V S Naipaul, The prejudiced genius

Views about the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was constructed in the seventeenth century by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. While the Taj Mahal remains one of the most admired piece of building architecture in the whole world, the fact remains that it is nothing more than a glorified tomb. Over the years there have been many who have described the Taj Mahal as “the greatest symbol of love” and there have also been many who have described it as a “symbol of decadence”.

Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul describes the Taj Mahal as wasteful and decadent. There is nothing new in this criticism. Such views have existed from the time the Taj Mahal came into existence. In fact, Shahjahan’s son and successor, Aurangzeb, who is known for his orthodox Islamic views, was totally against the construction of such structures. Aurangzeb desired in his will that no more than eight rupees were to be spent on his tomb.

It would be intellectually dishonest to label Mr. Naipaul’s views on the Taj Mahal as bigotry or prejudice.  Of course the Taj Mahal was wasteful when it was constructed but today it attracts tourists from all over the world.

Support for Hindu extremism

Commenting on  the destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu extremists, Naipaul said  “Ayodhya is a sort of passion, Any passion is to be encouraged. Passion leads to creativity.” This was extremely shocking to come from a person of the stature of  Mr. Naipaul considering the fact that thousands of Indians had died in the riots that followed in the immediate aftermath of the Babri mosque demolition and thousands more died in the unrelenting terrorist bombings that followed the riots.

Mr. Naipaul’s support for Hindu extremism does not end with the praise of the Babri mosque demolition, he also expressed support for the RSS and the VHP on the anti-Muslim 2002 Gujarat pogrom. For this, Mr. Salman Rushdie described Mr. Naipaul as “a fellow traveller of fascism and (that he) disgraces the Nobel award”.

Endorsing concocted history

Not surprisingly, Mr. Naipaul also endorses the skewed view of the history that is promoted by the Hindu extremists where everything is either black or white. According to this view the “Great Hindu Civilisation” was “invaded and destroyed by Islam” and many Hindus forcefully converted.

It is a well documented fact that the subcontinent consisted of many “Hindu Kingdoms” that invaded each other to expand their territories. There was no concept of pan-Hinduism, people swore  their loyalty to the King. Apart from these internal conflicts between the Hindu Kingdoms, there were invasions from the Persians and the Greeks that pre-dates Islam.

The seventh century saw the rapid rise of Islam, most regions to the west of subcontinent became Muslim. These regions also saw great technological advancements in ship building and war machinery. Little wonder that that the technologically superior armies invaded the technologically inferior armies of the subcontinent with great success. The battles continued with different Muslim Kings fighting each other just like the Hindu Kings fought each other. It was about empires, not religion.

Even in the modern world we see countries that are technologically advanced invading the technologically inferior countries to establish control over the region and to increase their wealth. This has been the case with humanity since time immemorial.

Instead of looking at these invasions as the natural result of technological advancements of one empire over the other, Mr. Naipaul echoes the views propagated by Hindu extremists that these invasions only took place for the forceful conversion of Hindus to Islam.

Hinduism in Asia

The Hindu civilisation extended from the far reaches of Indonesia to the borders of Persia. Mr. Naipaul acknowledges the fact that Indonesia and Malaysia were in fact regions where people followed Hinduism and Buddhism before embracing Islam. But he fails to acknowledge the fact that these countries were never invaded. His limited knowledge of Islam vs Hinduism is based on the skewed understanding of sub-continental history and not the history of the Hindu civilisation as a whole.

Islam in India

Just like the Indonesians, almost all the Muslims of India are the descendants of Hindus. It is believed that the people from Malabar coast who came in contact with the Arab traders were the first Indians to embrace Islam. But the majority of the conversions took place a result of the expansion of Muslim empires. Some Muslim invaders didn’t come with just the weapons, they also brought thinkers and philosophers who created a unique fusion of the Hinduism and Islam called Sufism. This made the transition easy for those who wanted to get out of punishing caste hierarchies. Some were coerced and forced to accept Islam and some converted only because their King had embraced Islam.

Mr. Naipaul fails to acknowledge these complexities and aligns himself with Hindu extremists who promote a biased version of history in order to polarise the society.

Prejudice trashing genius

There is little doubt that Mr. Naipaul is one of the greatest writers of our era. He has indeed made a great contribution towards arts and literature but his alignment with the extremist elements hurts his credibility. Mr. Girish Karnad was right in his criticism of Mr. Naipaul because great men should expect great scrutiny.