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Historian Koenraad Elst on Debate-Dialogue-Dissent Culture in India

Historian Koenraad Elst interviewed by Professor Ramesh Rao in The Pioneer in the context of

the debate-dialogue-dissent culture with the advent of BJP in national politics.

Q: It’s frequently heard that the debate-dialogue-dissent culture has been the biggest victim with the advent of the BJP as the pre-eminent political force in the country. It’s more pronounced in the post-September 11 phase. Do you agree? And, is the situation here any different from the one prevailing in the West?

A: In India, as in the West, confusion reigns in the form of superficial relativism, that is the assumption that contradictory truth claims can be equally valid. In India, they call it secularism; in the West, it goes by the name of multiculturalism, but either way it amounts to crass superficiality and a refusal to evaluate competing ideologies and religions in accordance with facts and logic. Hence, for example, the sour reactions by Indian secularists to VS Naipaul’s dismissal of Islam as an imposition which estranges nations from their own heritage. Hence also the shrill condemnation of Silvio Berlusconi’s claim that European civilisation is superior to Islam.

That view is shared by over 90 per cent of the Europeans but not by the chattering classes. I readily concede that a lot is wrong with European civilisation, as also with Hinduism, but in comparative perspective, I think Islam comes out even worse. Just look how many Muslims settle in Europe and prefer to practice their Islam in the fairly free atmosphere of modern democracies rather than under dictatorships in their homelands.

Q: My question however remains whether you agree with the view that the space for dissent has only decreased ever since the BJP came to power. The BJP-led Government’s handling of the recent History textbooks controversy, for instance, amply proves this, according to its critics…

A: I don’t have the impression that the BJP’s coming to power has made much of a difference. Earlier, you had schoolbooks denying historical facts that Tipu Sultan forcibly converted thousands of Hindus. Now, you may get textbooks denying that the Vedic Rishis ate beef. Apart from that, not much has changed. In the media, and academia, Hindutva is still in the opposition. True, under the market system, dissent is marginalised, ridiculed, suffocated financially, or rendered ineffective in other subtle ways, but I prefer all that to being murdered or imprisoned in a Gulag camp. And if you want to know whether Hindutva poses a threat to freedom comparable to Communism, I don’t think so.

Q: Let’s put it this way. Going by your own thesis, why has this “Hindu civilisation” failed to produce scholars/intellectuals who respect the tradition of dialogue and accommodation? There is an impression that the RSS volunteers, the self-proclaimed “torch-bearers of this civilisation”, are mostly inward-looking and even their “baudhik pramukhs” are found wanting as far as intellectual rigour is concerned. No wonder, we fail to produce an Edward Said, a Noam Chomsky or even a Huntington!

A: The Indians need not be so modest. Allow me, as an outsider, to have a higher opinion of India’s intellectual performance. Huntington’s notion of a “Clash of Civilisations” was already used by Girilal Jain, who died the year before Huntington gained fame. Have you ever cared to read the works of the late Ram Swarup? He was soft-spoken and avoided hurtful language, yet his observations on the deeper issues underlying the communal problems in India were razor-sharp. The RSS reduces everything to the typical nationalist discourse of “the Motherland vs the anti-national forces”. But there is more to Hindu revivalism than that.

And I would trade Edward Said’s books any time for those of your own Arun Shourie. Said’s “Orientalism” wrongly dismisses criticism of Islam as a colonial ploy. In Belgium alone, there are plenty of Christian refugees from Turkey and Lebanon, and they know who chased them out. Said, however, has become the leading apologist for Islam in the West.

It is, however, true that the RSS has failed to produce great minds. But then that may not be the job of a mass organisation. On the other hand, it is indeed a glaring failure of the RSS that it never produced a serious analysis of the very problems which led to its creation, apart from some sweeping nationalist slogans about “anti-national forces”. This has to do with a choice made by KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar against intellectual activity and in favour of mindless activism. But this mistaken party-line of the RSS matters less and less, because there is more and more Hindu self-organisation outside the Sangh Parivar framework. The “shakha” gatherings are becoming obsolete as a form of mobilisation. Hindu civilisation has always functioned in a decentralised manner, and now the “Hindu awakening” (announced so often at RSS forums) is taking place through informal networks, for example, the internet. The movement is reverting to decentralised forms of mobilisation, after the RSS interregnum of boy scout-type uniformity and centralism.

Q: Lastly, if you noticed last month, the reception to someone like Noam Chomsky here is to be seen to be believed. How do you explain this? It was only the BJP’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, which saw in him a “threat” and tried to disrupt his public engagements…

A: I don’t think Indian society is indifferent to debate. But while I have great sympathy for Chomsky, I don’t think the warm reception he usually gets in India is the result of India’s “debate-mindedness”. Rather, his positions only reinforce the opinions of his hosts. Today, for instance, most Indians are very critical of the crude and mindless manner in which the Americans are conducting their so-called campaign against terrorism, and they are happy to recognise in Chomsky an American who thinks likewise. My impression is that he tends to see the world through the glasses which his hosts have selected for him, for example, by adopting the Indian Communist view of Hindu revivalism without getting to know it first-hand. We cannot study everything first-hand, so often we rely on the authority of contact persons whom we trust. That is perfectly understandable in the case of a non-specialist like Chomsky, who earned his laurels in other fields. More problematic is that the same reliance on biased Indian sources is found in the works of people who pass as experts on Hindu revivalism. Most of them don’t really know what they are talking about.

tXtrEf: The Koenraad Elst Site

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