Sunday, May 25, 2008

With Friends Like These, Having Enemies is Better

Arun Shourie

Some months ago an official of the United States state department met me through a common scholar friend. The official had been following Indian affairs for many years, in particular the Indian press. He knew more about the press, specially about trends in our Indian language papers than a casual reader like me is ever likely to know. He was also concerned about the frequency with which our countries get into scraps with each other. Last week the same scholar friend sent me an account which that officer had written and circulated about the way India, in particular Hindus, are again being portrayed in the USA. The note deserves to be read in full, so what follows is the verbatim text of his note.

Politically aware Indians have made much recently of the increasing strain between the US administration and India over positions and statements on Kashmir. Those expressing this concern, however, may be unaware of a growing phenomenon currently taking place which has more profound and far-reaching implications: legitimisation of Hindu-bashing in US institutions.

Influenced and supported by noisy self-appointed Indian "secularists," many western scholars and government officials are now taking a position on Hindu revivalism. With very few exceptions, this position is exceedingly negative. Though this phenomenon is now limited to those conversant with South Asia and has not yet influenced the general public's opinions, in time it will. Though there are many forums for Hindu-bashing currently being opened, I will reserve my comments here to two recent conferences, one sponsored by the US state department and one by the University of Wisconsin.

On July 16 of this year the state department held a conference entitled, Hindu Revivalism in India: Position, Prospects and Implications for the US. Many highly placed individuals were present including ambassador elect deputy assistant secretary for Regional Analysis Phyllis Oakley and a wide range of US government officials. Scholars were invited to make presentations on Hindu revivalism. On the whole, the atmosphere was one of ridicule. There was a lot of finger pointing at Hindu revivalism as the source of India's current problems and of potential conflict with the US.

On November 5-7, at the annual conference on South Asia at Madison, Wisconsin, two panels and many individual presentations were devoted to Hindu nationalism. Every single presentation was negative towards Hindu nationalism with remarkable statements being made that I never thought I would hear in an academic institution.

I will detail the presentation of Lisa McKean of the University of Sydney because she was a featured speaker at both the University of Wisconsin and at the state department conference. I will give a sampling of the statements made by other scholars. Though I have documented their statements as well, I will avoid reference to their names in this note.

Lisa McKean claims to have spent a lot of time with Vishwa Hindu Parishad, enough to make scholarly presentations, anyway! The basic thrust of her argument is that Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America is a fascist organisation which remits funds to its illegal sister organisation in India. Not mentioned of course is that the corrupt, opportunistic Congress banned the VHP for its own political gain. Lisa describes VHP sponsored groups in America as "Front Organisations" for a larger fascist cause. She refers to VHP activities, including Diwali celebrations and Swami Chinmayananda's spiritual camps as "covert operations" and to active members as "militant activists." Lisa called the late Shri Chinmayananda a "master manipulator" and alleged that he initiated unwanted physical contact with women, including herself. Not content with merely bashing VHP, however, Lisa referred to the colorful monthly magazine, Hinduism Today as a front paper supporting militant activities. Global Vision 2000 was targeted as a fascist assembly. She described Hindus moving into professional positions as "infiltrators" working for the cause of Hindu fundamentalism. Hindu Digest, Samskar and the Hindu Students Council did not escape her censure.

Perhaps most appalling was the warm hand given to her at the end of her presentation in both conferences. Praised as a "bright, young progressive scholar," most of the audience accepted her statements as fact, particularly those progressive Indian "secularists." One even suggested that universities should perhaps ban Hindu Students Council of America -- imagine the outcry if someone suggested banning an Islamic or Christian Students' Council. Lisa was certainly not alone and played to an appreciative audience in both locations.

Scholars making presentations at the state department conference were less concerned with facts than with making points. Many erroneous statements were made such as "The Sangh Parivar planned the execution of Mahatma Gandhi and will stop at nothing. "The misquoted statement of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray about Indian Muslims being like the Jews of Europe was used in making the authoritative statement that "Sangh Parivar under- prinnings are just like those of Nazis." An example of how criticism of Sangh Parivar activities is extended to Hindus in general is the statement of a Johns Hopkins scholar that "Hindus in the US are very sympathetic and supportive of fundamentalism." One scholar even justified discrimination against Hindus in India itself with the remarkable statement, "Equal rights to the Hindus is equal to abolition of minority rights." The scholar made this statement after echoing the hollow line started by Indian "secularist" Romila Thapar that "There is in reality no such thing as Hinduism."

The University of Wisconsin panels were truly pitiful and I will give only a few quotes from various presentations. One Indian "secularist" suggested that India was an artificial entity which "Requires fascism to maintain its existence." A scholar from Berkeley referred to the "dirty communal imprint" that Hindus leave on Indian society. Hindu Sangram Parishad's effort in India to spread Sanskrit learning among all castes and classes was seen as "militant activity" rather than a remarkable democratisation. Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was referred to as a "Celluloid Divinity" and Swami Vivekananda was refered to as "reactionary at home though seemingly progressive abroad." The popular Ramayana and Mahabharata serials were referred to as "communalist, oppressive and inspirational to fascists."

The University of Wisconsin's willing (witting or unwitting) participation in Hindu-bashing is proven by their giving a booth to the so-called "Overseas Friends of India" from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. This organisation has apparently taken the lead in spreading malicious and misleading propaganda. Calling Hinduism "unrivaled in sheer bigotry and intolerances, these overseas "friends" claim that Hindus plan pogroms of minorities and are guilty of having "banished Buddhism," and having "Forced Jainism into a sect of Hinduism." Rape is claimed as the normal response of a Hindu male to a "minority" woman. Harijans are claimed to he non-Hindu. Sympathy is claimed for the "persecuted Harijans who are not allowed to convert to Christianity or Islam." The "lack of availability of beef" is claimed a "denial of protein to a poor population." Finally these "friends" of India urge overseas Indians to write to their ambassador to urge India to stop this communalist behavior (assist efforts to delegitimise and malign Hinduism). With "friends" like these, having enemies would be an improvement.

There is no doubt that "secular progressive" scholars bash other religions, and traditions as well. The consensus viewpoint of western scholarship for quite some time has basically been one of aggressively promoting atheistic values which denigrate traditional culture and religion. Yet despite the "normalcy" of this denigration, I cannot therefore dismiss these scholars' work as harmless and limited to ivory towers. Though their arrogant pronouncements are irrelevant to, and cannot impact upon divine truth, I fear Hindus in the West may be persecuted due to the willful spread of false and misleading propaganda on the part of these scholars. It particularly pains me to see Indians, Hindu by birth, participate in the denigration of their own civilisation. What would they replace it with, a "progressive India" with a 50 per cent divorce rate, high illegitimate birth rates, McDonalds on every corner, discos replacing temples and MTV as the most watched TV show?

Incredible as the assertions of these misguided "intellectuals" are, there is a danger of an appearance of legitimisation of these ideas through repetition. These unprincipled "scholars" would leave no stone unturned to denigrate Hindu culture. The "secular" Indians are at the forefront of this campaign which is willingly supported by proselytising Muslims and Christians who have the same goal: the denigration and delegitimisation of the traditional Hindu culture and world view. The rhetoric of the "Overseas Friends of India" is similar to that of an extreme group of Protestant evangelicals who have portrayed Rajneesh as mainstream Hinduism and maliciousness and ignorance as prerequisites to being Hindu. How this will affect an unknowing American public, when repeated over time remains an open question. Some possibilities:

Tenure of an university professor of Indian ethnicity being contingent upon his or her allegiance to Hindu-bashing rhetoric when dealing with Indian subject matter (a very real possibility in light of the suppression of the truth already being justified in some universities due to political correctness ideology).

Professional advancement among Hindus in non-university settings requiring their disassociation from "backward" delegitimised practices and beliefs (based on the assumption that the only good Indian is a dead Indian or at least a secular atheist who is "dead" to his own culture and civilisation and therefore "progressive" and "liberal."

Increasing embarrassment and alienation on the part of Hindu youth growing up in this country from identifying with Hindu beliefs and practices due to their delegitimisation.

Hindus having to repeatedly justify their religious practices such as Puja to Ganapati as, not being "one of those weird cult practices."

Hindus having to work much harder to dispel mistaken impressions and to ward off a witch hunt mentality which could be precipitated by incessant Hindu bashing. There is much historical precedent for this in Western culture (Jew-hunts, etc).

The complexity of Indian civilisation simply overwhelms most western scholars (and apparently, Indian "secular" scholars as well). They do not, for the most part, understand that the rhythms of Hinduism beat in the heart of most "oppressed untouchables" and in the hearts of much of "the minorities" as well, including most Indian Muslims before 20th century politicisation. One scholar, facing the complexity of increasing Harijan, Christian and Muslim sympathy for Hindutva, echoed the true feelings that most western scholars have always exhibited towards India. Asked how he could analyse such a complex civilisation, he replied, "When Hinduism dies, we'll do a better job."

The note speaks for itself. Notice the kinds of things that pass for scholarship at meetings of scholars on South Asia. This kind of "scholarship" will certainly harm America itself, as it has done in the past: the then prevalent notions of "political correctness" kept European and American intellectuals from speaking the truth about Communism for decades, and thereby led the governments to misjudge the nature of the beast that confronted them.

Next, notice how several of your friends will react to a note like this one. Sentences in the note speak to the regard this particular official has for India, for Hinduism in particular. In the eyes of so many, this fact alone will be sufficient to destroy the veracity of his narrative, to reduce the importance of what he has pointed out. Now look at the question the other way: how many of the same persons ever discount what a person says about India and Hinduism when it is evident that he hates Hinduism and India? When someone who is obviously attached to Islam says something about Islam -- even in the face of all of its history and all the canonical texts -- do these scholars and friends dismiss it? Do they not on the contrary insist that what he is saying must take precedence over the evidence of mere texts and history'? And now? Because sentences suggest that the official thinks well of India and Hinduism what he says must be discounted! Almost the only thing which might keep such persons from throwing out the note altogether and at the outset itself is the fact it has been written by an American and not an Indian! But what if the officer, though American, actually is one who has converted to Hinduism?! That would be the final, conclusive "proof' surely -- the content itself being the primary "proof!" -- that nothing in the note should be believed at all! "That explains it all," these friends will proclaim in triumph!

"But surely," even the non-secularists among us will exclaim, "it would have been so much better if a person less obviously appreciative of India and Hinduism had written the note." And what is the proof of the person being less than fit to narrate the facts? That he has not indulged in Hindu-bashing! That he has not conformed to the prevailing intellectual fashion, that instead he has shown it up! And what if the "objective", "neutral" scholars are too intimidated by the intellectual fashion to testify to the truth? My friend puts it well. A man tried to stand up to the gangsters in town. In retaliation they set upon his sister, and raped her in view of a large crowd. Everyone was terrified. The brother ran from one eye-witness to the other beseeching them to help him lodge a complaint with the police. None dared. At last he went himself and lodged the FIR. "But wouldn't it have been better if someone other than you had come to register the case'." exclaimed the policeman. "After all, she is your sister. Everyone will say you are an interested party."

That is the secularist position. But notice that this is their position vis-a-vis India and Hindus alone: if the country in question is Palestine and the narrator is a Muslim, say, then they insist that what he says has conclusive evidentiary status. And then there is the other point: if even the brother will shy away from filing the case when his own sister has been raped, why would others?

In a word, what answers to the preceding questions explain is the depth to which our self-esteem has been pushed. what they document is the extent to which secularists have internalised double standards and calumny, and the extent to which they have been able to brow-beat others into adhering to these skewed standards.

Notice the persistence of calumny; the falsehoods which are being hurled at us are exactly the ones which the missionaries fabricated and smeared us with a 100 years ago -- and yet when, at the invitation of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, I had occasion to refer to them two years ago in my book, Missionaries in India, the cry went up, "But why are you digging up these old things? Who talks about India and Hinduism to those terms today?"

Notice the congruence of themes: what is being put of at these conference in the US is exactly what our secularists and others put out in the newspapers here; the themes and premises are the very same -- that there really is no such thing as Hinduism -- the very words are the same. The primary responsibility for this is not of the foreign scholar as of the secularist Indians: just as the spectacles of the foreign correspondent working in Delhi get coloured by what he reads and hears from Indian journalists writing in the English newspapers in this one city, the perception of the foreign scholar -- a "specialist on South Asia" though he be -- gets coloured by what he hears from and reads of the output of Indian scholars.

Notice also the convergence of interests: of the interests of Christian missionaries and Islamic groups, of the official US establishment, of our secularists. Notice the subservience of US academies to the current fashion of "political correctness." Notice the total perversion, indeed the complete inversion: the groups whose foundational belief is theocracy, whose ideology is exclusiveness distilled 10 times over are the very ones who are accusing Hindus of ahem -- theocratic! The very groups the Leftists -- whose forbears collaborated with the Nazis, whose ideology is Nazism by a different name are the ones who are accusing Hindus of being Nazis.

But falsehood is a potent weapon. Neither American Presidents and Congressmen nor the American people at large have any time to ascertain facts about India. Policy is therefore formed by just a handful of middle- level officers -- the Robin Raphaels whose predilections have been on display in such vivid colours these five years. Presidents and Americans in general go along with what this handful concocts -- they are conditioned to do so by the stereotype which they have been fed over the years. It is this stereotype which this kind of falsehood manufactures.

When what the note of this official reveals is the perception Americans are let to form of India, the policy which they will countenance will be one of unadulterated hostility. That will harm not just Indo-US relations, it will harm India no end.

But who cares?

Asian Age
August 30, 1996

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