Let's combat communalism

Dr Koenraad Elst

What follows is a comment on "Koenraad Elst--Sangh Parivar's Apologist", a review of my book Decolonizing the Hindu Mind: Ideological development of Hindu Revivalism (Rupa, Delhi 2001), by Ayub Khan in Communalism Watch, 13 March 2003. It is not normally done for an author to write a rebuttal of a review of his book. Since he himself has had his say for hundreds of pages in the book itself, he should leave the review pages of the papers to his critics. They don't usually get more than one or two pages of space from their editors to develop their opinions, so they are already at a disadvantage. Then again, in a brief text it is possible to write more insults and lies than could be answered convincingly in a whole book. Moreover, in many cases far more people read the reviews or the resultant polemic than the book that is their object. That is why in exceptional cases, an author may feel pressured to write a rebuttal. I will try to do justice to the Mr. Khan's effort and reproduce it in full, interspersed with my own comments.

1. Am I a Sangh Parivar apologist?

Ayub Khan's review was published in Communalism Combat. Naļve readers might understand this as "combat against communalism", but its effective editorial line lends itself better to the description: "combative (anti-Hindu) communalism". Its editor, Mrs. Teesta Setalwad, is a convert from secular Hinduism to Islam, and she has the typical zeal of the convert. She was repeatedly caught in the act of lying during the secularist attempts to exploit the Gujarat riots of spring 2002. She even went on record thinking up a justification for the Muslim arson attack on the women's wagon of a pilgrims' train in Godhra, killing 58 innocent Hindus. A Muslim girl whom she had paraded as her crown witness in her culpabilization of the Gujarati Hindus, came out to accuse her of kidnapping and of coercing her to give false testimony in court. Of course, the poor girl stood no chance against Mrs. Setalwad's well-financed media machine, so she was convicted of perjury (which she at any rate committed, but more likely when initially toeing the Setalwad-dictated line than when recanting), but Mrs. Setalwad's insulted-royalty conduct during the whole controversy clearly revealed just what type of character gets attracted by the secularist hate industry. In these circumstances, I take it as a point of honour to find myself the target of criticism in her paper.

Ayub Khan opens his attack on me in a very predictable manner: "In the past decade Belgian scholar Koenraad Elst has emerged as the most prominent advocate of Sangh Parivar in the West."

Anyone who has read my book BJP vis-ą-vis Hindu Resurgence (1997) will be surprised to see me described as an "advocate of the Sangh Parivar". The book under review, too, contains a lot of critical observations of the Sangh, as Ayub Khan ought to have noticed. In fact, even some of my observations which secularists might consider favourable to the Sangh, are properly meant as criticisms. Ayub Khan reveals his own outlook of political activist rather than intellectual observer by brushing aside the actual contents of these criticisms, so inconvenient to the case he is making.

But then it is true that I haven't repeated the hysterical discourse so common in journalistic and academic writings on Hindu nationalism and the Sangh Parivar. Thus, before the BJP came to power in 1998, I had never written that the BJP would build gas chambers for Muslims or dump them into the ocean, which clearly put me outside the consensus of the experts. I suppose that in a world of partisan scholarship, where the party-line is scrupulously followed by activists and camp-followers alike, any attempt to remain objective must come across as counter-partisan, meaning partisan activism for the opposite side.

Ayub Khan continues: "Elst's commitment to the Sangh Parivar can be gauged from the fact that he unabashedly defended it even as the fires of Gujarat were still raging last year. (See Elst's 'Dr. Hathaway's Patronizing Conclusions' published at"

Actually, the correct reference is: "US thinker gives unthinking support to anti-India demands. A reply to Robert Hathaway", 30 August and 3 September 2002, Rediff on the Net; included in Ramesh Rao & Koenraad Elst: Gujarat after Godhra: Real Violence, Selective Outrage, Har-Anand, Delhi 2003. It was written months after "the fires of Gujarat" of March 2002 had stopped raging.

In my reaction to Dr. Hathaway's patronizing sermon on Hindu society, which in his opinion needs supervision by Americans to protect it against its own vicious inhumanity, I have merely pointed out the exaggerated, partisan and plainly false points in his attack on the BJP government of Gujarat. Like most American India-watchers, Dr. Hathaway throws all norms of research to the wind as soon as it comes to Hindu activism, for rather than critically assessing his sources of information, he has merely lapped up all the rumours spread by unscrupled "secularists" such as Arundhati Roy and Ayub Khan's employer Teesta Setalwad. Thus, Communalism Combat and its numerous parrots have been alleging that "more than 2,000 Muslims have been killed" in the post-Godhra riots, but in the meantime the UPA (anti-BJP) Central Government's Home Ministry has officially confirmed the death toll as 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus.

Here is Ayub Khan's clinching argument for my Hindutva affiliation: "Such is his importance in Hindutva circles that L.K.Advani quoted him at length while deposing before the Liberhans Commission investigation the demolition of Babri Masjid."

Rest assured that in Hindutva circles, many people count as far more important than I. If I was the one to be quoted, it is simply because I happened to be the one who had written about the question of the exact authorship of the Ayodhya demolition. That was in reaction to the surrealistic but highly significant behaviour of the Indian media after the Demolition. Eventhough the film footage clearly shows Advani helplessly breaking down in tears when the ordinary activists took control and started the Demolition, and all eyewitnesses confirmed this (as I know from interviewing many of them), the media in unison blamed Advani and the wider Sangh leadership. Instead of doing their job and earning laurels with the scoop of the year by finding out and revealing just which mid-level Sangh activist masterminded the Demolition against the designs of the leadership, the Indian media and their parrots abroad chose the politically motivated option of doing maximum damage to Advani by accusing him. If the media and later also the academic India-watchers had done their job, Advani could have cited many commentators pointing their fingers away from him, but in the event I turned out to be the only one. No special merit, on the contrary: I only did what was normal, it's the others whose conduct was partisan to the point of being bizarre.

2. My critique of Islam

Like most so-called secularists, Mr. Khan isn't very good at distinguishing between various "anti-Islamic" positions: "His vociferous defence of the Hindu right is equally matched by his rabid attacks on Islam. In order to escape being branded a bigot he follows a route, which is much popular among anti-Muslim writers these days. He insists: 'not Muslims but Islam is the problem'. (See Koenraad Elst review of Thom Blom Hansen's The Saffron Wave)."

I wasn't aware that this line has become so popular. I haven't seen it being declaimed anywhere, certainly not in Sangh Parivar circles, nor even among Western "Islamophobes". On the contrary, the official line, intoned across the spectrum from Guru Golwalkar in the 1950s to Tony Blair after the London blasts of 7 July 2005, is that "Islam is not the problem", only a few "misguided" Muslims are. In reality, of course, the problem is Islam. Many Muslims are not terrorists, but those who are, invariably cite the instructions and precedents of the Prophet of Islam as their inspiration.

I agree that many people are fanatical by temperament, no matter what religion they are brought up in; and that others are peaceful and tolerant, no matter the intrinsic fanaticism of the religion they are brought up in. But for many more, religious indoctrination does make the difference: good people are made to do evil because they are taught that this particular evil is the will of God. To repeat a comparison I've made before: some people get drunk and still drive home safely; others are teetotallers and yet are a danger on the road; but for most people, alcohol does make the difference between driving safely and causing an accident. Therefore, most acts of Islamic fanaticism, such as in the Moplah rebellion, the Partition massacres, the East Bengali genocide or the frequent bomb attacks on Hindu crowds and places of worship, are the result of Islamic indoctrination, committed by people who would never have done so if they or their ancestors had not been islamized.

Khan again: "In this book Elst tries to promote a humane face of the Hindutva fanatics while at the same time indulging in polemical attacks on Islam and Christianity."

Here I firmly disagree. Does Mr. Khan really think I would have gotten away with replacing a descriptive study of a Hindu movement with "polemical attacks" when working for a degree at a top-ranking university? In this case, moreover, it was a Catholic university that, according to Mr. Khan, awarded me the degree for what amounted to "polemical attacks on Christianity". I agree that unabashed "polemical attacks" need not necessarily stand in the way of getting a Ph.D. in Indian Studies, but that's only if they are attacks on the Hindu side. By contrast, I have had to scrupulously limit myself to a description of certain criticisms of Christianity and Islam. However, having been pampered and shielded from criticism for all these years, Indian Islamists just cannot tolerate the experience of merely seeing certain criticisms of Islam reproduced in print. And yes, it so happens that after hours, I agree with some of those criticisms, and have said so in other forums. Mr. Khan can try to refute them if he wants, but thus far he hasn't even tried to do so.

Moreover: "It is Elst's contention that the Muslims along with British were also colonizers of the Hindu civilization and that Nehruvian secularism and Islam are two major adversaries that are obstructing the revival of Hindu religion. Hindu thought, he argues, is finally coming into its own after 'centuries of being under the shadow of Islam and Christianity'."

At worst, he is accusing me here of slamming an open door. What is described here as my own "contention" is simply a set of obvious facts, well-known to all except the wilfully blind. Of course Islamic rule was a form of colonialism, the main difference being that the English took India's riches but also gave it railways and democratic institutions, while Islam gave nothing in return for what it took. That Hinduism has been under the shadow of Islam or Christianity is another statement of the obvious that needs no further proof. But I may have been rash in assuming that "Hindu thought is finally coming into its own".

Khan: "While the Sangh is hiding its anti-Muslim feelings Elst is more forthcoming in his animosity towards Islam and Muslims. He is smitten by the age-old biases about Islam. Two fanatical writers namely Sita Ram Goel and Ram Swarup shape his views on Islam. A careful study of these pseudo-historians indicates that there is nothing original in their works. They have just recycled the old orientalist works with the addition of inflammatory comments. For Elst however these two characters are heroes and whose books all Hindu revivalists should read. He says that the Islamic civilization did not create any substantial contribution in the development of India and there is nothing special about the Indo-Saracenic architecture. He says that Muslims did not work towards the elimination of caste-system in India but only preserved it. He falsely claims that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) never enjoined class equality. (p.398) Obviously he has not read the last sermon of the Prophet (SAW)."

The trick is already a bit worn out but secularists never get enough of it: neutralizing criticism of Islam by identifying some old-school "orientalist" (a dirty word to the followers of Edward Said, that pitiable Arab Christian dhimmi who ran errands for his Muslim bullies) who formulated similar criticisms, then "exposing" such criticism as some long-refuted colonial ploy. The actual refutation is never given, of course. For criticism of Islam is not the fruit of colonial "orientalism", but of the healthy sceptical human mind, which has been around since much earlier. Indeed, the Quran itself reports a number of criticisms of the Prophet by his own contemporaries, and the Hadith collections relate how Mohammed dealt with critics: he had them assassinated in the night or, once he was formally in power, had them executed. To be sure, Mr. Khan is welcome to improve upon the Prophet's conduct and provide the first refutation to anything he dislikes in the criticisms cited in the core texts of Islam, or in the works of "colonial orientalists" like D.S. Margoliouth, or in the works of Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel.

Mr. Khan is also invited to enlighten us on Islam's "substantial contribution". Unlike the British railways, which were an unprecedented novelty that opened new economic (and political) possibilities for Indian society, Indo-Saracenic architecture merely replaced the ornate native building style with another. India would have lost nothing if the Muslims had left the numerous magnificent instances of Hindu architecture standing instead of destroying them and replacing them with their own predictable and monotonous architecture. The highlights of Indo-Saracenic architecture were the handiwork of Hindu artists and craftsmen anyway, e.g. the master-masons of the Taj Mahal who had a hand chopped off after finishing the job lest they do a similar job for a rival ruler. For another example of Islam's elusive contributions: the Muslim invaders destroyed all the Buddhist universities which had flourished for centuries under Hindu rule, and never built any educational institutions of similar quality and broadness of subject-matter.

As for Islam and class equality, Ayub Khan is bluffing on the assumption that most readers of the review won't read the book anyway. So, he pretends that my scepticism regarding the propaganda of Islam as the religion of equality is my own, when in fact I was only rendering, with ample quotations, the observations of several authoritative sources and the injunctions in the basic texts of Islam. Thus, summarizing a critique by the generally pro-Islamic leftist Belgian author Lucas Catherine, I refer to three Quran verses (16:71/73, 42:12/10, 43:32/31) he cites as evidence for Islam's anti-egalitarianism, in which Allah states that He has made one man rich and another poor and that it would be ungrateful for man to try to change this divine distribution of fortune.

Mohammed himself sold women and children prisoners as slaves and never questioned the institution of slavery, which remained central to the Muslim economy until the much-maligned British colonialists enforced its abolition. Islamic law regulates the institution of slavery as well as other forms of social inequality including of course that between Muslims and "tolerated" non-Muslims. And naturally, it elaborately details the unequal rights and duties of men and women. That's not all that exceptional, most if not all religions and law systems know gender inequality, but here again the claim that Islam introduced equality is proven to be false.

In India, the Muslim conquerors never interfered in the caste divisions of Hindu society and the converts largely retained their caste identities or acquired new forms of inter-Muslim stratification based on affiliation with various sects or ethnic lobbies of the conquerors. Caste-like stratification in Indian Muslim and Pakistani society has been described by sociologists, though secularist convention is to pretend otherwise in order to magnify Hindu inequality by contrast. All this is a matter of general knowledge but Khan tries to pass it off as figments of my imagination.

As for Mohammed's last sermon, given during his last pilgrimage to Mecca shortly before he fell ill and died, here again Mr. Khan is bluffing. The few readers who may take the trouble of looking up the text of that sermon, as given in Ibn Ishaq's Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (Alfred Guillaume: The Life of Mohammed, OUP, Karachi, p.650/968-652/969) will find that it contains no imposition of equality. To be sure, Mohammed abolishes usury, which is not a bad thing. And yes, he enjoins his men to be kind on their wives, but the reason given is that women "are prisoners with you having no control of their persons". That's hardly equality. He also says that "every Muslim is a Muslim's brother", but he conspicuously fails to deduce from this vague sentiment that they are legally equal, let alone entitled to socio-economic equality. Equality with or among non-Muslims is of course nowhere in the picture.

Khan: "Elst narrates with relish the myth about the execution of 900 Jews at the order of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in Madina without realizing that this has been debunked long time ago by classical Islamic scholars like Ibn Hajar and Imam Malik and recently by Barakat Ahmed in an article in The Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society."

The execution of the Banu Quraiza tribe is narrated in authoritative Islamic sources such as Ibn Ishaq's Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (Guillaume: Life of Mohammed, p.464/690) and hinted at in others. I have read Barakat Ahmad's attempt at whitewashing the Prophet's record regarding the Jews (Muhammad and the Jews, a Re-Examination, Delhi 1979), and I haven't come across an actual refutation of that narrative. But if there were such a refutation, it would be even worse for Islam. Mr. Khan is of course allowed to bring in the critical method pioneered by modern Bible scholarship, but then he should accept the consequences. After all, if the orthodox sources of Islam can lie to us about that particular event, what else could they be lying about? What else will be "debunked"? The whole edifice of Islamic doctrine and law comes crashing down if the authoritative reports on the Prophet's words and deeds turn out to be unreliable. It's the Islamic theologians and jurists themselves who tell us that Islam is a "seamless garment": pull out a single thread and the whole fabric comes apart.

Khan: "Similarly other arguments made by messrs. Sita Ram Goel etc. have been refuted but Elst would care less. In the bizarre world of Elst and his Hindutva fellow travellers Islam is to be blamed for all the ills of the Indian society as well as the world. From child marriage, caste inequalities to violence and poverty."

Where and when have Mr. Goel's arguments about Islamic doctrine and history been "refuted"? The Marxist and Muslim polemicists have consistently given him the silent treatment because they knew they didn't stand a chance against him. There have been a few swearwords ad hominem by Romila Thapar and maybe some other "eminent" academics, but that leaves Goel's arguments perfectly intact. Ayub Khan seems to have a rather airy and self-serving understanding of the precise logical concept of "refutation".

I have often argued against Hindu apologists who claim that caste, sati and child marriage were the result of Muslim oppression. Like the Arya Samaj reformists, I am convinced that Hindu society became intellectually poorer and socially harder in the post-Vedic age. The marriage age for girls was lowered to the onset of puberty in order to maximize the use of her womb (like in Muslim society) and to minimize the cost of the girl's education (not yet of the dowry, which mainly became a problem during the colonial age), deemed a waste to her family as she was going to spend her married life in another family anyway. Caste discrimination was hardened, witness the insertion into the Ramayana of the Shambuka episode, in which Rama kills a Shudra for having practised austerities, whereas the core Ramayana had described Rama's carefree relations with non-Dwija tribal populations. The taboo-based institution of untouchability, probably originating in neolithic cultures in South India (according to George Hart: The Poems of Ancient Tamil, 1975, OUP Delhi 1999, p.119 ff.), was unknown in Vedic society but was adopted throughout India well before the Muslim age. As for satī, this is an ancient Indo-European custom attested even among the Germanic and Celtic members of the Indo-European world, pre-dating Islam by thousands of years and described in Hellenistic sources still predating the Islamic invasions by a millennium.

All the same, Islam did a lot to aggravate these social problems. Marrying off your daughter at the onset of puberty became a sensible safety measure once unaccountable Muslims soldiers and rulers were on the prowl for girls. Caste reform couldn't become a priority as long as Hindu society was on the defensive and forced to focus on sheer survival. Upper-caste Hindus also didn't escape the human tendency of weighing more heavily on their subordinates when they themselves were under the boot of the Muslim occupying forces.

Khan: "In his maniacal zeal Elst hopes for a similar destruction of Islam as had happened to Communism. He wants the Parivar to concentrate more in attacking the Islamic belief systems. He writes: 'But the implosion of Soviet Communism has alerted people to the possibility that giants on clay feet can crumble surprisingly fast, and in particular, that Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world may soon see the collapse of their dominant ideology from within.' (p.591) It looks like he needs a refresher course in world history. Islam has survived much more destructive scenarios (civil wars, Mongol invasion, dismantling of the Caliphate, etc) in its history than the one it is currently facing. If Elst and his fellow daydreamers think that they can destroy Islam by indulging in pedestrian attacks they are simply fooling themselves."

European Christianity has survived many fratricidal wars and violent onslaughts by Islam and Communism, but it suffered far greater and deeper losses under the impact of the modern rational inquest into its doctrines. Ayub Khan gives us a glimpse into his own Islamic mindset by changing the subject to military confrontation, when my stated position in the past seventeen years has always been that Islam will implode under the rising impact of critical thought and healthy scepticism among its own followers. Even in the lines quoted by him, I mentioned a scenario in which "Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world may soon see the collapse of their dominant ideology from within".

Khan: "With regards to Indian Muslims Elst once again repeats the many urban myths that they are a pampered lot, always start riots, are multiplying at an alarming rate etc. If these claims are true then why are Muslims still so downtrodden and impoverished?"

In Malaysia, the Muslims are still poorer than the Indian and Chinese non-Muslims. The latter are more productive and generate wealth, which the Muslims then redistribute to themselves under various bhumiputra schemes of "positive" discrimination. Muslim culture promotes business to some extent, but its work ethic is poor and it doesn't foster inventiveness and dynamic innovation. That is why even in a position of legal privilege and a numerical majority, Muslims still lag behind. This is sufficient explanation for the "impoverished" condition of many Muslims in India.

But "downtrodden" they are not, for they enjoy many legal privileges. But it is in the nature of Islam that those very privileges become factors of backwardness. Muslims enjoy the anti-secular privilege of a separate civil code, but this only puts them under the domination of obscurantist clerics. So they send their children to medieval Islamic schools, dooming them to backwardness in terms of modern skills and job prospects. To the extent that Indian Muslims are impoverished, they have themselves to blame. Or rather, they have Islam to blame.

3. What is Hindutva?

Ayub Khan makes much of certain terminological issues: "Based on his Ph.D. thesis, Elst's Decolonizing the Hindu Mind is a study of the history and ideological development of the extremist Hindutva movement, which he prefers to call 'Hindu Revivalism'."

This choice of terminology is justified. Not all Hindu activists would accept the label Hindutva, a coinage by V.D. Savarkar ca. 1923 embraced by the Hindu Mahasabha and later the RSS. Conversely, the insistence on labelling all Hindu activism or all Hindu discourse critical of Islam and "secularism" as Hindutva is an undisguised attempt to distort the picture by blurring the distinctions within the broad Hindu spectrum of opinion. The term "Hindu revivalism" is well-established, and it has the advantage of emphasizing the continuity between the 19th-century Hindu Renaissance, which was already described as "revivalism", and the 20th-century political movements in the service of Hindu interests.

Khan: "He rejects the charges of fascism, fundamentalism, extremism, etc. lobbed against the Hindu supremacist movement, instead opting for the voguish 'revivalism'."

Once more, Mr. Khan seems to have spotted a trend that has totally escaped me. Having read plenty of academic and journalistic literature on Hindu activism, I have hardly seen anyone using the term "revivalism", which most treat as obsolete and apply only to the pre-Gandhian phase of modern Hindu self-assertion. I thought I was restoring a term that had deliberately been discarded. He himself ends up admitting as much:

"This 'revivalism' is not a recent phenomenon but began in the early stages of the British rule of India by groups like Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj under the leadership of influential reformers like Vivekananda, Dayananda Saraswati and Swami Shraddhanand. Nor is this revivalism limited to those within the Sangh Parivar or other similarly oriented organizations. According to Elst 'the most interesting formulations of Hindu revivalist thought have been provided by individuals outside the said organizations, from Bankimchandra Chatterjee and Sri Aurobindo to Ram Swarup , Sita Ram Goel and their younger friends'. (p.584)"

That's correct. Hindutva is a fairly crude ideology, borrowing heavily from European nationalisms with their emphasis on homogeneity. Under the conditions of British colonialism, it was inevitable that some such form of Hindu nationalism would arise, but I believe better alternatives have seen the light, more attuned to the genius of Hindu civilization.

4. Choice of sources

Ayub Khan alleges: "While charting the history of this movement Elst relies almost exclusively on sources associated with Hindu groups giving only partial and that too mostly negative consideration for the other viewpoints."

My job was not to survey other people's opinions about the Hindu movement. That would have been an interesting exercise, especially if it is called by its name, viz. a survey of outsider opinions, and not (as many such academic publications are) falsely presented as a study of the Hindu movement itself. By contrast, I endeavoured to get beyond the secondary--source and mainly hostile-source "research" that has so disastrously filled up this field of study, and focus on the primary sources instead.

The primary sources of Hindu revivalism are obviously going to be pro-Hindu. I knew that, and the reader may be expected to know that. It is perfectly normal to discuss a pro-Hindu movement by analysing its pro-Hindu publications. What is rather less normal, though it is very much the done thing, is to discuss a pro-Hindu movement on the basis of almost exclusively anti-Hindu publications. But that is what Mr. Khan is demanding of me.

Next allegation: "Elst accuses other India watchers of not meeting any Hindutva leaders in their research while at the same time he himself has not interviewed any Muslim to get his viewpoint. Not one Muslim, not even the BJP ones, figures in his long list of people that he has interviewed. His hostility towards the Muslims is evident when he describes the mild-mannered Syed Shahahbuddin as a 'proverbial fanatic'. Compare this with that of Elst's description of Advani whom he calls a 'soft-spoken gentleman' who had tears in his eyes when his vandals destroyed the Babri Masjid. Expectedly Advani's tears were shed not at the demolition of the Babri Masjid but at the 'breakdown of RSS discipline'. (p.175)"

Most people who ever met Mr. Advani will confirm that he is a soft-spoken gentleman. That does not make him either a fanatic or a non-fanatic, which is a different matter. The Sudanese Islamist ideologue Hassan al-Turabi comes across as a soft-spoken gentleman, though his writings and his record in government would also stamp him a fanatic. As for Syed Shahabuddin, I have tried to meet him at his office sometime in 1990, but he sent his assistant to keep me waiting under various unconvincing pretexts, the last one of them being that he had to leave. So I left without meeting him. Similar scenario in 1996 with V.T. Rajshekar, editor of Dalit Voice in Bangalore, who had first agreed to receive me. As for BJP Muslims, I have interviewed Sikander Bakht, but then I realize that some Indian Muslims refuse to recognize him as a Muslim after his marriage to a Hindu lady who didn't convert.