindu Right.

    Gandhi understood this very well. During his lifetime, his powerful movement did purvey a counter-image to the images of domineering masculinity. He taught his followers that life's real struggle was the struggle within the self against one's own need to dominate and one's fear of being vulnerable. He focused attention on sexuality as an arena in which domination plays itself out with pernicious effect. And he cultivated an androgynous maternal persona.

    I think in some respects he went off the tracks in his suggestion that sexual relations are inherently scenes of domination and in his recommendation of asceticism as the only route to non-domination. Nonetheless, he saw the problem at its root and he proposed a public culture that as long as he lived was sufficient to address it.

    His followers understood that being a real man does not mean emulating British aggressiveness and learning how to bash others. It meant having the courage not to bash others, to stand up to aggression with nothing but one's own naked human dignity around one. In the process, he won the respect of the entire world for India's men and their traditions conceived as he conceived them.

    In a quite different way, Rabindranath Tagore also created a counter-image of the Indian self, an image that was more sensuous, more joyful than that of Gandhi, but equally bent on renouncing the domination that Tagore saw as inherent in European nationalist traditions.

    After Gandhi, however, this part of the pluralist program has languished. Much though he loved and admired both Gandhi and Tagore, Nehru had contempt for religion, and out of his contempt he neglected the cultivation of that which the radical religions of both men had supplied: images of who we are as citizens, symbolic connections to the roots of human vulnerability and openness, and the creation of a grassroots public culture around these symbols. Nehru was a great institution builder, but in thinking about the public culture of the new nation his focus was always on economic, rather than cultural, issues.

    Meanwhile, the RSS, which understands human psychology extremely well, goes to work unopposed in every state and region.

    By now, pluralists generally realize that a mistake was made in leaving grassroots organization to the Right, but it is very difficult to jump-start a pluralist movement. The salient exception in my experience has been the women's movement, which has built at the grassroots level very skillfully over the years with the regional knowledge, the mixture of economic and cultural incentives, and the respect for the imagination and the arts that such a movement requires.

It is comforting for Americans to talk about a clash of civilizations. This thesis tells us that evil is outside, other, and that we are perfectly alright as we are; all we need to do is to remain ourselves and fight the good fight. But the case of Gujarat shows us that the world is very different from the world depicted in that comforting fable.

The forces that assail democracy are within 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.

All nations, then, Western and non-Western, need to examine themselves, looking for the roots of domination within, and devising effective institutional and educational countermeasures.

At a deeper level, the case of Gujarat shows what Gandhi and Tagore in their different ways knew very well, that the real root of domination lies deep in the human personality, in the narcissistic desire to dominate others, and to efface the inconvenient challenge posed by difference.

Looking at the clash in this way, we would naturally focus on four strategies for the preservation and enhancement of democracies around the world:



  • First, on getting institutional structures that can remain firm against insurgent challenges.


  • Second, on bolstering the independence, including the economic independence, of the press and the free speech of intellectuals.


  • Third, on creating educational institutions that teach the skills of critical thinking and imagining that are so crucial for democratic citizenship.


  • And finally, what Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from Gandhi, creating a public culture of non-domination and equality that can inspire fearful human beings, for all of us are fearful, with the idea that comfort is to be found in mutual aid and reciprocity, not in the quick-and-dirty victory over an enemy unto whom we have all too conveniently projected our own fears.


Questions and Answers

QUESTION: I just want to come back to the politics for a bit and ask how confident you are that this Congress Party now can deal effectively with these things when they come up. As you know, before the Gujarat riot was the Sikh massacres in 1984. At least 3,000—some say 5,000—Sikhs were butchered. This was a political, rather than a religious, massacre—pogrom they like to call it.

The man who was in charge of the police in India was not able to deal with this in any effective way. Narasimha Rao went on to become prime minister of India. It's a bit of a pre-echo, as the Indians would say, of Gujarat. And two of the people whom witnesses have said were part and parcel of the massacre of Sikhs are now in government.

Now, it raises the question of having the political will and the falloff there, because the courts, as you say, are ready to deal with this. But the politicians are going to have to take a stronger stand.

Thanks very much.

Yes, I do talk about the Sikh riots in the book. I think that is, as it were, the pre-echo. Except I think the crucial difference is that, as you say, it was a political pogrom and it was not part of an organized movement to subordinate another religious group. There was no larger social movement associated with that. So it was a one-time thing. Not to excuse it in any way, because it was quite terrible, but to say that I think it is quite different in the sense that there is no ongoing anti-Sikh movement.

Now, Congress at that time made a huge error, which was they thought that the way to defeat the increasing appeal of the politics of religious hatred was to take it up in a softer form, so it was what was called "soft communalism." In many states, but also to some extent at the national level under Rajiv Gandhi, they did play that card. They were willing to play the religious card; they just did it a little less aggressively than the opposition. It is much the way that the American Democratic Party often thinks, that by picking up the issues of the Right and moving to the middle, they will siphon off some of the votes of the Right. That proves usually to be a tactical error, but it also just undermines the norms and the ideals of the party.

I think the current leadership is right at the balance, certainly Singh himself. The first speech he made after he became prime minister denounced both the Gujarat riots and the anti-Sikh riots and said this must never happen again.

And Sonia Gandhi has always been very firm against communalism. She has a very thoughtful attitude towards religious pluralism. She was very involved behind the scenes in getting an investigation particularly of the rapes of women, but working a lot with the NGOs that were doing some of the grassroots organizing.

So I think that at the top, things are on a good course.

Now, of course, getting justice for the people who were really behind the anti-Sikh massacres has proven a very difficult business. It has been very hard to get convictions of anyone but the very lower-down people, as you know. I think that is very unfortunate. Of course, it leads to a lot of covering up and a lot of corruption in that. So we may never see some of those people brought to justice.

But I do think that the future of Congress is much brighter.

QUESTION: A general question. Your topic is about religious violence, but then the four points that you listed twice are all about secular approaches or institutions. So where do religious leaders come in? I am thinking not only about India, but here in the United States, Turkey, all these things that are on the public agenda in so many countries. Thank you.


I think one of the things I found is that religion bleeds into culture so seamlessly in the Hindu Right case that a lot of the people who were leaders of the Hindu Right were not at all religious. In fact, there is one chapter where I profile four leaders of the Hindu Right, called "The Human Face of the Hindu Right," and the only one who was really a deeply religious man was also the one who defected, who just couldn't put up with the politics of religious violence. He had joined them for economic reasons and then he got out of it.

One of the leading politicians, who played a very pernicious role, quite frankly says he hates all religion, and he has written books attacking every single religion of the world, one after the other, including Hinduism. This is Arun Shourie. But he is still there.

So I think it is a funny movement, because I think they are really focused on culture and, not exactly race in the sense of blood, but race in the sense of solidarity with the dominant culture, not so much on religion.

As far as the remedy goes, I think, as I suggested, that Nehru's contempt for religion was a very bad thing because often it is a deep source of meaning for people, and if you don't have any connection with it, then you very often lack connection to the sources of motivation in people.

So certainly what they needed to have had was much more of what Gandhi had started. Gandhi's movement was only in some ways a religious movement. It was a movement that drew on symbols from the religion, but it was also so critical and so reform-oriented—it had already denounced caste and it denounced the exclusion of Muslims and Christians—so it was Hinduism reformulated in an extremely radical way. But nonetheless he was able to draw on symbols from the religious tradition to rally people in much the way that Martin Luther King, Jr. did. I think both were conscious that they were creating a movement that was, in a way, a secular, egalitarian, political movement, but to do it you had to draw on images and symbols that are resonant.

I think that is really what does need to happen. It has been the African-American churches in America that have, I think, understood that very well that there is a need for a political rhetoric that is both inclusive and resonant, and not for just this or that sound bite, but something that really connects to people's deep longings and hopes for themselves.

So yes, I do think it is a mistake when liberal leaders think being secular means eschewing all symbolic culture creation. They need to think how to do it. I think the African-American tradition in our country provides the best source for those examples.

QUESTION: Early on you talked a little bit about the quest for homogeneity. In Western Europe, which has largely welcomed a lot of immigration in order to fill employment quotas, despite the fact that they do not necessarily give citizenship to them, the Muslims there have become quite aggressive. There is not really any effort being made for them to assimilate in the way that we would expect. Some of those countries have had to take protective measures.

If we go to India, you seem to focus on one particular group. My question essentially is this. You keep bringing up the question, or you state, that the Muslims there are peaceful and are being essentially attacked. But what would you feel would be the projection if the demographics were reversed? What would happen if the Muslims took control of India? It's not likely because the numbers aren't there, but if you projected, what kind of democracy would you find in India, given the example of Western Europe right now, which is threatened by its own liberalism?

MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Let me say something about Europe, because right now what I am writing currently is a book about religion and the public in the United States, which involves some contrasts with Europe.

I think that India and the United States have in common something that is very, very good, namely the idea that the unity of a nation is political, not ethnic and not cultural. So it is a kind of unity that can contain large differences, so there is nothing so threatening about those differences.

In the case of the United States, I think that goes straight back to the Colonial period, where people understood pretty quickly that we're all a bunch of weirdos, and there are all these different people who wanted to dress differently and behave differently—the Quakers wouldn't take off their hats in court, the Mennonites wouldn't fight in the army, and so on—and somehow if we were going to survive, we had to learn to put up with those differences and not see them as threatening.

So the American tradition evolved as one in which difference is respected and people are not expected to assimilate, in which there is quite a wide latitude for what is known in the law as accommodation—that is to say, the idea that, if for conscientious reasons you can't obey some law and there is no compelling state interest, then things will be tailored to you. So Native Americans now have the right to use peyote in their sacred ceremony; Quakers and Mennonites have, ever since George Washington told them that they didn't have to serve in the military, had the right not to serve in the military, and they don't have to go to jail either. So there has been a long history of these religious-crafted exemptions—priests don't have to testify about what they learn in the confessional, and so on. It's an interesting topic where that leaves off and what kind of state interests block that.

But anyway, in Europe they have never had that idea. They really do think, just as in the 18th century, that the Jews would be given full civil rights only if they ate with us, took off their yarmulkes, dressed like us, and so on. That's what they are saying to the Muslims today.

I think it is actually very fearful, and it is the expression of that kind of nationalism that Golwalkar is drawing on. He says, "We can only be unified if everyone dresses the same way."

Now, you know, for example, what's said about the burka, that we can't greet each other in the street the way citizens must in a democracy if everything is covered but the eyes. Now, I wrote an Op Ed in a Dutch newspaper saying: Look here, it's ten degrees in Chicago, and when I go out I am going to put my scarf over here and pull my hat down to here, and so will everyone else, and we'll greet each other, say "hi," greeting with the eyes, and so on.

Of course the Dutch do that too. It just wasn't that cold at that time of year. But when they go skating, they even have full-face masks that cover everything except the eyes. Of course, they also go to dentists and dental hygienists and surgeons who work with face masks, covered.

So what they say is, I think, deeply hypocritical. What is really going on is they don't like a group of people who manifest their desire to remain different in custom. So I think they have gotten people's backs up. Quite reasonably, the Muslims are upset by this kind of thing—why shouldn't they be allowed to dress the way their conscience leads them to dress? So I think that is part of the problem.

If the Muslims are treated that way, people are likely to become more aggressive. But the right solution would have been to figure out if people commit crimes or there is some imminent threat of public disorder, that is where you step in. But to tell people they can't dress some way, that seems to me quite absurd and wrong.

So that's a problem. I think Europeans really do have to learn a different conception of national unity other than the ethno-cultural one, which has been an issue since Herder and Renan, but those liberal views of national unity as political never quite took hold in Europe.

In India, Muslims are powerful in certain political parties, but their cultural agenda—I think one thing that would happen is that Muslims would demand affirmative action for Muslims.

Right now, the affirmative action system in India is organized around Hindu caste, and so there is massive affirmative action for the lowest castes, and also for what is called the OBCs, the other backward castes; but Muslims, who are the most impoverished and deprived group, never receive any affirmative action, nor do Christians, who are another deprived group. There has been much discussion of this, but people have always refused to do that. So I think Muslims would demand that they would get the educational and employment benefits that the lower Hindu castes get, and I think that would probably be a good thing actually.

But what else would happen? Well, you know, Muslims are of every kind, except that they happen to be disproportionately poorer. So I don't think there is a single agenda.

There hasn't been an Islamist movement with any bite in India. Now, of course, you don't know what will happen in the future. The case of Kashmir is always a special case, and it is connected with separatism and with the role of the Pakistani government and so on, so I don't discuss Kashmir in my book.

But as far as India as a whole goes, you know, there is no Muslim agenda, and I don't suppose there would be a Muslim agenda. All the studies of cultural things, like attitudes towards women, attitudes towards female education, show that the biggest differences are regional, rather than between Hindu and Muslim. So Hindus and Muslims in the north tend to share a certain set of attitudes which are a little less favorable to women's education. Hindus and Muslims in the south also share a set of attitudes that are more favorable to women's education.

So I think the evidence is there isn't a single Muslim agenda, and I don't know why there would be one, because the regional differences are usually—you know, being differences also of language and culture and history, they are really very deep, and they are deeper in a way than the religion.

QUESTION: India is a country of over a billion people. I'd appreciate it if you could contrast the percentage of people in India you feel adhere to the extreme elements of the Hindu right-wing agenda versus the percentage of people in the United States, as an example, that you feel adhere to theories like creationism and extreme elements of the Christian agenda. I am not talking in India about people who vote BJP, just as I am not talking in the United States about people who vote Republican, but people who are true believers in the extreme elements of these agendas.

Additionally, frankly, I am appalled at your reference to this Hindu right-winger—I am no expert on any of this—and citation of him for, among other things, referring to Germany in an admiring light in 1939, without framing that comment at all in the context of the time, where India in 1939 had been under colonial occupation for 200-plus years, whatever it was, and Germany was fighting India's Colonial occupiers. While this man's thinking may be disgraceful, to further color that characterization and that time reference by Holocaust themes I think certainly is as disgraceful as any thinking that he may embody.

MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Well, first of all, it was he who raised the theme of "purging"—that wasn't my word; that was his word. He said, "You should purge," that they were admirable because they "purged the Semitic races." Now, they hadn't done it yet, so it was quite interesting that he had that idea, even though it was 1939. As I say, he left those words in there in 1947.

Now, it just isn't true that because India was at war with the British everyone was sympathetic with the Germans. Nehru, who had traveled extensively in Europe, knew exactly what the Nazis were up to, and he denounced it publicly repeatedly. His wife had been in tuberculosis sanitoria in Switzerland, so he was there a lot. He was an absolutely unswerving denouncer of the German behavior.

Gandhi was more complex, because while he denounced the Germans, he was more equivocal about the Japanese and said that if the Japanese invaded India, it wasn't clear what one should do.

But Nehru was absolutely unequivocal in denouncing the whole of the Axis effort, despite the fact that, of course, they were against the British. You know, there's no inconsistency. It's not true that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." In this case, everyone could see that Germany would be a really most dangerous friend to have.

I think Golwalkar was a little bit naïve. He had not traveled the way that Nehru had. So you could say that he was naïve.

And the further thing that is sometimes said is that he didn't actually write this work at all. Several people I interviewed told me that it was written in Marathi by Savarkar's brother, perhaps at a much earlier date. If that was so, if it was really written at an earlier date, then perhaps that made it, still quite naïve, but a little more defensible. But notice that that makes Golwalkar a plagiarist as well as somebody who didn't have great care about what he was publishing under his own name. So I don't think it makes him look actually better. Anyway, that's what I would say about Golwalkar.

As to the percentage, I think it is very difficult to tell why people stick with the BJP.

First, I think quite a lot of people of goodwill joined that movement because of the economic problems with the Congress and out of the hope for just something new. One of the big mistakes Congress made was they tried to be all things to all people and not to be just one party among others. Since it was the freedom movement, they just thought they were above being a mere political party.

The result was there was no national opposition party, except for in a couple of states the communist parties, who have governed in Kerala and in West Bengal. But the rest of politics fell to a series of coalitions and parties that are caste-based, region-based. So there was this unfortunate and increasing balkanization of politics, which people rightly thought was a problem, because you didn't want to have all this deal-making where somebody would have to make a deal with Jayalalitha, a very corrupt politician in Tamil Nadu, for example, in order to have power.

So I think the BJP appealed to people for some good reasons. Economically, at least, they thought that a better agenda would emerge. Politically, they thought it would be good to have a nationwide opposition party that would maybe get us out of this increasing balkanization.

However, as time went on, the question is who got out and who didn't. Gurcharan Das, who I profile extensively in the book, is a billionaire in India who wrote a book, called India Unbound, defending a free market economy as very important for India. He was very involved with the BJP for a while. But then, when he saw what happened—and it was before Gujarat—he got out, and in his column in The Times of India he has repeatedly denounced the politics of religious violence.

So a lot of people didn't do that. So at least you could say—I mean it's a little like race in the South. What's in any given person's mind and heart is very hard to know, but all you can say is what did they do. One can certainly say some voters got out, like Gurcharan Das. Quite a lot of others didn't.

In Gujarat, I do think one can say very clearly that there is a majority of true believers. I have been to a film about Gujarat in Ahmedabad. You could see the audience cheering for the policeman who doesn't stop the riots. And there was this Bollywood movie, Dave, if you've seen it, where there's the good cop who tries to stop the riots and the bad cop tells him to stay home. The audience in Ahmedabad was cheering openly for the bad cop.

I think it's different in other places. I think in the south there is very little communalism, and that's why the BJP doesn't have such a strong hold there. In other parts of the north, it would be very, very hard to guess, because if people vote, there might be five reasons why they would vote. But at least you can say that if they are now voting BJP, they are willing to put up with quite a lot. They may think it is better than the alternative, but then they are still willing to put up with quite a lot.

In the United States, I think there isn't exactly an analog. You mentioned creationism, but one can believe in creationism without believing in any kind of violence. To try to insist on its being taught in schools has numerous problems from the point of view of our Constitution, with its non-establishment tradition, but it isn't anything where the purpose is violence against people.

The time when the United States had a much more violent religious culture was much more, I would say, in the latter half of the 19th century, when Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Roman Catholics—there was a lot of physical violence against those people and quite a lot of Mormons were killed; the Jehovah's Witnesses a little bit later, before the Second World War.

But right now, luckily enough, we don't have a lot of killing on the basis of religion. Let's just hope we don't get into that.

QUESTION: In India these days, there are lots of ashrams, gurus, swamis, and they all profess and teach spiritualism rather than religion. Now, do they only have an international following, or do they have any influence at all in India?

I think, as I said, Hinduism has always been very decentralized. Gurus tend to be local and have local followings. There are maybe some who have a larger national following, but I would say most of the traditional organization of Hinduism still is quite local. You would have your guru in your own state, let's say, and you might go to an ashram in your state.

Because of language, you will want to stay in your own region, because obviously if you went to Karnataka, you wouldn't speak the language if you were from Gujarat, and so on. So I think it is language, and the fact that we have 22 official languages but more than 350 that are actually spoken, that makes religious organization inevitably mostly local.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you so much for magnifying all the problems of India.


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