Monday, December 31, 2007 at 12:12am

An assault guided by ignorance and malice

Column: Of Karma and Dharma
This column originally was published on July 13, 2007.

Reviewing Martha Nussbaum's book last week, I could not tackle the wide-ranging implications of her thesis and of the utter partisanship that guides her cherry-picking of Indian history, politics, culture, and religious and spiritual traditions. Her use of pop psychology to unpack some of India's political personalities, while hiding her own personal baggage, is another instance of an ideologue rushing in where objective scholars fear to tread.

Professor Martha Nussbaum begins her book "The Clash Within" saying the book is "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." Purportedly, the story is about Indian democracy and the assault on it during the period of 1998-2004 when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (with about two dozen other political parties), was in power in New Delhi in India. How could a coalition government made up of political parties that ranged from the muddled to the meddling (as most Indian political parties are) and every region of the country represented, and with a Socialist politician who happened to be a Christian heading the Defense Department, and which exuberantly supported the selection of a Muslim technocrat as the president of India, and the BJP which had as one of its chief spokesman Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a Muslim, threaten India's democracy?

Martha Nussbaum is as cuckoo in her analysis as the "International Committee of the Fourth International" - an international socialist organization which in its assessment of the NDA coalition fails to mention that George Fernandes, one of the leading lights of the coalition, the defense minister, and one who was sent to Gujarat to monitor the events there, was/is a socialist!

Nussbaum bemoans that Indians who write well, and who are eloquent in their defense of democracy and liberal politics, have "little name-recognition" in the United States, and that U.S. foreign policy was "largely indifferent to internal tensions in India, focusing only on the threat of nuclear conflict with India." Both are outright lies. Indian writers who are considered "progressive" are chockablock represented in American media - from the mainstream and powerful venues like The New York Times, which has showcased Pankaj Mishra for a decade, consistently, repeatedly, and selling the same thesis as Martha Nussbaum, to all the fashionable and influential academic journals and specialist/political magazines which have touted rather shrilly, and in an over-the-top fashion, the fate of India in the hands of the BJP-led NDA-coalition government. I have done a content analysis of The New York Times and The Washington Post's editorials on India-related matters between 1998 and 2000, which shows that American newspapers and policymakers were in fact overly involved in analyzing and trying to influence Indian politics and policies.

Just do a Google search for "Pankaj Mishra and New York Times," and you will find multiple pages of citations. In fact, Mishra has written a laudatory review of "The Clash Within" for the New York Review of Books! And Mishra, the blinkered observer that he is of Indian politics, merely cuts and pastes Nussbaum's assessments without one critical note. For example, her highly flawed claim that the NDA-led coalition was voted out because of its alleged anti-Muslim stance and alleged "pro-rich" policy is merely Mishra's take on the elections, which Nussbaum has cut and pasted in her book, and he, in turn, claims that it is her take on the elections. This is not just an instance of people "scratching each other's back" but an utterly debased kind of "scholarship" which ignores the fact that the election results of 2004 were yet another instance of the chaotic nature of Indian politics, and that the new Congress Party-led coalition government is still another instance of that hodge-podge and messy politics in which the corrupt and criminal have joined hands with the Left, Marxist forces to foist upon the Indian people another inefficient, corrupt and directionless government which has gone to the extent of nominating a corrupt, criminal, mediocre woman to be the next (and first woman) president of India and who will replace a highly qualified, one-term, non-partisan Muslim technocrat and humanist who has made no bones about his love for the Bhagavad Gita and the South Indian classical musical instrument, the Veena. Professor Nussbaum will have nothing to say about it, because her type wear blinkers that are much more hardy and narrow than the ones racehorses are made to wear.

Nussbaum, with Mona Mehta, a Ph.D. student assisting her, surely could have checked the basic facts. She believes, however, that few people and her fans who read her manipulative text will bother to check. Thus, she is utterly wrong when she claims that "India is simply not as 'present' to the American mind, because it is not as present in the American media." Sure, not as much as the Middle East, but it seems as if in Nussbaum's eyes the situation in India, and Hindu "extremism" (as she and Indian "progressives" label the movement of Hindutva) is no different from the situation in the Middle East with the bloody, continuing, violent, Islamic-theology driven chaos!

She writes, borrowing from God knows where, and Mishra parrots that "Gujarat, which has had economic growth but has made little progress in education and health care, became a hospitable home to Hindu nationalists." But if we look at Indian primary and middle school education in particular, and education in general, the situation is pathetic. Gujarat is not at the bottom of the list in India, and in fact, its most demonized chief minister, Narendra Modi, has made vigorous efforts to improve the quality of primary and secondary school education in Gujarat.

There is much, on each of the 432 pages of Nussbaum's tome, that is inaccurate and sometimes completely misleading, if not false. Indeed, it would take a small army of academics to counter each one of those thoroughly. Armed with her biases and lies, she then walks into people's offices and homes and seeks to carry out an inquisition of the "Christian" variety. When an interviewee in frustration responds angrily, she then deigns to "psycho-analyze" that individual. This is what she does to Arun Shourie, not only one of the leading lights of the Bharatiya Janata Party but also a former World Bank economist and an aggressive investigative reporter before he joined politics. Mishra characterizes Nussbaum's analysis of Shourie: "How did India's democracy, commonly described as the biggest in the world, become so vulnerable to religious extremism? Ideological fanaticism stemming from personal inadequacies, such as the one Nussbaum identifies in Arun Shourie, is certainly to blame." Before you say, "What?" let me give the gist of Nussbaum's analysis of Shourie.

Arun Shourie, she acknowledges, is a "man of genuine brilliance, with a passion for truth and brave past work in the defense of truth," and then goes on to say that "yet there is no getting round the fact that Arun Shourie joined the BJP not for its economic policies alone, but also as the result of a sincere conviction that Muslims are a great danger to India and must be kept under control." How does she arrive at this conclusion? Because, she says, "we also have to consider that he nowhere denounced the Gujarat violence and that since 1992 at least he has been hanging out with people who foment violence. ... " But her interview of Shourie belies the fact that he countenanced the violence in Gujarat.

Nussbaum then goes on to do this rather ugly evisceration of Shourie: "And yet there is something volatile and emotionally violent in his character, something wound up and wounded, something that lashes out at a perceived threat and refuses to take seriously the evidence that it might be not a threat. I attribute this instability to his painful life as a father, and the sense of helplessness issuing from that experience, which surely explains at least part of his intense anger at text-based religion and at all organized pieties. But so many people have deep sorrow in life, and sorrow does not always lead to a persecutory and therefore highly dangerous view of others." This silly psycho-babble could indeed be reversed and Professor Nussbaum's engagement with India could be similarly characterized: How come she has such a highly dangerous view of Hindus (other than the anglicized variety)? Why is there no sympathy with the underdog — surely Hindus in the world are underdogs when compared with the Christian and Muslim majorities which seek to decimate Hindus and Hinduism either through proselytism or through violence? Why does she manipulate people and stereotype individuals whose lives are very different from hers, and who do not have the sophistication to avoid the snares of such partisan scholarship?

As to the psycho-babble about his "painful experience as a father," we should mention that Arun Shourie and his wife have a son, Aditya, who is mentally and physically handicapped. Yes, when fate doles out pain in our lives, we do seek solace of one kind or the other. Shourie tells Nussbaum about his seeking the answers to suffering in religious texts, and how he is more of a Buddhist practitioner, since after all the Buddha was the first to predict "all is sorrow" (sarvam dukham). How she jumps from that explanation to characterizing him as a Muslim-hater is pure fantasy and Freudian psycho-babble she has learned from her august colleague at the University of Chicago, Professor Wendy Doniger, whom she acknowledges in the preface to her book. She simply ignores the obvious fact that Shourie is angry, as any humane person would be, at the corruption, criminality and violence that besiege society, any society. Also, I have heard firsthand from Sarla Prakash, who knows the Shouries very well, about the love and humanity that guide Arun Shourie and his wife, and how lovingly they brought up their handicapped son.

Professor Nussbaum prods Shourie, in the 40-minute interview she had with him, about his fears of Muslim violence in India. She says that Shourie does not offer any evidence that the Tabligh movement is the "most powerful Islamic movement in India and Bangladesh." She tells us in the first chapter, "Islamic fundamentalism has no grip on India, despite discrimination and even persecution; it is hoped that, despite events like Gujarat, this good record will continue." Let us see, India was partitioned, 3 million people perished in violence, many more millions were ethnically cleansed, the percentage of Hindus in West Pakistan was reduced from 15 percent to 20 percent to less than 2 percent in 50 years, and in East Pakistan/Bangladesh from 30 percent to 9 percent, and in India the Muslim population increased from about 11 percent at the time of Partition to now anywhere between 15 percent and 18 percent, depending on whether you ask the Indian Census bureau or the independent demographers, and when there have been more than three wars with Pakistan over Kashmir, and more than 300,000 Hindus ethnically cleansed from Kashmir, and there is no evidence of Muslim fundamentalism in India? Oh yes, according to Nussbaum, and her ilk, if at all there is any such grip, it is only "elsewhere." And if we ask where else, they will then offer the glib response that indeed there is no such fundamentalist threat and it is only Western foreign policy, or Zionism, or something else that has led a few irresponsible individuals to kill themselves wearing suicide vests in marketplaces.

Well, one would expect any interviewer or scholar to have done their homework before quizzing a person and demanding "evidence." We can, as always, start with Wikipedia for good summaries of such topics. So, here it is. But let us go beyond and provide evidence from India's security forces and intelligence officials. And maybe we should remind Professor Nussbaum to read the daily newspapers, and the now Indian connection to the bombings in Britain, and the Muslim terrorist cells in my hometown of Bangalore and my home state of Karnataka. That the Indian and Western commentators are only now waking up to the spread of violent Islamic theology and its contaminating influences in India is merely a facet of the interesting mixture of political correctness and the old but persistent strain of racism. You see, if hundreds of people die in India because of Islam-inspired violence and terrorist attacks, it is just that Hindus are not accommodating enough of Muslims or that India has to clean up its Kashmir act. But if one Indian-born Muslim carries out a terrorist act in a Western nation, then there is a huge hubbub about Muslim terrorist cells in India. G. Parthasarathy, a veteran diplomat and commentator, shows how political correctness influenced his assessment of the Islam-inspired threats in India. He writes, "Like many others, I overlooked events in India that should have rung alarm bells in the minds of all thinking Indians. These were the terrorist attacks in Delhi, Ayodhya, Mumbai, Malegaon, Bangalore and Hyderabad, in which the motivators may have been sitting across our borders, but the perpetrators were Indian nationals. Sadly, I chose to ignore this fact out of conventional considerations of 'political correctness.'"

It is that politically correct induced nonsense that so many Indian and Western "progressives" have been peddling that Professor Nussbaum repackages in her book, and then has the audacity to smear a good person like Shourie as an angry Muslim-hater. In her assessment of the Gujarat violence, Nussbaum quotes friends like Girish Patel, Achyut Yagnik, Teesta Setalvad, Siddharth Varadarajan, and the ironically named The Hindu newspaper, who and which are all agreed that only the Hindutva movement is dangerous for India, and who claim to be the arbiters of good taste and good politics in India. The Hindu newspaper, whose editor N. Ram is an avowed socialist and who has hobnobbed with the Chinese and blocked all reports about the nefarious Chinese occupation of Tibet and about the good work of the Dalai Lama, who has made clear his hatred of the RSS, and who has paid well a small army of writers and commentators to paint a one-sided picture of the religious tensions in India, is the most quoted newspaper by American and Western "left/liberal" academics and media commentators. I worked for The Hindu as a copy editor in the 1980s, and I know very well the modern family history of the proprietors of the newspaper and N. Ram's influence on editorial policy, and his shepherding of the newsmagazine Frontline, which was launched as a Leftist mouthpiece the year I joined The Hindu. Professor Nussbaum acknowledges her indebtedness to Malini Parthasarathy, one of The Hindu family members, who did her masters in journalism at Columbia University, and whom my good friend Arul Louis recalls as a classmate. He told me that Malini had the gall to advise an African-American professor about protesting racism! The connection between The Hindu newspaper and the journalism program at Columbia University is a long one. N. Ram graduated from there, and his daughter recently graduated from there. And Columbia is known now as a haven for anti-Zionist, pro-Muslim faculty. It does not need a Sherlock Holmes to figure out the ideological influences and shaping of the influential actors in Professor Nussbaum's thesis.

Martha Nussbaum gets good coverage in The Hindu. Just do a Google search of The Hindu newspaper website and see how much Professor Nussbaum is featured in the newspaper. Then do a Google search of all the other newspapers in India, and see how much Nussbaum gets coverage. This is what can be easily termed ideological partnerships that have little commitment to objectivity and balance and all to winning power and influencing policy.

Shourie has taken on a variety of challenges in life, and he has exposed corruption, criminality and weaknesses in government institutions like few modern Indians have. In fact, he has also been at the forefront of exposing the corruption and crime-riddled candidacy of Pratibha Patil, who most probably will become the first woman president of India. It is unfortunate that in her pursuit of ideologically symmetrical material Professor Nussbaum has foisted upon an unwary readership a lot of partisan and dangerous nonsense. It is what allows her to gloss over the terrible violence following the assassination of Indira Gandhi when thousands of Sikhs were murdered and women raped. Wikipedia does a better job than Professor Nussbaum, who says that the violence in Delhi was quickly contained, no women were raped, and the violence was not a result of a history of religious conflict. How did a woman with such little information, so little historical memory, and so partisan and glib get to write a book on modern Indian politics and culture and how did Harvard publish it? Just ask Amartya Sen and follow the trail of the "romantic" connections between the two that has led to their collaboration on a number of "studies" that has paid both of them well via the United Nations, Harvard, The World Bank and elsewhere. And why would I seek to make such personal details public? About the romantic connection, it was The New York Times that made it public. Professor Nussbaum merely told me that she took care of "Marty's young children." If Professor Nussbaum can use information about people's lives to paint them as ideologues and violent, then it is incumbent upon people who know about such matters to balance a badly tilting thesis.

Finally, Professor Nussbaum writes that she took up the adumbration of her thesis that India is dangerously on the brink because of Hindu "extremism." She says: "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?'" If this is not a rhetorical ploy to manipulate readers to buying her warped thesis, I wonder why Professor Nussbaum fails to name those leading academics. At least other academics, the media and policymakers would be interested in talking to those academics in writing balanced, objective analyses of the Indian situation and subcontinental politics rather than relying on the likes of a woefully blinkered partisan.

To conclude about Hindu-Muslim tensions and the blood that has been shed in the Indian subcontinent, I want to quote from a couple of chapters of Raymond Hauserman's soon to be published (posthumously) book. Writing about "Direct Action" day, Aug. 16, 1946, Hauserman writes about events in Calcutta: "By 11 that morning, several Hindu shops had been looted and set on fire, and the proprietors and staff brutally murdered. When there was no sign of police assistance despite many calls and even appeals at the precincts, a sense of shock began to spread. ... The few courageous non-violent protesters were either stabbed or had their throats cut and were left lying on the road in pools of their own blood. Some of Gandhi's adherents began to re-assess their commitment to non-violence. It was one thing to be herded off peacefully to jail; it was another to be callously stabbed while the authorities ignored appeals for protection. ... By noon pillars of smoke rose all over the city from looted and burned Hindu shops. Rumors quickly exaggerated the several hundreds killed and wounded into thousands because Hindus had been killed and women raped in almost every majority Muslim area. While publicly condemning the work of the mobs, Suhrawardy privately goaded them on. ... Gandhi and the Congress criticized the Hindus and Muslims equally. Ultimately, the riots became known as actions of Hindu and Muslim 'communalists,' missing the political manipulation that it really was. ... By the third day of carnage, a younger, more aggressive Hindu group evolved, those who felt that active resistance was essential for survival. The Hindus had turned the other cheek long enough, and a more militant spirit was coming forward. ... We attended only one of Gandhiji's daily prayer meetings, usually a group of 200-300. At least a dozen plainclothes police were scattered throughout the audience for his protection. He would speak softly, looking so fragile and so sad. It was easy to see that his heart was broken by the violence, as he would plead with the Hindus to forgive the Muslims, most of whom were surly, even at the meetings. Most of the Hindus were terror-stricken by the embrace of these 'brothers.' As I watched, I felt sorry for Gandhi. He was talking to the wrong people. The only man who could change things was sitting in Calcutta in the Chief Minister's chair planning his next riot. ... At one point, Gandhi sighed and said, 'I feel I'm in a morass of bitterness and lies.' With the army stationed around, the gangs knew it was time to be quiet. As sorry as I felt for Gandhi, I was even sorrier for those Hindus who listened to him and stayed."

Nussbaum's thesis covers other aspects of modern India, and it would be too much to deal with all of that in an essay that deals with religion and religious clashes. Suffice it to say, Nussbaum would be better off fighting Western classicists in her new home at Harvard than seeking to weigh in further on matters she knows little about.

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Ramesh N. Rao is professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies and Theatre at Longwood University, Farmville, Va. The views expressed here are his personal views and not those of the institution to which he belongs. His email address is {email}{/email}. © copyright 2007 by Ramesh N. Rao.