March 13, 2003

Koenraad Elst--Sangh Parivar's Apologist

Reviewed By Ayub Khan

Decolonizing the Hindu Mind
Ideological development of Hindu Revivalism
Dr. Koenraad Elst,2001

Rupa & Co. , 7/16,Ansari Road,Darya Gunj, New Delhi 110 002
Pages 657 + xvii., Price: Rs 595 (HB)

Reviewed By Ayub Khan

In the past decade Belgian scholar Koenraad Elst has emerged as the most prominent advocate of Sangh Parivar in the West. His vociferous defence of the Hindu right is equally matched by his rabid attacks on Islam. In order to escape being branded a bigot he follows a route, which is much popular among anti-Muslim writers these days. He insists: "not Muslims but Islam is the problem". (See Koenraad Elst review of Thom Blom Hansen's The Saffron Wave). Elst's commitment to the Sangh Parivar can be gauged from the fact that he unabashedly defended it even as the fires of Gujarat were still raging last year. (See Elst's Dr.Hathaway's Patronizing Conclusions published at Rediff.com). Such is his importance in Hindutva circles that L.K.Advani quoted him at length while deposing before the Liberhans Commission investigation the demolition of Babri Masjid. Based on his PhD thesis Elst's Decolonizing the Hindu Mind is a study of the history and ideological development of the extremist Hindutva movement, which he prefers to call "Hindu Revivalism".

In this book Elst tries to promote a humane face of the Hindutva fanatics while at the same time indulging in polemical attacks on Islam and Christianity. He rejects the charges of fascism, fundamentalism, extremism, etc. lobbed against the Hindu supremacist movement, instead opting for the voguish "revivalism". It is Elst's contention that the Muslims along with British were also colonizers of the Hindu civilization and that Nehruvian secularism and Islam are two major adversaries that are obstructing the revival of Hindu religion. Hindu thought he argues is finally coming on its own after "centuries of being under the shadow of Islam and Christianity".

This Œrevivalism' is not a recent phenomenon but began in the early stages of the British rule of India by groups like Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj under the leadership of influential reformers like Vivekananda, Dayananda Saraswati and Swami Shraddhanand. . Nor is this revivalism limited to those within the Sangh Parivar or other similarly oriented organizations. According to Elst "the most interesting formulations of Hindu revivalist thought have been provided by individuals outside the said organizations, from Bankimchandra Chatterjee and Sri Aurobindo to Ram Swarup , Sita Ram Goel and their younger friends". (p.584)

While charting the history of this movement Elst relies almost exclusively on sources associated with Hindu groups giving only partial and that too mostly negative consideration for the other viewpoints. He writes that Arya Samaj leader Shradhhananda became active in Shuddhi work only after discovering Dai-e-Islam , the so-called Œsecret' pamphlet of Khwaja Hasan Nizami, which called upon Muslims to engage in Dawah work. Elst doesn't mention the fact that the activities of Khwaja Hasan Nizami and other luminaries of the Tabligh/Tanzeem movement were a reaction to the massive conversion efforts of Arya Samaj and not vice versa. The Dai-e-Islam was not a Œsecret' pamphlet but was distributed widely in the public. The year 1923 alone, in which it was first published, saw three editions of the book. By 1925 it has already seen its fifth edition. Does any book that was supposed to be secret, ever published on such a massive scale? Additionally Elst doesn't mention that there were similar allegations of a Œsecret' Shuddhi book from the Muslim side. Tabligh leader Ghulam Bhik Nairang had claimed that the Kashmiri ruler Maharaja Ranbir Singh had commissioned a 21-volume Hindi encyclopaedia by the name of Ranbir Karit Prayaschit Mahanibandh (Ranbir's Great Essay on Repentance), which suggested strategies for converting to the Hindu-fold many neo-Muslim communities in India. This encyclopaedia was alleged to have been secretly circulated among prominent Hindus so that the Muslims remain unaware of the plot. An unbiased scholar should have mentioned this allegation as well but may be that is too much to expect from a person like Elst.

One cannot but help notice Elst's attempts to whitewash the horrible heritage of the Hindutva movement. He defends RSS' less than patriotic record during the freedom movement by creating lame excuses. Hence RSS founder Hedgewar kept his outfit away from Gandhian agitation "partly for safety reasons, not to endanger the young sapling, and partly because he had a metapolitical project in mind". (p.145) We have often read this infamous statement of Golwalkar from his book We,Our Nationhood Defined: "From this standpoint, sanctioned by the experience of shrewd old nations, the foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverance Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e. of the Hindu nation, and must lose their separate existence to merge in Hindu race; or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment- not even citizen's rights". Elst explains it way away as a "juvenile mistake‰ on part of Golwalkar and that he (Golwalkar) himself withdrew it and that a majority of Hindu nationalists have never read it. One only needs to look at the statements of current RSS chief Sudarshan where he routinely asks Muslims and Christians to Indianise (read Hinduise) to realize the falsity of this argument.

If we are to believe Elst, the Bharatiya Janata Party is more secular than other parties and that RSS is Boy Scouts like organization whose members think that it deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for their Œconstructive work.' (p.155) According to him BJP has outdone even the Congress and other secularist parties in reaching out to the Muslims. He criticises the BJP ministers for not introducing even an ounce of Hindutva when they are in power. They are simply too nice. (p.245). They have gone soft and are acting like the "secularists". The growing militancy of Parivaris is simply not good enough for him. He is pained by the token gestures that BJP makes towards Muslims. Downplaying RSS' shrewd tactics he says it is a "big dinosaur in a small brain". (p.234) He is exasperated with the RSS' culture of "anti-intellectualism‰ and argues that other parties profit from this scenario. A glaring omission from the book is the analysis of RSS' propaganda machinery. It is really surprising how Elst could miss the Sangh's masterful use of catchy slogans, provocative art and inflammatory rhetoric. The RSS is anything but innocent when it comes to propaganda but Elst blissfully ignores it. Anyone with some familiarity with the Sangh's tactics knows that all these gestures of goodwill towards Muslims are just a façade to mask its real dangerous intentions and to gain acceptability in the populace. Elst himself hints towards this when he writes that the shift from "Hindu‰ to "Indian‰ in the formation of BJP was not due to conviction but to fear. (p.158) At another place he admits that Œanti-Muslim feelings are hiding just beneath the surface of Muslim-friendly statements.' (p.362)

While the Sangh is hiding its anti-Muslim feelings Elst is more forthcoming in his animosity towards Islam and Muslims. He is smitten by the age-old biases about Islam. Two fanatical writers namely Sita Ram Goel and Ram Swarup shape his views on Islam. A careful study of these pseudo-historians indicates that there is nothing original in their works. They have just recycled the old orientalist works with the addition of inflammatory comments. For Elst however these two characters are heroes and whose books all Hindu revivalists should read. He says that the Islamic civilization did not create any substantial contribution in the development of India and there is nothing special about the Indo-Saracenic architecture. He says that Muslims did not work towards the elimination of caste-system in India but only preserved it. He falsely claims that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) never enjoined class equality. (p.398) Obviously he has not read the last sermon of the Prophet (SAW). Elst narrates with relish the myth about the execution of 900 Jews at the order of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in Madina without realizing that this has been debunked long time ago by classical Islamic scholars like Ibn Hajar and Imam Malik and recently by Barakat Ahmed in an article in The Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society. Similarly other arguments made by messrs Sita Ram Goel etc have been refuted but Elst would care less. In the bizarre world of Elst and his Hindutva fellow travellers Islam is to be blamed for all the ills of the Indian society as well as the world. From child marriage, caste inequalities to violence and poverty.

In his maniacal zeal Elst hopes for a similar destruction of Islam as had happened to Communism. He wants the Parivar to concentrate more in attacking the Islamic belief systems. He writes: "But the implosion of Soviet Communism has alerted people to the possibility that giants on clay feet can crumble surprisingly fast, and in particular, that Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world may soon see the collapse of their dominant ideology from within". (p.591) It looks like he needs a refresher course in world history. Islam has survived much more destructive scenarios (civil wars, Mongol invasion, dismantling of the Caliphate, etc) in its history than the one it is currently facing. If Elst and his fellow daydreamers think that they can destroy Islam by indulging in pedestrian attacks they are simply fooling themselves.

With regards to Indian Muslims Elst once again repeats the many urban myths that they are a pampered lot, always start riots, are multiplying at an alarming rate etc. If these claims are true then why are Muslims still so down trodden and impoverished ? In discussing the alleged Indian Muslim power to ban books Elst makes a patently false claim. He says that Richard M.Eaton's Sufis of Bijapur is banned in India because in it Œa few marginal sentences casts an unfavourable light on the Sufi tradition.' (p.318) According to Dr.Richard Eaton this book was never banned. As a matter of fact when the book went out of print with its original publisher, Princeton University Press, it was picked up by Munshiram Manoharlal in New Delhi and is still available from them.


Elst accuses other India watchers of not meeting any Hindutva leaders in their research while at the same time he himself has not interviewed any Muslim to get his viewpoint. Not one Muslim, not even the BJP ones, figures in his long list of people that he has interviewed. His hostility towards the Muslims is evident when he describes the mild-mannered Syed Shahahbuddin as a "proverbial fanatic". Compare this with that of Elst's description of Advani whom he calls a "soft-spoken gentleman‰ who had tears in his eyes when his vandals destroyed the Babri Masjid. Expectedly Advani's tears were shed not at the demolition of the Babri Masjid but at the "breakdown of RSS discipline". (p.175)

Regarding Babri Masjid Elst continues his blame game by pointing fingers towards Narasimha Rao and V.P.Singh. He writes: "I was told at the BJP office that Prime Minister V.P.Singh had suggested to Advani that he create some public opinion pressure on the Government concerning Ayodhya. That way, V.P.Singh (who rejected the claim that the disputed building was a "mosque‰) could explain to his Muslim supporters that in the face of such mighty pressure, he would be unable to keep his promise to give them the disputed site. So, possibly that is how the BJP decided to have the Rath Yatra". (p.174) V.P.Singh has always denied this charge.

With regards to Narasimha Rao's government's involvement in the demolition of the Babri Masjid Elst writes: "Consider the matter from his (Narasimha Rao's) viewpoint: as long as the "mosque‰ (for the BJP, "the disputed structure‰; for commentator Girilal Jain, "the non-mosque‰) was standing, the BJP could use it as a rallying-point, a visible "sign of national humiliation imposed by the invader Babar‰ kept in place by the "pseudo-secularist‰ Congress Government. On the other hand, if the building was demolished in a BJP-related action, this could be used against the BJP and the whole Hindu movement, viz.as a reason to dismiss the BJP state governments and ban the Hindu mass organizations. This is at any rate what effectively happened; the Ayodhya theme was killed as a BJP vote-getter, and the BJP's march to power was temporarily reversed". (p.175)

Apart from Muslim bashing Decolonizing the Hindu Mind throws up some interesting sides notes as well. For example that one of the nieces of L K Advani converted to Islam and married a Muslim man with his blessings. According to Gurudatt Vaidya, a prominent Arya Samaji,Jana Sanghi, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, Jan Sangh leader, died of a heart attack in his prison cell because he ate two chickens against his doctor's orders. So much for Sangh's advocacy of vegetarianism.

In short Elst is a very useful writer for the Parivar even though he admits that the relationship has soured because of his criticism of RSS. But despite that it appears that the Parivar is taking him seriously. The very selective appointments of Sangh oriented individuals in scientific, educational, cultural and literary councils, and attempts to re-write the history, aggressive campaigns against Muslims and other minorities, all indicate that slowly but surely Elst's recommendations are being implemented. The relationship between the two is mutually beneficial. The Parivar gets a seasoned and ardent advocate for its agenda in the West and Elst (a self confessed apostate from Christianity and one whose sole source of income is writing) gets an ideology to hold on to, apart from the material benefits that come along with it.