Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Constance Singam on public discourse

Update (7 Sept 2010): SHWong has commented that I need to clarify the contrast between what Constance said was the reason why Gandhi was killed and the real reason the killers had. So I've revised that portion here.

Constance Singam has recently posted two opinions on matters on public engagement. Her first post titled 'A Secular Society Interrupted'. Her second post titled 'My goodness, you missed the point' is a clarification of her first post.

Since Constance is touching on issue which I am following closely (i.e religion in public engagement), I shall here examine the point she made.

It is commendable that Constance is clear with her stance and the point she wants to make. As stated in her second post:
"... my main concern is whether we are able, if we owe allegiance to a religion, to suspend our religious values in a public space in a secular society rich in diversity of religion, culture and race. This is not, however, a denial of the role of religion in public life and debate on issues and policies. Every individual has a civic responsibility to engage in public debate in areas that matter to them.

My point is that the need to suspend personal beliefs is a critical requirement of policy-makers. Every day, policy-makers are called upon to make decisions that profoundly affect the lives of people. Are they able to suspend the influence of personal factors, such as sex, race and religion, and make decisions based on facts?" (Emphasis added)
She is calling the public to cultivate a habit to evaluate public issues based on facts rather than personal factors such as one's sex, race, and religion.

I do see her good intention.

Nonetheless, I find some problems in Constance's two articles.

First, it is ironic for her who is championing "facts" over "personal factors" to gather support for her argument from fiction. She wrote in her first article:
"Mahatma Gandhi paid the ultimate price when he was killed by a Hindu fanatic for his defence of pluralism."
That statement is wrong on two counts. First, the assassin, Nathuram Godse, and his conspirators did not kill Gandhi on religious reason (as "Hindu fanatic" seems to imply). Second, Gandhi was not killed because of his defense of pluralism.

In an interview with (Feb 14, 2000 Vol. 155 No. 6), Gopal Godse, the brother of Nathuram Godse, revealed why he and his brother wanted Gandhi dead:
TIME: Why did you want to kill Gandhi?

Godse: Gandhi was a hypocrite. Even after the massacre of the Hindus by the Muslims, he was happy. The more the massacres of the Hindus, the taller his flag of secularism. [...] For months he was advising Hindus that they must never be angry with the Muslims. What sort of ahimsa (non-violence) is this? His principle of peace was bogus. In any free country, a person like him would be shot dead officially because he was encouraging the Muslims to kill Hindus.
In another interview with Firdaus Syed Ashraf on (Jan 29, 1998), Gopal Godse gave the same answer:
Firdaus Syed Ashraf: Do you ever regret Mahatma Gandhi's killing?

Gopal Godse: No, never. Gandhi used to claim the Partition would be over his dead body. So after Partition when he didn't die, we killed him. Usually an assassination of a leader is either for personal benefit or to acquire power. We killed Gandhi because he was harmful to India. And it was a selfless act. No one paid us a single penny for it. Our love for the motherland made us do it. We are not ashamed of it. Gandhi should have been honest to admit that his life was a failure.

You see, right from Pakistan and Bangladesh every Muslim is a converted Hindu. Gandhi's appeasement attitude (towards the Muslims) went far too much. That was why we killed him. Two hundred and fifty thousand Hindus were killed in Noakhali in October 1946. Hindu women were forced to remove their sindhoor and do Muslim rituals. And Gandhi said, 'Hindus must bow their heads if Muslims want to kill them. We should follow the principle of ahimsa (non-violence).' How can any sensible person tolerate this? Our action was not for a handful of people -- it was for all the refugees who came from Pakistan.

So, till this day, I have never regreted being one of the conspirators in Gandhi's assassination. In fact, many of Nathuram's friends told me after my release, 'Nathuram ni gadhav pana kela, tyani majha chance ghalavla' (Nathuram did you an injustice. He made you miss your chance to kill Gandhi).
Before his execution, Nathuram Godse in his own court statement dated November 8, 1948, wrote:
"From August 1946 onwards, the private armies of the Muslim League began a massacre of Hindus. The then Viceroy, Lord Wavell, though distressed at what was happening, would not use his powers under the Government of India Act of 1935 to prevent the rape, murder and arson. The Hindu blood began to flow from Bengal to Karachi with little retaliation by the Hindus. The Interim Government formed in September was sabotaged by its Muslim League members right from its inception [...]

One of the conditions imposed by Gandhi for his breaking of the fast related to the mosques in Delhi occupied by the Hindu refugees. But when Hindus in Pakistan were subjected to violent attacks he did not so much as utter a single word to protest and censure the Pakistan Government or the Muslims concerned. Gandhi was shrewd enough to know that while undertaking a fast unto death, had he imposed some conditions on the Muslims in Pakistan, there would have been found hardly any Muslims who could have shown some grief if the fast had ended in his death. It was for this reason that he purposely avoided imposing any conditions on the Muslims."
Constance stated that the killers of Gandhi wanted him dead for the reason that he was promoting a pluralistic society where various people can live together in harmony. But the Godse brothers were indignant towards Gandhi not because he was promoting pluralism. They wanted Gandhi dead because he was preventing and denying justice to the community of Hindus. They thought Gandhi was treating the Hindus unjustly and hence he has to be stopped in order to prevent further harm inflicted on the community.

Constance urges people to engage based on facts, but she fails to do so herself. She got too carried away by her own personal factor (a secularist who is arguing for secularism) that she simply disconnects with facts? Her fictional account on the assassination of Gandhi suggests so.

Besides that, Constance's categorization of "facts" as opposed to "personal factors" is dubious. First, personal factors are facts; a person's religious belief affects the person's thoughts.

For instance, someone whose religious belief commands equal treatment to all humans despite different races will advocate public-policies according to that religious belief. Hence the distinction is not between facts and personal factors. Rather, it is between facts and facts; which fact best serves what cause?

In using misleading categories, Constance has committed what is known as the 'equivocation fallacy'.

Second, the fact that Constance is advancing a fact-based-public-discourse already betrays the fact (pun intended) that she has fallen into a meta-ethical conundrum. David Hume has sounded this fact-value problem more than 270 years ago. What is a fact cannot be readily assumed to be a value; 'is' is not 'ought'.

Besides her confusion over the fact-value problem, Constance gave false analogy for her argument if she was referring to the Roman Catholic's teaching when she wrote in her first article:
"The fact is that the use of condoms prevents unwanted pregnancies and STI (sexually transmitted infections). That the use of condoms is wrong or immoral is a religious view not based on fact. Another example is the status of women. The claim that women should be subservient to men is a religious and/or cultural attitude and not one based on fact."
If indeed she was referring to the Roman Catholic's teaching, then she has misunderstood them thoroughly. The Roman Catholic church is against the use of condom among its followers not because condoms prevents unwanted pregnancies and STI.

Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family's statement:
"The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable. Contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity; it is contrary to the good of the transmission of life (the procreative aspect of matrimony), and to the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses (the unitive aspect of matrimony); it harms true love and denies the sovereign role of God in the transmission of human life."
The Roman Catholic church concerns over the "transmission of human life." It is not about unwanted pregnancies or STI. It is about the function of marriage as celebrated through the church's tradition. (My elaboration of the Roman Catholic's teaching does not mean I agree with it. What I am doing here is to show how Constance has misrepresented the Roman Catholic's teaching on contraception if she was referring to them).

Overall, Constance's articles, besides providing false information about Gandhi, add no constructive contribution at all to the discourse about public engagement in a multicultural context such as Singapore. Her posts suggest that secularists are often clueless about the real world.

The problems in her articles that I have pointed out are not new. The discourse over such matters as seen in the works of Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Slavoj Žižek, Philip Blond, John Gray and others has advanced beyond where Constance is still stuck at. Nonetheless, her clarity in proposing her case is well noted and commendable.Justify Full


SHWong said...

"She wrote in her first article:

"Mahatma Gandhi paid the ultimate price when he was killed by a Hindu fanatic for his defence of pluralism."

That statement is wrong on two counts. First, the assassin, Nathuram Godse, and his conspirators did not kill Gandhi on religious reason. Second, Gandhi was not killed because of his defense of pluralism."

After reading the 3 interviews you quoted, I still fail to see why that statement is wrong. Godse's testimony demonstrates (to me) that he killed for religious reasons. And he killed because Gandhi defended against violence towards the Muslims.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi SHWong,

Let me see if I can put it clearer.

Constance was saying Gandhi was killed because he was defending a society where different people can have their own way of life.

The Godse brothers were saying that Gandhi must die because he was being unjust. Why unjust? Because Gandhi treated the Muslims differently from how he treated the Hindus. Because of his unjust treatment, many Hindus suffered unjustly.

In other words, Gandhi demanded the Hindus to keep quiet while being killed and tortured by the Muslims. But Gandhi didn't do anything to stop the Muslims' violence on the Hindus. That's why the Godse brothers saw it as their duty as citizens to stop this injustice by killing the perpetrator, that is Gandhi.

Is this clearer?

SHWong said...

I agree that's much clearer. However, pluralism is not simply "different people can have their own way of life". Pluralism is learning to live with each other peacefully. Since violence begets violence, non-violence is the proper response (to Gandhi) against violence.

Sze Zeng said...

There are several facets need to be taken into consideration, I think.

Non-violence as proper response to violence is one thing. Upholding justice as the responsibility of the state is another.

To the Godse, Gandhi is guilty of the latter, and so his pacifist response is suspect. I don't think the Godse were against pacifism per se, and therefore they were against Gandhi.

They were against Gandhi because he was being unjust. And therefore they saw Gandhi's adoption of pacifism as unjust to the situation of their time.

The point is that Constance got it wrong that Gandhi was killed because of his defense of pluralism. He was killed because he was perceived as unjust. The main motivation of the Godse is to see the elimination of Gandhi as the elimination of injustice. In other words, the Godse's action is motivated by their pursuit of justice.