We reproduce here excerpts of three interviews given by Sir Vidiadhar S. Naipaul on his interpretation of the ethos of the Sri Rama Janmabhoomi movement. Sir Vidiadhar is a Trinidad-born author of Indian ancestry who now resides in the United Kingdom. He has won all the major awards in English literature including the Nobel Prize in 2001. He has also written a number of best-selling books on India.
In one of his interviews (not included here), Sir Vidiadhar said: “The (second) millennium began with the Muslim invasions and the grinding down of the Hindu-Buddhist culture of the north. This is such a big and bad event that people still have to find polite, destiny-defying ways of speaking about it. In art books and history books, people write of the Muslims ‘arriving’ in India, as though the Muslims came on a tourist bus and went away again. The Muslim view of their conquest of India is a truer one. They speak of the triumph of the faith, the destruction of idols and temples, the loot, the carting away of the local people as slaves, so cheap and numerous that they were being sold for a few rupees. The architectural evidence—the absence of Hindu monuments in the north—is convincing enough.” – Editor
Q: The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent rise of Islamic nations in Central Asia, the Salman Rushdie affair, similar harassment by fundamentalists of liberal Muslim intellectuals in India: all these factors taken together persuaded some forces to argue that a divided Hindu society cannot counteract Islamic fundamentalism.
A: I don’t see it quite in that way. The things you mentioned are quite superficial. What is happening in India is a new, historical awakening. Gandhi used religion in a way as to marshal people for the independence cause. People who entered the independence movement did it because they felt they would earn individual merit.
Today, it seems to me that Indians are becoming alive to their history. Romila Thapar’s book on Indian history is a Marxist attitude to history which in substance says: there is a higher truth behind the invasions, feudalism and all that. The correct truth is the way the invaders looked at their actions. They were conquering, they were subjugating. And they were in a country where people never understood this.
Only now are the people beginning to understand that there has been a great vandalising of India. Because of the nature of the conquest and the nature of Hindu society such understanding had eluded Indians before.
What is happening in India is a mighty creative process. Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on, especially if these intellectuals happen to be in the United States. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.
However, we are aware of one of the more cynical forms of liberalism: it admits that one fundamentalism is all right in the world. This is the fundamentalism they are really frightened of: Islamic fundamentalism. Its source is Arab money. It is not intellectually to be taken seriously etc. I don’t see the Hindu reaction purely in terms of one fundamentalism pitted against another. The reaction is a much larger response … Mohamedan fundamentalism is essentially negative, a protection against a world it desperately wishes to join. It is a last-ditch fight against the world.
But the sense of history that the Hindus are now developing is a new thing. Some Indians speak about a synthetic culture: this is what a defeated people always speak about. The synthesis may be culturally true. But to stress it could also be a form of response to intense persecution.
Q: This new sense of history as you call it is being used in India in very many different ways. My worry is that somewhere down the line this search for a sense of history might yet again turn into hostility toward something precious which came to use from the West: the notion of the individual….
A: This is where the intellectuals have a duty to perform. The duty is the use of the mind. It is not enough for intellectuals to chant their liberal views or to abuse what is happening. To use the mind is to reject the grosser aspects of this vast emotional upsurge.
Q: How did you react to the Ayodhya incident?
A: Not as badly as the others did, I am afraid. The people who say that there was no temple there are missing the point. Babar, you must understand, had contempt for the country he had conquered. And his building of that mosque was an act of contempt for the country.
In Turkey, they turned the Church of Santa Sophia into a mosque. In Nicosia churches were converted into mosques too. The Spaniards spent many centuries re-conquering their land from Muslim invaders. So these things have happened before and elsewhere.
In Ayodhya the construction of a mosque on a spot regarded as sacred by the conquered population was meant as an insult. It was meant as an insult to an ancient idea, the idea of Ram which was two or three thousand years old.
Q: The people who climbed on top of these domes and broke them were not bearded people wearing saffron robes and with ash on their foreheads. They were young people clad in jeans and tee-shirts.
A: One needs to understand the passion that took them on top of the domes. The jeans and the tee-shirts are superficial. The passion alone is real. You can’t dismiss it. You have to try to harness it.
Hitherto in India the thinking has come from the top. I spoke earlier about the state of the country: destitute, trampled upon, crushed. You then had the Bengali renaissance, the thinkers of the 19th century. But all this came from the top. What is happening now is different. The movement is now from below.
Q: My colleague, the cartoonist, Mr R. K. Laxman, and I recently travelled thousands of miles in Maharashtra. In many places we found that noses and breasts had been chopped off from the statues of female deities. Quite evidently this was a sign of conquest. The Hindutva forces point to this too to stir up emotions. The problem is: how do you prevent these stirred-up emotions from spilling over and creating fresh tensions?
A: I understand. But it is not enough to abuse them or to use that fashionable word from Europe: fascism. There is a big, historical development going on in India. Wise men should understand it and ensure that it does not remain in the hands of fanatics. Rather they should use it for the intellectual transformation of India.
Q: You gave an interview to The Times of India, which was interpreted by the BJP as supporting them in the destruction (of the Babri structure). Do you think you were misunderstood?
A: I can see how what I said then could be misinterpreted. I was talking about history, I was talking about a historical process that had to come. I think India has lived with one major extended event, that began about 1000 AD, the Muslim invasion. It meant the cracking open and partial wrecking of what was a complete cultural, religious world until that invasion. I don’t think the people of India have been able to come to terms with that wrecking. I don’t think they understand what really happened. It’s too painful. And I think this BJP movement and that masjid business is part of a new sense of history, a new idea of what happened. It might be misguided, it might be wrong to misuse it politically, but I think it is part of a historical process. And to simply abuse it as fascist is to fail to understand why it finds an answer in so many hearts in India.
Q: Couldn’t it just be communal prejudice?
A: It could become that. And that has to be dealt with. But it can only be dealt with if both sides understand very clearly the history of the country. I don’t think Hindus understand what Islam means and I don’t think the people of Islam have tried to understand Hinduism. The two enormous groups have lived together in the sub-continent without understanding one another’s faiths.
Q: You have been rather vehement about Marxist, leftist interpretations of history. What did you see as a major flaw in their arguments?
A: Probably not so much the Marxist interpretation of history as Marxist politics which, of course, is entirely criminal. Such disrespect for men. I think that is enough; that is condemnation enough. This lack of regard for human beings.
Q: Well, that is not specific to Marxists politics alone. All brands of organised politics, all parties mirror each other in their behaviour and have discredited themselves. But what about Marxism as a tool for analysing history?
A: You see, Sadanand, I have not lived like that. I never looked for unifying theories. I think everything is particular to a country, a culture, a period. In another context, I do not like people taking ancient myths, shall we say, and applying them to their own period. I think the ancient myths come from an ancient world. Sometimes very many ancient worlds come together in an epic work and to apply that narrative to modern life is absurd. Something like that I feel about these unifying interpretations of history. It is better just to face what there is. It is better not to know the answers to every problem, before you even know what the problems are. The Marxists, they know the answers long before they know anything. And, of course, it is not a science. It deals with human beings.
Q: You have given some signals during your visit here this time about your—it may be a wrong word—your “happiness” with the emergence and consolidation of some kind of parasitic Hindu political order here. How do you sustain such a thesis?
A: No. I have not done that actually. I have talked about history. And I have talked about this movement. I have not gone on to say I would like Hindu religious rule here. All that I have said is that Islam is here in a big way. There is a reason for that and we cannot hide from what the reasons were. The great invasions spread very far South, spreading to, you know, even Mysore. I think when you see so many Hindu temples of the 10th century or earlier time disfigured, defaced, you know that they were not just defaced for fun: that something terrible happened. I feel that the civilisation of that closed world was mortally wounded by those invasions. And I would like people, as it were, to be more reverential towards the past, to try to understand it; to preserve it; instead of living in its ruins. The old world is destroyed. That has to be understood. The ancient Hindu India was destroyed.
Q: Many things changed and many things overlapped in Indian history due to many diverse interventions. But do such processes over time justify the line of “historic revenge” with retrospective effect? Does it make that inevitable? What do you see unfolding before your eyes here today?
A: No. I do not think so. It need not happen. If people just acknowledged history, certain deep emotions of shame and defeat would not be driven underground and would not find this rather nasty and violent expression. As people become more secure in India, as a middle and lower middle class begins to grow, they will feel this emotion more and more. And it is in these people that deep things are stirred by what was, clearly, a very bad defeat. The guides who take people around the temples of Belur and Halebid are talking about this all the time. I do not think they were talking about it like that when I was there last, which is about 20 something years ago. So new people come up and they begin to look at their world and from being great acceptors, they have become questioners. And I think we should simply try to understand this passion. It is not an ignoble passion at all. It is men trying to understand themselves. Do not dismiss them. Treat them seriously. Talk to them.
Q: But don’t you think this tendency is only going to increase—this tendency to whimsically and freely interpret religion or history at the street level?
A: I think it will keep on increasing as long as you keep on saying it is wicked and that they are wicked people. And if we wish to draw the battleline, then of course, you get to battle. If you try to understand what they are saying, things will calm down. – Hindu Vivek Kendra, 199?