My book Offence: The Hindu Case was launched ten years ago, on June 29, 2009, at Theosophy Hall in Bombay. Jerry Pinto did the honours, talking about the book, asking me questions about what drove me to write it. At that time, the Hindu right seemed like a fringe trying to disrupt the consensus in India. Indeed, Babri Masjid had already been destroyed; the massacres after the Godhra incident had already killed many in Gujarat – but many who are now seen as visibly bigoted concealed those inner thoughts.
It was not the norm to ask people to demonstrate their patriotism, nor force people to stand up when the national anthem was played, nor lynch, kill, or maim someone suspected of transporting, consuming, or trading beef. Young couples were not hounded by young men asking the couple if they belonged to the same faith, judges did not give lessons in Indian history, and the state did not try to get a woman who had embraced another faith because she loved a man from that faith, to give up the faith and the husband. The artist MF Husain could not return to India, but writers Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, MS Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh were alive.
The book was well-received – reviews in the few newspapers in India that did write about it were positive. An American critic, writing in Far Eastern Economic Review where I used to work once, thought I was being alarmist when I said that the forces of Hindutva would make India look like Nazi Germany or Talibanist Afghanistan. It gives me no joy that the saffron brigade is doing its best to prove me right, bringing India closer to such a reality than I would have ever wished.
Here’s how I ended the book (emphasis mine)“
“After ‘establishing’ that India was always a Hindu civilization, their next target is Islamic invasion. Blaming historians affiliated to Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi for understating the horrors of Muslim rule in India, the revisionists quote Persian scholar Al-Biruni, and Gulbadan, Babar’s daughter, talking about Islamic rulers taking Hindu slaves and killing Hindu women and children, and of how Mahmud Ghazni became one of the richest men in the world in AD 1000 because of the number of Hindu slaves he commanded.
Islam, they then assert, is not a religion of peace. Writers sympathetic to the RSS, Sita Ram Goel for instance, have extensively documented how Islamic invaders destroyed Hindu temples and killed thousands. To set these historical wrongs right, the Hindu activists say they don’t want to reclaim all the temples that were destroyed, they only want Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura. Perhaps they should reflect on an incident from the life of Hindu thinker Swami Vivekananda, who looked disconsolate when he learned of temples destroyed by Muslim invaders in mediaeval India. The Goddess is supposed to have spoken to him at that time, and asked: ‘Do you need my protection, or do I need yours?’ Divinities, if they exist, are presumably strong enough to survive criticism: it is us lesser mortals who are fundamentally incapable of handling criticism.
Temple destruction, the major basis of Hindu complaints, needs to be seen in context. In Kashmir, (Romila) Thapar has shown, whenever the Hindu kings faced a financial crisis, they sent their troops to loot the temple and, if necessary, destroy it. The eleventh-century King Harshadeva appointed officers in a category known as deva utpatana nayaka (officer in charge of uprooting temples). As Thapar demonstrates, the destruction of Hindu temples was by no means a Muslim monopoly. Indeed, the Parmar rulers of Malva went to war against the Chalukyas, which led to the destruction of Jain temples in Saurashtra. The king also destroyed a mosque the Chalukyas had built for Arab traders in Cambay: ‘By destroying their temples and their mosque, he was demonstrating to the local people of Gujarat that he was capable of destroying those who were the backbone of the economy of Gujarat. It is more than just religious iconoclasm’. There are other examples – of a Rashtrakuta king fighting the Pratiharas and his elephants uprooting a temple’s courtyard.
But that’s not the conversation the Hindu nationalists want. They assert that India has failed to come to grips with its past because its mind has been colonized. The Congress leaders who led India’s freedom movement – Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Nehru – were all educated in the UK. They were Anglicized and original Macaulayites, a reference to Thomas Macaulay, whose 1835 Minute on Indian Education led to the spread of English education in India.
Today, Macaulay is known for two statements: that ‘a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’; and that imperial Britain should create ‘a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.’ The Hindu nationalists say that Macaulay’s ‘children’, or India’s English-educated elite – in which they bracket everyone they disagree with – could scarcely understand the reality of India, and must be blamed for all that has gone wrong with the country in its first 50 years of freedom.
The final target is Gandhi. While no BJP leader has openly questioned Gandhi, in the mood Hindutva has allowed, questioning of the orthodoxy around Gandhi has become permissible. Plays and films that show Gandhi in less hagiographic ways than in Sir Richard Attenborough’s film have become popular. No more than any divinity should Gandhi be immune from criticism – he would be the first to deny any halo around his head. Indeed, one of the better effects of Attenborough’s film is that other directors have taken complex personalities from the same period – Subhas Chandra Bose, Ambedkar, Patel and others – and made biographical films about their lives, enriching India’s understanding of its past.
It is the political project behind Hindutva – the undermining of other faiths – that Thapar challenges. Speaking at a history conference in Thiruvananthapuram in 2000, she said: “To comprehend the present and move towards the future requires an understanding of the past: an understanding that is sensitive, analytical and open to critical enquiry. Indian historians’ writing in the last 50 years . . . were not only fine examples of historical enquiry but were also pointers to new ways of extending historical methods. They widened and sharpened the intellectual foundations of the discipline of history and enriched the understanding of the Indian nation. These studies have now come under attack . . . It is because of this assault on history that some of us have to speak in defence of the discipline of history.”
By championing Hindutva, the BJP is making Indians identify with a narrower definition of the state. Its goal is not to win only the next election, but also the next generation. The rewriting of history and the erasure of the past are not to cast fresh light on the past, but to make particular readings of history fit prevailing political requirements. The Hindutva movement is not concerned with what India was like; it wants to shape what India will be like and wants its version of Hinduism to play the defining role. It means hiding inconvenient truths, denigrating complex heroes that muddle the narrative, simplifying the heritage, and destroying or discrediting all those who stand in the way.
This stems from deep-rooted insecurity, not pride. India’s greatest strength has been its openness to external influences. Foreigners who come to India get assimilated. India welcomes alien influences. It honours its artists – it does not hound them. It celebrates its diversity and does not feel threatened by people who think or feel differently. And while these are virtues of the modern Indian nation, they are rooted in that inclusive ethos, which at least coincides with Hinduism’s liberal philosophy, even if not a product of it or influenced by it.
Gandhi talked of inclusive nationalism. Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who wrote the national anthems of India and Bangladesh, shunned the idea of borders; for him, the world was his nation. Gandhi admitted he could not be as broadminded as the poet; nonetheless, he said: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Not for him the cowardly way out of censoring ideas he found challenging. As for Tagore, he taught us something else. In a poem that could well be the anthem for free thought, he wrote:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Whenever Hindu nationalists attack an art gallery, or tear down posters they consider obscene, or demand bans on books they don’t want others to read, or vandalize a research institute, or destroy the home of an editor, or threaten an academic, or run a campaign against a historian they disagree with, or force film studios to change scripts, alter lyrics, or extract apologies from artists, or hurl eggs at scholars, or destroy mosques, rape Muslim women or kill Muslim men and children, they take India into a deeper abyss; they push Hinduism into a darker age. They look and act like the Nazis and the Taliban. They plunge their country into an area of darkness, are untrue to the meaning of their faith and are disloyal to their nation’s constitution. They shame a great nation and belittle how Salman Rushdie saw India: ‘The dream we had all agreed to dream.’”
This article first appeared on Salil Tripathi’s blog.