Dear Dr. Shalini Sharma,
Your article ‘Hindutva and historical revisionism’ has been described as an “excellent piece” by Dr. Priyamvada Gopal, Reader in Anglophone and Related Literature at Cambridge University. Journalist and historian, Andrew Whitehead, praised it as an “important article.” I presume it must have been to warrant publication in the esteemed web-based journal History Workshop Online. Not being a historian of South Asia (or of any other area), I do not expect my comments to matter much within historical circles, among which your work is presumably regarded as being of a high quality and deserving of respect. I hope that readers (or you) will not take issue with the quibbles I want to raise about your article in the vain hope of offering a response to some of your claims. This is especially so as you refer to Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara, a major intellectual in the study of the cultural differences between India and the West, who has developed his own research programme devoted to it, and who has significantly influenced my own work.
You identify a rise in the phenomenon of historical revisionism, which you say has been growing since the Ayodhya incidents of 1992, with calls for a Hindu-centred approach to Indian history. You don’t explain on what grounds those who make such calls do so and why you think they are not justified, although it is implicit in your article that such calls can never be justified.
You claim that Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara sits at the centre of all the resurgence in nationalist revisionism. You say that this is because (a) he has the ear of PM Modi and (b) because he was invited to talk at the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR). Instead of providing a link to the available YouTube version of that talk or its extended paper version (also available on academia.edu) you only give a link to the late Praful Bidwai’s blog on that event. The title of Praful Bidwai’s blog article is significant: “How the Sangh Parivar is taking over education and culture institutions”. That blog also happens not to provide the relevant links to Balagangadhara’s talk. Why doesn’t either of you provide a link to the talk that constitutes a central plank in your respective hypotheses?
Having the ear of somebody can mean that one has the attention of that person, even favourable attention. If your account is reliable, then Balagangadhara has Modi’s favourable attention. You do not say how this favourable attention translates into Balagangadhara being at the centre of all the resurgence in nationalist revisionism. So the burden rests on the talk that Balagangadhara gave at the ICHR. That must represent the vital clue as to how Balagangadhara might sit at the centre of all historical revisionism.
It is not completely clear whether you have heard Balagangadhara’s talk or if you have read the extended paper version. You could easily have done so given that both are freely available online. I presume the topic of the talk, “What do Indians Need, A History or the Past?” would have been of interest to you given your interest in Indian history (and any revisionism applied to it). However, I think readers may not be blamed for reaching the conclusion that you have probably not heard or read the lecture. If you had read it, you could not possibly make the claims you do in your article. For example, in the written version of his talk, Balagangadhara says that:
The ideologues of the Sangh Parivar might do what centuries of colonialism tried but could not accomplish: destroy the Indian culture and her traditions irreplaceably and irrevocably. They might do that while truly believing that they are ‘saving’ the Indian culture and her traditions.
Whatever the Sangh Parivar ideologues might be attempting to do, it can hardly be claimed that Balagangadhara’s claim here is consistent with their ideology. Any reader would rightly conclude that Balagangadhara is critical of their actions, which would be destructive, as he says, of Indian culture and traditions. Your (and Bidwai’s) hypothesis, however, requires Balagangadhara’s and the Parivar’s projects to be working in the same direction of historical revisionism. In so far as your hypothesis of revisionism depends on Balagangadhara’s role in that project your claims require further explanation or additional hypotheses to hold water.
Let us take another one of your statements. You say that, “At the heart of Balagangadhara’s revisionism lies an appropriation of post-colonial theory which should ring alarm bells.” Appropriation is generally taken to mean that one takes or treats something as one’s own and, sometimes, it has the connotation of doing so without permission. Given that the taking-without-permission interpretation would lead to a blind alley in academic contexts where the exchange of ideas is presumed to be the norm, I am prepared to discard that as your intended meaning. Further, since one cannot own a theory, probably you intend to say that Balagangadhara is instead using postcolonial theory, although it seems fairly obvious that you have some sort of illicit use in mind. Since there are many theorists described as post-colonial we might take the ones that Balagangadhara does discuss.
If Edward Said is a post-colonial theorist, then, at best, we can say that Balagangadhara accepts only some of Said’s insights, while showing how they may be better understood to explain how we think of and study India today. Balagangadhara goes further. He provides arguments why Said fell short by making inconsistent claims or shows that Said makes claims that cannot be supported. Rather than describing Balagangadhara’s discussion of Said as an ‘appropriation’, I would have used the term ‘critique’. Perhaps there is a particular convention among historians, of which I remain ignorant, that makes it more appropriate to use the term ‘appropriation’.
It may be that you have not read Balagangadhara’s account of Said’s Orientalism, which is published, among other places, in his book Reconceptualizing India Studies. Had you read the book, you might also have come across Balagangadhara’s discussion of Homi Bhabha, another post-colonial theorist. It could hardly be said that Balagangadhara ‘appropriates’ (in the sense of treating as his own) Bhabha’s notion of mimicry as resistance. In fact, Balagangadhara criticises Bhabha’s acceptance of the mimic as exemplary by describing the mimic as a coward because he cannot make his resistance explicit. Balagangadhara says that such a mimic-resister is someone who bears out the coloniser’s description of the colonised as an inauthentic being. If Said appears useful after modification, Bhabha appears to merit discarding. Bernard Cohn, upon whom you also rely, is not someone discussed to any major extent by Balagangadhara in the writing I am aware of. But then you do not make clear how if at all Balagangadhara ‘appropriates’ Cohn. In any event, I found what you want to say with respect to Cohn completely opaque. No doubt this reflects my own inability to penetrate the deep insights of post-colonialism and not on any lack on your part.
You say, “Balagangadhara reads Indian history through the optic of ‘orientalism’, particularly in the way in which it is freighted with Christianity.” This statement is a further indication that you may not have read or understood Balagangadhara’s claims. From one interpretation of what you say, reading Indian history through the “optic” or “eyes” of Orientalism would make one an Orientalist. But since he does not read Indian history through the optic of Orientalism, Balagangadhara cannot be an Orientalist. This is probably not what you meant to say anyway (you do say later that: “Balagangadhara argues that orientalism shaped and determined the colonial knowledge of and within India”; see below on this). Probably then you mean something like, “Balagangadhara considers that our current view of India’s past is conditioned by Orientalism, which is dependent on Christianity”. If that is that you meant, then I find it difficult to understand what your problem with that claim is. A number of writers, including Edward Said, Ronald Inden, Nicholas Dirks, and so on. consider that our current view of India’s past is conditioned by Orientalism. Although he does not address the issue in any detail or depth in his book Orientalism, Edward Said himself considered that earlier layers of Orientalism were conditioned by Christianity.
But let us go deeper into the claims you make: “Balagangadhara argues that orientalism shaped and determined the colonial knowledge of and within India.” The hyperlink is to the book Rethinking Religion in India, which carries chapters by various authors, including those working within the framework of Balagangadhara’s research programme, as well as by Balagangadhara himself. Presumably, you are signposting to Balagangadhara’s chapter in that book, which presents an abbreviated version of his hypothesis about religion in India. In your own statement, you seem to be fusing Balagangadhara’s claims about Orientalism with his claims about colonialism. Balagangadhara, Said and others would agree that Orientalism both precedes and postdates formal colonialism. Orientalism is therefore the discourse according to which descriptions of the Orient get arranged in such a way that they become compatible and consistent with Western culture. This is why Balagangadhara can claim that Orientalism is not an objective description of the Orient (although it appears to be that), but rather that studying it tells us about the Western culture that gave rise to it. Colonialism is a process distinct from Orientalism. Balagangadhara separates out the aspect of colonialism that is an educational project, tied to the way in which the coloniser’s account of the culture of the colonised is transmitted to the latter. Among the outcomes of this process is the engendering of colonial consciousness in the colonised, which prevents access to the experience of the colonised to himself.
Perhaps your sentence that follows immediately is also of interest: “Indeed, any attempt to know India from a social science or humanities perspective is to pursue, unwittingly, a Christian agenda.” One of the definitions of ‘agenda’ is ‘the underlying intentions or motives of a particular person or group’; another is ‘an underlying often ideological plan or program’. If these definitions reflect your intended meaning, then your statement would not be a correct description of Balagangadhara’s work because he does not say that those doing social science and humanities are following some Christian agenda. Neither do you provide any specific clues as to why it is plausible to claim that Balagangadhara says so. However, he can, I believe, be interpreted as saying that doing the currently dominant social sciences and humanities is to repeat Christian theological ideas about human beings that have become the common sense of Western culture. To the extent that they depend on such ideas, social sciences and humanities are not sciences at all but purvey secularised Christian themes. Similar claims are made in the field of comparative religion by other writers (e.g. some writers in the Rethinking Religion volume that you hyperlink). In other fields, such as law or political theory, there are writers (Harold Berman, John Witte, Marcello Pera) who also make cognate claims. These writers enable us to conclude that any claims that these fields are scientific must fail because they import (or to use your terminology, they are ‘freighted with’) theological themes and concepts. Prominent scientists such as Feynman have also made the claim about social sciences not quite being sciences. Balagangadhara also points to the basically unscientific nature of research in the social sciences. This not because of some “agenda” or the other but because of the problematic knowledge claims being made within the social sciences.
You go on to say that, “It has the effect of producing an ‘unbroken line of continuity’ with the orientalist writings about the ’religions’ in India.’” This sentence follows from the one just discussed. The quoted sections are from Balagangadhara’s chapter in the Rethinking Religion book and are made within discussion about the existence of religions in India. Balagangadhara’s actual sentence is as follows:
In fact, this is also the status of the field today: the writings in the humanities and social sciences maintain an unbroken line of continuity with the orientalist writings on these ‘religions’ in India.
Perhaps it is better to consider that sentence with the one by you that immediately follows:
“Generations of Indian intellectuals only regard Hinduism as a religion simply because they have been infused with something called ‘colonial consciousness’, a condition ‘generated through violence, reproduced through asymmetries in power and sustained by an ideology – the ideology of a Christian theological framework’.”
Firstly, you have incorrectly reproduced the quoted section alleged to be from Balagangadhara in this sentence (‘generated through violence, reproduced through asymmetries in power and sustained by an ideology – the ideology of a Christian theological framework’). The words “ideology of a Christian theological framework” do not appear anywhere in Balagangadhara’s chapter in the Rethinking Religion book to which the hyperlink is provided, but the following words do appear in his chapter in that book: “generated through violence, reproduced through asymmetries in power and sustained by an ideology”. If one assumes that no other writing of Balagangadhara’s is meant to be the source (none other is referenced or hyperlinked after all), the alleged quotation is incorrect and misleading.
Secondly, Balagangadhara does not say that Hinduism is regarded as a religion because of colonial consciousness. Since Balagangadhara denies there is religion in India, for him the question is not whether Hinduism is a religion but whether religion exists in India at all. He is also able to show how, nevertheless, it was necessary that those from the Western culture saw religion in India. Although Hinduism is claimed to be one of the religions that exists in India, Balagangadhara denies that such a thing exists except in Western universities. Balagangadhara further says that the reason why Indian intellectuals think there exists something called Hinduism is because of colonial consciousness. Again, you do not appear to have understood one of Balagangadhara’s central claims.
As noted, you have not explained how differences on history between the Sangh Parivar ideologues and Balagangadhara can be reconciled in such a way as to enable your hypothesis to get off the ground. Balagangadhara’s claims about religion and Hinduism are fatal for your hypothesis regarding Balagangadhara’s central role in Hindutva revisionism. Given that one must accept the existence of Hinduism to subscribe to Hindutva ideology, it is impossible to ascribe that ideology and consequent revisionism to Balagangadhara.
You turn your attention to me: “In the UK too, Hindu nationalism has found its voice, in the work of Prakash Shah.” I presume you do not appreciate the effect that such a claim has in Britain and that you do not intend to make defamatory allegations. It is an invitation to fellow scholars and to others to disregard my work and dissociate themselves from me. While various types of nationalism – whether it is multiple forms of European nationalism, Zionism, or the Islamic umma – tend to be treated with a degree of scepticism and even disapprobation, the kind of stigma that the tag of Hindu nationalism brings with it has no parallel. The label is enough to discredit a scholar and irreparably damage him in the eyes of others, leading to a refusal to publish his work, to disallow favourable reviews of his work to be published, to reject applications to have his research funded, and to curtail chances of obtaining employment. Another post-colonial scholar, Prof. Gurminder K. Bhambra (now of Sussex University), has previously tried to use the Hindu-nationalist accusation against me, and hers is not the only such attempt.
You may be forgiven for not being familiar with much of my writing. That should ordinarily have been a reason for circumspection but that consideration does not hold you back. You have probably not read my chapter “The Indian Dimension of An-Na’im’s Islam and the Secular State” (In: Marie-Claire Foblets and Jean-Yves Carlier (eds.): Islam and Europe: Crises are challenges. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2010, pp. 153-166, SSRN version available here). At the end of that chapter, in the last line, I write that “Nationalism is a European inheritance that Indians would do better to forego.” This is not a ringing endorsement of nationalism of any kind. The problem it poses for you is how you would reconcile the thought I express with your own claims about me. In attempting to do so, you might examine my work more thoroughly to understand just what views I hold of Hindu nationalism.
You go on to say:
Like Balagangadhara, Shah asserts that accounts of Aryan invasion and the caste system are ‘ways of constructing “knowledge” about Indian society that have their roots in Christian, theologically driven assessments of Indian culture and traditions.
In the paper of mine that you hyperlink to, my claims regarding the Aryan invasion debate rely on the writing of Belgian scholar, Marianne Keppens, who also works in the framework of Balagangadhara’s research programme. She would probably find amusing, though not surprising, that her work is being linked to Hindutva. Let me group your claim above to a couple of others where you raise the caste system issue:
The main focus for Balagangadhara, Shah and others, is the idea of a caste system. This, they argue, like Hinduism, is a construction of colonialism, foisted upon authentic Indians by outsiders.
Whilst caste does exist, Hindutva revisionists argue that the caste system, like Hinduism, does not.
It is completely unclear why Balagangadhara’s, Dunkin Jalki’s (who you regard as a “Hindutva apologist”) or my claims about the caste system would turn us into Hindutva revisionists. In a recent co-edited book, The Western Foundations of the Caste System, we make the claim that the caste system does not exist. No Hindutva ideologue I am familiar with has made this claim. If you know of one you might do me the favour of pointing it out. Even then, such a thinker would have to go against the main thrust of a century and more of Hindu revivalist writing, which accepts that a caste system exists. In a recent article, Christophe Jaffrelot says that the varna system was endorsed by a series of Hindu revivalists including “Deendayal Upadhyaya, the Sangh Parivar’s influential ideologue”. If they did endorse this system, how is their endorsement similar in any way to what Balagangadhara and those of us who work within his research programme argue? In fact, if Hindu nationalists accept the existence of the caste system, those of us who work within Balagangadhara’s research programme argue the opposite: that it does not exist. One often finds Hindutva ideologues and activists taking an anti-caste stand, which indicates that they accept something of the description of India as having a caste system. We do not accept the caste system as describing India. Had you understood this, you might have found the difference interesting to explore not least because it goes against your assumptions about the consistency between the claims of Hindu nationalists and Balagangadhara’s research programme. Meanwhile, I suppose you don’t realise the ground you share in common with Hindu nationalists: you agree that India has Hinduism and the caste system.
Although your point about Hinduism has been dealt with above, in the Rethinking Religion book to which you provide a hyperlink, Balagangadhara is not the only contributor who says that Hinduism does not exist. In the same book, Timothy Fitzgerald says the following (at p. 122): “The idea that such imagined entities as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism can be harmlessly lined up as equal members of the same genus religion, which is loaded with Christocentric history, is itself part of modern ideology, as I argued in detail in my book The Ideology of Religious Studies…” Does Fitzgerald claiming that we have imagined entities such as Hinduism because of Christocentric history make him a Hindu nationalist or Hindutva revisionist? So why should it transform Balagangadhara into one? In the same book the editors provide (at p. 11) a quote from Frits Staal who says: “Vedic, Brahmanical, Hindu, Buddhist, . . . In Asia, such groupings are not only uninteresting and uninformative, but tinged with the unreal.” Same again?
There is something very peculiar about the way in which you write, although I am certain that you do not consciously intend the implication that I am drawing from it. You appear to be deeply uncomfortable dealing fairly and squarely with ideas of those of Indian origin (Balagangadhara, Jalki, myself). As the quote from Fitzgerald demonstrates, any resemblance between what those Indian origin writers say and what those from other backgrounds say is not addressed or accounted for in your article. You do not explain how they turn out not to be Hindu nationalists (at least they are excluded from mention as such) but the Indian origin writers who may claim something similar are turned into Hindu nationalists because of those claims. I am sure it would be untrue to accuse you of being a racist, but then what should we describe what you do as?
Let me deal finally with your point about the defenders of low-caste Dalits.
In fact, Hindutva revisionism goes one step further, accusing the defenders of low-caste Dalits of being responsible for sectarianism. Shah has argued that not only did Ambedkar advocate that the only way to destroy the caste system was to destroy Hinduism, and that Periyar E. V. Ramasamy, the founder of the ‘Self-Respect Movement’, made his followers murder high-caste Brahmans, but also that both men wanted the British to remain in India.
What you say here misrepresents what I have actually said. I do not say that Periyar made his followers murder high-caste Brahmins. In fact, I say the following (at p. 158 of my hyperlinked article), which is derived from various published and clearly cited sources, primarily Nicholas Dirks’ major work, Castes of Mind:
Although Dirks (2001: 255-274) does not read the evidence in that way, his account of the thoughts and actions of both his representative anti-caste figures, Periyar and Ambedkar, supports the contention that, indeed, they had thoroughly imbibed the Protestant accounts of the caste system, so much so that they both routinely attacked Hinduism, Brahmanism and Brahmins; both also burned copies of the dharmashastra text, Manusmriti. In Periyar’s case, it also amounted to physical attacks as his followers “beat priests and idols with shoes” (261), while “on more than one occasion he implied that Brahmans should be murdered” (262). Such attacks have carried on in post-independence India by adherents of Periyar’s ideology (Seshadri). Ambedkar was meanwhile adamant that destroying caste required destroying the religion, Hinduism (Dirks 267). As noted, Ambedkar subscribed to the European Enlightenment values of liberty, equality and fraternity (Roy 48, 51), while neither he nor Periyar wanted the British to leave India (Shourie Worshipping False Gods, Ambedkar 237n).
Let us leave aside your fairly obvious distortion of what I had written. I assume that you had also read that the main source that I cite in the above passage (as you provide a hyperlink to it for your readers to check) is Nicholas Dirks. You take no issue with Dirks for his claims, but with me! Racism?
So, as you might agree, your article contains some of the following problems: instances of misquoting, misrepresentation and distortion of the work of others; a lack of understanding of some basic claims made in Balagangadhara’s work and within his research programme; a lack of understanding of some well known features of the work of Hindutva ideologues; a failure to read the work of the scholars that you wish to critique; reaching conclusions that could not be derived from the alleged evidence for them; making claims that cannot be substantiated and which are against the weight of the evidence; attempting to criticise scholars of being Hindu nationalists, Hindutva revisionists or Hindutva apologists because they say certain things whereas other, non-Indian scholars, who make similar claims are not so labelled. Apart from these admittedly minor problems with your article, I am sure that those who describe it as “excellent” or “important”, and those who agreed to have it published, deserve plaudits for recognising a work of such significance.
I very much look forward to reading your future work, which promises to be equally reliable and a significant marker in the field.
Yours in friendship,