Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Marxist critique of the Modi government’s ICHR nomination





Retired historian Romila Thapar has written an opinion piece (“History repeats itself”, 11 July 2014, India Today) giving the standard secular reaction to the appointment of equally retired historian Y. Sudershan Rao as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. It gives the predictable (indeed, predicted, see K. Elst: “A Hindutva historian in office”, 11 July 2014) show of indignation hiding an inside reaction of satisfaction at the BJP’s renewed display of incompetence in reforming the field of history.





“The appointment of a historian whose work is unfamiliar to most historians shows scant regard for the impressive scholarship that now characterises the study of Indian History and this disregard may stultify future academic research. Given that the writing of history in India over the last half-century has produced some of the finest historians, recognised both nationally and internationally, one is surprised at the appointment of Professor Y. Sudershan Rao as chairperson of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR). Professor Rao's work is unfamiliar to most historians, with little visibility of research that he might have carried out. He has published popular articles on the historicity of the Indian epics but not in any peer-reviewed journal, and the latter is now a primary requisite for articles to be taken seriously at the academic level.”


Here we have, at some length, the usual status-mongering. It says, in short, that Prof Rao is not “eminent”. It is a rather sophomoric argument: outsiders (such as politicians) and beginners imagine that academic status has a whole lot of meaning, and that you can’t be a serious scientist unless you have this kind of status. Insiders, however, have a far lower opinion of this academic status. Sometimes, indeed, it is only given to people of exceptional merit. From these highly visible cases, outsiders extrapolate to all others. But in many more cases, it is the mediocre minds and the faithful followers who get promoted, while the really talented people are blocked or are encouraged to seek more lucrative employment outside academe.


The mechanics of the presence or absence of status is as follows: the Indian Left jealously guards its power position in academe and decides who gets status within the Humanities, or who is blacklisted and kept out. Then the politicians select their sources of authority or their interlocutors by the status they “have” (i.e. which the Left has conferred on them), which is turn enhances their status. And then the India-watching circles abroad go by the status which individuals turn out to have acquired in India, and further increase their “eminence”. Thus, Romila Thapar’s own nomination to American chairs after her retirement in India crowned her career of being an ever more eminent historian in India.


The focus on status is a long-standing practice of the Indian Left, and for a good reason. As Sita Ram Goel already remarked in his anti-Communist days, the Indian Communists made sure to create status for those loyal to them. If you were a writer, they would arrange for you to be invited to a writers’ conference in Moscow and get an award there, and then you would be introduced in India as an “internationally acclaimed writer”. This was all the more important because people in general base their judgment on status, but no one more so than the Hindus. Indeed, the fabled Hindu moneybags will rather sponsor an enemy with status than a friend without it. The BJP will rather nominate a “secularist” with status than a proven Hindu loyalist without it. So, in the case of our Communist writer, they will honour him for his status, not realizing that this status has purposely been created for him by their declared enemies. And they will shun a pro-Hindu writer because he has no status, ignoring or disregarding the fact that he has been denied any avenue that might have led to status. The last thing they think of is to make an effort and create status for people who are perceived as belonging to the Hindu camp.



The BJP role in education


To be sure, there are provincial universities where the Leftist lobby’s power in limited. Education is largely a matter for the States, so BJP State Governments control a fair number of second-rank but nonetheless real nominations. Indeed, if they had meant business, they could have created a centre of excellence developing a more objective counter-narrative to the dominant Leftist version of history. Still, they do get to fill vacancies for history professors once in a while. These do not confer the kind of status that Jawaharlal Nehru University can offer, but they should at least be sufficient to groom a set of historians outside the Left’s sphere of influence. And indeed, even as an outsider, I can off-hand enumerate a handful of credible and competent non-Left historians, among whom a new ICHR chairman might have been picked. India is a big country, and non-Left historians may be seriously underrepresented, but in absolute figures they are still a force to be reckoned with. Prof. Rao himself is a veteran of one such little-known university in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh.


As for the process of peer review, upheld by Romila Thapar as a key to academic status, it has come under criticism for being highly susceptible to corruption. Thus, Indians might think of Northwestern Europe as much cleaner than awfully corrupt India, but right on my doorstep, Tilburg University in the Netherlands has been through a sensational fraud scandal in 2011-12. Social psychologist Prof. Diederik Stapel had built a whole career on much-applauded papers, nicely peer-reviewed, and in their conclusions very welcome among the “progressive” crowd. But then it transpired that he had a long-standing practice of making his research data up, so as to suit his preconceived “conclusions”. The investigative commission appointed for the case not only discovered large-scale fraud affecting the work of other researchers as well, but specifically reprimanded the reviewers who had okayed Stapel’s work so often. This was but an extreme case of a general phenomenon: papers get easy acceptance from peers if they support the dominant view, but are held to far more demanding standards if  they are at odds with it. In India, just imagine what it would take for a history paper with “communal” conclusions to be accepted by a Leftist-controlled review panel. So, of course Prof. Rao cannot boast of many peer-reviewed publications, but that says little about the quality of his work.


A serious look into his output, however, reveals that he is indeed not the man from whom we can expect an overhaul of the Indian history sector with respect for the normative methods of history scholarship. Here we have to concur with Romila Thapar: “Rumour has it that since he is working simultaneously on various projects, a recognised monograph has still to emerge. The projects are linked to spiritualism, yoga, the spiritual contacts between India and Southeast Asia, and such like. Whatever connections there may be between these themes and basic historical research, they are at best tenuous, and it would require a mind of extraordinary insight and rigour to interweave such ideas.”


For a professor teaching lessons about historical method, it is rather poor to base herself on “rumours”. I have remarked before that the dominant scholars are often “fishwives”, who believe and then propagate mere gossip. Nevertheless, an internet search and our limited findings there give a first confirmation of her impression.


Historicity of the Epics

According to the eminent historian: “The two issues that he has highlighted in his statement to the press as the agenda for his chairmanship are also prominent in the Hindutva view of Indian history. One is that of proving the historicity of texts such the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and establishing the dates of the texts and their central event.” At least in the case of the Mahabharata battle, we are on fairly solid ground in assuming that it was a historical event. The same is true of the Trojan war, although Ilias enthusiasts also have had to struggle against skepticism before this was generally accepted. On the other hand, many embellishments as well as unrelated stories and discourses are of other dates.

She observes: “This is a subject on which there has been endless research for the last two centuries. Indologists and historians have covered the range of possible investigation discussing philology, linguistics, archaeology, anthropology and even astronomy to try and ascertain a definitive chronology for these texts. But to no avail, as a precise date eludes them. To go over the ground again in the absence of new hard evidence would merely be repeating familiar scholarship- but it may not be familiar to Professor Rao.”

The available investigations have brought us much closer to a serious chronological assessment than she seems to assume. Only, it does not favour the historicity of “the” Epics. They confirm that traditions were collected and expanded over centuries, and additions made even after a redaction meant as “final”. Only believers treat the Epics as a divinely revealed text that has to be dated as a single whole. From the wording in the newspaper’s rendering of the interview, it seems that Prof Rao belongs to the believers rather than to the historians, but then again, most Indian papers are not above manipulations.

After her defeat in the Ayodhya controversy, she still uses the present ICHR discussion to fool the world once more with her negationist thesis: “Professor Rao's other statement to the press of there being archaeological evidence to support the theory that there was once a temple where the Babri Masjid later stood, is largely a political statement as the report of the excavation at the site in Ayodhya is not publicly available. Those few who have had the chance to read the report may not agree with the statement.” Are we to suppose that her own interventions in this debate were not political? The negationist stand against the pre-existence of the Ayodhya temple was an extreme example of how the Humanities often serve to provide a scholarly veneer to theses that arise purely from political motives.


The ICHR’s chairmanship

An interesting point is this: “Again, according to what was published in the newspapers, Professor Rao's second comment was regarding his objection to the introduction of Marxist tools of research by the ICHR during the chairmanship of Professors R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib. Professor Rao should be more familiar with the ICHR since he was appointed to the Council by the first BJP government of 1999-2004. He should know that for the most part of its existence, the ICHR has been under the chairmanship of non-Marxists such as Lokesh Chandra, S. Setter, MGS Narayanan and so on. So if they had wanted to remove the so-called ‘Marxist tools of research’, there was nothing to stop them from doing so.”

The ICHR chairmanship is largely a ceremonial and administrative post. If the holder of the title is not particularly dynamic, not much power inheres in it. That is why the Left didn’t mind giving it to non-Leftists once in a while. They themselves are interested in real power, i.e. the power to change things according to one’s own designs, whereas most Hindus are only interested in office. (I thank Arun Shourie for correcting me when I once parroted the usual complaint that most politicians “only want power”. The right expression was: “they only want office”.) Office means you get all these photo opportunities and TV appearances, a fat salary and glittering perks to show off. A child’s hand is easy to fill.

I doubt that the enumerated ICHR chairmen ever had the instruments to remove the Marxist influence from their institution. But at any rate, there is little signs that they ever tried. The Marxists, by contrast, only desire office to the extent that it is an avenue to real power. Indeed, the history of their acquisition of cultural and educational power is one of a division of labour: Congress politicians, originally around Indira Gandhi, would get the glamorous offices, whereas their Communist allies would do their long-term moles’ work in the less conspicuous cultural-educational sector.

The good element in this sobering assessment of the ICHR chairmanship is that Prof. Rao may perhaps not be the best historian, but he can still do a fine job is what the post in meant for: put the right people in the right places and inspire them to do the research needed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for having a low opinion of diplomas and having more respect for achievement. That is why he nominated Smriti Irani, underqualified but a proven hard worker, to the Human Resources Development ministry, who in her turn thought of Prof. Rao as the right choice for the ICHR. Let us hope that she knows of qualities of his that we have yet to appreciate.  


Real Marxism

The eminent historian, who is not known to have protested when Tom Bottomore’s Dictionary of Marxism describes herself as a Marxist, takes issue with the loose use by Prof. Rao and many others of the term Marxism: “It is perhaps worth pointing out that the kind of history that is often dismissed by Hindutva ideologues as Marxist is not actually Marxist but bears the stamp of the social sciences. The distinction between the two, despite its importance to the interpretation of history, is generally glossed over by the proponents of Hindutva. This is largely because they have scant understanding of what is meant by a Marxist interpretation of history and therefore fail to recognise it. For them, a Marxist is simply someone who opposes the Hindutva ideology. Consequently, a range of historians unexpectedly find themselves dubbed as Marxists.”

It is not just Hindutva ideologues who point to the preponderant influence of Marxism on India (which is simply a fact), and neither is it only them who use the term Marxism a bit inaccurately. And here, she does have a point. What she calls “the social sciences” is her name for the scholarly veneer that the Leftists in academe give to their own ideology, but that ideology is indeed not always Marxist, and these days less and less so. Marxism was one specific school of thought in the Leftist spectrum, and after it has been abandoned in the Soviet Union and more gradually in China, it has had to give way in India too. Nothing ever dies in India (as Girilal Jain observed), and Indian Marxism will take a long time to wither away, but it is a fact that postmodernism, potcolonialism and other forms of egalitarianism are taking over where Marxism once flourished. To the average Hindutva observer, whose understanding of these ideological distinctions is blurred at best, these remain all the same.

Let me give a single example of the difference between Marxism and the more current forms of Leftism, one that Prof. Thapar will certainly recognize. The Marxist historian Shereen Ratnagar asserts: “if, as in the case of the early Vedic society, land was neither privately owned nor inherited by successive generations, then land rights would have been irrelevant to the formation of kin groups, and there would be nothing preventing younger generations from leaving the parental fold. In such societies the constituent patrilineages or tribal sections were not strongly corporate. So together with geographic expansion there would be social flexibility.” (in Romila Tapar, ed.: India: Historical Beginnings and the Concepts of the Aryan, National Book Trust, Delhi 2006, p.166)

Nowadays it has become fashionable to moralize about the caste system, with evil Brahmins inventing caste out of thin air and then imposing it on others; Neo-Ambedkarites give a lead in spreading this view. But hard-headed Marxists don’t fall for this conspiracy theory and see the need for socio-economic conditions to explain the reigning system of hierarchy or equality. In particular, it is pointless to lament the inequality of “feudal”, pre-modern societies, as the socio-economic conditions for equality didn’t prevail yet. Socialism (or, to name a fashionable instance of egalitarianism: feminism) simply couldn’t exist or emerge in a feudal society. However, the pastoral early-Vedic society did have the conditions for a far more equal relation between individuals. In the later Vedic period, the caste system emerged, first with mixing of castes (caste was passed on in the male line, but the father was free to marry a woman of another caste, see the Chandogya Upanishad or still the Buddha), then with endogamy. So, the Marxist, materialist and “scientific” analysis is quite distinct from the “petty-bourgeois” idealistic view.


Real history

Prof. Thapar feigns bad memories of the AB Vajpayee government, when the established historians laughed without end at the sight of the Hindutva crowd’s incompetence: “During the BJP/NDA government of 1999-2004, there was a frontal attack on historians by the then HRD minister M.M. Joshi. (…) The present HRD minister, who unfortunately is unfamiliar with academia beyond school level, gives the impression that in this case she may be doing what she perhaps was appointed for: Carrying out the programme of the old history-baiters of the BJP who now have a fresh innings.”

It should not surprise us that the august professor, in spite of her Marxism, so openly disdains the proletarian HRD minister. It is the old glorification of status all over again. While her Marxist school has waged a very long attack on real history, so that a lot is to be cleaned up now, she is right to have a low opinion of MM Joshi’s tenure and initiatives. Marxists were at least sophisticated in their distortions, and hence could win over most of the India-watchers abroad, but the Hindutva history-rewriters were clumsy and disdainful of quality control. It is as yet too early to know whether Mrs. Irani or Prof. Rao are willing and able to do better.   

Her final point sums up her judgment of the new situation, and I need not comment on it: “Again, rumour has it that the ICHR did send a shortlist of its recommendations for chairmanship to the HRD ministry. The list had the names of historians who had helped construct the ICHR into a viable research body. But that list seems to have conveniently got lost in the ministry. Therefore, a different name was pulled out of another hat and the person appointed. If this is so, then the prognosis is both predictable and drear.”

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

India as a civilization-state


India’s biggest neighbour is rethinking its own identity. In this context, Zhang Weiwei’s path-breaking book The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State (World Century, Shanghai 2011) deserves to be discussed in detail and with respect to its China-centric purpose: to give China’s remarkable progress an ideological consistency and justification. Its Indian equivalent is yet to be written. However, here we would like to focus on Zhang’s central concept of the “civilization-state”. Though the states to which it can be applied are hardly numerous, it has universal validity.

China used to be a civilization, culturally relatively united, especially by the elite medium of the written language, transcending the dialect borders; and politically also mostly united, first in a feudal network under Shang and later Zhou overlordship, then in a bureaucratic-centralistic empire since the unification under Qin Shihuang in 221 BCE. “Politically united“ is also relative, in the sense that an ancient emperor, no matter how autocratic, was much less present in his subjects’ daily lives than any modern regime, no matter how democratic. As the Chinese people say: “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.”

It is the growth of the nation-state that changed the rules of the game. In the 19th century, the country with the highest Gross National Product and by far the largest population in the world was no match for the military aggression by the British (Opium War) and the modernized Japanese. In the 20th century, China was forged into a nation-state by the Republic (1911-49) and the People’s Republic (1949-); but it was an unusual one, because its domain practically coincided with the millennial Chinese civilization. At first, China as a civilization found itself unequipped for the modern world, and was humiliated. But now it has adapted itself and come into its own,-- and look at the result. In the process, it has transformed itself into the world’s only civilization-state.  

The only one? Perhaps not. The European Union has the civilization-state as its distant goal, uniting the “provinces” of European civilization, but it has never experienced this unity in the past. Easily the most credible contender, however, is India. Indeed, the country’s self-understanding does imply a similar claim as China’s.

Zhang argues specifically that India has always lacked political unity, which China has usually had. He has picked up the usual “secularist” misconception that India was only cobbled together by Queen Victoria. In fact, the ideal of political unification existed already in ancient times, and came fairly close to realization in the Maurya, Gupta, Moghul and Maratha empires. More importantly, even in a condition of political fragmentation, India showed a remarkable civilizational unity. That makes modern India a civilization-state par excellence: it is a state that unites regions with little politics but much civilization in common. 

Zhang also argues that China alone has a civilizational continuity stretching back five thousand years. In India, by contrast, you can frequently hear China enumerated among the areas that have lost their civilizational continuity because of foreign interference. Europe and America lost their souls to Christianity, Egypt and Babylon lost theirs to Islam, and likewise, China has seen a thorough overhaul of its way of life under Mao Zedong. Only India enjoys civilizational continuity since at least the Harappan period.

However, Zhang Weiwei argues that Maoism, though brutal and paying lip-service to the Western ideology of Marxism, was but a short intermezzo, without profound civilizational effect, and in some ways even beneficial. Thus, there was no foreign domination (as parts of India suffered from Caliphate Viceroy Mohammed bin Qasim in 712 to British Viceroy Mountbatten in 1947), and once the suppressed Chinese religion revived from the 1980s onwards, it turned out not to have suffered seriously from an erasure of its traditions, which largely survived even the excesses of the Cultural Revolution by lying low. Around 1970 there was an all-out campaign to blacken the nation’s most prominent sage, Confucius, but today the People’s Republic is founding Confucius Institutes everywhere. So, in spite of some dramatic events, China does boast of a civilizational continuity.

Indians should not begrudge the Chinese their continuous civilization. But they should muster the ambition to make the same claim, and outline a similar agenda, for themselves. They have suffered far longer and sometimes worse oppression by hostile forces than the Chinese under the Cultural Revolution, and incurred serious losses in terms of lives, territory and self-esteem, yet they have survived. So here they are, reclaiming what is theirs after centuries of foreign rule and over a half-century of depreciation by the “secularist” elite, Indian in blood but hostile to India in spirit.

Why should a civilization incarnate itself in a common state? After all, it has held out for millennia even when being politically fragmented. But today, the state is far more important than at any time in the past. It can provide security to its constituent regions when these are attacked precisely because of their civilizational identity.

To be sure, the usual suspects are bound to oppose this civilizational viewpoint. With their studied superficiality, the secularists view India as a hodge-podge of “communities”, of which a very recent one, concocted by the “Orientalists”, is Hinduism. Just as I finish this article, my attention is drawn to a French magazine celebrating the appointment of an Indian secularist historian to the Collège de France with an interview. There, he speaks out against the very notion of a Hindu civilization. The whole is not real, only the fragments are. The notion of an over-arching civilizational unity and long-term continuity may be obvious in China, and get applause there, but in India it is “communal!”

Finally, we should add that the concept of civilization-state has the merit of being more true to India’s real status than the concept of “nationalism”. In the days of the Freedom Movement, it made sense to be a nationalist for it meant not being loyal to foreign rulers. Heirs of that period, such as the Congress Party and the RSS “family”, still go on swearing by this concept. But now it is time for a more nuanced and precise understanding of what India is. Nationalism with its connotation of homogenization cannot do justice to India’s profound pluralism and respect for differences.  Depending on how you define “nation”, India has known several divisions into what would be rated as “nation” elsewhere. Of course we can fuss over definitions and maintain that even complex and pluriform India is still a nation-state somehow. But it is more economical and more credible to dispense with this terminology altogether and call India a civilization-state.

China has one big and four small stars in its flag to signify that its major nation and a number of minor nations are united in a single state. India has the 24-spoked wheel of the chakravarti or universal ruler in its flag, meaning that within his empire, every tribute-paying vassal state had its own autonomy and traditions. In modern and more egalitarian terms: the Indian federation unites many communities into a single civilization-state. 

(published in The Pioneer, Delhi, 17 July 2014)

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

William Dalrymple is right on the Caliphate’s details, but his liberal framework is wrong



On 13 July 2014, The Guardian published an opinion article by the well-known historian of Moghul India, William Dalrymple: “The ISIS demand for a caliphate is about power, not religion.” We have heard this tune numerous times, literally and in so many words: whatever happens in the name of Islam, our progressives declare that “it is about power, not religion”. But the question, “whose power?”, brings back the Islamic factor. It is a religious conviction that seeks to increase the power of its incarnations in organizations or states.

Moreover, the contrast between power and religion makes sense in some denominations of Christianity, and will sound like a familiar truism to British readers, but it does not apply to Islam at all. Unlike Christ, whose kingdom is quoted as “not of this world”, Mohammed did claim and finally acquire power. Islam is not about personal salvation, but about founding a state and imposing a law system. If ISIS did not seek political power, it would not be a vanguard of Islam.

The article’s subtitle says more about the actual contents: “The self-anointing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi taps into jihadi nostalgia for a golden era of Islam.” Al-Baghdadi is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS: al-Sham = the Levant), who has just transmuted his jurisdiction in the Islamic State tout court, and declared himself Caliph.

As was to be expected, Dalrymple’s attention is not on the actual events, nor on the events which the ISIS protagonists explicitly refer to, but on his beloved colonial period. He starts out with a colourful depiction of the deposing of the last Ottoman Caliph, Abdülmecid (Abdulmajid) II, in 1924. Since the last Caliph’s descendents show no interest in the job, it has been lying vacant till someone has dared to claim it. Whereas the Ottoman Caliph had become a Western gentleman avidly reading Western thinkers all while filling the seat of a premodern Islamic institution, al-Baghdadi goes about in black robes and his only literature is the Qur’an and the Hadiths.

We have little against this summary of historical facts: “The restoration of the caliphate has been a dream of Islamic revivalists since at least the 1950s, when Hizb ut-Tahrir began calling for its resurrection. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar went as far as claiming for himself one of the caliph's traditional titles, Amir al-Mu'minin, the commander of the believers; the restoration of the caliphate was often mentioned by Osama bin Laden as his ultimate goal. But al-Baghdadi is the first Islamic leader since Abdülmecid to take the title, which, for many Muslims, distils deep millennial dreams of a great, just, pure multinational empire of faith – the nearest thing the Islamic world has ever seen, so the Islamists will insist, to heaven on Earth. Nostalgia for this lost world is directly associated with the golden age of early Islam, when under the leadership of the first four caliphs – the successors [of Muhammad] – Islam expanded from the Hejaz out through the Levant to borders of Sindh in the east and southern France in the west.”

The usual characters struck by a divine calling have more often claimed to be the Mahdi, the leader of the Muslims during the ultimate confrontation with unbelief before Jugdment Day. So, in a way, the present development constitutes an improvement: “Caliph” is a more mundane title without Apocalyptic pretences. Still, it means the leader of the whole Muslim world, no less.

We also tend to agree with Dalrymple when he writes: “Yet, beyond this first century, the history of the caliphate is far more troubled, bloody and contested than many realise. For most of Islamic history the title of caliph has been disputed by a succession of Muslim leaders who were anxious to give sacral legitimacy to conquests already achieved (…). As ever in the Middle East, religion is a useful mask assumed by the powerful as a way of holding on to power.” But in this case, there’s a snake hiding in the grass. The Caliphate has later on been used as a tool for power by rivaling warlords, true; but the institution itself came about as a fist against the unbelievers, giving a veneer of political legitimacy to the Islamic hold over its flock and oppression of the unbelievers. The institution Caliphate can only be abused for personal ends after existing at all, and its very existence is as a weapon of Islam against unbelief.

We helpfully learn that the Ottoman Caliphate, born in 1517, was challenged by the Moghuls from 1579, when Moghul emperor Akbar declared himself “khalifatu'l-zaman”, the caliph of his time, and “khalifa” remained one of the imperial titles of the Moghuls right up to 1858, when the remnants of the empire were dissolved. Some eccentric millennial Islamist mystics have also declared themselves caliph before being declared heretical and falling from power.

Al-Baghdadi will probably fit the mould of one of these examples, namely as leader of a short-lived break-away state, soon to be reabsorbed by one of the bordering “Sultanates”, i.e. states pledging allegiance to Islam but without the ambition to unite all Muslims and represent Islam. Then again ISIS may “mark the beginning of a permanent new jihadistan which will succeed in establishing itself on the map”. While it is too early to tell what will become of this endeavour, Dalrymple it quite right in observing that “it cannot but have great resonance through the Islamic world, (…) It will inevitably attract jihadis from across the globe to the ISIS banner.” Indeed, hundreds of European-born enthusiasts, including some converts, are fighting in the ranks of ISIS.

So, by and large, this article of Dalrymple is OK. But in the very last sentence, he spoils it all by declaring: “It is no comfort that the terrible tragedy of Iraq is entirely a mess of our own creation.” No!

We can agree that the interventions in Iraq by Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair and George W. Bush were very ill-inspired. Saddam Hussein was bad, but as we now know, his regime had its advantages too. It protected the minorities, whereas the Anglo-American intervention will be remembered by history for causing the massacre or flight of the Christians and the internecine fighting between Shi’ites and Sunnites. Secondly, it guarded the borders of Iraq. Not that these late-colonial lines on the map are worth fighting for, but we notice that Bill Clinton went to war over protecting the borders of the Yugoslav province of Bosnia, and that John Kerry is now pleading for the losing cause of Iraqi unity. So, yes, the West misbehaved badly in Iraq. In order to evolve and to outgrow Islam, the Muslim world needs a thaw, not this polarization (with the West as well as internally) that only strengthens backwardness and fanaticism. Whereas we critics of Islam plead for peace in and with the Muslim world, it is the flatterers of Islam in the Western capitals who have wanted these interventions and brought about the death of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. 

But “the terrible tragedy of Iraq” is not “entirely of our own making”. The ethnic division between Arabs and Kurds, the Islamic division between Sunna and Shi’a, the religious division between Muslim and Christian (not to speak of Mandaean, Yezidi and a few others), these have all been in existence for more than a thousand years. Over and above the human bloodthirstiness, Middle-Eastern fanaticism and cruelty are older than the Western intervention. Do blame the West for many things, but the problems plaguing the Muslim world are mostly of its own making.    


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Friday, July 11, 2014

A Hindutva historian in office


One of the first important nominations by the Narendra Modi government is the appointment of the retired History professor, Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, as head of the Indian Council of Historical Research. As I could see from spontaneous comments appearing in my mailbox, Hindu-minded historians and intellectuals tend to be very disappointed by this. To them, this nomination amounts to the waste of a beautiful and rare opportunity to achieve an overhaul of the apparently never-ending Marxist dominance in the sectors concerned with Indian history. They consider Rao unfit for the job: too old to provide the dynamic leadership that is needed to affect real change (the RSS gerontocrats clearly wanted to reward one of their own kind), and especially, too associated with the caricature version of “rewriting Indian history”.

By contrast, in secularist and other anti-Hindu circles, the joy is palpable though strategically silent. They feign indignation at Yellapragada’s appointment but among themselves they are elated, for they too consider him incompetent and likely to expose the whole idea of “Hindu history” to ridicule. Once more they congratulate themselves on an impending Hindu misadventure in history-rewriting, as if concluding: “Hindu activists are unspeakably evil, but fortunately, they are also abysmally stupid.” Let us read a typical secularist reaction, viz. an article by Shoaib Daniyal: “Five things Hindutva historians are obsessed with” (, 6 July 2014) (


Politicized history

He notes that “the new head of the Indian Council for Historical Research wants to re-examine established notions about the country's history”. So far, so good, for it is the most normal thing in the world for a historian to take a new look at established accounts and the underlying data. But then he notes that Yellapragada “is also president of the Sangh Parivar-affiliated Bharateeya Itihaasa Sankalana Samithi, an organisation that seeks to write history from an Indian nationalist perspective from ‘the beginning of kaliyuga onwards’.” This implies the chronology of the event that traditionally signaled the transition from Dwapara Yuga to Kaliyuga, viz. the death of Krishna Vasudeva and the preceding war described in the Mahabharata epic. Again, this is a legitimate object of research, investigated by many historians, philologists and archeao-astronomers. What Yellapragada has made of it, however, with what Daniyal calls his “literalist interpretation”, is part of the reason for the Hindu criticism of his appointment.

One could study the Mahabharata as a product of history. It could be read as having different layers, which in this case is admitted by the work itself: it had by its own account started as a core narrative (Jaya, “Victory”), then expanded (Bhārata, “Bharata’s clan”), and then expanded to its present form (Mahābhārata, “Great [epic] of Bharata’s clan”). And certainly its redaction history is even more complex than that. Many philosophical chapters have been inserted into it, sometimes adapted to its narrative structure, most famously the Bhagavad-Gita. However, one could also read it as an unchangeable, forever perfect revelation. This is rather common among Hindus, but obviously doesn’t fit someone with a vocation as historian.

So, there is reason to fear a “politicization of history”. In Daniyal’s assessment: “This was inevitable. Politics has always used history as a tool and agent.” Right on, Shoaib. The secularist regime, in power for more than half a century, has distorted history very thoroughly to serve its own political vision. (I don’t need to say it, Daniyal already implies as much himself.) There is now, naturally, a crying need to set the record straight and remedy these distortions.

But the BJP does not have a good record in this regard. In ca. 2002, it tried to achieve an overhaul of the history textbooks officially recommended to the Indian schools, but only managed to cover itself in ridicule. The textbook reform became a horror show of incompetence. The best of the textbooks, probably the only one up to standard, was by Dr. Meenakshi Jain, therefore also the main attractor of specious secularist criticisms, as the other textbooks were already considered as rendered harmless by ridicule.

Naturally, Daniyal is happy to remind the readers of the episode: “The move is reminiscent of the appointment of Murli Manohar Joshi as human resources development minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party government. Joshi made a number of appointments in crucial academic positions that were criticised by academic historians at the time as attempts to saffronise the curriculum and position Hindu scriptural dicta as academic thought.” Well, nothing came of it. On the one hand, the BJP tried to appease the secularists by appointing secularists, even proven enemies of the BJP, to posts with high visibility (but were of course never rewarded with compliments for being oh so secular). On the other, they promoted a fanciful history-rewriting, which ended up only embarrassing them. This time around, a similar scenario is likely to unfold, to the great joy of the secularists.

“The Medieval Period as India’s Dark Ages”

So, Daniyal promises us to take a look at “five areas where Hindutva historians have sought to rewrite accepted histories”. As we shall see, in some of these areas, the “Hindutva historians” merely restore what was a matter of consensus a century ago, and it is the secularists who have done their own rewriting, at variance with both the old consensus and the primary sources. Anyway, here goes.

“When prime minister Narendra Modi mentioned India’s ‘slave mentality of 1,200 years in the Lok Sabha, he was asserting that it was not only during the 200 years of British dominion that Indians were enslaved, but in the preceding 1,000 years of Muslim-rule as well.” So Daniyal is now going to prove that Muslim rule was neither oppressive nor foreign.

“Indian historiography does not consider the medieval period foreign rule, primarily because the Muslim kings engaged with Indian culture meaningfully as they ruled, and were not economically extractionary like the British colonists. Historians associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have long sought to challenge this, painting the years of Muslim rule as foreign.”

Did Jadunath Sarkar consider Muslim rule native? Did he ignore its exploitative aspects? It is not “Indian historiography” that denied the Sultans’ foreign origin, foreign language and foreign religion, it is only the Marxists who have lorded it over the cultural and educational sectors the past few decades. The Sultans were very extractionary, both through the toleration tax and through the land tax, but most of those who conquered India from abroad soon lost their home base. They invested lots of Indian tax money in trying to recover their Central Asian homeland, which generally did not succeed, but proved their foreign orientation. Only the first Muslim regime was a colonial state with an enduring foreign base: Mohammed bin Qasin, who conquered Sindh in 712, was Viceroy of the Caliphate based in Damascus. The British were exploitative, to be sure, but next to their brutal exploitation, they also gave much in return, from modern democracy to the rediscovery of the Sankrit textual tradition. No Muslim ruler can take any such credit. In that sense, not the thorns but the roses of colonialism, Muslim rule was indeed not a colonial system.

Not just “historians associated with the RSS”, but anyone who can read primary sources, can see that the Muslims saw themselves as foreign occupiers. To tell their syrupy stories, the reigning secularists have to keep the primary sources out of view. But people like Daniyal have an interest in identifying a dissident view of history with the RSS,-- the same interest that the RSS has. Both want to keep the objective view, cultivated by some Hindu and foreign historians as their only salvation, out of view, and pretend that only the RSS thwarts the total dominance of the secularists. The RSS wants to aggrandize itself as the only representative of the Hindus, and the secularist establishment wants to render any challenge to their distorted version of history suspect by its association with the ill-reputed RSS. The RSS and the secularists are strange bedfellows.   

“In January, Hindutva adherents on Twitter created a furore over Tipu Sultan being featured on Karnataka’s Republic Day float. A number of Indian historians have championed Sultan as one of the few kings who refused to submit to England’s military advantage.” Tipu Sultan was a persecutor of the non-believers, as he himself and many other contemporary sources testify. His opposition to the English only meant that he was allied with the French. Both were colonial powers, and it was by no means settled that England and not France would rule India. He was by no means a nationalist or freedom-fighter. But the secularists are powerful enough to let their own false version of history pass as the official one.

“An extreme version of the efforts to delegitimise rulers of this age is found in the works of historian PN Oak (quoted often by a member of the BJP, Subramanian Swamy). Oak claims that the Taj Mahal was once a Shiva temple named ‘Tejo Mahalaya’ that the Mughals simply took over, changing the name slightly.” P.N. Oak was not a historian, though indeed far too many Hindus call him that – and secularists, as you can see right here. Oak’s popular but nonsensical version of history is an embarrassment for genuine Hindu historians. Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, Sita Ram Goel and myself repeatedly wrote against his stories and the damage he was doing to the cause of genuine history. Secularists, by contrast, promote him all they can. Thus, after only one page, Daniyal himself has not mentioned qualified and productive historians like Majumdar and Goel, but he has already smuggled in Oak, who actually remains the only Hindu "historian" mentioned throughout this article. Secularists are past masters at deviousness, and most Hindus are too naïve to see through their game.


The Golden Hindu Age

“Looking past the many advances India made in the medieval period, Hindutva historians often look to ancient India for a sense of historical sustenance.” Which are these “many advances”? I don’t know of any, but I know that the Muslims destroyed the universities, razed thousands of temples, destroyed many social institutions, destroyed the freedom of millions by keeping or exporting them as slaves.

Anyway, Daniyal has a point when he observes: “Ironically, the preferred morality of the RSS is modeled more on 19th-century European sensibilities than the mores prevalent in ancient India.” Yes, the RSS is all for the suppression of carefree or alternative forms of sexuality and of free speech, and this does indeed follow laws imposed by the Victorian British on the Hindus precisely because these lacked such laws. However, the following line is only part of the truth: “Historians such as DN Jha, who have showed that some people in ancient India ate beef, are therefore attacked.” To say this just after Arun Shourie has highlighted the fraud which DN Jha committed when he was ICHR chairman in 2004, is essentially a rehabilitation. When all eyes are on the lies propagated by the “eminent historians”, and the central question of Daniyal’s article ought to be how the new ICHR appointee is going to clean up this Augian stable, it is simply a tactic of misdirection to launch this tirade about cow-slaughter.   

“In an
interview with the Telegraph, Rao bluntly confirms that his aim is to ‘rewrite ancient history’.” Well, if history has been controlled for decades by shameless history distorters, it is only to be hoped that he will rewrite history. When Marxist power came crashing down in the Soviet bloc in 1989-90, the history textbooks were also rewritten, and quite justifiably. What is to be feared, however, is that by “rewriting history”, the new chairman has a PN Oak caricature in mind. This will prove unsustainable and will certainly lead to another defeat, like the preceding BJP government’s attempt, and like the California textbook debacle.   

Scholarship around Hinduism

“Religious history, in itself, is a useful field given how society is shaped by faith. Archaeologists like BB Lal and SR Rao have even sought to determine the truth of events related in the Mahabharata through their research. Unfortunately, much of this work has been literalist in approach, reminiscent of the Biblical archaeology movement.” I wholeheartedly share this concern. My mailbox is regularly flooded by Hindu history-rewriters who want to prove some point of ancient history and use a text passage as “evidence”. Gullible Hindus are indeed the Hindu historians’ worst enemies; which is why they are secretly encouraged by the secularists.

“This perception is reinforced by the treatment that Wendy Doniger’s work on Hinduism has received. Dinanath Batra, the senior RSS member who ensured Doniger’s publishers pulped her book, advised the previous BJP government on education policy.” Long before Doniger’s book was pulped, an event which the secularists have eagerly highlighted, her book was replied to in detail by Vishal Agarwal, a successful medical engineer and Sankrit teacher. He showed that she was either wrong or unmistakably biased in hundreds of passages. For a lifelong tenant of a very prestigious Indology chair, it is shameful that she could deliver such substandard work. But the fact that her work was anything but scholarly, has been carefully hidden by the secularists, including in the present article. Yet the fact that such a bad book was universally applauded and even earmarked for an Indian award, tells you a lot about the power equation, with the anti-Hindu forces jubilantly on top. That is a more valid news item than the senile RSS leadership’s invocation of a British censorship law originally enacted to prevent the Arya Samaj from criticizing Islam.


Out-of-India Theory

“Hindutva historians such as the Belgian Indologist Koenraad Elst explain the linguistic links between India and Europe through a theory in which Europeans are the modern descendants of people who migrated out of India, spreading their language in the process. This is crucial given how Hinduism is defined as completely indigenous to India by the RSS. But this theory has little credibility in linguistics and historical research. The Kurgan Hypothesis (or the Aryan Migration Theory) is the mostly [sic] widely-accepted model.”

Dr. Koenraad Elst, the undersigned, is by no means a “Hindutva historian”. Daniyal would have known that if he had cared to read books of mine such as BJP vs. Hindu Resurgence or Decolonizing the Hindu Mind. In those, I criticize the organized Hindu movement. The difference with Daniyal is, in all modesty, that I happen to know what I am writing about, while he doesn’t. To be sure, he doesn’t need to do the research I have done. He can just parrot the conventional wisdom mouthed by the secularists, this will get him a lot farther in life.

As for the Aryan Invasion Theory, which in every variant boils down to an invasion scenario (though its fashion-conscious camp-followers prefer the weasel word Migration), it is sub judice, or at least, it is the object of a debate. That the Russia-centred “Kurgan Hypothesis is the [most] widely-accepted model”, may over-awe the common bourgeoisie as well as conformist academics, but carries little weight with real scholars. Every new theory started out in opposition against the established position. So, on the Aryan question, the evidence will have to decide.

Meanwhile, the AIT has been far more associated with politics than any Out-of-India Theory. From British colonialism over National-Socialism to Dravidianism and neo-Ambedkarism, it has been politically used in far more countries, for a far longer time, and not by a handful of marginal scholars but by governments and by elites wielding political and cultural power. Indeed, if the AIT didn’t enjoy the premium of its association with power and status, I don’t think Daniyal would be supporting it. Like most secularists, he doesn’t have a clue about this intricate question and merely makes whatever the establishment says into his own “opinion”.   


Re-interpreting the Freedom Movement

“Though each period of Indian history has become a source of contest, the freedom movement is possibly the most politicised segment of Indian history. The Congress has its own band of historians who have interpreted the period as per its needs. Surprisingly, the BJP agenda here is the least contentious and comprises what are basically petty turf wars involving individuals.
When the BJP was last in power, bitter squabbles arose over whether Hindutva ideologue Veer Savarkar’s picture should go up in Parliament or not. Nehru – a fond target of the Hindutva right – will probably come under more attack, and his more conservative contemporary Vallabhbhai Patel will be championed.”

I agree with these observations. Obviously, after sixty or so years of Congress distortion of its own role during the British period, any new government would have to correct the resulting warped history. Both Congress and the RSS Parivar were spawned by the Freedom Movement, and both profess forms of “nationalism”. In this regard, the two are not all that different. Congress has of course exaggerated and whitewashed Mahatma Gandhi’s role, and a handful of Hindu historians take a very critical stand on Gandhi, but don’t expect the BJP will seriously intervene in the image of the Mahatma which the younger generations are fed. Gandhi’s murder by an ex-RSS-volunteer makes the subject too touchy, and the RSS always avoids difficult subjects.

A word of caution: “Yet, even as the RSS makes strenuous efforts to refashion history to suit its own needs, it must be pointed out to anybody excessively alarmed (or pleased) by this, that official histories have a pretty small role to play in today’s world. For example, the current set of history textbooks published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training are truly well-written, with little political interference and featuring the latest research. Most politically aware Indians, though, simply ignore them and pick such history off the Internet, that best fits their preconceived notions.” I don’t think they are all that well-written, but let that pass. They only got their chance because the preceding BJP textbooks were a failure. At any rate, it is true that the information landscape has drastically changed. And the RSS is not known for quick adaptations to changes.

“Moreover, most of the primary research is now done outside India. More academics in India seem to be keeping away from the hard grind of primary-source research, an attitude that American Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock has described as ‘cultural genocide’. That, perhaps, is something we should be worrying about more.”
The world outside India certainly deserves our attention. It is safely in the pocket of the secularists, who control the bottleneck of the information flow from India to the rest of the world. Most foreign India-watchers don’t even know that they are being manipulated, others gladly collaborate with every secularist distortion. We might comment on Pollock’s place in this power equation, but we very much concur with his appreciation of India’s forgetfulness concerning its own heritage. Every talented young Indian seeks to become a doctor or engineer, and only the remainder enters the Humanities, which are also neglected by the political class. It is not clear that the Narendra Modi government or its new ICHR appointee plan to do anything about this.

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