Hindu nationalism continues to be a blind spot for much of Western academia as yet another book on the subject offers standard propaganda in place of serious analysis.
Holy Science — The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism, Banu Subramaniam, Orient Blackswan, 290 Pages, Rs 945.
This book by Banu Subramaniam is a liberal cocktail of postmodern and post-colonial jargon meshed with tortured narratives and assemblage of misinformation about ‘Hindu nationalism’ in particular and Hindu Dharma in general.
Ultimately, it ends with the usual lament as to ‘how many bodies and voices might never have been allowed into these Brahminic hallways through the inhuman dictates of caste and gender that relegated some bodies to exist outside the folds of Hinduism’ — ‘the same bodies mobilized to build the temples were the same bodies turned away when in prayer’. (p.228)
Social hierarchy and social exclusion existed in all societies and India was no exception. But what distinguishes India is the fact that her spiritual traditions always raised their voices against social exclusion — vehemently and consistently.
Banu Subramaniam often resorts to her childhood memories of ‘puritanical Brahminsim’ — a neat trick to emphasize her emancipated nature for the Western reader.
But if only she had taken a moment’s time to look at the temple tower of Mylapore, she would have found a proclamation made for all humanity to see — Shiva appearing in the form a defiled ‘impure body’ of an outcaste of that time — and the pious who shunned him getting cursed to social exclusion themselves.
These are stories Hindu children grew up with. If one goes through the multiple titles of Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) one would find repeated rejection of the concepts of bodily purity and social exclusion.
There are reasons why social exclusion exists and persists — but it has to be sought in the factors of power politics, colossal colonial impoverishment and reasons that cause social stagnation. But then how do you build the thesis that Hindutva and Hindu Dharma are inherently deficient? So, let us go on.
Central to Subramaniam’s approach is the term ‘bionationalism’, which is actually a term she borrows from Herbert Gottweis and Byoungsoo Kim, academicians from the University of Vienna, who coined it in the wake of the fraud committed by the South Korean stem cell scientist, Woo-Suk Hwang.
She uses or rather misuses the term in a completely different context, ‘where Hindu nationalist ideas and ideologies are scientized through biopolitical claims about gender, race, caste and sexuality’. She also charges contemporary India with bolstering ‘essentializing claims of caste’. (p.10)
From the Indian Genome Variation Project (IGVP) to Ayurgenomics — all of them become ‘agents’ of bionationalism and genomic-nationalism. Of course, behind all these there lurks ominously the spectre of Hindu nationalism — upper caste, patriarchal.
Attempts to link caste with race in international fora get a positive flip and any attempt to delink caste and race become suspect. ‘Dalit’ activists (who are actually connected with right-wing evangelical organizations in the United States) who used genetic studies to further their propaganda about caste and race become the good people in her narrative.
The ‘upper-caste’ scientists of India who challenge them are the antagonists. It is interesting that the author avoids mentioning Dr Ambedkar at all in this context. The reader may be reminded that Ambedkar had rejected the racial interpretation of caste system and social exclusion even as he uncompromisingly fought against both.
Her ignorance of Indian culture, history and Indian social reality can be only matched by her ability to use every Western theorist to demonise Hindutva. For example, she confidently claims:
Swami Vivekananda created a nationalist discourse that is central to Hindu nationalism in all its versions, including the RSS/BJP/VHP brand of Hindu nationalism. … Vivekananda believed that women should not be educated in modern sciences but should achieve fulfillment within the family.Holy Science — The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism, Banu Subramaniam, p.54
A reviewer in India Today is more than eager to accept this as gospel truth and states: ‘Subramaniam nails the patriarchy, correctly tracing its roots to Vivekananda, who believed women should not be taught science; …’.
Banu Subramaniam’s own reference for this assertion on Vivekananda is Kumari Jayawardena’s Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (1988), in which she says thus:
Ramakrishna’s renowned disciple Vivekananda, however, a radical on many issues, believed that a woman should not be educated in the modern sciences but should be trained to achieve fulfilment within the family.Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (1988), Kumari Jayawardena
Now let us look into what Swami Vivekananda has actually said.
When asked about women education he pointed out that ‘we have not only to teach them but to teach ourselves also.’ And the first thing he insisted on was 'chastity', which a woman shall maintain 'whether married, or single if they prefer to remain so'.
Lest our post-modern feminists zero in on chastity, let them also remember that Vivekananda did not see chastity as a bodily or gender-specific quality. He insisted on it for all genders. And it had more to do with strength of character than body.
And then he stated that 'along with that they should be taught sciences and other things which would be of benefit, not only to them but to others as well, and knowing this they would easily learn these things and feel pleasure in doing so.'
Remember that this was from a conversation in 1898 and Swami Vivekananda was all for gradual obliteration of marriages within the same caste and for increasing the age of marriage for girls.
Regarding those who opposed the ban on child marriage, he was extremely harsh. Condemning ‘you religious hypocrites', Swami Vivekananda said, it was 'as if religion consisted in making a girl a mother at the age of twelve or thirteen'.
And not just increasing the age of women for marriage, he wanted that both boys and girls should be given education before that. He wanted education that would produce, ‘great fearless women — women worthy to continue the traditions of Sanghamitra, Lila, Ahalya Bai, and Mira Bai — women fit to be mothers of heroes.’
(As an aside it should be noted that Vivekananda’s guru, Sri Ramakrishna was instructed in Tantric practices by one ‘Brahmini’ — a Yogini who was well outside the family limits and who had chosen her own path of liberation.)
Now comes the interesting question: did Vivekananda after all think of women as just ‘fit to be mothers of heroes’?
If one looks at the examples he gives, only some in the list ever became biological mothers: Sanghamitra was a princess-turned-Buddhist monk; Lilavati was generally considered as India’s first female mathematician; Ahalya Bai was an 18th century widow-queen who, instead of committing Sati, grew into an extraordinary administrator and general; and Mira Bai was again a widow who explicitly refused Sati and instead rebelliously immersed herself in devotion.
None of these women bore biological children. But they inspired many down the generations. So them being ‘women fit to be mother of heroes’ has to be seen as a figure of speech and not as a comment meant specifically referring to women being biological wombs for heroes.
This long explanation is needed because Banu Subramaniam betrays an important process in action here. After making Swami Vivekananda ‘central to Hindu nationalism in all its versions’, the author asserts that Vivekananda did not want science to be taught to women — an empirically wrong assertion but one that is central to her construction of the villainous Hindutva ‘biopolitics’.
Similarly, she has to acknowledge the fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is not homophobic but then in the same sentence she rushes to remind her readers that it is a homosocial organization.
She has to invent convoluted arguments to circumvent such uncomfortable facts as the RSS not being homophobic. So she claims that ‘the RSS’ idea of the bond of ‘love’ rests on Hindu male repression of homosexuality — drawing a distinction between friendship and its distinction with the erotic and the sexual’ (p.93 & p. 94).
This book came out in 2019. In September 2018, Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of the RSS had declared that ‘the LGBTQ community is very much part of the society and they should not be isolated.’
The Jamaat-e-Islami cannot say that.
Neither can the Catholic Church.
The real questions Banu Subramaniam should have asked are: how can the Sangh take such a stand and so easily at that? What civilisational values went into it ? How does this aspect distinguish the Sangh from other religious organizations?
Consider, for example, the modern Yoga-spiritual guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Yoga teacher-cum-entrepreneur, Baba Ramdev. Ramdev considers homosexuality a problem that needs to be cured. On the other hand, Sri Sri is all for LGBT rights. Both have huge following and both are considered close to the Hindutva movement.
To her credit, Subramaniam writes that ‘several Hindu nationalists in the RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spoke in favor of decriminalization’ but at once adds ‘for a variety of reasons.’
She then singles out Baba Ramdev as a ‘prominent Hindu nationalist religious leader’ who claimed homosexuality to be an unnatural addiction.
As against this, she projects Sri Sri Ravishankar as ‘one of other religious leaders who strongly supported decriminalization’ of homosexuality and who argued for ‘an interpretation of divinity, consciousness, and love that supersedes genetics and allows for fluidity in gender and sexuality.’ (p.105 and p.106)
She did not see it as important to inform her readers that it was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who was the chief guest at one of the most important annual functions at the RSS headquarters - the concluding function of the third-year training camp in 2014.
Now, the important aspect of this comes pages later, almost towards the end of the book when the author describes a newly emerging Hinduism where ‘new gurus offer to cure illnesses, cancer, infertility and homosexuality with the age-old promises of religion’ (p.225).
This is what one calls academic sleight of hand. Note that initially she mentions ‘several Hindu nationalists’ supported decriminalisation of homosexuality. She spoke of the RSS as non-homophobic organization. She quoted exhaustively from Sri Sri Ravishankar, who supports the LGBT community.
But then when she speaks of the emerging ‘bionationalist’ Hindu nationalism, she essentialises one Baba Ramdev to stereotype entire Hindu movement as homophobic. Neat.
Of course, what is a good book on Hindu nationalism if it does not talk about the ‘designer baby project of the right wing RSS’? The target here is the Garbhvigyan Anusandhan Kendra of Arogya Bharati, a Sangh Parivar organisation.
This organisation essentially provides what it calls ‘services for Preconception, Antenatal and Postnatal healthcare for best progeny.’ Here, the author claims that ‘the programs and the website make grandiose forecasts including a higher IQ, fairer skin, and tall stature for the baby and an easy labor for the mother …’ (p.202).
Her main sources for this information are Ashutosh Bhardwaj in The Indian Express (7 May 2017) and a report in Washington Post by Annie Gowen. Title? 'Straight out of the Nazi playbook: Hindu nationalists try to engineer 'genius' babies in India.' (5 August 2017).
Subramaniam adds a part about the ‘hopeful claims linking their projects to the successes of Nazi Germany’. (p.202)
The proof offered here again is an anecdote. In this, a senior RSS ideologue, forty years ago, was told by a German woman that the new generation in Germany was born through 'Garbh Sanskar’.
Even assuming the anecdote to be true, which most probably was more apocryphal than real, that would make the woman actually talk not about Nazi Germany but the post-war rebuilding of Germany.
But what is really interesting is that the actual principles of ‘Garbh Sanskar’, despite the question of their scientific validity, go against the principles of Nazi racism. They clearly dissociate manifest traits from genetic influence. The ‘Garbh Sanskar’ does not care about the genes of the parents.
Secondly, Arogya Bharati has rejected that they work for ‘fair-skinned babies.’ In its press release dated 17 May 2017, the organization categorically stated:
What is so abhorrent is that these media campaigns are claiming that this program focuses on achieving a fair skin color child, showing the program something akin to the racial selection program run by Nazi Germany. Skin color prejudice has never been a narrative of Bharatiya culture. Arogya Bharati strongly condemns all these biased media campaigns.Press release by Arogya Bharati, 17 May 2017.
When a seminar for expectant parents was organized by the organization in Calcutta, a PIL (public interest litigation) was filed to stop the event based on similar press reports.
The High Court in its order accepted the arguments of Arogya Bharati and opined that ‘the article which had led to filing of this Public Interest Litigation is prima facie misleading and it is necessary to question why such an article was published.’
But such facts are deemed irrelevant to the demonization that Banu Subramaniam builds up.
Then there are other interesting tidbits. The murders of cattle owners by the cattle smuggling mafia and the lynching of captured suspects by village mobs have been part of the rural scenario for quite a long time.
Often the cattle smuggling mafia are also associated with terrorist networks operating along India’s borders. This terror-cattle smuggling mafia linkage is a phenomenon reported by Indian Intelligence agencies even before Modi came to power in 2014.
However, after 2014 a section of media went on with a high voltage one-sided propaganda that minority community members were killed for eating or carrying beef by Hindu nationalists.
Very similar to blood libel against the Jews, the lynch libel against the Hindus (given the fact that cow worship is always seen as a heathen, barbaric practice by Christendom), the news items were given extensive coverage by the Western media.
Our author does not hesitate to go an extra step and graduates it as ‘the recent violence against meat eaters’ (p.201).
If you're looking for an academic, sound work on Hindutva, move on. If however, you're looking for propaganda, do help yourself to the subject of this review.