Have the courage to face our past and present, squarely Anil Dharker
11 November 2012, 07:18 AM IST
Was V S Naipaul right or was Girish Karnad right? The sound and fury generated by the controversy at Literature Live!, Mumbai’s literary festival, has obscured one important aspect of our national life: we are afraid of our own history.
Let’s recap for a moment how the controversy began. Naipaul was given the Landmark Lifetime Achievement Award at the festival. This aroused Karnad’s ire: the award should not have been given, he said, because Naipaul was anti-Muslim . In his non-fiction books, Naipaul’s stance, according to Karnad, is to depict Indian Muslims as “raiders and marauders” and so, in effect, Naipaul has “criminalised a whole section of the Indian population as rapists and murderers.” “I have Muslim friends and I feel strongly about this,” Karnad added.
I have Muslim friends too, and i feel strongly as well, not about our shared history but about the state of the community in our country today. That feeling has been strong enough for me to be a trustee of Citizens for Justice and Peace, an NGO which (among other things) has taken up multiple cases on behalf of the Muslim victims of the 2002 Gujarat massacre. As a direct result, many people including Maya Kodnani , a former minister in the Modi government and Babu Bajrangi, the Bajrang Dal leader, have been sentenced to long prison terms. My strong feelings, therefore , are not just emotional but take the practical shape of righting today’s wrongs.
But should that blind me to our history? Right from the 12th to the 15th century, Afghan and Central Asian invaders like Mohammad Ghori and Mahmud Ghaznavi came as marauders and plunderers: they came to loot (places like the Somnath temple were immensely rich and obvious targets ), and even to destroy local religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. The sacking and burning in 1193 by the Turk, Bhaktiyar Khilji of the Nalanda library, one of the greatest places of learning, and whose collection of books was so extensive that it took three months to be gutted, is a case in point. Hampi, which is now a Unesco Heritage site, was burned down by the Bahamanis , an act of vandalism which took days. Later, the Mughals led by Babar may have come, not as raiders but as settlers, but they did proselytize. Emperor Aurangzeb’s depredations were extensive and go far beyond the Shivnath temple: when you think that Ahilyabai Holkar rebuilt as many as 350 temples in and near Varanasi, you realize how far-reaching the damage was.
This is a rather jumbled, and hurried look at our history, but it makes the point that in spite of the enlightened rule of emperors like Akbar (notably), Jehangir and Shahjahan, a great deal of the nation’s heritage was wilfully destroyed by Afghan, Turk, Central Asian and Mughal invaders and rulers. You can overstate the case, as Naipaul does, by seeing in the Taj Mahal only the ‘blood and sweat of slave labour’ (you can say that of the pyramids too), but that’s only overstating the case, not making one up. By stating it, you do not become anti-Muslim.
That’s the important point. Girish Karnad , like a lot of secularists who want to see present-day India live in a harmonious blend of communities, bends over backwards to gloss over the negative aspects of Islam in our history, because of the harm this reiteration can cause to present-day Muslims. (In his attack on Naipaul, for example , Karnad said off-handedly , “Oh, I do admit some temples and monuments may have been destroyed by the Mughals…&rdquo.
Ibelong to that group of secularists too, and i would not be writing this article if it weren’t for the recent controversy. But we need to remind ourselves about something that should be obvious: Yes, it’s true there was a Ram temple where the Babri Masjid stands; yes, it’s true that the temple was demolished and a mosque built on the site-… But it’s also true that over the many years after this happened, not too many people were bothered either about the now-decrepit mosque, nor the once existing temple until L K Advani and the BJP made it an issue to revive its electoral chances. The Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent riots did not happen because people like Naipaul wrote their versions of history.
Sadly, the laudable wish to ensure that today’s Muslims are not victimized any more than they are, also prevents secularists from lashing out at the pronouncements and actions of the ultra-orthodox in the community, for example the recent edict banning women from entering the sanctum of Mumbai’s Haji Ali dargah. Our silence only helps those in the minority community who stop it from moving into modernity. It’s something we need to face squarely, as squarely as we need to face our history.