How should we respond?1

Arun Shourie

Late in the afternoon on November 15, a police official visited the office of the Voice of India, a publication house that has been publishing works of academic excellence. These have one distinguishing feature: There is no other set of books which has done as thorough a job of nailing the falsehoods and evasions of the secularists as the books published by this small publishing house. Marxists - and even more, their fellow travellers - have denounced them as 'communal'.

But when these denouncers have been challenged on the facts, they have fallen silent. After a few initial skirmishes, therefore, these 'scholars' have opted for prudence: They have studiously ignored these books, and just gone on repeating their falsehoods. The condition in which we are will be evident from considering one simple fact: While the books being published by Voice of India are basic to our learning the truth about our past, to uncovering the roots of the problems that plague us today, and you may encounter - as I often do - many a newspaperman speak laudably about these books in private, not one mainline paper has dared notice even one publication of this house in its Books pages! 'Dared', did I say? Perhaps I should have said 'condescended'!

Among the authors whose works Voice of India has published none is more distinguished than Mr. Ram Swarup. I have written about him earlier: Now about 75, he is one of the deepest thinkers I have come across. His work is foundational. The occasion for writing about him again is a slim book by him entitled, Hindu View of Christianity and Islam

The essays in the volume are not just works of scholarship, they are works of insight. His reflections on the claims of milleniarism - that there is only one way, that it has been revealed to only one person, that it is set out in only one Book, that for your own good you must follow it, that if you do not do so I am on duty bound to compel you to follow it, and, if you still persist in your sin and error, to put you out; and his reflection on its consequences - aggressive proselytisation, intolerance, violence and tyranny - are unanswerable. Even more important is his exposition of the deep significance of practices which religions like Christianity and Islam condemned and sought to stamp out - multiplicity of god-concepts and idolatry for instance.

Where missionaries heaped scorn on the fact that we worshipped many gods and presented the exclusive exaltation of one God in their religions - of Jehovah, of Allah - as a higher stage in the development of human thought and experience. Mr. Swarup reminds us of the deep insight that the earlier practice embodied. As persons are at different stages of spiritual attainment, as some are liable to respond better to suggestions, symbols and practices of one kind than another, it was felt that different road-maps ought to be sketched for them. And that each aspirant should be encouraged to discover by introspection, by reflection on the experiences that were unfolding within him the road that would best get him to the goal of insight. This was the injunction so central to the Gita, for instance - that of discovering one's svadharma, by looking within, by reflection.

The same goes for idols, They were means by which values and virtues - too abstract to be contemplated on their own - were given shape and form. They were endowed into idols and icons, so that the aspirant by contemplating the form would internalise the values and virtues. The iconoclast who made smashing of idols an act of heroism and valour and fidelity, did not just miss the deep significance of the aid. As Swami Vivekananda used to point out, they themselves became idolaters of the most elementary kind.

Christian missionaries poured scorn and invective at our idols. Today, how they venerate statues and pictures of the Virgin Mary, of Jesus, how in the Vatican they kiss the feet of the statue of St. Paul, how they venerate the relics of St. Xavier and others! The subjects of the statues and pictures differ from ours, but is the practice any different, is the attitude to them any different from that of the most primitive pagan? Are the statues implored for boons any the less?

The sequence Islam has followed is exactly the same. The Prophet removed the 360 idols which were in the mosque around the Ka'aba. He had the pictures within the Ka'aba washed out. But the holy black stone in the Ka'aba has come to be venerated in exactly the same way as the earlier idols; it is prayed to, boons are sought of it, the devout touch it and kiss it, they perambulate around the structure - the Ka'aba - into the wall of which the stone is embedded. When the new one is draped over the Ka'aba, the curtain - the kiswah - which has been taken down is cut and sold in small pieces to pilgrims, who venerate it in exactly the way Hindus venerate the clothing which has been used to cover an idol. Water from the Well of Zamzam, which lies a few steps from the south-east corner of the Ka'aba, is ascribed curative powers exactly as the water at Loudes or the water of the Ganges. "The water is regarded as an infallible cure for all diseases," The Dictionary of Islam records, "and the devotees believe that the more they drink of it, the better their health will be, and their prayers the more acceptable to the Diety… Many pilgrims not content with drinking it merely, strip themselves in the room, and have buckets of it thrown over them by which they believe that the heart is purified as well as the outer body… Few pilgrims quit Makkah without carrying away some of this water in copper or tin bottles, either for the purpose of making presents, or for their own use in case of illness, when they drink it, or for ablution after death…" Substitute 'Varanasi' for 'Makkah', 'Ganges' for the 'Well in Zamzam', and would the words not describe exactly Hindu pilgrims at the banks of the Ganges? Similarly, while the Prophet prohibited veneration of graves and relics of saints etc., dargahs and amulets from them are objects of as intense veneration among Muslims as their counterparts are among Christians or Hindus.

Now, this is no 'lapse' of Islam or Christianity. Only that the original claims to superiority, original denunciations and violent erasing of earlier practices were not what they were made out to be. There is another lesson: Human beings face identical tribulations, and they ultimately gravitate towards the same sorts of devices for solace.

But such examples would be but the first approximation to Mr. Swarup's analysis. He shows how the very features which were regarded as marks of superiority deflect their adherents from the spiritual quest. His enunciation of dharma and the direction in which it sets us, and the contrary direction in which the tenets of Christianity and even more so of Islam set us is as imbued with insight as it is concise.

One final point, and I will return to the policeman: Throughout the book the exposition is scholarly, the language restrained and academic.

The Letter

The policeman brought with him a letter that Mr. Shahabuddin had written to Minister of State for Home P.M. Sayeed. Dated August 20, it asked that the government have the book examined "from the point of view of banning it under the law of the land." "This book is blatantly offensive to the religious sensibilities of Muslims and Christians," Mr. Shahabuddin had written, "calling those religions anti-human and lacking spirituality" - a characteristic one sentence distortion of an entire book. The law on the question is absolutely clear, and the judgements on it have repeatedly held that;

The impugned publication must be read as a whole, that expressions, metaphors, sentences, paragraphs must not be tom out to establish the charges;

That taken as a whole the test must be what the ordinary man with ordinary common sense, prudence and understanding will deduce from the publication, not the constructions that some abnormal or hypersensitive man may put on it;

That the publication must constitute "an aggravated form of insult of religion", and the author must have "deliberately and maliciously" set out to outrage the religious feelings of others.

But it is not the law these people rely on. They rely on intimidation, It is exactly by tactics of this kind that an earlier book of Mr. Swarup - Understanding Islam Through Hadis - was put out of circulation, The English edition was published in 1982 in the US and reprinted in India in 1983. It was nothing but a faithful paraphrase of the Hadis with the context explained from the earliest and most respected biographies of the Prophet.

A complaint was engineered against the Hindi edition of the book. It was twice referred to and twice cleared by the Delhi Administration's screening committee - each time the committee had concluded that the book was wholly and entirely based on orthodox and revered source and that no action against it was warranted. But the publisher, printer and binder were arrested.

The case went to the courts. Eventually on September 28, 1990 the magistrate passed his final order. He noted that he had given the complainant - the gentleman whose missive had led to the arrest of the publisher - several opportunities to make good his complaint. That in spite of these, the complainant had not done so. That under the relevant section of the IPC the case could be taken cognizance of only if prior permission had been given for prosecution by the relevant government. That the government had, not once but twice, reviewed the book and had concluded the no action was warranted. He, therefore, discharged the matter.

That was seven years after the original book was published; two years after the screening committee cleared it.

But just two months later, November 27, 1990, under the influence of the same intimidation the Delhi Administration declared that, contrary to what it had itself twice decreed, the book was not only objectionable, was deliberately and malicious so! And the harassment commenced again. That having subsided, Mr. Shahabuddhin has sought to commence the cycle using the new book What is this if not the worst form of misuse of law and the courts?

Things, to do

Our response should be three fold. First, whenever an attempt such as this from quarters such as Mr. Shahabuddin is made to stifle free speech, to kill even scholarly inquiry, we must go out of our way and immediately obtain the book, So the thing to do is to write to Voice of India, 2/18 Ansari Road Daryaganj, New Delhi, 110002, to buy a copy of the Hindu View of Christianity and Islam by sending a cheque or draft or moneyorder of Rs.125.

Secondly, whenever the intimidators prevail and such a book actually comes to be banned large numbers should take to reprinting it, photocopying it, to circulating it, and discussing its contents. That is how the effort of the British to suppress books like Pandit Sunderlal's Bharat Mein Angrezi Raj used to be dealt with.

The third thing is more necessary, and in the long run will be the complete answer to the intimidators. As long as scholars like Mr. Swarup are few, intimidators can bully weak governments into shutting them one by one. But what will they do if 1,000, scholars are to do work of the same order? This is the way to deal with intimidators. Let 1,000 scholars carry on work Mr. Swarup has pioneered.



1 This syndicated article was published in The Observer of Business and Politics, New Delhi, on 26 November 1993, and in many other newspapers and periodicals all over India.


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