Nussbaum warns of fundamentalist threat

By David Golubock

Professor Martha Nussbaum sought to raise awareness of religious strife in India and the threat of religious fundamentalism to Indian democracy in a lecture Thursday at Brent House.

Nussbaum, who has traveled widely throughout India and recently published a book on her research, focused particularly on the ethnic violence that afflicted the state of Gujarat in 2002 and its aftermath. Using this example, Nussbaum illuminated trends in contemporary Indian society, such as the growing influence of Hindu radicals in the government.

According to Nussbaum, fundamentalists have “hijacked Hinduism for their own purposes,” and twisted it to create a new ideology based more in fascist European philosophies than in religious tradition. Nussbaum described the hold of fundamentalism over many regional governments and spoke of the local authorities’ support for the strife in Gujarat, describing how the police were given orders not to quell the violence.

Nussbaum also spoke of the dangers of the moribund Indian educational system. The poor public schools cause many to send their children to private schools where students are frequently segregated along ethnic and religious lines, encouraging violent division. Nussbaum further derided the rise of technical, career-based education, whose focus on useful skills, she believes, results in a lack of instruction in critical thinking, which encourages close-mindedness and strife.

India’s well crafted constitution and its free and outspoken press were highlighted as two of the factors that helped to counteract religious extremism and limit the effects of incidents like that in Gujarat. According to Nussbaum, the Indian constitution establishes a clear separation of powers as well as a strong system of authoritative courts that has helped to prevent further collapse.

Nussbaum also lauded the outspoken Indian press, which she said had provided “a constant drumbeat of coverage” and helped to give the Indian people a continuous and unbiased account of the ethnic strife.

Following the brief lecture, there was an extended discussion during which Nussbaum conversed with the audience and answered questions.