Back to the Future: The Retro Politics of Contemporary Nationalisms

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It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ says the White Queen to Alice.

-Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

I was born in India, considered the world’s largest democracy. I now live in the U.S., considered the world’s oldest democracies. Traveling between the two nations over the last three decades, I’ve witnessed a strange convergence with eerie similarities in the growing nationalist fervor – White nationalism in the United States and Hindu nationalism in India.[1] In both we have seen growing violence against religious/ethnic minorities, often ignored by the authorities; politicians have openly sanctioned and called for violence and the breaking of laws. Most importantly, we have seen elected officials moving to subvert and transform well established laws, constitutional guidelines, and electoral processes. Social media is awash with information (information based on verifiable data), mis-information (unintentionally sharing falsehoods), dis-information (intentionally sharing and promoting falsehoods), and mal-information (intentionally harming parties through information), with blurring boundaries between them. In challenging information, and promoting mis and dis-information, nationalist politics in both countries have fundamentally challenged what we know and what we can know.  In no place is this more important than in educational institutions – academic research, teaching, curricula, and university policies. Knowledge practices have become intensely political and fraught.

As an evolutionary biologist and feminist scholar, I have been struck by the potent politics around science and religion within the nationalist imagination. On the surface the two seem like different, indeed oppositional sites. In the United States, secularism is imagined as a separation of science and religion, the former public and the latter private. In India, secularism is imagined as a form of religious pluralism, the equal celebration of all religions. Yet in both nations, we have seen a foundational shift where religion has become the center of the nationalist imaginary – Christian fundamentalism in the U.S, and Hindu nationalism in India. Characterizing previous governments and the opposition parties as “minority” appeasers, the majority seek to reassert their power and privilege. Much of nationalist politics in both nations is grounded in a politics of injury borne out of memories of immigration. The politics of injury and grievance has been harnessed into a powerful political movement to reclaim American and Indian greatness. This politics is grounded in a return to the past – an imagined, idyllic, and pure White nation and Hindu nation – before the colonists and “foreigners” entered the country. Particularly striking in this anachronistic vision is that the “natives” in the two countries are the white settler colonists in the United States and migrants in India. In both areas, the original inhabitants of the land have been colonized, marginalized, indeed pathologized. This politics of injury plays out in numerous sites. As an evolutionary biologist who studies South Asia and science, I focus on three of them in this short essay – race/caste, gender, and science.[2]

Race in the U.S and caste in India loom large as systems of historical and ongoing discrimination and as a critical node in contemporary politics. While beyond the scope of this essay, there is extensive literature that connects Hindu nationalism with white nationalism going back to the 19th century idea of an Aryan race. The term “Arya,” means “aristocratic” in Sanskrit and was appropriated as “Aryan,” to refer to the “bioracial” connotations in European discourse, which during colonial India shaped ideologies of caste, religious affiliation, and Hindu supremacy. Caste hierarchies also divided Indians into superior Aryans, who migrated into India, and inferior Dravidians, the original inhabitants.[3] Since colonial times, the long enduring links between race and caste endure.[4] The links between whiteness and upper-caste Indians is seen as so strong that Dalit activists have redefined themselves as “the black untouchables of India” and built solidarity with Black resistance movements across the world.[5] Legislative measures such as affirmative action and quotas that aim to address the historical discrimination of marginalized by race and caste (and strikingly not class in both countries), have now come under powerful attack, and in part undergirds the politics of injury of the majority population.

Central to both countries is an academic attack on ideas of race and caste. In the U.S., considerable academic scholarship challenging biologically determinist theories of race have been translated into the political sphere as need to do away with race altogether. Most significantly, in doing away with race, racism is also rendered invisible. In India, challenges to the Aryan migration theory are at the heart of claiming an indigenous and endogamous India, where caste is relegated to a colonial invention of the British. In both countries White/Hindu nationalists are poorly represented in the academy. Intense political mobilization against individual academic scholars is afoot. In India, where education is more centralized, the government has taken control of key academic institutions, deliberative bodies, and curricular committees. The government has dismissed secular scholars and replaced them with Hindu nationalists, some who have no qualifications for the job at hand. All disciplines of academia have been affected, including the sciences. This is evident in scientific conferences like the Indian Science Congress, where in 2019 for example, the conference hosted claims that dinosaurs were created by Lord Brahma, that Ravana[6] had twenty-four kinds of aircrafts, while another dismissed Einstein’s theory of relativity as a “big blunder” and that Newton did not understand how gravity worked.[7]What was once fringe is now mainstream. Hindu nationalists rely not only on a mythological, but a mytho-scientific corpus. Similarly, in the United States, Republican controlled state legislatures have begun to regulate curricula and what can be taught, such as Critical Race Theory. Listening to politicians talk about their understanding of academic ideas reveals profound ignorance, yet in the name of race, caste, and religion wholesale transformations are underway in both nations.

Gender is another potent site of contestation. In both nations, gender and queer studies programs have emerged as problematic sites of moral turpitude. Rather than basic civic knowledge, teaching of sex and sexuality have been relegated to the space of the private family. “Feminism” in both countries is seen not as an empowering movement seeking equity and justice, but one that is corrupting young girls and women. In particular, race/caste and gender are intertwined in this imagination. In India, we have recently seen young Muslim girls who choose to wear the hijab being targeted and refused entry to schools. Sartorial choices loom large, as “modesty” and “purity” continue to define young women’s need for modesty. In the United States, reproductive politics have profoundly shaped the nation. Histories of slavery, and subsequent eugenic policies have long curtailed the reproductive choices and possibilities of communities of color.[8] Scholars of environmental and reproductive justice have documented the poor environmental conditions of air, water, and land for poor communities. Black Lives Matter and other recent social movements have made visible the ongoing practices of racism and sexism. Undoubtedly, recent successes have met with backlash as politicians target the teaching of the histories of race and class as well as sexuality and reproduction, especially abortion and population control.

Science is at the heart of these politics. Scientific studies of “difference” have been central to shoring up social categories of sex, gender, race, caste, and sexuality.[9] Claims of biological differences is key to histories of slavery, colonialism, racism, feudalism, and casteism, whereby some bodies are rendered inferior, therefore rationalizing violence and exploitation against them. Science looms large in two ways. First, we have seen intense debates on the biological basis of social differences. Old debates of nature and nurture continue on. Should we understand the higher mortality of communities of color in the United States during COVID-19 as a genetic vulnerability (for which not much can be done), or the histories of slavery and racism (for which we should consider restitution and reparations)?[10]Repeatedly while there is lip service to the latter, it is the biological theories that get the greatest attention. Funding agencies continue to support studies on racial and sexual differences.

Second, as we endure the SARS CoV-2 pandemic, we are in the midst of an intense ideological struggle for knowledge claims. I have been struck by repeated calls to believe and “trust” various institutions. Indeed, scientists and nationalists (rarely the same group) have developed their own sacred and hallowed grounds, with ardent followers in each camp. “Trust” in the news seems less about data but rather a proxy for a larger politics of belonging. For example, in the United States, we have seen an intense refusal to wearing face masks. We have repeatedly seen images of big macho men with guns, and without masks become poster children for the resistance to any government action.[11] Violence on airplanes has increased as individuals refused to wear masks, while endangering everyone else in the eyes of others. In India, the poor handling of the pandemic emerged as an election issue on government competence.[12] Repeatedly we find that science and religion have emerged as non-negotiable sites of allegiance – once one pledges allegiance to a camp, contradictory evidence does not change positions. Science may get it wrong, but those in the science camp argue that science is always evolving as new data emerges and will continue to follow the advice of scientists. The ruling party might have handled the pandemic terribly, but the Hindu nationalist camp argues that the other party could not have done better, and they will continue to vote for the ruling party. The pandemic has revealed deep fissures between the camps. Evidence does not seem to change minds. There is not only trust, but perhaps even an excess of trust.

Conclusion:

The idea that knowledge is political is hardly new. Trained in both the sciences and the humanities, my training in the two disciplines is strikingly different. Within the sciences, I was taught that science was objective, and knowledge was true or false. In the United States, the continued battle against teaching evolution in schools, and especially the intense battle against scientific knowledge in cases like climate change and the pandemic, have been a serious wake-up call for scientists. In India, politicians and their newly appointed academic acolytes openly claim mythology as science. Modern science claimed under the mantle of the Vedic sciences sits uncomfortably alongside wild claims of WhatsApp University such as drinking cow urine or turmeric and ginger tea as cures for COVID.[13] For feminists, the claim that knowledge is political is the bedrock of the field. Feminists have long understood that claims of biological inferiority have long pathologized women; racial, caste, and ethnic minorities; queer and trans people; and individuals with disabilities. Groups have been denied entry into institutions of learning, and even basic rights of humanity. Clearly, how we produce knowledge, what we mean by reliable knowledge, and who gets to produce knowledge are the critical questions for our times. Academics who sit in the side-lines because they wish to be apolitical face a future of obsolescence.

 

References:

[1] Christophe Jaffrelot, Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2021; Linda Alcoff. The future of whiteness. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

[2] For a deeper discussion on science Hindu nationalism and the politics of gender, race and caste, please see Banu Subramaniam, Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism, University of Washington Press, 2019.

[3] Loomba, “Race and the Possibilities of Comparative Critique,” New Literary History, 2009, 40: 501-522.

[4] Yulia Egorova, “Castes of Genes? Representing Human Genetic Diversity in India.” Genomics, Society, and Policy6, no. 3, 2010: 32–49; Viswesaran, Kamala. Un/Common Cultures: Racism and the Rearticulation of Cultural Difference, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

[5] Rajshekar, V. T. Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2009.

[6] In Hindu mythology Ramayana, Ravana is the king of the island of Lanka and the chief antagonist of Rama.

[7] Kamala Thiagarajan, “Indian Science Congress Speakers Say Newton Was Wrong, Ancient Demon-King had Planes,” National Public Radio, January 9, 2019: www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/01/09/683298815/speakers-at-indian-science-congress-say-newton-was-wrong-ancient-demon-had-airpl

[8] Dorothy Roberts. Fatal invention: How science, politics, and big business re-create race in the twenty-first century.New Press, 2011.

[9] For a deeper discussion on the politics of scientific difference and cultural diversity, see Banu Subramaniam: Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity. University of Illinois Press, 2014.

[10] Isaac Chotiner, “The Interwoven threads of Inequality and Health,” The New Yorker, April 14, 2020; Evelynn Hammonds, “A Moment or a Movement? The Pandemic, Political Upheaval, and Racial Reckoning,” Signs, October 2020: signsjournal.org/covid/hammonds/

[11] Anna North, “What Trump’s refusal to wear a mask says about masculinity in America,” Vox, May 12, 2020.

[12] Banu Subramaniam, “Viral fundamentals: riding the corona waves in India.” Religion Compass, Feb;15(2), 2021:e12386.

[13] Banu Subramaniam, and Debjani Bhattacharyya. “A Viral Education: Scientific Lessons from India’s WhatsApp University,” Somatosphere, May 31, 2020.

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