Culture

A Little Diversity

Street market in central Mumbai, India, in 2015 (Reuters photo: Danish Siddiqui)
But not too much

Main tumhe talaq deta hoon.

Main tumhe talaq deta hoon.

Main tumhe talaq deta hoon.

For many years in India — until last week, in fact — the above incantation, spoken or delivered in print, constituted the entirety of a divorce proceeding, provided you were a Muslim.

The “triple talaq” method of divorce was just outlawed by the Indian supreme court after a challenge by a number of unhappy divorcees supported by, among others, the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement. Triple-talaq divorce was, in theory, available to women, too, though a woman who initiated such a divorce would in effect have forfeited any economic claims related to the marriage and probably have lost custody of her children. As you might imagine, triple-talaq is considerably more popular with Muslim men than with Muslim women.

The ordinary secular mode of divorce in India is, like any other Indian legal proceeding, rather more cumbrous. And there isn’t much of it: In the United Kingdom, about 500 of every 1,000 marriages end in divorce; in India, the corresponding figure is 13 in every 1,000, though the rate has been increasing, and sketchy rural record-keeping brings the accuracy of figures into question.

The British colonial rulers like to justify their presence on the Subcontinent with an aphorism: “India isn’t a political expression; India is a geographic expression.” (Metternich had said the same thing about Italy.) Prior to colonization, there had been no central Indian state, and, indeed, no notion of one. But what there had been was something called “Hindustan,” which is the common local vernacular name for India. (India has a very fine newspaper that still bears the name “Hindustan Times.”)

Here, geography, politics, and religion all come together in a very messy knot: “Hindustan” is where the Hindus live, and the Hindus are the people east of the Indus River, in the ancient estimate of the Persian-speaking raiders and conquerors who put the words on the ancient maps. Hinduism is a religion. What does Hinduism teach? How much time to you have? And it depends on who you ask: It changes from place to place and time to time, but so long as you are east of the Indus, in Hindustan . . . A very devout Hindu scholar once vehemently denied to me that Hinduism is a religion at all, but a group of religions linked by common languages and seeping through porous cultural borders from village to village and kingdom to kingdom, i.e. not a religious expression but a geographic one.

The less compromising Indian nationalists will, even while making the appropriately Gandhian noises about maintaining solidarity with their Muslim brothers, insist that Hinduism and Indian civilization are synonyms. The longtime ruling political party in Bombay is named for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the heroic king who did battle with the invading Mughal empire — think of him as an Indian Charles Martel victorious at Hinduism’s answer to Tours. (It is thanks to the dominance of this essentially fascist political party that we are now obliged to call Bombay by its Marathi name, Mumbai.) It is common to hear those in the south of the country insist that theirs is the real, pure India, untouched by Muslim occupation. These are live questions: A major political figure in India has recently been indicted for his role in a violent Hindu–Muslim dispute originating in — this is not a typo — 1528.

How deeply the ethic of India — a secular republic that is home to many different religious traditions — ought to be identical with Hinduism — the faith and cultural tradition of the overwhelming majority of the people of that secular republic — is a matter of endless dispute. A Hindu-nationalist politician who insisted that India is Hindu was chastised by a liberal: “No,” the critic said, “India is secular. India has freedom of religion.” Came the answer: “Yes. India is secular. India has freedom of  religion. And that is because India is 80 percent Hindu, not 80 percent Muslim.” The example of Pakistan, part of India until independence and partition, must be sobering. India has its problems, to be sure, but Pakistan is a basket case.

A major political figure in India has recently been indicted for his role in a violent Hindu–Muslim dispute originating in — this is not a typo — 1528.

Mohandas K. Gandhi and most of the leading figures in the Indian independence movement believed that Hindus and Muslims could live together under a secular, republican government. And, indeed, they do — in Hindu India much more successfully than in Muslim Pakistan. For decades, that was enabled by a kind of religious federalism: Religious questions were to be decided mostly by the relevant religious authorities, within the framework of a very accommodating civil code. But where to draw those lines? Marriage is a sacrament, but it is also a contract, a modus vivendi, and, in the estimate of many conservatives, the fundamental building block of a free society. How long could a secular and largely liberal democracy — one with a keen interest in improving the social position of women — endure with what amounted to two different bodies of divorce law? About 70 years, as it turns out.

Modern liberal societies value diversity. They tend to welcome immigrants and travelers, to tolerate radical differences, and to accommodate many different modes of living. A certain level of diversity is healthy for a polity for the same reason it is helpful to any other organization: Different people have different ideas and try different things, which is a good way of running a lot of social experiments to figure out what really works best. This often produces results that are maddening to the partisans of rationalism (rationalism in Michael Oakeshott’s sense) who want to impose their plans and efficiencies on society at large and bite their thumbs in frustration that in 2017 we’re still giving students three months off in the summer, a vestige of earlier agrarian habits. They believe that there is a best, most efficient way to do things, and a society that produces 100 ways of doing the same thing must be wrong 99 percent of the time. Correcting those wrongs is what progressives understand their mission in public life to be.

Conservatives, as Russell Kirk argued, value genuine variety, the organic differences that arise out of local practice, spontaneous orders, and the fact that different people are — get this — different. But there can be too much variety, too. Civilizations — Hindu or Anglo-Protestant — are built upon that which is shared. Where that line is drawn isn’t something that can be mathematically derived or empirically justified, and it moves from time to time. Mark Steyn, quoting Lord Moulton earlier this week, made reference to the “realm of manners,” that vast majority of human social life that exists between what is prohibited and what is mandatory, the “domain in which our actions are not determined by law but in which we are not free to behave in any way we choose.”

He spoke in reference to the ongoing protest staged by Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who, cheesed off by . . . something . . . decline to stand for the national anthem. The erosion of these little shared civic ceremonies, Steyn argued, weaken civil society, and would in the end overthrow the realm of manners. The NFL and the Kardashians are to this republic what circuses were to the Roman one, and for all the philosophers’ sneering, bread and circuses are nothing to sneeze at. A shared culture and basic material prosperity paper over a great many differences. People have reacted so strongly to Kaepernick not because they cannot endure the fact that a dopey celebrity has some angry and half-formed political ideas but because he disrupts that little shared ceremony of standing for the national anthem, bringing the realm of the law — politics — into the realm of manners.

In India, they have taken an important step toward a more deeply shared culture: “On this, we will agree,” at least when it comes to the question of divorce. In the United States, we are galloping as fast as we can in the opposite direction, suddenly (but it was not sudden) deciding that we must have riots over century-old statues of Civil War figures that the typical American high-school student could not tell you one thing about, including which side of the war they fought on. We are having a national debate about whether we should continue to have freedom of speech — one of the foundational American principles — which is a very odd and terrifying thing indeed. Can we not agree about that much? Apparently not.

A little diversity — which means a little disagreement — is a good thing from time to time. But the diminishing returns kick in sooner than you’d think, and the curve is steeper than expected.

READ MORE:

India at 70: The Asian Tiger Rising

India Has a Religion Problem

Time for a U.S.-India Rebalance

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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