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Manipulating Elite Opinion

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

Four years of BJP-led rule after coming to power in 1998 had been very disappointing for India’s secularists, for they had been predicting for years that “a BJP Prime Minister would prove to be Hitler and Khomeini in one and that the Muslims would be thrown into the Arabian Sea if not into gas chambers”.  In the four years since March 1998, they had to face down the fact that India’s streets remained peaceful and that the BJP government was extreme only in its humdrumness, as my friend Koenraad Elst puts it.  The ugly riots in 2002 in Gujarat following the burning down of the Sabarmati Express therefore came as a great boon to the professional secularists.  For ten long years (1992-2002) the Left/Marxist/Secularist brigades had milked the destruction of the Babri Masjid to their fullest advantage and the willful among the parivar factions, by joining in the bloody riots in Gujarat, surely has given another ten years of demonizing and moralizing opportunities to the very same political combination.

It is in this context that we have to read Martha Nussbaum’s essay “Body of the Nation: Why women were mutilated in Gujarat”, published in the summer 2004 issue of the Boston Review.  In it she has characterized me as a militant and as a spokesperson for sections of the Hindu Right and has charged India Abroad of succumbing to giving voice to people like me. 

The Boston Review essay is a companion essay published in Dissent magazine (Summer 2003).  My rebuttal of her Dissent magazine essay was published by Frontpage magazine in November 2003, since Dissentrefused to publish it.  I had sent Prof. Nussbaum a copy of that rebuttal.  In the Boston Reviewes say she has quoted the same partisan sources to characterize the nature of the riots in Gujarat, about the reasons for that violence, about money raised by Indian-Americans for philanthropic work, etc., that she has used in the 2003 essay.  Worse yet, she has failed to acknowledge newer material that she gathered from a four-hour interview with me on April 10, 2004 and a well-researched critique of Paul Courtright’s book on Ganesha that was published in December 2003 (Vishal Agarwal and Venkat Kalavai, “When the Cigar becomes a Phallus”, Sulekha.Com, December 8/15, 2003).  She also met with Vishal Agarwal on April 26, 2004 -- well before the publication of the essay in the Boston Review. 

I had initially refused to meet with Prof. Nussbaum, having read the Dissent magazine essay and having heard about her manipulative rhetoric.  But her persistence and her assertions that she would like to include different voices in a book on “the future of Indian democracy” which Harvard has contracted her to write made me accept her invitation.  When I contacted Prof. Nussbaum about the continued mischaracterizations in her Boston Review essay, she wrote me that the final edit of the essay was done in March 2004 and therefore she could not include material gathered from her interview with me and Vishal Agarwal.  That she has cited my India Abroad essay of April 16, 2004 to make her case shows that she has deliberately misled me about the timeline of her edits of the Boston Review essay. 

Her characterizations of my views about Paul Courtright’s book are mischievous if not false.  She says in her essay that, “even the public face of the opposition is extraordinarily threatening, including prominent claims in periodicals as respectable as India Abroad that Courtright’s academic freedom should be revoked and that his university (Emory) should not allow him to teach”.  What I had done in the India Abroad essay (November 28, 2003) was to quote Antonio de Nicholas, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, who in an online discussion on the “Religion in South Asia” forum said that “a scholar who does not know how to present other cultures by their own criteria should not be allowed to teach those cultures.  His freedom of speech is not guaranteed by his ignorance.  His degree is a privilege of knowledge, not ignorance. Freedom stops here…”   Nussbaum ignores my quotation of Prof. Nicholas and instead simply asserts that I don’t want Paul Courtright to teach Hinduism.  Doesn’t this trick remind us of Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent mischaracterization of Senator John Kerry’s remark about fighting a “sensitive” war on terrorism?  While we all know how dirty modern politics can be, it should come as a shock that an acclaimed professor of ethics can stoop to the same level as some of our unsavory politicians. 

Nussbaum also accuses me of urging that Prof. Wendy Doniger, her colleague at the University of Chicago, should stop teaching Hinduism: “Similarly, when the wonderful scholar Wendy Doniger, whose work strongly influenced Courtright, lectured in London recently on sexual motifs in the stories of the gods told in the classical epic Ramayana, an egg was thrown at her from the audience; and the same militant columnist in India Abroad attacks her right to teach the Hindu tradition”.  What is it that I said exactly in my India Abroad piece?  I said, after quoting Prof. Antonio de Nicholas, that his advice about presenting “cultures by their own criteria” was not heeded as could be gathered from the reports about Wendy Doniger’s lecture in London.  I said nothing about her right to teach.

In the two essays appearing in India Abroad(November 28, 2003 and April 16, 2004) I point out how Western scholars and some of their Indian collaborators have deliberately set out to foist suspect readings and poor scholarship on gullible readers.  Dr. Vinekar, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Oklahoma, who was among the group of eight Indian-Americans who met with Emory University officials in February 2004 to complain about Paul Courtright’s book, calls such work “cultural vandalism”.  We now know that similar willfulness in misrepresenting and demonizing Native American and Aboriginal people that led to the decimation of those people and to making their cultures mere “museum pieces”.  An interesting combination of the fundamentalist/right wing Semitic creeds and the Leftwing/Marxist/ secularist creed is set to do to Hinduism and its adherents what was done to other traditional cultures. 

Vishal Agarwal and Venkat Kalavai point out in their critique of Paul Courtright’s book that Courtright makes dubious Vedic textual references, gets the mythology of Ganesha wrong, uses questionable methodology to interpret the elephant mythology in Indian texts, omits mention of important/relevant texts, misdates the Pauranic texts, eroticizes Gajalakshmi in the Vishnu Purana, misinterprets the hymns in the Bhagavata Purana and the Linga Purana about the creation of mankind and so on.  Till date Paul Courtright has not responded to the detailed critique of his shoddy scholarship.  Instead, his friends and fellow academics have come to his rescue by writing fatuous essays about academic freedom and the dangers posed by Hindu nationalists to free speech and free enquiry.

Prof. Nussbaum is not an expert on Hinduism and so has conveniently ignored the specific criticisms of Courtright’s book.  She is also not an expert on Indian history and politics, but strangely enough has been chosen to write about them by the prestigious Harvard University Press.  I suspect that it is not expertise but something else that is at work here, but that is not anything new in academe, where the politics of privilege and networking plays as large a part as they do in the wider public arena.

Nussbaum labels me a “militant columnist” and “spokesperson for a part of the American Hindu-right community.”  I am not a member of any right wing, left wing, or centrist organization.  I speak for myself.  But if Nussbaum labels me a militant, so be it.  I consider militancy by minorities necessary to protect their cultural traditions, heritage and identity and especially when academics and the media collude in organized campaigns to vandalize cultures and demonize people.

The distinguished professor from the University of Chicago, however, will have to defend herself, again, about lying and mischief.  In a profile of her on her own university website, it is reported that:

The National Review recently described her as a “general-purpose academic celebrity... who lied under oath” during a Colorado court battle over gay rights some years ago.  (Serving as an expert witness on ancient Greek culture, she stated that translations of Plato suggesting disgust at homosexual acts were inaccurate.)  In a review of her book “Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education” (Harvard University Press, 1997), the libertarian philosopher David Gordon of the Ludwig von Mises Institute characterized her as “an unscrupulous propagandist, avid to defend her opinions by fair means or foul.”

Ms. Nussbaum can give cultural radicals apoplexy, too.  She has called Jacques Derrida's work “pernicious” and “simply not worth studying.”  Two years ago, in The New Republic, she published a very pointed critique of the post structuralist philosopher Judith Butler, arguing that her influential work in queer theory fostered “hip nihilism” and self-indulgent posturing. Letters to the editor by prominent feminist academics, including Gayatri Spivak, Nancy Fraser and Seyla Benhabib, called the article “vicious” and “abusive, ” denouncing Ms. Nussbaum for “moralizing” and a “rhetoric of overkill.”

Her lying to the Colorado Court is captured in full detail by Gerard Bradley in First Things, a journal on religion and public life (June/July 1994). Prof. Nussbaum, in her latest essay in the Boston Review displays her vaunted skills in dissembling, selective quoting, quoting out of context and disregarding publicly available information that dilutes her thesis about violence in India between Hindus and Muslims.  Her essay therefore is yet another display of partisan scholarship, which will have the effect of exacerbating the conflict between various communities in India.  That prestigious journals in the US countenance her work is a sad commentary on the nature of public communication in these dangerous postmodern times.

Originally published on September 3, 2004.

 
     
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