Society

India's Liberals And The Misguided Appeal Of Religious Nostalgia

Hindutva is a menace of Indian society, and to confront it head on, liberals need to stop celebrating the supposedly tolerant Hinduism of yesteryear, historian Partha Pratim Shil argues.

A devotee whispers a wish in the ear of an idol of Hindu deity Ganesha
A devotee whispers a wish in the ear of an idol of Hindu deity Ganesha
Partha Pratim Shil

-Essay-

NEW DELHI — In this dark hour of Indian democracy, the response of liberals to the success of the Ram temple agenda has been most peculiar. Rather than bemoan the death of secularism, some Indian liberals seem more upset with the loss of some idyllic Hinduism of their childhood memories.

Hindutva, they claim, has taken away from them a wonderful world of local religiosity in which they grew up. And despite this professed affinity with a religion that the Hindutva camp, in their opinion, has hijacked, other liberals are busy attacking the secular camp for not taking religion seriously enough.

It should be obvious to any student of political theory that these are unexpected responses from any liberal mind to the current situation in India, where the final traces of secularism are being destroyed by the rise of Hindu-supremacist fascism. Liberals ought to be committed to the exercise of reason, to rights and freedoms embedded in constitutions and to institutional arrangements of secularism that uphold liberal values of liberty, equality and justice.

To cite an example of the response of an anguished Hindu, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a leading public intellectual, wrote in an opinion piece how, for him, Ram was a source of "compassion," a "name…uttered in the anguish of suffering and the ecstasy of liberation." The deity was "the last Refuge" he "woke to, and slept to."

Mehta's response certainly flies in the face of arguments that have laid the blame for the rise of Hindu fascism at the doors of the so-called "secular elite."

In his own opinion piece, Yogendra Yadav, national president of the political party Swaraj India, writes: "Secularism was defeated because it disavowed our languages, because it failed to connect with the language of traditions, because it refused to learn or speak the language of our religions. Specifically, secularism was defeated because it chose to mock Hinduism instead of developing a new interpretation of Hinduism suitable for our times."

As Mehta's article demonstrates, or other writings by politicians like Shashi Tharoor show, nothing could be further from the truth. There are actually plenty of members of the Indian liberal secular elite who are now expressing their nostalgia for a lost Hinduism.

In my view, contrary to the arguments of Yadav and others like him, the liberal nostalgia about Hinduism makes evident something that Dalit-Bahujan thinkers have pointed out for long: That the liberal elite in India was never divorced from its deep entanglements with their Hindu identity. The figure of the secular elite mocking religions is a straw figure.

So, how do we square the circle? The answer is in acknowledging the role played by caste.

Whether it is the industrialist or the landlord, those educated in science, social science or humanities, or the political leaders of the right, center or left, they always maintained deep investments in the enchanted privileges of Hinduism. Never had they actually been animated by a scientific temperament. They remained caste Hindus, enjoying the fruits of this identity.

The figure of the secular elite mocking religions is a straw figure.

The truth is that only a savarna man can look back longingly at the loss of some pristine Hinduism as some liberals are doing today. After all, it was that "lost" Hinduism that had bestowed them with privileges of a lifetime as caste Hindu men. Their names had always commanded respect in Indian society. Their education and professional success was a matter of entitlement for those of their background, and this world of privilege was beautifully enchanted by some Hindu deity's grace.

When liberalism arrived in their world, it provided caste Hindus with the shield of individualism to protect the boundaries of this enchanted space in their bosom. This enchanted space of religiosity and its concomitant privileges are clearly the most precious possession of a liberal intellectual in India. For after all, the entire function of liberalism here was to be the gatekeeper of this citadel. No wonder, the loss or weakness of liberalism and reason are not what most hurts the Indian liberal. What hurts is the right-wing takeover of their enchanted garden of religiosity.

An enchanted garden nourished by blood

We would do well to remember that this enchanted garden was, however, nourished by blood. The blood of Dalit-Bahujans, the blood of women, the blood of non-Hindus, and the blood of those considered "deviant." Caste and patriarchy are the soil of this enchanted garden. One only has to dip into the history of Brahmanical atrocities on Dalit-Bahujan and women's bodies in any period of Indian history, for this to be clear. Liberals are reluctant to ask why Hinduism as it evolved managed to abandon every critical voice in its fold and continues to do so.

During a march of the RSS, an organization that spreads the ideology of Hindutva — Photo: Shaukat Ahmed/Pacific Press/ZUMA

Lower-caste dissidents in the past, for example the poets of the medieval Bhakti movement such as Kabir and Chokhamela, had restructured elements of Hinduism to chart new modes of religiosity, one imbued with a social critique of the caste order. But they were disowned by the orthodox Brahmanical establishment and later sometimes opportunistically incorporated into Hindu pantheons to neutralize their threat.

This insidious incorporation is also evident in the case of women dissidents such as Meerabai. For even as the orthodox sing Meera bhajans, it is not Meerabai's subversive life that is upheld as the ideal by caste Hindu families for their daughters. However, these figures from the medieval world had sought to carve out critical spaces within the enchantments of Hinduism. The genealogy of disenchantment is not to be found in these religious battles, even as they reveal a world of resistance in the past.

I would posit that it is in the disenchantment of the Dalit self, born out of bearing the wounds of Brahmanical violence, that the true foundation of critical reason in modern Indian history can be found. For this is not the intellectual posturing of Brahminical disenchantment ever since the encounter of caste Hindu men with colonial modernity in the 19th century, a posturing that secretly held on to religious nostalgia. Dalit disenchantment is a true liberation from Hinduism, brimming with anger and rage against Brahmanical patriarchy, an exercise of critical reason that can set us free.

Hinduism and Hindutva

The history of injustice in Hinduism, then, is much longer than the career of Hindutva, which was invented only in the 20th century by pro-colonialist fascist bigots. And Hinduism requires this enchantment experienced by Indian liberals to conceal the blood on its hands. The liberal resort to some pristine tolerant Hinduism can never be a truly critical response to the dangers of Hindutva. It can only be a capitulation to it, revealing their own compromised intellectual foundations.

But should this make us nostalgic about some pure liberalism instead, about an ideal liberal order that Indian caste Hindu liberals have failed to live up to? I think not. Liberalism was born in defense of capital. And it has always functioned to protect privilege. In the Indian case, it was picked up by caste Hindus to defend their enchanted citadels of privilege.

Liberalism has repeatedly failed to deliver liberation and emancipatory movements have had to devise new ideas for breaking free of structures of oppression. The liberal, however, is able, at least, to make claims to promises of freedom. The Indian liberal has evidently given up on even that minimum. They just want their enchanted gardens back. In this moment, when Indian liberals have been caught with their liberal clothes sliding off, what has emerged from behind is the sacred thread they were wearing all along.

Partha Pratim Shil is a historian of modern India and a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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