EASAS Conference in Zurich: a Report

EASAS Conference in Zurich: a Report

On 23-26 July 2014, the European Association for South-Asian Studies (EASAS) held its biannual conference in Zürich, Switzerland. More than 150 participants came mostly from the EU and South Asia (including my first-ever acquaintance from the Maldives), with a delegation from the US (including someone originating in North Korea, a country exotic even to Orientalists), and a few from China, Japan and Australia. It was very well-organized down to the details. For example, at most conferences, name-tags are half the time invisible because the white reverse side of the badge is showing; here the badges were printed recto verso. At the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), it is very difficult to find your friends back because it is just too big and has no clear centre; here, everyone met for tea or lunch in a single central hall, and the seminar rooms were in a single building, not spread over the city as in the AAR conference of San Francisco 2012. The different sessions of a panel took place consecutively and formed a natural whole.

The atmosphere was quite relaxed and cheerful. It has been different at one time. The last time I participated, Leiden 2006, it was a veritable anti-Hindu hate-fest, with panels devoted to the “problem” of Hindu nationalism, of history-rewriting etc. These conferences are long in the making and are influenced by the atmosphere of the preceding two years. Back then, the memory of BJP rule and of the unsuccessful attempt to effect glasnost in the history textbooks after decades of Marxist domination were still fresh. Now, the conference was prepared after the long Congress rule and before it became clear that Narendra Modi would sweep the elections and come to power. So, the usual anti-Hindu animosity was limited, though we shall see that in subtle form, and once very openly, it was still present.

Against classical studies

Most topics had nothing to do with “Oriental Studies”, i.e. classical studies pertaining to the Orient. Once a very influential branch of philology, it is now in full retreat, with chairs closing down, parallel to the decline in learning about and sheer knowledge of Sanskrit in India itself.

Sanskritists present confided to me that they were desperate for a job. It could have been different, for Chinese and Japanese studies are flourishing, even their classical section, but then their governments are watchful and dynamic in this matter. India, by contrast, is still dining out on the centrality it once held (watch Hindu websites celebrating over the nice things Arthur Schopenhauer, William Faulkner or Romain Rolland once said about Hinduism, not noticing that this was very long ago) and not doing anything to maintain its position in academe nor even to counter the control of the India chairs by its declared enemies.

The importance of classical studies lies in the very importance of the subject itself, but also in the continued importance of classical references in modern Indian politics and culture. I was to find this out myself in the panel on “divinization” in which I spoke.

I read a paper on Vasistha, the Vedic seer presiding over the unlikely victory against the “Ten Kings”. He was given one of the Vedic hymns, which are normally only devoted to the gods. Here was a classical subject, continuous with a tendency pervading the entire Hindu culture till today, of extolling exceptional men and women and treating them as gods. In passing, Vasistha mentions the “asikni visha”, the “dark people”. All translations known to me explain that these are the “dark aboriginals” against whom the invading white Aryans did battle. Very likely, the expression is a pun (of which Vedic poetry contains numerous examples, no doubt including some unidentified ones), meaning effectively “the people from the Asikni river”. Other verses specify that the Ten Kings came from the Asikni (Chenab) river, attacking eastwards to the Parushni (Raavi) river where the battle took place. “The dark one” is a normal name for a river—example, the Thames in London or the Demer in our town of Diest both mean “the dark one”, both names being cognate to Sanskrit tamas.


Mind you, the Ten Kings came from the west, while the Vedic Aryans lived deeper inside India, and many details unambiguously identify them as predominantly Iranian. Thus, many names used by them or for them are known from Iranian, not from any Indian “aboriginal” language. The few other Vedic instances of people being called “dark” have satisfactorily been explained by the leading Sanskritist Hans Heinrich Hock as applications of the universal equation “light = good, dark = evil”, even attested in African languages. The systematic mistranslation of “dark people” etc. as “the dark-skinned aboriginals subdued by the white Aryan invaders and their caste Apartheid” for almost two centuries is one of the grossest mistakes in scholarship, and extremely rich in consequences.

How this knowledge of ancient writings still affects modern Indian politics was brought home to me by a fellow panellist, a young woman from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. As so often, she was a Bengali Brahmin (judging by her name) yet took up the cause of the “toiling masses” and called them indigenous because she had swallowed the anti-Brahmin version of history. She was clearly unnerved that I had uprooted the supposed Vedic evidence for “white Aryan racism against the dark aboriginals” so effortlessly. As my reference to Prof. Hock shows, I was not saying anything unorthodox in this case: among the (admittedly very few) specialists, it is the new consensus that the first Veda translators projected the then-common racial views onto the Vedic testimonies. But those flawed and prejudiced views about Aryan invaders defeating and then oppressing the “dark aboriginals” have a long life in history textbooks and the received opinion.

A few hours later, the JNU scholar read her own paper, starting out with the curt information that the population she studied belonged to the “dark aboriginals” oppressed by the “Aryan invaders”, and that Shiva was a “non-Aryan god”. Her paper, pitting belief in “Shiva the lazy peasant” against belief in “Dharma the Healer”, was interesting enough, and would have remained standing without this erroneous framework of Vedic racism. But such is the level of hate-driven anti-Hindu animosity that is spoon-fed to these young scholars, and to the public in general.

She reminded me of another young woman, of Andhra low-caste origin, I had seen a few years ago at the annual AAR meeting. She compared two myths about the origin of caste, one of them being the Vedic Purusha Sukta’s comparison between the Universal Man’s body parts and the functional classes in society. In secularist mythology, this is an unspeakably evil text founding the unspeakably evil caste system, though in reality it is only an explanation of social differentiation as also given by Menenius Agrippa and Saint Paul. She noted that Brahmins, Rajanyas (i.e. Kshatriyas), Vaishyas and Shudras were mentioned there, but not the Panchamas or Avarnas, that is, those who later became known as Untouchables.

[pullquote]Such is the level of hate-driven anti-Hindu animosity that is spoon-fed to these young scholars, and to the public in general.[/pullquote]

According to her, this was a sign of utmost contempt: the Untouchables, not mentioned there nor in other older or contemporaneous texts, had been left unmentioned because the Vedic author chose not to waste even one word on them, so steep was his disdain. A more logical conclusion (while weighing the caveat against argumentum e silentio) would have been that there was no category of Untouchability yet. Think of someone afflicted with paranoia who sees a man at a nearby café table take notes. He thinks this is a spy taking notes on him. Then the other man goes to the toilet, and our friend hastily looks at the notes; they are about a different topic altogether. Someone with only light and passing paranoia would be relieved that the man was not a spy after all. A real paranoiac, however, would conclude that the man is an even more dangerously clever spy, who manages to encode his report and not even to mention the person he is spying on. So, that level of paranoia is patronized by the AAR provided it serves the anti-Hindu cause.

Such politically motivated theories promoting caste struggle can only flourish in a climate of complete ignorance. This explains why both in India and in the West, the Left has been agitating for at least half a century against the teaching of history and of classical languages. If successful, this campaign would lock the next generations into the present and make them more available for modern struggles. And as indeed it has been largely successful, we do effectively have a young generation ignorant of ancient history and susceptible to casteist and anti-Brahmin fairy-tales, even presenting these as “scholarship” at academic conferences.

“South-Asian” studies

Nowadays, such conferences are filled with what amounts to “sociology of modern South Asia”, with lots of “gendering”, “othering”, “claiming cultural spaces”, “negotiation of categories”, “politics of imagining” and “knowledge constructs”.

In general, sociological studies tend to be very superficial and irrelevant, dressing up sheer barroom talk in jargon and then declaring the conclusions scientific. I am reminded of the sociological study proving that in a family watching TV together, the one holding the remote control has the power: we all knew it already, but now, now it is “scientific”!

To be sure, sociology being boring and trivial is only the least of its problems. Mostly, the academic setting, where physicists win Nobel Prizes with genuine discoveries, serves to give a scientific veneer to theses that are purely ideological. In the case of Indian ideologies, for instance, political campaign slogans become summaries of “theories” pretending to be “scholarly” and hence authoritative because of their footnotes, while being in reality quite devoid of the prime characteristic of scholarship, viz. objectivity. Far from being disinterested, such studies work mainly to undermine Hinduism and buttress fashionable ideologies like anti-Brahmanism, lower-casteism and feminism.

Thus, there was a panel on Indian Christianity in which all the papers, one way or another, served the Christian side in the anti-conversion polemic. Many people including India-watchers would not even be aware that there is a polemic going on here. In this case, one around the Hindu Nationalist claim that “Christianization entails Westernization”, an effect which they as nationalists find even worse than the conversion itself. There was nothing wrong with the contents of the papers, though. For instance, on inculturation and Westernization, I learned that already in the 18th century, missionaries advocated inculturation while Indian converts wanted Anglicization. It was yet another illustration of my old thesis that “nationalism is a misstatement of Hindu concerns”: even then, Westernization was not some conspiratorial scheme thought up by Westerners but an eager choice by Indians themselves – albeit a subset estranged enough to want to identify with the foreign occupier.

The great Anglicizer TB Macaulay, the bête noire of the Hindu nationalists, had to overcome the opposition of the British Orientalizers, among whom were a number of missionaries wanting to spread the Christian message and teach catechism through the vernaculars rather than English. I myself added the case of Santhali, a tribal language used by the Flemish Jesuits as a medium of education and Christianization, who upgraded the language to this extent that it could be promoted to official language status in 2002. So far, so good.

But imagine somebody proposing a panel in which every single paper would field for the Hindu side. The organizers probably would have disallowed it, or at least they would have asked for somehow presenting both sides of the story. In the present case, however, they probably didn’t even realize that something was unbalanced. After all, Hinduism means injustice and superstition, therefore modern scholarship cannot help being anti-Hindu in its conclusions.

To be sure, a situation won’t readily arise where all papers are pro-Hindu. Even a single pro-Hindu paper on any controversial issue is hard to find. In the USA, the Hindu American Foundation has already gotten as far as to send observers to the audience of the Hindu-related panels in the annual AAR conference. But a genuine representative of Hindu thought (as opposed to a Gandhian nincompoop calling himself Hindu all while praising Hinduism’s enemies) among the speakers is as yet unthinkable. This is because on the one hand, the anti-Hindu prejudice is so prevalent that even non-political people will help keeping a pro-Hindu out while letting an anti-Hindu in; and on the other, because the Hindus themselves have utterly failed to groom their own scholarship, mostly because they have never understood its importance.

However, history is moving on. The battle against Hinduism and the criminalization of Hindutva have succeeded so thoroughly, that a new generation has grown up with little involvement in this struggle. Off-hand they say things that are just factual, but that an earlier generation would at least have omitted from saying out loud because indirectly they could be used by Hindu polemicists. Thus, it was said here that “Dalit”, a very popular word and theme at this kind of conference, is not a name used by Dalits themselves, because they prefer their own caste name, just as Ramdas Lamb at the AAR had also related from his fieldwork. Since all anti-Hindu forces have pushed the term “Dalit” to the point of making the Gandhian term “Harijan” disappear, they might not want to play into the hand of the putatively anti-Dalit Hindutva forces. (It is a different matter that Hindutva is not against these castes, that every RSS man whom I have ever asked for his caste replied: “Hindu”; but in the Western imagination, Hinduism means caste and hence “militant Hindu” implies “militant casteist”.)

[pullquote]Hindus themselves have utterly failed to groom their own scholarship, mostly because they have never understood its importance.[/pullquote]

With the decline of clear ideologies, Hindu-bashing has become diffuse and less intense. It is vaguely assumed that Hindu activists are evil and their worldview ridiculous, but this is rarely thematized anymore. Everyone coughs up the obligatory grin whenever a Hindu militant position is quoted. The panel on Indian Christianity, for instance, treated it as a given that poor hapless Christians are victims of Hindu attacks, but didn’t bother to discuss the Christian guilt for the Lakshmananda murder and hence partly for the violent tribal reaction to it. With Narendra Modi in power, however, we can expect a renewed agenda of Hindu-bashing.


I have to concede I learned a lot at this gathering. Thus, I rarely get to travel anymore, and when someone has spent a full year with a Nepali nomadic tribe accompanying its complete economic and migration cycle, I tend to listen with full attention. Those anthropologists doing “participant observation” have a lot of stories to tell. Or when someone reports that the Garo tribals in Meghalaya have their own Shamanic medicine while associating modern medicine with the West and the missionaries (hence calling it “Jesus medicine”!), I have to smile at the irony that Jesus never used medicine but worked his supposed “miracle healing” much like the Garo Shamans, viz. by exorcism, by “driving out spirits”, as the Gospel reports.

And when hearing a report on the relations between Kumari (i.e. young girls’) worship in Nepal and the recent Communist regime there, I am amused to learn that one girl’s father resolved potential tensions by adorning his house with a Communist banner and a placard “The Communist Party salutes the Kumari”! Not to mention the “invented tradition” of the Kalbeliya Dance of the Rajasthani Gypsies (presented by Ayla Joncheere whom I know from Ghent University), existing only since the 1980s but sold to tourists as age-old. The fact that not Western but South-Asian society was discussed, made for a far more colourful narrative, enough for a few days of entertainment. So, the exotic element did make these excursions interesting, but that couldn’t hide the fact that the more serious issues were being avoided.

Case in point: the panel on the bad reputation of the Moghul emperor Alamgir, better known as Aurangzeb, and how contemporaneous sources nuanced this picture. It was organized by Prof. Heidi Pauwels, whom I used to know at Leuven University in our student days but who is now teaching Hindi literature in Seattle. In three consecutive sessions, scholars spoke about various literary and devotional writers of the period giving a mixed-to-positive account of the Moghul emperor. The atmosphere was pleasant and cheerful, and I see no reason for finding fault with any of the factual findings presented here.

But while it was good to get the details of the period’s public opinion, it was hardly news. First of all, before his newfound fervour for Islam, Aurangzeb had continued the established policy of the Moghul Empire. From the second half of his great-grandfather Akbar’s reign to the early period of his own reign, this Muslim empire had persisted and flourished by virtue of a compromise with the Hindu populace: the temples which had been demolished by the preceding Sultanate and other Muslim regimes were allowed to be rebuilt, and the toleration tax was abolished. On these conditions, most Hindus were willing to live with a Muslim overlord, hence the favourable references to the younger Aurangzeb.


Even afterwards, Hindu writers could have their reasons for writing favourably about him. He had the power, backed up by a fearsome military machine and a ruthless repression of dissent, a factor which modern academics in their cosy literature departments fail to appreciate. When Guru Govind Singh wrote his Zafar Nama (“Victory letter”) to the Emperor, he wanted to wrench a concession from him and therefore had every reason to express himself diplomatically, to invoke the duty of justice incumbent upon a wielder of authority, and to create a common moral universe from which to draw arguments that might convince Aurangzeb. Yet it would be wishful thinking to deduce therefrom that he bore no grudge against the murderer of his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and his sons. At least no one in the panel dared to doubt Aurangzeb’s decision to execute Tegh Bahadur, though the subject was avoided.

Moreover, then as now, some Hindus were very good at whitewashing religious injustice. Since I can’t look inside people’s heads, I will not discount the possibility that some writers genuinely thought favourably about Aurangzeb, even when Shivaji, Chhatrasal and other rebels had a different idea.

But then, what do all these testimonies in favour of Aurangzeb prove? After the attacks of 11 September 2001, numerous politicians visited mosques and issued statements expressing sympathy for the “religion of peace”. Even George W. Bush and Tony Blair, all while preparing to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and kill many thousands of Muslims, said some nice things about Islam and were never caught in the act of criticizing it. That is the difference with critics of Islam: these don’t kill Muslims, while praisers of Islam do. Now, you could collect all those pro-Islamic gestures and statements, explore them at length in a panel, and conclude that the relations between Islam and the West in late 2001 were very good, especially if you keep the WTC attacks and the jubilant reactions in the Muslim world out of view. This is what the panel amounted to: much beating around the bush about the mixed reactions to Aurangzeb all while keeping his actual conduct out of view.

The fact that Guru Govind Singh diplomatically swallowed his resentment at Aurangzeb’s killing his father and sons when petitioning the emperor who held all the cards, does not nullify that other fact, that Aurangzeb did kill the Guru’s family. Indeed, this nicely illustrates the utter superficiality of the secular approach: at heart, Govind hated the murderer of his family, but on the surface, he used diplomatic language, and the secularists think they can then use this surface language to trump the reality of his deeper attitude. Or the fact that some classical musicians were patronized by Aurangzeb does not nullify his decision to throw the musicians out once he got serious about religion.

The fact that some “secular” Hindu writers had their reasons to praise him, does not nullify that other fact that he did order the demolition of thousands of temples and that he did provoke and mercilessly suppress the Hindu rebellions. The panel’s fervent attempt to shift the emphasis to more pleasant words and gestures than this grim display of Islamic tyranny provided some interesting excursions in less well-known texts, but cannot seriously alter the not-so-pleasant reality.

The facts that were sought to be downplayed were indeed given minimum visibility, yet everybody present knew that this panel was meant to exorcise the Hindu focus on those facts. But the real elephant in the room that everybody was assiduously looking away from, and that, as far as I noticed, nobody ever even mentioned, was the motive behind Aurangzeb’s behaviour. This motive was the doctrine of Islam. What happened was that Aurangzeb got Islam. He realized that his father Shah Jahan, grandfather Jehangir and great-grandfather Akbar had betrayed Islam by making their historical compromise with the Hindus. He was yet to find out that this compromise was necessary for a stable empire, but what animated him in his religious phase was a desire to imitate the Prophet’s precedent to persecute the unbelievers and destroy the temples and idols that embodied this unbelief. This is what explained his behaviour, not some idiosyncrasy of his personality.

Prof. Pauwels had said in her introduction that Aurangzeb is being demonized. This is entirely true, though with different implications than she thinks.

[pullquote]Much beating around the bush about the mixed reactions to Aurangzeb all while keeping his actual conduct out of view.[/pullquote]

Numerous Hindu writers do indeed hold him up as an example of cruelty and fanaticism. Yes, he did lock up his father and execute his brother to wrest the succession to the throne from him. Not so nice, but not all that exceptional in dynastic histories. If his rule had been benevolent, he would on balance have received a positive evaluation from his subjects and from the historians. Generally, his personal life could give rise to such a positive evaluation, vide the nuanced 1912 book by Jadunath Sarkar (dubbed a “Hindu communalist historian” by the Marxists) about the history of “Aurangzib”. But most Hindus only know about his public policy, especially his persecution of Hindus, his attempts to militarily suppress Hindu rebellions, and his demolitions of thousands of Hindu temples. Since these acts resulted from the Islamic doctrine, a correct critique of Aurangzeb’s policies would have focused on Islam.

Regardless of his personality, the pious Aurangzeb broke with the Moghul compromise because as a true Muslim, he wanted to imitate the Prophet who had divested all of Arabia from Pagan temples and idols and broken the idols of the Kaaba with his own hands.

So, Hindus ought to remain neutral vis-à-vis Aurangzeb but become critical of Islam as the basis of his iconoclasm. Instead they shield Islam from criticism and vent their anger upon the person Aurangzeb. They “demonize” him in order to avoid “demonizing” Islam. In some cases this is a deliberate ploy, in most cases they have really believed and interiorized the Gandhian propaganda that all religions and their founders are noble and well-intentioned, but their followers are misguided and twist the message.

These “demonizers” are only being politically correct: they avoid blaming Islam, but since the facts are too clear and undeniable, they explain these by putting the blame on the person Aurangzeb. In some cases, this is a deliberate exercise in opportunism, but more often, people have interiorized this puerile worldview of blaming persons rather than the beliefs that drive them. One can compare this to a development that took place at the time of the Zurich conference: the conquest of north-western Iraq by ISIS, or the self-styled “Islamic State” or Caliphate. When the ISIS activists themselves posted videos of their demolitions, decapitations, rapes and other cruelties, Western commentators fell over each other to dub them “crazy”. But they were by no means crazy, they justified their actions with reference to Islam. Since these commentators have a holy fear of blaming Islam for anything (that would be “Islamophobia”, God forbid!), they have no remaining option but to blame the undeniable facts on the personality traits of these Islamic militants.

Conclusion: we should do as this panel suggests and stop the demonization of the pious Muslim Aurangzeb. Instead, we should name and shame Islam as the true culprit.

Hindu majoritarianism

In the titles and abstracts of this august gathering, most non-specialist people would look in vain for signs of anti-Hindu animus. Indeed, a lot of speakers genuinely didn’t think of it. Well, there was a session as well as many other papers on the poor hapless Indian Muslims but none on the terrorized Bangladeshi Hindus, and nobody noticed anything amiss. By contrast, the keynote address by Professor Ratna Kapur (Jindal Law School, Delhi, and Harvard) was all about demonizing every Hindu resisting the annihilation of Hinduism: “‘Belief’ in Law. The Politics of Secularism, Religion and Hindu Majoritarianism in Indian Constitutional Law”.

First off, she noted as a general societal fact that “religion has come out of the closet”, citing as example that India uses religion as a tourist attractor. In fact, for as long as modern tourism exists, religion has been a tourist attractor to India. The place of religion in the Indian public sphere hasn’t substantially altered since Mahatma Gandhi’s days. Where a real change is in evidence and religion has effectively “come out of the closet”, is in Europe.

Secularism originated as an anti-Church and anti-obscurantist position and therefore counted as progressive and Leftist. But now that the Leftists are crawling ever deeper before their ever more numerous Islamic voters, their secularism is eroding. More and more, they are adopting the Indian version of secularism namely, appeasement of Islam. Thus, in Belgium, the militantly secular Socialist Party had defended a ban on the Islamic headscarf in schools and public functions in 2006, but in 2014 they have made a U-turn. The remaining Christian progressives are piggy-backing the Islamic wave and making use of the secularists’ confusion to argue that “religion is becoming relevant again”. And now, Indian secularists have discovered this development and use it to justify Indian “secularism”-cum-appeasement to Western audiences.

But perhaps the Hindu Right’s discourse was so impressively correct that even during a political low ebb, it could influence the judges and other public figures? That is what Prof. Kapur implied. She described the Hindu Right’s position as opposed to both the Gandhian and the Nehruvian versions of secularism. The Gandhian version is the one most Hindus have come to accept and which pervades the Indian law system: Sarva-Dharma-Samabhava, “equal respect for all religions”, often over-interpreted as “equal truth of all religions”. The Nehruvian version is the wall between religion and politics, Dharma-Nirpekshata, “religious neutrality”. Both versions are invoked when pleading the defence of “Indian secularism”, yet neither fully accounts for the policies, laws and constitution articles that irritate the “Hindu Right”.


She summarized the Hindu Right’s critique thus: “The laws protecting minorities and giving them special treatment are unsecular.” She quickly went over this point, not wanting to draw attention to India’s non-secularism. The word “secularism” already had a meaning long before Nehru adopted it, and it means: religious neutrality, i.e. equality of all citizens before the law regardless of religion. So, India is a secular state if all citizens get the same treatment in law regardless of their religion. Is this the case? Of course not: Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis have different law systems, chiefly because Muslims insist on it. So, contrary to all those fear-mongers’ loud proclamations that “the BJP constitutes a threat to the secular state in India”, firstly, India definitely is not a secular state, and secondly, the BJP wants to enact a Common Civil Code and is thereby the only major party that wants to turn India into a secular state.

The other major parties including the long-ruling Congress Party, by contrast, keep on promising their Muslim voters that they will preserve legal Apartheid between the religions and prevent India from becoming a secular state. Indeed, Muslims outside India openly abhor secularism—those in India only swear by “secularism” because they know that there, the word is used improperly and effectively only means “anti-Hindu”.

Not that she drew attention to the fact that “secularism” has a very different meaning to Westerners from what it has come to mean in India. Indian secularists prefer to keep the rest of the world in ignorance about their own dirty little secret—that “secularism” in India often means the very opposite of its normal meaning.

When you question an Indian secularist at close quarters, he will try to save his position by explaining that secularism in India happens to mean something different from what it means in the West. But do they tell this to Western audiences? Prof. Kapur at any rate did not. Westerners’ automatic sympathy for Indian secularism (and against the supposed “theocrats” they hear about) is predicated on the assumption that their own familiar secularism is also present in India, that both are the same. Logic teaches that “a = a”, that a term has the same meaning throughout a reasoning, so Westerners assume that “secularism” means secularism, and this Indian law professor certainly wasn’t going to pin-prick that illusion. So instead, she explained that the Hindu Right only wanted “formal equality” (understood as “justice to all, appeasement of none”) while the rest wanted “substantive equality”, a position she found far more sophisticated and just.

[pullquote]India definitely is not a secular state, and secondly, the BJP wants to enact a Common Civil Code and is thereby the only major party that wants to turn India into a secular state.[/pullquote]

But any law scholar would understand that the law in precisely about “formal” equality. In the real world, one man is rich and another poor, one in talented and another dumb, etc. But at least in law, they are equal. The law cannot neutralize the inequalities given to men by nature; but the least it can do, is to make men at least “formally” equal. And that is the case in a Common Civil Code, which the BJP advocates and which she therefore considered a “threat to India’s secularism”.

Progressive issues “hijacked” by the Hindu Right

The so-called “substantive equality” advocated by Prof. Kapur effectively means inequality, the subjection of citizens to different law systems depending on their religion. She said this was necessary because the “minorities” suffered a historical disadvantage and Hindus carried a “special obligation to redress systemic discrimination”.

Westerners will be familiar with the “positive discrimination” of (or with the now-official weasel word: “affirmative action” for) the American blacks. Whether these policies are right or wrong, at least they are based on an undisputed historical fact, namely, the grave disadvantage that the Blacks suffered in the form of slavery. That is why, especially among Humanities academics, a wave of sympathy for this legal privileging of certain communities can be expected, including when they hear of it being applied in India.

But in fact, no such historical disadvantage applies to the Muslim community. To the Scheduled Castes, yes, but not at all to the Muslims, who on the contrary have a history of being a privileged group.

Indeed, many Hindus converted to Islam to escape the burdens imposed on non-Muslims and enjoy the status reserved for the people of the true faith; and their descendants are the present-day Muslims. Ever seen a Bollywood movie making fun of the Muslims as such, to name one example of the type of discrimination that should be redressed? Numerous film scenes make fun of Brahmins, but Muslims as such are always treated with reverence.

Now, secularists will point to some statistical parameters where the Muslims prove backward. Yes, due to the selection by the Partition (where many well-to-do Muslims migrated to the promised land which they themselves had created), the backwardness of their religion (as noted by Dr. BR Ambedkar, who saw the will to change as a redeeming feature of a Hinduism he deemed obscurantist, but failed to see it in Islam) and the larger number of children, Muslims have slid backward. But that is a self-imposed condition for which Hindus ought not to pay with legal inequality.

The same thing counts for Christianity: in the colonial period, it was a very privileged community, and no disadvantage has been imposed on the Christians after Independence. Abroad, before ignorant audiences, Christians may cite the positive discrimination of Hindu Scheduled Castes (which Prof. Kapur implicitly supported) as an inequality imposed on them, but in the preparation of the Government of India Act 1935, the missionaries themselves have rejected the extension of this privilege to the Christian community, citing the caste-free nature of their religion.

Moreover, even the granting of social privileges to certain groups does not justify a separate religious law system, which in the case of Islam is notoriously and unapologetically inegalitarian and thus in conflict with Prof. Kapur’s stated egalitarian aim.

On the other hand, if at all she insists that justice (nay, even secularism!) demands separate law systems, she is really saying that the Swiss host country, or France as the motherland of secularism, or the US or any Western country, are not just and not secular until they introduce separate religion-based laws. And indeed, some people in Western countries already advocate the adoption of the Shari’a for the Muslim minority, but so far they haven’t dared to call that “secular”. Indeed, this “alternative” is still recognized as “anti-secular”. And in India too, the prevailing legal inequality is indeed anti-secular.

So, in this regard, the Hindu Right’s demand of a Common Civil Code is in tune with what prevails in the main secular democracies. She fully recognized this, but put a negative spin on it. According to her, the Hindu Right has “hijacked the progressive discourse”. Similarly, the abolition of a separate Muslim (and also of Christian) law is justified with arguments from feminism. Thus, polygyny, forbidden to others but legally allowed to Muslims, constitutes an obvious inequality between the sexes. Its abolition is an important demand of feminist groups in Muslim countries. So, the BJP’s demand for a Common Civil Code is effectively buttressed with feminist rhetoric.

In her spin, this shows how devious and Machiavellian the Hindu Right really is. In a less partisan explanation, this only shows how the demand for a Common Civil Code is a common demand of different groups. As nationalists, the “Hindu Right” (which calls itself “Hindu nationalist”) cares about the oneness of the nation, and that justifies the abolition of divisive religion-based Civil Codes including the Shari’a. As egalitarians, feminists (and normal people in general) want to abolish the sexual inequality inherent in the Shari’a, which they will achieve in a Common Civil Code. So, there are different reasons for abolishing Indian legal systems that falsely flatters itself to be “secular”. Or in other words: there are several reasons, Hindu-Rightist as well as other, why Prof. Kapur’s defence of the present system is wrong.

Incidentally, we have borrowed from the speaker the term “minorities”. As Rajiv Malhotra has pointed out, this term carries a wrong but intentional connotation. The Christian and Muslim communities are not only historically privileged, they are also Indian branches of multinational enterprises, benefactors of worldwide networks of solidarity. The term “minority” evokes a poor hapless group, and that is precisely what Muslims and Christians are not. For materialists, this can be explained with the money streams: both the said communities are the benefactors of enormous sums of money coming from abroad, especially but not exclusively in their religious functioning. Hindus have no such thing: even the remittances from Hindus settled abroad are far smaller and are, after all, generated by people with roots in India, not by non-Indian donors.

[pullquote]The term “minority” evokes a poor hapless group, and that is precisely what Muslims and Christians are not. [/pullquote]


The occasion for Ratna Kapur’s talk was the Allahabad High Court’s verdict on Ayodhya in 2010. Most people present vaguely knew that this verdict had gone in favour of the Hindu claim on the contentious site where a Hindu temple had been replaced with the Babri Masjid, which had served as a mosque till the British closed it down in 1935. (Since 1949 it had been used as a Hindu temple, but the architecture was still that of a mosque.)

What the audience did not know, and emphatically did not learn from this lecture, was that the judges had ruled largely in favour of the Hindu claim because the documentary and archaeological evidence went entirely in favour of it (or rather, of what was until the late 1980s the consensus), and against the new secularist-cum-Islamic claim that there had never been a Hindu temple at the site. To make a long story short: Ratna Kapur’s own side lost, and it lost really badly. Her keynote address had the single purpose of obscuring this stark fact to keep the larger “secularist” narrative behind this falsified claim afloat.

According to her, the pro-Hindu verdict stemmed from the increasing grip on Indian public discourse by an entity called “the Hindu Right”.  This expression refers to different movements, like the BJP, the RSS and the VHP, and then other organizations of which she only named the Shiv Sena, though sometimes they go their own way. As its chief ideologues, she named VD Savarkar and MS Golwalkar. The real ideologues of the Ayodhya movement were left unmentioned, especially the late historian Sita Ram Goel, whose list of two thousand demolished temples and discussion of the underlying Islamic theology of iconoclasm have gone entirely unrefuted. She identified Savarkar and Golwalkar with an ideology based on the concept of “Hindu nation”, overlapping with “race”, in which Muslims and Christians count as aliens and invaders unless they assimilate. And then the whole point of her lecture: “The judiciary strengthens this development.”

Babri Mosque

When people want to whip up fear for the Hindu movement, they claim firstly that this is a fanatical and violence-prone movement out to oppress the minorities, and secondly, that it is powerful. In this case: that its compelling influence is inescapable even in the judiciary. Yet this is, on the face of it, quite improbable.

When the verdict was pronounced, the BJP was at a low ebb. It had surprisingly lost the national elections in 2004, and even more badly in 2009. Ideologically, the Hindu side had been defeated in the textbook reform of 2004 in India, and of 2005-09 in California. Otherwise, its government of 1998-2004 had raised no ideological issue, didn’t profile itself as Hindu, and paid obeisance to the unchallengedly reigning doctrine of secularism. Its supposedly hard-line leader LK Advani publicly called the peak day of Hindu militancy, the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, as the “blackest day” of his life. Its next leaders were neutral time-servers, apparently because the BJP estimated that outing itself as pro-Hindu no longer paid.

Indeed, observers explained that its electoral defeat of 2009 constituted a final rejection of Hindu activism by the Hindu electorate (an analysis starkly refuted by Narendra Modi’s landslide victory of 2014). In reality, it was a rejection of the BJP’s slide into ideological neutrality, but because the supposed “experts” eagerly insisted on describing the BJP as “Hindu fanatics”, they failed to see the real disappointment of the Hindu voters—namely, in the BJP’s wishy-washiness. India-watchers such as Christophe Jaffrelot happily announced that the Hindu movement was in decline, and Christian convert Kancha Illiah even mused about a “post-Hindu India”.

In this climate, the judges were certainly not acting on a deeper-than-before Hindu activist influence. In a thoroughly anti-Hindu climate, they only ruled in favour of the Hindu claim because it happened to be irrefutable. And mind you, in the preceding 21 years, it had been “refuted” numerous times. Or at least, the secularists led by the Marxists had indefatigably kept on claiming that the old consensus (as exemplified in the Ayodhya entry of the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1989, which mentions the Hindu prehistory of the Babri Masjid curtly as an established fact) was laughably wrong. Under cross-examination, the “eminent historians” who testified before the Court turned out to be far less knowledgeable than a compliant press had made them out to be. And so, when faced with the actual evidence rather than with the hyped media version, the judges found in favour of the old consensus, now known as the Hindu claim.

It may be added, in telegraphic style, that she also made the following points. According to Hindus, Hinduism alone is committed to secularism, only Hinduism is truly tolerant and genuinely secular! (General laughter.) Rama is hailed as a supreme god, Hinduism is turned into a monotheism. (False, and borrowed from an article by Romila Thapar or from the general secularist thesis that activist Hinduism is not “real” Hinduism.) The Hindu agitators claimed that Rama was born right there. (True, and general laughter, as always when she mimicked a Hindu position.) The concept of a Hindu nation or “Hindu Rashtra” entails forced conversion. (The RSS has been exhausting itself trying to argue that this is untrue.) Progressives have lost a lot of ground because, while naïve Muslim litigants have treated the Ayodhya case as a property dispute, Hindus have made it a larger issue; indeed, they have proven very clever.

Well, I hadn’t noticed that cleverness, but I’ll take her word for it. At any rate, it is normal that Hindus treat Ayodhya as a larger issue: for them it is a place of pilgrimage, for Muslims is has no special significance. And this fact immediately suggests what a secular solution for Ayodhya would be—take the energy out of the conflict by doing the obvious: leave the place to those who care for it. What is more natural than leave a Hindu place of pilgrimage to the Hindus?

[pullquote]Hindus weren’t heard, weren’t invited to give the Keynote address or to be present in any other capacity. They were not present, and to my knowledge, they didn’t even try.[/pullquote]

But secularists love to humiliate Hindus (for that is what they were doing with their anti-temple stance for the last quarter-century) and stoke religious conflict, so they couldn’t leave well enough alone and declared the Babri Masjid as the ultimate bulwark of Indian secularism. This position has served them well: they have successfully fed their version to the whole world and managed to present themselves as brave fighters against the formidable forces of obscurantism. This ludicrous self-flattery was even sold to the body of India-watchers that formed Ratna Kapur’s captive audience here. Well, that collective delusion was pin-pricked by the High Court judges, and that is why their verdict urgently needed to be given a secularist explanation.


Not able to do justice to the whole conference, I hope at least to have given an idea. What struck the most, and even more in the hindsight perspective of a report, was the complete absence of the voice of Hinduism. Of course, many people with Hindu names spoke, and indeed quite a few practising Hindus, but only about non-controversial issues. The ones that mattered in the ongoing argument against Hinduism, were monopolized by the other side. Hindus weren’t heard, weren’t invited to give the Keynote address or to be present in any other capacity. They were not present, and to my knowledge, they didn’t even try.

Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst earned his Ph.D., from the Catholic University of Leuven based on his research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism. Author of more than a dozen books on Indian society and politics, he has worked in political journalism and as a foreign policy assistant in the Belgian Senate. He has also published about multiculturalism, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and language policy issues. In the ongoing Aryan homeland debate he has played a key role.