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McCarthyism's Indian rebirth

By Praful Bidwai
May 13, 2003 19:25 IST
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When future scholars write the social history of this past decade in India, a major trend they will undoubtedly note is the upsurge of intolerance. Right since the Babri mosque was demolished in December 1992 by a frenzied mob out to settle scores with history, there has been unrelenting violence, discrimination, and humiliation against groups of people.

They are vilified simply because they happen to disagree with 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, indeed casually, 'secularists' and 'liberals' are demonised.

It can be argued that this isn't new. Indian society is far less tolerant and respectful of dissent than, say, the West. Yet, there is something new and different about today's intolerance. Until the mid-1970s, people could publish irreverent, iconoclastic, even blasphemous, 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, would periodically ban books by foreigners, which were considered sensitive from the security point of view -- like Nine Hours to Rama, or Neville Maxwell's India's China War. 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's stridently 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 their spleen with perverse delight and rank communalists launch foul attacks on Muslims and advocate suicide-bombing of Pakistani civilians. (This happened on BBC Question Time-India on May 2, with the Shiv Sena's Sanjay Nirupam leading the charge.) Terms like 'secularist conspiracy' now feature in mainstream newspaper captions.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the new intolerance is the official sanction it receives through ministers and leaders of academic institutions which have been unscrupulously and ruthlessly saffronised, including universities, councils of historical and social science research, and the National Council for Educational Training and Research. Soon after the BJP took over the Indian Council of Historical Research, it banned volumes in the Towards Freedom project edited by distinguished historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar. NCERT has revised social science textbooks in a blatantly communal manner.

For instance, in the book for Class 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 the Western mind', a phrase reminiscent of the Nazis' Aryan-German supremacism.

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

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

Pro-Hindutva non-resident Indians in North America are among those spearheading this campaign of intolerance, especially on email circuits. Driven by their long-distance or 'Green Card' hyper-nationalism, they take extremely illiberal positions. They target individuals and assassinate their character, abuse them, and try to intimidate them. Among their targets are journalists, including myself.

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

Prof Thapar, one of India's best-known world-class academics, has taught at a host of universities, including Oxford, London and Paris, besides Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has received honorary doctorates from Paris, Oxford, Chicago and Calcutta. Prof Thapar was recently appointed to the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South at the US Library of Congress, the world's greatest library of record. Her Penguin History of India has dominated the ancient Indian history field like 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 Congress appointment triggered what must be one of the most vicious attacks ever launched on a scholar anywhere, through an online petition, which now has over 1,700 signatories, most of them NRIs. The petition would deserve a serious academic-level rebuttal if it were signed by people who have at least read and are minimally acquainted with Prof Thapar's work. It isn't. It accuses her of being an ignorant yet 'avowed antagonist of India's Hindu civilisation' who wants to discredit India in the same way as the 'Europeans discredited the American Indians' land claims...' It says that as a Marxist, she 'represents a completely Eurocentric worldview' 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 and that 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 and religious, metaphysical and scientific. How she could be an 'antagonist' of Indian civilisation 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 'a foregone conclusion'. "She will of course attempt to show that Early India had no historical consciousness"!

In reality, some of Prof Thapar's most exciting work (eg: Time as a Metaphor for History) attempts to refute the Eurocentric notion that ancient Indians only had a cyclical concept of time, and to establish that there existed linear and genealogical concepts too. Devoid of logic, rationality or sobriety, the petitioners resort to abuse in comments appended to the main letter. They demand that 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 the 20th century outside Nazi Germany, conducted in post-World War II America by Senator Joseph McCarthy against anyone suspected to be a communist. One of the signatories gives the game away: 'Fidel Castro would have been a better choice [than Prof Thapar]. At least he is not a venom-spitting anti-Hindu. I am worried about the future of USA. The Indian communists have already infiltrated into all the American universities. 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 Trojan Horse for Islamic terrorists in the US', 'It is disappointing that the US that once opposed communism is now in cahoots with one of its practitioners', 'Ban Marxist Scholars from the USA... After all, the American Communist Party was banned' (Praveen Togadia). 'Prelude to Hindu Holocaust...', 'Romila does not know anything about India. She only knows Indian history which has been formatted and manipulated by the British. Besides, she is a Marxist who are as fundamentalist as Muslim Jehadies', 'This stupid lady should be stripped 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 learn they do overt operations too!', 'The agenda of neo-conservatives is getting clearer now -- recalling Ambassador Blackwill, now appointing Romila Thapar -- to further demoralise/weaken India and its people...', '...Going by her 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 Prof Thapar's appointment. But other US institutions and universities might want to play safe 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 this witchhunt 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 of bigotry and vile communalism.

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

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