Among the many attributes of leadership, the one that stands out is the ability to swim against the tide. Mahatma Gandhi was an incorrigible individualist, bound by his quirky sense of ethics and morality. This fierce sense of personal conviction prompted him to go against conventional wisdom.
It is by far too early for history to pronounce its verdict on Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As a political leader, he has both led from the front and buried personal misgivings in favour of a larger sense of corporate discipline. Using ambivalence to full effect, he has suggested possibilities and, at the same time, left room for retreat. Nurtured in the traditions of Hindu nationalism, he has both moved with the current and risen well above it.
Earlier this month, the prime minister emerged as a brave voice of sanity and restraint over an issue that touched the core of his corporate belief. In the wake of the fierce controversy generated by James W. Laine’s slim monograph, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, Vajpayee made it clear to an audience in Mumbai that he was personally against the banning of books. In the best traditions of Hindu pluralism and Anglo-Saxon liberalism, he made the necessary distinction between contesting an idea and suppressing it by official diktat.
Tragically, few, either in the saffron parivar or in the liberal fraternity took the cue. At a time when the Left Front government in West Bengal is invoking memories of its totalitarian inheritance by peremptorily banning the autobiography of the Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasreen, the left-inclined liberal intelligentsia is unwilling to be shown up by a regime it has, with irascible regularity, dubbed fascist.
It is, of course, a different matter that this so-called fascist regime has not outlawed a book in its six years of government. It even took the brave step of issuing Rushdie a visa, thereby enabling him to reclaim his India. That’s an exemplary record, which cannot be matched by the Nehruvians. The ban imposed on Laine’s work by the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government in Maharashtra matches the earlier acts of cussedness and stupidity of earlier Congress governments in the Centre and the states. From Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to Charles Bettelheim’s India Independent and Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama, India has a chequered history of liberal proscription.
The problem, in my view, is likely to intensify in the coming years. Hitherto, governments have usually taken a narrow, law-and-order view in defining the boundary between legitimate and unacceptable dissent. It has normally taken some intemperate outburst by a preacher of the Tipu Sultan mosque in Calcutta or an act of mindless desecration by a self-styled Maratha leader in Pune for the political class to come down harshly on a piece of intellectual heresy. Preserving communal peace happens to be the most familiar fig-leaf for confronting awkward views.
In time, even this is unlikely to work. Hidden from the secularist and media gaze, there is another type of intellectual ferment that is in evidence. Beginning sometime last year, American Hindus have mounted a spirited attack on the bastions of Indology in the North American universities. The movement was triggered by the reprint of Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings by Paul Courtright of Emory University in Georgia. It was claimed by American Hindus, quite rightly too, that the projection of the Hindu god as a personification of incestuous licentiousness was deeply offensive. Following a round of angry emails, petitions and protest meetings-which, incidentally, was not replicated within India, the publisher withdrew the circulation of the book.
What is significant is that, for the first time, there is an organized Hindu protest against wilful misrepresentation of India’s culture and heritage. Earlier, such monstrous academic follies went by-and-large unnoticed and, at best, were accompanied by private protest. It is only now, for example, that a deeply offensive work by an American Indologist on Ramakrishna Paramhansa published many years ago has triggered a sense of outrage in the diaspora.
The Courtright controversy has become the catalyst for a wider, intellectually rigorous critique of Indology as taught and researched in the West. Using intellectual tools that are reminiscent of Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak, concerned diaspora intellectuals such as Rajiv Malhotra of the Infinity Foundation and Shrinivas Tilak have questioned the skewed power relationships that underpin the somewhat disparaging view of India and Hindus in American academic circles.
“Taking back Hindu studies will require Hindus to revisit site by site the history of Hinduism that was constructed under colonial and western eyes,” wrote Tilak in an article that has been widely circulated among internet-based Hindu groups. “This in turn would require developing a theory and approach to engage with, understand and then act upon the received history of Hinduism. Rewriting history of Hinduism, reclaiming Hindu studies, giving testimony to distortion of India’s past will have to be the basic strategies of decolonising Hindu studies.”
On his part, Malhotra has raised even more fundamental questions. At a time when the United States of America perceives India as a strategic partner, both economically and politically, does it behove the American academic establishment to patronize those who perceive Hindu to be a four-letter word'
Western institutions, Malhotra wrote earlier this month, “must introspect whether they should remain the blood supply of the intellectual vampire of Indian separatism, or whether they must drive a stake through its heart before it is too late. Will the Western institutions that are now sheltering and promoting these separatist ideologies like to go down in history as catalysts of taliban-like movements'”
The stirrings in the diaspora anticipate a trend that has been slow to manifest itself within India. As the Indian middle classes grow in prosperity and self-confidence, there is a growing impatience with the contrived scepticism of everything they value as cultural and national symbols. It wasn’t strictly necessary for Laine to question Shivaji’s parentage. He did it as a snide aside because that also corresponds to the disavowal of the Shivaji legacy by the dominant intellectual classes in India. It corresponds to the belief of the historian, Romila Thapar, that the demonology around Mahmud of Ghazni is yet another example of Hindu false consciousness.
Today, for the first time since Indira Gandhi conceded academia to the left in the late Sixties, there is an emerging counter-view of Indian nationalism. Although replete with many loose ends, it is a view that broadly corresponds to the major shifts in Indian politics over the past decade or so. Yet, the alternative view has not secured any significant institutional toehold. Hindu writers, to put it bluntly, aren’t taken seriously in liberal-dominated academe.
As the challenge intensifies, it is more than likely that some of the points of friction will spill over into the streets, not least because those who are under threat are likely to get more and more outrageous. Such provocations have to be resisted. Those who attacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in Pune and assaulted a senior scholar did their own cause a major disservice.
The battle to reassess Indian heritage in keeping with the achievements of Indians involves a long haul. It will not be won by bans on offensive texts or McCarthy-ite purges of the infuriatingly perverse. It has to be fought with civility, argument, rigour and a sense of strategy. Vajpayee was right to warn against a gung-ho retaliation.