The Blind Men Of Hindoostan
Naipaul, Karnad & Dalrymple would all be right if they look at the big picture. But none of them do.
Much has already been said about the whole debate sparked off by actor and playwright, Girish Karnad over the lifetime achievement award given to author, VS Naipaul. To start at the beginning, this is what Karnad was quoted as saying of Naipaul. The quotes reproduced here are as reported in Mint:
“Apart from his novels, only two of which take place in India and are abysmal, Naipaul has written three books on India and the books are brilliantly written -he is certainly among the great English writers of our generation. They have been hailed as a continued exploration of India’s journey into modernity, but what strikes one from the very first book, A Wounded Civilization, is their rabid antipathy to the Indian Muslim. The ‘wound’ in the title is the one inflicted on India by Babar’s invasion. Since then, Naipaul has never missed a chance to accuse them of having savaged India for five centuries, brought, among other dreadful things, poverty into it, and destroyed glorious Indian culture.”
He went on to say that:
“One of the first things Naipaul did on receiving the Nobel Prize was to visit the office of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in Delhi. He who had earlier declared that he was not political, ‘that to have a political view is to be programmed’, now declared that he was happy to be politically ‘appropriated’. It was then that he made his most infamous remark: ‘Ayodhya,’ he said, ‘is a sort of passion. Any passion is creative. Passion leads to creativity’.”
It would appear that Karnad was repeating some of the same charges against Naipaul that had been made by historian and author William Dalrymple in an article in The Guardian in 2004.
In that article, Dalrymple had this to say:
“More striking still was the quote attributed to Naipaul about the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Babur’s mosque, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, a decade ago: ‘Ayodhya is a sort of passion’, he said. ‘Any passion is to be encouraged. Passion leads to creativity’.”
Dalrymple considered it unlikely that a Nobel laureate would endorse mass murder, but then went on to write that the remarks would be consistent with ideas Naipaul had been airing for many years. “In 1998, for example, he told the Hindu newspaper: ‘I think when you see so many Hindu temples of the 10th century or earlier disfigured, defaced, you realise that something terrible happened. I feel that the civilisation of that closed world was mortally wounded by those invasions…The Old World is destroyed. That has to be understood. Ancient Hindu India was destroyed.’ Such attitudes form a consistent line of thought in Naipaul’s writing from An Area of Darkness in 1964 through to the present.”
Farrukh Dhondy has responded to the episode that had sparked off Dalrymple’s article, and is a crucial element in Karnad’s talk, by saying this, according to Hindustan Times:
“Some of the things that Karnad quoted Naipaul as having said never happened. I was present on two occasions. Neither Karnad nor Dalrymple was. The first was in Delhi, where Naipaul asked me to come with him to meet the BJP’s cultural wing because he didn’t want to be misrepresented. What Naipaul said was: ‘I haven’t come here to say anything to you, but to ask you: What do you stand for?’ He went on to speak about how the BJP should abandon its religious agenda, and instead, build vote banks based on development and public benefit. When someone asked him about the Babri Masjid, his exact words were, ‘It was built by the emperor as an act of hubris’. That’s all he said. Nothing about the demolition.
When we came out, reporters started asking him questions; one asked him whether he supported the demolition, to which he replied, ‘I said what I had to say inside’. Another asked him if he condoned the Sangh Parivar’s anti-Muslim stance, at which point his wife, Nadira, turned around angrily and reminded the reporters that she was Muslim.”
On NDTV 24X7, Dhondy repeated most of this statement, saying clearly that Naipaul had never said the things Dalrymple and Karnad have quoted him as saying. Neither Dalrymple nor Karnad mentioned their sources, and Dalrymple who was present on the talk show did not dispute Dhondy’s version.
Anil Dharker, Director of the Mumbai Lit Fest, commented that this indicates the whole case had been built around something that was never said.
To this, Dalrymple responded that Naipaul’s whole view of Islam in India, as seen from his works, is unbalanced.
Dalrymple and Karnad have both made much of the fact that Naipaul only mentioned the negative impacts of early Islam on India, but omitted the positive aspects. Dalrymple said that while there had indeed been a picture of destruction in the early days, there was another half of the story, of the great fusion as Hindu currents mixed with Islamic ones. “Naipaul correctly points out that there was a lot of destruction. But he doesn’t get the other half”, Dalrymple said.
It is a charge that can be thrown back at him and Karnad.
Dalrymple is the author of several books, of which the best known in and about India are City of Djinns and White Mughals. Karnad’s most celebrated play is Tughlaq, and is about Sultan Mohammad bin Tughlaq.
It would appear that both Dalrymple and Karnad are a tad too sentimental in their view of Islam in India. They have focused on half the story, too. If Naipaul has not written enough on the positive aspects of Islam in India, it can be argued that Dalrymple and Karnad have not written enough on its negative aspects.
That is a mug’s game. A writer has to choose his or her subject, since the whole of reality is too vast to fit into one book or three. That is what they have all done.
It is undeniable, as Dharker pointed out on NDTV 24X7, that most Muslims came to India as invaders and many temples were destroyed. What is wrong if Naipaul said so? It was hardly breaking news.
This is not to suggest in any manner that the descendants of those Muslims should be held responsible for what their remote ancestors did a thousand years ago. Every individual bears responsibility only for his own actions, not even those of his immediate family. To accept that there was invasion and destruction is merely to accept a historical fact.
According to Dhondy, this is what Naipaul has attempted to do in his writings. “He is not anti-Muslim, he is giving you a corrective to history”, Dhondy said.
Dharker was also at pains to point out that he has been working with Citizens for Justice and Peace to pursue over 200 legal cases against the rioters who massacred Muslims in Gujarat. Their work contributed to the arrests of Mayaben Kodnani, a former BJP minister in the Narendra Modi government, and Babu Bajrangi, a Bajrang Dal leader, who were among the main orchestrators of some of the massacres in Gujarat in 2002.
It is a common problem with those who call themselves secular in India that they usually get only half the story, like those they oppose. The Left sees the Left half of the picture, the Right sees the Right half, and on and on they go about what is correct, like the blind men of Hindoostan about the elephant.
“For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.”
The country might actually achieve peace and progress if both sides could see the full picture, and get the full story.
In that full story, Naipaul, Karnad and Dalrymple would all be largely right. So too would Dhondy and, most of all, Dharker. He seems to be the only one among all of them to have accepted the destructive past of Islam in India, and its creative aspects, and then gone on to actually fight for justice for the Muslims of India, whom he obviously accepts as fellow countrymen.
What I want to ask of him, and of all of these gentlemen, is what they think of episodes like the banning of entry for women to the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai. Will they speak up against this as well, or will they let it pass since it has the sanction of a religion, in this case a certain Arab brand of Islam?
If you are against injustice, oppose it everywhere. Religion and tradition cannot be allowed special rights to commit secular wrongs, whether it is done by Muslims, Hindus, khap panchayats or dargahs. That would be the truly secular position. Anything else is communal.
The author is currently Consulting Editor of The Asian Age, Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are his own.