Intolerance debate: How some historical brutalities are more special than others

Intolerance debate: How some historical brutalities are more special than others
Photo Credit: Sculpture of a Sikh execution on a death wheel (charkhari) at Mehdiana Sahib
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This is the second of a three-part article.
Part I: Why the ‘intolerance debate’ is far from over

If polishing the Chaturvarna or caste system is priority number one for the right-wing, priority number two is reinterpreting Indian history, and Indian nationhood itself, in terms of religious conflict. Here’s the paragraph from the statement by the 47 right-wing academicians that sets out this agenda most clearly, in the form of an accusation against the protesters:

A refusal to acknowledge the well-documented darker chapters of Indian history , in particular the brutality of many Muslim rulers and their numerous Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and occasionally Christian and Muslim victims (ironically, some of these tyrants are glorified today); the brutal intolerance of the Church in Goa, Kerala and Puducherry; and the state-engineered economic and cultural impoverishment of India under the British rule. While history worldwide has wisely called for millions of nameless victims to be remembered, Indian victims have had to suffer a second death, that of oblivion, and often even derision.

Go through that paragraph again, and see if you can notice what can only be termed a peculiar characterisation of the issue.  It makes a general point: that darker chapters of Indian history ought to be acknowledged and its victims remembered, just as history worldwide has wisely called for millions of nameless victims to be remembered.  A person from outer space would, of course, consider that a valid and reasonable demand, which ought to be taken aboard and considered.

But wait, the 47 are not concerned about all brutalities; some brutalities are more special than others. Or, “in particular, the brutality of Muslim rulers” and the “brutal intolerance of the Church in Goa, Kerala and Puducherry”. Why would that be? Why would they not be equally concerned about the brutalities of, say, King Harshadeva of Kashmir, who destroyed both Hindu and Buddhist temples and even had an official with the title of devotpaatana-nayaka, destroyer of gods? Or the depredations of Shashanka of Bengal, who murdered Rajyavardhana, the Buddhist King of Thanesar, destroyed the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, and replaced Buddha statues with Shiva Lingams; or a hundred other examples of indignities, brutalities and intolerance in Indian history (as in the history of all places through all of time) that involved religions, sects and clans of all kinds – Vaishnavites and Shaivites, Buddhists and Jains, Hindus and Buddhists.

When history is peppered with atrocities, why would you pick out some for special treatment? This, despite the fact that multitudes of invaders, from the Greeks to the Sakas to the Huns to the Kushans, have come to India and made it their home and despite the fact that most conflicts among kingdoms and empires, whether in India or elsewhere, have been the result of temporal or secular power play, with religion often used only as a tool? This would apply to most Mughal rulers, or Mauryan rulers, or Alexander, or Darius, or Genghis Khan for that matter. Even the Christian crusades are better understood when the domestic political power play and economic situation in Europe at the time are taken into account.

Indic and non-Indic

So to understand the peculiar stance of the 47 – first to see conflicts purely in religious terms and then to focus on the brutalities of some conflicts and not others –  is to understand that they have, a priori, bought into the Hindutva definition of Indian nationhood as conceived for the first time in the early 20th century. In this innovative definition as laid out by Savarkar, all religions practised in India today are divided into two categories: Indic (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) and non-Indic (Islam, Christianity). The followers of the second set of religions are eternal outsiders, to be considered inimical, no matter that the vast majority of them are as much sons and daughters of the soil as Savarkar himself is, with equal rights as any other human being to choose their religions, sects, gods, or non-gods. In fact, the vast majority of them would also be refugees from the oppression of the very caste system which the 47 academicians want to applaud.

Here’s the Savarkar quotation that separates out the Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews from the Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs:

“For though Hindustan to them is Fatherland, as to any other Hindu, yet it is not to them a Holy Land too. Their Holy Land is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently, their names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin. Their love is divided.”

The most influential of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s founding fathers, MS Golwalkar, developed this line of pernicious thought further, to say what all Indians who are not Hindus must do:

“[they] must adopt Hindu culture and language, must learn and respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture…. In a word, they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizen’s rights.”

This is no isolated statement; the books he wrote teem with paragraphs that reflect the same sentiment.

Both the original formulation of the theory and its practical application by Golwalkar are utterly flawed even on a cursory examination, because if these arguments were valid, then the millions of Indian-origin American or European citizens who regard India as their Holy Land would need to be considered inimical in those countries, especially since they are not even sons or daughters of the soil, unlike the Muslims or Christians in India.  The same argument for discrimination would hold true for the hundreds of millions of Buddhists around the world, whether in Japan, China or Sri Lanaka, who regard many places in India as their Holy Land.

But let’s keep aside the lack of reason and logic in Savarkar’s and Golwalkar’s argument, and look at how their views might explain the stand of the 47. If you see Indian nationhood in Savarkarian terms, as one defined by faith, then it begins to make sense why Indian history should be seen through the lens of religion, as a sequence of communal wars and resultant atrocities. But if you see Indian nationhood as defined by a common allegiance to the Indian Constitution and by common shared, lived experiences over the past many centuries and millennia, the project of the 47 to assign special significance to some brutalities and not others stand out as a blatantly political exercise to divide Indian citizens, a project that goes against the spirit of the Constitution whose foundational principle is equality for everyone irrespective of caste, religion, or gender.