Shashi Tharoor’s “Why I Am A Hindu” Is A Missed Opportunity And Ends Up As A Party Manifesto
With its insufficient research and obvious biases, Shashi Tharoor’sbook ends up as an unengaging party manifesto.
Dr Shashi Tharoor’s latest book was apparently meant to take on the Hindutva narrative, and demolish it. Sadly, it seems it will be one of those books celebrated at literary festivals, obsessed over in high society conversations as validation of pre-conceived notions, create a placebo of having captured the narrative, but then, in all probability, end up handing the elections to the BJP. As Stephen Harper, former prime minister of Canada, said at the Raisina Dialogues 2017, “you can’t expect people to vote for you if you’re going to call them deplorable to their face”, referring to Hilary Clinton’s 2016 election defeat. Yet, if the grapevine is to be believed, this is Dr Tharoor’s attempt at narrative capture, except that it does so without actually building any bridges, or even trying to do so for the other side to cross over on.
To be fair, Dr Tharoor’s opening caveats, including what he defines as I, They, Hindu, provide comprehensive cover for what is said later on in the book, including the acute difficulty of exploring Hinduism in a few hundred pages. As he himself puts it, the task ultimately has to be completed like the six blind men of Hindoostan, who went to see an elephant. But the problems start getting evident in the preface itself, with his chosen peers for the book inspiring no confidence: pop-Hindu Devdutt Pattanaik, chosen for (yeah, you guessed it) popularity not perspicacity, and someone called Keerthik Shashidharan, who I have not read, chosen for intellect. These are counterbalanced by Nandita Krishna and Manu S Pillai, both known for their historical rigour. The issue is, there isn’t a single sociologist or anthropologist consulted, which means you already get a foreboding sense of an imminent and major academic lacuna. More importantly, the acute sociological observations drawn by Krishna and Pillai seem to find no space in the sociologically relevant second part of the book — the bit about Hindutva. To his credit, Dr Tharoor acknowledges that Nanditha had agreed with his assessment of Hinduism, but not Hindutva, and it shows halfway through, doing immense disservice to the message.
The book then progresses onto a very nice, easy-to-read exposition of Hinduism. Nothing that many Hindus wouldn’t know, but definitely a nice summary for an international audience and those Hindus who don’t read up about their theology, which probably is the vast majority. My specific gripe with this part is that I, as a militant atheist who identifies as a staunch Hindu, am given short shrift: of my two schools, Samkhya is ignored, and Charvaka is referred to in the past tense. Hello, sir?? We’re alive, kicking and consuming vast quantities of beef, and no, this isn’t some mayajaal dream sequence. That aside, all the gripes one can have with this part: the brevity, lack of in-depth exploration etc are all shielded by the author’s caveats at the beginning. But the sense of unease starts growing as the pages go by, largely because what the author describes is his own adherence to Hinduism, born through osmosis of one’s surroundings, as is the case for most Hindus. In spite of this, he is unable to categorise it as learning through osmosis, and seems on a quest to find textual backup. This, as Pillai describes in his review of Arvind Sharma’s The Ruler’s Gaze: A Study of British Rule over India from a Saidian Perspective in Open magazine in July 2017, is the classic trap that every Orientalist falls into. It creates an Occidental point of reference for something that is fundamentally different, and in so doing, privileges some interpretations over others. The classic tell-tale sign of the human-centric Orientalist comes innocuously with a quote from Raimon Panikkar: “It is faith that makes moral and other decisions possible” — something Dr Tharoor claims he agrees with, implying that the faithless cannot be moral. This, despite the fact that cutting-edge authors like Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari have demonstrated quite the opposite. This theme continues with him seeing Hinduism’s lack of prescriptive tenets as being one of its weaknesses, and then proceeds to cover other subjects like Hinduism’s difficult and paradoxical relationship with meat.
What is surprising after this first section is the book’s abrupt jump into political Hindutva, without building a bridge and showing how the esotericism of the quoted text was frequently lost in the application on ground and the differences between text and practice. Indeed, the biggest omission here is Chanakya’s Arthashastra — a book that in its coldbloodedness makes Machiavelli look like a bleeding heart liberal, is never mentioned. While we are treated to Upinder Singh’s quotes on the immorality of the Panchatantra, there is not one hard example of how in ancient India, religious Hinduism interacted with political Hinduism (including intolerance, massacres, filicide, patricide etc) that could have been sourced from the Arthashastra, as well as apocryphal narratives of southern Shaiva-Vaishnava and Hindu-Jain antagonism. While these were nowhere near the scale of European religious conflict, seldom involving more than a few dozen people, it did exist, and Dr Tharoor does himself no credit ignoring this, either structurally for his book, or academically to lay the context for what is about to come.
There is some continuity in his attempts to show how Hinduism reacted to Islam and Christianity, but here again, he follows the tired one-sided narrative that doesn’t really bring out the messiness of classifying the British as racist or Islam having turned syncretic, when the reality is far more complex. While making the point that the interaction with Islam produced some of the worst regressive tendencies in Hinduism, he fails to bring in economics to seal a case of how acute poverty changes the economic structure and fundamentally alters the social realities that a religion has to respond to. This lack of exploration between the interaction of urbanisation, economics and Hinduism — especially with regards to its practice and deviation from text, proves particularly fatal. For example, while much of the regression is passed off as a reaction to Islam, the truth is much more complex. The fact that 70 per cent of the Mughal empire’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of just 655 noble families, and the acute resource competition and societal violence that this would produce, seem glossed over, in favour of a rather simplistic — and, in my opinion — dangerous narrative of “the Muslims did it”. Similarly, how Bihar goes from being India’s richest state for much of history to its poorest within 40 years of the 1857 rebellion, and the devastating social consequences of this, are not explored. It is at this stage that the lack of sociological or anthropological consultation for the book begins to show — sad, given what an excellent and empathetic listener Dr Tharoor is.
He then jumps to what can at best be described as a completely one-sided narrative of Hindutva, starting with a far-from-historical assessment of Veer Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar — judging them by modern norms. As Yuval Harari explains in Sapiens, Hitler simply took to the extreme what every country and establishment of the time, be it Britain or France or Sweden, assumed to be science. For example, the Swedish Institute of Race Science, on which Hitler modelled his own race studies, did not shut down until 1958, a full 13 years after the Second World War, and Australia did not end its White Australia policy until 1973. Similarly, he fails to keep track of how the narrative of Hindutva has evolved, much like nationalism and racism in Sweden and Australia. Dr Tharoor does cite the famous 1995 Supreme Court judgement on how Hindutva is an inclusive concept, but proceeds to dismiss it as being incompatible with history as narrated by him. He again falls for the temptation of taking quotes from here and there to show Hindutva as a monochromatic homogenising cyborg. There is no attempt to come up with a set of principles or rules against which everyone can be measured.
The problem with this adhocism is evident, since all one has to do to counter Dr Tharoor is to dig up some choice quotes of Mahatma Gandhi about Africans, Jews, the Holocaust, Hitler, and his treatment of his wife, to make a case that he was a raging misogynistic bigot, whose weltanschauung continues to infect the Congress. This exposition of Hindutva also ignores the anthropological laws of large groups of people behaving similarly under similar circumstances, no matter how separated they are, culturally or geographically. Sadly, putting political Hinduism down to the monocausality of Golwalkar and Savarkar, as opposed to economics, law and order, the rural-urban divide etc, makes this seem more like a political exposition than a scholarly one.
Here, just like the avoidance of the Arthashastra to see how the gap between thought and practice was measured in ancient India, we see a refusal to look at how European nation-states were created through linguistic or religious homogenisation, right down to the twentieth century. Indeed, one must ask, if the national identity is a mix of substance (what binds us to one another) and salience (what separates us from the other), where is Dr Tharoor’s definition, essential for a narrative capture, except through abnegation in the neti neti style? Neti neti is wonderful for aimless philosophers, not for statesmen who have to deliver and deal with tangibles. The lack of a comparative study of Islam in opposition in Mecca, to Islam on the throne in Medina, of Christianity as a rebellion against Roman paganism, to Christianity as the state religion of Rome, is worrying, since they are indispensable tools of historical, sociological and anthropological analysis, which would have lent enormous heft to this book.
Dr Tharoor also falls for a lot of what he claims to abhor. Claiming that the allegedly new intolerance of Hinduism is in fact not Hinduism, he falls for Ibn Taimiyah’s takfir trap — labelling those who are diametrically opposed as “takfir” — in this case, not really Hindus. Similarly, he sees strains of Wahhabism in Hindutva, yearning as they do for an imagined, convenient, non-existent glorious past, and then proceeds to do exactly this himself, by ignoring the difference between talk and practice in ancient India, the Arthashastra, and indeed, post-Independence Congress rule.
Similarly, he attributes troll attacks on dubious historian Audrey Truschke to Hindutva, while ignoring threats to right-wing personalities like Shefali Vaidya, who have been threatened with rape, being sawed to death, and accused of being Amit Shah’s whore, by Congress supporters. All of this presents a picture of someone trapped in an echo chamber, willing to blame the ills of a religion on a competing political philosophy, but refusing to introspect, or indeed come up with a tangible competing vision that isn’t airy-fairy esotericism. Where he does build a solid case, as he does on cow violence, he relies on apocryphal accounts, even though cogent scientifically-assembled data sets exist, simply because they prove him partially correct, but reject his monocausality assertions.
I was looking forward to this book, mostly because I enjoy reading Dr Tharoor quite immensely, even and especially when I disagree with him. I was hoping, with his usual wit and sharp mind, I’d get several days of titillation, reading him rip apart Hindutva. Sadly, this book wasn’t a bang. It wasn’t even a whimper; it was an unengaging party manifesto. The quote in this book from David Frawley is particularly germane: those who keep harping on about Hindu tolerance ask only Hindus to be tolerant, while violence by every other community is normalised. Unfortunately, that’s what this book does — asks Dr Tharoor’s political opponents to compromise and adjust, without any reciprocal commitment by the author. All up, a huge missed opportunity.
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