Koenraad Elst: “I am not aware of any governmental interest in correcting distorted history”
In this exclusive e-mail interview with Swarajya’s National Affairs Editor Surajit Dasgupta, the Belgian Indologist and writer calls the bluff of leftist historians while urging Indian students of history to pursue the subject with more rigour and scientific temper. Excerpts:
While Swarajya has published articles exposing how Marxist historians hound peers who disagree with them out of academic institutions, we have got news from different sources that you are finding it difficult to get employed even in Belgium. What precisely is the objection of your detractors?
I do not wish to offer much detail here. Firstly, I am not privileged to know the details of decision-making instances that lead to my own exclusion. Even when sending an official “regret letter”, they would not give in writing the real reason behind their decision (as anyone experienced with job applications knows).
Secondly, even though no law was broken, going into this still has the character of an allegation, and that requires proof. Some cases of deliberate exclusion or disinvitation were simply obvious, but my standards of proof are higher than that. So, I just want to close this chapter. Let’s not bother, everybody has his problems, and these career hurdles are mine.
In fact, I have had quite a bit of luck in my life, including help from individual Hindus whenever the need arose (air tickets paid, hospitality etc), so any fussing about this boycott against me would be disproportionate. Let’s just assume I missed those opportunities because I was not good enough. Or karma, whatever.
The topic in general is important, though. The Leftist dominance of the Humanities departments in India, often amounting to total control, results from the wilful and systematic “ethnic cleansing” (to borrow Madhu Kishwar’s term) of any young scholar suspected of pro-Hindu sympathies. Exceptions are the people who entered on the strength of ideologically neutral work, or of initially toeing the line, but coming out with pro-Hindu convictions only after getting tenure.
This cleansing of enemies stems from the old Marxist mentality: a war psychology, treating everyone with a different opinion as an enemy inviting merciless destruction; and a boundless self-righteousness rooted in the belief of being on the forward side of history. Marxism is waning even in India, but that attitude is still rife among the anti-Hindu forces, both in India and among Western India-watchers.
You refer to Indian Marxist historians sarcastically as “eminent historians”. Why that particular term?
“Eminent historians” is what they call one another, and what their fans call them. When they don’t have an answer to an opponent’s arguments, they pompously dismiss him as not having enough “eminence”. So when Arun Shourie wrote about some abuses in this sector, he called his book Eminent Historians. It is also a pun on an old book about prominent colonial age personalities, Eminent Victorians.
“Eminence” in this case refers to their position and relative glory. The Communists always made sure to confer position and prestige, as opposed to the Sangh Parivar, which fawns over people with position but doesn’t realize that those people have only acquired their position by toeing the anti-Hindu line. In a way, you have to concede that the Left has honestly fought for its power position. But half their battle was already won by the Hindu side’s complete absence from the battlefield.
One example of the Sangh’s ineptness at playing this game. In 2002, the supposedly Hindu government of A.B. Vajpayee founded the Chair for Indic Studies in Oxford. The media cried ‘saffronization’. However, the clueless time servers at the head of the BJP nominated a known and proven opponent of Hindu nationalism, Sanjay Subrahmaniam, who thus became the poster boy for ‘saffronization’. This way, they hoped to achieve their highest ambition in life: a pat on the shoulder from the secularists.
That pat on the shoulder, already begged for so many times, remained elusive, but the tangible result was that they had conferred even more prestige on an “eminent historian”, all while denying it to their own scholars.
What would you tell your peers who say that the “Out of India” Theory (OIT) is a fringe theory?
Of course it is a fringe theory, at least internationally, where the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) is still the official paradigm. In India, though, it has the support of most archaeologists, who fail to find a trace of this Aryan influx and instead find cultural continuity. As for the situation abroad: most scholars assume the invasionist paradigm, but only very few also argue in an informed manner for the invasionist theory, not many more than those who argue against it.
But anyway, this ‘fringe’ aspect doesn’t impress me at all. When Copernicus put the sun rather than the earth at the centre of the solar system, he was in a minority of one, very ‘fringe’ indeed; but he won the day.
What is the evidence against the Aryan Invasion Theory?
First of all: there is no evidence in its favour. Archaeologists have spent a century of well-funded excavations looking for a trace, any trace, of the Aryans moving into India. Even the invasionists concede that “as yet” no such thing has been found. The new genetic evidence, while still immature, generally goes in favour of emigrations from India and, while leaving room for immigrations too, is emphatically failing to pinpoint an invasion coinciding in time with the hypothetical Aryan invasion.
Meanwhile, the written record clearly points to an emigration scenario. That the Iranians lived in India and had to leave westwards is reported in the Rig Veda, a text thoroughly analysed and shown to support an “Aryan emigration” by Shrikant Talageri. It can equally be deduced from the Avesta. Even earlier migrations are mentioned in the Puranas. These are of course very mixed and unreliable as a source of history, but it is a bad historian who discards them altogether. Their core, later fancifully embellished, consists in dynastic lists. Keeping that ancestral information was the proper job of court poets, and they devised mnemotechnical tricks to transmit it for many generations. In this case, it too does convey a basic scenario of indigenousness and emigration.
Finally, there is the linguistic evidence. Many Indians believe the hearsay that it has somehow proven the invasion. It hasn’t. But permit me to forego discussing those data: too technical for an interview.
Of late, the Marxist historians have revised ‘invasion’ to ‘migration’. They say that there might not have been a war when the so-called Aryans arrived here, but they have no doubt that the ancestors of today’s North Indians, especially the upper castes, by and large migrated from Central Asia into India. In other words, the Marxists say that we Indians were originally not Indians—invasion or no invasion. Does this ‘revision’ satisfy you?
Exasperated at not finding a visible trace of this invasion, conformist scholars have theorized an alternative that doesn’t require such visible remains: a migration under the radar. Often, when they try to give details, they still mean a military invasion rather than a gradual migration, since they bring in the military advantage of horses and chariots to explain how such a large and civilized Harappan population could be overrun by a handful of outsiders.
But even if they genuinely mean a migration, it still amounts to the same scenario as an invasion, that the Vedic Aryans came from abroad and the natives took over the language and religion of the intruders.
So, anyone who thinks that the migration theory is a breakthrough away from the invasion theory really shows he doesn’t understand the issue. ‘Migration’ effectively means ‘invasion’ but avoids the burden of proof that the more dramatic term ‘invasion’ implies.
To be sure, it doesn’t much matter who came from where. The so-called Adivasis (a British term coined circa 1930) or ‘natives’ of Nagalim in the North East have settled in their present habitat only a thousand years ago; which is fairly recent by Indian standards. So, ironically, they are genuine ‘immigrants’ or ‘invaders’, yet no Indian begrudges them their place inside India.
Many countries have an immigration or conquest of their present territory as a proud part of their national myth: Madagascar, Romania, the Siberian part of Russia, Hungary, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, etc. If the Indo-Aryans, or indeed the Dravidians (theorized to have come from Iran or even Central Asia), had really immigrated, that would then have been a pre-Vedic event, at least 3,500 years ago, and that time span ought to have been enough for integration into the national mainstream.
So this ‘homeland’ debate ought to have been a non-issue, only of interest to ivory tower scholars. But different non- or anti-Hindu forces decided to politicize it. Abroad, these were the British colonialists, white supremacists in the US and Europe, and among them the Nazis, who considered the AIT as a cornerstone and eloquent illustration of their worldview. Inside India, first of all the Christian missionaries, followed by the non-Brahmin movement, the Dravidianists, Nehruvians and Ambedkarites, followed in turn by their western supporters.
The AIT was used to break up Indian unity and pit upper castes against lower castes, non-tribals against tribals, and North Indians against South Indians. After this massive politicization, the partisans of Indian unity finally decided to give some feeble support to the fledgling Out of India (OIT) theory.
Yet, scholars rejecting the OIT because of its alleged political use have no qualms about espousing the AIT, politicized since far longer, in many more countries, and not as a pastime of a few historians but as the basis for government policies.
On the one hand, the unaffiliated or apolitical Indian student loves your theories; your passages are quoted widely in debates on ancient Indian history. On the other, you do not seem to get along well with the so-called right wing historians of this country either. You have written a blog against them.
Well, I have nothing but good to say about some Indian researchers, both naturalized ones like Michel Danino and natives like Meenakshi Jain or Shrikant Talageri. But then, there are others too. Certainly the name P.N. Oak rings a bell? In the second half of last century, he spread all these theories that the Taj Mahal was a Shiva temple; that the Kaaba was built by Vikramaditya as a Shiva temple; that the Vatican (originally the Roman “Poets’ Hill”) is really “Veda-Vatika”; that my mother tongue, Dutch, is the language of the Daityas (demons), etc. The bad thing is that numerous Hindus have run away with these stories, and even some NRI surgeons and engineers of my acquaintance believe in diluted versions of the same.
In a less extreme manner, this disdain for historical method is widespread among traditionalist Hindu “history rewriters”. They frequently put out claims that would make legitimate historians shudder.
Many of these rewriters thought that with Narendra Modi’s accession to power, their time had come. I know, for instance, that many of them sent in proposals to the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). None of these was accepted because they ignored the elementary rules of scholarship. Any student writing a thesis knows that before you can develop your own hypothesis, you first have to survey the field and assess what previous scholars have found or theorized. But these traditionalist history rewriters just don’t bother about the rest of the world, they are satisfied to have convinced themselves. Their horizon is not larger than an internet list of like-minded people. In itself, it is not a problem. People can learn. Unfortunately, they are too smug to do that. They actively misinform Hindus by claiming that the Aryan Invasion Theory has long been discarded. They also do a lot of harm to the bona fide historians with whom they get juxtaposed. So it is true that I have lost patience with them.
Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, has there been an effort to revise the depiction of Indian history in academic curricula, which, many in India believe, is politically motivated? Has the Indian government approached you with the request of being a part of any such initiative?
No, there has been no request at all. However, I myself have sent in an application to the ICHR, but that has run into technical difficulties, mainly to do with my foreign passport. So, the situation is and remains that institutionally, I have nothing to do with the Indian history scene.
The version of history taught by the Nehruvians was politically motivated. The feeble Hindu attempt to counterbalance this (‘saffronization’) circa 2002 was confused and largely incompetent. Humbled by that experience, the BJP today is not even trying to impose its own version. Contrary to the Nehruvians’ hue and cry, allegations about the BJP’s interference in history teaching or more generally in academe are simply not true. We are only talking of changing some lines in the textbooks, and even that seems a Himalayan effort to the BJP. Yet, what is really needed is a far more thorough overhaul. Except for some scholars without any power, nobody is even thinking about this very-needed long-term job.
Could the reason be that RSS-affiliated historians and you are not particularly fond of each other and this government is influenced by the Sangh?
Sangh-affiliated historians would not need me to arrive at their positions or to devise a policy if called upon to do so by the present government. But again, I am not aware of any governmental interest in correcting the distorted history propagated by the Nehruvians. I would welcome it if it happened, but so far the BJP, still begging to be recognized as ‘secular’, only has its eye on ‘development’.
I am happy to report that there are some as-yet-insignificant private initiatives, though. Once they achieve results, there will be more to say on them.
Would you say or agree that the Indian government, regardless of the political party that runs it, would be uncomfortable appointing or commissioning an academic who is perceived as being anti-Muslim?
Certainly. Though it never had any problem with anti-Hindu candidates to even the highest post.
Does the genesis of your problem with anti-left historians in India lie in the fact that on the issue of Babri Masjid, if you do not agree with the left, you do not agree with the right wing either?
On Ayodhya, there has never been a conflict with any non-Left historian. To be sure, I have my disagreements on some minor points, but they have never been the object of a controversy. So, no, on Ayodhya, I may have minor and friendly differences of opinion with ‘right-wing’ historians, but no serious quarrel. In that debate, the longstanding quarrel has been with the “eminent historians”, their supporters in media and politics, and their foreign dupes. They were on the wrong side of the history debate all along, and it is time they concede it.
In the case of the “eminent historians”, it is also time for the surviving ones to own up to their responsibility for the whole conflict. The then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was on course towards a peaceful settlement, allotting the site to the Hindus and buying the militant Muslim leadership off with some typically Congressite horse trading. Not too principled, but at least with the virtue of avoiding bloodshed. It is the shrill and mendacious declaration of the “eminent historians” in 1989, amplified by all the vocal secularists, that made the politicians back off.
Not only have they falsely alleged that no Rama temple ever stood on the contentious site, their more fundamental lie was to bring in history at all. Ayodhya belongs to the Hindus not because it was their pilgrimage site a thousand years ago, nor because of ‘revenge’ for a temple destruction effected 800 or 500 years ago, but because it is a Hindu sacred site today. No Muslim ever cares to go to Ayodhya, and in spite of being egged on by the “eminent historians”, enough Muslim leaders have expressed their willingness to leave the site to the Hindus.
This whole controversy was unnecessary, but for the Nehruvians’ pathetic nomination of the Babri Masjid as the last bulwark of secularism.
If all the archaeological findings from Ayodhya are arranged chronologically, what story of the disputed plot of land does one find? Did a temple of Lord Rama stand there, which Babar’s general Mir Baqi demolished to build the mosque? Or, did Mir Baqi find ruins on the spot?
That a Hindu temple was demolished by Muslim invaders is certain, on that we all agree. But there is less consensus around, or even awareness of, the fact that this happened several times: by Salar Masud Ghaznavi in 1030 (the rebuilt Rajput temple after this must be one of the excavated pillar bases), by Qutbuddin Aibak’s troops in 1193, and by Mir Baqi on Babar’s behalf in 1526.
What it was that was replaced by Babar’s mosque is not fully clear. I speculate that in the rough and tumble of the collapsing Delhi Sultanate, Hindus had managed to take over the site and started worship there, even though the building they used was a mosque imposed on the site. That was exactly the situation in 1949-92, and I think it also applied towards 1526.
Babar destroyed a Hindu pilgrimage centre, a Hindu presence at the site, but not the Rajput temple from the 11th century of which the foundations were excavated in 2003. Was the temple’s demolition just an odd event, or was it the necessary materialization of an ideology, repeated many times and in many places? When Mohammed Shahabuddin Ghori and his lieutenants conquered the entire Ganga basin in 1192-94, they destroyed every Hindu temple they could find. Only a few survived, and that is because they lay out of the way of the Muslim armies, in the (then) forest, notably in Khajuraho and in Bodh Gaya. But all the Buddhist universities, all the temples in Varanasi etc were destroyed. Ayodhya became a provincial capital of the Delhi Sultanate, and it is inconceivable that the Sultanate regime would have allowed a major temple to remain standing there.
So, the narrative propagated by the Sangh Parivar, that Babar destroyed the 11th century temple, cannot be true, for that temple was no longer there. When Babar arrived on the scene, Hindus may have worshipped Rama in a makeshift temple, or in a mosque building provisionally used as a temple, but the main temple that used to be there had already been destroyed in 1193. See, Ayodhya’s history becomes more interesting once you discard the lies of the “eminent historians” as well as the naïve version of the Sangh Parivar.
The controversial part lies herein, that the persistence of the temple all through the Sultanate period would have implied a certain tolerance even during the fiercest part of Muslim rule. In reality, the demolition of Rama’s birthplace temple was not an odd and single event, but a repeated event in application of a general theology of iconoclasm imposed by the Prophet.
Was it a temple of Lord Vishnu rather? Or, were they quite a few temples of one or more deities built in different periods by different kings?
In her 2013 book Rama and Ayodhya Prof Meenakshi Jain has detailed all the scholarly evidence and the debate around it, including the embarrassing collapse of the “eminent historian” case once they took the witness stand in Court. She shows that the Rama cult had already left traces more than 2,000 years ago. Attempts to make Rama worship a recent phenomenon were just part of the sabotage attempts by these historians.
Also, the site of Ayodhya, though probably older, is at least beyond doubt since Vikramaditya in the first century BC. All indications are that the disputed site was already visited by pilgrims as Rama’s birthplace well before the Muslim conquest.
So, this was a longstanding pilgrimage site for Rama. Against the utter simplicity of this scenario, anti-Hindu polemicists of various stripes have tried all kinds of diversionary tactics: saying that Rama was born elsewhere, or that the temple belonged to other cults. This Vishnu-but-not-his-incarnation-Rama theory, or the claim of a Shaiva or Buddhist origin, were some of those diversionary tactics; they are totally inauthentic and artificial.
Alright, among historians we can discuss every possible hypothesis. But from the very relevant viewpoint of Islamic iconoclasm, all these distinctions don’t matter: all those sects were false, leading men astray, away from the one true religion, Islam, and therefore they all, and certainly their idols and idol houses, were to be destroyed.
Whatever be the true story, which community do you believe has a greater right of ownership over that disputed site?
The community that holds the site sacred. Muslims go through all this trouble to travel to faraway Mecca, why don’t they go on a cheap and easy pilgrimage to Ayodhya instead? It seems they have made their choice. So let us respect their choice, and also the choice of the Rama worshippers who do care for Ayodhya, by leaving the site to the latter. Case closed.
Do you hate Muslims or Islam?
No, I do not hate Muslims. They are people like ourselves. Having travelled in Pakistan and the Gulf states, I even dare say I feel good in Muslim environments. And if I desire the liberation of Muslims from Islam, that is precisely because I like them. Suppose you discover that a friend of yours still believes in fairy tales: wouldn’t you consider it your duty to set him straight and confront him with the true story, precisely because he is your friend?
And I do not ‘hate’ Islam either. If a teacher uses his red pencil to cross out a grammatical mistake in a pupil’s homework, we do not say that he ‘hates’ the mistake. He simply notices very dispassionately that it is wrong. The use of the word ‘hate’ in this case stems from an attempt to distort the debate and misrepresent the argument by means of emotive language. The belief that someone heard the word of God, dictating the Quranic verses, is just one of the many irrational and mistaken beliefs that have plagued mankind since the beginning.
I have been part of a massive walk-out from the Church. For intellectuals, the decisive reason was the dawning insight that Christian belief was irrational. But for the masses, it was mainly that it was no longer cool to be a believer. People started feeling embarrassed for still being associated with this untenable doctrine, and are none the worse for having left the beliefs they were brought up in.
I wish Muslims a similar evolution, a similar liberation. I do not wish on them anything that I have not been through myself.
How do you view the recent terrorist attack on Belgium? To what extent do you think is migration from Islamic countries responsible for terrorism on European soil?
As Ché Guevara said, a guerrilla fighter is among the masses like a fish in the water. In this case, the jihad fighters had found safety and comfort in the Muslim community. So the demographic Islamization of some neighbourhoods in Brussels (due to our own silly policies) has indeed played a role. But I expect you to retort that there were also other factors, and that is true.
How do you react to the Muslim refrain that the terrorists in their community are a creation of America and NATO’s flawed foreign policy and interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc?
It is simply not true that Ghaznavi or Aurangzeb took to jihad and iconoclasm in reaction to British colonialism or American bombings. They were inspired by an older source—the Prophet’s precedent, Islam. However, it is true that many contemporary jihad fighters have indeed been fired up by a specific circumstance—western aggression against Muslim countries. Assenting to Quranic lessons about jihad is one thing, but actually volunteering for jihad it quite another. In most people, it needs a trigger. The illegal invasions of Iraq or Libya, or footage of an Afghan wedding bombed by American jets, provided such a trigger.
I am very aware that being bombed is just as unpleasant for wedding guests in Kandahar as for commuters in Brussels or Mumbai.
Right now, even little Belgium has five bomber planes in Iraq as part of the US-led war effort against IS. These bombers must already have killed, along with some jihad fighters, more civilians than were killed in the terrorist attacks in Brussels.
In Belgium, I have drawn some attention with my defence of the Syria volunteers: young Muslims grown up in Brussels or Antwerp and going to fight for the Islamic State. Our politicians call them ‘monsters’, ‘crazy’ and other derogatory names, but in fact they are pious idealists. They may be misguided in their beliefs, and I daresay they are, but they do have the courage of their conviction. Without any pressure on them, they volunteer for putting their lives on the line in the Syrian desert. You cannot deny them bravery and self-sacrifice.
The western invasions and bombings in Muslim countries have brought nothing but misery, and I have opposed them all along. What the Muslim world needs is not more civil wars, sectarian wars, foreign military interventions, which all serve to polarize the minds, to freeze them in existing antagonisms. What it needs is a thaw.
Here again, I speak from my own experience: the post-war climate of peace and prosperity in Europe has allowed a genuine cultural revolution, an emancipation from the stranglehold of Christianity. The Muslim world will only evolve if it attains a modicum of peace and stability.
Note that the military interventions have nothing to do with Islam criticism, nowadays slandered as ‘Islamophobia’. On the contrary. Without exception, all the politicians ordering interventions in Muslim countries have praised Islam, calling it “the religion of peace” that is being ‘misused’ by the terrorists. Not a single word of Islam criticism has ever crossed their lips. A legitimate Islam critic like the late historian Sita Ram Goel has never harmed a hair on the head of a Muslim. Islamophiles such as these politicians, by contrast, have killed many thousands of innocent Muslims.
How would you advise Indians to fight terrorism?
Security measures and repression are neither my field nor my favourite solution, but I understand that sometimes they are necessary. So I want to spare a moment to praise the men in uniform who risk their lives to provide safety. However, this approach won’t provide a lasting solution if it is not accompanied by a more fundamental ideological struggle. That is what I am working on.
This article was published in the May 2016 Issue of Swarajya Magazine. To subscribe, click here.
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