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Education, Fundamentalism, Ghalib, Politics, Religion / 19.07.2008

Today if you tell me some things are fated I would be inclined to believe you. The last three posts just sort of happened – there was no grand design involved, just the order in which we happened to chance upon things. There was a BBC story on syncretic communities under threat and that led to Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu? Then there was a column on the usefulness of Milton by Stanley Fish that led to Milton and Ghalib. And finally, an essay by Mark Lilla that a reader had sent last year popped out of a randomly opened file and led to The Politics of God. In retrospect, you can see the threads that link. The threat to syncretic communities could be attributed to the politics of God (as some readers have already done in their comments) and one could use Milton or Ghalib to think about...

Fundamentalism, Modernity, Politics, Religion, South Asia / 18.07.2008

Our two posts on fundamentalism (1, 2) have only scratched the surface of this phenomenon and revealed many more interesting questions to explore. A useful place to pick up the exploration is a recent article by Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, called The Politics of God. Professor Lilla’s point of departure is his sense of amazement that after two centuries when world politics revolved around “eminently political problems,” we seem to be back in the 16th century “entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty.” What happened? Like a good teacher, Professor Lilla has posed an interesting and also a very critical question. Readers can go to Professor Lilla’s article to see how he answers the question with reference to Hobbes and Rousseau. Here we extract some material to rephrase the proposition in our own context and to pose...

Education / 15.07.2008

It should be obvious by now that one of our objectives at The South Asian Idea is to encourage engagement with ideas. If we do not learn to look at different sides of an issue and debate the merits of alternative positions we would be contributing to the rise of intolerance and jeopardizing the future that has begun to look promising, at least for some, in economic terms. It is in this context that we were delighted to chance upon a column by Professor Stanley Fish in which he discusses how Milton is used in the West to foster critical thinking. More than anyone else, Milton captures the disjunction between the way things are and the way they should be. It’s the combination of amazing poetry and an insistence on principle. Rather than being employed for its own sake, the poetry is always in the service of...

India, Politics, Religion / 14.07.2008

The following story reported by the BBC is an intriguing one and we wonder what readers will make of it. Islam and Hinduism's blurred lines By Jyotsna Singh, BBC News, Ajmer, Rajasthan Story from BBC NEWS, Published: 2008/07/11 16:20:24 GMT http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/south_asia/7473019.stm Forty-two-year-old Sohan Singh is delighted to call himself a "full-fledged" Hindu. Recently he cremated his mother, defying a family tradition of burying their dead. Mr Singh is a member of the Kathat community in Rajasthan and follows what his community believes is a pledge undertaken by their forefathers. Legend has it that the Mehrat, Kathat and Cheeta communities - with a combined total of one million people in four districts of central Rajasthan - are the descendants of the Hindu ruler of the warrior caste, Prithviraj Chauhan. The three communities also have strong Islamic connections, because many centuries ago, their forefathers undertook a pledge to follow three Muslim practices. These include the circumcision...

Novel / 08.07.2008

Chapter 3      Inventing the Future 3.1 Although reeling from shock, Columbia’s Southern Asian Department acted fast. In two days the staff organized, with the help of Asha and Aditya, a memorial evening for Meghnad. They sent out many invitations to academics, students, friends, members of the Indian American community, journalists, and others. Harold stayed on in New York to attend the service. At the appointed hour, the auditorium was full. The energy in the room was at a high pitch. People were talking excitedly, some dressed casually in jeans and others more formally attired in suits. Meghnad had been a popular maverick. Two policemen sat sentinel in the last row, not quite comprehending the drama unfolding before them. There was a hush as Aditya walked onto the stage. A sophisticated man of fifty with a great whorl of a moustache and a dignified air, he wore a three-piece...

Fundamentalism, Politics, Religion, South Asia / 05.07.2008

In our last post (On Fundamentalism), a point of view had been advanced that there could be no religious fundamentalism without the existence of a scared text. It was the sacred text, the word of God, which provided the reference for the movement of going back to the ‘fundamentals’. And because there was no one sacred text in Hinduism, Hindutva could not be interpreted in terms of religious fundamentalism. It was speculated that Hindutva was better interpreted as a form of nationalism. We are impressed by the reader who accused us of being fundamentalist (i.e., literalist) about ‘fundamentalism’. He argued that Hindutva was more than nationalism and had a fundamentalist dimension as well because it was attempting to reduce the variability in the interpretation of the Ramayana to create a narrower (purer) consensus. Likewise, he argued, other text-based fundamentalisms have a nationalist dimension as well. Therefore,...

Fundamentalism, India, Pakistan / 01.07.2008

The only F-word to have retained its unambiguous meaning is the original F-word. Two others, Feudalism and Fascism, seem to have lost all meaning. They serve no purpose except to characterize any development the user is negative about. Thus anyone you don’t like can be labeled a feudal or a fascist. This might not matter much because feudalism and fascism are largely phenomena of the past. Fundamentalism is a new F-word, however, that demands a lot more care in its usage. Fundamentalism is both current and hot and there could be a lot riding on how we define and interpret the phenomenon. Narrowly interpreted, the term fundamentalism refers in religious discourse to a total commitment to the literal interpretation of a scared text and a belief in its infallibility. In this sense, there can be no religious fundamentalism without the existence of a scared text. It follows from...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, India, Pakistan, Politics, South Asia / 26.06.2008

There was a music program in Washington, DC recently in which the three performers on stage were of South Asian origin – the vocalist from Bangladesh, the tabla player from Pakistan and the harmonium player from India. All three were young and together they created a beautiful music. The Indians in the audience asked for Faiz, the Pakistanis for Nazrulgeeti, and the vocalist herself sang the verses of poets from India. The program was a huge success lasting over five hours. It was an occasion that was symbolic of what was possible in terms of coexistence. Is that an unrealistic dream for South Asia? The election primary in the U.S. this year is a ready reminder of the transformations that are indeed possible. A mere fifty years after the Civil Rights Act when black Americans were second-class citizens afraid of being lynched and cities were burning with...

Novel / 25.06.2008

Chapter 2       An Interlocked World 2.1 Chaturvedi sipped his early morning tea. Bombay’s summer had begun early and he felt hot and sticky. His wife, sitting beside him, slapped him on the wrist for swallowing so loudly. A ceiling fan rotated its three blades and although the convection of air currents in the room cooled his tea, it did not assuage his discomfort. A fly was walking across the dining table. It inched towards the biscuits in the saucer, and Chaturvedi brushed it off with a sweep of his hand. A Sony television set stood in one corner of the room against two gray and white sofas and some Indian Art Deco chairs. The chairs were a gift from Chaturvedi’s father-in-law, an army officer. A couple of striped dhurries on the gray mosaic tile floor heightened the spareness of the white walls of the drawing...