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>Interview with Prof Richard W Lariviere, Dean, College of Liberal Arts, University of Texas at Austin — By Nabina Das, 2002 (Tehelka.com)
Dr Richard W. Lariviere, a scholar of Asian studies and an expert on the information technology industry, is the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin. Lariviere holds the Ralph B. Thomas Regents Professorship in Asian Studies. He was director of UT Austin’s Center for Asian Studies, a program teaching courses in 25 disciplines and fields, from 1986 to 1994.
Lariviere received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in Sanskrit in 1978. He reads and speaks several languages and has conducted research in locations all over the world. He is the recipient of several fellowships and grants including a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. He also has been a senior fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies in India and has been a consultant to many corporations, both in the US and abroad.
In addition to his numerous administrative duties, Lariviere also has written many books, articles and reviews on subjects ranging from law and religion in India to matrimonial remedies for women in classical Hindu law. One of his books, The Naaradasmrti, won an international prize in Italy as the best book on India in 1989, and many of his articles have been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Russian, German and French.
How do you look at the Godhra carnage that set off the spate of communal violence in Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat in India? Is it an isolated issue or a predictable culmination of the events, which have been taking place in India over the past couple of months?
The Godhra incident was a despicable act of murder. I don’t think that anyone could have predicted that such this specific act would take place. Still, when political leaders resort to messages of hatred as their mode of communication, it is not completely surprising that such discourse would give rise to violent acts. It has in the past and it will in the future, as long as leaders are willing to exploit hatred for their own ends.
India is a half a century and odd old democracy which is evolving by leaps and bounds. What does this sort of communal frenzy forebode for a young nation as India?
The modern Indian state was born into an atmosphere of violent communalism. The subcontinent has never recovered. The great tragedy that India has had to face since the 1960’s is that the political arena has not attracted more talent than it has. India is a country of great wealth and staggering intellectual resources. The human talent in India is its greatest asset. Yet, when one looks at participants in state and national politics, one seldom finds leadership that is focused on larger issues of Indian social and economic progress. The educated middle class, the movers and shakers of the business world are apparently content to leave the vital business of governing the country to others—even to criminals and proven scoundrels.
Does the Ahmedabad carnage evoke any comparison to your mind of any such incident in recent times, especially in relation to the racial riots to which the USA has been witness to in the last couple of decades?
Every society is cursed with vestiges of human evolution that can best be described as “tribalism.” There is something in humankind that needs to form hierarchies, that needs to “protect” one’s group by distinguishing it from other groups. In modern societies these distinctions may be race, religion, language, or some other culturally determined characteristic. These distinctions can become the source of social upheaval. In the US racism is such a tribal distinction. Racism is like communalism. It can be traced historically, and “explained” as a historical phenomenon. These distinctions based on race, religion, or caste form the basis of social bias and prejudice. They are like a cancer in society. We work hard to eliminate them from our cultures, and from time to time we make progress. We think that the cancer is in remission, or that we actually curing it, but then something terrible like Godhra happens and the old wounds are ripped open. Just as we continually strive to seek new cures for cancer, people of good will in every society continue to look for ways to eliminate the cancer of social prejudice such as racism or communalism.
What differentiates the Gujarat violence from other such incidents around the world? What according to you is its distinctive feature?
If we take the macro view that this is a vestige of tribalism, there is not a great deal that is really distinctive about the Godhra kind of violence. We see it in Indonesia, in Northern Ireland, in the US, in Spain, in Algeria, in Israel, in Bosnia. In India, the scale of the violence and the danger of it spreading over a very large area of north India and over a very large population is, perhaps, unique.
This treatment meted out to Muslims in Gujarat has been compared by experts here to what the Jews were being subjected to by the Nazis during the World War II. Do you think this is a valid analogy?
No, I do not think this is a valid analogy. What happened in Germany and Europe during World War II is one of the best known instances of evil run amuck. The Nazi holocaust has been studied and documented so thoroughly that it has become a metric for the ultimate expression of evil. As such a metric it has come to be used almost casually to describe any instance of evil. Has hatred manifested itself in the form of evil acts in Gujarat? Lamentably, yes. If your question is, do I think India is headed toward a condition similar to that of Nazi Germany? Then I would have to say no. I do not think so. The BJP leadership –Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Advani in particular—have demonstrated that they are responding to the ameliorating forces of the burdens of democratic office.
These men have much to answer for in their behavior ten years ago, in their ignition of the Ayodhya issue, in their demagoguery, in their pandering to the extreme Hindu right. In my view, this will forever be part of their legacies. Still, it is encouraging that their responsibilities to the entire nation have led them to call for calm and reason in the face of VHP intransigence and such criminal provocation as the massacre at Doghra. Perhaps there is hope to found in these brief moments of leadership.
What do you think the impact of the recent carnage has been on the American intelligentsia, academia and the polity? How has civil society in US reacted to this? We in India are already aware of the official position of the US government.
A very minor part of this tragedy is the danger that it has done to the standing of India in the world. Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Jaswant Singh have done a superb job in the international arena. The restraint and strength shown in the Kargil war was impressive to the entire world. It managed to show the difference between a mature democracy like India and a country in chaos and dangerous disarray like Pakistan. Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Singh managed to keep India on the high road in negotiating the difficult post September 11 traumas that visited the subcontinent. Their mature and reasoned position on matters such as logistical support for the US Afghan campaign, in managing to state ever so tactfully to the US government, “We told you so.” with regard to Pakistan, in refusing to stoop to the level of Pakistan throughout this unpleasantness demonstrated to the world that India is a country of power and sophistication.
Events such as Godhra sully such a glowing image, but they cannot obliterate it. Still, it must be said that events such as godhra massacre and the Babri Masjid destruction have a chilling effect on American investors who might otherwise be willing to do business in India. I personally know of several companies who have resorted to investment in the Philiippines or China rather than India because of perceived instability. I think that these decisions were made in ignorance nevertheless, the money is not coming to India.
How would you define the cause of such violent manifestation by groups claiming adherence to certain religions, ethnic groups, languages etc? Asian societies are today undergoing a lot of rapid changes in its socio-political order. Is this incident a part of this churning? Kindly elaborate a little.
Fat people seldom riot; starving people often do. When there is grotesquely inequitable distribution of resources, as is the case in India, social unrest follows. This is especially true when unscrupulous demagogues exploit these inequities. If one looks at the rhetoric of the past decade, the VHP and the BJP have tried to blame nearly every social ill on the Muslim community. We are told that Muslims have too many children, are ill-educated, are a drain on the economy, received disproportionate support from the government, they even practice inferior hygiene according to this incendiary rhetoric. Surely these 11% of the population of India cannot be responsible for all of the ills besetting India. How will a uniform civil code increase India’s literacy rate? How will purging Muslims from any sector of society lower India’s embarrassing poverty rate? All of us long for simple answers to complex questions. Some of us will settle for simple-minded answers to complex questions. Unfortunately, there is often a demagogue around to fulfill our wishes. This was Mr. Advani’s stock in trade for many years. He then had the hard luck of actually being in the government and having to govern a country that he had stirred into a frenzy on the communal issue. Regrettably, India is not the only country in which one finds this sort of chicanery. In the US, in every national election—to the Presidency or to Congress—when candidates are asked to explain their position on, say, capital gains tax reduction or import tariffs, the answer is “Let me tell you my views on abortion.” This creates a stir, no opinions are changed on abortion, and the candidate has ducked the original issue.
Do you think the flashpoint in Gujarat was a result of the Ram temple movement in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh spearheaded by Hindu Rightwing group, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)?
I do not know what could possibly motivate anyone to do what was done in Doghra. We are told that the chanting of slogans gave rise to a verbal conflict that escalated into the massacre. This is no explanation. The perpetrators of this depraved act must be prosecuted. Still, there is an element of karmavipaaka at work here. The BJP has a tinder box on its hands in which large regions of India may burst into flame. It has carefully and deliberately assembled this tinderbox over the past decade. It now must deal with it. There is a price to be paid for cozying up to the VHP and the sangh parivaar. Once the tinderbox is ignited – almost always by such irrational and terrible acts as we have seen at the Babri Masjid or at Doghra–innocent people are caught up in the firestorm.
The US has recently showed eagerness in co-opting with India in its fight against global terrorism. But recently this carnage in India had secretary of state Colin Powell denounce the incidents in Gujarat as ‘Hindu terrorism’. What is your comment on this and how do you think this reflects on the Indian government which seems to have terrorism in its own backyard?
The entire world is watching to see how India will cope with this challenge. I think it is easy for the political leadership and for the people of India to forget that CNN and the BBC make it possible for the entire world to watch—literally—these events unfold. The chilling swarm of fanatics that destroyed the Babri Masjid did their work in front of the whole world. These events are a source of collective shame to Indians of good will in the same way that instances of racism in the US are a source of collective shame to Americans.
On the matter of cross border terrorism: I think the protest of India for the past 25 years have been vindicated. It is now apparent to everyone willing to investigate, that India has endured years of terrorist attacks sponsored by the government of Pakistan. India’s response to this long challenge in Kashmir has imperiled its own democratic image, however. Kashmir is a blot on the record of India as a vital and resilient democracy. Things are marginally better for the moment. One even hopes that there might be hope for establishing the Line of Control as the permanent border, but that is still merely a hope until both Pakistan and India have secure enough governments that they can overcome 50 years of rhetoric on the matter. I don’t see a likelihood of such strong governments in the near future.
What do you think will be the fallout of this Hindu-Muslim violence on America’s policy post-September 11 and the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom?
I think that the current spate of Hindu-Muslim violence will have little effect on US policy. When US interests are at stake, the US government deals with whatever governments will enable the US to fulfill its goals. How else can one explain the continued solicitous ness to Pakistan? It certainly is not because of General Mushariff’s commitment to peace and democracy! The US needs whatever leverage it can effect in Pakistan to control the ISI, to limit the use of Pakistan as an escape route for Afghanistan-based al Qaeda, and to glean what intelligence it can from the cauldron of Pakistani radical elements.
However, it is my fervent hope that the events of the past year will have highlighted the fact that India is by far the more reliable partner in the region. India is in the world’s spotlight at the moment. It has acquitted itself brilliantly on the international stage. Let us hope that the same vision and sophistication which has handled so well the Kargil war, the Afghanistan challenge, and the problems of dealing with Pakistan can also be brought to bear on the domestic problems confronting this great country.
Journalist/Current Affairs Editor