Puzzling Dimensions and Theoretical Knots in my Graduate School Research
By Yvette Claire Rosser, M.A., Ph.D. – ABD
This narrative is not a study that at this time really has an ending – this is only the beginning. There are so many horror stories to document. With very little digging I venture to say that one would uncover enough similar cases to build a thesis that the content of scholarship about India is tainted, and that honest research is victimized by a hegemony of predetermined anti-Hinduism outcomes.
It would be worthwhile to do an ethnography of graduate students in American universities inquiring about these issues. I remember a grad student at UT who asked in a class of Sanskrit about the harmonic resonance and metaphysical meaning of particular sounds. The top notch, tenured professor at UT Austin, replied that such nonsense had no place in a modern study of Sanskrit. The student transferred to another school. I was once speaking with the Asian Studies Dept star Sanskrit pupil and in pursuit of a good conversation, I mentioned some of my favorite mantras, Gayatri, Twameva Mata, etc., since I knew that he was the teacher for the beginning Sanskrit class. He replied, “I teach mantras, I don’t chant them.” He is now a teacher in some liberal arts college. It was also of interest that half way through his graduate program in Sanskrit, he converted to the Southern Baptist faith, all on his own volition, perhaps to insulate himself from his object of study.
Several years ago, I was told by a leading professor of “South Asian Studies” at a major University that I “should never report anything positive about the BJP” (Sangh Parivar combine) or I “would never find a job in American academia”. A colleague of mine submitted a manuscript for publication to Oxford University Press, Delhi and the then editor of OUP informed her that it was a good manuscript but since it had passages that reflected positively on the Sangh Parivar they could not publish it. He said if she would remove the passages that were not critical of the Hindu Mahasabha and the BJP then OUP would consider publishing her book – otherwise it was against their policy. Amazing isn’t it? Scholars are told not to report their findings unless they are negative… we are told by publishers to take out parts of our research that do not jive with the anti-Hindu-Revivalist discourse required in academia. It is no different than warning a researcher studying Music in America not to report anything positive about Rock and Roll – report what you find about Jazz, Country and Western, Blues, no problem. But, regarding Rock and Roll, you can only write about the negative or you will never get a job and never get published. Can you imagine such ludicrous scholarship? Yet that is exactly what is happening in “South Asian Studies.”
Here is a narrative about the troubles I have experienced because I have taken an alternative perspective of Indian history and Hinduism:
In my own self-ascribed political orientation, I consider myself solidly “Left of Center: When the Heart Is”. How on earth did I suddenly get labeled a hate mongering, racist, narrow-minded Nazi? What does a scholar do when her research findings don’t jive with the politically correct orientation of most of her colleagues? Here I am, adrift in academia, a Peacenik social activist, wannabe Hippie tree-hugger, ridiculed and ostracized as a fascist sympathizer. Am I way off target – hoodwinked and brainwashed by the “Hindu-Nazis”? Or is the Ivory Tower tilting precariously away from dispassionate analyses?
I have faced a rather strange yet certainly interesting challenge concerning my analyses about the India segment of my research. The interpretations that I feel compelled to use, based on the reconstruction of the information I have found, are quite in contrast with what is politically correct or academically in vogue in the generally accepted exegeses and theorizings about Hinduism and Indian historiography in Western academia. My findings support a very different understanding than what I was taught while a Master Degree student in the Department of Asian Studies and what I read in most recommended texts, the majority of which are written by non-Hindus. My understanding, grounded in what I observed in India and based on the materials I collected, is contrary to the standard and accepted method of referencing Hindu India. This is particularly pronounced concerning the “Hindu Revivalist Movement”, a cultural/political force that has dominated Indian politics during the last decade.
This challenge, when I look at it from a purely academic, dispassionate perspective, is quite intriguing. In fact the very attitudes and dismissive condemnations that I have faced because I see certain phenomenon thorough a different prism, is itself central to what I am studying, though in a less personal context. As long as I remain detached from my own feelings, as long as I don’t take it personally, I find it fascinating that my research results, or rather, my positioning or approach to a body of information, causes such heated reactions and mean-spirited accusations. It is that negative response, the defensive/aggressive posturing, that so fascinates me when I observe it in situations that I have documented. However, sometimes it causes me emotional strain when I am the focus of those insults and I find myself operating within an obviously antagonistic and overtly prejudicial environment. The very passions that foster the acrimonious atmosphere in which I often find myself, because I am at variance with the opinions of the majority of my colleagues, are in fact quite powerful expressions of the core elements of my research.
Many scholars who specialize in “South Asian Studies” have a very negative preconceived notion of the “Hindu revivalist movement” in particular, and strangely enough, towards Hinduism and Indic civilization in general, especially as “Hindu India” interfaces with modernity in the socio-political realm. At conferences at American universities on the religion and history of South Asia, “Hindu” seems to be used mainly as a derogatory term. The modern Hindu cultural-political movement is referenced by its detractors as “Hindu Nationalism”, “Hindu Chauvinism”, “Hindu Fundamentalism”, “Right-wing Hinduism”, “Hindu Fanaticism”, “Obscurantist Hinduism”, “Hindu Fascists”, and other pejorative terms. The term “Saffron”, the traditional ochre color of a Hindu holy man’s robes, is used as a retrogressive, pilloried classification, a blanket term inferring all of the above named negative characteristics. This “Hindu Revivalist Movement”, as less critical analysts might call it, is invariably criticized by the academic community in the West and represented in the popular media as if it were synonymous with Nazism. Scholars who study the “Hindu Revivalist” movement in contemporary India and its manifestations in the Indian ex-pat community, known as non-resident Indians (NRI), may, if they do not write negative critiques with allusions to fascism, find themselves accused of cavorting with “Hindu-Nazis”. I experienced this during my own travels and travails through academia.
Most Western scholars have followed the lead of the Indian Marxist historians who have predominately guided Indian historical institutions since the 1960s. The internationally esteemed members of this school of Leftist Indian scholars are in direct opposition to the rising tide of indigenous models that are currently impacting the writing of history in India. Many of these Leftist scholars, since the fall of the USSR, prefer not be to called Marxists, and have begun to use the term “Progressive” to define their ideological and historical orientations. They can, as a group, be very antagonistic towards scholars who use a non-Marxist (non-Progressive?) analysis or do not share their theoretical constructs. They have used their hegemony in intellectual institutions in India to exclude scholars of different schools of thought. This is well documented. I saw plenty of proof of this institutional hegemony. However, though they would deny their Marxist affiliations, ironically, they will admit that they privileged the Marxist paradigm for the good of the nation. For decades they managed to ostracize those who did not embrace their particular interpretation of Indian history or share their philosophical construct about the purpose of historical interpretation in the Indian context.
This tendency is also evident in US academic institutions where the very people who are qualified to teach about Hinduism in American universities often have an inherent and personal bias against the religion and culture about which they are ostensibly experts, professed professionals. I spoke with a professor of political science who has worked at several universities in the US. He is definitely an academic whom no one would consider to be even remotely communal or Hindu-centric in any sense whatsoever, yet, he told me that “in American academia it is politically incorrect to treat Hinduism in a positive light and it is taboo to deal negatively with Islam.” Afterwards, he insisted very adamantly that I should not use his name. He did not want to be quoted saying something so politically incorrect, unsure if it would negatively impact his tenure-track position. I have found this prejudice is wide-spread. I was warned by one friend and mentor, a well respected non-Indian scholar of Indian Studies, that I “should never, never appear to be sympathetic towards Hindutva”.1 These were constraints that predetermined my outcome. It seemed to me that I had to determine the tone of my conclusion before I had examined my data.
The very bitter and on-going historiography debate between the Leftist intellectuals and their intellectual “others”, an amorphous group composed of a broad range of non-Marxist social scientists, became one of the focal points, or topics of interest within the India section of my larger study of the politics of historiography in South. The vocal core of the Leftist intellectuals are represented by a distinct group of eminent scholars working at several prestigious institutions such as Alighar Muslim University, JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi) and also Delhi University and elsewhere. Members of this group of elite Leftist intellectuals have traditionally peopled key institutions, councils, and committees devoted to the writing and study of Indian history such as National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT), where they publish the government approved textbooks.
Often the intellectuals who have come under criticism from the Leftist camp have very little in common with each other except that they were, at some point in their career, labeled politically incorrect for being in disagreement with “JNU style” socio-historical methodology. In India, this well-known and internationally respected cadre of Left-leaning social scientists have positioned themselves as the ideological opposite of the Hindu-centric or “Indian Nationalist/Hindu Nationalist” historians. Many of these non-Marxist “others” have recently found an unprecedented level of support in official institutions that had previously been dominated by historians with a Marxist slant to their work.
For several decades, political appointees nominated to head such institutions such as the ICHR (Indian Council for Historical Research) and the ICSSR (Indian Council for Social Science Research) tended to be from the Left-leaning schools, Nehruvian socialists, Marxists – appointees of the Congress Party. After the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) came to power at the center in 1998, many of the scholars who had been favored by the Congress-led governments were not reappointed. The chairmanships of institutions that had for years been traditional intellectual and scholarly strongholds of Marxist/Leftist paradigms were suddenly supplanted by the appointment of non-Leftists scholars.
These political appointments, though all such appointments have always been political, have caused great consternation on the part of those who feel they are no longer able to control the direction of official historiography in India. In response they are writing pamphlets, and holding news conferences to warn their colleagues and countrymen about the dangers of “obscurantist saffron historiography” – which of course is their perfectly legal right and makes my research all the more juicy. It seems as well, or so I was informed by non-Marxist scholars, that the Leftist historians have increased their travels to the West to give lectures at universities in order to spread the word about the saffronization of education and the danger posed by “Hindu-Nazis” to India’s secular institutions. I attended one such lecture presented by Prof. K.N. Panikkar at The University of Texas at Austin in November, 2000, which will be discussed below.
According to the Leftist intellectuals, who now call themselves Progressives, there is a conspiracy by a rapidly expanding group of communal historians and archeologists who are distorting the historical record to promote a chauvinistic form of ethno-nationalism that is the antithesis of India’s secular, socialist, constitutional democracy. This growing tendency in the polity is, they claim, fascistic. For reasons tied up in their own theoretical constructs about the purpose of history and the obligation of the historian to help guide society towards a particular model, many Leftist/Progressive historians in India are adverse to writing anything that pays too much positive attention to the civilizational contributions and philosophical and scientific sophistication of the ancient Hindu past. They are particularly annoyed about “saffron archeology” especially when excavations dig up examples of enduring and culturally specific symbols of Hinduism unearthed at far-flung sites across the Subcontinent – lending credence to the ancientness, cultural continuity orientation of the nationalist historians.
Most controversial and significant to my research is the fear or hesitation on the part of the Leftists to accurately or vividly portray the medieval period, the early years of the Islamic interface in the Subcontinent. This is also one of the core sore points among historians of the Sangh Parivar persuasion. They claim that textbooks written by Leftists, which for over thirty years have been the official textbooks in most schools in India, “whitewashed the Muslim atrocities” of the Medieval period.
While I was in India in the spring and summer of 2000, there was a press release from this group of New Delhi’s Leftist/Progressive scholars suggesting that there should be a moratorium on archeological excavations into the medieval period because the findings are too easily communalized.2 Making my research more exciting, this intellectual spectacle played out in the newspapers with one side hurling the standard insults at the other side. Self-identified Indian Nationalists are referred to as Nazis and Fascists by members of the other camp who self-identify themselves as Progressives but are called Stalinists and Communists by their non-Marxist nemeses. This heated rhetoric certainly provided colorful examples of passionate ideological positioning about the meaning and function of investigations into the past and their impact on society. It was colorful and interesting as long I wasn’t personally called a fascist simply for listening to the saffron side and asking the other side to please explain. Yet, even entertaining the Hindu-centric perspective as something worth discussing made me suspect.
During the summer of 2000, a very public controversy arose surrounding the excavation of a 10th century Jain Temple in Fatehpur Sikri where the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had unearthed a pit filled with numerous damaged, broken statues. The debate about this archeological find offers an example of not only the ideological gulf dividing social scientists in India, but is indicative of the manner in which opposing camps of scholars have been using the popular media to sensationalize their perspectives. After the newspapers reported about this particular excavation site, Prof. K.N. Panikkar, Prof. Romila Thapar, Prof. K.M. Shirmali, Prof. Harbans Mukhia from JNU and Prof. Ifran Habib from Alighar Muslim University and several Indian academics who never miss a chance to oppose, condemn, and ridicule the “Sangh Parivar” accused the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) of acting irresponsibly by excavating this destroyed Jain temple saying it was an example of “saffron archeology”.
The “Progressive” critics accused the “saffron archeologists” of trying to twist data and manipulate the popular media to prove that Muslims, specifically the Moghul emperor Akbar, destroyed this Jain temple in order to construct his nearby capitol city at Fatehpur Sikri, the perimeters of which are less than half a kilometer away from the temple site. However, the non-Leftist scholars and several renowned archeologists refuted this accusation. They maintained that the excavation of the Jain site was significant in its own right, pointing to one of the most beautiful examples of a Saraswati statue ever found. They also insisted that the ASI had never claimed a connection between the demolition of this Jain temple, the destruction date of which has yet to be determined, and the construction of Akbar’s palatial fortified city nearby.
I gathered a few articles about this dig conducted by the ASI and spoke with several archeologists in Delhi, including a brief long distance telephone call to Agra to speak with the superintending archeologist of the dig, D.V. Sharma who said that he had never claimed that the Jain Temple had been destroyed by Akbar. Later, an article in the August 4, 2000 edition of the magazine Frontline which is categorically and consistently anti-saffron, anti-Hindu, anti-BJP, confirmed that D.V. Sharma had not made such an extrapolation, but that the media had sensationalized the major archeological find of a large and rare catch of statues dating from the 10th and 11th century. The temple’s only relationship to Akbar is that the excavation site is approximately half a kilometer from Akbar’s elaborate capitol city, Fatehpur Sikri, which he constructed about 30 kilometers outside of Agra.
D.V. Sharma and the Archaeological Survey of India conducted the dig on a mound called Bir Chhabili, where, based on textual reference and other indications, they suspected an old temple may have stood. They found one. There was a pit at the temple site in which they found several broken statues that had apparently been carefully buried after they had been damaged. Among the statues uncovered was a large exquisite statue of the goddess Saraswati. Though it was a statue of the Hindu Goddess of music and learning it was in the Jain style. Sharma speculated that this pit was a kind of statue graveyard where broken statues had been placed. The media, when reporting about the remarkable find, associated the destructed Jain temple with Akbar since the find was only a few hundred meters from the walls of Fatehpur Sikri. After the news about the excavation was published in the press, Prof. Harbans Mukhia from JNU visited the site and spoke with the junior archeologists at work there. He then returned to Delhi and wrote a newspaper article titled, “Demolishing temples wasn’t the past’s only language”, which appeared in The Hindustan Times on Sunday, March 19, 2000.
It is important to note that for the Leftists, Akbar is sacrosanct. He is called the “Father of Indian integration” and is used as a model of communal harmony because he was less fanatical and more “Indianized” than his ancestors or his offspring, which included some of the more notorious iconoclasts in Indian lore, such as Babar and Aurangzeb. The Leftist intellectuals who extrapolate their historical narratives outwards from the benevolent secularism of Akbar’s reign were therefore particularly irritated by an archeological excavation that might indicate that Akbar was not as liberal as depicted in the history textbooks they had written. Ironically, as mentioned, the ASI officer, D.V. Sharma, did not make the claim that Akbar has destroyed this temple, However, the Leftists inferred that if a temple was destroyed around the time that Akbar built his capital at Fatehpur Sikri, then obviously the saffron archeologists must be trying to connect the destruction of the Jain Temple with Akbar’s construction of Fatehpur Sikri. So they wrote editorial pieces and called a news conference to condemn the excavations on the hillock. They stressed the fact that “not only Muslims destroyed temples during the Medieval period, but that Brahmans (Hindus) also destroyed Jain and Buddhist temples”.
This claim has been the countervailing Marxist argument vis-à-vis temple destruction during the medieval period. This accusation was brought forth with a vengeance during the years leading up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 in the north Indian town of Ayodhya. In response to the archeological evidence at the Jain temple near Fatehpur Sikri, they once again fell back on this analysis. This theory has been their primary argument for over a decade. It was the main tact used during the RamJanamBhumi/BabriMasjid controversy in which the 16th century mosque was razed to the ground by a “mob of Hindu zealots”. In the months leading up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, Leftist scholars from JNU published pamphlets claiming that it had been common practice for Hindu rajas to destroy the temples of their adversaries, and therefore Muslims were not the only one who destroyed temples. Strangely, considering how vehemently they insist that Hindu iconoclasm was commonplace in the Medieval and pre-Medieval period, there are really very few hard statistics about this claim and scant existing evidence to support their theory of wide spread temple destruction by Hindu rajas.
After hearing this claim propagated for over a decade, as an accepted “fact” to which those who are anti-Hindutva constantly refer, I had to assume that these historical occurrences of Hindus destroying temples were well documented, even though I had not seen any hard data to support it. I interviewed Prof. Harbans Mukhia, who had written the op-ed piece about Hindus demolishing temples. I asked him what documentation he could provide regarding the destruction of temples by Hindus. He informed me that Prof. Romila Thapar had collected some information that confirmed the theory that Hindus, during earlier eras, had been very active in destroyed temples. He had some references, he said somewhere in his files. I thought they must be pretty dust by now since he had used the temple destruction tack for years and through he is a well published scholar of Medieval Indian history, he had never written any papers about this very interesting phenomenon by which he swears.
A few days later I met with Professor Romila Thapar and told her Prof. Mukhia had told me that she could provide information substantiate the hypothesis that Hindu rulers in the past had regularly destroyed temples in neighboring kingdoms. She said that she had not written anything but that Richard Eaton, an American scholar had recently written about this phenomenon in the introduction of his latest book.
A few months later in the December 9 and 16 editions of Frontline published by the Leftist leaning editor N. Ram of The Hindu newspaper Dr. Eaton did publish a long article in two parts that discussed in detail the destruction and desecration of various temples during the Medieval Period. In his article, Eaton attempted to prove the assertion made by Dr. Mukhia’s and his colleagues. However it was argued, Eaton failed to understand the difference in scale and magnitude between the few times Hindus raided the temples of other kings, and the much more wide spread and architecturally devastating attacks from Muslim armies.
I spoke with Professors Thapar and Mukhia and told them that I had heard about Harsha in Kashmir, recounted by the poet Kalhana in the ‘Rajtarangini’. Harsha destroyed some temples and viharas, but most scholars consider Harsha’s actions as exceptions to the usual practice. I pointed out that all of the literature indicates that Harsha was definitely only looting the temples for gold and riches, not desecrating them for ideological reasons. Though the result is the same, the temples were attacked, the intent and the scale of the destruction was very different. I also mentioned that there seems to have been one or two instances in Rajasthan and Gujarat where competing Maharajas raided temples in the neighboring kingdom and stole a murti (consecrated statue) which was considered to be endowed with powerful attributes. Then, bringing it back to his own kingdom, the king erected a new and more fabulous temple for the murti. This type of vandalism is a very different case, the murti was removed as a trophy not as an unholy thing to be desecrated. In the accounts that I had heard, the king who had looted the temple of his adversary did not throw the captured statue in the roadway or bury it into the staircase of a religious structure in his kingdom to be trod upon, but, interestingly, he built an even grander temple and had it installed with fanfare. Though the actions may have similarities, the motivations were very different.
I also suggested that these types of attacks on temples were not representative of usual practice, but in fact were very much the exception to the rule. Even after reading the Eaton article, I was not impressed by the meager evidence. Though the article very few verifiable examples offered to substantiate this often-repeated claim that Hindus were just a guilty as Muslims for breaking statues and destroying temples. I told suggested to several Leftist scholars in Indian that they should stop using that tact about the Hindus destroying temples, because hardly anyone in India really believes them. The evidence that Hindus were equally culpable for the destruction of temples and viharas, similar to the large scale destruction of Hindu temples by the various Muslim dynasties is simply untenable. Though the Marxist historians in India use the case of King Harsh in Kashmir, it is a rare historical exception, certainly not proof of a legacy of Hindu-driven carnage. Yet the historians who make these claims have failed to uncover any real evidence to substantiate their theory of Hindu aggression.
Ironically, very few people in India believe these claims and the historians are discredited in the eyes of many people because their arguments remain speculative and politically motivated. They have provided very few actually documented historical sites where Hindus razed temples and viharas. Though this claim was the rallying cry of the scholars who opposed the Ram Janma Bhoomi movement, none of the proponents of this theory have ever published anything to corroborate their claims, though they have propagated this theory as a intellectual weapon for over twelve years. My question was, why, when you and your colleagues assert this as fact, have none of you ever published any scholarly articles to actually prove it? Why haven’t you bothered to document the facts to which you have constantly referred during the past twelve years? Can you explain this lack of evidence? Would you call this a manufacturing of historical myths a la Marxist paradigm as opposed to historical myths manufactured a la Hindu Nationalist paradigm? And why do you feel comfortable when Marxist historians manipulate facts and rewrite history but, of course, as can be known by your lecture and your ideological moorings that you do not think other groups of historians have the right to re-evaluate Indian history? My questions were not very welcome. I was told several times that Richard Eaton had recently published something about Hindus destroying temples. Nonetheless, I still found it amazing that scholars who had made a certain claim for over a decade had never sought to back up their oft touted theory. Interestingly, the articles published by Prof. Eaton in the popular news magazine, Frontline, though it did document temple destructions, could not show that it was wide spread and in particular, he could not, in his article claim that the Hindus had destroyed murtis, rather they captured them, to increase their own power.
Eaton writes, “In 642 A.D., according to local tradition, the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I looted the image of Ganesha from the Chalukyan capital of Vatapi. Fifty years later armies of those same Chalukyas invaded north India and brought back to the Deccan what appear to be images of Ganga and Yamuna, looted from defeated powers there.” The article goes on to discuss these types of events, each separated by fifty years or a century or two. Even taking into consideration the instances of Hindu destroying temples in rival kingdoms, there is a big leap between the claim that Hindu rajas are as culpable for destroying temples are were their Muslim counterparts. This is simply not true. But most important, Eaton never makes the distinction between the destruction of a murti or mandir (temple) based on revulsion towards the institution represented, in contrast to capturing the murti for purposes of worship and to enhance the prestige of the king.
Membership in this anti-Indian, anti-democratic, anti-everything group includes all manners of scholars whose only commonality may be that, during the last twelve years, they did not loudly protest the claims made by certain Hindu organizations that there had been a Ram Temple at the site of the Babri Masjid, the destruction of which in December 1992 was the watershed event that divided historians into ideological camps. Some scholars who for years had been the darlings of the Left found themselves the target of mean-spirited critics simply for asking questions about the temple/mosque controversy instead of proffering automatic condemnation. Even scholars such as Ashis Nandy and T.N. Madan, both quite secular, Nandy is a Christian and Madan is a very Westernized “non-practicing” Hindu, were labeled “saffron”, simply because they dared to suggest that the people and/or the lawmakers in India should discuss, or re-evaluate how secularism is defined in the Indian context.
There is a tight coterie of Marxist (now called Progressive) social scientists in India who are very vocal and prolific social critics. Without a doubt, they have done some very interesting historical work and are serious scholars, but they have an agenda. As Progressives they view the progress of the nation as their duty, which is a noble cause, but often they discount the means in their quest for an end that reflects their ideology. In the historical narrations created to promote this mandate there are no limitations to their criticism of the religion of the majority of their fellow countrymen. More than one eminent Leftist scholar whom I interviewed became rather irritated when I suggested that Hinduism was a tolerant non-dogmatic and deeply reflective religion. I found it incredibly ironic that among a group of highly placed Indian intellectuals “Hindu” often seems like it is used only as a pejorative term.
Of particular interest is the controversy that erupted over the Towards Freedom project which was recalled from the publisher, Oxford University Press (OUP), last February by the ICHR (Indian Council for Historical Research). I have collected considerable information about this issue including ICHR papers and letters regarding the project. The ICHR submitted a request to OUP to review the two latest issues that had gone to press in December 1999. One volume covering the period was compiled by K.N. Panikkar and the other by Sumit Sakar. I interviewed numerous people involved in the project. I looked at several of the previous volumes of the Towards Freedom project and have photocopies of their tables of contents. Due to problems with those earlier editions, particularly that they lacked indices, the next ones, K.N. Panikkar’s and Sumit Sarkar’s, were recalled.
The ICHR first recalled the Sarkar and Panikkar volumes to add an index and to check for mistakes since there had been mistakes found in an earlier volume edited by P.S Gupta. Most importantly for the director of the ICHR publication department was the lack of an index which made P.S Gupta’s 3,800+ pages virtually unusable. In addition, normally in the Indian national freedom movement what comes to is mind Gandhi, Patel, Nehru however, in the 1943-44 volume by P.S Gupta, there are 42 document devoted to Gandhi and 752 documents devoted to the Communist party and allied movements (student, unions). The RSS and Hindu Mahasabha are included in the section of communalist parties, even those who were very instrumental in the freedom movement, are seen as anti-national along with Jinnah and the Muslim League.
The documents in these volumes are without a doubt written to prove that the Marxists supported the freedom movement and were anti-British when in fact they were not. They did not take part in the Quit India Movement and there are ample records that show their collaboration. No Marxists were arrested during that period when Gandhi and Nehru spent years in prison. Though there are over 700 documents about the activities of the Marxist and leftist groups in the Gupta volume, no documents are included which show that they supported the British (who were aligned with Moscow against Hitler). However, these volumes were not recalled simply for this ideological reason. The main reason, as mentioned, was that they had no indices. Only after OPU refused to return the volumes to ICHR to add an index, and only after the authors organized a street protest, did the ICHR bring up the issue of slanted history in the selection of the documents. To this day, the volumes have not been returned to the ICHR for review even though they are the actual publishers responsible for the project.
Professor Panikkar came to UT Austin recently and I asked him several pointed question and he was less than truthful in his replies. He was recently given the position of Vice chancellor of a Sanskrit University in Kerala; the appointment was made by the Marxist government in Kerala. There has been some negative repercussions about this appointment because Professor Panikkar does not know Sanskrit and has never studied Sanskrit. When I met him he had only negative things to say about Indian culture and was very political in his discourse – more politically driven than actually attempting to present objective history. I have appended a transcription of my questions and his answers. At Panikkar’s talk at UT, I raises well substantiated questions about the Towards Freedom project. What was remarkable was that Panikkar actually lied about the indices and other details that I brought up, but somehow his charade went by unchallenged except by me.
A telling episode occurred right after Panikkar’s talk, when a physics professor at UT, who along with his son, are very active among Indian leftist/progressive NRIs on campus. The professor came up to me and asked, in jest, “So what’s wrong with Marxism?” It was a silly comment. I told him I thought Marxism was not the be all and end all of intellectual inquiry. He said that Marxism was a valid tool of social research. I agreed that dialectical materialism was useful, but I pointed out that in the 20th century Communism had been responsible for the death of over a hundred million people; and that except in Kerala and West Bengal, Communism had proved to be incompatible with democracy. He then said something that I found very offensive and I told him so in no uncertain terms. He lamented that it is “So sad when these young Hindus come to America from India and try to recapture their Hindu culture. They are trapped between two worlds. It is pathetic to see them trying to be Hindu while struggling to adapt to living in the West. They don’t know anything about Hinduism, they don’t even know Sanskrit, but they are clinging to outdated traditions that they selectively interpret. They are narrow-minded bastard children caught between two cultures.”
I was shocked by this depiction of India’s youth who have developed a sense of cultural pride and yet are able to excel in graduate programs in American universities. I laid into him pretty heavily. I said, “I dare you criticize another person’s right to have their own religious beliefs. I think it is refreshing that these young Indians can have a sense of cultural pride and nurture respectful feelings of their ancestral religion. I would say that they are not at all pathetic but rather inspiring, a marvelous hybridity between the pressures of modernity and a personal spiritual tradition. How can that be pathetic? That is refreshing in this mindless world. Why do they have to know Sanskrit? How may Christians know Latin or Aramaic? Would you criticize a young practicing Muslim for not being fluent in Medieval Arabic? Frankly, I am offended that you can so glibly deride another person’s religious experience. I find that to be narrow minded and pathetic.” His wife interrupted and motioned for him to leave. He said we should talk about this more later.
A few days after the Panikkar talk, I wrote to one of the professors on my dissertation committee who had been in the audience that night. Here is the response:
[. . .] As for Pannikkar, I think that, on balance, his talk was informative
and measured. On the specifics of the indexes, I thought that what he was
talking about was the Indian volumes, where it had been decided not to have
indexes until a final volume (a ridiculous arrangement, if you ask me). But
I didn’t have the impression that he meant that the TOP volumes didn’t have
individual indexes. Indeed, if I had caught that, I would have disagreed
with him, for I know that they do. I’ve used them. On the other hand, I
didn’t want to be part of what I saw as a VHP-inspired attack on his talk –
not by you, but by that guy behind you. Unfortunately, your discussion
about Kaimal, which referred to matters of fact concerning the production of
the volumes, was, I believe, taken by Panikkar to be part of that attack. He
has good reason to be wary of Sangh types. They did, after all, derail the
entire project, which is a shame, indexes or no indexes. Anyway, let’s talk
about this after Thanksgiving, [. . .]
Even though I made it very clear, documenting the reasons that the Towards Freedom Volumes were questionable and hence recalled for review, no one believed me. It is considered a horrid fascist conspiracy to restrict freedom of speech and the squash real scholarship in favor of obscurantist Hindu dogma. My professor stated in the above letter, that the saffron camp had “derail[ed] the entire project”. That in itself is a gross exaggeration. They recalled two of the unpublished volumes for review, not the entire project. I am in an impossible situation.
How can I write about the valid data that I have collected in India when what I have found is not believed? How can I present what I have discovered and analyze it a manner that logically explains things-if my mentors (not necessarily my committee but the wider community of scholars) think that anything concerning the Sangh Parivar is evil fascist Hindu bigotry. How can I possibly submit a document to my dissertation committee that describes the real situation in India? I fear that my analysis will be rejected by those on my committee who are specialists in South Asia, additionally, I think that the wider community of scholars will call me a “fascist” if I do not. In many ways, I can hardly interact on an intellectual plane because I disagree completely with the shared assumption about the BJP and associated organizations. We don’t share the same constructs.
There are several other issues that were recently employed by Leftists in India to bring forth their favorite accusation of the saffronization of Indian academia. Here are several of those issues in summary:
1) The new president of the BJP, Bangaru Laxman, who by the way is a dalit, from what were formerly called untouchable castes, was invited a few months back to Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) to deliver a lecture. His appearance there caused a big hungama (hoopla) in the media and a “hue and cry” from leftist scholars who made allegations about the saffronization of the ICSSR and the Hinduization of historical research. However, anyone who went to school in India in the seventies, eighties and nineties, remembers the procession of political speakers from Communist parties, such as E.M.S. Namboodripadthe Communist leader from Kerala, and others Leftist political figures, who were continually making addresses in academic institutions. But, nowadays, if BJP party leaders are invited that speak, it is called communalism and ideological hegemony. Why is it acceptable for Communist leaders and scholars who are staunch advocates of leftist ideology to propagate their ideas in India’s educational institutions but it is not appropriate for the new dalit head of the BJP to give a lecture in a similar venue? Does this not seem like a discriminatory position to take? Communist Party leaders can make speeches at the ICSSR, JNU, ICHR, but the leader of the BJP can not. Where is the logic of excluding the leader of the party that has the approval of the Indian voters while allowing gentlemen such as Mr. Namboodripad and Joyti Basu, who represent a far smaller percentage of the Indian people, to speak without causing any concern that they are representing a particular political perspective?
- According to its charter, the ICHR, it must be reconstituted every three years by an order of the government. In 1998, when the ICHR was reconstituted after the BJP came to power, among those nominations to the board, Marxists historians who had previously dominated the council were not reappointed. Many of the old guard leftists, including Prof. Panikkar, felt left out. In fact, they accused the BJP of stacking the Council for Historical Research with RSS sympathizers. Panikkar particularly reacted to one word that was in the Memorandum of Association issued by the BJP to reconstitute the ICHR. He accused the BJP of changing the word “Rational” to “National” on the Memorandum issued by the BJP. Professor Panikkar explained in several newspaper interviews that this alteration in words was an obvious and blatant attempt to change the direction of historical research from rational to national which he of course equated with saffron and fascism. When the facts came out that during R.S. Sharma’s term as chair of the ICHR this typographical change or mistake had originally been made in 1972. In fact, when R.S. Sharma, a well-known Marxist historian had issued the memorandum of association which nominated Panikkar to the ICHR, the document at that time also had the word national instead in rational. Every three years since 1972, when the ICHR was reconstituted the word national appeared not rational, yet Panikkar had strongly objected to the word national on the 1998 document, using this as an example of the blatant saffronization of the ICHR. However when he found that the word national and not rational had appeared even in the memorandum issued by R.S. Sharma for his own nomination, no admission of his erroneous assumption or over reaction was every forth coming. It is much like a man accused of murder whose case makes the headlines, but if he is found not guilty, his innocence makes the back page. Panikkar never retracted his accusations against the BJP whom he wrongly accused of sabotaging rational history with an irrational saffron nationalist orientation. Panikkar and his colleagues feel that BJP has no right to influence the writing of history whereas the ICHR and ICSSR that were led by Marxists for decades had a profound impact on the writing of history in India. When a Marxist is appointed, nobody says anything. When a Congress supporter is nominated, nobody says anything. But when a non-Marxist historian is nominated by the BJP it is see as a threat to the nation.In India, writing history from an ideological perspective is perfectly legitimate, as long as it is Marxist. When I asked Professor Panikkar about this he said that it was a good thing that the newspapers got up in arms against “saffronization. . . regardless of the facts. . . the communal forces must be fought”. He repeated that the facts are irrelevant, what is important is the struggle against communal history.
- In October 1998, there was the annual Conference of the State Education Ministers in New Delhi. At the beginning of the meeting a group of leftist and opposition party ministers loudly protested and walked out when the organizers of the meeting convened it with the lighting of a deepak, or lamp, and the traditional singing of “Saraswati Vandana.” There was quite a hungama (hoopla, planned in advance, and designed to show that the BJP was commual. Whereas, in fact, for decades these meetings of the State Education Ministers were always begun with the lighting of a lamp and the singing of Saraswati Vandana. The previous year, when the secular minded I.K. Gujaral was the Prime Minister, all the State Ministers of Education stood for the lighting of the candle and the singing of Saraswati Vandana. No one walked out on Mr. Gujaral. So there are two interesting questions, One, why is it acceptable for the secular minded ministers to walk out during the recitation of one of India’s most beloved and respected prayers? Is this not an insult to Hindus and to the Hindu Goddess of Learning? Also, had the meeting been opened with a reading from the Koran or Bible would the ministers have walked out based on the same disdain for religious symbols at a secular function? It is ironic that I.K. Gujaral is allowed to sing Saraswati Vandana and no one calls him a hate-mongering-anti-minority-majoritarian, but if the same ritual is conducted by M.M. Joshi of the ruling BJP coalition, he is accused of the implementation of saffronized fascism. I can’t help but wonder why is it acceptable among Panikkar and his Marxist colleagues to insult the precious symbols and prayers associated with Hinduism which is the religion of the majority of the citizens? Saraswati Puja is celebrated across the country, even in West Bengal that has been dominated by communist party for decades. It does seem a bit hypocritical.
Why do Western scholars feel comfortable when Marxist historians manipulate facts and rewrite history but, they think other groups of more indigenous historians, who are not constrained by Western academic models, do not have the right or the ability to re-evaluate Indian history? Here is an example of the kind of journalism that is common when reporting about the Leftists’ attack on the “saffronites”:
From Tehelka.com Historians attack Sangh history police, Calcutta, January 2
“Nobel laureate Amartya Sen criticised the saffron brigade at the Indian
History Congress session for historical distortion and for using myth and
fiction to warp history for their political gains, writes Saugata Bagchi
“Alarm and apprehension seems to be the underlying sentiment of the Calcutta session of the Indian History Congress (IHC) where Left and secular historians took the opportunity to warn their fraternity and the public at large of the dangers of history doctoring by Rightwing groups. The Calcutta session is expected to witness fireworks as Left and secular historians take this opportunity to attack the Sangh Parivar’s history police.”
Here is some information about Marxists and the Freedom Movement quoted from: Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr. and Stanley A Kochanek. India Government and Politics in a Developing Nation (Fifth Edition), Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, Fort Worth (1993), page 294.
The Communist Party
Since its inception in 1928 the Communist Party of India (CPI) has been divided in its social character, its base of support, and its ideological stance. These division reflect its origins in the regional organizations of the Workers’ and Peasants’ party. In its early years the CPI, closely tied to the Communist Part of Great Britain, was largely under Comintern control and followed Moscow directives with dutiful twists and turns. During the 1930s the part adopted a tactic of “the united front from above” in cooperation with the nationalist movement. Entering the Congress Socialist Party, )CSP), Communists soon secured leadership in the Socialist organization, particularly in the South, were they gained effective control. Expelled in 1939, they took much of the CSP membership in the South with them. The final break with the Congress came with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the CPI’s call for cooperation with the British in what was deemed an anti-imperialist war. The Congress chose noncooperation and as Congress leaders languished in jail, the CPI infiltrated student, peasant, and labor organizations, expanding its membership from 5,000 in 1942 to 53,000 by 1946. Although the CPI effectively gained control of a number of mass organizations, its participation in the war effort, its continued attack on Gandhi, and its support for the Muslim League demand for Pakistan tainted the party as antinational and minimized its influence.
Professor R.C. Majumdar, one of India’s most famous historians, has been posthumously labeled “saffron” and is often dismissed by Leftists as a “communal historian” even though he is very factual and uses sophisticated analysis and documentation. Nonetheless, his monumental, three-volume History of the Freedom Movement in India, which the Congress Party tried to suppress, is still considered a classic, at least by non-Marxists. Here is a quote from that book:
“During the great national upsurge of 1942, the Communists acted as stooges and spies of the British Government… Mr. Joshi (of the Communist Party) was placing at the disposal of India the services of his Party Members… Joshi had, as General Secretary of the Party, written a letter in which he offered ‘unconditional help’ to the then Government of India and the Army GHQ to fight the 1942 underground workers and the Azad Hind Fauz (INA) of Subhas Chandra Bose… Joshi’s letter revealed that the CPI was receiving financial aid from the British Government, had a secret pact with the Muslim League…”
Transcript of Yvette Rosser’s questions to K.N. Panikkar after his talk at UT Austin:
Yvette Rosser asked a question about the lack of indexes which had been the initial problem that had concerned the ICHR regarding the Towards Freedom project and actually until the big hungama started it was their main objective, to have an index made for each volume.
Panikker: if there had been an index for the S.P. Gupta volumes it would have taken an entire volume of its own.. . . the Calendar of Documents is sufficient to look up any particular item.
Yvette Rosser points out that all the documents were only listed with entries such as Gazzateer number such and such with a date, but no details as to what was in the documents. “If I wanted to find something on women, or dalits, or even J. Prakash Narayana, I would have to leaf through each of the 3,800 pages to hopefully find a reference to women or dalits or any other particular topic.
Panikkar: a glance at the Calendar of Documents would easily allow you to turn to the document where the information could be located.
Yvette then read from the Calendar of Documents,
Here is a list of entries:
“Date Feb. 18, 1944 Extracts from Fortnightly Report from Orissa
Extracts from Fortnightly Report from Punjab
“May 5 44 News item from Indian Express
News Item from Indian Express
“March 6, 44 Extracts from Fortnightly Report from Sind”
How do we know what documents speak about women, or dalits, or any other particular subject? The contents are not described at all in the calendar of documents, as they are in the Transfer of Power volumes, nor is there an index, so the only way to locate information is to look at each document individually. This greatly limits its use as a research tool.
Panikkar: The overall plan was to do it the same way that the Transfer of Power was done. None of the individual volumes of the Transfer of Power have an index There is a separate index for all the volumes, the 12th volume is an index. An index for each volume would have added hundreds of pages. We were planning to index it after all the volumes were published.
Yvette Rosser: But, I think that the Transfer of Power volumes each do have an index.
Panikkar: No no you have got it all wrong.
Yvette Rosser: Isn’t it true that the ICHR has been dominated by Marxists and that in fact Irfan Habib also recalled the second volume of the Toward Freedom project of P.N. Chopra because it was not far enough to the left? There was no hue and cry from non-Marxists, yet most scholar who had seen the Chopra volume thought is was balanced and it did have an adequate index.
Panikkar: That is all BJP propaganda. There have never been more than two Marxist on the ICHR board. The Chopra volume was too elitist.
Yvette Rosser: Isn’t it true that in fact Mr. Kaimal, a former JNU student who has been working at the ICHR for 23 years, and whom no on would ever accuse of being saffron, that he is the deputy who requested the volumes be held up, because he wanted to get an index added since professionally, he felt that the Gupta books were unusable. Isn’t it also true that the order to review the volumes was made by Prof. Sattar, the previous chairman and not by Grover, who is the BJP appointee?
Panikkar: Yes, I know Kaimal, he was my former student. But you have got it all wrong. They didn’t like the negative, albeit, accurate representation of the RSS that was depicted in the volumes. They wanted to improve the image of the RSS when in fact they had been collaborators with the colonialists.
Yvette Rosser: One of the complaints about the Gupta volume was that there were only 42 documents about Gandhi whereas the leftists and communists were allocated over 750 documents. Doesn’t that seem a bit strange to you, rather slanted?
Panikkar: Well you know why don’t you? Where was Gandhi in 1944?
Yvette Rosser: Well he spent most of it in Jail.
Panikkar: Exactly, but there are still 42 documents devoted to Gandhi. How can you say there is no representation?
Yvette Rosser: I am saying that there is an over representation of the role played by leftist organizations. And there is no mention among those 750 documents of the collaborative role played by the communists during 1944 and their support of the British who were allied with Moscow.
Panikkar: You have got it all wrong. The RSS were anti-national collaborators not the Communists. They can’t face the truth of history so they had the volumes recalled.
Yvette Rosser: I have here with me all the correspondence between the ICHR and OUP. I see that you called a news conference several weeks before OUP had even responded to the ICHR’s request. Don’t you think that it would have been more professional to have spoken with Mr. Kaimal, a dedicated employee of the ICHR, whom you know very well is not a saffronized apointee, to find out why the volumes were recalled before making a huge public outcry about the communalization of history?
Panikkar: You have got it all wrong.
Moderator: Yvette, if you want to ask more questions, perhaps we should organize a seminar at some other time, in which you can speak. There are other people with questions.
Yvette: No problem. Besides telling me that the information which I have collected about this issue wrong, my questions haven’t been answered anyway.
—end of transcript of Q&A—
Neo-Nazis Scare in New Delhi: The Manufacturing of Hitler’s Hindu Youth
During the summer of 2000 I was in India on an educational visa to continue my research into the politics of history in South Asia. Though I have been to India many times over the past thirty years as a tourist/pilgrim, this was the first time that I was in India with official sponsorship. During the last few years, I have had several opportunities for academic research in Pakistan and Bangladesh; I collected social studies textbooks and curriculum materials in order to compare differing interpretations of the vast historical record of the subcontinent as narrated in each nation. In this capacity, I spent several weeks in Delhi last summer interviewing historians and other intellectuals interested in comparative historiography.
An investigation of changes implemented in history textbooks can help illuminate the political and social imperatives of different periods that influence the narration of history and the writing of social studies curriculum. Through the medium of history textbooks, meant to educate future citizens, the development of a nation’s ideology can be seen unfolding through the decades as political and social pressures change society and the nation’s self image evolves. These readjustments in historical narratives, intended to correct perceived inadequacies or promote a particular perspective, are not unique to post-colonial nations that may feel additional pressure to reinvent themselves, but are common to all countries as they reevaluate international relations and redefine internal structures in a world of changing identities. I was in India interviewing intellectuals in order to discuss the contestations and contradictions found in different historical narratives and to put the range of historical perspectives into ideological and political context.
Enduring the hot humid days of July and August, I crisscrossed Delhi, interviewing intellectuals theoretically grounded in their own points-of-view: leftists, Marxists, secular-nationalists, socialists, Indian-nationalists, Hindu-nationalists, internationalists, and Saffron scholars. Many historians labeled Communist, said to be writing from a Marxist perspective, deny they are Marxists, preferring to say they are progressives fighting adamantly against, what they label, an obscurantist, communal slant to the interpretation of Indian history. Others, branded as representatives of the Sangh Parivar, often do not consider themselves to be in the Hindutva camp, but have been colored Saffron simply because they are not Red. Ironically, they are vilified for harboring “Hindu sympathies” in a predominantly Hindu country. They are accused of writing distorted Hindu-centric history whereas they claim that they are writing real history – correcting narratives whitewashed by the jargon of psuedo-secularlism and a didactic dialectic materialism, what they consider anti-nationalist discourse. Last summer I was in India in hopes of understanding and unraveling the acrimonious debates between these groups of scholars. It should be pointed out that this is not just an issue of importance to octogenarian academicians. When I visited the JNU campus the walls of the buildings were plastered with propaganda posters from different ideologically oriented student political organizations. One poster said, “Down with Marxism and Anti-Nationalist Rhetoric.” On the same wall, another bigger-than-life poster read, “Ban Communal Politics – Down with Fascism – Down with the BJP.” I wondered if the students at JNU had time left over from political activities to actually study history.
Needless to say, during my recent visit to Delhi I had numerous stimulating and enlightening conversations. I spoke with many intellectuals who are as fascinated as I am by the current theoretical debate on the uses and abuses of history. However, a few days before I was scheduled to fly home, I was astounded when two respected scholars informed me, in all seriousness, that the vast “majority of students in India consider Hitler to be the greatest historical figure of the twentieth century.” This was reported to me as fact, sealing the indictment of the Sangh Parivar’s “negative influence on the youth of India”. I was told that “80% of the students” who have recently graduated from schools such as St. Stephens think that “Hitler is the greatest person [or most important person, or most influential person] of the twentieth century”. This was mentioned as incontrovertible proof of Saffronization.
Obviously this is not the first time that the Hindu-Hitler equation has been used to blacken the face of the Sangh Parivar. Regardless of its technical applicability or historical accuracy, accusations of fascism are inevitably used against the RSS/VHP/BJP combine. Fascism forms the core of the criticism against the Sangh–much like the term “Hindu Fundamentalism” continues to be in general use even though there is no agreement regarding the dogmatic “fundamentals” of Hinduism. Opponents of the Sangh equate saffron and shakhas with brown shirts and SS troops (SS = RSS, a convenient equation). In their zealousness to discredit Hindutva, many scholars and journalists often knowingly perpetuate the misapplication of Hitler’s misappropriation of Hindu symbols, such as the swastika and the word Aryan.
When I was informed by two highly respected professors that, as a consequence of saffron education, 80% of New Delhi’s brightest students admire Hitler, I questioned the veracity of this claim. I was assured with absolute certainty that this statistic was true, leading to the assumption that need not be questioned – the Manu-vadis are winning the ideological war. . . secularism and democracy are in danger in a rapidly saffronizing India. In retrospect, perhaps since I am a non-native scholar, those making this claim thought I would uncritically accept the “fact” that 80% of the youth of India, under the pall of the BJP, have developed great admiration for Hitler. This Nazi scare in Delhi reminded me that in 1992, when I was at the Amber Fort with my daughter, we met two college students who told us that they admired Adolf Hitler and this was several years before the BJP’s succession of electoral successes. I told those young men that, had they lived in Hitler’s Germany, their dark complexions would have doomed them to the gas chambers. I have always assumed that, among Indian college students, these two boys in Rajasthan were the exception, not the rule. I have had dozens of conversations with young Indians through the years and these are the only two who have ever mentioned Hitler.
Professor Krishna Kumar at Delhi University and I share an interest in textbooks and have had quite a few conversations over the past few years about historiography in South Asia. Early last August, just before leaving India, I met Professor Kumar in his office which was buzzing with eager students exchanging photocopied materials. The students soon departed and Professor Kumar and I discussed his family, whom I have met several times, and of course, my research. I explained the focus of my current trip to India: to investigate the controversies raging in intellectual circles between the leftist camp, such as Krishna Kumar, Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia, Bipin Chandra, and other well known professors at JNU or Delhi University, versus intellectuals associated with the Sangh Parivar or saffron camp, such as the prolific medievalist K.S. Lal or Davindra Svarup, a retired history professor and avid archivist and of course, the infamous Sita Ram Goel.
During our conversation in his sparse but comfortable DU office, Prof. Krishna Kumar informed me that he had evidence indicating that 80% of Indian youth “idolize Adolf Hitler”. He offered this as an example of the negative impact of the “saffronization of education”. Frankly, I was a bit shocked by his statement. I know quite a few Indians teenagers in Delhi and I would be surprised if any of them would consider Hitler anything more than a European curiosity. They would probably be more likely to cite their father or grandfather, especially if their parents were within earshot, or Mahatma Gandhi or Nehru, perhaps Einstein, but not Hitler. Professor Kumar assured me that a colleague had verified this information; there was documentation that “80% of the students graduating from schools such as St. Stephen’s held Hitler in very high regard”.
Not only did this statistic seem highly exaggerated, but I wondered how a political party and its affiliates could have had such a pronounced and pandemic impact on the minds of the young since ascending to power in 1998. I questioned his claim that this near unanimous admiration for Hitler among New Delhi students is singularly due to the sinister influence of the Sangh Parivar. Through the many years I have spent in India, I have met numerous RSS members, young and old, and in the course of intense conversations, not one has ever expressed admiration for Hitler; if anything they have consciously distanced themselves from some of the early, pre-WWII ideas of their founder. This distancing from Hitler is also prevalent among those who hail Subash Chandra Bose as a great Neta. Not long ago the whole nation celebrated Neta-ji’s centennial – his visit to Berlin was not stressed.
Not to dismiss dubious racist perspectives in Hedgewar’s early writings, what is important in this context is that the Sangh Parivar (represented by BJP led coalitions) has simply not been in power long enough to have exerted such a dramatic influence on the ideological perspectives of the vast majority of New Delhi students. In fact, since the BJP has come to power at the center, most of their suggested policy changes have been attacked and labeled saffron. In response to their very articulate secular-socialist critics, the BJP has consistently backed off – their proposals have generally not been implemented or they have been reviewed, reevaluated and diluted. It is obvious that the Sangh’s opportunity to brainwash the youth of India through the educational system has been rather limited. In particular, their influence on the curriculum of private schools such as St. Stephen’s must be minimal. Official education policies of the BJP government could not have indoctrinated the students at St. Stephen’s, especially not on the vast scale indicated by Professor Kumar. Though I protested this 80% statistic, Prof. Kumar stuck by it, insisting it was true. He assured me that the information was genuine and documented: “80% of Indian youth think that Hitler is the greatest man of the twentieth century” – the result of “saffron education”.
The next morning I called Professor Krishna Kumar at home to confirm what he had said. When he repeated it, I was again skeptical. I asked him the source of this statistical information. He said that Professor Tanika Sarkar had told him. I had interviewed Professor Sarkar a few days earlier so I immediately rang her up, reaching her just as she was leaving her home to drive to JNU. I told her what Prof. Kumar had said the day before and asked her to clarify his statement since she was the source of the information.
She said it was true. That she had been conducting university entrance interviews with potential students from schools such as St. Stephens and that “80% of the students thought that Hitler was the greatest man of the twentieth century.” I argued with her. It seemed an impossibly huge number. She explained that actually, it was 80% of the “thinking students” – those who could “articulate the reasons for their answers.” About half of the students interviewed were what she considered “thinking students.” When they were asked who was the most important person of the twentieth century, 80% of New Delhi’s best and brightest responded “Hitler.”
I simply could not believe what I was hearing. I hypothesized that if I were to ask a hundred well educated Indian nineteen-year-olds, “Who was the most important person of the twentieth century?”, I feel certain that at least 50% would answer “Gandhi.” I suspect that few would care very much about Hitler. She said that she had conducted the interviews earlier that summer and was herself stunned that 80% of the “thinking” student, she emphasized this – those who could offer “sophisticated reasons for their answers” – 80% of the brightest students admired Hitler as the “most important historical person of the twentieth century”. Since these “thinking students” represented 50% of all the students, the other 50% were the ones who just gave “quick responses” and couldn’t articulate reasons for their selections. She said that the majority of these less bright students “automatically chose Gandhi”. I wondered silently why those who selected Mahatma Gandhi were seen as less sophisticated.
I asked Prof. Sarkar if the students actually admired Hitler or perhaps had suggested him as someone who was not the greatest but rather the most notorious person of the past century? She emphasized again that this response had come from the more “sophisticated students who could best express themselves and justify their answers”. Therefore they had been able to explain that “Hitler brought Germany back from bankruptcy and made it a strong nation. He had united the German people towards a common purpose”. Professor Tanika Sarkar added that none of the students mentioned that “Hitler had ultimately brought about the destruction of his country” and that he is responsible for unspeakable, horrible crimes of genocide. She blamed Saffron ideology for having indoctrinated these students.
I asked her about the specific question that had elicited this overwhelming proof of Hitler-philia among Indian teenagers. Initially Professor Sarkar had said the students “admired” Hitler, but when I found that hard to believe, she explained that they had mentioned Hitler as the “the greatest” historical figure in the twentieth century. She lamented that in these types of entrance interviews conducted for the university there is very little time and many questions to ask, so she was unable to dwell on this Hitler phenomenon at length with each student. Since Professor Sarkar is an outspoken critic of the Sangh Parivar and has co-authored such books as “Khaki Shorts Saffron Flags,” I was surprised that when eight out of ten of the most promising young scholars cited Hitler as their hero, she didn’t ask a few more specific questions to locate the source of this unimaginable statistic. Though I was still very skeptical, I asked her why she thought 80% of the “thinking” students whom she interviewed held Hitler in such high esteem. She answered, “They have never been taught the evils of nationalism.”
During my meeting with Prof. Krishna Kumar he had also informed me that when the Hindi version of “Mein Kampf” was published in New Delhi it sold out immediately. He elaborated, “Most Hindus think Judaism is a sub-sect of Islam” and that is why they support Hitler’s anti-Jewish theories. He explained that based on this misunderstanding – that Jews and Muslims are the same – most Hindus, especially those on the Hindu Right, dislike Judaism. I argued that I had observed just the opposite. First of all, obviously, there is an empathy with Israel who is also surrounded by hostile Muslim states As well, many Hindu intellectuals compare the Jewish Holocaust, and the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis, to the situation in India and the condition of Hindus during and after the eleventh century. They cite, in addition, the absurdity and immorality of the Negationists who have tried to deny that there ever was a Jewish Holocaust. These Hindu-centric intellectuals claim that the application of Negationism has been systematically used to deny the historical evidence of the Hindu Holocaust. Professor Kumar seemed genuinely surprised. He surmised that these ideas are undoubtedly current only among “elite Hindu intellectuals”, asserting that the “common Hindu has very little information about Judaism”.
This may be true. However, “the common Hindu” in a village in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, H.P., or elsewhere often has woefully little information about many topics of international interest including the IMF, the WTO, General Musharraf, the Pope, Israel, the seventh fleet, elections in Bangladesh, or Hitler. In contrast, I do not think that the modern young students in Delhi could be classified along with the amorphous masses of “common Hindus,” whomever they are, whom Professor Kumar considers to be uninformed about Judaism. Nevertheless, I still harbor serious doubts that the majority of the brightest students graduating from elite schools in Delhi, students who are well aware of current issues such as globalization, tensions at the LOC, info-technology, economic liberalization, etc. are enamored enmasse by Hitler’s legacy. These students could not have read rave reviews about Hitler in their history books. Textbooks used at such schools are certainly not written from a Fascist perspective. It’s unlikely that they learned to admire Hitler from their teachers, who, perhaps, unbeknown to the principal and the parents, are really closet neo-Nazis secretly indoctrinating their young students. I can’t help but wonder if 80% of the thinking students whom I had seen earlier in Prof. Kumar’s office also idolize Hitler or is it a malady found only in the year 2000 graduating class?
Through the years, Professors Kumar and Sarkar have professionally and personally promoted an anti-Saffron agenda – they feel passionately about India’s pluralist heritage, and rightly so. Undoubtedly they must be aware of changing ideas among different batches of their students through the years. I wonder if they have seen a gradual drift towards fascism or if this is a recent trend exponentially encouraged, as they claim, by the BJP’s success at the polls? Perhaps Professors Kumar and Sarkar have heard stories such as I was told by a young Jewish-American woman whose boyfriend, while visiting India in the mid-nineties, saw a viewing of Raiders of the Lost Arc. He told her that when the camera panned to a giant red swastika on the roof of the Nazi compound in Vienna, the audience in New Delhi spontaneously applauded. Does this indicate an admiration for Hitler or perhaps more probably a misunderstanding about Hitler’s unfortunate appropriation of the swastika symbol? Was this film-going crowd a bunch of Jew-bashing “common Hindus,” the uninformed group postulated by Professor Kumar, or were they sophisticated Hitler-buffs like the “thinking students” Professor Sarkar interviewed from St. Stephens?
I continue to wonder how such a large percentage, in fact, the majority of savvy young urban Hindus were suddenly manufactured into Hitler youth. Is this a serious wake-up call, a fluke, or just sheer fantasy? These “thinking students” are certainly not so blindly enamored by Hindu symbols, nor totally uninformed about the Third Reich, that the mere sight of an inverted swastika makes them cheer. Perhaps someone will organize a survey of college and university students in India to query them concerning their perspectives about history and their heroes that could verify or dispel the rumor that the majority of Hindu youth admire Hitler. I suspect that this statistic has been purposefully manufactured to promote and validate a sincerely held agenda.
- Hindutva is the school of thought that emphasizes “Hindu-ness” as the essential cultural component of Indian nationalism and Indic civilization. It is the philosophy shared by groups associated with theSangh Parivaror family of Hindu-centric or “Indian Nationalist” organizations which include The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), The Bharartiya Jamanta Party (BJP), and the Vishva Hindu Parisad (VHP) as well as other groups.
- Communalism in the Indian context means something quite opposite than the common interpretation of the term arising from the French Revolution and the Communes, related to the word community, or to commune with nature. In India the word Communal has a negative connotation referring to differences and antagonisms between different communities, specifically Hindu and Muslim.
Yvette Claire Rosser is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at The University of Texas at Austin. She has a M.A. -South Asian History and Culture & a B.A. (with honors), in Asian Studies from UT Austin.