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.)

Mirror of Justice: Reviewing Aditya Sudarshan’s The Outraged

The Outraged, authored by Aditya Sudarshan, is a novel in two parts. The first, “Times of Ferment”, was published in 2018, and the second, “Times of Strife” in the subsequent year. The Outraged ought to become essential reading for all Indians familiar with the English language, because Sudarshan skillfully addresses, with great philosophical depth, the questions that currently plague the Indian republic.

Set among the cinema hopefuls who populate Yari Road in Bombay’s Versova district, the novel plots the three distinct trajectories employed by three characters drawn from the so-called English-speaking middle class. Emphasizing reason and the role it can play in liberating the country from the grip of godmen and other social ills, is Abhishor Frances, a film-maker, who chooses to lead what he and his companions see as a liberal revolution which will free the country from its problems. Maithili Krishna, on the other hand, surrenders herself to the attraction of a godman, while Sasha offers a more nuanced option, a middle ground as it were, between the two routes adopted by these members of the film community.

Locating the novel among cinema professionals in Yari Road is a brilliant move because it neatly captures the conundrum currently facing the Indian middle class. To begin with, while ostensibly English-speaking and middle class, Sudarshan highlights the various groups that constitute this section of society. Not all of them can speak English with equal ease, nor do they inhabit a similar cultural world. Rather, large segments of this group are only recent entrants, and the resulting lack of a common cultural world sows the seeds for the many disagreements that populate the pages of this novel. Indeed, it is these disagreements, among the various, largely North Indian, characters that depict distinct types of the Indian middle class, that give flesh to the narrative arc of The Outraged.
Perhaps the relationship between Bollywood and the ongoing collapse of the Indian republic is the reason why The Outraged focuses on the community on Yari Road. Even though they seek to make independent, meaningful films, the members of this fraternity must necessarily feed the beast that is Bollywood.  The novel throws up vignettes of the dirty underbelly of this industry, which is India’s claim to international fame. However, the novel does more than simply speak of the abuse of women, and men, which constitutes part of Bollywood culture. In keeping with the philosophical musings that animate this book, The Outraged also points to the manner in which, fed on a steady diet of films that glorify gangsters, consumerism, and the growing cult of the item number, the Indian population, or at least that segment that consumes these offerings, has actually lost the ability to discern what it is that constitutes the life of a healthy society and republic. Via its narrative, The Outraged affirms that the film industry, which had the opportunity to animate the life of the republic, has outright failed it and indeed contributed to the crisis that India is staring at in the face.

The film world of Bombay is not the only community that this novel depicts. Firmly within its crosshairs is the larger Indian middle-class that sees itself as liberal. Through the character profiles, Sudarshan speaks several home truths. That the liberalism that Indians believe they embody is, in fact, nothing more than a superficial performance of Western manners that masks the traditional injustices that the Indian polity has sustained and continues to sustain. Liberalism in India, this novel suggests, is a cultural performance, rather than the lived commitment to a philosophical practice. It is as a result of not fully comprehending or living within a genuinely liberal framework that some collaborators in Abhishor’s revolution utilize strategies that ensure that this movement comes to a grinding halt. Similarly, it is because Indian liberalism was/is about  natives asserting their caste cultures in western guise, that characters like Maithili, who come from pedigrees that we would identify as embodying the best of the Nehruvian secular elite, eventually succumb to the charisma of smooth-talking godmen. This collapse comes about, it appears, because these elites have never critiqued native dominant caste traditions, or indeed, Hinduism itself. As Abhishor, seemingly channeling Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s critique, points out, “as long as we do not attack the core doctrines of Hinduism, we cannot rid ourselves of the God-man menace. The two are completely related.” 
But neither is Abhishor Frances, the archetypal liberal, free from fault in Sudarshan’s telling. The author demonstrates the terrifying violence that lies at the heart of the modernist, and therefore liberal, project. Once convinced of the truth of their cause, the liberals in this novel occupy the moral high ground, and then begin to descend into a chaos not dissimilar to the blood feuds that mark most modernist utopian revolutions. Seeing the world in black and white, people are either good, or bad, and if bad are prosecuted by a ferocious public opinion, that forces even the state and the forces of law and order to upset the rule of law. Indeed, one senses in Sudarshan’s novel that the outrage of the chattering classes and the fury which descends on the scapegoat is often no different from the recent lynching of Christians, Muslims, and Dalits that have the same classes muttering in shock.

Into this fraught universe the figure of Sasha cuts an almost Buddhic figure, though I am inclined to believe that Sudarshan sees this protagonist as a Christ figure: “…this strange young man with shining eyes and a haunted past, who aimlessly walked the broken pavements, yet went like an arrow to the broken people and could not seem to count the cost”. Sasha’s conversations with Abhishor and his friends, where he suggests that liberalism and secularism will simply not be able to halt the tide of terror, sound remarkably like the critique that the Catholic church has systematically mounted since at least the rise of communism. Sasha offers a Catholic critique of modernity and the liberal project of equality by pointing out that people are “equal only before God, and not in any other sense”. While defending the value of the spiritual against the rage of the rationalists, and even making a place for god-men and mystics in a society, Sasha also affirms that, “it matters a great deal what God one believes in”.

Those used to fast-paced novels will find reading The Outraged somewhat taxing. But this is the strength of the novel because it’s easy pace, with no apparent direction, offers one the time to contemplate its philosophical musings. And these pertain, not just to the on-going collapse of the Indian republic, but also the larger crisis within modernity. The Outraged ought to be a welcome addition to Indian bookshelves because it is a novel that engaged in an auto-critique and is thus a rare gem among this country’s literary offerings.

The Outraged: Times of Ferment, Aditya Sudarshan, 2018, Rupa, New Delhi.
The Outraged: Times of Strife, Aditya Sudarshan, 2019, Rupa, New Delhi.

(A version of this text was first published in Scroll on Aug 10, 2019.)