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An area of awakening, (Naipaul's interview)

Author: Dileep Padgaonkar
Publication: The Times of India
Date: July 18, 1993
URL:   http://hvk.org/2020/0820/19.html

(Excerpts of an interview of Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul, concerning his views on the Ram Janmabhoomi movement)

P: In India we have seen time and again that people have been either aggressive or apologetic about their cultural identity.  In today's India it is difficult to get people to admit that there are several layers to a cultural identity: Hinduism in all its pluralistic splendour, the contribution made by Islam's long presence in the sub-continent, the exposure to the West.

N: The alternatives - traditionalism versus westernism - might be false.  There is no either/or because the essence of literature, iniquity and philosophy is a constant examination of oneself and one's world and one's own culture.  One hopes to leave the world with different ideas than those given to one when one entered the world.  The alternatives proposed in India could lead to brutal clashes.  Remember that India was trampled over, fought over, It had destroyed itself by its wars.  It was almost at a standstill.  You had the invasions and you had the absence of a response to them.  There was an absence even of the idea of a people, of a nation defending itself.  So there is no reason really for people to be either aggressive or apologetic about all this.

P: Unless of course the perception is that you have to contend with the "other".  Some of this is reflected in India: A Million Mutinies Now.  For the past ten or 12 years the feeling in India has burgeoned that Hinduism faces a threat from the mushroom growth of Islamic fundamentalism.  It began with the revolution in Iran.  The Islamisation process of Pakistan under General Zia exacerbated that feeling.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent rise of Islamic nations in Central Asia, the Salman Rushdie affair, similar harassment by fundamentalists of liberal Muslim intellectuals in India: all these factors taken together persuaded some forces to argue that a divided Hindu society cannot counteract Islamic fundamentalism.

N: I don't see it quite in that way.  The things you mentioned are quite superficial.  You cannot be a fundamentalist if you want to go and live in America.  Ask any Iranian where he wants to go: it is to America.  If that is your goal you cannot be a fundamentalist.  I think fundamentalism is a passing phase even in Islam.  It is a religion on the defensive.

What is happening in India is a new, historical awakening.  Gandhi used religion in a way as to marshal people for the independence cause.  People who entered the independence movement did it because they felt they would earn individual merit.

Today, it seems to me that Indians are becoming alive to their history.  This has not happened before.  Romila Thapar's book on Indian history is a Marxist attitude to history which in substance says: there is a higher truth behind the invasions, feudalism and all that.  The correct truth is the way the invaders looked at their actions.  They were conquering, they were subjugating.  And they were in a country where people never understood this.

Only now are the people beginning to understand that there has been a great vandalising of India.  Because of the nature of the conquest and the nature of Hindu society such understanding had eluded Indians before.  In pre-industrial India people moved about in small areas unaware of the dimension, of the country and without any notion of a community or a nation.  People seemed to say: we are all right here.  The West may he disastrous.  But we are not affected.

Now, however, things seem to be changing.  What is happening in India is a mighty creative process.  Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on, especially if these intellectuals happen to be in the United States.  But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

We have to be careful about something else happening in the world.  It might be news to you.  I recently received a document, the text of a lecture given by some sort of an expert on India who teaches at Trinity College, Cambridge.  The lecture was on fundamentalism.  In it we are told that Islam was brought to India by traders and merchants and that places of Hindu worship became absorbed into Mohamedan places of worship.

Well, all this is absurd and it is said by a serious scholar.  This ties in with what I read in The Independent recently.  Its correspondent in Delhi reported that the Indians removed the Hindus from Kashmir to give their armed forces a free hand.  So the expulsion of the Hindus was self- done; it had nothing to do with attacks on them.  I don't know how true this is.

However, we are aware of one of the more cynical forms of liberalism: it admits that one fundamentalism is all right in the world.  This is the fundamentalism they are really frightened of: Islamic fundamentalism.  Its source is Arab money.  It is not intellectually to be taken seriously etc.  I don't see the Hindu reaction purely in terms of one fundamentalism pitted against another.  The reaction is a much larger response...  Mohamedan fundamentalism is essentially negative, a protection against a world it desperately wishes to join.  It is a last ditch fight against the world.

But the sense of history that the Hindus are now developing is a new thing.  Some Indians speak about a synthetic culture: this is what a defeated people always speak about.  The synthesis may be culturally true.  But to stress it could also be a form of response to intense persecution.  This is sometimes taken to absurd lengths by Nirad Chaudhuri, for instance, who in the midst of the massive vandalism speaks about Hindu aggressiveness.  He talks about Al Baruni coming as though peacefully and Hindus reacting to them in an aggressive manner.  This is nonsensical.

P: This new sense of history as you call it is being used in India in very many different ways.  Some use it for short- term political gain.  But there are those whom well beyond the pale of Hindu political forces, are striving to come to terms with the past.  It is revealing is it not, that leftists in India now think it necessary to quote Vivekananda and the poets of the Bhakti movement.  All the same, my worry is that somewhere down the line this search for a sense of history might yet again turn into hostility toward something precious which came to use from the West: the notion of the individual......

N: This is where the intellectuals have a duty to perform.  The duty is the use of the mind.  It is not enough for intellectuals to chant their liberal views or to abuse what is happening.  To use the mind is to reject the grosser aspects of this vast emotional upsurge.

We all live in a universal civilisation.  Some more than the others.  We have our individual particularities.  But we are all inhabited by a universal civilisation.  It is very hard to go back.

P: How did you react to the Ayodhya incident?

N: Not as badly, as the others did, I am afraid.  The people who say that there was no temple there are missing the point.  Babar, you must understand, had contempt for the country he had conquered.  And his building of that mosque was an act of contempt for the country.

In Turkey, they turned the Church of Santa Sophia into a mosque.  In Nicosia churches were converted into mosques too.  The Spaniards spent many centuries re-conquering their land from Muslim invaders.  So these things have happened before and elsewhere.

In Ayodhya the construction of a mosque on a spot regarded as sacred by the conquered population was meant as an insult.  It was meant as an insult to an ancient idea, the idea of Ram which was two or three thousand years old.

P: The people who climbed on top of these domes and broke them were not bearded people wearing saffron robes and with ash on their foreheads.  They were young people clad in jeans and tee-shirts.

N: One needs to understand the passion that took them on top of the domes.  The jeans and the tee-shirts are superficial.  The passion alone is real.  You can't dismiss it. You have to try to harness it.

Hitherto in India the thinking has come from the top.  I spoke earlier about the state of the country: destitute, trampled upon, crushed.  You then had the Bengali renaissance, the thinkers of the 19th century.  But all this came from the top.  What is happening now is different.  The movement is now from below.

P: My colleague, the cartoonist, Mr R K Laxman, and I recently travelled thousands of miles in Maharashtra.  In many places we found that noses and breasts had been chopped off from the statues of female deities.  Quite evidently this was a sign of conquest.  The Hindutva forces point to this too to stir up emotions.  The problem is: how do you prevent these stirred-up emotions from spilling over and creating fresh tensions?

N: I understand.  But it is not enough to abuse them or to use that fashionable word from Europe: fascism.  There is a big, historical development going on in India.  Wise men should understand it and ensure that it does not remain in the hands of fanatics.  Rather they should use it for the intellectual transformation of India.

P: This would imply a fairly radical revision of many of the basic assumptions we have made regarding the country: the nature of Indian society, the way it is to be governed, its place in the world...

N: What kind of assumptions?

P: One basic assumption flows from the Constitution.  When it was adopted, its architect, Dr Ambedkar, made a speech in which he said in substance: today we have performed a revolutionary act.  We have put not the village, the caste or the community at the centre of the scheme of things but the individual.  Schematically speaking, this importance given to the individual is inspired by the American and French revolutions and by the enlightenment.  The feeling now is that the individual will be subjugated if the basis of Indian nationhood is to be Hinduism alone.  That is a potential danger.

N: There are too many people who think like you for that to be realised.  Fortunately, this movement in favour of the individual has come as a result of education, of several generations of educated people.  There are enough people who are educated, who feel like you, who read your paper and similar papers to fight this.  There is a self-regulatory thermostat, which should take care of the problem.

P: I hope you are right.  But the possibility that the individual will he displaced frightens me no end.  This is important for all people but especially for the Dalits and women.  Women in particular.  They are the ones who are in many respects in the forefront of progress.  They should not be endangered.  The Hindutva idea of a woman should not confine her in the "Sita-Savitri" mould.

N: That is dreadful.  And that needs to be fought for many reasons.  One of the most important surely is the economic imperative.  You can't keep the economy going with such notions.  The economic liberalisation should help to counter the trend.  I hope liberalisation is moving ahead....

P: It is.  The atmosphere has clearly changed.  Attitudes are beginning to change.  Indians are rediscovering the entrepreneurial spirit.

N: What about the modern, moderate elements in the BJP?

P: Some fine people who belong to the modernist stream have recently joined the party.  This is all to the good.  However, I am afraid that there are not enough of such elements to contain the extremist trends.  Time has frozen for them.  They want to recreate the golden age which did not exist in the first place.  All the same, that educated people - doctors and engineers for instance - are backing the BJP not because they necessarily subscribe to everything that goes under the name of Hindutva but because they are disillusioned with the Congress system or because they are genuinely worried about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

At any rate, whatever the reasons, Indians are discussing, admittedly in a chaotic and confused manner, several issues concerning the country.  I wonder however whether the debate can be conducted meaningfully it if is couched entirely in a western vocabulary.

N: Well, perhaps, you need to do what Anand Coomaraswamy did for Indian aesthetics.

P: Or Radhakrishnan for Indian philosophy.

N: Yes.

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