The Saffron Wave
Though milder in tone, the latest academic
book on Hindu revivalism suffers from the same shortcomings as most
others. Ever since Craig Baxter's fairly objective and well-documented
book The Jana Sangha, already thirty years old, and Walter Andersen
and Shridhar Damle's Brotherhood in Saffron, already twelve years
old, all the Western Hindutva watchers have chosen to rely on partisan
secondary accounts, and to watch Hindutva through the coloured glasses
which the so-called secularists have put on their noses.
The book The Saffron Wave: Democracy
and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton) by Professor Thomas
Blom Hansen (Roskilde, Denmark) is no exception. Since the book has
already been praised as "brilliant" by Prof. Peter Van Der Veer, I may
concentrate on its less brilliant aspects. As usual, most quotations are
from secondary and generally hostile sources: Bipan Chandra, K.N. Panikkar,
Partha Chatterjee, Christophe Jaffrelot, Asghar Ali Engineer (a
hard-boiled Islamist whom Hansen and others naively mistake for an
enlightened Muslim), Sudhir Kakar, Gyan Pandey.
In his bibliography, we find Savarkar's
Hindutva, mercifully, but none of Savarkar's statements from his time
as Hindu Mahasabha leader; only one title by Balraj Madhok, none by
Girilal Jain or Arun Shourie; no we do not find Ram Swarup or Sita Ram
Goel mentioned there. On the Ayodhya controversy, most of the publications
presenting the temple evidence (Harsh Narain, R. Nath, Goel) are left
unmentioned, and the official VHP evidence bundle is mentioned but was
clearly left unread.
His entire information on the Ayodhya
debate is confined to anti-Hindu sources, esp. S. Gopal's Penguin booklet
Anatomy of a Confrontation (1991), which had already succeeded in
keeping all serious presentations of the temple evidence out of view. That
is how he can write the following howler: "In all cases this evidence has
been refuted and contested by most of the serious authorities of
archaeology and medieval Indian history" (p.262). If that is so, Prof.
Hansen, I challenge you to a public debate on the Ayodhya evidence. Let's
make it an open-book exam: you may bring all the arguments provided by S.
Gopal and his comrades ¾ but you
may find upon closer reading that far from refuting the pro-temple
evidence, they have adroitly left most of it undiscussed. And like his
sources, Hansen keeps the relevant context of the Ayodhya affair, viz. the
history and underlying theology of Islamic iconoclasm, out of view.
By relying on a partisan selection of
secondary sources, Hansen, whose good faith we will continue to assume, is
led by the nose by one of the warring parties into relaying its own
version of the facts, all while believing that he is giving a neutral
observer's account of the conflict between Hindu revivalism and the
Marxist-Muslim combine. In a footnote, Hansen describes the present writer
as "a Belgian Catholic of a radical anti-Muslim persuasion who tries to
make himself useful as a 'fellow traveller' of the Hindu nationalist
I strongly deny having ever been
"anti-Muslim", for I make it a point to frequently insist that "not
Muslims but Islam is the problem". However, I do readily admit to being a
"fellow-traveller" of Dharmic civilization in its struggle for survival
against the ongoing aggression and subversion by well-organized hostile
ideologies. Only, I must add that in Hindutva-watching publications of the
past decade, I have never encountered any journalistic or academic
"expert" who was not a fellow-traveller of one of the warring parties.
Hansen himself makes no secret of his
partisanship, as when he describes the BJP as "evil" (p.235) and as
"swadeshi fascism" (p.235), though he subjectively tries to be fair by
mitigating this denunciation with the rightful comment that both
secularity and democracy have not been well served by the Congress
establishment either. His partisan and prejudiced attitude leads him to
ignore or misinterpret important trends within the Hindutva movement.
Thus, he dismisses the inclusion of some Muslims in the Vajpayee cabinet
as follows: "Like all other measures taken by the BJP in this regard,
these were also symbolic gestures devoid of any content or seriousness."
(p.267) Would you allow such a clearly partisan sentence in a thesis about
any other movement (say, Indian secularism) by your own students, Prof.
Hansen? At any rate, the dismissal is mistaken.
From the inclusion of a green strip in the
BJP flag (1980) onwards, the BJP has always consistently courted the
Muslim community, so that it now has thousands of Muslim members, who even
have their own "minority cell". Even before that, the Hindu nationalists
in the Janata government were party to a number of pro-Muslim steps,
including the creation of the intrinsically communal and anti-Hindu
"Minority Commission". Dattopant Thengadi and others have told me how the
shared time in jail with Jamaat-i-Islami activists during the secularist
Emergency dictatorship had kindled sympathy for the Muslims. However that
may be, in the 1990s, there is just no denying the RSS-BJP tendency to
what they themselves used to denounce as "Muslim appeasement".
Even in the Ayodhya campaign, from which
Hansen chooses to remember only the hard-line rhetoric of a Sadhvi
Ritambhara, the emphasis was again and again on Rama as a "national" (as
opposed to "Hindu") hero, and on Babar as a "foreign invader" (as opposed
to "Islamic iconoclast"), who had been fought "by Indian Muslims and
Hindus jointly". Anyone familiar with non-Sangh Hindu activism should have
noted the criticism of the Sangh's pro-Muslim line, e.g. in Abhas
Chatterjee's book Concept of Hindu Nation (1995, not in Hansen's
bibliography). One of the more disturbing and sterile approaches which
Hansen has borrowed from his secularist sources, is the tendency to
psychologize, and to bury hard facts under a cloud of psychobabble:
"construct", "identities built around a threatening other", "domesticating
public spaces", "myth of Hindu effeminacy".
To Hansen, the Hindu perception of Islam
is unconnected with any historical facts about Islam, it's all
self-generated psychic images whose only basis in reality is non-religious
sociological phenomena such as the "inferiority complex" of the
"vernacular middle class" vis-à-vis the Anglo-secularist "mandarins"
(p.181). Facts about Islam are mostly kept out of view, otherwise
ridiculed (Kashmiri "insurgency", p.168; "Bangladeshi infiltration",
p.199) or dismissed as "myth", e.g. that Muslims have "many wives and
secret links to rich Arabs" (p.211), or (repeatedly) that Muslims oppose
It is a straight fact that the Muslim
birth rate is much higher, that they participate much less in India's
effort at birth control, and that this is also the intention of Islamic
leaders, expressed clearly in a number of pamphlets and firmly based on
Islamic scripture (vide K. Elst: The Demographic Siege, 1998). Time
and again, in order to explain a community's assertiveness, Hansen relies
on the voguish term "the other", which carries unspoken Auschwitz
connotations (it was popularized by the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel
Levinas in his reflections on the Holocaust), and he makes those
connotations explicit, e.g. "The community is weak, sinful and
unfulfilled. The only way to remedy this is by destroying the other, whose
very presence (as threat qua temptation and fascination) weakens and
prevents the inherent discipline, strength and manliness in the community
from blossoming" (p.211). What an impressive string of words, only a pity
that its relevance to Hindu nationalism is non-existent. There is no Hindu
plan for "destroying the other".
The Islam problem in India has nothing to
do with Muslims being a resident "other" who undermines the Hindu morale,
a calk on the Nazi perception of the Jews as agents of immorality
corrupting the German people, for unlike the well-integrated (and
consequently influential) Jews of Germany, the Muslims are a highly
separate community whose chief crime is not the influence they might have
on Hindu society, but the direct threat which their doctrinal hatred of
god-pluralism poses to Hinduism, especially through the medium of violence
against both symbols and followers of the Hindu religion. "Otherness"
discourse is totally unable to throw any light on the Hindu perception of
Islam, for Hindus have proven during long millennia that they have no
problem with "others", as when they provided asylum to refugee Syrian
Christians, Jews and Parsis. By contrast, Hindu feelings about Islam are
comprehensively explained by their experience of Islam in action, as
during the Partition (I may have missed something, but I don't recall
Hansen seconding the common secularist dismissal of Muslim guilt for
Partition as yet another "myth") or the East Bengal genocide of 1971.
Eye-sore buildings like the Babri Masjid
(until 1992) or the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi stand as permanent
testimony to Islamic hatred of Hindu god-pluralism. Also, the usual
implication that an "other" is set up as a bogey to concentrate a
community's attention and thereby strengthen its unity, does not apply.
All the factors of the communal conflict, far from being the creation of
Hindutva strategists, were in place from the day the first Islamic invader
set foot in India. Contrary to the secularist claim that "Hinduism" and
"the Hindu community" are recent inventions, the Islamic invaders united
all (non-monotheistic) Hindus under the new label "Hindu", meaning any
Indian unbelievers, they showed their deep awareness of their own Muslim
identity, and they proved through word and deed the essential and
inescapable antagonism between Islamic and Hindu identities.
All the primary sources, the medieval
Persian writings of Muslim conquerors and their court chroniclers, prove
that Hindu‑Muslim antagonism was not generated by colonial machinations or
post-colonial mobilization in an effort to "domesticate public spaces".
This conflict was unilaterally imposed on the Hindus by Muslims. The
immunization of Hindutva-watchers against factual discourse on Islam is so
thorough that in some cases, factual statements by Hindus about Islam are
not even criticized, as if their mere quotation will suffice to evoke
scorn and laughter for so much evil nonsense, e.g. RSS weekly Organiser's
entirely correct view that "the supreme Islamic mission is to convert the
Hindus, one and all" (p.179), or Sadhvi Ritambhara's accurate statement
that "the Quran teaches them to lie in wait for idol worshipers, to skin
them alive" etc. (p.180). Well, the Quran does say that, and it does say
that the war against the infidels is on until the whole world is Islamic,
which implies the conversion (or death) of even the last Hindu. Likewise,
no discussion is opened against the denunciation of the "secular
intellectuals" as "alienated pseudo-secularists full of contempt for the
true Hindu culture" (p.181), though the concept "pseudo-secular" is
central to the whole controversy, and proves to be entirely valid when you
consider that those "secularists" defend all kinds of religious
discrimination, e.g. religion-based civil codes, against the genuinely and
quintessentially secular system of equality of all citizens before the law
regardless of their religion. Hansen's book is full of interesting
information about Hindutva campaigning in the 1990s, but conceptually it
is quite superficial.
Some minor remarks to conclude. The book
contains some of the familiar tricks known from the M.J. Akbar school of
Hindutva‑smearing, e.g. just as MJ Akbar once cleverly described Veer
Savarkar as "a co-accused in the Mahatma murder trial" without mentioning
that Savarkar was fully acquitted and not even indicted again in the
appeals trial, we find Prof. Hansen casting suspicion on L.K. Advani by
describing him as "indicted in a massive corruption scandal in 1996"
(p.266) without mentioning that the investigation cleared him completely
of the charges (which were minor, the "massive" scandal mainly pertaining
to dozens of Congress secularists, as Hansen fails to explain). There are
also minor mistakes, sometimes clearly printing errors (Rajendra Singh
becoming sarsanghchalak in "1944" instead of 1994, p.182), sometimes
indicators of limited familiarity with Hinduism ("Ramahandi" for Ramanandi,
3x, p.262). But many Hindu nationalists will be glad to read Prof.
Hansen's acknowledgment of the diplomatic success achieved with India's
nuclear tests, which have "forced western media and decision makers to
recognize India as a major power". (p.266) You may quote that whenever
Frontline alleges that BJP rule in 1998-99 was a foreign policy disaster.
© Dr. Koenraad Elst, 2002.