Restoring Objectivity: Warring with Words

By Koenraad Elst

In the introduction to his book, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind, Belgian scholar Koenraad Elst argues that Western-based reporters and scholars fail to recognize biased and misleading terminology used by their Indian counterparts. The following is an excerpt from his discussion of particularly problematic terms, including: Hindu Revivalism, Hindu Fundamentalism, Communalism, Hindu Nationalism, the Hindu Right, and Macaulayism. To read further, see Part Two of this excerpt, in which he discusses Secularism, Pseudo-secularism, Marxism, and Majoritarianism.

photo courtesy of @superamit via C.C. license at FlickrTo find out about the thought animating a social, cultural, and political movement, one must simply listen and read what its acknowledged spokesmen have to say. The need of the hour is to get acquainted with what Hindu revivalists are really saying and to restore objectivity to the discussion.

Objectivity has been under attack on two fronts. One is the "postmodern" form of Marxism (quite powerful in American universities), which denies the very notion of objective knowledge, assumes that knowledge is conditioned by one's social belonging, and insists that "all research in the social sciences has a political agenda." In practice, this means that once an author has been identified as belonging to the wrong interest group, his arguments are ipso facto wrong or vitiated. In a large part of the academic publications, this position is implicit in their way of foregoing any serious evaluation of arguments formulated by Hindu revivalists, as if the identification of the propounder of the argument as a "Hindu fundamentalist" were sufficient to put his arguments beyond the pale of rational discourse. Thus, the Hindu litany of grievances against the inequalities imposed on Hinduism by the Indian state (a major issue) is commonly only mentioned as an object of ridicule, never of proper investigation.

The second problem is that many India-watchers who do believe in the principle of objectivity have nonetheless published books and papers on the present topic that suffer serious lapses from the normal scholarly standards. The exacting standards of objectivity are obviously a permanent challenge to scholars in any field, but this field, or at least its present-day state of the art, presents some peculiar problems. In some cases, the bias may be in the mind of the India-watcher, but the overriding problem is that even scholars and journalists who do try to be objective frequently rely on Indian sources that have considerable standing but are nonetheless far from objective. There is, apparently, an assumption of cultural solidarity in which Western India watchers regard their Indian colleagues, "our men in India," as representatives of enlightened modernity who stand above the ongoing conflicts between the native barbarians. This, in spite of the conspicuous fact that many Indian academics use very partisan language when addressing the issue of Hindu revivalism.

However, we shall show that the very basics of this research are highly problematic: numerous presumably non-partisan sources are tainted by a partisan involvement that outsiders tend to ignore or misunderstand, and even the terminology that conditions the whole discourse on India's religious conflict is often unclear and sometimes the object of deliberate manipulation. My intention is to avoid these traps and clear away the cobwebs at the only entrance to a real understanding of Hindu revivalism, viz. to let the primary sources speak.

What follows is a brief glossary of the typical terminology encountered in the primary and secondary literature on Hindu revivalism. A number of these terms represent false trails, theories, or rhetoric that contribute nothing to our understanding of Hindu revivalism -- this in spite of their tremendous popularity as explanation models in circles with little knowledge of the primary material. Others are very ordinary terms whose meaning suddenly becomes problematic when used in the context of "Hindu revivalism."

Hindu Revivalism

The focus of this study is most aptly termed Hindu revivalism, a broad trend in 19th-and 20th-century India that seeks to revive Hinduism after a benumbing near-millennium of political, ideological, and psychological subjection to Islamic and Western hegemony. Hindu revivalism is a many-pronged attempt to ensure the survival of Hinduism by integrating the gains of modernity in Hindu civilization (in that sense, it is of course not a revival of anything ancient in unchanged form), as well as by intellectually and politically fighting off the perceived threats posed by Islam, Christianity, and a string of secular ideologies, of which Marxism is the most articulate.