The Ignorance Within: How Hindutva Plutocrats are weakening the Intellectual Battle for Hindu Survival
Sri Ashok Chowgule, a businessman with shipping and other interests and sometime Working President of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), has written a long response in Swarajya to my recent analysis of why Hindus are losing the cultural battle against media and academic Hinduphobia despite a nominally Hindu-friendly political party and proudly Hindu Prime Minister being in power. From his long but mostly disjointed response, it seems as if Sri Chowgule has glanced passingly at my carefully drawn map of the narrative terrain today, divided as it is unequally between popular Hindu resistance and institutional Hinduphobic hegemony, and then grotesquely misrepresents it as essentially a set of “laments” that have at best only a little cause for concern. He also offers some advice; namely that I should write, speak, and most importantly, “castigate” other members of the academic class, instead of bothering the NDA government which is busy with governance.
Specifically, this is how he characterizes my arguments:
“1. The media and the academe (that is, those occupying the intellectual space) have created a narrative that has made the Hindus ashamed of being a Hindu. He says that this has been going on for a long time, and accepts that this narrative is false.
2. This false and toxic narrative is robbing the masses of their dignity and happiness and is turning them rootless.
3. The present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is doing nothing to counter this toxic narrative.”
This is a vague and inaccurate a summary of my original article, which readers are free to study at Huffpost for themselves, but let us examine what Sri Chowgule makes of it.
Wrong Claim Number 1:
He says I say: The media and the academe (that is, those occupying the intellectual space) have created a narrative that has made the Hindus ashamed of being a Hindu. He says that this has been going on for a long time, and accepts that this narrative is false.
In response to the first straw man he sets up, he says “the real issue is not that a narrative has been created (but that) this is at least a couple of centuries old, started by the British.” He then devotes several paragraphs to Macaulay and the British. I have no idea why he thinks the focus of our debate ought to be the dating of when anti-Hindu ideologies began. As far as I know, I did not say it happened overnight, nor does it really matter in the context of an essay which is about what has to be done to translate political power now, legitimated by Indian democracy at that, into cultural power in the context of concerted global mass media and digital media campaigns against India and Hindus. I am sure he knows that I have written extensively about the history of colonial propaganda against Hinduism before, as I do happen to have some formal education in postcolonial cultural studies. In any case, he contradicts himself. On the one hand, he admits that I say “that this has been going on for a long time” (above) and yet, he chooses to act as if I am saying the narrative has only just been created. Anyway, this is not the main point of our debate, so I will let it pass at that.
Wrong Claim Number 2:
He says I say: This false and toxic narrative is robbing the masses of their dignity and happiness and is turning them rootless
This too is an imaginative and inaccurate reading of my essay. I do not know where I have remotely even said that the masses are being robbed of their dignity and happiness and roots. My critique in this, and several other recent articles and public social media posts, has been of the vulnerability of Indian elites, especially the upper and upper middle class, urban, English-educated ones, to toxic anti-Hindu propaganda, and the indirect effect it will have on weakening the presently still pro-Hindu attitudes of the masses. If Sri Chowgule had read what I had written with attention and not presumption, perhaps he would have noticed this part from my essay: “Indians are deeply aspirational at the moment, and even if the vast majority of small town working and lower middle classes oppose the elites of media and academia today, they will eventually be forced to buy into a fashionable soft Hinduphobia as a marker of upward mobility. This is for the simple reason that there are careers and paths to advancement galore in bashing Hinduism and India. There are none at all, not in media and academia at last, in defending them.”
My point, simply, and precisely, has been about translating the popular Hindu resistance/ revival, one dimension of which is indeed the BJP’s electoral success, into appropriate institutional transformations; not simplistic top-down changes, but organic, competent, and successful engagements with the appropriate institutions (mainly schools, colleges, and media, in India, mainly, but elsewhere too as needed). Specifically my concern is not with some vague “deracination” of the people (I do not think, as Sri Chowgule seems to have assumed, I ever underestimate the power of our people or civilization at all) but specifically, that “a movement will also need to engage and win over a place for itself in the establishment as well. It cannot remain a movement forever. It will be like running on a treadmill and shouting fire instead of actually reaching the place and putting it out.” I also referred here to an earlier piece I had written in The Organizer’s special issue on intellectual decolonization, and if Sri Chowgule has heard of that piece, or journal, he hasn’t shown any signs of it here at least.
Wrong Claim Number 3:
He says I say: The present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is doing nothing to counter this toxic narrative.
I did not say the government is “doing nothing,” but very specifically and explicitly described three sorts of responses the government (or party and party leaders, broadly), are involved with:
“But how the government will deal with this remains to be seen. So far, one can note three tendencies:
One, to ignore the whole narrative front. After all, the longer the big media and academic elites continue their increasingly mendacious attacks on Hindus, the more isolated they become from the majority of Indians, who will in turn strengthen the political base of the party.
Two, to reach out to opponents on the assumption that the BJP is now the grand new party and must be inclusive and “coopt” everyone (though the “coopting” attempts seems like genuflecting and are often brashly rebuffed). This step is usually accompanied by an embarrassed silencing and distancing of sympathetic voices, as if it’s infra dig to still be seen with Hindus.
Three, to dismiss opponents as “antinationals” and “presstitutes” and push the buttons of government force wherever possible to enforce top-down, statist solutions like compulsory national anthem singing on campuses, regurgitation of supposedly patriotic content, and so on.”
I will grant that I did write that “all three approaches are seriously immature and flawed, in my view.” That still remains my view, and unfortunately, another, deeper set of flaws are also apparent now given the sort of readings and solutions Sri Chowgule advocates for in his article.
Does he really believe, as he writes, that the “programme of demonising Hinduism is not working” and somehow the “intellectuals” (presumably he means only the anti-Hindu intellectuals) are now experiencing angst for that reason? What does he make of the recent Hyderabad school incident, where hundreds, literally, hundreds of school-age children ganged up against one small child who wanted to merely speak in the assembly against the school’s (not even a “missionary” school at that) anti-Deepavali posturing and draw attention to real and major causes of pollution instead of the much demonized “Hindu fireworks”? When one girl speaks for Deepavali and the whole school screams at her, is it a sign that the demonization of Hinduism is not working or that it has simply become the new normal, even among school-children? What use is all the internet resistance he talks about, or even the noble example of Gita Press that he mentions, if ultimately anti-Hinduism continues by legitimized by state and market (I hope Sri Chowgule is aware of how hurt many Hindus felt when Prime Minister Modi went to give an award to a writer for a book devaluing the very same Gita Press, and how much worse it looked when that writer rebuffed the sitting Prime Minister of the country by not coming to take the award)?
And does he really believe that the best advice he can give, as a senior leader from an important Hindu cultural organization inspired by the venerated Swami Chinmayananda himself, is for me “to castigate those colleagues in the intellectual community who are being unprofessional”? Do these sort of personal attacks really help? Have they helped in the past? On the contrary, the bumbling, blustering intrusion by self-important hotheads into the private university in-boxes of professors has only given them the excuse they need to duck out of the precise challenges that we, the small number of non-Hinduphobic scholars in academia, such as we are, were confronting them with. I will ask Sri Chowgule to recall what happened when I, Professor Ramesh Rao, and a few other American-based scholars countered the anti-Modi petition started by Hinduphobic faculty (which is probably the majority of academia, though not all) in September 2015. They were thoroughly caught off guard when the Academe blog published our rational and forceful dissent against their anti-Modi claims, and then cheerfully turned attention from us to their having received threatening, intrusive emails from the nameless leader of a Hindu group asking about their communist party affiliations and other ludicrous diversions.
For a non-academician, and one who has shown not even the basic care of attention to an author’s words as might be done by a general reader, to pontificate on what an academician ought to do (Sri Chowgule’s advise to me doesn’t get more specific than to “write in publications (general and specialized), speak at programmes (again general and specialized), attend other programmes where he can question a speaker if there is falsehood being propagated) is frankly as unhelpful, and perhaps absurd, as a liberal arts professor trying to tell a business magnate how to do his job (invest your money, balance your account books, hire workers…).
Finally, since the topic has turned to this, I have to address a potential larger problem in the Hindu movement today. It may or may not pertain directly to Sri Chowgule, but I think this is a general cultural challenge we must all recognize if we are to succeed. I have seen two extremely different cultures and sensibilities in the organized Hindu movement ever since my book brought me into friendship with many wonderful, inspiring people in it. One is the extremely selfless, sincere, affectionate and austere culture of the Sangh, particularly of the Swayamsevaks some of the younger ones whom I have seen grow through sheer dedication to work smartly, and successfully, in new frontiers such as academic and intellectual activism. The other is more consistent with what I, before I actually had the privilege of meeting people from the Sangh, used to think of as the culture of mindless wealth-worship in and around the BJP. No one who is honest would equate this with the vile corruption of another political party for the last century perhaps, but yet, there is a troubling aspect to parts of the political culture here which is inconsistent with all its gestures towards Sarasvati. I know of at least three scholars, profoundly gifted and erudite, and bravely and openly pro-Hindu, who have been treated most crudely by individuals or groups supposedly stepping up to fund and support pro-Hindu scholars (since academia and conventional funding sources remain largely hostile to us). They were literally made to travel hundreds of miles with dangling promises of grants and opportunities, and simply discarded by their supposedly benevolent patrons.
Hindu/Indic philanthropists, real or self-proclaimed, need to know this about the scholars, writers and artists they purport to support, or in whose name they fund-raise (and whose intellectual work they presume to comment upon simply because you know, they are rich, and therefore must know everything). Every single scholar and writer who is speaking up for the truth in their professions against Hinduphobia is doing so out of sheer conviction, and against the odds. We are in the frontlines of this battle, and we will remain so because what has driven us is our love of knowledge, and our pain at our Hinduphobic colleagues’ failure to represent it. We do not need to be scolded by those who have put neither actions, money, nor even helpful words into our cause and struggle here. It’s an empty indulgence of the rich, vain, and ultimately, ignorant.
Featured Image: The Indian Express