May 9, 2009


Purification rites: With nationalist demagogues rising to power in both India and Israel, Pankaj Mishra examines the parallel histories of violent partition, ethnic cleansing and militant patriotism that have led both countries into a moral wilderness. (Pankaj Mishra, 3/27/09, The National)

My grandfather had no interest in Judaism, or in any of India’s many faiths. Like many Hindu nationalists and Zionists, he was a secularist, impatient with religion’s unworldliness. He admired Israel for its proud and clear national identity – for the sharply defined religious and cultural ideology of Zionism and the patriotism it inculcated in Israel’s citizens. Israel, which was building a new nation in splendid isolation, surrounded by Arab enemies, knew what India did not: how to deal with Muslims in the only language they understood, that of force and more force.

India, by comparison, was a pitiably incoherent and timid nation-state, its claims to democracy, socialism and secularism compromised by a corrupt government’s appeasement of minorities (mainly Muslim) and neglect of Hindu heritage.

Hindu nationalism was much less about venerating Hinduism – most nationalists were not religious – than about constructing a strong, culturally homogenous nation state of the kind that had begun to emerge in post-Enlightenment Europe in the 19th century. Like many Hindu nationalists, past and present, my grandfather was led by his obsession with national cohesion into an admiration for Nazi Germany.

Reverence for Adolf Hitler – who is hailed as a hero in textbooks in the Hindu nationalist-ruled state of Gujarat, while Mein Kampf remains popular at bookstores – is one of the many sinister aspects of “rising” India today. This cult of Hitler as a great “patriot” and “strategist” grew early among middle-class Hindus. MS Golwalkar, the much-revered Hindu leader and ideologue, wrote in 1938 that Nazi Germany had manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging itself of the “Semitic races” – and yet Golwalkar was also an admirer of Zionism.

This simultaneous veneration of Hitler and Israel may appear a monstrous moral contradiction to Europeans or Americans who see Israel as the homeland of Jewish victims of Nazi crimes. However, such distinctions are lost on the Hindu nationalists, who esteem Nazi Germany and Israel for their patriotic effort to cleanse their states of alien and potentially disloyal elements, and for their militaristic ethos. Many Indians and other colonised peoples hoped for Nazi Germany and Japan to at least undermine, if not defeat, the British Empire. My grandfather was among the Indians with a misplaced faith in Germany’s military capacity. He would have been horrified by the facts of the Holocaust if he had encountered them. But like so many Hindu nationalists, his main political anxiety during those years after the Second World War was whether Mother India would be partitioned into two countries; the subsequent creation of Pakistan as a separate state for Indian Muslims pushed all other historical traumas, especially those of distant Europe, out of view.

The emergence of an independent India with an overwhelmingly non-Muslim population did not appease Hindu nationalists like my grandfather. Pakistan occupied part of Muslim-majority Kashmir, and tens of millions of Muslims remained in India, an apparently formidable fifth column for Pakistan (their present population is more than 150 million). Hindu nationalists also believed that Indian Muslims were breeding fast, subsidised by plutocratic Arabs and treacherous Pakistanis. Apart from cunningly outpacing a docile Hindu population, their rising and unproductive population was a drag on India, which was destined to be the greatest superpower of the 21st century.

Today, more than a decade after Hindu nationalists finally assumed political power in India and accelerated India’s shift to a free-market economy, Muslims are visibly the most depressed and vulnerable community in India. Terrorist attacks mounted by a small radicalised minority among them increasingly contradict India’s claims as a superpower; but they are far from posing, except in the paranoid Hindu nationalist imagination, an existential threat to India. They tend to be worse off than even low-caste Hindus in the realms of education, health and employment. After dying disproportionately in many Hindu-Muslim riots, more than two thousand Muslims were the victims of a pogrom in 2002 in the Western Indian state of Gujarat. Their main tormentor, Narendra Modi, the business-friendly chief minister of Gujarat (who is also an outspoken admirer of Israel), is now heralded as India’s likely prime minister while tens of thousands of his Muslim victims languish in refugee camps, too afraid to return to their homes.

Toynbee cautions:
There are, of course, other Western ideas and institutions which are doubtful blessings; and one of these is our Western Nationalism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 9, 2009 7:13 AM
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