Sh. Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. Elst, known for his support for the ‘Out of India’ theory related to Indo-Aryan migration, became identified with Hindutva politics during the 1990s, following his support for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s position on the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya. We speak to him on various issues, here is the audio interview :
Below is the summarized English transcript of the interview, his key points are mentioned in bullets :
–Namaskar sir, we welcome you to Bharat. Thank you for speaking to Hindupost. You are visiting us after demonetization has happened here. There’s a lot of news in the media, how do you perceive this move by the government?
Sh. Elst –
- I am incompetent on the economics of it. Little to say on that.
- I have been given the impression that many people are taking hardships in their stride because they like the sight of more powerful people suffering.
- But also, people in black money economy, like women traffickers, terrorists, like surrender by Maoist terrorists, they really feel the heat.
- Dealers of black money, real criminals that are hurt might obscure the fact that many ordinary people are also hurt. Its a great inconvenience. Many people still live in the cash economy and people are forced to open bank accounts which is a bit unfair to people who don’t do anything illegal.
- Moreover, many of these are small time businesses which are traditionally BJP voters. BJP doesn’t care for its vote bank very well, neither this nor the Hindutva vote bank either.
- But I am more sensitive to the political effect, coming just on the heels of surgical strikes against Pakistani terrorist camps, this strongly confirms Modi’s image as a strong man, a man who can deliver, who dares do things, and so that perhaps explains his victory in local elections of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
- But as I said, my knowledge of economics is very limited. The circles I do frequent are very unrepresentative in many respects, starting with the fact that I only visit cities. So this is a very limited first impression.
–Sir, on your blog, one of the latest articles is ‘ Modi Government as an exponent of BJP secularism‘. In that, you have mentioned that ‘ the so called Hindu extremist party ( as labelled by media) has no Hindu agenda ‘. So, how do you think that the BJP today has moved on from Jan Sangh, how is it different from Jan Sangh?
Sh. Elst –
- Jan Sangh was originally supposed to be a Hindu party. It was supposed to represent Hindu voice in politics which Hindus didn’t have anymore after the Hindu Mahasabha was discredited for Mahatma Gandhi murder by one of its members.
- You had Shyama Prasad Mukherji who was a leader then without a party.
- But then, very quickly, the ‘Hindu’ essence was de-emphasized and replaced by ‘India’. The terminology was about ‘India’ rather than about Hindu Dharma. ‘Bhartiya‘ Jan Sangh, ‘Rashtriya‘ Swayamsevak Sangh….
- I have written dozens of times that ‘Nationalism’ is a mis-statement of Hindu concerns. But back then, at least they were knowing what they were doing, and the word ‘India’ was used an an agreed substitute for the word ‘Hindu’. But later the RSS, BJP started to take this lettering more seriously. For example, they started to say -“the word ‘Hindu’ doesn’t mean anything other than ‘Indian’, so Hindu doesn’t have any religious content, doesn’t make any religious difference from Christians & Muslims.”
- Now they say – “Christians are in fact Christie Hindus and Muslims are Mohammadi Hindus.”
- I don’t think anything is gained by this play with definitions. Hindu has a meaning distinct from ‘Indian’ and vice-versa. So when you mean Hindu, its better to say Hindu.
- The shift from Jan Sangh to BJP was an important moment when the Hindu element was de-emphasized. But even within the history of BJP, there has been evolution.
- The goal of Hindu Rashtra was very much present in the Hindu movement of different starts, in the fifties and sixties. It is no longer there at all.
- Of course, western watchers of Indian Politics keep on saying ‘ BJP are Hindu fanatics’ and the voice of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1924 is still attributed to BJP today. This is complete nonsense.
- There are 2 contradictory opinions about BJP today. One is ‘ They are Hindu Fanatics who are strategically going for their fanatical Hindu goals’. The other opinion is ‘BJP are time servers who just play the religious card’.
- Recent developments have made very clear which of the two they are.
– Sir, do you think there is no real Hindu voice in the political spectrum today?
Sh. Elst –
- Perhaps on occasions, some individuals..
- In the beginning of the BJP government, people like Jyoti Niranjan made some noises, but they were typically marginal voices, untrained in politics and communications, who said silly things. Those voices are making themselves heard precisely because they lack leadership. If there’s a wise leader who goes for their goals in the right mature way, then those people will not feel the need to come up with their cruder versions.
- I don’t support these extreme noises, but I do understand the general concern that there are things for Hindu Dharma to be done. And if they are not done now, when there is a so called Hindu party with clear majority, then they’ll never be done.
– Sir, don’t you think the entire narrative of any issue to begin with, what we used to call the center has shifted to the left? Like, earlier the mainstream media used to call the cow protecting Hindus as extortionists etc, today, the narrative has moved from there to ‘What is wrong in eating beef’. So, don’t you think that every issue related to Hindu ethos, the narrative that used to begin from the center, now begins from left itself?..
Sh. Elst –
- Right, apart from any learned criticism of the terms ‘Left’ & ‘Right’, its really a foreign imposition, but assuming the terms for now, the left move in the academia was made in 1960s, this had to do partly with party politics. Indira Gandhi was in power struggle, badly needed support of communists and she made an effective deal that she would leave to the left the whole whole cultural educational sector as long as they supported her political ambitions. Since then, there as a perfect embargo against rightist writers in the ideological sensitive sectors, mainly sociology and history.
- However, it started affecting Congress a little later. For example, it was Congress politicians in the 1980s who started the Ayodhya movement. It was rumored that Rajiv Gandhi would himself lay the foundation of the Ayodhya site. It was not unthinkable that time.
- What polarized the opinion landscape partly was precisely this Ayodhya controversy, when the JNU historians said in 1989 very firmly that ‘there had never been a temple there, this is a fake Hindutva propaganda’. The narrative became far more ideological then.
- But active Marxist polarization of the opinion landscape is only one factor, at the same time, within Congress, first of all, the percentage of Hindu voters has gone down and percentage of Christian & Muslim voters has increased.
- Secondly, those Hindus also became less Hindu. They were polarized along caste lines, reservations etc. Then today, far more important factor is the cultural Americanization. Hindus are becoming far less Hindu. So many young kids have no idea who Hanuman is, or many people are no longer concerned about mother cow….
–Sir, coming back to the government, what are the three things that you think Modi government should do to bring parity, specially in policy, to Hindus?
Sh. Elst –
- Well, first lets say what they should not particularly do..
- The Common Civil Code issue, which of course they have as a part of their program since beginning. In principle it is correct, nevertheless it is not a very important issue for Hindus. You see, much is made of this issue. From the view point of equality between men and women, it is a real issue. But from the view point of Hindu traditions, even every caste/ community had its own code. This is a secular issue rather than a Hindu issue. For Hindus, it is not a priority.
- Its better to focus on important issues, which just happen to be far easier. A very important one is Article 30 of the constitution which discriminates against Hindus in education. Well, at least that is the current interpretation. Because if it had been known to discriminate against Hindus, I am sure that Constituent Assembly would never have voted for it. Under Nehruvian impulse, it was gradually interpreted as meaning that the minorities were given rights to set up subsidized schools where they could freely discriminate in favour of their religion while Hindus were not given those rights. Whereas, the Constituent Assembly probably meant that these rights for Hindus were obvious and that minorities were also given these rights. There should simply be equality.
- Perhaps, you don’t even need to legislate on it. There’s absolutely no excuse for Government for waiting on it. The government should have approached the Supreme Court asking the un-authoritative interpretation of this law. Very probably, the SC would already have said that ‘all rights apply equally to everybody in India’. However, this wasn’t done and they are not making any move in that direction. What could perhaps bring home to them the importance of this issue is, this constitutional article serves the basis of a law ‘Right To Education Act’, the negative effects of which are felt by the majority today. Hundreds of Hindu schools have closed down.
- The argument of BJP supporters is always ‘first we need development…’. Even from the development point of view, let them explain to me what is the gain for development of the closure of hundreds of schools? Even from pure development angle, this should be a priority. At any rate, this is blatant injustice, it can never be justified and this law should be amended.
–Sir, the pillars of democracy, judiciary, media, bureaucracy etc are not aligned to the thought of parity to Hindus. Like last few judgments by the Supreme Court on Hindu festivals like Dahi Handi (you have a similar festival in Spain of forming human pyramids which even UNESCO has appreciated!), Jallikattu etc show that the pillars of democracy are not aligned to this thought of parity. So may be that’s why Modi government is not able to do it, because may be they think that once it goes to judiciary, it might be hammered back… What do you think about this?
Sh. Elst –
- I am not so sure it will be hammered back.
- You see, there’s not much of a system in the judgments by the courts, so you might have a surprise verdict in favour of the Hindu cause in this case.
- The judges also read papers etc, they are susceptible to outside influences. Sometimes, certainly not always, their judgments are in line with the powers that be, leading in fact to suspicions from outsiders that they are on the take or may have been pressurized into giving judgments in line with Government policy. I don’t think it goes that far, but nevertheless I think now would be a good occasion for the BJP Government to put them in the mood to give judgments more understanding of Hindu concerns.
–Sir, What are the other two things government should do?
- The other obvious things is temple management.
- It is largely an issue of states, states have different arrangements.
- In some states like Madhya Pradesh, government is working in the right direction.
- The BJP government of Rajasthan ruled that deities are minors, therefore temples / deities owning property is not right. Possessions of minors should be administered by the government and they expropriated the temples, then immediately started doing business with those lands / selling off lands.
- Imagine if this was done by Congress government, immediately there would be protests… Subramaniam Swamy will start a court case. But now, all pro BJP people are all holding their peace and just letting it happen.
- I understand that some Hindu radicals say ‘its better not to have a BJP government’. I will not go that far, this government, by simply by being there ( it doesn’t have to do anything), it has certain good effects. For example, I have been told very confidentially by insiders, both from Tamil Nadu & West Bengal, that police plans to crack down on mafia, terrorist cells were sabotaged by Congress government earlier. Now BJP isn’t really doing anything, but it allows police a free hand at least. In that sense, BJP government is still a good thing.
- But from Hindu perspective, some atrocious things have happened and from that respect, BJP is not so desirable.
- One more thing that the people feel strongly about is the territorial integrity of Bharat. In terms of cracking down on terrorism, there more or less the government is doing its duty. With the surgical strikes inside Pakistan, that is much better… commendable. But more ambitious goals like full integration of Kashmir in Bharat, in principle of course I am for it, but I wouldn’t know how to do it, because the resistance on the ground against the perceived Hindu government is quite substantial.
– Thank you Sir, you have researched a lot on Ayodhya Ram Temple issue and you have been strongly associated with this movement. What do you think is the ideal way forward?
Sh. Elst –
- The ideal way forward is first of all to understand that there isn’t really a controversy.
- You see, the essence of the matter is so simple. In fact, if required, few Muslim leaders can understand this.
- This is not a Muslim place, it is a Hindu place. No Muslim ever goes on pilgrimage to Ayodhya.
- While Muslims are being actively supported in their pilgrimage to Mecca, I just saw the Haj house outside the Kolkata airport. Hindus need not be pampered to that extent may be. At least, they should be free to go for pilgrimage to Ayodhya.
- All those who ask me who does the site belong to, my simple answer is that it belongs to the community that pays attention to it, that gets stored by it. In this case, it is clearly the Hindu community.
- Therefore, the whole history of Ayodhya is not so important. Yes, there was a temple underneath it and it has archaeologically been fully certified. The history shows there was a Hindu temple there but ultimately that’s not so important. The issue simply is, who treats this place as a pilgrimage site ‘today’? Hindus go on pilgrimage there ‘today’! Muslims don’t ‘today’. Therefore, the place should be left to the Hindus.
- In the normal course of things, this should be settled in court. Muslims are not even staking a serious claim on this site anymore, which was also the case in the beginning.
–Sir, this concept of Akhand Bharat, do you think the Modi government somewhere, via the issue of Balochistan, has brought up the possibility of bringing this narrative again, or do you see this just as crack down on terrorism?
Sh. Elst –
- I used to like this statement by Murali Manohar Joshi. A Pakistani politician said ‘ Pakistan is not complete without Kashmir’, and he replied ‘And Bharat is not complete without Pakistan’.
- But practically speaking, the Muslim community has been divided in three more or less equal parts, which is what Maulana Azad greatly deplored about partition. Practically, this is an advantage for Hindus.
- When Muslim League had passed Pakistan resolution, Dr. Ambedkar defended it. But he defended it in a logical way, he was for complete exchange of Muslim vs. Hindu population, which was sabotaged by Mahatma Gandhi. And so, what we got was half of the population exchange and more than a million people killed. That’s what the apostle of non-violence achieved. So it was far better to have a consistent, far more peaceful arrangement that Dr. Ambedkar had worked out.
–Sir, you have also written that the only Hindutva thing that AB Vajpayee government had done was, Murali Manohar Joshi’s initiative of change in the text books, but you have called it clumsy…
Sh. Elst –
- Yes, I have called it a ‘horror show of incompetence’. It was very easy for the changed Congress government to replace those text books.
- In fact, one of the text books was quite good, it was on medieval India by Meenakshi Jain.
- I was at a subsequent Indologists’ Conference and a session was devoted to the rewriting of the text books. Everybody was attacking Hindus and Meenakshi Jain. Most of the Indologists are united in either keeping their mouths shut but mostly very vocally anti Hindu. They were very condescending. There the message was ‘Hindus are unspeakably evil, fortunately they are also abysmally stupid’.
- In case of Meenakshi’s book, they were nitpicking and trying to find faults in it.
- Anyway, since you asked this question, so what went wrong…. well, the Hindu side had no researchers at its disposal. The RSS does not create expertise, they have never groomed scholarship, they certainly never paid for it. When the enemy is working overtime to gain control of whole research sector, you have to take initiatives to develop the counterweight. This the Sangh Parivar has never done. They think scholars can be hired in the street. That’s not true, it takes a long time to build them. Any Indologist or Historian ‘suspected’ of pro-Hindu opinion has no chance of making a career!
- Today, of course, the left is no longer where it used to be. But its not the case that BJP is actively trying to promote its own scholars. But nevertheless, BJP being in power has some effects. Like the whole anti Modi intellectuals like Harsh Mander, Teesta Setalvad etc are no longer in picture. It is good but the policy of promoting objective Hindu history has not happened yet.
–Sir, there is this rise of rightist politics in Europe again, may be because of influx of so many Muslim refugees there. Do you see a global trend of challenging the communist narrative and do Hindus have a learning in it?
Sh. Elst –
- The terms ‘Right’ and ‘Left’are also effectively used by the actors concerned. But still, it creates wrong impressions. You see, ‘Right’ used to mean pro monarchy, pro dictatorship, ‘Left’ used to mean pro equality and to certain extent also pro freedom, pro democracy.
- Bharat has an advantage because it has a clear alternative – Dharma. So it does have an ideological backbone. The so called European identity is much debated. So finding an ideological backbone in Europe is difficult because it is vague.
- Regarding foreigners in general, people are now used to seeing them. The problem is as the number of Muslims grow, their assertiveness also grows. The problem of Islam is specific and its becoming worse.
- Here we have the BJP that keeps denying the problem.
- A very important voice is of Muslims who have left Islam, gradually more of them are starting to see facts.
– Sir, you have been very vocally critical of Islam. We remember the India Ideas Conclave incident of 2014. Do you think that there still is no real freedom of speech and growth, when it comes to logical criticism of religion?
Sh. Elst –
- For Muslims, it is of course very dangerous to criticize Islam. People like Taslima Nasreen, Ayaan Ali, they have taken a very bold step.
- For people outside Islam like me, it is a bit dangerous but relatively easier.
- I said the truth, I don’t regret it. I was troubled not so much by Muslims, but by Hindu organizers. But that is quite typical, in my country too, criticism of Islam is not so much punished by Muslims as by local authorities.
- Ultimately, I personally do not want to convince Muslims to leave Islam. They need to do it themselves.
- Governments should encourage them, but many governments are supporting orthodox Islamists just to retain control. We must give adequate facilities to Muslims who take the risk of criticizing Islam.
- Its easier to be nice to Muslims. You see, all the western interventions in the Muslim countries have been made by pro-Islam / Muslim politicians. Even when they praised Islam, they killed millions of Muslims in Islamic countries like Libya, Afganistan, Iraq etc. On the contrary, critics of Islam like Sitaram Goel etc, never harmed a Muslim. I am in the favour of speaking the truth while keeping maximum peace with Muslims.
- Saying the truth about Islam is important not to convince Muslims, but to make our own people conscious.
- Decades after the war, when the environment was peaceful, it was then that various people in Europe liberated themselves from Christianity. Few go to church now…
- If something sudden doesn’t happen in Bharat now, I can see Muslim majority here. What that means for non -Muslims can be easily seen from Bangladesh & Pakistan. I am clearly not asking to throw all Muslims in the Indian Ocean, all I am saying is let Muslims outgrow Islam. And it is not as difficult as it seems. There is a certain objective evolution that can happen, internet plays a big role… It happened with Catholics in my country.
–Sir, asking you a personal question. You write so much on Hindutva, you never thought of coming into the Hindu fold personally?
Sh. Elst –
- I did consider this in my youthful enthusiasm long ago, and I did ask my senior in 1990. But he didn’t believe in it, though he didn’t say it in too many words…
- By now I guess, I am perfectly ok. The truth is universal, the same insights are available to everybody. Its the belief in Jesus or Mohammad that keeps you away from these beliefs. But these Hindu beliefs are natural, and you can always open yourself to them and grow in them.
(For full detailed interview, please listen to the audio link above, we thank Sh. Koenraad Elst for speaking to us).
Did you like this report? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.