The V.S. Naipaul-Girish Karnad flap, to borrow a phrase from legendary ball player, Yogi Berra, is “déjà vu all over again,” recalling countless arguments about Indian secularism, Muslims and Hindus, Indian history, authentic Indian identity, the obligations of Indian literature, and so on. It follows in a long tradition of Naipaul, he of legendary irascibility, attacking and being attacked by writers and intellectuals of diverse national origin. And it keeps alive the magnificent legacy of every Indian literary festival worth the name involving at least one tamasha that ensures public ka paisa vasool.
The controversy shows the restricted terms in which Indian identity and history are typically debated in Indian public forums. This applies as much to the substance of Karnad’s attack on Naipaul as it does to Naipaul’s bigoted views on Islam and Muslims. It also extends to the views expressed by defenders of both figures. Indians may be argumentative, as Amartya Sen says, but for the most part we seem to devote our time arguing about a small number of issues and endlessly repeating the same arguments.
The controversy reveals that the discussion on Indian identity continues to be trapped within the conceptual frame—a prison-house, really—of invaders and alienness and their inverted mirror images, the indigenous and the authentic. In discussions of the Indian past and present, from the lunatic fringes of the Hindu and Muslim right to the radical left for whom even other Marxists count as compradors, the notion of invasion figures as a “metahistorical” theme, to draw on Hayden White’s phrase. It is a master trope that permeates the entire spectrum of discussion, from dubious histories of India spun by partisans on Wikipedia to much of the historical scholarship produced during the post-independence period. Aryan invasions, Muslim invasions, British colonial invasions. Invasions by multinational and global financial capital. Territorial invasions but also invasions of objects, culture, and values.
The metahistorical claim is seen in specific arguments, proposed by right or left, that an alien faith, religion, ideology or political structure (“Islam,” “nationalism,” the “colonial state”) has corrupted some natural, indigenous order of things that stands for the authentic. A case in point is the left critique of the Hindu right that emphasizes the “semitisation” of Hinduism under the right. Liberals who advocate the free market as a panacea for India’s ills argue that the natural capitalist abilities of Indians were stymied by the failed import of socialism in independent India. Sectarian Muslim organizations share with sectarian Hindu organizations the idea of Islam as the religion of the sword of invaders. For the former, the tragedy lies in the incomplete conquest of India by Muslims. For the latter, the tragedy lies in the very existence of Islam, by definition seen as a marauding faith.
Karnad—like Naipaul—has every right to express his views on any topic of his choice— invasions, Islam, or Indian music. And in this particular case, he was responding to Naipaul’s pet themes in presenting an alternate vision of Indian history. Karnad’s marvellous sense of dramatic timing also deserves admiration (file under carpe diem, example of), whatever one might think of the symbolic value and appropriateness of his outburst. But in several critical respects Karnad’s understanding of Indian history is bedevilled by the same vexed assumptions that he identifies in Naipaul’s rants against Indian Islam and in Naipaul’s reductive conflation of Indian and Hindu history.
For one, Karnad’s insistence that Naipaul necessarily needs to write about Indian music if he wishes to accurately represent the richness of Indian society is troubling. It is a narrow and prescriptive account of both the vocation of the writer and of Indian society, a claim about the moral duty of an Indian writer and about the soul of Indian cultural life. It is, paradoxically, an essentialist argument about syncretic or composite forms of Indian culture as the most authentic incarnations of that culture. Parenthetically, one might also ask if Karnad, by implication, believes that hearing-impaired Indians can never quite experience Indian life in its fullness?
In the same vein, Karnad seeks to disqualify Naipaul’s eligibility for the award on the ground of Naipaul not being Indian. In excluding Naipaul from the ranks of Indians, Karnad seeks recourse here to a peculiarly legalistic definition of Indianness, puzzling for someone who otherwise in his speech appears to valorise a broader, civilisational, model of Indian identity.
Naipaul’s Indian origins, whatever his views on India, cannot be denied. If India can embrace as part of her globally dispersed progeny wealthy NRI (Non-Resident Indian) and PIO (People of Indian Origin) expatriates who buy in to the myth of “India Shining,” surely a writer who falls into these categories should not be disqualified because his pet theme is “India Shitting.”
Karnad’s comments also reveal the problem with a certain vision of Indian secularism, one that is routinely articulated and authorised by progressive intellectuals and activists as well as by representatives of the state who claim to be the guardians of India’s secular heritage. This vision of secularism tries to force fit Indian history into a profoundly essentialist, exceptionalist, and ahistorical political claim about the inherently secular character of Indian society. Indian society, in this view, is shaped by a deeply-entrenched principle of secular coexistence—one that runs deep in our soil and suffuses the very air we breathe; a principle that has been dutifully followed by most indigenous rulers and leaders, Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, save for a few aberrations like Aurangzeb, Savarkar, and Jinnah. Partition and the few hundred communal riots recorded in colonial and postcolonial India, likewise, are exceptions to and violations of this naturally occurring secularism. In contrast to an overarching Hindu identity, a secular syncretism that ranges across the religious and non-religious domains of Indian social life becomes the embodiment and hallmark of authentic Indianness. The classic statement of this view is Nehru’s Discovery of India, a formidable product of the imagination, a marvellous statement of Nehru’s faith in certain ideas, as Sunil Khilnani suggests, and an important political statement—but, as a historical work, fundamentally a fantasy.
That there was a Muslim conquest of some Indian territories is not in dispute. That some Muslim rulers destroyed temples is not in doubt either. What is just as incontrovertible is the fact that these actions do not exhaust the history of Islam in India. Equally importantly, if not more so, Muslim Indians bear no responsibility, and are not accountable for, the actions of these rulers. They owe no explanation, let alone apology, to anyone for anything that any other Muslim has done. Extending the argument, we do not need to recognize Muslim ‘achievements’ in music, architecture, food, or literature to recognize, defend, and fight for the inalienable Muslim right and claim to be Indian. Syncretic and non-syncretic Hindus and Muslims are Indians, as are Hindus and Muslims who might dream, respectively, of akhand Bharat and a shari’a-governed India in a revived global Caliphate. Westernized Indians who may not speak a word of any language other than English and may be utterly uninterested in bhakti or sufi poetry or Hindustani or Carnatic classical music are also authentically Indian. Resolutely one-dimensional Indians are also Indian and their lives are appropriate subjects for works of fiction or non-fiction. None of these people need to explain their Indianness or apologize for their way of being Indian. To Naipaul, Karnad, or anyone else.
To clarify, my point is not that there is no indigenous historical basis for secularism in India. Neither am I contending that the achievements of political secularism are meaningless. To the contrary, I believe they have been vital—and will continue to be so—in ensuring the survival of that impossible imagined political community called India. My twofold argument, may be stated such: secularism in India, as in the US or France or Turkey, is historically specific, historically grounded, contested, inconsistent, subject to interpretation, shaped by, and shaping in turn, the relationship between state, law, and society; and that, consequently, the history of Islam in India or the history of Hindu-Muslim relations cannot be written as a subset of the history of secularism in India and cannot be subsumed within it. The complexities simply cannot be flattened out into a neat political narrative of the impeded unfolding of secular reason in Indian life.
The shortcomings of Naipaul’s writings on India do not need to be revisited here at length. An Area of Darkness, for example, is the worst kind of Orientalist tripe. It is the kind of book that might have been written by a disgruntled Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, had she been bummed out on her spirituality-seeking trip to India. Karnad’s staggering intellectual, literary, and creative abilities, and his progressive political credentials, likewise, do not need to be stressed.
There is, however, one interesting commonality between Naipaul and Karnad. That commonality tells us something about who has the authority to speak for and about India, whether to defend or vilify it. It says something about whose views on India get published in books and newspapers. It reminds us of who gets heard at literary festivals and seen on television screens around the world. This shared aspect of their lives reminds us of the credentials needed to be recognized both within India and outside India as an expert on Indian society, art, culture, politics, religion, history, or music. By implication, it also tells us which perspectives and voices on India remain unheard and ignored. Naipaul and Karnad, both of Indian provenance if not of citizenship, happen to be graduates of Oxford University.
Rohit Chopra is Assistant Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University, USA.