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Home > News > Columnists > Praful Bidwai

McCarthyism's Indian rebirth

May 13, 2003

When future scholars write the social history of this past decade in India, a majortrend they will undoubtedly note is the upsurge of intolerance. Right since the Babrimosque was demolished in December 1992 by a frenzied mob out to settle scoreswith history, there has been unrelenting violence, discrimination, and humiliationagainst groups of people.

They are vilified simply because they happen to disagreewith something, or have different beliefs, faiths, or ethnic origins. Books are burned(eg: Ambedkar's Riddles of Hinduism), eminent artists (M F Husain) are attacked, and newspaper offices (Mahanagar and Outlook) are ransacked. Even more frequently, indeedcasually, 'secularists' and 'liberals' are demonised.

It can be argued that this isn't new. Indian society is far less tolerant and respectful ofdissent than, say, the West. Yet, there is something new and different about today'sintolerance. Until the mid-1970s, people could publish irreverent, iconoclastic, evenblasphemous, material not just in 'little magazines', but in the mainstream media.

Dalits could publicly condemn the Manusmriti without being branded 'anti-national'.Periyar (E V Ramaswamy Naicker), an atheist and bitter critic of 'Aryan' Hinduism, could parody gods and goddesses in street processions, joined by hundreds of thousands. Of course, the government, with characteristic paranoia, wouldperiodically ban books by foreigners, which were considered sensitive from thesecurity point of view -- like Nine Hours to Rama, or Neville Maxwell's India's ChinaWar. But by and large, domestic dissent wasn't punished -- until the Emergency.

Today's culture of intolerance is pervasive -- both within the state and society. It'sstridently majoritarian too. Unadulterated hate-speech against religious and ethnic minorities has become routine within our public discourse. Our television channels regularly broadcast programmes in which people like Mr Praveen Togadia vent theirspleen with perverse delight and rank communalists launch foul attacks on Muslimsand advocate suicide-bombing of Pakistani civilians. (This happened on BBCQuestion Time-India on May 2, with the Shiv Sena's Sanjay Nirupam leading thecharge.) Terms like 'secularist conspiracy' now feature in mainstream newspapercaptions.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the new intolerance is the official sanction itreceives through ministers and leaders of academic institutions which have beenunscrupulously and ruthlessly saffronised, including universities, councils ofhistorical and social science research, and the National Council for EducationalTraining and Research. Soon after the BJP took over the Indian Council of HistoricalResearch, it banned volumes in the Towards Freedom project edited bydistinguished historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar. NCERT has revised socialscience textbooks in a blatantly communal manner.

For instance, in the book forClass X, all that's left of history is the unit, The Heritage of India. The chapter on major religions doesn't include Sikhism and Islam. Other textbooks don't even mention Gandhiji's assassination and its Hindu-communal inspiration. Indeed, some textbooks (Class IX) promote 'the superiority of Indian thought and culture over theWestern mind', a phrase reminiscent of the Nazis' Aryan-German supremacism.

Praise for these national-chauvinist and communal ideas comes from HumanResources Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, no less. On April 29, heoutlined what he called the proper projection of the country's history and tradition. Hesaid: "I want to teach students a history of Indian successes and victories and not ofsubjugation and defeats."

This is a straightforward recipe for falsifying history byexpurgating unpleasant realities like caste, male supremacism, or the persecution ofBuddhists in ancient India. Whole generations of Indians will grow up steeped inignorance, prejudice against other cultures and non-Hindu religions, and unrelieved jingoism.

Pro-Hindutva non-resident Indiansin North America are among thosespearheading this campaign of intolerance, especially on email circuits. Driven bytheir long-distance or 'Green Card' hyper-nationalism, they take extremely illiberalpositions. They target individuals and assassinate their character, abuse them, and tryto intimidate them. Among their targets are journalists, including myself.

The communalists' latest victim is the illustrious scholar, and one of the world's mostdistinguished historians of ancient India, Professor Romila Thapar, whoseaccomplishments are rivalled by few others. Prof Thapar has authored many seminal works, including classics like Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, A History ofIndia (Penguin 1966, expanded and just published as Early India), Ancient Indian SocialHistory and Cultural Pasts, besides the more recent Sakuntala, and History andBeyond, not to mention countless scholarly papers.

Prof Thapar, one of India's best-known world-class academics, has taught at a host ofuniversities, including Oxford, London and Paris, besides Jawaharlal NehruUniversity. She has received honorary doctorates from Paris, Oxford, Chicago andCalcutta. Prof Thapar was recently appointed to the Kluge Chair in Countries andCultures of the South at the US Library of Congress, the world's greatest libraryof record. Her Penguin History of India has dominated the ancient Indian history fieldlike a colossus. This is acknowledged not just by Left-leaning intellectuals, but by non-Left liberal historians like Parthasarathi Gupta, Dharma Kumar and Sanjay Subrahmaniam as well.

The Library of Congressappointment triggered what must be one of the most vicious attacks everlaunched on a scholar anywhere, through an online petition, which now has over1,700 signatories, most of them NRIs. The petition would deserve a seriousacademic-level rebuttal if it were signed by people who have at least read and areminimally acquainted with Prof Thapar's work. It isn't. It accuses her of being anignorant yet 'avowed antagonist of India's Hindu civilisation' who wants todiscredit India in the same way as the 'Europeans discredited the American Indians'land claims...' It says that as a Marxist, she 'represents a completely Eurocentricworldview' and 'disavows that India ever had a history'!

This is ludicrous. Prof Thapar has spent a lifetime arguing against 'Orientalist'Eurocentric stereotypes which hold that ancient India lacked a sense of history andthat pre-colonial Indian society was 'static' and 'stagnant'. She is devoted to the study of India's civilisation with all its multiplicity of traditions -- secular andreligious, metaphysical and scientific. How she could be an 'antagonist' of Indiancivilisation defies comprehension except within a philistine communal framework,which holds that all ancient Indian civilisation was Hindu, even when it had Jain,Buddhist, Christian, animist and agnostic traditions.

Even worse, the petition says Prof Thapar is engaged in a 'war of cultural genocide',and the result of her Library of Congress research, Historical Consciousness in Early India, is 'aforegone conclusion'. "She will of course attempt to show that Early India had nohistorical consciousness"!

In reality, some of Prof Thapar's most exciting work(eg: Time as a Metaphor for History) attempts to refute the Eurocentric notion thatancient Indians only had a cyclical concept of time, and to establish that there existedlinear and genealogical concepts too. Devoid of logic, rationality or sobriety, thepetitioners resort to abuse in comments appended to the main letter. They demandthat the Library of Congress must not waste good 'American money' on a 'Marxist' who is'anti-Hindu'.

The campaign represents the rebirth of McCarthyism -- the worst witchhunt of the20th century outside Nazi Germany, conducted in post-World War II America bySenator Joseph McCarthy against anyone suspected to be a communist. One of thesignatories gives the game away: 'Fidel Castro would have been a better choice [thanProf Thapar]. At least he is not a venom-spitting anti-Hindu. I am worried about thefuture of USA. The Indian communists have already infiltrated into all the Americanuniversities. And now the Library of Congress. McCarthy, where are you?' (verbatim)

Here's a sample of other comments:'She is a pinko and a fake historian...', 'This Thapar woman will be a TrojanHorse for Islamic terrorists in the US', 'It is disappointing that the US thatonce opposed communism is now in cahoots with one of its practitioners','Ban Marxist Scholars from the USA... After all, the American CommunistParty was banned' (Praveen Togadia). 'Prelude to Hindu Holocaust...','Romila does not know anything about India. She only knows Indian historywhich has been formatted and manipulated by the British. Besides, she is a Marxistwho are as fundamentalist as Muslim Jehadies','This stupid lady should bestripped of her citizenship'.

'Kick her out. Kick should be of such a force that she remains dead on the ground', 'CIA was supposed to specialize in covert operations, now we learnthey do overt operations too!','The agenda of neo-conservatives is gettingclearer now -- recalling Ambassador Blackwill, now appointing RomilaThapar -- to further demoralise/weaken India and its people...','...Going byher track record... [she] might even illegally interfere in the politics of America'.

So vicious and depraved is this campaign that the Library of Congress is unlikely to reverse ProfThapar's appointment. But other US institutions and universities might want to playsafe and avoid appointing Indian scholars of Left-wing or anti-communal persuasion.

This will seriously vitiate the intellectual climate in India and the US. That's why thiswitchhunt must be stopped. All those who believe in critical inquiry and free debate(free from both intimidation and censorship) must stand up against this explosion ofbigotry and vile communalism.

(Emailers who want to defend Prof Thapar, please visit the Web site:

Praful Bidwai

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Number of User Comments: 187

Sub: against fascism

sir This is the time to rise all the human lovers.fascism is not at our doorstep it invade to our living room.u know,in KERALA they ...

Posted by praveen

Sub: McCarthyism's Indian rebirth

Subject: Ignorance and prejudice of Bidwai &Co. For an intellectual and logical debate it is incumbent on Bidwai , who ignited these accusations, to define: ...

Posted by Hari Sharma

Sub: Ha Ha the Communists had it coming

Great. It is heartening to see Indians are playing the same game the Commies played and beasting them. Commiee moles had infiltrated all walks of ...

Posted by ajay

Sub: mccarthy's rebirth

i often wondered why india , despite having quality of mind and spirit , could not be a great nation in modern times.the answer as ...

Posted by ajay tyagi

Sub: Net does matter :-)

This campaign undertaken by Mr. Bidwai is an indication that internet does matter. A decade back I couldn't think about a columnist of his stature ...

Posted by Rahul Malviya



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