Though extremely busy with a workshop on 'education, equity and human security' in Calcutta, Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen still took time out to talk to Outlook, and articulate his views on the Hindutva version of Indian history. Sen had condemned the Babri Masjid demolition in 'Threat To Secular India', published in the New York Review shortly after the epoch-changing incident. Here he describes the Hindutva version of Indian history as sectarian and combative, and argues that India was never a Hindu rashtra. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Subhoranjan Dasgupta:
In your address to the Calcutta History Congress last year, you described the spirit and discipline of history as 'capacious heterodoxy'. That's a wonderful expression. Could you please elaborate on it?
Well, I'm glad you like the expression. What I intended to say by that is that in order to study history, we have to have a sense of space—that there could be different ways of looking at past events and in case there are differences, we should be able to argue it out. Heterodoxy is important because understanding history requires different approaches. Furthermore, heterodoxy itself is sometimes among the most interesting things to study in the history of a civilisation or a culture. So, for both these points of view—heterodoxy as a method and as well as a subject matter to be studied—history has to be deeply concerned, I believe, with it. If you want to know what exciting things are happening at a certain period in a certain country, you look not just at what the ongoing tradition is, but where people are disagreeing and in what way. I am not a historian but that is the way I tend to see history, a subject on which I occasionally try to write and which I greatly like reading.
If the study of Indian history is infused by this spirit, what sort of textbooks should our schoolgoers be reading? Because there is a current effort, for instance, to portray the Muslim period as an age of darkness.
Obviously blacking out the Muslim period—what you are describing as the "Muslim period"—as an age of darkness would be just a gross mistake. Textbooks should contain truths rather than falsehoods. It's not just a matter of understanding our past, but also our present. If you look at anything today—Indian painting, music, literature, philosophy, history itself as a discipline—the great contributions of Muslim scholars, intellectuals and artists are part and parcel of the richness of Indian civilisation. I think it's also important to emphasise that we cannot talk about the history of this period as if it could be split into Muslim activities and Hindu activities. They were interactive. Really, in every branch of art or intellectual study, you will find Hindu and Muslim activists, artists and scholars working side by side and interacting with each other. So, there's no way we can talk about the period without taking into account the massive contribution made in an interactive way by those who happened to be Muslims by religion as opposed to others who were Hindus or Sikhs or Parsis or Christians.
Your grandfather Kshitimohan Sen wrote the classic text Hinduism (Penguin Books, 1960). In what basic sense does his vision of Indian history and civilisation, or for that matter the vision of Rabindranath Tagore, differ from the saffron family's version?
I shouldn't really comment on this as I am not a great expert on Hindutva of any kind, and my role in my grandfather's book on Hinduism was primarily that of a translator. I think the remarkable difference between the book and a sectarian view of Hindutva is that my grandfather's as well as Tagore's vision is not combative at all. They were both keen on seeing what different influences operated on Hinduism. Both authors locate themselves in an interactive environment. In The Religion of Man, the lectures that Tagore gave at Oxford, he mentions that his family was situated at the confluence of three sets of influences—Hindu, Muslim and European. The same would apply to my grandfather. As a Sanskritist, he was educated in Benares, in traditional centres of learning, which were, at that time, open and non-sectarian.
I should also mention that one of my grandfather's books—which I don't think is available in English, only in Bengali, called Hindu Musalmaner Jukta Sadhana (The Joint Work of Hindus and Muslims)—is quite a major work in the cultural history of India, showing that there is no substantial area of artistic or intellectual activity in which Hindus and Muslims have not worked together. You cannot think of Hindus and Muslims as somehow mechanically mixed together, rather than being chemically compounded in an integrated civilisation.
Isn't there an affinity between the saffron version of Hindutva and Samuel Huntington's categorisation of Indian civilisation as Hindu?
I think you are right there that Huntington's description of Indian civilisation as Hindu civilisation almost seems to be taken out of the writings of the Hindutva champions. In Huntington's case, the problem was that he wanted to classify the world according to one principle only and that was what he called 'civilisation', which in his case ended up being primarily religion. So he had to contrast Islamic civilisation with Western, Christian civilisation or Buddhist civilisation, etc. Then, well, how do I accommodate India? Since Islamic was already spoken for, he classified India as just a Hindu civilisation. Well, that's a serious mis-description. India has more Muslims than any country in the world with the exception of Indonesia and marginally Pakistan. Also, the entire cultural and intellectual history of India has been an integrated one, as we just discussed.
Historian Romila Thapar has described Hindutva's history as propaganda where the past is manipulated as political instrument. What is the political goal in question—a Hindu rashtra?
Well, I don't really know what the political goal in question is. Romila Thapar, of course, is one of our leading historians. I haven't seen this particular writing of hers, but I guess what she's pointing out is that a lot of writing on history by people who are champions of Hindutva seems to have an underlying political agenda. Whether this is meant to be a preparation for a Hindu rashtra or whether it is just a misunderstanding of the nature of India, I don't know. You have to ask them.
India was never a Hindu rashtra, even before Muslims came to India. In the first millennium BC as well as the millennium that followed, the Gupta period for example, India had a powerful presence of Buddhism along with Hinduism and Jainism. Christians came to India by the 4th century AD latest, and there were Christians here well before there was a single Christian in Britain. Similarly, Jews came to India very early. Parsis came when persecution began in Iran. Also, Muslims came first as traders across the Arabian Sea, well before the Muslim military conquests in the north. India has had a variety of religious influences all this time. Just to mention one thing—if you are thinking of the two greatest emperors of India, you would tend to think of Ashoka and Akbar. One was a Buddhist and the other a Muslim.
Must a 'Hindutva' history necessarily depend on half-truths, lies and legends to sustain itself? For example, that ancient India revered the cow as 'gomata' and did not consume beef; that Akbar was a foreigner, despot and sectarian?
Well, I think if one has a particular way of looking at the past and if there are uncomfortable facts which do not fit into that narrow way of looking, then the proponents of that way of looking would naturally tend to deny the facts.It's fairly easy to point out that these are not half-truths; these are not truths at all. Actually, I can give you many other examples of this kind.
Could you give just one?
The introduction of European scholars to Hindu scriptures, in particular the Upanishads, was to a great extent based on the Persian translation of the Upanishads done by Dara Shikoh, the first-born son of Shah Jahan. Dara Shikoh was not a great Sanskrit scholar but he did work hard with the help of Hindu pundits to learn Sanskrit and he translated parts of the Upanishads into Persian. It is this translation that William Jones (pioneering Indologist) first read which attracted him to India and to the study of the Hindu religion. Quite a lot of the revival of our understanding of our Hindu past was based on Jones' efforts and those of others at the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. I have not seen any mention in the Hindutva literature of the contribution of this Mughal prince to the spread of understanding of Hinduism at home and abroad.
The publication of the Towards Freedom volume edited by Sumit Sarkar and K.N. Panikkar has been thwarted by the ICHR, apparently because it exposes the 'loyalist' role of the rss in the 1940s.
Well, I can't comment on why the ICHR has held up the publication of this volume. It could well be that the rss figures in a rather negative light as a pro-British force in some of the documents. It could have been something else, I don't know. I have also not read the introduction Sumit Sarkar and K.N. Panikkar have written. But I can definitely say that the two are not only among the top historians in India, they would be regarded as major historians anywhere in the world. I personally happen to know Sarkar very well and admire his writings as well as the quality of his mind tremendously. I find it impossible to think that the introduction could have been devoid of their serious professionalism. The episode is puzzling and deeply disturbing.
No one would claim that whatever the 'secular' school of historians has done from Sushobhan Sarkar onwards is flawless. In fact, quite a few critiques have been levelled against secularism per se and you have examined them in your essay 'Secularism and its Discontents'. But do these offer a better alternative in the Indian context?
I wouldn't describe these historians as primarily 'secular'. They are primarily probing and conscientious historians. The fact that they also happen to be secular is interesting, but I don't believe that this dominates their writing of history. I can speak certainly about Professor Sushobhan Sarkar. He was a historian of impeccable scholarship, with great insistence on rigour and scrutiny. So I would describe him first as a terrific historian rather than as primarily a 'secular historian'.
The second point is, as far as secularism itself is concerned, it is of course really a political belief and as such a subject matter of history, rather than a method of dealing with history. I think that if one has to look at India, one has to see the interactive presence of different religions as well as the presence of non-religious thoughts—sciences and mathematics for example. Aryabhatta, for instance, is quite sceptical of the received doctrines about eclipses and also about the belief that the sun goes round the earth. He didn't think that eclipses were caused by Rahu but by the earth's shadow over the moon and the moon obscuring the sun. He talked of the diurnal motion of the earth and the appearance of the sun going round us. So, a historian of Indian ideas has to look at non-religious thought as well as anti-religious thoughts like Charvaka and Lokayata. The subject matter of Indian history cannot be just Hinduism. The historian has to take note of different religious and non-(or-anti) religious ideas.Recognising these varieties does not require any special political belief in secularism.
It has been proposed that religious leaders, like sadhus and imams, should vet history texts so that unpalatable facts—that could injure impressionable minds and specific communities—can be carefully eliminated from textbooks?
I am appalled to hear about this proposal. I hope you don't vet this interview by a sadhu or an imam!
HRD minister Dr Murli Manohar Joshi has described those he calls 'Marxist' historians, like Irfan Habib, Sumit Sarkar and liberals like Romila Thapar, as 'worse than terrorists'...
If the report is correct, we must react with horror. First, there is what in philosophy is called a 'category mistake' here in thinking that comparison with terrorists can be a cogent way of assessing historians. Second, the historians mentioned are, of course, leading historians, and so acknowledged across the world. It is difficult to think how anyone could have made a remark of that kind, least of all the minister in charge of education. I have to believe that he has been misreported and will no doubt issue a corrective.
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