As a long-time India correspondent of the Financial Times and husband of a Hindu Indian wife, Edward Luce is rightfully confident of his grasp of contemporary India’s political and socio-economic situation. His book In Spite of the Gods. The Strange Rise of Modern India (Little, Brown, London 2006) is a wide-ranging and fairly detailed but eminently readable presentation of India’s recent and current developments.
The book contains a few minor mistakes, e.g. “Vaishya” where “Kshatriya” is meant (p.107 and p.124, yet correct on p.70), or the claim that in World War 2, Subhash Chandra Bose’s “INA... never invaded India”. The Indian National Army did briefly occupy parts of Nagaland and Mizoram, while the Andaman and Nicobar islands had been conquered by the Japanese and allotted to INA sovereignty. But let that pass.
Considering the newspaper Luce works for, it is no surprise that he dismisses Nehruvian socialism as a historical mistake for which the Indian population has paid dearly. While applauding liberalization, he also criticizes recent attempts by the Congress-led and Communist-supported United Progressive Alliance government to uphold or revive socialism, e.g. the Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2005), largely drafted by Aruna Roy and Jean Drèze. No lack of good intentions behind this socialist anti-poverty scheme, but: “Yet there is little, other than its magnitude and its cost, to distinguish it from previous efforts that have failed.” (p.201) He aptly links state tutelage with the ineffectiveness of general utilities in many Indian cities: “If utilities are allowed to charge customers for what they use, there is an incentive to supply them... In the cities, charging the poor for water would ensure that the poor would receive it.” (p.344)
Hindu readers have often complained about the anti-Hindu bias in all too many India books, including those by authors with Hindu names like Chetan Bhatt, Vijay Prashad or Pankaj Mishra. So, where does Luce stand in this respect?
The book’s title obviously suggests that same bias: India is growing “in spite of the gods”, i.e. in spite of Hinduism, a burdensome heritage. This description maintains, in opposite circumstances, the Nehruvian-era notion of the “Hindu rate of growth”: Hinduism is a hindrance, strong enough in the past to hold India back, sufficiently weakened now for progress to take off in spite of it. As Jawaharlal Nehru himself put it: “Religion as practised in India has ... stifled and almost killed all originality of thought and mind.” (quoted on p.17) But the record shows that Hindus outside India in countries with liberal economies have prospered mightily. The Muslim stereotype of Hindus has always been negative, as in Paki textbooks describing them as “cunning, scheming and deceptive” (p.241, quoted from Stephen Cohen: The Idea of Pakistan, p.243, OUP Delhi 2004), but it has never denied the proverbial Hindu Banias’ entrepreneurial skills and business acumen. The “Hindu rate of growth” was merely an excuse by the Nehruvian socialists for their own failure, yet the correspondent of the anti-socialist Financial Times perpetuates this myth.
On the other hand, it is also with marked disapproval that Luce quotes Winston Churchill: “India is a beastly country with a beastly religion.” (p.4) He also notes with satisfaction that Hinduism has room for religious scepticism, as where he quotes the “sceptical priest” Jabali addressing the epic hero Rama: “Oh Rama, be wise. There exists no other world but this. That is certain.” (p.144) Or the Upanishadic notion, foreign to Abrahamic monotheism, that the gods came later than creation. (p.326) It is not uncommon in the West to despise contemporary Hinduism yet admire its ancient achievements.
In his overview of history, Luce definitely does injustice to Hinduism, often by glaring omission of its merits in contexts where they ought to have been mentioned. Thus, the image of Hindus as passive and losers is strengthened by his jump from the Moghuls straight to the British as the paramount power in India, as if there hadn’t been the Hindu Marathas, Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs to destroy Moghul power before the British took over (p.309). He somehow forgets to give Hinduism due credit for India’s remarkable religious tolerance: “The tendency to accept that there are many paths to God derives from India’s long-running traditions of tolerance between religions.” (p.310) This reminds us of Mani Shankar Aiyar observing how “there is something about India” that inculcates tolerance and then conspicuously (indeed, deliberately) failing to call that mysterious something by its now-common name, viz. Hinduism.
Mr. Luce has lapped up the usual anti-Hindu propaganda in historical matters, but only in moderate doses. Thus, he disagrees with the extreme hate propaganda he heard from neo-Buddhist monks in Aurangabad: “They say the great Indian Buddhist centres of Taxila and Nalanda had been plundered by Brahmins, who feared that Buddha’s egalitarian message would undermine their stranglehold on society. ‘They destroyed Buddhism because it had no caste’, said one militant young novice.” (p.114) He corrects this blatant lie, then inserts a softer variation on the same: “In fact, the great monastery of Nalanda was probably plundered by a Muslim dynasty, but there is plenty of evidence to show that Hindu dynasties in an earlier phase of India’s history took steps to suppress Buddhism too.” (p.115) In that case, pray, how come Nalanda was there at all for Muslim conquerors to destroy, after many centuries of Hindu rule?
The unscholarly “secularist” version of history is faithfully reproduced, e.g. that Christianity was established in Kerala in the 1st century: “Christianity’s Indian pedigree therefore significantly predates its arrival in most of Europe.” (p.154) The thrust of this claim is that Christianity is somehow just as Indian as Hinduism in order to belittle Hinduism’s unique link with India. More serious historians including Western Christians have long ago shown that the Christian refugees arrived there to seek Hindu hospitality only in the 4th century. But even if we were to accept the colonial-age legend that the apostle Thomas arrived there in the 50s of the 1st century, this would not nullify Saint Paul’s far better attested visits to existing Christian communities in Greece, Rome and Spain in the 40s. In Christian history, even the distorted missionary-com-secularist account cannot prevent Europe from preceding India as a home of Christianity.
Edward Luce doesn’t shirk from reproducing the blatant economy with truth which has given secularism such a bad name in India. Thus: “According to India’s census, Christians formed 2.8 per cent of the population in 1951 but only 2.3 per cent in 2001. Yet the Hindu nationalists maintain that India is rife with Christian proselytization.” (p.154) Who do he and his sources think they are fooling? That India is rife with proselytization is a fact observable in pretty much every part of India, with churches of all and sundry sects mushrooming in cities and villages alike. If this does not result in a larger growth than is the case now, it is due to a low birth rate. However, the net growth of the Christian population is higher than Luce and the secularists will admit, and far higher than the negative growth he claims. As can easily be verified from Christian sources, India and many other countries have a large population of so-called crypto-Christians, converts who maintain their old religious identity for official purposes, in India mainly for the sake of safeguarding their right to caste-based reservations. Missionaries and secularists make common cause in deceptively describing the Christian community as a poor and powerless minority, when in fact it is the largest owner of media, schools and prime real estate in India.
On the unavoidable topic of caste, Luce doesn’t fall for the Christian and neo-Ambedkarite propaganda that nothing has changed. He sees caste eroding (p.14), partly through a convergence of religious practices between higher and lower castes. Thus, he mentions the adoption by lower castes of Brahminical practices like karwa chauth (a wife’s one-day fast for her husband’s longevity), rakhi (a sister’s tying a red thread around her brother’s wrist to implore his protection) and even the thread ceremony, which traditionally marked the distinction between high and low castes. He confirms the general trend of what sociologists call “sanskritization”, in which “the lower castes copy the values and habits of the upper castes” (p.315).
Luce also relativizes the image of a sharp political polarization between low-caste militancy and Hinduism as a religion. Thus, he reports that during his time in prison, Lalu Prasad Yadav, a leader of the “Other Backward Castes”, had a vision of Krishna telling him to become vegetarian and be kind to cows (p.121-122). Even the Ambedkarite Buddhists are not as anti-Hindu as some of their spokesmen pretend: “In the villages Buddha has become just one more god to be placed alongside the popular Hindu deities in the Mahar household (...) When Mahars greet each other, they say ‘Ram Ram’, the traditional Hindu greeting.”( p.112)
Whereas the castes under modern conditions inevitably grow closer and start to resemble each other more and more in lifestyle and material culture, we witness an increasing role of caste in politics. Party leaders “sit up all night thinking of ways to break their opponent’s caste alliances”. (p.137) As a believer in equal opportunity for individuals and in meritocracy, Luce doesn’t mince his words about the “corruption” that caste politics brings with it, giving rights and advantages to people on the basis of their collective (caste) identity rather than their individual talents and achievements. Caste-based parties have no ideology except for enlarging their own constituency’s piece of the pie.
Predictably, Luce repeats the secularist fable that “Islam and its militant sense of equality inspired anti-caste movements in Hinduism” (p.108), by which he refers to the Bhakti movements, which in fact predate the genesis of Islam, let alone its arrival in India. Likewise, he muses about “lower-caste Hindus who converted to Islam (ironically to escape caste)”. (p.250) This propaganda line has been laid to rest for good by the late Prof. K.S. Lal, who has shown that the lowest castes were among the least likely to accept Islam, which had its own social hierarchy, including slavery, and therefore easily integrated the caste inequality of its converts, who retained their caste identity for centuries after their concersion. Islam only adopted the socialist rhetoric of equality for apologetic purposes in the 20th century. It is part of the job of intellectuals to see through such pious anachronisms.
Regarding “the continuing threat of Hindu nationalism” (subtitle of ch.4), Luce correctly rejects the secularist claim that “real Hinduism” wants nothing to do with it, considering the numerous connections (e.g. joint appearances and policy statements) between the Hindu nationalist mass organization RSS and popular gurus including the most modern ones such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (p.180). He leaves no doubt about what he thinks of the movement: “The most coherent threat to India’s liberal democracy is Hindu Nationalism.” (p.353) This after six years of BJP rule which did nothing to erode “India’s liberal democracy”. Not only has the BJP proven that it is in no mind to dismantle democracy, but on Luce’s own admission, it is losing the strength to do so even if it wanted to, for it “may well be true” that “saffron politics [is] on the decline” (p.353). Yet Western loudspeakers of Indian “seularism” refuse to part with their decades-old bogeyman of “the rising threat of Hindu nationalism”. Against the evidence of BJP performance in state and national governments, Luce insists that “its basic aim... is to downgrade the status of India’s religious minorities, through peaceful or violent means.” (p.354)
Predictably, the canard of connections between the RSS and fascism is brought up: “The RSS salute, which is frequently rendered, is unmistakably fascistic: standing to attention, you move your right arm across your chest with the palm of your hand facing down.” (p.155-156) That salute is unmistakably of the military type, but unless Luce wants to tar all armies in the world with the fascist brush, there is nothing particularly fascistic about it. If the RSS had wanted to express fascistic sympathies, it could easily have opted for the Roman salute, then perfectly respectable, but it chose not to.
Likewise: “The uniform they put on is a mix between the khaki outfit that was worn by the British colonial police and sartorial details taken from Mussolini’s Black Shirts, who were icons to the Hindu nationalists when the RSS was founded in 1925.” (p.152) Again, they could have chosen black as the colour of their shirts, but didn’t. The RSS uniform was the one used by security volunteers at Congress meetings, deemed to need protection after the Moplah attacks on Hindus in 1920-22. In those days, Muslims quite sensibly considered Congress as a Hindu movement.
The Moplah massacres were a one-sided Muslim initiative without the slightest provocation from the Hindus, then under the spell of Mahatma’s Gandhi’s non-violence and Hindu-Muslim unity. Likewise, the Muslim invasions including those of 636, 712, 1000, 1192 and 1761 were all unprovoked acts of aggression. Till today, Hindu-Muslim riots are typically started by Muslims. If Hindus restrain themselves, the riot remains small and is not reported in the international media. Only if Hindus mobilize does it become a newsworthy riot, and those are the cases where the victims on the Muslim side can be numerous. This way, a false impression is created of Muslims living in constant persecution by an overbearing Hindu majority. A proper perspective is given by comparing with the situation in Pakistan and Bangladesh, where all Hindu-Muslim violence without exception has Muslims as perpetrators and Hindus as victims, because the fearful Hindu minority wouldn’t dare to act against the Muslims, not even in retaliation. Moreover, for every instance of violent Hindu reaction in India, there are a dozen where the Hindus control their anger. Thus, the Gujarat riots of March 2002 came after half a year of frequent Muslim terrorist attacks, including those on the Parliament buildings in Srinagar and Delhi, which had not led to any revenge on Muslim communities.
Yet, secularist propaganda is adamant about presenting Muslim violence as merely retaliatory: “Muslim mafia dons from Mumbai organised a series of terrorist bombings in the city in 1993 in revenge for the riots that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya a few months earlier.” (p.255) Those riots had themselves been started by Muslims, which secularists always excuse as “retaliation” for the Ayodhya demolition. Likewise, the killing of dozens in Muslims by the “Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force” was in “apparent retaliation for the anti-Muslim pogroms” in Gujarat. (p.255)
Luce is one of those people who wear fascism-coloured glasses and consequently see fascism everywhere. Thus, he finds it a “strange coincidence” that “February 27 – the date of the Godhra burnings – was also the date of the notorious fire in the German Reichstag in 1933 that gave Hitler the opportunity to seize power.” (p.160) Indians of all stripes have other things on their minds than the anniversary calendar of Nazi-related events, and to them, 27 February is a date like any other. But in case Luce is right about this, the eagerness to celebrate the Reichstag fire by setting fire to a wagon full of Hindu pilgrims must logically have been with the Muslim mob that committed the crime, not with the Hindu victims. Oops!
Luce systematically withholds credit from the BJP where it is due. It was a BJP-led majority that proposed Muslim scientist Abdul Kalam for president, which is remarkable in that it counters the BJP’s anti-Muslim image, but you couldn’t tell from Luce’s account: “India’s parliament also elected a Muslim head of state in 2002.” (p.238) Likewise, and clearly for the same reason of preserving the BJP’s communalist hate image, he refuses to acknowledge the BJP’s repeated initiatives for better relations with Pakistan: “The bilateral peace process was launched in 2003” (p.242), i.e. under BJP rule. Note the impersonal passive voice: it just happened, without anyone actually making it happen, least of all the BJP. In describing the progress made in the Union Territory of Delhi (controlling air pollution, building the metro system etc.), he praises current Congress administrator Sheila Dikshit and conspicuously fails to give credit to the preceding BJP administrations (p.212). The commendable campaign against female foeticide in Gujarat “was launched by Amarjeet Singh, the state’s health secretary” (p.314), but we are not allowed to know that he was a member of a BJP state government.
This type of manipulation is quite systematic in Luce’s book, note e.g. how he allots credit to Nehru where it belongs to others, and how he withholds blame from the godfather of secularism where it is richly due: “Nehru immediately airlifted troops to Kashmir” (p.232), but: “It was New Delhi that requested the UN-mediated ceasefire in 1948.” (p.233) It would be more truthful to reverse these phrases as follows: “New Delhi (i.e. Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel) immediately airlifted troops to Kashmir” while “It was Nehru (against the advice of his cabinet) who requested the UN-mediated ceasefire in 1948”, thus halting the Indian Army’s victorious march and burdening the subcontinent for at least sixty years with the wasteful and often lethal Kashmir problem.
Some criticisms of Hindu nationalism are more justifiable, if true, e.g. where he alleges that VHP office-bearer Giriraj Kishore failed to condemn the killing of “cow-killing” Chamars during caste riots. (p.167) Nonetheless, he might have added that the Hindu nationalists’ record regarding caste is on the whole fairly good (the internal functioning of the RSS branches is caste-blind, the first party president of a ruling party from the Scheduled Castes was the BJP’s Bangaru Laxman), and that the current cancer of casteist lobbying which he rightly deplores, was not their doing.
Luce is right to lambast the BJP government’s conduct of textbook reform ca. 2002, which was a horror show of incompetence. But that doesn’t justify his largely incorrect account of the textbook controversy (p.148 ff.), faithfully borrowed from the Marxist lobbyists whose iron grip on the education sector had briefly seemed threatened by the textbook overhaul. On one of its flashpoints, the Aryan Invasion debate, Luce is clearly out of his depth and merely parrots the account given in the Communist fortnightly Frontline.
About N. Jha’s and N.S. Rajaram’s eager “discovery” of a horse depiction on a Harappan seal, purportedly proving that the horse-centred Aryan culture was present in the Harappan cities, Luce writes: “in 2000 the discovery had been exposed as a simple case of fraud. Michael Witzel, Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, showed how the two men had manipulated computer-generated images of the seal to conjure up a horse.” (p.149) It is true Witzel claimed that much, but he never “showed” it. The fact of the matter is that the original broken seal was reproduced in print by Jha and Rajaram, with the horse only showing up in what they introduced as an “artist’s reconstruction” (a pretty clumsy one, too) of what the original seal must have looked like. If they had had fraud in mind, they would have gone about it differently, but now they simply offered a naïve reconstruction of an irretrievable seal extrapolating the fragments of what was more likely the depiction of a bull into the shape of a horse. They had been carried away by their enthusiasm, just as Witzel’s own writings contain a number of unwarranted conclusions betraying his own eagerness to jump at those rather than let the data point to other conclusions less fitting in his preconceived hypotheses, e.g. his mistaken “discovery” of Aryan invasion references in the Baudhayana Shrauta Sutra. When I first drew attention to that mistake of his, I didn’t accuse him of “fraud”, and never have done so since. As Napoleon reportedly said: “Never ascribe to malice what can just as well be explained by incompetence.” Or by eager self-deception.
I can understand that Luce is not a specialist and cannot verify every claim he quotes in primary sources. With this particular claim, however, he ought to have been extra careful, as it contains a grim allegation against people’s integrity. But since the people concerned had been dismissed as “Hindu nationalists” beforehand, I suppose different norms apply as compared with the decorum observed vis-à-vis real human beings.
About the thousandfold destruction of Hindu temples by Muslims, Luce of course tries to minimize the phenomenon, and to the extent that he cannot deny it, he shifts the blame to the Hindus: “And it was a tradition for new Hindu dynasties to do precisely the same thing.” (p.308) That is simply a lie. This allegation is a massive extrapolation from a claim by Richard Eaton that a handful (not more) of idols were carried away as trophies by Hindu armies conquering fellow Hindu states. But that is a totally different phenomenon, for it left the cult to the deity entirely intact. The stolen idol was installed in the conqueror’s own temple, reconsecrated and then put up for worship. The defeated original worshippers were left free to install a new idol to the same deity and to resume their worship. By contrast, Muslim iconoclasm, which didn’t steal idols but destroyed them, did not focus on the material object of the idol. In destroying the idol, they meant to destroy the tradition of worshipping the deity represented by it. Their point was not to destroy a piece of sculpture, but to destroy a religion. This refusal to distinguish between the stealing of a sculpture and the attempt to finish off a religion is typical of the wilful superficiality and studied silliness that constitutes so much of Indian secularist discourse.
Moreover, even a non-specialist like Luce should have been able to see that blaming Muslim iconoclasm on Hindu precedent leaves the fact of Muslim iconoclasm outside India unexplained. This is another instance of secularists’ wilful silliness: they expect Indians to be ignorant of the outside world and thus to limit Muslim history to Indian Muslim history. When Mohammed broke the 360 idols in the Kaaba, it is unlikely that he was following a Hindu precedent, isn’t it? By contrast, the Muslim iconoclasts in India, whenever they cared to explain their conduct in their court chronicles, invariably invoked the Islamic tradition of iconoclasm started by the Prophet himself, and never ever a purported Hindu precedent.
To sum up, Edward Luce is a typical Western press correspondent in Delhi. He doesn’t hate India or Hinduism, but has innocently lapped up all the prejudices of the so-called secularists. On the Delhi cocktail circuit, trendy Indians gain prestige by showing off their Western friends and at the same time feed them their own view of things. The reading the correspondents do is mostly from the English-medium secularist press, which again corroborates these prejudices. And since exploring alternative viewpoints is both labour-intensive and unrewarding, indeed risky for their reputation in case they were to acknowledge any merit in the Hindu critique of the reigning secularist paradigm, they happily limit themselves to reproducing what their select group of native informers tells them.