“Saffron Wave” a book by Thomas Hansen & its review by Koenraad Elst


By: Koenraad Elst

[This book review was written just after the book’s publication in 2002.]

Though milder in tone, the latest academic book on Hindu revivalism suffers from the same shortcomings as most others. Ever since Craig Baxter’s fairly objective and well-documented book The Jana Sangha, already thirty years old, and Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle’s Brotherhood in Saffron, already twelve years old, all the Western Hindutva watchers have chosen to rely on partisan secondary accounts, and to watch Hindutva through the coloured glasses which the so-called secularists have put on their noses.

The book The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton) by Professor Thomas Blom Hansen from Roskilde, Denmark, is no exception. Since the book has already been praised as “brilliant” by Prof. Peter Van Der Veer, I may concentrate on its less brilliant aspects. As usual, most quotations are from secondary and generally hostile sources: Bipan Chandra, K.N. Panikkar, Partha Chatterjee, Christophe Jaffrelot, Asghar Ali Engineer (a hard-boiled Islamist whom Hansen and others naively mistake for an enlightened Muslim), Sudhir Kakar, Gyan Pandey.

In the bibliography, we find Savarkar’s Hindutva, mercifully, but none of his statements from his time as Hindu Mahasabha leader; only one title by Balraj Madhok, none by Girilal Jain or Arun Shourie; nor we do not find Ram Swarup or Sita Ram Goel mentioned there. On the Ayodhya controversy, most of the publications presenting the temple evidence (Harsh Narain, R. Nath, S.R. Goel) are left unmentioned, while the official VHP evidence bundle is mentioned but was clearly left unread.

Hansen’s entire information on the Ayodhya debate is confined to anti-Hindu sources, esp. S. Gopal’s Penguin bookletAnatomy of a Confrontation (1991), which had already succeeded in keeping all serious presentations of the temple evidence out of view. That is how he can write the following howler: “In all cases this evidence has been refuted and contested by most of the serious authorities of archaeology and medieval Indian history.” (p.262) If that is so, Prof. Hansen, I challenge you to a public debate on the Ayodhya evidence. Let’s make it an open-book exam: you may bring all the arguments provided by S. Gopal and his comrades — but you may find upon closer reading that far from refuting the pro-temple evidence, they have adroitly left most of it undiscussed. And like his sources, Hansen keeps the relevant context of the Ayodhya affair, viz. the history and underlying theology of Islamic iconoclasm, out of view.

By relying on a partisan selection of secondary sources, Hansen, whose good faith we will continue to assume, is led by the nose by one of the warring parties into relaying its own version of the facts, all while believing that he is giving a neutral observer’s account of the conflict between Hindu revivalism and the Marxist-Muslim combine. In a footnote, Hansen describes the present writer as “a Belgian Catholic of a radical anti-Muslim persuasion who tries to make himself useful as a ‘fellow traveller’ of the Hindu nationalist movement”. (p.262) I strongly deny having ever been “anti-Muslim”, for I make it a point to frequently insist that “not Muslims but Islam is the problem”. However, I do readily admit to being a “fellow-traveller” of Dharmic civilization in its struggle for survival against the ongoing aggression and subversion by well-organized hostile ideologies. Only, I must add that in Hindutva-watching publications of the past decade, I have never encountered any journalistic or academic “expert” who was not a fellow-traveller of one of the warring parties. Hansen himself makes no secret of his partisanship, as when he describes the BJP as “evil” (p.235) and as “swadeshi fascism” (p.235), though he subjectively tries to be fair by mitigating this denunciation with the rightful comment that both secularity and democracy have not been well served by the Congress establishment either. His partisan and prejudiced attitude leads him to ignore or misinterpret important trends within the Hindutva movement. Thus, he dismisses the inclusion of some Muslims in the Vajpayee cabinet as follows: “Like all other measures taken by the BJP in this regard, these were also symbolic gestures devoid of any content or seriousness.” (p.267) Would you allow such a clearly partisan sentence in a thesis about any other movement (say, Indian secularism) by your own students, Prof. Hansen? At any rate, the dismissal is mistaken. From the inclusion of a green strip in the BJP flag (1980) onwards, the BJP has always consistently courted the Muslim community, so that it now has thousands of Muslim members, who even have their own “minority cell”. Even before that, the Hindu nationalists in the Janata government were party to a number of pro-Muslim steps, including the creation of the intrinsically communal and anti-Hindu “Minorities Commission”. Dattopant Thengadi and others have told me how the shared time in jail with Jamaat-i-Islami activists during the secularist Emergency dictatorship had kindled sympathy for the Muslims. However that may be, in the 1990s, there is just no denying the RSS-BJP tendency to what they themselves used to denounce as “Muslim appeasement”. Even in the Ayodhya campaign, from which Hansen chooses to remember only the hard-line rhetoric of a Sadhvi Ritambhara, the emphasis was again and again on Rama as a “national” (as opposed to “Hindu”) hero, and on Babar as a “foreign invader” (as opposed to “Islamic iconoclast”), who had been fought “by Indian Muslims and Hindus jointly”. Anyone familiar with non-Sangh Hindu activism should have noted the criticism of the Sangh’s pro-Muslim line, e.g. in Abhas Chatterjee’s bookConcept of Hindu Nation (1995, not in Hansen’s bibliography). One of the more disturbing and sterile approaches which Hansen has borrowed from his secularist sources, is the tendency to psychologize, and to bury hard facts under a cloud of psychobabble: “construct”, “identities built around a threatening other”, “domesticating public spaces”, “myth of Hindu effeminacy”.

To Hansen, the Hindu perception of Islam is unconnected with any historical facts about Islam, it’s all self-generated psychic images whose only basis in reality is non-religious sociological phenomena such as the “inferiority complex” of the “vernacular middle class” vis-à-vis the Anglo-secularist “mandarins” (p.181). Facts about Islam are mostly kept out of view, otherwise ridiculed (Kashmiri “insurgency”, p.168; “Bangladeshi infiltration”, p.199) or dismissed as “myth”, e.g. that Muslims have “many wives and secret links to rich Arabs” (p.211), or (repeatedly) that Muslims oppose birth control.

It is a straight fact that the Muslim birth rate is much higher, that they participate much less in India’s effort at birth control, and that this is also the intention of Islamic leaders, expressed clearly in a number of pamphlets and firmly based on Islamic scripture (vide K. Elst: The Demographic Siege, 1998 [and for a far more thorough and up-to-date account: A.P. Joshi, M.D. Srinivas and J.K. Bajaj: Religious Demography of India, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai 2003]). Time and again, in order to explain a community’s assertiveness, Hansen relies on the voguish term “the other”, which carries unspoken Auschwitz connotations (it was popularized by the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in his reflections on the Holocaust), and he makes those connotations explicit, e.g. “The community is weak, sinful and unfulfilled. The only way to remedy this is by destroying the other, whose very presence (as threat qua temptation and fascination) weakens and prevents the inherent discipline, strength and manliness in the community from blossoming.” (p.211) What an impressive string of words, only a pity that its relevance to Hindu nationalism is non-existent. There is no Hindu plan for “destroying the other”. The Islam problem in India has nothing to do with Muslims being a resident “other” who undermines the Hindu morale, a calque on the Nazi perception of the Jews as agents of immorality corrupting the German people, for unlike the well-integrated (and consequently influential) Jews of Germany, the Muslims are a highly separate community whose chief crime is not the influence they might have on Hindu society, but the direct threat which their doctrinal hatred of god-pluralism poses to Hinduism, especially through the medium of violence against both symbols and followers of the Hindu religion. “Otherness” discourse is totally unable to throw any light on the Hindu perception of Islam, for Hindus have proven during long millennia that they have no problem with “others”, as when they provided asylum to refugee Syrian Christians, Jews and Parsis. By contrast, Hindu feelings about Islam are comprehensively explained by their experience of Islam in action, as during the Partition (I may have missed something, but I don’t recall Hansen seconding the common secularist dismissal of Muslim guilt for Partition as yet another “myth”) or the East Bengal genocide of 1971. Eye-sore buildings like the Babri Masjid (until 1992) or the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi stand as permanent testimony to Islamic hatred of Hindu god-pluralism. Also, the usual implication that an “other” is set up as a bogey to concentrate a community’s attention and thereby strengthen its unity, does not apply. All the factors of the communal conflict, far from being the creation of Hindutva strategists, were in place from the day the first Islamic invader set foot in India. Contrary to the secularist claim that “Hinduism” and “the Hindu community” are recent inventions, the Islamic invaders united all non-monotheistic Indians under the new label “Hindu”, meaning any Indian unbelievers, they showed their deep awareness of their own Muslim identity, and they proved through word and deed the essential and inescapable antagonism between Islamic and Hindu identities. All the primary sources, the medieval Persian writings of Muslim conquerors and their court chroniclers, prove that Hindu-Muslim antagonism was not generated by colonial machinations or post-colonial mobilization in an effort to “domesticate public spaces”. This conflict was unilaterally imposed on the Hindus by Muslims. The immunization of Hindutva-watchers against factual discourse on Islam is so thorough that in some cases, factual statements by Hindus about Islam are not even criticized, as if their mere quotation will suffice to evoke scorn and laughter for so much evil nonsense, e.g. RSS weekly Organiser’s entirely correct view that “the supreme Islamic mission is to convert the Hindus, one and all” (p.179), or Sadhvi Ritambhara’s accurate statement that “the Quran teaches them to lie in wait for idol worshipers, to skin them alive” etc. (p.180). Well, the Quran does say that, and it does say that the war against the infidels is on until the whole world is Islamic, which implies the conversion (or death) of even the last Hindu. Likewise, no discussion is opened against the denunciation of the “secular intellectuals” as “alienated pseudo-secularists full of contempt for the true Hindu culture” (p.181), though the concept “pseudo-secular” is central to the whole controversy, and proves to be entirely valid when you consider that those “secularists” defend all kinds of religious discrimination, e.g. religion-based civil codes, against the genuinely and quintessentially secular system of equality of all citizens before the law regardless of their religion. Hansen’s book is full of interesting information about Hindutva campaigning in the 1990s, but conceptually it is quite superficial.

Some minor remarks to conclude. The book contains some of the familiar tricks known from the M.J. Akbar school of Hindutva-smearing, e.g. just as Akbar once cleverly described Veer Savarkar as “a co-accused in the Mahatma murder trial” without mentioning that Savarkar was fully acquitted and not even indicted again in the appeals trial, we find Prof. Hansen casting suspicion on L.K. Advani by describing him as “indicted in a massive corruption scandal in 1996” (p.266) without mentioning that the investigation cleared him completely of the charges (which were minor, the “massive” scandal mainly pertaining to dozens of Congress secularists, as Hansen fails to explain). There are also minor mistakes, sometimes clearly printing errors (Rajendra Singh becoming sarsanghchalak in “1944” instead of 1994, p.182), sometimes indicators of limited familiarity with Hinduism (“Ramahandi” for Ramanandi, 3x, p.262).

But many Hindu nationalists will be glad to read Prof. Hansen’s acknowledgment of the diplomatic success achieved with India’s nuclear tests, which have “forced western media and decision makers to recognize India as a major power”. (p.266) You may quote that whenever Frontline alleges that BJP rule in 1998-99 was a foreign policy disaster.e

This review is over and now let us learn the credentials of the author of this book (Saffron Wave) and, then, learn astonishingly know that a person no less than the celebrated industrialist Ambanis of India are financing this author. An industrialist before investing his money always does a “due diligence exercise” but here in this case Ambanis have done none.

(The following is taken from a newsletter for SASNET, Swedish South Asian Network, which featured two following programs. This is an example of generating ‘atrocity literature’ on India.  Of course, it was followed by a general ‘feel good’ event by the Embassy of India. SASNET Swedish South Asian Studies Network. Thomas Blom Hansen holds SASNET lecture on how communal conflicts transform Indian cities. This is the information available on the Professor through a link on SASNET’s page).

 Professor 

Habilitation Degree, Roskilde Univleersity 

Thomas Hansen is the Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor in South Asian Studies and Professor in Anthropology. He is also the Director of Stanford’s Center for South Asia where he is charged with building a substantial new program. He has many and broad interests spanning South Asia and Southern Africa, several cities and multiple theoretical and disciplinary interests from political theory and continental philosophy to psychoanalysis, comparative religion and contemporary urbanism.

Much of Professor Hansen’s fieldwork was done during the tumultuous and tense years in the beginning of the 1990s when conflicts between Hindu militants and Muslims defined national agendas and produced frequent violent clashes in the streets. Out of this work came two books: The Saffron Wave. Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton 1999) which explores the larger phenomenon of Hindu nationalism in the light of the dynamics of India’s democratic experience, and Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay(Princeton 2001) which explores the historical processes and contemporary conflicts that led to the rise of violent socioreligious conflict and the renaming of the city in 1995.

During the last decade, Professor Hansen has pursued a detailed study of religious revival, racial conflict and transformation of domestic and intimate life from the 1950’s to the present in a formerly Indian township in Durban, South Africa. This round of work has now resulted in a book entitled Melancholia of Freedom: Anxiety, Race and Everyday Life in a South African Township (Princeton University Press, 2012). In addition to these ethnographic engagements, Professor Hansen has pursued a number of theoretical interests in the anthropology of the state, sovereignty, violence and urban life. This has resulted in a range of co-edited volumes, and special issues of journals such as Critique of Anthropology and African Studies. He is currently working on a collection of theoretical and ethnographic essays provisionally entitled Public Passions and Modern Convictions.

Thomas Blom Hansen, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for South Asia at Stanford University in USA, holds a SASNET lecture at Lund University on Monday 27 April 2015, 13.15 – 15.00. He will talk about ”Vernacular Urbanism: Community, Capital and Urban Space in Middle India”. Venue: Lecture Hall Eden at the Department of Political Science.

In his presentation, Prof. Blom Hansen describes how, in the 1970s and 80s, the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra was a by-word for bitter and violent conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. In the late 1980s, Shiv Sena won political control over the city, a dominance the party has retained ever since. During the same period, the city almost tripled its size and became a major center for manufacturing and tourism and home to a powerful new elite. Based on fieldwork in 1991 and again in 2012, he  explores how the  violent street battles in the city along communal/religious lines over the past decades have been transformed into “infrastructural violence”: heavy handed demolition of Muslim owned properties, and markets; renaming of public spaces and re-framing the city’s history; the emergence of networks of private enterprises and public institutions sharply divided along community lines. Aurangabad share many features with other large provincial cities in India. Its combination of rapid growth and a dominant Hindu nationalist presence in politics and public life may indicate and illustrate what  “urban middle India” will look like in the near future. Read more… http://www.sasnet.lu.se/sasnet/sasnet-seminar-how-communal-conflicts-transformed-aurangabad

Aarhus seminar on Violent Conjuntures in Democratic India

The Contemporary India Study Centre Aarhus (CISCA) at Aarhus University, Denmark, organises a Guest Lecture by Amrita Basu, Paino Professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College, USA, on Thursday 30 April 2015, at 14.00. She will talk about ”Violent Conjuntures in Democratic India”, a presentation based on her book by the same title recently published. It is a discussion of when and why Hindu nationalists have engaged in discrimination and violence against minorities in contemporary India. She asks why the incidence and severity of violence differs significantly across Indian states, within states, and through time. She calls for a broader understanding of social movements and greater appreciation of party-movement relations. All student and staff welcome. Venue: Building 1342-455 (Juridisk Auditorium), University of Aarhus. More information. http://www.sasnet.lu.se/content/aarhus-seminar-violent-conjuntures-democratic-india

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