Nagothu Naresh Kumar


It’s a good time to be a populist. Across the world, populism has made significant strides. Sanctimonious populism coupled with ironclad convictions seems to be the staple diet of contemporary politics.


The emergence of right-wing populism, nationalism and anti-Muslim politics is not confined to Europe but is manifest in other regions as well. Likewise, illiberal nationalism is not exclusive to Muslim-majority states but is also evident in India in the form of the chauvinistic Hindutva movement–the Hindu nationalist ideology.


A concatenation of factors—including the threat of terrorism and anxiety over a massive wave of immigrants from the Middle East, combined with the strong belief in the inefficacy of the EU—has provided a fertile environment for right-wing populists in Europe. In India, the Hindu nationalist project has, since its inception, aspired toward sociocultural homogenization and claims that Hindu culture and religion form the nucleus of India. This project of political Hindutva is more than a century old and has undergone several different phases. Meanwhile in the United States, there has been a gradual increase in xenophobic and chauvinistic nationalism.


Armed with moral rectitude as well as certitude, populists in Europe seek to speak for the ‘general will’ of the people and to protect what they perceive as their western heritage. This nostalgic populism lays emphasis on protecting certain ways of life in Europe and displays hostility towards Jews, immigration, and Islam. In the United States, its equivalent is Trumpism: a cocktail of xenophobic nationalism and demagoguery. Populists are also wont to use democratic institutions to gain power and curtail civil liberties. After assuming power through democratic mechanisms, Hindu nationalists, for example, have attempted to weaken or obstruct aspects of democracy such as freedom of expression.


In addition to propagating antipluralism, populist actors also seek to portray themselves as victims. Majorities act like mistreated minorities. For the Hindutva, the abiding tolerance of Hindus is only matched by the egregious ravages of Muslim rule in India, victimizing Hindus for centuries. For Vivekananda, the paterfamilias of the Hindutva project of the nineteenth century, there was no room for weakness in the process of nation building. Hindus had to shed their effeminate nature, which figured as a prominent bugbear, and become virile and strong. The ignominy of being a slave nation could only be countervailed by an idolatrous devotion to all things masculine.


The totalitarian politics of the 1930s and 1940s in Europe left a strong imprint of antitotalitarianism on European political institutions. The architects of post-war Europe strongly distrusted the idea of popular sovereignty. Hence, parliaments were gradually emasculated and checks and balances robustly strengthened. In short, distrust in unrestrained and untrammeled popular sovereignty was part of the foundations of post-war European politics. The obverse to this is that a political order based on wariness toward popular sovereignty is always vulnerable to populists speaking against a system that appears to be contrived against popular participation.


Until recently, many scholars assumed that nationalism would taper off and that the hold of religion would slacken. Both of these assumptions have been vehemently disproven in the Indian context. The tumultuous relationship between Muslims and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has to do with Hindutva. Though BJP came into existence only in 1980, its intellectual and doctrinal antecedents can be traced back to the nineteenth century. The intellectual history of the Hindutva ideologies forms the focus for the eclectic and prescient oeuvre of Jyotirmaya Sharma, professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, India. Sharma historicizes the actualization of a bunch of inchoate and exclusionary ideas into the most politically successful undertaking in modern history—the Hindu nationalist project and, by extension, the BJP.


The Hindu nationalist project seeks to portray Hindu civilization as indigenous to India and to depict an intimate and indissoluble relationship between Hindu culture and Indian territory. This project of ossified identities is only matched by the Hindutva’s cultural philistinism. In its effort to reshape the educational system and curricula, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) seeks to interpret history in such a way that it seeks to equate the decline of Hindu society with the coming of Islam to India.


The Hindutva movement also harps on perceived historical grievances and seeks to redress them by mobilizing the serried ranks of RSS and its ancillary organizations. A prevalent trope in the Hindutva enterprise is that of Muslim dogmatism on the one hand and the assimilative and tolerant Hindu civilization on the other, which is also seen as part of a continuous struggle in which the Hindus are perennial victims and Muslims the archetypal aggressors. Tolerance is deemed as an innate quality of Hinduism and Hindus by extension are steadfastly beholden to toleration. It follows that any conflict or discord must have come from outside, since tolerance was essential to Hindu civilization.


There is also a tendency to make a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. The former is perceived to be tolerant, plural, eclectic and all-encompassing while the latter is depicted as a distorted and aberrant manifestation of Hinduism. Sharma’s work throws out this distinction, while showing that there is more to Hindutva than periodical outbursts of unremitting intolerance. For the Hindu nationalists, issues of identity and nationalism are inevitably entwined. The nation is, in turn, the ultimate fruition of Hindu aspirations.


Sharma’s book A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism shows how in the nineteenth century, the religious vocabulary was transformed into a rigid and monochromatic version of Hinduism which left little scope for diversity of opinion or ritual. Myths and legends were excised, and any local manifestations were treated as deviations.

Swami Vivekananda is the father of political Hinduism, argues Sharma.


Jyotirmaya Sharma is professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, India. His recent publications include Cosmic Love and Human Apathy: Swami Vivekananda and the Restatement of Religion (Harper Collins, 2013), A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism (Yale University Press, 2013), Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism (Harper Collins, 2015); and Terrifying Vision: M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS and India (Penguin/Viking, 2007). An edited volume titled Grounding Morality: Freedom, Knowledge and the Plurality of Cultures (co-edited with A. Raghuramaraju) was published by Routledge in 2010.


–Nagothu Naresh Kumar


INTERVIEWER: Welcome to the Global History Forum, Professor Sharma.




INTERVIEWER: Can you shed some light on the area of research that you are involved in?


SHARMA: Well, I work on Indian intellectual history currently. For the past fifteen years, I have been working on what has now become a quartet of books on questions of the genealogy of Hindu identities, Hindu nationalism and the history, politics and concepts that circumscribe these questions. Three volumes of the quartet have already been published. I am now working on the last volume. That is what occupies me currently.


INTERVIEWER: In one of your books, you draw a parallel between your work and that of the Japanese historical sociologist Eiji Oguma. Can you elaborate on that?


SHARMA: Eiji Oguma wrote this fantastic book called A Genealogy of ‘Japanese’ Self-images. I met him in Japan in 2008, by which time the first two volumes of my quartet were already published. Neither of us had read the other. Therefore, we exchanged our respective books and read them. We also had a few long conversations. We realized that Japan and India were increasingly moving toward a similar kind of inflamed, exaggerated, debilitating and toxic nationalism. What was also common to both these nationalisms was the appeal to a past that was defined largely in terms that were religious. We became good friends. Of course, Eiji is more colorful than I am. He is part of a rock band and dresses up like the Beatles. In comparison, I am very colorless and boring. But we both believe in telling a good story.


INTERVIEWER: Your work on Hindutva is influential and has generated discussion. What kind of methodology do you use and how do you draw from different disciplines?


SHARMA: Thank you for suggesting that my work on Hindutva has been influential. But has it generated any serious discussion? I don’t think so. There have been reviews in newspapers and magazines, but barring a few comments, there has hardly been any serious engagement with the ideas it proposes in India. There are several reasons for it, but it is not my business here to discuss those reasons.


Turning to your question about disciplines, in India this whole question of disciplines was originally meant merely as a bureaucratic convenience to disburse funds. But very soon it became a means for contest for power, turf battles, and, more significantly, a means of arbitrary exclusion. When one does intellectual history, the segregation between history, philosophy, sociology and political science, or the other disciplines within humanities is a false one. It is the question or the problem that determines where one looks for answers – not even answers. One looks for illumination and clarity beyond disciplinary confines.


More importantly, academic writing in India has had three major problems. The first is the stranglehold of ideologies and ideologues. Being mesmerized by fashionable theories and trends is the second issue. The baleful shadow of politics – and here I don’t just mean the politically motivated academic bureaucracy alone, but also theories of victimhood, extremes of identity politics as well – is the third problem. As a result, academic writing does not reach a wider public. In any country, the number of people who read serious nonfiction is a small one. But in a country as large as India, it is even smaller. There is a misconception that serious and profound ideas have to be inaccessible. I believe that any piece of honest intellectual history has to be accessible. In order to do so, it must draw from a variety of sources. Above all, it must tell a good story. A good story sometimes provokes, often unsettles, occasionally reassures but always impels the reader to want to know more. It need not have a conventional beginning, a middle and an end. Stories that intellectual historians tell sometimes are open-ended. But at the same time narrative structures are very important: like poetry, they must engage in the conversation of humankind.


To return to your question of methodology, if one has to use such a weighty term as ‘methodology’, all I do is ask: “Am I telling a story which will interest somebody other than just me or other academic writers?” Bernard Henri-Levy in France is someone who is serious and popular. In more recent years, Michael Puett, the Harvard historian, has written an immensely important, serious and popular book on Chinese philosophers. Closer to home, Ramachandra Guha is serious and popular. Akshay Mukul’s recent book on the Gita Press is serious, significant and has earned popular acclaim. For free and critical thinking to survive, these writers must share shelf-space and mind-space with a Chetan Bhagat or a Paulo Coelho. I feel immensely proud when I see my books being sold at airports and railway stations. They tell stories of a different kind.


INTERVIEWER: You have written about Hindu identity and its genealogy, charting, some believe, a new path for its intellectual history. How did you come to write on this topic and what triggered it?


SHARMA: The obvious triggers were the Hindu-Muslim riots following the felling of the Babri Mosque in 1992 and similar riots in 2002 that followed the burning of pilgrims on a train in the town of Godhra in Gujarat. Apart from the usual “law and order” narrative that accompanies such conflagrations, these riots raised some very important questions. These riots were not by any stretch of the imagination the first nor the most fierce and protracted. The Partition of India into India and Pakistan witnessed unprecedented carnage. But 1992 and 2002 were decisive because they made a few people, and I count myself among them, question the myth of the tolerant, peaceful, non-violent, other-worldly, spiritually-inclined, non-proselytizing and non-materialistic Hindu.


The dominant narratives of the day sought to explain a certain kind of aggressive Hindu nationalism in four ways. First, that nationalism does attain a certain kind of malignancy especially when identity politics comes to the fore, so it is but natural for nationalisms to attain this kind of malignancy that one saw in the violence of 1992 and 2002. The second set of explanations was that what was being witnessed was really a fight between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. The good guys were those recognized as such by official Indian nationalism and its nationalist historians and the bad guys were those who represented religious nationalism but also everyone who opposed the official nationalism. The third explanation was a combination of the first two, inspired by Benedict Anderson and his “imagined communities” argument: that it is but natural for post-colonial societies to imagine a past, which has something to do with reclaiming a continuous, seamless, and, blemishless past, and to model the present in terms of this imagined past. Another set of explanations sought to portray the whole Hindu nationalist enterprise as a modernist one, arguing that Hindu nationalism was essentially a combination of modern nationalism with its inherent streak of Romanticism wrapped in indigenous clothes. Adherents of this view argued for a return to certain kind of brutal nativism.


I had a certain discomfort with all these explanations. They depended on either easy binaries or mere name-calling. In certain cases, it was a case of intellectual laziness. Two major themes emerged from the explanations I have just cited. One was the idea that modern India was only colonial and post-colonial India. Nothing else mattered. These explanations gave the impression that India’s rupture with its colonial past was so decisive that no sense of this past was really necessary. The second was that the anti-colonial, secular and communal elements of Indian nationalism be separated by clear, distinct and identifiable lines and be boxed into categories that were self-evident.


When I began writing these books on Hindu nationalism and Hindu identity, I was preoccupied by the question of whether it was possible to construct a genealogy of Hindu identity that does three things. First, to take complexity, paradoxes and irony seriously. Second, to map the distance between Hindu identity as understood in all its forms in the last two centuries and the distance between its precolonial past and its colonial and post-colonial present. This has often been conflated as a story of the colonization, modernity, and the semitization of Hinduism. In other words, not to reduce all the issues that concern the questions and conflicts governing contemporary Hindu identity into a story of a perversion or a deviation or a Fall from a pure, unalloyed and glorious Hinduism. The rise of Hindu nationalism, then, has to be explained in terms of the politics of the accretion of Hindu identity and its political uses. And third, to question the Hindu nationalist assertion that definitions of nationalism and identity in India are inextricably linked with the recognition of Hinduism as the defining identity marker. For them, the question of identity is an issue that is effortlessly settled in favor of a clearly delineated Hindu identity, something that renders all those Hindus who do not subscribe to this shrunken definition of Hindu identity, and, Muslims and Christians, as “outsiders”, acceptable only when they claim allegiance to this truncated and ethically limiting idea of “national culture”. These are the concerns that went into the first volume, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism.


INTERVIEWER: How was the book received?


SHARMA: It earned me enemies among Hindu nationalists and cost me some friends from all other sides of the ideological spectrum. Of course, the Hindu right was upset for obvious reasons. But also those on the Left and some liberals were upset. They objected to Dayanand Saraswati, Aurobindo Ghosh and Swami Vivekananda being relegated from the pantheon of the “good guys” of official Indian nationalism to the ranks of Hindu nationalists. The inclusion of Vivekananda is to this day contested, not very elegantly or satisfactorily, but it continues to rankle.


INTERVIEWER: What are the crucial attributes of Hindutva, and how has it emerged as one of the most politically successful projects?


SHARMA: These are two very different questions. As an intellectual historian, I am less interested in the fate of political formations that subscribe to a particular ideology and gain electoral success. There is a place for that, but it is something that does not excite me intellectually.


The first part of the question is challenging. Let me first clarify that I do not consider Hindutva to be a deviant, aberrant and distorted form of the entity that we have come to know as Hinduism. Hindutva is the politically dominant face of Hinduism in contemporary India, though not at all the only face. Having said that, the two central features that define Hindutva are its fear of complexity and its distrust of democracy.


INTERVIEWER: How did you go about studying this genealogy of Hindu identity? What conceptual problems did you face?


SHARMA: What binds Hindu nationalism are not deep doctrinal or metaphysical issues. Politics, along with very human and existential questions, are at the core of its existence. As with all models of inflamed nationalism, there is also a sense of inferiority, fear of complexity and an irrational urge to impose one’s beliefs on others through violence.


The Western idea of nationalism mandated that every nation must have a core or a center or an essence. For India, it could not have been modern science and technology because the West had stolen a march ahead of India in this respect. Nor could a slave nation claim bravery, physical force and the strength of arms as its essence.


Religion came to the rescue of this nascent nationalism in the nineteenth century. Religion and spirituality were cast in the role of the core, the center, the essence of the nation. They also became the symbolic core around which the future free India would fabricate its destiny. But this religion could no longer be scores of sects or doctrinal systems loosely held together by the most tenuous of threads. Neither could it be folk or tribal or popular religion, replete with practices, customs and rituals that could differ from village to village, region to region. This religion had to be modern, scientific and rational. The religion that existed before the nineteenth century had too much color and too much character. But more significantly, it was grounded in a social system that had begun to crumble. Before its restatement in the nineteenth century, there were dimensions of this religion that had political manifestations and this helped keep a social system and social structure intact. But in its heterodox forms, it did provide genuine guidance, peace, solace and voice to ordinary people. The scientific religion that the nineteenth-century nationalists envisioned would be a faith that was purged of its Celtic and ritualistic elements entirely.


In addition, the attempt was to construct a religion, which is compatible with state power, but also one that would be in the constant and abiding service of state power. Elements such as love, irony, humor, sarcasm, complexity, paradox, eroticism, laughter, joy and freedom potentially have tremendous power to question and disrupt state power. The nineteenth-century restatement of Hinduism as a scientific and rational religion obviously found these elements threatening and objectionable. Under the pressures of nationalism and ensnared by an uncritical and unreflective modernity, Hinduism transformed itself into a dull, monochromatic and unexciting idea of a religion in the service of sovereignty.


INTERVIEWER: Devoid of emotions?


SHARMA: Devoid of emotions, yes, but it was also deeply fearful of emotions. Fearful of any disruption that can be brought about by anyone questioning the status quo, anyone expressing doubt and anyone suggesting that there need not be a single calcified core of the nation. Any idea of complexity had to be spurned. The religion in service of the state that was constructed in the nineteenth century, then, had an anti-democratic impulse from the very beginning. I do not mean democracy in the sense of the majoritarian buffoonery that we see today. Democracy in the sense of free speech, free ideas and the protection of citizens against arbitrary power. Also, in the sense of existence of liberal institutions. In other words, an anti-democratic impulse is built into the DNA of the Hindu nationalist project of which religion is the core. And that religion is assumed to be Hinduism. Let us assume that religion was indeed the core of the future, free India. Why not, then, all religions of the Indian people. Why is it assumed to be Hinduism? You again enter this miasma of arguments around numerical majoritarianism but also around “origin” and so on.


This is the juncture where you see a second set of shared myths solidifying: Hinduism does not have a book, a church and a unified doctrine. Hence, it is essentially inclusive and liberal. Hindus are other-worldly, tolerant, non-violent, non-materialistic and all-embracing.


INTERVIEWER: It is a way of life.


SHARMA: Yes, that comes next. But certain things are excluded in the newly constructed religion. It is such an inane and intellectually lazy way of putting things because it begs a political question: whose way of life? What happens to me if I disagree with the dominant definition of this way of life? The proposition “might is right” underwrites this “Hinduism is a way of life” explanation. Even in the most difficult of circumstances and even in the most demanding of authoritarian regimes, different ways of life assert themselves and often struggle to survive. And often these collide and come into conflict.


INTERVIEWER: Your third book in the series, A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism, straddles concepts and categories of enormous breadth. This required reading in a wide range of languages and connecting various idioms, because in one of the paragraphs you implicate German philosophy for the nineteenth century ‘practical vedanta’ and the way it drew upon German philosophy.


SHARMA: German philosophy, especially Arthur Schopenhauer, had a substantial influence on certain strands of religious nationalism in India. But directly and indirectly, German Romanticism went far in influencing Indian understandings of nationalism. In their Indian version, these ideas of nationalism and Romanticism transform themselves into the argument that any putative Indian nationalism will have to be masculine. Passions, emotions, feelings and the imagination were feminine. That there was a link between feelings, emotions, passions and the actual experience of injustice, pain, suffering and lack of freedom was lost on most of the proponents of this form of masculine Hindu nationalism. In many instances, masculinity also meant the ability to use retributive violence. There is this idea that nationalism has to be masculine. What masculinity here means is that it must be violent. This upholding of a certain idea of manliness is not confined to Hindu nationalism alone. Even Gandhi uses it liberally when he talks of the courage of the passive resister.


INTERVIEWER: The book also talks about how Vivekananda vilifies other religions like the “Abrahamic faiths” or the “people of the book”. It also mentions how he tried to base his variant of Hinduism on Upanishads (a collection of ancient Sanskrit texts). Was this an attempt to make Hindus the people of this particular canon to the exclusion of all others?


SHARMA: All organized religions justify their superiority by caricaturing other faiths. Vivekananda was primarily a preacher and hence what he says about other faiths is not exceptional. Andrew Nicholson, in his very important book titled Unifying Hinduism, suggests that Vivekananda’s religion may not have been as tolerant as he claimed, but it was inclusive. My argument is that the inclusivist argument comes from the fact that Vivekananda claimed that religions were in a kind of race towards perfection. Some, like Hinduism, evolve faster and beat out other religions. Others, too, keep running the race and will eventually reach the goal of perfection. This is the dimension of the evolution of religions. However, Vivekananda also proposed the idea of the involution of religions. A seed has within its core the future tree: a neem tree can/will only grow to be a neem tree and not a banyan tree and so is the fate of certain religions. They, suggested the Swami, did not have within themselves the seed that could grow into a state of perfection akin to the one Hinduism had reached. Therefore, this whole inclusiveness argument is cancelled out in a certain sense by the idea of involution.


Returning to the question of canon, the way a canon was created for the nineteenth-century restatement of Hinduism as religion is a story yet to be told in all its fascinating detail. Only recently has there been an exceptionally good work on the significance the Bhagvadgita assumes from the nineteenth century, namely Sanjay Palshikar’s work on the nationalist interpretations of the Bhagvadgita. For me, the interesting bit is in the politics of constructing a canon. Those who upheld the Bhagvadgita to be the foremost Hindu text from the nineteenth century were scarcely aware of the text’s exegetical tradition. For most of them, it became a manual for `action’, `doing’ and for legitimizing violence in the name of waging and fighting a just war. The fact that Arjuna doubts the need for war and violence is underplayed. The only way employed in the text to convince Arjuna is to bring him to his knees in submission by shock and awe.


INTERVIEWER: In that case, would you say “certainty” is one of the crucial elements of this Hinduism?


SHARMA: Hindu nationalism as long as it contains the nationalist element within it cannot escape the stranglehold of certainty. Imagine a nationalism constructing itself on a premise: “I doubt, therefore I am”. I dare say it would a chaotic state, but it would be a wonderful state. It would be a humane, empathetic and a kind state.


INTERVIEWER: And this fear of doubt exists even now?


SHARMA: It has increased and has grave implications. The sense of doubt is almost non-existent now. We are now into the blind, unthinking and irrational worship of leaders and meaningless abstractions.


INTERVIEWER: Coming back to intellectual history, you are currently one of the most prominent practitioners of it in India. What do you think are the challenges for intellectual history in the Indian context?


SHARMA: The challenges of intellectual history in the Indian context are the following: first, people doing intellectual history have to be trained adequately to do intellectual history. This means that the various tiers of education must be equipped to teach the social sciences and humanities. The education system must learn to respect social sciences and humanities and not see them as alternatives for those who cannot do the more so-called “useful” things. The first building block of this is to have outstanding teachers of classical and modern languages. In India, barring a few, we have lousy language teachers. The idea that the human sciences can be attempted without a sensitivity to languages is crazy. Second, the reality is that politicians, academic bureaucracy, and bad teachers have ensured that no viable intellectual tradition exists in our formal academic institutions. We do sub-standard research, have thoughtless warehouses of books masquerading as libraries, and have sacrificed all that is good and noble at the altar of expediency. Third, intellectual history, as well as all strands of humanistic education across the world, are threatened today because they question politics, power and the status quo. And so a lot of intellectual writing that’s done will have to exit formal academic spaces and exist independently of academia. That means that businessmen such as Premjis and Narayana Murtys should have the courage and the spine to start premium research institutes in India, rather than giving Stanford and Harvard large sums of money so that either supine social scientists or efficient clerks and executives could be produced by these places. Finally, it is fashionable to talk about the asymmetry between knowledge and power in India. It is something we have picked up from post-colonial and post-modern thought. But what is this asymmetry of power apart from the question of money and infrastructure? It translates into a country of a billion plus people not managing in seventy-odd years to produce a single great authority in India on Greek thought or Roman thought or the French Revolution. We do not even manage to produce great authorities within India on Indian thought or Indian history. There are very, very few exceptions in this regard. On the other hand, there is hardly an area of the intellectual history of this country that does not have a universally acclaimed authority in the West. Forget the West, for decades the finest exponent of Advaita was a Japanese scholar called Hajime Nakamura.


INTERVIEWER: You stressed the importance of linguistic training and capability for practicing intellectual history. What are the languages that you use in your research?


SHARMA: I know Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Greek, and Latin well. I have recently acquired a working knowledge of Pali, and now I can read Bangla well. I speak a few Rajasthani dialects and have an active knowledge of reading and translating Marathi, though I wish I could speak it. I want to be able to speak, read and write Tamil, but will have to wait a bit to acquire it properly.


INTERVIEWER: What is your experience with the followers of Hindu nationalism? Have you received any threats or have you been a victim of Hindu chauvinism?


SHARMA: Yes, of course. There is the expected trolling and abuse. Nevertheless, when I write my books, unlike the journalistic work I did for eight years, I write them responsibly. I do not write with the intention of provoking anyone and I do believe that writing, however strong or against the grain, must have the right tone. My first and foremost ambition in life was to become a musician. Though I am a failed musician, I have learned many important things from the practice of music. I approach writing in ways similar to getting the tonal quality of a piece of music right. You have to determine the exact place where there has to be silence and the exact place at which there has to be ornamentation, harmony, counterpoint, and so on. Also, a great teacher of mine once solved the familiar problems one encounters while writing. He told me, quoting the Romanian philosopher, E.M. Cioran, that “one must not write for the living.” If you write for the living, you will always be self-conscious about the response and reaction of certain people. Write for the dead, and one will be better served because one will be saved from either excessive caution or the need to play to the gallery. So write for the dead and hope that the living buy your books!


INTERVIEWER: In 2014, you asked the publisher Penguin to withdraw and pulp your books. Why was that the case?


SHARMA: Penguin had then decided to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book due to bullying from a self-appointed Hindu nationalist vigilante by the name of Dinanath Batra. I thought this was a disgraceful capitulation to the threats of the semi-literate lunatic fringe – they had not at that point become the official mainstream. Moreover, I have grown increasingly restive of the never-ending op-ed writing and petition signing by the Left and liberal voices in the country. While they eloquently speak of defending the liberal space, very few of them are ready to sacrifice anything to save it. I believe more strongly than ever before that if free speech and expression is to be saved and protected, it can only be done by giving up something or sacrificing something. Therefore, I decided to withdraw my books from Penguin. I asked them to pulp these immediately. Later, one of these was republished in a new version by Harper Collins.


INTERVIEWER: What is your upcoming book on Gandhi and violence about and what are you currently reading?


SHARMA: Just as the Vivekananda book was not about Vivekananda but two incommensurable models of religion and faith existing side by side, the Gandhi volume is not about Gandhi or Gandhian thought. As the last volume in the quartet of books, it takes Gandhi as the peg, and, through him, explores the questions of violence and non-violence. More specifically, the questions of representation and legitimation of violence. Compared to the other three volumes that have already been published, this book covers a wider historical and conceptual terrain. My current reading involves questions of violence and non-violence in India, but also theories of representation of violence elsewhere.


INTERVIEWER: What would you recommend to someone working or planning to work on Indian intellectual history?


SHARMA: I would gently persuade them to pay greater attention to the literatures produced in Indian languages, and explore their complexity, subtlety, depth and range. This is rarely to be found in the literature that we have come to believe as canonical and sometimes officially sanctioned by the imperatives of creating a national literature. At the same time, they must learn to appreciate world literature in a serious fashion.


INTERVIEWER: You have been a fellow at various institutes in Europe for some time. What would you say are the main differences between the European and Indian academia?


SHARMA: Indian academic life is governed entirely by the politics of the day. This can only mean the death of seriousness, academic excellence and rigorous engagement with ideas. Rival political ideologies have ruined the entire education system, from the school level through to higher education. The easy excuse for the rotten state of our education is the lack of resources and the pressures of a large population. But the real reason is that the mediocrity and corruption of our politics has cast educational institutions in its own sordid image.


While we pride ourselves on worshipping knowledge and revering teachers, in the past seventy years, we have failed to build a single institution of great excellence, (this includes the much-hyped IITs – Indian Institutes of Technology and IIMs – Indian Institutes of Management). The Institutes I have had the privilege to be associated with are institutions that cherish thought, academic excellence, free speech and their autonomy. It is sad that we do not have a single comparable institution in India.


INTERVIEWER: I have one last question. You were one of the early writers to come up with a book, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, that contested the secularization thesis back in 2003. So what has your intellectual journey been like for the past 14 years?


SHARMA: The journey has been complicated because once I wrote the Hindutva book, I wanted to show that it was not a figment of my imagination and that the ideology had a real and tangible outcome. Therefore, I decided to write Terrifying Vision. Then people said: “we understand the book but is it really terrifying?” I wonder if they would have the same reaction today. In search of a foundational basis for Indian thought and for establishing a deeper genealogy, the book on the restatement of religion followed. Its Indian title was Cosmic Vision and Human Apathy. A magazine that carried excerpts from it unconsciously recast the title, calling it “Cosmic Love and Human Empathy”. There seems to be a jinx with my titles. Hence, I need to find a title for the violence/non-violence book that is error-proof and so prosaic to make people turn a page beyond the title.

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