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Updated: November 9, 2012 23:45 IST

Sustaining the myth of hostility

Mushirul Hasan
Comment (24)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

To Naipaul, Hindu militancy is a corrective to the past. He therefore rejects the possibility of Islam reconciling with other religions in the subcontinent

“There was in India now what didn’t exist 200 years before: a central will, a central intellect, a national idea,” wrote Vidiadhar S. Naipaul in 1990 in India: A Million Mutinies Now, his third book on the land of his forefathers. Sir Vidia’s construction of the Indian nation, his views on certain major episodes in contemporary history, his interpretation of Islam, and the role of minorities in secular India have always been controversial. Last week, they came under attack again, this time from Girish Karnad. Since then, some have rushed to Naipaul’s defence, others to Karnad’s. As a historian, I too would like to join the debate.

To remind readers, Naipaul’s ancestors left India in the early 1880s as indentured labourers for the sugar estates of Guyana and Trinidad. He returned to India with An Area of Darkness, advertised as ‘tender, lyrical, (and) explosive.’ Thereafter, he chronicled the histories of a wounded civilisation and a million mutinies in India. In between, he aimed salvos at Islam not once but twice, in laboured projects.

‘Indigestibility of Muslims’

Naipaul wholly subscribes to the views of Samuel P. Huntington, a controversial American political scientist who earned his reputation by arguing that the New World Order is based on patterns of conflict and cooperation founded on cultural distinctions and identifications. He talked of “the indigestibility of Muslims” and their propensity towards violent conflict, which makes them threatening.

Naipaul too warns readers of Islamic ‘parasitism,’ and endorses the Orientalist belief that Islam as a coherent, transnational, monolithic force has been engaged in a unilinear confrontational relationship with the West. His essentialist reading of history allows him to sustain the myth of an inherent hostility between two antagonistic sides.

I am not qualified to judge Naipaul’s standing in the literary world, but I have no doubt in my mind that he is ignorant of the nuances of Islam and unacquainted with the languages of the people he speaks to. He records and assesses only what he sees and hears from his interpreters. In the most literal sense, he finds the cultures indecipherable, for he cannot transliterate the Arabic alphabet. He had known Muslims all his life in Trinidad, but knew little of Islam. Its doctrine did not interest him; it didn’t seem worth inquiring into; and over the years, in spite of travel, he has added little to the knowledge gathered in his childhood.

He continues to subscribe to the illogical mistrust of Muslims he had been taught as a child: a particular greybeard Muslim, described in An Area of Darkness, has come to embody ‘every sort of threat.’ Much like Nirad Chaudhuri, who was guilty of disregarding common sense to feed his own petty prejudices towards the Muslim communities, Naipaul’s encounters with them “are suffused with a sense of youthful bigotries.”

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey is permeated with the sentiment that Islam sanctifies rage — rage about faith, political rage, and that Muslim societies are rigid, authoritarian, uncreative, and hostile to the West. In Indonesia, he runs into Imamuddin who confirms him in the stereotype. In Iran, Behzad leaves him convinced that, “now in Islamic countries there would be the Behzads who, in an inversion of Islamic passions, would have a vision of society cleansed and purified, a society of believers.” In Pakistan, he reminds us of the power of religion and the hollowness of secular cults in a fragmented country, economically stagnant, despotically ruled, with its gifted people close to hysteria.

In most of the description, otherwise nicely woven into a coherent story, there is hardly any reference to the debilitating legacy of colonial rule. The civilised, innovative, and technologically advanced West stands out as a vibrant symbol of progress and modernity, whereas the Muslim societies Naipaul encounters, despite their varying experiences and trajectories, are destructive, inert, and resentful of the West. With Naipaul relegating colonialism and imperial subjugation of Muslim societies to the background, the West appears an open, generous and universal civilisation.

In fact, it is the West that is consistently portrayed as exploited by lesser societies resentful of its benign, or at worst natural, creativity: “Indeed,” as scholar Rob Nixon points out, “Naipaul is so decided in his distribution of moral and cultural worth between the cultures of anarchic rage and the ‘universal civilization’ that he ends up demonizing Islam as routinely as the most battle-minded of his Islamic interlocutors demonize the West.”

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted People (1998), chooses Islamic bad faith as its theme, portraying “the same primitive, rudimentary, unsatisfactory and reductive thesis” that the Muslims having been converted from Hinduism, must experience the ignominy of all converted people. In India: A Million Mutinies (1990), the 1857 revolt is regarded as the last flare-up of Muslim energy until the agitation for a separate Muslim homeland. So far so good. But when Naipaul finds the Lucknow bazaars expressing the faith of the book and the mosque, for example Aminabad, a crowded marketplace, serving the faith, it becomes too much to swallow.

On Babri Masjid

Two years after A Million Mutinies, Naipaul defends the destruction of the Babri Masjid by calling it “an act of historical balancing.” “Ayodhya,” he reportedly told a small gathering at the BJP office in 2004, “was a sort of passion … Any passion has to be encouraged. I always support actions coming out of passion as these reflect creativity.” Whose passion? Of those Muslims who, despite the bitterness since December 1992, still weave the garlands used in the temple and produce everything necessary for dressing the icons preparatory to worship?

The fraternity of writers to which Naipaul belongs strongly contests not only his reading of the calamitous effect of Islam, but also his virtual justification of vandalism in the name of Islam. Salman Rushdie and others have written with infinitely greater sympathy and comprehension, and cultivated a distinctly secular point of view which had grown out of a reaction against Partition. Many others write convincingly about Islam as a living and changing reality, what Muslims mean by it is constantly changing because of the particular circumstances of time and place. They study it in its historical reality, without value judgments about what it ought to be.

There is however no place for these sentiments in Naipaul’s jaundiced views. To him, Hindu militancy is a necessary corrective to the past, a creative force. He therefore rejects the possibility of Islam, a religion of fixed laws, working out reconciliation with other religions in the subcontinent. This is, in short, the clash of civilisations theory.

Karnad is right

Girish Karnad is right. Naipaul is as ill-informed about India as Huntington was about the world outside the western hemisphere. One more related point. He talks of a fractured past solely in terms of Muslim invasions and conveniently forgets the grinding down of the Buddhist-Jain culture during the period of Brahmanical revival. He fumes and frets even though a fringe element alone celebrates the vandalism of the early Islamists who were driven more by the desire to establish the might of an evangelical Islam than to deface Hindu places of worship. With anger, remorse, and bitterness becoming a substitute for serious study and analysis, Naipaul’s plan for India’s salvation collapses like a pack of cards.

Hence the devastating enunciation of his Beyond Belief by Edward Said: “Somewhere along the way Naipaul, in my opinion, himself suffered a serious intellectual accident. His obsession with Islam caused him somehow to stop thinking, to become instead a kind of mental suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over. This is what I’d call an ‘intellectual catastrophe of the first order’.”

In the recent debate over Karnad’s remarks, several analysts have considered Naipaul’s interpretation of Islam as valid. I take issue with them. I believe writers like him widen the existing chasm between the Muslim communities and the followers of other religions. We need writers, poets and publicists who create mutual understanding and interfaith dialogue rather than create distrust and promote intolerance.

Peter Geyl reminded us that the historian should be interested in his subject for its own sake, he should try to get in touch with things as they were, the people and the vicissitudes of their fortunes should mean something to him in themselves. “Let Colour Fill the Flowers, Let Breeze of Early Spring Blow,” wrote the Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

If ever Naipaul wants to write a travelogue on Muslim countries, the sense of Islam as something more than words in texts, as something living in individual Muslims, must emerge from his pen.

(Mushirul Hasan is a historian and Director General of the National Archives of India.)


A reward for Mr. NaipaulNovember 10, 2012

LitFest director slams Karnad for targeting Naipaul November 4, 2012

The writer’s revengeOctober 27, 2012

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Poor Naipaul is the quintessential NRI - who has never spent any time in India or seen it except on the most superficial levels - and still has the answer to all problems that us dirty Indians have. It is all very well to say that he should have known better, that he has a responsibility to try to talk sense merely because of the fact that he has a larger audience than most of us. But to say that an individual does not have an inalienable right to his own stupidities or manias or phobias....

from:  Jayadevan
Posted on: Nov 8, 2012 at 23:46 IST

Interesting. What a pity we fail to get a cosmic view of our existence
and the conceptual nature of these gods we create. Having said that,
consider that these institutions that evolved proclaim to have some
common guiding principles. Love, tolerance, compassion, brotherhood,
peace, enlightenment etc., and since obviously one cannot be without
the other, we have hate, intolerance..etc, Now, make a matrix of all
these inevitable qualities of human nature against all these
institutions and tick off what best applies to which tries to live by
it for the greater good of this most insignificant planet in the

Its all just a play. Who is the player?

from:  Rajaram
Posted on: Nov 8, 2012 at 22:22 IST

In respect of Islam Professor Mushirul Hasan is right, and so is Naipaul. Hasan is focusing on Islam as it should be, and was once upon a time - tolerant and open to reasonable dissent. And not what it is today. Naipaul is basing himself on functional Islam of today, dominated by mindset of those Hasan dismisses as "fringe elements". Naipaul is concerned with Islam he saw during his extensive travels. Thus Hasan and Naipaul are basically addressing different matters.
I do not know why Hasan has dragged in colonialism,and other conflicts of history - whether real or imagined, and BJP. They are not relevant to the discussion.

from:  BPN Singh
Posted on: Nov 8, 2012 at 21:39 IST

'..early Islamists who were driven more by the desire to establish the might of an evangelical Islam than to deface Hindu places of worship'-you do not need a PhD to see the underlying pride that Mushirul Hassan has, for the destruction caused by the invading islamists. I am not implying the need for a retaliation but just want to highlight the fact that irrespective of how moderate a person is, he or she is still going to have a biased view as they see the world through their own religion's lens.

from:  Chethan
Posted on: Nov 8, 2012 at 21:37 IST

Excellent article. Mushirul Hassan is always a pleasure to read. I find
Naipaul's lack of knowledge about the subjects he writes on a little
dangerous. His fiction may have its merits or demerits. But his
nonfiction can in fact be judged on his knowledge and accuracy, and he
is neither knowledgeable, nor accurate.

from:  Varun
Posted on: Nov 8, 2012 at 17:45 IST

If we look at any religion in its early life (about 5 - 6 centuries)
its in a wild run to establish a foot hold and be recognised.
Christianity has gone through it, the jews and others will vouch. I am
sure the early tribes in India must have felt it when Hinduism came
up. Buddhism & Jainism to a lesser degree as the concept of the
religion is mostly non violence, could be one reason we have lesser
followers of this religion today. So we need to give everyone time. We
are just being impatient to a small sect of extremist over a larger
audience who follow islam peacefully. Having said that, it is
sometimes difficult that the voice of contemporary Muslim is never
heard or often subdued by the bombs and terror. That is one aspect
only the modern muslim community can do to embrace other ideology and
thoughts to make us truly secular. Till then let us be humans and
behave with compassion. Of course, the celebrated writers must be
responsible to present the truth and not distort it.

from:  Nandith
Posted on: Nov 8, 2012 at 12:13 IST

@Arun subbu @Ramachandra: if i remember well, read somewhere that
under sankara acharya 3000 jains were killed by a gruesome means which
in tamil is called 'kazhuvetrudhal'. so, still you mean to say "grind
down" is so harsh a term to use. Also there is some work by KJamandas
that Tirupati existed as a Buddhist shrines which was taken down by
Vaishnavites. Buddhism had wide popularity among masses that it even
spread to the prime seat of Hinduism benares. So my point is, what is
wrong in saying that hindus ground down buddhists and Jains and
revived Brahminism?

from:  Rahul
Posted on: Nov 8, 2012 at 11:20 IST

Public recognitions and rewards tend to influence the shaping of discourse, ideas, patterns of reasoning and values in a society, apart from furthering mutual reputations and careers. Perhaps a domain could become a little more vibrant if players in it could care to be a little more elaborate and forthcoming about their reflections.

from:  Raashid Saiyed
Posted on: Nov 8, 2012 at 10:38 IST

It's always a delight for secularists and atheists like us to read religious apologists debate religion. If Naipaul is incoherent and intellectually lazy in his case for history, so is Mr Hasan in his critique of the same. But then it should not be surprising. As you can read through the comment thread, you will find how the religious dissect the history with an interpretation of their own- somehow trying to fit themselves into the 'better' part of history.
On one hand, you will notice how my fellow Hindus are completely ignorant about the violent history of Hinduism- not just against Buddhism and Jainism but also within itself. While on the other you will find my fellow Muslims drawing a strong distinction between Islam and 'its-interpretation-by-extreme-elements'. Do I even need to explain how shallow and hollow such arguments are!!

from:  Kruttik Aggarwal
Posted on: Nov 8, 2012 at 00:36 IST

@Suraj Kumar- There are well founded theroies that Jains were forcefully converted to Hinduism in 8th century when Adi Shankaracharya was reviving Hinduism. It is said that thousand of jain monks were killed in genocide during that period. I find that most Hindus are highly ignorant of other Indian religions such as Jainism and Buddhism. Most hindus conveniently believe that all such religions are part of Hinduism even though these are almost as different as day and night.

from:  Ashish K
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 23:06 IST

The writer is suggesting crusades against Buddhism and Jainism in ancient India. This is the first time I am hearing about it. Can someone confirm this? Was there any kind of forceful conversion ? Were Buddhists and Jain shrines destroyed by Hindu kings or mobs? Till now I only know of things like declaring Buddha as ninth Avatar of Vishnu to revive Brahminism among other things. Enlighten me.

from:  Suraj Kumar
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 17:37 IST

While Mr. Hasan is perfectly right in criticizing V S Naipaul and his
view of Islam. One cannot forget the fine distinction between the
Islam as religion and tenets of Islam as interpreted by extreme
elements. We are having problem with the latter, as we notice that the
extremists in Muslim communities all over the world are not ready to
accommodate a view that is different from theirs and they (extremists)
are often proclaiming that non-Muslims have no right to live in this
world. Unfortunately, the saner elements in Muslim communities every
where are being weakened day by day, and that is the reason why
Naipaul and those with similar views have become more acceptable. It
is also my observation that Muslims with a liberal view are losing
their hold on community. There are extreme elements in the Hindu
community as well but their influence is limited and liberal views of
others are generally more acceptable. Better communication between
Muslims and non- Muslims is required.

from:  Narendra M Apte
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 17:13 IST

The author makes a reference to 'the grinding down of the Buddhist-
Jain culture during the period of Brahmanical revival'. Let me state
very clearly here that Buddhist-Jainist philosophies and
Brahminical(Vedic)philosophies were all sheer interpretations with
arguments for and against each other. We had Buddhist monks spreading
Buddhism in Vedic India as a consequence of which many people
including kings embraced these philosophies(or religions). After a
period of time, we had the three main acharyas in the south viz.
Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva who again propagated the path of Vedic
religion. Neither the Buddhist monks nor the Hindu saints called for
violence as a means to preach their faith. How come the author even
attempts to make a comparison of this ideological clash with the
invasion of the Sultans and their vandalism of temples! Such a
comparison is indeed shocking.

from:  raghavan k
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 16:38 IST

What a weak attempt to tarnish Hindus. The point is different Mr .
Author. Budhism Jainism and Sikhism originated in India as Hinduism.
They are different ways how people lived in India. While Islam is a
religion [ i specifically say religion while other 3 are not so much
religion, may be sikhism], which came from outside and forced itself
on India. It was not like India welcomed Islam as an idea or another
way of living. It was forced upon India while Budhism and Jainism was
not. And would you care to show us an accommodating/democratic Muslim
majority country? Yes, Arabs give us money, but not a sense of
I am not saying there is no fault here. But those are politically
motivated radical fringes.
The point Naipaul makes is Islam and Christianity[to an extent] was
forced upon India/Subcontinent. Both those were not welcomed by the
natives here by getting impressed by them. There is a difference.

from:  Ramachandra
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 12:01 IST

Wake up India!
Wake up World!
Life is worth living and we humans(whatsoever be the credo)just cannot afford to waste it hating any particular person or faith or society or nation or whatever it may be.
I strongly agree to Mr. Hasan -
"We need writers, poets and publicists who create mutual understanding and interfaith dialogue rather than create distrust and promote intolerance."
We, as a human, have got a long way to go ahead!

from:  Avinash Kaur
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 11:34 IST

the views of Naipaul may be largely incorrect with respect to India, but so the defense of Mushirul Hasan. All is not bad with Islamic society, but all is not well also ,outlined by the recent violence in Chennai against the US embassy, the cutting down of the hand of a professor in Kerala some time back , the recent violence in Mumbai and descreation of Amar Jawan ,and last but not least the current state of Pakistan. Both the authors are shooting from their set positions.

from:  harish
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 11:04 IST

The hue of the article is dictated by the misunderstanding of the writer that Islam and Muslims are synonyms. Perhaps the book is righteous, but it matters not as long as Muslims parctice it the way they are doing so today. Clearly, his position (added in the end) is a result of the widespread appeasement that muslims enjoy today in India. Because, on one hand he accuses Naipaul of half-baked-knowledge and on the other he makes a stmt about brahmanical tyranny forgetting the public debates (about religion) held during the incident. Will a muslim agree to similar debates on Islam. If stating facts creats "distrust and promote intolerance", then its a pity but nevertheless encouraged. "Understanding and interfaith dialogue" dosent and should not mean hiding hard facts.

from:  Vijay
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 10:37 IST

Well written. I do not study religious books. Mine or others. More than
intent actions define the world. Actions only creates opinion not intent
or content. Activities of various Islamists are against West, so it is a
clash of civilizations defined by their actions, whoever may be wrong or
whatever their religious book says. One kills people in name of liberty,
development and democracy and other killing innocent out of anger,
remorse, and bitterness. Without changing your actions you cannot claim
to be apostle for peace or can claim religion of peace. Thanks

from:  H. Prasad
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 08:59 IST

Wow! This is such a moving piece. You have dissected the oppressive bigotry of an
acclaimed but deeply flawed writer without hostility or rancour. I am not sure as to what can change Mr. Naipaul. Will he go down as another literary accident? Someone flawed walking away with the top accolades which were not so deserved?

from:  Anand
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 06:05 IST

“Rimsha Masih, Christian girl, arrested for blasphemy”; “Malala Yousufzai: Pakistani Girl, Nearly Killed by Taliban” for promoting education for girls – these are just two headlines emanating from a self proclaimed Islamic country. The perpetrators insist that they are following their scripture to the letter and spirit, and the religious, government and military leaders – and even the public seem to in agreement, even if reluctantly. The feeble protests to bring the perpetrators to justice seem to be just to mollify the outside world. There is a serious intellectual debate in the Islamic world: if they should resurrect the values of the first millennium or live with the current set. The religious scripture is writ; it is the final and uncompromising arbiter. And it was decidedly written not in this millennium or even the one before it. The scripture propels, and sustains the unflinching enforcers who are sure there is no other way. Naipaul’s work implies this. You be the judge.

from:  Anvar Naveed
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 05:21 IST

The writer opines "grinding down of the Buddhist-Jain culture during the period of Brahmanical revival" . What Brahminical revival ? Their population has never been more than 5% to 8% of the sub-continent population.
And where was force used to "grind down" Buddhist and Jain schools of thoughts ?

from:  Arun Subbu
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 04:44 IST

Mushirul Hasan is right in saying that we need writers who would help build bridges across religious, linguistic and ethinic divides. Whatever the history of each group, we are here now and belong equally to Mother India. India is one of the most diverse societies in the world. We must understand, respect and work with each other if the country is to realize its potential and India is to be an open, prosperous and civilised place for all its citizens.

from:  Virendra Gupta
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 03:37 IST

Is Mushirul Hasan claiming that there are no political Islamists in
India or other countries with significant Muslim populations ?

The problem other religions are asking is, where is the moderate
Muslim? When Muslim extremists run riot in the streets, no one from
the Muslim community questions them. Contemporary Muslim literature
does not dwell in the topic of political Islam, which is a reality.
in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh, where minorities are
persecuted severely, not just in riots, but throughout to such an
extent, that their populations have dwindled.

Because Muslims are not standing up and questioning, it is left to
others who are outside the Muslim religion to question them.
What worries an average citizen, is that Muslim majority countries and
provinces with significant Muslim populations in India, people of
other religions are persecuted. But no Muslim questions them.

from:  Ganesh
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 03:00 IST

The author pointed a thousand flaws in Naipaul's books. And he also
highlighted something like Hindu militancy? Is there anything like that
really? For Hindus, organizing together and accumulating power will
never be possible because they don't follow a single book. On the other
hand, the western civilizations are much more practical and should not
even be compared with arabic and third world countries which are still
struggling to project mystic ideologies as holy things.

from:  sateesh
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 01:46 IST
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