A Debate with an ‘Eminent’ Historian

Posted December 24, 2012 by Dr Koenraad Elst in Academic Negationism

Recently an e-mail exchange took place between my friend K. Venkat and the retired “eminent historian” Prof. Harbans Mukhia. Venkat himself gave a fitting reply to the august scholar’s opinions, which is circulating on the net (I received a copy on 9 Dec. 2012). Herewith I want to formulate my own comment.

Prof. Mukhia replied to a critical query about Islamic history in India: “If you derive all your knowledge of medieval Indian history from ‘historians’ like Sita Ram Goel and Koenraad Elst and so forth, this is the shoddy history you will land up with. Sita Ram Goel was a publisher and seller of RSS books and his knowledge of history was confined to what he had learnt in the RSS shakhas. And the Belgian Elst is an honorary member of the VHP and knows no Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, any Indian language, much less Persian, so essential for getting to know medieval Indian history. And since Persian is not taught in the shakhas, Goel had no inkling of it either.”

Let us first set the language allegation straight before addressing the historical and political issues. Sita Ram Goel (1921-2003) had Hindi as mother tongue, a language in which he published several historical novels that were praised precisely for their pure and imaginative language. He went to an Urdu-medium school where Persian was part of the curriculum. He graduated from Delhi University where he studied History through the medium of English, a language in which he published many books. After his studies he lived in Bengal for a decade and became fluent in Bengali. He also read the Mahabharata and other Hindu classics in the original Sanskrit. As for myself, since Harbans Mukhia is unimpressed by real-life experience, let me just point to the testimony of my diplomas: I studied Hindi, Sanskrit and Persian, apart from Chinese and a number of European languages. After health problems starting in 2000, I haven’t been to India much, so my colloquial Hindi has become distinctly rusty; but I can still consult writings in that language. I also learned a smattering of classical Tamil a few years ago as well as biblical Hebrew and modern Arabic in my student days, now all but forgotten but I still know the grammar and some religious terminology. In all more than enough to do history.

Sita Ram Goel was a lifelong critic of the RSS, but unlike Mukhia, he knew what he was talking about. Already as a student, he remarked that only mediocre fellow-students were going to shakhas whereas the brighter ones were concentrating on other pursuits or were seduced by Communism. Anyone who has read some of his work (but that is where the problem for Mukhia arises) has seen for himself that its message is quite different from the RSS line.

Mukhia continues: “In the shakhas, they do tell you that Aurangzeb demolished temples and erected mosques in lieu of them (which he did at Mathura and Varanasi), but they never tell you that he was also giving monetary and land grants to other Hindu temples, including some in Varanasi itself, the original document for which is on display at the Bharat Kala Bhavan on BHU campus. Historians KK Datta and Jnana Prakash have also published numerous documents of Aurangzeb giving such grants to temples, maths and other Hindu institutions, and many more remain unpublished. Naturally ‘historians’ like Goel and Elst wouldn’t know of them, nor would care to know.”

It is not only in the shakhas that they tell you this. Aurangzeb himself gave orders for a general destruction of temples and literally demolished thousands of them. Many other Muslim rulers acted likewise. No amount of special pleading by the eminent historians can change Islam’s record in this regard. It is possible that earlier, Aurangzeb gave some grants to Hindu institutions, as had been the Moghul dynasty’s policy since Akbar. We should of course not take Mukhia’s word for it (the eminent historians have a well-established reputation for mendaciousness), and “numerous” is certainly an exaggeration, but it remains possible. This only shows the inertia of changing a policy, as well as Aurangzeb’s increase in devotion to Islam, from a compromise-prone successor of Akbar to a zealous activist for Islam, which does not tolerate idolatry.

One issue where the much-maligned RSS is clearly wrong in its assessment of Aurangzeb, is its condemnation of him as a fanatic person. The said grants to temples, if true, may further prove a point that I have had to make repeatedly: it is not true that Aurangzeb was a cruel character, he was not more so than his less notorious predecessors. If he was cruel and fatatic, it was because he started taking the core doctrine of Islam to his heart. He was a pious person, more than is good for a ruler, so he became increasingly averse to the religious compromise on which his great-grandfather Akbar had built the Moghul empire. So at some point in his advancing years, not his personal predilection but his growing commitment to Islam took over. That is when he ordered all Pagan temples destroyed: when the Moghul empire became truly Islamic at last. But the RSS is fearful to say this, so it tells itself and its listeners that Islam is okay but that Aurangzeb “misunderstood” his religion due to his cruel and fanatic personality.

The professor has some advice for my friend: “If you really want to study history look at the works of professional historians — Tara Chand, RP Tripathi, Mohd. Habib, ABM Habibullah, Satish Chandra, Irfan Habib, RM Eaton, Cynthia Talbot and many other stalwarts who gave their life time to studying medieval history from the original Persian sources, not from third rate and motivated translations like History of India as Told by its Own Historians. Motivated? Sir Henry Elliott, who compiled this 8-volume series, wrote in his Preface: The series is being compiled ‘to let the bombastic babus of India know how terrible Indians’ life was until the British came to their rescue’!! So, Sir Elliott translated only those passages from the Persian language chronicles of medieval India which spoke of Muslims’ atrocities on the Hindus!! He will tell you that Aurangzeb demolished temples, but not that he also patronised them!!! Much like the RSS does now and chaps like Goel and Elst follow in their footsteps.”

See, the eminent historians are as good at the use of exclamation marks as your average Hindutva internet warrior. And yes, Elliott was guilty of espousing the same theory which the eminent historians have been spreading, viz. that the British took India from the Moghuls, omitting the successful Hindu effort to liberate most of India from Muslim occupation and then succumbing to the British. But that doesn’t make his translations wrong. He selected those parts which would be most telling for the atrocities undergone by the Hindus under Muslim rule so that they would appreciate British rule by contrast – and then translated these faithfully. He reminded his Hindu readers that their “own historians” (meaning India-based Muslim chroniclers) had reported these Islamic atrocities. Anyway, I would like to see the secular improvement, e.g. how do you translate the frequently-used Arabic verb q-t-l, Persian kushtan, both meaning “kill”. There aren’t too many nuances to that, are there?

Elliott’s translations were correct, but yes, they were selective. Secularists would have preferred to plough through an 88-volume rather than an 8-volume translation. But they are at liberty to go through all the untranslated parts and try to find a refutation there of what was described so explicitly in the translated parts. The Muslim chroniclers were in no mind to undo all the destruction they had evoked, so in the less dramatic parts of their work, they explored more leisurely subjects but refrained from trying their hand at what the secularists would like to read there, viz. any refutation of the grim picture they had first painted, and which Elliott and others have ably translated.

For lack of facts, Prof. Mukhia likes to throw names around instead. But a real historian remains unimpressed by this show of name-dropping. The fact that Prof. Mukhia has many like-minded colleagues in academe while his opponents have to remain on the outside is not the result of better competence among his friends, but of a deliberate policy in university nominations. Any young historian who lets on too early that he has pro-Hindu convictions, will see his entry into academe barred. Word will spread around that this man is “dangerous to India’s secular fabric” and he will be excluded. There have been some old historians who entered the profession before their cards were on the table and who only became forthright critics of Islam at the end of their careers, the likes of Prof. Harsh Narain and Prof. K.S. Lal, both since long deceased. Today among university historians, the school that sets the record on Islam straight is simply non-existent.

Fortunately, the political equation that makes the present secular-Islamic bias possible, is bound to come to an end one day. The elderly Prof. Mukhia won’t live to see that revolution anymore, but it is sure to happen. The truth which the eminent historians have long suppressed, will shine in the open. On that day, I wouldn’t like  to be called Harbans Mukhia.

The professor concludes: “I know this would have no effect on you. But just by chance if you can pick up enough courage to study history on your own and not parrot the history taught in the shakhas. Best wishes, Harbans Mukhia”

It seems Harbans Mukhia mistook his correspondent for some fanatic Hindutvavadi, the kind who remains impervious to facts. Not that I know many such cases, for even the most extreme ones I’ve met remain true to a central fact that really occurred, viz. Islamic atrocities against Hindus. Some of them have personally lived through the Islamic carnage at the time of Partition or during the Bangladesh liberation war, massacres which completely dwarfed all Indian religious riots put together (including the largest of them all, the killing of three thousand Sikhs by Congress secularists in 1984). But this correspondent is a successful cyberprofessional in Silicon Valley, who has made a more sophisticated study of just what it was that Islam wrought in India.

The greatest insult which the eminent historians could fling at Sita Ram Goel or myself is that we are “parroting history taught in the shakhas”. First off, I don’t even know what history they teach there. I have visited a few shakhas and can’t remember any history being taught there. I speculate it is streamlined to fit the Hindu and nationalist narrative, or at least that Mukhia wants to convey that impression. So be it, but historians have other sources for their history-writing and are not parrots of a party or movement. The main exception are the Indian secularists, whose conclusions are invariably those desired and taught by the Nehruvian rulers.

A second mail by the professor starts out by ridiculing the RSS concept of history: “First, the RSS rant started in the 1960s with the figure of 300 temples destroyed by the Muslim rulers; then in the 70s another 0 was added. Yet another got added in the 80s. But by the 90s the Sangh Parivar ran out of 0s, so they adopted another arithmetical formula of multiplying by 2 and the figure now stood at a respectable 60,000.”

 This claim may be true or not, but I am not privy to RSS historiography. As a matter of fact, 60,000 may just happen to be a good number, for the documented cases of temple destruction (and they already run into the thousands) are necessarily only a fraction of the more everyday cases, which must have been even more numerous. But we as historians can only deal with documented cases, especially since these are difficult enough. Indeed, of the ca. 2,000 cases listed by Sita Ram Goel, and more than 20 years after having been out in the open, not one has been refuted by Prof. Mukhia and his school.

So, like most secularists, he goes hiding behind an American self-described Marxist, Prof. Richard Eaton: “RM Eaton, who would necessarily be suspect in your eyes because he is a an American historian, examined the number of temples destroyed in the whole expanse of medieval India from 1200 to 1760 and came to the figure of 80. He has located the exact source of information or each demolition and put all the information in a tabular form. His brilliant article is called ‘Temple Desecration in Medieval India’. By the way, Eaton is aware of the figure of 60,000 handed out to credulous people like Sita Ram Goel, Koenraad Elst and yourself.”

In several respects, Eaton’s count is incomplete. Muslims destroyed Hindu temples before 1200 and after 1760 too, witness the near-absence of the once-numerous Hindu temples in Pakistan, witness the regular occurrence of temple destruction in Bangla Desh. It is also seriously false that for this period, Eaton’s count is complete. How could it be? Off-hand, Venkat could name a few cases from his own Tamil village, which was only briefly touched by the Islamic invasions but nonetheless already lost several temples, and they don’t figure in Eaton’s list. Archeologists regularly find remains of destroyed temples, often underneath mosques, which do not and cannot figure in Eaton’s list. Finally, one item on Eaton’s list doesn’t mean one temple destroyed. The thousand temples destroyed in Varanasi during Mohammed Ghori’s advances ca. 1194 form only one item on his list. What Mukhia calls “eighty” is in fact thousands of temple demolitions. So in spite of his Islam-friendly intentions, Eaton has only proven what Hindus have been saying all along: Islam has destroyed thousands of temples.

I had in fact answered Eaton’s list and explanation when they were published: “Vandalism sanctified by scripture”, Outlook India, 31 Aug. 2001 ( http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?213030). Needless to say, my arguments have never been refuted by anyone. Secular historians are so sure about controlling the information flow through education and the media that they don’t bother to interfere when their falsehoods are exposed. In the article, I also mention Eaton’s sidekick Yoginder Sikand, then a furious Hindu-hater and secularist journalist. But in the meantime, he has recanted and exposed the whole self-serving buffoonery that does by the name secularism: “Why I Gave Up On ‘Social Activism’”, Countercurrents.org, 19 April, 2012: (http://www.countercurrents.org/sikand190412.htm).

Prof. Mukhia goes on: “Incidentally, Hindu temples were also demolished by Hindu rulers long before Muslims came to India. King Harsha of Kashmir had appointed an officer, devopatananayaka (officerin-charge of uprooting of gods) as reported by Kalhana’s Rajatarangini and mosques were also destroyed by the Hindu rulers in medieval India. Details of it can be found in my book, The Mughals of India. Incidentally, I have never been funded by any US agency, University or institution and all my education has been in India, and all schooling in Hindi medium. This is just to guard you against the stupidity of levying charges such as you have done against the most outstanding Indian historian of our time, Romila Thapar.”

As for Harsha, chronicler Kalhana says: “Prompted by the Turks in his employ, he behaved like a Turk.” It is simply not true that his case exemplifies a Hindu type of iconoclasm. On the contrary, he merely shows the influence of Islamic iconoclasm. Half-literate secularists keep on repeating this story a decade after it has been refuted in my paper “Harsha of Kashmir, a Hindu iconoclast?”, ch.4 of my book Ayodhya: the Case against the Temple (Delhi 2002; http://www.scribd.com/doc/10022510/Ayodhya-3-Books-by-Koenraad-Elst).

It should be granted to Prof. Harbans Mukhia, as to his colleague Prof. Irfan Habib, that they have faithfully followed the old Nehruvian line of distrusting the “foreign hand”, particularly the Americans. This is very unlike their colleague Prof. Romila Thapar, who has been lavishly sponsored in Washington DC. And among their generation, this was still exceptional. Indian secularists were admired from afar, followed by the leading American scholars of India, like Prof. Paul Brass or Prof. Robert Frykenberg, but keeping their distance because of the reigning anti-Americanism. Now however, Indian academics of the right persuasion are openly courted and hosted by American colleagues.

 Returning to the subject-matter, the professor asks: “But the question is more complex: how is it that Aurangzeb, an orthodox Muslim on RSS account, waited for 21 years after coming to the throne to reimpose the jazia? You remember the date of its abolition by Akbar but not one of its reimposition which is 1679. How did he keep his religious zeal in check for 21 long years when he was the undisputed sovereign of India? And why was he giving grants to temples while he was keen on demolishing it? The questions is WHY?”

“The answer is that huge and complex empires are not governed by religious zeal of its rulers but by an enormously complex interaction of political, administrative, cultural, social and religious considerations. Remember Rajiv Gandhi passing a Bill in Parliament after the Shah Bano judgment of the Supreme Court and getting the doors to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid disputed site opened almost simultaneously? Was he being a zealous Muslim or a zealous Hindu or just a clever political manipulator?”

Strictly speaking, not the Government but the Court opened the locks of the Ayodhya building. But it stands to reason that the two played together, and that the Court executed the policy desired by the Government. At any rate, yes, Rajiv Gandhi was a clever manipulator, zealous only in furthering his personal power and wealth. He intended to solve the communal situation bloodlessly by handing the Hindus full control of Ayodhya (including the right to rebuild a temple instead of the Babri Masjid) and giving the Muslims other goodies, such as a Sharia-inspired change in the law  on Muslim divorce or the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. This not-so-principled but very practical policy, typical of the “Congress culture”, would have succeeded but for the intervention of the eminent historians and like-minded intellectuals: they raised the stakes on Ayodhya and the Babri Masjid (“the bulwark of India’s secular polity”, etc.) so much that the Government could no longer pursue its pragmatic give-and-take plan. The result was endless religious riots, the surreptitious demolition, and more riots culminating in the Muslim bomb attacks on Mumbai of 12 March 1993, which pioneered a new Muslim tactic repeated in many other bomb attacks including those on the US of 11 September 2001. The eminent historians have blod on their hands.

It is also true that the Moghul empire was based on a religious compromise, that Aurangzeb’s conversion to a more principled Islamic policy jeopardized this compromise, and thereby endangered the empire itself. At the end of his life, amid Hindu rebellions, Aurangzeb understood this well enough. But he was too much of a pious Muslim to turn the clock back.

“As for Sita Ram Goel — he used to rant regularly in the Indian Express about the little that RSS had taught him of history: Islam teaches you intolerance, every Muslim ruler was inspired by Islam to destroy Hindu temples and Hindu society etc. etc. and how Marxist historians cannot face up to the truth of all his rants. You obviously read all this avidly. You obviously did not read ‘Reflections of the Past’ in the same paper dated 30.4.1989 by a non-descript historian called Harbans Mukhia. Since that date, Sita Ram Goel did not write a thing at least in the Indian Express. Please check it out; it should be available on the IE website. If not, you will find it in the same non-descript historian’s book Issues in Indian History, Politics and Society, pp. 31-34. Please forgive me for advertising my own writings; I avoided reference to myself in my earlier response, but since you were out to challenge us secular historians, I felt compelled to reverse my earlier decision. In any case you wouldn’t have heard of many historians anyway; the RSS never lets you know that they exist.”

Well, I didn’t know about this episode. 1989 is the year when I first met Sita Ram Goel, at the end of the year. Arun Shourie was then the editor of Indian Express, and in that capacity, he published a number of articles that went against the secularist opinion. In his books on religion and communalism, he made use of insight he had learned from Goel. It is very much news to me, and does indeed sound highly unlikely, that Shourie would have censored Goel. And it sounds completely ridiculous to assume that Goel laid his pen aside because of what an eminent historian wrote. For the next 14 years, Goel keept on writing forcefully against all anti-Hindu forces including those represented by Mukhia.

As a parting-shot, the eminent historian informs us a bit more about his locus standi regarding translations: “By the way, the translations of the medieval Indian Persian texts are quite often atrocious. I happen to know because my doctorate at Delhi University back in 1969 was an evaluation of these texts. It is called Historians and Historiography During the Reign of Akbar.”

As already said, “killing” is something that happened frequently when Muslims encountered Hindus, and the Muslim chroniclers thus had to describe this process quite often. Harbans Mukhia has not convinced us that under the hands of the translators, “killing” only got mentioned as a mistranslation of, say, “tolerating”. Maybe the more abstruse elements in the narrative were subject to mistranslation, but the relation between Hindus and Muslims was pretty straightforward and hard to mistake for friendship.

The august professor bids us goodbye: “Voila, this is my last intervention in this so-called debate. I have better things to do than rectifying the RSS version of history. Best wishes, Harbans Mukhia”. Amen to that.



The following two tabs change content below.

Belgian Author and Orientalist :A Graduate in Philosophy, Chinese Studies and Indo-Iranian Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. He frequently returns to India to study various aspects of its ethno-religio-political configuration and interview Hindu and other leaders and thinkers. His research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism earned him his Ph.D. in Leuven in 1998. He has also published about multiculturalism, language policy issues, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and the Aryan invasion debate.