Foreigners to ourselves: dharma and adharma in India


IN the early 1920s, Rabindranath Tagore, already lionized around the world as an Indian sage and the first Nobel Laureate in literature from Asia, delivered a series of talks on a visit to China. It was an august, even momentous, occasion as the representative of one great Asian civilization visited another great Asian civilization, at a time when the stock of neither was very high in the world. India had been colonized for over 150 years, and China, having been humiliated by the western powers over the course of two Opium Wars and subsequent incursions into Chinese territory, was now convulsed by a bitter civil war.

Nevertheless, perhaps something was in the air: Japan had in 1905 inflicted defeat on Russia, become at once the envy of every Asian country and pointing to the awakening of Asia from a deep slumber, though Tagore rightly surmised that as an imperial power Japan would merely be borrowing, and perhaps even improving upon, the brutal methods of the West. In India, Mohandas Gandhi, already anointed the Mahatma, had brought the Indian freedom struggle to doorsteps around the world and seemed to be signalling the nascent birth of an old country.

What is most striking, however, in Tagore’s visit to China is the fact that China should have looked up to India – a country which in the 18th century had accounted for a fourth of the world’s GDP but by the early 1900s was pitied as a land ravaged by famines and disease, the majority of its people leading lives of immiseration and quiet desperation – as a brother, indeed as a ‘big brother’.  Buddhism had, of course, travelled from India to China, but India was seen as the fount of much else that had flourished in China. In introducing Tagore to the public, Liang Chi Chao, President of the Universities Association, Peking, described him as coming ‘from the country which is our nearest and dearest brother – India.’

Beyond China’s ‘western and northern frontiers’, Liang Chao remarked, there were those barbarous and ferocious races, whose business is ever to threaten and devastate, but never to help us’; but, in contrast, ‘across our south-western boundary, there was a great and cultured country, India.’  Before most ‘of the civilized races’ elsewhere in the world had become ‘active’, India and China had already begun to address ‘the great problems which concern the whole of mankind’: ‘India was ahead of us, and we, the little brother, followed behind.’

Over the course of the rest of his lengthy introduction, Liang Chao went on to enumerate the various ways in which India had helped form Chinese culture in the realms of architecture, literature, painting, music, and nearly every other domain of life, and, just as significantly, shaped the Chinese character – teaching the ‘little brother’ how to ‘embrace the idea of absolute freedom’ as much as ‘the idea of absolute love.’

Liang Chao’s introduction to Tagore makes for heady reading, but it is doubtful that the venerable Indian poet, who by this time had become ferociously critical of nationalism, and whose ecumenism did not permit him the comfort of creating a hierarchy of civilizations at the head of which stood India, would have given his assent to all of Liang Chao’s observations. It would be a truism, perhaps a banality, to say that Tagore harboured a disposition which allowed him to comprehend the strengths as much as the weaknesses of every civilization: if India was mired in poverty and had seen better days, humbled by the material strength and military prowess of a crusading entrepreneurial power, he was also quite certain that there was something quite distinctive about Indian civilization that might, even in its emaciated and decrepit stage, render it as a lodestar to others. That distinctiveness, he thought, was best captured by the word dharma.

Nowhere are dharma and adharma dissected, sliced, expounded, and argued as much as in the Mahabharata. Dharma, the elders argued in the famous scene that follows the end of the dice game, the shameless disrobing of Draupadi, and her piercing queries, is a slippery concept; it can bear the weight of contrary views. Nevertheless, in deliberating upon the question of ‘civilization and progress’ in one of his talks in China, Tagore had no doubt that the very dharma of Indian civilization could be discerned without much difficulty.

By way of illustrating his argument, he first gave the example of Mahsud villages in the Northwest Frontier that had been bombed by British aircraft.  In one such village, one of the planes had to make a forced landing; when the airmen – and here Tagore cites from an account appearing in the American weekly, The Nation – emerged from the wreckage, they encountered ‘a committee of five or six old women, who had happened to escape the bombs brandishing dangerous looking knives.’ But a few youngsters ‘of both sexes’ kept at bay a large, armed, and somewhat menacing crowd, even as bombs continued to rain upon the villages from the air, and took it upon themselves to nurse, feed, shelter, and clothe the airmen until, twenty-four days later, they could be escorted to safety. 

Tagore marvels at the fact that the very villagers who had been strafed from the air could yet be so hospitable to the airmen who had been among those responsible for burning their crops to the ground and reducing their houses to rubble. Tagore recognizes that ‘according to a Mahsud, hospitality is a quality by which he is known as a man and therefore he cannot afford to miss his opportunity, even when dealing with someone who can be systematically relentless in enmity.’ But the generosity toward the enemy went beyond the ethic of hospitality of the frontier tribesman.

Tagore recalled that he had once motored from Calcutta to a place one hundred miles away. Somewhere along the way, the engine heated up; every half an hour or so, they had to stop and procure water.  The weather was hot, water was in scarce supply, and the villagers had barely enough for themselves; and yet at every stop the villagers would insist on parting with the little water they had and refuse to accept payment. ‘They could easily make a business of it,’ observes Tagore, ‘following the inexorable law of demand and supply’, and then he adds this pertinent observation: they act as they do because they are driven by their dharma. ‘But the ideal which they consider to be their dharma has become one with their life’: ‘To ask them to sell it, is like asking them to sell their life. They do not claim any personal merit for possessing it.’  He finds something endearingly simple in their conception of dharma, ‘but that simplicity is the product of centuries of culture.’

Though Tagore spoke and wrote at a time when India was still under colonial rule, what he took to be some of the essential characteristics of Indian civilization had not yet been entirely compromised. Other lands might be hospitable to the foreigner or stranger in their own way but hosting the other within oneself was constitutive of the very dharma of Indians. The idea that the Parsi, Muslim, Jew, or even the Christian might be a foreigner as such was still alien to most Indians.

No doubt the skeptic, wary if not contemptuous of the idea that India has been a land of tolerance, could point to a large array of phenomena and facts to suggest otherwise. During the Rebellion of 1857-58, erstwhile known as the Sepoy Mutiny, the call for resistance to the firangi (foreigner) had been issued and resonated with many Indians, some of whom, as historians have documented, appropriated the call to settle old scores against indigenous moneylenders, zamindars, and other oppressors. It is, of course, characteristic of war that one or more communities are targeted or scapegoated as the ‘other’. But those who point to the call against the Christian ‘firangi’ are perhaps prone to forget that Christianity as such was not the target, there being a long history of Christian communities in India predating the arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and the English.

Moreover, the story that is told of the coming of the Parsis to India – a story, it cannot be stressed enough, told most frequently by the Parsis themselves – seems to capture the prevailing mood in India toward the supplicant seeking to arrive at India’s doors. When the first group of Zoroastrians fleeing Iran sought admission, we are told, the Indian ruler presiding over the kingdom at the border observed that his kingdom could not reasonably accommodate any more refugees. He likened his country to a cup of milk that was filled to the brim, whereupon the refugees reportedly said, ‘We will be like the sugar that sweetens the cup of milk.’

It is immaterial whether the story is apocryphal, as some have argued, more particularly since its persistence points to the insuperable fact that India’s experience with those who came from outside has been singularly distinct. The rapid expansion of Islam after the death of Muhammad has been told in thousands of learned tomes and beggars no comparison with the expansion of any other religion. One land after another fell to Muslim rule in swift succession: though mass conversions of the people who came under the jurisdiction of the Rashidun Caliphs and the Umayyads did not take place until centuries later, the Muslim cosmopolis was already being formed. What can be said with certainty is that, in most lands that came under Muslim jurisdiction, Islam would become the predominant religion and the vast majority of the people would eventually swear allegiance to Islam.

That was never the case in India: the first Muslims arrived in India only a few decades after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, and the later history of Muslims is associated with the Delhi Sultanate, the Deccan Sultanates, and the Mughal Empire. Though their numbers would become sizable, the Muslims never became a majority in undivided India.  With the exception perhaps of Moorish Spain, nowhere else in the world did Muslims conmingle with the adherents of existing religions – Hinduism, and to a lesser extent Buddhism and Jainism – to birth a new religious, social, and cultural synthesis that in India goes under the name of Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb.

The court of Awadh, most famously under its last ruler, Wajid Ali Shah, was the embodiment of this Indo-Islamic synthesis, and scholars point to many other common expressions of this culture, notably in the creation of Hindustani music. Both Ustad Bismillah Khan and Ustad Allauddin Khan, among the greatest of Hindustani musicians, were devotees of the goddess Saraswati even as they remained devout Muslims. Allauddin Khan was known to read the Ramayana and the Gita to his disciples; Bismillah Khan, whose uncle Ali Baksh played the shehnai at the Kashi Vis-wanath temple, developed a lifelong association with Benares – where, to use the cliched expression, Hindus come to die – and the Vishwanath temple.

Both artists in turn had many Hindu disciples: Allauddin’s illustrious proteges number Mallikarjun Mansur and Kesarbai Kerkar. Muslim artists and writers worked, it seems almost effortlessly, with Hindu traditions and Sanskrit texts: with what words, for example, should one characterize the 17th century Mewar Muslim artist Allah Baksh’s luminous miniature paintings of every verse of the Gita?

True, the Muslim elite seem to have been more receptive to the intellectual artefacts of the Hindu universe than the Hindu elite to Islamic philosophy or literature, but was the very presence of Islam not critically important to the many sant traditions of India? Islam’s fierce prohibition on any representation of the Prophet may also have been an inhibitory factor, but it is a mistake to suppose that the Indo-Islamic socio-cultural and religious synthesis is to be assessed by what happened at the elite level. Quite to the contrary, it is the intertwining of Hindu and Muslim lifeforms, habits, mannerisms, customs, religiosity, and modes of being in the world that would feed and inform the Indo-Islamic synthesis not only in the Doab but also elsewhere in India.

Gandhi, for whom the question of Hindu-Muslim was paramount, and in defence of which he arguably forfeited his life, was of the view that the Indo-Islamic synthesis had entered into the pores and sinews of everyday life. I would go so far as to say that, in Gandhi’s worldview, there was something of the Muslim in every Hindu and something of the Hindu in every Muslim.

Oddly enough, it is this very distinctiveness of India, which could conceivably have set an example to the world and which was lauded by many around the world, that today has come under brutal, relentless, and xenophobic assault: it is a distinctiveness that the present regime, and much of the middle class that has given the regime both its tacit and overt support, is only too ready to denounce, deplore, and jettison.

If the political left in India ridicules the notion of ‘Hindu tolerance’ as a convenient fable, a sign of what Al-biruni a millennium ago called ‘the conceit of the Hindus’, the right likewise has repudiated the idea of Hindu tolerance, though it is not at all averse to deploying it overseas as a form of cultural capital, as something only fit for the weak-minded, the effete followers of Mohandas Gandhi, and the peddlers of something as ridiculous as ahimsa. It is, on their view, the tolerance of the Hindus that made the country vulnerable to the depredations of the cruel invaders; and the Indian middle class, and their patrons in office, are determined that India should not make itself similarly vulnerable in the future.

The dharma of the Hindu, according to the reigning political dispensation, calls for the resolute defence of the Hindu homeland (matrabhumi), the retention of what are purportedly the essential Hindu characteristics of Indic civilization, and the instigation of the idea that the Hindu as a minority in the face of global Islam is duty-bound to be aware of his imperiled life. It is central to this conception of Hindu dharma, which cannot be at greater variance from the worldview articulated by Tagore, that the Hindu should ponder over the fact that where the Muslim, who is forever part of the worldwide community of Muslims (the ummah), can call at least forty other overwhelmingly Muslim or Muslim-majority countries his home, the Hindu has nowhere else to go. (The pedant will point to Nepal as a point of rejoinder, but the upholders of idea of akhand Bharat have forever held Nepal to be part of India or at least the Indic worldview.)

To this argument, the ideologue Vinayak Savarkar, and those who succeeded him as exponents of a muscular and militant Hindutva, added several others: the Muslim, Christian, or exponent of any other religion was but a Hindu, though he or she might not recognize that; if the adherent of another faith desired to live in the motherland, he or she could do so only at the sufferance of the Hindus; and, indeed, any foreigner might choose to live in India, but only on the terms set by the Hindus and essentially as second class citizens.

The ‘foreigner’ has become, in the political discourse of modern India, the lynchpin around which the idea of India as a Hindu rashtra and a new-found conception of Hindu dharma revolves. I by no means wish to suggest that the idea of the foreigner has been absent from previous Indian discourse, and I am similarly aware that there is a school of historical thought which holds that there are many cognate terms—mleccha, yavana, turuska, to name but three – that have long been used to mark the foreign ‘other’ in India.  But that it should be the dharma of the Hindu to create a Hindu nation-state which repudiates the basic norms of civility, the sustaining mores of Indic civilization, and the values of the Indian Republic – the touchstone of which must always be an inclusiveness – is an idea that, alarmingly, has caught on rapidly and has already placed India in the path of great peril.

Increasingly growing number of constituencies have been made to feel unwelcome, though at times – especially when the insinuation of such inhospitality comes from a leading Muslim – the indignation of the Hindutva ideologue, mindful of the fact that some part of his self is supposed to be hospitable to others, explodes in full view of the public. Thus, when a few years ago, the retiring Vice President of India, the diplomat, educator, and public servant Hamid Ansari, took it upon himself to caution on his last day of office that the Muslims of India were feeling increasingly insecure in India, his successor, Venkaiah Naidu, retorted with these remarks: ‘Some people are saying minorities are insecure. It is a political propaganda. Compared to the entire world, minorities are more safe and secure in India and they get their due.’

One might ask why, if minorities are more secure in India than elsewhere in the world, India has been identified as a country of concern by international human rights organizations. Or one might ask why, a few years ago, African students in repeat incidents had been set upon by mobs and severely beaten – bringing shame to the country, one might think, but with no apparent remorse on the part of the perpetrators of such atrocities. Taking perhaps their cue from the megalomaniac charlatan and racist Donald Trump, who had characterized Covid-19 as the ‘China virus’, some in India thought it fit to vent their anger and hatred upon the people of Northeast India, whose features appear to some to resemble those of the Chinese.

One might say that such scapegoating, all the more so on the outbreak of plague or an epidemic disease, is unfortunate but not uncommon, but this benign outlook obscures the fact that, long before the onset of Covid-19, the people of Northeast India – who should have all the rights and prerogatives that the Constitution of India confers upon the people of India – were being humiliated and killed, and that too in the capital city of the country.

The ultimate ‘foreigner’ in India remains, of course, the Muslim. It would be superfluous to recount the incidents around the country where the Muslim has been humiliated, browbeaten into abject submission, garroted, and lynched. Whose story should one tell?  Of Mohammad Akhlaq of Dadri, in the vicinity of Delhi, lynched because he was suspected of storing beef in his refrigerator? Or of Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer who was accosted by a mob of 200 cow vigilantes, falsely accused of stealing cows and calves, and bludgeoned to death? The victim is not always a Muslim, assuredly, as in the case of a nine-year old Dalit boy beaten to death in August 2022 in Rajasthan for defiling a water pot of the upper castes, but the Muslim occupies in the imaginary of the militant Hindu nationalist a special place as a predator and usurper, a cunning seducer of Hindu maidens – thus the discourse of love jihad – and, of course, as a supposed breeding machine to wage the ultimate demo-graphic triumph over Hindus.

Though then-BJP chief and now the Home Minister, Amit Shah, did not name the religion of the offenders, no one was in doubt that it was Muslims he had in mind when in 2018 he likened the ‘crores of illegal immigrants’ crossing into India from Bangladesh to ‘termites’: ‘they are eating the grain that should go to our poor and they are taking our jobs. They carry out blasts in our country and so many of our people die.’ As a senior official at Human Rights Watch pointed out in a swift rejoinder, the road to genocide begins when the other become ‘cockroaches’, ‘termites’, and ‘vermin’.

The veteran Indian Muslim journalist, Saeed Naqvi, has recently published a play disturbingly called, The Muslim Vanishes. The adherent of Hindu nationalism will counter that the demographic facts do not even remotely support such a view; the liberal or secular-minded will, in turn, argue that Naqvi has something quite different in mind and that the Muslim may very much be in India and yet be eviscerated. Many would like to read it as a cautionary tale about the origins of genocide in incidents which seem to take place here and there but, seen in totality, suggest an alarming pattern – and as a warning about the impossible possibility that even an ancient civilization may fall prey to the worst instincts of humans.

The play is perhaps best read as a lamentation for the India that Naqvi, an advocate of the Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb, sees disappearing before him. I might put the profound predicament in which India finds itself today in a different language: the advocates of a Hindu rashtra, if not many other Indians as well, have been so busy in identifying, shaming, pounding, and terrorizing those they imagine as foreigners amongst themselves that they have become foreigners to themselves. They are incapable of recognizing the dharma of their civilization. ‘Pity the nation’, Bertolt Brecht has a character in his play Galileo say, ‘that needs heroes’. Pity the nation, one is tempted to say, that no longer recognizes its dharma and where adharma has engulfed the country in a near darkness from which it will only with perseverance, the rightness of purpose, and heroes – yes, heroes – extricate itself.