Utopias in Conflict: Religion and Nationalism in Modern India

by Rosane Rocher
Utopias in Conflict: Religion and Nationalism in Modern India
Rosane Rocher
Journal of the American Oriental Society
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 Reviewed work(s): Utopias in Conflict: Religion and Nationalism in Modern India by Ainslie T. Embree Much insight, experience, and wisdom reside in this slim volume, which brings together in a coherent whole revised segments of articles originally published over the two turbulent decades between 1968 and 1987, while the modern Indian state was buffeted, as it continues to be, by the competing ideological demands that both bedevil and make possible evolving democracies. Rooted in a knowledge of the historical past, it nevertheless focuses intently on the present, with perilous yet inescapable considerations of the future. Limpidly written, it challenges the reader to shun the simplistic explanations and the ready catch phrases that fetter a proper appreciation of complexities born of separate yet valid rationales. At issue is the constantly revised resolution of the fundamental tension between a nation's perceived need for a common ideological identity and the legitimate wish of groups--in this case, religious communities--to fulfill their often diverging views of what an ideal society ought to be. This, Embree convincingly argues, goes deeper than the protection of minority rights, for, in the Indian democracy, the wishes of the Hindu majority can both run against, or, more insidiously, define the official ethos of secularism adopted since independence. One of the great merits of the volume is that it does not cast religious minorities or the militant wings of religious groups as the sole sources of problems for the Indian state, but that it also lays bare the dogmatic streaks in apparently benign liberal and secular views. In only one case is this done to excess, when it is asserted that "the legal system makes explicit provision for the guarantee by the state of the laws relating to marriage, divorce, and inheritance for Muslims and for Christians, but not, it is important to note, for Hindus. For Hindus all such matters of personal and family law are governed by the general laws of India, passed after India became independent." This is clearly misstated, since the Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, and Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act passed in 1955 and 1956 are not cast as general legislation, but as legislation restricted to Hindus. Hence the continuous, yet still unheeded, call by members of a nationally minded majority finally to implement the goal of a common civil code expressed in the constitution. Probably because the six chapters that constitute the volume were originally written independently of one another, the collection does not cover the entire religious landscape of India. Hindus and Hinduism are prominently featured, most interestingly in chapter 2, "The Question of Hindu Tolerance," which is devoted to an "explanation of this phenomenon--the ability to encapsulate almost any religious or cultural entity without admitting any genuine dialogue or possibility of interaction at the most profound levels of human discourse." The situation of Muslims is recurrently examined, most specifically in chapter 5, "Muslims in a Secular Society," while Sikhs are the subject of chapter 6, "A Sikh Challenge to the Indian State." Christians are briefly noticed in the two general chapters, "The Politics of Religion" and "Religious Pluralism," and episodically elsewhere, while Jains are not considered at all. This has less to do with the size of the several religious communities than with the level of strife in which they have been involved as perpetrators or as victims. One would, nevertheless, have liked to see explored in some depth the reasons why, for example, in two legal cases "involving the same issue of individual versus group rights," that of a Christian woman remained "less publicized" than the famous Muslim Shah Bano case, or why, while the constitution's description of Sikhism as a branch of Hinduism became in the 1980s "in the eyes of many Sikhs a reflection on the integrity of Sikhism and denial of their rights," a like phenomenon did not develop with Jains. As it is, the volume should be required and rewarding reading for all interested in the interplay of religion, politics, law, and the state in India. @ @ COPYRIGHT 1993 American Oriental Society 

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