Dr AKBAR S AHMED
MODERN India is a land of dizzying contrasts. Indian scientists have developed plans to send satellites to Mars, while Indian mobs roam the streets and bazaars lynching and murdering members of the minority community. Politicians and commentators boast of India’s status as a superpower but ignore the violence and poverty. A Prime Minister deemed so powerful and revered by his followers is wounded by a foreign documentary that sheds light on his conduct and briskly declares emergency laws to ban its viewing (see “India invokes emergency laws to ban BBC Modi documentary,” The Guardian, 23 January 2023). Not content, Modi’s officials raid the offices of the BBC in India, a standard practice used to harass opponents of a government. Then the pro-government media deployed its heavy guns on the BBC accusing it of taking bribes from the Chinese to defame India.
The second episode of the BBC documentary was, as Arundhati Roy contended in The Guardian, “less seen but even more frightening[…]about the dangerous divisiveness and deep fault lines Modi has cultivated during his tenure as prime minister. For most Indians, it’s the texture of our daily lives: sword-wielding mobs, saffron-clad god-men routinely calling for the genocide of Muslims and the mass rape of Muslim women, the impunity with which Hindus can lynch Muslims on the street, and not only film themselves while doing it but be garlanded and congratulated for it by senior ministers in Modi’s cabinet” (“Modi’s model is at last revealed for what it is: violent Hindu nationalism underwritten by big business,” The Guardian, 18 February 2023).
Lord Ram is the classic hero of antiquity. Courageous in war and generous to the defeated, his nobility makes him an attractive figure. But in the hands of the thugs who surround and beat to death individual Muslims while forcing them to repeat “Jai Shri Ram,” he has become the symbol of death and destruction. The best-known Indian in the world, Mahatma Gandhi, admired abroad as the embodiment of peace, is reviled in India. Yet the new film Pathaan illustrates why India, in spite of the controversies around attacks on minorities, still gives us hope—an ISI heroine, a Muslim eponymous hero brandishing his Pathaan ethnicity which is the pride of Pakistan. I went to see it at the AMC theater at the Montgomery Mall near Washington, D.C. The BJP had declared Pathaan an anti-Indian film and warned cinemas not to exhibit it. The heroine had worn a yellow bikini briefly during a dance number which it said was the colour of their party. Some commentators pointed out that the real target was the film’s star, Shahrukh Khan, a prominent Muslim at a time when Muslims were being targeted. The film was a massive global hit in spite of efforts to dampen its reception. The headline of the Guardian review declared, “Shahrukh Khan spy caper is more fun than Bond” (26 January 2023).
Defining Hinduism and Hindutva
How, then to understand and analyse the identity of India today? We must keep in mind the context of South Asian societies that remain deeply respectful of their religions irrespective of modernity and development. There are two main positions in the current debates around Hinduism and Hindutva and the future of the Subcontinent, and they are represented by prominent champions. Perhaps there are fewer more prominent than the distinguished public intellectual and Member of Parliament, Dr. Shashi Tharoor on one side and the fiery young burgeoning litigator and author of India, that is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution, J. Sai Deepak on the other. Perhaps a good way to understand their positions is to look at the extraordinary debate that took place between them on 9 September 2021, at the ‘Chennai launch’ of Tharoor’s book The Battle of Belonging, organised by Nanditha Krishna and the CP Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation(“J Sai Deepak Vs Shashi Tharoor,” Plural India, Youtube). Tharoor referred several times to his book Why I am a Hindu. Deepak had recently launched his only book at the time, but the first in his Bharat Trilogy.
The opposing position of the debaters was highlighted by their contrasting ideas and appearance. Tharoor, with his vision of India as a secular and liberal nation, was in elegant dress and spoke with an Oxford accent, echoing his hero Pandit Nehru himself an impeccable dresser with a fresh rose plucked daily for his chest. Inevitably, Tharoor drew comparison with Deepak with his heavy “Indian” accent and rough and ready appearance. Deepak promotes what he calls “Bharati civilisationalism reawakening” or “Dharmic civilisationalism.” Anything that challenges this notion will confront the force of Hindutva. It is in this context that Deepak considers the founding fathers of India like the Mahatma and Nehru as a negative force.
Hovering over the debate were the towering names of Indian politics – Nehru and Gandhi on one side, Savarkar and Golwalker on the other. For the former position the ideological frame is best encapsulated in Nehru’s The Discovery of India. For the latter, it is in the writings of Savarkar and Golwalker. Tharoor is not alone on his side of the debate; he has some heavyweight figures like Arundhati Roy, Rajmohan Gandhi, Karan Thapar, and Amartya Sen. Deepak too is not alone; his network of like-minded vigorous, aggressive, and articulate Hindu nationalist historians include Dr Vikram Sampath, Sanjay Dixit, Major Gaurav Arya, and Abhijit Chavda. The latter have the microphone and use it relentlessly. Their position has shifted from the fringes of society in recent years to the mainstream while Tharoor and his colleagues have been elbowed to the margins.
Ultranationalist Indian scholars like Deepak and Sampath promote a consolidated narrative of Indian history. It is as if they are reading from a shared memorandum titled “Hate Muslims.” This is their version of history: India was paradise on earth in the ancient past. Muslim invaders came, wave upon wave, to rape, murder, loot and destroy temples. 80 to 90 million people were killed, and over 40,000 temples destroyed. 3 to 4 million women were abducted to be sold in the slave markets of Central Asia. It is high time to expose the atrocities of the past and rewrite history, if not demand reparations. To these historians, the past has been obfuscated by an incorrect interpretation of history which projects a Ganga-Jumna culture created by Bollywood and some dishonest historians. Gandhi is condemned for his alleged role in creating a mythical idea of a pacifist Hinduism so that Hindus would not resist the British with force. Gandhi was brought from South Africa where he wrote to the British “begging” to be allowed to work for them and transplanted to India. Gandhi is a primary target of this breed of historian who even refuse to call him Mahatma or “Great Soul” preferring to use the title for his assassin Nathuram Godse. “I will not call him Mahatma,” said Deepak emphatically to Tharoor, “to me, he is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.”
Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib, the giants of Indian scholarship a generation ago, are dismissed with the flick of a sarcastic comment as essentially dishonest scholars writing history a la Bollywood.
The cumulative charge sheet against Muslims is depressingly grim. These Indian historians believe it is time to reclaim and rewrite history, and not to be apologetic about it. Dr Vikram Sampath asserts the need to overcome the sense of “inferiority” in dealing with history (“The Bloody History of Islamic Conquest of India with Vikram Sampath,” The Jaipur Dialogues, YouTube). Sampath confessed that confronting history, Hindus “have made to feel inferior, self-loathing and apologetic.” Yet he says, we did not “cower” in fear during centuries of “barbarians’ invasions.” For Sampath, Muslims are “barbarians” and argues that we cannot hide under the idea of communal unity. He put forward a convoluted argument about a conspiracy to diminish and demean India, according to him, the most peaceful and tolerant nation on earth. Sampath also sneers at the idea of a syncretic civilisation of Hindu-Muslim unity or the Ganga-Jumna culture as a myth. Enough was enough, and Sampath declared that Hindus should not take this anymore. Clearly, some of the excessive negative energy of these commentators is an exercise in overcompensation.
This generation of ultranationalist historians share certain characteristics: they are relatively young and definitely prolific in their output, publishing books, appearing on chat shows, and taking advantage of online social media; they are extravagant in their claims and aggressive in their style. They have three targets in mind, which are often meshed and in the public mind become one and the same thing: Muslim rulers of the past, the Muslim community of India today and Pakistan. In attempting to rewrite history; these historians are distorting it. There would have to be another generation of historians to pick up the debris created by the zeal of the present generation with their hammer blows to the façade of Indian scholarship.
The debate is important to understand because the definition of Hinduism and its relationship to Hindutva is no longer a matter restricted to India. The Bharat of Hindutva includes the territories of Pakistan culturally and historically, claiming the great river Indus which runs through Pakistan and the civilisation which is the foundation of Indic civilisation. Ultimately their stated aim is to reincorporate Pakistan into India. Senior military and political officials have publicly announced their determination to break away the northern parts of Pakistan and join them to India.
The Pakistani response has been to ignore these threats and focus on challenges the country faces internally. Senior members of Modi’s party have declared with confidence that they have every intention of finishing the minorities, which means Muslims and Christians, by 2024. India would then become a pure Hindu nation. The sight of mosques being demolished and churches attacked, recorded and put online, is heart rendering.
Today, vast numbers of Indians live in the West, and many are in key positions in government. The Prime Minister and home minister in the UK, and the defense minister of Canada along with hundreds of top CEOs and administrators belong to the Hindu faith and therefore, the definition of Hinduism and Hindutva becomes important in understanding them and their actions. The vice president of the USA, whose mother was from Chennai, is a Baptist who grew up attending Hindu services. When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was asked by a member of parliament during PM’s Q&A whether he stood by the BBC report on the Gujarat genocide indicting Prime Minister Narendra Modi or supported Modi, Sunak came out strongly in defense of Modi. The response of Sunak, who is a devout Hindu, was pregnant with political implications and reflective of his loyalties (India: The Modi Question, Producers R. Cookson, M. Radford, and Director S. Subramaniam, BBC, 2023).
So let us look at Tharoor’s thesis, which until the emergence of Narendra Modi a decade ago was the dominant narrative of the land. For Tharoor, history is linear and moving modern India ever forward and upward taking all its diverse communities along. For Deepak, history is cyclical. Ancient India was great in every aspect, a veritable paradise, and then lost its position due to barbaric “foreign invasions.” It is time to restart the cycle of history and recreate the ancient glory. That duty falls to the Hindu population of the land, and they must reclaim their past. For Tharoor, Indians must not forget the past but must forgive and move on as the present population of Muslims cannot be blamed for what happened in the past. For him the vision of India is secular and democratic, for Deepak it is dharmic and proud. Tharoor would remove boundaries between peoples, Deepak would reinforce them to preserve purity. Tharoor proudly cited Professor Diana Eck at Harvard University to reinforce his position on pluralism, while Deepak dismissed her because she does not call India Bharat and was “colonial.”
Tharoor began by delivering his own thoughts on nationalism and defined the Indian nationalism of Nehru and Gandhi as a civic and pluralist engagement. He condemned Hindutva as antithetical to Indian nationalism and the constitution as it is a form of ethnic nationalism.
In talking about his book, Why I am a Hindu, Tharoor tackles nationalism in the 21st century by mentioning two famous essayists on nationalism, Tagore and Orwell. Both wrote about nationalism with hostility. For Tagore it was a substitute for humanism, for Orwell it was patriotism gone wrong. Tharoor values Orwell’s distinction between nationalism and patriotism and came to the same view that patriotism is about love for your country simply because it belongs to you, and you it, “the way you love your mother.” The nationalist’s love for his country is wrapped up in the “state.” The flags, army, the authority, nationalism often defines allegiance in opposition to others. “A patriot is willing to die for his country, whereas a nationalist is prepared to kill for his state.”
Tharoor worried that, “whereas Savarkar is very much hailed and respected and presented as the fount of those ideas[…] The worry is that he was writing that much at a time when very similar ideas were flourishing in Europe, particularly Italy, Germany, and Portugal, and Spain at that time were cropped up in very similar notions of ethnic nationalism, and it was no accident that Savarkar described Hindus as a race, he did not use the word religion, he used race because he was writing at a period when these ideas of racial purity were sweeping across Europe at the same time.”
Deepak dismissed Tharoor’s book which was being launched saying, “My book is a rebuttal of yours.” Deepak had little time for the niceties of debate: in one interview, he threatened with a sneer,” Come for me and I’ll rip you apart” (in “Understanding Indian History with Advocate J. Sai Deepak,” ANI Podcast with Smita Prakash, Youtube) an interview on Indian civilisation on the Smita Prakash show on the ANI Podcast). To him, Tharoor represented the influences of the colonial mentality and the slavish response of the Indian elite. For Deepak, Hinduism by definition could not be colonial as it fought colonial influences. And so, for Deepak, Tharoor was the past, he was the future.
Deepak took a vigorous battle-axe to Tharoor who under the blows squirmed and wriggled. Deepak kept repeating with aggressive pedagogical confidence and a dollop of condescension: “let me connect the dots for you.” He corrected Tharoor on the origins of the term Hindutva, pointing out that Savarkar did not come up with the concept. But for Deepak, he would “completely discard Savarkar” to “build a case for Hindu Civilisationism,” as he believes the movement is larger than any individual.
Deepak set out to explain the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva to Tharoor with an air of condescension. Hinduism is the religion, and Hindutva is the shield and sword that must protect it. Gandhi compromised Hinduism by projecting a pacifist religion. Hinduism is peaceful, not pacifist. Hindus resisted invaders throughout history with swords, for example, the Marathas and Rajputs and so on. Deepak claimed that every Muslim who remained in India in 1947 did so because they did not want to give up India as it was the land conquered by Islam and therefore theirs by right. James Mill and the other Englishmen who wrote about India are slammed for distorting Indian history to promote colonialism. Deepak cast doubts on the creation of the Indian National Congress. The British had reports of unrest and therefore created the party as a safety valve. He implied they were the creation of the British for their own purposes. In his interview with Smita Prakash, Deepake said Asaduddin Owaisi gives speeches in Urdu of one kind and in English of another kind. With a sneer he called him “another Jinnah.” Every Muslim action, value or custom was twisted and interpreted in a negative light. To Deepak, the entire Muslim population, irrespective of tribe, caste, sect is one big monolithic entity and able to be interpreted in one simple manner, that is, it is against Hindus and is violent and intolerant in nature. This is classic Islamophobia 2.0. He accused everyone of conspiracies and lack of knowledge.
Anyone is welcome to live in India as long as they do not treat Hindus as “sub-human, de-human, or second-hand citizens,” Deepak argues. There is too much discussion of the treatment of minorities but not enough of what the Kashmiri Hindus suffered. The Hindu community gets “more scrutiny than it deserves.” Hindus have been colonised since the arrival of Islam and it is unfair to criticise them “such as western colonisers:” Hindus, by definition, are the colonised not the colonisers.
Deepak cites Dr. Sampath approvingly and complains that we face “distorted history” (ANI Podcast with Smita Prakash). For him the central issue is the identity of India. He angrily rejects what he sees as the “forced symmetry” on discussions of Hindu- Muslim relationships. He exposes the communal relation of the Moplah rebellion and the brutalities of Mahmud of Ghazni. If, he argues, the Gujarat riots are cited then why not these atrocities against Hindus? These are colossal conspiracies.
Yet Deepak goes on to cite the conspiracy theory that Gandhi was “a British agent” suddenly brought to India and overnight made the leader of the Hindus. This was proof that Gandhi was clearly a British agent. As for Jinnah, these historians cannot even come around to state his name such is the venom directed towards him. When LK Advani and Jaswant Singh, two leading lights of the BJP, wrote glowing accounts of Jinnah, both were shown the door by their party.
These historians have a similar slapdash approach to facts and figures: the purported genocide of 80 million by Muslims is a case in point. Where are these figures from? There is no source. For Deepak and these historians, Pakistan becomes the “fort of Islam” which is what Muslims wanted India to become but could not so in 1947 they turned to Pakistan and from there they will spread Islam. Deepak condemns Bangladesh for its treatment of Hindus and not showing gratitude to India for helping it to become independent in 1971. He picks at every Muslim, alive like Owaisi or dead like Aurangzeb.
For Sampath, the prolific historian who has just launched his Bravehearts of Bharat, which throws a spotlight on so far little-known Hindu figures who resisted Muslim rule, the long list of battles lost to the Muslims and British have created “self-loathing” and “apologia” (“Times Now Summit 2022,” Youtube). To him, the story of India is a story of invasion which makes us “nation of losers.” “India needs to reclaim its history” including its “darker aspects.” Sampath vigorously rejects “Western” scholars as colonial, nonetheless, quotes Will Durant repeatedly to illustrate how barbaric the Muslims were. Unfortunately, Durant’s knowledge of the subject is tainted as he describes Muslims as “Mohammedans” – a mistake with serious theological implications. Sampath blames Marxists and the left-leaning liberals and Nehruvians. Sampath criticises Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib, the venerable historians of a generation ago. He attacks American Professor Audrey Truschke. He talks of the “Hindu genocide” of the past thousand years and his aim to expose the atrocities. Sampath repeats the figure of 80 million Hindus killed. Sampath attacks Tipu Sultan as a bigot. He has written a two-part biography of Savarkar and is writing one on Tipu Sultan to expose him. He points to Lord Macaulay’s minute on colonialism. He called Rahul Gandhi an “imbecile.”
Abhijit Chavda, another prolific video star representing the Hindutva position, lived in the US where he had many Pakistani friends. He saw Jinnah as fighting for Hindu-Muslim unity and was a good guy but later in life became a bad guy. He becomes a “traitor” and anti-national. India was one political and cultural entity stretching from Afghanistan down to Burma and beyond. It is called Bharath Varsh. Then 1,000 years ago, waves of Turkish invaders swarmed into India smashed the temples and burned the libraries and despoiled the women. That is how the Mughals came to India. He explains why the Mongols attacked the Middle East and Russia but not India. Genghis Khan was in such awe of Hindu culture that he turned his armies around and left. Chavda forgets to mention that at the time it was a Muslim ruler in Delhi who organised formidable defenses which discouraged the Khan from opening another theater of war. This is popular history. It is also playing fast and loose with facts. He was on the Ranveer Show and the host was a pleasant young man. Ranveer said several times he gets on well with Pakistanis and has many Pakistani friends in Dubai; they are warm people.
For all their denunciations of Western colonialism, the ideologues of this line of thinking looked to the fascist state of Nazi Germany for inspiration. They argued that if Hitler could get rid of the Jewish population, they could do the same with their minorities.
History as Witness
History contains the secrets of the terrible things human beings have done to each other. Because it is such a controversial subject the first step needs to be to accurately assess what exactly happened. Trying to throw about wild accusations without evidence as is being done now is neither convincing nor an accurate way of assessing the past. Are these historians writing history to take revenge against Muslims or to arrive at the truth? Hatred and anger are poor research assistants to historians.
The question is not the numbers. Whether it was 8 million or 8 thousand or even eight, the killing of civilians is unacceptable and inexcusable. The same argument applies to the abduction of women or the destruction of temples. The older I get the more I realise that war and violence are the curse of mankind and, conversely, the more I realise the importance of compassion and kindness.
Here are glaring examples where greater care and scholarship are required:
First: A story of true horror that Sampath likes to quote as proof that Muslims were gory and perfidious is of Hindu women abducted in their millions from India for sale in Ghazni, the capital of Mahmud. He cites a chilling Persian inscription—”The daughters of India auctioned for two dinar.” Finding the story particularly abhorrent, I googled it for veracity. Not surprisingly, I found no credible sources for it and some debate about its authenticity. (for instance, see “No, Hindu Women Were Not Auctioned Off At Minaret In Ghazni, Afghanistan.”
An image of the minaret of Bahram Shah in the Afghan city of Ghazni became virally circulated on South Asian social media in 2021 after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. The image was shared repeatedly, accompanied by a similar claim that the minaret was inscribed with “‘Dukhtar-e Hindustan’: Sold for Two Dinars” and is a testament to the mass auction of Hindu women. However, since its circulation, several experts have come forward to bravely debunk the claim in defense of the minaret.
Dr. Manan Ahmed, a historian of South Asia and associate professor of Columbia University’s Department of History, confirmed in an interview with Soma Basu of Agence France-Presse (AFP), India, that “no structure was built to celebrate or commemorate the sale of ‘Hindu’ women.” Viola Allegranzi, an expert on monuments from the Ghaznavid period, substantiated that the claim about inscription was blatantly false, “‘Dokhtar-e Hindustan’ means ‘the daughter/girl from Hindustan’ in Persian” Allegranzi told AFP. “[The real inscription] is in Arabic and contains the name and titles of the Ghaznavid Sultan Bahram Shah.” (“Afghan religious building shared in false posts about ‘auction of Hindu women’, scholars say,” AFP Fact Check, 12 December 2021). The actual Arabic inscription of the minaret, cited in Janine Sourdel-Thomine’s research paper, translates to: “In the name of God the merciful: the great sultan (king) the king of Islam, the right hand of the state, the keeper of the nation, Abou El Mouzaffar Bahram Shah.” (Sourdel-Thomine. “Deux Minarets d’époque Seljoukide En Afghanistan.” Syria, vol. 30, no. 1/2, 1953, pp. 108–36).
Second: Deepak and Sampath cite, as do numerous contemporary commentators, the alleged destruction by Muslims of the great Nalanda library in Bihar where, in 1193, thousands of monks were said to have been beheaded and 50,000 men, women, and children killed. The library burnt for some three months.
This is a strange and disturbing story for me personally. As an author and teacher, I not only respect scholarship but I have been made aware of how deeply respectful Islam is towards knowledge. Indeed, it is the second most used word in the Quran after the word for God. Muslims are even asked not to throw books on the floor and to respect the written word. So, the idea of a Muslim burning a library is jarring and does not make sense. Muslims were blamed for the burning of the Alexandria Library for centuries, only to discover later that the library had been burned long before the arrival of Muslims in Egypt.
It is not a question of whether such atrocities against the majority Hindu population took place or not. The fact is that many if not most members of the community actually believe that they did – and therefore continue to feel justifiably aggrieved. They feel that something must be done about this. Unfortunately, those that are accused by association simply dismiss the stories as fabrications. That is a dangerous strategy that leaves hurt feelings unresolved. It is far better to confront such rumors and accusations and to deal with them. Did such incidents take place, and if they did, the Muslim community must clarify its position and disassociate itself from them. If harm was done by Muslim invaders, then as a Muslim I must unequivocally condemn the destruction of any library, religious institution and the harming of the population. Respecting the places of worship of non-Muslims and non-Muslim civilians, including priests, is demanded by Islam. This policy is contained as a clear-cut instruction from the Holy Prophet (PBUH) of Islam in an extant communication sent to St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai.
Third: There is a tendency to lump different Muslims with major internal ideological differences and usually at each other’s throats, like the Wahabis and Sufis, into one composite monolith. The “all Muslims are alike” syndrome. Deepak makes the astonishing statement that every Wahabi is a Sufi and vice versa. Yet we know the Taliban, inspired by Wahabis, have gone out of their way to target Sufi shrines and centers even blowing up over 100 people at the most famous center in Lahore at Datta Sahib.
Fourth: It is important to discuss the past but the ideological twist given to it by these polemicist historians implicates Muslims today. Sampath compared the tragic deaths at partition of some 2 million people to the Holocaust in Europe, implying that Muslims committed the atrocities, not mentioning that Muslims were equally victims of the partition turmoil. The madness embraced all, irrespective of religion or race.
Fifth: The poor Mahatma has few takers in this group. Chavda reflects the thinking on India’s most famous son. He describes Gandhi as a ” British agent “and quotes his letters to the British in South Africa “begging” to be allowed to fight as a soldier for the British army against the Boers (“Gandhi was a British asset: was groomed by Britain in South Africa,” Abhijit Chavda, The Festival of Bharat, Youtube). Gandhi is mysteriously brought from Africa and overnight becomes leader of the Hindus in India thanks to the British. The purpose is to distort and corrupt Hinduism by projecting it as a pacifist religion so as to ease the predicament of the colonial British.
Their followers placed the blame of partition on Gandhi for fasting to force the Indian government to “pay Pakistan money.” However, what they do not say is that it was the division of assets agreed by all parties and due to Pakistan, and the Indian government violated international law by holding it back. Gandhi threatened to fast unto death unless this was redeemed. It was not charity, but Pakistan’s rightful share of Partition, which Gandhi fought for on a moral basis. That is precisely why he was considered the Mahatma.
Sixth: The progress of history for these historians has a tit-for tat rhythm. The 1924 book Rangeela Rasul defaming the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam was written because Muslims wrote against Lord Ram’s wife Sita. Deepak quoted Patel approvingly when Hyderabad Muslims threatened to attack Hindus: “What do you think we will do to the Muslims in India?” They connect the Moplah rebellion in the south of India to Syed Ahmad and the Muslim activists who died at Balakot in the North-West Frontier Province, and Sharukh Khan’s latest movie Pathaan to Gandhi’s support of the Khilafat Movement. They dismiss Muslim stalwarts of the Congress party, Azad and Salman Khurshid, as belonging to the Wahabi Islamic ideology – thus implying fundamentalism and its alleged links with terrorism. They dismiss Bollywood as having created the fantasy of what was called the Ganga Jumna secular and pluralist culture. Although these commentators dismiss Bollywood, there was no doubt that Bollywood had a role in creating an image of India first in the early years as a secular liberal society and more recently with an emphasis on religious nationalism. And Bollywood today is bursting with energy and confidence. It is ready to conquer the world.
Finally, a comment on Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the great warrior-king of the Marathas. The most notable historians of the Mughals of the previous generation, like Aziz Ahmad (1964), or those of the current generation, like the American Audrey Truschke, both confirm based on fact and evidence that there was no such thing as a Hindu-versus-Muslim perception of the world at the time. To look back now to the past as modern historians and commentators are doing as a perpetual war between Hindus and Muslims is factually incorrect and skews history preventing us from understanding the past. Besides, it enflames public opinion with gory and incorrect “facts” thus encouraging communal tensions leading to the current violence.
There are several modern British historians writing with clarity and impartiality. Gordon Johnson Francis Robinson and William Dalrymple come to mind. Some like Audrey Truschke were caught up in local controversy, especially around her studies of Aurangzeb. She was accused of depicting him as too sympathetic by the BJP zealots who turned up at her home in India threatening harm and chased her out of the country. These historians clearly establish the fact that in the past Maratha, Rajput and other regional uprisings against the Mughals were not cast in religious terms, but as the periphery revolting against the center an aspect of a once great empire in decline. As proof, we know that Muslim rulers in the south and in the east, in Bengal, and Muslim tribes in the north-western provinces were in revolt. Aurangzeb, who is blamed for every calamity in India as the ultimate bigot is established by these historians as granting lands for Hindu temples and posting Hindu generals to lead his armies. Indeed, the general who led the Mughal army against Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was Jai Singh.
For Shivaji, the Mughals were not an alien entity. He referred to Akbar the Great, Aurangzeb’s ancestor, as Jagad Guru, or the “Guru of the universe.” Shivaji appointed Muslim generals in his army, Muslim qazis in his administration and Muslim advisers in his court. Shivaji’s father, Shahaji, served in the Muslim states in the south and was named after the Sufi saint Shah Sharif. While asserting Mahratta nationalism, Shivaji was also re-affirming Hindu pluralism. Shivaji was a great ruler and courageous warrior, but he was not a bigot. It is only in retrospect that Hindu commentators have imposed a frame of ultra-ethnic nationalism on figures like Shivaji. Given the charged environment and prevalence of conspiracy theories, it will be some time before the historical record is corrected.
Pakistan’s Version of History
For an emerging superpower, it is odd the amount of obsessive hatred and time India diverts on its smaller clearly struggling neighbor Pakistan. There is no fresh thinking on how to understand Pakistan, build bridges or how to start a genuine dialogue. The new thinking is to hit Pakistan hard and keep hitting it again and again. Added to this policy is the accumulated negative history from the past which flows unchecked across the web universe. Pakistan thus stands for all the alleged sins that India faced from the Muslim invasions and wrongdoings. Muslim contributions in art, architecture, music, language etc. are ignored or reduced. Even the Taj Mahal is given the stepmother treatment.
Culturally, it is not such a black-and-white situation for Pakistanis. For many Pakistanis, especially of the older generation, Bollywood stars like the Muslims Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Rafi are viewed with affection; even non- Muslim ones like Lata, Mukesh, and Dev Anand and the philosophers of the past like Buddha, Asoka, Guru Nanak Devji and the Mahatma hold a special fascination for many Pakistanis. Indeed, the great Iqbal wrote a poem in honor of Lord Ram.
This pluralist vision contrasts with the normative interpretation of history which in Pakistan is simplistically linear and the subject grossly neglected. General Zia-ul-Haq who in the public mind more than any other politician represented this version of history dismissed all history before the coming of Islam as unnecessary and superfluous (see The Friday Times, “Debating a Dictator,” by Akbar Ahmed, 31 May and 7 June 2019, part I and II). This was a travesty. The civilisations of Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, the classic Sanskritic literature including the Ramayana, the advent of Lord Buddha, the coming of Alexander, the great university of Taxila – Zia was dismissing all of this history in one fell swoop.
Muslims, according to this version of history, arrived with their enlightened views into an India with its bewildering number of idol-gods. In India they found the practice of the caste system and sattee. Women and the so-called untouchables had virtually no rights. Islam, they argued, in contrast was and remains the most enlightened of religions promoting scholarship and humanity. This understanding of history means there is little or no meeting point between Indian and Pakistan histories. Even the heroes of one nation are the villains of the other. Mahmud of Ghazni, Emperor Aurangzeb and Mr. M.A. Jinnah are heroes in Pakistani culture and demonised as villains in India.
Another historical figure that is drawing the Hindu-Muslim controversy is the once celebrated Muslim king of south India Tipu Sultan. To supporters of the BJP, he is a fanatic and intolerant Muslim ruler, to Muslims he is a noble and brave warrior king who fought the British until he was finally brought down. He emerged when Muslim fortunes were at a low ebb. His inclusive approach and skills as a ruler and military commander drew diverse communities to him. In the end, the British knitting together a coalition of allies defeated and killed him. He died with his sword in his hand.
Creating fake history is not a new exercise. Professor B.N. Pande, a professor of history and the Governor of an Indian state, exposed the fabrication around Tipu Sultan half a century ago in an article referenced by Chief Justice Katju in which he supported Tipu as a hero and rejected him as a villain. The title of Katju’s article was: “Tipu Sultan is a national hero, not a bigoted villain” (The Friday Times, 15 February 2023,). Katju wrote that “Tipu Sultan issued 34 sanads (deeds of endowments) to temples in his domain” and there were “156 temples to which Tipu regularly paid annual grants” along with jewelry and land grants (“Tipu Sultan: Religious Zealot or Nationalist Hero?” Business Standard, 13 November 2015).
The Consequences of Hatred
Indian chat shows and media are obsessed with spiteful Pakistan bashing. “The existence of Pakistan is detrimental to Indian national security,” repeated Major Gaurav Arya on the ANI Smita Prakash show. He said several times that, “Pakistan is a nation of losers, it has never won anything in its history.” Ironically, he said this while denouncing Imran Khan who won the World Cup in cricket for Pakistan. He dismissed the many Indians, including generals, who have said that a strong and stable Pakistan is good for India. The Major said that this is a “lie “and a “fraud.” His podcasts have titles like, “Time to finish Pakistan.”
The discussion is constantly kept at the level of hysteria. Pakistan bashing is then turned to implicit suggestions that the Indian Muslim community is to be blamed by default. In contrast, Pakistan media almost exclusively focuses on attacking the prominent politicians of Pakistan. India is almost missing from the discussion. If India is busy distorting history, Pakistan simply ignores it.
If Indians pursue knowledge to acquire degrees to go on to Europe and the US and take top jobs, Pakistanis prefer to focus on making money through purchasing houses and properties and planning to influence the power elites.
Where does all this lead us? If millions of people in the country are riled up and wanting revenge for supposed atrocities in the past and blaming not only the minority community but Pakistan as a symbol of that suffering, then the weight of the argument will only lead to greater conflict and more deadly wars. There have already been three wars between India and Pakistan, and the fourth one may well be a nuclear war, perhaps the first nuclear war of the world. It will also mean the end of the Subcontinent as we know it. That is why scholars and historians have to show much greater wisdom and restraint in throwing about often half-baked ideas without understanding their consequences.
In their enthusiasm to throw out the bath water they may well have thrown out the baby. So, overlooked are figures like Dara Shikoh, who in his classic Mingling of the Oceans, traced the origins of the Sanskritic religions and the Abrahamic ones to the same source after long discussions with the great mystics and scholars of India. Dara was not alone. Many in his illustrious family like Akbar, and others outside it like Kabir, Guru Nanak Devji, Badshah Khan and of course the Mahatma, to name a few, spent their lives creating bridges.
A cursory glance at the videos available on Indian history will illustrate the scale of the problem: Everywhere history has been re-written and made topsy-turvy. Fact and fiction have been vigorously mixed with fake news and conspiracy theories.
While Deepak disavows any academic pretensions, Sampath regularly reminds us in every video interview that he is an academic. For me an academic must be much more careful about throwing around such exaggerated numbers as he does without any reference to a source. He will say things like “Muslims slaughtered 80 million Hindus,” “kidnapped 3 to 4,000,000 women as sex slaves” and “destroyed 40,000 temples” etc. casually in conversation. Such figures have been hidden from history and his task is to expose them so that the present generation of Indians are able to understand that they survived in spite of such attacks. Tharoor argues that the past cannot be used to demonise and suppress present-day Muslims who had nothing to do with the activities of their ancestors. We must not forget the past, but we must forgive, he argues. That is why Tharoor condemns what he calls “whataboutery” – the reaction to criticism by pointing to others and saying “what about them?” For Tharoor a diverse country like India must continue to find common ground and remain anchored to the constitution.
Not surprisingly, politicians are picking up the nationalist arguments and translating ideas into reality. This is where the danger lies. History is being rewritten and even Muslim victories on the battlefield are being converted to defeats. One headline declared, “Rajasthan rewrites history: Maharana Pratap, not Akbar, won Battle of Haldighati –Rajasthan education board has approved changing its Class X history books to teach students that the Rana of Mewar, Maharana Pratap was the victor against Mughal emperor Akbar during the 16th-century Battle of Haldighati” (India Today, by Sharat Kumar, 25 July 2017). “With this change in the Class X history books, the aberration has now been fixed, Devnani said.” Muslim identity is being erased in the public square and mind. Roads, buildings and even cities named after Muslim rulers for centuries are being vigorously changed to Hindu names. Even Akbar the Great’s name has not been spared.
A CNN story picked up the scale of the crisis under the title: “India’s Hindu extremists are calling for genocide against Muslims. Why is little being done to stop them?” by Rhea Mogul and Swati Gupta (CNN, January 14, 2022). The story began: “At a conference in India last month, a Hindu extremist dressed head-to-toe in the religion’s holy colour, saffron, called on her supporters to kill Muslims and ‘protect’ the country…‘If 100 of us become soldiers and are prepared to kill 2 million (Muslims), then we will win … protect India, and make it a Hindu nation,’ said Pooja Shakun Pandey, a senior member of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha political party, according to a video of the event.”
Synthesis – Finding a Path to Peace
Having met so many Indians who have love and generosity in their heart, I despair why they have been swamped by so much evident anger and hatred against Muslims. I wonder where the famous Indian capacity for love and compassion has gone. Something fundamental is missing. Clearly the purveyors of hate have much to answer for.
With so much hatred and misinformation swirling about between Hindus and Muslims, there is a desperate need to forge a synthesis or middle path. Perhaps the answer is to constitute a Truth and Reconciliation Commission such as the one instituted in South Africa. Just as we condemn the violence against Hindu civilians and their institutions in the past, we must condemn the violence against Muslims in the present. These nationalist historians are not only telling the story of India, but also that of Pakistan and Afghanistan, in terms of their shared cultural and historical past. Their statements, therefore, purport to interpret societies outside the boundaries of India. Muslim leadership must also be able to present their case more effectively while appreciating that they are a minority in a Hindu majority nation. Now that India is emerging as a super-power with its large population and economic success it must adjust this new status with greater maturity and magnanimity in dealing with its minorities and smaller neighbors. We need to heed Shashi Tharoor: “We must aspire to look ahead.” (India Today, Debate with Dr. Sampath et al).
In any case we need a spiritual guide for the way forward and I can think of no better name than Swami Vivekananda who described India as a house with two brothers, Muslim and Hindu. The Swami hoped the brothers would not only get on with each other but learn to understand and love each other.
Consider: Where is the synthesis between Tharoor’s thesis and Deepak’s antithesis? The meeting point is in their admiration for Swami Vivekananda, popularly called “Guru to the world” (see Ruth Harris’ study, Guru to the World: The Life and Legacy of Vivekananda, 2022). The Swami represented the finest essence of his noble faith. He electrified the audience at the historic interfaith conference in Chicago in 1893 with his opening statement, “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” Tharoor said he preferred to follow Swami Vivekananda’s views on Hinduism, rather than Savarkar’s. Deepak also expressed his admiration for the Swami, as has Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Swami Vivekananda offers a path out of the theological and social cul-de-sac into which the debates on Hinduism have landed modern India. With his inclusive approach to religion and concept of Hindus and Muslims living in the same house as brothers, his teachings are more desperately needed for the Subcontinent than ever before (The Friday Times, “Vivekananda – Guru to the World,” by Akbar Ahmed, 11 December 2022). It is time to focus on the essence of the faith by following the guidance of the Swami. The historians must rediscover Sanskritic ideas of shanti, seva and ahimsa and replace them with those of hatred and rage.
True faith for the Swami meant service or seva. His passionate love for Hinduism and the “Sacred land of India” are fused. He also underlined the importance of Islam and its relationship with Hinduism. The two religions are like brothers living in the same house, and though they sometimes have friction, they must learn to work together for the greater good of the house. He talked of their brotherhood and, while noting past Muslim conquests, he believed India could not move ahead without each other. He was aware of the history of conquests of Islam in India, yet he wished to move ahead to build a more harmonious world in the future. “both Muslims and Hindus were all sons of the same Mother’” (Harris, p. 156). The larger objective was to unite and get rid of the colonial British.
Vivekananda singled out and praised the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam. He placed the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam on his small list of what he called the “World Movers.” These were certain individuals who changed the course of history through their prana or life force. Prana is the fundamental energy, or as described by Vivekananda, “the infinite, omnipresent manifesting power of this universe. “The World Mover was motivated by purity of thought and nobility of character. His examples of World Movers, along with the Prophet (PBUH), included Moses, Jesus, Confucius, and Buddha.
Both Indians and Pakistanis must understand – and here I am loosely paraphrasing Confucius—that without a correct understanding of the past there can be no benevolent paths to the future.
The Subcontinent has only two stark choices: a nuclear holocaust – towards which the buildup of vicious propaganda and hatred may well push people – or to pull back from the vitriol and violence and begin the process of healing. If the latter is to succeed, the Subcontinent must stand with those who promote peace and understanding while preserving their own integrity – like Vivekananda. As someone committed to peace in the Subcontinent and harmony between its great faiths, I pray that the vision of peace succeeds.
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