Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Three PR Failures Of The Hindu Right

The BJP's General Secretary and RSS ideologue Ram Madhav recently appeared on Al Jazeera's Head to Head program, to face a tough interviewer and a fairly hostile guest panel and audience. His performance, which can be seen below, was nothing short of dismal, with a couple of needless gaffes thrown in.

It couldn't just be biased editing - the BJP spokesman was on the ropes or on the mat most of the time

While readers of this blog may watch the video themselves to draw their own conclusions, my analysis of Ram Madhav's failure is as follows.

1. On the topic of the interview itself, "Is Modi's India flirting with fascism?", he had the difficult job of convincing the audience that the situation on the ground was no worse than in the past, and that there was no climate of intolerance as the government's critics have often alleged.

2. On India-Pakistan relations, especially Kashmir, he had to sell non-Indians on the legitimacy of the decades-long Indian diplomatic position.

3. On the RSS/BJP's ideology, he had to make the case for "Hindu nationalism", explain what his organisation means by exhorting religious minorities to be "culturally Hindu", and to clarify related concepts such as "Akhand Bharat" (an "undivided India" that includes Pakistan and Bangladesh, on which I have written before), which could otherwise be construed as military expansionism.

At the end of the interview, it can be safely surmised that he utterly failed to communicate his party's point of view and to convince his audience on these three points. The angry buzz of right-wing sympathisers on social media, blaming everyone but him on the debacle (and indeed, blaming him only for being "too soft"), confirms my assessment that he got a shellacking.

What would I have done in his place?

On the first point, I believe there is little he could have done except engage in whataboutery. There is indisputable evidence that intolerance of criticism of the ruling party and its ideology has reached new depths. It would be dishonest of me to even attempt to formulate an argument for him to use, since I believe the allegation is spot-on.

On Kashmir, Ram Madhav had a wonderful opportunity to explain India's diplomatic stand, because a liberal audience such as the one he had is inherently favourable to an inclusive, as opposed to a parochial, philosophy. Madhav should have taken a step back from the Kashmir dispute to discuss its roots in the partition of British India into India and Pakistan.

He should have asked for a voice vote from the audience between Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of a secular state where all citizens would be treated equally regardless of religion, and MA Jinnah's Two-Nation Theory, under which Hindus were deemed incapable of living together with Muslims under a fair dispensation, and hence required to yield the Muslims their own state.

He should have pointed out how these two diametrically opposed philosophies predictably played out in real-life, since Pakistan's religious minorities decreased from about 23% of the population at independence to about 2% today, and the Muslim population in India increased from 10% in the 1951 census to 14% today.

Having won the voice vote, he should have proceeded to show how Pakistan's claim to Kashmir rested entirely on this parochial Two-Nation Theory, and was thus morally inferior to India's more enlightened and inclusive position.

Further, he should have pointed out that Pakistan made the first, pre-emptive and aggressive move in invading Kashmir in 1948 to take it by force, and that the line of control today dates back to when and where India stopped that aggression.

He should have ended with the hardline position that Pakistan has proven it cannot look after its minorities, and hence all of Kashmir should be with India.

On the Hindutva ideology, Ram Madhav would have faced a trickier challenge, since the Sangh's ideology is self-contradictory. It is true that there is an inherent liberalism of thought within the mainstream Hindu religion with regard to various schools of philosophy, yet the RSS itself has sought to make Hinduism less freewheeling and more rigidly doctrinaire in an effort to coalesce political support for itself. Nevertheless, if Madhav had downplayed the more recent Hindutva philosophy espoused by the RSS, and fallen back on the original pluralistic worldview of the religion that it claims to represent, he could have scored a few points.

From my own discussions with more moderate sympathisers of the Hindu Right, I can attempt to formulate a hypothetical line of argument for Ram Madhav, even if I don't agree with it myself.

The argument is that there are three broad approaches to religious belief:

The first is what can loosely be called the "Abrahamic philosophy" represented by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although the three religions have irreconcilable differences among themselves, what they have in common is the exclusivist attitude that their view alone is the right one, and all others are wrong. Others must convert to their doctrine in order to be saved in a spiritual sense.

The second is what can be called "Western secularism", which operates by denying religion any legitimacy in the public sphere. Religion is deemed to be a private matter, which must not influence public policy. The state and church must remain separate, and the state must treat all citizens equally, regardless of the faith they may profess.

The third approach is the "Hindu" one, which neither denies the legitimacy of religious belief in the public sphere, nor claims exclusive validity for its own brand. This can be seen as positive rather than negative when contrasted with Western secularism, since it affirms rather than denies what is dear to a majority of the world's people. It is also inclusive in contrast to the Abrahamic religions, since it respects the beliefs of every individual as true and as a valid path to "the truth" and to their spiritual salvation.

Regardless of the factual merits of the above argument, it will undoubtedly appeal to many. This is the argument Ram Madhav should have used to justify his organisation's socio-religious position.

Flowing from this, he could have argued that an Indian belonging to a minority religion could be deemed to be "culturally Hindu" if they merely accorded others the respect that they expected for themselves. In other words, if they shed the intolerant and exclusivist aspect of their own religion's doctrine and adopted the Hindu approach of mutual respect, then they would be "culturally Hindu". I have no doubt that Madhav would have won over a sizeable proportion of his audience with that argument.

Further, he could have used this to explain Akhand Bharat (undivided India). He did do a half-decent job of explaining it in any case, by saying it was to be a voluntary coming together of the peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at some point in the future, but it could have been an even more powerful argument had he linked it to the "Hindu" philosophy of mutual respect.

[As an atheist, I personally favour Western secularism, since I don't believe religion has any validity in either the public or private spheres, but we are talking here about what Ram Madhav could have said, not what I believe.]

To sum up, I think the Hindutva organisations need to do a much better job of explaining themselves to a worldwide audience, because they are losing the PR war pretty badly. To a large extent, they do deserve it, because their philosophy is intolerant, and their stormtroopers (both the street goons and the online trolls) have cemented that reputation. However, some of their main ideological opponents, i.e., Islamists and fundamentalist Christians, are no saints either. These latter groups deserve to face a strong intellectual challenge to their intolerance, and this is possible from a position that is rooted in the broader Hindu tradition (See Lisa Miller's Newsweek article "We are all Hindus now").

Unfortunately for the Hindu Right, the BJP/RSS is probably the last entity that can lay claim to that tolerant philosophy. Someone else needs to make that argument. Ram Madhav's comprehensive humiliation before an international audience should have made that amply clear.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Agnostic Argument - 10 (Is Faith "Religion" Or Just Superstition?)

I saw this witty riposte to an anti-atheist question, and posted it on Facebook:

In response, one of my friends wrote:

Disagree with the false equivalence.

Those who do believe in God do not deny science. In fact many scientists themselves were deeply religious. So there is no case for someone believing in God to deny themselves the benefit.

Quite different from the point being made that atheists should not avail religious holidays because it certainly is the case they do not believe in God.

Of course the reason I feel it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy the religious holidays is because they are an entitlement earned by working for x number of days for a company and not a reward for one's religiosity.

I shot off an immediate rejoinder quibbling that those who believed in a concept like "god" without proof could not really be said to be practising science, but my friend's comment did make me think a bit more about the relationship between scientists (i.e., those who could be thought of as practising science) and their faith, if such faith exists.

Specifically, the claim that "many scientists themselves were (are) deeply religious", made me think about ISRO's (the Indian Space Research Organisation's) former chairman K Radhakrishnan, and how he took a replica of the GSLV (Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket and Mangalyaan (the Mars probe) to the Tirumala temple to be "blessed". As one who believes it was the meticulous research and calculations of the ISRO team that were responsible for the success of these projects, I was offended by the eminent scientist's genuflection towards religion.

ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan praying at Tirumala with a replica of the GSLV rocket and the Mangalyaan Mars probe

I could not visualise the head of NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA) taking a replica of one of their spacecraft to a church to be blessed, and I could not help wondering why an Indian (Hindu) scientist would think nothing of doing this sort of thing.

My conclusion is that people (even the educated ones) from less advanced countries have more recently been at the mercy of forces of nature than people from advanced countries. Death, disease, destitution and other major misfortune are part of virtually every family's not-too distant history. (My own extended family, over just the last three generations, has had many examples of needless tragedy caused by forces of nature.) This leads to higher levels of fatalism and superstitious belief. These attitudes of fatalism and superstition are wrongly and charitably labelled "religion".

To be sure, sudden catastrophes, both lethal and economically crippling, overtake people in advanced countries as well, but these can generally be traced quite readily to human agency. Traffic accidents, homicide and drug overdoses are the major causes of untimely death in advanced countries. Retrenchments/layoffs and marriage breakups are the major non-lethal yet potentially catastrophic events in the lives of people. Yet if we think about it, all of these events can be readily traced back to human agency.

In advanced countries, natural disasters do not claim as many lives. Deaths due to disease or animal attacks are similarly rare. Droughts or floods do not cause the same scale of economic havoc. In other words, people in advanced countries are less likely to be affected by "acts of God". The factors that impact on their lives tend to be obviously traceable to human activity and human will. No supernatural force need be invoked to explain any of them.

So I'm forced to the conclusion that the wider prevalence of what we think of as "religion" in less advanced countries is probably the result of a sense of helplessness in the face of an amorphous, abstract and malevolent Nature, which has to be propitiated and appeased if people have to be spared its wrath.

It's not surprising to me that 93% of the scientists who belong to the US National Academy of Sciences self-identify as atheists or agnostics. They are the elite even among scientists, and their families have probably been insulated for generations from forces of nature. It's small wonder that they are not tormented by the same background fear that haunts those much less fortunate.

In conclusion, I don't believe it's fair to defend religious faith by pointing to scientists who are believers. There is a larger sociological influence on such believers than their scientific training, and this is what accounts for their belief in spite of their training. In any case, such belief is not a positive, "spiritual" quality but a manifestation of collective subconscious fear. As the world develops and begins to insulate more of its people from the vagaries of nature ("acts of God"), I have no doubt that superstitious beliefs (wrongly called religion) will recede. Those trained in science will always remain in the vanguard of scientific thinking, and those from societies that are less threatened by the forces of nature will remain freer from superstitious fears. As both scientific thinking and social progress spread throughout the world, atheism will gradually replace religion.