Strange Rise of Modern India
In spite of Hinduism
As a long-time India correspondent of the Financial Times and husband of a Hindu Indian wife, Edward Luce is rightfully confident of his grasp of contemporary Indias political and socio-economic situation. His book In Spite of the Gods. The Strange Rise of Modern India is a wide-ranging and fairly detailed but eminently readable presentation of Indias recent and current developments.
The book contains a few minor mistakes, e.g. Vaishya where Kshatriya is meant (p.107 and p.124, yet correct on p.70), or the claim that in World War 2, Subhash Chandra Boses INA... never invaded India. The Indian National Army did briefly occupy parts of Nagaland and Mizoram, while the Andaman and Nicobar islands had been conquered by the Japanese and allotted to INA sovereignty. But let that pass.
Considering the newspaper Luce works for, it is no surprise that he dismisses Nehruvian socialism as a historical mistake for which the Indian population has paid dearly. While applauding liberalization, he also criticizes recent attempts by the Congress-led and Communist-supported United Progressive Alliance government to uphold or revive socialism, e.g. the Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2005), largely drafted by Aruna Roy and Jean Drèze. No lack of good intentions behind this socialist anti-poverty scheme, but: Yet there is little, other than its magnitude and its cost, to distinguish it from previous efforts that have failed. (p.201) He aptly links state tutelage with the ineffectiveness of general utilities in many Indian cities: If utilities are allowed to charge customers for what they use, there is an incentive to supply them... In the cities, charging the poor for water would ensure that the poor would receive it. (p.344)
Hindu readers have often complained about the anti-Hindu bias in all too many India books, including those by authors with Hindu names like Chetan Bhatt, Vijay Prashad or Pankaj Mishra. So, where does Luce stand in this respect?
The books title obviously suggests that same bias: India is growing in spite of the gods, i.e. in spite of Hinduism, a burdensome heritage. This description maintains, in opposite circumstances, the Nehruvian-era notion of the Hindu rate of growth: Hinduism is a hindrance, strong enough in the past to hold India back, sufficiently weakened now for progress to take off in spite of it. As Jawaharlal Nehru himself put it: Religion as practised in India has ... stifled and almost killed all originality of thought and mind. (quoted on p.17) But the record shows that Hindus outside India in countries with liberal economies have prospered mightily. The Muslim stereotype of Hindus has always been negative, as in Paki textbooks describing them as cunning, scheming and deceptive (p.241, quoted from Stephen Cohen: The Idea of Pakistan, p.243, OUP Delhi 2004), but it has never denied the proverbial Hindu Banias entrepreneurial skills and business acumen. The Hindu rate of growth was merely an excuse by the Nehruvian socialists for their own failure, yet the correspondent of the anti-socialist Financial Times perpetuates this myth.
On the other hand, it is also with marked disapproval that Luce quotes Winston Churchill: India is a beastly country with a beastly religion. (p.4) He also notes with satisfaction that Hinduism has room for religious scepticism, as where he quotes the sceptical priest Jabali addressing the epic hero Rama: Oh Rama, be wise. There exists no other world but this. That is certain. (p.144) Or the Upanishadic notion, foreign to Abrahamic monotheism, that the gods came later than creation. (p.326) It is not uncommon in the West to despise contemporary Hinduism yet admire its ancient achievements.
In his overview of history, Luce definitely does injustice to Hinduism, often by glaring omission of its merits in contexts where they ought to have been mentioned. Thus, the image of Hindus as passive and losers is strengthened by his jump from the Moghuls straight to the British as the paramount power in India, as if there hadnt been the Hindu Marathas, Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs to destroy Moghul power before the British took over (p.309). He somehow forgets to give Hinduism due credit for Indias remarkable religious tolerance: The tendency to accept that there are many paths to God derives from Indias long-running traditions of tolerance between religions. (p.310) This reminds us of Mani Shankar Aiyar observing how there is something about India that inculcates tolerance and then conspicuously (indeed, deliberately) failing to call that mysterious something by its now-common name, viz. Hinduism.
Mr. Luce has lapped up the usual anti-Hindu propaganda in historical matters, but only in moderate doses. Thus, he disagrees with the extreme hate propaganda he heard from neo-Buddhist monks in Aurangabad: They say the great Indian Buddhist centres of Taxila and Nalanda had been plundered by Brahmins, who feared that Buddhas egalitarian message would undermine their stranglehold on society. They destroyed Buddhism because it had no caste, said one militant young novice. (p.114) He corrects this blatant lie, then inserts a softer variation on the same: In fact, the great monastery of Nalanda was probably plundered by a Muslim dynasty, but there is plenty of evidence to show that Hindu dynasties in an earlier phase of Indias history took steps to suppress Buddhism too. (p.115) In that case, pray, how come Nalanda was there at all for Muslim conquerors to destroy, after many centuries of Hindu rule?
The unscholarly secularist version of history is faithfully reproduced, e.g. that Christianity was established in Kerala in the 1st century: Christianitys Indian pedigree therefore significantly predates its arrival in most of Europe. (p.154) The thrust of this clam is that Christianity is somehow just as Indian as Hinduism in order to belittle Hinduisms unique link with India. More serious historians including Western Christians have long ago shown that the Christian refugees arrived there to seek Hindu hospitality only in the 4th century. But even if we were to accept the colonial-age legend that the apostle Thomas arrived there in the 50s of the 1st century, this would not nullify Saint Pauls far better attested visits to existing Christian communities in Greece, Rome and Spain in the 40s. In Christian history, even the distorted missionary-com-secularist account cannot prevent Europe from preceding India as a home of Christianity.
Edward Luce doesnt shirk from reproducing the blatant economy with truth which has given secularism such a bad name in India. Thus: According to Indias census, Christians formed 2.8 per cent of the population in 1951 but only 2.3 per cent in 2001. Yet the Hindu nationalists maintain that India is rife with Christian proselytization. (p.154) Who do he and his sources think they are fooling? That India is rife with proselytization is a fact observable in pretty much every part of India, with churches of all and sundry sects mushrooming in cities and villages alike. If this does not result in a larger growth than is the case now, it is due to a low birth rate. However, the net growth of the Christian population is higher than Luce and the secularists will admit, and far higher than the negative growth he claims. As can easily be verified from Christian sources, India and many other countries have a large population of so-called crypto-Christians, converts who maintain their old religious identity for official purposes, in India mainly for the sake of safeguarding their right to caste-based reservations. Missionaries and secularists make common cause in deceptively describing the Christian community as a poor and powerless minority, when in fact it is the largest owner of media, schools and prime real estate in India.
Luce also relativizes the image of a sharp political polarization between low-caste militancy and Hinduism as a religion. Thus, he reports that during his time in prison, Lalu Prasad Yadav, a leader of the Other Backward Castes, had a vision of Krishna telling him to become vegetarian and be kind to cows (p.121-122). Even the Ambedkarite Buddhists are not as anti-Hindu as some of their spokesmen pretend: In the villages Buddha has become just one more god to be placed alongside the popular Hindu deities in the Mahar household (...) When Mahars greet each other, they say Ram Ram, the traditional Hindu greeting.( p.112)
Predictably, Luce repeats the secularist fable that Islam and its militant sense of equality inspired anti-caste movements in Hinduism (p.108), by which he refers to the Bhakti movements, which in fact predate the genesis of Islam, let alone its arrival in India. Likewise, he muses about lower-caste Hindus who converted to Islam (ironically to escape caste). (p.250) This propaganda line has been laid to rest for good by the late Prof. K.S. Lal, who has shown that the lowest castes were among the least likely to accept Islam, which had its own social hierarchy, including slavery, and therefore easily integrated the caste inequality of its converts, who retained their caste identity for centuries after their concersion. Islam only adopted the socialist rhetoric of equality for apologetic purposes in the 20th century. It is part of the job of intellectuals to see through such pious anachronisms.
Predictably, the canard of connections between the RSS and fascism is brought up: The RSS salute, which is frequently rendered, is unmistakably fascistic: standing to attention, you move your right arm across your chest with the palm of your hand facing down. (p.155-156) That salute is unmistakably of the military type, but unless Luce wants to tar all armies in the world with the fascist brush, there is nothing particularly fascistic about it. If the RSS had wanted to express fascistic sympathies, it could easily have opted for the Roman salute, then perfectly respectable, but it chose not to.
Likewise: The uniform they put on is a mix between the khaki outfit that was worn by the British colonial police and sartorial details taken from Mussolinis Black Shirts, who were icons to the Hindu nationalists when the RSS was founded in 1925. (p.152) Again, they could have chosen black as the colour of their shirts, but didnt. The RSS uniform was the one used by security volunteers at Congress meetings, deemed to need protection after the Moplah attacks on Hindus in 1920-22. In those days, Muslims quite sensibly considered Congress as a Hindu movement.
The Moplah massacres were a one-sided Muslim initiative without the slightest provocation from the Hindus, then under the spell of Mahatmas Gandhis non-violence and Hindu-Muslim unity. Likewise, the Muslim invasions including those of 636, 712, 1000, 1192 and 1761 were all unprovoked acts of aggression. Till today, Hindu-Muslim riots are typically started by Muslims. If Hindus restrain themselves, the riot remains small and is not reported in the international media. Only if Hindus mobilize does it become a newsworthy riot, and those are the cases where the victims on the Muslim side can be numerous. This way, a false impression is created of Muslims living in constant persecution by an overbearing Hindu majority. A proper perspective is given by comparing with the situation in Pakistan and Bangladesh, where all Hindu-Muslim violence without exception has Muslims as perpetrators and Hindus as victims, because the fearful Hindu minority wouldnt dare to act against the Muslims, not even in retaliation. Moreover, for every instance of violent Hindu reaction in India, there are a dozen where the Hindus control their anger. Thus, the Gujarat riots of March 2002 came after half a year of frequent Muslim terrorist attacks, including those on the Parliament buildings in Srinagar and Delhi, which had not led to any revenge on Muslim communities.
Yet, secularist propaganda is adamant about presenting Muslim violence as merely retaliatory: Muslim mafia dons from Mumbai organised a series of terrorist bombings in the city in 1993 in revenge for the riots that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya a few months earlier. (p.255) Those riots had themselves been started by Muslims, which secularists always excuse as retaliation for the Ayodhya demolition. Likewise, the killing of dozens in Muslims by the Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force was in apparent retaliation for the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat. (p.255)
Luce is one of those people who wear fascism-coloured glasses and consequently see fascism everywhere. Thus, he finds it a strange coincidence that February 27 the date of the Godhra burnings was also the date of the notorious fire in the German Reichstag in 1933 that gave Hitler the opportunity to seize power. (p.160) Indians of all stripes have other things on their minds than the anniversary calendar of Nazi-related events, and to them, 27 February is a date like any other. But in case Luce is right about this, the eagerness to celebrate the Reichstag fire by setting fire to a wagon full of Hindu pilgrims must logically have been with the Muslim mob that committed the crime, not with the Hindu victims. Oops!
Luce systematically withholds credit from the BJP where it is due. It was a BJP-led majority that proposed Muslim scientist Abdul Kalam for president, which is remarkable in that it counters the BJPs anti-Muslim image, but you couldnt tell from Luces account: Indias parliament also elected a Muslim head of state in 2002. (p.238) Likewise, and clearly for the same reason of preserving the BJPs communalist hate image, he refuses to acknowledge the BJPs repeated initiatives for better relations with Pakistan: The bilateral peace process was launched in 2003 (p.242), i.e. under BJP rule. Note the impersonal passive voice: it just happened, without anyone actually making it happen, least of all the BJP. In describing the progress made in the Union Territory of Delhi (controlling air pollution, building the metro system etc.), he praises current Congress administrator Sheila Dikshit and conspicuously fails to give credit to the preceding BJP administrations (p.212). The commendable campaign against female foeticide in Gujarat was launched by Amarjeet Singh, the states health secretary (p.314), but we are not allowed to know that he was a member of a BJP state government.
This type of manipulation is quite systematic in Luces book, note e.g. how he allots credit to Nehru where it belongs to others, and how he withholds blame from the godfather of secularism where it is richly due: Nehru immediately airlifted troops to Kashmir (p.232), but: It was New Delhi that requested the UN-mediated ceasefire in 1948. (p.233) It would be more truthful to reverse these phrases as follows: New Delhi (i.e. Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel) immediately airlifted troops to Kashmir while It was Nehru (against the advice of his cabinet) who requested the UN-mediated ceasefire in 1948, thus halting the Indian Armys victorious march and burdening the subcontinent for at least sixty years with the wasteful and often lethal Kashmir problem.
Luce is right to lambast the BJP governments conduct of textbook reform ca. 2002, which was a horror show of incompetence. But that doesnt justify his largely incorrect account of the textbook controversy (p.148 ff.), faithfully borrowed from the Marxist lobbyists whose iron grip on the education sector had briefly seemed threatened by the textbook overhaul. On one of its flashpoints, the Aryan Invasion debate, Luce is clearly out of his depth and merely parrots the account given in the Communist fortnightly Frontline.
About N. Jhas and N.S. Rajarams eager discovery of a horse depiction on a Harappan seal, purportedly proving that the horse-centred Aryan culture was present in the Harappan cities, Luce writes: in 2000 the discovery had been exposed as a simple case of fraud. Michael Witzel, Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, showed how the two men had manipulated computer-generated images of the seal to conjure up a horse. (p.149) It is true Witzel claimed that much, but he never showed it. The fact of the matter is that the original broken seal was reproduced in print by Jha and Rajaram, with the horse only showing up in what they introduced as an artists reconstruction (a pretty clumsy one, too) of what the original seal must have looked like. If they had had fraud in mind, they would have gone about it differently, but now they simply offered a naïve reconstruction of an irretrievable seal extending the fragments of what was more likely the depiction of a bull into the shape of a horse. They had been carried away by their enthusiasm, just as Witzels own writings contain a number of unwarranted conclusions betraying his own eagerness to jump at those rather than let the data point to other conclusions less fitting in his preconceived hypotheses, e.g. his mistaken discovery of Aryan invasion references in the Baudhayana Shrauta Sutra. When I first exposed that mistake of his, I didnt accuse him of fraud, and never have done so since. As Napoleon reportedly said: Never ascribe to malice what can just as well be explained by incompetence. Or by eager self-deception.
I can understand that Luce is not a specialist and cannot verify every claim he quotes in primary sources. With this particular claim, however, he ought to have been extra careful, as it contains a grim allegation against peoples integrity. But since the people concerned had been dismissed as Hindu nationalists beforehand, I suppose different norms apply as compared with the decorum observed vis-à-vis real human beings.
Moreover, even a non-specialist like Luce should have been able to see that blaming Muslim iconoclasm on Hindu precedent leaves the fact of Muslim iconoclasm outside India unexplained. This is another instance of secularists wilful silliness: they expect Indians to be ignorant of the outside world and thus to limit Muslim history to Indian Muslim history. When Mohammed broke the 360 idols in the Kaaba, it is unlikely that he was following a Hindu precedent, isnt it? By contrast, the Muslim iconoclasts in India, whenever they cared to explain their conduct in their court chronicles, invariably invoked the Islamic tradition of iconoclasm started by the Prophet himself, and never ever a purported Hindu precedent. To sum up, Edward Luce is a typical Western press correspondent in Delhi. He doesnt hate India or Hinduism, but has innocently lapped up all the prejudices of the so-called secularists. On the Delhi cocktail circuit, trendy Indians gain prestige by showing off their Western friends and at the same time feed them their own view of things. The reading the correspondents do is mostly from the English-medium secularist press, which again corroborates these prejudices. And since exploring alternative viewpoints is both labour-intensive and unrewarding, indeed risky for their reputation in case they were to acknowledge any merit in the Hindu critique of the reigning secularist paradigm, they happily limit themselves to reproducing what their select group of native informers tells them.
|About Dr. Koenraad Elst|
Dr. Koenraad Elst was born in Leuven, Belgium, on 7 August 1959, into a Flemish (i.e. Dutch-speaking Belgian) Catholic family. He graduated in Philosophy, Chinese Studies and Indo-Iranian Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. During a stay at the Benares Hindu University, he discovered India's communal problem and wrote his first book about the budding Ayodhya conflict.
While establishing himself as a columnist for a number of Belgian and Indian papers, he frequently returned to India to study various aspects of its ethno-religio-political configuration and interview Hindu and other leaders and thinkers. His research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism earned him his Ph.D. in Leuven in 1998.
He has also published about multiculturalism, language policy issues, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and the Aryan invasion debate.
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