A brief interview of Elst in The Pioneer
By Professor Ramesh Rao
According to a body of opinion, the
handling of the KN Govindacharya affair by the RSS last week was
symptomatic of a malaise that afflicts the Sangh parivar. True, a
cadre-based political formulation demands that an individual be
subservient to the organisation, but when this "cardinal principle"
becomes overbearing to the extent that any voice of dissent is treated as
rebellion, it must give rise to the larger questions: For instance, is
there something fundamentally wrong with the ideology which claims to be
the "inheritor" of this 5000-year-old civilisational ethos? Is
"accountability" a non-issue for the political party which discovers its
ideological moorings only on the eve of an election?
This "conflict of interests" (party
versus government) has been captured by Koenraad Elst in his various
works, beginning with his first book on the Ayodhya debate (Ram
Janmabhoomi vs Babri Masjid, Voice of India, 1990). Elst, a Ph D from the
University of Leuven in Belgium, recently came out with his "Decolonising
the Hindu Mind". Predictably, with Elst's passionate advocacy of the
Mandir cause, the RSS tried to portray him as "one of us". For Elst,
however, disillusionment soon set in, and he blasted the RSS-BJP for
abandoning the "cause" (read, the Mandir plank) in a three-part article in
the now defunct The Observer of Business and Politics. In this interview,
he tells Suman K Jha that the RSS is caught in a time warp: "While Hindu
mobilisation is going on everywhere, the RSS cannot see beyond its shakhas"
frequently heard that the debate-dialogue-dissent culture has been the
biggest victim with the advent of the BJP as the pre-eminent political
force in the country. It's more pronounced in the post-September 11 phase.
Do you agree? And, is the situation here any different from the one
prevailing in the West?
A: In India,
as in the West, confusion reigns in the form of superficial relativism,
that is the assumption that contradictory truth claims can be equally
valid. In India, they call it secularism; in the West, it goes by the name
of multiculturalism, but either way it amounts to crass superficiality and
a refusal to evaluate competing ideologies and religions in accordance
with facts and logic. Hence, for example, the sour reactions by Indian
secularists to VS Naipaul's dismissal of Islam as an imposition which
estranges nations from their own heritage. Hence also the shrill
condemnation of Silvio Berlusconi's claim that European civilisation is
superior to Islam.
That view is shared by over 90 per cent
of the Europeans but not by the chattering classes. I readily concede that
a lot is wrong with European civilisation, as also with Hinduism, but in
comparative perspective, I think Islam comes out even worse. Just look how
many Muslims settle in Europe and prefer to practice their Islam in the
fairly free atmosphere of modern democracies rather than under
dictatorships in their homelands.
Q: My question
however remains whether you agree with the view that the space for dissent
has only decreased ever since the BJP came to power. The BJP-led
Government's handling of the recent History textbooks controversy, for
instance, amply proves this, according to its critics...
A: I don't
have the impression that the BJP's coming to power has made much of a
difference. Earlier, you had schoolbooks denying historical facts that
Tipu Sultan forcibly converted thousands of Hindus. Now, you may get
textbooks denying that the Vedic Rishis ate beef. Apart from that, not
much has changed. In the media, and academia, Hindutva is still in the
opposition. True, under the market system, dissent is marginalised,
ridiculed, suffocated financially, or rendered ineffective in other subtle
ways, but I prefer all that to being murdered or imprisoned in a Gulag
camp. And if you want to know whether Hindutva poses a threat to freedom
comparable to Communism, I don't think so.
Q: Let's put
it this way. Going by your own thesis, why has this "Hindu civilisation"
failed to produce scholars/intellectuals who respect the tradition of
dialogue and accommodation? There is an impression that the RSS
volunteers, the self-proclaimed "torch-bearers of this civilisation", are
mostly inward-looking and even their "baudhik pramukhs" are found
wanting as far as intellectual rigour is concerned. No wonder, we fail to
produce an Edward Said, a Noam Chomsky or even a Huntington!
A: The Indians
need not be so modest. Allow me, as an outsider, to have a higher opinion
of India's intellectual performance. Huntington's notion of a "Clash of
Civilisations" was already used by Girilal Jain, who died the year before
Huntington gained fame. Have you ever cared to read the works of the late
Ram Swarup? He was soft-spoken and avoided hurtful language, yet his
observations on the deeper issues underlying the communal problems in
India were razor-sharp. The RSS reduces everything to the typical
nationalist discourse of "the Motherland vs the anti-national forces". But
there is more to Hindu revivalism than that.
And I would trade Edward Said's books
any time for those of your own Arun Shourie. Said's "Orientalism" wrongly
dismisses criticism of Islam as a colonial ploy. In Belgium alone, there
are plenty of Christian refugees from Turkey and Lebanon, and they know
who chased them out. Said, however, has become the leading apologist for
Islam in the West.
It is, however, true that the RSS has
failed to produce great minds. But then that may not be the job of a mass
organisation. On the other hand, it is indeed a glaring failure of the RSS
that it never produced a serious analysis of the very problems which led
to its creation, apart from some sweeping nationalist slogans about
"anti-national forces". This has to do with a choice made by KB Hedgewar
and MS Golwalkar against intellectual activity and in favour of mindless
activism. But this mistaken party-line of the RSS matters less and less,
because there is more and more Hindu self-organisation outside the Sangh
Parivar framework. The "shakha" gatherings are becoming obsolete as
a form of mobilisation. Hindu civilisation has always functioned in a
decentralised manner, and now the "Hindu awakening" (announced so often at
RSS forums) is taking place through informal networks, for example, the
internet. The movement is reverting to decentralised forms of mobilisation,
after the RSS interregnum of boy scout-type uniformity and centralism.
Q: Lastly, if
you noticed last month, the reception to someone like Noam Chomsky here is
to be seen to be believed. How do you explain this? It was only the BJP's
youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, which saw in him a "threat"
and tried to disrupt his public engagements...
A: I don't
think Indian society is indifferent to debate. But while I have great
sympathy for Chomsky, I don't think the warm reception he usually gets in
India is the result of India's "debate-mindedness". Rather, his positions
only reinforce the opinions of his hosts. Today, for instance, most
Indians are very critical of the crude and mindless manner in which the
Americans are conducting their so-called campaign against terrorism, and
they are happy to recognise in Chomsky an American who thinks likewise. My
impression is that he tends to see the world through the glasses which his
hosts have selected for him, for example, by adopting the Indian Communist
view of Hindu revivalism without getting to know it first-hand. We cannot
study everything first-hand, so often we rely on the authority of contact
persons whom we trust. That is perfectly understandable in the case of a
non-specialist like Chomsky, who earned his laurels in other fields. More
problematic is that the same reliance on biased Indian sources is found in
the works of people who pass as experts on Hindu revivalism. Most of them
don't really know what they are talking about