Anyone teaching the history of communal conflict in India will have come across texts criticising a secular reading of Indian history, calling instead for a more Hindu-centred approach. Such texts proliferated around the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992. Since Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, there has been a resurgence of this nationalist revisionism. At the centre of it all sits S.N.Balagangadhara, a philosopher who directs the India Platform out of the Research Centre for the Comparative Science of Cultures at Ghent in Belgium. He has the ear of government. When the Modi government appointed Yellapragada Sudarshan Rao as the new director of the Indian Council of Historical Research in 2014, one of his first acts was to invite Balagangadhara to deliver the Maulana Azad Memorial lecture. At the heart of Balagangadhara’s revisionism lies an appropriation of post-colonial theory which should ring alarm bells.
Balagangadhara reads Indian history through the optic of ‘orientalism’, particularly in the way in which it is freighted with Christianity. Balagangadhara argues that orientalism shaped and determined the colonial knowledge of and within India. Indeed, any attempt to know India from a social science or humanities perspective is to pursue, unwittingly, a Christian agenda. It has the effect of producing an ‘unbroken line of continuity’ with the orientalist writings about the ’religions’ in India.’ Generations of Indian intellectuals only regard Hinduism as a religion simply because they have been infused with something called ‘colonial consciousness’, a condition ‘generated through violence, reproduced through asymmetries in power and sustained by an ideology – the ideology of a Christian theological framework’.
Balagangadhara’s polemics have found a receptive audience in Modi’s India. Just a few days after Balagangadhara delivered his lecture at the ICHR, Mohan Bhagwat – the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the far right group that exercises huge influence over the BJP – was quoted as saying, ‘[i]n the past 1,200 years our mindset has been polluted and influenced by the values of people and forces that attacked Bharat and ruled over her. We need to wipe out this influence completely by decolonising our mindsets with sustained and consistent efforts’.
In the UK too, Hindu nationalism has found its voice, in the work of Prakash Shah. Like Balagangadhara, Shah asserts that accounts of Aryan invasion and the caste system are ‘ways of constructing “knowledge” about Indian society that have their roots in Christian, theologically driven assessments of Indian culture and traditions.’ Last year, he wrote that ‘[w]hat we need today is not the kind of moralising discourses and identity politics that more widely infects education in the human sciences (and campus life more broadly) – in India as much as in the US and Europe. Unless we begin to find a way of researching India that goes beyond a framework based on recycled scraps of Christian theology, we will do a disservice to ourselves and to future generations.’
The main focus for Balagangadhara, Shah and others, is the idea of a caste system. This, they argue, like Hinduism, is a construction of colonialism, foisted upon authentic Indians by outsiders. Today it remains the dominant ideology of so-called ‘Ambedkarites’– the modern-day followers of B. R. Ambedkar, the champion of the ‘untouchables’ around the time of independence. ‘Ambedkarites’ use the idea of caste to perpetuate reservations policy and positive discrimination in India. Ambedkar himself is a whipping-post for Hindutva revisionism. At the end of 2015, Balagangadharas parked protests at Osmania University after he called Ambedkar ‘idiotic’, described Dalit literature as ‘bullshit’, and labelled those teaching in Indian universities with caste certificates ’incompetent’.
Whilst caste does exist, Hindutva revisionists argue that the caste system, like Hinduism, does not. It is merely a trope by which Indians are explained by semitic westerners. Prakash Shah sums it up neatly in an article opposing the attempts of British MPs to outlaw caste discrimination in the UK, stating that ‘[b]ehind the descriptions of the caste system lies the idea of sacerdotal or priestly violence as a constitutive force’. Thus, ideas of the caste system, and its barbarity and unfairness, were the products of proselyting Christianity, missionaries and their colonial counterparts whose main intention was, and still is, according to these scholars, to Christianise or ‘break up’ India.
In fact, Hindutva revisionism goes one step further, accusing the defenders of low-caste Dalits of being responsible for sectarianism. Shah has argued that not only did Ambedkar advocate that the only way to destroy the caste system was to destroy Hinduism, and that Periyar E. V. Ramasamy, the founder of the ‘Self-Respect Movement’, made his followers murder high-caste Brahmans, but also that both men wanted the British to remain in India. Dunkin Jalki, a product of the ‘Centre for the Study of Culture and Society’ in Bengaluru (Bangalore) and another Hindutva apologist, has added a further layer to this blaming of the victims, claiming that as the caste system was invented by the Christian epistemology of the west, ‘one has to rethink the very idea of caste-based reservations.’ A chilling prospect indeed.
What is most challenging about the writings and sayings of the Hindutva revisionist scholars is the way in which they root their findings and claims in post-colonial scholarship. In particular, they draw on the work of Bernard Cohn and Edward Said, often in unacknowledged ways. But whenever they reference the ‘colonial construction of knowledge’ you can be sure that are nodding and winking at the consensus existing in the conventional literature, in which we are all steeped, about the impact of the west on the legal and social customs of the imagined ‘East’.
Said of course is open to all sorts of reappropriation. But why is Cohn’s empiricism so open to reinterpretation, dare I say it misinterpretation, of the sort practiced by Hindutva revisionists? First, his argument about the colonial codification of Hindu and Muslim law, a process that solidified the once fluid and complex system of relationships between different groups, was based principally on foreign or non-indigenous sources and descriptions, leaving him open to the charge of occidentalism. Secondly, Cohn’s anthropological studies of the 1950s stressed the plasticity of caste. He showed how even in one village, there could be different versions of caste, present only across recent generations, determined by a social group’s orientation towards the state. Such indeterminate and negotiated forms of caste in everyday life, Cohn showed, were in stark contrast to the ‘official’ view of caste, legislated for in colonial times, and woven into the laws of the new republic after 1947. Even if he never passed judgment on the place of caste in the new Indian constitution, his emphasis on its political and social construction left a legacy for those who might want to see caste as an inauthentic form of Indian identity.
The recent scholarship of Hindu nationalism thus presents South Asianists with a dilemma that needs to be taken seriously. We should be aware of highly-charged contemporary debates raging around caste, a topic to which we frequently return as teachers and researchers. It is imperative that we do so when our own intellectual tool-kit is being used in such unorthodox ways.
South Asianists have not sufficiently questioned standard assumptions within the post-colonial repertoire, and so it has been made easy for Balagangadhara and others to make the claims they do. It is not a coincidence that RSS leaders and right-wing academics met at a conference called ‘Decolonisation of the Indian Mind’ in April this year. In a post-truth age, we need histories that contradict their agenda. But we also need to be reflective about our own disciplinary paradigms, and go back to the work of Bernard Cohn and others, place it in its own historical context, explore its silences and presumptions. In doing so, we will not aid our antagonists by decolonising the humanities and social sciences, we will only be doing what we do best, confronting the misuse and abuse of history with rigorous scholarship.
Shalini Sharma teaches colonial and post-colonial history at Keele University. She is currently writing a book about America and 20th century Indian intellectual life.