The Hindu right are terrified of Muslims, and yet they need them – to drive voters into polling booths in sufficient numbers and in a sufficient state of alarm. Without Muslims there is no threat to the ancient ways of Hindus, apart from the creeping decay brought by western consumerism. But consumerism is actually rather popular with the vast majority of potential voters for the BJP, and herein lies the problem. The Hindu right cannot demonise the wealth that most Indians crave as the prime threat to the Hindu way of life. Too much anti-modernity is bad electoral politics, even if it might be good religion. Therefore they represent the main danger not as capitalism, with its DVDs and scooters; instead it is the Muslims. They are the real enemy.
The point is summed up neatly by Koenraad Elst in Negationism in India: Concealing the record of Islam (1992), which covers medieval temple destruction and the willingness of the Indian intelligentsia to ignore it. Elst writes: ‘After all, the prospect of having to deal with an increasingly numerous and increasingly aggressive community under the spell of Islam is a bit frightening.’ Caricaturing fast-breeding Muslims as fanatics is much better politics than rage against modern comforts. Extreme Muslim radicalism carries a threat that everyone in the world can recognise – and some can use for their own purposes.
The demonisation of Muslims, though, is not based on the contemporary majority strands of Islam; a carefully selective view of Islamic history is used to make the case. We must not be fooled by any decent and moderate behaviour we see before us, says the Hindu right, because history shows us what Muslims are really like. Two elements emerge from India’s contact with Islam; foreignness and violence.
It is a central part of the Hindutva political platform that Muslims are alien to India and bring destruction with them. Islam in not an Indian religion, therefore Muslims have an extraterritorial (i.e. unpatriotic) set of loyalties. So, not surprisingly, the ‘un-Indianising’ of Muslims is what we find when we look at Hindutva history.
All this is not entirely wrong as history, because Muslims did invade India, and devout Muslims did and do hold more loyalty to Allah than to any country. And temple destruction did occur. In fact temple destruction is the one area of history in which the Hindutva project shows more fidelity to the historical record than the Congress position. But neither view is without direct political bias, and both, as history, are purposeful simplifications. Congress history prefers to believe that only positive lessons can be learned from the Muslim invasions, about assimilation, synthesis and the genesis of true nationalism, while the Hindu right are sure that there are only negative lessons, about destruction, pollution and decline. The Congress approach is pragmatic and forgiving, adapted to living in India as she is; the Hindutva view is resentful and resistant, determined to create its own verbal and rhetorical understanding of what occurred.
To understand this more fully, we need a brief outline of how Islam came to India, and a look at what Muslim ‘invasion’ and the imposition of ‘Muslim rule’ actually entailed.
There were three main phases in the spread of Islam to India: the Arab conquest of Sind in 711-12 CE, the repeated incursions of Mahmud of Ghazni into northwest India from 1000 to 1030, and the successful invasion of Muhammad of Ghor, in 1192, which culminated in his victory over Prithviraj Chauhan at Tarain. This was the first true ‘invasion’. The expedition into Sind was not very large and went no further, while Mahmud of Ghazni personally never remained in India to hold territory, although his successors gradually took lands beyond Afghanistan as part of a large empire that stretched at its widest extent from western Punjab to the Caspian Sea. But after 1192 things were different, because military strength allowed Muhammad of Ghor to set up an extensive and permanent government in India. This survived him as the Delhi Sultanate, which then lasted, in various forms and under a series of dynasties, from 1206 till the arrival of the Mughals in 1526. After Babur took Delhi in that year a strong Mughal-Muslim military presence remained in the centre of north India while Mughal control spread out over most of the rest of the subcontinent.
Mughal expansion, or internal invasion, was resisted in some areas, with varying degrees of success, until around the middle of the eighteenth century, after which the British became the dominant acquisitive power in India. The expanding British presence then supplanted Indian rule over about two thirds of the country. Substantial areas of indigenous control were left, some Hindu, some Muslim, some Sikh, until their eventual absorption into the modern states of India and Pakistan.
Now for some perspective. Mediaeval armies were small, and chroniclers routinely exaggerated their size. Muhammad of Ghor could not have brought sufficient numbers from the Afghan highlands to conquer all of north India, and Babur had no more than perhaps 12,000 men with him when he came south. The relatively small scale, and the mixed ethnic and religious character of these ‘invading’ forces make it an impossibility that the spread of Islam within India was entirely a matter of direct violence by ‘foreigners’. Also, within the rhetoric of ‘invasion’, the question of how far the rise of the Mughals was a matter of Indians conquering Indians must also be considered. Views will depend to some extent on to what degree the Mughals can be considered ever to have become ‘Indian’. The Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-27) had a Rajput mother, as did his son, Shah Jahan (r. 1627-58), who was born in Lahore. So the builder of the Taj Mahal was three quarters Indian by blood and entirely Indian by birthplace.
British historians chose to classify the period 1200-1800 as ‘Muslim India’, a tag that gives these years a degree of contrived unity. Nehru was concerned to underline how misleading the use of this description could be, and illustrated the point by remarking that the British, by contrast, did not classify the period 1765-1947 as ‘Christian India’ (Discovery of India, p. 219). Romila Thapar and Bipan Chandra both echo the same point in Communalism and the Writing of Indian History (pp. 4 & 50).
Hindu nationalists, however, have been quite happy to follow the British classification, for fairly obvious reasons. Talk of ‘Muslim rule’ lends a definite colour to a wide range of political developments, so that it can seem natural to develop a rather more ‘religious’ interpretation than is perhaps warranted. Mediaeval accounts tended to describe rulers and armies by ethnicity rather than religion. There was certainly rule in India by Muslims, some of whom were invaders, over the period 711-1947, but when a Hindu nationalist refers to ‘Muslim rule’, the intention is to erase distinctions in order to direct the reader’s attention to a foreground of tyranny, massacre and plunder, all of which can then be taken as an instructive illustration of what Muslims do as rulers. Yet through the centuries of ‘Muslim rule’ we are looking at a country in which Muslims were indeed ruling, but in the role of conquerors as much as in the role of Muslims. Nationalists will insist these men became conquerors solely because they were Muslims – as if Hindus, by comparison, had a moral aversion to conquest. Meanwhile, it was not all of the Muslims that were ruling, and neither were they ruling all of India. But it is true that some Muslims ruled some of India.
The whole issue of conquest therefore hinges on the question of motivation and, of all areas of historical judgement, motivation is the most susceptible to personal bias. Historical actors are highly likely to have their motivations read as benign or malevolent depending on whether we like or dislike them. When it comes to invasion and war, Congress writers deny that religious motivations ever determined the actions of Muslims to any significant extent, whereas British imperialists could see little else. The Hindutva writers agree but for different reasons, The British wanted to make themselves look good; the Hindutva wallahs want to make Muslims look bad. In both views, Islam is considered as nothing other than a fanatical force. But how, we might ask, did the British conceive of their own ‘mission to civilise’? Was that fanatical too? Could not the message of Islam have been a similar obligation felt by Muslims? Is a devout Muslim by definition also a fanatic? In imperial and Hindutva history – yes.
In terms of everyday life it is not clear to what extent the common people in medieval India were affected by religious changes among the political classes. It is commonplace to assert that the incoming Muslim rulers increased taxes, and that this was a deliberate attempt to oppress or, less credibly, to drive out their subjects. It is certainly true that the historic ‘king’s share’ of agricultural produce, set at one sixth in the Laws of Manu, was raised under the Mughals to a third in Akbar’s time, and even higher later. This may well relate to the scale of Mughal military expenditure as much as to any specifically Muslim agenda, though the connection between Islam and aggression is so commonly made by the Hindu right that this all amounts to pretty much the same thing. Alternatively it is easy to point to Mughal extravagance or ‘vice’, and relate this somehow to weaknesses in Islamic political theory reflected in the character of individual Muslims.
These questions are examined from a nationalist viewpoint by Professor K. S. Lal in The Legacy of Muslim Rule in India (Aditya Prakashan, 1992). For Professor Lal, the Muslim ‘legacy’ consists of three main elements; the ‘barrenness of the Hindu intellect’, brought about by oppression (p. 59), a history of almost permanent ‘political and social turmoil in India’, the result of the aims and methods of the original conquerors (p. 112), and worst of all, ‘Manipulation in the writing of medieval Indian history by some modern writers’ (p. 75).
As for the realities of Muslim rule, Lal is clear. Islamic government in India was ‘theocratic’, and it still is wherever it is established today (p. 115-134). He uses the description ‘theocratic’ based on the fulfilment of three conditions: the prevalence of the law of God, the authority of the ruler who promulgated this law, and the presence of a priesthood. Muslim rule, he insists, ticks these three boxes.
This is all quite correct and reasonable. But what is less reasonable, and counts as fraudulent special pleading, is that these conditions also apply to almost all medieval governments anywhere, from Tibet to England. More particularly, they certainly apply to mediaeval ‘Hindu’ states. Much has been written about the nature and origins of Hindu kingship, but one incontestably true statement is that Hindu kingship was divine in its origins. Ruling dynasties were considered to be directly descended from gods, a lineage also claimed by hereditary monarchs across the globe, from Peru to Japan. So while it can perhaps be argued that Muslim states were theocratic – and they certainly weren’t ‘secular’ – this did not mark them out in an especially extraordinary way. English kings too were credited with various divine powers or attributes, although attempts actually to use them tended to come to grief. Nevertheless Charles I (r. 1625-49) was openly and explicitly compared to Jesus Christ after his execution, or ‘martyrdom’. This was not in some distant corner of the past; the Taj Mahal was nearing completion at the time. The question of ‘theocracy’ is as much about practice as it is about theory. In many ways Delhi’s sultans and Mughal padshahs were treated as less divine than Bourbon or Stuart kings.
The distance, or lack of it, between practice and theory also lies at the heart of the arguments over temple destruction and forced conversions. This is an emotive issue, and it will be difficult ever to resolve it to everyone’s satisfaction. The central problem is that the Muslim chroniclers have done their latter-day opponents’ work for them, because there is an extensive and lurid literature about the ‘achievements’ of Muslim rulers, measured in terms of the numbers of infidels slaughtered, temples destroyed and converts made. These records certainly exist, but are they accurate? They can’t be said to show Muslims in an especially good light to most modern eyes, so the matter comes down to whether you think Muslim are, ‘by nature’, more inclined to be boastful, or to be psychopathically violent. Professor Lal chooses to believe the chroniclers.
Is this fair? Muslims rulers of feudal states could impose certain religious orthodoxies on their people, but not on all of them, all of the time; lack of manpower would have been an insuperable problem. Nor did they need to, politically, if the populace was quiescent. A non-Muslim population could be legitimately taxed and excluded from all political participation. This was perfect subjection; financially productive and politically watertight. But the Hindutva enthusiasts ignore all these political and practical realities, and simply choose to believe that conversions were en masse, and driven by terror. In which case, why did so few Hindus eventually convert? Muslim rule in the medieval period was certainly nothing like the aggressive parody of Islamic theory peddled by the modern Hindu right. If it had been, then we need to ask how Hindu culture in any form survived centuries of this terrible tyranny.
That some former Hindus became converted is not in dispute, it is only the manner that is contested. Conversions need not have been actively forced. Some historians believe they were a gradual response to changing conditions, because under the new regimes it helped, or was thought to help, to be a Muslim. Others dispute this, pointing out that Indian converts were always considered a very low form of life by the haughty Turkic, Persian and Afghan warlords who ran much of the country after 1200. Nor can it be convincingly shown that conversions were an attempt to flee caste disabilities, because the areas of greatest Muslim density do not correspond significantly with areas of historic Brahmin domination. There is, however, a case to be made that many conversions were neither individual nor forced, but were the results of collective decisions made by whole villages, or artisan groups, in the hope of advantage. The evidence is not entirely clear, and it is unlikely to get any clearer. Meanwhile it certainly suits a ‘Hindu’ view of history to believe that conversions were a violent affair, because this fits in well with a willingness to see violence as a prevalent Muslim attitude. It is certainly much easier, and more pleasing, for Hindutva writers to blame Muslim violence for conversions than for them to accept that many poor Hindus might voluntarily have embraced Islam for any other reason.
What is certain is that most Muslims in India are descendants of converts of some kind, not of ‘invaders’. This point was made repeatedly in the 1930s as part of debates over the ‘Two-Nation Theory’, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s contention that Muslims were not just a religious group but were really a separate ‘nation’, and therefore needed and deserved a separate homeland of their own – Pakistan. Hindutva nationalists actually agree with parts of the logic of this argument, at least the parts which say that Hindus cannot live with Muslims. The Hindu right’s preferred solution is, however, not the creation of yet another separate homeland. Instead they say that the ‘incompatibility‘ of Muslims and Hindus has to be solved by either re-conversion, or emigration, or even extermination. There is no place in India, they say, for Muslims.
But it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the rather less complicated subject of temple destruction that has become the issue of choice for contemporary Hindu politicians. Through the late 1980s, as the BJP rose in popularity, one of the most easily understood and most emotionally engaging political issues became the demand for the removal of the Babri Masjid, a mosque built in 1528 on the orders of the Mughal conqueror Babur, allegedly on the site of a Hindu temple marking the birthplace of the god Ram. This demand rolled together a great many current and historical issues, and set them out in a particularly confrontational way which seemed to defy compromise: the old mosque had to go, the new temple had to be built. The existence of the mosque was suddenly an outrageous and sacrilegious humiliation that Hindus could no longer, after about four hundred and sixty years, be expected to tolerate.
Various newspaper articles on the controversy by Hindutva writers were compiled into a book, later expanded into a two-volume work entitled Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them? (1990). This has remained the fullest statement from the Hindu right on the whole issue of temples.
The book accepts that there are three possible motivations generally put forward for attacks on temples: plunder, assertion of conquest, and religious fanaticism. Put another way, temples were destroyed either for money, or as a token of worldly victory, or for spiritual merit. What the book then tries to do is to separate and isolate these three motivations, without conceding that all three could quite easily run in parallel, if the term ‘Muslims’ is allowed to include rulers, soldiers, merchants and theologians. But of the three possible reasons, the authors are prepared to accept only the last, ideological, explanation. Muslims destroyed temples, they maintain, because they had to, driven only by blind obedience to their religions tenets, impelled by their fanatical nature.
This is a little precipitate. For a start it rolls together all the activities of both raiders and conquerors. Mahmud of Ghazni undoubtedly looted and desecrated temples, but he came to India for plunder, not to stay, and so he never had to face the political consequences of destroying the temples of people he intended to rule. His whole situation places him in a completely different category from any Muslim ruler who had ambitions to build a viable regime. And while it is certainly true that in the later medieval period some Muslims did destroy some Hindu temples, they did not destroy all of them – there are many ancient temples still extant. The use of a little discernment reveals that many of the most high profile acts of desecration were the results of specific victories in war, or as punishment after acts of rebellion. It can additionally be pointed out that some Hindu temples were also desecrated in the course of warfare between two rulers who were both Hindus. The nationalists dispute this, or if they accept that it ever happened they claim that Muslims sacked and destroyed temples for ‘ideological’ reasons, and never, ever for any other, while no Brahmin would ever validate the desecration of any temple whatsoever – i.e. Muslim destruction says worse things about Muslims than Hindu destruction says about Hindus. Here is Sita Ram Goel in Chapter 3 of Hindu Temples: Volume 1.
This placing of Hindu kings on par with Muslim invaders in the context of iconoclasm suffers from serious shortcomings. Firstly, it lacks all sense of proportion when it tries to explain away the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain temples by Islamic invaders in terms of the doubtful destruction of a few Buddhist and Jain shrines by Hindu kings. Secondly, it has yet to produce evidence that Hindus ever had a theology of iconoclasm which made this practice a permanent part of Hinduism. Isolated acts by a few fanatics whom no Hindu historian or Pandit has ever admired, cannot explain away a full-fledged theology which inspired Islamic iconoclasm.
Mr. Goel is telling us that while compulsive Muslim ‘ideological’ destruction of temples can be taken as typical and revealing, any such ‘doubtful’ destruction by Hindus is untypical, aberrant, and non-instructive, if indeed much of it ever took place at all. And note the number of temples given here; ‘hundreds of thousands’. Note also the relatively ‘few’ Hindu ’fanatics’, and their summary disconnection from mainstream Hinduism.
Temples were destroyed; the only questions are; how many, and why? This is the area of interpretation where we might expect proper history and mature judgement to appear. Unfortunately not. All estimates of numbers by Hindutva writers are at the highest possible end, and all motivations are the worst imaginable. For instance, the following can be said to contain several kinds of rhetorical overstatement:
The Islamic invasion commenced around 650 A.D., when a Muslim army secured a foothold in Seistan, and continued till the end of the eighteenth century, when the last Islamic crusader, Tipu Sultan, was overthrown by the British. Hordes of Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Afghans who had been successively inspired by the Theology of Islam poured in, in wave after wave, carrying fire and sword to every nook and corner of this vast area. In the process, Sinkiang, Transoxiana region, Seistan and Afghanistan became transformed into dar-ul-Islam where all vestiges of the earlier culture were wiped out.
(S R Goel; ibid., Chapter 10.)
This is indeed a ‘vast area’ in which indigenous culture was entirely ‘wiped out’ by people pouring ‘in’. But into what? Note that areas outside India are deftly run together with areas inside India. The Muslim ‘invasion’ is said to have started in Seistan, but most people would struggle to place Seistan, on the far side of Afghanistan, in any version of ‘India’. Sinkiang certainly never was. This creates a deliberate confusion between ‘the process’ of invasion, the ‘vast area’ in which indigenous culture was entirely wiped out, and India. Areas outside India are also grammatically conflated with areas inside India by the inclusion in the same sentence of Tipu Sultan, in south central India, and the invasion of Seistan, although thousands of miles and eleven hundred years separate them. Also note that dar-ul-Islam is equated with destruction, despite the fact that British India was repeatedly declared dar-ul-Islam by fatwas throughout the nineteenth century. Having artfully set up the widest possible interpretation of all the terms he cares to use, Mr Goel then chooses to talk of ‘every nook and corner’. If he is including Greater India in this area then he is apparently overlooking both Nepal, where Hinduism remained intact and does so to this day, and the kingdoms in British India that never had a Muslim ruler in their entire histories, such as Travancore and Thanjavur (Tanjore).
But the manipulation does not stop there. Having asked us to tremble at such an extensive scale of barbarity and thoroughness, Goel seems to feel that a picture of total Muslim domination does not do much credit to the plucky Hindus. So we are given this to balance it all up:
It should be kept in mind in this context that Muslim rule never became more than a chain of garrison cities and towns, not even in its heyday from Akbar to Aurangzeb, except in areas where wholesale or substantial conversions had taken place. Elsewhere the invaders were rarely in full control of the countryside; they had to mount repeated expeditions for destroying places of worship, collecting booty including male and female slaves, and for terrorising the peasantry, through slaughter and rapine, so that the latter may become a submissive source of revenue. The peasantry took no time to rise in revolt whenever and wherever Muslim power weakened or its terror had to be relaxed for reasons beyond its control.
As history this is getting a little confused. The peasants are terrified yet rise constantly in revolt. Muslims are entirely in control and yet they are not. They dominate, but at every turn they are resisted. Then, a few lines later this:
…by the time we come to the end of the invasion, we find that almost all these Hindu places of worship had either disappeared or were left in different stages of ruination. Most of the sacred sites had come to be occupied by a variety of Muslim monuments [mosques, shrines, tombs, seminaries, and graveyards].
Almost all Hindu temples were destroyed? The hysterical overstatement of all this is probably already apparent, but as to the claim that ‘most of the sacred sites’ were ‘occupied’ we have this explanation:
As we have already pointed out, Hindus being great temple builders, temple materials could be spared for secular structures also, at least in the bigger settlements. It can thus be inferred that all masjids and mazãrs … which date from the first Muslim occupation of a place, stand on the site of Hindu temples; the structures we see at present may not carry evidence of temple materials used because of subsequent restorations or attempts to erase the evidence.
So, in any location, even if there is no evidence either of an original temple, or of temple materials used in Muslim buildings, it can be ‘inferred’ that wherever there is any Muslim building, sacred or domestic, there must have been a Hindu temple originally, because that is where the building materials must have come from, and the original temple must by itself explain the choice of building site. This is a marvellous example of specious logic. Of course there are some mosques built on temple sites, especially in major centres of population, but it is a leap of pure faith to erect such enormous, cast-iron generalisations around the sort of reasoning reproduced above. And to top it off we are told that even where there is no evidence for any of these assertions, this is because it has been removed or deliberately concealed. Anyone could ‘prove’ anything, given a get-out line like that.
Far too many questions remain unanswered. Were the Hindus overpowered or not? And if the Muslims were so powerful and so fanatical about the destruction of Hinduism then why did they not permanently root out the Brahmins and suppress Sanskrit? As it is, both Brahmins and Sanskrit survived. Indeed, some Muslim rulers had Sanskrit literature translated; the Sultan of Gujarat even had a Sanskrit court poet. And if all the temples were everywhere destroyed, then how come they are constantly mentioned in all the sources? Even the fearsome Aurangzeb, the nationalists’ preferred hate figure, did not destroy all the temples in Varanasi (Benares); he only destroyed specific, named temples. It is not possible to build up Aurangzeb as a fanatical, ideological temple destroyer if he was specific about those he destroyed and those he didn’t. The authors’ purpose throughout is to assert that temple destruction was not a policy or a tactic; it was an invariable and permanent imperative. But any attempt to make this out must fail, because India is still covered in temples.
This ties into another nationalist bugbear – the lack of ‘Hindu history’. British writers claimed that the reason for the apparent lack of ‘Hindu’ historical writing, in comparison to Muslim chronicles, was that Hindus did not generally write history, probably because they did not have the temperament to do so. The nationalists explain this (genuine) absence by claiming that the Muslims burned it all. But if they were able to do this with such efficiency, then why did they leave the Vedas and Shastras untouched? The greater the Muslim holocaust is made to be, the more baffling the survival of Hindu culture becomes.
But the danger is still with us, we are warned. The authors stress the contemporary relevance of what they think they detect in medieval history – proof of the implacable fanaticism of all Muslims. ‘Nor is this behaviour pattern a thing of the past’, says Mahavira Jayanti in the Preface. This is echoed later, in Chapter 2, by S. R. Goel. ‘It would certainly be better for everybody to forget the past, but for the prescriptions of Islamic theology which remain intact and make it obligatory for believers to destroy idols and idol temples.’ And Ram Swarup writes: ‘The problem relates to an aggressive theology and political ideology which created an aggressive tradition of history.’ In Hindutva rhetoric, past = present very easily.
Indeed, the present looms over the book more menacingly than the distant past, and here we reach the central objective of the whole nationalist project – the urge to attack the spinelessness and deep-dyed deviousness of Marxists, who refuse to see, let alone condemn, Islamic fanaticism. The authors are determined to contrast themselves to mendacious leftist, secularist historians who wish to undermine or actively destroy India’s historic culture. Arun Shourie writes in Chapter 1: ‘In dealing with its subject, [this book] exercises complete fidelity to truth; unlike secularist and Marxist writers, it does not believe in re-writing and fabricating history.’
Where once the threat to India’s national life was the British and their Christian missionaries, now the danger is Islamic extremists who cannot wait to empty the land of Bharat of its holy idols. And the real scandal is that these fanatics are protected, deliberately, by another bunch of unpatriotic, destructive fanatics – Marxists.
For Shourie & co. the universal misbehaviour of Muslims is only matched by the perfidy of Marxists, particularly of Marxist politicians ‘masquerading’ as historians. Marxists, they think, have an agenda to deflect attention from the crucial evidence about Islam that mediaeval history provides. The reader is left in no doubt that all the problems relating to the destruction of mediaeval temples are still with us in the here and now, that they will not go away, that there is danger, betrayal and calamity in the air. This is the centrepiece of the book’s whole verbal-logical project, which is to compress all Muslims, old and new, into one, indivisible block, by insisting on the invariable nature of Islam. This permits the attribution of mediaeval Islamic attitudes to Muslims in contemporary India, enabling their collective behaviour to be predicted with certainty.
Let us examine this fear of Muslims for one minute, and strip it of the menace that the contrived linkage of past and present gives it. The last time Hindus were subjected to Muslim rule it was because they had been conquered. Next time they will have to vote for it – unless, that is, the tiny minority of violent Muslims can somehow overthrow the Indian state, rout the armed forces and cow all 83% of the non-Muslim population. No one who is not already a Muslim, and probably not even the majority of mainstream Muslims, would vote for the introduction of a hardline Muslim state in India. So what precisely is the fear?
But these are not intellectual arguments at heart. All this is simply about political presentation. Hindutva writers are not really interested in discussing the historical part of the issue at all, which is why the subject is taken up by so many controversialists who have no historical standing, and who do not seek to do anything more than parrot the most exaggerated parts of the temple destruction record. This is a battle waged in the present about present day issues. The objective is to prove that the worst of the old Muslims are the same as all of the current Muslims. And if not to prove it, then at least to suggest it often enough that people begin to accept it from sheer repetition. Repetition with vehemence is the Hindu right’s best hope of getting this point across, because it is not a logically tenable position. Its weakness should have been enough to have seen it off years ago, but unfortunately as an argument it has been immensely strengthened by the similarly illogical claims of Osama bin Laden, who was always happy to agree that his brand of Islam was exactly the same as that of the most fanatical of the medieval Muslims, and he was not reluctant to prove it.
The last word in scholarship on this matter currently comes from Richard M. Eaton, whose essay ‘Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States’ appears in Beyond Turk and Hindu, (eds. David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence: University Press of Florida, 2000). In Eaton’s opinion, which might come as a surprise after all that has come before, there are no more than about eighty certain cases of temple destruction in India by Muslim rulers between 1192 and 1729. This would seem very low, but it is a minimum figure made up by counting all those cases where we have verifiable or compelling testimony from chronicles and/or archaeological evidence. The number therefore could be rather higher than eighty, and undoubtedly it is. How much higher is of course the question, but it does not have to be very much higher, especially when we note that this figure excludes the especially destructive activities of Mahmud of Ghazni. It is certainly not in the hundreds of thousands. Eaton, meanwhile, is dismissed as a Marxist by Hindutvavadins to this day.
But the Hindu right do have a point – at least concerning the current telling of this tale within India itself. They insist that the general willingness to cover up and misrepresent Indian history starts at the very top. In newly independent India it was Nehru’s mild and conciliatory reading of medieval events that held sway. The concept of a syncretic Indian ‘composite’ culture was dominant, a political hangover from the Congress struggle for independence, in which the need for national unity – at almost any price – was considered of paramount importance. Such an atmosphere did not discourage a small degree of truth-bending, and the immediate beneficiaries of this tolerance were Muslim rulers long dead, some of whom were certainly not especially tolerant themselves, but all of whom found a little cultural latitude rubbing off on them from Akbar’s illustrious example. This picture was first challenged when the Janata coalition government took power in 1977, whereupon it decided to revise the content of India’s school textbooks. The attempt ended when the coalition, weak and short lived, was swept away by the return of Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1980. But the marker had been laid down.
With the advent of a strong nationalist government in 1999, the textbooks were again up for revision. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) was purged (of ‘Marxists’) and it became an organ of the Hindutva project, committed to educating India’s youth about Muslim atrocities. Another attempt was then made to rewrite the textbooks used across the country. But the BJP squandered their opportunity. The books that resulted were of poor quality, hastily assembled, and largely written by obscure and not particularly competent historians. There was also the problem that education is a state level subject under the Indian constitution, so regional resistance to the new approach was easily organised.
There is a short but fascinating book written about this episode by Professor R. P. Singh entitled Indian History in the Dock (All India Association of Teacher Educators; no publication date, but the Preface is dated 2003.) The book covers the recruitment of suitable writers to create the new texts, highlighting how the old guard did not wish to take on the changed brief. It also weighs in to the controversy surrounding the lengthy and detailed criticisms of the new textbooks made by the left-leaning Indian History Congress, under the title An Index of Errors. Some of these ‘errors’ were not very serious, being largely a matter of poor English or incorrect details such as spellings. But there were also a number of revisionist statements, about the authority and content of the Vedas, the identity of the Aryans, the degree of temple destruction, and the role of the Hindu right in the national independence struggle, along with a general denial that there was ever a ‘composite’ Hindu-Muslim culture in the mediaeval period. All these revisions were noted in the Index, but in some ways doing this only served to draw attention to the subtlety of the political purposes that these subjects had previously served.
Professor Singh’s book is also interesting because it includes an attempt to understand the alliance between god-fearing Muslims and atheist Marxists. The reality of this apparently contradictory alliance is an absolute given for all Hindutva ideologues; Singh actually tries to explain it. His efforts are somewhat marred by his preference for elliptical sarcasm, but the overall thrust still emerges. He begins by stating that a Muslim communist is ‘a religious aberration and a logical impossibility’ (p. 20), then later ‘an enigma… if not a practical joke’ (p. 21). But these people do exist and they are definitely the enemy, especially the likes of Professor Mushirul Hasan, to the destruction of whose positions Singh devotes a great deal of space. According to Singh, the link between the two incompatible ideologies is aggressiveness. Their particular appeal in India is that a small town Marxist passes as an intellectual among his/her contemporaries. Taken together this means that ‘educated Indian Muslims found Marxism a godsend opportunity to display their communal frenzy’ (p. 19-20). Finally, the essential contradictions in the Muslim-Marxist position are resolved because ‘Indian leftists operate independently of their internationally accepted definitions’ (p. 20). Singh appears to mean that Muslim leftism is not proper leftism, whereas the communalism of Muslims is the real thing. Marxism is just a cover for the communal hatred that was there anyway, courtesy of Islam. Certainly both elements are dedicated enemies of Hindus, and that serves as sufficient basis for their marriage.
Lastly, Professor Singh considers that the rewriting of schoolbooks, and the methods used to do it, were quite justified – even if only on a wrong-for-wrong basis. ‘I should like to recount for the benefit of my friends in the Left the way their friends and masters behaved when they had the power; and ask: what are they howling about now?’ (p. 34). For Singh, a professional educationalist by trade, stresses how much all this bitterness relates to patronage, appointments and tenure – to what he calls the building of an ‘empire’ by secular liberals and leftists within the Indian historical establishment. In other words, this is all about money, preferment and political manipulation as much as it is about abstract ideas. In sum, the opponents of the Hindu right are both too idealistic and too materialistic. We, as readers, are left to pick the bones out of all this as best we can.
Perhaps, finally, it is worth making a case that a full acceptance of large-scale destruction of temples by Muslims in the medieval period would be a beneficial thing. There are several reasons for this, first among which would be that it is the truth. Sound history cannot hurt anyone at a distance of centuries, and it is far better to base a social consensus on something true than something that is essentially a lie. It is good for society, and an encouragement to scholarship, when we all have a reliable version of the truth to work with. The contrary case is too dark to contemplate. Certainly all the most vicious dictatorships in world history have rested upon a series of interlinked lies about ‘national’ history and the collective ‘character’ of communities – good or bad.
Secondly, in terms of the ‘Muslim problem’ so beloved of the nationalists, the free acceptance of the reality of temple destruction (set in context and with an acceptance that followers of other religions sometimes did the same thing) would give moderate Muslims a chance to accept a consensual version of history, and in so doing to reject and undermine extremism. It should be as easy for mainstream Muslims today to distance themselves from temple destruction as it is for mainstream Christians to distance themselves from the mentality and intentions of the Crusades. Realistic, truthful assessments of the scale of temple destruction can only help. Acceptance of the historic fact can isolate extremists on both sides.
The only laugh in this whole business comes courtesy of the prolific American historian Stanley Wolpert, a man who can always be relied upon to come up with flights of strange literary fancy. In his India (University of California Press, 1991) he writes of how ‘most’ temple idols from pre-Muslim times ‘have a broken nose, arm or other fractured feature, hacked from their stone body by some angry Muslim sword’ (p. 41). Wolpert thus reveals that he has little acquaintance with swords, or cannot imagine their value to mediaeval warriors, or is simply ignorant of the effects of stone on edged metal weapons. Does he not remember that in the child’s game of ‘Paper Scissors Stone’, it is stone that beats scissors?
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