Weekend Re-reading


Came across a very old interview of Dr. Koenraad Elst. A person I admire the most. His intellectual rigor is even better than my other idol Dr. Arun Shourie. The whole interview can be read here.

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.

Congress, Communists and other media people have criticized RSS of so many things but none of them comes up with pertinent criticism as by Dr. Elst.

Also, I always get astonished to see all my favorite authors cross refer each other and sometimes use similar language. Elst had invoked Alice In Wonderland long before Shourie did in his classic piece after BJP defeat in 2010.

“The question is”, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is”, said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master-that’s all.”

A lot of ink has flowed over the question how to define Hinduism.  There is no other religion for which the question of definition is so difficult.  A Roman Catholic could be defined as a person who is baptized by a priest ordained within an apostolic succession going back to Jesus, and who accepts the Nicean Creed and the authority of the Bishop of Rome.  A Muslim is defined by the Muslims themselves as one who has affirmed the Islamic creed: that there is no god beside Allah and that Mohammed is Allah’s prophet.  A Buddhist is one who has taken the triple refuge into the Buddha, his teachings and his community.  But there seems to be no accepted definition of a Hindu, neither one sanctioned by Hindu tradition nor one on which the scholarly community agrees.[Source: Who is a Hindu?]

Elst blew up the tantrums and stratagems of all the secularists, Islamist and communists on the Ram Mandir debate. Today it might me completely taboo to say anything in support Ram Mandir partly because the opponents are in power and some due to the weakness of it’s proponents like BJP.

In India, political incidents frequently pit Hindu nationalism, or even just plain Hinduism and plain nationalism, against so-called “secularism”. In practice, this term denotes a combine of Islamists, Hindu-born Marxists and consumericanized one-dimensionalists who share a hatred of Hindu culture and Hindu self-respect. What passes for secularism in India is often the diametrical opposite of what goes by the same name in the West. Recent events in the Ayodhya temple/mosque controversy confirm the disingenuous character of Indian secularism.

Dr. Elst compares the Hindu revivalism against the so called secularists and if you have your eyes open it is not difficult to see that he has a very strong point. But most of the people dont wish to see.

Genuine secular states have equality before the law of all citizens regardless of religion. By contrast, India has different civil codes depending on the citizen’s religion. Thus, for Christians it is very hard to get a divorce, Hindus and Muslim women can get one through judicial proceedings, and Muslim men can simply repudiate their wives. The secular alternative, a common civil code, is championed by the Hindu nationalists. It is the so-called secularists who, justifying themselves with specious sophistry, join hands with the most obscurantist religious leaders to insist on maintaining the present unequal system.

Likewise, legal inequality in matters of temple management, pilgrimage subsidies, special autonomy for states depending on their populations’ religious composition, and the right to found religious schools is defended by the so-called secularists (because it is invariably to the disadvantage of the Hindus) while the Hindu nationalists favour the secular alternative of equality regardless of religion. In India, sharia-wielding Muslim clerics whose Arab counterparts denounce secularism as the ultimate evil, call themselves secularists. Just as the word deception differs in meaning from its French counterpart déception(= disappointment), the word secularism has a sharply different meaning in Indian English as compared to metropolitan English.

He speaks about the Hindu view and Muslim view of temple in Ayodhya.

We could look at the Ayodhya affair from the Hindu angle. The contentious site is a Hindu sacred site, it is not a Muslim sacred site, so it should simply continue as a Hindu place of pilgrimage and be adorned with the appropriate architecture.

We could look at the Ayodhya affair from a Muslim angle. Of course Ayodhya is not sacred to Muslims. It would amount to blasphemy to claim any sacredness for Ayodhya: Allah is everywhere so He doesn’t need sacred sites, and to the extent that any place on earth can be called sacred, it is Mecca, not Ayodhya. Yet, Muslim warriors have performed their duty of iconoclasm, replacing an idolatrous temple with a mosque. This creates a clear new situation under Islamic law: once a mosque, always a mosque. Muslims should fight to re-conquer the site, and in case Hindus manage to rebuild their temple, a well-planned bomb attack should remedy that anomaly.

Koenraad Elst is a rare scholar who has observed the temple issue very closely without taking sides of any stakeholders. Today both Congress as well as BJP will deny that it was Rajiv Gandhi who had the most pragmatic approach towards Ram Mandir.

One such secularist, a modern man ready to deal with the matter pragmatically, was Rajiv Gandhi. He allowed the Hindus to prepare for the construction of a new temple with the ceremonial laying of a foundation stone (shilanyas) on November 9, 1989. He pressured the Chandra Shekhar government, which was dependent on Congress support, into organizing the scholars’ debate about the historical evidence, in the full knowledge that the temple party would win such a debate hands down. The thrust of his Ayodhya policy was to buy off Muslim acquiescence with some of the usual currency of the Congress culture: maybe nominating a few more Mians as ministers, banning a few Islam-unfriendly books (hence the Satanic Verses affair), raising theHajj subsidy, providing cheap loans to the Shahi Imam’s constituency, donating government land for some Islamic purpose, things like that. Meanwhile, Hindus would get their temple. Muslims would have scolded their leaders for selling out, Hindus would have lambasted theirs for cheapening a noble cause with such horse-trading, but in the end, everybody would have accepted it.

Congress and Communists have criticized Elst to be a RSS man. Elst on the contrary happens to be a strong critique of both BJP and RSS.

The anti-intellectualism of the Sangh Parivar is a sufficiently serious problem to warrant a closer discussion.  The situation on the ground is that RSS men seldom sit down to do any thinking, but are always on the move.  As a US-based Hindutva activist told me: “When I make a phone call to an RSS office-bearer in India, he will most often not be in the Delhi office, not in Nagpur or another town, but somewhere on the way.”  And the wife of a BJP stalwart told me: “Being on the way from one place to another is a status symbol among RSS men.”  With all this physical locomotion, little time and occasion is left for concentrated mental work.

The Sangh has a basic commit ment to India and to Hindu culture, but beyond that, its ideological position is hazy and undeveloped, and therefore mal leable in the hands of ideologically more articulate forces.  It has been more influenced by dominant polit ical currents and intel lectual fashions, often emanating from its declared enemies, than one would expect from an “extremist” movement.  Like in the Congress and Janata parties, quarrels within the BJP are never about ideology.  As ex-insider Balraj Madhok writes in a comment on the Gujarat quarrels: “Personal differences rather than ideolog ical factors lie at the root of the rifts within the Sangh Parivar.”

To an extent, the BJP has its lack of ideological sophis tication in common with all non-Communist parties, most of all with Congress.  A few recycled old slogans, a picture of its long-dead leaders, some material presents for the voter (ad hoc food subsidies, writing off farmers’ loans), and there you have a complete Congress election campaign.  Mutatis mutandis, the same is true for most parties.  The simple slogans on the outside are not the summary of a profound and complica ted programme too esoteric to trouble the voters with (as in the case of the Communists).  The surface is all there is to it, at least as far as ideology is concerned. [Source]

Today, Dr. Elst is not so active. He retired from his role as India watcher long back for reason not known. He also suffered from a rare heart disease which has not restricted his activity.

Dr. Elst has written many books only few of which can be found on bookshelf of any reputed bookstore. However most of his books can be found for free on http://koenraadelst.voiceofdharma.com/books

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