Rigour against communal dogma

Issue: 109

Talat Ahmed

bq. A review of Romila Thapar, Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (Verso, 2005), £17

On 6 December 1992 the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, north India, was demolished by a mob organised by the Bharati Janata Party (BJP). This was the ruling party of India from March 1998 until May 2004. The BJP was led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani, both members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a communalist organisation that promotes the notion of India as a ‘Hindu’ nation. From this stems a
pernicious ideology, ‘Hindutva’, which calls for a ‘return’ to Hindu values based on sacred Sanskrit texts.

The mosque was destroyed on the supposed belief that it was built on the site of a temple that had been desecrated by the Mughal Muslims and, moreover, is the birthplace of Ram, a Hindu god. Two years before, Advani began his infamous journey to Ayodhya from the port city of Somnath in Gujarat. The choice was
significant as the Somnath temple was subjected to a raid by a Muslim overlord from Afghanistan at the beginning of the 11th century. This is taken as proof of Islamic zeal, demagogy and intolerance in the face of a passive Hindu majority.

The Hindutva creed promotes an account of India’s past that is homogenous, monolithic and unmistakeably Hindu. All other religious and cultural traditions within India are viewed as at best marginal or inferior. In particular Islam is viewed with suspicion and presented as an alien and destructive force in Indian culture.
While the BJP was in power attempts were made to rewrite the history curriculum and in 2001 the Indian Educational Council began deleting certain passages from school textbooks.

One person who has questioned this ‘Hinduised’ version of history is the eminent Indian historian Romila Thapar. She has written extensively on Early India, documenting the myriad traditions,
languages and practices that have characterised Indian civilisation.1 Her refusal to bow down before communalist dogma has led to her being vilified by the Hindutva brigade in the US and India. She has been accused of treason and the denigration of Hinduism. In November 1999 she was ‘retired’ from the Prasar
Bharati Board in the BJP’s opening salvo to ‘saffronise’ key institutions, and in 2001 Hindutva ideologues demanded that she
be arrested.

Undaunted, Thapar has continued to research into different aspects of Indian history, employing diverse sources which she interrogates with rigour. This excellent book focuses on the raid of a temple in Somnath, Gujarat, in 1026. Thapar does not call into question the event itself. Instead her work probes how the event has been interpreted and remembered.

The temple in question was a Hindu shrine and the raid was orchestrated by a Muslim overlord from Afghanistan. This raid was undertaken by Mahmud of Ghazni, who is claimed to have come to India at the beginning of the 11th century as a conquering Turk and whose armies looted the temple, broke the idol inside and finally destroyed the temple structure in an act of religious frenzy against the infidel Hindus. This event has come to
represent a rupture in Indian civilisation with the first ‘invasion’ of an alien presence in India, that of Muslims. It is also taken as the root cause of Hindu-Muslim antagonism on the subcontinent and all subsequent history is to be understood and interpreted accordingly.

The evidence for this is taken from Turko-Persian sources, many of which were composed during Mahmud’s life, and their chroniclers were members of the Ghazni court. So there are the lyrical eulogies composed by the court poet, Farrukhi Sistani, who is claimed to have accompanied Mahmud on his expedition to Somnath.2 Similarly, later accounts of the raid focus on the quantity of wealth that was taken but also praise Mahmud for
destroying the idol and bringing the ‘true’ faith into India.3 These tend to exaggerate the amount of booty taken and are full of
embellishments about the extent of the raid and the size and importance of the temple.

As the centuries progress, new narratives are composed to describe other sultans conducting more raids on the site,
destroying the idol yet again and building a mosque on the remnants of the demolished temple. As Thapar states, with each account fantasy and glorification of the exploits of reigning sultans multiplied as revisions were made to earlier narratives reflecting contemporary demands.4 Despite the lack of coherency and logic
these narratives have been accepted as the authoritative version of events and their re-telling has crystallised notions of the ‘Hindu’ as the injured party and the ‘Muslim’ as the invading zealous defender of Islam.

This version was accepted by colonial narratives as it conveniently fitted their periodisation of Indian history into three
distinct phases: Ancient=Hindu; Medieval=Muslim; Modern=colonial. This arbitrary division allowed colonial officials of the early 19th century to emphasise hostility between Hindus and Muslims and in some cases present themselves as the protectors of Hindu culture.5

The subject of the raid and its apparent traumatic impact on the Hindu psyche was brought up in the House of Commons in 1843 by Lord Ellenborough who claimed that the gates of Somnath had been taken as a trophy by Mahmud to Ghazni and had to be returned by force in order to restore Hindu pride. The gates were brought back only to be found to contain no evidence of Indian
workmanship and so they are locked up in some storeroom in the Agra Fort to avoid further embarrassment (pp172-173). These
assumptions and prejudices were used by the colonial state to categorise Indians into their neat census surveys and present
Indian history as one characterised by permanent conflict between two irreconcilable and distinct communities.

In interrogating this version of history Thapar not only questions the sources such assumptions are based on but also looks to other material from the period in order to gain a fuller picture of events. The real power of her book is her use of Sanskrit sources. Hindutva ideologues claim Sanskrit to be the root of all Indian languages (so Urdu is conveniently excluded for its Perso-Arabic script and vocabulary). As such Sanskrit texts are
accepted as the unquestioned orthodoxy on Indian culture and civilisation. They are claimed to be authentic, indigenous and ‘pure’. However, what Thapar finds in these sources reveals a very different account of the Somnath temple incident and a fascinating picture begins to emerge.

She shows how the area around Somnath was an active and thriving centre of trade and commerce. It was the heart of sea
trade linking the Persian Gulf port towns with Goa and Cambay in South India and Somnath as the port in Gujarat. Consequently, city states and regional kingdoms developed as trade expanded
and various temples were built to provide places of worship for pilgrims and as reflections of the importance of a place and its ruler or benefactor (pp22-24, 28-29). Taxes were collected from pilgrims and were a lucrative source of wealth for any kingdom. As trade declined and rival rulers fought over the wealth, raids were a systematic feature of the region.

The evidence for this is provided in Sanskrit sources such as inscriptions and texts, which reveal that looting by local rajas was a recurring pattern—this would include attacks upon temples (pp78-79). Early Buddhist texts such as biographies and chronicles by Jaina scholars depict regular confrontations between rival religious sects of Jainas and followers of Shiva. The temple becomes a contested site for Shiva and Buddha iconography and the texts exhort the superiority of Jainism over the older Vedic beliefs (pp109-111).

Conspicuous by its absence in these sources is any mention of the Somnath raid or, if it is mentioned, it is one raid among several, not worthy of any specific merit. These findings lead Thapar to conclude that this episode did not signify a trauma so great that it continues to wound Hindus today. Many inscriptions
from the 12th century refer to the decline of the Somnath temple as stemming from its age, mismanagement and lack of
maintenance (pp82-83). If there was a decline in pilgrims and traders this would explain its deterioration.

There is also a wide range of bilingual inscriptions dating from the 13th century which are in Sanskrit and Arabic. One shows a local raja, Sri Chada, granting a ship owner and trader from Hormuz land on the estates of the temple in order to build a mosque (pp84-87). The local ruler made provisions for the maintenance of
the mosque and provided generously for teachers, daily worship, the reading of the Koran and celebration of festivals. What is
more, these inscriptions show no evidence of animosity as a consequence of the raid on Somnath (pp87-92).

At the local level, popular ballads from the 13th and 14th centuries narrate stories of saints who were and still are revered by Hindus and Muslims alike (pp147-150). Thapar’s work shows how temple desecration preceded the arrival of Islam to India. Moreover, when Mahmud returned to Ghazni he is reported to have attacked an Ismaili Muslim ruler causing much devastation in Sind. In Multan, the Ismaili mosque was attacked by Mahmud
and replaced with a Sunni one, but when the ruler retracted from his conversion to Sunni Islam Mahmud’s armies again
attacked the town, this time murdered all the Ismaili Muslims (pp48-51). In the process of this raid Mahmud acquired greater wealth.

This demonstrates the hostility of Sunni Islam to sects of Ismailis, Shias and Sufis, who were all seen as heretics. As Thapar
argues, there was no homogenised Muslim identity in this period any more than a fully formed, fixed, exclusive Hindu entity. Hindutva ideologues glorify Sanskrit knowledge and literature as
representing the ‘true’ Hindu/Indian history. The fact that no major source of this type paints the incident as an epic of
conquest or resistance for any homogenised grouping in itself proves the fallacy of Hindu communalism.

Thapar locates ideas of religion within a complex, nuanced narrative that incorporates political power, access to economic resources, and a mixing of cultural traditions in addition to religious iconography. Her work demonstrates how there were many layers of interaction, accommodation and integration in this
period and she articulates most eloquently how reductive, crude and ahistorical fixed notions of religious identity were to early
and medieval India.

This has immense relevance today. Not only was the temple rebuilt in 1951 based on the spurious claims to have occupied a
special ‘hurt’ for Hindus, but the idea of temple desecration by Muslims is used by the BJP and its Hindutva acolytes to
marginalise and oppress Muslims. It is also used to create a mythological community of Hindus that is far from reality. Thapar
has done a great service in sifting through a range of historical sources to challenge accepted versions. We should admire
Thapar for her courage and also salute her dogged commitment to academic rigour, honesty and refusal to bow before
communalist hatred.

1: See R Thapar, Early India: From Origins to AD 1300 (Allen Lane, 2002).
2: R Thapar, Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (Verso, 2005), p44.
3: As above, pp48-51.
4: As above, p71.
5: See J Mill, History of India, 6 vols (London, 1923).