It rekindles hope in secularists

Prophets Facing Backward: Post-modernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism.
by Meera Nanda. Permanent Black.
Pages: 308. Rs 695

Prophets Facing Backward: Post-modernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism.Our modern "prophets" have been "facing backward" for a long time, and now a Ďfanatic scientistí has come along to tell us why. The aggressive postures of the Hindutva-led Hindu nationalism, which went through a rare mobilisation process in the past decade or so, have been a source of nagging worry for the diminishing, hopelessly marginalised, tribe of the secularists. First it was L.K. Advaniís ceremonial Rath Yatra, then the demolition of Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, and thereafter, the horrifying reality of post-Godhra, state-sponsored communal riots.

Over a period of time, Hindutva has demonised itself to such an extent that its best admirers, too, have turned into its worst detractors.

In the recent past, one BJP leader after another, starting from Pramod Mahajan to Sunder Singh Bhandari, has gone through periodic bouts of conscience cleansing. While aiding BJP resurrect its public image, these acts of soul-searching, whose motivations forever remain suspect, certainly canít give us the historical/scientific/secular perspective we need to understand things better. This is where the importance of Meera Nandaís book essentially lies.

This book does create a new cultural/theoretical context for the understanding of Hindu nationalism and its political offshoot, Hindutva. Going into the recent history of Hindu nationalism, Nanda traces the roots of political Hindutva back to the 19th century Indian Renaissance, which according to her, was not an eclectic, pluralistic movement but Hindu or rather Vedanta-centric. Probing into the monistic metaphysics of Vedanta, she comes to the conclusion that Hindutva is nothing but a form of conservative, Neo-Hinduism that flourished in the 19th century.

According to her, Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi and Radhakrishnan contributed toward strengthening just this form of Neo-Hinduism. By reviving Neo-Gandhism and initiating sustained interrogation of scientific universalism, Ashis Nandy, Claude Alvares and others, she avers, further paved the way for Ďalternative sciences.í Later, emboldened by this post-modernist turn, Vedic Sciences and Vedic astrology/astronomy started seeking legitimation on the basis of this very critique of modernity. In a way, the sheer sweep and range of her arguments becomes one of its major theoretical bete noire, too.

Not content with historicising Hindu nationalism, she proceeds to locate the critiques of modernity within the collective of post-modernism, post-colonialism and eco-feminism. By simply lumping together several discourses, each of which has its distinct, discrete epistemology, even ideological/methodological procedures, Nanda hasnít really made her case any stronger. Had she gone into the discrete, separate histories of each of these movements, it would have served her purpose much better. Otherwise, these theoretical debates come across as mere polemical postures or rhetorical positions. Although, her chapter on A Dalit Defense makes for informed reading, her critical position over local epistemologies makes it suspect. One wonders if she distrusts local traditions so much, why does she return to the Neo-Buddhist writings of B.R. Ambedkar to locate the cultural resources of her critique.

One also wonders why she hasnít made any real effort to engage with the theoretical ideas and arguments of those she has chosen to denounce in her book. Itís not enough to say that Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan promoted Neo-Hinduism; itís equally, and perhaps more important to say, how and in what precise way. Similarly, if Nanda had offered a more cogent and well-reasoned critique of not just the post-modernist/post-colonialist turn but also of their main exponents, itíd have imparted to her argument both sharpness and rigour. Occasional absence of both does undermine the cogency of Nandaís thesis, which for this very reason tends to become tautological, even repetitive.

This otherwise well-produced book is marred by some gross factual errors. For instance, it has been stated how BJP not only forced the 1991 elections upon the nation but also won it, riding upon the crest of popular Hindutva, which is contrary to the known facts. It also mentions how India entered a new phase of military/technological assertiveness during the BJP regime when it chose to conduct the nuclear explosion in 1997. We all know that India went nuclear not in 1997 but in 1974, when Pokhran first happened. Then how far could it be said to have laid the foundation of the Vedic Bomb, as Nanda so claims, is another problematic.

Despite its methodological problems, Nandaís thesis deserves to be read with respect and patience, and also needs to be debated extensively. After all, her book is a timely warning about how itís perhaps our last chance with secular and liberal traditions.

What makes Nandaís thesis worthy of attention is not the novelty of its expression or ideas, but the re-contextualisation of the whole problematic. Despite everything, she has managed to rekindle hope in the jaded hearts of the Indian secularists, a hopelessly vanishing tribe today. And pray, isnít that more than enough?

ó Rana Nayar