Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Busy academic

The past few weeks have been very busy on the South Asia front. There was a conference here on the "Future of Secularism," which featured a number of well-known critics -- especially Romila Thapar , Dilip Menon, and Rajeev Bhargava. I enjoyed the conference, though I only really felt a strong response to Bhargava's paper. I'm not going into too many details here (I've been warned not to give out too much of my book on my blog), but I can say that my interest in Bhargava's work is due to his willingness to attempt a theory of the inner mechanics of secularism. Most other writers either assume secularism as a static concept (frequently one that is seen as inevitable), or see it as completely beyond our ability to grasp.

Romila Thapar is one of India's most important historians. She has become the focus of a campaign by the Hindu right in India (and here in the U.S., unfortunately). There is an excellent summary of the recent anti-Thapar campaign at Himal Magazine. I myself signed onto a pro-Thapar petition that circulated following the VHP attack.

And here is an article by Thapar herself on the question of the "Aryan" Indian past, from Frontline magazine. Thapar uses hard, empirical evidence -- traces of the written language from the Indus river cities, as well as archeological fragments -- to show that those cities were definitely not "Aryan."

UPDATE: Finally, here is a comprehensive page on Thapar put together by SACW, including many helpful primary sources in the recent controversy.

Postmodernism and the Hindu Right

John Pincince, of the University of Hawaii, mentioned Meera Nanda to me as we were chatting after the Gandhi conference that took place at Yale on April 5. Nanda has a new book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India where she draws a provocative link between the Hindu right's attempt to assert that "Hindu science" has some validity. Here is an article by Nanda that appeared in a January issue of Frontline, which summarizes the article of the book. Nanda argues that the postmodern emphasis on "hybridity" -- taken crudely, a fusion of Eastern and Western culture -- is at least parallel to the Hindu right's cooptation of science and history curriculum at India's schools and universities.

She makes a good point. And while I don't think one can "blame" postmodernism for what has happened, I do think that postmodern theory offers a very weak defense of the modernist position. I also think that what the Hindu right is doing is an example of hybridity in action -- what one might call reactionary hybridity (or anti-modern hybridity). I read an article making a similar point by Bruno Latour in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry. Perhaps what is needed is a concept of postmodernism that recognizes the importance of modernist concepts of science and rationality. Or is that even postmodernism at all?

Indian Constitutional Law and the plight of Refugees

On April 6 I went to see a talk on Indian constitutional law by Ranabir Samaddar. Samaddar is a well-known human rights activist and former academic from Calcutta. He has worked for the Center For Human Rights in Kathmandu, and has written a number of books (they are available from Sage Press). An interesting article on refugees and the Indo-Bangladesh border is here. Samaddar was arguing that constitutions like India's institutionalize "exceptions" to their own authority when issues of national integrity or public safety come up. But these exceptions are really permanent exceptions: they are the exceptions that create the "rule" of constitutional authority to begin with. I found some aspects of Samaddar's talk confusing, but the summary of the history of colonial Indian legal codes was very helpful. As were the references to Granville Austin, someone whom Samaddar disagrees with, but whose work I should probably read nevertheless.

Partition Violence on film -- Karvaan

In the evening, S. and I went to see a film called Karvaan, by Delhi-based filmmaker (and another former academic!) Pankaj Butalia. Here is a helpful review of Karvaan at SAWNET. I had some issues with the film (in the Q&A Butalia conceded that the film has some flaws), but I did find it provocative as an examination of the effects of traumatic violence.

Here is an article by Butalia on Phoolan Devi.

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