The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism
Series: Feminist Technosciences
- ISBN: 9780295745596
- Published By: University of Washington Press
- Published: June 2019
Reading Banu Subramaniam is equal parts pleasure and provocation as the author explores the nuance of the neoliberal style and the lingering ghosts of the (post)colonial style of engaging with modernity and scientific progress in Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism. Subramaniam follows in the legacy of Donna Haraway’s work as ways of coping with Hindu nationalist claims to ancient Indic pharmacology, architecture, transportation, and weaponry to rival contemporary developments founded in Western science. Subramaniam offers methods for scholars to embrace the potential of subaltern theories of knowledge without resorting to “binary logics” of “science and religion, nature and culture, human and nonhuman,” “imperial Western logics and nativist religious nationalisms” (xiii)
The structure of Holy Science knits the fabric of Michel Foucault’s latter work on biopolitics in Europe to the colonial legacies of racism, classism, casteism, sexism, and ableist theories of embodiment remaining in Indian nationalism. Against the grain of these readings lie local and contingent reactions that develop from already present systems of healing bodies, building homes, delimiting sexual mores and surrogacy, and protecting areas of local environments from development. Subramaniam’s introduction elaborates on her argument in five sections: bionationalism, archaic modernities, research centers as India’s modern temples, the relation between secularism and religion “at its most capacious,” and Eurocentric framing, which the book attempts to subvert. Subramaniam demonstrates how science is intertwined with systems of power and its knowledge, arising out of the same matrix as political and social forms of practice (9).
The five case studies Subramaniam presents in Holy Science build on these themes of how science and religion relate through the lens of Hindu nationalism, and then diverge and divide to offer “progressive possibilities” beyond the binary logics at play (71). Chapter 1 traces the contours of Hindu nationalism as exemplified by Narendra Modi. The strong masculinist tendencies of Modi’s party are seen in their adoption of the nuclear bomb as śakti, or the feminine power of possibility, which reinvigorated Indian men after the emasculation of colonialist conquest by non-Hindu rulers beforehand. This also implicates women as forms of power who have to be controlled at the level of the family unless dedicated to national or religious service as ascetics (55).
After this initial framing, Subramaniam explores the domestic practices of vāstruśāstra, or “the science of architecture,” as they became supported by the BJP’s national government. Similar to feng shui, vāstuśāstra has been extolled as scientific and ancient knowledge to inspire success along traditional religious lines as well as in the modern world of examination-based curriculum, neoliberal workplaces, and biomedical intervention in human flourishing.
In chapter 2, Subramaniam turns to the colonial legal code and how British common law continues to frame the Indian public’s imagination of homosexuality as unnatural. Reviewing recent attempts by activists and religious groups to interpret the law, I was reminded of Michael Bronkowski’s similar work in A Queer History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2011). In both cases, the British legal ruling of homosexuality was covered under the guise of “unnatural acts.”. The range of practices this vague wording covered allowed for local flexibility in its practice. Subramaniam has an excellent discussion of how queer activists invoking local deities such as Ayyappan the son of Vishnu and Shiva in south India, found common ground with religious nationalists. Simultaneously, the eugenics programs of the British became encoded into new scientific framings of caste and gender within Hindutva interpretations of the law until the Indian Supreme Court ruled against homosexuality falling under the purvey of IPC 377.
Chapters 3–5 all build off Subramaniam’s astonishing insight into this interlinking of bionationalism with an “archaic modernity” seen in other Indian discourses arising in the nationalist era, such as Rukmini Devi Arundale’s framing of Bharatanāṭyam as the “dance of India” to form a bridge to the past. Chapter 3 discusses the parallel projects of Indian environmentalists and religious nationalists to protect the area between the southern coast of India and Sri Lanka from the Setusamudram Shipping Canal Project being dredged in 2005, paused in 2007 and 2009 by legal challenges. While environmentalists focused on the impact of the project to native ecosystems and the diverse biome around the coral reefs, Hindutva constituents and leaders argued that the series of underwater structures were the bridge erected by Hanuman in the Ramayana to bring Rāma’s army to Lanka.
Chapter 4 describes Indian responses to mapping the human genome at local levels, such as by Dalit activists who find DNA links between lighter-skinned, upper-caste individuals to match closer to European patterns than fellow Indians of lower-caste background. As a form of self-governing (swadeshi), Hindutva attempts to control “the Indian genome” likewise find similar links among Indians of different castes in opposing studies.
Last, in chapter 5 Subramaniam examines Modi’s approach to biopolitics when governing Gujarat during the boom in international surrogacy. As a form of neoliberal “development,” Indian women of lower-class backgrounds found it possible to become surrogates easily under Modi’s government, which turned the former eugenics of British colonialism into an economic boon for the state. In 2014, however, national attention to the issue ended all international surrogacy, including for Indians abroad who needed help conceiving.
One would be remiss to not return to the speculative fiction strands woven in Holy Science as the counterpoint to Subramaniam’s science and technology studies and feminist analysis. In conceiving of alternatives to the dominant heteronormative standards of birth, for instance, chapter 5 ends with religious narratives where procreation occurs outside bodies, enabling agency for rivers, fire, birds, and other animals as well as spontaneous generation of living beings from Indian stories. This idea of “porous wombs, imbibing their cultural surroundings” suggests the main themes of Subramaniam’s speculative fiction interludes in what is called Avatara Lokam (204). These sections are inspiring, with their imagery of a nonbinary, playful, and category-breaking infusion of hope into the otherwise dire uses that Hindutva biopolitics has brought to the attention of scholars since the Babri Masjid. Subramaniam’s work is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary impurity between the humanities and sciences.
Jeremy Hanes is an independent scholar.Jeremy HanesDate Of Review:January 5, 2022