Sunday, February 05, 2006

India: A Democracy is Near Collapse in to Religious Terror : Martha Nussbaum

While Americans have been focused on the war on terror, Iraq, and the future of democracy in 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 condone and in some cases actively support violence against minorities, especially the Muslim minority. Many seek a fundamental change in India's pluralistic democracy. Despite their recent electoral loss, these political groups and the social organizations allied with them remain extremely powerful. The political future is unclear.

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 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 deeply troubling example, and one without which any understanding of the more general phenomenon is dangerously incomplete. In order to understand the situation, in turn, we need to turn to a set of events that show more clearly than any others how far the ideals of respectful pluralism and the rule of law have been undermined by religious ideology. These events are a terrible instance of genocidal violence; but they are more than that. The deeper problem they reveal is that of violence aided and abetted by the highest levels of government and law enforcement, of a virtual announcement to minority citizens that they are unequal before the law and that their lives are not worth the protection of law enforcement.

The focal point of the recent controversy over religion and democracy in India is a set of religious riots that took place in the state of Gujarat in Western India in February/March 2002. The precipitating event was an incident near the station of Godhra, in which one car of a train of Hindu pilgrims erupted into flames, killing fifty-eight men, women, and children, almost all Hindus. The fire was immediately blamed on local Muslims living near the tracks. (As we shall see, forensic reconstruction has cast grave doubt on this allegation.)

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 slogans, such as "Hail Ram" (a religious invocation wrenched from its original devotional and peaceful meaning) and "Hail Hanuman" (a monkey god portrayed by the right as aggressive), along with "Kill, Destroy!" "Slaughter!" There is copious evidence that the violent retaliation was planned by Hindu extremist organizations before the precipitating event. No one was spared: young children were burned along with their families, women were raped, mutilated, and then set on fire. Over the course of several weeks, approximately two thousand Muslims were killed. Approximately half of the dead were women, many of whom were raped and tortured before being killed and burned. Children were killed with their parents; fetuses were ripped from the bellies of pregnant women to be tossed into the fire.

Most alarming was the total breakdown in the rule of law -- not only at the local level but also at that of state and national government. Police were ordered not to stop the violence. Some egged it on. Gujarat?s chief minister, Narendra Modi, rationalized and even encouraged the murders. Meanwhile, the national government showed a culpable indifference, suggesting that religious riots were inevitable wherever Muslims live alongside Hindus, and that troublemaking Muslims must have been to blame. Leading politicians conveyed the message that government would treat the nation's citizens unequally: some would receive the full protection of the law, and others would not. Prosecutions resulting from the riots have faced related problems: the bias of local judges, the intimidation and bribery of witnesses.

Gujarat provides a vivid example of the bad things that can occur when a leading political party bases its appeal on a religious nationalism wedded to ideas of ethnic homogeneity and purity. We need to understand this example in order to begin forming an adequate conception of the problem of religious nationalism in today?s world. But Gujarat also shows us something else: the resilience of pluralistic democracy, the ability of well-informed voters to turn against religious nationalism and to rally behind the values of pluralism and equality. In May 2004, the voters of India went to the polls in large numbers. Contrary to all expectations and all polls, they gave the Hindu right a resounding defeat. Because even exit polls, taken in cities and towns, did not predict the result, it is clear that impoverished rural voters played a major role in giving India a new government.

Some of the issues that led to the rejection of the right were economic rather than religious. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, the political wing of the Hindu right) had used the campaign slogan "India Shining," emphasizing economic gains through foreign investment in the cities. But the rural poor had seen few benefits from globalization, and their lives were not particularly shining. Many rural areas have no safe water supply, no reliable electricity, no public transportation, and no schools. (The literacy rate is around 60 percent for the nation as a whole; this average conceals large rural/urban and regional differences, and also differences by sex, since the female literacy rate is no higher than 50 percent.) Voters living in such inadequate conditions reacted angrily to the claim that India was doing splendidly, a claim that excluded them and denigrated their struggles.

The state of the economy, however, was not the only major electoral issue. Prominent as well was a widespread popular rejection of religious extremism. The Congress Party, which won, had drawn attention to religious tensions throughout the campaign, and had strongly repudiated the BJP?s idea of India as a nation for Hindus first and foremost. Both party leader Sonia Gandhi and the new prime minister, economist Manmohan Singh, insisted throughout the campaign that India is a nation built upon equal respect for all religious groups and all citizens. In his first speech as prime minister Singh drew attention to this issue: "I do not want to begin my career by accusing the previous government," he said. "But divisive forces were allowed a free play, which I believe is extremely injurious to orderly development . . . We as a nation must have a firm determination that these things should never happen." Singh, a Sikh, is India?s first prime minister to come from a religious minority.

Over the next few days, I want to blog about this story '- a story of democracy' s near-collapse into religious terror and of democracy's survival (at least for the time being) -- a story that has important lessons to offer to all nations struggling with problems of religious extremism. The posts are all drawn from a book manuscript I am now finishing up. When I began to write that book, the story seemed almost unrelievedly grim. As my posts here will reveal, however, now it is a different story: of what can go right as well as what can go wrong, of what preserves democracy as well as what threatens it. From this story we Americans can learn a good deal about democracy and its future as we try to act responsibly in a dangerous world.

India's story is of intrinsic interest and importance. By following the story of Gujarat, Americans can begin to understand better than most currently do the political and religious dynamics of the world's most populous democracy, a nuclear power, and a nation that will play an increasingly large role on the world stage. India is typically not well covered by the U. S. media or by education in U. S. schools and colleges. Indian scholars who have written extremely well about their own situation, in books and articles and in a national press that is admirable for its quality and its openness, have little name-recognition in the U. S. and are rarely read. During the ascendancy of the Hindu right, when intelligent diplomatic pressure could have achieved change, U. S. foreign policy was largely indifferent to internal tensions in India, focusing only on the threat of nuclear conflict with Pakistan. American ignorance of India's history and current situation was largely to blame for such omissions. Americans typically follow events in the Middle East rather closely. If one wants to know about Israeli-Palestinian relations, for example, ample material for such an understanding is readily available from daily newspapers, television, and the internet. India is simply not as "present" to the American mind, because it is not as present in the American media. Thus India's own struggle with religious extremism is little known, and the lessons it can teach us are little appreciated.

I decided to write on this subject primarily in order to correct this imbalance. In the spring of 2003, I was invited to present a paper on a panel at the American Philosophical Association entitled "Philosophical Perspectives on the Israel-Palestine Conflict." That topic interested me, but I also knew that there were many fine philosophers who could speak on it, and that most people in the audience would be tolerably well informed about the issues. So I asked whether, instead, I might offer a comparative paper on Gujarat and Hindu-Muslim tensions in India. The offer was accepted. I wrote the paper, which was ultimately published as an article in Dissent ("Genocide in Gujarat," Dissent 61-9 (Summer 2003)). Another related article, on the rapes of women in Gujarat, was published in The Boston Review. ("Body of the Nation: Why Women Were Mutilated in Gujarat," The Boston Review 29 (2004), 33-38). The aim of both of these articles was not to say anything terribly surprising: public intellectuals, politicians, and activists in India had been analyzing the story of Gujarat often and well for some time. It was, however, to make Americans aware of the events, and of the work that had already been done on them.

People in the U. S. who read these articles often said to me things like, "That is really bad. I didn't know that was happening." It would have been possible for them to know what was happening, had they tried to read Indian newspapers online or bought books available only in India. But of course people don't do that unless they have some antecedent connection with the country. U. S. media were not making the information available to people who did not make that sort of unusual effort. So I began to think that it might be valuable for me to write a book on the subject of Gujarat and the Hindu right in India for the American public. The events of Gujarat were not inevitable. They were aided by the silence of the world. With these posts and my future book on this subject, I aim to break that silence. Intelligent action from the world community is important in sustaining recent good developments and in preventing a recurrence of genocidal violence.

My determination to write about Gujarat was increased when I encountered another kind of reaction. If I said to friends that I was writing on "religious tensions in India," a surprising number of highly intelligent people, some of them leading academics, said to me things like, "What's happening? Are the Muslims stirring up trouble again?" And of course that is precisely what the Hindu right wants people to think: Muslims are troublemakers wherever they are, and if there is trouble it is very likely to have been caused by them. The Hindu right seeks to exploit for its own purposes thoughts that come all too easily to many Americans in the aftermath of 9/11. Leading members of the Hindu right whom I have interviewed assume that as an American I am a potential sympathizer, since they assume that I already believe that Muslims are troublemakers. When people I admire repeatedly fell into this inaccurate and crude way of perceiving the Indian situation, I began to feel that it was urgent that the real story be told, so that our relations to this important nation would not be guided by stereotypes and misleading anti-Muslim propaganda.

I write not only to present a case study in the threat to democracy from religious tension, not only to engage Americans in an informed dialogue about India, but also to defuse the inaccurate and unhelpful assumption that Islam is a global monolith bent on violence. When people talk of the 'clash of civilizations,' or opine that Islam is not compatible with democracy, I find that (quite apart from their omission of Turkey and Lebanon) they typically know little about South Asia. ('South Asia' is the term usually used to refer to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and sometimes Indonesia and Malaysia; it is distinct from 'Southeast Asia,' the term that refers to Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, etc. One sign of this general ignorance: My c.v. mentions that I am a member of my university's Committee on Southern Asian Studies. When I am introduced for lectures, it is very common that the introducer changes this to 'Southeast Asian Studies,' as if it was always fine to substitute a familiar term for an unfamiliar one.) Few know, for example, that Bangladesh is a thriving, if poor, Muslim-majority democracy (about 85% Muslim), with democratic self-government, two energetic women who lead the two major parties, a strongly pro-woman official policy, and a constitution that protects fundamental rights very strongly, similar to India's constitution. Its national anthem, 'Amar Sonar Bangla' ('My Golden Bengal') is a song written by Hindu Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. As Amartya Sen says, 'This must be very confusing to those who see the contemporary world as a 'clash of civilizations' ' with 'the Muslim civilization,' 'the Hindu civilization,' and 'the Western civilization,'' each forcefully confronting the others.? (Amartya Sen, 'Tagore and His India,' The New York Review of Books June 26, 1997, 55-63.)

Few know that the Muslims of Bangladesh and the 12% or so of India?s citizens who are Muslims have virtually no ties to international Islamic radicalism or to terrorist organizations, relatively few political or organizational ties even to Pakistan. (The struggle over Kashmir is an exception, but it is not related to the events that are my focus.) India is the third largest Muslim country n the world, with more Muslims than Bangladesh and nearly as many as Pakistan. Muslims in India are by and large a hard-working impoverished minority, who have lived alongside Hindus for centuries and who today strongly support and participate in democratic self-governance at all levels. A recent study has also shown that they strongly support education for girls (more strongly on the whole than the Hindu population). (Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon, Unequal Citizens: Muslim Women in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004)). Islamic fundamentalism has no grip in India, despite discrimination and even persecution; it is to be hoped that, despite events like Gujarat, this good record will continue. The wise decision to include Muslims in prominent positions in the new government is a hopeful sign for the future. (For example, Muslim feminist Syeda Hameed, whose organization first took down testimony of women raped in Gujarat, currently holds a seat on the Planning Commission; Muslim political scientist Zoya Hasan has been put in charge of the rewriting of school textbooks to remove errors introduced by Hindu extremists eager to portray all of India?s suffering as caused by Muslims.)

In the case of India, the threat to democracy comes not at all from Muslims, or any ?clash? between European and non-European civilizations, but from something much more sadly familiar: from a romantic European conception of nationalism, based on ideas of blood, soil, purity, and the Volksgeist. The founders of the Hindu right in the 1920?s and 1930' s were enamored of European romantic models of nationhood. They greatly admired the early fascist versions of these ideas that they found in both Italy and Germany. They made these ideas popular in India, and worked hard to make them take root, through highly effective grassroots organization prominently featuring programs for young boys. Their ideas were appealing in India for some of the same reasons they were so appealing in Germany in the 1920's and 1930's: because people who see themselves as having been humiliated and emasculated by conquest easily turn to thoughts of purity and a cleansing by violence to wipe away the stain. Hindus in India have internalized a historical narrative according to which they are a pure and peaceful civilization who have been conquered again and again: in the Middle Ages by Muslim invaders, in recent times by the British.

This narrative is simple, but it certainly contains some truth. The painful experience of colonial subjugation, together with the racism that accompanied it, left many Hindus in India vulnerable to a simplification of truth and to the refuge offered by romantic/fascist European ideas of blood and purity. Instead of looking at a 'clash of civilizations' here, Europeans and Americans, looking at India, should see the reflected face of their own ugly history, made the more malign by the anger that accompanies the repudiation of longstanding colonial domination. The appeal of these ideas was enhanced by the failure of liberal/pluralist leaders, after the deaths of Tagore and Gandhi, to mount an effective program of grassroots mobilization that would link the intense emotions of religion and patriotism to a program of cooperation and mutual respect.

A further reason for writing these posts and my book, then, is to argue for the need for more complicated and individualized models of religious violence. When we are dealing with a complex and variegated world, simplistic thesis such as the 'clash of civilizations' idea are not at all helpful. What we call 'Western civilization' contains many incompatible ingredients, as we easily see if we survey the history of the twentieth century, with its aspiration to universal human rights and its descent into horrific cruelty. (When asked by a British journalist what he thought of 'Western civilization,' Gandhi said, 'I think it would be a very good idea.') Even the normative ideas embedded in 'Western civilization' are highly heterogeneous; they include liberalism, fascism, Marxism, various different religious conceptions, and many others.

The category 'non-Western' is still less helpful; I am inclined to think it an utterly useless category. The nations of Asia and Africa have little in common with one another as a group. They do not share a common history or common political, philosophical, or religious values. All, moreover, are internally heterogeneous, containing religious plurality and other struggles, for example struggles for women?s equality or the equality of other marginalized groups. To the extent that some religions appear in various parts of Asia and Africa, these diffused religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam) also turn up in the 'West', as, of course, do the Western ideas of Marxism, which have had enormous influence on the history of Asia and Africa. Speaking in terms of 'West' and 'non-West' often leads to crude errors: we forget that modern mathematics, which played a key role in the European Enlightenment, had its origins in Arab culture; we forget that Christianity had its origins in a part of the world that nowadays is treated as 'non-Western.' We forget that the roots of ideas of human equality, democracy, and human rights existed in many different cultures and that their full development in 'our own' is a very recent matter. We forget that ideas of religious toleration and equal respect were well known in India by the time of Ashoka's empire, in the second century B. C., a very long time before they were known in Europe. (Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism from Hinduism, wrote eloquently of the important of respect between the different religions; he said that by denigrating another person?s religion a person degrades his own.)

Thinking in terms of a 'clash of civilizations' also leads us to ignore the interpenetration and mutual influence among cultures that has been a fact of human life throughout history, wherever human beings encounter one another. We give ourselves credit for ideas of human rights and human equality, ignoring the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr., deliberately modeled the civil rights movement on Gandhi?s ideas. (Gandhi, in turn, he tells us, profited from the influences of Ruskin and Tolstoy.) We think of progressive education as a native American plant, forgetting that John Dewey?s experiments in progressive education were in conversation with the reforms of Friedrich Froebel in Germany (the founder of the 'kindergarten') and the more comprehensive reforms of Tagore in India.

In talking about India it is not enough to avoid the misleading West/non-West dichotomy. It is also important not to employ a simple model of a single 'civilization', ignoring both internal diversity and cultural borrowing. There is probably no nation more internally diverse than India: seventeen official languages, over three hundred languages that are actually spoken, major religious groups including Hindus (with many different regional cults), Muslims, Christians (Protestant and Catholic, and each of these stemming from several different European origins), Parsis, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, a small number of Jews. Regional differences are immense; some regions, especially in the South, had for centuries more interaction with other parts of South and Southeast Asia (and with Europe) than with the rest of what is now called India.

It is also futile, and usually not terribly important, to separate the British elements of ?Indian culture? from the rest of what is Indian. By now India has creatively appropriated the colonial culture and intertwined it with its own traditions. Indian English is different from British and American English ' still fully intelligible, but a distinct dialect. It would make no sense at this point (although elements of the Hindu right disagree) to displace English on the grounds of its colonial origin. It is a lingua franca in a nation of linguistic and cultural differences, and Indian English is a wonderfully rich, supple, and expressive literary, legal, and political language. Nobody could read an Indian novel in English, or an Indian Supreme Court opinion, and deny that Indians have made this instrument their own in ways that give reason for pride, not shame and repudiation. The British were appalling tyrants, exploiters, and racists. But their culture is now part of Indian culture for better or for worse ' and often for better on both sides, in the sense that independent India has greatly improved many of the elements (legal, literary, and artistic) that it has borrowed.

Anyone who wants to understand today's India needs to approach the nation with open eyes and curiosity, looking to see the variety that is there, rather than to judge prematurely that a given custom or idea is the 'real' India and another one less 'authentic.' Such artificial ideas of purity and authenticity are not only misleading, they are also the very ideas that have been exploited politically by the Hindu right in trying to cast non-Hindus as alien polluters of the national fabric. They know that they find a receptive audience in America, since Americans (in addition to their widespread suspiciousness about Muslims) are currently very guilty about the legacy of colonialism, and thus all too inclined to accept the fiction of a pure unsullied 'other' that was polluted by external forces. Usually such fictions mask a history that was always divided, contentious, and heterogeneous. Many of the painful struggles over the teaching of history in today's India concern just such soothing but deeply misleading fictions of the past. One cannot understand the current political debate if one begins from the position of romantic nationalism that the Hindu right has expended so much energy in marketing.

So: the story of Gujarat, in addition to its intrinsic interest and its lessons for the future of democracy, offers a lesson in the complexity of cultures, the danger of simple categories, and the importance of a nuanced understanding of internal diversity and cross-cultural similarity if we are to make any progress in understanding this complex and threatening world. When a respected editor states that the main job of liberals in this era is to counteract the influence of Islamic totalitarianism (See Peter Beinert, 'An Argument for a New Liberalism: A Fighting Faith,' The New Republic, December 13, 2004), I feel alarmed. For it seems to me very clear that our task must be first of all to understand the complexities of the world in which we live, and this complex understanding is menaced by the idea of an Islamic extremist monolith, just as it is by all seductively simple ideas. No, the job of concerned citizens in this era is to resist cruelty, inequality, and genocidal violence, whoever the perpetrators are, to recognize that the perpetrators are varied, and that some of them are Euro-Americans and their imitators. The story of Gujarat is helpful to good thinking, then, precisely because the perpetrators are not Muslims, because they exploit widespread fears of Muslims, and because they are indeed ?us,? that is, European-influenced thinkers who have twisted the Hindu tradition into a near-unrecognizable form. (For what person who loves stories of the sensuous music-loving Krishna, the playful candy-loving Ganesha, and the loyal yet gentle Hanuman would not be deeply grieved to encounter their unfamiliar Hitlerian face in the propaganda of the Hindu right, as Hanuman becomes a ferocious killer of Muslims, as Ganesha becomes a warrior with rippling muscles and a sword held on high?)

Even before the crisis of 2002, religious tensions were increasingly defining lives in many regions of India. Poor women in Gujarat would talk about how they sought to work together for women's human rights, but were increasingly driven apart by community organizers who foment hatred, making it difficult for Hindu women to live and work alongside Muslim women. Female students in Lucknow, once a home of Hindu-Muslim cooperation and amity, would speak of the daily threat of physical violence from organized brigades of Hindu-right students, who menace them with bodily abuse if they wear blue jeans, or celebrate Valentine's Day or birthdays (customs deemed unacceptably Western). New textbooks commissioned by the BJP's minister of education, Murli Manohar Joshi, were beginning to teach young children habits of intolerance and suspicion. ('Kabeer is a nice boy,' one first-grade reader goes, 'even though he is a Muslim.') In the universities, all public and therefore vulnerable to political pressure, academics reacted with alarm to assaults on their freedom to speak and publish the truth about both history and current events. Academic friends of long standing told me of threatening phone calls in the night, of efforts to deprive them of prestigious fellowships.

One should not exaggerate these threats: Indian universities remained strong bastions of academic freedom even during the ascendancy of the BJP, and the national press is, it seems to me, more free in some crucial respects than our national media in the U. S., in the sense that the leading newspapers are more diversely and independently owned, less vulnerable to economic pressures that lead to a degeneration of journalistic quality. The level of debate and reporting in the major newspapers and at least some of the television networks is impressively high. A particularly striking feature of Indian media is their openness to the ideas of intellectuals: any academic who wants to get involved in a national debate can do so, as is certainly not the case in the United States. Nonetheless, there was, and still is, much that saddens, and an atmosphere of anti-Muslim feeling that is deeply alarming.

Consider the movie Dev, a popular 'Bollywood' film released in 2004, starring the great actor Amitabh Bachchan and directed by admired independent filmmaker Govind Nihalani. This film, loosely based on the events of Gujarat, features Bachchan as the "good cop" Dev, who resents being told to sit on his hands by his corrupt superior Tej (played by another great actor, Om Puri), while thousands of innocent Muslims are dying. The underlying message of the film is that ordinary people want peace and harmony; religious animosity is whipped up by politicians for the sake of power, and it is bad for everyone. Hindus and Muslims can live in amity, if only politicians stop trying to use them for their own gain. The movie ends with the suicide of the corrupt cop, who can no longer live with himself after his righteous friend's defection and death, and with the adoption of a young Muslim lawyer into the good cop's family, as a surrogate son. And yet, Dev had a funny way of showing its good intentions. But the script seemed to me to make far too many concessions to current Hindu-right propaganda: it showed Muslims as having active and large scale terrorist organizations (for which there is no evidence, although there are some small terrorist groups focused on the Kashmir question), and it indicated that Hindus have no such organizations (for the existence of which there is large-scale and indisputable evidence). Nonetheless, when I watched this film in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, right where the massacre occurred, and two years later, the mood of the audience was staunchly anti-Muslim. (Although the film, in Hindi, was shown with Gujarati rather than English subtitles, my research assistant, fluent in both Hindi and Gujarati, whispered translations in my ear. The outstanding acting, together with the broad style of Bollywood, made the story easy to follow.) People kept cheering on the bad cop, and jeering at the young Muslim hero. So, election or no election, the atmosphere is very brittle, and the Hindu right has not by any means disappeared from power, or from its seat in many people?s hearts.

One way of understanding the choices before India today is to think of the nation's choice of national anthems. At the time of Independence, and ever since, two different poems have been competing for this coveted spot. The losing candidate in 1947, now vociferously championed, once again, by the Hindu Right, is a song known as 'Bande Mataram,' 'Hail Motherland,' written by the Bengali novelist Bankimchandra Chatterjee. Chatterjee himself was a complex figure, and he may or may not be endorsing the sentiments of his song, which occurred in one of his novels. But the song, quickly taken up by the nationalist movement of the early twentieth century, portrays Indian identity in a manner strongly influenced by Western romantic European patriotism, as a matter of adoring the motherland, and being prepared to shed one's blood in her cause:

Mother, I bow to thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Dark fields waving, Mother of might,
Mother free.
Glory of moonlight dreams
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming tress,
Mother, giver of ease.
Laughing low and sweet!
Mother, I kiss thy feet,
Speaker sweet and low!
Mother, to thee I bow.

Who hath said thou are weak in thy lands,
When the swords flash out in twice seventy million hands
And seventy millions voices roar
Thy dreadful name from shore to shore?
With many strengths who are mighty and stored,
To thee I call, Mother and Lord!
Thou who savest, arise and save!
To her I cry who ever her foemen drave
Back from plain and sea
And shook herself free.
Thou art wisdom, thou art law,
Thou our heart, our soul, our breath,
Thou the love divine, the awe
In our hearts that conquers death.
Thine the strength that nerves the arm
Thine the beauty, thine the charm.
Every image made divine
In our temples is but thine.

Thou are Durga, Lady and queen,
With her hands that strike and her swords of sheen,
Thou are Lakshmi Lotus-throned,
Pure and perfect without peer,
Mother, lend thine ear.
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleams,
Dark of hue, O candid-fair
In thy soul, with jeweled hair
And thy glorious smile divine,
Loveliest of all earthly lands,
Showering wealth from well-stored hand!
Mother, mother mine!
Mother sweet, I bow to thee,
Mother great and free.

(Translated from the Bengali by the philosopher Sri Aurobindo, and on file in the the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, available on-line.) Bande Mataram contains some beautiful imagery, and one can understand why it captivated readers, then and later. There are, however, some aspects of Chatterjee's vision of the nation that disturbed early proponents of Indian independence and that still disturb its democratic citizens now: the song' s insistence that the motherland is an object of slavish and uncritical devotion, its extremely militaristic and potentially violent conception of that devotion, its idea of the unity of India and Indians as depending on a blood tie to a mother, an idea that seems at least potentially exclusionary. In Rabindranath Tagore's 1914 novel The Home and the World (to be discussed in chapter 3), the young wife Bimala, excited by the fervor of the nationalists and their charismatic leader Sandip, criticizes her husband for his lack of enthusiasm for the Chatterjee song, and he responds to her. She recalls this conversation later, after her husband?s tragic death:

And yet it was not that my husband refused to support Swadeshi [the boycott of foreign goods], or was in any way against the Cause. Only he had not been able whole-heartedly to accept the spirit of Bande Mataram.

"I am willing," he said, "to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it."

The husband' s discussions with Sandip make it clear that the spirit of Bande Mataram is indeed exclusionary: Muslims will not be equal citizens in Sandip's projected nation. The husband prefers a more inclusive and universalistic conception of Indian unity. Similar sentiments are expressed by the song's critics now, when the question of the national anthem is, as often, debated. The song's supporters argue that the nation needs an image of military strength and aggression, and that a deep religious devotion to the motherland is the right way to cement the unity of a people.

The current national anthem of India, adopted on January 24, 1950, is a song whose words and music were both written by Tagore. As one of the earliest critics of Bande Mataram, he deliberately constructed an alternative vision of national unity and national devotion (although of course, writing long before Independence, he did not write the song as the future national anthem). Known as 'Jana Gana Mana,' the song, in English translation, goes like this:

Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people,
Dispenser of India?s destiny.
Thy name rouses the hearts of the Punjab,
Sindhu, Gujarat, and Maratha.
Of the Dravid, and Orissa and Bengal.
It echoes in the hills of Vindhyas and Himalayas, mingles in the music of the
Jamuna and Ganga and is chanted by
The waves of the Indian sea.
They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise,
The saving of all people waits in thy hand,
Thou dispenser of India?s destiny.
Victory, victory, victory to thee.

The song was written in 1911, and was first sung at a meeting of the all-India Congress (the movement that later became the leader of the Independence movement and, eventually, the leading political party). Opponents of the song repeatedly charge that it was written for a visit by King George V, and that the addressee of the song is the British king. There is, however, no foundation at all for this supposition. Tagore made it clear that the address of the poem was the divine spirit of righteousness, understood in his own eclectic universalist way (in keeping with his humanist 'religion of Man'). He actively denied that the song was written to honor the King, and his later actions, returning his knighthood after the British murdered innocent civilians at Amritsar in 1919, show that he was no uncritical admirer of the monarchy. More important, his contemporaneous critique of Chatterjee in his novel shows that he repudiated all adoration directed at the nation itself or its human representatives. Only the universal spirit of morality deserves our worship.

The song, then, is addressed to the divine, understood as a universal human spirit of morality and justice. This spirit rules 'all people' everywhere in the world, and it is also 'dispenser of India's destiny.' Tagore makes it plain that this spirit animates the emotions of people in all of India's diverse ethnic and geographical regions: all are equally animated by the love of rightness and justice, and parts of the nation are equally under this spirit?s care. (Some of these regions, at the time, were predominantly Muslim and some Hindu, some inhabited by Tamil/Dravidian people and some by speakers of languages descended from Sanskrit. Tagore pointedly includes them all.) There is no mention of military force or violence; instead, the ?dispenser of India?s destiny? is the moral law, and it is the victory of justice for which Indians ask when they sing it.

It is rare that a nation has a national anthem that expresses the idea that humanity is above nationality, and righteousness above aggression. But the idea of a moral law that unswervingly guides our destiny is deeply rooted in Indian traditions, more deeply perhaps than it is in Euro-American traditions, where such ideas are associated with a critical and counter-traditional Enlightenment intelligentsia rather than with traditional religion. Indians connect these ideas to many sources, but prominently to the concept of dharma, or right, in ancient Hindu texts. Tagore's take on the traditional concept is humanist and critical, but it also resonates with much that already animates India's traditional sense of its unity; no doubt this is why has been able to win wide acceptance.

'Jana Gana Mana' is no pallid Kantian fantasy of what a rational national anthem should be. It is a beautiful song, beautiful in both its poetry and its music, and it is sung with great passion by Indians all over the nation (and abroad). They resonate not only to its invocation of the natural beauty of the nation and its rich regional and ethnic diversity, but also to the idea that there is a spirit of right that rises above wrong and injustice, a very important thought for a formerly colonized people. The hero in Tagore's novel did not know how to use poetry to express his humanist vision; that was his great weakness. But Tagore himself, like Walt Whitman, did know how to create a public poetry of inclusiveness and moral commitment.

It is not surprising, however, that a certain type of nationalist would not be satisfied. Supporters of a more aggressive nationalism keep returning to Chatterjee for a more tough-mindedly 'masculine' conception of the nation and its pride. We might say that the struggle to be depicted in these posts and my book is just this struggle: between two visions of patriotism, two visions of the nation, two visions of masculinity.

Martha Nussbaum received her B.A. from NYU and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. She has taught at Harvard, Brown, and Oxford Universities. From 1986 to 1993, Ms. Nussbaum was a research advisor at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, Helsinki, a part of the United Nations University. She has chaired the Committee on International Cooperation and the Committee on the Status of Women of the American Philosophical Association, and currently chairs its new Committee for Public Philosophy. She has been a member of the Association's National Board. In 1999-2000 she was one of the three Presidents of the Association, delivering the Presidential Address in the Central Division. Ms. Nussbaum has been a member of the Council of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Board of the American Council of Learned Societies. She received the Brandeis Creative Arts Award in Non-Fiction for 1990, and the PEN Spielvogel-Diamondstein Award for the best collection of essays in 1991; Cultivating Humanity won the Ness Book Award of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 1998, and the Grawemeyer Award in Education in 2002.Sex and Social Justice won the book award of the North American Society for Social Philosophy in 2000. Hiding From Humanity won the Association of American University Publishers Professional and Scholarly Book Award for Law in 2004. She has received honorary degrees from twenty-five colleges and universities in the U. S., Canada, Asia, and Europe, including Grinnell College, Williams College, Bard College, Knox College, The University of St. Andrews (Scotland),the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), the University of Toronto, The University for Humanist Studies (Utrecht, the Netherlands), the New School University, the University of Haifa, Ohio State University, and Georgetown University. She received the NYU Distinguished Alumni Award in 2000, the Grawemeyer Award in Education in 2002, and the Barnard College Medal of Distinction in 2003. She is an Academician in the Academy of Finland.

Professor Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics,appointed in the Philosophy Department, Law School and Divinity School. She is an Associate in the Classics Department and the Political Science Department, an Affiliate of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and a Board Member of the Human Rights Program. She is the founder and Coordinator of the new Center for Comparative Constitutionalism.

Her publications include Aristotle's De Motu Animalium (1978), The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (1986, updated edition 2000), Love's Knowledge (1990), The Therapy of Desire (1994), Poetic Justice (1996), For Love of Country (1996), Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1997), Sex and Social Justice (1998), Women and Human Development (2000), Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001), and Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2004). She has also edited thirteen books. Her new book, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, will be published by Harvard University Press in fall 2005. Her current work in progress includes The Cosmopolitan Tradition (the Castle Lectures delivered at Yale University in 2000 and under contract to Yale University Press), Democracy in the Balance: Violence, Hope, and India's Future (under contract to Harvard University Press), The Fixed Star: Religion and Equality in American Public Life (under contract to Basic Books), and Compassion and Capabilities (under contract to Cambridge University Press). Professor Nussbaum is on leave in 2005-6.

Born: 1947
Education: B.A., 1969, New York University; M.A., 1971, Ph.D., 1975, Harvard University


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