A new version of ‘Garv se kaho hum Hindu hai’ slogan of the 1980s is taking concrete shape in the writings of a section of non-BJP intellectuals. These scholars claim to counter the hegemony of Hindutva by discovering a true, authentic and historical Hinduism. Many of them also seem apologetic of their secular past, and for that reason, work overtime to liberate Hindus and Hinduism from Nehruvian elite and biased Marxist historians.
There is a growing list of such Hindu authors. Shashi Tharoor suddenly becomes a proud Hindu and writes an emotional account of his Hindu-ness in his book, Why I Am a Hindu (Aleph, 2018). Pavan K. Varma, who admired the Mughal empire, especially Akbar and Dara Shikoh, as a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in his first book, Ghalib, The Man, The Times (Penguin, 1989), eventually realises that he belongs to great a Hinduism that has nothing to do with Akbar or Ghalib.
This elusive search for Hindu civilisation, interestingly, does not offer any legitimate space to Muslim identity and reproduces the Hindutva-inspired history of Hindu subjugation and victimhood. This intellectualism is more dangerous because it silently excludes Muslims in the name of imaginary anti-BJPism.
I wish to examine former IFS officer and MP Pavan K. Varma’s recently published book, The Great Hindu Civilisation: Achievement, Neglect, Bias and the Way Forward (Westland, 2021) in the light of Shashi Tharoor’s provocative thesis. This exercise might help us explain the emerging Hindu-centric genre of writing.
These new works invoke Hindu subjugation by Muslims to construct a real history of India. The rediscovered Hinduism relies on the imagination of history through the subjugation-victimhood lens and makes little room for modern-day Muslims as equal, justice-seeking citizens. And, in the process, this new balancing act against so-called extremes of Nehruvian historians emboldens the view of Muslims as children of invaders. The authors take refuge in Gandhi’s conception of Hindusim while embracing the Hindutva view of a defeatist Hindu past.
More specifically, I underline three problematic features of Muslim presence that are invoked by these Hindu authors to celebrate Hindu greatness.
Islamic invasion and political subjugation of Hindus
Pavan Varma’s new book begins with a noble claim: “…In spite of the negative that it acquired over a period, the Hindu civilization is without parallel in the world for the sheer robustness of its cerebration, and the creative output that is its consequences”.
He traces the success of this great Hindu culture in its authenticity. For him, the advent of Islam in India was an objectionable historical fact that broke the unadulterated flow of pure Hindu past. Varma writes:
“The conquest of India by foreigners starting with the seventeen invasions of Mahmood Ghazni…left Hindu India physically destroyed and psychologically traumatized. …Hindu civilization had never seen conquerors like the Islamic…invaders, who blindly committed to the destruction of a culture.” (p.189)
It is worth noting that Shashi Tharoor also shares this view. The Congress MP makes a similar point in his book, Why I Am a Hindu:
“…for invaders like Mahmud of Ghazni the attacks had twin motives the fabled wealth of India was mostly hoarded in its temples, which made them attractive targets, but there was also the zeal of the Muslim warrior to smash the seats of idolatry. The Hindus were left with a stark choice revive or disappear. Renewal was the Hindu response.”
These observations remind us of the colonial historical writings, which always describe India as a zone of conflict. It seems both Tharoor and Varma, who claim to be very critical of British Orientalism, not merely accepted the colonial view of Islam as a destructive force but also asserted it quite stridently to make a case for the imagined purity of the Hindu past.
Sufiism as ‘Islamic conspiracy’ and cultural subjugation of Hindus
Tharoor is almost silent on the impact of Sufism. He makes a few passing references to Sufism in his book to show Hindu openness. Varma, however, is very critical of the Sufi tradition. He envisages it as an Islamic conspiracy to subjugate Hindus with the support of Muslim rulers. He writes:
“Sufism…was greatly influenced by Hindu metaphysics and Bhakti movement…But, the Sufi faith never rejected Islam and many of its leading figures were vocal supporters—as in the case of Amir Khusrao—of the religious iconoclasm practised by Muslim rulers.” (p.201)
This reductionist view of Sufism is historically misleading and culturally problematic. Varma, it seems, is unaware of the great contribution of professor Shail Mayaram on Mewati communities. Mayaram argues that it was difficult for the colonial regime to classify communities on the basis of Hinduism and Islam in the Mewat region. Sufiism stands for a lived religiosity that evolved in medieval India. But Varma’s Hindu essentialism does not have space for it.
‘Muslim separatism’ and Partition
Relying on his version of Hindu history, Varma offers us a highly one-sided view of Muslim politics in colonial India. For him, there is a direct relationship between the establishment of educational institutions such as Deoband and Aligarh in the 19th century and the political demands of the Muslim League in the 1940s. Varma notes:
“The conservative Deoband seminary opened in 1866 with…aim of spearheading Muslim revivalism…In 1906 a delegation of Muslim leaders met Lord Minto and demanded separate electorate…In 1930…poet Mohammed Iqbal clearly spoke of the idea of a separate nation …In 1940 the Muslim League led by …Jinnah passed a resolution for the creation of Pakistan. The inevitable happened in 1947, and Bharat, that is India, was partitioned to create two separate states.” (p.288).
This highly insubstantial description of Muslim politics creates an impression that Muslims were actually responsible for the partition of Hindu Bharat. Varma fails to recognise the crucial distinction between the political aspiration of Muslim communities and the high politics of the Muslim elite. Besides, the role of Hindu communal organisations such as Hindu Mahasabha are not given any attention in Varma’s history.
These three features of Muslim presence — invasion, conspiracy, separatism — construct a very hostile image of contemporary Muslim communities. Muslims are presented as children of invaders, adherents of an alien unspiritual faith and the real culprits behind Partition. Varma does not offer any historical space to think of Hindu-Muslim unity in these critical times.
On the contrary, his formulations validate core Hindutva claims. The destruction of Babri Masjid becomes valid because it symbolises Hindu cultural awakening. The attacks on Sufi shrines gets legitimacy because these Sufis were responsible for the cultural subjugation of Hindus. And finally, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 finds acceptability because it aims to provide protection to Pakistani and Bangladeshi Hindus.
Varma is very critical of the BJP for its aggressive anti-minority politics. He opposes Hindu Rashtra and finds it counterproductive for Hindus. However, the narrative of Hindu pride he produces in this book provides justification for a Hindu nation. One also finds a similar contradiction in Tharoor’s book. He accepts the Hindutva argument, rather uncritically, that there was a deep negative impact of Islamic invasion on the Hindu psyche, while claiming to present a humane history of Hinduism. Tharoor’s failure to spell out the distinctiveness of his version of inclusive Hinduism makes his thesis problematic.
Both Varma and Tharoor are completely silent on these apparent contradictions in their arguments. They want us to believe that Hindu civilisation survives because it is based on an intrinsic Hindu element, or what Varma calls the Hindu-Satya. This Hindu-Satya, however, becomes meaningful only when it is pitted against Muslims.
This contemporary quest for a true Hindu pride, it seems, is bound to produce a new form of Hindu prejudice.
Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal.
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