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Modern (Un)Belonging and Imperial Inclusion: Parvati Sharma Reviews Hurt Sentiments

In the opening pages of her persuasive, often distressing and sometimes scathingly angry book, Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia (HUP 2023), Neeti Nair traces the origins of the idea that Indians are “especially predisposed to having their sentiments ‘hurt’ or wounded” to our colonial administration, specifically the infamous Thomas Babington Macaulay. With a predilection for offensive generalisation that would have made him a social media star, Macaulay had declared in his draft Indian Penal Code that there was “no country in which the Government had so much to apprehend from religious excitement among the people” (p 4, emphasis added by Nair). This was in 1837, almost two hundred years ago. Another two-odd centuries before Macaulay arrived upon the scene, however, another of his countrymen had taken a very different view of religious passions in the subcontinent.


Thomas Coryat was the first English backpacker to make his way to India, walking from Aleppo to Ajmer (it took him ten months and cost him three pounds) in the early seventeenth century. Unlike his compatriots at the time, Coryat did not come to trade; unlike later travellers from the British Isles, he did not come as a mercenary or bureaucrat. Coryat’s great ambition was to have a painting of himself riding an elephant printed in a book. An adventurous, eccentric and generally happy soul, Coryat enjoyed his travels in the East, though he was occasionally inspired to rant against Islam.


Once, for example, Coryat describes how he delivered a fiery speech to a Florence-returned Muslim man in Multan – so fiery that even though Coryat railed in Italian, a crowd gathered around him, for whose benefit the Muslim translated the Englishman’s thoughts on “Mahomet and his accursed religion”. Coryat himself admits that, “if I had spoken thus much in Turky or Persia against Mahomet, they would have rosted me upon a spitt; but in the Mogols dominions a Christian may speake much more freely” (Foster 1921, p 271). How did we get from this – another time, in Agra, Coryat went racing up a mosque and proclaimed a redrafted kalma, ‘La ilaha illallah Hazarat Isa Ibn-Allah!’ (No God but God and Christ the Son of God) with, again, no consequences (p 315) – to Macaulay’s apprehensions and, indeed, a present where the Indian prime minister accuses opposition parties of offending Hindus by eating meat and thus displaying, ironically enough, a ‘Mughal mindset’? To put it another way, how did we get from a pre-modern Mughal state that was clearly and perhaps anachronistically tolerant of free speech to a modern democracy in which our elected government needs only the flimsiest excuse to excite hurt sentiments?

Bluffs in the Name of Secularism and Islam

I almost wish Nair didn’t have the answers – or rather, that her answers didn’t make you want to tear your hair out. It would have been less distressing, for example, if she had laid the blame squarely on colonial divide-and-rule, the undeniable advantage that would accrue to a colonial ruler from a squabbling subject population. No doubt, that was once the case, but the men and women who debated the founding principles of both India and Pakistan in the early and most hope-filled decades of independence seem to have flubbed their chance to wipe our states clean of such colonially induced insecurities. Instead, as Nair demonstrates, heated arguments about national identities and how these were to be protected played out repeatedly on both sides of the border. Sometimes these were self-aggrandising: both the Hindu right and votaries of the Islamic state claimed that ‘secularism’ was intrinsic to their faiths. Sometimes, they were insular: who is ‘truly’ Indian; who a ‘real’ Muslim? And more often than not, our two republics, in Nair’s telling, emerge like dark mirrors to each other, tragic and sometimes farcical.


Thus India, founded on the principle of equal belonging, for which Gandhi gave his life, could not, after all, bring itself to define what it meant to be ‘secular’. The 1976 amendment that brought the actual word into the Preamble of the Indian Constitution witnessed surprisingly heated debate (given that it happened during the Emergency) on what secularism would actually entail. Many members of Parliament argued that secularism should be defined in a way that would make the state responsible for giving equal opportunities and equitable representation to minority and marginalised communities. However, “their demands… were met with stonewalling, gestures to the great leader,[1] and then outvoted” (Nair, 2023, p. 119). Ironically, in fact, “the mere addition of the word … enabled the government to avoid taking concrete measures, such as providing reservation for minorities and other safeguards that would ensure the implementation of secular laws. Because secularism was recognisably all talk and no action, anti-minority discrimination continued. Paradoxically, the government, too, could declare it had done something; after all, it had inserted a word into the Preamble!” (p 119, emphasis original).


Meanwhile, Pakistan, after much hand-wringing about whether or not to declare itself an Islamic state, was equally loath to define what it meant to be Muslim. This fuzziness allowed the West Pakistani governing elite to pull off what the eastern Awami Leaguers called a “‘bluff’ in the name of Islam” (p 193), similar to India’s bluff in the name of secularism. There, an avowedly Muslim state could get away with vilifying Bengali Muslims as “not ‘real Muslims’” (p 200) and, during the war of 1971, commit the most terrible war crimes against its own inadequately Muslim citizens. And here, a proudly secular state could, in effect, practise majoritarian politics.


Hurt Sentiments: Nurtured and Mobilised

A fascinating thread in the India chapters of Nair’s book examines how this majoritarian politics built itself, consciously or otherwise, through controversies centred on Rama and the Ramayana, and the resulting hurt to Hindu sentiments. I was surprised, in fact, to realise how frequently and for how long the Ramayana has played a critical role in modern Indian politics; indeed, that the very first book that India banned, less than a decade after Independence, was a satirical retelling of this epic. We all know about The Satanic Verses, and we all deplore, left, right and centre, the surrender to aggressively hurt sentiments that led not only to the recent knife attack on Salman Rushdie but has also, for decades now, allowed the Hindu right to accuse its opponents of ‘pseudo-secular Muslim appeasement’ while demanding submission to its own dictates to curtail, proscribe and ban. It is a truth quite alien to the common discourse on book-banning in modern India, however – a fact that I, at least, have never encountered, whether in drawing room conversations, op-eds or lit-fests – that in 1955, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first and arguably most brave, erudite and secular of India’s prime ministers, supported his government’s ban of The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen – without even reading it. “It might have caused a riot” is all the explanation he would give the book’s author (p 122). Again, in 1971, the government of Madhya Pradesh supported the forfeiture of a Jain retelling of the Ramayana; in 1988, the government of Maharashtra withdrew B. R. Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism because of an offending appendix on Rama and Krishna; and in 2008, Delhi University dropped an essay on the diversity of Ramayanas and, therefore, of Hinduism, by A. K. Ramanujan – even as the Delhi High Court refused to entertain a petition to ban the text (pp 123-27).


Book by book and essay by essay it was built, apparently, this idea of Hindu sentiments being hurt and demanding redress. And all this in our avowedly secular past, both recent and long-lost. Indeed, it was also in our secular past that these hurt sentiments were sufficiently aroused and mobilised for a mob to climb upon the dome of the so-called Babri Masjid in Ayodhya to demolish it and make way for the temple to Rama that formed the main plank of the Indian government’s openly communal re-election campaign in 2024. Hurt sentiments require someone to do the hurting, after all. If, in the 1960s, the RSS newspaper, the Organiser, could claim that “The Muslim… seems to be living in a ghetto world of his own, emotionally frozen in the ruins of the Mughal Empire” (p 81), three decades later, as part of the rhetoric that enabled the attack on the mosque, ‘the Muslim’ was more pithily and viciously branded ‘Babur ki aulad’ – Babur’s descendent, an aggressive invader, always a foreigner. Another thirty years have passed since, and now, in 2024, the Indian prime minister himself can walk up to the podium in an election rally and imply that ‘the Muslim’ is a ghuspethia, a surreptitious infiltrator, undeserving of the nation’s resources which yet he consumes to the disadvantage of ‘real’ Indians. 


Belonging in the Mughal Empire

Such obsession with who belongs and who does not, who may speak and who may not, whose sentiments may be hurt and whose may not is, as Nair demonstrates so eloquently, at the very heart of the foundation of India, Pakistan and, subsequently, Bangladesh. In the 1960s, in Pakistan, Mufti Mahmood made a speech that is fairly typical of the desire for segregated, privileged belonging that has long animated the right across the subcontinent. Mahmood was speaking of how Muslim sentiments were being hurt by Christian missionary work: “the people are perplexed”, he declared. “They find it hard to reconcile themselves to the fact that Christianity is being permitted to be freely preached and Islam is being insulted in a country which is meant to be an Islamic state. This has created an emergency” (p 193).


Mufti Mahmood may or may not have been aware of the fact but a similar emergency was felt by the more conservative clerics in the court of Babur’s actual aulad – his grandson, Akbar. First in Fatehpur Sikri, later in Lahore, Akbar held regular and quite fiery debates between religious scholars of all stripes, including several contingents of Jesuit priests from Goa. These missionaries plunged into the theological fray at hand with great enthusiasm and little control on their tongues. Once, in fact, a certain Father Monserrate himself thought he might have gone too far in his criticism of Islam. He apologised, at which Akbar “answered with some heat”: “By God, I am not the man to have my feelings outraged by these things” (Monserrate 1922, pp 133-34). Ironically, it was the same Monserrate, allowed full freedom to speak his mind, who also complained, in his journal, that Akbar  “cared little that in allowing everyone to follow his own religion he was in reality violating all religions” (p 142) – a complaint that continues to plague those made uncomfortable by diverse, multi-cultural polities.  


There was, after all, a time when the subcontinent had a government unafraid of hurt sentiments, unafraid of uncomfortable conversations – that prided itself on its thick skin. One cannot, of course, compare Akbar’s empire with a modern democracy but there is something intriguing about how nation states have tied themselves up in knots over claims and counterclaims to secularism where an empire was once able to practise and achieve an unwritten inclusivity – and quite tragic and telling that, in modern India at least, that very pre-modern empire has long been a favourite target of the Hindu right. It is also intriguing how, across a gap of 500 years, it is the ruling elite that seems to determine how much ‘hurt’ public sentiments will endure, or not – Coryat draws a contrast between other Muslim countries and the “Mogols dominions”, not the people of Hindustan; it is the ascendance of the Hindu right in India’s government over the past decade, not any dramatic demographic shift, that has propelled a surge of boycotts, police complaints and mob attacks fired by offended sentiments.



The time of enlightened emperors is long past, however, and the appeal of populist regimes must fade with time. It may be entirely outside government, in fact, that our hope lies. Every so often, in Hurt Sentiments, Nair invokes the ordinary practice and defence of secularism: the individual judges who refused to ban books, the handful of politicians undeterred by allegations of bias or appeasement, the publishers, students and activists who fought to have their say, the “artists and cricketers… auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers” (p 148) who not only supported unifying campaigns, but were secular, unselfconsciously, in how they lived their lives.


Our leaders may not have built the strong systems they could have to guarantee inclusion and equity, but it may yet be that we, as a people, understand instinctively – for all the muddled fortune of our history, its grand visions and its bad dreams – the meaning and the power of Nair’s concluding sentence: “To be secular is to belong fearlessly.” Whether or not these instincts will prevail to guide our future remains to be seen.


[1] “[W]ithout trying to flatter her”, flattered one MP, Indira Gandhi was “the best protector” of minority communities (Nair, 2023, p. 116).


Parvati Sharma has written two biographies of two Mughal emperors: Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal and Akbar of Hindustan. She has also published a collection of short stories called The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love; a novella, Close to Home; and two books for children, The Story of Babur and Rattu & Poorie’s Adventures in History: 1857. Parvati lives in New Delhi.

This post is part of a book round-table on Hurt Sentiments. Read the other posts here.

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