India, not despite, but because of differences

The book presents a picture of an eternal India that is plural, diverse, noisy, full of contradictions, with uneasy paradoxes existing side by side, writes Jyotirmaya Sharma.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2007 15:34 IST

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future
Martha Nussbaum
Permanent Black
Rs 595, pp 424

If human beings exhibit bad morals, give them a dose of good morals. This is one way of tackling the problem. But there is another way: give them good politics. It was Martha Nussbaum who had summarised the difference between Plato and Aristotle in this evocative fashion many years ago.

Those of us who have read her classic text, The Fragility of Goodness, have for long believed that in offering Aristotle as the antidote to Plato’s idea of society and politics, the way towards a celebration of pluralism and diversity had finally been placed on a firm footing.<b1>

While Nussbaum’s book on India is not a philosophical text, some of the earlier concerns for plurality, diversity and the centrality of practical deliberations are distinctly present. What is curious, however, is the voice of strident moral judgment, easy conclusions, well-worn clichés and stereotypes that enters the narrative. None of these are characteristic of either Aristotle or Nussbaum.

The book presents a picture of an eternal India that is plural, diverse, noisy, full of contradictions, with uneasy paradoxes existing side by side. It is a chronicle of how Nussbaum’s version of eternal India would triumph over a fundamentalist’s notion of timeless Hindu values.

Look at this passage: “When people say, ‘India is just not like that’, they mean that the inclusive, curious, argumentative, slightly chaotic India they know could never put up for long with the herdlike conformity imposed by a monolithic ideology of hatred, intolerance, and violence…[and] strongly militate against the imposition of an aggressive, quasi-fascist culture imported from the 1930s Europe to fill a perceived void in the Indian psyche.”

Nussbaum’s use of the word ‘fascist’ is second only to the use of the same word by Arundhati Roy, and serves little purpose. Neither does the borrowing of the ‘argumentative Indian’ thesis take us anywhere. If ‘fascism’ is used as an abuse, it serves its purpose. But if it is intended to provide a theoretical basis for looking at Hindu nationalists and their thought and action, it is woefully inadequate. Similarly, the argumentative Indian is an opinionated Indian, who has something to say about everything without ever taking responsibility for his pronouncements.

Nussbaum’s chapters on communal violence, Gujarat and the representative characters of the Hindu Right are, therefore, nothing more than putting yesterday’s newspaper between book covers. Even if one were to condone Nussbaum’s inspiration for these chapters to be nothing more than an elegant transcript of the golpo-sholpo in a Bengali adda, her reading of Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru leaves much to be desired.

All three represent something more than an alternative to the violence and intolerance of the Hindu nationalist thought and action. Rather, they are imperfect models of inquiry into questions about India that go beyond the rise of modern nationalism and its extreme manifestations.

In other words, they are models of the conversational Indian, who is not excessively concerned with the here and now, with the success or failure of a certain perspective, with a healthy disdain of anything instrumental entering the conversational space. They not only had to contend with the growth of the modern idea of the nation, but also notions such as ‘self-determination’, ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’. Their answers to these issues were hardly answers, but moments in a continuum that only has more questions. Put differently, Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru are relevant only because they shunned certitude, celebrated human imperfections, including their own, and in engaging with questions, they suggested rather than prescribed.

India’s resilience lies in living with a plethora of glaring contradictions and its ability to make sense of them. It does not lie, as Nussbaum suggests, in throwing out individuals exhibiting an undemocratic streak, but in living with a criminal like Narendra Modi who also has been ‘sanctified’ by the same democratic process.

If there is, indeed, a clash within, it might eventually produce a perfect solution to the faults witnessed in the liberal-democratic tradition and its increasing inability to contend with plurality and diversity.

Jyotirmaya Sharma is the author of Terrifying Vision: Golwalkar, the RSS and India and Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism

First Published: Dec 03, 2007 15:13 IST