Debate: Don’t Accuse Critics of Indology of Being Handmaidens of Hindutva

In their quest for ideological purity, activists on the Left can sometimes resemble the Far Right, which has little tolerance for differing opinions.

In a recent opinion piece in The Wire, Raju Rajagopal and Sunita Viswanath from a U.S-based advocacy group called “Hindus For Human Rights”, criticised me for an article I had  published in The Hindu where I had joined issue with the scholarship and teaching style of Audrey Truschke, an associate professor at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

In seeking to respond to what I had written, the two authors made a series of sensational, tabloid-style allegations that I was part of a nefarious and “well-coordinated” campaign engineered by the “Sangh Parivar” to attack and silence Truschke.

A few days after the article came out, The Wire edited it, “with the consent of the authors, to remove any erroneous implication that the writer Vikram Zutshi is associated with Sangh Parivar groups or campaigns.” A note to this effect was added as well. But I believe the article as it now stands still incorrectly characterises my position.

For example, the authors claim that my article “regrettably echoes the talking points emerging from a well-coordinated project of the Hindu Right in the United States, targeting intellectuals and historians in service of their masters in India” – when in fact I cautioned against the very same forces in my original piece!

In their ham-fisted attempt to misrepresent my position, the authors deliberately ignored a paragraph in my article in which I point out that “the main problem with Truschke’s work lies not in its elisions and omissions but the implications it has for the entire body of Western scholarship on India. A number of renowned academics writing about pre-modern India have come under attack by nativists and political actors for not toeing the Hindutva line. Irresponsible and non-reflexive scholarship only reinforces right-wing prejudices about Western Indology.” (emphasis added)

Interestingly, the above paragraph also raised the hackles of some right-wing activists who took offence at my reference to “nativists” who see all western scholarship on India as inherently compromised.

In the South Asian context, any criticism of academics whose works are lauded for adopting a ‘secular approach’ to history is often characterised – without evidence – as being motivated by “Hindutva” ideology. Surely, one has the right to debate an intellectual position without being smeared with ad hominems?

In “Cry Hindutva: How Rhetoric Trumps Intellect in South Asian Studies”, written as a response to Eli Franco’s review of their 2014 book, The Nay Science: A History of German Indology, Joydeep Bagchee and Vishwa Adluri offer a window into how Hindu nationalism is weaponised to silence differing opinions. They write,

“Crying Hindutva to discipline non-conforming scholars is hardly new. What is more disturbing is that questioning Indologists’ criteria, arguments, and application of methods now suffices to be accused of directly or indirectly espousing Hindutva causes. No evidence for such a serious accusation is required…One need not approve of Hindutva to see problems with Indology.  Neither should a critique of Indology automatically strengthen Hindutva.”

Adluri and Bagchee could very well have been talking about Rajagopal and Viswanath, who seek to tar all critics with the same brush.

In their frightening quest for ideological purity, activists on the Left can sometimes resemble the Far Right, which has little tolerance for differing opinions. In this, they are not very different from the ideologues they constantly rail against. Here, one can see clearly the divide between people of genuine faith, and those – on the Left and Right of the spectrum – for whom religion is little more than a political football used to score goals against the other side.

In an article I wrote some years ago, I spoke about the need for a progressive Hindu organisation that would represent practicing Hindus who sought a more inclusive and tolerant vision of India, one that would treat all faiths as equal. In the same piece, I mentioned Sadhana – an organisation founded by Rajagopal and Viswanath – as a step in the right direction. A genuine spirit of tolerance and inclusivity, by definition must include differences of opinion, and the willingness to hear out all sides of a story. Or it risks becoming a mirror image of that which it fights against.

Vikram Zutshi is a cultural critic, author and filmmaker.