How free are we?

[Published originally on outlookindia, Jan 28, 2010]

This has been a tumultuous decade for the academic study of India. In his recent Offence: The Hindu Case (2009), Salil Tripathi provides a timely overview of the growing censorship and harassment that scholars working on India have faced. Not a pretty sight to behold: people have felt the need to ban books and terrorize authors, hassle teachers and disrupt classes, toss eggs at some and blacken others’ faces. Academics now run the risk of smear campaigns, court cases and physical intimidation; all because certain groups feel offended by what they write about the Indian past or the Hindu traditions. The facts are difficult to miss. Hence, the threat that Hindu nationalism poses to academic freedom has caused commotion around the world.

According to Tripathi, the rise of Hindu nationalism is indeed the major threat to intellectual freedom in the study of India. In his essay, all Indians concerned about the representation of India and its traditions come across as bigots and prudes. The goondas who burned M.F. Husain’s paintings and ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute are presented as the extremist fringe of a ‘long arm of fundamentalism’ that also embraces NRI professionals and Western Hindu sympathisers. On the other side, Tripathi places historians like Romila Thapar and religion scholars like Wendy Doniger, who (so he claims) go as far as ‘the facts’ take them and are attacked for doing so (75-87). These scholars are presented as spirited fighters ‘arguing for academic freedom and the spirit of open inquiry in India’ (86). This way of presenting things is flawed. Like most journalists, Tripathi ignores another threat to intellectual freedom in the study of India—one that may be less manifest, but is all the more insidious.

A climate of implicit censorship has long dominated this field. Not quite as spectacular as the rise of ‘Hindu’ censorship, this is not the stuff of juicy journalism. But this kind of censoring is as harmful: it also moulds people’s minds in particular ways; it constrains their speech; it compels them to show compliance to certain dogmas in their writings; and, for the unlucky few, it may even end their careers. The difficulty is to identify the modus operandi of this form of censorship. Much like racism, it is only in certain blatant cases that one can say with certainty that it has occurred. Nonetheless, we have to try and circumscribe this obstacle standing in the way of a much-needed rejuvenation of the study of India. What follows are some impressions of the situation in contemporary Europe, India and the USA. Sometimes these may seem caricatures, but caricature is required to make the implicit explicit.

In Europe, the issue cannot be separated from the colonial past and the present state of affairs, where the old continent is losing its earlier dominance to rising Asian nations that outpace it in every way. In response, Europeans have developed a set of strategies to convince themselves that their civilization is still morally superior. Here, scholars of India have an important role to fulfil. Simply put, they are expected to do the following: acknowledge that India is indeed going through swift economic growth; next, point out that it still has tremendous poverty, the caste system, superstition, religious conflicts, gender inequality, exploitation, child labour, nepotism, bribery, revolts, incompetence…; and provide appropriate details on these flaws and the necessary footnotes or fieldwork. In this way, these scholars should contribute to what John Gray calls the ‘comfort blanket against an unfamiliar world’, which Europe is weaving around itself. ‘Rest assured; we are still on top’.

Naturally, few scholars today would be willing to state explicitly that the European civilization is superior. Yet, while they disavow Eurocentrism, they also reproduce a deep-rooted cultural asymmetry. When European scholars describe India, they tend to connect all ills and atrocities in that society to the nature of Indian culture. One links widow-burning, dowry murder, domestic violence, female infanticide and caste discrimination to ‘Hindu’ foundations. Europe also loves to celebrate Indian authors whose specialty is revealing the ‘dark underbelly’ of Indian society. In contrast, social ills and atrocities in European societies are characterised as aberrations: racism, colonial genocide, the two World Wars, the Holocaust, sexual abuse, etc. are considered as acts that deviate from the true temper of European culture. This stance of cultural asymmetry has become the hidden premise of the European study of India.

Historically, the situation in India has grown from much the same set of equations. The colonial state nourished an intellectual class that was expected to spell out and justify its ‘civilising mission’. The intelligentsia had to show how western political theory had laid down the way forward for India and how the state was the guide on this road. It sought to demonstrate that Indian history and society—and ‘Hindu religion’ in particular—embodied the negation of western liberal norms: inequality, irrationality, tyranny (at a later stage, patriarchy was added). The postcolonial state inherited the institutional structures and conceptual framework of its colonial predecessor and also its tendency to treat the human sciences as instruments of the state’s project to reform society. Crudely put, academics in these disciplines could play two roles: ideologues were to show the significance of some western political theory to India and characterise Indian history and society in such a way that the implementation of this political theory became the only option; fact-gatherers had to collect the data related to some problem for the state’s project of reform.

Over the years, the fashionable theories shifted from liberalism to Marxism and back again. Generally, the adherents of this approach to Indian society called themselves ‘secularists’ and shared one central attitude: they were allergic to ‘Hinduism’. In the first five decades following Independence, these secularists dominated the Indian universities and established an intellectual and institutional hegemony. They wrote the textbooks and dominated the UGC, ICSSR or ICHR. By the 1980s, when orthodox Marxism had worn out in most places, the hegemony was so entrenched that it allowed a few universities and research institutes in Delhi and Calcutta to perform a role very similar to that of the colonial master. They imported the latest ‘radical’ fashions from Paris and New York to couch an old story in the newest jargon: they used Foucault’s ‘discourse’ and ‘capillary power’ or Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’ to repeat that the Indian culture promoted inequality, patriarchy and moral bankruptcy. Social scientists in the hinterland were expected to imitate the secularists from the metropolis. If they did well, they could end up in JNU or perhaps even be invited to the West. This hegemony of the secularists reproduced itself through different forms of implicit censorship: it determined what was published, where the funding went, and who got appointed.

At the same time, there was a growing sense of alienation between these intellectual classes and substantial layers of Indian society. The rise of Hindutva produced a backlash against the academic allergy to Hinduism. When the BJP came to power in the late 1990s, Hindu nationalism tried to displace secularism by attempting to take over the institutional hegemony and modes of censorship that the secularists had created. Now, Hindu nationalists took it upon themselves to write the textbooks and control the universities and the relevant government bodies. However, these people had neither the education nor the sophistication to do so in the (relatively) subtle ways of the secularists. The crudeness led to outcries in India and the West about ‘rewriting history’, ‘the end of academic freedom’ and ‘the return of censorship’. The message to the Hindu nationalists must be clear: learn from the secularists how to practice the art of censorship in more implicit and subtle ways. Whatever the future may bring, the humanities in India have now been hijacked by this struggle between secularism and Hindutva.

The rise of Hindutva has also determined the current state of affairs in the American study of India and Hinduism. Here, the implicit censorship takes the form of a climate of fear: the fear to be branded ‘Hindutva’. There are three central factors in US society that have contributed to this pernicious climate. One is the large-scale migration of highly-educated Indians into the US over the last few decades. Affluent Hindu-Americans have been shocked by what the American schools teach their children about ‘Hinduism’ and India. Turning to the universities, they discovered that these often tell the same story, albeit with more theoretical sophistication. Many Hindu-Americans are highly successful in engineering, business or other professions; many also sympathize at some level with Hindu nationalism. Shocked by the western representation of ‘Hinduism’, they think they can now replace this with a ‘Hindu’ representation. They do not realise that it takes more than intelligence and professional success to develop an alternative to five centuries of Orientalism. After retirement, some of these professionals take up the hobby of writing stories about India that no intellectual will ever take seriously.

The second factor lies in the many forms of Protestant Christianity that dominate American society. The theological framework shared by these denominations inevitably transforms the Hindu traditions into a species of false religion. Naturally, political correctness no longer allows scholars and educators to speak of ‘heathen idolatry’ or the ‘cruelty’ and ‘tyranny’ of ‘false religion’. Therefore, they have turned to seemingly ‘secular’ depictions of caste, inequality, patriarchy and poverty in India to show that Hinduism is a pale and erring religion, opposed to liberal values. The earlier religious condemnation has become a social critique. Often, both go hand in hand. For instance, American evangelical organisations join forces with scholarly critics of caste to promote the idea that India should become ‘post-Hindu’, as in the case of Kancha Ilaiah and the Dalit Freedom Network.

The third factor is the most interesting: it is the potential for implicit censorship that seems intrinsic to the US academic world. This is difficult to pin down. The witch hunts organized by Senator McCarthy during the Cold War played a significant role in creating this atmosphere. The terror of being denounced as a ‘traitor’ penetrated the American humanities at a deep level. To someone who has no first-hand experience of the academic study of India in the US, it must be difficult to imagine the number of young scholars who say things like ‘this is what I really think, but I will not say it in public, because I’m up for tenure’. By the time they receive tenure, they have usually conformed to the orthodoxy.

Together these factors have produced an unhappy mix. There is a cold war going on between the ‘Hindu-Americans’ (and a few academic sympathisers) and the mainstream scholars of Hinduism. Academics no longer fear being called ‘commies’, ‘reds’ or even ‘heathens’, but now ‘Hindutva’ has taken the place of such labels in the study of India. If one makes positive noises about the contributions of Indian culture to humanity, one runs the risk of being associated with ‘Hindu nationalism’ or with the NRI professionals who aggressively challenge the doyens of Hinduism studies. The popular media like to represent these doyens as valiant warriors for academic freedom, much as Tripathi does in his essay. This is far removed from reality. The dominant scholars too impose dogmatic limits that one cannot cross without provoking their ire. Because of the significance of letters of recommendation, peer pressure and plain gossip in American academic circles, their forms of implicit censorship are highly effective in making or breaking careers. This has created a widespread fear of saying ‘the wrong thing’, which paralyses the study of Indian culture.

In one sense, then, the picture for students of India is even grimmer than the one Tripathi sketches. In another sense, there is hope, because times of turbulence also hold the potential for intellectual change. As students of India, we will have to take seriously the growing discontent among Hindus about the ways in which their traditions have been depicted. Some of this is inspired by an attempt to sanitise the Hindu traditions according to the model of Islam and Christianity and the prudishness of middle-class morality. However, other strands express a deep sense of grievance towards the secularist hegemony and the academic allergy to Hinduism. As long as reasonable and well-educated minds do not address these grievances, Hindu nationalism will be able to tap into the growing anger among Hindus and manipulate this to its own benefit. To address such problems, one needs to work towards a climate of intellectual freedom that has too long been absent from the study of India.

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