Obama, Rahul Gandhi, Hindu nationalists and Indian history

For some six centuries, the leading power in India was Muslim, not Hindu, writes Andrew Robinson in India: A Short History. Beginning with the conquest of Delhi in the 1190s, the Muslims came to rule most of the country till the British supplanted them in the mid-18th century. Now, after centuries of domination by a religious and then a racial minority, India is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – Hindu nationalists in power in a Hindu-majority country. It is a new development, a novelty, for India.

The Hindu nationalists were powerless even when India became independent in 1947. The Congress Party, which fought for freedom and came to power, preached Hindu-Muslim unity, not Hindu nationalism. It still opposes the nationalists. But it’s no match for the BJP. There are only 51 Congress members in the Lok Sabha, the powerful Lower House of parliament, against 303 for the BJP.

Did Barack Obama foresee the end of Congress rule in a wave of Hindu nationalism?

He did wonder about such a possibility when he visited India in 2015, as he wrote in his memoirs, A Promised Land.

While he respects the then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and was struck by Sonia Gandhi’s intelligence, he expressed doubts about Rahul Gandhi’s political acumen.

Poor Rahul Gandhi. Dismissed as a lightweight, he is now barred from parliament. He was found guilty of defaming the Modi community (which Prime Minister Modi belongs to) and sentenced to two years in jail. The two-year jail sentence automatically disqualified him from parliament.

He was convicted and sentenced by a court in Gujarat, Narendra Modi’s home state, though he said those words in Karnataka, a different province. A BJP legislator, also named Modi, took him to court.

Political observers were surprised at the swiftness with which Rahul Gandhi was disqualified from parliament, where legislators accused of worse crimes serve with impunity.

But let’s return to Obama’s premonitions about India. Here he describes a dinner he had with Manmohan Singh and the Gandhis:

“At dinner that night, Sonia Gandhi listened more than she spoke, careful to defer to Singh when policy matters came up, and often steered the conversation toward her son. It became clear to me, though, that her power was attributable to a shrewd and forceful intelligence. As for Rahul, he seemed smart and earnest, his good looks resembling his mother’s. He offered up his thoughts and the future of progressive politics, occasionally pausing to probe me on the details of my 2008 campaign. But there was a nervous, formed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.

“As it was getting late, I noticed Singh fighting off sleep, lifting his glass every so often to wake himself up with a sip of water. I signalled to Michelle that it was time to say our goodbyes. The prime minister and his wife walked us to our car. In the dim light, he looked frail, older than than his seventy-eight years, and as we drove off I wondered what would happen when he left office. Would the baton be successfully passed to Rahul, fulfilling the destiny laid out by his mother and preserving the Congress Party’s dominance over the divisive nationalism touted by the BJP.

“Somehow, I was doubtful. It wasn’t Singh’s fault. He had done his part, following the playbook of liberal democracies across the post-Cold War world; upholding the constitutional order; attending to the quotidian, often technical work of boosting the GDP, and expanding the social safety net. Like me, he had come to believe that this was all any of us could expect from a democracy, especially in big, multi-ethnic, multi religious societies like India and the United States. Not revolutionary leaps or major cultural overhauls. Just the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences, and government policies that raised living standards and improved education enough to temper humanity’s baser impulses.

“Except now I found myself asking whether those impulses — of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious tolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others — were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain. For they seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments. And as much as I might have wished otherwise, there was no Mahatma Gandhi around to tell me what I might do to hold such impulses back.”

While Obama expressed uneasiness about India’s future, Narendra Modi has legions of admirers. He is universally acknowledged to be a powerful and charismatic, albeit controversial, leader.

I will skirt politics, being more interested in history.

So, let’s go back to the origins of Muslim rule in India.

Andrew Robinson writes in India: A Short History:

“The first Arab (Umayyad) conquest of India territory occurred in Sindh, in 711; but the attempted expansion of this Arab empire further into India was successfully resisted by both the Chalukyas and the Gurjara-Pratiharas in the 730s. There was now a hiatus until the late 10th century, when Turkish raids on India from Afghanistan began, led by Mahmud of Ghazni; these raids continued for two centuries until the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan, leader of the Rajput Chauhan dynasty, by Muhammad of Ghor at the second battle of Train, north of Delhi, in 1192. Soon after, the first Muslim government of India was established by Turko-Afghans with its capital in Delhi; the first mosque there was completed in 1198, and what is known as the Delhi Sultanate began on Muhammad of Ghor’s death in 1206 with the accession of his slave governor, Qutb-ud-din Aibak. It endured through five successive dynasties, the Mamluks, Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Sayyids and Lodis, although a sultan’s average reign was only ten years and often ended squalidly in murderous violence, including the catastrophic sack of Delhi by the Mughal ruler Timur (Tamerlane) in 1398. Then, in 1526, yet another invasion from Afghanistan, this time by Babur, descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan, inaugurated the Mughal empire, which ruled most of India until the mid-18th century.

“Thus, for some six centuries, the leading power in India was Muslim, not Hindu. Even after the beginning of British rule in 1757, for many decades the language of government and diplomacy remained Persian, as it had been under the Mughals.”

Robinson writes:

“There can be no question about the scale of the destruction by the Turks-Afghans in India in three centuries from the time of Mahmud of Ghazni to the death of Alauddin Khilji in Delhi in 1316 —if we judge by the accounts of Muslim chroniclers, such as al-Biruni who was a contemporary of Mahmud. Between 1001 and 1027 Mahmud made seventeen great raids on India, carrying back to Ghazni enormous quantities of loot, as well as slaves, from palaces and Hindu temples in the west and north of India (including the great Shiva temple at Somnath in Kathiawar). At Somnath, Mahmud ordered the upper part of the Shiva linga to be broken and the remainder to be taken to Ghazni ‘with all its coverings and trappings of gold, jewels and embroidered garments’, writes al-Biruni.

“Scholarship and libraries suffered, too, under the Turks-Afghan assaults. The great university at Nalanda in Bihar, founded under the Gupta dynasty, appears to have been ransacked and its library burnt by the forces of Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1193, according to a contemporary Persian historian, Minhaj Siraj, though he does not specifically name Nalanda, referring only to the destruction of a city in western Bihar that was found to be a place of study.”

Robinson notes but can’t explain the mass conversions to Islam during Muslim rule.

He observes:

“Cooperative Hindus formed part of government and administration under the Delhi Sultanate, though much less so than they would under the Mughals. In Delhi, and also in the sultanate’s provincial capitals, the court consisted principally of Turks, Afghans and Persians, with few Indians.”

Robinson writes:

“At times, as Hindu nationalists claim, there was unquestionably active persecution of Hindus by Muslim invaders and rulers, At other times, though, peaceful cooperation prevailed, along with a remarkable synthesis of Hindu and Muslim cultures, for example in music and painting — most famously under the Mughal emperor Akbar in the second half of the 16th century and in Lucknow in the decades before 1857, where the flamboyant king of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, went so far as to dress up as a Hindu god. Eventually, of course, in the 1940s, the two-nation theory predominated, and the subcontinent was bloodily partitioned into India and Pakistan, leaving India as chiefly Hindu but with a very substantial Muslim minority — in fact virtually the same size today as the entire Muslim population of Pakistan, about 180 million (exceeded only by the number of Muslims in Indonesia and in Bangladesh).

“Historians have been picking over the reasons for the partition ever since 1947. The catastrophic loss of status of Indian Muslims with the collapse of the Mughal empire in the mid-18th century, the divide-and-rule policy of the British Raj, the arrogance of the Congress party’s high command led by Nehru, and the intransigence of the Muslim League led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, all played a part.”

Other historians have also reached the same conclusion as Robinson.

I learnt something new, however, from another book.

Hindu nationalism was a reaction to developments in the Muslim world. And the Hindu nationalists aspired to have the same strengths as the Muslims.

Christophe Jaffrelot writes in Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy:

“As an ideology, Hindu nationalism was largely born in reaction to the pan-Islamic inclinations of India’s Muslims, real or imagined. This tendency culminated at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially when some Indian Muslims mobilised in 1919 to defend the Caliphate of Constantinople, which was being threatened by the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire during the peace talks following the First World War. The movement degenerated into anti-Hindu riots on a number of occasions. Among some members of the Hindu intelligentsia, this bred a sense of vulnerability that paradoxically even took on a sort of inferiority complex, given that Hindus made up more than 70 per cent of India’s population according to the 1911 census. This ‘majoritarian inferiority complex’ was rooted in a lack of self-esteem that had been inducted by a nineteenth century colonial stereotype making Hindus out to be a ‘puny race’.

“It was in this context that V.D. Savarkar codified the Hindu nationalist ideology in a book published in 1923, Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?

“To defend the Hindus and to ensure their domination over the Indian nation, one of Savarkar’s followers, K.B. Hedgewar, founded a movement in Nagpur, central India, called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Association) in 1925.”

Ironically, though against the Muslims, the RSS wanted to instil the same qualities in the Hindus as the Muslims possessed, believing these strengthened a community.

Jaffrelot writes: “Founded to overcome this sense of vulnerability and lack of self-esteem so as to better resist the Muslim threat, the RSS was in fact supposed to enable Hindus to assimilate the qualities perceived as contributing to Muslim strength, starting with their intense sense of community.”

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