The Saffron Wave
(Book Review)

Koenraad Elst

Though milder in tone, the latest academic book on Hindu revivalism suffers from the same shortcomings as most others. Ever since Craig Baxter's fairly objective and well-documented book The Jana Sangha, already thirty years old, and Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle's Brotherhood in Saffron, already twelve years old, all the Western Hindutva watchers have chosen to rely on partisan secondary accounts, and to watch Hindutva through the coloured glasses which the so-called secularists have put on their noses.

The book The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton) by Professor Thomas Blom Hansen (Roskilde, Denmark) is no exception. Since the book has already been praised as "brilliant" by Prof. Peter Van Der Veer, I may concentrate on its less brilliant aspects. As usual, most quotations are from secondary and generally hostile sources: Bipan Chandra, K.N. Panikkar, Partha Chatterjee, Christophe Jaffrelot, Asghar Ali Engineer (a hard-boiled Islamist whom Hansen and others naively mistake for an enlightened Muslim), Sudhir Kakar, Gyan Pandey.

In his bibliography, we find Savarkar's Hindutva, mercifully, but none of Savarkar's statements from his time as Hindu Mahasabha leader; only one title by Balraj Madhok, none by Girilal Jain or Arun Shourie; no we do not find Ram Swarup or Sita Ram Goel mentioned there. On the Ayodhya controversy, most of the publications presenting the temple evidence (Harsh Narain, R. Nath, Goel) are left unmentioned, and the official VHP evidence bundle is mentioned but was clearly left unread.

His entire information on the Ayodhya debate is confined to anti-Hindu sources, esp. S. Gopal's Penguin booklet Anatomy of a Confrontation (1991), which had already succeeded in keeping all serious presentations of the temple evidence out of view. That is how he can write the following howler: "In all cases this evidence has been refuted and contested by most of the serious authorities of archaeology and medieval Indian history" (p.262). If that is so, Prof. Hansen, I challenge you to a public debate on the Ayodhya evidence. Let's make it an open-book exam: you may bring all the arguments provided by S. Gopal and his comrades but you may find upon closer reading that far from refuting the pro-temple evidence, they have adroitly left most of it undiscussed. And like his sources, Hansen keeps the relevant context of the Ayodhya affair, viz. the history and underlying theology of Islamic iconoclasm, out of view.

By relying on a partisan selection of secondary sources, Hansen, whose good faith we will continue to assume, is led by the nose by one of the warring parties into relaying its own version of the facts, all while believing that he is giving a neutral observer's account of the conflict between Hindu revivalism and the Marxist-Muslim combine. In a footnote, Hansen describes the present writer as "a Belgian Catholic of a radical anti-Muslim persuasion who tries to make himself useful as a 'fellow traveller' of the Hindu nationalist movement" (p.262).

I strongly deny having ever been "anti-Muslim", for I make it a point to frequently insist that "not Muslims but Islam is the problem". However, I do readily admit to being a "fellow-traveller" of Dharmic civilization in its struggle for survival against the ongoing aggression and subversion by well-organized hostile ideologies. Only, I must add that in Hindutva-watching publications of the past decade, I have never encountered any journalistic or academic "expert" who was not a fellow-traveller of one of the warring parties.

Hansen himself makes no secret of his partisanship, as when he describes the BJP as "evil" (p.235) and as "swadeshi fascism" (p.235), though he subjectively tries to be fair by mitigating this denunciation with the rightful comment that both secularity and democracy have not been well served by the Congress establishment either. His partisan and prejudiced attitude leads him to ignore or misinterpret important trends within the Hindutva movement. Thus, he dismisses the inclusion of some Muslims in the Vajpayee cabinet as follows: "Like all other measures taken by the BJP in this regard, these were also symbolic gestures devoid of any content or seriousness." (p.267) Would you allow such a clearly partisan sentence in a thesis about any other movement (say, Indian secularism) by your own students, Prof. Hansen? At any rate, the dismissal is mistaken.

From the inclusion of a green strip in the BJP flag (1980) onwards, the BJP has always consistently courted the Muslim community, so that it now has thousands of Muslim members, who even have their own "minority cell". Even before that, the Hindu nationalists in the Janata government were party to a number of pro-Muslim steps, including the creation of the intrinsically communal and anti-Hindu "Minority Commission". Dattopant Thengadi and others have told me how the shared time in jail with Jamaat-i-Islami activists during the secularist Emergency dictatorship had kindled sympathy for the Muslims. However that may be, in the 1990s, there is just no denying the RSS-BJP tendency to what they themselves used to denounce as "Muslim appeasement".

Even in the Ayodhya campaign, from which Hansen chooses to remember only the hard-line rhetoric of a Sadhvi Ritambhara, the emphasis was again and again on Rama as a "national" (as opposed to "Hindu") hero, and on Babar as a "foreign invader" (as opposed to "Islamic iconoclast"), who had been fought "by Indian Muslims and Hindus jointly". Anyone familiar with non-Sangh Hindu activism should have noted the criticism of the Sangh's pro-Muslim line, e.g. in Abhas Chatterjee's book Concept of Hindu Nation (1995, not in Hansen's bibliography). One of the more disturbing and sterile approaches which Hansen has borrowed from his secularist sources, is the tendency to psychologize, and to bury hard facts under a cloud of psychobabble: "construct", "identities built around a threatening other", "domesticating public spaces", "myth of Hindu effeminacy".

To Hansen, the Hindu perception of Islam is unconnected with any historical facts about Islam, it's all self-generated psychic images whose only basis in reality is non-religious sociological phenomena such as the "inferiority complex" of the "vernacular middle class" vis--vis the Anglo-secularist "mandarins" (p.181). Facts about Islam are mostly kept out of view, otherwise ridiculed (Kashmiri "insurgency", p.168; "Bangladeshi infiltration", p.199) or dismissed as "myth", e.g. that Muslims have "many wives and secret links to rich Arabs" (p.211), or (repeatedly) that Muslims oppose birth control.

It is a straight fact that the Muslim birth rate is much higher, that they participate much less in India's effort at birth control, and that this is also the intention of Islamic leaders, expressed clearly in a number of pamphlets and firmly based on Islamic scripture (vide K. Elst: The Demographic Siege, 1998). Time and again, in order to explain a community's assertiveness, Hansen relies on the voguish term "the other", which carries unspoken Auschwitz connotations (it was popularized by the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in his reflections on the Holocaust), and he makes those connotations explicit, e.g. "The community is weak, sinful and unfulfilled. The only way to remedy this is by destroying the other, whose very presence (as threat qua temptation and fascination) weakens and prevents the inherent discipline, strength and manliness in the community from blossoming" (p.211). What an impressive string of words, only a pity that its relevance to Hindu nationalism is non-existent. There is no Hindu plan for "destroying the other".

The Islam problem in India has nothing to do with Muslims being a resident "other" who undermines the Hindu morale, a calk on the Nazi perception of the Jews as agents of immorality corrupting the German people, for unlike the well-integrated (and consequently influential) Jews of Germany, the Muslims are a highly separate community whose chief crime is not the influence they might have on Hindu society, but the direct threat which their doctrinal hatred of god-pluralism poses to Hinduism, especially through the medium of violence against both symbols and followers of the Hindu religion. "Otherness" discourse is totally unable to throw any light on the Hindu perception of Islam, for Hindus have proven during long millennia that they have no problem with "others", as when they provided asylum to refugee Syrian Christians, Jews and Parsis. By contrast, Hindu feelings about Islam are comprehensively explained by their experience of Islam in action, as during the Partition (I may have missed something, but I don't recall Hansen seconding the common secularist dismissal of Muslim guilt for Partition as yet another "myth") or the East Bengal genocide of 1971.

Eye-sore buildings like the Babri Masjid (until 1992) or the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi stand as permanent testimony to Islamic hatred of Hindu god-pluralism. Also, the usual implication that an "other" is set up as a bogey to concentrate a community's attention and thereby strengthen its unity, does not apply. All the factors of the communal conflict, far from being the creation of Hindutva strategists, were in place from the day the first Islamic invader set foot in India. Contrary to the secularist claim that "Hinduism" and "the Hindu community" are recent inventions, the Islamic invaders united all (non-monotheistic) Hindus under the new label "Hindu", meaning any Indian unbelievers, they showed their deep awareness of their own Muslim identity, and they proved through word and deed the essential and inescapable antagonism between Islamic and Hindu identities.

All the primary sources, the medieval Persian writings of Muslim conquerors and their court chroniclers, prove that Hindu‑Muslim antagonism was not generated by colonial machinations or post-colonial mobilization in an effort to "domesticate public spaces". This conflict was unilaterally imposed on the Hindus by Muslims. The immunization of Hindutva-watchers against factual discourse on Islam is so thorough that in some cases, factual statements by Hindus about Islam are not even criticized, as if their mere quotation will suffice to evoke scorn and laughter for so much evil nonsense, e.g. RSS weekly Organiser's entirely correct view that "the supreme Islamic mission is to convert the Hindus, one and all" (p.179), or Sadhvi Ritambhara's accurate statement that "the Quran teaches them to lie in wait for idol worshipers, to skin them alive" etc. (p.180). Well, the Quran does say that, and it does say that the war against the infidels is on until the whole world is Islamic, which implies the conversion (or death) of even the last Hindu. Likewise, no discussion is opened against the denunciation of the "secular intellectuals" as "alienated pseudo-secularists full of contempt for the true Hindu culture" (p.181), though the concept "pseudo-secular" is central to the whole controversy, and proves to be entirely valid when you consider that those "secularists" defend all kinds of religious discrimination, e.g. religion-based civil codes, against the genuinely and quintessentially secular system of equality of all citizens before the law regardless of their religion. Hansen's book is full of interesting information about Hindutva campaigning in the 1990s, but conceptually it is quite superficial.

Some minor remarks to conclude. The book contains some of the familiar tricks known from the M.J. Akbar school of Hindutva‑smearing, e.g. just as MJ Akbar once cleverly described Veer Savarkar as "a co-accused in the Mahatma murder trial" without mentioning that Savarkar was fully acquitted and not even indicted again in the appeals trial, we find Prof. Hansen casting suspicion on L.K. Advani by describing him as "indicted in a massive corruption scandal in 1996" (p.266) without mentioning that the investigation cleared him completely of the charges (which were minor, the "massive" scandal mainly pertaining to dozens of Congress secularists, as Hansen fails to explain). There are also minor mistakes, sometimes clearly printing errors (Rajendra Singh becoming sarsanghchalak in "1944" instead of 1994, p.182), sometimes indicators of limited familiarity with Hinduism ("Ramahandi" for Ramanandi, 3x, p.262). But many Hindu nationalists will be glad to read Prof. Hansen's acknowledgment of the diplomatic success achieved with India's nuclear tests, which have "forced western media and decision makers to recognize India as a major power". (p.266) You may quote that whenever Frontline alleges that BJP rule in 1998-99 was a foreign policy disaster.





Book Reviews


Dutch Articles








VOD Authors

VOD Home