US Indologist Wendy Doniger

By Preetha Nair

NEW DELHI–Acclaimed American Indologist Wendy Doniger claims she was misquoted on her remarks about Mahatma Gandhi and the 1947 partition of India.

US Indologist Wendy Doniger
US Indologist Wendy Doniger

Last week, quoted her saying that partition may have been averted had Gandhi been less reverential toward cows, inviting a lot of criticism.

The US-based scholar clarified in an email that she believed it was the anti-Muslim agenda which succeeded despite the efforts of Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah to avoid partition.

Slamming arguments that Muslim rulers introduced beef in the country, she pointed out that Vedas mention the eating of beef on several important occasions.

Lending support to writers and filmmakers returning awards, Doniger said it will inspire other writers and publishers to produce works that do not toe the Hindutva line.

The author’s book, “The Hindus: An Alternative History”, is back on shelves after having been withdrawn by publishers Penguin India early last year following protests from some Hindu groups. (Excerpts)

Q. Were you being overtly critical by saying that the partition would have been avoided if Gandhi was less reverential towards cows?

A. I was misquoted on this subject by a professor who claimed, on the basis of remarks that he says he overheard at an academic dinner party in my honour. This is of course nonsense and not what I was saying. The situation is far more complex than that. But Gandhi was indeed a supporter of the Cow Protection Society, despite, rather than because of, the anti-Muslim agendas that it had then and still has. Those agendas contributed to the ultimate failure of his sincere efforts to work with Jinnah to integrate Muslims and Hindus and to avoid partition.

Q. There is a belief that Muslim rulers introduced beef eating in India. However, ancient scriptures like Charak Samhita prescribes flesh of cow as medicine. How did the cow assume the status of ‘motherhood’ now?

A. Muslim rulers did not introduce beef eating in India. Long before the Charaka Samhita, the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, prescribe the eating of beef on several important occasions, as when an important guest comes to a house. But later, around the beginning of the Common Era, the cow became a symbol, both of Brahmins, who were always paid by being given cows, and of motherhood.

Q. What is the outcome of critically-acclaimed writers returning awards over the issue of intolerance?

A. The return of the awards by writers and film-makers was an important protest that has signaled the determination of prominent Indian intellectuals to stop the gathering storm of repression and censorship in India. It has also inspired others to take a stance on this crucial issue. My hope is that it will inspire other writers and publishers to continue to produce works that do not toe the Hindutva line.

Q. What spurred you to write an open letter to the prime minister, along with other historians and social scientists, on intolerance in India?

A. The letter was written in the same spirit that inspired the Indian writers to return their awards: an attempt to make the broader public aware of the dangerous increase of intolerance and repression in India.

Q. Your book, “The Hindus: An Alternative History”, is back on the stands.

A. I am thrilled! I am grateful to Penguin Random House for giving back to me the rights to the publication of the book in India, and to the Speaking Tiger, to whom I then gave those rights, for bringing out the new edition. I hope this will also encourage other Indian publishers to take on controversial books.

Q. Do you think that the controversy of the recalling and subsequent pulping of the book by Penguin has only helped the book getting more popular?

A. Just for the record, the book was never pulped. All the copies were quickly bought up before a single one could be destroyed. But if the people who brought the lawsuit thought that they would keep people from reading the book, they must have been terribly disappointed. The publicity, particularly the international protest against the attempt to suppress it, made the book a best-seller.

Q. Your book was recalled during a Congress-led government’s tenure. Wasn’t that an example of rising intolerance in society?

A. It certainly was and things have gotten even worse under the BJP government.

Q. Do you feel that intolerance is a strong undercurrent that has always prevailed in India since independence? How different is the situation when the politics of nationalism is mixed with it?

A. I would not say that intolerance has always “prevailed” in India. By and large, India has always been remarkably tolerant of intellectual differences. Nor has Independence in itself made matters worse. But the politics of nationalism, which of course began long before independence, as a movement against British rule in India, has always had a streak of intolerance toward Muslims, and we are seeing that alarmingly on the rise now.

Q. There have been statements made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Vedic science, which made claims on Karna, Ganesha and use of an aircraft by Ram. Are these statements misplaced and misleading?

A. I think such statements are extremely foolish and have rightly attracted the ridicule of intelligent people throughout the world. They demonstrate an appalling lack of knowledge of the history of science.