The rise of non-Left scholarship and public intellectuals over the last decade or so seems to have seriously rattled the Left-secular elite. This elite, which devoted the last half-century to the capture of academic institutions and rewriting Indian history, has produced little beyond adaptations of Marxist theology to Indian realities in the name of “secularising” our history and our culture. It finds the new non-Left scholarship being produced in significant quantities by its ideological rivals threatening to its intellectual dominance. It is using intimidatory tactics and cancel culture as the first resort, instead of producing seriously scholarly counters.
If earlier a Ramachandra Guha could claim that our “Conservatives” had no intellectuals, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam could arrogantly dismiss the non-Left as having no intellectuals beyond Madhu Kishwar and Arun Shourie, today they no longer have that luxury. There has been an avalanche of non-Left literature, from new history to re-imagining of mythology and political science, which cannot be dismissed easily.
The right way to counter such literature is to produce even better and critical scholarship, but that is not what the Left has often chosen to do. Instead, it has chosen the path of demonisation, intimidation and cancellation of intellectuals, including those from its own side who may have given importance to new kinds of scholarship.
Earlier, the Left-secularist elite could simply ignore such serious non-Left scholarship (such as those produced by Arun Shourie, Sita Ram Goel, Ram Swarup, Koenraad Elst, Michel Danino or, Meenakshi Jain, among others), even while rubbishing their predecessors as “communal”, including stalwarts such as Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, Nilakanta Sastri, and Jadunath Sarkar.
But the Left is yet to produce a magisterial work equalling Majumdar’s 11-volume History and Culture of The Indian People, Sastri’s A History of South India, or Sarkar’s History of Aurangzib. The Nehru government, with Maulana Azad as education minister, had no use for Majumdar, whose independent streak got him turfed out of the project on writing the history of the freedom movement.
But all this is ancient history. Today, contemporary historians such as Vikram Sampath and Venkat Dhulipala, and writers such as Sanjeev Sanyal (currently Principal Economic Advisor to the government), and J Sai Deepak, lawyer and advocate, are not just being demonised and critiqued, but anyone who endorses them or their writing gets blasted or threatened with “cancellation” by the Left and its army of trolls. By trolls one is not just referring to the denizens of social media, but trolls who are part of the mainstream Left-secular illiberal caucuses of Delhi and various universities. Trolling is not just an online activity when it comes to the Lutyens and international Left-Illiberal elite.
In August 2020, a book titled Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story, by Monica Arora, Sonali Chitalkar and Prema Malhotra was cancelled by publisher Bloomsbury after the Left-secular lobby raised a hue and cry over its publication. Nobody stopped them from writing another book on the riots, but they had to “cancel” Bloomsbury for its temerity in publishing a book they did not approve of. Bloomsbury meekly obliged by declining to release the book, which was then published by Garuda Publications. You can read the fulminations of the Left lobby here in this NDTV report. In their logic, forcing Bloomsbury to cancel the book is not cancellation.
Coming back to the present, what has got the knickers of the Left-secular lobby in a twist is the monumental two-volume biography of Veer Savarkar by Vikram Sampath. Despite his role as a prominent anti-colonial revolutionary and author of a tract on Hindutva, Savarkar had only one biography written by Dhananjay Keer – a biography largely confined to academics and libraries. What Sampath’s Savarkar did was to bring the man and his ideas to the fore in a contemporary context, where these ideas have become accessible to a wide variety of non-academic readers. Writings that were previously confined to the Marathi-reading public, which is the language in which Savarkar wrote a lot, suddenly became available to a wider audience in English and other regional languages.
The rise of social media and the huge success of Sampath’s books also made it impossible for the Left-secular intellectual to ignore his ideas. As the two volumes were released, mainstream media invited Sampath to talk about his book and he engaged in debates with those who did not consider Savarkar a hero.
Earlier, the polemical attacks on Savarkar were limited to his mercy petitions to the British to seek release from the Cellular Jail in the Andamans. Sampath’s biography has now forced everybody to engage with his ideas. This has so far not led to more critical works on Savarkar, but attacks on Sampath’s scholarship instead.
One Left-wing academic, Akash Bhattacharya, who apparently works at Azim Premji University, has led the attacks on the book, even as those who endorsed the book came under critical scrutiny. (Of which more later).
Bhattacharya, writing for Scroll.in, gave the game away in the very first sentence by labelling Sampath’s biography as an effort to counter the so-called “democratic forces” that have apparently opposed “Hindu domination” (read here). He wrote: “Sharp resistance to Hindu majoritarian rule by India’s democratic forces has evinced a clever counter-response from scholars who support the current dispensation. Historians such as Vikram Sampath have resorted to using the politically acceptable rhetoric of democracy and decolonisation to make Hindu domination sound reasonable.”
This is odd. The Left apparently reserves the right to use words like “democracy and decolonisation” only for those who support its ideology of class warfare and Hinduphobia. All others are barred, and will be blasted for their effrontery. Bhattacharya takes umbrage over Sampath’s alleged use of the Hindu-Muslim binary to evaluate Savarkar, and even disagrees with Sampath’s suggestion that we can move on and become truly secular when we begin to acknowledge the damage done by iconoclastic and bigoted Muslim rulers who destroyed hundreds of Hindu temples. Bhattacharya’s advice to post-Hitler Germany would obviously be to let bygones be bygones, and erase Hitler and his Holocaust from public memory so that modern-day Germany can move on.
It is no surprise that Bhattacharya’s critique, which is largely Leftist polemics in action, was also published (with variations) in the Marxist-Leninist publication ‘Liberation’. Here, Bhattacharya alleges that Sampath’s biography is nothing more than an “important milestone in the RSS’s appropriation of our freedom struggle. The two volumes together claim to reassess Savarkar’s ‘contentious legacy’ in the light of historical facts.” Bhattacharya’s claims that the biography draws too much from Savarkar’s own writings, and is not methodologically sound (read here).
Let’s take this criticism at face value, and assume that Sampath’s biography draws more from Savarkar’s own ideas and not enough from his critics. First, no biography of any human being can ever be complete in itself, and the purpose of each effort is to illuminate hitherto unknown facets and thoughts of the subject. So, using Savarkar’s own writings to bring forth his ideas is hardly something to be criticised. If anyone wants to dispute Savarkar’s words, they can surely write another book to prove that Savarkar’s views were wrong in his own context. But instead what Bhattacharya chooses to do is attack the author who brings new material on Savarkar to light in his extensive biography.
Second, the Left has attacked not just Sampath, but even indirectly questioned the endorsements (not of the man, but the book) by other eminent historians. Bhattacharya writes: “Sampath’s ‘extensive research’ has garnered rave reviews from eminent historians, including Faisal Devji – who has called this work a ‘serious biography’ – Sugata Bose, and Francis Robinson, and even to an extent from his doubters such as Aditya Mukherjee and Shashi Tharoor….I differ with Sampath’s academic admirers. I fear that the latter have fallen prey to the aura of objectivity that the author has created through scores of citations that accompany each chapter.” Apparently, only hitherto-unknown academics, with red-tinted glasses, are competent to judge a book like Savarkar.
Endorsers like Devji have drawn criticism on Facebook from detractors of Sampath (read one such thread here). But all that Devji wrote was to call Sampath’s volumes “The first serious biography of Savarkar in English”, which “allows us to understand a man whose ideas have come to define contemporary India. A long-overdue study and one full of new material, it heralds a welcome departure in the scholarship of Indian political thought.”
Devji was neither endorsing Savarkar nor his ideology, only the author’s efforts to throw more light on this man and his ideas. But the Left-secular intelligentsia simply cannot handle the man or his ideas. They prefer to demonise him, and those who write about him. At one point, Sampath’s Wikipedia page was vandalised by Left-wing editors with negative citations.
But the worst attack on someone who merely contributed a blurb to a book relates to J Sai Deepak’s India That is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution. The book, released last August, has run into reprints, which too the Left-secular lobby cannot stomach.
The book has a large endorsement, both in its first inside page and on the back cover, by semiotist Walter D Mignolo, William Hane Wannamaker Distinguished Professor of Romance Studies, Duke University. He wrote in the back blurb: “J Sai Deepak builds a strong decolonial argument from modern western orthodoxy of the either/or and proposes instead the decolonial logic of neither/nor. He does it by means of a detailed and careful reconstitution of knowledges, ways of knowing and patterns of sensing that were dismissed and continue to be so in the name of progress, democracy and economic development, all under the mantra that more is better.”
But as soon as the Left saw this endorsement, it began to throw tantrums. Priyamvada Gopal, a professor of Post-Colonial Studies in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, went apoplectic on Twitter when she found that Mignolo had endorsed Sai Deepak's book in two places. She ranted: "This is appalling even by Mignolo's standards. A disgraceful act. I repeat. Hindu supremacism is colonial, not anti-colonial. No scholar of any repute should be endorsing cut-price brown chauvinist bollocks passing for 'decolonisation'.”
Poor Mignolo, with his "liberal" reputation at Duke University at stake, recanted. He subsequently requested Sai Deepak to not use his endorsements in reprints of the book, which is selling very well in India. This shows how the global Left-secular intellectual mafia can get even a tenured professor at one of the reputed universities to back off from his original decision to endorse a book after reading it. Intellectual freedom exists only if you belong to the same ideological brotherhood. As for the lady's racist rant against Sai Deepak, where she called him a "cut-price brown chauvinist", apparently this kind of thing is kosher, as long as the put-down is used against uppity browns.
Another popular writer whose success has got the Left’s back up is Sanjeev Sanyal, whose books, Land of Seven Rivers and Ocean of Churn, have not only sold well, but made Sanyal a celebrity. The Left can’t stomach this kind of popularity for authors they don’t like, and in a hit-job against Sanyal in The Caravan, Meera Visvanathan, who got her PhD in Ancient History from (you guessed it) JNU, finds lots of methodological unsoundness in his books. But the thing that really gets her goat is his popularity. She writes that soon after she started lecturing at Shiv Nadar University, eager students with books written by Sanyal sought knowledge of true history from her. “Soon I began to see his books everywhere – especially in airport bookstores, propped up beside trinkets and chocolates. Then his videos began to appear in WhatsApp forwards…”.
The attempt to place Sanyal’s book among “trinkets and chocolates” tells us more about Visvanathan than Sanyal. She wants us to believe that his books don’t have a place in serious literature, but only among consumables and throwaways. Only the Left can write “serious history”. In her Caravan article, titled “Against History”. Visvanathan wants to suggest that Sanyal’s attempts to rewrite India’s past are misguided and wrong. What she forgot to add was that the rewriting of history can only happen under the tutelage of the Left.
The Left’s attacks are clearly a sign that non-Left scholarship is coming of age. It is the Left that has fallen behind in scholarship, having done nothing more than regurgitate K Marx’s theology in Indian garb.
Marx made a valuable contribution to history by bringing in the materialist view, but there is no way it can be the only way to write history. Cancelling those who think otherwise is hardly liberal or democratic. We get a better history when we use several lenses to understand the past. A monochromatic materialistic lens is only one of them.
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