A Hindu Nationalist Trips on His Words at Harvard: Choudhury

Earlier this month, the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard University took a vote on a proposal to terminate the appointment of the Indian economist and politician Subramanian Swamy at its annual summer school.

The proposal was unusual because Swamy, who teaches two economics courses during the three-month summer school and received a Harvard Ph.D. in 1964, was dismissed not for reasons of competence, but because of an essay he had published in an Indian newspaper in July called "How To Wipe Out Islamic Terror." The contents were judged to be so incendiary that they violated any reasonable idea of free speech, and cast into doubt Swamy's ability to treat students of all faiths objectively.

In the U.S., the incident was debated mainly through the lens of an individual's right to free speech balanced against an institution's commitment to pluralism and equality. In India, however, Swamy's essay had cut much closer to the bone, coming as it did in the wake of a series of bombs going off during rush hour in Mumbai on July 13. Swamy's polemic addressed one of the most complex questions of the Indian subcontinent, deeply embedded in 1,000 years of history: Hindu-Muslim relations, and the violence visited by one community upon another. What was remarkable about it was that its prescriptions were miles to the right even of the position taken by India's most prominent Hindu right-wing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. In his essay, published July 16 (no longer available on the website of DNA, the newspaper that published it, a tacit admission that it was too rabid to be taken seriously as an argument), Swamy wrote:

The terrorist blast in Mumbai on July 13, 2011, requires decisive soul-searching by the Hindus of India. Hindus cannot accept to be killed in this halal fashion, continuously bleeding every day till the nation finally collapses. [...]

Fanatic Muslims consider Hindu-dominated India “an unfinished chapter of Islamic conquests.” All other countries conquered by Islam 100% converted to Islam within two decades of the Islamic invasion. Undivided India in 1947 was 75% Hindu even after 800 years of brutal Islamic rule. That is jarring for the fanatics.

In one sense, I do not blame the Muslim fanatics for targeting Hindus. I blame Hindus who have taken their individuality permitted in Sanatan Dharma [a concept in Hinduism meaning "the eternal law"] to the extreme. Millions of Hindus can assemble without state patronage for the Kumbh Mela, completely self-organised, but they all leave for home oblivious of the targeting of Hindus in Kashmir, Mau, Melvisharam and Malappuram and do not lift their little finger to help organise Hindus. If half the Hindus voted together, rising above caste and language, a genuine Hindu party would have a two-thirds majority in Parliament and the assemblies.

The first lesson to be learnt from the recent history of Islamic terrorism against India and for tackling terrorism in India is that the Hindu is the target and that Muslims of India are being programmed by a slow reactive process to become radical and thus slide into suicide against Hindus. It is to undermine the Hindu psyche and create the fear of civil war that terror attacks are organised. [...]

We need a collective mindset as Hindus to stand against the Islamic terrorist. The Muslims of India can join us if they genuinely feel for the Hindu. That they do I will not believe unless they acknowledge with pride that though they may be Muslims, their ancestors were Hindus. If any Muslim acknowledges his or her Hindu legacy, then we Hindus can accept him or her as a part of the Brihad Hindu Samaj (greater Hindu society) which is Hindustan. India that is Bharat that is Hindustan is a nation of Hindus and others whose ancestors were Hindus. Others, who refuse to acknowledge this, or those foreigners who become Indian citizens by registration, can remain in India but should not have voting rights (which means they cannot be elected representatives).

This is nothing short of a war cry. Among Swamy's other proposals were: "[D]eclare India a Hindu Rashtra [nation] in which non-Hindus can vote only if they proudly acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus. Rename India Hindustan as a nation of Hindus and those whose ancestors were Hindus." And "annex land from Bangladesh in proportion to the illegal [Muslim] migrants from that country staying in India."

In one stroke, then, Swamy sought to disenfranchise and reduce to second-class citizens more than 100 million Muslims in India, home to the world's third-largest followers of Islam. Soon after it was published, a group of Harvard students submitted a petition to the university asking that it sever ties with Swamy. Among the strongest supporters of the petition was the scholar of Hinduism and comparative religion Diana Eck, who argued in a letter she submitted along with 39 colleagues to the president of Harvard in August:

Swamy used the recent blasts in Mumbai to cast suspicion on India’s entire Muslim population. Swamy went on to advocate a shocking series of “counter-terrorism” strategies including the destruction of mosques in India and a denial of basic voting rights to religious minorities unless they “proudly acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus.”

We wish to bring it to the attention of the University administration that a member of our faculty has expressed these extreme views, in a social context that has witnessed episodes of collective violence. We understand that Harvard occasionally benefits from the public profiles of those who teach at the institution, whether they work in business, government, or media. However, we feel that Swamy’s public profile is a detriment to Harvard. Freedom of expression is an essential principle in an academic community, one that we fully support. Notwithstanding our commitment to the robust exchange of ideas, Swamy’s op-ed clearly crosses the line into incitement by demonizing an entire religious community, demanding their disenfranchisement, and calling for violence against their places of worship. [...]

How does one situate Swamy? It cannot in fact be said that his opinions should be thought of as characteristic of, or limited to, the lunatic fringe. Versions of it can be heard in the homes and associations of many middle-class Indian Hindus, who carry in their personal or family memory some of the psychic wounds of Partition, or are attracted to revivalist movements that are either nostalgic for a prelapsarian Hindu golden age prior to the invasions of India by Muslim chieftains (some of whom set down roots over hundreds of years, like the Mughals) across the second millennium. This kind of Hindu imagines an India very different from the secular state enshrined in the Constitution, and doesn't understand why a majority shouldn't practice majoritarianism as compensation for some of the real or imagined scars of history.

So one might say that Swamy should be complimented for saying what he genuinely believes, instead of trying to dress it up in some more moderate or palatable form, as do some right-wing parties. One might also commend him for not wishing away the violence that unfortunately marks Indian history, as do many well-meaning liberals who seek to emphasize the nation's fabled, but to my mind problematic or ambiguous, tradition of tolerance. The India that Swamy sees is a much darker, bloodier civilization that the syncretic one posited (or in the eyes of some invented) by Jawaharlal Nehru's classic The Discovery of India, which, as the historian Ramachandra Guha writes, "sees India as a melange of cultures, without any single dominating essence."

But the problem with Swamy's argument is that not only are his prescriptions distasteful and unrealistic, they are founded on two totalizing and therefore distorting binaries. These are the words "Hindu" and "Muslim," seen in his worldview as perfectly internally united and indivisible entities -- practically two different species of human being -- without any tradition of mutual understanding or exchange on the one hand, and any internal differences or schisms on the other.

Every Hindu is for Swamy the same: resentful and agitated. When in fact one of the main currents of modern Indian history is the struggle of Hindus from the lower castes to liberate themselves from the economic shackles and social taboos placed on them by high-caste Hindus. All Muslims are deserving of the same treatment as the Muslim who is a terrorist, unless they "acknowledge with pride that though they may be Muslims, their ancestors were Hindus" (how sadistic is the emphasis on "with pride" in that sentence). All Indian Hindus must feel pride merely by dint of being Hindu, all Muslims should be seized by guilt or regret.

Must this be the price paid for realism about Indian history? Certainly not. But how should one think then about the "Hindu-Muslim issue?" Some of the clearest thinking on this difficult subject can be found in "A Place Within," a memoir by MG Vassanji -- a novelist of Indian origin, born in Kenya, now residing in Canada, and belonging to a faith, the Khojas, that contains elements from both Hinduism and Islam. Travelling in India, the country of his ancestors, in the 1990s (a decade wracked by Hindu-Muslim violence in the wake of the riots that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid), Vassanji sees both its syncretism and its bigotry. He writes, "I could not accept India’s embrace and turn away from the violence. It must in some way be a part of me."

Yet at the same time Vassanji is disturbed by the casual and intellectually lazy use of the words "Hindu" and "Muslim" as markers of past and present conflict -- not because they don’t have an element of truth, but rather because they are "too exacting, too excluding." He writes:

I have already said that I find the labels “Hindu” and “Muslim” discomforting, because they are so exclusive. [...] I refuse to use them this way, perhaps naively and definitely against a tide; but I am not alone. I use the distinction of “Hindu” and “Muslim” only in context, and especially when it has been used by people for themselves or others, as in the Gujarat violence [of 2002].

So deep is the suspicion when one talks of conflict, that one has to state over and over that to describe the murder of a Muslim here is not to deny, let alone justify, the murder of a Hindu elsewhere, that a fanatic group does not represent an entire people, and there is no entire people, Hindu or Muslim anyway. Attempts to create them, of course, have always been there.

"Attempts to create them, of course, have always been there." Indeed, and Swamy's essay "How To Wipe Out Islamic Terror" might be seen as a classic instance ("we need a collective mindset as Hindus...") of the attempt to manufacture such a consensus.

Does that mean Swamy should be barred from teaching "Quantitative Methods in Economics and Business" and "Economic Development in India and East Asia" -- the two courses he has for some years led in the summer at Harvard? Must one make a distinction between Subramanian Swamy the economist and teacher and Subramanian Swamy the politician and ideologue, and again between a person's public duties and his personal views? Swamy would, to my mind, be perfectly entitled to make these arguments in his defense. But they would require subtler gradations of thought, and more sympathy for difference, than Swamy demonstrates in his views on the obligations of Muslims in India.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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