Left would do well to heed what V S Naipaul said after 1992 Babri Masjid demolition to avoid another embarrassing fiasco where their propaganda eventually falls flat in the face of evidence
Thirty years before Indian intellectuals started crying “post-truth”, Naipaul summarised their problem, that “from being great acceptors, they (Hindus) have become questioners”
A series of interviews of eminent author and Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul given in 1990s are special for several reasons. One, they are close to the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition date, and right in the wake of communal violence that followed.
Two, V S Naipaul, apart from his other qualities like boldness and commitment to truth even if it’s politically incorrect, was someone who grew outside the Indian intellectual ecosystem. As we will see later in the article, ideological shaming didn’t work as well with him and he and could resist the typical pressures of the ecosystem with ease.
As expected, his criticism of Marxism as well as views on Hindutva and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement irked his fellow-intellectuals.
V S Naipaul is no more in this world. He passed away last year. However, his words and writings are very much alive and have aged well. Even three decades later, they offer lessons for the future.
Characterisation of Hindutva movement
In a 1993 Times of India interview, Dileep Padgaonkar makes a point that the rise of Hindutva forces is a reaction to the broader rise of Islamic fundamentalism, listing events like rise of Islamic nations, Salman Rushdie affair etc.
Padgaonkar talks about rise of the perception that “a divided Hindu society cannot counteract Islamic fundamentalism”.
In a sense, he sees Hindutva as a reactive movement to happenings in response to recent events. To his list, we can perhaps add Congress’s Muslim appeasement, and an ideologically biased academia.
However, Naipaul refuses to see the Hindutva movement (without taking its name) as merely reactive.
“The things you mentioned are quite superficial. What is happening in India is a new, historical awakening,” he says.
"Today, it seems to me that Indians are becoming alive to their history... [the invaders] were conquering, they were subjugating. And they were in a country where people never understood this...Only now are the people beginning to understand that there has been a great vandalising of India. Because of the nature of the conquest and the nature of Hindu society such understanding had eluded Indians before...What is happening in India is a mighty creative process.”
‘Awareness of history’ and ‘creative process’ - the words that Naipaul uses are of great weight and associated with significant historical events like national movements and decolonisation.
Naipaul also doesn’t shy away from mentioning awareness about Hindu persecution as a result (and/or driver) of modern Hindu’s quest to situate himself in history.
“I don't see the Hindu reaction purely in terms of one fundamentalism pitted against another. The reaction is a much larger response... Mohamedan fundamentalism is essentially negative, a protection against a world it desperately wishes to join. It is a last ditch fight against the world.”
Naipaul doesn’t equate the new Hindu awakening to fundamentalism. Unlike Islamic fundamentalism, that wants to establish puritanical form of Islam, impose Shariah law, and subjugate Kaffirs, the new Hindu awakening isn’t driven by religion, but awareness and self-respect.
Naipaul correctly situates the new Hindu movement in context of historical persecution.
The Hindus today are asking questions as to why they have been labelled as effeminate, weak and a failed race by the invaders - not very different from the question that Gandhi asked in his My Experiments With Truth - when his Muslim friend told him that Hindus like him were weak and subjugated because they didn’t eat meat.
‘The defeated people’
Naipaul doesn’t shy away from directly addressing injustices meted upon Hindus based on their faith, and doesn’t fail to acknowledge the fact that the ‘synthetic culture’ that we boast about is drenched with the blood of Hindus, and simply not enough to dismiss latter’s pains.
“..the sense of history that the Hindus are now developing is a new thing. Some Indians speak about a synthetic culture: this is what a defeated people always speak about. The synthesis may be culturally true. But to stress it could also be a form of response to intense persecution,” he says.
Naipaul recognises that synthesis of two cultures may be ‘culturally true’ but not morally correct. When two cultures collide, there is bound to be a synthesis, such is the way of life.
However, this synthesis doesn’t indicate a peaceful interaction or co-existence. Synthetic culture is as much a proof of Muslim rulers’ benevolence towards Hindus as conception of child is of consensual sex.
Naipaul rightly recognises the fact that stress of synthetic culture might be the response of a ‘defeated people’ who have lost everything their own, and synthetic culture is all they have. Would it be wrong if they refuse to settle for it?
However, Naipaul also has a warning for the intellectuals leading this new awakening - to not let the “grosser aspects emotional upsurge” suppress the use of mind.
Ram Janmabhoomi and Hindu persecution
Naipaul doesn’t see Babri Masjid demolition as a communal act limited in space and time and driven by criminal motives.
“The people who say that there was no temple there are missing the point. Babar, you must understand, had contempt for the country he had conquered. And his building of that mosque was an act of contempt for the country.”
Naipaul stresses on a good look at the past to understand the present. A sense of history has a sobering effect.
“In Turkey, they turned the Church of Santa Sophia into a mosque. In Nicosia churches were converted into mosques too. The Spaniards spent many centuries re- conquering their land from Muslim invaders. So these things have happened before and elsewhere.
In Ayodhya the construction of a mosque on a spot regarded as sacred by the conquered population was meant as an insult. It was meant as an insult to an ancient idea, the idea of Ram which was two or three thousand years old.”
In a 1998 interview by Rahul Singh published in Times of India, when he is questioned for his aforementioned views seen as supporting of BJP, Naipaul reiterates the importance of situating events like the Babri Masjid demolition in its proper historical context.
“I think India has lived with one major extended event, that began about 1000 AD, the Muslim invasion. It meant the cracking open and partial wrecking of what was a complete cultural, religious world until that invasion. I don't think the people of India have been able to come to terms with that wrecking. I don't think they understand what really happened. It's too painful.”
Naipaul also criticises the liberal intellectuals for dismissing a complicated historical process as ‘fascism’ or ‘communal prejudice’.
Of course, the possibility exists with any people’s movement that it may become either of the above in future. However, possibility is not certainty. Mere possibility doesn’t dismiss the genuine grievances and aspirations of people behind the movement.
In fact, one may argue that the Hindu movement has better stop-gates against totalitarianism than communism simply because of reverence to ancient Hindu values of respect for plurality and non-violence - the same values that Tagore, Gandhi practised and preached; and other national leaders like Nehru hailed to justify special treatment to minority religions in India.
Naipaul goes one step further and cuts the deceit of invoking goodness of Hinduism only when it is about non-Hindus. The goodness of Hinduism should be remembered in its own right, not to mention when Hindus or Hinduism is threatened.
One cannot hail the goodness of Hinduism while discounting Hindus and historical atrocities against them.
When Sadanand Menon of The Hindu in a 1998 interview accuses Naipaul of being happy with the “emergence and consolidation of some kind of parasitic Hindu political order”, Naipaul brings Menon back to his argument of having a sense of history.
“I have talked about history. And I have talked about this movement. I have not gone on to say I would like Hindu religious rule here. All that I have said is that Islam is here in a big way. There is a reason for that and we cannot hide from what the reasons were. The great invasions spread very far South, spreading to, you know, even Mysore.”
“I think when you see so many Hindu temples of the 10th Century or earlier time disfigured, defaced, you know that they were not just defaced for fun: that something terrible happened. I feel that the civilisation of that closed world was mortally wounded by those invasions. And I would like people, as it were, to be more reverential towards the past, to try to understand it; to preserve it; instead of living in its ruins. The old world is destroyed. That has to be understood. The ancient Hindu India was destroyed.”
The response of Menon to Naipaul’s arguments is quite similar to what left-leaning intellectuals give today - minimisation, dismissal, and best summarised by what Harry G Frankfurt calls ‘bullshitting’- erasing any sense of proportionality, difference between the norm and and the exception, and truth and lie.
To avoid talking about one significant thing in India’s history - Hindu persecution - Menon resorts to talking about “many things”. His argument: “Many things changed and many things overlapped in Indian history due to many diverse interventions”.
Menon asks whether such “many things” justify the line of "historic revenge" with retrospective effect.
Here, Menon reduces the whole movement of Hindus for acknowledgement of their persecution as “historical revenge”. If acknowledgement of past atrocities counts as “historical revenge”, then history as a discipline is doomed.
Don’t we grant special treatment to Scheduled Castes based on historical injustices committed against them? Doesn’t third world demand reparations and differential treatment on the basis of historical injustices by the colonisers?
Acknowledgement of past wrongs is necessary for us to set and follow moral principles. If past can be discounted on the basis of being the past then world is simply a ground for power-play where each of us can cut other’s throat for short-term gratification.
Can the Hindu movement become one about revenge? Yes. It can, like any people’s movement - national or communist or others. Just because it can, doesn’t mean it is.
Thirty years before Indian intellectuals started crying “post-truth”, Naipaul summarised their problem, that “from being great acceptors, they (Hindus) have become questioners”.
“If people just acknowledged history, certain deep emotions of shame and defeat would not be driven underground and would not find this rather nasty and violent expression...And I think we should simply try to understand this passion. It is not an ignoble passion at all. It is men trying to understand themselves.”
In calling the Hindu movement as “men trying to understand themselves", Naipaul brings back the memory of the renaissance of the early 20th century when men like Aurobindo Ghosh, Tagore, Gandhi and Vivekananda were all but “men trying to understand themselves" and figuring out India’s place in the history. Naipaul connects Gandhi’s use of Hinduism to current Hindu movement.
It is also important to note that no movement in the world is perfect. Be it Indian National movement, French Revolution, all had episodes of “nasty and violent expression”.
This doesn’t mean that violence is justified, but it also doesn’t mean that the concerns, aspirations and values behind these movements are discredited. Human beings are complicated, and history is complicated. We have to discard the bad, but acknowledge the good at the same time.
In response to Naipaul’s argument, Menon, again, belittles the Hindu movement as the tendency to whimsically and freely interpret religion or history at the “street level”.
The elitist jibe of Menon here is appalling. What Naipaul, himself an acclaimed intellectual, humbly recognises as the attempt of common people to understand themselves, is “street-level” for Menon.
The question Menon should instead be asking is why the “street-level” - the lived experience of millions of people in this country - couldn’t make it to the ears of the elites sitting in the ivory-towers financed by the same “street-level” men.
It isn’t without a reason that Naipaul, in the same interview, calls Marxist politics as “of course, entirely criminal” for “disrespect for men” and “lack of regard for human beings”.
Naipaul recognises the totalitarianism embedded in Marxist theory which seeks to dismiss all alternative explanations and tries to fit everything in the grand unified narrative of historical materialism.
“It is better not to know the answers to every problem, before you even know what the problems are. The Marxists, they know the answers long before they know anything.”
A word of advice for leftist intellectuals
Naipaul’s words warn intellectuals that "label and dismiss” policy against Hindus fighting for the recognition of Hindu persecution would only boost the tendency to interpret religion or history at “the street level”.
In the face of a biased ecosystem which wouldn’t permit any alternative view, what options would people have but to ditch such an ecosystem?
Naipaul also warns intellectuals against sacrificing the ‘truth’ for the sake of protecting themselves for this would turn intellectual inquiry into a battle-ground of power-politics.
Naipaul clearly states that it is the intellectuals who have to make a decision - whether to play power-politics and try to expunge peoples and opinions adverse to them - or to engage with the other side in an informed debate.
“If we wish to draw the battleline, then of course, you get to battle. If you try to understand what they are saying, things will calm down.”
Naipaul clearly hints that the rise of the “questioning Hindu” is inevitable and the intellectuals’ unique power to tell history on their own terms stands to be challenged. For Naipaul, the only way forward is to engage with them and understand their concerns.
However, every engagement - even with the opposition - is based on certain foundational agreements. In the least, engagement precludes acknowledgement of existence and sufficient worthiness of the other to be engaged with.
In the battleline drawn by the leftist intellectuals, such engagement is the proverbial ‘land equal to a needle’s tip’ that Duryodhana would not cede.
The strategy of the Left is to pick the weakest of the right-wing ecosystem, label the whole right-wing as a bunch of buffoons, trolls and “street-level” fascists - and ignore the sensible arguments like those Naipaul made about Hindu persecution.
To paint the whole left-wing with the same brush as the worst of them (say, Maoists who chop of people’s legs just because they left communist party) would give a grimmer picture, but right-wing intellectuals don’t have the luxury of ‘label and dismiss’ same as the former in a country where the Constitution itself forces “we the people” into a “socialist” republic.
Indian Academicians and intellectuals can regain some of their lost credibility if they heed Naipaul’s advice: “Do not dismiss them. Treat them seriously. Talk to them”.
Unless, they are afraid, and admittedly rightly so, that the slightest change in their current policy of 'label and dismiss' will bring about a complete fall of their house of cards, much like that of the Soviet Union after glasnost and perestroika.
The article wouldn’t be complete without saying that Naipaul, in his characteristic stripping-down-to-the-basics style also criticised Hindus and their complacence and denial about the harm they sustained and the pain they carry.
“Hinduism has seldom known a fiercer or more trenchant critic. Naipaul dismantled every consoling lie Indians told themselves to reveal a wounded civilisation,” wrote Kapil Komireddi about the ‘shattering honesty’ of V S Naipaul.