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Sunday, September 27, 2015

PM's Sanskrit jibe hits a raw secularist nerve

By Swapan Dasgupta

By now I am entirely convinced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a mischievous streak that is visible in private conversations but occasionally surfaces in public. He just loves needling opponents, particularly those who have an inflated sense of their own self-worth. 

His aside in Dublin on hearing Irish children sing a Sanskrit hymn in his honour was sharp and calculated to hit home. Modi raised a simple question: would such an act in India not have driven the secularists crazy? Regardless of all those pious interventions on twitter by people proclaiming the secular-cum-Sanskrit credentials of their grandfather and daughter, the fact remains that the controlling interest in the secularism industry belongs to those who believe that Sanskrit equals Hindutva and that learning it is the prerogative of those who socially ‘backward’ guys who attend shakhas. To them, the celebration of Sanskrit is the personification of anti-modernity. 

Of course not every secularist is so utterly crass; but the average ‘Hindu’ secularist—the type who believe that the natural destiny of every successful child is to settle down in the US—has a supercilious view of India’s Hindu ‘mumbo-jumbo’. In the old days, particularly during the heady Ayodhya years, their refrain used to be: ‘what will the world think?’ Today, it’s more what will their Facebook friends think? 

Don’t get me wrong, the secularist who laments that her son is forced to read Sanskrit as an obligatory third language—albeit ‘high scoring’—rather than French, German or even Mandarin, isn’t a Hindu hater. Rather, she doesn’t see herself as one. But given half a chance she would say she is a ‘ceremonial Hindu’—someone who perfunctorily observes some elementary rituals on Diwali or Onam or Durga Puja, and puts a sari on some special day in anticipation of Facebook ‘likes’.  

Such people are uber-liberal: they hate the idea of prohibition, even on Gandhi jayanti and, particularly, voting day; they can’t countenance meat bans—although many will discreetly admit that they grew up as vegetarians and, in any case, find the idea of beef a bit much to digest; and they embrace the idea of modernity which, in their value system, implies the values endorsed by the New York Times or its bastard progenies in India.

For them there is another world outside the echo chamber that is inhabited by the ‘Other’ –yes, even the liberals have their ‘Other’. But that world is unknown and incomprehensible. 

Many years ago I met a well-meaning engineer who had returned to India after 30 years of working with a well-known company in Texas. He told me that he was convinced that George W. Bush had stolen the presidential election from Al Gore. What had prompted this amazing conclusion was not the Florida recount but the fact that he hadn’t met a single American who had voted for Bush. That he lived in Texas, Bush’s home turf, didn’t seem to bother him. 

Likewise, there are people who proudly proclaimed during the 2014 general election that they didn’t know anyone who intended to vote Modi. For them, Modi supporters occupied a separate universe. At best the Modi bhakt was like the proverbial Pandey ji who taught Hindi and Sanskrit in English-medium schools and who, invariably, was the butt of jokes that reeked of social condescension. 

Last week on Twitter, Heeraman Tiwari, an Oxford-educated Sanskritist teaching in JNU wrote: “A celeb… economist once told me in my face: ‘refreshing to see a Sanskritist so liberal in your views.’” I don’t think Tiwari was exaggerating. As someone favourably disposed towards the Prime Minister and his political assumptions, I have often observed the incredulousness in the faces of liberals upon realising that I come from the same social background as many of them and, indeed, can eat with a fork and knife.

In the autumn issue of Spectator Life, conservative right-wing writer Douglas Murray has a wonderful article on the perils of being on the ‘wrong’ side of a Left-wing dominated media. “Certain (TV) presenters”, he observed, “behave as though their entire stack of liberal credentials are at stake. Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark is an example of this phenomenon, striking a weird, flared-up nostrils, ‘What horrible smell has come before me?’ pose before even asking the first question…Here we get reminded of one of the great truisms of politics: while the right tend to think the left are misguided, we rarely think they are evil. The favour is not returned…”

This may explain the intense prejudice the left-liberals harbour against not only Sanskrit but also the whole gamut of cultural nationalism. In the past three days, in response to Modi’s jibe in Ireland, a large number of media liberals have gone on record to say that they are not against Sanskrit but only its contrived association with saffron politics. I wish that were indeed the case. In 1998, at a conference of education ministers, the same lot created a stink when it was announced the proceedings would open with a rendering of the Saraswati vandana—a celebration of the goddess of learning. 

Many classical languages, including Sanskrit, have an overweight of religious literature just as many Indian dance forms have an association with temple worship. To try and forcibly de-sacralise and secularise the inheritance is an ideological exercise that needn’t be appreciated. One of the pedagogic shortcomings of Sanskrit learning in schools is the attempt to cast it in a modern functional mould. The sacred dimensions of Sanskrit—important to both believers and non-believers—has been bowdlerised, with disastrous consequences. 

Modi’s observation may have been in passing but even unintentionally he touched a raw secularist nerve. The outrage of the minusculity wasn’t triggered by any falsehood but because what the PM said was indeed true of those who want to be arbiters of good taste. 

Sunday Pioneer, September 27, 2015

Friday, September 25, 2015

Beleaguered heaven - India is not on a lonely path in its engagement with Israel

By Swapan Dasgupta

Shortly after I returned from a week-long trip to Israel hosted by the Government of Israel, a literary type in Delhi asked me in all sincerity: “Didn’t you feel uneasy making the trip? After all, there is the entire Palestinian question.” 

It’s a question that may betray the deeply ingrained political correctness of all those over-exposed to liberal circles in both Europe and North America. Over the past 15 years or so, particularly after the first intifada, there has been an inclination to view Israel as this generation’s South Africa: a pariah state guilty of unacceptable racism. All over the campuses, solidarity with Palestine and, by implication, disavowal of Israel has become conventional wisdom. Pressured by a determined body of activists, the Boycott, Disinvest and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has gained traction and led to Israeli scholars and institutions facing social boycott and even harassment. Clearly, being anti-Israel is considered a badge of honour in certain influential circles. 

It is reassuring that, for once, India hasn’t succumbed to fashion. Ever since Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao initiated formal diplomatic relations in 1992, India-Israel ties have deepened considerably. Today, they span agriculture, water management, internal security and, most important, defence. Departing from template diplomacy, India abstained from this year’s routine indictment of Israel by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Next month, for the first time since Independence, the President of India will undertake a state visit to Israel. Although he will also have a night halt in Ramallah, the nominal centre of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, the larger political significance of the visit to Israel is apparent. If all goes according to plan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Israel in 2016 and a return visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should follow in due course. Clearly India-Israel has come a long way since Prime Minister Morarji Desai surreptitiously met the legendary Moshe Dayan in the transit lounge of an Indian airport in 1978. 

Nor is India travelling a lonely path in engaging more meaningfully with Israel. Over the years, Israel has established a viable relationship with China and Russia. There has, no doubt, been frostiness in Israel’s relationship with the United States during the Barak Obama administration and particularly over the recent US-Iran understanding—a problem compounded by the energetic BDS campaign—but what is significant is that, rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding, the hyphenation linking Israel to the Arab and Islamic world has been snapped. As Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to the United Arab Emirates and India’s hunger for business opportunities in Iran have demonstrated, it is no longer an either-or situation. 

Part of this welcome pragmatism can be attributed to the fact that, unlike the period from 1948 (when Israel came into being as a sovereign country) to 1967, the neighbouring countries no longer realistically believe that Israel can be wiped off the map and its Jewish population thrown into the Mediterranean. This initial belief that the Jewish state must be obliterated did not stem from any over-weaning concern for the plight of the Palestinians who were dispossessed either by design or as a consequence of war. Following the end of the British mandate in 1948, each of the new state’s neighbours detected opportunities for territorial aggrandisement: Egypt wanted a slice of the Negev desert and, possibly, even the Gaza strip; Syria wanted to extend its frontiers to the Jordan River and both sides of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberius); and the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan sought to incorporate the whole of the West Bank and, particularly, Jerusalem within its territorial boundaries. 

The military approach failed in 1948 when the newly-established Israel was most vulnerable and it turned into a catastrophe after the Six Day War when Egypt lost Sinai, Syria the strategic Golan Heights and Jordan the West Bank and the whole of Jerusalem. The Yom Kippur war of 1973 restored Egyptian pride somewhat but also signalled the need for a more pragmatic approach to Israel. It led to Egypt under Anwar Sadat negotiating an agreement with Israel and King Hussein of Jordan washing his hands off the entire Palestinian question and transferring it to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation. Only the Baathist-controlled Syria stuck to its irredentism and this was complemented, post-1980, by the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

What has prevented an enduring solution to the problem is not the outstanding issue of the Palestinians who were dispossessed in the 1948 conflict. Nor for that matter, and despite its high emotive quotient, has the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank—what many Jews call Judea and Samaria—become the primary concern. The fact that the return to pre-1967 borders is now unrealistic and territorial adjustments to ensure Israel’s security will have to be made is also implicitly understood. The real bone of contention is control over Jerusalem—an issue that goes beyond realpolitik and involves questions of national identity and faith. 

The pre-1967 partition of Jerusalem may have suited Jordan because it maintained Islamic sovereignty over the old city, the Al Aqsa mosque and the family graves of the Hashemite monarchy. However, it was regarded as an affront by Israel for two reasons. First, a Jewish state was regarded as incomplete without East Jerusalem; and second, that Jews—ousted from the Jewish quarter of the city—had no access to either the Wailing Wall or the Temple Mount. What complicated matters was the fact that Jerusalem was more than a Jordanian or Palestinian problem: it involved the entire Islamic world. In 2000, Arafat rejected the extraordinarily generous offer by Israel to have a separate Palestinian state based out of East Jerusalem because he felt that he lacked the moral legitimacy to sign away Islamic sovereignty over the Al Aqsa complex. 

Arafat was a romantic figure and, by today’s standards, a moderate but in the subsequent 15 years the region has drifted into turbulence. Today, apart from Israel, all the neighbouring countries are deeply unsettled. Egypt confronts a Muslim Brotherhood problem; Lebanon has become the staging post for the radical Hizbollah; Syria is no longer one country and is split three-way; and the writ of the Palestinian Authority does not run in the radical Hamas-controlled Gaza. And, finally, there is Turkey and Iran that appear to have imperial designs based on historical memory. 

The issue, therefore, is not the absolute right of Muslims from all over the world to pray at the Al Aqsa shrine or even to manage it. That right has been maintained even by Israel. The issue is a far deeper one and best described by a Muslim-American academic Qanta A. Ahmed in an article in The Times of Israel website as the Islamist insistence on the “territorial and ruthless domination of the public space, of public worship, of external religiosity.” “The policing of belief, and that of believers” she wrote, is a feature of Islamists “who foolishly believe only they are the keepers of our Maker, only they are the arbiters of faith only they the guardians to our Creator.” This might explain why even today Jews have access to what they regard as the sacred Temple Mount but are denied the right to pray there. 

It is worth considering, especially in the age of the ISIS, whether the fashionable repudiation of Israel is tantamount to a deification of theocratic exclusivism. Israel has its shortcoming and its own share of the over-zealous but compared to what is happening in the region, it is heaven. 

The Telegraph, September 25, 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015

What is the Muslim alternative being offered by Owaisi's MIM?

By Swapan Dasgupta

If public memory is short, the collective memory of the Indian media appears to be shorter still. This is often borne out by a tendency to perceive political developments as Breaking News—events that are episodic and born out of either nowhere or, at best, from yesterday’s headlines.

The usual flurry of excitement over the excruciatingly long Bihar Assembly election campaign has simultaneously focussed attention on the national ambitions of Asaduddin Owaisi, the smooth-talking MP for Hyderabad. Hitherto, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) had been regarded as a fringe phenomenon, limited at best to the old city of Hyderabad and some Muslim localities of the erstwhile Nizam’s kingdom. However, its successful intervention in last year’s Maharashtra Assembly elections where it contested 20, won two seats and demonstrated its clout in Nanded, Aurangabad and pockets of Mumbai, catapulted it to larger prominence. Now, following a largely attended public meeting in Kishanganj, MIM has decided to field candidates in the Seemanchal region of Bihar where Muslims are the dominant community. For the moment, the MIM is challenging established parties such as the Congress and the Janata parivar for Muslim votes in isolated pockets of India. But at the same time, there are growing whispers that before too long, Owaisi will probably emerge as the most important Muslim leader in Indian politics and reshape the nature of post-Independence India’s Muslim politics.

The extent to which Owaisi succeeds in creating an all-India base and the relationship the MIM forges with pre-existing Muslim groups such as UMFA in Assam, Muslim League in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the Peace Party in Uttar Pradesh will be watched closely. So far there are indications that Owaisi has been able to strike a responsive chord among Urdu-speaking Muslims using a mixture of historical imager, cultural assertiveness and political victimhood. He has also been able to prey on the Muslim dejection at the failure of the ‘secular’ political parties, particularly the Congress, to prevent Narendra Modi from assuming charge of the Central government. The 2014 election created a political space for alternative Muslim formations. In a competition involving other more radical and less constitutional bodies, the MIM has managed to fill in a part of the void and momentarily channel Muslim energies in alternative electoral directions.

Yet, it would be erroneous to view the Owaisi phenomenon as something new and brought about exclusively by the Muslim community’s visceral hatred of the BJP. Taunting, mocking and even daring the BJP and, for that matter, Hindu nationalism, have been part and parcel of the MIM for long—indeed, ever since Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi assumed control of the old Razakar outfit from his father (who in turn had been bequeathed it by the infamous Qasim Rizvi on his departure to Pakistan) in 1975. Akbaruddin Owaisi, the leader of the MIM in the Telengana Assembly, has acquired legendary fame for a strident oratory that appeals to a community that sees itself as having been short-changed by history and contemporary politics. Since the MIM makes no pretence of being anything but a Muslim body, it has the luxury of directing its appeal and rhetoric to only the Muslims without bothering about its effect on non-Muslims. This enables it to touch upon and address themes that are outside the political range of political parties seeking votes of other communities. There is no difference between the audience of a MIM rally and the congregation of a malulvi inside a mosque.

Yet, the rhetoric of the MIM isn’t theological; it is explicitly political. Where it differs from other parties is not merely in highlighting present Muslim grievances centred on inadequate representation in the legislatures, the non-implementation of the Sachar committee report by earlier ‘secular’ governments and the larger question of Muslim poverty. With different styles of articulation, the Owaisi brothers hark back to a language and political approach that hasn’t been witnessed in India since 1947.

This is the language of identity arrogance that was the hallmark of the Muslim League publicists in Northern India from the time of the Khilafat Movement to the formation of Pakistan in 1947. Beginning with the distinctive all-weather sherwani attire to the generous over-use of literary Urdu (uncontaminated by Sanskritised intrusions), the MIM harks back to the Muslim sense of loss—a lost empire, a glorious ‘high’ culture now endangered, and, most important, the craven capitulation before those outside the fold of respectable discourse. It was to fight against this socio-cultural and political intrusion that the Razakars had waged their last-ditch battle in 1947-48, and the memories of that experience still shape the Hyderabadi Muslim political identity. Now, Owaisi has spread his wings and is directing the same message at Urdu-speaking Muslims outside Hyderabad who last heard it during the heady days associated with the Muslim League’s political jihad for Pakistan.

What is often forgotten is that the Muslim League drew its real sustenance, not from the areas the presently constitute Pakistan, but from the Muslim minority in the erstwhile United Provinces, Bihar, Central Provinces and Bombay Presidency. It was the Muslims in these areas who imagined Pakistan, and then, when it was forged, switched allegiance seamlessly to Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘secular’ politics.

No doubt Pakistan was one of the most hideous Muslim miscalculations—from which the community never fully recovered. But the fact remains that the Muslim pride that the MIM now seeks to invoke against both the BJP and ‘secular’ imposters isn’t new: it was the dominant language of Muslim politics in North India just 68 years ago. Owaisi isn’t talking secessionism—that is not on his agenda. He is conjuring a dream of a Muslim bloc that will insist on power sharing with others, not merely as citizens but as Muslims.

To judge Owaisi and the MIM in terms of their spoiler role in Bihar or elsewhere is only part of the story. The more interesting facet of this Muslim politics is its location in the history of the first half of the 20th century. 

Asian Age, September 18, 2015



Friday, September 11, 2015

An Area of Darkness: Why Israel is proud of itself

By Swapan Dasgupta

Israeli children exit a bomb shelter during a drill, June, 2011

Israel is understandably proud of its Tel Aviv University, which has, in recent years, emerged as a foremost non-American centre of technological innovation. A combination of Jewish creativity and financial acumen has allowed it to be at the centre of Tel Aviv's aggressive bid to project itself as another start-up hub where improvisation and entrepreneurship go hand in hand.

For Israel, a country whose image has, in recent years, been marred by political controversy centred on its perceived rough and ready handling of the Palestinian question, particularly in the Gaza strip on its southern frontier, this alternative projection of the country is important. The sight of purposeful twenty-somethings working on a hi-tech improvisation that could earn them either millions of dollars or years of wasted effort is truly energizing and helps shift focus from Israel's other image - as a doughty defender of its national interests against overwhelming odds.

Tragically, however, it is impossible for a first-time visitor to Israel to be insulated from the pitfalls of a very troubled and dangerous neighbourhood, not even in the care-free cosmopolitanism of Tel Aviv. While attending a presentation on life sciences and geopolitics organized by the TAU in one of its ultra-modern conference rooms, I came across a bold sign on the wall opposite the lift. In bold red letters it simply read 'Shelter', with arrows pointing in two different directions. It was a sad reminder of the unending dangers that this small nation - born in controversy and nurtured by war - faces on a day-to-day basis. The 'shelter', I was informed, was now a statutory requirement in homes, offices and public buildings - an elementary safeguard against the deadly rockets that now have at least the potential of hitting targets in Tel Aviv. For Israelis, the battle to extend the frontiers of knowledge has to coexist with a more basic war to survive as both a people and a nation.

This past week, however, the ongoing troubles of the Israeli state with Hamas and its resourceful international backers has abruptly taken a back-seat and been overshadowed - in the world media, at least - by an unfolding refugee crisis that has manifested itself in Europe but whose epicentre is neighbouring Syria - or rather, the land mass that came to be known as Syria since the post-Ottoman settlement of the region in the 1920s.

As Syria tears itself apart in a civil war involving the remnants of the Assad-controlled Baathist regime, the Islamic State, which now exercises barbaric control over the oilfields and the Sunni Muslim areas, and a local chapter of the Global Jihad that controls some 80 per cent of the area around the Golan Heights adjoining Israel, the world community may have arrived at two inescapable conclusions.

The first conclusion is a realization that, having endured for nearly 100 years, the settlement worked out by the European powers after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 is now on its last legs. Whether in Iraq, Syria, Libya or Yemen, the national boundaries that defined the 20th century are now becoming history. Regardless of whether Russia or, for that matter, Iran succeeds in salvaging the pride of the Assad regime, it seems pretty clear that a united Syria controlled from Damascus will no longer be possible. There may be disagreements over whether or not the Kurds, divided between Turkey, Iraq and Syria, manage to carve out a new, viable state. There is also some mismatch of views over the ability of Islamic State to endure the international retribution that may well become unavoidable. But, like Iraq and Yemen in the Arabian peninsula, Syria is witnessing a return to primordial identities based on a blend of ethnicity and faith. The map of West Asia is being dramatically redrawn in the 21st century with an accompanying toll of human suffering whose effects are being felt far beyond the region. At least half the population of Syria, for example, have voted with their feet and are either temporarily or permanently resident in places that they didn't earlier count as home.

The second conclusion, which may be equally troublesome for analysts and activists, is the emergence of Israel as an area of stability and, indeed, civilization in a region that is witnessing a return to medievalist human behaviour. This may sound offensive to those who see Israel itself as an affront to common decencies based on its refusal to succumb to what some regard as 'international pressure' on the Palestinian question. However, viewed in the larger context, Israel's unwillingness to succumb to the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions mounted by non-governmental bodies and campuses in the United States of America and Europe, seems an entirely justified response considering the turbulence in the Sunni Islamic world. The manner in which the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in Gaza was eased out of reckoning by Hamas, an organization that bases its claim to a Palestinian state on the complete destruction of Israel, was an early indicator of the upheavals that have crippled other countries of the region. Had Israel, for example, succumbed to earlier pressures to abandon its gains in the 1967 Six-Day War by abandoning the Golan Heights and sharing control over Jerusalem, the situation in the region would have become even more complicated. It would certainly have made Egypt and Jordan, the two neighbouring states Israel can loosely describe as non-hostile, far more vulnerable to radical pressures.

However, it is not Israel alone that will be decisive in coping with the new challenges posed by the redrawing of national boundaries. One of the factors that propelled the US into negotiating the agreement on nuclear capabilities with Iran was the belief that Tehran could be persuaded to play a more responsible future role. The US believes, maybe with a measure of naiveté, that 15 years of exposure to the world market forces will blunt the rough edges of the Shia theocracy. Such an assertion is contested by Israel that holds the view that the US has no conception of larger civilizational issues and particularly the irrelevance of a 15-year wait for an old country that, like India and China, is accustomed to longer historical cycles.

Whether the Israeli scepticism of Iran's intentions are valid or mischievously alarmist, there can be no denying the larger feeling in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that the coming decade will see both Iran and Turkey play larger roles in the troubled region. Maybe this, in turn, could lead to fratricidal, intra-Islamic conflicts and even a united front against the Jewish state. But even if Islamic State is decimated and Hamas and Hezbollah co-opted by the bigger Islamists, the constellation of forces will not be in the larger interests of India, unless of course it chooses to reduce itself into a non-Islamic supplicant or subordinate ally of Islamic hegemonism.

What should concern India is the larger trend of a pusillanimous Europe retreating into effete moralism. Germany's U-turn on the refugee question may have been guided by purely tactical considerations: accepting domestic discomfiture for the sake of retaining a leadership role in the European Union. But unless Germany moves quickly to fill the void created by the US's wariness of assuming a larger global role, the developments in West Asia may cast a menacing shadow on a larger region.

The turbulence in West Asia has left the region in a state of flux. Apart from Israel, there are, it would seem, few certitudes left. India will have to negotiate its way in this darkness and find partners that share some of its basic civilizational ground rules.


The Telegraph, September 11, 2015

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Emperor who is a byword for bigotry belongs firmly in the past

By Swapan Dasgupta

Had the municipality in a northern or central Indian town renamed the local Ghantaghar Chowk after former President APJ Abdul Kalam, it is unlikely the news would have featured in the ‘national’ media. Renaming streets and public buildings, especially those with a hint of the colonial past, is a bipartisan national preoccupation. The Victoria Terminus in Mumbai (earlier, Bombay) is now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus; Dalhousie Square in Kolkata (earlier, Calcutta) is now Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh; and St Thomas Mount Road in Chennai (earlier, Madras) is now Anna Salai. Occasionally, the renaming is accompanied by a touch of irony: in 1969, the Left-controlled Calcutta Corporation renamed Harrington Street, on which the US Consulate is located, Ho Chi Minh Sarani.
Nor is this renaming frenzy confined to India. Thanks to political turbulence, Europe (with the possible exception of Britain) has experienced unending name changes. Almost all the buildings and streets named after Lenin, Marx and Stalin — not to mention lesser apparatchiks — have been renamed, some even getting back their pre-Communist and pre-fascist identities. In that part of Poland which used to be East Prussia until 1945, every trace of the German past has been sought to be removed: Konigsberg is now Kaliningrad and Danzig is now Gdansk.
Some would doubtless argue that renaming buildings, roads and towns to something more in keeping with contemporary political fashion is a violation of history. Mercifully, history isn’t read by poring over atlases and street maps. Aurangzeb won’t be airbrushed out of the history books just because one of the principal avenues in New Delhi is no longer named after him. By that curious logic, the seminal although controversial role of Lord Curzon in modern Indian history would have been replaced by a chapter on the life of Kasturba Gandhi — and all because of a road renaming.
How we choose to name public places is important in establishing local and national identity. History, as disseminated by historians, is a trifle more complex than judging whether something of the past was good, bad or ugly. In the popular imagination, however, the past is a series of value judgments. People honour the great men and women of preceding generations with commemorations in public places. The less worthy aren’t necessarily wiped out from the collective memory; they aren’t accorded a place of honour.
Germany may be an exception. In modern Berlin there is nothing named after Adolf Hitler. Yet, the gruesome memory of the Third Reich is kept alive through commemorations of the victims of the Holocaust. “Where in the world,” asked a former Israeli ambassador to Germany in 2008 after attending a moving ceremony in memory of Hitler’s victims, “has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalize its own shame?”
Aurangzeb is part of our history, but doesn’t figure in the roll of honour.
Most countries don’t — not because they don’t remember but because they don’t want to be constantly reminded. Maybe the residents of Varanasi would disagree. There, a particularly disagreeable memory of Aurangzeb persists in the form of the walls of the old Vishwanath temple merging unhappily with the Mughal emperor’s insensate assertion of his fanaticism, not his piety.
Regardless of what some ‘progressive’ historians argue, the memory of Aurangzeb is deeply troubling for most Indians. In the popular imagination he is an earlier equivalent of the invader from Ghazni, who specialized in vandalising holy places. Such a perception may well disregard the complexities of power politics in late-medieval India, but it is nonetheless real. Aurangzeb’s iconoclasm has left a deep scar in the collective psyche and has contributed immeasurably to deepening an unfortunate sectarian divide. He doesn’t warrant being counted among India’s great and good.
The real problem was the location of Aurangzeb Road at the centre of national capital. Delhi’s history may well span the ages, but the Lutyens zone symbolises the power centre of independent India. Its ambience must be supra-local, embracing the national experience and not merely histories of the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal rule. An inspirational man from Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu who epitomized today’s modernist impulses has a better claim to be honoured in the Capital than an emperor who is a byword for bigotry.
There is history and there is a national roll of honour. Aurangzeb belongs firmly to the past.

Sunday Times of India, September 6, 2015