India: Large and Small

Some Personal Memories

This is a general book on India, and should perhaps be uncompromisingly impersonal. However, I will take the liberty of talking a little, with due apology, about some personal memories. Many of my childhood years were spent in my grandparents’ home at Santiniketan, where I studied at the school that Rabindranath Tagore had established and where my grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen, taught. He was, among other things, a well-known Sanskritist (he was even officially titled a ‘Pundit’, related to his accomplishments at traditional centres of Sanskritic education in Benares), and he was also a major expert on Hinduism, focusing both on its formidable classical heritage and on the medieval religious literature and other devotional poetry (such as that of Kabir, Dadu, the Bauls of Bengal).* We did not have any religious rituals at home, but my grandparents had fairly firm religious convictions, in line with a contemplative and rather non-ceremonial version of Hinduism. Also, Kshiti Mohan was often asked to speak at heterodox religious meetings in Santiniketan, Calcutta and elsewhere.

Since my childhood thoughts – for what they were worth – did not attract me at all to religion, I asked my grandfather whether I should be concerned that religion did not appeal to me. He told me, ‘No, in fact there is no case for having religious convictions until you are able to think seriously for yourself – it will come with time.’ Since, in my case, it did not come at all (my scepticism seemed to mature with age), I told my grandfather, some years later, that he had been absolutely wrong. ‘Not at all,’ replied my grandfather, ‘you have addressed the religious question, and you have placed yourself, I see, in the atheistic – the Lokāyata – part of the Hindu spectrum!’

I remember reflecting on that large view of Hinduism when, some years later, I was helping my grandfather to produce and edit the English version of a book on Hinduism which he had written in Bengali (he knew little English), at the invitation of Penguin Books.* This book, published in 1961, was a great success, both in English (with many reprints on both sides of the Atlantic), and in translations into other languages (French, Dutch, Spanish, but also Farsi and Japanese). Among its substantive accomplishments, Kshiti Mohan’s book brought out with much clarity the heterodoxy of beliefs that Hinduism allowed, with a rich variety of well-developed but diverse religious arguments. Kshiti Mohan identified an overarching liberality as being part and parcel of the basic Hindu approach, and saw it as one of its intellectual contributions to the world of thought: ‘Hinduism also points out that a difference of metaphysical doctrine need not prevent the development of an accepted basic code of conduct. The important thing about a man is hisdharma [roughly, the personal basis of behaviour], not necessarily his religion.’1 That pride in liberality and tolerance contrasts rather sharply with the belligerently sectarian interpretation of Hinduism which is now becoming common through its politicization.

I shall not enter here into the difficult question of the role Hindu tradition may have played in sustaining a dialogic culture and the tolerance of heterodoxy in India, with which this book is much concerned. Some of the most articulate and ardent advocates of tolerance and mutual respect in India were not themselves Hindu, such as Ashoka, who was a Buddhist, and Akbar, who was a Muslim, but they too belonged to a broad culture in which Hindu heterodoxy was vigorously present. As was discussed in the first essay, there is a long tradition of tolerating doubts and disagreements within Hinduism, going back to the ancient Vedas, some three and a half thousand years ago, which made room for profound scepticism: ‘Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced?… Whence this creation has arisen – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not?’

Indeed, as was discussed in Essay 1, in some of the controversies (for example, between Rama and Jāvāli in the Rāmāyaṇa and between Krishna and Arjuna in the Mahābhārata), intricate arguments against Rama’s and Krishna’s orthodox views are elaborately accommodated and carefully preserved in the body of the established texts themselves. Even though orthodoxy is shown to win at the end, the vanquished scepticism lives on, well conserved in the dialogic account. The Rāmāyaṇa notes that Jāvāli describes the decisions taken by the epic hero Rama – the same Rama whose divinity has been an act of faith in recently politicized Hinduism – as extremely ‘foolish’, especially for (to quote Jāvāli) ‘an intelligent and wise man’. Jāvāli is given the opportunity in the epic to spell out why he comes to that negative judgement: ‘I am really anxious for those who, disregarding all tangible duties and works that lie within the province of perception, busy themselves with ethereal virtue alone. They just suffer various miseries here on earth, preceding their annihilation by death.’2 The elaborate presentation of alternative points of views draws attention to the plurality of perspectives and arguments, and this tradition of accommodating heterodoxy receives, as was discussed in Essay 1, extensive support within well-established Hindu documents (for example in the fourteenth-century study Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha (‘Collection of All Philosophies’), where sixteen contrary and competing viewpoints are sequentially presented in as many chapters).

In contrast with this large view, many Hindu political activists today seem bent on doing away with the broad and tolerant parts of the Hindu tradition in favour of a uniquely ascertained – and often fairly crude – view which, they demand, must be accepted by all. The piously belligerent army of Hindu politics would rather take us away from these engagingly thoughtful discussions and would have us embrace instead their much-repeated public proclamations, for example that Rama, the epic hero, is an incarnation of God; that all Hindus worship him; and that he was born on a well-identified spot ‘nine lakh [900,000] years ago’.3 We are thus not allowed to see the Rāmāyaṇa as ‘a marvellous parable’ (as Rabindranath Tagore saw it),* but as a historical document which cannot be questioned. It is also taken to have enough legal status to give actively destructive Hindu politicians a licence to tear down a place of worship of other people (the Babri mosque, in this case, demolished in December 1992) to build a temple to Rama, in celebration of his alleged birth exactly there.

There is also a further claim that, before it was demolished by the Hindu activists, the Babri mosque (or masjid) stood precisely at the site of an earlier Hindu temple, allegedly destroyed to build the mosque. This historical claim (whether or not correct), the authenticity of which is currently under scrutiny (by no less a body than the Supreme Court of India), has to be distinguished from the more gigantic claim that Rama, the divine incarnation, was born there, before recorded history began.

Why any of these theories – historical or religious – even if they were accepted, would give a licence for religious vandalism or sectarian destruction is not at all clear. But in addition, even within the orthodoxy of Hinduism, the insistence that the religious claims of a particular group must be accepted as indisputable truth would be a remarkably constricted view. Many Hindu schools of thought do not mention Rama at all, and, among the texts that do, many hardly portray him in the spectacular light of divinity in which the present-day Hindutva activists insist on seeing him. Indeed, the Rāmāyaṇa itself, as just discussed, makes room for those who totally disagree with Rama to articulate, rather elaborately, their doubts.

In addition to favouring narrowly religious certainty, Hindu political activists clearly prefer to dwell on inter-religious confrontations, rather than on the tradition of the peaceful presence of different faiths, side by side. Indians – Hindus as well as others – can actually take some pride in the fact that persecuted minorities (such as Jews, Christians, Parsees) from abroad have come to India over many centuries, seeking a new and unpersecuted life, and have, by and large, found it possible. A continuation of that tolerant and receptive tradition can also be found in the liberal writings of modern-day political or literary leaders, such as Gandhi or Tagore. It is well represented in the speeches and religious writings of many non-aggressive Hindu leaders of our own time, such as Vivekananda.4

It is not, however, particularly worthwhile to enter into a debate over whether the liberal, tolerant and receptive traditions within Hinduism may in any sense be taken to be more authentic than the narrower and more combative interpretations that have been forcefully championed by present-day Hindu politics. It is sufficient to note here that there is a well-established capacious view of a broad and generous Hinduism, which contrasts sharply with the narrow and bellicose versions that are currently on political offer, led particularly by parts of the Hindutva movement.

The Emergence of Hindutva

How old is the Hindutva movement? It is a relatively new development in Indian politics, but it has become a powerful force. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political party that represents the Hindutva movement in the Indian parliament, was in office in New Delhi between 1998 and 2004, through leading a coalition government, until its electoral defeat in May 2004.

Although Hinduism is an ancient religion, Hindutva is quite a recent political movement. A political party called the ‘Hindu Mahasabha’ did exist before India’s independence, and its successor, the ‘Jan Sangh’, commanded the loyalty of a small proportion of Hindus. But neither party was a political force to reckon with in the way the BJP and its associates have now become. With its coalition partners, which include largely secular but regional parties from different parts of India (some with only local support) and a relatively tiny militant Hindu party (the Shiv Sena, with a local base in the state of Maharashtra), the BJP took control of the central government in 1998, and, after some defections, formed a new coalition to secure a joint electoral win again, in 1999.

The BJP’s rise has been meteoric. In the Lok Sabha (the powerful lower house) of the Indian parliament, the BJP had just two seats in 1984. In 1989 it won 85 seats. By 1991 it had managed to get 119 seats, by 1998 it had 182 seats, and in 1999 it again captured 182 seats. While that was still a minority, in a house of 543 seats in all, it was adequate for the BJP, as the largest single party, to be the leading partner of a coalition (National Democratic Alliance) that ruled India until 2004. In the May 2004 elections, however, the BJP went down from 182 seats to only 138, with the Indian National Congress emerging as the largest party in parliament (with 145 seats), commanding majority support with its own allies (218 seats in all) and the backing of the parties of the left (60 seats).

If the BJP suffered a substantial decline, losing a quarter of its parliamentary seats, most of the ‘secular’ parties in the BJP-led alliance suffered a catastrophic debacle, with the AIDMK in Tamil Nadu losing all its seats, the Trinamool in West Bengal losing all but one, and the economically dynamic Telegu Desom Party of Andhra Pradesh being reduced to 5 seats from a previous total of 29. The voters seem to have been particularly harsh on most of the secular collaborators of the BJP.

Even though the BJP is no longer dominant, in the way it was over the last few years, it remains a politically powerful force, and is working hard to return to office before long. The BJP has maximally received around a quarter of the votes cast in Indian general elections. This happened in 1998 – its vote share fell from a peak of 26 per cent in 1998 to 24 per cent in 1999, and down to 22 per cent in 2004, with Congress getting 27 per cent. Yet the BJP does have loyal support from a committed group of supporters, and it is an important part of the contemporary Indian political scene. But since the BJP is dependent on its coalitions to get into office, its effective strength depends on its ability to attract support from beyond the immediate BJP fold.

The BJP’s powerful role in mainstream Indian politics and the might of the Hindutva movement are parts of the new political reality in India. In the early years after independence, the broad and inclusive concept of an Indian identity which had emerged during the long struggle for freedom commanded sweeping allegiance.5 The determination to preserve that capacious identity was strengthened by the deep sense of tragedy associated with the partitioning of the subcontinent, and also by considerable national pride in the fact that despite the political pressure for ‘an exchange of people’, the bulk of the large Muslim population in independent India chose to stay in India rather than move to Pakistan. This inclusive identity, which acknowledged and embraced internal heterogeneity and celebrated the richness of diversity, went with an adamant refusal to prioritize the different religious communities against each other.

It is this spacious and absorptive idea of Indianness that has been severely challenged over recent decades.6 At the risk of slight oversimplification, it can be said that the movement sees Hindutva (literally, ‘the quality of Hinduism’) as a quintessential guide to ‘Indianness’. Even though the movement had relatively little public support at the time of Indian independence, the idea of ‘Hindutva’ as a political ideology had already been launched more than two decades earlier. Indeed, the concept of Hindutva was elaborately discussed in a book of that name, published in 1923, authored by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, often called ‘Veer’ (valiant) Savarkar, a Hindu chauvinist leader of remarkable energy.7 While it is often assumed that in pre-partition India the claim that the Hindus and Muslims formed ‘two distinct nations’ – not two parts of the same Indian nation – was formulated by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (in the context of making a case for the partition of the country on religious lines), it was in fact Savarkar who had floated the idea well before – more than fifteen years earlier than – Jinnah’s first invoking of the idea. Nathuram Godse, who murdered Mahatma Gandhi for his failure to support the demands of Hindu politics of the day, was a disciple of Savarkar.8

The BJP gets political support from a modest minority of Indians, and, no less to the point, a limited minority of the Hindus. As was noted earlier, the proportion of total votes in Indian parliamentary elections that the BJP has maximally managed to get has been only about 26 per cent (as was mentioned earlier, it has now fallen to 22 per cent), in a country where more than 80 per cent of the total population happen to belong to the Hindu community. It is certainly not the party of choice of most Hindus – far from it. There is also a distinctly regional pattern in the political divisions in India. Indeed, there are several Indian states in which the BJP has never won even a single parliamentary seat.

The politics of Hindutva is promoted by a family of Hindu political organizations of which the BJP is only one part. The ‘Sangh Parivar’, as it is called, is led by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) or ‘organization of national volunteers’, which is in many ways the core organization of the parivār (Sanskrit for family). The RSS provides theoretical analyses as well as functional activities in the promotion of Hindutva. The Sangh Parivar also includes the ‘Vishwa Hindu Parishad’ (VHP), or the World Council of Hindus, devoted not just to religion (as the name indicates) but to intensely religious politics championing what they see as Hinduism. It also includes the ‘Sewa Bharti’, dedicated to welfare programmes linked with the Hindutva movement. There is in addition the ‘Bajrang Dal’, the violently energetic youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which has been accused – by the international Human Rights Watch as well as the Indian Human Rights Commission – of direct involvement in the killing of Muslims in the Gujarat riots in 2002. The BJP is the official political arm of the Sangh Parivar, and most of the major leaders of the BJP have been members of the RSS for a long time.

The Hindutva movement has had a strong effect on recent political developments in India, and has added very substantially to the politics of sectarianism.9 It is therefore important to investigate the nature of the intellectual claims it makes and the arguments it presents. Since the Hindutva movement has been accompanied by violent physical actions, including the killing and terrorizing of minorities (as happened in Bombay in 1992–3 and in Gujarat in 2002), it is difficult to have patience with its intellectual beliefs and public proclamations. But losing patience is not a useful way of addressing any problem – even one with such violent associations. The heterogeneity reflected by the different components of the Hindutva movement also demands that its intellectual wing should receive attention, notwithstanding what their more violent comrades prefer to do.

In fact, while the hard core of ‘Hindutva’ advocates is relatively small in number, around them cluster a very much larger group, whom I will call ‘proto-Hindutva’ enthusiasts. They are typically less zealous than the Hindutva champions and are opposed to violence in general (and are typically quite put off by it),10 but they nevertheless see a basic asymmetry between the pre-eminence of Hinduism in India and the claims of other religions which are ‘also present’ in India. They agree, thus, with the ideology of Hindutva in giving a primary status to the Hindus in India, compared with the adherents of other faiths.

The argument for this asymmetry seems to draw on two facts:

(1) the statistical fact that the Hindus form an overwhelming majority of Indians (no other community comes anywhere close to it numerically), and

(2) the historical and cultural fact that the Hindu tradition goes back more than three thousand years in Indian history (at least to the Vedas) and that nearly every part of the Indian culture bears the historical imprint of Hindu thoughts and practices.

Both are undoubtedly weighty considerations and deserve serious attention and scrutiny.

Numbers and Classification

The statistical argument starts clearly with a correct premise: more than four-fifths of the Indian citizens are Hindus in terms of standard classification, even though the beliefs of Hindus, as already discussed, are often thoroughly diverse (the ‘official’ number of Hindus includes even agnostics and atheists of Hindu social background). This statistical fact has appeared to many – not just the Hindutva enthusiasts – to be grounds enough for an immediate identification of India as a pre-eminently Hindu country. That summary reductionism appeals also to many international journalists – even of the leading newspapers in Europe and America – who persistently describe India as a ‘mainly Hindu country’: it saves space in newspaper columns and seems accurate enough in some sense.

It also attracts academics who can perhaps be described as ‘intellectual simplifiers’. For example, in his famous book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,11 Samuel Huntington places India firmly in the category of ‘the Hindu civilization’. In taking this peculiarly reductionist view, Huntington’s perspective has to downplay the fact that India has many more Muslims (more than 140 million – larger than the entire British and French populations put together) than any other country in the world with the exception of Indonesia and, marginally, Pakistan, and that nearly every country in Huntington’s definition of ‘the Islamic civilization’ has far fewer Muslims than India has. Something goes wrong here with the number-based assessment. But perhaps the difficulties in using the statistical argument lie in the nature of the argument itself.

The first difficulty is that a secular democracy which gives equal room to every citizen irrespective of religious background cannot be fairly defined in terms of the majority religion of the country. There is a difference between a constitutionally secular nation with a majority Hindu population and a theocratic Hindu state that might see Hinduism as its official religion (Nepal comes closer to the latter description than does India). Furthermore, no matter what the official standing of any community as a group may be, the status of individual citizens cannot be compromised by the smallness (if that is the case) of the group to which he or she belongs.*

To make a comparison, when the United States declared independence in 1776 the different religious communities were quite diverse in size: the new polity could have been described as being a ‘largely Christian country’ in the way India is seen by some as a ‘mainly Hindu country’. But this did not derail the need for the US constitution to take a neutral view of the specific beliefs of the members of the different communities – non-Christian as well as Christian – irrespective of group dimensions. The respective sizes of the different religious communities should not be allowed to disrupt the rights, including the sense of belonging, that every citizen should be able to enjoy.

The second difficulty is conceptually deeper. What is seen as a majority depends critically on what principle of classification is used. The people of India can be classified on the basis of different criteria, of which religion is only one. It is, for example, also possible to categorize Indians according to class, or language, or literature, or political beliefs, to mention just a few. What counts as an ‘Indian majority’ depends therefore on the categories into which the nation is classified. There is no unique way of categorizing people.

For example, the status of being a majority in India can be attributed, among other groups, to

(1) the category of low- or middle-income people (say, the bottom 60 per cent of the population);

(2) the class of non-owners of much capital;

(3) the group of rural Indians;

(4) the people who do not work in the organized industrial sector; and

(5) Indians who are against religious persecution.

Each group thus identified is in fact a majority in its respective system of categorization, and their common characteristics can be taken to be important, depending on the context. In order to attach immense significance to the fact that Hindus constitute a majority group in Indian society in one particular system of classification, the priority of that religion-based categorization over other systems of classification would have to be established first.

It is possible to argue that the way a person is to be categorized must be, ultimately, for him or her to determine, rather than everyone being forced into a unique and pre-selected classification that ignores other principles of grouping. The fact that considerably less than a third of the Hindu population in India vote for the parties that belong to the Hindutva family would suggest that the religious identity of Hindutva is not seen as being of primary political importance by a large majority of Indian Hindus.

There is, in fact, nothing particularly odd in this dissociation. When, for example, people from what was then East Pakistan sought – and achieved – separation and independence as Bangladesh, they were not arguing that their principal religious identity was different from what characterized the people of West Pakistan: the vast majority of people in both East and West Pakistan shared the same religious identity. The Easterners wanted separation for reasons that linked firmly with language and literature (particularly the place of their mother tongue, Bengali) and also with political – including secular – priorities. While the statistics of Hindu majority are indeed correct, the use of the statistical argument for seeing India as a pre-eminently Hindu country is based on a conceptual confusion: our religion is not our only identity, nor necessarily the identity to which we attach the greatest importance.*

History and Indian Culture

Is the historical reasoning behind seeing India as a mainly Hindu country less problematic and more convincing than the statistical argument? Certainly, the ancientness of the Hindu tradition cannot be disputed. However, other religions, too, have had a long history in India, which has been, for a very long time indeed, a multi-religious country, making room for many different faiths and beliefs. Aside from the obvious and prominent presence of Muslims in India for well over a millennium (Muslim Arab traders settled in India from the eighth century), India was not a ‘Hindu country’ even before the arrival of Islam. Buddhism was the dominant religion in India for nearly a millennium. Indeed, Chinese scholars regularly described India as ‘the Buddhist kingdom’.

In fact, Buddhism is arguably as much an inheritor of the earlier Indian traditions of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads as Hinduism is, since both the religious traditions drew on these classics. Scholars in China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and other countries to which Buddhism went were introduced to the Upaniṣads mainly through their studies of Buddhism. Jainism, too, has had a similarly long history and in fact has a large presence in India today.

Also, as was discussed in Essay 1, there has been a very long and substantial tradition of atheism and agnosticism in India, which was already well developed in the first millennium BCE. And to this has to be added the early presence, also discussed in Essay 1, of Christians, Jews and Parsees from the first millennium CE, and the late – but vigorous – emergence of Sikhism in India as a universalist conviction that drew on both the Hindu and Islamic traditions but developed a new religious understanding. The high ground of history is certainly not comfortable for a Hindu sectarian outlook, which is one reason why there has been such a flurry of attempts by political fanatics to rewrite Indian history, which has produced much drama and some farce (to which I shall return later on in this essay).

No less importantly, it would be futile to try to have an understanding of the nature and range of Indian art, literature, music, architecture, cinema, theatre or food without seeing the contributions of constructive efforts that have defied the alleged barriers of religious communities.* Indeed, interactions in everyday living, or in cultural activities, are not segregated along communal lines. For example, Ravi Shankar, the magnificent musician and sitarist, may be contrasted with Ali Akbar Khan, the great sarod player, on the basis of their particular mastery over different forms of Indian music, but never as a ‘Hindu musician’ or a ‘Muslim musician’ respectively (though one does happen to be a Hindu and the other a Muslim). The same applies to other fields of cultural creativity, not excluding Bollywood – that great ingredient of Indian mass culture. India’s cultural life does indeed bear the mark of the past, but the mark is that of its interactive and multi-religious history.

Hindus and Muslims in History

Even though Indian history may, in general, be a difficult battleground for the Hindutva view, much more specialized success has been achieved by the Hindutva movement through agitation and propaganda that build on what is trumpeted as a historical ‘guilt’ of the Muslim conquerors who overran India. Indeed, the main political moves to undermine Indian secularism have tended to focus, not on discussing the broad current of India’s social, cultural or intellectual history, but rather on arbitrarily highlighting specially chosen episodes or anecdotes of Muslim maltreatment of Hindus, evidently aimed at generating the desired anti-Muslim and anti-secular sentiments.

These accounts draw on history, but work through motivated selection and purposefully designed emphases as well as frequent exaggeration. It is certainly true that, from the eleventh century, early Muslim invaders did demolish – or mutilate – a remarkable number of temples, at the same time causing general devastation and bloodshed. For example, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, coming from Afghanistan, repeatedly invaded north and west India in the eleventh century, devastated several cities and ruined many temples, including particularly famous ones in Mathura, Kanauj, and what is now Kathiawar (where the wonderful Somnath temple had been widely renowned for its treasures). Alberuni, the Arab-Iranian traveller and distinguished mathematician, who would later learn Sanskrit and write a great book about India, saw the atrocities and wrote about the nastiness of Mahmud’s barbaric behaviour.12

The ‘slash and burn’ culture of the Muslim invaders, making bloody excursions into India, did, however, gradually give way to immigration into India and to settling in the country, leading to Indianization of Muslim rulers. It would be as silly to deny the barbarities of the invasive history as it would be to see this savagery as the main historical feature of the Muslim presence in India. Recounting the destructions caused by Mahmud of Ghazni and other invaders cannot make us forget the long history of religious tolerance in India, and the fact that the conquering Muslim rulers, despite a fiery and brutal entry, soon developed – with a few prominent exceptions – basically tolerant attitudes.

Muslim rulers in India, such as the Moghals, could hardly be generally characterized as destroyers rather than as builders. Hindutva accounts of Muslim rulers tend to take such a partisan view that they end up being very like the reading of Indian history that Rabindranath Tagore had ridiculed as ‘foreigner’s history’. In an essay written more than a century ago (in 1902), he wrote:

The history of India that we read in schools and memorize to pass examinations is the account of a horrible dream – a nightmare through which India has passed. It tells of unknown people from no one knows where entering India; bloody wars breaking out; father killing son and brother killing brother to snatch at the throne; one set of marauders passing away with another coming in to take its place; Pathan and Mughal, Portuguese, French and English – all helping to add to the nightmarish confusion.13

The history of India does indeed contain many nightmarish elements, but it also includes conversations and discussions, and extensive joint efforts in literature, music, painting, architecture, jurisprudence and a great many other creative activities. And it has included ways and means of allowing people of dissimilar convictions to live peacefully together rather than going constantly for each other’s jugular.

Some Muslim rulers, in particular, were extremely keen on celebrating diversity and on protecting the rights of each religious group to pursue their own beliefs and traditions. Reference has already been made to the great emperor Akbar, who reigned from 1556 to 1605, and who was deeply interested in Hindu philosophy and culture along with other religious traditions (such as Christianity and Zoroastrianism). As was discussed in the earlier essays, Akbar tried also to initiate, not with great success, a synthetic religion (the ‘Din-ilahi’), drawing on the different faiths in India. Akbar’s court was filled with Hindu as well as Muslim artists, musicians, painters, scholars and writers, and his pronouncements on tolerance were quite magnificent then and remain rather remarkable, even today. Indeed, Akbar was a major theorist in the direction of toleration, and was a pioneering leader in the world in arranging inter-faith dialogues involving scholars from different religious backgrounds.

Many of the other essays of this volume go into the different ways in which Hindus and Muslims have interacted with each other in cultural, scientific and other creative pursuits. However, since the ancient epics the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata have already figured a certain amount in this book, it would perhaps be interesting to mention that the very successful and extremely popular Bengali translations of these epics owed much to the efforts of the Muslim Pathan kings of Bengal. Dinesh Chandra Sen’s authoritative account of the history of Bengali literature describes the events thus:

The Pathans occupied Bengal early in the thirteenth century.… The Pathan Emperors learned Bengali and lived in close touch with the teeming Hindu population.… The Emperors heard of the far-reaching fame of the Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and observed the wonderful influence they exercised in moulding the religious and domestic lives of the Hindus, and they naturally felt the desire to be acquainted with the contents of those poems.… They appointed scholars to translate the works into Bengali which they now spoke and understood. The first Bengali translation of the Mahabharata of which we hear was undertaken at the order of Nasira Saha, the Emperor of Gauda [in Bengal] who ruled for 40 years till 1325 A.D.… The name of the Emperor of Gauda who appointed Krittivasa to translate the Ramayana is not known with certainty. He might be Raja-Kamsanaryana or a Moslem Emperor, but even if he was a Hindu king, there are abundant proofs to show that his court was stamped with Muslim influence.14

Hindutva critics have sometimes focused particularly on the intolerance of Aurangzeb, a later Moghal emperor who ruled from 1658 to 1707. Indeed, some Hindutva sectarians see historical justice in discriminating against Muslims precisely because Aurangzeb is supposed to have done the opposite – discriminating against Hindus – in the late seventeenth century. However, even if Aurangzeb had been the only Muslim ruler in India (he was, of course, one of a great many), the idea of a historical retribution would be exceptionally silly: it is a proposal for matching a historical folly by creating a new folly, penalizing people for ‘sins’ that they did not themselves commit. But also, Aurangzeb clearly was the least tolerant of the long line of Moghal rulers.*

As it happens, Aurangzeb was preceded and followed by other Muslim members of the royalty who took a very different view of religious tolerance, and he himself was surrounded by people who did not share his intolerance. Aurangzeb’s son, also called Akbar, rebelled against his father in 1681, and joined the Hindu Rajput kings to fight his father. As the Rajputs were subdued by Aurangzeb’s army, Aurangzeb’s son continued his battle against his father by joining another Hindu king, Raja Sambhaji, the son of Shivaji who fought the Moghals and who is much revered by contemporary Hindu activists (even the name of the Hindu extremist party ‘Shiv Sena’ commemorates Shivaji, who gets much adoration from militant Hindus of today).

Aurangzeb’s elder brother, Dara Shikoh, the legitimate heir to the throne of his father, Shah Jahan (the creator of the Taj Mahal), whom Aurangzeb had killed on the way to the Moghal throne, had learned Sanskrit and studied Hindu philosophy extensively. In fact, the heir to the Moghal throne had himself translated into Persian some significant parts of the Upaniṣads, the ancient Hindu scriptures, and compared them – not unfavourably – with the Koran. It is this translation, which Dara did with the assistance of Hindu pundits, that gave many people in West Asia and Europe their first glimpse of Hindu philosophy. To take Aurangzeb as the ‘typical’ Moghal monarch, or as the quintessential Muslim ruler of India, would be an extremely strange historical judgement, aside from the fact that the proposal for matching the intolerance of Aurangzeb by a similar asymmetry today would be remarkably peculiar jurisprudence.

On Inventing the Past

History is an active field of intellectual engagement for the Hindutva movement, and parts of that movement have been very involved in the rewriting of history. Even though it is not surprising, given the nature of the Hindutva creed, that Indian history must play some part in the arguments presented by the movement, it is still worth enquiring precisely why these issues are taken to be so central, as a result of which Indian history has become such a battleground. What is its specific relevance in contemporary Indian politics, and why is Hindutva politics so keen on redescribing the past? I would argue that the answer lies in two specific features of contemporary Hindu politics.

The first is the need for the Hindutva movement to keep together its diverse components and to generate fresh loyalty from potential recruits. The Hindutva movement reaps considerable strategic benefit from the variety of styles and modes of operation that the diversity of organizations within the Parivar allows. As a modern political party in a multi-party functioning democracy, the BJP itself is committed to parliamentary rule, and does, by and large, listen to the views of others. But it can, at the same time, draw on support – sometimes violent support – from other members of the Hindutva family who can stray from the BJP’s cultivated urbanity and provide a harsher force. The ‘two nation’ theory, which – it must be emphasized – is not a part of the BJP doctrine, is championed quite crudely by several sections of the Parivar.

The solidarity of the diverse members of the Sangh Parivar is greatly helped by taking a united view of India’s history as essentially a ‘Hindu civilization’ (it is convenient for them that even a cultural theorist like Samuel Huntington has described India in exactly those terms, as was discussed earlier). The rewriting of India’s history in line with the message of Hindutva is extremely important for the cohesion of different elements in the Sangh Parivar. They can differ on political means and tactics – varying from soft-spoken advocacy to hard-headed violence – but still agree on a grand Hindu vision of India.

The second reason for focusing on India’s past is the large support for the Hindutva movement that comes from the Indian diaspora abroad, particularly in North America and Europe, for whom it is quite important to be able to retain their general Indian nationalist attachment while embracing any other loyalty they may be persuaded to have (such as Hindutva).* The two can be harnessed together by a narrowly Hinduized view of Indian history, which fosters the congruence of a Hindu identity with a more general Indian identity.

The rewriting of India’s history serves the dual purpose of playing a role in providing a common basis for the diverse membership of the Sangh Parivar, and of helping to get fresh recruits to Hindu political activism, especially from the diaspora. It has thus become a major priority in the politics of Hindutva in contemporary India. Following the electoral victory of coalitions led by the BJP in 1998 and 1999, various arms of the government of India were mobilized in the task of arranging ‘appropriate’ rewritings of Indian history. Even though this adventure of inventing a past is no longer ‘official’ (because of the defeat of the BJP-led coalition in the general elections in the spring of 2004), that highly charged episode is worth recollecting both because of what it tells us about the abuse of temporal power and also because of the light it throws on the intellectual underpinning of the Hindutva movement.15

The rapidly reorganized National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) became busy, from shortly after the BJP’s assumption of office, not only in producing fresh textbooks for Indian school children, but also in deleting sections from books produced earlier by NCERT itself (under pre-BJP management), written by reputed Indian historians. The ‘reorganization’ of NCERT was accompanied by an ‘overhaul’ of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), with new officers being appointed and a new agenda chosen for both, mainly in line with the priorities of the Hindutva movement.16

The speed of the attempted textbook revision had to be so fast that the newly reconstituted NCERT evidently had some difficulty in finding historians to do this task who would be both reasonably distinguished and adequately compliant. In the early school textbooks that emanated from the NCERT, there was not only the predictable sectarian bias in the direction of the politics of ‘Hindutva’, but also numerous factual mistakes of a fairly straightforward kind. School children were to be taught, in one of the textbooks, that Madagascar was ‘an island in the Arabian sea’ and that Lancashire had been ‘a fast-growing industrial town’. The newly devised history of India in the new textbooks prepared by the Government of India received sharp criticism in the media and in public discussions that followed. The reviews in the major newspapers were almost uniformly disparaging. ‘Bloomers Galore in the NCERT Texts’, was the news headline in the Hindusthan Times.17

The BJP-led NCERT admitted some factual errors and promised to correct them (Madagascar, it was promised, would be returned to the Indian ocean). But there was no assurance on correcting the political slant imposed through selective omissions and chosen emphases to play up the Hindutva view of India. That, of course, belongs to the heart of the attempt to rewrite Indian history. The Hindu, a leading daily, put the gravity of the problem in perspective when it pointed to ‘the havoc that indifferent scholarship combining with a distorted ideology could cause in school education’.18

Indeed, in addition to the plethora of innocuous confusions and silly mistakes, there were also serious omissions and lapses in the government-sponsored Indian history. For example, one of the textbooks that was meant to teach Indian school children about the events surrounding India’s independence failed to mention the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, the Hindu political fanatic who had links with the activist RSS (the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh) – an omission of very considerable moment. More generally, the accounts given in these textbooks of the fight for India’s independence were powerfully prejudiced in the direction of the politics of Hindutva.19

Many Indians felt greatly alarmed at that time that the Hindutva movement would stop at nothing short of alienating India from its own past through their control over schools and textbooks. There was certainly a good case (based both on respect for history and on treasuring the inclusive character of Indian society) for taking the threat seriously, and the need to be alive to these issues remains strong today. There are many outstanding historians in India and they clearly have a protective role to play here; this is best done if the defence of history comes from a genuine commitment to history, not just from political opposition to the Hindutva view. As it happens, many well-established and respected Indian historians did question, with reasoned justification, the accuracy and authenticity of the claims made by Hindutva ideologues.

Despite the understandable panic, it was never easy to see how the Hindutva movement could succeed in making Indians accept a ‘reinvented past’, no matter how much control they might have had over educational policies in New Delhi. The redrawing of India’s history using the Hindutva lens suffers from some deep empirical problems as well as conceptual tensions. The nature of the problem that the BJP faced in trying to change India’s past can be illustrated with a simple example.

Given the priorities of Hindutva, the rewriting of India’s history tends to favour internal and external isolation, in the form of separating out the celebration of Hindu achievements from the non-Hindu parts of its past and also from intellectual and cultural developments outside India. But an ‘isolationist’ programme is particularly difficult to sustain, given the importance of extensive interactions throughout India’s history, both internally within the country and externally with the rest of the world. Thus, the isolationist perspective runs into severe conflict with many well-known aspects of India’s history.

The problem starts with the account of the very beginning of India’s history. The ‘Indus valley civilization’, dating from the third millennium BCE, flourished well before the timing of the earliest Hindu literature, the Vedas, which are typically dated in the middle of the second millennium BCE. The Indus civilization, or the Harappa civilization as it is sometimes called (in honour of its most famous site), covered much of the north-west of the undivided subcontinent (including what are today Punjab, Haryana, Sindh, Baluchistan, western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat) – a much larger area than Mesopotamia and Egypt, which flourished at about the same time.20 It had many special achievements, including remarkable town planning, organized storage (of grain in particular), and extraordinary drainage systems (unequalled, if I am any judge, in the subcontinent in the following four thousand years).

There is obvious material here for national or civilizational pride of Indians. But this poses an immediate problem for the Hindutva view of India’s history, since an ancient civilization that is clearly pre-Sanskritic and pre-Hindu deeply weakens the possibility of seeing Indian history in pre-eminently and constitutively Hindu terms.

Furthermore, there is a second challenge associated with India’s ancient past, which relates to the arrival of the Indo-Europeans (sometimes called Aryans) from the West, most likely in the second millennium BCE, riding horses (unknown in the Indus valley civilization), and speaking a variant of early Sanskrit (the Vedic Sanskrit, as it is now called). The Hindutva view of history, which traces the origin of Indian civilization to the Vedas has, therefore, the double ‘difficulty’ of (1) having to accept that the foundational basis of Hindu culture came originally from outside India, and (2) being unable to place Hinduism at the beginning of Indian cultural history and its urban heritage.

The Hindutva enthusiasts have also been great champions of so-called ‘Vedic mathematics’ and ‘Vedic sciences’, allegedly developed in splendid isolation in exceedingly ancient India. As it happens, despite the richness of the Vedas in many other respects, there is no sophisticated mathematics in them, nor anything that can be called rigorous science.21 There was, however, much of both in India in the first millennium CE (as was discussed in the first essay of this volume). These contributions were early enough in the history of mathematics and science to demand respectful attention, but the BJP-created proposed history textbooks tried, with little reason and even less evidence, to place the origin of some of these contributions in the much earlier, Vedic period.22

Thus, in the Hindutva theory, much hangs on the genesis of the Vedas. In particular: who composed them (it would be best for Hindutva theory if they were native Indians, settled in India for thousands of years, rather than Indo-Europeans coming from abroad)? Were they composed later than the Indus valley civilization (it would be best if they were not later, in sharp contrast with the accepted knowledge)? How ancient were the alleged Vedic sciences and mathematics (could they not be earlier than Greek and Babylonial contributions, putting Hindu India ahead of them)? There were, therefore, attempts by the Hindutva champions to rewrite Indian history in such a way that these disparate difficulties are simultaneously removed through the simple device of ‘making’ the Sanskrit-speaking composers of the Vedas also the very same people who created the Indus valley civilization!

The Indus valley civilization was accordingly renamed ‘the Indus–Saraswati civilization’, in honour of a non-observable river called the Sarasvatī which is referred to in the Vedas. The intellectual origins of Hindu philosophy as well as of the concocted Vedic science and Vedic mathematics are thus put solidly into the third millennium BCE, if not earlier. Indian school children were then made to read about this highly theoretical ‘Indus–Saraswati civilization’ in their new history textbooks, making Hindu culture – and Hindu science – more ancient, more urban, more indigenous, and comfortably omnipresent throughout India’s civilizational history.

The problem with this account is, of course, its obvious falsity, going against all the available evidence based on archaeology and literature.* To meet that difficulty, ‘new’ archaeological evidence had to be marshalled. This was done – or claimed to be done – in a much-publicized book by Natwar Jha and N. S. Rajaram called The Deciphered Indus Script, published in 2000.23 The authors claim that they have deciphered the as-yet-undeciphered script used in the Indus valley, which they attribute to the mid-fourth millennium BCE – stretching the ‘history’ unilaterally back by a further thousand years or so. They also claim that the tablets found there refer to Rigveda’s Sarasvatī river (in the indirect form of ‘Ila surrounds the blessed land’). Further, they produced a picture of a terracotta seal with a horse on it, which was meant to be further proof of the Vedic – and Aryan – identity of the Indus civilization. The Vedas are full of references to horses, whereas the Indus remains have plenty of bulls but – so it was hitherto thought – no horses.

The alleged discovery and decipherment led to a vigorous debate about the claims, and the upshot was the demonstration that there was, in fact, no decipherment whatever, and that the horse seal is the result of a simple fraud based on a computerized distortion of a broken seal of a unicorn bull, which was known earlier. The alleged horse seal was a distinct product of the late twentieth century, the credit for the creation of which has to go to the Hindutva activists. The definitive demonstration of the fraud came from Michael Witzel, Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, in a joint essay with Steve Farmer.24 The demonstration did not, however, end references in official school textbooks (produced by the NCERT during the BJP-led rule, ending only in May 2004) to ‘terracotta figurines’ of horses in the ‘Indus–Saraswati civilization’.

It is difficult to understand fully why a movement that began with pride in Hindu values, in which the pursuit of truth plays such a big part, should produce activists who would try to have their way not only through falsity but through carefully crafted fraud. Even though Marco Polo was not as impressed with what he saw in thirteenth-century south India as he was with central China, he did put on record, in a statement that is of some interest (even after discounting for the obvious exaggeration in it), his admiration for the commitment to truth that he found among the Indians he met: ‘They would not tell a lie for anything in the world and do not utter a word that is not true.’25 If that was indeed what Polo found, things have clearly moved on radically since then, with political inspiration playing an energetic part.

In a thrilling passage in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad from the first millennium BCE, young Śvetaketu’s father tells Śvetaketu about the manifestation of God in all beings (including Śvetaketu himself): ‘It is the True. It is the Self, and thou, O Śvetaketu, art it.’ That exchange has been much discussed in post-Upaniṣad Hindu philosophy. It would be rather sad to have to complete Śvetaketu’s education by adding to it a new postscript: ‘And just in case thou art not all that, we will fix it with a bit of cleverness in reconstructing reality!’ In trying to invent Indian history to suit the prejudices of Hindutva, the movement took on a profoundly contrary task. The task is particularly hard to achieve given what is known about India’s long history. The unadorned truth does not favour the Hindutva view, and the adorned falsity does not survive critical scrutiny.

The Miniaturization of India

The size of Indian religious literature and the manifest presence of a profusion of religious practices across the country have to be balanced, as was discussed in the last essay, against the vigour and persistence of sceptical thought throughout Indian history. I have already discussed, in Essay 1, the historical relevance of the sceptical tradition both judged as a part of India’s intellectual world, and also for its relevance to the development of science and mathematics as well as the politics of tolerance and secularism in India.

However, scepticism about religion need not always take the combative form of resisting religious pronouncements. It can also find expression as deep-seated doubts about the social relevance and political significance of differences in the religious beliefs of different persons. Despite the veritable flood of religious practices in India, there is also a resilient undercurrent of conviction across the country that religious beliefs, while personally significant, are socially unimportant and should be politically inconsequential. Ignoring the importance – and reach – of this underlying conviction has the effect of systematically overestimating the role of religion in Indian society.*

This claim might seem peculiarly implausible for a country in which allegedly religious conflicts have been extremely prominent in the recent past, and in which they seem to influence a good part of contemporary politics as well. We have to distinguish, however, between (1) evident societal tensions that we may see between pugnacious spokesmen of communities identified by different religious ancestries (often led by sectarian activists), and (2) actual religious tensions in which the contents of religious beliefs are themselves material. Indeed, even when the enthusiasts for religious politics in India have been successful in playing up religious differences, they have worked mainly through generating societal frictions in which the demographic correlates of religion have been used to separate out the communities for selective roguery (as happened, to a great extent, in Gujarat in 2002). In this, the finery of religious beliefs has typically played little or no part.* It is important to appreciate the distinction between religious strifes, on the one hand, and political discords based on utilizing communal demography, on the other.26

It is possible that even the process of exploiting the classificatory divisiveness of religious demography, including the violence associated with it, is running into substantial resistance in contemporary India. The use of militant ‘Hindutva’ may have worked well in the state elections in December 2002 in strife-torn Gujarat, with whipped-up hysteria (much as the frenzy of pre-partition riots had ‘communalized’ Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in the 1940s). But as the delirium quietened, the excitement of Hindutva activism delivered very little to sectarian politics in the four state elections held a few months later, in February 2003. After four successive defeats, including losing control of the state of Himachal Pradesh, a versatile – and revamped – BJP changed its tactics and went on to win handsomely at the polls in three out of four state elections in November 2003, mainly by prominently shifting the focus of its campaign to developmental issues (in particular ‘roads, electricity and water’), with religious demography taking, by and large, a back seat.

However, the issue of divisiveness had not gone away, and surfaced again, in a big way, in the Indian general elections in May 2004. There is considerable evidence that the sectarian as well as economic divisiveness of the BJP did cost it considerable support across the country. Much has been written about the fact that the BJP’s slogan ‘India shining!’ (which tried to take credit for the elevated growth rate and other economic buoyancy in India) backfired, since large groups of people, especially many among the poor, particularly the rural poor, had not received much of a share of the prosperity that the urban rich had enjoyed. But in addition to that economic infraction, it was possible for Congress and other parties outside the BJP-led alliance to make good electoral use of the anxiety and revulsion generated by the BJP through its cultivation of sectarianism and the targeting of minorities, which made the BJP look like a very divisive force in India.

Any set of election results, especially in a country as large as India, would tend to carry the impact of many different types of influences, and there cannot be any single-factor explanation of the different electoral outcomes. But looking through the nature of the electoral reverses of the BJP and its allies in the recent elections, including the total – or near-total – demise of the ‘secular’ parties in alliance with the BJP, it is difficult to miss a general sense of grievance about the neglect of secular concerns by parties which were not formally signed up for the Hindutva agenda. Not only were the voters keen on bringing down the BJP itself a notch or two, but it looks as if the ‘secular’ support that the BJP allies delivered to the BJP-led alliance was particularly imperilled by the Hindutva movement’s aggressive – and sometimes violent – undermining of a secular India and the complete failure of the BJP’s allies to resist the extremism of Hindutva.

In particular, the violence in Gujarat, especially aimed at Muslims, left a lasting mark on the BJP’s image, and received much attention across the country. The concession by the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the leader of the defeated BJP, that the Gujarat killings had been a major influence in the BJP’s defeat, seemed to be saying what was obvious to many.* But – not surprisingly – the less moderate part of the Hindutva leadership has reacted to this concession with unconcealed venom, making Vajpayee swallow most of his words of concession.

It is important to understand the hold of the sceptical tradition in India, despite the manifest presence of religions all across the country. In responding to the exploitation of religious demography in the politics of Hindutva, the defenders of secular politics often take for granted that the Indian population would want religious politics in one form or another. This has led to the political temptation to use ‘soft Hindutva’ as a compromise response by secularists to the politics of ‘hard Hindutva’. But that tactical approach, which certainly has not given the anti-BJP parties any dividend so far, is foundationally mistaken. It profoundly ignores the strength of scepticism in India, which extends to religions as well, particularly in the form of doubting the relevance of religious beliefs in political affairs. Indeed, the tolerance of heterodoxy, and acceptance of variations of religious beliefs and customs, is deep rooted in India.

Rabindranath Tagore thought that the ‘idea of India’ itself militates ‘against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others’.27 Through their attempts to encourage and exploit separatism, the Hindutva movement has entered into a confrontation with the idea of India itself. This is nothing short of a sustained effort to miniaturize the broad idea of a large India – proud of its heterodox past and its pluralist present – and to replace it by the stamp of a small India, bundled around a drastically downsized version of Hinduism. In the confrontation between a large and a small India, the broader understanding can certainly win. But the battle for the broad idea of India cannot be won unless those fighting for the larger conception know what they are fighting for. The reach of Indian traditions, including heterodoxy and the celebration of plurality and scepticism, requires a comprehensive recognition. Cognizance of India’s past is important for an adequate understanding of the capacious idea of India.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!