The Wendy Incident: A View from Europe–SN Balagangadhara


[Context: Note though that this piece merely expresses my irritation…]

I am from Bangalore, India, but work as a professor in Belgium, Europe. My name is not Batra but am known as ‘Balu’. I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of either the BJP (the nationalist party in India) or organizations collectively known as the ‘Sangh Parivar’. Even though I am born a ‘Hindu’, some of my ‘liberal’ associates are convinced that I am a ‘crypto-Christian’. So much about my credentials, which are required to make two points of some importance.

These are about Wendy Doniger’s op-ed piece in the NYT. This American ‘expert’ on Indian culture and ‘Hinduism’ epitomizes very accurately the state of the American academia when it talks about other peoples and cultures: ignorance and pompousness.

Ignorance: she does not even know that the article 295A of the Indian Penal Code (which she refers to) is not about ‘blasphemy’. (Does she knows the meaning of the word, I wonder.) Yet, this inconvenient fact does not faze her from holding forth. Neither does the fact that being a ‘Jew’ is irrelevant to whether one has a ‘Christian’ missionary zeal or not. (Does she know that Judaism also ‘proselytized’ during the Antiquity?) After all, the so-called ‘Hindu fundamentalists’ have been repeatedly accused of exhibiting precisely that zeal which Wendy claims is inappropriate to describe her. This nonchalant attitude is typical not only of her but also of most academics doing India and Hinduism studies in America. Ignorance might not prevent the American academia from sermonizing to the world but, when coupled with pompousness, it damages what many good Americans hold very dear to their hearts: ‘the American national interests’.

Pompousness: Wendy Doniger suggests that the voice of a “narrow band of narrow-minded Hindus” drowned out the voices of “the broader, more liberal parts of Indian society”. (The latter must have been ‘speaking’ too; how otherwise could their voices be ‘drowned out’?)Two questions that even an ordinary child would ask are of relevance here. How could a ‘narrow’ band ‘drown out’ the voice of a ‘broader band’? A possible answer would attempt to identify those in power. One of the things that everyone, especially such intellectual experts, should know about India is that the entire media in India has been under the hegemony of liberal and left-thinking intellectuals ever since independence. Nehru was a socialist; he encouraged leftist intellectuals. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, consciously pursued this strategy: almost all academic institutions and funding agencies are completely in the hands of progressive and left-leaning people. How then, and this is the second question of the kid, could a small number of people (without institutional power or control of the media) outshout those with power? Surely, this does not jell. But this silliness of Wendy is the required stepping stone for the pomposity, which she exhibits when she says that “the dormant liberal conscience of India” was awakened by the “stunning blow to the freedom of speech”. Let us leave aside the question of logical consistency (an inappropriate term to describe Wendy’s thinking) about the “broader band” that ‘speaks’ and yet is alleged to be dormant. The real issue is far more important.

That consists of some questions. If we know history, we know too that ‘liberalism’ (as we understand the term today) is a product of the extraordinary culture that the West is. We need to acknowledge the contributions of such people like John Locke or John Stuart Mill, if and when we speak about this wonderful political doctrine. We know too that Indians are indebted to the British for this gift to their thinking. Yet, there are questions here: did the Indian culture go around banning books before the British came to India? Was the Indian culture a prey to systematic campaigns against intellectual productions before the emergence of a liberal conscience? Are we to suppose that if the westernized “liberal conscience” does not wake up, Indian culture will fall victim to the “narrow-minded Hindus”? If, indeed, India burnt and banned books before ‘liberalism’ made its advent into India, Wendy’s thought carries credibility. Actually, that would be a sheer nonsensical claim because it is the other way round: western culture banned and burnt books before the advent of ‘liberalism’; it banned and burnt books also after the advent of ‘liberalism’. Protestants burnt the books of Catholics, Catholics banned and burnt Protestant writings; the Germans, amongst other things, burnt down the entire library of the University of Louvain. The Americans, for their part, unlike the French colonizer, simply bombed away the libraries in Vietnam and elsewhere. In fact, as our history books tell us, it was an enlightenment thinker like David Hume who called upon people to burn libraries, if they housed books that say nothing about “matters of fact” or speak about logic since they can “contain nothing but sophistry and illusion”. He was, of course, referring to books on theology, among other things. (Thus, his logic would have burnt Wendy’s books, seeing that they lack both!) Hence, it is unvarnished pomposity to think that only the western culture embodies freedom of thought and expression, while other cultures are not only primitive but also barbaric and authoritarian.

This implicit stance (that cannot be effaced by any number of explicit pronouncements, if one intends to remain consistent) characterizes not just Wendy but most of the American academia that writes about India and Hinduism. It is this attitude that informs the relationship of America with other peoples and nations as well. It is this posture that damages the ‘American national interests’. The incident of Wendy is one of the many warning shots from other parts of the world to all serious, well-intentioned American academics: wake up and listen to what others are saying before it is too late. Do not keep repeating inanities and indulging in table-thumping and breast-beating. Do some serious rethinking for a change. That would help us all.

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  • Dear old Wendy! She was such a comfort to me in my adolescence. Indeed, many ‘Convent School’ Indians of my class and background found people like her, and- of course, A.K Ramanujan- just what the Doctor ordered to counter our feeling of inferiority towards those of our cousins who attended Ramakrishna Mission Schools and Vernacular Medium Colleges and who scored higher than us in Maths and could compose verse in Sanskrit and- most humiliating of all- wrote English more grammatically, if not idiomatically, than we did.
    Wendy and Pollock showed us that all our sacred texts and commentaries and kavyas and itihasasas and manipravalay or Riti type mannerist poetry was the work of really stupid and primitive people who believed in magic and were frightened of women and the polluting touch of the working class. Witzel went one step further and tried to appear a bit of an intellectual by dragging in some psuedo-Scientism about ‘primitive minds’ and ‘highly correlated systems’ and (more recently) Gondwanan myths and so forth.
    Sadly, sometime in the early Nineties, we ‘Convent School’ types woke up to the fact that our provincial cousins were doing better than us in America. Indeed, they were becoming Techie billionaires while the most we could aspire to was a, Gurcharan Das type, genteel fading into Post Retirement garrulity.
    We had two choices. Either understand that all literary culture, at all times, is intimately connected with the Mechanism Design and Statistical Decision Theory problematics of the period- and thus preserves a ‘trace’ of Open Problems in Maths- or else just pretend that our Provincial cousins were secretly V.H.P or Jamaati or whatever.
    Since Maths is hard to do and even harder to apply, being an English speaker, wrt to India, inevitably meant assuming Indians have always been and will always be stupid and primitive.
    Whether it is Ghalib or Kabir, both the Indian Professor and the American M.F.A poetaster, will always ascribe to them the stupidest and most primitive message.

    I suppose, Nineteenth Century historicist hermeneutics had the Rousseauian, or Romantic, excuse that it valorized as ‘natural’ that which it identified as primitive. However, Colonial Anthropology- which Freud drew on for his theory of Religion- minced no memes in equating the primitive with the bestial.
    The corollary was obvious. Indians were incapable of judging their own Culture or Religion. True, as sedulous apes, they might be able to carry forward a non-Indian Indological Research program; indeed, they might even be permitted to enter the durbar of the new Conqueror, but they certainly can’t be permitted darshan of Seeta Devi’s face.
    Why? Seeta Devi actually represents some abstract Liberalism which cashes out as ‘regime change’ which aboriginal monkeys can’t grasp and whose visage they mustn’t be permitted to glimpse- lest they cry out against the foulness of it.