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Myth of the tolerant, peaceful, Hindu

October 29, 2015 20:47 IST

The idea that Hindus are peace-loving and reticent is modern, says Aakar Patel.

I wanted to write about two strong beliefs that many Indians have about our nation and about ourselves.

They were repeated by Union minister Venkaiah Naidu at a function a few days ago. He said: 'We see a new trend in the country nowadays. They say tolerance in this country is coming down. India is the only country in this world where tolerance is observed, if not 100 per cent, at least 99 per cent.'

'If you go back to history,' Naidu added, 'India was invaded by many foreign countries but there was not a single instance where India invaded any country. Indians do not have that kind of attitude also. We respect all religions. That is the greatness of India. Tolerance is genetically ingrained in Indians' blood.'

These are the two special beliefs that most Indians hold. First, the notion that India was only ever invaded, and that Indians never invaded another country. Second, that Indians, meaning in this instance Hindus, are unique because we have tolerance. We are the only people to tolerate the conqueror living among us.

Let's look at the second belief first. India is not unique here. We can we see any number of nations where something similar has happened.

England was conquered by the French in 1066, in the same century as Muslims conquered north India. Unlike India, even today, the majority of England's landed nobility and aristocracy are of foreign extraction.

Queen Elizabeth herself is from the royal house of Saxe-Coburg Gotha. As the name indicates, it is not English, but German. It was changed to 'Windsor' during the world war because of anti-German sentiment.

But England's aristocracy hold their foreign origins with great pride and are not resented because of this.

Two hundred years later, China was conquered by the Mongols under Kublai Khan and were assimilated. The Mongol dynasty of Yuan is celebrated in China. North Africa is made up of a mix of races who have mingled at least since 450 BC (around when Herodotus wrote the first book of history) and probably before that.

Turkey was conquered by the Central Asian Turks and was occupied by a mix of people including Greeks. Turkey is called Anatolia because Anatole is Greek for east. Because of this, Cyprus is half Turkish and half Greek. Just like India and Pakistan, the two peoples live adjacent to one another in great resentment.

The name 'Hungary' comes from Huns, a tribal people from Central Asia, who conquered and assimilated with Europeans. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language.

The Greeks ruled and assimilated with Egyptians for centuries (Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt, was actually Greek speaking).

These are just the examples I am giving from the top of my head. There are many others. So Naidu's belief that we Hindus are in some way extraordinary or unique because we have managed to 'tolerate', or live next to, those who have conquered us, is wrong.

Let's look at the first thing, the myth about Indians not having ever invaded another country. No need to go very far for that. Indian king Ranjit Singh's generals captured Kabul at the end of his reign. Of course, Ranjit Singh would see himself as being Punjabi rather than 'Indian' because this was a time before India became a nation-State, but that is a minor point.

Emperor Ashok had one of his famous pillars in Kandahar and I doubt that it was put up out of respect: He probably raided or threatened to raid if the Afghans did not submit.

Some people will say that Afghanistan is also part of India. To this, I will say that given the history of Afghan conquests in northern India from Mahmud Ghazni to Ibrahim Lodi to Sher Khan Suri, it could also be said that India is a part of Afghanistan.

My larger point is that this idea that Hindus are peace-loving and reticent is modern. We have never had a problem spilling our own blood, for instance. The Marathas conquered Gujarat, and still hold on to Baroda. This was not a peaceful or democratic takeover.

Ashok flattened Kalinga and massacred thousands of Oriyas. Nobody disputes this. It wasn't a lack of visa or tolerance that stopped him from attempting the same in China or Burma or Australia. It was natural borders. North Indian dynasties had little geographic space in which to conquer 'foreign', meaning non-subcontinental, territory.

In the south, there are other examples. In the same period that north India was invaded by Muslims and England invaded by France, the Tamilians under the Cholas invaded southeast Asia because they were among the few Indian dynasties with a competent navy.

All of this is known and I am not revealing anything new. But it is remarkable that despite this, most Indians and even ministers of the Union Cabinet, believe myths of such childish simplicity.

Image published only for representational purposes only. Photograph: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

Aakar Patel is Executive Director, Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are his own.

Aakar Patel