Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction

By John Witte Jr.; M. Christian Green | Go to book overview

4
Hinduism and Human Rights

WERNER MENSKI

Both terms in the title—“Hinduism” and “human rights”—have many meanings and are internally plural concepts. As Abdullahi An-Na’im’s chapter on Islam herein highlights, such labels catch us in a paradox, setting up ill-mannered shadowboxing contests between proponents of concepts that appear irreconcilable to many observers in ongoing discourses, marked by contradictions, intellectual dishonesty, and much romantic naïveté. Especially in comparison with Islam, scholarship on Hinduism and human rights has not yet progressed beyond levels of superficial engagement. Mutual demonizing prevails, and activist writers get away with twisting even basic facts. While Hinduism is under serious challenge, much evasive action from both sides seems to prevent serious intellectual engagement over what Hinduism and human rights mean and do for each other.

In this chapter, I use the methodology of legal pluralism to try to counter unproductive shadowboxing, and apply what An-Na’im calls “civic reason” to remove the dark shadows of mutual accusations of inferiority. For some human rights lawyers, however, especially those with universalist tendencies, legal pluralism itself remains a dirty word. For they often refuse to acknowledge difference and diversity, and are unwilling or unable to engage in plurality-conscious debate in today’s global contexts. Efforts to silence specific voices or perspectives, while the realities of daily life and law remain deeply pluralistic are unconstructive in discourses about the relations of human rights to different cultures and religions. There is, after all, also a right to culture, and whatever God there may be has chosen not to create people of one kind and/or of one belief. Scholars, however, act as advocates of specific belief systems—including human rights—rather than as objective participants in ongoing global debates about the fundamental rules of human co-existence. At the root of such messiness lies thus unwillingness to respect and accept differences of all kinds and a concomitant desire to draw fixed boundaries where all we have is fuzzy categories, indeed multiple internal pluralities, which I now call “pops”—plurality of pluralities.1

Limited space allows little coverage of human rights generally, which are covered in the other chapters in this volume. Following two methodological sections on the difficulties posed by necessarily pluralist analysis, I seek to outline how even well-meaning human rights activism actually talks past Hindus and fails to involve them in respectful discussions about negotiating diversities and different perspectives. I then outline how different kinds of Hindus have cultivated their own understanding of human rights, demonstrating how in the process they may also fail—in various ways and with various agendas—to portray their respective

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