Friday, December 13, 2019

Looking Beyond the Modern: A Catholic response to the terror of Hindu nationalism

Hindu nationalism seems poised to rule the roost in India for the near future. How do Catholics in India deal with this crisis? In May 2018, Anil Couto, the Archbishop of Delhi, wrote a letter inviting Catholics in the Archdiocese of Delhi to begin a regime of prayer and fasting in the period leading up to the recent parliamentary elections. By upturning modernist and liberal assumptions about politics and opening up the political field from the immanent to include the transcendental, Archbishop Couto offers a way forward that includes an opportunity to correct the mistakes that Catholics have been committing for some time now.

Exposing the modern

The significance of the modern period lies in the fact that it dramatically changed how the world was perceived. Henceforth, we would think in terms of binaries: the individual and the community, the private and the public, the state and the Church, religious and secular, the immanent and the transcendental, etc. This period also saw the rise of the nation-state, which sought to contain one nation within a single state, persecuting those groups that either could not or refused to be assimilated into the national. Further, it sought to be the only authority within a definite space or territory. This was a novel desire given that earlier political arrangements had witnessed a plurality of legal authorities such that every person was subject to multiple jurisdictions. This pluralism allowed for a system of checks and balances that enabled groups to play one power against another, preventing the rise of absolute hegemonies. The modern state also desired to control both time and space. Promising utopia on earth, it was within the limited time of the immanent that it functioned best, constructing a parallel sacred realm, where the nation replaced God, offering a cult of national heroes and martyrs to parallel the saints and a national liturgy of anthem and flag.
In Europe, these ambitions ensured conflict with the Catholic Church, whose politics exceeded the bounds of hived-off nation-states. More importantly, it preached a life that extended beyond the immanent or the material. That there is a life beyond the grave allows for a range of political actions. These actions eventually undermine the modern state, as does the teaching that the cycles of unspeakable violence in modern times are the result of man assuming the terrifying powers of God to realize utopia.

Looking beyond the modern

Therefore, the horrors of contemporary Hindu nationalism are not an aberration but part of a longer continuum that begins with an apparently benign secular nationalism. In other words, Hindu nationalism has its origins in Indian nationalism, with Nehruvian secularism merely a pit stop en route to a fast-approaching destination.
Then, clearly, the solution to the current crisis cannot be found in liberalism or other modernist philosophies. Rather, the response must come from a post-liberal order which transcends modernist binaries to restore a holistic vision of the world while simultaneously encouraging greater legal pluralism.
Such a suggestion would, understandably, elicit the response that the collapse of the secular–religious binary is exactly what the Hindu right seeks. However, by its very logic, nationalism is a religion. As many scholars have highlighted, Hinduism is a modernist production from the late nineteenth century amalgamating the beliefs of dominant castes to enable the capture of state power. The modernist lenses that we have adopted simply prevent us from appreciating that the Church is already collapsed into the state.
We must also challenge modernist and secular notions that all religions are essentially the same, because the implications of the sacral order vary across ideologies. To Islam and Christianity, the body of every human being is sacred, which is not so in brahmanism, for example, where only the bodies of the brahmin and the king are considered sacred, while the rest are marked by decreasing levels of dignity.
Archbishop Couto’s letter is critical to articulating a Catholic politics that transcends modernism and liberalism because, by proffering prayers and fasting as useful strategies, it affirms a broader conception of time and space. It also explicitly affirms Christ’s agency in our politics, reminding us that our role is merely to work towards the kingdom; the establishment of utopia is His alone. Critically, this recognition prevents us from going down the road of identitarian politics, which is precisely what an immanent politics engenders and indeed what Hindutva will push us towards. More importantly, recognizing that we may not see utopia is a pragmatic necessity because things in India will likely get significantly worse before they get better. We are obliged, therefore, to articulate a politics rooted in faith that recognizes how Jesus consoles – in an Ignatian sense – those who suffer by pointing out that eternal life is about standing up for truth even in the face of terror.
In addition to transcending modernist binaries, we must also restore a distinction between the sacred and the profane, while affirming not only that the sacred can percolate into the profane but that it is important that this mundane world be sacralized by Christ and His message. Indeed, India desperately needs to appreciate the sacrality of human life. While the notion of rights does this in a limited manner, we must go beyond this formal notion of rights and highlight the Christian spirit of this law of human rights rather than remain restrained by the letter of state law. In other words, we urgently need a renewed preaching to all Indians of the social teaching of the Church instituted by Christ.

The idolatry of nationalism

As much as Archbishop Couto’s letter offers these grand Christian possibilities, it nevertheless lingers on the threshold of idolatry by making constant reference to the national. Urging the love of one’s country within the context of a belligerent nationalism that brooks no competition effectively encourages the idolatry of nationalism. It is critical, therefore, that we change our language to use the word “state” rather than “nation”. The philosopher Hannah Arendt presents the nation-state as a symbol of the conquest of the state by the nation. Through this conquest, the modern state has been perverted from an instrument of law into one of lawless discretion in the service of the nation. Indeed, we are called by Jesus to preach to “all the nations of the world”, such that in the end, there is “neither Greek nor Jew”. That is, we are to work to undo national boundaries rather than consolidate them. In these times of nationalism on steroids, it is critical that Catholics insist on the valid argument that a refusal to work for the nation does not translate to working against the state. Rather, working for the well-being of all persons is ultimately in the larger interest of the state, even if current occupants of government fail to realize this. Service to the nation-state, therefore, may well be incompatible with service to Christ.
In sum, in the face of rampant Hindu nationalism, we must rely on the recognition that we have reached the limits of modernism and that one cannot effect a cure by administering more of the poison that caused the sickness. Rather, the way forward must rely on a rejection of modernism and an insistence on the universalism preached by Christ and His Church.

(A version of this post was first published in Matters India on 13 Dec 2019.)


Monday, October 14, 2019

Mistakes Catholics in India Make

Reading through the cover feature by Anthony Dias, SJ, and the appendix by Joseph M. Dias, SJ, in the July edition of Jivan, I was both amused and irked. Amused because both authors predictably chose to remain safely within the realms of the secular when formulating their propositions for the theme “Jesuit responses to a stunning verdict”; irked because despite the fact that both men are priests, there was no reference to Jesus, the one man who has an answer for every challenge we will ever face. These responses were not peculiarly Jesuit, however, nor were they necessarily unusual, but are, in fact, representative of a wider problem many Catholics in India seem to have in responding to the crisis that is staring us in the face.

This paralysis results partly from our uncritical acceptance of the rhetoric of modernism, especially that of liberal secularism. Recognizing the violence inherent to liberal secularism we will realize that the violence of Hindu nationalism was already coded into Indian nationalism. There is need for Catholics to rethink their relationship with modern nationalism, and the cult of the nation state. These go against the universal spirit of Catholicism.

A good place to begin articulating a Catholic response to this crisis would be to upturn modernist and liberal assumptions about politics and open up the field of the political from the immanent to include the transcendental. We need to particularly assert the possibility, and indeed the need for the sacred to embrace the profane and sacralise it. Simultaneously there is need to talk about the values peculiar to distinct sacred orders. Not all sacred orders cherish the dignity of the individual.

A response to Election 2019 must rely on a rejection of modernism and an insistence on the universalism preached by Christ and His Church.

(A version of this text was first published as a Letter to the Editor of Jivan, magazine of the Jesuits in India.)

A Secular Indian's of Christianity in India

The publication of a number of books incorporating “the Idea of India” into their title recent times is indicative that this idea has been in a crisis for a while. Carpenters and Kings is one more response to this crisis of India, dealing with an oft-ignored population group. In an environment where the Hindu Right seeks to suggest the foreignness of Christianity and Islam in India, this book seeks to “set the record straight” and demonstrate that the history of Christianity in India is a nearly two-millennia-long story of great complexity. Divided into three sections that deal with Antiquity, the Medieval period, and finally the colonial, Siddhartha Sarma’s book admirably demonstrates that Christianity was present in India from its very inception.

Sarma writes that Christianity in India predated the conversion of the Syrian Christians who claim to be the first Christians in the subcontinent converted from local groups. Sarma points out that Christianity’s emergence was rather the result of the Gospel taking root among Jewish communities of the western coastal region, who may not have consciously broken from the religion of their ancestors.

The presence of these communities was the result of a network of Greek-speaking traders linking the subcontinent’s maritime commerce with Egypt, Persia, and Rome. Sarma´s book further challenges the popularly-held idea that the Latin Church, or the Church of Rome, was first established in the subcontinent via the Portuguese. Rather, Sarma writes, it was through the efforts of the Franciscan Giovanni of Montecorvino in the late 1200s, who, among other things, established a church at the tomb held to be that of St. Thomas in Mylapore. Sarma uses these facts to affirm that the subcontinent has “never been a land for a single people, or culture or religion” but populated by a diversity of groups, transient and settled, which were always in conversation with one another.

Carpenters and Kings is clearly a political history, locating early Christianity in the subcontinent among political processes, both local and global, be it Greek trade networks, the assertion of the Mongols, the rise of the Arabs, or the expansion of Western Europe. By dealing with the councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, or the heresy of Manichaeism Sarma demonstrates that to explain contemporary Christianity in India it is necessary to go into the very foundations of the religion, and be familiar with the theological discussions within Christianity across the world. Given his desire to stress the foundational nature of dialogue to the idea of India, in various chapters Sarma stresses intercontinental and intercultural dialogues, pointing, for example in the chapter titled “The Fruits of the Wisdom Tree”, which discusses the legend of the saints Barlaam and Josaphat, to how the subcontinent impressed on Western Christianity.

Sarma is not focused only on how the East influenced the West and Christianity, however. His chapter “The Forge of the World” refers to how Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, seems to have interacted with Christ and Nestorian Christianity. The section that deals with the medieval world references in how the period of the Crusader states in the Middle East saw conversations between Franks and Arabs. All in all, the book is a delightful exercise in comparative history, which Sarma manages in elegant prose.

Nevertheless, the merit of Sarma’s work is compromised by the methodological nationalism that guides it, i.e. reading the existence of a contemporary nation-state back into time. For example, despite acknowledging that the ancients referred to a wide swathe of Asia, and at times even eastern Africa, as India, Sarma persists in referring to the subcontinent as if it were the same as the nation-state established in 1947. This ensures a number of erasures, like that of the contemporary states of Sri Lanka and Nepal which he subsumes into India, as well as the narratives and agency of Christians in India.

Another error flowing from Sarma’s methodological nationalism is the suggestion of the “natural multiculturalism of Indians”, which is not only mistaken, because it presumes the existence of an Indian society as if the polities in the subcontinent were an integrated, unified and relatively homogenous unit, but also a dangerous proposition since it erases the kinds of violence that have been engaged in but subsequent and prior to the founding of the Indian state in 1947.

An acknowledgement of caste, the foremost of these subcontinental violences, is glaringly missing from this reading of subcontinental history. Illustrating this is Sarma’s description of “an old man who had been born a Brahmin and had sailed across both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal” and then converting to Latin Christianity, leading Sarma to surmise that “apparently, caste restrictions on sea voyages were different in that period, or perhaps more relaxed.” He ignores the possibility that the brahmin converted precisely because he had lost caste. Like Islam in the subcontinent, Christianity has been the refuge of outcastes, and indeed Christians have often been treated as untouchable.

The presumption of an Indian society pre-existing 1947 does not strengthen the idea of India, but is in fact at the root of the contemporary problems that are unfairly laid at the feet of the Hindu Right alone. For example, this presumption of a society ensures that he argues that “the victory of the British over the French and their rapid expansion in India in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries created its own form of disruption, which would have a long-term impact on the Indian society that was emerging in response to modernity”. To look at the British presence and colonialism in India as an disruption of a natural evolution is to go back to the same kinds of hiving that Indian, and Hindu, nationalists engage in, only his are limited to different periods. While Hindu nationalists see the “Muslims”, who Sarma correctly refers to as Turko-Afghans, as foreigners, Sarma accepts them as Indian, but excludes those who arrived in the subcontinent via the European expansion. The burning problem that contemporary Christians in India face is not that their history is improperly told, rather it is that their links with Christianity with the colonial period are seen as problematic. What is required is a history that accepts and naturalizes this, rather than harking back to an earlier, glorious past.

Unfortunately, having spent more time on antique and medieval Christianity, this is precisely what Sarma does not do, and perhaps because of his methodology is unable to do so.  Rather, Sarma engages in the kind of demonization of the Portuguese that is standard fare among nationalist historians of all shades. His description of the Inquisition as motivated by the need for “Faith … to be tested on the rack and by the fire” has all the marks of the dated Protestant and Northern European propaganda against the Iberian empires.

Given that contemporary Christians in India are held responsible for the factual and imagined actions of the Inquisition, this period and the institution deserves a more nuanced treatment, rather than the popular histories from which he has drawn his references. Such treatment drawing from contemporary international scholarship and Dalit histories of the subcontinent would have highlighted that the violence associated with Portuguese presence, inclusive of the Inquisition, was just one more violence in a subcontinent filled with violence, but one that allowed hitherto marginalized castes, both Catholic and otherwise, the options of social mobility.

Contemporary scholarship would have also pointed out that unlike what Sarma avers, it was not the Danish missionary Ziegenbalg who was one of the original Orientalists, but in fact, as Ângela Barreto Xavier and Ines Županov have pointed out in their recent book Catholic Orientalism (2015), it was Catholic missionaries and the Portuguese Estado da India, that laid the ground work for much that was then later appropriated without reference by later orientalists. That the empathy required missionaries to understand local cultures and attempt conversion through dialogue, a strategy attempted even by the Portuguese supported missionaries is not recognised, and that the Portuguese, despite their five-century-long stay in the subcontinent are not seen as belonging speaks of the unfortunate nationalist lens through which Sarma writes his history of Christianity in India.

Sarma’s history also suggests that Indian agitation against proselytizing and conversions were born from Portuguese violence and brutality or proselytism in the shadow of imperial British support. These suggestions, in fact, share much with the assumptions that undergird the ironically named Freedom of Religion legislation, which effectively prohibits conversion to Christianity or Islam. Sensitive histories of India and the British Indian anti-imperial nationalist struggle have already pointed out that, on the contrary, the Hindu sensitivity to conversion resulted from the savarna fear that Hindus would be reduced to a minority, ideally embodied by Gandhi’s opposition to separate elections for Dalits. Like Gandhi, Sarma seems to naturalize caste, suggesting in his brief reference to the Revolt of 1857 that had the British accommodated caste, things may have been resolved more amicably. Fortunately, this observation allows us to perceive that the violence in the subcontinent was the result of caste, rather than solely because of colonial intervention.

Despite its erudition, charming language and noble intentions, Sarma’s work does not eventually respond to the needs of Christians in India, rather it reveals that much of the battle around the idea of India is restricted to ideological battles between savarna Hindus, some who prefer secular nationalism, others who prefer religious nationalism. Both, it turns out, in one way or another minoritize non-Hindus.

Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the India of India, Siddhartha Sarma, Hamish Hamilton.

(A version of this text was first published in Scroll on June 2, 2019.)