Swans Commentary » swans.com September 24, 2012  



Postmodern Gandhians And Hindu Nationalism
Part II of II


by Michael Barker



[Read the first part of this essay.]


(Swans - September 24, 2012)   The roots of this "relatively conservative, non-revolutionary 'modernity'" owed much to Mohandas K. Gandhi's leadership of the Indian National Congress, which brought the emergent capitalist class into an unstable alliance with the peasant masses under his "religious idiom of a moderate, inclusive Hinduism..." A brief respite from this "culturally conservative model of development" arrived with the advent of Nehru's authoritarian version of democratic socialism. But as popular belief in the power of so-called socialist ideas declined in the mid-1970s, interest in Gandhian populism was revived, which paved the way for a political comeback of Gandhian ideals that was consolidated by the fall of the Soviet Union. (1)

A significant date marking the revival of the neo-Gandhian turn against modernity was the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, and in the following decades, movements demanding an alternative (traditional) model of development "began to connect with the anti-Enlightenment, postmodernist strains that had been growing in Western universities since the mid-1960s." (2) As one might expect, it was...

...not the poor and the culturally marginal classes/castes... clamouring for indigenous sciences or authentic models of development. Rather, it is the upwardly mobile urban middle classes, the newly enriched middle-caste agrarian classes who are the chief beneficiaries of anti-modernist ideas. This enables them to enjoy the benefits of new technology, new consumer goods, and new economic opportunities without losing control over their traditional subordinates, namely, women, the lower castes, and the poor. (p.31)

Unsurprisingly, postmodern intellectuals in India often call upon Gandhi to act as the "patron-saint" of alternative modernity, regularly invoking his name in their anti-secular mission "against their archenemy, the secularist Nehru." Building on Gandhi's legacy: "In the late 1980s and early 1990s, two of India's foremost social theorists -- Ashis Nandy and T.N. Madan -- wrote furious tracts against secularism, which they reduced to an imported ideology of Westernized elites, out of touch with the simple faith of ordinary people." Their arguments proved popular among the emergent new left-leaning (non-Marxist) social movements and have had the predicable effect of serving to shift "the fulcrum of Indian politics so much to the right that even self-described left-liberals... decry any criticism of popular religiosity as elitist and 'Orientalist'..." (3)

Unfortunately, postmodern intellectuals residing in their well-funded ivory towers are no slouches, and from the 1980s onwards...

A number of seminars were organized which produced an abundance of anthologies with titles announcing 'requiems' for the 'death,' 'end,' and 'twilight' of modernity. Some of these books gained a worldwide following. Notable titles include: Science Hegemony and Violence (1988), Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias (1987), both edited by Nandy, Science, Development and Violence by Claude Alvares (1992), The Revenge of Athena by Ziauddin Sardar (1988), and Staying Alive by Vandana Shiva (1988). These ideas became the signature tune of Third World Network and other advocacy groups leading to the Penang Declaration on Science and Technology (Sardar 1988). Organizing nationwide conferences promoting traditional science and technologies has been another major activity of alternative science movement groups. Gradually, the agenda of many alternative science movement groups, especially those pushing for 'patriotic science,' has become indistinguishable from the Swadeshi Science Movement of Hindutva sympathizers. (p.213)

The coming together of left postmodernists and the movement for Hindutva should be considered especially worrying as the Hindutva phenomenon is "basically an ultranationalist and chauvinistic movement that seeks to modernize India by recovering the supposedly pristine Vedic-Hindu roots of Indian culture." The reactionary modernism of the Hindutva movement should in this instance be seen as the continuation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (a Hindu paramilitary group formed in 1925) from which the Bharatiya Janata Party evolved as their political front -- the political Party that ruled India until mid-2004. It is immanently appropriate then that Hindu nationalist intellectuals should have adopted postmodern sensibilities long before the term had been conceived, "hammering together a worldview which can accommodate anything and everything into Hinduism, as long as its civilizational 'difference' (read superiority) is not challenged." (4)

Significantly, the Bharatiya Janata Party has demonstrated a "deep fascination with both Mussolini and Hitler, but more so with Hitler, as his Aryan ideology was seen as Hindu in content and spirit." (5) Therefore the basic claim by Hindu nationalists that "only the Hindu conception of God as immanent in nature is in accord with the findings of modem science"; combined with their rejection of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition as irrational, should be considered dangerous in the utmost. (6) Hindu supremacy is thus disguised as 'science'; which for Hindu nationalists refers to "an enchanted, supernatural science based upon the idealistic metaphysics of classical Hinduism that treats the divine as constitutive of all nature." (7) At this point, lest we neglect important historical lessons:

The ultimate goal of the Nazis was not 'just' to liquidate the Jewish people, but to purge Christianity of the Judaic conception of God. What is often forgotten is that Nazism was a response, among other things, to rapid industrialization, urbanization, and a consequent feeling of alienation from nature. In a manner chillingly reminiscent of our own deep ecologists and Hindu nationalists, well-known Nazi ideologues, including Alfred Rosenberg, Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler himself, and lesser lights like Savitri Devi and the theosophist Helena Blavatsky, ascribed the alienation from nature to the Judaic dualism between a transcendent God and lifeless nature (see Pois 1985; Mosse 1964; Goodrick-Clarke 1998 for these issues). The Nazis sought a genuine religion of nature that would allow Germans to live in harmony with nature. (p.14)

Left-wing anti-secularists have therefore unfortunately found common ground with their Hindutva counterparts in their magical belief that "the inherent pluralism and holism of Hinduism are... adequate -- nay, superior -- resources for tolerance and interreligious dialogue." (8) This in the face of a mass of evidence that demonstrates quite the contrary. Consequently, the primary difference between left and right-wing anti-secularists...

...is where they presume to find these sources of purported tolerance. While it is the Brahminical texts of Vedanta that the right wing turns to, the left-wing Gandhians turn to a romanticized view of folk traditions and the everyday 'innocent faith' of ordinary people. (p.56)

The revival of these left- and right-wing movements that rose to influence from the mid-1970s onwards can both trace their growth to the calls by the neo-Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) for a 'total revolution' in 1974, "which in part, precipitated the emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed in 1975." Uniting a left-right coalition, JP's "call for 'total revolution' was a calculated call to discredit the 'imported' ideals of industrial development, liberal democracy, and secularism." Student's had already began taking to the streets in late 1973 to protest Indira's increasingly authoritarian government, and while many socialists and left parties joined in these student movements, which were "spearheaded" by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the communist parties did not and charted an independent course "branding the emerging coalition as fascistic." The Hindu nationalists leading the movement then requested that JP take on the mantle of the movement's leadership, which served to bring the Hindu nationalists "back into the mainstream of Indian politics." Although this all occurred in the 1970s, Nanda contends that this unsavory coalition "never really broke up," with the left-wing /postmodern Gandhians part of the grouping participating in the new social movements (rejecting the legitimacy of modern science), and the right-wing Gandhians going on to form the Bharatiya Janata Party. She adds: "What unites the left and the right Gandhians is 'Gandhian socialism,' also known as 'Vedic socialism' or 'Integral Humanism.'" (9) On this score, the left Gandhians are in denial, and refuse to acknowledge this continuity of interests despite the fact that...

...the official philosophy of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the 'integral humanism' of Deendayal Upadhyaya, is almost an exact paraphrase of Gandhi's vision of a future India. Both seek a distinctive path for India, both reject the materialism of socialism and capitalism alike, both reject the individualism of modern society in favour of a holistic, varna-dharma-based community, both insist upon an infusion of religious and moral values in politics, and both seek a culturally authentic mode of modernization that preserves Hindu values (see Fox 1987). (p.217)

A good illustration of the confusion caused by the overlapping interests of the left and right is seen in the guise of well-known anti-globalization activist, Vandana Shiva, who herself played a central role in the postmodern reorientation of Indian new social movements in the early 1980s. This is because to this day Shiva apparently has no qualms about working in close alliance with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other assorted Hindu nationalists, lending them not only her international prestige, but also furnishing farmers' movements with "the much-needed agrarian myth" that is so compatible with conservative ruralism. As Nanda concludes: "The connecting thread [between the right and left] is the defence of the traditional way of life." (10)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Nanda, Prophets Facing Backward, p.26, p.27. As Nanda writes, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) was "one of the most important dalit intellectuals of the twentieth century" who was not only highly critical of Gandhi, but "was able to 'hybridize' John Dewey's (1859-1952) conception of scientific temper with the teachings of the Buddha (563-483 BCE), and use the reinterpreted Buddhist tradition to challenge Hindu metaphysics and the ethics of the natural inequality it sanctions." (p.182)  (back)

2.  Nanda, p.4.  (back)

3.  Nanda, p.55. "Indian voices, especially those of the neo-Gandhian critics led by Ashis Nandy and his group at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies in Delhi (also referred to as the 'Delhi School' of science studies) were beginning to sound out critiques of universalism of science in the early 1980s, much before the postmodernist storm gathered full force in the West. ... Since then, Indian scholars have played a central role in crafting ever more sophisticated theories of hybrid consciousness. Subaltern historians, including Partha Chatte rjee, Gyan Prakash, Dipesh Chakrabarty; literary critics, such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha; feminists Chandra Tolpade Mohanty, Lata Mani, Gauri Vishwanathan; and environmentalists like Vandana Shiva have become top-ranking names in the new wave of social theory. Their work has been instrumental in sensitizing feminist and science studies scholars to the issue of difference and alternative sciences." (pp.167-8)  (back)

4.  Nanda, p.4, p.5, p.67.  (back)

5.  Nanda, p.15. For various useful discussions of Hindu nationalism, see Marzia Casolari, "Hindutva's foreign tie-up in the 1930s: Archival evidence," Economic and Political Weekly, January 22, 2000, pp.218-28; Christophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India (Columbia University Press, 1996); Radhika Desai, Slouching Toward Ayodhya (Three Essays Press, 2002).  (back)

6.  Nanda, p.14. As Nanda notes, the work of "German left philosopher-turned-neo-fascist Rudolf Bahro and the writings of some deep ecologists continue to draw upon Vedic monism as an alternative conception of the relation between God and nature." (p.15) On this point, Nanda cites Janet Biehl, "Ecology and the modernization of fascism in the German ultra-right," In: Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, Ecofascism: Lessons From the German Experience (AK Press, 1995).

Nanda adds: "Contrary to some who insist that India can never become secular because secularization is a Protestant phenomenon, and because Hinduism, unlike the three monotheistic religions, is a 'totalizing religion' that 'claims all of life' (Madan 1998), I believe that Hinduism has only temporarily evaded the forces of Enlightenment and secularization. It is the historical contingencies of anti-colonial nationalism, and not a radically different form of religiosity, that have sheltered and nurtured a romanticized version of Hinduism in public life." (p.45)  (back)

7.  Nanda, p.38. The obsession of Hindu nationalists with science is very similar to that of creation scientists.  (back)

8.  Nanda, p.56. For her criticisms of Hindu ecumenism Nanda cites Paul Hacker's Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on Traditional and Modern Vedanta (State University of New York Press, 1999).

As Nanda makes clear, the left- and right-wing attacks on the Indian Constitution's supposed secularism is nothing but "a sad joke"; as the Indian states secularism has obtained "strong inspiration from neo-Hinduism. Indeed, many of its limitations are a result of these romanticized views of Hinduism." (p.57)  (back)

9.  Nanda, p.214, p.215, pp.215-6, p.216.  (back)

10.  Nanda, pp.247-8, p.253, p.256. As a result of a meeting of Enlightenment thinkers at the Nehru Centre (in October 1980), a document known as the 'Statement on Scientific Temper' had been published in the left-wing journal Mainstream (in 1981). The call by the numerous signatories of this statement then resulted in a vicious backlash by the postmodern intelligentsia; the first respondent was Ashis Nandy, which "was followed by an equally venomous attack" by Vandana Shiva. (p.207)  (back)


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Published September 24, 2012