10/10/2012, 00.00
INDIA
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Corruption, anti-politics and cynical use of religion threaten India and democracy

by Giulia Mazza
AsiaNews interviews Gyan Prakash, an Indian historian who teaches at Princeton University. Starting from his latest book, which is about Mumbai, the scholar looks at today's India, pushed towards the future but also victim of corruption and anti-politics. Religion is a source of harmony and coexistence.

Rome (AsiaNews) - Rome is currently hosting the 13th edition of Asiatica - Encounters with Asian Cinema, a festival dedicated to films from the Middle East and the Far East. Yesterday, Gyan Prakash, a professor of history at Princeton University, presented La città color zafferano. Bombay tra metropoli e mito, the Italian edition of his latest work, Mumbai Fables, a plunge in the cosmopolitan character of Maharashtra's capital city, a metropolis before any existed where its people's linguistic, cultural and religious differences were (and still are) its strength and weakness.

AsiaNews met the scholar who spoke about today's India, a country divided between modernity and tradition, where a just struggle against corruption is in danger of feeding a form of anti-politics that could prove dangerous to democracy.

Violence by Hindu nationalists against minorities, especially Christians and Muslims, is part of this danger. For the historian, violence has nothing to do with faith but is evidence of "a very cynical, very instrumental use of religion" to grab power.

Is it appropriate to use Mumbai, its history and evolution, as a model for today's Indian society?

It is a model of modern India society. You cannot take it in the context of India's long history, but in the way which modern India developed. So the couple of examples I have in mind can illustrate Mumbai's diversity, with its many religious and linguistic communities. This creates or represents a kind of museum of Indian culture and religion, of India as a whole. And the way in which Mumbai has dealt with this issue of religious and culture difference is, to some extent, reflective at India as a whole, but in a very particular way. You know, for a long time Mumbai was a cosmopolitan city where people of different backgrounds lived together. Since 1992-1993, the cosmopolitan city has been under pressure, but the idea of a modern society with different communities living together is a challenge both for India and Mumbai.

India seems divided between a push towards modernity and respect for ancient values. However, attempts at openness have been resisted. Do you believe it can take a "global" character, free from clichés, but one that is balance with its own culture?

It is true that India is a kind of modern development, a challenge as to what to do with inheritance, tradition, religion and so on. In the 19th and 20th century people managed to create a way in which their modern sensibilities were either informed by certain traditional values or were modernized. I think India has followed this path for centuries. The present challenge with globalization is a different, a mixture of outside and inside factors. In the sense, globalization leads to a certain homogenisation all over the world like the same cafè or supermarket. This kind of globalization is resisted by people. So, for example, the arrival of Walmart and Carrefour has led people to argue that the entry of these huge conglomerates will actually kill many local shops and vendors, which are part of everyday life in Mumbai and India. It is not just a question of buying things, but also the creation of a certain kind of relationship. It is not against globalization. In some ways, people have to work with elements of globalization. But when that becomes completely dominant, there is resistance. I mean, all of us, as long as the things are done on our term, it is ok, but when there is an attempt to impose things, we see a sort of enculturation.

The existing political class appears caught up in corruption-related scandals, almost incapable of leading India into its next phase. What is the future of Indian politics?

Corruption is a major issue and a lot of people have been on the streets to protest against it. The issue right now is that the anti-corruption movement has also led to almost an anti-political movement, where it is not just corruption that is under attack but also politics. That is dangerous. It is no good. Because it means that instead of democracy, people are looking for certain people.  They want some kind of technocracy, which will clean up everything, and manage India in a much more efficient, clean and accountable way. But I don't think that is the answer.

What the anti-corruption movement has done is to create a sort of awareness about all these scandals. There is an attempt to make politicians and politics more accountable. And that, I think, is a good thing. But what Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev have done is very, very dangerous, anti-political. It is not surprising that the attack on politics comes precisely at a time when democracy has also become more generalized with more local people into politics.

It is interesting that in the past, when upper caste politicians were corrupt, you did not have this movement. It is when the people get into politics that the movement against politics develops. That is the antidemocratic element. I think they have to do what the political establishment will not do it on its own. The movement and media exposure will probably force politicians not to be so obligingly corrupt and anti-people as they are. You know, recently we had a coal scandal. Before that, we had telecom scandal. So I hope that this will force politicians to be more accountable. If people retain their faith in political institutions, they can work to expand political institutions. Then I think this issue can be dealt with through the democratic process.

Do spirituality and religion still matter in India? Where does the violence that often sees Christians and other minorities victimised by Hindu nationalists come from?

The massacres in Gujarat and the pogroms in Orissa are the most visible examples. The problem in Gujarat is that a whole state mechanism had developed to help Hindu communal forces. That is very, very dangerous. We saw the result of this in 2002 and subsequently.

Minorities in Gujarat feel completely as second class citizens. They do not have full rights and are constantly under suspicion as foreign agents of Pakistan. This explains why there have been concerted attacks against Muslims. I would say that Gujarat is the main place. It is strange that Narendra Modi still has great support and could even run in the next elections on an anti-minority platform and be democratically elected. This is a very dangerous situation.

People say that religion can be used to promote the values of harmony and coexistence. Actually, most people who are religious are not concerned with communal violence. It is people who are politically inclined and want more power who use religion. So the problem is not religion as faith, but religion as a tool of power. It is a very cynical, very instrumental way to use religion, which has nothing to do with faith, worship or theological matters. It has only to do with identity. And that's what BJP has used to stay in power.

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