Martha Nussbaum and the Indian laboratory
Mariella Gramaglia 9 September 2009

This article was published in No. 114 of the Reset magazine (July-August 2009)

After May 17th 2009 it became possible to draw a sigh of relief and forget the first fourteen pages of Martha Nussbaum’s wonderful recent essay entitled The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future. In the introduction to the Italian edition, dated 2008, two years after her detailed book was published after lengthy studies and also a lot of research in the field both in India and the Indo-American Diaspora, the author warns readers. Pay attention – she more or less says – I am about to describe hell to you; the abyss over which Indian democracy has hovered while led by the Hindu extremism of the BJP (Indian People’s Party) and its satellite organisations between 1998 and 2004, as well as the risk of fascism and the danger of a war with Pakistan. In 2004 Sonia Gandhi saved us, but I fear greatly that she will not manage to do so again and that hell will return.

Hell did not return. The Congress Party won 261 seats, only 11 fewer than those needed to govern and a number of seats easy to obtain through an alliance with just one regional political party. The Hindu Right lost 30 seats, and, in true Anglo-Saxon tradition, paid homage to the winners. Aggressive populists, curry-styled league members and authoritarian communists guilty of pogroms against peasant farmers in Western Bengal, beat their retreat. An honest Sikh wearing a blue turban returned to lead the government and a beautiful Italian lady (perhaps still a Roman Catholic as she was during the devout years of her youth) was now firmly in control of the relative majority party. This was more than enough to confuse the demons of extremism and perhaps to disperse them, at least to a certain extent, as well as lowering the level of war tensions with Pakistan. In a cartoon published in the International Herald Tribune, an powerfully armed Taleban bows in the presence of a man presumed to be Osama Bin Laden: “Bad news, chief, Indian democracy is more stable now.” Hence, knowing only too well that danger remains history’s profession, we navigate with greater calm through Martha Nussbaum’s wonderful reflective seas.

A Clash between or within Civilisations? The title itself is a theoretical and contentious answer to Samuel P. Huntington’s famous book about the conflict of civilisations. India is an almost insuperable laboratory in the battles between “two different civilisations” within one same nation. One appreciating multiple identities and people coming from various traditions, the other feeling safe only when those who are different are alienated. One perceiving national unity as an ethos and a collection of rules; the other as a sacred pact involving blood and land. One holding out hands and minds to inclusion, the other considering inclusion as humiliating, not macho and a source of unbelievable insecurity. In India as it really is today, the problems of the world are far better expressed than in Huntington-styled analyses showing the West besieged by young Muslims, fuelled by religion, the poor’s new vitamin. Are these not perhaps our problems too? Do they not require additional “ethical imagination”, as Nussbaum suggests? And what about a reappraisal of politics, a capability to practice “self-awareness”, because, to quote Gandhi, it is only by controlling our own aggressiveness that we will manage to become citizens who live respectfully with others and perceive the humbleness of compassion, which is that vibration within us of a shared human fragility.

Report of a massacre. This dark civilisation, that of the demons of Gujarat, has a name and a date. Name: Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of Gujarat. Date: February 27th 2002, the day on which the “Sabarmati” train stopped at the station in Godhra and 50 pilgrims returning from the Temple of Rama in Ayodhya, died in a fire, said (but never proved) to have been started by Muslims. During that same period there were massacres of 1.500 Muslims, horrifyingly ferocious rapes, all modern, metallic and sadistic even when compared to the unforgettable horrors of Partition, and that Nussbaum portrays in great detail. She does not forget the past with the movement for the reconstruction of temples to replace mosques, the initial poison of this great intoxication dating back a decade. She takes into account the global situation involving positive resistance and condemnation expressed by public opinion all over the world, but also the political and economic complicity of the Indian diaspora which seems to be an ethnic panorama in a foreign land rather than an ensemble of mature men and women capable of exercising control. She pays homage to the great women of Indian civil society who always stand out, and who in this case too stood by the victims, Teesta Setalvad and Indira Jaising, among others (see also M. Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach). Above all she takes into account the Gujarat pogrom as the main setting for barbarisms, at a time when there was the risk of losing the India we know.

Annihilating women. There is a national hymn that is apparently noble in its emphasis, but one that frightens Nussbaum. It is entitled Vande Mataram and the lyrics also say “Mother, Who hath said thou art weak in thy lands, When the sword flesh out in the seventy million hands And seventy million voices roar Thy dreadful name from shore to shore?”. A mother-land, a feminine land, but also a violable land, a land to be re-conquered, torn from a contaminated enemy. The warrior’s land is a land of conquering and rape. However, debates the author, sexuality is linked to patriotic chauvinism also in other ways. The insecurity and reactive interiorised shame experienced by some Indians following the mortifications of Victorian conformism, has resulted in “projecting outside oneself, onto vulnerable people and bodies, the disgust experienced because of having an animal body.” (see also M. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law). Hence, extremisms are co-essential to hatred and contempt for women, while apparently more innocuous politics have for some time prepared the ground for this perverse connection. As already practised by the British Raj, this consists in removing family law from the universal sphere. Divorce, inheritance, polygamy, the status of widows, alimony, are all the juridical prerogative of the various religious authorities, often coinciding with ethnicity and are also effectively an extra-constitutional subject. The tribal shadow falls over women and increases the worst ghosts of dominations.

Inventing so as to dominate. Domination, however, is a mental exercise. The devaluation of the humanistic culture is the result of modernity; the risk of making India a country of docile engineers with no compassion. There is more, however, in the plans of the Hindu Right. There is the will to rewrite history, to intimidate free research, to produce new disquieting text books. Indigenous issues and the legend of the country’s origins categorically exclude any ancient contamination with the West. The entire Mogul period, including the reign of the great Akbar, is catalogued as odious serfdom to Muslims. Subtle disputes on the appearance or not of horses in the bas-reliefs and fossil remains of the Indo valley proving an invasion of “Arians” from Afghanistan and early contamination” of Indian purity, or testimonies of the butchering of cows in the thousand years Before Christ, all become sources of hatred, threats and fatwas. The regime heralds and enthusiasts of roots triumph, and quite often serious scholars are threatened and ridiculed, in India as in the American and British diaspora. All this, with gauche speed after the electoral triumphs at the end of the Nineties, became daily food for children in many schools, together with negation of the Holocaust and appreciation for the role Hitler played in Germany’s rebirth. It rains on wet muddy ground in forgotten and destitute schools, where the absenteeism of teachers is endemic, and pupils learn by heart dusty old ideas and 45% of families pay for illegal private lessons provided by the same teachers their children are entrusted to.

A tender homage to fathers. In one chapter, with filial devotion, Nussbaum indulges in tender patriarchal viewpoints. In the political pantheon there is no Indira, the Durga warrior of the first nuclear experiments and emergency laws. There are instead Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru, each personifying one of the aspects of a great national archetype. The first personifies devotion to categorical, moral and spiritual duty, to national liberation to the extent of strictness addressed at oneself and the abolition of joy and the human body. The second incarnates grace, creativity, poetry drawing and dancing (Amita Sen, to whom the book is dedicated, Amartya’s mother, a magnificent dancer from the Tagore and Santiniketan school), a taste for freedom and a critical spirit within the educational process. The third represents rationality, the scientific spirit, unease when faced with superstitious devotion and trust in progress. Nothing will nourish the new India better than an intelligent and well-educated mixture of these various ideal schools of thought. But will globalisation, with its paradoxical fusion of the most cynical secularisation and the most regressive identity rootedness, allow this? Let it be clear, this book does not speak only of India.

Mariella Gramaglia is a journalist and a scholar of women’s movements, she has been the editor-in-chief of “Noi Donne” and has vast political and managerial experience, initially as a member of Parliament and later as the Councillor for Simplification Policies and Equal Opportunities for the Municipality of Rome. In 2007 she abandoned Italy to work in India on international cooperation in the defence of the rights of women within the framework of a project organised by the CGIL. This experience resulted in a book, published in 2008 by Donzelli and entitled "Indian. In the heart of the most complex democracy in the world".

Translated by Francesca Simmons